Monday, April 29, 2013

VSS Enterprise Boldly Goes

Click the arrow to watch on YouTube the first powered flight of the VSS Enteprise. Video source: Virgin Galactic.

Join the club.

VSS Enterprise today became the first self-powered commercial spaceship to break the Sound Barrier, when during its first powered test flight the vehicle exceeded Mach 1.

Enterprise is more formally known as SpaceShipTwo, which is the spaceplane model. A second one, VSS Voyager, is being built.

SpaceShipTwo is carried to flight and dropped by WhiteKnightTwo.

According to the Virgin Galactic press release:

“The first powered flight of Virgin Spaceship Enterprise was without any doubt, our single most important flight test to date,” said Virgin Galactic Founder Sir Richard Branson, who was on the ground in Mojave to witness the occasion. “For the first time, we were able to prove the key components of the system, fully integrated and in flight. Today’s supersonic success opens the way for a rapid expansion of the spaceship’s powered flight envelope, with a very realistic goal of full space flight by the year’s end. We saw history in the making today and I couldn’t be more proud of everyone involved.”

MSNBC space reporter Alan Boyle of Cosmic Log posed these questions to Branson after the flight:

Q: You've talked about how you and your family are looking forward to this. After today's launch, are you looking forward to it even more?

A: Of course. It was a thrilling day today. Everything went absolutely according to plan. It looked magnificent. The pilots just loved the experience. I think they were tempted to go straight into space, but knew they'd get fired if they did. We're very much looking forward to getting there either at the end of this year or very early next year.

Q: How many test flights do you think will be needed? You've already mentioned that you are hoping the first spaceflights could happen by the end of this year, and commercial service would follow. Now that the first powered test has taken place, what does the schedule ahead look like?

A: There will be many test flights between now and the end of the year, before we actually go into space. We'll do as many tests as we feel are necessary before we actually turn it over to myself, my children and other people. We'll be working with the FAA and others to get as many flights under our belts as we feel are needed, but I do think we'll be ready by the end of the year.

An image shot today from SpaceShipTwo's boom camera during its first rocket-powered flight. Image source: Virgin Galactic.

A telescopic image of VSS Enterprise in flight today. Image source: Virgin Galactic.

Here are stories posted so far about today's historic flight. The list will be updated as available.

Aviation Week “Virgin Fires SpaceShipTwo Rockets In Flight”

Bakersfield Californian “Success! SpaceShipTwo Flies Under Own Power for First Time”

Click the arrow to watch on YouTube the Bakersfield Californian breaking news report on the SpaceShipTwo flight.

CNN “Virgin Galactic One Flight Closer to Space Tourism”

Florida Today “Virgin Galactic Rockets Past Milestone in SpaceShipTwo Test Flight”

Fox News “Sir Richard Branson Plans Orbital Spaceships for Virgin Galactic, 2014 Trips to Space”

KABC TV Los Angeles “Virgin Galactic Spaceship Takes First Powered Flight over Mojave”

Click the arrow to watch the KABC TV report.

Los Angeles Times “Space-Tourism Firm Virgin Galactic Goes Supersonic in Rocket Test”

MSNBC “Billionaire Richard Branson Can't Wait for His Own SpaceShipTwo Trip”

The New York Times “Privately Financed Spaceship Roars Closer to Space”

NPR “Virgin Galactic Reaches Milestone In Space Tourism Industry” “Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Rocket Test Heralds Rise of Passenger Space Travel”

Spaceflight Now “SpaceShipTwo's First Rocket Flight Breaks Sound Barrier”

The Telegraph “Sir Richard Branson Watches Virgin Galactic Spaceship's First Rocket Test”

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Bye-Bye BOSU

January 30, 1967 ... The bodies of the Apollo 1 astronauts leave the Bioastronautics Operational Support Unit for transport to Andrews Air Force Base. Original image source: NASA.

Yet another historic building at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station has fallen to the ages.

The Bioastronautics Operational Support Unit (BOSU), completed in February 1965, was a hospital and medical clinic for the base. It also housed the specially trained medics who were to recover astronauts from the launch pad during an emergency.

Click here to read this 2013 history of the BOSU.

Page 6 of that document relates what is arguably the most famous and tragic moment in the facility's history.

In January 1967, the BOSU supported its only emergency related to the U.S. Manned Space Program: the AS-204 Command Module fire at LC 34 that erupted during a simulation on January 27th. Just after midnight on January 28, the bodies of the three astronauts in the vehicle, Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chaffee, were brought to the BOSU. Here, military doctors conducted a preliminary post-mortem examination of each, including physical, microscopic, radiographic, and toxicological examinations. In addition, twenty-seven members of the Pad Safety Crew, who had suffered smoke inhalation, contusions, and abrasions, were examined at the BOSU; two were kept overnight for observation.

Click here to see undated (apparently recent) images of the BOSU, inside and out.

The BOSU is now being demolished. I stopped by today to take photos of what's left.

And here's another photo from January 30, 1967 of Gus Grissom's casket being moved into the hearse:

Friday, April 26, 2013

Saint Charlie

Click the arrow to watch NASA Administrator Charles Bolden testify on April 24 before the House Space Subcommittee. Video source: U.S. House of Representatives.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden is fond of telling people he's a practicing Episcopalian.

Although the Episcopal Church doesn't canonize individuals as saints, Wikipedia says that to Episcopalians all baptized Christians are saints of God and have the potential to be examples of faith to others.

According to Wikipedia, some of these examples include those “holding moral positions that may have compromised their acceptance by society at the time they lived.”

In that context, as a non-Episcopalian, I'd like to suggest that the Episcopal Church honor General Bolden as a saint walking among us.

Bolden suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous Congressional behavior twice this week.

On Wednesday, he put up with 75 minutes of grilling by members of the House Space Subcommittee. One member after another demanded he explain why NASA proposes an asteroid rendezvous rather than a repeat of the 1960s Apollo lunar landing.

Anyone paying attention to American human spaceflight for the last nine years, starting with President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration proposal in January 2004, knows that Congress has authorized big programs — on paper. But they've failed to provide adequate funding, other than enough to keep people employed in their states and districts, and to steer contracts to major aerospace companies that spend millions of dollars annually on lobbying and campaign contributions.

That was one reason Bush's Constellation program went off the rails. It was billions over budget and years behind schedule. In August 2009, the General Accountability Office issued an audit concluding that Constellation “lacked a sound business case.”

The Obama administration, acknowledging reality, proposed the program be cancelled. Congress reluctantly went along, but replaced it with another pork program called the Space Launch System — or Senate Launch System to its critics, as the basic design and contractors were dictated by Congress, not by NASA administrators.

Congress did not tell NASA what it was supposed to do with the SLS. Just build it to protect jobs and Shuttle-era contractors.

In the years since, Bolden was beaten up at almost every House and Senate hearing by members accusing him of secretly conspiring to destroy SLS, even if the scheduled topic had nothing to do with that program.

Three years later, with Congress still having failed to direct NASA how to use SLS, the agency proposed the asteroid initiative. NASA would identify a suitable asteroid, launch a robotic craft to nudge it into a lunar orbit, then launch SLS in 2021 with a four-member crew that would rendezvous with the asteroid to study mining and deflection technologies.

Congressional members at both hearings claimed there was no scientific support for such a mission, ignoring the Asteroid Retrieval Feasibility Study released last year by the Keck Institute for Space Studies. The study was produced by 34 scientists, including former astronauts Rusty Schweickart and asteroid expert Tom Jones, as well as Planetary Society co-founder Louis Friedman. The Keck study was the inspiration for the administration's proposal, although there are significant differences.

As Bolden repeatedly explained to both committees, the asteroid initiative is affordable within the projected budgets Congress plans to authorize in upcoming years.

Never mind that.

The committee members want a big lunar program with landers and colonies and more Moon rocks coming back to Earth.

Not one of them explained how they would pay for it.

Depending on whose numbers you use, Apollo cost anywhere from $100 billion to almost $200 billion in current dollars.

And that wasn't in an era of trillion-dollar annual fiscal deficits.

Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT), whose district includes ATK Aerospace Headquarters in Magna, questioned Bolden yet again about the asteroid initiative, suggesting that a Moon mission would develop more appropriate technologies for a future Mars mission. (ATK, by Congressional direction, will build the solid rocket boosters for the first two SLS flights.)

Bolden delivered his most direct reply to the question. Click here to watch.

This is the greatest nation in the world, in terms of exploration of the universe. We have been to the Moon — six times. We know how to do that.

Now, Dr. Gilruth, who most of you don't know, once said at the end of the Apollo program, “People will realize how difficult it was to go to the Moon when we try to return.” So just because we went once doesn't mean it's going to be easy the next time.

I don't need any new technology to go to the Moon. I need money to go the Moon! It is expensive to go into a gravity well of the lunar surface. I need new technologies to go to an asteroid in deep space or at a stable rendezvous point around the Moon, and we have already started investing in that new technology.

That explanation seemed to satisfy the committee. For now.

On Thursday, Bolden had the misfortune of appearing before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA's budget. Subcommittee chair Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) was running late, so ranking member Richard Shelby (R-AL) took the gavel.

Shelby is a two-time winner of the Porker of the Month award by Citizens Against Government Waste. He is one of the fiercest defenders of the SLS in the Senate, because the rocket is being designed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. On April 17, Mikulski told the Maryland Space Business Roundtable that it was not politically possible to cut SLS so long as Shelby remains in the Senate.

Click the arrow to watch NASA Administrator Charles Bolden testify on April 25 before the Senate Appropriations space subcommittee. Video source: U.S. Senate.

Since he had the gavel, Shelby used his position to falsely accuse Bolden of stating in his opening remarks that commercial crew was NASA's top priority, and everything else was secondary. Shelby also falsely claimed that commercial crew was over budget with no accountability for the money was spent.

Those are allegations more appropriately directed to Shelby's pet programs.

Mikulski eventually arrived, and only one other Senator — Thad Cochran (R-MS) — bothered to show up. (Mikulski has NASA Goddard in her state; Cochran has NASA Stennis.) The meeting mercifully ended 40 minutes later.

Having watched these hearings for a few years now, in my opinion Charlie Bolden has decided that the best way to deal with these people is to humor them. He agrees with him, he promises to give them what they want — and moves on.

The real decisions are made behind closed doors. These hearings are all for show. Bolden's metaphorical role is to let them nail him to a cross, to impale him with a sword, to place a crown of thorns upon his head.

But Charlie will live to fight another day.

The sainthood metaphor may be overworked, but I often hear the scuttlebutt that Bolden is Administrator because no one else wants the job. Who can blame them.

Years from now, I hope someone recognizes all the suffering he's endured to turn around NASA so it's no longer just one big congressional porkfest, but a cutting-edge aerospace research and development agency as originally intended by its creators in the 1950s.

Atlantis Unwrapped

Click the arrow to watch a time-lapse video of Atlantis being unwrapped. Video source: Florida Today.

After months under wraps — white shrink-wrap, to be precise — the orbiter Atlantis is reborn to the world.

Florida Today reports:

Lots of work remains: lighting to install, interactive content to edit, a Hubble Space Telescope replica to assemble, among other tasks.

But the outlines are all in place for the one-of-a-kind display showing Atlantis as if it is flying one of its 33 missions, and the exhibit remains on track to open June 29.

The unwrapping was necessary so crews could begin opening the orbiter’s payload bay doors early next month.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Atlantis Gets a Boost, Part III

On April 10 and April 12 I posted photos and video of the orbiter Atlantis exhibit under construction at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Here are more photos of the site taken day from various angles.

A Rocket is Born

Click the arrow to watch the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket launch on YouTube. Video source: NASA.

Orbital Sciences has been in the space business since 1982 — mostly as a satellite builder and small-payload launcher — but the company introduced a new vertical launch vehicle to the world on April 21 when the Antares successfully launched on a test flight from Wallops, Virginia.

Click here to read about it on

The next step is to launch their Cygnus cargo module on a demonstration flight to the International Space Station sometime around June. If successful, the United States will be the only nation with two robotic space vehicles capable of delivering cargo to orbit.

Ninety minutes later, NASA held a joint press conference with Orbital.

Click the arrow to watch the press conference on YouTube. Video source: NASA.

NASA's web site for Orbital is

Monday, April 22, 2013

NASA, Bigelow Beyond Earth Orbit Agreement Online posted today a copy of the Space Act Agreement between NASA and Bigelow Aerospace to study commercial space beyond Earth orbit.

Click here to download the PDF of the agreement.

The purpose of this Agreement is to facilitate and explore, in a manner that meets both national and commercial goals and objectives, joint public/private arrangements that would continue to build the ability for humans to live and work in space through the expansion of exploration capabilities beyond low Earth orbit.

You can read through the entire document; I will give it more analysis when I have the time.

At first blush, it would seem the strategy is for Bigelow to organize interested NewSpace companies and other entities into an alliance that might be the next step in NASA's commercial space transportation program. Just as NASA has grown a commercial cargo program and will soon fly astronauts on commercial crew, in the next decade we might see astronauts on commercial crew vehicles going to the Moon, staying in lunar colonies built out of Bigelow habitats, or perhaps space stations at Lagrangian points.

KLAS-TV Las Vegas journalist George Knapp broke the story on April 10, and on April 19 space reporter Alan Boyle confirmed the report with more details.

One can imagine the political fireworks when the Congressional space subcommittees find out about this commercial effort to essentially undercut their favorite pork program, the Space Launch System. If successful, the NewSpace project could put NASA out of the spacecraft building business. There would still be NASA astronauts, but they would fly on commercial vehicles just as NASA employees fly on commercial airlines.

The budget review process on Capitol Hill in the next few months will be very entertaining.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Three Inductees Join Astronaut Hall of Fame

Click the arrow to watch the induction ceremony on YouTube.

Florida Today reports that three inductees have joined the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame.

When Eileen Collins went on a very important job interview in 1990, she wore a suit in a shade she calls “as close to NASA blue as I could find.”

The retired astronaut (yes, she got the job) went with that same color — actually, the same suit — today for her induction into the U.S. Hall Astronaut of Fame.

Along with shuttle veterans Curt Brown and Bonnie Dunbar, Collins joined the elite ranks of space exploration heroes including Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Jim Lovell, Sally Ride and Scott Carpenter. The 2013 Hall of Fame Class is the first to include two women.

The Hall of Fame is operated by the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

The Future of U.S. Space Policy

Click the arrow to watch the discussion on YouTube.

The Council on Foreign Relations held a discussion on April 15 titled, “The Future of U.S. Space Policy.” Click here to read the transcript.

The speakers were Scott Pace, Director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, and Robert Walker, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives who is a vocal advocate of commercial space.

I was particularly struck by Rep. Walker's opening remarks:

[W]here I think we are coming apart on the space program is that literally the policy surrounding space is being driven now in large part by space as a jobs program. A lot of the people who are in the Congress at the present time who take an interest in space do so because they have a facility in their district or they have some particular reason to be involved with it, but very few people who look at space as a large general program. And I think that has been a trend that has come along over a period of time.

And as a result, what we're finding is that the ability to get a sense of direction about an overall program is limited by people who say, well, I'm all for doing a new program; what's my (senator ?) going to get out of this? You know, how — you know, it doesn't matter whether a senator has anything to do with the technical program that is being discussed; they want to make certain, though, that they get their piece of it. And as a result, NASA has become more and more dysfunctional, in my view, and it's not necessarily as much NASA's fault as it is the people who are driving the policy and allocating the budgets. And so I have a great concern about that.

Later in the event, he said:

One of the things that when I served on the Aldridge Commission that came after my commission, one of the things we found there was that the only that you could do space inside the budgets that are likely to be allocated in the future is to expand the size of the space community. You cannot rely upon everybody going through the front door of NASA to get to space. So you have got to expand the community beyond that particular agency.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Bigelow Inflates Its Goals

A conceptual model of a Bigelow habitat on the lunar surface. Image source: Bigelow Aerospace/

Confirming an April 10 report by KLAS-TV journalist George Knapp, Alan Boyle of MSNBC News reports that NASA and Bigelow Aerospace have signed an agreement that lets Bigelow explore the possibility of commercial ventures beyond Earth orbit.

"As part of our broader commercial space strategy, NASA signed a Space Act Agreement with Bigelow Aerospace to foster ideas about how the private sector can contribute to future human missions," David Weaver, the space agency's associate administrator for communications, said in a statement emailed to NBC News.

"This will provide important information on possible ways to expand our exploration capabilities in partnership with the private sector," Weaver said. "The agency is intensely focused on a bold mission to identify, relocate and explore an asteroid with American astronauts by 2025 — all as we prepare for an even more ambitious human mission to Mars in the 2030s. NASA has no plans for a human mission to the moon."

The Space Act Agreement is unfunded, meaning that unlike the commercial cargo and crew programs Bigelow will receive no seed money from NASA for achieving milestones.

According to the article:

The agreement with NASA calls upon Bigelow Aerospace to lay out the potential contributions to exploration beyond Earth orbit. "First, we'll be identifying what the companies and technologies are that could contribute, and then we'll be examining what some of those specific mission scenarios might be," [Bigelow spokesperson Mike] Gold said. During the "Coast to Coast AM" interview, Robert Bigelow said the first phase of the study would take 100 days, and the second phase would take 120 days.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Orbital Antares Pre-Game Show

Click the arrow to watch the NASA press conference with Orbital Sciences on YouTube.

Almost a year after SpaceX flew its demonstration flight to the International Space Station, Orbital Sciences will attempt on April 17 to launch a test flight of its Antares rocket with a dummy version of its Cygnus cargo module.

Tomorrow's launch attempt will not occur in the Space Coast, but at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Wallops is close to the Orbital Sciences corporate headquarters in Dulles, Virginia.

Orbital has been the step-child to SpaceX in NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. SpaceX and Rocketplane-Kistler were issued the first two COTS contracts in 2006, but the agreement with RpK was terminated when they could not meet assigned milestones. Orbital replaced RpK in the COTS program in 2008.

If the Antares test flight is successful, it's anticipated that Orbital will fly a Cygnus demonstration flight to the International Space Station sometime this summer.

The weather forecast as of this writing is only a 45% chance of favorable conditions. The three-hour launch window opens at 5:00 PM EDT.

UPDATE April 18, 2013 7:00 AM EDT — Orbital's first attempt was scrubbed yesterday when an Ethernet cable came loose from the second stage twelve minutes before the launch Anyone who's lost connection to the Internet can appreciate that.

They'll try again on April 19, but the weather forecast is gloomy.

UPDATE April 18, 2013 8:15 PM EDTOrbital posted on its web site late today that they have surrendered to the weather gods, and postponed the next launch attempt to April 20.

Orbital has determined that the next launch attempt for the new Antares rocket will be no earlier than Saturday, April 20, at 5:00 p.m. The mission management team met this afternoon to evaluate weather forecasts and optimum crew work schedules to provide two back-to-back opportunities for a launch attempt.

Weather conditions deteriorate on Friday, April 19, but improve significantly over the next two days increasing the chances for acceptable conditions at launch time. This also allows the Antares launch team a day of rest before back-to-back opportunities on Saturday, April 20 and Sunday, April 21.

Orion Day at KSC

Click the arrow to watch the NASA video on YouTube.

Led by center director Bob Cabana, Kennedy Space Center staff led the media yesterday on a tour of the Orion capsule scheduled to launch next year, and the Operations & Checkout building.

Todd Halvorson of Florida Today reports:

President Barack Obama’s push to accelerate a human expedition to an asteroid is a daunting gauntlet for NASA, but one that can be accomplished, agency officials said Monday.

“This is not going to be easy,” said Kennedy Space Center Director Robert Cabana, who piloted two shuttle flights and served as mission commander on two others ...

“I think it’s really neat that the first time we fly (Orion) with crew, they’ve got some place to go with it, and something to accomplish with it,” Cabana said. “We’re excited about it. Absolutely.”

Monday, April 15, 2013

When Obama Visited KSC

Click the arrow to watch President Obama's speech on YouTube.

Three years ago, President Barack Obama visited Kennedy Space Center. The Florida Today report is still online.

In the Operations and Checkout building, he gave a speech outlining his space policy. You can read the text of the speech here.

In reading the speech, let's set the context.

This was shortly after the Obama administration submitted the Fiscal Year 2011 proposed budget to Congress. That budget included a proposal to cancel Constellation, a program begun by President George W. Bush in 2004 as part of his Vision for Space Exploration. Constellation eventually would feature an Ares I rocket for taking crew to the International Space Station, and an Ares V heavy-lift vehicle that would take astronauts beyond Earth orbit, to the Moon and beyond.

I've written many times about Constellation's flaws, specifically in this article. For those paying attention, by 2009 Constellation was in serious trouble. Constellation was years behind schedule and billions over budget. The Ares I would not send crews to the ISS until at least 2017, but would be funded by retiring the ISS in 2015 — it was a rocket with nowhere to go. The Ares V was a paper exercise; it wouldn't fly until at least 2028.

These problems — nothing new for the NASA bureaucracy — were reported first by the independent Government Accountability Agency in August 2009 and then the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee in October 2009.

Constellation was a fig leaf for fundamental structural flaws within NASA's bureaucracy. Some were not the agency's fault; Congress demanded much of NASA but often failed to provide the funding. NASA's bureaucracy of space centers scattered across the U.S. is a relic of the late 1950s and early 1960s; when NASA was created in October 1958, it was a merger of various civilian and military aerospace programs. The Johnson Space Center, born the Manned Spaceflight Center, was placed in Houston in 1962, one reason being that its representative in the House was Albert Thomas, who headed the Appropriations subcommittee over NASA (although Houston had many legitimate qualities that earned it the new space center).

The result was that NASA became for many a workfare program that directed spending to the states and districts of those on the House and Senate space subcommittees. It didn't really matter if anything was finished on time and on budget, so long as the pork kept flowing to the contractors who employed those voters and donated to their re-election campaigns.

Many independent reviews over the years warned Congress of this behavior but, as I wrote last December, Congress simply ignores the reports and points the finger of blame elsewhere while assuring the pork keeps flowing.

Cancelling Constellation shocked the space-industrial complex. It threatened the very foundation of the cozy relationship between Congressional porkers and the contractors who donate to their campaigns. Some workers unaware of the political machinations behind Constellation concocted bizarre conspiracy theories about Obama trying to funnel pork to those who donated to his campaign. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, was a particular target, which was absurd because SpaceX got its first commercial cargo contract from NASA in 2006 during the Bush administration.

President Barack Obama visits the SpaceX launch facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

This bogus rumor got traction when Obama, before his O&C speech, visited the SpaceX pad at Launch Complex 40, where he was given a tour by Musk. In a February 20 Huffington Post article, Musk said the only reason Obama toured the SpaceX pad was that the Secret Service was concerned about a liquid hydrogen tank at a United Launch Alliance pad. “He was actually scheduled to go to their launch site, and literally two days beforehand it was changed to us,” Musk said. “But as a result, there's a bunch of photos of me walking around with Obama on the launch site like he's my best friend.”

Some locals claimed that Obama had betrayed a 2008 promise made in Titusville during his election campaign, saying he had promised to keep Constellation going. But that wasn't true either. He merely said he would speed along the Shuttle's successor. He didn't say what that successor would be.

Obama decided to prime the pump on the Bush-era commercial cargo and crew program, the origins of which I wrote about last month. Contrary to the claims by some, commercial space was the brainchild of the Bush administration, starting with the Aldridge Commission in June 2004. The report called for “the breaking down of barriers to commercial and entrepreneurial activities in space, as well as a cultural shift towards encouraging and incentivizing more private sector business in space. Such a change in both perspective and posture is essential if we are to develop a broad-based, societal change in space business.”

When Obama delivered his KSC speech in April 2010, it was unclear whether his administration would succeed in fundamentally changing the way NASA operated. But for those who paid attention to his speech, that's exactly what he said he intended to do.

But I also know that underlying these concerns is a deeper worry, one that precedes not only this plan but this administration. It stems from the sense that people in Washington — driven sometimes less by vision than by politics — have for years neglected NASA’s mission and undermined the work of the professionals who fulfill it. We’ve seen that in the NASA budget, which has risen and fallen with the political winds.

But we can also see it in other ways: in the reluctance of those who hold office to set clear, achievable objectives; to provide the resources to meet those objectives; and to justify not just these plans but the larger purpose of space exploration in the 21st century.

All that has to change.

Obama began by proposing that NASA's budget be increased by $6 billion over the next five years. Anyone paying attention knows that hasn't happened — primarily because Congress has rejected requested increases in programs favored by the administration, commercial crew in particular. Faced with trillion dollar annual deficits, and most recently the sequester, the administration has proposed essentially flat-line budgets the last two fiscal years.

But Congress did impose upon NASA the Space Launch System to replace Constellation. One pork program was replaced by another. SLS was dubbed the “Senate Launch System” by a Competitive Space Task Force column in March 2011, and the appellation stuck. Since then, many members of the Congressional space authorization and appropriations subcommittees have pitted SLS and commercial space in a zero-sum battle, accusing the Obama administration of scheming to undermine SLS to benefit commercial space. In the last two fiscal year battles, Congress substantially cut the administration's commercial crew funding requests to assure SLS got every dime Congress wanted.

Obama proposed in his speech that “we will ramp up robotic exploration of the solar system,” and that's reflected not only in robotic craft such as the SpaceX Dragon but last week's asteroid initiative that would send a robotic spacecraft to capture an asteroid.

Then he doubled down on the Bush-era commercial space program, to extend the life of the International Space Station:

... [W]e will extend the life of the International Space Station likely by more than five years, while actually using it for its intended purpose: conducting advanced research that can help improve the daily lives of people here on Earth, as well as testing and improving upon our capabilities in space. This includes technologies like more efficient life support systems that will help reduce the cost of future missions. And in order to reach the space station, we will work with a growing array of private companies competing to make getting to space easier and more affordable.

Now, I recognize that some have said it is unfeasible or unwise to work with the private sector in this way. I disagree. The truth is, NASA has always relied on private industry to help design and build the vehicles that carry astronauts to space, from the Mercury capsule that carried John Glenn into orbit nearly 50 years ago, to the space shuttle Discovery currently orbiting overhead. By buying the services of space transportation — rather than the vehicles themselves — we can continue to ensure rigorous safety standards are met. But we will also accelerate the pace of innovations as companies — from young startups to established leaders — compete to design and build and launch new means of carrying people and materials out of our atmosphere.

The International Space Station in May 2011. It would have been retired in 2015 by Bush-era policy, but the Obama administration succeeded in extending it to at least 2020.

Some have claimed that this policy declaration pulled the plug on deep space exploration beyond Earth orbit — but that's untrue.

Here's what Obama said that day:

... [W]e will invest more than $3 billion to conduct research on an advanced “heavy lift rocket” — a vehicle to efficiently send into orbit the crew capsules, propulsion systems, and large quantities of supplies needed to reach deep space. In developing this new vehicle, we will not only look at revising or modifying older models; we want to look at new designs, new materials, new technologies that will transform not just where we can go but what we can do when we get there. And we will finalize a rocket design no later than 2015 and then begin to build it. And I want everybody to understand: That’s at least two years earlier than previously planned — and that’s conservative, given that the previous program was behind schedule and over budget.

He then proposed that NASA bypass the Moon with the eventual goal of sending astronauts to Mars:

Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit. And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space. So we’ll start — we’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.

Last week's asteroid initiative was a step in the direction of fulfilling this proposal.

Obama levelled with those who wanted to protect the status quo.

... [P]ursuing this new strategy will require that we revise the old strategy. In part, this is because the old strategy — including the Constellation program — was not fulfilling its promise in many ways. That’s not just my assessment; that’s also the assessment of a panel of respected non-partisan experts charged with looking at these issues closely. Now, despite this, some have had harsh words for the decisions we’ve made, including some individuals who I’ve got enormous respect and admiration for.

But what I hope is, is that everybody will take a look at what we are planning, consider the details of what we’ve laid out, and see the merits as I’ve described them. The bottom line is nobody is more committed to manned space flight, to human exploration of space than I am. But we’ve got to do it in a smart way, and we can’t just keep on doing the same old things that we’ve been doing and thinking that somehow is going to get us to where we want to go.

In a proposal that presaged the solar electric propulsion engine that will be part of the asteroid initiative, Obama said:

Critical to deep space exploration will be the development of breakthrough propulsion systems and other advanced technologies. So I’m challenging NASA to break through these barriers. And we’ll give you the resources to break through these barriers.

NASA's asteroid initiative proposes using a solar electric propulsion engine for the robotic spacecraft that will capture the asteroid. Image source: NASA.

Two years later, Aviation Week reported:

Solar-electric propulsion (SEP) is high on NASA's list of things to do in its growing effort to develop technologies that will support long-term human space exploration. And within that arena, figuring out how to deploy large, lightweight solar arrays in space is a key enabler. Even after building the International Space Station with its 115-ft.-long array wings, the agency sees the technology readiness level (TRL) of deploying big arrays for exploration beyond low Earth orbit at 3 or 4—a long way from the demonstrated operational capability represented by TRL 9.

Results are starting to come in under the relatively open-ended technology development effort launched at the beginning of the Obama administration. While Congress has not approved the billion-dollar funding levels for the work the White House wanted, it has sprung enough money to make a start. Now five companies have come back with concept reports on what it would take to build and fly a solar-powered space tug testbed by the end of the decade, at a cost of $200 million. It remains to be seen if a testbed actually will be built, given the ongoing funding uncertainty in these parlous fiscal times. But the concept studies should help NASA's Office of the Chief Technologist (OCT) better understand what needs to be done, and just how much it will cost.

