Not exactly a ringing endorsement

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Norm Augustine is leaning toward the Senate version of the NASA authorization bill. The retired Lockheed Martin chief exec and former chairman of the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee wrote in a Sept. 13 e-mail to Space News: “I am of course prepared to address ‘facts,’ and I believe it to be correct that the Senate bill comes closer to any of the options in our report than the House bill.”

A lukewarm endorsement of the highly prescriptive Senate authorization, but not surprising given that companion legislation in the House keeps NASA’s Ares 1 rocket in the trade-space for developing a government-owned crew-to-LEO capability, a scenario the Augustine Committee branded as left little room for in its findings. On the other hand, the Senate measure calls for starting work on a shuttle-derived heavy-lift rocket next year despite Obama’s plan to punt development to mid-decade.

Both bills authorize reduced spending on space and exploration technology R&D the Augustine Committee said is needed to keep the U.S. on the cutting edge, recommending between $2.6 billion and $2.9 billion through 2013. However, the Senate legislation suggests a substantive $1.3 billion for Obama’s new commercial crew initiative over that same period — less than half the $3.3 billion proposed by the White House but far more than the $450 million contained in the House measure.

When asked if he was prepared to advocate on behalf of the Senate legislation — as fellow committee member and Princeton University professor Chris Chyba did in an Aug. 25 e-mail to all nine of his co-panelists — Augustine invoked the committee’s charter: “As you will recall, our committee was specifically asked by the White House not to take a position on any given option, presumably because that would simply make decision-making more difficult. I’ve tried, rightly or wrongly, to abide by that position both ‘before and after the fact.’ One could certainly argue with that interpretation, but it reflects my understanding.”

In his e-mail, Augustine emphasized that “without funding over the long-term that matches the work to be performed, no program is likely to succeed,” an assertion echoing the Augustine Committee’s call to swiftly ramp up human spaceflight spending (which includes both exploration and space operations) to $3 billion annually above 2010 levels. Such a growth path would equate to $55 billion in total from 2011 through 2015, while Obama’s budget includes just $47 billion for that period, roughly half of which is earmarked for the international space station and commercial crew initiatives.

Both the Senate and House bills recommend top-line spending for NASA in keeping with Obama’s forecast, which envisions a relatively flat funding profile of around $20 billion a year through 2015. The top-line projections represent a $6 billion boost for the agency over five years beginning in 2011.

 Amy Klamper is a Space News staff writer covering NASA, Congress and U.S. space policy.