WASHINGTON – Congress is finally getting around to extending more than 50 popular tax breaks that expired at the end of last year, including money savers for homeowners, businesses and shoppers in states with no
income tax. Lawmakers want to raise taxes on investment fund managers to help cover the cost.Legislation combining the tax breaks with more aid for people who have been unemployed for long stretches is expected to come up for a vote in the House next week. The bill would extend unemployment benefits for up to 99 weeks in many states and subsidize health insurance premiums for laid-off workers through the end of the year.Details are still being worked out, but lawmakers also plan to expand a federal bond program that subsidizes local infrastructure projects, and to protect doctors from a scheduled 21 percent cut in Medicare payments.The tax breaks would be retroactive to Jan. 1 but would again expire at the end of December. They include a property tax deduction for people who don’t itemize, lucrative credits that help businesses finance research and develop new products, and a sales tax deduction that mainly helps people in states without income taxes.Delays in extending the tax breaks have left thousands of businesses unable to plan for their tax liabilities. Delays in passing a long-term extension of emergency unemployment benefits has forced thousands of laid off workers to live month to month with no certainty of income. Unemployment benefits for many will start to run out June 2, unless Congress acts.Congress routinely extends the tax breaks each year — the House and Senate have already passed competing versions for 2010. But lawmakers have been unable to agree on how to pay for them.House and Senate negotiators said this week they are close to a deal that would increase taxes on investment fund managers and some multinational companies. Also on the table: Requiring lawyers, doctors and other service providers to pay Medicare taxes on income they receive through their businesses.The overall cost of the bill will likely top $100 billion, with the unemployment benefits and health insurance subsidies adding to the budget deficit.The tax increases could raise more than $50 billion over the next decade, though lawmakers cautioned they are still working on the details.The tax breaks benefit a wide variety of individuals and businesses and total about $30 billion a year. They include a deduction for college tuition for couples making less than $160,000 a year, and a deduction for teachers who use their own money to buy school supplies.There is a tax credit for community development agencies that invest in low-income neighborhoods, as well as a tax break for restaurant owners and retailers who remodel their stores or build new ones.”The retailers are working on very thin margins,” said Van Martin, chairman and CEO of Tribble & Stephens, a Houston-based construction company that does work in 23 states. „We’re looking for people that want to build, and it’s still pretty slow.”Senate leaders hope to hold a vote on final passage before Memorial Day, said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee.The Senate has rejected the tax increase on investment fund managers in the past, but Baucus said his colleagues are closer than ever to agreeing to it.Investment managers typically get a fee to manage funds or assets. They also get a share of the profits earned for investors above a certain level.Under current law, the profit-sharing fees, called carried interest, are taxed as capital gains, with a top rate of 15 percent. The bill would tax the fees as regular income, with a top tax rate of 35 percent, scheduled to rise to 39.6 percent in 2011.”People who invest their own money should be paying a capital gains (tax), those who manage other people’s money should be paying ordinary income (taxes), like everybody else does,” said Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.The National Venture Capital Association says the tax increase would reduce investment in startup companies. The group sent a letter opposing the tax to lawmakers this week, signed by more than 1,700 venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. The change in how investment managers are taxed would raise about $20 billion over the next decade, with a short-phase in period. It would affect hedge fund and private equity managers, as well as many real estate investment partnerships The tax increase on multinational companies would raise an estimated $9.5 billion over the next decade by limiting the ability of some U.S.-based companies to use foreign tax credits to reduce their U.S. taxes. Generally, the United States taxes income earned by U.S.-based multinational corporations, even if the money is earned abroad.The income, however, is not taxed by the U.S. until it is brought to the U.S. To avoid double taxation, companies get tax credits for the amount of foreign taxes paid on the income.Some companies are able to use subsidiaries to claim foreign tax credits on income that is never brought to the U.S., and is never subjected to U.S. taxes. The provision would require companies to return the income to the U.S., subjecting it to U.S. taxes, before awarding the foreign tax credits.By STEPHEN OHLEMACHER, Associated Press
The Road to Redemption by Scott McCartney THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Which airlines are generous with frequent-flier award seats and which aren’t.If you’re hoping to snare a free ticket using your frequent-flier points, you’re much better off being a member of the program at Southwest or Alaska airlines than that of almost any other airline — especially US Airways and Delta.A study testing the availability of free seats showed that Southwest Airlines Co. could fulfill 99.3% of requests for award seats requiring standard mileage levels, and Alaska Air Group Inc.’s (NYSE: ALK , news) Alaska Airlines offered choices on 75% of requests. US Airways Group Inc. could fulfil just 10.7%. Delta Air Lines Inc. was among the stingiest, too, with awards requiring the lowest mileage available for only 12.9% of requests made by IdeaWorks Co., a consulting firm.Some frequent-flier programs are far more generous in granting awards than others, and the gap right now is large. WSJ’s Scott McCartney tells us which airlines make it easier — and which make it harder — to use miles, and why. The numbers codify what a lot of fliers have suspected for some time, that some airlines are making it almost impossible to score a free trip using miles — at least without having to pay a significantly higher price in miles than the standard award. The problem is, in part, that there are just too many miles chasing too few seats. Worldwide, there are an estimated 10 trillion frequent-flier miles outstanding. And the problem of scarce seats is getting worse: The number of awards redeemed fell significantly at several big carriers — including Continental Airlines Inc. and AMR Corp.’s (NYSE: AMR, news) American Airlines — between 2008 and 2009. So did the percentage of passengers flying on awards. They’re killing these programs by not allowing more reward availability,” said IdeaWorks President Jay Sorensen, who specializes in loyalty program, marketing and revenue-boosting strategies for airlines. „When you look in February for travel in October and see major markets shut out, that’s disturbing. That’s wrong.”IdeaWorks made 6,160 queries at 22 airline websites — 280 seat requests at each airline. The firm tested long routes and shorter trips under 2,500 miles in big markets. At most airlines, it had greater success with shorter routes. The requests were made in February and March for travel in June through October. Among carriers outside the U.S., Air Canada, Deutsche Lufthansa AG and Singapore Airlines were among the most generous.The world is awash in frequent-flier miles partly because airlines have built a lucrative business selling them to credit card companies, hotels and others who use miles as incentives and rewards. Last year, two-thirds of the 175 billion (yes, billion) miles American issued went to the 1,000 partners who pay for miles, according to the company’s filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.Award availability has also been affected by schedule cuts and fuller airplanes during the last year. Mergers, economic weakness and perhaps airline tight-fistedness with seat inventory made an impact, too. In general, airlines would rather sell a seat to you for cash than „give it away” as a frequent-flier award.At Southwest, fuller planes meant there were fewer award seats available for last-minute bookings, a spokesman said. The number of awards redeemed fell by more than 14% last year, according to Southwest’s latest 10-K filing with the SEC. The number of awards redeemed at Continental fell 18.8% in 2009 compared to 2008; American saw the number of awards drop 16.1%, according to 10-K annual reports filed by the companies. JetBlue Airways Corp. (Nasdaq: JBLU, news) saw a slight increase in the number of awards redeemed; Alaska had a 48% jump in redemptions.Some of the decline clearly relates to the economy: The recession caused fewer people to take trips. Cheaper ticket prices in 2009 may have enticed travelers to hold on to their miles as well. „Especially during the first half of 2009, when the recession and consumer confidence were arguably at their worst, we simply saw fewer AAdvantage members redeeming their miles for award travel,” said Tim Smith, a spokesman for American.But in 2008, when the economy was also weak, award redemption increased. And last year, the percentage of passengers flying on frequent-flier awards fell sharply at several airlines, indicating that even those who did want to travel found award inventory tight.Awards totaled 8.3% of revenue passenger miles (a revenue passenger mile is one passenger flown one mile) at UAL Corp.’s (Nasdaq: UAL, news) United Airlines, down from 9.1% in 2008, for example. Continental fell to 6% from 8.5% in 2008. One factor unique to Continental, a spokeswoman said, is that the carrier’s entry into the Star Alliance last year prompted more of its customers to book awards on partner airlines, which may have enlarged the drop-off in traffic on Continental flights.Last year, 15% of the passenger traffic on Alaska Airlines was using frequent-flier awards, according to parent company Alaska Air Group’s 10-K filing. That was highest among major airlines. By comparison, only 4% of US Airways’ passenger traffic was from frequent-flier awards — the lowest total reported in SEC filings.Most airlines offer two award redemption prices for seats — a standard with restrictions and an unrestricted typically costing twice as many miles. But, some carriers, including Delta and US Airways, have added a third award level — a standard, a mid-level and an unrestricted tier. That likely further shrank the availability of awards at the standard level, and may be one reason why Delta and US Airways did so poorly in the IdeaWorks study. Indeed, IdeaWork’s Mr. Sorensen said that often when he couldn’t find a domestic award at Delta at the standard 25,000-mile level, he was able to find seats at the 40,000 mile mid-tier level.US Airways blamed its poor score in the study, in part, because it typically makes award seats available closer to when flights depart instead of the many months ahead of time at other airlines. When IdeaWorks researchers looked three- to six-months in advance, US Airways hadn’t opened up a lot of its seats to awards, said Fern Fernandez, US Airways director of marketing programs and loyalty. In addition, the airline’s three-tier system would reduce the availability at the lowest mileage level, he said.”We are making inventory available, it’s just available at different price points,” Mr. Fernandez said.The introduction in January of the third mileage level — completely unrestricted „Go” awards — has added flexibility and enabled customers to redeem more awards, he said. So far this year, the number of awards redeemed is up 32%, Mr. Fernandez said.Delta, which doesn’t disclose in its SEC filings how many awards were redeemed each year, how many miles or awards are outstanding, or the percentage of passengers flying on awards, says its low standing in the IdeaWorks survey resulted from problems the airline had combining reservation platforms between Delta and Northwest Airlines in the months the survey was conducted.But Delta says that award inventory has been too skimpy. Some of that may have resulted from its merger with Northwest, where more customers in a combined program are chasing after awards and upgrades, and inventory had to be recalibrated in many markets, the airline said.”We have listened very closely to our customer feedback with respect to award availability,” said spokesman Paul Skrbec. „In order to have an effective loyalty program, we need to have an adequate number of award seats available to make it attractive.”Starting later this month and through 2011, Delta will be rolling out tools on its website to make it easier for customers to find travel awards, he said.The best advice for putting your miles to good use? Use them for upgrades when you can since those are usually a better value. (It makes more sense to spend miles on an upgrade worth $1,000 or more, rather than using miles on a cheap domestic ticket.) Also, use miles for last-minute trips, when airline fares are often higher. To get seats to vacation destinations, you typically need to book 11 months in advance, when airlines open up flights for reservations. But if you do try to book award tickets early and find no seats, keep trying. Airlines do make more award seats available if sales are slow and flights have lots of empty seats.If you do decide to look for an upgrade, be prepared to open your wallet. Four of the five U.S. airlines flying long-haul international trips — American, United, Continental and US Airways — have added „co-payments” to international upgrades, requiring customers to pay in miles and cash if an upgrade is available. Delta, which doesn’t charge a cash fee for an upgrade, restricts the coach fare classes eligible for upgrades, forcing passengers interested in an upgrade to purchase a coach ticket often several hundred dollars more expensive than the cheapest fare available.United began imposing co-payments in January for both international and domestic flights. A domestic upgrade at United now costs 15,000 miles plus $50-$100 on discounted coach tickets.Katherine Calvert, a „premier executive” elite-level flier on United who tallied 40,000 miles in the first four months of this year, has seen her loyalty to that airline wane now that she often has to pay for upgrades. She is still entitled to free space-available upgrades as a member of one of United’s top tiers, but not on the „Premium Service” flights between New York and California she typically flies.”It infuriates me every time,” she says. She recently tried JetBlue, and is considering a switch. The imposition of upgrade fees, she says, „flies in the face of basic loyalty program principles.”
