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End of a space era

Science | As the White House axes NASA program, a mysterious Air Force effort takes flight

Issue: "GOP idea man," May 22, 2010

Goodnight, moon. If Congress approves President Obama's new space budget, NASA won't be sending astronauts to Earth's nearest neighbor anytime soon. Obama outlined his space policy at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on April 15, and he announced the cancellation of George W. Bush's Constellation program, thus far a four-year, $9 billion effort to replace the space shuttle. The program's Ares rockets were intended to return humans to the moon but have missed development deadlines and run over budget.

Instead, Obama called for yet another rocket design, to be finalized by 2015, and promised an investment in private space industry, with plans to purchase transportation services to the International Space Station. Among concrete objectives: Increase NASA's budget by $6 billion over five years, extend the life of the space station until 2020, and send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars orbit by the 2030s. A single component of the Constellation program would remain: The Orion crew capsule would be fitted as an escape module for the space station.

The administration's new direction will be a shake-up for the space agency. The day after Obama's speech, Constellation program head Jeff Hanley sent out an email asking his managers to "prioritize" resources under the remaining year's budget in order to plan for future Ares rocket test flights, presumably needed to launch the Orion capsule. Hanley's email didn't have the endorsement of NASA headquarters and was viewed by some as a rogue effort to save elements of the Constellation program before the new budget axed it. (NASA chief Charles Bolden supports the decision to end Constellation.)

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In Congress, some members of both parties also want to salvage the rocket program. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., questioned the wisdom of relying on commercial space technology while developing a replacement for the space shuttle, to be retired this year. Congress could adopt a NASA budget differing from the one Obama has offered.

Anyone concerned that U.S. space capabilities are moving backward rather than forward should be pleased by the launch of X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, a next-generation, unmanned spacecraft that lifted off from Cape Canaveral exactly one week after Obama's visit. The X-37B is operated by the Air Force and, at 29 feet long, looks like a miniature space shuttle.

The current mission is intended to test flight operations of the battery- and solar-powered vehicle, but the spacecraft's exact purpose is a military secret. One military expert said it might be used as a "maneuverable satellite" that could, for instance, dodge an anti-satellite weapon attack, or conduct foreign surveillance on an unpredictable schedule. Lest the X-37B fall into the wrong hands, it has the ability to self-destruct.

Location, location, location

Headline-grabbing earthquakes in Qinghai, China, and Baja, Calif., followed two earlier in the year that were historical in size and havoc: A colossal 8.8-magnitude quake off the coast of Chile was among the top 10 largest since 1900, and the Jan. 12 earthquake that killed a quarter of a million Haitians was the fifth most deadly in history.

So are earthquakes becoming more frequent and powerful? No, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey, which says we can expect about 18 major earthquakes in any given year. It's where they happen that makes them deadly-or harmless.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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