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The Obama Administration's decision to extend the life of the International Space Station (ISS) may be welcome news to the space agencies involved in the project, but apparently not everyone in the Japanese government has bought into it. An editorial in Thursday's Yomiuri Shimbum notes that a Japanese panel of experts has recommended that the Japanese government reexamine the benefits from the space program and "did not rule out that Japan might withdraw from the ISS program in the future."
The editorial comments that 40 billon of the country's 200 billion yen non-national security space budget goes to the ISS, "Yet there have been so far only a few space experiments that have eventually led to discoveries that can have an industrial application" and proposals to use Japan's Kibo laboratory module "have only trickled in."
The main thrust of the editorial is criticizing the Japanese government for not paying sufficient attention to the future of the space program, calling it "quite irresponsible" for not having held any meetings of the Strategic Headquarters for Space Policy "which is supposed to be the control tower on the matter." Japan's 2008 Basic Space Law created that body, led by the Prime Minister.
The heads of the space agencies from the countries involved in the ISS program -- the United States, Russia, Japan, Europe, and Canada -- met in Tokyo in March. They released a joint statement expressing "mutual interest in continuing operations and utilization for as long as the benefits of ISS exploitation are demonstrated." The statement added that all would work within their governments "to reach consensus later this year on the continuation of the ISS to the next decade." It also stated that the partnership was working to certify that the panoply of space station modules and other hardware could operate until 2028, 30 years after the first two were launched, a hint of optimism that the governments would agree that ISS is worth the investment.
Last year Japan released a Basic Space Plan to implement to its Basic Space Law. The government recently reviewed all its programs looking for cost savings and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) did fairly well in that evaluation. Japan has been the steadiest partner in the ISS program, delivering just what it promised at the beginning. As was true for the United States, it would be odd for Japan to turn away from the ISS program just as the facility is finally built, but every partner country faces its own challenges in justifying space program expenditures, as underscored by the ongoing debate over the future of the U.S. human space flight program.
Not many people really expected the remaining shuttle flights to be completed by the end of FY2010, a short five months away, but the extension into FY2011 reportedly is certain now that a scientific instrument due to be launched to the International Space Station (ISS) will not be ready on time. The New York Times reported yesterday that the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) will undergo a change-out of its magnet before launch and will not reach Kennedy Space Center at least until August. It was due for launch in July. NASA is still deciding when the launch will take place.
A $1.5 billion scientific instrument to search for antimatter, dark matter and missing matter in the universe, the AMS was conceived by Nobel prizewinner Sam Ting many years ago. Working outside the traditional National Research Council (NRC) Decadal Survey process for initiating astrophysics missions, Ting put together an international consortium to fund and construct the instrument. Ting worked through the Department of Energy (DOE), which sponsors high energy physics research, rather than NASA. DOE provided only a nominal amount of funding; the bulk came from an international consortium of institutes. It was built at CERN in Switzerland. NASA's only involvement was a promise to launch the instrument to the ISS when it was built.
An initial version of the AMS flew on the space shuttle in 1998. The ISS version was supposed to carry a superconducting magnet, cooled by liquid helium, five times stronger than the magnet flown on the shuttle, according to the newspaper. However, the coolant was only sufficient for three years of operations. Ting was quoted by the New York Times as saying that he had decided that since the ISS will operate until 2020 instead of 2015, he would rather use the less capable magnet that does not require cooling so that it can operate for many more years. However, the Orlando Sentinel reported in March that a potential design flaw in the magnet had been identified that could mean the instrument would not work as expected.
The AMS has been controversial for many reasons -- not the least of which is that it did not undergo peer review by the Decadal Survey process. Its position on the space shuttle manifest often seemed vulnerable and decisions made to truncate the ISS program and reduce the number of space shuttle missions following President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration initiative nearly doomed it. Dr. Ting's relentless lobbying for the mission prevailed, however. In the 2008 NASA Authorization Act (section 611(c)), Congress directed NASA to add a shuttle mission to launch the instrument as long as it was safe to do so and did not significantly increase NASA's costs compared with earlier estimates. AMS supporters argued that not only was the scientific research valuable, but the United States should not renege on its commitment to the international consortium that paid for the instrument.
One week after President Obama's speech at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), it remains difficult to see who in Congress will take the lead in getting his new plan for the country's human spaceflight program enacted into law. On the surface, at least, little has changed.
Congressional reaction immediately after the speech was generally negative. Most of those commenting clearly were not converted into supporters. Events in Congress this week - at the Senate Budget Committee markup and the Senate appropriations hearing -- underscore that the White House still has a lot of work to do.
The much anticipated Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee hearing yesterday did little to clarify where Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) stands. As chair of the Senate subcommittee that funds NASA, she is a key player in NASA's future. She had not shown her hand prior to the speech and many expected that the hearing would be her platform for revealing her position. Instead, she said that she needed to learn more, a clear indication that the KSC speech did not meet its goal of clarifying the President's program and building support for it.
Senator Mikulski was the only Democrat at the hearing. The Republican Senators were just as critical as ever. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), ranking member of the subcommittee, was particularly harsh in his criticism of the proposal and of NASA Administrator Bolden, telling Gen. Bolden that "your destructive actions towards the Constellation program will only ensure that Members cannot trust you." He added that "you are creating an atmosphere where you and your leadership team have become a major impediment to moving forward." Sen. Shelby was pretty harsh last year, too, with regard to the notion that commercial companies could take over transporting NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station instead of building the Ares rockets whose development is underway in Alabama. It's obvious that his position is unchanged.
Anyone who reads the news knows that the Senate as a whole is a highly partisan environment these days, but the space program has been a bipartisan topic throughout the years. It still may be bipartisan, but in opposition to - or at least not supportive of - the President. There are months to go in the congressional appropriations process and plenty of time for the President to put on a full court press to win support at least from members of his own party.
Still, Senator Mikulski and Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) are bellweathers of Democratic views on NASA. Even Senator Nelson, credited as the architect of the President's appearance in Florida, does not yet seem completely sold on it himself. On Wednesday he persuaded the Senate Budget Committee to recommend more funding for NASA in FY2011 in part to enable the agency to continue testing the Ares 1 rocket that the President is determined to cancel.
Other key congressional space leaders have not publicly reacted to the speech, including Senator Mikulski's counterpart in the House, Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV), or the chair of the House Science and Technology Committee, Rep . Bart Gordon (D-TN) or the chair of its space and aeronautics subcommittee, Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ). Gordon raised a number of reservations about the proposal during a hearing in February and Giffords has been openly antagonistic to the idea of terminating the Constellation program at several hearings.
If nothing else, the speech did lay to rest any reservations about whether the President himself is committed to the new plan. Whether he would have staved off some of the critics by giving the speech initially instead of revealing this profound proposed change in the U.S. human spaceflight program as part of the FY2011 budget request is unknown.
The President sought to convince the aerospace community that he personally is committed to NASA and to human spaceflight. He presented destinations and timelines in response to criticism that the original announcement was too vague. But it is clear that he will have to do more to win converts in Congress, at least, to his proposal. Stay tuned.
The Senate Budget Committee today recommended increasing the amount of funds available to NASA for FY2011 to $19.7 billion, $1 billion more than the agency's FY2010 appropriations or $726 million above the President's request for FY2011. Reading the summary of the committee's intent and listening to a colloquy between the committee's chairman, Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND), and Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), suggests that the motivation is to support terrestrial military requirements at least as much as space program goals, however.
The committee marked up the FY2011 budget resolution today. The budget resolution does not provide funding to agencies, but sets the amount of money that each of the 12 appropriations subcommittees may spend. (Not sure what a markup is? See our "What's a Markup" Fact Sheet.)
An overview of the "chairman's mark" - the recommendation of Chairman Conrad -- explains that it provides funds to continue flying the space shuttle into FY2011 if needed to complete the remaining scheduled missions. The President's FY2011 budget request contains funds for shuttle flights in the first quarter of FY2011 only. The overview also states that "it remains the policy of the United States to possess the capability of continuous access to space" and the chairman's mark supports efforts to reduce the gap between the end of the shuttle program and the availability of a new system whether developed by the commercial sector or the government. It goes on to endorse continued testing of technologies and vehicles for the purpose of developing a new heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV).
That latter point, in particular, was the subject of a colloquy between Senator Conrad and Senator Nelson. Senator Nelson is an avid supporter of human spaceflight, but the discussion suggests that on a broader level, the committee's interest is supporting the military's need for solid rocket motors, not just NASA's human space flight aspirations. A webcast available on C-SPAN (this colloquy starts at minute 01:08:41) shows Senator Nelson linking the Department of Defense (DOD's) need for solid rocket motors "that protect this country's national security in our submarines and silos" and interest in continued testing of Ares-1X and developing a new HLLV for NASA. Senator Conrad soberly notes that there are classified matters that could not be discussed in that forum, but it is "absolutely essential for the national security that this [provision] go forward." He adds that he hopes it will be retained, but "we are going to have to fight for this."
The House and Senate Budget Committees set the total amount of funding that is available for each of the 12 subcommittees of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to spend. Each chamber is supposed to pass a budget resolution and ultimately compromise on a single budget resolution for both. In some years, however, compromise cannot be reached on a joint resolution.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates continued to press his case for reform of the U.S. export control system in a Tuesday speech to Business Executives for National Security.
Stressing that it is "critically important" that the United States prevent technologies from getting into the hands of adversaries who would use them against us, Secretary Gates nonetheless said that the current system does not deal effectivly with today's threats. As an example, he pointedly remarked that "It makes little sense to use the same lengthy process to control the export of every latch, wire and lug nut -- for a piece of equipment like the F-15 -- when we've already approved the export of the entire aircraft."
After detailing what he sees as the many failings of the current system, Secretary Gates listed four key reforms the Obama Administration is seeking: a single export control list, a single licensing agency, a single enforcement coordination agency, and a single information technology system.
A single list would allow the government to focus on protecting the "crown jewels" that maintain the U.S. technological advantage, but he acknowledged that such fundamental reform inevitably would be criticized.
"Some people will be concerned that having fewer items subject to the most onerous export restrictions will make it easier for hostile states or groups to obtain weaponry and technology that potentially could be used against us.
"No system -- above all, the current one -- is foolproof, but by consolidating more ... we can focus our energies and our scrutiny on technologies that truly threathen America's security...."
The Secretary added that he hoped that reform of the U.S. export control system would reestablish a partnership with U.S. allies along the lines of COCOM (Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Export Controls) to prevent transfer of nuclear weapons technology, for example. "Right now, it requires a U.N. Security Council resolution or significant governmental actions by a single government to prevent those transfers.... We hope...we can begin the kind of working-level relationships that we had in the COCOM days..."
He outlined a three-phase process to implement these changes that would take place over the next year. He also noted, however, that congressional action is required.
The congressional calendar in this election year is rather full already, so it is not clear if export control reform will rise to the level of criticality necessary to garner sufficient congressional attention.
Senator Barbara Mikulski, chair of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, told a standing room only hearing this morning that "My position on this budget [for human spaceflight] is very simple. I need to know more, Congress needs to know more, taxpayers need to know more and astronauts need to know more."
She continued that "I want to know if this is a program that the President, Congress and the American people can support and if this is a program that will be sustainable from one administration to the next. We cannot reinvent NASA every four years. ... We are here to get the facts. It's not about finger pointing -- it's about pin pointing." She specifically cites the Constellation program as one topic needing clarification: "Is the President talking about cancelling Constellation or restructuring Constellation?" That's a key issue in her view. She reiterated her priorities and principles as spelled out in a letter to Senator Bill Nelson weeks ago.
She also said that Congress must focus on other aspects of NASA, such as earth science and space science. "But it's not all doom and gloom. We have to note successes. The goals of NASA's space science are amazing."
The hearing is ongoing. Check back later for more news.
UPDATE (April 23, 2010): The X-37B was successfully launched at 19:52 EDT (23:52 GMT) yesterday, April 22.
ORIGINAL STORY (April 21, 2010): The Air Force's experimental X-37B spaceplane is on the pad at Cape Canaveral, FL ready for launch tomorrow evening on an Atlas 5, according to Spaceflightnow.com. Some call it a spaceplane, some call it a mini-shuttle, and its classified mission adds an air of suspense and mystery.
The program started as a NASA effort to build a crew taxi for the International Space Station. Cancelled after President Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration in 2004, it was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and then to the Air Force. In a media teleconference yesterday, Gary Payton, Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space Programs said that the mission duration is still up in the air: "In all honesty, we don't know when it's coming back." The spaceplace will land at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA or Edwards Air Force Base, CA when it does return, and Payton emphasized that what they want to learn from the program is as much about what happens on the ground as in space.
"And then probably the most important demonstration is again on the ground. Once we get the bird back, see what it really takes to turn this bird around and get it ready to go fly again, to learn payload change-out on the ground, to learn how much it really costs to do this turn-around on the ground with these new technologies on the X37 itself.
"So it's as much a ground experiment in low cost O&M, ops and maintenance, the low cost ops and maintenance on the ground as it is an on-orbit experiment with the vehicle itself."
What it will do on orbit is still closely held, but Payton offered these comments:
"Like in many of our space launches, not all of them but many of them, the actual on-orbit activities we do classify. So we're doing that in this case for the actual experimental payloads that are on orbit with the X37. But again, our top priority is demonstrating the vehicle itself with its autonomous flight control systems, new generation of silica tile, and a wealth of other new technologies that are sort of one generation beyond the shuttle."
Jim Oberg has an interesting take on MSNBC today on why commercial space taxis may be easier to build than many people think. He points out that with the decision to use Orion technology to build a Crew Return Vehicle, for example, the commercial taxis will not have to be designed with an on-orbit dwell time of six months as do Russia's Soyuz. spacecraft. They have a relatively simple and straightfoward mission and, he argues, the spacecraft could be "spartan" from a comfort perspective -- like food.
Surely not everyone will agree with Oberg. He suggests that the spacecraft would only have to be capable of independent flight for 24 hours, with a maximum emergency flight time of 48 hours. One can certainly imagine contingencies that would take more time than that to resolve. Perhaps Oberg's most provocative suggestion is that sometimes failure might indeed be an option: "There should be no compromise when it comes to reducing the risk of crew injury or death. But the risks of mission failure should most definitely be re-evaluated under these new circumstances. Failure may sometimes be an option."
UPDATE 2: The shuttle landed safe and sound.
UPDATE: The weather improved and the shuttle was given the "go" to land at KSC at 9:08 am EDT this morning.
ORIGINAL STORY: SHUTTLE STILL TRYING TO GET HOME. NASA managers had to delay Discovery's landing once more this morning because of bad weather at Kennedy Space Center (KSC). They passed on the first landing opportunity, but hope STS-131 will be able to land at KSC at the second landing opportunity at 9:08 am EDT. The deorbit burn would take place at 7:56 am. Otherwise, the shuttle will land at Edwards Air Force Base. Follow the shuttle's progress at NASA's space shuttle website.
NASA is targeting 7:34 am EDT Tuesday for landing Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-131) according to NASA's space shuttle website. Landing was postponed on Monday due to bad weather at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), FL. A second opportunity for landing at KSC would be 9:08 am EDT. Three other landing opportunities are avaiilable at Edwards Air Force Base, CA if bad weather in Florida persists.
Events of Interest
- SpaceX CRS-3 arrival at ISS, April 20, 2014, grapple 7:14 am ET (time is approximate) NASA TV coverage begins 5:45 am ET
- NASA Earth Day 2014 events, April 21-27, 2014, various locations nationwide and online
- Humans to Mars (H2M) Summit, April 22-24, 2014, George Washington University, Washington, DC
- B-612 Press Conference, April 22, 2014, Seattle Museum of Flight, Seatttle, WA, 11:30 am Pacific Time (2:30 pm ET) Will be livestreamed.
- Spacewalk to Replace Failed ISS Computer, April 23, 2014, Earth orbit, 8:55 am ET (NASA TV coverage begins at 8:00 am ET)
- NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, April 23, 2014, Kennedy Space Center, FL, 11:00 am - 12:30 pm ET
Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »
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