Latest News

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.

Shuttle Astronauts Get Extra Day to Work

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

The STS-135 mission has been extended for one day, with landing now scheduled for July 21.

NASA had hoped from the beginning that launch and docking would be nominal and the mission could be lengthened by a day. This will allow the astronauts extra time to stow material on the shuttle to return to Earth. Some of the items are malfunctioning pieces of equipment that NASA would like to get back on Earth to determine what caused the failure.

Today, two of the International Space Station (ISS) astronauts, Ron Garan and Mike Fossum, will conduct a spacewalk to move a failed ammonia pump from its stowed location on the outside the ISS into the space shuttle's cargo bay for return for Earth, for example.

JPSS Would Be Cut Again in CJS Bill

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

NOAA's budget request for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) would be cut again this year if the House CJS appropriations subcommittee recommendations stand.

The subcommittee made its recommendations last week. The full House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to mark up the CJS bill tomorrow. The committee's press release last week sounded like good news for JPSS, saying "an increase of $430 million is included for the Joint Polar Satellite System weather satellite program to ensure the continuation of important weather data collection."

Unfortunately for NOAA, as explained in the draft committee report on the bill that was released today, that is an increase over the amount that it received for the current fiscal year, FY2011, not over the request for FY2012. The subcommittee approved $901 million for JPSS in FY2012, $168 million less than the $1.07 billion request.

JPSS is NOAA's portion of the restructured National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). As NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenko has pointed out in several congressional hearings, Congress's decision to not fund JPSS at the requested level for FY2011 could mean an 18-month data gap later this decade as NOAA's older satellites cease functioning and there are no new ones to replace them. A reduction in FY2012 presumably could lengthen that gap.

House Interior Dept Appropriators like Landsat, But Not at the Expense of Other USGS Priorities

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is proposing to take over the Landsat program from NASA in the FY2012 budget request, but House appropriators are not happy with how the Obama Administration wants to do it.

The House Appropriations Committee's press release last week reporting on the recommendations of its Interior and Environment Subcommittee stated starkly: "The bill also does not provide funding for the President's costly and flawed proposal to transfer the 'LandSat' satellite imaging program from NASA to the USGS."

The draft report to accompany the bill is available on the committee's website and the language there is somewhat softer. "The Committee supports the continuation of the LandSat program beyond LandSat 8 and urges the Administration to submit a fiscal year 2013 budget proposal that does not offset increases for LandSat with decreases elsewhere in the Survey's budget," it says.

NASA is currently building the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM), which USGS calls Landsat 8. USGS currently operates the two functional satellites in this series, Landsat 5 and Landsat 7, and will operate Landsat 8 once it is launched at the end of next year. It has plans for at least two more follow-on satellites, Landsat 9 and 10, and wants to assume responsibility for the program overall. It would set the requirements for the new satellites and operate them, using NASA as its acquistion agent just as NOAA does now for weather satellites, reimbursing NASA for its costs.

The Administration proposed creating a new account in the USGS budget called National Land Imaging, funded at $99.8 million in FY2012. The subcommittee denied that request and retained funding for Landsat in the "Surveys, Investigations, and Research" account. According to the subcommittee's report, $51.8 million is provided.

The full committee is marking up the bill today.

House Could Vote on Restoring Pu-238 Funds Today

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

About 3:00 this afternoon, the House resumed debate on the FY2012 Energy and Water Development appropriations bill (H.R. 2354). One amendment that may come up today would restore funding for the Department of Energy (DOE) to restart production of plutonium-238 (Pu-238), which NASA needs for some of its planetary exploration spacecraft.

Bill Adkins, a principal at the Center for Strategic Space Studies (CS3), tweeted earlier today that a vote is expected on an amendment by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) to restore the $15 million cut by the House Appropriations Committee for Pu-238 production. The committee feels that NASA should pay all the costs associated with that activity instead of splitting the costs between the two agencies as the Obama Administration proposes.

Schiff represents Pasadena, CA, home of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that builds many of NASA's planetary exploration spacecraft. A shortage of Pu-238 for NASA's probes that travel too far from the Sun or remain on lunar or planetary surfaces for too long to rely on solar energy has been imminent for some time. A 2009 National Research Council report called for immediate action, but Congress has denied the Administration's request for DOE funding for the past two years. It appears ready to do so again.

DOE is the only government agency allowed to possess nuclear material and has built all of NASA's nuclear power sources in the past.

House Approps Report Calls for Better NASA Cost Control, Details Proposed Cuts

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

The House Appropriations Committee today released the draft report to accompany the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill. The full committee will mark up the bill tomorrow.

Top-level information on how much funding the CJS subcommittee approved was made public last week. This draft report provides additional details and the subcommittee's reasoning for its decisions. Changes could be made at the markup tomorrow.

In the draft report released today, the committee criticizes NASA for its inability to control costs. The committee praises the agency for adopting the new Joint Cost and Schedule Confidence Level (JCL) approach, but complains that it is "undermined by NASA's willingness to make exceptions and allow projects to move forward at lower confidence levels." It "urges" NASA to stop doing that and "strictly hold all projects to the 70 percent standard." At the 70 percent cost confidence level, there is a 70 percent chance that the project will be completed for no more than the associated cost estimate.

At a separate hearing before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee on the new Space Launch System this morning, NASA Administrator Bolden cited his Naval Academy classmate and current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, as saying that the state of the U.S. economy is the largest single threat to the nation. Bolden added that NASA must take its share of budget cuts, but must do so "smartly."

If the House Appropriations Committee adopts the recommendations of its CJS subcommittee as expressed in this report, Bolden will have his work cut out for him. The recommendation is to cut NASA's budget by $1.91 billion compared to the President's request for FY2012 ($16.81 billion instead of the $18.72 billion requested), or $1.64 billion compared to its current funding level of $18.45 billion. Proposed cuts to the President's request include the following:

  • $100 million from Earth science
  • $374 million from the James Webb Space Telescope, which would zero the account
  • $40 million from planetary science
  • $649 million from space technology
  • $300 million from the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate -- this is a net reduction after a committee recommended increase for the Space Launch System and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and a reduction from commercial crew
  • $283 million from the Space Operations Mission Directorate, of which $60 million is provided in the Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration account instead for activities that are part of the 21st Century Launch Complex effort. The committee would cut $117 million from the space shuttle program. It says the remaining funds, $548 million, should be enough to cover NASA's liability for the pension plan for shuttle workers.
  • $142 million from Cross Agency Support
  • $26 million from Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration -- a net reduction after the committee's movement of $60 million to this account from Space Operations
  • $1 million from the Office of Inspector General (IG), although it directs ESMD to use $1 million of its funds for a study on the future of the human exploration program to be conducted by the IG office

The committee would provide NASA with additional flexibility on how to manage the cuts by not specifying the amounts of funding for each of NASA's projects and activities. Instead, it specifies amounts at the theme level, allowing NASA to decide how to spend the funds within that theme.

For a table comparing the President's request with what the committee is recommending, read our fact sheet on NASA's FY2012 budget request.

UPDATE: Atlantis Docks with ISS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: This has been updated with the current status of the orbital debris issue.

Space shuttle Atlantis successfully docked with the International Space Station (ISS) today.

The STS-135 crew docked with ISS at 11:07 am EDT. Their mission is delivering supplies and equipment to the ISS to ensure that it could operate for as long as a year without supplies that are intended to be taken to the ISS by two companies, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp., under NASA's "commercial cargo" program. SpaceX has had two successful test launches of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle, one of which also successfully tested its Dragon spacecraft. Orbital has yet to make its first flight of the Taurus 2 launch vehicle or its Cygnus spacecraft. NASA is hoping that both companies will be ready for operational flights to ISS early in 2012.

Meanwhile, on Sunday there was concerned that STS-135 and the ISS might have to dodge a piece of orbital debris on Tuesday. According to NASA, U.S. Strategic Command was tracking a piece of debris from a Russian satellite, Cosmos 375, that might come close to the orbiting facility about noon that day and require a thruster burn to move out of the way. Cosmos 375, launched in 1970, was one of the first satellites launched as part of the Soviet co-orbital antisatellite (ASAT) program.

On Monday, however, NASA's Bob Jacobs tweeted that it had been determined the debris did not pose a threat.

Research Award Offered to Find Origin of Life

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 11-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Researchers wanting to focus on the origin-of-life question now have the opportunity to compete for up to $2 million in research funding. But there is a twist: proposals must not include the intervention of an intelligent creator. For Harry Lonsdale, the millionaire chemist offering the award, the research should help prove -- once and for all -- that life is solely the result of physical and chemical processes.

According to AAAS's Scienceinsider, the award is driven by Lonsdale's belief that "the creation of life was probably not an act of God. It was just nature running its course." Lonsdale argues that science has achieved progress toward answering this question and that an answer will soon be available: "The answer will be: God didn't do it, nature did it."

Lonsdale's website announcing the award details strict guidelines for proposals to consider the question of how life originated on prebiotic Earth, encouraging participants to "offer unconventional hypotheses that nonetheless can be subject to experimental validation." This includes a definition of life itself: "'Life' is defined here as a self-sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution."

Including a definition is a surprise in itself. NASA's Astrobiology program, which adopts an interdisciplinary research approach to consider many of these questions in its quest for life elsewhere, is careful not to provide a definition of life. With discoveries such as extreme life questioning old assumptions about what life is supposed to be, researchers may not want to exclude extraordinary, yet scientifically sound, propositions. Still, there may be a synergy between the two initiatives as one of the experts helping evaluating submissions, according to ScienceInsider, is NASA Astrobiologist Chris McKay.

Lonsdale states on his website that "A solution will give every science teacher in the world, from high school to college, a fundamental understanding of how life probably began on the Earth." It may be safe to add that new findings may also impact NASA activities and our understanding of where life may exist beyond our own planet.

Events of Interest: Week of July 11-15, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The following events may be of interest in the coming week. For more information, see our calendar on the right menu or click the links below. The House and Senate both are in session this week.

During the Week

Two key events on the Hill are expected this week for NASA. On Tuesday, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on the Space Launch System that Congress directed NASA to build in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. Recent rumors were that NASA would announce the design of the system before the final launch of the space shuttle, but the launch came and went with no announcement. On Wednesday, the full House Appropriations Committee will mark up the FY2012 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill and agree or not with the recommendations of its CJS subcommittee. Those recommendations include a substantial cut to NASA's FY2012 budget request and termination of the James Webb Space Telescope.

The full House Appropriations Committee will mark up the Interior-Environment appropriations bill on Tuesday. It will have to agree or not with the recommendations from the Interior-Environment subcommittee, which include denying the funding requested by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to take over the Landsat program from NASA.

Tuesday, July 12

Wednesday, July 13

  • House Appropriations Committee mark up of the FY2012 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill (includes NASA and NOAA), 2359 Rayburn, 10:00 am EDT

Wednesday-Thursday, July 13-14

Friday, July 15

Events of Interest


Subscribe to Email Updates:

Enter your email address: