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FAA Defends Requested 74 Percent Budget Increase for FY2012

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

George Nield, director of the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA's) Office of Commercial Space Transportation, defended his office's request for a 74% budget increase at a hearing today. Nield fielded numerous questions - some surprisingly antagonistic - from members of the Space and Aeronautics subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

According to Nield, the office is requesting $26.6 million for FY2012, of which $15.8 million is to pay for 103 full time employees and $10.8 million is for "non-pay" activities. That compares to $15.2 million and 71 full time employees in FY2010 (the same level at which it is funded for FY2011) according to the FAA's FY2012 budget submission. Nield defended the increase by saying that his office anticipates a ten-fold increase in the number of commercial launches in FY2012 and his office's responsibilities are expanding as the industry expands. He also pointed to new initiatives to stimulate the industry, including $5 million and 50 employee positions for a Commercial Spaceflight Technical Center at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, and $5 million for a "prize" program for the first non-governmental team to develop and demonstrate the ability to launch a 1 kilogram cubesat to orbit using a partially reusable system. His office also plans to continue funding the Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces.

The Government Accountability Office's (GAO's) Gerald Dillingham noted that the request is a 74 percent budget increase compared to FY2010, and the number of employees would increase by 45 percent. Dillingham said in his opening statement that he agreed the request is "reasonable," but that Congress should give it careful consideration given today's budget constraints.

Several members of the subcommittee questioned the increase, including Rep. Sandy Adams (R-FL), whose district includes Kennedy Space Center. She lambasted Nield for requesting such a large increase in these difficult budget times. She asked how creating a regulatory regime for commercial human spaceflight based on a lot of unknowns would be helpful. Nield replied that industry leaders are asking for it because they want a "consistent and compatible set of results" that will satisfy both NASA and FAA requirements. Later, ending a harsh interrogation of Nield over how long it took his office to issue the first reentry license and after getting GAO's Dillingham to reverse himself and say that he did not believe the increase was necessary, she lectured Nield that a "74 percent increase in a time of economic restraint ... you're asking us to increase your budget for what-if. I have great concern about that. I just want you to know that."

Other members focused on the perennial question of whether there is a conflict of interest between the office's dual role as both a regulator and promoter of commercial space launch and reentry services. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) and others noted that originally the FAA had a similar dual role for aviation, but as the years passed the two roles became contradictory and Congress removed the facilitator role so the FAA could focus on safety. Dillingham suggested that the Department of Commerce might one day take on promoting the commercial space launch industry while the FAA focuses on regulation. He said, however, that GAO did not see any conflicts of interest in its most recent review of the office a few years ago.

George Washington University Professor Henry Hertzfeld went further in discussing potential conflicts of interest, noting that originally the office regulated only expendable launch vehicles (ELVs). Today it regulates several competing modes of transportation -- ELVs, reusable launch vehicles (RLVs), suborbital launch vehicles, and perhaps unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), he said. He sees a potential conflict of interest among those responsibilities as well. However, he said there were no complaints from industry yet about the dual role, and one measure for determining when it is time to review the issue would be when such complaints arise. He agreed with Dillingham that the time is not yet ripe for Congress to reconsider the office's mandate, but that someday other agencies might be charged with promoting the industry to "preserve the integrity of the regulatory process."

Regulating the safety of commercial human spaceflight was also a focus of attention. The 2004 Commercial Space Launch Act Amendments directed that the FAA take no action to regulate the safety of passengers on commercial human spaceflight missions for eight years after the law was enacted. That time period will expire in 2012. Instead, "informed consent" is all that is required - the commercial operator must tell passengers what the risks are, but it is up to the passenger to decide whether or not to board the craft. When the Act was passed, commercial human spaceflight was expected to occur within a few years and after eight years there would be sufficient experience to inform regulatory efforts. No such flights have yet occurred, however, so the question is whether the time period should be extended. The FAA Reauthorization Act that passed the House on April 1 (H.R. 658) contains a provision (sec. 1301) that would prohibit such regulations until eight years after the "first licensed launch of a spaceflight participant" instead of after enactment of the law.

GAO's Dillingham said that he did not know how eight years was selected in the first place, and did not think that a specific number of years is appropriate. Instead, such regulations should develop as the industry matures, he said, stressing that regulations should not be made in times of crisis, such as after an accident: "We're for incrementalism." Hertzfeld agreed, arguing that it is a matter of the maturity of the industry. He also alerted the committee that some states are developing their own passenger waivers of liability for commercial human spaceflight, including Florida, Virginia, New Mexico, and Texas, and each law is worded differently. "Federal preemption on this issue might be warranted," he said, "to prevent competition among states on an issue that involves interstate commerce and may adversely affect safety decisions" by the companies.

Nield pointed out that his office is holding a meeting at the end of this month in Florida to solicit input from the public about how to approach regulating commercial orbital human spaceflight. (The meeting is on May 26 -- see our calendar for a link to the announcement.)

A webcast and statements are available on the subcommittee's website.

Endeavour Launch Date Moves to NET May 16

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

NASA has set May 16 as the newest "no earlier than" launch date for space shuttle Endeavour (STS-134). It also extended the mission, once it launches, from 14 to 16 days.

The agency said that launch opportunities continue through May 26, with May 21 as the only day when it cannot launch. If it did, its arrival at the International Space Station on May 23 would conflict with the departure of three of the Expedition 27 crew members who are due to return to Earth that day. NASA said that it determined that all of Endeavour's tasks could be accomplished with only three ISS crew members aboard.

A news conference will be held on May 9 at 3:00 pm to discuss the progress of repairs to the Launch Control Assembly that failed and scrubbed the April 29 launch attempt. NASA TV will cover the news conference live.

NASA's Planetary Program Picks Three Mission Candidates Plus Three Technology Development Projects

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

NASA announced today its selection of three planetary mission candidates as part of its Discovery program, as well as three planetary exploration-related technology development projects.

Next year, one of the three mission candidates will be selected for a 2016 launch. In the meantime, each project team will receive $3 million to conduct the concept phase or preliminary design studies and analyses. The three, which were chosen from 28 submissions, are the following:

  • Geophysical Monitoring Station (GES) to study the interior of Mars (Bruce Banerdt, JPL, principal investigator; JPL would manage the project),
  • Titan Mare Explorer (TiME) to land in and float on a methane-ethane sea on Saturn's Moon Titan (Ellen Stofan, Proxemy Research, principal investigator; Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab would manage the project), and
  • Comet Hopper to land on a comet multiple times and observe its changes as it interacts with the Sun (Jessica Sunshine, University of Maryland, principal investigator; NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center would manage the project)

Discovery missions are cost-capped at $425 million not including launch costs. Eleven spacecraft in the Discovery series have been launched so far, including the MESSENGER spacecraft that recently entered orbit around Mercury.

NASA also selected three technology development proposals. Each team will receive an amount of money yet to be negotiated to bring the technologies to a higher level of readiness. The three that were selected are the following:

  • Primitive Material Explorer (PME) to develop a mass spectrometer that can provide highly precise measurements of the chemical composition of a comet and the role of comets in delivering volatiles to Earth (Anita Cochran, University of Texas at Austin, principal investigator),
  • Whipple: Reaching into the Outer Solar System to develop and validate a technique called blind occultation that could lead to discovery of various celestial objects in the outer solar system (Charles Alcock, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Cambridge, MA, principal investigator), and
  • NEOCam to develop a telescope to study the origin and evolution of Near Earth Objects (NEOs) -- comets and asteroids -- and study the present risk of Earth impact (Amy Mainzer, JPL, principal investigator)

Bolden: 50 Years Later "We Are Just Getting Started"

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

Commemorating the 50th anniversary of Alan Shepard's historic spaceflight, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said in a statement today that "we are still driven to reach for new heights in human exploration" and "we are just getting started."

Calling May 5, 1961 "a good day," Bolden noted that he was a teenager at the time and while "I never dared dream it growing up in segregated South Carolina, I was proud to follow in Alan's footsteps several years later and become a test pilot myself."

The statement went on to extol the Obama Administration's policy of using NASA to facilitate the development of commercial crew for access to low Earth orbit, "allowing NASA to focus on those bigger, more challenging destinations and to enable our science missions to peer farther and farther beyond our solar system."

NASA Celebrates 50 Years of American Human Spaceflight Tomorrow

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

Fifty years ago tomorrow, May 5, Alan Shepard became the first American to reach space. Although his 15 minute flight was only suborbital, not orbital like Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's on April 12, it gave President John F. Kennedy enough confidence to announce just three weeks later the goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth by the end of the decade.

Shepard launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), FL in a Mercury capsule atop a Redstone rocket. The event is being commemorated tomorrow at CCAFS, adjacent to NASA's Kennedy Space Center, at 9:00 am EDT and will be covered live on NASA TV. Shepard died in 1998. He was one of the original seven astronauts selected in 1959. Scott Carpenter, another member of that group, will be at the event tomorrow. It includes a recreation of the flight and recovery, and a tribute to Shepard's second spaceflight, Apollo 14. (Shepard was grounded for most of the 1960s because of an inner ear disorder.)

The U.S. Postal Service released a stamp honoring Shepard's flight earlier today.

Musk Takes on Skeptics

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

Elon Musk, founder, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of SpaceX, the entrepreneurial space transportation company, took on skeptics today, releasing details of how much the company has spent and how much it charges for its services. The information was provided in response to "a steady stream of misinformation and doubt expressed about SpaceX's actual launch costs and prices," according to his post on the SpaceX website.

He stated, for example, that the company has a firm fixed price contract with NASA for 12 cargo flights to the International Space Station (ISS) at an average price of $115 million each (or $133 million including inflation), including the Falcon 9 launch, Dragon spacecraft, all operations, maintenance, and overhead.

As for sending NASA crews to the ISS, Musk stated that his Dragon capsule can carry seven people "more than double the capacity of the Russian Soyuz, but at less than a third of the price per seat." An often quoted figure for what NASA is currently paying Russia per seat is $51 million. The Soyuz can launch three people. It is not clear if Musk's price per seat holds if there are fewer than seven passengers aboard.

Comparing the SpaceX and Russian prices is challenging since the services the two provide are different. NASA recently signed a new firm fixed price agreement with Russia covering 2014-2016, for example, for "crew transportation, rescue and related services" for $753 million. That covers "comprehensive Soyuz support, including all necessary training and preparation for launch, flight operations, landing and crew rescue of long-duration missions for 12 individual space station crew members." If the $753 million were only for taking crews back and forth, it would be $63 million per astronaut, but the "crew rescue" service is separate from crew transportation. NASA did not differentiate the prices. Crew rescue is essentially a lifeboat function Russia provides by having sufficient Soyuz spacecraft always docked to the International Space Station (ISS) so all members of the crew can escape in an emergency. SpaceX does not appear to offer a comparable service and it also is not clear if SpaceX's price includes training. Thus, an apples-to-apples comparison is difficult to make.

Musk provided other price details and said his company spent "less than $800 million" from when it was founded in 2002 through fiscal year 2010, including all the development costs for its two launch vehicles, Falcon 1 and Falcon 9, and the Dragon spacecraft. He also said the company has been profitable every year since 2007.

He wrapped his statement in a cloak of competition with China, stating that a Chinese official said last month that SpaceX currently has the best launch prices in the world and the Chinese official does not believe China can beat those prices. Musk then asserted that "China has the fastest growing economy in the world. But the American free enterprise system, which allows anyone with a better mouse-trap to compete, is what will ensure that the United States remains the world's greatest superpower of innovation."

