Latest News

House Passes FY2012 Intel Bill

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

The House passed the FY2012 Intelligence Authorization bill today.

The bill, H.R. 1892, authorizes funding and activities for the nation's intelligence community.

Passage of the bill is timely not only as it comes two days before the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, but next week the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) will celebrate its 50th anniversary at a fancy event at the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly VA (not far from NRO's offices). The announcement promises that two legacy satellite reconnaissance systems will be unveiled that evening.

GRAIL Set for Launch Saturday Morning

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

NASA's GRAIL twin robotic lunar probes are set for launch tomorrow morning and the weather is looking a little better.

The launch was scrubbed on Thursday because of upper level winds. NASA was going to try to launch today, but wanted to look at propulsion system data from the detanking operation on Thursday. They concluded everything is OK.

The forecast is for 60 percent favorable weather at launch time. Two "instantaneous" launch windows are available: 8:29:45 and 9:08:52.

GRAIL Launch Slips to Saturday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

The launch of the twin GRAIL lunar probes has been postponed another day, to Saturday, September 10.

NASA stated that it needed "additional time to review propulsion data from Thursday's detanking operation." That detanking followed a postponement of the launch yesterday due to high level winds.

There are two launch opportunities on Saturday: 8:29:45 am and 9:08:52 am EDT. The launch is on a Delta II rocked from Cape Canaveral.

Virgin Galactic Hires Steve Isakowitz as EVP and CTO

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

Steve Isakowitz, well known in Washington space policy circles even though he has been Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of the Department of Energy (DOE) for the past several years, is joining Virgin Galactic as Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer.

Isakowitz was Comptroller of NASA while Sean O'Keefe was NASA Administrator. O'Keefe was Deputy Director of OMB when he was tapped to replace Dan Goldin as Admininistrator early in the George W. Bush Presidency. Isakowitz, who was Branch Chief for Science and Space at OMB, was one of several OMB staffers who went to NASA with O'Keefe or shortly thereafter.

The O'Keefe/Isakowitz era at NASA probably will be most remembered for the heartbreak of the 2003 space shuttle Columbia tragedy, and the resulting reexamination of the rationale for human spaceflight that led to Vision for Space Exploration speech by President Bush in January 2004. Isakowtiz is credited (or blamed, depending on one's point of view) for developing the budgetary strategy that showed that NASA could afford to send people back to the Moon by 2020 and on to Mars with the extremely small increase ($1 billion over 5 years) promised by President Bush. The strategy included ending the space shuttle and U.S. participation in the International Space Station much earlier than planned so those budget resources could be diverted to meeting the Moon goal. Isakowitz transitioned to become NASA's Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration in 2005 under Craig Steidle before leaving the agency later that year to join the CIA's Science and Technology Directorate. He moved to DOE in 2007 and served under the Bush and Obama Administrations as DOE's CFO.

Virgin Galatic announced Isakowitz's appointment today. He has B.A. and M.A. degrees in aerospace engineering from MIT and once worked for Lockheed Martin and Booz Allen Hamilton. His son, Matt, is Associate Director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), of which Virgin Galactic is a member. Steidle recently became CSF's President. It's a small world.

UPDATE 2: GRAIL Launch Scrubbed for Today, Will Try Again Tomorrow

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

UPDATE 2: The launch has been scrubbed for 9:16 today as well due to upper level winds. They will try again tomorrow morning. The launch windows open 4 minutes earlier each day. First opportunity tomorrow is 8:33:25 am and second is 9:12:31.

UPDATE: The 8:37 launch opportunity has been scrubbed because of upper level winds. They will try for the 9:16 am window today. Stay tuned. Follow us on Twitter: @SpcPlcyOnline

ORIGINAL STORY: NASA is on track to launch the GRAIL spacecraft at 8:37 this morning.

At 7:44 am, NASA reported that clouds in the area had not thickened, giving them cautious optimism that the launch can proceed. Watch live on NASA TV.

The GRAIL mission is a pair of spacecraft that will make a detailed map of the Moon's gravity field, providing clues as to the Moon's interior.

NASA Cancels Briefing on ISS National Lab Award

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

The delay of the GRAIL launch to tomorrow morning means that NASA is cancelling a scheduled briefing on the Internatiional Space Station (ISS) National Lab award.

The ISS National Lab award press conference had been scheduled for 9:30 am EDT tomorrow from Kennedy Space Center, right around the time for the next attempt to launch GRAIL. NASA encourages those who are interested to visit the national lab's website at or follow it on Twitter @ISS_NatLab.

Hutchison and Nelson Blast "Campaign to Undermine" Human Spaceflight Program

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

Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) issued a scathing statement today on what they call the "Campaign to Undermine America's Manned Space Program."

Referring to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) story yesterday, the Senators complained that the Obama Administration's "budget office" -- the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) -- continues to keep the independent cost assessment of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle by Booz Allen "under wraps" while a "wildly inflated set of NASA cost numbers was invented, based on an imaginary 'acceleration' of SLS development." Those "contrived numbers" were "leaked" to the WSJ they assert.

They stress that "No one has proposed to accelerate development," calling it a "convenient myth." What they want is only to follow what was agreed upon in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, an approach they say has been "validated repeatedly."

Gerstenmaier Confident Station Won't Need to be Destaffed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations (HEO), said today that he is "very confident" that Russia's Soyuz rocket will be cleared for launching crews into space before the International Space Station (ISS) would have to be destaffed.

Speaking at a Space Transportation Association (STA) luncheon today, Gerstenmaier steered clear of the topics most people in attendance probably wanted to hear about - the Space Launch System, the new HEO Mission Directorate, commercial crew. Instead, he presented a very interesting and sometimes humorous discussion of "decision fatigue" both in the context of one's own life and in the lives of organizations. Later, however, he answered a few questions about the human spaceflight program.

With regard to staffing the ISS and getting the Soyuz rocket recertified for launching crews, he pointed out that if the Soyuz rocket had failed at the same point in its trajectory with a Soyuz spacecraft aboard, instead of the robotic Progress cargo spacecraft, the crew could have made a safe ballistic return to Earth. If the launch vehicle had failed a few seconds later, they could have aborted to orbit. While they would not have been able to reach the ISS, they could have made a "more normal" landing from orbit. Thus, for a crewed mission, such a launch failure would be more important from a mission success standpoint than safety.

Indeed, a Soyuz spacecraft did fail to attain orbit in 1975. Called the "April 5th Anomaly" or "Soyuz 18A," a two-man Soviet crew intended to dock with the Salyut 4 space station landed in Siberia instead because of a third-stage failure. They were safely recovered. The Soyuz spacecraft has encountered a number of anomalies over the more than 40 years it has been in use, including two that ended in fatalities - Soyuz 1 in 1967 and Soyuz 11 in 1971. There was another close call in 1983 when the Soyuz launch vehicle caught fire on the launch pad and the crew was pulled away by the emergency abort tower, landing 3 kilometers away. The two-man "Soyuz T-10A" crew survived and each flew on subsequent missions.

Gerstenmaier's point was that from a safety standpoint, if the type of failure that doomed Progress M-12M occurred on a crewed flight, the crew would have been OK. But it would have mission failure because the crew would not have reached the ISS.

He also stressed that the ISS program would be in the same predicament even if the space shuttle was still available. The Soyuz spacecraft not only takes crews to and from the ISS, but they remain docked at the ISS as lifeboats. Without Soyuz spacecraft, there would be no lifeboats, so crews could not remain for long duration missions anyway.

It should be noted, however, that if the shuttle were still flying, short missions could be flown while the shuttle remained docked with the ISS, even if the long duration missions had to be put on hold.

Gerstenmaier said that the Russians had "outbriefs" today on their current understanding of what went wrong on Progress M-12M, but he offered no details. A Babel Fish translation of a statement from the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, today refers to a blockage that caused the gas generator of the third stage engine to fail, attributing it to a "manufacturing defect" that is "random."

WSJ: White House Has Sticker Shock on Exploration Program

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reports today that the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is experiencing "sticker shock" over the cost of the new Space Launch System and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle being designed to take humans beyond low Earth orbit.

The article (subscription required for full text) says that President Obama "may announce a decision on what space program the White House will ask Congress to fund in the next few weeks." The discussion centers on whether Congress will support the "more than $35 billion NASA inititally projected" through 2025 for the SLS and MPCV, or to ask for more money to accelerate the program and provide results sooner. The WSJ says that it obtained a copy of an August 19 NASA budget analysis that shows the latter approach could increase program costs by nearly 80 percent to $62 billion.

Editor's Note: We were able to get a copy of the presentation used by the WSJ.

Reductions in Astronaut Corps May Be Too Deep Says NRC

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

The National Research Council (NRC) today released a study assessing how large the NASA astronaut corps should be now that the space shuttle program has ended. It concluded that NASA may be cutting the size of the corps too deeply and supports retaining the T-38 training aircraft used by the astronauts.

Noting that the size of the astronaut corps has diminished from almost 150 people in 2000 to 61 in May 2011, the report cites the many uncertainties that must be taken into account when rightsizing the corps: "Viewed as a supply chain, astronaut selection and training are very sensitive to critical shortfalls because of the long lead times and long recovery time between missions, and because astronauts, trained for specific roles and missions, cannot be easily interchanged."

Thus, it concluded that "the currently projected minimum target size for the active Astronaut Corps poses a risk to the U.S. investment in human spaceflight capabilities" because it does not take into account "unexpected increases in attrition, or commercial, exploration, and new mission development tasks."

The NRC specifically recommended that NASA factor in a higher "reserve" when determining the number of NASA astronauts that are needed.

NASA uses a theoretical model to determine the "minimum manifest requirements," or how many astronauts it needs. The model is based on the number of astronauts who are in a post-flight reconditioning period, plus the number on-orbit, plus program spaceflight opportunities with a 5-year rotation. It then adds a reserve factor, which in the past was 50 percent, but recently was lowered to 25 percent for budgetary reasons, according to the report.

That model does not include "real-world constraints," however, such as needed skill mix, medical disqualification, or the desired pairing of inexperienced and experienced astronauts, the NRC concluded. Nor does it take into account "new sources of uncertainty" such as a "relatively new medical condition" -- papilledema, a swelling of the optic disk - afflicting astronauts returning from long duration missions. Thus, the NRC recommends that NASA return to a higher reserve factor when calculating the number of astronauts needed, though it did not specify what level should be used.

The committee also reviewed the need for NASA to retain astronaut training and simulation facilities and aircraft. One particularly controversial topic is whether the fleet of T-38N aircraft in which the astronauts train is still needed for what NASA calls spaceflight readiness training (SFRT). The NRC concluded that the aircraft should be retained because they teach critical decision-making skills in an operational environment:

"High-performance aircraft provide conditions including crew disorientation and rapid fluctuation in G-forces, under which the flight crew must carry out complex tasks in a stressful and potentially life-threatening environment. This combination of unique environments, demand for rapid, critical decision making, and historical evidence convinced the committee that SFRT provides experienced-based training that cannot be duplicated by current, or to the best of the committee's knowledge, projected alternative techniques or technologies."

The NRC committee was co-chaired by Fred Gregory and Joe Rothenberg. Gregory is a former astronaut and former NASA Deputy Administrator. Rothenberg is a former NASA Associate Administrator for Space Flight and former Director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

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