A key Senate panel approved Thursday a 2011 budget proposal for the US space agency NASA that would extend the space shuttle program in a compromise from the Obama administration’s demands.
Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee unanimously approved the legislation, after months of debate and criticism over President Barack Obama’s plans to give up plans to return US astronauts to the moon.
The powerful Senate Budget Committee must still approve the bill before sending it to the full chamber for a vote.
Although the plan maintains the White House’s 19-billion-dollar request for NASA funding for the fiscal year that begins on October 1, it adds another shuttle mission to Mars, an asteroid or the International Space Station (ISS).
The US space shuttles are set to be being retired later this year or early next year — only two flights remain — after Obama opted not to fund a successor program, opting instead to encourage private spacecraft development.
NASA will then depend on Russia to fly astronauts to the ISS orbiting outpost until a new private or US government spacecraft becomes available.
The Senate committee’s bill ordered NASA to begin working on a heavy-lift rocket in 2011, rather than in 2015, as proposed by Obama.
“NASA is an agency in transition. We’ve had to take a clear, hard look at what we want from our space agency in the years and decades to come,” Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller, who chairs the Senate panel, said in a statement.
“I’ve made my views on this matter very clear: NASA’s role cannot stay static. It must innovate and move in a new direction.”