Here’s one way to gauge the level of turbulence and depth of anti-incumbent sentiment this year: the supersize fields of candidates in many of this year’s marquee elections.In Nevada,
where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is seeking reelection, 21 candidates have filed to run for his seat — compared with just nine in 2004, the last time he went before the voters. Back then, nobody challenged him in the Democratic primary. This year, there are three of his fellow Democrats aiming to knock him off. In California, where Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer is running for a fourth term, 13 candidates have filed for her job. In Arkansas, 12 have lined up against Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln.Democrats aren’t the only ones attracting swarms of opponents — 10 candidates are running for the North Carolina seat currently held by GOP Sen. Richard Burr. Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett has nine challengers.In open Senate seats, there’s been a similar explosion of candidates. A whopping 18 contenders are seeking Missouri’s open Senate seat; in 1986, the last time the seat was open, there were seven. In Kentucky, where GOP Sen. Jim Bunning is retiring, there are 10.In the House, there are signs of similar trend lines. In Missouri, for example, there are 69 candidates for the state’s nine House seats this year, compared with 45 in 2008 and 51 in 2004. In the 4th District alone, veteran Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton went from three challengers in 2008 to 15 this year, including 10 Republicans. He’s also got a Democratic foe in the Aug. 3 primary.Not all of the candidates in Missouri or elsewhere are serious, and many of them don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning. Still, in the 28 states where filing deadlines have passed so far, the frequently bulging candidate lists signal a surge of interest in running for Congress. “When the electorate is stirred up, and millions are mad as hell and won’t take it anymore, amateurs come out of the woodwork to capitalize on the public mood,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “There are times when experience and incumbency become deadweights. For many voters, 2010 is one of those years.” In a sign of the fierce backlash facing incumbents, many of the candidates are filing to run as primary challengers. Boxer, who had no primary challengers in her last reelection campaign, has two this year. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, who also had no primary opposition in 2004, has two Democratic opponents in the May 18 primary. “If candidates believe there is a chance for an incumbent to be defeated, they are going to be encouraged to run for office as a challenger,” noted Erik Smith, a former top staffer at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who also served as a top aide to House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. “If you’re deciding whether to run for office, if an incumbent can be defeated, you might run.” The flood of Senate candidates, in particular, also reflects the emergence of the tea party movement, the energy that is pulsing through the Republican Party and the political winds that have shifted unmistakably in the GOP’s favor.
Pot smokers out in nation, proud for high holiday By LISA LEFF, Associated Press
OAKLAND, Calif. – Stoked by advancing legalization efforts, pot smokers across the country lit up in public parks, outside statehouses and in the posh confines of a Hummer parked outside a pot gardening superstore to observe the movement’s annual high holiday.Those who weren’t within whiffing distance of a college campus or a reggae concert may not have realized Tuesday was 4/20, the celebration-cum-mass civil disobedience derived from „420” — insider shorthand for cannabis consumption.Advocates from New Hampshire to California trumpeted marijuana’s rising commercial and political acceptance while producing collective clouds of pungent smoke — often under the watchful eyes of law enforcement officers who for the most part let the parties proceed.A daylong rally in Denver’s Civil Center Park drew thousands of people, as did the public smoking event that persisted at the University of Colorado in Boulder despite discouragement from college administrators.Colorado lawmakers coincidentally marked the day by backing new regulations for dispensaries selling medical marijuana.In New Hampshire, about 100 people rallied in the state capital of Concord on the eve of a Senate vote to decriminalize small amounts of pot. Some lit up joints as state troopers watched from inside the Statehouse.Gov. John Lynch said he will veto the bill if it reaches him.In Juneau, Alaska, about 20 young people, two dogs and a mother pushing a stroller marched in driving rain, whooping and chanting, „Yes we cannabis!” Their route took them past the state Capitol and City Hall.In California, where voters in November will consider whether to tax the sale of marijuana for recreational use, a 3-month-old cultivation equipment emporium in Oakland got a 24-hour jump start, sponsoring a „420 Eve” festival on Monday.Several hundred revelers lined up outside the 15,000-square-foot iGrow shop. Security guards kept them at bay until 4:20 p.m., when they could enter a medical marijuana delivery service raffle to win an oversized joint and a tour of a 53-foot-long portable grow room with a starting price of $60,000.”I wouldn’t have thought we would be able to consume on site,” marveled John Corral, 19, of San Jose, after he obtained a wristband that gave him access to the event’s two „vapor lounges,” the one inside the Hummer and another inside a companion Range Rover limousine.Two years ago, before he had a doctor’s recommendation to smoke pot, Corral commemorated 4/20 on Hippie Hill, the Golden Gate Park promontory where an earlier generation of pot aficionados made their stand.Marijuana use — medically and recreationally — is getting more attention these days, with voters in California and possibly three other states set to decide whether to legalize adult use of the drug.South Dakota voters will consider in the fall whether to join California and the 13 other states that allow medical cannabis use.Most Americans still oppose legalizing marijuana, but larger majorities believe pot has medical benefits and the government should allow its use for that purpose, according to an Associated Press-CNBC poll released Tuesday.Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the drug’s steady movement from counterculture indulgence to mainstream acceptance was evident Tuesday, when four cable television channels dedicated „a good chunk of programming to 420.”St. Pierre said that with the terms „marijuana” or „cannabis” regularly showing up on the top Internet searches, it’s clear that groups like his, which has lobbied to decriminalize marijuana since 1970, are no longer blowing smoke.”There is a large mainstreaming of all of this,” he said. „Some of it is happening because commercial entities looking to comport with local social mores and values are taking advantage of this bizarre numerology.” There are a variety of stories about the origin of 420, but pot advocates generally attribute the term to the time when a group of San Francisco Bay area high schoolers would gather to smoke marijuana during the early 1970s. The term was then popularized by High Times magazine and the Grateful Dead.At the iGrow event, Tom Patton of GrowOp Technology, proudly discussed the inspiration for the „Big Bud” growing trailer he developed with Derek Peterson, a former stock broker. Patton said he kept hearing about pot growers who „were constantly putting up and taking down” grow rooms built inside warehouses or residential homes because of complaints from neighbors, fires sparked by faulty wiring or threats of law enforcement raids.His pot room on wheels, which comes outfitted with a security system and technology to adjust temperature and humidity levels from an iPhone, may not completely eliminate the last concern, but that hasn’t stopped a pair of New York bankers from investing in the invention.”This is an enabling technology, not a hiding-out technology,” Patton said.The lure of revenue and respectability has prompted some veterans of the marijuana wars to diversify. Joshua Freeman, a Sonoma County pot grower, was at the 420 Eve festival handing out samples of the specialty plant food he recently developed and is trying to market.”We are not just a bunch of stoners sitting back on a couch playing video games,” Freeman said.
Goldman reports huge profits, but troubles mount By STEVENSON JACOBS, AP Business
NEW YORK – Goldman Sachs is still the king of Wall Street — at least when it comes to making money.Four days after being accused by the government of fraud in the subprime mortgage mess, the big investment bank reported blowout first-quarter profits Tuesday of $3.3 billion, nearly double from the same period a year ago. But it didn’t get to celebrate.Goldman spent the day defending itself against the Securities and Exchange Commission’s charges and saw its troubles mount:• Britain’s financial regulator began an investigation into the bank’s London-based international operations.• The European Commission called for tighter regulation of the complex financial investments at the heart of the SEC case.• Investors brushed off the eye-popping earnings and sent Goldman’s stock falling more than 2 percent. In the past three days, the company’s market value has declined by nearly $13 billion.Jack A. Ablin, chief investment officer at Harris Private Bank in Chicago, said he couldn’t recall another time when a company reported such stellar earnings only to see its stock fall.The day’s events showed how a powerhouse like Goldman can be humbled. The same prowess in cutting deals and making billion-dollar bets that vaulted Goldman to the top of Wall Street is now being faulted, even vilified.Goldman Sachs Group Inc. executives held conference calls with banking industry analysts and reporters Tuesday, but the questions focused more on the SEC charges than on the firm’s earnings.The charges grew out of a 2007 transaction involving collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs, complex mortgage-related securities that many analysts say helped accelerate the financial crisis and recession when they plunged in value. The government said Goldman did not tell two clients that the CDOs they bought were crafted in part by billionaire hedge fund manager John Paulson, who was betting on them to fail. Goldman has denied the charge.”Clearly, there’s a potential for things to get worse,” market analyst Edward Yardeni said, citing the widening probe of the bank’s dealings. „The question is how will their clients react.”There were growing political overtones to the case, which comes as Congress debates the Obama administration’s proposal to overhaul the nation’s financial rules.The SEC commissioners approved the charges by a 3-2 vote, according to two people with knowledge of the case. The split was along party lines, with both Republican commissioners arguing strenuously to hold back, said the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.Party-line split votes are unusual, especially in high-profile cases, former SEC officials said.SEC Chairwoman Mary Schapiro told reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday that the charges against Goldman were „absolutely