What the new NASA funding bill really means

Constellation's dead, the shuttle program is moving to hospice and private space firms are getting a boost. Nonetheless, with increased funding and a new ship in development, NASA's future still looks bright--for now.

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:

  • Reaffirmation of support and use of ISS until at least 2020--five years longer than was previously planned.
  • Codification of the end of the space shuttle program as follows: Currently scheduled flights will still happen, along with one extra, excepting a Launch on Need flight. (For rescue purposes.) People employed in the Shuttle program will keep their jobs until the end of this fiscal year, by which time they may be assigned to other projects. (See the Heavy Lift Rocket point below.)
  • In the meantime, the bill clarifies how much NASA will be leaning on private contractors, like SpaceX, for ISS resupply missions over the next five years. The answer: a lot. The bill also provides clearer milestones and objectives to be met by these companies before they can be employed by NASA. The bill allocates about $1.3bn to private spaceflight over the next three years.
  • Requirements for the development of a new heavy lift rocket--the "Space Launch System" and accompanying crew transport craft by 2016. The design for the latter will be based roughly on the existing Orion plans.
  • Speaking of Orion, it'll be the only major part of the Constellation program left mostly intact. The rest, as proposed earlier this year by President Obama, is going to be defunded, and effectively killed.
  • A doomsday notification system for "notifying Federal agencies and relevant emergency response institutions of an impending near-Earth object threat." This should be ready by 2012. (Coincidentally!)

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