WASHINGTON — NASA's plans to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 died a quiet death Thursday when a key Senate panel approved a new course for the agency that terminates the Constellation lunar program and instructs NASA to build a rocket for a yet-undefined mission.
By a unanimous vote, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee agreed to a new NASA mission that supporters have touted as a compromise between White House desires to grow the commercial space industry and congressional desires to see NASA build its own rocket.
The vote, which extends the life of the space shuttle program for a year and authorizes an additional mission to the International Space Station, is seen as a boost to President Barack Obama's plan to redirect U.S. astronauts to near-Earth asteroids and eventually to Mars.
"I believe we have reached a sensible center," said Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the committee. "We're challenging NASA to do more with the resources that it has."
Over the last five years, Constellation has cost at least $9 billion and produced one test flight for a stripped-down version of the program's Ares I rocket.
The new plan maintains the $19 billion total funding for NASA in the 2011 fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 and provides $1 billion a year over the next six years to promote commercial space development. The White House's original request was for $1.2 billion a year over five years.
"The goal was to preserve U.S. leadership in space exploration and keep as much of the rocket industry talent as possible employed," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, the top Republican on the committee and an earlier critic of commercialization, said the legislation "represents a strong balance between the need for investment in new technology and the continued evolution of the commercial market to take an increasing role in supporting our efforts in low-Earth orbit."
The measure must next be considered by the full Senate and funded in annual spending bills.
This report contains information from the Associated Press and McClatchy Newspapers.