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End of Space Shuttle Program Commentary

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

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AIAA Commercial Space Forum on the Hill at Lunchtime Today

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

AIAA is sponsoring a meeting at lunchtime today from noon-1:30 in 2325 Rayburn House Office Building.

The "AIAA Defining Commercial Space Forum" includes speakers from Orbital Sciences Corp., NASA, FAA, Sierra Nevada, Boeing, and the United Launch Alliance.

STS-135 Set to Land Early Thursday Morning

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

As the nation celebrates the anniversary of the United States winning the race to the Moon against the Soviet Union 42 years ago today, NASA is preparing for the end of the space shuttle program early tomorrow morning and reliance on Russia to take Americans into space for an indefinite number of years.

The final space shuttle mission, STS-135, undocked from the International Space Station (ISS) yesterday and after a final inspection of the heat protecting tiles on its belly using Canada's robotic arm, is preparing to land at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) tomorrow morning. A small satellite, PicoSat, was deployed from the shuttle's cargo bay yesterday as well. The 8-pound satellite will relay data about the performance of its solar cells.

The first landing opportunity at KSC calls for the deorbit burn at 4:49:04 am EDT and landing at 5:56:58 am. The second opportunity has the deorbit burn at 6:25:44 am and landing at 7:32:55 am. Whichever time landing occurs will mark the end of the space shuttle program. The United States does not have a replacement for the shuttle. Under the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, NASA is subsidizing two commercial companies to develop systems to take crews to the ISS as well as developing its own crew transportation system to serve as a backup to the commercial companies and to take astronauts further out into space. The schedules for those development programs are contingent on many factors, particularly available government funding in these austere economic times. When either will be ready is unclear. Until then, NASA will pay Russia to take astronauts to and from ISS.

Forty two years ago, the United States and the Soviet Union were racing to see who could first send astronauts to the Moon. The United States won that race when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the lunar surface with Mike Collins orbiting overhead on July 20, 1969. Five more U.S. crews landed on the Moon before the Apollo lunar program ended in 1972.

The Soviets abandoned their human lunar landing program and focused on building space stations in Earth orbit, operating seven of them between 1971 and 2001 (Salyut 1, Salyut 3-7, and Mir). In 1975, the first joint U.S.-Soviet space mission took place -- the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. The United States spent the 1970s developing the space shuttle and, beginning in the 1980s, an international space station with Europe, Canada and Japan. In 1993, Russia joined the U.S.-led space station partnership, creating the ISS program. Now, Russia alone has the capability to send astronauts to the ISS (China has launched people into space three times, but is not part of the ISS partnership).

NOAA Weather Satellites Show Just How Hot It is, But Future of Weather Satellites is Murky

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

It is really hot here in Washington, DC today and it's going to get hotter, but other parts of the country are much worse off. NOAA today released an animation based on satellite data of the extent of the heat wave blasting the United States.

A lot of attention has been focused on the deadly tornadoes and floods that have brutalized parts of the United States this year, but NOAA quotes Eli Jacks of the National Weather Service as saying that "Heat kills hundreds of Americans each year -- more than tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, lightning or any other weather event combined."

As the animation shows, the midwest is suffering the most. Jacks added that forecasts using environmental satellite data "give us the ability to warn the public as early as possible, so people can prepare and stay safe."

Yesterday, the New York Times profiled Glenn Burns, an Atlanta meteorologist, as exemplifying weather forecasters who have gained almost hero status as their ability to predict severe weather events has improved dramatically. Some of those systems, like Doppler radar, are ground-based, but space-based systems also are crucial.

The data for NOAA's animated map came from both sets of NOAA weather satellites: Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) and Polar-Orbiting Environmental Satellites (POES). NOAA is struggling to get Congress to fund new satellites for those systems. The House Appropriations Committee cut $168 million from NOAA's FY2012 request for the new polar-orbiting satellites -- the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) -- and $50 million from the GOES request.

Weather forecasts rely on data from NOAA's geostationary system and a set of three satellites in polar orbit: NOAA's POES, the Department of Defense's (DOD's) Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP), and the European EUMETSAT organization's Metop series. NOAA has launched all of its POES satellites and is anxiously awaiting the first in the JPSS series although FY2011 budget cuts have delayed that program. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco has repeatedly warned Congress that an 18-month gap in NOAA polar weather satellite may result, but that did not persuade House appropriators to approve all of the $1.07 billion she requested for JPSS for FY2012. The House also cut funding for DOD's DMSP replacement program, the Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS), by just about half, approving $225 million of the $445 million request. That is troublesome, but DOD at least has two more DMSP satellites awaiting launch to tide them over until the new satellites are ready.

Europe is having its own woes. Space News reported on July 1 that four of EUMETSAT's 26 member countries blocked approval of its new polar-orbiting system, EPS-SG. EUMETSAT's last Metop satellite is expected to be launched in 2016, but Europe's complicated approval process, which involves two multinational organizations -- EUMETSAT and the European Space Agency (ESA) -- means that decisions take years to accomplish.

NOAA is in the most precarious position, with no polar satellites "in the barn" awaiting launch. It will have to depend on a NASA satellite scheduled for launch later this year, NPP, that was not designed for operational use to supplement the POES satellites already in orbit. When they cease functioning, forecasts will be based on less data and could lose significant accuracy. NOAA Deputy Administrator Kathy Sullivan told a Women in Aerospace (WIA) conference in June that the February 2010 blizzard that hit the East Coast -- "Snowmageddon" -- would have been underforecast by 10 inches without the NOAA polar orbit satellite data. The impacts would have included stranded aircraft and airline passengers, stymied ground commerce, and a population "unprepared for paralyzing snow depth," she said.

