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Hillary Clinton: "I Really, Really Do Support the Space Program"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Jul-2015 (Updated: 17-Jul-2015 02:34 AM)

Hillary Clinton became the second of the 2016 presidential candidates to offer strong support for the space program.  Speaking at a town hall meeting in Dover, NH, today she explained not only why she supports investing in space exploration, including the need to track asteroids, but repeated the story of her desire to become an astronaut when she was a teenager.

Clinton responded to a question about her views on the space program -- which began with a shout out from the questioner for the New Horizons mission to Pluto -- by saying "I really, really do support the space program."

She recounted the story.of how she wrote to NASA when she was about 14 asking what she needed to do to become an astronaut.  NASA replied that they did not accept applications from.girls.  After lauding the fact that that changed as demonstrated by Sally Ride and other woman astronauts, Clinton said she clearly would not have qualified anyway and has not lost any sleep over it.

She continued to talk for several minutes about the need for the government to invest in the space program along with other science and technology activities for many reasons, including economic benefits and discovery.   She also mentioned security and in that vein noted in particular the need to track asteroids. 

"I think [the space program] is a good investment, so on my list of things that I want our country to invest in, in terms of research and innovation and .... basic science, exploring space, exploring our oceans, exploring our genome.  We're at the brink of all kinds of new information.  Let's not back off now!"

The questioner had asked if the time has come for space activities to be done by corporations instead of the government.  Clinton said she has nothing against partnering with corporations, but "they are more in the applied science arena,  not in the discovery and research arena that I think only the government can support."

The town hall meeting was broadcast by C-SPAN.

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush expressed his support for the space program last week.

Data Reveal Ice Mountains on Pluto

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Jul-2015 (Updated: 15-Jul-2015 04:10 PM)

The scientific data being received from the New Horizons spacecraft are giving scientists a lot to think about.  Only a small amount has made to back to Earth, but it is revolutionizing theories about Pluto and its moons.

At a press conference this afternoon at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (JHUAPL) in Laurel, MD, which is operating the spacecraft, Principal Investigator (PI) Alan Stern and other team members showed some of the imagery obtained yesterday as New Horizons made its closest approach to Pluto.   The imagery for Pluto is 10 times better resolution than what was released yesterday and the image the scientists focused on today is just a small part of it, slightly to the left of the center at the bottom.

Surface of Pluto.  Imagery from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft.  Photo credit: NASA 

Among the "astonishing" aspects of the image is that there are no impact craters, meaning that geological processes on the planet are ongoing and creating a new surface.  John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) said the surface may be only 1 million years old, whereas the solar system is 4.5 billion years old.   Also, there are mountains on the surface. At the moment, they speculate they are made of water ice.

Spencer said that means Pluto is the first icy world that is not orbiting another planet (like Jupiter and Saturn) and the surface features therefore are not the result of tidal heating (from interaction with the large planet).  That will "send geophysicists back to the drawing board," Stern exclaimed.

Surprising information was also revealed about Pluto's moon Charon.  It, too, has a young surface with many features including canyons, but not the craters they'd expected from billions of years of collisions with other objects. New Horizons deputy PI Cathy Olkin said the image "blew our socks off." 

Pluto's moon Charon.  Image from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft.  Photo credit: NASA

Pluto was discovered by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh and the heart-shaped region that appears in the image released yesterday has been named Tombaugh Regio in his honor.

Much more data is yet to be received on Earth and scientific analysis takes time, so stay tuned for more results.

New Horizons Phones Home, Science Data To Come Beginning Tomorrow

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Jul-2015 (Updated: 14-Jul-2015 10:41 PM)

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft restored contact with Earth just as planned tonight, sending an "all's well" signal at 8:52:37 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).

New Horizons is the first spacecraft to visit Pluto and its moons after a nine-and-a-half year journey that culminated in a close flyby about 7,750 miles above Pluto's surface at 7:50 am EDT this morning.  The spacecraft was busy collecting science data for several hours and, coupled with the 4.5 hour one-way signal travel time from Pluto to Earth, the signal arrived this evening.

