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UPDATE 3: Russia Launches Probe to Mars's Moon Phobos

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE 3: Anatoly Zak at tweets that second stage shutdown was successful. tweets that it "should now be in orbit" with two more burns to put it on course for Mars.

UPDATE 2: Liftoff!

UPDATE: is providing live streaming webcast of the launch.

ORIGINAL STORY: Russia is set to launch its first robotic Mars probe in 15 years this afternoon.

The Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-soil) mission is scheduled to lift off from the Baikomur Cosmodrome at 00:16 Moscow Time November 9 (3:16 pm EST today, November 8) according to Roscosmos's (the Russian space agency's) website.

The last Russian attempt to launch a probe to Mars was in 1996. The spacecraft, Mars-96, failed to leave Earth orbit due to a fourth stage failure, adding to the long list of Russian Mars probe failures since the 1960s. Russia has never had a completely successful Mars mission, although the Phobos 2 probe in 1989 returned imagery while orbiting Mars. It failed, however, in its primary mission to study Mars's moon, Phobos.

The spacecraft being launched today is designed to return a sample of Phobos to Earth. A Chinese Mars orbiter, Yinghuo-1, will also be deployed. They will be launched on a Zenit rocket.

House Committee to Look at Future of Planetary Exploration

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee will hold a hearing about the future of the planetary exploration program next week.

Witnesses are Jim Green, director of the planetary sciences division of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, and Steve Squyres, chair of the National Research Council's recent decadal survey on planetary science.

Budget constraints at NASA are heightening concerns about what the future holds for the U.S. planetary science program. With the launch of NASA's next Mars probe, Curiosity, just weeks away, what will come next is an open question. Grand plans of merging the U.S. and European robotic Mars exploration programs are endangered by NASA's inability to commit funds to planned missions in 2016 and 2018. U.S. plans for large "flagship" missions to destinations like Jupiter's moon Europa are in abeyance until the budget situation stabilizes. In recent meetings of NASA's planetary science subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), Green has been alerting planetary scientists to the need to explain the return on investment in planetary exploration. Squyres, best known as the father of the twin Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, was just named as the new chair of NAC.

Still, in response to a recent op-ed in the Washington Times lamenting the state of the planetary science program, Green said that the U.S. program is still the best in the world.

The hearing is at 10:00 am EST on November 15 in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building.

Events of Interest: Week of November 7-11, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 06-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The following events may be of interest in the coming week. For more information, click the links below or check our calendar on the right menu. The Senate is in session this week until Thursday (Friday is a federal holiday, Veterans Day). The House is in a Constituent Work Week and meets only in pro forma session on Monday and Thursday.

During the Week

Russia is scheduled to launch its first robotic mission to Mars in 15 years. This mission, Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-soil), is a sample return mission to Mars's moon Phobos. It also carries China's first Mars probe, a Mars orbiter called Yinghuo-1. The launch is just after 3:00 pm Tuesday, November 8 EST (November 9, Moscow Time). One report gave the time as 00:26 Moscow Time on November 9, which converts to 3:26 pm EST November 8 (now that Moscow decided not to return to standard time), although reports the launch time as 2016:03 GMT (3:16:03 pm EST) November 8. Russia has been jinxed at Mars, with none of the many Mars probes it has launched since the 1960s being a complete success, and the partial successes quite modest. Its most recent Mars probe, Mars-96, was launched in 1996 and failed to leave Earth orbit. (Editor's note: The time of launch was given as 4:26 pm EST in an earlier version of this article, but that did not reflect the recent decision by Moscow to remain on summer time.)

Tuesday-Wednesday, November 8-9

  • National Research Council (NRC) Space Studies Board (SSB), Irvine, CA (no details have been posted on the SSB website other than the date and location)

Wednesday, November 9

  • Secure World Foundation, China's Space-Based Surveillance Activities, 1779 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, DC 11:00 am - 1:00 pm EST
  • Mark Albrecht Lecture on his new book Falling Back to Earth: A First Hand Account of the Great Space Race and the End of the Cold War, George Washington University's (GWU's) Elliot School Lindner Family Commons, 1957 E Street, NW, Washington, DC, 5:30 pm EST

Wednesday-Thursday, November 9-10

Thursday, November 10

Russia's Space Program Still Relevant, Experts Agree

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 04-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

At a panel discussion yesterday, three experts on the Russian space program agreed that despite two recent launch failures widely covered in the media and enduring budget challenges, Russia's space program remains quite relevant today. In fact, the U.S. space program is more dependent on Russia than most realize.

Yesterday marked the 54th anniversary of the launch of the Soviet dog Laika, the first animal in orbit -- or, as founder and editor Marcia Smith commented, the "first female in space."

To update the space policy community on Russia's space program and commemorate Laika's launch -- just one of many Soviet space "firsts" -- the Secure World Foundation (SWF) hosted a panel discussion on the history and future direction of Russia's space programs. It included Russia's involvement in space sustainability and security discussions at the United Nations.

In her review of Russia's civil space program, Smith stressed that the distinction between civil and military space activities "can be quite blurry" and the Soviets made no such distinction until 1985. For the purposes of the SWF panel discussion, Russia's civil space activities were deemed to be those analogous to the activities of NASA and NOAA in the United States.

The 54-year history of Russia's civil space activities involved many space "firsts" that are often forgotten. These include, for example, the first robotic lunar sample return in 1970, the launch of the world's first space station, Salyut 1, in 1971, and the launch of the first space tourist to Russia's Mir space station in 1990. That was long before Dennis Tito, often referred to as the first space tourist, travelled to the International Space Station.

Russia's space science program, although it included some impressive space firsts such as the lunar sample return missions and spacecraft that orbited and landed on Venus, has been comparatively less successful, Smith said. She noted there have been "no transformative space science results" similar to the groundbreaking discoveries of the Hubble space telescope, other than the Venus probes. The Soviet/Russian experience with Mars probes has been one of failure and disappointment. Consequently, a lot is riding on the success of the upcoming launch of the Russia's Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-soil) sample return mission to the Martian moon Phobos. The probe is scheduled for launch next week and includes a Chinese satellite that will orbit Mars.

Russia's dreams for future human spaceflight missions to Mars endure, continued Smith, but budget constraints remain a big challenge. Russia has accumulated "extensive experience" in human spaceflight activities in Earth orbit over the past five decades, however, which would be a significant attribute for any such missions. Russia is part of the International Space Exploration Coordination Group that is looking at such missions on an international basis.

Russia also maintains an "impressive launch capability" with launch sites from the Arctic to the equator, she said.

Although a lot of attention is focused on the U.S. dependence on Russia today for taking crews to and from the International Space Station, the U.S. space program also is dependent on Russia for rocket engines for the Atlas V and Taurus II launch vehicles, Smith noted. The two countries actually are interdependent with regard to space programs, Smith explained, since Russia depends on U.S. funds to augment its modest government budget, needs the U.S. as a market for its space wares, and needs a space station. It was clear after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that the Russian government would not build a replacement for the Mir space station, its seventh space station; Mir was deorbited in 2001. To those in the United States lamenting U.S. dependence on Russia today, however, Smith said that "we did this to ourselves [there is] no one else to blame."

Anatoly Zak, Journalist and Founder of, detailed the history of Soviet/Russian military space programs. Also remarking on the challenge of any true demarcation between civil and military space activities, he described how the birth of Soviet space efforts was purely military and focused on only one project: the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The goal was to "outrun the U.S. Air Force" in the development of that "ultimate weapon of the Cold War," he said. The R-7 missile program was later converted to the launch vehicle that put Sputnik into orbit and began the Space Age. Sputnik's story is different than most people remember, he said. It was 99% a military program, yet, as a result of a successful Soviet publicity campaign, the perception remains that it was a scientific effort. He illustrated the fact that the tiny Sputnik satellite was placed into orbit by a large ballistic missile. It was the remnants of that missile, not Sputnik itself, that people saw as they watched it orbit Earth.

Zak went on to describe major Soviet/Russian military space programs. He stressed that from the 1960s they "mirrored" U.S. military space projects. Although partly motivated by need, they were mostly driven by competition. Zak said the best way to get funding for a program in the Soviet era was "to show the Americans are doing it."

Speaking about future plans, Zak explained that the main concern now is with the modernization of space assets and moving away from inherited inefficiencies from the Soviet system. These efforts are hampered by ongoing budgetary challenges and the perception that the government is "sawing money" - a Russian expression that means spending a lot and getting little in return.

Tiffany Chow, Program Manager at SWF, then analyzed the role played by Russia in space sustainability and security discussions at the United Nations (UN). She concluded that in the different forums -- such as the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) -- Russia continues to play a leading role while navigating between the other two space powers, the United States and China.

Chow found that the "most exciting and optimistic" development involves Russia's involvement with the UN General Assembly's First Committee. Russia sponsored a resolution there calling for establishment of a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) to consider transparency and confidence building measures (TCBMs) for space. As sponsor of the resolution, Russia is considered a leading candidate to chair the group, although that decision has not yet been made, she said.

According to Chow, the GGE initiative not only speaks positively about Russia's interest in advancing space security, but is also the clearest example of Russia balancing its relationship with the other two space powers. China and Russia introduced the Prevention of Placement of Weapons in Outer Space Treaty (PPWT) in a different UN body, the Conference on Disarmament. The United States objects to the draft treaty. Russia has agreed not to bring up discussion of the PPWT at the GGE, which Chow believes is a nod of respect to U.S. concerns and shows a commitment to not undermine chances of the GGE succeeding. Finally, Chow said that the interplay between China and Russia could prove positive for international space security in another way. By acting as a broker, Russia could help China transition into a more responsible space player on space sustainability issues.

Interestingly, debates in Russia surrounding the use of funds for space are similar to those in the United States. Responding to a question about public support for space in Russia, Zak explained that the Russian public is mostly proud, but also cynical about the space program with many questioning whether funds devoted to space ought to be devoted to other, more pressing needs. Nevertheless, Zak said that he was surprised when Roscosmos director Vladimir Popovkin recently suggested that he would shift priorities away from human spaceflight. Zak said human spaceflight is considered a "national treasure" in Russia and it would be "political suicide" for anyone who decided to cancel it.

SWF plans to post an audio recording and the Powerpoint presentations from the panel discussion on its website. Smith's slides also are available here at

Shenzhou-8 Docks with Tiangong-1

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

China has its first space station in orbit today, albeit with no crew aboard. The Shenzhou-8 spacecraft, launched on Monday, docked with the Tiangong-1 module that was launched in September.

Shenzhou 8 is the first of three spacecraft that will successively dock with the Tiangong-1 module over the next two years. At least one of the remaining two flights will carry a crew.

Squyres New NAC Chair

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Steve Squyres, a highly respected planetary scientist, will be the new chair of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC).

NASA announced his appointment today. NAC provides advice to the NASA Administrator on programs and issues affecting the agency. It has a number of committees, subcommittees, and analysis groups.

Squyres is probably best known as the "father" of the two Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. A professor at Cornell University, he also chaired the recent Decadal Survey on planetary science for the National Research Council. He recently took part as an "aquanaut" in the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) simulation of a mission to an asteroid, which had to be terminated prematurely because of Hurricane Rina.

Senate Passes "Minibus" with CJS and T-HUD Approps

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

This afternoon the Senate passed the "minibus" appropriations bill (H.R. 2112) that combines three of the regular appropriations bills into one, including funding for NASA, NOAA and the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST).

The Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill includes NASA and NOAA. The Transportation-Housing and Urban Development (T-HUD) includes AST. The third bill in the package is Agriculture.

The vote was 69-30.

The bill now goes to the House where its future is unclear. The most recent reports indicate that the House will, in fact, accede to the Senate's approach to the appropriations bills for FY2012, dealing with them in groups instead of combining all 12 into a single "omnibus" package. Omnibus bills have become common in recent years and initially it appeared the House preferred that method.

The House and Senate appropriations committees were fairly far apart in their recommendations for NASA. The House committee approved $16.8 billion, and, among other things, recommended terminating the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) program. The Senate approved $17.9 billion and recommended increasing JWST funding by $156 million so it could be launched in 2018 instead of years later. The President's request for NASA was $18.7 billion, of which $374 million was for JWST.

The two also were far apart on overall funding for NOAA. The House committee approved $4.5 billion; the Senate approved $5.0 billion. The request was $5.5 billion. However, regarding the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), the two are quite close: $901 million in the House versus $920 million in the Senate, compared to the request of $1.07 billion.

The two also were fairly close in their recommendations for AST, approving about half of what the President requested. The request was $26.6 million, a significant increase from its FY2011 level of $15 million. The House committee approved $13 million, while the Senate approved $15 million.

After the House passes its bill, with whatever amendments are adopted, the two chambers will have to reach a compromise and the President will have to agree with it, so there still are several steps to go. Today's action, however, moves the process closer to providing certainty to at least some federal agencies as to their FY2012 funding levels.

The government is currently operating under a Continuing Resolution that expires on November 18. Congress will need to pass some sort of appropriations bill(s) before then to avoid a full or partial government shutdown.

UPDATE: Jack Townsend, In Memorium

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: The Washington Post ran this obituary on November 16, 2011.

John W. (Jack) Townsend, former Director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and former President of Fairchild's space division died of lung cancer on October 29. He was 87.

His family provided the following biography.

Townsend was a rocket and satellite pioneer. Starting in 1949, he served with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in the V-2, Aerobee, Viking and Vanguard upper air research programs. In 1958, as Assistant Director, he helped form the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Dr. Townsend was one of a three-man Presidential commission charged with negotiating the first peaceful uses of outer space programs with the Soviet Union. He was influential in creating the first meteorological, communications and earth viewing satellite systems. From 1968-1970, he was Deputy Administrator of the Environmental Science Services Agency, the predecessor agency to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). From 1970-1977 he was Associate Administrator of NOAA. Both were Presidential appointments. In 1975 he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering for his work in developing meteorological polar and geostationary satellite systems. He was President of Fairchild Industries space division, and held senior executive positions at Fairchild, including Executive Vice President from 1977-1987. After the Challenger accident, he returned to NASA at the request of then Administrator James Fletcher and served essentially as general manager until the space shuttle safely returned to service. He retired in 1990 after almost three years as Director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Dr. Townsend chaired the National Research Council's Space Application Board and led many influential studies for the National Academies and other organizations, including the seminal, Low-Altitude Wind Shear and Its Hazard to Aviation. He was a fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the American Meteorological Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He received the Arthur S. Fleming award, NASA's distinguished service award twice and also its outstanding leadership medal, the Edward A. Flinn award of the American Geophysical Union, the Navy Department Meritorious Civilian Service award, and other honors.

He was a WWII veteran and flew radar countermeasures in B-29s in the Pacific. He was a live steam railroader, an orchid hobbyist, sailor, and, for more than 65 years, a ham radio operator.

He is survived by his wife, JoAnn Clayton Townsend; his children, Bruce, Nancy and Megan Townsend; and three grandchildren.

UPDATE 4: Shenzhou 8 is in Orbit

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE 4: Shenzhou-8 is in orbit and the solar panels have deployed.

UPDATE 3: Liftoff of Shenzhou-8.

UPDATE 2: Prof. John Lewis of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory is helping CCTV anchor coverage of the SZ-8 launch.

UPDATE: Live coverage of the launch in English is being carried on China's CCTV.

ORIGINAL STORY: China Daily reports today that Shenzhou 8 will indeed be launched at 5:58 am November 1 Beijing time (5:58 pm October 31 EDT) confirming an earlier report by the German Aerospace Center.

Shenzhou 8 will not carry a crew. It will dock with China's Tiangong-1 unoccupied module to form a rudimentary space station. This will be the first rendezvous and docking for China as part of its human spaceflight program. Two more Shenzhou spacecraft will be launched to dock with Tiangong-1 over the next two years; the last of those is expected to carry a crew.

Germany is launching a payload with 17 biological and medical experiments on Shenzhou 8.

The launch is from China's Jiuquan launch facility in the Gobi desert.

UPDATE 3: Progress M-13M Successfully Launched, Operations of ISS Can Return to Normal

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE 3: Progress M-13 M (or Progress 45 as NASA calls it) is in orbit and its solar arrays and antennas have deployed. A successful launch. It will dock with the International Space Station on Wednesday.

UPDATE 2: Liftoff!

UPDATE: Countdown is proceeding to launch in 9 minutes.

ORIGINAL STORY: In a few hours, Russia will launch the next cargo spacecraft, Progress M-13M, to the International Space Station (ISS), the first since an August launch failure doomed Progress M-12M. The fate of this launch will determine when the next crew can be sent to the ISS.

Launch is scheduled for 10:11 GMT (6:11 am EDT) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The August 24 launch failure of a Soyuz rocket carrying Progress M-12M threw ISS operations into turmoil and raised the possibility of needing to destaff the ISS. The Soyuz rocket used for launches of the Progress spacecraft is very similar to that used to launch crews to the ISS. It was the first launch failure of a Progress spacecraft since the 1970s.

The Soyuz rocket has been in use since the 1960s. There are several variants, and Russia has successfully conducted launches of two other Soyuz variants since August -- of a GLONASS navigation satellite from Russia's Plesetsk launch site on October 2, and of two European Galileo navigation satellites from the French launch site in Kourou, French Guiana, last week.

If the launch today succeeds, Russia and NASA have agreed to proceed with the launch of the next three-person ISS crew on November 14. The ISS is currently down to a 3-person crew, instead of its usual complement of six, while the Soyuz rocket problems are being resolved (Soyuz is also the name of the spacecraft used to take crews to and from ISS and that serve as "lifeboats" while attached to the ISS).

NASA refers to this as Progress 45 because it is the 45th Progress flight to the ISS. The Progress spacecraft has been in use in 1978, with several upgrades. The Russians refer to this as Progress M-13M, the 13th flight of the current version of the Progress spacecraft.

Events of Interest

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