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North Korea Readies for Provocative Satellite Launch

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Apr-2012 (Updated: 10-Apr-2012 11:24 PM)

North Korea continues its preparations to launch a satellite in the next several days to honor the 100th anniversary of the birth of the country's founder despite strong objections by the United States and other countries.  The launch is anticipated between Thursday and Monday.

The United States and other countries have made clear that such a launch would violate two United Nations Security Council resolutions and is a provocative act that will result in consequences if North Korea proceeds. 

For its part, North Korea insists that it is the launch of a remote sensing satellite in the pursuit of peaceful uses of outer space.  It has opened the launch to foreign journalists who have been posting news stories for the past several days.   White House National Security Council staffer Tommy Vietor rebuked the journalists, telling Politico's Dylan Byers that "you don't have to be a rocket scientist to know this is a propaganda exercise. ... Reporters have to be careful not to get co-opted."   Vietor went on to say that the foreign news corps was being restricted to seeing only "military hardware.  They're not allowing them to tour the countryside and see the people who are starving."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking today at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD, hinted at concerns that the missile launch could be just the first of other threats North Korea might pose, including the possibility of another nuclear weapons test.  She said the United States is working with other countries, including Russia, China, Japan and South Korea to convince North Korea that "true security will only come from living up to its commitments and obligations, first and foremost to their own people."

The United States and North Korea signed an agreement on February 29 -- the "Leap Day Deal" --  in which the United States agreed to provide food assistance in return for North Korea participating in negotiations to denuclearize the Korean peninsula and meeting its international obligations.  Part of the agreement required North Korea to refrain from conducting launches that use ballistic missile technology, but just two weeks later, on March 16, North Korea announced that it would launch a satellite to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the April 15, 1912 birth of Kim Il-sung, the country's first leader and grandfather of its current president Kim Jong-un.

The U.S. Government has made clear that if North Korea proceeds with the launch, violating that agreement as well as United Nations resolutions 1718 and 1874 that also prohibit North Korea from conducting launches that use ballistic missile technology, it would be difficult to provide the food assistance since it would be apparent that North Korean officials could not be trusted to fulfill agreements.

The New York Times reports that North Korea notified international aviation authorities that the rocket's first stage would land in the ocean 90 nautical miles off Kunsan, South Korea and the second stand would drop in the ocean east of the Philippines.

In Case You Missed It: AAS Goddard Symposium and SWF Conference Presentations Available

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Apr-2012 (Updated: 10-Apr-2012 10:23 PM)

Video or audio recordings of two recent space policy-related conferences are now available on the Web.

Video from the American Astronautical Society's 50th Goddard Memorial Symposium, held March 28-29, 2012 in Greenbelt, MD, is now posted on NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's (GSFC) website.  Video of all the presentations is available, including remarks by --

  • Christopher Scolese, GSFC Director;
  • Charlie Bolden, NASA Administrator;
  • Steve Squyres, chairman of the NASA Advisory Council;
  • House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX);
  • Kathy Sullivan, Deputy Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); and
  • Rear Admiral Liz Young, National Reconnaissance Office

Audio recordings of the Space Security Conference 2012 sponsored by the Secure World Foundation (SWF) and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), held March 29-20, 2012 in Geneva, Switzerland, are also available.  Included are presentations from --

  • Victoria Samson, Director of SWF's Washington Office;
  • Theresa Hitchens, Director of UNIDIR;
  • Peter Marquez, former Director of Space Policy for the White House National Security Council and currently Vice President for Space Strategy and Planning, Orbital Sciences Corp.;
  • Frank Rose, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Space and Defense Policy;
  • John Sheldon, professor of Space and Cyberspace Srategy at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, Maxwell Air Force Base;
  • Victor Vasiliev, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations Office in Geneva; and
  • Haitao WU, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary for Disarmament Affairs and Deputy Permanent Representative for the Peoples Republic of China to the U.N. Office at Geneva.

Editor's Note:  The video of my closing remarks to the AAS Goddard Memorial Symposium on March 28 is also available on the GSFC site.

Squyres Offers NASA Advice to Avoid Fate of China's 15th Century Treasure Ships

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Apr-2012 (Updated: 09-Apr-2012 10:20 AM)

Steve Squyres, father of the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity and newly appointed chairman of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), is offering NASA three keys to success for improving the way NASA's space science projects are managed.

Speaking to the American Astronautical Society's 50th Goddard Memorial Symposium, Squyres commented that although budget constraints are certainly a problem at NASA, some of the agency's woes are self-inflicted because large cost overruns on some space science projects means less money is available for others.   His thinks NASA should follow these three tenets in managing its space science missions:

  • get independent cost estimates from experts who are not "optimists"
  • invest in needed technology up front instead of waiting until later in the project, and
  • do not allow requirements creep

That advice followed a history lesson about a path he hopes the United States avoids -- the fate of China's "treasure ships" that plied the world's oceans in the 15th Century.  Calling the treasure ships the "Saturn V's of their day," Squyres recounted how for several decades under the leadership of Admiral Zheng He, the ships explored the world known to China at that time.   Political forces convinced a new emperor that the ships were not worth the cost and "argued to stop exploration."  They won, he said, and the ships were burned.   China turned inwards, exploration became the province of Europeans, and "history became very different."

As for U.S. exploration of space, Squyres expressed concern that NASA is missing one of four pieces of the human spaceflight puzzle.  The agency is facilitating companies to build commercial crew systems to take people to and from low Earth orbit (LEO), and building a new rocket and a new spacecraft to go beyond LEO, but the fourth piece -- a habitat, or lander, or something else to enable humans to remain in space for long periods or land on the Moon or Mars is not being developed today.  The required piece is destination dependent and he declined to get into the debate over what the destination should be, but argued that explaining to stakeholders and the NASA workforce what the agency is trying to do is that much more difficult without knowing where we are headed.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden is like Zheng He, Sqyures said, but can avoid Zheng's fate by clearly articulating "what NASA is about and how it benefits our nation.  It should be easy to do.  The public is hungry for what NASA does."

Editor's Note:  Squyres spoke at the first day of the AAS meeting, March 28.  I gave the closing remarks that day referencing some of what Squyres and other speakers said.   I also recalled the vision laid out in the National Commission on Space report (of which I was Executive Director) and ruminated about how much further we might be along that path if the space station had been built on time and cost, and called on members of the space community to uniify on and articulate the case for the space program because NASA cannot do it alone.  The bullet points I used for my remarks are available on


What Keeps YOU Awake at Night?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Apr-2012 (Updated: 05-Apr-2012 11:29 PM)

What keeps NASA's Jim Green awake at night?  Thoughts of "the seven minutes of terror from the top of the [Mars] atmosphere to landing" at the Gale Crater on the surface of Mars coming up for the Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity) in August. 

Green is the director of NASA's planetary science division in the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC.  He was responding to a question from Charlie Kennel, chair of the National Research Council's (NRC's) Space Studies Board (SSB) at today's SSB meeting.   Curiosity is using a unique and, to say the least, technically challenging method of landing on Mars.  Called the "sky hook," the YouTube video is enough to keep anyone awake until the sequence is successfully executed on August 5 PDT (August 6 EDT).

The "what keeps you awake at night" question was directed at all the SMD representatives on a panel at the SSB meeting.  SMD Deputy Associate Administrator (AA) Chuck Gay filled in for AA John Grunsfeld.   Along with Green, other panelists were earth science division director Mike Freilich, heliophysics division director Barbara Giles, astrophysics deputy director Mike Moore (filling in for Paul Hertz, newly named astrophysics division director), James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) project director Rick Howard, and Wilt Sanders, Explorer program scientist.

Howard said it is the infamous "unknown unknowns" that give him insomnia, but he assured the SSB that the rebaselined JWST program is sufficiently robust to handle anything that comes up.   He believes one key to the success of JWST is maintaining good communications not only within the program and NASA, but with stakeholders, especially on Capitol Hill.

