Latest News

NASA Merges Mission Directorates

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA formally announced the long expected merger of two of its mission directorates as the agency transitions to the post-shuttle era.

The merger creates the new Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate from the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) and Space Operations Mission Directorate (SOMD). ESMD was created to execute President George W. Bush's "Vision for Space Exploration" for human exploration of space beyond low Earth orbit (LEO). SOMD was in charge of construction and operations of the International Space Station (ISS) in LEO, transportation to and from LEO, including the space shuttle, as well as other activities such as NASA's space communications.

Now that the shuttle has flown its final flight and NASA is focusing on ISS operations and whatever comes next in the human spaceflight program, the reorganization comes as no surprise. NASA officials have made clear for many months that it was in the works. SOMD Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier will head the new HEO Mission Directorate. ESMD Associate Administrator Doug Cooke announced his planned retirement several months ago.

DARPA HTV-2 Launched, But Contact Lost

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

DARPA's Falcon HTV-2 was launched successfully today, but contact was lost prematurely.

The launch was delayed from yesterday because of downrange weather conditions.

The Minotaur IV rocket successfully lofted the hypersonic test vehicle and it began its glide back to Earth. However, DARPA lost contact with it prematurely according to the agency's website. A similar fate befell the first of these two test flights, although DARPA obtained nine minutes worth of usable data that time.

Stunning Mars Image from Opportunity

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

NASA's Mars rover Opportunity has this stunning view of the Endeavour crater on Mars, where it has just arrived.

DARPA's HTV-2 Launch Delayed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Launch of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency's (DARPA's) Falcon Hypersonic Test Vehicle-2 (HTV-2) has been delayed because of weather.

This is the second of two Falcon HTV-2 flights (not to be confused with SpaceX's Falcon launch vehicle or Japan's HTV cargo spacecraft for the International Space Station). The first was in April 2010. HTV-2 is designed to provide data on hypersonic flight that could lead to development of hypersonic vehicles in the future. The first test flight collected 139 seconds of data in the Mach 22 to Mach 17 range, but DARPA lost contact with the aircraft after nine minutes of flight according to Aviation Week & Space Technology.

The Minotaur IV launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA was delayed today because of poor down-range weather. Another attempt will be made tomorrow between 7:00 am and 1:00 pm PDT.

Opportunity Keeps On Keepin' On

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

NASA's Mars rover, Opportunity, is very close to reaching its next destination, Endeavour crater.

The plucky spacecraft that was designed for 3 months of operation and is now in its seventh year sent back a panoramic image of the crater. The crater is 14 miles in diameter and is an interesting site for scientific research because of exposed rock outcrops older than any that the rover has visited so far. Another image shows the route that Opportunity traveled marked in yellow.

Opportunity's twin, Spirit, had ended its mission. NASA abandoned attempts to contact it in May after it did not respond following the Mars winter. It had become stuck with a wheel sunk into the sandy surface with its solar arrays pointing away from the Sun.

NASA Selects Seven Suborbital Launch Providers

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA announced today the seven winners of contracts to fly NASA payloads on suborbital missions.

The two-year indefinite delivery-indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contracts are worth a combined total of $10 million according to the press release. The payloads would be for technology development. NASA's Chief Technologist, Bobby Braun, said they would open up opportunities for engineers, scientists and technologists to mature technologies for application to future NASA missions. The seven winners are:

  • Armadillo Aerospace
  • Near Space Corp
  • Masten Space Systems
  • Up Aerospace, Inc
  • Virgin Galactic
  • Whittinghill Aerospace, LLC
  • XCOR

NASA Announces NIAC Winners

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA announced the 30 winners of Phase 1 awards intended to spur revolutionary space technologies through the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program today.

Each winner gets $100,000 for one year to better define its concept, with the potential for a Phase 2 award in the future. Phase 2 awards would be for two more years, funded at $500,000.

Hundreds of proposals were submitted according to Joe Parrish, director of the early stage innovation division in NASA's Office of Chief Technologist (OCT). A peer review process was used to select the winners. NASA hopes to make the competition annual, dependent on budget decisions in Congress.

NASA established a NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, the original NIAC, in 1998. It was discontinued in 2007 for budgetary reasons. Congress then directed NASA to contract with the National Research Council (NRC) to review results from NIAC and determine whether such a capability should be reinstated. The NRC study, co-chaired by Bobby Braun, then at Georgia Tech, concluded that NIAC should be reconstituted, but with some changes. A key recommendation was that awards be available to internal NASA offices, not only to those outside NASA as was the case under the original NIAC. Braun was named NASA's Chief Technologist in 2009 and recreated NIAC with that change.

The proposals announced today range from Space Debris Elimination to Economical Radioisotope Power to Printable Spacecraft to Ghost Imaging of Space Objects. Jay Falker, NIAC program executive, said that approximately one-third of the awards went to internal NASA, academic, and industry/national lab applicants respectively.

Braun pointed out that another major difference between this NIAC and its predecessor is that now NIAC is part of the OCT and thus of a "larger family" of technologies. This should enhance the opportunities for NIAC-developed technologies being infused into NASA projects, he said, because a "pipeline" now exists.

Kicza: NPP Not Just Another Satellite

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

NOAA's Mary Kicza stressed today that the NPP satellite being readied for shipment to Vandenberg Air Force Base for an October launch is "not just another satellite."

