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FRI: UNM Will Not Require Vaccinations, GOP Seeks Legal Intervention On Budget Row, + More

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University Of New Mexico Won't Require COVID-19 VaccinationsAssociated Press

The University of New Mexico will continue to encourage that students, faculty and staff get vaccinated against COVID-19 before returning to campus in August for the fall semester but no longer plans to require it.

University President Garnett Stokes said in a campuswide email that vaccinations are key to stopping the spread of the coronavirus and that the university is working toward a 100% vaccination rate.

However, the vaccine remains under emergency use authorization by the federal government, the university noted in a statement Thursday.

The university previously proposed a vaccine requirement and posted a draft policy on its website.

"After more than a year of mostly remote learning and working, mask mandates and testing" the university community views its approaching full return to campus "with a sense of optimism and renewed purpose," the statement issued Thursday said.

UNM officials continue to urge those who are not vaccinated to continue to wear a mask, the statement said.

New Mexico GOP Seeks Legal Intervention On $1.75B Budget Row - By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press / Report For America

Republican lawmakers in New Mexico are asking the state attorney general to weigh in on a spending dispute over $1.75 billion in federal pandemic relief aid.

GOP leadership in a letter sent Thursday asked New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, a Democrat, to issue a legal opinion declaring the funds must be allocated by the Legislature to protect the body's fiscal authority.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says her administration must distribute the money because of the way Congress passed the pandemic relief bill.

The Legislature allocated money earlier this year, but Lujan Grisham used her veto power to effectively bring the money under discretionary control by her office.

Republican lawmakers took issue.  They, along with one vocal Democratic senator, signed a petition that called for an extraordinary legislative session to be convened to override the governor's veto and bring the funds back under the Legislature's control. Democratic majorities in the House and Senate did not sign on.

"Standing on principle isn't always popular," Sen. Jacob Candelaria, an Albuquerque Democrat, said on Twitter in response to a  news article. "Was easy for my Dem colleagues to challenge (the) power of (former Republican Gov. Susana) Martinez. Such a fair weather commitment to the law."

Democrats sued Martinez in 2017 over her use of veto power.

Explainer: How Richard Branson Will Ride Own Rocket To Space - By Marcia Dunn, AP Aerospace Writer

Virgin Galactic will become the first rocket company to launch the boss when Richard Branson straps into one of his sleek, shiny space planes this weekend.

The self-described tie-loathing adventurer and troublemaker will join five company employees for Sunday's test flight from New Mexico's southern desert — the company's fourth trip to the edge of space.

Branson assigned himself to Virgin Galactic's first full-scale crew, jumping ahead of Blue Origin's Jeff Bezos, an even richer rocketeer looking to launch himself into space. Bezos' liftoff is set for July 20 from West Texas.

A brief look at Branson's ride and company:

BOSS ON BOARD

Just a week shy of turning 71, the London-born founder of the Virgin Group says he's "not apprehensive at all and it is the dream of a lifetime" to ride into space. The longtime fitness fanatic put in extra effort to prepare for the brief up-and-down flight. "I'm in my 70s now so you either let yourself go or you get fit and enjoy life." His wife, children and grandchildren will be there as he climbs aboard the rocket plane that's attached to a dual-fuselage aircraft for takeoff. During the three to four minutes of weightlessness, "I'll be looking back at our beautiful Earth and taking it all in and realize that only 500 other people have done this." Closer to 600, actually, but still a relatively small number. Upon landing, he'll celebrate with "a great, great grin on my face."

WHO ELSE IS FLYING

Two pilots are needed to fly the rocket plane from the time it's released from the mothership to shoot into space until it glides down to a runway. It will be the third trip to space for chief pilot David Mackay, a Scottish-born test pilot for the Royal Air Force who went on to fly for Branson's Virgin Atlantic, and the second for chief flight instructor Michael Masucci. Chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, a former NASA engineer, is also launching for the second time. Joining Branson as space rookies are lead operations engineer Colin Bennett and Sirisha Bandla, a vice president. The six will grab a lift from mothership pilots C.J. Sturckow, a former NASA astronaut, and Kelly Latimer.

ROCKET PLANE

Virgin Galactic's space plane, Unity, will take off attached to a specially designed double aircraft nicknamed Eve after Branson's late mother. After reaching nearly 50,000 feet, the plane will be released and drop for a moment or two before its rocket motor ignites to send the craft on a steep climb toward space, exceeding 3 G's, or three times the force of Earth's gravity. The motor will shut off once the craft reaches space — a maximum altitude of about 55 miles is anticipated — enveloping the ship in silence as everyone but the pilots unbuckle, float and gaze out the 17 windows at Earth and the black void of space. After a few minutes of weightlessness, the occupants will strap back in as the plane reorients itself for entry — folding up its wings, then folding them back down in unique technique known as feathering. The rocket plane will glide back, NASA space shuttle style, to conclude about 15 minutes of free flight.

TRACK RECORD

Founded in 2004, Virgin Galactic got its start when Branson teamed up with aircraft designer Burt Rutan to provide the necessary spaceship technology. A 2007 rocket motor test in California's Mojave Desert left three workers dead and three more injured. Then in 2014 the rocket plane Enterprise — named after the "Star Trek" ship — broke apart during a test flight, killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other. Unity, the replacement ship named by the late physicist Stephen Hawking, began flight tests in 2016. It made its first trip to the edge of space with two pilots in 2018 and the second in 2019, both times from Mojave. The operations moved to New Mexico's Spaceport America, with the plane soaring from there on May 22 to achieve the company's third spaceflight.

WHAT'S NEXT

After Branson's launch, Virgin Galactic plans two more test flights this summer and fall before inviting paying customers on board. The next one will include more company employees, and the last will have Italian Air Force members conducting research. If all goes well, the first of the more than 600 confirmed ticket holders will climb aboard next year. The company plans to reopen reservations once Branson soars. Initial tickets went for $250,000; no word on whether that will change. Branson promises a surprise after his ride to "give more people the chance to become an astronaut — because space belongs to us all." In the meantime, scientists are lining up for research rides, including Southwest Research Institute's Alan Stern, who was behind NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond.

Gallup Hospital Shedding Nearly 80 Jobs; Patient Counts DropAssociated Press

A Gallup hospital says it is eliminating nearly 80 jobs as it responds to reduced patient counts following a $14 million loss in 2020.

The job cuts announced Tuesday by Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Services include 27 layoffs made in May when it closed WellSpring Recovery Center plus elimination of 27 currently vacant positions, the Gallup Independent reported.

Other moves include severing 18 contracts with temporary or traveling workers and laying off six local physicians and staff, the newspaper reported.

Interim CEO Don Smithburg said federal pandemic-relief funding provided "only a temporary reprieve from financial challenges that have been persistent for years."

"For us to remain a vital resource for our region, we must do the hard work to right-size the organization to meet current patient demand," Smithburg added.

The statement said Rehoboth McKinley's 2020 losses resulted from the suspension of elective surgeries and non-essential services during the pandemic.

"Moving forward, hospital leadership is focused on meeting the post-pandemic needs of the community and ensuring the hospital's long-term sustainability."

Contract workers brought in during the pandemic because of the high volume of COVID-19 patients are no longer needed as the hospital returns to pre-pandemic patient numbers, the statement said.

Person Killed In Encounter With Santa Fe County Deputies Associated Press

Authorities say a suspect was killed during an encounter with Santa Fe County sheriff's deputies responding to a reported stabbing in a residential area.

The shooting occurred Wednesday in an area north of Santa Fe and was under investigation by the New Mexico State Police.

The agency said information on the person killed and circumstances of the incident were not immediately available.

Officer Dusty Francisco, a state police spokesman, confirmed a suspect was killed and said no deputies were injured.

This is the fourth such shooting in the last two weeks, and the third that was fatal, according to the Santa Fe Reporter.

Relief Fund Partners To Donate Shoes To Navajo ChildrenAssociated Press

Hundreds of children from several Navajo communities in northwestern New Mexico soon will have new kicks.

A relief fund created by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and former Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah teamed up with four-time PGA Tour winner Notah Begay III and his foundation to deliver 300 pairs of Nike shoes on Thursday. They gathered at the Dream Diné Charter School in Shiprock to distribute the goods.

With no shoe stores on the Navajo Nation, organizers said they began getting tearful messages of appreciation from Navajo moms once they learned about the donation.

The relief fund was started last year to help get personal protective equipment and other supplies to the Navajo Nation during the pandemic. That included everything from food and water to diapers and funds to help with burial costs.

The tribe that stretches into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah was hit particularly hard early in the pandemic with one of the country's highest COVID-19 infection rates. Access to health care and basic services is limited, and tribal officials enacted shutdowns, curfews and weekend lockdowns to try to prevent the spread of the virus.

Officials with the relief fund said the donation of Nike shoes along with grants for sports equipment and apparel were another way they could focus on serving Navajo youth.

Begay's organization — the NB3 Foundation — was able to get a 50% discount on the shoes, which enabled the relief fund to double its buying power. The partners are planning to distribute another 300 pairs of shoes in the fall.

Nike shoe designer Lacey Trujillo, who is Navajo and from Fruitland, selected the shoes that were given to the Navajo children.

Navajo Nation: 24 New COVID Cases, No Deaths For A 4th DayAssociated Press

The Navajo Nation on Thursday reported 24 new COVID-19 cases, but no additional deaths for the fourth consecutive day.

Tribal health officials said the total number of coronavirus-related cases on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah is 31,067 since the pandemic began more than a year ago.

The total number of known deaths remained at 1,357.

"The increase in cases today is being looked into by contact tracers," Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement. "We were informed that family members traveled to Las Vegas recently and brought the virus back to their homes.

