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House Could Vote on Restoring Pu-238 Funds Today

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

About 3:00 this afternoon, the House resumed debate on the FY2012 Energy and Water Development appropriations bill (H.R. 2354). One amendment that may come up today would restore funding for the Department of Energy (DOE) to restart production of plutonium-238 (Pu-238), which NASA needs for some of its planetary exploration spacecraft.

Bill Adkins, a principal at the Center for Strategic Space Studies (CS3), tweeted earlier today that a vote is expected on an amendment by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) to restore the $15 million cut by the House Appropriations Committee for Pu-238 production. The committee feels that NASA should pay all the costs associated with that activity instead of splitting the costs between the two agencies as the Obama Administration proposes.

Schiff represents Pasadena, CA, home of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that builds many of NASA's planetary exploration spacecraft. A shortage of Pu-238 for NASA's probes that travel too far from the Sun or remain on lunar or planetary surfaces for too long to rely on solar energy has been imminent for some time. A 2009 National Research Council report called for immediate action, but Congress has denied the Administration's request for DOE funding for the past two years. It appears ready to do so again.

DOE is the only government agency allowed to possess nuclear material and has built all of NASA's nuclear power sources in the past.

House Approps Report Calls for Better NASA Cost Control, Details Proposed Cuts

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

The House Appropriations Committee today released the draft report to accompany the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill. The full committee will mark up the bill tomorrow.

Top-level information on how much funding the CJS subcommittee approved was made public last week. This draft report provides additional details and the subcommittee's reasoning for its decisions. Changes could be made at the markup tomorrow.

In the draft report released today, the committee criticizes NASA for its inability to control costs. The committee praises the agency for adopting the new Joint Cost and Schedule Confidence Level (JCL) approach, but complains that it is "undermined by NASA's willingness to make exceptions and allow projects to move forward at lower confidence levels." It "urges" NASA to stop doing that and "strictly hold all projects to the 70 percent standard." At the 70 percent cost confidence level, there is a 70 percent chance that the project will be completed for no more than the associated cost estimate.

At a separate hearing before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee on the new Space Launch System this morning, NASA Administrator Bolden cited his Naval Academy classmate and current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, as saying that the state of the U.S. economy is the largest single threat to the nation. Bolden added that NASA must take its share of budget cuts, but must do so "smartly."

If the House Appropriations Committee adopts the recommendations of its CJS subcommittee as expressed in this report, Bolden will have his work cut out for him. The recommendation is to cut NASA's budget by $1.91 billion compared to the President's request for FY2012 ($16.81 billion instead of the $18.72 billion requested), or $1.64 billion compared to its current funding level of $18.45 billion. Proposed cuts to the President's request include the following:

  • $100 million from Earth science
  • $374 million from the James Webb Space Telescope, which would zero the account
  • $40 million from planetary science
  • $649 million from space technology
  • $300 million from the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate -- this is a net reduction after a committee recommended increase for the Space Launch System and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and a reduction from commercial crew
  • $283 million from the Space Operations Mission Directorate, of which $60 million is provided in the Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration account instead for activities that are part of the 21st Century Launch Complex effort. The committee would cut $117 million from the space shuttle program. It says the remaining funds, $548 million, should be enough to cover NASA's liability for the pension plan for shuttle workers.
  • $142 million from Cross Agency Support
  • $26 million from Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration -- a net reduction after the committee's movement of $60 million to this account from Space Operations
  • $1 million from the Office of Inspector General (IG), although it directs ESMD to use $1 million of its funds for a study on the future of the human exploration program to be conducted by the IG office

The committee would provide NASA with additional flexibility on how to manage the cuts by not specifying the amounts of funding for each of NASA's projects and activities. Instead, it specifies amounts at the theme level, allowing NASA to decide how to spend the funds within that theme.

For a table comparing the President's request with what the committee is recommending, read our fact sheet on NASA's FY2012 budget request.

UPDATE: Atlantis Docks with ISS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: This has been updated with the current status of the orbital debris issue.

Space shuttle Atlantis successfully docked with the International Space Station (ISS) today.

The STS-135 crew docked with ISS at 11:07 am EDT. Their mission is delivering supplies and equipment to the ISS to ensure that it could operate for as long as a year without supplies that are intended to be taken to the ISS by two companies, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp., under NASA's "commercial cargo" program. SpaceX has had two successful test launches of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle, one of which also successfully tested its Dragon spacecraft. Orbital has yet to make its first flight of the Taurus 2 launch vehicle or its Cygnus spacecraft. NASA is hoping that both companies will be ready for operational flights to ISS early in 2012.

Meanwhile, on Sunday there was concerned that STS-135 and the ISS might have to dodge a piece of orbital debris on Tuesday. According to NASA, U.S. Strategic Command was tracking a piece of debris from a Russian satellite, Cosmos 375, that might come close to the orbiting facility about noon that day and require a thruster burn to move out of the way. Cosmos 375, launched in 1970, was one of the first satellites launched as part of the Soviet co-orbital antisatellite (ASAT) program.

On Monday, however, NASA's Bob Jacobs tweeted that it had been determined the debris did not pose a threat.

Research Award Offered to Find Origin of Life

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 11-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Researchers wanting to focus on the origin-of-life question now have the opportunity to compete for up to $2 million in research funding. But there is a twist: proposals must not include the intervention of an intelligent creator. For Harry Lonsdale, the millionaire chemist offering the award, the research should help prove -- once and for all -- that life is solely the result of physical and chemical processes.

According to AAAS's Scienceinsider, the award is driven by Lonsdale's belief that "the creation of life was probably not an act of God. It was just nature running its course." Lonsdale argues that science has achieved progress toward answering this question and that an answer will soon be available: "The answer will be: God didn't do it, nature did it."

Lonsdale's website announcing the award details strict guidelines for proposals to consider the question of how life originated on prebiotic Earth, encouraging participants to "offer unconventional hypotheses that nonetheless can be subject to experimental validation." This includes a definition of life itself: "'Life' is defined here as a self-sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution."

Including a definition is a surprise in itself. NASA's Astrobiology program, which adopts an interdisciplinary research approach to consider many of these questions in its quest for life elsewhere, is careful not to provide a definition of life. With discoveries such as extreme life questioning old assumptions about what life is supposed to be, researchers may not want to exclude extraordinary, yet scientifically sound, propositions. Still, there may be a synergy between the two initiatives as one of the experts helping evaluating submissions, according to ScienceInsider, is NASA Astrobiologist Chris McKay.

Lonsdale states on his website that "A solution will give every science teacher in the world, from high school to college, a fundamental understanding of how life probably began on the Earth." It may be safe to add that new findings may also impact NASA activities and our understanding of where life may exist beyond our own planet.

Events of Interest: Week of July 11-15, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The following events may be of interest in the coming week. For more information, see our calendar on the right menu or click the links below. The House and Senate both are in session this week.

During the Week

Two key events on the Hill are expected this week for NASA. On Tuesday, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on the Space Launch System that Congress directed NASA to build in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. Recent rumors were that NASA would announce the design of the system before the final launch of the space shuttle, but the launch came and went with no announcement. On Wednesday, the full House Appropriations Committee will mark up the FY2012 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill and agree or not with the recommendations of its CJS subcommittee. Those recommendations include a substantial cut to NASA's FY2012 budget request and termination of the James Webb Space Telescope.

The full House Appropriations Committee will mark up the Interior-Environment appropriations bill on Tuesday. It will have to agree or not with the recommendations from the Interior-Environment subcommittee, which include denying the funding requested by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to take over the Landsat program from NASA.

Tuesday, July 12

Wednesday, July 13

  • House Appropriations Committee mark up of the FY2012 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill (includes NASA and NOAA), 2359 Rayburn, 10:00 am EDT

Wednesday-Thursday, July 13-14

Friday, July 15

Appropriations Update

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

While many of us were focused on the space shuttle launch on Friday, the House passed the FY2012 defense appropriations bill (H.R. 2219) and began consideration of the energy and water appropriations bill (H.R. 2354).

No amendments were adopted during consideration of the defense bill that would directly affect military space activities. As reported from the House Appropriations Committee, the Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS) -- DOD's portion of the former National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) -- was cut in half and several other programs were cut, too. Their fate is now in the hands of the Senate, which has not yet marked up its version of the bill.

As for the energy and water bill, as reported from the House Appropriations Committee, it denies the request for Department of Energy (DOE) funding to restart production of plutonium-238, which is needed for some of NASA's deep space and lunar probes. In the FY2012 request, DOE and NASA would split the costs, but the appropriations committee is not convinced that DOE should pay for any of it since NASA is the agency that benefits from the Pu-238.

AIAA: End of Shuttle Not End of US Aerospace Leadership

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) issued a statement following the final launch of the space shuttle program asserting that it did not signal the end of NASA or the end of U.S. aerospace leadership.

The statement from AIAA's Public Policy Committee says in part:

"The launch of space shuttle Atlantis on 8 July closes an important epoch in American science, but does not signal the end of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA]. Nor, does the launch of Atlantis signal the end of American leadership in aerospace. Today, the United States is better positioned to continue leading the world in space exploration, understanding our planet's environment, and making discoveries which benefit all of humankind. Just as in aviation, where in one hundred years we have seen the creation of hundreds of thousands jobs in small and large businesses across America selling products globally, in the next fifty years we will see the same in the field of space exploration."

AIAA Executive Director Bob Dickman acknowledged in a separate statement that the Atlantis launch evokes "mixed feelings," but that "we recognize the promise of a bright future in which industry and commerce will play a greater role as we work together to build on the shuttle's legacy engineering and science achievements."

Setback in Deficit Talks

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Tomorrow was supposed to be the day when President Obama and top congressional Republicans and Democrats announced how close they were to a deal on the deficit, but that became clear tonight.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) announced tonight that he was withdrawing from the talks, which President Obama announced days ago would be broadened to try to cut the deficit by $4 trillion over 10 years instead of only $2 trillion over 10 years.

In a statement, Boehner complained that Democrats continued to insist on tax increases:

"Despite good-faith efforts to find common ground, the White House will not pursue a bigger debt reduction agreement without tax hikes. I believe the best approach may be to focus on producing a smaller measure, based on the cuts identified in the Biden-led negotiations, that still meets our call for spending reforms and cuts greater than the amount of any debt limit increase."

Democratic insistence that tax increases be part of the deal as well as the spending cuts demanded by Republicans is hardly news, however. The second highest-ranking Republican in the House, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), walked out of the Biden-led talks referred to in Boehner's statement on June 23 over the same issue. Cantor's action is what prompted President Obama to talk over leadership of the negotiations.

NASA Leaders Sound Optimistic Note, Atlantis Readies for Docking

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

The STS-135 Atlantis crew completed an inspection of the orbiter's heat shield using the shuttle's robotic arm today. The images will be analyzed on the ground to determine if there was any damage during launch yesterday.

Docking is scheduled for Sunday.

President Obama issued a statement of congratulations, saying that while this is the final space shuttle mission, it is the beginning of "the next chapter of our preeminence in space."

That certainly was the theme reiterated again and again by NASA leaders in Florida in the days leading up to and including the launch as it has been in Washington for many months.

