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SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk tweeted this evening that the failure of the Falcon 9 first stage to land successfully on a drone ship was due to a "slower than expected throttle valve response." Another attempt will be made in two months, he added.
SpaceX made its second attempt to land a Falcon 9 first stage on its autonomous drone ship named Just Read the Instructions on Tuesday, April 14, 2015. The first stage had just successfully propelled the rocket's second stage and the Dragon spacecraft full of supplies for the International Space Station into space. Musk wants to develop a reusable first stage that eventually will land back at its launch site. For now, he is testing landing on the drone ship. The first test earlier this year also was unsuccessful.
Video of the April 14 attempt shows the rocket descending vertically and almost making it to a safe landing on the drone ship, but it slews sideways in the final moments and crashes onto the deck. This evening Musk sent two tweets explaining what went wrong:
Hours after defending the President’s FY2016 budget request before a House subcommittee, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was in front of a Senate subcommittee with the same task – convincing skeptical lawmakers that the request reflects the right priorities for the space agency. He also used the opportunity to once again urge Senate confirmation of Dava Newman as Deputy Administrator.
Bolden testified before the House subcommittee that authorizes NASA's activities this morning. This afternoon’s hearing was across Capitol Hill in the Senate and before the appropriations subcommittee that funds the agency. Authorizing committees set policy and recommend funding levels, but only appropriators have money to spend.
In this case, Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the Hill, authorizers and appropriators alike, expressed dissatisfaction with the choices made in the President’s $18.5 billion budget request for NASA.
The hearing before the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee was comparatively brief, lasting less than an hour. The four Senators present focused almost entirely on issues affecting their constituents, but the opening statements by subcommittee chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) touched on broader issues.
Shelby said the significant increase in the request compared to FY2015 should have represented balanced funding for NASA priorities, but instead there are significant increases for commercial crew and for space technology, but reductions for science missions and exploration systems development. His primary interest is the Space Launch System (SLS), being built in his state of Alabama, and he criticized the “20 percent cut” to SLS at a critical phase in its development. Warning that “a lot of us are troubled” by the request, Shelby said that “requiring development programs to operate with insufficient funding is irresponsible.”
Later in the hearing Shelby queried Bolden about the commercial crew program. Shelby is a strong skeptic about that program. Today he wanted to know why NASA was buying more seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for a period of time when commercial crew systems should be available. What is worrying NASA about the progress of that program, he asked, that is causing it to buy more Russian seats? Bolden replied that his concern is that Congress will not provide the needed funding for the program. Congress historically has not fully funded the commercial crew program and Bolden often reminds Congress that if full funding had been provided, the commercial crew systems would be ready this year. Instead, there is a two-year slip. Shelby retorted that NASA wasted resources by supporting too many companies.
Shelby also wanted an update on Russia's commitment to the International Space Station (ISS) and whether it has formally notified NASA that it plans to end its participation in 2024 and remove some of its modules as reported in the press. Bolden said no, it was quite the opposite. He met with the new head of the Russian space agency, Igor Komarov, last month and Komarov made it clear that Russia is committed to ISS until 2024 and has no plans to remove any modules. Bolden added that the other ISS partners had been waiting for Russia to make that commitment and he now expects that they will do so as well. Bolden firmly said "yes" when Shelby asked if NASA can operate ISS without the Russian segments.
Mikulski was particularly distressed about cuts to Goddard Space Flight Center in her state of Maryland, but more broadly worried that the choices made in the request would undermine the bipartisan agreement on a balanced space program that has been in place for several years. “I have very deep concerns” about the threat posed to that balanced program, she said in her opening statement, later adding that “I want to make sure our best days aren’t behind us.”
Mikulski was especially concerned about cuts to the satellite servicing development program at Goddard. Bolden asked if he could talk to her in person later to explain why he reduced its funding. The private sector is already working on those technologies, he explained, and for four years he has been trying to determine who the customer for NASA's efforts would be. "I want to make sure we are not at odds with industry" because his experience is that industry wants NASA to be its customer, not the reverse. Mikulski also worried about an overall cut of more than $300 million for activities at Goddard, but Bolden assured her that as more programs are assigned to Goddard during the year, more money will accompany them.
Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), chairman of the full Appropriations Committee, asked if Bolden thinks Congress and the Administration are working together constructively on the SLS program. SLS will be tested at Stennis Space Center in Cochran’s state of Mississippi. Bolden exclaimed that he did not think he has been as effective as he could be and promised to spend more time with the committee explaining what NASA is doing, adding that "I am pleading for the Senate to confirm Dr. Dava Newman as my Deputy because I need the help.”
