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UPDATE 2: GRAIL has been launched.
UPDATE: Upper level winds have pushed GRAIL to the second launch opportunity this morning, at 9:08:52.
Launch of NASA's twin GRAIL spacecraft is scheduled for 8:29:45 this morning and so far the countdown is proceeding nominally. The weather forecast has improved since last night, and there is currently an 80 percent chance of favorable conditions. Follow us on Twitter @SpcPlcyOnline to keep up on the action, or watch NASA's live TV coverage.
The Wall Street Journal and New York Times both are reporting this morning on the findings of the Russian commission investigating the Progress M-12M launch failure; SpacePolicyOnline.com carried the story yesterday.
In short, the third stage of the Soyuz rocket failed because of a blockage in a fuel line that the Russians consider an isolated event.
The Wall Street Journal goes so far as to predict that crewed Soyuz flights could resume "in mid-October." The New York Times, however, says "the panel offered no guidance on when this type of rocket would again be considered ready for manned missions."
Three of the six International Space Station (ISS) astronauts will come home next week. The launch of their replacements is on hold pending resolution of the issues surrounding the Progress M-12M launch failure. ISS program managers had been considering the possibility that the ISS would have to be destaffed in November, when the three remaining ISS crew members return home, if the Soyuz was not yet ready to fly again. Yesterday, NASA Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier sounded a very optimistic note that that would not be necessary, however.
The Obama Administration's strategy to have NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE) share the costs of restarting plutonium-238 (Pu-238) production hit another roadblock this week. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved its version of the FY2012 Energy-Water Appropriations bill zeroing the requested DOE funds for the project.
The Senate committee action mirrors action in the House. This is the third year DOE's appropriators have said no. The first time, the Obama Administration proposed that DOE fully fund the costs of restarting Pu-238 production. Historically, DOE had borne those costs since it is the only federal agency authorized to have nuclear materials. In these constrained budget times, however, Congress has been looking to see who benefits from the expenditures of funds. Those in charge of DOE's budget feel that since NASA is the agency that needs the Pu-238, then NASA should pay for it. Last year and this year, the Administration proposed that the agencies split the costs, but the DOE appropriators' stance has not changed -- NASA should pay for it. The Senate committee report says simply that it provides no funding for it.
NASA needs Pu-238 to provide electrical power for its lunar and planetary probes that cannot rely on solar energy because of their destinations. The U.S. supply of Pu-238 is depleted and NASA has been purchasing it from Russia. Russia's stores also are running dry.
A 2009 National Research Council report called the need for restarting Pu-238 production "imperative." NASA's lunar and planetary exploration plans have changed significantly since then with the redirection of the human spaceflight program and overall NASA budget constraints, however. Whether or not it remains imperative is unclear.
NASA anticipates that pieces of its Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) will survive the trip through Earth's atmosphere when the satellite reenters later this month or in early October.
A set of slides on NASA's UARS website show that 56 "potentially hazardous objects [are] expected to survive," with a total mass of 532 kilograms. The "estimated human casualty risk" is approximately 1 in 3,200.
The satellite was launched in 1991 and completed its mission in 2005. The slides point out that at the time UARS was designed, built, and launch, "no NASA or [U.S. Government] human casualty risk limits existed."
The satellite is in an orbit inclined 57 degrees to the equator, which means that it could reenter anywhere on the globe between 57 degrees north and 57 degrees south latitude, which is most of the populated region of Earth. The Earth's surface, however, is 70 percent water, so the risk to human health and safety is less than what one might initially infer. In the 54 year history of the Space Age, there have been no confirmed reports of injuries to humans from falling space debris, although pieces have been recovered. NASA urges anyone who finds anything that might be a piece of UARS debris to not touch it, but to contact local law enforcement for assistance.
When UARS will reenter is uncertain, since it is dependent on variables such as solar activity. NASA plans to post weekly updates at the UARS website until four days before reentry and then more frequently.
Although NASA cannot predict exactly where the debris will reenter, it says that the debris footprint will be 500 miles long.
The Joint Space Operations Center (JPSoC) of U.S. Strategic Command is the official government agency responsible for reentry predictions of uncontrolled space objects, although NASA has its own orbital debris office at Johnson Space Center.
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation-Housing and Urban Development (T-HUD) recommended only half of the Obama Administration's request for the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation.
George Nield, who heads that office, defended the $26 million request in testimony to the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in May. The request was 74 percent higher than what it had received for FY2010 and FY2011. That office facilitates and regulates the commercial space launch and reentry business. Nield said at the hearing that he expected a ten-fold increase in the number of commercial launches and pointed to new initiatives such as the Commercial Spaceflight Technical Center at Kennedy Space Center, FL and a "prize" program. Several members of that committee, which authorizes the office's activities, were critical of the sharp increase.
The appropriators apparently were skeptical as well. The draft bill they approved on Thursday states that "not to exceed $13,000,000 shall be available for commercial space transportation activities." That is less than the $15.2 million the office received for FY2010 and FY2011.
This is only the first step in the FY2012 appropriations process.
SpacePolicyOnline.com has obtained a copy of the NASA charts that apparently are the source of data for the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article that has everyone in space policy circles abuzz.
In a story on Wednesday, the WSJ asserted that the White House has "sticker shock" over the potential cost of NASA's exploration program to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit. The newspaper said it was based on NASA charts showing NASA's current cost estimate for the program versus higher projected costs if the program is accelerated to achieve earlier results. The story prompted a scathing statement by Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) calling the figures cited by the WSJ "contrived numbers" that are part of a "campaign to undermine America's manned space program."
The charts-- labeled "ESD Integration, Budget Availability Scenarios" -- do not reveal the motivation for their existence or who created them, other than the NASA logo on each of the 26 pages. They map out the budget and schedule details of five different scenarios. All assume the first flight of a 70 metric ton (mT) version of the Space Launch System (SLS) in 2017, but milestone dates for the 70mT SLS with a crew and for the 130 mT version of the SLS and flight rates differ in the various scenarios. In short they are:
- Case 1: the President's budget (one flight every two years, 70 mT SLS in 2017, 70 mT SLS with crew in 2021, 130 mT SLS no earlier than 2030)
- Case 2: the President's budget with an escalation after FY2017 (same as Case 1, but with one flight every year beginning in 2023);
- Case 3: the "Senate Authorization Act," a reference to the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that originated in the Senate (one flight per year, 70mT SLS in 2017, 70 mT SLS with crew in 2018, and 130 mT SLS in 2021)
- Case 4a: the Senate Authorization Act plus escalation after FY2017 (same as Case 3, but two flights per year beginning in 2022 and a $2.1 billion wedge for in-space elements); and
- Case 4b: the Senate Authorization Act plus escalation after FY2017 (same as Case 4a, but one flight per year and a $4.5 billion wedge for in-space elements).
The cost through 2025 for each of those scenarios, in "real year dollars" (i.e. escalated for inflation), is shown both for "full cost" and for "procurements only" as follows:
- $41.4 billion full cost, $35.2 billion procurement only (based on a preliminary NASA cost estimate from June 27, 2011)
- $44.7 billion full cost, $37.3 billion procurement only
- $57.9 billion full cost, $50.9 billion procurement only
- $62.5 biliion full cost, $55.4 billion procurement only
- $62.5 billion full cost, $55.4 billion procurement only
"Full cost" generally means that it includes agency costs such as salaries for civil servants that are not included in procurements from outside contractors.
During a luncheon speech to the Space Transportation Association (STA) yesterday, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier said that the space program is one of limitless possibilities and, for example, there were "a thousand or so" permutations of possibilities for a heavy lift launch vehicle that the agency has studied over the years. In a speech about "decision fatigue," he asked rhetorically whether having so many options is such a good thing.
Why these particular scenarios were chosen for this budget analysis and shared with the WSJ and how many similar analyses exist comparing other possibilities remain unclear.
Saying that it "could accelerate the availability of U.S. commercial crew transportation capabilities," NASA revealed today that it will make an announcement next week about an agreement with Alliant Techsystems (ATK).
The tantalizing press release states, however, that the announcement on Tuesday at 3:00 pm EDT will be made at Kennedy Space Center's press center, but not carried on NASA TV. This is quite unusual. NASA routinely holds press conferences that air on NASA TV and media teleconferences that are carried on NASA's newsaudio site. For unexplained reasons, only "highlights" of this announcement will be available on NASA's TV Video File segment.
Participants are Ed Mango, NASA's commercial crew program manager; Kent Rominger, ATK Aerospace's vice president for strategy and business development; and John Schumacher, EADS North America's vice president for space programs.
The House passed the FY2012 Intelligence Authorization bill today.
The bill, H.R. 1892, authorizes funding and activities for the nation's intelligence community.
Passage of the bill is timely not only as it comes two days before the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, but next week the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) will celebrate its 50th anniversary at a fancy event at the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly VA (not far from NRO's offices). The announcement promises that two legacy satellite reconnaissance systems will be unveiled that evening.
NASA's GRAIL twin robotic lunar probes are set for launch tomorrow morning and the weather is looking a little better.
The launch was scrubbed on Thursday because of upper level winds. NASA was going to try to launch today, but wanted to look at propulsion system data from the detanking operation on Thursday. They concluded everything is OK.
The forecast is for 60 percent favorable weather at launch time. Two "instantaneous" launch windows are available: 8:29:45 and 9:08:52.
The launch of the twin GRAIL lunar probes has been postponed another day, to Saturday, September 10.
NASA stated that it needed "additional time to review propulsion data from Thursday's detanking operation." That detanking followed a postponement of the launch yesterday due to high level winds.
There are two launch opportunities on Saturday: 8:29:45 am and 9:08:52 am EDT. The launch is on a Delta II rocked from Cape Canaveral.
Events of Interest
- American Meteorological Society (AMS) Annual Meeting, January 22-26, 2017, Seattle, Washington
- Prospects for the Defense Budget (CSIS), January 23, 2017, 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW, Washington, DC, 10:30 am - 12:00 pm ET (webcast)
- SASC Hearing on Defense Budget for FY2018 and Onwards, January 24, 2017, 216 Hart Senate Office Building, 9:30 am ET (webcast)
- Senate Commerce Cmte Markup (incl two space-related bills), January 24, 2017, 253 Russell Senate Office Building, 10:00 am ET (webcast)
- AIA/AIAA/Space Foundation Aerospace 101 Briefing, January 24, 2017, 2325 Rayburn House Office Building, 11:30 am ET
- Natl Academies Earth Sci Decadal Survey Town Hall Mtg (in Conjunction with AMS), January 24, 2017, 6:30-7:30 pm Pacific Time (9:30-10:30 pm Eastern)
- European Space Policy Conference, January 24-25 2017, Brussels, Belgium
- NASA News Conf with Upcoming ISS Crew, January 25, 2017, Johnson Space Center, TX, 2:00 pm ET (1:00 pm local) Watch on NASA TV
- NASA Day of Remembrance Pre-Event, January 26, 2017, KSC, FL 10:00 am (watch on NASA TV)
- Interagency Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Cmte (AAAC), January 26-27, 2017, National Science Foundation, Arlington, VA
- 50th Anniversary of the Outer Space Treaty (ASIL/SWF), January 27, 2017, Georgetown Law School Gewirz Student Center, Washington, DC, 12:00-2:00 pm ET
Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »
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