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At last week's NASA Future Forum, better and clearer communication about agency activities and policies was the order of the day.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA's) scientific and technological research, and its contributions not only to its missions, but to the U.S. economy and the lives of its citizens, was the focus of the NASA Future Forum, held at the University of Maryland, College Park. Participants, audience members and online viewers interacting via Twitter, engaged in discussions about how best to involve companies and universities in NASA-funded research, how to take successful technologies and integrate them into the market as spinoffs, and how to measure the value of investments, among other things.
Yet one theme that underlined many of the day's discussions centered on the agency's efforts to communicate with the public about these activities. Officials also attempted to "correct" what perceptions may have been created from the policy battles being waged just a few miles away in the nation's capital.
One of these latter points was taken up by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. When he asked the audience who believed it would take years to know when a U.S. vehicle would be arriving at the International Space Station (ISS), the majority shot up their hands. Bolden said that, in fact, it would take less time for American vehicles to fly to the ISS than it took for the post-Columbia disaster recovery (about two-and-a-half years). In response to the audience's reaction, he explained that he and NASA had failed to send out the right message and that it could be as early as next year for a U.S. company to be delivering cargo (but not crew) to the ISS.
Dr. Laurie Leshin, Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration at NASA Headquarters, alluded to another policy battle when she began her remarks by stating that "reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated." Leshin spoke with enthusiasm about what she described as "the next phase of human exploration" and the scientific endeavors that would take the human spaceflight program to new destinations. Once again she aimed to correct an incorrect message; "there is a great program," she declared, speaking to those who, according to her, are saying that the agency no longer has a space exploration program. Leshin recently announced that she would be leaving NASA for the Rennselaer Institute of Technology.
Policy debates aside, perhaps the biggest issue was the question of whether the day's overall message - NASA's direct and indirect contribution to society through science and technology - was reaching its audience at all. Bolden said that at NASA, "we take science fiction and turn it into science fact." Still, his lamentation that so few young people were in attendance begged the question of just how many of them are aware or interested in this side of the agency's activities.
Dr. Raymond Sedwick, an engineering professor at the University of Maryland, posed this very question. During the NASA panel, which included Dr. Robert Braun, NASA Chief Technologist, and Dr. Waleed Abdalati, NASA's Chief Scientist, Sedwick asked whether they were not really "preaching to the choir." Sedwick argued that the audience was made up of people who were already informed and excited about NASA's activities and that the agency's problem was one of public relations. He challenged NASA to be more creative in how it delivers its messages, arguing that it should seek to excite not just children and students, but the adult public as well.
Braun, who in his comments had argued that NASA was "improving life everyday here on Earth," admitted that before being part of the agency, he did not know about NASA activities in this area. As a member of the public, the message just never reached him. Braun said though that in his current role he had assumed the task of communicating more about spinoffs and that his office, which produces an annual spinoff report, would emphasize societal benefits in the near future, because "NASA has a great story to tell."
Representative Donna Edwards (D-MD), who offered some brief remarks later in the morning, agreed: "We have to tell those stories." Edwards argued that the space community's challenge is making the result of NASA's investments in science and technology better known to the general public.
"A nation is only as strong as its investments in technology in the future," said Edwards, adding that "the core" of those activities was the work done at NASA. If these discussions are any indication, though, it seems that NASA's science and technology investments need to be paired with a better strategy for communicating the policies that guide them and what they mean for the community outside of the agency's walls.
NASA named astronaut Terrence "Terry" Wilcutt as its new chief of safety and mission assurance today.
Wilcutt will replace former astronaut Bryan O'Connor who announced his retirement weeks ago. Wilcutt assumes the post on August 31. He flew on four shuttle missions, two as pilot and two as commander. Most recently he has been the manager of safety and mission assurance for the space shuttle program at Johnson Space Center.
UPDATE: NASA's space weather press conference on Thursday has been added.
Hope all of you are enjoying your summer vacations. Here are the events we know of that are happening this week related to space policy.
Monday-Wednesday, August 15-17
Monday-Thursday, August 15-18
Thursday, August 18
SpaceX and NASA are targeting November 30, 2011 for the next test of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and the Dragon capsule.
SpaceX issued a press release today restating what a NASA official said earlier that the two have agreed in principle to merging the next two tests into one, but a final decision is pending. SpaceX originally planned three test flights as part of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. The first, in December 2010, was so successful that the company asked permission to combine the other two. NASA has been evaluating the risks associated with combining the two tests for many months. SpaceX explained today that the remaining issues are related to additional payloads the company wants to deploy from the Falcon 9 after Dragon is released for its trip to the International Space Station (ISS). "NASA will grant formal approval for the combined COTS missions pending resolution of any potential risks associated with these secondary payloads," the company said. The combined test includes berthing the Dragon capsule at the ISS.
