Breaking: House adds $$$ for extra Shuttle flight… FOR SCIENCE

By Phil Plait | June 18, 2008 4:46 pm

This is amazing news: The House just approved a budget for NASA next year that includes money for an extra Shuttle flight.

Now, are you sitting down? The flight is to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a science experiment, to the space station!


The AMS was built with money from the DoE and a bunch of other countries, and NASA promised to loft it into orbit before the Shuttle program was vastly scaled back. NASA has balked at launching it because of the cost of an extra flight and the very tight schedule for the Shuttle to finish building the station.

The funny thing is, once the space station is finished it’s not good for much. But with the AMS on it it’ll be doing loads of cool science.

Not surprisingly, the Bush Administration is against the extra flight — maybe he’s just used to knee-jerking against anything this new Congress approves of. What’s funny is that the reason given by the White House for their disapproval is that this House budget might threaten the schedule for the new Orion rockets. However, the bill specifically adds $1 billion to accelerate the new system’s readiness. Oh, snap!

My own feelings about this are complicated. I hate to see science sitting on the ground, especially well over a billion bucks worth of it. I also want to see the ISS doing some compelling science. However, I’m not so comfortable with an extra Shuttle flight. Still and all, this bill seems to cover the needed ground: more money for the flight, and more money for Orion.

The budget has to go through the Senate, of course. If it passes, I sincerely doubt Bush will veto it; it passed the House by a vote of 409-15. If the Senate has a similar ratio, that’s veto-proof.

Also, if it passes, Michael Griffin will have kittens. He’s against anyone fiddling with the Shuttle schedule, especially when Congress sticks their nose into his business. There’s an argument to be made there, but I think in this case he doesn’t have a leg to stand on. He says we have to finish the ISS because we committed to doing it with our foreign partners, yet here we have the AMS which we also promised our foreign partners we’d launch. So he’s trapped.

But it’s not too bad a position to be in; having Congress give you extra money for both the near term project and the longer term one. If only he had this problem every year…

And just one last note. The AP article about this has this little bit of gossip as an addendum:

The [House] vote came four days after the shuttle Discovery mission returned from its latest mission to the International Space Station. That shuttle’s commander, Mark Kelly, is married to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.


Tip o’ the space suit visor to Fark.


Comments (49)

  1. Mr. Random

    Is there no way to deliver even a small station component via unmanned craft? The ESA jules vernes and Russian progress dock autonomously. And the station has the capability to use it’s robotic arm to move a segment of the station from one port to another. This was done recently. What are the technical limitations of this?

  2. Still, we need a bigger crew escape vehicle. Right now, we can only have 3 astronauts onboard at a time and the station takes 2 1/2 “astronaut days” per day just to keep up with the maintenance.

  3. hale_bopp

    I live in Giffords district and there was probably a little extra coverage of the most recent shuttle mission here due to her connection.

    You know that the whole “threatens the schedule” thing could be a complaint that it is going too fast for him 😉

    On to the Senate.

  4. Big news, to be sure. Lots of stuff needs to happen before anything comes of it, though (Senate, appropriations/authorization negotiations, conference committee, White House), and adding a mission pushes up against the re-certification of shuttle hardware required by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report.

    Ought to cause some wrangling.

  5. What is the AMS and what does it do?

  6. Jeffry White

    I’m sorry, but this is the first thing that popped into my mind…

  7. Um, Michael, there’s a whole link in that post and everything that’ll answer your question. :)

  8. Kevin White

    They ought to be adding $$$$$$$$$$ for science, since science may be the only thing that gets us out of this energy, food, and water shortage and this greenhouse gas excess.

  9. gophert65

    *jawdrop* well that’s the last thing I expected to happen! I’m ecstatic! The failure to launch the AMS was one of the biggest negatives that had happened in a long line of ISS problems. I’m glad to see this one being resolved:).

  10. Phil, I’m surprised that you didn’t point out the picture in the UT article about the launch-pad damage. It looks like a whale… or maybe a bomb… or maybe… oh, hello? NSA? Oh. OH! Okay. Guys, I gotta go be interrogated. Something about a word I used in this comment. Laters! 😛

  11. bswift

    Yay, Gabrielle Giffords! She’s our rep here in Tucson and I drive by her offices all the time. It’s not up there anymore, but her facebook page used to be a picture of her bowling. 😛

  12. Don Wiseman

    Maybe the politicians and lawyers in Congress are realizing what we lose when we cease being a space-faring nation. The major nations of Earth were those who learned to use the sea and explore. Could they realize that space is the”new frontier?” Nah.

    They usually, however, comply with those who control their jobs: !. The DNC or RNC and, 2. – Way in the back – the people who vote them into office (as a last resort.)

  13. I’m a Tucsonan, also. It’s kind of hard to believe that Giffords, a freshman
    congresswoman, can wield any kind of influence yet, but great! Now if our senator, John McCain will step up…

  14. hale_bopp

    Wow! There are a lot of us from Tucson on here today…I know Kim…if there are enough of us, we should arrange a meetup some night.

  15. Sam Hall

    “…more money for Orion.”

    Too bad they aren’t going to be an Orion like Freeman Dyson designed.

  16. This is great news, more money for NASA always makes me happy.

    FYI though, you may wanna NOT quote the AP in the future, what with them going after bloggers and all. Safe thing is to find another source to quote from.

  17. Mike B, let them try to sue me. I’ll make a bit of a stink about it… and I think they’ll back down off that Drudge nonsense.

  18. KC


    Old news. NPR reported on this in depth last week. See “NASA Balks at Taking Physics Gear Into Space” at . The mission was cut along with others following the Columbia disaster. Why? Because missions were weighed against the risks to a shuttle crew. Even NPR briefly mentioned that.

    That was before the political pressure. Now it’s funded, and the shuttles will fly one more mission. Make of that what you will.

  19. BR

    It’s worth noting that this is an authorization bill, meaning no money has actually been committed (and it likely won’t be). Also, there is currently no equivalent bill in the Senate, so the House bill doesn’t yet mean anything.

  20. Brian

    Wonderful news! Good for Sam Ting, whose doggedness, sometimes to the point of tedium, is described in Michael Riordan’s excellent book, The Hunting of the Quark. In situ analysis of cosmic rays by AMS (and PAMELA) will complement data from Auger.

  21. The Mutt

    Bad Astronomer, you never fail to toss a jab at the ISS, even when you are talking about something very cool associated with it. Your complaint seems to be, “Not enough science bang for the buck.”

    Is there nothing to be gained just from having people live in space so we can see what happens to them? Or have we learned enough about that by now? And isn’t it enough that they just be there?

    I’ve been a space nut since the Mercury program, and I would be monumentally disappointed if there were no permanent space station in orbit in the 21st century.

    As exciting as the early days of the space program were, the shuttle and the ISS excite me more. It’s one thing for Lewis and Clark to cross the continent. It’s another to be able to drive across it in a pick-up truck and find a motel there when you arrive.

    On a purely emotional level, I’d like to see it stay in orbit forever and just keep growing and growing.

  22. The wikipedia article doesn’t have much on what the experiment actually does… might.

    But hey, this is great news. I didn’t know the ISS would do any astronomy, but I guess cosmic ray science makes a lot of sense. Was shaking/pointing the main issue with putting telescopes on the ISS, if anyone knows?

  23. Ray

    How many Apollo mission’s to The Moon were scrapped? Did any congressperson ever fight to keep those once scheduled missions on the manifest?

    At any rate, this is excellent “breaking news”…

  24. Way cool, thanks for the news Phil!

  25. W00T!!!
    Great news!
    But, if BR’s right that it’s an authorization bill and thereby an unfunded mandate, then we’re back where we started. I hope there’s more to it and there’s money earmarked for the flight.

    I can see it all now:
    “Unhhhh!!!” :pushing sound:
    “i kIN hAs AMS???”
    Rich in Charlottesville

  26. Ian

    While this is good news IMHO, NASA is fuxored as long as politicos can tweak their budget every damn FY. This stuff needs a long term plan and a steady budget and fiscal oversight with an iron fist.

    NASA will get rendered obsolete by the private sector evenatually. I may be an old man when it happens but it will happen.

  27. Oops! Me bad and not see the link. Sorry BA! :)

  28. madge

    Science? On the ISS? What a GREAT idea! Why didn’t they think of that before? :)

  29. tom

    Considering Senate Republican’s have blocked more legislation than any Senate in history (for real) I wouldn’t get your hopes up too much too early. But, there’s a reason we average folk have phones and email, to contact our reps and tell ’em what to vote for.

  30. The Mutt: we could have had a workign science based lab in space for about 1/5 what the ISS cost. That’s why I’m unhappy with it.

    In other news, I got an email from an astronomer associate of mine who was not as pleased as I initially was, and he’s persuasive. He told me that a lot of the money promised to NASA for the flight is being taken out of future science missions, when I had assumed this was a straight increase to NASA. He also said that they took a lot (all?) of the money away from NuSTAR, a mission I have written quite a bit about in the past. That would be a very, very bad decision. He also told me another cosmic ray experiment is already on orbit, implying we don’t need AMS.

    Obviously there is a lot more going on here than I had supposed. I won’t be able to research this more for a few days because I’m leaving for TAM, but I’ll try when I get back.

    And as someone already pointed out, this has to get past the Senate as well. We’ll see.

