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Budget Games Continue

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

With a government shutdown right around the corner if Republicans and Democrats can't agree on some sort of funding measure, both parties are blaming the other and continuing the high-stakes game.

The current Continuing Resolution (CR) expires at midnight on Friday. If Congress does not pass some sort of appropriations bill before then, major portions of the government will have to stop work. Both sides say that is no way to run a government, but each is playing hardball.

At this moment, it appears that only $7 billion in cuts separate the two camps from agreeing on a new CR that would fund the government for the rest of FY2011. The Republicans want to cut $40 billion from current FY2010 spending levels (or $80 billion from the FY2011 request), while the Democrats want to cut $33 billion (or $73 billion from the FY2011 request). Exactly what would be cut has not yet been determined. They are just trying to agree on the total budget figure at this point.

Another meeting is planned at the White House tonight with the President, Vice President, and congressional negotiators. Previous meetings with and without the White House participating have not been successful in reaching closure.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are offering another short-term CR that would fund the Pentagon for the rest of FY2011, but all other government agencies for only one more week in exchange for Democrats agreeing to $12 billion more in cuts to the FY2010 spending level. Two previous short-term CR's have cut a total of $10 billion already.

In the new short-term CR, NASA's Space Operations account would be cut by $99 million, and the Construction and Environmental Compliance & Remediation account by $40 million. It does not remove the language that prevents NASA from cancelling the Constellation program, but does remove language specifying how much of the money provided for Space Operations can be spent on each of the three elements of that account (space shuttle, International Space Station, and Space and Flight Support), giving NASA more flexibility in how to spend the total for that account.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has signaled that the Senate would not pass such a bill, but the latest reports are that the House will pass it tomorrow anyway so House Republicans then can blame Senate Democrats if the government shuts down at midnight Friday.

Soyuz Enroute to ISS

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

Russia successfully launched Soyuz TMA-21 last night. It is expected to dock with the International Space Station (ISS) tomorrow, delivering three new crew members to join the three already in orbit.

UPDATED: Events of Interest: Week of April 4-8, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Apr-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. For more information, see our calendar on the right menu or click the links below.

During the Week

Yes, it is another week consumed with concern about whether there will be a government shutdown. The current Continuing Resolution (CR) expires on Friday at midnight and Congress has not passed anything to replace it. Some pundits are speculating that despite assertions by many members on both sides of the aisle that they would not pass still another short-term CR, that is exactly what may happen. In this case, it may be a CR for only a few days, however. One scenario has it that the House will pass a CR on Friday, but that clearly does not give the Senate time to act, and thus a few-day CR might be necessary. Difficult to tell how well the two sides are coming together on reaching agreement on budget numbers and policy riders for the "full year" CR.

All of that, of course, concerns FY2011, the fiscal year already underway. This is the time of year when the next year's budget usually is debated, and Congress is moving forward with consideration of FY2012. The first congressional step in crafting a budget is supposed to be House and Senate passage of budget resolutions that set the top line numbers for federal spending on everything -- mandatory programs like social security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as discretionary programs like DOD, NASA and the government agencies with which we are all familiar. Last year, neither the House nor the Senate was able to pass a budget resolution and House Republicans have vowed to pass one this year to demonstrate that they are more fiscally reponsible than Democrats who controlled the House last year. House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan is expected to release his version of the House budget resolution on Tuesday, with comitmtee markup expected on Wednesday. although it is not yet listed on the committee's website.

As many policy wonks point out, the stormy debate over what to do about FY2011 is really just a warm up for FY2012, where Republicans are expected to demand even deeper cuts, and not just to discretionary programs, but to Medicare and Medicaid, too. Apparently they are still debating how far to go in changing the very popular Social Security program.

Monday, April 4

  • Launch of Soyuz TMA-21, 5:18 pm CDT (6:18 pm EDT), watch on NASA TV. Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the EDT launch time.

Tuesday, April 5

Tuesday-Wednesday, April 5-6

Wednesday-Thursday, April 6-7

  • NRC Space Studies Board, NRC Keck Center, 500 Fifth Street, NW, Washington, DC (April 6 is joint with the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board). Some sessions of this meeting are closed..
  • International Space Station and Mars conference, George Washington University, Washington DC

Next Shuttle Launch Slips to April 29

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

NASA is delaying the launch of STS-134 (Endeavour) by ten days, from April 19 to April 29. The agency says in a press release today that the slip is required to allow for the launch and docking of a Russian Progress cargo ship.

