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NASA announced today that President Obama will posthumously award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Sally Ride, the first American woman to make a spaceflight. Ride died on July 23, 2012 at the age of 61 from pancreatic cancer.
Ride is being honored tonight at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for serving as a role model for woman and girls and her service to the nation. She devoted much of her post-NASA career to Sally Ride Science, a company dedicated "to educate, engage and inspire all students," but especially girls. NASA also is creating a new internship program in her name to help students from underserved backgrounds and renaming the EarthKam camera aboard the International Space Station after her. Middle school students can obtain images of the Earth from EarthKam to support their studies. Ride was involved in a similar effort using a camera aboard the GRAIL spacecraft called MoonKam.
Ride became the first American woman to make a spaceflight, aboard STS-7 in 1983 (the first woman in space was the Soviet Union's Valentina Tereshkova in 1963). Ride made a second flight in 1984, STS-41G. In 1986, she served on the Rogers Commission that investigated the space shuttle Challenger (STS 51-L) tragedy and also served on the 2003 Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) that determined the cause of the space shuttle Columbia (STS-107) accident.
After leading a study on the future of NASA in 1987, Ride left the agency to become a physics professor at UC-San Diego and soon founded Sally Ride Science with her life partner Tam O'Shaughnessy, who remains as chair of the company's board. Ride was married to fellow astronaut Steven Hawley from 1982-1987.
Patti Grace Smith called on Congress last week to extend the FAA’s authority to provide third party indemnification for commercial launch services companies for 10 years or, better yet, permanently.
After lengthy debate last year, Congress extended the indemnification authority for only one year – through December 31, 2013 -- so the topic is back on the table for consideration this year.
Smith was a witness at a May 16 Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on advancing partnerships in the business of space. Much of the hearing focused on the nexus between government and commercial space activities in future human space exploration, but she also raised narrower issues important to the commercial space launch industry.
A former head of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), she is now a consultant to the commercial space industry and chairs the Commercial Space Committee of the NASA Advisory Council. She also advised the subcommittee that AST should remain a part of the FAA rather than reporting directly to the Secretary of Transportation as it did when it was created in 1984. She believes that by keeping the office within the FAA, aviation officials are forced to deal with questions about how to integrate commercial space launches into the National Airspace System (NAS) rather than ignoring them.
Eventually AST should “take its rightful, its logical place as another transportation mode” separate from the FAA, but in her view it is better situated within the FAA for now.
Prepared statements of the witnesses and a webcast of the hearing are available on the committee’s website.
Former NASA space shuttle program manager Wayne Hale told the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science and Space Thursday that it is difficult for his generation to change its “mental model” of the NASA-funded Apollo program as the way for humans to explore space. The reality today, he stressed, is that the government and the commercial sector must team together and leverage each other’s capabilities because taxpayers are only willing to spend half-a-percent of the federal budget on NASA, not the 3-4 percent in the Apollo era.
Hale, currently the Director of Human Spaceflight for Special Aerospace Services, was responding to a question from Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) at a May 16 hearing on advancing partnerships in the business of space. As the hearing came to a close, Nelson wanted to know why it is so hard to get people to understand that commercial space activities will “collaborate, supplement, enhance” NASA’s program to send humans beyond low Earth orbit (LEO).
Patti Grace Smith, former FAA Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (AST) and now a consultant, agreed that people still associate space activities with NASA and not the private sector even though commercial space launches date back to the 1980s. “Where we sit is what we know,” she said, and because NASA holds the reputation as “the premier space agency,” it has been challenging to get people to accept that commercial space can succeed. That perception is changing, she added, with NASA’s new partnerships with the commercial sector and the successful flight of SpaceShipOne in 2004.
Whether the slowly changing paradigm will help win support for NASA’s FY2014 request of $831 million for the commercial crew program, however, is an open question as Nelson made clear. He said that he and Ranking Member Ted Cruz (R-TX) will be working on a new NASA authorization act this year and “in the past, it sure has been difficult to get people to recognize” the value and necessity of the commercial and government space sectors partnering together in human space exploration.
Many in Congress are determined to restore a U.S. capability for launching people into space by 2017, but have not provided NASA with the requested funds for its approach to achieving that goal – the commercial crew program. The $831 million request is more than $300 million above what Congress provided for FY2013. Finding that extra money will not be easy, especially since policy issues such as how many companies to support have not been settled and some influential Members remain highly skeptical of commercial crew overall. The alternative would be using the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, but that system is oversized (and thus expensive) for ferrying crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS).
More generally, Hale connected the dots between today’s commercial crew and cargo efforts to support the ISS and the longer term future of human space exploration. ISS itself is crucial for testing technologies needed for long duration spaceflight and ISS needs commercial cargo and commercial crew, he said. For missions to the Moon and Mars, the key will be logistics, he continued, quoting Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf as saying “armchair generals study tactics, real generals study logistics.” Lowering the cost of getting mass into LEO will be crucial to supplying logistics for long duration flights beyond LEO. “Getting mass to [LEO] is halfway to anywhere in the universe. And if we can supply equipment, fuel, even crews cheaply to [LEO] that has got to be a vital link in ensuring that whatever deep space” missions are mounted will be successful. “Low cost transportation enables all of that. That’s what we’re all about in the commercial space enterprises.”
Commercial Spaceflight Federation President Michael Lopez-Alegria was asked about the size of the market for suborbital and orbital commercial human space flight, or space tourism as it often is called. He cited a 2012 report by The Tauri Group that the suborbital market could be $600 million over the next decade, but said there is no equivalent study of the orbital market. He is convinced a sizeable market will develop, but could not say when: “It’s hard to predict markets that don’t exist yet, but … all I can say, like the famous movie quote … ‘build it and they will come.’”
Lopez-Alegria, a former astronaut who made four trips to space, including commanding the ISS, argued strongly in favor of the commercial crew program as well as extending ISS operations to 2028. Currently the United States and its ISS partners (Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada) have agreed to operate it only until 2020, though NASA believes it technically could remain operational through 2028, 30 years after the first module was launched.
Purdue University’s Steven Collicott testified about the research opportunities enabled by commercial suborbital vehicles, noting that Purdue has a down payment on a spot on a Virgin Galactic flight. The university does not plan to fly a person, but “200 pounds of automated payload to advance high-tech Indiana industry.” He also is building payloads to fly on suborbital systems offered by Armadillo, Blue Origin, Masten, and XCOR, as well as a high altitude balloon company, Near Space. He believes these types of flight opportunities will encourage students to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).
Smith also argued for extending the FAA's authority to indemnify commercial space launch services companies against certain amounts of losses if there is an accident for at least 10 years, and for keeping AST within the FAA for the time being.
Prepared statements of the witnesses and a webcast of the hearing are on the committee's website.
All of the gerbils and half the mice reportedly did not survive their spaceflight aboard Russia's Bion-M1 capsule, which returned to Earth last night after a month in space..
Anatoly Zak at RussianSpaceWeb.com cites Russia's Interfax news agency as reporting that all eight Mongolian gerbils died because of an equipment failure. Half of the 45 mice also did not survive, though no reason was given. The 15 geckos (lizards) as well as the snails and containers of microorganisms and plants apparently are OK, however.
NASA is participating with Russia in this mission by providing animal enclosure units and performing research with the rodents (mice and gerbils).
The following space policy events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
Among the highlights of the coming week are congressional hearings on NASA and NOAA and House Armed Services Committee (HASC) subcommittee markups of the FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act.
A House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) subcommittee will hold a hearing on Tuesday on Next Steps in Human Exploration of Space that seems focused on the new asteroid retrieval mission proposed in NASA's FY2014 budget request.
Another House SS&T subcommittee will hold a hearing on Thursday on how to restore U.S. leadership in weather forecasting, a NOAA responsibility, though it is hard to tell how much of that will focus on weather satellites rather than computer models. Later that morning the Senate Commerce committee will hold its nomination hearing for Penny Pritzker to be the new Secretary of Commerce. The Department of Commerce is NOAA's parent agency and it also is one of the two cabinet level departments responsible for export controls (State Department is the other), so is a critical participant in implementing the export control reforms required under last year's National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Rumors were rampant that the draft regulations for reforming satellite export controls would be published in the Federal Register last week, but that did not happen; perhaps they will be issued this week. That is just one step in the lengthy regulatory process that many hope will result in commercial satellites no longer being subject to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) under the State Department's Munitions List.
All of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) subcommittees will markup their respective portions of the FY2014 NDAA this week. The Strategic Forces subcommittee, which is responsible for most military space programs, will hold its markup on Wednesday. Full committee markup is scheduled for June 5. (The Senate Armed Services Committee markups are scheduled for June 11-12.)
Monday, May 20
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A Russian spacecraft carrying a menagerie of animals that have been in orbit for a month is scheduled to land tonight, Saturday, May 18, Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).
The Bion-1M capsule was launched on April 19, the first of a new generation of Bion spacecraft. NASA and Russia's space agency collaborated on many of the earlier Bion flights, which ended in 1996 after U.S. animal rights groups protested the use of monkeys for such experiments. One of the two monkeys on the 1996 flight died after it returned to Earth.
This flight carries no monkeys, but mice, gerbils, geckos, snails, and containers with various microorganisms and plants. The flight has been dubbed an "orbital Noah's Ark" or a "space zoo" because of the variety of animals aboard. NASA is a partner in the fight, providing Animal Enclosure Units and participating in rodent research.
Landing is expected at 10:12 pm EDT (which will be May 19, 7:12 am Moscow Time, or May 19, 03:12 GMT) 82 kilometers north of Orenburg according to Anatoly Zak at RussianSpaceWeb.com and Bob Christy at zarya.info. Both have posted the ground track for the reentry.
NASA's Kepler Space Telescope has lost a second reaction wheel, but top officials with the project stressed today that they are not calling it quits yet.
The hastily called teleconference with reporters this afternoon suggested a dire situation, but Kepler principal investigator Bill Borucki and Deputy Project Manager Charlie Sobeck, both with NASA's Ames Research Center, insisted that while the news was not so good, it did not mean the Kepler mission is over.
They stressed two points. First, although Kepler cannot produce the type of scientific data on planets around other stars -- exoplanets -- for which it has become famous with only two of its four reaction wheels functioning, they have not given up on ultimately getting one of the two malfunctioning wheels to operate once again. Reaction wheel 2 was turned off last year when it showed signs of failure; reaction wheel 4 failed yesterday. Second, even if Kepler no longer can produce new exoplanet data, two years of archived data await investigation so new discoveries are likely anyway.
Borucki said repeatedly that Kepler was designed to operate for four years, and it has operated for four years. It has done what it was designed to do -- search for Earth-size planets around other stars within the star's habitable zone (and thus candidates for harboring life) and determine whether such planets are frequent or rare. Kepler uses the transit method to detect planets by searching for a dimming of a star as the planet passes in front of it. Borucki said that few astronomers believed it was possible to detect exoplanets in this manner and he had to submit his idea for funding again and again and again. Ultimately he succeeded. When asked what he is feeling today, with two malfunctioning reaction wheels that could mean the end of new data acquisition, he said he was "elated with how much we've accomplished." While it would be "frosting on the cake" if it lasted another four years, "we have an excellent cake" already, he exclaimed.
Sobeck said that Kepler has cost about $600 million to date, and the current spend rate is $20 million per year. Kepler has completed its primary mission and now is an extended mission phase for an additional two years. NASA holds "senior reviews" every two years where experts decide which missions to continue funding, since there is a finite amount of money for mission operations. NASA astrophysics division director Paul Hertz said at today's teleconference that the next senior review for Kepler is in 2014 where a decision will be made as to whether the spacecraft continues to return scientific data that warrants continued funding. The agency will be conducting studies over the next several months to determine what science can be obtained from Kepler if the two reaction wheels remain out of commission as well as alternative methods for pointing the telescope with the extreme precision required to obtain the exoplanet data. The spacecraft has thrusters, but all of that fuel would be quickly consumed if it was used to maintain pointing accuracy instead of using the reaction wheels.
Hertz stressed that this is NASA's "first, not our last, exoplanet mission." Next is the recently-approved Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), scheduled for launch in 2017, which will search for the exoplanets that are closest to our solar system. Then the James Webb Space Telescope, to be launched in late 2018, will study the atmospheres of selected exoplanets to determine if life might exist there. Both will build on the data from Kepler.
Sobeck conceded that the Kepler team is "saddened" by the news that a second reaction wheel failed, imperiling the telescope's mission, but the mood of the teleconference was upbeat. He said Kepler is "not down and out," though they do not know yet what its performance level will be in the future. Borucki agreed: "I wouldn't be a pessimist here. I wouldn't write it off at this point."
If the spacecraft's precision pointing capability cannot be regained, they stressed repeatedly that there are two years worth of data yet to be mined and more exoplanets to be discovered.
If you believe China's account, it launched a geophysical sounding rocket yesterday. If you believe Bill Gertz, it was an antisatellite (ASAT) test.
China's official news agency, Xinhua, reported that it launched a sounding rocket at 9:00 pm (Beijing Time) Monday with a scientific payload to study energetic particles and magnetic fields. The launch was from the Xichang space launch site near Chengdu.
Bill Gertz, senior editor at the Washington Free Beacon and a columnist for the Washington Times, however, reports that it was an ASAT test disguised as a space exploration rocket. He describes it as "the first test of a new ground-launched anti-satellite missile" whose existence, he says, was first reported by the Free Beacon in October.
Some U.S. experts on China's space program expected an ASAT test in January that did not materialize. Greg Kulacki of the Union of Concerned Scientists argued that the United States should try to convince China not to conduct the test. China's successful 2007 ASAT test against one of its own weather satellites created over 3,000 pieces of space debris that earned it international condemnation. That launch also was from Xichang, but used a different rocket.
Gertz quoted a Pentagon spokesperson as saying only that they do not comment on intelligence matters. Reporters did not ask questions about it at the daily State Department briefings yesterday or today.
The Pentagon released its most recent congressionally-required annual assessment of military and security developments involving China last week -- often called the "China military power" report. The topic of ASATs was not raised during a press conference with David Helvey, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia, and the report itself says little new about China's space or counter-space activities.
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield has become quite the media star during his tour of duty aboard the International Space Station (ISS), which comes to a close tonight. He and two crew mates are scheduled to land at 10:31 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT). He made some nifty videos up there -- here are two of our favorites, plus one other all-time-great.
Hadfield, who was the first Canadian ISS Commander, brought his guitar with him and recorded his version of David Bowie's Space Oddiity ("Major Tom"). Watch at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=KaOC9danxNo#
He also did a number of videos to show what life is like on the ISS. Our favorite shows what happens when you wring a wet washcloth in microgravity. Might surprise you! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lMtXfwk7PXg
And in case anyone missed it, NASA astronaut and ISS Commander Suni Williams gave a terrific tour of the ISS on her final day in space last year. The ISS really isn't very big in terms of living space -- the comparison to being the size of a football field includes the solar arrays. The interior is the size of a 5-bedroom house, but on her tour, it looks a lot roomier. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=doN4t5NKW-k
Meanwhile, NASA TV will cover the undocking and landing of Hadfield, Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko and NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn tonight in their Soyuz TMA-07M spacecraft. Undocking is at 7:08 pm EDT; landing at 10:31 pm EDT.
Jeff Bingham, a key staffer in congressional decisions about the future of NASA's program for the past eight years, has announced that he is leaving the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Bingham will continue to work with the committee over the next several weeks transitioning his responsibilities to a new team led by Bailey Edwards. He plans to remain deeply involved in space issues, but his specific plans were not announced.
Bingham was chief of staff to then-Senator Jake Garn (R-UT) from 1974-1990. Garn, a former Navy pilot, served as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee's subcommittee that funded NASA (at that time the VA-HUD subcommittee) and became the first politician to fly on a space shuttle mission (STS-51D in 1985).
Bingham left the Senate in 1990, and after three years at SAIC, moved to NASA where, among other assignments, he began writing a history of the space station program from a political perspective. In 2005, he returned to the Senate and became a staffer for Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), a very influential Senator who helped craft recent NASA authorization acts, including the 2010 NASA authorization act that created a compromise between Congress and the Obama Administration on the future of the human spaceflight program (i.e., proceeding with the Obama Administration's proposal for commercial crew while also directing NASA to build its own new large space launch vehicle, the Space Launch System, and the Orion spacecraft to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit).
Hutchison retired from the Senate at the end of the 112th Congress and Bingham has now decided to follow suit, though he stresses that he is not retiring from being an advocate for the space program. For those of us still anxious to read his history of the space station program, we can only hope he now will have time to finish it.
Events of Interest