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GAO OK's DOD's WSARA Waiver for EPS/CAPS, But Identifies Analysis Gaps

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Aug-2012 (Updated: 23-Aug-2012 04:47 PM)

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report today essentially agreeing with the Department of Defense's (DOD's) decision to waive an acquisition requirement for a polar-orbiting satellite system, but faulted DOD's cost-benefit analysis.

Under the 2009 Weapons Systems Acquisition Reform Act (WSARA), DOD is required to provide for competitive prototyping for major defense acquisition programs before entering into system development.  DOD can waive the requirement under certain circumstances, however, and did so for the first time for the Control and Planning Segment (CPS) of its Enhanced Polar System (EPS).  EPS will replace the Air Force's current Interim Polar System and serve as the polar adjunct to the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite system.   It will use two EHF payloads hosted on satellites operating in highly elliptical orbits.

The GAO letter report agreed that DOD's rationale for the waiver met the WSARA requirements, but criticized DOD for not providing a better cost-benefit analysis.   GAO said that DOD accepted the Air Force's assessment that it would cost $49 million to do the competitive prototyping while expected life-cycle savings would be "negligible."  GAO's complaint is that the EPS program office did not conduct a more thorough analysis of the potential benefits that would result in a specific dollar value or range of values.  In addition, GAO said, the Air Force accepted the program office's estimate of the $49 million cost without an independent review. 

GAO also questioned DOD's decision to use a cost-reimbursement contract for CAPS considering it is a low risk development activity and was skeptical of DOD's assertion that competitive prototyping would delay the EPS program with negative national security consequences.

In a written response published as an appendix to the report, Gil Klinger, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space and Intelligence, thanked GAO for agreeing that the waiver meets statutory requirements and is "rational."   He added his appreciation to GAO for clarifying what analysis would be helpful in future waivers.  However, he also chastised GAO for commenting on the aspect of the waiver relating to national security.   WSARA calls for GAO reviews of waivers based on cost, but not on national security objectives, and hence its comments were "outside the scope" of the law, Klinger wrote. 

CBO Joins Chorus of Warnings About Risks of Sequestration

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Aug-2012 (Updated: 23-Aug-2012 03:06 PM)

If the nation falls off a "fiscal cliff" on January 2, it won't be for lack of warnings about the dire consequences.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) joined the chorus yesterday.

CBO, a non-partisan legislative branch agency that is part of Congress and provides its own economic forecasts independent of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), said yesterday that if Congress does not act before the end of the year, the country could be thrown into a recession.

One of the top worries is the automatic across-the-board spending cuts -- sequestration -- that will happen on January 2, 2013 unless Congress changes existing law.   The Budget Control Act, enacted almost exactly one year ago, calls for cutting federal spending by another $1.2 trillion by 2021.   The cuts would be split equally between defense and non-defense agencies, with each shouldering about $500 billion in cuts.  The rest would be saved by paying less interest on the debt.

Rough estimates are that all the government activities categorized as discretionary spending, including DOD, NASA and NOAA, would be cut by about 8 percent.  Each program, project or other activity would be cut by the same amount rather than based on their merit or need.   The sequester was included in the Budget Control Act as a "poison pill" to motivate a special congressional supercommittee to reach agreement on some alternative, but its members threw in the towel last fall because Republicans and Democrats could not agree.  Republicans insist that deficit reduction be accomplished through spending cuts only; Democrats want a combination of spending cuts and tax increases focused on wealthier individuals.

The White House, congressional Democrats and congressional Republicans have been raising the alarm about the calamitous consequences of cutting defense spending by another $500 billion since the beginning of the year, but seem no closer on reaching agreement on how to avoid it.  The implications of cutting the rest of discretionary spending, such as NASA and NOAA, are hardly ever discussed, but could be equally dire.  

In addition to the sequester, the Bush-era tax cuts and the payroll tax holiday will expire on December 31, raising taxes on many Americans.   CBO said the combination of tax increases and spending cuts would result in good news and bad news.  Good news: the deficit would shrink from $1.1 trillion to $641 billion.  Bad news:  "such fiscal tightening will lead to economic conditions in 2013 that will be probably be considered a recession, with real GDP declining by 0.5 percent ... and the unemployment rate rising to about 9 percent in the second half of calendar year 2013."

