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Today is the 50th anniversary of humanity breaking the bonds of Earth and reaching Earth orbit for the first time. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space on April 12, 1961, opening a new era of exploration. It is also the 30th anniversary of the first flight of the U.S. space shuttle.
As these anniversaries are commemorated, Congress released the text of a bill to fund NASA and the rest of the government through the end of fiscal year 2011 -- a "full year" Continuing Resolution (CR). Included are funds and specific direction to NASA to build a new heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV) with a lift capability of "no less than 130 tons" -- a vehicle that would enable astronauts to venture deep into space, possibly someday to Mars.
The debate over the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program has been hard fought since President Obama decided to terminate the Constellation program initiated under President George W. Bush that was to take astronauts back to the Moon by 2020 and someday to Mars. Congressional concern that NASA is not following congressional direction in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act to build an HLLV expeditiously apparently led to the detailed language in this comnpromise version of a full year CR. Even with this language, however, the debate may not be over if for no other reason than funding.
The total amount of funding for NASA in the bill is $18.485 billion, $239 million less than the agency received in FY2010, and $515 million less than the President requested for FY2011. Congress directed NASA to build a new HLLV (or Space Launch System) and a new Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle to go with it in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. The law authorizes slightly less funding for those programs in FY2011 than is included in the full year CR. Strictly speaking, appropriations are not supposed to exceed authorizations, but just about anything is possible in Congress as long as no one raises a point of order in objection.
Both Congress and the Obama White House want a strong U.S. human spaceflight program. The difference is between how much to rely on the commercial sector versus the government, and the specifics of the new HLLV. NASA wants to start small with a vehicle capable of taking perhaps 70 tons to low Earth orbit (LEO) and evolve it over time into a more capable vehicle. Congress wants a 130 ton vehiicle capable of taking astronauts beyond LEO -- to the moon, asteroids, or Mars. The debate over the launch vehicle's capability -- and thus its design --continues. The language in this CR specifies the vehicle must be 130 tons, but it does not say that must be its "initial" capability, leaving room for interpretation.
What is quite clear, however, is that Congress continues to have bold aspirations for the human spaceflight program, even if the budget is not sufficiently robust to achieve such goals in the near future.
Cooperating with China in space activities is precluded, however. The bill prohibits NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from spending any funds to discuss or arrange space cooperation with China unless specifically authorized to do so by Congress. Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA, is a staunch opponent of space cooperation with China because of human rights abuses and political issues. He has made his position quite clear in many forums over many years, most recently at a March 3, 2011 hearing on the NASA budget. The "no China" language was also part of a previous version of a full year CR (H.R. 1) that failed to pass the Senate.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) formally submitted a presentation to Congress today in which it generally agreed with the methods NASA is using to determine if the International Space Station (ISS) can last until 2020, including the need for spares.
With regard to the spares needed to continue operations, GAO compared NASA's plans with those of the National Science Foundation (NSF) for supporting Antarctic operations and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administraiton's (NOAA's) operations of the Aquarius Undersea Laboratory.
"NASA's assessment of the essential spares necessary ... appears to be supported by sufficient, accurate and relevant underlying data," GAO said. It added, however, that NASA's estimates are "senstive" to assumptions about the reliability of Orbital Replacement Units (ORUs).
As for NASA's assessments of the long term viability of ISS primary structures -- the modules and trusses to which solar panels are attached -- GAO found that those assessments are ongoing and all the results are not yet available. It noted that NASA is not assessing the viability of modules provided by international partners, other than those that are owned by NASA. For example, Russia built the Zarya (FGB) module, but NASA paid for it, thus it is owned by NASA even though it was provided by a partner.
The report was required by the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will announce today where the agency will send the four remaining space shuttle orbiters as they are retired. The announcement will be made as part of a commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the first flight of the space shuttle at Kennedy Space Center, FL beginning at 1:00 pm EDT. The event will air live on NASA TV, and a media teleconference will be held at 3:00 pm EDT. The teleconference will be streamed live at http://www.nasa.gov/newsaudio.
Six orbiters were built. Two were destroyed in accidents that claimed the lives of their crews: Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. One was built as an atmospheric test flight vehicle and was not designed for space flight. That orbiter, Enterprise, has been on display at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center for several years, but many expect that the museum would prefer to display one that has flown in space, so is in the running for one of the other three. Those three -- Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis -- are prizes that many museums and NASA centers across the country are anxious to claim.
The suspense will be over this afternoon.
