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Update on the Debt Limit-Deficit Debate

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

As August 2 gets closer and closer, Republicans and Democrats do not appear to be closing the gap in their ideas on how to reduce the deficit, which at the moment is an integral part of a deal to raise the debt limit. The President held another press conference at 11:00 am EDT today to bring the issue to the American public.

To recap: The U.S. Government has debt --the amount of money it owes creditors, and a deficit -- the difference between the amount of money it collects and how much it spends. The bigger the deficit, the more money needs to be borrowed, increasing the amount of debt.

Congress must pass a law allowing the debt limit to increase above its current $14.3 trillion level. If the debt limit is not raised by August 2, most economists, including the Secretary of the Treasury and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, assert that it will be catastrophic for the United States. The government will not be able to pay all of its bills and will have to choose between paying creditors, like China, or paying for current operations, like salaries for government workers -- including those who work on space programs. It would also affect the govenrment's ability to pay for everything it buys from office supplies to spacecraft.

Republicans are using the need to raise the debt limit as a lever to force Democrats to accept deep spending cuts to reduce the deficit. They will not approve a debt limit increase unless the defict is dealt with at the same time. Democrats agree that the deficit must be reduced, but they want a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. To date, Republicans have not been willing to compromise and accept any tax increases. Democrats insist that both sides must compromise, it cannot be one-sided deal.

Talks have been going on for months, but recently have suffered setbacks. No talks are currently scheduled.

The President reiterated in his press conference today that all the congressional leaders -- Republicans and Democrats -- agree that the United States cannot default on its obligations. He said he wants to "seize the moment" and cut a deal that, over the next 10 years, would take government spending down to the lowest level since Dwight Eisenhower was President in the 1950s. That will require tax increases as well as spending cuts, he said, adding that even a majority of Republicans agree that this "balanced approach" is needed. However, an influential and vocal group of Tea Party Republicans in the House do not. They want only spending cuts.

The President called on Republicans to come to him with a "serious plan" for deficit reduction. For their part, today's news is that House Republicans are pushing a "cut, cap, and balance" plan that would cut spending, put a cap on future spending, and pass a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. The latter would require ratification by three-quarters of the 50 states. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is proposing a different plan that would essentially let the President raise the debt limit himself for the next year so he would shoulder the blame in the eyes of American voters. Although House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) did not reject the idea, many House Republicans reportedly are strongly opposed to it.

The Daily Show on the Final Shuttle Launch

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

In case you missed it, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart did a segment about the final space shuttle launch.

Daily Show reporter John Oliver was at the launch, and does a really funny piece about it. Though it's meant for humor, he actually has a good interview with Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell. Two sound bites:

  • John Oliver to Jim Lovell: "So we're going to outsource our hopes and dreams to India?"
  • Lovell to Oliver later on in the segment about people needing to have goals, something to strive for: "To give up on that dream is to give up on America."

But do remember, this is a comedy show.

President Obama Speaks with Orbiting Crews

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

In case you missed it, the video of President Obama's chat with the STS-135 and International Space Station (ISS) crews is now on NASA's YouTube channel.

The President said that he watched the STS-135 launch on TV there at the White House. He thanked everyone who has worked on the shuttle and space station programs.

He inquired about the robotic refueling demonstration the crews will perform and commented on the flag that was brought to the ISS. It was flown on the first shuttle mission and will stay on ISS until the next crew launched from American soil arrives -- a "capture the flag moment" according to the President.

The President also acknowledged the anniversary of the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP), the first time American and Soviet cosmonauts met in space.

Watch the video of the President's chat with the astronauts on YouTube.

NASA and ULA To Announce New Commercial Crew Agreement on Monday

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

NASA and the United Launch Alliance (ULA) will announce a new commercial crew agreement on Monday, July 18, 2011.

ULA is jointly owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin and offers launch services on the Delta IV and Atlas V families of launch vehicles. It won one of the awards in NASA's first CCDev competition in 2010.

NASA issued a press release today that there will be press conference on Monday at 11:00 am Mountain Time (1:00 pm EDT) at ULA's Colorado headquarters to announce a new agreement. The press release did not indicate if the press conference would be streamed live or not, but if so it will probably be at

Strong Tether Challenge Announced for August 12

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

NASA has announced a "strong tether challenge" to be held on August 12, 2011 in Redmond, Washington, as part of its Centennial Challenges competition.

According to the Federal Register notice, the challenge has a $2 million purse and incremental prizes will be offered for entries that meet requirements for strength and mass based on the length of the sample. It will be held as part of the Space Elevator Conference.

Details of the competition are avialable on the Spaceward Foundation's website, which states that the challenge was first offered in 2005 and asks "will this be the year of the CNT tether?," a reference to the carbon nanotube (CNT) material from which they hope someday to build a 60,000 mile long tether to function as a space elevator.

Dawn Spacecraft to Enter Vesta's Orbit Tomorrow

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

NASA's Dawn spacecraft is closing in on its quarry, the asteroid Vesta.

Vesta is one of the largest asteroids in the belt of rocky debris between Mars and Jupiter. Dawn was launched four years ago and has been studying the asteroid during its approach to allow engineers to fine tune the spacecraft's trajectory. As NASA said today, Dawn will "ease up" on Vesta and allow the asteroid's minuscule gravity field to capture the spacecraft into orbit.

