Friday, September 30, 2011

NASA Extends USA's KSC Contract

A NASA press release announces that an agreement has been reached to extend the United Space Alliance contract for certain services at Kennedy Space Center.

HOUSTON -- NASA signed a $49.4 million contract modification for United Space Alliance (USA) of Houston to continue maintaining and sustaining the ground operations capabilities at the Kennedy Space Center launch facilities in Florida through Sept. 30, 2012.

As a result, these critical systems can be used by future space programs. The programs include potential commercial launch vehicle customers, the agency's Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle that will take astronauts farther into space than ever before, create high-quality jobs here at home and provide the cornerstone for America's future human space exploration efforts.

USA has provided this support under the Space Program Operations Contract since 2006. The contract outlines the flight and ground processing and operations requirements. The modification also includes requirements for NASA 21st Century Ground Systems modifications to the Crawler Transporter Number 2, Launch Pad 39B life extension and Vehicle Assembly Building life extension.

Work in support of this contract modification is performed at Kennedy and USA's facilities in Cape Canaveral.

Commercial Crew May Be Ready in Three Years

The Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser. Image source: Sierra Nevada Corp. via reports that companies vying for NASA's commercial crew contract believe they can begin flying in as soon as three years.

"We believe we'll be ready in three years," said Gwynne Shotwell, president of Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (also known as SpaceX) ...

Shotwell's estimate of three years before the first manned flight of SpaceX's Dragon capsule was the most aggressive, but her colleagues laid out similar timeframes.

Sierra Nevada Corp. chairman Mark Sirangelo, for example, said his company's Dream Chaser — which looks a bit like a miniature space shuttle — should be ready for crew-carrying operations by 2015. Boeing's John Mulholland also marked 2015 for the operational start of that firm's CST-100 vehicle.

Blue Origin, which was set up by founder Jeff Bezos, has been pretty tight-lipped about its plans. But the company's Rob Meyerson gave some specifics today.

"In our proposal, with the government funding that we laid out, we believe between 2016 and 2018," Meyerson said.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Elon Musk Proposes Fully Reusable Launch Vehicle

A SpaceX concept of how their reusable first stage would land. Image source: SpaceX.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk spoke today at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. to discuss his proposal for a fully reusable launch vehicle (RLV).

Click here to read the National Press Club event announcement.

Click here to watch the C-SPAN video of Musk's presentation.

Click here to watch a SpaceX computer animation illustrating their reusable launch vehicle. The animation shows the vehicle launching and landing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Marcia Smith of reported on the event.

During a speech at the National Press Club today, SpaceX founder, Chief Executive Officer and Chief Technology Officer Elon Musk made what he called an "exciting" announcement - SpaceX will develop a fully reusable space transportation system.

Perhaps more exciting, and a bit surprising in that venue, was his extended discussion of why humanity should become a multi-planet species. Since Mars is the closest comparatively habitable planet, that's where he wants to send people.

While I appreciate Mr. Musk's enthusiasm for space exploration, I do wish he'd spend more time accelerating their launch schedule. Musk has announced this year both the Falcon Heavy and now a reusable Falcon 9. But he hasn't launched a vehicle since last December, and that was a two-orbit test of the Dragon capsule. Skeptics would have more faith in Musk if he'd launch more often.

UPDATE September 30, 2011Florida Today reports on Musk's RLV proposal:

“We have a design that on paper, doing the calculations, doing the simulations, it does work,” Elon Musk, CEO of California-based SpaceX told reporters at the National Press Club on Thursday. “And now we need to make sure that those simulations and reality agree because generally when they don’t, reality wins.”

The CGI animation is now on YouTube. Click the arrow to watch:

NASA Wants You!

Some politicians and others have falsely claimed that the U.S. human space flight program is coming to an end.

They forgot to tell NASA.

The agency has posted a recruitment announcement for the astronaut Class of 2013.

The astronauts of the 21st century will help NASA through the next phase of space exploration as we continue the work of U.S. astronauts aboard the International Space Station in cooperation with our international partners; build a new NASA vehicle to enable human deep space exploration; and partner with industry to foster development of a commercial capability for human space flight to low Earth orbit.

The post also notes that in the entire history of NASA, "only 330 astronauts have been selected to date."

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Space KSC Design Change

I've changed the design template for the blog. Any reaction? Positive? Negative? Apathetic?

Crewed Orion Flight in 2016?

The first space-bound Orion MPCV under construction at the NASA Michoud facility in New Orleans. Photo source: NASA.

Aviation Week reports that a possible scenario might have astronauts loop around the Moon by 2016.

A 70-metric-ton version of the eventual, much larger SLS, perhaps fitted with a Boeing Delta 4 upper stage, could sling astronauts around the Moon in 2016, under a test flight scenario that Lockheed Martin has discussed with NASA. The demonstration mission would accelerate plans for the first human mission of the four-person MPCV by five years.

“As soon as possible, we will transition to flying our test flights on early versions of the SLS,” says Laurence Price, Lockheed Martin’s Orion deputy program manager. “We already know a lot about this vehicle, its environment, load conditions and trajectory. So we are accommodating the unique capability of the launch vehicle into the design of the Orion/MPCV. We are already converging on how this vehicle will fly.”

The article notes that an Orion test flight is scheduled for 2013. "Lockheed Martin has reserved a Delta 4 Heavy for the demanding unpiloted flight from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, though the choice of launchers is under evaluation."

KSC's Central Campus Complex

The KSC Administrative Headquarters opened in 1965. Photo source: NASA.

Florida Today reports that Kennedy Space Center's historic Administrative Headquarters and other facilities will be demolished, and replaced by a new "Central Campus Complex" in the Industrial Area.

The landmark NASA Headquarters Building, the Central Instrumentation Facility, several administrative offices and scientific laboratories — all of which played key roles in early U.S. space exploration — ultimately will be torn down while a new pedestrian-friendly hub of green buildings is raised in six phases.

“You’re talking about facilities that are 50 years old and getting older,” said KSC spokesman Allard Beutel. “This is looking ahead to the next 50 years.”

The idea is to consolidate work in a central hub of modern, energy-efficient buildings that provide safer environments for engineers, managers and administrative personnel. The footprint of NASA facilities in the area will be reduced to 450,000 square feet from 900,000 square feet, returning 35 percent of the land to green open space.

According to the original synopsis posted on a federal web site in September 2010, the buildings included in this project are:

1. Headquarters Building (Bldg # M6-0399, approx 430,000 SF)
2. Central Instrumentation Facility (Bldg # M6-0342, approx 133,000 SF)
3. Base Operations Building (Bldg # M6-0339, approx 20,000 SF)
4. Electromagnetic Lab (Bldg # M6-0336, approx 9,500 SF)
5. Training Auditorium (Bldg # M7-0351, approx 9,500 SF)
6. Occupational Health Facility (Bldg # M6-0495, approx 18,000 SF)
7. Environmental Health Facility (Bldg # L7-1557, approx. 11,000 SF)
8. Industrial Area Support Building (Bldg # M6-0493, approx. 15,500 SF)
9. Technical Records Center (Bldg # M6-0489, approx. 14,100 SF).
10. Shared Services (approx. 60,000 SF) within the Industrial Area outside of the listed buildings.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

SpaceX ISS Demo Flight May Be Delayed

Aviation Week reports that NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations William Gerstenmaier will be in Moscow this week to discuss with Russian officials the timing for future Soyuz launches and the SpaceX Falcon 9 ISS demo flight.

After years of delays, fledgling rocket company Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is ready to launch NASA’s first commercial cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) this fall. But that opportunity may continue to elude SpaceX for a while longer, as a recent Soyuz launch failure could prompt yet another schedule slip ...

With less than two months remaining before the planned launch date, Dragon is still undergoing electromagnetic interference testing but is expected to ship to SpaceX’s launch pad at Cape Canaveral AFS by the end of September, according to SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell.

Study: SpaceX Three Times Cheaper Than NASA

A SpaceX Falcon 9 undergoes final integration at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Image source:

Florida Today columnist John Kelly reports that, "Using a sophisticated model developed by the space agency and the Air Force," it cost SpaceX $443 million to develop the Falcon 9 but if it had been developed by NASA the cost would have been $1.4 billion.

To be clear, these are not SpaceX numbers. These are figures vetted by NASA and the Air Force. So, a long-standing cry that SpaceX is exaggerating its potential cost savings appears to be ill-founded.

At a broad level, the analysts determined that NASA's way would cost more because it would employ more people overall, add extra layers of management and construct more ground support "infrastructure" to get the job done. SpaceX also told the investigators that they keep as much work as possible inside their organization because "every dollar sent out of the company actually costs between $3 and $5 based on subcontractor overhead and profit."

UPDATE September 26, 2011Click here to read the summary of the NASA analysis.

And you can go here to learn more about the NASA/Air Force Cost Model (NAFCOM) used to perform the analysis.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Should KSC Have a Space Monopoly?

Florida Today reports that several Brevard County officials insist they should have a monopoly in human space flight.

A proposal by NASA's Wallops Flight Facility to support launches of human spaceflight missions from Virginia may pose a "direct threat" to the economy and work force on the Space Coast, local leaders say ...

"The most pressing issue for the Florida workforce is the sense of betrayal that their tax dollars might be used in establishing a competing orbital human spaceflight launch capability in another state when they have so well and ably done the job here in Florida," wrote Lynda Weatherman, president and CEO of the Economic Development Commission of Florida's Space Coast, in a letter dated last month.

The article also quotes Space Florida President Frank DiBello as writing:

With about 7,000 contractor jobs lost due to the space shuttle's retirement this year, "no community is more egregiously impacted than Florida," DiBello wrote. "It seems that building redundant facilities in Virginia will only further exacerbate that adverse impact."

Nowhere in these self-absorbed complaints do they appear to be concerned with what is best for the national interest.

It's only logical that the United States should have some redundancy in its space launch capabilities. What if the Space Coast is run over by a Category 5 hurricane?

It's also another example of the arrogance some locals have, insisting that they have some sort of privileged status when it comes to government funding.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

NASA Releases SLS Acquisition Overview

NASA has posted its Space Launch System Acquisition Overview, the first step towards development of the SLS design released on September 14.

According to the post:

The Space Launch System, or SLS, will be designed to carry NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, as well as important cargo, equipment and science experiments to Earth's orbit and destinations beyond. Additionally, the SLS will serve as a back up for commercial and international partner transportation services to the International Space Station.

I can't recall anyone other than politicians insisting that SLS is a "back up" for ISS access. SLS is designed as a heavy-lift vehicle for travel beyond Earth orbit.

The overview states that existing contracts for the cancelled Ares program will be used to develop the SLS.

UPDATE September 24, 2011Florida Today reports that the SLS contractors will be those who worked on Constellation and Shuttle.

Just more proof that Space Launch System is a politically mandated jobs program.

STS-135 Crew at KSC

Three of the four crew members of STS-135 appeared Monday at Kennedy Space Center.

Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley and Mission Specialist Sandy Magnus met with KSC employees and showed a video titled, "Final Flight." Mission Specialist Rex Waldheim had a scheduling conflict in Australia and was unable to attend.

(I've been unable so far to locate the video online. I'll post it if/when it's available.)

The three astronauts signed autographs afterward.

Below are photos from the event, held at the KSC Auditorium and Training Building.

All photos copyright © 2011 Stephen C. Smith.

KSC Center Director Robert Cabana introduces Sandy Magnus, Doug Hurley and Chris Ferguson.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

KSCVC Extends Star Trek Exhibits

The 2009 Star Trek film returns to the KSCVC IMAX through October 31.

The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex has extended its summer-long exhibit of Star Trek memorabilia and returns the 2009 Star Trek movie to the IMAX.

Star Trek: The Fall Celebration runs through October 31.

The movie ticket is $8 separate from the KSCVC admission. It airs daily at 4:00 PM.

STS-135 Video

Click on the arrow to watch the video.

The above 17-minute video highlights STS-135, the final flight of Atlantis and the Space Shuttle program. Well worth watching. Especially the first minute.

Houston Chronicle Interviews Norm Augustine

Norm Augustine, chair of the U.S. Human Space Flight Committee.

Houston Chronicle science writer Eric Berger recently interviewed Norm Augustine, the chair of the U.S. Human Space Flight Committee. The Committee's October 2009 final report set in motion the cancellation of the Constellation program and an emphasis on Commercial Crew Development to build new vehicles for travel to the International Space Station.

Click here to read the interview.

Below is a video of October 22, 2009 press conference where the final report was released. It's a reminder of why Constellation was cancelled — Ares I was being built to transport astronauts to the ISS starting in 2017, but was funded by deorbiting the ISS in 2015! Ares I had nowhere to go — a cold fact conveniently overlooked by those who criticize the cancellation of Constellation.

Commercial Crew Development not only returns astronauts to U.S. spacecraft sooner than Ares I, but the savings also help extend funding for the ISS through at least 2020.

Click the arrow to watch.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Monster Rocket

An Associated Press video clip of Senator Bill Nelson's comments at the September 14 press conference. Click the arrow to watch (it may be preceded by an advertisement).

Imagine if in the early 1960s the design for the rocket that would one day take astronauts to the Moon was determined not by Wernher von Braun and his team of scientists, but a group of politicians who ordered von Braun to build the rocket they had designed.

Imagine if these politicians had called a press conference to congratulate themselves, relegating NASA Administrator James Webb to a subservient role, with no von Braun in sight.

That's what happened on September 14, 2011, when Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) called a press conference at the Dirksen Senate Office Building to announce the official design for the Space Launch System. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was allowed to speak for five minutes, but otherwise he stayed in the background.

Nelson opened the press conference. If you watch the above video, he personally described the SLS for the press, using a pen to point out its features. He touted how much bigger it will be than the Space Shuttle, the implied phallic symbolism apparently lost on him.

Later in the event, Nelson referred to the SLS as a "monster rocket."

Demonstrating the bipartisan nature of this event, he was joined by Hutchison. The Senate Commerce Committee web site page for the event lists the "Republican Press Office" as the official media contact for the press, even though the Senate has a Democratic majority.

(That link also has the complete video of the press conference.)

Other Congressional members of both houses and partisan stripes showed up to join in the self-congratulatory backslapping.

But little was said about the justification for this program.

Hutchison said:

This is the piece that, I believe, is going to be the true long-term future. You can't have the pre-eminence in space that we have enjoyed over the past decades without seeing beyond the immediate-term goal which of course is the Space Station and ensure that we fully use the Space Station. That is the intermediate goal. The long-term goal has to be what's out there that we haven't discovered yet.

What is its mission? They didn't say.

What is its destination? They didn't say.

How does building a "monster rocket" preserve U.S. "pre-eminence in space" without a mission or destination? They didn't say.

Why did the Senators take it upon themselves to dictate the basic design? They didn't say.

Why didn't they allow NASA to propose a design? They didn't say.

Why isn't the money being invested in safer and cheaper robotic probes that have proven they can explore the solar system? They didn't say.

They did talk a lot about the jobs they claim to have saved.

But they never questioned if those jobs should be saved.

Science fiction author Jerry Pournelle.

Science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle calls it, "The Standing Army Full Employment Program."

It proves that NASA has learned nothing and forgotten nothing, and the purpose of NASA is to provide work for NASA employees. Given the task of coming up with a new national space program now that the Shuttle has eaten much of the dream, NASA comes up with a giant expendable that uses hydrogen fuel, Shuttle Recoverable (Solid Fuel) Boosters — SEGMENTED Shuttle Recoverable Boosters — monopropellant boosters on a giant expendable rocket. This bird is optimized for employing the NASA standing army.

The Shuttle was enormously successful. I think of no other large project that so thoroughly did the work it was designed to do — which was to employ a large standing army of development scientists, engineers, and technicians, and give them plenty of meaningful work to do.

A review of articles published by the hometown newspapers of NASA space centers shows the main focus isn't on what value the SLS brings to the American space program. It's the preservation of local jobs.

Florida Today, September 16:

Preparations for a 2017 test flight of NASA's giant new rocket for deep space exploration could add up to 2,000 jobs at Kennedy Space Center, the center director said Thursday.

"Those folks will need to be here processing the rocket for the launch," KSC chief Bob Cabana told reporters.

Cabana expects the jobs to start coming online in 2014 or 2015, reversing the sharp drop in contractors that accompanied the shuttle fleet's retirement this year.

Houston Chronicle, September 17:

The unveiling of what could become the most powerful rocket ever built by humans provides insurance that the Johnson Space Center at Clear Lake will remain a hub of the U.S. space program and a bulwark of the Clear Lake economy.

Now that NASA has revived the former Orion Crew Capsule as part of the SLS while extending the life of the International Space Station controlled from JSC, there should be plenty of work training astronauts for the new missions.

That's reassuring for the space center's workforce (currently around 14,000), which has lost some 3,800 employees and contractors in the last year and a half with the cancellation of Constellation and the end of the space shuttle program.

Huntsville Times, September 18:

Huntsville's Marshall Space Flight Center is the program office in charge of developing the new rocket. "It's going to be a pretty important piece of our portfolio," Marshall Director Robert Lightfoot said Thursday.

But the new rocket isn't all Marshall does. It supports the International Space Station and has pieces of NASA's science and technology programs. Lightfoot is also establishing the National Institute of Rocket Propulsion at Marshall to serve as a center of expertise in rocket propulsion.

Those missions add up to 2,500 civil service jobs and 3,500 contractor jobs for a total of 6,000 jobs attached to the Marshall center today, a spokesman said last week.

In the next five years alone, before the SLS even flies a test flight, it's estimated that the project will cost about $3 billion a year, or $15 billion over those five years.

Let's assume that each SLS employee is handsomely compensated with a salary and benefits of $100,000 per year.

Divide $15 billion by that number, and it works out to 30,000 employees per year over five years.

Apollo at its height employed 46,000 in 1969.

Much of the $15 billion will go to capital expense, of course.

But if the real mission of the Space Launch System is to preserve jobs, and the income that goes with it, certainly there must be a far cheaper and more efficient means of investing $3 billion a year over the next five years.

Space sector jobs are treated as if they're magical and mystical, a secret known only to a chosen few. But how many of those jobs are so unique and specialized that those employees must be well-paid to keep polishing the chrome — the "standing army" as Pournelle calls it?

When the horseless carriage was invented, should the federal government have intervened to preserve the "standing army" of stagecoach builders?

Space worker skills might have been unique and specialized in the 1960s when Apollo began, but they're not so unique now. Several companies — from established aerospace firms such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin, to startups such as SpaceX and Blue Origin — have been able to hire space engineers without much difficulty. Other nations hire them too.

The Apollo generation also had a mission. Every U.S. human space flight vehicle has had a mission. For Project Mercury, it was to determine if a human could fly in space. Project Gemini taught us spacewalks, long-duration flight, and rendezvous-and-docking. Apollo walked men on the Moon and returned rocks. The Space Shuttle built the International Space Station.

The SLS will do ... what?

President Obama has proposed a mission to an asteroid in 2025 and a Mars mission in the 2030s, but Congress hasn't followed up on that proposal.

For now, the SLS appears to be only a monument to everything that's wrong with the American political process.

Monday, September 19, 2011

NASA Releases Draft CCDev Proposal Request

The selection of commercial vendors to build the next generation of American crewed spacecraft is one step closer, as NASA has released the draft request for proposal that will solicit final designs from the Commercial Crew Development program participants.

NASA's draft request for proposal (RFP) outlines a contract that will be awarded to multiple companies that provide a complete end-to-end design, including spacecraft, launch vehicles, launch services, ground and mission operations and recovery. The Integrated Design Contract (IDC) of up to $1.61 billion will run from July 2012 through April 2014.

"This IDC effort will bring us through the critical design phase to fully incorporate our human spaceflight safety requirements and NASA's International Space Station mission needs," said NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Ed Mango. "We look forward to strong U.S. industry response."

Click here to access the draft RFP documents.

UPDATE September 20, 2011 6:30 AM EDT — Reading through the executive summary, I found important dates to note.

  • All required milestones must be completed by April 30, 2014.
  • "Multiple work packages for development testing or certification activities" are scheduled for delivery between May 1 to October 31, 2014.
  • Crew Transportation System (CTS) certification must be achieved "no later than the end of FY 2016."

And perhaps the most important of all is the final sentence in the document:

The Government intends to award contracts to two or more Offerers.

Which means we'll have redundancy in American human space flight for the first time in history.

No longer will the United States rely on only one type of crew vehicle.

UPDATE September 20, 2011 7:45 AM EDT — Well, strike my last.

In another document, it states that "a single contractor will be chosen" in the second phase.

(a) This solicitation is for the Commercial Crew Program’s acquisition to facilitate the development of a U.S. commercial crew space transportation capability with the goal of achieving safe, reliable and cost effective access to and from low earth orbit (LEO) including the International Space Station (ISS). The acquisition will be conducted as a two-phased procurement using a competitive down-selection technique between phases. In this technique, two or more contractors will be selected for Phase 1. It is expected that the single contractor for Phase 2 will be chosen from among these contractors after a competitive down-selection.

(b) Phase 1 is for the Integrated Design and early development of a Crew Transportation System. Phase 2 is for the Development, Test, Evaluation and Certification of an Integrated Crew Transportation System.

(c) The competition for Phase 2 will be based on the results of Phase 1, and the award criteria for Phase 2 will include successful completion of Phase 1 requirements.

(d) NASA will issue a separate, formal solicitation for Phase 2 that will include all information required for preparation of proposals, including the final evaluation factors.

Paragraph (g), however, offers a glimmer of hope for some redundancy:

Notwithstanding paragraph (a), the competition in Phase 2 may result in the award of multiple contracts if budget allows.

UPDATE September 20, 2011 1:00 PM EDTReuters via on the draft proposal:

The U.S. space agency will be looking for complete systems — launchers, spaceships, mission operations and ground support — to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station by the middle of the decade, a draft solicitation released on Monday shows.

The money will supplement investments that private companies are making to develop commercial space transportation services.

President Barack Obama has requested $850 million for NASA's commercial crew development initiative, or CCDev, for the year beginning October 1. The Senate Appropriations Committee last week offered $500 million.

UPDATE September 21, 2011 — More media reports on the draft RFP:

Florida Today "NASA Set to Fund Space Taxi Systems" "NASA to Pay $1.6 Billion for Private Space Taxi Flights"

NASA Announces Crew for Next Undersea Exploration

A NASA engineering crew diver simulates anchoring to an asteroid surface. Image source: NASA.

NASA has announced the crew for its next exploration mission.

But it's not to the International Space Station.

Or anywhere beyond low Earth orbit.

It's actually an expedition to the ocean depths near Key Largo, Florida.

The NASA NEEMO project uses an undersea research station called Aquarius to simulate missions in space.

NEEMO — NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations — uses astronauts to research deep space techniques, and also to train them for potential future missions.

NASA issued a press release today announcing the astronauts assigned to NEEMO Expedition 15. They will "test innovative solutions to engineering challenges during a crewed mission to an asteroid."

NASA astronaut and former International Space Station crew member Shannon Walker will lead the 15th expedition of NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO), a13-day undersea mission aboard the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory near Key Largo, Fla. ...

The NEEMO crew also includes Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Takuya Onishi and Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques. They are members of the 2009 NASA astronaut class. Rounding out the crew is Steven Squyres of Cornell University, James Talacek and Nate Bender of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Squyres is the scientific principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rover Project. Talacek and Bender are professional aquanauts.

In addition, NASA astronauts Stan Love, Richard Arnold and Mike Gernhardt, all veteran spacewalkers, will participate in the NEEMO mission from the DeepWorker submersible, which they will pilot. The DeepWorker is a small submarine used as an underwater stand-in for the Space Exploration Vehicle, which might someday be used to explore the surface of an asteroid.

Jeremy Hansen and Jeanette Epps, members of the 2009 astronaut class, are the capsule communicators for the mission. Hansen is from the Canadian Space Agency, and Epps from NASA.

KSC: Promoting Partnerships, Launching Dreams

Click on the arrow to watch NASA's video promoting government and commercial partnerships at Kennedy Space Center.

The KSC Center Planning & Development Office has released a new video promoting government and commercial partnerships at Kennedy Space Center.

The video is an excellent demonstration of KSC's future, and for American human space flight.

According to their web site, the office's mission statement is:

To develop the world’s premier spaceport meeting government and commercial space industry needs, through comprehensive resource planning and the formation of partnerships to ensure the economic vitality of Kennedy Space Center.

LC-39B Renovation Completed

Click on the arrow to watch a time-elapsed film of LC-39B renovation. Video source: NASA. producer Robert Pearlman writes about the completion of service tower demoliton at Launch Complex 39-B.

Started in 2009 in support of NASA's now-canceled Constellation program and its Ares rockets, work to clear the towers was focused on converting 39B to a "clean pad," capable of launching different types of crewed and uncrewed boosters. The pad may now be leased by NASA to companies providing commercial rockets to fly astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). Or, together with its yet-to-be-cleaned twin pad 39A, Pad 39B could also be used to support NASA's recently revealed Space Launch System heavy-lift launch vehicle.

Future rockets launching from Pad 39B will arrive with their own mobile gantries, similar to how the pad got its start more than 40 years ago.

The flexibility of the "clean pad" concept was illustrated last week when two press conferences announced potential rockets to fly from LC-39B — the commercial ATK/Astrium Liberty and the government's Space Launch System.

An artist's concept of the Liberty launcher rolling out to LC-39B. Image source: ATK via

An artist's concept of the Space Launch System on LC-39B. Image source: NASA.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Webb Telescope Cost Swells

Florida Today columnist John Kelly comments on the spiraling costs for the James Webb Space Telescope:

The price of the budget-gobbling James Webb Space Telescope keeps growing and growing.

The telescope, perhaps the most important space science mission of the next decade, is now going to cost taxpayers at least $8.7 billion. What's more, there are legitimate questions as to whether the spacecraft will be ready to launch in the next decade even if Congress agrees to another multibillion dollar bailout.

The original cost in the late 1990s was to be $1.6 billion. Now it's estimated to cost $8.7 billion with a 2018 launch date.

Friday, September 16, 2011

ISS Soyuz Crew Returned in Radio Silence

Spaceflight Now reports that Russia did not know if the Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft had survived re-entry until its parachutes were observed before landing. Image source: NASA. reports, "A Russian Soyuz capsule carrying three of the International Space Station's six crew members suffered an unexpected communications blackout just before plunging back into Earth's atmosphere late Thursday, completing a nail-biting descent in radio silence with repeated calls from flight controllers near Moscow going unanswered."

There was no immediate explanation for the communications drop out, but the repeated, unanswered calls from mission control near Moscow were eerily reminiscent of the fruitless calls to the shuttle Columbia during the orbiter's ill-fated descent to Earth in 2003.

But the Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft completed its return to Earth safely, if in silence, and all three crew members appeared to be in good health.

This was the third significant anomaly to affect Russian space flight in recent weeks.

On August 18, Russia lost the Express-AM4 satellite after an anomaly in the Breeze-M third stage engine.

A Progress M-12m transport ship bound for the ISS was lost on August 24 when a gas generator malfunctioned due to a clogged fluid line in the third stage.

Elsewhere, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported that a Russian space agency official said SpaceX will only be allowed to fly by the ISS in December but not dock.

A NASA tweet in response stated:

Sorry, despite @ria_novosti reports, a decision has yet to be made regarding the upcoming @SpaceXer test flight to ISS. Incorrect story.

Last April, another Roscosmos official said that SpaceX wouldn't be allowed to dock at the ISS unless it's proven safe:

"We will not issue docking permission unless the necessary level of reliability and safety [of the spacecraft] is proven. So far we have no proof that those spacecraft duly comply with the accepted norms of spaceflight safety," said Alexei Krasov, who heads the manned spaceflight department of Roscosmos.

Given their recent sorry track record, the Russians are hardly in a position to claim the moral high ground when it comes to space flight safety.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Rohrabacher: SLS Design a "Real Tragedy"

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) is one of the few members of Congress to openly disavow the Space Launch System design.

Rohrabacher issued this press release:

“Today, NASA announced its new design for a deep space exploration system, including a new ‘monster rocket’ based on 40-year-old Space Shuttle technology in an attempt to recapture the glory days of the Apollo Saturn V,” said Rohrabacher. “To meet the challenges of the 21st century we need bold, creative thinking and new technology development, like on-orbit fuel depots.”

“Nostalgic rocketry is not how great nations invent their future,” proclaimed Rohrabacher.

“There’s nothing new or innovative in this approach, especially its astronomical price tag, and that’s the real tragedy. Unfortunately, after a number of years, perhaps during development or after just a few flights like Saturn, budget pressures will bring this program to an end. Jobs that some politicians are bragging today about saving will be gone, while the new jobs based on new technologies and new enterprises will remain uncreated, because we chose repeating the past over inventing the future.

“I share the same goals as Administrator Bolden and my congressional colleagues. But I have heard today's claims before — ‘We can build a new spacecraft and huge rocket, we can explore the solar system, we can meet the budget, and we can meet the schedule.’ It simply has not come to pass. Every time we come to this decision point, we take the same wrong path — an expensive heavy-lift launch vehicle that cannot be developed, built and flown in a financially sustainable manner.

“I hope that I am wrong about this heavy lift program, and ten years from now we are celebrating the first launch of this system to send humans beyond Earth's orbit on time and on budget. Otherwise this plan will suffer the same fate as Constellation — overpromised, under-delivered, and cancelled. Where will we be then?”

UPDATE September 15, 2011 7:45 PM EDTThe Space Frontier Foundation issued a press release condemning the SLS design:

The Space Frontier Foundation called Wednesday’s announcement by NASA that it will attempt to build Congress’s giant monster rocket a disaster that will devour our dreams for moving humanity into space. Rather than breathing life into a dying space program, it may well kill new initiatives to greatly expand US space exploration and settlement efforts.

“It is a sad day for our space program,” said Rick Tumlinson, co-founder of the Foundation. “The amazing possibilities offered by engaging commercial space to lower costs and develop a sustainable long term infrastructure to support NASA space exploration, settlement and a new space industry have been trumped by the greed, parochialism, and lack of vision of a few congressional pork barrelers intent once again on building a government super rocket. We’ve been to this party before, it was a bust then, and it will be this time as well.”

Next ISS Crew Flight on November 14

A NASA press release reports that the next crew flight to the International Space Station is tentatively scheduled for November 14.

NASA and its international partners have agreed to a tentative launch schedule with crew flights to the International Space Station resuming on Nov. 14.

The Space Station Control Board, with representation from all partner agencies, set the schedule after hearing the Russian Federal Space Agency’s findings on the Aug. 24 loss of the Progress 44 cargo craft. The dates may be adjusted to reflect minor changes in vehicle processing timelines ...

According to the current plan, the Soyuz 28 spacecraft, carrying NASA's Dan Burbank and Russia's Anatoly Ivanishin and Anton Shkaplerov, will launch Nov. 14 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and arrive at the station on Nov.16.

On Nov. 22, Fossum, Furukawa and Volkov will undock their Soyuz 27 spacecraft and land in the northern Kazakhstan landing zone. Expedition 30 Commander Burbank, Ivanishin and Shkaplerov will work as a three-person crew for 36 days. The remainder of the Expedition 30 crew — NASA's Don Pettit, Russia's Oleg Kononenko and Europe's Andre Kuipers — will launch to the station aboard the Soyuz 29 spacecraft on or about Dec. 26 and dock to the station two days later. The exact launch date is under review.

Hutchison's "Heavy Loss" Vehicle

President John F. Kennedy says the Saturn I will fire the largest "payroll" into space, November 21, 1963.

It's one of the most famous Freudian slips in history.

President John F. Kennedy was speaking at the Houston Coliseum, on November 21, 1963. It was at a banquet for Houston Democratic congressman Albert Thomas.

Kennedy had just visited Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, where he saw the Saturn I and was told that for the first time the United States would have a more powerful booster than the Soviet Union.

Impressed by what he'd seen, Kennedy chose to tell the audience about its pending launch.

Next month, when the United States of America fires the largest booster in the history of the world into space giving us the lead, fires the largest payroll, payload, into space, giving us the lead ... It will be the largest payroll, too.

[Pause for laughter and applause.]

And, uh, who should know that better than Houston?

History repeated itself yesterday, when Texas Republican senator Kay Bailey Hutchison spoke on the Senate floor after a press conference announcing the design for the Space Launch System.

The SLS has been dubbed the "Senate Launch System" by critics, because Hutchison and other senators designed the vehicle and ordered NASA to build it primarily to employ people in their states.

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison speaks on the Senate floor, September 14, 2011.

Hutchison slipped and called the SLS a "heavy-loss vehicle" when she meant "heavy-launch vehicle":

We had all the relevant people in the loop on this issue because we wanted to be sure that Congress and the Administration are on the same goal with a timeline to achieve that goal. What worried us about the delays were the loss of cost efficiencies and the loss of the experienced personnel to design that new heavy-loss, uh, launch vehicle.

The comments are at about the 2:40 mark in the above video clip.

Some have suggested that Kennedy's Freudian slip was intentional to get a laugh. Almost no one was in the Senate chamber when Hutchison spoke, and it's doubtful that those who see SLS as a boondoggle program would see the humor in her misspeech.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Soyuz Concerns May Delay SpaceX Demo Flight

Space News reports that concerns about the recent failure of a Russian Progress cargo module may delay the SpaceX demonstration flight to the International Space Station, currently scheduled for November 30.

How long the delays will be remained unclear as of Sept. 14. The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, on Sept. 13 announced that the Soyuz vehicle, which at some 1,750 launches is the world’s most reliable rocket, would return to flight Oct. 30 with another attempt to deliver an unmanned Progress supply ship to the international space station ...

SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., had been awaiting final NASA authorization to launch its Dragon unmanned station freighter to the station in late November.

That date now looks out of reach. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said that in addition to awaiting a reflight carrying a Progress supply vehicle, the SpaceX launch cannot occur before the second of the two manned Soyuz launches delivers its astronauts to the station.

Rohrabacher Asks for Fuel Depot Study

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher during a May 2010 hearing on the future of U.S. human space flight. Image source: U.S. House of Representatives.

Space News reports that California Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher "called on NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to deliver the space agency’s assessment of a space exploration architecture that uses in-space propellant depots and a fleet of commercially built rockets as an alternative to a single government-owned heavy-lift vehicle."

According to the article, Rohrabacher was told by Bolden at a July hearing that a NASA study had concluded a fuel depot was a more expensive option than the Space Launch System for sending the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle beyond Earth orbit.

“We need to know that NASA completed a fair and balanced analysis to justify a down-select to a super-heavy-lift launch vehicle, which is a commitment of tens-of-billions of taxpayer dollars,” Rohrabacher wrote in the letter.

No Evidence of China Moon Mission

The Space Review has published an essay by Dwayne Day that further refutes claims by certain people — including the Space Coast's two congressional representatives — that China has a robust and imminent Moon program.

Right now China is preparing to launch the first test component of its long-term effort to develop a space station. Named Tiangong-1, it is not a space station module, nor apparently even a prototype of a space station module. Rather, it is essentially a piece of test equipment for practicing space operations. It will serve as a rendezvous and docking target for several unpiloted spacecraft and later will be visited by a Chinese taikonaut crew. After those visits it will be abandoned. A few years later China will probably launch a follow-on craft and conduct a few more tests. Late this decade they plan on starting construction on a multi-module space station. Essentially, they want to build the equivalent of something like the former Russian Mir space station — smaller than the International Space Station and apparently capable of operating relatively early on rather than after many years of construction. Their space station plans are sensible and methodical, and a little slow-paced. But they also have no reason to rush. They’re not in a race.

As for claims that China is headed for the Moon:

In the last decade there were numerous reports in Western media that China was planning on sending humans to the Moon by 2017 or even 2010. Gradually, it became clear that many of these reports were based upon poor translations of comments by Chinese officials who were referring to plans for robotic lunar missions. But over time it has also become clear that China’s human spaceflight program was moving at a very slow and methodical pace. It was difficult for reporters and commentators to maintain any hyperbole about China’s lunar aspirations when the Chinese were launching humans only once every three years.

SLS Design Media Reports

I will update this list as I find new articles.

MSNBC "NASA Unveils Giant Rocket Design for Future Odysseys"

Washington Post "NASA Plans Rocket Bigger than Apollo’s Saturn V to Send Humans Far Past Moon"

Florida Today "NASA Unveils Plans for Deep Space Rocket"

Florida Today "New Rocket: 'It's Really a New Beginning'"

Huntsville Times "NASA's Space Launch System to Launch in 2017, Estimated Cost is $18 Billion over 6 Years"

Associated Press "Future NASA Rocket to be Most Powerful Ever Built"

Aviation Week "White House Endorses NASA Heavy-Lift Plan"

Popular Mechanics "NASA’s Space Launch System Unveiled: Analysis" "NASA Unveils New Giant Rocket for Deep Space Missions"

Space News "NASA Commits to Building Congressionally Ordered Heavy-Lift Rocket" "NASA Announces New Rocket for Deep Space Missions" "New NASA Crew Transportation System to Cost $18 Billion Through 2017" "Space Launch System Announced"

Official NASA SLS Release

An artist's concept of the Space Launch System at LC-39B. Image source: NASA.

The NASA web site has all sorts of information about the Space Launch System design.

Click the above arrow to watch an animation of the SLS launch from LC-39B.

Click the above arrow to watch NASA Administrator Charles Bolden's statement to NASA employees about the SLS design.

The below written statement was issued by Bolden.

New Heavy-lift Rocket Will Take Humans Far Beyond Earth

Today is a big day at NASA.

The next chapter of America’s space exploration story is being written, right here, right now.

We’ve selected the design for a new space exploration system that will take humans far beyond Earth. This important decision will create high-quality jobs here at home and provide the cornerstone for America’s future human space exploration efforts.

This new heavy-lift rocket will be America’s most powerful since the Saturn V rocket that carried Apollo astronauts to the moon and will launch humans to places no one has gone before, such as asteroids, Mars and other deep space destinations.

In combination with the crew capsule already under development, increased support for the commercialization of astronaut travel to low Earth orbit, an extension of activities on the International Space Station until at least 2020, and a fresh focus on new technologies— this rocket is key to implementing the plan laid out by President Obama and Congress in the bipartisan 2010 NASA Authorization Act, which the President signed last year.

President Obama challenged us to be bold and dream big, and that's exactly what we are doing at NASA with this new space exploration system. While I was proud to fly on the space shuttle, tomorrow's explorers will now dream of one day walking on Mars.

This launch vehicle decision is the culmination of a months-long, comprehensive review of potential designs to ensure that the nation gets the best possible rocket for the investment—one that is not only powerful but is also evolvable so it can be adapted to different missions as opportunities arise and new technologies are developed.

The rocket will use a liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen fuel system, where RS-25D/E engines will provide the core propulsion and the J2X engine is planned for use in the upper stage. There will be a full and open competition to develop the boosters based on performance requirements. Its early flights will be capable of lifting 70-100 metric tons before evolving to a lift capacity of 130 metric tons.

The early developmental flights may take advantage of existing solid boosters and other existing hardware, which will help us control costs and make early tests smoother.

The selection of the vehicle needed to transport our astronauts beyond low Earth orbit is one of the most important decisions NASA will make this decade, and it requires a major commitment on the part of the American people. That’s why we took the time to get it right.

The hard work and expertise of you in the NASA Family have brought us to this point and will be critical as we continue to do the big things only NASA can do and challenge ourselves as a people to reach our highest potential. The future is bright for exploration, and we can be proud of the major step forward we are taking today.

Click here to watch the press conference on the Senate Commerce Committee web site. The conference starts about 19 minutes into the video archive.

SLS Design to be Released

Florida Today reports NASA will release the Space Launch System design today at a 10:00 AM EDT press conference in Washington, D.C.

Critics have dubbed the project the "Senate Launch System," which would explain this passage:

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden will detail the plan in a 10 a.m. news conference on Capitol Hill with U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Fl., and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, two big backers of the project.

According to Florida Today reporter Todd Halvorson, "There will be a booster contract competition that will be based on cost and performance requirements," which in my opinion is certain to displease the Utah congressional delegation.

As I wrote yesterday, Utah senior senator Orrin Hatch recently circulated a letter on Capitol Hill demanding the SLS design be released immediately, and that it use solid rocket boosters. Those boosters would be designed by ATK's Utah division, naturally.

I speculated that yesterday's press conference announcing an agreement between NASA and ATK to develop the solid-based ATK Liberty commercial crew vehicle might be a sop for the Utah congressional delegation. The announcement of a potential SLS design with liquid boosters one day after the ATK press conference does seem coincidental, to be charitable.

UPDATE September 14, 2011 9:00 AM EDTThe Orlando Sentinel reports:

After months of debate, NASA has settled on plans for its next spaceship — a space shuttle hybrid that will fly twice in the next decade and cost $30 billion through 2021, according to senior administration officials and internal NASA documents.

The Sentinel article also indicates a compromise on the solid/liquid booster competition:

... [T]he twin boosters for the new rocket, at least initially, would be the same shuttle boosters built by Alliant Techsystems of Minnesota.

NASA intends to hold a competition in the years ahead for the boosters. The administration official said NASA definitely would use the ATK boosters for the 2017 launch but that it could have the competition complete in time for new boosters in 2021.

So it appears the first flight's boosters are intended to appease the Utah congressional delegation, while the second flight's boosters will appease the California and Alabama delegations that wanted open competition. Sound science has nothing to do with it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

NASA and ATK Sign Commercial Crew Agreement

An artist's concept of the Liberty launcher rolling out to LC-39B atop the mobile launch platform designed for Ares I. Image source: ATK via

NASA and Alliant Techsystems (ATK) have signed an unfunded Space Act Agreement that enables the two entities to work together on development of the ATK/Astrium Liberty Launch System.

Click here for the NASA press release.

Click here for the ATK press release.

Liberty is a spinoff from the defunct Constellation's Ares I design. Liberty's first stage, a solid rocket motor, is based on Ares I's first stage. Liberty's second stage is based on the Ariane 5 launcher's first stage which uses liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.

To my knowledge, no crew spacecraft in history has used a solid propellant motor as its first stage. (The Space Shuttle had three liquid main engines on the orbiter and two ATK-built solid rocket boosters.)

Liquid propellant has always been preferred for crewed flights. As discussed here, solids are easier to store and handle, and considered less expensive. But once lit, solids can't be turned off and can't be throttled in real time. Liquids can be restarted; solids can't.

Click the above arrow to watch the press conference.

I watched the press conference on NASA TV. ATK Vice-President Kent Rominger said ATK has contacted the three companies that have already expressed interest in using the Lockheed Martin Atlas V as the launcher for their commercial crew vehicles. Unless one of them can be persuaded to switch launchers, it would appear that Liberty has no crew vehicle.

NASA won't dictate the design of commercial crew systems. They will only purchase rides on the finished product. I wonder if NASA will want to put their astronauts on a vehicle atop a solid first stage.

If you want to look at this through the skeptical lens of political porkery ...

ATK's solid rocket motor operations are based in Utah. That state's senior senator is Orrin Hatch, who is the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee.

One could view this unfunded agreement as insurance against the Utah congressional delegation trying to divert commercial crew funding to the Space Launch System. Hatch was one of five Senators who in August circulated a letter demanding NASA release the SLS design. Hatch's letter claimed that "the legal requirements for the SLS can only be realistically met through the use of solid rocket motors."

The ATK press release quotes Rominger as saying:

"Now that we are working closely with NASA, we will also look for other funding sources to further speed the development of Liberty," said Rominger.

"Other funding" might imply they're looking for a slice of the Commercial Crew Development seed money awarded by NASA. In the press conference, NASA Commercial Crew manager Ed Mango indicated that in the next round NASA will only award money to complete integrated systems, i.e. crew vehicle and launcher. Unless ATK can find someone to place a crew vehicle atop the Liberty, it would appear ATK won't get any future seed money.

If ATK can't find a partner, will Hatch try to pass legislation forcing NASA to acquire Liberty as a commercial crew launcher? I wouldn't be surprised.

News stories about the agreement: "NASA Inks Deal to Help Shuttle Rocket Builder Develop Space Taxis"

Salt Lake Tribune "NASA, ATK Sign Pact for Future Rocket Development"

Salt Lake Deseret News "ATK Announces Partnership with NASA for Space Flights"

Florida Today "NASA Makes Rocket Deal with ATK" "ATK Breathe Life into Liberty Via Unfunded NASA Space Act Agreement" "NASA Experts to Assist ATK on Commercial Crew Rocket"

NASA TV to Air Today's ATK Commercial Crew Conference

According to a NASA press release, NASA TV will air the 3 PM EDT press conference today announcing a commercial crew agreement with ATK and EADS.


NASA, ATK New Commercial Crew Announcement on NASA TV

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The NASA and Alliant Techsystems (ATK) announcement of an agreement that could accelerate the availability of U.S. commercial crew transportation capabilities at 3 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, Sept. 13 will be carried live on NASA Television.

The announcement will occur at the Press Site auditorium at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The participants are:
— Ed Mango, Commercial Crew Program manager, NASA
— Kent Rominger, vice president, Strategy and Business Development, ATK Aerospace
— John Schumacher, vice president, Space Programs, EADS North America

Reporters may ask questions in-person from Kennedy or using a phone bridge managed at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. To use the phone bridge, journalists must call the Johnson newsroom at 281-483-5111 by 2:45 p.m. EDT.

September 13, 2011 UPDATE 8:00 AM EDTFlorida Today reports, "No money is expected to be awarded to ATK as part of its new partnership with NASA. However, NASA likely will share its extensive expertise in human spaceflight with ATK and provide engineering consultation during the course of Liberty development."

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Long-Duration Space Flight May Be Injuring Astronauts

The Orlando Sentinel reported on September 7 that long-duration space flight may be causing headaches and blurry vision among some astronauts.

"This condition has led to several members of the Astronaut Corps being medically disqualified from flying again until the condition improves," noted researchers for the National Academies in a report made public Wednesday.

The affliction, known as papilledema, is a swelling of the optic disk and can cause blurred vision, blind spots or — in severe cases — loss of vision. It was found in nearly half — seven of 15 — astronauts examined in one study by NASA.

This included "some lingering substantial effects on vision," and astronauts were "not always able to re-qualify for subsequent flights," according to the 102-page report, which provided no additional details.

Click here to download the complete report. You will need to provide an e-mail address to download the report for free.

NASA: $18 Billion to Test SLS by 2017

Aviation Week reports it will cost NASA $18 billion to build a test version of Space Launch System for launch by 2017.

Early cost estimates for the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) that Congress has ordered NASA to build indicate the agency believes it can test an unmanned version of the “core” vehicle selected by Administrator Charles Bolden for about $18 billion by the end of 2017.

That previously undisclosed figure, which the agency gave to Booz Allen Hamilton for an independent analysis of the big rocket’s cost, includes the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) based on the Orion capsule Lockheed Martin started under the Constellation program, and $2 billion in modifications to ground launch facilities at Kennedy Space Center, Fla. The amount, which NASA believes it could provide under its fiscal 2012 budget request for human space exploration, would deliver a basic SLS able to lift 70 metric tons to low Earth orbit.

That core would use surplus space shuttle main engines and the J-2X upper-stage engine now in development. With upgrades approved by Bolden after a lengthy engineering analysis within NASA, the rocket could “evolve” to the 130-metric-ton capability Congress ordered in the three-year NASA reauthorization act passed and signed by President Barack Obama in December 2010.

Do we really need to spend $18 billion on this?! Surely there are smarter ways to invest $18 billion in the future of the U.S. space program.


"SLS Sticker Shock"

"Space Launch System Independent Review Online"

Non-Profit to Manage ISS National Laboratory

Florida Today reports the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) will manage the part of the International Space Station designated a U.S. National Laboratory.

CASIS is based at Kennedy Space Center.

Agency officials said the center's proposal, led by Space Florida, stood out from three others because of its process for evaluating not only basic science but experiments that might have useful commercial applications ...

The lab offers access to U.S., European and Japanese facilities inside and outside the station. Time allotted for U.S. research is split 50-50 with NASA, which will continue its own experiments.

Bolden: NASA Fueling Job Growth

A Florida Today guest editorial by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden argues that this year's Juno, GRAIL and Mars Science Laboratory launches from Cape Canaveral show that NASA is creating jobs.

These missions represent exciting space science, but as always, NASA’s work has a big impact on the ground as well. Throughout its history, communities around the nation have benefited from our investments in exploration. GRAIL and MSL created jobs — the vast majority of which are in the U.S. — and will sustain them.

My concern with this editorial is that NASA is not a jobs program. If jobs are created as the result of a program, fine, but the mission is the program's justification, not jobs.

SpaceX Discloses Test Flight Engine Anomaly

The Falcon 9 launches on December 8, 2010 with the Dragon capsule. Photo source: NASA.

Space News reports that SpaceX disclosed to NASA on September 9 an engine anomaly that occurred during last December's Falcon 9 test flight.

“I’d call it an oxidizer-rich shutdown,” former NASA astronaut Ken Bowersox, SpaceX’s vice president of astronaut safety and mission assurance, told Space News in a Sept. 9 interview. “So because of that, when you get that mixture change happening, the temperatures can go up higher than you want inside the gas generator.”

Bowersox added that “those temperatures could have damaged the turbines in the turbopump.” That presents an obstacle for SpaceX, which eventually intends to reuse the nine Merlin engines that power the Falcon 9.

The disclosure came at a joint meeting of the ISS Advisory Committee and the NASA Safety Advisory Panel. Committee member Charles Daniel commented:

“There was no explanation or root cause analysis or corrective action for this particular anomaly,” Daniel said Sept. 9 during the public meeting. “This is a relatively troublesome statement not to recognize that a premature engine shutdown was a significant event.”

UPDATE September 14, 2011Florida Today reports that Daniel's comments were largely out of ignorance, as NASA was well aware of the engine anomaly but Daniel was not involved in NASA's internal post-flight review process.

A NASA commercial cargo official told Florida Today, "NASA and SpaceX were weeks away from a formal review that would close out concerns from the previous flight in preparation for the next one, and Daniel may not have been aware of ongoing internal discussions about corrective actions."

Friday, September 9, 2011

NASA, ATK to Announce Commercial Crew Agreement

NASA issued the below press release this afternoon. Your guess is as good as mine.

NASA, ATK Announce New Commercial Crew Agreement

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA and Alliant Techsystems (ATK) managers will announce an agreement that could accelerate the availability of U.S. commercial crew transportation capabilities at 3 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, Sept. 13. The announcement will occur at the Press Site auditorium at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The event will not be carried live on NASA Television. NASA TV's Video File segment will air highlights.

The announcement participants are:
— Ed Mango, Commercial Crew Program manager, NASA
— Kent Rominger, vice president, Strategy and Business Development, ATK Aerospace
— John Schumacher, vice president, Space Programs, EADS North America

ATK manufactured the Solid Rocket Boosters for the Space Shuttle. EADS North America is "a leading supplier and industrial partner in defense and homeland security, commercial aviation, helicopters, telecommunications and services," according to its web site.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Bolden: New ISS Crew in the Fall

Despite earlier media reports suggesting the International Space Station might have to be abandoned, Florida Today reports NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the Russians should be ready to launch a new crew aboard Soyuz this fall.

"We're getting to the point where we're going to satisfy ourselves that we can launch an unmanned vehicle to demonstrate that Soyuz is still okay, and then we'll fly the crew up on a normal Soyuz mission later this fall," Bolden, a former shuttle pilot and mission commander, said.

"So the possibility of de-manning station is always something you think about, but it's not something that is high on my list of concerns right now, because we don't feel that is something that we're going to have to do."

Two current ISS crew members said yesterday they anticipate the new crew by early November.

A Russian rocket could be ready to launch a new crew to the International Space Station by early November, preventing the outpost from being left unmanned indefinitely, two American crew members said from orbit this morning ...

"There's a lot of things that have to stack up to make that happen," said Mike Fossum, one of six Expedition 28 crew members living on the station.

Fossum described the launch schedule as very tentative and likely requiring one or two test flights of unmanned spacecraft before humans, including American Dan Burbank, launch again from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

NASA GRAIL Mission to Launch September 8

The Mars Pathfinder launches on a Delta II from LC-17 on December 4, 1996. Image source: The Boeing Company.

The NASA GRAIL mission is due to launch Thursday September 8, with the first 60-second launch window at 8:37 AM EDT and the second at 9:16 AM EDT.

It's scheduled to be the last launch of a Delta II from the historic Launch Complex 17. According to Wikipedia:

Pad 17A supported its first Thor missile launch on 3 August 1957, and Pad 17B supported its first Thor launch on 25 January 1957. The site was upgraded in the early 1960s to support a variety of more modern ELVs, which were derived from the basic Thor booster. The modern ELVs based on Thor came to be called the Delta family of rockets.

Florida Today has more on LC-17 and the history of the Delta II rocket.

Launch Complex 17 in 2007 with a Delta II on Pad B.

SpaceFlight Now reported on August 21 that United Launch Alliance has five Delta IIs left in its inventory, and has proposed adding them to NASA's inventory for possible future missions.

Apollo Astronaut, Star Trek Actress at KSCVC

Florida Today reports that Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke and Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols will be at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex for the NASA GRAIL launch on September 8.

