US lawmakers move closer to agreement on NASA funding

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NASA could start working on a heavy lift launch vehicle and preserve funding for a new crew capsule under compromise language drawn up by a US House of Representatives committee for a three-year $58.4 billion reauthorisation measure - if lawmakers can get the bill passed.

"This is House compromise language, with bipartisan support," says science and technology committee chairman Rep Bart Gordon. "It reflects months of discussions and input from many members."

A final decision on the fate of NASA, however, could take a little longer. The compromise bill - which would provide $19 billion for the fiscal year that begins 1 October - must be approved by the full Congress, which could be difficult to get done with the House hoping to make for the door as early as next week to campaign at home before midterm elections in early November.

The compromise language includes $12.21 billion for the Space Launch System, Crew Vehicle, and associated activities, of which a total of $1.33 billion is provided for NASA launch support and modernisation programmes. The Space Launch System would be expected to be designed to be capable of lifting the multipurpose crew vehicle and serve as a back up system for crew and cargo delivery to the International Space Station if commercial or partner-supplied vehicles are not available. The scalable launch system much be capable of lifting payloads of at least 130t into low-Earth orbit on a single launch vehicle with an upper stage in preparation for transit for missions beyond low-Earth orbit" (LEO) under the new bill, and be completed by the end of 2016.

Boeing is already at work on NASA's proposed Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) under Space Act Agreement programme funding. Though the aerospace giant has already struck a deal with Virginia-based Space Adventures to ferry non-government passengers to the ISS and teamed up with Bigelow Aerospace - already a partner on capsule development - to build a low-Earth orbit commercial space station by 2015, Boeing says it needs continued funding from NASA to “close the business case” on both deals.

The revised language does not lay out a deadline for developing a the heavy-lift capability for missions beyond the space station and LEO, but it does direct NASA to leverage existing space shuttle technology as well as the $10 billion investment in the Constellation program, which the Obama administration has long sought to cancel.

The bill also would fund $15 million per year for the commercial reusable suborbital research (CRuSR) programme, following through on the commitment made by the White House this spring to fund the programme aimed at developing commercial reusable transportation to near space for regular, frequent, predictable near-space at a reasonable cost with easy recovery of intact payloads. Armadillo Aerospace and Masten Space Systems will conduct test flights through the end of the year with their experimental near-space vehicles under a $475,000 CRuSR award.

The compromise language would increase funding for the development of commercial cargo and crew vehicles from $464 million to a total of $1.2 billion, pulling some of the additional funding from exploration vehicles programmes. Though a dramatic increase from the original House funding, the amount would still be $400 million less than the Senate's $1.6 billion recommendation for commercial crew and cargo initiatives.

Like the Senate, the House allows for one final shuttle flight beyond the two already planned if needed and authorises $600 million in Fiscal 2011 to pay for it. The new House measure gives NASA administrator Charles Bolden 90 days from the date of the enactment of a NASA reauthorisation to present a plan for developing the new launch system.

"For too long, NASA has not been given the resources to complete the many missions the nation has asked of it," Gordon says. "NASA is too important to the nation to continue on that path. This will provide a clear and sustainable direction for NASA, in light of the current fiscal environment."