The House Friday overwhelmingly endorsed President Bush's vision to send man back to the Moon and eventually on to Mars as it passed a bill to set NASA policy for the next two years.
The bill passed 383-15 after a collegial debate in which lawmakers stressed their commitment to not just Mr. Bush's ambitious space exploration plans but also to traditional NASA programs such as science and aeronautics.
There is some tension between Congress and the White House over the balance between Mr. Bush's vision for space exploration and other NASA initiatives. Originally, the measure would have shifted $1.3 billion in funds from exploration to other NASA programs. But after administration objections lawmakers added the money back to the budget for exploration during floor debate. That was done by adding to the bill's bottom line - now at $34.7 billion - not at the expense of science and aeronautics.
Democratic Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee said Mr. Bush's ambitious Moon and Mars missions "should not be done by cannibalizing other NASA missions."
The bill is the first NASA policy measure -- its budget is funded by a separate bill - to pass the House in five years. It advanced as the space agency tries to rebound from the Columbia disaster in February 2003 with the launch of the space shuttle Discovery next Tuesday.
The measure permits but does not explicitly endorse retiring the space shuttle fleet by 2010, as the administration would like to do. It directs the agency to launch a new crew exploration vehicle - which would lack the full capabilities of the shuttle but could travel to the International Space Station - as close to 2010 as feasible.
NASA's plans call for a new vehicle to be ready by 2014, which unnerves lawmakers who do not want the United States to have to rely on other countries to catch a lift to the space station.
A companion Senate measure approved by the Commerce, Science and Transportation panel last month would bar NASA from retiring the shuttle before a replacement vehicle is ready.
Both House and Senate bills also endorse a servicing and repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. Without such a mission, the Hubble will fail when its gyroscopes and batteries wear out in the next few years, but the agency has not announced whether to let the telescope fail or whether it will undertake a costly manned repair mission.
"Congress endorses the President's Vision for Space Exploration," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y. "The United States will work to return to the moon by 2020, and then will move on to other destinations."
The full Senate has yet to act on the NASA measure.
Regardless of the ringing endorsement Friday, NASA must still compete with other agencies for its budget in the annual appropriations process, which moves on a separate track. That promises to make it difficult to fulfill all of the policy recommendations made by the House on Friday.
Still, there was one lone voice against the bill. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., questioned spending billions to go to Mars when "day after day ... we're told we can't do enough for housing and we can't do enough for health care."
"This is a fundamental debate the country ought to have ... about whether or not to commit these untold billions ... at the expense of other important programs," he said.
By Andrew Taylor