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Congress Presents Its First Gold Medals for Spaceflight Achievements

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The United States Congress presented Congressional Gold Medals to the Apollo 11 crew and John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, in a ceremony yesterday at the U.S. Capitol.

Several Members of Congress, including House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), along with NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong, and former Senator Glenn spoke. C-SPAN has a recording of the entire ceremony from start to finish. (Individual Members and NASA have posted segments where they are speaking on YouTube, but the C-SPAN recording is the only one we've found that shows the ceremony in its entirety.)

The medals actually were awarded two years ago, the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. Yesterday's ceremony was an official presentation of the medals and another opportunity for Congress, on a bipartisan, bicameral basis, to show its support for NASA. Despite the contentious partisan politics on most other matters, the space program typically is not a partisan issue on Capitol Hill. While the appropriations bill that is expected to be voted on tomorrow that includes NASA's FY2012 funding (H.R. 2112) provides less than the President requested ($17.8 billion instead of $18.7 billion), all things considered, the agency did quite well.

All three Apollo 11 astronauts -- Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins -- were present, although Armstrong is the only one who spoke. He pointed out that in the history of the country, nine Congressional Gold Medals have been presented for achievements in aviation and rocketry, but these were the first for spaceflight. The first Congressional Gold Medal was presented to George Washington in 1776. The Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, and Robert Goddard are among the aviation and rocketry recipients.

Senator Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962 as part of the Mercury program. He left NASA and later became a U.S. Senator (1974-1999) and flew into space once more in 1998 at the close of his Senate career on a space shuttle mission (STS-95) at the age of 77. In his remarks, Glenn repeated comments he said he had made almost 50 years earlier when addressing a joint session of Congress after his Mercury mission: "As our knowledge of the universe in which we live increases, may God grant us the wisdom and guidance to use it wisely."

Followng are links we were able to find to other comments made at the ceremony for the astronauts:

UPDATE: NASA, NOAA's JPSS Do OK in Final Approps Minibus

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: We now have updated our NASA FY2012 budget request fact sheet, and an article with more info on NOAA and FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation is available as well.

All things considered, NASA, and NOAA's Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) program, fared pretty well in the final version of the "minibus" appropriations bill (H.R. 2112), which is now posted on the website of the House Appropriations Committee.

The final numbers are very close to what the Senate approved. NASA would get $17.8 billion for FY2012, and while that is $924 million less than the $18.7 billion request, it is about $1 billion more than the House Appropriations Committee approved. The Senate approved $17.9 billion. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be funded with the additional amount approved by the Senate, instead of terminated as recommended by the House committee.

NOAA's JPSS environmental satellite program will get $924 million, compared to the $1.07 billion request. The House committee had approved $901 million, while the Senate approved $920 million.

We will have more details and an updated fact sheet later today.

OMB Cited as Obstacle to NASA-ESA Mars Cooperation

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

It is rare in Washington for critics of actions by individual government employees to name names in congressional hearings, but today was an exception. At a House subcommittee hearing on the future of NASA's planetary science program, Cornell University's Steve Squyres identified Sally Ericsson at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as the person holding up robotic Mars exploration plans with Europe.

Squyres chaired the recent National Research Council (NRC) Decadal Survey on planetary science that identified the top science questions in planetary research for the next 10 years (a decade) and prioritized programs to answer them. Ericsson is the Program Associate Director (PAD) for Natural Resources Programs at OMB, which includes the Science and Space Branch that oversees NASA. According to the committee's public witness list, she was invited to testify at the hearing. Subcommittee chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) stated at the outset of the hearing, however, that OMB declined to participate.

The hearing by the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee focused on plans for future robotic exploration of Mars. In 2009, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) signed an agreement essentially merging their robotic Mars programs. Under that plan, missions are supposed to be launched in 2016 and 2018 as the first steps in returning samples from the surface of Mars. Many scientists believe that robotic sample return missions are a necessary prerequisite to sending humans there someday.

Russia launched a robotic mission last week to return samples of Mars's moon Phobos, but returning them from the surface of Mars is an even more difficult undertaking. The Russian probe, Phobos-Grunt, is stranded in Earth orbit for unknown reasons, but Russian space experts have not given up on reviving it and sending it on its way.

NASA is about to launch the next of its Mars probes, Curiosity, on the day after Thanksgiving. For the future, NASA and ESA decided to merge their programs, jointly sending orbiters and landers to Mars over a period of years. First would be an orbiter launched in 2016 to study Mars's atmosphere and serve as a communications link for a lander to be launched in 2018. The 2018 lander would rove across Mars's surface, select samples, and place them in a container ("cache" them) for return to Earth by subsequent spacecraft.

Uncertainty about funding for NASA's planetary exploration program is jeopardizing those plans, however. At the hearing, Squyres congratulated NASA for following the recommendations of the Decadal Survey and finding ways to reduce costs. Even though budget projections for NASA's planetary science program have been sharply reduced in the past year, Squyres asserted that the descoped plan fits within the revised budgets. Squyres is the principal investigator for the twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. He also was recently selected as the new chair of the NASA Advisory Council.

The issue, he said, was that OMB is not willing to make a commitment to the NASA-ESA plan. NASA's Jim Green, Director of the Planetary Science Division (PSD) in the Science Mission Directorate, agreed that the problem was unwillingness in the Administration to make that commitment. In addition to the overall challenges in today's budget environment, PSD also is expected to have to pay for some of the cost overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) honed in on the JWST issue during questioning. Noting that the cost of JWST rose from $1.8 billion to $8.8 billion, he castigated cost overruns at NASA as being a significant cause of the belt tightening now underway. He also criticized the Space Launch System (SLS) and suggested that it, too, likely would encounter cost overruns and is not needed.

Conferees on the FY2012 appropriations bill that includes NASA increased funding for JWST to pay for overruns and enable the mission to be launched in 2018 instead of years later. For FY 2012 alone, the increase is $156 million above the $374 million request. Another $1.067 billion above what was planned last year will be needed for FY2013-2016. Those increases will have to be absorbed by the agency. NASA officials have been saying that they want half of the $156 million in FY2012 to come from other parts of SMD and half from NASA's institutional programs in the Cross Agency Support account. Earth science is exempted, however, so the half that must come from SMD would be split among other astrophysics programs, heliophysics and planetary science. That makes the funding outlook for planetary science even more constrained. The source of funds for the additional $1.067 billion in future years has not been revealed.

The thrust of the hearing, however, was not the actual budget numbers, but the reluctance of the Obama administration to commit to the overall joint robotic Mars exploration program with ESA. Green explained that it is OMB's responsibility to weigh priorities across the government and it would not release its decision until the FY2013 budget request is submitted next February. Until then, Green said, NASA is proceeding on the basis of the 2009 agreement to plan the missions with ESA despite the lack of commitment on the part of the White House. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) called OMB's action "a serious cause for concern" and said the subcommittee needed to hear from OMB about "why the joint program is being stalled."

Minibus Appropriations on Track for Enactment by Friday

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

The "minibus" appropriations bill that includes NASA, NOAA and the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) is on track for passage by Friday when the current Continuing Resolution (CR) expires. Conferees reported the bill late yesterday. The House Rules Committee will consider the rule to accompany the bill (allowing for its consideration by the full House) on Wednesday at 2:00 pm EST.

The bill, H.R. 2112, combines three FY2012 appropriations bills into one: the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill that includes NASA and NOAA, the Transportation-Housing and Urban Development (T-HUD) bill that includes the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the Agriculture bill. Although the House never passed its own versions of the CJS or T-HUD bills -- in fact, the T-HUD bill was not even reported from the House Appropriations Committee -- it agreed to negotiate a final version of the FY2012 appropriations for these agencies with the Senate.

NASA, NOAA's JPSS satellite program, and FAA's AST fared pretty well in the conference agreement, which is published in the November 14 Congressional Record. In brief:

  • NASA will get $17.8 billion for FY2012, close to what the Senate approved ($17.9 billion). Although it is almost $1 billion less than the request ($18.7 billion), it is almost $1 billion more than the House committee approved. See our updated fact sheet for more details.
    • The James Webb Space Telescope gets the increase passed by the Senate (a total of $530 million compared to the request of $374 million) instead of being terminated as approved by the House committee
    • SLS and MPCV get increases over the request, while commercial crew gets cut by about half compared with the request
    • Space technology is cut just less than half compared with the request
  • NOAA's Joint Polar Satellite System is funded at $924 million compared with the $1.07 billion request or the $901 million approved by the House committee or the $920 million approved by the Senate
  • FAA's AST office is funded at $16.3 million, a sharp decrease from the $26.6 million request, but more than either the House committee or the Senate had approved ($13 million and $15 million respectively)

Another controversy in the CJS bill was funding for the White House Office of Science and Technolology Policy (OSTP). The House committee had approved cutting the $6.65 million request down to $3 million because of its displeasure over OSTP Director John Holdren meeting with Chinese officials after language in the FY2011 appropriations bill prohibited OSTP or NASA from spending any funds to engage with China. The conference agreement funds OSTP at $4.5 million and again includes language (sec. 539) prohibiting OSTP or NASA from engaging with China. However, this year there are exceptions to that prohibition whereby either agency can certify to Congress 14 days in advance of any such activity that it poses "no risk of resulting in the transfer of technology, data, or other information with national security or economic security implications."

"Minibus" is a clever term used to refer to several appropriations bills -- but not all 12 of them -- being combined into a single piece of legislation. When all 12 are merged together, it is called an "omnibus."

Get an Update on Jupiter's Moon Europa Tomorrow

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

NASA has announced a media briefing tomorrow, November 16, on new science discoveries about Jupiter's moon, Europa.

Europa is a fascinating celestial object. One of Jupiter's "icy moons," some scientists theorize that its icy surface hides a liquid ocean that might harbor life. The briefing is at 1:00 pm EST in the auditorium at NASA Headquarters and will be webcast on NASA TV. Participants are:

- Britney Schmidt, postdoctoral fellow, Institute for Geophysics, University of Texas at Austin

- Tori Hoehler, astrobiologist and senior research scientist, NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

- Louise Prockter, planetary scientist, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md.

- Tom Wagner, program scientist, cryospheric sciences, Earth Science Division, NASA Headquarters

UPDATE 5: Soyuz TMA-22 Docks with ISS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE 5: Soyuz TMA-22 successfully docked with the ISS at 12:24 am EST November 16.

UPDATE 4: Soyuz TMA-22 is in orbit.

UPDATE 3: Snow notwithstanding, Soyuz TMA-22 lifts off on time at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

UPDATE 2: Ten minutes to liftoff.

UPDATE: The gantry has been retracted in preparation for launch.

ORIGINAL STORY: The next International Space Station (ISS) crew is awaiting launch at 11:14 tonight EST (Monday morning local time at the launch site) amidst a snowstorm.

Two Russians and an American are aboard the Soyuz TMA-22 spacecraft. The three are Anatoly Ivanishin, Anton Shkaplerov and Dan Burbank. If all goes according to plan, the spacecraft will dock with ISS just after midnight on Wednesday EST.

NASA is covering the launch live on NASA TV.

Senate Weather Hearing Features Cross Section of Witnesses

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transporation committee's hearing on Wednesday about the need for innovation in weather forecasting and prediction will feature a broad cross-section of witnesses from federal and state government and the private sector.

The committee released the witness list today:

Witness Panel 1

The Honorable Mary M. Glackin
Deputy Under Secretary for Operations
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The Honorable Todd J. Zinser
Inspector General
U.S. Department of Commerce

Mr. David C. Trimble
Director, Natural Resources and Environment
Government Accountability Office

Rear Admiral Cari B. Thomas
Director of Response Policy
U.S. Coast Guard

Witness Panel 2

Mr. Tom Iseman
Program Director, Water Policy and Implementation, Climate Adaptation
Western Governors' Association

Dr. Peter P. Neilley
Vice President, Global Forecasting Services
The Weather Channel Companies

Mr. Robert Marshall
President and CEO
Earth Networks

The hearing starts at 10:30 on Wednesday, November 16, and will be webcast on the committee's website.

Senate Committee Announces Witnesses for Thursday's NASA Hearing

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has announced the witnesses for its hearing on Thursday concerning NASA's human space exploration program. All are from NASA.

The hearing, "NASA's Human Space Exploration: Direction, Strategy, and Progress," is being convened by the Science and Space subcommittee chaired by Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL). According to the committee's website: "At this hearing, the Subcommittee will consider NASA's plans for human exploration, including the programs, projects, and activities for developing the Space Launch System, crew vehicle, and ground support. This hearing will provide an opportunity to articulate NASA's goals for human exploration and how they complement International Space Station support and utilization, technology development, international collaboration, and commercial activities."

Panel 1 consists only of NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. Panel 2 consists of three NASA center directors: Robert Cabana, Kennedy Space Center; Michael Coats, Johnon Space Center; and Robert Lightfoot, Marshall Space Flight Center.

The hearing begins at 10:00 am EST and will be webcast on the committee's website.

Roscosmos Head Comments on Phobos-Grunt

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, finally has a statement on its website about the Phobos-Grunt situation.

Based on translations using Yahoo! Bable Fish and Google Translate, Roscosmos head Vladimir Popovkin confirms that they have not been able to communicate with the spacecraft, which has been stranded in Earth orbit since its launch on Tuesday. A retired Army general, Popovkin took over the agency earlier this year.

Popovkin's comments appear to be the first official public statement from Roscosmos about the fate of the spacecraft. In the interim, a number of unnamed sources have been quoted in the Russian media about how long they have to revive the spacecraft before it misses the window to go to Mars or reenters Earth's atmosphere. Earlier reports stated that the Mars window closes on November 21, but Popovkin said they have until early December. As for when it would reenter the atmosphere, earlier assessments ranged from late November to early December, but Popovkin said January.

He played down the risk of damage if the probe reenters. Others point out that the spacecraft carries a substantial amount of toxic fuel for its journey to Mars and return to Earth of a sample of Mars's moon Phobos. Popovkin expressed confidence, however, that the spacecraft would burn up ("explode") during reentry. That statement does not seem to take into account, however, that the sample return portion of the probe was specifically designed to survive reentry.

In addition to its main mission of returning a sample of Phobos, the spacecraft also includes a small Chinese Mars orbiter -- China's first deep space probe -- and an experiment from The Planetary Society containing Earth organisms that were to make the journey to Phobos and back.

UPDATE 2: Events of Interest: Week of November 13-19, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE 2: The House Rules Committee meeting on the "minibus" appropriations bill on Wednesday has been added, along with the opening of an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York on Saturday.

UPDATE: USSTRATCOM's Cyber and Space Symposium on Tuesday-Thursday has been added.

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

During the Week

This is another "government-shutdown watch" week. The FY2012 Continuing Resolution (CR) that has been keeping the government operating since October 1 expires on Friday. Funding for NASA, NOAA and the FAA (including the Office of Commercial Space Transportation) is included in a package of three appropriations bills (H.R. 2112) that passed the Senate two weeks ago. If agreement can be reached with the House before Friday, those agencies, and the others included in that package, will know their FY2012 funding levels for the rest of the year. Another CR will be needed for all the other agencies (including DOD) in any case.

The November 23 deadline for the supercommittee is fast approaching. How much progress they will make this week is up in the air. Opinions among Washington pundits vary widely as to their chances of success in reaching agreement on how to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years. If they do not, automatic spending cuts are supposed to go into effect, an outcome so dire that it was included in the deal as a deterrent against partisan bickering preventing agreement. Some Members of Congress already are suggesting that the deal be changed if the supercommittee fails, but President Obama said that he would not accept any changes.

Russia's effort to contact the Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-soil) spacecraft stranded in Earth orbit are expected to continue. The window to Mars closes on November 21. They have that long to determine what went awry shortly after the spacecraft and its Fregat upper stage successfully separated from the Zenit booster last Tuesday. The spacecraft has been silent since. If they cannot resurrect it, the fully fueled Phobos-Grunt would make an uncontrolled reentry sometime in December.

Everyone is hoping for a nominal launch TONIGHT (Sunday) at 11:14 pm EST (Monday morning local time at the launch site in Baikonur) of the next International Space Station crew. The launch of the Soyuz TMA-22 spacecraft with two Russians and one American aboard a Soyuz rocket was delayed by an August 24 launch failure of a similar Soyuz rocket, but Russian and American space program managers appear confident that the rocket is fit for duty.

Sunday, November 13

Monday, November 14

  • Space Transportation Association seminar on China Space & Cyber Challenges, 2318 Rayburn House Office Building, 11:00 am - 12:30 pm EST (RSVP required -- check our calender for more details)
  • ABC TV interview with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, 10:00 pm EST

Monday-Wednesday, November 14-16

Tuesday, November 15

Tuesday-Wednesday, November 15-16

Tuesday-Thursday, November 15-17

Wednesday, November 16

Thursday, November 17

Friday, November 18

Friday-Saturday, November 18-19

  • National Air & Space Museum (NASM) symposium "Moving Beyond Earth: Innovations in Space," NASM, 600 Independence Ave., SW, Washington DC
    • Friday night, November 18, 8:00 - 9:00 pm EST, movie "Orphans of Apollo"
    • Saturday, November 19, 9:30 am - 5:30 pm, panel discussions and family activities

Saturday, November 19

Events of Interest


 

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