Image: External tank in VAB
NASA
The external fuel tank slated for use on the shuttle Endeavour's mission next February is hoisted above the transfer aisle in the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Tuesday. Endeavour was scheduled to be the final shuttle flight, but newly approved legislation would add one more mission, to be taken on by the shuttle Atlantis.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 9/30/2010 12:04:24 AM ET 2010-09-30T04:04:24

Congress has approved a blueprint for NASA's future that extends the life of the space shuttle program while backing President Barack Obama's intent to use commercial carriers to lift humans into near-Earth space.

The House vote late Wednesday sends Obama a bill that rewrites NASA's space agenda. It would dismantle the program under which former President George W. Bush sought to return astronauts to the moon, and extend the life of the International Space Station from 2015 to 2020.

The bill relies mainly on the still-nascent commercial space industry to transport astronauts to the space station over the next five years. But in a nod to concerns about NASA jobs, it also speeds up development of a heavy-lift launch vehicle and funds the shuttle program for another year.

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The bill authorizes a $19 billion budget in fiscal 2011 as part of a $58 billion spending plan over the next three years. However, a separate appropriation bill must still be passed to start the flow of funding in a new direction. That legislation is not likely to be considered until after the November elections. In the meantime, NASA spending will be governed by the continuing resolution also passed by Congress on Wednesday night.

However, the reauthorization bill that won final approval on Wednesday essentially establishes the space agency's agenda for the coming fiscal year.

To streamline the process, the House considered the version of the bill already approved by the Senate. The procedure required a two-thirds majority, which the bill easily won on a 304-118 vote.

The bill's opponents feared that the Senate measure did not set aside enough money for the extension of shuttle operations or for heavy-lift development, and would force NASA to take money from other space programs. They also warned that the bill placed too much reliance on commercial launch providers.

Most supporters acknowledged that they were not fully satisfied with the legislation but said they wanted to provide clarity for agency employees and contractors who are facing layoffs with the wind-down of the shuttle program. Currently, the final shuttle flight is scheduled for launch in February, but the newly approved legislation would authorize one more flight next summer.

Some Republicans worried that failure to pass the bill would have given the White House an opening to cut back on America's space effort.

"While I am not completely satisfied with the Senate bill, I am very pleased it passed.  Congress is obligated to provide clear policy direction to NASA to keep vital agency programs funded and on track," Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, ranking member of the House Science and Technology Committee, said in a statement. "This administration's misguided plan for human spaceflight would put NASA on a dangerous and unproven path. It is essential for Congress to weigh in and pass a bill to counter these policy objectives; otherwise we would essentially be rubberstamping the White House plan."

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Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who played a key role in working out the Senate version of the bill, said the House's approval marked "a great night for our nation's space program."

"This bill is a blueprint for how we will proceed for the next three years and allow NASA to begin planning for an extra shuttle flight," Nelson said in a statement. "Now we have to make sure the agency gets the funding necessary to get the job done."

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden also hailed Congress' final approval. "It is clear that our space program inspires passion and dedication across party lines, and for that we are truly thankful," he said in a statement.

Bolden insisted that the bill would follow through on Obama's space policy.

"The plan invests more in NASA; extends the life of the International Space Station; launches a commercial space transportation industry; fosters the development of path-breaking technologies; and helps create thousands of new jobs," Bolden said. "Passage of this bill represents an important step forward toward helping us achieve the key goals set by the president."

The bill would set aside $1.6 billion over the next three years for the development of private-sector spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Among the companies likely to vie for those funds are the Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin, which currently work on the shuttle program through their United Launch Alliance joint venture; as well as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, which are already building spacecraft for cargo deliveries to the space station.

The legislation goes along with Obama's decision to cancel NASA's Ares 1 rocket development effort, but instead calls on the space agency to develop a heavy-lift vehicle that would be ready by 2016 to take on missions to near-Earth asteroids or other destinations specified in Obama's space vision.

This report includes information from The Associated Press and msnbc.com.

© 2013 msnbc.com

Explainer: Out-of-this-world destinations

  • NASA

    We are headed to Mars ... eventually. But first we need the rocket technology and human spaceflight savvy to get us there safely and efficiently. And the best way to do that is to visit places such as asteroids, our moon, a Martian moon and even no man's lands in space called "Lagrange points," NASA administrator Charles Bolden explained during the unveiling of the agency's revised vision for space exploration.