"This serves as a strong reminder that the variants, including the dominant Delta variant, continue to pose a threat," Nez added. "We need to be very cautious and always wear a mask when you travel on or off the Navajo Nation and when you visit family members who live in separate households. The data across the country shows that states with lower vaccination rates are now having surges in new cases of COVID-19."

Billionaire Blastoff: Rich Riding Own Rockets Into Space - By Marcia Dunn AP, Aerospace Writer

Two billionaires are putting everything on the line this month to ride their own rockets into space.

It's intended to be a flashy confidence boost for customers seeking their own short joyrides.

The lucrative, high-stakes chase for space tourists will unfold on the fringes of space — 55 miles to 66 miles up, pitting Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson against the world's richest man, Blue Origin's Jeff Bezos.

Branson is due to take off Sunday from New Mexico, launching with two pilots and three other employees aboard a rocket plane carried aloft by a double-fuselage aircraft.

Bezos departs nine days later from West Texas, blasting off in a fully automated capsule with three guests: his brother, an 82-year-old female aviation pioneer who's waited six decades for a shot at space and the winner of a $28 million charity auction.

Branson's flight will be longer, but Bezos' will be higher.

Branson's craft has more windows, but Bezos' windows are bigger.

Branson's piloted plane has already flown to space three times. Bezos' has five times as many test flights, though none with people on board.

Either way, they're shooting for sky-high bragging rights as the first person to fly his own rocket to space and experience three to four minutes of weightlessness.

Branson, who turns 71 in another week, considers it "very important" to try it out before allowing space tourists on board. He insists he's not apprehensive; this is the thrill-seeking adventurer who's kite-surfed across the English Channel and attempted to circle the world in a hot air balloon.

"As a child, I wanted to go to space. When that did not look likely for my generation, I registered the name Virgin Galactic with the notion of creating a company that could make it happen," Branson wrote in a blog this week. Seventeen years after founding Virgin Galactic, he's on the cusp of experiencing space for himself.

"It's amazing where an idea can lead you, no matter how far-fetched it may seem at first."

Bezos, 57, who stepped down Monday as Amazon's CEO, announced in early June that he'd be on his New Shepard rocket's first passenger flight, choosing the 52nd anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's moon landing.

He too had childhood dreams of traveling to space, Bezos said via Instagram. "On July 20th, I will take that journey with my brother. The greatest adventure, with my best friend."

Branson was supposed to fly later this year on the second of three more test flights planned by Virgin Galactic before flying ticket holders next year. But late last week, he leapfrogged ahead.

He insists he's not trying to beat Bezos and that it's not a race. Yet his announcement came just hours after Bezos revealed he'd be joined in space by Wally Funk, one of the last surviving members of the so-called Mercury 13. The 13 female pilots never made it to space despite passing the same tests in the early 1960s as NASA's original, all-male Mercury 7 astronauts.

Bezos hasn't commented publicly on Branson's upcoming flight.

But some at Blue Origin already are nitpicking the fact that their capsule surpasses the designated Karman line of space 62 miles up, while Virgin Galactic's peak altitude is 55 miles. International aeronautic and astronautic federations in Europe recognize the Karman line as the official boundary between the upper atmosphere and space, while NASA, the Air Force, the Federal Aviation Administration and some astrophysicists accept a minimum altitude of 50 miles.

Blue Origin's flights last 10 minutes by the time the capsule parachutes onto the desert floor. Virgin Galactic's last around 14 to 17 minutes from the time the space plane drops from the mothership and fires its rocket motor for a steep climb until it glides to a runway landing.

SpaceX's Elon Musk doesn't do quick up-and-down hops to the edge of space. His capsules go all the way to orbit, and he's shooting for Mars.

"There is a big difference between reaching space and reaching orbit," Musk said last week on Twitter.

Musk already has carried 10 astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA, and his company's first private spaceflight is coming up in September for another billionaire who's purchased a three-day, globe-circling ride.

Regardless of how high they fly, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin already are referring to their prospective clients as "astronauts." More than 600 have reserved seats with Virgin Galactic at $250,000. Blue Origin expects to announce prices and open ticket sales once Bezos flies.

Phil McAlister, NASA's commercial spaceflight director, considers it a space renaissance, especially as the space station gets set to welcome a string of paying visitors, beginning with a Russian actress and movie producer in October, a pair of Japanese in December and a SpaceX-delivered crew of businessmen in January.

"The way I see it is the more, the better, right?" McAlister said. "More, better."

This is precisely the future NASA wanted once the shuttles retired and private companies took over space station ferry flights. Atlantis blasted off on the last shuttle flight 10 years ago Thursday.

NASA's final shuttle commander, Chris Ferguson, who now works for Boeing on its Starliner crew capsule, is impressed that Branson and Bezos are launching ahead of customers.

"That's one surefire way to show confidence in your product is to get on it," Ferguson said at Thursday's 10th anniversary shuttle celebrations. "I'm sure that this was not a decision made lightly. I wish them both well. I think it's great.