At the post-launch press conference yesterday, NASA Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Director Bob Cabana struck a determined note to emphasize that although change is hard, it is necessary. "Change is difficult. But you can't do something else, you can't do something better, unless you go through change." Taking issue with those who feel that the human spaceflight program is directionless now, he said "we do have a plan" with commercial crew and the International Space Station and a new heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV) to go beyond low Earth orbit. He pointed out that one of the two space shuttle pads, 39B, is being upgraded even though there are no funds for a similar upgrade of pad 39A from which Atlantis was launched. He sees KSC as a "multiuser" facility in the future. He later added that the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) was in no danger of being bulldozed. NASA will need it for the HLLV and commercial companies may also want to use it, he said.

Many of those in attendance at the launch were surprised to see Atlantis lift off almost on time. After a very rainy day on Thursday and early on Friday, the weather improved and looked promising for the launch itself. Cloud cover was problematical, however, for the extremely unlikely Return to Launch Site (RTLS) abort scenario in which all the main engines fail and the shuttle is forced to return to KSC within about 30 minutes of launch. KSC is in charge of the shuttle up through launch. It then hands off control to Johnson Space Center (JSC), so it was JSC that had to decide if the cloud cover and possibility of showers fit within the RTLS guidelines.

At the press conference, shuttle launch integration manager Mike Moses revealed that "we took a bit of an exception" with the rules, convincing themselves that if rain showers did develop, they would be so localized that they would affect only one end of the runway and Atlantis could land at the other end. An RTLS was not necessary - it never has been in the history of the shuttle program - and no showers developed in any case.

A glitch 31 seconds before launch almost spoiled the day, however. As explained at the press conference by shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach, a signal was not sent to computers to indicate that the arm for the "beanie cap" - or gaseous oxygen (GOX) vent arm -- had retracted and locked. The beanie cap prevents liquid oxygen vapor that vents from the External Tank (ET) from turning into ice. It is attached to the ET until the final minutes before launch. Engineers were able to use a closed circuit camera to ascertain that it had, in fact, retracted, and the countdown proceeded. Launch occurred three minutes late, at 11:59 am EDT, with only 58 seconds left in the launch window.

The celebratory mood of a successful shuttle launch definitely was dampened by the knowledge that many of those working the launch would soon lose their jobs. NASA Associate Administrator for Space Flight Bill Gerstenmaier was asked about the criticism by some of the human spaceflight program's most legendary members, including Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan and Jim Lovell, that the program is adrift. If NASA cannot convince them that the program has a promising future, how can it convince the public he was asked.

Gerstenmaier acknowledged that NASA needs to better communicate with those individuals on the work being done on the new HLLV and the Orion crew capsule since much is being done in-house and has not been made public. "Those were my teachers, those were my mentors ... so I think I incorporate everything that they bring to us in terms of concerns, but we need to communicate with them. ... They may not particularly like it. ... They want us to do even more." He later added that this point in time is not an end, but a transition and NASA needs to explain the new direction to get others "excited with us."

UPDATE: Atlantis is OFF, press conference around 1:00

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: The press conference has slipped to about 1:00 EDT.

UPDATE: Overloaded wi-fi and cell phone networks here are making it almost impossible to post to this website or Twitter. Atlantis got off, but three minutes late due to a last minute hiccup at T-31 seconds. Now awaiting a regularly scheduled post-launch press conference to learn more details.

UPDATE: Atlantis is off!

UPDATE: The weather is a bit better at the moment and the range is "green" -- meaning "go" -- right now. The countdown is in a planned hold at T-9 minutes with launch still scheduled for 11:26 am. NASA says it is "cautiously optimistic" that the launch will take place as planned.

UPDATE: All four crewmembers are aboard, the hatch is closed, and they are preparing to pressurize the cabin.

ORIGINAL STORY: The countdown for the launch of Atlantis scheduled for 11:26 am EDT this morning is continuing. The weather forecast remains only 30 percent favorable, but the skies appear a little lighter at the moment and the mood definitely is hopeful.

The crew just arrived at the pad and the close-out crew is getting them settled in their suits. The first to board, Commander Chris Ferguson, is about to enter the orbiter.

Events of Interestl

Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »


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