Expect long delays after third Artemis mission

Link here. The article outlines from a different perspective the many problems faced by NASA’s Artemis program, specifically related to its SLS rocket.

First, that fourth Artemis mission will require a larger first stage, which is far behind schedule and should not be ready until late 2028 (though I predict at least one to two years beyond that date).

Second, that larger upper stage will require completion of a new mobile launcher platform, replacing the mobile launcher now in use that cost about a half billion and will only be used three times. The new launcher platform however is also behind schedule and overbudget. Its completion is not expected until 2027 (though I predict at least one year beyond that date).

Thus, even if the third Artemis mission flies in 2026, as presently scheduled, it will be at least two years before the fourth can fly, but more likely the gap will be three to four years.

Everything related to NASA’s SLS rocket is a mess. If the people running our government had brains, they would immediately dump it and do everything they can to speed development of Starship/Superheavy, which has a better design, is reusuable, is more powerful, has greater capabilities, and most important of all, will be able to fly frequently and quickly at a very low cost, something that SLS will never be able to do.

Unfortunately, the people running our government have no brains, or to be more precise, refuse to use them because of their own selfish petty interests. SLS will go on, wasting billions. And the effort to squelch Starship/Superheavy will also continue, because these petty federal officials can’t have a private company show them up. No way! It must be their way, or the highway!

GAO blasts NASA for purposely failing to control the budget of its SLS rocket

In a new report [pdf] released yesterday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) strongly blasted NASA’s non-budgeting process for financing the costs for this SLS rocket, which appear specifically designed to allow those costs to rise uncontrollably.

This one sentence from the report says it all:

NASA does not plan to measure production costs to monitor the affordability of the SLS program.

That non-plan is actually in direct defiance of four different reports by both the GAO and NASA’s inspector general over the past decade, all of which found that NASA was not using standard budgeting practices with SLS and which all demanded it do so forthwith. As this new report notes in reviewing this history, in every case NASA failed to follow these recommendations, and instead created budgetary methods designed to instead obscure the program’s cost.

This report notes that NASA continues to do so.
» Read more

NASA reveals three year delay in its New Frontiers planetary mission program

NASA last week revealed that because of “budget uncertainty” it will not begin accepting project proposals in its New Frontiers planetary mission program this fall as planned, and will in fact not begin accepting new proposals until 2026.

At a NASA SMD town hall meeting July 27, Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, warned a potential extended delay in the release of the New Frontiers AO. “If the planetary science funding levels that are anticipated as a result of this tight budget environment are actually realized over the next two or so years,” she said, “it is unlikely we’ll be able to solicit New Frontiers perhaps not before 2026.” That delay was made official with the release of the community announcement.

The draft AO sought proposals for missions on six topics, as recommended by the planetary science decadal survey in 2011: a comet surface sample return, a mission to Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io, a lunar geophysical network, a sample return mission to the moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin, a mission to characterize the potential habitability of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus and a probe of Saturn’s atmosphere.

The New Frontiers program previously funded the New Horizons mission to Pluto, the Juno mission to Jupiter, and the OSIRIS-REx asteroid mission to Bennu.

The article at the first link above as well as the NASA officials quoted attempt falsely to blame the budget problems on the Republican House leadership, which insisted that the committee which reviews the NASA budget as well as the budgets of Justice and Commerce cut 28.8% from among those agencies in its 2024 budget review. That committee (as well as the Senate) however was very generous to NASA, essentially giving it the same budget as previously, with only a 1% cut, while slashing budgets for departments in Justice and Commerce to make up the difference.

The real blame for this delay in NASA’s planetary program almost certainly falls on the Mars Sample Return mission, which has seen gigantic budget overruns that are apparently swallowing the entire future planetary program. NASA’s planetary budget can’t pay for any other new planetary missions as long as it must pay for the cost overruns for the sample return mission.

This is no surprise, as we’ve seen this movie before. When Webb’s budget ballooned 20x, from its proposed $500 million to $10 billion, it essentially shut down the rest of NASA’s astrophysics program, delaying or cancelling all other space telescope projects for more than a decade. Now the planetary program is experiencing its own version of this same pain.

The problem is the Mars Sample Return mission itself. Its design has been haphazard and sloppy and constantly changing. It is also reliant on older technology ideas that will soon be made obsolete by Starship/Superheavy. NASA would be wiser to delay that project to await the development of the launch capabilities that will make it cost effective, and let a fleet of other missions happen instead.

I guarantee however that NASA won’t do that, because it will require some boldness. The philosophy in Washington remains the same: Do the same failed thing over and over again in the vain hope it might work next time.

House committee imposes major cuts to Justice, FBI, Commerce

As had been suggested by its decision to not impose any cuts (or increases) to the NASA budget, the House appropriation subcommittee in charge of Commerce, Justice, Science-related agencies imposed all of the 28.8% cuts required by the House leadership on the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the Commerce department.

Overall, the bill appropriates $58.4 billion for programs under the jurisdiction of the committee, a $23.8 billion cut compared to the current fiscal year. It eliminates 14 “diversity, equity and inclusion” programs in the covered agencies, cuts spending on “wasteful” climate change programs, and saves more than $50 million by ending the Biden administration’s plan to replace auto fleets at the Department of Commerce and Department of Justice with electric vehicles.

According to the GOP summary, the Commerce Department would see a $1.4 billion cut in discretionary funding, and the Department of Justice would see a $2 billion cut. Federal science agencies together would face a $1.1 billion cut under the bill.

The FBI’s budget is to be cut $1 billion, or 9% (an actual cut, not a reduction in the increase in spending), with $400 million of that coming from salaries and expenses. It also forbids the agency from spending a dime on its planned dream of a new posh and palatial headquarters in the DC suburbs, twice the size of the Pentagon and costing more than $3 billion.

This is exactly what Republicans should have been doing for decades, and were too cowardly to attempt. If an agency of unelected employees in the executive branch abuses its power and causes harm to innocent citizens, something the FBI and the Justice Department have been eagerly doing since Trump became president, then it is the responsibilty and obligation of Congress to use its power of the purse to cut those agencies’ funding.

Even now, however, no one should be confident these cuts will end up in the final bill. This is only the recommendations of one subcommittee. There are still many Republican cowards in the full House, and even more in the full Senate, who will gladly team up with the Democrats (who are all in favor of the abuse of power and the harm to innocent citizens) to reinstate the cuts.

Nonetheless, this is a start. It indicates that we might finally have turned a real political corner towards reform.

NASA survives first budget review in Congress

The first 2024 budgets approved by Senate and House appropriation committees for NASA maintain about the same current numbers from NASA’s 2023 budget.

The House committee is recommending $25.367 billion, just shy of the $25.384 billion NASA has now. The Senate committee is proposing $25.000 billion, a greater reduction from current spending. Biden requested a 7.1 percent increase for FY2024, $27.2 billion.

In the House the Republican leadership is requiring this House committee to impose a 28.8% cut in the total money allocated to all the agencies under its control (Justice, Commerce, and Science). It appears the committee members have decided to find the cuts in the other departments, such as the Justice Department. In fact, this first budget review strongly suggests Justice is about to see huge cuts, something that corrupt and partisan agency richly deserves.

As for NASA, the Senate report [pdf] had harsh words for the growing expense of the Mars Sample Return mission, and proposed major cuts, including the possibility of eliminating the project entirely. Instead, the Senate committee preferred wasting that money on Artemis and SLS.

Surprise! The cost for the Mars Sample Return mission is ballooning!

According to NASA, the cost for the Mars Sample Return mission could possibly rise to as high as $8 to $9 billion, more than double the $3.8 billion to $4.4 billion estimated by a 2020 review.

NASA itself has recently become very silent about the project’s expected cost.

NASA officials have been careful not to give any estimates of costs for MSR in recent presentations, stating that it will wait until a formal confirmation review for the program, scheduled for the fall, before providing an official cost and schedule baseline. That will come after a series of preliminary design reviews and a review by a second independent board led by Orlando Figueroa, a former director of NASA’s Mars exploration program.

Those earlier numbers were never realistic, based on NASA’s recent track record. The cost of its big projects — Webb, SLS, Orion, Roman Telescope — always grows exponentially, once the project gets going.

This cost increase however is a serious political problem for NASA and this sample return mission, as the House is demanding major real cuts in the budgets of almost all federal agencies. While I expect NASA to survive these cuts without great harm, a program that shows out-of-control budget growth might become a target by the House, which is likely why NASA scheduled its review of the sample return mission to occur in the fall, after the House approves its next budget. Better to announce bad news as late as possible.

House Democrats propose and Republicans approve Space Force increasing spaceport fees

We’re here to help you! The House Armed Services Committee, controlled by a majority of Republicans, has approved a defense funding bill that includes an amendment, proposed by a Democrat, that would allow the Space Force to charge much larger fees for the use of its spaceports.

Committee members signed off on the legislation June 22, which proposes $874 billion in defense spending. The full House is slated to vote on the bill in July. Included in the bill is an amendment offered by Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Calif., that would allow the Space Force to collect fees from companies for the indirect costs of using the military’s launch ranges, like overhead infrastructure or other charges that a traditional port authority might impose on its users.

Today, per the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984, the service is limited to collecting fees for direct costs like electricity at a launch pad. The law also restricts the Space Force from accepting in-kind contributions from commercial companies to upgrade its ranges.

The committee’s bill, if approved, would require commercial launch companies to “reimburse the Department of Defense for such indirect costs as the Secretary concerned considers to be appropriate.”

The bill also includes a Republican amendment that encourages the Space Force to charge other additional fees, or require private companies to do work the Space Force is presently handles.

Though the latter amendment might make sense, both amendments will likely achieve just one thing: making it much more expensive to launch from Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg. Whether those increased costs will be kept as low as possible is entirely unknown. We certainly should not trust officials in the federal government to do so.

House proposed cuts pose no threat to NASA, despite the screams of agony

Proposed Republican budget cuts
Proposed Republican budget changes

Before even beginning this story, it is critical for my readers to understand that the worst any of these possible cuts could do to NASA’s budget in 2024 would be to bring it back to budgetary levels from most of the last decade, levels that hardly crippled the agency in the slightest.

The graph to the right, posted initially by Roll Call, outlines in detail the required cuts the Republicans in the House are demanding in the federal budget for the 2024 fiscal year. The percentages in the last column list the amount each of these twelve appropriation subcommittees must cut from their area of focus. NASA is part of the Commerce-Justice-Science category, which requires a total cut of 28.8%.

NASA’s budget in 2023 was $25.4 billion. If the House imposes that percentage cut to NASA, it would lower its 2024 budget to about $18 billion.

O my! We are all going to starve!
» Read more

The modern corrupt legislative way of doing business: Know nothing, fund everything!

Fill it in with any amount, regardless of facts
It doesn’t matter how much money is in the government treasury,
our government will fill this check out anyway, to the max.

This week the Democrat-controlled legislature of the state of California passed a bill allocating $150 million dollars from which cash-strapped hospitals could obtain loans to help pay their bills.

The state will give out the $150 million in the form of interest-free loans to nonprofit or public hospitals that meet certain conditions. The state will prioritize loans for medical centers in rural areas and those that have a disproportionate number of patients on Medicaid, the joint state and federal government health insurance program for the poor and the disabled.

Loans will have to be repaid in six years, though it will be possible for the loan to be forgiven if the hospital meets certain requirements.

In another news report describing the process in which this bill was approved and passed included one particular quote that illustrated magnificently the modern manner in which almost all American legislatures now function, from small city councils to Congress in Washington, regardless of party. As stated by one state senator during preliminary hearings before the bill passed:

“We don’t know how many hospitals, we don’t know which hospitals. We don’t know which areas those hospitals are (in), we don’t know anything. And now we’re asked to approve $150 million to be doled out without access to plans, without access to the finances that would give us the evidence to feel comfortable with this,” said Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, a Los Angeles Democrat, during a Senate budget committee hearing on Tuesday. [emphasis mine]

» Read more

NASA’s Mars Sample Return project now overbudget

According to testimony by NASA’s administrator Bill Nelson to a Senate committee, its Mars Sample Return (MSR) project now needs a lot of additional funds in order to have any chance of staying on schedule.

Nelson told the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee today that he just learned two weeks ago during a visit to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is building MSR, that they need an additional $250 million this year and an additional $250 million above the request for FY2024 to stay on schedule for launch in 2028.

That FY2024 request warns that the projections for future MSR funding requirements are likely to grow and force NASA to descope the mission or reduce funding for other science projects. NASA just set up a second [independent review board] to take another look at the program.

The project is already beginning to suck money from other science missions, such as solar and astronomy and the Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon Titan. In addition, its method for getting the samples back to Earth remains somewhat uncertain due to ESA’s decision to not build a lander/rover for the mission, requiring JPL to propose the use of helicopters instead.

I predict Congress will fund everything, by simply printing more money as it nonchalantly continues to grow the national debt to levels unsustainable. Meanwhile, replacing the present very complex return concept — involving a lander, helicopters, an ascent rocket, and a return capsule (from Europe) — with a much cheaper and simpler option that is now on the horizon, Starship, does not seem to have occurred to any of the these government wonks.

Surprise! NASA’s ’23 budget request asks for more money!

In releasing its budget request this week to Congress for the 2023 fiscal year, NASA did what it routinely does each year, ask for more money, this time asking for an 8% increase from what Congress appropriated last year.

NASA’s FY2023 budget request is $25.974 billion versus the FY2022 appropriation of $24.041 billion. NASA had requested $24.802 billion in large part to pay for the Artemis program to return astronauts to the lunar surface, but Congress wasn’t willing to allocate that much. While supportive of Artemis and NASA’s many other science, aeronautics and technology programs, there is a limit as to how much Congress is willing to invest.

NASA is requesting not just another boost in FY2023, but in the “out years” thereafter, rising to $28 billion in FY2027, though much of that purchasing power likely will be lost to inflation.

…In essence, the agency wants more money for everything it is doing.

The budget request also asks again for Congress to terminate the SOFIA airborne telescope, which NASA contends is not producing enough science to justify its $80 million annual cost. Congress has repeatedly refused to do so in past years. As should be expected, Congress will likely not cancel SOFIA again, as it likes to spend money we don’t have.

The goal of the increased funding for Artemis is also to continue the SLS program for many years to come. Expect Congress to also fund this in the coming few years, though the long term future of SLS remains in doubt, especially if SpaceX’s Starship begins flying. Artemis won’t be cancelled by our spendthrift Congress, but Congress will likely decide to shift that spending to Starship and other private rockets rather than SLS as those private rockets come on line.

All in all, expect Congress to give NASA more cash, but not as much as the agency requests.

Senate Democrats trying to sneak $10 billion payoff to Bezos’s Blue Origin in military budget

Senator Majority leader Charles Schumer (D-New York) and Senator Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island) have inserted a $10 billion subsidy to Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space company in a $250 billion budget bill they are pushing that they claim will address things like the semiconductor chip shortage and the supply chain issues.

The bill, called the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, or USICA (pdf available here), is of course mostly filled with payoffs to the friends of Democrats, and will likely achieve nothing that is promised. It is also like all the budget bills being pushed by the Democratic Party in that it treats money as if it grows on trees. They can spend as much as they want, with no consequences at all.

Worse, Schumer and his cronies are trying to hide this pork bill by making it part of the annual military budget bill, dubbed NDAA.

To prove that this is nothing more than corrupt payoffs we need only look at the $10 billion subsidy to Blue Origin. This is a company being directly financed, in the billions, by Bezos himself. It has no shortage of cash. It not only doesn’t need government subsidies, it has never even looked for private investment capital. Bezos has provided it billions from his own pocket, far more cash than SpaceX has ever had on hand.

Yet Bezos is lobbying Democrats for this subsidy, aimed at financing his failed manned lunar lander project that NASA simply doesn’t have the cash to build and also doesn’t want to build because it was a generally weak proposal. From the bill:

This section would require the NASA Administrator to maintain competitiveness within the human landing system by funding design, development, testing, and evaluation for at least two entities. It would also authorize, in addition to amounts otherwise appropriated for the Artemis program, for fiscal years 2021 through 2026, $10.032 billion to NASA to carry out the human landing system program.

In other words, force NASA to award that second manned lunar lander, with Blue Origin almost certainly the winner.

Whether Schumer’s games here will pay off for Bezos remains unknown. I expect most senate Republicans will oppose it (other than the typical RINO fools like Romney). Already Democrats like Bernie Sanders have expressed opposition, as well as at least one children’s lobbying group that appears more aligned with the left than the right.

And even if it passes in the Senate, the House will have to approve, and we can expect ample opposition there from both parties.

VC of Joint Chiefs: Not one, not two, but “hundreds” of Chinese hypersonic tests!

If I did not have confirmation of my skepticism about the claims by the military and anonymous sources that China this summer completed a successful hypersonic test flight, I have it now.

Today the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John Hyten, made a speech demanding that the military stop building expensive gold-plated satellites and emulate SpaceX’s methods of frequent testing and quick development.

Hyten has been very correctly pushing for this change in strategy for years. However, in his remarks he said this:

China, he said, has performed “hundreds” of tests of hypersonic weapons in the last five years, compared to nine the United States has performed.

…[He also] implied this morning, but did not state categorically, that China has built and tested what appears to be a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS).

FOBS technology is not new, but Hyten described it “as highly destabilizing.” And China’s reported use of a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) as the pointy end of the stick would be a twist. The Soviets deployed a FOBS — which combines a low-flying missile and nuclear warhead that reaches Low Earth Orbit, but does not remain in space for a full turn about the Earth — from 1969 to 1983. China began an effort in the early 1970s, but suffered test failures with its launcher, and gave up. [emphasis mine]

As I say, Hyten’s goals — fast testing, fast development, and not fearing failure — are all correct and laudable. But to suddenly turn a questionable story about a possible single successful Chinese hypersonic test flight, based entirely on anonymous sources, into “hundreds” of flights, strongly confirms to me that the original story was planted by the military to create fear in Congress and the public so that both would eagerly give the military more money.

The result will be that Hyten won’t get what he really wants. His use of exaggeration and possible disinformation will only cause Congress to balloon the military’s budget for new programs, which will then be used to feed the Pentagon’s insatiable appetite for endless and slow-moving test programs that only function as jobs programs, the very thing Hyten rails against.

Biden signs budget continuing resolution, preventing shutdown

At the very last second Congress and President Biden passed and signed another budget continuing resolution that will keep the federal government operating till December and thus preventing another shutdown.

From NASA’s narrow perspective, the action means that the asteroid mission Lucy will likely launch in October as planned. From the perspective of the nation, this last second action merely illustrates the overall failure of the federal government and the elected officials who have been tasked to run it. They are all incompetent, and wouldn’t last five seconds in a real job outside the government.

That the voters keep re-electing them also speaks poorly of America today. We all should be ashamed.

Government shutdown threatens Lucy asteroid mission

Government marches on! The possibility that the federal government could shut down because of the inability of Congress and the Biden administration to pass a funding bill or raise the debt limit now threatens the launch of the Lucy mission to the asteroid belt.

If no budget agreement is reached the government will shut down on October 1st. If the debt limit isn’t raised that shutdown could follow soon thereafter, even if a budget is passed.

The launch window for the mission is from October 16 to November 7, 2021. If the spacecraft does not launch in that window the science team says it will likely require a major rethinking of the entire project, as it will be difficult to find another opportunity to visit the same set of asteroids.

Right now the chances of a shutdown are very high, as the Democrats are pushing big spending bills without any negotiations with the Republicans. In answer, the Republican caucus has said that none of its members will support raising the debt limit. Without the latter any passed spending bill will soon be moot, as the debt limit will soon be reached, blocking further government spending.

Though I personally would be very saddened if Lucy was prevented from launching, that loss would be well compensated for by having the federal government out of business. The evil and corruption promoted by it far outweighs the good work done by several minor space missions.

“The Endless SLS Test Firings Act”

The Senate passes a law! In the NASA authorization that was just approved by the Senate and awaits House action was an amendment — inserted by Senator Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) — that will essentially require NASA to build an SLS core stage designed for only one purpose, endless testing at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

The Stennis-specific provision says NASA should “initiate development of a main propulsion test article for the integrated core stage propulsion elements of the Space Launch System, consistent with cost and schedule constraints, particularly for long-lead propulsion hardware needed for flight.”

So what exactly is a “main propulsion test article,” and why does NASA need one? According to a Senate staffer, who spoke to Ars on background, this would essentially be an SLS core stage built not to fly but to undergo numerous tests at Stennis.

My headline above is essentially stolen from the Eric Berger article at the link. Because this ground test core is not funded, at best it would likely not be ready for testing prior to ’27 or ’28, at the earliest. By then who knows if SLS will even exist any longer, replaced by low-cost and far more useful commercial rockets. Thus, if this Wicker amendment survives, Stennis might be testing a core stage endlessly for a rocket that no longer exists.

And even if SLS is flying, what point is there to test a core stage that never flies? None, except if you wish to create fake jobs in Mississippi for your constituents, as Wicker obviously is trying to do.

Fortunately the bill is merely an authorization, and has not yet passed the House. Much could change before passage, and even after passage money will need to be appropriated to create this fake testing project.

Unfortunately, we are discussing our modern Congress, which has no brains, can’t count, and thinks money grows on trees. I would not bet against this fake testing program becoming law.

Senate passes NASA authorization that calls for second lunar lander contract

The Senate today passed a new NASA authorization that requires the agency to award a second manned lunar lander contract in addition to the one it gave SpaceX for its Starship spacecraft.

The bill also recommended a $10 billion increase over five years in this specific lunar lander program to pay for that second contract.

None of this is law yet, as the House must agree also. In addition, as this is an authorization, not an appropriation, the extra money has not been appropriated, which means it does not yet exist. And should it be approved at these recommended numbers, it means that NASA will be forced to stretch out the creation of both lunar landers, as the money appropriated is still less than required to build either.

I suspect that this budget shortfall will not delay SpaceX’s Starship significantly, as that company has obtained sufficient private funding to build it regardless. More likely the second lunar lander will face longer delays, unless its builders decide to do what SpaceX has done, and obtain private capital to get it done fast.

Note too that this recommendations follows Congress’s general policy of imagining money grows on trees and that there is an infinite supply. While it might be a good idea to pay for two landers, the country’s debt suggests otherwise. Maybe a wiser course would be for the government to only offer a tiny percentage of the capital, and demand the builders find their own funding, as SpaceX has done.

A proposal to rebuild Arecibo as a better radio telescope

Even as the National Science Foundation (NSF) proceeds with the disassembly of the destroyed Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, some astronomers are proposing that a new radio telescope be built in its place, with a new design that will not require the instrument platform floating above a single dish.

Here’s the idea as outlined in a white paper circulated by Roshi and his colleagues: The Next Generation Arecibo Telescope would pack hundreds, maybe even more than 1,000 smaller radio dishes into the same space now occupied by the single 305-meter dish. Those smaller antennas would combine forces to act like a single larger telescope (no suspended instrument platform required).

Ideally, those dishes would be on a single, tiltable platform to access more of the sky from the Arecibo site; it’s possible multiple platforms could do the same.

The revamped telescope would have twice the sky coverage of the legacy dish, 500 times the field of view in individual images, at least double the sensitivity, and five times the radar power.

The cost for this new radio telescope is presently estimated to be about half a billion. Considering that the NSF didn’t have the money to operate the old Arecibo telescope, which was why it wasn’t properly maintained and collapsed, I doubt it has the cash to build this replacement. Congress, which likes printing money it doesn’t have, might step in and fund it, but if so that will only add to the national debt that is certainly going to cause the bankruptcy of the nation at some point in the future, a point that is getting closer and closer with each new trillion that Congress nonchalantly spends, on almost a monthly schedule.

Space Force picks Alabama for its future headquarters

In a victory for Alabama and its politicians, the U.S. Space Force has chosen the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville as the location for its future headquarters.

The selection of Redstone Arsenal is a huge win for Huntsville, nicknamed “Rocket City.” U.S. Space Command is currently based at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. Alabama was considered a long shot and Colorado was the front runner, given its incumbent status and concentration of military installations and space industry contractors.

U.S. Space Command was established in August 2019 as the military’s 11th unified combatant command. The future headquarters will have approximately 1,400 military and civilian personnel.

