Monday, March 31, 2014

Fast Cars and Rocket Ships

Click the arrow to watch the video. Video source: CBS News.

SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk was featured last night on 60 Minutes. On the show's web site, this page has the transcript along with video extras.

I think the “zombie apocalypse warranty” will be the most remembered line from the segment.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Is It a Deal?

An artist's concept of the Bigelow BA-300 inflatable habitat. Image source: Bigelow Aerospace.

Buried in this week's Florida Today Space Notebook is a passage suggesting SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace have a deal for launching expandable modules, perhaps from Virginia.

In a Feb. 3 letter, the Virginia Chamber of Commerce asked U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski — chair of the appropriations committee and a champion of NASA's Wallops Island, Va., launch site — to allocate money from exploration programs to a public-private partnership with Bigelow Aerospace, the Nevada-based developer of private space habitats.

The letter claims Bigelow has an arrangement with SpaceX to build a launch pad at the state-run Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island. The pad would launch Bigelow's next-generation BA-330 habitat, then crews and cargo.

In fact, no such arrangement exists, at least not yet. And the huge BA-330 station would require a heavy-lift rocket likely dictating a launch from Florida, not Wallops.

In an interview, Mike Gold, Bigelow's director of D.C. operations and business growth, reiterated the company's interest in Wallops as offering more autonomy and fewer launch conflicts than at Cape Canaveral.

But he said Florida would benefit significantly if NASA committed to a demonstration program that helps advance its commercial habitats.

This would seem to suggest that Bigelow and SpaceX have at least an understanding, if not a formal agreement.

The letter coincides with the end of KSC Visitor Complex tours of Pad 39A after March 31.

No formal lease with SpaceX has been announced, but SpaceX employees have been spotted recently at 39A, and the end of the tours would suggest a formal deal is imminent.

Pad 39A would be an ideal launch site for the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, currently planned for its first test flight in 2015 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California. Although SpaceX hasn't formally announced how it would distribute launch activity among Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Pad 39A at KSC, and other launch sites, it's believed that they foresee an evolution to a plan where the Cape and Vandenberg are used for Defense Department launches, 39A for NASA launches (commercial crew and heavy lift), and strictly private-sector payloads at Brownsville, Shiloh or another site.

Elon Musk Tonight on "60 Minutes"

Click the arrow to watch an excerpt from tonight's Elon Musk interview. Video source: CBS News.

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk is interviewed tonight on 60 Minutes, which airs at 7 PM EDT/PDT.

A nice warmup for Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey at 9 PM EDT/PDT.

The online article accompanying the above clip suggests most of this segment will be about how Musk nearly went broke in 2008, when early SpaceX and Tesla failures combined with the Great Recession and his pending divorce to nearly destroy his financial empire.

The article also notes that NASA awarded SpaceX (and Orbital Sciences) their commercial cargo delivery contracts in December 2008, before Barack Obama took office. NASA originally selected SpaceX for the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program in 2006, as part of President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration program to commercialize access to low Earth orbit. Some opponents of “NewSpace” have falsely claimed that NASA selected SpaceX because Musk is a political patron of President Obama, but the factual evidence proves that SpaceX was chosen under the prior administration.

I will nitpick that the CBS News article erroneously states about that December 2008 selection:

Three months later, Christmas week, NASA informed him that his company had won the Space Shuttle contract.

COTS, of course, has nothing to do with the Space Shuttle, which retired in July 2011 — another decision made by the Bush administration.

Elon Musk last appeared on 60 Minutes in March 2012. Click here to watch.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Retro Saturday: Project Gemini, Bridge to the Moon

Click the arrow to watch the video on YouTube. Video source: NASAFlix YouTube channel.

This week's Retro Saturday film is Project Gemini: Bridge to the Moon, a 1999 documentary by Global Science Productions.

The film is a good overview of the Gemini program, whose history is often lost between Mercury and Apollo. But Gemini was the lynchpin, because it taught NASA all the major skills not only for the lunar program but also for what came afterwards. Spacewalks, rendezvous and docking, and long-duration spaceflight all began with Gemini.

Not all the footage in the documentary is accurate. For example, in the Gemini 9 segment it talks about the plane crash that killed Charles Bassett and Elliott See. They crashed in a NASA T-38 shortly after takeoff in St. Louis, Missouri. The documentary shows the crash of an experimental plane at Edwards Air Force Base.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Charlie Emboldened

Click the arrow to watch the March 27, 2014 subcommittee hearing on YouTube.

NASA's proposed Fiscal Year 2015 budget this week went before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

It wasn't pretty.

As with most committee meetings in recent years, the two meetings this week resembled the Mad Tea-Party from Alice in Wonderland.

The full committee met on Tuesday March 26 to review the proposed budget for all the government's science agencies. Click here to watch the two-hour hearing. In the committee's crosshairs was Dr. John Holdren, the President's National Science Advisor.

It was quite the spectacle to watch scientifically illiterate members of Congress lecture one of the nation's foremost scientists on subjects ranging from climate change to health care to earth sciences to welfare to the Ice Age.

The panel's subcommittee on space met the next day. The lone witness was NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

A year ago, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, I suggested that Charlie be granted sainthood by his Episcopal Church for having the patience to put up with this committee's tomfoolery.

That's what government officials do when they appear before congressional committees. They sit there and suffer the slings and arrows, so that the politicians can look good for the home crowd. The real decisions are made behind the scenes, often by committee staffers who remain for years while the politicians come and go.

But this year was different.

A righteous Charlie Bolden stood up to the committee members, reminding them that they were responsible for the current pickle the United States is in for having to rely on Roscomos for International Space Station access while Russia occupies Crimea and intimidates Ukraine.

For years, Bolden's pleas for full commercial crew funding were rejected by members of both parties who wanted to assure that government pork was funnelled to their districts, or to the legacy aerospace contractors who funnelled contributions to their re-election campaigns. Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS) and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) have been the worst offenders, although Democrats Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Donna Edwards (D-MD) have also heaped abuse on Bolden and the White House for not favoring their pet projects.

In recent weeks, committee chair Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) has been pushing a human flyby of Mars and Venus in 2021. He claimed this week that such a mission would “electrify” the nation, without offering any evidence to back it up. Smith has not explained how he would pay for it, how the crew would survive two years of lethal doses of radiation, or how they would feed themselves, much less what it is this crew would do other than look out the window. That job has been done for decades by robotic craft taking photos just as good, if not better, than anything humans could film.

Smith berated both Holdren and Bolden this week for not seeing the genius of his proposal. But then they're only science experts. They're not a politician who knows more about science than scientists.

Rep. Brooks, whose district includes Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, berated Bolden and repeatedly hurled false accusations at the administrator, constantly interrupting him and not allowing him to complete his answers. I almost feel sorry for the people of Huntsville, but then they elected this national embarrassment to office so they're responsible for him.

Charlie is used to all this, and it was clear he came prepared to deliver a simple message — our top priority must be fully funding commercial crew so the U.S. no longer relies on Russia for ISS transportation.

Several members continue to insist that Space Launch System is the top priority, even though after four years they've yet to give NASA a mission or destination. Rep. Smith says it's the 2021 flyby, but the rest of Congress has yet to agree. Other members want an Apollo rerun to the Moon, but again the rest of Congress has yet to agree. A year ago, NASA proposed the Asteroid Initiative, but Congress has yet to agree.

They do seem to agree that $3 billion a year should be spent indefinitely on SLS, and any actual purpose is secondary. The reason for its existence is to protect Shuttle-era jobs in the districts of Palazzo, Brooks, and certain other key members of both houses, which is why critics have labelled it the Senate Launch System.

Bolden repeatedly referred to a chart that attempted to present a Grand Unified Theory of sorts for these disparate programs, arguing that commercial crew, ISS and the Asteroid Initiative are necessary to perform human flights to Mars in the 2030s using the SLS.

