It will take more than a little sun to get one of the world’s biggest solar power plants up and running: it will also require 1,600 workers to build it and a lot of cash. On Saturday, President Obama announced that the U.S. Department of Energy will use last year’s stimulus bill to issue $1.85 billion in loan guarantees to two solar power companies, one of which plans to build one of the planet’s largest solar power plant in Arizona.
Solana, the big solar power plant planned by Abengoa Solar Inc., will cover an area of around 1,900 acres near Gila Bend, Arizona. As detailed in a White House press release, the company claims that the plant will be one of the first in the United States able to store its own power. According to the release, it will also be able to generate 280 megawatts of power—enough energy to run more than 70,000 homes–and will prevent the emission of 475,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year. After construction, the plant will support 85 some permanent jobs, the company claims.
Last night, President Obama made his first Oval Office speech. In it, he described the BP oil spill as an assault on “our shores and our citizens” and outlined his “battle plan.” He discussed the immediate cleanup of the spill, the repayment he’ll insist on from BP for harm done, and the future of U.S. energy.
Katie Couric compared Obama’s speech to others issued from the Oval Office.
“The disaster in the Gulf may or may not be President Obama’s Katrina, but, tonight, it will be his Challenger explosion, his Cuban missile crisis, his Sept. 11. Unlike those events, this is a long simmering disaster, getting darker by the day.” [CBS]
Here are some of the major points covered in the speech:
The Orion capsule is dead; long live the Orion capsule. Yesterday in the New Mexico desert, NASA successfully completed a test of the resurrected craft’s launch-abort system. Rockets blasting with 500,000 pounds of thrust carried it more than a mile into the sky before releasing it for a parachute-aided descent back to the Earth.
The launch-abort system is designed to pull the astronauts and the Orion capsule away from the launch pad in the event of a problem such as fire. It is also designed to catapult them away from the rocket if an emergency occurs during the climb to orbit [The Denver Post].
Orion, however, may never need this launch-abort system. The craft was originally intended to be the crew capsule in the Constellation program, riding into space atop heavy-lift rockets and ferrying astronauts back to the moon or to Mars. Like the rest of Constellation it was left out of President Obama‘s January budget.
If you wanted dangerous, you got it.
One week ago today, in response to heavy criticism for killing the Constellation program begun under his predecessor, President Obama presented his revised vision for NASA: To build a new heavy lift spacecraft that will go beyond low Earth orbit and land on an asteroid by around 2025. This goal is far more ambitious than going back to the moon. Space experts say such a voyage could take several months longer than a journey to the moon and entail far greater dangers. “It is really the hardest thing we can do,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said [AP].
NASA doesn’t know which of the nearby asteroids it might pick for a visit, but the main candidates are around 5 million miles from Earth. The moon, by contrast, is a little less than a quarter-million miles away. The asteroids are about a quarter-mile across; the moon is more than 2,000 miles in diameter. And a trip to an asteroid could take 200 days, as opposed to the Apollo 11 lunar round-trip, which required little more than a week. That means NASA may have to devise new radiation shields and life-support systems for the asteroid-bound astronauts.
Last night, President Obama issued a memo that will change hospital visitation rights around the country. The administration will draft new rules declaring that any hospital participating in the government’s Medicare and Medicaid programs—which is most of them—will no longer be allowed to bar visitors that patients desire to have access to them.
This has been a particular hardship for gay Americans, who have been turned away from visiting sick loved ones because of policies that allow visiting rights solely to spouses or family members. They aren’t the only ones, either, Obama argues. He cited widows or widowers without children, members of religious orders as examples of people who have been unable to choose the people they want to be at their side [Reuters].
The changes won’t take effect right away. The Department of Health and Human Services must draft the new rules, then put them in place and police them. But in addition to expanding visitation rights, the order also requires that documents granting power of attorney and healthcare proxies be honored, regardless of sexual orientation. The language could apply to unmarried heterosexual couples too [Los Angeles Times]. You can read Obama’s memo here.
The President was particularly inspired by the case of a Florida couple, Janice Langbehn and Lisa Pond. When Pond suffered an aneurysm, Langbehn was denied visiting access at the hospital, despite the fact that she carried power-of-attorney and the couple had adopted four children. Pond died before Langbehn was allowed access. On Thursday night, Mr. Obama called her from Air Force One to say that he had been moved by her case. “I was so humbled that he would know Lisa’s name and know our story,” Ms. Langbehn said in a telephone interview. “He apologized for how we were treated. For the last three years, that’s what I’ve been asking the hospital to do” [The New York Times].
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Americans will go to asteroids, to Mars, and maybe beyond–and all in this lifetime, stated President Obama at Cape Canaveral this afternoon as he reassured Americans that space exploration will continue. Speaking at the Kennedy Space Center, where America launched its moon mission decades ago, Obama said he was “100 percent committed to the mission of NASA and its future.”
Obama’s proposed space policy (pdf) would increase NASA’s budget by $6 billion over the next 5 years, which he says will create 2,500 additional jobs at the Kennedy Space Center by 2012. Acknowledging criticism for some of his changes to NASA’s missions, Obama stated that the country must “leap into the future” and not “continue on the same path as before,” saying: “The bottom line is: Nobody is more committed to manned space flight, the human exploration of space, than I am. But we’ve got to do it in a smart way; we can’t keep doing the same old things as before” [The New York Times].
In his speech, the President declared that by 2025 the nation would have a new spacecraft designed to carry humans “beyond the moon into deep space.” He added that by the mid-2030′s America would also be able to send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth, adding “a landing on Mars will soon follow.” President Obama stated: “Space exploration is not a luxury, not an afterthought in America’s brighter future…. It is an essential part of that quest” [The New York Times].
For more details on Obama’s new space policy and what it means for NASA and the future of space exploration, head over to Bad Astronomy for Phil Plait’s post, “Obama lays out bold and visionary revised space policy.”
Bad Astronomy: Obama lays out bold and visionary revised space policy
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Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls
This week marks the anniversaries of both stunning success and nearly catastrophic failures in human spaceflight—it’s been 49 years since Yuri Gugarin became the first man in space, and 40 years since the life-threatening drama on board Apollo 13. So perhaps it’s fitting that this is the week the fight over the future of NASA comes to a head. Tomorrow, President Obama will defend his new plans for manned spaceflight, which he has changed somewhat after his proposal to cancel the Constellation program was met with a flood of criticism.
When the President announced his budget in January, which came without funding for Constellation and its plans to go back to the moon and beyond, members of Congress had a fit (especially those who represent areas with jobs connected to Constellation).
Former astronauts came out of the woodwork, too, and that list of critics now includes Neil Armstrong. The first moon-walker typically shies away from media controversies, but this week issued an open letter to the President. He writes: “The availability of a commercial transport to orbit as envisioned in the President’s proposal cannot be predicted with any certainty, but is likely to take substantially longer and be more expensive than we would hope. It appears that we will have wasted our current $10-plus billion investment in Constellation” [The Times]. Armstrong also writes that if the United States finds itself without spacecraft that can travel to the Earth’s orbit and beyond, our nation will be destined “to become one of second or even third rate stature.”
Offshore oil and gas drilling is coming to much of the east coast. Today President Obama announced plans for energy exploration through 2017 that would open up drilling in coastal areas off the southeastern United States, and potentially some areas near Alaska.
Under the proposal, 167 million new acres in the Atlantic Ocean from Delaware to Florida, as well as new swaths in the Gulf of Mexico, would be opened to energy development. Parts of the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea, both of which are north of Alaska in the Arctic Ocean, could see drilling after 2013 if viability studies give them the go-ahead. But not all areas that energy companies would like to explore are available in the plan.
No areas off the west coast would be made available. Obama also said proposed leases in Alaska’s Bristol Bay would be canceled. He would also limit any oil and gas drilling off the coast of Florida to no closer than 125 miles from the shore [USA Today]. Bristol Bay has been off-limits since the Exxon Valdez incident in 1989, when the tanker spilled at least 10 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean. President George W. Bush’s energy plan, which Obama overturned upon taking office, would have opened the bay to drilling.
After months of party wrangling that culminated in a Sunday night political spectacle, President Obama has finally managed to push through far-reaching reform to the country’s health care system. The House voted 219-212 for final approval of the legislation, and on Tuesday the President will sign the bill into law.
The new law would require most Americans to have health insurance, would add 16 million people to the Medicaid rolls and would subsidize private coverage for low- and middle-income people, at a cost to the government of $938 billion over 10 years, the Congressional Budget Office said [The New York Times].
Here’s a primer on what some of the biggest changes will be in the current health care system. While some changes won’t come into effect till 2014, there are some things that will affect your insurance this year.
You can’t cancel an enormous federal program without hitting pushback, and President Obama is hitting plenty of it over his proposal to end NASA’s Constellation program. In January his budget proposal put forth no funding for Constellation, the space shuttle successor program that included the Ares rockets, Orion crew capsule, and plans to send astronauts back to the moon by 2020. Instead, NASA would become more reliant on private companies to ferry its astronauts to the space station, and would explore new ideas for visiting Mars or nearby asteroids. But the proposal has already ruffled lots of feathers, prompting the President to say he will hold a conference to further outline his plan.
First, many high-profile space experts balked at the proposal. Former astronaut Tom Jones said Obama was surrendering human spaceflight, and Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, one of the last men to walk on the moon, was equally displeased. “It’s bad for the country,” Schmitt said. “This administration really does not believe in American exceptionalism” [Washington Post]. Dissent wasn’t universal; DISCOVER blogger Phil Plait, for one, praised the possibilities for commercial space-faring.