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Bolden: STS-135 Would Be As Safe As Previous Missions, End of Shuttle Era "Bittersweet"

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

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) audience yesterday that the STS-135 "Launch-on-Need" shuttle mission would be as safe as previous shuttle launches. The 2010 NASA Authorization Act directs NASA to fly STS-135 as the final space shuttle mission as long as it is safe to do so. With the safety aspects settled, the only potential problem now is funding.

Two shuttle missions formally remain on the manifest, STS-133 (Discovery), whose launch has been delayed by a gas leak and external tank cracks, and STS-134 (Endeavour). The current launch dates for those two missions are February and April 2011, respectively.

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) and others champion one additional shuttle flight and included direction to fly it in the law. Dubbed the "launch on need" mission or STS-135 (Atlantis), it will be ready to launch to rescue the Endeavour crew if anything goes awry on that flight. If not, advocates argue that it should be used for one last logistics flight to the International Space Station (ISS) before the shuttle era ends.

Since there would be no capability to rescue the Atlantis crew, however, some questioned whether it would be safe to fly. NASA intends to launch it with only four crew members, instead of the usual six or seven. As long as it could get to the ISS, those four could remain there until sufficient Russian Soyuz spacecraft could be launched to bring them home again. That would mean 10 people on the ISS for a period of time instead of its usual crew complement of six, but sufficient supplies would be aboard to accommodate the extra people. According to Bolden's remarks, the agency has determined this plan is sufficiently safe.

Estimates of the cost of flying the mission are rumored to be about $500 million, however, which was not included in the agency's FY2011 budget request. The shuttle request for FY2011 was only $989 million, assuming that the program would end in the first quarter of the fiscal year, that is, by December 31, 2010. That clearly has not happened. As the last flights slip further into the fiscal year, more funds are needed. A full year of shuttle operations cost the agency $3.1 billion in FY2010.

NASA is currently being funded through a Continuing Resolution (CR) at its FY2010 funding level of $18.7 billion, instead of the $19 billion requested by President Obama for FY2011. The CR expires on March 4 and it is anyone's guess as to how much funding the agency will have after that. Where the money will come from to pay for the longer-than-expected shuttle operations is unclear.

Senator Nelson held a hearing on December 1, 2010 where Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren and NASA Chief Financial Officer Beth Robinson pledged to fly STS-135 as long as NASA received roughly the same amount of funding as the President requested for FY2011. They agreed that $18.7 billion would be enough, but warned that if the agency is cut back to its FY2008 level, the agency did not know how it would cope. NASA received $17.4 billion in FY2008. Some Republicans in the House and Senate have vowed to cut all federal spending back to its FY2008 level.

Bolden's AIAA speech also looked back at the shuttle program over its lifetime, including the many technical changes made to a vehicle that "is still ... experimental ... in the purest sense." Bolden flew on the shuttle four times himself, and proudly recounted that he flew on the first space shuttle mission to Russia's Mir space station as well as on the mission that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope. He paid tribute to the crews of Challenger and Columbia who lost their lives, but added that "we must also never forget the accomplishments, the joy, the knowledge and the pride this program has brought our country."

While it is "bittersweet" to see the shuttle program come to an end, Bolden said "we are thrilled to be on the cusp of a whole new era of exploration capabilities." A "true commercial capability for reaching low Earth orbit" responds to a "yearning" for routine access to space, "one of the unfilled promises" of the shuttle program, he said.

"Misconduct" In Outer Space and the Future of the Draft Code of Conduct

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

Veteran space journalist Leonard David asked several space policy experts what would constitute "misconduct" in outer space at a time when an international effort is underway to reach agreement on a "Code of Coduct for Outer Space Activities." The answers are revealed in Mr. David's column today.

In summary, Mr. David writes:

"From some experts, you get the sense that there's a quest under way for a Robert's Rules of Order for space, with a shot of Emily Post etiquette mixed in for good measure.

