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Three of the six crew members aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are scheduled to return to Earth early tomorrow morning East coast time. Russian space analyst Jim Oberg reported in IEEE Spectrum last week that there are a few concerns about the new version of the Soyuz spacecraft that took them to ISS and will return them home. Meanwhile, the next Soyuz launch has been delayed, perhaps for as long as a month, due to technical issues.
American Scott Kelly and Russians Oleg Skripochka and Alexander Kaleri are the first crew to use the new "digital Soyuz," an upgraded version of the Soyuz spacecraft with improved computers and avionics. Oberg writes that this spacecraft, Soyuz TMA-01M (which NASA calls Soyuz 24S), may have a "rocky" descent. He notes that NASA's ISS On-Orbit Status Report for last Thursday revealed that after the three undock from the ISS, they will perform a test of roll rate sensors "in response to an instrumentation failure during ascent last year," quoting the NASA report. Depending on the results, the crew will know if they can enjoy a normal, relatively comfortable reentry or have to rely on a ballistic entry mode that the Russians use as a backup. The ballistic reentry is a rough ride according to those who have experienced it.
The crew is due to close the hatches between the Soyuz and the ISS at 9:20 pm EDT tonight (Tuesday) and undock at 12:27 am EDT Wednesday, landing at 3:53 am EDT in Kazakhstan.
Oberg relates other recent problems with the Soyuz -- both this new digital craft and others in the Soyuz TMA series -- especially regarding maintaining proper cabin pressure. The Soyuz has evolved considerably from the first version launched in 1967, simply called Soyuz, to Soyuz T to Soyuz TM to Soyuz TMA.
In the past couple of days, the Russians have decided to delay the next launch, Soyuz TMA-21, which was due to take replacement ISS crew members to ISS on March 30. At first the delay was to be for 10 days, but today Russia's Interfax news agency said it could be "a month or even more" according to a posting Oberg made to the Friends and Partners in Space listserve this afternoon circulating the Interfax story (a subscription is needed to access it online) The problem apparently is related to a condenser in the command communications system and the Russians are determining whether one or all of the condensers must be replaced. In the latter case, the launch could slip to April 20.
The ISS program is accustomed to launch date slips in the space shuttle program, but Soyuz delays are uncommon. That these problems are developing just as the shuttle program comes to an end highlights the challenges of having only one ISS crew transportation system to get people back and forth.
On the other hand, if the mission by happenstance is delayed to April 12, it could be launched in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's flight into space, which inaugurated the era of human spaceflight.
The following events may of interest in the coming week. Check our calendar on the right menu for more details or click the links below. Times, dates and witnesses for congressional hearings are subject to change.
During the Week
Another week, another Continuing Resolution (CR). The current CR expires on Friday, March 18. The House and Senate are each expected to pass a three-week extension (through April 8) this week. It will cut another $6 billion, keeping to the Republican goal of cutting $2 billion a week. The cuts appear to be from earmarks (for example, $63 million is taken from NASA's Cross-Agency Support line, the same amount that was used to fund earmarks in FY2010, the base year used in the CR) and programs that either the President or Senate Democrats have already indicated they want to terminate. Thus, this CR is not expected to be overly contentious. The practice of continuing to fund the government with short-term CRs is contentious, however, with many politicians commenting that it is irresponsible.
Monday, March 14
- Arthur C. Clarke Foundation Living in Space Panel, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, room 144, Washington, DC 1:00-3:00 pm EDT (in conjunction with the Satellite 2011 conference)
Monday-Thursday, March 14-17
Tuesday, March 15
- NASA telecon on Messenger's imminent entry into orbit about Mercury, 1:00 pm EDT
- Senate Commerce Hearing on "Realizing NASA's Potential," 253 Russell Senate Office Building, 2:30 pm EDT
Tuesday-Thursday, March 15-17
Wednesday, March 16
Wednesday-Friday, March 16-18
Friday, March 18
TIRR Memorial Hermann Medical Center in Texas will hold a press conference this morning at 10:00 am CST (11:00 EST) to provide an update on Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ). Rep. Giffords is recovering from a bullet wound to the head suffered in an assassination attempt on January 8 in Tucson, AZ that killed six and wounded 12 others. She is married to astronaut Mark Kelly whose STS-134 shuttle mission is scheduled for launch on April 19; Rep. Giffords reportedly is hoping to attend the launch.
Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) is doing "spectacularly well" according to her doctors at TIRR Memorial Hermann - Texas Medical Center in Houston.
In a press conference today, they said that her speech is improving and she can now string words together into sentences to let them know, for example, when she is tired. She can also understand everything they tell her, meaning that her primary language areas are intact, they said. Her memory also is OK. The doctors explained that there are two types of memory, memories of the past, such as childhood, and "memories that we make." Both types appear to be fine. She has no memory of the attack itself, but the doctors said that is normal.
Giffords is able to walk with decreasing levels of assistance, and they do not anticipate any vision problems. They said her personality is showing through and she has shown no signs of depression or frustration as happens with some patients in her situation. Instead she is "very upbeat" and "forward looking."
In short, they think she will make an "excellent recovery."
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator Jane Lubchenco warned the House Science, Space and Technology Committee today that the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) has already experienced about a 12-month delay and a gap in polar orbit weather satellite services is "highly likely" if the FY2011 funding situation is not resolved soon.
NOAA is operating at its FY2010 funding level under the Continuing Resolution (CR). The decision to terminate the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) and return to separate weather satellite systems for NOAA and DOD was made in concert with the FY2011 budget request so was not reflected in the FY2010 budget. Thus NOAA only has the amount of money that was allocated for NPOESS in FY2010 -- a program whose funding was shared with DOD -- to use for JPSS at the moment.
Lubchenco told Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) that NOAA needs $910 million for FY2011 for JPSS. If Congress does not provide that level of funding, and contracts have to be interrupted, the "consequences will not be pretty." She said several times during the hearing that for every dollar that is not spent this year, it will cost $3-5 dollars in the future.
She added that JPSS already has experienced "around a 12 month" slip and further delays in funding will cause more slips and we will "inevitably have a gap where we will not have the ability to do severe storm warnings as we do today." When asked by Representative Jerry McNerney (D-CA) if it already was inevitable, she clarified that it was "highly likely we will have a gap and the longer we wait the longer that gap gets." There is "great urgency" to resolving the funding issue, she stressed.
She also defended the DSCOVR and Jason-3 programs. DSCOVR started as the Triana program under the Clinton Administration and was opposed by many Republicans because it was championed by Vice President Gore and they felt its main purpose -- to look back at Earth from the L1 Sun-Earth Lagrange point -- was not meritorious. After a review by the National Research Council, additional sensors were added to provide data about space weather and the satellite was built, but it was put in storage during the George W. Bush Administration. NASA, NOAA and DOD now plan to launch it to contribute to space weather observations. Representative Harris (R-MD) asked why NOAA wanted to refurbish an 11-year-old satellite instead of having the private sector build and launch a new satellite to meet its needs. Lubchenco said the agency concluded that DSCOVR was the most cost effective approach.
Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) asked about why funding for Jason-3, a satellite being built jointly with the European Space Agency that will measure sea level, was a priority in these difficult economic times. Lubchenco said that providing data to coastal communities on sea level was "vital."
She also defended NOAA's decision to reorganize and create a NOAA Climate Service, but assured Chairman Hall that the agency would not implement the reorganization until Congress approves. Chairman Hall introduced an amendment to H.R. 1 (the "full year CR") to prohibit NOAA from creating the climate service. The amendment was adopted by the House, but the bill was defeated in the Senate earlier this week.
Space Shuttle Endeavour will roll out to the launch pad tonight at 8:00 pm EST. The event will be covered live on NASA TV. Endeavour's final launch is scheduled for April 19.
UPDATE: Both bills were defeated this afternoon as expected. The Republican version fell by a vote of 44-56, with all Democrats, the two Independents, and three Republicans voting against it. The Democratic version fell 42-58, with all Republicans, 10 Democrats and one Independent voting against it. So no Democrats voted for the Republican version, and no Republicans voted for the Democratic version, although some in each party voted against their own party's proposal.
ORIGINAL STORY: The Senate will vote this afternoon on both the Republican and Democratic versions of the full-year Continuing Resolution (CR). The Republican version is H.R. 1 as passed by the House on February 19. The Democratic version was put forward by the Senate Appropriations Committee last week. Our fact sheet shows what the two versions would appropriate for NASA, but both are expected to go down to defeat, opening the door for what pundits are calling "real" negotiations between the parties.
Neither party is expected to be able to muster the 60 votes needed to end debate and bring their version of the bill to a vote. Even if there was party unanimity on their own version of the bill, which there is not, either would need Senators from the opposite party to cross over and vote for their bill to get the 60 votes. There are 47 Republicans, 51 Democrats, and two Independents who caucus with the Democrats in the Senate.
Some Republicans object to the House-passed bill because the cuts are too deep, others because they are not deep enough. The story on the Democratic side about the Democratic version is the same. In total, the Republican version would cut $61.3 billion from FY2010 spending while the Democratic version would cut $8.7 billion, so the chasm is pretty wide.
The votes today are viewed as tests to see where the debate stands, setting the stage for further negotiations. Since the current CR that is funding the government expires on March 18 and it does not appear that agreement will be reached by then, another short-term CR reportedly is being readied to avoid a government shutdown.
Space Shuttle Discovery made her final landing at Kennedy Space Center at 11:57 EST today, March 9, 2011. It is a date sure to remembered in space history circles as the first of the remaining space shuttle orbiters is officially retired.
Five spaceflight-worthy orbiters were built. Two, Challenger and Columbia, were destroyed in accidents in 1986 and 2003 respectivelly, killing all aboard in each case. Atlantis and Endeavour will make their final flights in the months ahead. The last flight of Endeavour is STS-134, scheduled for launch on April 19. Atlantis will fly the so-called "Launch on Need" mission, STS-135, and NASA plans to launch it as long as Congress does not cut the agency's FY2011 funding so severely that it is financially impossible to do so. That mission is currently scheduled for June 28, bringing the space shuttle program to a close.
NASA plans to rely on commercial companies to build the next human spaceflight system to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) and hopes those systems may be available in the 2015-2016 time frame. NASA is purchasing crew transportation services from Russia during the "gap" between the end of shuttle and the availability of whatever comes next.
One other orbiter was built -- Enterprise. It was the first, but was designed only for test flights within the atmosphere, not for flights into space. It is on display at the Smithsonian Institution's Udvaar-Hazy faciility near Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C. NASA is currently deciding where Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour will go. The decision is expected to be announced next month. April 12 is the 30th anniversary of the first flight of the space shuttle (Columbia) as well as the 50th anniversary of the flight of the first man into space (Yuri Gagarin from the Soviet Union).
For those of you trying to follow action on the FY2011 Continuing Resolution for the rest of FY2011, we have updated our fact sheet to show the recommendations of the Senate Appropriations Committee as published in the Congressional Record on March 4. The updated fact sheet is available from our left menu under "Our Fact Sheets and Reports" or by clicking here.
Looks like Discovery landed just in time today to avoid a weather delay. Discovery's sister space shuttle, Endeavour, was scheduled to be moved out to its launch pad tonight in preparation for its April 19 launch. NASA has postponed the roll out until at least tomorrow, however, because of potential lightning and storms at Kennedy Space Center. A scheduled press conference with Endeavour's STS-134 crew also has been postponed. Mission managers will decide tomorrow whether to roll out tomorrow evening.
Events of Interest
- ISS Spacewalk by Russian Crew, August 18, 2014, Earth orbit, NASA TV coverage begins at 9:30 am ET
- MSBR Luncheon Featuring NASA's Mike Gazarik, August 19, 2014, Martin's Crosswinds, Greenbelt, MD, 11:30 am - 1:30 pm ET
- ESA Pre-Launch Press Bfg for Galileo Launch, August 20, 2014, virtual, 13:00 CEST (7:00 am ET)
- NEW NASA-NSF-Smithsonian panel on Ancient Earth, Ancient Aliens, August 20, 2014, NASA HQ, Washington, DC, 5:30 - 6:30 pm ET
- NRC Survey of Surveys Committee, August 25-27, 2014, Keck Center, 500 5th St., NW, Washington, DC
- NASA Advisory Council Planetary Science Subcommittee, September 3-4, 2014, NASA HQ, Washington, DC, 8:30 am - 5:00 pm both days
- NRC Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science (CAPS), September 3-4, 2014, NRC Beckman Center, Irvine, CA
Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »
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