Posts Tagged ‘Space exploration’

'This Week In Space' – June 27, 2010

June 27, 2010

The latest edition of “This Week In Space” is now available – give us a watch.

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Discovery launch. Source: NASA

Hello and Welcome. we begin this week with shuttle manifest destiny…and the movable feast that the last days of STS launching has become.   It now appears the next shuttle flight – Discovery flying the STS-133 mission –  will launch on October 29, and the STS-134 flight of Endeavour moves to February 28 of next year.   An official announcement is expected on July 1st.  The reason for the delay: scientists need some time to put the finishing touches on the final shuttle payload to the station – the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer,  a particle physics experiment. But we use the word final with some caution – as NASA has not ruled out an encore mission for Atlantis.  Look for a decision on that in August.

Of course there are a lot of people out there who would like to see the shuttles fly on…a new and familiar name is now on the list – Senator John Glenn – the first American to orbit the earth, a bonafide hero and a shuttle veteran as well – released a statement on Obama’s plans for NASA this week. He repeated what he has often said – that the shuttle should stay just a little bit longer…he does support keeping the station going past 2015 – and he agrees a moon base is not  in the cards now – as for the “smaller, less experienced companies” vying to fly cargo – and eventually people – to the space station should be said they should only be phased in only “after they demonstrate a high degree of competency and reliability, particularly with regard to safety concerns.”

In Hawthorne California – at SpaceX headquarters they would beg to differ – with all due respect to the Senator. It’s been a few weeks now since their successful first launch of their Falcon 9 rocket – and they are poring through the data – trying to better understand why they had a late in the count scrub before the launch, why the second stage rolled in orbit – and why they were unable to recover the first stage. Details on all of that and much more are in the full interview I had via Skype with SpaceX’s Ken Bowersox the other day.

Some fire and smoke from an Ariane 5 rocket. It blasted off from Guyana on Saturday. The payload – two satellites.  Arabsat-5A will provide telecom and broadband services to Africa and the Middle East.  The South Korean COMS satellite includes weather observation, ocean surveillance, and telecom payloads.  All eyes will be on Arianespace later this year as they begin launch operations using the Soyuz and new Vega rockets.

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This Week In Space – June 20, 2010

June 20, 2010

The latest edition of “This Week In Space” is now available!  Give us a watch…

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Falcon 9 Launch. Source: Chris Thompson/SpaceX

Hello and Welcome – I had a long interesting talk with the president of the Constellation Nation – ex officio – Mike Griffin. I asked him what he things about the success of Elon Musk’s Falcon 9 test launch – you may be surprised at his response – I also asked him about the latest skirmish in the war between old and new space.  The full answer – and much more – coming up after we check the rest of the weeks space news.

Let’s get started with some fire and smoke – at the Baikonur Cosmodrome – that’s the site and sound of the 24th Space Station crew leaving earth behind for a long stint at the orbiting outpost. On board the Soyuz Capsule – Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin and NASA astronauts Shannon Walker and Doug Wheelock. Their arrival at the space station went well – the crew up there had an inkling they might be dropping by – so they dressed up in their fresh jumpsuits – and didn’t say they gave at the office their new station mates knocked on the door.  The arrival of Shannon Walker marks a minor milestone in space for those of you who keep track of the stats. For the first time ever – two women are a part of the long duration crew at the same time. Right now there is no room at the ISS inn – 6 station keepers are up there…working in the coolest science lab anywhere.

Among the experiments on the schedule — A new way to take a look at the world’s shipping traffic. The ESA-sponsored experiment is using the ISS to track ships from space.  All big ships are required to have on-board transponders, but the equipment really only works when the ship is close to shore.

The VHF radio signals that power the system have a horizontal range of just 40 nautical miles – so open ocean traffic is largely un-tracked.   But, as it turns out, the vertical range of those radio waves is much greater…all the way up the space station.  The experiment runs on remote control and will last for two years.

In the meantime, another NASA eye-in-the-sky is also keeping tabs on ships.  The MODIS instrument on NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites captured these views of what you might think of as ship “contrails.”  It turns out the sulphur in a ship’s exhaust interacts with the water vapor over the ocean to form these bright streamers.  They wouldn’t be visible to the naked eye, but MODIS can sniff them out.

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'This Week In Space' – May 29, 2010

May 29, 2010

The latest edition of “This Week In Space” is now available.  Check us out!

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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.

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Obama's 'Space Summit'

April 15, 2010

Discovery launch. Source: NASA

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – FL – My head is spinning as I sit here waiting for President Obama to do what should have been done when the White House rolled out its budget for NASA: do the vision thing.

I have faith in POTUS to deliver the goods and explain his revolutionary approach to space exploration.

Here are a few things to remember as you watch the speech and listen to the spin:

The dramatic job loss that has so many people riled is not the result of the Obama White House shift in space. The shuttle retirement was actually set in stone by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. The shuttle fleet could fly on longer – each orbiter is rated to fly 100 flights – but the CAIB decided that it was time to move on to the next thing in space. Something safer.

Obama is also not responsible for the so-called “gap” between the shuttle and whatever is next. The gap is an artifact of inattention and meager funding over several years. Even before the CAIB gave us a date certain for retiring the shuttles, we knew the fleet could not – and should not – fly forever. And yet no one on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue had the persistence and forethought to insist the investment in a new ride be healthy and timely enough to give US astronauts seamless access to space on US vehicles once the orbiters were chalked and pickled in museums. George Bush painted a vision for space exploration that was bold and exciting – but it never got the funding it needed to get off the ground.

This is the hand Team Obama has been dealt. The shuttles are going away – and the program of record is way over budget and behind schedule. The gap is now a chasm – and those shuttle jobs cannot be saved no matter what.

So what to do? Obama could double down on the Bush vision, but the truth is that would be good money after bad. It also means NASA would have to deep-six the International Space Station at the end of 2015 (no money to pay for it – and the moonshot program know as Constellation) and would have to continue shorting budgets for technology development, earth sciences, robotic missions and aeronautics research.

Now imagine dropping the station into the Pacific in five years – after 25 years of construction it is finally all but complete – and in a position to yield some scientific discoveries. And imagine what kind of message this would send to the 15 other nations who are a part of the ISS project.

So couple all this with the fact that some things have changed since Bush announced his vision in 2004. The time now is ripe for a new brand of companies to make their mark in space. Why shouldn’t the government stimulate a new sector of the economy – instead of stifling it?

To the Moon? I think not, Alice….

February 24, 2010

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The NASA insignia.

Image via Wikipedia

(ed. note: these remarks are part of my testimony to the Senate Committee on Science and Transportation hearing “Challenges and Opportunities in the NASA FY 2011 Budget Proposal” on February 24, 2010)

Washington – we have a problem – there is an uproar across the land over NASA’s course change – and it says a lot about how the public is no longer in the loop with the space agency.

The headlines read “NASA cancels its Moon mission”. Now I would submit to you most people reading those stories had no idea were were heading back to the moon in the first place. And guess what? We really weren’t! The program – packaged as the “Vision for Space Exploration” – never got the promised funding – and its “vision” was clearly focused on the rear view mirror.

Constellation was touted as “Apollo on Steroids” but really it was a ninety-pound weakling – an uninspired attempt to bring back the magic. NASA was acting like the middle aged high school football hero who spends too much time in the local saloon telling tales of the glory days when he led his team to the state championships.

But the country has grown up and moved on – and it is time for NASA to get off the bar stool and do the same.

And that is exactly what I see in this budget. This is a grown up approach to space exploration – one that synchs the goals with national needs and budgetary realities. The space agency is getting a slap in the face. “Thanks, I needed that!” is what it should be saying. But that is not what we are hearing. Change is never easy.

But wait a minute – isn’t NASA supposed to be all about change? In fact, if it can’t embrace – no actually invent – change – we should close the whole place down.

But wait there is more – because as much as anything else – what we have here is a failure to communicate.

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Regrets? I've Had a Few…

February 13, 2010
Ares I-X Launch.  Source:  NASA/Scott Andrews, Cannon

Ares I-X Launch. Source: NASA/Scott Andrews, Cannon

The news that NASA is heading off in a dramatic new direction has many people saying “ooooh!”…or “whoa!” – or in some cases “ouch!”  The Coalition for Space Exploration – which consists of all the big traditional space contractors thinks it is a big mistake to throw out Constellation lock stock and booster…One of the Coalition board members was there on the inside when Constellation was dreamed up – Former astronaut Fred Gregory was Deputy NASA Administrator when the Bush Administration announced the so called Vision for Space Exploration in 2004. I spoke with him before the shuttle launch.

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NASA Pivots to a New Direction

February 4, 2010
Official portrait of Deputy NASA Administrator...

Image via Wikipedia

What a “Week in Space” it has been!  I traveled to Washington D.C. to  see the drafting of the first page in a new chapter of the history of US manned exploration of space. The Obama White House is out with its budget proposal for 2011 – and it calls for the cancellation of the Constellation program – which former NASA Administrator once called “Apollo on Steroids.”  But the program remained a 90 pound weakling – rolled out by the Bush administration 6 years ago – it never got the funding it needed and never gelled with the public. On Budget day – February first – I caught up with the NASA deputy Administrator Lori Garver as she rolled out the long rumored details….

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The Big 'Y'

January 28, 2010

Challenger Y

I was fast asleep when the Challenger exploded. It was almost high noon – but I had turned in only about three hours before.

I had spent the night in a citrus grove in Polk County, Florida. I was a general assignment reporter for a TV station in Tampa, and we were up all night providing viewers constant updates on the record freeze. The fate of the citrus crop is very big news in that part of the world.

We had huddled near smudge pots and (more modern) kerosene heaters that dotted the grove in neat rows beside the trees. But they did little to ease our chill, and I suspect, they were equally futile in protecting the valuable fruit. As I think back on it, seeing central Florida that clear, cold night from low earth orbit would have been an eerie, spectacular site.

When the call came from the assignment desk, I was in a deep sleep, so it took me some time to comprehend what I had just been told: “You are not going to believe this, but the shuttle has blown up.”

I turned on the TV and dressed quickly. My assignment: to gather local reaction to the tragedy. When I walked outside, I looked up at an implausibly blue sky – the kind of sky you only get when high pressure and low temperatures intersect.

Then I saw it. At first, I thought it was a cloud. But it was such an odd shape. Kind of like a big “Y”. It was, in fact, the awful scar that loomed off the coast of Cape Canaveral – more than 150 miles away. It seemed to be asking us all a question that to this day offers no easy answers: “Why?”naive-shuttle-concept

As you know, the truth is painful and sad. NASA managers were determined to prove their shuttle fleet was truly “operational” – even commercially viable. If their dreams had become reality, 1986 would have been the busiest year ever in the history of the Space Transportation System.

Fifteen flights were scheduled over 11 months. One was supposed to be the first mission to launch from the new shuttle facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Nine communications satellites, three classified payloads for the Pentagon and two major unmanned probes were to be carried into space in the payload bay of an orbiter that year.

NASA managers were trying to live up to years and years of their own unrealistic expectations, fanciful claims, pure science-fiction, and outright lies.

So when they discounted and discarded the firm “no-go” admonitions of engineers at the Thiokol plant in Utah where the solid rocket boosters are made, mission mangers team were, in fact, lying to themselves.

They, too, were asleep on that bitter morning when the world witnessed a nightmare.

All of this was tumbling through my head as I traveled up the road to Chattanooga to meet June Scobee Rodgers nine years ago. I wondered if, after all these years, she was bitter, or angry, or sad.

The answer is “none of the above.”

With the “Y” still hanging in the sky, she was telling then Vice President George Bush and then Senator John Glenn that her husband, Challenger Commander Dick Scobee, would not have wanted the country to take the fork in the road that would bring manned space exploration to an end.

But it went beyond lip service. “I couldn’t NOT help to continue that mission – I couldn’t NOT do my part,” June told me.

Sometime later, as she and the other surviving family members met in her living room, it became clear they HAD to do SOMETHING.

“Each of us wanted to do our part to see that space exploration continued – that shuttle flights went on and their mission in particular lived,” says June.

And so the Challenger Learning Centers were born. Middle school students come to these places to role-play as astronauts and flight controllers – learning about math, science and teamwork in a way that doesn’t seem like learning. Visit one sometime – and you will marvel at the intensity, the concentration and the utter joy these children display as they accomplish their mission.

There are now about 50 of these magical places – and millions of kids have tasted the excitement of saving the space station.

Clearly, this has helped June Scobee Rodgers cope with her loss. Happily remarried (to former Army General Don Rodgers) she has journeyed down a tough road to some happiness and peace.

But, as she confided, “there is always that morning when you wake up – on the 28th – where you think about that tremendous loss. I am so blessed, though, because I have had a beautiful life since then… and I have been given a chance to love again.

“Those are hard days and my children and I always talk to each other – and I often talk to the other families. But then we go on and we celebrate how far we have come and we often have a great celebration – a ribbon cutting (at a) new learning center that is opening – and we see that they lived in truth and they have given us so much.”

Today, I am lucky to be a member of the Board of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. It is an organization that does much to engage and inspire kids – and keep the dreams and hopes of that lost crew alive.

The organization does great things – but it needs our help. I encourage you to support it.

It's All About Politics

December 21, 2009
Source:  NASA/Scott Andrews, Cannon

Ares I-X Launch. Source: NASA/Scott Andrews, Cannon

More on NASA’s future. It appears President Obama is close to making a decision on which course to chart in space.   Whenever he shares HIS vision with the rest of us – the debate will  move to a broader realm – and of course to Congress – where nothing is guaranteed.

The other day , Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi showed her colors in a gabfest with reporters:

“I, myself, if you are asking me personally, I have not been a big fan of manned expeditions to outer space, in terms of safety and cost,” Pelosi told reporters a round table on legislative accomplishments this year. “But people could make the case; technology is always changing.”

Oh, boy.  Fortunately for space fans, there are some people in Congress who do their homework – and are strong supporters of manned spaceflight.

And as it turns out, many of them are big fans of the Bush “Vision for Space Exploration.”

Among the big supporters is the chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, Gabrielle Giffords – a democrat of Arizona – who is married to NASA astronaut Mark Kelly.

On December 2 she held a hearing on the pros and cons of constellation versus commercial alternatives. And it seems clear where she stands:

“We hope to hear from our witnesses as to whether they believe that the burden of proof should be put on those who would propose alternatives to the Constellation program to demonstrate that their systems will be at least as safe as Ares/Orion. Alternatively, do they think it would it be acceptable to reduce the required level of crew safety on commercially provided crew transport services used to transport U.S. astronauts much below what looks to be achievable in the Constellation program?”

I guess you could call that a loaded question…In any case, if he had been in the room that day – former NASA  Administrator Mike Griffin might have stood up raised his hands and said “Amen!”  OK, well maybe the man who once likened himself to Spock would have been a bit more reserved – but he does firmly believes NASA should press on with Ares and Constellation as it is currently envisioned.

One of the big things he is worried about the the time between vehicles – the infamous “Gap.”  Watch below, or read the transcript of our interview.

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First Dog trumps Final Frontier?

April 27, 2009
The April 12 launch at Pad 39A of STS-1, just ...

There is a lot of hand-wringing in the space community these days about the Obama Administration’s inability to fill the corner office on the ninth floor at NASA headquarters.

The incredulous refrain among space cadets: “they picked the First Dog before they selected a NASA administrator!?”

NASA is now approaching the hundred day mark without a fully vested leader. This is not a record by any means. The longest gap between administrators lasted 225 days (9/15/1970 – 4/27/71)  between the legendary Thomas O. Paine and James Fletcher.

Christopher Scolese, Associate Administrator o...

In those days there was no acting administrator who took the reins. That is not the case right now. A 22-year highly-regarded NASA veteran – Chris Scolese – is running the show right now. And by all accounts he is doing as good a job as a leader without portfolio can do.

Of course “can do” is what this agency is all about, right?

But implicit in all the fretting among the Space Cadet Corps is the idea that there are big decisions in the Administrator’s inbox – just waiting to be made. And time is a wastin’ as they say.

Congress told NASA to protect the option to keep the space shuttle fleet flying beyond the end of 2010 – when the remaining orbiters will be shipped to museums.  NASA’s top management tier has already said they will stop doing that – and start ordering up the mothballs for the shuttles.

Would that have played out any differently if there was a new boss at NASA? I highly doubt it. Keeping  the shuttle fleet flying is a $3 billion per year proposition. No one wants to give NASA the extra money (although measured against some of these big bailouts, it now seems like a pittance).

But perhaps more to the point: the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) said the shuttles could not be safely flown any longer. What Member of  Congress would like to volunteer to be the person who insists the shuttles keep flying – only to see a third shuttle disaster? Cricket…cricket.

So the shuttle decision is a done deal. No administrator needed for that – as the last NASA boss set all of this in motion during his tenure.

Ares 1 (February 2008) MSFC-0800205 (8 Feb. 20...

The other big – and related – issue that puts the Space Cadets into a retrograde orbit is the so called “gap”. That is the period of time between the last shuttle flight and the first launch of the vehicle (collectively called “Constellation”) that is designed to carry American astronauts back to the moon.

As it stands now, the first flight of the Ares I rocket is set for 2015. So if all goes according to schedule, there will be a five year period where the US will not have a vehicle capable of carrying people into the void. Our stop gap solution: flag some Russian Soyuz taxis. No one seems to like that idea. But the decision was made when then President Bush laid out his Vision (thing) for space Exploration in January of 2004.

There was never enough money in that scheme to fly the shuttle and build its successor concurrently.

And today, there is very little anyone can do to squeeze the gap. If you threw another $1.9 billion at Constellation, you might be able to launch six months sooner.

So that decision is also pretty well baked.

The real issue for NASA is this: without an Administrator, it loses clout inside the Beltway – where power, status, rank and title mean much more than boring things like serving the taxpayers. Without a boss, NASA doesn’t have a seat at the table. Over time, this could hurt the agency, but in this short period, likely not.

In short, you could put a dog in the 9th floor corner office at 3rd and E Street, SW and things would not be much different – which is to say, not very pretty.

Hey how about throwing Bo’s collar into the ring?

NEXT: Why it is taking so long