With the U.S. Presidential elections just weeks away, Congress in is "pass the buck" mode as it rushes through funding legislation needed to keep the government operating. We've seen it on the defense side, with appropriations bills that keep open the option of continuing production of the F-22 stealth fighter and C-17 heavy airlifter.
Now Congress has sent a NASA authorization bill to the White House that would prohibit the space agency from taking any action that would preclude the next President from deciding to keep the Shuttle flying beyond its scheduled retirement in 2010. Lawmakers also directed NASA to add two logistics flights to the baseline manifest and fly them before 2010. And they added $150 million for an additional Shuttle flight to carry the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the International Space Station - again hopefully before 2010.
Congress also added $1 billion in funding to accelerate the initial operational capability of the Ares 1 crew launch vehicle and Orion crew exploration vehicle, in the hope of mimizing the gap in U.S human spaceflight capability. At the same time, it looks likely lawmakers will extend a waiver that allows NASA to buy Soyuz flights from Russia, enabling it to continue flying astronauts to and from the ISS until Ares and Orion are up and running.
Whether it was the warm fuzzy feeling of NASA's 50th anniversary or the cold hard threat of China overtaking America in a race to the Moon, but Congress has given the next President the tools to make a measured decision on how the U.S. maintains its presence in space.