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Senate panel mulls plan to safeguard NASA jobs

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee is proposing to save as many as 7,500 jobs of those who work on NASA's launch team by funding an additional space shuttle supply flight to the International Space Station a year from now. That mission would be followed immediately with the building of a heavy-lift rocket and spacecraft to replace the space shuttle.

The committee's plan, due to be submitted to President Barack Obama on July 15, could save 7,500 skilled jobs alone here at the shuttle's launch site and thousands more at other space centers and contractors. It would also significantly shorten the time span the United States will need to be dependent on Russia to fly its astronauts to the space station.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) told NBC News that NASA is on board with the plan that will - while the new heavy-lift rocket and spacecraft are being built - clear the way for commercial rockets to supply the space station.

If the Senate plan is adopted, the president's goal of eventually reaching Mars will come much earlier. Astronauts will first fly "flexible" missions to asteroids and to the lunar and solar Lagrange orbital points before heading for the Red Planet.

Obama has called for greater international cooperation for space exploration and bolstering U.S. companies that build spacecraft. At the same time, the president said, U.S. policy must recognize that the world has changed since the end of the Cold War.

"No longer are we racing against an adversary," Obama said in a statement. "In fact, one of our central goals is to promote peaceful cooperation and collaboration in space, which not only will ward off conflict, but will help to expand our capacity to operate in orbit and beyond."

- Combined news services

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