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Soyuz Docks with Space Station on 37th Anniversary of First U.S.-Soviet Space Docking

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Jul-2012 (Updated: 17-Jul-2012 11:38 AM)

The International Space Station (ISS) is back to its full complement of six crew members with the docking this morning of the Soyuz TMA-05M spacecraft.

Russian cosmonauts Gennady Padalka, Sergei Revin and Yuri Malenchenko, American astronauts Joe Acaba and Suni Williams, and Japanese astronaut Aki Hoshide, smiled for the cameras as Expedition 32 got down to work fully staffed.

The docking took place exactly 37 years after the first international human spaceflight docking -- of a U.S. Apollo spacecraft and a Russian Soyuz spacecraft as part of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975.  Those spacecraft remained docked for only two days, a far cry from today's permanently occupied space station era, with international crews rotating on roughly six-month schedules.

Cicerone: "Stay Interested, Ask Questions"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Jul-2012 (Updated: 17-Jul-2012 12:30 AM)

Ralph Cicerone, President of the National Academy of Sciences and chair of the National Research Council (NRC), sat down for an interview by Jim Lehrer, retired anchor of PBS NewsHour, on science and society at the Chatauqua Institution on July 5, 2012.  The conversation covered a broad range of issues from climate change to the Higgs boson to dark matter to the space program.

The discussion took place a day after the announcement that the Higgs boson might have been discovered, news that featured prominently in Lehrer's questions.  Cicerone charmingly explained the importance of the discovery, but more broadly talked about the importance of "the process of asking questions and sticking with it until you get the answer" in scientific research.   He stressed the point later in response to a question posed by moderator Sherra Babcock about what Chatauqua can do to bolster science.  "Stay interested, ask questions, and don't be content just because somebody in an authority position says something," he replied.  

He also reminded the audience that even in times of stress, the country needs to remain focused on the future.   Citing the federal government's creation of public universities and of the National Academy of Sciences at the height of the Civil War, he exhorted everyone to remember that "even in tough times you have to be thinking ahead.  Show some ambition and get on with it."  He conceded that he does not see many signs of that happening right now, however.

Cicerone demurred in response to another question about the future direction of the space program because, he explained, the NRC currently has two related studies underway and the information gathering phase is not complete.  However, he pointed to the difficulty of engaging in programs that take decades to complete and thus the need to set national goals:  "So that's kind of my bottom-line answer.  We have to agree on goals." 

The video of the interview is on YouTube.  The space program discussion begins at 52:45.

Delta II Returns to NASA Launch Manifest Along with Falcon 9

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Jul-2012 (Updated: 16-Jul-2012 10:51 PM)

NASA announced today that it has chosen the Delta II to launch three environmental satellites and Falcon 9 to launch another.  The new launches for the Delta II return the venerable rocket to NASA's launch manifest after what many thought was its final launch last fall.   As for Falcon 9, it is the first time SpaceX's privately-developed rocket has been selected to launch a satellite for NASA outside of the COTS program.

Delta II is one of the most reliable rockets in U.S. launch vehicle history.  For decades NASA and the Air Force relied heavily on the Delta II, with the Air Force shouldering many of the infrastructure costs.  The Air Force's transition to using the Delta IV and Atlas V Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) left NASA with the quandary of deciding whether to also rely on the EELVs or find a way to fund the additional infrastructure costs to enable it to utilize the four or five Delta IIs remaining in the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) inventory.   The loss of two NASA earth science satellites, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) in 2009 and GLORY in 2011, on Taurus XL rockets undercut confidence in that Orbital Sciences Corp. product. energizing efforts to find a way to use ULA's Delta II's.  

Today's announcement is for three of the Delta II's to be used for launching three earth science/environmental satellites:  NASA's Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) in October 2014, OCO-2 (a replacement for the lost OCO) in July 2014, and NOAA's Joint Polar Satellite System-1 (JPSS-1) in November 2016.   The total value of those launch services is $412 million according to NASA. 

At the same time, NASA announced that a Falcon 9 will launch NOAA's Jason-3 satellite, an operational ocean altimetry mission conducted jointly with Europe's EUMETSAT.   The first two satellites in the series were developmental satellites built by NASA and the French space agency CNES.   The value of the Falcon 9 launch services contract is $82 million.  Launch is scheduled for December 2014.  SpaceX's Falcon 9 has been launched three times, each time successfully, as part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) test program to demonstrate that it could be used to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).  SpaceX has been eager to win additional government contracts as a "new entrant" in the launch services business.

Events of Interest: Week of July 16-22, 2012

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Jul-2012 (Updated: 15-Jul-2012 03:16 PM)

The following events may of interest in the week ahead.  The House and Senate both are in session this week.

Monday-Sunday, July 16-22

  • Continuation of the biennial COSPAR conference, Mysore, India

Monday, July 16

Tuesday, July 17

Tuesday-Thursday, July 17-19

Thursday, July 19

Friday, July 20

Three ISS Crew Members Launch as ASTP is Remembered

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Jul-2012 (Updated: 14-Jul-2012 10:53 PM)

UPDATE:  The launch took place as scheduled at 10:40 pm EDT.


Three new crew members for the International Space Station (ISS) are getting ready to launch in a few hours from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.   Launch time is 10:40 pm on July 14, 2012, Eastern Daylight Time (EDT), but it will be 8:40 am July 15 at the launch site.  That means the launch coincides with the 37th anniversary of the launch of the first international human spaceflight mission -- the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP). 

ASTP was a hallmark of an era of detente between the Cold War superpowers -- the United States and the Soviet Union.  Three Americans (Tom Stafford, Deke Slayton, and Vance Brand) on an Apollo spacecraft docked with two Soviets (Alexei Leonov and Valeri Kubasov) aboard a Soyuz spacecraft for two days of joint operations.   A watershed event in the history of international space cooperation, it unfortunately also marked the end of the Apollo program.   Six more years would pass before the United States launched another astronaut into space on the inaugural mission of the space shuttle program.

The Soviets, however, were just ramping up their space station program, which had gotten off to a shaky start in 1971.  By the mid 1970s, however, their Salyut space stations were performing well and eventually led to the modular Mir space station.  The core Mir module was launched in 1986 and functioned as the heart of the evolving structure until the entire facility was deorbited in 2001.  

When ASTP was launched, hopes were high that it immediately would lead to additional human spaceflight cooperation with Americans on space shuttles docking with Soviet space stations.   The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 cooled U.S.-Soviet relations significantly, however, and such joint missions had to wait two decades.   The demolition of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 allowed U.S.-Russian space relationships to flourish, leading first to the shuttle-Mir missions of the 1990s and then to the interdependent relationship we have on ISS today.

At 10:40 pm EDT tonight, Russia's Yuri Malenchenko, America''s Suni Williams and Japan's Aki Hoshide will launch to the ISS, joining two Russians (Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin) and an American (Joe Acaba) already aboard.   The even broader cooperation among the 15 partners in ISS is a fitting tribute to and successor to ASTP, which launched international human spaceflight cooperation 37 years ago.

NASA Chooses Proposals from Four Companies for SLS Advanced Booster Awards

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Jul-2012 (Updated: 13-Jul-2012 04:28 PM)

NASA announced today the selection of six proposals from four companies for advanced booster concepts for the Space Launch System (SLS).  The agency plans to invest as much as $200 million in the six proposals.

The six proposals chosen for contract negotiations are:

  • Northrop Grumman
    • Subscale Composite Tank Set
  • Aerojet
    • Full-Scale Combustion Stability Demonstration
  • Dynetics
    • F-1 Engine Risk Reduction Task
    • Main Propulsion System Risk Reduction Task
    • Structures Risk Reduction Task
  • ATK
    • Integrated Booster Static Test

NASA is building the Space Launch System (SLS) to enable human exploration of space beyond low Earth orbit as directed by Congress in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.  The first test flight of a 70-metric-ton version of the SLS is scheduled for 2017.  By law, the SLS must be capable of launching 130 metric tons eventually. 

President Obama has set a goal of sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and to the vicinity of Mars in the 2030s.  The President's policy does not include landing astronauts on Mars at that time, which would require development of landing and surface habitation systems that are unlikely to be affordable anytime soon.   He said in April 2010 that he expects people to land on Mars in his lifetime, but was not more specific.

ESA Moves Closer to Adding Another Member -- Poland

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Jul-2012 (Updated: 13-Jul-2012 03:24 PM)

The European Space Agency (ESA) moved closer this week to adding another new member -- Poland.   When all is said and done, Poland will become ESA's 20th member.

The ESA Council approved Poland's accession to the ESA Convention on July 13. Poland now must go through an internal ratification process and then deposit its instruments of accession to the French government before it officially becomes an ESA member.   However, it will participate in meetings of the ESA Council as an observer until then.  It has been a "cooperating state" since 2007.

Poland will join 19 other European countries in ESA:

  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Czech Repubic
  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Luxembourg
  • the Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Portugal
  • Romania
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • the United Kingdom

Hungary, Estonia and Slovenia continue to be European Cooperating States.  

House Subcommittee Highlights Benefits of NASA-Derived Technologies

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Jul-2012 (Updated: 12-Jul-2012 05:29 PM)

An oft-asked question in Congress is how to explain to constituents the value of spending tax dollars on NASA.  At a congressional hearing today, NASA's chief technologist and representatives of four companies talked about their partnerships with the agency in technological spin offs or spin ins.

Ask almost anyone and they will tell you -- mistakenly -- that NASA developed Tang, Velcro and Teflon.  In fact, the chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee's Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, Steve Palazzo (R-MS), started today's hearing by saying that NASA's "contributions to society are often distilled down to Tang and Teflon." 

NASA was only a user of those discoveries and creations, however, not an inventor of them.  Tang was a commercial product already available when the human spaceflight program began in 1961.  Velco was developed by a Swiss engineer in 1948.   Teflon was discovered in 1938 and given its name in 1945. 

