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Felix Baumgartner, the first person to cross the English Channel on a carbon wing, will attempt to become the first human to break the speed of sound this summer in New Mexico. As we reported in an earlier story, Baumgartner and the team of the Red Bull Stratos Initiative expect to provide important scientific and medical data to bolster the commercial space industry, but the precise date of the jump has not been revealed.
CNN reports that Baumgartner will first ride a helium balloon to the record altitude of 120,000 feet above sea level. At that point, he will jump out and free fall back to Earth at about 690 miles an hour, breaking the speed of sound.
The team has taken several measures to increase Baumgartner's chance of survival, such as dressing him up in a pressurized suit and an "advanced helmet," and providing oxygen tanks and an automatic parachute for the ride.
Apart from breaking at least four records, the test is aimed to provide answers to the conditions from which humans - including humans on suborbital flights - could return to Earth in a situation where their vehicle becomes unusable or dangerous. "In the future, a lot more tourists will go and travel to space. And if something goes wrong with their spacecraft, they have to return to Earth somehow. We will show to the world that egress from high altitude is survivable," CNN quoted Baumgartner as saying.
Key players in implementing President Obama's plan to turn human spaceflight over to the commercial sector met Thursday to discuss human rating requirements for commercial crew space vehicles during a roundtable hosted by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). The first phase of a much needed debate to push forward the process that would allow NASA astronauts and - in the future - ordinary people to board commercial space vehicles centered on a variety of complex issues. In the end, there appeared to be consensus on at least one thing: safety is the first priority.
Bryan O'Connor, former astronaut and Chief of Safety and Mission Assurance at NASA, said that while the government would strive not to over-regulate, existing law like the 2005 NASA Authorization Act, which requires a presidential commission to investigate accidents, reminds government of its "responsibility of not backing up too much." He explained that NASA's role in promoting safety will begin with the upcoming release of a Request for Information (RFI) on NASA's draft human rating requirements. Mr. O'Connor said they reflected NASA's first take at the safety requirements the agency itself would look to address if it were in the commercial companies' shoes. Feedback from potential contractors will initiate a discussion on steps to integrate and adapt these requirements into the commercial systems now under development. He likened the process to what NASA went through to determine that astronauts could safely fly on Russia's Soyuz launch vehicle --- not strict compliance, but equivalence.
The "safety first" philosophy also reflects the necessity that safety requirements be integrated early in the design process because retrofitting them into an existing system is almost impossible. According to Ken Bowersox, another former astronaut and Vice President of Astronaut Safety and Mission Assurance Development at SpaceX, his company jumpstarted the human rating requirement process by looking at NASA's internal requirements, as well as previous and existing crew transportation vehicles - such as the Apollo and the Soyuz - for the early design of the Falcon 9 and its Dragon spacecraft. The company hopes that this strategy will help it adapt and respond to NASA's safety requirements more easily.
Adaptation is key, since history has demonstrated that strict compliance is not necessarily the best or safest option. Mr. O'Connor reiterated what he sees as the wisdom of following NASA's "Soyuz thinking" of not trying to force a redesign on the differences between Soyuz and NASA's own way of doing things. The questions become: Is this system acceptable? Is this issue a showstopper? Or is it an acceptable risk?
Another theme of the discussion was that risk and safety are not at opposite ends of the spectrum. "Safety is not an absolute," cautioned Dr. George Nield, Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration. "All transportation involves risks," he added, explaining that even a vehicle built completely by NASA should not be assumed to be safe and, least of all, risk-free. The need is to "understand and accept those risks before you fly," a process that will require dialogue within the community to come up with a consensus on standards, practices, and principles.
The debate will continue as stakeholders look for common ground in what Ken Reightler, Senior Vice President of Lockheed Martin Space Operations and another former astronaut, described as the "philosophy" or "mind-set" of safety. Mr. O'Connor explained that one often unspoken and perhaps misunderstood assumption of people involved in spaceflight is that the mission and the safety of the people carrying it out are not in competition, but go hand in hand. He said he fears that when the public hears debates like this one with an emphasis on safety, "people think we're saying that [safety] is our mission," but the only way to be completely safe is for people to not fly into space, and no one is suggesting that. He joked that the way he likes to think about it is that "safety is the remora fish in the shark of exploration," a reference to the symbiotic relationship between remora fish that attach themselves to and eat parasites off of sharks, benefitting both.
The Planetary Society and 11 other science and space organizations issued a statement yesterday supporting the "topline" FY2011 NASA budget request,. The statement stops short of explicitly endorsing President Obama's plan -- it makes no mention of commercial crew, for example -- but praises the increases in science. aeronautics and technology initiatives and supports a "high cadence exciting program."
Some of the language is rather obscure ("destinations, milestones, engagement and story matter"), but the bottom line appears to be general support for President Obama's overall plan, even though it avoids engaging on the most controversial issue of what to do with the human space flight program other than saying:
"We believe this is an opportunity for NASA to craft the exploration strategy in partnership with science and applied science that includes the International Space Station, safe and cost-effective access to low Earth orbit, robotic precursors, and other missions."
The full list of signatories is:
American Association for the Advancement of Science
American Astronomical Society
American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics
American Society for Gravitational and Space Biology
Associated Universities, Inc.
Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy
Commercial Spaceflight Federation
Maryland Space Business Roundtable
National Space Society
The Planetary Society
Space Frontier Foundation
Universities Space Research Association
Whether Republicans have substantive issues with the bill to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act or are just trying to disrupt the Democratic agenda, the bill went down to defeat today. The bill does not directly affect the space program, but the episode provides a sobering reminder that even popular programs that support STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and research and development (R&D) are vulnerable in today's highly charged political and economic environment.
The legislation, championed by House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN), had been pulled from floor consideration last week after Republicans succeeded in winning passage of an amendment to recommit the bill to committee. Included in the amendment was a provision prohibiting any funds from being spent to pay the salaries of federal employees who view pornography at work. Not wanting to be viewed as soft on pornography-watching civil servants, Democrats had little choice but to vote in favor of the amendment.
Although some news accounts intimated that this was an obstructionist tactic, Republicans did have some substantive complaints against that version of the bill (H.R. 5116). It provided a 5-year authorization of $85 billion for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and two agencies within the Department of Commerce, along with loan guarantees for small and medium businesses conducting technology development work, and funds for STEM education programs. Republicans argued that was too much money and strayed too far from the original America COMPETES Act passed in 2007. Rep. Gordon wondered aloud as to why these concerns were not raised during markup of the bill at subcommittee or full committee level.
Rep. Gordon modified the bill, reducing it to a 3-year authorization for $47 billion, and including the anti-pornography language the Republicans wanted. The new bill number is H.R. 5325. But it wasn't enough. The Democratic leadership brought the bill up under suspension of the rules today, which does not allow amendments, but requires a two-thirds vote instead of a simple majority. It fell short of the two-thirds required, although it did get a majority. Rep. Gordon said that he was "disappointed, but not deterred," and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) vowed to bring the bill back to the floor before the Memorial Day recess.
NASA will host a "spinoff day" tomorrow on Capitol Hill to highlight NASA"s contribtions to technology development and innovation. As Keith Cowing at NASAWatch points out, there hasn't been much publicity about this, though NASA may be targeting Members of Congress and their staffs instead of the general public. Neverthelless, it is open to everyone. The event is from 11:00-3:00 in 2325 Rayburn and reportedly features NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, NASA's Chief Technologist, Bobby Braun, and Doug Comstcok, head of NASA"s Innovative Partnerships Program, though the fyer does not list participants.
Former NASA Chief of Staff George Whitesides will join Virgin Galactic as its Chief Executive Officer (CEO) according to a company news release. Before joining the Obama transition team and NASA, Mr. Whitesides was Executive Director of the National Space Society.
The first man and the last man to walk on the Moon -- Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan -- will make another trip to Capitol Hill next week to testify about President Obama's plan for human space flight. The House Science and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on May 26 at 10:00 am in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building with Armstrong, Cernan, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, and aerospace industry iconTom Young. All four have testified to House or Senate committees at least once already. Armstrong, Cernan and Young all oppose the President's plan, which will be defended by Bolden.
UPDATE 2: Adds a hearing of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission on China's aerospace capabilities on Thursday, May 20. NOTE THAT THE START TIME HAS BEEN DELAYED TO 9:20 AM INSTEAD OF 9:00 AM.
UPDATE: Adds the AIAA seminar on human rating of commercial spacecraft on Thursday, May 20.
ORIGINAL STORY: The following events may be of interest this week. Check our calendar on the right for more information or click the links below. Times, dates and witnesses for congressional hearings are subject to change. Check the relevant committee's website for up to date information.
Tuesday, May 18
- Women in Aerospace "Aerospace 2010" one-day conference, Hyatt Regency-Washington, 400 New Jersey Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 9:00 am - 6:00 pm
Tuesday-Wednesday, May 18-19
- FAA Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) meeting, National Housing Center, 1201 15th St., N.W., Washington, DC. Meeting starts at 8:00 am each day.
Wednesday, May 19
Thursday, May 20
- U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission hearing on China's Emergent Military Aerospace and Commercial Aviation Capabilities, 562 Dirksen Senate Office Building, 9:20 am (DELAYED FROM 9:00 AM)
- House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee hearing on FY2011 DOD budget request, public witnesses testify, H-140 Capitol, 10:00 am
- AIAA seminar on human rating of commercial spacecraft, SVC-208/209, 1:00 pm
- Confirmation hearing for Carl Wieman to the Associate Director for Science of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Senate Commerce Committee, 253 Russell Senate Office Building, 2:30 pm
Thursday-Friday, May 20-21
The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) will host a discussion on Capitol Hill this Thursday, May 20, on human rating of commercial spacecraft. The meeting will be in room 208/209 of the Senator Visitors Center (in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center), East Capitol Street and First Street, S.E., Washington, D.C. beginning at 1:00 pm. For more information, visit AIAA's website. The event is free and open to the public, but an RSVP is required.
UPDATE: The shuttle lifted off on schedule.
ORIGINAL STORY: Space Shuttle Atlantis is on track for launch at 2:20 pm EDT this afternoon on its last scheduled mission, STS-132. Weather remains 70% favorable for launch. Live coverage is available on NASA TV and Spaceflightnow.com.
Events of Interest
- Science Writers 2014, October 17-21, 2014, Columbus, OH
- UN/Mexico Symposium on Making Space Technology Accessible and Affordable, October 20, 2014, Ensenada, Mexico (some portions will be webcast)
- ISS Spacewalk (Russia), October 22, 2014, Earth Orbit, spacewalk begins 9:24 am ET (NASA TV coverage begins 9:00 am ET)
- American Society for Gravitational & Space Research, October 22-26, 2014, Pasadena, CA
- 3rd Annual Space and Satellite Regulatory Colloquium, October 23, 2014, W Hotel, Washington, DC, 7:30 am - 4:30 pm ET
- WSBR Panel on Future of SATCOM in Support of DOD, October 23, 2014, University Club, Washington, DC, 11:30 am - 1:30 pm ET
- AIAA Natl Capital Section Luncheon Featuring NASA's Chris Scolese, October 23, 2014, Army Navy Country Club, Arlington, VA, 11:30 am - 1:30 pm ET
- NEW SpX-4 Returns to Earth, October 25, 2014: release from ISS 9:56 am ET (NASA TV coverage begins 9:30 am ET); splashdown (no live coverage) 3:39 pm ET
- TENTATIVE Orb-3 Cargo Launch to ISS, October 27, 2014, Wallops Island, VA, 6:44 pm ET (tentative until impact of Hurricane Gonzalo on Bermuda is known)
Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »
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