Congress just passed a fresh authorization bill for NASA, outlining the agency's budget through 2013, and its core goals through 2020.
After working its way through the Senate back in August, S. 3729--a rough legislative manifestation of President Obama's previously announced plans for NASA--has sailed through Congress with only a handful of modifications.
In the crudest possible terms, this is positive news for the space program. That is to say that the agency has been promised small but steady increases in funding over the next few years: $19bn for 2011, up from $18.7bn in 2010. 2012 sees a nudge up to $19.45bn, with another $500m set aside in 2013. So far, so good. (For NASA.)
The real substance of the bill, though, is how it says NASA should use this money, or perhaps more specifically, how it shouldn't. The meatiest bits:
The response to the bill has been mixed, but not necessarily down partisan lines. NASA's happy, at least officially. House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D) is worred that the plans for Space Launch System or overly specific to have been written by lay people in Congress. Some Republican commentators worry that the bill disregards the significant costs sunk into the Constellation program.
The main take-away, as far as I can tell, is that this bill is an act of compromise. In terms of hardware development, it's prudent to move toward the (theoretically) cheap services of private spaceflight firms while simultaneously spurring NASA development of more powerful launch craft, the likes of which private contractors can't yet achieve.
The death of the Constellation has been a hot-button issue throughout the life of this bill, especially in later days; the program has provided quite a few jobs at NASA, the potential loss of which became a political issue. The bill mitigates job loss in both the shuttle and Constellation programs with a combination of service extensions (in the case of the shuttle) and the carrying over of Orion--an essential part of Constellation--into the Space Launch System plan.
So what does all this mean for the general mission of NASA? Some lawmakers have touted the bill as a NASA-gutting disaster, but the truth is much less exciting. Measurable fat is being excised where it needs to be. This is true. But the overall budget for the agency will grow modestly. Likewise, the future of manned spaceflight isn't in question--at worst, it's been responsibly delayed.
This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com