Latest News

Europe Suspends Efforts to Contact Phobos-Grunt

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Dec-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The European Space Agency (ESA) has suspended its attempts to contact Russia's Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, but remains ready to resume assistance if the situation changes.

ESA has been using ground stations in Australia and the Canary Islands to help Russia contact the probe, stranded in Earth orbit since its launch on November 8.   The Fregat upper stage that should have sent the probe on its way to Mars did not fire for unknown reasons.  The probe deployed its solar panels, and ESA successfully contacted the probe last week, but nothing more has been heard from it since.

Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-soil) was intended to return a sample of the Mars moon Phobos to Earth as well as deploy a small Chinese spacecraft to orbit Mars.   The window for a two-way mission to Mars has closed, although theoretically if contact was reestablished and the problem resolved, it could still make a one-way trip to Mars.  The Earth and Mars are properly aligned in their orbits around the Sun every 26 months for spacecraft to travel between them.

If contact cannot be restored, the spacecraft will reenter Earth's atmosphere sometime early next year.

Update on Russia, China and India: Presentation to the APL/NASM Space Policy & History Forum

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Dec-2011 (Updated: 07-Dec-2011 11:32 AM)

Editor's Note:   My Powerpoint slides from yesterday's meeting at the Applied Physics Lab (APL) in Laurel, MD are nowposted for anyone who is interested.

My talk was the second in a new series of forums sponsored by the National Air and Space Museum's (NASM's) Space History Division and APL.  The series seeks to stimulate dialogue on a topic of interest and is a discussion more than a lecture.  I posed three questions and then provided background to set the stage.  The questions were:

  • Are we too dependent on Russia?
  • Should we cooperate with China?
  • Could regional rivalry between India and China spur a new arms race in space?

It was a fun and lively discussion -- thanks to everyone who came!

Roger Launius of NASM and Nathan Bridges of APL, the co-creators of the series, announced that the next will be in March at Lockheed Martin's Global Vision Center in Crystal City, VA.   Exact date, topic and speaker will be announced later.

Marcia Smith

CSIS to Hold Seminar on Deficit Reduction and the Defense Industrial Base

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Nov-2011 (Updated: 06-Dec-2011 05:42 PM)

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) will hold a seminar on Friday about deficit reduction and the defense industrial base.

With the failure of the supercommittee triggering substantial cuts to the Department of Defense (DOD) -- unless modified or overturned by subsequent action -- over the next 10 years, everyone is asking what that really means for DOD and its industrial base.  This CSIS seminar, "Deficits, Defense and the Industrial Base -- What's Next," will illuminate the consequences.   Scheduled for December 2, 2011 from 10:00 - 11:30 am EST at CSIS (1800 K Street, NW, B1 Conference Center, Washington DC), the speakers are:

John Hamre, President and CEO, CSIS 

Followed by a panel of experts

David J. Berteau (moderator), Senior Vice President and Director, CSIS International Security Program

Gordon Adams, Professor of International Relations, School of International Service, American University; Distinguished Fellow, Stimson Center

James W. Dyer,  Senior Adviser, CSIS, and Principal, The Podesta Group

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, President, American Action Forum and former Director, Congressional Budget Office.

RSVP to .

Zak: Management Shakeup in Russian Space Could Start Today

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Nov-2011 (Updated: 07-Dec-2011 11:31 AM)

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made it clear over the weekend that he wants to punish those responsible for the likely failure of Phobos-Grunt.   Anatoly Zak at reports that "the latest round of purges" at Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, "was expected to start as soon as Monday, November 28."

Zak, a widely respected Russian space analyst who lives in the United States, is highly critical of Medvedev's comments:  "With his trivialization of Stalin's crimes in a pre-election political theater, Medvedev played a dangerous game of appeasing those who saw the unspeakable terror of the Soviet past as a viable future for Russia.... In the 1930s, Stalin's henchmen nearly decimated the nascent Soviet rocket development program, along with the rest of the Soviet society. Leaders of the Rocket Research Institute, RNII, were murdered and the organization's leading engineers, Sergei Korolev and Valentin Glushko, lost years of their lives in prisons." 