Cochran later commented that a "robust testing infrastructure" is needed at Stennis to test new rocket engines in the future and then asked "Is there a future?" Bolden used the opportunity to declare, in reaction to Mikulski's earlier comment, that "our best days are in front of us. I can promise you that."
Sen. Shelley Capito (R-WV) also attended the hearing, asking questions about the future of NASA's Independent Verification and Validation (IV&V) facility in her state of West Virginia (Bolden assured her of its importance) and diversity in NASA's workforce (Bolden said he was not happy with it and is seeking ways to encourage women and minorities to remain in science and engineering leadership positions).
Several other topics were discussed. A webcast of the hearing is available on the committee's website.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden spent two hours this morning defending the Obama Administration’s FY2016 budget request for the agency before a House subcommittee. Perhaps the most contentious moment came during a debate between Bolden and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) who was arguing that America has lost its preeminence in human spaceflight. Bolden forcefully countered that he just returned from the Space Symposium and no one there had such a low opinion of NASA and the United States: “We are the preeminent leader in the world. Always have been, always will be.”
The exchange took place as part of Brooks’ proposition that the approximately $2 billion NASA spends on earth science should be reallocated to NASA’s other space and aeronautics programs and the earth science activities be transferred to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Bolden strongly defended the earth science component of NASA’s program as part of a balanced portfolio.
Brooks, who represents Marshall Space Flight Center, contended that more money is needed to support human exploration because, since the end of the space shuttle program, America has had to “hitch a ride” with the Russians to the International Space Station (ISS) and thus lost its preeminence. Bolden’s rejoinder that no one at the Space Symposium would agree with that assessment did not persuade Brooks: “When Russia is reducing the United States of America to saying if we want to go to the space station we can do it by a trampoline, that’s not the kind of preeminence I’m accustomed to, having seen the Saturn V rocket built … in the 5th congressional district of Alabama.”
Other Republican subcommittee members also argued against NASA’s earth science funding. The discussion followed the familiar lines expressed by committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and others at least since 2013 that 13 federal agencies are involved in climate change/earth science research, while NASA uniquely is responsible for space exploration. Therefore NASA should focus on its unique role of exploration and shift earth science to the other agencies.
The hearing on NASA's FY2016 budget request was held before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee today. Generally speaking, members of both parties criticized the request.
The Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) was one key topic, both in terms of why Bolden is ignoring advice from the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and more broadly about where it fits into the longer term plan for human exploration of Mars.
Bolden was grilled by subcommittee chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) and committee chairman Smith on why he was ignoring NAC’s advice to (1) obtain an independent cost evaluation (ICE) of ARM prior to the Mission Concept Review (which just took place), and (2) modify it so that its primary objective is demonstration of high power solar electric propulsion rather than obtaining a sample of an asteroid, and to send the spacecraft to Mars and back rather than to an asteroid. Bolden replied that he is not changing ARM’s objectives because he is committed to “constancy of purpose” and will do an ICE now that the Mission Concept Review is completed. Palazzo warned that "without consensus in the scientific, exploration and international communities, not to mention the people here on Capitol Hill, I think you will be challenged" on ARM.
Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) focused on the fact that NASA has not provided a roadmap for the human exploration program and how ARM fits into it. She argued that the committee needs to know why NASA is choosing various options instead of simply being told what it is going to do without any communications.
Edwards, the top Democrat on the subcommittee, also pressed Bolden on why the budget request cuts funds for programs the Administration knows are congressional priorities, such as the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft, aeronautics, and the Europa mission. “Part of me thinks it’s a game,” she said. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the top Democrat on the full committee, asked why NASA was ignoring the advice of the National Research Council (NRC) in its “Pathways” report last year. The report provided “unambiguous” advice that NASA needs more funding to achieve the goal of sending people to Mars, so “it came as a bit of a shock to me that the very next budget request” cuts funding for SLS and Orion. That is “directly counter” to the NRC’s advice and “Congress needs to correct that.”
Bolden insisted it was all a matter of priorities. He repeated several times that he believes the budget request for SLS and Orion will enable the agency to meet the milestones it has promised. Regarding Europa, he said he knows the planetary science community wants to launch that spacecraft in 2022, but “it can’t be done in that time frame.” In an unrelated exchange later in the hearing, he said he thinks Europa could be launched in 2029, but it was clear he was not committing to that date.
