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NASA IG: NEO Program Structure and Resources Are Inadequate

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Sep-2014 (Updated: 15-Sep-2014 11:45 PM)

NASA's Inspector General (IG) released a report today that finds NASA's Near Earth Object (NEO) program does not have the structure or resources it needs.  The IG made five recommendations and the report states NASA management concurred with all of them.

As the report makes clear, the NEO program has grown significantly in a short period of time.  In FY2009, it was funded at $4 million per year.  Today it is $40 million per year.  The rapid growth is partially in response to congressional direction that the agency find, track and catalog 90 percent of NEOs 140 meters or more in diameter by 2020 and partially in support of President Obama's Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).  

NEOs are asteroids and comets that come into Earth's neighborhood -- typically described as having a perihelion of less than 1.3 Astronomical Units (AU).  One AU is 93 million miles.  The IG report, however, describes them as passing within 28 million miles of Earth's orbit.   Congressional concern about NEOs that could pose a hazard to Earth dates back to early 1990s.  Initially, Congress directed NASA to find and catalogue 90 percent of NEOs with a diameter of 1 kilometer or more within 10 years.  NASA met that goal and in the 2005 NASA Authorization Act Congress directed NASA to begin doing the same for the smaller 140-meter diameter NEOs.  In support of the ARM program, NASA now is looking for even smaller asteroids, 7-10 meters in diameter, that could be nudged into orbit around the Moon using a robotic spacecraft where the asteroid would be visited by astronauts.  The NEO budget had grown to $20 million per year in response to the congressional direction and was doubled in order to support ARM.

Despite the growth of the program, it is still the responsibility of "a single Program Executive at [NASA] Headquarters who has no dedicated staff to assist with Program oversight," the IG report states.  It also found that the "NEO program lacks a plan with integrated milestones, defined objectives, and cost and schedule estimates to assist in tracking and attaining Program goals."  

The report recommends that NASA's Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) --

  • develop a formal NEO Program that meets NASA's policies, including a strategic plan, integrated master schedule and cost estimates;
  • develop and implement requirements, procedures, and internal controls to address program deficiencies;
  • perform an analysis to determine the appropriate number of staff required to manage, oversee and administer the Program;
  • develop a plan to establish formal partnerships with domestic and international agencies to leverage resources and complementary technologies; and
  • establish an oversight process pursuant to which NASA-funded observatories would have to coordinate with each other to avoid duplication of efforts.

According to the report, the AA for SMD, John Grunsfeld, concurred with all five recommendations and promised that an analysis of staff requirements would be completed by March 1, 2015 and a NEO Program Plan would be in place by September 1, 2015.

Linda Billings, a communications consultant to the NEO Program who is not involved in its management, wrote on her blog today that media headlines characterizing the IG report as being highly critical of the program are "a tad misleading."  She argues that the overall message is not that the program lacks structure, but that it lacks the necessary resources to operate as a well-structured program.

What's Happening in Space Policy September 15-20, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Sep-2014 (Updated: 14-Sep-2014 05:19 PM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events coming up during the week of September 15-20, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

This may be the last week Congress is in session prior to the November elections if they can complete action on a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government for the initial part of FY2015, which begins on October 1.   None of the 12 regular appropriations bills has cleared Congress yet, so some action must be taken to avoid a government shutdown. 

The White House also is hoping Congress will authorize it to take certain military actions in Syria.  Whether that authorization will be attached to the CR or not is an open question.  The White House plan was to add the Syria authorization to the CR knowing that is the one piece of legislation that Congress must pass imminently, but the issue is highly controversial and could derail the CR.  House Republican leaders were poised to pass a CR last week before the Syria authorization issue arose, but are now debating whether to deal with the Syria authorization and FY2015 government appropriations issues separately or in a combined bill.  Stay tuned.

It is conceivable that there might be Senate action on a NASA authorization bill in the coming week.  The House passed its version in June.  The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has a markup session scheduled for Wednesday for a long list of bills.  At the moment, the NASA authorization is not on the list, but that could change.  Stay tuned on this one, too.

NASA has made no further announcement about when the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) award will be made.   Expectations were high that it would be announced at the end of August, but it wasn't.   Another "stay tuned" situation.

One certainty is that the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft will reach Mars on Sunday, September 21.  Hopefully it will enter orbit as planned.  NASA will hold a pre-arrival news conference on Wednesday at 1:00 pm ET.  It will provide coverage of orbital insertion as well, but that will be included in our next issue of "What's Happening."

The next cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS), SpaceX CRS-4, is also coming up this week.  The launch itself is currently scheduled for early Saturday morning (2:16 am ET) and NASA plans five pre-launch events on Thursday and Friday.  Launch dates are not nearly as reliable as arrival dates, however, so don't set your alarm clock yet.

This entire week, beginning today (Sunday), is National Aerospace Week.  Established by the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), its goal is to recognize the contributions that the aerospace industry makes to the U.S economy and global competitiveness.

The full list of events that we know about as of Sunday afternoon is provided below.

Sunday-Saturday, September 14-20

Monday, September 15

Monday-Wednesday, September 15-17

Tuesday, September 16

Tuesday-Wednesday, September 16-17

  • COMSTAC, NTSB Conference Center, 429 L'Enfant Plaza, S.W., Washington, DC

Wednesday, September 17

Wednesday-Friday, September 17-19

Thursday, September 18

Thursday-Friday, September 18-19

Saturday, September 20

  • SpaceX CRS-4 launch, Cape Canaveral, FL, 2:16 am ET, with post-launch briefing about 90 minutes after launch

SpaceX CRS-4 Launch Slips One Day While ISS Joint Commission Worries About Delays

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Sep-2014 (Updated: 12-Sep-2014 07:23 PM)

NASA announced today that the launch of SpaceX's next cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) has been delayed one day to September 20, 2014.  A one-day delay is minor, but at a recent meeting of the U.S.-Russian joint commission that oversees ISS safety and readiness issues, concern was expressed about delays in U.S. resupply missions.

NASA said the "adjustment" in the SpaceX CRS-4 launch date was made to accommodate preparations of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and "was coordinated with the station's partners and managers."  This is the fourth operational SpaceX cargo flight to the ISS (SpaceX CRS-4).  Launch is currently scheduled for 2:16 am ET on September 20 from Cape Canaveral, FL, and NASA has several pre- and post-launch briefings planned.  If the launch does, in fact, take place on September 20, berthing to the ISS will be on September 22.

In a June 20, 2014 letter to the heads of NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, obtained by SpacePolicyOnline.com, the ISS Joint Commission (JC) expressed mild concern about schedule delays for U.S. "visiting vehicles" -- SpaceX's Dragon and Orbital Sciences Corporation's Cygnus.  Dragon and Cygnus deliver supplies to ISS.

"While the ISS program has done a good job of managing the manifest to ensure no resupply issues, the JC observed that there continues to be schedule delays with the U.S. visiting vehicles.  Although this has not presented any problems to date, it should be monitored as the U.S. commercial resupply program matures," it said.

The JC is co-chaired by Lt. Gen. Tom Stafford (ret.), who chairs NASA's ISS Advisory Committee, and Alexander Milkovskiy, head of the Roscosmos Advisory Expert Council.  It met most recently in Korolev, Russia (outside Moscow) from June 16-20, 2014.  its task is to advise the NASA Administrator and Roscosmos Director on the safety and operational readiness of ISS. Milkovskiy is Director General of Russia's TsNIIMash, the Central Research Institute of Machine Building.  Stafford is a legendary Apollo-era astronaut who flew on Gemini and Apollo missions and commanded the U.S. portion of the joint U.S.-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) mission in 1975.

SpaceX's last launch to ISS in April was delayed several times due to technical and weather problems.  The technical issues included a helium leak discovered about one hour before a planned launch on April 14.  Orbital's subsequent cargo mission, Orb-2, was delayed initially because of the SpaceX problems, and then because of a test failure of an engine similar to the one used for the Orb-2 launch.

ISS resupply is also provided by Russia (Progress), Europe (ATV) and Japan (HTV), but the letter mentioned only the U.S. vehicles as a matter of concern.  Europe's final ATV mission, ATV-5, is currently docked to the ISS.

Gabrynowicz Warns ASTEROIDS Act Needs More Work

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Sep-2014 (Updated: 11-Sep-2014 07:11 AM)

Space law expert Joanne Gabrynowicz warned a House subcommittee yesterday (September 10) that a proposed bill to grant property rights to materials mined from asteroids could face legal and political challenges if passed in its current form.

Gabrynowicz, a Director of the International Institute of Space Law (IISL) and Professor Emerita of the University of Mississippi’s National Center for Remote Sensing, Air and Space Law, testified to the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

The title of the hearing suggested that the main topic would be issues posed by the ASTEROIDS Act (H.R. 5063) introduced by Reps. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Derek Kilmer (D-WA).  The other four witnesses were space scientists, however, and the hearing was more about the status of NASA’s planetary science program than legal issues of property rights in space.

ASTEROIDS Act

Key points stressed by Gabrynowicz were that --

  • the potential legal impact of the ASTEROIDS Act on treaties is likely to be modest, but the potential political impact is likely to be sizeable;
  • there is no legal clarity on some of the issues addressed in the bill;
  • the bill uses terms of art – e.g. “harmful interference” and “first in time” -- in a novel context and require further elaboration;
  • resource extraction in space is a “volatile and contentious issue at the international level” -- it will take years to reach agreement and political groundwork is needed;
  • in the United States, the issues cut across a number of agencies and a coordinated interagency mechanism is needed to facilitate policy development; and
  • the bill does not appear to be written to advance a new industry – asteroid mining – as a whole, but instead is aimed at the interests of particular companies.

Posey countered that if the United States does not act quickly, other countries, such as Russia and China, will take the lead and may not give the issues “thoughtful consideration.”

In response to questions from Rep. Kilmer, two of the planetary scientists on the witness panel – Jim Bell, a professor at Arizona State University and President of The Planetary Society and Mark Sykes, CEO and Director of the Planetary Science Institute – conveyed their views that asteroid mining is not likely for many years (Bell said decades) and its cost-effectiveness still must be determined.

Posey took issue with the time scale, saying at least one company is ready to do it now.  He cited a letter from Planetary Resources, Inc. that was entered into the record of the hearing, but is not yet posted on the committee’s website or the company’s.

Bell and Sykes said that water is the most likely substance to be mined since it is needed to support human space exploration.  The two disagreed on the ease of reaching asteroids of interest in the mining context, with Sykes enthusiastically explaining the abundance of asteroids and their closeness to Earth, but Bell cautioning that those with water might be further away, perhaps in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.  Sykes stressed the need for a survey to locate and characterize more asteroids.  (Congress has played a critical role in directing NASA to conduct surveys to find asteroids and comets – collectively called Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) – that could threaten Earth.  NASA is currently under congressional direction to detect, track, catalogue and characterize 90 percent of NEOs equal to or greater than 140 meters in diameter by 2020.  NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group recently issued a finding that the agency has no plan to achieve that goal and a space-based NEO survey telescope is needed.)

NASA’s Planetary Science Program

Much of the hearing focused on the state of NASA’s planetary science program.  The discussion covered familiar ground, with NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green and other witnesses reviewing NASA’s ongoing and planned missions followed by complaints from non-NASA witnesses and subcommittee members about recent cutbacks in the planetary science budget and some Republican subcommittee members adding their objections over how much NASA spends on earth science instead.

Philip Christensen, Regents Professor at Arizona State University (ASU) and co-chair of the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science, stressed three themes: 

  • excellent opportunities for continuing robotic solar system exploration exist and are laid out in the NRC’s most recent Decadal Survey for planetary science;
  • significant reductions in funding for planetary science compared to the previous decade have significantly slowed the pace of new missions; and
  • a lack of year-to-year stability makes long range planning difficult.  

Bell pointed out that while the planetary science program seems healthy today, that is only because of investments made in the last decade and the pace will not be maintained at today’s funding level.

Since FY2013, NASA has been requesting about $1.3 billion per year for planetary science compared to $1.5 billion in the past.

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), who represents the district that includes Marshall Space Flight Center where the Space Launch System (SLS) is being built, asked Green about the potential of using SLS for robotic planetary science missions.  SLS’s primary purpose is for sending humans beyond low Earth orbit, but SLS advocates are seeking other uses for the Saturn V-class rocket.   Congress has been adding money to NASA’s budget to send a probe to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, and using SLS for that mission is an oft discussed possibility.  Green replied that SLS could provide a “great capability” for missions to the outer planets and “could fit well” with the Europa mission.  He explained that SLS could reduce trip times to the outer planets by half.

Rohrabacher, a critic of SLS, countered that he did not find that a compelling justification for SLS considering its cost of about $1 billion per year while planetary science funding is being cut.

The availability of plutonium-238 (Pu-238) needed to power spacecraft that cannot rely on solar power because they travel too far from the Sun or land on planetary bodies with day/night cycles was another topic discussed.  Green assured the subcommittee that NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE) are working well together on reestablishing Pu-238 production and there is a sufficient supply for the next mission that will require it – the Mars 2020 mission.  It is not so much an issue of Pu-238 itself, he said, but the ability to produce the pellets that are needed.

Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM)

Subcommittee chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) stressed at the outset of the hearing that planetary science efforts to find and characterize asteroids should not be confused with the Obama Administration’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).  He does not support the latter.

The White House announced the ARM program last year.  The concept is to send a robotic probe to an asteroid and use it to change the asteroid’s orbit, redirect it into lunar orbit where it would be visited by astronauts who would return a sample to Earth.  ARM has gained little support in Congress or the space community.  Asteroids are “small bodies” in planetary science parlance, and NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) recently issued a finding that ARM’s “benefits for advancing the knowledge of asteroids and furthering planetary defense strategies are limited and not compelling.”

Sykes called ARM a “poorly conceived and designed” mission that does not advance human exploration, science, planetary defense, or In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) of asteroids.  He said NASA’s $1.25 billion cost estimate for ARM “strains credulity” considering that the robotic OSIRIS-REx mission, which will be launched in 2016 to return a small sample of an asteroid to Earth, cost $1.05 billion itself.   Rohrabacher thanked Sykes for his frank assessment.

(ARM is a much more complicated mission that involves not only sending a robotic spacecraft to an asteroid, but developing the technologies to move the asteroid into a different orbit and then sending astronauts to obtain a sample.  NASA does use $1.25 billion as its current, informal cost estimate for ARM, but it does not include costs for activities NASA was pursuing anyway, such as the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft needed for the astronaut portion of the mission, or launch costs for the robotic portion of the mission.   A formal cost estimate will not be made until the program is further along.)

Vote on CR Delayed Due To Syria Issues

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Sep-2014 (Updated: 10-Sep-2014 05:26 PM)

The House leadership has decided to postpone a vote on the FY2015 Continuing Resolution (CR) while deciding how to handle a White House request to add authorization for the President to provide arms to Syrian rebels. 

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) introduced the CR yesterday and a vote was planned for tomorrow.   However, President Obama now wants Congress to include language authorizing his plan to arm Syrian rebels as part of a strategy to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  The President will speak to the nation tonight at 9:00 pm about that strategy.

Officially, appropriations bills are only supposed to provide funding, not authorizations.  Some members of the House reportedly are objecting to including the Syria authority on that basis, but others point out the CR already contains two authorization measures (reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank and an Internet tax matter) so adding another should not be a problem.   It is theoretically possible to pass the Syria authorization as a separate bill, but with Congress anxious to complete legislative business in the next two weeks, and the CR the only "must pass" bill on its docket, the White House and its congressional supporters want everything included in one bill to ensure swift action.

House Republican leaders reportedly will wait until after tonight's speech to decide how to proceed.  If the House does not include the language in its version of the CR, the Senate could add it and send the bill back to the House, but with every exchange, the possibility grows of other issues arising and setting back agreement.  As noted yesterday, Senator Ted Cruz wants to add language to block executive action on immigration, so the fate of the CR remains up in the air.  

Congress must pass an appropriations bill to fund all or part of FY2015 by midnight on September 30 or there will be another government shutdown like last year.  As introduced, the CR would fund the government at its current level through December 11, 2014.

Bill Introduced in House to Fund Government Past Mid-Term Elections

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Sep-2014 (Updated: 09-Sep-2014 10:47 PM)

Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, introduced a stop-gap Continuing Resolution (CR) today (September 9) to fund the government through December 11, 2014.  The bill could be voted on in the House as early as Thursday.

The CR (H. J. Res. 124) generally continues funding for the government at current levels and does not include "highly controversial provisions" according to the committee's press release.  Rogers called it a "temporary, imperfect measure" and said what is really needed is passage of the 12 regular appropriations bills.  The House has passed seven of them, but none has passed the Senate. 

The bill keeps total government spending at its current level of $1.012 trillion, but some changes are made within that total to fund new activities.  Most are related to national security, veterans affairs, customs and immigration, and responding to the Ebola crisis.  The amounts appropriated in the FY2014 appropriations bills (including for NASA, NOAA and DOD) are reduced by 0.0554 percent presumably to pay for those new activities. 

Two space-related provisions would allow funding flexibility for weather satellite programs and extension of the authorization for the Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank through June 30, 2015.  Despite the press release's assertion that the CR does not contain highly controversial provisions, reauthorization of the Ex-Im Bank is a topic of strong debate.  The bank helps finance U.S. exports of manufactured goods and services.   From a space policy standpoint, organizations like the Aerospace Industries Association argue that Ex-Im bank financing is critical to support exports of satellites, for example, and reauthorization is needed.  Opponents argue that it distorts the free market by the government picking winners and losers.  The bank's current authorization expires on September 30.

The House and Senate are both hoping to complete must-pass legislative business by the end of next week or shortly thereafter so members can return to the campaign trail.  That does not necessarily mean smooth sailing for the CR.  Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), for one, has said that he wants to include language to block President Obama from taking action on immigration using executive action.  Cruz is widely criticized or praised, depending on one's point of view, for last year's 16-day government shutdown. Whether he would attempt that again in an election year is an open question.  He has been quoted in recent days as saying he does not want another shutdown, but that was before his comments today that "we should use any and all means necessary to prevent the president from illegally granting amnesty."

What's Happening in Space Policy September 8-12, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Sep-2014 (Updated: 07-Sep-2014 12:17 PM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events on tap for the week of September 8-12, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them.  Congress returns to work on Monday.

During the Week

Congress returns from its summer break this week.   Between now and the end of the fiscal year (FY) on September 30, the House is scheduled to be in session for eight days and the Senate for ten.   That is certainly enough time for them to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government operating when FY2015 begins on October 1 if agreement can be reached.   Republican leaders on both sides of Capitol Hill insist that they do not want another government shutdown like last year, so that bodes well, but one never knows until a bill is passed and signed into law.   House Speaker Boehner has said he plans to pass a bill to fund the government through early December -- past the November election.  "Possible" consideration of a CR is on the House schedule this week.

The Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology (SST) Committee will hold a hearing on Wednesday on the ASTEROIDS Act introduced by Reps. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Derek Kilmer (D-WA).  The bill would grant property rights to materials mined from asteroids by U.S. companies (though not property rights to the asteroid itself).   Four scientists and one expert on space law will testify.  The issue of property rights in space has been debated vigorously for decades on a theoretical basis, with opinions strongly held on what is or is not allowed under the terms of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to which the United States and 101 other countries are party.  The legislation and this hearing provide an opportunity to address the issue from a more focused perspective.

The first meeting of the National Research Council's new Space Technology Industry, Government, University Roundtable (STIGUR) is on Thursday.  Note that it is at the NAS building on Constitution Avenue, not the Keck Center on 5th Street.   Chaired by Lockheed Martin Chief Technology Officer Ray Johnson, STIGUR is a forum for dialogue about NASA's space technology efforts.

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

Monday, September 8

Monday-Friday, September 8-12

  • Euroconsult World Satellite Business Week, Westin Hotel, Paris, FR
    • Summit on Satellite Financing, September 8-10
    • Symposium on Market Forecasts, September 11 
    • Summit on Earth Observation Business, September 11-12

Tuesday, September 9

Tuesday-Friday, September 9-12

Wednesday, September 10

Thursday, September 11

Friday, September 12

 

WIA Honors Carolyn Huntoon, Five Other "Exceptional Women"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Sep-2014 (Updated: 04-Sep-2014 06:46 PM)

Women in Aerospace (WIA) announced the winners of its six annual awards that honor achievements by women in the aerospace field today (September 4).  Among the winners is Carolyn Huntoon, a trailblazer for women at NASA and the first woman to serve as Director of the Johnson Space Center (1994-1996).

Huntoon is being awarded WIA's Lifetime Achievement Award for her "sustained and exemplary leadership at NASA, the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Department of Energy, her exceptional scientific contributions towards understanding the effects of spaceflight on the human body, and her dedication and mentorship of astronauts and aerospace professionals."  Huntoon has a Ph.D. in physiology from Baylor College of Medicine and was deeply involved in studying how humans react to weightlessness from the earliest days of human spaceflight, including cooperation with her Soviet space medicine counterparts beginning in the early 1970s.  She is quoted frequently in Lynn Sherr's biography of Sally Ride as an influential voice in the selection of the first group of astronauts that included women (Ride and five others) and mentor to them afterwards.

The other five WIA award winners are:

  • Lynn Cominsky, Sonoma St. University, Rohnert Park, CA:  Aerospace Awareness Award
  • Allison Barto, Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp,. Boulder, CO:  Outstanding Achievement Award
  • Alexandra Kindrat, Lester B. Pearson School Board, St. Thomas High School, Montreal, Canada:  Aerospace Educator Award
  • Samantha Pappas, Naval Air Systems Command 5.1, Patuxent River, MD:  Initiative, Inspiration, Impact Award
  • Leanne Caret, Boeing Defense, Space and Security, St. Louis, MO:  Leadership Award

Also, the WIA Foundation awarded three scholarships to --

  • Emily Zimovan, a junior in aeronautical and astronautical engineering at Purdue University
  • Jessica Felde, a junior in aerospace and mechanical engineering at West Virginia University, and
  • Lauren Trollinger, a junior in aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland

WIA's annual awards dinner is on October 29, 2014 at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Arlington, VA.   Contact WIA for more information.

 

 

House Subcommittee to Hold Hearing on ASTEROIDS Act on September 10

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Sep-2014 (Updated: 08-Sep-2014 11:17 PM)

The Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will hold a hearing next week on the ASTEROIDS Act, which was introduced in July by Rep. Bill Posey (R- FL) and Derek Kilmer (D-WA).

The goal of the legislation is to establish and protect property rights for commercial exploration and exploitation of asteroids.   Two U.S. companies promoting such activities are Planetary Resources, headquartered in Kilmer's Redmond, WA district, and Deep Space Industries of Houston, TX.   Posey's district includes Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

Five witnesses have been announced for the hearing, four of whom are scientists and one is a space lawyer.  The scientists are:

  • Jim Green, Director of NASA's Planetary Science Division;
  • Phil Christensen, an Arizona State University (ASU) professor who co-chairs the National Research Council's (NRC's) Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science (CAPS) and was a member of the NRC's Decadal Survey for planetary science;
  • Jim Bell, another ASU Professor who is President of the grass-roots space advocacy group The Planetary Society; and
  • Mark Sykes, CEO and Director of the Tucson, AZ-based non-profit solar system exploration research and advocacy group Planetary Science Institute. 

The fifth witness is Joanne Gabrynowicz, an internationally recognized space lawyer who for many years before her retirement headed the National Center for Remote Sensing, Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi and was editor of the Journal of Space Law.  She is currently a member of the NASA Advisory Council's Planetary Protection Subcommittee that advises the agency on matters concerning the prevention of forward or back contamination of solar system bodies.

The concept of mining asteroids involves many scientific, technical and economic considerations, but property rights is a particularly thorny issue.  Under the 1967 U.N. Outer Space Treaty, there is no national sovereignty in space so no country can "own" an asteroid.  Pursuant to the treaty, governments are responsible for the actions of their non-governmental entities, such as a company, sparking debate over whether a company can own an asteroid or any part of it.  Without ownership rights to minerals mined from asteroids, it is unlikely that companies would pursue asteroid mining even if such an activity could prove to be otherwise feasible.  

The ASTEROIDS Act would apply only to U.S. companies and seeks to ensure that materials mined from an asteroid by a U.S. company are the property of that company.  It would not confer ownership of the asteroid itself.

The hearing is at 10:00 am ET on September 10, 2014 in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building.

Update:  The words "research and" were added to the description of the Planetary Science Institute to better convey its mission.

NASA Tentatively Approves Extended Operations for Seven Planetary Missions

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Sep-2014 (Updated: 03-Sep-2014 03:21 PM)

NASA's Planetary Science Division (PSD) has largely adopted the recommendations of its Senior Review panel to continue operations of seven existing planetary science spacecraft, but the approval is tentative until budgets are better understood.   One surprise was the panel's sharp criticism of the proposal made by the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) team, whose Curiosity rover is the newest and probably best known of the seven missions.  The panel said it was left with the impression the MSL team believes it is "too big to fail" and submitted a proposal that "lacked scientific focus and detail."

NASA's Science Mission Directorate, which includes PSD, routinely conducts Senior Reviews of its ongoing missions to determine if continued operations are warranted or if the money could be better spent on new projects.  Each project team typically submits a proposal for the next two years of operations, explaining what research would be conducted, how much it would cost, and the anticipated scientific return.  Seven missions were up for review this year:

  • Cassini -- a U.S. spacercaft orbiting Saturn since 2004
  • Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) -- a U.S. spacecraft orbiting the Moon since 2009
  • Mars Exploration Rover (MER) -- the U.S. Opportunity rover that has been traversing the Martian surface since 2004 (its sister, Spirit, is no longer functioning)
  • Mars Express (MEX) -- a European spacecraft that includes U.S. instruments, orbiting Mars since 2003
  • Mars Odyssey -- a U.S. spacecraft orbiting Mars since 2001
  • Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) - a U.S. spacecraft orbiting Mars since 2006
  • Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) -- better known as Curiosity, the name of the U.S. rover that landed in 2012

Cassini is an exception in this round of deliberations.  That spacecraft will reach the end of its life in 2017, three years from now, so its proposal was for all three years rather than two.  (In 2017, when Cassini's fuel is just about depleted, NASA will command Cassini to enter Saturn's atmosphere where it will be destroyed rather than posing an environmental hazard to Saturn's moons Titan and Enceladus, which are possible candidates for life.)

The Senior Review panel found that extended operations of all seven missions are a good value for NASA and American taxpayers because they "are essentially new missions without the development and launch costs."  It rated Cassini the highest of the seven.   It recommended continued operations of the other six, too, but with modifications to the proposals made for LRO, MEX and MSL/Curiosity.

For LRO, the panel concluded that three instruments were at the end of their useful scientific life, but PSD agreed to terminate only one of them (Mini-RF) because the other two are still useful to other parts of NASA.   For MEX, the panel recommended and PSD agreed to terminate almost all activities of the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) image calibration and validation team and to add funding for joint ionospheric studies between MEX and NASA's new MAVEN mission that will reach Mars next month.

The panel was critical of some of the other proposals, but none more so than the one for extended operations of MSL/Curiosity.  Noting that the Project Scientist was available only via phone for the panel's review and not available at all to answer follow-up questions, "This left the panel with the impression that the team felt they were too big to fail and that simply having someone show up would suffice."  Overall it found the MSL proposal "lacked scientific focus and detail" and was particularly unimpressed with the proposal for the number of planned drilling operations:  "only eight (8) samples will be taken in two years ... This means that during the prime and [Extended Mission 1] missions a total of 13 analyses will be made by a highly capable rover.  The panel viewed this as a poor science return for such a large investment in a flagship mission."

Consequently, the panel recommended that the rover travel a shorter distance than the 8 kilometers proposed and focus on studies at three rather than four sites so the three could be better characterized.  Overall, it "strongly" urged NASA Headquarters to "get the Curiosity team focused on maximizing high-quality science that justifies the capabilities of and capital investment in Curiosity."

In a briefing to the NASA Advisory Council's Planetary Science Subcommittee (NAC-PSS) this morning, PSD Program Executive Bill Knopf said that PSD approved a two-year extension of the MSL/Curiosity mission, but asked that the project team "develop a new task plan."

Knopf stressed that PSD's approval for all the extended missions is "tentative" while NASA awaits final determination of its FY2015 budget and formulation of its FY2016 budget request.  In a later briefing today to a joint meeting of NAC-PSS and the National Research Council's Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science (CAPS), PSD Director Jim Green went further, emphasizing that the Senior Review's recommendations are "only one element" in the decision process. Programmatic and budgetary considerations, as well as congressional direction must all be taken into account, he said.