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NASA's future at stake in House budget vote

Image: ET-122 in VAB
The external fuel tank for NASA's final scheduled space shuttle mission is moved into the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Tuesday. The tank is to be attached to Endeavour for its flight to the International Space Station in February. Although Endeavour's mission is currently the last shuttle flight on the schedule, another flight (by Atlantis) would be added if Congress authorizes the money.NASA

Troubled NASA leaders say Wednesday's scheduled vote in the House could clarify the space agency's future and save 2,500 immediate high-tech jobs.

Those concerned are hopeful that House lawmakers will approve the NASA authorization bill already approved by the Senate.

"For the sake of providing certainty, stability and clarity to the NASA work force and larger space community, I felt it was better to consider a flawed bill than no bill at all," said Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee that oversees NASA policy.

The Senate's NASA plan calls for building an early heavy lift rocket, which insiders say is a win-win because it does several critical, strategic things for the future of human spaceflight:

  • It allows America to fly beyond low Earth orbit by 2016 and opens up the possibility to reach multiple destinations throughout the solar system, including the moon, asteroids, Mars and gravitational balance points in deep space. All these destinations are touched upon in President Barack Obama's plan for NASA spaceflight.
  • It serves as a bridge for the veteran launch team at Florida's spaceport to transition from the space shuttle to the future — "and not to repeat the mistakes President Nixon made following the Apollo moon landings," a veteran launch director said.
  • Specifically, the Senate plan would generate 2,500 high-tech near-term jobs to enable test flights as early as 2013.

At this point the Senate's plan would retain a seasoned, well-trained launch team instead of seeing this highly skilled workforce relocate to other high-tech fields.

The House authorization vote is expected to come Wednesday afternoon or evening. Because of the special rules that govern the vote, a two-thirds majority is required for approval. A separate NASA appropriations bill is likely to be considered after the November elections.

Jay Barbree is NBC News' Cape Canaveral correspondent and the only reporter who has broadcast every mission flown by American astronauts for the same television network. He is also the author of numerous books about space exploration, including his latest work,