The instrument platform of the 305m telescope at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico fell overnight. No injuries were reported. NSF is working with stakeholders to assess the situation. Our top priority is maintaining safety. NSF will release more details when they are confirmed.
NSF is saddened by this development. As we move forward, we will be looking for ways to assist the scientific community and maintain our strong relationship with the people of Puerto Rico.
The Arecibo Observatory had its origins in an idea of Professor William E. Gordon, from Cornell University, who was interested in the study of the Ionosphere. Gordon's research during the fifties led him to the idea of radar back scatter studies of the Ionosphere. Gordon's persistence culminated in the construction of the Arecibo Observatory which began in the summer of 1960. With its 305m (1000ft) diameter dish constructed in 1963, the Arecibo Observatory continuously provides valuable data for the scientific community and the world.
The NAIC web site offers a detailed description of the telescope's design. It consisted of a 1,000-foot diameter reflector dish suspended by a network of steel cables above a natural mountain valley bowl. Suspended 450 feet above the reflector was a 900-ton platform hung in midair on eighteen cables strung from three reinforced concrete towers
These cables would one day lead to its doom.
Arecibo was built in the infant years of radio astronomy. Until the mid-20th Century, most astronomy focused on optical astronomy — what we can see with our own eyes, aided by a telescope. Astronomers began to realize that the universe might be visible in other wavelengths of light.
A few astronomers and others interested in the search for extraterrestrial life reasoned that, just as radio waves are used here on Earth for communication, so might alien civilizations use radio waves to communicate with each other — and perhaps even us.
In 1961, Drake hosted the first Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) conference at Green Bank. Among the attendees was a young astronomer named Carl Sagan. From that conference emerged the Drake Equation, a formula attempting to estimate the number of transmitting extraterrestrial societies in our galaxy.
Carl Sagan's 1980 “Cosmos” visits the Arecibo Observatory to discuss the Drake Equation and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Video source: Bogdan Iancu YouTube channel.
I could see its potential to become the most sensitive instrument ever applied to radio astronomy research. All you had to do was figure out a way to stabilize the platform so it didn't sway in the wind or rise and fall with the temperature changes, and then you could have access to all wavelengths. Granted, that was a tall order — an engineering brainteaser that would cost millions — but I suspected it could be done. And if and when that happened, the instrument would be uniquely suited to search for life in space.
Arecibo's unique capabilities led to the discovery of the first binary pulsar in 1974 by Russell A. Hulse and Joseph H. Taylor, Jr, of Princeton University, for which they received the 1993 Nobel Prize for Physics. According to a Nobel press release:
Here a new, revolutionary “space laboratory” has been obtained for testing Einstein’s general theory of relativity and alternative theories of gravity. So far, Einstein’s theory has passed the tests with flying colours.
The telescope as it appeared in November 2020. Image source: University of Central Florida.
Following a review of engineering assessments that found damage to the Arecibo Observatory cannot be stabilized without risk to construction workers and staff at the facility, the U.S. National Science Foundation will begin plans to decommission the 305-meter telescope, which for 57 years has served as a world-class resource for radio astronomy, planetary, solar system and geospace research.
The decision comes after NSF evaluated multiple assessments by independent engineering companies that found the telescope structure is in danger of a catastrophic failure and its cables may no longer be capable of carrying the loads they were designed to support. Furthermore, several assessments stated that any attempts at repairs could put workers in potentially life-threatening danger. Even in the event of repairs going forward, engineers found that the structure would likely present long-term stability issues.
The collapsed telescope as it appeared in today's UCF press release. Image source: University of Central Florida.
The investigation into the exact details of the platform’s fall is still ongoing. Initial findings indicate that the top section of all three of the 305-meter telescope’s support towers broke off and landed outside the area of the dish. As the 900-ton instrument platform fell, the telescope’s support cables also dropped. The Gregorian Dome is in the dish and the platform is lying on the edge of another side of the dish.
The observatory’s learning center, located near Tower 12, appeared to sustain heavy damage from falling cables. Although the 305-meter telescope dish sustained heavy damage, parts remain intact.
By one count, today over one hundred radio telescopes operate around the world. Space News reported today that Arecibo was becoming techonologically obsolete, and early discussions were already under way between NSF and the U.S. Space Force for collaboration on new planetary radar systems.
In 1974, Arecibo transmitted a radio message in 1974 towards the globular star cluster M13. It was a simple pictorial message depicting the telescope, our solar system, DNA, a stick figure of a human, and some of the biochemicals of earthly life.
The message will take 21,000 years to reach M13, unless it's intercepted on the way. If anyone ever does receive it, the response is unlikely to be received for many thousands of years.
But if first contact ever does happen, it may be due to the telescope that fell today to the ravages of nature and time.
An April 2019 tour of the Arecibo Observatory. Video source: SETI Institute YouTube channel.
UPDATE December 2, 2020 — D.A.S. Drones Perez posted this drone video on YouTube of the collapsed telescope.
Drone video of the collapsed Arecibo Observatory. Video source: D.A.S. Drones Perez YouTube channel.
UPDATE December 3, 2020 — The National Science Foundation today released video of the telescope's collapse.
Two angles of the telescope collapse. Video source: National Science Foundation YouTube channel.
The core stage for the first Space Launch System launch is lifted in January 2020 at the Stennis Space Center. Image source: NASA.
Is this thing on?
Okay, where were we ...
When I posted my last blog article on May 30, 2017, I felt like I had nothing new to say.
NewSpace good, OldSpace bad.
Three years and six months have passed since that last moment of indulgent self-pity and, yeah, not much has changed.
In that farewell article, I wrote:
Sure, I could write yet another screed about Space Launch System being years behind schedule while wasting taxpayer dollars, but by now I think pretty much everyone knows that.
See, I told you nothing much has changed.
Where We Are
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on election night. Image source: USA Today.
A lame-duck President is about to leave office, whether or not he likes it, and replaced by a new one.
Space as a topic did not warrant a position paper from the Joe Biden campaign. The campaign web site's position papers reference NASA data in the climate change plan. The plan for American manufacturing and innovation proposes a $300 billion investment over four years in research and development. Although it doesn't mention NASA, it does propose “major increases in direct federal R&D spending” in various science-related agencies, as well as “breakthrough technology R&D programs to direct investments to key technologies in support of U.S. competitiveness.”
The reality, of course, is that no President unilaterally determines the course or funding of the American government's space activities. That power lies with Congress.
How much influence the Biden administration will have with Congress is yet to be seen.
Although the next session of the House of Representatives remains in Democratic control, the Senate's majority has not yet been determined. Two special elections in Georgia on January 5 will fill that state's two Senate seats. Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock will try to unseat Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. Although Donald Trump narrowly lost Georgia, it's hard to say how much of that reflects personal distaste for Trump as opposed to a preference for a Democrat. Perdue finished about 87,000 votes ahead of Ossoff, but failed to achieve a 50%+ victory because of a Libertarian candidate who received about 115,000 votes. Warnock won about one-third of the vote in a special election that had 20 candidates on the ballot, with Loeffler receiving about a quarter of the vote.
If the Democrats win both seats, then the Senate is tied 50-50, and the Vice President breaks any ties. That person remains Mike Pence until Kamala Harris takes office on January 20, 2021.
If the Republicans retain control of the Senate, it's likely that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will continue his obstructionist practices, and little of the Biden agenda will move forward. Alabama Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) would continue to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee, where he protects the SLS and OldSpace pork flowing into Alabama. If the Democrats take control, the gavel could pass to the current vice chair, Patrick Leahy (D-VT). On the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, Leahy published “Reflections on the Moon Landing.” He's long served on the panel's science subcommittee, and is also known as a huge fan of the Batman universe, having appeared in five Caped Crusader films. A nerd in charge of the Senate committee appropriating NASA spending can't be bad, can it?
Check back after January 5.
Where We've Been
Among the many fibs that Trump has told in the last five years is his false claim that he somehow resurrected NASA from the dead. On August 5, 2020 he tweeted:
NASA was Closed & Dead until I got it going again. Now it is the most vibrant place of its kind on the Planet...And we have Space Force to go along with it. We have accomplished more than any Administration in first 3 1/2 years. Sorry, but it all doesn’t happen with Sleepy Joe!
On November 15, 2020, after SpaceX launched four astronauts to the International Space Station aboard Crew-1, Trump falsely claimed:
A great launch! @NASA was a closed up disaster when we took over. Now it is again the “hottest”, most advanced, space center in the world, by far!
NASA never closed, of course, nor was it “dead.”
The Bush Years
January 14, 2004 ... President George W. Bush announces the Space Shuttle will retire once the International Space Station is completed. Video source: C-SPAN.
As for the commercial crew program, that can be traced back to President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration.
Bush appointed a commission to recommend how to implement his VSE. Their June 2004 report included a section titled, “Building a Robust Space Industry.” The chapter began:
The vision for space exploration offers the nation and the world a chance to redefine the paradigm of space flight. Our goal is to transform space exploration from a small, experimental research program, largely performed under the auspices of government into a fully integrated sector of American life, involving government, commercial, educational, and industrial players.
NASA opened the Commercial Crew/Cargo Project Office on November 7, 2005. Although crew was in its name from the inception, then-NASA Administrator Michael Griffin funded only the cargo program, a robotic counterpart to his Project Constellation. Intended to keep Shuttle-era contractors and their employees at work, Constellation's Ares I would have used a solid-fueled first stage based on the Shuttle's solid rocket boosters to launch a crewed Orion capsule to service ISS.
The Obama Years
President Barack Obama at Kennedy Space Center, April 15, 2010. Video source: NASA.
Based on those findings, the Obama administration rocked the OldSpace world when its proposed Fiscal Year 2011 budget cancelled Constellation. The budget proposed funding commercial crew, and extended the ISS from 2015 to 2020.
Obama delivered a speech at Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010, in which he proposed increasing NASA's budget by $6 billion over five years. $3 billion would be invested in researching a “heavy lift rocket,” but the ISS and commercial crew were the immediate priority. The long-range goal was to have humans at Mars by the end of the 2030s.
Cancelling Constellation in the middle of the Great Recession horrified key members of the Senate and House who represented states with a vested interest in the status quo. When the rhetorical dust settled, Congress agreed to cancel Constellation but replaced it with the Space Launch System, dubbed “Senate Launch System” by one critic. Commercial crew was underfunded by 62% over its first three fiscal years, extending U.S. reliance on the Russian Soyuz by about three years. According to a November 2013 NASA Office of the Inspector General report:
The combination of a future flat-funding profile and lower-than-expected levels of funding over the past 3 years may delay the first crewed launch beyond 2017 and closer to 2020, the current expected end of the operational life of the ISS.
Generally overlooked at the time was a NASA program to kickstart commercial technologies and operations for beyond low Earth orbit. Dubbed NextSTEP, the program solicited “proposals for concept studies or technology development projects that will be necessary to enable human pioneers to go to deep space destinations such as an asteroid and Mars.” According to an October 28, 2014 press release:
... [T]he agency seeks to use public-private partnerships to share funding to develop advanced propulsion, habitation and small satellite capabilities that will enable the pioneering of space. Public-private partnerships of this type help NASA stimulate the U.S. space industry while working to expand the frontiers of knowledge, capabilities and opportunities in space.
NASA intends to engage partners to help develop and build a set of sustainable, evolvable, multi-use space capabilities that will enable human pioneers to go to deep space destinations. Developing capabilities in three key areas – advanced propulsion, habitation, and small satellites deployed from the Space Launch System – is critical to enabling the next step for human spaceflight. This work will use the proving ground of space around the moon to develop technologies and advance knowledge to expand human exploration into the solar system.
The Trump Years
President Donald Trump signs Space Policy Directive 1 on December 11, 2017. Video source: NASA.
Donald Trump took office on January 20, 2017. As with many presidents, government space wasn't an immediate priority.
Perhaps the Council's most historic achievement was in the spring of 1961. Uninterested in running the Council, President John F. Kennedy appointed Vice President Lyndon Johnson to chair the panel in his place. After the Soviet Union orbited the first person in space, Yuri Gagarin, on April 12, 1961, Kennedy on April 20 charged Johnson and the Council to make “an overall survey of where we stand in space” and find “any other space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win”. Johnson's reply, eight days later, stated:
Manned exploration of the moon, for example, is not only an achievement with great propaganda value, but it is essential as an objective whether or not we are first in its accomplishment — and we may be able to be first.
As detailed in Dr. John M. Logsdon's 2010 work John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, after the Moon recommendation the Council had little influence on Kennedy or NASA. “[T]he Space Council as a body was not central to any of the civilian space decisions of the Kennedy administration”, but Kennedy was happy to have Johnson to appear at public events and give speeches.
Richard M. Nixon succeeded Johnson as President in January 1969, as it became apparent the United States would first attempt to land astronauts on the Moon later that year. Project Apollo already was winding down, and program contracts were being terminated. The Council rarely met during Johnson's presidency, and had little influence with Nixon. After taking office, Nixon directed a review of a post-Apollo space program, but instead of using the Council appointed a Space Task Group. Vice President Spiro Agnew chaired the Group and represented the Council. Dr. Logsdon's After Apollo? Richard Nixon and the American Space Program details the Group's deliberations and the largely symbolic role the Council had during the Nixon administration. The Group produced a report in September 1969 from which eventually emerged the Space Shuttle, but most of its recommendations were ignored as too expensive. The Council was disbanded in 1973 as part of a reorganization.
The absence of an active Council in certain administrations shouldn't be interpreted as indifference to space. Those Presidents simply had a different bureaucracy for managing space policies and activities. President Obama, for example, appointed the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, which issued a report in October 2009 that became the foundation for the administration's space path forward. Obama also established a Space Interagency Policy Committee that in June 2010 released the National Space Policy, which is still in effect today.
We'll have to wait for when Trump administration papers are finally available to the public so scholarly research can begin, but based on public performance it seems reasonable to conclude that President Trump gave the Council more power and influence than it ever had under previous Presidents.
Trump's June 2017 executive order made Vice President Mike Pence chair of the Council, and appointed several Cabinet secretaries as members. Among the other members were the Director of Office Management and Budget (OMB), which manages how the White House runs the budget, and the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
For the first time in its history, the Council met publicly. VERY publicly.
Vice President Mike Pence chairs a National Space Council meeting at Kennedy Space Center, February 21, 2018. Video source: NASA.
Say what you will about Donald Trump, but he understands the value of a spectacle — “the optics,” in more modern parlance.
Trump himself appeared with the Council before its June 18, 2018 meeting in Washington, DC. The Council met in public places, many of them significant to the American space program, such as Kennedy Space Center; the U.S. Space and Rocket Center at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama; and the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. The meetings were broadcast live on NASA TV and on the Internet.
These meetings were mostly for show, to ratify policies or directives already deliberated and completed behind the scenes, but they created the “optics” Trump wanted to demonstrate his administration's treating space as a priority.
Space Policy Directive 1, issued on December 11, 2017, was ballyhooed as Trump “reinvigorating America’s human space exploration program,” but in reality it was only a minor tweak to President Obama's 2010 National Space Policy. SPD-1 changed the wording in one paragraph to remove a reference to the politically unpopular Asteroid Redirect Mission, replacing it with “the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization.” Mars remained the long-range goal, but Trump removed the Obama-era timeline targeting the mid-2030s for the first human mission to Mars.
Three years later, as he reaches what most likely is the end of his tenure, Bridenstine has received widespread bipartisan praise for his performance, even if not everyone agrees with his agenda, which of course is driven by the White House, OMB, and the National Space Council. Forbes columnist Jonathan O'Callaghan called Bridenstine “The One Thing Trump Got Right.”
If the Republicans retain the Senate in the new session, retaining Bridenstine would be one less person Biden would have to get through Senate confirmation. Just sayin'.
The other signature space policy directive of the Trump era is the creation of the Space Force. Space Policy Directive 4 (SPD-4), issued on February 19, 2019, essentially separated space-related activities from the Air Force into its own branch that is considered “a new armed service within the Department of the Air Force.” The Space Force is analogous to the creation of the U.S. Army Air Forces, a somewhat independent service that nominally answered to the Secretary of the Army but evolved into its own separate branch. Here's how the USSF web site defines its mission:
The USSF is a military service that organizes, trains, and equips space forces in order to protect U.S. and allied interests in space and to provide space capabilities to the joint force. USSF responsibilities include developing military space professionals, acquiring military space systems, maturing the military doctrine for space power, and organizing space forces to present to our Combatant Commands.
An October 2020 U.S. Space Force recruitment film. Video source: U.S. Air Force and Space Force Recruiting YouTube channel.
If history repeats itself, the USSF should evolve into its own robust bureaucracy, perhaps anticipating China as a future combatant.
The Biden administration takes office on January 20, 2021. They will inherit a Fiscal Year 2022 budget proposal in its final details, so the new White House staff will have little time to make substantive changes. Biden most likely will select a current NASA staffer as acting Administrator until his choice is announced. That person will have to go through a Senate review and confirmation — unless Biden keeps Bridenstine.
The white elephant in the NASA hangar is Space Launch System.
A test fire of its core stage is now targeting December 21. A failure, especially a castastrophic explosion, would sorely test Congressional support for the program.
Assuming that goes well, then NASA remains on course for an uncrewed test flight projected for November 2021. That mission, dubbed Artemis-1, would send Orion thousands of miles beyond the Moon for a three-week demonstration.
It's reasonable to assume that Artemis-1 will launch, absent another unanticipated delay or failure.
By November 2021, however, the new NASA Administrator should be in place, and the administration will have established its own space priorities.
SLS Block 1 will have 8.8 million pounds of thrust. The SpaceX Falcon Heavy delivers 5.1 million pounds, and Blue Origin's New Glenn will have 3.8 million.
But the SpaceX Starship Super Heavy looms later in the decade, offering 16 million pounds of thrust.
By the middle of the decade, the ever-increasing annual federal deficit may force Congress to give up its love affair with SLS, especially if Super Heavy becomes viable.
Just as Trump turned off the clock on Obama's 2030s Mars timeline, so Biden may abandon the unrealistic 2024 deadline established by Pence and Bridenstine for the first crewed Artemis lunar landing. Congress has shown little interest in providing the funding NASA has said it needs for 2024.
Project Artemis in concept is the right direction. Such a “giant leap” ten years ago would have been doomed to failure, because the NewSpace economy was far from mature. When President Obama toured the SpaceX launch site in April 2010, the first Falcon 9 launch was still two months away. Commercial cargo would not deliver a payload to the ISS for another two years. The first commercial crew launch was ten years in the future.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk leads President Barack Obama on a tour of Launch Complex 40, April 15, 2010. Image source: NASA.
When George W. Bush's commission proposed in June 2004 to “build a robust space industry,” I doubt anyone realized the consequence would be the demise of how NASA has done business since the Apollo era — issuing cost-plus contracts to aerospace companies that were guaranteed a profit without accountability. When Obama proposed Commercial Crew in 2010 to replace Constellation, members of Congress finally realized the threat that open competition, milestone payments and fixed-price contracts posed not only to the legacy jobs in their districts and states, but also to the constant flow of campaign contributions from those companies.
The Obama administration aggressively used Space Act Agreements to circumvent the old way of doing business. SAAs are authorized under the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act. Some members of Congress were so outraged by the use of SAAs that they demanded an investigation. The NASA Office of the Inspector General report found that NASA's use of SAAs increased 28% between 2008 and 2012. Although the report found several procedural concerns, OIG found nothing improper and acknowledged that “the milestone approach to managing cost, schedule, and performance for funded SAAs appears to have worked well for NASA in the commercial cargo and crew programs ...”
Throughout its history, SAAs have provided NASA a valuable means to advance science and technology and to stimulate research in aeronautics and spaceflight. In recent years, NASA has turned to SAAs to stimulate the private sector to develop spaceflight systems for commercial cargo and crew transportation and to help offset the cost of maintaining underutilized facilities following the end of the Space Shuttle Program.
NASA under Jim Bridenstine has benefitted from the political arrows absorbed by his predecessors, now using SAAs for hundreds of projects, many of them related to Artemis. As of September 30, 2020, the NASA web site lists 710 active domestic SAAs and four active international SAAs since July 30, 2017.
In many ways, NASA is returning to its roots.
The agency was born out of its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. The NACA was created in 1915 in response to European governments investing in applied sciences that gave them the lead in the young aeronautics industry. German dirigibles for long-range bombing of British cities and the rapid evolution of airplanes for reconnaissance and for pursuit underscored the shortcomings of American aviation.
In 1958, NASA was formed after the early Soviet achievements with Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2, as well as their lead in the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Several non-military programs from the Department of Defense were merged with the NACA to create NASA.
Nothing in the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act requires NASA to own its rockets, to fly people, or to explore other worlds. It does list a number of activities to which NASA can “contribute materially” for “the benefit of all mankind.”
Lyndon Johnson's April 28, 1961 memo acknowledged that the human lunar program's objective was “an achievement with great propaganda value.” Many Kennedy administration documents referred to “prestige.”
But the unintended consequence was the creation of a vast aerospace bureaucracy depending upon government contracts to keep employed tens of thousands of people across the nation, and the extended economic reliance of local communities dependent upon those jobs, regardless of need or national priority.
President Obama, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, and Deputy Administrator Lori Garver were vilified by the OldSpace community — including some astronauts — for saying this had to change.
History has vindicated them.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on “Face the Nation,” July 14, 2019. Video source: CBS News.
The profession of risk management didn't exist during NACA's time, but that was what the agency did. The NACA developed aeronautics technology and data that were researched and transferred to the private sector.
NASA's role for space exploration in the next four years should continue in this direction.
The last ten years have shown us that the basic capitalist principle of competition leading to innovation and affordability can also apply in the aeronautics sector.
During Bridenstine's tenure, NASA has conducted competitions, awarded milestone payments, and signed fixed-price contract with many companies for elements of Project Artemis.
The next four years under President Biden, and whomever follows later in the decade, should continue to take NASA back to its NACA roots. As Bridenstine says, NASA's role should be to assume the risk and provide supplemental capital so that entrepreneurs feel comfortable with investing in new aerospace technologies that will reduce the cost and increase the reliability of space access.
While NASA's 1958 charter didn't require it to fly people or own its rockets, the very first objective was, “The expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.”
Former Deputy Administrator Lori Garver is now CEO of Earthrise Alliance, “a philanthropic organization that converts Earth systems data into relevant and actionable knowledge to combat climate change.”
Look for NASA to play a significant role as the United States rejoins the Paris Agreement and once again leads the world in dealing with climate change.
That doesn't mean that Project Artemis goes away. But it does mean that, as intended during the Obama era, the private sector should assume increasing responsibility for deep space exploration and commerce, first to the Moon, and one day on to Mars.
That's a goal worthy of a great space agency. But then so is healing the Earth's climate.