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NASA Plutonium Supplies Still in Jeopardy

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Jul-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

The urgent need for the Department of Energy (DOE) to restart production of plutonium-238 (Pu-238) to fuel some of NASA's planetary spacecraft missions was detailed in a 2009 report from the National Research Council. Congress, however, remains unconvinced, at least as to why DOE should pay for it.

Under the Atomic Energy Act, DOE is responsible for the nation's nuclear materials and facilities, so last year the full request of $30 million to restart Pu-238 production was included in the DOE budget request. Congress declined to provide the funding because the Administration had not demonstrated why DOE should pay for it instead of NASA.

For the FY2011 request, the Administration split the costs between the two agencies, but the Senate Appropriations Committee still is not convinced as to why DOE should have to pay any of the costs. In its report on the FY2011 Energy-Water appropriations bill (S. 3635, S. Rept. 111-228, pp. 92-93), the committee says the following:

"The Committee understands that the United States no longer has the capability to produce plutonium-238, which is a critical source of power for NASA space missions, and that a shortage of this radioisotope may affect future NASA missions. However, Pu-238 is not needed for any DOE or [National Nuclear Security Administration] missions, including national security applications. As NASA will be the only user of Pu-238, the Committee believes NASA should pay for the entire service through a similar work for others arrangement that DOE has with the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies."

The NASA funding appears to be intact in the Senate committee's Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill (H.R. 3636, S. Rept. 111-229). The House Appropriations Energy-Water subcommittee and CJS subcommittee have marked up their versions of the bill, but they have not cleared full committee and the details are not known yet.

Stephen Colbert and Elon Musk

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Jul-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

In case you missed it, here's a link to the funny and delightful interview of Elon Musk by comedian Stephen Colbert.

Congress Sends FY2010 Supplemental to the President, Constellation Language Included

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jul-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Congress passed the FY2010 supplemental appropriations bill (H.R. 4899) and sent it to the President yesterday. The final version is the same as that which passed the Senate on May 27 according to documents posted on the House Appropriations Committee's website. That version includes further direction to NASA to continue the Constellation program in FY2010.

The primary purpose of the bill is to fund war operations. Secretary of Defense Gates has been anxious that Congress complete action on the bill, but passage was slowed by debate over whether it should fund other "emergencies" such as keeping teachers employed. The House added such funding, but the Senate rejected it. House Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey (D-WI) cast a "no" vote saying he believed the bill would serve only as a "recruiting incentive for those who most want to do us ill" and called it a bill that is "a good indication of the tensions and false choices that we face," funding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq while neglecting domestic emergencies in education and border security.

As passed, the bill includes the Senate-added language that reinforces direction in the FY2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act that NASA must continue to fund the Constellation program until directed to do otherwise in a subsequent appropriations act. The new language states that funds that were provided by Congress for Constellation in FY2010 and prior years remain available to be spent on Constellation, and Constellation contracts "may not be terminated for convenience" by NASA in FY2010.

Wolf: U.S. Must Be Number One in Space, Not Cooperate with China

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Jul-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), ranking member of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, argued passionately today that the United States must be the world's leader in space and not cooperate with China. His remarks were made at a luncheon sponsored by the Space Transportation Association.

"I oppose cooperation with China, " he said, citing numerous reasons such as its imprisonment of Catholic and Protestant leaders, its actions in Tibet, and its espionage in the United States. Conceding that "I may be a minority in my own party" in his convictions about China, he urged the audience to "see what they're doing." He criticized President Obama's NASA proposal because he believes it would cede space leadership to China or Russia. Though he declined to state specifically whether he favored the House Science and Technology Committee's alternative to the Obama plan versus the one in the Senate, or predict how it will all turn out, he called on companies represented at the luncheon to "make the case" for the bipartisan effort put into crafting a compromise to ensure that "America is number one" in space.

