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Obama Tells Florida TV Station He Is "Committed" To Human Spaceflight

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

In an interview yesterday with WESH TV in Orlando, Florida, President Barack Obama said that he is "committed" to the human spaceflight program.

Filmed at the White House with WESH anchor Jim Payne, the interview focused primarily on jobs in Florida, the Florida economy, and the upcoming election. Regarding the space program, Payne stated that 9,000 jobs were lost when the "manned space program shut down ... and we're not planning to have any more manned spaceflights until 2025." He asked if there was a risk of losing expertise as well as public support by waiting so long to "put men back into space."

Somewhat surprisingly, the President did not correct him either by pointing to the commercial crew flights that are supposed to begin around 2015-2016, or mentioning ongoing operations of the International Space Station (ISS). Commercial cargo flights to ISS should begin next year from Florida.

Instead, President Obama responded that "I am absolutely committed to manned spaceflight," but we are in a time of transition and "probably should have done a better job of planning this out 20 years ago." To make the "next leap" to go not just to the "Moon, but maybe Mars," he said that technology needs to be revamped and launch vehicles improved. He did not mention human trips to asteroids, the destination he proclaimed in Florida last year.

The President told Payne that he decided "to emphasize human spaceflight. That's part of what makes America great and it sparks the imagination" here and around the world. But there needs to be time to develop "new technologies, more effective rockets" and learn how to build environments so people can remain in space for longer periods of time. There will a "huge amount of investment" in those areas, he continued, and the people at NASA are the experts. So even though "the shuttle program has been suspended ... we are trying to figure out how [to] move ... engineers, scientists and technicians ... into these new projects to develop that next stage of human spaceflight."

The shuttle program has not been "suspended," of course, but terminated.

The interview is available on the WESH website; this part begins at minute 4:00 of Part I. (Scroll down to where you see two video links side-by-side; the video at the top of the page is a news story about the interview, not the interview itself.)

UPDATE 2: Chinese Space Station Module Set For Launch This Morning EDT

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)


UPDATE: Thanks to Alan Boyle for pointing us to China's English language live coverage of the launch at

China's Tiangong-1 (Heavenly Palace) experimental space station module is still set for launch this morning between 9:16 and 9:31 EDT (9:16-9:31 pm Beijing time).

Xinhua reports that the fleet of tracking ships are in their assigned locations to monitor the launch of the Long March IIF rocket.

The module is essentially a docking target for three Shenzhou spacecraft that will be launched over the next two years. The first two (Shenzhou 8 and 9) will be unoccupied, while the third will have at least one crew. Xinhua reported yesterday and today that Shenzhou 10 will carry a female Chinese astronaut ("taikonaut"), which would be a first for China.

China launched its first taikonaut in 2003 on Shenzhou 5 (the first four in the series were unoccupied test flights). In 2005, two taikonauts flew on Shenzhou 6, and in 2008, Shenzhou 7 carried three taikonauts, two of whom conducted China's first spacewalk.

SpaceX To Develop Fully Reusable Rocket, Make Humanity a Multi-Planet Species

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

During a speech at the National Press Club today, SpaceX founder, Chief Executive Officer and Chief Technology Officer Elon Musk made what he called an "exciting" announcement - SpaceX will develop a fully reusable space transportation system.

Perhaps more exciting, and a bit surprising in that venue, was his extended discussion of why humanity should become a multi-planet species. Since Mars is the closest comparatively habitable planet, that's where he wants to send people.

But the first step is lowering the cost of launch, and that means reusable rockets, he said. In an animation posted on the SpaceX website (click on the illustration), both stages of the two-stage rocket return to Earth and make a soft landing after completing their tasks of delivering the Dragon capsule to orbit. Dragon is shown docking with the International Space Station (ISS), then undocks and returns to Earth also making a soft landing (similar to how Russia's Soyuz spacecraft lands).

His passion, though, is clearly what he believes low cost launch will enable - "a self sustaining human population" on Mars. He stressed that to him a "little base" of people is "not interesting." He wants large numbers of people to move there permanently. He views it as "life insurance" for our species in the event of a human-made or natural catastrophe.

How much should be spent on this kind of life insurance, he asked? About one quarter of one percent of GDP is about right in his view.

