Tag Archives: NASA

Parachute tests for Boeing Starliner

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft has successfully completed a parachute test at New Mexico’s Spaceport America.

Uniquely, this test wasn’t conducted via the use of a helicopter of an aircraft – as seen with other vehicles, such as the Orion spacecraft. Boeing was not able to fit the Starliner test article into the hold of a C-130 or C-17 aircraft, so they instead used a 1.3-million-cubic-foot balloon, which is able to lift the capsule to its intended altitude.

The test went well, with Starliner released from the balloon, deploying two drogue parachutes at 28,000 feet to stabilize the spacecraft, then its pilot parachutes at 12,000 feet. The main parachutes followed at 8,000 feet above the ground prior to the jettison of the spacecraft’s base heat shield at 4,500 feet. Finally, the spacecraft successfully touched down.

The article once again makes note of NASA’s fake concern over the Atlas 5 rocket. The concern isn’t that the rocket isn’t reliable. The concern is that Boeing hasn’t yet gotten NASA’s certification that it is reliable. In other words, because NASA hasn’t signed a piece of paper stating the obvious fact that the Atlas 5 is safe, Boeing’s Starliner cannot be considered safe.

House approves NASA authorization

The NASA authorization act that the Senate passed on February 21 was approved by the House today.

As I discussed in reviewing the act on February 21, the bill’s overall focus is to shift NASA from running “a space program” to facilitating the success of competing private enterprise. It also eliminates all of NASA’s climate budget so that the money can be spent instead on space exploration.

Trump is expected to sign it. Then will come the hard work, actually writing the budget for NASA.

The tampering of climate data at NOAA and NASA

data tampering at NASA

Last week there was the another Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington. One presentation there by several important climate skeptics outlined in detail the data tampering that has been going on at an increasingly outrageous manner at both NOAA and NASA in recent years. The slides presented by Tony Heller (available here [pdf]), many of which I have highlighted previously here at Behind the Black, are especially educational and damning.

To the right is just one of Heller’s slides, the one that I find the most damning of all. It shows how the surface data issued by NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS), the two green lines, does not match the satellite data at all. While the satellite data shows no warming this entire century, the GISS data shows steady rising in the surface data. Other slides by Heller show that this rise comes solely from data adjustments and the extrapolation of imagined temperature data in places where no data exists, neither of which has been explained in any manner by the scientists at GISS.

What is most damning however is the change Heller documents between GISS’s November 2016 and December 2016 data sets. For reasons that are simply unjustified by any scientific measure, GISS somehow found it necessary to adjust its entire data set upward in one month about 0.03 of a degree. The only reason I can find for such a change in such a short period of time is a desire by the scientists at GISS to create the illusion that the climate is warming, and warming fast. They don’t have any real data to show this, so they make it up.

Make sure you look at all of Heller’s slides [pdf]. It is also definitely worthwhile to spend the time to watch the entire CPAC presentation, available at the first link above.

Bigelow advocates his space stations for lunar missions

The competition heats up: Robert Bigelow today advocated using his privately built inflatable space station modules as a tool for launching future American lunar missions.

Bigelow’s company is eager to put a space station depot in lunar orbit, from which such activities and others can be initiated, as well as support onboard research. “We do not have the technologies, and there is zero business case for Mars. We do have a business case for the moon. And that’s why the moon absolutely makes the best sense,” Bigelow said. “And we can do the lunar activities far sooner than we can with Mars, which stretches out to, NASA’s views are Mars may be in the 2040s.”

His “New Space” company, Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas, designs space habitats, including a fully self-contained space station with 330 cubic meters of living and working space, which he said is ready for a lower-Earth orbit or, in about three years given the expected advancements in rocketry, for lunar orbit.

The key statement above is the comparison between lunar missions and Mars missions, at this time. The Moon has the chance to be profitable in the near future. Mars does not. If you had money to invest (even if it is taxpayer dollars) which would you invest it in?

Heading Home

Today we completed our last caving trip in Belize. I and many of the expedition’s participants head home tomorrow.

Because our cave trips take so much time, I have not had time to post anything these last few days. I will try to post tomorrow during my return home, but expect full posting to resume on Thursday.

Also, though I will comment then in greater length about SpaceX’s announcement on Monday that they plan on sending two tourists around the Moon by 2018, I want to note here that this announcement is clearly Elon Musk’s response to the effort by NASA to delay the launch of commercial crew because of so-called safety issues so that SLS/Orion might fly first. Musk is telling the world that NASA’s safety concerns are crap (to which I generally agree) and he intends to prove this with his own lunar manned mission.

New auto-destruct system to increase launch rate

The competition heats up: A new auto-destruct system operating by computer, using GPS, and installed on each rocket should allow the launch rate in Florida to ramp up significantly.

Up until now it took several days to reconfigure the ground-based radar facilities. This system, first used on the most recent Falcon 9 launch, does not require this. It also involves fewer people to operate it. They expect that they will soon be able to launch up to 48 missions per year, some on the same day.

NASA signs technology development contracts with eight companies

The competition heats up: NASA today announced the award of contracts to eight small companies to develop new technologies for the advancement of smallsat launch capabilities.

The contracts cover a wide range of launch concepts, from testing new imaging technology for spotting asteroids to new rocket engine development to new rocket designs. The key component however of all these contracts is this:

These fixed-priced contracts include milestone payments tied to technical progress and require a minimum 25 percent industry contribution, though all awards are contingent on the availability of appropriated funding. The contracts are worth a combined total of approximately $17 million, and each have an approximate two-year performance period culminating in a small spacecraft orbital demonstration mission or the maturation of small launch vehicle technologies.

In other words, the companies have to provide some of the funding, since the technology being developed will benefit them. They also will only be paid once they meet certain milestones, and any cost overages will be their responsibility. The result? The U.S. has the chance of giving birth to eight new space companies, all with cutting edge technology that can compete in the new launch market. And the country gets this for a measly $17 million.

Senate passes NASA budget that slashes environment spending

While keeping NASA’s overall budget the same, the Senate has passed a NASA budget bill that will slash NASA’s environmental spending and pass the money to other programs within the agency.

The budget zeros out all budget items dedicated to climate research. The budget also outlines a number of important space policy approaches that are now endorsed by Congress:

  • Commercial crew and cargo are fully supported
  • Privatizing ISS is encouraged
  • Congress reaffirms its support of SLS and Orion
  • NASA is asked to prep Orion for ISS flights, using other rockets
  • NASA is tasked to create a roadmap for reaching Mars
  • The Mars roadmap is not restricted to using SLS or Orion
  • An alternative to Obama’s asteroid redirect mission is requested
  • Funding is provided to pay for astronaut health needs
  • NASA science is to focus on astronomy, planets, exoplanets, asteroids, aviation, and space technology

It is expected that the House will also pass the bill, and that Trump will sign it.

I also expect that most of NASA’s climate work will now be shifted to NOAA, under new management. Thus, the climate budgets are adjusted, and the people in charge are changed. A nice way to drain the swamp.

ULA lets the press see part of SLS

Link here. The upper stage of SLS is undergoing its final testing in Michoud prior to shipment to Florida, and ULA had a press event to show it off.

“This is the first piece of integrated flight hardware for the SLS system to be shipped down to the Cape in preparation for our very first launch,” said Jerry Cook, Deputy SLS Program Manager for NASA. Cook noted that the ICPS test article is currently undergoing stress and load tests at Marshall.

The completion of the ICPS is yet another landmark in SLS’ development, though some contend it’s still a drawing-board vehicle. John Shannon, Boeing’s Vice President and General Manager of the SLS Program, disagrees. “The SLS has, in various forms, been called a paper rocket […] and, if I think you look to your right, you’ll see that absolutely is not true,” stated Shannon. “If you had the opportunity to go to the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where we’re putting the bigger core stage together, you would also see that it is not true because we are putting hardware together as we speak.”

This upper stage engine is a brand new design and has never flown before, and the rocket it is part of has yet to be assembled. Yet NASA is considering flying humans on it during its first test flight, even as it harasses SpaceX and Boeing about using the Falcon 9 and Atlas 5 rockets, both proven repeatedly in operational flights, for their manned ISS missions.

The article also gives an update on the situation at Michoud since it was hit by a tornado on February 8. It appears that the facility is operating again, but not fully.

Killing both commercial space and American astronauts

This all reeks of politics: A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released yesterday says that NASA it should not permit Boeing and SpaceX to fly humans on their capsules and rockets until they fix certain issues and test both repeatedly on unmanned flights before the first manned flights to ISS.

This GAO report was mandated by Congress, and it requires NASA to certify that both Boeing and SpaceX have met NASA’s requirements before allowing those first manned flights. While the technical issues outlined in the report — to which NASA concurs — might be of concern, my overall impression in reading the report, combined with yesterday’s announcement by NASA that they are seriously considering flying humans on SLS’s first test flight, is that this process is actually designed to put obstacles in front of Boeing and SpaceX so as to slow their progress and allow SLS to launch first with humans aboard.

For example, the report lists three main problems with the commercial manned effort. First there is the Russian engine on the Atlas 5. From the report itself [pdf]:
» Read more

Two congressmen propose naming SLS for astronaut Gene Cernan

Two congressman yesterday introduced legislation that would rename SLS after Eugene Cernan, the last Apollo astronaut to walk on the Moon.

I don’t think anyone would argue with this. First, SLS is a terrible name for the rocket. Second, Cernan deserves the recognition.

At the same time, I suspect this is happening as part of an overall push within the Washington community to sell SLS to Trump and his administration. This proposal, as well as the recent news stories proposing SLS/Orion Moon missions and putting astronauts on SLS’s first flight, all point to a lobbying effort inside NASA, Congress, and the big space community to save SLS, which when compared to the successes and achievements of commercial space since 2010 appears an abject failure.

That comparison is at the heart of my policy paper, Capitalism in Space, which will hit the newstands next week. It makes it very clear how much a failure SLS/Orion has been, and how embarrassing that failure stands when compared to commercial space.

NASA considers putting astronauts on first SLS/Orion flight

Faced with indications that Trump wants a manned lunar mission during his first term, NASA’s acting administrator has asked his engineers and management to look into the possibility of putting humans on the first SLS/Orion launch, now set for late in 2018.

As the Acting Administrator, my perspective is that we are on the verge of even greater discoveries. President Trump said in his inaugural address that we will “unlock the mysteries of space.” Accordingly, it is imperative to the mission of this agency that we are successful in safely and effectively executing both the SLS and Orion programs.

Related to that, I have asked Bill Gerstenmaier to initiate a study to assess the feasibility of adding a crew to Exploration Mission-1, the first integrated flight of SLS and Orion. I know the challenges associated with such a proposition, like reviewing the technical feasibility, additional resources needed, and clearly the extra work would require a different launch date. That said, I also want to hear about the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight and what it would take to accomplish that first step of pushing humans farther into space. The SLS and ORION missions, coupled with those promised from record levels of private investment in space, will help put NASA and America in a position to unlock those mysteries and to ensure this nation’s world pre-eminence in exploring the cosmos.

This is incredibly stupid. That first flight will be the very first time SLS will fly. It will also be flying with an upper stage engine that has also never flown before. It will take the Orion capsule to the Moon, when the capsule itself has not yet even done one orbit around the Earth. To put people on it makes no engineering sense at all.

NASA narrows to three the Mars rover landing sites in 2020

Jezero Crater

Scientists have now narrowed to three the candidate landing sites for NASA’s 2020 Mars rover mission.

