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Pressure Builds for House Committee To Change NASA Authorization Bill

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

Fourteen Nobel Prize winners plus former NASA officials, former astronauts and others sent a letter to House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) urging him to reconsider the provisions of the NASA authorization bill (H.R. 5781) reported by his committee. The bill has not yet been voted upon by the House.

The letter supports President Obama's plan to rely exclusively on commercial companies to launch astronauts to low Earth orbit (LEO) instead of NASA: "first, allow commercial providers to handle operations in low Earth orbit so that NASA's human spaceflight program can focus on exploration beyond Earth orbit instead of trying to 'do it all,' which is unaffordable." The House committee's version of the bill supports "commercial crew" conceptually, but would not provide the level of financial support requested by the President for FY2011 and projected through FY2015, a total of almost $6 billion. Instead, the House committee recommends loans and loan guarantees to assist the commercial companies.

Both the House committee's bill and the bill that passed the Senate last month (S. 3729) require NASA to develop its own crew transportation system for LEO and beyond, promising that the government system will not compete with any commercial systems that emerge. The Senate bill is much more supportive of commercial efforts, though not as strongly as the President.

Funding for the new NASA crew transportation system and for a possible additional space shuttle flight would come primarily from technology development funds requested for NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate in both bills. A separate pot of technology development money allocated to NASA's Chief Technologist, Bobby Braun, would be fully funded in the House committee's bill, but cut significantly by the Senate.

Though the letter is only to the House, not the Senate, it calls for restoration of the technology development funding. It also supports robotic precursor missions. The House committee says in its report (H. Rept. 111-576) that it considers robotic precursons only as "'nice-to-have' until the mission objectives to justify a robotic reconnaissance mission in advance of planned human exploration are established." Lastly, the letter urges more investment in university and student research.

Among the signers of the letter are Nobelist David Baltimore and University of Michigan Professor Lennard Fisk, both of whom were members of the National Academies' committee that wrote the 2009 "America's Future in Space" report. Dr. Fisk and another letter signer, Nobelist Charles Townes, are former chairmen of the National Research Council's Space Studies Board. Bill Nye, who will soon become executive director of the Planetary Society, is another signatory; the Planetary Society sent a separate letter with similar views to the bipartisan leadership of the House and Senate authorization and appropriations subcommittees that oversee NASA earlier in August.

Three other signatories -- Nobelist Douglas Osheroff, former NASA Ames Research Center Director Scott Hubbard, and George Washington University Professor Emeritus John Logsdon -- were members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) that determined the cause of the 2003 space shuttle Columbia tragedy. The CAIB report also drew attention to the lack of, and need for, a national mandate for the human spaceflight program to justify the risks involved. Hubbard and Logsdon reportedly led this letter-writing effort.

Informed sources say that the letter was addressed only to the House because that bill has yet to be voted upon and the hope is to change it prior to passage to facilitate negotiations with the Senate.

NRC Space Studies Board Kicks Off New Decadal Survey for Heliophysics

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Aug-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

The steering committee for the Space Studies Board's (SSB's) new Decadal Survey for Solar and Space Physics (Heliophysics) will hold its inaugural meeting this week from Wednesday to Friday (Sept. 1-3). Most of the meeting is closed, but the agenda for the open sessions is posted on that website. The committee is chaired by Dan Baker of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Thomas Zurbuchen of the University of Michigan is the Vice-Chair. The two are chair and vice-chair, respectively, of the SSB's standing committee on solar and space physics.

Other committee members are: Brian Anderson, Applied Physics Lab; Steve Battel, Battel Engineering; James Drake, University of Maryland; Lennard Fisk, University of Michigan (and former chair of the SSB); Saran Gibson, NCAR; Michael Hesse, NASA/Goddard; Todd Hoeksema, Stanford; David Hysell, Cornell; Mary Hudson, Dartmouth; Thomas Immel, UC Berkeley; Justin Kasper, Harvard-SAO; Judith Lean, Naval Research Lab; Ramon Lopez, UT-Arlington; Howard Singer, NOAA; Harlan Spence, University of New Hampshire; and Ed Stone, CalTech.

The committee will have three disciplinary panels: Atmosphere-Ionosphere-Magnetosphere Interactions; Panel on Solar-Wind Magnetosphere Interactions; and Panel on Solar and Heliospheric Physics. It also will have four "national capabilities working groups": theory and modeling; Explorers, Suborbital and Other Platforms; Innovations: Technology, Instruments, Data Systems; and Research to Operations/Operations to Research.

For more information, see the website for the Decadal Survey. For more on Decadal Surveys, see our National Research Council page on our left menu at

NRC Releases Astro2010 Panel Reports

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Aug-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

The National Research Council (NRC) published the new Decadal Survey on astronomy and astrophysics (Astro2010) earlier this month. Now it has released the reports of the nine panels that fed into the steering committee's deliberations. Five were science panels; four were programmatic. All the panel reports are combined into a single volume available from the National Academies Press.

The Science Frontier Panels were:

  • Cosmology and Fundamental Physics
  • Galactic Neighborhood
  • Galaxies Across Cosmic Time
  • Planetary Systems and Star Formation
  • Stars and Stellar Evolution

The Program Prioritization Panels were:

  • Electromagnetic Observations from Space
  • Optical and Infrared Astronomy from the Ground
  • Particle Astrophysics and Gravitation
  • Radio, Millimeter, and Submillimeter Astronomy from the Ground

The steering committee was responsible for determining the priorities identified in the report and making other recommendations, but its deliberations were informed by the panels. The science panels identified the top scientific questions in astronomy and astrophysics driving research in the next 10 years. The program prioritization panels then had to rank the ground- or space-based missions that are needed to answer those questions within available budgets using independent estimates of cost and technical readiness. The panel reports thus provide the richness of detail that underpins the recommendations of the steering committee.

Kevin Marvel, executive director of the American Astronomical Society, wrote an op-ed for Space News that was published in today's edition. He urges the astronomy and astrophysics community to support the Decadal Survey's recommendations and not use them as a "gripe list to be mulled over." He warns against "[b]ickering, in-fighting [and] the rule of self-interest" lest the report fail: "If this report fails, astronomy and astrophysics in this nation will fail as well." [Editor's Note: some Space News content is available only to subscribers; apologies if the link to the op-ed does not work.]

Export Control Reforms to Be Announced Today

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Aug-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

President Obama will announce reforms to the U.S. export control system today according to a fact sheet released by the White House. The reforms are "a major step forward in the Administration's efforts to fundamentally reform the export control system" and "will help strengthen our national security" according to the release.

Included in the reforms are overhauls of the State Department's Munitions List and the Commerce Department's Commerce Control List. They will be structured as "positive lists" that describe "controlled items using objective criteria ... rather than broad, open-ended, subjective, catch-all, or design intent-based criteria," which will "end most, if not all, jurisdictional disputes and ambiguities..."

The lists then will be split into three tiers, which the fact sheet explains as follows:

  • Items in the highest tier are those that provide a critical military or intelligence advantage to the United States and are available almost exclusively from the United States, or items that are a weapon of mass destruction.
  • Items in the middle tier are those that provide a substantial military or intelligence advantage to the United States and are available almost exclusively from our multilateral partners and Allies.
  • Items in the lowest tier are those that provide a significant military or intelligence advantage but are available more broadly.

Licensing policies and export enforcement also will change. The White House said that it will continue to work with Congress and the export control community on its longer range goal of combining all of these activities "under a single licensing agency and single export enforcement coordination agency."

Former Astronaut Bill Lenoir Reportedly Killed in Bicycle Accident

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Aug-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Jim Oberg posted a message on Friends and Partners in Space reporting that former astronaut Bill Lenoir was killed in a bicycle accident yesterday. The news is also reported on collectSpace.

Lenoir flew on STS-5, the first "operational" space shuttle mission, which delivered a communications satlelite to orbit. He and crewmate Joe Allen were scheduled to make the first spacewalk from the shuttle, but mechanical problems with their spacesuits foiled that plan. Lenoir later came to NASA Headquarters and ran the shuttle program.

Kepler Team Confirms Two Saturn-sized Planets Around a Single Star

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 27-Aug-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

Using data from the Kepler spacecraft, scientists have confirmed the discovery of a multi-planet system in the constellation Lyra about 2,000 light years away, made up of at least two gas-giants similar to Saturn in size and mass. The results, which increase the mission's confirmed planet count to seven since its launch in March 2009, were announced by the Kepler team in a teleconference held today.

William Borucki, Kepler Mission Science Principal Investigator, explained that "instead of taking pictures, [Kepler] measures the brightness of stars," variations of which are used by scientists to determine characteristics such as the orbital period, mass, and size of the planets that cross or transit them. Matthew Holman, Associate Director of the Theoretical Astrophysics Division at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said that using a technique called "transit timing variations" the team was able to utilize data collected over several months to study successive transits of the planets - Kepler 9B and Kepler 9C - and to analyze the gravitational interaction between them. By studying how the gravity of a planet affects the orbits of others, this technique, which Holman and a group of scientists first proposed in 2005, has now been proven to work as a tool to confirm the presence of planets.

But transit timing variation, which Borucki described as a "new, impressive," and "important" technique, does much more than just find them. Alycia Weinberger of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution of Washington explained that studying the way planets "tug at each other," which causes those transit variations, can even help teach us about how planets form and how they "migrate" into their particular configuration, a study which may provide clues as to the likelihood of low-mass, Earth-sized planets in other systems. "How a planetary system looks today has a lot to tell us about how it formed," she added.

