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Truce called in space tug-of-war

House Democrats have signaled that they're willing to go along with the Senate's outline for NASA's future, at least for the time being — and that can be seen as a victory for commercialized space travel. Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology, said today in a statement that he expected the Senate version of a NASA reauthorization bill to come up for a vote in the full House on Wednesday. But that's not necessarily the end of a congressional tussle over NASA's spending plan: "It has become clear that there is not time remaining to pass a Compromise bill through the House and the Senate. For the sake of providing certainty, stability, and clarity to the NASA workforce and larger space community, I felt it was better to consider a flawed bill than no bill at all as the new fiscal year begins. I will continue to advocate to the Appropriators for the provisions in the Compromise language."It's still unlikely that the companion appropriations bill for NASA spending will be approved before Congress adjourns for its pre-election break at the end of this week, and Gordon suggests that some tweaks might still be made in that bill. But it sounds as if the Senate's vision for NASA — including more money for commercial crew transport services — could become law. That's what the advocates of space commercialization have been hoping for. Over the past few weeks, those advocates made a strong pitch for the House to ditch its reauthorization bill and take up the Senate's instead.Gordon said he still had a "number of concerns" about the Senate bill, including the provisions about commercialization:• "The Senate bill includes an unfunded mandate to keep the Shuttle program going through the remainder of FY 2011, even after the Shuttle is retired, at a cost of $500 million or more without clarifying where the funds will come from, all but ensuring that other important NASA programs will be cannibalized.• "I am concerned that the Senate bill is overly prescriptive for the design of the follow-on rocket. The end result is the Senate trying to design a rocket for NASA, while being silent on the safety of the vehicle. The compromise language lets NASA determine the best approach in the design of the follow-on human spaceflight and exploration program. • "The compromise language ensures access to the ISS and minimizes the human spaceflight transportation ‘gap’ that will exist after the Shuttle is retired. The Senate bill does not provide a timetable for a government backup capability, which could make NASA’s access to space completely dependent on commercial providers. I am hopeful the commercial providers will be successful, but, whereas they have missed contractual cargo milestones thus far, I am wary of being completely dependent on them, because if they fail, we will be dependent on the Russians for longer than absolutely necessary."It's true that commercial launch providers, including SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, are behind schedule. But the proponents of commercialization argue that the development of a new NASA rocket would take longer — a view supported by the conclusions of an independent panel that reviewed the space agency's development plans last year.In a statement issued today, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation urged the House to pass the Senate bill immediately. The federation's president, Bretton Alexander, said quick action would reduce the uncertainty over NASA's future direction:"With the new fiscal year about to begin, space industry businesses and individual space workers can't afford more months of ongoing uncertainty — they need to know what future to plan for. A protracted stalemate over the NASA authorization bill would likely cause continued layoffs and would make it more difficult for commercial companies to ramp up hiring. We cannot afford to delay the creation of new jobs, and the Senate bill, which we support, could be on the president’s desk before the end of the week. The only way to avoid months of limbo for NASA is for a prompt resolution by Congress before the new fiscal year begins, and the Commercial Spaceflight Federation urges a speedy resolution to this process."The Space Access Society said House passage of the Senate version "is no sure thing," especially because the rules will probably require passage by a two-thirds vote. There's still time to let your lawmaker know what you think, via phone (202-224-3121) or e-mail. Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. And if you really want to be friendly, ask me about "The Case for Pluto."