The spacecraft had sent a great deal of data -- including tantalizing images --  before the closest approach sequence began, but the highly prized close approach data will start streaming back to Earth in a few hours.  The next signal acquisition will be at 5:50 am EDT tomorrow morning (July 15) and last several hours.  That is just the beginning though -- it will take 16 months to get all the data back.  The maximum data rate is 4 kilobits/second.

NASA has processed imagery acquired before the closest approach in "false color" to highlight differences in surface material and features on Pluto and its moon  Charon.   

Pluto and its moon Charon in false color imagery to highlight differences in surface materials and features.
Distance between the two objects was reduced for side-by-side comparison.
Photo credit:  NASA

The false color image shows, among other things, that the heart-shaped feature observed in an earlier image is composed of different materials on the western and eastern sides.   What it all means requires further analysis.

Another NASA briefing is scheduled for 3:00 pm EDT tomorrow.  Check back here for updates.

Pluto Shows Its Heart in New Image from NASA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Jul-2015 (Updated: 15-Jul-2015 09:18 AM)

The latest image of Pluto taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft shows a heart-shaped feature on the surface.  The photo was taken last night and transmitted back to Earth just before it turned to face Pluto for its closest encounter, which took place at 7:50 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) this morning.  The spacecraft will turn back to Earth and resume transmitting data at 8:53 pm EDT tonight - an anxiously awaited "phone home" transmission that will tell mission managers that all is well.

New Horizons has been sending back data about Pluto for weeks that is "better than Hubble" -- better than what can be observed using the Hubble Space Telescope in Earth orbit -- and the latest image is the sharpest yet of the surface of Pluto.   Once the 9th planet in the solar system, it was redesignated as a "dwarf planet" by the International Astronomical Union in 2006, though many people, including New Horizons Principal Investigator (PI) Alan Stern and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, still call it a planet. 

Image of Pluto taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on July 13, 2015 Eastern Daylight Time.  Image credit NASA.

Scientists do not yet know what surface characteristics are creating the heart-shaped feature.  Higher resolution data that the spacecraft took today and will begin sending back to Earth tomorrow hopefully will solve that mystery.  The spacecraft was intended to come as close as 7,750 miles (12,472 kilometers) from Pluto's surface, but data from the spacecraft already revealed that the planet is slightly larger than expected.  Stern said that meant they came 70 kilometers (43 miles) closer.

The spacecraft and Pluto are 3 billion miles (4.9 billion kilometers) from Earth and it takes 4.5 hours for a radio signal to travel that distance at the speed of light, meaning a 9-hour two-way signal travel time.   In the early phases of this closest approach to Pluto, the spacecraft's antenna along with its instruments were pointed at Pluto so data could not be sent back to Earth. In the later phases underway now, it has turned back this way, but is busy collecting science data looking at Pluto's atmosphere, in particular, from the far side back towards the Sun. 

Once it has completed those scientific measurements, it will resume transmissions to Earth.  That moment -- the "phone home" signal -- is at 8:53 pm EDT tonight.  NASA's next televised media briefing begins at 8:30 pm EDT and lasts through that critical moment.

Because of data rate limitations, the first signal will be only a 15 minute burst of engineering data revealing the spacecraft's health.  Science data will follow.   NASA and the project's scientists have prioritized what data to return first since it will take a total of 16 months to return all the data that was collected.   The maximum data rate is 4 kilobits per second according to Alice Bowman, mission operations manager at the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab (APL) in Laurel, MD.  APL built and operates the spacecraft for NASA.

Yesterday, Stern and Deputy PI Cathy Olkin cautioned against making snap judgments about what they think they may be seeing in the images and other data.  Stern repeated that today when asked if the surface features reveal evidence of tectonics.  "I'm not sure, is the honest answer," he replied, because the data need to be properly processed and studied.

Stern was asked again about the possibility that the spacecraft might have encountered debris as it passed by Pluto with mission-ending consequences.  He again downplayed that possibility (although yesterday he said it was a 1 in 10,000 possibility and today he said 2 in 10,000).   No one will know for sure until 8:53 pm EDT tonight.

To guard against such a possibility, though, the spacecraft collected and sent back to Earth "fail safe" data sets before the black-out period.  We have "obviously revolutionized knowledge" about Pluto already, Stern said, but stressed that 99 percent of the data are still on the spacecraft and there would be "great disappointment" if it was lost.

Stern noted that exactly 50 years ago today, NASA's Mariner 4 spacecraft made the first successful flyby of Mars and it is "fitting today that we complete the exploration of the planets."

Correction: Two typos were corrected regarding the distance to the spacecraft and Pluto: they are 3 BILLION miles (4.9 BILLION kilometers from Earth).

New Horizons Just Hours Away From Closest Approach to "Enchanting" Pluto

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Jul-2015 (Updated: 13-Jul-2015 03:18 PM)

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is closing in on Pluto and its five moons after a nine-and-a-half year journey.  Alan Stern, principal investigator (PI) for the mission, refers it as the "Pluto system," an "enchanting" place. Closest approach to Pluto is at 7:50 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) tomorrow, July 14, but it will not be until 8:53 pm EDT that scientists will know that the encounter took place as planned.

NASA is holding a series of media briefings today, tomorrow and Wednesday covering the encounter.   At this morning's briefing, Stern and deputy PI Cathy Olkin, both from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), discussed what they have learned about Pluto in recent days, though Stern cautioned that time is needed to fully analyze the data before making final conclusions:  "Science on the fly is often wrong," he warned, and they will stick to the facts for now. 

Pluto and New Horizons are 3 billion miles (4.9 billion kilometers) from Earth and it takes a signal 4.5 hours to travel that far (meaning a 9-hour two-way signal travel time).   That plus limited data rates mean that it will take a long time to get back all the data the spacecraft is collecting -- 16 months, Olkin said.  For now, the focus is high priority data, including imagery.  Right now, they are prioritizing black and white imagery from the LORRI instrument that requires many fewer bits than color imagery.  That is why so many of the images publicized in recent days have been in black and white, but Olkin promised new color images tomorrow.

That will be from data taken before the closest encounter, however.   The spacecraft's instruments and antenna will be pointed toward Pluto and its moon Charon during the flyby tomorrow, which begins at 7:50 am EDT, so it cannot send data back to Earth.  Not until the data are collected and the spacecraft is past Pluto will it turn to face Earth so the antenna can transmit data home.  At that moment, it will be only an engineering signal, not scientific data.  

NASA will broadcast media briefings tomorrow from 7:30-8:00 am EDT, 8:00-9:00 am EDT, 8:30-9:15 pm EDT and 9:30-10:30 pm EDT to discuss the mission's progress.  A key one will be the 8:30-9:15 pm briefing during which time the signal should be received that the spacecraft got through the encounter OK.

One concern is that there may be debris around Pluto that could interfere with the spacecraft as it flies past, but Stern downplayed that today.  He said the area of greatest concern is as the spacecraft crosses Pluto's equatorial plane, but it is not a big worry.   Stern said there is only a 1 in 10,000th chance of loss of mission because of a debris interaction and he is not going to lose any sleep over it.

Stern called the data from New Horizons a "gift for the ages."  Recent "mouth-watering" scientific findings are that:

  • Pluto is bigger than expected, 1,185 kilometers in radius (plus or minus 10 kilometers), meaning that it is less dense than scientists thought;
  • Pluto's polar cap is, indeed, made of ice -- methane ice and nitrogen ice; and
  • Nitrogen escaping from Pluto's atmosphere was detected 5 days out, much earlier than expected.

He and Olkin were reluctant to discuss the implications of these findings yet, but the data appear tantalizing.

Stern often calls New Horizons a lesson in delayed gratification because it took so long to reach Pluto.  Unlike other deep space missions, including ESA's Rosetta mission that took even longer to reach its destination, there has been little for New Horizons to study along its journey.  It has not passed anything of scientific interest for the past 8 years.   Stern said he and the New Horizons team feel like they've been on an escalator for all that time and now have stepped onto a supersonic transport, exclaiming at one point: "Fasten your seatbelts, New Horizons has arrived at the Pluto system!"

ISS Operations OK Despite Cargo Losses, But What's the Future?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Jul-2015 (Updated: 11-Jul-2015 10:24 PM)

Despite the failure of three cargo missions to the International Space Station (ISS) over the past 8 months, operations aboard the orbiting laboratory are fine, NASA and Boeing officials told Congress on Friday. The question is what the future will be for ISS and, perhaps more importantly, for low Earth orbit (LEO) research opportunities after ISS ends.

Those questions were addressed -- if not definitively answered -- at a June 10, 2015 hearing before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.  Witnesses with NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier; Boeing Vice President and General Manager for Space Exploration John Elbon; NASA Inspector General (IG) Paul Martin; Government Accountability Office (GAO) expert Shelby Oakley; and Penn State physiologist and kinesiologist James Pawelczyk, who flew as a payload specialist on the 1998 Neurolab space shuttle mission.  (Boeing was the prime contractor for the ISS and continues to provide sustaining engineering for the U.S. segment.)

Current Status of ISS.   Gerstenmaier and Elbon repeatedly said ISS today is fine despite the losses of three cargo ships over the past 8 months: Orbital Sciences Corporation's (now Orbital ATK) Orb-3 in October 2014; Russia's Progress M-27M in April 2015, and SpaceX's CRS-7 (SpX-7) in June 2015.

That is not to say nothing of value was lost.   Gerstenamier estimates that NASA lost $110 million worth of cargo on the SpX-7 mission alone.  NASA bears that cost, just as the researchers who lost their experiments are not reimbursed. Gerstenmaier said NASA is now looking at buying insurance for its cargo.

Of most concern is the International Docking Adapter (IDA) that was on SpX-7.  Two IDAs are needed for the two upcoming commercial crew vehicles -- SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 -- to dock with the ISS.  The second is already awaiting launch, but a third will have to be built to replace the one lost on SpX-7.  Some parts are available and the schedule can be met, but there will be a "dollar loss" to the ISS program, Gerstenmaier said.

He added some research experiments were lost twice -- first on Orb-3 and then again on SpX-7 after they were quickly reconstituted for reflight.  And the Progress M-27M failure delayed the launch of three ISS crew members (now scheduled for July 22 Eastern Daylight Time), reducing the amount of research that the ISS crew can conduct.

In essence, basic operations of ISS were not affected by the three cargo spacecraft losses, but  "the research impacts"  cannot be recovered.

Responsibility for Cargo Losses and Accident Investigations.  The role NASA is playing in the investigations of the Orb-3 and SpX-7 failures was a repeated theme during the hearing.  Gerstenmaier and NASA IG Martin reminded the committee that they were commercial launches licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the investigations take place under FAA's regulations.  That means that the respective companies take the lead.  Gerstenmaier stressed, however, that NASA as well as the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are fully engaged in those investigations and NASA can do its own independent review if necessary.   He believes both Orbital ATK and SpaceX are being completely transparent in their investigations, however.

Gerstenmaier said the three accidents over such a short period of time was unexpected, but "the tragedy will be if we don't learn from these events."  It is a "painful" learning process, but one better learned on cargo than crewed missions, he added.

Russia as a Partner.  Gerstenmaier reassured the subcommittee that Russia is a strong and reliable partner on ISS despite tensions between the U.S. and Russian governments here on Earth.  The day before this hearing, the President's nominee to be the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford (USMC), told a Senate committee that Russia is the "greatest threat" to the United States.   Gerstenmaier, however, said that the cooperation on ISS "transcends" those differences.  "The challenge of human spaceflight ... transcends ... the toughness of the outside world."  He characterized the technical relationship between the two countries with regard to operating ISS as "extremely strong and extremely transparent in spite of governmental tensions" and the two are working together "extremely effectively."  The two countries are "mutually dependent" in terms of ISS operations and interact on a daily basis.

Research on the ISS.    Pawelczyk stressed the need for more crew hours dedicated to research.  Crew time is the biggest constraint on research and "we need that seventh crew member."  NASA plans to increase the current six-person ISS crew to seven once the U.S. commercial crew systems are operational.

Most importantly, to learn what is needed to successfully send humans to Mars, biological research on the ISS must expand to cover the entire mammalian life cycle and incorporate the effects of the partial gravity humans will experience on Mars, Pawelczyk urged.  For that, the centrifuge capability on the ISS must be "improved."   The space station originally was intended to include a module with a 2.4 meter centrifuge capable of experimenting with humans in varying levels of gravity ("g"), not just the microgravity of a space station in LEO, but the centrifuge module was cancelled due to budget constraints.  The Moon has 1/6 g and Mars has 1/3 g.  How humans might respond to those partial gravity levels rather than microgravity is an open question.  

Pawelczyk also cautioned that as ISS ages, more time may be needed for maintenance, further reducing the amount of time available for research.  GAO's Oakley made a related  point.   She said NASA's top priorities for the ISS are safety and crew transportation, maintenance, and research, in that order.  If costs increase for the first two, she warned, that could mean less money for research.

Pawelczyk praised NASA for its turn around in the past 5 years in supporting the biological and physical scientists who want to do research in space, calling it a "transformation" that is "nothing less than remarkable."  NASA is listening to the advice from the National Research Council's Decadal Survey that recommended priorities for physical and biological research in space, he said, and a new generation of researchers is emerging.

Extending ISS to 2024 Or Beyond.  Several subcommittee members said that Congress has not yet authorized operation of ISS beyond 2020, citing the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, implying that it could not continue beyond that without further congressional action.  The 2010 Act (P.L. 111-267), however, authorizes operation of ISS "through at least 2020" so does not establish a formal end date. Absent further congressional action, presumably it could continue.  At the moment,  S. 1297, the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, approved by the Senate Commerce Committee in May, would extend ISS through "at least 2024."  The House-passed 2015 NASA Authorization Act (for which there is no Senate counterpart yet) asks for a report from NASA on the costs for extending ISS to 2024 or 2030.  That provision also is in the version of the 2016-2017 NASA Authorization Act adopted by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in April. 

Elbon said that Boeing's analysis shows that ISS will be structurally sound at least until 2028, but the key is finding researchers to use it and providing adequate funding.

Gerstenmaier was asked how many of the ISS partners have committed to extending ISS operations to 2024 as proposed last year by President Obama.  Only Canada, he replied.  He is optimistic that Russia will agree by the end of this year.  Japan may approve late this year or early next year, and the European Space Agency (ESA) perhaps in 2017, he forecast.

NASA IG Martin said that several reports by his office have looked at extending ISS to 2024 and while NASA says there are no major obstacles, his office disagrees.  In particular, it found NASA's cost estimate of $3-4 billion per year for ISS operations "optimistic."  Martin said ISS costs have increased approximately 8 percent per year on average, but was 26 percent between FY2011 and FY2013. 

GAO's Oakley agreed.  She said GAO has not seen any formal costs estimates from NASA for operations beyond 2020. 

What's Next?  ISS has a finite lifetime.  There is no disagreement on that, only on whether it will stop in 2020, 2024, 2028 or later, and what, if anything, comes next.  

NASA's plans are focused on moving out into cis-lunar space and eventually to Mars, not on building more research facilities in LEO.   Gerstenmaier said NASA is "looking to see if we can leave low Earth orbit to commercial companies,"  emphasizing that a facility on the order of the ISS may not be necessary. Small spacecraft like a SpaceX Dragon or Orbital ATK Cygnus outfitted for research could be sufficient.  SpaceX is working on a DragonLab version of the Dragon spacecraft, for example.  NASA wants to use ISS to "let the private sector understand the benefits" of research in microgravity and determine if there is a market there.

What's Happening in Space Policy July 13-18, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Jul-2015 (Updated: 11-Jul-2015 01:31 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of July 13-18, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

This is Pluto week.  While there are other interesting events that will take place, the arrival of NASA's New Horizons mission at Pluto after a 9 1/2 year journey certainly will steal the headlines.

Pluto and New Horizons are about 3 billion miles (4.9 billion kilometers) from Earth, so the two-way signal travel time is about 9 hours.   New Horizons will make its closest approach to Pluto on July 14 at 7:49:47 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT), but the signal confirming that the encounter took place as planned will not arrive until evening.   NASA has a series of media events about the mission planned for the next several days that will be broadcast on NASA TV (NASA cautions that all times are subject to change; check the NASA TV schedule or the NASA New Horizons website).

