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No need to wait for the press conference this afternoon to find out if astronaut Mark Kelly will command STS-134 or not. NASA released a press statement this morning announcing that he is resuming training as commander of the mission.
Kelly is married to Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) who is recovering from a gunshot wound to the head suffered on January 8 during a constituent event in Tucson. She is in rehabilitation at a Houston facility. Kelly has been spending almost full time with her since the shooting and there was a question as to whether she would be sufficiently recovered in time for him to return to his astronaut duties.
Astronaut Mark Kelly responded to a reporter's question today by enthusiastically saying that he expects his wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), to be at Kennedy Space Center for the launch of STS-134 on April 19. Kelly is resuming his duties as commander of STS-134 while his wife recuperates from being shot in the head on January 8.
In explaining his decision to return to work, Kelly told reporters that Giffords is busy all day every day, seven days a week, with speech, occupational and physical therapy. He declined to provide any specifics about her current condition, but said she makes progress every day. He remarked on how fast she is recovering, and quoted one of her doctors as saying that she is in the one percentile group for recovering from this type of injury.
Kelly said that her family and his family are unanimously supportive of his decision. He also said that he knows his wife very well and she is strongly supportive not only of his career, but of NASA, and would want him to fly.
Peggy Whitson, chief of the astronaut office, and Brent Jett, chief of flight crew operations, emphasized that they have been observing Kelly for the past week while he resumed training to ensure that he is, in fact, ready to focus fully on a shuttle commander's responsibilities. The decision to let him command the mission went all the way up to NASA Administrator Bolden, they said.
The Senate Appropriations Committee announced subcommittee assignments today. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) will remain as chair of the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that handles NASA and NOAA. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) will replace Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) as the ranking Republican on the subcommittee.
Senator Hutchison is a strong NASA supporter, particularly of its human spaceflight program, and was instrumental in passage of the 2010 NASA authorization act last year as the top Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.
Shelby will become the ranking member of the Labor-HHS appropriations subcommittee and remains as a member of the CJS subcommittee. A list of all subcommittee assignments is available on the commitee's website.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) announced today the budget limits he is setting for the rest of FY2011. The Republican-led House passed a resolution last month giving the Budget Committee chairman the power to set those limits himself without need of legislation that would have to pass though the Budget Committee and on the House floor.
His decision cuts $58 billion from the President's request for non-security domestic discretionary spending for the rest of the current fiscal year. NASA and NOAA are both in this category. How much each of the appropriations subcommittees will have to cut to amass that total was not announced. NASA and NOAA both are part of the Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations subcommittee. Chairman Ryan also mandated that security spending be reduced by $16 billion, for a total of $74 billion that must be cut from the President's FY2011 request.
Earlier, Republicans pledged to cut $100 billion from non-security domestic discretionary spending in FY2011, so today's action does not meet that target. The Hill newspaper cites Republican aides as saying the cut is pro-rated to take account of the fact that five months of the fiscal year will have passed by the time the funding is appropriated, although Chairman Ryan's statement did not assert that.
This is just one step in a long process that ultimately will have to find agreement in the Senate and on the President's desk. The government is operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) that expires on March 4; Congress must pass another appropriations bill by then or the government will have to shut down. As many point out, the FY2011 cuts will especially difficult for agencies to bear since they will have to be absorbed over seven months instead of 12.
Rep. Ryan's action is also a harbinger of the harsh fiscal environment facing government agencies as debate begins soon on the FY2012 budget request, which will be submitted to Congress on February 14.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly indicated that Rep. Ryan was a Democrat not a Republican. We are mortified by our error.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) released the details of how much money each of his subcommittees will have to cut for the remainder of FY2011 this afternoon. The Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that includes NASA and NOAA will have to cut 11 percent from the President's FY2011 request for all the agencies in that bill, or 16 percent from current (FY2010) levels.
The announcement follows action by the House Budget Committee Chairman, Paul Ryan (R-WI), earlier today setting the overall spending limits by which the appropriations committee must abide in writing a Continuing Resolution (CR) to cover the rest of FY2011. The current CR expires on March 4 and Congress must pass a new appropriations bill before then to avoid a government shutdown. The cuts will have to be absorbed by the agencies in the seven remaining months (March-September) of FY2011.
The so-called "302(b) allocations" call for an 11 percent cut to the total for the CJS subcommittee, which also includes the Departments of Commerce and Justice, the National Science Foundation, and several smaller commissions and offices. It does not specify what will happen with NASA and NOAA, but it is difficult to imagine they will not be impacted. The subcommittee will send a recommendation to the full committee and eventually the bill will have to be voted on by the full House. That vote may come next week.
CJS is not the hardest hit subcommittee. Compared to the FY2011 request, five other non-security subcommittees will have to make deeper cuts, and one other also is at 11 percent. The three subcommittees that deal with security spending (Defense, Homeland Security and Military Construction/Veterans Affairs) also must make cuts in the 2-3 percent range compared to the President's request for FY2011. When compared to current funding (FY2010), it is second only to the Transportation-Housing and Urban Development subcommittee, however, in the percentage of cuts that must be made.
Chairman Rogers made a statement that says in part:
"...I am instructing each of the twelve Appropriations subcommittees to produce specific, substantive and comprehensive spending cuts. We are going go line by line to weed out and eliminate unnecessary, wasteful, or excess spending - and produce legislation that will represent the largest series of spending reductions in the history of Congress. These cuts will not be easy, they will be broad and deep, they will affect every Congressional district, but they are necessary and long overdue."
Data from NASA's Kepler space telescope show that there are more than 1,200 planet "candidates" in a section of our galaxy framed by the constellation Cygnus and some are in the "habitable zones" of their stars.
Kepler scientists announced the results at a press conference this afternoon, explaining that it takes considerable analysis before a candidate planet is confirmed as an actual planet. To do that, additional observations and analysis are needed, but Debra Fischer, a Yale astronomer participating in the press conference, estimated that only about 20 percent will turn out to be false positives.
Explaining that Kepler is in search of the "holy grail" - an Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of a star that is like our Sun, Doug Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters, cautioned that he did not expect that result to come so early in Kepler's observations. The space telescope has been operating for about one and a half years. A planet the size of Earth around a star like our Sun that has temperature conditions suitable for life as we know it would mean that it, too, would orbit once a year. Thus, it would take two years for scientists to notice it crossing (transiting) the face of the star, and a third year for them to really take notice of it. More time therefore is needed.
In the meantime, however, Kepler is finding hundreds of candidates to be confirmed as planets around other stars, called exoplanets. The telescope is looking at 155,000 stars in the constellation Cygnus. To date, 1,235 exoplanet candidates have been discovered, of which 68 are Earth-sized, 288 are "super-Earths," 662 are the size of Neptune, 165 are the size of Jupiter, and 19 are even larger than that. Of the 1,235 candidate exoplanets, scientists identified 54 that are not too close and not too far from their star to be in the habitable zone where liquid water might exist. Five of the 54 are close to the size of Earth; the rest are larger.
The scientists were particularly excited at the number of stars with multiple planets forming solar systems not unlike our own. One of these, designated Kepler-11, has six planets. Those planets have been confirmed. Five of them are clustered together as close to the star as Mercury is to our Sun. The sixth planet is within the distance of Venus from our Sun. Most of the planets and planet candidates identified so far are close to their stars because they are the easiest to observe since they transit the star often and thus can be discerned. The Kepler-11 solar system is 2,000 light years from Earth, meaning that the light from the star took 2,000 years to get here.
Jack Lissauer, Kepler co-investigator and planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center, said they were very surprised to find so many planets so close to their star and so large. All six in the Kepler-11 system are larger than Earth. He said that the finding would "force us to go back and look at the formation models of planets." The planets are low density, "fluffy like marshmallows, but not all gas, maybe marshmallow with a little hard candy at the core," he said.
