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Senate Committee Approves $20.21 Billion NASA Authorization

By | June 30, 2008

      Measure Reaffirms Vision Of Manned Exploration Of Moon, Mars; Study Ordered On Extending Shuttle Flights From 2010 To 2015; Added Shuttle Mission Provided For Flying AMS To Space Station

      Commercial Spacecraft Competition Seen By 2011; Deals With At Least Two Commercial Providers Mandated; $150 Million Set; International Space Station Retirement Seen In 2020 Or Later

      The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee wrote and sent the full Senate a $20.35 billion NASA authorization measure that would enable a possible $1 billion outlay to speed development of the next-generation Orion-Ares spacecraft system.

      The committee moved the bill in a portion of a meeting open to the public that was marked by little comment and no opposition by senators.

      Further, the bill orders NASA "to plan and conduct" an added space shuttle mission to fly the $1.5 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer experiment for addition to the International Space Station, along with other scientific payloads.

      But the Senate measure also orders NASA to provide a cost estimate for the added mission, and to assure Congress that it won’t harm development of the Orion-Ares space system, or any other shuttle mission to the space station.

      And the bill orders NASA to report on what steps would be needed to recertify space shuttles to fly from 2010 to 2015, stating as well that the shuttle fleet shouldn’t retire so long as there are more shuttle flights scheduled on the program manifest, including any missions that Congress may add later.

      Currently, the space shuttle fleet is mandated to retire in 2010, to help free money that could be used to develop Orion-Ares, which won’t have its first manned space flight until 2015. That means that NASA, the agency that put men on the moon, for a half decade won’t be able to take even one astronaut to low Earth orbit, unless the space shuttle fleet continues flying after the 2010 retirement deadline, and/or Orion-Ares begins manned flights sooner than March 2015.

      Another provision in the bill would have NASA foster the emergence of private commercial space flight providers, able to fly cargo to low Earth orbit, such as to the International Space Station (ISS), "or to destinations beyond low Earth orbit." NASA should seek to provide opportunities for commercial space services "to the maximum extent practicable," the measure would provide. The measure also urges beginning a competition for commercial providers to establish human transport to space.

      The measure authorizes NASA to sign space act agreements worth up to $150 million in fiscal 2009.

      Overall, this bill authorizes spending for these programs. However, actual funds for NASA would be provided in separate appropriations legislation now moving in Congress. (Please see full story on the appropriations bill in Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, June 23, 2008. Also, see that issue for a story on House passage of its NASA authorization bill. Also, please see separate story in this issue.) Generally, authorization measures set upper bounds on potential spending, and tend to be more generous than appropriations bills.

      Another section of the Senate NASA authorization bill reauthorizes and reconfirms President Bush’s vision of a space program including manned missions to the moon, and later to Mars. Critics have said Bush hasn’t funded that vision, however. The bill calls for having other nations participate in those missions, which presumably would mean those nations also would contribute to them financially.

      Also in the bill is a provision ordering NASA to develop a plan to continue operating the space station beyond its currently scheduled retirement by 2016. The measure orders NASA to submit a plan to Congress to continue flying the space station beyond fiscal 2015 for at least another five years.

      The bill establishes a research fund of $200 million to support scientific research, including development of flight hardware for experiments on the station.

      Turning to a different area, the measure reaffirms the policy that near-Earth asteroids should be tracked if they might impact Earth to cause great damage, citing objects of 140 or more meters (459.3 feet) in diameter.

      The fear is that a huge asteroid slamming into the Earth could throw up an enormous cloud of debris that would reduce sunlight and threaten living beings, including humans.

      Accordingly, the bill directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to develop a policy for developing a response when an object is about to collide with Earth, and working "in consultation with international bodies" to develop a means of deflecting the object so it passes by Earth harmlessly.

      For example, one such object in two decades is expected to pass within about 30,000 miles of Earth (although astronomers can’t guarantee it won’t strike the planet). By comparison, the moon is 238,857 miles from Earth.

      How an object could be deflected is unclear, whether that would involve nuclear explosions, a link connected to the object that rockets would use to pull it off a course headed for Earth, a tractor beam, or other means.

      Still another key issue in the bill calls on NASA, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Defense and others to consider establishing a commercial spaceport launch facility "in close proximity to the Eastern Range" at Cape Canaveral, Fla., which also is near Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

      Florida lawmakers have expressed grave concern that thousands of highly skilled workers soon will be laid off in and near KSC because the space shuttle fleet is mandated to retire in 2010, and those lawmakers have favored having any commercial space launches that might emerge lift off from somewhere near KSC, to create new jobs.

      However, Orbital Sciences Corp. [ORB] this month selected a Virginia location, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), located at the Wallops Island Flight Facility run by NASA, as its base of operations for the Orbital Taurus II rocket.

      Export Controls

      Another portion of the bill orders the OSTP to study how export controls impact the aerospace industry and its competitiveness in global markets, and the ability of federal agencies to carry out cooperative activities in science and technology and human space flight, including research.

      Industry groups for years have complained that export controls are too tight, costing them lost sales abroad because overseas competitors aren’t subject to the same controls.

      In other areas, the bill expresses a nonbinding sense of Congress that the White House National Space Council should be reestablished.

      And the measure also urges establishing a framework for space traffic management by NASA, other federal agencies and governments of other nations, to help coordinate the increasing launch into space of satellites and other vehicles. This would help to promote "safe access into outer space, operations in outer space, and return from outer space to Earth free from physical or radio-frequency interference," the measure stated.

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