A lesson in 'political science, not rocket science'
Are we seeing the beginnings of a compromise on Capitol Hill?
US President Barack Obama had laid out his vision for the future of human spaceflight.
As for Nasa, he believed it should have a much stronger R&D focus. He wanted the agency to concentrate on difficult stuff, and take its time before deciding on how America should send astronauts to distant targets such as asteroids and Mars.
This vision invited fury from many in Congress and beyond because of its likely impact in those key States where the re-moulding of the agency would lead to many job losses - in Florida, Texas, Alabama and Utah.
Now, Republican and Democratic members of the influential Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee have unanimously approved a position that may end months of dispute in Washington DC.
Their bill supports many aspects of Obama's policy, most noticeably an acceptance that the massively expensive Moon-bound Constellation programme - in its present guise - must come to an end. But it seeks also to limit the scope and pace of Nasa's makeover.
The $19bn Nasa Authorization Act of 2010 still has some way to go before becoming law, however it does appear to have the backing of the White House and the space agency's top officials.
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex), a vociferous critic in recent months of the commercialisation of the US space programme, said the legislation was about finding the correct balance in space policy:
"I am also concerned that we work with commercial space operators but not turn over the entire Nasa programme to, as yet untested, companies that would not have the expertise that we have built in Nasa through the years. I think we have created a balance in which commercial is going to be very important; and it will be transitional. Down the road, perhaps commercial will have the capabilities to take over the main components of space exploration. But we're not there yet; it is too big a risk."
The concern will be that the new plan simply repeats some of the old mistakes identified by last year's Augustine review of US human spaceflight policy - that of asking Nasa once again to build a big new rocket, on a tight schedule, without sufficient funding and a well-defined purpose.
As Leroy Chiao, a former astronaut and member of the Augustine panel, put it:
"This appears to be a good compromise between the White House and these members of Congress. The only big picture question in my mind is whether or not the funding is adequate to perform this plan."
It was put directly to Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla), a former astronaut on the Senate committee, that past history was not very encouraging. He rejected that notion:
"The Committee cannot tell Nasa how to design a rocket but we can give policy direction to the executive branch of government, and we've done that in the bill - utilising shuttle-derived technology, building on that; not building the largest rocket around but starting in the range of 75 to 100 metric tonnes, that is evolvable and that would be built over the course of those six years within a budget of $11.5bn. Now, that is do-able; and if anyone tells you it's not, then if I were you I would question their particular agenda."
The mood music suggests the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has found a peace formula.
The White House spokesman Nick Shapiro was quoted as saying the deal worked out with the senators "contains the critical elements necessary for achieving the president's vision for Nasa".
Lori Garver, Nasa's deputy administrator, echoed that when she said: "This is a milestone in the realignment of the space programme for the 21st Century," adding also: "It preserves the most important parts of the president's plan".
But others will be disappointed to see a plan that appears in their view to dilute too much the original Obama vision. I was interested to see the comments of John Grunsfeld, a former Nasa chief scientist and the astronaut who participated in three Hubble repair missions:
"Overall, does this look like the kind of bill that was planned by a team of rocket scientists and aerospace designers? No, it doesn't."