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Huntress: Constellation Neither Inspirational Nor Challenging, New Plan is "Sensible"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Apr-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

In an interview with Jim Oberg for IEEE Spectrum, Wes Huntress praised President Obama's new plan for human spaceflight. The Constellation program, he said, was "neither inspirational nor sufficiently challenging for a space program as storied as America's" since it was focused on doing what we already did 40 years ago. As for future human exploration of the Moon, he added: "Others may go there and follow in our footsteps of long ago. Best of luck to them."

Huntress is a highly respected space scientist who served as NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science in the early-mid 1990s and later was Director of the Carnegie Institution's Geophysical Laboratory. He has been involved in a number of efforts to articulate a vision for the future of the space program both domestically and internationally. In the interview, he noted the similarity between the new plan and two studies in which he was involved: "The Next Steps in Exploring Deep Space," published by the International Academy of Astronautics in early 2004, and a 2008 Planetary Society report "Beyond the Moon: A New Roadmap for Human Space Exploration in the 21st Century."

Saying he and others who advocated a step-by-step approach to Mars were "gratified" when the President announced it, arguing that it is "the most sensible option even if it is not the easiest option politically, given Constellation's entrenchment." He did allow, however, regarding commercial crew, that "perhaps we need a government option as well as a commercial one to reduce risk and have backup options...." He also did not rule out an eventual American return to the Moon, as long as it is not "diversionary" from the primary goal of sending humans to Mars.

CSIS Seeks Input -- Quickly -- on National Security and Commercial Space

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Apr-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released a draft report today and is seeking input from the space community before finalizing its findings and recommendations. "National Security and the Commercial Space Sector" looks at the reliance of the national security space sector on commercial satellites and asks whether U.S. space policy should explicitly include commercial satellites in its "assured access to space" provisions.

This is the first time CSIS has issued a draft report soliciting input from the outside community according to CSIS President John Hamre. CSIS is on a tight schedule, though. Comments are needed in May (which begins tomorrow) so the final report can be released in June. For instructions on how to submit questions or comments, visit CSIS's website.

Astrobiology Central to the Future of Planetary Exploration Says Cornell's Steve Squyres

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 30-Apr-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

Cornell University's Steve Squyres said at a NASA teleconference yesterday that the future of planetary exploration is "driven" by astrobiology and the search for life on other celestial bodies.

The teleconference focused on NASA-sponsored astrobiology research directed to finding life on other celestial bodies and featured a panel of researchers who are looking for clues by studying the key components and processes that led to the development of life here on Earth. Dr. John Peters of Montana State University explained that his research focuses on understanding the biological reactions that enable organisms to make iron-sulfur compounds associated with iron-sulfur enzymes. These "complicated metal assemblies," he said, reflect reactions that are "innately pre-biotic" and he hopes can help understand the transition that led to life on Earth.

Dr. Bill Schopf from UCLA and Dr. Jack Farmer from Arizona State University lead a team focusing on finding the oldest records of life on Earth. Dr. Schopf, who highlighted that scientific cooperation both nationally and internationally is a feature of the field, said they have been looking for 600 million year old microscopic fossils in the Mediterranean Sea - which was at one time completely dried out. They found a variety of organisms - including cyanobacteria (or pond scum) and phytoplankton - embedded in a sulfate mineral called gypsum. The researchers were stimulated to look for bio-signatures in this mineral because of the orbital mapping of Mars by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which found large traces of gypsum on the surface. Dr. Farmer explained that the landing of one of NASA's Mars rovers, Opportunity, on large sulfate deposits also motivated their research. (Dr. Squyres is considered the "father" of the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.)

While NASA-funded researchers are looking for evidence of life on other celestial bodies, outside of NASA others are looking for signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life. The possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe - that might someday visit Earth - is also in the news. Last Sunday, renowned physicist Dr. Stephen Hawking was quoted in the London Times with a warning to humans to avoid the dangerous confrontation that he believes would inevitably ensue from contact with intelligent alien life, saying that "if aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn't turn out very well for the Native Americans."

Though the NASA teleconference was not about searching for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, one reporter asked the panelists about Hawking's remarks and if they believed humans should continue broadcasting signals that might be detected by other civilizations that could lead them to Earth, or only listen for radio signals from such civilizations. The privately funded SETI Institute, for example, uses a radio telescope array that searches for radio signals that could be from another civilization. Mary Voytek, astrobiology senior scientist at NASA Headquarters, stressed that SETI research is conducted privately and noted that within NASA there is a "difference of opinions" about transmissions. Dr. Squyres added that "Earth has been broadcasting radio signals for decades...[the] signals are out there."

As for the microbial life on which the NASA-funded research focuses, new data suggests that even asteroids may present such an opportunity. In the April 29 issue of Nature, two teams of scientists report that they found water ice and organic compounds on Asteroid 24 Themis. Water is considered an essential element of life and Dr. Squyres agreed that a mission to an asteroid may be a possibility, saying that objects bearing traces of the necessary conditions for life are "candidate object[s] for study" and said that "we should go where the data lead us."

In the meantime, the National Research Council's Planetary Sciences Decadal Survey Committee is crafting its report on recommendations for the future direction of planetary exploration. Dr. Squyres, chairman of the committee, said they are "halfway through" and noted that one of the lessons emerging from their work is that "astrobiology is really central to what we should be doing next."

According to Squyres, some of the 28 missions under discussion by the Decadal Survey include: exploring Saturn's moon Encedalus to see if its erupting geysers at the south pole are evidence of water under the surface; returning samples from a comet, believed to be rich in organic materials, the "building blocks of life;" and looking for the sources of methane in the Martian atmosphere and determining whether its replenishment is of biological nature.

One potential mission capturing a lot of attention is a complex 3-step sample return mission to Mars, featuring three vehicles: a rover, a lander, and an orbiter. Dr. Squyres said that this multi-step approach to a mission that has been on the minds of researchers for at least 20 years is more cost-effective than sending a single spacecraft to return a sample of Mars. He added that by "string[ing] those out in time...with gaps of potentially years," the mission is more affordable in the long run.

In response to a question about the heated debate over NASA's FY2011 budget request and what should be the future of the human spaceflight program, Dr. Squyres explained that such decisions rarely impact the astrobiology field: "Our program is driven by science...a paradigm that remains unchanged" with respect to architecture decisions for human missions. He said that while some astrobiology researchers do want to see humans on Mars and other destinations, the details over rockets and vehicles "don't really affect our program."

Bolden Urges JSC Workers to Look to the Future, Not the Past

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Apr-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden called on workers at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) to "look to the possibilities and opportunities available as we continue our 21st century march beyond our home planet" in an "all hands" meeting at JSC yesterday.

Insisting that he was not trying to shoot the messenger, he also admonished the media not to misrepresent statements by members of the NASA workforce just to get a headline:

"But you are not a friend of the space program when you misrepresent the statements or actions of our dedicated, loyal workforce for the sake of a headline-winning story. Again, please don't take this as an attempt to blame the messenger for NASA's problems. That is not the case nor my intent. Rather, please realize that this is a major change in trajectory for our Nation's space program, and that such change is bound to be turbulent in the formative stages."

He portrayed President Obama's new plan as the only way to ensure that humans will travel beyond low Earth orbit in the next two generations. The Constellation program, he said, could not do it.

"Over time, due to funding short falls, Constellation Program Management and the NASA Administrator began making trades to preserve our ability to get humans back to the Moon, but the capability to provide lunar landing systems, surface systems, and any real hope of going beyond the Moon evaporated except in the minds of many of us holding on to one last hope."

Bolden expressed confidence that the aerospace community could work together to change the trajectory of the U.S. human spaceflight program, laying out what he believes are the four core values of the "NASA family": safety, excellence, teamwork, and integrity. Summary of Senate Appropriations Hearing Now Available

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 27-Apr-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

A summary of the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee hearing last week is now available. Look on our left menu under "Our Hearing Summaries" or simply click here.

New York Times Lauds SDO

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Apr-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

The New York Times praises NASA"s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) in an editorial today. Calling the quality of the images of the Sun produced by SDO "extraordinary," the newspaper says that the spacecraft "creates a new solar effect, which is the ability of humans to peer directly into the most familiar of stars and realize how alien it is."

UPDATE: Events of Interest: Week of April 26-30, 2010

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Apr-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: Adds two meetings on Friday, April 30

ORIGINAL STORY: The following events may be of interest in the coming week. For further information, check our calendar on the right menu or click the links below. Meetings of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and its committees (in preparation for the NAC meeting at Johnson Space Center in Houston TX on April 28-29) headline the agenda so are grouped together rather than listing them by date.

NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and its committees

  • NAC Education and Public Outreach Committee, April 26, via WebEx
  • NAC Commercial Space Committee, April 26, Houston, TX
  • NAC Exploration Committee, April 26-27, Houston, TX
  • NAC Audit and Finance Committee, April 27, Houston, TX
  • NAC, April 28-29, Houston, TX

Other Meetings

Tuesday, April 27

Tuesday-Wednesday, April 27-28

Tuesday-Friday, April 27-30

Friday, April 30

  • Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), National Security and Commercial Space: Rollout of Draft Report, 10:00-11:30 am, 1800 K Street, NW, Washington DC
  • NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) public meeting, 12:30-2:30 pm, NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC

Rep. Wolf Continues Opposition to Obama Plan; Space News DoesToo

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Apr-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) continues his criticism of President Obama's new plan for NASA in an op-ed in today's Space News (subscription required to access some content). Rep. Wolf is the ranking member of the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee, which funds NASA. He also represents the congressional district that is home to Orbital Sciences Corp., which could benefit from the new plan if it decides to pursue the "commercial crew" option. Orbital is one of the two COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) companies already developing a system to take cargo to the International Space Station; SpaceX is the other.

Rep. Wolf was sharply critical of the Obama plan to cancel the Constellation program and turn crew transport over to the private sector at a recent subcommittee hearing and has published on his website a number of letters from space program luminaries opposing the plan. In his op-ed piece, "Don't Forsake U.S. Leadership in Space," he highlights comments by Chinese and Russian officials boasting of their plans for human spaceflight in contrast to what he sees as the U.S. abandoning its leadership position.

"Manned spaceflight and exploration are one of the last remaining fields in which the United States maintains an undeniable competitive advantage over other nations. To walk away is shortsighted and irresponsible."

Space News itself editorializes that the somewhat revised version of the plan announced by President Obama on April 15 "still falls short." While praising the President for retaining the Orion spacecraft even if in a reduced capacity, the newspaper argues that there is no need to wait until 2015 to decide on a design for a new heavy lift launch vehicle and spend billions instead on research.

"Rocket science has proved remarkably static in the last 50 years in spite of untold billions of dollars of investment. A far more likely prospect is that the money will be spread across a host of propulsion concerns that at best yield marginal improvements to current capabilities."

NASA and the Icelandic Ash

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Apr-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

It may not be space policy, but it is the first A in NASA -- aeronautics. The Space and Aeronautics subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee will hold a hearing next week on the impact of volcanic ash on aviation. The hearing follows the havoc wreaked on aviation by ash from the Icelandic volcano. Witnesses include the head of NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, Jaiwon Shin; Jack Kaye from NASA's Earth Science Division in the Science Mission Directorate; Vicki Cox, Senior Vice President of the FAA for NextGen and Operations Planning Air Traffic Organization; and Roger Dinius, Flight Safety Director with GE Aviation. The hearing is May 5, 2010 at 10:00 am in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building. (Since it isn't space policy it's not listed on our calendar, but sounds really interesting.)

Japan Reassessing Its Human Space Flight Goals Too

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Apr-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

The Obama Administration's decision to extend the life of the International Space Station (ISS) may be welcome news to the space agencies involved in the project, but apparently not everyone in the Japanese government has bought into it. An editorial in Thursday's Yomiuri Shimbum notes that a Japanese panel of experts has recommended that the Japanese government reexamine the benefits from the space program and "did not rule out that Japan might withdraw from the ISS program in the future."

The editorial comments that 40 billon of the country's 200 billion yen non-national security space budget goes to the ISS, "Yet there have been so far only a few space experiments that have eventually led to discoveries that can have an industrial application" and proposals to use Japan's Kibo laboratory module "have only trickled in."

The main thrust of the editorial is criticizing the Japanese government for not paying sufficient attention to the future of the space program, calling it "quite irresponsible" for not having held any meetings of the Strategic Headquarters for Space Policy "which is supposed to be the control tower on the matter." Japan's 2008 Basic Space Law created that body, led by the Prime Minister.

The heads of the space agencies from the countries involved in the ISS program -- the United States, Russia, Japan, Europe, and Canada -- met in Tokyo in March. They released a joint statement expressing "mutual interest in continuing operations and utilization for as long as the benefits of ISS exploitation are demonstrated." The statement added that all would work within their governments "to reach consensus later this year on the continuation of the ISS to the next decade." It also stated that the partnership was working to certify that the panoply of space station modules and other hardware could operate until 2028, 30 years after the first two were launched, a hint of optimism that the governments would agree that ISS is worth the investment.

Last year Japan released a Basic Space Plan to implement to its Basic Space Law. The government recently reviewed all its programs looking for cost savings and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) did fairly well in that evaluation. Japan has been the steadiest partner in the ISS program, delivering just what it promised at the beginning. As was true for the United States, it would be odd for Japan to turn away from the ISS program just as the facility is finally built, but every partner country faces its own challenges in justifying space program expenditures, as underscored by the ongoing debate over the future of the U.S. human space flight program.

Events of Interest   

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


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