I'm not sure the argument worked, and I don't really buy it myself, but it was an attempt to create a consensus among politicians who have demonstrated they have no interest in one. They're only interested in themselves.

The bottom line is that, thanks to Vladimir Putin, Bolden finally has some leverage to force Congress into properly funding commercial crew. A November 2013 report by the NASA Office of the Inspector General noted that Congress cut commercial crew funding by 62% in Fiscal Years 2012-2014 from the Obama administration's funding request. This pushed back commercial crew's projected operational date from 2015 to 2017 — a fact Bolden repeatedly noted, even though Rep. Brooks denied it. In the current fiscal year, Congress cut the commercial crew budget by 15% from the administration's request.

We still have a long way to go. The space authorization committees in both houses need to pass a NASA budget, they need to reconcile their versions, and then Congress has to actually pass a budget — a task it's been unable to perform the last few years. Beyond that, the appropriations committees in both houses decide how much money NASA really gets, so we won't know until late in the year if Congress can put aside its pettiness for the national good.

It is an election year, so maybe Congress will behave itself, but don't count on NASA to be a major issue on the campaign trail. Most of the American electorate couldn't care less.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before ...

A bipartisan letter signed by 32 members of the House of Representatives was released Monday by the office of Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), who heads the House Space Subcommittee.

The letter demands that President Obama “chart and clearly state a vision and timeline for the nation in deep space exploration.”

The problem with this letter is that the White House did just that in August 2012. Congress ignored the report.

The report was titled, NASA Exploration Destinations, Goals, and International Collaboration.

In the NASA appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2012, Congress included this language:

“The conferees believe that NASA needs to better articulate a set of specific, scientifically meritorious exploration goals to focus its program and provide a common vision for future achievements. Consequently, the conferees direct NASA to develop and report to the Committees on Appropriations a set of science-based exploration goals; a target destination or destinations that will enable the achievement of those goals; a schedule for the proposed attainment of these goals; and a plan for any proposed collaboration with international partners. Proposed international collaboration should enhance NASA’s exploration plans rather than replace capabilities NASA is developing with current funds. This report shall be submitted no later than 180 days after the enactment of this Act.”

The report went to Congress in August 2012. Eleven pages long, it detailed science-based exploration goals, target destinations, use of the International Space Station as a testbed for deep-space missions, asteroid missions, and the eventual goal of Mars. The report concluded with a detailed timeline.

Congress did nothing.

Here we are less than two years later, and Congress falsely claims once again that the Administration has failed to articulate a vision or a timeline.

In December 2012, the National Academies issued a report listing seventeen reports sent to Congress between 1986 and 2010 “concerning NASA's strategic direction.” It would appear that Congress gave those little thought as well.

Space Coast representative Bill Posey (R-FL) is one of the 32 signatories to the latest letter. I'm going to visit his web site and remind his staff that this was done in 2012, and ask why he failed to respond to it then. I suspect he'll fail to respond to it now as well.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Retro Saturday: The Mission of Apollo-Soyuz

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

With U.S.-Russian relations deteriorating due to the Ukraine crisis, I thought we'd use Retro Saturday to visit a happier time.

This week's film is The Mission of Apollo-Soyuz, a 1975 documentary about the rendezvous in space between the two great spacefaring nations that symbolically ended the Space Race, if not quite yet the Cold War.

Apollo-Soyuz — or as it was known on the Soviet side, Союз-Аполлон — in many ways became the foundation for today's International Space Station. Today's ISS docking ports, for example, are descended from Apollo-Soyuz. It's called the Androgynous Peripheral Attach System, or APAS. It was designed by Vladimir Syromyatnikov of RSC Energia. In Russian, it's Андрогинно-периферийный агрегат стыковки.

APAS would have been used by the Soviet orbiter Buran to dock with the Mir space station. After Buran was cancelled, NASA used the Buran adapter for orbiter dockings with Mir.

On today's ISS, APAS is only used to dock with the Russian ports. In 2015, the SpaceX Dragon will deliver new NASA Docking System (NDS) adapters to comply with new international docking and berthing standards. The Bigelow Aerospace expandable habitats may use NDS ports in the future.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Selling Space

Click the arrow to watch the event. Video source: American Museum of Natural History YouTube channel.

On March 19, the American Museum of Natural History held their annual Asimov Debate event. This year's topic was Selling Space. To quote from their web site:

Space exploration is entering a new era. Dozens of aerospace companies have emerged in recent years, all with the goal of commercializing space as never before. From serving NASA's cargo needs to sending tourists on space vacations to mining asteroids for profit, this next generation of entrepreneurs, and not NASA, may be the ones who transform space into our backyard, possibly creating the first-ever trillionaires.

Astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson was the moderator. A skeptic of commercial space, he's the host of the Cosmos revival currently airing on Fox TV and Director of the Hayden Planetarium.

Panelists were:

  • Wanda M. Austin, President and CEO of The Aerospace Corporation
  • Michael Gold, Director of DC Operations and Business Growth, Bigelow Aerospace
  • John Logsdon, Professor Emeritus, Space Policy & International Affairs, George Washington University
  • Elliot Pulham, Chief Executive Officer, Space Foundation
  • Tom Shelley, President, Space Adventures, Ltd.
  • Robert Walker, Executive Chairman, Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates

The event is well worth the two hours.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Nelson Challenges NewSpace “Naysayers”

Click the arrow to watch the video on the Florida Today web site. You may be subjected to an ad first.

FOX 35 News Orlando
Click the arrow to watch the Fox 35 video. You may be subjected to an ad first.

During an appearance March 18 at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) called on “naysayers” to not only support the Obama administration's commercial crew funding request, but to also support multiple companies.

The Florida Today video of the media event quotes Nelson as saying, “It'll be interesting to see if some of the naysayers are in fact coming in and supporting by giving the appropriations for the development of commercial crew anywhere close to what the President recommended, which is about $850 million.”

In the Fox 35 Orlando clip, Nelson says NASA shouldn't have to “limit it to just one company,” a frequent demand of commercial crew opponents in Congress who insist NASA should use only one vendor. NASA has opposed sole-source because it defeats the purpose of the commercial crew program, which is to lower access to space through competition and innovation as well as provide multiple vendors.

Sole-source forced NASA onto the Soyuz after the loss of Columbia in February 2003. NASA had no other vehicle option other than the government Shuttle. In January 2004, the Bush administration announced ISS crew rotations would move over to Soyuz, while Shuttle would be used only for ISS construction. Once the station was finished, the Shuttle would retire and NASA would have a minimum four-year “gap” where it would fly on Soyuz until another domestic option was ready.

By 2009, the Bush administration's Constellation program Ares I was years behind schedule and billions over budget. Ares I would not fly until at least 2017, and would be funded by decommissioning the ISS in 2015, meaning Ares I had nowhere to go.

The Obama administration proposed funding the Bush-era commercial crew program, a sequel to the commercial cargo program already in the pipeline, to save the ISS and close the “gap.” Constellation would be cancelled to pay for commercial space and save the ISS.

Congress, led by Bill Nelson, replaced Constellation with the Space Launch System, dubbed the Senate Launch System by critics because Nelson and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) designed the program to protect jobs and contractors in their states. Nelson calls SLS “the Monster Rocket” but to this date SLS has no missions or destinations.

A November 2013 report by the NASA Office of the Inspector General noted that Congress cut the commercial crew funding by 62% in Fiscal Years 2012-2014 from the Obama administration's funding request. This pushed back commercial crew's projected operational date from 2015 to 2017. In the current fiscal year, Congress cut the commercial crew budget by 15% from the administration's request.