"Meanwhile, other analysts lean toward an approach much like Martha Stewart's outlook for tidiness - a recipe for spacefaring nations to adopt and avoid collective mayhem in the cosmos."

One of the experts interviewed for the article is Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C. Mr. Krepon just published an essay recounting the roles that he and the Stimson Center played in initiating the idea of a Code of Conduct in lieu of a treaty banning weapons in outer space, as proposed by China and Russia.

The Stimson Center's Space Security Project, which he heads, was created in 2002 and has worked diligently domestically and internationally to find a way to help keep space "as free as possible from destabilizing and dangerous developments," in Mr. Krepon's words. The future of the Code of Conduct is unclear, however, he adds. Noting that it is "gaining adherents," he urges the Obama Administration to "somehow find the energy to add this objective to the very burdensome agenda of senior officials. If this is not possible, a rare opportunity will be missed."

Editor's note: We thank Mr. David for asking us the question, too, and publishing our reply.

The 112th Congress Begins

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

Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), Dean of the House, swore Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) into office as Speaker of the House minutes ago, and Speaker Boehner then collectively swore in the other members of the House. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was elected as Minority Leader as expected. In the Senate, Vice President Biden (who serves as President of the Senate) administered the oath of office to 31 Senators, 16 of whom are new.

The 112th Congress begins.

Excerpts from Speaker Boehner's remarks as he assumed leadership of the House are available on the Speaker's website.

Minority Leader Pelosi's statement as she handed the gavel over to the new Speaker is available on the Democratic Leader's website. She remarked that this year is the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's inauguration as President and quoted from one of his speeches, unfortunately (for the space policy community in any case) not the one where he committed America to landing a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. This year is also the 50th anniversary of that speech -- May 25.

Budget Cuts Top Priority as 112th Congress Convenes Tomorrow

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Jan-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

The 112th Congress will convene at noon tomorrow, January 5, 2011. As the House and Senate swear in new members, the House will come under Republican control with John Boehner (R-OH) as Speaker of the House. The Senate remains in Democratic hands with Harry Reid (D-NV) continuing as Majority Leader. Both parties know that reining in the federal deficit is one of the country's top priorities, but the road to agreement on how to do that is expected to be quite rocky.

The Republicans will have 242 seats in the House compared to 193 for the Democrats, roughly a 56 percent to 44 percent majority. The Senate will have 51 Democrats, two Independents who caucus with the Democrats (Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernie Sanders of Vermont), and 47 Republicans, essentially a 53-47 split.

While most politicians will privately admit that the only way to reduce the deficit significantly is to cut spending on "mandatory" programs - Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid - those are difficult to cut politically because they affect so many voters. Instead, they are expected to aim first at "discretionary" programs, which include NASA, NOAA, DOD and most of the federal agencies with which people are familiar.

Repealing the health care bill passed last year is another top Republican priority that is expected to pass in the House, but fail in the Senate. House Republicans yesterday released a copy of the repeal bill they plan to bring to the floor of the House for a vote next week, which also calls for writing a new health care bill that reflects Republican priorities. That virtually assures that health care reform will dominate Washington politics for at least another year.

Some Democrats, such as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who is expected to win election by House Democrats as the Minority Leader tomorrow, believe the real issue in the 2010 elections was jobs, not deficit reduction. President Obama seems to agree and sounded optimistic as he returned from his Christmas vacation back home in Hawaii. News reports today quote the President saying that while the Republicans will "play to their base for a certain period of time," he is "pretty confident that they're going to recognize our job is to govern and make sure that we are delivering jobs for the American people and that we are creating a competitive economy for the 21st century."

Where the space program will play in all of this is anyone's guess. Space program advocates have been trying to make the case that investing in NASA, in particular, is an important element in making America competitive. The termination of the space shuttle program will mean the loss of many high tech jobs, some of which could be salvaged with a robust investment in a new rocket program. Cutting NASA's budget is a comparatively easy political move, however, so it is a toss up as to whether the pro-NASA arguments will sway Congress and the White House. The key for NASA is to get some certainty about its future human spaceflight program, which is currently caught between one law that says not to cancel the Constellation program yet and another that specifies many of the details of the replacement program. That replacement program was not exactly what the Obama Administration wanted, but was close enough to get the President's signature.

DOD and intelligence community space programs are also up in the air. Some news reports say that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will announce program cuts this Thursday. Months ago he directed the services to find $100 billion in savings over the next 5 years. The extent to which that will affect national security space programs is unclear since most of those programs are ongoing rather than being new starts, which are easier to defer or eliminate. One of the few "new starts" is the reconfigured NPOESS program, though it could be argued that it is a restructuring of an existing program rather than a new program. DOD's portion is called the Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS). Senate appropriators took a harsh stand on DWSS in their report on the FY2011 DOD bill, denying any funds for building a spacecraft and providing only $50 million for sensors. That bill never cleared the 111th Congress, but it sends a message that DOD needs to do a better job of convincing Congress that it has a solid plan for moving forward with that program. DOD has two of its legacy weather satellites awaiting launch, so it does not have the same sense of urgency as NOAA in moving forward with the restructured program.

Senate appropriators had many questions about NOAA's part of the restructured NPOESS program, too. While recommending funds for the first of NOAA's satellites, the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), the Senate committee made clear that it was not convinced that NOAA had a good overall plan either. The Continuing Resolution (CR) under which NOAA is currently operating did not provide any of the substantial additional funds requested in FY2011 for JPSS. Like most other federal agencies, NOAA is operating at its FY2010 level. All of NOAA's polar orbiting weather satellites already are in orbit, so the need to proceed quickly in building new satellites is much more pronounced than for DOD. NOAA is not precluded from proceeding with JPSS, but must do so within its existing budget.

Among the critical upcoming deadlines that will shape the debate this year are release of the FY2012 budget request, expected on February 14, a week late; deciding what to do about the FY2011 budget when the current CR expires on March 4; and the need to raise the debt ceiling, with a vote expected this spring.

The current debt limit is $14.3 billion, while U.S. debt is $13.9 billion and rising. A White House aide said it would be "catastrophic" if Congress did not raise the limit, but Republicans are expected to use the debate to force dramatic funding cuts. Republican Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) said on Meet the Press that he would not vote to raise the debt ceiling unless government spending is cut back to 2008 levels, for example. For reference, NASA's FY2008 funding level was $17.4 billion, compared to its current (FY2010) level of $18.7 billion.

Allard Commission Recommendations Still Valid, National Space Council Needed to Fix National Security Space Program

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Jan-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

The recommendations of the congressionally-mandated "Allard Commission," including the need to reestablish the National Space Council, are still valid two years after they were issued. Dr. Joan Johnson-Freese, Professor of National Security Studies at the Naval War College, draws that conclusion in an article for the Joint Force Quarterly's latest issue.

The commission, named after former Senator Wayne Allard (R-CO) who wrote the legislative language that created it in the FY2007 DOD authorization act, completed its report in 2008. The commission was set up to make an independent assessment of the organization and management of national security space programs.

Chaired by retired aerospace executive A. Thomas Young, the commission made four recommendations:

  • establish and execute a national space strategy and reestablish the National Space Council, under the chairmanship of the National Security Advisor, to implement it;
  • create a senior National Security Space Authority in support of the Secretary of Defense and Director of National Intelligence;
  • establish a National Security Space Organization to consolidate the functions of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, other parts of Air Force Space Command, and the National Reconnaissance Office; and
  • adopt and implement strategies for identifying, selecting, educating, training and managing a core group of government professionals in sufficient numbers to support the nation's space acquisition responsibilities.

Johnson-Freese finds that two years after the report was issued "military space integration is still limited by organizational gridlock and resistance, with few indications of positive change on the horizon. The answer for how to change that dim future outlook remains within the Allard Report."

