Congressman Dave Weldon (R-FL) formally announced yesterday his legislation intended to keep the shuttle flying until Orion is ready to begin operations. A breakdown of what his bill would cost, according to Florida Today:
- $1.6 billion to speed the development of the new Orion space capsules and Ares rockets.
- $819 million to reimburse NASA for costs incurred returning to flight after the 2003 Columbia accident.
- $1.2 billion to bolster other NASA aeronautics and science projects that have been cut in recent years.
- “Such sums as necessary” to keep the shuttle fleet flying two missions a year until Orion spacecraft are ready to launch.
Weldon believes that the “such sums” would amount to $2 billion a year for 2011 through 2013, when Orion would be ready to fly under an accelerated schedule, although he didn’t get into details why he thought that, given that this would be cheaper that current shuttle operation costs (he did say he thought that one of the shuttle orbiters could be retired, and that NASA had developed a track record that showed it could “be innovative and make do with limited resources”).
Where would this money come from? That’s not addressed in Weldon’s legislation. “It’s an authorizing bill, not an appropriating bill,” he said, meaning that even if Congress approved the bill, there’s no guarantee that appropriators would provide the requested funding. Recall that the NASA Authorization Act of 2005 authorized nearly $18.7 billion for NASA in FY08; it appears the final appropriations bill being considered by Congress now will fall over $1 billion short of that request.
Moreover, it doesn’t seem likely at the moment that Congress would approve the bill. Florida Today reports that two of the biggest shuttle supporters in the Senate, Kay Bailey Hutchison and Bill Nelson, were lukewarm at best about the bill. The Orlando Sentinel reports that even Weldon considers it unlikely that the bill will make it into law.
So why introduce it at all, besides demonstrating to constituents that you’re trying to help the local economy by keeping the shuttle and its jobs in place for a while longer? Weldon hopes that his bill will “force a national debate over the future of America’s space program”, in particular among the presidential candidates. Weldon criticized the Republican candidates for not being forthcoming about their proposed space policies, according to the Sentinel:
“The best person with a space policy — actually, the only candidate with any kind of substantial space policy on their Web site — is Hillary [Clinton],” he said. “The Republican candidates need to wake up and smell the coffee.”
The Sentinel did contact two of the leading Republicans, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney; both offered general platitudes in support of space exploration and the Vision for Space Exploration that are unlikely to mollify Weldon.