NEW YORK and WASHINGTON — The U.S. Congress passed a NASA authorization bill late Sept. 29, paving the way for an extra space shuttle flight next year and a new human spaceflight plan that takes aim at missions to an asteroid and Mars.

The NASA authorization bill approved by the House recommends a $19 billion budget in 2011 for the U.S. space agency, and a total of $58 billion through 2013. It paves the way for several NASA projects, among them a new heavy-lift rocket for deep space missions and funding to aid the development of commercial space vehicles for eventual NASA use.

The bill was originally approved by the Senate on Aug. 5. The House opted to vote on the Senate’s NASA authorization bill after running out of time on a compromise version proposed by House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (R-Tenn.) last week.

The House officially voted in favor of the bill at about 11:37 p.m. EDT. The 304-118 decision came just before Congress heads into recess until after the Nov. 2 elections.

President Barack Obama’s new space plan, announced in February, canceled NASA’s Moon-oriented Constellation program set forth by former President George W. Bush and called for more ambitious deep space missions to an asteroid and Mars. The Constellation program was responsible for the Orion space capsules and Ares rockets set to follow the shuttle program.

“Passage of this bill represents an important step forward towards helping us achieve the key goals set by the President,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement in response to House vote. “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.”

Extra shuttle flight, commercial space funds

The NASA authorization bill, S. 3729, officially clears NASA to add one extra space shuttle flight to the two final missions already planned before the shuttle fleet is retired in 2011.

It also allows NASA to extend its role in the international space station through at least 2020 and sets aside $1.3 billion over three years to support the development of commercial spacecraft, less than half of the $3.3 billion the White House has requested.

Obama’s space plan tasks NASA to draw on commercial space vehicles to ferry astronauts to and from the international space station. Until those commercial vehicles are available, the U.S. would rely on Russian Soyuz craft to fly humans in space and unmanned Russian, Japanese and European freighters to launch cargo.

NASA officials have said the extra shuttle flight would likely fly sometime around June 2011 aboard the Atlantis orbiter. It will deliver large spare parts and cargo to the space station. The space agency chose a veteran four-man crew for this final space shuttle flight earlier this month.

But the extra space mission would not affect the coming Oct. 1 layoffs of nearly 1,400 shuttle workers by NASA contractor United Space Alliance — a joint venture by Boeing and Lockheed Martin that oversees NASA’s shuttle fleet. USA announced the shuttle worker layoffs in July as part of a workforce reduction plan due to the space shuttle fleet’s impending retirement.

The layoffs, which affect workers in Florida, Alabama and Texas, will take effect Friday. USA spokeswoman Kari Fluegel said in July that the layoffs would occur despite the addition by Congress of an extra shuttle flight to NASA’s schedule. However, the extra mission could affect plans for any future layoffs, she added.

NASA and its contractors are currently preparing the shuttle Discovery to launch Nov. 1 to deliver a new storage room and humanoid robot prototype to the station. The shuttle Endeavour is slated to fly Feb, 26, 2011 to deliver a nearly $2 billion astrophysics experiment — called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer – to the space station. After that flight, the $100 billion station will be complete after more than 12 years of construction.

Big new rocket

Obama’s space plan also calls for astronauts to visit an asteroid by 2025 and then aim for a manned Mars mission in the 2030s. A heavy-lift rocket for those missions was slated to begin development in 2015.

Under the authorization bill approved Sept. 29 NASA would be directed to begin work on that heavy-lift rocket in 2011 — four years earlier than the White House proposal.

Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas) said such a rocket is vital for NASA to fulfill its original purpose.

“Our future in space is not in low-Earth orbit. We have to go beyond,” Olson said during debate on the bill. “A heavy-lift vehicle will enable us to achieve the true mission of the agency … to explore.”

New NASA bill

Gordon said Sept. 29 that while he had a number of concerns about the Senate’s NASA bill, he believed that “a flawed bill is better than no bill at all.”

The bill should help NASA and its workforce get on with the transition from its previous Constellation program to the new deep space exploration plan set forth by President Obama, Gordon and others said.

“While the bill before us today is far from perfect, it offers clear direction for a NASA that’s floundering,” said Ralph Hall (R-Texas), the ranking member of the House Science and Technology Committee, during the bill’s discussion.

However, some House members took issue with what they called the bill’s “unfunded mandate” to continue the space shuttle program through Sept. 30, 2011. The extension would cost some $500 million and lawmakers questioned where NASA will find the extra funds.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona), who chairs the House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee, said the bill “lacks serious budgetary discipline.”

She also objected to using legislation to prescribe NASA’s heavy-lift design. The bill, she said, “will force NASA to build a rocket designed by Senators and not by engineers.” Several members of the House Science and Technology Committee joined Giffords in opposing the bill, among them Reps. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), David Wu (D-Ore.) and F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.)

Some lawmakers expect the NASA authorization bill will preserve some jobs and create others associated with new programs.

“Without a bill, the jobs of a world class NASA workforce and thousands of highly-skilled private contractors who support human space flight would have been lost,” Hall said in a statement released after the vote.

Giffords cautioned her colleagues that the NASA authorization bill won’t save jobs unless Congress follows up with spending bills that match the funding levels included in S. 3729. “You won’t be doing anything to stop layoffs by voting for this bill today,” she said.

Before voting on the NASA authorization bill, House lawmakers gave final passage to a temporary spending measure, called a continuing resolution, that keeps the federal government funded at current levels beyond Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year.

Congress could pass a catch-all omnibus spending bill when lawmakers return in mid-November for a lame duck legislative session, or introduce new spending bills when the new Congress convenes in January.

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA spending, said he plans to work with members of the Alabama delegation — all seven of which voted in favor of S.3729 — to properly fund NASA as Congress moves forward with spending legislation after the November elections.

“I am not convinced this Administration is serious about human spaceflight goals beyond the Space Station, so I will be working with my colleagues to help make our space program goals worthy of this great nation,” he said. “I can assure you that there will be an unusual level of congressional oversight and scrutiny given to how these taxpayer dollars are spent.”

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who is credited with shaping the Senate version of the bill, said it charts a new direction for NASA’s manned spaceflight program and allows the agency to begin planning for the extra shuttle flight.

“This is a great night for our nation’s space program,” Nelson said in a statement issued shortly before midnight Sept. 29. “Now we have to make sure the agency gets the funding necessary to get the job done.”

Space News staff writer Brian Berger contributed from Washington.