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Are You a Young Planetary or Earth Scientist? Interested in China?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Apr-2015 (Updated: 08-Apr-2015 05:30 PM)

The Space Studies Board (SSB) of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the National Space Science Center of the Chinese Academy of Sciences are extending their cooperative Forum for New Leaders in Space Science for another year.  The SSB is welcoming applications from young (under 40) planetary or earth scientists before May 29, 2015.

This is the second year of the Forum and involves participants from China coming to the United States and U.S. participants going to China to discuss their research activities.  The goals are to "identify and highlight the research achievements of the best and brightest young scientists," to "build informal bridges between the Earth- and space science communities" in the two countries, and "enhance the diffusion of insights" gained by participating in the Forum.

The first Forum focused on astrophysics and heliophysics at meetings in May and November 2014.  This time the topics are planetary science and earth science from space.  Participants will meet in China in October 2015 and in the United States (California) in May 2016.

Eligibility requirements and application procedures are posted on the SSB's website.  The deadline is May 29, 2015.  The SSB is hoping to receive applications from a diverse cross-section of the planetary science and earth science communities' younger members.   Applicants must be no more than 40 years old on June 30, 2016.  

Editor's Note:  We understand very few women applied for this opportunity last year.  Hope there are more this year!

Editor's Note (2):  We missed the fact that this is for both planetary and earth scientists in our first posting.  Apologies.

Hyten: No "Fair Competition" If ULA Contract Remains

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Apr-2015 (Updated: 07-Apr-2015 09:59 PM)

Gen. John Hyten, Commander of Air Force Space Command, believes that the government’s cost-plus contract with the United Launch Alliance (ULA) that covers infrastructure and engineering services must be changed if “fair competition” is to be achieved in the national security space launch market.

Testifying to a House Armed Services Committee (HASC) panel on March 25, Hyten said “I don’t think you can have fair competition with that contract in place.  There'll have to be a change.”

Government payments to ULA for launches of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) –Atlas V and Delta IV – have two components:  EELV Launch Services (ELS) and EELV Launch Capabilities (ELC).   ELS is a fixed price contract that covers hardware, while ELC is a cost-plus-incentive-fee contract that pays for infrastructure and engineering support.

Hyten said the ELC contract was created because the U.S. launch industry’s industrial base was in a “fragile” state in the mid-2000s.  The robust commercial launch market that had been forecast to develop did not do so.  At the time, Lockheed Martin and Boeing were competitors, offering the Atlas V and Delta IV, respectively, for both commercial and government launches.  Without sufficient commercial launches, the market was insufficient to support both companies against international competition.

The Air Force needed Atlas and Delta to place its satellites into orbit whenever necessary, so “we created the ELC contract as a way to make sure that even if we didn’t launch, and there were years that we launched very small numbers of satellites, there will still be a healthy industrial base,” Hyten explained.

Times have changed, however, and with the emergence of “new entrants” like SpaceX, the time has come to alter the way the government procures launches, according to Hyten.   Mr. Dyke Weatherington, the Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space, Strategic and Intelligence Systems, agreed.  He said DOD is “modifying and continuing to evolve its space launch capability to take advantage of the competitive launch environment that we see coming in the future.”

SpaceX is awaiting certification from the Air Force to be able to compete with ULA for launches of national security satellites.   After assurances that the certification would be complete by the end of last year, and a subsequent announcement by the Air Force of a delay, there appears to be agreement between the two that SpaceX will be certified by this summer.

The March 25 hearing on national security space issues was before the HASC Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, which held a hearing specifically on space launch issues a week earlier.   Hyten testified at both.  Subcommittee chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) said at the March 25 hearing that he was offering Hyten an opportunity to give his perspectives on the ELC contract because Hyten did not have a chance to do so at the previous hearing.

The March 25 hearing looked broadly at national security space issues and the witnesses were a who’s who of national security space decision-makers.  Topics spanned a broad range of issues, including protecting U.S. satellites from threats by other countries, such as China.   Doug Loverro, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, said that the United States is reacting to the threat posed by China and “making it very clear we have no desire to have a conflict extended to space,” but that the “U.S. will be prepared to defend our space assets.”