Noting that apart from Orbital Sciences Corp, he does not have much space business in his district, he emphasized that his interest in preserving U.S. leadership in space is based on his concern about the loss of U.S. leadership in other areas such as manufacturing. "My interest is less in losing something in my district than my country," he said.

His frustration with NASA's unwillingness to answer questions and "backtracking on commercial rockets" was starkly evident, but he said that NASA Administrator Bolden was not to blame.

Predicting that the Republicans will take control of the House in the November elections, he warned against using a lame duck Congress to pass any important legislation since non-returning Members would be focused on finding new jobs rather than national issues. Consequently, most agencies, including NASA, are likely to be funded under a Continuing Resolution (CR) at least until the next Congress convenes in January.

Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX), ranking member of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee, was in the audience and said that the House version of the NASA authorization bill will not come to the House floor this week as hoped. House S&T committee chair Bart Gordon (D-TN) said at the markup last week that they would try to get it to the floor before the House leaves for the August recess on Friday. The House will not return until September 13, an unusually long August recess.

Space Studies Board to Look at "Grand Questions" of Space Science and Exploration

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Jul-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

The Space Studies Board (SSB) of the National Research Council (NRC) will hold a workshop at the NRC's Beckman Center in Irvine, CA in November to look at "Grand Questions" of space science and exploration and how to share the "adventure" with the public.

From November 8-10, 2010 at a meeting that is free and open to the public, the SSB workshop will explore the relationships between the five Grand Questions and the space research program and "how ro convey the value and excitement to the public." The questions are:

  • How did the universe begin and how is it evolving?
  • Are we alone?
  • How did the solar system begin and how is it evolving?
  • Will the Earth remain a hospitable home for humanity in the future?
  • What could the future hold for humans in space?

For more on the workshop and other SSB news, see the latest (April-June 2010) issue of the SSB newsletter.

NPR on the End of the Space Shuttle Program

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Jul-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

National Public Radio (NPR) ran an interesting piece on July 24 about the space shuttle program as it closes in on its last flights.

Klaus Heiss: In Memoriam

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Jul-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

Keith Cowing at NASAWatch reports that Klaus Heiss has passed away. Dr. Heiss was an eminent space economist. Though his economic analyses were sometimes the subject of spirited debate, no one could question his enthusiasm for space exploration and conviction of its economic potential.

Events of Interest: Week of July 26-30, 2010

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Jul-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The following events may be of interest in the upcoming week. For more information, see our calendar on the right menu or click the links below. Congressional activities are subject to change. Check the relevant committee's website for up to date information.

During the Week

  • Rep. Bart Gordon, chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, said that the House may take up the NASA authorization bill (H.R. 5781) this week.

Tuesday, July 27

Wednesday, July 28

Thursday, July 29

Friday, July 30

CSIS Releases Report on the Relationship Between National Security and the Commercial Space Sector

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 26-Jul-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released today a report entitled National Security and the Commercial Space Sector: An Analysis and Evaluation of Options for Improving Commercial Access to Space. David Berteau, co-director of the project, said during this morning's release event that there has been a lot of interest from government in looking at this issue and that the "co-dependency" of these two sectors was not being undervalued.

The report, which builds upon a draft version released last April, includes an analysis of four options - including use of foreign launch providers, and a bigger government role in the domestic launch market - to improve commercial access to space. As related issues continue being debated on Capitol Hill over the use of commercial and foreign space assets, Mr. Berteau explained that the report provides analytical discussion of these options and does not constitute "up front endorsement" of them by CSIS or the authors of the report.

UPDATE: Markup Info for NASA, NOAA bills from Yesterday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Jul-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: A link to the Senate appropriations committee report that accompanies the bill, S. 3636, has been added. The text of the bill itself has not yet been posted on Thomas.

Senate Appropriations Markup of the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations bill for FY2011

House Science and Technology Committee Markup of NASA Authorization Bill

Events of Interest   

Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »


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