By Emelie Rutherford

Lawmakers are trying to stop NASA from spending more money on the dismantled Constellation program and pushing back at the space agency’s claim that it can’t build a new heavy- lift rocket and crew capsule within the current budget.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) released yesterday draft legislation he is filing that would prevent NASA from putting any more funds toward Constellation, former President George W. Bush’s program to send astronauts back to the moon.

Constellation was nearly killed in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 that President Barack Obama signed into law on Oct. 11. However, current contracts remain in place for the manned-spaceflight program, for which Lockheed Martin [LMT] has been developing the Orion capsule and firms including ATK [ATK] and Boeing [BA] have worked on the Ares I rocket. NASA has said the contracts cannot be terminated and new space-exploration hardware programs cannot start until a fiscal year 2011 NASA appropriations law is approved by Congress and the White House.

Nelson and other lawmakers learned yesterday that because of restrictive langue in NASA’s FY ’10 appropriations act, the agency is spending roughly $200 million a month on Constellation programs that the White House and Congress have agreed to cancel.

“Without congressional intervention, by the end of February 2011 NASA anticipates spending up to $215 million on Constellation projects that, absent the restrictive appropriations language, it would have considered canceling or significantly scaling back,” NASA Inspector General Paul Martin said in a letter sent yesterday to the heads of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

“Moreover, by the end of FY 2011, that figure could grow to more than $575 million if NASA is required to continue operating under the current constraints and is unable to move beyond the planning stages for its new Space Exploration program,” Martin wrote.

Nelson, in reaction to the Inspector General’s revelation, wrote draft legislation striking language from the FY ’10 NASA spending law that bans NASA from canceling Constellation contracts. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), a Constellation supporter, reportedly added that language to the year-old legislation.

“Given that every dime counts in our space program right now, we can’t afford to be wasting money,” Nelson, a Commerce Committee member and one-time astronaut, said yesterday.

Nelson and other committee members also are balking at a NASA report released this week that says the space agency can’t build a new, post-Constellation heavy-lift rock and crew capsule with the cost and schedule outlined by Congress.

NASA prepared the report, labeled “preliminary,” about its plans for developing a Space Launch System (SLS) and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) because of a mandate in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010.

NASA formally established planning teams for the eventual SLS and MPCV programs on Dec. 6, 2010 at Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) and Johnson Space Center.

The space agency’s report states: “Guidance from the (NASA) administrator has established three principles for development of any future systems for exploration. These systems must be affordable, sustainable, and realistic. To date, trade studies performed by the agency have yet to identify heavy-lift and capsule architectures that would both meet all SLS requirements and these goals.”

The agency says it is developing a follow-on report as early as this spring to update Congress on its progress and any modifications spurred by a FY ’11 NASA appropriations bill and Obama’s FY ’12 budget proposal.

In response to NASA’s preliminary report, Commerce Committee Chairman John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and members Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), David Vitter (R-La.), and Nelson issued a joint statement Wednesday night saying “the production of a heavy-lift rocket and capsule is not optional.”

“It’s the law,” they said. “NASA must use its decades of space know-how and billions of dollars in previous investments to come up with a concept that works. We believe it can be done affordably and efficiently–and, it must be a priority.”

Nelson added that he spoke to Bolden on Tuesday and “told him he has to follow the law, which requires a new rocket by 2016…(and) NASA has to do it within the budget the law requires.”

The FY ’10 NASA authorization act, which authorizes $58.4 billion in overall spending for the agency from FY ’11 through FY ’13, calls for the immediate development of a heavy- lift rocket that takes the place of Constellation’s Ares V. That law, with Obama’s backing, aims to develop a commercial space transportation industry to carry crew to low-Earth orbit.