SpacePolicyOnline.com Latest News
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.
NASA's Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) is expected to reenter the atmosphere soon. With all the concern these days about space debris cluttering Earth orbit, it should be good news to know that a big piece is about to reenter, but whether parts of it might survive reentry and reach the ground apparently is a bigger concern.
UARS was launched in 1991 via the space shuttle and provided data on chemical components of the atmosphere and data on the amount of light from the Sun in the ultraviolet and visible wavelengths until 2005. Now the satellite is expected to make an uncontrolled reentry late this month or in early October.
NASA will hold a media teleconference on Friday, September 9, at 11:00 am EDT to discuss the reentry. The satellite is 35 feet long, 15 feet in diameter, and weighs 5.7 metric tons. It's operational orbit was at 375 miles inclined at 57 degrees to the equator, the same inclination as the International Space Station.
The spacecraft poses a hazard in space, too. Last year, the space station had to maneuvered out of the way of a fragment that separated from it according to NASA's Orbital Debris Quarterly. Why that fragment and several others separated from UARS is unknown.
NASA released images today of several of the Apollo lunar landing sites taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). They are totally awesome! Check 'em out.
NASA's next robotic lunar exploration mission, GRAIL, is ready for launch on Thursday, but weather may delay the launch.
The twin GRAIL spacecraft will orbit the Moon, making a detailed map of the lunar gravity field that in turn will tell scientists about the composition of the Moon's interior. A science briefing on the mission will be held tomorrow, Wednesday, September 7 at 10:00 am EDT at Kennedy Space Center, FL. It will be aired on NASA TV.
The Delta II launch is scheduled for September 8 at 8:37 am EDT, with a second opportunity at 9:16 am EDT. At the moment, the forecast is only 40 percent favorable for a launch that day due to thunderstorms nearby. They can try again on Friday and Saturday before needing to take a break for crew rest time. Launch opportunities extend through October 19.
This is the last scheduled launch of a Delta II from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, adjacent to NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
NASA's Chief Technologist, Robert (Bobby) Braun, is returning to Georgia Tech next month.
In a September 1 letter to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, Braun noted that his tenure at NASA on an Intergovernmental Personnel Act agreement was coming to an end and he would return to Georgia Tech in October because while he found it "professionally fulfilling, my service has been exceedingly difficult for me and my family."
Braun praised the people inside and external to NASA that helped him form the Office of Chief Technologist, and expressed optimism about the future despite the tumultuos times. Saying that he believes the changes at NASA have just begun, he added that "While such change is difficult, I believe that the more desperately an organization tries to hold on to today, the more likely it is that this same organization will not have a tomorrow. Please remember that the future starts today."
Russia has had to again suspend its so-far fruitless hunt for debris from the failed launch of Progress M-12M because of bad weather. On the good news front, however, Itar-Tass reports that the mission was insured.
The robotic Progress spacecraft was lost 325 seconds after launch due to a third stage malfunction. One theory is that the spacecraft and the third stage disingegrated in the atmosphere, which is why fragments have not been found. Nevertheless, a search is being conducted in the Altai region of Siberia amid rugged and remote terrain. Russia's news agency Itar-Tass said today that Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, flew over the area in a helicopter for a total of seven hours on Saturday and Sunday, but the search could not resume this morning because of bad weather. Itar-Tass also revealed that the spacecraft was insured for "three billion roubles (US$103 mlliion)."
Russian engineers determined last week that a gas generator on the third stage of the Soyuz U rocket failed, causing the mishap. Although the loss of the cargo that was aboard poses little problem for the International Space Station (ISS) crew, the failure is impacting ISS operations. The Soyuz U is very similar to the Soyuz FG rocket used to launch crews. Consequently, a launch of the next three ISS crew members, scheduled for this month, has been indefinitely postponed. NASA's space station program manager, Mike Suffredini, said last week that there is a possibility that the ISS may have to be destaffed in November if the Soyuz rocket has not been fixed and recertified for launching people.
Progress is a robotic version of the Soyuz spacecraft that is used for crews. The first series of these spacecraft, then simply called Progress, was first launched beginning in 1976 to the Soviet Salyut 6 space station. A new version, Progress M, was introduced for the Soviet Mir space station in 1986, and was later revamaped again and called Progress M1. The first Progress M1 to launch to the ISS was Progress M1-3 in 2000. The spacecraft was recently upgraded again and now carries a Progress M-(number of mission)M nomenclature. The first of this series was launched in 2008. This was the 12th launch of the current version, hence the designation Progress M-12M. NASA refers to it as Progress 44 because it is the 44th Progress spacecraft to resupply the ISS.
This was the first launch failure in the long history of the Progress program, although there was a renowned docking failure between a Progress and the Mir space station in June 1997. In that case, crew error caused the Progress to impact one of the space station's modules, Spektr. Spektr depressurized, creating an emergency situation. The crew (Russian cosmonauts Vasily Tsibliev and Alexandr Lazutkin and NASA astronaut Michael Foale) was able to close off the Spektr module and continue operations. Mir operated for four more years until it was intentionally deorbited in 2001, although Spektr was uninhabitable for the rest of that time.
UPDATES: Two NASA media events on Friday were added, but one has now been cancelled, so hence another update.
The following events may be of interest in the coming week. For more information, see our calendar on the right menu or click the links below. The House and Senate both return from their August break this week (President Obama is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress on Thursday, September 8, at 7:00 pm EDT). Times and dates for congressional activities are always subject to change; check the relevant committee's website for up to date information.
Tuesday, September 6
Thursday, September 8
Thursday-Friday, September 8-9
Friday, September 9
- CANCELLED: NASA news conference on International Space Station National Lab Award, Kennedy Space Center, FL, 9:30 am EDT, watch on NASA TV
- NASA media teleconference on UARS Reentry, 11:00 am EDT, listen at http://www.nasa.gov/newsaudio
- Planetary Society lunch seminar on achievements and future of planetary science, 2325 Raybutn House Office Building, 12:00 - 1:30 pm EDT, RSP required to email@example.com
- Joint meeting of NASA International Space Station Advisory Committee and NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Committee, NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC 1:00-3:00 pm EDT
The National Research Council's (NRC's) interim report reviewing the 14 technology roadmaps created by NASA's Office of Chief Technologist (OCT) is generally supportive. The NRC study committee reviewing the roadmaps suggested substantial changes to only one of the 14 roadmaps. However, it also found that more focus on the needs of the commercial sector is warranted.
NASA Chief Technologist Bobby Braun developed the roadmaps for technology developments ranging from launch and in-space propulsion to entry, descent and landing systems. He then asked the NRC's Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board to review them. The NRC issued an interim report last week.
The NRC agreed with most of NASA's "technology area breakdown structures" (TABS) for each of the 14 areas. The exception was the area of Robotics, TeleRobotics and Autonomous Systems. The NRC found that a complete rewrite of that TABS is needed. The NRC also found that the roadmaps need to be updated in light of two recent NRC Decadal Surveys released since the roadmaps were developed. Those Decadal Surveys are on life and microgravity sciences in space and planetary science.
In light of the Obama Administration's focus on commercial space activities, perhaps the most interesting observation in the report is that "the content of the draft roadmaps could be improved by giving more consideration to the needs of the commercial sector." Specifically, the NRC committee said that NASA's contribution to encouraging and facilitating a commercial space sector, as mandated in the 2010 National Space Policy, would be "enhanced" by a program that identifies how the commercial sector would benefit from advanced technologies, appropriately develops pre-competitive technology for the commercial space sector, and transfers advanced technologies to U.S. industry.
The NRC's final report is expected in early 2012.
UPDATE 2: Andy Pasztor at the WSJ has published an updated story of interest.
UPDATE: Now that the word is out, Blue Origin has updated its scant website with the following information: "Three months ago, we successfully flew our second test vehicle in a short hop mission, and then last week we lost the vehicle during a developmental test at Mach 1.2 and an altitude of 45,000 feet. A flight instability drove an angle of attack that triggered our range safety system to terminate thrust on the vehicle. Not the outcome any of us wanted, but we're signed up for this to be hard, and the Blue Origin team is doing an outstanding job. We're already working on our next development vehicle."
The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Blue Origin suffered a "major failure" during a recent test flight.
Blue Origin is backed by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com. It won awards from NASA in both rounds of the agency's CCDev competitions. The Blue Origin website provides little information about the company or what it is doing, but NASA's CCDev announcement said it had awarded the company "up to $3.7 million for risk-mitigation activities related to its pusher Launch Escape System" and "to produce a composite crew module pressure vessel for structural testing." NASA notes that Blue Origin is developing a vertical take off and landing craft, New Shepard, "inspired" the DC-X concept of the 1990s.
An international group of experts on the threat posed by Near Earth Objects (NEOs) met in Pasadena, CA last week to advance work on creating a Mission Planning and Operations Group (MPOG) to enable space agencies to respond if a NEO is on a collision course with Earth.
The Secure World Foundation and the Association of Space Explorers organized the meeting in conjunction with the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). It is part of a series of meetings to create an international framework for dealing with the threat to Earth from asteroids and comets, collectively known as NEOs.
The August 25-26 meeting was attended by members of COPUOS's Action Team (AT) 14 and representatives of NASA and three non-U.S. agencies: Germany's DLR, Canada's CSA, and France's CNRS.
The series of meetings is aimed at producing by February 2013 a set of recommendations on which COPUOS can act. Secure World Foundation Executive Director Ray Williamson said that the most recent workshop "made substantial progress" toward an interagency plan and an international governance model to deal with the NEO threat.
Events of Interest
- International Astronautical Congress 2016 (IAC 2016), September 26-30, 2016, Guadalajara, Mexico (all plenary sessions will be livestreamed)
- National Academies ESAS Ecosystems Panel, September 28-30, 2016, Beckman Center, Irvine, CA
- NASA Advisory Council (NAC) Big Data Task Force, September 28-30, 2016, NASA Ames Research Center, Mountain View, CA
- NAC Planetary Science Subcommittee, September 29-30, 2016, NASA HQ, Washington, DC
- NEW Coverage of End of ESA's Rosetta Comet Mission, September 30, 2016, watch on ESA TV (beginning 07:45 GMT/3:45 am ET) and NASA TV (beginning 6:15 am ET)
- Lost in Space panel (Baker Institute), October 3, 2016, Rice University, Houston, TX, 5:30-7:30 pm Central/ 6:30-8:30 pm ET (webcast)
- NASA Advisory Council Astrophysics Sbcmt, October 3-4, 2016, virtual (available by WebEx/telecon)
- Blue Origin In-Flight Escape Test, October 4, 2016, webcast begins at 10:50 am ET
- NOAA Media Briefing on Upcoming GOES-R Launch, October 4, 2016, AAAS, 1200 New York Ave., NW, Washington, DC, 11:00 am ET
- Vice Presidential Debate, October 4, 2016, Farmville, VA, 9:00-10:30 pm ET (nationally televised, check local listings)
- National Academies Earth Science and Applications From Space Committee, October 4-5, 2016, Keck Center, 500 5th St., NW, Washington, DC
- World Space Week, October 4-10, 2016, global
Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »
Subscribe to Email Updates: