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What the Election Means for NASA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

Editorial Commentary

Everyone wants to know what the election results mean for NASA.

Business Week published an interesting, if depressing, article about the current state of the U.S. human spaceflight program entitled "NASA, Lost in Space." That was last week, even before the election.

Not to be curmudgeonly, but if I had a nickel for every article that has been written about NASA being lost in space over the past four decades that I have been a space policy analyst, plus a dime for each of the reports written about what the future of the human spaceflight program should be (27 according to my good friend Mark Craig), I might be able to buy a ticket to the International Space Station. That would be on a Russian spacecraft, of course, since we are about to mothball our transportation system for getting to and from ISS, but that's another story.

The Republican takeover of the House is not good news for NASA. It's not that Republicans don't like NASA. As far as I can tell, just about everyone in the United States loves NASA. But they love NASA more in good economic times than in bad, and these are really bad economic times. The message from yesterday's election is not just that America is angry at Washington, but that Bill Clinton is still correct -- it's the economy, stupid.

If Barack Obama wants to get reelected two years from now, he will have to join the bandwagon to cut federal spending that resonated so loudly with the electorate yesterday. The $6 billion increase over 5 years he included for NASA in his FY2011 budget request was always just a proposal and it is difficult to believe that it can survive the current economic and political climate.

As for Congress, the 2010 NASA authorization act did what most compromises do, split the difference. Not only will the government subsidize the commercial sector to build a transportation system to take people to low Earth orbit (LEO), but it will also build a government system to take people to LEO and beyond. That was unaffordable even with the President's $6 billion proposed increase; it surely is unaffordable now.

NASA's space science programs are very popular with Congress and the public, but earth sciences have been a political football for a long time. Many Republicans do not believe that climate change is human-induced and question why NASA needs to invest so much in earth science research. With the White House and Senate still in Democratic hands, and Senator Barbara Mikulski still in the Senate to champion Goddard Space Flight Center and its earth science research programs, the news is not entirely gloomy. Still, the President's requested increase for NASA's earth science program may encounter rough seas ahead instead of the smooth sailing it enjoyed this year.

Democrats now are intent on regaining the House and keeping the White House in 2012, while the Republicans want to prove that they are the party of smaller, cheaper government and win the Senate and the White House. Every agency is battening down the hatches against inevitable austerity. My best guess is that if Congress passes an omnibus appropriations bill this year, the bottom line for NASA will read $19 billion, the same as the request, but there will be a significant across-the-board reduction for all the agencies at the back of the bill. Such cuts are not uncommon, and usually are a fraction of a percent, but might well be more this time. The FY2012 request for NASA, I bet, will be level funding.

The Republicans won the House and made gains in the Senate because people are fearful of today's economy and what tomorrow may bring. Spending money to send people to asteroids, as the President proposes, just doesn't have the allure needed to protect NASA from the impending federal spending cut tsunami.

In many respects, this is yet another Back to the Future drill reminiscent of Mr. Clinton's tenure as President and then-NASA Administrator Dan Goldin's outwardly cheerful acquiescence to that Administration's budget cuts. He crafted "faster, better, cheaper," which proved, as everyone says, that one can have two of the three, but not all.

What does the election mean for NASA? Another episode of trying to do too much with too little, I fear. Not to mention another round - already - of debating what should be the future of human spaceflight. Some think that a National Research Council (NRC) "Decadal Survey" for human spaceflight akin to those it does for space and earth sciences is the magic solution. Sorry, it won't work. Having the NRC do a study every 10 years of the human spaceflight program is a noble endeavor and worth doing, but it will not take human spaceflight off the political agenda. Human spaceflight by its very nature appeals to the populace for reasons of national identity and aspirations that cannot be regulated by a sober, peer-reviewed, consensus document crafted even by the nation's most beloved thinkers.

The space program belongs to the American people. Advocates who count "regular Americans" among their ranks need to work together to better convey how investing in NASA satisfies the need for economic stability and inspiration. Then those advocacy groups need to convert those beliefs into votes.

NASA can't do it. First, it has to do whatever the President and Congress tell it to do, and second, it is not allowed to proselytize itself. This is an action item for the aerospace industry -- traditional and entrepreneurial -- and all the myriad advocacy groups to join together in making the case for space research and exploration.

It's a difficult task. Human spaceflight, in particular, appeals to people for mostly intangible reasons -- hope, curiosity, the drive to explore, national pride -- not because of pocketbook issues. Without that connection, though, NASA, or at least the human spaceflight part of it, really may be lost this time.

Marcia Smith, Editor,

UPDATE 2: Election Results for Key Space-Related Congressional Seats

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE 2: Rep. Giffords won reelection.

UPDATE: Politico reports that although Rep. Giffords is leading in her race for reelection, a final outcome may not be known until later this week; our list has been changed accordingly. Also, a link to the Space Foundation's list of election outcomes has been added.

Republicans won control of the House in yesterday's election, while Democrats maintained control of the Senate. All House members and one-third of the Senate were up for reelection.

This updated list, prepared by, shows the outcome (based on data from the New York Times) for key Representatives and Senators who hold leadership positions on the committees that authorize or appropriate funds for NASA, NOAA, DOD and the Intelligence Community. Note that all the leadership positions in the House will change now that the Republicans will be in control (the chairs of committees and subcommittees are members of whatever party controls that chamber). Some may also change in the Senate.

The Space Foundation has a list of all members of the relevant committees and their election outcomes.

Shuttle Discovery Launch Delayed "At Least A Day"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

NASA has decided to delay the launch of space shuttle Discovery's STS-133 mission for "at least a day" as it analyzes voltage irregularities observed during launch preparations. A news conference at 6:30 pm EDT will discuss the situation. Watch it live on NASA TV.

NASA Comet Missions Pulling Double Duty; EPOXI Encounter on Thursday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft will have a second chance at fame this Thursday, November 4. Rechristened EPOXI, it will give scientists a close-up view of the nucleus of comet Hartley 2. The closest approach will occur at 9:50 am EDT (13:50 UT, 6:50 am PDT). It is the first of two comet encounters by NASA spacecraft in the next three months, both by spacecraft pulling extra duty after completing their original missions.

As Deep Impact, the spacecraft now known as EPOXI successfully encountered - literally - comet Tempel 1 in 2005. One part of the spacecraft separated from the flyby spacecraft and impacted the comet - or to be precise, it was placed in front of the comet so the comet would run into it. Instruments on the flyby spacecraft studied the material ejected into space, imaged the comet's surface and relayed images transmitted by the impactor. The flyby spacecraft remained in good condition after the encounter and was given new life as EPOXI.

EPOXI is only one of NASA's comet explorers. On September 10, 2010, NASA celebrated 25 years of comet research with a symposium at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Scientists talked about EPOXI and two other NASA interplanetary missions that received multiple assignments associated with comet research: ISEE-3 and Stardust.

The sheer number of comets in our solar system may come as a bit of a surprise. Dr. Anita Cochran of the McDonald Observatory revealed not only that there are 1014 (10,000,000,000,000) comets today, but that in the last several years NASA's STEREO and Europe's SOHO spacecraft have observed about 1,000 of them making a final death plunge into the Sun. With that many meeting their doom in a short span of time, one can imagine how many existed when the solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago. Dr. Cochran estimates that only about 10 percent of comets remain today.

Dr. James Green, Director of NASA's Planetary Sciences Division, entertained the gathering with stories of the "bad rap" comets once had as "harbingers of gloom and doom." Today they are the subject of intense scientific interest because they hold clues to what happened early in the formation of the solar system. "Yes, they are leftovers," said Dr. Cochran, "but they are fundamental leftovers" that can answer the question of "where did we come from."

Halley's Comet holds special fascination with a cycle that brings it close to Earth every 76 years, appearing the year that legendary author Mark Twain was born and again the year that he died. In 1986, the last time it was in our neighborhood, Europe, Russia, and Japan sent probes to study it. Europe's Giotto mission sent back fascinating images of its nucleus as it made the closest approach of all the spacecraft. (ESA's Rosetta mission is currently on its way to a long-term rendezvous with another comet and will emplace a lander on its surface.)

NASA could not afford a Halley's Comet mission. However, Dr. Robert Farquhar, an orbital dynamics wizard, calculated a way to redirect a NASA spacecraft already in space - the International Sun-Earth Explorer-3 (ISEE-3) - to intercept a different comet, Giacobini-Zinner. Dr. Farquhar humorously recounted for the audience the challenges he faced in convincing NASA to reposition ISEE-3, which was part of a three-spacecraft ensemble studying solar-terrestrial physics. Ultimately he succeeded and ISEE-3, renamed the International Cometary Explorer (ICE), flew past comet Giacobini-Zinner on September 11, 1985, months prior to the Halley's Comet encounters by the other spacecraft. Thus, NASA went into the record books for sending the first spacecraft to a comet.

That was just the first NASA interplanetary spacecraft to get double duty. Deep Impact/EPOXI was the second, and it was a merger of two ideas on how to continue using the Deep Impact flyby spacecraft. As outlined by Dr. Michael A'Hearn of the University of Maryland, EPOXI is the merger of his idea to send it to a second comet - the Deep Impact Extended Investigation (DIXI) proposal, and NASA's Drake Deming's proposal to use it to search for extrasolar planets - the Extrasolar Planet Observations and Characterization (EPOCh) concept. The two ideas and their acronyms were combined into the cleverly designated EPOXI. The extrasolar planet detection phase of EPOXI's mission has been completed.

A third opportunity to reuse a spacecraft already in space came with Stardust, which in January 2006 brought back to Earth a sample of material from the tail of comet Wild 2. The sample canister was recovered on Earth, while the mother spacecraft remained in space and given a new job. Now named Stardust-NExT, it will revisit Tempel 1 - the comet that collided with Deep Impact - to allow scientists to try and locate the crater caused by the collision and study other geological features. Cornell University's Dr. Joseph Veverka explained that Tempel 1 is a planetary geologist's dream, with "tremendous geological diversity on its surface." Deep Impact saw only about one-third of the comet's surface, and "we want to have a better look at the layered terrains," he said. Stardust-NExT will reach Tempel 1 on Valentine's Day (February 14) 2011.

Meanwhile, stay tuned for the EPOXI closest approach to Hartley 2 on Thursday morning. Information on how to view events live are available on NASA's website.

NASA Analyzes Voltage Irregularities on Discovery

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA space shuttle engineers are analyzing voltage irregularities encountered with the Discovery orbiter during launch preparations. The launch is currently scheduled for tomorrow, Wednesday, at 3:52 pm EDT. Mission managers will meet at 5:00 pm EDT today to discuss the issue.

According to NASA's space shuttle website:

"During space shuttle main engine checkouts, the backup controller for engine 3 did not turn on as expected. There appeared to be an issue with one of three power phases, which was narrowed down to either a cockpit circuit breaker or switch that provides power. The circuit breaker and switch were turned off and on, restoring power.

"Engineers continue to analyze data that showed voltage irregularities and will meet this afternoon to review their data. The Mission Management Team now will convene at 5 p.m. EDT to assess the issue."

NASA Administrator Bolden's Statement on ISS 10th Anniversary

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden issued a statement today commemorating 10 years of permanent occupancy of the International Space Station. He said, in part: "As we enter the station's second decade, our path forward will take us deeper into space and expand humanity's potential farther. The lessons we learn on the station will carry us to Mars and beyond. I want to give a heartfelt thank you to the six crew members on orbit and all the teams over the years that have helped us get to this milestone day."

Learn about Aerospace Medicine Tomorrow

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

Dr. Kris Lehnhardt, Assistant Professor in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences at George Washington University (GWU), will deliver a lecture on "Introduction to Aerospace Medicine" on Wednesday, November 3, 2010, in room 117 Ross Hall on the GWU campus. The lecture is sponsored by the George Washington Space Society and more information is available at its website.

Discovery Launch Waiting for Clearance on Voltage Issues

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

In a press conference late this afternoon, NASA shuttle mission managers said that a final decision on when to launch space shuttle Discovery will not be made until engineers have thoroughly investigated the reasons for voltage irregularities that developed during launch preparations. Two instances of a backup main engine controller malfunctioning were observed today. NASA thinks it understands the problem, but wants to take an extra day to make sure. Launch has been delayed until at least Thursday, though the weather forecast is not favorable that day.

STS-133 Pre-Launch Mission Management Team chair Mike Moses said that if the controller failed at main engine start, the shuttle would have lifted off OK, but NASA nevertheless wants to make certain that it understands what happened. For example, he wants to know that both malfunctions were caused by a corroded circuit breaker as they currently believe.

The launch window ends on November 7 (because of sun angles at the International Space Station) and reopens on December 1.

UPDATE: Events of Interest: Week of November 1-5, 2010

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Oct-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: The GWU lecture on aerospace medicine on Wednesday has been added.

The following events may be of interest in the coming week. See our calendar on the right menu for more details or click the links below.

Tuesday, November 2

  • NASA press conference on 10 years of permanent occupancy of the International Space Station. Watch NASA TV beginning at 9:30 am EDT.

Wednesday, November 3

  • Last launch of space shuttle Discovery currently scheduled for 3:52 pm EDT. If there are additional schedule delays, we will post them as soon as we know.

Friday, November 5

Space Policy Experts Point to Continuing Uncertainty for Civil Space As a Challenge

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 31-Oct-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Just four days before an election that may directly impact the recently agreed upon plans for NASA and the human spaceflight program, the George Washington University held an event discussing implementation challenges of the 2010 National Space Policy (NSP). Stakeholders from industry, academia, government, and the military included the outcome of the election as one of several elements increasing the sense of lingering uncertainty, a challenge in implementing the guidelines laid out in the NSP.

Scott Pace, Director of the Space Policy Institute, which co-organized the event, described the NSP's section on space exploration as problematic. He said it reads like President Obama's April 15, 2010 speech in Florida where he fleshed out his proposals for NASA that were revealed in the FY2011 budget request, and reflects that integration is still "a work in progress." Issues of implementation, said Pace, would come up at the interfaces between policy, programs, and budget: "problems happen at the seams," he added.

Where the policy is clear, as in the direction it lays out for the Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), implementation has already begun. Mary Kicza, Assistant Administrator for Satellite and Information Services at NOAA, lauded the policy for providing more clarity and direction to the agency. Already, NOAA has been engaging countries, like Japan, China, India, Canada, and others, in data sharing and other initiatives.

Participants also mentioned elements like the push for increased international cooperation as a positive and implementable aspect of the policy. Not only an opportunity for government agencies, international engagement may also provide a boost to U.S. industry, suggested Marion Blakey, CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association. "International business opportunities may be our industry's best and only opportunity for growth," she said, and mentioned India and South Korea as two potential markets. Opening up the U.S. industry further to the international market would require changes in export control rules, also an important priority for the Administration. Participants discussed recent developments in the move to reform export controls with optimism. Elliot Pulham, CEO of the Space Foundation, said that in this area "implementation is happening very rapidly." Blakey added that the elections next Tuesday add an element of change, but that maintaining good discussion and engagement with newcomers and those already in Congress should be enough to keep momentum going for reform. It will take advocacy, she said, but there is a real opportunity for change.

Where the policy is less clear, on the other hand, implementation issues abound. Victoria Samson, of the Secure World Foundation, for example, praised the policy for its initiatives towards securing the sustainability of space, but pointed to several lingering questions. The possibility of space arms control measures is back in the policy, which states that they would be considered if they prove to be equitable and verifiable - elements she pointed out have yet to be defined.

Some aspects of the NSP are the cause of considerable disagreements. With regard to the new direction to NASA about the commercialization of crew transport to low Earth orbit, a fundamental aspect of the policy, participants repeatedly brought up differences of opinion on what constitutes "commercial." Pulham, for example, believes that something that is government funded is not commercial and will not be until a "Rockets-R-US" for the commercial launch industry exists. He offered that "things that are too hard, too risky" ought to be governmental, but provided no specific examples.

The human spaceflight (HSF) aspect of the policy, which has been a focal point of the heated debates this summer, remains unclear despite the approval of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act this month. John Logsdon, Professor Emeritus of the George Washington University and founder of the Space Policy Institute, said that in contrast to other aspects of the policy, there is "no agreed-upon policy to implement" the HSF portion of the NSP. He described the environment of the discussions today as "the most confused situation" since December 1960, when President Eisenhower announced the country would no longer have a HSF program - an announcement that was reversed the next year in President John F. Kennedy's famous speech that initiated the Apollo lunar program. Logsdon described the 2010 authorization act as an "uneasy compromise" and said that in the next 6 months there would be either "more clarity or more compromise and uncertainty."

Keys for success are program stability and funding security. Robert Dickman, Executive Director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, referred to a common idiom, saying that "policy with resources is vision, but policy without resources is fiction." With the potential that the Republicans may take over Congress on Tuesday, some fear that the resources to implement these programs may not materialize. Charles Baker of the Office of Space Commerce at the Department of Commerce said that "the unknown" of agency budgets was tied to future economic performance. If the economy performs well, he added, there would be fewer ventures dependent on government money.

Until that day comes, clarity, direction and stability are essential for the implementation of the NSP. "What's the endgame?" asked Dickman early in the discussion. Several participants agreed that without a long-term strategy in space, lack of clarity could stall or doom many initiatives, hurting the U.S. space program in the long run. Phil McAlister, Special Assistant for Program Analysis at NASA Headquarters, agreed that "we'd be moving farther faster if there was a little more strategy."

An interesting discussion at the end centered on the idea that a priority-setting process akin to the National Research Council's science Decadal Surveys could bring such needed direction to the HSF program.'s Marcia Smith, former Director of the NRC's Space Studies Board that produces many of the Decadal Surveys, was in the audience. She offered reasons why a Decadal-like NRC study might not be successful in setting an agenda for HSF that would be any less subject to the political winds than the many studies already published. She said that it was "an interesting idea," but "not a panacea." She questioned whether the hard-to-define HSF community would fall in line behind the recommendations of such a study as do the well-defined academic research communities affected by the current Decadal Surveys. She also pointed out that the NRC issued a report about the rationale and goals of the HSF program last year, but it received little notice because the Augustine Committee review was ongoing at the time.

The day's discussion, reflecting a wide variety of views on this very issue, suggests that consensus on the future of HSF indeed will be difficult to find. Nevertheless, the 2010 NASA Authorization Act includes a provision requiring NASA to request such a study from the NRC in FY2012. Time will tell how successful it is in setting 10-year HSF priorities that stand the test of time.

Events of Interest

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


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