NASA is anxious for SpaceX and its COTS competitor Orbital Sciences Corp. to demonstrate their systems for taking cargo to the ISS. With the space shuttle sent into retirement, and NASA's agreement with Russia to launch cargo on Russia's Progress spacecraft coming to an end, the only way for NASA to get cargo to the ISS will be aboard Europe's ATV and Japan's HTV spacecraft if the COTS systems do not materialize. NASA stocked the ISS with a year's worth of supplies with the final shuttle flights to guard against any delays in the COTS program. COTS is a development program; the services the companies would provide to NASA are called Commercial Resupply Services (CRS). NASA hopes that CRS flights will begin early in 2012. These are only for cargo, not crew, although SpaceX plans to use the Dragon capsule to take astronauts to and from the ISS and other low Earth orbit destinations in the future.
Orbital planned only one test flight, in 2011, but it has not yet occurred and now two tests are expected. Its efforts are being slowed by construction for the launch site at Wallops Island, VA and suffered another setback in June when a Taurus II engine caught fire while being tested at NASA's Stennis Space Center. Aviation Week reported on Friday that the fire was caused by a kerosene leak from the fuel manifold on the outside of the engine. Taurus II will use Aerojet's AJ-26 engines, which are refurbished Russian NK-33 engines originally designed for the Soviet Union's unsuccessful 1960s-era N-1 Moon rocket. The kerosene leak was from a 40-year-old part of the engine. Orbital plans two test launches of the Taurus II as part of the COTS program. Its current schedule calls for the first test launch in very late 2011, the second test in the middle of the first quarter of 2012, and two CRS missions later in 2012.
The companies and NASA reassured Congress at a May 26 hearing that the systems would be ready soon.
DARPA appointed an Engineering Review Board to study the issues associated with the loss of the second Falcon HTV-2 test vehicle.
The second of two launches of the Falcon HTV -2 ended the same way as the first with loss of contact prematurely.
HTV-2 project manager Air Force Maj. Chris Schultz said that although boosting the aircraft into the required trajectory was well understood, "We do not yet know how to achieve desired control during the aerodynamic phase of flight. It's vexing. ..."
NASA formally announced the long expected merger of two of its mission directorates as the agency transitions to the post-shuttle era.
The merger creates the new Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate from the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) and Space Operations Mission Directorate (SOMD). ESMD was created to execute President George W. Bush's "Vision for Space Exploration" for human exploration of space beyond low Earth orbit (LEO). SOMD was in charge of construction and operations of the International Space Station (ISS) in LEO, transportation to and from LEO, including the space shuttle, as well as other activities such as NASA's space communications.
Now that the shuttle has flown its final flight and NASA is focusing on ISS operations and whatever comes next in the human spaceflight program, the reorganization comes as no surprise. NASA officials have made clear for many months that it was in the works. SOMD Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier will head the new HEO Mission Directorate. ESMD Associate Administrator Doug Cooke announced his planned retirement several months ago.
DARPA's Falcon HTV-2 was launched successfully today, but contact was lost prematurely.
The launch was delayed from yesterday because of downrange weather conditions.
The Minotaur IV rocket successfully lofted the hypersonic test vehicle and it began its glide back to Earth. However, DARPA lost contact with it prematurely according to the agency's website. A similar fate befell the first of these two test flights, although DARPA obtained nine minutes worth of usable data that time.
NASA's Mars rover Opportunity has this stunning view of the Endeavour crater on Mars, where it has just arrived.
Launch of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency's (DARPA's) Falcon Hypersonic Test Vehicle-2 (HTV-2) has been delayed because of weather.
This is the second of two Falcon HTV-2 flights (not to be confused with SpaceX's Falcon launch vehicle or Japan's HTV cargo spacecraft for the International Space Station). The first was in April 2010. HTV-2 is designed to provide data on hypersonic flight that could lead to development of hypersonic vehicles in the future. The first test flight collected 139 seconds of data in the Mach 22 to Mach 17 range, but DARPA lost contact with the aircraft after nine minutes of flight according to Aviation Week & Space Technology.
The Minotaur IV launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA was delayed today because of poor down-range weather. Another attempt will be made tomorrow between 7:00 am and 1:00 pm PDT.
NASA's Mars rover, Opportunity, is very close to reaching its next destination, Endeavour crater.
The plucky spacecraft that was designed for 3 months of operation and is now in its seventh year sent back a panoramic image of the crater. The crater is 14 miles in diameter and is an interesting site for scientific research because of exposed rock outcrops older than any that the rover has visited so far. Another image shows the route that Opportunity traveled marked in yellow.
Opportunity's twin, Spirit, had ended its mission. NASA abandoned attempts to contact it in May after it did not respond following the Mars winter. It had become stuck with a wheel sunk into the sandy surface with its solar arrays pointing away from the Sun.
Events of Interest
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