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Lubchenco Reiterates Weather Satellite Data Gap Warning

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

In testimony to a Senate Commerce subcommittee on Wednesday, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco reiterated a warning she made earlier to a House committee that a gap in polar weather satellite data is "very likely" because Congress is not providing adequate funding for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).

Responding to a question from subcommittee chairman Senator Mark Begich (D-AK), Lubchenco said that because the full-year FY2011 Continuing Resolution (CR) did not contain sufficient funding for JPSS, there will be "at least" an 18-month data gap because the launch date will slip by that many months, to September 2016 at the earliest. The gap will have "very serious consequences to our ability to do severe storm warnings, long term weather forecasts, search and rescue, and good weather forecasts for your State." she told the Senator. Alaska benefits in particular from polar weather satellites since geostationary weather satellites, over the equator, do not have a good view of the polar regions.

When asked if there was a "Plan B," she said that there really were no alternatives and NOAA was trying to "figure out how to miminize the damage." She told the Senate committee, as she did the House, that for every dollar that is not spent now, the country will need to spend $3-5 in the future because contracts will have to be cancelled and restarted, and skilled workers will be let go and rehired.

At the very end of the hearing, Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) wanted to know what was driving NOAA's budget increase of 41 percent compared to its FY2008 level. Lubchenco said that she had not done a comparison with FY2008, but said satellites are the driver of current budget request increases. Defending the satellite program, Lubchenco said "a lot of people" ask "why do I need your satellites [when] I have the Weather Channel, but that's where we get 98 percent of the information that goes into our weather forecasts...Satellites do a wide variety of things that are very important to saving lives and property and enabling commerce in our country."

A webcast of the hearing before the subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard is available on the Senate Commerce committee's website. The discussion of NOAA satellites was a very small part of the hearing, which focused on fisheries issues.

House Passes Symbolic Ten-Year Budget Resolution

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Apr-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

The House passed H. Con. Res. 34 on Friday setting amounts for total government revenues and spending for each of the next 10 fiscal years (FY2012-2021). Overall, it calls for cutting government spending by $6.2 trillion over the next 10 years compared to President Obama's FY2012 budget request (or $5.8 trillion compared to current spending) and brings non-security discretionary spending to "below FY2008 levels." NASA and NOAA are included in that category of spending.

The House and Senate are supposed to agree on a budget resolution before determining annual appropriations levels for federal agencies. As explained in a Congressional Research Service report, the budget resolution "represents an agreement between the House and Senate that establishes budget priorities and defines the parameters for all subsequent budgetary actions." But the House and Senate do not always reach agreement, and sometimes one or both will not pass a budget resolution at all. Last year neither chamber passed a budget resolution. This budget resolution is seen as largely symbolic with no chance of being adopted by the Senate, and President Obama made a speech on April 13 outlining his own fiscal priorities, drawing sharp differences with the House. All House Democrats voted against it, along with four Republicans. The vote was 235-193. The Hill newspaper has an interesting account of the chaotic day on the House floor.

Nevertheless, the House budget resolution will be used to set "302(b)" allocation levels for each of the 12 House appropriations subcommittees establishing the top line amount of money they can spend on the agencies and programs under their jurisdiction. Budget resolutions do not identify funding by agency, but by "Function." NASA's space spending is part of Function 250, general science, space and technology, while funding for its aeronautics programs are in Function 400, Transportation. (NOAA is part of function 300, Natural Resources and Environment. DOD is Function 050, Defense.)

The House Budget Committee's formal report to accompany the resolution (H. Rept. 112-58) notes that about half of the money in Function 250 is for NASA space activities. The rest is for the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy Office of Science, and Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate.

Regarding NASA, H. Rept. 112-58 states that the budget resolution "recognizes the vital strategic importance of the United States to remain the pre-eminent space-faring Nation." It adds, however, that the President's FY2012 budget request for the agency "shifted priorities away" from the 2010 NASA Authorization Act "by allocating $2 billion to commercial cargo and crew and Earth Science climate change initiatives. The budget [resolution] aligns funding in accordance with the NASA authorization and its specified spending limits to support robust space capability."

Total budget authority (BA) for Function 250 would drop from $29 billion in FY2011 to $27 billion in FY2012 and remain there until FY2017 when it increases to $28 billion for two years, then back to $29 billion in FY2019 and FY2020, and finally $30 billion in FY2021. With NASA's space activities being about half that total, it is clear the agency would be operating under severe constraints if this approach was adopted.

No NOAA-specific text is included in the committee's report, but Function 300 would drop from $32 billion in FY2011 and FY2012 to $29 billion in FY2013, then down to $25 billion the next year and vary between $25 billion and $28 billion for the remainder of the 10-year period.

National defense (function 050) would increase from $561 billion in FY2011 to $583 billion in FY2012 and increase steadily to $703 billion by FY2021. Nevertheless, a report issued by the committee, The Path to Prosperity, says that the budget "reflects $178 billion in savings identified" by Secretary of Defense Gates, "reinvesting $100 billion in higher military priorities and dedicating the rest to deficit reduction."

Full Year CR Clears Congress

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

The House and Senate have each passed the full-year Continuing Resolution (CR) that funds the government for the rest of FY2011.

The bill, H.R. 1473, passed the House by a vote of 260-167 and the Senate by a vote of 81-19. It funds NASA at $18.485 billion, The President is expected to sign the bill into law quickly.

NASA Administrator Bolden issued a statement saying that he appreciates the work of Congress and the agency is committed to "living within our means" as well as "carrying out our ambitious new plans for exploration and discovery."

Steidle to Succeed Alexander as President of Commercial Spaceflight Federation

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

Brett Alexander, who has led the Commercial Spaceflight Federation as the Obama Administration embraced commercial crew as the solution to transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station, is stepping down. He will be succeeded by Rear Admiral Craig Steidle (Ret.) as President of the Federation.

Alexander is a well known and respected member of the space policy community who, among other things, worked for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush Administrations. He was one of the key participants in shaping President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), announced by the President in January 2004.

Adm. Steidle was the first NASA Associate Administrator for the "exploration" mandate following the VSE speech. Appointed by then-NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe immediately after the speech, Steidle had won kudos for his management of DOD's Joint Strike Fighter program. His expertise in managing large, complex, technologically-challenging military government programs was cited as a particular strength. He left the agency soon after O'Keefe in mid 2005 and is currently a distinguished visiting professor at his alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy, and a consultant since then.

Steidle assumes the position of President of the Federation on May 15.

In a statement, Federation Chairman Eric Anderson praised Steidle as a "true visionary who knows that commercial spaceflight is the key to unlocking humanity's future in space."

NASA to Get $18.485 Billion for FY2011; See Our Updated Fact Sheet

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Apr-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

We have updated our fact sheet on the status of NASA's FY2011 appropriations. The update reflects the compromise agreement reached by President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Reid, and House Speaker Boehner last Friday (April 8) and the details determined by appropriators and released on Tuesday (April 12).

The bill incorporpating the agreement, H.R. 1473, is scheduled for a vote in the House tomorrow. The House and Senate must pass and the President must sign the bill before the current short-term Continuing Resolution (CR), P.L. 112-8, expires on Friday. Otherwise, another short-term CR will be needed to keep the government operating.

Under the compromise reflected in H.R. 1473, NASA will get $18.485 billion for FY2011. That is $241 million less than its FY2010 appropriations (the level at which it is currently operating), and $515 million less than the President's request for FY2011. Congress authorized the same level as the President's request in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act (P.L. 111-267), so the difference between the appropriation and the authorization also is $515 million. (For an explanation of the difference between an authorization and an appropriation, see our What's a Markup? fact sheet.)

The bill also would relieve NASA of a number of constraints that were included in the FY2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act (P.L. 111-117) that are still in effect because Congress has not passed an appropriations bill to countermand them. Many limited NASA's flexibility in shifting money from one program to another. One prevented NASA from terminating the Constellation program or initiating a replacement program until Congress passed a subsequent appropriations act permitting it to do so. That restriction also is eliminated by H.R. 1473.

UPDATE: Political Pressure Ramps Up On Shuttle Orbiter Disposition Decision

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Apr-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: The story has been updated to add information about objections from the Texas congressional delegation, and two bills that have been introduced.

During a media teleconference this afternoon, NASA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Strategic Infrastructure, Olga Dominguez, said that she had been "isolated" from political pressure as the lead person in recommending to NASA Administrator Bolden the disposition of the four space shuttle orbiters. That may change. Five members of the Ohio congressional delegation are calling for a Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation of how the locations -- three on the east coast, one on the west coast, none in the center of the country -- were chosen.

Senator Sherrod Brown (D - OH) blasted the decision not to pick Ohio's National Air Force Museum in Dayton. "NASA ignored the intent of Congress ... to consider regional diversity when determining shuttle locations," he said in a press statement.

In a letter to the head of GAO, Brown and four Ohio Representatives -- Marcy Kaptur, Michael Turner, Steve Austria, and Steve LaTourette --asked for a "review of the policies and practices" of NASA and the Smithsonian Institution's "disposition of the shuttle program related property." The letter cites language in the 2008 and 2010 NASA Authorization Acts stipulating how the process was to be carried out. During the media teleconference, Ms. Rodriguez emphasized that the process did, indeed, comply with those laws.

NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) near Houston also was not one of the winners. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) expressed "deep disappointment" and noted that the law directed NASA to give priority to locations with strong historical ties to NASA. "It is unthinkable that the home of human space flight would not represent the ideal home for a retired orbiter," she said. Mike Coats, Director of JSC and a former astronaut, said that he was "personally disappointed," but "Regardless of today's outcome, JSC ... will continue to share the excitement of human spaceflight for decades to come."

Seventeen members of the Texas delegation in the House wrote a letter to Mr. Bolden asking pointed questions about the decision to move Enterprise to the Intrepid Air, Sea and Space museum in New York City. The upshot was that if the questions are not answered satisfactorily, they will "do everything in our power in Congress, including legislation to prevent the transfer" of the Enterprise to New York, which, as they stress, is only "224 miles" from the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center where it is currently displayed. They want it transferred to Houston, instead.

Rep. Shiela Jackson-Lee (D-TX) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) each introduced legislation last week regarding the disposition of the space shuttles, the texts of which are not yet available. Rep. Chaffetz introduced H.R. 1536 on April 14, and Rep. Jackson-Lee introduced H.R. 1590 on April 15.

UPDATE: And the Winners Are...

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Apr-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: Information from the media teleconference has been added.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden announced today that the four remaining space shuttle orbiters would be retired to the following locations:

  • Enterprise (a test vehicle that never flew in space) to New York City's Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum
  • Endeavour to California Science Center in Los Angeles
  • Atlantis to Kennedy Space Center, FL
  • Discovery to the National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC

During a subsequent media teleconference, Olga Dominguez, NASA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Strategic Infrastructure, repeatedly stressed that the primary decision factors were to ensure the "best value to the American public." She said that she was in charge of the process and Administrator Bolden accepted her recommendations, which were based on a process that complied with congressional requirements in the 2008 and 2010 NASA Authorization Acts. Making the orbiters accessible to the most people, domestic and international, was a key objective.

Ms. Dominquez was quizzed in particular by reporters from the center of the country as to why coastal locations were chosen. A Houston reporter stressed that Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States; a Chicago reporter that Chicago is the third largest city; and an Ohio reporter that her city is within a one-day's drive of 61 percent of the American population. Ms. Rodriguez responded in turn that the objective was maximizing access to the most people and she wished there were more orbiters to allocate, but other significant shuttle artifacts would be allocated to museums across the country.

A Houston reporter asked what she would say to those who are calling for a congressional investigation into the selection process and Ms. Rodriguez reiterated that it was done in conformance with the law. In response to a different question, she said that she had been "isolated" from political pressure. Administrator Bolden dealt with all of that, she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Administrator Bolden would be on the teleconference.

