A quick review of the Senate NASA authorization bill

The Houston Chronicle has obtained and posted a draft of the NASA authorization legislation that the Senate Commerce Committee will markup Thursday morning. A quick review of the legislation finds a number of changes from the White House's proposed budget, some of which have been reported in varying details in recent days. Perhaps the biggest difference is the legislation's provisions for the development of a "Space Launch System", which it defines as "the follow-on government-owned civil launch system developed, managed, and operated by NASA to serve as a key component to expand human presence beyond low-Earth orbit." This system, authorized for $1.9 billion in FY11, $2.65 billion in FY12, and $2.6 billion in FY13, would initially be capable of launching between 70 and 100 tons to low Earth orbit, including the "multipurpose crew vehicle", which is defined elsewhere in the bill as closely derived from the Orion program. The system would also be required to evolve into heavier variants that could place up to 150 tons into LEO. Both the launcher and the spacecraft "shall, to the extent practicable, utilize existing contracts, investments, workforce, industrial base, and capabilities 2 from the Space Shuttle and former Orion and Ares 1 projects, including Space Shuttle-derived components and Ares 1 components". The legislation doesn't set a schedule for the launcher but does state a goal of "full operational capability" for the crew vehicle by the end of 2016. Commercial crew, another hot topic, is also discussed in the legislation, although the news about the program is not nearly as negative as some might have feared. While the legislation does include, as previously reported, a prohibition on issuing contracts for commercial crew services in FY11, the bill does allow continued funding of commercial crew development (CCDev) activities in FY11, including adding additional participants in the effort. NASA would be allowed to enter into commercial crew transportation contracts in FY12 or later once the agency completes a number of prerequisites ranging from human-rating requirements to a market assessment to the development of "appropriate milestones and minimum performance objectives" for commercial vehicles. This effort would be authorized for $312 million in FY11, $400 million in FY12, and $500 million in FY13. That's significantly less than what the administration proposed: $500 million in FY11 and $1.4 billion in FY12 and again in FY13. Other sections of the legislation deal with the retirement of the shuttle, support and utilization of the ISS, and various science, aeronautics, and technology programs. This bill is, overall, a compromise among those who support the administration's proposals for NASA and those who want to maintain the current program of record. It's worth noting that the legislation refers to the "former Orion and Ares 1 projects" and, while referring to the ability to "enable missions to the surface of the moon", does not explicitly call for such missions, instead setting a long-term goal for human space exploration as "the eventual international exploration of Mars".

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