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NAC Gets Stuck on Mars Technology Development Finding - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Apr-2015 (Updated: 25-Apr-2015 04:51 PM)

Update, April 25, 2015:   NAC sent a letter to NASA Administrator Bolden with the final wording of its findings and recommendations on April 16.

Original Story, April 10, 2015:  The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) reached agreement on a number of findings and recommendations at its meeting over the past two days.   Its finding about the Asteroid Redirect Mission has received widespread attention, but other important topics also were discussed.  One case where consensus could not be reached was a proposed finding that NASA’s technology development effort in support of a human mission to Mars is underfunded.

The NAC meetings are lively affairs and it can be difficult to keep track of where a finding or recommendation stands with all the crosstalk and conversations.  Eventually, those that are approved are posted to the NAC website, sometimes after additional wordsmithing.  The posted versions on the NAC website are the definitive authority.    Until then, here are some of the key points and where they seemed to end up.

The proposed finding that ran into headwinds was championed by Bill Ballhaus who chairs NAC’s Technology, Innovation and Engineering Committee.   The strongest objection was voiced by Dave McComas who chairs the NAC Science Committee.

The crux of the issue was whether advocating for more funding for one part of NASA would be construed as suggesting that it be taken from somewhere else in NASA.   Basically, in a zero-sum budget environment, if NAC says technology development needs more money, would NASA, White House or congressional policy-makers agree and reallocate money from other NASA programs, such as science.

The draft finding was relatively simple and straightforward:  “The current human exploration technology plans being implemented by STMD and HEOMD are inadequately funded to make the necessary progress in the near term to have a credible Mars program.”   STMD is the Space Technology Mission Directorate.  HEOMD is the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

NAC members did not disagree with that statement.   Rather, some argued that there are many parts of NASA – indeed, the entire agency – that are underfunded and if NAC singled out technology development, it could pose problems for everyone else. As chair of the Science Committee, McComas was defending the science community’s interests, but the concern was more widespread than that.

Ballhaus argued that he was not talking about pitting one segment of NASA against another, that the draft finding was simply stating a fact that if NASA is intent on sending people to Mars in the 2030s, more funding is needed to develop the technology.  He pointed out that there are other parts of NASA for which he also would advocate more funding, such as aeronautics, but he was not doing that here.  He was focused only on technology for the humans-to-Mars goal.

In the end, compromise could not be reached.  NAC chair Steve Squyres declared “we are stuck” after reminding Council members that NAC’s strength draws from forwarding findings and recommendations to the Administrator that were reached by consensus.   Moving forward with something lacking that agreement would undermine its effectiveness, he stressed.  The draft finding was tabled for further discussion at the next meeting.

NAC also struggled with a finding advocated by NAC member Scott Hubbard that encouraged NASA to make decisions on more specific plans for human Mars exploration than are contained in NASA’s “Evolvable Mars Campaign” on which the Council was briefed at this and previous meetings.  The message was that establishing the goal of sending humans to Mars is “necessary but insufficient” and a “long term strategy” also is needed in order to build support.   It was apparent that the word “strategy” has different meanings for different people.  NAC finally agreed on a finding along those lines, but the exact wording was not finalized in the closing moments of the meeting.

Among the other findings or recommendations adopted were the following (this is not a comprehensive list  nor a complete recitation of the language):

  • The Asteroid Redirect Mission should be changed such that the spacecraft is sent on a round-trip to Mars rather than to an asteroid;
  • NASA needs to openly communicate the radiation risks associated with human travel to Mars while proceeding with plans to do just that, and NASA should develop a long term medical care program for astronauts who make the trip and long-term astronaut health monitoring;
  • It is unacceptable that NASA is not able to provide free life insurance for astronauts while they are in space nor lifetime health care after their service;
  • A requirement should be established that a large fraction (75% has been used historically) of samples returned by all space missions – human and robotic – be retained for future scientific studies instead of the current requirement that applies only to Discovery and New Frontiers missions; and
  • NASA should reconsider how it manages travel restrictions on contractors to participate in scientific conferences because its current application of the rules is a barrier to disseminating the results of scientific missions and open communications.

NAC will hold its next meeting at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA in July.