A key message repeated by many of the witnesses is that “we can no longer view space as a sanctuary.”   Loverro emphasized that other countries understand U.S. reliance on space assets and “want to take it away from us.  We won’t let them.”   Still, the United States “remains committed to assuring the peaceful use of space by all” because it is a “global good” and a “driver for economic growth, environmental monitoring, verification of treaties and enabler for everyday citizens at home and abroad.”

What's Happening in Space Policy April 6-10, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Apr-2015 (Updated: 05-Apr-2015 03:34 PM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events for the week of April 6-10, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate remain in recess for the Easter holidays; they will return on April 13.

During the Week

The week is dominated by meetings of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and three of its committees.  Perhaps of most interest to readers of this website will be the meetings of the NAC Science and NAC Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) committees, especially their joint sessions in the afternoon of April 7 and morning of April 8, and the meeting of the full NAC on Thursday and Friday.  NAC and its committees cover the entire scope of NASA's activities, but their meetings lately have focused a great deal on the future of the human spaceflight program including the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and the Evolvable Mars Campaign.

While traditionally such topics would have been relegated to the human spaceflight side of the house, a great deal of emphasis in Charlie Bolden's tenure is being placed on getting NASA's science and human exploration communities working together in common purpose, overcoming their traditional animosity towards each other.  Animosity may be too strong of a word. Or not.  It depends on who has the podium. 

One thing for sure is that the message from the presentation to the NAC Planetary Science Subcommittee (PSS) last week by the new NASA Mars exploration program director Jim Watzin is that the future robotic Mars program is being designed to "Inform and enable human mission design" as much as to answer scientific questions.  After the Mars 2020 rover, Watzin said, the next Mars mission will be an orbiter, prompting some subcommittee members to ask: "what happened to sample return?"  It will be interesting to see if that conversation continues at the NAC meetings this week.

Another interesting tidbit that came of the PSS meeting last week is that the "AGs" are no longer part of the NASA advisory process.  Those are "Assessment Groups" or "Analysis Groups" that focus on a specific topic of research interest.  One example is the Venus Exploration Analysis Group (VEXAG) that is meeting near NASA's Langely Research Center this week.   According to NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green, a change in the NAC charter last year left these AGs out of the advisory process, meaning that for these groups of scientists to meet, they must work through NASA's more laborious procedures to hold a conference with consequent potential limitations on attendance, for example.  Green said he has taken the lead for the Science Mission Directorate is working with NASA's lawyers to find out if the change was intentional or an unintended consequence and what it all means for the future of the AGs.  Planetary science is not the only NAC Science subcommittee that uses AGs, but it has the most.

Also of special interest to space policy aficionados is the book signing event on Tuesday evening at George Washington University.  John Logsdon will talk about and sign copies of his new book on President Nixon's role in U.S. space policy and programs.  Nixon, of course, was the President who oversaw the end of the lunar Apollo missions and had to decide the future of the human spaceflight program in that era.  Logsdon's book details how Nixon's decisions still shape the program today.  Logsdon is a very highly regarded authority on space policy and space history -- the "dean" of space policy -- and author of two books on President Kennedy's role in the Apollo program.

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

Monday-Wednesday, April 6-8

Tuesday, April 7

Tuesday-Wednesday, April 7-8

Thursday, April 9

Thursday-Friday, April 9-10

NASA Disputes Chronicle Report That NASA Is Reassessing Lunar Surface Plans

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Apr-2015 (Updated: 06-Apr-2015 01:58 PM)

NASA officials are disputing the Houston Chronicle’s April 3 story that NASA is “quietly” reassessing the need for missions to the lunar surface before traveling to Mars.  Chronicle science reporter Eric Berger wrote that “senior NASA engineers” are involved in the reassessment, but NASA officially responded that the agency continues to plan only for operations in cis-lunar space.

