WASHINGTON — During debate on the 2010 Commerce, Justice, Science spending bill, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) joined a rising tide of U.S. lawmakers calling on President Barack Obama to divert $3 billion in unspent stimulus money to NASA.

With the Senate expected to wrap up debate Oct. 13 on the $67 billion spending bill that includes $18.7 billion for NASA, Nelson said the challenge of finding that additional money for the space agency cannot be ignored.

“I wish to add my voice to others from this chamber in asking the president to divert $3 billion to NASA from the unspent portion of the $787 billion in the economic stimulus recovery money,” Nelson said in an Oct. 8 floor speech during Senate debate on the bill.

Nelson was one of nearly 30 House and Senate lawmakers to call on the White House to redirect money appropriated in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to NASA, whose future awaits the findings of a White House appointed panel tasked with reassessing U.S. human spaceflight plans. Led by retired Lockheed Martin chief Norm Augustine, the panel’s summary findings indicate the agency’s plan to replace the space shuttle with new vehicles capable of going to the Moon is not sustainable without additional funds.

In an Oct. 5 letter to the president, both Texas senators and 26 of the state’s 32 members of the U.S. House of Representatives urged Obama to redirect $3 billion in unspent stimulus funds to NASA, a cash infusion the group said is needed to support a robust human spaceflight program and save jobs in Texas and around the country.

The Florida delegation is expected to follow suit, with Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-Fla.) leading the charge, according to a House aide who said Kosmas is drumming up signatories for a letter to the president this week.

In its summary findings, the Augustine panel recommended NASA minimize that gap by relying on commercial space firms to carry cargo, and eventually crew to the international space station in an effort to free the agency to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit. But Nelson, in his floor speech, questioned whether private companies are up to the task.

“Are they going to be successful? We certainly hope so,” Nelson said. “Are they going to be timely? We do not know. These commercial ventures are already behind the timeline. We certainly hope they are going to be timely.”

Nelson was referring to  NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Under COTS, NASA is paying Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., $278 million to conduct three demonstration flights of a reusable Dragon logistics capsule launched atop a Falcon 9 rocket currently slated to make its debut sometime between December and February. Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., is developing a competing cargo module and rocket under a separate COTS agreement valued at $171 million.

NASA awarded both companies Commercial Resupply Services contracts in December totaling $3.5 billion to haul a minimum of 40 tons of cargo to the station by the end of 2016. But the two U.S. firms have fallen behind schedule for demonstrating their vehicles, according to a June 16 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Nelson said the Augustine panel found this capability “critical to ensuring our ability to operate the station beyond 2016.”

Such commercial endeavors, he said, create new industries and new jobs for Americans.

Nelson’s actual comments differed from the prepared “floor statement” his office sent to reporters Oct. 8 to draw attention to his speech.

Nelson’s prepared remarks do not mention the delays SpaceX and Orbital have encountered but praise  efforts like COTS for “opening up to the private sector what has historically been limited to the realm of the government will enable economic growth, stimulus and prosperity for many Americans.”

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said in an Oct. 5 floor speech that NASA should be looking at “all viable options” for supporting the space station and future exploration, but made clear he does not want to see NASA blithely abandon Ares 1 and the heavy-lift Ares 5, both of which are being developed by the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Shelby and Nelson joined Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) in urging lawmakers to support $3.6 billion included in the spending measure for NASA’s Constellation program.

Mikulski, who chairs the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, called for full funding of NASA’s “next-generation space vehicles” in a statement delivered Oct. 7 on the Senate floor. Mikulski said her committee disagrees with provisions in the House version of the bill that reduced NASA’s funding request for the program by about $670 million, a reduction approved by House lawmakers in June.

“We know the House withheld money while waiting for the Augustine report,” she said. “But we’ve got the Augustine report, we know where the president wants to go, we know [what] key advisers of the astronaut community have recommended to us.”