The current head of Roscosmos, Vladimir Popovkin, has been on the job only a few months.  A retired Army general, he replaced Gen. Anatoly Perminov who was forced into retirement in April after a December 2010 Proton launch failure that doomed three GLONASS navigation satellites.  The GLONASS system, similar to the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS), is a top priority at the highest levels of the Russian government and it would have gotten back up to full operational capability -- 24 operational satellites -- with that launch.   That milestone was ultimately achieved last month.  The Russians want to have 30 operational satellites on orbit, and another was launched today.

Russia has suffered a series of embarrassing rocket failures in the past year and some wonder if that reflects deeper problems in the Russian aerospace industry.  In a speech to the Russian State Duma (its lower house of Parliament) in October, Popovkin reportedly acknowledged a "deep rooted crisis" caused by "outdated regulations," "fixed asset depreciation," a "technology gap," and an aging aerospace workforce.  He added that he planned to make major changes at Khrunichev, which manufactures Proton and other Russian launch vehicles.

Khrunichev did not build either Phobos-Grunt or the Fregat upper stage that apparently malfunctioned, however.  Both are built by NPO Lavochkin, which undoubtedly is under scrutiny for this latest failure.  Hopes have dimmed that the spacecraft can be rescued.

House Committee Schedules Hearing on JWST

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Nov-2011 (Updated: 06-Dec-2011 04:39 PM)

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) program next week.

The program, which has experienced significant cost growth and schedule delays, was saved from cancellation in the final version of NASA's FY2012 appropriations bill.  The House Appropriations Committee wanted to terminate the program.   Its counterpart in the Senate, however, approved an increase in funding for FY2012 so the telescope can be launched in 2018 instead of years later.  The Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA is chaired by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), an ardent supporter of NASA's space and earth science programs, especially those managed at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, including JWST.

The projected lifecycle cost for the program is up to $8.8 billion.   The price has risen substantially over the years and an independent review just last year estimated the cost at $6.5 billion assuming launch in 2015 (a two-year slip).   To launch in 2015, however, substantial additional money would have had to have been spent on the program in FY2011 and FY2012, money that NASA did not have.   Thus, the launch date slipped even further, increasing the cost yet again.  The independent review, chaired by John Casani, blamed poor program management at NASA, not technical issues, as the reasons for the cost growth.  Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor.

JWST supporters have been waging a campaign to build support for the project which obviously has been successful so far.  Conferees on the appropriations bill adopted the Senate position, adding $156 million to the program's budget for FY2012.   NASA says that an additional $1.067 billion will be needed for FY2013-2016 and other parts of NASA are worried that their budgets will be cut in order to pay for the JWST overruns.

The hearing is scheduled for December 6 at 10:00 am EST in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building.   Witnesses are:

  • Mr. Rick Howard, Program Manager, James Webb Space Telescope, NASA
  • Dr. Roger Blandford, Professor of Physics, Stanford University, and chair of the National Research Council''s recent Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Dr. Garth Illingworth, Professor & Astronomer, UCO/Lick Observatory, University of California, Santa Cruz
  • Mr. Jeffrey D. Grant, Sector Vice President & General Manager, Space Systems Division, Northrup Grumman Aerospace Systems

The Space Show's Interview with's Marcia Smith

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Nov-2011 (Updated: 06-Dec-2011 04:37 PM)
Editor's Note:

I was privileged to be a guest on David Livingston's The Space Show yesterday.  David has posted the audio and a short summary of the show on his website for anyone who is interested.

Marcia Smith

UPDATE: Events of Interest: Week of November 28-December 2, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Nov-2011 (Updated: 06-Dec-2011 04:33 PM)

UPDATE:  CSIS's event on Friday re the defense industrial base has been added.

The following events may be of interest in the coming week.  Check our calendar on the right menu or click the links below for more information.   The House and Senate both are in session this week.

During the Week

The Senate is scheduled to resume consideration of the Department of Defense (DOD) Authorization bill, S. 1867, on Monday.  

At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) will send its "passbacks" to the various federal departments and agencies on Monday.  Each year, usually in September, agencies tell OMB what they want their budgets to be for subsequent years. OMB considers these proposals and then "passes them back" (hence, a "passback") with whatever modifications OMB deems necessary.  The agencies can negotiate with OMB or even take an issue to the President if they are sufficiently determined.  The end result is the President's budget request to Congress that is submitted on the first Monday in February of each year.  The budget request now being developed is for FY2013.  Passbacks used to be sent to agencies on Thanksgiving eve -- never a pleasant holiday experience.  According to the Washington Post, current OMB Director Jack Lew decided to wait until the Monday after Thanksgiving so government officials could enjoy time with their families.

Monday-Tuesday, November 28-29

Thursday, December 1

Friday, December 2

  • CSIS seminar on Deficits, Defense and the Industrial Base -- What's Next, 1800 K Street, N.W., B1 Conference Center, Washington, DC, 10:00-11:30 am EST
  • Panel on U.S. Space Exploration in the Next 50 Years, part of DuPont Summit on Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy: Pressing Issues, Little Time, Carnegie Institution of Science, 1530 P Street, N.W., Washington, DC  (the summit has many panels throughout the day; this one is from 10:15 am - 12:45 pm EST)

Phobos-Grunt Not Communicating; Russian President Seeks Punishment of Responsible Parties

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Nov-2011 (Updated: 07-Dec-2011 11:29 AM) reports that the European Space Agency's (ESA's) most recent efforts (November 25 Eastern Standard Time, November 26 in Australia) to communicate with Russia's Phobos-Grunt spacecraft were not successful.  ESA's space operations website has not yet been updated with those results. 

Using its ground station in Perth, Australia, ESA was able to communicate with the spacecraft twice earlier in the week, but that success has not been repeated.  Phobos-Grunt was launched on a Zenit rocket plus a Fregat upper stage on November 8.  The Zenit appears to have worked perfectly, but the Fregat did not fire to place the spacecraft onto its Mars trajectory and the spacecraft remains stranded in Earth orbit.  The cause is not known.

Reuters quotes Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as saying that he believes those responsible for recent space program failures, like Phobos-Grunt, should be punished.  The Reuters quote is as follows: 

"'Recent failures are a strong blow to our competitiveness. It does not mean that something fatal has happened, it means that we need to carry out a detailed review and punish those guilty, Medvedev told reporters in televised comments.

"'I am not suggesting putting them up against the wall like under Josef Vissarionovich (Stalin), but seriously punish either financially or, if the fault is obvious, it could be a disciplinary or even criminal punishment,' he said."

ESA needs to use its Perth ground station for its own spacecraft for the next couple of days as it works through a backlog of tasks that were set aside.  It then plans to resume attempts to contact Phobos-Grunt.  ESA and Russia have cooperated together on Mars missions for many years.  Russia launched ESA's Mars Express probe, which successfully entered orbit around Mars in 2003.

Editor's note:  Thanks to Jeff Foust for bringing the Reuters article to our attention via Twitter.

SSB Chair: National Academies Must Adjust to Communications Revolution

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Nov-2011 (Updated: 17-Jan-2012 08:47 AM)

Space Studies Board (SSB) Chair Charles Kennel believes the National Academies -- the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council (NRC, of which SSB is part) -- need to "adjust to the revolution in communications and the new media."   His comments were part of a workshop held by the SSB in November 2010; a summary of the workshop has just been published.  (Editor's note:  in the interest of full disclosure, I was the rapporteur for the workshop and have been eagerly awaiting publication of the report for quite some time as it worked its way through the lengthy, but thorough, NRC review, editing and printing process.)

The workshop, Sharing the Adventure with the Public:  The Value and Excitement of "Grand Questions" of Space Science and Exploration," was held by the SSB to encourage interaction between the space science and engineering communities and professional communicators about how to better engage with the public about NASA activities.

In a keynote address, Miles O'Brien, formerly with CNN and now with PBS' NewsHour, noted that few major media outlets have science correspondents today and social media tools like Twitter offer new ways for the public to learn about NASA and the space program.  He congratulated the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for pioneering the use of Twitter to portray planetary science missions in the first person as was first done by Veronica McGregor for the Mars Phoenix mission.   While some of the scientists at the workshop already were avid social media users, others were reluctant.    Christie Nicholson of Scientific American later implored everyone to at least try Twitter and Facebook to see if they could help in communicating with the public rather than rejecting them out of hand.

The remainder of the two-and-a-half day workshop consisted of six sessions in which scientists presented papers on five "Grand Questions" identified by the workshop organizers and interacted on panels with professional communicators about how to better engage with the public about NASA's efforts to answer them.   The tables were turned for the final two sessions, where the professional communicators presented papers and then interacted on panels with scientists. NRC workshops like this are not allowed to present findings or recommendations.  Instead, the report simply describes what transpired, including the individual viewpoints of participants, which varied widely.

Kennel cited the Climategate controversy as "a dramatic lesson" of where scientists did a poor job of communicating with the public.  He said that the climate science community thought it had "discovered the key for communicating with decision-makers" through the "elaborate peer review process" of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  Instead, after hackers released email exchanges among climate scientists questioning each other and a lapse in fact checking regarding snow melt in the Himalayas, there was "a profound loss of confidence in the whole process."   That showed "how fragile the trust had been," said Kennel, and the "weaknesses in what the scientists thought was a perfectly wonderful way to communicate."

The idea for the workshop predated Climategate, and climate was only one topic discussed.  The five "Grand Questions" were:  

  • Understanding the universe-how did it begin and how it is evolving?
  • Are we alone?
  • Understanding the solar system-how did it begin and how is it evolving?
  • The Earth:  Will it remain a hospitable home for humanity in the future?
  • What could the future hold for humans in space?

Joan Johnson-Freese, a political scientist and professor at the Naval War College, and an SSB member, asked a key question -- what are scientists really seeking to do in sharing the adventure with the public?   Linda Billings, a research professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University who works with NASA's astrobiology program stressed that there "is no monolithic public."   She disagreed with those who believe that better communications might translate into more public support for NASA.  "Public information, public education, public interest, public engagement, public understanding, and public support are all different social processes and phenomena, and one does not necessarily lead to another," she said.  Billings advocates including the public in decision-making about NASA including "community consultations, citizen advisory boards, and policy dialogues," while acknowledging that it would be "complicated and time-consuming" and require "power sharing."

As for the human exploration program at NASA, Marc Kaufman of the Washington Post said he could not imagine a worse scenario than what has transpired over the past 10 years, starting with the Columbia tragedy.  He said that President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration, though endorsed by Congress, was not adequately funded, which implies the government was not serious about it.  When the Obama Administration determined there was not enough money it "understandably decided to blow up the whole process," he said.   SSB member Joan Vernikos added that actions speak louder than words and if they are disparate the result is "disastrous," which was her assessment of the situation.  Some participants were excited about the prospect of commercial crew and believe that it will help engage the public's interest; others bemoaned the confusion and discord that followed the Obama Administration's abrupt cancellation of the Constellation program.

As many of the scientists criticized themselves and their colleagues for poor communications with the public -- not only about Climategate, but in other areas, such as why Pluto no longer is a planet -- some of the non-scientists gave them a break.   Johnson-Freese said the scientists "have been way, way too hard on themselves....I think you've been doing a heck of a job, but we can always get better."

In his remarks at the end of the workshop, Kennel said that over the last 20 years there has been a revolution in communications, which he believes "has the potential, combined with science, ... to produce a second Enlightenment" in this century.  Hence his clarion call to the National Academies to embrace new communications technologies and "adjust to the revolution in communications and the new media" or risk the fate of institutions that "did not react to this revolution and have failed...."

UPDATE 2: Mars Probe "Curiosity" On Its Way to Mars

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Nov-2011 (Updated: 06-Dec-2011 04:28 PM)

UPDATE 2:  Step two -- done:  The Centaur upper stage successfully completed its two firings and separated from the spacecraft.  Mars Curiosity is now on its way to Mars with arrival in August 2012. The "Sky Crane" landing is the next big excitement.  

UPDATE:  On-time launch of the Atlas V-Centaur with Mars Curiosity.  The first step of this long journey is a success.

ORIGINAL STORY:  NASA plans to launch its Mars probe Curiosity in less than an hour, at 10:02 am EST.  Launch preparations are AOK for now.

The launch window this morning is open for 1 hour and 43 minutes.   Clouds come and go over the launch site at Cape Canaveral, FL, but forecasters expect the weather to be within specs at 10:02 for launch of the Atlas V-Centaur.

Follow us on Twitter for frequent updates: @SpcPlcyOnline

Events of Interest

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