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China's New Wenchang Space Launch Site Ready for Action

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Oct-2014 (Updated: 21-Oct-2014 10:03 AM)

Construction of China's new launch site on Hainan Island is complete according to a report in the Chinese media.  The Wenchang Satellite Launch Center is the country's fourth space launch site and the first that is not inland.  It also is the furthest south, improving China's ability to launch satellites into geostationary orbit.

China currently launches satellites from Jiuquan in the Gobi desert (human space missions, lunar spacecraft, mid-high inclination orbit satellites), Xichang in Sichuan province (primarily geostationary satellites), and Taiyuan, just south of Beijing (polar-orbiting satellites). 

Wenchang is on the northeast coast of Hainan Island and only 19 degrees north of the equator (currently Xichang is the furthest south, at 28 degrees north).  China plans to use it for its new Long March 5 rocket, still under development, that will be able to launch about 25 metric tons to low Earth orbit, in the same class as the U.S. Delta IV.

China Daily says Wenchang and Long March 5 will be used to launch spacecraft not only into Earth orbit, but to lunar and interplanetary destinations.  The first launch from Wenchang is expected next year.

Among the science missions planned for Long March 5 from Wenchang is a lunar sample return mission, Chang'e-5, planned for 2017.   An engineering test for that mission reportedly is scheduled for launch this week.   (Chang'e-3 was launched last year and deposited the Yutu rover on the Moon.  Chang'e-1 and Chang'e-2 were lunar orbiters.  Chang'e is China's mythological goddess of the Moon.)

Note:  The original version of this article referred to the engineering test for Chang'e-5 that may be launched this week as Chang'e-4 and provided other information.  However, the name is reported differently in various sources (Bob Christy's zarya.info site calls it "Chang'e Lunar Sample Container Test Flight").  The name and other details of that mission are incidental to this article, which is about the Wenchang launch site, so we have simply omitted it in this update.

What's Happening in Space Policy October 20-24, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Oct-2014 (Updated: 19-Oct-2014 04:42 PM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events in the coming week, October 20-24, 2014, and any insights we can offer about them.  Congress returns on November 12.

During the Week

The U.S. Court of Federal Claims has scheduled a second hearing on Sierra Nevada Corporation's (SNC's) lawsuit against the government vis a vis the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contracts for Tuesday at 2:30 pm ET (it's not listed on our calendar because we don't list court dates for lawsuits since they are rarely open to the public).  The first hearing was on Friday, where the court allowed SpaceX and Boeing to intervene in the case.  The court is also considering SNC's request to keep most of the filings under seal because some of the material may be proprietary and some is protected under SNC's protest to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).  SNC is protesting NASA's award of the CCtCAP contracts to Boeing and SpaceX.  Ordinarily, under the Competition in Contracting Act (CICA), work would stop under those contracts until GAO rules on SNC's protest (it has until January 5, 2015).  NASA did issue a stop-work order, but later rescinded it based on its statutory authority to avoid significant adverse consequences.  SNC is challenging the legality of that rescission.  Check back with SpacePolicyOnline.com to learn about what happens on Tuesday.

There are many other interesting events on tap during the week as well.   On Monday, the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (which administers the UN Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space), the Mexican Space Agency and another Mexican organization, CICESE, will hold a symposium on Making Space Technology Accessible and Affordable.  The opening ceremony and a press conference -- including the head of the Mexican Space Agency, Javier Mendieta -- will be webcast. 

The third of three International Space Station (ISS) spacewalks in as many weeks is scheduled for Wednesday.  This time it is two Russians, Max Suraev and Alexander Samokutyaev, who will step outside.   NASA TV will cover it beginning at 9:00 am ET.

Two very interesting luncheons are being held in the Washington, DC area on Thursday, unfortunately at exactly the same time.  The Washington Space Business Roundtable is hosting a panel of experts on the future of satellite communications in support of DOD at the University Club is downtown DC, while the National Capital Section of the American Institute of Aeronautics is hearing from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Chris Scolese across the river in Arlington, VA.   Not to mention that there's an all-day symposium in DC that day on space and satellite regulatory issues.  Busy day!

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

Monday, October 20

Wednesday, October 22

Wednesday-Sunday, October 22-26

Thursday, October 23

How To Keep Up With Comet Siding Spring's Encounter with Mars Tomorrow

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Oct-2014 (Updated: 19-Oct-2014 03:01 PM)

Comet Siding Spring will make a close pass of the planet Mars tomorrow (Sunday, October 19) while human and robotic observers watch intently to see what they can learn about this rather rare type of celestial body.  On Earth, the best viewing is from the Southern Hemisphere and it will not be visible to the naked eye (Magnitude 13), but several websites plan live coverage with images and/or commentary.

Astronomers world-wide have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Comet Siding Spring, also known as C/2013 A1, which was discovered in January 2013 by Robert McNaught at the Siding Spring Observatory in Australia.   This particular type of comet, from the Oort Cloud far beyond the orbit of Pluto, rarely reaches the inner solar system.  This is the comet's first time sweeping around the Sun so none of its material has yet been affected by the Sun's heat.  It is comprised of material from the time the solar system was formed 4.6 billion years ago.

The nucleus of the comet will come within 87,000 miles (140,000 kilometers) of the surface of Mars at 2:28 pm Eastern Daylight Time (11:28 am PDT, 18:28 GMT).   It will pass Mars traveling at 126,000 miles per hour (56 kilometers per second). 

Five spacecraft are currently orbiting Mars:  three from NASA and one each from the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).  In addition, two functioning NASA rovers are on the surface:  Opportunity and Curiosity.  All will be tasked to study the comet and its interaction with Mars. 

To be on the safe side, NASA positioned its orbiters -- Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and MAVEN -- so they will be on the opposite side of the planet as the comet's tail passes by lest any of the particles damage spacecraft instruments.   ISRO similarly repositioned its Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM).  The European Space Agency decided that the risk of damage to its Mars Express orbiter was so low that it did not change its orbit.   The tail will be in close proximity to Mars about 90 minutes after the nucleus goes by and will be there for only about 20 minutes.

Many other space- and Earth-based observatories will study the comet as well.   NASA has a website with a wealth of information about its plans.

Comet expert Karl Battams posted an analysis of the parallels between observing this comet and last year's comet ISON, which was a disappointment for many observers because the comet was not as spectacular as expected.  Today Battams said in his blog post that the same phenomenon has occurred with Comet Siding Spring:  "...again, like comet ISON - we have watched nervously in these final couple of weeks ... as the comet has suddenly and dramatically faded in brightness.  This in particular has left us scratching our collective heads...."   Still, although "we have plenty of unknowns," he is optimistic for a successful Mars-based observing campaign.

He (@SungrazerComets) and the Planetary Society's Emily Lakdawalla (@elakdawalla) are among those who will be tweeting the event (#MarsComet or #SidingSpring).  Both list places on the web that will have live images and/or commentary:

  • Virtual Telescope beginning at 16:45 GMT (12:45 pm EDT)
  • ESA beginning at 1:50 pm EDT
  • Slooh beginning at 2:15 pm EDT
  • amateur astronomer Peter Lake will broadcast from the iTelescope.net Observatory at Siding Spring

Galileo Operators Take Possession of Wayward EU Navsats

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Oct-2014 (Updated: 16-Oct-2014 09:09 AM)

The good news is that the two European Union (EU) Galileo navigation satellites launched in August are in "excellent health and working normally."  The not so good news is that they are in the wrong orbit.  What they will be used for is an open question.

The European Space Agency (ESA), which serves as the design and procurement agent for the satellites, announced today that the pair of satellites were handed over from ESA's Space Operations Center (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany to the Galileo Control Center in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany in late September. 

Galileo is Europe's version of the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) for providing positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) data.  The EU and ESA shared Galileo development costs, but the EU is shouldering the full cost of the operational system.

These two satellites, the first of 30 that will comprise Galileo's Fully Operational Capability (FOC), were launched by Arianespace from Kourou, French Guiana, using Russia's Soyuz rocket and Fregat upper stage on August 22, 2014

Initially, the launch was thought to have been a complete success, but ESOC soon determined that the satellites were not in their correct orbital locations.  Further analysis showed the satellites were in an orbit with an apogee that is too high, perigee that is too low, and at the wrong inclination.  Ultimately it was determined that the Fregat upper stage had malfunctioned

In addition, one solar panel on each OHB-built satellite had not deployed.  Controllers were able to point the satellites so the solar array release mechanisms could be warmed by the Sun and that did the trick.  Thus they are fully functional now, but what use they will be in that orbit is unclear.  They do not have sufficient on-board fuel to reach their correct orbit.  The ESA announcement said the Galileo Control Center will "care for them pending a final decision on their use."

Air Force X-37B Due to Land Tuesday, SWF Wants More Transparency About Its Missions

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Oct-2014 (Updated: 15-Oct-2014 05:28 PM)

NOTE:  As of 5:00 pm EDT October 15, the Air Force has not made any announcement that the X-37B landed.  The original announcement that it was returning to Earth said the exact landing date and time were dependent on technical and weather considerations.  Unofficial observers monitoring FAA's NOTAMs (Notices to Airmen) and using amateur observations of its orbit can offer possible landing times, but they are subject to uncertainty. Reuters reporter Irene Klotz (@Free_Space) tweeted today that the landing "now looks like no earlier than Thursday, FAA pilot advisory indicates."  Bob Christy at zarya.info calculates there is a landing opportunity that day (tomorrow) about 16:25 GMT (12:25 EDT).  This article has been updated to reflect the delay from the anticipated landing date of October 14.

UPDATED, October 15, 2014:  The Air Force announced on Friday (October 10) that its secretive X-37B spaceplane, in orbit for almost two years, will soon return to Earth and land at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.  At the recent International Astronautical Congress (IAC2014) in Toronto, Victoria Samson of the Secure World Foundation encouraged the U.S. government to be more open about what the X-37 is doing as part of the Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs) the United States is advocating to help ensure space sustainability.

Officially called the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), the vehicle resembles a very small space shuttle.   The Air Force launches the robotic spacecraft for lengthy on-orbit classified missions.  This flight is the longest to date.  Launched on December 11, 2012, its mission duration will be more than 667 days.  There are at least two OTVs.  The first, OTV-1, made a 224 day flight in 2010.  The second, OTV-2, made a 469 day flight from March 2011 to June 2012.  The OTVs are reusable and this is the second flight for OTV-1.

Photo of X-37B OTV-1.  Photo credit: Boeing (via Spaceflightnow.com)

The Air Force statement said the exact time of the landing "will depend on technical and weather considerations."  Initial indications were that landing was targeted for October 14, but that day passed with no announcement from the Air Force.  Unofficial observers are estimating potential landing times based on the FAA's NOTAMs (Notices to Airmen) and amateur observations of the X-37's orbit, but they are subject to uncertainty.  Check back here for updated information when it is available.

The classified nature of the missions prompts much speculation about what they are doing.   In an era when the United States and other countries are advocating for establishing TCBMs to help ensure space sustainability, some question why the missions are kept secret.   In an October 1 session at IAC2014 on "Assuring a Safe, Secure and Sustainable Space Environment for Space Activities," the Secure World Foundation's (SWF's) Samson cited the X-37B's secrecy as at odds with TCBMs.  TCBMs are norms of behavior that "nations that mean no harm" should follow, she said, including a willingness to share information about technical capabilities in order to avoid misperceptions.  She remarked that the U.S. "refusal to explain what the X-37B is [doing] has led a lot of people to assume the worst, and probably wrongfully so." 

A 2010 SWF analysis concluded it "has near zero feasibility as an orbital weapons system for attacking targets on the ground" and has "limited capability for orbital inspection, repair and retrieval," although speculation often centers on exactly such missions.  SWF concluded its most likely purpose is "flight testing new reusable space launch vehicle (SLV) technologies ... and on-orbit testing of new sensor technologies and satellite hardware primarily for space-based remote sensing."

The OTVs are launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, adjacent to NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC). NASA and the Air Force announced last week that the Air Force will use two of KSC's Orbiter Processing Facilities (OPFs) to process the X-37B in the future.  To date the OTVs have landed across the country at Vandenberg, but the NASA-Air Force announcement also said that tests were conducted to demonstrate the X-37B could land at KSC's Shuttle Landing Facility.   The landing facility and the OPFs are left over from NASA's space shuttle program, which was terminated in 2011.

The X-37, built by Boeing, initially was a NASA test vehicle designed to lead to an Orbital Space Plane that could serve as a Crew Return Vehicle to bring International Space Station astronauts back to Earth in an emergency and, eventually, as a taxi to take them to the ISS as well.  NASA terminated that program in 2004 after President George W. Bush reoriented the human spaceflight program toward returning astronauts to the Moon instead of ISS utilization.  The X-37 program then was transferred to the Department of Defense.

What's Happening In Space Policy October 13-17, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Oct-2014 (Updated: 12-Oct-2014 01:34 PM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events for the week of October 13-17, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them.  Congress is in recess until November 12.

During the Week

The event likely to attract the most attention this week is the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS).  The speaker line-up is an intriguing array of "traditional space" and "new space" luminaries, although the description of Bill Gerstenmaier's talk may say it best:  "Never before have the titles of 'old space' and 'new space' been as trivial as they are today." 

Just to illustrate the breadth of speakers (sorry we can't list everyone -- the program is here), in addition to Gerstenmaier (NASA's Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations), speakers include Clay Mowry (Arianespace), George Sowers (United Launch Alliance), George Whitesides (Virgin Galactic), Stuart Will (Mojave Air and Space Port), Barry Matsumori (SpaceX), Brett Alexander (Blue Origin), Doug Loverro (DOD Deputy Assistant Secretary for Space Policy), John Shannon (Boeing), Mark Sirangelo (Sierra Nevada Space Systems), Doug Young (Northrop Grumman) and Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM). 

Most unfortunately, if you can't be there in person, you're out of luck.  The conference's media contact says none of the sessions will be webcast live, though "a few of the keynotes" may be posted online in a month or two.

That and other events we know about as of this afternoon (Sunday) are listed below.

Tuesday, October 14

Wednesday, October 15

  • ISS Spacewalk (2 NASA astronauts), begins approximately 8:10 am ET (NASA TV coverage begins at 7:00 am ET)

Wednesday-Thursday, October 15-16

Wednesday-Friday, October 15-17

Friday-Tuesday, October 17-21

Arianespace Announces Cause of Galileo Launch Anomaly

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Oct-2014 (Updated: 08-Oct-2014 09:34 AM)

Arianespace released the results of an investigation into why two European Union (EU) Galileo navigation satellites were left in the wrong orbit following a launch using Russia's Soyuz rocket with Fregat upper stage.  The root cause was a "shortcoming" in the system thermal analysis of the Fregat design that led to freezing of the hydrazine fuel.

The conclusion was reached by an Independent Inquiry Board established by Arianespace after the August 22, 2014 anomaly.  The two Galileo satellites, intended to be the first of the Full Operational System, were stranded in an orbit that renders them unable to perform their primary mission.  The inquiry Board was led by Peter Dubock, former Inspector General of the European Space Agency (ESA).  The EU is funding the Galileo navigation satellite system, which is similar to the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS).  ESA is the EU's design and procurement agent for Galileo.  The EU plans to have 30 operational Galileo satellites in orbit by the end of the decade.

Arianespace launches Russia's Soyuz rocket from its launch site in Kourou, French Guiana, through a partnership with Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, and two Russian manufacturers -- RKTs-Progress, which builds Soyuz, and NPO Lavochkin, which builds the Fregat upper stage.  

At first, the August 22 launch seemed to go fine, but the satellites were later discovered in the wrong orbit.  The Arianespace inquiry drew on data supplied by its Russian partners and its findings "are consistent with" a separate board of inquiry appointed by Roscosmos.

The Soyuz rocket was exonerated and found to have performed as planned.   The problem was in the Fregat upper stage because the hydrazine fuel froze and blocked the fuel supply to the Fregat's thrusters.  The fuel froze because the hydrazine and cold helium feed lines were connected by the same support structure, creating a thermal bridge.  The root cause was found to be "ambiguities" in the design documentation as the result of poor system thermal analysis in the design phase. 

Arianespace concluded that the issue is easy for Lavochkin to resolve and launches could resume as early as December 2014.  The company also noted that this failure followed 45 consecutive successful uses of the Fregat.

MIT Analysis Paints Bleak Outcome for Mars One Concept - UPDATE 2

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Oct-2014 (Updated: 10-Oct-2014 05:37 PM)

UPDATE 2, October 10:  The MIT students will hold a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) session from 3:00-6:00 pm ET today to answer questions about their analysis (username: MarsOneAnalysis).  The AMA can be accessed at:  http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/2ivo0t/we_are_the_authors_of_the_mit_mars_one/.  They also have posted an Open Letter to further explain their purpose and conclusions.  If we learn of Mars One holding any similar public discussion, we will be happy to spread the word on that as well.

UPDATE:  This October 7, 2014  article was updated on October 8 with a response from Mars One co-founder and CEO Bas Lansdorp.  On October 9, Mr. Lansdorp added a comment to the DisQus feature of this website explaining some of his concerns about the MIT analysis.

An analysis by a team of MIT students of the Mars One concept to send people to Mars on one-way missions to establish a settlement there offers a bleak picture of the outcome.  The paper was presented at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC2014) in Toronto last week.

Sydney Do, Koki Ho, Samuel Schreiner, Andrew Owens and Olivier de Weck conducted “An Independent Assessment of the Technical Feasibility of the Mars One Mission Plan” supported by grants from NASA and the Josephine de Karman Fellowship Trust.

The team looked at the Mars One plan as outlined in public sources, especially its assertions that a sustainable society on Mars can be established beginning in the 2020s using existing technology.  A “pre-deployment” phase between 2018 and 2023 would send robotic precursors and establish a crew “habitat” on the surface to await the first crew, which would be launched in 2024.  Additional four-person crews and habitats would be launched at every 26-month opportunity thereafter.

Because many details of the Mars One plan are not available, the MIT team made a number of assumptions that are comprehensively explained in order to conduct their analysis.

Some of the key conclusions of the study are that:

  • Mars One’s claim that “no new major developments or inventions are needed” does not withstand scrutiny and that assessment is only for the habitation, life support, in-situ resource utilization and space transportation technologies.   The MIT team notes that they did not address other required systems such as entry, descent and landing (EDL), the power system architecture, or the surface-to-orbit communications strategy.
  • The Mars One estimate of the number of launches needed for the pre-deployment phase is “overly optimistic.”  The best scenario would require 15 Falcon Heavy launches to establish the first crew on Mars according to the MIT analysis.
  • If crops grown on Mars are the only food source, they will “produce unsafe oxygen levels in the habitat” resulting in the first crew fatality after about 68 days due to “suffocation from too low an oxygen partial pressure within the environment,”  the consequence of a complex series of events stemming from overproduction of oxygen by the plants.
  • The MIT team postulated solutions to that problem that are not part of the Mars One plan (e.g. relying on stored food brought from Earth, creating a separate plant growing facility, or using yet-to-be invented oxygen removal technology).  If a way were found to sustain a Mars One habitat for 130 months, the paper concludes that spare parts would require 62 percent of the mass brought from Earth over that period of time.

The lead author, Sydney Do, a Ph.D. candidate in aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, said via email that in his view “the Mars One Concept is unsustainable” because of the current state of technology and its “aggressive expansion approach” of quickly adding more and more people rather than keeping the settlement at a fixed size for a period of time.

The paper acknowledges that the study was based on "the best available information” and the team is willing to update their analysis if more information becomes available.

MarsOne co-founder and CEO Bas Lansdorp, in an email to SpacePolicyOnline.com on October 8, said that while he welcomed the students' analysis, his company does not have time to respond to all the questions it receives from students and "the lack of time for support from us combined with their limited experience results in incorrect conclusions."

Editor's Note:  Mr. Lansdorp's October 8 email discusses several areas where he believes the MIT analysis is incorrect.  We encouraged him to post his entire comment to our website's DisQus feature, but he declined.  We responded that if he does post his entire reaction elsewhere (perhaps on the Mars One site), we will be happy to include a link to it.

Editor's Note 2:  On October 9, Mr. Lansdorp did, indeed, add a comment to the DisQus feature of this website explaining his concerns.  It can be found in the comment stream labeled "Bas Lansdorp."

What's Happening in Space Policy October 6-10, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Oct-2014 (Updated: 05-Oct-2014 01:31 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of October 6-10, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them.  Congress is in recess until November 12.

During the Week

World Space Week 2014 continues (it began on Saturday) with events worldwide commemorating the beginning of the Space Age on October 4, 1957 and the benefits derived from space over the decades. This year's theme is "Space: Guiding Your Way" and the DC chapter of the International Space University alumni association will hold a Space Café on Tuesday featuring James Miller, who works for NASA's Space Communications and Navigation program.

Two of the five standing committees of the National Research Council's (NRC's) Space Studies Board (SSB) will meet this week.  The five committees align with the five Decadal Surveys the SSB produces that advise NASA and other agencies on the top space science priorities.  The committees provide a forum to maintain discussion about the topics in between the once-a-decade (hence "decadal") reports.   This is the first meeting of the new Committee on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space, formed after completion of the first Decadal Survey for that field of research, which was published in 2011.  It is meeting at the NRC's Keck Center on 5th Street Tuesday and Wednesday, though the sessions on Wednesday are closed to the public.  The SSB's Committee on Solar and Space Physics will meet Tuesday-Thursday across town at the National Academy of Sciences building on Constitution Ave.  It will have open sessions the first two days.  (If you're keeping track, the Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Sciences and the Committee on Earth Science and Applications in Space met in September; the Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics meets in November.)

On Tuesday the first of two "U.S." spacewalks scheduled for October will take place from the International Space Station (ISS).  They are "U.S." because they involve tasks on the U.S. Operating Segment (USOS) and the spacewalkers will be wearing U.S. spacesuits, but one of the two is Europe's Alexander Gerst (joining NASA's Reid Wiseman) so it really is a U.S./ESA spacewalk.  Next week (October 15) Wiseman and NASA's Barry "Butch" Wilmore will do another spacewalk, and the week after that, on October 22, two of the Russian cosmonauts will do a spacewalk on their segment of the ISS.  It's a busy time on the ISS with visiting spacecraft coming and going in addition to those spacewalks.   Three new crewmembers just arrived on September 25.   Two cargo spacecraft, a Russian Progress and SpaceX Dragon, already docked there will depart and be replaced by a new Progress and an Orbital Sciences Corporation Cygnus later this month.

Those and other events for the week of October 6-10 that we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.

October 6-10, Monday- Friday

Tuesday, October 7

Tuesday-Wednesday, October 7-8

Tuesday-Thursday, October 7-9

Tuesday-Friday, October 7-10

Thursday, October 9

 

IAC2014 Day Four Opens with Diverse Views on the Post-ISS Future

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Oct-2014 (Updated: 03-Oct-2014 12:08 AM)

Bigelow Aerospace plans to make being an astronaut less special because there will be so many of them promised the company’s Washington representative Mike Gold.  Gold was one of the panelists at a session of the 2014 International Astronautical Congress (IAC2014) today (October 2) on what’s next after the International Space Station (ISS).

As has been typical at this IAC, top level representatives of Russia and China are not here to participate in plenary sessions because of visa issues, but others from those countries were able to attend to present papers in technical sessions.  In this case, Zhao Yuqi of China’s Manned Spaceflight Agency was absent from this post-ISS plenary.  Nonetheless, the panel provided a broad array of viewpoints, from Gold’s private sector perspective, to Bill Gerstenmaier from NASA, to Hansjörg Dittus from the German space agency DLR, to German former astronaut Ernst Messerschmid, currently a professor at the Universität Stuttgart.

If there was one message from all of them it was that the International Space Station (ISS), while an outstanding success with tremendous potential, will be one-of-a-kind.

Dittus made a case for a modular approach to future space facilities where the modules are not linked together as they are in ISS.  He advocates a separation of tasks in separate modules to avoid complex international agreements and technical interfaces.   He also thinks the modules should be equipped as observatories, especially for earth remote sensing, not as laboratories.

The panelists were asked if they were told to build a space station again, would they build another ISS.  Gerstenmaier, who heads NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said that if someone gave him the money to build another low Earth orbit (LEO) space station “I’d give it back.”  His message was that NASA and its ISS partners are demonstrating that there is a reason for others – the private sector – to go there, but another government-sponsored LEO space station is “not what we need to do.”  Instead “we’re going to explore.”

Messerschmid outlined technologies that will enable exploration, advocating “To Mars, together.”

Gold, who can be counted on for pithy observations replete with references to Star Trek, did not disappoint.  Among his major messages was that just as countries need to work together, so do companies.  He argued against pitting “new space” against “old space” because “the pie is too small.”  Borrowing a quote from Benjamin Franklin, he said “if we don’t hang together, we will surely hang separately.”   Later, when questions turned to the appropriate degree of risk taking for human spaceflight programs, he quoted “a famous Canadian, William Shatner” who said in his role as Captain Kirk of the Federation Starship Enterprise “Risk?  It’s why we’re here.”  Gold went on to talk about financial risk, and noted that a Russian colleague ruefully commented to him that Russian billionaires buy yachts while American billionaires create space companies.

Regarding risk, Gerstenmaier explained the three-tier approach NASA is using to describe the steps away from Earth:  Earth Reliant in LEO where crews can return home in hours; Proving Ground in cis-lunar space where getting home requires many days; and Earth Independent when the tie to Earth is broken.  He said NASA was not ready from a risk standpoint to send crews to an asteroid in its native orbit (as President Obama initially directed), but the Asteroid Retrieval Mission, where the crews will be in the Proving Ground region, is the right step – not too much risk, nor too little.

In a philosophical moment, Gerstenmaier talked about how ISS crew members landing in Kazakhstan say they are “home” no matter where on Earth they are from.  “We have changed the definition of home,” he said, where “home” is Earth.   He said his vision is that someday LEO or cis-lunar space will be “home.”

In response to a question about whether there is a future for young people to be astronauts, Gold said “I want to see a day when being an astronaut is something you do to make a living,” not an elite profession.   Bigelow is committed to making astronauts “not special” because there will be so many of them and from all over the world.   He noted that right now there are six seats for ISS crews, three of which are occupied by Russians, two by Americans, and one by other countries.  “One seat for all the other countries?” Bigelow “is determined to change that,” he exclaimed.

Gerstenmaier took a different tack, stressing that one does not need to be an astronaut.  What is important is being part of a high performing team:  “If you’re lucky, you get to be at the pointy end of the rocket, but it is just as rewarding to be one of the engineers sitting in the back.”

The question of cooperating with China arose as it often does in these settings.  Gerstenmaier pointed out that under current law NASA cannot discuss human space cooperation with China, but expressed hope that the situation may change in the future.  Gold agreed that if mutual benefit can be shown, the China door may open, but for now China is the “third rail” of export control politics.  Although changes are being made to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), they do not apply to China, he pointed out.

Editor’s note:  this is our final IAC2014 report.  The conference continues tomorrow, but we must depart.