On August 7, President Obama signed into law the Sequestration Transparency Act that requires OMB to report to Congress on how it would implement the sequester if it goes into effect.   Until now, the Administration has been holding Congress's feet to the fire to agree on an alternative, but lacking any progress on that front, acquiesced to providing a plan by next month.  OMB's report is due 30 days from when the law was signed, which means it should be on the desks of House and Senate members when they return from their 5-week recess on September 10.

None of the 12 FY2013 appropriations bills has cleared Congress yet.  Agreement was reached last month to pass a 6-month Continuing Resolution instead.  That takes the FY2013 appropriations issue, at least, off of Congress's plate for the lame duck session between the November 6 elections and the end of the year.  While that should give them plenty of time to focus on the larger issues of sequestration and taxes, whether it is enough time largely depends on the outcome of the election.

 

Curiosity Rover Steps Out

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Aug-2012 (Updated: 23-Aug-2012 11:35 AM)

NASA's Mars Curiosity rover took a short drive yesterday to test its systems and relocate to a slightly different spot.

Curiosity landed on August 5, 2012 PDT (August 6 EDT) and its operators are slowly but surely checking out and testing its systems and instruments before starting the main trek over to Mount Sharp.  The rover landed at the bottom of Gale Crater that surrounds Mount Sharp.  The top of Mount Sharp, about three miles above the crater's floor, can be thought of as being essentially at the Mars equivalent of "sea level."  NASA is basically taking advantage of an excavation of the Martian surface by Mother Nature to gain access to many layers of Martian soil that hold evidence of the planet's evolution over the eons.  Curiosity's goal is to provide answers about the habitability of Mars -- whether microbial life could have developed there in the past.

Yesterday Curiosity moved about 15 feet forward, turned 120 degrees, and then backed up about 8 feet.   The tracks it created show clearly in this image released by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

 

Image credit:  NASA/Caltech-JPL

The rover ended up about 20 feet away from where it originally landed, a location now named Bradbury Landing after legendary science fiction writer Ray Bradbury who was born 92 years ago yesterday and died earlier this year.  One of his best known works is The Martian Chronicles.

Code of Conduct is Like "Sarlacc Pit" Says Peter Marquez

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 22-Aug-2012 (Updated: 23-Aug-2012 10:12 AM)

During a panel discussion on defense and industry perspectives on international space security and sustainability measures on Tuesday, Peter Marquez, former White House director of space policy in both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, said that the proposed Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities (CoC) evokes the definition of a “sarlacc,” a fictional creature from the Star Wars movies. Marquez quoted another Star Wars character, C-3PO, as saying that in the sarlacc’s Great Pit of Carkoon “you will find a new definition of pain and suffering as you are slowly digested over a thousand years."

Marquez, now vice president of strategy and planning at Orbital Sciences Corporation, said that while the CoC may have good principles, it is already in the middle of a process with no daylight at the end of it. He cautioned against taking solely normative measures to advance space sustainability and security when these are not matched with intelligence and economic measures. Without investing in capabilities to make space secure, he said, normative security is a “space utopia.”

Marquez added that defining red lines without capabilities is “nothing but dangerous” and said that leadership is needed in this area. Referencing criticisms made about the stance of the Bush Administration regarding space security measures, Marquez agreed that it had been “absent from the international community.”  Yet he thinks that the Obama Administration’s change in tone is also insufficient; “saying yes to everything isn’t really leadership either.” “Change is easy, leadership is hard,” he said and added that Congress should also be advancing this issue.

Panelists from the Department of Defense (DoD), the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) and the Satellite Industry Association (SIA), joined Marquez in the panel discussion, which was hosted by the Secure World Foundation and the Space Foundation.

Industry representatives emphasized the role of their community in engaging and providing input in the development of these measures, which they said directly impact their activities. In particular, they mentioned ITAR reform as a priority. ITAR stands for the International Traffic in Arms Regulation that implement the Arms Export Control Act. Currently, satellites and related technologies are governed by the DoD’s “munitions list” under ITAR and its strict export control rules. Many industry advocates have called for ITAR reform, which they believe has negatively impacted U.S. competitiveness in the space sector.

Sam Black, SIA director of policy described ITAR reform as the “single most important way of boosting international cooperation.” While Black said he remained hopeful that progress could be made in the next few years, AIA Vice President for Space Systems Frank Slazer was more optimistic.  He expects that work  on ITAR reform could be done before the end of the year. The “circumstances have changed,” he explained -- “the market has changed as well as the policies.”

Curiosity Flexes Arm as Preparations for First Drive Continue

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Aug-2012 (Updated: 21-Aug-2012 01:46 PM)

The robotic arm on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover had its first chance to stretch yesterday as NASA continues to check out the spacecraft prior to its first movement on the surface tomorrow.

The arm is seven feet long and has five joints that allow it to work with tools that include a camera, drill, spectrometer, and scoop.  It will be used to obtain samples to put into other instruments aboard the rover for analysis and to deposit other instruments on the surface.  NASA released this photo of the arm with its "turret" of instruments at the end.

Image credit not specified by JPL; available at JPL's website.

Tomorrow, the rover will make its first movements on the surface.  It will move forward, turn to the right, and then back up, ending in a slightly different location and angled 90 degrees from its current position.   NASA scientists want to park it on a spot they have had a chance to examine with cameras.   The exercise should take about 30 minutes during which Curiosity will drive 3 meters (about 10 feet) forward -- the length of the rover -- turn, and drive back a little less than that. 

NASA's Desert RATS Move Indoors for Simulated Asteroid Mission

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Aug-2012 (Updated: 21-Aug-2012 12:43 PM)

In April 2010, President Obama announced that the next destination for U.S. human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) will be a trip to an asteroid.  This week, NASA is simulating such a mission at Johnson Space Center (JSC).

The simulation is being conducted by NASA's Research and Technology Studies (RATS) team,  Previous RATS exercises have been held in the Arizona desert, hence the nickname Desert RATS.   This year, however, NASA is conducting the simulation in Building 9 at JSC outside of Houston, TX because it has tools and simulators that would be difficult to transport to a desert location according to NASA.

Between the crane-based Active Response Gravity Offload System (ARGOS) that allows astronauts to experience the equivalent of 1/3 gravity (g) as on Mars or 1/6 g as on the Moon, and virtual reality helmets, the RATS team will test out living and working on a simulated human mission to an asteroid. 

Asteroids have virtually no gravity, a special concern since "loose samples could drift away and an astronaut could be propelled away from the surface just by hitting a rock with a hammer," NASA reports.

The President specified a human mission to an asteroid by 2025 in his April 15, 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center and in his 2010 National Space Policy issued a few months later.  The asteroid mission would be a stepping stone to sending people to orbit -- but not land on -- Mars in the 2030s.   The President said he expects humans to land on Mars in his lifetime, but was not more specific.

The humans-to-an-asteroid mission does not appear to have garnered much support, however, and many human spaceflight advocates continue to hope that the Moon will return as the next destination beyond LEO.   Landing on the Moon -- or Mars -- would require additional funding, though, since landing systems would be needed.   The program NASA Is pursuing today at the direction of Congress is to build a big rocket (the Space Launch System) and a crew capsule (Orion), but not landing systems.  With the money expected to be provided to NASA in the coming years, the first SLS test is in 2017 and its next flight, carrying a crew in an Orion capsule, will not take place for four more years.   Where the money would come from to build systems to enable a human lunar landing is an open question.

Meanwhile, NASA continues to follow Presidential direction in planning for an asteroid mission.

And the Answer Is ... Another Mars Mission--Update

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Aug-2012 (Updated: 21-Aug-2012 10:34 AM)

UPDATE:   This story has been updated to reflect comments made during NASA's media teleconference today.

Fresh from the excitement of landing the Curisoity rover on Mars, NASA has selected another Mars lander as the next in its mid-sized Discovery series of planetary exploration missions.

Called InSight, for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (formerly named the Geophysical Monitoring Station -- GEMS), the $425 million mission (in 2010 dollars, not including a launch vehicle) is a cooperative project with France and Germany.   Led by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), InSight will be launched in 2016.  It is a lander that will study the interior of Mars and builds on technology used for NASA's 2007 Mars Phoenix mission. 

The Mars exploration community was in a tizzy earlier this year when budget cuts caused NASA to withdraw from planned cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA) on a series of Mars probes beginning with launches in 2016 and 2018.  They were part of a series of large "flagship" missions that eventually would have led to returning a sample of Mars to Earth.   The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) decided that the United States could not commit to a series of expensive Mars missions right now and cut NASA's FY2013 budget request for planetary science by 20 percent.  

However, OMB permitted NASA to study an alternative, less expensive mission for launch in 2018 or 2020.  That study is ongoing.   The outcry from the Mars advocacy community was sufficient to cause the House and Senate appropriations committees to recommend restoring money for Mars exploration, although the final version of the FY2013 appropriations bill has not yet cleared Congress.

Probes can be sent to Mars every 26 months when Earth and Mars are aligned properly in their orbits.   The United States has sent probes to Mars at every opportunity since 1996, except for 2009.  That was the original launch date for the Curiosity mission, but it ran into technical problems and had to be delayed to 2011.  It landed on Mars two weeks ago after an eight month journey.

With InSight selected for the 2016 opportunity and planning underway for a 2018 mission, it may be that NASA continues to launch at every 26-month interval despite the constrained budgetary outlook.  The rest of the solar system, however, apparently will have to wait. The other two candidates for the Discovery selection were a mission to Saturn's moon Titan and a mission to study comets.  The Titan Mare Explorer (TIME) envisioned floating a probe on one of Titan's methane seas.  The Comet Hopper would have repeatedly landed a spacecraft on a comet to study how it changes as it interacts with the sun.

At a media teleconference today, NASA Associate Administrator for Science John Grunsfeld and NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green said the three candidates were judged fairly equal in terms of the scientific knowledge they would obtain, but InSight was assessed to most likely meet the cost and schedule requirements.

Meanwhile, ESA is trying to save its 2016 ExoMars mission, with its new partner, Russia.  The mission continues to face financial hurdles.

NASA to Announce New Discovery Mission Selection Today

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Aug-2012 (Updated: 20-Aug-2012 02:14 PM)

NASA will announce today which of three candidates it has selected as the next in the mid-sized Discovery series of planetary exploration missions.

The three contenders are:

  • Titan Mare Explorer (TIME), a mission to land on and study a methane ocean on Saturn's moon, Titan;
  • Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight -- previously called Geophysical Monitoring Station or GEMS), a mission to land on Mars to study the planet's interior structure and composition; and
  • Comet Hopper, to study the evolution of comets by landing on a comet multiple times and observing its changes as it interacts with the sun.

NASA Associate Administrator for Science John Grunsfeld, and NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green will make the announcement at 5:00 pm ET.   It will be carried live on NASA's NewsAudio website.

 

Not to Worry, It was Just a Pinprick -- Photo of Rock Zapped by Curiosity Rover

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Aug-2012 (Updated: 19-Aug-2012 06:56 PM)

NASA has released an "after" image of the Martian rock it zapped with a laser today showing a small hole created in the process.

Image credit:  NASA/Caltech-JPL/LANL/CNES/IRAP

The image is a composite incorporating an image taken by one of Curiosity's Navigation Cameras before the test, with inserts taken by the ChemCam instrument afterwards.  The image in the circle is the before picture; the magnified area in the square is after the test.

The rock is designated N165, but has been christened Coronation by the Curiosity scientists.

NASA released this image of it earlier.  The fist-sized rock is about 10 feet from the rover.

Image credit:  NASA/Caltech-JPL/MSSS/LANL.

Ouch! Curiosity Zaps Rock With Laser

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Aug-2012 (Updated: 19-Aug-2012 05:17 PM)

NASA tested the laser on the Mars Curiosity rover today, zapping rock N165 30 times in 10 seconds.  Scientists have now named the fist-sized rock "Coronation."

Image credit: NASA/Caltech-JPL/MSSS/LANL

This image shows the rock prior to being zapped.  The point of the test is to study the ionized gas (plasma) that the laser excites to determine the rock's properties using three spectrometers that also are part of the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument.  ChemCam principal investigator Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) reported that they received "a great spectrum...lots of signal" from Coronation. 

ChemCam was built by LANL in cooperation with the French space agency CNES and the French research agency CNRS.  The technique, laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, has been used in extreme environments on Earth, such as inside nuclear reactors, but this is the first time it has been used elsewhere in the solar system.

NASA will hold two media teleconferences in the coming week to provide updates on Curiosity.  They are on August 21 and August 23, both at 10:00 am PT (1:00 pm ET).  Audio will be streamed at http://www.nasa.gov/newsaudio and http://www.ustream.tv/nasajpl.  Visuals will be available at http://go.nasa.gov/curiositytelecon

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