House legislation to extend the space shuttle program beyond its planned retirement this year may be joined by more a comprehensive Senate bill in the near future. At the symposium “Human Spaceflight and the Future of Space Science”, held yesterday in Washington by USRA and GWU’s Space Policy Institute, Jeff Bingham of the Senate Commerce Committee held up a working draft of a proposed bill titled the “Human Spaceflight Capability Assurance and Enhancement Act”. Because the bill hasn’t been introduced yet, he could not reveal its exact contents, but did say he what believed “should” be in the bill.
At the core of the bill is ensuring the utilization and success of the International Space Station. Part of that means extending operations of the ISS to “at least” 2020, he said; the bill should include provisions instructing NASA to study what’s needed in terms of new or replacement equipment, and the requirements for transporting cargo up to and down from the station. That alone is hardly controversial: there’s a growing consensus that NASA will plan to continue operations of the ISS beyond 2015 in any new human spaceflight plan.
How to continue to support the station, though, particularly during the gap between the shuttle’s retirement and the introduction of Ares/Orion or commercial vehicles? “There is only one answer,” he said. “It will not surprise you to know that we believe that answer is to keep flying the shuttle.” No other US vehicle, government or commercial, would be ready to service the station before 2015 (at least for crews; commercial cargo vehicles are forecast to be flying well before then.) Any legislation should authorize funding for continuing shuttle flights until a suitable US-built replacement vehicle enters service, he said.
The bill should not stop at extending the shuttle, though. “We believe very strongly that commercial industry, the space launch industry, is vitally important, and it’s time, we’re at the point, where we should be moving in that direction,” he said. Such legislation should authorize additional funding to accelerate development of commercial crew vehicles. It would also endorse use of Ares 1/Orion to support the station, although he didn’t provide specifics about any language on that system the bill should contain. Other aspects of the bill should focus on ensuring utilization of the US components of the station as a national laboratory (a designation made in a prior NASA authorization bill) and getting more users of the facility from outside of NASA.
A major challenge for the bill—outside of the technical and programmatic issues of whether it’s possible at this late stage to keep flying the shuttle beyond 2010—is turning any authorized funding into real appropriations. Bingham said some leadership on this has to come from the White House by requesting funding that’s in line with authorized levels, something that has not happened in the past. “The reason appropriators have not been able to increase funding levels to the kind of levels we had in our authorization bills is because they were never requested by the White House,” he said.
“The Bush Administration, I think, completely neglected space after the event on January 14th,” he said, referring to President Bush’s speech six years ago yesterday unveiling the Vision for Space Exploration. “That was it; it was turned over to OMB and mismanaged.” He sad he’s concerned that the same will be true in the current administration since the same people “at the mid-level of the bureaucracy” within OMB are still there. “I’m not optimistic that what we’re going to see with the budget is going to be very inspiring.”