WASHINGTON — Draft appropriations legislation circulating in the U.S. House of Representatives would give NASA a slight budget boost in 2011, including funds to begin building a heavy-lift launch vehicle, continue development of the Orion crew capsule and nurture commercial crew and cargo delivery services for the international space station.

The draft bill, part of a larger spending package that if approved would fund federal agencies through Sept. 30, would provide $18.91 billion to NASA in the current fiscal year, roughly $90 million less than U.S. President Barack Obama requested for NASA in the 2011 budget blueprint he sent to Congress in February. But the measure, known as a continuing resolution, would increase NASA’s budget by nearly $190 million above the 2010 level.

With less than two weeks remaining before the stopgap spending measure under which the government currently operates expires Dec. 18, congressional sources say the House is expected to take action on a yearlong continuing resolution as early as Dec. 8. If approved, the measure could serve as a fallback plan in the Senate, where lawmakers are currently drafting a 2011 omnibus spending package they expect to introduce the week of Dec. 13, congressional sources said.

Funding levels for NASA proposed in the draft document, a copy of which was obtained by Space News, track largely with 2011 spending legislation the Senate Appropriations Committee approved in July and with the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 that Obama signed into law Oct. 11, with some tweaks around the margins. For example, NASA would be directed to spend $1.8 billion on initiating development of a heavy-lift launch vehicle this year, according to the draft bill, $100 million less than directed in the Senate appropriations measure and almost $200 million more than the newly enacted authorization law recommends. In addition, while the authorization act would allow NASA to gradually evolve a heavy-lift capability from initially delivering 70-100 metric tons beyond low Earth orbit to eventually launching a minimum of 130 metric tons, the draft continuing resolution would tell NASA to waste no time building the more robust capability. Specifically, it directs that “the initial lift capability for the heavy lift launch vehicle system shall be not less than 130 tons” and that “the upper stage and other core elements shall be simultaneously developed.”

The draft resolution also includes $1.2 billion for Lockheed Martin’s Orion crew capsule, $100 million more than called for in the Senate appropriations measure and the new authorization act. The draft language also includes a passage that would allow NASA to cancel the Ares family of rockets Obama targeted for termination in his 2011 spending proposal and to initiate new programs, a key hurdle the agency has sought to overcome since the start of the 2011 budget year Oct. 1.

Another $1.8 billion would fund NASA’s space shuttle orbiters in 2011, including $825 million for “additional Space Shuttle costs.” Unlike the NASA authorization act, however, the draft appropriations language does not call for an additional shuttle mission. It also guts the president’s $429 million request to fund a 21st Century Launch Complex initiative to modernize range infrastructure at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

However, the draft appropriations bill does direct that, in addition to extra expenses associated with the space shuttle program, the $825 million be spent on efforts to improve Kennedy Space Center in Florida related to civil and nondefense purposes only. It also directs the money be applied at other NASA flight facilities “currently scheduled to launch cargo” to the space station, possibly a reference to NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, where Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. is building a launch site for its Taurus 2 rocket and Cygnus cargo vessel under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. In addition, the extra space shuttle money could be used to build ground support facilities for the new heavy-lift launch vehicle and Orion crew capsule, according to the draft language.

In addition, Orbital and fellow COTS provider Space Exploration Technologies of Hawthorne, Calif., would share some portion of a $300 million augmentation NASA requested for the program, representing a 62 percent increase to the 4-year-old commercial cargo initiative. And like the Senate appropriations measure, the draft resolution would provide $250 million for the president’s commercial crew program, just half of the $500 million Obama requested and some $50 million less than the authorization measure recommended.

While the NASA authorization act called for spending a combined $600 million on space technology and exploration research and development, the draft House appropriations measure would provide $559 million for that purpose. The legislation calls for the money to be applied to pace technology initiatives in NASA’s aeronautics program as well as exploration technology and demonstration activities within the agency’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.