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NASA Postpones Two Spacewalks Due to Spacesuit Battery Problem

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Aug-2014 (Updated: 10-Aug-2014 12:17 AM)

NASA is postponing two U.S. spacewalks planned for August 21 and August 29 because of concerns about fuses in the batteries used in the U.S. spacesuits.  A Russian spacewalk remains on track for August 18.

New Long Life Batteries for the U.S. spacesuits are to be delivered to the International Space Station (ISS) on the next SpaceX Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission -- SpaceX CRS-4 -- in September.  NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman said in an interview broadcast on NASA TV that although he is "a little sad" the spacewalks were postponed, it is OK because "when I go out the door I want [the spacesuit] to be in a good clean configuration."   Wiseman also will replace a fan pump separator in one of the U.S. spacesuits next week.  A malfunctioning fan pump separator caused a dramatic end to a July 16, 2013 spacewalk when ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano's helmet filled with water.

Wiseman and NASA astronaut Steve Swanson were scheduled to conduct the August 21 spacewalk.  Their tasks are to replace a failed Sequential Shunt in order to recover full power-generating capacity on the ISS and to reposition TV external camera equipment.   Wiseman and ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst were on tap for the August 29 spacewalk to transfer a failed pump module from a temporary to a permanent stowage location and to install a "Mobile Transporter Relay Assembly that will add capability to the 'keep alive' power to the Mobile Servicing System when the Mobile Transporter is moving between worksites."   NASA said that postponing the spacewalks will not affect day-to-day ISS operations.

Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev will proceed with their own spacewalk, using Russia's Orlan spacesuits, on August 18.  They will deploy a nanosatellite, install two experiment packages and retrieve two others.  NASA TV will provide coverage of that spacewalk beginning at 10:00 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).

ISEE-3 Returns "Home" on Sunday With New Life as Citizen Science Project

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Aug-2014 (Updated: 10-Aug-2014 01:42 PM)

NASA’s International Sun/Earth Explorer-3 (ISEE-3) will return to the Earth’s vicinity tomorrow (Sunday, August 10), after more than 30 years of zipping through space.  The ISEE-3 Reboot Project and its partner Google launched a new website yesterday to explain the mission and its future as a “citizen science” project. They and NASA will hold a Google+ Hangout on Sunday to discuss ISEE-3’s new lease on life.

ISEE-3 will loop around the Moon at 2:16 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) on Sunday before continuing its orbit around the Sun.  The Google+ hangout featuring NASA, Google and ISEE-3 Reboot Project representatives begins at 1:30 pm EDT.

As graphically illustrated on the new website, ISEE-3 has followed a complicated orbital trajectory since its launch in 1978.   Originally part of a trio of spacecraft (ISEE-1, -2, and -3) designed to study interactions between Earth and the solar wind, ISEE-3 was initially placed into a position between the Earth and the Sun to alert its two earth-orbiting companions that a solar event occurred.   ISEE-3’s location was the L-1 Sun-Earth Lagrange point where the gravitational forces of the Earth and Sun are in balance.  It was the first spacecraft to be placed into that Sun-Earth L1 location, which since has been used for many spacecraft that study solar-terrestrial interactions.

The first reinvention of ISEE-3’s mission occurred in the early 1980s when a small group of scientists and engineers decided that it should be redirected from Sun-Earth L1 to intercept Comet Giacobini-Zinner.  At the time, the United States had decided it could not afford to build a spacecraft to visit legendary Halley’s Comet as it approached the Sun in 1986 although the Soviet Union, Europe and Japan all were sending probes.

The group, including Bob Farquhar who has written a book that includes the history of the fractious decision-making process involved, did not want the United States to be left out of those early days of comet research and identified Giacobini-Zinner as a target that ISEE-3 could reach before the other probes reached Halley’s Comet.  Indeed, in September 1985, ISEE-3, redesignated the International Cometary Explorer (ICE), flew through the tail of Giacobini-Zinner, winning the title of the first spacecraft to encounter a comet.

Since then, the spacecraft has been travelling through space on its predetermined orbit that, thanks to the laws of physics, brings it back to Earth’s vicinity on August 10, 2014.  Working with Farquhar and others, Keith Cowing of NASAWatch and Dennis Wingo of Skycorp created the ISEE-3 Reboot Project as a “citizen science” effort, raising about $160,000 through a crowdsourcing campaign to build the equipment needed to communicate with the aged spacecraft.  The goal was to reestablish communications and, if all went well, redirect the spacecraft onto a trajectory to begin a new scientific mission.

The group successfully reestablished communications with ISEE-3 and obtained NASA permission to command the spacecraft, but its propulsion system is not functioning.  Physics will keep the spacecraft on its current trajectory and it will return to Earth’s vicinity again in about 15 years.

Meanwhile, though, with communications restored, it can send back data from whatever scientific instruments are still functioning.  Receivers on Earth will be able to pick up the data for about the next year before ISEE-3 once again moves out of range.  The ISEE-3 Reboot Project team’s goal now, in partnership with Google, is to make the data accessible to anyone interested in analyzing it, continuing ISEE-3’s new life as a citizen science project.

Khrunichev Joins Energia in Getting New Leadership

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Aug-2014 (Updated: 08-Aug-2014 12:09 AM)

Khrunichev State Research and Space Production Center has a new President today (August 7) as Russia continues to reform its space sector in the wake of a series of rocket failures and corruption allegations over the past several years.  Andre Kalinovsky is replacing Alexander Seliverstov, who took over the company less than two years ago.

Seliverstov has been reassigned to the United Rocket and Space Corporation (URSC), created last year to consolidate and reform the space industry.  Igor Komarov, CEO of URSC, said in a press statement (translated via Google) that "Khrunichev is in a difficult situation ... To address systemic problem, [we] need new people" and Kalinovsky will "I think, be able to ensure efficient operation and restructuring of the company."  (An abbreviated version of the press release is posted on Khrunichev's English-language website, but does not include the comments from Komarov.)   Kalinovsky comes to Khrunichev from Sukhoi Civil Aircraft where he was named President in January 2013. 

Khrunichev builds many of Russia's launch vehicles, including Proton and its Briz-M upper stage, both of which have suffered a number of failures since December 2010.  The most recent Proton failure in May 2014 was apparently due to a failed bearing in the Proton's third stage.  The Proton has not yet returned to flight.  On a brighter note, Khrunichev's new Angara rocket had a successful suborbital test flight last month.

The change at Khrunichev follows a similar decision last week to replace the head of RSC Energia, the largest and probably best known Russian space company (among its many products are space station modules and Soyuz spacecraft).   On August 1, RSC Energia announced that, after electing URSC's Komarov as the new chairman of its Board of Directors, the Board "decided to suspend the powers of Vitaly Lopota, President, General Designer of RSC Energia."    Vladimir Solntsev was named acting President.  Solntsev has been Executive Director of Energomash, an Energia subsidiary that manufactures the RD-180 rocket engines used by United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket.  In the announcement, Komarov praised Lopota's seven years of service as head of RSC Energia and revealed that Lopota will become URSC's Vice President for Technological Development.

Russian Sanctions Against US and EU Steer Clear of Space Cooperation

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Aug-2014 (Updated: 07-Aug-2014 09:44 PM)

Russia's decision to retaliate against the United States, the European Union (EU) and other countries that have imposed sanctions because of Russia's activities in Ukraine does not, at this time, seem to have any impact on existing space cooperation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced earlier this week that he would impose his own sanctions in a tit-for-tat response.  Details were released today (August 7) and all are in the agricultural sector.   For one year, Russia will prohibit imports of beef, pork, poultry, meat, fish, cheese, milk, vegetables and fruit from the United States, EU, Canada, Australia and Norway.  Alcohol imports from the United States and the EU are not affected.  Russia plans to increase imports from other countries to compensate.  Russia reportedly is considering additional sanctions, such as banning American and European airline flights to pass through Russian airspace as well as sanctions in the automobile, shipbuilding and aircraft production industries, but there is no indication at this time that space cooperation is jeopardized.

The deterioration of relationships this year between the United States and Russia since Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula has raised concern in the space policy community because of U.S. reliance on Russia for crew transportation to the International Space Station (ISS) and Russian RD-180 engines for the U.S. Atlas V launch vehicle.  The United States has issued sanctions against Russia several times, but they do not appear to be having any negative impact on space cooperation.

Putin stridently complained against the sanctions imposed by the United States and other countries and warned they can "boomerang."  In announcing his retaliatory sanctions, he said "Naturally, this has to be done very accurately so as to support domestic producers and not harm consumers."   If his desire to support domestic producers applies broadly and not only to the agricultural sector, that could suggest that he will try to avoid harming companies like Energomash, which produces the RD-180 engines, or the enterprises that build and launch Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS.  NASA pays Russia roughly $450 million a year for U.S. and other non-Russian crew members to fly to and from the ISS.  The two countries jointly operate the ISS. 

NASA insists that nothing has changed in ISS operations because of the geopolitical strains, and the United Launch Alliance (ULA), which builds and launch the Atlas V, and its Air Force customer also say that it is "business as usual" with the Russians.  How much ULA pays for the RD-180s is not public and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) requested that information from the Department of Defense in June.  Presumably, however, it is revenue Russia would not want to forego.

Rosetta and Comet 67P Finally Meet Tomorrow - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Aug-2014 (Updated: 06-Aug-2014 06:12 AM)

Update, August 6, 2014:  "We're at the comet!"  The final 6-miinute burn to put Rosetta into its rendezvous position next to 67P occurred nominally today.  ESOC received the confirmatory signal at about 11:30 CEST (09:30 GMT, 5:30 am EDT).  The one-way signal travel time from Rosetta to Earth is 22 minutes 29 seconds at this moment.

August 5, 2014:  After a 10-year journey, Europe's Rosetta spacecraft will finally arrive at its destination tomorrow, August 6, 2014.   Awaiting it is Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, a roughly 4-kilometer diameter comet nucleus, sometimes described as resembling a duck, though that does require a bit of imagination.  The European Space Agency (ESA) will have a day-long series of press conferences that will be livestreamed to herald Rosetta's arrival and the beginning of its primary science mission.

Rosetta is not the first spacecraft to visit a comet, but it will be the first to orbit one and accompany it as it travels in towards the Sun and is transformed by the Sun's heat.   It also will be the first to send a lander, named Philae, to the surface of the comet's nucleus. The landing is scheduled for November after Rosetta's instruments are used to select potential landing sites.  The lander will be released from Rosetta when it is only about 1 kilometer above the surface.

The comet is named after the two Kiev, Ukraine astronomers, Klim Churyumov and Svetlana Gerasimenko, who discovered it in 1969 while conducting comet observations at the Alma-Ata Astrophysical Institute in Kazakhstan.  The spacecraft is named after the Rosetta Stone that allowed the deciphering of hieroglyphics and therefore an understanding of ancient Egyptian civilization.  Philae is the name of an island in the Nile river on which an obelisk was found that had the final clues that enabled the decryption.  ESA says its Rosetta and Philae spacecraft "aim to unlock the mysteries of the oldest building blocks of our Solar System - comets."

The spacecraft will study Comet 67P over the course of a year as it swings around the Sun, mapping the comet's surface and studying how it changes as the ice in the nucleus melts, creating the familiar comet tail.  Instruments on Rosetta will study the dust and gas particles in the tail and their interaction with the solar wind.  The comet and Rosetta are currently about 540 million kilometers from the Sun or 404 kilometers from Earth.  ESA has a useful "Where is Rosetta" interactive graphic that shows the relative distances of Rosetta from the Earth and Sun at all dates throughout its journey.  The two-way signal travel time right now is about 45 minutes.

Though Comet 67P is "only" 404 million kilometers from Earth at the moment, it took Rosetta a journey of 6 billion kilometers to get there, swinging by Earth three times and Mars once to receive gravity boosts.  Launched on March 2, 2004, the spacecraft survived a record 957 days (about 31 months) in hibernation from June 2011 to January 2014 as it traveled so far from the Sun that its solar panels could not fully power the spacecraft.

Rosetta's arrival at the comet is expected at about 11:45 Central European Summer Time (CEST) tomorrow (09:45 GMT or 05:45 Eastern Daylight Time), but it has already sent back many photos of its destination.

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko taken by ESA's Rosetta spacecraft at a distance of 1,000 kilometers,
August 1, 2014. Photo credit:  ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team.  ESA notes that the dark spot is an image artifact.

Rosetta is controlled from the European Space Operations Center (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, which is where ESA will hold a series of press conferences throughout tomorrow.  ESOC's press center opens at 09:30 CEST and livestreamed events begin at 10:00 CEST (08:30 GMT, 04:00 EDT) with a welcome by Thomas Reiter, Head of ESOC and ESA's Director of Human Spaceflight and Mission Operations, ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain, and other dignitaries.  Coverage of Rosetta's arrival at 67P begins at 11:25 CEST (09:25 GMT, 05:25 EDT).  A draft program of those and other press events is posted on ESA's website.   The events will be livestreamed at and


What's Happening In Space Policy August 3-10, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Aug-2014 (Updated: 03-Aug-2014 06:23 PM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events for the week of August 3-10, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them.   Congress is in recess until September 8.

During the Week

It may be a little quiet in Washington this week with Congress gone and many people on vacation, but there's a lot going in space policy elsewhere in the country, world, and the depths of outer space.

Three annual conferences are taking place -- Utah State University's Smallsat Conference in Logan, Utah;  AIAA's Space 2014 in San Diego; and the Mars Society's international convention in League City, Texas -- and the biennial COSPAR meeting is in Moscow.  Two of them -- Smallsat and COSPAR -- actually began yesterday.

NASA participation in the COSPAR conference, where the world's space scientists get together to share results and plans for the future, was one of the activities exempted from the White House's directive to government agencies to limit their cooperative activities with Russia because of the geopolitical situation.  According to an April memo from NASA's Associate Administrator for International and Interagency Relations to NASA Center Directors, NASA employees are allowed to participate in multilateral meetings that may involve Russians as long as the meeting takes place outside Russia.   COSPAR and the upcoming International Council of Aeronautical Sciences (ICAS) both are in Russia this year, however:  COSPAR in Moscow and ICAS in St. Petersburg in September.

COSPAR was almost immediately exempted from that restriction, though, apparently thanks to the efforts of the National Academy of Sciences' Space Studies Board (SSB) and especially its former chair Len Fisk, who is now the official U.S. representative to COSPAR.  COSPAR is part of the International Council of Science and the SSB is the U.S. National Committee to COSPAR.  NASA reports that 35 NASA employees are attending COSPAR, but that a decision on whether any may attend ICAS next month has not yet been made.  ICAS is where aeronautical engineers get together to "facilitate collaboration in aeronautics."

Meanwhile, in the depths of space, this week will see at long last the end of Rosetta's 10-year journey to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  The European Space Agency (ESA) spacecraft will orbit the 4-kilometer diameter comet and, in November, send a lander (named Philae) to the surface, a first-time feat.  ESA's Space Operations Center (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany is expected to confirm Rosetta's arrival at about 11:45 Central European Summer Time (CEST), or 09:45 GMT (5.45 am ET) on August 6.  It began its journey on March 2, 2004 and has travelled more than 6.4 billion kilometers to reach the comet, which is currently about 404 million kilometers from Earth (Rosetta made three passes by Earth and one by Mars to get gravity-assist boosts).  The one-way signal travel time is 22 minutes 27 seconds.  A day-long series of press briefings is planned on August 6 that will be livestreamed.

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

Saturday - Thursday, August 2-7

Saturday, August 2 - Sunday, August 10

  •  COSPAR (Committee on Space Research of the International Council of Science), Moscow, Russia

Monday-Thursday, August 4-7

Tuesday, August 5

Wednesday, August 6

Thursday-Sunday, August 7-10

Asteroid Expert Richard Binzel: ARM is "Emperor With No Clothes"

Len Ly
Posted: 01-Aug-2014 (Updated: 04-Aug-2014 05:23 PM)

NASA’s plan to send humans to retrieve asteroid samples in the next decade is not driven by science, acknowledged many participants at NASA’s 11th Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) meeting this week in Washington.  There was no consensus, however, about the mission’s utility toward sustainable human exploration of space.

Richard Binzel, asteroid expert and planetary science professor at MIT, made the controversy the focus of his presentation, telling the gathering that NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) is “the emperor with no clothes, or at best with very thin cloth” as to how it applies to a pathway to sending humans to Mars.

Unlike the Apollo lunar missions that brought back the first lunar rock samples, which were “transformative science,” it is “irrational” to risk human lives to grab an asteroid sample, Binzel said.

NASA is using ARM to test technical capabilities required for human exploration of Mars in the mid-2030s, though the agency’s fact sheet on ARM also states the mission would allow “important scientific investigations and develop capabilities for deep space exploration and potentially for planetary defense.”

ARM is divided into three mission phases: select an asteroid; robotically capture and redirect it (the entire asteroid or just one of its boulders, each 10 meters or less in diameter) to stable lunar orbit using advanced solar electric propulsion; then use the future Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion capsule to transport astronauts to collect samples by 2025.

Binzel criticized the retrieval part of the mission in particular and cited the abundant population of “accessible” asteroids in their native orbits.  He asserted that a 10-meter object traverses cis-lunar space (between Earth and the Moon) weekly. “We don’t have to go to them, they’re coming to us.”

“The asteroid becomes exciting and interesting only because it’s a stunt,” Binzel said, a “one-and-done stunt that will irreparably damage small body exploration.”  Planetary scientists use the term “small bodies” to refer to asteroids, comets, interplanetary dust, small satellites, and Trans-Neptunian Objects.

He advocated that “thorough surveys” of accessible asteroids be conducted first while an “extended human capability” is being developed in order to achieve a sustainable path of small body and Mars exploration.    According to one of his slides (which are posted on the SBAG website), “99.9 % of accessible 10 meter asteroids remain undiscovered.”

Representatives from various NASA centers and others in the audience agreed on the need for a thorough survey to look for asteroids.  They did not agree with everything Binzel said, however.  One objection was Binzel’s mixing of  “two different things such as” Apollo and ARM. Another participant expressed skepticism about finding enough asteroid targets that would be accessible.

“Fundamentally we don’t have enough money available to do the things we need…So we have something like ARM,” one attendee responded to Binzel.  “You’re absolutely right, [ARM] would not be something a scientist would design,” but “science needs to be involved simply to make it safer and to make it better.”

Binzel noted the National Research Council’s (NRC's) recent “Pathways to Exploration” report was critical of ARM.  An audience member pointed out that while that was true, the NRC did not recommend any specific pathway to Mars.

The House-passed 2014 NASA Authorization Act, which has yet to pass the Senate, would require SBAG, along with the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), to assess “how the proposed mission is in the strategic interests of the United States in space exploration.”  SBAG reports to NAC’s Planetary Science Subcommittee (PSS), which in turn reports to NAC’s Science Committee.  SBAG cannot formally give advice to NASA, but it informs PSS and the Science Committee, which do give advice.

“Our credibility is at stake,” Binzel told the SBAG audience. “Either say you love it or you hate it, but don’t be neutral.”

Binzel’s presentation was on Wednesday (July 30).  The ARM debate continued Thursday, the last day of the 3-day forum, though to a lesser degree.

SBAG received briefings from a number of NASA officials on the agency’s overall human space exploration plan, the “Evolvable Mars Campaign.”  ARM is one of several steps in that campaign that eventually leads to humans landing on Mars.   On Thursday, NASA’s Patrick Troutman presented the role that the moons of Mars -- Phobos and Deimos -- could play as possible destinations.  An audience member asked Troutman why not have a trip to one of those moons as a precursor to landing on Mars instead of ARM?

“There are things pulling against that with respect to near-term activities and there’s also a feeling that maybe the next president comes in and perhaps Mars is not the target,” said Troutman, a member of NASA’s Human Spaceflight Architecture Team at Langley Research Center.

Phobos and Deimos are worth exploring because they are close enough to Mars to provide access to the planet’s surface, are rich in science, and would utilize the same crew transportation systems that would be needed for a Mars landing mission, yet require less investment in surface assets, Troutman said.

“I got the impression that there was not necessarily a consensus view,” said SBAG chair Nancy Chabot, in her closing remarks.  Chabot is a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab.

NAC Wants Independent Cost and Technical Estimate of ARM Before Downselect

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Jul-2014 (Updated: 31-Jul-2014 10:52 PM)

The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) wants NASA to obtain an independent cost and technical estimate of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) before it chooses – “downselects” – between  two options for implementing that mission.  NASA currently plans to wait until after the decision is made.  It is one of three recommendations and one finding NAC is making to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden about the human spaceflight program.

NAC met for a second day today (July 31) at NASA’s Langley Research Center.  Among its tasks was finalizing findings and recommendations to send to Bolden on which debate began yesterday.  It adopted findings and recommendations in several areas, but those affecting the human spaceflight program were the most contentious.

NAC’s purpose is to advise the NASA Administrator on major issues affecting the agency and NAC Chairman Steve Squyres explained at the beginning of the meeting yesterday that he and Bolden have restructured NAC over the past several months to make it more effective in doing that.  He wants a more proactive Council that focuses on the key issues facing NASA and it is clear that the future of the human spaceflight program is at the top of the list.

NAC recommendations follow a standard format: state the recommendation, explain the reasons for it, and identify the consequences of not acting on it.  All quotes below are from the final drafts of the recommendations as discussed today in public session.  Minor changes could still be made before they are submitted to Bolden.

Recommendation: Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM)

NAC is worried that, as currently defined, ARM may pose an unacceptable cost and technical risk. Tom Young and Scott Hubbard were particularly involved in formulating this recommendation.

ARM is divided into three elements:  

  • identifying targets,
  • sending a robotic probe to capture and redirect an asteroid or part of one into lunar orbit, and
  • sending a crew to get a sample once it’s in lunar orbit.

It is the second that particularly troubles NAC in terms of cost and technical feasibility.  In fact, NAC concludes that the first and third elements have merit even if the second element does not take place.

NASA is studying two options for the second element: Option A, capturing an entire, small asteroid; or Option B, going to a larger asteroid and plucking a boulder from its surface.

NAC recommends that NASA conduct an independent cost and technical assessment before it chooses between the two options.  The possible outcome is choosing Option A, Option B, or neither.  It also wants NASA to clearly state in advance what the cost and technical criteria are for implementing the mission including affordability within projected budgets.

The Council also states that ARM is not a substitute for sending astronauts to an asteroid in its native orbit, which it sees as a logical step towards sending humans to Mars.   In 2010, President Obama directed NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, not to bring an asteroid to the astronauts.  In 2013, the White House proposed ARM instead, but some view ARM as insufficient to demonstrate the technical and human factors aspects of a long duration space mission far from Earth, which they believe is needed before making an even longer trip to Mars.

The consequences of not acting on its recommendation, NAC says, is the potential that a mission with significant cost and technical risk could be implemented without fully understanding the potential for cost overruns or schedule slips.

Recommendation: Human Spaceflight Mismatch -- Aspirations Versus Budget

Yesterday and at NAC’s last meeting, several members expressed concern that although the overall human spaceflight strategy NASA is developing sounds reasonable, it is not executable within expected budgets.  The strategy includes ARM, but extends out to human trips to Mars.  Squyres was the leading force on this recommendation.  He wanted stronger wording than the group as a whole was willing to adopt, but the consensus version is still quite direct.

“The mismatch between NASA’s aspirations for human spaceflight and its budget for human spaceflight is the most serious problem facing the agency,” NAC said in the final draft adopted today.

It wants NASA to carefully consider what steps need to be taken in the years ahead to meet the goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s -- the goal that is articulated in the U.S. National Space Policy -- with a realistic budget.   The agency should identify the minimum path of what is absolutely required to meet that goal and compare it with a human spaceflight budget that grows only at the rate of inflation.  NAC anticipates there will be a shortfall and wants NASA to explain how it will address that gap.

The Council said that it agrees with the recent Pathways to Exploration report from the National Research Council (NRC) that sending humans to Mars is the appropriate “horizon goal,” but also agrees with the NRC that under currently projected budgets, that goal will never be achieved.  NAC asserts that there are only four ways to fix the mismatch:  increase NASA’s budget, remove content from NASA’s portfolio, offset costs by new efficiencies and/or contributions from outside partners, or adopt a different goal.

The consequences of not acting on the recommendation are that the agency “runs the risk of squandering precious national resources on a laudable but unachievable goal.”

NAC requests a briefing from NASA at its next meeting and subsequent meetings on how it is implementing this recommendation. 

Recommendation:  SLS Launch Rate

The third human spaceflight recommendation addressed what many NAC members consider the unacceptably low launch rate now planned for the Space Launch System (SLS) of one launch every two years.  Squyres also has been a leader in raising awareness of this issue, but many other NAC members clearly agree.

NAC warned that the rate is “less than optimal for maintenance of the supplier base, and the ability of the engineering, production, launch and operations teams to make appropriate risk decisions in a timely fashion.”   NASA therefore should conduct a trade study to determine a minimum launch rate for SLS with respect to cost, safety, mission success, and performance.

Finding:  Endorsement of Some Aspects of the Human Spaceflight Strategy

While those three recommendations convey criticism of NASA’s plans, that is not to say the Council found nothing positive about NASA’s efforts.  It also adopted a finding that says, despite its concerns, it endorses the following aspects of the human spaceflight strategy:

  • Mars as the “horizon goal” for human spaceflight
  • Intermediate missions to cis-lunar space that allow development of systems that can later be used for more distant exploration (bearing in mind its concerns about ARM)
  • An approach that emphasizes affordability and allows re-use of system components
  • Early investment in enabling technologies
  • Involvement of external partners (international and commercial) to reduce the total amount of U.S. government funding

Ken Bowersox, who chairs NAC’s human exploration and operations committee, and Wayne Hale were particularly intent on ensuring that the Council tells NASA what it is doing right, not only the negatives.

Next Steps: A NAC Press Release?

Traditionally, NAC findings and recommendations are sent to the NASA Administrator in a letter from the NAC Chair.  Eventually the Administrator responds and the exchange is posted on the NAC website and they receive little notice.

Today, NAC member Miles O’Brien suggested that NAC issue a press release to raise awareness of these issues.   The other NAC members, including Squyres, were enthusiastic about the idea.  It apparently would be a precedent-setting event.  Squyres seemed to feel it is in keeping with the goal he and Bolden share to make NAC more effective.

Squyres says he will try to have a press release issued after he formally transmits all of NAC’s findings and recommendations to Bolden in about two weeks.

NAC's next meeting is scheduled for December 8-9, 2014 at Stennis Space Center.

Bipartisan House Intelligence Committee Report Concludes NRO Buys Excess Satellites

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Jul-2014 (Updated: 31-Jul-2014 05:31 PM)

As the House readies to adjourn for the August recess, the House Intelligence Committee today released a bipartisan report on how to save money in the procurement of intelligence satellites.  The report is the result of a one-and-a-half year committee review of the Intelligence Community's (IC's) satellite acquisition processes and was delivered to National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) today (July 31).

NRO designs, builds, launches and maintains the nation's intelligence satellites and is headed by Director Betty Sapp.  It is one of 17 members of the IC, which is coordinated by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), James Clapper.

In a press release, committee chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) and ranking member Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD) said the report "pinpoints specific areas where the IC can improve its purchase of these important systems."

The report is classified, but the committee released a 9-page unclassified summary.  The bottom line of the report is that NRO buys satellites "faster than necessary to meet mission requirements in order to stabilize the industrial base," but has not "sufficiently scrutinized" its assumptions on what is needed to achieve industrial base stability.  Its assumptions are based on information from the prime contractor and "NRO lacks sufficient visibility" to verify that information. 

"NRO assumes it must buy satellites at a relatively fast pace because a slower pace would lead to an increased cost per satellite. .... Unless the higher cost of slower production exceeds the cost of an excess satellite, the assumption that slower paces are too costly is flawed," the report concludes. 

In the committee's view, the burden is on the Office of the DNI (ODNI) and the NRO to ensure assumptions are correct and they are not paying more than necessary.  Among its five recommendations, the report calls for the ODNI to verify NRO's assumptions externally, not using contractor-supplied information.  Specifically, it says ODNI should create a plan for using data from the Department of Commerce's ongoing "Space Industrial Base Deep Dive" study to verify assumptions and start exploring alternative studies in case those data are inadequate.

Future of NASA's Human Spaceflight Program Dominates NAC Meeting

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Jul-2014 (Updated: 01-Aug-2014 06:07 PM)

Updated August 1, 2014:  This article was updated with links to two other stories that appeared in subsequent days on related meetings.  See end.

July 30, 2014:  The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) met this afternoon (July 30) for the first part of a two-day meeting.  The members have not yet finalized any findings or recommendations, but it is clear there is a broad range of issues on their minds.  A clear consensus on what, if any, actionable recommendations to make to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden had not emerged by the end of the day.  That’s tomorrow’s task.

The following is a quick roundup of what happened today.  We’ll have more on this meeting and on a separate meeting today of NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) in coming days (see links below).  A common topic in the two groups was NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which generated controversy in both venues.

This list highlights only the issues at NAC, which is meeting at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA.  Several of the NAC committees met earlier in the week and the discussion tomorrow will include findings and recommendations from those interactions as well as the debate today among the full NAC, which consists of the committee chairs, six at-large members, and chairman Steve Squyres.  NASA Administrator Bolden was at the meeting for most of the afternoon.

NASA’s Future Human Spaceflight Program  

Not surprisingly, this topic dominated the meeting.   At the last NAC meeting, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier rolled out a new NASA roadmap that explains the connections between ARM and the long term goal of sending humans to Mars by the 2030s.  NAC members expressed concern at the time that while the plan itself sounded reasonable, it was not executable because of its cost -- Gerstenmaier himself said that it required an increase in the human spaceflight budget above the rate of inflation.

NAC asked for a more detailed briefing at its next meeting – today – which was presented by Gerstenmaier’s deputy, Greg Williams (Gerstenmaier was in Kourou for the ATV-5 launch yesterday).

At the top level, the response today was the same – that NASA is developing a plan that is not executable.  Some members said they want to know what NASA can do with the money it can reasonably expect, while others wanted a realistic assessment of what it will actually cost to achieve the goal of getting people to Mars by the 2030s.  Tom Young said he felt that “we are collectively perpetrating a fraud” by pretending the program is executable.  He said he worries that the country will spend $160 billion on human spaceflight over the next 20 years and be only “negligibly closer” to landing humans on Mars.  However, when Squyres suggested that NAC make a recommendation that NASA publicly state what activities it would have to terminate in order to achieve the goal of humans on Mars by the 2030s absent a bigger budget, most NAC members demurred.

There also was strong debate about ARM itself.  One criticism is that President Obama’s directive in 2010 was for NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid, not to bring an asteroid to the astronauts.  Some NAC members insisted that the original goal was preferable – to visit an asteroid is its native orbit – if the real goal is to serve as a steppingstone to Mars.  Young said that when he first heard about ARM, he thought it was a joke and that it “dumbs down NASA.” “NASA is better than this,” he declared.

Another criticism is that NASA does a poor job of explaining why it is pursuing ARM.  Williams used a chart with several bullets, one of which pointed to ARM’s role in demonstrating techniques that could be used to defend Earth from potentially hazardous asteroids -- planetary defense.  During questioning about those bullets, Bolden quickly chimed in to say that planetary defense is NOT a goal of ARM.   It is a goal of the Asteroid Grand Challenge, which NASA is funding at $7 million in FY2014, he said, but not of ARM. He acknowledged that because NASA is doing both ARM and the Grand Challenge, there is a lot of confusion.  "We need to get that confusion out of it.  We are not saving the planet," he exclaimed.  However, many other NASA officials, including Williams, include planetary defense in the list of rationales for ARM.  Scott Hubbard insisted that NASA needs to have a single bullet explaining why ARM is needed, not a list of them, in any case.

There did seem to be agreement that NASA should conduct an independent cost estimate of ARM before making a decision on which of two options it will choose for the mission (Option A is capturing an entire small asteroid; Option B is going to a larger asteroid and plucking a boulder from its surface).  NASA does not plan to have an independent estimate until after the choice is made.

Space Launch System (SLS) Launch Rate 

Squyres has been a leader in stressing that launching SLS at a rate of one every 2-3 years is very risky because launch teams cannot maintain proficiency at such a low launch rate.  He raised the issue again today and many NAC members agreed it not only adds risk, but cost.  Bill Ballhaus, a past President of the Aerospace Corporation, which oversees Air Force launches of the Atlas V and Delta IV, said that for those two launch vehicles, a rate of four per year is needed to maintain expertise.   Discussion on this issue will continue tomorrow.

Launching the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) on Ariane 

At the very end of the meeting, Tom Young and Bill Ballhaus raised an issue about whether NASA has an adequate mission assurance role for the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) on Europe’s Ariane rocket.   Since NASA and Europe agreed to launch JWST on Ariane on a cooperative basis (there is no exchange of funds), the JWST schedule has slipped from 2013 to 2018 and its cost has exploded to $8 billion.  Ballhaus pointed out that the Air Force has strict mission assurance criteria to ensure its satellites get into orbit safely and they are less expensive than that.  While Arianespace undoubtedly has its own criteria, he said, considering JWST’s cost, he asked whether NASA should consider renegotiating the agreement so it has a greater mission assurance role.  Others agreed that much has changed with JWST since the agreement was signed.  The group will ask for a briefing on this topic at its next meeting.

Related Stories:

The second day of the NAC meeting was summarized in:   NAC Wants Independent Cost and Technical Estimate of ARM Before Downselect (, July 31, 2014)
The SBAG meeting was summarized in: Asteroid Expert Richard Binzel: ARM is "Emperor With No Clothes" (, August 1, 2014)


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