The future of SLS?

In this long NASASpaceflight.com article describing the building the second core stage for NASA’s SLS rocket (the stage scheduled to take astronauts around the Moon in September 2023) was also additional information about the status of later core stages, still not entirely funded.

The key tidbit of information is this:

Core Stage-3 is the first build under the new “Stages Production and Evolution Contract” that was initiated in 2019; the contract is not yet completely finalized, with the latest estimate for definitization being early in Fiscal Year 2022 (which begins on October 1st, 2021).

Both NASA and Boeing are proceeding under the assumption that this Congress will approve full funding for later SLS rockets after flights one and two. While the signs strongly suggest that funding for at least two more rockets will arrive, that funding still depends largely on the success of the first unmanned SLS test flight, tentatively scheduled for November-December 2021.

It also depends on the political winds, and when Starship starts reaching orbit somewhat regularly (and cheaply). When that happens, all bets are off on the future of SLS. At some point it will become obvious that it can’t compete against that SpaceX rocket, and Congress will shift its funding appropriately.

Sadly, knowing Congress and the corrupt DC culture, this change will likely only happen after a lot of taxpayer money is wasted on a rocket that is simply too expensive and too cumbersome, and thus not practical for making space exploration possible.

“The Endless SLS Test Firings Act”

The Senate passes a law! In the NASA authorization that was just approved by the Senate and awaits House action was an amendment — inserted by Senator Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) — that will essentially require NASA to build an SLS core stage designed for only one purpose, endless testing at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

The Stennis-specific provision says NASA should “initiate development of a main propulsion test article for the integrated core stage propulsion elements of the Space Launch System, consistent with cost and schedule constraints, particularly for long-lead propulsion hardware needed for flight.”

So what exactly is a “main propulsion test article,” and why does NASA need one? According to a Senate staffer, who spoke to Ars on background, this would essentially be an SLS core stage built not to fly but to undergo numerous tests at Stennis.

My headline above is essentially stolen from the Eric Berger article at the link. Because this ground test core is not funded, at best it would likely not be ready for testing prior to ’27 or ’28, at the earliest. By then who knows if SLS will even exist any longer, replaced by low-cost and far more useful commercial rockets. Thus, if this Wicker amendment survives, Stennis might be testing a core stage endlessly for a rocket that no longer exists.

And even if SLS is flying, what point is there to test a core stage that never flies? None, except if you wish to create fake jobs in Mississippi for your constituents, as Wicker obviously is trying to do.

Fortunately the bill is merely an authorization, and has not yet passed the House. Much could change before passage, and even after passage money will need to be appropriated to create this fake testing project.

Unfortunately, we are discussing our modern Congress, which has no brains, can’t count, and thinks money grows on trees. I would not bet against this fake testing program becoming law.

Senate passes NASA authorization that calls for second lunar lander contract

The Senate today passed a new NASA authorization that requires the agency to award a second manned lunar lander contract in addition to the one it gave SpaceX for its Starship spacecraft.

The bill also recommended a $10 billion increase over five years in this specific lunar lander program to pay for that second contract.

None of this is law yet, as the House must agree also. In addition, as this is an authorization, not an appropriation, the extra money has not been appropriated, which means it does not yet exist. And should it be approved at these recommended numbers, it means that NASA will be forced to stretch out the creation of both lunar landers, as the money appropriated is still less than required to build either.

I suspect that this budget shortfall will not delay SpaceX’s Starship significantly, as that company has obtained sufficient private funding to build it regardless. More likely the second lunar lander will face longer delays, unless its builders decide to do what SpaceX has done, and obtain private capital to get it done fast.

Note too that this recommendations follows Congress’s general policy of imagining money grows on trees and that there is an infinite supply. While it might be a good idea to pay for two landers, the country’s debt suggests otherwise. Maybe a wiser course would be for the government to only offer a tiny percentage of the capital, and demand the builders find their own funding, as SpaceX has done.

Problem with Ariane 5 rocket causes Arianespace to delay Webb telescope launch

As first revealed in mid-May, Arianespace has been forced to delay the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope by at least one month because of a problem with the fairing on its Ariane 5 rocket, found during an August 2020 launch.

There have been no Ariane 5 launches since. According to yesterday’s press briefing, however:

“The origin of the problem has been found. Corrective actions have been taken,” Daniel de Chambure, acting head of Ariane 5 adaptations and future missions at ESA, said. “The qualification review has started, so we should be able to confirm all that within a few days or weeks.” He did not elaborate on the problem or those corrective actions, beyond stating that the problem took place during separation of the payload fairing. Industry sources said in May that, on the two launches, the separation system imparted vibrations on the payload above acceptable limits, but did not damage the payloads.

It appears this new delay to Webb’s launch is because two commercial payloads must lift off first before Webb, with the first now scheduled for July. According to Arianespace, it will take two months prep for the next commercial launch, followed by two months prep for the Webb launch. That puts the launch of Webb in November.

Overall this particular delay is slight, only a few weeks, and pales in comparison to the ten years of delays experienced by NASA during development and construction of Webb. It also will add very little to the telescope’s overall budget, which has grown from an original price of $500 million to now about $10 billion.

GAO finds more NASA cost overruns in Webb, SLS, and Orion

GAO graph documenting NASA's big project delays and cost overruns

The annual Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) report on major NASA-led programs has found that the cost overruns and scheduling problems it has documented now for years continued in 2020.

You can obtain the report here. The graph to the left, from the report, summarizes the data quite succinctly.

The cumulative cost overrun of 20 major programs in development, defined as those with total costs of at least $250 million, grew to more than $9.6 billion in the report. Three programs — the James Webb Space Telescope, Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System — account for $8 billion of that total, including $4.4 billion for JWST alone.

SLS and the Exploration Ground Systems program accounted for effectively all of the $1.1 billion in overruns in 2020. … SLS alone accounted for nearly $990 million in cost increases. About two-thirds of that increase came from NASA adopting a GAO recommendation to lower the original baseline cost estimate for SLS to properly account for work that had been shifted to later phases of the program.

The report also documented almost 20 years of cumulative delays, with Webb leading the way with delays of more than seven years. The new report added 37 more months of delays during the last year.

The report, and NASA, laid the blame for many of the more recent delays and cost overruns on last year’s COVID epidemic, but if so those delays were imposed by choice, not necessity, considering how both China and SpaceX moved forward without any delays during the same time period. In reporting on NASA for the last three decades I have found it willing to initiate long delays at the drop of a hat, sometimes for reasons, such as a storm that causes some minor damage, that do not justify either the delay or its length. The COVID panic was just another example of this.

Senate committee mandates NASA award 2nd lunar lander contract

More crap from Congress: A Senate committee has approved a new NASA authorization that requires the agency to award a second lunar lander contract — in addition to the one given to SpaceX — even though that authorization gives NASA no additional money to pay for that second contract.

This provision was inserted by senator Maria Cantwell (D-Washington). Washington state also happens to be the state where one of the rejected companies, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, is located. I wonder how much cash Bezos’ has deposited in Cantwell’s bank account.

This provision not only does not give NASA any cash to build two lunar landers, what NASA dubs the Human Landing System (HLS), it forces NASA to violate other laws.
» Read more

Biden administration’s proposed ’22 NASA budget boosts spending in all programs

The just released summary budget by the Biden administration for 2022 includes a $1.5 billion increase in NASA’s budget, with increases for every NASA project across the board.

Maybe the only part of this that is surprising is the $325 million increase to the manned Artemis project to return to the Moon. Democrats have traditionally tried to cut such programs, even as they increased the spending in NASA’s climate budget. Though the Biden administration has shown that its priorities remain in line with this by increasing NASA’s climate budget by a hefty $2.3 billion, it did not cut Artemis but increased its budget also.

This budget proposal is also in line with the general trend in Washington, which is to spend money as if it grows on trees. Trump had also increased NASA’s budget, but tried to counter those increases with cuts in other areas, both in NASA and elsewhere. None of his proposed cuts however were ever really approved, as Congress has no interest in cutting anything.

Now that Biden and the bureaucracy is in power the money to them is going to flow like water from a burst dam. Whether the American people actually benefit from this spending remains to be seen. In general, since the 1960s the payoff from increased federal spending has been poor to terrible. I don’t see any reason to expect otherwise, even if the support of manned space exploration by the Biden administration helps fuel a new commercial renaissance in space. That renaissance cannot last if the country that supports it goes bankrupt.

A proposal to rebuild Arecibo as a better radio telescope

Even as the National Science Foundation (NSF) proceeds with the disassembly of the destroyed Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, some astronomers are proposing that a new radio telescope be built in its place, with a new design that will not require the instrument platform floating above a single dish.

Here’s the idea as outlined in a white paper circulated by Roshi and his colleagues: The Next Generation Arecibo Telescope would pack hundreds, maybe even more than 1,000 smaller radio dishes into the same space now occupied by the single 305-meter dish. Those smaller antennas would combine forces to act like a single larger telescope (no suspended instrument platform required).

Ideally, those dishes would be on a single, tiltable platform to access more of the sky from the Arecibo site; it’s possible multiple platforms could do the same.

The revamped telescope would have twice the sky coverage of the legacy dish, 500 times the field of view in individual images, at least double the sensitivity, and five times the radar power.

The cost for this new radio telescope is presently estimated to be about half a billion. Considering that the NSF didn’t have the money to operate the old Arecibo telescope, which was why it wasn’t properly maintained and collapsed, I doubt it has the cash to build this replacement. Congress, which likes printing money it doesn’t have, might step in and fund it, but if so that will only add to the national debt that is certainly going to cause the bankruptcy of the nation at some point in the future, a point that is getting closer and closer with each new trillion that Congress nonchalantly spends, on almost a monthly schedule.

NASA lunar rover experiences big budget overruns

NASA revealed yesterday that the budget for VIPER, a new NASA-built lunar rover, has increased from $250 million to $433.5 million.

The cost of the mission has gone up significantly. At the time NASA announced VIPER in October 2019, it projected a cost of about $250 million. As part of the confirmation review, known as Key Decision Point C, NASA set a formal cost commitment for the mission. NASA spokesperson Alison Hawkes said March 3 that the new lifecycle cost for the mission is $433.5 million.

NASA didn’t disclose the reason for the cost increase, but NASA officials said in June 2020 that they were postponing VIPER’s launch by about a year to late 2023 to change the rover’s design so it can meet the goal of operating for 100 days on the lunar surface. At the time, the agency declined to comment on VIPER’s cost.

This is very typical of modern NASA. Even though its planetary program produces some spectacular spacecraft and results, that program — like all NASA-built programs — rarely does so for the budget promised. For the planetary program, however, the overage for VIPER is startlingly high, especially in so short a time.

Be prepared for more delays and overages for this project, since that is usually what happens for NASA projects that experience such large budget increases.

Axiom raises $130 million in investment capital

Capitalism in space: The private space station company Axiom announced today that it has obtained $130 million in investment capital during its most recent round of fund-raising.

The funding will allow the company to expand, including doubling its current workforce of about 110 people this year, Michael Suffredini, president and chief executive of Axiom, said in an interview. It will also support quarterly payments to Thales Alenia Space, which is building the pressurized elements of the first modules. The company recently moved into a two-story building in Houston and is buying a new test facility, with plans to establish a campus at Spaceport Houston, also known as Ellington Airport.

“This is a really the major step for us,” he said. “The B round is typically where you get your first large investment, but more importantly than the money is the community of investors that you put together, so that future rounds are largely from those investors.” That group of investors, he said, was “a perfect fit for us and puts us in a good position, however we want to go forward.”

Suffredini also admitted that while helps get those first modules built for launch to ISS in ’24, they will still need “probably between half a billion and a billion dollars” to build their full private space station.

Sounds like a lot, eh? ISS cost about $100 billion, but that is not including the contributions of the U.S.’s international partners. It is also likely a conservative estimate, as it likely does not include any of NASA’s overhead in connection with the station. Construction officially began in 1994, but actually started a decade earlier when President Reagan first proposed its predecessor, the Freedom station, and those costs are not included as well.

So Axiom will build its private station for about a billion, and get it done in about five years. NASA spent anywhere from $100 to $200 billion, and took more than three decades to get it launched and built.

Which product would you buy?

Space Force picks Alabama for its future headquarters

In a victory for Alabama and its politicians, the U.S. Space Force has chosen the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville as the location for its future headquarters.

The selection of Redstone Arsenal is a huge win for Huntsville, nicknamed “Rocket City.” U.S. Space Command is currently based at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. Alabama was considered a long shot and Colorado was the front runner, given its incumbent status and concentration of military installations and space industry contractors.

U.S. Space Command was established in August 2019 as the military’s 11th unified combatant command. The future headquarters will have approximately 1,400 military and civilian personnel.

While there are many good reasons to pick Huntsville, I guarantee a major factor was the clout exercised by Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama), head of the Senate appropriations committee. He will no longer be in charge of the committee with the new Senate, but in his final act as head he likely used it to get the Space Force to move to his state.

This decision however is not yet final. According to government officials, it will take six years (!) to make the move, and already the politicians in Colorado, where the Space Command is presently based, are lobbying to rescind it.

Republican congressman Doug Lamborn, who represents Colorado Springs, sent a letter to President-elect Biden urging him to reverse what he called a “political decision” to move U.S. Space Command to Alabama. “I am disappointed by the horrendous decision to rip U.S. Space Command out of its home in Colorado Springs and move it to a new location,” said Lamborn.

As always, pork is the goal, not defending the U.S. in the most effective manner.

Puerto Rican government commits $8 million to rebuild Arecibo

The government of Puerto Rico earlier this week announced that it has allocated $8 million to rebuild the Arecibo Observatory.

Via an executive order, Gov. Wanda Vazquez made reconstruction of the observatory public policy. In a ceremony at La Fortaleza, the seat of the island’s government, Vazquez said that the Puerto Rican government believes that the telescope’s collapse provides a great opportunity to redesign it, taking into account the lessons learned and recommendations from the scientific community so that it remains relevant for decades to come.

…Vazquez said that she and her administration want the scope to once again become a world class center and the $8 million being allocated for reconstruction includes funds to repair the environmental damage caused by the collapse, something that has already begun under the supervision of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

We shall see what happens. $8 million is not really enough to rebuild Arecibo. And the NSF has been trying to unload it from its budgetary responsibility for almost a decade. I would be shocked if that agency now suddenly decided to fund its reconstruction.

Only if Congress gets involved will this likely change, and that wouldn’t surprise me, considering how nonchalant our present Congress is about spending money that doesn’t exist.

NASA budget passed by Congress rejects ’24 lunar landing

No surprise: The NASA budget that was passed by Congress this week as part of a giant omnibus bill only gave NASA 25% of the requested funds the agency says it needs to develop a human lander required for an Artemis manned mission to the Moon by ’24.

Overall, NASA will receive $23.271 billion, almost $2 billion less than requested. Importantly for the Trump Administration’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024, it provides only $850 million instead of $3.4 billion for Human Landing Systems.

…The Trump Administration requested a 12 percent increase for NASA in order to fund the Artemis program: $25.2 billion for FY2021 compared to the $22.9 billion it received in FY2020. While the goal of returning astronauts to the Moon has broad bipartisan support in Congress, the Trump deadline of 2024 — set because it would have been the end of his second term if he had been reelected — won lukewarm support at best from Republicans and none from Democrats who pointed to both budgetary and technical hurdles.

It was always clear that the Democrats were not going to cooperate with Trump to could get that lunar landing during his second term. Moreover, the real goal of Artemis is not space exploration, but distributing pork. Stretching out these missions so that they take many many years achieves that goal far better than a tight competitive schedule that gets things done. This is why SLS and Orion have been under construction, with no flights, for decades, even as SpaceX moves forward with Starship/Super Heavy in only a few years.

A Biden presidency actually increases the changes that Artemis will get better funding, but that funding will always be designed to stretch out the program for as long as possible. Our policymakers in Washington really do not care much for the interest of the nation. What they care about is their own power and aggrandizement.

SpaceX’s Starlink constellation wins $885 million in federal subsidies

Capitalism in space: In awarding $9.2 billion in subsidies to providers of rural high-speed internet to rural customers, the FCC gave $885 million of this allocation to SpaceX’s Starlink constellation.

SpaceX was not the biggest beneficiary, however.

Most of the RDOF Phase I subsidies are going to terrestrial broadband service providers, led by LTD Broadband with an award of $1.32 billion. CCO Holdings, a subsidiary of Charter Communications, is due to serve 1.05 million sites around the country, leading the list for that metric.

The FCC said 85% of the 5.2 million sites to be served would get gigabit-speed broadband. SpaceX is due to serve nearly 643,000 sites with download speeds of 100 megabits per second or more.

Regardless of its good intentions, this distribution of federal cash sickens me. These companies don’t need it to do what they are doing, and are all sure to make plenty of profit without it. The federal government meanwhile is trillions in debt. It has to print money to give this away, something that is not going to go well in the long run.

Senate fails to fully fund manned lander for Trump’s 2024 lunar mission

The Senate appropriations committee’s budget recommendations for NASA, released yesterday, has refused to fully fund the development of the manned lander needed for Trump’s 2024 lunar mission.

The Senate Appropriations Committee released its recommendations for all 12 FY2021 appropriations bills today. The Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill provides NASA with $23.5 billion, $1.75 billion less than requested. The House-passed bill keeps the agency at its current level of $22.6 billion, so the final compromise likely will be somewhere in that range. NASA’s request for Human Landing Systems (HLS) for the Artemis program was particularly hard hit on both sides of Capitol Hill.

NASA had requested $3.4 billion for building the lunar lander in time for 2024. The House appropriated $628 million. Today’s Senate recommendation budgeted $1 billion. This practically guarantees that no manned lunar mission will happen by 2024.

None of this is a surprise. The politicians in Congress from both parties don’t really want to rush this program. For them it is better to stretch it out for as long as possible, spending mucho bucks in their states and districts. Nothing will be accomplished, but they will be able to tell their constituents they brought the jobs home.

Useless and empty jobs, but jobs nonetheless.

NASA lays out Artemis budget and plan to get astronauts to Moon

In a obvious lobbying effort to get Congress to fund the Trump administration’s Artemis project to land humans on the Moon by 2024, NASA yesterday released a new updated plan and budget for the program.

More here.

The document [pdf] outlines the specific plans for each of the first three Artemis flights, with the first unmanned, the second manned and designed to fly around the Moon, and the third to land a man and a woman on the Moon. Overall the plan is budgeted at about $28 billion, with $3.2 billion needed immediately to fund construction of the lunar lander. From the second link:

Bridenstine said he remains optimistic Congress will fully fund lander development because of what he described as broad bipartisan support for the Artemis program. He said he’s hopeful an expected continuing resolution that would freeze NASA’s budget at last year’s spending levels will be resolved in an “omnibus” spending bill before Christmas or, if the CR is extended, by early spring. “It is critically important that we get that $3.2 billion,” he said. “And I think that if we can have that done before Christmas, we’re still on track for a 2024 moon landing. … If we go beyond March, and we still don’t have the human landing system funded, it becomes increasingly more difficult.”

And what happens then?

“It’s really simple. If Congress doesn’t fund the moon landing program, then it won’t be achieved (in 2024), I mean it’s really that simple,” Bridenstine said. But he quickly added: “I want to be clear, if they push the funding off, our goal will be to get to the moon at the earliest possible opportunity.”

I remain doubtful the present Congress, with the House controlled by the Democrats, will fund this 2024 lunar landing. Since 2016 the entire political platform of the Democratic Party has been “oppose anything Trump.” They will not fund this project if it means he will get this landing during his second term.

If however Trump loses in November, the lame duck Congress might then go ahead and fund it before December, since the landing in 2024 will then occur during the Biden presidency.

Technically the plan reveals that NASA is trying to accelerate the development of the rendezvous and docking software for Orion. During the second flight, the first manned, the crew will do proximity maneuvers with the upper stage of the rocket. Under previous management NASA had not included this ability, as they had not planned to have Orion do any rendezvouses or dockings. That lack makes it impossible for Orion to fly on any other rocket but SLS. This change means the Trump administration recognizes this is a problem, and wants to fix it, especially because they also recognize that SLS is a poor long term option for future lunar missions.

House rejects Artemis; Senate funds Artemis

The Senate gives, the House taketh away: Even as the Democratically-controlled House continues to refuse the Trump administration’s request for $2.6 billion to fund its 2024 manned lunar landing, the Republican-controlled Senate has provided $1.6 billion of those funds in the next COVID-19 stimulus package.

This illustrates why such stimulus packages are utterly corrupt. Much of the money allocated has little to do with helping the country recover from the Wuhan panic, but is instead earmarked for the favorite agencies of the politicians. The Republicans are also trying to use this package to sneak across funding for Artemis without the House Democrats noticing, or being able to object.

It remains to be seen whether that strategy will work. Either way, we continue on the road to bankruptcy and financial collapse, as the federal government is trillions in debt, and simply doesn’t have the money for any of this.

Midnight repost: Squeal like a pig

The tenth anniversary retrospective of Behind the Black continues: Tonight’s repost was written just prior to the 2010 mid-term elections. I correctly predicted that the Democrats would get creamed in that election. I then tried to predict what would happen next politically due to that Republican victory. I leave it to my readers to determine how good my analysis was, and how well it applies to what is happening right now.

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Squeal like a pig

Let’s take a trip into the future, looking past Tuesday’s midterm election.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that, come Tuesday, the Republicans take both houses, in a stunning landslide not seen in more than a century. Let’s also assume that the changes in Congress are going to point decidedly away from the recent liberal policies of large government (by both parties). Instead, every indication suggests that the new Congress will lean heavily towards a return to the principles of small government, low taxes, and less regulation.

These assumptions are not unreasonable. Not only do the polls indicate that one or both of the houses of Congress will switch from Democratic to Republican control, the numerous and unexpected primary upsets of established incumbents from both parties — as well the many protests over the past year by large numbers of ordinary citizens — make it clear that the public is not interested in half measures. Come January, the tone and direction of Congress is going to undergo a shocking change.

Anyway, based on these assumptions, we should then expect next year’s Congress to propose unprecedented cuts to the federal budget, including the elimination of many hallowed programs. The recent calls to defund NPR and the Corporation for Public Broadcastings are only one example.

When Congress attempts this, however, the vested interests that have depended on this funding for decades are not going to take the cuts lightly. Or to put it more bluntly, they are going to squeal like pigs, throwing temper tantrums so loud and insane that they will make the complaints of a typical three-year-old seem truly statesman-like. And they will do so in the hope that they will garner sympathy and support from the general voting public, thereby making the cuts difficult to carry out.

The real question then is not whether the new Congress will propose the cuts required to bring the federal government under control, but whether they, as well as the public, will have the courage to follow through, to defy the howls from these spoiled brats, and do what must be done.
» Read more

Midnight repost: Shut down fascism in the Smoky Mountains

The tenth anniversary retrospective of Behind the Black continues: In 2013 Diane and I made a trip back east to visit the Smokey Mountains and do some hiking. Coincidentally, our trip took place at the end of September, when the budget battle between Obama and the Republicans in Congress was about to cause a government shutdown. This essay, the first of three, describes the extra effort and money being exerted by Obama’s administration to make that shutdown as unpleasant and as inconvenient to the American public as possible. The later two essays, linked to as an update at the top of the essay, outline what happened next.

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Shut down fascism in the Smoky Mountains

See my October 2, 2013 update here.

Today, October 1, 2013, my wife Diane and I went hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We did this despite the news from Washington that the federal government had shut down due to the lack of a funding from Congress and that all the national parks were closed.

The news reports had said that the National Park Service would close all roads into the park except for New Found Gap Road, the one road that crossed over the mountains from Tennessee to North Carolina. They couldn’t close this road because it was a main thoroughfare used by the public for basic transportation. Moreover, my research into the hikes we wished to do told me that several of those hikes originated on trailheads along this road. In traveling the road the day before, we had seen that these trailheads would not only be difficult to close, it would be dangerous and stupid to close them. For one, the road was windy and narrow. If there was a car accident or someone had car problems, any one of these parking areas might be essential for the use of the driver as well as local police and ambulances. For another, there are people still backpacking in the mountains who will at some point need to either exit with their cars or be picked up at these trailheads. Closing the trailheads will strand these hikers in the park, with dangerous consequences.

So, despite the shutdown, off we went to hike the Appalachian Trail, going to a well known lookout called the Jump Off, an easy 6.5 mile hike that leaves from the parking area at New Found Gap, the highest point on New Found Gap Road that is also on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. It is also probably one of the most popular stopping points along the road, visited by practically every tourist as they drive across.
Smokies from the Appalachian trail

The hike itself was beautiful, if a bit foggy and damp. The picture above shows one of the clearest views we had all day. Nor were we alone on this hike. We probably saw one to two dozen other hikers, heading out to either the Jump Off or Charles Bunion (another well known day hike destination along this section of trail).
» Read more

NASA confirms Webb launch delay to October 2021

NASA today confirmed that the launch date of the James Webb Space Telescope will be delayed again, from March 2021 to October 2021.

As schedule margins grew tighter last fall, the agency planned to assess the progress of the project in April. This assessment was postponed due to the pandemic and was completed this week. The factors contributing to the decision to move the launch date include the impacts of augmented safety precautions, reduced on-site personnel, disruption to shift work, and other technical challenges. Webb will use existing program funding to stay within its $8.8 billion development cost cap. [emphasis mine]

Note the highlighted words. Vague, eh? They are trying to make it seem that this new delay is solely because of the Wuhan virus panic, but that’s simply not justifiable. Notice how SpaceX has kept on launching Falcon 9s as well as testing new Starship prototypes throughout the panic. Somehow that private company was able keep its schedule going.

The truth is that as early as January, long before COVID-19 was even a blip on the horizon, the GAO was warning everyone that it was unlikely NASA and Northrop Grumman could meet the March 2021 launch date.

Webb is now more than a decade behind schedule, and once launched will have cost 20 times what it was originally budgeted ($500 million vs $10 billion). Let us pray that it works once it gets to is proper orbit, a million miles from Earth, since it will then be too far away to fix.

Problems at Europa Clipper

NASA has fired the project scientist for one overbudget and behind schedule instrument on Europa Clipper, and restructured work on a second instrument for similar reasons.

“We’ve been struggling on cost growth on Clipper for some time,” said Curt Niebur, program scientist for the mission at NASA Headquarters. “Overall, we’ve been largely successful in dealing with it, but late last fall, it became clear that there were three instruments that experiencing some continued and worrisome cost growth.”

The outcome of the reviews, he said, could have ranged from making no changes to the instruments to, in a worst-case scenario, terminating the instruments. The leadership of NASA’s Science Mission Directive recently decided to keep all three instruments, at least for now.

The fired scientist had been in charge of the mass spectrometer. At the moment they have installed a temporary replacement, and have put the instrument team on notice that it now has a very low priority. Should it fall further behind in schedule or budget it could easily be terminated.

The spacecraft’s imaging system also has schedule and budgeting problems, so much so that NASA was considering dropping the wide field camera, leaving Europa Clipper with only a narrow field camera. Right now both have been retained, but the wide field camera might still be dropped if costs continue to rise.

Proposed House NASA budget flat, with some surprising support for Artemis

While the first House proposal for NASA’s 2021 budget has rejected the Trump administration’s request for a total $3 billion increase for the agency to fund Artemis so that it can complete a manned mission to the Moon by 2024, it also provided about 18% of the funds requested for building the manned lunar lander required for that mission.

Back in February, the White House asked for $3.37 billion in fiscal year 2021 to accelerate development of the lander.

Democrats in the House have been skeptical of the 2024 launch date—some see it as political due to the timing of the next presidential election—and so have been slow to fund the lander. In its budget, the House appropriates $1.56 billion for “Exploration Research and Development.” This includes funding for the lander, Lunar Gateway, and other activities related to the Moon’s surface, of which more than $600 million can be used for the lander.

The House also provided a boost of $343 million to SLS.

My guess is that the Democrats in the House are working to keep Artemis going because of the jobs it brings to their districts, but want to slow it down enough so that it cannot succeed while Trump is in office. Thus, the release of some funds for the lunar lander, but not enough to build it, now.

The House proposal also includes a loosening on Congress’s mandate that Europa Clipper must launch on SLS. NASA is now given the option to consider other alternatives if SLS is not avaiable, which means that NASA can now consider using the Falcon Heavy instead.

This proposal must still pass the Republican-controlled Senate, so expect more changes.

Midnight repost: NASA, the federal budget, and common sense

The tenth anniversary retrospective of Behind the Black continues: Tonight’s midnight repost is actually two. First we have what might have been my most telling report for John Batchelor, aired in late July 2013. In that appearance I was quite blunt about my contempt for the politicians in Washington and the fake space program they had been foisting on the American public for decades. As I said,

What both those parties in Congress and in the administration are really doing is faking a goal for the purpose of justifying pork to their districts, because none of the proposals they’re making — both the asteroids or the moon — are going to happen.

Here is the audio of that appearance [mp3] for you all to download and enjoy. For reference, these are specific stories from then that I am discussing:

That rant makes for a perfect lead in to an essay I wrote in late 2011, outlining what I would do if I was in a position to reframe NASA’s budget. Everything I said then still applies. And that it does is a great tragedy, in that it means that nothing has changed, and our federal government continues to gather power while bankrupting the country.

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NASA, the federal budget, and common sense

Let’s be blunt: the federal government is broke. With deficits running in the billions per day, there simply is no spare cash for any program, no matter how important or necessary. Nothing is sacrosanct. Even a proposal to cure cancer should be carefully reviewed before it gets federal funding.

Everything has got to be on the table.
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Space Force restructures/reduces former Air Force command structure

The new Space Force has restructured and reduced the former Air Force command structure as it begins to take over military space operations from the latter agency.

The USSF field organization will consist of three echelons of command, where the Air Force currently is organized into five echelons. USSF’s organizational structure will initially consolidate and align all organize, train and equip mission execution from former Air Force space-related units.

…In order of hierarchy, the USSF field echelons are named field commands, deltas and squadrons. There will be three field commands aligned with specific mission focuses: Space Operations Command, Space Systems Command, and Space Training and Readiness Command. SpOC and SSC will be led by three-star general officers, and STARCOM will be led by a two-star general.

Deltas will be O-6 led and will be organized around a specific function – operations, installation support, training, etc. Within the deltas will be squadrons focused on specific tactics. When the field command structure is fully implemented, it will eliminate one general officer echelon and one O-6 echelon of command. Functions formerly performed at the eliminated echelons will be realigned where appropriate within the USSF.

This sounds good, but we shall see. New government agencies proposed by our federal government to streamline bureaucracies somehow always end up bloating those bureaucracies instead. The Space Force was created with this laudable goal. This press release at least suggests they are trying to achieve it.

NASA names WFIRST after its first head of astronomy, Nancy Roman

NASA today announced that it has renamed the proposed Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) the Nancy Grace Roman Telescope in honor of the agency’s first head of astronomy.

Considered the “mother” of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, which launched 30 years ago, Roman tirelessly advocated for new tools that would allow scientists to study the broader universe from space. She left behind a tremendous legacy in the scientific community when she died in 2018.

…When she arrived at NASA, astronomers could obtain data from balloons, sounding rockets and airplanes, but they could not measure all the wavelengths of light. Earth’s atmosphere blocks out much of the radiation that comes from the distant universe. What’s more, only a telescope in space has the luxury of perpetual nighttime and doesn’t have to shut down during the day. Roman knew that to see the universe through more powerful, unblinking eyes, NASA would have to send telescopes to space.

Through Roman’s leadership, NASA launched four Orbiting Astronomical Observatories between 1966 and 1972. While only two of the four were successful, they demonstrated the value of space-based astrophysics and represented the precursors to Hubble. She also championed the International Ultraviolet Explorer, which was built in the 1970s as a joint project between NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the United Kingdom, as well as the Cosmic Background Explorer, which measured the leftover radiation from the big bang and led to two of its leading scientists receiving the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Above all, Roman is credited with making the Hubble Space Telescope a reality. In the mid-1960s, she set up a committee of astronomers and engineers to envision a telescope that could accomplish important scientific goals. She convinced NASA and Congress that it was a priority to launch the most powerful space telescope the world had ever seen.

This is a nice and very fitting gesture to honor one of the many unsung heroes who were important in the history of space astronomy. I just hope that Roman’s telescope doesn’t end up like James Webb’s, so over budget and behind schedule that it destroys all other NASA space telescope projects. Sadly, its track record so far suggests this is what will happen, which is why the Trump administration has been trying to get it canceled.

NASA delays 1st SLS launch again

NASA has now made official what had been expected for months, announcing a new delay of the first unmanned test flight of its SLS rocket from March 2021 to November 2021.

The article tries to put a lot of the blame for this new delay on the shut down over the Wuhan panic, but that shut down will only stop work for at most two months. The new delay however adds eight months to the schedule, showing that they probably were never going to meet that March 2021 deadline, and are using COVID-19 as a cover for the program’s continuing problems, delays, and cost overruns.

Should this unmanned flight take place in November 2021, it will have taken NASA about seventeen years and about $60 billion to get to that first flight. They say the first manned mission is scheduled in late 2022 or early 2023. If true would mean it took NASA about two decades to achieve a single manned flight since Bush Jr. proposed it.

Of course, that is making the very unlikely assumption that there will be no further delays before that first manned flight. I personally am very confident there will be.

Curiosity and other Mars orbiters threatened by budget cuts

The proposed budget for NASA in the Trump administrations 2021 budget request to Congress includes significant budget cuts to both Curiosity and several Mars orbiters needed to act as relay communications satellites.

The White House’s 2021 federal budget request allocates just $40 million to the mission, a decrease of 20% from the rover’s current funding. And that current funding is 13% less than Curiosity got in the previous year, said Curiosity project scientist Ashwin Vasavada, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

If the 2021 request is passed by Congress as-is, Curiosity’s operations would have to be scaled back considerably. Running the mission with just $40 million in 2021 would leave unused about 40% of the science team’s capability and 40% of the rover’s power output, which comes from a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), Vasavada said.

In addition, the proposed budget will require a 50% reduction in imaging by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the end to the Mars Odyssey orbiter, and a significant but unspecified reduction in the use of the MAVEN orbiter.

I reported these facts back in March but there is no harm in noting them again.

The question is not whether there should be cuts at NASA. Considering the overall federal debt and annual budget deficit, NASA’s budget should be cut. The question is what to cut. The planetary program, probably NASA’s most successful program, is certainly not the program to cut. Instead, the Trump administration should be cutting the waste and badly run programs, like SLS, that spend billions and accomplish nothing.

If Congress and Trump did this, they could cut NASA’s total budget and still have plenty left over for the commercial manned program — including going to the Moon — and also increase the budget to the planetary program. I’ve been saying this since 2011, and nothing has happened in the past decade to change that conclusion.

Two NY studies suggest Wuhan flu death rate comparable to the flu

Are you enraged yet? A just released New York study now suggests that there are large numbers infected with the Wuhan flu with no symptoms, about 13.9% of the population, indicating that the overall death rate is probably quite close to the flu.

The article does not state that conclusion, being CNBC and therefore unwilling to come to any conclusion that might suggest things are not terrible. However, see this analysis of a different New York study, with comparable numbers:

Thinking about that study showing that 13.7% of pregnant women presenting for delivery at NYC hospitals in March-early April tested positive for COVID-19 AT THE TIME of admission. Unless one thinks pregnant women are more likely to have been exposed to the virus than other people in the population, surely must mean that ~15% of NYC has been exposed. (Recall also that the NYC study was only of active infections not of antibodies.) If so, then 10,000 deaths out of 15% of NYC (1.2 million) points to an infection fatality rate around .008, very much in the ballpark of seasonal flu. [emphasis mine]

The first reliable numbers from South Korea and the Diamond Princess had shown death rates of about 0.9% and 1.2% respectively. While about ten times higher than the flu’s death rate of about 0.1%, it was also very clear then that these death rates were grossly high because of very large underestimates of the total number of people infected.

Now we are getting better numbers on the total infection rate — including large numbers of healthy individuals who get the disease and never show symptoms — and the evidence is strongly telling us that the Wuhan flu is not that dangerous, killing mostly older and sick individuals, and doing it at the same rate as the flu.

For this we allowed the press and our power-hungry political class to nullify the Bill of Rights and bankrupt the nation? A lot of heads should roll. And soon.

Pork galore in Senate-passed COVID-19 “stimulus” bill

The so-called COVID-19 “stimulus” bill that the Senate passed yesterday is apparently stuffed with billions in hand-outs to friends and buddies of Congress and the Washington bureaucracy, all of which have nothing to do with helping the American public being bankrupted by the forced shutdowns imposed on them by government.

Go to the link for a full list, which includes money for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Kennedy Center in DC, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the post office, NASA, and the Department of Education, to name only a few. It also includes a pay raise for Congress, money to sanctuary cities to allow them to continue to flout immigration laws (thereby making it harder to control the virus), and half a billion in foreign aid to Africa. The bill also will force unions on businesses who wish to take any government money.

There’s more of course. It will take a few days for decent people to dig through the entire document [pdf]. By that time however the House, under Democratic Party control, will have added more goodies, the Senate and Trump will have approved, and the bill will be law.

Three cheers for Congress!

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