Tag Archives: NASA

NASA’s Mission to Protect Humanity

This week will mark the 48th anniversary of the historic first landing on the moon, what has been to now NASA’s greatest accomplishment. But what the space agency is engaged in now may be of even greater significance.

For decades, those with little concept of the future economic, scientific and national security needs of the U.S. have questioned support for NASA. Now that it is clear that humanity may need the space agency to literally save it from extinction, perhaps some of those opponents of the space agency will reassess their perspective.

Mariette Le Roux, writing for the Phys.Org site, notes that “Throughout its 4.5-billion-year history, Earth has been repeatedly pummeled by space rocks that have caused anything from an innocuous splash in the ocean to species annihilation. When the next big impact will be, nobody knows…‘Sooner or later we will get… a minor or major impact,’ Rolf Densing, who heads the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany [said.] …the risk that Earth will get hit in a devastating event one day is very high… the next impact could well ring in the end of human civilization.”

Max Wehner, writing for BGR, notes that even something less than an extinction-level event, such as that which wiped out the Dinosaurs, would be catastrophic. “Asteroids are the most clear and present threat that our Solar System poses to us, and you only need to look at the scars on the Earth, our moon, and other planets in our neighborhood to see exactly how real that danger is… a Queen’s University Belfast researcher is warning that the Earth is definitely going to be hit, it’s just a matter of when.The expert, Alan Fitzsimmons, points out that an event similar to that of the 1908 meteoroid explosion over the Tunguska region in Russia’s Siberia — which leveled a forest and damaged buildings but didn’t result in any human deaths — could happen again, and if it did happen over a major city, the results would be devastating.”

NASA has taken up the issue. Its’ JPL division asked last October, “What would we do if we discovered a large asteroid on course to impact Earth?…” that was the high-consequence scenario discussed by attendees at a NASA-FEMA tabletop exercise. The third in a series of exercises hosted jointly by NASA and FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — the simulation was designed to strengthen the collaboration between the two agencies, which have Administration direction to lead the U.S. response. “It’s not a matter of if — but when — we will deal with such a situation,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “But unlike any other time in our history, we now have the ability to respond to an impact threat through continued observations, predictions, response planning and mitigation.”

Now, NASA is attempting to take significant steps to defend the planet from that very real threat, and is testing means to protect Earth from an asteroid impact. A key early step is the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission. According to the space agency . “The Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment  mission concept is an international collaboration among the European Space Agency (ESA), NASA, Observatoire de la Côte d´Azur (OCA), and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL).

“AIDA will be the first demonstration of the kinetic impact technique to change the motion of an asteroid in space. AIDA is a dual-mission concept, involving two independent spacecraft – NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), and ESA’s Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM). The DART mission is in Formulation Phase A, led by JHU/APL and managed by the Planetary Missions Program Office at Marshall Space Flight Center for NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office.  AIM, managed by ESA’s European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) is in Preliminary Definition Phase B1.

“AIDA’s primary objective is to demonstrate, and to measure the effects of, a kinetic impact on a small asteroid. Its target is the binary near-Earth asteroid (65803) Didymos, which consists of a primary body approximately 800 meters across, and a secondary body (or “moonlet”) whose 150-meter size is more typical of the size of asteroids that could pose a more common hazard to Earth.

“The DART spacecraft will achieve the kinetic impact by deliberately crashing itself into the moonlet at a speed of approximately 6 km/s, with the aid of an onboard camera and sophisticated autonomous navigation software. The collision will change the speed of the moonlet in its orbit around the main body by a fraction of one percent, enough to be measured using telescopes on Earth. By targeting the small moonlet in a binary system, the AIDA mission plan makes these precise measurements possible and ensures that there is no chance the impact could inadvertently create a hazard to Earth.”

In an effort to enhance NASA’s role and invigorate America’s bid to return to space leadership, President Trump issued an executive order on June 30 re-establishing the National Space Council, to be led by Vice President Mike Pence.

Trump Restores and Expands NASA’s Key Missions

President Trump’s signing of the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, the first comprehensive NASA authorization passed by Congress in more than six years, indicates again the White House emphasis on manned space flight, including a return to the moon and human exploration of Mars by 2033, and deep space exploration by robotics as well.  It confirms the President’s desire to reduce the Obama-era use of NASA for activities involving climate change issues. (See the New York Analysis of Policy and Government’s recent examinations of President Trump’s space proposals)

Under the measure, NASA is slated to receive $19.5 billion, a $.2 billion increase. Spending on the space agency only represents 0.5% of the federal budget.

At the signing, Trump stated “With this legislation, we support NASA’s scientists, engineers, astronauts and their pursuit of discovery “America’s space program has been a blessing to our people and to the entire world. Almost half a century ago, our brave astronauts first planted the American flag on the moon. That was a big moment in our history.  Now this nation is ready to be the first in space once again. Today we’re taking the initial steps toward a bold and brave new future for American space flight……It continues support for the commercial crew program, which will carry American astronauts into space from American soil once again — been a long time. It supports NASA’s deep space exploration, including the Space Launch System and the ORION spacecraft.  It advances space science by maintaining a balanced set of mission and activities to explore our solar system and the entire universe.  And it ensures that through NASA’s astronauts and aeronautics research, the United States will remain a total leader in aviation.”

The Act was passed unanimously by Congress. According to the White House, “It authorizes the development and execution of a long-range plan for deep space human exploration; invests in robust science, technology and aeronautics portfolios; and endorses the Agency’s successful efforts to nurture a new commercial market that will boost our economy and create more jobs. Additionally, it guarantees vastly improved health care for the heroes who risk their lives in the exploration of space.”

Demonstrating bipartisan support for the measure (and also for an important state industry) Senator Nelson (D-Florida): stated:  “It puts us on the dual track.  We have the commercial companies going to and from the International Space Station, and we have NASA going out and exploring the heavens.  And we’re going to Mars.”

NASA acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot stated “We would like to thank President Trump for his support of the agency in signing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Transition Authorization Act of 2017. We also want to express our gratitude to a bipartisan Congress for its thoughtful consideration of the agency’s path forward. We are grateful for the longstanding support and trust of the American people, which enables our nation’s space, aeronautics, science, and technology development programs to thrive. Our workforce has proven time and again that it can meet any challenge, and the continuing support for NASA ensures our nation’s space program will remain the world’s leader in pioneering new frontiers in exploration, innovation, and scientific achievement.”

Business Insider outlined several key aspects of the measure, including:

  • An uncrewed launch of SLS and Orion (key elements in returning Americans to space) by next year ,
  • A crewed mission to the moon in 2021, and further trips to the moon and Mars after that date;
  • A road map to send people to Mars by 2033;
  • Expanding permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit;
  • Leadership in advanced avionics on Earth;
  • Sending a rover to Mars in 2020,
  • An orbiting satellite to Europa;
  • Hunting for exoplanets; and
  • Researching the use of nuclear-fueled spacecraft; and finding killer asteroids.

The measure also mandates that NASA “search for life’s origin, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe.”

NASA’s Course Set to Change, Part 3

The New York Analysis of Policy and Government concludes its three part review of NASA’s future under the Trump Administration.

A Scribd-published study of a NexGen Space LLC study,  partly funded by a grant from NASA found that:

“…a human return to the Moon may not be as expensive as previously thought…America could lead a return of humans to the surface of the Moon within a period of 5-7 years … at an estimated total cost of about $10 Billion (+/- 30%) …America could lead the development of a permanent industrial base on the Moon of 4 private-sector astronauts in about 10-12 years after setting foot on the Moon that could provide 200 MT of propellant per year in lunar orbit for NASA for a total cost of about $40 Billion (+/- 30%)…Assuming NASA receives a flat budget, these results could potentially be achieved within NASA’s existing deep space human spaceflight budget…A commercial lunar base providing propellant in lunar orbit might substantially reduce the cost and risk NASA of sending humans to Mars. The ELA would reduce the number of required Space Launch System (SLS) launches from asmany as 12 to a total of only 3, thereby reducing SLS operational risks, and increasing its affordability…A permanent commercial lunar base might substantially pay for its operations by exporting propellant to lunar orbit for sale to NASA and others to send humans to Mars, thus enabling the economic development of the Moon at a small marginal cost…”

The widespread fascination with travel to Mars was given verbal support by Obama, but the premature ending of both the space shuttle program and the cancellation of its intended manned successor, the Constellation program, were not conducive to accomplishing advances in human spaceflight technology.

Although NASA wants to send Astronauts to Mars several decades in the future, the actual preliminary work to do so has been lax.

In an interview with Space.com, the Director of space policy at the Planetary Society noted that Trump “is inheriting a space program that has this nascent ambition to go to Mars but doesn’t have hardware actually flying yet.”

