SpacePolicyOnline.com Latest News
While his colleague Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX) is aiming to keep the Constellation program on track, Congressman Bill Posey (R-FL) is continuing his fight to keep the space shuttle operating beyond its current planned retirement this year. He wants to close the multiyear "gap" between the end of the shuttle and the availability of Constellation by filling it with occasional shuttle flights.
Posey's press release today reminded readers that during the Presidential campaign, then-Senator Obama promised Floridians that he would close that gap. If media reports are even "half accurate" about the President's plans for human space flight, said Posey, Obama's plan would be a "devastating reversal of that commitment" that is "bizarre and misguided." He added:
"My biggest fear is that this amounts to a slow death of our nation's human space flight program; a retreat from America's decades of leadership in space, ending the economic advantages that our space program has brought to the U.S., and ceding space to the Russians, Chinese and others. I will do all that I can to stop this ill-advised plan."
Rep. Posey's congressional district includes NASA's Kennedy Space Center. The area stands to lose thousands of jobs when the shuttle is terminated. He introduced legislation last year (H.R. 1962) to authorize shuttle flights through 2015 and wrote a letter to the President last week advocating an extension of the program.
NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) warned against extending the shuttle program unless the shuttle goes through a recertification process as recommended by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board after the Columbia tragedy in 2003. ASAP chair Joe Dyer is scheduled to testify to the House Science and Technology Committee next week.
On this day in 1967, three brave astronauts lost their lives in the Apollo 204 tragedy. Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chafee were killed when a fire erupted in their Apollo capsule during a pre-launch test of what was to have been the first Apollo launch. Hence this is sometimes referred to as Apollo 1, but it had the designation Apollo-Saturn 204 (AS-204) and traditionally is called Apollo 204.
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 has a "Day of Remembrance" for all three jointly on January 29, but it seems fitting to mention each of them individually here.
Many in the space community wistfully remember the Apollo era for its "can do" spirit and its successful accomplishment of a seemingly impossible task -- landing men on the Moon and returning them safely to Earth within just 8 years of President John F. Kennedy announcing that goal. The memory of the sacrifices made to achieve that goal -- especially of these lives lost -- seems to have faded for many. It should not.
The cause of the fire was never conclusively determined, but is thought to have been electrical arcing that ignited combustible materials in the capsule. The test was conducted in an atmosphere of 100% oxygen at 16.7 pounds per square inch (psi) pressure, an environment perfect to feed a fire. The hatch was designed to open inward and could not be opered with the pressure inside higher than that outside. The crew could not escape and died from asphyxiation by toxic gases and from burns. Subsequently, the hatch was redesigned to open outwards and ground tests were no longer conducted in 100% oxygen, along with many other changes.
In a media teleconference held today, NASA announced that after several failed attempts to extricate the Mars rover Spirit from its Martian "sand trap," the rover will become a stationary platform for further science exploration. The Mars rover team is now preparing to reposition Spirit to give it the best chance to survive the upcoming Martian winter.
"This is not a day to mourn Spirit. This is not a day of loss" said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters. Despite the fact that "its driving days are over," the six-year-old rover will continue to make contributions to understanding Mars. As a reminder, he said that the rover program consists of two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, and the latter is still mobile and positioned to make further discoveries in its trek between the Victoria and Endeavor craters.
John Callas, project manager of the Mars Exploration Rovers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), explained that the loss of functionality in Spirit's right rear wheel represented "yet another setback" and efforts now are focused on repositioning the tilted rover towards the north in order to survive the fast-approaching Martian winter. The rover is powered by solar arrays and the Sun is in the northern sky on Mars during the winter. In the past, rover managers have adjusted to decreasing solar energy levels by pointing the rovers so their solar arrays face the Sun, but Spirit's current position - tilted 9 south - means that decreasing solar energy levels may prompt the rover to assume a "low-power fault mode," essentially putting it into hibernation. Callas explained that until the batteries are charged, the rover may wake up periodically, but will fall back into this inactive posture "like a polar bear hibernating."
NASA also is concerned that the rover's internal parts may not stay warm enough to survive harsh winter temperatures. When new, a Mars rover is designed to withstand temperatures of about -45 C. Unfortunately, Spirit finds itself in a situation where "there is no good guarantee that the rover will be able to survive." To increase its chances, Ashley Stroupe, a rover driver at JPL, said that the focus is on maneuvering the rover to improve energy levels, increase its internal temperature, and thus reduce the time it will be in hibernation.
Meanwhile, Spirit can continue to study Mars from a stationary position as long as it has sufficient power. Steve Squyres of Cornell University, who is considered the "father" of the rovers, said that the current situation relaxes the "imperative to drive and allows us to do some science that we can't do from a moving platform." The three scientific initiatives he discussed are:
- Determining the internal structure of Mars' core (either solid or liquid) by tracking the radio signal from Spirit and studying the way the planet "wobbles" on its axis;
- Characterizing the interaction between the Martian atmosphere and surface by having the rover stir up soil and watch how the surface around it changes; and
- Characterizing the swell in the vicinity of the rover and the "strange soil" that surrounds it that is particularly high in sulfates.
