On Friday, US President Barack Obama signed into law a massive, $1.1 trillion spending bill, which, perhaps in reference to its 2,242 pages, or to the fact that it funds damn near everything, is referred to as this year’s “omnibus” spending bill. Because it covers so much, I’m going to spend a little more time than usual on one story here. I’m not even going to cover the little things buried in its pages, but there’s still so much to unpack that it’s basically three or four stories. So without further ado, let’s get started. We’ll go for the “bad news first” approach.
The omnibus averts a last-minute shutdown of the government (again) but (again) includes at least one pretty damn awful thing: CISA. The Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act was attached as what’s known as a “veto-proof” rider — the bill basically had to be passed because it was attached to a spending bill that had to be okayed by the president. On the surface, it sounds okay — who wouldn’t want to “improve cybersecurity in the United States?” It’s the rest of the preamble — “through enhanced sharing of information about cybersecurity threats, and for other purposes” — especially that “and for other purposes” that’s making civil rights organizations anxious. The chief criticism is that it’s a poorly-defined, loosely-worded bill that means the NSA (and other organizations) can get all sorts of previously protected information about you from the companies you engage with on the internet. While the bill’s proponents are calling it a “voluntary” program, Wired points out that US businesses will likely feel forced to hand over private information about their customers on a regular basis because of the way the system incentivizes oversharing. For more on the bill check out this other article over at Wired that gives it an “F” for security but an “A+” for spying on Americans’ private data.
On the brighter side, the omnibus also included a fantastic bit of news for NASA, which got literally more than they bargained for. The white house had asked Congress to fund the until-now-basically-always-underfunded space agency to the tune of $18.5 billion next year, and in response, Congress has basically said “how about $19.7 billion?” That means the commercial crew program will get its full funding — $1.24 billion to fund SpaceX and Boeing in their attempts to provide a safe and cheaper alternative to buying seats on the Soyuz. Last month I announced that NASA had officially contracted with SpaceX to take astronauts up, but without the money to actually do it, it would all have been a bit moot. NASA is also getting the funding for a proposed mission to Europa, but with a catch. Instead of the Europa Clipper — the proposal was designed to orbit the Saturnian moon and “taste” the water from geysers shot into space — NASA is going to have to provide something harder: a Europa Lander. The bill states “this mission shall include an orbiter with a lander that will include competitively selected instruments and that funds shall be used to finalise the mission design concept.” Which, as they put it over at Ars Technica, basically means it’ll be illegal to go and not land. Given that the plan was to launch the mission in 2022, this doesn’t give them a lot of time to figure out how exactly to do that, but I’m hoping they do. The Verge and Ars Technica have more.
Last month I reported that United Launch Alliance (ULA) had dropped out of a competitive bidding process run by the US Air Force because of a ban on their most cost-effective engines, the Russian-built RD-180 used in the company’s Atlas V rockets. Well, it looks as though the company may want to sign back up. Buried in the omnibus spending bill was an attempt to secure future military launches by overturning the ban on the RD-180. According to Space News, Congress had already stipulated that a US-made engine to replace the RD-180 be developed by 2019, and in this bill has awarded a further $86 million to the Air Force to help that effort along. Space News has more on that story.
In a move that’s sure to come as a pleasant surprise to solar and wind energy producers in the US, the omnibus also included a provision for extending the current tax credit system, to the tune of $25 billion over five years. According to Bloomberg Business, the subsidy will lead to $73 billion in new investment, and will probably be long enough to allow both solar and wind prices to become fully profitable on their own by the time it’s done: “By the time the new tax credit expires, solar and wind will be the cheapest forms of new electricity in many states across the U.S.” That’s good news indeed. More from Bloomberg here.
RTF & RTL
Lastly, unrelated to the budget bill, we have the coming SpaceX launch. As I write this, the brilliant, talented, and hard-working folks over at SpaceX are preparing for a shot tonight at RTF, or Return to Flight. The launch, with an “instantaneous” window at 8:29pm and another on Tuesday, will be a success if it takes Orbcomm’s eleven satellites into orbit. It will be an even bigger success if, as they’re going to try to do, the first stage comes back and lands under its own power. SpaceX has tried RTL (or Return to Launch/Landing site) on its mobile autonomous barges (the Of Course I Still Love You and the Just Read The Instructions), but this time it looks like they’re going to get clearance to try to land on land. Tonight’s window being instantaneous means that if there’s any hiccup at all, they’ll have to scrub and wait for the longer launch window on Tuesday. But with any luck at some point this week we’ll all be celebrating the first SpaceX flight since June. You can follow the megathread over at reddit’s r/spacex, and watch the preparations and launch over at SpaceX.com.
In case you missed it, here’s what happened here at This Week In Tomorrow this week:
- On Monday, we looked briefly at a community that doesn’t want more solar farms, for questionable reasons
- On Tuesday, we looked at the latest study on e-cigarettes and decided they’re still better than smoking
- On Wednesday, I reminded everyone that the Myers-Briggs test is completely unscientific
- On Thursday, I went over the newest X Prize (this one’s about robots in the ocean), and
- On Friday, Lindsey talked about the coming inquiry into the deaths and disappearances of Native Canadian girls and women
If you missed any of them, go check them out!
Best of the Rest
Of course, there’s always more to cover than I have time for, so here’s your weekly linkspam.
- The LHC might’ve found a new particle (but we’ll have to wait and see)
- The FAA’s letting a company test their (miniature) flying car
- NASA’s released pictures of the Martian sand dunes Curiosity is now exploring
- The LRO team have put together the most beautiful picture of Earth from the Moon you’ve ever seen, and
- If you’re into making things, go check out Gateway Props DVA Pistol build log — it’s very cool.
Thanks again for reading. Remember, I only get paid in my own (and your) enthusiasm, so please like This Week In Tomorrow on Facebook, follow me on Twitter @TWITomorrow, and tell your friends about the site! Have a great week.