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Bolden Summarizes Recent Trip to China

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

Last week, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden had an "all hands" meeting with Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) employees. Among the topics was a brief summary of his recent trip to China. Other than a brief press release after the trip, few details have publicly emerged until now.

Traveling there with Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Space Flight, and Peggy Whitson, Chief of the Astronaut Office, Bolden said "we got an opportunity to see everything." That is in contrast to the 2006 trip by then-NASA Administrator Michael Griffin where the NASA group reportedly was provided little access to Chinese space facilities. Gerstenmaier and astronaut Shannon Lucid were part of the 2006 delegation.

Bolden reported that his NASA delegation started in Beijing and visited "most of their facilities where they produced the Long March" rocket, and also traveled to the Gobi Desert. China launches its human spaceflight missions from the Jiuquan launch center there. It is the original Chinese space launch site (now there are two more and a fourth under construction) and is the site for launching many Chinese satellites destined for high inclination orbits, including those that support military space missions.

He said that he stressed to the Chinese that if they are seeking to cooperate with the United States in space that "they will have to demonstrate to us that they could be transparent in all dealings," "demonstrate that they were willing to exercise reciprocity," and the cooperation "had to be mutually beneficial to both nations." He also emphasized that he went there to listen, not "to propose or to make any deals or anything." The latter was a matter of controversy before the trip. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and others in Congress insisted that Bolden assure them before the trip that he would not broker any deals on human spaceflight cooperation while he was in China.

During the MSFC meeting, Bolden observed that the Chinese were "struggling right now with how they split up responsibility for programs," and that the head of their human spaceflight program is also in charge of the Chinese anti-satellite program, which he found ironic. He did not name the individual, but said that his host started the conversation by saying that China does not need the United States and vice versa, but that if the two worked together "the incredible," according to Bolden's account.

Many other topics, mostly domestic, were also discussed. A transcript provided to by NASA is available here. Space News, which first revealed the existence of the transcript in a story posted Friday, reported that the meeting was held on November 16. NASA provided the transcript to upon request. It does not appear to be posted on any of NASA's websites as of this moment.

The Space Show's Interview with Laura Delgado Now Online

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

The Space Show's interview with correspondent Laura M. Delgado is now available on the Space Show's website.

For those of you who couldn't listen live yesterday, here is your chance to hear this really interesting discussion about how corporations are portrayed in science fiction movies and whether that could influence public perception of space commercialization efforts. On that home page, scroll down to the list of shows and select the one for November 19. It takes a while to download -- please be patient.

Space Agency Heads Endorse Declaration for More International Cooperation

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Representatives of 28 space agencies from around the world endorsed a declaration calling for increased international cooperation at a "summit" sponsored by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) on November 17.

The declaration makes recommendations from IAA to the world's space agencies in four areas: human spaceflight, robotic planetary exploration, climate change, and disaster management. It concludes that a "consensus widely recognized is that many global challenges to come can better be solved by countries working together." A larger circle of partners is needed, it says, but "confidence, trust, transparence [sic] and best practice sharing will have to be the key points for reducing impediments while promoting a safe and responsible use of space." The IAA unveiled studies written by IAA members in each of the four areas at the summit.

Read a summary of the meeting by looking under "Our Meeting Summaries" on the left menu or simply by clicking here.

Outlook for FY2011 Appropriations Remains Murky

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

The U.S. government is operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) that expires on December 3. Congress must do something to keep the government operating after that date, but what it will do remains unclear: pass another short-term CR, pass a CR for the rest of FY2011, or pass an omnibus appropriations bill that funds all government agencies. The total price of the omnibus bill is about $1.1 trillion.

On Thursday, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said that voters made clear that they do not want Congress "passing massive trillion dollar bills that have been thrown together behind closed doors" and he will not support such a measure. Senate Democrats need 60 votes to bring the bill to the floor. There are 57 Democrats, two Independents, and 41 Republicans currently in the Senate.

Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, nonetheless is hopeful that he will be able to get some Republican votes now that his committee has agreed with Republicans to cap the omnibus bill at $1.108 trillion instead of the $1.114 trillion Democrats wanted, according to the National Journal (subscription required).

Senator McConnell also recently came out against earmarks, which he previously supported. The publication quoted Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who chairs the Senate Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, reacting to the McConnell statements: "[he] 'was for an omnibus before he was against an omnibus,' she quipped. 'He supported earmarks before he was against earmarks.'"

Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV), outgoing chairman of the House CJS subcommittee, told a Space Transportation Association (STA) audience Thursday morning that NASA would face difficult challenges if it must operate under a CR for an extended period of time. Agencies are not supposed to start new programs under a CR, meaning that the new direction adopted in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act would be delayed, Mollohan pointed out. He added that the additional funds for NASA's earth science program also would be at risk.

Politico said the Democrats "have only themselves to blame ... after failing to pass a budget this year or any of the dozen annual appropriations" bills. Apparently anticipating that an omnibus bill cannot be passed, the White House wants a year-long CR according to Politico, because a short-term CR would mean that the budget would have to be taken up again early next year when Republicans have control of the House giving them "a powerful vehicle to advance not just their budget agenda but also health care riders early in the next Congress."

Mollohan Uncertain About Appropriations, Skeptical on Earmark Ban, Proud of EOS and Hubble

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV), outgoing chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee, which funds NASA, spoke to the Space Transportation Association on November 18, 2010. He said he did not know whether Congress would pass another Continuing Resolution (CR) or an omnibus appropriations bill to fund the government after December 3, and was skeptical than the earmark ban called for by many Republicans would be a permanent ban. He praised, in particular, NASA's Earth Observing System and Hubble Space Telescope programs as highlights of his involvement with NASA over the 28 years he has been in Congress. Read a summary of his remarks.

Senate Hearing on NASA Authorization Act Postponed to December 1

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

The Senate Commerce Committee's hearing on implementation of the NASA authorization act has been postponed to December 1 according to the committee's website.

It's Snowing in Space!

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

It's snowing at Comet Hartley 2! NASA's EPOXI spacecraft flew by the comet on November 4 and discovered that the comet is ejecting what is essentially snowballs into space.

Fluffy particles of water ice ranging in size from golf balls to basketballs are being released through the ends of the comet via carbon dioxide jets said EPOXI scientists at a NASA press conference today. Stereo images from the spacecraft show that the snowballs are behind and in front of the comet's nucleus "making it look like a scene in one of those crystal snow globes," said Brown University's Pete Schultz. At least nine of the snowballs hit the spacecraft, but did not damage it.

The rocky ends of the comet where the snowballs are escaping is quite different from the mid-section, which is smooth and releases water through a different process. There water ice turns into water vapor, which is similar to what was observed at Comet Tempel 1 when it was visited by this same spacecraft in 2005. At that time it was named Deep Impact. EPOXI principal investigator Michael A'Hearn of the University of Maryland said they looked for ice particles at Tempel 1, but did not find any.

NASA and space agencies in other countries have been sending spacecraft to study comets for 25 years. Scientists believe they hold clues to understanding the formation of the solar system.

NASA's next spacecraft encounter with a comet is only three months away. On February 14, 2011, Stardust-NExT will reach Temple 1 to study the comet five years after Deep Impact was there. It will try to image the crater created by Deep Impact and study other features both to compare with the images taken by Deep Impact and look at other areas not yet observed. Like Deep Impact, which was given a second assignment after successfully completing its primary mission, Stardust-NExT is an extended mission for the Stardust spacecraft.

Discovery Will Launch No Earlier Than December 3

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Engineers need more time to analyze and repair space shuttle Discovery and the launch date for the orbiter's last mission will be no earlier than December 3, 2010 NASA decided today.

A news conference that was scheduled for November 22 has been cancelled.

Program managers will meet on November 29 to assess the progress of the repairs. If December 3 is the chosen launch date, it will be a night launch at 2:52 am EST.

Baby Black Hole Discovered?

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 17-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

Astronomers using NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory announced that they may have detected the youngest black hole in the vicinity of Earth. Though there are other theories to explain what they are observing, the top choice is that a black hole is forming from the remnants of supernova (SN) 1979C, which was discovered by an amateur astronomer and confirmed by other astronomers in 1979. If correct, the black hole would be only 30 years old based on when observations began.

Supernova 1979C, located 50 million light years away in the M100 galaxy - nearby in astronomical terms - was caused by the collapse of a star 20 times the mass of our Sun. X-ray data from Chandra and other space observatories, including Germany's ROSAT, have revealed "steady, bright" x-ray emissions since 1995. This high luminosity may be the sign of material being sucked into the black hole.

"If our interpretation is correct, this is the nearest example where the birth of a black hole has been observed," said Daniel Patnaude of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics at a NASA press conference yesterday. Avi Loeb, also from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center explained that about 20% of all core collapsed supernovae are thought to end up as black holes.

Astronomers hope continued observations will help confirm their black hole theory, but another possibility is that they are seeing the formation of a "neutron star with a powerful wind of high energy particles...a 'pulsar wind nebula'" according to NASA's press release.

In any case, further study will help scientists understand how massive stars explode, identify the threshold that determines when a supernova forms a black hole or a neutron star, as well as better estimate the number of black holes in the universe. The discovery may also add validity to using the x-ray spectrum as an indirect tool to identify black holes, said Kimberly Weaver of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. She added that this would be the first time "we know the exact birth date of a black hole" and that now investigators can "watch how it evolves and changes." This is a "detective story" put together by astronomers around the world and "we have almost solved the puzzle," she said.

The results of the current observations will appear in a paper in the New Astronomy journal.

NASA IG Identifies Top Management Challenges, Compliments Agency on Audit Improvement

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA's Inspector General (IG), Paul Martin, has issued his office's annual listing of the top management and performance challenges facing the agency. He also released this year's independent financial audit of the agency. The latter is an improvement over the previous seven years of audits.

According to Martin's Office of Inspector General (OIG), the key challenges are:

  • Future of U.S. Spaceflight
  • Acquisition and Project Management
  • Infrastructure and Facilities Management
  • Human Capital
  • Information Technology Security
  • Financial Management

In the last area, the report notes that for seven years NASA received "disclaimed" audits. The primary reason was that independent auditors could not obtain sufficient usable information from the agency to determine whether NASA was in compliance with relevant government financial standards or not.

At a House Science and Technology subcommittee hearing last year shortly after Mr. Martin became IG and Elizabeth (Beth) Robinson took the reins as NASA's Chief Financial Officer, optimism was expressed that the agency would not get another disclaimed audit. In this report, Martin states that the auditors, Ernst & Young, gave the agency a "qualified" opinion this year. Though not as good as an unqualified opinion, he indicates it is a step in the right direction:

"Over the past several years, NASA financial managers - working with the OIG and the independent accounting firm - have continued to make steady progress resolving previously identified weaknesses and their efforts resulted in the auditors' qualified opinion. While the ultimate goal for the Agency is an unqualified opinion, the FY 2010 results are a significant accomplishment and position NASA well for the future."

Mr. Martin's office posted the Ernst & Young audit today. As in other government agencies, the IG's office is responsible for contracting with an independent auditor each year to determine if an agency is complying with financial accountability standards set by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The one aspect of NASA's financial management that continues to require improvement is accounting for property, plant and equipment (PP&E) and operating materials and supplies (OM&S) according to the Ernst & Young report.

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