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NASA released the report of an independent Mishap Investigation Board (MIB) yesterday that looked into the July 2013 incident when European astronaut Luca Parmitano’s spacesuit helmet filled with water during a spacewalk. The board’s conclusions sounded familiar themes about schedule and other pressures creating an environment where people did not want to question assumptions or perceptions about matters that could literally make the difference between life and death. Perhaps most troubling is a determination that this “mishap” could have been avoided if a previous incident a week earlier had been properly investigated.
The technical root cause of the spacesuit failure remains a mystery, but the MIB report listed five organizational root causes that evoke memories of other spaceflight failures that did not have such a happy ending. In this case, Parmitano lived to tell the tale of feeling like “a goldfish in a fishbowl” as his helmet filled with water while outside the International Space Station (ISS). NASA now knows that foreign contaminants blocked the spacesuit’s Fan Pump Separator disrupting the flow of water in the suit’s cooling system into the helmet, but is still trying to determine the source of that contamination.
On a spacewalk (officially called Extravehicular Activity or EVA) designated EVA 23 on July 16, 2013, Parmitano began feeling water at the back of his head 44 minutes into the planned 6.5 hour excursion. The initial assumption was that his drink bag was leaking, but the amount of water steadily increased and the EVA was terminated 23 minutes later. By the time he was able to return to the airlock, the water covered his eyes, ears and nose impairing his ability to see, communicate and breathe.
Identified as “EV2” in the report (his spacewalk companion, NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, was EV1), Parmitano had a total of 1.5 liters of water in his helmet by the time it was removed by fellow ISS crewmembers inside the airlock.
“EV2’s calm demeanor in the face of his helmet filling with water possibly saved his life,” the MIB concluded.
The investigation determined that this was not the first time such a leak occurred. In fact, the suit had leaked during the previous spacewalk, EVA 22, a week earlier, and the problem was “misdiagnosed” as a leaking drink bag.
“The MIB could not identify a clear reason why the EVA community has a perception that the EVA drink bags leaked. When presented with the suggestion that the crew member’s drink bag leaked ... no one in the EVA community ....challenged this determination and investigated further. Had that conclusion been challenged, the issue would likely have been discovered prior to EVA 23 and the mishap would have been avoided.”
MIB chairman Chris Hansen briefed the media during a teleconference yesterday and said that the incident “evolved” from three causes:
The report lists the following five root causes “at the organizational level”:
The MIB made 49 recommendations categorized as Level 1, 2 or 3 in priority. It said that all 16 Level 1 (highest priority) recommendations should be completed prior to allowing “planned” EVAs.
ISS Program Manager Mike Suffredini said during yesterday’s teleconference that all Level 1 and most Level 2 recommendations would be completed before planned EVAs resume, hopefully in the July/August time frame, and the remainder would be completed by the end of the year.
Planned EVAs are in contrast to “contingency” EVAs necessitated by circumstances. Astronauts have already conducted two contingency EVAs to repair a malfunctioning ISS coolant loop. Hansen said those two EVAs, in December 2013, were “planned with full cooperation between the ISS Program and the MIB.”
The MIB report and briefing slides and an audio recording of yesterday's teleconference are available on NASA's space station news website.
The Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee (SAC-D) will hear from both entrepreneurial and traditional space launch companies next week at a hearing on national security space launch programs.
Elon Musk will represent his entrepreneurial company, SpaceX, which has been striving for years to break into the market for DOD space launches, a market now dominated by the United Launch Alliance (ULA), which launches the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets. ULA will be represented by its President and CEO Michael Gass.
Cristina Chaplain from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and Scott Pace from George Washington University will also testify.
Congress has essentially forced the Air Force to open up its launch market to "new entrants" like SpaceX, although any company must meet certification criteria before it is allowed to compete. SpaceX is currently going through the certification process, which requires them to achieve three successful launches of any particular launch vehicle configuration.
The first of those three for SpaceX took place last September. The failure of that rocket's second stage to reignite has been a source of contention as to whether it met the criteria or not. The Air Force announced just today that it will count as a successful mission for the purposes of its certification criteria. SpaceX has had two more successful launches since then -- of the SES-8 satellite on December 3, 2013 and of Thaicom-6 on January 6, 2014. The Air Force is still assessing their applicability towards meeting the certification criteria.
The hearing is on Wednesday, March 5, at 10:00 am EST in 192 Dirksen Senate Office Building. The hearing will be webcast at the committee's website.
NASA will hold a media teleconference today, February 26, at 2:00 pm EST to discuss findings from its investigation into the events that caused European astronaut Luca Parmitano's helmet to fill with water during a spacewalk last July.
Audio of the teleconference will be available on NASA's news audio website. Participants are:
The Mishap Investigation Board was created on July 23, 2013 following the July 16 incident when Parmitano and NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy were outside the space station performing what was intended to be a relatively routine 6.5 hour spacewalk. The spacewalk was terminated after 1 hour and 32 minutes as Parmitano's helmet filled with water. He later gave a chilling account of what it was like to be "like a goldfish in a fishbowl."
More details on today's teleconference are available in NASA's press release
Miles O'Brien, well known as the science and space reporter for CNN for many years and currently with the PBS Newshour, is recovering from an emergency operation during which part of his left arm was amputated.
O'Brien posted details on his website today. According to his account, while stacking cases of TV gear onto a cart after a reporting trip to Japan, one of the cases fell on his left forearm. By the next day, as the pain and swelling grew, he was diagnosed with "acute compartment syndrome" that causes an increase in pressure inside an enclosed space in one's body. Doctors recommended a "gruesome" procedure to correct that problem, but during surgery the situation worsened and amputation was the only solution.
His post ends with "But I am alive and I'm grateful for that.... Life is all about playing the hand that is dealt to you. Actually I would love somebody to deal me another hand right now -- in more ways than one."
Miles O'Brien. Photo credit: http://milesobrien.com/?page_id=2866
(H/T to NBC's science reporter Alan Boyle (@bOyle) and others for spreading the word via Twitter. We join with everyone in sending our very best wishes to Miles and give him many kudos for writing such an upbeat post at such an extraordinarily difficult time.)
NASA may have gotten the White House’s blessing to keep the International Space Station (ISS) operating until at least 2024, but it won’t last forever. Speaking to a NASA Advisory Council (NAC) subcommittee today, Bill Gerstenmaier expressed hope that private sector space stations will materialize for the longer term future.
Gerstenmaier, head of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate, spoke to the Research Subcommittee of the NAC HEO Committee this morning. The bulk of his remarks dealt with how best to make use of ISS for research during its lifetime, but he also pointed to the need for the commercial sector to build “mini space stations” as places for future research.
While praising the White House decision to keep ISS operating through 2024 because it gives researchers certainty that they will have time to conduct experiments, he also said “I don’t think there’ll be another government-sponsored space station.” He believes the ISS will be fine through 2028, but he pointed to the desirability of companies flying single-purpose space stations thereafter and the government could buy services or research time from them instead.
In the meantime, ISS facilities are being well utilized today according to Sam Scimemi, Director of ISS at NASA Headquarters, who also briefed the subcommittee. Almost 84 percent of the science racks in the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) are occupied with experiments right now, he said, along with 76 percent of EXPRESS racks. He noted that utilization of available research sites on the exterior of the ISS is only 50 percent and his office is working on filling the rest of the sites.
The availability of transportation systems to take experiments up to the ISS (upmass) and back to Earth (downmass) is OK for now, he added, but demand is expected to exceed capacity beginning in 2015.
One research limitation is the availability of crew time, he continued, and NASA is talking to Russia about making Russian crew members available to conduct some of the research. Scimemi said they were negotiating a barter arrangement for 5 hours per week of Russian crew time. The ISS is split into the USOS segment (which includes hardware from the United States, Europe, Japan and Canada) and the Russian segment (Russian modules and systems). A typical ISS 6-person crew is composed of three Russians and three from the United States and its western partners. NASA is looking forward to increasing the crew size to seven (three Russians, four from the western partners) once commercial crew capabilities are available.
NASA is also looking at other upgrades to the ISS now that it has permission to extend operations through 2024. They include upgrades to video and data systems, new freezers, high throughput facilities for materials science and cell science, and additional Earth-pointing and Sun/space pointing platforms, Scimemi told the subcommittee.
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House and Senate both are in session.
During the Week
It's another comparatively slow week as everyone eagerly awaits the release of the FY2015 budget request a week from now (March 4). In the meantime, perhaps the most interesting event this week is the House Science, Space and Technology Committee's hearing on "Mars Flyby 2021: The First Deep Space Mission for the Orion and Space Launch System?" on Thursday. As far as we know, there is no launch opportunity to Mars in 2021 -- they occur only every 26 months and there's one in 2020 and another in 2022, so we will see what someone has in mind for 2021. There is an interesting group of very knowledgable witnesses.
That and other events we know of at the moment are listed below.
Monday, February 24
Tuesday, February 25
Wednesday, February 26
Thursday, February 27
China's official Xinhua news agency reports that the Yutu moon rover's mechanical problems remain unresolved as the spacecraft enters its third period of dormancy. The problems emerged a month ago when the rover was entering the second period of dormancy and everyone has waited anxiously to see whether it is still working.
The rover is designed to "sleep" through the cold 14-day lunar nights and then "reawaken" when sunlight returns to its location for 14 days of science operations. The rover and its Chang'e-3 lander arrived on the Moon on December 14, 2013. Everything seemed to go well for that first cycle, but on January 25, when the second period of dormancy was approaching, China reported that the rover suffered a mechanical malfunction that might imperil future operations.
As sunlight returned to Yutu's location in mid-February, the Chinese media finally reported that the rover had awakened, but implied that its future remained uncertain. A spokesman for the program, Pei Zhaoyu, was quoted on February 13 as saying that the "rover stands a chance of being saved as it is still alive."
Nothing else seems to have been reported in the official Chinese press about Yutu since then.
In an article today entitled "Uneasy Rest Begins for China's Troubled Yutu", Xinhua states that Yutu is entering the third period of dormancy "with the mechanical control issues that might cripple the vehicle still unresolved."
Official Chinese sources provided little information about the nature of the problem, but western sources speculated that the rover's mast (with an antenna and camera) and one of the two solar panels had not retracted properly so as to protect the interior of the rover from the cold. However, today's Xinhua article reports that the rover's radar, panoramic camera and infrared imaging equipment "are functioning normally," but "the control issues that have troubled the rover since January persist." It says the rover "only carried out fixed point observations." That suggests the problem is affecting its roving abilities rather than its scientific instruments.
Xinhua tweeted (@XHNews) a photo that it says was taken by Yutu of the Chang'e-3 lander "before its 3rd dormancy," but not exactly when. It appears that the rover and lander are close together, which may mean it was taken soon after the rover separated from the lander in December before it began its trek across the lunar surface, rather than during the past two weeks.
Photo of China's Chang'e-3 lander taken by the Yutu rover, date uncertain. Credit: Tweet from Xinhua (@XHNews) February 23, 2014
Chang'e-3 and Yutu are China's first spacecraft to make a survivable landing on the Moon. Chang'e is China's mythological goddess of the Moon and Yutu is her companion Jade Rabbit.
The House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee has scheduled a hearing next week on the possibility of a human flyby mission to Mars in 2021 as the first mission for the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft. No NASA witnesses are scheduled and it is not clear if this concept is for a government-sponsored mission or a new variant of the Inspiration Mars proposal popularized by Dennis Tito. In any case, it continues the perpetual debate about the future course of the human spaceflight program.
The committee has scheduled an interesting set of witnesses for the February 27 hearing:
The hearing continues the long running debate over the next steps for the U.S. human spaceflight program beyond ISS.
In 2004, President Bush announced that the United States would return humans to the Moon by 2020 and then go on to Mars. NASA initiated the Constellation program to build two new rockets, Ares I and Ares V, and a crew spacecraft, Orion, to accomplish those goals. Shortly after taking office, however, President Obama commissioned a committee headed by aerospace industry icon Norm Augustine to review the Constellation program and identify options for the future human spaceflight program. It did not make recommendations, but made clear that successfully accomplishing Constellation would require a substantial increase in NASA funding.
In February 2010, as part of its FY2011 budget request, the Obama Administration announced that instead of adding funding for Constellation, it would terminate that program and invest in "game-changing" technologies before choosing an alternate destination or timetable. Congress was stunned, and under pressure, in April 2010 the President did announce a new destination and timetable -- humans would visit an asteroid by 2025 and orbit (but not land on) Mars in the 2030s.
After months of rancorous debate, Congress passed and the President signed into law the 2010 NASA authorization act that directs NASA to continue developing a new big rocket and a crew spacecraft for exploration beyond low Earth orbit (LEO). The replacement rocket, SLS, is different in design from Ares, but similar in purpose -- to send humans beyond LEO. NASA retained the Orion spacecraft as the crew vehicle and SLS and Orion both are under development today.
Last year the Administration announced a change in the asteroid mission. Now it wants to bring the asteroid to the astronauts -- the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). Republicans on the House SS&T Committee made clear their dissatisfaction with ARM by prohibiting any spending on ARM in their version of the 2013 NASA Authorization Act that passed the committee on partisan lines last year. No further action has occurred on that bill. The FY2014 appropriations bill that is funding NASA does not prohibit spending money on ARM but emphasizes that NASA has not convinced Congress it is the right program to pursue.
Dennis Tito, a multimillionaire who paid the Russians a reported $20-25 million to fly to the ISS as the first ISS space "tourist" in 2001, announced early last year that he was developing plans to send two people, preferably a married couple, on a 501-day flyby trip to Mars in January 2018 as a private initiative called Inspiration Mars. By last December, however, he testified to Congress that he had concluded it should be primarily (70 percent) a NASA mission, conducted in partnership (30 percent) with the private sector and philanthropists.
The committee's announcement does not indicate whether this hearing is an attempt to learn more about the potential of Tito's government-private sector idea or something new. No one identified as representing Inspiration Mars is on the witness list; nor is anyone from NASA.
The first SLS flight, without a crew, is currently scheduled for 2017 and the first flight with a crew is anticipated in 2021. Trips to Mars are governed by celestial mechanics which permit them every 26 months. Some of those opportunities are better than others in terms of how much energy is required to get from Earth to Mars and therefore how big of a rocket is needed to transport whatever mass is being launched. The 2018 opportunity Tito originally wanted to use is excellent from that standpoint. The next, in 2020, is not as good and they deteriorate thereafter until the early 2030s. The title of the hearing implies that a mission to Mars is possible in 2021, but that does not seem to fit with celestial mechanics.
NASA will hold a public forum in Washington, DC next month to provide an update on its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). Due to space limitations, only 150 people will be able to attend the meeting in person, although it will also be webcast.
The forum will be held on March 26, 2014 from 12:30-4:30 pm Eastern Standard Time (EST) in the James E. Webb auditorium at NASA Headquarters. Instructions on viewing the webcast will be posted at www.nasa.gov/asteroidinitiative in due course according to the announcement published in today's Federal Register.
Topics on the agenda include:
Online registration is required and opens on Monday, February 24, at www.nasa.gov/asteroidinitiative.
Google Lunar X PRIZE (GLXP) selected five teams as finalists for Milestone Prizes worth a total of $6 million today in the effort's quest to incentivize privately funded teams to send a robotic rover to the surface of the Moon by the end of 2015. The winner of the overall competition will receive a grand prize of $20 million.
The Milestone Prizes are an optional part of the competition and provide funding to competitors to demonstrate hardware and software that will overcome technical risks associated with their missions. If a winner of a Milestone Prize wins the overall competition, the money is subtracted from the $20 million. The same is true for a second place finish, which wins $5 million. Teams that do not win first or second place keep the money.
The goal of the competition is to land a rover on the Moon that then travels at least 500 meters and transmits high definition video and imagery to Earth. The deadline for achieving the goal is December 31, 2015. Bonus Prizes totaling $4 million can be won if the rover survives the lunar night, travels more than 5 kilometers, detects water, or makes a precision landing near an Apollo lunar landing site or other place of interest.
Eighteen teams remain in the race, which began in 2007.
The five teams announced today were selected by an independent panel of nine judges who made awards in three categories: Landing System Milestone Prize ($1 million per team), Mobility System Milestone Prize ($500,000 per team), and Imaging Subsystem Milestone Prize ($250,000 per team).
The five teams and the categor(ies) in which they won are:
The teams were required to submit details on the technical risks they face and how they plan to solve them. To win the prizes announced today, they must accomplish those plans in accordance with milestones provided in their submissions. Teams are expected to meet all the milestones by September 30, 2014.
Governments are not allowed to participate directly in the Google Lunar X PRIZE, nor are nationals and residents of certain countries restricted by U.S. export laws or sanctions (including Burma/Myanmar, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria).
As the name implies, the Prize is sponsored by Google and administered through the X PRIZE Foundation.
Events of Interest