Senate budget panel: Shuttle can fly another year


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WASHINGTON, D.C. - A $2.5 billion spending provision that would allow NASA to fly the space shuttle well beyond its scheduled retirement next year cleared a major legislative hurdle today, according to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

The provision, requested by Nelson, was included in the broader five-year spending plan that passed the Senate Budget Committee today about 5 p.m.

The shuttle is scheduled to be retired in the fall of next year, and President Barack Obama's recently submitted budget plan provides only enough money for nine flights by the end of 2010. But Nelson has argued there should be no hard-and-fast deadline for launching those flights or mothballing the shuttle; and, that finishing all the shuttle's work safely should come first.

Thus, the extra $2.5 billion Nelson won Thursday in the Senate's version of the budget would fund the shuttle program through 2011, if NASA decides it's unable to safely launch nine times before the fall of next year.

The Budget Committee's decision sends a strong signal that the shuttle shouldn't be retired on a date-certain, but only when all the missions are completed," Nelson said immediately after the Thursday vote. "It's in there."

The committee's decision also could shorten the amount of time the U.S. has found it will need to rely solely on the Russians for human access to space. NASA doesn't plan on having the shuttle's replacement ready to fly until 2015, which meant nearly a five-year gap from the shuttle's retirement. Flying the shuttle through 2011 would close that gap by at least a year.

President Obama so far has been sticking with plans to retire NASA's shuttle fleet next year. His budget blueprint, released by the White House last month, dashed the hopes of many on Florida's Space Coast that Obama might extend the life of the shuttle program -- one of several options examined by his transition team. Besides the issues of safely finishing all the shuttle's missions, thousands of jobs hang in the balance for workers in several states including Florida.

Before the Senate's budget panel's amended version becomes official, it must pass the full Senate, and then be reconciled by negotiators with the House's version of the spending plan.

Following is the budget language won by Nelson Thursday:

THE CHAIRMAN'S MARK: FY 2010 SENATE BUDGET RESOLUTION

Overview

The Chairman's Mark for the Fiscal Year 2010 Senate Budget Resolution is a fiscally responsible budget plan that addresses the fiscal and economic crises inherited by the Obama Administration and lays the foundation for long-term economic security. It preserves the major priorities in President Obama's budget proposal: reducing our dependence on foreign energy; striving for excellence in education; and reforming our health care system. It provides significant middle-class tax relief, directed at families with incomes under $250,000. And it cuts the deficit in half by 2012, and by two-thirds by 2014.

Inheriting Fiscal and Economic Crises

Unfortunately, President Obama and the Democratic Congress have been handed a colossal mess. We are now in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression. We face housing and financial market crises that have wiped out home values and weakened our credit markets. We have lost 3.3 million jobs in the last six months. And we have ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Spending nearly doubled under the prior administration and revenues have now fallen to the lowest level as a share of the economy since 1950. Not surprisingly, we have seen record deficits and a doubling of the national debt over the last eight years. Gross debt rose from $5.8 trillion in 2001 to an estimated $12.1 trillion in 2009. While that $6.3 trillion includes some debt resulting from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (hereafter referred to as the economic recovery package), the additional debt load is directly a function of the collapsed economy - a collapse that occurred under the watch of President Bush.

Regrettably, the economic mess left for the Obama Administration is making the budgetary outlook even worse than originally believed. The Congressional Budget Office's re-estimate of the President's budget shows the 10-year deficits will be $2.3 trillion more than originally projected by the administration. The Chairman's Mark responds to this worsening situation by making adjustments in the President's budget proposal, while maintaining the President's core priorities.

NASA

The Chairman's Mark funds the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) at 18.7 billion. This level of funding recognizes the importance of our nation's space program and endorses the agency's balanced goals of exploration, science, and aeronautics. This level of funding also reflects the vital role our space program plays in driving scientific and technological advancements critical to our economy.

NASA currently intends to retire its Space Shuttles at the end of 2010, after completing the current manifest of flights plus an additional flight to transport scientific payloads to the International Space Station. The criteria for Shuttle retirement, however, remains the completion of scheduled flights, and a fixed retirement date could create dangerous scheduling pressures. Consequently, the Chairman's Mark recognizes the possibility that currently planned Shuttle missions may continue beyond the end of 2010, and provides $2.5 billion above the President's request for 2011.

It remains the policy of the United States to possess the capability for human access to space on a continuous basis and to launch the follow-on Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) as close to 2010 as possible. NASA currently projects that the CEV will not be operational before 2015, leaving a five-year gap in U.S. human space flight capability. During that gap the United States will need to purchase space flight services from Russia, costing in excess of $500 million. The Chairman's Mark recognizes the strategic importance of uninterrupted access to space and supports efforts to reduce or eliminate this five-year gap in U.S. human space flight.

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