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October 10th, 2018

NASA OIG Forecasts Further Delays, Large Cost Overruns for SLS

Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft on Pad 39B. (Credit: NASA)

A new audit by the NASA Inspector General criticizes Boeing for its management of the stages of the Space Launch System (SLS) while forecasting further delays and large cost overruns for the beleaguered program that is designed to send astronauts to deep space.

“As of August 2018, NASA has spent $11.9 billion on the SLS, but will require significant additional funding to complete the first Core Stage—more than 3 years later than initially planned and at double the anticipated cost,” the audit concluded.

“In light of the Project’s development delays, we have concluded NASA will be unable to meet its EM-1 launch window currently scheduled between December 2019 and June 2020,” the report stated.

The EM-1 mission is the first launch of SLS and the second flight of the Orion spacecraft, which will not have a crew aboard. The delays also threaten the schedule for the crewed EM-2 mission, which is currently set to launch in mid-2022.

The audit, the first in a series examining SLS, examined how NASA and Boeing have managed the development of the system’s first (core), second and exploration upper (EUS) stages.

October 1st, 2018

NASA Unveils Sustainable Campaign to Return to Moon, on to Mars

NASA’s Exploration Campaign includes active leadership in low-Earth orbit, in orbit around the Moon and on its surface, and at destinations far beyond, including Mars.
Credits: NASA

In December of 2017, President Donald Trump signed Space Policy Directive-1, in which the president directed NASA “to lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities.”

In answer to that bold call, and consistent with the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, NASA recently submitted to Congress a plan to revitalize and add direction to NASA’s enduring purpose. The National Space Exploration Campaign calls for human and robotic exploration missions to expand the frontiers of human experience and scientific discovery of the natural phenomena of Earth, other worlds and the cosmos.

The Exploration Campaign builds on 18 continuous years of Americans and our international partners living and working together on the International Space Station. It leverages advances in the commercial space sector, robotics and other technologies, and accelerates in the next few years with the launch of NASA’s Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.

The Exploration Campaign has five strategic goals:

Transition U.S. human spaceflight activities in low-Earth orbit to commercial operations that support NASA and the needs of an emerging private sector market.
Lead the emplacement of capabilities that support lunar surface operations and facilitate missions beyond cislunar space.
Foster scientific discovery and characterization of lunar resources through a series of robotic missions.
Return U.S. astronauts to the surface of the Moon for a sustained campaign of exploration and use.
Demonstrate the capabilities required for human missions to Mars and other destinations.

September 4th, 2018

New NASA Competition Aims to Convert Carbon Dioxide into Exploration Sweet Success

When astronauts begin exploring Mars, they’ll need to use local resources, freeing up launch cargo space for other mission-critical supplies. Carbon dioxide is one resource readily abundant within the Martian atmosphere. NASA’s new CO2 Conversion Challenge, conducted under the Centennial Challenges program, is a public competition seeking novel ways to convert carbon dioxide into useful compounds. Such technologies will allow us to manufacture products using local, indigenous resources on Mars, and can also be implemented on Earth by using both waste and atmospheric carbon dioxide as a resource.

“Enabling sustained human life on another planet will require a great deal of resources and we cannot possibly bring everything we will need. We have to get creative.” said Monsi Roman, program manager of NASA’s Centennial Challenges program. “If we can transform an existing and plentiful resource like carbon dioxide into a variety of useful products, the space – and terrestrial – applications are endless.”

Carbon and oxygen are the molecular building blocks of sugars. Developing efficient systems that can produce glucose from carbon dioxide will help advance the emerging field of biomanufacturing technology on Earth.

While sugar-based biomaterials are inexpensively made on Earth by plants, this approach cannot be easily adapted for space missions because of limited resources such as energy, water and crew time. The CO2 Conversion Challenge aims to help find a solution. Energy rich sugars are preferred microbial energy sources composed of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. They could be used as the feedstock for systems that can efficiently produce a variety of items. Glucose is the target sugar product in this challenge because it is the easiest to metabolize, which will optimize conversion efficiency.

The competition is divided into two phases. During Phase 1, teams must submit a design and description of a conversion system that includes details of the physical-chemical approaches to convert carbon dioxide into glucose. NASA will award up to five teams $50,000 each, to be announced in April 2019. Phase 2, the system construction and demonstration stage, is contingent on promising submissions in Phase 1 that offer a viable approach to achieving challenge goals. Phase 2 will carry a prize purse of up to $750,000, for a total challenge prize purse of $1 million.

August 23rd, 2018

Timely Debate on Lunar Orbit Platform-Gateway at Mars Society Convention

The Mars Society is pleased to announce that a formal debate on NASA’s proposed Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a human-tended facility in orbit around the Moon, will be held at the 21st Annual International Mars Society Convention on Thursday, August 23rd at 8:00 pm in the Pasadena Convention Center’s main ballroom.

The discussion will involve the following proposition: “Resolved: The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway is the right next step for NASA’s human spaceflight program to take to support the human exploration and development of space.” Speaking in the affirmative will be John Mankins, while arguing in the negative will be Dr. Robert Zubrin.

The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway debate is scheduled for one hour, allowing each side 20 minutes for an opening statement, 10 minutes for rebuttal and the remaining time will allow the speakers to take questions from the floor, with one minute answers followed by one minute rebuttals. The full event will be open to the public and the media.

August 3rd, 2018

Senators seek focus on Mars in NASA’s exploration plans

Members of the Senate’s space subcommittee said at a recent hear they want NASA to remain focused on human missions to Mars even as it plans activities in cislunar space and on the moon. Credit: Boeing

Senators preparing a new NASA authorization bill want to ensure that the agency’s long-term focus remains human missions to Mars even as it plans flights to the moon.

At a July 25 hearing by the Senate’s space subcommittee, titled “Destination Mars – Putting American Boots on the Surface of the Red Planet,” key senators made clear that development of a “Gateway” facility in cislunar space, or human missions to the surface of the moon, should not be a distraction to human Mars exploration.

“While the moon will provide a great testing ground in preparation for the journey to Mars, we must remain vigilant and ensure that we limit costly delays that could push a crewed Mars mission in the 2030s out of reach,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chairman of the space subcommittee, in his opening remarks. “Mars is today the focal point of our national space program.”

That view had bipartisan support. “We need to help NASA lift its gaze past the moon and understand how the work we do in space closer to Earth will serve us in our quest for Mars,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), ranking member of the subcommittee.

Both Markey and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) criticized NASA for not yet providing a “roadmap” document required by a 2017 NASA authorization act outlining its plans for eventual human missions to Mars. That report was due to Congress last December.

July 26th, 2018

Putting Boots on Mars Requires a Long-Term Commitment, Experts Tell Senators

An artist’s depiction of humans working on Mars.
Credit: NASA

A group of senators heard expert opinions during a committee hearing on Wednesday (July 25) about what will be required — logistically and scientifically — to safely land humans on Mars.

The hearing was coordinated by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is chair of the Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness. “Mars is today the focal point of our national space program,” Cruz said during opening remarks. “If American boots are to be the first to set foot on the surface, it will define a new generation — generation Mars.”

But right now, NASA’s focus seems to be split between the moon and Mars — a point raised by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, who asked whether the NASA budget is being “robbed” because efforts aimed at a journey to the moon are drawing resources away from the real priority of Mars.

Another clear takeaway from the testimony was the sheer number of tasks NASA needs to accomplish before such a mission can become a reality: everything from figuring out how to land larger spacecraft on Mars to developing systems that can function completely independently of Earth to making sure astronauts can withstand the mental challenges of being so far from home.

All those tasks mean NASA can’t do it alone and needs to find a way to bring other countries as well as private companies into the mix. “People make it sound like the government is actually building all the hardware,” said Chris Carberry, head of Explore Mars, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting exploration of Mars. “They’re not.”

December 11th, 2017

Trump to send astronauts back to the moon — and eventually Mars

President Donald Trump wants to send astronauts where no man has gone before.

Trump will authorize the acting NASA administrator Robert M. Lightfoot Jr. to “lead an innovative space exploration program to send American astronauts back to the moon, and eventually Mars” during a White House signing ceremony.
“The President listened to the National Space Council’s recommendations and he will change our nation’s human spaceflight policy to help America become the driving force for the space industry, gain new knowledge from the cosmos, and spur incredible technology,” deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley said Monday.
The directive, Gidley said, will push NASA to “refocus … on its core mission of space exploration” and if Trump does send astronauts back to the moon, they would be the first to visit the lunar landscape since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

March 21st, 2017

President Trump signs bill authorizing NASA funding, Mars exploration

President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, March 21, 2017, after signing a bill to increase NASA’s budget to $19.5 billion and directs the agency to focus human exploration of deep space and Mars. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, March 21, 2017, after signing a bill to increase NASA’s budget to $19.5 billion and directs the agency to focus human exploration of deep space and Mars. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

President Donald Trump signed a bill into law Tuesday that updates NASA’s mission to add exploration of Mars and authorizes $19.5 billion in spending for the U.S. space agency for the current budget year.

It’s the first time in seven years that there has been an authorization bill for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, also known as NASA, said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a chief sponsor of the bill. Cruz joined several astronauts and other lawmakers in the Oval Office to watch Trump sign the bill.

Last week, Trump sent Congress a budget proposal that would authorize $19.1 billion in agency spending next year. Congress appropriates funding for all government departments and agencies.

“For almost six decades, NASA’s work has inspired millions and millions of Americans to imagine distant worlds and a better future right here on earth,” Trump said. “I’m delighted to sign this bill. It’s been a long time since a bill like this has been signed, reaffirming our commitment to the core mission of NASA: human space exploration, space science and technology.”

The measure amends current law to add human exploration of the red planet as a goal for the agency. It supports use of the International Space Station through at least 2024, along with private sector companies partnering with NASA to deliver cargo and experiments, among other steps.

March 9th, 2017

Congress just passed a bill that tells NASA to send humans to Mars by 2033

For the first time in more than six years, both chambers of Congress passed a bill that approves funding for NASA and gives the space agency new mandates.

The NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 is a bill that the Senate and House collaborated on for months, and it appropriates $19.5 billion to the agency. (NASA received $19.3 billion in 2016, or 0.5% of the total federal budget.)

When the Senate brought the bill before the House of Representatives for a vote on March 7, “no members spoke against the bill” and it passed, according to Jeff Foust at Space News.

The document asks NASA to create a roadmap for getting humans “near or on the surface of Mars in the 2030s.” It also calls on the space agency to continue developing the Space Launch System (SLS) — a behemoth rocket — and the Orion space capsule in order to eventually go to the moon, Mars, and beyond.

Now it’s up to President Trump to sign the bill into law — or veto it.

December 13th, 2016

Trump could replace Obama’s asteroid catcher with a SpaceX-backed mission to Mars

Getty Images/Shutterstock/NASA; illustration by Dave Mosher/Business Insider

Getty Images/Shutterstock/NASA; illustration by Dave Mosher/Business Insider

When Donald Trump is sworn in on January 20, there’s a good chance he could scrap one of President Obama’s boldest visions for NASA: the asteroid redirect mission, or ARM.

ARM would ostensibly launch a robotic probe to an asteroid in 2023, capture the space rock, and tow it near the moon. Next, astronauts would ride NASA’s shiny new Space Launch System and Orion space capsule (which aren’t finished yet) to visit and dig into the asteroid sometime in 2025.

But ARM’s slipping deadlines, ballooning costs, redundancy with the recently launched asteroid-sampling OSIRIS-REx probe, and seeming incongruence with the space agency’s larger ambitions to send people to Mars will almost certainly doom the mission, Eric Berger reported for Ars Technica in February. (The Trump-friendly House Committee on Science, Space and Technology also recently sent an unfriendly letter about ARM to NASA, and it appears to be yet another presumed nail in ARM’s coffin.)

So what could a Trump-controlled NASA replace it with?

Physicist and former astronaut John Grunsfeld, who recently retired as the leader of NASA’s science mission directorate, is pitching a popular idea involving a retrieving a sample of Martian soil, as Berger reported on Monday.