Big Afghan offensive must overcome deadly terrain By SEBASTIAN ABBOT, Associated Press
LAKO KHEL, Afghanistan – U.S. soldiers had just made it through a dense patch of vineyards to a cluster of abandoned mud compounds when the radio operator let out a shout: „Sir, we are about to be ambushed from three different locations!”The men rushed for cover, dodging a potential attack and cursing Kandahar province‘s tough terrain that is tailor-made for the Taliban. The deadly obstacle course may haunt thousands of additional U.S. troops pouring into this corner of southern Afghanistan for what is expected to be the make-or-break offensive of the nearly 9-year-old war.The thick fields, snaking canals and bomb-laden dirt roads in key districts around the provincial capital, Kandahar City, force jittery soldiers out of their heavily armored vehicles into a landscape dotted with towering mud compounds that provide militants with ideal cover.Finding a way to overcome this terrain will be key to this summer’s military operation in Kandahar, where at least 15 coalition soldiers have died since the beginning of the year, according to data compiled by The Associated Press.The Marines who invaded the Taliban-controlled town of Marjah in Helmand province in February also faced somewhat challenging terrain since the area contained a network of canals that slowed their progress. But the poppy fields around Marjah were flat and were not surrounded by tall mud walls — unlike the vineyards around Kandahar that are used to produce raisins.”The agriculture and infrastructure of this country seem like they were designed specifically for guerrilla warfare,” Lt. Scott Doyle said at the beginning of his platoon’s recent patrol in the heart of Taliban country in Zhari district.Their experience over the next three hours would provide a snapshot of what battle will look like for many troops in Kandahar.Within minutes of leaving their rugged outpost in the village of Lako Khel, the soldiers intercepted radio chatter indicating the Taliban were monitoring their movements.Doyle ordered his men to halt in one of the area’s many vineyards, which contain rows of dirt mounds up to 6 feet (2 meters) high. The tall mud walls that often encircle the vineyards provide good cover for the soldiers but also make it easier for the Taliban to sneak around undetected.The troops heard one of the militants say over the radio that the Taliban didn’t have the key for the weapons cache nearby, so they would just keep an eye on the soldiers.”They know we intercept their communications and could be deceiving us,” Doyle said, scanning the rugged fields and thick tree cover in vain to catch a glimpse of the militants watching them.The uncertainty about the Taliban’s radio chatter makes it that much more difficult for the troops to navigate the challenging terrain, forcing them to think like chess masters and play out multiple scenarios to avoid an ambush.The troops, part of the U.S. Army‘s 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, questioned a pair of teenagers lingering in a nearby field.One of them, 18-year-old Abdul Manan, gave the troops from 2nd Platoon, Alpha Company some information.”Once you go past that farm to the east, there are lots of Taliban and one of them has a radio,” Manan said.But trying to discern friend from foe in this war is exceedingly difficult, especially in an area like Zhari where Taliban leader Mullah Omar first established the militant group in the 1990s.”Unfortunately the Taliban use kids as spotters,” said Doyle, a 38-year-old from Charlottesville, Virginia. „Even during firefights, they will send kids out to spot our positions.”Suddenly, the platoon commander’s radio operator, Spc. Arthur Harris, called out that the Taliban had instructed one of their fighters to „prepare the rocket.” The platoon had taken rocket fire farther north the day before, so Doyle decided to get his men moving and pushed them southeast along a small canal.As the group approached a cluster of abandoned mud compounds, Harris ran up to Doyle and yelled that they were facing an imminent ambush. Doyle sent his men in all four directions to seek cover behind mud walls and set up a defensive perimeter. But their location was terribly vulnerable, with 15-foot-high (4.5-meter) compounds to their south and west cutting off all visibility. The line of sight wasn’t much better to the north and east, with small fields leading to walls that stopped visibility after about 30 feet (10 meters). At that point, Harris, the radio operator, sprinted toward the platoon commander, leading another soldier, Staff Sgt. Richard Eifert, to dive for cover.”What did you hear?” Eifert called over to Harris.”I thought I heard potshots,” Harris responded.”Dude, it was just me stepping on a twig!” Eifert said.After waiting 10 minutes, Doyle decided to move his men to the south to avoid the ambushes the Taliban said they had set up to the east, one of them at a mosque about 650 feet (200 meters) away.”It’s pretty sketchy going south, but if we go east, we will probably run into something pretty planned,” said Doyle.As the soldiers began to push south on a narrow dirt path bounded on both sides by 10-foot-high (3-meter) walls, Spc. Richard Antonishek muttered to himself, „This is going to be pretty close quarters.”After walking for a few minutes, Sgt. Jon Hendricks bounded over a wall and spotted two men crouched on a dirt road about 650 feet (200 meters) away, possibly inserting a bomb. One was wearing an AK-47 assault rifle around his chest.”Two men in the road! One AK!” Hendricks shouted, clicking off the safety on his M-14 rifle and firing three rounds.”Damn, I pulled the trigger too soon,” said Hendricks, 27, after he realized the shots had missed and the men had fled.The troops chose not to pursue the men because the radio chatter indicated the Taliban had inserted another roadside bomb farther to the east, leaving the soldiers with little choice but to push west along a dirt road with 20-foot-high (6-meter) abandoned compounds on either side. „Remember to watch high on these rooftops for fighters!” Doyle yelled to his men as they began to make their way west. After walking about 500 feet (150 meters), Hendricks pointed out a possible bomb site, yelling, „We’ve got a freshly dug hole with an ant trail leading through one of these walls!” There was an identical site almost directly across the road.One of the soldiers exhaled an obscenity in one long breath.”They have eyes on us and will shoot!” Harris suddenly yelled.The soldiers crouched down and bounded 65 feet (20 meters) across an open space to the cover of a wall surrounding a large field, relieved at having made it out of the tangled web of fields and compounds without stumbling into a Taliban ambush.”I guess we’re not going to wait around for them,” Doyle said sarcastically as he ordered his men to begin the journey back to their base. „Just tell the Taliban to leave a message if we’re not here.”The Taliban, it seemed, were in a much worse mood after the day’s events, cursing the soldiers to each other for not walking into one of their ambushes, said Staff Sgt. Daniel Spencer, who monitors the insurgents’ communications. „May God turn their faces black,” the Taliban said over the radio, referring to the soldiers.
