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Senate Appropriators Unhappy with NASA FY2016 Budget Request

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Apr-2015 (Updated: 17-Apr-2015 12:52 AM)

Hours after defending the President’s FY2016 budget request before a House subcommittee, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was in front of a Senate subcommittee with the same task – convincing skeptical lawmakers that the request reflects the right priorities for the space agency.  He also used the opportunity to once again urge Senate confirmation of Dava Newman as Deputy Administrator.

Bolden testified before the House subcommittee that authorizes NASA's activities this morning.  This afternoon’s hearing was across Capitol Hill in the Senate and before the appropriations subcommittee that funds the agency.  Authorizing committees set policy and recommend funding levels, but only appropriators have money to spend.

In this case, Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the Hill, authorizers and appropriators alike, expressed dissatisfaction with the choices made in the President’s $18.5 billion budget request for NASA.

The hearing before the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee was comparatively brief, lasting less than an hour.  The four Senators present focused almost entirely on issues affecting their constituents, but the opening statements by subcommittee chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) touched on broader issues.

Shelby said the significant increase in the request compared to FY2015 should have represented balanced funding for NASA priorities, but instead there are significant increases for commercial crew and for space technology, but reductions for science missions and exploration systems development.   His primary interest is the Space Launch System (SLS), being built in his state of Alabama, and he criticized the “20 percent cut” to SLS at a critical phase in its development.  Warning that “a lot of us are troubled” by the request, Shelby said that “requiring development programs to operate with insufficient funding is irresponsible.”  

Later in the hearing Shelby queried Bolden about the commercial crew program.  Shelby is a strong skeptic about that program.  Today he wanted to know why NASA was buying more seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for a period of time when commercial crew systems should be available.  What is worrying NASA about the progress of that program, he asked, that is causing it to buy more Russian seats?  Bolden replied that his concern is that Congress will not provide the needed funding for the program.   Congress historically has not fully funded the commercial crew program and Bolden often reminds Congress that if full funding had been provided, the commercial crew systems would be ready this year.  Instead, there is a two-year slip.  Shelby retorted that NASA wasted resources by supporting too many companies.

Shelby also wanted an update on Russia's commitment to the International Space Station (ISS) and whether it has formally notified NASA that it plans to end its participation in 2024 and remove some of its modules as reported in the press.  Bolden said no, it was quite the opposite.  He met with the new head of the Russian space agency, Igor Komarov, last month and Komarov made it clear that Russia is committed to ISS until 2024 and has no plans to remove any modules.  Bolden added that the other ISS partners had been waiting for Russia to make that commitment and he now expects that they will do so as well.  Bolden firmly said "yes" when Shelby asked if NASA can operate ISS without the Russian segments.

Mikulski was particularly distressed about cuts to Goddard Space Flight Center in her state of Maryland, but more broadly worried that the choices made in the request would undermine the bipartisan agreement on a balanced space program that has been in place for several years.  “I have very deep concerns” about the threat posed to that balanced program, she said in her opening statement, later adding that “I want to make sure our best days aren’t behind us.”

Mikulski was especially concerned about cuts to the satellite servicing development program at Goddard.  Bolden asked if he could talk to her in person later  to explain why he reduced its funding.  The private sector is already working on those technologies, he explained, and for four years he has been trying to determine who the customer for NASA's efforts would be.  "I want to make sure we are not at odds with industry" because his experience is that industry wants NASA to be its customer, not the reverse.  Mikulski also worried about an overall cut of more than $300 million for activities at Goddard, but Bolden assured her that as more programs are assigned to Goddard during the year, more money will accompany them.

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), chairman of the full Appropriations Committee, asked if Bolden thinks Congress and the Administration are working together constructively on the SLS program.  SLS will be tested at Stennis Space Center in Cochran’s state of Mississippi.  Bolden exclaimed that he did not think he has been as effective as he could be and promised to spend more time with the committee explaining what NASA is doing, adding that "I am pleading for the Senate to confirm Dr. Dava Newman as my Deputy because I need the help.”

Cochran later commented that a "robust testing infrastructure" is needed at Stennis to test new rocket engines in the future and then asked "Is there a future?"   Bolden used the opportunity to declare, in reaction to Mikulski's earlier comment, that "our best days are in front of us.  I can promise you that."

Sen. Shelley Capito (R-WV) also attended the hearing, asking questions about the future of NASA's Independent Verification and Validation (IV&V) facility in her state of West Virginia (Bolden assured her of its importance) and diversity in NASA's workforce (Bolden said he was not happy with it and is seeking ways to encourage women and minorities to remain in science and engineering leadership positions).

Several other topics were discussed.  A webcast of the hearing is available on the committee's website.

Bolden Defends ARM, Earth Science, American Preeminence at House Hearing

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Apr-2015 (Updated: 17-Apr-2015 12:54 AM)

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden spent two hours this morning defending the Obama Administration’s FY2016 budget request for the agency before a House subcommittee.  Perhaps the most contentious moment came during a debate between Bolden and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) who was arguing that America has lost its preeminence in human spaceflight.  Bolden forcefully countered that he just returned from the Space Symposium and no one there had such a low opinion of NASA and the United States:  “We are the preeminent leader in the world. Always have been, always will be.”

The exchange took place as part of Brooks’ proposition that the approximately $2 billion NASA spends on earth science should be reallocated to NASA’s other space and aeronautics programs and the earth science activities be transferred to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Bolden strongly defended the earth science component of NASA’s program as part of a balanced portfolio.

Brooks, who represents Marshall Space Flight Center, contended that more money is needed to support human exploration because, since the end of the space shuttle program, America has had to “hitch a ride” with the Russians to the International Space Station (ISS) and thus lost its preeminence.   Bolden’s rejoinder that no one at the Space Symposium would agree with that assessment did not persuade Brooks:  “When Russia is reducing the United States of America to saying if we want to go to the space station we can do it by a trampoline, that’s not the kind of preeminence I’m accustomed to, having seen the Saturn V rocket built … in the 5th congressional district of Alabama.”

Other Republican subcommittee members also argued against NASA’s earth science funding.  The discussion followed the familiar lines expressed by committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and others at least since 2013 that 13 federal agencies are involved in climate change/earth science research, while NASA uniquely is responsible for space exploration.  Therefore NASA should focus on its unique role of exploration and shift earth science to the other agencies.

The hearing on NASA's FY2016 budget request was held before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee today.  Generally speaking, members of both parties criticized the request.

The Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) was one key topic, both in terms of why Bolden is ignoring advice from the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and more broadly about where it fits into the longer term plan for human exploration of Mars.

Bolden was grilled by subcommittee chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) and committee chairman Smith on why he was ignoring NAC’s advice to (1) obtain an independent cost evaluation (ICE) of ARM prior to the Mission Concept Review (which just took place), and (2) modify it so that its primary objective is demonstration of high power solar electric propulsion rather than obtaining a sample of an asteroid, and to send the spacecraft to Mars and back rather than to an asteroid.  Bolden replied that he is not changing ARM’s objectives because he is committed to “constancy of purpose” and will do an ICE now that the Mission Concept Review is completed.  Palazzo warned that "without consensus in the scientific, exploration and international communities, not to mention the people here on Capitol Hill, I think you will be challenged" on ARM.

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) focused on the fact that NASA has not provided a roadmap for the human exploration program and how ARM fits into it.  She argued that the committee needs to know why NASA is choosing various options instead of simply being told what it is going to do without any communications.

Edwards, the top Democrat on the subcommittee, also pressed Bolden on why the budget request cuts funds for programs the Administration knows are congressional priorities, such as the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft, aeronautics, and the Europa mission. “Part of me thinks it’s a game,” she said.    Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the top Democrat on the full committee, asked why NASA was ignoring the advice of the National Research Council (NRC) in its “Pathways” report last year.  The report provided “unambiguous” advice that NASA needs more funding to achieve the goal of sending people to Mars, so “it came as a bit of a shock to me that the very next  budget request” cuts funding for SLS and Orion.  That is “directly counter” to the NRC’s advice and “Congress needs to correct that.”

Bolden insisted it was all a matter of priorities.  He repeated several times that he believes the budget request for SLS and Orion will enable the agency to meet the milestones it has promised. Regarding Europa, he said he knows the planetary science community wants to launch that spacecraft in 2022, but “it can’t be done in that time frame.” In an unrelated exchange later in the hearing, he said he thinks Europa could be launched in 2029, but it was clear he was not committing to that date.

Palazzo and Smith repeated their criticism of NASA’s decision to fund two commercial crew companies instead of one and using SLS/Orion as the redundant capability if it is needed.  The 2010 NASA authorization act requires NASA to design SLS/Orion so it can service the ISS in case the commercial crew concept did not result in viable systems.  Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH) asked if NASA could downselect to just one of the two companies and thereby accelerate when a commercial crew system would be ready.  Bolden said no, and choosing only one company could actually slow the program because that company would become a “monopoly that dictates to me what it can or can’t do.”

Many other topics were discussed (a webcast of the hearing is available on the committee’s website) that covered familiar ground.  The overall thrust was that Republicans and Democrats are unhappy with the budget request because it cuts programs that the Administration knows are congressional priorities and does not lay out a roadmap for human exploration.   Republicans also disagree with the funding for earth science because that should not be a NASA priority.

Bolden testified to the Senate Appropriations Committee's Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee on the FY2016 budget request later in the day.

ULA Introduces Its New Vulcan Rocket That "Changes Everything"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Apr-2015 (Updated: 14-Apr-2015 11:49 AM)

In a breathless exposition of the attributes of his company’s new rocket, United Launch Alliance (ULA) President Tory Bruno promised it “changes everything” about space launch and the future use of space.

Bruno announced the rocket’s name, Vulcan, and details about it and the company's new business strategy at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, CO today.  The name was chosen by over one million participants in a ULA naming contest.  Zeus and GalaxyOne were runners-up.

Bruno laid out a four step plan.  First, ULA will introduce the new Vulcan rocket in 2019.  It basically will be an Atlas V rocket with a Centaur upper stage, but instead of a single Russian RD-180 engine, it will use two Blue Origin BE-4’s.  It will have 20 percent more lift capability than the Atlas V and be less expensive.

Second, ULA will introduce a new upper stage to replace Centaur in 2023.  The Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES) is what will change everything about utilization of space, Bruno said.

Third, ULA will introduce reusability by recovering the Vulcan’s first stage engines.  Instead of trying to recover the entire first stage – as SpaceX is doing with Falcon – ULA will separate the engines from the booster after they have completed their task of sending a payload into space.  Using a hypersonic decelerator, the engines will return Earthward where they will be scooped out of mid-air by helicopters, thereby avoiding immersion in sea water.

The fourth step introduces an era of “distributed lift” in 2024 where various elements of a space facility will be sent into orbit by Vulcan rockets separately and assembled in orbit using the ACES upper stage, which can be restarted many times and move objects from one location to another.  Bruno envisions fuel depots, water depots, and commercial human habitats and the overall commercial utilization of space benefiting from this capability.

ULA’s dramatic plans are stimulated by equally dramatic changes in the U.S. launch services market over the past year.

ULA was created in 2006 by the Air Force, Boeing and Lockheed Martin when the market for launch services was insufficient to support both companies’ rockets –  Delta IV and Atlas V, respectively – but the Air Force wanted to be able to use both of them to ensure its national security satellites could be launched whenever needed.

The ULA launches are very expensive, however, and the Atlas V uses Russian RD-180 engines.   Competition from SpaceX and the deterioration in the U.S.-Russian relationship because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine have changed the landscape.  Congress has made clear that it does not want U.S. national security satellite launches to be dependent on a foreign supplier, and they want the Air Force to embrace competition from “new entrants” like Space X.

The FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act requires the Secretary of Defense to stop using RD-180s for national security launches by 2019, although waivers are possible under certain circumstances.   Bruno reiterated today that the initial version of Vulcan will be ready by 2019, but added that it would be used for commercial launches in the beginning.  He does not anticipate launching for the Air Force until 2022-2023, after the rocket is certified.  The Air Force is asking Congress to amend the law to give it more time to transition from Atlas V with its RD-180s to the new ULA rocket.

Meanwhile, SpaceX expects to be certified to compete with ULA for national security launches this summer.

These events have spurred ULA to rethink its future and Bruno was brought in as President last August.  Today was the unveiling of ULA’s new strategy and new rocket.

ULA’s primary plan is to use two liquid oxygen (LOX)/methane BE-4 engines built by Blue Origin to replace the single RD-180 used in an Atlas V today.   The company has a backup plan with Aerojet Rocketdyne for a traditional LOX-kerosene engine (AR1) in case the BE-4 development encounters problems.  ULA will decide between the two in 12-18 months, Bruno said.

Perhaps the most visionary aspects of ULA’s plans are reusing the Vulcan first stage engines and its plans for the ACES upper stage.

After separating from the first stage, the engines would use an “advanced hypersonic decelerator heat shield” to return towards Earth where they would be snatched out of mid-air by a helicopter and returned to the ULA factory where they would ”plop” into the next booster in line for launch.  Bruno said it would result in a 90 percent reduction in booster propulsion cost.

But it is the ACES upper stage that is the “game changer.”  A ULA graphic used at today’s briefing exclaims “Orbital Capabilities Unleashing Mankind’s Potential in Space.” Bruno listed asteroid mining, building infrastructure for “real and permanent human presence,” including fuel depots, water depots, and commercial human habitats, as examples of what ACES will enable by reusing the cryogenic upper stage’s leftover liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen so it can remain in orbit for weeks, avoiding the "boil off" that limits the lifetime of cryogenic upper stages now.  The ACES Integrated Vehicle Fluids System will utilize the liquid hydrogen and oxygen to repressurize the fuel tanks, generate electrical power, and provide control thrust and attitude thrust.  ULA is working with the Rousch race car company on the advanced internal combustion engine that makes it all possible, so it is "the formula race car of space," Bruno quipped.

With that capability, “We can do anything you can imagine,” he promised.

Bruno also offered “one teaser” – ULA plans something called “FastBuy ReadyLaunch” that will “revolutionize” the way launch services are purchased.  He said the company would provide details about it this summer.

Bruno declined to say how much Vulcan or ACES will cost.   ULA is paying for the development itself, but, as he said at a recent House Armed Services Committee (HASC) hearing, he will not turn down any help the government might want to offer.  ULA will pay for it out of its profits and he acknowledged that ULA’s parent companies – Boeing and Lockheed Martin – essentially are investing in Vulcan by allowing ULA to use the profits this way.

A video of the press conference is posted on YouTube.

What's Happening in Space Policy April 12-17, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Apr-2015 (Updated: 12-Apr-2015 09:42 AM)

This busy week begins today (Sunday), so lace up your running shoes.   Here is our list of upcoming space policy related events for April 12-17, 2015.  The House and Senate return to work from their Easter break tomorrow.

During the Week

Today, April 12, is the 54th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's flight into space aboard Vostok 1, marking the beginning of the human spaceflight era.  It is also the 34th anniversary of the first space shuttle flight (though that is a coincidence, the flight was scheduled for April 10, but postponed by two days at the last minute).  Yuri's Night celebrations will be held in many locations around the globe.  There is a website where you can check to find if there's one in your area and, if not, ideas on how to start one.

Before that, though, are three pre-launch briefings associated with SpaceX's sixth operational cargo launch to the International Space Station (ISS) tomorrow, SpX-6.  The weather forecast is iffy (60 percent chance "go"), but if the launch does take place, SpaceX plans to try again to land the Falcon 9 first stage on its autonomous drone ship whimsically named "Just Read the Instructions."   Today's briefings are at 1:30, 3:30 and 5:00 pm ET.  Tomorrow's launch is at 4:33 pm ET, with a post-launch press conference about 90 minutes later.  All will be broadcast on NASA TV.   All times are subject to change, of course.

Curiously, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) chose the same time as SpaceX's launch to announce "America's Next Rocket" at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs that begins tomorrow and runs through Thursday.  Their event is at 4:00 pm Eastern (2:00 pm local time in Colorado) and will be webcast.   ULA President Tory Bruno will tell the world what name was selected via its recent naming contest and other details of the new "all American" rocket.  ULA currently launches Atlas V and Delta IV.   The debate over the Atlas V's reliance on Russia's RD-180 rocket engines has been discussed on this website for the past year (type "RD-180" in the search box above to find those articles).  This rocket is intended to end U.S. reliance on Russia and be more competitive with, among others, SpaceX.  Perhaps by choosing the same time to make this announcement as the SpaceX launch, ULA is starting the competition -- for attention, at least -- right now.

There likely will be breaking news throughout the week from the Space Symposium, but a lot will be happening elsewhere, too.   On Thursday, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will testify to the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in the morning (note that it is at 9:00 am ET, not 10:00 as usual) and to the Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee in the afternoon (2:30 pm ET) about NASA's FY2016 budget request.  The Senate hearing was postponed from March 5 when a snowstorm shut down DC.

Those and the many other events we know about as of this morning are listed below.

Sunday, April 12

Monday, April 13

Monday-Thursday, April 13-16

Monday-Friday, April 13-17

Monday, April 13 - Friday, April 24

Tuesday, April 14

Thursday, April 16

Bolden: New Roscosmos Head Committed to ISS Through 2024

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Apr-2015 (Updated: 10-Apr-2015 06:36 AM)

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) yesterday (April 9) that the new head of Russia's space agency, Igor Komarov, is committed to the International Space Station (ISS) through 2024.  NAC continues to meet today, where the key topics of discussion are NASA's "Evolvable Mars Campaign" and the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and especially whether ARM should be sent to the Mars moon Phobos instead of an asteroid.

Bolden's comments about Komarov followed a meeting between the two while Bolden was in Russia for the launch of NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and two crew mates, Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka, to ISS two weeks ago.  Kelly and Kornienko will remain aboard the ISS for one year, the first year-long crew for the ISS. 

A report in the Russian press incorrectly stated that Komarov had said he and Bolden agreed to work together to build another space station after ISS.  Bolden did not address that during the NAC meeting, but instead talked about his favorable impression of Komarov, calling him a "forward-looking, positive" individual.  Komarov became head of Roscosmos after another reorganization of the Russian space program earlier this year.

Bolden noted that Komarov has a much larger portfolio than previous Roscosmos directors.  Following the restructuring, not only is Komarov in charge of the Roscosmos space agency, but a new entity that comprises much of Russia's space industry (the United Rocket and Space Corporation) as well as medical and research institutes associated with the space program.

Komarov is committed to utilization of ISS through 2024, Bolden said, and to working with all the space station partners and expanding the number of participants looking at a long term exploration roadmap.   Bolden cautioned, however, that "that was talk, we'll see how it goes."

Komarov is the fourth head of Roscosmos since Bolden became NASA Administrator in 2009.

NAC spent much of yesterday debating the future of NASA's space program, especially the Evolvable Mars Campaign and ARM.   No decisions were made about making findings or recommendations about those activities, although there was robust debate as there has been in several of the past NAC meetings.  NAC chairman Steve Squyres gave "homework assignments" overnight to several of the members to draft language that will be debated today.   The meeting is from 9:00 am - 12:00 pm today at NASA Headquarters and is available by WebEx and telecon.  

One line of discussion late yesterday was whether NAC should recommend that NASA consider sending the ARM robotic spacecraft to Phobos rather than to an asteroid (some argue that Phobos is an asteroid captured by the gravity of Mars, but Sqyures indicated there is debate about that in the scientific community).   Check back here later to learn what they decide to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

During the Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday-Wednesday, April 6-8

Tuesday, April 7

Tuesday-Wednesday, April 7-8

Thursday, April 9

Thursday-Friday, April 9-10

Planetary Society: Orbiting Mars Is Critical Precursor to Human Landing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

During the Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 30

Monday-Tuesday, March 30-31

Tuesday-Thursday, March 31-April 2

Wednesday, April 1

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

Thursday, April 2

Friday, April 3

Kelly and Kornienko Begin One-Year ISS Mission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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