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House Passes Defense Authorization

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

The House passed the FY2012 National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 1540) this afternoon by a vote of 322-96.

As reported (H. Rept. 112-72) from the House Armed Services Commtitee (HASC) the bill authorizes $660 billion in FY2012 for the Department of Defense (DOD) and national security activities of the Department of Energy (DOE). The $660 billion comprises $553 billion for DOD's base budget, $119 billion for overseas contingency operations, and $18 billion for DOE.

What happens next is anyone's guess. The Hill newspaper reported on May 15 that defense experts consider the bill an "illusion" and "there is littlle chance any other military spending bill will approach the size" of the HASC plan.

Commercial Cargo Will Cost More Than Shuttle-Delivered Cargo Says Congressional Document

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Data contained in the charter for today's House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee hearing on commercial cargo show that on a cost per pound basis, commercial cargo will cost more than cargo delivered to the International Space Station (ISS) by either the U.S. space shuttle or Russia's Progress automated cargo spacecraft. The hearing is set to begin at 10:00 am this morning.

The hearing charter, prepared by committee staff, contains a table showing that the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) NASA is purchasing from SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. will cost $26,700 per pound to ISS. By comparison, the cost for launch on the shuttle is $21,268 and on Russia's Progress is $18,149. The table explains the assumptions that went into those calculations, including the fact that they do not include development costs, are considered proprietary information by the companies, and the shuttle costs assume four flights per year with a capability to deliver 16 metric tons to the ISS at a total annual program cost of $3 billion. The document notes further that the costs for CRS would be higher if they were calculated the same way the shuttle costs were derived, by dividing the total CRS program cost by the mass delivered to the ISS. That cost would be $39,700 per pound.

Other figures in the charter show that NASA will have spent $1.254 billion on commercial cargo by the end of FY2011 and its budget projections call for spending just over $5 billion for CRS between FY2011 and FY2016.

Committee staff also point out in the document that NASA was not supposed to sign contracts for any CRS until the companies had demonstrated their commercially-developed capabilities, but NASA has signed such contracts anyway and is using them to make progress payments to the companies. That means NASA "assumed significantly more risk for ensuring the success of the cargo providers," according to the document.

One question raised in the document is what the path of the commercial cargo program portends for commercial crew. Committee and subcommittee members have expressed deep skepticism about whether the commercial sector is ready to provide crew transportation services to ISS ever since President Obama proposed shifting that responsibility from NASA to the commercial sector last year. Committee staff state in the charter that:

"By purchasing CRS years before the COTS systems had been demonstrated, NASA assumed significantly more risk for ensuring the success of the cargo providers. NASA has indicated that they are 'too important to fail.' This concept has important policy and budgetary implications for future commercialization proposals such as the Administration's proposed commercial crew efforts. Administrator Bolden has repeatedly told Congress that NASA would do 'whatever it takes' to make these ventures succeed. According to briefings provided to Committee staff, 'NASA is depending on our commercial cargo partners. We need their COTS development efforts to succeed so that they can begin providing cargo resupply to the International Space Station...' Legitimate questions have been raised about this approach since it differs from what was originally intended to be a merit-based and market-based competition."

The hearing is in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building. Witnesses are NASA's Associate Administrator for Space Operations, Bill Gerstenmaier; GAO's Cristina Chaplain; SpaceX's President Gwynne Shotwell; and Orbital's Senior Vice President and Deputy General Manager (and former astronaut) Frank Culbertson.

UPDATE: NASA to Launch Asteroid Sample-Return Mission in 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: This article is updated with information from the media teleconference that was held this afternoon and adds a link to the press release. To hear a replay of the teleconference, call 800-756-2728.

NASA announced this afternoon that it will launch a sample-return mission to an asteroid in 2016 as the next in its New Frontiers series of planetary exploration spacecraft.

The mission's ungainly name is OSIRIS-ReX for Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer. In a press release, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said that the mission is a "critical step" in meeting President Obama's objective to "extend our reach beyond low-Earth orbit." Robotic missions will "pave the way for future human space missions," he added.

OSIRIS-ReX will take four years to reach its destination, a Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) designated 1999 RQ36. After mapping the surface of the 1,900 foot diameter asteroid to determine the best spot from which to extract samples, a robotic arm will reach out to collect two ounces of material. The sample will return to Earth in 2023 in a container similar to what was used for NASA's Stardust mission that returned samples of a comet. It will land at Utah's Test and Training Range and then be taken to NASA's Johnson Space Center near Houston, TX.

The mission is expected to cost $800 million, not including launch costs. During a media teleconference this afternoon, NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green said that he will not know the cost of the launch vehicle until closer to the launch date, but he anticipates that the total mission cost will be about $1 billion.

Michael Drake of the University of Arizona in Tucson is the principal investigator for the mission, which will be managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. The spacecraft will be built by Lockheed Martin.

During the media teleconference, Drake said that the arm that will collect the sample has been designed by Lockheed Martin and tested already. He said that 60 grams of material is the minimim amount of sample needed for scientific studies and in all the tests at least that amount was collected. The arm, which he described as similar to a pogo stick with an elbow, will "kiss the surface" of the asteroid and most of the sample will be collected in the first second; the entire sample collection period is just 5 seconds. Animation of the mission is available on NASA's website.

In response to questions about what was learned from the challenges encountered by Japan's Hayabusa spacecraft, Drake said that the primary lesson was that the Japanese did not allow enough time to study the asteroid once the spacecraft arrived to help ensure the sample collection succeeded. Hayabusa did return a very small amount of asteroid material, but not as much as anticipated. OSIRIS-ReX, by contrast, will spend almost a year at the asteroid and take a step-by-step approach to proximity operations. The spacecraft will repeatedly move near to the asteroid and back off. Once it is 30 meters from the surface, it will match the asteroid's rotation rate and "once we've got that right" the sample will be collected.

Drake and his team are interested in this carbon-rich type of asteriod -- as compared to the stony-type visited by Hayabusa -- because they hope it contains organic material from the time the solar system formed. In response to a question about how he will handle contamination issues, especially since the objective is to find and return organic material, Drake said that the sample return hardware will have "witness plates" so that if contamination occurs from spacecraft outgassing, for example, at least scientsts will know what it is. He called it contamination-knowledge as compared with contamination control. The witness plates will be stored with the samples at Johnson Space Center.

Senate Defeats House Budget Plan as Expected

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

The Senate defeated the House-passed FY2012 budget resolution this afternoon, as expected. According to the New York Times, the vote was 40-57, with five Republicans joining Democrats to reject the plan developed by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI).

The Ryan plan has been deeply criticized primarily because of the changes it would make to Medicare. Yesterday a Democrat won a congressional district in upstate New York usually held by Republicans. It was a special election to replace a Republican Congressman who resigned amid scandal. Many commentators credit the Democratic win as backlash against the proposed Medicare changes.

Senate Democrats recently decided not to put forward their own budget proposal, but to use the House-passed version to put Republicans on record as supporting the Ryan plan or not. It is part of the political theater ongoing as Republicans and Democrats square off on how to reduce the deficit. According to the most recent reports, the two sides are about $1 trillion apart (reflecting spending over 10 years), with Republicans wanting to balance the budget by cutting government spending, and Democrats preferring to balance it by both cutting spending and raising taxes.

NASA to Announce New Planetary Science Mission This Afternoon

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA announced this morning that it will hold a media teleconference at 4:30 pm EDT today to "discuss the selection of a future science mission that will usher in a new era in planetary exploration."

Jim Green, Director of the Planetary Division of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, is the primary participant.

The event will be live streamed at

JFK Library Releases Tape of JFK-Webb Meeting in Sept. 1963

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library chose today, the 50th anniversary of JFK's speech to Congress that initiated the Apollo program, to finally release a 1963 tape of a meeting between the President and then NASA Administrator James Webb.

During the September 18, 1963 meeting, President Kennedy expresses reservations about the Apollo program, especially that if it was not linked to military purposes it would look like a "stunt." He also asks what part of it would be accomplished while he was President assuming he was reelected (his second term would have ended on January 2, 1969 if he had lived and been reelected). Administrator Webb tells him that the landing on the Moon would not be accomplished by then, though a fly by would be, but something very important to the nation would be achieved during Kennedy's presidency.

"But I will tell you what will be accomplished while we're President and it will be one of the most important things that's been done in this nation. A basic need to use technology for total national power. That's going to come out of the space program more than any single thing," says Webb.

Kennedy asks if the same thing could be accomplised less expensively using "instruments." Webb replies no, adding later: "And I predict you are not going to be sorry, no Sir, that you did this."

Farewell Spirit

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

NASA is giving up on trying to communicate with its Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Spirit. The beloved robot was last heard from on March 22, 2010.

Spirit is one of two MERs that landed on Mars in 2004. Its sister, Opportunity, continues to explore the Martian surface.

Spirit got stuck in a sand trap when one of its wheels stopped working and stranded it in a position where its solar panels could not be recharged from the Sun. Essentially it froze to death.

"With inadequate energy to run its survival heaters, the rover likely experienced colder internal temperatures last year than in any of its prior six years on Mars. Many critical components would have been susceptible to damage from the cold," NASA said in a press release.

The mission was designed to last three months on Mars and thus vastly exceeded its design lifetime.

Apollo Astronauts Lament Current State of Space Program

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan write in an op-ed in USA Today that President John F. Kennedy would be "sorely disappointed" if he knew the current state of the U.S. human spaceflight program. Today is the 50th anniversary of JFK's "moon speech" that launched the Apollo program.

Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the Moon; Cernan was the last. Lovell commanded the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission.

The three former astronauts argue that the entrepreneurial companies that are promising to build new crew space transportation systems may find that the systems cost much more and take longer to develop than they expect: "Entrepreneurs in the space transportation business assert that they can offer such service at a very attractive price - conveniently not factoring in the NASA-funded development costs. These expenditures, including funds to insure safety and reliability, can be expected to be substantially larger and more time consuming than the entrepreneurs predict."

"America's leadership in space is slipping," they warn, adding that "NASA's human spaceflight program is in substantial disarray with no clear-cut mission in the offing....After a half century of remarkable progress, a coherent plan for maintaining America's leadership in space exploration is no longer apparent."

Touchdown! The Three ISS Crew are Back on Earth

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

NASA TV has confirmed that touchdown has occurred and the three ISS crew members are back on Earth.

Three ISS Crew on Their Way Home

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Three members of the International Space Station (ISS) crew are on their way back home at this minute. Soyuz TMA-20 undocked from ISS and the deorbit burn was fired at 9:30 pm EDT. Landing in Kazakhstan is expected at 10:26 pm EDT.

The three returning astronauts are Russian Dmitry Kondratyev, American Cady Coleman, and Italian Paolo Nespoli.

Three other ISS crew members remain aboard the space station, and the space shuttle Endeavour remains docked there.

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