Tara Rothschild, a staffer for the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, told the WIA conference that Congress understands the need for weather satellites, but many Members simply do not believe NOAA's contention that there will be a data gap, and in any event, it would not be for many years. Everyone on Capitol Hill is focused on today, she said, not something that will happen in 2016 or later.

GAO: Defense Space Science & Technology Strategy Needs to Be Robust

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) wants the space science and technology strategy developed by the Department of Defense (DOD) and Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to be more robust.

In the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act, building on existing staututory requirements, Congress required DOD and the DNI to prepare a space science and technology (S&T) strategy every two years to address their goals and how to achieve them. It also required GAO to review those strategies.

GAO found that the first of these documents, submitted to Congress in April 2011, met the statutory requirements, but did not "address fundamental challenges facing the space S&T community." It also noted that the strategy was due at the time the President's FY2012 budget request was delivered to Congress, February 14, 2011, so the strategy was late. By law, GAO is required to provide its assessment to Congress within 90 days of when the strategy is submitted.

GAO made three recommendations in order to enhance the next version of the strategy. They are that the Secretary of Defense and the DNI --

  • develop a specific implementation plan providing a detailed process for achieving the strategy's goals;
  • include information on required human capital, required funding, prioritization, ways to measure progress against goals, and process(es) for revising goals to address the challenges in space S&T; and
  • enhance coordination between the DOD space S&T community, the intelligence S&T community, NASA, and NOAA so the space S&T area can be examined strategically.

In its response to GAO, printed as an appendix to the report, DOD concurred with the recommendations.

Fourth Moon Discovered in the Pluto System

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The hue and cry over demoting Pluto from the status of a planet to a "dwarf planet" has not subsided, but today NASA announced that "the Pluto system" is growing. Based on observations from the Hubble Space Telescope, a fourth moon has been discovered.

Pluto's first moon, Charon, was identified in 1978 by the U.S. Naval Observatory. Using the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers now have found three more: Nix and Hydra in 2005, and this new one that is temporarily designated P4.

P4 is very small, with a diameter of just 8-21 miles. Charon is 648 miles is diameter, while Nix and Hydra are in the range of 20-70 miles.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will reach the Pluto system in 2015 to provide more detailed data about the dwarf planet and its moons. NASA quoted New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern as calling the new finding "a fantastic discovery."

The International Astronomical Union created the term "dwarf planet" in 2006 and moved Pluto and the asteroids Eris and Ceres into that class of objects.

AAS Warns Against Cuts to S&T Investments, Especially Space

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

The American Astronautical Society (AAS) released a statement today warning that cutbacks in science and technology (S&T) investments, including the space program, could undermine U.S. economic growth and jobs.

"The nation's economic future depends on U.S. leadership in high-tech investments," said Jim Kirkpatrick, AAS Executive Director.

The Society pointed to space program cuts that have been approved by the House Appropriations Committee and in some cases by the full House. They include cuts at the Department of Defense, NASA, NOAA, the Department of Energy, and the U.S. Geological Survey in the Department of the Interior.

The AAS complimented the House Appropriations Committee on the pace at which it is moving through the FY2012 appropriations bills, and acknowledged that the deficit must be reduced. "But we must not jeopardize our future by dramatic cuts to the central core of our nation's economic development -- investments in science and technology, particularly those associated wtih the space program," it said.


Editor's note: In the interest of full disclosure, I am the Vice President-Public Policy of AAS and was part of the team that developed this policy statement.

NASA Repurposes Two Spacecraft for Lunar Research

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA is getting extra bang for its buck these days by relocating existing spacecraft and using them for additional research above and beyond their primary missions.

ARTEMIS has joined the ranks of Stardust-NExT and EPOXI as recent examples of "repurposed" spacecraft. Launched in 2007, the two ARTEMIS probes are now in orbit around the Moon after completing their research to study the Sun's interaction with Earth's magnetic field.

The two were originally part of a set of five spacecraft in the Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms (THEMIS) program. The other three THEMIS spacecraft are continuing their solar-terrestrial physics studies.

These two -- renamed Acceleration, Reconnection, Turbulence and Electrodynaimcs of the Moon's Interaction with the Sun (ARTEMIS) -- were moved from their previous locations at Lagrange points to lunar orbit through a complex set of orbital maneuvers. The first reached lunar orbit on June 27 and the second on July 17. Their orbits will take them within 60 miles of the lunar surface where they will collect data about the Moon's core, surface composition, and magnetic properties. The probes are expected to return data from their new locations for seven to 10 years.

UPDATE: Final Shuttle Mission Readies to Undock from ISS

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

UPDATE: NASA has refined the landing time to 5:56 am EDT on Thursday, which is reflected below.

STS-135 (Atlantis), the final space shuttle mission, closed the hatches with the International Space Station (ISS) today as it readies to return home.

The hatches were closed at 10:28 am EDT. The shuttle crew went to sleep at 1:59 pm EDT this afternoon to get ready for an early morning undocking tomorrow, Tuesday, July 19, at 2:28 am EDT.

Landing is currently scheduled for 5:56 am EDT at Kennedy Space Center on Thursday.

Rep. Lamar Smith Calls for Better Space Program

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), vice-chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, is calling for a "better space program."

In an op-ed in today's Space News, Rep. Smith says that "America deserves to be inspired by the heavens again." As others in Congress have done, he criticized the Obama Administration for not complying with the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.

Events of Interest


 

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