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Congress tries to alter Obama's plans for NASA

Upset over Obama's plans for NASA, two US lawmakers from Florida plan to introduce a bill that would keep the space shuttle launching through 2011 and throw a lifeline to the endangered moon exploration program Constellation.

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer / March 8, 2010

NASA technicians work on space shuttle Endeavour after its landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Feb. 21. Obama's plans for NASA include the end of the moon exploration program.

Bruce Weaver/AP

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Pushback on President Obama's plans for NASA's human spaceflight program is moving out of testy congressional hearings and into Capitol Hill's legislative inbox.

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Later this week, two Florida legislators are expected to introduce a bill designed to keep space shuttles launching through most of 2011, and to give NASA's endangered Constellation program an apparent reprieve. Constellation – two new rockets, a crew capsule, and hardware for a return to the moon by 2020 – is NASA's current approach to replacing the aging shuttle fleet, set for retirement at the end of September.

The bill, being circulated by Florida Reps. Suzanne Kosmas (D) and Bill Posey (R), is the House companion to similar legislation filed last week by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas.

"When the shuttle retires, that leaves the US with no way into space," except by turning to Russia for seats on its Soyuz vehicles to ferry US astronauts to and from the International Space Station, says one congressional aide familiar with the bills. NASA's fiscal year 2011 budget proposal would undercut US leadership in space and in effect outsource jobs to Russia, he says.

The president's budget plan, unveiled last month, would increase NASA's funding by $6 billion over the next five years. But it would radically reshape the human spaceflight program. It could cancel Constellation, nurture the private sector's capability to launch cargo and astronauts to the space station, and focus NASA's efforts on developing technologies that would lead to new, more cost-effective rockets powerful enough to launch astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit – a region of near-Earth space the space station inhabits.

The program has been heavily criticized for failing to headline a high-profile destination or provide a timetable for reaching it. The administration's proposal mentions potential destinations deep in the documents – trips to asteroids, the moon, and ultimately Mars, for instance. But launches to these destinations would happen during the decade of the 2020s, and at a far slower pace than the country has grown used to seeing with the shuttle program.

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