Latest News

STS-133 To Launch Next Thursday, Feb. 24

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Feb-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Following a Flight Readiness Review today, NASA confirmed February 24 as the launch date for STS-133. Liftoff is scheduled for 4:50 pm EST.

The mission originally was scheduled to launch last November, but was delayed first by a gas leak and then by problems with "stringers" on its External Tank. This is the last flight of the Discovery orbiter. At least one more shuttle mission, STS-134 (Endeavour) is scheduled, and if Congress does not cut NASA's FY2011 budget too deeply, the agency plans one more flight of Atlantis (STS-135). Congress directed the agency to fly that "Launch-on-Need" mission and the agency is willing to do so as long as the money is available.

Currently STS-134, commanded by Mark Kelly, husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) who continues her recovery from a gunshot wound to the head last month, is scheduled for April 19. Kelly told a news conference on February 4 that he expects his wife to be at Kennedy Space Center for his launch. STS-135 is tentatively scheduled for launch in June. That would be the last flight of the shuttle program.

FY2012 NASA Budget Debate Begins While FY2011 Remains Uncertain

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Feb-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee, and the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee, will hold hearings on NASA's FY2012 budget request on March 2 and March 3 respectively.

Congress may still be wrangling over how much NASA and other federal agencies will get for FY2011, but the FY2012 budget clock starting ticking on Monday when President Obama sent his request to Congress. Theoretically, Congress is supposed to pass the new budget before the next fiscal year begins on October 1. As everyone can see from the heated battles underway on FY2011 -- five months after that fiscal year began -- it does not always work out that way. In fact, it hardly ever works out that way.

Nonetheless, the authorization committee and appropriations subcommittee in the House are going to get the ball rolling after Congress returns from a one-week recess to reconnect with constituents face-to-face.

Better SSA, More Partnerships, at Heart of National Security Space Strategy

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 18-Feb-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

The National Security Space Strategy (NSSS) released by the Department of Defense (DOD) and Director of National Intelligence earlier this month "recogniz[es] reality: we are not alone, we can't do everything alone," said the Honorable Michael B. Donley, Secretary of the U.S. Air Force. His comment was made during an event organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that featured a conversation with top U.S. military officials on the implications of the strategy for the DOD. The event was moderated by CSIS's President and CEO, Dr. John J. Hamre.

Of this first dedicated national security space strategy, the Honorable William J. Lynn III, Deputy Secretary of Defense, explained that it demonstrates the importance of the space domain to U.S. national security and is meant to deal with "these changed circumstances" where space is congested, competitive, and contested. These factors require a new way of thinking of ways to protect not only U.S. space assets, but also the industrial base.

Critical to the first task are improvements in space situational awareness (SSA). SSA, simply put, is the ability of knowing precisely the location of space objects and where they are going. General James E. Cartwright, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that space deterrence made improved SSA a critical need both for identifying anomalies and for attribution in the event of an attack. The NSSS states that the United States reserves the right of self-defense, but "all of space is not in space," he added, and norms are needed to know what the appropriate response to a potential attack would be. SSA, which he said "raises the bar in deterrence," has to be part of the discussions because "absent that, you really are in a large area of ambiguity."

With respect to protecting the industrial base, Lynn said that the DOD was taking steps to modify its acquisition approach, with a goal to infuse greater stability. Block buys and fixed price contracts are needed to increase predictability. The changes also include a different approach to buying launch vehicles. Donley described interagency coordination efforts with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) to "decouple launchers from payloads," allowing agencies to buy launchers on a more routine basis.

A vital step to support the industrial base, added Lynn, is export control reform, which has been an important priority of President Obama's Administration. The current rules date back to the Cold War, and now "seem to be designed to keep technologies from our allies," he said. This, agreed Cartwright, is part of the old approach to "go it alone," which he said was simply not affordable. Just as new constructs are needed for transactions with industry, so are new constructs needed for partnering with other countries. "If we are gonna fight in a combined way, we gotta find a way to operate in a combined way," he argued. He said that Russia was one of the countries where space could provide an opportunity for cooperation.

Greater cooperation may require greater coordination. The European Union's draft Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities has been a topic of discussion recently as one potential way forward in developing norms for responsible behavior in space. In response to a question about the code, Lynn said that while it was not in the national security space strategy, the code is "frankly, very consistent with some of the goals of the [NSSS]" and was therefore of a lot of interest. Discussing the benefits of this approach, he said that as opposed to other proposals that tend to be restrictive, the code had "important protections," including acknowledgement of the right of self-defense, and that, as a voluntary move, it had "strong potential of being a positive step" forward.

A webcast of the event is available on the CSIS website.

UPDATE: HSS&T Hearing on Federal R&D Budget Postponed to Later This Morning

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Feb-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: The hearing has started. I'm tweeting it: SpcPlcyOnline.

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee's hearing this morning with Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren on the federal government's FY2012 budget request for research and development has been delayed. Instead of starting at 10:00, it will start "10 minutes after this morning's series of votes. (Last votes are expected between 11:30 - 11:45 a.m.)" according to a committee press release.

NASA IG Says NASA Could Save Money By Using Minotaur for Medium-Class Missions

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Feb-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA Inspector General (IG) Paul Martin released a report today criticizing NASA's acquisition strategy for commercial launch vehicle services because it does not take advantage of the Minotaur rocket for medium-class missions.

"Our analysis shows that use of the Minotaur for certain NASA science missions offers significant savings when compared to the available commercially provided intermediate class launch vehicles cited in NASA's report to Congress. Moreover, it also would be less expensive than SpaceX's Falcon 9, which is still under development and not yet certified to carry NASA science missions. For example, if NASA used the Minotaur rather than Falcon 9 or the intermediate-class Atlas V for the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission scheduled for launch in November 2014, the Agency could save between $61 million and $156 million..."

The IG report continued that NASA's explanation for not using Minotaur is that it "could have a negative impact on the domestic commercial rocket industry because it might discourage companies from entering the launch services market," but the IG concludes that it is unlikely they would be ready in time for the SMAP mission. "Accordingly, while we appreciate the legal and policy reasons for promoting commercial launch providers, we believe that NASA should consider using the Minotaur as a launch vehicle for appropriate science missions until cost-effective and reliable commercial launch services are available."

Minotaurs are based on decomissioned intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs.) The IG report says that NASA does consider Minotaur for small missions in its launch services acquisition strategy, but not for medium-class missions.

Learn the Details of NASA's FY2012 Budget Request at a March 4 Symposium

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Feb-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

There is still time to register for the March 4 symposium at NASA headquarters on "State of the Space Agency: NASA Future Programs Presentation." NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, Deputy Administrator Lori Garver and the Associate Administrators of NASA's mission directorates will present NASA's FY2012 budget request in some detail with plenty of time for Q&A. The event is sponsored by the NASA Alumni League, the American Astronautical Society, AIAA, Women in Aerospace, and CES. Advance registration is required, but there is no fee. RSVP to Pat Smith at Check our calendar for March 4 for more information. Fact Sheet on Where To Find Agency FY2012 Budget Requests Now Available

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Feb-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Finding the NASA and DOD FY2012 budget requests is easy, but for anyone looking for how much is being requested for the Landsat program (at USGS) or NOAA's satellite activities, perhaps our latest fact sheet will help. FY2012 Budget Documentation: Where To Find Agency Budgets is now available on our left menu under Our Fact Sheets and Reports, or simply by clicking here .

Solar Flare Affects China's Shortwave Communications

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Feb-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Yesterday's massive solar flare affected shortwave communications in southern China according to its Xinhua news agency.

As trumpted by NASA's 3D Sun free iPhone App, this first "X-flare" of the new solar cycle is the "strongest solar flare in more than four years." It was observed by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and peaked at 01:56 Universal Time yesterday (Monday evening in the United States). NASA warns that X-flares are the strongest kind of solar flares and are likely to produce geomagnetic storms on Earth within about 48 hours.

Second Try's the Charm for ATV

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

UPDATE: The second upper stage firing was successful and it has now separated from the ATV. The spacecraft will take one week to reach the ISS.

ORIGINAL STORY: The European Space Agency's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo spacecraft was launched successfully by an Ariane V this afternoon. The launch was aborted yesterday. Everything appears well at the moment. The upper stage engine is due to be restarted in about 20 minutes to circularize the orbit.

The ATV is carrying about 7 tons of equipment and supplies for the International Space Station (ISS). The spacecraft weighs 20 tons overall and is the heaviest payload lofted by an Ariane launch vehicle. This is the 200th Ariane launch since the first launch of Ariane 1 in 1979. This second ATV mission is named Johannes Kepler. The first was called Jules Verne. The spacecraft is not designed to survive reentry and will burn up in the atmosphere at the end of its resupply mission.

NPOESS Restructuring One Year Later

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

The FY2012 budget requests for NOAA and DOD tell more of the story of the restructuring of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) ordered last year by the White House.

The DOD budget request includes $445 million for its component of the restructured program, called the Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS). The budget is based on the assumption that DOD will get $352 million in FY2011, although Congress is still debating the FY2011 spending figures. In 2012, the department says that the $445 million will pay for Northrop Grumman to redesign the spacecraft that it was planning to build for NPOESS into a "smaller and lighter version." It also will pay for development of two sensors that were originally planned for NPOESS (VIIRS and MIS), spacecraft and sensor subsystems and materials, algorithms, and DOD-specific elements of the common ground system. It is consolidating DWSS funds in its research and development (R&D) account instead of splitting it between R&D and procurement as in the past two years.

NOAA is requesting $1.07 billion for its Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). That is an increase of $688 million above what the agency is assuming it will get for FY2011, the same as it had for FY2010 ($382 million). Its FY2011 request had included a steep increase for transitioning from NPOESS to JPSS, but NOAA is operating at its FY2010 level under the Continuing Resolution (CR). Thus the increase is pushed to FY2012. The request includes funds to acquire and process data from NASA's NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP) spacecraft. NPP was designed as a testbed for NPOESS, but with the restructuring now will be the first operational satellite in the new civil weather satellite system. It is scheduled for launch this year. The NOAA funds will also continue development of instruments and spacecraft for the first two JPSS satellites.

NOAA is in a more difficult situation than DOD. All of its polar orbiting weather satellites are already in orbit, while DOD has two of its older satellites still awaiting launch.

The NPOESS program was created during the Clinton Administration to reduce the costs associated with having separate military and civil weather satellite systems. After years of cost growth and schedule slips, however, the Obama Administration decided to split the program so that each sector will have its own system again. NPOESS was being procured through the Air Force, which is maintaining its contract with Northrop Grumman and rescoping it to reflect the change to the DWSS program. NOAA is using NASA as its acquisition agent for JPSS, as it does for its other satellites. The first JPSS satellite will use the same spacecraft bus as NPP, being built by Ball Aerospace.

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