The possibility of this "groundbreaking" science convinces Dr. Squyres that "we got stuck here for a reason." Welcoming the new phase of the rover's mission, he said that "we've squeezed every last bit of science out of these rovers," a strategy they hope to continue. To date, the missions have generated 91 papers in peer-reviewed journals and 407 abstracts at professional conferences.
With an average yearly cost of $20 million, the question remains whether an upcoming NASA "Senior Review" in February will recommend continued operations for the now stationary rover. Senior Reviews assess whether operating missions are producing sufficient scientific results to warrant their continuing costs. Considering their popularity, it seems unlikely that the agency would decide to terminate either Spirit or Opportunity if there is any chance of scientific return. In the meantime, the Mars rover team will try to take advantage of the next three weeks to ready Spirit for the winter, which begins between March and April. If Spirit survives the winter, it will resume its scientific studies in the Martian spring between August and September.
NASA has given the go-ahead for the next launch of the space shuttle while a key Congressman issued a strong defense of the Constellation program as the successor to the space shuttle, which is rapidly approaching retirement.
STS-130 (Endeavour) is scheduled for launch at 4:39 a.m. EST on February 7, 2010. It will be the last night launch of the space shuttle. Endeavour will take the Tranquilty module and its European-built Cupola to the International Space Station. Only four more shuttle launches remain after this one unless the Obama Administration or Congress decides to extend the program, which appears very unlikely with the possible exception of a "launch on need" mission, STS 135.
Meanwhile, with media sources ramping up speculation that the FY2011 Obama budget request will not support the ongoing Constellation program as the successor to the space shuttle, Representative Pete Olson (R-TX) issued a biting press release today defending Constellation. Saying that the President and congressional Democrats had wasted money on a stimulus bill that failed to create jobs, he asserted that Constellation is "the best means for America to remain the global leader in human space flight." He vowed to work with his congressional colleagues to ensure that any attempt by the Obama Administration to "reduce the role of human space flight at NASA" is "not the final answer on the future of NASA." Rep. Olson is the ranking Republican on the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee. His district encompasses NASA's Johnson Space Center where the Constellation program is managed.
President Obama reportedly will freeze spending for most domestic discretionary programs in his FY2011 budget request according to the New York Times. Domestic discretionary programs encompass all the government agencies that receive annual budgets, though some apparently will be exempted from the freeze. The budget is due to be released next Monday and the President is expected to talk about it during his State of the Union address this Wednesday evening.
The federal budget is broken into three major categories: entitlement spending for programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security; interest on the national debt; and everything else, or "discretionary" spending. The President will propose a three-year freeze on most discretionary spending with increases for inflation thereafter according to the newspaper, which adds that the Department of Defense, the Veterans Administration, homeland security, and foreign aid are exempted. A freeze is a cut in real terms since the agency has to absorb cost increases due to inflation.
The implications for NASA could be serious. Only a few weeks ago, rumors were that NASA would get a $1 billion increase for FY2011, which, according to an estimate in the Augustine committee report, would have been just about enough to pay for an extra six months of space shuttle operations if NASA is not able to complete the remaining five launches by the end of the current fiscal year (September 30, 2010). Those rumors have faded, but hope remained that a smaller increase might be forthcoming. A glimmer of hope still shines since the freeze would be on the total funding for all the affected agencies. Individual agencies or programs could receive more or less, but the excitement spurred by the Augustine Committee report's call for a $3 billion increase for NASA seems to have dimmed.
The loss by Democrats of the Senate seat formerly held by Senator Edward Kennedy was cited by the newspaper as a key factor in the President's renewed focus on deficit control. Political analysts cite voter dissatisfaction with how the Democrats are handling the economy as a factor in their election of a Republican. The Democratically-controlled Congress also is likely to be sensitive to those concerns, but the extent to which it agrees with the President's budget request will be determined over the course of the next many months.
The President of the Russian company building a successor to the venerable Soyuz spacecraft said today that the new vehicle will make its first test flight in 2015, according to Anatoly Zak at Russianspaceweb.com. Dubbed PTK NP, the new spacecraft is being designed for launch on a new rocket, Rus-M, from a new Russian launch site, Vostochny.
PTK NP is being built by RKK Energia. The remarks of Energia's President, Vitaly Lopota, at the Bauman Technical University in Moscow today were reported by Zak.
