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Patience of Congress Wearing Thin for NASA's Private Space Taxi Plan

PublishDate:2012-06-11 Source: Author:

It's taking too long to develop commercial spaceships to deliver cargo and crews to the International Space Station, members of Congress told senior NASA officials Wednesday March 28).

NASA is working with private space companies to develop robotic vehicles capable of carrying food, supplies and scientific experiments to the orbiting laboratory. The agency is also trying to spur along spacecraft that can carry astronauts to the station, filling the gap left behind by the retirement of NASA's space shuttle fleet last year.

But in a televised hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday, some Congress members expressed impatience that none of these spacecraft are quite ready yet.

"I hear excuses and delay after delay for the supposedly simple act of delivering cargo to the space station," said Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. "NASA's spent $1.6 billion on this effort so far and the nation doesn't have very much to show for it."

NASA's associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, Bill Gerstenmaier, urged patience to the committee.

"Nothing in space is ever easy," Gerstenmaier said. "The teams have solid plans for the next year. We are working to bring commercial crew online as soon as possible."

And the commercial vehicles are making progress. The first of the unmanned cargo ferries, the Dragon capsule built by Hawthorne, Calif.-based company SpaceX, is due to launch to the space station for the first time April 30.

And the other, Orbital Science Corp. of Dulles, Va.'s Cygnus spacecraft, could lift off as early as Sept. 1.

Some of the delays to these maiden launch dates are due to issues getting their launch facilities up and running.

"They've spent quite a bit of time developing their launch pads; their launch pads are now up and operational," Gerstenmaier said. SpaceX is "ready to go do the launch at the end of April," he added, while the Wallops, Va., launch site for Orbital still requires a bit more work.

The schedule for bringing private vehicles up and online has also been slowed by cuts to NASA's budget that have resulted in less money going toward its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) and Commercial Crew Program. [NASA's 2013 Budget: What Will It Buy?]

"If we want to ensure the space station carries out the needed research and technology activities in timely and productive fashion, we have to be willing to make the needed investments," said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas). "Those continued cuts have had a negative impact on NASA's ability to carry out its missions that we should not ignore."

Hall asked if there were penalties for the commercial companies when they missed deadlines.

"For every slip that occurs beyond a one-month period, we get some benefit back to us," Gerstenmaier assured him, citing the example of SpaceX adding extra refrigerated storage capacity to its capsule as a consequence for a delay.

You can follow assistant managing editor Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz. Follow for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Diego Maradona blasted fans as "cowards" on Thursday after he rushed from his dugout to the stands to rescue his girlfriend from an ugly confrontation, media reports claimed.

The Argentine legend had just seen his Al Wasl team lose 2-0 to Al Shabab in the UAE league when players' wives and girlfriends had to be escorted out of the Al Mamzar stadium.

The trouble started, according to the Gulf News, when Ciel, a Brazilian striker who had scored one of the goals, was targeted by Argentine supporters amongst Maradona's entourage.

Al Shabab fans then unleashed insults in the opposite direction with Maradona's partner Veronica Ojeda and the girlfriend of Al Wasl player Juan Mercier caught up in the melee.

As wives and girlfriends were escorted to their cars, Mercier's girlfriend tripped and fell down the stairs.

"Some people are cowards. They only attack women and have no courage to confront men," Maradona told

"This is the first time I am upset with the fans. If they are angry with me they should know that I did it (climbed the stands) for my wife because someone was calling her names. They shouldn't be angry with me they should be angry with the people who did this. They are cowards, not real fans."

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