US Space Policy

U.S. space policy remains the object of heated debate as the federal funding cycle grinds on, but powerful members of Congress are softening their outright opposition to the plan advanced by the White House in the Fiscal 2011 NASA budget request.

That is not to say the plan stands much chance of passing as-is. Opposition to the new approach among committee chairmen who will shape the congressional response to it remains. But upcoming retirements and the passage of time make it less likely some of them will remain in place when the final decisions are made. And Sen. John D. Rockefeller, 4th, (D-W.Va.), is indicating it’s time for a change as he prepares to help draft new NASA-authorizing legislation.

“We here in the legislative branch are going to try to continue to work with the administration to refine his plan, and change some parts of it,” says Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), whose “Space Coast” constituents around Kennedy Space Center face serious job losses as the space shuttle fleet is retired.

Nelson already has won a presidential commission to help ease the workforce transition to the commercial crew taxis President Barack Obama prefers over the Ares I crew launch vehicle currently under development to replace the space shuttle. But at a hearing before Rockefeller’s Senate Commerce Committee on May 12, a pair of Apollo lunar astronauts threw their considerable weight against the commercial plan.

“I support the encouragement of newcomers toward their goal of lower-cost access to space,” says Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11 commander and the first man to set foot on the Moon. “But having cut my teeth in rockets more than 50 years ago, I am not confident. The most experienced rocket engineers with whom I have spoken believe that will require many years and substantial investment to reach the necessary level of safety and reliability.”

Navy Capt. (ret.) Eugene A. Cernan, who commanded Apollo 17 and was the last man to step off the Moon, disputed NASA Administrator and fellow former astronaut Charles Bolden on just how much of an investment that might be.

Questioned by Senate Republicans, Bolden testified he doesn’t remember telling Cernan and Armstrong that it might become necessary for the government to bail out commercial crew launch providers to support the International Space Station (ISS), and that he would be willing to do it even if it was “the biggest bailout in history.” Cernan says he wrote down Bolden’s comment during a conference call, and added the word “wow” to his notes.

Cernan, who joined Armstrong and Apollo 13 commander James A. Lovell, another retired Navy captain, in a letter declaring the Obama plan to cancel Ares I and the other vehicles in NASA’s Constellation Program “devastating,” also criticized the president’s later decision to continue work on the Orion crew exploration vehicle as a lifeboat for the space station (AW&ST April 19, p. 28).

That approach makes little sense, he says, because the vehicle still will have to be human-rated, and will duplicate the Russian Soyuz vehicles that serve the same function.

“There will be a lot of hidden, underlying cost in developing a spacecraft that will only have half the capability they need,” Cernan predicts.

The Senate hearing came on the heels of a Democratic primary election defeat for 14-term West Virginia Rep. Alan B. Mollohan, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, who had generally supported the Constellation Program. That, and the pending retirement of Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), Rockefeller’s NASA-authorizing counterpart in the House, changes the calculations NASA must make in arguing for the Obama plan. The increasingly likely prospect of a continuing resolution that will kick a decision into next year means Mollohan and Gordon will have left Congress before a new policy is set.

Rockefeller says the Commerce Committee will begin marking up a new NASA authorization bill soon. While he presided at the hearing on human spaceflight, he says he does not support sending humans into space as an end in itself, and hinted that he’s open to change in the “balance” within NASA’s program.

“I believe from my personal point of view that we need a new direction,” Rockefeller says. “For many, including myself, defenders of the status quo for NASA . . . seem to justify their views solely based on job impact. I don’t think we can afford to do that. . . . We have to strike a balance between economic development and modernizing our space program so we can remain competitive for years to come.”

John Holdren, Obama’s science adviser, says the broad-brush technology development effort called for in the Fiscal 2011 budget is aimed at doing just that. “We want to increase NASA’s investments in transformative technology that can expand the reach and reduce the cost of human exploration of deep space,” he says.

To that end, managers at NASA headquarters are “pursuing” a robotic landing on the Moon or “other planetary body” within about four years to test precision landing as part of near-term planning for developing technologies that will be needed to enable deep-space exploration under the emerging Obama space policy.

An “Exploration Enterprise Workshop” May 25-26 in Galveston, Texas, will present some of the output from a group of about 10 internal study panels that have been working to add details to the sketchy Fiscal 2011 NASA budget released Feb. 1. The gathering has already filled its initial 400 slots, and NASA says it is looking for other ways to get the word out. As many as four detailed requests for information (RFIs) may have been released before the workshop. Already out are RFIs on hydrocarbon-fueled heavy-lift vehicles and the Enabling Technology Development and Demonstrations (ETDD) program, which would be updated to meet new requirements. Also nearing completion are RFIs on robotic precursor missions and flagship demonstrations.

The ETDD study team has proposed vehicles developed for NASA’s Centennial Challenge lunar lander contest as flying testbeds for the technology.

The emerging-technologies RFI published May 10 lists five technology areas the U.S. space agency hopes to advance near term: in-situ resource utilization to mine water on the Moon, advanced electric propulsion, autonomous precision landing, telerobotics and fission-power systems. All would be tested in simulations of the space environment.

Those would include a “terrestrial free flier” for autonomous landing tests that would be based on lander simulators developed by Mastin Space Systems, Armadillo Aerospace or others, according to Chris Moore, deputy director of the Advanced Capabilities Div. in the headquarters Exploration System Mission Directorate. Moore headed the internal study team for ETDD.

Eventually demonstrations will move onto the ISS and possibly near-term robotic missions beyond low Earth orbit, the RFI states. Tests envisioned include a near-term teleoperation of robotic systems between the ground and the ISS, that could support Obama’s call for human exploration of an asteroid by 2025.

“In 2011, this project will initially demonstrate teleoperation of a robot on the ground by crew on the [ISS],” the RFI states. “In 2012, the project will demonstrate human teams operating and working with multiple robots both on the ground (orbit to ground) and on the ISS (ground to orbit). The demonstration will simulate humans at Near Earth Objects or in Mars orbit controlling robot teams on the surface to explore and prepare for the crew landing.”

For the precision-landing demo, the RFI calls for industry suggestions on a system that can identify landing hazards and divert a lander autonomously to a safer location for touchdown within less than 10 meters (32.8 ft.) of the target. Technologies sought include flash lidar sensors that can detect obstacles as small as 30 cm. (11.8 in.) and slopes exceeding 5 deg., with a processor able to compute faster than 10 gigaflops, all within the bound of “low mass and low power solutions” if possible.

Moore said possible flight testbeds for the close-in lidar system include a planned U.S. robotic lander, while cameras that would be used to guide a lander from higher up might be tested on Japan’s Selene-2 or India’s Chandrayaan-2 lunar landers, provided the necessary agreements can be reached.

Planning for the demonstrations is limited by language in NASA’s Fiscal 2010 appropriation which forbids the agency from spending that money on work to cancel Constellation. The RFI warns industry: “The government does not intend to award a contract on the basis of this RFI or otherwise pay for the information solicited.”

by Aviation Week

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