The Space Shuttle Atlantis lifts off from Kennedy Space Center on May 14, in Cape Canaveral, Florida. (Matt Stroshane / Getty Images)
The space shuttle will fly one extra flight and NASA will embark sooner on developing its next heavy-lift rocket, under a key Senate panel's vote Wednesday.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee governing NASA, said the shuttle flight will occur only if an independent panel determines it is safe to use a backup fuel tank that had been intended for emergencies. But the bill includes $1.6 billion for the flight, expected in the middle of 2011.
"This budgetary environment that the subcommittee faced made some very difficult decisions," said Mikulski, D-Md.
The subcommittee agreed to spend $19 billion on the space agency in the year starting Oct. 1. The $278 million increase, which the full committee is expected to ratify Thursday, matches what President Obama proposed in a budget that otherwise froze total domestic spending.
Both chambers agree on extending the International Space Station from 2015 to 2020, and boosting research funding.
But the Senate action sets up a clash with the House that could take months to resolve over who should build NASA rockets.
The top Republican on the spending panel, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, praised the bill's $1.9 billion investment in NASA's next rocket that will be designed at Marshall Space Flight Center. But he called the action a "first step" that might still be altered before the dust settles.
"The president's budget proposal surrendered our nation's leadership in space to the Russians, Chinese and Indians, and instead chose to set up an entitlement program for the so-called commercial space industry," Shelby said. "The administration's plan was not a responsible or realistic approach to human space flight and was not approved by the subcommittee."
The Senate spending panel's action mirrored what the science committee had approved July 15 in setting NASA policy. Besides the extra shuttle flight, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., crafted the policy bill to speed up development of the heavy-lift rocket that Shelby supports.
But Obama proposed in his budget to support development of commercial rockets with $6 billion over five years. That proposal provoked widespread opposition in Congress from lawmakers in states that support NASA rockets, and lawmakers continue to nibble away at his funding.
In the House, the science committee will vote Thursday on policy legislation that wouldn't provide an extra shuttle flight and that would shift more money away from commercial rockets.
Bart Jansen reports for the Gannett Washington Bureau.