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Congressional Reaction to NASA's "Section 309" Report on HLV and Crew Vehicle

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

The report NASA delivered to Congress earlier this week in response to section 309 of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act has not gotten a warm welcome. The report informs Congress of the agency's current reference designs for a new Space Launch System (also called a Heavy Lift Vehicle) and a Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle as required by that Act, but cautions that the designs cannot meet the Act's budget and schedule goals.

The bipartisan leadership of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and its Space and Science Subcommittee replied that producing a heavy lift vehicle and a crew capsule is "not optional. It's the law." They go on to say that "NASA must use its decades of space know-how and billions of dollars in previous investments to come up with a concept that works." The statement was made by Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Senator David Vitter (R-LA), the main architects of the law.

Representative Ralph Hall (R-TX), the new chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and a long-time supporter of the human spaceflight program, called the report "only the beginning of a long conversation" between Congress and NASA over the future of that program. Reiterating a sentiment he expressed during hearings last year on the Obama Administration's "commercial crew" proposal, Rep. Hall said that a U.S. capability to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station must be restored and "I'm not convinced that the commercial market is ready to fill that role."

ASAP Calls Lack of Clarity a Key Safety Concern

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

NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) released its annual report today, saying that "lack of clarity and constancy of purpose among NASA, Congress, and the White House is a key safety concern."

The panel, created by Congress after the 1967 Apollo fire that killed three astronauts, advises NASA on how to improve its safety performance. Chaired by Vice Adm. Joe Dyer (Ret.), the panel concluded that despite the signing into law of the 2010 NASA authorization act, NASA's future human spaceflight program remains "uncertain." The lack of a defined mission, the panel says, "can negatively impact workforce morale and the ability to attract and maintain the necessary skill sets for this high-technology venture." A consensus position on "the Agency's future and our Nation's future in space" is needed quickly, they said.

Other issues identified in the report include the connection between acquisition strategy and safety in human spaceflight systems, knowledge transfer from the Constellation program to whatever replaces it, "how safe is safe enough," the relationship between NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in providing oversight for commercial crew operations, the robustness of NASA's Safety and Mission Assurance workforce, safety implications of aging NASA infrastructure, standardization of approaches to dealing with a variety of issues within the agency, astronaut health and longitudinal health study data, challenges with extending the International Space Station (ISS) to 2020, and the risks inherent in depending on a single source -- Russia -- for crew access to the ISS.

Sturckow Named Backup Commander for STS-134; New Launch Dates for Next Two Shuttle Missions

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

NASA announced today that astronaut Rick Sturckow has been named as backup commander for STS-134. Mark Kelly is the commander of the mission, scheduled for launch in April, but is currently focused on his wife's recovery from an assassination attempt on Saturday. Kelly is married to Representative Gabrielle Giffords.

The NASA press release quotes Kelly as saying that he recommended that NASA take this step even though he is "very hopeful" that he will be able to rejoin his crewmates. NASA astronaut office chief Peggy Whitson reiterated in the press release that Kelly remains commander of the mission.

NASA also announced new launch dates for STS-133 and STS-134: February 24 and April 19, respectively. STS-133 has been delayed since November because of a gas leak and cracks on "stringers" on its External Tank.

STS-133 is now scheduled for launch at 4:50 pm EST on February 24. STS-134 is expected to fly at 7:48 pm EDT on April 19 (the U.S. changes from standard time to daylight savings time on March 13).

Hutchison to Retire from Senate

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

Politico reports that Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) will not run for reelection to the Senate in 2012.

Senator Hutchison is a strong supporter of NASA's Johnson Space Center and the human spaceflight program. She played a critical role in writing and passing the 2010 NASA authorization act. Among other things, she is credited with convincing her Senate Republican colleagues to allow the bill to come to the Senate floor. The bill passed by unanimous consent.

In a statement quoted by Politico, she says that she intended to leave the Senate "long before now." In fact, she ran for Governor of Texas last year, but was defeated in the primary by the incumbent Governor Rick Perry. Known simply as "KBH" in the Senate, the 67-year old Senator is in her third term.

Doctors Continue To Be Upbeat about Rep. Giffords

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

Doctors at the University Medical Center in Tucson gave another upbeat briefing today on the condition of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Dr. Peter Rhee, head of trauma, and Dr. Michael Lemole, chief of neurosurgery, were both enthusiastic about the progress Rep. Giffords is making, though also cautious that there is still a long way to go. Four other victims of the shooting are in fair condition at the hospital and one is being discharged today, they reported. Six people were killed in Saturday's attack on Rep. Giffords while she held a constituent event in Tucson.

They confirmed what President Obama announced in his speech in Tucson last night that Rep. Giffords had opened her eyes just after he and Mrs. Obama visited her. Dr. Lemole spoke about it from a medical standpoint. He explained that it demonstrated that not only is her brain functioning in a manner where she can follow commands, which they knew, but that the "arousal center" that tells the body to awaken also is functioning. He was present when she opened her eyes along with family members, including her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, and Members of Congress. (Other reports identified the latter as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL)).

Lemole said that medically speaking it also indicated that Rep. Giffords is becoming aware of her surroundings. Today they are doing "aggressive physical therapy" and have her sitting up "dangling from the side of the bed," which gives them the opportunity to determine the strength in her legs. They were delighted to see that she is able to lift both legs on command. The bullet tore through the left side of her brain, which controls movement on the right side of her body, so the fact that she could move both legs is very encouraging.

The next major medical milestone will be removing her breathing tube, which will allow doctors to assess her ability to speak. Dr. Rhee said they might remove it in the next few days, but was cautious about the timing. The doctors made it clear they are concerned about the potential for "backsliding" or the development of other medical issues -- such as blood clots -- if they move too quickly.

In response to a question, Dr. Lemole said that miracles happen every day in medicine and doctors sometimes like to think it is their doing, but they know full well that "a lot of medicine is outside our control."

NASA ReportsTo Congress on the HLV and Crew Vehicle Reference Designs

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Jan-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

As required by section 309 of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, NASA has submitted a report to Congress on its reference designs for a new Space Launch System (SLS), more commonly known as a Heavy Lift Vehicle, and a new Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). However, they do not meet the budget and schedule goals of that Act, according to the agency.

Sounding a positive note amid the continuing budget uncertainty, the report begins by stating that "This is a time of opportunity for NASA to shape a promising future for the Nation's space program. Today it is no longer a question of IF we will explore, but how."

Emphasizing that the guidance received from the NASA Administrator is that the systems be "affordable, sustainable, and realistic," the report goes on to say that NASA studies to date have not yet identified "heavy lift and capsule architectures that would both meet all SLS requirements and these goals." Instead, the agency has selected reference designs for both vehicles that they believe most closely align with the requirements of the Act, but "to be clear, neither Reference Vehicle Design currently fits the projected budget profiles nor the schedule goals" provided in the Act.

In particular, a first flight in 2016 does not appear possible within realistic budget assumptions, NASA says.

STS-133 Now Scheduled for February 24

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Jan-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

At a press conference this afternoon, NASA officials announced that the new launch date for STS-133 (Discovery) is February 24. They also said that the launch date for STS-134 (Endeavour) may slip to April 18, and they are "chatting" about a late August date for the final shuttle mission, STS-135.

The Discovery launch has been delayed since November 5 first because of a gas leak, and then because of cracks that were discovered in "stringers" on the External Tank (ET). Space shuttle program manager John Shannon described in great detail the detective work shuttle engineers undertook to determine the root cause of the stringer problems -- low fracture toughness combined with assembly stresses. They are installing "radial blocks" on the stringers and are confident that it will resolve the issue. He later added that they expect that the ET for the STS-135 mission will have the same problems and require the same fix, but the tank for STS-134 is from an earlier lot and likely is not affected. NASA plans to do a tanking test for STS-134 and then x-ray the side of the ET that is accessible on the launch pad to confirm that it is OK. That would slip the launch date for STS-134 from April 1 to April 18.

STS-134 at one time was expected to be the final shuttle mission, but Congress included language in the 2010 NASA authorization act directing NASA to fly one more flight -- the "launch on need" mission. Outside the agency, that mission has been called STS-135 for many months, but internally, NASA has been referring to it as STS-335 because it was a contingency mission. NASA Associate Administrator for Space Flight Bill Gerstenmaier said at the press conference that NASA now considers that a "real" mission and will refer to it as STS-135 internally, too. NASA is "mentally shifting gears," he said. He responded to a question about how long the shuttle program can continue budgetarily by pointing out that currently the agency has enough funds though April, which would cover STS-133 and STS-134. The agency will have to wait to see how much funding Congress provides after the current Continuing Resolution expires on March 4. June 28 is the nominal launch date for STS-135, but International Space Station (ISS) Program Manager Mike Sufferdini said that he would like to fly late in the fiscal year to allow as many Orbital Replacement Units (ORUs) -- spare parts -- to be ready for launch as possible. He said they had been "chatting" about a late August launch date as a possibility.

Meanwhile the February 24 launch date for STS-133 required considerable flexibility on the part of the other ISS partners. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is getting ready to launch its HTV cargo spacecraft to the ISS and in order for everything to work out, had to agree to extend its on-orbit stay time to 60 days. The European Space Agency (ESA) also is getting ready to launch one of its cargo spacecraft, the ATV, and the Russians are planning a spacewalk for about the same time as the shuttle would arrive at the ISS. The partners worked together to make the February 24 launch date work, according to Mr. Sufferdini.

Mr. Gerstenmaier stated at the outset that they would not address questions today about the status of STS-134, which will be commanded by Mark Kelly. Captain Kelly is the husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords who is in critical condition after being shot in the head in Tuscon, AZ on Saturday during a public meeting with her constituents. Mr. Gerstenmaier said that "out of respect" today was not the time to discuss the matter and "our hearts and prayers go out to the family and we're really thinking about Mark in everything we do."

State of the Union Address Will be On January 25

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Jan-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

President Obama will deliver the annual State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on January 25, 2011.

Mars Program Update This Thursday in Washington DC

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Jan-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA and the National Air and Space Museum will host a "Mars Program Update" on Thursday, January 13, 2011 at the museum (on the mall in Washington, D.C.). The event is free and open to the public and also will be carried on NASA TV. It is scheduled for 10:30 am - 12:30 pm. Speakers include Steve Squyres, the "father" of the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

President Calls for Moment of Silence at 11:00 am EST Today

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Jan-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

The President has called for the nation to observe a moment of silence today at 11:00 am EST in honor of the victims of Saturday's shooting in Tucson, AZ. The tragedy took the lives of six people and left many more wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), who was the target the attack according to law enforcement officials. Rep. Giffords remains in critical condition.

This is the text of President Obama's statement yesterday:

"'Tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. eastern standard time, I call on Americans to observe a moment of silence to honor the innocent victims of the senseless tragedy in Tucson, Arizona, including those still fighting for their lives. It will be a time for us to come together as a nation in prayer or reflection, keeping the victims and their families closely at heart.'

"The President will observe the moment of silence with White House staff on the South Lawn. The moment of silence will be pooled press.

"Today, the President has signed a proclamation calling for flags to be flown at half-staff.

"Also, the planned trip by the President to Schenectady, New York, on Tuesday, January 11, to the General Electric energy division is postponed. The trip is expected to be rescheduled."

International Space Station (ISS) Commander Scott Kelly, who is Rep. Gifford's brother-in-law, and the rest of the ISS crew will observe the moment of silence according to a NASA tweet.

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