While there are many good reasons to pick Huntsville, I guarantee a major factor was the clout exercised by Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama), head of the Senate appropriations committee. He will no longer be in charge of the committee with the new Senate, but in his final act as head he likely used it to get the Space Force to move to his state.

This decision however is not yet final. According to government officials, it will take six years (!) to make the move, and already the politicians in Colorado, where the Space Command is presently based, are lobbying to rescind it.

Republican congressman Doug Lamborn, who represents Colorado Springs, sent a letter to President-elect Biden urging him to reverse what he called a “political decision” to move U.S. Space Command to Alabama. “I am disappointed by the horrendous decision to rip U.S. Space Command out of its home in Colorado Springs and move it to a new location,” said Lamborn.

As always, pork is the goal, not defending the U.S. in the most effective manner.

Congress frees Europa Clipper from SLS

It appears that Congress has at last removed its requirement that the unmanned probe Europa Clipper must be launched on the continually delayed and very expensive SLS rocket.

Almost unnoticed, tucked into the 2021 fiscal NASA funding section of the recently passed omnibus spending bill, is a provision that would seem to liberate the upcoming Europa Clipper mission from the Space Launch System (SLS).

According to Space News, the mandate that the Europa Clipper mission be launched on an SLS remains in place only if the behind-schedule and overpriced heavy lift rocket is available and if concerns about hardware compatibility between the probe and the launcher are resolved. Otherwise, NASA is free to search for commercial alternatives to get the Europa Clipper to Jupiter’s ice-shrouded moon.

Not only will this secure Europa Clipper’s launch schedule, which had deadlines imposed by orbital mechanics that SLS was not going to meet, the more than $1 billion in savings by using a SpaceX Falcon Heavy will allow the probe to do more while giving NASA more money for other planetary missions.

This is excellent news. It signals that Congress’s long love affair with SLS because of the ample pork it sends to many districts might finally be waning. If so, there is a good chance it will finally be killed, freeing up its bloated budget.

Sadly, in a sane world some of those savings would be used to reduce the overall federal deficit even as some was also used to expand NASA’s space effort. We are not in a sane world, however, so expect no reduction in the federal budget, at all.

Still, this is a move by Congress towards some fiscal responsibility that will make NASA’s efforts more efficient. For that small improvement we should be grateful.

Puerto Rican government commits $8 million to rebuild Arecibo

The government of Puerto Rico earlier this week announced that it has allocated $8 million to rebuild the Arecibo Observatory.

Via an executive order, Gov. Wanda Vazquez made reconstruction of the observatory public policy. In a ceremony at La Fortaleza, the seat of the island’s government, Vazquez said that the Puerto Rican government believes that the telescope’s collapse provides a great opportunity to redesign it, taking into account the lessons learned and recommendations from the scientific community so that it remains relevant for decades to come.

…Vazquez said that she and her administration want the scope to once again become a world class center and the $8 million being allocated for reconstruction includes funds to repair the environmental damage caused by the collapse, something that has already begun under the supervision of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

We shall see what happens. $8 million is not really enough to rebuild Arecibo. And the NSF has been trying to unload it from its budgetary responsibility for almost a decade. I would be shocked if that agency now suddenly decided to fund its reconstruction.

Only if Congress gets involved will this likely change, and that wouldn’t surprise me, considering how nonchalant our present Congress is about spending money that doesn’t exist.

NASA budget passed by Congress rejects ’24 lunar landing

No surprise: The NASA budget that was passed by Congress this week as part of a giant omnibus bill only gave NASA 25% of the requested funds the agency says it needs to develop a human lander required for an Artemis manned mission to the Moon by ’24.

Overall, NASA will receive $23.271 billion, almost $2 billion less than requested. Importantly for the Trump Administration’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024, it provides only $850 million instead of $3.4 billion for Human Landing Systems.

…The Trump Administration requested a 12 percent increase for NASA in order to fund the Artemis program: $25.2 billion for FY2021 compared to the $22.9 billion it received in FY2020. While the goal of returning astronauts to the Moon has broad bipartisan support in Congress, the Trump deadline of 2024 — set because it would have been the end of his second term if he had been reelected — won lukewarm support at best from Republicans and none from Democrats who pointed to both budgetary and technical hurdles.

It was always clear that the Democrats were not going to cooperate with Trump to could get that lunar landing during his second term. Moreover, the real goal of Artemis is not space exploration, but distributing pork. Stretching out these missions so that they take many many years achieves that goal far better than a tight competitive schedule that gets things done. This is why SLS and Orion have been under construction, with no flights, for decades, even as SpaceX moves forward with Starship/Super Heavy in only a few years.

A Biden presidency actually increases the changes that Artemis will get better funding, but that funding will always be designed to stretch out the program for as long as possible. Our policymakers in Washington really do not care much for the interest of the nation. What they care about is their own power and aggrandizement.

SpaceX’s Starlink constellation wins $885 million in federal subsidies

Capitalism in space: In awarding $9.2 billion in subsidies to providers of rural high-speed internet to rural customers, the FCC gave $885 million of this allocation to SpaceX’s Starlink constellation.