The agency is rightfully credited with creating a wide range of other technologies that led to products in wide use today, however.  NASA publishes an annual book, Spinoffs, that details some of them and has a website devoted to the topic.

Spin offs as a justification for NASA spending are controversial among economists and even within the space community.  Some argue that the connection between the NASA investment and the final product often is tenuous or that the new product would have been developed with or without NASA involvement.  Be that as it may, when searching for explanations of why spending money on NASA benefits people on Earth, the idea has a lot of staying power and a reasonable track record to back it up.

Mason Peck, NASA's Chief Technologist, offered a number of examples during the hearing, while other witnesses discussed the overall benefits of the nation's investment in NASA technologies.  John Vilja of Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne talked about the application of the company's expertise in "materials, temperatures, speeds and pressures" derived from building rocket engines to the energy field, including solar energy and coal gasification.  Richard Aubrecht of Moog, Inc., summarized Moog's decades-long relationship with NASA, particularly in human spaceflight programs, that led to the company becoming "the world's leading aerospace flight control company" and creating "more business at Boeing, more efficient passenger aircraft, better flight controls on military aircraft, and more reliable, less expensive launch vehicles."

Two other witnesses offered examples of spin in.   George Beck of Impact Instrumentation recounted how his company, which develops life support equipment for the defense department and others, has benefited from partnering with NASA through Space Act Agreements that allow NASA engineers access to his company's technology early enough in the development phase to identify changes that would make it useful for NASA missions.  Brian Russell of Zephyr Technology similarly discussed his small business's succcess in working with NASA on remote physiological status monitoring systems.  "Working with NASA gave us the information and feedback we needed to move from the realm of science fiction to the mainstream," Russell said, and aided NASA when it was working to help save the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped last year.   In a ringing endorsement, Russell ended his statement by saying that "nothing but good - and [a] great deal of good -- can come from funding NASA and its programs."

A webcast of the hearing, the hearing charter, and prepared statements are available on the committee's main website and Democratic website


Evidence Piling Up Against Arsenic Find

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 10-Jul-2012 (Updated: 10-Jul-2012 11:59 PM)

Two new studies add to the mounting evidence refuting the controversial claim that NASA-funded scientists had isolated a bacterium that could thrive on arsenic.

In a December 2010 paper, a team led by NASA astrobiology research fellow Felisa Wolfe-Simon announced that a microbe dubbed GFAJ-1 could thrive in the presence of arsenic, incorporating the toxic substance in its DNA in the place of phosphorous, one of the six elements of life. The results were made public in a NASA press conference that drew attention to the finding’s implications on the agency’s quest for life in other parts of the universe.

But in two papers published online in Science last Sunday, the findings are once more refuted. In the first study, a team from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich concludes that the bacteria “lacked the ability to grow in phosphorus-depleted…arsenate-containing medium,” and concludes that GFAJ-1 is “an arsenate-resistant, but still a phosphate-dependent bacterium.”  In the second paper, a team from Princeton University finds that the toxin did not contribute to growth in the bacterium and was unable to find detectable traces of the substance in its DNA.

These findings echo the conclusions reached by a researcher last February, which found that trace levels of phosphorous were the cause of the reported growth in the original study.

According to a BBC article covering the story, Science has not retracted the original article, but accompanied the recent studies with the following statement:

"In conclusion, the new research shows that GFJA-1 does not break the long-held rules of life, contrary to how Wolfe-Simon had interpreted her group's data.  The scientific process is a naturally self-correcting one, as scientists attempt to replicate published results."  (Editor's Note:   One must be a subscriber to Science to read the journal's actual statement.)

Michael New, who works for NASA's planetary science division, issued a statement saying that the new papers "challenge some of the conclusions" of the 2010 announcement, but neither "invalidates" the original "observations of a remarkable micro-organism that can survive in a highly phosphate-poor and arsenic-rich environment toxic to many other micro-organisms.  What has emerged ... is an as yet incomplete picture of GFAJ-1 that clearly calls for additional research."

Russian Government Investigating GLONASS Contractor For Fraud

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Jul-2012 (Updated: 10-Jul-2012 11:40 AM)

Russia's Interior Ministry is investigating a Russian company for alleged fraud for the handling of contracts for Russia's GLONASS navigation satellite system.

GLONASS is Russia's equivalent to the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) and ensuring the system is fully operational is a very high priority for Russian President Vladimir Putin.   The system finally reached full status of 24 operational satellites that are required for three-dimensional global coverage in October 2011 after 15 years of diminished capability.  A launch failure in December 2010 that destroyed three GLONASS satellites reportedly led to the firing of several officials of Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, including its director, Anatoly Perminov.

Perminov's successor, Vladimir Popovkin, and GLONASS contractor Russian Space Systems are now in a battle over whether the company misused 565 million rubles ($17 million) designated for GLONASS, according to RIA Novosti.  The company is being investigated for signing fraudulent contracts, but reportedly dismisses the accusations.

Events of Interest


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