Berger’s article quotes NASA Associate Administrator for Human Spaceflight Bill Gerstenmaier discussing the advantages of producing fuel from lunar resources (called in-situ resource utilization or ISRU) to propel astronauts to Mars.  Berger characterizes Gerstenmaier as favoring lunar surface missions, saying he “appears to be steering the agency back toward a program that would more fully utilize the moon” as part of NASA’s "Evolvable Mars Campaign" that lays out the steps to landing humans on the Martian surface.

NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz told via email that Gerstenmaier was only responding to a question from Berger about the possibility of using lunar resources for Mars missions.  “The Evolvable Mars Campaign, which envisions using the lunar vicinity to support a human mission to the Red Planet, is in line with and designed to advance the president’s ambitious space exploration plan.  We’re making great progress on this journey to Mars.  A key element of our plan to get to the Red Planet is employing a stepping stone approach, including living, working and learning in cis-lunar space.”

Cis-lunar is the area between the Earth and the Moon or in lunar orbit.

The statement sidesteps the substance of the Chronicle article – that NASA engineers are reassessing the need for lunar surface missions, but are in a “delicate position” because returning to the lunar surface is not part of President Obama’s plan.

David Weaver (@David Weaver), NASA Associate Administrator for the Office of Communications, and Berger (@chronsciguy) engaged in a Twitter exchange about the article as well.  Weaver said there was “nothing new” about NASA’s plan to use the Moon, but it involves operations in cis-lunar space, not on the surface.  Berger replied “Respectfully disagree; ISRU idea is new and would require a substantial investment of time and money at the Moon.”  [UPDATE: Berger posted more about his story on his blog on April 6.]

The debate over the future of the human spaceflight program remains as intense as ever.  There is widespread agreement among human spaceflight enthusiasts that the long-term goal is sending people to land on Mars.  The argument is over the steps to get there.  The Obama Administration cancelled the Constellation program, initiated by President George W. Bush, to return humans to the lunar surface by 2020 and eventually send them to Mars because it was deemed unaffordable.  President Obama set the United States on a different path that does not require spending money on systems to get astronauts from lunar orbit down to the surface and back or facilities on the Moon itself.  Instead they are to travel to an asteroid as the next step to Mars.   The current plan is called the Asteroid Redirect Mission – ARM -- and involves moving part of an asteroid to cis-lunar space where astronauts will collect a sample and return it to Earth.

ARM has not garnered much support, energizing a long-standing debate over whether lunar surface missions – to mine resources to turn into fuel or to test equipment on an alien surface that is just three days from the safety of Earth before sending it to Mars, at least a 6 month (one-way) journey – are required before committing to human Mars missions.

Just one day prior to the publication of the Chronicle article, The Planetary Society announced the findings of a workshop that argue in favor of sending astronauts to orbit Mars before committing to a landing.  Details of the proposal reviewed at the workshop are not public, but at the April 2 press conference, a list of the steps was read and it includes just one mission to the lunar surface, to test the Mars lander, and does not involve utilization of lunar resources.

The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) Human Exploration and Operations Committee will meet April 7-8 in Washington, DC.  The agenda for April 8  includes an update on ARM at 1:35 pm ET and on the Evolvable Mars Campaign at 2:35 pm ET.   The meeting is open to the public up to the seating capacity of the room.  It also is available virtually via WebEx and telecon.  The full NAC meets on April 9-10.  At their last meeting, they had a very lively discussion about ARM.

Planetary Society: Orbiting Mars Is Critical Precursor to Human Landing

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Apr-2015 (Updated: 02-Apr-2015 09:13 PM)

The Planetary Society (TPS) held a workshop this week on “Humans Orbiting Mars” and concluded that sending humans to orbit Mars before attempting a landing is “required.”  At a press conference today, three TPS officials explained the workshop’s consensus findings.

Using the Apollo 8 mission as an analogy, the grass-roots space advocacy organization argued that it will be difficult enough to send a crew to orbit the planet and return to Earth that the even more challenging step of landing on and ascending from the surface should wait.  Consequently, “for a sustainable, executable and successful Humans to Mars program, an orbital mission in 2033 is required.”

Space historian John Logsdon, who co-chaired the workshop, recounted that the December 1968 Apollo 8 mission was improvised because the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) needed to land on the Moon was not ready.  Three Apollo astronauts (Borman, Anders and Lovell) spent Christmas in lunar orbit, sending back the indelible "Earthrise" photo and reading passages from the Bible.  Though it was not originally part of NASA's plan, in retrospect it made perfect sense to test the Apollo system in lunar orbit before committing to a landing, he explained, and the same approach should be followed at Mars.  (Apollo 10 was a second lunar orbital test.  Landing on the lunar surface was attempted -- and achieved -- on Apollo 11.)

TPS organized the one-and-a-half day workshop in Washington, DC where 70 participants listened to a plan developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) that calls for sending the first humans to orbit Mars in 2033 and a landing mission in 2039.   Several intermediate steps closer to home in cis-lunar space precede the 2033 mission.  The plan is said to be executable within a NASA human spaceflight budget that grows only with inflation, assuming that the International Space Station is terminated (and the associated funding redirected to this program) in 2028, or, better yet, 2024.  The total trip time would be 30 months:  9 months to Mars, one year in orbit, and 9 months back.  It would utilize the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion, but a habitation module also would have to be developed for the crew to live in during most of the journey.

A careful reading of the TPS press release reveals that it does not specifically endorse the JPL plan, but rather concludes it is “an example” of a “long term, cost constrained, executable humans to Mars program” in the words of workshop co-chair Scott Hubbard.

Hubbard, Logsdon, and TPS Chief Executive Officer Bill Nye discussed the findings at a press conference this morning at George Washington University’s (GWU’s) Elliott School of International Affairs.  Logsdon is GWU Professor Emeritus, founder of the university’s Space Policy Institute, and author of two seminal books on the Kennedy and Nixon Administrations’ roles in the space program.   Hubbard is a Professor at Stanford University, was NASA’s first “Mars czar,” was a director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, is a member of innumerable advisory committees and editor-in-chief of the journal New Space.  Nye is well known as “The Science Guy” from his television program of that name in the 1990s.  Logsdon and Hubbard both serve on the TPS Board.

The workshop was by invitation only (a speakers list has been released, but not the participants), it was built around a JPL report that is not public, and a workshop report will not be issued until later this year.  Those factors sharply constrained what the three men could explain about the basis for their conclusions that the JPL plan is credible.

At first blush, the idea that a crew could be orbiting Mars in 2033 – just 18 years from now – when it took 25 years to build the International Space Station, is surprising.

JPL used the prestigious Aerospace Corporation to provide an independent cost estimate of its plan, but like the plan itself, that analysis is not public.  When asked what cost factors were used in the Aerospace analysis, Logsdon said that the workshop participants saw only “sand charts,” not the assumptions behind them.   A sand chart is a visual representation of costs over time with different colors layering upon each other signifying various contributors to the cost.  They present a general overview, but not specifics.

Nonetheless, the workshop participants reached consensus that the sand charts credibly capture the costs involved in the JPL plan and demonstrate that sending humans to orbit Mars by 2033 is achievable with a NASA human spaceflight budget that increases only at the rate of inflation.  Many – perhaps hundreds of – approaches (“architectures”) for sending humans to Mars have been promulgated over the decades.  Most require significant increases to the NASA budget.

Hubbard explained that the effort to find a “minimalist” path to sending humans to Mars began at a NASA Advisory Council (NAC) meeting last year.  Hubbard is a member of NAC, which had received a briefing on NASA’s “Evolvable Mars Campaign” that laid out a path to Mars.  In his view, that plan lacked a “strategic framework.”  Also last year, Hubbard continued, the National Research Council (NRC) issued its “Pathways to Exploration” report.  Using cost analysis by the Aerospace Corporation in that case as well, the NRC report concluded that to be at Mars by 2033, NASA’s human spaceflight budget would have to increase two-three times, or if one had to assume that the budget would not increase, humans could not get to Mars until about 2050, Hubbard said.  He called those answers unacceptable and the catalyst for this effort to come up with a minimalist, credible, affordable plan.

The relationship between Hubbard’s NAC experience and JPL deciding to develop its plan was not clear from the statements made at the press conference, but they did say the TPS workshop was built around the JPL plan.

Hubbard is a legend in the Mars community, but is associated more with robotic Mars exploration than human exploration.  He conceded today that in the past when asked about human exploration of Mars he would point to the many technical and biomedical challenges involved, but now he believes those have been “reduced or we know how to minimize them.”  To him, the issue now is “political will.”

On that point, all three agreed.  Logsdon saliently pointed out that the Obama Administration is unlikely to adopt such a plan during its last two years in office, so it will be up to the new President, “whoever she or he may be, to decide if we are serious about a long term program of human space exploration and, if we are, and I certainly hope we are, that this is an approach that makes sense.”

While that might sound like an endorsement of the JPL plan, a TPS spokesman later stressed in an email that TPS is just putting forth the JPL plan as an “existence proof” that it is possible to get humans orbiting Mars by 2033 without dramatic increases to NASA’s human spaceflight budget, not endorsing the JPL or any other plan.

The unambiguous message from the press conference and press release is that TPS is convinced that before an attempt is made to land people on the surface of Mars, an orbital mission akin to Apollo 8 is a critical first step.  Another crucial element is development of solar electric propulsion (SEP), which is now being funded as part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), though the ARM program itself was not a focus of discussion today.   Logsdon also stressed that it is important for the United States to decide on a plan because potential international partners are waiting for U.S. leadership and the commercial sector will be able to identify relevant opportunities.

Newman Nomination Approved by Committee

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Mar-2015 (Updated: 31-Mar-2015 09:43 PM)

Dava Newman's nomination to be the next NASA Deputy Administrator was approved by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on March 25.

Neither the full committee, chaired by Sen. John Thune (R-SD), nor the Space, Science and Competitiveness subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), held a hearing on the nomination indicating that it was not controversial and neither wanted to use the opportunity to debate NASA issues.

Newman's nomination was one of three on the agenda of the committee's executive session, along with five bills.  Thune read an extensive opening statement about the bills, but there was no discussion of any of the nominations (the others were unrelated to NASA).   The entire meeting lasted only about 20 minutes and the bills and nominations were approved by voice vote.   Cruz was not present due to a scheduling conflict according to his office.

The nomination still must be voted on by the full Senate.  No timetable for action has been announced.

If approved, Newman will succeed Lori Garver as Deputy Administrator.  The position has been vacant since Garver left in September 2013.  Newman is a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at MIT.

What's Happening in Space Policy March 30-April 3, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Mar-2015 (Updated: 29-Mar-2015 06:53 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events coming up in the next week and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in recess for the next two weeks -- their annual Easter Recess.

During the Week

The lack of congressional activities makes more time for all the other interesting events coming up, including the National Research Council's Space Science Week -- there's an excellent public lecture associated with it on Wednesday evening, meetings of several NASA Advisory Council (NAC) subcommittees, and a very interesting meeting of the FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC).

To start things off, Roger Launius and Nathan Bridges will hold another of their Space Policy and History Forums tomorrow afternoon at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) on the Mall.  The forum meets quarterly and does a great job of introducing new people, topics and ideas to the space policy and history community.  Tomorrow is no exception.  Teasel Muir-Harmony of the Center for the History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics will talk about "Astronaut Ambassadors: The Apollo 11 Diplomatic Tour and the Role of Spaceflight in Public Diplomacy."  Her research focuses on the use of the U.S. space program in public diplomacy during the Cold War.  The meeting is at 4:00 pm ET.  Be sure to RSVP to Roger in advance to get on the list that allows access to the museum's office area.

The NAC Planetary Science Subcommittee and the Heliophysics Subcommittee will each meet tomorrow and Tuesday at NASA Headquarters.  NAC's Ad Hoc Task Force on STEM Education meets there on Friday afternoon.  NASA's Applied Sciences Advisory Committee, which is not part of NAC, also is meeting on Monday, virtually we think.

The NRC's Space Science Week, organized by the Space Studies Board (SSB), brings together its five standing committees in individual and plenary sessions.  The meetings will take place Tuesday-Thursday, but some are closed, including all day Thursday.  All are at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) building on Constitution Avenue, not at the Keck Center on 5th Street.  Beginning last year, the SSB instituted the practice of holding a public lecture in connection with Space Science Week for the general public as well as the space science community.  This year, Jason Kalirai of the Space Telescope Science Institute will talk about "Our Place in the Universe: As Seen Through Past, Present and Future Telescopes."  That's on Wednesday at 6:30 pm ET at the NAS building.

If you are more attuned to commercial space than space science or history, you're in luck, too.  COMSTAC meets on Wednesday and opens at breakneck speed with talks by three of the most influential government policymakers in the commercial spaceflight arena:  FAA's own George Nield (8:05-8:20 am ET), NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden (8:20 - 8:45 am), and Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations CJS subcommittee (8:45-9:15 am).  The agenda (current as of yesterday) is available from our calendar.

And for those of you still hankering for more ideas on how the future of human spaceflight should unfold, the Planetary Society is holding a "Humans Orbiting Mars" workshop at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs on Tuesday and Wednesday.   Participation is by invitation only (so it is not in our list), but they will hold a press conference on Thursday at 11:00 pm ET to share their results.

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

Monday, March 30

Monday-Tuesday, March 30-31

Tuesday-Thursday, March 31-April 2

Wednesday, April 1

  • FAA COMSTAC, NTSB Conference Center, 429 L'Enfant Plaza, SW, Washington, DC, 8:00 am - 5:00 pm ET
  • Space Science Week Public Lecture, National Academy of Sciences Building, 2101 Constitution Ave, NW, Washington, DC, 6:30 pm ET

Thursday, April 2

Friday, April 3

House SS&T Approves Legislation for Commercial Weather Satellite Pilot Program-UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Mar-2015 (Updated: 20-May-2015 04:33 AM)

UPDATE:  May 19, 2015:  The House passed H.R. 1561 on May 18, 2015 by voice vote under suspension of the rules.

ORIGINAL STORY, March 28, 2015: The House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) committee approved a bill to improve weather research and forecasting on Thursday.   Although the bill does not focus specifically on weather satellites, it includes a pilot program to encourage the private sector to build and launch commercial systems to provide weather data that NOAA would purchase.

The Weather Research and Forecast Innovation Act cleared the committee by voice vote on a bipartisan basis.  The bill, H.R. 1561, is co-sponsored by Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR).

H.R. 1561 is a revised version of a bill that passed the House last year.  The previous bill (H.R. 2413) was sponsored by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), who chairs the House SS&T Environment Subcommittee and spoke in favor of the revised bill during Thursday's markup.  He said he is "most proud of" the provision that creates a pilot program to encourage the private sector to launch instruments into space to provide data for the numerical models used to forecast weather.  He framed his argument in terms of mitigating against the risk of losing one of NOAA's Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) or Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) spacecraft, calling them "huge, monolithic" satellites, the loss of which could result in gaps in the ability to provide data needed for weather forecasting. 

"If we can move to a day -- it's not going to happen overnight and I don't want to cannibalize JPSS or GOES ... -- but if we can move to a day where we change the business model where instead of building, owning, and operating huge, monolithic satellites ... I think this commercial approach ultimately will result in ... a lot a resiliency,"  Bridenstine said.   He called the legislation "a signal to private industry" to invest in these technologies because Congress wants to move to a future "where we are buying data from the private sector and not relying on huge, monolithic satellites that ultimately could challenge our security when it comes to severe weather events."

Bonamici, who is the Ranking Member of the Environment Subcommittee, said the bill is built on "extensive advice" from the weather community and bipartisan agreement on the committee. She characterized it as "even stronger" than the bill that passed the House last year.   She said this bill reflects a "more thoughtful process moving towards commercial satellites for weather data and includes a pilot program for NOAA to buy data from space-based commercial providers as proof-of-concept. The program is funded at a very reasonable level, $9 million dollars. The performance of this pilot [program] will inform our efforts on how to move toward the next generation of weather satellite systems."

Bonamici also made clear that she thought the bill could have been even better if the committee had followed "regular order" and held hearings and a subcommittee markup prior to full committee markup.  This bill was introduced on Wednesday (March 24) and marked up the next day, which is quite unusual.  Although hearings were held on a similar bill in the last Congress, Bonamici argued that "a lot has changed in the world of weather research and policies" since then and "there may be good ideas that we could have included ... if we'd taken a bit more time."   She stressed, however, that she nonetheless supports the bill.

Two amendments were adopted during the markup, but did not seem to affect the language regarding satellite data.  The text of the bill prior to markup is on the committee's website along with a webcast of the markup itself.

Kelly and Kornienko Begin One-Year ISS Mission

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Mar-2015 (Updated: 28-Mar-2015 03:19 PM)

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko are spending their first full day aboard the International Space Station (ISS) today, the beginning of a one-year mission to study the long term effects of spaceflight on humans in preparation for longer trips to Mars.  Kelly is the first American to attempt a one-year mission.  Kornienko will be the fifth Russian to achieve that distinction.

The two lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan along with crewmate Gennady Padalka at 3:42:57 pm EDT yesterday (March 27) and docked with the ISS about six hours later at 9:33 pm EDT.   The hatches between their Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft and the ISS opened at 11:33 pm EDT and they were greeted by the three current ISS crew members:  NASA's Terry Virts, the European Space Agency's (ESA's) Samantha Cristoforetti, and Russia's Anton Shkaplerov.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko.  Photo Credit:  NASA

The ISS typically is occupied by six crew members who come and go in threes because the Soyuz spacecraft -- the only vehicle now available to take crews to and from ISS -- holds three people.  Crews rotate on roughly six month schedules.  For short periods of time, when one crew returns to Earth and their replacements are awaiting launch, only three are there.

This routine ballet of rotating crews will continue for the next year, but Kelly and Kornienko will remain on board through two shifts, while others come and go.  Since the retirement of the U.S. space shuttle, all the Soyuz seats have been required for crew members from the ISS partners -- the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and 11 European countries through ESA.   Since Kelly and Kornienko will not need two of the seats on the next rotation, Russia is able to resume sending "spaceflight participants" (or "tourists") to ISS.  A Soyuz launch scheduled for September 2015 (Soyuz TMA-18M) is slated to include singer Sarah Brightman.

Michael Lopez-Alegria holds the U.S. record for the longest single mission in space:  215 days (he spent a total of 258 days in space over the course of four spaceflights).  Kelly will break that record on October 29.

Four Russians have spent a year or more in space on a single mission.  Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov were the first, jointly spending 366 days aboard Russia's Mir space station in 1987-1988.  Next was Valery Polyakhov who spent 438 days aboard Mir from 1994-1995, the current record. Interestingly, he made a previous long-duration flight to Mir when Titov and Manarov were aboard.  A physician, he monitored their health during the last months of their record-breaking mission and then remained aboard after they returned to Earth, a total of 240 days.   In 1998-1999, Sergei Avdeyev spent 380 days aboard Mir.  In all those cases, as with Kelly and Kornienko, other cosmonauts came and went on routine crew rotations so there was a constant turnover of personnel.

Polyakhov may hold the record for longest consecutive mission, but even with his two long duration flights (240 days and 438 days), he does not have the longest cumulative time in space.  Sergei Krikalev accumulated 803 days of spaceflight over six missions.  Gennady Padalka, a member of the crew that launched yesterday, is on his fifth space mission and will break Krikalev's record on June 28.

The Kelly-Kornienko mission is billed as "one year" in space, but it actually is scheduled to last 342 days, not quite a year.  They are expected to return on March 3, 2016.   The purpose of extending mission duration to one year or more is to understand how humans react physically and psychologically to spaceflight conditions since sending humans to Mars is a long term goal for NASA and others.  Kelly has an identical twin, Mark Kelly, a former astronaut himself.  A "twins study" composed of 10 separate investigations will be conducted of the two men.

NASA Chooses Plucky Option B for Asteroid Redirect Mission

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Mar-2015 (Updated: 25-Mar-2015 05:24 PM)

NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot announced today that NASA has selected "Option B" for implementing its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). Option B involves plucking a boulder from the surface of a large asteroid and moving just the boulder to lunar orbit.  The alternative, Option A, was to move an entire small asteroid.

The ARM project involves sending a robotic probe to an asteroid and moving all or part of it to lunar orbit where it can be visited by astronauts on an Orion spacecraft.  Today's announcement was about the robotic portion of the mission and follows completion yesterday of a Mission Concept Review (MCR).  ARM now transitions into "Phase A" planning where NASA will refine the concept.  Lightfoot said the next major step will take place in July when officials meet to discuss how to acquire the solar electric propulsion (SEP) system -- in-house or through contractors -- needed for the robotic spacecraft.

Under the preliminary plan, NASA will choose which asteroid to visit in 2019, send the robotic probe in 2020, reach the asteroid and go into a halo orbit around it for 215-400 days to assess which boulders look most promising and then pluck one from the surface and move it to lunar orbit using SEP.  In 2025, an astronaut crew aboard an Orion spacecraft will collect a sample and return it to Earth.  Three asteroids are under serious consideration right now, but NASA is continuing to search for candidates and can wait until 2019 to make a final selection.

Today, NASA said asteroid 2008 EV-5 looks the most promising.  It is a carbonaceous chondrite, the type of asteroid of most interest to scientists.  No spacecraft has visited that asteroid yet, but its characteristics are well known.   The other two asteroids either have been or will be visited by spacecraft before the ARM mission launches:  Itokawa, visited by Japan's Hayabusa, and Bennu, the target for NASA's OSIRIS-REx scheduled for launch in 2016.

NASA repeatedly says that ARM will cost $1.25 billion, but that is only for the robotic portion of the mission, does not include launch costs, and it is not entirely clear what costs are included.   NASA describes ARM funding in two categories:  "leveraged" and "direct" funding.  Leveraged funding is money that NASA asserts it would spend even if there was no ARM mission, while direct funding is unique to ARM.   Of the $220 million NASA is requesting for ARM in FY2016, only $43 million is identified as direct funding; the rest is leveraged, including the sum for SEP.   Lightfoot said he could not break down the $1.25 billion in those terms, but expects SEP to cost $300 million of the $1.25 billion so he seems to include that in the mission's cost estimate even though NASA counts it as leveraged funding.   The situation should become more clear in the FY2017 budget submission next year.

Lightfoot was poised to reveal the Option A versus B choice in December, but when it came time for the press conference, said only that more time was needed.   NASA has not publicly stated what came up at the last minute. Rumors are that Option B was the choice then, too.  The December press conference was announced with 6 hours notice; today's notice was only 2 hours and the briefing was exactly at the same time as Dava Newman's nomination to be NASA Deputy Administrator was being considered by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee (it was approved by the committee).

Lightfoot said today that Option B has several factors in its favor: multiple targets to choose from because whatever asteroid is selected is expected to have many boulders, reducing mission risk; the spacecraft will orbit the asteroid for several months, allowing a demonstration of the gravitational effect a spacecraft can have on a large asteroid, which is relevant to planetary defense objectives (the ability to move an asteroid that threatens Earth); even though it will cost $100 million more than Option A, the technologies are more useful ("extensible") for human missions to Mars, NASA's long term goal; and there was more interest in Option B from domestic and international, traditional and non-traditional, entities responding to a NASA Request for Information (RFI) about ARM.  The spacecraft bus in particular, he said, has "tremendous applicability" to various industries from communications satellites to space tugs.

ARM remains a very controversial project.  It evolved from President Obama's April 2010 directive to NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid as the next step in U.S. human spaceflight instead of sending people back to the lunar surface as President George W. Bush planned.   In 2013, the Obama Administration decided instead to bring an asteroid to the astronauts, but many question the value of such a mission in its own right or as a step towards eventual human missions to Mars.


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