In a letter Monday to Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), chair of the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, outlined the key aspects of a NASA authorization bill his committee his drafting. The key elements of that bill, as described in that letter, include:
- Support for extending operations of the ISS to at least 2020;
- One additional shuttle mission (the “Launch on Need” contingency mission for the last currently-scheduled mission), which would fly only after “successful completion of an independent safety review”;
- A “walk before you can run” approach to commercial crew transportation, funding additional risk reduction activity patterned after the current Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program as well as completion of “a number of studies, assessments, and milestones”;
- Mars as the long-term goal for human spaceflight, but with NASA working with international partners “to define near-term missions in the lunar and high-Earth orbits of space” that would include development of new capabilities and infrastructure;
- Begin development of a heavy-lift vehicle in 2011 that would support exploration as well as “serve as a contingency capability to the ISS”; and
- Direct NASA that the heavy-lift vehicle and crew exploration vehicle “leverage the workforce, contracts, assets, and capabilities of the Shuttle, Ares I, and Orion efforts.”
These provisions are not surprising, based on what Nelson has said in the past: he has specifically mentioned, among other things, adding one (and only one) shuttle flight and beginning immediate heavy-lift vehicle development, as well as expressing skepticism that commercial providers could provide crew capabilities in the near-term. He mentioned in the letter that these elements are based on discussions he has had with other committee members, including ranking subcommittee member Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) and the chairman and ranking member of the overall committee, Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), to create a “bipartisan foundation” for the authorization bill.
One thing the letter does not mention is how much funding the committee would authorize for these programs or the agency in general. Continuing heavy-lift vehicle development in parallel with commercial crew programs, as well as the additional funding needed to maintain shuttle operations at least through mid-2011 (the likely launch date of the additional shuttle mission) will put a squeeze on other NASA programs unless the authorizers add to the NASA budget proposal—and even then, there’s no guarantee that Sen. Mikulski’s appropriators would follow suit.
Update: Sen. Mikulski did have a response to Nelson’s letter: as reported by Space News she said that Nelson’s plan was “an alternative framework for NASA’s human space flight program that could snap us out of the ‘stagnant quo.’” She added that she looked forward to additional details and promised to work with Nelson as they worked on their respective appropriations and authorization bills.