U.S. Senate Approves $18.7 Billion for NASA

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate approved the $65 billion 2010 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bill Nov. 5 by a vote of 71 to 28. The spending package, which includes $18.7 billion for NASA for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, must now be reconciled with companion legislation that passed the House in June.

While the Senate version of the bill fully funds the president’s $18.7 billion request for NASA in 2010, the House proposal reduces NASA’s $3.93 billion budget request for manned space exploration programs by $670 million. The funding reduction was proposed by Rep. Allan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), who chairs the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee. Aimed directly at NASA’s Constellation program, a five-year-old effort to replace the retiring space shuttle with rockets and spacecraft optimized to send humans to the Moon, the reduction was described by Mollohan at the time as a “time-out” while the White House awaited the results of a blue-ribbon panel tasked with reassessing NASA’s human spaceflight goals.

The panel, led by former Lockheed Martin chief Norm Augustine, found Constellation to be a well-managed and technically capable program, but one that is incompatible with NASA’s budget and goals. The panel urged the administration to consider proposals that would abandon elements of Constellation, including the Ares 1 rocket, and outsource low Earth orbit transportation to the private sector, leaving NASA to focus on a new heavy-lift capability for deep space exploration.

Sources close to the administration say a presidential decision based on the Augustine panel’s options is not expected before Christmas. Meanwhile, language contained in the Senate version of the bill could complicate the administration’s efforts to change direction and pursue an alternate architecture by requiring the president to submit proposed changes to the spending plan in the form of a 2010 budget amendment.

In a mid-September letter to leaders of the House and Senate appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittees, White House science adviser John Holdren asked that the $670 million in funding be restored to NASA’s appropriation in anticipation of a forthcoming presidential decision on U.S. manned spaceflight goals, according to congressional sources. In addition, the White House asked Senate appropriators to stay flexible in anticipation of potential modifications to the 2010 budget request for NASA’s manned exploration programs, a congressional source said.