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NASA’s new asteroid retrieval mission has not won over two influential voices in space policy debates. Cornell University’s Steve Squyres and George Washington University’s Scott Pace told the National Research Council (NRC) on Monday that it is not necessarily the best next step for the U.S. human spaceflight program.
The NRC’s Committee on Human Spaceflight met Monday and Tuesday in Washington, DC. The committee is tasked with describing the value proposition of the human spaceflight program – what do taxpayers see as its value for the money spent – and providing advice on future planning for that program. Among the topics discussed was NASA's new asteroid retrieval strategy to capture an asteroid, redirect it into a retrograde lunar orbit, and send astronauts to retrieve a sample.
Squyres chairs the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and is perhaps best known as the principal investigator for the twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. He also chaired the NRC's 2011 Decadal Survey for planetary science. In addition to talking about NAC’s view of NASA's human exploration program, he shared his personal views on topics NAC had not yet considered, including the new asteroid retrieval strategy.
His personal recommendation is that NASA not attempt to sell the asteroid retrieval mission either on the basis of exploring asteroids or that it is a more effective way to satisfy President Obama’s goal of using an asteroid mission as a step towards Mars. Quoting the President's April 15, 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center, Squyres reminded the committee that the President's goal was to build "new spacecraft designed for long journeys ... beyond the Moon into deep space," which is not what the new strategy entails. He agrees that understanding asteroids is an important scientific goal, but not one that requires humans on-site. Humans and robots work effectively together in exploring complex environments like Mars where Earth-bound scientists cannot anticipate the many surprises that lie ahead. Comparatively straightforward environments like that of an asteroid can be effectively explored with robotic spacecraft alone, he believes.
Squyres does, however, support the idea of sending astronauts into cis-lunar space for longer periods of time than during the Apollo era, such as the 22-day mission envisioned for the asteroid retrieval mission. In his view, that is worth doing whether or not an asteroid has been redirected there. His major concern personally, which he said also has been expressed by NAC, is that "NASA needs a compelling and clearly articulated goal for future human spaceflight that is consistent with its budget."
Pace strongly supported a robust U.S. human spaceflight program, but not the asteroid mission as a step towards Mars. He said he is “hard pressed to run into anybody who thinks that going to an asteroid is the right way primarily to go to Mars.” He believes that the Obama Administration made a decision “not to do anything the prior Administration was doing” in space, and that is how the asteroid idea emerged despite broad bipartisan and international support for returning to the Moon as laid out in President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration. Pace was a high ranking NASA official in the Bush Administration.
Asked what would happen if the United States abandoned human spaceflight entirely, Pace said it would diminish U.S. influence on the global stage in discussions about space issues such as orbital debris and sustainability. "We will have made ourselves irrelevant to a lot of discussions," adding that he sees some of that reduced influence already with the U.S. decision to withdraw from cooperation with Europe in the robotic ExoMars missions. "Countries are not upset at us. They simply think we're irrelevant....I can't think of [anything] that is ... more dangerous or serious for a great power than to be considered irrelevant.”
Lt. Gen. Thomas Stafford (Ret.) told a Senate subcommittee today that a human mission to an asteroid should not be a central element of any "sensible" human spaceflight program. Instead, a return to the Moon is a prerequisite to the ultimate goal of sending people to Mars and should be the next step.
Stafford is an iconic presence in the space community. A former astronaut who flew four space missions -- including commanding the 1975 U.S.-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) -- he has remained closely involved in the civil space program even as his career took him back to the Air Force and ultimately into retirement.
In his written statement today to the Subcommittee on Science and Space of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, he noted that a number of studies conducted over many decades are "remarkably consistent" that "[l]eadership in space is, for any society that can aspire to attain it, a key to leadership on Earth and in human society, for all the generations to come." He led one of those studies during the George H.W. Bush Administration entitled America at the Threshold: America's Space Exploration Initiative.
He asserted that the "choice of destinations has ... already been made for us. The surface of the Moon is ... our proper next frontier." He acknowledged that the concept of sending astronauts to an asteroid, whether the original plan announced by President Obama in 2010 or the new idea of directing an asteroid into cis-lunar space, has "inherent scientific interest." However, it "should not be the central theme of any sensible long-term human spaceflight program. Such missions are an interesting adjunct to the far more interesting theme of human presence on the Moon" and then Mars.
Stafford also highlighted the importance of international cooperation in pursuing future human spaceflight goals. He has been deeply involved with U.S.-Soviet/Russian space cooperation since ASTP and chairs NASA's International Space Station (ISS) Advisory Committee. That committee and its Russian counterpart meet regularly to review and identify major issues for the ISS. At a meeting last year, he told the Senate committee, the Russians shared their long term plan for human spaceflight. It is based on international cooperation modeled on the ISS partnership, he reported. "I have said that we should make it the nation's business to lead in space. We should. But I have also noted that leaders need partners and allies."
Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, and Steve Cook, Director, Space Technologies, at Dynetics, also testified. Gerstenmaier was very upbeat about the state of the human spaceflight program today and the road ahead, including the asteroid retrieval mission announced in the FY2014 budget request. Cook represented the commercial space industry and emphasized the need for "stable, long-term space policy and supporting programs" in order for the "commercial space sector to flourish." In response to a question from subcommittee chairman Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), Cook said the key is to have a long term plan with associated dates that the private sector can leverage in order to develop business plans and look for ways to be profitable.
A webcast of the hearing and the prepared statements of the witnesses are on the committee's website.
The third time WAS the charm for Orbital Sciences Corporation. The test launch of its Antares rocket lifted off on schedule at 5:00 pm ET today from Wallops Island, VA. A post-launch press conference is scheduled for 6:30 pm ET.
Two previous attempts were scrubbed -- one for technical reasons, the other for weather -- but all went well today as Antares inaugurated use of the new Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, VA.
An engineering model of Orbital's Cygnus spacecraft and several small satellites -- called Phonesats -- that hitched a ride on this launch were successfully deployed.
Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren applauded the launch.
Orbital plans the next test launch at the end of June or early July. An actual Cygnus spacecraft will be aboard that launch and will test the rest of the sequence of rendezvous and berthing with the International Space Station (ISS). Antares and Cygnus are part of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to develop commercial space transportation systems to take cargo to the ISS.
SpaceX is Orbital's competitor in the COTS program, although NASA already has signed contracts with both companies for operational "Commercial Resupply Services" (CRS) missions to the ISS -- 12 for SpaceX and eight for Orbital.
Will the third time be the charm? Orbital Sciences Corporation will make a third attempt to launch its new Antares rocket this afternoon, Sunday, April 21. The weather forecast is 80 percent favorable.
Yesterday's launch attempt was scrubbed because upper level winds exceeded limits. An earlier attempt, on April 17, was scrubbed because of a technical glitch. The potential weather issue today is surface level winds.
Once again, the launch window opens at 5:00 pm ET and NASA TV will begin coverage at 4:30 pm ET. Keep up to date by following @OrbitalSciences and @NASA_Wallops on Twitter.
Antares will launch from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, VA. Orbital released a map showing the large part of the East Coast that might be able to see the launch, weather permitting.
This is a test launch, the first for Antares, which is being developed by Orbital as part of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.
The following events may of be interest in the week ahead, starting today with the rescheduled launch of Antares hopefully around 5:00 pm ET. The House and Senate both are in session this week.
During the Week
Orbital Sciences Corp. will try again today (Sunday) to launch its new Antares rocket for the first time. Two previous attempts were scrubbed, the first because of a technical glitch and yesterday because of weather. The launch window again opens at 5:00 pm ET. Follow @OrbitalSciences and @NASA_Wallops on Twitter to keep up to date.
That's just the start of a very busy week, with many congressional hearings on NASA, NOAA, FAA and DOD space activities (see our separate list of just those hearings, though one more has arisen since -- the House Appropriations hearing on the FAA budget request on Wednesday, which includes the Office of Commercial Space Transportation). Among the other highlights are a meeting of the National Research Council's Committee on Human Spaceflight tomorrow and Tuesday and a meeting of the full NASA Advisory Council (NAC) on Wednesday and Thursday (many of the NAC committees met last week and one more will meet on Monday).
CORRECTION: The SASC hearing on military space programs and DOD use of the spectrum is on April 24, not April 23 as originally shown in this list. Our apologies for the error. It is corrected in the revised list below.
Sunday, April 21
Monday, April 22
Monday-Tuesday, April 22-23
Monday-Thursday, April 22-25
Tuesday, April 23
Wednesday, April 24
Wednesday-Thursday, April 24-25
Thursday, April 25
The Antares launch has been scrubbed again, this time because of upper level winds.
The next launch attempt will be tomorrow, Sunday, April 21, 2013, at 5:00 pm ET. The weather is forecast to be favorable except possibly for surface level winds.
Bill Gerstenmaier, the head of NASA's human spaceflight program, explained the thinking behind the agency's new plan to bring an asteroid into lunar orbit at two meetings this week. Three clear messages came through about what it is and what it is not.
Fundamentally, the idea is to send a solar electric-powered robotic spacecraft to capture a 5-7 meter diameter, 500-1,000 metric ton asteroid and put it on a course that will place it in a retrograde orbit around the Moon. Using the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft, astronauts would then embark on a 20-22 day mission to visit the asteroid and bring a sample back to Earth. It is all part of the longer term goal to send astronauts to Mars. A number of media sources refer to it as NASA's plan to lasso an asteroid.
Speaking first at a meeting of the Space Transportation Association (STA) and later in the week to a joint meeting of two NASA Advisory Council committees, Gerstenmaier, NASA's Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, stressed that this is not just a mission or an initiative, but a strategy to align NASA's space science, space technology and human spaceflight activities. Other Administration officials refer to it as an Asteroid Return Mission and/or an Asteroid Return Initiative (or "retrieval" instead of "return"). In response to a question at the STA meeting, Gerstenmaier agreed that it is a mission that is part of an initiative that, in turn, is part of a broader agency strategy with an emphasis on the strategy.
Second, he made clear that he is making no promises to actually capture an asteroid. The agency has a concept of how to accomplish that, but until the robotic spacecraft arrives at whatever target is selected, not enough will be known about the asteroid to ensure capture will succeed. The only way to improve the chances would be to send a precursor mission to study the asteroid in advance, which would add cost and time, undermining the rationale for the project. He suggested that the mission should be considered a success even if no capture is possible because it will have demonstrated, at a minimum, high power (40 kilowatt) solar electric propulsion.
Third, he cautioned that the relationship between this activity and planetary defense (or what he called planetary protection) -- defending Earth from Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs) that could cause catastrophic damage -- is tangential. Gerstenmaier was directly asked at the STA meeting why NASA is not selling this to the public on the basis that it is "to save your kids" instead of as a step to Mars. He replied: "Because it's not 100% applicable to saving your kids." It will provide relevant information, he said, but may not be "the most efficient and most effective way to get planetary protection" because there is "lots of stuff that we're going to have to understand for planetary protection that is different from this. This will help us. ... It's got a clear piece of planetary protection, but I think it's a little disingenuous to say its sole purpose is planetary protection." PHAs are much larger than the 5-7 meter diameter asteroid envisioned for this activity, which poses no threat to Earth.
President Obama announced three years ago that sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 is the next goal for NASA's human spaceflight program. The announcement was very controversial and a December 2012 National Research Council report concluded that it was not widely accepted inside or outside of NASA. At a hearing before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee on Wednesday, the President's science adviser, John Holdren, credited NASA with devising this new "ingenious" method to accomplish President Obama's goal, which he believes is more attractive.
NASA selected a sample asteroid as a test case to demonstrate the concept was feasible from an orbital dynamics perspective. That particular asteroid would reach the retrograde lunar orbit in 2024, but Gerstenmaier stressed that was not the asteroid NASA actually plans to capture. NASA is requesting increased funding to accelerate ongoing effects to search for Near Earth Objects (NEOs, asteroids and comets). To date, that search has been for NEOs 140 meters or more in diameter. The new funding would expand the search to include much smaller asteroids, which will be more difficult to find.
The concept originated in a study by the Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) released in 2012. Nonetheless, its inclusion in NASA's FY2014 budget was a bit of a surprise and there is a lot of confusion about what it entails. NASA and other Administration officials use varying terminology to discuss it, which complicates efforts to explain it to stakeholders. For example, Holdren repeatedly referred to "towing" the asteroid into lunar orbit, while Gerstenmaier stressed that it would not be towed at all. That would require significant amounts of propellant. Instead, he explained, they need to find a suitable asteroid in terms of size, spin rate, and composition that is already on a course toward the Earth-moon system. The robotic spacecraft will nudge it, using hydrazine thrusters, over a period of several years into a retrograde lunar orbit.
The way the concept is presented in the President's FY2014 budget request adds more confusion. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) states that the request includes $78 million for this activity, but NASA usually says it is requesting $105 million. The $105 million includes:
As explained by NASA Chief Financial Officer Beth Robinson at an April 10 budget briefing, the $27 million difference is because the additional $20 million in SMD and the $7 million in STMD for broader hazard mitigation technologies are not part of the "mission," but of the "initiative." The distinction between those terms and the implications of money being in one category or the other are bewildering.
Skeptics point out that, apart from technical challenges, there is no explanation of where the money will come from to execute the mission in future years. It does take advantage of spending already planned for SLS/Orion and solar electric propulsion, but the increase for NEO searches is only for one year and no development funds are identified in future year budgets for the robotic spacecraft. NASA assumes the agency will be flat-funded for the next five years at about $17.7 billion. Finding funds for a new robotic spacecraft equipped with a capture device in a zero-sum budget environment will be difficult. The KISS study estimated the cost of this type of mission at $2.6 billion. NASA said it thinks it might be able to do it for less because some of the work is already underway, but the basis for that optimism is obscure since the agency will not even complete a mission concept study until the end of this summer.
One reason President Obama's plan to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 has not won acceptance is that the target asteroid has not been identified so there is no sense of where the astronauts will be going. Another is that funds are not included in future-year budget projections to pay for additional hardware, like a habitability module for the astronauts, required for the mission. This new concept suffers the same drawbacks.
Gerstenmaier said he wants to launch the robotic spacecraft in 2017, just four years from now. It will be designed and developed in parallel with the search for the target asteroid, so engineers will not know its specific destination. Notionally, it will take about a year and a half to reach the asteroid, three years to nudge it onto the right trajectory to enter a retrograde lunar orbit, and another year to get it into the precise orbit desired, Gerstenmaier told the NAC committees. Also notionally, it would be in place for a visit by astronauts on their first launch aboard SLS/Orion in 2021.
At both meetings, he said that it would almost be better if they could not find an asteroid to be in place by 2021 since that would be "pretty aggressive" to do on the first flight of a new spacecraft. He added that the idea is for the astronauts to make two spacewalks to the asteroid, but they will not be "sophisticated" spacewalks, just an opportunity for the astronauts to "reach out and grab something" wearing slightly modified launch and reentry spacesuits.
One point Gerstenmaier stressed, however, is that this mission would change the paradigm of human spaceflight because once launched the crew would not be able to return to Earth for nine days, breaking the tie with the planet. "That's a different posture for us," he told the NAC committees. With the International Space Station (ISS) and even the Apollo missions, it was possible to return to Earth in relatively short order if an emergency developed, but not in this case. He considers that a vital step to take before committing to missions even further from Earth, like Mars.
Gerstenmaier seemed enthusiastic about the way the strategy aligns NASA's various space activities, as well as the paradigm-changing aspect of testing how astronauts react to breaking the bond with Earth.
All in all, however, the White House and NASA may be exacerbating the challenge of winning support from Congress and other stakeholders. Some officials are using imprecise terminology, there is confusion over the relationship of this mission to protecting Earth from asteroids as well as why about humans are needed to bring back a sample of an asteroid when NASA already is building a robotic probe (OSIRIS-REx) to do that (not to mention that Japan already has done so and is planning a second mission), and the budget is murky in the short term and lacks credibility for the long term.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, said it seemed to him that the mission was "an afterthought" when the original mission did not win support. NASA and the White House will have their hands full trying to dispel that characterization, but Gerstenmaier's presentations may be a step in the right direction.
UPDATE, 4:20 pm ET: The launch is now targeted for 6:10 pm ET, with NASA TV coverage beginning at 5:30 pm ET. Upper level winds remain a concern.
ORIGINAL STORY: The chances of favorable weather for the rescheduled launch of Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares rocket tonight, Saturday, April 20, is 90 percent. The launch window is open from 5:00 - 7:00 pm ET. NASA TV will begin coverage at 4:30 pm ET.
The launch will take place from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA"s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, VA. Weather permitting, a large part of the East Coast may be able to see it as illustrated on this map, courtesy of Orbital.
The first launch attempt was scrubbed on Wednesday when an umbilical detached prematurely.
This is a test launch of Orbital's new rocket, developed as part of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to facilitate commercial development of space transportation systems to take cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). If this test is successful, a second test carrying Orbital's Cygnus spacecraft will take place in about three months to demonstrate the rest of the mission profile to rendezvous and be berthed with the ISS.
Orbital is tweeting updates @OrbitalSciences. Late this morning, a tweet said that "upper level winds are marginal based on earlier balloon data," but otherwise the weather looks good.
After the dreadful events in Boston and terrible explosion in Texas, we all need something to lift our spirits. Anyone who's a fan of the space program may find the winning entries in the "Why Space Matters" video contest to be just the ticket.
The three winning videos are very different from each other. We won't ruin the surprise by telling you what they say, but all three are well worth watching. They are posted on the VisitNASA.com website.
The winner gets a VIP trip for one to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center, Space Center Houston, or the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL.
Russia launched its Bion-1M spacecraft today carrying an array of critters that will spend 30 days in orbit and then return to Earth.
Russia has a long history of launching animals into space on both orbital and suborbital missions. While almost everyone remembers the first Soviet launch, Sputnik, on October 4, 1957, that began the Space Age, few recall that the very next flight, a month later, took the dog Laika (Barker) into space. It was, unfortunately, a one-way mission since recoverable spacecraft had not yet been invented.
Laika, the first animal in space, before her one-way trip to space on November 3, 1957
The Soviets continued launching biological flights throughout the decades, many in cooperation with NASA. Some carried monkeys and became very controversial in the United States as animal rights groups objected. When one of the two monkeys on a 1996 mision, Bion 11, died after returning to Earth, the program ended.
The Bion program was resurrected in the mid-2000s and the launch today was the first of the new series, Bion-M. No monkeys are involved this time. Aboard the spacecraft are:
NASA is a partner on this mission as it was in the past, providing four Animal Enclosure Units and collaborating with Russian scientists on rodent research.
The spacecraft and its cargo will be recovered after 30 days. Russia's RIA Novosti says that more than 70 experiments with be conducted "in support of long-duration interplanetary flights including Mars missions."
Several Russian and non-Russian microsatellites are attached to the spacecraft and will be released over the next two days.
Events of Interest