NAC Adopts Finding To Redirect the Asteroid Redirect Mission -- to Mars - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Apr-2015 (Updated: 25-Apr-2015 04:57 PM)

Update, April 25, 2015:   NAC sent a letter to NASA Administrator Bolden with the final wording of its findings and recommendations on April 16.

Original story, April 10, 2015:  The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) today unanimously adopted a finding that it thinks NASA should change the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) into a mission that would go all the way to Mars and thus be more closely aligned with the goal of sending humans there.  NAC chairman Steve Squyres stressed that it is a finding, not a recommendation, and requires no action from NASA. 

NASA's existing concept for ARM responds to Obama Administration policy and NAC recommendations at odds with Administration policy have little value, he explained, since NASA must implement what it is told to do.

As currently conceived, ARM involves sending a robotic spacecraft to an asteroid, descending to the surface of the asteroid to grab a boulder laying on its surface and moving the boulder from the asteroid's native orbit to an orbit around the Moon ("cis-lunar space") where it will be visited by astronauts in an Orion spacecraft to obtain a sample and return it to Earth. The mission is described by NASA and the Obama Administration as part of its "Journey to Mars" wherein humans will be sent to orbit Mars in the 2030s and someday land on the planet.

NAC members are appointed by the NASA Administrator, so the group is comprised of individuals hand-picked by Administrator Charlie Bolden to candidly share their views on NASA's programs and plans. The members of NAC are among the most prestigious and experienced members of the aeronautics and space communities and rarely shy about expressing their opinions.

NAC meets quarterly and ARM has been the subject of intense debate over the past several meetings. Their concerns center on two issues: cost and the extent to which ARM is really needed to achieve the goal of sending humans to Mars (its "extensibility").   

First, they are skeptical of the $1.25 billion cost estimate.  That estimate is only for the robotic portion of the ARM mission and does not include launch.   Squyres, a highly respected space scientist from Cornell, points out that NASA already has a robotic asteroid sample return mission, OSIRIS-REx, under development for launch next year.  OSIRIS-Rex has a less complicated set of objectives and its pricetag is $800 million, so Squyres wonders how ARM can be accomplished for just $425 million more.  ARM involves development of high-power SEP, a spacecraft, and a mechanism for grabbing and containing the boulder.   NAC members are worried that if the ARM cost escalates, other NASA programs will have to pay the price.  

That leads them to ask the further question of whether the cost is worth what will be gained towards the longer term goal of sending humans to Mars.   They agree on the need to develop SEP and they agree that astronauts need to develop experience working in cis-lunar space.  They simply do not see the value of moving "the rock" as part of a human Mars exploration program.

Squyres is the principal investigator for the two Mars Exploration Rovers -- Spirit and Opportunity -- that landed on Mars in 2004 (Opportunity is still operating) so is more expert than most about Mars.  He also chaired the most recent National Research Council Decadal Survey on planetary exploration.   He has forcefully argued at NAC for NASA to reconsider its plans for ARM to make it more relevant to the long term humans-to-Mars goal.

Today NAC agreed that ARM should focus on a full demonstration of high power SEP, which is widely regarded as a sine qua non to support human missions to Mars.  They believe instead of going to an asteroid, it should go all the way to Mars and back.

During discussion yesterday, a suggestion was made that it could go to Phobos, one of the two moons of Mars, and collect a sample of that instead of an asteroid.  That idea is not contained in the finding they adopted today.  Instead it says only that ARM should fly "to Mars orbit and then back to the Earth-Moon system and into a distant retrograde lunar orbit."

"Distant retrograde lunar orbit" is a phrase NASA uses to define the location in lunar orbit where it wants to relocate the boulder.  It is a point of equilibrium in the Earth-Moon system that provides a stable location where spacecraft -- with or without humans on board -- can operate for long periods of time without expending much fuel.  It is a roughly nine day journey from Earth, so astronauts on an Orion spacecraft could travel there, conduct operations for several days, and return to Earth within the 21-22 day lifetime of the Orion spacecraft now under development.   By including that destination in their finding, the NAC members appear to be signalling their agreement with NASA that it is a useful location for future operations even if they do not agree on the need to move a space boulder there.

The wording of the finding agreed to today is as follows:

High-performance solar electric propulsion (SEP) will likely be an
important part of an architecture to send humans to Mars.  NASA's
current plan is to demonstrate a large SEP stage by using it to
maneuver a boulder that has been lifted from the surface of a small
asteroid, and to move the boulder to cis-lunar space.

Maneuvering a large test mass is not necessary to provide a valid in-
space test of a new SEP stage.  We therefore find that a SEP mission
will contribute more directly to the goal of sending humans to Mars if
the mission is focused entirely on development and validation of the
SEP stage.  We also find that other possible motivations for acquiring
and maneuvering a boulder (e.g. asteroid science, planetary defense)
do not have value commensurate with their probable cost.

Instead of relocating a boulder from an asteroid, we suggest that a
more important and exciting first use of this new SEP stage would be a
round trip mission to Mars, flying it to Mars orbit, and then back to the
Earth-Moon system and into a distant retrograde lunar orbit.

Although NASA does not need to act on the NAC finding, because of the stature of the NAC members it could influence other policy-makers.  ARM has won little support in Congress or the space community since it was announced two years ago.  Congress has not prohibited NASA from pursuing ARM, but has said NASA should spend its money only on activities that it would be developing anyway for other purposes.  NASA divides its funding for ARM into two categories --"direct" and "leveraged" -- to show that split.  NASA is requesting its first direct funding for ARM formulation studies in FY2016:  $38 million in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, out of a total $220 million request for ARM.  For more detail on ARM funding, see table 2 in's fact sheet on NASA's FY2016 budget request.


Bolden: New Roscosmos Head Committed to ISS Through 2024

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Apr-2015 (Updated: 10-Apr-2015 06:36 AM)

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) yesterday (April 9) that the new head of Russia's space agency, Igor Komarov, is committed to the International Space Station (ISS) through 2024.  NAC continues to meet today, where the key topics of discussion are NASA's "Evolvable Mars Campaign" and the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and especially whether ARM should be sent to the Mars moon Phobos instead of an asteroid.

Bolden's comments about Komarov followed a meeting between the two while Bolden was in Russia for the launch of NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and two crew mates, Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka, to ISS two weeks ago.  Kelly and Kornienko will remain aboard the ISS for one year, the first year-long crew for the ISS. 

A report in the Russian press incorrectly stated that Komarov had said he and Bolden agreed to work together to build another space station after ISS.  Bolden did not address that during the NAC meeting, but instead talked about his favorable impression of Komarov, calling him a "forward-looking, positive" individual.  Komarov became head of Roscosmos after another reorganization of the Russian space program earlier this year.

Bolden noted that Komarov has a much larger portfolio than previous Roscosmos directors.  Following the restructuring, not only is Komarov in charge of the Roscosmos space agency, but a new entity that comprises much of Russia's space industry (the United Rocket and Space Corporation) as well as medical and research institutes associated with the space program.

Komarov is committed to utilization of ISS through 2024, Bolden said, and to working with all the space station partners and expanding the number of participants looking at a long term exploration roadmap.   Bolden cautioned, however, that "that was talk, we'll see how it goes."

Komarov is the fourth head of Roscosmos since Bolden became NASA Administrator in 2009.

NAC spent much of yesterday debating the future of NASA's space program, especially the Evolvable Mars Campaign and ARM.   No decisions were made about making findings or recommendations about those activities, although there was robust debate as there has been in several of the past NAC meetings.  NAC chairman Steve Squyres gave "homework assignments" overnight to several of the members to draft language that will be debated today.   The meeting is from 9:00 am - 12:00 pm today at NASA Headquarters and is available by WebEx and telecon.  

One line of discussion late yesterday was whether NAC should recommend that NASA consider sending the ARM robotic spacecraft to Phobos rather than to an asteroid (some argue that Phobos is an asteroid captured by the gravity of Mars, but Sqyures indicated there is debate about that in the scientific community).   Check back here later to learn what they decide to do.

Are You a Young Planetary or Earth Scientist? Interested in China?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Apr-2015 (Updated: 08-Apr-2015 05:30 PM)

The Space Studies Board (SSB) of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the National Space Science Center of the Chinese Academy of Sciences are extending their cooperative Forum for New Leaders in Space Science for another year.  The SSB is welcoming applications from young (under 40) planetary or earth scientists before May 29, 2015.

This is the second year of the Forum and involves participants from China coming to the United States and U.S. participants going to China to discuss their research activities.  The goals are to "identify and highlight the research achievements of the best and brightest young scientists," to "build informal bridges between the Earth- and space science communities" in the two countries, and "enhance the diffusion of insights" gained by participating in the Forum.

The first Forum focused on astrophysics and heliophysics at meetings in May and November 2014.  This time the topics are planetary science and earth science from space.  Participants will meet in China in October 2015 and in the United States (California) in May 2016.

Eligibility requirements and application procedures are posted on the SSB's website.  The deadline is May 29, 2015.  The SSB is hoping to receive applications from a diverse cross-section of the planetary science and earth science communities' younger members.   Applicants must be no more than 40 years old on June 30, 2016.  

Editor's Note:  We understand very few women applied for this opportunity last year.  Hope there are more this year!

Editor's Note (2):  We missed the fact that this is for both planetary and earth scientists in our first posting.  Apologies.

Hyten: No "Fair Competition" If ULA Contract Remains

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Apr-2015 (Updated: 07-Apr-2015 09:59 PM)

Gen. John Hyten, Commander of Air Force Space Command, believes that the government’s cost-plus contract with the United Launch Alliance (ULA) that covers infrastructure and engineering services must be changed if “fair competition” is to be achieved in the national security space launch market.

Testifying to a House Armed Services Committee (HASC) panel on March 25, Hyten said “I don’t think you can have fair competition with that contract in place.  There'll have to be a change.”

Government payments to ULA for launches of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) –Atlas V and Delta IV – have two components:  EELV Launch Services (ELS) and EELV Launch Capabilities (ELC).   ELS is a fixed price contract that covers hardware, while ELC is a cost-plus-incentive-fee contract that pays for infrastructure and engineering support.

Hyten said the ELC contract was created because the U.S. launch industry’s industrial base was in a “fragile” state in the mid-2000s.  The robust commercial launch market that had been forecast to develop did not do so.  At the time, Lockheed Martin and Boeing were competitors, offering the Atlas V and Delta IV, respectively, for both commercial and government launches.  Without sufficient commercial launches, the market was insufficient to support both companies against international competition.

The Air Force needed Atlas and Delta to place its satellites into orbit whenever necessary, so “we created the ELC contract as a way to make sure that even if we didn’t launch, and there were years that we launched very small numbers of satellites, there will still be a healthy industrial base,” Hyten explained.

Times have changed, however, and with the emergence of “new entrants” like SpaceX, the time has come to alter the way the government procures launches, according to Hyten.   Mr. Dyke Weatherington, the Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space, Strategic and Intelligence Systems, agreed.  He said DOD is “modifying and continuing to evolve its space launch capability to take advantage of the competitive launch environment that we see coming in the future.”

SpaceX is awaiting certification from the Air Force to be able to compete with ULA for launches of national security satellites.   After assurances that the certification would be complete by the end of last year, and a subsequent announcement by the Air Force of a delay, there appears to be agreement between the two that SpaceX will be certified by this summer.

The March 25 hearing on national security space issues was before the HASC Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, which held a hearing specifically on space launch issues a week earlier.   Hyten testified at both.  Subcommittee chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) said at the March 25 hearing that he was offering Hyten an opportunity to give his perspectives on the ELC contract because Hyten did not have a chance to do so at the previous hearing.

The March 25 hearing looked broadly at national security space issues and the witnesses were a who’s who of national security space decision-makers.  Topics spanned a broad range of issues, including protecting U.S. satellites from threats by other countries, such as China.   Doug Loverro, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, said that the United States is reacting to the threat posed by China and “making it very clear we have no desire to have a conflict extended to space,” but that the “U.S. will be prepared to defend our space assets.”

A key message repeated by many of the witnesses is that “we can no longer view space as a sanctuary.”   Loverro emphasized that other countries understand U.S. reliance on space assets and “want to take it away from us.  We won’t let them.”   Still, the United States “remains committed to assuring the peaceful use of space by all” because it is a “global good” and a “driver for economic growth, environmental monitoring, verification of treaties and enabler for everyday citizens at home and abroad.”

What's Happening in Space Policy April 6-10, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Apr-2015 (Updated: 05-Apr-2015 03:34 PM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events for the week of April 6-10, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate remain in recess for the Easter holidays; they will return on April 13.

