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GAO Urges White House To Develop and Implement Interagency Earth Observation Strategy

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-May-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) wants the President's Science and Technology Adviser to establish and implement an interagency strategy to ensure avialability of environmental satellite observations, including space weather, for the long term.

In a report released today, Environmental Satellites: Strategy Needed to Sustain Critical Climate and Space Weather Measurements, GAO called on the White House to expand and complete a report that was drafted last summer by an interagency group led by the White House on near-term earth observation opportunities. The report has not been approved by key Executive Branch entities and there is no timeline for doing so, according to GAO. In addition, that report falls short in many ways, including a lack of long-term planning.

Similarly, GAO found that an interagency space weather group had drafted two reports that were submitted to the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP, headed by the President's Science Adviser) in 2009, but there is no schedule for those to be completed either.

In short, GAO made the following conclusions:

  • Without a strategy for continuing environmental measurements over the coming decades and a means for implementing it, agencies will continue to independently pursue their immediate priorities on an ad hoc basis, the economic benefits of a coordinated approach to investments in earth observation may be lost, and our nation's ability to understand climate change may be limited.
  • Until OSTP approves and releases the [space weather] reports, it will not be clear whether the reports provide a strategy to ensure the long-term provision of space weather data-or whether the current efforts are simply attempts to ensure short-term data continuity. Without a comprehensive long term strategy for the provision of space weather data, agencies may make ad hoc decisions to ensure continuity in the near term and risk making inefficient investment decisions.

The report was requested by two subcommittees of the House Science and Technology Committee -- Energy and Environment, and Investigations and Oversight -- because of the loss of capabilities that were to be aboard the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). In a press release, the committee said it would continue to press for "the development of an appropriate strategy."

Armstrong, Cernan and Young Continue Opposition to Obama Plan

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 28-May-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon and commander of the Apollo 11 mission that took him there, said he found "mystifying" comments made by President Obama on April 15 that there is no need to go back to the Moon because "we've already been there." During the second part of Wednesday's House Science and Technology Committee hearing on the President's plan for NASA's human spaceflight program, Mr. Armstrong was accompanied by Captain Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon, and Mr. A. Thomas Young, Lockheed Martin (Ret.). All three had previously testified against the Obama plan, and they did so again.

In his statement, Mr. Armstrong wondered what effect a similar attitude would have had on revisiting places like the New World or west of the Mississippi, stressing that there is "much to be learned on the Moon." It offers "many of the challenges" in flying beyond low Earth orbit, but is close enough for a fast trip back to Earth in case of an emergency, being only three days away. Returning to the Moon is part of the three priorities Armstrong believes should guide NASA's human spaceflight plans:

  • Maintaining American leadership in space
  • Guaranteeing access to space, and
  • Pursuing exploration

Captain Cernan criticized the FY2011 budget request for not allocating "one support [human] space exploration," and focusing instead on technology development. He called it "a blueprint for a mission to 'nowhere.'" He is skeptical that the technology investments will result in any "game-changing," arguing that the investment made in the Ares I/Orion system should continue and the shuttle should keep flying until that system is available. He agrees that the long term goal of human spaceflight should be Mars and that a date for achieving that goal is not important as long as the program moves in that direction, but apparently disagrees on the intermediate steps. He argues that as Ares I/Orion evolves, "that's when we decide the exploration plan to follow." Interestingly, his comments sounded similar to the original Obama plan that did not include timelines or destinations.

Mr. Young restated his opposition to the commercial crew option because he does not believe industry can conduct such a program by itself. As a veteran of both government and industry jobs, he is adamant that the two must work together, with government bringing its continuity of experience and industry providing the implementation capability. He described the success of the recent test of the Orion launch abort system as "the best of NASA" and "the best of industry" working together. He believes that industry alone, lacking NASA's continuity of expertise, will probably fail in its attempt to develop commercial crew vehicles. The panel agreed that following the commercial crew route would result in an "atrophying" of the aerospace workforce and lead to the United States abdicating both its only crew access to space and, consequently, its leadership in this field with negative national security implications.

To a direct question over whether they believed the President's plan to be executable, Mr. Young said "no," Captain Cernan said "absolutely not," and Mr. Armstrong said it would be "highly unlikely."

When asked about his opinion of the Augustine Committee Report, Mr. Armstrong said he believed it to be "very good," but he thought the conclusion that Constellation was "unexecutable" was based on the FY2010 budget, which he said was substantially smaller than either the FY2009 or FY2011 budgets. He suggested that if "the ground rules had been different, their findings would have been different," adding that he believed this was a "built-in barrier to making ... an equitable judgment."

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), the only vocal advocate of President Obama's plan on the committee, expressed his admiration for the panel of witnesses, but asked committee chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) if there could be another hearing at which witnesses in favor of the plan would have an opportunity to present their views. Rep. Gordon reminded Rep. Rohrabacher that NASA Administrator Bolden had just testified to the committee for more than two hours, but also said that this would not be the last hearing before the committee puts forward a NASA authorization bill.

Nelson Continues to Press for One More Shuttle Mission

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

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) wrote a letter to President Obama yesterday arguing again in favor of launching the "launch on need" mission even if it isn't needed to rescue the final space shuttle crew. Sen. Nelson and others have been pressing the case in favor of the launch for some time.

Under the current schedule, only two more shuttle launches remain: STS-133 in September and STS-134 in November, though the launch dates remain a bit iffy. NASA plans to have a shuttle on standby in case anything goes wrong with the final shuttle mission and the crew needs to be rescued. Called the "launch on need" (LON) mission, or STS-135, the idea is that if everything goes well, that shuttle would not be launched.

The question then is why not launch it anyway? The biggest issue, of course, is money. It reportedly costs $200 million a month to keep the shuttle program going. NASA already has to absorb the costs of President Obama's decisions to build a crew rescue version of the Orion spacecraft ($5-7 billion over 5 years) and spend $40 million to help displaced space workers in Florida. NASA Administrator Bolden made it clear at yesterday's House hearing that the agency's budget would not be increased to accommodate those activities, so the money must come from other NASA programs.

More months of shuttle funding could further deplete those other NASA programs unless Congress appropriates additional sums. Sen. Nelson's letter said that he plans to include language in an authorization bill to add this flight, but NASA would only get funding if it is included in an appropriations bill. (Not sure of the difference between an authorization and an appropriation? See our What's a Markup? fact sheet.)

Another issue is what would happen if something went awry with STS-135. There would be no rescue mission for it. The answer is to launch that mission with a mininum crew complement of four. If the shuttle could not safely return to Earth, those four astronauts could remain on the International Space Station (ISS) until sufficient Russian Soyuz spacecraft could be launched to bring them home. It is not a risk-free strategy since there would be a period of time when there were too many crew members to evacuate in an emergency. Two Soyuz are typically docked at the ISS as lifeboats, each of which can carry three people and there might be 10 people aboard. Decisions would have to be made as to whether that is an acceptable risk.

Sen. Nelson's letter identifies the reasons he finds the idea so important, revolving around the additional logistical support it would provide for the ISS and retaining jobs a bit longer. Other shuttle supporters hope that the shuttle will continue flying even past this potential final mission. Cost pressures on the federal budget make that unlikely, however.

NASA Clarifies Orion Lifeboat Money Will Not Come From Commercial Crew

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

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden misspoke at yesterday's House hearing -- or the situation changed afterwards -- when he said that the funds to pay for a downscaled version of the Orion spacecraft ("Orion-lite") to serve as a space station lifeboat would come from funding allocated for commercial crew. NASA now says that it will not come from commercial crew, but other human spaceflight activities. The clarification first appeared in today's New York Times and was confirmed to by NASA.

Early in the House Science and Technology Committee hearing (minute 24:50 of the webcast), Bolden responded to a question from committee chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) about where the money will come from to build Orion-lite and pay for the $40 million President Obama promised to help the Florida space workforce. He assured Rep. Gordon that the funds would not come from science or aeronautics, adding that it would be taken from "commercial crew and ... technology development." He repeated it thereafter.

In today's New York Times, however, an unnamed NASA spokeswoman is cited as saying that "none of the financing for the Orion lifeboat would come from the $6 billion allocated to the commercial crew program, and that the offsetting funds would come from elsewhere in the human spaceflight program." A NASA spokesman confirmed to that the New York Times account is accurate.

NASA apparently told the committee prior to the hearing that the pricetag for Orion-lite is $5-7 billion over 5 years, but Bolden said at the hearing that NASA had refined the estimate down to $4.5 billion. How credible either estimate is remains to be seen. The only other human spaceflight funds to tap are in the Space Operations Mission Directorate (SOMD) and the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD). The two main programs in SOMD are the space shuttle, which is coming to an end, and the International Space Station (ISS). ESMD's other programs are technology demonstration, heavy lift and propulsion R&D, human research (funds for experiments aboard the ISS), and robotic precursors.

Bolden told the committee that a revised NASA FY2011 budget request will be submitted to Congress "in the near future."

Editor's Note: The original version of this story said that Mr. Bolden misspoke, but since it is possible that what he said was accurate at the time but changed afterwards, the opening sentence has been modified accordingly. Stay tuned.

Japan to Double Space Spending Over 10 Years

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-May-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

Japan's Daily Yomiuri newspaper reports that Japan's Strategic Headquarters for Space Policy has recommended that the government more than double spending on Japan's space industry, from 7 trillion yen to 15 trillion yen, over the next 10 years.

The Strategic Headquarters for Space Policy was created by Japan's Basic Space Law in 2008. It is chaired by the Prime Minister. The advisory panel met Tuesday for the first time since the Democratic Party of Japan took power last fall. The newspaper also reported that a proposal to create a new agency to promote the space development industry was set aside "due to strong opposition within the coalition government."

