Latest News

Farewell Spirit

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

NASA is giving up on trying to communicate with its Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Spirit. The beloved robot was last heard from on March 22, 2010.

Spirit is one of two MERs that landed on Mars in 2004. Its sister, Opportunity, continues to explore the Martian surface.

Spirit got stuck in a sand trap when one of its wheels stopped working and stranded it in a position where its solar panels could not be recharged from the Sun. Essentially it froze to death.

"With inadequate energy to run its survival heaters, the rover likely experienced colder internal temperatures last year than in any of its prior six years on Mars. Many critical components would have been susceptible to damage from the cold," NASA said in a press release.

The mission was designed to last three months on Mars and thus vastly exceeded its design lifetime.

Apollo Astronauts Lament Current State of Space Program

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan write in an op-ed in USA Today that President John F. Kennedy would be "sorely disappointed" if he knew the current state of the U.S. human spaceflight program. Today is the 50th anniversary of JFK's "moon speech" that launched the Apollo program.

Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the Moon; Cernan was the last. Lovell commanded the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission.

The three former astronauts argue that the entrepreneurial companies that are promising to build new crew space transportation systems may find that the systems cost much more and take longer to develop than they expect: "Entrepreneurs in the space transportation business assert that they can offer such service at a very attractive price - conveniently not factoring in the NASA-funded development costs. These expenditures, including funds to insure safety and reliability, can be expected to be substantially larger and more time consuming than the entrepreneurs predict."

"America's leadership in space is slipping," they warn, adding that "NASA's human spaceflight program is in substantial disarray with no clear-cut mission in the offing....After a half century of remarkable progress, a coherent plan for maintaining America's leadership in space exploration is no longer apparent."

Touchdown! The Three ISS Crew are Back on Earth

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

NASA TV has confirmed that touchdown has occurred and the three ISS crew members are back on Earth.

Three ISS Crew on Their Way Home

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Three members of the International Space Station (ISS) crew are on their way back home at this minute. Soyuz TMA-20 undocked from ISS and the deorbit burn was fired at 9:30 pm EDT. Landing in Kazakhstan is expected at 10:26 pm EDT.

The three returning astronauts are Russian Dmitry Kondratyev, American Cady Coleman, and Italian Paolo Nespoli.

Three other ISS crew members remain aboard the space station, and the space shuttle Endeavour remains docked there.

NASA "Announcement" This Afternoon May be Anticlimatic

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA issued a press release a few minutes ago in advance of the media teleconference announced yesterday where NASA is going to "discuss an agency decision that will define the next transportation system to carry humans into deep space." The press release is only about the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), not the Space Launch System -- or Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle -- that has been so contentious.

The press release reports what has been widely known in space circles for months, that the MPCV will be based on the Orion spacecraft originally envisoned for the Constellation program. That's not particularly newsworthy.

The press conference will be streamed live at at 3:30 pm EDT. We'll be participating, so check back here after it's over to see if there was anything newsier.

House Appropriators Approve Subcommittee Allocations: CJS Gets Less While DOD Gets More Than FY2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

The House Appropriations Committee approved the top-line allocations for each of its 12 subcommittees today. These so-called "302(b) allocations," referring to a section of the law that created this process, are based on the amounts approved by the House in the FY2012 budget resolution for various government functions.

The Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee, which includes NASA, received an allocation of $50.237 billion. That is $3.09 billion less than the subcommittee appropriated for FY2011 and $7.438 billion less than what President Obama requested for FY2012.

In addition to NASA, the subcommittee funds the Department of Commerce, of which NOAA is a part; the Department of Justice; the National Science Foundation; the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP); and several other offices and commissions. The subcommittee is scheduled to markup the CJS appropriations bill on July 7 at which time it will become clearer as to which agencies and programs have to absorb the cuts. Full committee markup is scheduled for July 13.

By contrast, the Defense subcommittee is allocated about 10 times that amount -- $530.025 billion. That figure is $17 billion more than FY2011. However, it is almost $9 billion less than the President requested. The Defense subcommittee is scheduled to markup its bill on June 1, with full committee mark on June 14.

The committee approved the allocations by a vote of 27-21, with all Democrats and one Republican, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), opposing it according to the National Journal (subscription required).

The Senate has not passed a budget resolution yet, and is not expected to do so. Neither chamber passed one last year and a different method was used to determine how much the subcommittees could spend.

For more information on the budget process and the steps involved in passing legislation, see our What's a Markup? fact sheet. The Congressional Research Service also has a handy report that provides more detail on the congressional budget process.

Few Details About Path Forward on Orion in NASA Press Conference

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

NASA's media teleconference today about its decision on the design of the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle for sending astronauts to deep space destinations in the future provided little new information.

Doug Cooke, NASA's Associate Administration for Exploration, said that the Orion spacecraft has been deemed the best approach to building a spacecraft for human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) and there are no major changes to the contract with Lockheed Martin. Orion was originally designed for President George W. Bush's Constellation program and work has been underway since 2006. He said that NASA had spent about $5 billion on Orion so far, but did not know how much more the program will cost or how much an individual Orion spacecraft will cost. He could provide no details on the schedule for test flights or flights with crews aboard other than agreeing with a questioner that it probably would be after 2016, the date specified in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.

