Saturday, January 25, 2014

Retro Saturday: Army Ballistic Missile Agency

Click the arrow to watch “The Big Picture” on YouTube.

The Big Picture was a series of half-hour documentary films produced between 1951 and 1964 by the United States Army Signal Corps Army Pictorial Service. It aired on the ABC television network and in syndication.

Retro Saturday returns you to the late 1950s the next two weeks, as we approach the 56th anniversary of Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite, launched on January 31, 1958 from Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 26.

LC-26 and neighboring LC-5/6 were built in the early 1950s to support development of the Redstone and Jupiter missiles. They were operated by the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), commanded by Army General John B. Medaris. His star employee was Wernher von Braun, the German expatriate who designed the Nazi vengeance weapon A-4, commonly known as the V-2. Redstone, Jupiter, and later the NASA Saturn rockets are direct descendants of the V-2.

A modified Redstone called the Jupiter-C, named Juno for the mission to suggest it was a civilian and not military rocket, was the launch vehicle for Explorer 1.

Von Braun's Nazi background, involuntary though it may have been, is not mentioned during the documentary. He's referred to as “the noted space expert.”

This 1956 documentary is about the ABMA, which had just been created by the Army's Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama.

Next week, we'll watch a 1958 semi-sequel called Army Satellites that is about Explorer 1. It recycles some footage from the 1956 original.

Wernher von Braun's ABMA employee badge. Image source: Wikipedia.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Chasing the Dream

Click the arrow to watch the January 23 media event on YouTube. Video source: NASA.

A press conference at Kennedy Space Center yesterday confirmed what the rumor mill had been circulating in the last week.

Sierra Nevada has acquired a Lockheed Martin Atlas V to launch the first uncrewed test flight of their Dream Chaser spaceplane. Scheduled for November 2016, it will launch from the United Launch Alliance pad at Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 41.

Dream Chaser will be processed in the Operations & Checkout Building at Kennedy Space Center. Billed in March 2012 by Florida Today as the spacecraft factory of the future, the O&C was renovated by Lockheed Martin in partnership with the state agency Space Florida to assemble and test the Orion crew capsule. The renovation was kept generic so it could support other craft.

Click the arrow to watch a March 2012 Florida Today report on the O&C renovation. Video source: Florida Today.

Dream Chaser will be processed to the west side of Orion, which is scheduled to launch on an uncrewed test flight this September atop a Boeing Delta IV at the Cape's Pad 37. If or when we'll ever see the two vehicles side-by-side, remains to be seen.

Sierra Nevada has also leased floor space at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility, where future Dream Chasers will be manufactured with assistance from Lockheed Martin. According to the media event, the second Dream Chaser is now being built at Michoud.

Although Dream Chasers will land at KSC's former Shuttle runway in the future, the November 2016 test flight will land on “the West Coast,” presumably Edwards Air Force Base.

An artist's concept of Dream Chaser atop an Atlas V at Launch Complex 41. Image source: Sierra Nevada Corporation.

The metaphorical elephant in the room was the pending “downsize” in the summer by NASA of the commercial crew competition. Congress cut commercial crew funding by 62% over the last three fiscal years from the Obama administration's request, and in the just-passed Fiscal Year 2014 budget it was cut by 15%. It's estimated that these cuts delayed operational status by at least two to three years, meaning Sierra Nevada, SpaceX and Boeing may not fly with people until 2017. The cuts have forced NASA to buy additional taxi rides on the Russian Soyuz, with the current going rate about $70 million per astronaut.

In space subcommittee hearings during the last few years, several members of Congress have demanded that NASA “pick one and move on,” oblivious to the reality that eliminating competition creates a monopoly that stifles innovation and increases costs. That's what happened in 2006 when the government granted Boeing and Lockheed Martin a legal monopoly to create United Launch Alliance. The result was that the commercial satellite business went overseas, leaving ULA to launch only government payloads.

If NASA doesn't choose Dream Chaser, Sierra Nevada has another market. On January 8, Sierra Nevada announced an agreement with European space agencies to develop a “Dream Chaser for European Utilization” that could be used for crewed or robotic flights. The vehicle would probably launch on an Ariane 5 at the European spaceport in French Guiana, so once again Congress would drive the business overseas.

Dream Chaser might also fly customers to the Bigelow Aerospace inflatable habitats scheduled for launch in 2017, although no formal deals have been announced.

Click here for the Sierra Nevada press release.

Click here for the NASA press release.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Watch a December 12, 2011 MSNBC video inside the Dream Chaser simulator. You may be subjected to an ad first. Video source:

Media reports:

BBC News “Dream Chaser Mini-Shuttle Given 2016 Launch Date”

Denver Post “Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser Takes Competitive Leap in NASA Contest”

Florida Today “Dream Chaser Test Launch Planned at KSC in 2016” “Dream Chaser’s KSC Vision Enables 2016 Debut”

NBC News “Sierra Nevada Strikes Deal to Put Space Plane in Orbit in 2016

Popular Mechanics “Dream Chaser Space Plane Will Fly in 2016”

Space News “Sierra Nevada Reserves Atlas Rocket for Dream Chaser Test Flight”

Better Than Cable

Click the arrow to watch the launch video on YouTube. Video source: NASA.

E.T. couldn't use it to phone home, but NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) constellation does help humans in orbit to stay in touch with the ground.

The latest upgrade, called TDRS-L, launched January 23 from Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 41 at 9:33 PM local time. Originally scheduled for 9:05 PM, the launch was delayed 28 minutes due to a telemetry problem.

According to NASA'd TDRS History page, the TDRS project began in 1973 and the first one was launched ten years later on STS-6 Challenger. The second TDRS was lost when Challenger was destroyed during launch on January 28, 1986.

The TDRS constellation consists of three satellites that triangulate communications in orbit, providing almost total coverage for anything below geosynchronous orbit (roughly 22,000 miles).

The TDRS-L launch is the second of three next-generation craft being launched to upgrade the constellation. TDRS-K launched in January 2013, and TDRS-M is scheduled for 2015.

Click here for the TDRS-L press kit.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Dream Chaser at O&C?

Click the arrow to watch the video on YouTube. Video source: WESH-TV Orlando.

WESH-TV Channel 2 in Orlando reported last night that the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser will be processed at Kennedy Space Center's Operations and Checkout Building, commonly known as the O&C.

In the above video, reporter Dan Billow states:

The space vehicle will be prepped for launch at the Kennedy Space Center in the same building as NASA's new Orion spacecraft.

That would be the O&C.

WESH otherwise reports what's been known for a while now, that Sierra Nevada intends to do a test flight atop an Atlas V in 2016.

The media event is today at 3:00 PM EST, so hopefully we'll have details by the end of the day.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

NewSpace Comes Marching In

Click the arrow to watch the video on the WWL-TV news site.

While we await tomorrow's Sierra Nevada media event announcing the future of Dream Chaser at Kennedy Space Center, WWL-TV Channel 4 in New Orleans ran a story today about Dream Chaser sharing space at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility.

"Everybody knows about SLS, everybody knows about Orion," said Michoud Director Roy Malone. "But we also have Dream Chaser commercial crew work going on here."

Dream Chaser looks like the Shuttle, and is designed to fly astronauts to the Space Station. But it is not a NASA project.