As for the jobs lost at the end of the Shuttle era, Obama proposed “a $40 million initiative led by a high-level team from the White House, NASA, and other agencies to develop a plan for regional economic growth and job creation. And I expect this plan to reach my desk by August 15th.”

That it did. The Presidential Task Force on Space Industry Workforce & Economic Development report arrived on August 15. The proposal went to Congress, which failed to fund the program. According to a May 1, 2011 Florida Today article:

The president followed through with a budget amendment on June 18, calling for “up to $40 million in aid for Florida's Space Coast.” By August, the task force had vetted proposals ranging from $400,000 to $27 million, including money for clean-energy startups and roads or buildings to help biomedical and aerospace businesses.

So far, so good.

The grant money appeared in the 2011 budget passed last fall by the U.S. House, led then by Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California. The Commerce Department had the list of projects and was poised to cut checks, [Senator Bill] Nelson's office reports.

But it was an election year.

Republican Senators killed the budget bill on Nov. 30, along with Brevard's $40 million, by vowing a filibuster. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made the move, preventing a vote, with a letter signed by the entire Republican caucus, including then-interim-Sen. George LeMieux, R-Broward County. LeMieux and Haridopolos' are now rivals in the 2012 Republican primary.

So here we are three years later.

The space-industrial complex is alive and well and still fighting for taxpayer pork. But commercial space is vibrant, starting to win the hearts and minds of those in the space advocacy community.

SpaceX has flown three cargo deliveries to the ISS — a demonstration flight and two official deliveries, returning experiments, biological samples and broken parts needing repair.

Orbital Sciences, the other contractor in the commercial cargo program, hopes to test its Antares rocket later this week. If that goes well, they hope to launch the demonstration flight of their Cygnus robotic cargo craft this summer.

Commercial crew, underfunded by Congress, has seen its schedule slip by two years, although there's some hope that SpaceX might fly a crewed demonstration flight by 2015. Boeing and Sierra Nevada estimate their flights will be in 2016.

Obama succeeded in extending the ISS to 2020. With construction completed in May 2011, crew members have been able to spend more time on research. We continue to see promising results such as this February 4 ESA article about discovering the immunity gene and this March 23 Boston Globe article about protein crystallography that may have helped Japanese researchers develop a treatment for muscular dystrophy.

Click the arrow to watch the CASIS promotional video on YouTube.

The Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) is open here in Brevard County, recruiting commercial and educational researchers to use the ISS. CASIS recently awarded grants for protein crystallization research and participated in the Space, Cancer and Medicine Conference in Spartanburg, North Carolina.

Obama's “heavy lift rocket” design is under way, only it's not 21st Century technology as he envisioned. Congress imposed upon NASA the Space Launch System, directing that it use Shuttle-era technology. The core tank is an enlarged version of the Shuttle's orange external tank; when it launches circa 2017, it will use four engines removed from Space Shuttle orbiters. Those engines were designed to be reusable, but thanks to Congress they will wind up at the bottom of the ocean or burn up in the atmosphere instead of being displayed in a museum.

When Congress ordered the SLS, they did not give NASA a use. More than two years later, they still haven't.

Last week's asteroid initiative proposed a use to Congress. We'll have to see if Congress says yes or no; if no, then NASA is still building a rocket without a purpose.

Obama gave up trying to increase NASA's budget as promised. Congress made it clear they won't let him. If Congress wanted to increase NASA's budget, they could, but they haven't.

As for displaced Shuttle workers, some have left the area. Some live off their severance packages, looking for work. Others have found jobs. But as with the rest of the nation, Brevard's economy is slowly healing, just as it did after the end of the Apollo program when layoffs were far worse.

President Obama issued a challenge three years ago today. He took on the space-industrial complex and those in Congress who direct pork to it. “All that has to change, ” he said. He levelled with those who wanted to save Constellation, saying we couldn't afford to do business like that any more if we really want to go beyond Earth orbit.

Obama hasn't fully succeeded. Yet. But with every SpaceX flight, with every new strictly private enterprise such as Bigelow Aerospace, Stratolaunch, XCOR, Virgin Galactic, Planetary Resources and Golden Spike, it's clear that the space culture is changing.

By the time Obama leaves office on January 20, 2017, we might see the first elements of a private space station in orbit, with private space vehicles to service them. You won't have to be a government employee to go into space. That in itself is revolutionary, and changing the way NASA does business helped make it possible.

Friday, April 12, 2013

NASA Releases Proposed FY14 Budget

Click the arrow to watch the NASA video summarizing its proposed FY14 budget.

Lost in all the hoopla about this week's asteroid initiative was the rest of NASA's proposed Fiscal Year 2014 budget.

In reality, the proposal means little, because under the U.S. Constitution it's the Congress that makes budgets, not the executive branch. The White House submits a proposed budget but Congress can do what they want with it.

A quirk in the Constitution separates the budget from the actual money provided. The Appropriations Committees in each house decide how much money to make available. It can be more, less or the same as the budget.

When you add to the witches' brew other toxic ingredients like continuing resolutions and sequestration, you have no idea what will come out of the cauldron.

For example ... The 2010 NASA Authorization Act authorized for commercial crew $500 million in FY12 and $500 million in FY13. In the real world, Congress gave commercial crew $406 million in FY12 and, with sequestration, will come in somewhere around $488 million for FY13. The White House budget proposals requested $850 million for FY12 and $830 million for FY13.

The White House is requesting $821.4 million in FY14. Good luck with that.

The April 10 Florida Today had an article detailing parts of the budget affecting Kennedy Space Center.

Center Director Bob Cabana outlined spending levels for various programs Florida Today described as “in the works”:

  • NASA is talking with an unidentified commercial company for the use of Launch Complex 39A, which the agency abandoned in place.
  • Negotiations also are ongoing with potential users of two shuttle processing facilities.
  • $99.2 million for repairs and modifications to the Vehicle Assembly Building and the Launch Control Center, among other complex 39 facilities.
  • $39 million for the first phase of a new Central Campus that would replace the current KSC Industrial Area administrative office facilities.
  • $14.9 million to upgrade environmental control systems in the Launch Complex 39 area to support new Space Launch System rockets.

For more budget wonkery, Wikipedia has a good overview of the U.S. budget process.

Atlantis Gets a Boost, Part II

Click the arrow to watch the Florida Today video.

On April 10 I posted photos of the solid rocket booster replicas being stacked in front of the future exhibit for the orbiter Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Florida Today reports on the site's progress and offers the above video.

Life's a Beach, Part III

Dune erosion at Launch Complex 39 on October 27. Image source:

Last October, I posted before-and-after photos of beach erosion damage near Launch Complex 39 caused by Hurricane Sandy.

NASA sought funding from Congress to repair the damage before hurricane season, but Fox News and the New York Post — both owned by Rupert Murdoch — labelled it a “scam.”

The smear campaign has failed, as Florida Today reports that Kennedy Space Center will get $2.85 million to repair the damage.

The project has yet to be put out to bid, according to KSC officials, but some work is expected to begin this summer, with most of the dune repair happening after this year’s turtle nesting season.

“Some allowable activity will take place in August. The majority will occur after this year’s turtle nesting season, which spans from May through October,” Tracy Young, a KSC spokeswoman, said via ­e-mail.

Florida prohibits beach building during sea turtle nesting season, May 1 through the end of October. Although from Brevard County to Broward County, some beach construction activities are prohibited starting March 1, because sea turtles begin nesting there earlier.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Bigelow Hot Air

Click the arrow to watch a January 16, 2013 report by KLAS reporter George Knapp about the Bigelow BEAM deal with NASA.

KLAS-TV Las Vegas journalist George Knapp posted on April 10 that “an adventurous deal” has been reached between NASA and Bigelow Aerospace that “could be an historic contract.”

Business deals don’t get much bigger than this one. Have you ever read a contract that gives a governmental green light to a program to “place a base on the surface of the moon?” Ever see an agreement signed by the U.S. government that declares a specific goal “to extend and sustain human activities across the solar system?” Me, either.

Yet that is essence of an adventurous deal already reached between NASA and Las Vegas space entrepreneur Robert Bigelow. An official announcement is still a few days away and will likely happen during a news conference at NASA headquarters. In the meantime, I have a draft copy of what could be an historic contract, one that reads like a Kubrick screenplay or an Arthur C. Clarke story. It is flat-out otherworldly ...

NASA has picked Bigelow Aerospace to be a linchpin of this new strategy. The agreement will formalize a series of strategic goals and timetables for the next Space Race. Bigelow’s company would become a clearinghouse of sorts. Its first assignment: to identify which other companies would be most valuable for NASA’s long-range goals, including permanent bases on other celestial bodies, the exploration of the most distant parts of our solar system, and commercial projects that could stimulate the U.S. economy. This is a marriage of American know-how, practical business goals and good, old-fashioned adventure.

Bigelow told me about some of the details in a radio interview a few days ago, but he is saving most of the specifics until NASA makes a formal announcement. From what I have seen, though, it is not hard to imagine our little desert community becoming the heart and soul of a wonderful new initiative that could inspire a new generation of explorers and pioneers who literally will go where no human has gone before.

Knapp and KLAS have reported over the last several years about Bigelow's progress, including a January 16, 2013 announcement that a habitat prototype called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) will be attached to the International Space Station in 2015.

Bob Bigelow in 2010 with a concept model of inflatable habitats on the lunar surface. Image source:

The notion of using Bigelow habitats for a lunar base isn't new. reported in April 2010 that Bigelow had a vision of a “quick-deploy moon base capable of housing up to 18 astronauts in inflatable modules on the lunar surface.”

The base itself would be fabricated in space, with consideration being given to crewmembers piloting the entire base directly onto the moon's surface.

“I see a huge sea change in using expandable systems,” Bigelow told in an exclusive interview. “I feel this architecture is fundamentally safer, less expensive, and can save an awful lot of time.”

I wonder if the next step will be to see NASA midwife partnerships between Bigelow and prospective lunar expedition endeavours such as The Golden Spike Company, perhaps issuing Space Act Agreements for programs such as Commercial Orbital Transportation Services while NASA focuses on its asteroid initiative.

Posey Moons Taxpayers

On a day when NASA announced its plans for the next great adventure in human spaceflight, Space Coast Rep. Bill Posey declared he wants to turn back the clock fifty years.

Posey issued a press release announcing he would introduce legislation called the RE-asserting American Leadership in Space Act, or REAL Space Act, that would force NASA to begin work on returning astronauts to the Moon.

The press release claimed the legislation is “bipartisan” but the only Democratic co-sponsor is Houston Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, whose district includes Johnson Space Center employees. The other eight co-sponsors are Republicans, most of whom represent districts with NASA centers and/or NASA contractors.

Although the text of Posey's bill has yet to appear online, it would appear similar to legislation he introduced in May 2011 with the same title and many of the same co-sponsors. That bill went nowhere.

Posey's press release claims that his legislation “sets a clear course for NASA toward human space flight while keeping within current budgetary constraints,” but otherwise offers no evidence of how he would pay for a lunar expedition program likely to cost hundreds of billions of dollars. The 2011 version did not.

This proposal is similar to the empty promises made in January 2004, when the Bush administration introduced the Constellation program — lots of vision, but no money to support it.

At the initial Constellation hearing on January 28, 2004, Senator John McCain said in his opening remarks, “A vision without a strategy is just an illusion.”

The so-called “REAL Space Act” is just more smoke and mirrors from Rep. Posey.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

To Catch an Asteroid

Click the arrow to watch the video. Video credit: NASA.

UPDATE April 11, 2013This is a PDF of the slide show titled “NASA's FY2014 Asteroid Strategy.”

Five days after U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) revealed the program, NASA made it official today — the agency wants to capture an asteroid by the end of the decade and use the Space Launch System to send astronauts to rendezvous with it in 2021.

Click here to visit's NASA's Asteroid Initiative page. Apparently “asteroid initiative” is the name for now for this program.

Also made public for the first time were a conceptual video (above) and images of what such a mission might look like. Here are those images with the NASA captions as posted on Flickr.

Concept of Spacecraft with Asteroid Capture Mechanism Deployed

Concept of Asteroid Capture Spacecraft in a Stowed Configuration

Concept of Asteroid Capture in Progress

Artist's Concept of a Solar Electric Propulsion System

The announcement was part of today's release of the proposed NASA Fiscal Year 2014 budget. The budget proposal and supporting documents can be found on the NASA budget page.

Media reports will be posted below as they become available.

CBS News “WH Seeks Funds for NASA to Start Work on Asteroid Capture”

CNN “NASA Shoots for Asteroid, New Manned Missions”

Florida Today “ NASA's Proposed Budget Gets Asteroid Mission Moving”

Fox News “Why Americans Must Support NASA's Plan to Capture an Asteroid”

The Guardian “NASA Aims to Capture and Study Asteroid in Effort to Protect Earth”

NBC News “NASA Touts Plan to Grab Asteroid as 'Unprecedented Technological Feat'” “Obama Seeks $17.7 Billion for NASA to Lasso Asteroid, Explore Space” “Inside NASA's Plan to Catch an Asteroid (Bruce Willis Not Required)” “NASA Unveils 2014 Budget Request, Asteroid Initiative”

USA Today “NASA Releases Asteroid Capture Mission Details”

The Wall Street Journal “NASA Budget Eyes Asteroid Defenses”

Atlantis Gets a Boost

The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex continues to build the new orbiter Atlantis exhibit for its June 29 debut.

The entrance will feature exact-size replica solid rocket boosters and an external tank. The booster segments began arriving a couple weeks ago and slowly have been stacked outside the future entrance.

Here are photos of today's stacking work.

UPDATE April 11, 2013 — KSCVC posted to YouTube this video of the SRB stacking and inside the Atlantis exhibit:

Friday, April 5, 2013

Rocky Road for NASA Human Spaceflight

An artist's concept of the Space Exploration Vehicle at an asteroid. Image Source: NASA.

Lending credence to a story that appeared on the Aviation Week web site on March 28, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) told reporters today he'd been briefed on a NASA proposal to be unveiled next week that could send astronauts to a captured asteroid by 2021.

According to a story posted this afternoon by Florida Today space reporter James Dean:

NASA hopes to start work on a mission that could send astronauts to an asteroid within eight years, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said today.

Nelson, who heads the Senate subcommittee that authorizes NASA programs, said the “audacious” plan calls for a robotic spacecraft to capture an asteroid and tow it to a stable orbit around the moon.

Flying in an Orion capsule launched from Kennedy Space Center atop the massive Space Launch System rocket, astronauts would then have a “unique, meaningful and affordable” destination for the next decade, Nelson said.

The space agency could use the asteroid to study mining, ways to deflect the space rocks if they threatened Earth and technologies that might apply to a manned mission to Mars.

"It's really a clever concept,” Nelson said. "This is one of the building blocks of a human mission to Mars."

UPDATE April 6, 2013 — Senator Nelson's web site issued this statement Friday about the asteroid proposal.

In a nutshell, the plan in NASA’s hands calls for catching an asteroid with a robotic spacecraft and towing it back toward Earth, where it would then be placed in a stable orbit around the moon.

Next, astronauts aboard America’s Orion capsule, powered into space by a new monster rocket, would travel to the asteroid where there could be mining activities, research into ways of deflecting an asteroid from striking Earth, and testing to develop technology for a trip to deep space and Mars.

In March 2012, NASA posted to its web site a video showing a Space Exploration Vehicle concept being used to test a three-day "campout" at an asteroid.

For now, it appears the proposal next week will be simply to request Congress for $100 million to develop the feasibility study, which would suggest that NASA would return to Congress once it was completed to ask for a funding commitment for the entire mission.

When NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden appeared before the House Appropriations Committee on March 20, he mentioned in passing that he hoped to ask Congress to approve funding for moving up the Space Launch System's first human test flight from 2021 to 2019. This report suggests that's because he wants the human flight to the captured asteroid in 2021.

The timing also raises the question of NASA's intentions for the International Space Station after the end of the decade. The existing agreements with the partnership nations expire in 2020.

Earlier in the day, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported that Roscosmos would be willing to join NASA in an asteroid mission.

Russia’s space agency Roscosmos may join NASA’s ambitious mission to capture an asteroid and place it in high lunar orbit for exploration, Roscosmos head Vladimir Popovkin said.

“[It is] a very interesting project, which NASA proposes to carry out jointly with Roscosmos specialists,” Popovkin said in an interview with Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper to be published on Friday.

“We could send a manned expedition to explore the asteroid or study it with probes,” he said.

More on the story as it develops. Articles posted online so far:

Associated Press “Senator: NASA to Lasso Asteroid, Bring It Closer”

CBS News “NASA Mulls Asteroid Capture Mission, Eventual Manned Visits”

Central Florida News 13 “Sen. Bill Nelson Reveals NASA's Plan to Catch an Asteroid”

Florida Today “ NASA Wants to Lasso Asteroid, Tow It Home”

The Guardian “NASA Plans Asteroid Rodeo to Lasso 25ft Space Rock for Research”

NBC News “Administration Confirms NASA Plan: Grab an Asteroid, Then Focus on Mars”

Orlando Sentinel “Space Cowboys: NASA's Newest Project Aims at Corralling Asteroid”

Orlando Sentinel “NASA's Plan to Lasso Asteroid Originated with Italian Student”

Scientific American “NASA Getting into the Asteroid-Moving Business” “ NASA to Get $100 Million for Asteroid-Capture Mission, Senator Says” “NASA's Proposed Asteroid Retrieval Mission Outlined”