Given the slow pace of development of human-rated spacecraft development NASA, including the rockets to take them off Earth, a reflection of its de-emphasis during the Obama Administration, the new Administration may turn to the private sector for the necessary hardware.

Bruce Dorminey, writing in Forbes, quotes former Pennsylvania  Congressman and Trump adviser Bob Walker: “The specifics of [Trump-era] missions will be determined within the overall goal of human exploration of the solar system, but clearly, the long–term, overall goal of Trump space policy anticipates human exploration far beyond low-Earth orbit and even beyond Mars…  President-elect Trump made space policy a major part of his final campaign message and Vice President-elect Pence has been very enthusiastic about the role he would assume as head of the new National Space Council…The council would help keep space issues front and center during the Trump Administration.”

Walker, as quoted by Dorminey,  believes Trump’s space goals include:

“Setting the goal and beginning technological implementation of human exploration of our solar system by the end of this century; Re-direction of NASA budgets toward deep space science; Creation of an aggressive program for development of hypersonic technology; [and] Begin negotiations to assure the viability of the International Space Station (ISS) beyond 2028.”

The method in which space policy is set under the Trump Administration may differ significantly than that of his predecessor.  The new White House may reconstitute the National Space Council, which would be led by Vice President Michael Pence. According to Neel Patel, writing in Inverse  “Jim Muncy, a space lobbyist who leads the consultancy PoliSpace, says he’s spoken with Pence and that the now Vice President-elect is “really looking forward to the space council.”

NASA’s Course Set to Change, Part 2

The New York Analysis of Policy and Government continues its review of NASA’s role in the Trump Administration.

One mission apparently advocated by the Trump Administration is a relatively quick return to the Moon. According to the Wall Street Journal the Trump White House will seek to expand public-private partnerships for NASA, including, according to White House documents, “a rapid and affordable” return to the lunar surface.

A 2008 NASA report, developed before President Obama entered the White House and changed the agency’s focus to climate change, explained the importance of a return to the moon:

“President Bush’s 2004 proposal to return to the Moon, this time ‘to stay’ with a lunar outpost, has stimulated vigorous debate… Neil Armstrong and his colleagues demonstrated that humans on the spot provide instant interpretation of their environment, guided by color, 3D, high resolution human vision that is only now being approached by robotic systems. Even encumbered by space suits, they could instantly recognize and collect invaluable samples such as the ‘Genesis Rock’ of Apollo 15, an anorthosite that has proven essential to understanding the geologic history of the Moon. When the Apollo 17 rover lost a fender – which might have terminated a robotic rover’s mission – astronauts Cernan and Schmitt managed a field repair and kept driving. All the Apollo astronauts emplaced complex geophysical instrument stations, most operating for years until budget cuts forced them to be turned off…what could such an outpost accomplish? First, it could continue the exploration of the Moon, whose surface area is roughly that of North and South America combined. Six ‘landings’ in North America would have given us only a superficial knowledge of this continent, and essentially none about its natural resources such as minerals, oil, water power, and soil. The Moon is a whole planet, so to speak, whose value is only beginning to be appreciated.

“The Moon is not only an interesting object of study, but a valuable base for study of the entire Universe, by providing a site for astronomy at all wavelengths from gamma rays to extremely long radio waves. This statement would have been unquestioned 30 years ago. But the succeeding decades of spectacular discoveries by space-based instruments, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, have led many astronomers such as Nobel Laureate John Mather to argue that the Moon can be by-passed, and that instruments in deep space at relatively stable places called Lagrangian points are more effective…

“The Moon may offer mineral resources… of great value on Earth. Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, working with the Fusion Technology Institute of the University of Wisconsin, has shown that helium 3, an isotope extremely rare on Earth, exists in quantity in the lunar soil, implanted by the solar wind. If – a very big if – thermonuclear fusion for energy is produced on Earth, helium 3 would be extremely valuable for fusion reactors because it does not make the reactor radioactive. A more practicable use of helium 3, being tested at the University of Wisconsin, is the production of short-lived medical isotopes. Such isotopes must now be manufactured in cyclotrons and quickly delivered before they decay. But Dr. Schmitt suggests that small helium 3 reactors could produce such isotopes at the hospital. In any event, research on the use of helium 3 would clearly benefit if large quantities could be exported to the Earth.

