NSF accused of misuse of funds in giant ecological project

The National Science Foundation (NSF) and a contractor have been accused by both an audit and by Congress of a significant misuse of funds in a major ecological monitoring project costing almost a half a billion dollars.

With a construction budget of $433.7 million, NEON is planned to consist of 106 sites across the United States. Arrays of sensors at each site will monitor climate change and human impacts for 30 years, building an unprecedented continental-scale data set. Although some initially doubted its merits, the allure of big-data ecology eventually won over most scientists.

But a 2011 audit of the project’s proposed construction budget stalled three times when, according to the independent Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA), NEON’s accounting proved so poor that the review could not be completed. Eventually, DCAA issued an adverse ruling, concluding that nearly 36% of NEON’s budget proposal was questionable or undocumented.

When the NSF green-lit the project, the agency’s inspector-general ordered the audit released on 24 November, which found unallowable expenses including a $25,000 winter holiday party, $11,000 to provide coffee for employees, $3,000 for board-of-directors dinners that included alcohol, $3,000 for t-shirts and other clothes, $83,000 for “business development” and $112,000 for lobbying.

Republican members of Congress have since been attacking NSF for this lax management. And though the amount of funds apparently misused does not seem very large compared to the size of the entire contract, I am willing to bet that this audit only uncovered a tiny portion of the misuse. Based on the recent behavior of federal agencies, I would expect this to only be an indicator of much worst abuse that is still buried behind stone-walling.

A side note: Remember how only a few weeks ago the NSF head was claiming that a shortage of funds was the reason they were unable to cure ebola. What really happened was that they were too busy spending money having parties to do their job.

New joint venture to build Ariane 6

Faced with stiff competition from SpaceX, Europe has handed the construction its next generation rocket, Ariane 6, from Arianespace to a joint venture between the European companies Airbus and Safran.

The new venture will be dubbed Airbus Safran Launchers, and will take over as Europe’s launch company.

I had known that Airbus and Safran had proposed this venture to build Ariane 6, but until I read this press release I hadn’t realized that the agreed-to deal to build Ariane 6 means that Arianespace has essentially been fired by Europe as the company running Europe’s rocket operations. Arianespace, a partnership of the European Space Agency’s many partners, was never able to make a profit, while its Ariane 5 rocket costs a fortune to launch. They have now given the job to two private companies who have promised to rein in the costs. We shall see what happens.

Busy year for Russian Proton rocket?

The heat of competition: Russia hopes to compete 11 Proton launches in 2015.

That sounds nice, but they haven’t yet officially rescheduled the scrubbed November 28 Proton launch of a commercial satellite because of a faulty gyro in the upper stage. Considering the problems they have had with Proton in the past three years it will be a major accomplishment if this schedule gets completed as planned.

Europe approves construction of giant telescope

Europe has approved the construction of the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), which when completed will be the largest ground-based telescope.

The E-ELT will have a mirror 39 meters across, almost four times bigger than the world’s largest telescope today.

A word to the wise: This very month Sky & Telescope’s cover article, written by yours truly, describes the many difficulties the world’s present generation of giant telescopes have faced. Four out of five have not produced the science promised. Two of the four were dogged by so many technical problems that they required complete reconstruction. The builders of E-ELT will face even greater engineering challenges. Do not be surprised if this telescope does not get completed by 2025 as promised, and even if it does, do not be surprised if it takes another half decade or more before the engineers work out all the kinks.

Increasing hostility to religion in America

A yearly survey of incidents of religious discrimination in the U.S. has found a steady rise in the past three years.

For the last three years the Liberty Institute and the Family Research Council has published Undeniable: The Survey of Hostility to Religion in America. The legal group says they’re seeing cases of discrimination against those of faith rising rapidly. “The first time we did it, we collected about 600 cases,” Jeff Mateer, general counsel of the Texas-based Liberty Institute, told CBN News. “We went from 600 to 1,200. And this year we’re up to about 1,600. So, the threats are continuing to increase at a dramatic pace.”

The article outlines some specific stories that are quite horrifying. The worst was the case of a man fired from his job because of the sermons he gave during his free time. Sadly, that is only a sample.

Obama administration defies IRS court order

The Obama administration announced this week that it is withholding all of the more than 2,000 documents demanded by the court in connection with the IRS scandal and the possibility that the IRS divulged confidential taxpayer information to the White House.

Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew, Obama’s former White House Chief of Staff, took the documents that were set to be released and now refuses to ever turn them over. His rationale? Lew cannot release information about improper disclosures of confidential taxpayer information because that would be an improper disclosure of confidential taxpayer information.

Does anyone with any brains actually believe Lew and the Obama administration in this? I certainly don’t. The real reason they are are withholding the documents is because those documents will prove that the Obama administration used confidential taxpayer information for political purposes, and they must prevent that fact from being proven at all costs.

Human etchings half a million years old?

The uncertainty of science: Did an ancestor of humanity etch zig-zags on a shell half a million years ago?

This story is a fascinating illustration of the difficulties of pinning down facts in the field of science. The researchers do an impeccable job of checking all possibilities, and finish by cheerfully admitting that their conclusions could be wrong. If right, however, the discovery is significant, as it tells us that 500,000 years ago an ancestor of the human race was capable of drawing an abstract design on the surface of a shell.

Orion launch on Thursday given go-ahead

The Thursday test launch of an Orion capsule has been given the go-ahead.

Many of the news reports this week about this test flight have referred to Orion as “the spacecraft that will take humans to Mars.” I must note again that this is hogwash. No humans will ever go to Mars using Orion. It is too small and does not have the capacity to keep humans healthy and alive for the year-plus-long flight time necessary to get to and from Mars.

The most Orion can ever be is the ascent and descent module for a much larger interplanetary space vessel, used just for getting humans up and down from the surface of the Earth. The spacecraft that will really take people to Mars will have to be something more akin to Mir or ISS, a large assembly of modules put together in low Earth orbit.

One other tidbit everyone should know about tomorrow’s test flight: Though it is being touted as a test of Orion’s heat shield, the company that makes this heat shield has already abandoned this design, so the test itself is for a heat shield that will never be launched again on another Orion capsule. In addition, the flight won’t test the rocket to be used, as the SLS rocket isn’t ready. Nor will it test the capsule’s life support systems, which are not on board.

Which immediately raises the question: Why in hell is NASA even bothering with this test flight?

Sadly, I can answer that question. This is all public relations, an effort to lobby for funding. That’s it.

Organic material from Mars?

The uncertainty of science: Scientists theorize that the carbon material found in a 2011 meteorite could be Martian biological material.

Ejected from Mars after an asteroid crashed on its surface, the meteorite, named Tissint, fell on the Moroccan desert on July 18, 2011, in view of several eyewitnesses. Upon examination, the alien rock was found to have small fissures that were filled with carbon-containing matter. Several research teams have already shown that this component is organic in nature. But they are still debating where the carbon came from.

Chemical, microscopic and isotope analysis of the carbon material led the researchers to several possible explanations of its origin. They established characteristics that unequivocally excluded a terrestrial origin, and showed that the carbon content were deposited in the Tissint’s fissures before it left Mars.

Postgraduate plug-n-play cubesat manufacturers ship their first product

The company for cheaply mass-producing cubesats and their components — formed by two brothers while attending college last year — has shipped its first product.

RadioBro, the company founded by Mark and Eric Becnel, reached its first product milestone with a mini-satellite communications transceiver. “We prototyped it in June and did a production run,” says Mark Becnel, company president, who is also finishing up his aerospace engineering master’s degree at UAH. His brother, Eric, who is RadioBro vice president and chief engineer, graduated in 2013. “We accomplished some pre-sales and then did a full run of 100 units,” Becnel says. The MiniSatCom is offered in a variety of kits.

They now are developing a cubesat core that

will save cubesat developers the six months to two years of development time that’s normally required to make a disparate stack of various products work together to serve the same function, Becnel says. If the cubesat is built to generally accepted standards, the core will be plug and play, he says.

These guys have the right idea for space development. Instead of looking for jobs with other companies or NASA, they found a need in the aerospace industry and are filling it, cheaply and efficiently and thus saving everybody time and money. The result: They make money themselves selling their product.

The failure of single payer government health plans

Link here. Read it and be warned. Many Democrats, faced with the complete disaster of Obamacare, like to claim that none of those problems would have happened if they had instead imposed a single payer plan (a euphemism for nationalizing healthcare under a government run system).

Well, read the article at the link. It will give you an idea what to expect under nationalized healthcare, and it ain’t good.

An aside: I despise the term “single payer,” as it attempts to hide the fact that the proposal is nothing more than the nationalization of healthcare, which puts the government in control. No journalist should use it, and if they do, they should either make it clear what it means, or they reveal themselves to be leftwing hacks.

Europe agrees to build Ariane 6

The heat of competition: Faced with a stiff challenge from SpaceX, the European partners in Arianespace have worked out a deal to replace the Ariane 5 rocket with Ariane 6.

The official announcement will be made in next few days, but with Germany agreeing to the French proposal, the partnership can now proceed.

The result will be a government rocket which will likely only launch government payloads, since it will likely also cost too much to compete with SpaceX and the other new lower cost commercial companies like Stratolaunch, now developing in the U.S.

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