The three sites include Jezero crater, which was once home to an ancient Martian lake and which could preserve the remains of microbial life, if it ever existed on Mars. “You’ve got a large river bringing water and sediment into a very large lake, comparable to Lake Tahoe,” says Timothy Goudge, a planetary scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. Jezero scored highest on a community vote of scientists attending the workshop.

Other possible targets include Northeast Syrtis, where hot waters once circulated through the crust and could have supported life, and Columbia Hills, the area explored for years by NASA’s Spirit rover.

From the Nature article above as well as this Science article, it sounds like the Columbia Hills choice is unlikely. The Science article pushes Jezero crater, which had the most votes at the workshop and is shown in the image on the right.

Trump to the Moon!

Two stories in the past two days strongly suggest that the Trump administration is planning a two-pronged space policy approach, with the long-term goal of shifting most of space to private operations.

From the first link:

The more ambitious administration vision could include new moon landings that “see private American astronauts, on private space ships, circling the Moon by 2020; and private lunar landers staking out de facto ‘property rights’ for American on the Moon, by 2020 as well,” according to a summary of an “agency action plan” that the transition drew up for NASA late last month. Such missions would be selected through an “internal competition” between what the summary calls Old Space, or NASA’s traditional contractors, and New Space characterized by SpaceX and Blue Origin. But the summary also suggests a strong predilection toward New Space. “We have to be seen giving ‘Old Space’ a fair and balanced shot at proving they are better and cheaper than commercial,” it says.

Another thrust of the new space effort would be to privatize low-Earth orbit, where most satellites and the International Space Station operate — or a “seamless low-risk transition from government-owned and operated stations to privately-owned and operated stations.” “This may be the biggest and most public privatization effort America has ever conducted,” it says.

Essentially, they are going to do exactly what I suggested back in late December, give SLS/Orion a short-term realistic goal of going to the Moon. This is what it was originally designed for, and it is the only technology presently available that has even the slightest chance of meeting the three year deadline outlined above. More important, this will give Congress something in the negotiations, as SLS/Orion has been Congress’s baby — pushed and funded by Congress over the objections of the previous administration and without a clear mission to go anywhere — in order to keep the money stream flowing to the big “Old Space” companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Obama tried to simply cancel its predecessor, Constellation, and that did not sit well with Congress. Trump however understands negotiation and how to play the game. In order to eventually eliminate SLS Trump is going to provide Congress some short term excitement and some viable long term alternatives.

The long term alternatives will be private enterprise. Even as they send SLS/Orion on its grand finale to the Moon, the Trump administration will accelerate the restructuring of NASA to make the agency less of a design and construction operation and more a mere customer of private space. All non-military Earth orbital operations will be shifted to the private sector over time, so that once SLS/Orion has achieved that goal of completing a lunar mission there will be a strong enough private space sector to replace it, allowing Congress to let it go the way of Apollo and the space shuttle.

NASA SLS/Orion facility in Louisiana sustains tornado damage

A tornado has damaged the building NASA uses at its Michoud facility near New Orleans for building SLS and Orion.

[One official] says a 43-acre building where they build rockets suffered significant damage on one end. A number of areas in the facility have lost parts of the roof or walls. He says the hardware and tooling used in the Orion and Space Launch System were not damaged. But they’ll have to do a “significant effort” to cover everything up and make sure any subsequent bad weather doesn’t affect it while the roof and walls are repaired.

Based on this report, this damage should not effect the SLS/Orion launch schedule. At least, if this was a private company it would not. We shall see how NASA responses.

NanoRacks and Boeing to build private airlock on ISS

The competition heats up: NASA has signed an agreement with NanoRacks and Boeing to build private commercial airlock to attach to ISS in 2019 and be used for commercial operations.

Commercial opportunities through Airlock begin with cubesat and small satellite deployment from station and include a full range of additional services to meet customer needs from NASA and the growing commercial sector. Currently, cubesats and small satellites are deployed through the government-operated Japanese Kibo Airlock. Additionally, the crew on board may now assemble payloads typically flown in soft-stowage ISS Cargo Transfer Bags into larger items that currently cannot be handled by the existing Kibo Airlock. “We are very pleased to have Boeing joining with us to develop the Airlock Module,” says NanoRacks CEO Jeffrey Manber. “This is a huge step for NASA and the U.S. space program, to leverage the commercial marketplace for low-Earth orbit, on Space Station and beyond, and NanoRacks is proud to be taking the lead in this prestigious venture.”

Beyond station, the Airlock could at some future time, be detached and placed onto another on-orbit platform.

This is part of the overall transition at NASA from government-built and -run to privately-built and -run.

Russia proposes increased space cooperation with the U.S.

They need the money: At a science conference on Tuesday the Russian ambassador to the United States stated that his country would welcome increased space cooperation between the two countries.

“I think it would be premature for me to speculate as to whether this zone of overlapping interests will increase or decrease,” Kislyak said. “We haven’t heard a new policy yet from the United States.” He suggested, though, there may be opportunities for the countries to cooperate on NASA’s long-term plans for human Mars exploration. “That is moon exploration, which is very much on our agenda. It’s space medicine and many, many other issues,” he said. “Our programs are not identical, but there’s always been a lot of overlap that provides room for serious and significant cooperation.”

“If the U.S. government chooses programs that would be extending that kind of cooperation,” he added, “they will find us to be willing to work with you.”

As I said, they need the cash. They want to keep their space industry alive, but low oil prices combined with the corruption that has shut down their launch industry has left them very cash poor. A combined Russian/SLS/Orion project to the Moon would be very helpful for them.

SpaceX gets an eighth Iridium launch

The competition heats up: SpaceX has won a new launch contract, this time by launching both Iridium’s five satellites as well as the NASA/German Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) mission.

Both NASA and Iridium will save money by sharing the ride, while SpaceX gets more business.

U.S. 2020 Mars rover faces delays

A new inspector general report has pinpointed a number of issues that could cause a delay in the 2020 launch of the next American Mars rover mission.

The biggest risk to the mission, according to NASA OIG, is the sampling system that will be used to collect and store samples of Martian rock and soil that a future mission will gather for return to Earth. That system, an essential part of the mission, has several key technologies that are less mature than planned at this phase of the mission’s development. “The immaturity of the critical technologies related to the Sampling System is concerning because, according to Mars 2020 Project managers, the Sampling System is the rover’s most complex new development component with delays likely to eat into the Project’s schedule reserve and, in the worst case scenario, could delay launch,” OIG stated.

I find it puzzling that the sampling system is an issue. This rover is essentially based on Curiosity, which has very sophisticated equipment for grabbing and even storing samples for periods of time. I don’t understand why such systems could not be quickly revised for future retrieval.

Nonetheless, there are other problems however.

Two instruments on the Mars 2020 mission have also suffered problems. One, called MOXIE, is designed to test the ability to generate oxygen on Mars, saw its estimated increase by more than 50 percent during its development. NASA has taken steps to reduce some of that cost growth by eliminating development of an engineering model and skipping further design improvements in one element of MOXIE.

Another instrument designed to study atmospheric conditions on Mars, MEDA, has suffered delays because of a “financial reorganization” by its developer, Spain’s National Institute for Aerospace Technology. OIG concluded in its report that MEDA is unlikely to be ready for delivery to NASA in April 2018, as currently scheduled. That could require adding MEDA to the rover later in the overall assembly process, or flying the mission without the instrument.

One of the reasons the Obama administration decided to make this 2020 rover mission a reboot of Curiosity was to save cost and development time. Thus, it does not speak well for NASA’s planetary program that they are having these problems.

Fifty years ago today: the Apollo 1 launchpad fire

Link here.

Fifty years ago Friday, the first – but sadly not the last – fatal spaceflight accident struck NASA when a fire claimed the lives of Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Ed White during a training exercise at Launch Complex 34. The accident, a major setback for the struggling Apollo program, ushered in the first understanding of the “bad day” effects of schedule pressure for spaceflight and brought with it words and reminders that still echo today.

The article provides a very detailed and accurate look at the history and causes of the accident, as well as its consequences, which even today influence American space engineering.

Trump’s 1st NASA appointees suggest future policy

A memo released January 20 from NASA’s acting administrator accepting the job also announced the first Trump appointees to NASA. The history and policy positions of those two appointees I think once again give us a very clear indication of where NASA might be going in the coming years.

[Acting administrator Robert] Lightfoot, in the memo, said that the administration has appointed Erik Noble to serve as White House senior advisor and Greg Autry to be White House liaison. The two are the first members of the so-called “beachhead team” of administration staffers assigned to NASA, at least on a short-term basis.

Autry is an assistant professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California who has been a proponent of commercial space activities. Autry was one of eight members of the agency review team, or “landing team,” assigned to NASA by the transition office of then President-elect Trump.

Noble did not serve on the landing team, but worked on the Trump campaign as a political data analyst. Noble, who earned a Ph.D. in environmental studies from the University of Colorado, spent seven years at the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies in New York, working on weather and climate models. [emphasis mine]

Autry, believes strongly in private space, and has also been a critic of SLS/Orion. Being placed at NASA as Trump’s first appointee strongly suggests that a Trump administration is going to accelerate the commercial space push that was begun by the Bush administration and then strongly supported by the Obama administration. It also suggests that the SLS and Orion projects are going to face a difficult future and will likely be phased out.

Noble’s appointment is more important. As a former scientist at the Goddard Institute, he is now well positioned to possibly appoint a new head to that organization, or even become its head himself. The present person in charge there, Gavin Schmidt, has increasingly become suspect as a scientist, instead appearing more as global warming political advocate. Since he took over that Institute, the climate data there has been increasingly tampered with, with past data being cooled and recent data being warmed, thus creating the impression that the Earth’s climate has been warming more than indicated by all previous research. Schmidt’s explanations for these “adjustments” (the term he uses) have never been satisfactory. He then uses the results from these “adjustments” to make annual press releases declaring each year as the “hottest” ever, though the raw data shows no such thing.

Even if Noble does not replace Schmidt, Noble appears well positioned to force Schmidt to either finally justify his data adjustments, or remove them from the data stream so that the raw data will be allowed to dominate policy decisions once again.

Bigelow proposes extending life of its ISS module beyond its two year demo

Bigelow Aerospace is in negotiations with NASA to allow use on ISS of its demonstration inflatable BEAM module beyond its planned two year test mission.

BEAM is designed for a two-year mission on the ISS. The module is closed off from the rest of the station most of the time, with astronauts periodically entering BEAM to check the status of the module and instruments mounted inside.

NASA has previously indicated that it would dispose of BEAM at the end of its two-year mission, using the station’s robotic arm to detach the module and allow it to burn up in the atmosphere. There are no immediate plans, though, for use of the docking port where BEAM is installed after that two-year mission ends, opening the possibility for an extended mission.

Robert Bigelow has previously suggested there was commercial interest in the module. As a NASA press conference in April 2016 prior to the launch of BEAM, he said there were four different groups, both countries and companies, interested in flying experiments in BEAM. “We’re hoping that, maybe in half a year or something, we can get permission from NASA to accommodate these people in some way,” he said then.

It is typical NASA behavior to throw this module out after two years, rather than find a way to use it.

Posted from a hotel room in St. Louis, Missouri.

Boeing obtains available seats on Soyuz as result of Sea Launch settlement

As part of Boeing’s settlement with Russia over the break-up of their Sea Launch partnership, the company has obtained rights to several manned Soyuz seats that are available because the Russians have cut back on the number of astronauts they are flying to ISS.

In turn, Boeing is offering these seats to NASA.

[John Elbon, vice president and general manager of space exploration at Boeing] said he expects NASA to make enter into negotiations with Boeing about the 2017 and 2018 seats shortly after a Jan. 27 deadline for companies to respond to the sources sought statement, a requirement when a government agency proposes a sole-source procurement. “Assuming that goes well, I think we would sit down and, in relatively short order, negotiate the details of this kind of arrangement,” he said.

He didn’t specify how much Boeing was proposing to charge NASA for the seats. The agency announced an agreement with Roscosmos in August 2015 for six Soyuz seats in 2018 at a total cost of $490 million, or $81.7 million per seat. “It’s a good value for NASA and the taxpayer,” Elbon said of Boeing’s proposed deal with NASA. “We wouldn’t ask them to pay more than they would have been paying before.”

What is happening here is that Boeing is trying to use these Soyuz seats as a way to recoup its losses from Sea Launch. The problem is that NASA doesn’t really need the manned flights in 2017 and 2018. They might need them in 2019, should the manned capsules that SpaceX and Boeing are building get delayed, but I am not sure that this deal will allow them to be used at that time.

NASA names acting administrator

NASA yesterday named Robert Lightfoot as the Acting NASA administrator, taking over from Charles Bolden when he leaves on January 20, 2017 at the start of the Trump administration.

Lightfoot is a former Director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, having begun his NASA career there in 1989. He transferred to NASA Headquarters in 2012 to serve as Associate Administrator, the highest ranking civil service position in the agency. It is traditional for the highest ranking NASA civil servant to take over as acting administrator during changes in presidential administrations. The Trump transition has not always followed traditional paths so today’s announcement provided some degree of reassurance. Bolden said the Trump transition team officially told NASA yesterday that Lightfoot will serve in that job. A mechanical engineer, he has served in many capacities at Marshall, Stennis Space Center and Headquarters, including assistant associate administrator for the space shuttle program (2003-2005) at headquarters and manager of the space shuttle propulsion office at MSFC (2005-2007). He was named MSFC Deputy Director in 2007 and Director in 2009.

Essentially Lightfoot will act as a placeholder until the new administration names its pick for the position.

NASA asteroid redirect mission delayed again

Due to the uncertainty of its budget NASA has decided to delay the award of the contracts to begin work on its asteroid redirect mission (ARM).

The uncertainty is that Congress has never budgeted any real money for it. The mission was proposed by Obama but only vaguely, without any real support. First it was to be a manned mission to an asteroid, using Orion. Then it was to be an unmanned mission to bring a large asteroid closer to Earth to be later visited by astronauts in an Orion capsule. Then the large asteroid became a mere boulder, with the manned mission delayed until the unforeseen future.

I think NASA sees the writing on the wall here. They expect this vague unsupported mission to die with the next administration, and have decided it is better not to waste money on it now.

Utah climate scientists whine about possible NASA cuts

The squealing of pigs: In the kind of journalistic pro-government spending propaganda that I despise, the Salt Lake Tribune today published this article giving climate scientists in their local area a platform to lobby the public in favor of their NASA funding.

The article provides a quick quote from a Trump campaign official noting their strong hostility to the politicization of climate research, and then spends the rest of the article allowing scientist after scientist to condemn that position and to defend that spending, repeatedly implying that should the NASA cuts go through, the research will end and even possibly that access to the data from NASA climate satellites will be denied to the public and to the scientists. At no time does the article provide any thoughtful information to explain that Trump administration perspective, which is based on some reasonable and very justifiable concerns.

I note this article as a warning. Expect more of this very bad journalism. Most of the press are blindly liberal and Democratic Party partisans. They are going to work blindly with the climate community to help them defend their funding, without the slightest effort at objective reporting. The public should be aware of this, and see this political lobbying for what it is.

Launch of joint NOAA/NASA weather satellite delayed again

Bad timing for NASA’s climate program: The launch of the first Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS-1), a project of both NOAA and NASA, has been delayed from March 2017 to at least July because of problems with one instrument as well as delays in completing the satellite’s ground systems.

“The main factors delaying the JPSS-1 launch are technical issues discovered during environmental testing of the satellite and the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder (ATMS) instrument,” Leslie said in a statement. ATMS issues were also one of the reasons for the previous delay. In addition, he cited “challenges in the completion of the common ground system” that will be used for JPSS and other NOAA polar-orbiting weather satellites.

The latest decays prompted NOAA to seek financial relief for the program. A provision in the continuing resolution (CR) passed Dec. 9, which funds the federal government through late April at 2016 levels, gives NOAA the authority to spend at higher levels for the JPSS program.

The goal with the JPSS program was to combine NOAA weather satellites with NASA’s climate research satellites. The program however has had technical and budgetary problems, as this is not the first launch delay or cost overrun.. Moreover, the origins of the JPSS program came from a failed effort in the 1990s and 2000s [pdf] to combine NOAA, Defense Department, and NASA weather satellites under what was then called the NPOESS program. When that program was restructured in 2010 to become JPSS the Defense Department pulled out.

Considering the strong rumors now suggesting that the Trump administration plans to slash NASA’s climate budget while shifting the remains of the program to NOAA, this delay of JPSS-1 is an especially good example of bad timing. It provides the new administration strong ammunition for such proposed changes.

NASA approves two new asteroid missions

NASA has approved two new unmanned missions aimed at studying the asteroids.

Lucy will take a close look at six Trojan asteroids orbiting near Jupiter, after first visiting a main belt asteroid.

Lucy, a robotic spacecraft, is scheduled to launch in October 2021. It’s slated to arrive at its first destination, a main belt asteroid, in 2025. From 2027 to 2033, Lucy will explore six Jupiter Trojan asteroids. These asteroids are trapped by Jupiter’s gravity in two swarms that share the planet’s orbit, one leading and one trailing Jupiter in its 12-year circuit around the sun. The Trojans are thought to be relics of a much earlier era in the history of the solar system, and may have formed far beyond Jupiter’s current orbit.

Psyche will visit 16 Psyche, an unusual metal-rich asteroid made up mostly of iron and nickel.

While Psyche will use an ion engine, allowing it great freedom and even the potential to go elsewhere, like Dawn, when its primary mission is complete, I have not been able to determine whether Lucy will use conventional chemical altitude thrusters or an ion-type engine.

NASA awards more operational manned missions to SpaceX and Boeing

NASA today awarded four more operational manned missions to SpaceX and Boeing, bringing their total planned flights now to six each, not counting their first demonstration mission.

The additional flights will allow the commercial partners to plan for all aspects of these missions while fulfilling space station transportation needs. The awards do not include payments at this time. “Awarding these missions now will provide greater stability for the future space station crew rotation schedule, as well as reduce schedule and financial uncertainty for our providers,” said Phil McAlister, director, NASA’s Commercial Spaceflight Development Division.

NASA essentially has no choice. These spacecraft will be the only way to get astronauts to ISS after 2018, when our contract with the Russians expires.

Moreover, by awarding these contracts now, before the end of the Obama administration, NASA essentially locks them down before the new Trump administration can take power and kill them.

Trump interested in lunar manned mission?

After meeting with Donald Trump a historian now says the president-elect appears very interested in the idea of sending a man to the Moon.

All of these stories continue to be speculation, but I strongly suspect that much of it also consists of trial balloons pushed by the various supporters of SLS/Orion in their effort to give that very expensive and so-far completely unproductive boondoggle a mission it can actually achieve. Right now, SLS/Orion has no mission. It is only funded through the first manned test flight in 2021 (likely to be delayed until 2023). Since it has been a pork barrel favorite of a number of Senators and Congressmen, I would not be surprised if they are trying to convince Trump to fund it by giving it a new Kennedy-like mission.

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