The House of Representatives voted late Wednesday to accept the Senate's version of NASA's $19 billion fiscal 2011 budget proposal, which would provide money for an additional shuttle flight, kick-start development of a new heavy-lift booster for deep-space exploration, and fund the development of commercial manned spacecraft for trips to and from low-Earth orbit.
With no amendments allowed, the vote was 304 in favor and 118 against.
"This is a great night for our nation's space program," Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said in a statement. "This bill is a blueprint for how we will proceed for the next three years and will allow NASA to begin planning for an extra shuttle flight. Now we have to make sure the agency gets the funding necessary to get the job done."
The proposed budget, which covers projected expenditures through 2013, addresses several issues raised by critics of the Obama administration's initial request, which called for a dramatic change of course for NASA, one the president said would be more sustainable over the long haul.
The administration proposed canceling the Bush administration's Constellation moon program and its Ares rockets and Orion capsules, arguing the program was not affordable. In their place, the president proposed extending space station operations through 2020, developing new technologies needed for future heavy-lift rockets, and, in a particularly controversial move, shifting to commercial launch providers to ferry astronauts to and from low-earth orbit.
There were no concrete plans or timetables for deep-space exploration and no immediate plans to build a heavy-lift rocket to make such exploration possible.
Responding to widespread criticism, the president flew to the Kennedy Space Center in April and agreed to move up the start of development of a heavy-lift rocket to 2015 and promised manned flights to nearby asteroids by 2025 and orbital Mars missions by the mid 2030s.
But with the shuttle's retirement looming, critics argued the president's revised plan did not go far enough. Nelson, who flew on the shuttle in 1986, mounted a campaign to move up development of a heavy-lift rocket, to continue work on the Orion deep-space capsule and to fund an additional shuttle mission.
The bill also supports the development of commercial manned spaceflight, but stretches out funding.
The House version of NASA's budget gutted the commercial spaceflight initiative and sought to retain major elements of the Constellation program. Sen. Bart Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat who spearheaded the House effort, offered compromise language last week that moved the two sides closer together. But major differences remained.
Gordon said the Senate bill included "an unfunded mandate" to keep the shuttle program alive through 2011, at a cost of $500 million, and that moving up development of a heavy-lift rocket would have the effect of "the Senate trying to design a rocket."
He also expressed concern about the lack of a backup government-managed rocket system in case commercial efforts run into problems.
"It has become clear that there is not time remaining to pass a compromise bill through the House and the Senate," Gordon said in a statement Monday. "For the sake of providing certainty, stability, and clarity to the NASA workforce and larger space community, I felt it was better to consider a flawed bill than no bill at all as the new fiscal year begins. I will continue to advocate to the appropriators for the provisions in the compromise language."
Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, agreed, saying late Wednesday, "while I am not completely satisfied with the Senate bill, I am very pleased it passed."
"This administration's misguided plan for human spaceflight would put NASA on a dangerous and unproven path," he said in a statement. "It is essential for Congress to weigh in and pass a bill to counter these policy objectives. Otherwise we would essentially be rubber stamping the White House plan."
The Senate version of the budget "keeps important programs funded, directs NASA to develop a multipurpose crew vehicle and a new heavy-lift launch system, and allows commercial space companies to prove their capabilities," Hall said. "Without a bill, the jobs of a world-class NASA workforce and thousands of highly skilled private contractors who support human spaceflight would have been lost."
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said late Wednesday the legislation "charts a vital new future for the course of human space exploration."
"The president has laid out an ambitious new plan for NASA that pioneers new frontiers of innovation and discovery," he said. "The plan invests more in NASA, extends the life of the International Space Station, launches a commercial space transportation industry, fosters the development of path-breaking technologies, and helps create thousands of new jobs. Passage of this bill represents an important step forward towards helping us achieve the key goals set by the president."
Bolden's predecessor, Mike Griffin, had a sharply different view. Griffin was the chief architect of the Constellation program and an ardent supporter of the Ares rockets that would have replaced the shuttle.
"While it is true that the Senate bill offers some improvement over the Obama administration's ill-advised plan for NASA, in my considered opinion it is not enough better to warrant its support in law," he told The Huntsville Times earlier this week.
"As happened after the loss of space shuttle Columbia, it is time once again to ask ourselves whether we want to have a real space program, or not. If we do, then the Senate bill won't get us there. If we cannot do better than that, then I believe we have reached the point where it is better to allow the damage which has been brought about by the administration's actions to play out to its conclusion than to accept half-measures in an attempt at remediation."
Speaking on the House floor before the vote Wednesday, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Arizona, said the legislation "lacks serious budgetary discipline" and includes an "unfunded mandate to keep the shuttle program going through all of fiscal year 2011 even after the shuttle is retired, which NASA estimates will cost the agency more than half a billion dollars."
Married to shuttle commander Mark Kelly, Giffords criticized the proposed heavy-lift rocket as a launcher designed "not by our best engineers, but by our colleagues over on the Senate side. By NASA's own internal analysis, they estimate this rocket will cost billions more than the Senate provides."
"In short, the Senate bill forces NASA to build a rocket that doesn't meet its needs, with a budget that's not adequate to do the job and on a schedule that NASA's own analysis says is unrealistic," Giffords said. "That is not my idea of an executable and sustainable human spaceflight program."
But Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, said "if we don't pass this bill tonight, there is no more manned space program."
"The administration is pursuing a policy of aggressively and rapidly shutting down America's manned space program by bureaucratic order, by executive order, it's all being done right now as we speak," he said. "If we don't pass this bill, there will not be another one before the end of the year and by the end of the year, there will be no more manned space program."
Elliot Pulham, chief executive officer of the Space Foundation, a space advocacy group, said the legislation should provide needed stability to NASA and the commercial rocket industry.
"Some form of compromise had to be found, or U.S. leadership in space exploration would have been in jeopardy," he said in a statement. "NASA has always enjoyed strong bipartisan support in Congress, and it's gratifying to see that Congress continues to view NASA as an important investment in the nation's future."
The Senate version of the NASA budget would provide $3.99 billion for exploration in fiscal 2011, $1.3 billion for a new deep-space capsule, and $1.9 billion for initial development of a new heavy-lift rocket.
The legislation would provide $144 million to support ongoing development of unmanned spacecraft to deliver cargo to the International Space Station and $312 million for commercial crew spacecraft. Space operations would receive $5 billion, including $2.8 billion for the International Space Station.