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To celebrate President John F. Kennedy's so-called "moon speech" delivered to Congress 50 years ago, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) put together a concert, appropriately held at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. on May 25. Performances by the Space Philharmonic orchestra complemented a series of images and videos from NASA's 50 years of human spaceflight missions that were set in motion by President Kennedy's challenge.
With appearances by Jean Kennedy Smith, sister of President Kennedy, along with actresses Nichelle Nichols and June Lockhart (from the original Star Trek and Lost in Space television series respectively) and musician Herbie Hancock, the night was full of surprises. NASA images were paired with Beethoven, the Star Trek theme and even "Somewhere" from West Side Story.
Yet the event was not just a big party. A very special presentation by the Soldiers' Chorus of the U.S. Army Field Band accompanied stills and videos from the tragic Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia missions and the astronauts lost in these accidents. Astronauts Scott Altman and Leland Melvin, who introduced this segment, spoke soberly about the risk that is still involved in any human spaceflight mission. Even as we look toward the Space Shuttle's last flight in the coming months, Altman reiterated that "the Shuttle remains an experimental vehicle," one that will provide lessons for the next-generation vehicles to follow.
What those vehicles will look like and where they will take the next group of astronauts remain issues of contention. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who likened President Barack Obama to President Kennedy as another "young president" who identified and seeks to address a national need, said that "we stand at a Moon shot moment once again."
This sense of hope about the future of the human spaceflight program -- contrasting with the persisting uncertainty over what will come next for NASA - was not only reflected in the NASA leadership. Nichelle Nichols, who took part in recruiting the first women and minority astronauts that would reprise her television role in real life, said that "space is part of all of our lives." She spoke with enthusiasm of what the Shuttle program meant for diversity, through which "women and people of color took to space for real." She and others clearly have high hopes for much more to come -- in a spontaneous response to a crying baby, Nichols turned toward the sound and said: "You'll fly. You'll fly next time!"
Representatives of the two companies under contract to provide commercial cargo services to keep the International Space Station (ISS) operating after the shuttle program ends and a top NASA official reassured a congressional subcommittee this morning that they would be ready soon.
Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX, and Frank Culbertson, Senior Vice President of Orbital Sciences Corp., each told the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee that they are confident they can meet their current schedules. Most of the development work is completed, they said, and test flights of their launch vehicles (Falcon 9 and Taurus 2) and capsules (Dragon and Cygnus) are due to be finished by the end of 2011. Cargo services will begin in 2012, they asserted.
NASA's Associate Administrator for Space Operations, Bill Gerstenmaier, also expressed confidence in the companies' abilities to meet the schedules. He added, however, that NASA anticipates delays could happen. Consequently, through pre-positioning spares on the ISS, the orbiting facility could operate for as long as a year after the last shuttle leaves later this summer with minimum resupply requirements, Gerstenmaier said. The space shuttle Endeavour is currently docked to the ISS; only one more shuttle flight, Atlantis (STS-135), remains on the manifest. It is currently scheduled to launch on July 8.
A hearing charter prepared in advance by committee staff shows that on a per pound to orbit basis, it will cost more to use commercial cargo services than launching on the space shuttle or Russia's Progress automated spacecraft. When asked by one of the subcommittee members if those figures were accurate, Gerstenmaier said he would have to look at the numbers carefully and respond at a later time.
Whether the companies and NASA were persuasive was not immediately evident. In press releases immediately after the hearing, Republicans and Democrats sounded perhaps slightly less skeptical than previously, but made clear they will continue to scrutinize the commercial cargo program. The Republicans went further to say that this was just the first in a series of hearings "to provide close oversight of commercial space launch capabilities."
A webcast of the hearing is available on the committee's website.
In a report released today. the Government Accountability Office (GAO) left no doubt about its assessment of the Department of Defense's (DOD's) plans to enhance its Space Situational Awareness (SSA) capabilities.
"DOD has significantly increased its investment and planned investment in SSA acquisition efforts in recent years to address growing SSA capability shortfalls. Most efforts designed to meet these shortfalls have struggled with cost, schedule, and performance challenges and are rooted in systemic problems that most space acquisition programs have encountered over the past decade. Consequently, in the past 5 fiscal years, DOD has not delivered significant new SSA capabilities as originally expected. To its credit, the Air Force recently launched a space-based sensor that is expected to appreciably enhance SSA. However, two critical acquisition efforts that are scheduled to begin development within the next 2 years--Space Fence and the Joint Space Operations Center Mission System (JMS)--face development challenges and risks, such as the use of immature technologies and planning to deliver all capabilities in a single, large increment, versus smaller and more manageable increments. It is essential that these acquisitions are placed on a solid footing at the start of development to help ensure their capabilities are delivered to the warfighter as and when promised. GAO has consistently recommended that reliable acquisition business cases be established, such as maturing technologies prior to development start, utilizing evolutionary development, and stabilizing requirements in order to reduce program risks. For efforts that move forward with less mature technologies, assessments of the cost, schedule, and performance implications of utilizing backup technologies, if they exist, could provide the knowledge needed to determine whether the efforts are worth pursuing or the investment trade-offs that may need to be made."
Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man on the Moon, and Dr. John Logsdon, the "dean" of space policy experts and an authority on John F. Kennedy's role in the Apollo program, agree that the U.S. human spaceflight program today is in disarray.
In separate op-eds today and at a lecture this evening sponsored by the National Air and Space Museum at its Udvar-Hazy Center to commemorate the 50th anniversary of JFK's "moon speech," Cernan and Logsdon painted a picture of a space program "on a mission to nowhere" as Cernan described it.
At the lecture, Cernan made clear that he never thought that he would be the "last man on the Moon" and resists the characterization. He considers himself the last man on the Moon "in the 20th century" or, even more optimistically, the "most recent man on the Moon." Describing his thoughts as he climbed the ladder into the Lunar Excursion Module to take him back to lunar orbit and then back home, he said he felt as though he was sitting on "God's front porch" as he looked back at Earth. The experience was "just too beautiful to have happened by accident."
Those comments followed a heartfelt commentary on the current state of the space program, where he believes the U.S. has "ceded the leadership in space" grasped from the Soviet Union during the 1960's. Decrying the imminent loss of a U.S. capability to launch people into space -- only one more space shuttle mission remains and what lies beyond is uncertain -- Cernan sanguinely predicted that "wiser heads" would prevail in Washington.
Logsdon recounted the key points of his new book, John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, emphasizing that JFK was not a space visionary, but a President coping with Cold War realities. In his op-ed for the Orlando Sentinel today, Logsdon suggested that JFK could be a role model for President Obama in remaining closely involved in space program decisions. "If President Obama hopes for a positive space legacy, he needs to emulate John Kennedy; without sustained presidential leadership, NASA will continue to lack the focus required for a space effort producing acknowledged international leadership and national pride in what the United States accomplishes," Logsdon wrote.
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.
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: 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.
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 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 http://www.nasa.gov/newsaudio.
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."
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