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GAO: GPS Program Improved, But Needs Better Interagency Requirements Planning

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

In its latest report on the Global Positioning System (GPS), the Government Accountability Office (GAO) tells Congress that the system is looking better than the last time GAO assessed it, but the process for interagency requirements setting by the Department of Defense (DOD) and Department of Transportation (DOT) needs improvement.

"The GPS interagency requirements process, which is co-chaired by officials from DOD and DOT, remains relatively untested and civil agencies continue to find the process confusing. This year GAO found that a lack of comprehensive guidance on the GPS interagency requirements process is a key source of this confusion and has contributed to other problems, such as disagreement about and inconsistent implementation of the process. In addition, GAO found that the interagency requirements process relies on individual agencies to identify their own requirements rather than identifying PNT needs across agencies."

DOD "did not concur" with GAO's recommendation that the two agencies develop "comprehensive guidance for the interagency requirements process" and DOT "generally agreed to consider it," according to the report.

As far as the GPS system itself is concerned, GAO noted that the first GPS IIF satellite was launched earlier this year -- almost 3 1/2 years late -- and future launches of that version of the spacecraft still face risks, as does the follow-on version, GPS IIIA. GAO warned that if GPS IIIA satellite launches are delayed, the size of the constellation could dip below 24, the number needed for global three-dimensional coverage.

The new GPS IIF version was not given a clean bill of health. GAO noted that usually DOD retains some of an older version of a satellite to launch in case problems develop with a new version once it is on-orbit. The previous version of GPS is the GPS IIR-M, but because of the delays with GPS-IIF, all the GPS IIR-Ms have been launched: "Two GPS Wing officials expressed concern that the GPS program is now in a riskier position than it has been for many years because it does not have any IIR-M satellites in inventory and ready to launch." If the freshly launched GPS IIF spacecraft encounters problems and those in construction need to be modified, launch delays could result, GAO says, not to mention the tight availablity of launch vehicles and facilities.

In short, the congressional watchdog agency seemed to give DOD credit for getting the GPS IIF and IIIA programs on a better footing, but is not willing to give the program a clean bill of health yet.

Pricetag is Staggering for New Weather Satellites Say Senate Appropriators

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

In its report on the FY2011 defense appropriations bill (S. 3800, S. Rept. 111-295), the Senate Appropriations Committee calculates the cost of cancelling the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) and restructuring it so that DOD and NOAA once again have separate systems at more than $20 billion, what it calls a "staggering" cost.

The total includes $5 billion already spent on NPOESS, and an estimated $15.4 billion for the replacement NOAA Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and DOD Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS): $9.4 billion for JPSS and $6 billion for DWSS. Funding for DWSS is included in this bill. Funding for JPSS is in the Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill (S. 3636, S. Rept. 111-229). The committee also expressed reservations about the cost of the restructured program in its report accompanying that bill.

Calling it "premature" for DOD to set up a program office for DWSS, the committee said there "must be a more cost-effective way for DOD to utilize NOAA's significant investment." The committee zeroed DOD's $325.5 million request for NPOESS and included $50 million for DWSS specifically and only for development of unique sensors DOD needs.

NASA IG Clears Bolden of Ethics Law Violation

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has cleared NASA Administrator Bolden of violating ethics laws or regulations regarding a phone call he made to an official of Marathon Oil, a company in which he has a financial interest. However, the IG report said that Bolden's actions "raised concerns about an appearance of a conflict of interest" and disagreed "with the determination made by NASA attorneys that it was not necessary to report Bolden's contact with Marathon to OIG."

The matter involved a conversation Bolden had with a Marathon Oil official regarding algae-based fuels while NASA was considering whether to fund a project called Offshore Membrane Enclosure for Growing Algae (OMEGA). The OIG report says that Bolden has $500,000-$1 million of Marathon stock and had served on its Board of Directors for six years prior to becoming Administrator. The report noted that "When interviewed by the OIG about this matter, Bolden readily acknowledged that he had erred in contacting Marathon. Bolden said he has since recused himself from issues involving OMEGA and has received supplemental training regarding his ethical responsibilities."

LRO Reveals the Moon's Complex Youth

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 19-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

Analysis from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) topographic map of the Moon featured in the most recent issue of Science (subscription required) points to the Moon's "complex, turbulent youth," according to a NASA press release.

Using new data from the LRO's Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter and the Diviner Lunar Radiometer Experiment Instrument, scientists have been studying the geologic processes that formed the lunar surface and the history of numerous meteoric impacts that considerably transformed the landscape. According to the release, "a rich record of craters is preserved on the Moon," data which is hoped will help researchers uncover the implications of such early activity on the Earth and other bodies in the Solar System.

This milestone marks completion of the spacecraft's one-year exploration mission and its transition to a science phase, expected to last from two to four more years. Program management has now been moved from NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate to the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters.

Events of Interest: Week of September 20-25, 2010

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

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.

Monday (Sept. 20)

Monday-Tuesday (Sept. 20-21)

  • NAC Heliophysics subcommittee, Room 3H46, NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC
    • Monday, 9:00 am - 5:30 pm EDT
    • Tuesday, 9:00 am - 3:00 pm EDT

Tuesday (Sept. 21)

  • The Senate is slated to vote on a motion to bring up the FY2011 Department of Defense authorization act. At last report, the Senate leadership plans to attach the DREAM immigration reform act to the DOD bill and other measures also may be added. This is a procedural vote. Debate over the underlying bill and any other measures attached to it is expected to take some time. Congress Daily (subscription required) cites Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) as saying that final passage of the bill is not expected until after the November elections.
  • NAC Exploration Committee, Glennan Conference Room, NASA Headquarters, Washington DC, 1:00 - 6:30 pm EDT

Thursday (Sept. 23)

Thursday-Saturday (Sept. 23-25)

Senate Appropriators Approve Defense Bill on Party Line Vote

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Today the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the FY2011 defense appropriations bill that emerged from subcommittee on Tuesday, but on a party-line vote, 18-12. Ordinarily defense appropriations is a bipartisan measure.

Republican opposition to the bill apparently is a signal of dissatisfaction with the overall level of spending in FY2011 supported by the Democrats. Republicans are trying to force Democrats to cut discretionary spending -- which includes DOD, NASA and NOAA -- and hold it to $1.108 trillion, less than the Senate's $1.114 trillion or the House's $1.121 trillion, according to Congress Daily (subscription required).

Congress Daily quotes Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) as saying that Republicans have opposed all the FY2011 appropriations bills because they do not bring down the deficit or the debt, while Rep. James Moran (D-VA), chair of one of the House appropriations subcommittees (Interior and Environment), is quoted as asserting that it is "all about politics ... not about being fiscally responsible."

Whatever the motivations, it is clear that whatever is approved by the appropriations committees on both sides remains subject to revision as the appropriations bills work their way through the rest of the congressional process. The House has passed two of the 12 FY2011 appropriations bills (Transportation-Housing and Urban Development, and Military Construction-Veterans Administration). The Senate has not passed any. Fiscal year 2011 begins on October 1. A Continuing Resolution (CR) will be needed to keep the government operating while Congress completes consideration of the appropriations bills. CRs usually hold agencies to their previous year's funding level.

While there were predictions this summer than the national security appropriations bills (defense, Homeland Security, and Milcon-VA) would pass before Congress adjourned for the November elections, that appears less likely now. As for the bill that funds NASA and NOAA (the Commerce-Justice-Science bill), it is anyone's guess as to when that will pass, but whenever it does, it would not be surprising for it to include an across-the-board reduction. Such reductions typically are taken at the agency's discretion and usually must be applied to all programs within an agency.

NASA Presses Case for Euclid with Space Astronomers

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA continued to woo the U.S. space astronomy community today hoping that it will agree to NASA's proposal to increase its potential participation in the European Space Agency's (ESA's) proposed Euclid mission from 20 percent to 33 percent. The second day of discussion at the NASA Advisory Council's (NAC's) Astrophysics Subcommittee meeting reiterated many of the points from yesterday, but participants were joined today by NASA Associate Administrator for Science Ed Weiler. They also were briefed by phone by ESA's Fabio Favata on ESA's process for choosing science missions and where they stand today. Euclid is one of three ESA missions vying for two spots in ESA's science program; a decision will be made next summer.

NAC astrophysics subcommittee members are chosen by NASA to represent the broad space-based astrophysics community and they expressed a wide range of views about the wisdom of U.S. participation in Euclid and at what level. Euclid would search for answers to the mystery of dark energy, an unknown force accelerating the expansion of the universe. The recent U.S. National Research Council Decadal Survey for astronomy and astrophysics, Astro2010, identified a multidisciplinary project, WFIRST, as its top priority for space missions. WFIRST also would study dark energy, along with searching for earth-like planets (exoplanets) and performing an infrared sky survey. Astro2010's top priority for ground-based astronomy, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), also would search for dark energy.

Many subcommittee members wondered why NASA would support two space missions that they view as having very similar science objectives when resources are so constrained. ESA-NASA discussions prior to the release of Astro2010 centered on NASA participating in Euclid at a 20 percent level, but more recently the two agencies have been discussing a 33 percent U.S. share. That would cost NASA $260 million over 10 years according to Dr. Weiler.

He and Jon Morse, Director of NASA's Astrophysics Division, tried to downplay that amount, saying it was only $26 million per year, but subcommittee members clearly viewed it as a threat to funding for technology development or other activities. Several subcommittee members were inclined to limit NASA participation in Euclid to a minimum level. Others wanted more NASA participation, perhaps even a merging of Euclid and WFIRST with the two agencies sharing the costs on a roughly equal basis.

Dr. Weiler reminded them of the history of NASA-ESA discussions about working together on a dark energy mission. He said that two years ago, the agencies agreed to cooperate on a program where the United States would have had the lead in the program, but the plan was scuttled because "some people in the community didn't like that." At the time, NASA was working with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) on the Joint Dark Energy Mission (JDEM) and his reference may have been to members of that community, although he was not specific.

In any case, he emphasized that ESA now is well along in its planning for Euclid and does not want to make any major changes - like adding new requirements - lest the mission lose its place in the ongoing selection. Increasing the U.S. share to 50 percent was suggested to ESA recently, he said, and rejected. He spelled out two options for the space astronomy community: 33 percent participation in Euclid, which would put four U.S. scientists on the program's science definition team and give them access to data about dark energy in 2018 when the probe is launched; or no participation in Euclid and U.S. scientists would have to wait until 2022, the notional launch date for WFIRST under NASA's budget assumptions, for dark energy data. After spirited repartee with committee members, he added a third option, to keep U.S. participation at the 20 percent level.

Subcommittee discussions are continuing, but they have little time to reach agreement on what to recommend to their parent NAC Science Committee, which meets on September 28. Dr. Weiler and Dr. Morse told them they need an answer by the end of this month. Dr. Weiler also noted that the astronomy community is not the only voice that needs to be heard. Congress, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy all have a say, he stressed.

With only about $2 billion available for new missions in NASA's astrophysics budget over the next decade, $260 million is a sizeable investment. Dr. Morse dangled the prospect of ESA contributing a like amount to WFIRST if an agreement can be reached, but that would not happen until at least next year so there are no guarantees. In fact, there is no guarantee that Euclid will even be picked by ESA, as the NASA officials repeatedly pointed out.

Astro2010 just set priorities for astronomy and astrophysics research for the next decade, but this issue of increasing U.S. participation in Euclid arose after its report was complete. Astro2010 chair Roger Blandford declined to hypothesize on what the Decadal Survey committee might have thought about increasing participation in Euclid, reminding the group that the study is completed and in any case only sets priorities. Implementation is NASA's responsibility, he said. Yesterday he reminded the subcommittee about exactly what Astro2010 said about Euclid in the context of its WFIRST recommendation: "Collaboration on a combined mission with the United States playing a leading role should be considered so long as the committee's recommended science program is preserved and overall cost savings result."

U.S. leadership in dark energy research appears to be one of the factors in decisions about how to move forward. Although WFIRST is indeed the acronym for Wide Field InfraRed Survey Telescope, it could also be a play on words. The search for dark energy is in part a quest to measure a dark energy parameter designated "w." WFIRST might then be taken to mean that U.S. astronomers want to be sure they are the first to determine the value of w. (An excellent discussion of dark energy and w can be found in a 2007 NRC report NASA's Beyond Einstein Program: An Architecture for Implementation.)


Correction: an earlier version of this article misstated when the NAC Science Committee is scheduled to meet. Its next meeting is September 28, not next week. It will meet by telephone and WebEx; see our calendar on the right menu for a link to the Federal Register notice about the meeting. Also, the NRC Beyond Einstein report was published in 2007 not 2008 -- how time flies!

Dark Energy Top Priority, But Astronomers Ask if Both US and European Space Missions Are Needed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Discovering the nature of dark energy is the top scientific priority for astronomy and astrophysics as indicated in the National Research Council's Astro2010 Decadal Survey released last month. It set both a space mission, the Wide Field InfraRed Survey Telescope (WFIRST), and a ground-based telescope, Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), as the top priorities for space- and ground-based astronomy respectively. Both would search for answers about dark energy, a mysterious force that is causing the universe to expand at an accelerated rate. At the same time, the European Space Agency (ESA) is set to decide next summer on whether its dark energy probe, Euclid, will get the nod for one of its upcoming space missions.

Today, members of the NASA Advisory Council's Astrophysics Subcommittee heard from Astro2010 chairman Roger Blandford, as well as from NASA Astrophysics Division Director Jon Morse and Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Jason Rhodes about the space-based dark energy missions and raised questions about potential overlap between them. The Astrophysics Subcommittee reports to NAC's Science Committee, which in turn makes recommendations to NAC and the NASA Administrator.

Subcommittee members asked penetrating questions about why WFIRST and Euclid could not be combined, with 50-50 participation by each side. Dr. Morse told the subcommittee that current ESA-NASA discussions envision NASA as a one-third contributor to the Euclid mission if ESA proceeds with it. However, he stressed that while top level descriptions of WFIRST and Euclid indicate the two have similar goals in dark energy studies, a more detailed understanding of the instruments might show significant differences in the approaches being taken. Dr. Blandford also emphasized that dark energy is only one of three scientific objectives for WFIRST. The other two are looking for Earth-like planets (exoplanets) and an infrared sky survey, neither of which would be addressed by Euclid.

In a cost constrained environment made all that more difficult due to cost overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), subcommittee members clearly were looking for ways to address the highest priority scientific questions in the most cost-effective manner. JWST and WFIRST are both "flagship" missions within the purview of the NASA Astrophysics Division. Dr. Morse emphasized repeatedly that flagship missions must wait their turn and WFIRST cannot proceed until JWST is launched.

The current launch date for JWST is 2014, but Dr. Eric Smith of NASA's Astrophysics Division briefed the subcommittee on JWST and intimated that the date is likely to slip. The program is currently scheduled to go before an agency Program Management Council (PMC) at the end of November where a decision on its schedule is expected. Repeated cost overruns and schedule slips have led to a number of JWST program reviews, including one demanded by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA.

A strong supporter of NASA and especially its Goddard Space Flight Center in her state of Maryland, which manages JWST, Sen. Mikulski nonetheless became concerned about additional problems with JWST identified during its mission Critical Design Review (CDR) earlier this year. She wrote a sharp letter to NASA in June telling the agency to create an independent panel to look at several issues including the root causes of JWST's problems. That review is due to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden next month. Dr. Smith was unable to answer most of the questions posed by subcommittee members about JWST pending completion of that review and the agency PMC.

The subcommittee meeting continues tomorrow.

Senate to Take up DOD Authorization Next Week; Add Immigration Reform

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Despite earlier pessimism about the chances of the Senate bringing up the Department of Defense (DOD) authorization bill (S. 3454), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has decided not only to take it to the floor, but to add immigration reform.

An attempt to reach unanimous consent to bring the bill to the floor failed in early August when Senator John McCain (R-AZ), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, objected because it potentially would repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Last week, Congress Daily called the chances of the Senate passing the bill "murky."

Nonetheless, Sen. Reid indicated early this week that he would try to bring up the bill for debate and surprised many by announcing that he planned to tack an immigration reform bill, the DREAM Act, on to the DOD bill. Today's Congress Daily (subscription required) says that Republicans oppose the idea because immigration is not germane to national defense, but Sen. Reid reportedly said that it is germane because the DREAM Act could affect military recruitment by allowing young adult illegal immigrants who came to the United States as minors to become citizens.

The Senate is scheduled to vote on Tuesday on whether to proceed with debate on the bill.

Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee Recommends Zero Funding for NPOESS, $50 million for DWSS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

The Senate defense appropriations subcommittee (SAC-D) marked up the FY2011 defense appropriations bill today recommending zero funding for DOD's portion of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) that the White House wants restructured after years of cost overruns and schedule slips. It approved $50 million for DOD's successor program, the Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS).

NPOESS was designed to merge the separate military and civil weather satellite systems of DOD and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, part of the Department of Commerce). NASA was involved in a technical capacity. An independent assessment of the NPOESS program led by former Lockheed Martin executive Tom Young raised warning flags about the program and in February the White House decided to break the program apart so that each agency had its own system once more.

NOAA renamed its portion the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and is proceeding with procuring its first satellite through NASA. DOD renamed its portion the Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS). In its FY2011 budget request, DOD asked for $325 million for its part of the restructured program although it provided few details on its plan, for example whether it would retain the satellite "bus" design developed through Northrop Grumman, the NPOESS prime contractor.

SAC-D zeroed that request while providing $50 million for DWSS. Unlike NOAA, which has launched the last of its legacy polar-orbiting weather satellites and thus is anxious to launch the first JPSS in 2014, DOD has two of its legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites awaiting launch, so the need to decide on the replacement version is less urgent.

The only other space program mentioned in the committee's press release is Operationally Responsive Space, for which $40 million was added.

Events of Interest 

Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »


 

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