"The delay removes a scheduling conflict with a Russian Progress cargo supply vehicle scheduled to launch April 27 and arrive at the station April 29," NASA says.

Endeavour is scheduled to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) to the International Space Station as part of a mission commanded by astronaut Mark Kelly. AMS is a particle physics experiment that scientists hope will detect antimatter. Scientists theorize that the universe began with the Big Bang, at which time equal amounts of matter and antimatter should have been created, but little antimatter has been detected. AMS is designed to help solve that cosmological mystery.

Kelly is married to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) who is recovering from an assassination attempt on January 8 and many are hoping that she will be well enough to attend the launch. His twin brother, Scott, just returned from a long duration mission on the ISS.

Only one space shuttle launch remains on the schedule after this one; the so-called Launch-on-Need mission or STS-135 (Atlantis). NASA plans to fly it as long as Congress does not make severe cuts to its budget. Congress directed NASA to fly the mission in the 2010 NASA authorization, but no funds were requested for it in the FY2011 budget request, complicating its budget fate. NASA is currently planning to launch STS-135 on June 28, 2011.

Updated: Next Soyuz Set to Launch on Monday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Apr-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

Russia will launch three new crew members to the International Space Station (ISS) at 5:18 pm CDT on Monday (6:18 pm Monday EDT; 6:18 am Tuesday at the launch site in Kazakhstan).

The launch of Russian cosmonauts Alexander Samokutyaev and Andrey Borisenko along with NASA astronaut Ron Garan aboard Soyuz TMA-21 will be aired live on NASA TV. See NASA's press release for details. The three will join the three ISS crew members already aboard the earth orbiting laboratory -- American Catherine (Cady) Coleman, Russian Dmitry Kondratyev, and Italian Paolo Nespoli.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the EDT launch time.

Today's Senate CJS Hearing Postponed to May 5

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

The Senate Appropriations Committee's Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee hearing on NASA scheduled for today has been postponed to May 5 according to the committee's website.

A Ray of Hope in the Budget Saga?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

The news over the past several days on what progress is being made in resolving the FY2011 budget impasse has been pretty dismal. Politico, National Journal and The Hill all have been publishing stories that say, in a nutshell, that the House and Senate remain far apart on what to do about the budget and a government shutdown on April 8 seemed highly likely. Tonight, however, National Journal (subscription required) reports that Vice President Joe Biden is saying that the two sides have agreed on the dollar level of cuts, if not where they will come from or what to do about policy riders.

The government is operating on a short-term Continuing Resolution (CR) that expires on April 8. Congress must pass some sort of appropriation to keep the government operating after that. Attention is currently focused on passing a "full-year" CR to fund the remaining six months of FY2011, which ends on September 30.

In essence, the unfolding story is that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate negotiators reached a tentative agreement on budget cuts, but conservative House "Tea Party" Republicans soundly rejected it and were not opposed to a government shutdown, at least for a few days, and would not compromise on their drive to make deep cuts. News reports quoting various Democratic Senate sources saying that agreement was close at hand would be quickly countered by House Republicans saying the opposite. In short, it has been quite chaotic.

Thus, a statement by the Democratic Vice President that the two sides have agreed on $73 billion in cuts from the FY2011 budget request may also fail to stand the test of time, but on a cold and rainy Washington evening, it is encouraging to read nonetheless. Still, the caveats are critically important. No agreement on where the cuts will be made, and no agreement on policy language that some House members want to include, such as defunding National Public Radio or Planned Parenthood. Those two issues alone could be deal breakers.

The House passed its version of a full year CR on February 19, cutting $61 billion from FY2010 spending (including a $601 million cut to NASA). The Senate rejected it, along with a Democratic alternative, leading to the current impasse.

One thing both sides appear to agree on is that there is no deal until there is a whole deal, so keep the champagne corked. At this point, however, any step forward, no matter how small or tentative, must be viewed as good news.

