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UPDATE: NRC Says Stick to Decadal Survey; Don't Commit to Joint Dark Energy Mission with ESA Yet

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Jan-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: A link to a New York Times story on this subject that ran two days after we posted our story is provided at the end of this article.

NASA should not commit to a joint dark energy mission with the European Space Agency (ESA) quite yet according to a new report from the National Research Council (NRC).

Just three months after issuing its latest Decadal Survey for astronomy and astrophysics, the NRC convened a workshop, at White House request, to discuss how to implement those recommendations. The need for such a workshop so soon after the report's release was fueled by the starkly changed fiscal circumstances at NASA's astrophysics division mostly as a result of cost growth in the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) program.

The NRC's New Worlds New Horizons (NWNH) report, or Astro2010, prioritized ground- and space-based astronomy and astrophysics research for the next 10 years at NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy (DOE). The study committee created a set of missions for the next decade to fit within budget guidance provided by the three agencies, with its recommended missions segregated into large, medium and small categories. No cross-cutting set of priorities was made.

At NASA, however, funding expectations changed considerably during and after the study. Most recently, significant cost overruns on JWST and a slip in its launch date could have a dramatic impact on how much money is available to proceed with the NWNH recommendations.

The top NWNH recommendation for large space-based missions - the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) - has become the poster child for figuring out how to deal with the problem. WFIRST has three goals: studying dark energy, conducting an infrared sky survey, and searching for exoplanets. Meanwhile, ESA is considering a dark energy mission, Euclid, for one of its upcoming M-class (medium-class) space science missions. Euclid is one of three missions vying for two slots. A decision is expected this summer.

NASA is proposing to the U.S. astrophysics community that the United States participate in Euclid at a 20 percent level in part because the outlook for proceeding with WFIRST on the time scale envisioned in NWNH is in doubt. Meanwhile, NASA says it would initiate planning for WFIRST and ESA would contribute a like amount to fly WFIRST at a later date.

NASA's proposal has been very controversial in the U.S. astrophysics community. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) asked the NRC to convene a panel to look at whether it is consistent with the NWNH recommendations. The NRC held a one-day workshop on November 7, 2010 to consider the issues and options.

The workshop report concluded that a joint WFIRST/Euclid mission could be consistent with NWNH if the United States plays a "leading role" and the science program recommended in NWNH "is preserved and overall cost savings result." However, deciding to participate at a 20 percent level before ESA decides whether Euclid will win one of the M-class mission slots "is not consistent with the program, strategy, and intent of the decadal survey" because it would "deplete resources" needed for other NWNH priorities. Instead, the workshop report recommends waiting until the ESA decision is made. That will also provide time for the NRC to establish a Decadal Survey Implementation Advisory Committee (DSIAC) to provide further guidance on the matter. Creating DSIAC was one of the NWNH recommendations.

More broadly, however, the NRC workshop report stresses that NWNH did not say that large missions should have priority over medium missions, or medium missions over small missions, or that the top priority large mission "is the top overall priority of the program." Rather, a central principle of NWNH "is the need for a balanced program...." Thus they do not want NASA to fund WFIRST at the expense of the medium and small missions also recommended in the report.

In fact, a final option identified in the workshop report is to not fund any space-based infrared telescope if the needed funds are not going to be provided and agreement cannot be reached on a joint WFIRST/Euclid mission that conforms with the NWNH advice. "Although an extremely unfortunate outcome with severely negative consequences," such an option "would seem consistent with NWNH. However, such a major change of plan should first be reviewed by the DSIAC."

The rapidly changing fiscal environment in NASA's astrophysics division makes providing strategic advice to NASA today "extremely challenging," the report says. Nonetheless, it continues, the Decadal Survey's advice was "explicitly designed to be robust for the entire decade" and "The NWNH recommendations remain scientifically compelling, and this [workshop] panel believes that the decadal survey process remains the most effective way to provide community consensus to the federal government" on astrophysics research priorities.

Editor's note: The New York Times ran a story on this topic on January 4, 2010, two days after ours. It has really good quotes from some of the most prominent scientists involved in the debate as well as Jon Morse, head of NASA's astrophysics division. Well worth reading.

Events of Interest: Week of January 3-7, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Jan-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The following events may be of interest in the coming week. For more information, check our calendar on the right menu or click the links below.

Tuesday-Friday January 4-7

Wednesday, January 5

  • The 112th Congress convenes. The House and Senate will meet and swear in new members. The House will be controlled by the Republicans; the Senate by the Democrats.

Wednesday-Friday, January 5-7

More Cracks Found In Discovery's External Tank

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

Engineers have found more cracks in space shuttle Discovery's external tank (ET) now that the orbiter has been rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for closer examination.

Discovery's launch was delayed because of a gas leak on November 5, after which cracks were found in "stringers" on one side of the ET. The opposite side could not be examined while the shuttle remained on the launch pad. Now that it is back at the VAB, a complete inspection revealed additional cracks.

NASA said that X-ray analysis showed four small cracks on three stringers and they will be repaired "in a similar fashion to repairs made on cracks discovered" earlier. The launch is currently scheduled for no earlier than February 3.

Happy New Year! And Here's To a United Front in 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

Editor's Note

There are just under seven hours to go in 2010 here on the East Coast and we want to wish you all a Happy New Year.

We are going to resist the temptation to comment on what transpired over the past 11 months with the debate over the future of the human spaceflight program. At the end of the day -- well, the day hasn't ended.

NASA remains in limbo, caught between the 2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act and the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. It's a sad situation and particularly unfortunate coming at a time when the political focus is on cutting discretionary spending and any agency without a clear mandate is at special risk. NASA will need all the friends it can get to maintain its programs against the tide of austerity.

The White House and Congress hold all the financial cards in what will happen in the coming year, but the aerospace community -- entrepreneurial and traditional companies, grass roots activists, professional and industry associations, and the myriad other groups and individuals who are part of the space family -- has a voice in the matter. Politicians do listen to their constituents and lobbyists do have influence.

Despite the intra-family disagreements, perhaps the aerospace community should have a common New Year's Resolution as the clock strikes 12 tonight. It may be trite, but it's true: united we stand, divided we fall.

NASA May Merge Exploration, Space Operations

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA Headquarters is considering a merger of its Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) and Space Operations Mission Directorate (SOMD) according to a memo from the Associate Administrators (AAs) for the two Directorates. Doug Cooke is the AA for ESMD and Bill Gerstenmaier is the AA for SOMD.

The memo, a copy of which was obtained by from NASA, stresses that no final decision has been made. It alerts employees to ongoing discussions in response to a request from NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and notes that ESMD and SOMD will be responding as a team during negotiations with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) over the FY2012 budget request.

The existence of the memo, emailed to SOMD and ESMD employees on December 20, was reported today by Amy Svitak at Space News; the story is posted on

NASA headquarters has used a variety of organizational arrangements to manage its human spaceflight program since it was established in 1958. ESMD and SOMD were created by then-Administrator Sean O'Keefe in June 2004, several months after President George W. Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration to send astronauts back to the Moon and on to Mars. NASA's History Office maintains a website of organization charts showing how NASA headquarters, and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), were organized throughout the agency's history.

Reorganizations thus are not uncommon. The current discussions are in response to the ending of the space shuttle program and "the likely transition away from the Constellation Program" according to the memo.

The split between the two Mission Directorates basically has been that SOMD operates current human spaceflight programs while ESMD is in charge of longer-term future programs. ESMD was established to execute the Constellation program that emerged from President Bush's mandate. It now is in charge of studies on how to reformulate that program to conform with the 2010 NASA Authorization Act while still abiding by the language in the 2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act that prohibits NASA from cancelling Constellation or initiating a new program without congressional permission in a future appropriations act. ESMD also oversees technology development efforts and manages robotic spacecraft programs that support future human exploration of space. SOMD operates the International Space Station, the space shuttle program, and space and flight support activities.

India Plans 30 Earth Observation Satellites in Next 10 Years

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

Despite the recent setback in its geostationary satellite program, India announced yesterday that it plans to launch 30 earth observation satellites in the next 10 years.

IndianExpress,com and other news sources quote Dr. V. Jayaraman, Director of India's National Remote Sensing Center (NRSC), as saying yesterday that "We expect not less than 30 satellites" in the next decade. They will include satellites in the Resourcesat and Cartosat series as well as ocean and atmospheric satellites. The next launch is planned for late January or early February 2011. That satellite, Resourcesat-2, will provide "5.8 meters, 70 km multi-spectral data for the first time," according to Jayaraman.

NRSC is part of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). Earth observation has been a core component of the Indian space program for the past three decades. Twenty-two earth observation satellites have been launched by or for India since 1979, nine of which are currently operating according to the ISRO website.

ESMD Signs Off On Commercial Crew Certification Requirements for LEO Missions; Systems Must Be Safer Than Shuttle

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

NASA Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) Associate Administrator Doug Cooke signed out the Commercial Crew Transportation Certification Requirements for NASA Low Earth Orbit Missions on December 9, as revealed by Keith Cowing on NASAWatch yesterday. According to the document, any commercial crew system used for NASA astronauts will be "approximately an order of magntiude safer than the Space Shuttle for ascent plus reentry."

The document lays out NASA's overall philosophy as follows:

1.1 Philosophy

Protecting the health and safety of humans is of paramount importance for those involved in or exposed to space activities. For NASA, safety is a core value, and NASA recognizes that there can be no successful missions without first ensuring the safety of all personnel including the public, crew, passengers, and ground personnel. A crew transport capability that meets the safety requirements in this document will be approximately an order of magnitude safer than the Space Shuttle for ascent plus entry. The overall mission risk requirement will depend on the specific Design Reference Mission (DRM.)

The choice of verb is significant. The document has a section that explains what NASA means by "shall," "will," and "should":

1.3 Verb Application

Statements containing "shall" are used for binding requirements that must be verified and have an accompanying method of verification; "will" is used as a statement of fact, declaration of purpose, or expected occurrence; and "should" denotes a statement of best practice.

The requirement for new systems to be approximately an order of magnitude safer than the shuttle therefore is a "statement of fact, declaration of purpose, or expected occurrence" rather than a "binding requirement." The degree of safety required can have a significant impact on a system's cost, and one of the major aspects of the debate over commercial crew is whether commercial systems will be as safe as a government-developed system.

If one follows the links on NASAWatch/SpaceRef, the full document can be found on this NASA website.

Russian Space Officials Punished for GLONASS Failure

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Three Russian space officials, including the head of the Russian space agency, have been reprimanded or lost their jobs because of the Proton rocket failure that doomed three GLONASS navigation satellites earlier this month.

The Associated Press (via the Washington Post) reports today that Russian space agency head Anatoliy Perminov was reprimanded, while the deputy head of the agency, Viktor Remishevsky, was fired. Vyacheslav Filin, Deputy Chief of RKK Energiya, the state-controlled company that built the rocket, also was fired according to the report.

Rebuilding the GLONASS system is a top priority for Russia's space program. Similar in concept to the U.S. Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system, GLONASS needs 24 operating satellites to provide three-dimensional global coverage. The three satellites lost in the December 5 accident were intended to complete the network.

An investigation board determined that workers did not put the proper amount of fuel into the new version of the DM upper stage used for the launch. It cleared the Proton launch vehicle itself, which has already returned to service using a different upper stage.

AIAA Elects New Fellows and Honorary Fellows

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

Elaine Oran, James Albaugh and John Junkins have been elected as Honorary Fellows of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). AIAA announced the election of the 2011 Fellows and Honorary Fellows yesterday. They will be honored at AIAA's Aerospace Spotlight Awards Gala Dinner on May 11, 2011 at the Ronald Reagan buiding.

Honorary Fellow is the highest distinction offered by AIAA and no more than four are chosen each year. Dr. Oran is only the fourth woman to receive that honor since the first Honorary Fellow -- Orville Wright -- was named in 1933 by one of AIAA's predecessor organizations. Eilene Galloway became AIAA's first woman Honorary Fellow in 2005; Yvonne Brill and Shiela Widnall since have received the honor.

Dr. Oran is a senior scientist for reactive flow physics at the Naval Research Laboratory and a member of the National Academy of Engineering. Mr. Albaugh is Executive Vice President of the Boeing Company and Chief Executive Officer of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. Dr. Junkins is a Distinguished Professor of Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M University and a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

AIAA also announced the election of 29 new Fellows. One new Fellow is elected each year for each 1,000 voting members of AIAA. A list of the new Fellows is provided in the AIAA press release.

Another Failure of India's GSLV Launch Vehicle

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

India's launch of a new telecommunications satellite, GSAT-5P, failed today.

The onboard computer of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) "lost control of the actuation system" 47 seconds into the launch according to IBNLive, which has footage of the failure and portions of a press conference with Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) Chairman K. Radhakrishnan. He said that the rocket "developed large amplitude errors leading to higher angle of attack, leading to higher structural loads, and leading to breaking up of the vehicle."

Only two of the seven GSLV launch attempts so far have been successful according to IBNLive. India's launches take place from Sriharikota, a barrier island in the Bay of Bengal.

Events of Interest

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


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