not” politically motivated.But Ablin said the vote’s timing and the party-line split raise questions about whether the case against Goldman was aimed at swaying public support for the administration’s effort to impose tighter controls on Wall Street.”To me, this case is less about Goldman and more about financial reform,” he said.The slide in the company’s stock could be a sign that investors believe financial reform will become law — and banks’ profitability will suffer as a result, Ablin said. Goldman and the other big banks have come under sharp criticism from the Obama administration and Congress, especially since they have paid big bonuses to employees after having accepted bailout money during the financial crisis in 2008. Goldman was one of the first banks to repay the money under the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Many critics note that big banks’ trading practices helped cause the crisis.Goldman’s trading of bonds, commodities and currencies helped the company score another impressive quarter.The firm earned $5.59 a share on revenue of $12.78 billion, above forecasts of analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters. It was Goldman’s second most profitable quarter since going public in 1999. In the fourth quarter, Goldman earned a record $4.79 billion.Yet investors remained fixated on Goldman’s legal battles.During a conference call with analysts, Goldman co-general counsel Greg Palm gave the company’s most detailed rebuttal to date of the SEC charges.The SEC charged that Goldman misled investors. Palm responded that the two clients in the transaction, IKB Deutsche Industriebank AG and the financial consulting firm ACA Management LLC, „were institutions with significant resources and extensive experience in the CDO market.””We would never intentionally mislead anyone,” Palm said.The company told analysts that it lost more than $100 million on the transaction. Analysts have speculated that Goldman lost money because it was unable to sell its position before its value declined. Asked about that, Palm acknowledged for the first time that the bank did indeed try to find a buyer.Goldman also said the executive at the center of the case, Fabrice Tourre, is on indefinite paid leave and is no longer registered in Britain to do business on the bank’s behalf or to deal with clients.Tourre was a vice president in his late 20s when the alleged fraud was orchestrated in 2007. Tourre, now 31, has since been promoted to executive director of Goldman Sachs International in London.AP Business Writers Alan Zibel and Daniel Wagner in Washington and Ieva M. Augstums in Charlotte, N.C., contributed to this report.
Group wants evangelist’s Pentagon event canceled By DAN ELLIOTT, Associated Press
DENVER – A watchdog group objected Tuesday to an evangelist’s invitation to speak at the Pentagon next month, saying his past description of Islam as „evil” offended Muslims who work for the Department of Defense and the appearance should be canceled.Mikey Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said inviting evangelist Franklin Graham to speak May 6, the National Day of Prayer, „would be like bringing someone in on national prayer day madly denigrating Christianity” or other religious groups.It would also endanger American troops by stirring up Muslim extremists, Weinstein said.Graham is the son of famed evangelist Billy Graham and president and CEO of both Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian international relief organization in Boone, N.C., and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, in Charlotte, N.C.He said through a spokesman that he will be a guest of the Pentagon and will speak only if he’s still invited. A military spokeswoman said she was locating officials to respond to the criticism.After the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Graham said Islam „is a very evil and wicked religion.” In a later op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal, Graham wrote that he did not believe Muslims were evil because of their faith, but „as a minister …. I believe it is my responsibility to speak out against the terrible deeds that are committed as a result of Islamic teaching.”Graham hasn’t changed his views on Islam, said his spokesman, Mark DeMoss.DeMoss quoted Graham as saying, „As the father of a son serving in his fourth combat tour, I’d be glad to know someone was leading a prayer service at the National Day of Prayer, or any other day.”Weinstein, the foundation president, also criticized the Pentagon’s working relationship with the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a Colorado group that organizes Christian events for the prayer day, designated by Congress.Weinstein said that while he doesn’t object to the day of prayer, the Pentagon chaplain’s office has effectively endorsed the task force by using its materials and routinely inviting its honorary chairman to speak at the Pentagon. Weinstein said that amounts to preferential treatment in violation of Defense Department rules.Graham is honorary chairman this year for the National Day of Prayer Task Force, based in Colorado Springs. A spokesman for the task force didn’t immediately return a telephone message.Weinstein said the task force is entitled to organize Christian-oriented events. But he said the Pentagon chaplain shouldn’t be closely affiliated with the task force because it requires that all its events be conducted by Christians, although those with other beliefs are welcome to attend.A federal judge in Wisconsin ruled last week that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional because it amounts to a call for religious action. The judge did not bar any observances until all appeals are exhausted.
Space shuttle Discovery, crew of 7 back on Earth By MARCIA DUNN, AP Aerospace
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Shuttle Discovery and its astronauts returned safely to Earth on Tuesday after making a rare flyover of America’s heartland to wrap up their 15-day, 6 million-mile journey to the International Space Station.The touchdown was delayed by rain and fog that dissipated as the sun rose, allowing Mission Control to take advantage of the morning’s second landing opportunity.Shuttle commander Alan Poindexter held a small U.S. flag as he stood in front of Discovery, two hours later, and described the „beautiful entry.””We got the bonus of coming over the entire United States, and it was just absolutely gorgeous,” said Poindexter, flanked by his six crewmates. „The entire entry track took us over the Rockies and over the Midwest and across the Mississippi Delta. It was just a fantastic entry.” Discovery swooped through a hazy sky before landing a day late because of rain. Within a few hours of completing what one NASA manager described as an „unbelievably successful mission,” the space agency was announcing delays to its last two shuttle flights.NASA almost certainly will need to keep the shuttles flying beyond the advertised September retirement date, said Mike Moses, a launch manager. He stressed the intention still is to wrap everything up by year’s end. A final launch schedule is expected in the next few weeks.No matter what, this was Discovery’s next-to-last flight. Only one more mission remains for NASA’s oldest surviving shuttle. Once removed from the runway, it was going to start undergoing preparations for a fall launch.Until this week, Discovery was scheduled to make the last shuttle flight in September. But following touchdown, NASA reported a major delay for its next-to-last mission, a space station trip by Endeavour to deliver a particle physics detector. Science teams in Europe want to replace the magnet in the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer so it can operate longer in orbit. Doing so means the instrument will not be ready for a late July liftoff, as initially planned.Moses said all options are being explored, including swapping the order of the last two flights or changing which shuttle flies what.For days, NASA had promised a spectacular show, weather permitting, for early risers along Discovery’s flight path. The 1 1/2-hour delay Tuesday morning may have made it more difficult to spot the descending shuttle, Moses said.Discovery zoomed over the North Pacific on its way home before crossing into North America over Vancouver, British Columbia. Then it headed toward the southeast, flying over northeastern Washington, Helena, Mont.; Wyoming; southwestern Nebraska; northeastern Colorado; southwestern Kansas; Oklahoma; Arkansas; Mississippi; Alabama; Georgia and finally Florida east of Gainesville.A NASA research team captured infrared images of the shuttle zooming over Arkansas. In addition, NASA received reports of sonic booms being heard as far away as Tuskaloosa, Ala.It was the first time since 2007 that a space shuttle descended over so much of the United States. With the shuttle program winding down, there aren’t expected to be any more continental flyovers.NASA typically prefers bringing a shuttle back home from the southwest, up over the South Pacific, Central America and the Gulf of Mexico. That way, there’s minimal flying over heavily populated areas. In 2003, space shuttle Columbia shattered over Texas during re-entry, but no one on the ground was injured by the falling wreckage.NASA wanted to maximize the crew’s work time in orbit, while minimizing fatigue. That resulted in this North American crossing.Mission Control radioed congratulations as soon as Discovery touched down on the runway.”It was a great mission. We enjoyed it,” Poindexter said. „And we’re glad that the International Space Station is stocked up again.” Before leaving the space station Saturday, Poindexter, a Navy captain, and his crew dropped off tons of supplies and equipment. Poindexter is the son of retired Navy Adm. John Poindexter, national security adviser under President Ronald Reagan.The main delivery was a tank full of ammonia coolant, which took three spacewalks to hook up.A nitrogen pressure valve refused to open after the tank was installed, and for a day, NASA considered sending the shuttle astronauts out on a fourth spacewalk to fix the problem. But engineers concluded it was not an emergency and that the space station crew or future shuttle fliers could deal with it.History, meanwhile, was made with the presence of four women in space: three on the shuttle and one at the station.Discovery returned with a couple tons of trash and discarded space station equipment. Most of that was jammed into a cargo carrier that was launched April 5 with three times that in fresh supply weight. The Italian-built carrier will be outfitted, reflown and installed permanently at the orbiting outpost sometime this fall.Only three shuttle missions remain for NASA before the fleet is retired after nearly 30 years of operation. Atlantis will carry up a small Russian lab and other equipment next month.The same bad weather that prevented Discovery from returning to Kennedy Space Center on Monday also stalled Atlantis’ trip to the launch pad. The three-mile move from the hangar has been rescheduled for Tuesday night. Liftoff is targeted for May 14.
X-37B robotic space plane aims for Thursday launch By AP
LOS ANGELES – The military is poised to launch an unmanned winged spacecraft resembling a miniature space shuttle Thursday and it probably won’t be a one-time shot.Gary Payton, Air Force deputy under secretary for space programs, said Tuesday the Air Force has contracted for a second space plane depending on the success of the prototype’s maiden flight.”Currently, we’re looking at a 2011 launch for that second tail number. That assumes everything goes properly as predicted on this first flight,” Payton told reporters.After a decade of development, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is slated to launch from Florida and spend up to nine months in orbit. It will re-enter Earth on autopilot and land like an airplane at the Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.The spacecraft will conduct classified experiments while in orbit. Payton said the Air Force’s main interest is to test the craft’s automated flight control system and learn about the cost of turning it around for launch again.Built by Boeing‘s Phantom Works division, the X-37 program was originally headed by NASA. It was later turned over to the Pentagon’s research and development arm and then to a secretive Air Force unit.Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on the project, but the current total has not been released.”After a tumultuous history of sponsorship, it’s great to see the X37 finally get to the launch pad and get into space,” Payton said.
US-German airborne telescope to scan the skies By JOHN ANTCZAK, Associated Press
PALMDALE, Calif. – A NASA Boeing 747 carrying a huge German-made infrared telescope is on the verge of scanning the skies for the first time after years of development.Project officials showed off the world’s largest airborne observatory Tuesday in a NASA hangar in Southern California’s high desert, where it has been undergoing flight testing.The 40,000-pound telescope assembly is mounted in the rear of the former Pan Am jetliner. In flight, a huge hatch opens to allow the 98-inch-diameter telescope to see its celestial targets.The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy — SOFIA for short — is expected to capture its first infrared images in flight in six to eight weeks. Initial targets will be planets, for calibration purposes.Project officials describe it as a „near-Hubble-class” observatory, referring to the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope, which has returned astonishing images of the universe since its launch 20 years ago.SOFIA is also expected to last for at least 20 years, drawing scientists to Palmdale for long-duration, high-altitude flights.”They’ll be working on unlocking the secrets about the universe and our own solar system,” said Bob Meyer, SOFIA program director for NASA’s Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility and Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif.NASA’s partner is the German Aerospace Center, known by the initials DLR, which will receive about 20 percent of observing time.German participants and media were unable to attend Tuesday’s event because flights were canceled due to the ash cloud from the Iceland volcano, said telescope engineer Thomas Keilig.SOFIA is a leap in scale for airborne astronomy. In the 1960s, planetary scientist Gerard Kuiper initiated the concept by pointing a 12-inch telescope out a window of an airliner, and others followed. From the 1970s to mid-1990s, NASA flew a 36-inch telescope in a former military cargo plane.SOFIA will look for objects that emit radiation in infrared wavelengths, which are not visible to the human eye. Infrared telescopes can also see through the huge clouds of dust in the universe that block visible light.Airborne telescopes have an advantage over ground-based observatories because they don’t have to peer through a moisture-laden atmosphere, and unlike satellite telescopes, they can be constantly updated and repaired and are not bound by the limits of a fixed orbit, officials said.Project officials said SOFIA will fly at altitudes above 99 percent of the water vapor in the atmosphere. The goal is flights at 45,000 feet with about eight hours of observation time.The telescope will be cryogenically chilled before takeoff so that the mirror doesn’t sustain a thermal shock when the cavity door is opened at high altitude.The Boeing 747SP was delivered to Pan Am in 1977 and was christened the Clipper Lindbergh by Charles Lindbergh‘s widow on the 50th anniversary of his historic flight across the Atlantic. It was later sold to United Air Lines before NASA acquired it in 1997. Lindbergh’s grandson Erik rechristened it in 2007.
Saturn’s Moon Titan Is Slushy Inside By Remy Melina SPACE.com
The insides of Saturn’s largest moon Titan are arranged like a slushy mix of rock and ice instead of the rigidly layered structures found in other bodies across the solar system, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has found.Astronomers were able to determine the temperature and consistency of Titan’s slushy innards by measuring the gravitational tugs registered by Cassini as it flew by the cloudy Saturn moon. „There have been several flybys of Titan by Cassini,” said study co-author David Stevenson, a professor of planetary science at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. „As it goes by, its path is deflected by the gravity of Titan. We use that deflection to learn about the gravity of Titan.”The gravity data reveals that the first 300 miles (500 km) down into Titan is devoid of any rock fragments, while ice and rock are mixed to various extents at greater depths. Cassini was able to record the data during four flybys of Titan between February 2006 and July 2008.Scientists have long-known that Titan is made up of about equal parts rock and ice. Cassini’s gravity data confirmed that finding and also revealed new details on the exact consistency and distribution of the interior material’s makeup.Cassini researchers described Titan’s interior as „a sorbet of ice studded with rocks,” in a recent NASA statement.Researchers think Titan never heated up beyond a relatively lukewarm temperature, which explains why the moon’s ice and rock have not fully divided and formed layers within Titan’s interior like other bodies in the solar system. „To avoid separating the ice and the rock, you must avoid heating the ice too much,” Stevenson told SPACE.com. „This means that Titan was built rather slowly for a moon, in perhaps around a million years or so, back soon after the formation of the solar system.”Cassini built the gravity map of Titan by flying about 800 to 1,200 miles (1,300 to 1,900 km) above the moon. Scientists then used ground-based antennas with the Deep Space Network to note changes within five thousandths of a millimeter per second in the Cassini’s speed as Titan’s gravity perturbed the spacecraft path along its orbit. „These results are fundamental to understanding the history of moons of the outer solar system,” said Cassini project scientist Bob Pappalardo at JPL. „We can now better understand Titan’s place among the range of icy satellites in our solar system.”Cassini has been studying Saturn and its rings and moons since 2004, when it arrived in orbit around the gas giant planet. The spacecraft completed its initial mission in 2008 and received and extended flight through 2017 earlier this year.
Discovery returns to Earth by Mark Carreau AFP
HOUSTON, Texas (AFP) – Discovery made a safe return to Earth Tuesday after a two-week resupply mission to the International Space Station that broke new ground by putting four women in orbit for the first time.The shuttle and its seven-member crew finally touched down at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 9:08 am (1308 GMT) after a series of earlier delays due to rain and fog.”Welcome home. Congratulations on an outstanding mission,” Mission Control said after the Discovery put more women in orbit than ever before, with three female crew joining one woman already on the space station.”What a great mission,” replied Discovery commander Alan Poindexter. „We enjoyed it.”The mission also marked the first time that two Japanese astronauts were in space at the same time, with Discovery mission specialist Naoko Yamazaki joining Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.And it signaled a growing awareness among NASA’s ground team and astronauts that the vaunted shuttle program is winding down, marking the end of an era in human spaceflight.”It’s a little bit bittersweet, but we do have to recognize that like anything else, there does have to be an end to any major program,” said Pete Nickolenko, NASA‘s launch director, during a post-landing news briefing.”We recognize that we are facing that, that we are coming up to it,” he said.Meanwhile, Bryan Lunney, the NASA flight director who supervised Discovery’s descent and will also oversee the final shuttle flight, said it is a bit too early to get misty-eyed.”For me, we are heads down focused on the mission, trying to make sure it’s safe and successful,” he said.”I haven’t gotten too philosophical or concerned about the future. I’m just taking care of business,” Lunney said.Discovery dropped from orbit Tuesday over the Pacific Ocean and followed a rare course that took it over much of the US upper Midwest and Southeast, leaving a glowing contrail for ground observers.The shuttle’s crew delivered nearly eight tonnes of scientific equipment and other supplies intended to fortify the orbiting science laboratory for operations well beyond the final shuttle flight.The new research gear includes an Earth observation rack to hold cameras and spectral scanners for studies of the atmosphere, geological formations, and weather-induced crop damage.Another new experiment monitors changes in the muscle and joint health of the astronauts in the absence of gravity. A new freezer will store specimens for medical and biological experiments.During three spacewalks, two of the astronauts wrestled with bulky bolts to replace a boxy coolant tank that is essential to the long-term function of the station’s life support systems.Discovery has only one more flight before it is mothballed, while NASA counts just three more missions until it retires its entire shuttle fleet and embarks on a new phase in human spaceflight.The US space agency will have to turn to Russia to transport Americans to the orbiting science laboratory while it tries to foster a commercial space taxi industry. President Barack Obama has drawn fire for shelving plans outlined by his predecessor George W. Bush — which he argues are too costly — for NASA to develop a new generation of spacecraft for missions to the moon and Mars. Shuttle Atlantis will fly next, with a lift off tentatively scheduled for May 14.During its 12-day mission, six astronauts will deliver a Russian mini-research module and external spare parts, including power storage batteries, a communications antenna and a radiator as well as Canadian and European robot arm components.Endeavour is to follow, with a launch scheduled for July 29. Its cargo includes the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, an internationally-sponsored physics investigation for the study of cosmic radiation and anti-matter.If the scheduling holds, Discovery will lift off for the station on September 16 for the final shuttle flight carrying yet more cargo and a pressurized storage module.
Space Shuttle Discovery Lands Safely in Florida By Robert Z. Pearlman SPACE.com
This story was updated at 9:15 a.m. ET.CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Space shuttle Discovery landed safely in Florida on Tuesday morning to wrap up a 15-day delivery mission to the International Space Station (ISS), one of NASA‘s few remaining shuttle flights before the orbiter fleet retires later this year. Shuttle commander Alan Poindexter guided Discovery to a 9:08 a.m. EDT (1308 GMT) touchdown at the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, following a flight path that took the shuttle over much of North America before avoiding rain showers falling over most of central Florida. Twin sonic booms broke through the morning sky to announce the shuttle’s homecoming after a 6 million-mile trip.”Welcome home!” Mission Control radioed Poindexter and his crew. „Congratulations to you and your crew on an outstanding mission.”Riding home with Poindexter were STS-131 pilot James Dutton and mission specialists Dorothy „Dottie” Metcalf-Lindenburger, Stephanie Wilson, Rick Mastracchio, Clayton Anderson and Japanese astronaut Naoko Yamazaki. With just three flights remaining scheduled for NASA’s 30-year space shuttle program, the astronauts on Discovery’s mission were the last seven-member crew to fly.”It was a great mission,” Poindexter told Mission Control. „The International Space Station is stocked up again.”Returning to Earth inside Discovery’s payload bay was the Leonardo Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM), a cargo module that launched on the shuttle on April 5 with nearly 8 tons of supplies for the station, including a new crew sleeping quarters, ammonia coolant tank and four experiment racks. Leonardo landed packed with almost 3 tons of science results and trash.This was the final round-trip for Leonardo to the station after six previous flights. It’s next mission, STS-133 targeted to launch on Discovery in September, the last planned for the shuttle program, will see its permanent installation on the ISS as a closet and storage space for the crew.Discovery landed a day late due to rain, though its return to Earth was not affected at all by the vast ash cloud from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano.The shuttle’s re-entry over North America offered a special treat to skywatchers on Earth, who may have had a chance to spot the bright meteor-like streak of Discovery’s plasma trail as it flew from the northwest coast of the Canada and United States to the southeast for its Florida landing. The last time a shuttle made such an approach was in 2007.NASA typically tries to have space shuttles re-enter from the southwest – an approach that is mostly over the southern Pacific Ocean, parts of Central America and the Gulf of Mexico – to avoid flying over populated areas since the tragic loss of the shuttle Columbia, which broke apart over Texas during re-entry.Malfunctions and sticky bolts-Discovery’s STS-131 mission left the space station 98 percent complete after 10 days docked together, but was not without its share of minor snags. „I must say, I’m very proud of the teams on how well they handled and responded to all the adversities we’ve been faced with,” said lead space shuttle flight director Richard Jones.Just after Discovery’s launch, the astronauts and flight controllers discovered that the shuttle’s Ku-Band communications antenna, used to provide radar data during the shuttle’s approach and separation from the station as well as transmit high bandwidth data – such as live video – during the mission, had failed. Although the crew was trained to compensate for the loss of the system, it resulted in a mission extension to allow time for their standard final inspection of the orbiter’s heat shield to be conducted before Discovery undocked from the station. The mission almost gained yet another extra day as mission managers debated having the shuttle astronauts make an unplanned spacewalk after they had already completed the mission’s three planned outings to replace a 1,800-pound ammonia coolant tank. Though their work was hampered several times by sticky bolts preventing the removal and installation of the tank assemblies, it was a stuck valve on a nitrogen tank that fed into the replacement ammonia assembly that gave flight controllers reason for concern. At first considered a more pressing a problem that threatened to shut down half of the station’s systems, Mission Control ultimately decided to continue troubleshooting from the ground. „We expect to always hit some unexpected difficulties, like we did on our flight with the ammonia tank bolts, but the crew is really well-trained and we have outstanding engineering and operational support on the ground,” said Poindexter from orbit on Sunday.By contrast, the work inside the station to move and install equipment delivered by the shuttle proceeded smoothly. Led by the mission’s „loadmaster” – or cargo chief – Yamazaki, the crew installed a refrigerator-size rack designed to augment the U.S. Destiny laboratory’s science-quality window with multiple man-tended and remotely-controlled camera mounts, as well as a novel device designed to create water for the station’s crew using waste hydrogen and carbon dioxide gases.Firsts and lasts-Discovery’s STS-131 spaceflight was the 33rd shuttle mission to the International Space Station. It also marked Discovery’s 38th and next-to-last spaceflight.The astronauts set several records during their time aboard the orbiting laboratory.Together with station crew member Tracy Caldwell, STS-131 mission specialists Stephanie Wilson, Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger and Naoko Yamazaki represented the most women in space at the same time.Similarly, Yamazaki and fellow Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi, a station flight engineer, set the record for the most Japanese in space at one time.Discovery also became the last orbiter expected to be in space over the anniversary of the first shuttle flight, STS-1.With just three shuttle missions remaining, the next launch is scheduled for Atlantis in May.By coincidence, Atlantis is due to roll out to its seaside launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center tonight. That launch pad trek – the last planned one for Atlantis – was also delayed a day because of bad weather.
Former IOC chief Samaranch gavely ill at Barcelona hospital By AFP
BARCELONA, Spain (AFP) – Former International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch, 89, has been admitted to a Barcelona hospital suffering from severe heart trouble and his prognosis is „very bad”, a hospital spokesman said on Tuesday.”He is suffering from acute coronary insufficiency and his prognosis is very bad,” a spokesman for Barcelona’s Quiron Hospital told AFP.In a statement, the hospital’s chief of internal medicine Rafael Esteban said Samaranch was under „intensive observation,” adding that „given his age, we can’t be optimistic”.Estaban, who said there had been no change in Samaranch’s condition in the hours following his admission to hospital, went on: „We are in a serious situation right now awaiting developments in the hours ahead to determine what possibility of recovery exists.”Esteban noted that Samaranch had shown admirable powers of recovery after previous bouts of illness and told reporters there would be a further medical bulletin on Wednesday afternoon.Samaranch was head of the IOC from 1980 to 2001. Only Pierre de Coubertin, the ‘father’ of the modern Olympics and IOC chief from 1896 to 1925, has held the post longer.Samaranch is credited with commercialising the Olympics by allowing athletes to embrace professionalism.He is now an honorary life president of the body that runs the Olympics and remains active in Spanish sports administration.In recent years he was a key part of Madrid’s failed bids to hold the Olympics in 2012, which London eventually won, and 2016, which went to Rio de Janeiro.”I know that I am very near the end of my time. I am 89 years old,” he said in October 2009 before asking the IOC members for the honour of hosting the 2016 Games in Spain during Madrid‘s bid presentation in Copenhagen.Samaranch has been hospitalised several times in recent years, most recently in Monaco in 2009 after he fainted.He was taken to hospital in Lausanne, Switzerland for „extreme fatigue” on July 17, 2001, his 81st birthday, shortly after he stepped down as IOC head and in Barcelona in 2007 for high blood pressure.
Are pirate ransoms legal? Confusion over US order By JASON STRAZIUSO, Associated Press
NAIROBI, Kenya – Shipping companies with U.S. interests don’t know if they are allowed to pay ransoms to Somali pirates anymore after President Obama declared them an „extraordinary threat,” even as pirates extended their reach farther than ever toward Asia, hijacking three Thai vessels, officials said Tuesday.A total of 77 crew members were taken Sunday in the hijackings 1,200 miles (1,900 kilometers) east of Somalia in the Indian Ocean — the farthest from the Somali coast pirates have ever attacked, the EU Naval Force said. Pirates now hold 14 vessels and 305 hostages, the International Maritime Bureau said.Pirate attacks have risen over the last year despite increased patrols by U.S. and European warships, in part because the multimillion dollar ransoms keep rising.The shipping industry has long seen ransom payments to retrieve hijacked vessels, cargos and crews as a cost of doing business. But after Obama last week issued an executive order on Somalia, shipping officials say it’s no longer clear whether companies with U.S. interests can legally pay ransoms. The industry is worried because ransoms have been the only way to quickly and safely free hostages.”It’s confusion, is the way you could sum it up,” said David Osler, a writer at the shipping news journal Lloyd’s List. „Industry sources believe the executive order is worded poorly … it’s not immediately clear to everybody what is being said here.”Obama’s order outlaws anyone from supplying financing to any Somalis involved in military activities.Roger Middleton, a piracy expert at the British think tank Chatham House, said: „I think the shipping industry would like to be told whether or not they would potentially face prosecution.”For some, the order’s ramifications are clear.Because it’s not clear where the million-dollar ransoms wind up, paying them now would be illegal, insisted Doug Burnett, a maritime expert in the law firm Squire, Sanders and Dempsey.”You would be very hard-pressed, if you were just looking at the document, to say that paying ransom to pirates would not be a violation of the executive order,” Burnett said, adding that ransom payments go to clans in Somalia and add to the country’s lawlessness.The U.S. Treasury Department, though, indicated it is not interested in prosecuting anyone trying to free hostages.”We are targeting only those individuals and entities that freely choose to support acts of piracy or armed robbery at sea off the coast of Somalia, including through the supply of weapons, financing, communication devices, or small boats and other equipment,” Adam Szubin, director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the Department of Treasury, told The Associated Press.Still, a Treasury Department spokesperson, who was not authorized to speak publicly in line with department policy, said it is possible that if a ransom payment ends up in the hands of one of 11 individuals listed by the U.S. government along with Obama’s order, the Department of Justice could become involved.The shipping giant A.P. Moller-Maersk Group said it is examining the impact of the order. A company spokeswoman, Marie-Louise Moller, said its primary concern has long been the safety of its crews.”Taking away our ability to secure the safe release of our crew members and vessels could put us as an employer and ship owner in a very difficult position,” Moller said. „Thankfully we have not had to test such a scenario under these restrictions and it’s difficult for us to comment further on the consequences of the order without speculating.”