That moment is expected late tomorrow night Pacific time, or early Saturday morning on the East Coast. The exact time is 10:00 pm PDT (1:00 am Saturday, EDT) although it will not be until an hour and a half later that NASA will be able to confirm capture during a scheduled communications opportunity. The spacecraft/asteroid duo will be 117 million miles from Earth at that time. By comparison, the Moon is 240,000 miles from Earth on average.

Dawn will stick with Vesta for a year and then move on to Ceres, which once was designated as an asteroid itself, but now is classified as a dwarf planet along with Pluto and Eris. Scientists want to learn more about asteroids because they provide clues about the earliest days of solar system formation and to know as much as possible about any that head on a collision course with Earth.

President Obama wants NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden linked the Dawn mission with that goal at a congressional hearing on Tuesday, although Dawn was planned long before the President's April 2010 announcement. NASA has selected another asteroid mission, OSIRIS-ReX, for launch in 2016. That mission will return a sample from an asteroid designated 1999 RQ36.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the Dawn mission for NASA, while the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) is in charge of the mission science. Germany and Italy are part of the mission team, and Orbital Sciences Corp. built the spacecraft.

UPDATE 2: House Appropriators Complete CJS Markup

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

UPDATE 2: The committee did adopt an amendment requiring NASA to report to Congress on the disposition of the space shuttle orbiters, but there is no financial impact. It also adopted an amendment that cuts $48 million from unspecified portions of the $50 billion bill to provide additional funds to NOAA. Whether that will impact NASA or not remains to be seen.

UPDATE: The committee completed mark up of the bill. We listened to a good part of the markup and none of the amendments that would have affected NASA was adopted, but we will check back with the committee to be sure we didn't miss any. Several amendments took aim at NASA's "Cross Agency Support" account that, with it's non-descriptive name and more than $3 billion, proved to be an "inviting target" in the words of CJS chairman Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA). Members who wanted more money for other NASA activities or even non-NASA activities proposed taking it from there, but Rep. Wolf defended the money in that account, which he said included cybersecurity funds to protect NASA from computer attacks by China.

ORIGINAL STORY: The full House Appropriations Committee has begun its mark up of the FY2012 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill, which includes NOAA and NASA.

The mark up can be watched live on the commitee's website.

Plutonium-238 Restart Amendment Fails Recorded Vote

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Rep. Adam Schiff's (D-CA) amendment to add back the money in the Department of Energy (DOE) appropriations bill to restart production of plutonium-238 (Pu-238) for NASA's planetary exploration probes failed yesterday.

The amendment had been debated on Monday (p. H4847 of the July 11 Congressional Record) and, according to the Record, passed by voice vote. However, Rep. Schiff demanded a recorded vote, which was taken yesterday. It failed 167-257.

NASA Selects Non-Profit ISS Research Management Organization

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

NASA announced today its selection of a non-profit organization to manage research aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The Center for Advancement of Science in Space, Inc. (CASIS) will "ensure the station's unique capabilities are available to the broadest possible cross-section of U.S. scientific, technological and industrial communities" according to NASA.

CASIS will be located near Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Bolden Asks for Patience on SLS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

Selecting the design of the Space Launch System (SLS) will be the most important decision of his tenure, one that cannot be rushed, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told Congress today.

Testifying to the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Mr. Bolden asked for continuing patience on the part of the committee and Congress as independent costs analyses are performed on the design he selected last month.

Committee chairman Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), an ardent supporter of NASA and human spaceflight, already had told Mr. Bolden that "we have run out of patience." He and ranking member Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) shifted the blame from Bolden to others in the Obama Administration who they feel are responsible for the delay.

"It's my understanding that you have had a plan ready to announce for some time, but you haven't been able to get the final okay to make it public," Johnson said.

Bolden replied that they were wrong, that he is, in fact, the "right person to blame." Saying he is the "leader of America's space program," he defended the Obama Administration's decision to take NASA out of the business of launching people to low Earth orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station (ISS). That should be the role of the private sector, he insisted. "I hope I am not the only optimist in the room. I have faith in American industry. I know we can do this."

Committee members complained that the 2010 NASA Authorization Act specifically directed NASA to tell Congress by January 2011 what the design would be for the new Space Launch System (SLS). Only a preliminary report was provided in January, and six months later, there is no new information. The SLS is a heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV) that is intended to be capable of taking astronauts beyond LEO to destinations such as an asteroid.

Bolden acknowledged that NASA is late in providing the information. Recently he had said the design would be released in the summer, but today he told the committee that it might be even later than that. He has asked Booz Allen to do an independent cost estimate to make certain that the design he chose is affordable and sustainable. He noted that the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, which provides NASA's funding, last week recommended a deep cut to NASA's FY2012 budget. If that is what Congress approves, he will have to go back and look at affordability again, he said.

President Obama announced last year that his goal is sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, and specifically not back to the Moon as planned by his predecessor, President George W. Bush. Congress did not agree, however. In the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, Congress specifically included the Moon as one of the potential destinations for future human spaceflight. Today, Bolden agreed. In response to a question he said that "there will probably be reasons to go back to the lunar surface for a ... short period of time" to test systems before committing human to long trip to the Mars. The first destination, however, remains an asteroid as directed by the President.

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