Latest News

Space Station Spacesuits Suffer After Shuttle Shutdown

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Apr-2017 (Updated: 26-Apr-2017 07:04 PM)

NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report today assessing NASA's management of its existing spacesuits and development of new models.  It expressed concern about Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuits used on the International Space Station (ISS) for extravehicular activity (EVAs, or spacewalks, which cannot be returned to Earth easily for maintenance following termination of the space shuttle program.  As for new spacesuits, NASA Headquarters was criticized for continuing one contract for 5 years after Johnson Space Center recommended its termination.  Overall, the OIG is concerned whether NASA will have the spacesuits it needs in the next decade.

For the space shuttle program, 18 EMUs were produced.  Eleven are still available, but their design assumed they would be returned to Earth with every space shuttle mission and routinely serviced.   After the shuttle was terminated in 2011, however, the only way to bring them back is on SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, the only space station cargo vehicle designed to survive reentry.  (Russia's Soyuz spacecraft, which ferries crews, also survives reentry, but there is no extra room for empty spacesuits needing repair.)

Since the ISS was first occupied in 2000, NASA has allowed the required ground maintenance interval to grow from one year to six years or 25 spacewalks, whichever comes first.

Snip from page 15 NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) report IG-17-018, NASA's Management and Development of Spacesuits, April 2017.

The age and condition of the U.S. spacesuits hit the headlines in 2013 when European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Luca Parmitano almost drowned when water collected inside his helmet during a spacewalk (EVA 23) due to a blocked filter.  The OIG report revealed that was one of 19 "significant incidents" with spacesuits in the space station era (2000 to today), five of which involved water.  A total of 156 U.S. spacewalks were conducted during that period of time.  All five of the space-station-era water events occurred since 2010.  Parmitano's EVA 23 and two others (EVA 22, also in 2013, and EVA 35 in 2016) involved water intrusion into the helmet.  The others were condensation/fog.

Snip from page 11 NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) report IG-17-018, NASA's Management and Development of Spacesuits, April 2017.

Of the 18 original spacesuits, five were destroyed during missions (two on Challenger, two on Columbia, and one on the SpaceX CRS-7 failure) and one during ground testing in 1980.  Another was a ground certification unit only.  That leaves 11 -- four on the ISS and the rest on Earth "in various stages of refurbishment and maintenance."

With the cadence of EVAs NASA is planning for the next several years, plus the possibility of unplanned EVAs that might be required, the OIG report concludes that NASA "will be challenged to continue to support the EVA needs of the ISS with the current fleet of EMUs through 2024 -- a challenge that will escalate significantly if Station operations are extended to 2028."

NASA has been funding development of new spacesuits for the past decade, though not for use on ISS.   Plans to send crews beyond LEO, where ISS is located, for the first time since the Apollo missions means new spacesuits are needed for exploration of that environment.  The OIG calculates that since 2007 NASA has spent almost $200 million on three such efforts:  the Constellation Space Suit System (CSSS) for the Bush-era Constellation program ($135.6 million), the Advanced Space Suit Project managed by NASA's Advanced Exploration Systems office ($51.6 million), and the Orion Crew Survival System or OCSS ($12 million).  OCSS is being designed for launch, entry and abort, not spacewalks.

"Despite this investment, the Agency remains years away from having a flight-ready spacesuit capable of replacing the EMU or suitable for EVA use on future exploration missions."  Given the current schedule "there is significant risk a next-generation prototype will not be sufficiently mature in time for testing on the ISS" prior to 2024. 

The United States and the other ISS partners -- Russia, Japan, Canada and 11 European countries working through ESA -- have agreed to operate ISS until then, although some NASA and other U.S. officials express hope that it could be extended at least until 2028, 30 years after the first modules were launched.

The OIG was especially critical of a NASA Headquarters (HQ) decision to continue funding the CSSS contract after 2011 when Johnson Space Center (JSC) recommended it be terminated following cancellation of the Constellation program.  NASA HQ continued to fund it for 5 more years rather than redirecting that money, $80.8 million over that time period, to the Advanced Space Suit Project. That project has struggled in recent years both in terms of getting funding and determining its scope.

As for development of the OCSS Orion survival spacesuit, the OIG worries that there is little schedule margin if NASA accelerates Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2) to 2021.  EM-2 is currently on the books as the first Orion mission to carry a crew.  (NASA is studying whether to put a crew on the first mission, EM-1, but no decision has been made.)  Officially EM-2 is scheduled for 2023, but NASA is trying to move that date up to August 2021.   Right now, the OCSS will not be ready until March 2021, just 5 months earlier.

The report made three recommendations to NASA: develop and implement a formal plan for design, production and testing of next-generation EVA spacesuits; conduct a trade study of the cost of maintaining the existing space station EMU spacesuits versus developing a new version; and apply lessons learned from operating existing spacesuits to the design of the next-generation models. 

NASA management concurred with those recommendations, but disagreed with the OIG's assessment of the value that was returned from the CSSS contract arguing that they got their money's worth.  The OIG did not relent, ending the report by restating that the extra 5 years of funding "did not serve the best interests of the Agency's spacesuit development efforts."

Trump Wants to Get To Mars Sooner Rather than Later

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Apr-2017 (Updated: 24-Apr-2017 08:57 PM)

During a telephone call with NASA astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) today, President Donald Trump stressed the goal of getting kids interested in STEM education, but he also made clear that he wants to accelerate efforts to get humans to Mars.  While he initially joked about doing it in his first term or "at worst" in his second, he brought it up again later in a seemingly more serious manner and said that he thought it would be done sooner than the 2030s.

Last month, Trump signed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 into law.  It has extensive language about the United States leading an effort to get humans to Mars, including a study of a "Mars 2033" mission to be launched that year.  It does not specify whether that mission would be to orbit or land on Mars.

