Latest News

Jeb Bush Reiterates Need for Aspirational Goals As Challenger Anniversary Approaches

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Jan-2016 (Updated: 07-Jan-2016 01:35 PM)

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush said yesterday in New Hampshire that NASA has "lost its purpose" and needs an "aspirational purpose."   Although he did not reference it, his comments come just before the 30th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger accident that claimed the life of New Hampshire Teacher-in-Space Christa McAuliffe.

As reported by CBS News, Bush made an unannounced campaign stop at a Portsmouth, NH diner and engaged in conversations on a broad range of issues with local patrons.  A 13-year old boy asked about the space program and the boy's mother said she was "upset that NASA has kind of like -- closed."  Bush replied that it was not closed, "but it's lost its purpose.  There is no big aspirational purpose."   CBS said he then began talking about Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, concluding by saying "I'm not obsessive about space but I think it's part of our identity as a culture."

The comments are similar to those Bush made at a New Hampshire campaign event in October 2015.  In that case, he was speaking at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord, NH and praised lunar colonization ideas expounded in 2012 by then-presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.   Bush called Gingrich's ideas "cool" and argued "what's wrong about having big, lofty aspirational goals?"

The Discovery Center is named after two New Hampshire astronauts:  Alan Shepard, the first American in space who later walked on the Moon; and Teacher-in-Space Christa McAuliffe.

McAuliffe perished in the 1986 space shuttle Challenger tragedy along with five NASA astronauts (Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Judy Resnik, Ron McNair, and Ellison Onizuka) and Hughes Aircraft payload specialist Greg Jarvis.  The 30th anniversary of that tragedy occurs on January 28 -- three weeks from today.

Neither the Challenger nor the 2003 Columbia space shuttle tragedies deterred the United States from having bold human spaceflight goals.   Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, announced plans to return astronauts to the Moon and someday go to Mars in 1989, three years after Challenger, and Bush's brother, President George W. Bush, announced similar plans in the aftermath of Columbia.

Achieving such goals within the resources the United States is willing to allocate for them has been the problem.  Bush did not indicate in October or yesterday whether he believes the government space program needs more funding, but in a July interview he said he was a "space guy" who would increase NASA funding.  His enthusiasm for Musk and Bezos indicates, at a minimum, that he appreciates entrepreneurial private sector efforts and in October he stated that NASA should "partner with the dreamers" in the private sector.


NASA Climate Comic Books Make McCain's "America's Most Wasted" List - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Jan-2016 (Updated: 08-Jan-2016 09:18 AM)

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) issued a new "America's Most Wasted: Runaway Spending" list today presenting what he considers prime examples of wasted taxpayer resources.   A NASA project to help explain climate through comic books is one of the examples on the list.

This is McCain's fourth report "exposing and shaming wasteful and outrageous government spending" as he calls it.  The first identified $1.1 billion spent on programs that were no longer authorized by Congress.   The next two focused on DOD activities.  This one looks broadly at government spending and categorizes $27 billion as "pork-barrel projects" that waste taxpayer resources.  

The 51 projects on McCain's list span everything from a study on how children cross the street to mismanaged Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grants to a DOD warehouse in Afghanistan that was never used. 

The $12,000 NASA spent on climate comic books is 35th on the list, though it is not clear how the list is organized.  It is not by the amount of money "wasted," which ranges from $5,000 to study Hello Kitty to $11 billion in Social Security disability overpayments.  (The report also includes $99 billion in "job-killing regulatory costs," but that is not part of  the $27 billion McCain uses as wasted taxpayer money apparently because it affects businesses, not individuals.)

The NASA project involved the creation of five comic books by Japanese science cartoonist Hayanon explaining aerosols, clouds, ice, fire, water and monsoons and land, according to McCain's report, which added "$12,000 may not be a seem like [sic] significant amount of money when compared to NASA's overall budget," but "has little to do with reaching NASA's goal of 'pushing the boundaries' of space flight."

NASA responded in an emailed statement to, noting that one of its core functions is to "provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities."  NASA Goddard Space Flight Center News Chief Ed Campion said that the comic book format "is a popular tool used by education and public outreach efforts to interest children in science, technology, engineering and math.  These particular comics encourage younger children to understand how NASA is investigating our home planet and inspiring them to study the science of climate and weather."

Editor's note:  This article was originally published on January 7, 2015 and updated at 4:30 pm ET that day with NASA's response to our request for comment.

Big Changes at Space News, Inc.

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Jan-2016 (Updated: 06-Jan-2016 12:01 AM)

Editor's Note:  I received word today that two highly respected colleagues at Space News are leaving that publication.

An email from Space News Publisher Bill Klanke last month announced that the "must read" newspaper/website for anyone who wants to know what's happening in the space business (apart from, of course!) was changing from a weekly newspaper to bi-weekly magazine format.   The difficulties facing news publications in today's digital/social media age are well documented and that alone was not much of a surprise.   But farewell messages today from Executive Editor Warren Ferster, a 21-year Space News veteran, and reporter Dan Leone, who covered the NASA beat, were stunning.

I wish Warren and Dan the very best wherever they land and one can only hope no more shoes are about to drop over there.  I have enormous respect for everyone associated with Space News and any downsizing in its coverage would be a loss to all of us in the space community.

What's Happening in Space Policy January 3-8, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Jan-2016 (Updated: 03-Jan-2016 12:53 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of January 3-8, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The 114th Congress 2nd session convenes this week and the House meets for legislative business (the Senate returns to work next week).

During the Week

Washington gets back to work this week with the President returning from his Christmas vacation in Hawaii and the House and Senate officially convening for the 2nd session of the 114th Congress tomorrow (Monday).  The "official" convening is only in pro forma session, though.  The real work begins for the House on Tuesday and for the Senate on January 11.  No space-related hearings are on the committee schedules posted as of now.

Outside of Washington, the American Astronomical Society (AAS) annual meeting in Kissimmee, FL and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) SciTech 2016 conference in San Diego promise to be full of interesting sessions on space science, engineering and policy.   The AAS offers real-time webcasts only of press conferences and those are only for registered journalists, so the Town Hall meetings with NASA and NSF, for example, will not be available remotely from AAS at least.  If we hear of any other organization providing livestreaming, we'll post it on our Events of Interest list.

AIAA, on the other hand, generously offers livestreaming for many of its key sessions, including one tomorrow (Monday) that features former NASA Administrator Dan Goldin along with a stellar panel of other government, former government, and non-government experts.  The topic is "Aerospace Science and Technology Policy in the 2016 Political Arena" and two of the other panelists -- Courtney Stadd and Mark Albrecht -- are veterans of the White House National Space Council during the Bush/Quayle years (among their many other government and non-government positions).   It wouldn't be surprising if someone asks the perennial question of whether whoever becomes the next president should reinstate the Space Council, which still exists in law, but has not been staffed or funded since the end of the Bush/Quayle term.

Remember that all the times posted on the AIAA livestream list are in Pacific Standard Time (PST).  Add three for Eastern Standard Time (EST).  That panel is at 8:00 am PST/11:00 am EST. 

Two other especially interesting sessions tomorrow are the Durand Lecture for Public Service by Ron Sega at 12:30 pm PST/3:30 pm EST and a panel moderated by Michael Moloney of the Space Studies Board and Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. (What a mouthful!  It sure was easier when we could say National Research Council.)  That panel is on "Research Enabling and Enabled by a Cis-Lunar One-Year Mission" and begins at 2:00 pm PST/5:00 pm EST.  Several other interesting lectures and sessions also will be webcast throughout the week.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below.  Check back throughout the week for anything we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list on our main page.

Sunday-Monday, January 3-4

  • ExoPAG, Kissimmee, FL (in conjunction with the AAS meeting)

Monday-Friday, January 4-8

  • American Astronomical Society annual meeting, Kissimmee, FL, includes meetings of NASA's three astrophysics Program Analysis Groups (PAGs) - ExoPAG, COPAG, PhysPAG
  • AIAA SciTech 2016, San Diego, CA (key sessions will be livestreamed)

Tuesday, January 5

  • First legislative business day for the House of Representatives, 114th Congress, 2nd session

Thursday, January 7

Russia Downscales Lunar Program as Roscosmos Morphs into State Corporation

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Dec-2015 (Updated: 29-Dec-2015 06:22 PM)

Russia's Roscosmos will become a state corporation rather than a government agency on January 1, completing a reorganization announced earlier this year. At the same time, funding constraints have led to another revision of Russia's federal space plan.  Human trips to the Moon will be postponed until at least the second half of the 2020s, although robotic missions are still on the books for as early as 2018.

The name of the Russian organization that oversees the space program will remain the same -- Roscosmos -- but the governance structure will change.  It will be a state corporation rather than a government agency.   This latest reorganization comes as Russian officials continue to try to remedy pervasive problems that have undermined its past reputation for reliable launch services.   A series of launch failures of various rockets over the past five years coupled with charges of corruption in companies that build spacecraft and rockets have led to many personnel changes in both the government and industrial sectors.

The newest head of Roscosmos, Igor Komarov, is the fourth Russian space agency director since NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden took office in 2009.   At that time, Roscosmos was headed by Anatoly Perminov.  He was replaced by Vladimir Popovkin, who was replaced by Oleg Ostapenko, who was replaced by Komarov. 

Each change followed more Russian rocket failures and several organizational models have been tried.  In 2013, when Ostapenko was named Roscosmos director, Roscosmos's duties were split into two:  the Roscosmos space agency and a newly created United Rocket and Space Corporation (URSC, or ORKK using its Russian acronym).   Komarov was named head of URSC and in January 2015, the Russian government announced that the agency would be dissolved and all responsibilities would shift to a state corporation headed by Komarov.  Before becoming a space program official, Komarov was head of Russia's AvtoKAZ, which manufactures automobiles.

The process of transforming Roscosmos into a state corporation has taken almost exactly a year.  The plan was announced on January 21, 2015.  A law was passed on July 13 creating the Roscosmos State Corporation.  Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree yesterday (December 28), which becomes effective on January 1, 2016, abolishing the Roscosmos space agency.

In January, Komarov said he had been directed to submit a new federal space plan and he did in April, but it was premised on a space budget of 2 trillion rubles (about $28 billion) through 2025. (1 $US = 72.18 Russian rubles.) That later was revised downward to 1.4 trillion rubles (about $20 billion), with the possibility of another 115 billion rubles after 2021.  The reduction in anticipated funding necessitated a new draft plan for 2016-2025 that was just revealed.  Komarov cautioned reporters that it still must be coordinated with the Economic Development Ministry and the Finance Ministry. 

Komarov told Tass that funding will be frozen for the first three years of the plan (2016-2018) at its current level of 104.5 billion rubles.

The new plan pushes out Russian efforts to send humans to the Moon until the second half of the 2020s.  Quoting another Russian newspaper, Izvestiya, Tass reported that "a decision was taken to sacrifice the lunar programme" that previously had been designated as a strategic goal of the Russian space program.  Compared with the plan presented in April, the new version omits "the creation of a lunar landing/takeoff complex, a lunar orbital station, construction of a lunar base, the designing of a spacesuit for operations on the Moon, and designing of a system for robotic maintenance on the moon...."   Work reportedly will continue on developing a spacecraft to take humans to the Moon someday.  Tass published an infographic of a 12-ton "advanced crew transportation system" and identified it as a "reusable manned space vehicle" that "can be used up to 10 times" and will make its first flight to the Moon in 2028.  It does not state whether a crew will be aboard.

However, five robotic lunar probes still are on the books during the time period of the draft space plan. Oleg Korablyov, Deputy Director of the Space Research Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences, listed four and said the first would be launched in 2018:  Luna 25, a lander (also known as Luna Glob); Luna 26, an orbiter; Luna 27, a sample return mission; and a "lunar surface vehicle."  The Soviet Union conducted extensive robotic lunar missions from 1959-1976, returning samples to Earth three times (Luna 16, Luna 20, Luna 24) and landing two rovers (Lunokhod-1 and -2), but never sent humans to the Moon.  Only the United States sent astronauts to orbit or land on the Moon (1968-1972).

Komarov said 205.1 billion rubles are allocated to lunar exploration in the new draft plan, along with 28.1 billion rubles for Mars research and 37.2 billion rubles for the Spektr series of earth-orbiting telescopes to observe the universe in various wavelengths.

Other activities in the plan include "projects and research" on reusable rocket stages and reusable spacecraft; launching 150 spacecraft for "social-economic and scientific purposes" during that time period, down from 185 in the previous draft program; and possibly a joint project, Boomerang, with the European Space Agency (ESA) for returning samples from the Martian moon Phobos.

What's Happening in Space Policy December 28, 2015 - January 8, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Dec-2015 (Updated: 27-Dec-2015 07:41 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the next TWO weeks as we transition from one year to the next:  December 28, 2015 - January 8, 2016.   The 114th Congress officially begins its second session next week and the House will meet for legislative business, but the Senate is not scheduled to be back until January 11.

During the Weeks

We all have one more week to relax and get to the bottom of the piles of stuff on our desks before 2016 starts off with fervor.  As usual, two big annual meetings are on tap for the first week of January that promise to be full of news about space science and engineering -- the American Astronomical Society's meeting in Kissimmee, FL and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) SciTech 2016 conference in San Diego.  Most of these big conferences offer key sessions via webcast either in real time or for later viewing.  Check their websites for details.

The 2nd session of the 114th Congress officially begins on January 4, though the House and Senate meet only in pro forma sessions that day.  The first legislative business day for the House is January 5.  House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has not yet posted the House schedule for January 5-8. The Senate goes back to work on January 11 (and the State of the Union address is on January 12). 

It being a presidential election year, the House and Senate will meet for fewer days than usual in 2016 and the schedule is front-end loaded.  They will be busy through early July, but then have an extended summer break -- from July 18 to September 6 -- because the party conventions to select their presidential tickets are the last two weeks of July (Republicans in Cleveland the week of July 18; Democrats in Philadelphia the following week).   Both return for most of September -- when they will have to do something about FY2017 appropriations before the end of the fiscal year on September 30 -- and the House will recess for the entire month of October to allow members to focus on reelection campaigns.  The Senate currently plans to meet the first week of October only.  They both return briefly in mid-November after the elections and for part of December.   What all that means is the lion's share of congressional action will be in the first six months of the year.  In total, the House is scheduled to be in session for just 111 days in 2016, the fewest since 2006 according to the AP. The Senate plans to be in session for 149 days.

Following are the events for the next two weeks that we know about as of Sunday morning, December 27.  Check back throughout the weeks for anything we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list on our main page.

In the meantime, HAPPY NEW YEAR!

January 4-8, 2016

January 5

International Institute of Space Law OK With U.S. Asteroid Mining Law

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Dec-2015 (Updated: 24-Dec-2015 07:05 AM)

The Board of Directors of the International Institute of Space Law (IISL) has issued a position paper concluding that a new U.S. law that grants property rights to resources mined from asteroids or other space objects by U.S. companies does not violate the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.  The United States is a signatory to that treaty and whether or not the law complies with the treaty is matter of some debate in space law circles.

The law's provision applies to extraction and use of resources from space objects generally, but is commonly referred to as asteroid mining because two U.S. companies are proposing to do that.  It is part of the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act that was signed into law by President Obama on November 25.  While the law affects a variety of commercial space activities, the space resource mining provision is receiving the most attention.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) was negotiated long before the technical feasibility of mining asteroids existed.  Some question today whether it is technically or economically feasible, but two U.S. companies, Planetary Resources Inc. and Deep Space Industries, are promoting the idea.   Planetary Resources is widely credited with getting the legal issues on the table and convincing Congress to include the provision in the law and the President to sign it.  The argument is that while it may be many years before anyone actually mines resources from asteroids, investors are needed now and they want clarity before putting their money into such ventures.

Two provisions of the OST underlie the debate about the U.S. law's international standing.  Article II states that no nation may claim sovereignty over the Moon or other celestial bodies.  Article VI requires countries that agree to abide by the Treaty ("States Parties") to authorize and continually supervise the activities of their non-governmental entities, such as companies.

Section 402 of the law states that: ``A United States citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States.''  Section 403 states that:  "It is the sense of Congress that by the enactment of this Act, the United States does not thereby assert sovereignty or sovereign or exclusive rights or jurisdiction over, or the ownership of, any celestial body."

The IISL position paper stops short of endorsing the U.S. law, but agrees that it is "a possible interpretation" of the OST, but "[w]hether and to what extent this interpretation is shared by other States remains to be seen."   It points out that the law explicitly does not make any claims of sovereignty over celestial bodies and further states that the resources must be obtained in accordance with U.S. international obligations, which include adherence to the OST.  "The Act thus pays respect to the international legal obligations of the United States and applicable law on which the property rights to space resources will continue to depend."

The position paper ends on a cautionary note: "It is an open question whether this legal situation is satisfactory."   However, it considers the U.S. law to be a "starting point for the development of international rules to be evaluated by means of an international dialogue..."

Rep. Brian Babin, chairman of the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, recently expressed support for international discussions while ruling out creation of any international body to regulate space resource mining.   Two congressional staff, one from the House and one from the Senate, who were deeply involved in crafting the bill, confirmed that both chambers are open to an international dialogue.

Such a dialogue can take place on a bilateral basis or through international fora such as the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS).   COPUOUS has a Scientific and Technical subcommittee that meets in February and a Legal Subcommittee that meets in March/April.  The full committee meets in June.  All the meetings are held at the U.N. Office of Outer Space Affairs (OOSA) in Vienna, Austria.  

Washington sources say the United States is already talking with some of its traditional space program partners about these topics and will begin informing COPUOS about the new law at its meetings next year.

The law also addresses the questions posed by Article VI.  Today, no U.S. agency has responsibility for authorizing or continually supervising the activities of all U.S. non-governmental entities involved in space.  The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation regulates space launches and reentries, but has no authority over activities such as space resource mining, for example.   The law requires the President to submit a report to Congress within 180 days of enactment recommending the allocation of responsibilities among Federal agencies to meet the Article VI requirement.

ULA Orders More RD-180 Rocket Engines

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Dec-2015 (Updated: 24-Dec-2015 05:38 AM)

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced today that it has ordered more RD-180 rocket engines to power its Atlas V rockets.  The number of RD-180s ULA is allowed to procure has been the subject of intense controversy in Congress.

ULA said the new engines would be used for "potential civil and commercial launch customers."   The restrictions that were placed on the number of RD-180s the company could obtain in the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) applied only to national security space launches, but in any case they were superseded by language in the Consolidated Appropriations Act enacted last week.   Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and primary architect of the NDAA's restrictive language, lambasted two members of the Senate Appropriations Committee who championed ULA interests -- Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Dick Durbin (D-IL).  ULA builds its rockets in Shelby's state of Alabama.   ULA is a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin and Boeing is headquartered in Durbin's state of Illinois.

McCain wants to end U.S. reliance on Russian rocket engines to launch national security satellites and payments to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his "cronies" as McCain often says.  He also supports SpaceX and its determination to compete against ULA for national security launch contracts.  ULA has held a virtual monopoly on Air Force launch contracts since it was created in 2006.  it launches the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, referred to as Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELV).  The Delta IV does not use Russian engines, but is very expensive and ULA concedes it is not cost competitive with SpaceX's Falcon rockets.

ULA, the Air Force and McCain all agree on the need to develop an American engine to replace the RD-180.  The question is over timing.  McCain wants ULA to begin using an American alternative by 2019 while ULA and the Air Force insist that it will take until 2021 or 2022 until a new engine is developed, tested and certified.  ULA and Blue Origin announced a partnership last year to use Blue Origin's BE-4 engine for a new version of the Atlas V, called Vulcan.  ULA later announced that it also is working with Aerojet Rocketdyne on that company's AR1 engine in case the BE-4 does not perform as planned.

