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Export Control Reform Update on Thursday

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

The chair of the White House's Export Control Task Force, Brian Nilsson, will provide an update on President Obama's plans and strategy on Thursday morning. Joining him will be Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), a leading figure on Capitol Hill with regard to export controls and the space program.

The discussion is being held in conjunction with a meeting of the FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) and is sponsored by the National Capital Section of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). Remy Nathan, Vice President for International Affairs at the Aerospace Industries Association, is the third member of the panel.

The panel will begin at 8:30 am on Thursday, October 13, at the National Housing Center, 1201 15th Street, NW, Washington, DC. It is free and open to the public, but will not be streamed or webcast.

UPDATE: Events of Interest: Week of October 10-14, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: The Marshall Institute et al event on Wednesday has been added and the dates for the University of Nebraska meetings clarified (Wed-Thurs, not Thurs-Fri).

The following events may be of interest in the coming week. For more information, check our calendar on the right menu or click the links below.

The House and Senate are in session this week, except for Monday, which is a federal holiday -- Happy Columbus Day!

Wednesday, October 12

Wednesday-Thursday, October 12-13

Thursday, October 13

Thursday-Friday, October 13-14

LightSquared Faces More Congressional Scrutiny

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

The controversy over LightSquared is far from over. Another congressional hearing is scheduled for next week about that company's plans to implement a mobile broadband system that critics assert will interfere with reception of GPS signals. At the same time, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee continues to demand reports from certain federal agencies about the impact of LightSquared on their operations.

Next week's hearing is by the House Small Business Committee. It will feature witnesses representing the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the Agriculture Retailers Association, and the Aircraft Electronics Association.

LightSquared is facing opponents from many quarters because it is using spectrum that is next to that used for signals from the Global Positioning System (GPS) of navigation satellites. The GPS system is owned and operated by the Department of Defense (DOD), but GPS receivers are ubiquitous throughout American (and global) society. Not only is GPS embedded in many smartphones and installed in automobiles and aircraft, but it is the foundation of precision agriculture and myriad other applications.

The frequency bands assigned to LightSquared originally were intended for satellites -- and LightSquared's system does include a satellite, SkyTerra -- but the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) permitted the addition of an Ancillary Terrestrial Component (ATC). That means LightSquared also can use terrestrial cell towers for its system, and plans to build about 4,000 of them nationwide. It is the terrestrial component that is causing distress.

LightSquared argues that it has been developing this system for many years and, in response to concerns raised throughout that process, has ensured that its transmissions will not interfere with GPS. At a House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing in September, a LightSquared official asked rhetorically why these new concerns are being raised only now. The company asserts that it is the GPS receiver manufacturers who have not properly designed their receivers who are at fault, not LightSquared.

Although the debate does have a technical component, it increasingly is drifting into the political realm. Philip Falcone, a major financial backer of LightSquared, charged in a September 19 interview with Fox News that competitors were fueling the controversy now that it appears that LightSquared will succeed.

The involvement of President Barack Obama in LightSquared has become the most recent lightning rod in the debate. According to the Fox News segment, in 2005-2006, Mr. Obama invested "up to $90,000" in the company that is now known as LightSquared. Falcone said in the interview that Obama sold his shares later, but did not indicate when. LightSquared critics allege that the Obama Administration is giving favorable treatment to LightSquared. Raising the stakes, Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH), chairman of the Strategic Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, asserted that Gen. William Shelton told subcommittee members in private that the White House tried to force him to change his September 15 testimony to the subcommittee to make it more favorable towards LightSquared. Shelton is commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command.

Rep. Turner has called for an investigation. In addition, following its own hearing into the matter, Republican members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee wrote a letter to two White House offices requesting documents related to the impact of LightSquared on the science activities of various federal agencies. Yesterday, the committee issued another press release criticizing some agencies for not providing that information to the committee. It also released information that other agencies did provide.

UPDATE: Nobel Prize and ESA Announcement Could Help JWST

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

UPDATE: A clarification was made to this article; see editor's note at the end.

Advocates of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) got more good news yesterday. First the Nobel Prize committee awarded this year's prize for physics to three American scientists who discovered dark energy, with the Hubble Space Telescope as one of their research instruments. Then the European Space Agency (ESA) announced that it will launch a spacecraft dedicated to dark energy research in 2019.

NASA's JWST is often described as the follow-on to the Hubble Space Telescope. If that's what Hubble can do, some say, just think of the science that will be done with JWST. The Baltimore Sun ran an editorial with exactly that message almost immediately after the announcement of the Nobel Prize winners. Baltimore is home to the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) at Johns Hopkins University, which operates Hubble and is slated to serve the same role for JWST. One of the three winners, Adam Reiss, is an astronomer there. The others are Saul Perlmutter of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in California and Brian Schmidt of the Australian National University in Australia.

Dark energy is called "dark" because scientists do not know what it is. The three Nobelists discovered that the universe is expanding at a rate faster than cosmologists previously theorized. Whatever force is accelerating the expansion of the universe is thought to be some kind of energy that cannot currently be observed, hence the term "dark energy."

The JWST program is very controversial because of sizable cost overruns. The House Appropriations Committee, in fact, voted to terminate the program when it marked up the Commerce-Justice-Science bill in July. The House has not yet voted on the measure.

By contrast, in September the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended more money ($530 million) for JWST in FY2012 than requested by the President ($374 million) so that the telescope can be launched in 2018 instead of slipping into the 2020s. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) chairs the Senate subcommittee that made the recommendation. A Baltimore native, she is an ardent advocate of STScI and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, which manages the JWST program. The Senate has not yet voted on its bill either, so the debate on JWST's future continues.

National pride in winning Nobel prizes can be a strong motivation for funding scientific research. ESA's announcement yesterday that it selected a dedicated dark energy mission, Euclid, as one of its next two science missions may fuel support for U.S. dark energy research and thus for JWST. Americans discovered that dark energy exists; will Americans unravel its mysteries?

Euclid's launch is planned for 2019. U.S. efforts to build a dedicated dark energy space mission have not materialized. NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE) were set to collaborate on a Joint Dark Energy Mission (JDEM) several years ago, but budgetary challenges and interagency disputes delayed approval until it was time for the National Research Council (NRC) to perform its once-a-decade task of prioritizing ground- and space-based astronomy and astrophysics missions. JDEM was thrown into the basket of missions the NRC committee was expected to prioritize. In the end, it chose a multi-purpose Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) as its top space priority, with dark energy as one, but only one, focus. Like JDEM, it would be a joint NASA-DOE mission.

Ironically, WFIRST's fate is being deeply affected by JWST's cost overruns. With only so much money to go around, choices must be made on what to fund. Priorities are set by the NRC studies, but JWST was the top priority of the previous Decadal Survey in 2001. It does not lose its place in astrophysics priorities even though it still has not been built or launched 10 years later. Whether it survives or not at this juncture is chiefly a budget question.

JWST advocates are making a full court press to rescue the program. STScI hosted a webinar on September 21 with scientists and NASA officials explaining the merits of the telescope. Among them was another Nobelist, John Mather, who shared the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics for mapping the cosmic microwave background. Mather, the first NASA employee to win a Nobel Prize, is JWST's senior project scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center. He won the prize for work he did with George Smoot using a much smaller and less costly NASA satellite, the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE).

The lineage of cosmological discoveries from COBE to Hubble is widely expected to extend to JWST. JWST is currently expected to cost $8.7 billion, a sharp increase from last year when a special independent review found pervasive management problems that NASA insists have since been rectified. That review, demanded by Senator Mikulski, concluded that the cost would be $6.5 billion, with launch in 2015. The higher $8.7 billion figure resulted from a more detailed internal review by NASA that acknowledged that the level of funding needed to meet a 2015 launch date would not be forthcoming and the date would slip another three years, increasing the costs further.

Although Mikulski's appropriations subcommittee recommended more money for JWST in FY2012, it reduced NASA's overall budget from a request of $18.7 billion to $17.9 billion. The source of the extra $156 million for JWST is of great concern to scientists in other disciplines.

The concern is understandable. NASA has not told Congress how it would pay for the Senate committee's recommended increase, much to the consternation of Mikulski's House counterpart, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), who wrote a sharply worded letter to the Office of Management and Budget last week asking for that information. At the webinar, however, JWST Program Director Rick Howard said that half would come from other activities in the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) and half from NASA's institutional account (which pays for civil service salaries and infrastructure, for example).

SMD funds research in astrophysics, planetary science, heliophysics (solar and space physics) and earth science. Howard said that none of the funds would come from earth science, leaving other astrophysics projects like WFIRST, planetary science and heliophysics as the only choices. The increase in FY2012 is just the beginning. To maintain a 2018 launch date, NASA will need an additional $1.067 billion in FY2013-2016 for JWST. The agency has not released its plans for absorbing that increase.

That is why the attention being focused on dark energy and space-based astrophysics is such good news for JWST. Although dark energy is not JWST's primary focus, it is on the list of "JWST science efficiencies" identified by Mather during the webinar. And with Europe moving forward on its Euclid mission, a race to be first to explain dark energy and win a future Nobel Prize may be just the ticket to convince Congress that U.S. scientists should be in the forefront of this groundbreaking science and JWST is the necessary next step. What price will be paid in lost opportunities elsewhere at NASA, and how NASA can better manage its projects to avoid such overruns, are certain to be controversial questions, however.

Editor's note: This article was modified to clarify that choices and decisions on what NASA astrophysics programs to fund are made by many players, not just the astrophysics division. They involve input from the science community, various levels within the agency, at the White House and in Congress.

Texas Legislator Calls for Investigation of "Politicization" of NASA

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

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) today called for a NASA Inspector General (IG) investigation of the politicization of NASA.

Rep. Smith is vice chair of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. In his letter to NASA Inspector General Paul Martin, Rep. Smith cited two studies that he said were done for NASA Administrator Bolden by 4-D Systems and McKinsey. The studies were about "NASA's management, morale, and trust in its organizational leadership," according to Rep. Smith.

Saying that NASA had refused to provide the specific inputs to the studies from NASA's senior career civil servants, Rep. Smith stated that two themes that emerged from the studies were that "Politicos focus on Democratic goals, not national goals," and "Little trust (3x) from above or discussion on major Agency issues. Two groups, political and career that communicate to themselves."

Arguing that technical agencies like NASA "need to work freely of political ideology to the greatest extent practical," Rep. Smith called on the IG to investigate if there have been "improper decisions or steer agency funding and contracts, circumvent the civil service hiring process, or fraud, waste, abuse or other mismanagement of agency resources to benefit 'Democratic political goals.'"

NASA is, of course, part of the Executive Branch of government and reports to the President. The President appoints (with the advice and consent of the Senate) the Administrator and Deputy Administrator of the agency, along with many other officials who do not require Senate confirmation. The National Aeronautics and Space Act states that the Administrator shall work "[u]nder the supervision and direction of the President..."

UPDATE: House Committee to Hold Hearing on Effects of the Soyuz Launch Failure on ISS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: Adm. Joe Dyer (Ret.), chairman of NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, has been added as a witness.

The Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee has scheduled a hearing for next week on lessons learned from Russia's Soyuz launch failure in August and its impact on operations of the International Space Station (ISS).

The hearing will be on October 12, 2011 at 2:00 pm in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building. Three witnesses have been announced so far and more may be added later. NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier, Lt. Gen. Tom Stafford (Ret.), and Adm. Joe Dyer (Ret.) are confirmed. Stafford chairs the NASA Advisory Council Task Force on ISS Operational Readiness. Dyer chairs NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel.

The Soyuz launch failure on August 24 doomed a Russian Progress spacecraft that was intended to take cargo to the ISS. Because the rocket is similar to that used to launch crews to the ISS, Russia delayed future crew launches until the rocket could be recertified for human space travel. Russia's plan is to launch two Soyuz rockets with robotic spacecraft to demonstrate that the rocket is functioning correctly. The first of those successfully launched a Russian navigation satellite on Sunday. The second is scheduled for October 30 with another Progress spacecraft. If that is successful, a launch with three ISS crewmembers is scheduled for November 14.

The launch failure highlighted U.S. dependence on Russia for operations of the ISS. Now that the space shuttle program is terminated, the Soyuz rocket with its Soyuz crew spacecraft is the only way to transport crews to and from the ISS. The Soyuz spacecraft also is used as a lifeboat for the ISS crews, so that even if the shuttle were still operating, crews would only be able to remain aboard the ISS for as long as the shuttle was docked (about two weeks).

NPP Launch Slips Two Days

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Launch of NASA's NPP earth observing satellite has slipped to October 27 from October 25.

NASA's Expendable Launch Vehicle report cites two issues with the Delta 2 rocket as the reason for the delay. A "small crack in a hydraulic tube" caused a leak that has already been repaired and retested. A "flexible fabric collar" also had to be replaced that connects two engine exhaust ducts. That work is underway.

NPP was designed to test new technologies for the since-cancelled National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). Its official name is the NPOESS Preparatory Project, but that has been overtaken by events. With the dissolution of the NPOESS project, NPP now will have to serve as an operational weather satellite in NOAA's polar-orbiting constellation. NOAA's next polar-orbiting satellite, the first of the new Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), is not expected to be launched until 2016 or 2017. NOAA has repeatedly warned Congress of a potential gap in polar-orbiting weather satellite coverage if sufficient funds are not provide for the JPSS program. The last of NOAA's legacy polar-orbiting satellites, NOAA-19, was launched in 2009.

Government Funding Through Mid-November OKayed by House

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

Today the House passed the Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government through November 18.

The measure passed the Senate last week and now is ready for signature by President Obama. The House was only in pro forma session last week and able to pass a CR just for four days (October 1-4). The House resumed regular business this week and passed the CR with little fanfare by a bipartisan vote of 352-66. Government agencies like NASA. NOAA and DOD are funded at 1.5 percent less than their FY2011 levels.

GLONASS Constellation Complete Again After 15 Years

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

Yesterday's successful Soyuz rocket launch was not only a return-to-flight mission for the launch vehicle, but also fulfilled Russia's goal of restoring its GLONASS navigation satellite system to full operations.

Bob Christy (@Zarya_Info) of the website tweeted today: "GLONASS - the constellation is complete, it was last in this state 15 years ago."

GLONASS is Russia's equivalent of the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) and requires a constellation of 24 satellites to provide three-dimensional (latitude, longitude, altitude) global coverage. Over the past decade and a half the number of operational satellites dipped to only about half that many. Restoring the system to full, global coverage became a priority for Russian President Dimitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. In 2008, Putin signed an executive order adding $2.6 billion to the GLONASS budget to increase the number of satellites from the 16 operational at that time to 30 by 2011.

They hoped to have 24 operational satellites by the end of 2010, but those plans were spoiled by the failure of a Proton launch vehicle carrying three GLONASS satellites last December. That failure was cited as one of the reasons that Russian space agency head Anatoly Perminov lost his job a few months later. Other Russian space officials also reportedly were sacked.

Soyuz Rocket Returns to Flight

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

Russia resumed launches of its Soyuz rocket today.

A Soyuz-2 rocket boosted a GLONASS-M navigation satellite into orbit at 20:15 GMT (16:15 EDT) today from Russia's Plesetsk launch site. Everything seems to have gone well according to a report on Ria Novosti. The launch had been scheduled for yesterday (October 1), but was postponed because of bad weather.

There are several versions of the Soyuz rocket. The Soyuz-2 used today is similar, but not identical, to the one that failed in August when launching a Progress cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS). Today's launch is one of two that the Russians are using to recertify the rocket for launching crews to the ISS. Next is another Progress launch later this month on a Soyuz U. If that goes well, Russia plans to launch the next three ISS crewmembers on November 14 on the Soyuz FG version that is used for such missions.

Events of Interest

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

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