William Borucki, Kepler Science Principal Investigator at NASA/Ames, emphasized that Kepler is able to look at only about one-four hundredth of the total sky. "Imagine if we could see all of it," he exclaimed. As for when we would know if there is life on any of these planets, Borucki indicated it will be many years. Comparing the process to building a cathedral, he said this step is just laying the foundation and it will take "patience and lots of money" to answer that question. Discovering if any of them have atmospheres is a critical step yet to come, he said.
Even without that, however, Yale's Fischer asserted that Kepler "has blown the lid off of everything we thought we knew about exoplanets."
Kenneth Chang at the New York Times has an article today about commercial crew that focuses on Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser effort. It also mentions what Boeing, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are doing, but the article is mostly about the origin of the Dream Chaser design and Michael Sirangelo's optimism about what it will take to finish development -- "less than $1 billion" that would lead to an orbital test flight in three years. Sirangelo is chairman of Sierra Nevada.
One interesting quote in the article is attributed to an unspecified Senate staffer who says "They're not getting $6 billion over six years for commercial crew. That's never going to happen." The staffer reportedly estimates that they will get half that much. President Obama proposed $6 billion over five years in his FY2011 budget request. The 2010 NASA authorization act covers three of those years, FY2011-2013, and authorizes a total of approximately $1.3 billion. How much the President will request for FY2012 and FY2013 and how much Congress will appropriate for any of those years remains to be seen.
The Marshall Institute will hold a meeting on "Codes of Conduct in Space: Considering the Impact of the EU Code of Conduct on U.S. Security in Space" this Friday, February 4, at the Capitol Hill Club from 9:00-10:30 am EST.
Linking to a January 27 Washington Times story that cited three congressional staff who said they were told last week that the United States "is looking to sign on" to the European Union's (EU's) Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities, the Institute's announcement says the meeting will "assess the strengths and limitations" of the EU document.
Speakers are Peter Marquez, former Director of Space Policy at the White House National Security Council and a Marshall Institute Fellow, Paula DeSutter, former Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance and Implementation, and Scott Pace, Director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Capitol Hill Club is located at 300 First Street, S.E. Washington, DC.
Today is the eighth anniversary of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia in the skies over Texas.
Columbia disintegrated during reentry because of a hole in its wing that allowed superheated gases to enter and deform it. The resulting aerodynamic forces caused the orbiter to break apart, killing its seven crew members: Rick Husband (NASA), William McCool (NASA), Michael Anderson (NASA), David Brown (NASA), Kalpana Chawla (NASA), Laurel Clark (NASA), and Ilan Ramon (Israeli Air Force). The hole was formed by a piece of foam that came off the External Tank during launch and hit the leading edge of the wing.
Almost overshadowed by the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Challenger accident last Friday, this tragedy imparted just as much heartache and had an even more profound impact on the U.S. human spaceflight program.
The accident investigation exposed the particular risks associated with a side-mounted system, which makes the orbiter vulnerable to chunks of foam liberated from the External Tank during launch. It also revealed NASA's incomplete understanding of that foam and why it comes off, and its failure to adequately study the phenomenon despite years of knowledge of foam-shedding. Technical, organizational and cultural failures were all cited by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), as they were in the investigations of the two preceding U.S. human spaceflight tragedies that were commemorated last week: Apollo 204 (January 27) and Challenger (January 28).
The Columbia accident hastened the end of the space shuttle program; the goal became to use the shuttle only to the extent necessary to complete construction of the International Space Station (ISS). The implications of that decision for operation of the ISS -- which was designed to rely on the significant cargo carrying capability of the shuttle for logistics throughout its lifetime, never mind crew rotation -- were secondary to the desire to terminate the program. For some it was because of the belief that the system's design is inherently too risky, while others long considered the shuttle a disappointment that never achieved its promise of low-cost access to space and a drain on NASA's budget.
Despite the human tragedy and the technical and organizational weaknesses it exposed at NASA, the Columbia tragedy actually spurred the nation toward even loftier human spaceflight goals. Eleven and a half months later, on January 14, 2004, President George W. Bush directed NASA to return humans to the Moon by 2020 and then go on to Mars in his Vision for Space Exploration speech.
Today, the program spawned by that speech, Constellation, is on its way to being terminated and the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program is considerably in doubt. Government efforts to build a successor to the shuttle over the past three decades -- the National Aerospace Plane, X-33/Venturestar, the Space Launch Initiative, the Orbital Space Plane -- all failed. The 2010 NASA authorization act directs NASA to try again. The agency is to build a new space transportation system and crew vehicle while at the same time funding the commercial sector to do the same thing. The policy is in place, but the funding is not and with the country's economic situation in turmoil, human spaceflight advocates worry that NASA will continue to be expected to do too much with too little and fail to reach the goal line yet again.
In testimony to Congress in 2003, CAIB chairman Adm. Harold Gehman (Ret.) called on the country to "establish the Nation's vision for human space flight and determine how willing we are to resource that vision." Eight years later, little progress has been made on that score.
The Bush Vision is history. Instead, President Obama wanted to do one thing, but Congress wanted to do another, so they split the difference and told NASA to do both, but with no additional funds. Agreement could not be reached on the next destination for human spaceflight so they passed the buck to the National Research Council to do a study about it. NASA is directed to contract for the study in FY2012, not now, and since a typical NRC study takes 18 months, under the best of circumstances it would come out in calendar year 2014, halfway through the next presidential term.
Meanwhile, NASA is directed to immediately begin the development of a heavy lift launch vehicle and multipurpose crew capsule even though the destination for that system will not be decided until at least 2014. Yes, it will be a "backup" for commercial crew efforts to build a system for low Earth orbit, but its ultimate requirements are TBD.
The loss of the Columbia crew led to an earlier-than-planned exit for the space shuttle, but the vision that CAIB identified as a necessary replacement faded. The future is as uncertain now as it was eight years ago today, hardly a fitting tribute to those seven brave souls.
UPDATE: The Marshall Institute's meeting on Friday has been added.
The following events may of interest in the coming week. For more information, check our calendar on the right menu or click the links below. The Senate is in session this week; the House is not.
Monday-Wednesday, January 31-February 2
Tuesday-Thursday, February 1-3
Wednesday, February 2
Friday, February 4
- Marshall Institute meeting on EU Code of Conduct and Implications for U.S. Security in Space, 9:00-10:30 am EST, Capitol Hill Club, Wahsingotn DC
- NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, 11:30 am - 1:30 pm EST, NASA Headquarters Room 9H40.
Events of Interest
- AIAA Propulsion and Energy 2014 (includes Joint Propulsion Conf), July 28-30, 2014, Cleveland, OH
- NASA Advisory Council (NAC) Science Cmte, July 28-29, 2014, NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, VA
- NAC Technology, Innovation & Engineering Cmte, July 28-29, 2014, NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, VA
- NAC Human Exploration & Ops Cmte, July 28-29, 2014, NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, VA
- NAC Aeronautics Cmte, July 29, 2014, NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, VA
- NAC Institutional Cmte, July 29, 2014, NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, VA
- NOAA Science Advisory Board, July 29-30, 2014, David Skaggs Research Center, Boulder, CO
- NASA Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG), July 29-31, 2014, Washington Marriott at Metro Center Hotel, Washington, DC
- NASA Advisory Council, July 30-31, 2014, NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, VA
- Is It Time To Search for Life on Mars? (AU & Explore Mars), July 31, 2014, American University (AU), ashington, DC, 5:00 pm ET
Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »
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