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. For more information, check our calendar on the right menu or click the links below. Times and dates for congressional hearings are subject to change. Check the relevant committee's website for up to date information.
During the Week
Congress is expected to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) for the remainder of FY2011 based on the deal brokered at the last minute on Friday. A one-week stop-gap CR is funding the government through April 15.
Monday, April 11
Monday-Thursday, April 11-14
Tuesday-Thursday, April 12-14
Wednesday, April 13
Thursday-Friday, April 14-15
Democrats and Republicans reached agreement on a budget for the rest of FY2011 literally at the 11th hour, averting a government shutdown that would have occurred at midnight Friday.
President Obama made a staement at 11:04 pm EDT as the House and Senate passed another short term Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government for one more week (until April 15) while the terms of the agreement can be put into formal legislative language and enacted. This is not the same short-term CR that the House passed Thursday. This one would cut only $2 billion, instead of $12 billion, in exchange for the week-long extension. None of the $2 billion appears to be from NASA or NOAA space programs.
The specifics of the overall deal that was reached for the remaining six months of FY2011 have not been released, but it cuts $37.7 billion from current spending (at FY2010 levels) according to The Hill newspaper. The two sides had been fighting over a $33 billion cut (Democrats) versus $40 billion cut (Republicans). Just as importantly, Republicans agreed not to include policy provisions ("riders") that would have, for example, prohibited federal funding for Planned Parenthood and prevented the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from issuing certain regulations.
The latest rumors in Washington are that a deal has been reached on the FY2011 budget, but not in time to prevent a shutdow without another very short term continuing resolution (CR).
Best bet, it seems, is that a CR for a couple of days will be passed to provide time for legislative language to be drafted to reflect reported agreement to $39 billion of cuts from current FY2010 spending levels. Policy disagreements about federal funding for Planned Parenthood and over Environmental Protection Agency regulations that have stymied agreement would be set aside.
With a government shutdown right around the corner if Republicans and Democrats can't agree on some sort of funding measure, both parties are blaming the other and continuing the high-stakes game.
The current Continuing Resolution (CR) expires at midnight on Friday. If Congress does not pass some sort of appropriations bill before then, major portions of the government will have to stop work. Both sides say that is no way to run a government, but each is playing hardball.
At this moment, it appears that only $7 billion in cuts separate the two camps from agreeing on a new CR that would fund the government for the rest of FY2011. The Republicans want to cut $40 billion from current FY2010 spending levels (or $80 billion from the FY2011 request), while the Democrats want to cut $33 billion (or $73 billion from the FY2011 request). Exactly what would be cut has not yet been determined. They are just trying to agree on the total budget figure at this point.
Another meeting is planned at the White House tonight with the President, Vice President, and congressional negotiators. Previous meetings with and without the White House participating have not been successful in reaching closure.
Meanwhile, the Republicans are offering another short-term CR that would fund the Pentagon for the rest of FY2011, but all other government agencies for only one more week in exchange for Democrats agreeing to $12 billion more in cuts to the FY2010 spending level. Two previous short-term CR's have cut a total of $10 billion already.
In the new short-term CR, NASA's Space Operations account would be cut by $99 million, and the Construction and Environmental Compliance & Remediation account by $40 million. It does not remove the language that prevents NASA from cancelling the Constellation program, but does remove language specifying how much of the money provided for Space Operations can be spent on each of the three elements of that account (space shuttle, International Space Station, and Space and Flight Support), giving NASA more flexibility in how to spend the total for that account.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has signaled that the Senate would not pass such a bill, but the latest reports are that the House will pass it tomorrow anyway so House Republicans then can blame Senate Democrats if the government shuts down at midnight Friday.
Russia successfully launched Soyuz TMA-21 last night. It is expected to dock with the International Space Station (ISS) tomorrow, delivering three new crew members to join the three already in orbit.
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. For more information, see our calendar on the right menu or click the links below.
During the Week
Yes, it is another week consumed with concern about whether there will be a government shutdown. The current Continuing Resolution (CR) expires on Friday at midnight and Congress has not passed anything to replace it. Some pundits are speculating that despite assertions by many members on both sides of the aisle that they would not pass still another short-term CR, that is exactly what may happen. In this case, it may be a CR for only a few days, however. One scenario has it that the House will pass a CR on Friday, but that clearly does not give the Senate time to act, and thus a few-day CR might be necessary. Difficult to tell how well the two sides are coming together on reaching agreement on budget numbers and policy riders for the "full year" CR.
