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Russia's Soyuz TMA-12M spacecraft launched on schedule this evening at 5:17 pm EDT, but instead of docking with the International Space Station six hours later, it will be stretched out to two days because an engine burn did not take place as planned.
Two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut are aboard the spacecraft. They are fine. Until quite recently, Soyuz spacecraft always used the two-day rendezvous profile to reach the ISS and Russian space stations before that. The new, shorter 6-hour rendezvous was introduced just last year and was used successfully four times. The Soyuz is a small spacecraft and the shorter trip was proving a much more comfortable start to these space missions, but the traditional two-day rendezvous remains a back-up procedure.
The crew now is scheduled to dock with the ISS at 7:58 pm EDT on Thursday, March 27. The Soyuz TMA-12M crew consists of Russians Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev and NASA's Steve Swanson. Skvortsov and Swanson are veteran space travelers; Artemyev is a rookie.
Russian flight controllers do not know what went wrong with the third of three engine burns needed to put Soyuz into the right orbit for the docking. NASA is standing up ground stations at Wallops Island, VA, White Sands, NM, and Armstrong Flight Research Center (formerly Dryden), CA to aid in communicating with the spacecraft during the two-day rendezvous period to enable better communications with the crew and hopefully in diagnosing what went wrong. NASA states on its space station website that initial indications are that the Soyuz spacecraft was not in the proper attitude for the burn.
The launch itself appeared perfect. The Soyuz rocket lifted off from the launch pad right on schedule at 5:17 pm EDT, which was 3:17 am March 26 local time at the launch site in Kazakhstan -- a beautiful night launch.
Our brand new fact sheet on NASA's FY2015 budget request is now available for viewing and downloading. It's free!
NASA's FY2015 Budget Request briefly describes President Obama's request for NASA's base budget ($17.461 billion) as well as for NASA's share of the Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative (OGSI). It has four tables:
We update the fact sheet as the request moves through Congress. The first hearing on the request is Thursday morning at 9:00 am before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.
No One-Size-Fits-All Solution to Reducing Cost of National Security Space Capabilities, Say Panelists
At a briefing this morning focused on a recently released Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) report, representatives from the national security space community emphasized that many new processes out there hold promise to reduce costly space programs, but that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
The new report, Easing the Burden: Reducing the Cost of National Security Space Capabilities, contains findings and recommendations that resulted from a two-day Cost Reduction workshop with industry and government officials organized by AIA in May 2013.
Panelists at today’s event described some of the findings of the report and provided examples of the programs and practices their organizations are exploring to reduce the cost of national security space capabilities in all phases of implementation. Jeff Trauberman, Vice President, Space, Intelligence & Missile Defense at Boeing, for instance, said that Boeing’s adoption of commercial practices in the development of three satellites of the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) communications system had resulted in $150 million in savings.
The panelists emphasized that changes in contracting, acquisition and management practices deliver the greatest cost savings, without necessarily incurring additional risk from the technological or engineering perspective. Alternative architectures, however, are also being explored. As David Barnhart of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) explained, the Phoenix Program he manages is addressing this very question by developing a myriad of technologies that would enable satellite capture, autonomous rendezvous and assembly in-orbit, as well as the ability to augment capabilities as requirements evolve.
Panelists said that practices being considered for their cost-saving benefits – such as disaggregation, block buys and hosted payloads – hold promise, but that none will be appropriate for all missions or requirements. In a version of the phrase that was repeated throughout the event, AIA’s Vice President of Space Systems Frank Slazer said that there is “not a one-size-fits-all solution.”
Considering the challenges to the broad adoption of some of the cost-saving practices discussed, panelists mentioned the need for increased acquisition stability. “We’re very narrowly near-term focused,” said Keith Robertson of the National Reconnaissance Office. Speakers commented how disagreement over requirements – even at the Congressional level – in addition to funding instability can be detrimental to a program, eventually driving up cost.
This need for stability also goes back to the health of the industrial base. As Slazer noted, actions that help the industrial base also help national security. This includes a concern for education and the ability of industry to attract a younger generation of professionals. “We need to return to the fifties” on the nation’s ability to generate a pool of talent to support the industrial base, said Rick Skinner, Director, Business and Advanced Systems Development, Northrop Grumman Aerospace.
The top Republican and top Democrat on the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee sent a joint letter to President Obama on Friday championing human spaceflight as NASA's chief priority. They were joined by 30 other members of both parties in arguing in favor of human deep space exploration "on an American rocket launched from American soil."
Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS) and Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), subcommittee chairman and ranking Democrat, respectively, sponsored very different versions of a new NASA authorization bill last year. Palazzo's was approved by the committee on a party-line vote, breaking a tradition of bipartisanship on NASA issues. This joint letter to the President may signal a new, unified approach. The committee's Senate counterpart also approved a NASA authorization bill last year on a party-line vote. Neither bill proceeded any further.
Edwards said at a Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR) luncheon last week that she and House committee Republicans are trying to find common ground so a bill can pass the House, at least, this year.
The subcommittee will hold a hearing on NASA's FY2015 budget request on Thursday.
The Palazzo-Edwards letter says "We must prioritize U.S. leadership in space exploration, especially in light of the expansion of human spaceflight programs in countries such as China and Russia over the past decade." Later it adds "In addition to the threat to our civilian preeminence in space, the increasing efforts of other countries to develop human spaceflight capabilities may also threaten U.S. national security."
Grouping China and Russia together in this context is surprising. Russia is not only a partner in the U.S. human spaceflight program today, but an enabler of it. As will be evidenced once again tomorrow night, the only way American astronauts can travel to and from the International Space Station (ISS) is on Russian spacecraft, and the ISS itself is an integrated facility of Russian and American (and European, Japanese and Canadian) hardware. Russia's human spaceflight program pre-dates the U.S. program (Yuri Gagarin was the first man to orbit the Earth on April 12, 1961) and had a long series of successful space stations from 1971-2001, including the world's first space station (Salyut 1 in 1971) and the first multi-modular space station (Mir, 1986-2001). The letter's reference to an "expansion" of Russia's human spaceflight program over the past decade is curious -- it was and is a partner in the ISS and, under contract to NASA, is providing crew transportation services for non-Russian astronauts.
China, by contrast, is still on the human spaceflight learning curve, with just five crewed missions over the past 11 years. It plans a 60-ton space station by 2023, but that is modest in comparison to ISS. Some Chinese space officials have been quoted in Chinese media about sending people to the Moon, but China's most recent official 5-year space plan calls only for studies on a "preliminary plan for a human lunar landing."
The letter, and Thursday's hearing, are set against a backdrop of tense relationships between the United States and Russia over Russian's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. So far, those geopolitical tensions do not seem to have affected ISS cooperation, but the letter's juxtaposition of Russia and China and national security interests may signal a desire by the subcommittee, at least, for increased scrutiny of U.S. reliance on Russia.
In any case, the letter appears to represent agreement between the two parties on their top NASA priority -- human exploration beyond low Earth orbit. That may not be good news for NASA's space science, space technology and aeronautics programs, but politically it is a step forward in resolving NASA's future in a budget-constrained environment.
The letter noticeably does not state what should be the next step in human space exploration. That issue has separated Congress and the Obama Administration since 2010 when the President cancelled the Constellation program to return astronauts to the Moon and replaced it with the concept of sending humans to an asteroid. The Obama Administration continues to try and win people over to its asteroid plan and will hold a public forum on Wednesday afternoon towards that end.
Edwards has not been a supporter of the asteroid mission in the past, but said at the MSBR luncheon that she happened to see NASA Administrator Bolden explaining the Asteroid Redirect Mission to students recently and finally understood why it is important. The hearing on Thursday may be an opportunity to see if she is willing to fight for it.
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House and Senate are in session and, yes, there's another chance for wintry weather here in the DC area on Tuesday, so check to be sure that any events you're interested in on Tuesday or Wednesday are still on track. (It's not supposed to be too bad this time, though.)
During the Week
With the tense U.S.-Russian relationships resulting from the situation in Ukraine commanding attention, perhaps the most interesting event this week will be the launch of two Russians and an American to the International Space Station (ISS) from Kazakhstan on Tuesday. There is no outward sign of cracks in the ISS partnership, so the expectation is that this will be as routine as a launch ever can be. Launch is at 5:17 pm EDT; docking is just under 6 hours later at 11:04 pm EDT.
Meanwhile, back here in the States, congressional hearings on the budget for science agencies in general and NASA specifically kick off before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee on Wednesday and Thursday respectively. NASA's hearing will come a day after a forum at NASA Headquarters with an update on its Asteroid Initiative -- the "initiative" is the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) plus the Asteroid Grand Challenge plus the extra money in NASA's Science Mission Directorate to augment the search for asteroids -- on Wednesday afternoon. NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg who recently was aboard the ISS will speak there. She and Luca Parmitano -- the ESA astronaut whose helmet filled with water during that EVA last year -- will speak at the University of Maryland, College Park, MD, later that day about their recent tour of duty aboard ISS.
Lots of other interesting events are on tap, too. The list below has everything we know about as of Sunday afternoon.
Monday, March 24
Tuesday, March 25
Wednesday, March 26
Wednesday-Thursday, March 26-27
Thursday, March 27
The House Science, Space and Technology Committee will hold two hearings next week on the FY2015 budget requests for science agencies generally and, separately, for NASA, kicking off the FY2015 budget season for civil space.
The first hearing is on Wednesday, March 26, and features Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren, who is also Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), as the only witness. His annual testimony to the committee typically covers all science activities at civilian government agencies, including NASA and NOAA, at a fairly top level. That hearing, before the full committee, is at 10:00 am ET.
The second hearing is on Thursday, March 27, at 9:00 am ET (an earlier hour than usual) and will specifically focus on NASA's budget request. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden is the only witness. The hearing is before the Space Subcommittee.
Both hearings are in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building and should be webcast on the committee's website.
Hearings already have begun on the FY2015 budget requests related to national security space activities, but these are the first for this year on the civilian side.
Scientists using a telescope in Antarctica equipped with sensors developed by NASA announced on Monday that they discovered evidence of gravitational waves produced by the Big Bang that many believe created our universe.
Understanding the origin and evolution of the universe is a scientific quest dating back centuries. Today, most scientists believe an event called the Big Bang started it all, though what created the Big Bang is unknown and only theories exist about what happened in the first moments afterwards.
Based on observations from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, the universe is calculated to be 13.8 billion years old and NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes have peered back through about 13.3 billion of those years. NASA’s COBE and WMAP satellites as well as the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Planck mission have studied light – the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) – that originated from an even younger universe and began to stream through space 380,000 years after the Big Bang.
What happened before that remains a mystery. One theory is that in the fractions of a second after the Big Bang, a period of “inflation” took place where theoretical particles called “inflatons” pushed space-time apart. Eventually stars, galaxies, planets and the other objects and phenomena observable today formed. Some scientists theorize that the inflatons continued to form new universes in a process dubbed “eternal inflation” with “infinite pocket universes” creating a multiverse. Andrei Linde of Stanford was quoted by New Scientist as saying that “[i]f inflation is there, the multiverse is there.”
The findings from the BICEP2 telescope in Antarctica announced this week by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) relate to an infinitesimal period of time – a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second – after the Big Bang. Inflation theory posits that the events occurring at that time created gravitational waves that can still be detected today. The observations with BICEP2 support that theory.
BICEP2 found a characteristic swirly pattern in the polarization of the light left over from the Big Bang (the CMB) that could only be caused by gravitational waves. Waves of light are polarized when they tend to wiggle in one particular direction. Gravitational waves – ripples in space-time caused by the motion of massive objects like those being flung outward during the violent expansion of inflation – would polarize light as they swept through the universe. The Harvard-Smithsonian CfA announcement said the BICEP2 data “represent the first images of gravitational waves, or ripples in space-time.”
BICEP2 is a radio telescope funded by NSF, which also runs the South Pole Station where BICEP2 is located. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) developed the superconductor-based BICEP2 detectors. Jamie Bock, who has joint appointments with JPL and Caltech, is co-director of the project and said that it already was known that the Big Bang produced density waves, but these observations are the first to show that gravitational waves were also produced.
The BICEP2 findings support inflation theory, but remain to be corroborated by subsequent studies, a sine qua non of the scientific process. Nonetheless, the astrophysics community is energized.
In the meantime, assuming the result holds, the implications are tantalizing: it solidifies the theory of inflation and greatly narrows the pool of inflation models that can be correct. Furthermore, it again proves Einstein’s prediction of gravitational waves.
