Some things have not changed since the end of the Cold War. Russia is still making the mistake of believing its own propaganda.
A new article by Alexei Lyakhov and Artyom Kobzev proclaims, “Russia Has No Rivals in Space Tourism.” The article was published by the Voice of Russia, the international radio service of the All Russia State Radio and Television company.
NASA Administrator Major General Charles Bolden says he will have to make cuts to NASA’s “Commercial Resupply Services” contract, Aviation Week reports.
NASA has awarded CRS contracts to Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences Corporation for 12 and 8 cargo missions, valuaed at $1.6 billion and $1.9 billion, respectively.
On April 25, General Bolden told the Senate Appropriations Committee, “I’ll have to renegotiate those contracts. We won’t fly the number of missions that we have. Right now we’re flying 20 commercial cargo missions to the International Space Station over the next five years for three-point-some-odd billion dollars, an incredible value to the nation. I can’t carry that out under sequester.”
It’s hard to see how the proposed renegotiation would save money, however. The International Space Station needs a certain number of cargo flights to operate. There are some optional science experiments, but science aboard ISS is already severely restricted and it’s hard to see how it could be cut much further.
NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Development (CCDev) program keeps getting smaller all the time.
Last June, Congress forced a “compromise” on NASA, which was more like a surrender. Under this “compromise,” NASA was forced to reduce the number of companies in the CCDev competition from five to three. The third company (Sierra Nevada) received a much smaller amount of funding than the primary competitors (SpaceX and Boeing), so the current field is often referred to as “two-and-a-half competitors.”
Now, it appears the field is about to shrink further. At a hearing on March 20, NASA Administrator Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden told Congress, “We intend to put a request for proposal on the street this summer and you will probably get a downselect.” The losers will be kept hanging for a while, however. “You won’t see the selection announced until the middle of next year, 2014,” Bolden said.
The Federal Communications Commission has issued a Public Notice to help commercial space companies obtain use of communications frequencies for launch, operations, and reentry. Unfortunately, the FCC requirements don’t seem to meet the needs of high-rate launch operations that are expected in the near future.
Space Exploration Technologies launched another Dragon capsule this morning, heading for the International Space Station. The launch of the Falcon 9 rocket was perfect, but the Dragon capsule has experienced some anomalies. SpaceX mission controllers have had trouble getting some of the thrusters online.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk explained the problem in a message to his Twitter followers: “Issue with Dragon thruster pods. System inhibiting three of four from initializing. About to command inhibit override.”
SpaceX now reports that vital signs on a second thruster pod are “trending positive.” When SpaceX has at least two pods restored, it will begin manuevering the capsule toward the space station. The loss of some thrusters could result a later-than-planned arrival at the space station. In the worst case, if SpaceX can’t get the second thruster pod working, the mission could be a total loss.
Some people have said that Dragon flights are becoming “routine,” but spaceflight will never be routine until we have reusable vehicles.
Expendable rocket and capsule: “We have a problem with our thrusters and can’t dock with the space station. Looks like we’ll have to abort the mission, lose the vehicle, the payload, and the $100 million customer payment. Space-station crew won’t have clean underwear for another three months. Life is tough.”
Reusable spacecraft: “We have a problem with our thrusters and can’t dock with the space station. Looks like we’ll have to return to base, call in the mechanics, and fly the mission again tomorrow. Space-station crew won’t have fresh sushi for another night. Life is tough.”
Because they don’t throw away expensive hardware, reusable vehicles can also afford more testing and redundancy. So, anomalies are less likely to occur and better tolerated when they do occur. For the most common failures, reusable vehicles are not only “fail safe” but “fail operational.” Most airline passengers are unaware of how often airliners suffer equipment failures in flight. Airliners have enough redundancy that when a piece of hardware fails, the pilots simply shut it down and report the failure to mechanics when the plane lands. Spaceflight needs to evolve to the same point.
Again, we’re just saying.
The OSIRS-REx mission, developed by the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and Lockheed Martin Space Systems, is scheduled for launch in 2016.
This asteroid sample-return mission is interesting for a number of reasons. OSIRIS-REx stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security – Regolith Explorer. This marks the first time that resource prospecting and planetary defense have been prominently highlighted, along with science, as part of a NASA unmanned space mission. This should become the standsard model for all future missions.
Also interesting is the way OSIRIS-REx team members have tested their experiments in a low-gravity environment.
This commercial is deliberately over the top, in a hilarious sort of way. Nevertheless, its tag line is a message NASA (and its political masters) ought to keep in mind.
NASA has been quietly downsizing the astronaut office, and actual flight opportunities have been downsized greatly. The expensive Orion capsule and Space Launch System won’t help the flight rate any. If this trend continues, it will become a problem for NASA. At some point, taxpayers will start to ask why they are spending so much money on a space agency that’s sending almost no one into space.
Whenever these facts are mentioned, NASA responds by pointing out how much progress is being made in the unmanned space-science side. (The Curiosity rover is the current poster boy for this.)
It’s true that NASA’s unmanned programs have been doing better, but robots don’t vote and robots don’t pay taxes. The people who do want (and deserve) more than that.
As Scott Glenn, playing Alan Shepard, said in The Right Stuff, “You see those people out there? They all want to see Buck Rogers, and that’s us.”
Nobody throws a ticker-tape parade for robots.
And nothing beats an astronaut.
There’s a petition on the White House website calling for the United States to rapidly develop a nuclear thermal rocket engine.
Technically, nuclear thermal rockets are a promising technology, but unless NASA develops a deep-space ship to put it on (like the Copernicus MTV, shown here, or the Nautilus X), a nuclear rocket engine would be wasted.
There is little chance of a commercial outfit working through all the red tape needed to launch a nuclear rocket engine into orbit. (It’s questionable whether the government could do that itself.)
We’ve discussed this problem with engineers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and all of us came to the same conclusion: the best hope for nuclear rocket engines is finding uranium or thorium on the Moon. That would solve the political/environmental problem by allowing nuclear reactors to be launched from Earth unfueled. It would also jump start the development of lunar industry.
Mining nuclear fuel on the Moon has an advantage over other lunar mining schemes, such as platinum group metal (PGM) mining. Those proposals work only if mining on the Moon is cheaper than mining on Earth. That is possible but not yet proven. The bar for mining nuclear material on the Moon is much lower, if environmental politics does not allow us to launch it from Earth.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has announced that his nation will increase space spending to 2.1 trillion rubles (about $70 billion) for 2013-2020.
There is no need to panic about the Return of the Red Menace, however. Russian officials and politicians are fond of making promises about future space programs, which have rarely been realized in recent years. Statements about future plans are often made for PR purposes.
Even if Russian politicians follow through with their promises this time, it won’t exactly shift the balance of space power. NASA still spends more than all of the world’s civil government space agencies combined. If the United States cannot stay in the lead, then NASA (and its political masters) are doing something wrong.
Vladimir Aleksandrovich Popovkin, director general of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) says, “By 2015, we shall restore the capabilities we had back in the Soviet era.” The Soviet era ended in 1991. Restoring the Russian space program to where it was 21 years ago hardly seems likely an ambitious goal. Of course, US politicians still talk about quixotic plans to take NASA back to the 1960′s, with Apollo-era systems, architectures, and technologies.
Meanwhile, the US commercial space sector is on the verge of a breakthrough in routine, low-cost space transportation that will bring about the dawn of the true Space Age.
The NASA Flight Opportunities Program, which provides funding to fly technology payloads on suborbital spacecraft and other platforms, may be in danger.
Sources tell us that Congress is unhappy with the current direction of the Flight Opportunities Program, which has been a political football since its inception.
The Flight Opportunities Program was created by the merger of two previous NASA programs: Facilitated Access to Space Technology (FAST), which provided flights for experiments on microgravity research aircraft, and Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research (CRusR).
After many years of complaints by the space industry, the United States government is finally moving close to reform on space export-control regulations.
ITAR, or International Traffic in Arms Regulations, was originally intended to control international arms shipments. Unfortunately, the regulations have been applied to space vehicles, satellites, and related technologies that are dual-use or purely civilian in nature.
The Wall Street Journal and other media outlets are reporting that the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, just passed by the House and awaiting action in the Senate, would reverse some of the harshest changes to ITAR regulations that have been made in recent years. The bill would give the President more flexibility to determine how satellites and related technologies are regulated. That flexibility was taken away by Congressional action in the 1990′s. [Update: The bill has now been passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President.]
This action is welcome news for Citizens in Space. “Related technologies” could be interpreted to include some of the suborbital experiments which will be flown by Citizens in Space. Although we do not plan to export any technology, the current regulations recognize a wide variety of discussions and interactions with foreign nationals as “deemed exports” which are subject to ITAR regulation and require prior State Department approval. This has raised serious questions about the ability of foreign nationals to participate in Citizens in Space by building experiments for our flights.
Stuart Witt, chairman of the Commercial Space Federation and manager of the Mojave Air and Space Port, said “It is exciting to see progress on export reform at such an important time for the industry. Removing unnecessary regulations will allow companies to spend their valuable resources on testing and developing their technologies, allowing the U.S. to retain its leadership as an innovator. We hope progress in this area will encourage the removal of manned suborbital spaceflight systems from the US Munitions List. These vehicles have innumerable civilian uses, and should be on the Commerce Control List, where many dual-use technologies with predominantly civilian uses are already regulated.”
Potential participants in the Nano-satellite Launch Challenge are telling us they’ve received official notification from Space Florida that NASA has canceled the Space Act Agreement for the Challenge.
What this means is not exactly clear. In theory, NASA could continue the Nano-satellite Launch Challenge with another partner. Most likely, however, means for the challenges that.
NASA’s explanation is that they surveyed 15 possible nanosat launch projects and found that two government-funded projects (SWORDS and ALASA) were the only candidates that appeared to have a chance of success. That explanation completely miss the point of prizes, which is to reward competitors only if they succeed, rather than prejudging outcomes.
[Update: An email from a NASA employee close to the Centennial Challenges program confirms that SWORDS and ALASA were key factors in the cancelation. The email also states that “NASA has also found a significant technology gap in low cost avionics and GN&C systems needed to support the development of a low cost nano-sat launch system.” That statement sounds surreal when a quick trip to RadioShack can net you a three-axis gyroscope and more computing power than the entire world possessed at the time of Sputnik.]
This announcement is disappointing, on two levels. It’s a setback for the teams who intended to compete, but it’s also a setback for the Centennial Challenges program, which has been drifting these past few years.
The Centennial Challenges program was inspired by the Ansari X-Prize, which proved that a small company could develop and fly a suborbital spacecraft at low cost. The Lunar Lander Challenge, one of the first Centennial Challenges, was a boon for suborbital companies such as Armadillo Aerospace and Masten Space Systems. Unfortunately, with the apparent cancelation of the Nano-satellite Launch Challenge, NASA has no challenges that are aimed at the most important problem facing future space activities – reducing the cost of access to space.
The major part of the blame lies with Congress, which has underfunded Centennial Challenges for years (when it funded it at all).
NASA itself deserves part of the blame, however. Over the years, the focus of Centennial Challenges has shifted from promoting innovation in the American aerospace sector to addressing the specific needs of NASA’s own programs, such as Mars sample return. This shift is not surprising given the way the program has bounced around the agency, finally ending up under the Office of the Chief Technologist.
Compounding the problem is the fact that NASA tried to pick a winning technology horse before the race began. A large part of the Centennial Challenges money was carved out early on for Space Elevator Challenges, even though the space-elevator concept was a high-risk technology with little likelihood of reducing launch costs in the near term. (They were egged on by the Space Frontier Foundation and the Spaceward Foundation, which were enamored of the space elevator despite its questionable economics and low technology readiness level.)
The US government has vested interest in lowering launch costs, and prizes can be a powerful tool for furthering that purpose. Unfortunately, this cancelation casts increased doubt on NASA’s reliability as a sponsor for space-access prizes. At some point, we have to ask ourselves if we’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Perhaps the time has come to consider other agencies, such as DARPA or the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation, as prize sponsors?
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center news blog has an interesting article about Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology.
The American space program stands at the cusp of a “water rush” to the moon by several companies developing robotic prospectors for launch in the near future, according to a NASA scientist considering how to acquire and use water ice believed to be at the poles of the moon.
“This is like the gold rush that led to the settlement of California,” said Phil Metzger, a physicist who leads the Granular Mechanics and Regolith Operations Lab, part of Kennedy’s Surface Systems Office. “This is the water rush.”
Collecting the water, or at least showing it can be collected, is where the Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology comes in. The small company signed on in April for the third phase of a Small Business Innovative Research deal that continues research work to develop technologies NASA may need to harvest space resources in the future. [Emphasis Added]
The company already is far along in its development of a rover that will work on its own. There is a deal in place with SpaceX to launch a lander and rover on a Falcon 9 rocket in October 2015. Astrobotic is competing against several other companies for the Google Lunar X-Prize, an award worth up to $30 million funded by the Internet search engine company.
It is disappointing, though, that the article still assumes that space resources will be harvested by NASA, rather than private enterprise. NASA was created to be a research and exploration outfit, not a mining company. The United States Geological Survey does not harvest mineral resources in the United States. It performs research that enables private companies to harvest minerals. Surely, that is a more appropriate role for NASA.
NASA is trying but still having trouble understanding the paradigm shift.
While US lawmakers and certain pundits panic over the alleged threat from the emerging Chinese space program (which is now replicating feats the US accomplished decades ago), European lawmakers are worried about a different competitor – an American one.
Space News quotes French Senator Bruno Sido, comparing SpaceX to ArianeSpace: “Visiting Les Mureaux is like entering an impressive laboratory. Visiting SpaceX, which occupies an old factory that once belonged to Boeing, is like entering IKEA. This company has already won many contracts, is well-supported by NASA and is building low-cost launcher that constitutes a real and serious threat.”
Citing the SpaceX competitive threat, French lawmakers are urging an early start on the next-generation Ariane 6 expendable launch vehicle.
Meanwhile, SpaceX is already testing an evolved, reusable Falcon first stage in his Grasshopper program. On November 1, the 10-story VTVL Grasshopper lifted 17.7 feet (5.4 meters, hovered, and touched down in an 8-second test hop at the SpaceX test facility in McGregor, Texas. Grasshopper consists of a Falcon 9 rocket first stage, Merlin 1D engine, four steel landing legs with hydraulic dampers, and a steel support structure.
SpaceX is operating inside of the Ariane decision cycle. Ariane 6 is intended to compete with Falcon 9, but by the time Ariane 6 becomes operational, SpaceX may have a fully reusable vehicle.
In fact, Ariane 6 appears to be a technological step backward. According to Aviation Week, the French space agency CNES favors a solid-rocket design for Ariane 6. The reasoning appears to be that a solid rocket could survive longer while losing market share. “Bonnal says even in the worst-case scenarios that assume a 20% decline in market price after 2020, when the rocket would enter service, the solid-rocket configurations could survive on eight launches per year, including three institutional ones for government customers.”
ArianeSpace seems to be securing its line of retreat, as it prepares to surrender the launch market to SpaceX.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s GOES-13 (GOES-East) satellite failed on September 23. A backup satellite (GOES-14) was called into service and is now functioning as GOES-East. Unfortunately, the position of GOES-14 (further west than GOES-13) means there is some distortion on the Eastern edge of its images. Engineers are working on GOES-13 and hope to return it to service, but there is no timetable for that.
At the same time, there is growing concern over the Joint Polar Satellite System, which was scheduled for launch in 2014 but has been delayed until 2017 or later. The Government Accountability Office has predicted that this will lead to a gap of 17-53 months in polar-orbiting weather satellite data. The New York Times, Business Week, and Time magazine are among the media who have expressed concern.
Six Italian scientists and a former government official have been sentenced to six-year prison terms for failing to predict an earthquake. The charge was practice. The scientists were effectively tried for scientific malpractice, although the prosecution did not use that term.
The implications of this verdict for scientific research in Italy are alarming. Malpractice suits have had a devastating effect on the medical industry. We hope this sort of thing doesn’t spread to other countries.
We’re all for holding government officials accountable for their failures, but this is ridiculous. No one can know the unknowable. Even meteorologists make mistakes, and weather forecasting is a much better developed field than earthquake prediction.
This verdict could have implications for planetary defense. A major asteroid impact could have effects felt on planet-wide scale. A scientist who fails to predict an asteroid impact might conceivably be held accountable in any country, including Italy. Such fears might cause scientists to avoid the field or to “cry wolf” by always erring on the side of caution, leading to an ultimate loss of public trust.
One prediction we’re willing to stand behind: there won’t be a lot of international seismology conferences held in Rome in the near future.
Speaking at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight on Wednesday, Major General Rocket Dickman (USAF-ret.) expressed skepticism about NASA’s ability to sustain Congressional support for a a $10-billion, 15-year Mars Sample Return mission.
We recently compared NASA’s $8 billion James Webb Space Telescope to the European Extremely Large Telescope, which will provide 6 times the resolution at 1/6 the price.
Soon afterward, we received a note from former NASA scientist-astronaut Ed Gibson, who operated the Apollo Telescope Mount during the Skylab 4 mission. Dr. Gibson thought we had understated the case: “The E-ELT has a second advantage over the JWST’s lower resolution and light collection area; it can be serviced as required; the JWST, unlike the HST, cannot be serviced insitu.”
To be fair, NASA is studying some ideas for in-space servicing of JWST, using the Orion capsule and Space Launch System. Impartial observers do not consider those ideas to be credible, however. An Orion mission to the Earth-Sun L-2 point, where JWST is to be located, would cost a minimum of $2 billion, for the launch alone. That assumes Orion and SLS are already developed and available when they are needed.
Beyond the matter of cost, there are all sorts of technical obstacles. The JWST is not designed for in-space servicing. The Orion capsule is not designed to provide a stable work platform for servicing missions. The L-2 point is located 1.5 million miles from Earth. At that distance, the round-trip time lag for communications is 16 seconds, limiting the ability of mission control to provide ground support during EVAs.
The United States needs to develop its ability to do in-space servicing in Low Earth Orbit and, eventually, in deep space. That ability needs to be developed in a sensible manner, however. Astronauts have been doing in-space maintenance and repairs since Skylab. The challenge now is to make in-space servicing cost-effective. Some will say robots are the answer, but robots are not a magic bullet. The 16-second time lag for communications at L-2 is an impediment for humans but a killer for robots. We need to develop a range of servicing methods, both human and robotic, but we also need to develop the supporting infrastructure including low-cost transportation to orbit, low-cost transportation in orbit, and appropriate, cost-effective on-orbit facilities. Most of this infrastructure will be developed commercially in the decades to come.
For now, it appears that NASA is trying to tie two expensive programs – JWST and Orion/SLS – together. That’s a strategy NASA has employed successfully in the past, with programs like the Space Shuttle and Space Station. It’s a dangerous strategy, however, which makes it harder for Congress to cancel one program but drives up overall costs. If Congress ever becomes serious about saving money, both programs will be in danger.
European astronomers have discovered a planet with about the mass of the Earth orbiting the second star in the Alpha Centauri system. It is the smallest exoplanet yet discovered around a star like the Sun. The planet was discovered using the 3.6-meter telescope at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla Observatory in Chile.
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty explicitly states that space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies is “not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or any other means.” Today, some lawyers argue that clause (known as ”Article II”) prohibits private property as well. Yet, that is not the way the Treaty was interpreted at the time.
BetaBeat has an interview with Bill Nye, CEO of the Planetary Society. Not much of substance there, but we where heartened to see this:
Mr. Musk had a meeting with the board of the Planetary Society, said Mr. Nye. “He sat down with them and said, ‘I want to go to Mars. What do I need to do?’ And everybody said, ‘We need cheap access to orbit.’ It’s the key first step. Getting to orbit right now is too expensive.”
Indeed – and the same can be said whether the destination is the Moon, Mars, or anywhere else.
In the past, the Planetary Society was primarily a robotic space science lobby which showed little interest in cheap access to space. We’re glad to see they’ve come around.
Unfortunately, their legislative agenda does not yet reflect that realization and is still centered around futile attempts to increase the NASA budget. Old habits die hard.
Leonard David has written a column about new Federal regulations governing meteorite collection on public land. Reading the column, we spotted one quote that raised a red flag:
“We tried to account for every kind of occurrence out there,” said Lucia Kuizon, national paleontologist at the [Bureau of Land Management] in Washington, DC. “We felt the policy helps the public understand the issues, as well as for our own resource specialists out in the field when they get inquiries.”
Wait a minute? Meteorites are not fossils. Why is a paleontologist issuing statements about them? What’s going on here?