The "super-Earth" category planet apparently orbiting the same star may have already been found in this same system, but work is ongoing to confirm this. With an orbital period of 1.6 days, this object would be the smallest planet to be observed in transit. As they keep hard at work to rule out "astrophysical false positives" regarding this third object, the team remains hopeful that this is just the beginning for a mission they expect will yield new exciting discoveries in the years to come.

One More Book for Your Summer Reading

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

Editor's Note

Now that you've finished all the books on our summer reading list (smile), there is a mystery novel from a new author that you're bound to enjoy in these waning days of summer. It has nothing to do with the space program -- just a great mystery written by a guy with a knack for surprise endings. I won't say anymore.

The book is "Gray Matter" by Nick Pirog. And if you MUST have a space connection, Nick's "day job" is as a server at a fabulous restaurant (Kitchen) in Boulder that is owned by Elon Musk's brother, Kimbal, who is also the chef. That is simply coincidence, however.

The book is a real page-turner for anyone who likes mysteries. If you want a vacation from thinking about whether humanity's next step should be to the Moon, Mars or an asteroid, I highly recommend it. Available from Sidewalk Press (

New DOD Report on China's Military Power Says Little New About Space

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

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has released its annual assessment of China's military power. The report is required by Congress. The 2010 edition, bearing a different title than its predecessors, Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China, concludes that China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) sees "space as central to enabling modern informatized warfare, but PLA doctrine does not appear to contemplate space operations as an operational 'campaign' on its own; rather, space operations form an integral component of all campaigns."

While conceding that studying PLA views on strategy remains "an inexact science," the report asserts that China is "accelerating the militarization of space" by developing anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities. The report repeats earlier DOD analysis that China continues to develop the ASAT system it tested in 2007 and other types of counter-space weapons as well, including kinetic and directed-energy weapons. The 2007 test led to international condemnation because of the thousands of pieces of debris it created.

The wording on space's role in modern warfare and China's ASAT activities is almost identical to what appeared in the 2009 version of the report.

The report is far from an analysis of China's space program and goals, limiting itself to very brief discussions of selected activities. There is little new compared with last year's version; in fact, there is less discussion of the human spaceflight program, for example. In an article in this week's Space Review, Dwayne Day has an interesting take on what is omitted from the report, hypothesizing that DOD may decline to include information for fear of revealing what it knows. He also points to a side-by-side comparison of what is said about space in the 2009 and 2010 versions prepared by Sam Black of Arms Control Wonk as well as Black's analysis of the two documents.

In short, the report is disappointing for anyone wanting to learn new information about China's space program.

NRC Calls for Restoring Health of NASA's Microgravity Research Program

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Aug-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

In an interim report on its Decadal Survey on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space, the National Research Council (NRC) is calling for the microgravity research program at NASA to be led by someone "of significant gravitas who is in a position of authority within the agency and has the communications skills to ensure the entire agency understands and concurs with the key objective to support and conduct high-fidelity, high-quality, high-value research."

NASA's research program for biological and physical sciences in space, usually called the microgravity program, has been buffeted for years by changes in the International Space Station (ISS) program and funding constraints associated with President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration policy. Although the ISS is not the only platform for conducting such research, as the NRC report emphasizes, the justification for building the ISS rests largely on the science that can be conducted there. President Obama's proposal to continue operating the ISS until at least 2020, rather than discontinuing U.S. participation in the facility in 2015 as envisioned under President Bush, is based in part on using the ISS as a National Laboratory for microgravity research.

The question then is what research needs to be done and how to prioritize it. Congress directed NASA to contract with the NRC to conduct the first Decadal Survey for this discipline in the FY2008 Omnibus Appropriations Act. The final report is expected in 2011, but the renewed focus on ISS research in the Obama Administration's FY2011 budget request prompted the NRC to issue this interim report to address near-term issues.

As explained in the report, dramatic funding cuts in the field led many scientists to abandon this type of research, which once had its own program office at NASA Headquarters, most recently called the Office of Biological and Physical Research. That office was abolished and today microgravity research is a component of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate's (ESMD's) Advanced Capabilities program.

The interim report identifies near-term research opportunities for the ISS. The final report will go into much more detail and define and prioritize an integrated research portfolio. The study is intended to address not only research in microgravity, but partial gravity such as on the surface of the Moon.

The NRC study committee is co-chaired by Betsy Cantwell of Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Wendy Kohrt of the University of Colorado, Denver. (For more information on NRC Decadal Surveys and links to the panels associated with this one, see our NRC page on the left menu at

Exoplanet News Expected Thursday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Aug-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

NASA will hold a media teleconference on Thursday, August 26, 2010, to reveal new findings from the Kepler space observatory. Using Kepler data, scientists have discovered an "intriguing planetary system" according to the announcement. The teleconference is at 1:00 pm EDT. Audio of the teleconference will be streamed at

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