Moore, who deals with the rest of the astrophysics portfolio, said his worry is how to implement the missions called for in the 2010 NRC Decadal Survey for astronomy and astrophysics with NASA's existing budget, and how to work with the Europeans on achieving science objectives.  He also is worried about the Gravity and Extreme Magnetism (GEMS) small Explorer mission that he said has technical and cost challenges.  "We hope we can thread that needle," he said, and "be honest and straightforward about cost." 

Giles cited the challenge of keeping the heliophysics division's five projects that are in development on schedule and cost.  "There is no flexibility in this budget," she said, for any program to "extend beyond their commitment." 

Launch vehicle cost increases and the unreliability of smaller launch vehicles like the Taurus XL booster that sent two earth science probes (OCO and GLORY) to a watery grave was a concern across all the SMD divisions.   Moore, however, defended the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs), Atlas 5 and Delta 4, that just celebrated their 58th consecutive launch success earlier this week with the launch of a satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office.   Noting that he worked on the EELV program earlier in his career, Moore conceded they are expensive, but argued that the most expensive space missions are the ones that end up in the ocean.  Launch reliability, as demonstrated by the EELVs, is important despite the cost, in his view. 

Others on the panel were anxious for successors to the Delta 2 launch vehicle to become certified by NASA.   SpaceX's Falcon 9 and Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares are two examples.  Asked when the need for those vehicles will become "critical," Giles and Green said that time is already upon them.  Program managers have to budget to the highest possible launch cost, which has a significant impact on resources available for the rest of the program when those costs are high as they are for the EELVs. 


No Prohibition Against Science Flagship Missions OMB Tells NRC

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Apr-2012 (Updated: 05-Apr-2012 04:30 AM)

The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) does not have a prohibition against NASA beginning new science flagship missions according to two OMB officials who spoke to the National Research Council (NRC) yesterday.

Paul Shawcross, Branch Chief for Science and Space, and Joydip (JD) Kundu, who handles NASA's science budget, told a joint meeting of the NRC's Space Studies Board and Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board, that OMB had not make any blanket statement about future flagship missions.   NASA science officials had indicated that OMB would not approve new flagship missions until NASA completes two existing flagships -- the Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity) now on its way to Mars and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) scheduled for launch in 2018 -- that encountered significant overruns and schedule delays.

Kundu said that although the track record on Curiosity and JWST was "not great," the FY2013 budget request was the result of ensuring that all the pieces of the NASA budget fit together in a flat budget scenario.   Shawcross added that the cost overruns did not help the situation because there is consequently less money available, "but we're not against flagships."

Historically, the term "flagship" has been applied to science missions that cost more than $1 billion, although there was discussion at yesterday's meeting that the defining characteristics of a flagship mission are complexity and innovation, not cost.   Kundu said OMB does not draw a line at $1 billion, but looks at each mission individually.

The planetary science community is extremely distressed that the FY2013 budget request includes a 20 percent cut to planetary exploration.  NASA had to withdraw from two flagship Mars missions planned with the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2016 and 2018.   When asked whether that action hurts prospects for future international cooperation, Shawcross and Kundu pointed out that just about all of NASA's science missions involve international cooperation.   If a different mission had been canceled, Kundu said, it also probably would have meant reneging on an international agreement.  He also stressed that the United States had not made a formal commitment to the 2016 and 2018 Mars missions.

Those two missions were part of a plan for a series of Mars probes over many years that ultimately would have resulted in returning a sample of Mars to Earth.  It would have been a "looming problem,"  Shawcross said, and the decision not to proceed was "not a bias against Mars."   Tammy Dickinson of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) agreed, and said the decision "wasn't made based on science, but on budget."

Shawcross emphasized that the President's overall FY2013 budget request was developed to avoid sequestration, which will go into effect on January 1, 2013 unless Congress finds $1 trillion in savings or changes the law.  He anticipates that Congress will not complete action on the FY2013 appropriations bills before the election, and a "flurry" of activity will result between then and January 1.   He said he could not predict how it will turn out.  If sequestration does occur, he said, it would mean a 7.8 percent cut to the part of the budget that includes NASA.

He also noted that the $17.7 billion request for NASA is well short of the $20 billion that was authorized for FY2013 in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.  That "creates trouble" when the administration is trying to follow the authorization act, he said, adding that the out-year projections in the budget are notional, but he would be "really surprised" if NASA's budget increases in the next several years.



China Releases "Crucial" Report About Its Navigation Satellite System Following U.S.-China Workshop

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Apr-2012 (Updated: 03-Apr-2012 05:57 PM)

In December 2011, China released a "crucial" report providing information about its civil satellite navigation signals following a workshop sponsored by the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and the Chinese Academy of Engineering.  The report of the workshop was released by the NAE today.

Several countries have or are developing satellite systems that provide positioning, navigation, and timing data --or Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS).  The United States operates the Global Positioning System (GPS), Russia has GLONASS, Europe is developing Galileo, and China is developing BeiDou (Compass).   Japan and India also are launching regional (rather than global) systems.

In May 2011, the NAE and its Chinese counterpart held a workshop in China to discuss matters of mutual interest about navigation satellite systems.  The workshop's goal was to "promote technical and policy-related cooperation between the United States and China regarding their respective navigation satellite systems ... to the benefit of China, the United States, and other GNSS users worldwide," according to the NAE report.

One hurdle was that little information was known publicly about China's system.  In December, seven months after the workshop and just before the workshop report went to press, China released a "crucial" document with information about its civil navigation signals, the report states in its preface.  The preface was written by three prominent navigation satellite experts who participated in the workshop -- Bradford Parkinson of Stanford University (often called the father of GPS); Per Enge, also of Stanford; and Liu Jingnan of the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

They added that "[t]he recent exchange of data will improve the accuracy and availability of real-time position, navigation and time data for all users worldwide.  This exchange will foster interchangeability of satellite signals, which will greatly decrease outages" for users whose view of the sky is impaired by mountains, tall buildings, or other obstructions.

Events of Interest: Weeks of April 2-13, 2012

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Apr-2012 (Updated: 01-Apr-2012 12:40 PM)

With Congress in recess for two weeks and many people enjoying spring break, we all get a welcome break from the hectic pace of space-related hearings and meetings.  There are a few meetings of note, however, and they are listed below, but we have combined the weeks of April 2-6 and April 9-13, 2012 for this issue of Events of Interest.

Wednesday, April 4

Wednesday-Thursday, April 4-5

  • National Research Council (NRC) Space Studies Board (SSB) and Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) meet jointly on Wednesday and separately on Thursday at the NRC's Keck Center, 500 5th Street, NW, Washington, DC
    • Joint SSB-ASEB meeting, Wednesday, open sessions 9:45 am - 5:30 pm, room Keck 100
    • SSB meeting, Thursday, open sessions, 8:30 am - 12:45 pm, room Keck 100
    • ASEB meeting, Thursday, open sessions, 8:45 am  - 3:00 pm room Keck 101

Thursday-Friday, April 5-6

  • NOAA Science Advisory Board, Washington Plaza Hotel, 10 Thomas Circle, NW, Washington DC
    • NOAA's Satellite Task Force is currently scheduled to provide an update on its activities at 3:30 pm on Thursday, check the agenda for possible updates

SpaceX Creates Safety Panel As It Readies for April 30 Test Flight

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Mar-2012 (Updated: 30-Mar-2012 09:31 AM)

As SpaceX prepares for the April 30 test flight of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft for the "commercial cargo" phase of its business plan, yesterday it announced creation of a five-person safety panel to provide advice on what it hopes will be the next phase -- "commercial crew."

If all goes according to plan on the April 30 flight, Dragon will berth with the International Space Station (ISS) to demonstrate its ability to deliver cargo to the ISS.   Dragon will not carry any crew on this flight, which is part of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.   NASA initiated the COTS program to facilitate the emergence of a commercial capability for companies to build and launch space transportation systems to provide ISS-related services to NASA on a commercial basis.

With the termination of the space shuttle program last year, NASA itself has no capability to take cargo or crew to the ISS.   It relies on Russia to transport astronauts, and on Russia, Europe and Japan to take cargo.

NASA is building a new rocket and spacecraft to take people beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), where ISS is located, but the plan is to rely on the commercial sector to provide both cargo and crew services to ISS for the future.   SpaceX hopes to be one of the companies selected by NASA to provide "commercial crew" services to ISS in the future using Falcon 9 and Dragon, as well as launching other paying customers ("space tourists") to LEO.

The safety panel it named yesterday "will provide objective assessments of the safety of the Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket to help SpaceX maintain the highest level of safety," according to the SpaceX press release.  

The five SpaceX safety panel members named yesterday are:

  • Leroy Chiao, former NASA astronaut
  • Scott Hubbard, former director of NASA's Ames Research Center and member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board that investigated the 2003 space shuttle Columbia tragedy; currently Stanford University professor of aeronautics and astronautics
  • Richard Jennings, former chief of medicine at NASA's Johnson Space Center and currently a professor at the Aerospace Medicine Center at the University of Texas Medical Branch
  • Mark Kelly, former NASA astronaut
  • Ed Lu, former NASA astronaut

SpaceX said they will have their first meeting in the fall of 2012 and work "well after SpaceX begins flying people into space."

NASA's commercial crew program is controversial for many reasons, one of which is concern that commercial companies will be less concerned about safety than the government.


House Passes Ryan Budget

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Mar-2012 (Updated: 30-Mar-2012 08:53 AM)

The House of Representatives passed the budget plan sponsored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) yesterday, which would impose deeper cuts to the federal budget in FY2013 and future years than agreed to last year in the Budget Control Act (BCA). 

President Obama's FY2013 budget request was premised on the top-line number that was adopted in the BCA -- $1.047 trillion.  The Ryan plan reduces that to $1.028 trillion and protects funding for the Department of Defense (DOD).

The BCA was passed after long and difficult negotiations between Republicans and Democrats, the House and Senate, and Congress and the President.   Democrats contend that the BCA settled the issue of how much money could be spent in FY2013, but House Republicans decided to fight for less spending.

The funding figures in the Ryan plan are likely to mean less funding for NASA and NOAA, which are part of "non-defense discretionary" spending.

The Senate has not passed a budget resolution yet.

Politico has an interesting analysis of the impact the Ryan budget will have on many government programs.  It does not discuss space activities specifically, but provides a useful perspective, including the following:

"For Obama, the cuts demanded from nondefense appropriations are at least $27 billion more than he would have assumed after the summer talks. And by the end of 2014, the plan anticipates that nondefense discretionary spending would fall to $406 billion, a reduction of $100 billion, or nearly 20 percent.

"When adjusted for inflation, that would leave most agencies with less money than they received at any time under President George W. Bush. And the cut is proportionally larger than any reduction Ronald Reagan or Newt Gingrich achieved at the height of their powers in the ’80s and ’90s."

Three Congressional Hearings and a Symposium

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Mar-2012 (Updated: 28-Mar-2012 11:01 PM)

It was a busy day today -- three congressional hearings on NASA and NOAA, plus the first day of the American Astronautical Society (AAS) Goddard Memorial Symposium.

We could not be at them all!   We were at the AAS symposium (story to follow after the meeting concludes tomorrow), but here are links to the three congressional hearings.

House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing on Securing the Promises of the International Space Station: Challenges and Opportunities

House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, Hearing on To Observe and Protect:  How NOAA Procures Data for Weather Forecasting

Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee Hearing on FY2013 NASA Budget Request




Events of Interest


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