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NASA Leaders Sound Optimistic Note, Atlantis Readies for Docking

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

The STS-135 Atlantis crew completed an inspection of the orbiter's heat shield using the shuttle's robotic arm today. The images will be analyzed on the ground to determine if there was any damage during launch yesterday.

Docking is scheduled for Sunday.

President Obama issued a statement of congratulations, saying that while this is the final space shuttle mission, it is the beginning of "the next chapter of our preeminence in space."

That certainly was the theme reiterated again and again by NASA leaders in Florida in the days leading up to and including the launch as it has been in Washington for many months.

At the post-launch press conference yesterday, NASA Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Director Bob Cabana struck a determined note to emphasize that although change is hard, it is necessary. "Change is difficult. But you can't do something else, you can't do something better, unless you go through change." Taking issue with those who feel that the human spaceflight program is directionless now, he said "we do have a plan" with commercial crew and the International Space Station and a new heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV) to go beyond low Earth orbit. He pointed out that one of the two space shuttle pads, 39B, is being upgraded even though there are no funds for a similar upgrade of pad 39A from which Atlantis was launched. He sees KSC as a "multiuser" facility in the future. He later added that the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) was in no danger of being bulldozed. NASA will need it for the HLLV and commercial companies may also want to use it, he said.

Many of those in attendance at the launch were surprised to see Atlantis lift off almost on time. After a very rainy day on Thursday and early on Friday, the weather improved and looked promising for the launch itself. Cloud cover was problematical, however, for the extremely unlikely Return to Launch Site (RTLS) abort scenario in which all the main engines fail and the shuttle is forced to return to KSC within about 30 minutes of launch. KSC is in charge of the shuttle up through launch. It then hands off control to Johnson Space Center (JSC), so it was JSC that had to decide if the cloud cover and possibility of showers fit within the RTLS guidelines.

At the press conference, shuttle launch integration manager Mike Moses revealed that "we took a bit of an exception" with the rules, convincing themselves that if rain showers did develop, they would be so localized that they would affect only one end of the runway and Atlantis could land at the other end. An RTLS was not necessary - it never has been in the history of the shuttle program - and no showers developed in any case.

A glitch 31 seconds before launch almost spoiled the day, however. As explained at the press conference by shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach, a signal was not sent to computers to indicate that the arm for the "beanie cap" - or gaseous oxygen (GOX) vent arm -- had retracted and locked. The beanie cap prevents liquid oxygen vapor that vents from the External Tank (ET) from turning into ice. It is attached to the ET until the final minutes before launch. Engineers were able to use a closed circuit camera to ascertain that it had, in fact, retracted, and the countdown proceeded. Launch occurred three minutes late, at 11:59 am EDT, with only 58 seconds left in the launch window.

The celebratory mood of a successful shuttle launch definitely was dampened by the knowledge that many of those working the launch would soon lose their jobs. NASA Associate Administrator for Space Flight Bill Gerstenmaier was asked about the criticism by some of the human spaceflight program's most legendary members, including Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan and Jim Lovell, that the program is adrift. If NASA cannot convince them that the program has a promising future, how can it convince the public he was asked.

Gerstenmaier acknowledged that NASA needs to better communicate with those individuals on the work being done on the new HLLV and the Orion crew capsule since much is being done in-house and has not been made public. "Those were my teachers, those were my mentors ... so I think I incorporate everything that they bring to us in terms of concerns, but we need to communicate with them. ... They may not particularly like it. ... They want us to do even more." He later added that this point in time is not an end, but a transition and NASA needs to explain the new direction to get others "excited with us."

UPDATE: Atlantis is OFF, press conference around 1:00

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: The press conference has slipped to about 1:00 EDT.

UPDATE: Overloaded wi-fi and cell phone networks here are making it almost impossible to post to this website or Twitter. Atlantis got off, but three minutes late due to a last minute hiccup at T-31 seconds. Now awaiting a regularly scheduled post-launch press conference to learn more details.

UPDATE: Atlantis is off!

UPDATE: The weather is a bit better at the moment and the range is "green" -- meaning "go" -- right now. The countdown is in a planned hold at T-9 minutes with launch still scheduled for 11:26 am. NASA says it is "cautiously optimistic" that the launch will take place as planned.

UPDATE: All four crewmembers are aboard, the hatch is closed, and they are preparing to pressurize the cabin.

ORIGINAL STORY: The countdown for the launch of Atlantis scheduled for 11:26 am EDT this morning is continuing. The weather forecast remains only 30 percent favorable, but the skies appear a little lighter at the moment and the mood definitely is hopeful.

The crew just arrived at the pad and the close-out crew is getting them settled in their suits. The first to board, Commander Chris Ferguson, is about to enter the orbiter.

UPDATE: Atlantis Countdown Proceeds Despite Weather

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: It's about 4:45 am and NASA continues to report that they are working no technical issues that would prevent launch at 11:26 am this morning. The only issue is weather. It is overcast here at the press site next to the Vehicle Assembly Building (about 3 miles from the launch pad). The shuttle -- brightly illuminated -- is beautifully visible from here and one can almost believe that the weather will ultimately cooperate. But this reporter is not taking any bets. Follow us on Twittter: @spcplcyonline


Hoping that Mother Nature will give them a break, space shuttle Atlantis mission managers decided to proceed with tanking -- filing the shuttle's External Tank with fuel -- despite the very gloomy weather forecast for today.

Weather has to be acceptable not only at the time of launch, but for a period afterwards in case the shuttle might need to perform a "return to launch site" abort. In that particular type of launch abort scenario, the orbiter would turn around after launch and fly back to Kennedy Space Center meaning that the visibility and other weather parameters have to be conducive to landing as well as launch.

NASA said it would reevaluate the weather again around 6:00 or 7:00 am. At the moment, there is still only a 30 percent chance that weather will be acceptable. Check back here for updates or follow us on Twtter: @spcplcyonline

Deficit Talks Still Topic A in Washington

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Space aficionados may have their attention focused on Kennedy Space Center and whether the shuttle will launch today, but back in Washington, raising the debt limit still dominates the news.

For a brief moment yesterday, hopes were raised that a deal might be struck by the end of this weekend. The President changed the game by proposing that everyone think bigger, trying to cut the deficit by $4 trillion over 10 years instead of $2 trillion. In that case, he said, everything would be on the table, including cuts to Medicare and Social Security. For his part, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) reportedly agreed that under those circumstances, revenue increases also could be considered. Boehner was widely quoted as saying that there might be as good as a 50-50 chance agreement could be reached this weekend.

According to media reports, the two men met secretly on Sunday and those discussions laid the groundwork for yesterday's proposal at a White House meeting among the President and House and Senate Republican and Democratic leaders.

The problem was that the President apparently had not consulted in advance with top Democrats in Congress about the potential of cutting Medicare and Social Security. Democrats traditionally are protectors of those programs. The National Journal (subscription required) quoted Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass) as saying of the President that "I thought he was still a Democrat."

Senate Republicans were not thrilled either to learn that revenue increases were now being put on the table by one of their own party members.

For his part, the President said: "Everybody acknowledged that we have to get this done before the hard deadline of August 2nd to make sure that America does not default for the first time on its obligations. And everybody acknowledged that there's going to be pain involved politically on all sides."

He announced that White House and congressional staff will work through the weekend and he and the congressional leadership will reconvene on Sunday. What will be decided is anyone's guess. For the space program, it is not likely to be good news.

The meetings are to resolve differences between the parties so that Congress will agree to raise the debt limit. The United States Government surpassed the $14.3 trillion limit in May and remains solvent because the Treasury Department is not contributing what it should to federal government employee retirement accounts. It promises to repay those accounts once this situation is resolved. August 2 is the most recent date the Administration has set for when Congress must raise the limit to avoid a government default. Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner uses words like "catastrophic" to describe the effect of a default.

Shuttle Launch Still on For Now at Least

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Kennedy Space Center, FL -- It's raining heavily here at the moment, but the launch of Atlantis is still on for tomorrow at 11:26 am, at least for now. NASA has rolled back the Rotating Service Structure more or less on schedule while it simultaneously investigates whether there was any damage from a lightning strike earlier today.

NASA media credentialers say that 2-3,000 media people have signed up to be here and NASA is expecting a million members of the public to line local highways and byways to watch. Weather permitting, of course.

Everyone is anxiously awaiting a go-no go decision. It could happen any time today or tomorrow morning. Check back here for updates or follow us on Twitter: @spcplcyonline.

Rep. Wolf: "We cannot cede the space frontier to China"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

In an opening statement today for the mark up of the appropriations bill that funds NASA, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) exclaimed that "We cannot cede the space frontier to China."

Rep. Wolf chairs the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, which funds NASA, NOAA and other agencies. Despite his insistence that the United States not lose its leadership in space, his subcommittee is recommending deep cuts to NASA for FY2012. However, as he points out, the subcommittee does recommend more money than requested for NASA to build a new crew space transportation system -- the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and the Space Launch System.. That suggests that he defines leadership in space as leadership in human spaceflight rather than the space program overall.

His strong negative views about China are well known. He included language in the bill that currently funds NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) prohibiting them from spending any of those funds to engage in cooperative activities with China or even discuss them. In his statement today, he also said that the United States needs a "reality check" on China and that a "sense of mission" is need to guide NASA forward to assure U.S. leadership. He set aside $1 million for the NASA Inspector General's office to do a "comprehensive independent assessment of NASA's strategic direction and agency management to help chart a future course for the agency that is bold and achievable."

Mikulski, AAS React to House Subcommittee Action on JWST

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and the American Astronomical Society (AAS) each issued statements today defending the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) in the wake of action by a House appropriations subcommittee to kill the troubled program.

Senator Mikulski, who represents Maryland, home to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center that manages the JWST program, called the action by the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee a "shortsighted and misguided move" that would "kill 2,000 jobs nationwide and stall scientific progress and discovery." She called on the Obama Administration to "step in and fight" for the telescope, which is the successor to the immensely popular Hubble Space Telescope. Operations of Hubble are conducted at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), also in Maryland. STScI is also slated to operate JWST. Senator Mikulski , who chairs the Senate Appropriations CJS subcommittee, is known as an enthusiast for space and earth science research generally.

The American Astronomical Society (AAS), the leading professional society for astronomers and astrophysicists, said terminating JWST "threatens American leadership in the fields of astrophysics and advanced space technology while likely eliminating hundreds, if not thousands, of high-tech jobs."

The House subcommittee recommended terminating JWST because of cost overruns and poor management. The recommendation will be taken up by the full House Appropriations Committee on July 13. Whatever decision is made then still must be considered by the full House, and the Senate also must act on its own version of the CJS appropriations bill. Thus, the subcommittee action is just the first step in a long process.

Weather Still a Potential Problem for Atlantis Launch

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

Everything is "go" for the launch of Atlantis -- the final space shuttle mission -- on Friday, except possibly the weather.

According to NASA's shuttle website, shuttle weather officer Kathy Winters provided the following update today.

"Winters predicted an 80 percent chance of weather preventing tanking operations, with a 70 percent chance of it standing in the way of launch at 11:26 a.m. EDT on Friday. The forecast for the following days improves to 60 percent no-go on Saturday and 40 percent on Sunday."

Updated SpacePolicyOnline.Com Fact Sheet Available on NASA Budget

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

We've updated our fact sheet on NASA's FY2012 budget request to reflect the action recommended by the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee today. The fact sheet tracks the budget request as it works its way through Congress.

House Approps Subcommittee Recommends Deep Cut for NASA, Terminate JWST

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

The House Appropriations Committee today released the draft bill for FY2012 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations that will be marked up at subcommittee level tomorrow. The CJS bill includes NASA and NOAA, and the recommended budget is not good news for NASA.

According to the committee's press release, the subcommittee wants to terminate the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) because it is "billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management."

In total, NASA would be funded at $16.8 billion, $1.638 billion less than what it received for FY2011, and $1.914 billion less than the request.

In these austere budget times, a cut to the request was widely expected, but not to this extent. Republicans are seeking to reduce federal spending to FY2008 levels, but this would be even less than what NASA received that year ($17.3 billion).

In the draft bill that also was posted to the committee's website, the subcommittee recommends that not less than $1.063 billion be spent in FY2012 on the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) and not less than $1.985 billion on the Space Launch System (SLS, or heavy lift launch vehicle) "which shall have a lift capability not less than 130 tons and which shall have an upper stage and other core elements developed simultaneously." Both figures are increases above the NASA request of $916.3 million for the MPCV and $1.690 billion for the SLS. However, the total amount for the Exploration account that includes those systems would be cut by $300 million from the request: from $3.949 billion to $3.649 billion. That means Exploration would have to find an additional $147 million for MPCV and an additional $295 million for SLS while cutting its total budget by $300 million.

The recommendations are just the opening salvo in what is expected to be a long and drawn out battle. The draft bill will be marked up at subcommittee level tomorrow and by the full committee on July 13. The bill can be amended at either of those meetings, as well as on the floor when the bill is debated by the full House. The Senate also must act on the bill, and Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who chairs the Senate CJS appropriations subcommittee, has been a determined supporter of JWST. Even she was taken aback by the cost overruns announced last year, however, and demanded an independent review of the program. That review, chaired by JPL's John Casani, blamed poor NASA management, not technical issues. The project is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor. In response to the Casani report, NASA changed how the project is managed at Goddard and overseen at NASA Headquarters. It was separated from the rest of the astrophysics program and now has its own line in the NASA budget request; the request is $373.7 million for FY2012. Recent rumors have been that JWST would not launch earlier than 2018 and might slip as far as 2023. Last year at this time, the launch date was scheduled for 2013. The subcommittee recommendation now adds the possibility that it might never be launched.

As for the MPCV and SLS issues, NASA already announced that the Orion capsule will serve as the MPCV, but Congress continues to await NASA's overdue announcement of what design it has chosen for the SLS and the associated costs. Rumors have swirled for weeks that an announcement will be made before the final shuttle launch on Friday, but officially Administrator Bolden has said only that it will be sometime this summer. The report was supposed to be issued in January, but only an interim report was provided.

The 2010 NASA Authorization Act (P.L. 111-267) lays out the direction for the U.S. human spaceflight program; a compromise between what the Obama Administration proposed and what Congress wanted. The difference is largely the extent to which the United State should rely upon commercial providers to take astronauts to and from low Earth orbit (LEO) where the International Space Station is located, called "commercial crew," and what systems should be developed by NASA itself as a backup to the commercial systems, but primarily to take astronauts beyond LEO to destinations such as asteroids. The commercial crew program relies on NASA funding to help the companies develop their systems. The law tells NASA to do both -- spend money on its own system as well as provide funds to the commercial companies, but Congress and the Administration disagree on where the emphasis should be in this budget constrained envrionment. Congress wants to focus on a NASA-developed system; the Obama Administration wants to focus on commercial crew. For the past several months, Congress has made clear that it feels NASA is thwarting the intent of Congress in the Act by requesting more money for commercial crew and less for the NASA-developed system for FY2012 than was authorized in the law.

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