By Brad Knickerbocker The Christian Science Monitor The political dance over the US debt ceiling crisis
and federal deficits continued Sunday with the possibility that top lawmakers could
be summoned to the White House for more negotiating – although no meeting had been scheduled.Positions were clarified (or at least reiterated) on the morning TV talk shows as the clock
kept ticking toward the Treasury Department’s August 2 deadline for raising the US debt limit in order to avoid Uncle Sam’s not being able to pay some bills.The run-up to that Perils-of-Pauline moment is unlikely to include two very large discussion points: The grand plan for tackling the nation’s deficit and debt – a $4 trillion package over 10 years – once being seriously discussed by President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner. (Remember those halcyon days?) And the effort by some Republicans to leap-frog to a balanced budget amendment to the US Constitution. Not going to happen in the Democrat-controlled Senate.National debt ceiling 101: Is a crisis looming?Meanwhile, the political ground continues to shift as credit rating agencies, state governors, and independent voters weigh in on budgets, debt, and taxes.Americans like lower taxes. No surprise there. Sixty percent cheered when Obama and congressional Republicans last year agreed to extend the Bush-era tax cuts, according to the Pew Research Center.“But most also acknowledge that the best way to reduce the deficit is through a combination of cuts in major programs and tax increases,” Pew reported recently. “And a large majority (66 percent) approves of raising taxes on incomes of $250,000 or more to reduce the debt.”So when Obama talks about “millionaires and billionaires doing their fair share,” he seems to have most of the public with him.But among all-important independent voters, the debt/deficit issue has become trickier for elected officials concerned about the political fallout of however they vote.Back in May, independents by a 15-point spread (49-34 percent) told Pew they were more concerned that raising the debt limit “would lead to more spending and bigger debt.” Now, independents are just as likely (45-46 percent) to worry that “not raising it would force a default and hurt the economy.”Poll-reading lawmakers are moving in that direction as well – particularly when they consider (as CBS News put it) that “credit rating agencies are putting the Treasury Department under the gun as they decide whether to strip the US of its coveted triple-A credit status.”Both Moody’s Investors Service and Standard and Poor’s have warned that they could downgrade the country’s triple-A credit rating, and the Washington Post reports that “the Obama administration has mounted an intense behind-the-scenes campaign to keep the nation’s major credit rating companies from issuing threats that they might downgrade the United States over the swelling size of the federal debt.””There might be a fringe who believes that playing with Armageddon is a good idea, but I don’t think that’s where the majority will be,” White House budget director Jacob Lew told CNN’s State of the Union Sunday morning.That “fringe” includes a substantial number of freshman GOP House members philosophically opposed to raising the debt ceiling under any circumstances – locked into a position that Speaker Boehner is trying to talk them out of.But it does not include many governors – Republican as well as Democrat – who see the dangers of defaulting on US debt obligations.”It would be an embarrassment for the United States of America to default on its obligations,” Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (P) told the Reuters news agency at a meeting of the National Governors Association in Salt Lake City Saturday.”I really think we need more statesmen and less politicians in Washington right now because it is a situation that must be solved,” Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (R) said in another Reuters interview.RECOMMENDED:Out of options in debt ceiling talks? Nope, here are five.
US astronauts somber as shuttle era comes to an end By Jean Louis Santini | AFP
The Atlantis roars back to Earth this week ending America’s vaunted space shuttle program and frustrating a generation of astronauts who see their chance to soar into the cosmos sharply limited.US astronauts bound for space will now have to hitch a ride on the Russian Soyuz rocket, at more than $50 million per seat, until a new US space craft — a commercial launcher and capsule built by a private corporation in partnership with NASA — will be ready to fly sometime around 2015.Once the shuttle lands Thursday in Cape Canaveral, Florida, NASA will rely on Russia to let them rent one of two available seats on theSoyuz, with a third seat on the space vehicle already taken up by pilot.The end of the shuttle program means that chances for astronauts to do the one things they are trained for — fly into space — will become rare.”Of course it’s hard, because we dedicate our lives to fly in space. We are astronauts and it’s what we do for a living,” astronaut Steve Robinson, who undertaken four shuttle missions over the years, told AFP.Over the course of the 30 year program, five NASA space crafts — Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery and Endeavour — have comprised the fleet of space shuttles, designed as the world’s first reusable space vehicles.Only three of the space vehicles survive after the shuttles Columbia and Challenger were destroyed in accidents that also killed their crews.But at a time of US budget austerity, President Barack Obama has opted to end the program at a huge savings. Each of the 135 missions over the years has cost about $450 million.Obama also last year canceled the Constellation Project, which had aimed to put American astronauts back on the moon by 2020. The six year-old project was estimated to cost $97 billion through 2020.Astronaut Shannon Walker, like most of her NASA colleagues, is disappointed about the end of the shuttle program.”It’s unfortunate, but I know it’s the right thing to do to end the shuttle program,” she told AFP.”If we want to do other things we need a different spacecraft,” said Walker, who has been aboard the Soyuz but never flown on a shuttle.She likened the current interregnum between the end of the shuttle program and the next phase of US human space flight — likely to last about three years — to the period „after the end of the Apollo program, before the shuttle program started.”Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute in Washington and former NASA official during the George W. Bush administration, said that even with the shuttle program over, there’s still plenty for an astronaut to do — especially in support of the International Space Station.”There still will be a need for an astronaut corps. It will be at least two American astronauts for the ISS at any particular time,” he said.”Some will be on training for a mission, some will be recovering from a mission,” he said.”There are program support positions on the ground, they will be contributing to both direct mission support for those up there but also working on other programs, other commercial crew programs toward the multiple purpose crew vehicle,” he said.NASA administrator Charles Bolden recently told the House of Representatives Science, Space and Technology committee that there will be opportunities in commercial space flight in the near future.”My hope is that we will have more that one American commercial-made capability to take humans to space by 2015/16 time frame which will give us several alternatives.””We are not abandoning the human space flight,” he added. „We have a big job to do of operating the ISS for the next nine years at least.”Walker meanwhile said she hoped the end of a space shuttle program will not squelch curiosity and enthusiasm of the future generation of students who dream of space travel.”You go to a school and ask who wants to be an astronaut and everybody raises their hand,” she told AFP.”I hope the kids will understand we have a space station so there is still a place to go,” she said. „The dream for space travel is still alive.”
Astronauts pack up for last shuttle ride home By Irene Klotz | Reuters
HOUSTON (Reuters) – The shuttle Atlantis astronauts finished packing more than 2 tonnes of old equipment and trash from the International Space Station into a cargo hauler on Sunday for the last shuttle ride back to Earth.The Italian-built storage pod will be loaded into Atlantis’ payload bay early Monday, in advance of the shuttle’s departure from the station early on Tuesday. The 13-day mission, the last of NASA’s 30-year-old space shuttle program, is due to end with a landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 5:57 a.m. EDT (0957 GMT) on Thursday.”This is really the last train out of town,” Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson said during an inflight interview. „I don’t think the full magnitude of everything is really going to hit us until after the wheels stop.”Ferguson and his three crewmates delivered more than 5 tonnes of food, clothing, equipment and other supplies for the outpost, a $100 billion project of 16 countries that was finished earlier this year after more than a decade of construction 220 miles above Earth.With help from the six-member live-aboard station crew, the astronauts also packed up 2.5 tonnes of old equipment, including 12 laptop computers, foam packaging and other items no longer needed on the station.In all, the crew put in the equivalent of 150 hours of labor transferring cargo, plus oversaw a spacewalk by two space station astronauts to pack up a refrigerator-sized coolant pump that broke last year.The supplies aboard Atlantis are intended to tide over the station until NASA’s newly hired cargo delivery firms begin flying next year. „The space station is actually in very good shape now for the retirement of the space shuttle,” said flight director Chris Edelen.EYES ON DEEP SPACE NASA meanwhile, wants to ramp up development of a new capsule-style spacecraft and heavy-lift booster that can ferry people into deep space, beyond the station’s orbit where the shuttles cannot fly.Crew ferry flights to the station will be handled exclusively by Russia until and unless U.S. firms develop spaceships capable of orbital spaceflight.NASA is supporting efforts by four firms — Boeing, Space Exploration Technologies, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Blue Origin, a space travel start-up backed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — with technology development contracts worth $269 million.NASA hopes the new vehicles will be ready to fly in about 2015. Russia charges the United States more than $50 million per person for Soyuz capsule transportation and training.Atlantis arrived at the station on July 10, becoming the 37th and final mission to the station. Over the past 30 years, NASA also flew 98 other shuttle missions to deploy satellites and observatories, including the Hubble Space Telescope, and to conduct research and test technologies.The shuttle proved to be much more complicated and labor-intensive to prepare for flight, and not as safe as expected. Two orbiters were lost in accidents, killing 14 astronauts.The end of the program will hit central Florida, Houston and other shuttle operational hubs hard, with thousands of engineers and technicians due to lose their jobs shortly after Atlantis lands.”You have to come to terms with the end before you can really put on a new beginning,” Ferguson said.”I think once we can finally get over the fact that the shuttle is gone … I believe we’ll begin to pick up the pieces and everyone will see that we really do have some vibrant programs out there that we’re working on.”(Editing by Jane Sutton and Todd Eastham)