Palazzo and Smith repeated their criticism of NASA’s decision to fund two commercial crew companies instead of one and using SLS/Orion as the redundant capability if it is needed. The 2010 NASA authorization act requires NASA to design SLS/Orion so it can service the ISS in case the commercial crew concept did not result in viable systems. Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH) asked if NASA could downselect to just one of the two companies and thereby accelerate when a commercial crew system would be ready. Bolden said no, and choosing only one company could actually slow the program because that company would become a “monopoly that dictates to me what it can or can’t do.”
Many other topics were discussed (a webcast of the hearing is available on the committee’s website) that covered familiar ground. The overall thrust was that Republicans and Democrats are unhappy with the budget request because it cuts programs that the Administration knows are congressional priorities and does not lay out a roadmap for human exploration. Republicans also disagree with the funding for earth science because that should not be a NASA priority.
Bolden testified to the Senate Appropriations Committee's Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee on the FY2016 budget request later in the day.
SpaceX has been releasing videos of the April 14, 2015 attempt to land a Falcon 9 first stage on its autonomous drone ship "Just Read the Instructions" in the Atlantic Ocean. Here are links to the three released so far; more will be added to the list if they become available.
The first video was released within about an hour of the attempted landing and shows a rather grainy photo from a chase plane.
The second video, released the next day, is a much better view from the chase plane.
The third video, released April 16, is from a camera on the drone ship itself.
Hint: if the third video looks odd, try opening the link in a different browser. It does not display well in Firefox on this machine.
SpaceX succeeded in its primary mission today, launching a Dragon cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS). It was not so fortunate with its secondary objective of landing the Falcon 9 first stage on an autonomous drone ship at sea, however. This was the company's second attempt at landing on the drone ship and its second failure. It released photos of the first stage's final moments within an hour of the attempt, video from a chase plane later in the day, and an even better video the next day (see links below).
Like the first time, the first stage did reach the drone ship, but did not survive. SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk tweeted (@elonmusk) a few minutes after the landing attempt: "Rocket landed on drone ship, but too hard for survival."
Later he added "looks like Falcon landed fine, but excess lateral velocity caused it to tip over" and released two photos.
SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage approaches landing spot (X) on autonomous drone ship in Atlantic Ocean (top photo)
Later in the day, SpaceX released video of the landing taken from a chase plane. Musk tweeted: "Looks like stiction in the biprop throttle valve, resulting in control system phase lag. Should be easy to fix." However, that tweet was subsequently deleted.
Most of the chatter on Twitter was positive, congratulating SpaceX since in both cases the stage did, in fact, find its way to the autonomous drone ship even if the landings were unsuccessful. SpaceX has not yet said whether the ship, whimsically named "Just Read the Instructions," sustained any damage.
The landing attempts are part of Musk's goal of building a reusable launch system that would eventually land back at the launch site for refurbishment and reuse. He has made clear that the chances of success in these early stages are anyone's guess, and he plans to keep trying on as many SpaceX launches that meet the necessary criteria as possible (in some cases landing velocities would be too high, for example).
Today's launch at 4:10:40 pm ET was to low Earth orbit, with the Dragon spacecraft now on its way to the ISS with 1,142 pounds of hardware; 1,860 pounds of science experiments; and 1,102 pounds of crew supplies. Among the supplies is an espresso machine.
This is SpaceX's sixth operational ISS cargo mission for NASA under its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract. The contract calls for SpaceX to deliver 20 tons of cargo to the ISS through the end of 2016 with 12 launches. The company announced earlier this year that it was awarded three more launches as part of an extension through 2017.
Dragon is scheduled to arrive at ISS on Friday morning where it will be grappled by the ISS robotic arm, Canadarm2, at about 7:00 am ET. NASA TV will provide live coverage. Dragon will return to Earth in about 5 weeks, loaded with more than 3,000 pounds of science, hardware, crew supplies and spacewalk tools, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.
On April 15, a much better video of the landing attempt was released and posted to YouTube.
Note: This article was updated on April 14 and 15, adding the links to the videos, Musk's tweet about the "stiction" issue and the fact that he later deleted it.
In a breathless exposition of the attributes of his company’s new rocket, United Launch Alliance (ULA) President Tory Bruno promised it “changes everything” about space launch and the future use of space.
Bruno announced the rocket’s name, Vulcan, and details about it and the company's new business strategy at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, CO today. The name was chosen by over one million participants in a ULA naming contest. Zeus and GalaxyOne were runners-up.
Bruno laid out a four step plan. First, ULA will introduce the new Vulcan rocket in 2019. It basically will be an Atlas V rocket with a Centaur upper stage, but instead of a single Russian RD-180 engine, it will use two Blue Origin BE-4’s. It will have 20 percent more lift capability than the Atlas V and be less expensive.
Second, ULA will introduce a new upper stage to replace Centaur in 2023. The Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES) is what will change everything about utilization of space, Bruno said.
Third, ULA will introduce reusability by recovering the Vulcan’s first stage engines. Instead of trying to recover the entire first stage – as SpaceX is doing with Falcon – ULA will separate the engines from the booster after they have completed their task of sending a payload into space. Using a hypersonic decelerator, the engines will return Earthward where they will be scooped out of mid-air by helicopters, thereby avoiding immersion in sea water.
The fourth step introduces an era of “distributed lift” in 2024 where various elements of a space facility will be sent into orbit by Vulcan rockets separately and assembled in orbit using the ACES upper stage, which can be restarted many times and move objects from one location to another. Bruno envisions fuel depots, water depots, and commercial human habitats and the overall commercial utilization of space benefiting from this capability.
ULA’s dramatic plans are stimulated by equally dramatic changes in the U.S. launch services market over the past year.
ULA was created in 2006 by the Air Force, Boeing and Lockheed Martin when the market for launch services was insufficient to support both companies’ rockets – Delta IV and Atlas V, respectively – but the Air Force wanted to be able to use both of them to ensure its national security satellites could be launched whenever needed.
The ULA launches are very expensive, however, and the Atlas V uses Russian RD-180 engines. Competition from SpaceX and the deterioration in the U.S.-Russian relationship because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine have changed the landscape. Congress has made clear that it does not want U.S. national security satellite launches to be dependent on a foreign supplier, and they want the Air Force to embrace competition from “new entrants” like Space X.
The FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act requires the Secretary of Defense to stop using RD-180s for national security launches by 2019, although waivers are possible under certain circumstances. Bruno reiterated today that the initial version of Vulcan will be ready by 2019, but added that it would be used for commercial launches in the beginning. He does not anticipate launching for the Air Force until 2022-2023, after the rocket is certified. The Air Force is asking Congress to amend the law to give it more time to transition from Atlas V with its RD-180s to the new ULA rocket.
Meanwhile, SpaceX expects to be certified to compete with ULA for national security launches this summer.
These events have spurred ULA to rethink its future and Bruno was brought in as President last August. Today was the unveiling of ULA’s new strategy and new rocket.
ULA’s primary plan is to use two liquid oxygen (LOX)/methane BE-4 engines built by Blue Origin to replace the single RD-180 used in an Atlas V today. The company has a backup plan with Aerojet Rocketdyne for a traditional LOX-kerosene engine (AR1) in case the BE-4 development encounters problems. ULA will decide between the two in 12-18 months, Bruno said.
Perhaps the most visionary aspects of ULA’s plans are reusing the Vulcan first stage engines and its plans for the ACES upper stage.
After separating from the first stage, the engines would use an “advanced hypersonic decelerator heat shield” to return towards Earth where they would be snatched out of mid-air by a helicopter and returned to the ULA factory where they would ”plop” into the next booster in line for launch. Bruno said it would result in a 90 percent reduction in booster propulsion cost.
But it is the ACES upper stage that is the “game changer.” A ULA graphic used at today’s briefing exclaims “Orbital Capabilities Unleashing Mankind’s Potential in Space.” Bruno listed asteroid mining, building infrastructure for “real and permanent human presence,” including fuel depots, water depots, and commercial human habitats, as examples of what ACES will enable by reusing the cryogenic upper stage’s leftover liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen so it can remain in orbit for weeks, avoiding the "boil off" that limits the lifetime of cryogenic upper stages now. The ACES Integrated Vehicle Fluids System will utilize the liquid hydrogen and oxygen to repressurize the fuel tanks, generate electrical power, and provide control thrust and attitude thrust. ULA is working with the Rousch race car company on the advanced internal combustion engine that makes it all possible, so it is "the formula race car of space," Bruno quipped.
With that capability, “We can do anything you can imagine,” he promised.