"The vehicle from Sierra Nevada is the Dream Chaser spacecraft," Malone. "They subcontract with Lockheed Martin Commercial to build most of the parts of the structure here" ...

"By 2015 if some of these happen, we'll be pretty close to capacity," said Malone. "Now there's still lots of green space, so we're available for commercial companies if they want to come and build on our property."

The TDRS-L Pre-Game Show

Click the arrow to watch the TDRS-L video on YouTube. Video source: NASA.

United Launch Alliance is scheduled to launch a NASA communications satellite January 23.

The TDRS-L launch window is 9:05 - 9:45 PM EST. It will launch from the Atlas V pad at Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 41.

TDRS stands for Tracking and Data Relay Satellite. The TDRS project goes back to 1973. The idea was to provide continuous global coverage in low Earth orbit. Before TDRS, human spaceflight vehicles communicated through ground stations, either on land or through ships at sea.

The current project upgrades the existing constellation. TDRS-K launched in January 2013. TDRS-M is scheduled for 2015.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Dream Chasing

The Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser at the Dryden Flight Research Center in June 2013. Image source: NASA.

NASA issued a press release this afternoon announcing that a media event will be held Thursday at Kennedy Space Center to “discuss the company’s plans for expansion in the Kennedy area and the current status of the Dream Chaser program.”

The event will be held about six hours before the scheduled launch of the NASA TDRS-L communications satellite from Launch Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Hopefully we'll finally learn where will be the Space Coast home of Dream Chaser. An early rumor was at one of the three former orbiter hangars outside the Vehicle Assembly Building, but OPF-1 and OPF-2 have been leased by Space Florida on behalf of the U.S. Air Force X-37B, and OPF-3 is leased by Space Florida on behalf of the Boeing CST-100 commercial crew vehicle.

Another popular rumor is Exploration Park on Space Commerce Road, which remains undeveloped nearly three years after the groundbreaking ceremony.

Dream Chaser reportedly will launch atop a Lockheed Martin Atlas V at Launch Complex 41, the same as Thursday's TDRS-L launch. It would seem logical that a servicing hangar would be located near the pad, so Exploration Park seems a bit far afield. A few former Titan-era facilities might be available along Titan III Road.

If you want a real dark horse rumor ... At one time it was rumored that United Launch Alliance (the Boeing-Lockheed Martin partnership) might be interested in joint use of KSC's Pad 39B with the rarely launching Space Launch System. Recent news reports suggest that no commercial users have come forward with a formal interest in 39B.

One could speculate that Dream Chaser could be stacked atop an Atlas V in the Vehicle Assembly Building's High Bay 1, then rolled out to Pad B on a refurbished Mobile Launch Platform and Transporter-Crawler. That would add a hideous overhead to their operating costs, so it seems unlikely. But you never know, maybe Sierra Nevada and ULA think finding a use for NASA's half-century old disused technology might give it an edge in the Commercial Crew downsize later this year.

Thursday should have an interesting afternoon.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Retro Saturday: Saturn: Launch Complex 34

Click the arrow to watch the video on YouTube.

It's Retro Saturday, so we'll turn you over to Dr. Kurt Debus who will tell you all about Launch Complex 34 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Saturn: Launch Complex 34 was released in 1962. If you listen closely, Debus uses terms that were reflective of the time.

The Saturn 1 is referred to as the “C-1”. Ever wonder why the Moon rocket was called “Saturn 5” and what happened to all the other rockets inbetween?

“C-1” is your clue.

The Saturn program began in the late 1950s, when Debus and Dr. Wernher von Braun were still with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. Envisioned as a heavy-lift vehicle, Saturn struggled to find a bureaucratic home as the Army exited the rocket launching business.

A 1959 government commission formally titled the Saturn Vehicle Evaluation Committee, but known informally as the Silverstein Committee after chair Abe Silverstein, looked at various directions the newly-born National Aeronautics and Space Administration could take with the Saturn program. Eight different configurations were studied:

Saturn A

  • A-1 - Saturn lower stage, Titan second stage, and Centaur third stage (von Braun's original concept)
  • A-2 - Saturn lower stage, proposed clustered Jupiter second stage, and Centaur third stage

Saturn B

  • B-1 - Saturn lower stage, proposed clustered Titan second stage, proposed S-IV third stage and Centaur fourth stage

Saturn C

  • C-1 - Saturn lower stage, proposed S-IV second stage
  • C-2 - Saturn lower stage, proposed S-II second stage, proposed S-IV third stage
  • C-3, C-4, and C-5 - all based on different variations of a new lower stage using F-1 engines, variations of proposed S-II second stages, and proposed S-IV third stages.

The “A” relied heavily on existing technology, while at the other end of the scale the “C” group relied on liquid hydrogen as a fuel and multiple stages.

The C-1 was selected as the first launch vehicle for the Saturn program. After President John F. Kennedy proposed the Moon program on May 25, 1961, the C-5 was chosen as it was the most potentially powerful vehicle in the group.

The “C” was eventually dropped. This explains why there were no Saturns 2 through 4.

In the film, you'll hear Dr. Debus refer to NASA as “the N-A-S-A” or “the NAY-suh.” NASA's predecessor was the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. That acronym was commonly pronounced “N-A-C-A,” which explains why Debus referred to NASA as “N-A-S-A.” But pronouncing NASA as a word seems to have been coming into vogue, which is why he switched between both versions.

Friday, January 17, 2014

KSC VAB Tours to End

Recent tour groups in the VAB viewed the test article version of the Orion crew capsule scheduled to launch September 2014 on a Boeing Delta IV at Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 37. Image source:

The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex announced yesterday that Vehicle Assembly Building tours will end next month. The last tours are scheduled for February 11.

The tours are ending because NASA will increase renovation work inside for the Space Launch System.

Closed for decades to the public during the Shuttle era, KSCVC began VAB tours in November 2011.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Destination Moon

A lobby card for the 1950 film, “Destination Moon.”

Back in April 2013, NASA and Bigelow Aerospace announced an unfunded Space Act Agreement that allowed Bigelow to explore the possibility of commercial ventures beyond Earth orbit.

An unfunded Space Act Agreement is essentially a contractual relationship between NASA and a private company in which no money changes hands. NASA offers guidance and expertise, but does not pay the company for services rendered.

In late May, NASA Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier and Bigelow founder Bob Bigelow held a joint teleconference to discuss the agreement. The essential idea was to take the next logical step beyond today's successful commercial cargo and crew programs.

Click the arrow to listen to the May 23, 2013 teleconference. (Audio only.)

During that event, Gerstenmaier said:

“For us in NASA, we typically do a lot of design reference mission analysis. We do a lot of concept work. We do a lot of things, and then we typically ask industry how they can participate or be part of that activity.

“We thought that this time, instead of doing it the typical way, we would kind of turn that around a little bit. We would ask the industry first through this Space Act Agreement what they are interested in; (where) they see interest in doing exploration throughout the solar system; where they see human presence that makes sense; where they see potential commercial markets.”

Florida Today space journalist James Dean reported:

As more companies invest in hardware and missions, “isn’t there an opportunity in there for NASA to benefit, so that NASA isn’t having to pay the perpetual heavy burden of research and development costs?” said Bigelow’s founder, Robert Bigelow.

Bigelow spoke to roughly 20 companies and international space agencies to produce the first of two reports promised to NASA under an unfunded Space Act Agreement signed in March ...

Its focus was on near-term opportunities in low Earth orbit, on the moon or at gravitationally stable points around the moon rather than on deeper-space missions that will take longer and cost more.

Bigelow said he solicited input under the understanding that Bigelow Aerospace would act as a general contractor, demanding services for fixed prices on strict timelines.

Late today, NASA announced what could be the result of this unique private enterprise.

The NASA press release announced the creation of the Lunar CATALYST initiative.

To quote from the press release:

NASA's new Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (Lunar CATALYST) initiative calls for proposals from the U.S. private sector that would lead to one or more no-funds exchanged Space Act Agreements (SAA). NASA’s contribution to a partnership would be on an unfunded basis and could include the technical expertise of NASA staff, access to NASA center test facilities, equipment loans, or software for lander development and testing.

“As NASA pursues an ambitious plan for humans to explore an asteroid and Mars, U.S. industry will create opportunities for NASA to advance new technologies on the moon,” said Greg Williams, NASA's deputy associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. “Our strategic investments in the innovations of our commercial partners have brought about successful commercial resupply of the International Space Station, to be followed in the coming years by commercial crew. Lunar CATALYST will help us advance our goals to reach farther destinations.”

The moon has scientific value and the potential to yield resources, such as water and oxygen, in relatively close proximity to Earth to help sustain deep space exploration. Commercial lunar transportation capabilities could support science and exploration objectives, such as sample returns, geophysical network deployment, resource prospecting, and technology demonstrations. These services would require the ability to land small (66 to 220 pound, or 30 to 100 kilogram) and medium (551 to 1,102 pound, or 250 to 500 kg) class payloads at various lunar sites.

NASA also unveiled the initiative's web site at

According to the web site, this is the time line for the program:

  • Jan. 16: Announcement released
  • Jan. 27: Pre-proposal teleconference
  • Feb. 10: Proposed NASA Contributions forms due (4 p.m. EST) by email
  • Feb. 28: NASA feedback on Proposed Contributions form submissions
  • March 17: Proposals due (4 p.m. EDT) by email

In 1950, film producer George Pal released a science fiction film called Destination Moon. Its premise was that after a government rocket program fails and loses its funding, a group of private entrepreneurs and visionaries decide to create their own Moon program.

I think George Pal would find something quite familiar in today's announcement.

The white elephant in the room, of course, is the Congress-mandated Space Launch System. It has no missions or destinations, yet Congress continues to mandate that NASA develop the vehicle. Many members of Congress insist that NASA use SLS for an Apollo redux, but Congress refuses to fund such a project, much less a lunar lander to take the crew to the surface and return them.

This commercial lunar lander program seems aimed at prodding the private sector into developing such a technology.

The zealous Congressional protectors of SLS pork may suspect that Lunar CATALYST is a backdoor means of supporting a private sector substitute. They're probably right, and I find it a wee bit coincidental that this was announced a couple days after Congress passed NASA's Fiscal Year 2014 budget — avoiding any Congressional retaliation for now.

But if I were an executive at The Golden Spike Company, I'd be very happy today.

Last month, Golden Spike announced a partnership with Honeybee Robotics to design unmanned lunar rovers.

Working with technical staff at Golden Spike, Honeybee engineers will conduct trade studies for the design of configurable robotic rovers that can collect and store scientific samples from the Moon’s surface in support of Golden Spike’s expeditions. The results of the study will be complete by mid-2014.

Bob Bigelow has also long envisioned his expandable habitats ensconced on the lunar surface.

A Bigelow Aerospace model of their expandable habitats on the surface of the Moon. Image source: Bigelow Aerospace via

Once the Bigelow technology is tested and proven in low Earth orbit, Bigelow would like to see them in orbit around the Moon as way stations, and then develop the technology to land them on the Moon as a permanent base of operations.

I suspect Elon Musk will welcome today's announcement as well, because his Falcon Heavy could be the launch vehicle for Golden Spike and Bigelow. SpaceX is currently negotiating with NASA to lease Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, originally built in the 1960s for the Saturn V Moon rocket. It seems logical that a Falcon Heavy would use 39A as the launch pad for commercial lunar missions, either as part of Lunar CATALYST or independently with these commercial companies.

In any case, I will watch to see if Congress calls a hearing to ask NASA to explain Lunar CATALYST, demanding assurances that the program will not intrude on the porkfest that is Space Launch System.

A Typical Day on the Hill

Click the arrow to watch on YouTube.

Just saw the above video on Free Speech TV. Hilarious, if scarily accurate.

NASA Has a Budget

If you're a space policy wonk, there's no better site than Jeff Foust's for accurate and timely information.

This week, Jeff has kept us apprised of the final NASA numbers approved by Congress in the omnibus spending bill making its way towards President Obama for signature.

The bill also contains several policy provisions, which Jeff also details.

NASA's final total spending appropriation for Fiscal Year 2014 $17.65 billion, roughly what the White House requested, although the devil as always is in the details.

The White House requested $821 million for commercial crew, warning that any reduction in that number would extend NASA reliance on the Russian Soyuz beyond 2017. The Republican majority in the House approved only $500 million, apparently preferring to prime the pump of the Russian economy instead of ours. The Democratic majority in the Senate approved $775 million.

The final omnibus bill appropriates $696 million. $125 million or 15% less than what the Administration requested. This is consistent with Congressional behavior in recent years; over the prior three fiscal years, Congress cut commercial crew funding by 62% from the President's request.

NASA executives repeatedly warned Congress that any reduction in the President's request would extend reliance on Russia beyond 2017. Personally, I suspect there may have been a little fudging in that threat, but we'll see. NASA could downsize to one or one-and-a-half commercial partners. It's also possible that a partner could kick in more of their own money to accelerate the process. SpaceX certainly seems hellbent to stay one step ahead of the competition, so I can see Elon Musk spending more capital to get his crewed Dragon operational by 2016-2017, but that's just my own speculation.

Last week's announcement that the Administration will seek Congressional approval to extend the International Space Station to 2024 creates some breathing room for commercial crew, helping the business case for the commercial partners in that they'll know they have a destination for several years to come. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has informally commented at times that perhaps NASA may seek to privatize the agency's ISS operations in the 2020s, by which time the Bigelow Aerospace inflatable habitats will be operational, so the future remains bright for commercial crew despite Congressional cutbacks.

Elsewhere in the bill, Congress larded its favorite pork program, the Space Launch System, with another $3.1 billion. The White House requested $2.7 billion.

Congress still hasn't told NASA what to do with SLS, but at least the House failed its attempt to forbid the Asteroid Retrieval Mission. Jeff quotes this passage from the bill:

While the ARM is still an emerging concept, NASA has not provided Congress with satisfactory justification materials such as detailed cost estimates or impacts to ongoing missions. The completion of significant preliminary activities is needed to appropriately lay the groundwork for the ARM prior to NASA and Congress making a long-term commitment to this mission concept.

Jeff writes this morning that the House and Senate space subcommittees will now attempt to work out an authorization bill, which basically establishes the policy parameters for NASA programs. The subcommittee members could make another run at banning ARM, but the message sent by the omnibus bill may be to move on.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

VSE + 10

Click the arrow to watch on YouTube President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration speech.

Ten years ago today, President George W. Bush delivered his Vision for Space Exploration speech.