When asked why it had taken the agency so many months to make this decision to essentially continuing doing what it has been doing, Cooke said that NASA had looked at alternatives and the process took place under funding constraints resulting from the delay in NASA obtaining its FY2011 appropriations. The studies of alternatives, such as whether to use composites for the pressure vessel or a different type of abort system, were done internally, he said.

The Orion spacecraft will land in the ocean, and NASA continues to look at the pros and cons of making the entire vehicle or some of its systems reusable considering the deleterious impact of salt water on them.

Cooke did clarify that the idea of a "lifeboat" version of Orion that was announced by President Obama during his April 15, 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center is not part of this program. That lifeboat function is associated with crews aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and this vehicle is being designed for deep space missions, he said, adding that it could be used as a backup to commercial systems for transport to or from LEO, but it would be an inefficient use of the system. Russia's Soyuz serves as the lifeboat now, he said, and commercial vehicles will provide additional lifeboat capability in the future.

Emphasizing that decisions have yet to be made on the Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLLV) that presumably would launch Orion, Cooke said that he could not provide schedule information because the schedule had to be determined in an integrated manner within available budgets. "Everyone's interested in schedules, and so are we," he said, but the agency is not at a point to determine them yet.

The audio of the press conference can be heard by calling 866-452-2114, or 203-369-1218 for international callers, one hour after it ended (which would be approximatelly 5:15 pm EDT). It will be available until June 7.

Celebrating 50 Years of the "Moon Speech"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

Tomorrow, May 25, is the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's speech to Congress calling on the nation to commit itself to the goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth by the end of the decade. The speech kicked off what became the Apollo program of six crews who landed on the Moon between 1969 and 1972. Several celebratory events are planned.

NASA is sponsoring a public concert at 7:00 pm EDT at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC that will feature NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, astronauts, and "special surprise guests." Limited tickets are available on a first come, first served basis. NASA also has a brief "then and now" statement with a link to the video of JFK's speech on its website.

NASA Chief Technologist Bobby Braun will give a public lecture at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab on "Investments in Our Future: Exploring Space Through Innovation and Technology" at 7:45 pm EDT.

The National Air and Space Museum is hosting a lecture at the museum's Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport outside of Washington, DC that is open to members of the National Air and Space Society. It begins at 8:00 pm EDT. The event features Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan and George Washington University's John Logsdon, an expert on JFK's role in the space program. Logsdon's new book, John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, is available from

NASA to Announce New Human Space Transportation System Tomorrow

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA announced today that it will hold a media teleconference tomorrow, May 24, to "discuss a major agency decision that will define the next transportation system to carry humans into deep space."

NASA's plan for a new crew space transportation system has been a point of contention between Congress and the Obama Administration since the President's decision last year to rely on the commercial sector, not NASA, to build whatever systems will be used to get people to and from low Earth orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station (ISS).

Congress grudgingly went along with the Obama plan in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act with the caveat that NASA must build a large launch vehicle capable of taking 130 tons to LEO (a "heavy lift launch vehicle" or HLLV) to enable human exploration to more distant "beyond LEO" destinations. The NASA-developed system also would serve as a backup to the commercial systems for access to LEO if they do not materialize or fail.

The Obama plan was for NASA to spend several years developing technology for an HLLV, but not to decide on a design until 2015. The language in the law directs NASA to proceed immediately on a new HLLV and many members of Congress who are deeply involved in NASA issues have been very critical that NASA is not adhering to the law. NASA Administrator Bolden has made clear that he wants to start with a less capable launch vehicle that could someday evolve into the 130 ton class vehicle Congress desires. How much mass the HLLV can launch is a critical component of planning for whatever destination lies beyond LEO for U.S. human spaceflight.

NASA submitted an interim report to Congress about its plans for the HLLV, or Space Launch System as it is called in the law, and for a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), or spacecraft, for the astronauts that the law also requires. NASA's report was not well received primarily because it warned that none of the designs it had looked at could be developed and built on the time scale required and for the amount of money authorized by the law.

The media teleconference begins at 3:30 pm EDT. Audio will be streamed at NASA's newsaudio website.

Events of Interest: Week of May 23-27, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

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

During the Week

The House and Senate are in session this week. The House is expected to consider the FY2012 National Defense Authorization Act; the House Rules Committee is expected to vote on the rule for the bill on Tuesday.

The House Appropriations Committee is expected to begin marking up FY2012 appropriations bills this week, but the two that fund most of the government's space programs -- Defense and Commerce-Justice-Science -- are not on the docket this week.

May 25 is the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's speech to Congress that set America on the path to land men on the Moon. Various invitation-only events are scheduled; let us know if you know of any public events!

Tuesday, May 24

Wednesday, May 25

Wednesday-Friday, May 25-27

Thursday, May 26

Events of Interest


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