US lawmakers approve NASA spending

Washington DC
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The $58.4 billion authorisation bill to okay NASA funding for the next three years was approved in a late-night vote 29 September as the US House of Representatives sprinted out of town for the last of campaign season.

Though a compromise version of the legislation was painstakingly drafted after weeks of deliberation, the House actually opted to expedite matters by approving the US Senate version. The measure now goes to the White House for signature rather than back to the Senate for another vote.

"It has been a difficult year for NASA and its civil servants and contractor workforce," says science and technology committee chairman Rep Bart Gordon "We are in tough economic times, and sacrifices will have to be made. However, NASA is an investment in our future, and in the future of our children. The United States has been a global leader in space exploration and technology and innovation, and our efforts over the remainder of this Congress should be aimed at preserving that leadership position."

Gordon also says he intends to continue to push for some of the changes the House sought to make to the Senate bill in the future.

NASA will have up to $1.3 billion over the next three years for funding development of commercial spacecraft. Though considerably less than the $3.3 billion originally requested by the White House but a start down the path of government and commercial space efforts working more closely.

"This important change in direction will not only help us chart a new path in space, but can help us retool for the industries and jobs of the future that will be vital for long term economic growth," says NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

The measure authorises about $1.6 billion for commercial space transportation through 2013. Another $500 million would keep open the option of another shuttle flight beyond the final February 2011 mission currently on the books. It also includes $7 billion over three years for immediate work on a heavy-lift launcher operational by 2016, which would take cargo to ISS as well as propel deeper space missions. The move is a departure from the White House, which did not plan on actively developing the heavy-lift rocket until after a self-proposed design downselect deadline of 2015,

Some matters of policy are also set out in the measure. Rather than sending more men to the moon, Congress would prefer NASA focus robotic deep-space missions, though the bill includes a tentative plan to land humans on asteroid by 2025.

The true test for near-term space funding and manned missions is yet to come. The authorisation bill only marks the annual funding caps for NASA and its activities. When lawmakers return to Washington for the annual end-of-year scramble to get funding bills and other legislation out the door rapidly, they still hold the option of approving actual spending below the authorised limits.

Though Fiscal 2011 funds will not be handed out until after members return following the 2 November elections, NASA will keep operating with access to some of the agency's allotted funds under a continuing resolution passed the same night as the authorisation.