Some Russian space watchers wonder if Russia will devote the necessary funds to build a new spacecraft, new rocket, and new launch site in the next five years. Lopota's remarks suggested that the dates may be hard to meet, saying the 2015 test flight (without a crew) would take place from the Baikonur cosmodrome if Vostochny is not completed. Zak notes that development of the Rus-M began only in 2009 and is being designed specifically to support PTK NP from Vostochny, so if the launch instead is from Baikonur, an existing vehicle like the Zenit might be needed instead.
All Soviet/Russian human spaceflight launches have taken place from Baikonur (referred to as Tyuratam during the Cold War), which is in Kazakhstan. Once part of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan became an independent republic after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Russia has had to lease Baikonur from Kazakhstan since that time. Some Russian space officials have called for establishment of a launch site within Russia's borders capable of supporting the geostationary and comparatively low inclination launches traditionally conducted at Baikonur for both military and civilian space actvities. Vostochny ("Eastern"), in Russia's Amur Region in the far east, is intended to be that site. Russia's other operating space launch site is Plesetsk near the Arctic Circle. It is used for satellites headed to high inclination orbits such as polar orbits.
Russia's Soyuz spacecraft has been in service since 1967, though it has been upgraded several times over the years. Its launch vehicle, also called Soyuz (previously "A-2"), is used for many space missions in addition to human spaceflight. The new Rus-M would be able to place heavier payloads into low Earth orbit.
As we always note here at SpacePolicyOnline.com, dates, times and witnesses for congressional hearings are subject to change. And so it is today. The Senate Commerce Committee's hearing on pending nominations no longer includes Timothy McGee, the President's nominee to be Assistant Secretary of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for Environmental Observation and Prediction. No explanation was offered on the committee's website or as the hearing for the other nominees began.
The new charter for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is "lost in space" according to DODBuzz, which has been tracking the development of a new charter for the agency that builds and operates U.S. spy satellites. Though DODBuzz predicted in November that the new charter was imminent, apparently the Department of Defense (DOD) general counsel's office is worried that that it may expand NRO's "powers into areas governed by the military services," according to the website, which adds that the issue revolves around what constitutes "overhead reconnaissance systems." Stay tuned.
The Wall Street Journal's attention grabbing headline yesterday reiterates the rumors heard in space policy circles since the Augustine committee report was released last fall -- that NASA will turn to the commercial sector to build the new space transportation systems to take American astronauts into space. The article also dampens expectations of a significant budget increase for NASA in FY2011. Although there had been talk of a $1 billion increase a few weeks ago, more recent rumors are that those hopes will not be met. The FY2011 budget is due to be released a week from today, which should finally answer some of the questions about whether President Obama supports a robust NASA space program or not.
The House Science and Technology Committee is hot off the mark on NASA issues this year, with a hearing scheduled for February 3 on "Key Issues and Challenges Facing NASA: Views of the Agency's Watchdogs." The NASA Inspector General, the top Government Accountability Office (GAO) staff person on NASA issues, and the chairman of NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel are the witnesses.
The FY2011 federal budget, including NASA, is expected to be released on February 1. The most recent rumors are that it will not contain much of an increase for NASA, and will focus on facilitating commercial companies to develop new human space flight capabilities instead of building the Ares launch vehicle on which NASA has been working for the past four years. Many members of the House S&T Committee expressed strong support for the current program during hearings last year, so this could be shaping up to be a contentious year between Congress and the White House on space issues.
The hearing will be in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building beginning at 10:00 a.m.
Events of Interest
- NASA Earth Day 2014 events, April 21-27, 2014, various locations nationwide and online
- Humans to Mars (H2M) Summit, April 22-24, 2014, George Washington University, Washington, DC
- Webinar on China's Antisatellite (ASAT) program, April 24, 2014, virtual, 11:00 am ET
- NEW USA Science & Engineering Festival, April 25-27, 2014, Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC
- NEW NASA Exploration Forum on Human Path to Mars, April 29, 2014, NASA HQ, Washington, DC, 12:30 - 3:00 pm ET
- HASC Subcmte Markups, April 30-May 1, 2014, various locations in Rayburn House Office Building, various times
- WIA Aerospace 2014: Breaking the Mold, April 30, 2014, Hyatt Regency Crystal City, Arlington, VA, 8:00 am - 4:45 pm ET
- AIAA Spotlight Awards and Gala Dinner, April 30, 2014, Ronald Reagan Building, Washington, DC
- Senate Approps CJS Sbcmte Hearing on NASA's FY2015 Budget Req, May 1, 2014, 10:00 am ET (room TBA)
- NEW Amer Astronautical Society Special Event on ISS Utilization, May 1, 2014, 253 Russell Senate Office Building, 1:00-6:00 pm ET
- NEW BLAST OFF: Future of Spaceflight, May 1, 2014, The Explorers Club HQ, 46 E 70th St, New York, NY, 6:00-9:00 pm ET
Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »
Subscribe to Email Updates: