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Politicians Use Progress Failure to Tout Their Positions

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

The launch failure of Russia's Progress cargo ship destined for the International Space Station (ISS) provided fuel for politicians on both sides of the debate over the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program.

Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Richard Shelby (R-AL) used it to argue the criticality of the U.S. developing its own national capabilities to deliver cargo to the ISS. Both Senators champion NASA development of a new rocket, the Space Launch System, and crew module, the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. Although the main purpose of that system is taking astronauts beyond low Earth orbit, it would be a backup capability for supplying the ISS if commercial cargo and commercial crew systems do not materialize. The two Senators are skeptics of the commercial initiative and want NASA to develop a new system.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), on the other hand, is an enthusiastic promoter of commercial crew and cargo. He used the failure to call on NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden to "propose an emergency transfer of funding from unobligated balances in other programs, including the Space Launch System, to NASA's commercial crew initiative." Rohrabacher wants to accelerate and possibly expand the efforts of the companies working on commercial crew.

Russia is continuing to investigate yesterday's launch failure. Progress was launched by the usually reliable Soyuz rocket. That rocket is used for launches of many other Russian spacecraft -- including the crew-carrying Soyuz capsules -- but there are several versions of it. Russian space officials announced that a planned launch of a navigation satellite from its Plesetsk cosmodrome using a different variant of the rocket would be postponed until more is known about the failure.

Although there are not likely to be immediate impacts of the launch failure on ISS crew, which was recently resupplied by STS-135, it does highlight the operational risks of discontinuing the space shuttle program. Except for the 29 months that the space shuttle stood down after the 2003 Columbia tragedy, the ISS has been able to rely on a robust set of international spacecraft to bring crews and supplies.

Russian Progress Cargo Ship Fails to Reach Orbit

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

A routine launch of a Russian Progress spacecraft filled with cargo for the International Space Station ended in failure today.

The ITAR-TASS news agency reports that debris from the spacecraft fell in the Republic of Altai in southern Siberia. The cause of the incident is unknown at this time.

SLS Independent Cost Assessment Summary on NASAWatch

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

NASAWatch has posted the executive summary of the independent cost assessment for the Space Launch System (SLS).

The assessment was performed by Booz Allen. On Friday, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison called on NASA to release the study immediately, but it has not officially been made public. The NASAWatch posting obviously is not an official release, but an effort by someone "in the know" to get the word out. The report begins its "Key Findings" section with this summary:

"In general, the estimates prepared by SLS, MPCV, and 21CGS are consistent with Analysis of Alternative (AoA) level estimates and are reasonable point estimates for budget planning in the near-term 3-5 year budget horizon. They are serviceable in that they represent the basis to build upon for future life-cycle cost estimates of the quality required for long-term budget formulation and the development of program baselines. None of the estimates reviewed by the ICA Team support establishment of long-term budgets or detailed baselines consistent with NPR 7120.5 requirements. They are, however, reasonable AoA estimates appropriate for supporting trade studies and comparative analyses. All three Program estimates assume large, unsubstantiated, future cost efficiencies leading to the impression that they are optimistic. A scenario-based risk assessment, which excludes cost estimating uncertainty and unknown-unknown risks (historically major sources of cost and schedule growth), reveals all three Programs' reserves are insufficient."

Acronym check: SLS = Space Launch System, MPCV = Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion), 21CGS = 21st Century Ground System, ICA = Independent Cost Assessment (the Booz Allen team that did the study).

GRAIL Getting Ready

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

NASA's next lunar mission, GRAIL, is getting ready to launch.

The Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) twin spacecraft are scheduled for launch on September 8 aboard a Delta II from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.

The two spacecraft will orbit the Moon to study its interior structure and map the Moon's gravity field. NASA will hold a prelaunch press conference on September 6 at 1:00 pm EDT that will be carried live on NASA TV.

Launch is scheduled for September 8 at 8:37 am EDT. A second launch window is at 9:16 am EDT. Other launch times are possible through October 19 if necessary.

AWST Says JWST Cost Now $8.7 Billlion

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

Aviation Week and Space Technology (AWST) is reporting that the cost of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is now expected to be $8.7 billion.

The magazine says that a NASA spokesman asserts that the cost includes development, launch and science costs and is an increase of $3.6 billion over NASA's most recent cost estimate.

JWST is often described as the successor to the popular Hubble Space Telescope, although it operates in a different spectral band (infrared, rather than visible) and will be in a very different orbit -- at the L2 Lagrange point, not in Earth orbit where it could be serviced by astronauts.

Events of Interest: Week of August 22-26, 2011

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

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.

Monday, August 22

Monday-Wednesday, August 22-24

Wednesday, August 24

  • Women in Aerospace (WIA) Decades of Storytelling: A Women's Equality Day Panel Discussion, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD, 10:00 am - 1:00 pm EDT

Thursday-Friday, August 25-26

Comprehensive NEO Survey Needed

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

NASA should make a comprehensive survey of Near Earth Objects (NEOs) a priority according to a report from the "Target NEO" workshop held last February.

The workshop was held on February 22, 2011 at George Washington University (GWU) under the sponsorship of GWU's Space Policy Institute and Ball Aerospace. The stated purpose was to look at what is involved in meeting President Obama's goal of sending humans to an asteroid in 2025 as the next step in human space exploration. One of the challenges is knowing what asteroids will be in the right position as the target for a human mission in that time frame.

A summary of the workshop was recently released. The bottom line is that scientists know of very few worthy candidates proably because they are limited to seeing only a small portion of the sky and thus a small portion of the total asteroid population. What is needed, they argue, is a space-based telescope located perhaps at a Lagrange point or in a Venus-like orbit that can see the entire sky and discover additional NEO targets.

"The paucity of viable candidate destination NEOs can be attributed to the fact that NEO observing assets are currently confined to Earth's vicinity," according to the report. A number of concepts already exist on how to accomplish a space-based NEO survey, and the first necessary step is "intercomparisons of capabilities and costs using a common set of assumptions...." Discovery of more NEOs would be followed by other steps, but the report concludes that ground- and space-based assets could "greatly reduce unknowns about the NEO population within 10 years."

Sending humans to an asteroid requires overcoming many other challenges, which also were discussed at the workshop. International coordination is an important element in moving forward, the report asserts.

Sen. Hutchison Demands NASA Release SLS Cost Analysis

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) called on NASA to release the independent cost analysis of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) choice, which she says the agency was scheduled to receive today.

"I expect this independent assessment will confirm what myself and the NASA technical staff have known for many months -- that the SLS plan is financially and technically sound, and that NASA should move forward immediately," she said.

Hutchison is the top Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee and a key figure in passage of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that directed NASA to build a new heavy lift launch vehicle, called the SLS in the law. In her statement today, she said Commerce committee staff had been briefed by Booz Allen, which is performing the independent cost analysis, and NASA "has committed to deliver the report to Congress later today."

Expressing continued concern about the delay in initiating the SLS program, her statement includes a timeline from June 2010 to today that summarizes NASA's activities on the SLS and the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) crew capsule that it is intended to launch. The purpose is to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit. President Obama wants the first destination to be an asteroid by 2025, but the debate over the destination is ongoing.

OMB Tells Agencies To Reduce Funding Requests

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

The tough budget environment that lies ahead for agencies like NASA, NOAA and DOD that are part of the government's discretionary spending became clear in the annual budget guidance put out by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Wednesday.

OMB issues guidance to all the federal departments and agencies about this time each year as they prepare to submit their funding requests to OMB for review. The federal government's fiscal year (FY) is from October 1 - September 30. FY2011 is coming to a close and Congress is debating the request for FY2012. The President's budget request for FY2013 should be submitted to Congress on the first Monday of February 2012.

Between now and then, the departments and agencies must submit and defend their budget requests through the OMB, which determines how much will be contained in the President's request to Congress. High level issues that cannot be resolved at the OMB level are sent to the President. Typically, agencies submit their budget requests to OMB in late August or early September, OMB replies by issuing its "pass back" around Thanksgiving, and the two negotiate over the final numbers between then and when the budget goes to Congress.

Telling agencies to submit requests that are less than what they previously expected is also fairly standard procedure in recent years unless they are given an exemption. Typically they are told to request five percent less than a certain amount and to also show what the impact would be of a 10 percent cut. That is true this year as well. The key is what base year is used.

Last year, the OMB guidance for FY2012 budget requests was to cut five percent from what OMB projected for FY2012 in the FY2011 request. In NASA's case, for example, in the FY2011 budget request OMB projected $19.45 billion for NASA, so the OMB guidance required the agency to submit a request five percent less than that. Whatever NASA requested is not public, but the end result was a President's request to Congress of $18.72 billion, the same as what the agency received in FY2010 and an increase of $27 million above what Congress provided for FY2011 ($18.45 billion)

This year's guidance, however, tells agencies to submit requests that are five percent less than what they received for FY2011. For NASA, that means five percent less than $18.45 billion, or $17.52 billion. In its FY2012 request, the agency assumed a level budget of $18.72 billion per year for the next five years. Agencies must also show the impact of a 10 percent cut from the FY2011 enacted level, which in NASA's case would be $16.6 billion.

The OMB guidance is just that, guidance, and the beginning not the end of the negotiating process within the administration for what will be included in the President's FY2013 budget request to Congress. It is indicative, however, of the extremely constrained budgetary environment that all discretionary agencies are facing as Congress and the Administration strive to reduce the deficit. Knowing at least in general terms how much money will be available in future years is especially important for agencies like NASA, NOAA and DOD that are involved in projects that take many years to execute like building and launching satellites.

NASA Invites Nominations for Advisory Committees

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

NASA is inviting members of the public to nominate themselves or others to serve on one of NASA's federal advisory committees.

The Federal Register notice sets a deadline of September 20, 2011 for submitting nominations to fill "intermittent vacancies" that occur throughout the year. NASA selects people based on their expertise, knowledge and contribution to the relevant subject area. Procedures for nominating yourself or someone else are in the notice. NASA's federal advisory committees, as listed in the notice, are the following:

  • NASA Advisory Council
  • Aerospace Safety Advisory Council
  • International Space Station Advisory Committee
  • International Space Station National Laboratory Advisory Committee
  • National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing Advisory Board

Events of Interest

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

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