GPS glitch hit some military systems in January By DAN ELLIOTT, Associated Press
DENVER – A software glitch in the military GPS network temporarily left some defense systems unable to lock onto locator signals from satellites in January, but the problem has been fixed, the Air Force said Friday.The Air Force declined to say how many weapons or other systems were affected, but it said operations were halted in only one program as a precaution. Officials declined to identify the program.SpaceNews.com reported this month that the Navy interrupted development work on an unmanned jet because of the problem. The website cited an Air Force contract document that was posted online and later removed.Joe Davidson, a spokesman for the Air Force Global Positioning Wing, said in an e-mail to The Associated Press that no civilian GPS functions were affected.He said up to 10,000 military GPS receivers manufactured by Trimble Advanced and Military Systems could have been affected, but he declined to give a specific number.It wasn’t clear whether each of those receivers is in a separate piece of equipment or weapon. It also wasn’t clear how many other GPS receivers from other manufacturers are used by the military.Trimble spokeswoman Lea Ann McNabb said the company’s technical staff worked with the Air Force to fix the problem. She referred all questions to the Air Force.The GPS system uses a constellation of 24 satellites beaming down signals that receivers can use to pinpoint the receiver’s location. GPS is used in everything from handheld units for hikers and dashboard models for civilian drivers to military aircraft and artillery shells.The satellites are overseen by Air Force Space Command units at Schriever Air Force Base, Colo., and Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif.The glitch occurred when new software was installed in ground control systems on Jan. 11. Some GPS receivers soon experienced trouble locking in on the satellite signals, Davidson said.The GPS Wing and Trimble identified the problem in less than two weeks and began installing a temporary fix, Davidson said. A permanent fix has been developed and is being distributed, he said.Trimble received a $900,000, no-bid contract to help identify and fix the problem.Davidson said the problem was caused when the military altered some message bits in the GPS signal, which affected how the receivers operated. He said the message bits involved are used only by the military.SpaceNews reported that the Air Force contract document said the Navy halted work on its X-47B unmanned jet because of the software problem. The X-47B is designed to take off and land on aircraft carriers for reconnaissance, surveillance and targeting missions. Its first flight is expected later this year.The contract document said the delay was costing $1 million a day, but it’s not clear how long it lasted.SpaceNews said the contract document was posted on the Federal Business Opportunities website on April 30 but was removed by May 3.The contract document also said the Army stopped using its GPS-guided Excalibur artillery rounds because of the problem. Davidson told the AP the Excalibur did have a problem, but it turned out to be different from the one caused by the software change.He declined to say what the problem was but said it has been solved.The Army says Excalibur shells can land to within about 10 yards of a target 14 miles away. They have been used in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Illegal immigrant student hopes case helps reform By KATE BRUMBACK, Associated Press
ATLANTA – When Jessica Colotl, an illegal immigrant college student, got arrested for a minor traffic violation at her suburban Atlanta campus, she became an accidental poster child for immigration reform.On Friday, after getting arrested and released from detention for the second time in just over a month, she told reporters at a news conference she hopes her ordeal can help persuade leaders to work for an overhaul of the country’s immigration laws.”I just hope for the best and I hope that something positive comes out of this because we really need a reform to fix this messed up system,” the 21-year-old told reporters inside a shopping center that caters to metro Atlanta’s growing community of Hispanic immigrants. Colotl, who came close to deportation after the traffic arrest, looked overwhelmed by the crush of reporters shouting questions at her.Colotl is among hundreds of thousands of young people who have been brought into the U.S. illegally by their parents. She was 11 when her parents crossed the border with her from Mexico. Eventually, she graduated from high school in Georgia and entered Kennesaw State University in the fall of 2006. A sorority member who dreams of becoming lawyer, she was set to graduate with a degree in political science this fall.Her first arrest came on March 30, the day after getting pulled over by university police for a minor traffic violation. She was charged with driving without a license and impeding the flow of traffic.Then, the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office turned her over to officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who sent her to a detention center in Alabama. After lobbying by Kennesaw State officials and her sorority sisters, ICE released Colotl last week. Federal officials deferred action on her case for a year, allowing her to complete her classes.But Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren obtained a new warrant for her arrest on Wednesday, saying she lied about her address when she was booked into jail following her initial arrest. Making a false statement to law enforcement is a felony under Georgia law.Colotl turned herself in Friday morning and was released on $2,500 bond, according to sheriff’s office records.Her criminal defense lawyer, Chris Taylor, said Friday that his client’s case is a perfect example of why U.S. immigration law needs reform.”Jessica may not have the documents that show that she’s an American citizen, but she’s an American,” Taylor said. „She’s an American in her heart because she believes in the values of this country.”U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which granted the deferral on her case last week, decided not to detain her again following Friday’s arrest, the agency said in a statement.Taylor said he believes there is no merit to the sheriff’s charge that Colotl gave an incorrect address. The address she gave is a former address and her auto insurance and car registration still list it, he said. She also gave her current address to immigration officials and the sheriff’s office had access to that information, he said.Warren did not return calls Friday seeking comment and a spokeswoman for his office referred questions to a statement released Thursday. In it, the sheriff said Colotl knew she was in the country illegally and „further complicated her situation with her blatant disregard for Georgia Law by giving false information.”The deferred action on Colotl’s case does not imply legal status but does authorize her to seek a work permit, ICE said.Colotl’s immigration lawyer, Charles Kuck, said he intends to seek an extension of that deferred status.If Colotl is convicted on the felony charge of making a false statement, it will be virtually impossible to get a judge to agree to extend the deferral, Kuck said. But he said he is almost positive that the district attorney will dismiss those charges.Cobb County District Attorney Pat Head did not immediately return a call Friday seeking comment.Colotl is evaluating whether to return to Kennesaw State, but said she is certain she will graduate from college. „I really believe that something positive should come out of this, probably an immigration reform or at least the DREAM Act,” she said.The DREAM Act, or Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors, would apply to illegal immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before the age of 16, have a high school diploma and have shown high moral character, among other requirements. The bill has been introduced many times in Congress but has yet to make it through.It’s unclear how many people would qualify under the most recent version of the act, which could be folded into a larger immigration reform bill or pushed on its own.Both Taylor and Kuck are representing Colotl without charge.Colotl and her lawyers were flanked by about a dozen representatives from civil liberties and immigrant rights groups at Friday’s news conference. They called for ICE to revoke the Cobb County Sheriff‘s Office’s participation in a program known as 287(g), which allows local law enforcement agents to help enforce federal immigration laws.”We are calling for an immediate termination of the 287(g) agreement in Cobb County,” said Azadeh Shahshahani of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, adding that her office has contacted the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, and the U.S. Department of Justice, asking them to look into Cobb County‘s use of the program.DHS spokesman Matt Chandler declined to comment and U.S. DOJ did not immediately return a call seeking comment late Friday.
Salazar pledges to review drilling agency methods By MATTHEW DALY and FREDERIC J. FROMMER, Associated Press
WASHINGTON – The Obama administration said Friday it is tightening procedures at the agency that grants offshore drilling permits to ensure it follows all environmental laws.Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the review will focus on whether the Minerals Management Service is following the National Environmental Policy Act and other environmental laws before issuing permits for offshore oil and gas development. His directive comes after the catastrophic Gulf oil spill.Salazar and Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, announced the review minutes after President Barack Obama pledged to end a „cozy relationship” between the oil industry and federal regulators that he said had existed for years and into his own administration.Obama said that oil drilling permits had been granted without appropriate environmental reviews.”That cannot and will not happen anymore,” Obama said.An environmental advocacy group said Friday that drilling plans received approval from the Obama administration without the permits required under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.The approvals included the Deepwater Horizon rig, which exploded last month, killing 11 people and leading to the spill of millions of gallons of oil, according to a notice of intent to sue filed by the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity. The group said it is suing Salazar for ignoring the laws when granting the permits. The group said Interior has approved three lease sales, more than 100 seismic surveys and more than 300 drilling operations without the required permits.”Under Salazar’s watch, the Department of the Interior has treated the Gulf of Mexico as a sacrifice area where laws are ignored and wildlife protection takes a backseat to oil-company profits,” said Miyoko Sakashita, the center’s oceans director.MMS is required to get permits under the two environmental laws for drilling that might harm endangered species or marine mammals. A spokeswoman for Salazar said late Friday the review will also look at how offshore oil and gas operations are conducted under the two laws.Salazar, who has previously announced plans to split the minerals agency into two parts, said the administration remains focused on providing every resource it can to respond to the oil leak, while also investigating what happened and what can be done to prevent a future accident.The review announced Friday will focus on the National Environmental Policy Act, a keystone of environmental law that requires federal agencies to consider a range of environmental effects a planned project could have before granting approval. The law also requires a lengthy public comment period before an agency decides whether to approve a project.Meanwhile, the chairman of a congressional committee looking into the spill has asked a White House official for information on why BP’s drilling operation at Deepwater Horizon received a „categorical exclusion,” which allows for expedited oil and gas drilling without the required detailed environmental review.House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., asked Sutley in a letter Friday for all documents that justified the decision.Vice President Joe Biden said Friday that the government’s oversight of offshore drilling „was as bad as I thought it was in my career as a senator. And it really is. This is a real tragedy.”Biden told Pittsburgh radio station KDKA he thought lax federal oversight of permits was a problem throughout his six-term Senate career.He said he opposed offshore drilling as a senator during the Bush administration „because they just sort of threw away the key,” adding that Obama’s plan for drilling was conditioned on there being „real serious oversight.”Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said Friday he has begun an investigation into potential lapses in oversight by the MMS in the years leading up to the Gulf explosion. He said the comnmittee will focus on agency’s management and effectiveness, „revolving door” issues in which senior MMS officials take jobs in the industry, and the apparent lack of oversight of offshore oil rigs.
