Latest News

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)


Europe's Final ATV Launches to ISS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Jul-2014 (Updated: 29-Jul-2014 09:56 PM)

The European Space Agency's (ESA's) fifth and last Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) lifted off from Kourou, French Guiana tonight (July 29) on time at 7:47 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).  The ATV program will come to a close about 6 months from now when ATV-5 undocks from the International Space Station (ISS) and burns up during reenty.

ATV delivers dry cargo as well as air, water and propellant.  ATV-5 is carrying about 8 metric tons of supplies and equipment, including a record 2,695 kilograms of dry cargo.  Among the science experiments is an Electromagnetic Levitator for studying metals suspended in weightlessness as they are heated to 1600 degrees Celsius and then allowed to cool.

Assuming all goes well, docking is scheduled for August 12 at 9:43 am EDT.  During the two week period between launch and docking, ATV-5 will test new rendezvous sensors that could be used on future European spacecraft.

ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst is aboard the ISS and expected to be the first one to open the spacecraft on orbit.  ATV-5 will remain attached to the ISS for about 6 months.  A less glamorous but decidedly important task for ATV and other ISS cargo spacecraft that are not designed to survive reentry is as trash receptacles.  ATV-5 one will be filled with trash over the months it is part of ISS.  It and the trash will burn up as it descends through the dense layers of the atmosphere. 

Each of the five ATV's has been named after persons of distinction. ATV-5 is named after Georges Lemaitre (1894-1966), a Belgian priest and physicist widely credited as the father (or one of the fathers) of the "Big Bang" theory of the origin of the universe.

Under the original agreement among the space station partners, Europe was to provide nine ATVs.   ESA decided to end the series after just five and is now cooperating with NASA on building the service module for the first two Orion spacecraft.  The Orion service module will be based on the ATV service module.  ESA is building two Orion service modules on a no-exchange-of-funds basis as part of ISS barter arrangements to pay for common operating costs for the facility.

ESA lauds the Orion agreement as the first time NASA has allowed it to be "in the critical path" on a human spaceflight program, providing essential (rather than nice-to-have) components.  The first two Orions are expected to be launched in 2017 (without a crew) and 2021 (with a crew).  Eventually Orion spacecraft are intended to take crews beyond low Earth orbit.  There is no agreement on who will built the service modules for any of the other Orions.

The ISS will continue to be supplied by two U.S. commercial cargo spacecraft (Orbital Sciences Corporation's Cygnus and SpaceX's Dragon), Russia's Progress, and Japan's HTV.

Hartman: U.S. and Russian Crews to Fly Both Soyuz and U.S. Commercial Vehicles

Len Ly
Posted: 29-Jul-2014 (Updated: 29-Jul-2014 02:16 PM)

NASA intends to use future U.S. commercial crew vehicles to carry not only its astronauts, but also those of its Russian partner, to the International Space Station (ISS), said Dan Hartman, deputy space station program manager, at a NASA Advisory Council (NAC) meeting on Monday (July 28).

Different international vehicles routinely transport crew and cargo to and from the ISS, a laboratory circling some 250 miles above Earth. Currently, the U.S. commercially provided Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Cygnus and SpaceX’s Dragon, Russia’s Progress, Japan’s H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) and Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) provide cargo resupply to the space station.  ATV-5, scheduled to lift off today from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, is the last of its kind.

Russia’s Soyuz, however, remains the world’s sole operational crew vehicle, on which NASA must continue to rely until U.S. commercial alternatives are ready.

“We’re going to stay mixed” though, Hartman said at a meeting of NAC’s Committee on Human Exploration and Operations at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia.  NASA’s plan is for some NASA astronauts to continue launching on the Soyuz from Kazakhstan and some Russian cosmonauts to be launched from the United States by private companies, he explained. The idea is to barter: “It would be just a seat for a seat.”

Soyuz spacecraft not only transport crews to and from ISS, but serve as “lifeboats,” always docked to the ISS as an emergency evacuation route if needed.  The number of crew aboard the ISS is, in part, limited by how many Soyuz seats are available for evacuation.  Each Soyuz can accommodate a three-person crew.  If two Soyuz are attached, six people can be in residence.  Soyuz spacecraft can remain attached to the ISS for as long as six months, setting up what is now the routine 4-6 month crew rotation schedule. SpaceX, at least, is designing its Dragon V2 so that it could serve as a lifeboat as well. Other commercial crew competitors may have similar plans.

Hartman’s point was that in an emergency, it might not make sense to have all the Russians leave on one spacecraft and the Americans and others on a separate spacecraft because a mixture of experience may be needed to conduct operations.  “When you have these rescue vehicles on orbit and you have to leave the station…it doesn’t make much sense for three Russians to leave and expect the four Americans onboard to operate the Russian segment [of the ISS] and vice versa, right?” Hartman said.

NASA plans to award at least one contract under the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) phase of the commercial crew program in August or September 2014.  NASA officials are prohibited from providing any details of the bids that have been submitted, including which companies made the bids.   NASA is funding three companies in the current phase of the program, CCiCap (Commercial Crew Integrated Capability) – Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX.   Under CCtCap, at least one crewed flight test to the space station is required before certification is granted.  NASA hopes that at least one U.S. commercial crew vehicle will be ready to transport astronauts to the ISS by late 2017.

President Obama has proposed extending ISS operations until at least 2024.  The governments of NASA’s space station partners—Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan—have not formally accepted yet.

“I don’t think we need that answer from them for another year or so,” Hartman said. Other NASA officials have said they do not expect answers from the partners for several years and today’s strained U.S.-Russian geopolitical relationship complicates future planning on many fronts.

Presently, three Russians, one European and two Americans are living and working aboard the space station.

U.S. Readies More Sanctions, Accuses Russia of INF Treaty Violation

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jul-2014 (Updated: 29-Jul-2014 12:16 AM)

The United States and its major European allies announced on Monday they are finalizing more sanctions against Russia in the wake of the downing of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine on July 17.  The United States also reportedly formally accused Russia of violating a treaty prohibiting development of new medium range cruise missiles.  The extent to which these developments might impact U.S.–Russian space relationships is unclear.

Sanctions imposed by the Obama Administration over the past several months following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula have largely skirted civil space cooperation.  The United States relies on Russia for transporting American astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) and Russian rocket engines are used to power two U.S. launch vehicles – Atlas 5 with its Russian RD-180 engines, and Antares and its Russian AJ-26 (NK-33) engines.

Although NASA, along with other government agencies, was directed to limit cooperation with Russia, the ISS was specifically exempted and other NASA programs were given waivers.  Three Russian cosmonauts, two American astronauts and one German astronaut are currently living together aboard the ISS, which is jointly operated by the United States and Russia.

The shoot-down of the commercial Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) airliner as it transited Ukrainian airspace at 33,000 feet on July 17, 2014, and Russia’s refusal to accept responsibility despite Western insistence that Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine used a Russian BUK surface-to-air missile system in that horrific tragedy, pushed the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy to announce today (July 28) they will impose new sanctions imminently.  Specifics were not released.  The New York Times said Europe will finalize its sanctions package tomorrow (Tuesday), with the United States following suit thereafter.

The White House released a read-out of a telecom among the leaders of the five countries discussing several global hot spots including Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq and Libya.  On this topic, it said only that all agreed on the need for “coordinated sanctions measures on Russia for its continued transfer of arms, equipment, and fighters into eastern Ukraine, including since the crash, and to press Russia to end its efforts to destabilize the country…”

At the same time, also according to the New York Times, President Obama formally notified Russian President Vladimir Putin that the United States has concluded Russia violated the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by testing a ground-launched cruise missile with a range of 500-5,500 kilometers.  Multiple sources reported the news this evening, with most citing the New York Times as breaking the story.  President Obama’s letter to Putin is not yet posted on the White House Web site.

Check back here as more details of these actions are made public.

Memorial Service for Former NASA Official Terry Finn on August 10, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jul-2014 (Updated: 28-Jul-2014 07:19 PM)

Terence "Terry" Finn, who spent a good part of his career at NASA Headquarters, passed away suddenly on June 27, 2014.  A memorial service will be held on August 10 in Chestertown, MD.

Finn, 71, was very well known in Washington space-policy circles during the early years of the space shuttle and space station programs.  He began his career on Capitol Hill in 1966 working for then-Senator Joseph D. Tydings (D-MD) before moving on to committee assignments in both the House and Senate.  He then moved to NASA and served in several capacities, including Director of Policy and Plans for the Office of Space Flight, Director of Legislative Affairs, and was a charter member of the Space Station Task Force.  He was an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).

After retiring from NASA, he and his wife, Joyce Purcell, moved to Chestertown, MD where he became active in community affairs and taught a course in political science at Washington College.  Finn had a Ph.D. in Political Science from Georgetown University.

He is survived by his wife of 19 years, Joyce, and two sons from his earlier marriage to Lesley Cohn (who lost her battle with cancer about 20 years ago).  A more complete obituary was published by the Washington Post.

The family asks that in lieu of flowers, gifts may be made to The Foundation for Kent County Public Library, P.O. Box 24, Chestertown, MD, 21620, or the Humane Society of Kent County, 10720 Augustine Herman Highway, Chestertown, MD, 21620.

The memorial service on August 10 will be at 11:00 am ET at Washington College, Gibson Center for the Arts, Decker Theater, Chestertown, MD.  There will a reception immediately following the service.

What's Happening in Space Policy July 28-August 1, 2014 - UPDATED

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Jul-2014 (Updated: 27-Jul-2014 05:31 PM)

Here is our list of upcoming events for the week of July 28-August 1, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate will be in session this week.

During the Week

The House and Senate do not currently have any space policy-related hearings or actions on their public agendas during this last week of legislative work before their August recess.  The "August" recess actually extends until September 8, so it's a full five weeks.   Despite early rumors last week that they would take up a FY2015 Continuing Resolution (CR) before the break, House Speaker John Boehner made it absolutely clear on Thursday that he would not bring a CR to the House floor until they return in September.  He said the CR would last until early December.  