As for those who want to move to Mars, Musk suggested a ticket price of $500,000 per person. By the time such a possibility is available, he forecast there would be 8 billion people on the planet (there are almost 7 billion now) and if only "one in a million" could afford the price and wanted to go, that would be 8,000 people right there.

After a speech that focused on the long-term future, Musk replied to questions that were mostly about the near-term. He expressed gratitude to NASA, saying that SpaceX would not be where it is today without the agency's support. The Air Force was another matter. Saying he was surprised the Air Force did not have more interest in SpaceX, he lamented the fact that the Air Force plans to extend its contract with the Boeing-Lockheed Martin United Launch Alliance until 2018 because of concerns about preserving the industrial base. "For some reason we're not included in the industrial base," he asserted, even though SpaceX rockets are American-made while the Atlas 5 uses Russian rocket engines and other non-U.S. hardware.

As for the schedule of upcoming launches to the ISS, he said that the next Falcon 9 flight might be delayed to January because of the rescheduling necessitated by the failure of Russia's Soyuz launch vehicle last month.

In response to a question of just how quickly Falcon 9 and Dragon could be put into service to take crews to ISS, Musk said they could do so on the next flight if the safety requirements were the same as those for the space shuttle. The shuttle did not have an escape system for the crew during ascent, and neither does Dragon at the moment. SpaceX is developing such a system however - NASA and SpaceX agree that should be a requirement. He said it would take two or three years for SpaceX to design and certify the system, which he described as innovative because the thrusters will be on the sidewall of the capsule and thus could be used for a soft landing on Earth as well.

China was also a topic of conversation. No mention was made of China's successful launch of its first experimental space station module this morning. Instead, Musk responded to a question about who are his main competitors. China, he said, adding that it is difficult to compete with a government that subsidizes its industry, "but we think we'll win."

Editor's Note: the adjective "toe tapping" with reference to the animation was deleted after reflection.

NASA IG Slams NASA Management of Project to Monitor Space Radiation Exposure

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) sharply criticized NASA's management of a project to replace space radiation monitoring equipment on the International Space Station (ISS).

In a report released today, the OIG asserted that "NASA has poorly managed the development of replacement radiation monitoring instruments" needed aboard the ISS to monitor the level of space radiation to which ISS crewmembers are exposed. Such instruments were placed on the ISS between 2000 and 2002, but need to be replaced because of age or malfunctions. NASA initiated a project to do so in 2008, but because of its poor management, the replacements "are costing more than expected, are behind schedule, and will not include all planned elements."

The OIG also discovered that NASA "has never monitored astronaut exposure to neutrons" as required by the ISS Medical Operations Requirements Document (MORD).

One corrective action recommended by the OIG was that the ISS Program Manager ensure that NASA's project management policy is followed and that projects are not implemented "until managers demonstrate projects are properly anchored by firm requirements, realistic cost and schedule estimates, sufficient funding, and successful completion of a Preliminary Design Review." However, the report states that the Assistant Associate Administrator for ISS disagreed that a PDR is needed before implementation or that the project was poorly managed. He did agree, however, to review how the cost and schedule estimates and assumptions about technology readiness were developed to see what improvements can be made. The OIG report lays out its case for concluding that a PDR is necessary and the project was poorly managed and states that it does "not understand NASA's rationale for insisting otherwise."

The OIG also recommended that the Director of Space Life Sciences at Johnson Space Center determine whether the MORD requires updating with regard to monitoring the spectra of charged particles. The ISS Assistant Associate Administrator concurred with that recommendation.

Government Shutdown Averted -- Till Tuesday Anyway

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

The House has passed a very short term Continuing Resolution (CR ) to keep the government operating over the weekend. The Senate passed it on Monday so it is now ready for the President's signature.

This "bridge" CR, which expires on Tuesday, is necessary because the House is meeting only in pro forma session this week. Very few members are in town. The CR passed by unanimous consent of those who were present.

A multi-week CR that lasts until November 18 could be more controversial and House members wanted a more formal debate on that measure. Therefore this CR covers the several days until that can take place.

The CRs are needed because none of the 12 appropriations bills that would fund the government for FY2012 has cleared Congress yet. FY2012 begins on Saturday, October 1.

China Successfully Launches Tiangong-1

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

China's top leaders were either at the Beijing Command and Control Center or the Jiuquan launch site for the successful launch of Tiangong-1, China's first space station module.

China's CNTV English-language news channel carried the launch live. The on-time liftoff was at 9:16 pm Beijing time (9:16 am EDT). Cameras on the ground and on the rocket provided excellent visual coverage of the launch on a clear night in the Gobi desert.

The final orbit will be about 350 x 200 kilometers according to commentary on CNTV. No one is aboard Tiangong-1. It is an automated docking target. Three spacecraft are scheduled to dock with it over the next two years. First will be the unoccupied Shenzhou 8, planned for launch in about a month.

Wolf Presses OMB on JWST Replan Details

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, wants the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to tell Congress where it plans to get the money to pay for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) overrun.

In a letter to OMB Director Jacob Lew today, Rep. Wolf said that if the White House does not tell his subcommittee what NASA activities it plans to cut in order to make funds available for JWST, he will have to assume that JWST is no higher a priority than NASA's other programs. The letter says --

"While acknowledging that substantial cuts will be necessary, the Administration has so far failed to identify a single specific proposal to offset the increase in JWST spending above the levels contained in the President's fiscal year 2012 request. Either no offsets have been proposed because JWST really isn't a top priority, or the Administration is hoping that remaining silent will force Congress to act unilaterally and thereby take sole ownership of the cuts necessitated by the Administration's actions. No matter which explanation is correct, continuing silence is neither fair nor acceptable to the Congress and to members of the scientific community who will be deeply impacted by the ultimate outcome of the JWST debate."

Wolf reminded Lew that the House and Senate will be meeting "in the coming weeks" to negotiate NASA's FY2012 appropriations level and funding for JWST "will be one of the most significant issues considered." For Congress to make "a truly informed decision," it needs to understand "both the value of JWST and the value of opportunities that may be precluded" by shifting money from other activities into JWST. He made clear that if OMB did not provide the information before the conference negotiations begin, "I will consider that to be an indication that JWST is no higher in priority than any other existing or planned NASA activity."

NASA has said that it will reveal the future spending plan for JWST when it submits its FY2013 budget request in February.

The House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, chaired by Wolf, recommended termination of the JWST program. The full committee agreed. The Senate Appropriations Committee, conversely, voted to provide more funds than requested for JWST in FY2012 to ensure that it could be launched in 2018. Neither the House nor Senate has voted on the CJS bill, yet.

China Readying for Tiangong-1 Launch Tomorrow

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

China's Xinhua news agency reports that the launch of the Tiangong-1 (Heavenly Palace) experimental space station module will take place tomorrow, September 29, just after 9:00 pm Beijing time (which is 12 hours ahead of EDT).

The launch window is open from 9:16-9:31 pm Beijing time (9:16-9:31 am EDT) according to Xinhua. The module is experimental and its primary purpose is for docking tests. China plans to launch at least three Shenzhou spacecraft to dock with it. The first two, Shenzhou 8 and 9, will be unoccupied; the third, Shenzhou 10, will carry one Chinese astronaut (referred to in the West as a "taikonaut") according to Xinhua.

The docking tests are steps towards an eventual permanently-crewed space station. Chinese news sources have mentioned various dates for that space station over the years. Today's report from Xinhua says it will be launched "around 2020."

Shenzhou is the spacecraft China uses for its taikonauts and is similar to the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Shenzhou 1-4 were uncrewed test flights. The first Chinese taikonaut flew on Shenzhou 5 in 2003. In 2005, Shenzhou 6 was launched with two taikonauts. Shenzhou 7, launched in 2008, carried three taikonauts, two of whom performed China's first spacewalk.

Shenzhou 8 is scheduled for launch a month after Tiangong-1. It will be unoccupied and conduct two docking tests before returning to Earth. Details of the Shenzhou 9 flight were not discussed in the article, but it apparently also will be unoccupied since the article focuses on Shenzhou 10's flight with a taikonaut. The one-person crew for that mission has already been chosen and is in training and will perform manual rendenzvous and docking tests with Tiangong-1 according to Xinhua.

The article did not specify the launch dates for the Shenzhou spacecraft, saying only that Shenzhou 8 will launch one month after Tiangong-1, and the other two will be launched "in the next two years."

Yvonne Brill Awarded National Medal of Technology and Innovation

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

Yvonne Brill was selected by the White House today as one of the five recipients of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

Brill, who had a long career with aerospace and satellite communications companies including RCA Astroelectronics and Inmarsat, is being recognized "For innovation in rocket propulsion systems for geosynchronous and low earth orbit communication satellites, which greatly improved the effectiveness of space propulsion systems."

A member of the National Academy of Engineering, and of the National Research Council's Space Studies Board, Brill has received many honors for her pioneering work on in-orbit propulsion for communications satellites. Last year she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and she is one of only four women ever to be elected as Honorary Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).

Brill is the only woman among the five individuals receiving the technology medal this year. The White House press release names those five and the seven recipients of the National Medal of Science:

National Medal of Science

Jacqueline K. Barton
California Institute of Technology
For discovery of a new property of the DNA helix, long-range electron transfer, and for showing that electron transfer depends upon stacking of the base pairs and DNA dynamics. Her experiments reveal a strategy for how DNA repair proteins locate DNA lesions and demonstrate a biological role for DNA-mediated charge transfer.

Ralph L. Brinster
University of Pennsylvania
For his fundamental contributions to the development and use of transgenic mice. His research has provided experimental foundations and inspiration for progress in germline genetic modification in a range of species, which has generated a revolution in biology, medicine, and agriculture.

Shu Chien
University of California, San Diego
For pioneering work in cardiovascular physiology and bioengineering, which has had tremendous impact in the fields of microcirculation, blood rheology and mechanotransduction in human health and disease.

Rudolf Jaenisch
Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and Massachusetts Institute of Technology
For improving our understanding of epigenetic regulation of gene expression: the biological mechanisms that affect how genetic information is variably expressed. His work has led to major advances in our understanding of mammalian cloning and embryonic stem cells.

Peter J. Stang
University of Utah
For his creative contributions to the development of organic supramolecular chemistry and for his outstanding and unique record of public service.

Richard A. Tapia
Rice University
For his pioneering and fundamental contributions in optimization theory and numerical analysis and for his dedication and sustained efforts in fostering diversity and excellence in mathematics and science education.

Srinivasa S.R. Varadhan
New York University
For his work in probability theory, especially his work on large deviations from expected random behavior, which has revolutionized this field of study during the second half of the twentieth century and become a cornerstone of both pure and applied probability. The mathematical insights he developed have been applied in diverse fields including quantum field theory, population dynamics, finance, econometrics, and traffic engineering.

National Medal of Technology and Innovation

Rakesh Agrawal
Purdue University
For an extraordinary record of innovations in improving the energy efficiency and reducing the cost of gas liquefaction and separation. These innovations have had significant positive impacts on electronic device manufacturing, liquefied gas production, and the supply of industrial gases for diverse industries.

B. Jayant Baliga
North Carolina State University
For development and commercialization of the Insulated Gate Bipolar Transistor and other power semiconductor devices that are extensively used in transportation, lighting, medicine, defense, and renewable energy generation systems.

C. Donald Bateman
For developing and championing critical flight-safety sensors now used by aircraft worldwide, including ground proximity warning systems and wind-shear detection systems.

Yvonne C. Brill
RCA Astro Electronics (Retired)
For innovation in rocket propulsion systems for geosynchronous and low earth orbit communication satellites, which greatly improved the effectiveness of space propulsion systems.

Michael F. Tompsett
For pioneering work in materials and electronic technologies including the design and development of the first charge-coupled device (CCD) imagers.

The awards will be presented at the White House later this year.

Weiler To Retire from NASA on Friday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

Ed Weiler, NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate (SMD), is retiring at the end of this week.

NASA formally made the announcement today. Chuck Gay, SMD Deputy Associate Administrator, will take the helm while a replacement is sought.

Weiler is on his second tour as SMD chief. An astrophysicist who was chief scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope, Weiler rose to head NASA's space science enterprise from 1998-2004, then was appointed Director of Goddard Space Flight Center. He returned to his previous job in May 2008 after Alan Stern resigned rather suddenly.

He joins several other NASA officials who have left or will leave the agency, including the head of SMD's astrophysics division, Jon Morse. Morse and his wife, Laurie Leshin, who was Deputy Administrator of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD), both joined the faculty at Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute. Doug Cooke, Associate Administrator for ESMD, is retiring effective October 3. ESMD recently merged with the former Space Operations Mission Directorate to form the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

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