Latest News

Endeavour is Home

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Space Shuttle Endeavour landed on time at 2:35 am EDT this morning at Kennedy Space Center, FL. This night landing is the end of Endeavour's final space mission.

Endeavour's Final Landing Early Tomorrow Morning

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Space Shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to make its 25th and final landing at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in the wee hours of tomorrow morning. The first landing attempt is at 2:35 am EDT and the second at 4:11 am EDT.

If the shuttle cannot land for any reason, additional opportunities are available on Thursday at KSC and at Edwards Air Force Base, CA.

Assuming it lands on its first attempt, Endeavour will have accumulated 299 days in space throughout its service life and travelled 122.8 million miles.

Events of Interest: Week of May 30-June 3, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

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. Congressional activities are subject to change; check the relevant committee's website for up to date information.

During the Week

The House is in session beginning on Tuesday. The Senate is in "pro forma" session to prevent the President from making recess appointments, which is to say that it is in recess for all practical purposes.

Monday, May 30

  • Happy Memorial Day!

Monday-Wednesday, May 30-June 1

Wednesday, June 1

Wednesday-Friday, June 1-3

Wednesday - June 10

Friday, June 3

  • Women in Aerospace, Aerospace 2011-The Road Ahead, Key Bridge Marriott, Arlington, VA, 8:00 am - 6:00 pm EDT
  • Senate Armed Services Committee Strategic Forces Subcommittee field hearing on U.S. Strategic Command, Bellvue Public Schools/Offutt Air Force Base Welcome Center, 1660 Highway 370, Bellvue, NB, 11:30 am local time (per National Journal's Daybook; not yet posted on the committee's website)

Endeavour Undocks

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Space shuttle Endeavour undocked from the International Space Station on schedule, and now begins its final journey home. Landing is scheduled for June 1.

Endeavour to Depart ISS Shortly

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Space Shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to undock from the International Space Station at 11:55 pm EDT, less than an hour from now. Landing is expected on Wednesday, June 1.

Dispute Continues Over NASA's Arsenic Life Discovery

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 30-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Heated debate over "arsenic life" that began five months ago (see our story) continues this week with the formal publication of the team's findings in the journal Science (subscription required). The debate began after a team of scientists announced discovery of a life-form that seemed to dispute one of the fundamental truths of life -- a microbe that could thrive on arsenic.

Last December, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) research fellow Felisa Wolfe-Simon and her team published results of an experiment involving a microbe found in Mono Lake in Northern California. When placed into conditions lacking phosphorous - one of the building blocks of life - and rich in arsenic, the organism, dubbed GFAJ-1, was able to replace the necessary element with the chemically similar, yet ordinarily toxic, one and live, they claimed. NASA hinted at the finding in a press release preceding the press conference that announced a finding that would have implications for astrobiology -- the search for life elsewhere in the universe. Although the discovery is here on Earth, the implications of the finding question the most basic assumptions of life and offers new considerations for NASA's astrobiology program.

Even when the announcement was made, other scientists were wary of giving too much weight to this one experiment. Steven Benner, Distinguished Fellow at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, who participated in NASA's December press conference, warned that chemists would need "exceptional evidence" to support the findings and described it as an "exceptional claim."

The sentiment proved to be true not only for chemists, but for other scientists who were "sharply critical of the paper" as reported in Science's blog, ScienceInsider, on Friday. Technical comments on the Wolfe-Simon team's conclusions quoted by ScienceInsider show concerns over the possibility of phosphorous contamination when the arsenic-rich environment was created in the laboratory. Benner, a molecular biochemist, authored one of the Technical Comments and questioned the basic hypothesis of the research on the basis of the instability of the arsenic compound. "Their hypothesis...would, if true, set aside nearly a century of chemical data concerning arsenate and phosphate molecules," he wrote.

The team's initial reticence in December to respond to comments and its desire to have "that discourse in the scientific community" prompted many of the Technical Comments. ScienceInsider also summarizes the team's response to the criticisms. The team stands by its initial results and points to its acknowledgement in the original paper that while trace amounts of phosphorous were detected in the experiment, these would not account for the bacterial growth measured.

The debate suggests that NASA astrobiologists, while keeping close watch of the research that comes out in the next couple of years over this issue, should perhaps not rush to hone in on arsenic-rich environments on other planets in the quest for life. Here on Earth at least, the question remains open.

Tips to NASA on Engaging with the Public, Comedy Style

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Hard to tell how much of this to take for real and how much is just comedic bantering, but John Bobey's musings on HuffPost Comedy, part of the Huffington Post, certainly provoke a smile (or is it a wince?) and suggests the challenges NASA actually does face in connecting with the public.

The Kennedy Moon Legacy in Concert

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 27-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

To celebrate President John F. Kennedy's so-called "moon speech" delivered to Congress 50 years ago, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) put together a concert, appropriately held at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. on May 25. Performances by the Space Philharmonic orchestra complemented a series of images and videos from NASA's 50 years of human spaceflight missions that were set in motion by President Kennedy's challenge.

With appearances by Jean Kennedy Smith, sister of President Kennedy, along with actresses Nichelle Nichols and June Lockhart (from the original Star Trek and Lost in Space television series respectively) and musician Herbie Hancock, the night was full of surprises. NASA images were paired with Beethoven, the Star Trek theme and even "Somewhere" from West Side Story.

Yet the event was not just a big party. A very special presentation by the Soldiers' Chorus of the U.S. Army Field Band accompanied stills and videos from the tragic Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia missions and the astronauts lost in these accidents. Astronauts Scott Altman and Leland Melvin, who introduced this segment, spoke soberly about the risk that is still involved in any human spaceflight mission. Even as we look toward the Space Shuttle's last flight in the coming months, Altman reiterated that "the Shuttle remains an experimental vehicle," one that will provide lessons for the next-generation vehicles to follow.

What those vehicles will look like and where they will take the next group of astronauts remain issues of contention. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who likened President Barack Obama to President Kennedy as another "young president" who identified and seeks to address a national need, said that "we stand at a Moon shot moment once again."

This sense of hope about the future of the human spaceflight program -- contrasting with the persisting uncertainty over what will come next for NASA - was not only reflected in the NASA leadership. Nichelle Nichols, who took part in recruiting the first women and minority astronauts that would reprise her television role in real life, said that "space is part of all of our lives." She spoke with enthusiasm of what the Shuttle program meant for diversity, through which "women and people of color took to space for real." She and others clearly have high hopes for much more to come -- in a spontaneous response to a crying baby, Nichols turned toward the sound and said: "You'll fly. You'll fly next time!"

SpaceX, Orbital, and NASA Reassure Congress on Commercial Cargo

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Representatives of the two companies under contract to provide commercial cargo services to keep the International Space Station (ISS) operating after the shuttle program ends and a top NASA official reassured a congressional subcommittee this morning that they would be ready soon.

Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX, and Frank Culbertson, Senior Vice President of Orbital Sciences Corp., each told the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee that they are confident they can meet their current schedules. Most of the development work is completed, they said, and test flights of their launch vehicles (Falcon 9 and Taurus 2) and capsules (Dragon and Cygnus) are due to be finished by the end of 2011. Cargo services will begin in 2012, they asserted.

NASA's Associate Administrator for Space Operations, Bill Gerstenmaier, also expressed confidence in the companies' abilities to meet the schedules. He added, however, that NASA anticipates delays could happen. Consequently, through pre-positioning spares on the ISS, the orbiting facility could operate for as long as a year after the last shuttle leaves later this summer with minimum resupply requirements, Gerstenmaier said. The space shuttle Endeavour is currently docked to the ISS; only one more shuttle flight, Atlantis (STS-135), remains on the manifest. It is currently scheduled to launch on July 8.

A hearing charter prepared in advance by committee staff shows that on a per pound to orbit basis, it will cost more to use commercial cargo services than launching on the space shuttle or Russia's Progress automated spacecraft. When asked by one of the subcommittee members if those figures were accurate, Gerstenmaier said he would have to look at the numbers carefully and respond at a later time.

Whether the companies and NASA were persuasive was not immediately evident. In press releases immediately after the hearing, Republicans and Democrats sounded perhaps slightly less skeptical than previously, but made clear they will continue to scrutinize the commercial cargo program. The Republicans went further to say that this was just the first in a series of hearings "to provide close oversight of commercial space launch capabilities."

A webcast of the hearing is available on the committee's website.

GAO Slams DOD's SSA Acquisition Plan

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

In a report released today. the Government Accountability Office (GAO) left no doubt about its assessment of the Department of Defense's (DOD's) plans to enhance its Space Situational Awareness (SSA) capabilities.

"DOD has significantly increased its investment and planned investment in SSA acquisition efforts in recent years to address growing SSA capability shortfalls. Most efforts designed to meet these shortfalls have struggled with cost, schedule, and performance challenges and are rooted in systemic problems that most space acquisition programs have encountered over the past decade. Consequently, in the past 5 fiscal years, DOD has not delivered significant new SSA capabilities as originally expected. To its credit, the Air Force recently launched a space-based sensor that is expected to appreciably enhance SSA. However, two critical acquisition efforts that are scheduled to begin development within the next 2 years--Space Fence and the Joint Space Operations Center Mission System (JMS)--face development challenges and risks, such as the use of immature technologies and planning to deliver all capabilities in a single, large increment, versus smaller and more manageable increments. It is essential that these acquisitions are placed on a solid footing at the start of development to help ensure their capabilities are delivered to the warfighter as and when promised. GAO has consistently recommended that reliable acquisition business cases be established, such as maturing technologies prior to development start, utilizing evolutionary development, and stabilizing requirements in order to reduce program risks. For efforts that move forward with less mature technologies, assessments of the cost, schedule, and performance implications of utilizing backup technologies, if they exist, could provide the knowledge needed to determine whether the efforts are worth pursuing or the investment trade-offs that may need to be made."

Events of Interest


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