  31. stas peterson

    Rather than spend around a billion dollars for one more shuttle flight. I’d rather spend $160 million a year for the 5 years that were planned, to meet the US commitment to build the ITER Fusion experiment. First of all we promised our allies to do it…TWICE… and both times our wonderful Democrat dopes, have voted to accept the obligation, and then a few years later, promptly voted to cutoff funding.

    ITER is the LAST full-sized Fusion experiment. The next step after ITER, is to build the First commercial Fusion Power Plant, that will add electricity to the grid.

    First the dopey Dems did it to their own President Clinton. That delayed Fusion research a decade and half. Now after finally the Bush administration was successful in recreating it, they have once again double crossed our allies and left them holding the bag for billions that they have already spent.

    When? Why as soon as we put them in the majority again. Once again, ignoring their own Democrat politcal leaders. They are irreponsible, undisciplined clowns, incapable of governing.

    You cannot say that any experiment has more value in solving the energy crisis; or resolving the AGW issue; or the most impact on the lives of billions of humans.

    Clean, inexhaustible energy for the entire world, is the price that this alternative experiment would fund.

    Yet the scientific, illiterate, lawyers and hacks, that dominate our legislature, the best that money can buy, have voted to zero fund ITER once again. Why? They wanted more money for local “earmark” spending in their districts. And probably a few dollars of campaign contributions bribes, from those who would prefer not to have Fusion energy as an alternative…

  32. Dave

    I suppose that it is nice that Congress wants to support a science project, but it would be far better for Congress to support science based upon peer reviewed priorities. There are more deserving projects than AMS, and it would be far better to fund them.

    On the other hand, AMS, is not the worst example of an earmark in the NASA space science budget. Gravity Probe B earned low marks on a large number of peer reviews, but Congress insisted on funding it anyway. It now appears that it will end up being a complete failure, with measurements apparently dominated by systematic errors. But the really sad thing is that the scientific implications of a successful would have been only marginally more interesting than this failure. (They could have confirmed some aspects of General Relativity that have already been confirmed by binary pulsar observations.)

  33. KC


    This is how politics works. You want something done? You either drum up widespread public support or get a powerful sponsor. Ting did the latter and his experiment will fly. The Apollo missions didn’t and were cut.

  34. rosebud


    it passed the House by a vote of 409-15. If the Senate has a similar ratio, thatâ??s veto-proof.


    I’m no legal scholar, but I think that yes, it’s afe to say a 96%-4% spread is veto-proof.

  35. J. Charles


    Re: your comment, “The funny thing is, once the space station is finished it’s not good for much. But with the AMS on it it’ll be doing loads of cool science.”

    I agree with “Mutt”. Just because ISS doesn’t do the astronomy (or whatever else) you wish for, does not mean “it’s not good for much.” What ISS does do is give us insights into human health, safety and performance in actual, long-duration space flight. Your comment seems to be aimed squarely at these disciplines.

    If we ever want to send astronauts to Mars and beyond with acceptable prospects for a subsequent quality of life, then we require a knowledge of the effects of the space flight environment on human health and performance. (Yes, I know about robotic space exploration.) Dismissing ISS in the terms you use essentially dismisses entire fields of investigation and research as meaningless. (Yes, I know many life scientists do not support ISS research, but many others do.)

    Your complaint that something of equal or greater usefulness could have been built less expensively is true but irrelevant: the total cost of ISS does not negate its current or future usefulness.

    I suggest that we space flight enthusiasts work together to further our shared interests, rather than picking each other apart and thus providing aid and comfort to those who oppose all aspects of space exploration.

  36. Sili

    Mr Random,

    I thought the same thing and actually had a look round the stats pages last week.

    Unfortunately the payload of the ATSes is only half the mass of the AMS. This is one honking big piece of kit.

  37. KC


    I just read your comment about the AP and making a big stink. I’m sure you would, and one should be made. There’s issues like fair use involved. Unfortunately, I remember the case of G. Harry Stine, who was sued for “infringing” on the “Dilbert” comic strip in an essay he wrote for “Analog.” Stine prevailed, but the effort was costly (“Analog” left him twisting in the wind and Stine was on his on).

    I’m of the opinion that if the AP doesn’t think their stuff should be quoted, then who am I to argue? I’ve been less than impressed with the wire service process, anyway, having observed how one picked up questionable reporting from a newspaper near an event and passed it on nearly verbatim. Frankly, I think their policy will be a financial disaster for their company, but that’s their problem, not mine.

  38. BMcP

    Wow, a whole single extra shuttle flight, aren’t they generous. How about a real NASA budget that makes those lofty goals of moon landing by 2020, and Mars landing by 2032 a reality.

  39. Hey, you have dickballs

    Oh, hey, I just came on here to tell you that you have some serious dickballs. I’ll talk to you later.

  40. Charles

    Stas Peterson: Why not fund, ahem, both?

    I really do get fatigued by the either/or thought process of science and space funding. Why not cut some nefarious and wasteful spending program and put money into something that may actually benefit all of mankind instead?

    Do we need to fund fusion or other new energy research or a teapot museum in North Carolina?

    Wouldn’t Ted Stevens’ bridge to nowhere money have been better spent on science to benefit the future?

    And so forth and so on.

    I think to a large degree, science scares politicians because there is a great deal of anti-intellectual sentiment in popular culture. Ask yourself – who is more “popular” – Ashlee Simpson or Dr. Neil Tyson. Then ask yourself, who would be a more entertaining guest were you to have a dinner party amongst your friends – Simpson or Dr. Tyson? The answer (because you’re hear) is Dr. Tyson. Simpson is famous for flaunting her butt and not much else. Tyson helps make the world a smarter and thus a better place.

  41. Calli Arcale

    Adam Ginsburgon sez:
    But hey, this is great news. I didn’t know the ISS would do any astronomy, but I guess cosmic ray science makes a lot of sense. Was shaking/pointing the main issue with putting telescopes on the ISS, if anyone knows?

    Vibrations were one issue. The ISS’s orientation was another — they keep it in a particular attitude with respect to the Earth, and it wouldn’t make much sense to change that to point a telescope, so the ‘scope would have to be mounted to a pivoting platform, much like a ‘scope on Earth. It wouldn’t have anywhere near the flexibility that a free-floating telescope like the Hubble has. But there was one other issue: contamination. The Hubble has no engines at all, and is oriented entirely by gyroscopes. This keeps the space around it clear of the byproducts of reaction motors. (After servicing missions, they keep Hubble closed for a week or more just to let the Shuttle’s “smoke” clear.) The ISS does have gyros, and can orient itself using them, but it also uses reaction motors as a backup, and it also has to do regular reboosts which of course involve an engine burn or two. And then there’s the regular wastewater dumps. You wouldn’t want to smear a delicate instrument with what some astronauts call “the constellation Urion”. 😉

  42. themadlolscientist

    Let’s hear it for that Evil Democratic Congress!

    Simpson is famous for flaunting her butt and not much else.

    Celebrities. Bah. Humbug. 90% of ’em are “famous” (and I use the term loosely) for being “famous.” Nothing x nothing = nothing. Unfortunately, someone flaunting their butt is a lot less threatening to most people these days than someone “flaunting” their intelligence. (Highly intelligent, accomplished, hardworking people are some sort of “elite,” and überskinny, überrich, überconceited, plastic-surgery-gone-crazy airheads are “people like us.” Yeah. Right.)

    All other things being equal, intelligence makes anyone’s butt a little (or maybe a lot) more bodacious. Are you listening, Skepdude Calendar Man? 😉

  43. Irishman

    The Bad Astronomer said:
    > The funny thing is, once the space station is finished itâ??s not good for much. But with the AMS on it itâ??ll be doing loads of cool science.

    Not good for much? What about Kibo?

  44. ARP1234

    The government giving money for legit science? And a rather
    obscure science project at that?

    Okay, did I just fall into a parallel universe?

  45. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    if it passes, Michael Griffin will have kittens.

    I don’t think that evolution means what you think it means.

    The next step after ITER, is to build the First commercial Fusion Power Plant, that will add electricity to the grid.

    That is probably putting some varnish on things, as the DEMO reactor is a non-economical demo reactor. It will serve to make the first more or less commercial prototype of the first series of actual power plants though:

    “Such a plan shows why it will be very difficult to commission the first commercial-sized tokamak before 2050. However it could be that sufficient information is gained on the step beyond ITER (DEMO), through its staged operation, and it is sufficiently prototypical of the series production of power plants, that it will be possible to be more confident at an earlier stage concerning the economic viability of the first series of power plants produced.”

  46. Charles

    All other things being equal, intelligence makes anyone’s butt a little (or maybe a lot) more bodacious.

    I agree with that 100%!

    I wish I could post photos here, but imagine this scene:

    Mother standing next to sitting daughter.

    Mother: “Play dumb and the boys will all like you!”

    Daughter: “Be smart and all the men will love you!”

    Okay, that’s a greeting card. But there’s a lot of truth there…

  47. Sili

    I was wrong! I managed to mix up lbs with kg.

    ATV: “Each ATV weighs 20.7 tonnes at launch and has a cargo capacity of 8 tonnes”
    AMS: “14,809 lbs (6731 kg)”

    But of course the ATV isn’t engineered for putting in something as big as the AMS so they’d pretty much have to build an ATV around it.

    Still – It could probably be done.


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