    The vision shifts focus away from a return to the moon as part of a steppingstone to Mars in favor of what experts call a "flexible path" to space exploration, pushing humans ever deeper into the cosmos.

    Click the "Next" label to check out six other potential destinations astronauts may visit in the years and decades to come en route to Mars.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Lessons to learn on the space station

    NASA

    The cooperation required to build and maintain the International Space Station will be a key to propelling humans on to Mars, according to Louis Friedman, co-founder of The Planetary Society. The society is a space advocacy organization that supports the flexible path to space exploration. In fact, the space station itself could be a training ground for Mars-bound astronauts.

    Astronauts can spend ever longer blocks of time on the station to gain experience in long-duration flights, for example. They could also practice extravehicular activities akin to those expected on a Mars mission, Friedman noted.

  • Lunar orbit, a test of new technology

    NASA

    Lunar orbit, too, is a familiar destination for human spaceflight, but a return to the familiar with new technology would allow astronauts to test the engineering of systems designed to go deeper into space, according to Friedman.

    A return to the moon is still in the cards on the flexible path, but going to lunar orbit first defers the cost of developing the landing and surface systems needed to get in and out of the lunar gravity well, according to experts.

    The famous "Earthrise" image shown here was made in 1968 during Apollo 8, the first human voyage to orbit the moon.

  • Stable no man's lands in space

    NASA / WMAP Science Team

    There are places in space where the gravitational pulls of Earth and the moon, or Earth and the sun, have a balancing effect on a third body in orbit. Those five locations, known as Lagrange points, could offer relatively stable parking spots for astronomical facilities such as space telescopes or satellites. Human spaceflights to these points would allow astronauts to service these instruments.

    In addition, space experts believe a trip to a Lagrange point could serve as a training mission for astronauts headed to points deeper in space, such as an asteroid. Nevertheless, reaching a Lagrange point would be more of a technical achievement than a scientific achievement, according to Friedman. "It is an empty spot in space," he said.

  • Visit an asteroid near you?

    Image: Paraffin candles
    Dan Durda  /  FIAAA

    The first stop astronauts may make in interplanetary space is one of the asteroids that cross near Earth's orbit. Scientists have a keen interest in the space rocks because of the threat that one of them could strike Earth with devastating consequences. An asteroid mission would allow scientists to better understand what makes the rocks tick, and thus how to best divert one that threatens to smack our planet.

    Humans have also never been to an asteroid, which would make such a visit an exciting first, noted Friedman. "Imagine how interesting it will be to see an astronaut step out of a spacecraft and down onto an asteroid and perform scientific experiments," he said. What's more, since asteroids have almost no gravity, an asteroid encounter would be like docking with the space station, which doesn't require a heavy-lift rocket for the return. That makes an asteroid a potentially less expensive destination than the surface of the moon.

  • Back to the moon?

    NASA via Getty Images

    The moon-Mars path of human space exploration originally envisioned the moon as a training ground for a mission to the Red Planet. While the flexible-path strategy broadens the training field, the moon remains a candidate destination, according to NASA.

    Several other nations also have the moon's surface in their sights, including Japan, India and China. Some experts fear the dedicated lunar programs of these nations will eventually leave the United States in the dust as it focuses on an ambiguous flexible path.

    Friedman, of The Planetary Society, said NASA should support the lunar programs of Japan, India and China as part of team building for an international Mars mission, but sees no reason for NASA to focus on the moon. "We've done that already and that was Apollo," he said.

  • Martian moon a final pit stop?

    NASA / JPL-Caltech / UA

    Before astronauts go all the way to Mars, there's reason to make a final stop at one of its moons, Phobos or Deimos. The two moons are less than 20 miles across at their widest, which means landing on them would be less expensive than the Red Planet itself.

    Friedman used to consider a mission to a Martian moon nonsensical - akin to going to the base camp of Mount Everest instead of going to the top of the mountain. "I've now turned myself around on that, because you do go to the base camp and you do actually conduct training activities there before you attempt the summit," he said.

    "By all means go there," he added. "Test out your rendezvous and docking at Mars, conduct your three-year, round-trip mission, maybe tele-operate some rovers of the surface (of Mars). That will all be interesting and then the next mission will finally go down to the surface."

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