Senators go to bat for NASA's Constellation program

Supporters of NASA's manned spaceflight program took action Thursday to oppose President Obama's plan to slash funding. The Senate Appropriations Committee voted unanimously to reinforce a current law requiring congressional approval before cutting funding for the Constellation program.

Republican Sens. Richard Shelby (Ala.) and Bob Bennett (Utah) sponsored the measure, which was tacked onto a $58.8 billion emergency spending bill funding the war in Afghanistan. Bennett said the amendment ensures the administration cannot end the program or terminate current Constellation contracts without congressional approval. Shelby said the administration is violating the spirit of the law by attempting to quash Constellation from within NASA.

"The president's NASA proposal has no clear direction other than to cancel Constellation, at any price, even if it means relinquishing our leadership in space," said Shelby in a statement. "NASA is now attempting to undermine current law as it relates to Fiscal Year 2010 Constellation funding by slow rolling contracts and pressuring companies to self-terminate. It is disappointing that the political appointees at NASA have so much trouble following the letter and spirit of law."

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) also expressed support for the measure and criticized the administration for interfering with NASA contracts.

“The administration's proposals have not been approved by Congress and probably will not be, and it was premature for them to begin terminating procedures,” Hutchinson told the Houston Chronicle. “In the supplemental bill, we were able to stop the administration from terminating contracts for work on the Constellation program,” she added.

The language of the amendment states funds budgeted for Constellation in fiscal 2010 must be used to fund the program, and contracts "may not be terminated for convenience" by NASA during the fiscal year. In February, the Obama administration unveiled a plan to end the Constellation program and shift NASA's focus to building a capsule to take astronauts to Mars and beyond.

However, the President's plan to rely on the commercial space industry to ferry astronauts to the international space station was blasted by many in the scientific community, including astronaut Neil Armstrong who criticized the White House's approach at a hearing this week.

Full text of the amendment is below:

Provided further, That notwithstanding any other provision of law or regulation, funds made available for Constellation in Fiscal Year 2010 for “National Aeronautics and Space Administration Exploration” and from previous appropriations for “National Aeronautics and Space Administration Exploration” shall be available to fund continued performance of Constellation contracts, and performance of such Constellation contracts may not be terminated for convenience by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Fiscal Year 2010.