After President Trump appointed a conservative Republican congressman from Oklahoma named Jim Bridenstine to become NASA’s administrator, the legislator faced hard questions. During a Senate confirmation hearing in late 2017, Bridenstine was asked repeatedly whether he would honor NASA’s tradition of remaining a bipartisan, apolitical agency.
“I want to make sure that NASA remains, as you said, apolitical, and I will do that to the best of my ability should I be confirmed,” he said at the time.
Democratic senators were not convinced, and Bridenstine was ultimately confirmed on a party-line vote in 2018. However, in the two years since then, Bridenstine has remained true to his word. He has transcended politics and sought to reach out to both Republican and Democratic lawmakers during his tenure. He even appointed one of his harshest critics at the Senate confirmation hearing, Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, to NASA’s Advisory Council after Nelson lost his re-election bid in 2018.
Overall, Bridenstine has been an inclusive administrator, advocating for all parts of NASA, including science. Generally, he is beloved by the space community—he even has a fan club.
One thing that has always been striking about Bridenstine is his genuine niceness. He has almost always chosen not to blame others for NASA’s problems, even though he inherited an agency burdened by large programs like the Space Launch System rocket that are billions over budget and years behind schedule. Instead, Bridenstine has sought to learn from the space policy mistakes of his predecessors—across multiple administrations and political backgrounds—instead of criticizing them.
Credit for commercial crew
A big test along these lines came on Monday during a news conference leading up to the historic launch of a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying NASA astronauts. This will unquestionably be the signature achievement in US human spaceflight during Trump’s first term as president. But it is not Trump’s alone. NASA’s commercial crew program that supported SpaceX has its roots in the George W. Bush presidency and was first funded in 2010 by Barack Obama’s administration, who then championed the program against the wishes of Congress.
Asked about the work done by his predecessors, Bridenstine said during the news conference:
This is a program that demonstrates success when you have continuity of purpose going from one administration to the next. If we go back all the way to commercial resupply, that started under President George W. Bush. And commercial crew under President Obama. And Charlie Bolden did absolutely magnificent work as the NASA administrator at a time when this particular program didn’t have a lot of support in Congress. And here we are all these years later having success.
But there are now signs that this bipartisan approach is ending. On Wednesday, President Trump visited Kennedy Space Center in anticipation of the Crew Dragon launch—which was scrubbed less than 20 minutes before liftoff due to weather. He and Vice President Mike Pence have promised to return for Saturday’s attempt, after which the president is scheduled to give a space policy speech in the historic Vehicle Assembly Building.
Apolitical no more?
In remarks released by the White House on Wednesday, President Trump said of the commercial crew program, “Jim, you took it over from its infancy. And I was saying before, they had grass growing in the runways between the cracks, and now we have the best—the best of the best.” This is a reference to the fact that the last space shuttle landed on Kennedy Space Center’s runway in 2011.
Perhaps in recognition of his audience of one at Kennedy Space Center, when asked if he wanted to add anything, Bridenstine did not mention the work of his predecessors. Instead, he told the president, “As you said, sir, there was a day when there was grass growing out of the runways. But now we not only have the policy directive from the administration, we also have the budgets to match that policy directive to put America preeminent in space.”
Sources said the White House has recognized the potential role that returning humans to spaceflight from Florida could play in the 2020 election for the swing state. This means the Crew Dragon mission and post-launch speech may be used to politicize space, which will test Bridenstine’s bipartisan approach.
It is not clear exactly what the president might say during his speech—he has yet to offer more than limited remarks and off-the-cuff comments on spaceflight. While this does appear to be one of the areas of Trump’s administration that he is genuinely interested in—he has held several Oval Office events regarding space—he has not always been entirely consistent in his remarks. Perhaps the most notable thing he has done is repeatedly express more interest in Mars than going to the Moon (at the direction of Pence, the Artemis Program to land humans on the Moon by 2024 has been Bridenstine’s highest priority).
To get a sense of what he might say, here is a sampling of things the president has said about space:
During the campaign
- In November 2015, then-candidate Trump was asked about space by a 10-year-old at a campaign event. His response: “I love NASA” and “Space is terrific.” However, he added, “Right now, we have bigger problems—you understand that? We’ve got to fix our potholes.”
- In May 2016, the president’s campaign said the following in response to questions submitted by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics: “We also have to balance our spending priorities based on our economic circumstances, and right now, those circumstances are quite challenging. Our first priority is to restore a strong economic base to this country. Then, we can have a discussion about spending.”
- During a town hall event in Florida, in August 2016, the president said, “Somebody just asked me backstage, ‘Mr. Trump, will you get involved in the space program?’ Look what’s happened with your employment. Look what’s happened with our whole history of space and leadership. Look what’s going on folks. We’re like a third world nation.”
- In April 2017, during a call with astronaut Peggy Whitson in space, the president asked, “Tell me, Mars. What do you see a [sic] timing for actually sending humans to Mars? Is there a schedule, and when would you see that happening?” (The month before, Trump had signed a bill saying humans should land on Mars in 2033). Whitson gently reminded him of this.
- In July 2019, a day before the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, President Trump invited the crew of that mission to the Oval Office. At one point during his remarks, the president said, “To get to Mars, you have to land on the Moon, they say.” Then the president turned to Bridenstine, asking, “Any way of going there directly without landing on the Moon? Is that a possibility?” Bridenstine gamely replied that it made the most sense to go to the Moon first. “Well, we need to use the Moon as a proving ground. Because when we go to Mars, we’re going to have to be there for a long period of time. So we need to live and work on another world.” Trump was apparently unmoved, saying, “I’d like to have you also listen to the other side because some people would like to do it a different way.”
What Moon program?
- In May 2019, the president tweeted, “Under my Administration, we are restoring @NASA to greatness and we are going back to the Moon, then Mars.” Three weeks later, he tweeted, “For all of the money we are spending, NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon – We did that 50 years ago.”
- During a rally in New Hampshire in August 2019, President Trump appeared fired up about NASA’s new direction. At the time, Vice President Mike Pence had only just directed humans to land on the Moon by 2024. But Trump never mentioned the Moon during the rally. Instead he said, “We’re investing in the future of human spaceflight. And some day soon, American astronauts will plant the stars and stripes on the surface of Mars.”
Would he go to space?
- During a discussion in the White House in April 2020, Bridenstine was asked if he would go to space on Virgin Galactic’s space plane. “I would absolutely do it. Are you kidding? In a heartbeat,” replied Bridenstine, a former Navy fighter pilot who flew combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Asked the same question, Trump said, “I’ll pass.”
Infinity and beyond
- In June 2017, President Trump signed an executive order creating the National Space Council. This organization, led by Vice President Mike Pence, has since taken a serious look at spaceflight. After crediting Pence for organizing the space council, Trump turned to a special guest, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who said, “Infinity and beyond.” This was a reference to the Buzz Lightyear character in the movie Toy Story. Trump responded, “This is infinity here. It could be infinity. We don’t really don’t know. But it could be. It has to be something—but it could be infinity, right?”
Century-old photos show effects of climate change in Rocky Mountain forests – Vancouver Sun
The towering crags and peaks of the Canadian Rocky Mountains have been getting steadily greener over the past century, according to a new study.
“They are kind of becoming the needly or leafy mountains at this point,” said lead author Andrew Trant, an ecologist at the University of Waterloo.
The researchers stumbled across a collection of 120,000 historic images — mainly high-quality, glass-slide photographs — from early cartographic surveys of the Canadian Rockies, which they were able to compare with modern images of the exact same scenes taken nearly 100 years later.
“In about 90 per cent of the cases the trees are growing higher up the mountain and in greater numbers, so more individual trees,” he said.
Areas that were once covered by stands of low-lying, sideways-growing trees, gnarled and tortured by the elements, are now growing upright, they found.
“Conditions have improved enough that these same individuals have turned from a prostrate, craggly thing into an upright tree,” he said. “What’s likely is that as things are warming they are able to do something they couldn’t do before and they are starting to grow upwards.”
NASA injects $17M into four small companies with Artemis ambitions – TechCrunch
NASA awards millions of dollars a year to small businesses through the SBIR program, but generally it’s a lot of small awards to hundreds of companies. Breaking with precedent, today the agency announced a new multi-million-dollar funding track and its four first recipients, addressing urgent needs for the Artemis program.
The Small Business Innovation Research program has various forms throughout the federal government, but it generally provides non-dilutive funding on the order of a few hundred thousand dollars over a couple of years to nudge a nascent technology toward commercialization.
NASA has found, however, that there is a gap between the medium-size Phase II awards and Phase III, which is more like a full-on government contract; there are already “Extended” and “Pilot” programs that can provide up to an additional $1 million to promising companies. But the fact is space is expensive and time-consuming, and some need larger sums to complete the tech that NASA has already indicated confidence in or a need for.
Therefore the creation of this new tier of Phase II award: less than a full contract would amount to, but up to $5 million — nothing to sneeze at, and it comes with relatively few strings attached.
The first four companies to collect a check from this new, as yet unnamed program are all pursuing technologies that will be of particular use during the Artemis lunar missions:
- Fibertek: Optical communications for small spacecraft that would help relay large amounts of data from lunar landers to Earth
- Qualtech Systems: Autonomous monitoring, fault-prevention and health management systems for spacecraft like the proposed Lunar Gateway and possibly other vehicles and habitats
- Pioneer Astronautics: Hardware to produce oxygen and steel from lunar regolith — if achieved, an incredibly useful form of high-tech alchemy
- Protoinnovations: Traction control to improve handling of robotic and crewed rovers on lunar terrain
It’s important to note that these companies aren’t new to the game — they have a long and ongoing relationship with NASA, as SBIR grants take place over multiple years. “Each business has a track record of success with NASA, and we believe their technologies will have a direct impact on the Artemis program,” said NASA’s Jim Reuter in a news release.
The total awarded is $17 million, but NASA, citing ongoing negotiations, could not be more specific about the breakdown except that the amounts awarded fall between $2.5 million and $5 million per company.
I asked the agency for a bit more information on the new program and how companies already in the SBIR system can apply to it or otherwise take advantage of the opportunity, and will update this post if I hear back.
Watermelon snow shows up on Italian Alps – The Weather Network
Watermelon snow has appeared atop the Presena Glacier in the Italian Alps.
Researcher Biagio Di Mauro, of the Institute of Polar Sciences at Italy’s National Research Council, told CNN his team went to investigate the site over the weekend and encountered an “impressive bloom” — but that’s bad news for the glacier, as it can speed up melting.
Di Mauro says watermelon snow has been unusually common this year.
He plans to study it in greater detail with the help of satellite data.
File photo courtesy: USDA.
WHAT IS WATERMELON SNOW?
While it is a naturally-occurring phenomenon, watermelon snow is becoming increasingly common in the spring and summer because it requires light, higher temperatures, and water to grow.
“Watermelon snow is formed by an algal species (Chlamydomonas nivalis) containing a red pigment in addition to chlorophyll,” U.S. Geological Survey scientist Joe Giersch said in 2018 in an Instagram post of a photo of watermelon snow that he spotted at Glacier National Park.
This pigment protects the algal chloroplast from solar radiation and absorbs heat, providing the alga with liquid water as the snow melts around it. As snow melts throughout the summer, the algae are concentrated in depressions on the snow surface (which further accelerates melting), with small populations persisting in puddles through the fall.”
Watermelon snow is one of nature’s peculiarities. Scientists don’t fully understand it, or the long-term impact it could have on the environment.
Here’s one thing they do know: Watermelon may look neat but it’s not something conservationists want to see.
According to a study in Nature Communications, red algae can reduce a snow’s albedo — i.e., the ability to reflect light — by up to 13 per cent. That means the snow absorbs more of the sun’s energy and melts faster.
Couple that with a stint of above-seasonal temperatures and you’ve got a recipe for accelerated melting.
Oh, and one more thing: If you come across a patch of watermelon snow don’t eat it. You’ll make yourself sick.
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