Schwarzenegger compares California’s woes to euro zone By Jim Christie and Peter Henderson REUTERS
SACRAMENTO (Reuters) – California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on Friday compared the state’s predicament to that of weaker euro zone economies and called for scrapping the state welfare system to close a $19.1 billion budget gap.The movie star turned governor said California, the most populous U.S. state with an economy that would be the eighth largest in the world, faced the same dilemma of dismal growth and budget gaps as Greece, Spain and Ireland.California’s government has been living beyond its means and has little choice but to cut $12.4 billion in spending over the remainder of this fiscal year and the next, Schwarzenegger told a press conference in Sacramento.”You see what is happening in Greece, you see what is happening in Ireland, you see what is happening in Spain now,” Schwarzenegger said, referring to swelling deficits and austerity measures that have concerned investors worldwide. „We are left with nothing but tough choices.”Democrats and Republicans, who must muster a two-thirds majority to pass a budget, are likely to ignore many of his suggestions in a debate which, if it follows recent history, could drag on for months.Democratic State Senate President Darrell Steinberg told Reuters that lawmakers in his party, who control both chambers of the legislature, could not support Schwarzenegger.”The cuts are absolutely unacceptable,” Steinberg said, adding that instead of slashing spending Schwarzenegger should help Democrats delay business tax breaks.Republican Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, the vice chair of the budget committee, said both sides felt the „absolute imperative” for immediate action and praised Schwarzenegger’s decision not to push for new taxes.”That would simply fund the broken budget at the higher levels that are not sustainable,” he said.BONDS SELLING FASTThanks to stronger than expected revenue early in the year and new finance rules the state will be able to pay debt coming due in May and June, although it could face problems late in the summer, Schwarzenegger said.Investors have scooped up recent offerings of California debt with high yields, convinced by state payment guarantees.Meanwhile schools have cut teachers, social services are drying up and most state employees face regular furlough days.The spending cuts in Schwarzenegger’s proposed $83.4 billion 2010-2011 budget include eliminating the CalWORKS welfare program and many child care programs and cutting funding for local mental health services by 60 percent.California’s budget deficit had been estimated at $19.9 billion at the beginning of the year.Since then some revenues have come in higher than expected but opportunities to make cuts have also dried up, concerning credit agencies who now rate state debt only a few notches above speculative, or „junk,” status.Schwarzenegger in January acknowledged his proposed spending cuts for health and welfare programs were „draconian.” But the state already has some of the highest income and sales tax rates of any U.S. state.”There is something wrong with our system. That is what I’m trying to tell people. There are going to be people screaming for more taxes — we’ve done that,” Schwarzenegger said. „Let’s stimulate the economy and let’s create the jobs. That’s the important thing.” He called on lawmakers to tackle growing costs for the state pension fund and to reform its tax system, which relies heavily on volatile personal income and capital gains taxes for revenue. Outside the event, protesters denounced Schwarzenegger’s plan, chanting „Shame on you”. Handicapped activists said they feared losing caregivers funded by the state.”I might as well just die,” said wheelchair-bound Carmen Rivera-Hendrickson, who relies on daily in-home health care.(Writing by Dan Whitcomb; additional reporting by Marianne Russ; Editing by Andrew Hay)
Six-man crew aboard shuttle Atlantis’ last flight By MARCIA DUNN, AP Aerospace
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – It’s an all-male, all-veteran crew for space shuttle Atlantis‘ final flight.Six astronauts are aboard for this third-to-last shuttle mission. NASA is retiring its three remaining shuttles so it can focus on getting astronauts back into true outer space.Atlantis’ astronauts are putting off any commemorations and, for now at least, focusing on the work awaiting them at the International Space Station.”This is probably the kind of thing that’s really going to hit all of us after we’re done with the mission and we realize what part of history we may have played,” said commander Kenneth Ham.A brief look at each:__Commander Kenneth Ham uses „the avoidance technique” when it comes to dealing with the dangers of spaceflight.”I’ve convinced myself that my old job of flying jets in the Navy was far more dangerous than this one, and if I managed to live through all of that, this a piece of cake,” he said. „I really don’t think about it.”Ham, 45, a Navy captain whose call sign is „Hock,” flew missions over Iraq and Bosnia. He served as an air wing strike leader as well as a night vision goggle instructor.Picked as an astronaut in 1998, Ham flew to the space station as a co-pilot in 2008. This is his first time heading a mission.Wife Michelle is an instructor for space station astronauts, teaching them how to live and work up there. He has two sons, ages 16 and 17.Ham plans to leave NASA after this flight and return full time to the Navy. He was born in Plainfield, N.J.__Pilot Dominic „Tony” Antonelli is making his second space flight in just over a year.”This is how it should be for everybody,” he said. „We should be flying these things every couple of weeks and giving as many people a chance to do it as we can.”It’s sad so few missions are left, he said. „The space shuttle’s such a great machine. But I think we really need to leave low-Earth orbit at some point and that’s our one limitation. So moving on to something new, whatever that is, that’s going to be pretty exciting.”Antonelli, 42, a Navy commander who grew up in Indiana and North Carolina, became an astronaut in 2000.He and his wife Janeen have two sons, ages 6 and 9. Flying back-to-back missions means Antonelli hasn’t gone snowboarding — a passion right up there with flying — for more than two years. It’s one of the high-risk activities that are banned for astronauts who are within a year of launching. He figures he’ll get back on the slopes this winter.__Garrett Reisman, one of the astronaut corps’ shorter astronauts at 5-foot-4 1/2, is jokingly called „Big G” by his crewmates.He can’t wait to grow temporarily in weightlessness, as all astronauts do thanks to elongated spines. He stretched to 5-foot-6 during his three-month stay at the space station in 2008. Going back for a short visit is reward for the four years of training he put in last time. He’ll perform two spacewalks.Reisman, 42, became an astronaut in 1998 after working as an engineer on spacecraft navigation for what was then TRW Inc.He’s taking up the original federal document proclaiming May as Jewish American Heritage Month.”As a Jewish kid growing up in New Jersey, the concept of being an astronaut was really something I didn’t think was possible,” he said. As he watched films of the Apollo moon shots, „it was all a bunch of white men, non-Jewish people flying, test pilots.”Now, his message to all Americans is, „this is something that’s within their realm of possibility.””There’s nothing more powerful than making a child believe there’s nothing they can’t do, and that’s turned out to be true for me.”Wife Simone Francis is an oceanographer. Home is Parsippany, N.J.__Michael Good’s only other space flight was to the Hubble Space Telescope last May.”I thought Hubble was big, so I can’t imagine what the station’s going to look like as we rendezvous with it,” he said.Working on Hubble in the shuttle’s payload bay „was like going out and working in your garage,” he said. This time, he’ll „get to wander around the neighborhood,” venturing out to the fringes of the space station on two spacewalks to replace batteries.Good, 47, specialized in weapons systems for the Air Force. He became an astronaut in 2000 and retired from the military as a colonel last year.With the shuttle program winding down, long station missions will be „the only game in town” so he plans to check out the place and see if it’s somewhere he’d like to live in the future.He and wife Joan, an emergency room nurse, have two sons in their 20s and a 12-year-old daughter, as well as a 1-year-old grandson. He’s from Broadview Heights, Ohio.__Stephen Bowen took a lot of kidding from his tile-laying, house-painting brothers when he spent his first shuttle mission working with caulk guns.This time, he’ll change out batteries and do other chores during a pair of spacewalks.”It’s not changing double-A batteries. It’s a little more complicated than that. But they still give me a hard time,” Bowen said. Bowen, 46, a Navy captain from Cohasset, Mass., spent the 1990s in submarines. In 2000, he became the first submarine officer selected as an astronaut. Like working underwater, spaceflight is „an understood risk,” he said.”These are the choices I’ve made. I don’t think anybody has a big question about that. I’m sure it stresses my mother out.”Bowen and wife Deborah, a former schoolteacher, have three teenage children.As for this being Atlantis’ last flight, „It’s kind of hard to be wistful when you’re spending your whole life trying not to be overwhelmed by the history of what you’re doing.”_From his home in England, Piers Sellers followed NASA’s moon landings in the late 1960s and was „completely captivated” when he saw the movie „2001: A Space Odyssey” at age 13. „It made a huge impression on me and it stayed with me,” he said. „And the real thing has not disappointed.””Of course, we all wish we were further along,” he added. „But I think we’re going to get there. I think that during our lifetime, we’re going to see people on Mars.”Sellers, 55, a biometeorologist, grew up in Sussex. He moved to the United States to work and, in 1991, became a U.S. citizen. NASA chose him as an astronaut five years later.On his first two trips to the space station, Sellers racked up six spacewalks. This time, he’ll stay indoors and operate the big robot arm. He’s taking up a small piece of the tree from which an apple fell nearly 350 years ago in England and inspired Sir Isaac Newton to formulate his theory on gravity.Sellers and his wife, Mandy, a nurse, have a daughter and son, both in their 20s.
