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Congressional tug-of-war holds NASA's new direction in the balance

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To accomplish that, the president's proposed budget aimed to beef-up efforts to nurture the commercial launch sector, for instance, and strengthen research into new technologies, including rocket motors, that would reduce the launch costs of a new heavy-lift rocket and support direct human exploration of the solar system.

Both houses of Congress have had little trouble agreeing to meet the president's overall request to authorize $19 billion for the agency for fiscal 2011.

Not so with the direction for NASA's human-spaceflight portfolio.

In early August, the Senate passed an authorization bill that bears some resemblance to the President's original blueprint – but with scaled back support for the commercial-launch sector and an accelerated timetable for building a rocket powerful enough to loft people and hardware beyond low-Earth orbit. That rocket, the Senate said, should be based on space-shuttle-derived components.

The House has yet to pass its NASA authorization bill, but it looks significantly different – much more like the Constellation program the president's plan aimed to replace. Constellation included two rockets – one for astronauts, one for cargo – a manned capsule, and a development program for hardware that would be used for an outpost on the moon. The House plan spends less on technology development than even the Senate's reduced amount for R&D, and it cuts out money for robotic "scout" missions to the objects astronauts would eventually explore.

Fourteen Nobel laureates in the sciences signed a letter in late August critical of the House measure for its impact on R&D, efforts to nurture the commercial sector, and other elements of the bill.

The cuts were a way to keep NASA's budget to $19 billion while continuing a Constellation-like program, offers Louis Friedman, co-founder of the Planetary Society in Pasadena, Calif., which also has opposed the House version.

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