WASHINGTON (Reuters) - NASA’s space shuttle program would get a $1 billion boost under a measure passed by the Senate on Thursday, as lawmakers fretted that U.S. space exploration could be overshadowed by Russia, China or India.
The Senate approved the additional money for NASA in the fiscal year that began on Monday. But the Senate would still have to work out details with the House of Representatives.
The funds, which would also help pay for science and other aeronautics programs at NASA, were attached to a bill being debated that already provided a $1.2 billion increase in agency funding over last year.
The White House has threatened to veto the broader spending bill that also pays for law enforcement, science, economic development and other programs, because it would spend more than President George W. Bush has requested.
The increase in space funding came on the 50th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s surprise launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite, marking the start of the space age and a race with the United States on developing technology to sustain manned missions in outer space.
The legislation would give NASA about $18.5 billion for the year, including $2.2 billion for space station operations.
Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, which houses NASA’s mission control operations, said years of insufficient funding for NASA created the possibility of “another Sputnik moment” for the United States. She warned that U.S. leadership in space eventually could be eclipsed by “the Chinese or to the Indian nation or to Russia.”
Sen. Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat who in 1986 orbited Earth 96 times while aboard the Columbia space shuttle that broke apart in flight 17 years later, called for reinvigorating U.S. space exploration.
“China is now graduating five times the number of engineers as the United States. I want to return to that era when we can get people excited about science and technology,” Nelson said.
The disintegration of Columbia above Texas during its descent from space in 2003 put financial strains on NASA as it tried to investigate the cause of the accident and fix engineering problems.
Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who sought the additional $1 billion for the space shuttle program, said it would help “cover the cost of repairing and upgrading the space shuttle fleet.”
She added that following the 1986 explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, Congress provided nearly $3 billion to correct problems and get the shuttles flying again.
Mikulski also said the money would help NASA fill a funding gap it faces between 2010, when the shuttle fleet is scheduled to be retired, and 2015, when a new space transport vehicle is supposed to be delivered.
The new vehicle would help prepare for planned U.S. missions to the moon and Mars.