Congress Mostly Approves New Direction for NASA

After months of political fighting, the cloud of uncertainty over NASA's future has lifted. Last night, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 304-118 to approve the Senate version of the NASA reauthorization bill, paving the way for many of the initiatives that the Administration proposed in its budget rollout in February, including a new vision for human spaceflight.

Once President Obama signs the bill into law, the space agency will be able to terminate the Constellation program, which was launched under President George W. Bush with the goal of returning astronauts to the moon by 2020. The authorization will also allow for one last shuttle flight next year -- the earlier plan was to retire the shuttle for good this year. Most importantly, NASA will now be able to spend $1.3 billion over the next 3 years to fund the development of commercial spacecraft. That's considerably less than the $3.3 billion that had been requested by the White House but it still allows NASA to begin to implement the vision laid out by the president.

The authorization departs from the Administration's plan in some other ways as well. One relates to the development of a new heavy-lift rocket to take astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars sometime in the 2030s.

The Administration did not want to begin developing this rocket until after 2015—the deadline it had set for itself to select the rocket design. But the authorization bill asks NASA to begin work on the rocket next year. It's as yet unclear if this requirement will cause money to be diverted from NASA's science portfolio, particularly its earth science budget, which has grown by $382 million to $1.8 billion in the 2011 budget.

Although Congress will not have an opportunity to pass an appropriations bill to accompany the authorization—lawmakers will be on break until after the November 2 elections—NASA will be able to act on the authorization with funds granted under a continuing resolution, also passed by the House last night.

After the authorization bill was passed by the House, NASA head Charles Bolden issued a statement of gratitude. "This important change in direction will not only help us chart a new path in space, but can help us retool for the industries and jobs of the future that will be vital for long term economic growth," he said.