Briefs: strange space bedfellows, human spaceflight poll, Mars mission budget squeeze

Here's something you don't see every day: a Tea Party group saying it's in agreement with a pair of Democratic senators. Florida-based TEA Party in Space (TPIS), part of the larger Tea Party Patriots coalition, announced Monday that it has "publicly praised" a letter from Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to NASA administrator Charles Bolden last month asking for a competitive bidding process for NASA's Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket. In the statement, TPIS claimed Congress "tried to earmark $12 billion for existing Shuttle and Constellation contractors" with the language in last year's NASA authorization act. "It is time to bring competition and fiscal sanity back into the NASA procurement system," TPIS spokesman Everett Wilkinson said in the statement. On the surface, a poll appears to offer good news to proponents of human spaceflight: a press release yesterday claims that "an overwhelming majority of Americans say they don't want America's manned space program to end". The poll, performed by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research and commissioned by Ron Sachs Communications, found that 57% of Americans believed the US should "continue to be a world leader in manned space exploration"; splits among Republicans, Democrats, and independents showed little variation. But the single poll question also claimed that NASA has "no plans to continue sending men and women into space after 2011″. While there may be considerable debate about the effectiveness of various commercial crew development efforts, as well as the congressionally-mandated Space Launch System and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, there's clearly no shortage of plans for follow-on human spaceflight programs. Moreover, the poll doesn't ask what people would do in order to ensure that the US remain a world leader, such as increasing NASA's budget (either by increasing overall federal spending or cutting other programs) or transferring funds from other NASA programs. It's easy, after all, to say the US should be a world leader in space exploration (or other areas) when one isn't asked what it would cost. Like some other polls, the principle of GIGO may apply here. The joint NASA-ESA ExoMars program is facing budget pressures on both sides of the Atlantic, Aviation Week reports. ESA is trying to cut €200 million from hardware costs for its elements of the ExoMars mission after costs from a consortium led by Thales Alenia Space came in higher than expected. NASA, meanwhile, is juggling its contributions to the program after cutting $700 million from its planned $2.2-billion contribution to the joint effort. Much of those cuts may come in the form of combining separate ESA and NASA rovers for the 2018 ExoMars mission into a single vehicle, as suggested earlier this year. The NASA rover, the Mars Astrobiology Explorer Cacher (MAX-C), was identified earlier this year as the top priority "flagship" planetary mission for the next decade, but only if its costs could be cut.

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