Senate crafts new plan for future of NASA

HOUSTON The ultimate future of the space program is still in doubt. When will the shuttle really retire? Who will be in charge of human space flight? And what happens to U.S. dominance in and beyond Earth's orbit?

While we don't have definitive answers to those questions yet, today's Senate commerce committee announcement is a big step toward them. And it could result in a lot of NASA workers and contractors keeping their jobs.

"The bill that we put out of committee today does preserve our workforce, our creativity and the commitment to humans in space. It will allow us to fully utilize the space station," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

It is a bill that gives the shuttle program an additional launch before retirement, it lengthens the life of the International Space Station to 2020 and it provides $11.5 billion to build a heavy lift solid rocket launch vehicle before the end of 2016.

The compromise plan is much different than the plan announced by the president a few months ago when he called for more immediate commercialization of the space program and no plans on the drawing board for U.S. led human flight.

"I was very concerned that we were taking away NASA's role and the importance of NASA oversight and the incredible workforce that NASA has had through the years," said Sen. Hutchison.

Critics contend this spending plan still doesn't give NASA enough money to accomplish its mission, that it is still in flux and could have more financial issues once this budget expires in 2013.

Not so, says former astronaut and Florida Senator Bill Nelson, who believes the plans are on target.

"Now that is doable, and if anybody tells you that it's not, then if I were you, then I would question their particular agenda," said Sen. Nelson.

Sen. Hutchison referred to the experts at Johnson Space Center in the Houston area, which she believes would have had under the original plan a small supportive role, but now believes they will have their "rightful role" in the process.

Senators also noted today that this bill was crafted by closely working with the appropriations committee which should help smooth the way for passage.

Of course, this only marks the bill making it out of committee - it still has a long way to go. But the bill is said to have the support of the White House.

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