In particular, Johnson-Freese champions the Allard Commission's recommendation to reestablish the National Space Council under the chairmanship of the National Security Advisor. The original National Aeronautics and Space Council, created as part of the 1958 law that established NASA, was abolished by President Nixon in 1973. A National Space Council was recreated by Congress in the FY1989 NASA authorization act, and President George H.W. Bush established it by Executive Order early in his term under the leadership of Vice President Dan Quayle. The Council still exists in law, but neither President Clinton nor President George W. Bush chose to staff or fund it. President Obama pledged to reinstate it during his campaign, but has not done so. "The ability to stifle such a promised action is a tribute to the power of bureaucratic and organizational politics," says Johnson-Freese.

The Allard Commission and Johnson-Freese want the Space Council to be chaired by the National Security Advisor, instead of being a separate White House entity under the Vice President's purview as it was previously. Johnson-Freese says that putting it under the National Security Advisor "unambiguously signals an attempt to move space policy closer to the inner circle of Presidential advisors and to someone with a strong position in the security communities." If that does not happen, she continues, space issues will be considered as subsets of other issues, never rising beyond "the level of bureaucratic, staff importance. Until somebody close to the President is in charge, we will continue to rearrange deck chairs."

Transformation, not reorganization, is needed to fix the problems with the national security space program, she argues, adding that "While the presence of a National Space Council does not assure that transformation will occur, its absence almost certainly does assure that it will not."

Who Conducted the Most Launches in 2010? See Our New Fact Sheet

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Jan-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

Who wins the prize for the most successful launches in 2010? Who had the most failures? See our new fact sheet, Box Score of 2010 Space Launches, to find out! A similar table for last year is also available.

UPDATE: NRC Says Stick to Decadal Survey; Don't Commit to Joint Dark Energy Mission with ESA Yet

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Jan-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: A link to a New York Times story on this subject that ran two days after we posted our story is provided at the end of this article.

NASA should not commit to a joint dark energy mission with the European Space Agency (ESA) quite yet according to a new report from the National Research Council (NRC).

Just three months after issuing its latest Decadal Survey for astronomy and astrophysics, the NRC convened a workshop, at White House request, to discuss how to implement those recommendations. The need for such a workshop so soon after the report's release was fueled by the starkly changed fiscal circumstances at NASA's astrophysics division mostly as a result of cost growth in the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) program.

The NRC's New Worlds New Horizons (NWNH) report, or Astro2010, prioritized ground- and space-based astronomy and astrophysics research for the next 10 years at NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy (DOE). The study committee created a set of missions for the next decade to fit within budget guidance provided by the three agencies, with its recommended missions segregated into large, medium and small categories. No cross-cutting set of priorities was made.

At NASA, however, funding expectations changed considerably during and after the study. Most recently, significant cost overruns on JWST and a slip in its launch date could have a dramatic impact on how much money is available to proceed with the NWNH recommendations.

The top NWNH recommendation for large space-based missions - the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) - has become the poster child for figuring out how to deal with the problem. WFIRST has three goals: studying dark energy, conducting an infrared sky survey, and searching for exoplanets. Meanwhile, ESA is considering a dark energy mission, Euclid, for one of its upcoming M-class (medium-class) space science missions. Euclid is one of three missions vying for two slots. A decision is expected this summer.

NASA is proposing to the U.S. astrophysics community that the United States participate in Euclid at a 20 percent level in part because the outlook for proceeding with WFIRST on the time scale envisioned in NWNH is in doubt. Meanwhile, NASA says it would initiate planning for WFIRST and ESA would contribute a like amount to fly WFIRST at a later date.

NASA's proposal has been very controversial in the U.S. astrophysics community. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) asked the NRC to convene a panel to look at whether it is consistent with the NWNH recommendations. The NRC held a one-day workshop on November 7, 2010 to consider the issues and options.

The workshop report concluded that a joint WFIRST/Euclid mission could be consistent with NWNH if the United States plays a "leading role" and the science program recommended in NWNH "is preserved and overall cost savings result." However, deciding to participate at a 20 percent level before ESA decides whether Euclid will win one of the M-class mission slots "is not consistent with the program, strategy, and intent of the decadal survey" because it would "deplete resources" needed for other NWNH priorities. Instead, the workshop report recommends waiting until the ESA decision is made. That will also provide time for the NRC to establish a Decadal Survey Implementation Advisory Committee (DSIAC) to provide further guidance on the matter. Creating DSIAC was one of the NWNH recommendations.

More broadly, however, the NRC workshop report stresses that NWNH did not say that large missions should have priority over medium missions, or medium missions over small missions, or that the top priority large mission "is the top overall priority of the program." Rather, a central principle of NWNH "is the need for a balanced program...." Thus they do not want NASA to fund WFIRST at the expense of the medium and small missions also recommended in the report.

In fact, a final option identified in the workshop report is to not fund any space-based infrared telescope if the needed funds are not going to be provided and agreement cannot be reached on a joint WFIRST/Euclid mission that conforms with the NWNH advice. "Although an extremely unfortunate outcome with severely negative consequences," such an option "would seem consistent with NWNH. However, such a major change of plan should first be reviewed by the DSIAC."

The rapidly changing fiscal environment in NASA's astrophysics division makes providing strategic advice to NASA today "extremely challenging," the report says. Nonetheless, it continues, the Decadal Survey's advice was "explicitly designed to be robust for the entire decade" and "The NWNH recommendations remain scientifically compelling, and this [workshop] panel believes that the decadal survey process remains the most effective way to provide community consensus to the federal government" on astrophysics research priorities.

Editor's note: The New York Times ran a story on this topic on January 4, 2010, two days after ours. It has really good quotes from some of the most prominent scientists involved in the debate as well as Jon Morse, head of NASA's astrophysics division. Well worth reading.

Events of Interest: Week of January 3-7, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Jan-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.

Tuesday-Friday January 4-7

Wednesday, January 5

  • The 112th Congress convenes. The House and Senate will meet and swear in new members. The House will be controlled by the Republicans; the Senate by the Democrats.

Wednesday-Friday, January 5-7

More Cracks Found In Discovery's External Tank

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

Engineers have found more cracks in space shuttle Discovery's external tank (ET) now that the orbiter has been rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for closer examination.

Discovery's launch was delayed because of a gas leak on November 5, after which cracks were found in "stringers" on one side of the ET. The opposite side could not be examined while the shuttle remained on the launch pad. Now that it is back at the VAB, a complete inspection revealed additional cracks.

NASA said that X-ray analysis showed four small cracks on three stringers and they will be repaired "in a similar fashion to repairs made on cracks discovered" earlier. The launch is currently scheduled for no earlier than February 3.

Happy New Year! And Here's To a United Front in 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

Editor's Note

There are just under seven hours to go in 2010 here on the East Coast and we want to wish you all a Happy New Year.

We are going to resist the temptation to comment on what transpired over the past 11 months with the debate over the future of the human spaceflight program. At the end of the day -- well, the day hasn't ended.

NASA remains in limbo, caught between the 2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act and the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. It's a sad situation and particularly unfortunate coming at a time when the political focus is on cutting discretionary spending and any agency without a clear mandate is at special risk. NASA will need all the friends it can get to maintain its programs against the tide of austerity.

The White House and Congress hold all the financial cards in what will happen in the coming year, but the aerospace community -- entrepreneurial and traditional companies, grass roots activists, professional and industry associations, and the myriad other groups and individuals who are part of the space family -- has a voice in the matter. Politicians do listen to their constituents and lobbyists do have influence.

Despite the intra-family disagreements, perhaps the aerospace community should have a common New Year's Resolution as the clock strikes 12 tonight. It may be trite, but it's true: united we stand, divided we fall.

Events of Interest

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


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