Latest News

NASA Delays Mars Probe Launch By One Day

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Nov-2011 (Updated: 06-Dec-2011 04:11 PM)
NASA has delayed the launch of its next Mars probe by one day, to Saturday, November 26.

The delay is needed to replace a flight termination system battery according to NASA's website.  The probe, called the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) or "Curiosity," now will be launched at 10:02 EST on November 26.   The launch window that day is open for 1 hour and 43 minutes.  Overall, the launch window to Mars is open until December 18.

UPDATE: Events of Interest: Week of November 21-26, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Nov-2011 (Updated: 06-Dec-2011 04:10 PM)

UPDATE:  The launch of the Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity) has been delayed from Friday to Saturday.

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 are in recess this week (though pro forma meetings are scheduled).

During the Week

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!!   While most of us are filled with thoughts of turkey and all the trimmings, there are a couple of events to note.

Congress is in recess. but the congressional supercommittee plans to meet through the weekend in the hope (however dwindling) of reaching agreement before the November 23 deadline legislated in the Budget Control Act of 2011 (P.L. 112-25).    The 12 members -- six Democrats and six Republicans, six from the House and six from the Senate -- are tasked with finding a way to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years beginning in FY2013.   Eleventh-hour compromises are all too common in Washington to give up on them so many days in advance of their deadline, though many pundits are already talking about the consequences if they do not.   Under the Act, if the supercommittee fails to reach agreement, or if they do but Congress as a whole does not agree by December 23, automatic spending cuts will go into effect to achieve the $1.2 trillion reduction.  We will be keeping up on the supercommittee's progress, so check back here for news as it develops.

The Russians will continue to try and contact Phobos-Grunt, their Mars probe that remains stranded in Earth orbit.  Attempts so far have been unsuccessful.

Monday, November 21

Wednesday, November 23

  • Deadline for the congressional supercommittee to make recommendations on cutting the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion

Thursday, November 24

  • THANKSGIVING.      With thanks to all of you for reading our website!

Saturday, November 26

  • Scheduled launch of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory -- Curiosity, Cape Canaveral, FL, 10:02 am EST (watch on NASA TV)

Minibus Signed into Law

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

NASA, NOAA and the FAA are three of the lucky government agencies that now know their appropriations levels for FY2012. The minibus appropriations bill, H.R. 2112, was signed into law by the President today.

The minibus combines three of the 12 regular appropriations bills: Agriculture, Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS), and Transportation-Housing and Urban Development (T-HUD). Departments and agencies funded in the other nine bills, including DOD, still have to wait for Congress to determine their FY2012 funding levels. They are now funded through December 18 by a second Continuing Resolution (CR) that was included in H.R. 2112.

The supercommittee continues to struggle to come up with an agreement to cut the deficit by $1.2 trillion, but those changes would affect FY2013 and beyond. The political and national media are full of discouraging predictions about the likelihood of the supercommittee reaching agreement by its deadline of November 23, but the fat lady still hasn't sung. The 12 members of the supercommittee -- six Democrats and six Republicans, six from the House and six from the Senate -- plan to meet through the weekend.

UPDATE: Minibus Appropriations Passes House

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: The Senate Appropriations Committee just tweeted that the Senate is scheduled to pass this bill tonight between 7:00 and 7:30 pm, instead of tomorrow.


The "minibus" appropriations bill that includes NASA, NOAA, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) passed the House this afternoon.

The vote was 298-121.

The bill, H.R. 2112, combines three FY2012 appropriations bills: Agriculture, Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS), and Transportation-Housing and Urban Development (T-HUD). NASA, NOAA and OSTP are in the CJS bill; FAA and its AST are in the T-HUD bill.

Information on funding levels for NASA that are contained in the bill are shown in our NASA FY2012 budget request Fact Sheet. Overall, the agency received $17.8 billion, $924 million below the President's request, but about $1 billion more than the House Appropriations Committee approved earlier this year.

NOAA received $924 million for its Joint Polar Satellite System compared to its request of $1.07 billion. The bill does not include funding for NOAA to reorganize internally and create a NOAA Climate Service as the administration requested. Overall, the bill provides NOAA with $4.9 billion, a cut of $582 million from the President's request, but $400 million more than the House Appropriations Committee approved.

OSTP received $4.5 million, instead of the $6.65 million requested, and the bill includes language prohibiting NASA or OSTP from engaging with China unless certain conditions are met. The House Appropriations Committee had approved cutting OSTP even more (to $3 million) to punish OSTP Director John Holdren for meeting with Chinese officials even though the FY2011 appropriations bill prohibited such meetings without congressional authorization.

FAA's AST received $16.3 million, just over half of the $26.6 million request, but $3.3 million more than the House Appropriations T-HUD subcommittee recommended.

The House never voted on the CJS or T-HUD bills. The CJS bill was reported from the House Appropriations Committee (H. Rept. 112-169), but theT-HUD bill did not get even that far. It was acted upon only at subcommittee level in the House. Nonetheless, the House and Senate agreed to negotiate over the final spending levels in the Senate-passed version of H.R. 2112, expediting the bill's route through Congress.

The Senate is expected to approve the bill tomorrow, which would give certainty to the agencies it covers as to their FY2012 funding levels. The rest of the government, however, would continue to be funded under a new Continuing Resolution (CR). The current CR expires tomorrow. The new CR is included in H.R. 2112 and funds the remaining government agencies, including DOD, through December 16, 2011.

The President is expected to sign the bill tomorrow as well, since the current CR expires at midnight Friday.

Shenzhou-8 Returns to Earth

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Nov-2011 (Updated: 28-May-2012 01:15 PM)

China's Shenzhou-8 spacecraft returned to Earth today (November 17, 2011) after successfully completing two dockings with the Tiangong-1 space station module. Neither craft had a crew.

Bob Christy's website shows the landing site as near 42.1 degrees North, 101.1 degrees East in the primary landing zone in China. The landing time was 11:32:16 GMT (06:32:16 EST).

Shenzhou 8 was launched on October 31 EDT (November 1 local time in China). The first docking occurred two days later, creating China's first space station, albeit unoccupied. Shenzhou 8 later undocked and redocked with Tiangong-1 (Heavenly Palace).

Chinese authorities say that two more Shenzhou spacecraft will be sent to Tiangong-1 during the next two years. At least one of them will have a crew aboard.

Correction:  An earlier version of this article said that Shenzhou 8 was launched on October 31 EST, or Eastern Standard Time, but it was Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).  This version of the article also clarifies that "today" refers to November 17, 2011, the day that Shenzhou 8 returned to Earth, by which time the United States had changed to Standard Time and thus EST is correct in that case.

Senate Passes Minibus, Next (and Last) Stop -- White House

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

The Senate just passed the minibus appropriations bill (H.R. 2112), sending it on its way to the White House for signature.

The bill funds NASA, NOAA, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation among many other agencies.

The vote was 70-30.

The bill also includes a new Continuing Resolution to fund the rest of the government through December 16.

This is good news for the agencies included in the minibus. Whether or not they like what Congress did, they at least know how much money they have to work with in FY2012.

Fight Brewing Over DOD Authorization Bill

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

The Senate began consideration of the FY2012 authorization bill for the Department of Defense (DOD) today under a veto threat from the White House.

The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) had reported out a bill in June (S. 1253, S. Rept. 112-26), but on Tuesday, reported out a different bill that includes a provision DOD and the White House strongly oppose.

The new bill, S. 1867, includes a provision requiring that terror suspects be put under military custody. In a Statement of Administration Policy (SAP), the White House firmly argues against the language, concluding that it would "micromanage the work of our experienced counterterrorism officials, adding that it would be "a mistake for Congress to overrule or limit the tactical flexibility of our Nation's counterterroism professionals." In underscored language, the SAP states that "Any bill that challenges or constrains the President's critical authorities to collect intelligence, incapacitate dangerous terrorists, and protect the Nation" would prompt a veto.

Although that issue is outside the space policy arena, the fate of the bill would affect national security space programs that are authorized by it. In fact, the SAP addresses SASC's action on the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) communications satellite program. "The Administration objects to section 131, which would provide only incremental funding -- undermining stability and cost discipline -- rather than the advance appropriations" requested for procurement of AEHF "and certain classified programs."

The bill caps funding for two AEHF satellites at $3.1 billion, but provides a number of exceptions under which the cap could be raised. The Administration wants to enter into a firm fixed price contract for the two satellites, but bill language states that such a contract should be used only if it would save "not less than 20 percent over the cost of procuring two such satellites separately."

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."

Events of Interest

Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »

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