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Amid cuts, shooting for the moon

 For all the rhetoric about cutting government spending, NASA’s space mission remains sacred in Congress.

A handful of powerful lawmakers are so eager to see an American on the moon — or even Mars — that they effectively mandated NASA to spend “not less than” $3 billion for a new rocket project and space capsule in the 2011 budget bill signed by the president last week.

NASA has repeatedly raised concerns about the timeframe for building a smaller rocket — but the new law expresses Congress’s will for the space agency to make a massive “heavy-lift” rocket that can haul 130 metric tons, like the ones from the days of the Apollo.

Congressional approval of the plan — all while $38 billion is being cut elsewhere in the federal government — reflects not only the power of key lawmakers from NASA-friendly states, but the enduring influence of major contractors like Lockheed Martin and Boeing in those states.

For instance, a series of stop-gap spending laws had kept money flowing to the man-to-moon Constellation program because Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) initially tucked a provision into a 2010 budget bill — even though President Barack Obama and Congress agreed last fall to end that Bush-era initiative. An internal NASA audit pegged the cost of that move at $215 million over five months

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