It was a political and policy response to the conclusions of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report, which was a scathing indictment not only of Space Shuttle technology and management, but also of political policy.

The report concluded that “the Shuttle remains a complex and risky system that remains central to U.S. ambitions in space.” The Board showed a distinct lack of faith in NASA, citing a cultural arrogance resistant to change or external advice. They also blamed “the lack of an agreed national vision” as an organizational cause for the accident.

This lack of “vision” appeared repeatedly throughout the report, and so it was that President Bush's speech took on its conclusion directly by labelling his plan the Vision for Space Exploration.

Ten years later, the consequences of this speech remain the foundation of today's government space program.

Bush began by defining the vision:

I announce a new plan to explore space and extend a human presence across our solar system. We will begin the effort quickly, using existing programs and personnel. We'll make steady progress, one mission, one voyage, one landing at a time.

Our first goal is to complete the International Space Station by 2010. We will finish what we have started. We will meet our obligations to our 15 international partners on this project.

Ten years later ... Mission accomplished, to borrow a phrase. The ISS was completed in May 2011. The station is finally fulfilling its potential as a microgravity research platform.

Only one vehicle on Planet Earth was capable of completing the ISS, and that was the Shuttle. Despite its inherent flaws, it would have to fly again — but once ISS was completed, it would be time for Shuttle to retire. Bush said:

The shuttle's chief purpose over the next several years will be to help finish assembly of the International Space Station. In 2010, the space shuttle, after nearly 30 years of duty, will be retired from service.

Despite the partisan claims by some that President Barack Obama “cancelled” the Shuttle, the record is clear that it was President Bush — and with good reason.

Bush continued:

Our second goal is to develop and test a new spacecraft, the crew exploration vehicle, by 2008, and to conduct the first manned mission no later than 2014.

The crew exploration vehicle will be capable of ferrying astronauts and scientists to the space station after the shuttle is retired. But the main purpose of this spacecraft will be to carry astronauts beyond our orbit to other worlds. This will be the first spacecraft of its kind since the Apollo command module.

The 2008 target date was a bureaucratic fantasy.

An early Lockheed Martin concept for the Crew Exploration Vehicle. Image source: Wikipedia.

NASA selected Lockheed Martin as the winning contractor in September 2006. According to a Washington Post report that day, “Orion is expected to make its first manned flight by 2014, four years after NASA's three operating shuttles are retired.”

In any case, the four-year gap between Shuttle and its successor was there in Bush's speech. Retire Shuttle in 2010, first flight of the CEV by 2014.

Bush then announced a roadmap for returning humans to the Moon:

Our third goal is to return to the moon by 2020, as the launching point for missions beyond.

Beginning no later than 2008, we will send a series of robotic missions to the lunar surface to research and prepare for future human exploration.

Using the crew exploration vehicle, we will undertake extended human missions to the moon as early as 2015, with the goal of living and working there for increasingly extended periods of time.

None of this happened, of course.

Many causes contributed to its demise, but a significant reason was inadequate funding.

Bush said:

Achieving these goals requires a long-term commitment. NASA's current five-year budget is $86 billion. Most of the funding we need for the new endeavors will come from re-allocating $11 billion from within that budget.

We need some new resources, however. I will call upon Congress to increase NASA's budget by roughly a billion dollars spread over the next five years.

Two weeks later, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe appeared before the Senate Science Committee to detail the President's proposal.

January 28, 2004 ... NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe presents the Vision for Space Exploration to the Senate Science Committee.

Committee chair John McCain (R-AZ) in his opening remarks called out the inadequate funding:

I'm very curious to hear how Administrator O'Keefe thinks we can implement the President's proposal with the very limited resources that have been proposed. Two days ago, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the deficit in Fiscal Year 2004 would reach $477 billion. It's been reported that the President's new proposal could cost between $170 billion and $600 billion. Needless to say, the $12 billion that the Adminstration has suggested be spent over the next five years falls far far short of what might actually be required to return to the Moon and reach for Mars and beyond.

McCain said, "A vision without a strategy is just an illusion."

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) commented:

Space flight, you can't do it on the cheap. I just don't think that a billion dollar increase over five years, that's $200 million a year, is going to do it. I would love for you to explain on the reprogramming of the $11 billion over that five years how you can do that.

O'Keefe displayed a chart which became known as the Vision Sand Chart:

Click here to download the Vision Sand Chart from the NASA web site. The free Adobe Acrobat Reader is required.

The chart revealed some facts Bush failed to mention in his speech.

Constellation, as the program came to be known, would be funded by ending the International Space Station program. “Complete Station Research Objectives” was scheduled for federal Fiscal Year 2016, which would start on October 1, 2015.

The Bush administration would complete the ISS in 2010 only to shut it down in 2015.

So much for “our obligations to our 15 international partners on this project.”

The Crew Exploration Vehicle would fly for the first time in Fiscal Year 2014, meaning it would serve the ISS for only one year.

The chart also showed a roughly $7 billion increase in NASA's annual budget between FY04 and FY20 — in total denial of how much deep space human spaceflight really costs. In today's dollars, the 1960s Apollo program cost roughly $150 billion. The aforementioned September 2006 Washington Post article stated that Bush's Moon program would cost $230 billion.

From the beginning, there was a fundamental disconnect between rhetoric and reality.

But when Bush's Vision for Space Exploration document was formally delivered to Congress in February 2004, it also contained references to a new commercial space program that the President hadn't mentioned in his speech.

On Page 15 of the report it stated:

For cargo transport to the Space Station after 2010, NASA will rely on existing or new commercial cargo transport systems, as well as international partner cargo transport systems. NASA does not plan to develop new launch vehicle capabilities except where critical NASA needs — such as heavy lift — are not met by commercial or military systems. Depending on future human mission designs, NASA could decide to develop or acquire a heavy lift vehicle later this decade. Such a vehicle could be derived from elements of the Space Shuttle, existing commercial launch vehicles, or new designs.

Two pages later was this paragraph:

As we move outward into the solar system, NASA will rely more heavily on private sector space capabilities to support activities in Earth orbit and future exploration activities. In particular, NASA will seek to use existing or new commercial launch vehicles for cargo transport to the Space Station, and potentially to the Moon and other destinations.

Near the end of his speech, Bush said:

I'll also form a commission of private- and public-sector experts to advise on implementing the vision that I've outlined today. This commission will report to me within four months of its first meeting.

I'm today naming former Secretary of the Air Force Pete Aldrich to be the chair of the commission.

The Aldridge Commission holds a public hearing in New York on May 3, 2004. Image source: University of North Texas.

Eventually known as the Aldridge Commission for its chair, it was officially known as the President's Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond. Their report was released on June 26, 2004.

Section III, titled “Building a Robust Space Industry,” argued for the creation of what we know today as NewSpace.

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.”

The Commission finds that sustaining the long-term exploration of the solar system requires a robust space industry that will contribute to national economic growth, produce new products through the creation of new knowledge, and lead the world in invention and innovation. The space industry will become a national treasure.

NASA announced on November 7, 2005 the creation of the Commercial Crew/Cargo Project Office. “The office will manage orbital transportation capability demonstration projects that may lead to the procurement of commercial cargo and crew transportation services to resupply the space station.”

Eight years later, NASA has two operational commercial cargo vehicles, produced by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences. Total NASA investment: about $700 million.

Three companies are developing commercial crew vehicles. They hope to be operational by 2017; it would be much sooner, but Congress cut the commercial crew funding 62% over the last three years from the Obama administration's funding request. This pushed back commercial crew's projected operational date from 2015 to 2017.

As for Orion and Constellation, those programs fell years behind schedule and went billions over budget, as had Shuttle and ISS before it.

An August 2009 Government Accountability Office report concluded that Constellation “lacked a sound business case.”

NASA is still struggling to develop a solid business case—including firm requirements, mature technologies, a knowledge-based acquisition strategy, a realistic cost estimate, and sufficient funding and time—needed to justify moving the Constellation program forward into the implementation phase. Gaps in the business case include

  • significant technical and design challenges for the Orion and Ares I vehicles, such as limiting vibration during launch, eliminating the risk of hitting the launch tower during lift off, and reducing the mass of the Orion vehicle, represent considerable hurdles that must be overcome in order to meet safety and performance requirements; and
  • a poorly phased funding plan that runs the risk of funding shortfalls in fiscal years 2009 through 2012, resulting in planned work not being completed to support schedules and milestones. This approach has limited NASA’s ability to mitigate technical risks early in development and precludes the orderly ramp up of workforce and developmental activities.

In October 2009, the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee (commonly known as the Augustine Committee) issued a report estimating that Ares I would not fly until 2017, two years after the ISS would be defunded by the Vision for Space Exploration. Ares I would fly to a facility that would not exist. As for the Ares V that would be used for lunar missions, it wouldn't be available until at least 2028.

September 16, 2009 ... Norm Augustine delivers his committee's findings to the Senate Science Committee.

The Obama administration proposed in its Fiscal Year 2011 budget that Constellation be cancelled. The savings would be used to extend the ISS to at least 2020, and to prime the pump on both commercial cargo and crew. Orion would continue as a “lifeboat” backup at the ISS in case crew needed to abandon ship.

Congress eventually agreed, although it replaced Constellation with another heavy-lift program called the Space Launch System, which technologically is similar to the Ares V. Labelled the Senate Launch System by its critics, Congress directed NASA to use existing Shuttle and Constellation contractors to develop a vehicle based on Shuttle technology. Orion would be the crew vehicle, now carrying four people instead of six. In a sense, Congress simply ordered NASA to skip Ares I and move on to a “light” version of Ares V — while still failing to provide adequate funding or a mission other than to protect the NASA work force.

Comparisons of the Ares and Space Launch System technologies. Image sources: Cleveland Plain Dealer (left) and (right).

In August 2013, the NASA Office of the Inspector General issued a report concluding that Orion is underfunded, overweight and has no purpose. It's scheduled for an uncrewed test flight this year in September atop a Boeing Delta IV launching from Cape Canaveral's Pad 37.

The Space Launch System is scheduled for an uncrewed test flight at the end of 2017 from Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39B. A test flight with crew is planned for 2021, but after that no one really knows. Congress still hasn't given SLS any missions or destinations. Last year, the Obama administration proposed the Asteroid Initiative, but Congress has yet to reach a consensus. The House of Representatives would prohibit an asteroid mission, while the Senate is silent on the matter.

On January 8, the White House announced its intention to extend the ISS to at least 2024. The announcement, confirmed that day at the International Space Exploration Forum in Washington, D.C., has received a positive response from NASA's spacefaring partners and other nations around the world.

President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration was a specific response to the criticisms levelled at NASA and policy makers after the Columbia accident investigation. It appeased those in Congress who treat NASA as pork for their districts and states, as well as those who want an Apollo redux. If you watch the above video of the Senate Science Committee hearing two weeks after the speech, many lawmakers blindly praised the proposal, without questioning the cost, the funding or the timeline. No one seemed to grasp that the minimum four-year gap between Shuttle and its successor meant reliance on the Russian Soyuz, nor did anyone acknowledge the ISS would be finished only to splash it into the Pacific Ocean, nor did anyone question why the Ares I (then known as the Crew Exploration Vehicle) would be built to go to a destination that wouldn't exist.

But the Vision also opened the door to NewSpace, although Bush didn't mention it in his speech. Some Republican members of Congress — Newt Gingrich, Dana Rohrabacher, Bob Walker — had supported space commercialization, and in 1984 the National Aeronautics and Space Act was amended to require NASA to “seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space.” That requirement wasn't taken seriously for decades, and the VSE's fine print about commercialization may have been no more than a sop for fellow Republicans. But the Aldridge Commission promoted the idea, Congress approved it, and by November 2005 the commercial space office was open for business at NASA.

Choices have consequences, some of which may be unintended. Constellation flopped, and its bureaucratic flaws are inherent in Space Launch System. But VSE also gave birth to NewSpace, perhaps an unintended consequence, which has entrepreneurs investing in 21st Century technology that is opening low Earth orbit to the private sector. Some of them — such as the Golden Spike Company and Bigelow Aerospace — are already planning enterprises for lunar missions.

If commercial crew members land on the Moon sometime in the next decade, some credit may be due President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration. Humanity will have returned to the Moon, only not as he intended.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

As Useless as Congress - The News for South Mississippi
Click the arrow to watch the WLOX-TV in Biloxi video on the Bloomberg News report. Note that the video shows Space Launch System but calls it Constellation.

In the latest example of Congressional gluttony, Bloomberg News reported on January 8 that Congress has ordered NASA to build a $350 million engine testing structure at the Stennis Space Center “even though the agency doesn’t need it.” The test stand at Stennis is designated A-3.

The tower was designed to test a GenCorp Inc. (GY) engine for a rocket program canceled in 2010. Its funding survived thanks to Mississippi Republican senators led by Roger Wicker, who crafted a provision requiring the agency to complete the work.

The test stand is an example of how U.S. lawmakers thwart efforts to cut costs and eliminate government waste, even as they criticize agencies for failing to do so. Attempts to close military bases, mail-processing plants and other NASA facilities also have been fought by congressional members whose districts benefit from the operations.

Although the article singles out Mississippi's senators, it overlooks Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), whose district includes Stennis where the stand is located. Palazzo chairs the House Subcommittee on Space, which “has legislative jurisdiction and general oversight and investigative authority on all matters relating to astronautical and aeronautical research and development,” according to its web site.

Elsewhere at Stennis, NASA's Office of the Inspector General issued a report on January 8 criticizing the selection of the B-2 stand for Space Launch System. Click here to download the report.

To quote from the report summary:

Similar to conclusions we reached 5 years ago in our review of the Agency’s decision where to test the J-2X engine, we found that NASA failed to follow its internal policies or its Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with [the Department of Defense] when it selected the B-2 test stand for SLS core stage testing. Moreover, we found that NASA did not adequately support its decision to refurbish the B-2 given that refurbishing the B-2 stand would be more costly and take longer than the two other options. We also found that by selecting the B-2 NASA may not have chosen the most efficient and cost-effective test site. In addition, although the [Space Launch System] Program spent considerable time and money studying the B-2 option, NASA gave the [Rocket Propulsion Test] and [National Rocket Propulsion Testing Alliance] Boards minimal time to assess the cost, schedule, and risks of the other test stand options. In addition, driven by the time needed to refurbish the test stand to begin core stage testing in accordance with the SLS Program’s development schedule, NASA officials selected the B-2 even though SLS Program managers had not yet fully defined the requirements for core stage testing, thereby accepting risks that may negatively affect the Program’s cost and schedule.

ISS Goes Global in March

JAXA Astronaut Koichi Wakata photographs Earth from the ISS. Image source: NASA.

The National Geographic Channel issued a press release January 9 announcing they will televise live a two-hour event from the International Space Station.

Below is the full text of the press release.

(WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 9, 2014) Produce a live television event from a $100 billion studio that is over 400 kilometres above the Earth’s surface and traveling at 7.9 kilometres per second? That will be the task at hand this spring for National Geographic Channel with a television event that will literally take viewers beyond the stratosphere.

National Geographic Channels International’s Executive Vice President and Head of International Content Hamish Mykura announced today Live from Space, a spectacular, ground-breaking two-hour television event from Arrow Media to be broadcast live from the International Space Station (ISS) and Mission Control in Houston, Texas, U.S. this March.

With unique access to and footage from the ISS and Mission Control, we will go into orbit with astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Koichi Wakata from the ISS, while astronaut Mike Massimino (most notably known for fixing the Hubble Telescope) will keep us grounded live from Houston. Live from Space will air on NGC in 170 countries, and on Channel 4 in the U.K.

The ISS orbits Earth every 90 minutes, meaning NGC will quite literally take viewers on a trip around the world. We will see incredible shots of the planet, from sunset and sunrise, to city lights and green aurora, to lightning storms and shooting stars.

For those fascinated by the recent emergency spacewalks to replace a vital cooling system, Live from Space will show even more intimately what it takes to run this floating world. From space, Mastracchio and Wakata will give viewers a fully guided tour, showing us how they live for months in microgravity. In their own words, learn how they sleep upside down, stay fit, maintain personal hygiene and, of course, (that question everyone is always curious about), how they use the toilet. They will conduct never-before-broadcast experiments that demonstrate the real-world value of the science conducted on the floating laboratory. We will also show how science in space is benefiting people on Earth such as the ISS’s robotic systems, which are the inspiration for a neurosurgical robot that removes brain tumours. Astronauts, flight controllers and researchers will be featured in original segments from the ISS and NASA Mission Control during the course of the two-hour live event.

It will not just be the astronauts doing the talking, either. Viewers will be able to chat via video with Mastracchio and Wakata and have their faces beamed into space to join the conversation. A first-of-its-kind second-screen experience will also allow viewers to track the space station while exploring the interests of people under its path. This “social-media telescope” will give viewers real-time insight into the collected cares of Earth’s inhabitants. (Further details on this to be announced shortly.)

“We’re thrilled to be making this unique event for NGC Worldwide,” says Arrow Media’s creative director, Tom Brisley. “The technological and logistical challenges of broadcasting live from space may be enormous, but there’s no bigger buzz than creating mind-blowing content that works in micro gravity, on the world’s largest spacecraft!”

Live from Space will premiere in March to coincide with COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY, a joint venture between Fox Broadcasting Company and National Geographic Channel. More than three decades after the debut of “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” Carl Sagan’s stunning and iconic exploration of the universe as revealed by science, COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY sets off on a new voyage for the stars. Sagan’s original creative collaborators — writer/executive producer Ann Druyan and astronomer Steven Soter — have teamed with Seth MacFarlane (“Family Guy,” “American Dad”) to conceive the 13-part series that will serve as a successor to the Emmy Award- and Peabody Award-winning original series. Hosted by renowned astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson (“Death By Black Hole,” “Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier”), the series will explore how we discovered the laws of nature and found our coordinates in space and time. It will bring to life never-before-told stories of the heroic quest for knowledge and transport viewers to new worlds and across the universe for a vision of the cosmos on the grandest scale.

After more than 50 years of manned space flights, Live from Space will launch cable television into orbit with an event that is not to be missed.

Live from Space is produced by Arrow Media. For Arrow Media, creative director and executive producer is Tom Brisley and executive producers are Al Berman and Sally Dixon. For NGCI, Executive Vice President and Head of International Content is Hamish Mykura.

Retro Saturday: Voyager 2: Rendezvous with Saturn

Click the arrow to watch the documentary on YouTube. Video source: wdtvlive42 YouTube channel.

This week's Retro Saturday is Voyager 2: Rendezvous with Saturn. This copy of the 1981 documentary has captions in French; I've been unable to locate one with English captions, but the narrative is in English.

Last year, it was confirmed that Voyager 1 had left the solar system. Voyager 2 isn't that far behind, anticipated to leave the solar system in three to four years.

The documentary is a reminder of the truly hideous fashions and hair styles of the early 1980s. Not to mention typewriters, and that computer prequel the word processor. It's also a return to the NASA “worm” logo of the era.

By the way, Voyager 2 launched on a Titan IIIE from Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on August 20, 1977.

Friday, January 10, 2014

"Rocket City": It's Not Where You Think

Click the arrow to watch the CBS News video. You may be subjected to an ad first.

CBS This Morning ran a segment today on “Rocket City,” but it's not Cape Canaveral.

According to CBS News, it's Chincoteague, Virginia.

Chincoteague is near the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport where Orbital Sciences launches the Antares rocket. MARS is part of the NASA Wallops facility. The segment focused on the January 9 launch of the Cygnus cargo module to the International Space Station.

The video shows local shops selling space-related T-shirts and foods, reminiscent of Cocoa Beach in the 1960s.

Even if transferring the title of “rocket city” to Wallops is a bit premature, it's nice to see a major news network acknowledge the existence of the government space program.

Earlier this week on January 6, NBC Nightly News ran an interview with astronauts aboard the ISS.

I'm always left wondering what the people who claim the U.S. space program has ended think when they see these segments.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Space World Comes to Washington

Click the arrow to watch the opening session of the International Space Exploration Forum on YouTube. Video source: NASA.

U.S. government representatives addressed a global space forum January 8 in Washington, D.C., announcing that the Obama administration intends to extend the use of the International Space Station to at least 2024.

The International Space Exploration Forum is “the first-ever ministerial-level meeting to build support for global cooperation in space exploration” according to a U.S. State Department fact sheet. “ISEF will bring together Ministers and high-level officials from approximately thirty-five space-faring countries to talk about the opportunities and challenges they share. It will feature high-level, policy discussions about the future of space exploration, developments in robotic space exploration, extending humanity’s reach beyond low-Earth orbit, and the importance of international cooperation.”

Among those 35 nations in attendance is the People's Republic of China, which is certain to outrage certain Sino-phobic members of Congress such as Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the NASA budget.

According to an Agence France-Presse report via Yahoo News:

While many countries already work together on space projects — including the $100-billion International Space Station (ISS) — the aim of Thursday's talks was to begin to set out guidelines for global cooperation for future efforts to explore deep into our solar system, and maybe even beyond.

Cygnus Launches Despite Creative Delays

Click the arrow to watch the Cygnus post-launch media briefing. Video source: NASA.

One day after their scheduled launch was postponed due to increased radiation caused by a solar flare, Orbital Sciences launched the Cygnus cargo module today

This time, the launch was threatened by a “DFO.” Not many casual observers (including me) knew what that was, but the explanation finally surfaced on Twitter. DFO is an acronym for Distinct Focusing Overpressure. To quote a NASA document:

Distant focusing is defined as an atmospheric phenomenon that can produce greatly enhanced overpressure due to sonic velocity gradients with respect to altitude. These enhanced overpressures can break windows in distant communities, which may result in personal injury. Distant focusing overpressure, sometimes referred to as far field blast overpressure, is of concern in the event of a large explosion on or around the launch pad and occurs only under certain meteorological conditions.

The DFO violation cleared before launch, as did the discovery of duck hunters within the potential blast radius.

Cygnus is scheduled to arrive at the International Space Station on Sunday January 12. It's the first of eight cargo deliveries under a Commercial Resupply Services contract between Orbital and NASA.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Sierra Nevada, ESA Formally Announce Partnership

Click the arrow to watch this August 2012 video on YouTube. Video source: Sierra Nevada Corporation.

Back in December I wrote about a possible deal between Sierra Nevada and German companies to study potential uses of the Dream Chaser by European space agenies.

That deal became formal today, as ESA and Sierra Nevada announced a deal “to identify areas of collaboration with European industry for developing hardware and mission concepts for the Dream Chaser orbital transportation system.”

According to the ESA press release:

ESA will work with Sierra Nevada Corporation to identify how European hardware, software and expertise can be used to further the capabilities of the Dream Chaser orbital crew vehicle. ESA and SNC will also study the possibilities for creating an industrial consortium including European partners to use Dream Chaser for European missions.

A major area to be explored is ESA’s International Berthing Docking Mechanism, an advanced docking system designed for use on the International Space Station that would actively capture and seal the vehicle to the orbiting station. The primary build of the system is in Belgium, Italy and Switzerland. A number of other current and developing technologies and processes will also be evaluated including, the use of ESA’s human factors expertise, simulators and cockpit displays and several other key European offerings which are of interest to SNC.

This arrangement allows ESA to prove its hardware and technology in space on a crewed spacecraft. In exchange, SNC will have its development costs and production time potentially lessened as well as benefit from the extensive experience of ESA and its industrial partners.

According to Sierra Nevada press release:

“Today marks a special day for SNC,” said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president and head of SNC’s Space Systems. “With the start of these new relationships with ESA and [the German Aerospace Center (DLR)] we are able to continue to expand the Dream Chaser Space System globally. The combined strengths of our partner space agencies, industrial companies and education institutions will significantly advance space education, exploration and, for various missions such as microgravity science, spacecraft servicing, debris removal, and materials manufacturing, provide economic benefits to all partners and strengthen U.S. and international ties.”

Space News reports that “Bremen, Germany-based OHB, a major space hardware contractor, said a Europeanized Dream Chaser, called DC4EU — Dream Chaser for European Utilization — could be used to ferry astronauts and gear to the space station.”

The arrangement is yet another important step forward this week for NewSpace.

On Monday January 6, SpaceX launched its second commercial payload in a month. The December 4 launch was the first time in four years a commercial satellite had launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, thanks to the legal monopoly granted Lockheed Martin and Boeing in 2005. That drove up their launch prices, sending the commercial satellite business overseas.

With the solar radiation concern abated, Orbital Sciences will try again tomorrow to launch the first of their eight contracted cargo deliveries aboard Cygnus to the ISS.

Earlier today, the White House announced that the Obama administration intends to extend ISS use to at least 2024.

It's been reported that Virgin Galactic may attempt another test flight of its suborbital spaceplane sometime before the end of the week out at the Mojave Airport.

Later this week on Thursday-Friday January 9-10, the International Academy of Astronautics will host the “Heads of Space Agencies Summit on Exploration” in Washington, DC.

The Sierra Nevada/ESA announcement shows there is definitely a market for NewSpace beyond the ISS, and beyond NASA. It creates a viable competitor for the crewed version of the SpaceX Dragon. Not only are both Dragon and Dream Chaser competing for the NASA Commercial Crew contract, but both have uncrewed versions that can be used as orbiting laboratories. The SpaceX version is called DragonLab.

SpaceX announced in May 2012 a joint marketing effort for crewed Dragon flights to the Bigelow expandable habitats scheduled for launch in 2017. Bigelow also has business relationships with Boeing, and it's expected that the Boeing CST-100 will offer flights to the Bigelow habitats as well as ISS.

All this vindicates the notion that NASA's commercial cargo and crew programs are growing a new aerospace economy here in the U.S., just as envisioned when first proposed by the Aldridge Commission in June 2004.

The end of this decade is going to be incredibly interesting in space.

White House: ISS to 2024

The Orlando Sentinel reports the Obama administration has decided to ask Congress to extend International Space Station operations to at least 2024.

The decision follows years of pressure by top NASA officials, who consider the station a critical steppingstone to future exploration. But a four-year extension likely would cost NASA about $3 billion a year from 2021 to 2024. That's a major chunk of the agency's annual budget, which is now about $17 billion, and a longer mission could force NASA to make tough financial decisions in the future.

The administration's approval, however, doesn't guarantee that the station, which has been continuously occupied since 2000, will survive past its current end date of 2020. At some point, Congress must approve a NASA budget that includes an extension of the station's life. The plan also must get the support of whoever wins the White House in 2016 — though the backing of President Barack Obama now might make it harder for the next administration to renege.

Still, the move is expected to reassure NASA's international partners, who have wondered how long the U.S. plans to commit to the station. NASA's announcement coincides with a visit to Washington this week by leaders of the world's space agencies.

The biggest obstacle, in my opinion, to ISS operations is Congress.

Many members of the House and Senate space authorization and appropriations committees consider the Space Launch System with its Orion crew vehicle to be NASA's most important program. Why? They haven't said, because three years after creating the program Congress still hasn't told NASA what the agency is to do with it.

That's why critics have dubbed it the Senate Launch System.

SLS was created to protect the jobs of those working for NASA centers and/or NASA contractors in the districts and states of those on the committees. Committee members benefit from generous campaign contributions by Boeing, Lockheed Martin and ATK, the major SLS contractors.

In August 2011, the Orlando Sentinel reported:

The rocket and capsule that NASA is proposing to return astronauts to the moon would fly just twice in the next 10 years and cost as much as $38 billion, according to internal NASA documents obtained by the Orlando Sentinel.

The money would pay for a new heavy-lift rocket and Apollo-like crew capsule that eventually could take astronauts to the moon and beyond. But it would not be enough to pay for a lunar landing — or for more than one manned test flight, in 2021...

According to preliminary NASA estimates, it would cost between $17 billion and $22 billion to ready the new rocket and Orion capsule for a test flight in December 2017 that would put an unmanned capsule into a lunar orbit. An additional $12 billion to $16 billion would be needed to launch the first crew on a lunar flyby in August 2021.

Here we are three years later, and Congress still hasn't approved any missions. In April 2013, NASA proposed the Asteroid Initiative to give SLS a specific use. So far, the House bill would prohibit an asteroid mission, while the Senate version lets NASA decide.

By decade's end, SpaceX should have its Falcon Heavy operational. The Golden Spike Company has already contracted for a commercial lunar lander design, and recently announced it was developing robotic rovers to return lunar samples to commercial astronauts landing on the Moon.

Within a few years, hopefully, someone will start asking questions in the halls of Congress about why the members of the space committees continue wasting money on protecting a government work force for a vehicle that's in competition with the private sector.

So the battle will come down to SLS versus ISS.

Personally, I'm rooting for the program actually producing results.

UPDATE January 8, 2014 7:15 PM EST — The Obama administration's Office of Science and Technology Policy released a statement this afternoon detailing their support for extending the ISS to 2024.

As more than 30 heads of space agencies from around the world prepare to gather in Washington January 9-10 for an unprecedented summit on the future of space exploration, we are pleased to announce that the Obama Administration has approved an extension of the International Space Station (ISS) until at least 2024. We are hopeful and optimistic that our ISS partners will join this extension effort and thus enable continuation of the groundbreaking research being conducted in this unique orbiting laboratory for at least another decade.

The statement listed several reasons for extending the station.

  • It will allow NASA to complete necessary research activities aboard the ISS in support of planned long-duration human missions beyond low-Earth orbit
  • ISS extension will extend the broader flow of societal benefits from research on the Station.
  • It will give NASA and its private-sector partners time to more fully transition to the commercial space industry the transportation of cargo and crew to low-Earth-orbit.
  • The ISS is also playing an increasingly important role in the study ofthe Earth and its changing climate.
  • Extending the ISS will help cement continuing U.S. leadership in human spaceflight going forward.

The Orb-1 Pre-Game Show

Click the arrow to watch the science briefing on YouTube. Video source: NASA.

UPDATE January 8, 2014 7:45 AM EST — Orbital Sciences just announced the launch has been postponed until tomorrow.

Early this morning the Antares launch team decided to scrub today's launch attempt due to an unusually high level of space radiation that exceeded by a considerable margin the constraints imposed on the mission to ensure the rocket's electronic systems are not impacted by a harsh radiation environment. The solar flux activity that occurred late yesterday afternoon has had the result of increasing the level of radiation beyond what the Antares engineering team was monitoring earlier in the day. Overnight, Orbital engineers who are experts in the field ran numerous models to ensure that all possibilities to preserve the launch were examined. However, due to significantly elevated flux levels, the Antares team decided to postpone the launch to spend the day further examining the potential effects of the space radiation on the rocket's avionics suite.

Today, in consultation with NASA and outside experts in the field of "space weather," Orbital will continue to monitor the levels of space radiation with a goal of setting a new launch date as soon as possible. If we are able to launch on Thursday, the launch targeted launch time would be 1:10 p.m. (EST), with Cygnus arriving at the ISS Sunday morning, January 12.

UPDATE January 8, 2014 7:30 PM EST — Orbital says they'll try again tomorrow.

Following a comprehensive review of data related to the radiation environment in space, further reviews and modeling of the rocket's avionics systems, and the forecast for favorable terrestrial weather conditions at the Wallops Island launch facility, the Antares launch team has decided to proceed forward with a launch attempt of the Orbital-1 CRS mission to the International Space Station tomorrow, January 9 pending overnight close-out of all remaining pre-launch reviews and tests. Upon a deeper examination of the current space weather environment, Orbital's engineering team, in consultation with NASA, has determined that the risk to launch success is within acceptable limits established at the outset of the Antares program.

Tomorrow's target launch time is 1:07 p.m. (EST), which would allow the Cygnus spacecraft to rendezvous and berth with the International Space Station early Sunday morning, January 12.

It's not launching from Cape Canaveral, but today's launch of the Orbital Sciences Cygnus dubbed Orb-1 from Wallops, Virginia is another significant step in the early history of NewSpace.

On Monday, SpaceX launched a commercial communications satellite from Cape Canaveral. Nothing to do with NASA, other than that Falcon 9 rocket was developed in part using seed money funding from NASA during both the Bush and Obama administrations.

As I wrote in March 2013, President Bush's Aldridge Commission in June 2004 concluded that the United States needed to create a robust space industry:

The Commission finds that sustaining the long-term exploration of the solar system requires a robust space industry that will contribute to national economic growth, produce new products through the creation of new knowledge, and lead the world in invention and innovation. The space industry will become a national treasure.

This would be accomplished by cash incentives and competition “to encourage entrepreneurs and risk-takers to undertake major space missions.”

Here we are ten years later, and two American companies are delivering cargo to the International Space Station. It's the first time in the history of the U.S. space program that we've had redundancy in our flight vehicles. The SpaceX Dragon is scheduled to launch in late February from Cape Canaveral.

The above video is a media event about the science experiments shipping on the Cygnus, but some of the discussion is about how the Space Coast-based non-profit CASIS finds customers to fly on Cygnus and Dragon to do microgravity research on the ISS. Some are funded by NASA, some receive private sector funding, some are self-funded.

It's further proof that a new economy is growing here in the U.S. based on the ability to deliver people and cargo to low Earth orbit.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

SpaceX Lights the Candle

Click the arrow to watch the SpaceX Thaicom-6 launch on YouTube.

Two friends in the space industry had birthdays on January 6, so it was only appropriate that SpaceX would light one big candle for them.

It was also a big candle for SpaceX, which continues to silence detractors who claim their vehicles are unsafe and unreliable.

The Thaicom-6 launch was perhaps the most uneventful of all Falcon 9 launches to date, leaving me to wonder as I left NASA Causeway if SpaceX will become so routine that we'll find their launches boring.

So routine for them, that their next launch is scheduled for late February, sending the Dragon capsule to deliver cargo to the International Space Station.

I was on NASA Causeway filming the launch, about four miles to the southeast just outside the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station gate. This is a popular place for badged employees, with bleachers and volunteers doing traffic control. For NASA and United Launch Alliance launches, speakers carry the audio of the launch broadcasts. With SpaceX, I rely on their webcasts which I can hear over my cameraphone, although it's usually running a few seconds behind.

SpaceX has twelve more Cape Canaveral launches on their 2014 manifest — seven commercial launches, four ISS resupply flights and their first military payload. It's unlikely that all those will fly in 2014, but if they come anywhere close to that it will shake the launch industry to its core.

A military global positioning system satellite, GPS IIF-5, has been postponed since October. It's been on the pad at Launch Complex 37 ever since, as Delta tries to decide what to do about an upper stage motor issue. If SpaceX had sat there for three months and counting, their critics would heap abuse on the company for its failure to launch on schedule.

The Delta IV and its earthbound payload were clearly visible yesterday from NASA Causeway, as if watching helplessly as the Falcon 9 launched from the neighboring Pad 40.

I know that a failure is in SpaceX's future, but I wonder when the day will come that the space industry won't hold SpaceX to a different standard than its OldSpace competitors.

It's a busy week for NewSpace, with the Orbital Sciences Antares scheduled to launch the Cygnus cargo carrier to the ISS on January 8.

Click the arrow to watch the video of the launch from NASA Causeway.

Media reports:

Aviation Week “Falcon 9 Launches With Thaicom 6; Deployment Confirmation Tardy”

BBC News “Second High-Orbit Launch for SpaceX”

CBS News “SpaceX Rocket Launches, Boosts Satellite into Orbit”

Florida Today “SpaceX Starts New Year with Success”

Forbes “SpaceX Successfully Launches Thaicom Satellite”

Reuters “SpaceX Falcon Rocket Lifts Off with Thaicom Digital TV Satellite”

Spaceflight Now “SpaceX Kicks Off the Year with Launch of Thai Satellite”