July 15, 2010 in City

NASA’s future rides on vote

Senate bill attempts to break stalemate
Mark K. Matthews Orlando Sentinel
Associated Press photo

The external fuel tank for the last scheduled space shuttle flight, February 2011, is transported to the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Wednesday.
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – The future of America’s manned space program could be determined today when a key Senate panel votes on a plan that would end months of fighting between Congress and the White House, amid signs that the Obama administration will agree to the compromise measure.

The bill, championed by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., attempts to break a stalemate that started in February when President Barack Obama said he would cancel the NASA-run Constellation moon-rocket program and instead use commercial companies to send astronauts to low Earth orbit.

Congress fiercely opposed Obama’s plan – citing the need for NASA to have its own spacecraft that could reach the space station – and the Nelson compromise would spend billions of dollars on a new NASA rocket that could deliver crew and cargo. Though Constellation still would be canceled, the bill pushes NASA to build the new rocket with parts made by companies with Constellation contracts, such as ATK of Utah, that the White House was looking to dismiss so it could spend more money on initiatives such as commercial space.

Until now, the White House had refused to compromise, insisting on full funding of commercial companies to send humans to space and a delay in the design of a heavy-lift rocket to allow time to develop new technologies.

Initial reaction to the bill was chilly on the Space Coast, which faces an economic hardship when NASA retires the space shuttle in 2011 and as many as 9,000 Kennedy Space Center workers lose their jobs. Top economic development officials there want NASA to focus more on boosting commercial space and high-tech research – reasoning that the area could compete for some of that work – rather than build a new government rocket that likely won’t fly before 2016.

“I do not believe anyone in Brevard (County) doubts your passion and commitment to NASA and its mission,” executives of the Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast wrote to Nelson on Wednesday. “However, the risk that this future for Florida might be bargained away for one more attuned to the needs of Alabama, Texas and Utah, in the name of political expediency, demands a response.”

Advisers to Nelson, however, said that the compromise was necessary to win congressional support.

“What people have to recognize is that in six months, the president’s plan as drafted made no headway in Congress – and had opponents sworn to block it on the Senate floor,” said Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin. “What we are doing is taking as many good parts of the plan as we can, including the good parts for Florida, to make sure we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”

And indeed, a senior administration official said the White House likely would not oppose the measure.

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