SpaceX also recently announced that it would build a heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV). Calling it "Falcon Heavy," Musk proclaimed that it would be the largest launch vehicle in history other than NASA's Saturn V, which was used to send the Apollo capsules to the Moon. He expects the vehicle to be ready for launch in 2013 or 2014, and capable of lifting 117,000 pounds to orbit, twice the capability of the Delta IV, currently the most capable U.S. expendable launch vehicle. (The reusable space shuttle is more capable, but is being terminated.) Musk said that his Falcon Heavy would cost about $1,000 per pound to orbit, which he claims is one-third the cost of a Delta IV based on figures in the Air Force's FY2012 budget request.

HASC Strategic Forces Subcommittee Recommends Modest Cut to DOD's FY2012 Space Budget

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) is busy working on the FY2012 National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 1540), which includes the Department of Defense's (DOD's) annual request for national security space activities. The six subcommittees are marking up their portions of the bill this week, with full committee markup scheduled for next week.

Most national security space programs are under the purview of the Strategic Forces subcommittee. Yesterday, Strategic Forces subcommittee chairman Mike Turner (R-OH) and ranking member Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) released an overview of the action taken by their subcommittee. In total, the subcommittee recommended cutting $79.5 million from the $10.2 billion request for unclassified space activities (classified space activities are dealt with separately and, obviously, are not publicly discussed). The following list of changes is taken verbatim from the subcommittee's press release.

National Security Space

  • Overall, a decrease of $79.5 million for National Security Space Programs from the $10.2 billion request. Specifically, the mark includes:
  • Transfer $142.2 million from Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) for evolved AEHF military satellite communications (MILSATCOM) to a separate program element for Next-Generation MILSATCOM Technology Development.
  • Decrease of $124.5 million (from $134.5 million) for launch support services for Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) mission;
  • Increase of $20 million for Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) data exploitation;
  • Increase of $25 million for Defense Reconnaissance Support Activities.
  • AEHF Procurement-Authorizes the Secretary of the Air Force to enter into a fixed price contract to procure two Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellites and incrementally fund those two satellites over five years. Also requires the Secretary to submit a report on contract details, cost savings, and plans for reinvesting cost savings into capability improvements for future AEHF satellites. Does not authorize advanced appropriations, as OMB requested, but meets Air Force intent.
  • Commercial Imaging Satellite Contracts-Repeals Sec. 127 from the Fiscal Year 2011 National Defense Authorization Act, which specified that any Department of Defense contract for commercial imaging satellite capability or capacity after December 31, 2010, shall require that the commercial imaging telescope have an aperture of not less than 1.5 meters.
  • Joint Space Operations Center Management System-Limits Fiscal Year 2012 funds for Release One of the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) Management System (JMS) until the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (AT&L) and Secretary of the Air Force provide the JMS acquisition strategy.
  • Harmful Interference with Global Positioning System (GPS)-Directs the Secretary of Defense to notify Congress if he determines a space-based or terrestrial-based commercial communications service will cause widespread harmful interference with DOD GPS receivers.
  • Plan for Joint Space Operations Center-Directs the Commander, Air Force Space Command to develop a continuity of operations plan for the Joint Space Operations Center by March 2, 2012.
  • Assessment on satellite operations efficiencies-Directs GAO to provide an assessment of the Department's efforts to modernize its satellite operations capabilities and identify commercial and other government best practices that could improve its satellite operations by February 6, 2012.

Pondering History: NASA Celebrates 50 Years of Human Spaceflight

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 03-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

On April 25-26, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Air and Space Museum held an event commemorating 50 years of human spaceflight (HSF). Presenters led discussions on a variety of topics that considered new ways to look at past events, questioned some long-held assumptions, and offered glimpses of what to expect of the future of HSF.

Michael F. Robinson of the University of Hartford set the tone of the conference by offering an interesting suggestion: dispensing with the frontier analogy of the westward expansion in America to understand U.S. HSF efforts. Instead, he offered the exploration of the Arctic as a more useful parallel. In contrast to space, the expansion to the West was primarily motivated by economic and social development and was always conceived as "not just a place to explore, but a place to settle." Consequently, "we need to abandon this idea that extreme space will be a place where we can develop self-sustaining colonies" and embrace the idea of space as an "extreme, essentially uninhabitable" environment. The Arctic "gives us a sense of where space exploration could go," because its exploration, while relevant in terms of cultural impact, did not lead to the same kind of radical economic and political consequences enabled by the expansion to the West. Moreover, it suggests a way forward in terms of funding. Robinson believes that space exploration is driven by similar primarily spiritual and psychological payoffs with little public value and thus is unlikely to win substantial government support; therefore, if it is to be done, the money will have to come from private rather than public sources. He cited Robert Peary's 1909 North Pole expedition as an example. The federal government was stepping back from funding such exploration missions because of waning interest, he explained, and Peary was funded primarily by private sources.

During a later session, James Spiller of the State University of New York's College at Brockport, offered another explanation of why the frontier motif, so resonant in the 1960s, may no longer be relevant. Viewing space as the next frontier is not a "natural way" to frame the rationale for a HSF program, he said, and is salient only in the historical context of the shock of the 1957 Sputnik launch. Spiller suggested that elements implied in this theme such as an expected economic bonanza made it fitting for the anxieties of that time and turned HSF into a powerful tool to make meaningful a costly Cold War program. Yet these underlying elements faded away quickly, he said. Spiller described his beliefs about what he considers other implied elements of the motif, such as manifest destiny, racial supremacy and progress against nature and savage peoples that in his view were subsequently weakened by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, modern environmentalism, and the Vietnam War. The rise and fall of the frontier motif as a compelling argument for HSF can thus be traced back to its alignment with the mood of the nation at the time and is best described, not as an inevitable analogy, but as a "cyclical historical construct," he said.

Underlying this discussion was the larger issue of public engagement, which was repeatedly brought up during the conference. NASA's Amy Kaminski, for example, spoke about the agency's short-lived spaceflight participant program for the Space Shuttle. Kaminski recounted how, after Apollo, NASA saw the need to make the HSF program "relevant to people." By 1980, the agency had succeeded in fostering public expectation that one day anybody would be able to access space aboard the Shuttle and that it would be akin to flying in an airplane. NASA eventually created a program to choose non-astronauts who would fly aboard the Shuttle. In 1985, NASA Administrator James Beggs announced the selection of a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, and later confirmed that the second participant would be a journalist. All of this though, became "moot," said Kaminski, after the Challenger disaster in 1986. The accident "shattered" the image of technological optimism of the Shuttle, conveying instead the high risk involved. From a safety standpoint, subsequent administrations "questioned [the] appropriateness of flying citizens." Yet although the agency eliminated the program, Kaminski argued that the spaceflight participant program did succeed in bringing NASA and the public together, noting the level of excitement surrounding the Challenger flight prior to the tragedy. Kaminski said that the legacy of the Space Shuttle spaceflight participant program is a passion among educators for HSF, and noted that at least three astronauts with education backgrounds have been recruited by NASA as fully trained "educator astronauts" since then. (One of those is Barbara Morgan, who was the backup to McAuliffe.) Kaminski further noted that the selection of a teacher was a smart move because "it was her presence that fulfilled [the] aim of connecting the agency with the public." Since education involves everyone, NASA succeeded in making the Challenger flight relevant to all. The success was, of course, severely limited and the question remains: how many more citizens would have flown had Challenger succeeded?

Former NASA Chief Historian, Steve Dick, in turn, talked about exploration, discovery and science, and how they affect public perception of HSF initiatives. He began by explaining how those words, often used interchangeably, refer to different activities. Exploration, he said, is searching for something new, discovery is finding something new, and science is explaining something new. The point of understanding the difference is to realize that "when they occur together, the result is more than the sum of their parts." Looking at the Shuttle through this lens, he concluded that it was not "a robust exploration vehicle," and while science was performed onboard, neither scientists nor the public see it as important as Apollo. Dick explained that the Shuttle was "not conceived as a science project," and the Shuttle not being involved in discovery or exploration, also played a part. Thinking of the Shuttle as a "social experiment," Dick concluded that "science without exploration or discovery is not enough to sustain public support." Taking a lesson from the Shuttle, the United States "should take the path that best combines science, exploration and discovery," which he believes means going beyond low-Earth orbit once more.

A session on international initiatives offered a glimpse of the rationale and activities of other countries involved in HSF efforts. The Heritage Foundation's Dean Cheng offered a review of the history of China's HSF program which, like that of the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1960s, is mostly driven by prestige. Cheng noted that the Chinese HSF program experienced a "rocky start" due to constrained human, technological, and financial resources, but that it has contributed to China becoming a "space power of first rank." In terms of rationale, China views HSF as a "natural result" of the increasing complexity of space activities, Cheng said, adding pointedly that there is "no space race today for human spaceflight."

India's recent announcement of plans to pursue its own HSF program were also discussed. Ashok Maharaj of Georgia Tech suggested that India would benefit by dispensing with the idea of a race altogether. Maharaj described India's progress in space and its efforts in creating a "custom-made" program to suit the primary goal of socio-economic development. It was only at the end of 2003 that India began to enlarge this vision to allow for the possibility of its own HSF program to become part of the mix. Similar to China, India sees HSF as the next logical step in maturing the program, he said. India is also pursuing HSF to avoid being "left out," and to "represent the Third World" in this pursuit. With respect to the space race paradigm, "starting late has its advantages," argued Maharaj and went on to enumerate some of the lessons India has gleaned from the experience of other countries. More to the point, he said that China has already achieved key HSF milestones and would be too far ahead by the time India is able to launch an astronaut into orbit. Instead of rushing to catch up, he said, India should move ahead in HSF for its own benefit, striving to achieve HSF milestones without compromising its other space-related activities.

Latest News on Launch Date for Endeavour: May 10

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

NASA is now targeting May 10 as the earliest launch date for space shuttle Endeavour. NASA calls it a "success oriented" date that is subject to change as technicians continue to assess what it will take to repair a malfunctioning Load Control Assembly in the orbiter's aft compartment.

Dawn Closing in on Vesta

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

NASA's Dawn spacecraft is closing in on its target, the asteroid Vesta, which NASA describes as a "protoplanet" that almost formed into a planet.

Dawn is designed to go into orbit around Vesta on July 18. NASA announced today that the spacecraft is now using cameras instead of radio signals for navigation as it requires more precise measurements to achieve orbit. After a year in orbit at Vesta, the spacecraft is expected to travel to another large body, Ceres. It should arrive there in 2015.

Vesta and Ceres are the largest bodies in the asteroid belt, which lies between Mars and Jupiter. Ceres actually is currently designated a "dwarf planet" rather than an asteroid. Vesta is approximately 530 kilometers wide, big for an asteroid, but not big enough to be a dwarf planet like Ceres, which is about 950 kilometers in diameter (though there is debate about its size). The dwarf planet designation was created by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 2006 when Pluto was "demoted" from being a planet. The IAU now classifies Ceres, Pluto, Eris, Makemake and Haumea as dwarf planets and expects more to join the list as new discoveries are made and more is learned about existing known objects.

Scientists want to study asteroids and their dwarf planet cousins because they provide clues about the earliest days of solar system formation and because asteroids have collided with Earth in the past and are expected to do so in the future. The more that is known about the various types of asteroids, the better equipped scientists will be in determining how to deflect or destroy one before it wreaks destruction on our planet.

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