Policy Instability Biggest Obstacle to NASA's Exploration Program

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 30-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Witnesses at today's hearing by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee's Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics argued that the biggest obstacle to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA's) human space exploration program is policy instability. The relative priority given to either commercial- or government-developed and operated options to transition from the Space Shuttle to the next generation human space transportation system was the biggest issue of contention.

Committee members reiterated that through the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, Congress had explicitly laid out its preference for NASA to develop a heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV) and a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) to explore beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) and to serve as backup for commercial crew transportation services to the International Space Station if those commercial services fail to materialize. "The debate is over," said Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), chairman of the full committee.

Nevertheless, the Administration's FY2012 budget request released in February, as well as subsequent statements from NASA officials, suggest a continuing lack of consensus on this issue. Providing an industry perspective, Mr. James Maser said that "this perilous unknown" renders the transition even riskier than the 1970's transition from Apollo to the space shuttle. "We need that vision, that commitment, that certainty right now," he urged, saying that industry is "ready to help any way we can but the clock is ticking." Mr. Maser is President of Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, builder of the J-2X engine that was to be used for the Constellation program, but testified today in his capacity as chairman of the Corporate Membership committee of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).

Mr. Doug Cooke, Associate Administrator of NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD), said that NASA is "aggressively addressing the specifics required in the Authorization Act," having already selected reference designs for both the HLLV and MPCV. He said that NASA hopes to provide Congress with specific timelines and decisions on the development of these vehicles in the next couple of months, potentially by late June.

Even with such assurances, some remained unconvinced that NASA was moving in a clear direction forward, particularly with respect to the requirements of the HLLV. While the Act requires the HLLV to provide a 130 ton lift capability, Mr. Maser pointed to recent statements by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden about how that capability may be unnecessary in the near term. As a result, said Mr. Maser, there is widespread "industry confusion" because what industry hears from NASA is only what it "does not want or cannot do."

Dr. Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and a former NASA official, argued that this transition is "the most immediate and critical task" of the human spaceflight program, and also elaborated on the widespread effects of the confusion and uncertainty. To a question about how Congress can make the agency adhere to the law, Dr. Pace and others suggested that this direction ought to be reflected in the appropriations legislation. Acting-ranking member of the subcommittee Rep. Jerry Costello (D-IL) said he agreed that the way to ensure the agency follows through with congressional direction "is through the appropriations process," and he urged the other members of the subcommittee to make certain that appropriators "understand that."

And Here it Is! First Image of Mercury from Orbit

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

As promised, NASA has released the first image of Mercury from a Mercury-orbiting spacecraft. The MESSENGER probe took the snapshot this morning.

NASA IG Issues Stern Warning to NASA About Computer Network Vulnerability

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report today warning that a key NASA computer network remains vulnerable to cyber attack almost a year after an earlier IG report identified the weaknesses and NASA vowed to fix them.

The report, "Inadequate Security Practices Expose Key NASA Network to Cyber Attack," concludes that "six computer servers associated with IT assets that control spacecraft and contain critical data had vulnerabilities that would allow a remote attacker to take control of or render them unavailable." The report goes on to say that once a hacker got inside the NASA network, "the attacker could use the compromised computers to exploit other weaknesses we identified, a situation that could severely degrade or cripple NASA's operations."

This new report notes that it had identified weaknesses in this network in a May 2010 report and "even though the Agency concurred with [our] recommendation it remained unimplemented as of February 2011. Until NASA addresses these critical deficiencies and impoves its IT security practices, the Agency is vulnerable to computer incidents that could have a severe to catastrophic effect on Agency assets, operations and personnel."

The May 2010 report, "Review of the Information Technology Security of [a NASA Computer Network]", is not available on the OIG website. Instead, the website to which one is directed provides a summary and states that the report contains data that is not usually released under the Freedom of Information Act. The name of the network in question is referred to in today's report as "NASA's Agency-wide mission network."

Today's report recommends that NASA "expedite implementation of our May 2010 recommendation to establish an IT security oversight program for NASA's Agency-wide mission network." It also recommends that NASA's Mission Directorates identify and continuously monitor Internet-accessible computers on that network and take prompt action to mitigate identified risks. Lastly it calls on the agency to conduct a NASA-wide IT security risk assessment.

The report states that NASA concurred with its recommendations and the Chief Information Officer and Mission Directorates agreed to complete them by the end of this summer.

Events of Interest


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