All of that, of course, concerns FY2011, the fiscal year already underway. This is the time of year when the next year's budget usually is debated, and Congress is moving forward with consideration of FY2012. The first congressional step in crafting a budget is supposed to be House and Senate passage of budget resolutions that set the top line numbers for federal spending on everything -- mandatory programs like social security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as discretionary programs like DOD, NASA and the government agencies with which we are all familiar. Last year, neither the House nor the Senate was able to pass a budget resolution and House Republicans have vowed to pass one this year to demonstrate that they are more fiscally reponsible than Democrats who controlled the House last year. House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan is expected to release his version of the House budget resolution on Tuesday, with comitmtee markup expected on Wednesday. although it is not yet listed on the committee's website.
As many policy wonks point out, the stormy debate over what to do about FY2011 is really just a warm up for FY2012, where Republicans are expected to demand even deeper cuts, and not just to discretionary programs, but to Medicare and Medicaid, too. Apparently they are still debating how far to go in changing the very popular Social Security program.
Monday, April 4
- Launch of Soyuz TMA-21, 5:18 pm CDT (6:18 pm EDT), watch on NASA TV. Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the EDT launch time.
Tuesday, April 5
Tuesday-Wednesday, April 5-6
Wednesday-Thursday, April 6-7
- NRC Space Studies Board, NRC Keck Center, 500 Fifth Street, NW, Washington, DC (April 6 is joint with the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board). Some sessions of this meeting are closed..
- International Space Station and Mars conference, George Washington University, Washington DC
NASA is delaying the launch of STS-134 (Endeavour) by ten days, from April 19 to April 29. The agency says in a press release today that the slip is required to allow for the launch and docking of a Russian Progress cargo ship.
"The delay removes a scheduling conflict with a Russian Progress cargo supply vehicle scheduled to launch April 27 and arrive at the station April 29," NASA says.
Endeavour is scheduled to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) to the International Space Station as part of a mission commanded by astronaut Mark Kelly. AMS is a particle physics experiment that scientists hope will detect antimatter. Scientists theorize that the universe began with the Big Bang, at which time equal amounts of matter and antimatter should have been created, but little antimatter has been detected. AMS is designed to help solve that cosmological mystery.
Kelly is married to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) who is recovering from an assassination attempt on January 8 and many are hoping that she will be well enough to attend the launch. His twin brother, Scott, just returned from a long duration mission on the ISS.
Only one space shuttle launch remains on the schedule after this one; the so-called Launch-on-Need mission or STS-135 (Atlantis). NASA plans to fly it as long as Congress does not make severe cuts to its budget. Congress directed NASA to fly the mission in the 2010 NASA authorization, but no funds were requested for it in the FY2011 budget request, complicating its budget fate. NASA is currently planning to launch STS-135 on June 28, 2011.
Events of Interest
- MAVEN Arrival at Mars, September 21, 2014, orbital insertion begins 9:37 pm ET. NASA TV coverage 9:30-10:45 pm ET; press conf approx 2 hours later
- Space Policy & History Forum Featuring John Logsdon, September 22, 2014, National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC, 4:00-5:00 pm ET
- Satellites and Disaster Management Webinar (Secure World Foundation & The Space Show), September 22, 2014, virtual, 8:00 pm ET
- SpaceX CRS-4 Arrival at ISS, September 23, 2014, 7:04 am ET (NASA TV coverage begins at 5:00 am ET)
- NASA Adv Council (NAC) Heliophysics Subcommittee, September 23-24, 2014, NASA HQ, Washington, DC
- India's First Mars Spacecraft (MOM) Arrives at Mars, September 23, 2014, 9:47 pm ET (September 24, 7:17 am local time in India)
- AIAA Natl Capital Section Luncheon Featuring State Dept's Frank Rose, September 25, 2014, Army Navy Country Club, Arlington, VA, 11:30 am ET
- Soyuz TMA-14 ISS Crew Launch and Docking, September 25, 2014: Launch, 4:25 pm ET, Baikonur, Kazakhstan (September 26, 2:25 am local time at launch site); Dock, 10:16 pm ET
- International Astronautical Congress (IAC), September 29-October 3, 2014, Toronto, Canada (associated events begin September 25)
- MSBR Luncheon Featuring Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), September 29, 2014, Martin's Crosswinds, Greenbelt, MD, 11:30 am - 1:30 pm ET
- AIAA-NAE Yvonne C. Brill Lectureship Featuring JPL's Adam Steltzner, September 30, 2014, National Academy of Sciences building, 2101 Constitution Ave., NW, Washington, DC, 1:30-5:30 pm ET
Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »
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