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While funding for the U.S. space program remains an open question with budget talks at a standstill, Google is luring private firms and non-profits to the Moon with $30 million in prizes.
For companies investing upwards of $100 million in their entries, the prize money may not be much of a draw. Yet the prospect of taking the lead in what some expect to be the start of a new wave of lunar exploration - termed Moon 2.0 - may prove to be compelling nonetheless.
A primary driver for many of those involved in the Google Lunar X Prize is not prestige or science, but profit, with companies staking their claims based on a variety of business cases. Moon Express, which was awarded one of three $500,000 NASA contracts as part of the agency's Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data project late last year, "is positioning itself as a future FedEx for Moon deliveries," according to the New York Times. Moon Express, which also plans to sell broadcasting rights and sponsorships to finance its lunar trips, has certainly been making waves. At the recent 2011 Lunar Science Forum, it announced that former NASA Associate Administrator for Science, Dr. Alan Stern, would join as its Chief Scientist and mission architect.
Not every one of the 28 teams in the running is hunting for profit, though. The Juxtopia Urban Robotics Brilliant Application National (JURBAN) team, for example, is made up of professional and student engineers and was formed by Juxtopia, a U.S. non-profit research organization. According to their Google X-Prize profile, the JURBAN team wants to show under-served and disadvantaged populations "that innovatively applying [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] STEM skills can be achieved not only to create something 'cool' and exciting, but to complete a product with world humanity impact and pride."
Another team, the German-Chinese Selene, seeks to promote cooperation between the two countries and to "dispel the myth that China's design and engineering prowess is merely the product of reverse engineering," according to their website. They add that their success may contribute to the broader space science community and "provide support to the ongoing humanitarian efforts to achieve better living conditions here on Earth."
Whether one of these or any of the active teams will make it to the finish line is anyone's guess. Five teams have pulled out of the race in the last couple of years, often pointing out challenges of a non-technical nature, such as bureaucratic and organizational obstacles. A lot may change as the December 2015 deadline nears, but policy shifts in Washington are drawing attention to private ventures as a plausible alternative to government missions. Soon enough robotic spacecraft sporting company logos as they touch down on the lunar surface may be common....with billions of people around the world watching.
It may not be February 2, but it certainly feels like Groundhog Day on this hot Washington Monday morning.
For those of you following the debt limit/deficit reduction debate, there still is no deal. In fact, the Washington media are making clear that no deal is in sight just one week from the August 2 deadline for when the debt limit must be raised.
On Friday, House Speaker John Boehner walked out of the White House-led talks -- though he was back again briefly on Saturday morning -- and is now working on his own plan. It was supposed to have been announced yesterday afternoon, but that did not happen. Reports this morning are that he will offer a two-step approach expected to garner no Democratic votes in the House, meaning it would be dead in the Senate. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid reportedly is working on a one-step plan that probably will be unpalatable to Republicans. Both call for deep spending cuts, so in terms of NASA, NOAA and DOD space programs, nothing has changed -- the future will involve sharp constraints on funding.
The Boehner plan reportedly will propose a $1 trillion raise to the debt ceiling, which will take the nation through to January 2012, in exchange for $1 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years. Between now and January, a congressional commission would come up with deeper spending cuts for that 10-year period, including to entitlements, that would operate the way the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commission did where the House and Senate would have to vote up or down on its recommendations -- no amendments could be offered. Then another vote on raising the debt limit would be required.
President Obama has made clear that he does not want to go through this all over again in 2012, an election year for himself, the entire House and one-third of the Senate. The likelihood for bipartisan agreement would be even less likely then. He wants a one-time raise to the debt limiit to take the country through 2013 in exchange for $4 trillion in deficit reduction through spending cuts and tax increases.
Senator Reid reportedly is coming up with such a plan that has deeper spending cuts than the Boehner plan -- $2.7 trillion over 10 years -- in exchange for raising the debt limit through 2013.
Meanwhile, a Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that 80 percent of Americans are "either dissatisfied or angry about the way the federal government is working."
Stay tuned. Hopefully a compromise will be reached very soon. If not, the country will learn just exactly what does happen when the government defaults on its debt. Pundits are expecting that the financial markets around the world may make their views known beginning today.
E. William "Bill" Colglazier is the new Science and Technology Adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Colglazier, a theoretical physicist by training, most recently served as Executive Officer of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council (NRC). Previously he headed the NRC's Office of International Affairs; was a physics professor and Director of the Energy, Environment and Resources Center at the University of Tennessee; and worked at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. In 1976-1977, he was a AAAS Fellow working for the late Congressman George E. Brown (D-CA).
The Office of Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State was established in response to a 1999 NRC report. Norman Neureiter was the first S&T adviser to the Secretary of State from 2000-2003. He was followed by George Atkinson. Nina Federoff served in that position from August 2007 - July 2010.
We have once again updated our checklist of space-related legislation working its way through the 112th Congress.
We've added the bill and report number for the Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill, which are now formally introduced.
We also have added the Financial Services appropriations bill to the list of legislation we are tracking, for those of you who are interested in the LightSquared issue (section 603 of that bill).
Since we are folllowing six appropriations bills with important space-related items in them -- though some have little or no money associated with them -- we also have added a crosswalk table to indicate which issue is in which bill.
The updated checklist is available by clicking here or looking on our left menu under "Our Fact Sheets and Reports."
Kathy Sullivan, former astronaut and current Deputy Administrator of NOAA, will testify to the Senate Appropriations Committee next week.
The committee is looking at how to mitigate the impact of severe weather events through long-term budget planning. Other witnesses are from the Small Business Administration, the Government Accountability Office, University of Illinois (a professor of atmospheric sciences), and the Reinsurance Association of America.
The hearing, "Federal Disaster Assistance Budgeting: Are We Weather-Ready?," will be held in 138 Dirksen Senate Office Building on July 28 at 2:00 pm. Times, dates and witnesses for congressional hearings are subject to change; check the committee's website for up to date information.
NASA will hold a press conference to discuss the upcoming Juno mission to Jupiter next week.
The press conference will be held at Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday, July 27 at 1:00 pm EDT. It will be carried on NASA TV. Juno is scheduled for launch from the adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on August 5. The launch window is open until August 26. It will reach Jupiter in July 2016 and remain in orbit for about one year and then plunge into Jupiter's gaseous atmosphere.
Juno is the first solar powered spacecraft to travel so far from the Sun. Usually such probes require nuclear power sources because the Sun's energy is too diffuse at that distance -- 25 times less than on Earth. The solar panels thus are quite large, and the spacecraft will be in a highly elliptical orbit to avoid Jupiter's radiation field and its shadow.
The last NASA probe to visit the Jovian system was Galileo, which studied the planet and its many moons.
Hans Mark, former Secretary of the Air Force and former NASA Deputy Administrator, will testify to a House Armed Services Committee (HASC) subcommittee next week about defense investments in technology to meet emerging threats.
Mark, currently a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is a renowned figure in aerospace engineering, defense policy, and space policy. National Journal's Daybook (subscription required) lists Mark as one of the witnesses although the Committee's website does not yet. Other witnesses according to Daybook are from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the National Defense University's Center for Technology and National Security Policy, and the Pipeline Financial Group.
The Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee hearing is on July 26 at 1:30 pm EDT in 2212 Rayburn House Office Building. Times, dates and witnesses for congressional hearings are subject to change; check the committee's website for up to date information.
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. The House and Senate both are in session next week.
During the Week
The debt limit/deficit reduction talks undoubtedly will be the focus of attention in Washington next week. Even if agreement is reached over the weekend, as many hope, a bill will have to be written, passed by the House and Senate, and signed into law. This past week has been a roller coaster of announcements that a deal was near, but no, it wasn't, but yes, things were looking up, but no, Speaker Boehner had walked out of talks with the President. Everyone is very frustrated and meanwhile the magic date of August 2 is closing in fast. The President and most others say that the debt limit must be raised by then or there will be "catastrophic" economic consequences for the United States. The current debt limit of $14.3 trillion was reached in May; the Treasury Department is keeping the nation solvent by not paying into the retirement accounts for federal workers. The obstacle to a deal is that Republicans will not vote to raise the debt limit until there is agreement on spending cuts to reduce the deficit. Democrats are willing to adopt some spending cuts, but also want tax increases to reduce the deficit. So far the Republicans have not been willing to compromise on tax increases.
Meanwhile, the House and Senate are keeping busy working on other matters. On Monday, the House is scheduled to start debate on the Interior and Environment appropriations bill. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is part of the Department of the Interior. USGS operates the two functioning Landsat satellites and in the FY2012 budget request proposes to take over the Landsat program completely from NASA. NASA is currently building Landsat 8 and USGS is planning for Landsat 9 and 10. The House Appropriations Committee, however, denied that request in its markup of the bill (H.R. 2584, H. Rept. 112-151), while expressing its support for the Landsat program overall.
The congressional schedule is always subject to change.
Monday, July 25
- House scheduled to begin floor debate on the the Interior-Environment appropriations bill (H.R. 2584)
Tuesday, July 26
Wednesday, July 27
Thursday, July 28
Thursday-Saturday, July 28-30
- Space Frontier Foundation NewSpace 2011 conference, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA
A CNN poll conducted just before the STS-135 Atlantis mission ended, and with it the space shuttle program, found that half of those polled think that it is bad for the United States.
The poll was conducted July 18-20; STS-135 landed on July 21. Half said the end of the shuttle program was bad for the country, 16 percent said it was good for the country, and one-third said it would have no effect.
Three-quarters of those polled think the United States should build a new system to take astronauts into space, but only 38 percent think the government should build it. The private sector should handle spaceflights in the future according to 54 percent of those polled and nearly 90 percent believe that will happen.
The sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The decision to terminate the space shuttle program was made in 2004 by President George W. Bush, and upheld by President Obama when he took office in 2009. The shuttle program cost about $3 billion per year and both Administrations wanted to use the money for other NASA purposes.
NASA announced today that its next Mars rover, Curiosity, will land at Gale Crater on Mars.
The probe, also called the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), is scheduled for launch this fall and will land on Mars in August 2012. It will use an innovative method of delivering the lander to the surface that involves a "sky hook" that will lower the spacecraft using cables from its descent stage. The landing site will be at the foot of a layered mountain inside the crater.
NASA has sent several probes to flyby, orbit or land on Mars since the 1960s. The first to land on the surface were Viking 1 and 2 in the 1970s. They both were orbiter-lander pairs, and a signal from the Viking 1 orbiter was sent to Earth to trigger the ribbon cutting ceremony that opened the National Air and Space Museum, the venue for today's announcement, on July 1, 1976.
Viking was specifically designed to determine if there was life on Mars, but the results were inconclusive. They also were stationary landers and could not move around the surface. Curioisty is a rover and its primary purpose, like Viking, is the search for evidence that life exists or existed on Mars.
Events of Interest
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