In May of 2020, NASA made the decision to give the next-generation Wide Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST) a proper name. Henceforth, it would be known as the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (or Roman Space Telescope) in honor of NASA’s first Chief Astronomer and a woman’s who tireless work in the field of STEMs research led to the creation of the Hubble Space Telescope – hence her nickname, the “mother of Hubble”).
However, in recent months, the budget environment has not been too favorable to the Roman Space Telescope (RST), as well as education-related programs. But thanks to a recent bill considered by the House Appropriations Commitee, funding has been restored to five NASA science missions and projects – including the RST – that the administration’s budget proposal sought to cancel for the coming year.
On Sept. 15th, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation met to consider legislation formally introduced by a bipartisan group of senators. Among the bills presented was the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016, a measure designed to ensure short-term stability for the agency in the coming year.
And as of Thursday, Sept. 22nd, the Senate Commerce Committee approved the bill, providing $19.5 billion in funding for NASA for fiscal year 2017. This funding was intended for the purpose of advancing the agency’s plans for deep space exploration, the Journey to Mars, and operations aboard the International Space Station.
According to Senator Ted Cruz, the bill’s lead sponsor, the Act was introduced in order to ensure that NASA’s major programs would be stable during the upcoming presidential transition. As Cruz was quoted as saying by SpaceNews:
“The last NASA reauthorization act to pass Congress was in 2010. And we have seen in the past the importance of stability and predictability in NASA and space exploration: that whenever one has a change in administration, we have seen the chaos that can be caused by the cancellation of major programs.”
This last act was known as the “NASA Authorization Act of 2010“, which authorized appropriations for NASA between the years of 2011-2013. In addition to providing a total of $58 billion in funding for those three years, it also defined long-term goals for the space agency, which included expanding human space flight beyond low-Earth orbit and developing technical systems for the “Journey to Mars”.
“In order to maximize the cost-effectiveness of the long-term exploration and utilization activities of the United States, the Administrator shall take all necessary steps, including engaging international, academic, and industry partners to ensure that activities in the Administration’s human exploration program balance how those activities might also help meet the requirements of future exploration and utilization activities leading to human habitation on the surface of Mars.”
While the passage of the bill is certainly good news for NASA’s bugeteers, it contains some provisions which could pose problems. For example, while the bill does provide for continued development of the SLS and Orion capsule, it advised that NASA find alternatives for its Asteroid Robotic Redirect Missions (ARRM), which is currently planned for the 2020s.
This mission, which NASA deemed essential for testing key systems and developing expertise for their eventual crewed mission to Mars, was cited for not falling within original budget constraints. Section 435 (“Asteroid Robotic Redirect Mission“), details these concerns, stating that an initial estimate put the cost of the mission at $1.25 billion, excluding launch and operations.
However, according to a Key Decision Point-B review conducted by NASA on July 15th, 2016, a new estimate put the cost at $1.4 billion (excluding launch and operations). As a result, the bill’s sponsors concluded that ARM is in competition with other programs, and that an independent cost assessment and some hard choices may be necessary.
In Section 435, subsection b (parts 1 and 2), its states that:
“[T]he technological and scientific goals of the Asteroid Robotic Redirect Mission may not be commensurate with the cost; and alternative missions may provide a more cost effective and scientifically beneficial means to demonstrate the technologies needed for a human mission to Mars that would otherwise be demonstrated by the Asteroid Robotic Redirect Mission.”
The bill was also subject to amendments, which included the approval of funding for the development of satellite servicing technology. Under this arrangement, NASA would have the necessary funds to create spacecraft capable of repairing and providing maintenance to orbiting satellites, thus ensuring long-term functionality.
Also, Cruz and Bill Nelson (D-Fla), the committee ranking member, also supported an amendment that would indemnify companies or third parties executing NASA contracts. In short, companies like SpaceX or Blue Origin would now be entitled to compensation (above a level they are required to insure against) in the event of damages or injuries incurred as a result of launch and reentry services being provided.
According to a Commerce Committee press release, Sen. Bill Nelson had this to say about the bill’s passage:
“I want to thank Chairman Thune and the members of the committee for their continued support of our nation’s space program. Last week marked the 55th anniversary of President Kennedy’s challenge to send a man to the Moon by the end of the decade. The NASA bill we passed today keeps us moving toward a new and even more ambitious goal – sending humans to Mars.”
With the approval of the Commerce Committee, the bill will now be sent to the Senate for approval. It is hoped that the bill will pass through the Senate quickly so it can be passed by the House before the year is over. Its supporters see this as crucial to maintaining NASA’s funding in the coming years, during which time they will be taking several crucial steps towards the proposed crewed mission to Mars.
We’ve written about Uwingu previously, and this creative new concept for creating funding for space exploration and astronomy is now in their final push to reach their Indigogo goal of raising an initial $75,000 through their Indiegogo page (similar to Kickstarter) to get the company going. After that, they hope to be self-sufficient and build enough resources to be a source of grants and funding for space and astronomy research. Indigogo provided the group a rare extension in their funding-raising drive, which now goes through Monday night, September 24 at 11:59PM Pacific Time.
“It seems like every single year there is a funding problem for space researchers and educators, and every year it is something different,” said one the people behind Uwingu, Alan Stern, speaking on Colorado Public Radio. “It’s the economy or Congress or budget overruns, or cuts from the presidential administration, but every year there is a budget battle. … We started to think, what could we do that could make a difference?”
Stern is a huge name in the space and planetary science community, and he’s currently the principal investigator on the New Horizons mission to Pluto, and was formerly Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate.
Stern and the impressive group of individuals from the space and astronomy community who have teamed up to do this had the idea of creating a for-profit company that sells space themed products that children, educators, hobbyists — a wide range of people — who can purchase and enjoy. Half of all revenue go towards funding space research and education, and the other will go towards the costs of creating what they sell. Plans are to sell entertaining and educational apps about space and other themes, starting next month.
“We are asking people to go the Indiegogo page, take a look and consider participating, and then to please pass it on to others you know.” Stern told Universe Today. “For everyone 10 people you send it to, maybe one will contribute. This needs to grow organically by people passing it on through the internet. We’re hoping the space and astronomy people will help give us a start, but when it launches with the real first products out into the broader public, we think it will be a real breakout.”
“If we can get that message across, I think it will fly. I have faith in this,” Stern added.
A couple of weeks ago we wrote about Uwingu, a creative, out-of-the-box concept to help solve what appears to be a growing problem for researchers, scientists, educators and students: how to get funding for research and other ground-breaking space exploration and astronomy projects. Why are a group of individuals from the space and astronomy community taking matters into their own hands to do this?
“Well, it seems almost every year we have budget problems,” he said. “This year the planetary budget got cut 20%. Just last week a report came out cutting the National Science Foundation astronomy facilities, recommending those cuts. And every year it’s the economy or it’s an overrun with NASA, or it’s the President’s budget, or it’s something that happens in Congress. And in space research, in space education, unlike, for example, medical research or if you’re a weather researcher or many other fields, there really aren’t very many places to turn when NASA’s budget is cut or the NSF budget’s cut. That’s about it in terms of the funding portfolio. We like to say, you know, if you only own one stock, you probably deserve what you get when it goes down. We’re out to try and diversify that portfolio a little bit.”
The Uwingu team — and by the way, Uwingu means ‘sky’ in Swahili — has put out a new video about their project, and in doing so, reveal a little more about how they plan to create a new funding method. For two years, they’ve been designing and building software products that will be sold, and the proceeds will create the Uwingu Fund for space research, exploration and education.
Pamela Gay described their ideas as “so elegant that I can’t believe they haven’t already been done.”
Uwingu needs to raise about $75,000 to get their concept off the ground, and after that should be self-supporting, as well as supporting an impressive amount of other researchers every year.
An impressive group of individuals from the space and astronomy community have teamed up to create an innovative, out-of-the-box concept to help solve what appears to be a growing problem for researchers, scientists, educators and students: how to get funding for research and other ground-breaking projects. With NASA and National Science Foundation budgets shrinking, a new start-up called Uwingu (which means “sky” in Swahili) will be working to provide ways to keep space science thriving.
Founders of the project include notable names like Alan Stern, Andrew Chaikin, Pamela Gay, Geoff Marcy, Mark Sykes, David Grinspoon, and Emily CoBabe-Amman.
Stern told Universe Today that the group’s initiative is not so much in response to the current government funding troubles, but a way to expand resources for the space and astronomy community, which is “just smart business,” he said.
However, it is an indication of changing times. “We couldn’t do this without the internet, frankly, which provides a new avenue for reaching people,” Stern said.
Additionally, Stern contrasted space and astronomy research, which mainly relies on NASA and NSF grants, to medical research, which has multiple lines of funding venues such as pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and the hundreds of medical foundations such as the American Cancer Society, in addition to government grants.
While Stern explained that he couldn’t yet reveal all the details of Uwingu, he did provide a few hints.
“The idea is to provide outstanding, innovative and cutting edge products,” he said. “We won’t just be accessing space and astronomy people who want to give to a cause, but will be accessing the general public, which is a much bigger marketplace.”
Dr. Pamela Gay wrote about Uwingu on her Starstryder website, saying “Their ideas are so elegant that I can’t believe they haven’t already been done.”
While the team is still finalizing some of their concepts, part of their reticence is building suspense. “Just like any new product line, it’s part of building suspense, just like Apple does when they release a new product. But we have a whole series of projects in work, and we want to do it right, too.”
Stern said part of what they are doing is to be a safety net for the space and astronomy community and part of it is to do new things. But, he added, when people have the greatest need is probably a good time to launch a project like this.
Uwingu is looking to raise an initial $75,000 through their Indiegogo site (similar to Kickstarter) to get the company going. After that, they hope to be self-sufficient and build enough resources to be a source of grants and funding for space and astronomy research.
“We are asking people to go the Indiegogo page, take a look and consider participating, and then to please pass it on to others you know.” Stern said. “For everyone 10 people you send it to, maybe one will contribute. This needs to grow organically by people passing it on through the internet. We’re hoping the space and astronomy people will help give us a start, but when it launches with the real first products out into the broader public, we think it will be a real breakout.”
“If we can get that message across, I think it will fly. I have faith in this,” Stern added.