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NRC Calls for Restoring Health of NASA's Microgravity Research Program

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Aug-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

In an interim report on its Decadal Survey on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space, the National Research Council (NRC) is calling for the microgravity research program at NASA to be led by someone "of significant gravitas who is in a position of authority within the agency and has the communications skills to ensure the entire agency understands and concurs with the key objective to support and conduct high-fidelity, high-quality, high-value research."

NASA's research program for biological and physical sciences in space, usually called the microgravity program, has been buffeted for years by changes in the International Space Station (ISS) program and funding constraints associated with President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration policy. Although the ISS is not the only platform for conducting such research, as the NRC report emphasizes, the justification for building the ISS rests largely on the science that can be conducted there. President Obama's proposal to continue operating the ISS until at least 2020, rather than discontinuing U.S. participation in the facility in 2015 as envisioned under President Bush, is based in part on using the ISS as a National Laboratory for microgravity research.

The question then is what research needs to be done and how to prioritize it. Congress directed NASA to contract with the NRC to conduct the first Decadal Survey for this discipline in the FY2008 Omnibus Appropriations Act. The final report is expected in 2011, but the renewed focus on ISS research in the Obama Administration's FY2011 budget request prompted the NRC to issue this interim report to address near-term issues.

As explained in the report, dramatic funding cuts in the field led many scientists to abandon this type of research, which once had its own program office at NASA Headquarters, most recently called the Office of Biological and Physical Research. That office was abolished and today microgravity research is a component of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate's (ESMD's) Advanced Capabilities program.

The interim report identifies near-term research opportunities for the ISS. The final report will go into much more detail and define and prioritize an integrated research portfolio. The study is intended to address not only research in microgravity, but partial gravity such as on the surface of the Moon.

The NRC study committee is co-chaired by Betsy Cantwell of Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Wendy Kohrt of the University of Colorado, Denver. (For more information on NRC Decadal Surveys and links to the panels associated with this one, see our NRC page on the left menu at SpacePolicyOnline.com.)

Exoplanet News Expected Thursday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Aug-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

NASA will hold a media teleconference on Thursday, August 26, 2010, to reveal new findings from the Kepler space observatory. Using Kepler data, scientists have discovered an "intriguing planetary system" according to the announcement. The teleconference is at 1:00 pm EDT. Audio of the teleconference will be streamed at http://www.nasa.gov/newsaudio.

Moon Still Has Surprises

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

New results from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) show that the Moon still harbors scientific surprises. At a press conference yesterday, scientists revealed that the Moon has been shrinking, though "not by much" according to an account in the New York Times. The shrinking is the result of cooling of the Moon and the LRO data suggest that some cooling has occurred relatively recently in geological terms -- between a hundred million and a billion years ago.

Courtney Stadd Pleads Guilty to Conspiracy Charges

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Aug-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Courtney Stadd, a well known member of the space policy community who was Chief of Staff to NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe and later returned briefly to work with Mike Griffin when he became Administrator pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges on Wednesday. Stadd is charged with conspiring with former NASA deputy chief engineer Liam Sarsfield to steer a $600,000 NASA contract to Mississippi State University (MSU), which then hired his consulting company to perform some of the work according to the Associated Press (AP), which also states that "Stadd was convicted in 2009 and sentenced to probation for a different case for steering a $10 million contract to MSU." Sarsfield pleaded guilty to one count in November, according to the AP.

Sen. Bill Nelson Introducing Commercial Space Legislation

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Aug-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) is introducing legislation "aimed at boosting the commercial rocket industry and attracting thousands of jobs to Florida's Space Coast" according to a press release from the Senator's office.

The text of his "Commercial Space Jobs and Investment Act" is provided in the press release. It would give tax breaks to commercial space entrepreneurs and "create up to five regional business enterprise zones around the country as magnets for commercial space ventures...."

Space Station Spacewalk Succcessful

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

Yesterday's spacewalk was successful and the replacement pump is now in place. Astronauts Wheelock and Caldwell Dyson spent 7 hours and 20 minutes on this spacewalk, added to their two previous expeditions of 7 hours 26 minutes last Wednesday (August 11), and 8 hours 3 minutes the previous Saturday (August 7). Their efforts were needed after a coolant pump failed on July 31.

Obama's Space Coast Workforce Task Force Issues Report

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

The task force on how to help Florida's Space Coast workforce transition to a new era of human spaceflight issued its report today. President Obama directed that the task force be created in his April 15, 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

The Presidential Task Force on Space Industry Workforce & Economic Development was co-chaired by Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. Eleven other government departments, agencies and offices were represented in the group.

The President pledged $40 million to help the Space Coast workforce, and charged the task force with deternining how best to spend it. A NASA press release explains that the task force's recommendation is to use $35 million for a competitive grants program to be announced on September 1 by the Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration (EDA). The other $5 million will fund a Commercial Spaceflight Technical Center at KSC to support the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportaton's development of standards and regulations for commercial space launch activities.

The report emphasizes that the federal government already has invested "significantly" in the region, such as a $15 million National Emergency Grant by the Department of Labor earlier this year, NASA's creation of a Space Shuttle Transition Liaison Office, and a Department of Commerce investment of $7.5 million to "accelerate investments and infrastructure development in support of regional innovation clusters." The stimulus bill also obligated $19.2 billion to Florida, including $26 million that NASA directed to KSC, according to the task force.

Third Spacewalk to Fix Coolant Pump Underway

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

International Space Station (ISS) astronauts Wheelock and Caldwell Dyson are outside the space station again on their third spacewalk to repair the cooling system. A coolant pump failed on July 31 and the intrepid spacewalkers have been working to fix it. During the first two spacewalks they removed the failed pump and today they are installing the new one. Follow the action on NASA TV or get updates on NASA's ISS website.

UPDATE: Events of Interest: Week of August 16-20, 2010

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Aug-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: We've added the NASA commercial crew event on Thursday.

The following events may be of interest in the coming week. Things are pretty slow as everyone enjoys the last weeks of summer vacation. We don't have anything on the calendar for the subsequent two weeks, so unless we learn of something new, the next edition of this list will appear for the week beginning Sept. 6.

For more details on these events, see our calendar on the left menu or click the links below.


Monday-Thursday, August 16-19

Tuesday, August 17 and Friday, August 20

Thursday, August 19

Understanding Dark Energy, Finding Earth-like Planets Top Priorities Says NRC's Astro2010 Study

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Aug-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)
The National Research Council (NRC) released its most recent Decadal Survey for astronomy and astrophysics today. Formally entitled New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics, but dubbed "Astro2010," the report lays out the scientific and mission priorities for ground- and space-based astronomy for the next 10 years. It is the sixth NRC Decadal Survey in this field; the first was issued in 1964. Decadal Surveys are so-named because they are conducted about every 10 years - a decade - and look forward to the next decade of research. (For more on the NRC and Decadal Surveys, visit the National Research Council page on our left menu at SpacePolicyOnline.com.)

The Astro2010 study committee divided its recommendations into three categories of missions: large, mid-sized, and small. For space-based missions, the committee identified a Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) as the top priority for large missions. A collaboration between NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE), it would answer questions about dark energy, determine the likelihood of other Earth-like planets, and conduct other research about the galaxy. The top priority for the ground-based astronomy program is the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), which also would study dark energy, as well as dark matter, time-variable phenomena, supernovas, Kuiper-belt and near-Earth objects. That project would be a collaboration between the National Science Foundation (NSF) and DOE.

The study committee was chaired by Prof. Roger Blandford of Stanford University. It created a set of science panels to identify key science questions and then a set of program panels to recommend ground- and space-based missions to answer them. The three key scientific objectives they identified were deepening our understanding of how the first stars, galaxies and black holes formed; locating the closest habitable Earth-like planets; and using astronomical measurements to "unravel the mysteries of gravity and probe fundamental physics," according to an NRC press release.

For space missions, the committee also emphasized the importance of Explorer-class missions; the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) to search for gravity waves from the Big Bang; and the International X-Ray Observatory. They are the second, third and fourth priorities, respectively, for large space-based missions.

The top priority for mid-sized space missions is a New Worlds Technology Development mission to provide the scientific basis for a future mission to study nearby Earth-like planets.

Understanding dark energy - "dark" because scientists do not understand what it is - has become a compelling field of scientific research. In the mid-1990s, scientists discovered that the universe is expanding more rapidly than theorized and they don't know why. They invented the term "dark energy" to refer to the unknown energy force that is causing the accelerated expansion rate. Data from NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) led scientists to conclude that the universe is composed about 4.6% of atoms, 72% of dark energy, and 23% of "dark matter" - another unknown phenomenon. That means that they understand only 4.6% of the universe and the rest is unknown dark energy and dark matter.

NASA and DOE had been planning a Joint Dark Energy Mission (JDEM) that was controversial because the agencies had different approaches to studying it and funding was limited. NASA grouped it into a class of missions called "Beyond Einstein" to understand the fundamental physics of the universe. A 2007 NRC report picked JDEM as the top priority of the five Beyond Einstein missions. The Astro2010 report preserves dark energy as a top priority. The report says that WFIRST is based on a JDEM proposal ("JDEM Omega") developed in collaboration between NASA and DOE. and will also search for exoplanets, including Earth-like planets, and perform other research in infrared wavelengths.

NASA is currently building an infrared telescope called the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) as a follow-on to research conducted with the Hubble Space Telescope, though Hubble primarily looks at the universe in visible wavelengths rather than infrared. At $5 billion, JWST is over budget and behind schedule. Its current launch date is 2014, but that may slip because of recent cost increases. The new WFIRST telescope also would be infrared, but is a wide-field instrument rather than a targeted telescope like JWST. "The small field of view of JWST would render it incapable of carrying out the prime WFIRST program of dark energy and exoplanet studies, even if it were used exclusively for this task," according to the Astro2010 report.

This is the first NRC Decadal Survey required to obtain independent estimates of the cost and technical readiness of its proposed missions. Previous Decadal Surveys were criticized because their cost estimates often turned out to be unrealistically low. The NRC does not have the capability to do cost estimating and had relied on the teams proposing a mission to provide cost estimates. For NASA-related missions, "independent" cost analysis was often performed by NASA centers and did not sufficiently take into account so-called "unknown unknowns" that often add to a project's cost. In addition, missions recommended in Decadal Surveys often changed substantially as they went through the development process and while they retained the same name, the scope and complexity often increased, further adding to the costs.

Section 1104 of the 2008 NASA Authorization Act directed NASA to contract with the NRC to conduct Decadal Surveys and as part of those efforts for the NRC to obtain independent estimates of life cycle costs and technical readiness whenever possible. For Astro2010, the NRC created a Cost, Risk and Technical Evaluation (CATE) process that involved hiring a contractor, the Aerospace Corporation. The report emphasizes that the contractor operated independently of the committee "so that their final analysis was free from undue influence by either the committee itself or by interests outside the [decadal] survey.....[W]hile the committee worked closely with the contractor ... the final result has been accepted and certified as independent work performed by the contractor alone. Equally important to the independence of the contractor is the committee's responsibility for reviewing the contractor's work and exercising its judgment in accepting the contractor's results."

WFIRST has an estimated cost of $1.6 billion between 2012 and 2021, with launch expected in 2020 if the project begins in FY2013. There is a possibility that the United States will cooperate with the European Space Agency (ESA) on this mission. ESA is planning its own dark energy mission, Euclid. LSST, which would be located in Chile, is estimated at $465 million for 2012-2021 with annual operating costs of $42 million, of which the Federal share is $28 million. Costs are in FY2010 dollars.

NASA, NSF, and DOE funded the study, which was conducted under the auspices of the NRC's Board on Physics and Astronomy and Space Studies Board.

Events of Interest 

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


 

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