for the martians

US congress clears private space taxis for lift-off

Henry Spencer, New Scientist

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives endorsed the Senate’s version of the NASA authorisation bill, temporarily abandoning their own version. Most everyone interested in promoting cheaper and better spaceflight heaved a sigh of relief.

The real uproar was about getting NASA out of the space transportation business, and helping commercial suppliers to get into it.

Predictably, the loudest objections to this came from congressional districts that get a lot of NASA space-transportation money. Their congressmen in particular have been denouncing the new policy at the top of their lungs.

Heavy-lift launcher

So the senate NASA authorisation bill diverts about half the money that was supposed to go to supporting commercial spaceflight and long-term technology R&D. Instead, it puts it towards starting work on a government heavy-lift launcher, preferably derived from shuttle designs, and recommends that various other in-house NASA efforts continue.

More for less

The House version, by contrast, looked like a disaster. Essentially all commercial support and R&D money would go instead to continuing large parts of the Constellation programme to return to the moon, which would be told to do the same jobs on the same schedule for less money, somehow. (As the Augustine committee found last year, coming anywhere close to meeting those goals was going to need more money, not less!)

Would-be commercial launch providers would get no support, while government rockets would act as subsidised competition. Commercial rockets would also get a bunch of new requirements, which would not be imposed on their government competition. It’s hard to imagine a more effective way of discouraging investment in commercial spaceflight.

Purse strings

Faced with the prospect of leaving NASA adrift for months without an agreed-upon direction – and potential voters angry – as everything stops for the mid-term election, the House caved in and accepted the Senate version.

The original backers of the House version haven’t given up, and even the Senate bill isn’t perfect. The authorisation bill’s official plan now needs to be turned into specific funding allocations in an appropriation bill, and that too needs both House and Senate agreement. But an important first step has been taken, and in more or less the right direction.

Henry Spencer, New Scientist

remember as a kid, humans dreamed of being an astronaut and flying in outer space

well it finally might happen in the near future