As U.S. astronauts performed the final spacewalk of the shuttle era on Tuesday — removing a broken pump from the International Space Station, and installing a robotic refueling module — a mad dash to replace their employer was going on 220 miles below. The end of NASA's 30-year space shuttle program has created a power vacuum in space, the AFP reports, and now the agency is trying to help a handful of startup companies fill its oversized shoes. "We are transferring 50 years of human space flight experience from NASA to the private sector," says Phil McAlister, NASA's head of commercial space flight development.

NASA has been criticized recently for letting the shuttle era end without a replacement, and a congressional panel grilled NASA chief Charlie Bolden Tuesday about his agency's slowness in picking a design for its next-generation deep-space rocket. "We've waited for answers that have not come," Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, told Bolden. "We've run out of patience." While NASA's search for a new deep-space rocket drags on, however, it's turning over the more routine task of flying into low-Earth orbit — mainly to service the ISS — to the private sector. As McAlister tells the AFP, that means "bringing financial resources," and "also helping them technically." The U.S. already disbursed nearly $270 million in seed money earlier this year to four companies — Boeing, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin — in hopes of easing their ascent, and President Obama's proposed 2012 budget includes another $850 million for that purpose. Within a few years, NASA aims to make sure there's more than one company capable of sending astronauts into orbit. "Competition is a key aspect of our strategy," McAlister says. "We want very much to have competition, with multiple providers."

That competition already seems to be escalating into a new space race — not like the bitter, bilateral rivalry that fueled the first one, but a warmer contest among starry-eyed capitalists. "We have laid out a viable program that does test flights in 2014 and will be ready to carry crew in 2015," says Boeing's John Elbon. "With NASA's support, SpaceX will be ready to fly its first manned mission in 2014," counters Elon Musk of SpaceX, the first company so far to send its own capsule into orbit and back. Elbon, Musk and other cosmic executives will have to wait a little longer before the era of commercial space flight finally dawns, though — NASA decided this week to add one extra day to its farewell shuttle mission, meaning Atlantis will now spend 13 days in space before returning to Earth forever on July 21. 

(Sources: Agence France-Presse, USA Today, Reuters,


House Republicans have failed in their attempt to repeal a federal requirement for more energy-efficient light bulbs, CBS News reports, but that hasn't dimmed their hopes. Lawmakers voted 233-293 in favor of the Better Use of Light Bulbs (BULB) Act — which would repeal part of a 2007 law signed by President George W. Bush — but fell short of the two-thirds majority they needed to pass the bill. GOP leaders may revive the bill under procedures that require only a simple majority, but it would still need to survive the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The BULB Act was born from right-wing concerns that the 2007 law's efficiency requirements amount to "federal overreach," in the words of bill sponsor Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas (pictured above). Talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh have helped stir up anger over the idea of bureaucrats dictating bulb-buying decisions, and several Republicans in Congress have further trumpeted the issue in recent weeks. Many have implied the law would outlaw traditional incandescent light bulbs, a common misconception — it just raises the efficiency standards for all light bulbs starting in 2012, effectively banning those that burn off most of their energy as heat. But next-generation incandescents will still be legal, as Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently pointed out. "These standards do not ban incandescent bulbs," Chu said. "You're still going to be able to buy halogen incandescent bulbs. They'll look exactly like the ones you're used to. They can dim. They cut out instantly. They look and feel the same."

Despite the BULB Act's failure, GOP leaders in the House may try again using rules that don't require a two-thirds majority vote to pass. Still, the bill would face dim prospects in the Senate, and could also be vetoed by President Obama. The White House hasn't issued a veto threat, but did point out the existing law will save Americans billions in energy costs. "I don't think it will go anywhere," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., says of the repeal effort.

(Sources: CBS News, MSNBC)


Scientists have come up with a variety of complicated ways to battle malaria, from releasing sterile male mosquitoes into the wild to genetically engineering female mosquitoes that can't urinate. But as the Washington Post reports, researchers in Tanzania are testing a much simpler tool for fighting the deadly disease: dirty socks.

"It's a bold idea. Who would have thought there was a life-saving technology working in your laundry basket?" says Peter Singer, a physician who heads Grand Challenges Canada, a Canadian government program that's helping fund the research. Past studies have shown that used socks are effective in luring mosquitoes, sometimes even proving more attractive than the scent of an actual human (at least until the bugs get close enough to realize they're just chasing bloodless socks). The new experiments are the first field tests to directly compare sock scents with chemicals, however, offering scientists insight into which works best at drawing mosquitoes into traps. "It is simply a cost issue and an expediency issue," says Fredros Okumu, the Tanzanian entomologist leading the research. "Socks are more readily available, and you don't have to mix any chemicals. It is the sort of thing that could be set up in a cottage factory."

The traps being used are simple boxes, each containing a different kind of bait — some house a human-odor lure made of lactic acid, ammonia and other chemicals, some contain socks worn for a day by adults, and others hold cotton pads that schoolchildren kept inside their socks. If the tactic works, it could be used to complement insecticide-laced bed nets in a low-tech strategy, the Post reports, to help combat a disease that kills nearly 900,000 people worldwide every year.

(Source: Washington Post)


Kids' meals at certain fast-food restaurants are poised to become at least slightly healthier, the Los Angeles Times reports, thanks to a new pact among 19 restaurant companies to be unveiled Wednesday. Each restaurant differs in how it plans to meet the pact's requirements — some are adding new food items, while others are just shuffling their existing menus — but overall the effort could help transform the traditionally unhealthy fast-food industry, some experts tell the Times.

"This is really a huge first step for the restaurant industry in creating and offering and promoting healthier options," says Anita Jones-Mueller, a nutritionist and consultant who helped develop the program for the National Restaurant Association. "These are really stringent criteria." The Kids Live Well campaign requires restaurants to offer at least one kids' meal with fewer than 600 calories, no soft drinks and at least two items from the following food groups: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein or low-fat dairy. They also must offer a side dish that has fewer than 200 calories, less than 35 percent of which come from sugar. "Restaurants can be part of the solution to ensuring a healthier generation and providing consumer choice in dining options," says Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association. "We look forward to announcing additional restaurants and meal options in the coming months." 

Participating chains have 15,000 locations nationwide, Sweeney says, with each chain finding its own way to meet the requirements. Burger King, for example, will no longer automatically include french fries and a soft drink in its kids' meals, instead asking customers whether they'd prefer alternatives like milk or sliced apples. "We're asking customers to specify what they want," says Burger King's vice president of government relations. Other participating chains include Denny's, IHOP and Chili's, but there is one especially notable absence from the list. McDonald's is not participating, according to the company, because it says it already provides "balanced menu options" for both children and adults. "We will evaluate participation in this program in the future," says McDonald's spokeswoman Ashlee Yingling.

(Source: Los Angeles Times)


Chestnut blight raises alarms in U.S., lethal heat wave hits Chicago, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (sunrise seen from Earth's orbit): NASA/ZUMA Press

Photo (Rep. Joe Barton on Capitol Hill in May): ZUMA Press

Photo (Anopheles mosquito): U.S. National Institutes of Health

Photo (fast food items): U.S. National Institutes of Health

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Daily Briefing: Wed. 7/13/2011
New space race starts, GOP loses bulb battle, dirty socks fight malaria, and more.