News stories about yesterday's media event:

Florida Today “Nelson Sees No Rift With Russians over Space”

Orlando Sentinel “Nelson Says U.S. Sanctions Against Russia Should Not Hit Space Station”

Fox 35 Orlando “Sen. Nelson: Speed up Manned Space Flight”

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

When Heroes Lead Us Astray

May 12, 2010 ... The Senate Science Committee meets to discuss the future of U.S. human space flight. Starting at the one hour forty-eight minute mark, Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan testify to criticize President Obama's space policies.

The monster does not need the hero. it is the hero who needs him for his very existence. When the hero confronts the monster, he has yet neither power nor knowledge, the monster is his secret father who will invest him with a power and knowledge that can belong to one man only, and that only the monster can give.

— Robert Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, 1994

President Barack Obama laid out his vision for the future of American spaceflight in April 2010, when he gave a speech at Kennedy Space Center's Operations & Checkout Building.

By his standards, it was certainly not the most lyrical of his speeches. Those hoping for a redux of John F. Kennedy's “because it is hard” Moon speech were disappointed.

Most news stories focused on his administration's budget proposal to cancel the Constellation program.

When President George W. Bush proposed Constellation in January 2004, it was in response to the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. The CAIB report repeatedly declared that the U.S. space program lacked a “vision.” Bush's proposal therefore was called the Vision for Space Exploration, I suspect, to directly respond to the CAIB findings.

Constellation would culminate in a return to the Moon, Bush proposed, but when his Vision was presented to Congress two weeks later, the devil was in the details.

Constellation would not receive any significant new funding. The Crew Exploration Vehicle designed to replace Shuttle for International Space Station crew rotations would not be ready until at least 2014, four years after the end of ISS construction and Shuttle retirement. That meant the U.S. would rely on the Russian Soyuz four years for ISS access. In 2015, just one year later, the ISS would be decommissioned to transfer its funding into Constellation. The CEV would then be used for deep-space human spaceflight.

America's spacefaring partners, who had invested money and decades in ISS design and construction, would be left without their station.

The CEV evolved into the Orion capsule. The Constellation Ares I, a solid rocket booster based on Shuttle technology, fell years behind schedule. In October 2009, shortly after Obama took office, the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee (commonly known as the Augustine Committee for its chair, Norm Augustine) issued a report estimating that Ares I would not fly until 2017, two years after the ISS would be decommissioned. 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.

An independent audit released August 2009 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that Constellation “lacked a sound business case.” That didn't seem to bother those at NASA, the legacy contractors, or their work forces, because all were being generously compensated for their efforts. Nobody seemed to mind the delays and drifts, so long as the taxpayer dollars kept flowing.

Almost nobody.

It did bother Obama, and he said so in that April 15, 2010 speech.

April 15, 2010 ... President Barack Obama delivers his space policy speech at Kennedy Space Center.

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.

Motivated by the committee's findings, 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 for two Bush-era programs, commercial cargo (already in development) and commercial crew (on the books but not funded). Orion would continue as a “lifeboat” backup at the ISS in case crew needed to abandon ship.

The legacy aerospace industry was incensed.

Protection of the status quo was bipartisan, in both the House and Senate.

On May 12, 2010, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation held a hearing titled, “The Future of U.S. Human Space Flight.” There were two groups of speakers. The first group included NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and his boss, Director John Holdren of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. They were savaged by Senators from states with NASA space centers and the legacy contractors who profited from them.

The second group drew most of the media attention.

Norm Augustine was joined by two Apollo-era astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan. Armstrong was the first human to set foot on the Moon. Cernan was the last.

Along with Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell, the three astronauts published an editorial on April 13, 2010 blasting the administration's proposal to rely on commercial transports. “The availability of a commercial transport to orbit as envisioned in the President’s proposal cannot be predicted with any certainty, but is likely to take substantially longer and be more expensive than we would hope,” they claimed.

Their editorial concluded:

Without the skill and experience that actual spacecraft operation provides, the USA is far too likely to be on a long downhill slide to mediocrity. America must decide if it wishes to remain a leader in space.

One month later, Armstrong and Cernan sat before the Senate Science Committee. Why no Apollo astronaut with a favorable view was invited went unexplained; Buzz Aldrin had been present at Obama's April 15 speech and endorsed the new direction. Nor was it explained why heroic icons of the 1960s were considered to be experts about U.S. space technology and economics fifty years later. Sally Ride and Leroy Chiao, Shuttle-era astronauts much closer to the current state of affairs, served on the Augustine Committee but weren't invited either.

Armstrong and Cernan minced no words. Their opposition to the President made national headlines. National Public Radio reported, “Armstrong was skeptical of Obama's plan to rely on new space taxis developed by private companies after the space shuttles are retired. And while Obama has argued that NASA should be aiming for new destinations — like asteroids — Armstrong said he believes that there would be real benefits to returning to the moon, as NASA had planned.”

In his prepared remarks, Armstrong said:

I am very concerned that the new plan, as I understand it, will prohibit us from having human access to low Earth orbit on our own rockets and spacecraft until the private aerospace industry is able to qualify their hardware under development as rated for human occupancy. I support the encouragement of the newcomers toward their goal of lower cost access to space. But having cut my teeth in rockets more than 50 years ago, I am not confident. The most experienced rocket engineers with whom I have spoken believe that will require many years and substantial investment to reach the necessary level of safety and reliability. Business analysts believe that at least two qualified competitors would be required to have any chance of reducing ticket prices. They further believe that a commercial market large enough to support even one competitor is unlikely.

May 12, 2010 ... Gene Cernan testifies before the Senate Science Committee. Image source:

Cernan's prepared remarks were more incendiary:

Based upon my background and experience, I submit to this Committee and to the Congress that it will take the private sector as long as 10 years to access LEO safely and cost-effectively. A prominent Russian academician is quoted as saying in order to bring a craft to the standard of quality and safety for piloted flight, the United States will be dependent on Russia until at least 2020. The Aerospace Corporation estimates an initial cost of 10-12 billion dollars, plus the added cost of modifications required to launch vehicle ground systems. Should such a commercial venture run into insurmountable technical problems, business venture concerns, or — God forbid — a catastrophic failure, it would leave the United States without a fallback program, unable to access even low Earth orbit for some indeterminate time to follow. In any event, under this proposal the United States will be abandoning its 50 billion dollar, 25 year investment in the ISS, leaving us hostage to foreign powers.

Cernan concluded, “With the submission of FY2011 budget, either the Administration and the originators of this budget proposal are showing extreme naivete or, I can only conclude, they are willing to take accountability for a calculated plan to dismantle America’s leadership in the world of Human Space Exploration. In either case, this proposal is a travesty which flows against the grain of over 200 years of our history and, today, against the will of the majority of Americans.”

Cernan implicitly accused President Obama of treason.

Their comments not only ignored one finding after another that Constellation was a failed government program, but also displayed a fundamental ignorance about the commercial cargo and crew programs that were becoming known as NewSpace.

Almost four years later, history has proven these heroes to be totally wrong.

Jim Lovell joined the NewSpace movement last year, when he was appointed to the Board of Advisors of the Golden Spike Company, which is developing a commercial lunar program.

In a September 23, 2013 column published in Space News, Lovell acknowledged that the NewSpace course is the correct one.

Some in Congress are at this very moment talking once again about forcing NASA to establish a program to sustain a human presence on the Moon. I, unfortunately, am not optimistic as we have been here before.

But there is hope. The private sector is stepping up to meet the challenge: an ambitious startup, the Golden Spike Co., is leading the way in creating commercial models to mount human expeditions to the surface of the Moon for nations, companies and individuals.

Until now I have been very doubtful and indeed critical of many existing commercial space ventures that are largely funded by taxpayer dollars. But after several meetings with Golden Spike executives, including the chairman of its board — my old friend — former Apollo Flight Director Gerry Griffin, I became convinced that we truly are on the cusp of a brand new era of commercial lunar space travel.

In his concluding remarks, Lovell recommends:

In fact, NASA itself should look carefully at what Golden Spike is doing and incorporate its plans into America’s national space ambitions. The agency, in my opinion, should be among Golden Spike’s first customers and biggest allies.

Neil Armstrong passed away in August 2012, never publicly retracting his remarks spoken and printed that spring of 2010. According to SpaceX founder Elon Musk, Armstrong never responded to his invitations to tour SpaceX facilities.

As for Gene Cernan, venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, who sits on the SpaceX Board of Directors, wrote in July 2012 that he encountered Cernan while collecting space artifacts and used it as an opportunity to set the record straight. Cernan had refused Jurvetson's earlier invitations to tour SpaceX and see for himself.

Then I approached Gene Cernan, and held my breath. I figured it would be a bit more difficult to break from the social proof of his esteemed colleagues. And so he listened. As with every Apollo astronaut who signed this photo, I was able to talk about SpaceX and answer his questions. Gene was interested in who financed SpaceX — what big money interests got it going. I told him that Elon Musk personally financed the company for all of its first $100 million, when no one else would bet on the venture, and he saw it through thick and thin, including the first three launches of the Falcon 1, all of which failed spectacularly. As I told him these stories of heroic entrepreneurship, I could see his mind turning. He found a reconciliation: “I never read any of this in the news. Why doesn’t the press report on this?”

The press did report on it, of course. Just not the media that Mr. Cernan apparently reads and watches.

If Cernan has subsequently recanted, I'm unaware of it.

We can only speculate about how much damage the three did that spring to the future of the U.S. space program. In my opinion, they were useful pawns for more powerful forces behind the scenes trying to protect OldSpace pork.

Even without their testimony and their column, it's likely that Congress still would have gutted the administration's commerical crew program in favor of Constellation's pork replacement, the Space Launch System, which critics have labelled the Senate Launch System. A November 2013 report by the NASA Office of the Inspector General noted that Congress cut the commercial crew funding by 62% in Fiscal Years 2012-2014 from the Obama administration's funding request. This pushed back commercial crew's projected operational date from 2015 to 2017. Contrary to Cernan's inflated numbers, “As of August 31, 2013, NASA has spent $1.1 billion on its commercial crew development efforts,” according to the OIG.

Commercial cargo is wildly successful. The SpaceX Dragon, which has already flown three times to the ISS, is scheduled for its fourth delivery at the end of March. Dragon was designed with the eventual goal of using it for people, and in January Elon Musk told CBS News that he hopes to have his first crewed test flight in two years. During a December 2013 press conference, SpaceX CEO Gwynne Shotwell estimated that development of Dragon and its Falcon 9 booster cost about $850 millon — $400 million from NASA, and $450 million from SpaceX investors.

Cernan's cost estimates and timeline were totally wrong.

For years, the Obama administration and NASA have warned Congress of the consequences from extending U.S. reliance on the Russian Soyuz. As this column is being written, U.S. and European relations with Russia are strained over Russian intervention in Crimea, part of Ukraine. The space community is already speculating what happens if Russia severs access to the ISS.

(For the record, the U.S. controls ISS communications and electronics, so Russia can't unilaterally control the space station.)

Space Politics reports this morning that Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), who now chairs the Senate Science Committee, is calling for Congress to “properly fund and support commercial space flight” in light of the Ukraine crisis. But OldSpace pork defenders Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) inexplicably claim SLS is more important for national security.

The Obama administration earlier this month submitted its proposed FY15 NASA budget. It includes $848.3 million for the commercial crew program, an increase of about $152 million over the FY14 enacted $696 million — which was reduced 15% by Congress from the administration's request.

Four years ago, three Apollo astronauts thought they'd found another “monster,” as Robert Calasso calls it, to confront. They thought the monster was Barack Obama. They were wrong. The monster was the space-industrial complex — the legacy aerospace contractors who get fat off Congressional pork, and the members of Congress who get fat off their campaign contributions. OldSpace doesn't really care if it delivers on time, on budget, or at all — so long as everyone gets their slice of pork.

That's the monster. Those astronauts mistakenly fought beside it, not against it.

I would have a lot more respect for Cernan and Lovell if they would pen a new column, and testify before that same committee, about the importance of priming the commercial pump to free NASA of the Soyuz. It won't undo the damage of four years ago, but as patriots it would help assure launches of NASA and partner astronauts return to U.S. soil as soon as possible.

They would slay the real monster, and be heroes yet again.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Orion Slips Launch Schedule to December

According to the NASA web site, the uncrewed launch of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle has slipped to no earlier than December.

The Orion team continues to work toward completing the spacecraft to be ready for a launch in September-October. However, the initial timeframe for the launch of Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) has shifted from September-October to early December to support allowing more opportunities for launches this year. Completing the spacecraft according to the original schedule will allow many engineers and technicians to continue transitioning to work on the Orion spacecraft that will fly atop the agency's Space Launch System. It will also ensure that NASA's partners are fully ready for the launch of EFT-1 at the earliest opportunity on the manifest.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Bots for Tots

The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex held a Robot Rocket Rally to highlight new robotic technology being developed by NASA and private companies.

Here are photos of the young, and young at heart, exploring the robots.

Letter to the Editor

Florida Today this morning published my letter to the editor about how Congress' cutting of the commercial crew budget over the last several years increase U.S. reliance on the Russian Soyuz.

It's not quite exactly what I submitted, but most letters get edited for space and content and this one represents what I think.

Below is the content as published.

When President Obama campaigned in Titusville in August 2008, he said he would reduce the gap created by the Bush administration that forced NASA to rely on the Russian Soyuz for International Space Station access until at least 2017.

Obama tried to keep his promise, funding a proposed George W. Bush-era program called commercial crew and setting a target date for 2015.

But Congress cut funding for commercial crew by 62 percent from Obama’s requests during the last three federal fiscal years. In the current year, Congress cut Obama’s request by 15 percent. The result is that NASA will rely on Russia until at least 2017.

NASA and the Obama administration repeatedly warned Congress of the consequences. Congress didn’t care.

Now NASA worries what will happen if Russia ends access to the space station due to the Ukraine crisis.

I call for Florida’s representatives on the congressional space authorization committees, Rep. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Orlando, to convene emergency hearings that make up for your past mistakes and prime the pump so U.S. crew flights return to Kennedy Space Center by the end of 2015.

The Droids You're Looking For

Click the arrow to watch the demonstration on YouTube. Video source:

The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is hosting a Robot Rocket Rally this weekend.

The star of the show is Robonaut 2, a humanoid robot being trained to perform tasks on the International Space Station.

R2's head and torso are already on the ISS. Its legs are aboard the SpaceX Dragon capsule now scheduled to launch from the Cape's Pad 40 on March 30.

Above is a video of the R2 demonstration yesterday at KSCVC. I apologize for the poor audio; the presenter didn't use a microphone and there was a lot of ambient noise. It gets better when he stands close to the camcorder.

You'll also see a demonstration of the X-1 Exoskeleton, which is a spinoff of Robonaut technology.

The Robot Rocket Rally ends today, so if you're local it's worth the trip to see R2, the X-1 and robotic technologies developed by many other private sector vendors. The R2 demonstrations are at 10:30 AM and 4:30 PM, although R2's masters are available all day for questions.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

S3 Coming to KSC

Click the arrow to watch the S3 promotional video. Video source: SwissSpaceSystems YouTube channel.

Space Florida issued a press release yesterday announcing it had signed an agreement with Swiss Space Systems to bring their horizontal launch project to Kennedy Space Center.

The Kennedy Space Center is one of the locations S3 will evaluate as a main site of operations for small satellite launches, starting in 2018. In the near term, S3 will propose zero gravity (Zero G) flights onboard its latest-generation Airbus carrier aircraft in Florida starting in 2015. These flights will enable passengers and payloads to experience weightlessness like astronauts do in space, during approximately 20 seconds per parabolic flight, with a basic flight “mission” consisting of approximately 15 parabolas during a 2-hour flight. Throughout 2015, S3 will conduct a world tour of Zero G flights, operating in more than 15 locations around the world, including the Kennedy Space Center.

According to a WESH-TV Orlando report, the cost of a parabolic adventure flight will be $2,600.

An artist's concept of the S3 SOAR atop a European Airbus. Image source: Swiss Space Systems.

According to the S3 web site, the company hopes to launch its SOAR spaceplane from atop an Airbus sometime in 2017. Its launch will be similar to how NASA deployed the orbiter prototype Enterprise in the mid-1970s from atop a 747 at Edwards Air Force Base during Approach and Landing Tests. Unlike Enterprise, SOAR will have rocket engines to take it on a suborbital launch path. SOAR could be used for adventure tourism, or to launch satellite payloads.

Former Space Shuttle astronaut Claude Nicollier is the S3 chairman. A Swiss native, he flew on four Shuttle flights.

S3 joins a growing list of commercial space launch and landing programs coming to the former Shuttle runway.

XCOR announced in June 2013 its intention to launch and land the XCOR rocket plane from KSC.

Stratolaunch plans to take off and land from the KSC runway, one of the few runways big enough for the world's biggest airplane. Stratolaunch would horizontally launch an Orbital Sciences rocket at an altitude of 30,000 feet from underneath its wing.

In January 2014, Boeing and Space Florida announced a lease of former orbiter hangar #1 for the X-37B, an uncrewed orbital spaceplane flying research for the U.S. Air Force. The two X-37Bs launch from the Cape's Pad 41 and will land at the former Shuttle runway.

The Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, one of the three competitors in NASA's commercial crew program, could land at KSC as soon as November 2016, when it's scheduled for its first uncrewed test flight atop an Atlas V at Pad 41.

Starfighters already operates out of a hangar at the runway. They offer atmospheric and supersonic research, and hope to one day add adventure tourism as well as suborbital payload launches.

Retro Saturday: Vanguard, A Rocket for Science

Click the arrow to watch on YouTube the 1958 film, “Vanguard: A Rocket for Science.” Video source: Air Force Space & Missile Museum YouTube channel.

This week's retro film is Vanguard: A Rocket for Science produced by the Engineering Division of the now-deceased Glenn L. Martin Company of Baltimore.

I wrote about Project Vanguard, and visited the launch site at the Cape's LC-18, in January 2011.

Vanguard has always fascinated me, because of that singular moment on December 6, 1957 when a test launch exploded on the pad just after liftoff. If it hadn't blown up, it might have changed the course of U.S. space history.

As I wrote in July 2013, NASA exists in part because of Vanguard's failure.

Vanguard was the U.S. contribution to the International Geophysical Year. Sputnik was the Soviet contribution; it was no secret, but few in the West took seriously Soviet technology. When Sputnik 1 was placed into orbit, and followed by Sputnik 2 one month later, it shook to its foundation the American sense of technical superiority.

Sputnik launched atop the Russian R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile. The U.S. had the Atlas ICBM in production, but it wouldn't be operational until 1959. Vanguard was a nominally civilian program, for political reasons, and never intended to be a military weapon.

The media, politicians, and much of the American public thought otherwise, so the December 6 test flight was perceived inaccurately as the American response to Sputnik.

Dubbed TV-3 (Test Vehicle 3), the launch was originally intended to show the rocket could place an object into orbit. It wasn't the real thing. The object was an inert six-pound ball.

But technically speaking, that six-pound ball would be America's first satellite, even though it did nothing.

What if TV-3 hadn't exploded?

It's a fascinating question.

By December 1957, both the House and the Senate were holding emergency hearings into the supposed inferiority of U.S. launch capabilities. The Senate hearings were chaired by Senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas. Both houses had Democratic majorities, while the man in the White House — Dwight Eisenhower — was a Republican.

The TV-3 failure was used to ratchet up the hysteria, and gave fodder to Democratic claims that the Eisenhower administration was weak on defense.

If TV-3 places that inert ball into orbit, does everyone calm down?

Do the hearings come to an end?

The legislation that eventually created NASA came out of those hearings, crafted in part by Johnson.

The failure of TV-3 also contributed to Dr. Wernher von Braun's rise as the pre-eminent rocket expert in the United States.

Von Braun had argued for years he could use the Redstone to orbit an object. His Army Ballistic Missile Agency lost the IGY bid to the Naval Research Laboratory, which built Vanguard.

In mid-October 1957, after Sputnik 1, the White House directed ABMA to develop a backup program for launching a satellite. Von Braun said he could do it by the end of January 1958. Dr. James Van Allen and the folks at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory scrambled to build a satellite cobbled together out of Vanguard satellite spare parts.

If TV-3 puts its inert ball into orbit, does the White House direct ABMA to stand down and let the Vanguard team proceed as planned?

If so, then von Braun doesn't become a national hero ... and what happens when President John F. Kennedy contemplates a human lunar flight by the end of the 1960s? Does von Braun have the star power to convince the Kennedy administration that his Saturn C-5 can do the job?

What-ifs abound.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Space Geek Sick Day

You're achy. You want to sleep in (and it's not Saturday morning). You feel hot but it's not August.

The evidence suggests it's time to take a sick day.

My wife is out of town visiting friends, so I decided to use a sick day and stay home to recover.

How should a self-proclaimed space geek entertain himself between naps?

The NASA TV channel is an easy one. If your cable or satellite company doesn't carry it, you can always watch on the Internet.

Some people say NASA TV is boring. I think of it as white noise. It's in the background, subliminally entering my subconscious.

NASA TV was in the background the morning water began leaking into the helmet of Luca Parmitano. I was just out of the shower, in the bathroom, and NASA TV was playing in the living room. I wasn't paying attention, but somehow the word “water” filtered into my consciousness and I knew that wasn't right.

If NASA TV isn't your thing, you can find a universe of space geek entertainment on YouTube. Last year NASA moved its video library from to YouTube. NASA and its centers have many different channels, but click here for the main one.

You'll also find lots of historical documentaries and clips once lost to the vaults, uploaded by space geeks. I've been blogging about them in my Retro Saturday series.

It's Cosmos week, with the premiere of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey on Fox TV, so you could haul out your DVD collection of the original series. You can also find Cosmos: A Personal Voyage on YouTube.

Watch the Carl Sagan tribute “Wanderers” by Callum C.J. Sutherland.

But I'd suggest you rummage through the Carl Sagan Tribute Series by Callum C.J. Sutherland. He's the creator of the Milky Way Musings web site. His montages are a mix of audio clips from various Sagan sources, mixed with video and music from all sorts of composers. They are invariably inspirational, and I feel a little more spiritual about humanity's relationship with its universe after watching these.

I have lots of space-related videos on my DVD shelf, fiction and documentaries.

A recent addition is the Blu-Ray version of Gravity. If you're a regular reader, you know my criticisms of Gravity.

But I've always been a student of film making, so I'm watching the disc for the special features.

The mission patch for the fictional STS-157 flight. Image source:

One vignette had a computer-generated cover for the fictional STS-157 mission. I freeze-framed on the image and it was dated 23 April, 2014.

So if this was real-world, it would be about time to roll Explorer out to the pad.

But as one wag observed on Twitter, first they need to boost the International Space Station to the same orbit and position as the Hubble Space Telescope. Good luck with that.

If you'd prefer to read, lots of historic NASA documents have been converted to PDFs and posted online.

Right now I'm reading On the Shoulders of Titans: A History of Project Gemini, published in 1977 by the NASA Scientific and Technical Information Office. It runs 648 pages, and you can't beat the price.

You can find more NASA eBooks at this link.

And if all this fails you ... Watch a rerun of The Big Bang Theory on the show's web site.


Click the arrow to watch the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex ad on YouTube. Video source: Mountain View Group YouTube channel.

A new ad for the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex aired nationally Sunday night during the premiere of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.

The ad was produced by the Mountain View Group which has offices in Atlanta and New York.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Space and Time

In a segment on natural selection, Carl Sagan offended Creationists by stating, “Evolution is a fact.”

Sunday night will mark the return of Cosmos to television, more than thirty-three years after the original aired on PBS.

For those of us who took the ride that fall in 1980, it will be an emotional experience.

According to the favorable Los Angeles Times review, the new series begins as Carl Sagan did in the original — on the shore of the cosmic ocean.

[Neil Degrasse Tyson] begins his journey on the same cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean that Sagan did — and ends the first episode there as well, with a tribute to his predecessor and role model who took an interest in him as a teenage astronomy prodigy. As in the original, he sets off in an imaginary spaceship to get a better view of things, locating the Earth within the vastness of space and time, overflying extraterrestrial vistas, passing by Voyager and establishing a cosmic address that should work for any mail headed your way from outside the solar system, galaxy, Virgo Supercluster or even the observable universe.

The political wonk in me keeps wondering if Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey will seek to stir the pot as Carl did. A confirmed non-believer in Creationism, he offended Creationists by stating in a Cosmos episode, “Evolution is a fact, not a theory. It really happened.”

We live today in a society where many deny climate change despite the overwhelming evidence, the vast consensus by scientists and the acceptance of the phenomenon by most civilized nations on the Earth. One major political party dedicates itself to banning abortion and equal rights for homosexuals based on their interpretation of Biblical scripture. And although the global nuclear holocaust posed by the Cold War is no longer an immediate threat, the U.S. has been at war in Afghanistan and/or Iraq for almost thirteen years.

Unlike Sagan, Tyson to date has not been a political activist. Carl was arrested twice for protesting nuclear weapons at the Nevada Test Site. I doubt we'll see Neil chain himself to a pillar outside Congress to draw attention to chronic underfunding of the sciences.

But that might be about to change.

According to the Times review, Tyson uses the first episode to take on religious fundamentalism.

As a cautionary tale, the opening episode includes a long animated sequence about Giordano Bruno, a late 16th century Franciscan friar who came to see the universe as infinite and the sun as a star, and the stars as suns, orbited by other planets, for which he was excommunicated, and after a while, burned at the stake. In between were years of wandering, imprisonment and torture — “Cosmos” shows you the tools of the Inquisition, chillingly, and offers the words “thought police.”

The Fox Network isn't Fox News, but they're both owned by arch-conservative Rupert Murdoch. Many view Fox News as a propaganda organ for the Republican Party, while the Fox Network rarely offers biting commentary beyond its animated shows. The viewers for the two networks don't necessary overlap.

I find myself wondering if Fox News talking heads will savage the new Cosmos, creating the public perception of an internal conflict within the Fox broadcasting empire that will draw more viewers and drive up ratings.

If that leads to more people watching the new Cosmos and accepting Sagan's humanist philosophy, so much the better.

But it's also a very common political tactic to fire so much chaff into the air that casual viewers tune out, incapable of distinguishing what is fact and what is fiction.

Sagan at his core was about accepting factual evidence, and it appears Tyson will deliver the same message. It remains to be seen how many viewers will be open-minded enough to reconsider their positions, especially if Fox News and certain politicians start attacking the episodes with false and malicious smears.

I also realize that some of us tend to overestimate the reach of Fox News. The political reality, however, is that the Republican Party controls the majority in the House of Representatives and is fully capable of blocking any progressive legislation that might increase government funding for science, boost research on the International Space Station, accept the reality of climate change, protect the rights of homosexuals or the right of a woman to choose.

This is a Congressional election year. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey could awaken a new healthy respect for science, with voters holding their elected officials accountable for anti-science behavior. Just as easily, Cosmos could wind up another short-lived cult favorite such as Firefly or Futurama — “geek” shows that didn't last long on the Fox Network.

Two years ago, Tyson was invited to appear before the Senate Science Committee. To his dismay, he found only two Senators bothered to stick around — Bill Nelson (D-FL) and John Boozman (R-AR). Tyson's plea to increase NASA funding was met by Nelson's reassurance that he was “preaching to the choir” but otherwise it was a waste of Neil's time and talent.

Watch the March 7, 2012 appearance by Neil Degrasse Tyson before the Senate Science Committee.

I think it would be of great benefit to the nation if one Cosmos episode plays a clip of that sorry day, to show viewers how little Congress cares about science, and see if the voters will awaken out of their apathy.

Unlikely to happen but, like Carl, I can dream.

Retro Saturday: The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean

Click here to watch “The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean,” the first episode in the original Cosmos series. You may be subjected to an ad first.

This week's Retro Saturday returns you to the beginning — September 28, 1980, the premiere episode of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage presented by Carl Sagan. The first episode was titled, “The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean.”

On March 9, Cosmos returns to television with a new series narrated by Sagan disciple Neil Degrasse Tyson.

Click here to visit the official web site for Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.

And here's my blog article last July looking back at the original Cosmos.

Carl Sagan on the cover of the October 20, 1980 issue of Time magazine.

Friday, March 7, 2014

King of the Hill

Click the arrow to watch the hearing on YouTube.

In 2005, SpaceX filed suit to stop the government from granting Boeing and Lockheed Martin a legal monopoly. The two companies were about to form United Launch Alliance, which would be granted all government launch business for non-human flights, both military and civilian.

Four months later, the lawsuit was dismissed. According to the report, the court concluded that SpaceX “is not yet ready to compete with the Defendants in the EELV market. Because it lacks such readiness, its speculative claims regarding future harm are not ripe.”

Eight years after that dismissal, SpaceX founder Elon Musk sat next to ULA CEO Michael Gass, on an equal footing for the first time in a Congressional hearing, held by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.

Other witnesses were at the table. Cristina Chaplain represented the Government Accountability Office. Scott Pace from the Space Policy Institute represented, frankly, the space-industrial complex establishment. Mr. Pace appeared last week before the House space subcommittee, a former NASA executive on the Constellation program who went on to develop space policy for the Mitt Romney presidential campaign.

But the stars were Musk and Gass. David and Goliath. Ali and Frazier. Iron Man and Obadiah Stane.

Chairing the hearing was Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL). Titled “National Security Space Launch Programs,” the hearing posited that it may be time to end ULA's monopoly and allow SpaceX to bid for national security launches.

Mr. Gass argued that while competition in theory might be admirable, the early 2000s had proven there wasn't enough demand in the launch industry to sustain two companies. For national security, it was important to grant ULA a monopoly and a guaranteed income so the industry could stand ready in time of war.

Mr. Musk pointed out that ULA's Atlas V uses the RD-180 engines built in Russia, exposing the U.S. launch market to the risk that engines wouldn't be available if the Russians cut off access.

Ms. Chaplain was at the table to discuss a report released March 5 by the GAO titled, Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle: Introducing Competition into National Security Space Launch Acquisitions. The report looked at how the Defense Department might reduce costs by using fixed-price contracts — in other words, how you and I shop for a product.

You can watch the video and judge for yourself who won the day.

For me, Mr. Musk won for no other reason than SpaceX is now the other 800-pound space gorilla on Capitol Hill.

No one can credibly argue that SpaceX “lacks readiness” to fly government payloads.

The next one is scheduled to launch March 16 from the Cape's Pad 40. The SpaceX Dragon capsule will deliver NASA cargo to the International Space Station. The SpaceX Falcon 9 will be the launch vehicle.

Musk pointed out that if SpaceX is good enough for NASA, it should be good enough for the Defense Department.

"Live from Space" Airs March 14

Click the arrow to watch the U.K. promo for “Live from Space.” Video source: Channel 4 YouTube channel.

Live from Space, a live two-hour global telecast from the International Space Station, will air here in the U.S. on Friday March 14 at 8 PM EST.

In the United States, it will be on the National Geographic Channel. Their web site is

From their web site, a description of the show:

National Geographic Channel is taking viewers around the world—literally—in this spectacular two-hour television event broadcasting LIVE from the International Space Station (ISS) and Mission Control in Houston, Texas. Made in collaboration with NASA, we'll go into orbit with astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Koichi Wakata as they fly at 17,500 mph nearly 250 miles above the earth's surface on the International Space Station, while astronaut Mike Massimino joins host Soledad O'Brien on the ground at Mission Control in Houston. From space, Mastracchio and Wakata will give viewers a fully guided tour, showing us how they live for months in microgravity. They’ll conduct never-before-broadcast experiments that demonstrate the real-world value of the science conducted on the floating laboratory. Plus get ready for stunning shots of Earth, from sunset and sunrise, to city lights and green aurora, to lightning storms and shooting stars. You've never seen our planet like this before.

Another Channel 4 promo for “Live from Space.”

UPDATE March 8, 2014 — The National Geographic Channel promo is now on YouTube:

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

NASA Releases FY15 Proposed Budget

Click the arrow to watch “Reaching for New Heights,” NASA's promotional video for its Fiscal Year 2015 proposed budget.

NASA released today its Fiscal Year 2015 proposed budget.

Sorry to be cynical but, in the grand scheme of things, it won't matter much.

The members of the House and Senate space subcommittees will tear it apart as they fight over the scraps to direct pork to their districts and states.

It didn't take long for Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), whose district includes the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to complain about his perceived inadequate funding for Planetary Sciences — which, of course, would operate out of JPL.

Many internal and independent studies have told Congress that they impose too many underfunded or unfunded mandates on NASA, forcing the agency to stretch the limited dollars Congress appropriates.

But that didn't stop the House space subcommittee from discussing on February 27 whether to impose upon NASA planning for a Mars/Venus flyby in 2021.

In today's proposal, NASA requests $848.3 million for the commercial crew program, an increase of about $152 million over the FY14 enacted $696 million. In a bit of fortuitous timing for this week's political tensions with Russia, the proposal states that the budget “regains American leadership and reduces our dependence on Russian spaceflight capabilities for crew transportation.”

Good luck with that.

Congress cut NASA's commercial crew funding by 62% from the Obama administration's request during Fiscal Years 2011-2013, and cut it 15% for the current fiscal year.

As in past years, members of Congress will try to shift commercial crew funding to their pet project, the Space Launch System, which still has no missions or destinations. This budget requests $2.78 billion for SLS and the Orion crew capsule.

Click here to listen to today's budget teleconference.

Click here to review the slides that accompany the teleconference.

They Told You So

The world's attention is fixed on the events in Ukraine, as we wait to see the extent of Russia's ambitions in Crimea.

Within the space advocacy community, questions are being raised about how this affects the International Space Station, and NASA's ability to transport crews to and from space.

Inevitably we will hear people blaming President Obama for cancelling the Shuttle, for placing U.S. astronauts on Russian ships, and the usual blather about not having a standalone U.S. station.

So let's review the facts.

U.S. cooperation with Russia in space goes back to the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975, when three American astronauts rendezvoused with two Soviet cosmonauts in low Earth orbit. The U.S. and the USSR signed in May 1972 the Agreement Concerning Cooperation in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space for Peaceful Purposes. It called for both nations to cooperate in space, to exchange information, and to conduct a joint rendezvous in 1975.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. and Russia in 1992-1993 entered into several agreements that formed the foundation for today's joint space exploration programs. On June 17, 1992, the first Bush administration issued a Joint Statement on Cooperation in Space that “provides a broad framework for NASA and the Russian Space Agency to map out new projects in a full range of fields: space science, space exploration, space applications and the use of space technology.”

In late 1993, the U.S. formally invited Russia to joint its space station partnership. Russia brought to the partnership three decades of space station experience, from Salyut 1 in 1971 through Mir which operated from 1986 until it deorbited in 2001. NASA would use Mir to dock the Shuttle as a training experience for ISS construction and operation.

In 1998, the ISS partners signed their agreements with NASA, which is the managing partner.

Click here to read the NASA - Russian Space Agency agreement. It should be noted that Article 4.1 states, “ NASA and RSA will each assure access to and use of their Space Station flight elements.”

The current “gap” relying on Russian access to ISS was decided in early 2004, after the Columbia accident. On January 14, 2004, President George W. Bush gave his Vision for Space Exploration speech, in response to the findings by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. Bush announced that Shuttle would fly again, but only to complete ISS construction. Regular crew rotations would move over to the Russian Soyuz; in fact, Soyuz was already being used after the February 1, 2003 accident because no other vehicle was available.

Bush proposed a new program that came to be known as Constellation. Two weeks later, when NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe presented the Vision to the Senate Science Committee, he showed a chart that came to be known as the Vision Sand Chart.

The Vision Sand Chart presented to Congress on January 28, 2004.

The chart showed that the Administration intended to retire Shuttle in Fiscal Year 2010, and would fly the Crew Exploration Vehicle in FY14.

The four-year gap was there for all to see.

No one questioned it.

The ISS was completed in May 2011. After one additional cargo delivery flight added by the Obama administration, the Shuttle retired in July 2011.

When President Obama took office in January 2009, Constellation was years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.

A series of audits warned of Constellation's problems, but most telling was an August 2009 Government Accountability Office audit titled, “Constellation Cost and Schedule Will Remain Uncertain Until a Sound Business Case is Established.”

In September 2009, Congress was warned by the chair of the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee that Constellation was unsustainable. The Ares I being designed to launch ISS crews wouldn't be ready until at least 2017, extending the gap another three years from the original four-year gap.

Again, Congress did nothing.

In early 2010, the Obama administration released its proposed NASA budget for Fiscal Year 2011. It proposed cancelling Constellation, and replacing it with a new commercial crew program similar to the successful commercial cargo program begun in 2005 by the Bush administration.

Congress hated it, because Constellation delivered billions of dollars annually to the states and districts of the members of the Senate and House space subcommittees.

In a grand bargain, Congress reluctantly cancelled Constellation, but foisted upon NASA another pork project called the Space Launch System. Dubbed the Senate Launch System by its critics, to this day SLS has no mission or destination. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), one of the SLS architects, dubbed it “the Monster Rocket”; along with several colleagues, he bragged about how many jobs it would protect. No one really had much to say about what it would do.

Congress mandated that NASA spend about $3 billion a year over the next five years on SLS and the Orion crew capsule, a holdover from Constellation. Commercial crew, meanwhile, was starved by Congress, which cut its funding by 62% over the last three fiscal years from the Obama administration's funding requests. For Fiscal Year 2014, it was cut 15%.

Time and again, NASA warned Congress that cutting commercial crew in favor of SLS only extended reliance on Russia.

Congress didn't care.

Click the arrow to watch the March 7, 2012 House space subcommittee hearing.

Take for example this hearing two years ago by the House space subcommittee on NASA's proposed Fiscal Year 2013 budget. Members of both parties blast commercial crew, while insisting that SLS is a “backup” in case commercial crew fails.

The notion is nonsensical, because SLS is scheduled for its first uncrewed test flight at the end of 2017. It would have to carry tons of ballast to slow it down enough to reach ISS. SLS is considered to be so expensive a design that NASA could afford to build only one every two to four years.

Commercial cargo, meanwhile, is operational. The SpaceX Dragon, designed with the eventual goal of using it for people, has already flown one demonstration flight and two official ISS deliveries. Its next launch is scheduled for March 16. Two abort tests for eventual crew flights are scheduled for later this year.

If Congress had fully funded commercial crew as requested by the Obama administration, it's likely we'd see the first crewed test flights in late 2014 or 2015. NASA estimates that, due to the cuts, it won't be until 2017, although SpaceX founder Elon Musk told CBS News last month he hopes to have his first crewed flight in two years.

Hopefully cooler heads prevail and the ISS will be unaffected by the current political crisis. But if Vladimir Putin decides to restrict U.S. access to the ISS, point the finger of guilt directly at Congress.

They were told so.

Cosmos Returns March 9

Click the arrow to watch a “Cosmos” promotional trailer.

Set your DVRs ... Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey premieres Sunday March 9 at 9 PM (8 PM CST) on the Fox Channel.

The first episode is titled, “Standing Up in the Milky Way.” Here's the episode summary according to

More than three decades after the debut of Carl Sagan's groundbreaking and iconic series, “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” it's time once again to set sail for the stars. Host and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson sets off on the Ship of the Imagination to discover earth's Cosmic Address and its coordinates in space and time. Viewers meet Renaissance Italy's Giordano Bruno, who had a spiritual epiphany about the infinite expanse of the universe. Then, Tyson walks across the Cosmic Calendar, on which all of time has been compressed into a year-at-a-glance calendar, from the Big Bang to the moment humans first make their appearance on the planet.

Click here to visit the official web site. Episodes will be posted online after they air on Fox.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Desperation Mars

Click the arrow to watch the hearing on YouTube.

The laughingstock that is the House space subcommittee aired its latest sitcom on February 27, holding a hearing titled, “Mars Flyby 2021: The First Deep Space Mission for the Orion and Space Launch System?”

The hearing, apparently called by science committee chair Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), was to give purpose to the SLS, which was mandated by Congress in 2010 even though they gave NASA no purpose for it. Critics labelled it the Senate Launch System, because it was championed by Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) to protect Shuttle-era jobs in their states.

Members of the space subcommittees in both houses of Congress have declared SLS to be NASA's primary mission, although independent studies have documented that Congress refuses to provide adequate funding for actual missions — whatever they might be.

Republicans, and some Democrats, on those committees heap abuse on the Obama administration for failing to tell NASA what to do with SLS, or for providing any kind of long-term space vision.

This is entirely wrong, of course.

Obama laid out his space vision on April 15, 2010, in a speech at Kennedy Space Center. Congress hated it, because he wants to end the cronyism between them and legacy aerospace companies. That cronyism directs thousands of dollars each election cycle into their campaign coffers, while perpetuating jobs in their states and districts.

Forced into accepting SLS, in April 2013 the Obama administration proposed the Asteroid Initiative, which would evolve new technology that could one day transfer into the private sector. Congress hated that too; Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) dismissed the idea as “lackluster.”

So here we are a year later, with still no use for SLS.

The supposed purpose of this hearing was an attempt by Smith and other representatives to dictate to NASA that they should use SLS and the Orion crew capsule for a two-year mission in 2021 that would send astronauts to fly by Venus and Mars, before returning to Earth. The idea was borrowed from the Inspiration Mars project run by one-time Soyuz commercial tourist Dennis Tito.

What will the astronauts do?

That was never explicitly stated, other than apparently they're to look out the capsule window and relate what they see.

We already have robotic spacecraft more than capable of doing the same thing for much cheaper. Every day, we can download from NASA's web site high-resolution digital images of the Martian surface beamed back by the Curiosity rover.

The committee members didn't explain how they would pay for this, nor did they explain where the habitat module would come from, nor did they explain how the astronauts will endure accelerated bone loss or lethal doses of radiation.

This may be why no NASA representative was invited. The committee members didn't want to hear the facts.

One of the invited speakers was Scott Pace, a former NASA executive who worked on the failed Constellation project and then went on to be Mitt Romney's space advisor during that failed campaign. The Obama administration proposed cancelling Constellation in 2010 after a Government Accountability Office audit found Constellation “lacked a sound business case.” That was followed by the independent Augustine Committee concluding that Constellation was unsustainable. Congress eventually agreed, but mandated it be replaced with SLS. Pace publicly criticized the cancellation of Constellation.

In any case, we heard from many members and witnesses the usual claims that NASA has to spend tens of billlions of dollars on SLS to inspire youth, that it will unite the nation just as did Apollo, that other nations will come running to join us, that it's vital for national security, that Russia and China will conquer the heavens if we don't do this flyby.

All of this is nonsense, of course.

A 2003 essay by space historian Roger Launius titled “Public Opinion Polls and Perceptions of U.S. Human Spaceflight” found:

Consistently throughout the 1960s a majority of Americans did not believe Apollo was worth the cost, with the one exception to this a poll taken at the time of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in July 1969. And consistently throughout the decade 45–60 percent of Americans believed that the government was spending too much on space, indicative of a lack of commitment to the spaceflight agenda.

As for other nations joining us, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher — a lone voice of sanity in these hearings — asked Pace if any nations so far have asked to join NASA in this endeavor. Pace finally said, “Nope.”

Rohrabacher also pointed out that the original Inspiration Mars idea was to be commercial, not a government program.

Quoting from the Inspiration Mars web site:

Investments in human space exploration technologies and operations by NASA and the space industry are converging in time to make such a mission achievable. The mission is being designed based on proven Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) systems and technologies that are available on the market today. We are currently in discussions with many of the leading U.S. commercial aerospace companies to tap into their existing launch engines and vehicles. Environmental and life support operations will be directly derived from International Space Station technologies, which have proven design, development and operational lessons to draw from.

After the February 27 hearing, Tito issued a press release endorsing the use of SLS for his flyby mission. My guess is he's not “inspiring” enough people to donate money to his project as he thought he would.

My personal opinion is that today's youth will be far more inspired by commercial enterprises such as SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, Virgin Galactic, XCOR, Bigelow Aerospace, Stratolaunch and other NewSpace companies developing 21st Century technology that will open space to their generation, rather than trying to do Apollo on Steroids.

The average age of a SpaceX employee is 30. In 2009, the average age of a NASA employee was 47.

As for national security, I rather doubt Vladimir Putin will reverse course and withdraw Russian troops from Ukraine just because NASA is forced to spend three billion dollars a year on SLS and Orion.

Apollo was, to be blunt, a publicity stunt. President John F. Kennedy proposed Apollo to show the rest of the world that U.S. technology was superior to that of the Soviet Union. The word “prestige” appears time and again in internal Kennedy administration memos and documents.

That rationale no longer applies, if it ever did. I can't think of one 1960s Third World leader who decided to ally with the United States because of Apollo.

As furious as I become with the members of these committees, I try to remind myself that they are largely impotent. This nonsensical idea will go nowhere. Their Congressional siblings will never approve the funding, although they may order NASA to “study” it just like all the other unfunded mandates Congress has given NASA over the years that ultimately go nowhere.

If you watch the video, you'll note that commercial space is never mentioned. The SpaceX Falcon Heavy should have its first uncrewed test flight this year (or maybe 2015) at Vandenberg AFB, and SpaceX is about to sign the lease for Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A. The Falcon Heavy will render SLS irrelevant, and eventually will raise questions in Congress about why the folks on the space subcommittees continue to perpetuate the “monster rocket,” as Bill Nelson calls it.

Like Constellation, SLS is probably doomed to waste tens of billions of dollars before meeting its demise. We might see one launch off LC-39B, just as we did the Ares I-X in 2009, declare victory and go home.

But this proposal is just a desperate attempt to defend SLS in face of the mounting evidence that it's a waste of taxpayer money.