ULA said today that it is "moving smartly" with Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne "but this type of development program is difficult and takes years to complete" and a smooth transition to a new engine is essential.

The announcement did not state the contract value or when the engines will be delivered.  The engines are made by Russia's Energomash and sold to ULA via

ULA primarily launches military and intelligence satellites, but also launches spacecraft for NASA and NOAA and occasionally for commercial customers.  The national security launch market is expected to decline in the next several years and ULA is seeking more civil and commercial customers.  Boeing, for example, plans to launch its CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle on Atlas V.  Starliner is being developed as a NASA-Boeing public private partnership with the goal of taking crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS).  Sierra Nevada planned to Atlas V for its Dream Chaser spacecraft.  Although it lost out to Boeing and SpaceX on NASA's commercial crew program, it is competing in the second round of NASA's commercial cargo contracts to service the ISS and would need Atlas V for those launches if it is successful.

Clarification: An earlier version of this article stated that ULA is buying the engines from Energomash.  Strictly speaking, ULA's contract is with the U.S. company RD AMROSS, which contracts with Energomash on ULA's behalf.  ULA's announcement does not specify who it contracted with, but Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, tweeted that Energomash and RD AMROSS have entered into an agreement for more RD-180s.

Japan Officially Signs On to ISS Extension to 2024

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Dec-2015 (Updated: 22-Dec-2015 08:15 PM)

The Japanese government formally agreed today to extend its participation in the International Space Station (ISS) program until 2024.  Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe indicated earlier this month that he supported the extension and now it is official.

Japan is one of 15 international partners in the ISS program.  The United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and 11 European countries collectively built and operate the earth-orbiting space station.  There is no exchange of funds among the partners except with Russia.  The United States pays Russia for taking U.S., Canadian, Japanese and European astronauts to and from the ISS and paid Russia hundreds of millions of dollars for space station-related hardware and activities in the 1990s.

The United States began the space station program, initially called Freedom, in FY1985 and Japan, Europe and Canada quickly agreed to participate.   It took three years to negotiate the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) that governs each country's responsibilities.   Russia was brought in as another partner in 1993, and a revised IGA was signed in 1998.

Japan has delivered exactly what it promised in the original agreement: the Japanese Experiment Module (named Kibo), which has an external platform (the "back porch") that has become renowned in recent years as the launch site for dozens of cubesats; and approximately annual launches of HTV (Kounotori) cargo spacecraft.  Japan had also agreed to build the Centrifuge Accommodation Module for NASA as part of a barter arrangement, but NASA cancelled it.

Japanese astronauts have flown on 12 missions in support of the ISS so far, either on assembly missions aboard the space shuttle or long duration missions on the ISS.  Kimiya Yui just returned from the ISS on December 11.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), a quasi-governmental institution, executes Japan's civilian space program.  JAXA President Naoki Okimura said today's agreement "will step-up the relationship between both countries to the next phase.  In order to realize Japan's space policy, JAXA will produce desirable outcomes by promoting unprecedented utilization of the Kibo and the KOUNOTORI effectively and efficiently leveraging the new framework."

Today's announcement follows statements by Japanese Prime Minister Abe earlier this month in support of the extension.

The Obama Administration declared its intention to continue operating ISS through 2024 in January 2014.  Congress codified the U.S. commitment to operating ISS "at least" until 2024 in the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act.

Russia, Canada and Japan have now agreed to that extension.  The European Space Agency (ESA), through which the 11 European countries participate, is still considering its decision.


Vacuum Leaks Delay Launch of NASA's InSight Mars Mission

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Dec-2015 (Updated: 22-Dec-2015 07:00 PM)

NASA's next mission to Mars was scheduled to launch in March 2016, but the agency and its French counterpart, CNES, announced today that it will not be ready.  Spacecraft can be launched to Mars only every 26 months because of planetary alignments, so another opportunity is not available until the spring of 2018.  The cost impact of the delay and what that means for other planetary science missions is not yet known.

The Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission is part of NASA's Discovery program.  NASA planetary science division director Jim Green said during a NASA teleconference this afternoon that the total cost of the mission, including the launch vehicle and all phases from design to data analysis, is $675 million.  Of that amount, $525 million has been spent already, including purchase of the Atlas V rocket that is already at Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) in preparation for the March launch.

One of the two science instruments for the InSight lander is being provided by CNES.  The Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) is a highly sensitive seismometer package designed to detect ground movement on Mars.  The seismometers are inside a sphere.  Air must be evacuated from the sphere to create a vacuum.   Over the past several months, leaks have been detected during tests conducted by CNES at two facilities in Paris.

NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, John Grunsfeld, said that as recently as yesterday morning he was "confident" the problems were solved.  At about 1:00 pm Eastern Standard Time (EST), however, he was informed that another leak had been detected.  NASA and CNES determined that insufficient time remained before the instrument needed to be shipped to the United States and integrated into the spacecraft to make the March 2016 launch date.

InSight Principal Investigator Bruce Banerdt from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) said during the telecon that he was disappointed, but "I am a patient man" who has been waiting for 25 years to get this kind of data about Mars.  He optimistically sees it "as a minor setback, not a disaster...A hiccup on our path" to learn about the seismology of Mars.  The only other Mars spacecraft outfitted with seismometers were Viking 1 and 2, which landed in 1976.  Grunsfeld said NASA had learned a lesson from Viking -- do not put seismometers on the spacecraft legs where they are affected by wind noise.

For InSight, the seismometers are inside a sphere and a "very deep vacuum" needs to be created inside that sphere according to CNES's director of the Toulouse Space Centre, Marc Pircher.   A leak was discovered in August.  It was fixed, but then another developed.  That was fixed and until yesterday, it appeared that the instrument was good to go.  Then this new leak, of unknown origin, was detected. 

There really was no decision for NASA and CNES officials to make, Grunsfeld said:  "The decision was made by the leak. We didn't have to scratch our heads and say should we go or not go," because at the leak rate observed the instrument "would not have worked at all."

The 3 kilogram SEIS sphere contains three Very Broad Band (VBB) seismic probes and their temperature sensors, three Short Period (SP) seismic probes and their temperature sensors, electronics and other hardware and software.  All of that is working.  The issue is only with leakage from the sphere itself.  The problems also do not affect InSight's other science instrument, the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, provided by Germany's space agency, DLR.

Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS).  Image credit:  CNES

Grunsfeld and Green repeatedly indicated that the path forward is still being determined.  The spacecraft is already at the launch site and the first order of business is to return it to its manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, for storage.  NASA does not yet know how much that will cost.  NASA also will work with the United Launch Alliance to determine how to utilize the Atlas V rocket.

The next launch opportunity is not for 26 months, so there is no urgency in making other decisions, Grunsfeld said.  He would not commit to launching InSight in 2018, but conveyed that he hopes that will be the case.

In a NASA press release this afternoon, Green referenced the fact that NASA made a decision in 2008 to delay the planned 2009 launch of the Mars Science Lander (MSL) and its Curiosity rover for two years because of readiness concerns. The subsequent success of that mission has "vastly outweighed any disappointment about that delay."  JPL Director Charles Elachi added that it "is more important to do it right than take an unacceptable risk."

From a science standpoint, that is obviously correct, but a key concern is the cost impact on other NASA science missions. The life cycle cost of MSL/Curiosity grew to $2.5 billion, $881 million above its 2008 baseline cost according to a 2012 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.  NASA often must pay for cost overruns on one program by not initiating new projects.  The Discovery program is intended to support the launch of a new mid-sized planetary mission every other year, but funding constraints have stretched that cadence.  In September, NASA selected five semi-finalists for the next launch opportunity in 2020, a four-year wait after InSight was expected to launch.  If InSight's costs grow substantially, the 2020 launch date or the next Discovery mission could be delayed.

Congress is very supportive of NASA's planetary science program, however, as evidenced by the significant increase it received in the final FY2016 budget.   The Discovery program was one of those singled out in the appropriation bill's explanatory statement, providing $189 million "to support the current selection as well as funds to enable a 2017 announcement of opportunity" for the next.

Events of Interest


Subscribe to Email Updates:

Enter your email address: