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Science Reporter Miles O'Brien Loses Arm in Freak Accident

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Feb-2014 (Updated: 25-Feb-2014 10:33 PM)

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:

(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 Hoping for Private Sector Successors to ISS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Feb-2014 (Updated: 24-Feb-2014 11:32 PM)

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.

Space Policy Events for February 24-28, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Feb-2014 (Updated: 23-Feb-2014 10:03 PM)

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

Xinhua: Yutu Moon Rover's Mechanical Problems Remain Unresolved

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Feb-2014 (Updated: 23-Feb-2014 01:30 AM)

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.

House Hearing Scheduled on Possibility of Human Flyby Mission to Mars in 2021

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Feb-2014 (Updated: 21-Feb-2014 05:33 PM)

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:

  • Scott Pace, currently director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.   Pace was a high ranking NASA official during Mike Griffin's tenure as Administrator and one of the architects of the Constellation program to return humans to the Moon by 2020 and someday send them to Mars.  
  • Gen. Lester Lyles (Ret.), currently an independent consultant.  Lyles also is chairman of the National Research Council's (NRC's) Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) and chaired the NRC's 2009 study on America's Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs.  He also was a member of the 2009 Augustine Committee created by President Obama to develop options for the U.S. human spaceflight program.
  • Doug Cooke, currently Owner, Cooke Concepts and Solutions.  Cooke had a long career with NASA, retiring in 2011 as Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.  He worked under both Mike Griffin and Charlie Bolden in trying to craft NASA's future human space exploration program.
  • Sandy Magnus, currently Executive Director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).  She is a former astronaut who flew on three space shuttle missions to the International Space Station (ISS).

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 to Hold Public Forum with Update on Asteroid Initiative Next Month

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Feb-2014 (Updated: 21-Feb-2014 08:08 AM)

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 in due course according to the announcement published in today's Federal Register.

Topics on the agenda include:

  • Update on ARM studies
  • Technology needs for ARM
  • Mission capabilities extension to commercial application and human-class Mars missions
  • Broad Agency Announcement for alternate capture systems concepts, rendezvous sensor systems, secondary payloads, and commercial and international partnership opportunities
  • Asteroid Grand Challenge engagement opportunities

Online registration is required and opens on Monday, February 24, at





Google Lunar X Prize Picks Teams from US, Japan, Germany and India for Prize Purse

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Feb-2014 (Updated: 19-Feb-2014 04:53 PM)

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:

  • Astrobotic (U.S.) -- all three categories, for a potential total of $1.75 million
  • Moon Express (U.S.) -- all three categories, for a potential total of $1.75 million
  • Team Indus (India) -- Landing System and Imaging Subsystem, for a potential total of $1.25 million
  • Hakuto (Japan) -- Mobility System, for a potential total of $500,000
  • Part-Time-Scientists (Germany) - Mobility System and Imaging Subsystem, for a potential total of $750,000

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.


Space Policy Events for February 17-21, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Feb-2014 (Updated: 16-Feb-2014 06:29 PM)

The following events may be of interest in the week ahead.   The House and Senate are in recess this week:  Monday is a federal holiday -- Presidents' Day -- commemorating the birthdays of Presidents Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and George Washington (Feb. 22).

During the Week

It's a quiet week from a space policy perspective, but the departure of Orbital Sciences Corporation's Cygnus spacecraft from the International Space Station (ISS) early Tuesday morning Eastern Standard Time (EST) and the launch of an Air Force GPS satellite from Cape Canaveral on Thursday should be of interest more generally.  Cygnus will be unberthed on Tuesday, ending the Orb-1 mission, Orbital's first operational Commercial Resupply Services mission for NASA.   The spacecraft is being loaded with trash and will burn up on reentry Wednesday.  The launch of the 5th GPS Block IIF satellite (GPSIIF5) aboard an Atlas V is scheduled for Thursday at 8:40 pm EST with a 19 minute launch window.  Weather is 80% go at the moment.

While not directly space-related, CSIS is having a meeting on Tuesday morning about National Security and Economic Issues in Spectrum Allocation that also could prove interesting.   Government (DOD, FCC, NTIA) and industry (AT&T, T-Mobile) will discuss the thorny issues of how to allocate spectrum to satisfy the insatiable demand for this limited natural resource.

