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NASA Plan to Cancel Constellation "Alarming" Says Rep. Ralph Hall

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Feb-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

Several members of the House committee that authorizes NASA activities made it clear that they are not happy with NASA's plans to terminate the Constellation program and replace it with a commercial alternative. At a hearing this morning, Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), ranking member of the full House Science and Technology Committee, called the plan "alarming."

"The Ares launcher and Orion crew vehicle have been designed to be a very safe and robust system. They have undergone rigorous engineering reviews. American taxpayers have invested nine billion dollars - and the agency and its contractors have spent five years - working to ensure that Constellation will be flexible, affordable, and safe. To simply toss this aside and gamble America's human spaceflight program on an undefined, untested system is alarming."

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), chair of the subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, said "My concern today is not numbers on a ledger, but rather the fate of the American dream to reach for the stars." Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX), ranking member of the subcommittee, expressed concern that "We are on the verge of abandoning human space flight in the near term, and I fear beyond that."

Not all the members were opposed to the idea, though. Rep. Rohrabacher (R-CA) was supportive of commercial human space flight, arguing that NASA had spent $9 billion just to get to the Ares 1-X test flight last year that he said used no new technology. He believes the commercial sector could get humans into space more cost effectively. Others pointed out that the $9 billion paid for much more than that one test.

A summary of the hearing will be posted here soon.

Lockheed Martin Unhappy With Decision to Cancel Orion as Part of Constellation Program

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Feb-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

Lockheed Martin, prime contractor for the Orion spacecraft that is part of Project Constellation, issued a press release today expressing its disappointment with the decision to kill the Constellation program. Earlier rumors had been that one or both of the Ares launch vehicles would be canceled, but not the Orion crew capsule. However, the FY2011 budget request announced on Monday would terminate the entire Constellation program. Lockheed Martin noted that "nearly 4,000 people at more than 500 commercial companies and hundreds of small business suppliers" work on Orion.

Bobby Braun and Woodrow Whitlow Take New Positions at NASA HQ

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Feb-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

Georgia Tech's Bobby Braun has agreed to serve as NASA's Chief Technologist, and Woodrow Whitlow will move to Headquarters from Glenn Research Center to be the first Associate Administrator for Mission Support, according to NASA announcements today.

Both are NASA veterans and both have PhD's in aerospace engineering (Braun) or aeronautics and astronautics (Whitlow). Braun worked at NASA-Langley before Georgia Tech. HIs expertise is systems aspects of robotic spacecraft, especially Mars probes. Recently he was co-chair of a National Research Council review of the NASA Institute for Advanced Technology (NIAC), which was terminated in FY2007. The report recommended creation of a "NIAC-2," which Braun may well have a chance to do in his new role.

Whitlow joined NASA In 1979 and his career has taken him to three of NASA's field centers (Langley, Kennedy and Glenn) as well as headquarters on a previous assignment. He has extensive experience in management and his new position is to be responsible for most NASA mangement operations including human capital, and budget and systems support. Whitlow will continue as Director of NASA-Glenn until a successor is found, so will be dual-hatted initially.

PBS' Lehrer Report Tonight to Focus on NASA's New Plan

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Feb-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

PBS' Lehrer report will have a segment tonight on NASA's new plans for human space flight. In Washington, DC, it airs at 7:00 pm on Channel 26.

Fact Sheet on NASA's FY2011 Budget Request Now Available on

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Feb-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

A fact sheet on NASA's FY2011 budget request to Congress is now available. Look on our left menu under "Our Fact Sheets and Reports" or simply click here. It will be updated to reflect congressional action on the request over the next several months.

Remembering the Columbia Crew

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Feb-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

On this day in 2003, seven brave astronauts - six Americans and an Israeli -- lost their lives in the space shuttle Columbia tragedy (STS-107).

  • NASA Commander Rick Husband
  • NASA Pilot William McCool
  • NASA Payload Commander Michael Anderson
  • NASA Mission Specialist David Brown
  • NASA Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla
  • NASA Mission Specialist Laurel Clark
  • Israeli Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon

While attention will be focused today on the release of President Obama's FY2011 budget request - which by many accounts will include cancellation of the human space flight program that emerged in the aftermath of the Columbia tragedy - we should not forget those who gave their lives in pursuit of the exploration of space and the science that can be conducted there.

Fate ordained that the three tragedies that have taken the lives of astronauts in mission-related accidents occurred within a few days of each other on the early winter calendar: Apollo 204 on January 27, 1967; the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986; and the space shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003. NASA held a "Day of Remembrance" for all three jointly on January 29, but it seems fitting to mention each of them individually here.

STS-107 was one of the few space shuttle flights in recent memory that was not associated with construction or utilization of the International Space Station (ISS). Instead, it was dedicated entirely to science experiments. (Read a short CRS report from 2006 that summarizes the tragedy, its investigation, and the shuttle's return to flight in 2005.) During its return to Earth after 16 days in orbit, Columbia disintegrated when superheated air entered one of its wings through a hole caused by a piece of foam that had come off of the shuttle's External Tank during launch. The extreme heat - a normal part of reentry - caused the wing to fail structurally, creating aerodynamic forces that led to the disintegration of the orbiter. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) concluded that the tragedy was caused by both technical and organizational failures.

Not quite a year after the tragedy, President George W. Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration to return humans to the Moon and someday go to Mars. The announcement responded to a major criticism by CAIB that for the past three decades, NASA had lacked "any national mandate providing ... a compelling mission requiring human presence in space." The Vision for Space Exploration was intended to be that mandate. Today, it is the program that President Obama reportedly will seek to cancel in his FY2011 budget.

Obama Proposes Cancelling Constellation

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Feb-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

As explained in its FY2011 "Terminations, Reductions and Savings" document posted on the Office of Management and Budget's (OMB's) website this morning, President Obama is proposing to terminate Project Constellation and replace it with a "bold new approach that embraces the commercial space industry, forges international partnerships, and develops the game-changing technologies needed to set the stage for a revitalized human space flight program and embark on a 21st Century program of space exploration."

More information will be posted here after NASA releases details on its budget in about an hour.

Obama Asks for $2.5 Billion to Cancel Constellation; $6 Billion to Pay for Commercial Substitute

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Feb-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

It is ironic that today is both the anniversary of the space shuttle Columbia tragedy that spawned President George W. Bush's Vision for the Space Exploration, and the day that President Obama announces that he wants to cancel it.

America's attempts to go back to the Moon and on to Mars will go back to the drawing board if Congress agrees with the FY2011 budget request for NASA. President Bush's "Vision" will be stopped in its tracks with cancellation of the entire Constellation Program -- the Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles, the Orion spacecraft, and the Altair lunar lander - that were to take astronauts back to the Moon by 2020. Instead, NASA will throw its support to the commercial sector to develop launch vehicles and spacecraft to someday once again take Americans into space from U.S. soil. After the final shuttle launches this year, NASA astronauts will have to ask others for rides into space.

How long it will take for the commercial vehicles is anyone's guess. Advocates of this "commercial crew" approach are confident that private sector companies can develop human-rated launch vehicles (i.e., meeting NASA safety standards for carrying people) within the next few years. Skeptics have heard promises about commercial space too many times to believe it again.

In total, NASA is requesting $19.000 billion for FY2011, a 1.5% increase over FY2010's budget of $18.724 billion. Its 5-year budget plan would see modest increases thereafter, reaching $20.660 billion by FY2014. That is about $1 billion short of the level proposed by the Augustine Committee, which called for a gradual increase by FY2014 to a level $3 billion above the FY2010 NASA budget, with inflation-adjusted budgets thereafter. The NASA budget released today projects funding to FY2015, when NASA's budget would increase by another 1.9% to $20.990 billion.

NASA Administrator Bolden said that the President is increasing the NASA budget by $6 billion over the next 5 years (apparently compared to his FY2010 budget estimate), calling that "an extraordinary show of support."

The Augustine Committee laid out options for the future human space flight program, but did not make recommendations. Still, many read its report as an endorsement of pursuing commercial alternatives to the Ares I launch vehicle for taking astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). The Obama proposal goes well beyond that, relying on the commercial sector for all future U.S. human space flight, with the government investing in technology but not new vehicles. Sally Ride, a member of the Committee, participated in the NASA budget briefing and enthusiastically supported the President's plan, saying that it put NASA on a "sustainable path to the future."

The battle over the role of the government versus the commercial sector in developing new launch vehicles and spacecraft for human exploration is likely to consume congressional debate over NASA's budget this year. Part of the debate may overlap with President Obama's major focus in this election year - jobs. The President's budget asks for a $100 billion jobs package, but NASA supporters may ask whether aerospace jobs are part of his agenda.

