What’s NASA’s Biggest Accomplishment of 2009? It’s Still Here.

A space station in the movie '2001: A Space Odyssey.' It's hard to believe that by 2015 we might not have any space station (the sci-fi writers in the 20th century didn't see that coming).
A space station in the movie '2001: A Space Odyssey.' It's hard to believe that by 2015 we might not have any manned outpost in orbit (sci-fi writers never saw that coming).

I was only half joking when I tweeted, “Vote for your favorite NASA accomplishment in 2009: http://bit.ly/83xWlJ [x] Still existing.” I was referring to a vote that is being held over on iTWire, where they’ve listed an array of NASA endeavors and then asked their readers to pick their favorite mission/discovery.

To be honest, I wouldn’t have a clue about how to choose between a Mercury flyby, precision-bombing of the Moon or detection Martian methane; all endeavors have enormous merit and each have vastly improved our knowledge of the Universe. Each is as profound as the other. But it’s not the vote of a 3 page list of NASA achievements that I found myself most uneasy with, it’s the fact that none of these achievements can make the future of the world’s premier space agency any more secure, especially when we are talking about orbiting U.S. astronauts.

There’s a strange dichotomy of opinion: NASA is globally renowned and respected for carrying out outstanding science, and yet it is constantly lambasted (often unfairly) for its spaceflight ineptitude.

Shuttle Out. Space Station Out?

The catalyst to NASA’s human spaceflight problems is of course the retirement of the shuttle next year. We’ve seen it coming for a long time and yet the “5-year gap” hasn’t budged, in fact, it’s become a lot bigger. This gap is the number of years between the shuttle being retired and the proposed completion of NASA’s next launch system, Constellation. To fill this gap, the U.S. must use the Russian Soyuz vehicle at a premium rate. One can only imagine the diplomatic fun NASA has in store for the next few years.

And why should NASA maintain its human spaceflight program anyway? You remember the International Space Station (ISS), right? Well, it’s a good idea to have access to the biggest space station ever constructed in Earth-orbit after spending billions to build the thing. Unfortunately, the very foundations of the ISS are looking a little shaky.

Here we are with the world’s most expensive real estate zooming over our heads, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just told the White House that the U.S. taxpayer is getting a raw deal from International Space Station (ISS) science. This obviously doesn’t sound good for the ISS’ future beyond 2015. (That is, if you can still comprehend that the space station is still slated for decommissioning in five years time.)

Slight-Of-Hand Rocketry

I only have a general idea about what information the GAO has access to, but I know that the ISS is doing continuous science in microgravity to better our understanding about how we operate in space and use instrumentation that have a huge advantage over ground-based techniques. Unfortunately, NASA is a political entity and politicians are eying the space station with more than a little skepticism. As pointed out by Greg Fish over at Weird Things, wasn’t the ISS supposed to the stepping stone to the Moon… or even Mars by now? Not so long ago I remember intense excitement for how the ISS was going to change the world. Shockingly, now I sometimes hear people say: “we have a space station?!”

To make matters worse, the shuttle replacement is underfunded and behind schedule and the shadow of doubt over Constellation is becoming blacker than a moonless night. NASA triumphantly launched the Ares I-X, only for the celebrations to be quenched by critics (including ex-Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin calling it “slight-of-hand rocketry“) pointing out that the Ares test launch was a publicity stunt at best. At worst, the space agency was conning the American public into thinking progress was being made.

Whether NASA makes any kind of Constellation progress or continues to perform outstanding science on the ISS, it seems that there is a widening disconnect between NASA science and the perception of what NASA is trying to do. Many argue that NASA is just really bad at communicating science to a public audience, but I would say that the agency is doing more than ever to communicate their stuff. Also, NASA does an awful lot more than just getting astronauts into space — their robotic missions, observatories, space telescopes and research are breaking new ground every day. So why the huge question mark hanging over NASA’s human spaceflight plans?

Myopic Politics

Well, getting man into space is dangerous, it’s expensive and it’s long-term. All of which are not good for the political nature of NASA. In 2004, President Bush made the gargantuan promise that the US would make it back to the Moon by 2020 (and Mars soon after). This sounds great, but there was no money. Bush had made a political decision based on his term in office, he had also made it after the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy when seven astronauts lost their lives. Back then, NASA needed direction more than ever, especially as the shuttle fleet was grounded.

Although the shuttle missions recommenced and NASA got back to leading space station construction, by 2009 Bush’s “Vision” has become nothing more than a pipe dream. The money that was promised never materialized and it is now up to President Obama to get NASA’s human spaceflight plans back on its feet. But the damage has been done and the U.S. has an ailing economy and lumped with an overpriced Constellation Program. Changes need to be made.

The Augustine Commission has done something to identify the options, but the final decision comes down to what Obama and the new NASA Administrator Charles Bolden can hash out.

Commercial Rocketeers

Personally, I don’t see the Constellation Program getting off the starting blocks. But I don’t think this is due to any kind of technical or design issue, it will be purely political. Funds are tight, Constellation is too expensive. Sadly, adding insult to injury, the ISS is also in the firing line.

So now the responsibility for U.S. participation in the ISS falls on the shoulders of the burgeoning private spaceflight sector, which in itself could be a revolution in the making. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a real commercial answer to the human spaceflight problem? Using companies like SpaceX to ferry astronauts to-and-from the ISS makes a lot more sense than NASA doing the same job for way more money.

But again, I have that nagging feeling about a genuine disconnect between the public and the importance of spaceflight. Not only can human spaceflight advance human experience, it can boost our economy, education and technology. Last time I looked, those were very political sectors, it’s just unfortunate that politicians and many voters will never understand the correlation.

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Actually, Obama Hasn’t Decided on the Future of NASA

You may be forgiven for thinking that President Obama had decided on the future of NASA’s human spaceflight plans yesterday, but in an official (note: official) statement from the White House today, Obama says that he has made no such decision.

Quoting “knowledgeable” (yet anonymous) sources, Science Magazine’s ScienceInsider blog said:

The president chose the new direction for the U.S. human space flight program Wednesday at a White House meeting with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, according to officials familiar with the discussion. NASA would receive an additional $1 billion in 2011 both to get the new launcher on track and to bolster the agency’s fleet of robotic Earth-monitoring spacecraft.

In a nutshell, NASA would get an additional $1 billion in funding and start work on a new (yet undetermined) heavy-lift launch system. Good news for NASA, but not-so-good news for the Ares I (and possibly Ares V, although the larger rocket wasn’t mentioned). Also, this magical silver bullet of a “new” launch vehicle would be ready for blast-off in 2018.

However, Space Flight Now has just reported that the White House hasn’t made a decision yet:

NASA and White House officials claim such reports are mere speculation, but they are providing no information on when a decision could be announced. The administration will file its fiscal year 2011 budget request in February.

Still mulling over the findings from the Augustine Commission report, Obama and Bolden have yet to arrive at an agreement as to how to progress with NASA’s human spaceflight plans. It’s now very clear that ex-President Bush’s bold “Vision for Space Exploration” was lacking a little thing called money, and the commission’s findings indicated that NASA needs an extra $3 billion in funding to keep the agency’s human spaceflight plans alive.

Although these anonymous sources are no doubt credible, it’s wise to wait until the final word from the White House is known before saying “bye-bye” to Ares.

Via: @SpaceFlightNow

Spirit Suffers Another Bout of Amnesia. Spirit Suffers Another Bout of Amnesia.

"Oh, that's a nice view, I hadn't noticed that hill before. Hey, that's a pretty-looking rock!"

NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit is suffering from amnesia, again.

This is hardly surprising if we consider that the lifespan of Spirit should have been 3 months, the fact that it has lasted 69 months (so far) is nothing short of miraculous. In rover-mission-lifetime years, doesn’t that make Spirit and her twin sister Opportunity 1380 years old? (I decided that a “lifetime” is 60 years, in case you were wondering.) Perhaps that’s not how it works, but for NASA to build a robot that has lived 23 times longer than the mission specified is pretty damn impressive. No wonder Spirit is losing her memory. I’m surprised she hasn’t lost the will to live.

Spirit has lost the use of one of her wheels and remains stuck in the sand… so she is showing her age. But still, 23× longer than planned? When I’m 1380 years old, I hope I’m only suffering amnesia every now and again.

Source: Physorg.com

Ares I-X Away!

The Prandtl-Glauert singularity forms as Ares I-X goes transonic (NASA)
The Prandtl-Glauert singularity forms as Ares I-X goes transonic (NASA)

What’s the cloud surrounding the Ares I-X during its transonic flight? Have a look at my Discovery News Big Pic for the answer

You could say it’s been an eventful day… but you’d be understating the importance of the last 24 hours. We saw the first test launch of the Constellation Program, and it was a success (despite being delayed by a day). Although it’s going to be a while until NASA processes all the data gathered from the launch, I watched that elegant white rocket take to the skies above Kennedy Space Center and thought “I can see astronauts travelling on that thing.”

Alas, this thought may be fleeting as the Constellation Program is underfunded and lacking direction. However, there’s a lot to be said for seeing the Ares I test vehicle soar 28 miles into the atmosphere. Could this “proof of concept” sway funding decisions in NASA’s favour?

I couldn’t even guess right now.

So, for now, let’s enjoy the Ares I-X launch and congratulate NASA on a job well done. The US space agency has done mankind proud. Again.

Ares I-X: Will This Be The Only Launch Of Constellation?

The Ares I-X and space shuttle Atlantis, ready to launch (NASA)
The Ares I-X and space shuttle Atlantis, ready to launch (NASA)

This is possibly the most confusing image I have seen since I started writing about human space flight. In the foreground, we have the brand new Ares I crew launch test vehicle for the Constellation Program (a.k.a. the Ares I-X), and in the background we have space shuttle Atlantis awaiting its scheduled Nov. 16th STS-129 launch. Is this going to be a historic scene of the past and future generations of U.S. manned space flight? Or is this going to be an example of how to waste a lot of money very quickly in one launch?

The world should be bubbling over with excitement that we are about to see a brand new launch system take to the skies on Tuesday at 8am EDT (albeit on a suborbital path) but it’s not, as hanging over the Constellation Program is the decision to come from the White House after the Augustine Commission report was released on Thursday. No one expected good news for the Ares I rocket, and nothing much has changed. NASA is developing the wrong rocket for the wrong destination (i.e. the Moon).

AresIX_patch02.svg

On the one hand, I want to see the Constellation Program become the trailblazer of manned spaceflight, but on the other hand I’m concerned that the program is too flawed and too expensive (pretty much in agreement with the Commission). Perhaps a cheaper, more efficient alternative can be implemented to solve our current space exploration woes? NASA definitely needs the support of commercial spaceflight, perhaps a focus on stimulating the commercial sector should take an even higher priority than space station resupply contracts?

There are arguments for and against Constellation, and I haven’t worked out where I stand yet. However, I totally support Norm Augustine’s comments that NASA shouldn’t be “running a trucking service” in low-Earth orbit. That job should be left to commercial spaceflight companies. NASA should be pushing into new frontiers with the most technologically advanced spaceship they can develop.

So, back to this photo. Never before has the term “bitter sweet” been so applicable. I just hope we see a perfect launch on Tuesday, but it may well be the only flight of Constellation (so be sure to wake up early, just in case).

Image source: NASA

The Ares I-X Rollout

The Ares I-X rollout from the Kennedy Space Center's Vehicle Assembly Building (from NASA TV)
The Ares I-X rollout from the Kennedy Space Center's Vehicle Assembly Building (from NASA TV)

The Ares I-X rollout began a little after 1:30 am EDT on Tuesday morning at Kennedy Space Center as planned. NASA TV was running the event live, and it was great to see the long, slender test rocket slowly edge along the crawlerway to begin its overnight journey to launchpad 39B.

Despite the pessimism surrounding the Constellation Program, I for one am very excited to see the Ares I-X blast off. It will be a sight to remember.

Ares I-X: The Beginning And The End For Constellation?

ares-1-x

The 327 ft tall Ares I-X is currently waiting inside Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building for its delayed 4.2 mile rollout to the launchpad. Originally scheduled for Monday, the rollout was postponed by 24 hours when engineers spotted a nitrogen gas leak on Oct. 14th. It would appear the problem has been rectified and we can look forward to seeing the tallest rocket on the planet roll out to Pad 39B by Tuesday morning.

Unfortunately, the Ares I-X test flight is generating little excitement, even though NASA is heralding the scheduled Oct. 27th launch as “the First Flight of a New Era.” When there’s talk that the Constellation Program might be scrapped all together to allow for a cheaper alternative, there’s little wonder that even the most excited space flight enthusiasts are looking at the slender white frame of the Ares I-X thinking, will this be the only launch of the Constellation Program?

This negativity isn’t unfounded either. As we await the final report from the Augustine Commission (to be delivered to the White House later this week), one of the conclusions could be that Constellation is more hassle for NASA to complete rather than to scrap.

In this case Ares I-X will have become a very expensive firework.

Although it is unlikely the White House will decide on a course of action before Oct. 27th, I can’t help but think the outcome of Constellation would have been decided before the Ares I-X has even blasted off. No matter how well the four-stage test rocket performs during its 28 mile-high suborbital flight, the project could still be shelved.

But what if there are several options for NASA as the Commission Report summary suggests? Could the Ares I-X launch be the decision maker?

The Oct. 27th launch will be an amazing event in itself (and I’m dead excited to see that monster thunder into the skies), and unless an overlooked technical problem rears its ugly head, we’ll see the test launch of a brand new rocket system. What’s not awesome about that? If the Ares I-X blasts off perfectly, and the Ares design is proven to be free from vibrations and other design flaws, could a proof of concept sway the decision in favour of keeping Constellation in development? Possibly.

Regardless of the conclusions to come out of the Augustine Commission, the launch of Ares I-X will mark a crossroads for manned spaceflight. History will be written, but will history favour the Constellation Program? I don’t think I could place a bet either way.

Source: Orlando Sentinel

First Images of LCROSS Centaur Impact Plume Released

The lunar dust plume as seen 15 seconds after Centaur impact. The size of the plume was approximately 6-8 km wide at this time (NASA)
The lunar dust plume as seen 15 seconds after Centaur impact. The size of the plume was approximately 6-8 km wide at this time (NASA)

Rising a mile high and up to 5 miles wide, the impact plume of the spent Centaur rocket was observed by the NASA LCROSS shepherding probe before it travelled through the cloud of dust and crashed 4 minutes later.

The lack of an observed dust plume has been the cause of much confusion to people who watched the events unfold in the early hours of October 9th. NASA publicised the impact event as if it was going to be an explosion of dust (and possibly ice), observable from telescopes on Earth. To say the mission finale was a disappointment is an understatement.

Following the impact, NASA responded by saying that although infrared images proved the Centaur crashed on target (and a 20 meter-wide crater was created), the lack of an accompanying plume could mean that the mass hit the side of a crater (therefore blasting debris at an angle), or it hit a region devoid of dust and water ice, or the plume was simply less obvious than expected. Now that NASA has released new images of the impact, it would appear the latter may be the case; the plume was just less spectacular than the promo videos depicted.

Nine instruments on board LCROSS captured impact sequence, but until now it was unknown whether an impact plume occurred. Now NASA has confirmed that an impact flash, plume and crater were all generated.

There is a clear indication of a plume of vapor and fine debris,” said Anthony Colaprete, LCROSS principal investigator. “Within the range of model predictions we made, the ejecta brightness appears to be at the low end of our predictions and this may be a clue to the properties of the material the Centaur impacted.”

So the number-crunching continues as we wait to find out whether water was contained within that plume. However, judging by the faint cloud of ejecta, I’m thinking dreams of a H2O reservoir in Cabeus crater might be short lived.

Source: NASA, LA Times. A special thanks to @jamerz3294 for the tip!

Where Are The Protests Now?

Where's the protest?
Where's the protest?

In a discussion I seem to keep having these days when I mention that human spaceflight is actually a valuable endeavour for a nation, I’m usually met with a look of incongruity. Then the question: What has space exploration ever done for us?

I used to get a little angry about this question (of course space exploration is important!) but in actuality, I have to explain the answer because it isn’t necessarily obvious. By pushing into space, a nation can enrich its technology, improve education, boost employment in skilled areas, thereby improving the economy and generally improving a nation’s standing in the world. That’s the eco-friendly version. There are other applications such as military prowess, strategic advantage and business potential. Unfortunately, doing bold things in space requires money, and to get money you need to convince the government that it’s worth spending money on. Last time I looked, there’s no Space Race 2 going on, so we can’t rely on politics to see the necessity of space flight.

However, the US has invested billions of dollars in the exploration of space, and although NASA is a money-hungry entity, it produces results and has shaped the world as we know it. Granted, the US space agency was built on Cold War ideals and was hinged around the sole purpose of beating the Soviets to the Moon, but modern NASA is still relevant, if not more so.

Rockets and healthcare

From space, and back to Earth with a bump.

I watched a series of fascinating videos of the protests that went on in Washington D.C. on September 12th concerning President Obama’s healthcare reform plans. The Tea Party (not Twinnings, or Boston… some other tea party that didn’t have a lot of tea) exploded to life to the sound of tens of thousands of voices protesting “socialist” healthcare. Apparently, a nationalized healthcare system is a bad thing. The arguments against Obama’s plan seem rather outlandish to me, and a hardcore group of protesters (not all the protesters, just a few apparently missing a sanity gene) accused the US President of being a “communist,” “socialist,” “Marxist” and (most shockingly) a “Nazi.”

So, here we are, with a field-full of rabid protesters that have been whipped up into a frenzy by the media, special interest groups and political antagonizers. These geniuses see a nationalized healthcare system as a socialist agenda. Of course, this means communism is just down the garden path. Last time I looked, the UK wasn’t a communist state, and although the British National Health Service (NHS) isn’t perfect, it’s a damn sight better than the US health insurance insanity.

The point I’m trying to make is that tens of thousands of people descended on the US capital to protest a healthcare bill that actually seems quite sensible. Unfortunately, this huge group believe this bill is actually a government conspiracy intended to dupe the public, bankrupt the country and control the nation.

NASA losses

Now let’s wind back the clock to last year, when it was announced NASA would be shedding thousands of jobs when the space shuttle is retired. More recently, a task group was formed to discuss NASA’s options considering its budget isn’t going to grow any time soon — unfortunately, Bush’s “Vision for Space Exploration” can’t be done because the Constellation Program will cost too much. Now the Augustine Commission has set out some plans that may curtail NASA’s big projects, possibly even cancelling Constellation.

To top all this off, there is a 5-year gap (minimum) between the shuttle being retired and Constellation taking over (if that even happens), that means there will be at least 5 years the US will have without a manned launch vehicle. Yes, the US has gone through this before (between the end of the Apollo Program in 1970 and the Shuttle Program in 1982), but this time we could lose access to the space station, a $100 billion project the US is heavily invested in.

Fortunately, US companies are seeing business opportunities in space, so given enough funding, start-ups like SpaceX could start ferrying NASA astronauts into LEO sooner rather than later. There are also other nations involved in the space station and they can give us a lift into space. Unfortunately, apart from the Shuttle, there’s only one other spacecraft that’s human-rated in the world. That’s Soyuz.

Russian Roulette

Soyuz is great, it’s a sturdy vehicle and it’s received little complaint from the astronauts and cosmonauts that have been ferried around in it (well, most of the time). The Russian space agency will basically be offering NASA taxi rides into space so the US can still use the International Space Station.

The cost? $50 million per seat.

Wow, what a bargain. The space shuttle costs the best part of a billion dollars to launch every time. Compare that with $50 million, it almost seems as if this 5-year gap is a good thing. It might save NASA some money!

However, in the process of retiring the shuttle, skilled US jobs will be lost. Even the transition from the shuttle program to Constellation will cause a re-shuffle of NASA employees. Last year, Senator Bill Nelson pointed out that shedding jobs from the US space agency, only to rely on a Russian launch vehicle, will have the effect of generating jobs in Russia. This might seem like an over-exaggeration, but it may indirectly be the case.

The added concern is that the $50 million value per Soyuz seat could increase. After all, US-Russia relations aren’t exactly toasty, the Russian space agency could set its own price for taxi rides to the space station. NASA money will be spent, not on advancing US spaceflight capabilities, but on another nation’s spaceflight capabilities. Sure, NASA and Roscosmos are co-operating now, but both are government-backed entities and that co-operation could turn south during the next East-West political upset.

Conclusion

In summary, until US spaceflight companies develop human-rated space vehicles, or until the Constellation Project (or equivalent) is finished, the US will be wholly dependent on Russia for human spaceflight. NASA will be paying a premium rate for that privilege.

So when I see thousands of individuals crowding on Capitol Hill, angrily protesting about the idiotic belief that the President of the USA is on the verge of creating a communist state, I think about NASA and the fact that the US space agency has been forced to pay for seats on board a spaceship maintained by an ex-communist state the US government is having problems with.

Where are the protests now?

A Visor Filled With Awesomeness

The space station as reflected in John "Danny" Olivas' spacesuit visor on September 3, 2009 (NASA)
The space station as reflected in John "Danny" Olivas' spacesuit visor on September 3, 2009 (NASA)

When I came across this image in NASA’s Human Space Flight gallery, I stopped. I was looking for the “perfect” shuttle image during the STS-128 mission to the International Space Station earlier this month, but I got sucked into browsing through the hundreds of EVA photographs NASA has stockpiled in their archives.

This particular scene was taken by NASA astronaut John "Danny" Olivas when he was out on a spacewalk installing a new Ammonia Tank Assembly. The EVA was over six hours long and Olivas was able to do some digital photography in that time. This picture shows his spacesuit helmet visor, with a reflection of the camera at arms length below.

Also visible in the reflections in the visor are various components of the station and European Space Agency astronaut Christer Fuglesang, mission specialist, anchored to a Canadarm2 mobile foot restraint. —NASA

The reflection captures so much detail. The curvature of the Earth can be seen in the distance, with space station solar arrays jutting in front. Even the two docked Soyuz vehicles (TMA-14 and TMA-15) are in shot. To top it all off, ESA astronaut Fuglesang is dangling in the vacuum of space attached to a robotic arm.

Quite simply, awesome.