Archive for the ‘Space Policy’ Category

NASA Human Spaceflight Review Meets Today

June 17th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Technology Review reports in advance of today’s meeting of the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, here in Washington.  The panel was announced last month by President Obama, in advance of his nominating Gen. Charles Bolden, Jr. to head NASA.  Points worth noting from the article:

  • “three key questions that the panel will examine: whether it’s possible to reduce the gap in launch capability, what the options are for extending the use of the ISS beyond 2016, and what a timetable for missions beyond low-earth orbit (LEO) might look like, given budget constraints.”

  • The panel will be advice-only.  Recommendations will be provided, but not binding.  That may have been necessary to get a NASA Administrator candidate on board
  • While the panel will address the balance of human and robotic missions, it will not address other priorities for NASA.  This is a mixed bag.  While it allows the panel to focus on a specific aspect of NASA, it does not allow for an examination of overall NASA priorities – something that arguably is as needed as a general assessment of the human spaceflight agenda.

The panel is supposed to provide recommendations in August.  I would expect more meetings in a relatively quick timeframe.  You might be able to watch these meetings on NASA TV, or via the NASA website.

Mars Missions Fall Back to Earth?

June 7th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Nature reports that NASA robotic missions to Mars, arguably the most consistent overperformer of the agency over the last decade, will not receive most favored planet status in the next reviews for future projects.  The next decadal assessment will consider Mars missions on the same level as missions to other planets, as will the next program competition under Discovery, the overarching NASA program that handles unmanned exploration.

It seems that one of the challenges for Mars programs (and any NASA robotic mission) is retaining the “faster, better, cheaper” rubric that eventually led those missions to an impressive run.

“But the Mars community might have itself to blame for the tight budgets that have led to the current quandaries. The $2.3-billion Mars Science Laboratory — the super-sized rover scheduled for launch in 2011 — ended up being the mammoth, bells-and-whistles mission that a stepwise Mars programme was supposed to help avoid. The mission also ended up chewing through hundreds of millions of dollars in its budget overruns — more than enough to fund a Mars Scout.”

I don’t think anyone got greedy here.  It just shows how difficult planning space exploration is with limited resources.  Those who respond with calls for more money for NASA should understand that as useful as they might be, they aren’t coming.  The ingenuity that has forced NASA to improvise and to operate spacecraft and instruments long past expected lifespans is worth encouraging.  Perhaps this adjustment will be a useful reminder.

House Subcommittee Goes Below President’s Request for NASA

June 6th, 2009

Posted by: admin

In what is a rarity on many levels, the subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee responsible for most science agency budgets has opted to appropriate less (H/T Scientific American’s 60 Second Science Blog) than the amount a President requested in a budget.  President Obama’s FY 2010 budget for human spaceflight operations at NASA is nearly $4 billion, and the subcommittee appropriated approximately $3.3 billion, which is less than the FY 2009 amount as well.  The agency’s budget as a whole received an increase of $421 million over the FY 2009 budget.

The subcommittee chairman’s remarks suggest that the Congress, or at least the House, will wait and see what the review committee announced earlier this year will suggest for the future of NASA’s human spaceflight operations.

“Rather, the deferral is taken without prejudice; it is a pause, a time-out, to allow the President to establish his vision for human space exploration and to commit to realistic future funding levels to realize this vision.”

It remains to be seen whether or not the Senate will follow suit and take this wait-and-see attitude.  I strongly doubt that many outside the House subcommittee will consider this decrease to be without prejudice, but I may be tired and jaded from the continuing arguments between those supporting human spaceflight and those active in other areas NASA is involved.

NASA Appointments Suggest Business As Usual

May 23rd, 2009

Posted by: admin

One of the biggest science and technology positions still open in the Obama Administration was filled today when the President announced General Charles Bolden, Jr. (USMC, retired) would be the nominee for NASA Adminstrator (H/T Wall Street Journal and Dynamics of Cats).  General Bolden is a former astronaut, and served in NASA as assistant deputy administrator in the early part of the 1990s.  Lori Garver, a former NASA official during the Clinton Administration, has been nominated as Deputy Administrator.

Bolden’s name has been bandied about since the beginning of the year, suggesting some reservations in the White House or other space constituencies.  Gen. Bolden’s employment by NASA contractors following his astronaut service may have given some quarters pause, particularly when the agency wil be forced to navigate new territory when the Space Shuttle is retired, something supposed to happen next year.  As the Obama Administration has instituted an agency review of human spaceflight operations, there will likely be some pressure to change old institutional habits, including relationships with contractors.  Ms. Garver’s experience with contractors also suggests potential resistance to change.  Since the investments in resources required for what NASA does are large, making big changes requires extra effort.  These may not be the right people for making big changes.

Obama Administration Announces Independent Review of Human Spaceflight Program

May 14th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Prior to the announcement of a permanent NASA Administrator, the Obama Administration has announced an independent review of human spaceflight activities.  The review will be lead by Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin, and apparently the go-to person for leading big-time reviews (he was the head of the study group that saddled us with Rising Above the Gathering Storm).  According to the initial announcement, the review must be completed quickly.

“The “Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans” is to examine ongoing and planned National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) development activities, as well as potential alternatives, and present options for advancing a safe, innovative, affordable, and sustainable human space flight program in the years following Space Shuttle retirement.  The panel will work closely with NASA and will seek input from Congress, the White House, the public, industry, and international partners as it develops its options. It is to present its results in time to support an Administration decision on the way forward by August 2009.”

The lack of a NASA Administrator is one of the two biggest empty chairs in science and technology policy right now.  While I understand the interest of any new administration to review where things are, doing this without a permanent Administrator runs the risk of having someone at the helm who isn’t bought in to whatever the report concludes.  I’m also reminded of the last administration’s efforts to push NASA forward, and how badly they’ve unfolded.  That bold plan relied on cost savings for future expense of the program, yet failed to commit the attention to the program required to make those savings happen.


The Need for Mitigation…in Orbit

April 29th, 2009

Posted by: admin

According to Wired Science, NASA craft had to dodge orbital debris four times in 2008.  Given that on average NASA and the ISS need to avoid orbital debris once a year, this is a noticeable uptick in incidents.  This doesn’t count classified missions or the efforts of other spacefaring nations, so the number is likely higher.

Part of the problem comes from two recent incidents, a collision and a missile test by the Chinese.  Both events significantly increased the amount of debris in orbit.  As the Wired Science article indicates, this debris increase has already forced change in a Shuttle mission involving the Hubble Space Telescope and forced International Space Station personnel to take cover in a Soyuz capsule as protection against a possible collision.  While some of the testimony at the Congressional hearing on this issue held earlier this week seemed to downplay the issue, should China or other countries become regular spacegoers, or increase their satellite activity, the need to avoid debris will increase.  It might be wiser to establish some protocols for removing debris before it provokes an incident.

Space Collision Demonstrates Orbital Clutter

February 19th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Last week a defunct Russian satellite collided with an Iridium telecommunications satellite.  While this is supposedly the first known (or at least publicized) collision between two intact satellites, the crash has raised concerns over the thousands of objects orbiting the Earth.  As the article linked to indicates, there is monitoring of so-called space ‘junk’, but with an increase in spacefaring nations, and ultimately private entities moving from suborbital to orbital trips, the amount of ‘junk’ will get to a point where collisions will no longer be so rare.  At that point, will monitoring be sufficient?  I don’t know.  But I do think it’s an issue worth discussing in appropriate fora.

Another Entry in the Space Race

February 3rd, 2009

Posted by: admin

In what will be an interesting wrinkle to international relations, it is reported (H/T, Scientific American’s 60 Second Science Blog) that Iran has launched a satellite.  For those who have missed space as a proxy for political battles, your wait is over.  What remains to be seen is whether or not American politicians will latch on to this, not to flog foreign policy concerns, but to try and re-whip a fury for more human space exploration.  With a nomination for a NASA Administrator apparently on a back burner, I see such efforts as tilting at windmills.

“A [insert policy goal] Moon Shot” – Good Politics, Dubious Policy

January 18th, 2009

Posted by: admin

In Senator Ken Salazar’s confirmation hearing for Secretary of the Interior, he made reference to an “energy moon shot.” (H/T Politico, via SEFORA.)  The specific quote:

“I would not have taken this job if I was not given the assignment to help to craft the energy moon shot that we will take.”

It’s great shorthand, evoking images of success, triumph, dominion over nature, defeating of a seemingly intractable opponent, etc.  Look a bit deeper, and what do we have?  Not a sustainable investment, but a ’surge’ of money best spent for quick results.  I expect what the Obama Administration, and Salazar, want is an investment, a foundation, for future research and deployment of more energy efficient technologies.  I don’t think they want a concerted effort for a few years that acheives an important first step, followed by a return to prior practice and the loss of earned capacity.  As I’ve described elsewhere (subscription possibly required), in part due to the way the moon shot was handled, we can’t do now what we did in the 1960s – land a man on the moon and return him safely.  To me that’s a waste, and undercuts the value of the moon shot as metaphor or political shorthand.  So I hope Salazar is committed to something more sustainable than an energy moon shot.

Private Firms to Resupply ISS

December 26th, 2008

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Nature News recently reminded everyone that the U.S. still has a space program when it noted that private firms will take over resupply efforts for the International Space Station (ISS).  I’ve been less than thrilled with space contractors in their efforts to develop launch vehicles and other craft for NASA – they seem to bust budgets with a regularity and flair that surpasses many federal agencies.  However, this particular function is a service rather than a new product, and the companies involved – Orbital Sciences and SpaceX – have a much smaller history of screwing things up than their larger astronautical cousins.

Worth noting is that failure for these companies means a dramatic reduction in what the ISS would be capable of doing.  As the station is currently undergoing expansion, this sign of trust is interesting.  Should it bite NASA, I do hope the companies are appropriately penalized.