WASHINGTON — As the U.S. Senate began debate on the 2010 Commerce, Justice, Science spending bill Oct. 7, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) urged lawmakers to support $3.6 billion included in the $67 billion spending measure for NASA’s Constellation program, the U.S. space agency’s space shuttle-replacement effort that includes development of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares 1 launcher.

Mikulski, who chairs the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, noted that the House version of the bill reduced NASA’s funding request for the program by about $500 million, a reduction approved by House lawmakers in June. At the time, Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, said the reduction was made “without prejudice” as the White House awaits the complete findings of a blue-ribbon panel tasked in May with reassessing U.S. manned spaceflight plans for the future.

The White House-appointed panel, led by former Lockheed Martin chief Norm Augustine, delivered a summary of its findings to senior administration officials Sept. 8. Although the panel is not expected to deliver its final report to the White House until mid-October, Mikuslki said her committee disagrees with the House strategy and called for full funding of NASA’s “next-generation space vehicles” in a statement delivered Oct. 7 on the Senate floor.

“We know the House withheld money 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.”

Mikulski said the bill, which fully funds NASA’s $18.7 billion spending request for the year ahead, also provides $3 billion for NASA’s final space shuttle flights in 2010 and $2 billion to continue international space station operations next year. The Augustine panel’s preliminary findings urged the White House to consider flying the space station through 2020, beyond its planned retirement date in 2016. The panel also called on the administration to fund shuttle flights into 2011, several months beyond NASA’s September 2010 goal for conducting the final shuttle launch.

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida initiated a first round of contractor layoffs Oct. 5 in anticipation of the shuttle’s retirement, slated for September 2010. Although NASA expects Ares 1 and Orion to be ready to launch astronauts to the space station by March 2015 — four and a half years after the shuttle is set to retire — the Augustine panel concluded the rocket and its crew capsule will not reach initial operational capability until 2017 at the earliest.

Mikulski said she and subcommittee ranking member Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) worked closely with Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and other members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in drafting the 2010 NASA appropriations legislation. To date, NASA has spent nearly $8 billion on the Constellation program, which includes development of the Ares 1 and Ares 5 rockets at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

As NASA prepares for shuttle retirement in the coming year, the agency must continue to develop indigenous capabilities for missions to the space station and beyond, Shelby said in an Oct. 5 statement made during floor debate on the bill.

“While I commend the Augustine Commission for their hard work, I find many of the aspects proposed in their summary report to be unsatisfactory and disappointing,” Shelby said in prepared floor remarks, adding, “I am baffled by NASA’s path forward on the Constellation program.”

Shelby noted that the Ares 1 team at Marshall will soon launch the first test flight of the rocket, slated for Oct. 27, and that groundwork for the Ares 5 heavy lift vehicle is underway.

“And yet, instead of simply providing Constellation with funds to move forward, it is delaying the current mission while seeking to have a do-over on plans that have been authorized by both a Republican and Democratic Congress,” Shelby said in his remarks. “NASA, and this administration, should never forget that the support of Congress will still be necessary to authorize and provide funds as we move forward.”

Shelby said it is beneficial for NASA to consider support for space station operations and future exploration missions from commercial space firms, but urged that it be done in a “realistic way.” He added that NASA must support the program that has the greatest likelihood of success.

“I will not support any future NASA budget request that does not have a robust human exploration program,” Shelby said in his statement.