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Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of July 25-29, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in recess until September 6.
During the Week
Nationally, the big event this week is the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Not much is expected in the realm of space policy, although former astronaut Mark Kelly will speak on Wednesday. He will appear with his wife, former Rep. Gabby Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt in 2011. They have become leaders in the gun control movement and that is expected to be the focus of their presentation, not the space program (but one never knows). None of the congressional Democrats with leading roles in space policy are on the speakers list as of today (Sunday), although Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) will be there. He represents the district that includes the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena and is known as a strong supporter of JPL programs, but he no longer serves on the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA. He moved over to the Intelligence Committee and his comments are more likely to focus on those issues. The latest version (July 21) of the 51-page Democratic party platform has one paragraph about NASA that expresses pride in what it has accomplished and promises to "strengthen support for NASA and work in partnership with the international scientific community to launch new missions into space." We didn't see anything about either commercial or national security space activities in the document.
Within the space policy community, the focus this week will be meetings of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and its committees all week. The meetings are at the Ohio Aerospace Center in Cleveland, but will be available by WebEx and telecon for those who cannot attend in person. This will be the first NAC meeting since Steve Squyres stepped down as chair. Former astronaut Ken Bowersox has been appointed the interim chair. He had been chairing the NAC Human Exploration and Operations (NAC/HEO) Committee and Wayne Hale has been appointed to fill that position.
The NAC/HEO committee meets tomorrow and Tuesday. Michele Gates, program director for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) is on the schedule for 2:30 pm ET tomorrow (Monday) to give an update on ARM, which just went through one of its milestone reviews -- Key Decision Point-B or KDP-B -- on July 15 to determine whether the project is ready to move into Phase B. [A description of KDPs and project phases is in the NASA Procedural Requirements (NPR) 7120 document for those keenly interested in NASA program management.] NASA has not made any announcement about what transpired at the KDP-B review. We were told nothing would be out until this coming week, so hopefully Gates will provide that information.
The other NAC committees/task groups meet Monday-Wednesday in advance of the full NAC meeting Thursday and Friday. Always interesting to listen to if you have the time.
AIAA's Propulsion and Energy Conference is also on tap this week in Salt Lake City, Utah. Great line-up of sessions and speakers. Winner for cleverest title in our view is "Launch Vehicle Reusability: Holy Grail, Chasing Our Tail, or Somewhere in Between?" The conference will be livestreamed. Remember that Utah is in the Mountain Daylight Time (MDT) zone, which is two hours behind Eastern Daylight Time (i.e. 9:00 am MDT is 11:00 am EDT).
Those events and others we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week for additions to the Events of Interest that we learn about later. For convenience, we're grouping all the NAC meetings together rather than listing them day-by-day. They are listed separately in our Events of Interest list.
NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and its subgroups, Monday-Friday, July 25-29, all at Ohio Aerospace Institute, Cleveland, Ohio and available by WebEx/telecon
Monday-Tuesday, July 25-26
Monday-Wednesday, July 25-27
Monday-Thursday, July 25-28
Tuesday, July 26
Tuesday-Friday, July 26-29
Former space shuttle commander Eileen Collins spoke at the GOP presidential convention tonight arguing for a strong space program. She did not endorse Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, however, even though such an endorsement apparently was part of her prepared remarks.
Collins spoke on the 47th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon and called for leadership similar to that of President John F. Kennedy who initiated the Apollo program. "We landed on the Moon to fulfill a leadership challenge and to explore...Nations that lead on the frontier, lead in the world. We need that visionary leadership again. Leadership that will inspire the next generation of explorers to have that same passion."
Her verbal remarks ended: "We need leadership [where] Americans will ask again "What's next?' We need leadership that will make America's space program first again. And we need leadership that will make America great again. I want to thank all of you, thank you for what you're doing, God bless America."
According to a transcript of her prepared remarks provided by the GOP Convention to Syracuse University (her alma mater) and posted on the university's website, however, the ending was supposed to be "We need leadership that will make America first again. That leader is Donald Trump. Thank you and God bless the United States of America."
Thus, although she did not read the line endorsing Trump, she did use his slogan "make America great again" instead of "make America first again" as in the prepared remarks.
Collins's decision to speak to the GOP convention sparked controversy in the Twitterverse over whether a former astronaut should be engaging in partisan politics, although as some pointed out, former astronauts John Glenn, Harrison "Jack" Schmitt and Jack Swigert actually ran for national political office. Glenn, a Democrat, and Schmitt, a Republican, served as Senators; Swigert, a Republican, was elected to the House, but died before he could take office.
In any case, her speech was closely watched in the space community and, as delivered, sounded familiar pro-space themes. She did point out that the United States has been unable to launch astronauts into space since the termination of the space shuttle in 2011, exclaiming "We must do better than that," but stayed away from attributing the shuttle's cancellation to either political party.
In fact, both parties were responsible. Republican President George W. Bush made the decision in 2004 to terminate the space shuttle once construction of the International Space Station (ISS) was completed, expected in 2010. The shuttle was still flying when Democratic President Barack Obama took office in 2009 and he chose to adopt the Bush decision rather than reverse it and continue the program. Two shuttle flights were added during the Obama Administration extending the program to 2011 rather than 2010. They were added to comply with congressional direction in the 2008 NASA authorization act to deliver a scientific instrument, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, and to deliver supplies and equipment that required the space shuttle's unique cargo capacity.
Collins piloted the space shuttle twice (STS-64 and STS-84) and commanded two shuttle missions (STS-93 and STS-114, the 2005 return-to-flight mission following the 2003 space shuttle Columbia accident). She retired from NASA in 2006.
A video about the space program preceded her speech.
Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) also briefly mentioned the space program during his remarks tonight, though they will be remembered mostly because he also failed to endorse Trump. Regarding space, during a series of statements about the power of freedom, he said that 47 years ago America put men on the Moon and "that's the power of freedom." Cruz chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA and earlier in the day released a brief video highlighting the Apollo 11 anniversary.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich was also at the podium this evening and there was speculation that he might mention the anniversary because he is a strong supporter of the space program, but he did not.
Former astronaut Eileen Collins is scheduled to speak tonight at the GOP Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. Whether coincidental or not, today is the 47th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon and the theme for tonight, the third night of the convention, is Make America First Again. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who posted a video and tweeted about the anniversary today, is also on the schedule. He chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, an avid space supporter, also will speak.
Whether Cruz or Gingrich will focus on the space program is unclear, but Collins, the first woman to command the space shuttle, told Mashable that she plans to talk about the inspiration of the Apollo program and to "raise awareness of how the U.S. human space program has slowed over the years." She was the pilot of STS-63 and STS-84, and commanded STS-93 and STS-114, the 2005 return to flight mission following the 2003 space shuttle Columbia tragedy. She retired from NASA in 2006.
[UPDATE: to read about what happened, click here.]
At a congressional hearing earlier this year, Collins complained that program cancellations "made by bureaucracies, behind closed doors, without input by the people, are divisive, damaging, cowardly, and many times more expensive in the long run." She was a member of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) when the Constellation program was cancelled by the Obama Administration, a decision that came as a surprise to everyone on NAC, she said.
The GOP's schedule for tonight lists her as the fourth speaker. The event gets underway at 7:00 pm ET.
Cruz chaired a hearing on the future of the space program last week (SpacePolicyOnline's summary of the hearing will be posted soon) and today posted a video and tweeted about the Apollo 11 anniversary (the link to the video is embedded in the tweet).
Cruz's comments in the three hearings he has held about space since the beginning of 2015 demonstrate a strong interest in U.S. leadership in space exploration, primarily human exploration, and belief that NASA should focus on space science and exploration and not earth science.
Gingrich is a well known space enthusiast. During his own campaign for President in 2012, he advocated for a Moon base by 2020, a Mars colony, new propulsion systems and more.
The international Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) has cancelled its biennial conference for this year, which was scheduled to take place in Istanbul, Turkey from July 30-August 7. COSPAR President Lennard Fisk called it a "difficult and sad decision," but the wise course of action following this weekend's attempted coup.
COSPAR was created in 1958 as part of the International Council for Science (formerly the International Council of Scientific Unions). It holds a "scientific assembly" every two years that brings together the world's top space scientists who share and discuss their recent discoveries and future plans. The 2014 COSPAR meeting was in Russia (Moscow) and the 2018 COSPAR meeting will be in the United States (Pasadena). The Space Studies Board (SSB) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine is the U.S. national committee to COSPAR.
Fisk is the first American to serve as COSPAR President. A Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan, he is a former SSB chairman and former NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science and Applications.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden decided on June 21 to cancel all NASA-sponsored travel to the Istanbul conference because of security concerns based on a travel advisory from the State Department that restricted official travel to "mission critical" tasks. At the time, similar advisories (alerts and warnings) were in effect for a significant number of other countries, and focused on concerns about the southeastern portion of Turkey. Istanbul is in the northwest. Under the circumstances at that time, Fisk expressed concern that NASA's action was sending the wrong messages about responding to terrorism and the importance of space science.
The situation has changed dramatically since then. On June 28, terrorists attacked the Istanbul airport. On July 15, an attempted coup occurred. Following the coup attempt, U.S. airlines now are prohibited from flying to or from the Istanbul and Ankara airports, and all airlines, regardless of country of registry, are prohibited from flying into the United States from Turkey either directly or via a third country.
In a statement on the COSPAR website, Fisk cited the coup attempt as the final straw in COSPAR's decision to cancel. "This is a difficult and sad decision, taken in consultation with the Executive Director of the COSPAR Secretariat and in consideration of the advice spontaneously expressed by several Bureau and Council members as well as COSPAR officers and Main Scientific event Organizers. It also reflects the sense of responsibilities of the President, Bureau and Secretariat of COSPAR."
He stressed that COSPAR had been trying to maintain the conference to reflect "our common intent to resist terrorism and our willingness to respect the efforts of the local organizer. But now, that is no longer possible. ... [I]t was our duty to try and maintain the Istanbul Assembly, notwithstanding the risks related to terrorism that can strike anywhere, as sadly demonstrated on 14 July in Nice (France), but also in the last few weeks in Orlando (USA), Dhaka (Bangladesh), Baghdad (Iraq), and other places. What happened on 15 July in Turkey is of a different nature" and makes the decision to cancel "the only wise one available."
The next COSPAR scientific assembly is scheduled for July 14-22, 2018 in Pasadena, CA, the home of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which manages many of NASA's space and earth science missions.
The State Department also has a travel advisory in effect for Mexico, including the state of Jalisco where Guadalajara -- the site of the September International Astronautical Conference (IAC) -- is located. When asked today whether NASA has any plans or expectations that travel will be prohibited to the IAC, NASA Associate Administrator for Communications David Weaver replied by email that "NASA fully intends to support this conference, but will continue to coordinate our presence in Mexico with the Department of State."
Updated to include the information that the State Department's advisory about Turkey in effect at the time of Administrator Bolden's decision, issued March 29, limited official travel to "mission critical" travel. It is interesting to note, however, that on June 27 (the day before the attack at the Istanbul airport), the State Department replaced its March 29 advisory with one that did not include the mission critical language and continued to focus on threats in southeastern Turkey. The latest advisory, following the coup attempt, referencing the airline restrictions, was issued July 16 and also omits the mission critical language.
Updated to add David Weaver's comments about the September IAC.
SpaceX launched its Commercial Resupply Services-9 (CRS-9) cargo mission to the International Space Station at 12:45 am ET this morning on schedule from launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), FL. The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket then returned to a successful landing back at a different CCAFS pad about 9 minutes later. It was the second successful SpaceX landing at CCAFS.
SpaceX CRS-9, or SpX-9, is delivering a Dragon spacecraft with 4,976 pounds (2,257 kilograms) of scientific experiments, supplies and equipment to the ISS. Dragon is scheduled to arrive at ISS on Wednesday morning.
Among the items aboard is an International Docking Adapter (IDA) that will be installed on an ISS port to enable dockings of SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicles in the future. The cargo version of Dragon and Orbital ATK's Cygnus cargo spacecraft berth, rather than dock, with the ISS. Berthing requires the ISS crew to grapple the spacecraft with the robotic Canadarm2 and install them onto ISS ports. The crew capsules need to be able to dock using their own propulsion and other systems without interaction from the ISS crew. The IDAs help enable that.
This is IDA-2. IDA-1 was destroyed on the SpX-7 failure in June 2015. A replacement, IDA-3, is being built and is tentatively scheduled for launch on the SpX-14 mission.
The IDA weighs 1,030 pounds (467 kg). The other cargo is 2,050 pounds (930 kg) of science experiments, 816 pounds (370 kg) of crew supplies, 617 pounds (280 kg) of vehicle hardware, 280 pounds (127 kg) of spacewalk equipment, 2.2 pounds (1 kg) of computer resources, and 119 pounds (54 lg) of Russian hardware.
After propelling Dragon and the Falcon 9's second stage part of the way to orbit, the first stage turned around, fired boostback, entry, and landing burns, and successfully touched down back at CCAFS about 9 minutes after liftoff.
SpX-9 Falcon 9 first stage moments before touchdown at Landing Zone 1, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.
This was only the second landing on land for SpaceX. Other first stages have landed on drone ships at sea. During a briefing on July 16, SpaceX's Hans Koenigsmann said that it is easier to land on terra firma because the pad is larger and is not moving. On the other hand, returning back to the Florida coast requires more fuel. These landings are secondary objectives -- the primary purpose is launching something into orbit -- and use whatever fuel remains. Clearly there was enough today. SpaceX wants to reuse the first stages to reduce launch costs. Several of the stages have been recovered so far. Koenigsmann said the one from the SpX-8 mission will be the first to refly, probably this fall, although the company has not finalized arrangements with a customer for that launch.
Dragon will remain at the ISS until August 29. It then will return to Earth, landing in the Pacific Ocean. It is the only one of the four ISS cargo spacecraft (Orbital ATK's Cygnus, Russia's Progress, and Japan's HTV are the others) that can survive reentry. In this case, it will return more than 3,300 pounds (1,500 kg) of science experiments and hardware.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of July 17-22, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in recess until September 6.
During the Week
The week starts off with a bang -- of rocket engines firing -- to launch the SpaceX CRS-9 cargo mission to the International Space Station at 12:45 am Monday. Today (Sunday), NASA will hold a briefing on what's aboard the cargo ship at 3:00 pm ET and coverage of the launch begins at 11:30 pm ET. Watch both on NASA TV.
SpaceX plans to land the Falcon 9 first stage back on a pad at Cape Canaveral a few miles from the launch site. That feat has been done only once before. The other landings were on drone ships out at sea. The landing burn begins 7 minutes 38 seconds after liftoff (following boostback and entry burns), with landing shortly thereafter.
The bang of a gavel will occur later in the day as the Republicans kick off their presidential convention in Cleveland. The GOP has released its list of speakers, but it is just a list, not an agenda showing when each will speak. Perhaps of special interest to readers of this website is that former NASA space shuttle commander Eileen Collins is one of the speakers. If we learn the day and time, we will post it on our Events of Interest list.
Back-to-back conferences at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California this week will bring together experts interested in the scientific, robotic and human exploration of Phobos and Deimos, the two moons of Mars (Monday-Tuesday), and then a broader group looking at human exploration of those celestial bodies as well as the Moon, Mars, and near-earth asteroids (Wednesday-Friday). Neither conference website mentions whether webcasts will be available, but such information often is made available only at the last minute.
The 40th anniversary of the landing of NASA's Viking 1 spacecraft on Mars is on Wednesday, July 20. NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia will celebrate with a history panel on July 19 and a day-long symposium on July 20. NASA TV will broadcast some of the sessions.
July 20 is also the 47th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. The Space Transportation Association (STA) and the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration will hold a meeting that afternoon where Orbital ATK's Charlie Precourt (a former astronaut) will talk about progress in developing the Space Launch System (SLS). Orbital ATK is building the solid rocket boosters for SLS and recently completed a successful test firing.
The National Academies' Space Technology Industry, Government, University Roundtable (STIGUR) will meet at the National Academy of Sciences building on Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC on Thursday. The agenda is not posted yet.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week for additions to our Events of Interest list.
Sunday, July 17
Sunday-Monday, July 17-18
Monday-Thursday, July 18-21
Tuesday-Wednesday, July 19-20
Wednesday, July 20
Wednesday-Thursday, July 20-21
Wednesday-Friday, July 20-22
Thursday, July 21
A celebration of life service for family, friends and colleagues of Molly Macauley is planned for July 23, 2016 in Baltimore, MD. Macauley, a highly respected member of the space policy community, was murdered on July 8 while walking her dogs near her home in Baltimore.
The Christian Science Service in the Celebration of Life will be held at 11:00 am ET on July 23 at the Second Presbyterian Church, 4200 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD, 21218. Internment will be private. More information is on the website of the Mitchell-Wiedefeld funeral home and in a Baltimore Sun obituary published on July 20.
Macauley was one of the few economists who specialized in satellites and the space program. She spent most of her career at Resources for the Future (RFF), a Washington-based think tank focused on environmental issues. RFF is planning a memorial service in September.
Baltimore homicide detectives continue their investigation into the murder, but no suspects or motive have been identified yet. Macauley is survived by her life partner, Lee Lasky, her uncle, Robert Macauley of Carlisle, MA, many cousins and many, many friends.
Update: This article was updated July 17 to clarify the service is for Molly's family, friends, and colleagues. The exact text from the funeral home's website is:
"Family, colleagues and friends are warmly invited to attend a Christian Science Service in the Celebration of Life on Saturday, July 23, 2016 at the Second Presbyterian Church, 4200 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD 21218. A reception will follow. For more information, contact Susan Macfarlane at 410-366-2851. Interment private. Please omit flowers. Memorial contributions may be made in Molley’s name to BARCS, 301 Stockholm Street, Baltimore, MD 21230 or the Maryland SPCA, 3300 Falls Road, Baltimore, MD 21211."
Update 2: The link to the Baltimore Sun obituary with information about the celebration of life service was added on July 20.
The House and Senate headed out of town for the summer today, leaving a great deal of work unfinished. In particular, none of the 12 appropriations bills that fund the government have cleared Congress yet. They will have four weeks to do something about appropriations when they return after Labor Day.
The extra long (seven week) recess is because of the Republican and Democratic presidential conventions that will be held in the next two weeks. The Republican convention begins in Cleveland on Monday and runs through Thursday (July 18-21). The Democratic convention in Philadelphia is the following Monday-Thursday (July 25-28).
The conventions will be followed by the traditional congressional August recess, which, in election years like this, is used mostly for campaigning.
The appropriations bill score sheet looks good in terms of committee action. All 12 have been reported from the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. Floor action is another matter.
The House has passed five of the 12 FY2017 appropriations bills: Defense, Financial Services, Military Construction/Veterans Affairs (Milcon/VA), Legislative Branch, and Interior/Environment. A sixth bill, Energy-Water, was defeated over inclusion of a gay rights/gender identity amendment to which many Republicans objected.
The Senate passed the Energy/Water bill, and a single bill that combined Milcon/VA, Transportation-HUD, and funding to deal with the Zika virus.
The two chambers came close to final passage of a compromise Milcon/VA bill that included the Zika funding (but not the Transportation-HUD bill). The conference report passed the House, but did not survive a cloture vote in the Senate, so is stalled.
Attempts to bring the defense appropriations bill to the Senate floor for debate also failed cloture votes.
The Commerce-Justice-Science bill, which includes NASA and NOAA, did reach the Senate floor, but was derailed by the gun control debate (as its name conveys, the bill also includes funding for the Department of Justice). The House version has not gone to the floor yet.
Both chambers return on September 6 and will be in session the rest of that month. Fiscal Year 2017 begins on October 1, so something -- likely a Continuing Resolution (CR) -- will need to be passed by then.
This outcome is not unexpected. Congress's difficulties in passing appropriations bills is all too well known. The only question is how long the CR will last. Almost certainly past the November 8 elections. Depending on which party wins the White House, the House, and the Senate, final appropriations could be completed by the end of the calendar year, or pushed into 2017 when the new Congress convenes and the new President takes office.
One bill that has made progress is the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The House and Senate have each passed their versions and formally agreed to go to conference to work out the differences. Authorization bills set policy and recommend funding levels, but do not provide any money. Only appropriations bills do that, but the NDAA is influential in the decisions made by the appropriations committees. Conference negotiations on the NDAA are expected to take place at the staff level during the recess.
There has been no action on a new NASA authorization bill this year, although Republican and Democratic Senators at yesterday's Senate Commerce Committee hearing on NASA and American leadership in space expressed enthusiasm for passing a bill before the end of the year. The House passed a FY2015 (yes, 2015, not 2016) bill last year that could be a vehicle for Senate action, or a completely new bill could be introduced. Although time is getting short, if there is agreement on both sides of the aisle and both sides of Capitol Hill, a bill can pass quickly. The goal is to provide stability to NASA programs during the presidential transition. A major area of disagreement between Republicans and Democrats is NASA spending on earth science research. Republicans on both sides of Capitol Hill argue that it should not be a priority for NASA because other agencies can fund it while NASA focuses on space exploration. The White House and congressional Democrats argue that earth science research is an essential NASA activity and a critical element of a balanced portfolio of programs.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Energy-Water bill passed the House. That information was based on Congress's own congress.gov website that has a table showing the status of appropriations bills. That table indicates there was a vote, but not that the vote failed. This article has been corrected to state that the bill was defeated.
Resources for the Future (RFF), the Washington environmental think-tank where Molly Macauley spent most of her professional career, is planning a memorial service for her sometime in September. Macauley was murdered while walking her dogs near her Baltimore home on Friday night. Contributions in her memory may be made to two Baltimore animal shelters.
An obituary in today's Baltimore Sun provides information on where memorial contributions may be sent:
The Mitchell-Wiedefeld Funeral Home confirms that the family is not planning a funeral service. [UPDATE, July 15: Although that was the initial information available, a celebration of life service is, in fact, planned for July 23 in Baltimore. RFF continues to plan a memorial service in September.) Macauley's husband, Will Sheppard, died many years ago. She is survived by her life partner, Lee Lasky, an uncle, and cousins.
Macauley joined RFF in 1983 and rose to the position of Vice President for Research and Senior Fellow. Details on RFF's planned memorial service will be announced later.
From 1979-1983, Macauley was a policy analyst at the Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT). She received her Bachelor's degree in economics from the College of William and Mary in 1979, and her Master's and Doctorate degrees in economics from Johns Hopkins University in 1981 and 1983 respectively.
Macauley was internationally renowned for her work on the economics of satellites and of the space program generally. In addition to her work at RFF, she was a Visiting Professor of Economics at Johns Hopkins University from 1989-2008.
Baltimore police are still investigating the crime. The Baltimore Sun reports that the police are offering a $2,000 reward for information leading to arrest and indictment of a suspect.
NASA is initiating mission concept studies for a new generation of large space-based astrophysics observatories that could be considered during the next astrophysics Decadal Survey by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. NASA astrophysics division director Paul Hertz outlined the concepts during a hearing before two House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) subcommittees today.
Decadal Surveys are conducted by expert committees organized by the Academies approximately every 10 years (a decade) to identify the most important scientific questions to be answered in the next 10 years and missions to obtain those answers. They are done for each of NASA's space and earth science disciplines and in some cases for other agencies as well. The astrophysics Decadal Surveys makes recommendations for NASA as well as the National Science Foundation (NSF), which manages ground-based astronomy programs, and the Department of Energy's high energy astrophysics programs.
Congress and the government agencies rely heavily on Decadal Surveys because they represent a consensus of the relevant scientific community. The first Decadal Survey was conducted in 1964 for the field of astronomy and astrophysics. Surveys for planetary science, solar and space physics (heliophysics), earth science and applications from space, and biological and physical sciences in space began more recently. Congress mandated in the 2005 NASA authorization act that the Academies also conduct mid-term assessments half-way through each respective decade to report on how the agencies are implementing the recommendations. The most recent astrophysics Survey -- New Worlds, New Horizons -- was issued in 2010 and its associated mid-term review is expected to be released soon.
Today's hearing before the Space Subcommittee (which oversees NASA) and the Research and Technology Subcommittee (which has oversight of NSF) was focused broadly on astronomy, astrophysics and astrobiology, but much of the discussion was about NASA and NSF implementation of the 2010 Survey and plans for the next one.
Hertz told the subcommittees that NASA is looking at four potential large missions to follow the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2018, and the Wide-Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST) now in formulation in response to the 2010 Survey. He described the four concepts and the types of discoveries they could enable as follows:
Exoplanets are planets orbiting other stars. NASA's Kepler Space Telescope has identified over 5,000 exoplanet candidates so far.
Decadal Survey committees typically seek input from the scientific community at large for new mission concepts and Hertz made clear that these are only NASA's concepts. Others may well emerge during the Survey process. Also, those are candidates for large missions only. NASA intends to retain a balanced portfolio of small, medium, and large missions.
Congress established the interagency Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee (AAAC) to coordinate activities across NSF, NASA and DOE in the 2002 NSF Authorization Act. Angela Olinto, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago's Fermi Institute, currently chairs AAAC and also was a witness at today's hearing. She praised the Decadal Survey process as the best way to prioritize missions based on cost and the availability of technology. She noted that her own project came in fourth in the last Survey and therefore did not make the cut, but she still believes Surveys are "the right process."
Christine Jones, President of the American Astronomical Society and a Senior Astrophysicist with the Smithsonian Astrophysics Observatory, similarly praised the community-driven Decadal Survey process and other mechanisms to obtain input from the broad astrophysics community. She noted that the four mission concepts described by Hertz originated in NASA's three astrophysics Program Analysis Groups (PAGs), which also are community-driven.
NSF's Director of the Division on Astronomical Sciences, Jim Ulvestad, said that NSF also follows the Decadal Surveys closely. It is currently building the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) in response to the 2010 Survey. Implementing Survey recommendations can be a challenge because Survey committees must make assumptions about how much money will be available to execute the missions they recommend, but actual budgets may not match expectations. He said Surveys should be "aspirational" and "reach for the stars," but not present a laundry list of missions that cannot be implemented.
Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) asked about international cooperation and Hertz replied that 80 percent of NASA's astrophysics missions are international partnerships. All four of the mission concept studies assume international collaboration and NASA is talking with the European Space Agency about participating in its ATHENA X-ray observatory and a possible future space-based gravitational wave detector.
NSF operates the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, which NASA uses to characterize and track asteroids as part of its Near Earth Object Observation program. The fate of Arecibo has been uncertain for many years and NSF is again considering whether to continue funding it. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who advocates for programs to defend Earth from potentially hazardous asteroids, asked whether NSF was about to "mothball" Arecibo. Ulvestad said no decisions have been made yet and stressed that, with regard to asteroids, Arecibo is used only to characterize and track known asteroids, not to find new ones that might threaten Earth. LSST is a survey telescope with a wide field of view that will be able to locate asteroids, he added, but Rohrabacher insisted that until LSST is operational, Arecibo is needed.
Olinto's main message was that rising costs to operate astrophysics facilities coupled with constrained budgets is reducing the number of grants that can be approved. She said the number of successful grant applications has fallen from 30 percent to 20 percent. That reduces the number of graduate students that can be funded, affecting the next generation of astronomers and astrophysicists.
The importance of contributions to astronomy through observations by amateur astronomers was highlighted by several committee members and witnesses. AAS's Jones said that 250,000 college students enroll in introductory astronomy courses, 10 percent of the student population, an indication of the broad interest in understanding the universe.
Shelley Wright, a member of the advisory committee for the Breakthrough Listen project talked about public engagement in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). She said enthusiasm for SETI has increased dramatically, but resources are scare. While most SETI searches have been in the radio wavelengths, optical and infrared lasers might be better suited for the task. House SS&T committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) lamented that NASA does not fund SETI searches.
NASA has not funded SETI searches since the early 1980s when Senator William Proxmire (D-WI), who chaired the appropriations subcommittee that funded NASA at the time, prohibited it because he considered it a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) asked about potential use of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft for future space-based astrophysics missions. He postulated that Orion crews might be able to service JWST, for example, as shuttle crews did for the Hubble Space Telescope. Hertz and Olinto acknowledged that SLS could enable launching much larger (in mass and size) space telescopes, but Olinto was not persuaded that astronauts could service JWST or other telescopes so far from Earth. Hubble is in Earth orbit and was comparatively easy to access with the shuttle. JWST will be at the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange point. She suggested that robotic servicing was a more likely option, but the real key is to ensure that it is working properly before launch so servicing is not required.
Events of Interest
Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »