July 05, 2005

The Future of NASA

STS-100 Onboard Photograph-International Space Station (NASA-MSFC)Two months ago, Michael Griffin took the job as NASA’s top administrator. Last Tuesday he sat for the first time before the full House Committee on Science to discuss the agency’s spending priorities and his plans for meeting the goals outlined in President Bush’s 2004 vision for space exploration.

This space exploration plan calls for finishing the International Space Station and retiring the space shuttle program by 2010, getting a new Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) ready to replace the shuttle by 2014, increasing robotic exploration of the moon and return humans to the surface by 2020 and sending a human crew to Mars around 2030.

This change in priorities has resulted in shifts of funding from NASA’s earth and life sciences, aeronautics and robotic exploration programs to support human exploration. Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), the ranking Democrat on the committee, was concerned not only about these moves, but talked in his opening statement about a pattern he’s observed of these diverted funds being siphoned out of the Mars exploration funds to go to other programs. He mentioned the Prometheus project directly, saying that money appropriated for it was getting sent to nuclear research at the Department of Energy.

Though Griffin didn’t have a chance in the format of the hearing to directly respond to Gordon’s concerns about nuclear development, he later said that projects like an $11 billion dollar mission to Europa, requiring the development of entirely new nuclear propulsion and generator technologies, would have to wait. He said the biggest current priority for nuclear technology for use in space was in new power generators for use on the lunar surface.

Griffin said in his opening statement that his main priorities would be to get the International Space Station finished and to replace the space shuttle with a new CEV. He also made clear that he wanted to maintain NASA’s in-house expertise to whatever extent was possible, and said that there would be no layoffs at NASA until 2007 at the earliest.

A major obstacle to be addressed going forward in participating with the space station project is the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000 (INA), a bill that was renewed under the Bush administration to sanction Russia for cooperating with Iran in building a nuclear reactor for electricity generation. Both the administrator and the committee acknowledged that the bill hadn’t worked, and it left NASA unable to make use of Russian launch vehicles to cover the gap between ending the shuttle program and having a working CEV.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) said that though he’d been deeply involved with the INA and considered it to be part of a worthy goal, there was “no reason not to be realistic” about the fact that it hadn’t worked. He said that no overture had been made to Russia by either of the last two administrations to provide Russia with an alternative, and noted that the current administration had a great deal of responsibility for the current situation.

Griffin said that the committee should be receiving a joint letter from himself and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice requesting a change in the law. Without a change, not only would NASA not be able to get crews in orbit, but also after April 2006, they would no longer be able to have astronauts on the space station except when the space shuttle was docked there. He considered participation in the space station vital for the knowledge gained in the assembly and maintenance of large structures in space, experience that would be important for any future Mars missions.

Griffin responded to questions by the committee on the value of human space flight vs. an emphasis on robotic exploration by saying that both were important. However, he said, “Space will be explored and exploited by humans. The question is which humans, from where, and what language will they speak?”

Griffin said that two other nations had sent crewed vehicles into space since the last time NASA had done so, and he considered that unacceptable.

Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA) serves on the science committee, and he talked after the hearing about the role that China’s space exploration program might play in the increased interest in space. Referring back to the Cold War origins of the first Apollo program for human space flight, he said, “when the space race started, it was not just based on the need to explore, … competition has been there from the beginning.”

He also noted that China is now expanding to be more of an economic power. While they’re working to build up their national infrastructure, including airports and internet connectivity, they’re also becoming more involved in South America.

Though a goal that Reichert said gets a lot of attention among his colleagues in relation to both space capabilities and competition with other nations is scientific and educational investment, in addition to developing new technology.
Reichert said there was “concern that we’ve been lagging behind when it comes to educating children in math and science.” Mindful of the economic impact, he said that more needed to be done to steer people into these fields for the future of the country.

One NASA organization that’s been heavily impacted by the changes is the Langley Research Center. Langley spokesperson Keith Henry said that about 70 percent of the center’s focus had previously been on aeronautics research, and only 30 percent on space research. He said that in the next two to three years, Langley would adjust to spend half its resources on each area. Though overall NASA funding has increased, Langley has seen their funding cut by $120 million over the last year, expects another $100 million cut next year.

Langley’s past aeronautics research included work on hypersonic flight. The X-43 project produced a successful test flight last December that culminated 40 years of research by achieving speeds of Mach 10, or 7,200 mph, before the funding for the program ran out. Hypersonic research has been cut significantly, though it could eventually produce a re-usable launch platform that could reduce the waste of materials resulting from using rocket boosters to get space vehicles off the ground. The technology would have a long development horizon though, because it would still need to be coupled with a conventional propulsion system to get the vehicle to Mach 3, below which the scramjet engines would be ineffective.

Langley will, however, continue other aeronautics projects that are likely to benefit commercial air travel. These projects include advanced weather and turbulence monitors, virtual reality displays that would allow pilots to navigate better in poor visibility conditions and safety systems that could address a terrorist takeover of a plane in the air. They’re also working on navigation systems that would give pilots more control over their flight plans and allow more planes to fly closer together.

Henry said that Langley expected to be able to contribute their experience in advanced, lightweight structures and materials to the new space exploration goals. Reducing the weight of a vehicle is a critical problem of both air and space travel, and Henry said that Langley could work to come up with new materials that would satisfy that need, as well as handle high heat and heavy loads.

Henry also said that the entire agency was tightening its belt to reduce overhead. Langley was closing buildings, reducing grounds maintenance, library services and tech support among other things. He said it was “probably a good idea from time to time, since we’re spending the taxpayer’s money.”

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has mainly been focused on space research, but they’ve also been impacted by the shift in priorities. JPL’s main focus has been on robotic exploration of the solar system, and their missions include the high profile Voyager probes, which have been sending information back to Earth since 1977.

Most recently, JPL has been coordinating the Deep Impact probe, which impacted the Tempel 1 comet July 4. Deep Impact was funded through the Discovery project, a fund that gives the science community a chance to propose their own projects when between $350-450 million has been saved up for a small, uncrewed mission. The Deep Impact probe was the eighth opportunity extended through the program, and the twelfth announcement has now been delayed.

Deep Impact is intended to improve scientific understanding of comets by punching through the crust of Tempel 1, and hopefully kicking up enough core material to allow observing telescopes to analyze the makeup of the resulting dust cloud. JPL spokesman Randi Wessen explained that when comets go around the sun, the sun’s heat bakes off volatile materials like carbon dioxide, ammonia and methane, creating a crust over the comet’s surface that hides the make up of the core.

JPL is also responsible for the robotic missions to Mars, including the two exploration rovers currently on the martian surface. Wessen said that JPL had previously been scheduled to take advantage of launch opportunities to Mars, occurring every 26 months, by sending up two Mars missions at each opportunity. The number of future missions may now be halved.

Wessen also explained some of what would be involved in sending a crewed mission to Mars. The lightest vehicles with current technology would take six or seven months to get to Mars, would have to remain on the surface for another six months and take almost a year to return. He said that a significant amount of supplies would need to be sent ahead by uncrewed vehicles to prepare for any such mission.

Wessen also expects that the number of shuttle missions will be reduced. It's unclear how this possibility would impact the completion of the space station. During the science committee hearings, administrator Griffin said it wouldn't be possible to fly the 28 shuttle missions that would be necessary to finish the station by 2010. The next shuttle trip to the station is scheduled for July 13, an announcement made last Friday.

Posted by natasha at July 5, 2005 01:09 AM | Science | Technorati links |