The complex will open at 4:30 a.m. Thursday, offering special viewing from the NASA Causeway for the rocket launch, which is scheduled for 8:37 a.m., with a second attempt scheduled at 9:17 a.m., if needed. The causeway viewing is limited to 2,000 people, and requires purchase of admission to the complex, plus a $20 special ticket. The launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station also can be viewed from the visitor complex itself for just the price of admission.

Or you can go park along SR-401 just south of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station gate and watch it for free ...

SLS Sticker Shock

An artist's concept of the Shuttle-derived Heavy Lift Vehicle. Image source:

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Space Launch System will cost much more than Congress anticipated, leading the White House to weigh what direction to take with the program.

Discussions now focus in part on whether Congress is likely to support the more than $35 billion NASA initially projected for heavy-lift rockets and manned capsules through 2025, compared with the political risk of asking for a lot more money to speed up development and testing.

Some accelerated scenarios, intended to provide the public with tangible results sooner in the timetable, show the total price tag increasing by nearly 80%—to more than $62 billion, according to NASA projections.

Many OMB and NASA officials, however, already worried that even the agency's $35-billion option would be hard to sustain on Capitol Hill, are leery of requesting more dollars. A NASA spokesman said the agency wants a "long-term exploration initiative that is affordable, sustainable, and achievable," while avoiding past mistakes "so that America's leadership in space is never jeopardized."

I wrote on August 23 that the independent review by Booz Allen Hamilton confirmed NASA's short-term numbers were realistic, but beyond that probably understated the true cost of the program.

The SLS was dictated by Congress in 2010 after the Constellation program was cancelled. Critics have labelled it the Senate Launch System because members of the Senate's space subcommittee designed the project as a means of protecting jobs in their states. No mission or destination has been specified for SLS by Congress.

Because Congress views SLS as a jobs program, in my opinion they'll continue to demand SLS proceed, even though it will be underfunded, simply because it will keep people employed in their states, regardless of if it ever flies.

UPDATE September 9, has obtained a copy of the charts that led to NASA to conclude SLS will cost more than Congress anticipated.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Study: Satellite Launches to Increase 50%

A press release on the Euroconsult EC web site estimates that "1,145 satellites will be built for launch during the next ten years (2011-2020), 51% more satellites than the previous decade."

Government agencies from 50 countries will launch a total of 777 satellites in the decade ahead, though more than 80% of these satellites will come from the six major space powers ( i.e. the United States, Russia, the European countries, Japan, China, and India). Accounting for this 80% is the fact that established space countries are replacing systems that have already been operational, in addition to launching new satellites, whereas newcomers are only building and launching new systems, as they are not yet at the stage of replacing existing satellites.

Monday, September 5, 2011

"What If" is Now Reality

Florida Today columnist John Kelly comments on the consequences of the recent Progress 44 failure.

NASA and its Russian partners have proven resourceful before and found creative ways to keep this station — and the Mir space station before it — operating under duress. So, there are reasons to remain optimistic that it can be worked out. But the problems being experienced right now were foreseen by people inside and outside NASA and there are many within the community saying, "Told you so."

Now that it has happened, the concrete planning is focused on supply management and evacuation schedules. Then, there's only hope that the Russians solve their issues fast and that SpaceX — and other private companies — stay on what appears to be an accelerated track toward developing new U.S. space flight capabilities. America needs a flight-worthy space transportation system in order to protect its investment in the space station.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Blue Origin Spacecraft Misfires

An artist's concept of the Blue Origin crew vehicle. Image source:

The Wall Street Journal reports that a Blue Origin test spacecraft "suffered a major failure during a recent test flight, according to U.S. government and industry officials ..."

The vertical takeoff and landing spacecraft, developed by closely held Blue Origin LLC, was on a suborbital flight from the company's West Texas spaceport last week, these officials said, when ground personnel lost contact and control of the vehicle. The exact nature and cause of the failure were unclear, but remnants of the spacecraft could provide clues for investigators.

Parts of the vehicle were recovered on the ground and are now being analyzed by company experts, according to government and industry officials.

Reporter Andy Pasztor wrote that the accident highlights "the dramatic risks of private space ventures," overlooking the basic fact that this is a test flight. Pasztor claimed that the mishap "could set back White House plans to promote a range of commercially developed spacecraft to transport crews to the International Space Station by the second half of this decade," without offering any evidence to support such a notion.

The Commercial Crew Development program, in fact, is designed specifically to weed out companies that can't achieve their objectives. If Blue Origin can't demonstrate their technology works, then they don't get seed money from NASA and won't win a contract when NASA releases its formal request for proposals in 2012.

The Wall Street Journal was purchased in 2007 by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, which also owns Fox News.

UPDATE 7:45 PM EDTBlue Origin responds on their web site to the WSJ article:

Three months ago, we successfully flew our second test vehicle in a short hop mission, and then last week we lost the vehicle during a developmental test at Mach 1.2 and an altitude of 45,000 feet. A flight instability drove an angle of attack that triggered our range safety system to terminate thrust on the vehicle. Not the outcome any of us wanted, but we're signed up for this to be hard, and the Blue Origin team is doing an outstanding job. We're already working on our next development vehicle.

The Blue Origin test vehicle about to land on its "short hop" mission three months ago. Photo source: Blue Origin.

The article concludes with this P.S.:

In case you're curious and wondering "where is the crew capsule," the development vehicle doesn't have a crew capsule — just a close-out fairing instead. We're working on the sub-orbital crew capsule separately, as well as an orbital crew vehicle to support NASA's Commercial Crew program.

In other words ... This vehicle had nothing to do with Commercial Crew Development. The Wall Street Journal got the story wrong.

UPDATE September 3, 2011MSNBC space reporter Alan Boyle in his Cosmic Log comments on the Blue Origin incident.

Blue Origin's experimental rocket ship crashed last week when a high-altitude flight test went awry, says billionaire Jeff Bezos, who founded the secretive rocket venture 11 years ago. The Aug. 24 mishap marks a setback for Blue Origin's efforts to develop a spaceship capable of carrying tourists on suborbital space rides ...

The Aug. 24 test involved the suborbital spaceship, rather than the work covered by NASA's agreement with Blue Origin.

The NewSpace Journal blog comments on the misleading reporting by The Wall Street Journal:

It’s worth remembering that this was, by all accounts, a test flight. And, by their nature, not all test flights are successful: that’s why you fly to, to find problems and correct them. Moreover, the loss of PM 2 is hardly the first time a vehicle has been lost in a test flight, either by a company or a government agency. It’s the nature of aerospace. By Bezos’s account, he sounds ready to move ahead, undaunted by the failure. There’s also a lesson for some in the media as well, to not overreact from a single test failure (or, for that matter, a single successful test).

Academic Study: Prioritize Commercial Space

Aviation Week reports that an interim report from the National Research Council urges NASA to prioritize growth of commercial space.

The report does not appear to be online yet. According to the National Academies web site, the report is "tentatively scheduled for release in September. However, release dates depend on successful completion of the review process and publishing schedules."

To quote from the Aviation Week article:

A National Research Council (NRC) committee evaluated the 14 road maps developed by NASA’s new Office of the Chief Technologist as part of the Obama administration’s new plan to advance space exploration by pushing the readiness levels of technologies that will be needed for exploration across the Solar System.

While the panel found the effort “encouraging,” it identified what it called gaps in the approach, including the lack of attention to commercial spaceflight. Also new under the Obama space policy is an effort to fly on commercial carriers to deliver cargo and crew to low Earth orbit (LEO), leaving NASA to concentrate on exploration deeper into space.

While searching the National Academies web site, I came across another 2011 report that might interest you. It's titled Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration: Life and Physical Sciences Research for a New Era. It's available for free through the National Academies Press web site. Click here to download a free PDF of the report. If you're not already registered, you will need to sign in as a guest with an e-mail address to download the report.

UPDATE September 5, 2011Here's the link for the Technologies Roadmap report. You will need to register as described above to download the file.