Space shuttle Atlantis soars on final voyage By MARCIA DUNN, AP Aerospace
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Space shuttle Atlantis thundered away on its final voyage to orbit Friday, hoisting an experienced crew of six and a full shipment of space station gear.Atlantis sped through a perfectly clear afternoon sky, blazing a trail over the Atlantic before huge crowds eager to catch one of the few remaining shuttle launches. More than 40,000 guests — the biggest launch-day crowd in years — packed the Kennedy Space Center.The shuttle’s destination is the International Space Station, which was soaring over the South Pacific at the time of liftoff. The shuttle should catch up with the orbiting complex and its six residents Sunday morning.A piece of orbiting junk, however, was threatening to come too close to the space station. If necessary, Mission Control will order up a maneuver so the station can dodge the debris the night before Atlantis’ arrival. The docking will not be delayed, even if the station has to move out of the way of the unidentified piece, NASA officials said.”Good luck, godspeed and have a little fun up there,” launch director Mike Leinbach told the astronauts just before liftoff. He said he was speaking on behalf of all those who have worked on Atlantis since construction began in 1980.”Like you said, there are thousands of folks out there who have taken care of this bird for a long time,” replied commander Kenneth Ham. „We’re going to take her on her 32nd flight, and if you don’t mind, we’ll take her out of the barn and make a few more laps around the planet.”The astronauts — all repeat space fliers and all men — couldn’t resist a little humor before they got down to business. They showed up for their steak and cheeseburger breakfast wearing blue and black smoking jackets, white shirts and black bow ties.This 12-day mission is the last one planned for Atlantis, the fourth in NASA’s line of space shuttles. Only two flights remain after this one, by Discovery and Endeavour. NASA plans to end the 30-year program by the end of this year.Atlantis — which rocketed into orbit for the first time in 1985 — is loaded with fresh batteries and a Russian-built compartment for the space station. The 20-foot-long module is crammed with food, laptop computers and other U.S. supplies.Ham and his men will install the compartment on the space station, and carry out three spacewalks to replace six old batteries and hook up an antenna and other spare parts.Alexey Krasnov, chief of the Russian Space Agency‘s piloted program, said it was a miracle that Atlantis took off without any delays.”It looks like that Atlantis is telling us, `Please use me again. I am capable,’ ” he said, smiling. „Maybe two-thirds of the launches were postponed by the weather or hardware … and today it worked exactly as planned.”Only a few small bits of insulating foam were seen coming off the fuel tank during liftoff, nothing significant, officials said.Launch spectators included Defense Secretary Robert Gates and late-night TV host David Letterman, as well as dozens of Russians. About 150 Twittering guests watched from Kennedy’s media complex.Matt Balan, 29, of Alexandria, Va., lost his network connection right at liftoff as he was trying to tweet. He finally got this message out a few minutes after the fact: „That was spectacular!!!!”Even off-duty astronauts marveled at the sight of Atlantis rising one last time, snapping pictures with their cell phones. „That was an incredible launch,” said Rick Mastracchio, who flew last month on Discovery. Some Apollo astronauts also showed up.President Barack Obama wants NASA to focus on getting astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and into orbit around Mars by 2035. He canceled the previous administration’s plan to return to the moon.Friday’s launch was NASA’s fourth shuttle liftoff in six months. Now the pace will slow a bit. Discovery isn’t due to fly until September, followed by Endeavour in November — at the earliest. There’s a chance that Atlantis could fly again after it returns to Earth on May 26. The shuttle will be prepped in case a rescue mission is needed for the last flight, by Endeavour. Assuming there’s no emergency, Atlantis could be used for another supply run if the White House approves it, and that would close the shuttle program for good. Then the shuttles would head off to museums.Immediately after watching liftoff, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., told The Associated Press that he’s encouraging one more flight for Atlantis and noted: „There’s a good chance the president will approve it.” He flew Columbia into orbit in 1986.NASA’s space operations chief, Bill Gerstenmaier, said he’d be glad to fly Atlantis in June 2011 with a minimal crew of four, if money is forthcoming. He estimates it would cost between $600 million and $1 billion to keep the shuttle program going beyond January.Under the Obama plan, NASA astronauts will hitch rides to the space station on Russian Soyuz rockets for the near future.NASA expects to keep the space station running through 2020.
Atlantis lifts off on final space mission by Jean-Louis Santini AFP
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (AFP) – US shuttle Atlantis barreled towards the International Space Station (ISS) carrying six astronauts after lifting off on the final mission for the 25-year-old spacecraft.The shuttle blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida into a clear blue sky on time at 2:20 pm (1820 GMT) on Friday.Several minutes after the launch, Atlantis’s twin white solid rocket boosters were separated and dropped into the Atlantic Ocean.The shuttle’s three engines propelled the vehicle on its eight-and-a-half-minute climb to orbit, assisted by the two orbital maneuvering system engines.”Launch was just phenomenal,” said associate NASA administrator Bill Gerstenmaier during a postlaunch news conference.”The teams stayed focused, they kept moving forward and they just did a great job. The vehicle looks like it’s in really good shape. We’re ready to go do the very challenging mission in front of us.”The 32nd and final voyage for Atlantis, first launched in 1985, will take the astronauts to the orbiting space research facility, delivering an integrated cargo carrier and a Russian-built mini research module.Before it gets there, the shuttle may have to dodge a piece of space debris that NASA is tracking, Gerstenmaier said”I think the maneuver will be on Sunday if we determine we need to do it,” he said.Just before liftoff, launch director Mike Leinbach wished the Atlantis crew „good luck and goodspeed,” encouraging them to „have a little fun up there.”Based on current plans, the Atlantis launch is one of the last three missions of NASA’s shuttle program, which is due to be mothballed at the end of the year.After this mission, only two more shuttle launches remain, one in September for Discovery and the final blast off for Endeavour in November.Early Friday the shuttle’s external tank was filled with over 500,000 gallons (two million liters) of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen in an operation lasting some two hours, NASA said.In a poignant moment for NASA as the US space agency counts down towards the end of an era in human spaceflight, Atlantis will be retired upon its safe return home after a quarter-century career.During a 12-day mission largely spent moored to the ISS, Atlantis and the crew will deliver over 12 tonnes of equipment, as astronauts seek to complete the 100-billion-dollar orbiting outpost.”Twelve days, three (spacewalks), tons of robotics…. We’re putting on spares that make us feel good about the long-term sustainability of the ISS, replacing batteries that have been up there for a while, and docking a Russian-built ISS module,” said space shuttle program manager John Shannon.”This flight has a little bit of everything, and it’s been a great preparation for the team.”President Barack Obama effectively abandoned in February plans by his predecessor George W. Bush to send astronauts back to the moon by 2020 and perhaps on to Mars.Constrained by soaring deficits, Obama submitted a budget to Congress that encouraged NASA to focus instead on developing commercial transport alternatives to ferry astronauts to the ISS after the shuttle program ends.Nonetheless, Obama set a bold new course in April for the future of US space travel, laying out a vision to send American astronauts into Mars orbit by the mid-2030s.
GPS glitch hit some military systems in January By AP
DENVER – The Air Force says a software glitch in its GPS network in January temporarily left some defense systems unable to lock onto locator signals from satellites, but the problem has since been fixed.The Air Force Global Positioning Wing said Friday one program halted operations as a precaution, but it didn’t identify the program. It says no other systems were grounded.SpaceNews.com reported the Navy interrupted development work on an unmanned jet because of the problem. The website cited an Air Force document that was posted online but later removed.Air Force spokesman Joe Davidson says up to 10,000 military GPS receivers could have been affected, but no civilian GPS functions were.Air Force units in Colorado and California oversee the GPS system.
Bacteria Army Launching on Space Shuttle Atlantis By SPACE.com
Clusters of bacteria that are typically harmless on Earth can pose a health risk to astronauts when they find their way aboard space habitats. To combat that space microbe menace, scientists plan to launch an army of the bacteria Friday aboard the space shuttle Atlantis to test whether they can grow on novel new materials specially engineered to fight them.The tiny space travelers will hitch a ride to space inside eight storage packs on Atlantis, each of which contains 128 vials. A similar control group of bacteria will remain on Earth, so that scientists can compare how the two groups fare.”We know that gravity plays a key role in the development of biological systems, but we don’t know exactly how a lack of gravity affects the development of bacteria and biofilms,” said study principal investigator Cynthia Collins, a chemical and biological engineer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY.Space bacteria can pose more than a health threat to astronauts. The microbes can affect hardware too. Some bacterial biofilms, complex three-dimensional microbial communities, were responsible for increasing corrosion and damage a water purification system on the Russian space station Mir, NASA researchers said in a statement.In addition to studying the bacteria growth, Collins and other researchers working on the Micro-2 experiment also plan to test a newly developed antimicrobial surface built by using nanotechnology.”Using defense mechanisms found in nature, we have ‘packaged’ highly efficient bactericidal activity into functional surface coatings,” said co-investigator Jonathan Dordick, also of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. „These surfaces do not cause toxic agents to be released, thereby providing a surface that is safe to humans but effective in destroying pathogenic bacteria.”Such surfaces might someday help prevent the formation or spread of bacteria in space and in hospitals.Bacteria clusters, known as biofilms, exist both inside and outside the human body. Scientists have discovered that they’re mostly harmless, even if some are related to disease.But toughened biofilms that survive hostile environments such as hospitals — or confined locations like space shuttles — can also become resistant to antibiotics. They might even become more potent just from living in microgravity.A past animal study showed that the Salmonella typhimurium bacteria responsible for food poisoning and typhoid fever can become three times more dangerous when exposed to the zero gravity environment of space.That presents a potentially huge problem for astronauts, because evidence has shown that humans suffer from weakened immune systems and become more vulnerable to infection in microgravity. Furthermore, researchers still don’t know exactly how microgravity affects the survival and spread of bacteria.”This means while certain bacteria may be harmless on Earth, they could pose a health threat to astronauts on the International Space Station or, one day, long space flights,” Collins noted.Atlantis’ space mission — slated to be the shuttle’s last-ever spaceflight — is only expected to run about 12 days. The shuttle is due to launch Friday at 2:20 p.m. EDT (1820 GMT) from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and arrive at the space station on Sunday.Atlantis will also deliver a new Russian science module to the space station, along with spare parts for the nearly complete orbiting laboratory.
Armstrong, Cernan Oppose Obama’s NASA Plans at Hearing By KATY STEINMETZ TIME
In terms of Senate hearings, this one had all the right stuff: high stakes, passionate speeches, shutdowns and – as if that weren’t enough – astronauts with a score to settle. Not just any old astronauts either. Attending the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee‘s forum on the future of human spaceflight were the first and last men to walk on the moon – the semi-reclusive Neil Armstrong and the slightly younger (and much sassier) Eugene Cernan. The attendance of these two white-haired history makers couldn’t have been more poetically appropriate. At the heart of the hearing, which took place on Wednesday on Capitol Hill, was President Obama‘s recommendation to cancel the (See pictures of five nations’ space programs.)So far the program has cost $9 billion and would require billions more that America doesn’t have to spend. That made Constellation one of two things in the minds of those at the hearing: either a substantial investment that should be kept alive with some creative budgeting or a white elephant that should be put to sleep before it tramples any more government coffers. The towering committee chair, West Virginia Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller, called himself a „third way” man open to other options, but his statements at the hearing landed him in the space-skeptic camp. (Comment on this story.)The termination of Constellation would crucially coincide with the retirement of America’s rickety shuttle fleet, leaving the U.S. without its own means of propelling people to the moon or International Space Station until new crafts are developed and built. (See the 40th anniversary of the moon landing.)Perhaps unsurprisingly, the astronauts present were avidly against shutting the program down. Cernan went so far as to say that the President’s proposal had no focus and was a „blueprint” for how to get absolutely „nowhere,” and that it was the „Administration’s pledge to mediocrity.” Armstrong kept his testimony more tempered, but both had already signed open letters last month calling Obama’s plan „devastating.” And they meant that not just in practical terms; their rhetoric quickly soared, both in the epistles and at the hearing, to heights where America’s geopolitical standing, pride, leadership status and bright young minds could be seen on the chopping block below. Obama’s suggestion, supported by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, is to spend money shifting the spacecraft-building onus onto the private sector while NASA concentrates on developing a super-advanced ship, one that probably relies on technologies still in the making, as was the case when President Kennedy told NASA to get on up to the moon in 1962. Obama and Bolden’s projections are that the ship could be designed by 2015, landing on an asteroid by 2025 and heading to Mars by the mid-2030s – dates and goals that the space community findsfrustratingly general and uninspiring, especially compared to the detailed plans attached to the Constellation project. (See the top 50 space moments since Sputnik.)Some of the Senators, including Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison and Louisiana Republican David Vitter, expressed unbridled skepticism of the private sector’s ability to create safe spacecraft. Vitter said there is „no evidence” that the commercial sector can supply this demand „in the near term,” despite the progress of companies like SpaceX, run by PayPal founder Elon Musk, which has built a rocket that sits at Cape Canaveral ready to test-launch. In any case, projections for using the private sector are cheaper at the moment. Musk has said he would sell astronauts seats for about $20 million. The only other option for getting into space, hitching a ride with the Russian government, costs about $50 million a pop. (America will be stuck with the Russians for a while even if Constellation goes on as planned, but the astronauts and some legislators worry that Obama’s plan would extend the flightless „gap” by several years because of the commercial sector’s inexperience.) Much harder to compare were the relative arguments about how the intangibles should be figured into the plan for NASA’s future. Rockefeller opened with a statement making it clear that he did not support manned space exploration as an end in itself. At one point, when he asked the astronauts point-blank what the merit of manned spaceflight was in terms of what concrete improvements it held for the „human condition,” Cernan responded with a stage-worthy speech, as romantic and impassioned as it was vague: „Curiosity is the essence of human existence. Who are we? Where are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? … I don’t know. I don’t have any answers to those questions. I don’t know what’s over there around the corner. But I want to find out. It’s within our hearts and souls and desires to find out and seek knowledge. Discovery is what it’s all about.” That last line has proven to be an especially critical point in the debate, given that trips to the moon, where we went 40 years ago, are most immediately on the line. While the astronauts pointed out, as other scientific stakeholders have, that landing on the moon raised more questions than it answered, that doesn’t change the American taxpayers’ general feeling that the moon isn’t really a new frontier. Norm Augustine, who headed the committee that reviewed NASA’s budgetary options, documented that public sentiment during months of research; he also dejectedly pointed out during the hearing that almost the same amount of time had elapsed between the Wright brothers’ first flight and the first moon landing as would have elapsed between the first moon landing and the return trip the astronauts were fighting so hard to salvage. Arguments about what the plan would mean for America’s geopolitical standing, the impetus for the space race in the 1960s, seemed similarly unsubstantiated. „I am convinced it will absolutely relinquish our leadership role in human spaceflight, certainly for our lifetimes, maybe longer,” Vitter said. Some efforts are making Americans nervous for their leadership role. China, for example, is flowing unprecedented funding into its space program, unchecked by budget requests and delays, but its increased activity has still done little to motivate the U.S., unlike the Cold War worries that lit fires under previous administrations.Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, a longtime NASA advocate and big believer in space for space’s sake, ended the session by asking Armstrong why it was worth returning to the moon. The astronaut, whose appearance had been much anticipated given his habitual hesitance to speak out in support of space programs or otherwise, responded meanderingly. There could be valuable minerals, he said, or we could research how to make permanent settlements, among other things. Armstrong had previously urged the continued use of the soon-to-be-retired space shuttles, which Augustine’s committee and other review boards have deemed to be on their last legs, and twice stumbled trying to turn on his microphone after almost sitting in the wrong chair. One couldn’t help but wonder whether he’s more an icon of NASA’s past than a voice for its future. „We need a new direction,” Rockefeller said at the beginning of the hearing. „The American people deserve the most from their space program. NASA’s role cannot stay static.”
Mementos that are out of this world THE NEWSTROOM
(This report is the second in a Yahoo! News series on the shutdown of the space shuttle program.)By ALLISON LOUIE-GARCIA, Yahoo! News-What could be duller than specks of dust and cubes of white bread? But what if those specks just happened to be lunar dust? And what if those pieces of bread spent eight days in an Apollo 11 astronaut’s pantry?Little white cards, sprinkled with genuine moon dust lifted from a nylon bag used on Apollo 15, sold at auction for a shade under $2,500 each a few years back. The pack of bread cubes — now 41 years old and looking more like croutons — has been appraised by PBS’s „Antiques Roadshow” at $25,000. The mystique clinging to objects that were once up in space isn’t lost on NASA, which sends an assortment of nonessential items collectively called the official flight kit, or OFK, on every space shuttle mission. Part public service and part PR, these mementos — often small flags, decals or pins — are usually distributed by NASA as commendations or displayed publicly after they come back down to Earth. And astronauts each get to choose as many as 10 items for the flight kit themselves, generally destined to be gifts to favorite charities or alma maters.But with Atlantis’ launch at 2:20 p.m. ET Friday, opportunities are running out: Only two further U.S. manned trips into space are scheduled — and they’re to be the last shuttle voyages ever.This end of an era lends an extra emotional charge to the upcoming missions — and the remaining mementos-to-be. It’s „just like when an artist dies,” says appraiser Gary Piattoni of PBS’s „Antiques Roadshow,” who predicts that items from the final flight, set for mid-November, will be worth perhaps 30 percent more than comparable items from other flights.(Federal code directs that OFK items not be sold for profit, but obviously some space mementos find their way to the market.) The astronauts’ selections on the OFK manifest for Atlantis’ last planned flight include the red and gray singlet worn by Parsippany High wrestlers (crew member Garrett Reisman graduated from the New Jersey school in 1986), a 4-by-6-inch photo of Brooklyn’s Peter Pizza with its proprietors, and — in what’s possibly the drollest entry of the manifest — a „wood piece” from London’s Royal Society.It’s a 4-inch sliver from history’s best-known apple tree: the one that inspired Isaac Newton.”What could be more appropriate?” said the Royal Society’s head librarian, Keith Moore. „The piece of wood that inspired the law of gravity is going up to an environment without gravity.”British-born astronaut Piers Sellers told the Associated Press that the society assured him the splinter he’s taking is „from THE apple tree, from the one that he was looking at when the apple fell down and he got the idea.””I’ll take it up into orbit and let it float around a bit, which will confuse Isaac,” he told AP. But no such adventure is in store for most OFK items.Usually they’re packed into a metal container measuring about 2 cubic feet and „just sit there in a box,” said OFK coordinator Abby Cassell.That hardly matters to the man in the Peter Pizza picture.”I’m the first place he goes for pizza when he comes back to Earth,” pizzeria owner Peter Grippo says of Jersey astronaut Reisman. So Reisman offered to take something up to space for Grippo on his next mission. Grippo gave Reisman a picture of himself and his wife smiling behind their pizzeria’s counter.”I think it’s friggin’ awesome,” Grippo said in his thick Brooklyn accent. The photo, once back to Earth, will hang on proud display at the restaurant.The fact is, any item takes on a certain magic when it goes into space. “We’re a tactile species,” said CollectSPACE.com founder Robert Pearlman, who owns the $25,000 Apollo 11 bread cubes (packet signed by Buzz Aldrin) and has been collecting space memorabilia since childhood. “We react best and understand best when we can touch. It’s an emotional experience. In museums you get to get close to those objects, but touching is off-limits. Collecting offers the next step, getting to handle the object and understand the weight of it.”In December 2001, thousands of American flags went up on the space shuttle, and upon their return, they were presented to 9/11 „heroes and families” three months after the terrorist attacks on American soil. Listed on the official flight kit manifest as “6,000 Small United States Flags,” they symbolized something much bigger.“In flying those flags up to space,” said Pearlman, „NASA was able to show, when we are at our best, exploring and furthering our knowledge of the universe, we can salute those who responded when we were at our worst and saddest.” Pearlman was awarded one of those flags for his work in organizing a 9/11 charity space auction. “History is imparted on those flags,” he said.To understand how a simple object can be imbued with so much meaning, all Barbara Prusas has to do is look down at her left hand.Her husband, Joseph, was a space shuttle technician. In March 2009, just before his 30th anniversary at Kennedy Space Center, he died of pancreatic cancer.He had been beloved by his co-workers as a humble and patient mentor, and so the space shuttle crew made the rare gesture of offering to take his wedding band along on Endeavour, the orbiter Prusas had worked on. When Endeavour returned, his widow had the ring soldered to her own gold wedding ring. She now wears them together.“It looks like his ring is orbiting mine,” Barbara Prusas said.Objects that are flown into space aren’t changed physically or atomically. But they come back electrified by history, symbolism and memories. It’s a New Jersey astronaut’s love for his favorite slice of pie. It’s the irony of Newton’s famous tree experiencing zero-gravity. It’s the respect and gratitude for the memory of Joseph Prusas.And what heightens their value is that these objects have now been a part of the mystery of the universe beyond.“If you can’t get a sense of awe from looking up and seeing the stars and moon,” Pearlman says, „well, you’ve lost something in yourself.”**** CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report incorrectly rendered the duration of Apollo 11’s stay on the moon.****Have your own special space mementos or memories? Yahoo! News wants to hear from you. Email us at email@example.com, and if you have related snapshots, home video clips, etc., send those too — we might feature them in a future installment. (Please also include a way we can contact you.)And, of course, we welcome your comments below!
Rising UK film star is no fan on the Internet by Claire Rosemberg AFP
CANNES, France (AFP) – Aaron Johnson, the young upcoming British actor who stars in „Chatroom”, a cyberspace thriller playing at Cannes, is no fan of the virtual world. His real world is enough of a challenge.”I’m not stuck in that sort of world, I grew up very differently,” he told AFP, as „Chatroom”, blurring reality and cyberspace, screened Friday at the Cannes film festival.Johnson, who plays the villain in the movie directed by Japanese horror master Hideo Nakata, also stars in current teen superhero spoof „Kick-Ass”, a box-office hit.And he has already picked up a best newcomer acting award for his performance as the young John Lennon in „Nowhere Boy„.At only 19, he is also about to become a father, which to his annoyance has made a splash in the British press. His partner, renowned contemporary artist Sam Taylor-Wood, is a celebrity at home and is 24 years older.”Why don’t you press ask Michael Douglas why his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is 20 or 30 years younger?” he said. „If you’re in love you’re in love, you know. It doesn’t matter about race or what age you are.”In Cannes briefly for the release of „Chatroom”, Johnson talked at length on the other hand about his character in the emotionally devastating „Chatroom”, based on a play by award-winning Irish playwright Enda Walsh.”My character is this insecure guy who goes online and tries to be this sort of charismatic guy who people look up to.”In the pyschological thriller, five unhappy teenagers meet in virtual space but one dysfunctional member — Johnson’s character — singles out the most vulnerable to manipulate him.”What sort of drives him,” Johnson added, „is to get one over on them.”Nakata, maker of the iconic Japanese „J-horror” genre „Ring”, did not show up in Cannes for the release of the movie, which screens in a section of the festival showcasing movies with a difference, „Un Certain Regard”.But in production notes, where he cites multiple cases of Internet violence that also feature in the movie, Nakata says the virtual world is „increasingly amplifying negative emotions: anxieties, fear, envy, hatred and anger.””It is now proven that this can result in the most extreme acts, either of killing yourself or other people,” he said.Playwright Walsh told AFP he penned the story back in 2005 because „I felt the Internet is a tool for drama, an unusual stage.””As a writer you’re always looking at the world for things that are interesting dramatically,” he said. „But I don’t think teenagers are in a bigger mess than previously.””Today’s world makes everything quicker, and broadcasting somehow makes everything more lasting. An insult in a school playground is something kids can get over but once it’s engraved on the Internet it’s there to stay,” he added.”People die but their Facebook page still exists,” he said. „It can be a cemetery of souls.”
Crowds gather to watch Aussie girl sailor cross finish line By AFP
SYDNEY (AFP) – Enthusiastic crowds gathered along Sydney Harbour Saturday to watch Australian schoolgirl sailor Jessica Watson become the youngest person to sail around the globe non-stop, solo and without help.Watson, 16, is expected to cross the finish line just ahead of noon (0200 GMT) and will coast her bright pink yacht to the Sydney Opera House to take her first steps on dry land in almost seven months.Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will join the teenage sailor’s parents, siblings and best friend in welcoming her back to Australia and celebrating the triumphant end of her 23,000 nautical mile round-the-world voyage.Although the World Speed Sailing Council will not recognise Watson’s record, as its minimum age is 18, the 210-day voyage will make her the youngest person to ever sail solo and non-stop around the world without help.Millions of Australians are expected to watch the event, which is being broadcast live on commercial television.”Jessica has amassed hundreds of thousands of followers and racked up extraordinary statistics during her time at sea on her yacht Ella?s Pink Lady,” her team said on Saturday, describing it as a „monumental” day.”Jessica?s arrival is expected to rival the Sydney Harbour?s busiest days – the Boxing Day start of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, New Year’s Eve and Australia Day,” they added.The schoolgirl, who turns 17 on Tuesday, took up sailing when she was eight and left Sydney last October under a storm of controversy about whether she was too young to attempt the perilous voyage.”I’m so excited and everyone keeps telling me how big it is going to be. It will be so good to see everyone again. I can’t wait,” the teen wrote of her imminent return to land.Mentor and project manager Bruce Arms sailed out to accompany Watson on her final leg into Sydney Harbour and said her face „was just lit up with a big glow on it”.”She’s very, very nervous at the moment and she’s very, very excited,” Arms told public radio.Her publicist has warned that Watson will have „great difficulty walking and will take some time to reclaim her land legs”, and access to her will be tightly controlled.She reportedly sold the exclusive rights to her story to Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited for 700,000 Australian dollars (625,000 US) and is unlikely to give many details of her odyssey.
Hugo Chavez says he won’t go to Madrid summit By AP
CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez confirmed Friday he will not be in Spain next week when leaders of the European Union, Latin America and the Caribbean meet, because Honduras’ president will be there.Chavez had warned earlier that he might stay away from the Madrid conference if Honduran leader Porfirio Lobo attended. Chavez strongly supported former Honduran leader Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted by a coup last June.”I’m not able to go to the Madrid meeting, but we have commissioned the vice chancellor, (Francisco) Arias Cardenas,” Chavez said during a televised speech.Chavez, who has repeatedly called the Honduras government illegitimate, recently said he is willing to support the decision of Central American nations to recognize Lobo as president, if Zelaya is allowed to return home and has his political rights restored.Lobo won the presidency in November, in an election that had been scheduled before Zelaya was overthrown in a political crisis that arose when he ignored court orders and tried to hold a referendum on changing Honduras’ constitution.
U.S. asks Israel to curb rhetoric, demolitions of Palestinian homes By Sheera Frenkel, McClatch
JERUSALEM — The Obama administration presented new demands to Israel this week to avoid taking any actions that might disrupt the fledgling peace talks with the Palestinians, among them a newly announced plan to demolish more than 100 Palestinian homes in Jerusalem , senior Israeli officials said Friday.”The U.S. has moved from asking to making stronger demands to make sure the peace talks go forward,” a senior official in the Israeli foreign ministry told McClatchy . „They don’t want to see a massive failure where the negotiations fail before they’ve even started.”The U.S. also demand that Israel prosecute Jewish settlers who are suspected of using violence against Palestinians.But the U.S. delegation led by former Maine Sen. George Mitchell said it was „fine if Israel — formally and loudly — defies the U.S., as long as their actions do otherwise,” said the official, who couldn’t be quoted by name because he wasn’t authorized to make public remarks.Israel considers Jerusalem its eternal and indivisible capital, and it insisted again this week that Jewish building would continue throughout the city. Palestinians, however, consider Jerusalem the capital of their future state and say Jewish building there is a major stumbling block to the U.S.-led peace talks.The Israeli government has refused to make a formal decision halting settlement construction in Jerusalem and repeatedly voiced defiance of U.S. demands. Celebrating the Jerusalem Day holiday on Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared: „We will continue to build and to be built in Jerusalem .”He went on: „We will continue to plan and to create. Jerusalem shall never be divided again. We must remember that Jerusalem was divided in half and there was no peace. Each side will make its demands, but in the end, we have a right to Jerusalem .”In similar addresses that day, Minister of the Interior Eli Yishai said that settlements throughout Israel would continue to grow, and Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich announced that demolition orders were ready to be carried out against 109 Palestinians homes in East Jerusalem. Israel maintains that the homes were built without legal permits, while Palestinians say Israel refuses to issue such permits to Palestinians.Following U.S. pressure, however, Netanyahu told Aharonovich and Yishai to curb their rhetoric, the official said. Israeli pro-settler groups have already stated that a de facto slowdown is limiting Jewish projects in East Jerusalem , and the Jerusalem municipal government has confirmed that housing demolitions would be postponed by „at least” two weeks.Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton‘s envoy, Lt. Gen. Paul Selva , met Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon this week and asked Israel to do more to curb the violence of some settlers, Israeli officials said.Last month, a series of attacks against Palestinians was traced to settlers in the northern West Bank . The attacks were believed to be part of a „price tag” policy by which settlers seek retribution for anti-settlement policies by targeting Palestinians. Israeli authorities have said settlers were responsible for burning down a mosque just outside the Palestinian village of Nablus and attacking several cars.The nearby settlement of Yitzhar has been widely blamed for similar attacks in the past, and Israeli authorities have said there’s evidence to suggest that the „price tag” policy originated there.Selva asked Israel to prosecute those responsible for the attacks to the fullest extent of the law and to prevent similar attacks. Israeli officials responded that they’d continue to investigate the charges against the settlers.The Hebrew-language daily Yediot Ahronot summarized the current Israeli policy as „scream loudly in one direction and walk in another.”” Israel is listening to the requests from the U.S., and answering them quietly. Our allies understand that this is the best way forward,” said the foreign ministry official.Netanyahu’s aides have explained to the Americans that he is juggling a difficult and largely right-wing coalition that will contest any compromises regarding the settlements or East Jerusalem .(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
Japan postpones U.S. base decision by half year: report By REUTERS
TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan will postpone a deadline for resolving a row over relocating a U.S. base by up to half a year to November, abandoning Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s original end-May target, the daily Sankei Shimbun said on Saturday.Public perceptions Hatoyama has mishandled the issue over a U.S. Marine base on the southern Japan island of Okinawa have eroded his support ahead of an upper house election, with a poll published by Jiji news agency on Friday showing support for his government had fallen below 20 percent for the first time.Hatoyama’s Democratic Party needs a decisive win in the upper house vote expected in July to enact laws smoothly.The Sankei Shimbun said, citing unnamed government officials, that the decision was made at a meeting on Friday of cabinet ministers including Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano as well as Hatoyama.Analysts have said the next reasonable deadline after the end of May would be November, when U.S. President Barack Obama will visit Japan for an Asia-Pacific leaders summit.(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Jerry Norton)
Aussie Olympic chief hails record budget boost By AFP
CANBERRA (AFP) – Australia’s Olympic chief John Coates warmly welcomed a record budget funding boost for elite sports and said it would improve performances well beyond the 2012 London Games.Coates said spending of about 325 million dollars (290 million US) over four years, announced late Tuesday, „ticks every box” for athletes aiming to boost Australia‘s disappointing medals tally at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.”Everyone involved in Australian sport and everyone who believes sport has a role to play in our society, a role to play in a healthier nation and a role to play in our international reputation will be very pleased with this budget,” he told public broadcaster ABC.”This isn’t just a quick fix for London, this is going to help us as we prepare in the Olympic world for Sochi, the Winter Olympics in 2014, and Rio in 2016 and beyond.”The money includes 124 million dollars to develop new talent, 62 million for the Australian Institute of Sport and 52 million for the Australian Sports Commission‘s high performance programmes, as well as extra grassroots funding.Australia won 14 gold medals at Beijing, their worst performance since Atlanta 1996.
Canada parties end Afghan dispute, avert election By REUTERS
OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canadian political parties averted an early election on Friday when they sealed a deal to end a dispute over access to documents on the transfer of prisoners to authorities in Afghanistan.”We have an agreement,” Bloc Quebecois legislator Pierre Paquette told reporters. A member of the main opposition Liberal Party later confirmed a deal had been reached.Friday was the deadline for the minority Conservative government and the three opposition parties to end a standoff over the documents. Opposition legislators had demanded access to uncensored files but the government refused on the grounds of national security.Had the two sides failed to reach an agreement, the House of Commons — controlled by opposition legislators — would then have voted on a motion to hold the Conservative government in contempt, likely triggering an election.Political observers had widely expected an agreement, given that polls show no party could be certain of winning even a stable minority if an election were held now.Paquette said that, under the terms of the deal, all the documents would be provided to a special committee of legislators, aided by a panel of experts. The committee would then decide which files to make public.”All the documents will be available to members of Parliament and national security will be taken into account,” he said.The opposition wants to see the documents because it suspects the government knew that prisoners handed over by Canadian troops to Afghan authorities were likely to be abused.(Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson)
Dutch boy told family died in Libya plane crash By TAREK EL-TABLAWY, Associated Press
TRIPOLI, Libya – Relatives broke the news to a Dutch boy who is the sole survivor of a plane crash in Libya that his parents and brother died in the disaster, as authorities said the 9-year-old would return home on Saturday.Rescuers found Ruben van Assouw still strapped in his seat and breathing in an area of desert sand strewn with the plane’s debris. His father, mother and 11-year-old brother are believed to have been among the 103 people on board who were killed Wednesday when their flight from South Africa crashed short of the runway in Tripoli.Since then, he has been undergoing treatment at a Tripoli hospital, with an aunt and uncle who rushed in from Amsterdam at his bedside.On Friday, his aunt and uncle released a statement saying they had told the boy of the deaths of his parents, Trudy and Patrick van Assouw, and his brother, Enzo.”Under the circumstances Ruben is doing well. He sleeps a lot. Now and then he is awake and then he is alert,” they said in the statement.”We told Ruben this morning exactly what happened. He knows his parents and brother are dead. The whole family is going to bear the responsibility for Ruben’s future,” they said.”We have two kinds of sorrow to deal with, because Ruben is in a terrible situation, but we have also lost family members,” they said, adding for respect for their privacy. „The coming time will be a difficult period for us.”Dutch Foreign Ministry official Ed Kronenburg said Ruben would be taken home to the Netherlands on Saturday on a Libyan medical evacuation flight.The child was recovering well after 4 1/2 hours of surgery to repair multiple fractures to his legs.”He’s OK. He’s not getting any worse. He’s progressing quite well,” said orthopedic specialist Sadig Bendala.The doctor said many factors could have played a role in his stunning survival, including where he was seated in the plane.”It’s something from God, that he wanted him to live longer,” Bendala told The Associated Press.Investigators were gearing up to begin work on determining the cause of the Afriqiyah Airways Airbus 330-200, which hit the ground short of the runway while landing at around 6 a.m. and shattered to pieces. Most of those on board the flight from Johannesburg were Dutch tourists.Naji Dhou, the head of the Libyan committee investigating the crash, said the pilot „did not declare any problems, as far as we know at this point” during the plane’s approach. Dhou declined to comment further, saying the investigation was ongoing.Both black boxes, the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder, were immediately recovered at the crash site and have been sent to Paris, Kronenburg said.Dutch and French investigators have been mapping the crash site and will begin work looking for clues Saturday, he said. Investigators from the United States, France, South Africa, and the Netherlands are helping Libya with the probe.Kronenburg expressed some concern about the initial security of the crash site and said care should be taken to ensure that victims’ personal items are kept safe so they can be returned to their relatives.”We had the impression that anyone could have walked over the site,” he said.Another 20 Dutch forensic experts were arriving in the evening to join a small team already on the ground to begin identifying the bodies, a task that could take a week at least, said Kronenburg.Relatives of the dead will be asked to provide details of distinguishing marks such as tattoos and scars, along with DNA and medical records to help identify them, said lead Dutch investigator Dann Noort.”We try to collect information about the victims and try to get DNA, fingerprints and dental records,” Noort said, adding that the bodies are being stored in the morgues of two local hospitals. Identification work will take place in Libya, he said. Dutch officials said the bodies would be repatriated individually, as soon as each is identified.Officials have declined so far to comment on what may have caused the crash. The plane may have been attempting a go-around in poor visibility caused by sunlit haze, safety officials and pilots familiar with the airport said Thursday. Shards of metal from the plane, the remains of the seats’ metal frames and the victims’ personal belongings — clothes, books, shoes and souvenirs — blanketed the area. Large chunks of the plane’s body were widely scattered across the site.A National Transportation Safety Board team of investigators from the United States is to arrive Friday since the plane’s engines were made by U.S. manufacturer General Electric. The team will include an NTSB engines specialist as well as technical advisers from the Federal Aviation Administration and General Electric.Ruben and his family had gone to South Africa during the boys’ spring school vacation to celebrate the couple’s 12 1/2-year wedding anniversary, a Dutch tradition.In his travel blog, Patrick van Assouw, wrote about the camping trip that took them through some of the world’s most spectacular natural wonders — South Africa’s Mac Falls, the Kruger National Park game reserve and across the border into Swaziland and on to Lesotho.Ruben suffered four fractures to his legs and lost a lot of blood, Dr. Hameeda al-Saheli, head of the pediatric ward, told the Libyan news agency JANA. But his neck, head and face were not seriously injured, and a large bandage placed on his head after the crash had been removed Thursday.Associated Press writer Toby Sterling contributed to this report from Amsterdam, the Netherlands.