Latest News

NAC Planetary Science Subcommittee Meeting Cancelled

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

The meeting of the Planetary Science Subcommittee (PSS) of the Science Committee of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) scheduled for November 2-3 has been cancelled because of the unexpected death of PSS chairman Ron Greeley.

Jim Green, NASA's planetary science division director, made the announcement in a special edition of the Planetary Exploration Newsletter (reproduced below). However, PSS will still make its report to the NAC Science Committee as scheduled on Monday morning, with PSS Vice Chairman Jim Bell filling in.

Volume 5, Number 49 (October 29, 2011)

PEN Website:
Editor: Mark V. Sykes
Co-Editors: Melissa Lane, Susan Benecchi
Email: pen_editor at

o---------------------------SPECIAL EDITION---------------------------o


>From Jim Green, Director, Planetary Science Division, and
Jonathan Rall, Executive Secretary, Planetary Science Subcommittee

Due to the unexpected and tragic loss of Ron Greeley, Chair of the
Planetary Science Subcommittee (PSS), the PSS meeting scheduled for
November 2-3 at NASA Headquarters has been canceled. The meeting will
be rescheduled for a later date and notice of that new date will be
published in the Federal Register.

We apologize for any inconvenience due to these extraordinary
circumstances but felt that the meeting should be canceled since it
would likely conflict with Ron's funeral or memorial service. We
anticipate that many in the planetary science community will pay their
respects to Ron, a pillar of planetary science, and celebrate his
incredible journey.

Events of Interest: Week of October 31-November 4, 2011

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

The following events may be of interest in the coming week. For more information, see our calendar or click the links below. The House and Senate both are in session this week.

During the Week

On Tuesday, the Senate is expected to vote on a bill, H.R. 2112, that combines three of the regular FY2012 appropriations bills: Agriculture, Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS), and Transportation-Housing and Urban Development (T-HUD). It is referred to as a "minibus" appropriations measure because it has fewer than all 12 appropriations bills, which, when combined, is called an "omnibus." The CJS bill includes NASA and NOAA; the T-HUD bill includes the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation. If the bill passes the Senate, it still must be considered by the House. The government is currently operating under a FY2012 CR that expires on November 18.

China will also be in the news this week. The Chinese have not officially announced a launch date for Shenzhou 8, but the German Aerospace Center (DLR), which has a payload aboard, said that the launch is scheduled for October 31 Central European Time (November 1 local time in China).

Whether or not that launch takes place this week, two House committees coincidentally have scheduled hearings on China-related issues. Though they may not necessarily directly involve space activities, they might be of interest to this readership. The House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) will hold two: "Efforts to Transfer America's Leading Edge Science to China" on November 2, and "Congressional-Executive Commission on China: 2011 Annual Report" on November 3. Media reports last week stated that the Commission's report asserts that China attempted to interfere with two U.S. satellites in 2007 and 2008. Separately, the House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on November 2 on the "China Democracy Promotion Act" to deny entry into the United States of certain members of the senior leadership of the Government of the People's Republic of China and individuals who have committed humans right abuses there.

Monday-Tuesday, October 31-November 1

Tuesday, November 1

Tuesday-Wednesday, November 1-2

Wednesday, November 2

Thursday, November 3

China Readying for Uncrewed Space Station Launch, Possibly Oct. 31

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

The much anticipated launch of China's Shenzhou-8 to dock with the Tiangong-1 space station module could take place as early as October 31.

Chinese news reports have not been specific about when the launch will occur, saying only "early November." However, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) has an experiment aboard Shenzhou-8. It revealed that the launch is scheduled for October 31 at 23:00 Central European Time (November 1, 06:00 local time at China's Jiuquan launch center.) That time corresponds to 6:00 pm EDT.

Shenzhou-8 will not carry a crew. It is one of three spacecraft China intends to dock with Tiangong-1 over the next two years; only the last is currently expected to carry a crew.

Germany's 25 kilogram "Science in a Microgravity Box" or SIMBOX contains 17 biological and medical experiments.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this posting mistakenly referred to the launch possibly taking place today, instead of October 31.

UPDATE 4: NPP is in Orbit and On Its Own

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE 4: The second burn and spacecraft separation were successful. NPP is on its own now, waiting for its solar panels to open up.

UPDATE 3: NPP is in orbit in a coast phase between the first and second firings of the second stage. The second burn is at 58 minutes 45 seconds.

UPDATE 2: NPP has launched!

UPDATE: They have just come out of the planned 10 minute hold at T-4 minutes.


NASA's NPP satellite is ready for launch is less than 10 minutes from Vandenberg AFB, CA aboard a Delta II rocket.

The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) Preparatory Project (NPP) satellite was designed to test new technologies for the nation's new weather satellite system. Over the years, the NPOESS program was cancelled, and NPP will be used as an operational weather satellite in NOAA's polar orbiting system as a bridge between current satellites and NOAA's new Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), its successor to NPOESS.

NPP Launched Successfully, Cubesats Deployed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

NASA's NPP earth observing satellite was successfully launched by a Delta II rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA this morning. The satellite is in orbit with its solar arrays open.

The satellite will now undergo a checkout period that will last several weeks.

Six cubesats were deployed from the Delta II's second stage after NPP was delivered to its correct orbit: AubieSat-1 from Auburn University, RAX-2 and M-Cubed from the University of Michigan, Explorer-1 [Prime] from Montana State University, and two DICE (Dynamic Ionosphere Cubesat Experiment) satellites from Utah State University.

Braun Makes Plea for Space Tech Investment as He Departs NASA

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

Bobby Braun, who is returning to academia after serving as NASA Chief Technologist for the past two years, made a plea for investing in space technology in an article in The Hill newspaper today.

Braun argues that "the pioneering spirit embodied by [NASA] is endangered as a result of chronic underinvestment in basic and applied research." Investing in aerospace technology also creates high-tech jobs and provides opportunities to science and engineering students to invent technologies "that will form the foundation for humanity's next great leap across the solar system," he says.

Funding at a level around 5 percent of NASA's budget should be allocated to federal spending on space technology in his view, though he does not specify that NASA itself should receive all of that. Other federal agencies, notably the Department of Defense, also invest in space technology. However, his closing comments are directed specifically at what NASA should be doing: "This is the task for which this agency was built. This is the task this agency can complete. America expects no less."

NASA's Office of Chief Technologist focuses on maturing technologies that are in their earliest phases of development -- Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) 1-6. These technologies often do not have a champion since their applications may not be as readily evident as those at higher TRL levels. Technology funding at NASA has been cut sharply by Congress as it tries to find ways to cut federal spending. The FY2012 budget request for Braun's office is $1.024 billion. In cutting that to $638 million in the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill, the Senate Appropriations Committee said that it "regrets not being able to fund this promising program more robustly." The House Appropriations Committee cut it even more, to $375 million. The House and Senate have not completed action on the CJS bill yet.

Publishing in a newspaper that caters to Capitol Hill politicos rather than in one of the more traditional aerospace media outlets is one way to more directly communicate with the people who will decide the fate of that legislation.

NPP on Track for 5:48-5:57 am EDT Launch Friday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

NASA's NPP earth observing satellite remains on track for launch on a Delta II from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA between 5:48 and 5:57 am EDT (2:48-2:57 am PDT) Friday morning.

Green: NASA's Planetary Science Program Still Best in the World

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

In response to an op-ed by Bob Zubrin in today's Washington Times, NASA's planetary science division director said that NASA's planetary science program is still "the best in the world."

Zubrin's op-ed asserts that "the Obama Administration intends to terminate NASA's planetary exploration program."

At a meeting of the Planetary Science Subcommittee (PSS) of the Science Committee of the NASA Advisory Council this afternoon, Jim Green, Director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, disputed that statement. While acknowledging that the planetary science division faces a sharply reduced budget compared to its expectations a year ago, Green said: "I'm here to say the future doesn't look as healthy as it has been, but it is still the best program in the world."

Green pointed out that Zubrin's view of planetary science is Mars-centric. NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have been reassessing plans to move forward with a joint robotic Mars exploration plan because of reduced NASA budget expectations. Green stressed that the United States is experiencing an "austere" budget climate and the political process is moving slowly compared to what is needed to support international agreements.

The full NAC Science Committee meets at NASA Headquarters on Monday and Tuesday. Green and the PSS will brief the committee at 10:00 am on Monday. The meeting is open to the public.

Meanwhile, Zubrin, President of the Mars Society, is teaming up with the Planetary Society for a "Capitol Hill forum" on November 3 from 11:00 am - 1:00 pm in the Rayburn House Office Building.

Editor's Note: The time for PSS to brief the NAC Science Committee on Monday has changed to 10:00 am, instead of 10:30.

Adequate Funding Key to Commercial Crew Timing

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

The overriding message from government and private sector witnesses at yesterday's hearing on NASA's commercial crew program is that "adequate" funding will determine how quickly such systems can be ready to take astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). The message from most members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in return is that they remain skeptical that there is a market for commercial crew services other than NASA to help defray the costs. Their concern is that the government will end up paying dearly for those services in addition to the billions of dollars it plans to invest in development costs.

The commercial crew program, initiated by President Obama in February 2010, is a public-private partnership where NASA and private sector companies share the costs of developing new crew transportation systems to low Earth orbit (LEO), including the ISS. The systems would be operated by the companies, not NASA. NASA would pay the companies to take astronauts to the ISS while the agency focuses on developing a new system to take astronauts further into space. With the termination of the space shuttle program earlier this year, NASA does not have the capability to launch anyone into space today. It pays Russia to take astronauts to the ISS.

The President's commercial crew proposal caught Congress by surprise last year and created significant controversy.

NASA requested $850 million for the commercial crew program in FY2012. The House Appropriations Committee approved $312 million, the same as FY2011. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $500 million, the same level as recommended for FY2012 in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. The recommendations have not been voted on by the House or Senate yet.

Those funds are to help the commercial companies develop their systems. NASA would pay separately for the crew transportation services the companies plan to offer. NASA's goal is to have at least two commercial crew providers from which to purchase services.

NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier told the committee that if Congress provides the full $850 million request, commercial vehicles could be ferrying crews to the ISS by 2016. At the $500 million level, and assuming funding above projected levels for future years, the date would slip to 2017. During that year, he said, NASA would be paying Russia $480 million for crew transportation services, the implication being that the money would be better spent now on developing U.S systems.

In response to a comment from another committee member that 2017 seems like a long time to wait, committee chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) agreed, arguing that someone needs to say "damn it, let's go."

Representatives of Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX all said their systems could be ready to go by 2015, but only if there is adequate funding. Boeing is working on the CST-100 spacecraft, which it plans to launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket. Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser spacecraft also would use the Atlas V. SpaceX is developing its own rocket, Falcon 9, and spacecraft, Dragon. All three are receiving funding through NASA's Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. SpaceX also is one of two companies (along with Orbital Sciences) receiving NASA funds to develop a commercial cargo system, which was the subject of an earlier hearing.

ULA testified about the Atlas V, emphasizing its proven track record for uncrewed launches. George Sowers, ULA Vice President for Business Development and Advanced Programs, said it could be ready for test flights for commercial crew spacecraft in 2014 and operations in 2015. ULA also is receiving NASA funds through the CCDev program.

ATK wants to compete with ULA to launch commercial crew spacecraft. It is developing a new rocket, Liberty, using solid rockets originally developed for the space shuttle program that were being adapted for the now-canceled Constellation program, plus an upper stage from the European Ariane V rocket. ATK's Charlie Precourt, a former astronaut, said their concept required only a modest amount of NASA funding, but in order to get outside capital, "customer endorsement" of the project is required. ATK has an unfunded agreement with NASA to share data and information. It was not successful in getting a CCDev award because in the round of financing for which it applied (CCDev2), NASA funded only spacecraft and not launch vehicles, Precourt said.

Several committee members expressed concern about the overall cost to the taxpayer, which is a combination of the government's share of the development costs and payments for services once the systems are operating. Although many members have expressed reservations in the past about being reliant on another country for human access to space, the concern at this hearing was that it would cost much more for the commercial crew option than continuing to pay Russia. The United States is committed to using the ISS only until 2020. If the commercial systems are not ready until 2016 or 2017, their utility for ISS operations is limited. Committee members wanted to know if U.S. commercial systems would be competitive with Russia's prices if the development costs are included in the calculation.

Top committee Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) each asked about a statement last week by NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver that NASA has an analysis showing that the agency needs to spend $6 billion over 5 years for development.

Rep. Edwards asked to see that analysis. NASA's Gerstenmaier said he could provide her with the basis for the estimate, which actually is a range from $4-6 billion, he said.

The cost for services once the systems are operational will be affected by how large of a non-NASA market exists for space tourism or other potential reasons for people to travel into LEO. NASA's Gerstenmaier confirmed that the agency needs only two flights a year of three astronauts each - six "seats." He expects to pay $80 million per seat, for a total of $480 million per year. The question is whether that is a sufficient market for companies to make an acceptable return on investment.

Boeing's John Elbon and Steve Lindsey of Sierra Nevada stressed that their companies are basing their business case on having only NASA as a customer. If there are additional customers, that would be a bonus.

Elon Musk, founder, Chief Executive Officer and Chief Technology Officer of SpaceX, took a different tack. He said that the goal of SpaceX is to "advance the cause of space ... not to maximize profit," adding that he retains majority ownership of SpaceX to "make sure the idealistic goals of SpaceX remain true." He told the committee that one advantage of his system is that the same spacecraft will be used for cargo and crew so he would be launching not just two crew flights per year using the Dragon spacecraft, but 6-8. In addition, he said his company has many flights booked for the Falcon 9 rocket, so the emergence of a non-government market for crew flights to low Earth orbit was not as critical a factor in his business plan. The Dragon spacecraft is being designed to carry seven people, and he said he was putting it on record that he would charge $20 million per seat in today's dollars - or $140 million per flight. He argued that is competitive with the $63 million per seat that he says Russia charges. (Russia's Soyuz spacecraft can accommodate only three people so the per flight costs are comparable.) Musk stressed, however, that if NASA wants to use a firm fixed price contract, then its requirements must also be fixed.

If Musk is correct and the costs are roughly the same as Russia's, that still would mean taxpayers would be investing $4-6 billion in development costs for systems that NASA would need for only 3-4 years of ISS operations. The Obama Administration has raised the possibility of extending ISS operations until 2028, 30 years after the first ISS module was launched, but the United States and its ISS partners (Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada) have not agreed to that extension.

Safety is another issue. All of the witnesses stressed that it is their top priority. Two of the company representatives -Lindsey of Sierra Nevada and Precourt of ATK - are former astronauts and were particularly emphatic in their statements on that point.

In his opening statement, Chairman Hall singled out one of CCDev winners, Blue Origin, for criticism for declining to testify at the hearing. The company has received $14.9 million so far in taxpayer dollars, he said, and would have to explain its decision not to appear.

NPP: Getting Ready to Go

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

NASA is holding three press briefings tomorrow about the upcoming launch of its NPP satellite early Friday morning.

The first briefing, from 1:00-3:00 pm PDT (4:00-6:00 pm EDT), will focus on launch preparations. The second, which follows immediately thereafter, will discuss the mission's science objectives. The third, which follows next, will talk about the Educational Launch of Nanosatellite (ELaNa) that will deploy five nanosatellites designed and created by university and college students.

Mission Briefing Participants:

Andrew Carson, NPP program executive
NASA Headquarters

Tim Dunn, NASA launch director
Kennedy Space Center, Fla.

Vernon Thorp, program manager, NASA missions
United Launch Alliance, Denver, Colo.

Ken Schwer, NPP project manager
Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

2d Lt. Lisa Cochran, Launch Weather Officer, 30th Operations Support
Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

Science Briefing Participants:

Jim Gleason, NPP project scientist
Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

Mitch Goldberg, NOAA Joint Polar Satellite System Program Scientist
NOAA Satellite and Information Service, Silver Spring, Md.

ELaNa CubeSat Briefing Participants

Roland Coelho , P-POD Program Lead
California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Garrett Skrobot, ELaNa mission manager
NASA Launch Services Program, Kennedy Space Center

The briefings will be carried on NASA TV.

The NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP) is a NASA earth observing mission that will also serve as part of NOAA's operational weather satellite network in polar orbit. Launch is scheduled for Friday, October 28, at 2:48-2:57 am PDT (5:48-5:57 am EDT) from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.

Events of Interest

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

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