Citizens Against Government Waste Endorses Obama Plan

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-May-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), a non-profit group whose name explains its mission, endorses President Obama's plan to terminate the Constellation program and replace it with a human space flight program that relies on the private sector to take astronauts to and from space and investment in new technologies to lower the cost of space travel.

In a press release accompanying a report released Tuesday, CAGW President Tom Schatz called Constellation "a symbol of the 'old NASA'" and a program that is "morphing into another ill-conceived government program," a "black hole" into which the government should not keep sinking funds. He considers the Obama plan a "step in the right direction" and says Congress should not interfere. CAGW's full report is available on its website.

UPDATE: Shuttle Atlantis Lands Safely

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

UPDATE: The shuttle landed safely.

ORIGINAL STORY: The shuttle has been given a "go" for landing at 8:48 am EDT this morning at Kennedy Space Center. The landing will be covered live on NASA TV and See our previous article for more information on this scheduled last flight of Atlantis and International Space Station news.

UPDATE: Congress Still Waiting For Answers on Obama Plan

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

UPDATE: NASA has clarified that Mr. Bolden misspoke at the hearing when he said that funding for the downscaled version of the Orion spacecraft would come from commercial crew. See our story about NASA's clarification.


The House Science and Technology Committee's hearing on human space flight this morning underscored Members' concerns that almost four months after release of NASA's FY2011 budget request, they still have few answers about the details of the new plan. President Obama's April 15 speech at Kennedy Space Center appears to have muddied the waters rather than cleared them by adding two new "unfunded mandates:" the decision to build a downscaled "crew rescue" version of the Orion spacecraft and the $40 million initiative to help workers along the Florida space coast. Chairman Gordon revealed that NASA's preliminary estimate for "Orion-lite" is $5-7 billion over 5 years, not including operational costs.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told the committee that NASA would submit a revised FY2011 budget "in the near future" to show where the money will come from to pay for Orion-lite and the workforce package. He insisted that the total will not go "above the curve": the budget request will remain at $19 billion. That means funding meant for other NASA activities will have to be reduced. He assured the committee that funding for science and aeronautics research will not be touched, and the reductions would be in technology development and commercial crew. His statements made clear that the process of "robbing Peter to pay Paul," so heavily criticized during his predecessor's tenure, has begun before the new plan is even approved.

Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) pointed out that if it will cost NASA $5-7 billion for Orion-lite, a vehicle that can only bring people back from space, NASA's estimate of $6 billion to subsidize multiple companies to be able to offer commercial crew vehicles to take people both to and from space seems unrealistic. Orion-lite should be easier to design, build and certify as safe because it will be launched empty; it does not have to meet ascent human safety standards. It only must meet the visiting vehicle requirements for docking with the ISS and returning people to Earth.

Bolden appeared solo on the first "panel" of the hearing for about two hours. He was followed by a panel with Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan and Tom Young. Strong Member interest in the hearing made it run into extra innings. The webcast is not yet on the committee's website, but hopefully will be posted shortly.

During the hearing, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), chairwoman of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, asked Bolden if it was true that Constellation program manager Jeff Hanley was being replaced at that very moment. Bolden confirmed that it was his understanding that Hanley was being told that morning that he would be reassigned to be Deputy Director of Johnson Space Center for strategic studies. The timing seemed odd since it has been known for quite some time that Bolden would be testifying this morning. What message, if any, NASA was sending by removing Hanley at the same time the hearing was underway is a mystery.

Update on Falcon 9 Launch

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

The first launch of Falcon 9 has been delayed to no earlier than June 2/3 according to an email from SpaceX's Emily Shanklin. She writes that delays in the launch of the Delta 4 (carrying a GPS satellite) have "taken up a lot of resources at the Cape and in turn pushed" back the Falcon 9 launch. It's most recent launch date was May 28/29.

Shuttle Due to Land This Morning

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-May-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

UPDATE: A go no-go decision on landing at the first opportunity this morning (Wednesday) will be made at 7:21 am EDT for a deorbit burn at 7:41 am and landing at 8:48 am. The weather is currently forecast 30% no-go because of a slight chance of rain showers within 30 miles.

ORIGINAL STORY: The space shuttle Atlantis and its 6-member STS-132 crew are due to land tomorrow morning at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), FL. There are two landing opportunities: 8:48 am and 10:22 am EDT. If weather interferes, there are two opportunities at KSC on Thursday, and additional chances at KSC and Edwards Air Force Base, CA on Friday.

This is the last scheduled flight of the Atlantis orbiter, although it may be suited up for flight one more time as the so-called "launch on need" mission should anything go awry with the final shuttle launch. Only two more shuttle missions remain on the schedule: STS-133 and STS-134, nominally scheduled for September and November of this year.

Also, three of the six International Space Station (ISS) crew members will return to Earth on Tuesday, June 1, on Soyuz TMA-17, leaving three aboard. Three new ISS crew will be launched on Soyuz TMA-19 on June 15 to join them, returning the crew complement to six. To keep track of ISS comings and goings, check NASA's spaceflight website.

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