Kicza spoke at a press conference at Ball Aerospace in Boulder, CO, prime contractor for the satellite. She focused on NPP's new role as part of the NOAA's operational weather satellite system following the dissolution of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program. NPP - the NPOESS Preparatory Project - is a NASA satellite that was NASA's contribution to the NPOESS program. Its purpose was to reduce technical risk by flying advanced sensors that would later be used on NPOESS, not to be part of NOAA's operational satellite series.

Representatives of NASA, NOAA, and Ball Aerospace and its industry partners provided details on the advanced capabilities of the NPP instruments compared to their predecessors that have flown on a variety of satellite platforms over the years. The bottom line is that weather forecasts will be quicker and more accurate once the NPP data are available. NPP also will provide data for climate studies, its original focus. NASA's Chief Scientist, Waleed Abdalati, spoke about the value of knowing "what tomorrow will bring" whether it is tomorrow's weather or the future of Earth's environment in the decades to come. The value is economic, military, humanitarian, and societal, he said, philosophizing about the relationship between humans and the Earth's environmental system and the need to "optimize that relationship."

Kicza called NPP a "bridge" between NOAA's current polar orbiting weather satellites and the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) that is off to a slow start because of lower than requested funding from Congress. The NPOESS program, intended to serve both the civil and military communities, was replaced by NOAA's JPSS for civil users and DOD's Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS) for the national security sector.

NOAA received only about one-third of the funding it requested for JPSS in FY2011 because it was held to its previous year's funding level, before NPOESS was dissolved. The agency has reprogrammed money from other sources into JPSS for FY2011, but still has less than half of what it planned. Its FY2012 request is $1.07 billion. The House Appropriations Committee approved a cut of $169 million. The full House and the Senate have not acted yet.

The last of NOAA's polar orbiting weather satellites, NOAA-19, was launched in 2009. NPP now will be its successor instead of an NPOESS satellite. Kicza said that satellites like NOAA-19 and NPP have a typical lifetime of 5 years, so the agency needs its first JPSS satellite ready for launch by 2016 or 2017. NOAA officials have repeatedly warned Congress than a data gap of as many as 18 months could occur if JPSS is not adequately funded to meet that launch timeframe.

Meanwhile, everyone's fingers are crossed that the NPP launch will be successful. The launch vehicle for NPP is the very reliable Delta II. Two of NASA's last three Earth science satellites, OCO and GLORY, were lost in launch vehicle failures of a different rocket, the Taurus XL. A third satellite, Aquarius, was successfully launched in June on a Delta II.

Getting the Message Across in Congress?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Editorial Comment

I clicked on this article in The Hill newspaper today to read about something going on in Washington politics (the Tea Party Caucus and its role in the debt limit debate) and was astonished to suddenly see a photo of the STS-135 crew appear in the embedded advertisement.

The advertisement is very effective in catching one's attention. The crew, the space shuttle, the space station (though I wonder how many people outside the space community recognize it). Beautiful images.

What message the advertisement is trying to convey is a mystery, though.

The words that appear in the ad are: "30 years of inspiration," "exploration," "leadership," "America's space shuttle," "enduring legacy," and, at the end, "Boeing."

Perhaps this ad has run elsewhere, but it's the first time I've seen it. I can't help but wonder what message Boeing is trying to send to the readership of The Hill, which I imagine are people like me who for whatever reason remain fascinated by the inner workings of Capitol Hill and Washington politics in general. I, at least, follow the space program as closely as I follow Washington politics, but even with an understanding of both, I can't discern what Boeing wants me to take away from the ad.

Is it a simple tribute to the space shuttle now that's it's over? An effort to highlight that Boeing was involved in the shuttle program with the expectation that The Hill's readership therefore will think positively of Boeing? An indirect lament that the shuttle is over and there is no U.S. system to take people to the space station now? An implied statement that the shuttle was part of U.S. "exploration" and "leadership" and we've lost that now?

The ad is in an article about Michele Bachmann's Tea Party Caucus, but I clicked on other stories and it appears there as well, so there's no apparent tie between the ad and the content of the articles. Instead it looks like a campaign to bring the human spaceflight program to the attention of Capitol Hill, but to what end?

It's a shame to waste an opportunity to effectively engage Congress and the Washington political establishment about the future of the human spaceflight program. With all due respect to Boeing, this ad seems to contribute to the confusion.

UPDATE: Events of Interest: Week of August 8-12, 2011

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

UPDATE: The Smallsat Conference has been added.

With Congress out of town until after Labor Day and most other people on vacation, there are only a couple of events of interest in the coming week. For more information, check our calendar on the right menu or click the links below.

Congress is not officially in recess. The House and Senate are meeting in pro forma session, but no legislative business can take place without unanimous consent so none is expected in the coming weeks. The members are back in their States and districts hearing directly from constituents about how they think things are going in Washington. This is where elected representatives learn what is important to their electorates, so if you have an issue you think is important, you might want to take advantage of the opportunity to meet with them.

Monday, August 8

Monday-Thursday, August 8-11

Thursday, August 11

  • NASA's 2011 Future Forum, University of Maryland Samuel Riggs IV Alumni Center, College Park, MD, 8:00 am - 4:00 pm EDT
  • FAA Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) teleconference, 1:00 pm EDT

Events of Interest


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