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Government Wants Astronauts on Commercial Rides, Orders NASA's New Big Rocket Too

SDV rocket

The House Science and Technology Chairman has just written $1.2 billion for commercial rockets for astronauts into a new version of NASA's next funding bill. A new giant Shuttle-derived rocket is also ordered, to be ready within six years.

Bart Gordon is behind the revisions to the three-year bill, originally drawn up as H.R. 5781. His revisions are substantial, and they dramatically change the nature of the funding NASA may receive over the next three crucial years in its development as it moves between the Space Shuttle era and the following one.

H.R. 5781 had originally only approved $464 million to boost commercial space transportation efforts to get crew up to orbit or into the International Space Station, but the new adjustments take this figure to a massive $1.2 billion. The news will be gratefully received in the HQ's of SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, as these two companies are leading the charge to develop their own commercial rocket systems for the purposes of accessing low Earth orbit and the ISS. It's also a good sign for technically minded observers who are keen to emphasize the role of manned space missions over robotic ones.

Although there's also now an annual $50 million allocation for robotic exploration missions through 2013, a boost of $45 million over the initial amount, the biggest piece of news in the bill is the next-generation heavy-lift rocket it mandates. There's an aggressive timetable and spec list for this vessel—it has to be in service by the end of 2016 and it must be initially capable of hauling between 70 and 100 tonnes into low earth orbit, complete with an upper rocket stage that's capable of shunting the payload beyond low orbits.

This means two things: extremely large geostationary platforms and manned space missions to other planets. For comparison the biggest successful rocket to date, the Saturn V, could haul 119 tonnes to LEO, and that rocket served as the workhorse for the Apollo Moon missions. The new vehicle is destined to match this payload spec, and then ultimately to beat it—as part of this bill, NASA's directed to make the rocket upgradeable to cope with 130 tonne cargoes. It's likely to be far cheaper per-kilo into orbit than the Saturn V though, as it's going to be designed using Space Shuttle technology and expertise gained through the long Shuttle program (one long-proposed vehicle like this is shown in the image above).

Lest you think this seemingly pro-NASA bill is going to harm the long-term prospects of the push to get commercial rockets in the space program (with all the attendant benefits of improved science, space tourism, and so on) then worry not—the new heavy lift vehicle is going to be prohibited from competing with the commercial contracts for getting men and machinery to the ISS. Basically, the bill revision is a big shot in the arm for the non-government space industry, which is now certain to explode (if you pardon the pun) over the next several years. Lets hope the new bill gets final approval sometime soon.

To keep up with this news, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.