Latest News

NASA To Brief NRC on New Mars Plan -- Final CAPS Meeting Agenda

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Sep-2012 (Updated: 21-Sep-2012 01:05 PM)
NASA will brief the National Research Council's Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science (CAPS) on its new Mars plan next Tuesday.  The final agenda for the meeting shows that Orlando Figueroa will brief CAPS at 10:15 am PT (1:15 pm ET) on September 25.

NASA, SpaceX Set October 7 as Next Dragon Flight to ISS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Sep-2012 (Updated: 21-Sep-2012 12:56 AM)

NASA and SpaceX have set October 7, 2012 as the first operational launch of the Dragon capsule to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

SpaceX completed a final test flight of its Dragon capsule aboard its Falcon 9 launch vehicle in May, opening the way to 12 contracted operational flights over the next three years.

NASA and SpaceX jointly fund this "commercial cargo" program as a public-private partnership to take cargo to the ISS.   NASA does not have its own capability to send cargo -- or crews -- to the ISS since the space shuttle program was terminated last year.

Launch of this mission, designated CRS-1, is scheduled for 8:34 am ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  A backup launch date is October 8.  Dragon will take about 1,000 pounds of supplies to the ISS crew and return 734 pounds of results from scientific experiments plus 504 pounds of space station hardware to Earth.

Wolf, Culberson Introduce Space Leadership Act

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Sep-2012 (Updated: 21-Sep-2012 12:40 AM)

Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and four other Republicans introduced the Space Leadership Act today.

The bill, co-sponosred by Reps. Pete Olson (R-TX), Bill Posey (R-FL), Lamar Smith (R-TX) and James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) would create a Board of Directors chosen by the administration, the House and the Senate made up of former astronauts and eminent scientists.  The board would -- 

  • prepare a budget request that is submitted concurrently to the President and Congress
  • recommend three candidates for NASA administrator, deputy administrator and chief financial officer -- the president would be encouraged to select one of them who would then be approved by the Senate and
  • prepare a quadrennial review of space programs and other reports

Board terms would be for three years and board members could not work for any company that does business with NASA.  The administrator would be selected for a 10-year term.

The bill stands little chance of clearing the 112th Congress if for no other reason than the short amount of time remaining, but could provide an opportunity for more debate on how to help NASA move forward.

NASA to Brief NRC on Its New Mars Plan Next Week

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Sep-2012 (Updated: 20-Sep-2012 02:34 PM)

Orlando Figueroa will brief the National Research Council's Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science (CAPS) next week on the results of his Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG) effort. 

MPPG was established earlier this year in the wake of budget cutbacks that caused NASA to withdraw from planned Mars cooperation with the European Space Agency.  Its task is to "develop foundations for a program-level architecture for robotic exploration of Mars that is consistent with the President's challenge of sending humans to Mars orbit in the decade of the 2030's, yet remain responsive to the primary scientific goals" of the most recent NRC Decadal Survey for planetary science.

Figueroa is scheduled to brief the committee on Tuesday at 10:15 am PT (1:15 pm ET) at the NRC's Beckman Center in Irvine, CA.   The NRC plans to webcast the meeting.

Canadian Embassy Celebrates Canada's First 50 Years in Space

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Sep-2012 (Updated: 19-Sep-2012 08:31 PM)

The Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC will celebrate Canada's first 50 years in space with a forum and reception on September 26.  Registration is required by September 21.

Canada has a rich history in space activities.  Although best known for its robotics expertise as displayed by the space shuttle's Canadarm and the International Space Station's Canadarm2,  it also was the first country to have a domestic geostationary communications satellite system -- Anik.   Canada also is well known for its Radarsat earth remote sensing radar satellites, built by MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates (MDA).   MDA recently announced plans to purchase Space Systems/Loral, a major U.S. communications satellite manufacturer.

The event on September 26 features Steve MacLean, President of the Canadian Space Agency and a former astronaut, as well as NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver.   Panels during the day-long forum will focus on the Canadian aerospace industry, current and future programs, and policy and legal issues with speakers from Canada and the United States. 

A major focus of the event, called the Canadian Space & Mining Industry Forum, is on "servicing, repurposing, and mining of space resources."

The complete agenda is on the Embassy's website.

Remember that registration is required by September 21.


House Passes Bill to Let Astronauts Keep Certain Artifacts From Their Spaceflights

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Sep-2012 (Updated: 19-Sep-2012 07:13 PM)

The House passed H.R. 4158 today.  The bill would give astronauts full ownership rights to certain artifacts from their spaceflights.

Currently, anything of an official nature that flew on a NASA mission is the property of the U.S. Government.  This bill would allow astronauts to own their personal logs, checklists, and flight manuals, for example. Moon rocks or other lunar material are not included, though.  That remains government property.

The bill passed by voice vote under suspension of the rules.  Although there is little time left for legislative activity in the 112th Congress, this relatively noncontroversial bill actually has a chance of getting through the Senate and to the President's desk.

NASA Safety Panel Chair Worries "the Cart is Before the Horse" on Commercial Crew Acquisition

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Sep-2012 (Updated: 18-Sep-2012 10:15 PM)

Vice Adm. Joe Dyer (Ret.), chair of the NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), told a House committee on Friday that he worries NASA has put "the cart before the horse" in its commercial crew acquisition strategy.  Meanwhile, NASA's Bill Gerstenmaier acknowledged that 80-90 percent of the funding for "commercial" crew is from the government, not the companies.

Dyer and members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee continued to hammer home concerns that the method by which NASA is working with private sector companies in developing commercial systems to take people to and from the International Space Station (ISS) may not keep safety as a paramount criterion.

ASAP was created by law following the 1967 Apollo 204 fire that killed the first Apollo crew -- Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.  For the past 45 years, its primary focus has been safety at NASA.  Stressing that ASAP is not trying to say "how safe is safe enough," Dyer explained that his panel instead is focused on pointing out "where we believe the stated requirement may not produce the requisite safety."  At the beginning of the space shuttle program, he said, NASA thought the risk of losing a crew was one in a thousand;  "Retrospectively, we now think that it is one in 12."   With that in mind, Dyer asked, is NASA setting the bar high enough with a design goal of one in 270 for a specific commercial crew mission?

NASA's decision to use Space Act Agreements (SAAs) instead of traditional contracts governed by Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) is the source of safety concerns by both ASAP and House committee members.   In his written statement, Dyer said that using SAAs has brought the agency to a point where "designs ... are maturing before requirements, and where government and industry have not yet agreed on how winning designs will be accepted and certified.  We worry that the cart is before the horse."

A key point he stressed was the difficulties in how NASA and the companies communicate with each other under SAAs versus FAR-based contracts.   The companies "pose specific questions about what NASA will eventually require ... but NASA interprets [SAAs] that they cannot provide the answers ... under the SAA construct."  When ASAP asked the companies what they do in that case, Dyer told the committee, they responded that they "look for nonverbal communications ... winks and nods."   As a congressionally chartered panel that oversees safety at NASA, Dyer said, ASAP finds that is "not a comfortable communications approach," calling it one of the "downsides" of SAAs that FAR-based contracts could resolve.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, who is in charge of the commercial crew program, assured the committee that NASA will take the views of outside advisors into consideration adding that NASA had just issued a white paper describing how the agency will certify the commercial crew designs and "ensure the safety of the requirements that are in place."  HIs testimony, however, focused on the need to get a crew transportation system built as a backup to Russia's Soyuz system.  

With the termination of the space shuttle program last year, Soyuz is the only way to take crews to and from the ISS.  Soyuz also serves as the only "lifeboat" for the ISS crews to return them to Earth in an emergency.  "We need redundant crew transportation and rescue capability as soon as possible," Gerstenmaier said.   NASA will be dependent on Soyuz for some years to come, however, and will need another waiver from the Iran-North Korea-Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA) to buy crew transportation and lifeboat services from Russia after mid-2016. Gerstenmaier said at a hearing a year ago that NASA would need another INKSNA waiver in late 2012 or early 2013, but the Obama Administration has not yet sent a request to Congress for that waiver.   At this hearing, he said again that "we need it in the spring of next year" and NASA is working internally within the administration on the request.