The memories of last year's 16-day government shutdown have not faded and a lot of people are hoping the same scenario does not play out again.  Many politicians are saying they don't want a shutdown, but whether they will feel the same way after five weeks with their constituents is the big question.  Analysts of last year's shutdown argue that one factor that fueled it was constituent angst -- primarily over Obamacare -- directed at their representatives during the August break. (A lot of people blame Congress for not working hard enough and point to the number of days they are in session in Washington.   It is important to remember that most of the time they are not in Washington, they are still working, just back in their districts.  The August "recess" doesn't mean they are on vacation for five weeks.  Indeed, in this election year, they will be interacting with the people whose votes they need and listening carefully to their concerns.)

In any case, for space policy aficionados, most of the action will be in Cleveland, OH with the AIAA's Propulsion and Energy 2014 Conference, or Hampton, VA at NASA's Langely Research Center where the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and its committees are meeting.  All of the NAC meetings are available via WebEx and telecom.  Instructions are provided in the individual entries on our calendar. 

In Washington, NASA's Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) meets Tuesday-Thursday (available via WebEx/telecom).  Also on Thursday, American University (AU) and Explore Mars Inc. are holding an interesting panel discussion at AU on "Is It Time To Search for Life on Mars?"  Thought we were already searching for life on Mars?   Go to the panel and find out why they titled their event as they did.  They've got a great lineup of speakers -- and a reception afterwards.  It appears as though it will be webcast (there's a Ustream link on the event's website).

Here's the list of events we know about as of Sunday afternoon.

Monday-Tuesday, July 28-29, 2014

Monday-Wednesday, July 28-30, 2014

Tuesday, July 29

Tuesday-Wednesday, July 29-30   

Tuesday-Thursday, July 29-31

Wednesday-Thursday, July 30-31

Thursday, July 31


Correction:  An earlier version of this article had incorrect dates for the meeting of the NAC Human Exploration and Operations Committee.  The correct dates are July 28-29 (not July 29-30).


U.S. Accuses China of Conducting Another ASAT Test

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Jul-2014 (Updated: 25-Jul-2014 06:50 PM)

The State Department today accused China of conducting another antisatellite (ASAT) test on Wednesday.   China said that it had conducted a missile intercept test.   The distinction between the two operations can be difficult to draw and there continues to be dispute in western circles as to how many ASAT tests China has already conducted.

Everyone agrees that in 2007 China destroyed one of its own satellites with an ASAT weapon.  The test was condemned internationally because of the vast debris cloud it created in low Earth orbit -- about 3,000 pieces (the exact number changes as some pieces reenter and new pieces are created by collisions within the debris cloud) -- that threatens all satellites operating in that realm.

There also is agreement that China conducted tests in 2010 and 2013, but whether they were missile intercept or ASAT tests is a matter of debate in western circles.  While some western analysts consider them ASAT tests, the U.S. government has not officially characterized them that way.

Therefore, this is only the second time the United States government has directly accused China of conducting an ASAT test and it called on China to "refrain from destabilizing actions ... that threaten the long-term security and sustainability of the outer space environment, on which all nations depend."

The full statement from the State Department issued today (July 25, 2014 EDT) reads as follows:

"The United States has concluded that on July 23, the People’s Republic of China conducted a non-destructive test of a missile designed to destroy satellites.  A previous destructive test of this system in 2007 created thousands of pieces of debris, which continue to present an on-going danger to the space systems of all nations, including China.  We call on China to refrain from destabilizing actions – such as the continued development and testing of destructive anti-satellite systems – that threaten the long term security and sustainability of the outer space environment, on which all nations depend.  The United States continuously looks to ensure its space systems are safe and resilient against emerging space threats."

In answer to an emailed query from, Grant Schneider of the State Department's Bureau of Arms Control and Verification and Compliance, replied "We have high confidence in our assessment.  We refer to you to Chinese authorities for further information on this anti-satellite test."

China's Xinhua news agency on Thursday said only that it had conducted a successful land-based missile intercept test on July 23 that "achieved its preset goal."

In an emailed exchange this afternoon, Brian Weeden, technical adviser to the Secure World Foundation, noted that China's announcement called it a successful missile intercept test while the State Department referred to it as a "non-destructive test."  Weeden observed that China did not mention a designated target for Wednesday's test, unlike the 2010 and 2013 tests where it said the target was launched on a ballistic missile.  "There was no mention of that this time," he said, and "My guess is that this test didn't have a designated target."

The United States and the Soviet Union developed ASAT systems early in the Space Age.  The fate of the Soviet system is unclear, but it has not been tested since 1982. The United States ended its dedicated ASAT programs by the 1990s. In 2008, however, the United States destroyed one of its own spy satellites (USA-193) using a missile launched from an Aegis cruiser because, it asserted, the satellite was out of control and carried hazardous fuel that posed significant risk to populated areas if it made an uncontrolled reentry.  The operation demonstrated an inherent U.S. capability to conduct such operations even though there is no official ASAT program.

Events of Interest     

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


Subscribe to Email Updates:

Enter your email address: