With the US’s attention firmly focused on the budget with calls to cut spending in every possible non-essential programs, supporters of the U.S. human space flight program were concerned that NASA would be on the frontline to take a hit. But Congress spared the space agency from prospective cuts and announced that NASA’s budget would remain at current levels, and its budget be $18.5 billion for 2011. It took the body months of vitriolic back-and-forth arguing that culminated in last-minute negotiations, including language that includes the building of a Space Launch System heavy-lift vehicle.
NASA is at a historic crossroads as the agency has been directed to support smaller commercial space firms provide access to low-Earth-orbit (LEO) while the agency tries to send astronauts beyond LEO again.
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The wording of the budget states that the Space Launch System heavy-lift vehicle “shall have a lift capability not less than 130 tons and which shall have an upper stage and other core elements developed simultaneously.” That’s different from the language in the 2010 authorization act, which calls for initial development of an SLS that can place 70-100 tons into LEO that would later be upgraded to a 130-ton capacity.
As it currently stands, NASA is dependent on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to send U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station. Russia has recently increased the cost of a single seat onboard the Soyuz to $63 million, making it even-more important that NASA maintains funding at least at current levels.
“We appreciate the work of Congress to pass a 2011 spending bill. NASA now has appropriated funds to implement the 2010 Authorization Act, which gives us a clear path forward to continue America’s leadership in human spaceflight, exploration and scientific discovery. Among other things, this bill lifts funding restrictions that limited our flexibility to carry out our shared vision for the future,” said NASA’s Administrator Charles Bolden. “With this funding, we will continue to aggressively develop a new heavy lift rocket, multipurpose crew vehicle and commercial capability to transport our astronauts and their supplies on American-made and launched spacecraft. We are committed to living within our means in these tough fiscal times – and we are committed to carrying out our ambitious new plans for exploration and discovery.”
Lifted, finally, was the so-called “Shelby provision” from the 2010 appropriations act that prevented NASA from terminating Constellation programs.