During the Week

The week is dominated by meetings of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and three of its committees.  Perhaps of most interest to readers of this website will be the meetings of the NAC Science and NAC Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) committees, especially their joint sessions in the afternoon of April 7 and morning of April 8, and the meeting of the full NAC on Thursday and Friday.  NAC and its committees cover the entire scope of NASA's activities, but their meetings lately have focused a great deal on the future of the human spaceflight program including the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and the Evolvable Mars Campaign.

While traditionally such topics would have been relegated to the human spaceflight side of the house, a great deal of emphasis in Charlie Bolden's tenure is being placed on getting NASA's science and human exploration communities working together in common purpose, overcoming their traditional animosity towards each other.  Animosity may be too strong of a word. Or not.  It depends on who has the podium. 

One thing for sure is that the message from the presentation to the NAC Planetary Science Subcommittee (PSS) last week by the new NASA Mars exploration program director Jim Watzin is that the future robotic Mars program is being designed to "Inform and enable human mission design" as much as to answer scientific questions.  After the Mars 2020 rover, Watzin said, the next Mars mission will be an orbiter, prompting some subcommittee members to ask: "what happened to sample return?"  It will be interesting to see if that conversation continues at the NAC meetings this week.

Another interesting tidbit that came of the PSS meeting last week is that the "AGs" are no longer part of the NASA advisory process.  Those are "Assessment Groups" or "Analysis Groups" that focus on a specific topic of research interest.  One example is the Venus Exploration Analysis Group (VEXAG) that is meeting near NASA's Langely Research Center this week.   According to NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green, a change in the NAC charter last year left these AGs out of the advisory process, meaning that for these groups of scientists to meet, they must work through NASA's more laborious procedures to hold a conference with consequent potential limitations on attendance, for example.  Green said he has taken the lead for the Science Mission Directorate is working with NASA's lawyers to find out if the change was intentional or an unintended consequence and what it all means for the future of the AGs.  Planetary science is not the only NAC Science subcommittee that uses AGs, but it has the most.

Also of special interest to space policy aficionados is the book signing event on Tuesday evening at George Washington University.  John Logsdon will talk about and sign copies of his new book on President Nixon's role in U.S. space policy and programs.  Nixon, of course, was the President who oversaw the end of the lunar Apollo missions and had to decide the future of the human spaceflight program in that era.  Logsdon's book details how Nixon's decisions still shape the program today.  Logsdon is a very highly regarded authority on space policy and space history -- the "dean" of space policy -- and author of two books on President Kennedy's role in the Apollo program.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below. 

Monday-Wednesday, April 6-8

Tuesday, April 7

Tuesday-Wednesday, April 7-8

Thursday, April 9

Thursday-Friday, April 9-10

NASA Disputes Chronicle Report That NASA Is Reassessing Lunar Surface Plans

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Apr-2015 (Updated: 06-Apr-2015 01:58 PM)

NASA officials are disputing the Houston Chronicle’s April 3 story that NASA is “quietly” reassessing the need for missions to the lunar surface before traveling to Mars.  Chronicle science reporter Eric Berger wrote that “senior NASA engineers” are involved in the reassessment, but NASA officially responded that the agency continues to plan only for operations in cis-lunar space.

Berger’s article quotes NASA Associate Administrator for Human Spaceflight Bill Gerstenmaier discussing the advantages of producing fuel from lunar resources (called in-situ resource utilization or ISRU) to propel astronauts to Mars.  Berger characterizes Gerstenmaier as favoring lunar surface missions, saying he “appears to be steering the agency back toward a program that would more fully utilize the moon” as part of NASA’s "Evolvable Mars Campaign" that lays out the steps to landing humans on the Martian surface.

NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz told via email that Gerstenmaier was only responding to a question from Berger about the possibility of using lunar resources for Mars missions.  “The Evolvable Mars Campaign, which envisions using the lunar vicinity to support a human mission to the Red Planet, is in line with and designed to advance the president’s ambitious space exploration plan.  We’re making great progress on this journey to Mars.  A key element of our plan to get to the Red Planet is employing a stepping stone approach, including living, working and learning in cis-lunar space.”

Cis-lunar is the area between the Earth and the Moon or in lunar orbit.

The statement sidesteps the substance of the Chronicle article – that NASA engineers are reassessing the need for lunar surface missions, but are in a “delicate position” because returning to the lunar surface is not part of President Obama’s plan.