A system to take crews beyond low Earth orbit -- the Space Launch System (SLS)/Orion combination -- also is needed, Gerstenmaier said.  He stressed that commercial crew and SLS/Orion are connected to each other, even though the committee held a separate hearing on SLS/Orion earlier in the week.   Developing both simultaneously is a "challenge" in the current budgetary environment and we "need to look at these programs supporting each other and, ultimately, the human spaceflight for the nation." 

Regarding the extent to which "commercial" crew means that the companies are investing their own monies instead of the government footing the bill, Gerstenmaier agreed witih Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) that the government is paying the largest share.  Smith asked if his understanding was correct that 80-90 percent of the funds were from the government.  Gerstenmaier replied "I would say the -- yes, it's -- the majority of the funding is coming from NASA for this activity."  He said there could be a long discussion about what the term "commercial" means in this context, but "the way I look at it is, I would not use that term specifically.  But what we're doing is, we're getting a contribution from the contractors to help in this activity because they believe there's another market out there.  If you want to pin the term 'commercial' on that, you can pin the term.  But the facts are what I described."

Committee members seemed generally unpersuaded that the SAA approach would be successful in producing a cost effective system that would be as safe as a system procured under traditional FAR-based contracts.   Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) said she was "puzzled, and a little bit frustrated, that NASA appears to be unable or unwilling to acknowledge the warning signs that this major program is not on a firm path to success at present."

A webcast of the hearing is available on the committee's website along with the prepared statements of the witnesses.


Five Members of Congress Set to Introduce Space Leadership Act on Thursday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Sep-2012 (Updated: 18-Sep-2012 04:42 PM)

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and several other House members will hold a press conference on Thursday to announce introduction of a new piece of legislation called the "Space Leadership Act."  Wolf chairs the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA.

Wolf will be joined at the press conference by three other House Republicans -- John Culberson (R-TX), Pete Olson (R-TX) and Bill Posey (R-FL) -- who are co-sponsors of the bill.  Another co-sponsor, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), will not be present according to the press release from Rep. Wolf's office.  The press conference is at 1:30 pm ET in front of the U.S. Capitol.

Wolf and Culberson said in August that they would introduce legislation to make the NASA Administrator a 10-year appointed position and take other steps to make the agency "less political" as reported by the Houston Chronicle at the time.  The newspaper also said that Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, promised to hold a hearing on the bill this year. 

Mike Coats, director of NASA's Johnson Space Center, was cited by the newspaper as fully endorsing the draft legislation, an unusual step for a NASA center director.   NASA is part of the Executive Branch and reports to the President through the NASA Administrator.  Center directors, in turn, report to the NASA Administrator.  Though the new bill apparently wants to get some of the politics out of NASA, it hasn't happened yet and for a center director to publicly support legislation sponsored entirely by Republicans when a Democrat occupies the Oval Office is somewhat surprising.

The likelihood of the bill passing Congress this year is extremely small.  The House is about to adjourn until after the elections and will not return until November 13, leaving little time for passing anything.   Even if it did pass the House, the chances that the Senate would take it up in the few remaining weeks of legislative business are remote.   Nothing is impossible, however, so in the event that it did pass the House and Senate the question would be whether the President would sign a bill that reduces his or any other President's influence on the future of the nation's space program, which also seems unlikely.

Still, the bill could stimulate discussion of how to help the agency move forward as it tries to meet the demands of Congress and the White House with a budget that is sharply constrained not just today, but for years to come.

NOAA's Commercial Remote Sensing Advisory Committee to Meet for First Time in Three Years

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Sep-2012 (Updated: 18-Sep-2012 03:04 PM)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA's) Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing (ACCRES) will meet on Monday for the first time in almost three years.   A notice of the meeting was posted in today's Federal Register.

According to the ACCRES website, its last meeting was in October 2009.  NOAA renewed its charter in March 2012 and its current chair is Kevin O'Connell, President and CEO of Innovative Analytics and Training. 

In addition to Kevin O'Connell, the ACCRES website lists these other members and their affiliations. 

