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WASHINGTON - House lawmakers voiced exasperation Wednesday with budget plans that call for NASA to throttle back from a government rocket and accelerate development of commercial rockets.
"I'm concerned that the future of our space program is in serious jeopardy," said Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, chairman of the House space committee. "Frankly, we're exasperated that NASA is not listening to our message."
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the agency is striving to meet the goals Congress established in an authorization law enacted last year that sets NASA policy. He said 44 percent of the agency's budget is devoted to space exploration.
"I think we are complying with the major elements of the authorization act," Bolden told lawmakers.
Wednesday's dispute over rocket priorities revived a battle that Congress waged last year.
Lawmakers largely favored a heavy-lift rocket to succeed the space shuttle program scheduled to end later this year. But President Barack Obama urged greater support for commercial rockets to ferry people to the International Space Station within a few years.
Last year's policy law called for $3 billion in fiscal 2012 for a heavy-lift rocket and capsule, and $500 million to develop commercial rockets. But Obama's fiscal 2012 budget proposes $2.8 billion for the heavy-lift rocket and $850 million for commercial rockets.
The policy law calls on NASA to launch a heavy-lift rocket by 2016, but NASA officials said in January that's probably impossible, even with the extra money in the law.
"I am concerned that you're really not interested in meeting that deadline," Rep. Sandy Adams, D-Orlando, told Bolden.
Bolden said he expects to give Congress a schedule for the rocket's development by summer.
"I have not said I cannot do that, but I don't want to mislead anyone and say that we can do that," Bolden said.
Another focus of concern is how to pay for a third shuttle flight this year, given threatened spending cuts.
A House-passed spending bill for the rest of fiscal 2011 would cut $600 million from NASA's $18.7 billion budget. The bill is pending in the Senate.Bolden said he expects Congress to approve a compromise bill that would allow him to launch the third shuttle flight as scheduled in June.