Bruno also offered “one teaser” – ULA plans something called “FastBuy ReadyLaunch” that will “revolutionize” the way launch services are purchased. He said the company would provide details about it this summer.
Bruno declined to say how much Vulcan or ACES will cost. ULA is paying for the development itself, but, as he said at a recent House Armed Services Committee (HASC) hearing, he will not turn down any help the government might want to offer. ULA will pay for it out of its profits and he acknowledged that ULA’s parent companies – Boeing and Lockheed Martin – essentially are investing in Vulcan by allowing ULA to use the profits this way.
A video of the press conference is posted on YouTube.
This busy week begins today (Sunday), so lace up your running shoes. Here is our list of upcoming space policy related events for April 12-17, 2015. The House and Senate return to work from their Easter break tomorrow.
During the Week
Today, April 12, is the 54th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's flight into space aboard Vostok 1, marking the beginning of the human spaceflight era. It is also the 34th anniversary of the first space shuttle flight (though that is a coincidence, the flight was scheduled for April 10, but postponed by two days at the last minute). Yuri's Night celebrations will be held in many locations around the globe. There is a website where you can check to find if there's one in your area and, if not, ideas on how to start one.
Before that, though, are three pre-launch briefings associated with SpaceX's sixth operational cargo launch to the International Space Station (ISS) tomorrow, SpX-6. The weather forecast is iffy (60 percent chance "go"), but if the launch does take place, SpaceX plans to try again to land the Falcon 9 first stage on its autonomous drone ship whimsically named "Just Read the Instructions." Today's briefings are at 1:30, 3:30 and 5:00 pm ET. Tomorrow's launch is at 4:33 pm ET, with a post-launch press conference about 90 minutes later. All will be broadcast on NASA TV. All times are subject to change, of course.
Curiously, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) chose the same time as SpaceX's launch to announce "America's Next Rocket" at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs that begins tomorrow and runs through Thursday. Their event is at 4:00 pm Eastern (2:00 pm local time in Colorado) and will be webcast. ULA President Tory Bruno will tell the world what name was selected via its recent naming contest and other details of the new "all American" rocket. ULA currently launches Atlas V and Delta IV. The debate over the Atlas V's reliance on Russia's RD-180 rocket engines has been discussed on this website for the past year (type "RD-180" in the search box above to find those articles). This rocket is intended to end U.S. reliance on Russia and be more competitive with, among others, SpaceX. Perhaps by choosing the same time to make this announcement as the SpaceX launch, ULA is starting the competition -- for attention, at least -- right now.
There likely will be breaking news throughout the week from the Space Symposium, but a lot will be happening elsewhere, too. On Thursday, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will testify to the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in the morning (note that it is at 9:00 am ET, not 10:00 as usual) and to the Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee in the afternoon (2:30 pm ET) about NASA's FY2016 budget request. The Senate hearing was postponed from March 5 when a snowstorm shut down DC.
Those and the many other events we know about as of this morning are listed below.
Sunday, April 12
Monday, April 13
Monday-Thursday, April 13-16
Monday-Friday, April 13-17
Monday, April 13 - Friday, April 24
Tuesday, April 14
Thursday, April 16
Update, April 25, 2015: NAC sent a letter to NASA Administrator Bolden with the final wording of its findings and recommendations on April 16.
Original Story, April 10, 2015: The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) reached agreement on a number of findings and recommendations at its meeting over the past two days. Its finding about the Asteroid Redirect Mission has received widespread attention, but other important topics also were discussed. One case where consensus could not be reached was a proposed finding that NASA’s technology development effort in support of a human mission to Mars is underfunded.
The NAC meetings are lively affairs and it can be difficult to keep track of where a finding or recommendation stands with all the crosstalk and conversations. Eventually, those that are approved are posted to the NAC website, sometimes after additional wordsmithing. The posted versions on the NAC website are the definitive authority. Until then, here are some of the key points and where they seemed to end up.
The proposed finding that ran into headwinds was championed by Bill Ballhaus who chairs NAC’s Technology, Innovation and Engineering Committee. The strongest objection was voiced by Dave McComas who chairs the NAC Science Committee.
The crux of the issue was whether advocating for more funding for one part of NASA would be construed as suggesting that it be taken from somewhere else in NASA. Basically, in a zero-sum budget environment, if NAC says technology development needs more money, would NASA, White House or congressional policy-makers agree and reallocate money from other NASA programs, such as science.
The draft finding was relatively simple and straightforward: “The current human exploration technology plans being implemented by STMD and HEOMD are inadequately funded to make the necessary progress in the near term to have a credible Mars program.” STMD is the Space Technology Mission Directorate. HEOMD is the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.
NAC members did not disagree with that statement. Rather, some argued that there are many parts of NASA – indeed, the entire agency – that are underfunded and if NAC singled out technology development, it could pose problems for everyone else. As chair of the Science Committee, McComas was defending the science community’s interests, but the concern was more widespread than that.
Ballhaus argued that he was not talking about pitting one segment of NASA against another, that the draft finding was simply stating a fact that if NASA is intent on sending people to Mars in the 2030s, more funding is needed to develop the technology. He pointed out that there are other parts of NASA for which he also would advocate more funding, such as aeronautics, but he was not doing that here. He was focused only on technology for the humans-to-Mars goal.
In the end, compromise could not be reached. NAC chair Steve Squyres declared “we are stuck” after reminding Council members that NAC’s strength draws from forwarding findings and recommendations to the Administrator that were reached by consensus. Moving forward with something lacking that agreement would undermine its effectiveness, he stressed. The draft finding was tabled for further discussion at the next meeting.
NAC also struggled with a finding advocated by NAC member Scott Hubbard that encouraged NASA to make decisions on more specific plans for human Mars exploration than are contained in NASA’s “Evolvable Mars Campaign” on which the Council was briefed at this and previous meetings. The message was that establishing the goal of sending humans to Mars is “necessary but insufficient” and a “long term strategy” also is needed in order to build support. It was apparent that the word “strategy” has different meanings for different people. NAC finally agreed on a finding along those lines, but the exact wording was not finalized in the closing moments of the meeting.
Among the other findings or recommendations adopted were the following (this is not a comprehensive list nor a complete recitation of the language):
NAC will hold its next meeting at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA in July.
Update, April 25, 2015: NAC sent a letter to NASA Administrator Bolden with the final wording of its findings and recommendations on April 16.
Original story, April 10, 2015: The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) today unanimously adopted a finding that it thinks NASA should change the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) into a mission that would go all the way to Mars and thus be more closely aligned with the goal of sending humans there. NAC chairman Steve Squyres stressed that it is a finding, not a recommendation, and requires no action from NASA.
NASA's existing concept for ARM responds to Obama Administration policy and NAC recommendations at odds with Administration policy have little value, he explained, since NASA must implement what it is told to do.
As currently conceived, ARM involves sending a robotic spacecraft to an asteroid, descending to the surface of the asteroid to grab a boulder laying on its surface and moving the boulder from the asteroid's native orbit to an orbit around the Moon ("cis-lunar space") where it will be visited by astronauts in an Orion spacecraft to obtain a sample and return it to Earth. The mission is described by NASA and the Obama Administration as part of its "Journey to Mars" wherein humans will be sent to orbit Mars in the 2030s and someday land on the planet.
NAC members are appointed by the NASA Administrator, so the group is comprised of individuals hand-picked by Administrator Charlie Bolden to candidly share their views on NASA's programs and plans. The members of NAC are among the most prestigious and experienced members of the aeronautics and space communities and rarely shy about expressing their opinions.
NAC meets quarterly and ARM has been the subject of intense debate over the past several meetings. Their concerns center on two issues: cost and the extent to which ARM is really needed to achieve the goal of sending humans to Mars (its "extensibility").
First, they are skeptical of the $1.25 billion cost estimate. That estimate is only for the robotic portion of the ARM mission and does not include launch. Squyres, a highly respected space scientist from Cornell, points out that NASA already has a robotic asteroid sample return mission, OSIRIS-REx, under development for launch next year. OSIRIS-Rex has a less complicated set of objectives and its pricetag is $800 million, so Squyres wonders how ARM can be accomplished for just $425 million more. ARM involves development of high-power SEP, a spacecraft, and a mechanism for grabbing and containing the boulder. NAC members are worried that if the ARM cost escalates, other NASA programs will have to pay the price.
That leads them to ask the further question of whether the cost is worth what will be gained towards the longer term goal of sending humans to Mars. They agree on the need to develop SEP and they agree that astronauts need to develop experience working in cis-lunar space. They simply do not see the value of moving "the rock" as part of a human Mars exploration program.
Squyres is the principal investigator for the two Mars Exploration Rovers -- Spirit and Opportunity -- that landed on Mars in 2004 (Opportunity is still operating) so is more expert than most about Mars. He also chaired the most recent National Research Council Decadal Survey on planetary exploration. He has forcefully argued at NAC for NASA to reconsider its plans for ARM to make it more relevant to the long term humans-to-Mars goal.
Today NAC agreed that ARM should focus on a full demonstration of high power SEP, which is widely regarded as a sine qua non to support human missions to Mars. They believe instead of going to an asteroid, it should go all the way to Mars and back.
During discussion yesterday, a suggestion was made that it could go to Phobos, one of the two moons of Mars, and collect a sample of that instead of an asteroid. That idea is not contained in the finding they adopted today. Instead it says only that ARM should fly "to Mars orbit and then back to the Earth-Moon system and into a distant retrograde lunar orbit."
"Distant retrograde lunar orbit" is a phrase NASA uses to define the location in lunar orbit where it wants to relocate the boulder. It is a point of equilibrium in the Earth-Moon system that provides a stable location where spacecraft -- with or without humans on board -- can operate for long periods of time without expending much fuel. It is a roughly nine day journey from Earth, so astronauts on an Orion spacecraft could travel there, conduct operations for several days, and return to Earth within the 21-22 day lifetime of the Orion spacecraft now under development. By including that destination in their finding, the NAC members appear to be signalling their agreement with NASA that it is a useful location for future operations even if they do not agree on the need to move a space boulder there.
The wording of the finding agreed to today is as follows:
High-performance solar electric propulsion (SEP) will likely be an
Although NASA does not need to act on the NAC finding, because of the stature of the NAC members it could influence other policy-makers. ARM has won little support in Congress or the space community since it was announced two years ago. Congress has not prohibited NASA from pursuing ARM, but has said NASA should spend its money only on activities that it would be developing anyway for other purposes. NASA divides its funding for ARM into two categories --"direct" and "leveraged" -- to show that split. NASA is requesting its first direct funding for ARM formulation studies in FY2016: $38 million in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, out of a total $220 million request for ARM. For more detail on ARM funding, see table 2 in SpacePolicyOnline.com's fact sheet on NASA's FY2016 budget request.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) yesterday (April 9) that the new head of Russia's space agency, Igor Komarov, is committed to the International Space Station (ISS) through 2024. NAC continues to meet today, where the key topics of discussion are NASA's "Evolvable Mars Campaign" and the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and especially whether ARM should be sent to the Mars moon Phobos instead of an asteroid.
Bolden's comments about Komarov followed a meeting between the two while Bolden was in Russia for the launch of NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and two crew mates, Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka, to ISS two weeks ago. Kelly and Kornienko will remain aboard the ISS for one year, the first year-long crew for the ISS.
A report in the Russian press incorrectly stated that Komarov had said he and Bolden agreed to work together to build another space station after ISS. Bolden did not address that during the NAC meeting, but instead talked about his favorable impression of Komarov, calling him a "forward-looking, positive" individual. Komarov became head of Roscosmos after another reorganization of the Russian space program earlier this year.
Bolden noted that Komarov has a much larger portfolio than previous Roscosmos directors. Following the restructuring, not only is Komarov in charge of the Roscosmos space agency, but a new entity that comprises much of Russia's space industry (the United Rocket and Space Corporation) as well as medical and research institutes associated with the space program.
Komarov is committed to utilization of ISS through 2024, Bolden said, and to working with all the space station partners and expanding the number of participants looking at a long term exploration roadmap. Bolden cautioned, however, that "that was talk, we'll see how it goes."
Komarov is the fourth head of Roscosmos since Bolden became NASA Administrator in 2009.
NAC spent much of yesterday debating the future of NASA's space program, especially the Evolvable Mars Campaign and ARM. No decisions were made about making findings or recommendations about those activities, although there was robust debate as there has been in several of the past NAC meetings. NAC chairman Steve Squyres gave "homework assignments" overnight to several of the members to draft language that will be debated today. The meeting is from 9:00 am - 12:00 pm today at NASA Headquarters and is available by WebEx and telecon.
One line of discussion late yesterday was whether NAC should recommend that NASA consider sending the ARM robotic spacecraft to Phobos rather than to an asteroid (some argue that Phobos is an asteroid captured by the gravity of Mars, but Sqyures indicated there is debate about that in the scientific community). Check back here later to learn what they decide to do.
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