NASA has not provided an estimate of how many government and contractor jobs will be lost with the cancellation of Constellation - on top of terminating the shuttle over the next several months - or gained by its new commercial approach. Administrator Bolden provided only vague assurances that since the total NASA budget was going up, he expected to support more not fewer jobs though they may not be "concentrated on a few manufacturing and development contracts," and that an "enhanced commercial space industry will create new high-tech jobs."

The President announced two jobs programs today: "Investing in Innovation to Create the Industries and Jobs of Tomorrow" and "Spur Job Creation and Revitalize Rural America." The fact sheet on the first mentions NASA only in the context of its Summer of Innovation education program, not about the high-tech jobs that might be gained or lost or new technologies that might be developed because of its dramatic change of direction for the space program. The second fact sheet does not mention NASA at all.

In any case, U.S. attempts to send people back to the Moon would return to the back burner. If Congress agrees with President Obama, this will be the third time in three attempts (1969, 1989, 2004) that plans for human Mars exploration have fallen short.

What President Obama wants to substitute is a program that relies on the commercial sector - with substantial taxpayer support - to develop launch vehicles and spacecraft to take U.S. astronauts to space. The first destination will be the International Space Station (ISS) whose operational lifetime will be extended until at least 2020, five years beyond the current U.S. commitment. No decision has been made on destinations beyond that. NASA will focus only on development of new technologies not launch vehicles or spacecraft for human exploration. Deputy Administrator Garver says that NASA is focused on developing capabilities, not choosing destinations, but the Moon, Mars and asteroids all remain possibilities: "NASA is committed to exploring space. We're not canceling the exploration of space, just the Constellation program," and our "ultimate" destination is Mars and the moons of Mars.

Whether or not one believes that sending people to the Moon or Mars is important, this abrupt turnaround may be difficult for NASA's workforce and supporters to absorb. It was only six years ago that NASA was turned topsy-turvey to march down the path of the Vision for Space Exploration. Now the Obama Administration is asking to turn it topsy-turvey again, this time to promised gold at the end of a different rainbow - commercial crew.

NASA and the White House will have their work cut out for them to convince a financially strapped country to believe that this time they've picked the right program.

NPOESS Restructured

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Feb-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

The Obama Administration announced today its long awaited decision on the future of the troubled National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). The answer: divorce.

NPOESS was initiated following a 1994 decision to merge the separate weather satellite programs conducted by the Department of Defense (DOD) for national security needs and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for civil needs. DOD and NOAA jointly and equally fund NPOESS, with DOD as the agency responsible for acquiring the satellites. NASA has been a third partner in the program, developing new technologies to be tested on its NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP) satellite, currently scheduled for launch in 2011. An Integrated Program Office (IPO) manages the tri-agency program.

Satellites in orbits circling the Earth's poles so that they pass over points on Earth at a certain time of day -- an early morning orbit, a mid-morning orbit, and an afternoon orbit -- provide weather and other environmental observations. Several years ago, the United States and Europe agreed to work together on environmental satellites and Europe provides the satellites for the mid-morning orbit. NPOESS satellites were to be in the early morning (or just "morning") and afternoon orbits.

NPOESS encoutered severe cost overruns and schedule slips. An Independent Review Team chaired by Tom Young concluded last year that the program as then structured had "an extraordinarily low probabily of success."

Under the new plan, DOD will be responsible for building and launching satellites for the morning orbit and NOAA for the afternoon orbit. NASA will acquire the satellites for NOAA as it does now for NOAA's other satellites. Instead of using the large satellites ("platforms") designed for NPOESS, NOAA will use NASA's NPP design. DOD and NOAA will still share ground facilities to obtain data from the satellites. The IPO will be dissolved.

NOAA now will have to shoulder more of the costs and the FY2011 NOAA budget request includes an increase of about $1 billion for this purpose. The implications for DOD's budget and for the prime contractor for the NPOESS satellites, Northrop Grumman Space Technology, were not available at press time.

NASA Cancels 3:00 Budget Briefing for Monday; 12:30 Telecon Instead

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Feb-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA has cancelled the 3:00 briefing it had scheduled for tomorrow (Monday) to lay out its FY2011 budget request. Instead, NASA Administrator Bolden will hold a teleconference for the media at 12:30 pm. Deputy Administrator Lori Garver will join Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren and others at the 1:00 OSTP briefing at AAAS (see our calendar).

On Tuesday, Holdren and Bolden will hold a press conference at 10:00 am at the National Press Club to "introduce new commercial space pioneers, launching a game-changing way of developing technology to send humans to space." More details on these last minute changes to the NASA budget roll out are available in this NASA press release.

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