  • Matthew O'Connell, President, CEO and Director, GeoEye
  • David Gorney, Vice President, Space Program Operations, The Aerospace Corp.
  • Joseph Fuller, President and CEO, Futron Corp.
  • Thomas Ingersoll, CEO, Skybox Imaging
  • Michael Jones, Chief Technology Officer, Google Earth
  • Jeffrey Tarr, President and CEO, DigitalGlobe
  • Joanne Gabrynowicz, Director, National Center for Remote Sensing, Air, and Space Law, University of Mississippi
  • Scott Pace, Director, Space Policy Institute, George Washington University
  • Roberta Lenczowski, President, American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing
  • Benjamin Malphrus, Chair, Dept. of Earth and Space Sciences, Morehead State University
  • Michael Triller, GEOINT Systems, North Grumman Corp. Aerospace Systems
  • Herbert Satterlee, CEO, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Information Systems, Inc.

The website also lists former GeoEye President Jill Smith as a member, but NOAA acknowledges that is an error.   Jeffrey Tarr replaced Smith as GeoEye president in April 2011 and is a member of ACCRES.

DigitalGlobe and GeoEye announced plans to merge in July 2012 as the Department of Defense (DOD) indicated it would sharply reduce its payments to the companies under the EnhancedView contract.  Both are heavily dependent on government payments through EnhancedView and its predecessor contracts via the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).

Companies that want to provide commercial satelite imagery must obtain a license from NOAA first to make certain they are in compliance with various laws and policies put in place over the past 20 years.

ACCRES advises NOAA on its implementation of those laws and policies and is a "forum for the discussion of issues involving the relationship between industry activities and Govrnment policies, programs, and regulatory requirements."   The Federal Register notice says only that the September 24 meeting includes a presentation on updates of NOAA's licensing activities and that ACCRES will receive public comments on its activities.  The meeting is in NOAA's auditorium at 1301 East West Highway, Silver Spring, MD from 1:00-4:00 pm ET.

Europe's Successful Metop-B Weather Satellite Launch Good News for U.S., Too

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Sep-2012 (Updated: 18-Sep-2012 01:59 PM)

Europe's Metop-B polar-orbiting weather satellite was successfully launched by Russia yesterday.   Europe and the United States cooperate in providing weather data from polar-orbiting satellites so the successful launch is good news for both.

In 1998, the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT) and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) signed an agreement to fly sensors on each other's polar orbiting satellites, which circle the globe at different times of the day, and share data from them.  Europe's are in the mid-morning orbit, while NOAA's are in the afternoon orbit.  The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) also has polar-orbiting weather satellites in the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) series that fly in a third, complementary early morning orbit.

Metop-B includes five NOAA-provided instruments.   Mary Kicza, head of NOAA's Satellite and Information Service called the launch "another milestone in a partnership that continues our wide-ranging ability to detect the early signs of severe weather, climate shifts and distress signals from emergency beacons in the U.S., Europe and around the world."

The future of the U.S. polar-orbiting weather satellite program has been clouded by the programmatic failure of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), which was to combine the NOAA and DOD polar-orbiting weather satellites programs.    After years of overruns and schedule delays, the Obama Administration decided to return to separate systems in February 2010.   The White House directed NOAA to build a system for the afternoon orbit and DOD to build a system for the early morning orbit, with the assumption that Europe would continue to provide satellites in the mid-morning orbit.

Europe is holding up its end of the bargain, though the replacement U.S. systems are still finding their footing.  NOAA has been struggling to obtain requisite funds for its successor program, the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), amid the current deficit-cutting currents in Washington and residual skepticism about its program management capabilities in the wake of the NPOESS situation.  The first JPSS will not be ready for launch until 2016 under the current schedule, so NOAA seconded a NASA research satellite -- NPP Suomi -- to serve as an operational weather satellite in the interim.  It was launched last year. DOD remains undecided on what to do about its own future polar-orbiting weather satellite program.  It still has two legacy DMSP satellites ready for launch when needed and apparently will wait till some indefinite time in the future to decide what comes next.

NOAA and EUMETSAT also operate weather satellites in geostationary orbit and are cooperating in the Jason-3 ocean altimetry mission.

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