Latest News

Endeavour's Rollout Delayed To Tomorrow

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Looks like Discovery landed just in time today to avoid a weather delay. Discovery's sister space shuttle, Endeavour, was scheduled to be moved out to its launch pad tonight in preparation for its April 19 launch. NASA has postponed the roll out until at least tomorrow, however, because of potential lightning and storms at Kennedy Space Center. A scheduled press conference with Endeavour's STS-134 crew also has been postponed. Mission managers will decide tomorrow whether to roll out tomorrow evening.

Discovery on Track for Landing Just Before Noon Today

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The weather looks good for space shuttle Discovery to make her final return from space today. Touchdown is scheduled for 11:57 am EST at Kennedy Space Center, FL. There is one more opportunity at KSC today at 1:33 pm EST should anything go awry, but at the moment everything looks good for 11:57.

Planetary Scientists Need To Make Their Case to Congress

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Steve Squyres, chair of the National Research Council's (NRC's) Decadal Survey on planetary science, issued a call to arms to the planetary science community to come together and support the Decadal Survey in order to protect their discipline in these constrained budget times. The Decadal Survey was released today.

Squyres, a prominent planetary scientist at Cornell who is best known as the "father" of the two rovers currently on Mars - Spirit and Opportunity - laid out the results of the two-year NRC study at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference being held in Texas. Noting that the key element of the report's conclusions was "science return per dollar," he made it clear that the budget was critical to the fate of its recommendations.

The Decadal Survey lays out priorities for planetary exploration for the next 10 years, but also provides decision rules on what to do if the budget is more or less than what the study committee contemplated. NASA gave the committee a budget "envelope" within which to plan missions and make recommendations, but the situation has changed in the two years since the committee began its work and all pointers are that the budget for planetary science will be less.

Squyres focused on President Obama's FY2012 budget request for NASA. It shows the planetary science budget on a downward slope for the next five years. The request for FY2012 is $1,489 million, declining to $1,366 million in FY2013; $1,326 in FY2014; $1,271 million in FY2015; and $1,189 million in FY2016. That is essentially a going-out-of-business budget for this field of scientific research.

Jim Green, Director of NASA's Planetary Science Division (PSD), said that the President's budget projection does not allow for any new program starts. He then showed a different chart illustrating the budget scenario he had given the study committee based on PSD's expected budget just one year ago that showed a much rosier scenario. Much has changed since then, he stressed. Even if one assumes that NASA's total budget will be level-funded beyond FY2012 (which is not what the President's budget request indicates), the outlook for planetary science is discouraging.

Squyres called on the planetary science community to get behind the recommendations of the Decadal Survey and pointedly urged scientists to contact their Members of Congress to make the case for investing taxpayer dollars in this field. NRC Decadal Surveys traditionally are well respected by Congress and NASA and their recommendations faithfully followed to the extent budgets permit. Planetary scientists need to make their case, Squyres said, explaining that in meetings with Members of Congress last week they asked why their offices were not being inundated with planetary scientists arguing for funding for their research. He reported that they said "We can't walk into our offices without tripping over people" asking for money, but none are scientists.

Green agreed, saying that the Decadal Survey committee had made tough choices and not everyone would concur with them, but the community must find a way to "step up and support the report." He emphasized that Decadal Surveys "transcend" Congresses and Administrations, providing the "guiding light" moving the agency forward year by year. He extolled the committee for providing "an outstanding set of missions and outstanding decision making rules" that will allow NASA to develop a program that "in time will make a significant contribution to planetary science." He lauded cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA), but indicated that NASA will have to renegotiate agreements it already has with ESA because of the changed budget expectations.

Not everyone in the audience was persuaded that the NRC committee made the right recommendations or that the NRC process was best suited to reaching a consensus within the planetary science community. Mark Sykes of the Planetary Science Institute said that it was too early for anyone to ask the community to support the Decadal Survey recommendations since this was the first they knew about them. He complained that the NRC study process does not allow study committees to share their recommendations until the report has completed rigorous peer review out of public view so it is not really a community consensus.

Squyres agreed that building a consensus would be a lengthy process and noted that he will hold a series of Town Hall meetings, as well as discussions with international partners, over the next several weeks to build that support.

UPDATE: Events of Interest: Week of March 7-11, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: This is updated to reflect that the Senate Commerce hearing on March 9 has indeed been postponed to March 15, so no longer is listed.

The following events may of interest in the coming week. For more information, check our calendar on the right menu or click the links below. Times, dates and witnesses for congressional hearings are subject to change; check the relevant committee's website for up to date information.

Monday-Friday, March 7-11

  • Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, The Woodlands, TX
    • On Monday at 6:30 pm EST (5:30 pm CST), the National Research Council's Decadal Survey on Planetary Science will be released. The event will be livestreamed.
    • Wednesday's sessions include "NASA Night" at 6:30 pm EST (5:30 pm PST) where NASA representatives will interact with the planetary science community. That event also will be livestreamed.

Tuesday, March 8

Wednesday-Thursday, March 9-10

  • National Research Council (NRC) Orbital Debris Workshop, Mason Inn and Conference Center, 4352 Mason Pond Drive, Fairfax, VA

Wednesday-Friday, March 9-11

  • Materials Panel of the NRC Committee on NASA Technology Roadmaps, NRC Keck Center, 500 Fifth St., NW, Washington DC. Some sessions of this meeting are closed.

Thursday, March 10

Friday, March 11

Mars Beats Europa in NRC Decadal Survey, But Both Lose to Smaller Projects if Budget Constraints Severe

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

The National Research Council (NRC) today recommended priorities for planetary science for the next decade (2013-2022). The constrained budget environment was a key element in the recommendations.

After voicing strong support for the Discovery and New Frontiers categories of small- and medium-sized competed missions, the NRC committee listed its priorities for large "flagship" missions. The committee's ultimate conclusion is that flagship missions should be deferred or cancelled if budget constraints threaten the small and medium missions, research and analysis, or technology development.

First priority for a flagship mission is a Mars Astrobiology Explorer-Cacher (MAX-C) mission to begin a three-mission campaign to return samples from Mars. A joint mission with the European Space Agency (ESA), MAX-C not only would analyze samples of Mars on site, but collect samples for later return to Earth by a subsequent spacecraft. A key element of selecting MAX-C as the top priority flagship mission, however, is that its expected cost be reduced. The NRC committee found that the current cost estimate for NASA's portion of the mission would the $3.5 billion, an amount it said would consume a "disproportionate share" of NASA's budget for planetary exploration. If NASA's cost cannot be reduced to $2.5 billion (in FY2015 dollars), the committee believes it should be deferred or cancelled.

In the previous planetary science Decadal Survey, a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa received top priority, but it is relegated to second place this time. The committee reported that the cost for the mission is "so high that both a decrease in mission scope and an increase in NASA's planetary science budget are necessary to make it affordable." The estimated $4.7 billion cost (in FY2015 dollars) would cause an imbalance in NASA's planetary portfolio, the committee said, and should be initiated only if it will not result in any other mission being eliminated.

The third priority for a flagship mission is to study Uranus. The committee said it was interested in both Uranus and Neptune - the "ice giants" - but chose Uranus because of available trajectories, flight times and costs in the decade under consideration.

Support for research and analysis (R&A) and technology development for planetary exploration missions were also highlighted in the committee's report.

With budget realities in mind, the committee provided a "recommended" list of planetary science missions, and a "cost constrained" list. The recommended list assumes an increase to NASA's planetary science budget, while the cost constrained list assumes the currently projected NASA budget. However, the committee also notes that it plausible that the budget could increase or decrease even more, and provides decision rules on what missions should be added or subtracted in either eventuality.

In the worst circumstances, where the budget is "less favorable," the committee said that the first missions to be cut or delayed should be the flagship missions. "Changes to the New Frontiers or Discovery programs should be considered only if adjustments to Flagship missions cannot solve the problem. And high priority should be place on preserving funding for research and analysis programs and for technology development."

The NRC report was commissioned by NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF). The committee stressed the importance of NSF completing construction of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) and using it for planetary science.

Decadal Surveys are consensus-based priority setting exercises by various space science communities conducted under the aegis of the NRC. They are performed approximately every 10 years (a decade) for each of the space and earth science disciplines looking at the scientific research priorities for the next decade. The NRC released its most recent Decadal Survey for astrophysics last year. A Decadal Survey for biological and physical sciences in space is expected to be released in the next few weeks. The solar and space physics (heliophysics) Decadal Survey recently began and is expected to be completed next week. The first Decadal Survey for Earth Science and Applications from Space was released in 2007.

The planetary science Decadal Survey was chaired by Dr. Steven Squyres, best known as the "father" of the two Mars Exploration Rovers -- Spirit and Opportunity -- now on the surface of Mars.

Summary of House SS&T Committee Hearing Last Week Now Available

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 06-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

A summary of last week's hearing on the NASA FY2012 budget request before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee is now available. Find it on our left menu under "Our Hearing Summaries" or simply click here.

Senate Appropriators Would Cut NASA and NOAA for FY2011, But Less Than House

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

The Senate Appropriations Committee has released its version of the "full year" Continuing Resolultion (CR) -- that is, the CR to fund the remaining months of FY2011. The committee proposes to cut both NASA and NOAA, though less than the House-passed full-year CR (H.R. 1).

The committee's press release says the following about the two agencies:

"The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is funded at $18.5 Billion. This level is a reduction of $461 million, or 2.4 percent, below the FY 2011 request. A year of rethinking NASA's investments to ensure a portfolio balanced among science, aeronautics, technology and human space flight investments resulted in a NASA Authorization Act signed in October 2010. At this level, NASA will not be provided any funds for requested but new long-range space technology research activities that have the potential to lead to new discoveries and new technologies that could improve life on Earth. However, it avoids an additional $412 million cut by the House that would disrupt ongoing science missions and cause layoffs of 4,500 middle class contractors who provide landscaping, IT, janitorial, and other services for NASA centers."

"The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) operations and research is funded at $3.2 billion. This is a reduction of $110 million, or 3 percent, below the FY 2011 request level. This funding level removes earmarks and requires the agency to cut administrative and overhead costs. The House cuts an additional $340 million which would threaten critical weather forecasts and warnings."

Glory Launch Fails; Echos of OCO Failure Two Years Ago

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

UPDATE: This article is updated to reflect the NASA press conference that was held at 8:00 am EST.

The much anticipated launch of NASA's Glory earth science satellite ended in failure this morning when the fairing on the Taurus XL launch vehicle failed to separate about six minutes after launch. NASA lost the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) in a similar launch failure with the Taurus XL in 2009. Orbital Sciences Corp. builds the Taurus XL.

Glory's mission was to collect data on aerosols in the atmosphere and on total solar irradiance. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center managed the mission.

At a press conference, NASA launch director Omar Baez said that no anomalies were detected during launch preparations and liftoff was "right on target." The launch was looking good until 6 seconds after separation between stage 1 and stage 2 when the fairing was supposed to separate. It did not. The spacecraft and launch vehicle were lost and are "somewhere in the South Pacific."

Ron Grabe of Orbital Sciences referenced the OCO launch failure two years ago. He said the most probable cause in that case was a failure of the launch separation system and they had redesigned and tested the system, completely changing out the ignition system to the one used on the Minotaur 4, which has flown successfully three times. Orbital was confident they had "nailed the fairing issue," but that clearly was not the case. He said there is a great deal of emotional investment in any launch, but "doubly so" in a return to flight mission like this one and we are "pretty devastated."

Mike Luther from NASA's earth science directorate said that NASA felt they had an acceptable level of risk, but obviously had missed something. Glory would have made important measurements for understanding Earth as a system and the impacts of climate change, he said. NASA will continue to contribute to this field of science with its existing 13 earth science spacecraft as well as aircraft, and will move forward with a dozen earth science missions slated for launch in the next decade.

NASA is building a replacement for OCO, OCO-2, and a reporter asked if that still will be launched on a Taurus 2. The answer was that NASA would have to evaluate how to proceed.

President Speaks to ISS and Discovery Crews

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Mar-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

President Obama was a couple minutes late, but he finally spoke to the combined crew of the International Space Station and the space shuttle Discovery this afternoon just after 5:00 pm EST.

He asked ISS Commander Scott Kelly how he was doing and said how proud he is of the astronauts. He said they were setting a great example with their courage and commitment to exploration. He said to Discovery commander Steve Lindsey that it must be fun to be the last commander of Discovery and to be completing construction of the ISS. Lindsey said that with their landing now scheduled for Wednesday, Discovery will have flown for 365 days in space and would not be forgotten for a long time.

Obama noted that there is a vehicle from each of the ISS partners as part of the ISS right now, and it was a testament to the partnership. Obama also talked about the new "crew member" who is aboard the ISS -- Robonaut 2. He said it would inspire young people to be interested in science and technology. Linsday said "he" was still in packing foam and Obama laughed and said they should unpack him. Lindsay said he'd been packed in the foam for four months and joked that they think they've heard scratching sounds and "let me out."

Obama ended by saying "We could not be prouder of what you guys are doing." He added that he had recently spoken with "Mark" -- a reference to Scott Kelly's astronaut brother who is married to Rep. Gabrielle (Gabby) Giffords, who is recovering from a gunshot wound to the head -- and that Mark had said that Gabby was making "incredible progress" and she was in their thoughts and prayers. Scott Kelly thanked the President and called Giffords a "true inspiration."

GAO Issues Pair of Reports on NASA Program Management Challenges

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

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a pair of reports today about acqusition and management challenges at NASA. One is the third annual report to Congress on "NASA: Assessments of Selected Large Scale Projects," and the other is a letter to NASA Administrator Bolden identifying "several issues that merit your management attenion."

The report assesses 21 NASA projects costing a total of more than $68 billion. GAO found that of the 16 programs in that set where cost and schedule baselines had been established, development costs had an average growth of 14.6 percent and schedules slipped by an average of eight months. The congressional watchdog agency noted, however, that the cost growth figure was deceptive because it did not include cost growth incurred before NASA was required to report baselines to Congress. Thirteen projects that GAO studied over the past three years "that established baselines prior to 2009 experienced an average development cost growth of almost 55 percent," the report says. It adds that those figures do not include cost growth that is likely to be experienced on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

The letter to Bolden stresses that today's fiscal environment means that difficult choices will have to be made, and that NASA's projects "frequently are approved without evidence of a sound business case." The letter recommends that NASA --

"(1) provide increased transparency into project costs to the Congress to conduct oversight and ensure earlier accountability and (2) develop a common set of measurable and proven criteria to assess the design stability of projects before proceeding into later phases of development."

The report acknowledges that NASA is implementing a new cost estimation tool, the Joint Cost and Schedule Confidence Level, and that the agency "continues to take positive steps, but it will be some time before the impact of its efforts can be measured."

Events of Interest

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


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