Sen. Bill Nelson said today he would support a transition to commercial launches of NASA astronauts while continuing development of government vehicles that could serve as backups.
"I am proposing that we take a 'walk before you run' approach to commercial crew services," Nelson wrote in a letter to Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.
In the two-page letter, Nelson, D-Fla., who chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA policy, outlined his priorities for what he said would be a bi-partisan NASA authorization act for 2011. Mikulski's appropriations committee would set funding levels for the agency.
Nelson said his proposals would broadly support President Obama's plans for NASA, which would cancel the Constellation program that is developing the Ares I rocket and Orion spacecraft for moon missions.
But Nelson suggests what appears to be an attempt at compromise with Constellation supporters who have attacked Obama's proposals as ceding leadership in human spaceflight.
Nelson wants to begin by next year the development of a heavy-lift rocket for exploration that could also provide backup access to the space station.
The administration has said it would settle on a heavy-lift design no later than 2015, while beginning research and development of first-stage and in-space propulsion technologies with $559 million next year. It has agreed to continue development of a scaled back Orion spacecraft to serve, at a minimum, as a station escape vehicle. Overall, NASA's budget would increase by $6 billion over five years.
Nelson does not suggest funding levels or cite specific vehicles for development, but says the authorization act will ask NASA to "leverage the workforce, contracts, assets, and capabilities of the Shuttle, Ares I, and Orion efforts."
He also said he would require NASA to complete "a number of studies, assessments, and milestones" to ensure that commercial crew capabilities are developed in a responsible manner, with astronaut safety as a "core component."
Nelson wants a third shuttle mission added to the two NASA currently has scheduled before the program is retired. If funded, NASA would fly the station resupply mission next June.
In a statement, Mikulski said she appreciated Nelson's "thoughtful" letter. "It offers an alternative framework for NASA's human space flight program that could snap us out of the 'stagnant quo,'" she said.