Text of "Full Year" CR Finally Released

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

Congressional appropriators missed a midnight deadline to file the text of the Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government for the rest of FY2011, but sometime overnight it was filed. The text is available on the website of the House Rules Committee. A vote had been expected on Wednesday, but could slip to Thursday if the Republican leadership wants to keep to its vow to give members three days to review any bill before it is brought to the floor.

On 50th Anniversary of Human Spaceflight, Congress Still Has Big Aspirations

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Apr-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Today is the 50th anniversary of humanity breaking the bonds of Earth and reaching Earth orbit for the first time. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space on April 12, 1961, opening a new era of exploration. It is also the 30th anniversary of the first flight of the U.S. space shuttle.

As these anniversaries are commemorated, Congress released the text of a bill to fund NASA and the rest of the government through the end of fiscal year 2011 -- a "full year" Continuing Resolution (CR). Included are funds and specific direction to NASA to build a new heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV) with a lift capability of "no less than 130 tons" -- a vehicle that would enable astronauts to venture deep into space, possibly someday to Mars.

The debate over the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program has been hard fought since President Obama decided to terminate the Constellation program initiated under President George W. Bush that was to take astronauts back to the Moon by 2020 and someday to Mars. Congressional concern that NASA is not following congressional direction in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act to build an HLLV expeditiously apparently led to the detailed language in this comnpromise version of a full year CR. Even with this language, however, the debate may not be over if for no other reason than funding.

The total amount of funding for NASA in the bill is $18.485 billion, $239 million less than the agency received in FY2010, and $515 million less than the President requested for FY2011. Congress directed NASA to build a new HLLV (or Space Launch System) and a new Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle to go with it in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. The law authorizes slightly less funding for those programs in FY2011 than is included in the full year CR. Strictly speaking, appropriations are not supposed to exceed authorizations, but just about anything is possible in Congress as long as no one raises a point of order in objection.

Both Congress and the Obama White House want a strong U.S. human spaceflight program. The difference is between how much to rely on the commercial sector versus the government, and the specifics of the new HLLV. NASA wants to start small with a vehicle capable of taking perhaps 70 tons to low Earth orbit (LEO) and evolve it over time into a more capable vehicle. Congress wants a 130 ton vehiicle capable of taking astronauts beyond LEO -- to the moon, asteroids, or Mars. The debate over the launch vehicle's capability -- and thus its design --continues. The language in this CR specifies the vehicle must be 130 tons, but it does not say that must be its "initial" capability, leaving room for interpretation.

What is quite clear, however, is that Congress continues to have bold aspirations for the human spaceflight program, even if the budget is not sufficiently robust to achieve such goals in the near future.

Cooperating with China in space activities is precluded, however. The bill prohibits NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from spending any funds to discuss or arrange space cooperation with China unless specifically authorized to do so by Congress. Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA, is a staunch opponent of space cooperation with China because of human rights abuses and political issues. He has made his position quite clear in many forums over many years, most recently at a March 3, 2011 hearing on the NASA budget. The "no China" language was also part of a previous version of a full year CR (H.R. 1) that failed to pass the Senate.

GAO Reports on NASA's Methods for Determining If ISS Can Last Till 2020

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Apr-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) formally submitted a presentation to Congress today in which it generally agreed with the methods NASA is using to determine if the International Space Station (ISS) can last until 2020, including the need for spares.

With regard to the spares needed to continue operations, GAO compared NASA's plans with those of the National Science Foundation (NSF) for supporting Antarctic operations and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administraiton's (NOAA's) operations of the Aquarius Undersea Laboratory.

"NASA's assessment of the essential spares necessary ... appears to be supported by sufficient, accurate and relevant underlying data," GAO said. It added, however, that NASA's estimates are "senstive" to assumptions about the reliability of Orbital Replacement Units (ORUs).

As for NASA's assessments of the long term viability of ISS primary structures -- the modules and trusses to which solar panels are attached -- GAO found that those assessments are ongoing and all the results are not yet available. It noted that NASA is not assessing the viability of modules provided by international partners, other than those that are owned by NASA. For example, Russia built the Zarya (FGB) module, but NASA paid for it, thus it is owned by NASA even though it was provided by a partner.

The report was required by the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.

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