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Robotics to Transform Exploration

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 01-Oct-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

At a Congressional Robotics Caucus briefing held today, presenters discussed innovative ways to use robotics not only to solve problems here on Earth, but also to transform the way humans explore the Solar System and beyond.

Representative Phil Gingrey (R-GA), co-chair of the caucus, mentioned yesterday's vote on the NASA Authorization bill and said he anticipates robotics to be a "key component" in the agency's future. He also congratulated the NASA-supported Carlton J. Kell High School Robotics Team, which has used the knowledge gained through the FIRST Robotics Competition to solve real-world problems. Team members talked about their designs, including an oil-recovery and capture robot called Orca, and other initiatives they are involved with to increase science literary and put science, technology, engineering, animation, and mathematics skills (or STEAM) at the service of the community.

But participants also talked about the role of robotics beyond Earth. Dr. Terry Fong, Director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA Ames Research Center, discussed three ways in which robotics can help "reinvent" planetary exploration:

  • Robots for human exploration
  • Advances in neo-geography
  • Participatory Exploration

Questioning the assumption that robotic and human exploration should be separate affairs, Dr. Fong described ways in which robotic exploration can enhance and complement human exploration - before, during, and after crew involvement in the mission. He described how robots, like NASA Ames' K10 robot, could be remotely operated to perform reconnaissance and scouting to support a human expedition on a planetary surface and deliver detailed terrain data before the crew arrived at a specific location to be explored. This would help the astronauts prepare for what they will encounter and save their time by pre-identifying locations for them to explore. Although robotic probes perform a similar function in orbit, robots that can land and actually move in the terrain can provide richer data. The idea is to coordinate both human and robotic components at every stage of a mission so that robots take care of crucial tasks that are "unproductive" for humans to perform. An issue still to be resolved is the limited amount of data that can be transmitted back to Earth. For the time being, "we just never have enough bandwidth," said Dr. Fong.

Both neo-geography and participatory exploration refer to advances in robotics to increase public involvement. Neo-geography involves modern mapping tools placed at the hands of users and allowing them to "explore from [their] own desktop" detailed, interactive, explorable maps. In a similar fashion, robotics can enhance participatory exploration, which thrives on public input and collaboration in space exploration. Using robots like Gigapan - which takes interactive gigapixel panorama images - the public can help NASA decide which locations to focus on in future missions. These and other initiatives, Dr. Fong said, would provide an "opportunity to reinvent the way we do exploration."

David Gump, President of Astrobiotic Technology, Inc., talked about another innovation in exploration: bringing in the private sector. With their participation in the Google Lunar X PRIZE (in which participants must land a spacecraft on the Moon, travel 500 meters, and send video back to Earth), Gump and his team hope to increase public interest and involvement in lunar exploration through a number of initiatives including live Web participation and the first "sociable" robot, able to "tweet" and update its Facebook account to let the public follow it along on its mission.

GAO Warns on Geostationary Weather Satellites

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Oct-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) gave NOAA credit for progress it has made recently on the next generation of geostationary weather satellites, the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R or GOES-R, in a new report, but warns that the program is not out of the woods yet and NOAA does not have "plans, processes, procedures and resources" in place in case there is a gap in coverage.

Delays in the GOES-R program mean that NOAA "may not be able to meet its policy of having a backup satellite in orbit at all times, which could lead to a gap in coverage if GOES-14 or GOES-15 fails prematurely," according to the report.

Also, while NOAA has involved internal users of GOES data in requirements-setting for GOES-R, it has not involved users in other agencies suffiiciently in GAO's opinion.

The congressional watchdog agency recommended that NOAA "address weaknesses in its continuity plans and improve its processes for involving other federal agencies" adding that the Secretary of Commerce agreed with those recommendations. NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce.

Lori Garver to Field Media Questions Today at 1:30 pm EDT

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

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver will hold a media teleconference at 1:30 pm EDT today to answer question from reporters about the newly passed NASA authorization bill. The event will be streamed live at

Intelligence Authorization Bill Passes the House

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

The House just passed the FY2010 intelligence authorization bill (H.R. 2701) as amended and passed by the Senate. It will now go to the President for signature. Passage of the bill has been held up for many months as reported here earlier. The bill authorizes activities at the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which designs, builds and operates the nation's spy satellites, among other intelligence agencies.

House Passes NASA Authorization Bill

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

The House passed the FY2011-2013 NASA authorization bill as passed by the Senate (S. 3729).

House Concludes Debate on NASA Authorization; Vote Pending

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

The House has just completed debate on the Senate version of the NASA authorization bill. All members who spoke were in favor of passing the Senate bill despite their reservations about it with the exception of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) who made an impassioned plea to defeat it.

Rep. Giffords chairs the subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics and is married to NASA astronaut Mark Kelly. She argued that the Senate bill has a budget busting provision to keep the shuttle operating through FY2011, $500 million that the bill does not provide, and other provisions that undermine a healthy human spaceflight program. Other members who spoke, including Science and Technology Committee chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN), ranking member Ralph Hall (R-TX), and subcommittee ranking member Pete Olson (R-TX) spoke in favor of passing the bill because the alternative of no bill was worse.

Rep. Giffords requested a recorded vote on the bill, which was postponed until later.

Garver Praises Bipartisanship of Congress on NASA Bill

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

During a media teleconference this afternoon, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver gushed with gratitude to Congress for setting aside politics and passing the NASA authorization bill (S. 3729) with a bipartisan vote of 304-118 last night.

Asserting that the bill draws on the plans laid out by President Obama in February, she listed key elements of the bill such as extending the International Space Station (ISS) to at least 2020, accelerating development of a heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV), increasing earth sciences and green aviation, launching a commercial space transportation industry for crew and cargo, and "at least gets us started" on development of "path-breaking" technology that is "critical to the long term economic growth of the nation."

There are, of course, significant differences between the bill and what the Obama Administration wanted. The Administration did not want NASA to develop a space transportation system to take crews to low Earth orbit (LEO), for example, and the bill requires that a government system be developed. The Administration wanted to turn that task over to the private sector with substantial up-front government funding to facilitate their efforts. The bill supports the development of a "commercial crew" capability, but with substantially reduced government funding compared to the request, and a host of requirements.

The Administration did envision NASA developing a new human space transportaiton system to take people beyond LEO, but did not want to commit to a design of a new HLLV until 2015. The bill directs that the agency move out on a new HLLV immediately. Funding for it would come largely from funds NASA wanted to invest in new technologies. A reporter asked if the funding and timeline provided in the bill yielded an executable program, and she hedged by saying there had been many studies and some would conclude yes and others no.

The bill does recommend the total funding level for NASA proposed by the President for FY2011, $19.00 billion. It also recommends the same level of funding for FY2012 and FY2013 projected in the President's FY2011 budget request: $19.45 billion and $19.96 billion respectively. In total, the bill recommends $58 billion for NASA over those three years, which Ms. Garver called "a real show of support for the agency" given today's deficit situation.

She stressed again and again that the appropriations process is not complete so the funds are not yet in hand. Only appropriations bills provide money to agencies; authorization bills set policy, permit new programs to start, and recommend funding levels. For example, while the bill calls for the launch of an additional shuttle mission, STS-135, the funding still needs to be provided by appropriators. She lauded Congress for how closely the authorizers and appropriators, especially in the Senate, were working together this year and predicted that the appropriations bill will not be too different from the authorization, however.

The language in the FY2010 appropriations bill that prohibits NASA from terminating the Constellation program or initiating a new program is still in effect, she said, insisting that the tests and other work that continues to be performed on Constellation elements undoubtedly will be valuable for whatever system the agency now pursues. She said that the trade space is wide open for a new HLLV and includes the potential of using the existing Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs). Whether or not to use the EELVs, Delta IV and Atlas V, as part of a new human space flight exploration architecture has been contentious for many years. "The trade space continues to be open," she said.

In response to a question, she defended NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden who is out of the country on travel, assuring the reporter that he spent yesterday making many phone calls to Congress about the bill and is very much engaged in leading the agency. (He was attending the International Astronautical Federation conference in Prague and meeting with the heads of other space agencies yesterday.)

She disputed another reporter's contention the bill means that the Moon no longer is a destination for U.S. human spaceflight. Noting that her first son's first word was "Moon," she emphatically said that "lunar science, lunar exploration is alive and well at NASA." "The fact that the next destination is an asteroid is nothing against the Moon," she said, while pointing to commercial companies that plan robotic or human flights to the Moon.

The bill will be sent to the President in the next 10 days, she said, and he is expected to sign it.

The teleconference was recorded and playback is available for the next two weeks by calling 1-866-363-1835.

Congress Passes Continuing Resolution to Keep Government Operating

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

The House also now has passed a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government through December 3. The legislative vehicle is the State Department appropriations bill (H.R. 3081). It funds NASA, NOAA and DOD at their FY2010 levels. A summary of the bill is available on the House Appropriations Committee's website. The Senate passed it earlier on Wednesday so it now goes to the President for signature. Congress has not passed any other FY2011 appropriations bills, including those for NASA, NOAA or DOD. Only appropriations bills provide money to agencies. Authorization bills may recommend funding levels, but they do not actually provide any funds.

Congress Heads Home for Elections

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

The House adjourned early this morning after passing the Continuing Resolution and other legislation. The Senate also adjourned, but scheduled pro forma sessions twice a week to prevent President Obama from making recess appointments according to The Hill newspaper. The elections are on November 2. The two chambers are expected to return November 15.

Charlie Bolden Thanks Congress

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden thanked Congress for passing the NASA Authorization Act in a statement.

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