Tag: Congress

Congress threatens America's future in space

By Phil Plait | July 14, 2011 6:30 am

One of the most aggravating things about having a representative government is dealing with the consequences of the choices they make.

We don’t get a direct vote on how money is spent, but we vote for the people who do. And sometimes they don’t make the best choices. Shocking I know, but just how bad these choices can be sometimes doesn’t hit home until those consequences come home to roost.

In a week, one of those choices is literally coming home: on July 21st, Atlantis will land for the last time, and the choices made for us over the past few years mean that we have no rocket system to take its place.

I’ll iterate once again that the Shuttle was canceled by Bush, and the followup rocket system, Constellation, was canceled by Obama when it was clearly over budget and behind schedule, and given the circumstances it was also very unclear it would perform as promised. I think both these decisions were correct.

Right now, the House of Representatives is making decisions about the future of NASA, and it’s looking like a 9% cut is in the works. That’s not written in stone; the Senate has to put together their version of the budget and then work with the House on compromises. That’ll be fun, given the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican House.

In the meantime, the House subcommittee in charge of NASA’s funds recommended totally cutting the budget for Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope. The House committee above them approved it on Wednesday. So that decision to axe JWST will go into the House budget bill.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Politics, Top Post

Congress puts NASA and JWST on the chopping block

By Phil Plait | July 7, 2011 6:00 am

When I saw the Presidential Budget Request this year for NASA, I was heartened: lots of money for commercial space transport and science. Obama hasn’t been a vocal supporter of NASA, so it was a relief.

Congress has countered, however. The House just released its Appropriations bill that covers science funding for NSF, NASA, NOAA, and NIST. Almost across the board: cuts. Massive ones.

This bill (PDF) actually keeps NSF at the fiscal year ’11 funding, although that’s $900 million less than the Presidential request. NOAA is being cut $100 million (2.2%), or $1 billion less than requested. NIST: cut by $50 million over FY11 (6.5%), $300 million less than requested.

But NASA is the one where the cuts are nothing short of savage. The cuts total $1.64 billion from last year, which is nearly $2 billion less than requested. That’s a cut of 8.8%. A billion of that is due to the Shuttle retiring, but the galling part is that the House is requiring that all funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s successor, be cut entirely. In other words, they are canceling the JWST program.

To be fair, the JWST project has been over budget, behind schedule, and mismanaged for years. It’s sapped money away from other projects as well. But the reason this is so aggravating is that despite all that the pieces are built and currently being assembled. I’m not sure it’s cost-effective to cancel it at this point; better to put a hold on it, audit the whole thing top to bottom, and re-organize as needed.

JWST has been a real problem, but it will also be one of the most spectacular observatories ever built. A six meter mirror in space tuned for infra-red observations, it will see farther and in more detail than any space telescope ever built. It will see galaxies when they were first forming, it will image planets orbiting distant suns, and will map our Universe like never before.

At this point, canceling it means billions of dollars will be thrown away, when the cost to complete it is far less*.

Since this is a House budget bill, I called my Representative, Jared Polis, and left him a message. I also tweeted him:

A little while later, he replied:

How cool is that? So I thanked him:

… and I retweeted his tweet. I noticed a while later several of my followers had tweeted their Reps, too. I don’t recommend communicating with your own Congresscritter only this way; emailing or a phone call in addition is better. If you feel strongly about this, please contact him or her.

As I understand it, the bill will get out of the subcommittee today and probably go to the full Appropriations Committee next Wednesday. The Senate will create its own version, and then the two bills will have to be reconciled before going to the President to sign. Canceling JWST may just be saber-rattling, but either way contacting your Rep is a good idea. We have a long way to go here; this is just the opening salvo.

Other people have written about this as well, including:

Julianne at Cosmic Variance
Risa at Cosmic Variance
Amanda Bauer
The e-astronomer
Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance
Sarah Askew
Space News
The New York Times

Read those sites to get more info. And stay tuned; if this goes to vote I’ll have more info as it comes in.

* The JWST situation is similar to the Constellation rocket program which was also over budget and behind schedule. In that case, I supported the cancellation because it was still early enough in the project to actually save money, and it was unclear the rocket would work as promised. JWST is almost done, and is expected to surpass Hubble in many ways.

Congress to NASA: go to the Moon

By Phil Plait | April 27, 2011 7:00 am

So, what do you do with the rocket capable of lifting 130 tons off the Earth that’s requested of NASA in the Presidential budget for 2012?

Some Congresscritters in the US House have an idea. They want NASA to go back to the Moon.


A bill making this case was recently submitted to the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology where it’ll be debated. I have no idea if it’ll get out of committee, let alone pass on the floor of the House.

But it’s interesting. The bill, HR 1641, states as its purpose:

To direct the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to plan to return to the Moon and develop a sustained human presence on the Moon.

Ah, that word, "sustained". It fills me with nachas, as my mom would say. Whenever I look at the Moon, every time, I wonder when we’ll go back.

HR 1641 lists many reasons to go back, and indeed hits the high notes of increased knowledge of science, developing advanced technology, improving our long-term economy, and inspiring young people.

But then it says this:

(10) Space is the world’s ultimate high ground, returning to the Moon and reinvigorating our human space flight program is a matter of national security.

(11) Technologies developed and sustained by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s human space flight program, such as liquid and solid rocket propulsion, environmental and life support systems, and communications, navigation, and control systems are important to our military.

(12) China and Russia, understanding the economic and strategic importance of human space flight, have declared their intentions of colonizing the Moon and are advancing their lunar exploration plans.

(13) It is strategically important that the United States possess and maintain the capabilities of unfettered operation in the space domain, and not cede the space domain to other nations.

Yeah, well. It’s true that China wants to go to the Moon, and Russia may or may not have the wherewithal to do it, but I’m not happy with this being a motivation for us to go back. I don’t like the idea of using the dreaded "other" as an impetus for space exploration. We’ve done this in the past — the whole reason we went to the Moon in the 60s was to beat the Soviets — and look what happened there. Yes, we went, and it was magnificent, but as soon as political winds changed Apollo was canceled. Apollo 14 hadn’t even lifted off when the last missions were taken off the books.

Some space advocates call Apollo a "flags and footprints" mission: get there just to get there. That’s what a space race tends to do. Once you win, what then? Well, you’re done. You’ve won.

But when we go back to the Moon, it shouldn’t be a race. I want us to go back to stay. Get there, set up shop, figure out how to establish life there and then sustain it.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Politics, Space

Next up for Congress: repeal the law of gravity

By Phil Plait | March 15, 2011 12:08 pm

Today, House Republicans made it clear just how antiscience they are (as if we didn’t know already): they voted down a simple amendment declaring the reality of climate change. Not that it was human-caused, or dangerous, just that it existed. Which it does.

The amendment was presented by Henry Waxman (D-CA) to the Energy and Commerce Committee. All the Democrats voted for it, all the Republicans voted against it. So there you go. As Waxman said,

This finding is so obviously correct that there should be no need to offer the amendment.

Yet, it was voted down. The Republicans also rejected a second amendment declaring that climate change is in large part due to human actions. Since that one philosophically at least depended on the Waxman amendment, it’s no surprise it was voted down as well.

Y’know, whenever I use the term denier (as in "global warming denier") I get lots of comments accusing me of using a loaded word. But it’s not: it’s precise, and given what we’re seeing in Congress, it’s the exact word to use.

And this all comes on the heels of a rousing video of Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA) that sums up this whole thing extremely well. It came out last week, and it’s fantastic:

Representative Markey gave this short speech at a meeting of the Energy and Power subcommittee (part of the Energy and Commerce committee) on March 10. Here’s the transcript in all its awesomeness:
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Space leaders to Congress: Light this commercial candle!

By Phil Plait | March 3, 2011 11:00 am

I received a very interesting email from Alan Stern — head of the New Horizons Pluto flyby mission, and who, for a year, was NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate.

Here’s what it said:

The attached open letter was sent to Congress today after being signed by over 55 space leaders.

The letter urges Congress to fully fund NASA’s plan to use commercial companies to carry crew to the Space Station.

Among the letter’s signatories are an unusually broad group of former NASA executives and advisors, former astronauts, CEOs and directors of firms large and small, space scientists, space journalists, and others. We include 14 former NASA astronauts, 5 former NASA senior executives, 13 educators and nonprofit leaders, and 24 space industry leaders from a wide variety of firms and institutions, both large and small.

I am a big advocate of this, having written many times that NASA should be exploring and creating new technologies, but should not be in the business of hauling stuff to space. That is better — and more cheaply — done by commercial contractors.

I’ve put the entire letter online here for you to read.

Here’s one part I particularly like:
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Politics, Space

Antiscience party

By Phil Plait | December 3, 2010 9:48 am

Capitol smokeMany times, when I post about political antiscience, I get some people who are very upset that I don’t point out when liberals or Democrats attack reality. While I do disagree with some or even many of the Democrats’ planks, they typically are not the ones rabidly attacking science. For the most part these days, those on the left are more supportive of science than those on the right. Stem cell research, evolution, climate change, cosmology… these are not generally targets of those on the left.

So it was with some grim amusement that two articles came up one after the other recently in my RSS feed reader: one from Chris Mooney at The Intersection, where he points out that attacks on global warming come almost exclusively from Republicans (and you can read more from Chris about this on DeSmogBlog), and the other by Josh Rosenau at Thoughts from Kansas where he frets — and rightfully (haha) so — about Eric Cantor’s gearing up to attack science en masse when Congress reconvenes.

I have a lot of worries about the new Republican majority in the House, and you can get a taste of them in an earlier blog post. Everything I’ve read and seen in the few days since I’ve posted that hasn’t exactly been reassuring, either: John Boehner just announced that when the Republicans take over, they’ll dismantle the House Select Committee on Global Warming.

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Fanning the flames of the near future

By Phil Plait | October 10, 2010 7:00 am

Sometimes, it’s easy to read our own feelings into a simple picture.


That’s the flame from a Soyuz TMA-01M rocket which launched on Friday with a crew of three men headed to the International Space Station. As a picture, it’s very engaging; I love imagery which possesses a geometric symmetry but is still off-center and a bit unbalanced.

As a metaphor, it’s also engaging: once the Shuttle retires, we’ll have to rely on the Russians for a few years to get supplies and crew to and from the ISS; the image of the flames but not the rocket give a definite "Elvis has left the building" vibe.

But we’ll see. The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon capsule is scheduled for a test flight as early as next month, and the new NASA authorization bill provides a tidy sum of money for commercial flights (don’t believe the rhetoric some in Congress are using about Obama killing manned spaceflight; it’s baloney). And there’s also funding for a new rocket system as well. It will take NASA several years to get their own big human-rated rockets flying again, but it will happen. I’m angry and frustrated about the current situation, and I’ll be a lot happier when it’s resolved. But I’m also hopeful that the path is being laid out for not only a return to space, but one that is sustainable and permanent.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Politics, Space

Congress passes NASA authorization bill, but I'd rather watch sausages being made

By Phil Plait | September 30, 2010 7:42 am

NASA logoI just finished watching the members of the U.S. House of Representatives debate the NASA authorization bill. The bill was passed, and I’m glad, but that was a sickening debate.

I watched the speeches live on C-SPAN. Many Representatives of both parties didn’t like parts of the bill, but felt it was important to pass it. I agree; I have reservations with it as well. However, most of this bill is just fine, and hits the right notes.

Not everyone agreed. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) strongly opposed the bill, for example (interestingly, she’s Chair of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee and her husband and brother-in-law are astronauts). She apparently is one of the few people still holding onto the idea that we should continue to work on the Constellation rocket system which will be defunded with this bill. I disagree with her on that quite strongly (see below).

She did make some good points, things I myself said in my earlier post. For example, the bill is too specific in what kind of rocket should succeed the Shuttle. That’s not for Congress to decide; they should make broader goals that align with what NASA wants to do, and then allow NASA engineers to make the system. Of course, there was consulting with NASA on the bill, but the bill itself shouldn’t go into details like that. Anyway, despite that, I strongly disagree with Rep. Giffords that this bill should have been voted down.

What really galled me, though, was that several Republicans blamed President Obama for NASA’s current mess, including Ralph Hall (R-TX, remember him?). This is grossly and demonstrably unfair and untrue. Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) hammered over and again the idea that Obama is trying to kill the manned space program. That is not true, and in fact the current situation (including the five year gap between the Shuttle and any follow-on rocket system) started in the Bush Administration. Constellation has been in trouble for some time, behind schedule and over-budget. I’m of the opinion that Obama’s plan to defund Constellation does not kill the manned space program as Culberson said it will. I have written about this repeatedly: far from killing it, this new direction may save NASA from the mess it finds itself in right now.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Politics

BREAKING: House to vote on Senate NASA bill WEDNESDAY

By Phil Plait | September 28, 2010 3:56 pm

[UPDATE 2: 21:40 MDT: The House passed the funding bill 304 – 118, garnering the needed 2/3 of the vote. Yay!]

[UPDATE (for real) 19:45 MDT: The House just postponed voting on the NASA bill. It should get a counted vote later tonight. I’m not sure when.]

[UPDATE: 3:30 MDT: The AP is reporting that the NASA bill passed the House, and will be sent to Obama to sign. I have no other sources for this yet, but it looks real. If so, yay! I’ll add that the House was stymied on other important measures due to what looks to me to be more of their eternal and frankly stupid partisan bickering. At least they got the NASA bill done.] That report is premature, as I had feared. As of 4:45 MDT the bill has not yet been brought up to the Floor. Still waiting…


The US House of Representatives is slated to vote on a NASA funding bill WEDNESDAY. The bill is essentially the same the Senate passed recently. The House had a compromise bill up for debate, but decided yesterday there wasn’t time before Congress goes on vacation. So they are going to vote on the Senate version instead.

What follows below is some detail.

The quick version: I support this bill, and I urge people to call their Representative and ask them to vote for it. I’ve already called my Congressman and asked him to support it.

The longer version:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Politics

Senate narrowly votes down antiscience greenhouse gas Resolution

By Phil Plait | June 11, 2010 12:52 pm

earthonfireA Senate vote yesterday narrowly allowed the Environmental Protection Agency to monitor and regulate greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles. There has been a lot of spin and furor over this vote, but in the end I think that this was heavily (though not totally) influenced by a political (and heavily partisan) denial of climate change.

Here’s the deal: The Clean Air Act allows the EPA to monitor and regulate various pollutants emitted by industries. A recent provision, Section 202(a), added six greenhouse gases to that list — specifically, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride — and paves the way to allow the EPA to actively regulate them.

However, a Joint Resolution was submitted by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), basically disallowing that Section of the Act. In other words, this Resolution would not allow the EPA to regulate those greenhouse gas emissions.

The Resolution was voted down by a 47-53 vote. Yay! Interestingly, not one of the 53 votes against it came from a Republican. A half dozen votes supporting it did come from Democrats, however.

What do we make of this?

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