“Returning to the most important reason for a new lunar program, dispersal of the human species, the most promising site for such dispersal is obviously Mars, now known to have an atmosphere and water. Mars itself is obviously a fascinating object for exploration. But it may even now be marginally habitable for astronaut visits, and in the very long view, might be “terraformed,” or engineered to have a more Earth-like atmosphere and climate. This was described in Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy, Red Mars and its successors Green and Blue Mars. A second Earth, so to speak, would greatly improve our chances of surviving cosmic catastrophes.

“Where does the Moon fit into this possibility? First, it would continue to give us experience with short interplanetary trips, which is what the Apollo missions were. These would demonstrably be relatively short and safe compared to Mars voyages, but would provide invaluable test flights, so to speak. More important, shelters, vehicles, and other equipment built for the Moon could be over-designed, and with modification could be used on Mars after being demonstrated at a lunar outpost…

“… put the arguments for a return to the Moon, and a lunar outpost, in the most general terms: the Moon is essentially a whole planet, one that has so far been barely touched. But this new planet is only a few days travel away and we have already camped on it. To turn our backs on the Moon would be equivalent to European exploration stopping after Columbus’s few landings, or China’s destruction of its giant ships to concentrate on domestic problems in the 15th century.”

The Report concludes tomorrow.

NASA’s Course Set to Change

The New York Analysis of Policy and Government examines NASA’s immediate future in a three-part review

A more definite picture of NASA’s future direction is emerging.

Advocates of space exploration were gratified to note the inclusion of space research in the President’s inaugural address (“We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space.”) In a reversal of the role Obama mandated the space agency to play, the new Administration is emphasizing manned space flight and the pursuit of major goals for human exploration beyond low earth orbit, in the near term, using American spacecraft.

The Morning Ticker recently noted that “The incredible upset win of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton could have huge ramifications for NASA. Donald Trump may send America back to the moon. That’s what some people are saying now that he and the Republican Party has swept into power, including Newt Gingrich, who himself loves the idea of a colony on the moon. The transition from an Obama presidency to a Trump administration is certain to be a jarring one for NASA. The agency can expect a significant revamp in its mission, focusing much less on climate change and more on space missions, including possibly our first trip to the moon in decades. Analysts suggest that the administration may push for a lunar landing as a stepping stone on the way to Mars. It would also be a very public way to reassert the U.S.’s mastery of the space domain and our closest neighbor.”

According to the Daily Caller,  SpaceX’s founder Elon Musk “made two trips to Trump Tower during the transition period and discussed how NASA could be primed to send astronauts to Mars using public-private partnerships, according to The Washington Post. Trump also met…with space program historian Douglas Brinkley about the Apollo program, which took NASA to the moon during the 1960s…Another billionaire space entrepreneur, Robert Bigelow, thinks that Trump could potentially double NASA’s budget.

There is some similarity in that both Trump and his predecessor favor an expanded role for private sector technology.

A 2015 study by the National Defense University notes that “U.S. government policies over the past decade have focused on shifting space activities from the public sector to the more efficient private sector…Government policies have encouraged and supported the rise of new entrants and entrepreneurs into the space launch and broader space transportation market…overcoming the hurdles of high upfront capital investment costs. These new entrants are implementing process and pursuing product innovation in the rocket and on-rocket, orbital and suborbital launch markets…”

However, the practical application of Obama’s use of the private sector was more in the nature of a replacement for NASA-developed space technology, at least in the immediate future., and particularly in the realm of manned space flight. Trump’s outlook is concentrated on having the private sector complement an ambitious and timely human space program.

The prior president mandated NASA’s attention be directed to efforts intended to assist a climate change agenda. The new Administration appears prepared to return the space agency to its original function. The time table for significant manned space accomplishments appears set to move faster under the Trump Administration.

Trump has long believed that NASA’s emphasis on climate change during the Obama Administration was a misuse of the agency’s budget.  He also doubts the veracity of some of the data produced by various sources used to justify funding within the space agency for that purpose. In a criticism of NASA data, a Real Science review noted that in 1989:

 …scientists from the United States Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that a study of temperature readings for the contiguous 48 states over the last century showed there had been no significant change in average temperature over that period…But in the year 2000, NASA and NOAA altered the historical US temperature record, which now shows that there was about one degree centigrade US warming during the century before 1989…The altering of Icelandic data by NASA was particularly troubling, because the cooling from 1940 to 1980 was a well known and difficult historical period in Iceland. NASA  erased Iceland’s history, without even the courtesy to contact Iceland’s experts…Additionally, we know that there was tremendous warming in the Arctic prior to the 1940s, which Hansen has erased from the historical record in Iceland, Greenland and elsewhere.”

The report continues tomorrow

How Trump Will Change NASA

The federal agency that may experience the most significant refocusing under the Trump Administration is also one the smallest: NASA.

With a budget comprising just one-half of one percent of Washington spending, the lowest level since 1960, NASA was repurposed by Mr. Obama to focus on Earth science in support of his climate change agenda.

While robotic interplanetary probes, largely planned before the outgoing President’s arrival, were allowed to survive, the manned space effort was virtually eliminated.

Mr. Obama prematurely cancelled the Space Shuttle program, then defunded what had been planned to be its immediate manned spacecraft replacement, the Constellation system. Another follow-up, The Orion, progressed at a slow pace, with no prospect of placing U.S. astronauts into orbit until well into the next decade.  NASA currently has to pay exorbitant amounts to rival Russia to put American personnel in space.

Spaceflight Insider  noted that candidate Obama claimed he was one of the “agency’s  biggest fans and even co-opted the space agency’s crewed program-of-record at that time (Constellation) when he used the phrase, ‘Moon, Mars and beyond.’ Upon election, he worked to cancel that very program. In fact, had it not been for the actions of Congress, he would probably have set NASA’s efforts to send crews beyond the orbit of Earth back decades.

In a review, The Council on Foreign Relations  (CFR) reported that “Space policy experts agree that NASA faces short- and long-term challenges, including new budget pressures, aging infrastructure, the rise of competing spacefaring nations, and the lack of a strong national vision for human spaceflight. An independent assessment conducted by the National Research Council in 2012 questioned plans for not pursuing a return to the moon: ‘[The] lack of national and international consensus … undermines NASA’s ability to establish a comprehensive, consistent strategic direction.’ The report also noted that a crewed mission to Mars ‘has never received sufficient funding to advance beyond the rhetoric stage.”

The mothballing of American manned spaceflight was seen as a betrayal.  During his first campaign for office, Mr. Obama, in a speech to NASA workers, promised that he would support placing U.S. personnel in space on American craft .  Following the election, he moved to eliminate the manned space program.

Restoring the space agency to its glory days, along with the economic, scientific and prestige benefits that engenders, fit precisely with President-elect Trump’s “Make America Great Again” emphasis. In comments reported by the Planetary Society  he stated:

“I will free NASA from the restriction of serving primarily as a logistics agency for low-Earth orbit activity—big deal. Instead, we will refocus its mission on space exploration. Under a Trump Administration, Florida and America will lead the way into the stars…A cornerstone of my policy is we will substantially expand public private partnerships to maximize the amount of investment and funding that is available for space exploration and development. This means launching and operating major space assets, right here, that employ thousands and spur innovation and fuel economic growth.”

Space News  provided a summary (excerpted below) of the Trump Administration’s space plans:

  1. A “commitment to global space leadership”
  2. A reinstitution of the National Space Council, headed by the vice president, to oversee all government space efforts to seek efficiencies and eliminate redundancies.
  3. Human exploration of the solar system by the end of the century
  4. Shifting NASA budgets to “deep space achievements” rather than Earth science and climate research.
  5. Development of small satellite technologies that in particular can provide resiliency for the military, and also develop satellite servicing technologies.
  6. Seek world leadership in hypersonics technology, including for military applications.
  7. Hand over access to and operations in low Earth orbit to the commercial sector.
  8. Start discussions about including more “private and public partners” in operations and financing of the International Space Station, including extending the station’s lifetime.
  9. Require that all federal agencies develop plans for how they would use “space assets and space developments” to carry out their missions.

The growing role of the private sector, which began both as necessity and opportunity during the Obama Administration, would continue.

The Washington Post and others have reported that Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma) a leading space exploration supporter and former Navy pilot is being considered to lead NASA.

NASA Manned Spaceflight Endangered

The President’s proposed 2017 budget does little to change the disappointing fact that America’s returned to crewed space flight in a NASA vehicle won’t take place  until 2023.  In contrast, private companies are moving steadily ahead to finally restore a means to launch astronauts from U.S. soil.

The President’s $19,025,000,000 2017 NASA budget proposal represents a 1.3%, $300 million reduction from the prior year.

There is much controversy in the continuing diversion of funding within the space agency from its traditional mission of manned space flight while dramatically, to the tune of $2 billion, increasing Earth Science research by 70% over the years, mostly to advance Mr. Obama’s climate change agenda.

Of the total funds requested for NASA, less than half, $8,413,000,000, is designated for human space flight. Within the proposed NASA general science funding request for $5,601,000,000, the lion’s share is designated for Earth Science, $2,032,000,000, an increase of 5.8%, $111 million over the FY 2016 enacted budget.

House space subcommittee chair Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.) previously noted:

“It is no secret that this Committee is concerned that the support within NASA for the [Space Launch System] and Orion (a manned spacecraft) is not matched by the Administration. While this lack of commitment is somewhat puzzling, it is not at all surprising. The President has made clear that he does not believe space exploration is a priority for the nation and has allowed political appointees within the administration to manipulate the course of our human space flight program. These decisions should be made by the scientists, engineers, and program managers that have decades of experience in human space flight…The Administration has consistently requested large reductions for these programs despite the insistence of Congress that they be priorities.”

The New York Analysis of Policy & Government noted in December that “President Obama prematurely cancelled the Space Shuttle program, then defunded what had been planned to be its immediate manned spacecraft replacement, the Constellation system. The Orion system is the next on the list, if funding for that effort continues at the current pace.”

The latest update, reported by Spacenews, is that work has halted on the initial upper stage of the Space Launch System due to budgetary shortfalls.

NASA’s Spaceflight.com states that “NASA officials have admitted the interim Upper Stage for the Space Launch System is at the top of their ‘worry list’, as the Agency’s key advisory group insists NASA should make a decision about bringing the more powerful Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) online sooner. The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) fears NASA is at risk of wasting $150 million on an Upper Stage they intend to ‘toss away’.

NASA sources note that this has been presenting the space agency with a headache for some time, although it took the recent ASAP meeting to finally confirm those concerns to the public.

“The next big event is test flight Exploration Mission (EM)-1, on track for 2018 – a 24-day, unscrewed cis-lunar voyage that will inject a lot of energy into the Program. The following flight, EM-2 that will have a crew, brings up an issue that deserves attention,” noted the minutes from the meeting.

“Presently, the Program does not have the upper stage that it needs because of lack of funding. A new upper stage, called the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS), will be developed for future crewed flights.

“As a fall back, NASA is planning to use the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion System (ICPS) that will get the job done through the test flight, but it is not what NASA will be using eventually.”

A NASA committee was told it will cost “at least $150 million” to human-rate the ICPS, something the panel believe “will be wasted because this design will be ‘tossed’ in the near future.

NASA Seeks to Protect Earth from Asteroid Impacts

NASA is taking steps to deal with the ultimate global disaster, a holocaust that could occur anytime from a few weeks to a few thousand years from now, but which has a significant probability of happening and that, in the distant past, already caused the mass extinction of planetary life, ending the reign of the dinosaurs.

The U.S. space agency is implementing an Asteroid Grand Challenge, designed to accelerate NASA’s efforts to locate potentially hazardous asteroids through non-traditional collaborations and partnerships. Part of the program will be to explore ways in which potentially hazardous asteroids could be deflected away from Earth.

NASA’s JPL facility  has announced that it “has formalized its ongoing program for detecting and tracking near-Earth objects (NEOs) as the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO). … [It] will also take a leading role in coordinating interagency and intergovernmental efforts in response to any potential impact threats.”

NASA reports that more than 13,500 near-Earth objects of all sizes have been discovered to date — more than 95 percent of them since NASA-funded surveys began in 1998. About 1,500 NEOs are now detected each year.

According to John Grunesfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, “Asteroid detection, tracking and defense of our planet is something that NASA, its interagency partners, and the global community take very seriously. While there are no known impact threats at this time, the 2013 Chelyabinsk super-fireball and the recent ‘Halloween Asteroid’ close approach remind us of why we need to remain vigilant and keep our eyes to the sky. NASA has been engaged in worldwide planning for planetary defense for some time, and this office will improve and expand on those efforts, working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other federal agencies and departments.

“With more than 90 percent of NEOs larger than 3,000 feet (1 kilometer) already discovered, NASA is now focused on finding objects that are slightly bigger than a football field — 450 feet (140 meters) or larger. In 2005, NASA was tasked with finding 90 percent of this class of NEOs by the end of 2020. NASA-funded surveys have detected an estimated 25 percent of these mid-sized but still potentially hazardous objects to date.

“NASA’s long-term planetary defense goals include developing technology and techniques for deflecting or redirecting objects that are determined to be on an impact course with Earth. NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission concept would demonstrate the effectiveness of the gravity tractor method of planetary defense, using the mass of another object to pull an asteroid slightly from its original orbital path. The joint NASA-European Space Agency Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission concept, if pursued, would demonstrate an impact deflection method of planetary defense.

“Even if intervention is not possible, NASA would provide expert input to FEMA about impact timing, location and effects to inform emergency response operations. In turn, FEMA would handle the preparations and response planning related to the consequences of atmospheric entry or impact to U.S. communities.”

A space agency “asteroid initiative” study concluded that the “Asteroid Grand Challenge (AGC)… is seeking the best ideas to find all asteroid threats to human populations, and to accelerate the work that NASA is already doing for planetary defense. The Asteroid Initiative will leverage and integrate NASA’s activities in human exploration, space technology, and space science to advance the technologies and capabilities needed for future human and robotic exploration, to enable the first human mission to interact with asteroid material, and to accelerate efforts to detect, track, characterize, and mitigate the threat of potentially hazardous asteroids.”

Similar to spectacular science fiction films about asteroid threats, a NASA attempt to deflect a menacing object would involve a human crew. The AGC study outlined “concepts for extra-vehicular activity (EVA) systems, such as space suits, tools, and translation aids that will allow astronauts to explore the surface of a captured asteroid, prospect for resources, and collect samples.”

Unfortunately, NASA’s plans for manned space flights continue to be pushed further into the future.  President Obama prematurely ended the Space Shuttle program, then cancelled its successor, the Constellation.  The newest version, the Orion spacecraft, essentially an updated and enlarged Apollo-era vehicle, will not take astronauts into space until 2023.

NASA’s limited budget has concentrated attention on the White House’s environmental issues rather than the space agency’s original human exploratory mission.

America’s future is being defunded

There is a general misconception that funding for the National Aeronautics & Space Administration, (NASA) is a luxury, even though it consumes a mere one-half of one percent of the federal budget.  The fact is, for America’s economy, its national security, and the health of the planetary environment, space is absolutely essential. There is, perhaps, even more at stake. Stephen Hawking emphasizes that “the long term future of the human race must be space… it represents an important life insurance for our future survival…”

Whether NASA gets the funding it needs remains an open question. Space News notes that  “NASA is currently spending money on its key exploration programs at a rate that assumes Congress will approve a budget increase in the next month, a move that could delay some efforts should the additional funds not materialize.”

At risk is whether the space agency will be able to resume its human space flight program any time in the near future.  Recent estimates indicate that the earliest a NASA-designed crewed spacecraft will carry astronauts into orbit will be well into the next decade.  President Obama prematurely cancelled the Space Shuttle program, then defunded what had been planned to be its immediate manned spacecraft replacement, the Constellation system. The Orion system is the next on the list, if funding for that effort continues at an adequate pace.

It’s an open disgrace that America must pay exorbitant amounts to Russia for American astronauts to hitchhike on their spacecraft to reach the space station that was largely built by NASA.

The Council on Foreign Relations  (CFR) reports that “Space policy experts agree that NASA faces short- and long-term challenges, including new budget pressures, aging infrastructure, the rise of competing spacefaring nations, and the lack of a strong national vision for human spaceflight. An independent assessment conducted by the National Research Council in 2012 questioned plans for not pursuing a return to the moon: “[The] lack of national and international consensus … undermines NASA’s ability to establish a comprehensive, consistent strategic direction.” The report also noted that a crewed mission to Mars “has never received sufficient funding to advance beyond the rhetoric stage.”

CFR warns that “Space policymakers must clarify NASA’s purpose, missions, and methods. How should NASA balance the goals of driving scientific discovery, promoting U.S. prestige, enhancing national security, and developing innovations with commercial benefits? What role should the private sector play? How much should NASA be a vehicle for international cooperation and diplomacy? How should U.S. space exploration inspire the next generation of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics students?

Most experts advocate sustaining U.S. leadership in space. “I’m convinced that in this century the nations that lead in the world are going to be those that create new knowledge. And one of the places where you have a huge opportunity to create new knowledge will be exploration of the universe, exploration of the solar system, and the building of technology that allows you to do that,” said former congressman and aerospace expert Robert Walker at a CFR meeting on space policy in 2013.”

While Washington dithers, other nations are moving ahead at full speed. Yahoo reports  that Russia’s space agency is planning to build a permanent, manned moon base. Many other nations, noting the vital economic and military needs for space prowess, are moving quickly ahead as well.

CNN reports that “China by virtue of the ambition of its space program stands out. Already, it has managed to land a rover on the Moon and to return an unmanned spacecraft from orbiting the Moon as part of its preparation for an eventual manned landing. It also aims to have a manned space station operational by 2020.”

It’s not just nations traditionally thought of as great military or economic superpowers that are serious about advanced space activities.  The Diplomat reports that   “India recently made history, when its Mars Orbiter Mission successfully entered the Martian orbit. In doing so, it became the first country to enter Mars’ orbit on its first attempt and also the first Asian country to reach the red planet…India is among a handful of countries to have carried out deep space missions, and it was on its first such mission in 2008 that its spacecraft Chandrayaan entered the moon’s orbit. It was on this mission too that water was detected on the lunar surface. It has the biggest remote sensing satellite network in the world. It is also among a select group of countries that provide commercial satellite launch services – putting into space 67 satellites, including 40 foreign satellites from 19 countries…”

While other powers move ahead, NASA continues to face a future clouded by uncertainty and a profound lack of support by the current White House. Technology expert Aaron Andre   reasoned three years ago that “for about the cost of two weeks of the Olympic Games we could have sent over another five rovers to Mars. In fact, the amount of money needed to fund the Olympic Games could fund NASA for nearly an entire year.”

America’s crisis in space

America’s return to human space flight capability has been pushed yet again into the future.

The Orion spacecraft, already in the relatively distant future of 2021, has been pushed back again to 2023. That date would mean that NASA manned spacecraft would be absent from space for a stunning 12 years, since the Space Shuttle Atlantis mission of July 2011.

The gap was to be filled by the Constellation spaceflight system, which President Obama cancelled, leaving the United States with no domestic human spaceflight capability.  Constellation was to be used for both earth orbital missions and a return to the moon.

According to Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas)  “Once again, the Obama administration is choosing to delay deep space exploration priorities such as Orion and the Space Launch System that will take U.S. astronauts to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.  While this administration has consistently cut funding for these programs and delayed their development, Congress has consistently restored funding as part of our commitment to maintaining American leadership in space. We must chart a compelling course for our nation’s space program so that we can continue to inspire future generations of scientists, engineers and explorers.  I urge this administration to follow the lead of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s NASA Authorization Act to fully fund NASA’s exploration programs.”

The administration’s FY16 budget request proposed cuts of more than $440 million for the programs while earth science accounts have increased by 63 percent during the past eight years. Thirteen agencies do climate research, but only one conducts space exploration.

According to NASA,  the “Orion spacecraft is built to take humans farther than they’ve ever gone before. Orion will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry the crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during the space travel, and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities. Orion will launch on NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System.”

Many have expressed deep concern that NASA has been politicized by the Obama Administration. It has been charged that the space agency has been mainly used to further the White House’s environmental agenda. They point to the diversion of funds from traditional efforts such as manned space flight and towards climate change.

In 2010, several former APOLLO program astronauts wrote to the White House to oppose the Administration’s controversial new direction for NASA, noting that “Without the skill and experience that actual spacecraft operation provides, the USA is far too likely to be on a long downhill slide to mediocrity.  America must decide if it wishes to remain a leader in space.  If it does, we should institute a program which will give us the very best chance of achieving that goal.”

Critics of the White House also point to bizarre comments made by Charles Bolden, whom the President appointed to run the space agency. Shortly after his appointment, Bolden, speaking in Cairo, stated

“…before I became the NASA administrator [President Obama] charged me with three things. One was he wanted me to help re-inspire children to want to get into science and math, he wanted me to expand our international relationships, and third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science.”

In other comments, Bolden stated that his most important task as head of NASA was to reach out to Muslims.

Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) has introduced legislation to de-politicize the space agency.

“I authored the Space Leadership Preservation Act which would make NASA more professional and less political by establishing a long-term NASA Administrator who overlaps presidential administrations, creating a board to drive the vision for NASA exploration, and allowing NASA to develop spacecraft using long term contracts. This legislation would provide NASA with stability and authority to pursue our universe’s most pressing questions.”

Rep. Steven Palazzo, (R-Mississippi) the House of Representatives Space subcommittee chair, applauded a budget bill earlier this year that rebalanced the space agency’s budget towards NASA’s traditional activities.

By putting off the lion’s share of funding to long after it has left office, the Obama Administration may have eluded the harsh criticism it may otherwise have faced if it had simply stated that it was defunding NASA’s human spaceflight program.