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Soyuz TMA-20 Docks with Space Station

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Russia's Soyuz TMA-20 spacecraft docked with the International Space Station (ISS) as scheduled this afternoon, delivering three new ISS crew members. The new crew members again illustrate the international nature of the program, with one from Russia, one from the United States, and one from Italy.

The three join two Russians and an American who have been aboard for several months. NASA hasn't issued a press release about the docking yet or posted a story on the ISS website, but one can read all the news at the European Space Agency's (ESA's) website. Or follow NASA tweets. The docking was at 3:12 pm EST (20:12 GMT).

Omnibus Appears Dead; Dueling CRs Take Center Stage

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Senate attempts to pass an omnibus appropriations bill failed Thursday according to The Hill newspaper and attention now will turn to passing a short term Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government till Febuary. This contrasts with the House-passed CR that would fund the federal government through the end of FY2011.

A number of Republican Senators who had indicated they would support the omnibus package changed their minds under pressure from Republican colleagues according to the newspaper. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell later introduced a CR to fund the governnmet through February 2011, but that conflicts with the House version that lasts through September 2011. House Democrats did not want a short term CR because Republicans will be in control of that chamber beginning in January and thus would have more power to shape FY2011 spending. The Senate omnibus ran into trouble because it contains more than $2 billion in earmarks.

Thus, in these last two days before the current CR expires, it remains unclear who will come out on top.

CR-mania on Capitol Hill

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

This afternoon the House passed yet another Continuing Resolution (CR). The new House bill (H. J. Res. 105) would fund the government at FY2010 levels through the middle of next week in case the Senate does not complete work on a funding bill by midnight tomorrow.

Not many days ago, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) hoped to adjourn the Senate today with the tax package and FY2011 funding completed. The tax package did get through both the Senate and the House and was signed into law today by President Obama.

FY2011 funding, on the the other hand, remains up in the air. The current CR expires at midnight tomorrow, Saturday, December 18. Congress must pass something before that or the govenrment will shut down. The House passed a year-long CR last week, but the Senate has not passed anything. Senate Democrats had hoped to pass an omnibus package containing all the 12 regular appropriations bills, but it included more than $2 billion in earmarks, leading some Senate Republicans to change their minds about voting in favor of it in these anti-earmark times. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) then introduced a 3-month long CR, but congressional Democrats and the President do not want to start the new year with a budget fight so want the year-long CR already passed by the House. So there are three CRs in play: the year-long version passed by the House last week, the 3-month version introduced by Senator McConnell, and the 3-day version passed today by the House.

It's anyone's guess as to when this will be resolved. If members of Congress want to get home before Christmas Eve, they will find a compromise tomorrow. If not, Congress could remain in session until Santa is packing his sleigh -- and theoretically could come back between Christmas and New Year's.

The House will adjourn tonight and return, if necessary, on Tuesday. Any bill must pass both chambers and the House has not considered Senator McConnell's version yet, so the Senate must pass one tomorrow that already has cleared the House if they want the government to continue operating.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that the new House-passed CR was for 5 days, but it is for 3 days, through Tuesday.

GAO Compliments Progress on Export Controls, Identifies Continuing Challenges

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The Government Accountability Office's (GAO's) latest report on the U.S. export control system congratulates agencies for changes already made in reducing the time needed to process licenses and coordinating across multiple agencies, but cautions that challenges remain.

The report makes no new recommendations, but assesses how agencies responded to previous GAO advice. Among the remaining challenges it identifies are developing metrics for determining the effectiveness of the arms export control system, reaching interagency agreement on which items need to be controlled, and obtaining congressional approval for implementing reforms.

One particularly interesting statistic GAO cites is that in September 2010, the State Department had an average processing time of 15 calendar days for export control licenses, down from 43 days in 2006. Also, the number of pending cases is down to 10,000 from 3,500 even though the number of applications has grown by 20 percent annually.

Congressional Endgame Still Unclear

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

In a headline this morning, the National Journal (subscription required) cries "Omnibus Rhetoric Hints at Government Shutdown."

While Democrats in the House apparently have resigned themselves to passage of President Obama's tax deal with Senate Republicans, the endgame for the FY2011 appropriations process remains murky. The House passed a year-long Continuing Resolution (CR) last week to replace the current CR, which expires Saturday at midnight, but Senate Democrats want to pass an omnibus appropriations bill that contains all 12 of the regular appropriations bills instead. The Senate omnibus bill totals $1.108 billion compared with $1.089 in the House CR. The dollar difference is not nearly as controversial as the fact that the Senate bill contains $2.2 billion in earmarks while the House bill has none.

Earmarks have become a symbol of wasteful government spending and all that is wrong in Washington. Republicans in the House and Senate have vowed to force an end to the practice, where members of Congress designate funding for special projects in their home states or districts. But some want that ban to start next year, not this year There's the rub. Republican Senators are among those who have millions of dollars in earmarks in the Senate omnibus bill. Politico reports that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) got $112 million in earmarks, for example. According to Politico, the Senator with the biggest earmark total is Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, with $560 million. Top Democrats also fared well according to Politico. For example, Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, has $421 million in earmarks and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has $252 million.

What does all that mean? Setting aside who got how much for their home states, the key point is whether objections by some in the Senate and many in the House will derail the omnibus bill, or delay its passage beyond the expiration of the current CR. The National Journal reports that Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) is considering whether to force the entire 1,900 page bill to be read aloud during Senate consideration of the legislation. That would take an estimated 50 hours, which could be completed by Saturday, followed by debate on the bill. Final passage might not occur until Tuesday, after which it would have to go to the House for consideration. With the current CR expiring on Saturday at midnight, if another temporary CR is not passed, the government would shut down, sparking the National Journal headline.

Like the final minute of a football game, anything can happen at the end of a Congress. It is only Thursday and there is plenty of time for compromises to be struck. Closing down the government does not appear to be in the best interest of either political party and as the tax bill demonstrates, Washington politicans can decide to find solutions even though individual pieces may be very difficult to swallow.

Three New ISS Crew Members Blast Off

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Russia's Soyuz TMA-20 spacecraft lifted off as scheduled at 2:09 pm EST from Kazakhstan carrying three new crew members for the International Space Station (ISS).

Russian Dmitry Kondratyev, American Catherine "Cady" Coleman and Italian Paolo Nespoli are expected to dock with the ISS on Friday at 3:12 pm EST. They will join the three ISS crew members already aboard: American Scott Kelly and Russians Alexander Kaleri and Oleg Skripochka. To keep up with ISS comings and goings, check NASA's ISS website.

Senator Inouye Introduces Omnibus Appropriations Bill

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

As expected, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI) today introduced a FY2011 omnibus appropriations bill that he hopes will replace the year-long Continuing Resolution (CR) passed by the House last week. It contains the Senate versions of all 12 regular appropriations bills. The National Journal (subscription required) cites Sen. Inouye as saying that he believes he has the votes needed to get it passed by the Senate. It then would have to be passed by the House, however, as the clock ticks down to expiration of the current CR. That law expires on Saturday, December 18. If no new legislation is passed by then, the government would have to shut down.

The Senate omnibus bill contains $1.108 trillion in federal spending for FY2011, compared to $1.089 trillion in the House bill. The Senate bill contains congressionally directed spending items -- earmarks -- while the House bill does not.

The total amount for NASA is the same in both bills, $18.9 billion, and the Senate version generally follows the House bill. A committee summary of the Commerce-Justice-Science portion of the bill that includes NASA says that it provides $825 million for an additional space shuttle flight, however that language does not seem to be in the bill itself. Also, the committee summary says that $1.2 billion is provided for the "Orion multipurpose crew vehicle" while the bill language does not specify Orion. Both the House and Senate bills specify that the new Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle must have an initial lift capability of 130 tons.

Commercial Crew, Climate Change Research Top Concerns of New House Committee Chairman

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), incoming chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, identified commercial crew and climate change research as key space issues in an interview with the Dallas Morning News.

Rep. Hall's skepticism about the ability of commercial companies like SpaceX to reliably and safely take over the government's role in sending people to and from the International Space Station (ISS) is no secret. During hearings held by the committee in 2010, where he currently is the ranking Republican, Rep. Hall made clear that he did not think the time was right to turn that task completely over to the private sector. In his comments to the Dallas Morning News, he was quoted as saying: "I do have [concerns] because it's so important and it's so dangerous and it's so subject to failure. ... I want to be assured that they're not going to run out of money."

NASA's research on climate change was a target of congressional concern the last time Republicans were in control, and it appears that it will be again. The newspaper refers to Rep. Hall as an "unconditional champion of fossil fuels," adding that he intends to appoint Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) as chairman of the investigations and oversight (I&O) subcommittee.

Rep. Sensenbrenner has a long background in Congress dealing with climate change issues and is deeply skeptical of the extent to which it is human-induced. A past chairman of what was then called the House Science Committee, he serves as ranking member of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming in the current Congress. The Republicans have indicated that committee will not continue into the 112th Congress. If he does take the chair of the I&O subcommittee, he will have a new forum to continue that pursuit.

During committee markup of the 2010 NASA authorization bill earlier this year, Rep. Sensenbrenner successfully attached a "Climategate" amendment that would have required NASA to report to Congress on the extent to which its temperature measurements overlap with records of the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia and whether those records therefore were compromised. That version of the bill did not pass, but the East Anglia emails that were illegally made public and interpreted by some as evidence that climate scientists misrepresented scientific findings are likely to be a focus of his investigations. Rep. Hall agrees that looking deeply into climate change issues is important, telling the Dallas Morning News that "I'm interested in the truth on that....There are a lot of people who believe that a lot of decisions were made on the false statements of others."

NASA Names New Chief Scientist

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

Dr. Waleed Abdalati is NASA's new chief scientist. He will take on his new role on January 3, 2011.

Abdalati currently is Director of the Earth Science and Observation Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder and an associate professor in the University's geography department. His speciality is polar ice cover and he has worked at NASA in various capacities in the past.

NASA says that as chief scientist he will represent all NASA's scientific endeavors and ensure they "are aligned with and fulfill the Administrator's science objectives. He will advocate for NASA science in the context of those broader government science agendas and work closely with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Management and Budget."

More X-37B Photos

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

Spaceflightnow.com has posted more nifty photos of the X-37B after its return from orbit, courtesy of Boeing.

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