SpaceX was not the biggest beneficiary, however.

Most of the RDOF Phase I subsidies are going to terrestrial broadband service providers, led by LTD Broadband with an award of $1.32 billion. CCO Holdings, a subsidiary of Charter Communications, is due to serve 1.05 million sites around the country, leading the list for that metric.

The FCC said 85% of the 5.2 million sites to be served would get gigabit-speed broadband. SpaceX is due to serve nearly 643,000 sites with download speeds of 100 megabits per second or more.

Regardless of its good intentions, this distribution of federal cash sickens me. These companies don’t need it to do what they are doing, and are all sure to make plenty of profit without it. The federal government meanwhile is trillions in debt. It has to print money to give this away, something that is not going to go well in the long run.

House rejects Artemis; Senate funds Artemis

The Senate gives, the House taketh away: Even as the Democratically-controlled House continues to refuse the Trump administration’s request for $2.6 billion to fund its 2024 manned lunar landing, the Republican-controlled Senate has provided $1.6 billion of those funds in the next COVID-19 stimulus package.

This illustrates why such stimulus packages are utterly corrupt. Much of the money allocated has little to do with helping the country recover from the Wuhan panic, but is instead earmarked for the favorite agencies of the politicians. The Republicans are also trying to use this package to sneak across funding for Artemis without the House Democrats noticing, or being able to object.

It remains to be seen whether that strategy will work. Either way, we continue on the road to bankruptcy and financial collapse, as the federal government is trillions in debt, and simply doesn’t have the money for any of this.

Midnight repost: Shut down fascism in the Smoky Mountains

The tenth anniversary retrospective of Behind the Black continues: In 2013 Diane and I made a trip back east to visit the Smokey Mountains and do some hiking. Coincidentally, our trip took place at the end of September, when the budget battle between Obama and the Republicans in Congress was about to cause a government shutdown. This essay, the first of three, describes the extra effort and money being exerted by Obama’s administration to make that shutdown as unpleasant and as inconvenient to the American public as possible. The later two essays, linked to as an update at the top of the essay, outline what happened next.

Shut down fascism in the Smoky Mountains

See my October 2, 2013 update here.

Today, October 1, 2013, my wife Diane and I went hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We did this despite the news from Washington that the federal government had shut down due to the lack of a funding from Congress and that all the national parks were closed.

The news reports had said that the National Park Service would close all roads into the park except for New Found Gap Road, the one road that crossed over the mountains from Tennessee to North Carolina. They couldn’t close this road because it was a main thoroughfare used by the public for basic transportation. Moreover, my research into the hikes we wished to do told me that several of those hikes originated on trailheads along this road. In traveling the road the day before, we had seen that these trailheads would not only be difficult to close, it would be dangerous and stupid to close them. For one, the road was windy and narrow. If there was a car accident or someone had car problems, any one of these parking areas might be essential for the use of the driver as well as local police and ambulances. For another, there are people still backpacking in the mountains who will at some point need to either exit with their cars or be picked up at these trailheads. Closing the trailheads will strand these hikers in the park, with dangerous consequences.

So, despite the shutdown, off we went to hike the Appalachian Trail, going to a well known lookout called the Jump Off, an easy 6.5 mile hike that leaves from the parking area at New Found Gap, the highest point on New Found Gap Road that is also on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. It is also probably one of the most popular stopping points along the road, visited by practically every tourist as they drive across.
Smokies from the Appalachian trail

The hike itself was beautiful, if a bit foggy and damp. The picture above shows one of the clearest views we had all day. Nor were we alone on this hike. We probably saw one to two dozen other hikers, heading out to either the Jump Off or Charles Bunion (another well known day hike destination along this section of trail).
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Proposed House NASA budget flat, with some surprising support for Artemis

While the first House proposal for NASA’s 2021 budget has rejected the Trump administration’s request for a total $3 billion increase for the agency to fund Artemis so that it can complete a manned mission to the Moon by 2024, it also provided about 18% of the funds requested for building the manned lunar lander required for that mission.

Back in February, the White House asked for $3.37 billion in fiscal year 2021 to accelerate development of the lander.

Democrats in the House have been skeptical of the 2024 launch date—some see it as political due to the timing of the next presidential election—and so have been slow to fund the lander. In its budget, the House appropriates $1.56 billion for “Exploration Research and Development.” This includes funding for the lander, Lunar Gateway, and other activities related to the Moon’s surface, of which more than $600 million can be used for the lander.

The House also provided a boost of $343 million to SLS.

My guess is that the Democrats in the House are working to keep Artemis going because of the jobs it brings to their districts, but want to slow it down enough so that it cannot succeed while Trump is in office. Thus, the release of some funds for the lunar lander, but not enough to build it, now.

The House proposal also includes a loosening on Congress’s mandate that Europa Clipper must launch on SLS. NASA is now given the option to consider other alternatives if SLS is not avaiable, which means that NASA can now consider using the Falcon Heavy instead.

This proposal must still pass the Republican-controlled Senate, so expect more changes.

Midnight repost: NASA, the federal budget, and common sense

The tenth anniversary retrospective of Behind the Black continues: Tonight’s midnight repost is actually two. First we have what might have been my most telling report for John Batchelor, aired in late July 2013. In that appearance I was quite blunt about my contempt for the politicians in Washington and the fake space program they had been foisting on the American public for decades. As I said,

What both those parties in Congress and in the administration are really doing is faking a goal for the purpose of justifying pork to their districts, because none of the proposals they’re making — both the asteroids or the moon — are going to happen.

Here is the audio of that appearance [mp3] for you all to download and enjoy. For reference, these are specific stories from then that I am discussing:

That rant makes for a perfect lead in to an essay I wrote in late 2011, outlining what I would do if I was in a position to reframe NASA’s budget. Everything I said then still applies. And that it does is a great tragedy, in that it means that nothing has changed, and our federal government continues to gather power while bankrupting the country.

NASA, the federal budget, and common sense

Let’s be blunt: the federal government is broke. With deficits running in the billions per day, there simply is no spare cash for any program, no matter how important or necessary. Nothing is sacrosanct. Even a proposal to cure cancer should be carefully reviewed before it gets federal funding.

Everything has got to be on the table.
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Curiosity and other Mars orbiters threatened by budget cuts

The proposed budget for NASA in the Trump administrations 2021 budget request to Congress includes significant budget cuts to both Curiosity and several Mars orbiters needed to act as relay communications satellites.

The White House’s 2021 federal budget request allocates just $40 million to the mission, a decrease of 20% from the rover’s current funding. And that current funding is 13% less than Curiosity got in the previous year, said Curiosity project scientist Ashwin Vasavada, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

If the 2021 request is passed by Congress as-is, Curiosity’s operations would have to be scaled back considerably. Running the mission with just $40 million in 2021 would leave unused about 40% of the science team’s capability and 40% of the rover’s power output, which comes from a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), Vasavada said.

In addition, the proposed budget will require a 50% reduction in imaging by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the end to the Mars Odyssey orbiter, and a significant but unspecified reduction in the use of the MAVEN orbiter.

I reported these facts back in March but there is no harm in noting them again.

The question is not whether there should be cuts at NASA. Considering the overall federal debt and annual budget deficit, NASA’s budget should be cut. The question is what to cut. The planetary program, probably NASA’s most successful program, is certainly not the program to cut. Instead, the Trump administration should be cutting the waste and badly run programs, like SLS, that spend billions and accomplish nothing.

If Congress and Trump did this, they could cut NASA’s total budget and still have plenty left over for the commercial manned program — including going to the Moon — and also increase the budget to the planetary program. I’ve been saying this since 2011, and nothing has happened in the past decade to change that conclusion.

Another 4.4 million are out of work this week

Are you enraged yet? Another 4.4 million applied for unemployment benefits this week, bringing the total of new unemployed since the Wuhan flu panic began in March to about 26 million, and raising the unemployment rate to about 16%.

Meanwhile, evidence continues to mount that the Wuhan flu is probably no more dangerous that the flu, thus making this entire government-imposed shutdown and resulting Great Wuhan Depression entirely uncalled for.

Worse, that any governor in any state is still refusing to end their lock downs at this point tells us that they goal was never to fight the epidemic, but to acquire unjustified power to rule us like dictators. If the voters don’t fire these people wholesale come November than the voters deserve the hell they are about to get.

Two NY studies suggest Wuhan flu death rate comparable to the flu

Are you enraged yet? A just released New York study now suggests that there are large numbers infected with the Wuhan flu with no symptoms, about 13.9% of the population, indicating that the overall death rate is probably quite close to the flu.

The article does not state that conclusion, being CNBC and therefore unwilling to come to any conclusion that might suggest things are not terrible. However, see this analysis of a different New York study, with comparable numbers:

Thinking about that study showing that 13.7% of pregnant women presenting for delivery at NYC hospitals in March-early April tested positive for COVID-19 AT THE TIME of admission. Unless one thinks pregnant women are more likely to have been exposed to the virus than other people in the population, surely must mean that ~15% of NYC has been exposed. (Recall also that the NYC study was only of active infections not of antibodies.) If so, then 10,000 deaths out of 15% of NYC (1.2 million) points to an infection fatality rate around .008, very much in the ballpark of seasonal flu. [emphasis mine]

The first reliable numbers from South Korea and the Diamond Princess had shown death rates of about 0.9% and 1.2% respectively. While about ten times higher than the flu’s death rate of about 0.1%, it was also very clear then that these death rates were grossly high because of very large underestimates of the total number of people infected.

Now we are getting better numbers on the total infection rate — including large numbers of healthy individuals who get the disease and never show symptoms — and the evidence is strongly telling us that the Wuhan flu is not that dangerous, killing mostly older and sick individuals, and doing it at the same rate as the flu.

For this we allowed the press and our power-hungry political class to nullify the Bill of Rights and bankrupt the nation? A lot of heads should roll. And soon.

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