The Senate Appropriations Committee’s commerce, justice, and science subcommittee marked up its FY2006 appropriations bill Tuesday, including $16.4 billion for NASA. That figure includes $250 million added at the behest of Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) to provide funding for any Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission NASA may approve. (NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has previously said that he would support reinstating a shuttle servicing mission assuming a successful shuttle return to flight.) The $16.4-billion top-line figure, though, falls about $60 million short of the President’s request, which did not include Hubble servicing funding. It’s not clear where the cuts took place, although the Baltimore Sun reported that both the shuttle and CEV programs were fully funded. The full appropriations committee is scheduled to take up the bill on Thursday afternoon.
Meanwhile, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), who chairs the science and space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, announced yesterday that she had officially introduced a NASA authorization bill for fiscal years 2006 through 2010. The bill will be marked up during a full committee hearing scheduled for Thursday morning. The bill hasn’t made it into Thomas yet, but Hutchison’s press release offers a few intriguing details. The bill would designate the US segment of ISS as a “national laboratory facility”, something the senator has discussed at past hearings. In addition, the bill “requires completion” of the ISS and also “prohibits a gap in U.S. human space flight capability.”
Those last two positions present some potentially thorny issues. First, what does it mean for the ISS to be “completed”? If the bill refers to a specific assembly plan, that’s one thing, but given the past history of the program there may be some flexibility in what constitutes “complete”. The release notes that the bill would require NASA to inform Congress if the number of shuttle launches currently scheduled to build or supply the station changes. Second, the prohibition of a “gap” in American manned spaceflight would seem to suggest at first that the shuttle would have to continue flying if the CEV or another vehicle (like the t/Space CXV) is not ready to replace it by the 2010 retirement date. Administrator Griffin has made it clear in a number of recent statements that the 2010 date is a hard deadline for shuttle retirement, however. The release does state that NASA would have to develop “a contingency plan to address station servicing needs during any potential hiatus in U.S. capability to transport humans and cargo into space, eliminating the possibility of a gap in space access.” This might open the door for the procurement of cargo and human launch services from the commercial sector, although many may question whether commercial human access to ISS will be available by 2010. (Russia would also be an alternative, if it weren’t for that pesky INA.)
Update 6/23 12 noon: A Space News article reviews the bill and finds a provision in the legislation that does require the shuttle to continue operations until a successor is available:
In order to ensure continuous human access to space, the Administrator may not retire the Space Shuttle orbiter until a replacement human-rated spacecraft system has demonstrated that it can take humans into Earth orbit and return them safely.