BICEP2 is not the only telescope searching for signs of inflation. Among the others is NSF’s Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO), a large ground-based experiment designed to detect gravitational waves directly. Work is now being done to upgrade the detectors in the facility and “Advanced LIGO” should begin operations this year. The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) is a potential NASA-ESA mission that would seek to detect gravitational waves directly using three separated spacecraft. It received a relatively low priority (priority 3) in the National Research Council’s most recent Decadal Survey for astrophysics because the technology is not mature. ESA plans to launch a technology demonstration for such a mission, LISA Pathfinder, next year.
BICEP2 is an international collaboration involving 11 institutions: Caltech, JPL, UC San Diego, Harvard, NIST Boulder, Stanford, University of British Columbia, University of Chicago, University of Minnesota, University of Toronto and University of Wales Cardiff. BICEP stands for Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarisation. This was the second phase of the BICEP experiment, hence the designation BICEP2.
A National Research Council (NRC) report released today lauds the additional science that could be obtained using hardware transferred to NASA from the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) for the next large space telescope, but worries about the cost and potential impact on the balance of programs within NASA’s astrophysics portfolio, especially if a coronagraph is added.
NASA asked the NRC to look at the pros and cons of using the NRO hardware, which NASA refers to as AFTA (Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets) to meet the science objectives envisioned for the Wide Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST). WFIRST has a three-fold purpose: study dark energy, search for exoplanets, and survey the universe in the infrared wavelengths.
The NRC recommended WFIRST as the top priority for the next large space telescope after the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) in its most recent Decadal Survey for astronomy and astrophysics, New Worlds, New Horizons (NWNH). Cost growth and schedule delays in the JWST program – now scheduled for launch in 2018 – meant that substantive work on WFIRST will not begin for several years longer than envisioned when the NWNH Decadal Survey was published in 2011.
The version of WFIRST recommended in the NWNH Decadal Survey would use a 1.3 meter mirror. In the meantime, however, NRO, which builds and operates the nation’s spy satellites, decided it no longer needed two space-qualified 2.4 meter mirrors and transferred them to NASA. The agency is considering how best to make use of them. Some scientists also now want to add another instrument– a coronagraph - to whatever new large space telescope is built.
According to today’s report, NASA told this NRC committee, chaired by CalTech’s Fiona Harrison, that implementing WFIRST with a 1.3 meter mirror is no longer under consideration.
The Harrison committee was tasked not with comparing that version with a new design utilizing NRO’s hardware, referred to as WFIRST/AFTA, but with evaluating how WFIRST/AFTA responds to the scientific objectives expressed in the NWNH Decadal Survey. The committee also was asked whether a coronagraph would advance technology development and scientific goals expressed in the Decadal Survey.
The Harrison committee concluded that WFIRST/AFTA would “significantly enhance the scientific power of the mission, particularly for cosmology and general survey science,” and benefit the search for exoplanets. However, it also found that using the AFTA hardware could add to the program’s cost: “The use of inherited hardware designed for another purpose results in design complexity, low thermal and mass margins, and limited descope options that add to the mission risk. These factors will make managing cost growth challenging.”
As for adding a coronagraph, the Harrison committee was less than enthusiastic because its design is “immature” and could further add to the technical risk and potential cost. The committee stressed that it was “the moderate cost, low technical risk and mature design” of the original WFIRST concept that led the Decadal Survey committee to make it the top priority. Therefore, “inclusion of the coronagraph compromises this rationale.”
A prominent theme in today’s report is a reminder that the fundamental tenet of the NWNH Decadal Survey is to maintain balance in NASA’s astrophysics portfolio among large programs like WFIRST, smaller programs in the Explorer series, and the associated Research and Analysis (R&A) program “If implementing WFIRST/AFTA compromises the program balance then it is inconsistent with the rationale that led to the high priority ranking,” the Harrison committee warned.
NASA needs to “mature the coronagraph design and develop a credible cost, schedule, performance, and observing program” before the impact of adding such an instrument to WFIRST can be determined, the Harrison committee determined. Once that is done, NASA should convene additional independent reviews of the coronagraph and of whatever mission design NASA ultimately proposes as a new start “to ensure that the proposed mission cost and technical risk are consistent with available resources and do not significantly compromise the astrophysics balance” recommended by the Decadal Survey.
Congress appropriated $668 million for NASA's astrophysics program for FY2014 (which is separate from the funding for JWST), an increase of $46 million above the $622 million requested. It then directed NASA to use $56 million of its FY2014 astrophysics funding to proceed with design studies, technical risk reduction and mission formulation to meet the exoplanet and dark energy objectives of WFIRST. NASA's FY2014 operating plan, which provides details of how it plans to spend its FY2014 appropriations, has not been made public, so details on how it will spend that $56 million are not available yet.
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House and Senate are in recess (except for pro forma sessions).
During the Week
As another (sigh) snowstorm begins in the DC area, it's just as well that this is quiet week for space policy events in Washington. Attention will be focused on the 45th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference taking place at The Woodlands, TX outside Houston instead. Jim Green and Jonathan Rall from NASA Headquarters will brief the crowd on the state of planetary science at NASA tomorrow (Monday) at 5:30 pm Central/6:30 pm Eastern. That event will be webcast.
Also of interest is Rep. Donna Edwards's (D-MD) talk to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable on Tuesday at Martin's Crosswinds in Greenbelt, MD. Hopefully the streets will be cleared of the snow by then since we don't think that one is webcast.
Here are the events we know of as of Sunday evening.
Monday-Friday, March 17-21
Tuesday, March 18
Thursday, March 20
According to NASA, its new strategic plan, released last week, provides the agency with a “clear, unified, and long-term direction” for all its activities. NASA’s previous strategic plan was criticized in a 2012 National Research Council (NRC) report requested by Congress that found a lack of “national consensus” on the agency’s strategic goals and objectives.
Government agencies are required to prepare strategic plans every four years in the year after a presidential election by the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act. The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) sets detailed requirements for the plans. NASA was given an extra year to produce its last version as the Obama Administration debated the agency’s future, so it was released in 2011 rather than 2010.
The document states NASA’s vision and mission and explains the agency’s core values, goals and priorities.
In this new version, NASA’s Vision is articulated as:
“We reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind.”
NASA’s Mission is:
“Drive advances in science, technology, aeronautics, and space exploration to enhance knowledge, education, innovation, economic vitality, and stewardship of Earth.”
A comparison of the 2014 and 2011 strategic plans reveals few dramatic changes. Safety, integrity, teamwork and excellence remain the agency’s core values. The plan also reiterates sending humans to Mars as the agency’s long-term goal. The addition of the words “space” and “aeronautics” to the mission statement is a significant change, however, and appears to respond to criticism of the 2011 version by the NRC committee.
The 2014 plan identifies NASA’s proposed asteroid initiative, which includes the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) to redirect an asteroid into the Earth-Moon system for human exploration, as a step towards a human exploration of Mars.
Lack of widespread national and international support for an asteroid mission as the next step in human spaceflight, first proposed by President Obama in April 2010, was one of the findings of the 2012 NRC study that was written in response to concerns of Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA). He chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and included language in NASA’s FY2012 funding bill requesting a study of NASA’s strategic direction with a specific look at NASA’s Strategic Plan.
The resulting NRC report, NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus, concluded that “there is no national consensus on strategic goals and objectives for NASA.” The committee recommended that the Administration take the lead in forging a new consensus, establishing a new strategic plan to achieve it, and taking steps to address a crippling mismatch between the agency’s budget and its portfolio of programs, facilities and staff.
The NRC committee found the vision and mission statements in the 2011 strategic plan were too generic and did not convey how NASA uniquely contributes to national goals, adding to the “confusion about NASA’s overall strategic direction.” In particular, it criticized the omission of the words “space” and aeronautics” from those statements since they delineate NASA’s responsibilities.
The new strategic plan responds to that critique by adding “space” and “aeronautics” to the mission statement. Previously it read “Drive advances in science, technology, and exploration to enhance knowledge, education, innovation, economic vitality, and stewardship of Earth.” The new vision statement does not include those words, but is more succinct than the 2011 version, which was phrased “To reach for new heights and reveal the unknown, so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.”
The new strategic plan does highlight changes in the strategy development process. It emphasizes consultation with both internal and external stakeholders, “including Congress,” and describes actions the NASA Administrator has taken “to formulate a robust Agency strategy for implementation of the external guidance.”
In a letter introducing the 2014 strategic plan, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden states that “NASA’s vision of the future is clear.” Nevertheless, as recent congressional hearings have demonstrated, there is a persistent lack of consensus over next steps for NASA’s human spaceflight program and the state of affairs with respect to the agency’s future direction for human spaceflight, at least, is largely unchanged.
Note: SpacePolicyOnline.com Editor Marcia Smith was a member of the NRC Strategic Directions committee.
Events of Interest