Today, he asked NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson what the timeline was.  She replied that the goal is to send humans to Mars in the 2030s, adding that it is expensive and time consuming.  Trump replied -- with a smile on his face and off-screen onlookers chuckling --  that "we want to try and do it during my first term or, at worst, during my second, so we'll have to speed that up."  During a more serious moment later on, he remarked that "I think we'll do it a lot sooner than anyone is thinking."

Trump phoned Whitson and fellow ISS astronaut Jack Fischer to congratulate Whitson on breaking the record for longest U.S. cumulative time in space. Whitson is part-way through her third long-duration mission to ISS and currently is in command of the facility.  She was the first woman to command ISS during her second mission in 2008 and is the first woman to command it twice.  Today she broke the 534-day U.S. cumulative time in space record held by Jeff Williams.  Fischer just arrived on ISS last Thursday along with Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin.   ESA's Thomas Pesquet rounds out the current ISS crew.  He arrived with Whitson last November. 

NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer aboard the International Space Station while talking with President Donald Trump, April 24, 2017.  Screengrab from NASA TV.

Russia's Gennady Padalka holds the world record for cumulative time in space -- 879 days.   Scott Kelly holds the U.S. record for CONTINUOUS time in space on a single mission -- 340 days.  Russia's Valeriy Polyakov holds the world record for continuous time in space -- 438 days.

President Trump was joined by his daughter Ivanka and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins who recently returned from her own ISS mission where she sequenced DNA in space for the first time.

NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, President Donald Trump, daughter Ivanka Trump, in Oval Office talking to NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer on ISS, April 24, 2017.  Screengrab from NASA TV.

Ivanka Trump pointed out that her father recently signed into law the Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators Researchers and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act to encourage woman and girls to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.  Rubins and Whitson both explained how they became interested in science and space.

Although much of the roughly 20-minute phone call was about STEM education, the President's FY2018 budget blueprint calls for eliminating NASA's Office of Education.  The disconnect between today's message and the reality of his budget request was not explained.

Similarly, the President's obvious interest in accelerating efforts to send people to Mars is not reflected in his FY2018 budget request.  Trump's FY2018 budget blueprint calls for funding the Space Launch System rocket and the Orion crew spacecraft at their current levels, not to mention a habitat and other needed systems.  The NASA Office of Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have both expressed skepticism that those programs can maintain their current schedules.

Whitson also noted that human Mars exploration will require international participation.  Fischer elaborated on that theme, remarking that he launched into space from Kazakhstan with a Russian colleague, arrived at the ISS and immediately set down to work installing experiments in Japan's Kibo module.  The next day he said he watched ESA/French astronaut Pesquet drive Canada's Canadarm2 to grab the Cygnus spacecraft, built in Virginia, to dock with ISS.  "The International Space Station is by far the best example of international cooperation of what we can do when we work together."

In terms of the technology needed to get people to Mars, Whitson pointed out that water is a "precious resource" in space and, to that end, ISS astronauts recycle their urine to make it drinkable and "it's not as bad as it sounds."  Trump affably replied that he was "glad to hear that," but "better you than me."

Whitson spoke confidently about humans going to Mars in the 2030s and encouraged students who might be listening that they will "have a part" in sending people to Mars if they study STEM fields because it will happen soon. 

President Trump's phone call to the ISS today was his first.  He joins a long list of Presidents making phone calls to astronauts in space.  According to a NASA History Office website, President Ronald Reagan made the most (11), President Obama was next (6), followed by George H.W. Bush (5, one of which was when he was Vice President), Clinton (4 - including the first shuttle-Mir flight), George W. Bush (2 - including the return-to-flight mission after Columbia), Richard Nixon (2 - to the Apollo 11 and Skylab 1 crews), and Gerald Ford (1 - during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project).  

Video of the telephone call is posted on NASA's YouTube channel.

What's Happening in Space Policy April 23-28, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Apr-2017 (Updated: 23-Apr-2017 12:17 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of April 23-28, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

President Trump and his daughter Ivanka will make a 20-minute phone call to NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson aboard the International Space Station (ISS) tomorrow (Monday) morning at 10:00 am ET.  It will be broadcast on a number of NASA media assets including NASA TV, Facebook, Ustream and YouTube. The Trumps are phoning Whitson to congratulate her on breaking the record for U.S. cumulative time in space -- 534 days (currently held by Jeff Williams).  Whitson is in command of the ISS right now. This is her third trip to the ISS. She was the first woman to command ISS during her second visit in 2008 and now is the first woman to command it twice. She also has set a record for the most spacewalks by a woman (8 so far).  Her duration record is for CUMULATIVE time in space, acquired over three spaceflights.  Scott Kelly holds the U.S. record for CONTINUOUS time in space on a single mission (340 days).

We have no advance knowledge of what the conversation will be about, but might he provide a hint on his plans for human spaceflight?  His proposed FY2018 budget for NASA's human spaceflight program is status quo.  NASA Acting Chief Scientist Gale Allen said last week that the agency is expecting flat budgets, not even adjusted for inflation, for the next 5 years, so it seems unlikely that the President has any big changes in mind for the government-funded program.  Since the Trump Administration supports public private partnerships for space activities, might an announcement of a COTS-like "commercial station" program be in the works to kickstart a new low Earth orbit (LEO) space station to succeed ISS?  NASA has made clear the U.S. government will not be building another LEO space station and is looking to the commercial sector to build LEO facilities for which NASA could be one, but only one, user.  Separately, Allen also said that NASA's study of whether to put a crew on the first SLS/Orion mission is completed and the agency is awaiting a "go forward" plan.  Maybe he'll say something about that.  Or perhaps it will just be a friendly phone call.

Apart from that, it's Groundhog Day in Washington.  Once again Congress must pass an appropriations bill by Friday or the government will shut down. (Which is to say that agencies that get their money from the discretionary part of the budget -- DOD, NASA, NOAA etc. -- will shut down unless they are exempt for reasons of public safety or meet other criteria). The 114th Congress bumped FY2017 funding decisions over into the 115th Congress with a Continuing Resolution (CR) that expires on Friday, April 28.  Under the CR, agencies are funded at their prior year (FY2016) levels.  FY2017 is more than half over already, but something needs to be done about the remaining 5 months (through September 30).

When President Obama was in office, it was ultra conservative Republicans that threatened (and in one case succeeded) in shutting down the government.  With Republicans now in control of the House, Senate and White House, it is largely Democrats who are making the threats.  Among their issues is that Republicans want to significantly increase defense spending at the expense of non-defense programs.  As an example, Trump submitted a supplemental request for FY2017 last month that would add $30 billion for defense plus another $3 billion to build the border wall with Mexico, all to be partially offset by $18 billion in cuts to non-defense programs (including $50 million from NASA's space science program and $90 million from NOAA's satellite programs).   Many Democrats and some Republicans also object to the funding for the border wall.  Before the two-week recess that is just ending there were indications that congressional Republicans were agreeing not to fight the border wall battle now so they can finish the FY2017 appropriations process, but the Trump White House reportedly is pushing hard for its inclusion.

It's high stakes politics once again with an uncertain outcome.  Rumors are that they might pass another short term (one week) CR to provide more time to reach agreement.  It is usually true that such decisions are made only when there is an ominous deadline looming, so it's not clear why adding another week would make much of a difference.

Bear in mind that this is all about FY2017, the current fiscal year.  They haven't begun work on funding for FY2018, which starts on October 1.  Trump sent a "budget blueprint" or "skinny budget" outlining the contours of his FY2018 spending plan last month.  That's the request that indicates a status quo budget for NASA ($19.100 billion in FY2018 compared to $19.285 billion for FY2016), with some cuts to Earth science and the elimination of NASA's Office of Education among the more contentious issues.  Some of NOAA's satellite programs are in for cuts, but the blueprint doesn't specify where. The detailed FY2018 budget request is expected to be sent to Congress on May 15.

Also on Capitol Hill this week, the Senate Commerce Committee's space subcommittee and the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will each hold hearings on Wednesday at exactly the same time (10:00 am ET).  The Senate hearing is on the regulatory environment for commercial space and features the leaders of four prominent commercial space companies (Bigelow Aerospace, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and Made in Space).  The House hearing is on advances in the search for life with representatives from NASA (Thomas Zurbuchen, head of the Science Mission Directorate), the SETI Institute (Seth Shostak) and academia (Adam Burgasser from UC San Diego and James Kasting from Pennsylvania State University).

The House hearing takes place as the astrobiology community gathers in Mesa, AZ all week for the 2017 Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon).  Some sessions and two public lectures (Tuesday and Thursday nights) will be webcast.  A "town hall" meeting today (Sunday) will discuss the results of the Science Definition Team report on a Europa lander. The Trump Administration's FY2018 budget blueprint specifically does not include funding for a Europa lander (only for the Jupiter orbiter/Europa flyby "Europa Clipper" mission), but discussions about a lander are continuing since it has strong support by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA.  It is Congress, not the President, that decides how government money is spent.  Culberson is convinced life (microbial, not intelligent) exists in Europa's subsurface ocean and is adamant that a NASA probe find it in the next decade.  Today's town hall meeting will be available by WebEx/telecon.  Remember that although Arizona is in the Mountain Time zone, it does not observe Daylight Saving Time, so the offset from your time zone is like Pacific Daylight Time (e.g., add three hours, not two, to get Eastern Daylight Time).

The first meeting of the newly chartered NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee is Monday and Tuesday.  NASA has restructured its advisory apparatus that is subject to the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA).  This group used to be a subcommittee of the Science Committee of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), so any findings or recommendations had to go from the subcommittee up to the full committee up to NAC up to the NASA Administrator and then down to the Associate Administrator for Science and then, at last, down to the Astrophysics Division Director.  A long route where advice could be changed or eliminated.  Now the group -- and others that also used to be subcommittees -- can report directly to division directors.  Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz will brief the committee tomorrow morning (9:45-11:45 am ET) and later in the meeting program officials will provide updates on the James Webb Space Telescope and the Wide Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST), among other topics. The meeting is at NASA HQ in Washington, DC and is available remotely via WebEx and telecon.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for others we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.

Sunday, April 23

Monday, April 24

Monday-Tuesday, April 24-25

Monday-Friday, April 24-28

Tuesday, April 25

Tuesday-Thursday, April 25-27

  • Space 2.0, Crowne Plaza San Jose-Silicon Valley, Milpitas, CA
  • AIAA Defense Forum (SECRET/US ONLY), JHU Applied Physics Lab, Laurel, MD

Wednesday, April 26

Thursday, April 27

China Takes Another Step Towards Permanent Space Station - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Apr-2017 (Updated: 22-Apr-2017 01:19 PM)

China successfully launched its Tianzhou-1 space station cargo resupply spacecraft today.  If all goes according to plan, it will rendezvous and dock with the Tiangong-2 space station three times and demonstrate in-orbit refueling.  With such a capability, China could maintain a space station in Earth orbit for many years like the International Space Station (ISS). [UPDATE, April 22:  Tianzhou-1 successfully docked to Tiangong-2 at 12:23 am EDT (04:23 GMT] today as planned per Xinhua.]

The Soviet Union was the first country to demonstrate cargo resupply and in-orbit refueling in 1978 with the Progress spacecraft and Salyut 6 space station. Progress spacecraft are still used today to refuel the ISS station-keeping engines and take other cargo to the facility.  Three other cargo spacecraft resupply ISS (Japan's HTV and the U.S. Dragon and Cygnus), but they do not refuel it.

China's human spaceflight program is proceeding at a measured pace.  After four uncrewed test flights from 1999-2002, China launched its first astronaut (sometimes called a taikonaut in the West) in 2003 on Shenzhou-5.  The next crewed flight, with two astronauts, flew in 2005 (Shenzhou-6) and three astronauts were launched on Shenzhou-7 in 2008. In 2011, China launched its first small space station, Tiangong-1, to which three spacecraft were sent:  an uncrewed Shenzhou-8 as a test flight, then Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 in 2012 and 2013 respectively, each with three astronauts (two men and one woman).  Tiangong-2 was launched in 2016 and one two-person crew (Shenzhou-11) spent 30 days onboard last fall, the longest Chinese spaceflight to date (a total of 33 days including the trip to and from Tiangong-2). 

By comparison, Russian cosmonaut Valeriy Polyakov holds the record for the longest continuous spaceflight -- 438 days (14 months) in 1994-1995.  Scott Kelly holds the record for the longest continuous spaceflight by a U.S. astronaut -- 340 days in 2015-2016.  (On Monday, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson will break the U.S. record for cumulative time in space -- 534 days -- but that was acquired over three spaceflights, not a continuous mission.  She is currently in command of the ISS. President Trump will phone her on Monday to congratulate her on her record-breaking mission.)

Chinese officials describe the launch of Tianzhou-1 as the last step of the second phase of its human spaceflight program. The first phase was the initial launches of astronauts.  The second phase includes demonstration of extravehicular activity (EVA, also know as a spacewalk), which was accomplished on Shenzhou-7, and the initial space station flights.  If Tianzhou-1 is successful in its refueling task, that will complete phase 2 and phase 3 -- launch and operation of a multi-modular space station for 10 years -- will be next.  China plans to launch the new space station's core module in 2018 and complete construction of the three-module, 60 metric ton (MT) facility by 2022.   By comparison, ISS has a mass of about 400 MT.  It has been continuously occupied by international crews rotating typically on 4-6 month shifts since November 2000.

No one is aboard Tiangong-2 or Tianzhou-1; the refueling tests are all automated.

Launch of Tianzhou-1 space station cargo resupply spacecraft on Long March 7 from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, China, April 20, 2017.  Photo credit:

Tianzhou-1 is the heaviest spacecraft ever launched by China -- 13 MT.  It can carry 6.5 MT of cargo, slightly more than Japan's HTV (Kounotori) cargo ship that resupplies ISS.  HTV can transport 6 MT of cargo and is the largest of the ISS resupply ships.

The new Long March 7 rocket boosted Tianzhou-1 into orbit from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island, which became operational last year.  Long March 7 is one of several new rockets China is introducing to replace its older models (Long March 2, 3 and 4).  The new rockets use more environmentally friendly fuel - liquid oxygen and kerosene.  The largest is the Long March 5, which can place 25 MT into low Earth orbit (LEO), slightly less than the largest U.S. rocket, Delta IV Heavy, which can lift 28 MT to LEO.   Long March 5 had its first, and to date only, launch from Wenchang last year, but China has plans to use it for many missions, including launching the three 20-MT space station modules and robotic lunar and planetary exploration spacecraft.  Between now and 2020, China plans to send a sample return mission to the Moon, a probe to land on the far side of the Moon, and an orbiter/lander/rover to Mars.

The ISS partners -- the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency -- have agreed to continue operating ISS until at least 2024.  NASA officials often speak of extending it to 2028, 30 years after the first modules were launched, but there is no agreement on that timeline.  China has picked up on the 2024 date and routinely points out that with the ISS "set to retire" in 2024, it will have the only space station in Earth orbit thereafter. 

NASA is hoping that the U.S. private sector will pick up the gauntlet and build their own space stations to follow-on from ISS that NASA and other customers could use instead of the government building future Earth orbiting facilities.  Section 303 of the recently enacted NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 requires NASA to submit a report to Congress by December 1, 2017 and biennially thereafter until 2023 to show how to transition from the current NASA-reliant regime to one where NASA is only one of many customers of a non-governmental LEO human space flight enterprise.  The goal is for NASA itself to focus on sending astronauts beyond LEO to the distance of the Moon and Mars.

NASA's Study of Adding Crew to EM-1 is Completed, Awaiting Response

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Apr-2017 (Updated: 19-Apr-2017 10:02 PM)

NASA Acting Chief Scientist Gale Allen said today that the agency's feasibility study of adding a crew to the first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion has been completed and briefed to agency and White House officials.  The report is not public, she added, and the agency is now waiting for a "go forward" plan.   She also said that NASA is expecting a flat budget for the next 5 years, not even including adjustments for inflation, which will reduce its buying power by $3.4 billion over that time period.

Allen spoke to a colloquium of microgravity scientists meeting in conjunction with a National Academies committee that is assessing NASA's implementation of a 2012 Decadal Survey on life and physical sciences in space. Although the International Space Station (ISS) was built largely to serve as a research laboratory, funding for that research has been constrained because of the costs of building and operating the facility.

Her message was that the budget outlook is not promising in terms of any increase for research funding.  Thus it is imperative that the microgravity science community make a "compelling" case as to why proposed research is essential.  Decisions also will be needed as to where the research must be conducted.  How much must be done on ISS, for example, versus cis-lunar space where NASA is planning to build a Deep Space Gateway.  The Gateway will have "minimal" research capabilities, Allen said, but some research must be done there instead of ISS.  One example is galactic cosmic radiation (GCR) studies.  The ISS, in low Earth orbit (LEO), is protected from GCR by Earth's magnetosphere, but astronauts going to the Moon or Mars will be fully exposed so the research is critical.

Allen laid out NASA's near-term plans for human exploration beyond LEO and mentioned in passing that the study of the concept of adding a crew to the first SLS flight -- Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) -- is completed and was briefed to Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot and "the White House."  NASA is now "waiting for a go-forward plan."

EM-1 has been designed from the beginning as a test flight carrying an uncrewed Orion spacecraft.   The first flight with a crew, EM-2, is officially scheduled for 2023, but NASA is hoping to accelerate that to 2021.  In addition to assessing the risk to the crew of launching on the first flight of a new rocket, the Orion spacecraft to be used for EM-1 does not have life support systems. A decision to launch a crew earlier would require a schedule delay and more funding in the near-term to outfit Orion with the necessary systems.   EM-1 and EM-2 also will use two different upper stages.  The more capable upper stage for EM-2 (the Exploration Upper Stage) is taller and requires modifications to ground facilities at the launch site.

The sudden decision to assess the feasibility of putting a crew on EM-1 was announced in February, shortly after President Trump took office.  NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier said at a later media briefing that there was no "preconceived decision" and he wanted to "let the data drive us to an answer." 

The United States is the only country to ever launch a crew on the first flight of a new launch vehicle -- the space shuttle.  All other U.S. crewed launch systems as well as those of the Soviet Union/Russia and China have been tested without a crew first.   An exception was made for the first shuttle mission, STS-1 in April 1981, because it required humans to land the vehicle.  Gerstenmaier said in February, before the EM-1 crew feasibility study was announced, that prior to STS-1 NASA calculated the risk of losing the crew on that first flight was 1 in 500 to 1 in 1000.   After 30 years of experience and the loss of the 1986 Challenger and 2003 Columbia missions and their crews, NASA recalculated the actual Loss of Crew risk for STS-1 was 1 in 12.



NASA IG: Journey to Mars Cost $26 Billion Through FY2016, Future Costs Unclear

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Apr-2017 (Updated: 19-Apr-2017 08:34 PM)

NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) reports that NASA spent $26 billion from FY2006-2016 on programs to send humans beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) -- what was called the Journey to Mars during the Obama Administration.  In an April 13 report, the OIG expressed reservations about future cost estimates and technical challenges facing the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion crew spacecraft, and associated Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) that are "likely to delay their launch."

It can be difficult to follow how much NASA is spending on its program to send humans beyond LEO. Humans have not traveled beyond LEO, where the International Space Station is located, since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972 -- the last time astronauts set foot on the lunar surface. 

The current effort, sometimes called "deep space human exploration," began in FY2006 as the Constellation program under President George W. Bush.  His goal was returning humans to the lunar surface by 2020.  That program involved building the Ares I and Ares V rockets, the Orion crew spacecraft, and the Altair lunar lander.  The Obama Administration cancelled Constellation and replaced it with the Journey to Mars (J2M) to put humans in orbit around Mars in the 2030s without any missions to the lunar surface.  Ares I and Ares V were cancelled and the SLS program began in their stead.  Altair never got started.  The Orion crew spacecraft survived the transition from Constellation to J2M.  J2M included the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) in cis-lunar space as a steppingstone to Mars.  The Trump Administration has proposed terminating ARM. NASA now talks about building a Deep Space Gateway in cis-lunar space and a Deep Space Transport to take astronauts from there to orbit Mars in the 2030s.  Landing people on the Moon or Mars are not in NASA's current plan, although officials express optimism that international or commercial partners might send astronauts to the lunar surface via its Deep Space Gateway, and the long-term goal remains eventually landing people on Mars.  

Cost estimates vary depending on how many years and which of those programs to reach what destination are included. The OIG report is focused on J2M as it existed at the end of  the Obama Administration, but includes money spent on Orion during the Bush Administration since it continues.

NASA's internal procedures require the agency to commit to a cost estimate and launch schedule for each of its flight programs at their Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C) milestones.  Congress uses those estimates as the baseline against which cost overruns and schedule delays are measured.  NASA is required to take certain steps if those overruns or delays exceed specified thresholds.

NASA made separate KDP-C estimates for SLS, Orion and GSDO, but only through initial launches.  The commitments for SLS and GSDO are through the first launch, Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), in late 2018.  For Orion, it is through the first launch with a crew, EM-2. The official commitment is for EM-2 to take place in 2023, although NASA hopes to accelerate it to 2021.   in August 2014, NASA announced  its cost estimate for SLS through EM-1, including formulation and development, as $9.695 billion.  In September 2015, it released its KDP-C estimate for Orion, $6.77 billion, but that covered only FY2015 through EM-2, not the money spent from FY2006-FY2014. The estimate for GSDO was $2.8 billion through EM-1.

NASA announced in February that it is examining the pros and cons of launching a crew on EM-1 instead of waiting until EM-2, but no decision has been reached yet.  The concept was not addressed in the OIG report. 

A major point of this OIG report, in fact, is that NASA's plans beyond EM-1 are unclear.  They were unclear before the change in administrations and are less clear now with the Trump Administration in office and, for example, proposing the termination of ARM.   "In light of the enormous costs and challenges and the critical decisions that will need to be made in the next several years," the OIG says it prepared the report to provide "policy makers with a better sense of the significant technical, financial and political challenges" that lie ahead.

The OIG calculates a total of $26 billion spent on the humans-beyond-LEO program through FY2016 as follows: 

  • $15.6 billion from FY2012-FY2016 for SLS, Orion, GSDO and Exploration Systems Development integration activities for EM-1 and EM-2;
  • $5.7 billion from FY2006-FY2011 on Orion (initiated as part of the Bush Administration's Constellation program);
  • $1.8 billion in FY2011 to transition from Constellation to J2M; and
  • $2.8 billion from FY2012-2016 on technology development related to human and robotic spaceflight associated with the program.

For SLS, Orion and GSDO alone, the OIG estimates that NASA will spend $23 billion through the end of FY2018.  It points out that its own earlier studies and those from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) express concerns about NASA's ability to meet the current schedule of EM-1 no later than November 2018 and EM-2 as early as 2021. 

In particular, it notes that NASA has not developed an integrated cost estimate for EM-2.  Further, the reserves included in the estimate for EM-1 are "much lower than the 10 to 30 percent" recommended by Marshall Space Flight Center, where SLS is managed. That means less flexibility in dealing with unanticipated problems.  Added to budget uncertainties resulting from congressional delays in enacting annual appropriations bills, which hamper NASA's ability to make "informed and timely" funding allocation decisions, the OIG concludes that delays are "likely."

The OIG made six recommendations, including that NASA develop an integrated SLS/Orion/GSDO schedule for EM-2 and "establish more rigorous cost and schedule estimates for SLS and associated GSDO infrastructure for EM-2."   NASA was provided with a draft of the report and concurred or partially concurred with all the recommendations and proposed corrective actions.  OIG was satisfied with NASA's response except for the recommendation about establishing more rigorous cost and schedule estimates for SLS and GSDO for EM-2.

NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier's response to the OIG report is published therein (Appendix I).  He stated that he did not see what decisions would be informed by providing a cost estimate for a specific flight, that NASA was developing a program and not a series of missions, and the phasing of funds from congressional appropriations is the driver in cost estimate variability. 

The OIG disagreed.  "In our judgment, a detailed EM-2 cost estimate would allow Agency officials and external stakeholders to better understand the mission's progress and the full costs involved.  Therefore, this recommendation is unresolved pending further discussions with Agency officials."

NASA's Inspector General (IG), like those in most federal agencies, is appointed by the President pursuant to the Inspectors General Act of 1978.  Paul Martin has been the NASA IG since 2009.  Previously he was the Deputy IG at the Department of Justice.

The 71-page report is a treasure trove of facts, figures and explanations of NASA's humans-beyond-LEO effort and challenges going forward.

China Readies First Space Station Cargo Mission - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Apr-2017 (Updated: 19-Apr-2017 06:12 PM)

China is getting ready to launch its first cargo spacecraft, Tianzhou-1, to its Tiangong-2 space station later this week.  China's Xinhua news services says the launch will take place between April 20 and 24.  This is a test of robotic in-orbit refueling.  No one is aboard the space station or the cargo spacecraft. [UPDATE: China has announced the launch will take place on April 20 at 7:41 pm local time (7:41 am Eastern Daylight Time.]

Tiangong-2 was launched last year and occupied by a two-man crew for 30 days.  It has been empty since then.  China's first space station, Tiangong-1, was launched in 2011 and occupied by two three-person crews (two men and one woman each) in 2012 and 2013 for 13 days and 15 days respectively.  The Tiangong space stations are quite small - 8.6 metric tons (MT).  China is planning to build a three-module 60-MT space station by 2022.  Tianzhou spacecraft would be used to deliver fuel and cargo to it.

Tianzhou-1, which is larger (13 MT) than Tiangong, will be launched from China's new Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island using the new Long March 7 mid-sized rocket.  The first Long March 7 was launched last year.

Tianzhou-1 space station cargo spacecraft atop its Long March 7 rocket being transferred from the assembly building to the launch pad at Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, Hainan Island, China, April 17, 2017.  Photo credit:  Xinhua

Tianzhou-1 will dock with Tiangong-2 three times to test in-orbit liquid propellant refueling.  The Soviet Union demonstrated the first robotic refueling of a space station in 1978 when Progress 1 refueled Salyut 6.  Russia still uses Progress spacecraft today to refuel the International Space Station's (ISS's) station-keeping engines as well as to take supplies to ISS.

Tianzhou-1 can carry 6.5 MT of cargo according to China Global Television News (CGTN).  The current version of Russia's Progress can deliver about 2.5 MT of cargo.  Three other spacecraft resupply ISS -- SpaceX's Dragon, Orbital ATK's Cygnus (one of which will be launched tomorrow), and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA's) HTV or Kounotori.    HTV is the largest of those, capable of delivering approximately 6 MT of cargo.

What's Happening in Space Policy April 17-22, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Apr-2017 (Updated: 16-Apr-2017 01:32 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of April 17-22, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in recess this week.

During the Week

Topic A this week is the International Space Station (ISS) and not just logistics, but the microgravity science research being conducted there.

Logistically, the next cargo launch is on Tuesday -- Orbital ATK's OA-7 mission -- and two new crew members will launch and dock on Thursday on Soyuz MS-04.  Pre-launch briefings are scheduled for tomorrow (Monday). The OA-7 launch is on Tuesday at 11:11 am ET from Cape Canaveral on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket.  The launch has a 30 minute window and the weather is 90 percent favorable as of today. 

This will be the first-ever launch to be broadcast with a 360-degree view according to NASA.  Coverage on NASA's regular TV outlets begins at 10:00 am ET.  The 360-degree view begins on NASA's YouTube channel 10 minutes before launch.  NASA, Orbital ATK and ULA are all working together on the 360-degree view, so the two companies' websites may also carry it.  A post-launch press conference is scheduled for 2:00 pm ET.  Two days later, Soyuz MS-04 will take NASA's Jack Fischer and Roscosmos's Fyodor Yurchikhin to ISS.  As we explained last week, Russia is reducing its ISS crew complement from three to two, so there's an empty seat on this launch, which will be filled by Peggy Whitson on the return.

A key point of having ISS in the first place is to perform scientific research in microgravity.  In Washington, DC, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine will hold a day-long public symposium on Wednesday where scientists will discuss that research.  The next day (Thursday), a panel discussion will take place on Capitol Hill to highlight some of it.  

The Academies symposium is in conjunction with a meeting of a committee that is performing a mid-term review of the 2011 Decadal Survey on life and physical sciences research in space to evaluate how NASA is implementing those recommendations.   Decadal Surveys cover 10 years (a decade, hence "decadal").  Congress requires NASA to contract with the Academies for Decadal Surveys in each of the science disciplines as well as for mid-term reviews of each study half way though the relevant decade.  The mid-term review committee cannot change the priorities in the original report, but assesses how things are going.  The mid-term review committee is meeting Tuesday-Thursday, but most of Tuesday and all of Thursday are in closed session.  Wednesday's public colloquium will be webcast.  The Academies requests that everyone pre-register whether planning to attend in person or watch the webcast.

On Thursday morning, the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research (ASGSR), the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) and Rep. Brian Babin (chair of the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee) will hold a panel discussion on Capitol Hill with four scientists who will discuss their own ISS research on water engineering, the movement of fluids, tissue healing, and plant research.  The event is free, but pre-registration is required.

On another topic, Saturday, April 22, is Earth Day and "March for Science" rallies will take place around the globe.  One will be on the National Mall in Washington, DC (near the Washington Monument).  Organizers are requesting that people who plan to attend let them know through the RSVP link on their website, where you can also find the locations of other rallies that might be closer to you if you can't get to DC.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below. Check for others we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.

Monday, April 17

Tuesday, April 18

  • Orbital ATK 7 (OA-7) Launch, Cape Canaveral, FL, 11:11 am ET (30 minute launch window).  Regular NASA TV coverage begins 10:00 am ET; first-ever 360-degree launch view coverage begins 10 minutes before launch on NASA's YouTube channel.   Post-launch press conference 2:00 pm ET.

Tuesday-Thursday, April 18-20

Tuesday-Friday, April 18-21

Wednesday, April 19

Thursday, April 20

Thursday-Friday, April 20-21

Friday, April 21

Saturday, April 22

Evidence Mounts for Hydrothermal Vents on Enceladus, Plumes on Europa

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Apr-2017 (Updated: 14-Apr-2017 12:45 AM)

NASA announced new findings today about two of the solar system's "ocean worlds" -- places other than Earth where global oceans may exist and, with them, the chance for life.  Data from the Cassini spacecraft already have indicated that Saturn's moon Enceladus has an ocean that spews into space through cracks in its icy crust. The announcement today is that those plumes contain hydrogen, hinting that the ocean has hydrothermal vents akin to those on Earth's ocean floors where life improbably exists.  Meanwhile, the Hubble Space Telescope has again detected what may be plumes emanating from an ocean on Jupiter's moon Europa, though definitive data remain elusive.

Cassini has been orbiting Saturn since 2004 and is in its last months of life.  At a press conference last week, scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) reviewed some of Cassini's key findings to date, including the plumes from Enceladus, a small moon that has a liquid ocean under an icy crust.  Cracks in the crust allow material from the ocean to burst up into space and Cassini was able to fly through the plumes to gather data on their constituents. Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker discussed what the spacecraft discovered when it flew through the plumes in October 2015 at a height of just 49 kilometers (30 miles) -- water vapor and organics. 

Artist's illustration of Cassini flying through plumes from Saturn's moon Enceladus.  Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech

At today's press conference, Spilker revealed that hydrogen gas was also detected.  Hydrogen combined with carbon dioxide in the ocean could generate the energy needed to create chemical reactions essential to life.  Details of the discovery were published in the journal Science today.

Life requires three ingredients according to NASA: liquid water; an energy source for metabolism; and the correct chemical ingredients (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur).   With the findings announced today, Enceladus is known to have all of those except phosphorus and sulfur.  Scientists suspect they are there, however, because the rocky core of the moon is thought to be similar to meteorites that contain them.

It will be up to future spacecraft to prove that point, however.  Cassini is beginning its "grand finale" of 22 deep dives into Saturn's atmosphere later this month.  The spacecraft will meet its end on the final dive on September 15.  It is running out of fuel and NASA wants to deliberately destroy it to avoid accidental contamination of Enceladus or Saturn's other scientifically tantalizing moons, including Titan with its methane lakes.

Like Enceladus, Jupiter's moon Europa is thought to have an ocean under an icy crust.  In 2014, data from the earth-orbiting Hubble Space Telescope suggested that it also may have plumes.  Today's announcement was that observations in 2016 showed a plume at the same location as the one seen in 2014.  Scientists do not have as much close up data about Europa as they do for Enceladus, however, and the Hubble data are not definitive.  NASA's Galileo spacecraft orbited Jupiter for many years (1995-2003), but Europa was not a main target of its investigations and only about a dozen flybys of the moon were made.

When Hubble spotted what might be a plume in 2014, scientists looked at the Galileo data and discovered that it had indicated a hot spot right at that location.  Theories are that higher temperatures under the ice might open a crack in Europa's surface and allow ocean contents to reach into space or that the contents spew into space and fall back onto the surface, making it warmer.  The 2016 Hubble observations are discussed in a paper published today in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Hubble Space Telescope images of possible plumes on Jupiter's moon Europa.  Credit:  Space Telescope Science Institute website.

At today's press conference, Bill Sparks, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates Hubble, explained what is known, and not known, about the Europa plumes.   He led the 2014 and 2016 plume studies.  Sparks said that his team has looked for plumes 12 times and found them twice.  NASA's carefully worded press release makes clear that scientists remain uncertain that the plumes are there, however, saying the 2016 images "bolster evidence" that the plumes "could be a real phenomenon."  Sparks himself characterized it as "not completely unequivocal as it is with Enceladus, it's still at the limits of what Hubble can do, but we are growing in confidence" because they now have seen it twice and its location correlates with the Galileo hot spot data.

The possibility of an ocean under Europa's crust, never mind plumes, was unknown when Galileo was built, so it was not designed to look for them.  NASA currently has a spacecraft orbiting Jupiter, Juno, but it is not designed to study Europa either.  Close-up measurements will have to wait until the 2020s when NASA plans to launch missions whose entire purpose is investigating Europa.  

A Europa orbiter and lander were added to NASA's science program by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), chairman of the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA.  Sending a probe to Europa was a high priority in the last two planetary science Decadal Surveys written by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.  Decadal Surveys guide NASA's science program. The most recent survey ranked Europa second, however, behind a series of missions to return a sample of Mars to Earth.   NASA had enough money only to pursue the top priority, Mars sample return, so did not request funds for Europa.

Congress has the power of the purse, however, and Culberson added money for Europa.  He has said in many venues that he believes life will be found on Europa and he intends to make certain NASA looks for it.  He wants the orbiter, Europa Clipper, launched in 2022 and the lander in 2024.  (Europa Clipper actually will orbit Jupiter, not Europa.  It will make flybys of Europa.)  The lander is still in the conceptual phase.  As he explained in an interview with Miles O'Brien on the PBS NewsHour last night, he wrote into law that NASA must launch those missions:  "The Europa orbiter and lander is the only mission it is illegal for NASA not to fly."

That being said, President Trump's budget request for FY2018 funds Europa Clipper, but specifically states it does not fund the lander.  The President's request is just that, of course, a request.  Only Congress decides how much money the federal government will spend and how.  As chairman on the House CJS subcommittee, Culberson has considerable influence on the outcome.


G-7 Foreign Ministers Call for Safe, Secure, Sustainable Space Environment

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Apr-2017 (Updated: 12-Apr-2017 10:13 PM)

The foreign ministers of the G-7 countries issued a joint communique yesterday in which they recognized the importance of space activities and called for a safe, secure, sustainable and stable space environment, increased transparency, and strengthened norms of responsible behavior.  At the same time, the G-7 Nonproliferation Directors Group issued a statement on non-proliferation and disarmament that includes four paragraphs about space that goes further, urging, for example, that countries refrain from destruction of space objects -- intentionally or unintentionally.

The G-7 is an informal group of industrialized countries -- Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States -- that meets annually  Their foreign ministers met April 10-11 in Lucca, Italy in preparation for the upcoming heads-of-government summit next month.  Their 30-page joint communique following the meeting includes one paragraph about space:

Outer space activities have immense potential. We recognize the rapid development of the modern space environment and the importance of outer space activities both in the day to day lives of our citizens and for the social, economic, scientific and technological development of all states. We are committed to enhancing the long-term safety, security, sustainability, and stability of the space environment, to increasing transparency in space activities, and to strengthening norms of responsible behaviour for all outer space activities.

The G-7 Nonproliferation Directors Group went further. Their 13-page statement similarly reiterates a commitment to a safe, secure and sustainable space environment, but also calls on countries to "refrain from irresponsible intentional destruction of space objects, including by anti-satellite tests, and from any other action which brings about, directly or indirectly, damage or destruction of space objects."  They also "strongly encourage" countries to "cooperate in good faith to avoid harmful interference with outer space activities, in a manner consistent with international law" and to prevent the creation and diffusion of space debris.   The full text of the space section is as follows:


60. Outer space activities play a significant and increasing role in the social, economic, scientific and technological development of States, as well as in maintaining international peace and security. In this context, we reiterate our commitment to preserve a safe, secure, and sustainable outer space environment and the need to evolve and implement principles of responsible behavior for all outer space activities in a prompt and pragmatic manner, ensuring the peaceful exploration and use of outer space on the basis of equality and in accordance with international law.

61. We call on all States to refrain from irresponsible intentional destruction of space objects, including by anti-satellite tests, and from any other action which brings about, directly or indirectly, damage or destruction of space objects. We strongly encourage all States to take appropriate measures to cooperate in good faith to avoid harmful interference with outer space activities, in a manner consistent with international law, as well as to cooperate to prevent the creation and diffusion of long-lived orbital debris.

62. We reaffirm our commitment, and call on all States, to review and implement, to the extent practicable, the proposed transparency and confidence-building measures contained in the recommendations of the UN Group of Governmental Experts Report (A/68/189, 29 July 2013) such as information exchange on space policies and strategies, information exchange and notifications related to outer space activities in a timely manner and an effective consultation mechanism.

63. We strongly support efforts to rapidly complete clear, practicable and proven Guidelines for Long-Term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities by the UN Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (UN-COPUOS) by 2018. We encourage all Member States of the Committee to play a constructive role to this end, building on the significant results recently achieved, both during the 59th session of the UN-COPUOS and the 54th session of the Committee’s Scientific and Technical Subcommittees.

These communiques will feed into the 43rd G-7 summit to be held May 26-27 in Taormina, Italy (on the island of Sicily).  Italy is currently president of the G-7. Russia became a member of the group in 1998 and it was then known as the G-8.  Russia was suspended in 2014 after its annexation of Crimea, however, so it is now once again the G-7.

Events of Interest

Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »

Subscribe to Email Updates:

Enter your email address: