Tag Archives: NASA

Changes to big August 3 commercial crew announcement do not bode well

On August 3 NASA is planning on making a big announcement concerning its commercial crew program. Yesterday the agency revealed that the NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine, will reveal the names of the crew for the first commercial crew flight.

The changes in how that announcement will be made however suggest that they had hoped to make a bigger announcement and have been forced to back off. Initially, vice president Mike Pence was to have made the announcement. He has now canceled his participation. Also, there had previously been rumors that the announcement would have included the launch dates for both SpaceX’s and Boeing’s first flights. That the new press release makes no mention of dates suggests the dates have been delayed.

I hope I am wrong.

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NASA considering more cuts to WFIRST

NASA is considering more cuts to the Wide Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST), presently budgeted at $3.2 billion.

I suspect a contributing factor for these cuts are the problems with the James Webb Space Telescope. NASA has to pay for its new cost overruns and delays, and the fairest place to find those cuts would be from within the astrophysics division.

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Starliner has propellant leak during launch abort test

Capitalism in space: Boeing’s Starliner capsule experienced a propellant leak near the end of a launch abort test in late June.

The company said it conducted a hot-fire test of the launch-abort engines on an integrated service module at the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico in June. The engines successfully ignited and ran for the full duration, but during engine shutdown an anomaly occurred that resulted in a propellant leak. “We have been conducting a thorough investigation with assistance from our NASA and industry partners,” the statement said. “We are confident we found the cause and are moving forward with corrective action.”

The capsule being tested is an engineering model, not one that is intended to fly. Boeing also has said that “they believe there is an operational fix to the problem rather than a need to significantly rework the Starliner spacecraft itself.”

This incident however is certain to delay Boeing’s crew launch schedule, especially considering NASA’s own timidity about the privately built space capsules. The agency will insist on a complete review, no matter how long it takes, even if the company has pinpointed the problem already and has instituted corrections.

In a normal world, this event should not effect SpaceX’s schedule. I also expect however that the agency will use this event to slow SpaceX down again, demanding further reviews there as well.

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On the radio

Tonight I will have two radio appearances. First my normal twenty minute John Batchelor Show appearance will be structured somewhat differently. Instead of reviewing the space news for the past few days, we will be focused entirely on reviewing NASA’s seeming effort to slow commercial space down, so as to reduce the embarrassment to SLS as well as benefit Boeing.

The idea will be that we will make believe that I am giving a briefing to Mike Pence and the National Space Council, explaining in detail why NASA actually seems hostile to getting anything done. It is our hope that maybe someone in the administration might hear it, and rethink the Trump space policy.

Then, beginning at 7 pm (Pacific), I will be doing another live two hour appearance on The Space Show with David Livingston. I am sure the same subject will come up, along with other things. Feel free to call in to ask questions. David does not screen his calls, so this is your opportunity to ask me anything.

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SpaceX’s first test crew Dragon capsule arrives in Florida

Capitalism in space: The first man-rated Dragon capsule set to fly has arrived in Florida to be prepped for launch.

Even though the vehicle is called a “Crew Dragon,” this Dragon won’t carry crew on its first flight. Instead, it’s due to make an uncrewed practice run to the space station during what’s known as Demonstration Mission 1, or DM-1.

Before this week’s shipment to Florida, the Dragon underwent thermal vacuum tests as well as acoustic tests at NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Ohio. Today SpaceX showed off a picture of the Crew Dragon, which is a redesigned, beefed-up version of its robotic cargo-carrying Dragon, via Twitter and Instagram.

NASA’s current schedule calls for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to launch the DM-1 mission next month from Kennedy Space Center. However, that schedule is dependent not only on the pace of preparations, but also on the timetable for station arrivals and departures.

SpaceX is clearly on schedule to fly the first unmanned test flight in September, and the first manned flight in January 2019. And once that manned flight take place, I can see no reason why operational flights shouldn’t follow soon thereafter.

Yet, NASA said earlier this week that those operational flights will almost certainly be delayed until 2020, mainly because SpaceX might not be able to get the paperwork filled out fast enough.

Here’s my prediction: If SpaceX flies that manned mission in early 2019, expect their operational flights to begin soon thereafter, not in 2020. NASA will have no choice but to accept the capsule and begin flights.

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GAO report indicates NASA forcing more delays in commercial crew

A Government Accountability Office report released today suggests that NASA’s complex certification requirements will cause further delays in first operational missions of the commercial crew capsules of Boeing and SpaceX.

The report shows when NASA believes Boeing and SpaceX will each have completed a single non-crewed test flight, a test flight with crew, and then undergo a certification process to become ready for operational flights. This is known as the “certification milestone.”

Based on NASA’s “schedule risk analysis” from April, the agency estimates that Boeing will reach this milestone sometime between May 1, 2019, and August 30, 2020. For SpaceX, the estimated range is August 1, 2019, and November 30, 2020. The analysis’ average certification date was December, 2019, for Boeing and January, 2020, for SpaceX.

These are obviously razor-thin margins, but the new report also indicates that Boeing is ahead in submitting paperwork needed for approval of its various flight systems and processes. This is consistent with what independent sources have told Ars, that Boeing is more familiar with NASA and better positioned to comply with its complex certification processes. [emphasis mine]

This does not surprise me. From the beginning of commercial crew there have been people at NASA working to slow SpaceX down so as to not embarrass Boeing as well as SLS/Orion. By using the “complex certification process,” which really has little to do with engineering and everything to do with bureaucracy and power politics, NASA has effectively succeeded in preventing SpaceX from getting off the ground. The company could have flown a manned Dragon at least a year ago, if NASA had not stood in the way and imposed numerous safety demands, some of which make no sense.

Meanwhile, NASA’s bureaucracy and certification process has created a situation where neither company might be ready to fly when the ticketed flights on Russian Soyuz capsules end. To solve this gap the agency is actually thinking of stretching out ISS missions so it doesn’t have to fly ferry missions as much. While longer missions to ISS make sense — if your goal is to learn how to get to Mars — this isn’t why NASA is thinking of doing it. Instead, it is doing it so that it can make private space, especially SpaceX, look bad.

All in all, NASA’s management seems entirely uninterested in real space exploration, and the risks it entails. Instead, they are focused on power politics and serving the needs of the big space contractors that they have worked with for decades, accomplishing little while spending a lot of taxpayer dollars.

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James Webb Space Telescope delayed again, with budget rising

Based the conclusions [pdf] of an Independent Review Board (IRB), NASA has once again delayed the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, now set for 2021, while increasing its construction budget from $8 billion to almost $9 billion.

In its report, the IRB found that technical issues, including human errors, have greatly impacted the development schedule.

The agency previously had estimated an earlier launch date, but awaited findings from the IRB before making a final determination and considered data from Webb’s Standing Review Board. The agency established the new launch date estimate [March 30, 2021] to accommodate changes in the schedule due to environmental testing and work performance challenges by Northrop Grumman on the spacecraft’s sunshield and propulsion system. The telescope’s new total lifecycle cost, to support the revised launch date, is estimated at $9.66 billion; its new development cost estimate is $8.8 billion.

It is important to remember that Webb was originally supposed to cost $1 billion, and launch in 2011. It is now a decade behind schedule, with a cost almost ten times higher.

It really does appear like SLS and Webb are in a race to see who can get launched last. And right now, the race is neck and neck.

I should add that if the launch gets delayed much more, NASA will have further problems with the launch rocket. The Ariane 5 rocket, designated as the launch vehicle, is being retired around 2021. Beyond that date there might be problems using one.

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Dragon cargo fees to rise, due to NASA demands

A government audit has found that the fees that SpaceX charges for its Dragon cargo missions to ISS will rise as much as 50%, and the cause of that price rise is almost entirely due to NASA redesign demands.

[T]he auditors pinned much of the blame on NASA for the increase. They also emphasized that the program still seems like a good deal for lowering launch costs. Auditors cited NASA for missing opportunities to cut redundancies and bargain on pricing, and noted that the agency forced SpaceX to (expensively) redesign its Dragon spaceship from the bottom up.

The report did hint, however, that SpaceX has done some reckoning as the startup has matured. “[SpaceX] also indicated that their CRS-2 pricing reflected a better understanding of the costs involved after several years of experience with cargo resupply missions,” the auditors wrote. (A SpaceX representative declined to comment on the report.)

None of this is a surprise. There are factions in NASA that have been working for the past decade to stymie or defeat the arrival of privately built and owned spacecraft like Dragon, as it makes the NASA-built spacecraft like Orion look bad. By demanding redesigns that raise the cost for Dragon, these factions gain ammunition to attack it. I guarantee we will see op-eds doing exactly that in the next year.

No matter. In the end the private market still does it better and cheaper than the government, as the audit found.

Despite the cost increases, the report ultimately called the CRS contracts with private companies “positive steps” for NASA — especially since the agency could find discounts by launching cargo on used SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket boosters. “NASA’s continued commitment to the commercial space industry also helps spur innovations in the commercial launch vehicle market,” the auditors said.

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Woman sues NASA to keep possession of moon dust

A Tennessee woman is proactively suing NASA in order to guarantee the agency will not try to steal a vial of moon dust that Neil Armstrong gave to her in the early 1970s.

Murray Cicco received the small glass vial full of gray moon dust in the early 1970s. The vial came with a note: “To Laura Ann Murray — Best of luck — Neil Armstron Apollo 11.” …Armstrong’s note and signature have been verified and testing has confirmed the contents in the vial he gifted her do include dust from the moon.

Decades after receiving the glass vial of moon dust, Murray Cicco is moving forward with her federal court case in Wichita, even though she lives in Tennessee. The reason for filing the case in Kansas goes back to a previous case in 2016 where a U.S. District Court judge in Wichita ruled in favor of a collector who bought a bag containing moon dust that was mistakenly placed in an online government auction. In that case, the bag was then sold at auction last year for $1.8 million.

While NASA hasn’t demanded Murray Cicco give up the vial of moon dust, Murray Cicco’s attorney has requested a jury trial in Wichita to stay ahead. “There is no law against private persons owning lunar material. Lunar material is not contraband. It is not illegal to own or possess,” the court document detailing the case says. “Therefore, she requests judgment declaring her the rightful and legal owner of the vial and its contents, and vesting title in her name.”

This is a very wise move on her part. NASA has for years made it clear that it thinks it owns all moon material brought back by the Apollo missions, and has had the arrogant policy of demanding the return of any moon dust or rocks that it discovered was in the possession of any private citizen, no matter how small, or how well documented the ownership. This court case acts to block such actions, before NASA can even think of them.

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Rigged poll claims Americans want NASA to do climate research

A new Pew Research Center poll, that is getting lots of play in the press today and claims that Americans want climate research to be NASA’s number one purpose, appears very rigged to me.

First their main conclusion:

NASA oversees a diverse portfolio of space-related missions, from sending robotic probes to explore distant planets to launching satellites that study Earth’s atmosphere and oceans.

When asked to rate the importance of nine of these missions, majorities of Americans say a top priority for NASA should be monitoring key parts of the Earth’s climate system (63%) or monitoring asteroids and other objects that could potentially collide with the Earth (62%).

Slightly fewer than half of Americans (47%) believe that conducting basic scientific research to increase knowledge and understanding of space should be a top priority, with 40% saying such research is an important but lower priority.

…Missions for human astronauts to explore Mars and return to the moon are among NASA’s most high-profile programs. The Trump administration has expressed strong support for these initiatives, saying that exploring the solar system should be NASA’s core mission, beginning with a return of astronauts to the moon.

However, compared with other NASA programs, fewer Americans say such space exploration should be a top priority. Just 18% and 13%, respectively, say that sending astronauts to Mars or back to the moon should be a top priority; 37% and 44%, respectively, express the view that these missions are not too important or that NASA shouldn’t undertake these missions. [emphasis mine]

You can download the full report here [pdf].

While it is very possible that the high numbers for NASA climate research and low numbers for a NASA mission to the Moon or Mars reflect a growing skepticism about NASA’s ability to do space work, the poll itself simply isn’t trustworthy. Buried deep in Pew’s press announcement (three webpages down) was a graph that showed that, while the sample population surveyed was distributed reasonably in most ways, the numbers Republicans and Democrats polled was very skewed, 981 Republicans to 1,483 Democrats.

This is absurd. Every recent election has shown that the nation is very evenly split between these two parties. If anything, the results of the 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016 elections would suggest there are more Republicans than Democrats. To favor Democrats by one third is simply dishonest and inaccurate. Even if they claim that they are merely polling Americans, not voters, the split shouldn’t be weighed that much in favor of Democrats.

Moreover, the poll shows how this skew warps the results, as it also admits that 78 percent of the Democrats polled love NASA’s climate research, while only 44 percent of Republicans do. The poll did find that both Democrats and Republicans had no interest in NASA’s deep space exploration plans, but once again, the poll did not ask why. I strongly suspect that NASA’s inability to get SLS launched explains this. No one believes the agency will ever do it.

With climate research the agency has an easier job, and has done better, but even here many Republicans have strong doubts, and would rather give the job to someone else.

It seems to me that the time has come to completely ignore political polling operations like Pew. They really have only one goal, and that is to push the Democratic Party’s political agenda.

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Juno mission extended

NASA has extended the Juno mission through 2022 in order to complete its planned science.

NASA has approved an update to Juno’s science operations until July 2021. This provides for an additional 41 months in orbit around Jupiter and will enable Juno to achieve its primary science objectives.Juno is in 53-day orbits rather than 14-day orbits as initially planned because of a concern about valves on the spacecraft’s fuel system. This longer orbit means that it will take more time to collect the needed science data.

An independent panel of experts confirmed in April that Juno is on track to achieve its science objectives and is already returning spectacular results.The Juno spacecraft and all instruments are healthy and operating nominally.

NASA has now funded Juno through FY 2022. The end of prime operations is now expected in July 2021, with data analysis and mission close-out activities continuing into 2022.

I will admit that though Juno is clearly learning a great deal about Jupiter, such as this story about lightning there, its larger orbit makes it difficult to track the gas giant cloud structures as they evolve. This is unfortunate.

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NASA administrator in talks about commercializing ISS

In a wide-ranging news article today, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine revealed that the agency is in discussions with many private corporations about the possibility of privatizing ISS.

Bridenstine declined to name the companies that have expressed interest in managing the station, and said he was aware that companies may find it “hard to close the business case.” But he said there was still seven years to plan for the future of the station, and with the White House’s budget request “we have forced the conversation.”

Bridenstine’s approach to ISS’s future seems reasonable to me. At some point the federal government needs to face the station’s future, and now is a better time to do it then later.

The article however confirmed my generally meh opinion of Bridenstine. First, he reiterated his born-again new belief in human-caused global warming, a belief that seemed to arrive solely for him to gain the votes to get him confirmed in the Senate.

Second, he said this about LOP-G, NASA’s proposed international space station that would fly in lunar space.

Known as the Lunar Orbiting Platform Gateway, the system would be built by NASA in partnership with industry and its international partners, he said.

“I’ve met with a lot of leaders of space agencies from around the world,” he said. “There is a lot of interest in the Gateway in the lunar outpost because a lot of countries want to have access to the surface of the moon. And this can help them as well and they can help us. It helps expand the partnership that we’ve seen in low Earth orbit with the International Space Station.”

But the first element of the system wouldn’t be launched until 2021 or 2022, he said. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words illustrate why Bridenstine seems like a lightweight to me. LOP-G might be flying near the Moon, but nothing about it will provide anyone any access to the lunar surface. Not only will it not be operational in any manner for more than a decade, at the soonest, but it doesn’t appear designed to make reaching the lunar surface any easier. Instead, it mostly seems designed to justify SLS and Orion, and provide that boondoggle a mission.

Still, Bridenstine has in the past been generally in favor of commercial space, and that position appears to be benefiting NASA’s commercial crew partners. Prior to Bridenstine’s arrival the decisions of NASA’s safety panel acted to repeatedly delay the launch of the manned capsules being built by SpaceX and Boeing. Now that safety panel seems to have seen the light, and is suddenly more confident in these capsules. I suspect Bridenstine might have had some influence here.

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Canada exits WFIRST project

Like rats fleeing a sinking ship: The Canadian government has decided not to fund that country’s contribution to NASA’s WFIRST space telescope project, presently expected to cost $3.2 billion total (already over-budget in the design phase) and set to launch sometime in the 2020s (don’t bet on it).

The Canadian instrument would have been focused on studying dark energy, the mysterious force that is theorized to cause the universe’s expansion rate to accelerate over vast distances.

I can understand the skepticism of the Canadian government. Why commit anything to a project that is already over-budget and has unreliable support in the U.S. (Trump tried to ax it, Congress restored it, for now)? The project is also so far in the future it makes more sense to spend this money on astronomy projects that could be built and used now.

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NASA reconfiguring future SLS planning

Link here. This is a long (4 parts) and detailed overview of the changing state of the SLS system and its future missions. As it notes right at the start,

NASA has started updating plans and schedules for additional SLS Block 1 launches in the early 2020s after Washington added federal budget money for a second Mobile Launcher (ML) platform and umbilical tower in late March.

Construction of a new Mobile Launcher frees the first ML from a three-year long downtime for teardown and reassembly after the first SLS launch of Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), currently projected for mid-2020. Instead of being retired after one launch, the Block 1 configuration could fly multiple times.

With two mobile launches (costing almost a billion to build), NASA has more flexibility (assuming it gets full funding). It can now fly both the smaller Block 1 configuration of SLS multiple times without delaying the first launch of the planned more powerful Block 2 version expected to come later.

The article discusses in great detail the possible variations in design and scheduling for the first unmanned mission, the Europa mission, the first manned mission, and possible missions beyond, all of which are based on Congress’s continued blank check support for this very expensive and very questionable program.

Sadly, it increasingly appears that Congress is going to throw a lot of money at this program. SLS looks like it is going to fly several times, and maybe more. It will likely send Europa Clipper to Jupiter, and later astronauts on a stunt mission around the Moon. Later, the Washington cartel of big aerospace companies, NASA, Congress, and our international partners in Europe and Russia are gearing up to get LOP-G funded as well, with SLS the vehicle to launch and supply it.

All of this will cost a lot, take forever, and not make the future exploration of the solar system possible in the slightest. None of that matters however. Congress wants it, and Congress being corrupt and irresponsible is going to get it.

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The federal government’s blank check

Three articles this morning about actions taken by Congress in connection with the budgets for NASA and NOAA illustrate the bankrupt nature of our federal government.

The first story describes how several legislators from the House Appropriations Committee have inserted amendments into their budget bill that will restore a $10 million NASA climate monitoring program that the Trump administration had shut down.

The second story describes how that same budget bill generously funds both NASA and NOAA at levels far above their own requests.
» Read more

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Contamination found in shuttle engines to be used by SLS

Now we know why the first launch is likely delayed: It appears that contamination has been found in the used and refurbished shuttle engines that the Space Launch System is using.

A “routine quality assurance inspection” of the core stage, he said, discovered contamination in tubing in the engine section of the core stage, which hosts the vehicle’s four RS-25 main engines and associated systems. That contamination turned out to be paraffin wax, which is used to keep the tubes from crimping while being manufactured but is supposed to be cleaned out before shipment.

“The prime contractor determined the vendor was not fully cleaning the tubes and it was leaving residue in the tubes,” McErlean said. “This was retained as a requirement in the prime contractor’s spec, but it was not properly carried out.” Boeing is the prime contractor for the SLS core stage, but he did not disclose the vendor who provided the contaminated tubing.

The contamination was initially found in a single tube, he said, but later checks found similar residue in other tubes. All the tubing in the core stage is now being inspected and cleaned, a process he said is not straightforward because of the “mass of tubing” in the engine section and also because cleaning is a “non-trivial process.”

Some obvious questions immediately arise:

1. These engines were previously flown on the space shuttles, numerous times. How did the paraffin wax, used “to keep the tubes from crimping while being manufactured,” remain in the tubes during all those shuttle flights?

2. Assuming the tubes were a new addition or replacement during the refurbishing process, it still seems astonishing that a subcontractor could be so lax. Did they really believe the wax did not need to be thoroughly cleaned?

3. While they have admitted that they will likely have to delay the launch because of issues with the core stage, why do they deny this contamination problem is the cause? More important, how much is it costing to fix? And how much time are they actually losing to fix it?

4. Finally, this is only one of many similar problems that we have seen with this entire project. Boeing and NASA have gotten so far about $40 billion to build this rocket, and have been working on it since 2006, more than a dozen years ago. Furthermore, they supposedly are building it using shuttle equipment in a Saturn rocket-type design in order to save money and time. Instead, they have wasted billions and taken more than three times longer than it took us to win World War II to get to a point where the program still has not flown.

Does anyone really believe this project is anything but a huge boondoggle? And if so, can they please tell me how it will be possible for the United States to really explore the heavens with a project run this incompetently?

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NASA inspector general weighs in on ISS’s future

The inspector general for NASA, Paul Martin, is testifying today before Congress on ISS. His prepared statement [pdf] includes several blunt assessements concerning the station’s future.

First and most important, he has doubts that transitioning the station to private ownership will work.
» Read more

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Another delay for SLS

This really isn’t news: Work on the core stage for the first SLS rocket launch appears to face another three month delay, threatening the scheduled June 2020 launch date.

The article outlines in great detail the work being done on the SLS core stage, and where the delays might be coming from, while also being vague about what exactly is causing the delay.

It is unknown if the additional time for completion of final assembly of the whole rocket stage is based on the engine section, the other four elements, or continuing refinement of forward work. Most of the hardware and systems that will fly on EM-1 are being built for the first time and the procedures to connect the five pieces of the Core Stage together will also be attempted for the first time.

Of the five elements, the most recent news had the Forward Skirt near completion of its individual work by the end of the month. Work to cover the liquid oxygen tank with its Thermal Protection System (TPS) foam was in final phases, with the liquid hydrogen tank to follow behind it. The engine section and intertank elements continue to be outfitted with propellant lines, pressure tanks, avionics boxes, wiring, and other equipment.

Once complete, the elements will be assembled vertically in two stacks before a horizontal join of the halves of the rocket kicks off final assembly.

In fact, reading the article’s detailed description of the testing and assembly of SLS’s core stage struck me as incredibly slow-paced, so slow paced that it actually filled me with a sense of ennui. In the time they seem to need to only do an equipment review, SpaceX appears to have upgraded and flown a new version of its Falcon 9 first stage, while also redesigning a new core stage for its Falcon Heavy.

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The aging data relay spacecraft orbiting Mars

By the 2020s, NASA and other space agencies sending landers and rovers to Mars will be faced with a data-relay crisis, as the orbiters they presently use to provide communications with the Martian surface are aging, and no replacements are presently planned.

The venerable Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) and Mars Odyssey spacecraft were the first to employ data relay capabilities in the modern era of Mars exploration. They operated as relays for the twin Mars Exploration Rover missions until the arrival of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in 2006.

MGS entered into a safe mode in November 2006 and NASA later declared the mission over in January 2007 after the space agency failed to reestablish contact with the aging orbiter. The 12-year-old MRO and 17-year-old Odyssey have served as the primary data relays for Mars surface missions since.

More important, funding for a dedicated communications satellite called NEMO, planned for launch in 2022, has disappeared.

However, funding for NeMO has been largely phased out in favor of directing limited funds towards the development of the Mars Sample Return mission. Mars Sample Return has the primary objective of fetching samples that scientists plan to collect and cache using the Mars 2020 rover currently under development. The current Planetary Science Decadal Survey has listed the flagship sample return mission as the primary objective for NASA’s Mars program in the 2020s, along with requisite funding. The existing fleet of orbiting spacecraft at Mars, while aging, are in generally good health meaning the postponement of a new orbiter will require careful management of existing orbital assets into the next decade.

One of the reasons there is no funding for NEMO is that NASA has had to steal money from its planetary program to fund the cost overruns on the James Webb Telescope. Though this was never admitted publicly, the cuts that the Obama administration imposed on the planetary program were partly to pay for Webb. Thus, not only has that telescope killed almost all of NASA’s entire astrophysics program, it has damaged the planetary program as well.

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Russian to fly on Orion?

In negotiations between NASA and Roscosmos on their hoped-for partnership to build the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G), it has been proposed that when SLS carries Orion and the platform’s Russian airlock to lunar orbit a Russian will go as well.

“Within the framework of talks, draft plans of future manned missions to the lunar stations have been made. Among other issues, the possibility to send one Russian cosmonaut as part of the crew of the Orion spacecraft that will drag the Russian airlock module to the moon is on the agenda. The Russian cosmonaut will have to ensure the integration of the module with the station,” the source said.

A source in Russia’s Rocket and Space Corporation Energia (RSC Energia) that would produce the module confirmed this information to Sputnik, saying that four manned missions were expected to be sent to the station and the Russian cosmonaut should accompany the Russian-made module during its transportation to the Earth satellite.

This all sounds so wonderful. Too bad it is so unconnected with reality. Congress has yet to provide any funds for LOP-G. At the moment, SLS/Orion is only funded through its first manned mission.

At the same time, I am getting the feeling that both NASA and Congress expect SLS/Orion’s $4 billion-plus annual budget that it has gotten since the program started in the late 2000s will simply continue, giving them the money to build this Potemkin Village in orbit around the Moon while funding the Russian contributions.

That’s what happened with ISS. The U.S. footed most of the bills for the Russian portion of ISS, and the Russians are now hoping we will do the same for LOP-G. Sadly, I also expect our corrupt Congress will go along, focused as they are in only distributing pork to local districts while encouraging a global international village having nothing to do with American interests. They see LOP-G not as exploring space, but as a jobs program, both here in the U.S. and in Russia.

And a jobs program is exactly what it is. Just like it will take SLS/Orion almost two decades to complete its first manned launch, LOP-G will likely not get anything built in orbit around the Moon for more than a decade. Don’t expect anything substantial assembled in lunar orbit before the mid-2030s, at the earliest.

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More problems uncovered during testing of the James Webb Space Telescope

During ground tests of the James Webb Space Telescope engineers have discovered an additional quite astonishing problem that will certainly delay the project again.

In a presentation at a meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board here May 3, Greg Robinson, the JWST program director at NASA Headquarters, said some “screws and washers” appear to have come off the spacecraft during recent environmental testing at a Northrop Grumman facility in Southern California.

Technicians found the items after the spacecraft element of JWST, which includes the bus and sunshield but not its optics and instruments, was moved last weekend from one chamber for acoustics tests to another to prepare for vibration testing.

“Right now we believe that all of this hardware — we’re talking screws and washers here — come from the sunshield cover,” he said. “We’re looking at what this really means and what is the recovery plan.” The problem, he said, was only a couple of days old, and he had few additional details about the problem. “It’s not terrible news, but it’s not good news, either,” he said. [emphasis mine]

The absurd spin expressed by the program director above is garbage. This is unbelievable and entirely unacceptable. On spacecraft, especially those that are not planned for in-space maintenance like Webb, screws are routinely sealed with some form of glue so that they will not unscrew themselves during the vibrations of launch. This is standard space engineering and has been for more than a half century.

That some screws came off Webb during testing suggests a quality control problem at Northrop Grumman that is beyond comprehension.

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GAO predicts more delays and cost increases in NASA’s big projects

The Government Accountability Office is predicting more delays and cost increases for most of NASA’s big projects in its tenth annual report.

The cost and schedule performance” of NASA’s major projects “has deteriorated, but the extent of cost deterioration is unknown” because NASA does not have a cost estimate for Orion. Orion is “one of the largest projects in the portfolio” and NASA “expects cost growth.”

As for schedule, “the average launch delay for the portfolio was 12 months, the highest delay GAO has reported in its 10 years” of making these assessments. GAO said the 12-month average delay is up from 7 months in last year’s assessment.

Further, NASA faces the risk of more cost and schedule growth because of “new, large, complex projects that will enter the portfolio and expensive projects remaining the portfolio longer than expected.” Europa Clipper, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, and Europa Lander are cited as examples of those future large, complex projects. GAO did give NASA credit for putting processes in place to control the costs of Europa Clipper and WFIRST.

GAO identified nine existing projects as the biggest contributors to the poor cost and schedule performance: SLS, Exploration Ground Systems (EGS), the Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment (SGSS) cited in the 2017 report, Mars 2020, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), ICESat-2, NISAR, ICON, and GRACE-FO (GRACE-Follow On).

Orion has cost already cost the taxpayer about $15 billion, all of which will only buy the taxpayer three capsules (two unmanned test flights and a single manned flight). And yet they don’t have enough money yet, and NASA can’t provide a total cost estimate? To me, this appears to be outright theft. Building three capsules simply shouldn’t cost that much. (Note: the report claims Orion has cost about $6.6 billion. My number above comes from actual appropriations by Congress specifically for Orion. I think my number is a far more accurate reflection of the project’s true cost.)

Though the report expresses concerns about schedule delays in the commercial crew program, it is with the NASA-run projects that the report finds the worst cost overruns and delays. All of the usual suspects above come in for criticism: Webb, WFIRST, SLS (and its associated ground facilities), Orion, LOP-G.

I will make a prediction: All these NASA projects will be cited for further cost overruns and further delays in next year’s GAO report. By that time, we shall have also seen the first test flights of the commercial crew capsules by Boeing and SpaceX.

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NASA tests new small fission power plant for future space missions

NASA has successfully completed a full test of a new small fission power plant that it hopes to use in future space missions.

The prototype power system uses a solid, cast uranium-235 reactor core, about the size of a paper towel roll. Passive sodium heat pipes transfer reactor heat to high-efficiency Stirling engines, which convert the heat to electricity.

According to David Poston, the chief reactor designer at NNSA’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, the purpose of the recent experiment in Nevada was two-fold: to demonstrate that the system can create electricity with fission power, and to show the system is stable and safe no matter what environment it encounters. “We threw everything we could at this reactor, in terms of nominal and off-normal operating scenarios and KRUSTY passed with flying colors,” said Poston.

The Kilopower team conducted the experiment in four phases. The first two phases, conducted without power, confirmed that each component of the system behaved as expected. During the third phase, the team increased power to heat the core incrementally before moving on to the final phase. The experiment culminated with a 28-hour, full-power test that simulated a mission, including reactor startup, ramp to full power, steady operation and shutdown.

Throughout the experiment, the team simulated power reduction, failed engines and failed heat pipes, showing that the system could continue to operate and successfully handle multiple failures.

This power plant appears similar in concept to the fission RTG nuclear fuel systems that have been used routinely for decades on unmanned planetary probes such as the two Voyager spacecraft, New Horizons, and on Curiosity. This new system however provides significantly more power, as much as ten kilowatts compared to the approximate two hundred watts provided by RTGs.

Such a system will be essential for future bases on both Mars and the Moon, where solar power is not the best option. I should also add that such a system might possibly have applications here on Earth. Developed properly, it could provide a practical power source for out-of-the-way locations not on the grid. If made cheap enough, it might also provide electrical customers a cheaper and competitive alternative that will allow them to remove themselves from the grid entirely.

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Bridenstine confirmed as NASA administrator

After an eight month delay, caused partly by the refusal of any Democrats to vote for a Trump nominee, Congressman Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma) was today confirmed as NASA’s administrator.

The vote passed 50-49, and only finally occurred because Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) decided to stop opposing Bridenstine.

I don’t think this nomination will matter much. The people who are really in charge of the U.S. space effort don’t work for NASA, and in fact are not even in the government. They also have enough financial power that they probably can force NASA to do what they want, over the long run. Bridenstine will I think carry water for them.

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Sierra Nevada opens all rockets to launching Dream Chaser

In a status update for its Dream Chaser reusable mini-shuttle cargo ship to ISS, Sierra Nevada officials also revealed that they are considering a wide range of launch companies for future launches.

SNC announced a contract with ULA in July 2017 that covered two Dream Chaser launches, in 2020 and 2021. Both would use the Atlas 5 552, the largest version of the Atlas 5 with a five-meter payload fairing, five solid rocket boosters and a dual-engine Centaur upper stage.

However, Sirangelo said the company was looking at other options for launching the second and later Dream Chaser ISS cargo missions. “It’s a quite interesting time in the launch business, where we see all the major launch companies coming out with a new launch system,” he said. “We are looking at all of the launch systems.” Sirangelo said later that the company issued a request for proposals for multiple Dream Chaser launches. “We’ll probably be making a decision by the end of this year,” he said. “We’re gotten tremendous response for it.” He declined to discuss specific vehicles under consideration but said SNC received “really great response from all the major providers.”

Their willingness to open up the launch bidding is merely a recognition that they can save money by encouraging competition for their business. The vehicle itself has not yet completed its design review, though they hope to begin its assembly within a month, with a planned launch date in late 2020.

The company was awarded its cargo contract in January 2016, more than two years ago. It seems to me that it has taken far too long to get to this point. I wonder if NASA has thrown up roadblocks, as it has with SpaceX.

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FCC upset FCC not included in National Space Council

Turf war! The FCC commissioner today questioned the omission of an FCC representative on Trump’s reborn National Space Council.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said April 17 that the Federal Communications Commission “needs to coordinate more closely with other federal authorities” as it navigates through new space activities. “Right now the National Space Council is considering policy changes to help promote the growth of the commercial space industry,” she said. “Their efforts encompass everything from streamlining licenses to reforming export controls, protecting airwaves, to facilitating space activities … the FCC should have a seat at the table. It’s a glaring omission that this agency does not, because through our oversight of the airwaves and licensing of satellite services, we have an important role ensuring the viability of space for future generations.”

Rosenworcel noted that the National Space Council as revived by the Trump administration last year has a distinguished list of leaders, including the head of NASA, the secretaries of defense, transportation and homeland security, and others, calling it “an impressive list.” But “cutting the FCC out of this discussion is an unseemly mistake, and one that deserves a fix,” she said.

To translate: The FCC wants to keep its regulatory power over space operations, and by excluding them from the council Trump is threatening that power. This is unacceptable!

If the Trump administration is truly serious about streamlining the space regulatory bureaucracy, we should hear more complaints like this in the coming months, from the FAA, NASA, the State Department, and other agencies. Normally such government streamlining efforts only make things worse, because all the threatened government agencies chime in with complaints like this. The result is that nothing gets streamlined. Instead, the effort merely adds another layer of bureaucracy, as illustrated by my previous post.

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NASA might scale down the first manned SLS flight

In order to meet its present schedule and budget, NASA is considering scaling down its first manned SLS flight in 2023 by using the same smaller version of SLS that will fly the first unmanned test flight in 2020.

The SLS has been in development for the last decade, and when complete, it will be NASA’s main rocket for taking astronauts to the Moon and Mars. NASA has long planned to debut the SLS with two crucial test missions. The first flight, called EM-1, will be uncrewed, and it will send the smallest planned version of the rocket on a three-week long trip around the Moon. Three years later, NASA plans to launch a bigger, more powerful version of the rocket around the Moon with a two-person crew — a mission called EM-2.

But now, NASA may delay that rocket upgrade and fly the same small version of the SLS for the crewed flight instead. If that happens, NASA would need to come up with a different type of mission for the crew to do since they won’t be riding on the more powerful version of the vehicle. “If EM-2 flies that way, we would have to change the mission profile because we can’t do what we could do if we had the [larger SLS],” Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s acting administrator, said during a Congressional hearing yesterday.

NASA clarified that astronauts would still fly around the Moon on the second flight. However, the rocket would not be able to carry extra science payloads as NASA had originally planned. “The primary objective for EM-2 is to demonstrate critical functions with crew aboard, including mission planning, system performance, crew interfaces, and navigation and guidance in deep space, which can be accomplished on a Block 1 SLS,” a NASA spokesperson said in a statement to The Verge.

The problem here really is that Congress keeps throwing money at this boondoggle. It will fly, but it will never be able to make the exploration and colonization of the solar system possible. It is simply too expensive and has a far too slow launch rate. Instead, it will allow for NASA to do stunts in space, while elected officials can preen and prance about, bragging about the jobs they brought to their districts.

And the nation’s debt will grow, and grow, and grow.

I hold to my prediction that private companies will bypass SLS in the 2020s, doing far more for far less. The differences between them will become downright embarrassing to SLS and Congress.

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Status update on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

Link here. The story is focused on the decision by NASA to hold off launching a replacement for MRO and instead keep it operating for another decade. In telling this story, however, the article also provides us a detail look at the spacecraft’s present condition.

[A]ging batteries and gyroscopes, used to store electricity and aid navigation, will have to be carefully watched in the coming years to keep the mission going. “We found that they weren’t charging at full capacity,” Tamppari said of the batteries. MRO charges its batteries through its solar arrays while in sunlight. During night passes over Mars, the orbiter draws electricity from its batteries for about 40 minutes during each two-hour lap around the planet. The spacecraft now charges its batteries higher than before, NASA said, and engineers sent up commands for MRO to reduce the draw on the batteries while in shadow.

MRO’s two inertial measurement units are also showing signs of their age. Each redundant unit contains three gyroscopes and three accelerometers, feeding data about the spacecraft’s orientation to on-board computers. One measurement unit likely in the final months of its useful lifetime, Tamppari said, and the other is showing signs of degradation.

Ground controllers found a work-around by implementing an “all-stellar” navigation mode on MRO in March. The new technique allows the orbiter to sense the positions of the stars to determine which way it is pointing. “In all-stellar mode, we can do normal science and normal relay,” said Dan Johnston, MRO project manager at JPL, in a statement released in February. “The inertial measurement unit powers back on only when it’s needed, such as during safe mode, orbital trim maneuvers, or communications coverage during critical events around a Mars landing.”

There’s more at the link. Since MRO is also used as the main communications relay satellite between the Martian ground-based probes and the Earth, the story also outlines the communications capabilities of all spacecraft presently orbiting Mars. All told, it seems that if MRO fails the research on the surface will be significantly impacted, even if the rovers and landers are all still working.

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NASA expands first manned Starliner mission

NASA has modified its contract with Boeing to allow its first manned Starliner test mission to add an astronaut and extend the mission’s length so that it more resembles an operational flight to ISS.

NASA is considering adding a third crew member to the Starliner’s “Crew Flight Test” and could extend its trip to the International Space Station from two weeks up to six months, the length of a typical ISS expedition. The potential changes, outlined in a contract modification with Boeing, could help NASA maintain its presence on the International Space Station through 2019 and beyond.

NASA’s last purchased ride aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, upon which the U.S. has relied for access to the ISS since the shuttle’s retirement in 2011, is scheduled to launch in the fall of 2019.
Boeing’s new Starliner spacesuit features lightweight fabric, slim gloves and sneaker-like boots. But Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon may not be certified to fly four-person crews until after that. “This contract modification provides NASA with additional schedule margin if needed,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, head of human spaceflight operations at NASA headquarters in Washington. “We appreciate Boeing’s willingness to evolve its flight to ensure we have continued access to space for our astronauts.”

Doing this makes some sense, but I wonder why NASA chose to do it with Boeing’s Starliner instead of SpaceX’s Dragon. Starliner has never flown in any form, while the manned Dragon is based on SpaceX’s well tested design.

I suspect NASA will soon modify its SpaceX contract as well. It makes sense. Once you put humans on board, you might as well give yourself the option to do a full mission.

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