David Weaver (@David Weaver), NASA Associate Administrator for the Office of Communications, and Berger (@chronsciguy) engaged in a Twitter exchange about the article as well.  Weaver said there was “nothing new” about NASA’s plan to use the Moon, but it involves operations in cis-lunar space, not on the surface.  Berger replied “Respectfully disagree; ISRU idea is new and would require a substantial investment of time and money at the Moon.”  [UPDATE: Berger posted more about his story on his blog on April 6.]

The debate over the future of the human spaceflight program remains as intense as ever.  There is widespread agreement among human spaceflight enthusiasts that the long-term goal is sending people to land on Mars.  The argument is over the steps to get there.  The Obama Administration cancelled the Constellation program, initiated by President George W. Bush, to return humans to the lunar surface by 2020 and eventually send them to Mars because it was deemed unaffordable.  President Obama set the United States on a different path that does not require spending money on systems to get astronauts from lunar orbit down to the surface and back or facilities on the Moon itself.  Instead they are to travel to an asteroid as the next step to Mars.   The current plan is called the Asteroid Redirect Mission – ARM -- and involves moving part of an asteroid to cis-lunar space where astronauts will collect a sample and return it to Earth.

ARM has not garnered much support, energizing a long-standing debate over whether lunar surface missions – to mine resources to turn into fuel or to test equipment on an alien surface that is just three days from the safety of Earth before sending it to Mars, at least a 6 month (one-way) journey – are required before committing to human Mars missions.

Just one day prior to the publication of the Chronicle article, The Planetary Society announced the findings of a workshop that argue in favor of sending astronauts to orbit Mars before committing to a landing.  Details of the proposal reviewed at the workshop are not public, but at the April 2 press conference, a list of the steps was read and it includes just one mission to the lunar surface, to test the Mars lander, and does not involve utilization of lunar resources.

The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) Human Exploration and Operations Committee will meet April 7-8 in Washington, DC.  The agenda for April 8  includes an update on ARM at 1:35 pm ET and on the Evolvable Mars Campaign at 2:35 pm ET.   The meeting is open to the public up to the seating capacity of the room.  It also is available virtually via WebEx and telecon.  The full NAC meets on April 9-10.  At their last meeting, they had a very lively discussion about ARM.

Planetary Society: Orbiting Mars Is Critical Precursor to Human Landing

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Apr-2015 (Updated: 02-Apr-2015 09:13 PM)

The Planetary Society (TPS) held a workshop this week on “Humans Orbiting Mars” and concluded that sending humans to orbit Mars before attempting a landing is “required.”  At a press conference today, three TPS officials explained the workshop’s consensus findings.

Using the Apollo 8 mission as an analogy, the grass-roots space advocacy organization argued that it will be difficult enough to send a crew to orbit the planet and return to Earth that the even more challenging step of landing on and ascending from the surface should wait.  Consequently, “for a sustainable, executable and successful Humans to Mars program, an orbital mission in 2033 is required.”

Space historian John Logsdon, who co-chaired the workshop, recounted that the December 1968 Apollo 8 mission was improvised because the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) needed to land on the Moon was not ready.  Three Apollo astronauts (Borman, Anders and Lovell) spent Christmas in lunar orbit, sending back the indelible "Earthrise" photo and reading passages from the Bible.  Though it was not originally part of NASA's plan, in retrospect it made perfect sense to test the Apollo system in lunar orbit before committing to a landing, he explained, and the same approach should be followed at Mars.  (Apollo 10 was a second lunar orbital test.  Landing on the lunar surface was attempted -- and achieved -- on Apollo 11.)

TPS organized the one-and-a-half day workshop in Washington, DC where 70 participants listened to a plan developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) that calls for sending the first humans to orbit Mars in 2033 and a landing mission in 2039.   Several intermediate steps closer to home in cis-lunar space precede the 2033 mission.  The plan is said to be executable within a NASA human spaceflight budget that grows only with inflation, assuming that the International Space Station is terminated (and the associated funding redirected to this program) in 2028, or, better yet, 2024.  The total trip time would be 30 months:  9 months to Mars, one year in orbit, and 9 months back.  It would utilize the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion, but a habitation module also would have to be developed for the crew to live in during most of the journey.

A careful reading of the TPS press release reveals that it does not specifically endorse the JPL plan, but rather concludes it is “an example” of a “long term, cost constrained, executable humans to Mars program” in the words of workshop co-chair Scott Hubbard.

Hubbard, Logsdon, and TPS Chief Executive Officer Bill Nye discussed the findings at a press conference this morning at George Washington University’s (GWU’s) Elliott School of International Affairs.  Logsdon is GWU Professor Emeritus, founder of the university’s Space Policy Institute, and author of two seminal books on the Kennedy and Nixon Administrations’ roles in the space program.   Hubbard is a Professor at Stanford University, was NASA’s first “Mars czar,” was a director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, is a member of innumerable advisory committees and editor-in-chief of the journal New Space.  Nye is well known as “The Science Guy” from his television program of that name in the 1990s.  Logsdon and Hubbard both serve on the TPS Board.

The workshop was by invitation only (a speakers list has been released, but not the participants), it was built around a JPL report that is not public, and a workshop report will not be issued until later this year.  Those factors sharply constrained what the three men could explain about the basis for their conclusions that the JPL plan is credible.

At first blush, the idea that a crew could be orbiting Mars in 2033 – just 18 years from now – when it took 25 years to build the International Space Station, is surprising.

JPL used the prestigious Aerospace Corporation to provide an independent cost estimate of its plan, but like the plan itself, that analysis is not public.  When asked what cost factors were used in the Aerospace analysis, Logsdon said that the workshop participants saw only “sand charts,” not the assumptions behind them.   A sand chart is a visual representation of costs over time with different colors layering upon each other signifying various contributors to the cost.  They present a general overview, but not specifics.

Nonetheless, the workshop participants reached consensus that the sand charts credibly capture the costs involved in the JPL plan and demonstrate that sending humans to orbit Mars by 2033 is achievable with a NASA human spaceflight budget that increases only at the rate of inflation.  Many – perhaps hundreds of – approaches (“architectures”) for sending humans to Mars have been promulgated over the decades.  Most require significant increases to the NASA budget.

Hubbard explained that the effort to find a “minimalist” path to sending humans to Mars began at a NASA Advisory Council (NAC) meeting last year.  Hubbard is a member of NAC, which had received a briefing on NASA’s “Evolvable Mars Campaign” that laid out a path to Mars.  In his view, that plan lacked a “strategic framework.”  Also last year, Hubbard continued, the National Research Council (NRC) issued its “Pathways to Exploration” report.  Using cost analysis by the Aerospace Corporation in that case as well, the NRC report concluded that to be at Mars by 2033, NASA’s human spaceflight budget would have to increase two-three times, or if one had to assume that the budget would not increase, humans could not get to Mars until about 2050, Hubbard said.  He called those answers unacceptable and the catalyst for this effort to come up with a minimalist, credible, affordable plan.

The relationship between Hubbard’s NAC experience and JPL deciding to develop its plan was not clear from the statements made at the press conference, but they did say the TPS workshop was built around the JPL plan.

Hubbard is a legend in the Mars community, but is associated more with robotic Mars exploration than human exploration.  He conceded today that in the past when asked about human exploration of Mars he would point to the many technical and biomedical challenges involved, but now he believes those have been “reduced or we know how to minimize them.”  To him, the issue now is “political will.”

On that point, all three agreed.  Logsdon saliently pointed out that the Obama Administration is unlikely to adopt such a plan during its last two years in office, so it will be up to the new President, “whoever she or he may be, to decide if we are serious about a long term program of human space exploration and, if we are, and I certainly hope we are, that this is an approach that makes sense.”

While that might sound like an endorsement of the JPL plan, a TPS spokesman later stressed in an email that TPS is just putting forth the JPL plan as an “existence proof” that it is possible to get humans orbiting Mars by 2033 without dramatic increases to NASA’s human spaceflight budget, not endorsing the JPL or any other plan.

The unambiguous message from the press conference and press release is that TPS is convinced that before an attempt is made to land people on the surface of Mars, an orbital mission akin to Apollo 8 is a critical first step.  Another crucial element is development of solar electric propulsion (SEP), which is now being funded as part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), though the ARM program itself was not a focus of discussion today.   Logsdon also stressed that it is important for the United States to decide on a plan because potential international partners are waiting for U.S. leadership and the commercial sector will be able to identify relevant opportunities.

Newman Nomination Approved by Committee

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Mar-2015 (Updated: 31-Mar-2015 09:43 PM)

Dava Newman's nomination to be the next NASA Deputy Administrator was approved by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on March 25.

Neither the full committee, chaired by Sen. John Thune (R-SD), nor the Space, Science and Competitiveness subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), held a hearing on the nomination indicating that it was not controversial and neither wanted to use the opportunity to debate NASA issues.

Newman's nomination was one of three on the agenda of the committee's executive session, along with five bills.  Thune read an extensive opening statement about the bills, but there was no discussion of any of the nominations (the others were unrelated to NASA).   The entire meeting lasted only about 20 minutes and the bills and nominations were approved by voice vote.   Cruz was not present due to a scheduling conflict according to his office.

The nomination still must be voted on by the full Senate.  No timetable for action has been announced.

If approved, Newman will succeed Lori Garver as Deputy Administrator.  The position has been vacant since Garver left in September 2013.  Newman is a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at MIT.

What's Happening in Space Policy March 30-April 3, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Mar-2015 (Updated: 29-Mar-2015 06:53 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events coming up in the next week and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in recess for the next two weeks -- their annual Easter Recess.

During the Week

The lack of congressional activities makes more time for all the other interesting events coming up, including the National Research Council's Space Science Week -- there's an excellent public lecture associated with it on Wednesday evening, meetings of several NASA Advisory Council (NAC) subcommittees, and a very interesting meeting of the FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC).

To start things off, Roger Launius and Nathan Bridges will hold another of their Space Policy and History Forums tomorrow afternoon at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) on the Mall.  The forum meets quarterly and does a great job of introducing new people, topics and ideas to the space policy and history community.  Tomorrow is no exception.  Teasel Muir-Harmony of the Center for the History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics will talk about "Astronaut Ambassadors: The Apollo 11 Diplomatic Tour and the Role of Spaceflight in Public Diplomacy."  Her research focuses on the use of the U.S. space program in public diplomacy during the Cold War.  The meeting is at 4:00 pm ET.  Be sure to RSVP to Roger in advance to get on the list that allows access to the museum's office area.

The NAC Planetary Science Subcommittee and the Heliophysics Subcommittee will each meet tomorrow and Tuesday at NASA Headquarters.  NAC's Ad Hoc Task Force on STEM Education meets there on Friday afternoon.  NASA's Applied Sciences Advisory Committee, which is not part of NAC, also is meeting on Monday, virtually we think.

The NRC's Space Science Week, organized by the Space Studies Board (SSB), brings together its five standing committees in individual and plenary sessions.  The meetings will take place Tuesday-Thursday, but some are closed, including all day Thursday.  All are at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) building on Constitution Avenue, not at the Keck Center on 5th Street.  Beginning last year, the SSB instituted the practice of holding a public lecture in connection with Space Science Week for the general public as well as the space science community.  This year, Jason Kalirai of the Space Telescope Science Institute will talk about "Our Place in the Universe: As Seen Through Past, Present and Future Telescopes."  That's on Wednesday at 6:30 pm ET at the NAS building.

If you are more attuned to commercial space than space science or history, you're in luck, too.  COMSTAC meets on Wednesday and opens at breakneck speed with talks by three of the most influential government policymakers in the commercial spaceflight arena:  FAA's own George Nield (8:05-8:20 am ET), NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden (8:20 - 8:45 am), and Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations CJS subcommittee (8:45-9:15 am).  The agenda (current as of yesterday) is available from our calendar.

And for those of you still hankering for more ideas on how the future of human spaceflight should unfold, the Planetary Society is holding a "Humans Orbiting Mars" workshop at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs on Tuesday and Wednesday.   Participation is by invitation only (so it is not in our list), but they will hold a press conference on Thursday at 11:00 pm ET to share their results.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.

Monday, March 30

Monday-Tuesday, March 30-31

Tuesday-Thursday, March 31-April 2

Wednesday, April 1

  • FAA COMSTAC, NTSB Conference Center, 429 L'Enfant Plaza, SW, Washington, DC, 8:00 am - 5:00 pm ET
  • Space Science Week Public Lecture, National Academy of Sciences Building, 2101 Constitution Ave, NW, Washington, DC, 6:30 pm ET

Thursday, April 2

Friday, April 3

Events of Interest

Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »


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