The U.S. space shuttle Endeavour thundered up from Cape Canaveral, Fla., this morning, carrying six astronauts and the nation's attention into space. NASA shuttle launches rarely captivate such a large audience anymore, but there was something different about this one: It was the second-to-last shuttle NASA will ever launch, and the last liftoff ever for Endeavour. The launch went off without a hitch, as the well-traveled shuttle burned an arc across the sky just before 9 a.m., escaping Earth's atmosphere for the 25th and final time.
In addition to its six-man crew, Endeavour is also carrying a $2 billion particle-physics experiment into space, part of the cargo it will deliver to the International Space Station on Wednesday. It's bringing a pallet of various spare parts, too, which are designed to help keep the space station operating through at least 2020, USA Today reports. The shuttle is scheduled to spend a total of 16 days in orbit before returning to Earth on June 1. It was originally slated to take off in April, but has been grounded for more than two weeks after an electrical problem forced NASA to scratch previous launch attempts. All technical difficulties now appear to be resolved, however, and launch director Mike Leinbach gave Endeavour's crew an upbeat send-off before liftoff. "Looks like a great day to launch Endeavour for the final time," he said. "On behalf of thousands of proud Americans who've been part of the journey, good luck, godspeed, see you back here on June 1."
As if the finality of Endeavour's current mission wasn't enough drama, the shuttle is also being commanded by astronaut Mark Kelly, husband of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who is still recovering from a gunshot wound to the head she suffered in January. Giffords attended this morning's launch, a major milestone in her recovery, while Kelly's colleagues say he managed to stay focused on the launch in recent months even as he dealt with his wife's injury. "On behalf of all of us, we all know Mark's been through a lot the past few months," fellow Endeavour astronaut Greg Chamitoff said last week. "He's done an incredible job keeping track of all the details of this mission. I flew with him on STS-124, he's truly an amazing commander, and all of us feel really, really lucky to have him guide us through this complex mission."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened nine bays on Louisiana's Morganza Spillway over the weekend, letting some of the swollen Mississippi River flow into the Atchafalaya Basin in hopes of saving Baton Rouge, New Orleans and other cities. That still doesn't mean residents are safe, though: The river's crest has barely even reached Louisiana, and water levels are expected to stay at or near record heights for weeks. The Corps has estimated it may have to open a quarter of the spillway's 125 bays to keep the wild Mississippi under control.
Meanwhile, the river already broke its record Sunday in Vicksburg, Miss., surging to 56.3 feet — 13 feet above flood stage, and higher than even the Great Flood of 1927. It flowed past the city at nearly 17 million gallons per second, the New York Times reports, likely the fastest pace it will reach as it hustles south toward the Gulf of Mexico. The river's record height has also forced many of its smaller tributaries to back up and overflow, such as the Yazoo River, which may soon pour over its levees and inundate 285,000 acres of farmland, the Times reports. But if the Mississippi stays just a few inches below its predicted crest in Vicksburg, the Yazoo may not overflow its levee at all. "It's going to be really close," says Robery Simrall, the chief water-control official for the Corps in Vicksburg.
Back in Louisiana, thousands of people in several low-lying towns are now being forced to evacuate their homes, CNN reports, since the Morganza Spillway is diverting floodwaters toward them instead of larger cities like Baton Rouge. As many as 4,000 people could have their homes submerged in the Atchafalaya Basin, Gov. Bobby Jindal said Sunday, and while residents are taking the threat of flooding seriously, many fear they'll find nothing left when — or if — they return. "I don't know who's going to come back, who's going to stay gone," Krotz Springs, La., resident Brett Ansley tells CNN. "It won't be the same. I'd like to come back, but we'll have to wait and see what happens."
President Obama is taking another shot at expanding domestic production of oil and natural gas in the U.S., more than a year after his last attempt was spoiled by the 2010 Gulf oil spill. Responding partly to growing public anger over rising gasoline prices, and partly to criticism from congressional Republicans, Obama announced plans over the weekend to expand drilling in Alaska and possibly even off the Atlantic Coast, the New York Times reports.
"These spikes in gas prices are often temporary," Obama said Saturday in his weekly radio and Internet address. "And while there are no quick fixes to the problem, there are a few steps we should take that make good sense." The federal government will begin holding annual auctions for oil and gas leases in the Alaska National Petroleum Reserve, a swath of 23 million acres along Alaska's remote North Slope, Obama said. It will also fast-track an environmental review of oil-drilling plans off the southern and central Atlantic coast, and will consider opening some areas for exploration. That's a shift from current offshore drilling policy, the Times notes, since the entire Atlantic Seaboard had been off-limits to oil and gas companies until at least 2018. The Obama administration will also offer incentives for companies to more quickly exploit leases they already hold, echoing Obama's frequent rebuttal to his critics' assertion that he's hindering the country's domestic energy development. Tens of millions of acres, both onshore and offshore, are now under lease by oil and gas companies but have yet to be developed, the Times reports.
The announcements come on the heels of drawn-out debates in Washington over oil companies' subsidies, which Democrats describe as unnecessary and costly to the country. Republicans have defended the subsidies, however, arguing the president should be focused on boosting domestic production instead. Obama mentioned those debates in Saturday's address, suggesting he won't let up in trying to remove some of the industry's tax breaks and other subsidies. "In the last few months, the biggest oil companies made about $4 billion in profits each week," Obama said. "And yet, they get $4 billion in taxpayer subsidies each year ... at a time when Americans can barely fill up their tanks." Environmentalists' reaction to Obama's announcement was muted, the Times reports, largely because the ecologically sensitive Arctic National Wildlife Refuge remains off-limits to drilling.
The U.S. fruit and vegetable industry doesn't like its produce being called "dirty," even if it may be coated with potentially dangerous pesticides, the Washington Post reports. And in an attempt to stop what they call a smear campaign against pesticide-laced produce, 18 produce trade associations have sent a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, complaining that USDA data on pesticides have "been subject to misinterpretation by activists, [who] publicize their distorted findings through national media outlets in a way that is misleading for consumers and can be highly detrimental to the growers of these commodities."
The produce industry is upset about an annual report the USDA publishes, detailing the amount of pesticide residue detected on fresh samples of fruits and vegetables from around the country. The EPA then uses these data to keep tabs on pesticide exposure and to enforce federal health regulations. But the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization, also uses the data to publish "The Dirty Dozen," a more accessible version of the USDA report that highlights the 12 fruits and vegetables that have the most pesticide residue on them. (The EWG also publishes "The Clean Fifteen," which ranks the produce that has the least residue.) "Our list has been something that has really gotten under their skin," EWG president Ken Cook tells the Post. "All we're saying is, if you want to minimize your exposure to pesticides, shop from this list. And if you look at the explosion in the organic sector, it's clear that people want to avoid pesticides if they can."
Still, the produce industry sees things differently. "There are some organizations with agendas that do want to scare people away from fresh produce," says Kathy Means, a vice president at the Produce Marketing Association. "We don't want anyone eating unsafe foods, of course. But for those products that are grown legally and the science says [the pesticide] is safe, we don't want people turning away." The USDA is currently several months late in issuing its 2012 pesticide-residue data, the Post points out, although an agency official says it will come out "shortly," and will be unaffected by the trade industry's complaints. "Our role is to gather the test results on produce sold in the United States and share that information with EPA," he says. "The data and the results have not been changed."
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Photo (space shuttle Endeavour before launch on May 16): ZUMA Press
Photo (flooding in Vicksburg, Miss., on May 15): ZUMA Press
Photo (offshore oil rig): National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Photo (fruits and vegetables at a farmers market): ZUMA Press