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

Tuesday, February 18

Wednesday, February 19

Thursday, February 20

Public Lecture on Exoplanets and Alien Life Highlights SSB's Space Science Week

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Feb-2014 (Updated: 15-Feb-2014 01:05 PM)

The National Research Council's Space Studies Board (SSB) will hold a second annual Space Science Week from March 3-5.   This time the highlight of the space science confab will be a public lecture by renowned planetary scientist and physicist Sara Seager from MIT on Tuesday night, March 4, in the auditorium of the National Academy of Sciences building.

SSB's Space Science Week brings together its four current standing committees to meet in parallel and plenary sessions:  Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science, Committee on Earth Science and Applications from Space, Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics, and Committee on Solar and Space Physics.   Many of the committee sessions also are open to the public, but the Seager session is meant for the general public as well as specialists.  As the SSB says, the lecture "is accessible to explorers of all ages."  It begins at 6:30 pm EST.

The National Academy of Sciences building is located at 2101 Constitution Avenue, N.W. in Washington, DC.   It also is the venue for the committee meetings.  A draft schedule and online registration (highly recommended) instructions are on the SSB's website.

The Canadian-born Seager received a BSc in math and physics from the University of Toronto and a PhD in physics from Harvard.  She then joined the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton where the late astrophysicist John Bahcall encouraged her interest in exoplanets -- planets around other stars -- a mostly theoretical field of study at the time.  She is now a professor of planetary science and physics at MIT focusing on theoretical models of the atmospheres and interiors of exoplanets.  The title of her March 4 lecture is "Exoplanets and the Real Search for Alien Life."

 MIT professor of planetary science and physics Sara Seager.  Photo credit:  Space Studies Board website.

Thornburgh Report Notes "Tension" Between International Cooperation and Security at NASA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Feb-2014 (Updated: 13-Feb-2014 09:48 PM)

The executive summary of a report chaired by former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh on security issues at NASA acknowledges the "tension" between NASA's charter to encourage international cooperation and its requirement to safeguard sensitive and proprietary information.  The report was requested by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), who urged NASA to release the complete report.

Wolf chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and has expressed deep concern over the past several years about NASA allowing access to its facilities to foreign nationals, especially those from China.   Last year he urged NASA to commission an independent study from an organization like the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) chaired by someone like Thornburgh to look at NASA's Foreign National Access Management (FNAM) policies.   NASA complied, using NAPA and Thornburgh to review its FNAM program.  The report was recently provided to Wolf, but with restricted access.

In a statement yesterday, Wolf called on NASA to release the entire report with any necessary redactions to protect national security.  His office released his response to the study via email with several attachments including the executive summary of the Thornburgh report and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden's February 7, 2014 letter to Thornburgh responding to the study.  NAPA does not appear to have posted the executive summary on its website yet.

The executive summary notes that "Foreign national participation in NASA programs and projects is an inherent and essential element in NASA operations. ... There is a fundamental tension between NASA's charter to work cooperatively and share information with other nations while simultaneously safeguarding its sensitive and proprietary information and assets from those same nations."  The executive summary goes on to lament budget and personnel cuts that have "made management of NASA's security programs difficult" while adding that "strong leadership, which [the panel] believes NASA has, can accomplish much of what is recommended within existing resource limitations."

The executive summary says that the report makes 27 recommendations grouped into six topics:

  • Managing Foreign National Access Management as a program
  • Reducing the flexibility given to centers to interpret FNAM requirements
  • Determining critical assets and building mechanisms to protect them
  • Correcting longstanding information technology security issues
  • Changing several aspects of NASA culture
  • Communicating the importance of these changes clearly, firmly and consistently

The recommendations themselves are not included in the executive summary.

Bolden's response says that he directed "appropriate NASA offices to examine each recommendation and, where appropriate, to incorporate the panel's recommendation into our processes or identify any barriers to implementation..."   He then lays out where he agrees or not with the panel.  He agrees with the need for a more integrated FNAM program, the need to improve information technology security, and the need for a more systemic and standardized approach to NASA's export control processes.  He also agreed to elevate awareness of NASA's counterintelligence program, but disagreed with the panel's implementation recommendation regarding the reporting structure for Special Agents vis a vis Center Directors.  "NASA believes the underlying factors for the panel's recommendation can be achieved with an increased focus on the relationship between counterintelligence personnel and their respective Center leadership teams, without eliminating the benefits of the current management approach."

Bolden also responded to the panel's finding that NASA "may have a tendency not to be a 'learning culture' by arguing that "NASA's culture combines the richness of diversity and appropriately healthy competition among our Centers, while fostering an overall NASA team environment." 

Events of Interest   

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


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