'This Week In Space' – May 29, 2010

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Atlantis lands. Source: NASA

We begin at the end this week – the end of an era in space. Well maybe. This was the scene at the Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday – commander Ken Ham dead-sticking Atlantis down the steep glide slope to Runway 33.  The mission – STS-132 – was the final scheduled flight of Atlantis.  But she is not heading straight to the museums.  She’s now back in her Orbiter Processing Facility – NASA-speak for hanger – where she will be prepped for flight on short notice should there be trouble on the remaining pair of missions. BUT the museums might have to wait –  NASA is leaving the door open to schedule an encore mission for Atlantis. Since there would be no rescue vehicle at the ready – she would likely fly with a scaled down crew that would use the Russian Soyuz as a lifeboat.  NASA will make a decision on this by mid-June. Maybe the shuttle program will end as it began – with a two person crew.

For those of you keeping score at home – If it turns out this was the last ride to space for OV-104 – here are her final game stats:  32 flights – 11 of those to the International Space Station, over 120 million miles on the odometer, 294 days in orbit, 4,649 revolutions around Earth.  She was home-away-from-home to 189 astronauts.  She carried the Magellan and Galileo interplanetary probes to space, as well as the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. She was the first orbiter to dock with the Russian Space Station Mir, and the last one to visit the Hubble Space Telescope. Not bad at all. Way to go Atlantis. Way to go…

He’s the E.F. Hutton of astronauts –  “when he talks, people listen.”  Or would Greta Garbo be a better analogy.  Or maybe J.D. Salinger.  I digress.  You guessed it, I’m talking about Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon, a bona fide National Hero, and a man who chooses his words very carefully. And he has been speaking out recently in opposition to the Obama Administration’s plan to kill the moonshot program known as Constellation. This week, he took center stage again – at a House Science and Technology committee hearing.  He reiterated his support for Constellation in particular and a return to the moon in general. The man has a lifetime supply  of dry powder – and he fired at will:

The issue facing this meeting has produced substantial turmoil among space advocates. So many normally knowledgeable people were completely astounded by the President’s proposal. Had the announcement been preceded by the typical review, analysis and discussion among the Executive branch, the agency, the congress, and all the other interested and knowledgeable parties, no member of this committee would have been surprised by the announcement of a new plan.  In this case, a normally collegial sector of society was split in many fragments, some focused on contracts and money, some on work force and jobs, some on technical choices.    All because a few planners, with little or no space operations experience, attempted an end run on the normal process.    It has been painful to watch.

Armstrong was joined by the last man to walk on the moon- Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan, who also took aim at Obama’s plan, which he views as long on talk and short on funds.  In other words, “show me the money.”

And, when one examines details of the FY2011 budget proposal, nowhere is there to be found one penny allocated to support space exploration. Yes, there has been much rhetoric on transformative technology, heavy lift propulsion research, robotic precursor missions, significant investment in commercial crew and cargo capabilities, pursuit of cross-cutting space technology capabilities, climate change research, aeronautics R&D, and education initiatives, all worthwhile endeavors in their own right. Yet nowhere do we find any mention of the Human Exploration of Space and nowhere do we find a commitment in dollars to support this all important national endeavor. We (Armstrong, Lovell and I) have come to the unanimous conclusion that this budget proposal presents no challenges, has no focus, and in fact is a blueprint for a mission to ‘nowhere.’

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was also on hand, testifying earlier in the day.  He disclosed that it will cost and estimated four and half billion dollars over five years to implement Obama’s recently announced plan to turn the Orion capsule into an ISS lifeboat – money that NASA will have to take out of other programs.  And he assured the committee that NASA is continuing work on Constellation in good faith. Yes – the work goes on until Congress weighs in because that is the way the law is written. Bolden got an earful from Arizona’s Gabrielle Giffords over NASA’s just-announced decision to reassign the outspoken Constellation Program Manager Jeff Hanley.

Gabrielle Giffords:  Mr. Bolden, my concern is, particularly concerning the news we had last week, that the program manager was actually working hard to make the program work, given the constraints of the budget, but again from where we sit, his work to restructure and potentially save the parts of Constellation that need to be saved, by removing him from his position…I think again it demonstrates to us that the question that I asked you earlier, whether or not you would give this committee your assurance that you were doing everything that you can as NASA administrator to make progress with Constellation for the remainder of FY 2010, when the constellation manager is removed from his position, it frankly makes me personally very dubious that that is in fact happening .  So I’m wondering again, the assurance that you can give us in the united states congress that your actually carrying this out.  and whether or not the program will actually carry forward, and whether or not you are actually planning on replacing him with someone competent, and whether or not you are planning to replace him expeditiously.

Charlie Bolden:  We would replace him with someone who is incredibly competent, I don’t think I have anyone in the hierarchy of the constellation program or anywhere else that is not competent and has my confidence. Jeff Hanley is not leaving NASA.  Jeff Hanley is moving up to become the deputy director of the Johnson Space Center for Strategic Studies and Strategic plans.  He is an incredibly talented individual.  Jeff and I have spoken for quite sometime since I became the NASA administrator, about his future.

Courtesy: SpaceX

While Constellation would be the loser under the New Obama plan, the winners are commercial space companies looking to taxi astronauts and cargo to low earth orbit.   And no one is more out in front on that than Elon Musk of SpaceX.  We are still waiting to hear a launch date for the first test flight of his Falcon 9 rocket, but its getting close.  We’ll keep you posted – check in with us at Spaceflight Now.  I skyped Elon last week, and I asked him about Neil Armstrong’s opposition to the Obama plan.  His reply was interesting, to say the least.

I’m sorry but I think Neil Armstrong is being manipulated.  And it is a sorry sight indeed.  Because he is of course a national hero.  On the other hand, Buzz Aldrin…you know, I think, you want to go back and look to national heroes on advise for the future of space, there’s Neil Armstrong, who is a great man, and then there is Buzz Aldrin who is also a great man.  Now, Buzz Aldrin is the guy with the PHD from MIT, and Neil is a pilot.  He’s always been a pilot, that’s cool.  But if you are going to look for somebody to render a judgement, a technical judgement on what program makes the most sense, I think you would probably pick the PHD from MIT, rather than the pilot.  And Buzz Aldrin, the PHD from MIT, is the one who is a huge fan of the Obama policy.

Strange times indeed in the space world. Never has a group of passionate people who agree on so much – been so deeply at odds. And never have the Apollo astronauts been so outspoken about anything. You have to wonder how thing got so polarized – and you also have to wonder how hard it would be to find a third way. All of this made me think of my good friend Andy Chaikin – author of A Man on the Moon – and more recently A Passion for Mars: Intrepid Explorers of the Red Planet.  I skyped him the other day.

Now here’s story of cooperation in space – XCOR Aerospace and Masten Space Systems are teaming up with their eye on a big prize. They are buddying up to try to win some NASA-sponsored unmanned lunar lander projects.  Last year, Masten won the $1 million first prize for Level two of NASA’s Lunar Lander Challenge. Masten’s Xoie craft had to take off and land vertically, fly horizontally,  and make a round trip between two landing sites on a simulated moonscape.  XCOR is a leader in next generation rockets and propulsion systems.  The companies are neighbors at the Mojave Spaceport – and will no doubt be the team to beat. ALSO, Masten’s chief competitor for that lunar lander challenge last year,  Armadillo Aerospace, is teaming up with Space Adventures. They are getting into the  suborbital tourism racket. The companies are aiming to charge $102 thousand dollars for a trip 62 miles into the blue yonder and 5 minutes of weightlessness.  That’s about half what a ticket on Virgin Galactic is going for, but roughly on par with what a ride on the Lynx is supposed to cost…the Lynx is the suborbital space plane under development by XCOR.  None of the companies has announced a date when they’ll actually start flying. Nice to see a price war though – a little competition is a good thing…

A Delta 4 rocket left launch pad 37B at the Cape on Thursday night – and it is safe to say this one didn’t ask for directions – it contains the latest and greatest addition to the global positioning system satellite fleet. The GPS 2F-1 promises to offer improved accuracy – a more jam resistant signal – a longer design life – and a better signal for civil signal for those us who use GPS but aren’t in the military. If this satellite goes astray – it is equipped with a stern woman’s voice who will scold the satellite – telling it is is off route – and recalculating.

And Arianespace has launched it’s 50th Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s spaceport in French Guyana.  The payload on this rocket included two telecommunications satellites.  Astra-3B will provide direct-to-home television and broadband to Europe and the Middle East.  COMSATBw 2 is a German military satellite. Afterwards – the  German general in charge said “we deserve a glass of champagne” – prompting the French to go Qui Qui!

Swift Spacecraft. Source: NASA

What happens when galaxies collide?  Well,  they pull over to the side and call the police and insurance company probably.  But new data from a NASA satellite called Swift has turned up some smoking gun evidence that galaxy collisions can really amp up the energy emitted by the supermassive black holes that reside at their centers.  Turns out such violent mergers generate so-called hard X-rays, exactly the type of the energy Swift was designed to sniff out.  Astronomers have wondered for years why a relatively small number of black holes emit vast amounts of energy.  Seems it all has to do with a clash between neighbors. You know what they say good black holes make good neighbors…

A little closer to home – in Mars orbit –  the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has beamed back some interesting data that is giving scientists a sense of what lies beneath the ice cap covering the Martian North Pole.  The Shallow Radar instrument aboard MRO can penetrate the ice to take a look at the rock formations underneath, giving scientists clues to what forces shaped the cap’s distinctive canyons and spiral troughs.  The new data suggests they were actually sculpted by wind over millions of years as the ice sheet grew.

And take a look at these images from MRO. They confirm what we told you last week – that the Phoenix Mars Lander is officially Tango Uniform. The top shot was taken by MRO’s HiRISE camera in 2008 – and it shows two clean gleaming solar arrays – the bottom shot form last month shows an asymmetrical shadow – apparently one of the solar arrays apparently broke off under the weight of hundreds of pounds of dry ice.   Mission managers had tasked the Mars Odyssey spacecraft to listen for signs of life from Phoenix in recent months…hoping that against the odds the little lander might wake up after a cold, dark winter in the Martian northern polar region.  But, they never heard a peep.

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One Response to “'This Week In Space' – May 29, 2010”

  1. Stephane De Wolf Says:

    I suppose Elon Musk is too busy with the upcoming launch and has several hours of sleep debt to catch up. His opinion on the first two moonwalkers’s ability to have an sound understanding of “rocket science” is a bit surprising to say the least. Since when is a diploma the only factor to evaluate intellectual capabilities? Wasn’t Buzz trying to solve personnal issues (i.e. depression and alcoholism) while Neil was teaching aerospace engineering at university? Last time I checked, Neil meets all the hiring requirements for a job as engineer at SpaceX (except age, perhaps)… :)

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