Latest News

Suffredini Says ISS Could Be Destaffed In November

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

The International Space Station (ISS) management team is preparing contingency plans in the wake of the failure of Russia's Progress M-12M spacecraft to reach orbit last week. Under one set of assumptions, it might be necessary to operate the ISS without a crew beginning in November.

The Progress M12-M cargo-carrying spacecraft was aboard a Soyuz rocket that is very similar to the type used to launch Russia's crew-carrying Soyuz spacecraft. Thus, the Soyuz rocket failure affects launches of both crews on Soyuz spacecraft and cargo on Progress spacecraft.

NASA's ISS program manager, Mike Suffredini, said at a press conference today that the return of three of the current ISS crew members probably will be delayed for a week, to mid-September, because the launch of the next Soyuz spacecraft with their replacements is delayed indefinitely. Russia's Itar-Tass news agency reported that Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, said it would be September 16. The next Soyuz crew launch had been scheduled for September 21 CDT (September 22 at the launch site).

Russia continues to investigate what caused the third stage of the Soyuz U rocket to fail during ascent. Progress M-12M (called "Progress 44" by NASA because it is the 44th to go to the ISS), filled with cargo for the ISS, crashed into a remote area of Siberia. Russia continues to search for remains of the spacecraft, but bad weather and difficult terrain have slowed those efforts. Russia announced today that they would increase the number of aircraft involved in the search, but they expect that the spacecraft broke into many pieces.

Until more is known about the failure, the Russians cannot set a date for launching the next ISS crew. However, Itar-Tass said that preparations are continuing for the possible launch of the next Progress spacecraft - Progress M-13M - in October.

With the termination of the U.S. space shuttle, Russia's Soyuz spacecraft is the only way to get crews to and from the ISS. Suffredini stressed that the six crew members aboard the ISS are in no danger. The Soyuz spacecraft that are needed to bring them back to Earth are already attached to the ISS, and the ISS was thoroughly stocked with supplies by the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, last month.

However, the Soyuz spacecraft that are attached to the ISS have a limited on-orbit lifetime, approximately 200-210 days. For safety reasons, there can only be as many crew aboard ISS as can be returned to Earth in an emergency. Each Soyuz spacecraft has three seats, and with two docked at the ISS, that allows six crew members to be aboard.

With the roughly 6-month orbital lifetime of a Soyuz spacecraft, crews therefore rotate on a 6-month schedule, and the lifetimes of the two Soyuz that are attached are ending.

Other considerations are ensuring that landings can take place in daylight, which is dictated by orbital dynamics, and to not plan landings during the winter when weather conditions in the landing area are problematical at best. With all of those considerations, the ISS management team is currently planning to return three of the crew in mid-September and the other three in mid-November.

Thus, how many crew - if any - will be aboard the ISS after that is dependent on when Russia can certify that the Soyuz rocket is ready to launch a crew. Suffredini said that if the Soyuz is not flying by mid-November, the ISS would have to be destaffed. NASA has continually warned about problems that could develop if the ISS is left in an unoccupied condition for a lengthy period. Suffredini reiterated that today.

These contingency plans could also impact the scheduled test flight of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft. NASA and SpaceX are considering combining SpaceX's next two test flights such that the next Falcon 9/Dragon mission would involve berthing Dragon to the ISS. However, a crew needs to be aboard ISS to conduct the berthing operation using the Remote Manipulator System. Without a crew, that operation could not take place. November 30 is the currently planned date for the SpaceX launch.

The key is what went wrong with the Soyuz rocket last week. Until Russia makes that determination and fixes it, the fate of ISS operations will be in limbo.

Itar-Tass: Launch Failure Due to Gas Generator

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

Russia's Itar-Tass news service is reporting that the cause of the Progress spacecraft launch failure last week has been identified.

The news service quotes Alexei Kuznetsov from Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, as saying "Members of the emergency commission have determined the cause of the failure of the Soyuz carrier rocket's third stage engine. It is a malfunction in the engine's gas generator."

The Progress cargo spacecraft was launched on a Soyuz U rocket last Wednesday, but did not achieve orbit and fell into the Altai region of Siberia. Russia is still searching for the wreckage in difficult terrain and bad weather. NASA and Roscosmos are working on contingency plans for operations of the International Space Station (ISS) in light of the launch failure, which could affect launches not only of cargo, but crews, to the ISS.

Hutchison, Nelson: "Urgent Need to Comply" with Law

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) said that the contingency plans being drawn up for International Space Station (ISS) operations underscore the need for NASA to develop a new crew space transportation system as required by the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.

In a press statement today, the Senators said:

"This is a very serious situation that bears close attention. Obviously, we must satisfy ourselves that the problem with the Russian rocket is identified and corrected as soon as possible. Perhaps the problems can be resolved quickly. But the very fact that NASA must make contingency plans for reducing the size or evacuating the crew of the International Space Station (ISS) if the Russian Soyuz cannot return to flight by November, is a compelling illustration of the urgent need to comply with the law and proceed immediately with the development of alternative and backup launch capabilities. Failure to take this action undermines U.S. leadership in space and jeopardizes our huge investment in the ISS."

NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, are developing contingency plans for ISS operations following the failure of a Soyuz U launch vehicle last week that doomed a Progress cargo spacecraft destined for the ISS. NASA ISS program manager Mike Suffredini outlined the possibilities at a press conference earlier today.

Florida Senators Write Obama About SLS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Florida's Senators, Bill Nelson (D) and Marco Rubio (R), joined forces to write to President Obama about funding for facilities at Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

The letter was written to clear up what the two Florida Senators believe was a "misunderstanding" in a letter written to President Obama by five Senators from Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi on August 15.

One of the complaints in that letter was that NASA's FY2011 operating plan would transfer money from the congressionally-mandated Space Launch System (SLS) to KSC to pay for facility upgrades.

The new letter from Nelson and Rubio seeks to clarify that there are funds in separate parts of NASA's budget for facilities at KSC. They emphasize their support for the SLS, but argue that ground systems for a new launch vehicle like the SLS are just as necessary as the "design and build phase." They point to a difference between NASA's budget categories for "21st Century Ground Systems" that are part of the SLS budget and "21st Century Launch Complex" that is part of "general construction updates" at KSC. Their bottom line is that they support the "continued use of SLS funds to develop a complete heavy-lift rocket, including the KSC projects in question."

DOD A Tad Softer on China's Military Space Program

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) released its annual report on China's military power last week. Regarding space activities, it contains few surprises, but seems just a tad softer in its assessment of China's military space goals, if not its capabilities.

One interesting comment in the newly released report, for example, is that the commander of the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), General Xu Qiliang, publicly retracted a statement he made last year about the likelihood of militarization of space.

DOD stated in its 2010 version of the report that General Xu "said that the trend of military competition extending to space is 'inevitable' and emphasized the transformation of the PLAAF from a homeland defense focus to one that 'integrates air and space,' and that possesses both 'offensive and defensive' capabilities." This year, DOD reveals that General Xu retracted his "assertion that the militarization of space was a 'historic inevitability' after President Hu Jintao swiftly contradicted him."

That does not mean China is any less interested in military uses of space, however. Both the 2010 and 2011 versions of the report assert in slightly different words that the PLA regards the ability to utilize space and deny adversaries access to space as "central to enabling modern, informatized warfare."

The 2010 report goes on to say that "China is developing the ability to attack an adversary's space assets, accelerating the militarization of space. PLA writings emphasize the necessity of 'destroying, damaging and interfering with the enemy's reconnaissance ....and communications systems."

This year's report seems somewhat softer, however. While it uses the same quote about the PLA writings, it omits the assessment China is "accelerating the militarization of space."

This year's report notes that in 2010 China successfully conducted 15 launches, "a national record." Among the Chinese satellites were five Beidou-2 navigation satellites and nine remote sensing satellites for both military and civilian uses. China also buys commercial imagery from European, Canadian, Indian, and U.S. companies to supplement their own imagery, DOD says.

As for the Chinese human spaceflight program, this report asserts that China plans a "permanently manned space station by 2020 and landing a human on the moon by 2030."

As it has in the past, DOD asserts that China is developing a range of antisatellite (ASAT) technologies, not only the direct ascent ASAT whose test created a tremendous cloud of space debris in 2007. China was subjected to international condemnation for conducting that test and creating a hazard to everyone's space operations. Nonetheless, DOD asserts that China continues to "develop and refine this system," as well as "other kinetic and directed-energy... technologies for ASAT missions."

This annual report is required by Congress. DOD put a note on the front page of this edition to let the taxpayers know that it cost just over $73,000 to produce. ISS Could be "Abandonded" if Soyuz Delayed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

If the next launch of Russia's Soyuz spacecraft is delayed too long, the International Space Station (ISS) could be "abandoned in November" according to's headline.

The website quotes ISS program manager Mike Sufferdini as saying that "Logistically, we can support [operations] almost forever, but eventually if we don't see the Soyuz spacecraft, we'll probably going [sic] to unmanned ops before the end of the year."

With the space shuttle program terminated, Russia's Soyuz spacecraft -- launched by the Soyuz launch vehicle -- is the only way to get crews back and forth to ISS. A Soyuz launch vehicle boosting a Progress cargo spacecraft (with no one aboard) failed last week. There are several variants of the Soyuz launch vehicle. Russia is investigating what happened and what effect it will have on other launches involving the Soyuz launch vehicle.

Sufferdini is due to give a press briefing tomorrow morning at 9:00 am CDT (10:00 am EDT) that will be aired on NASA TV.

NASA to Provide ISS Update Monday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

Mike Sufferdini, NASA's program manager for the International Space Station (ISS) program, will provide an ISS update on Monday and discuss the impact of the launch failure of Russia's Progress cargo spacecraft last week.

The briefing will be at 10:00 am EDT (9:00 am CDT). It will be broadcast on NASA TV.

The launch failure is of concern not only because the cargo that was intended for ISS was lost, but because the Soyuz launch vehicle that failed is also used for launching crews to the ISS on Soyuz spacecraft. Sufferdini's press conference will address the status of Russia's investigation of the accident.

Politicians on both sides of the debate over the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program have used the Progress launch failure to press their respective cases.

Events of Interest: Week of August 29-September 2

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

As Hurricane Irene's rains begin here in the Washington DC suburbs, thought it would be good to post this now is case we lose electricity as everyone is forecasting. This last week of Washington's summer break is quiet in terms of meetings, but here are the ones we know about. Hope all of you in Irene's path weather the storm safely. I hope to be posting to Twitter from time to time at least. Follow me @SpcPlcyOnline

Monday, August 29

  • NASA press conference on impact of Progress launch failure on International Space Station operations, 10:00 am EDT (9:00 am CDT), watch on NASA TV

Monday-Wednesday, August 29-31

Tuesday-Thursday, August 30-September 1

Wednesday, August 31

Report: U.S. Should Engage with Emerging Space Countries

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

An analysis by three master's degree students at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute argues that the United States should relook at its policy for engaging with emerging space countries in South America, Africa and the Asia-Pacific region.

Current U.S. policies focus on preventing technology transfer, but "preclude a valuable avenue for the United States to relay space sustainability norms to the increasing number of actors that are just learning to operate in the space environment," according to the report's authors, Megan Ansdell, Laura Delgado Lopez and Dan Hendrickson. They presented their findings at a seminar sponsored by the Secure World Foundation (SWF) on Monday. SWF was a sponsor of the project.

The three looked at the space efforts of six countries in three regions: Brazil and Venezuela in South America, Nigeria and South Africa in Africa, and India and Malaysia in the Asia-Pacific region. The countries' attention to and views about space sustainability, especially the principles espoused in the draft European Code of Conduct, was a particular focus of the study.

The authors concluded that those topics are not at the top of the list of concerns for most of the countries they studied. India is an exception in many respects since it has a very mature space program.

Delgado emphasized in her remarks that there is a need for the United States to engage with everyone, "not just the established space actors," because everyone is impacted by the problems addressed by space sustainability. She cited space debris as a specific example.

Hendrickson said that most of the countries they studied may agree with the ideas in the Code of Conduct, but not the Code itself. He added that Nigeria, South Africa and Malaysia have made no formal statements about it, but are engaged in international forums where it is discussed. Venezuela, he said, is opposed to the fact that it is nonbinding, but accepts it as a first step towards a potential treaty.

The countries share both similarities and differences in their approaches to space activities, the authors said, and regional leadership is more of a driver than being part of the global "space club." Regional coordination mechanisms exist in each of three regions that were studied, they said.

Building public support for investments in space activities is a challenge in some of these countries. Ansdell pointed out, for example, that "the vast majority of everyday Africans and a lot of their leadership" view space spending as "a waste of money or another corrupt government program because they don't understand how to connect space applications to their everyday lives."

A short version of the report is available on SWF's website; a longer version will be posted at the Space Policy Institute website.

Process to Choose New Orbiter Homes OK with IG

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has found no evidence of political influence or other improper consideration in the choice of locations for the four space shuttle orbiters.

In a report released today. the OIG said that while NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was "subject to a great deal of pressure from Members of Congress and other interested parties," it found "no evidence" that it affected his ultimate decisions. "Moreover, we found no attempt by White House officials to direct or influence Bolden's decision making" and the NASA process was "consistent with applicable Federal law."

Some congressional delegations, especially from Texas, home NASA's Johnson Space Center and the astronaut corps, were extremely upset by the decision not to locate one of the orbiters there. The four remaining orbiters are scheduled to be placed on display in these four locations:

  • Discovery, National Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center (replacing the Enterprise which is there now), outside Washington DC
  • Enterprise, Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, New York City
  • Endeavour, California Science Center, Los Angeles
  • Atlantis, Kennedy Space Center, FL

The OIG did criticize NASA for managing the process as though it was a competitive procurement, and for taking so long to make its decision and announce the winners, however.

Events of Interest


Subscribe to Email Updates:

Enter your email address: