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Two of the five International Space Station crew members, including the current commander, will return to Earth tomorrow, leaving just three aboard the orbiting facility. A change of command ceremony today marked the imminent end of Expedition 22, commanded by American Jeff Williams, and beginning of Expedition 23, to be commanded by Russian Oleg Kotov as soon as Williams departs.
Williams and Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suraev will return to Earth tomorrow on Soyuz TMA-16. Undocking is scheduled for 4:00 am with a landing in Kazakhstan at 7:23 am. "Frigid weather and gusty winds" are predicted at the landing site according to NASA.
UPDATE: This article is updated to include the names of the other Members of Congress who signed the letter.
According to his press release, Rep. Aderholt is asking GAO to determine if "NASA's actions regarding the Constellation program, as well as the extent to which it is working on a new, unauthorized plan, violates law." The FY2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act prohibits NASA from spending any funds to cancel Constellation or initiate a new program without specific congressional approval in a subsequent appropriations act.
UPDATE: President Obama and Senator Nelson had an "excellent conversation" according to Florida Today, quoting the Senator, who also said that "we'll see the fruits of that conversation" on April 15 when the President holds a space conference in Florida.
At the same time, the Orlando Sentinel reported today that Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-FL), who represents a district near Kennedy Space Center, was invited to the White House last week so the President could coax her into voting in favor of the health care reform bill, but "she frequently pivoted the conversation to NASA," and has not yet made up her mind on how to vote. The Houston Chronicle reports that the mayor of Houston, Annise Parker, also is on her way to pressure the President.
The Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee has announced a hearing for March 24 on "Proposed Changes to NASA's Exploration Program: What's Known, What's Not, and What Are the Issues for Congress?" NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Doug Cooke and retired Lockheed Martin executive Tom Young are the scheduled witnesses. The hearing will be at 2:00 pm in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building.
James Dean at Florida Today wrote an interesting article yesterday weighing the pros and cons of the commercial crew approach to sending people to low Earth orbit.
Lori Garver, NASA Deputy Administrator, debuted a set of graphics illustrating the choices between the new plan for NASA proposed by President Obama and the current plan of pursuing the Constellation program during a speech last week at the American Astronautical Society's Goddard Memorial Symposium.
The two Powerpoint slides show NASA's view of its exploration program for the next 20 years (2010-2030) under the Obama proposal versus Constellation. The first slide - with the work NOTIONAL superimposed across the page - is very busy. It shows three sets of activities: commercial cargo and commercial crew flights to the International Space Station (ISS) through 2028, a robust "transformational R&D" effort with technology demonstration flights on the ISS and other "flagship" and "small" technology demonstration flights, and "sustainable exploration" including robotic precursor flights, heavy lift launch capability, in-space propulsion etc. The second slide is almost empty by comparison, showing the ISS and commercial cargo launches ending in 2016, Ares I/Orion beginning in 2015 with a notation that the Augustine committee said 2017, and Ares V beginning in 2024 with a notation that Augustine said 2028.
The following events may be of interest in the coming week. For further details, see our calendar on the right menu or click the links below. All locations are in Washington, DC and all times are Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) unless otherwise noted. Times, dates and witnesses for congressional hearings are subject to change; check with the relevant committee for up to date information.
Tuesday, March 16
Tuesday-Thursday, March 16-18
Wednesday, March 17
Thursday, March 18
SpaceX announced today that it successfully conducted a test firing of all nine engines of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle at Cape Canaveral, FL. The test had been delayed several times, which is quite common in launch vehicle development programs, but attracted significant attention for a variety of reasons. One is the debate over whether commercial companies like SpaceX can take over responsibility for launching people to low Earth orbit instead of NASA. Another is that the tests are leading up to the inaugural launch of the Falcon 9, which could take place at about the same time that President Obama is in Florida to talk about his vision for the space program.
In an emailed press statement that is not yet on SpaceX's website, the company said:
Congress has yet to approve President Obama's proposal to extend U.S. support for the International Space Station (ISS) to 2020, but the partners in the ISS program are working on certifying the ISS for operating eight years even beyond that -- to 2028. That year will mark the 30th anniversary of the launch of the first ISS modules, Zarya and Unity.
There seems to be strong support in Congress for extending ISS to "at least 2020" as proposed by the President, but the cost for operating it beyond 2015 is one of factors cited by Administration officials for also proposing the cancellation of the Constellation program. In their view it is a zero-sum game. If extending ISS operations and investing in more science and technology development activities is desired, then the Constellation program has to go; there is not enough money for it all. The idea of cancelling Constellation has not been warmly received in Congress, however.
SpaceflightNow.com reports that a problem with the space shuttle Discovery could threaten its scheduled launch on April 5. According to NASA, a problem was identified in a helium isolation valve in the Right Reaction Control System. Engineers will meet on Monday to discuss options and April 5 remains the targeted launch date according to NASA, but SpaceflightNow.com says that the "engineering options are limited" for resolving the problem without taking the shuttle back to the Vehicle Assembly Building.
Events of Interest