Hello and Welcome to a special edition of “This Week In Space.” I am talking about what might very well be the beginning of a new era in space – the door might have opened with the successful inaugural test flight of the Falcon 9 rocket – built by SpaceX. It happened on Friday at Cape Canaveral. The nine Merlin engines fired as designed – produced more than a million pounds of thrust – sending Falcon 9 on its way to space. The first stage separated as it was supposed to – and the second stage rocket fired on schedule as well. The only apparent fly in the ointment – second stage – along with mockup up of the Dragon Capsule – began a slow roll. No word on why just yet. SpaceX is leading the charge to open up low earth orbit to private ventures seeking to create a new industry in space. It is a lynch pin of the Obama space vision – and it remains the subject of a lot of controversy – even after this successful first flight. I caught up with SpaceX founder Elon Musk about 24 hours after the launch.
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We begin at the end this week – the end of an era in space. Well maybe. This was the scene at the Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday – commander Ken Ham dead-sticking Atlantis down the steep glide slope to Runway 33. The mission – STS-132 – was the final scheduled flight of Atlantis. But she is not heading straight to the museums. She’s now back in her Orbiter Processing Facility – NASA-speak for hanger – where she will be prepped for flight on short notice should there be trouble on the remaining pair of missions. BUT the museums might have to wait - NASA is leaving the door open to schedule an encore mission for Atlantis. Since there would be no rescue vehicle at the ready – she would likely fly with a scaled down crew that would use the Russian Soyuz as a lifeboat. NASA will make a decision on this by mid-June. Maybe the shuttle program will end as it began – with a two person crew.
For those of you keeping score at home – If it turns out this was the last ride to space for OV-104 – here are her final game stats: 32 flights – 11 of those to the International Space Station, over 120 million miles on the odometer, 294 days in orbit, 4,649 revolutions around Earth. She was home-away-from-home to 189 astronauts. She carried the Magellan and Galileo interplanetary probes to space, as well as the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. She was the first orbiter to dock with the Russian Space Station Mir, and the last one to visit the Hubble Space Telescope. Not bad at all. Way to go Atlantis. Way to go…
He’s the E.F. Hutton of astronauts - “when he talks, people listen.” Or would Greta Garbo be a better analogy. Or maybe J.D. Salinger. I digress. You guessed it, I’m talking about Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon, a bona fide National Hero, and a man who chooses his words very carefully. And he has been speaking out recently in opposition to the Obama Administration’s plan to kill the moonshot program known as Constellation. This week, he took center stage again – at a House Science and Technology committee hearing. He reiterated his support for Constellation in particular and a return to the moon in general. The man has a lifetime supply of dry powder – and he fired at will:
The issue facing this meeting has produced substantial turmoil among space advocates. So many normally knowledgeable people were completely astounded by the President’s proposal. Had the announcement been preceded by the typical review, analysis and discussion among the Executive branch, the agency, the congress, and all the other interested and knowledgeable parties, no member of this committee would have been surprised by the announcement of a new plan. In this case, a normally collegial sector of society was split in many fragments, some focused on contracts and money, some on work force and jobs, some on technical choices. All because a few planners, with little or no space operations experience, attempted an end run on the normal process. It has been painful to watch.
Armstrong was joined by the last man to walk on the moon- Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan, who also took aim at Obama’s plan, which he views as long on talk and short on funds. In other words, “show me the money.”
And, when one examines details of the FY2011 budget proposal, nowhere is there to be found one penny allocated to support space exploration. Yes, there has been much rhetoric on transformative technology, heavy lift propulsion research, robotic precursor missions, significant investment in commercial crew and cargo capabilities, pursuit of cross-cutting space technology capabilities, climate change research, aeronautics R&D, and education initiatives, all worthwhile endeavors in their own right. Yet nowhere do we find any mention of the Human Exploration of Space and nowhere do we find a commitment in dollars to support this all important national endeavor. We (Armstrong, Lovell and I) have come to the unanimous conclusion that this budget proposal presents no challenges, has no focus, and in fact is a blueprint for a mission to ‘nowhere.’
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was also on hand, testifying earlier in the day. He disclosed that it will cost and estimated four and half billion dollars over five years to implement Obama’s recently announced plan to turn the Orion capsule into an ISS lifeboat – money that NASA will have to take out of other programs. And he assured the committee that NASA is continuing work on Constellation in good faith. Yes – the work goes on until Congress weighs in because that is the way the law is written. Bolden got an earful from Arizona’s Gabrielle Giffords over NASA’s just-announced decision to reassign the outspoken Constellation Program Manager Jeff Hanley.
Gabrielle Giffords: Mr. Bolden, my concern is, particularly concerning the news we had last week, that the program manager was actually working hard to make the program work, given the constraints of the budget, but again from where we sit, his work to restructure and potentially save the parts of Constellation that need to be saved, by removing him from his position…I think again it demonstrates to us that the question that I asked you earlier, whether or not you would give this committee your assurance that you were doing everything that you can as NASA administrator to make progress with Constellation for the remainder of FY 2010, when the constellation manager is removed from his position, it frankly makes me personally very dubious that that is in fact happening . So I’m wondering again, the assurance that you can give us in the united states congress that your actually carrying this out. and whether or not the program will actually carry forward, and whether or not you are actually planning on replacing him with someone competent, and whether or not you are planning to replace him expeditiously.
Charlie Bolden: We would replace him with someone who is incredibly competent, I don’t think I have anyone in the hierarchy of the constellation program or anywhere else that is not competent and has my confidence. Jeff Hanley is not leaving NASA. Jeff Hanley is moving up to become the deputy director of the Johnson Space Center for Strategic Studies and Strategic plans. He is an incredibly talented individual. Jeff and I have spoken for quite sometime since I became the NASA administrator, about his future.
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Hello, and welcome…
We have a scoop for you this week – an exclusive interview with SpaceX founder Elon Musk – we’ll ask him how things are going as he and his team prep for that high stakes first flight of the Falcon 9 rocket…And we’ll also share with you David Letterman’s reaction to seeing his first shuttle launch…that’s coming up shortly…But first some other space news – and this week in honor of the Falcon 9 countdown and Dave’s first launch – we are doing it top ten list style…
Comes from the fourth rock from the sun. (Miles mutters to himself and counts on his fingers). Mars! Yeah, Mars. On March 20, the rover Opportunity overtook the Viking-1 Lander and is now holds the surface longevity record for NASA probes on Mars. Opportunity is now six years, 116 days and counting into a 3 month mission. But if you are listening Oppy – don’t rest on your laurels. Your sibling Spirit on the other side of the planet is in winter hibernation mode, and if she manages to wake up come Spring, she will grab the record. Spirit landed on Mars about three weeks before Opportunity back in 2004. And as long as we are on Mars – the team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory commanded the the Mars Odyssey spacecraft to make a final listen for life signs from the Phoenix Mars Lander this week. Phoenix landed in the Northern polar region back in 2008, and operated successfully for about 6 months until the cold and dark of the Martian winter set in and craft went silent. Mission managers were pretty sure that the lander would not survive the winter, but figured it wouldn’t hurt to see if they might be able to reestablish communication. Looks like “no dice” though. Rest in Peace, Phoenix.
An update on a manned mission to Mars that is launching next month – had ya there for a minute didn’t I? Actually this is an ersatz trip to Mars that will never get off the ground. I am talking about the Mars 500 SIMULATED mission to the red planet. Liftoff – well actually lock down – is set for early June. Six crew members – two Europeans, one Chinese, and three Russians will spend 520 days locked inside a spacecraft mock-up at the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow. Mission controllers are doing their best to make this mission as close to the real thing as possible. They’ll have to take all the food they’ll need with them from day one – no ordering in pizza a la Biosphere 2. Communication is limited to email, – and it will be intermittent – just as it would on a really interplanetary voyage, and it will include a delay of as much as 40 minutes. ESA has picked their two crew members. Diego Urbina, who has Italian-Colombian nationality, and Frenchman Romain Charles. The rest of the crew will be announced later this month.
Oil’s not so well in the Gulf of Mexico – and NASA is pitching in to help. The space agency flew its King Air research aircraft over the Gulf of Mexico this week in an effort to help monitor the size and thickness of the BP oil spill…Researchers wondering how the oil might impact sea life. The Langley Based King Air 200 was outfitted with instruments normally used to study clouds and aerosols in the atmosphere – which researchers hope can help them learn more about spills. NASA satellites have also been trained on the oil slick since the drilling rig exploded in April. Crew members aboard the ISS have a unique vantage point to keep an eye on the growing environmental crisis. Cosmonaut Oleg Kotov has been watching the oil spread.