  • Monday, July 13:  Media briefing, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm EDT
  • Tuesday, July 14 -- day of closest encounter: 
    • Arrival at Pluto countdown, 7:30 - 8:00 am EDT
    • Media briefing, 8:00 - 9:00 am EDT
    • NASA TV Program "Phone Home" broadcast from mission control at APL, 8:30 - 9:15 pm EDT (signal should be received at 9:02 pm EDT)
    • Mission Briefing, 9:30 - 10:00 pm EDT
  • Wednesday, July 15: Media Briefing "Seeing Pluto in a New Light," 3:00-4:00 pm EDT

Fascinating photos already are being sent back.  Mission control is at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (APL) in Laurel, MD (APL built the spacecraft) and its website has a treasure trove of images and other information.

That and other events we know about as of Saturday morning are listed below.

Monday, July 13

Tuesday, July 14

Wednesday, July 15

Thursday, July 16

Thursday-Saturday, July 16-18




CJCS Designee Calls Russia "Greatest Threat" to US, But NASA Says ISS Trancends Differences

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Jul-2015 (Updated: 11-Jul-2015 11:46 AM)

Two congressional hearings over the past two days illustrate the complexity of the current U.S.-Russian relationship.  At a Senate hearing yesterday, the Marine general nominated to be the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) said that Russia poses the greatest threat to U.S. national security.  Today, at a House hearing on the International Space Station (ISS), a NASA official said that human spaceflight "transcends" the differences between the two countries.

Gen. Joseph Dunford, Commandant of the Marine Corps and President Obama's pick to succeed Army Gen. Martin Dempsey as CJCS, was asked at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Service Committee (SASC) yesterday what is the greatest threat to U.S. national security.  "My assessment today ... is that Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security," he replied, adding that Russia is a nuclear power whose recent behavior is "nothing short of alarming." 

Conversely, at today's House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee hearing on ISS operational challenges, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, said the U.S.-Russian relationship on ISS is "very strong."   NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, are "mutually dependent" on each other for operating the ISS.

"The challenge of human spaceflight ... transcends ... the toughness of the outside world," Gerstenmaier said.  He characterized the technical relationship between the two countries with regard to operating ISS "extremely strong and extremely transparent in spite of governmental tensions" and the two are working together "extremely effectively."

The two hearings and the comments made therein are independent of each other, but taken together demonstrate the complicated U.S.-Russian relationship.

The Dunford hearing itself did not touch on space activities, though in a 75-page set of answers to questions posed prior to the hearing, Dunford agreed that space situational awareness and protecting space assets need more attention, that he would review U.S. efforts to address China's developments in space, and review policies and programs to ensure U.S. warfighters can depend on the advantages that space confers.

The ISS hearing will be summarized in an upcoming article.  Check back here tomorrow.


Jeb Bush: "I'm a Space Guy"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Jul-2015 (Updated: 09-Jul-2015 10:09 PM)

Republican Presidential candidate and former Florida governor Jeb Bush told a New Hampshire newspaper yesterday that he is a "space guy" who would increase funding for NASA.

During an interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader in Manchester, NH, which was televised by C-Span, Bush was asked what he would do about NASA funding.  He replied:  "Up! Up!  I'm a space guy.  I think we need to be aspirational as a country."  He went on to support investment in research and development (R&D) in general as the proper role of the government:  "We should spend less on the here and now, and more on these long term things because no one else will do it."

The exchange comes at 44 minutes into an almost hour-long discussion of the broad range of issues facing any presidential candidate.  As a former Florida governor, it is not unexpected that he has given some thought to the space program.  What's surprising is that the Union Leader would ask him about it.  Space activities usually are, at best, a tangential issue in presidential campaigns and New Hampshire is not one of the prominent states with space industries or NASA centers.

One might hope that the Union Leader will ask all the presidential candidates about their views on space, but the newspaper's own write-up of the Bush interview did not mention the exchange about NASA or R&D.

NASA Selects Four Astronauts to Fly Commercial Crew Missions

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Jul-2015 (Updated: 09-Jul-2015 07:46 PM)

NASA announced today the names of four astronauts it has selected to be the first to fly on the commercial crew systems under development by Boeing and SpaceX.   The three men and one woman all are spaceflight veterans.  NASA hopes Boeing's CST-100 and SpaceX's crew version of Dragon ("Crew Dragon") will be ready to send astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) by 2017.

The four NASA astronauts are:

  • Robert Behnken, who flew on two space shuttle missions:  STS-123 in 2008 and STS-130 in 2010.  He has a total of 29 days in space, including 37 hours on six spacewalks.
  • Eric Boe flew on STS-126 in 2008 and STS-133 in 2011.  He has more than 28 days in space.
  • Douglas Hurley flew on STS-127 in 2009 and STS-135 (the final shuttle mission) in 2011.  He has more than 28 days in space.
  • Sunita Williams, a veteran of two long-duration ISS missions (December 2006-June 2007 and July-November 2012) totaling 322 days in space.  On her second mission, she was the commander of the ISS.  She holds the record for total cumulative spacewalk time for a woman -- 50 hours 40 minutes -- over seven spacewalks.

They will train to fly on both commercial spacecraft, which are being developed under a public private partnership (PPP) between the companies and the government.  Boeing and SpaceX were selected for the final phase of the program, Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP), last fall.   Their contracts with NASA require them to fly at least one crewed flight test with at least one NASA astronaut to the ISS to verify that the system can launch, maneuver in orbit, and dock to the ISS.  To meet that requirement, the companies must provide the requisite training for the crews.

SpaceX founder, CEO and lead designer Elon Musk said last summer that SpaceX does not plan to have any astronauts of its own and only astronauts selected by NASA will fly to the ISS on Crew Dragon. (NASA is responsible for getting not only its own astronauts, but those of the non-Russian ISS partners -- Japan, Canada and Europe -- to and from the ISS under the Intergovernmental Agreement that governs the program.)  Boeing's John Elbon, vice president and general manager for space exploration, said in April that Boeing plans to fly one NASA astronaut and one Boeing test pilot on its test flight.

NASA continues to try to convince Congress to provide full funding for the commercial crew program so American companies can launch American astronauts on American systems from American soil by 2017.  The United States has not been able to launch anyone into space since it terminated the space shuttle program in 2011.  It pays Russia to launch crews to the ISS and bring them home.  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden repeatedly says that if Congress had fully funded the program in the past, the systems would be flying this year instead of 2017.

NASA is requesting $1.244 billion for commercial crew in the FY2016 budget now before Congress.  The House approved $1.000 billion and the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended $900 million, so they clearly are not yet convinced.  While there is broad agreement that the United States should be able to launch its own astronauts and should spend its money supporting the U.S., not Russian, economy, many in Congress remain skeptical that the market for sending people into space is sufficiently substantial to keep two companies in business without significant ongoing government support.  The idea is that the government should be a customer, but not the only customer, of these systems.  Some also argue that NASA should fund only one company, not two, but NASA insists that it needs competition to keep prices down and redundancy in case one of the systems suffers a major failure.

The failure of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket on June 28 may buttress NASA's redundancy argument.  How SpaceX recovers from the accident, and whether the government is expected to pay any of the recovery costs, may factor into the skeptics' argument.   The Falcon 9 was launching a cargo mission to the ISS that day -- no people were aboard -- when the rocket failed 139 seconds after launch.   SpaceX is still trying to determine what went wrong.

The SpaceX and Boeing capsules will allow NASA to send four people to the ISS at a time.  Added to three that can travel to the ISS on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft, the typical ISS crew complement could increase from six to seven. NASA emphasizes that the extra crew person can devote his or her time to research rather than maintenance tasks that currently occupy a large part of the crew's time.   Research is the raison d'être of the ISS, so additional crew time for research is considered very valuable.

A three-day conference in Boston this week organized by the American Astronautical Society (AAS) in cooperation with NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) focused on ISS research -- results from experiments already conducted and what's coming up in the future.  

NASA has consistently said for the past several years that it hopes commercial crew will be operational by 2017, but at the AAS conference on Tuesday, NASA ISS Program Manager Mike Suffredini said NASA looks forward to adding a fourth crew member to the ISS complement in 2018, not 2017, suggesting a delay. 

The ISS partners -- the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency -- are currently planning to operate the ISS through 2020, though NASA is trying to convince them to extend it to 2024.  How many NASA astronauts will have a chance to fly to ISS on the commercial crew vehicles is an open question.

Events of Interest

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