Cancer Risk for a Human Mars Mission Just Got a Lot Worse

Astronauts hoping to take part in a crewed mission to Mars might want to pack some additional rad tablets! Long before NASA announced their proposal for a “Journey to Mars“, which envisions putting boots on the Red Planet by the 2030s, mission planners have been aware that one of the greatest risks for such a mission has to do with the threat posed by cosmic and solar radiation.

But according to a new study from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, this threat is even worse than previously thought. Using a predictive model, this study indicates that astronauts that are the surface of Mars for extended periods of time could experience cell damage from cosmic rays, and that this damage will extend to other healthy cells – effectively doubling the risk of cancer!

The study, which was led by UNLV scientist Dr. Francis Cucinotta, was published in the May issue of Scientific Reports – under the title of Non-Targeted Effects Models Predict Significantly Higher Mars Mission Cancer Risk than Targeted Effects Models“. Building on conventional models that predict that DNA damage caused by radiation leads to cancer, their model looked at how such damage could spread throughout the body.

At one time, Mars had a magnetic field similar to Earth, which prevented its atmosphere from being stripped away. Credit: NASA

Galactic cosmic rays (GCRs) are one of the greatest hazards posed by space exploration. These particles, which originate from beyond our Solar System, are basically atomic nuclei that have been stripped of their surrounding electrons, thanks to their high-speed journey through space. In the cases of iron and titanium atoms, these have been known to cause heavy damage to cells because of their very high rates of ionization.

Here on Earth, we are protected from these rays and other sources of radiation thanks to our protective magnetosphere. But with missions that would take astronauts well beyond Earth, they become a much greater threat. And given the long-term nature of a mission to Mars, mitigation procedures and shielding are being investigated quite thoroughly. As Cucinotta explained in a UNLV press statement:

“Exploring Mars will require missions of 900 days or longer and includes more than one year in deep space where exposures to all energies of galactic cosmic ray heavy ions are unavoidable. Current levels of radiation shielding would, at best, modestly decrease the exposure risks.”

Previous studies have indicated that the effects of prolonged exposure to cosmic rays include cancer, central nervous system effects, cataracts, circulatory diseases and acute radiation syndromes. However, until now, the damage these rays cause was thought to be confined to those cells that they actually traverse – which was based on models that deal with the targeted effects of radiation. 

Artist’s impression of astronauts exploring the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA/JSC/Pat Rawlings, SAIC

For the sake of their study, Dr. Cucinotta and Dr. Eliedonna Cacao (a Chemical Engineer at UNLV) consulted the mouse Harderian gland tumor experiment. This is the only extensive data-set to date that deals with the non-targeted effects (NTEs) of radiation for a variety of particles. Using this model, they tracked the effects of chronic exposure to GCRs, and determined that the risks would be twice as high as those predicted by targeted effects models.

“Galactic cosmic ray exposure can devastate a cell’s nucleus and cause mutations that can result in cancers,” Cucinotta explained. “We learned the damaged cells send signals to the surrounding, unaffected cells and likely modify the tissues’ microenvironments. Those signals seem to inspire the healthy cells to mutate, thereby causing additional tumors or cancers.”

Naturally, any indication that there could be an elevated risk calls for additional research. As Cucinotta and Cacao indicated in their study, “The scarcity of data with animal models for tissues that dominate human radiation cancer risk, including lung, colon, breast, liver, and stomach, suggest that studies of NTEs in other tissues are urgently needed prior to long-term space missions outside the protection of the Earth’s geomagnetic sphere.”

These studies will of course need to happen before any long-term space missions are mounted beyond Earth’s magnetosphere. In addition, the findings also raise undeniable ethical issues, such as whether or not these risks could (or should) be waived by space agencies and astronauts. If in fact we cannot mitigate or protect against the hazards associated with long-term missions, is it even right to ask or allow astronauts to take part in them?

In the meantime, NASA may want to have another look at the mission components for the Journey to Mars, and maybe contemplate adding an additional layer or two of lead shielding. Better to be prepared for the worst, right?

Further Reading: UNLV, Nature

Trump Proposes $19.1 Billion 2018 NASA Budget, Cuts Earth Science and Education

NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot outlines NASA’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget proposal during a ‘State of NASA’ speech to agency employees held at NASA HQ on May 23, 2017. Credit: NASA TV/Ken Kremer

The Trump Administration has proposed a $19.1 Billion NASA budget request for Fiscal Year 2018, which amounts to a $0.5 Billion reduction compared to the recently enacted FY 2017 NASA Budget. Although it maintains many programs such as human spaceflight, planetary science and the Webb telescope, the budget also specifies significant cuts and terminations to NASA’s Earth Science and manned Asteroid redirect mission as well as the complete elimination of the Education Office.

Overall NASA’s FY 2018 budget is cut approximately 3%, or $560 million, for the upcoming fiscal year starting in October 2017 as part of the Trump Administration’s US Federal Budget proposal rolled out on May 23, and quite similar to the initial outline released in March.

The cuts to NASA are smaller compared to other Federal science agencies also absolutely vital to the health of US scientific research – such as the NIH, the NSF, the EPA, DOE and NIST which suffer unconscionable double digit slashes of 10 to 20% or more.

The highlights of NASA’s FY 2018 Budget were announced by NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot during a ‘State of NASA’ speech to agency employees held at NASA HQ, Washington, D.C. and broadcast to the public live on NASA TV.

Lightfoot’s message to NASA and space enthusiasts was upbeat overall.

“What this budget tells us to do is to keep going!” NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot said.

“Keep doing what we’ve been doing. It’s very important for us to maintain that course and move forward as an agency with all the great things we’re doing.”

“I want to reiterate how proud I am of all of you for your hard work – which is making a real difference around the world. NASA is leading the world in space exploration, and that is only possible through all of your efforts, every day.”

“We’re pleased by our top line number of $19.1 billion, which reflects the President’s confidence in our direction and the importance of everything we’ve been achieving.”

Lightfoot recalled the recent White House phone call from President Trump to NASA astronaut & ISS Station Commander Peggy Whitson marking her record breaking flight for the longest cumulative time in space by an American astronaut.

Thus Lightfoot’s vision for NASA has three great purposes – Discover, Explore, and Develop.

“NASA has a historic and enduring purpose. It can be summarized in three major strategic thrusts: Discover, Explore, and Develop. These correspond to our missions of scientific discovery, missions of exploration, and missions of new technology development in aeronautics and space systems.”

Lightfoot further recounted the outstanding scientific accomplishments of NASA’s Mars rover and orbiters paving the path for the agencies plans to send humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s.

“We’ve had a horizon goal for some time now of reaching Mars, and this budget sustains that work and also provides the resources to keep exploring our solar system and look beyond it.”

Lightfoot also pointed to upcoming near term science missions- highlighting a pair of Mars landers – InSIGHT launching next year as well as the Mars 2020 rover. Also NASA’s next great astronomical observatory – the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

“In science, this budget supports approximately 100 missions: 40 missions currently preparing for launch & 60 operating missions.”

“The James Webb Space Telescope is built!” Lightfoot gleefully announced.

“It’s done testing at Goddard and now has moved to Johnson for tests to simulate the vacuum of space.”

JWST is the scientific successor to the Hubble Space Telescope and slated for launch in Oct. 2018. The budget maintains steady support for Webb.

The 18-segment gold coated primary mirror of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is raised into vertical alignment in the largest clean room at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, on Nov. 2, 2016. The secondary mirror mount booms are folded down into stowed for launch configuration. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Planetary Sciences division receives excellent support with a $1.9 Billion budget request. It includes solid support for the two flagship missions – Mars 2020 and Europa Clipper as well as the two new Discovery class missions selected -Lucy and Psyche.

“The budget keeps us on track for the next selection for the New Frontiers program, and includes formulation of a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa.”

SLS and Orion are making great progress. They are far beyond concepts, and as I mentioned, components are being tested in multiple ways right now as we move toward the first flight of that integrated system.”

NASA is currently targeting the first integrated launch of SLS and Orion on the uncrewed Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) for sometime in 2019.

Top NASA managers recently decided against adding a crew of two astronauts to the flight after conducting detailed agency wide studies at the request of the Trump Administration.

NASA would have needed an additional $600 to $900 to upgrade EM-1 with humans.

Unfortunately Trump’s FY 2018 NASA budget calls for a slight reduction in development funding for both SLS and Orion – thus making a crewed EM-1 flight fiscally unviable.

The newly assembled first liquid hydrogen tank, also called the qualification test article, for NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket lies horizontally beside the Vertical Assembly Center robotic weld machine (blue) on July 22, 2016. It was lifted out of the welder (top) after final welding was just completed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The budget request does maintain full funding for both of NASA’s commercial crew vehicles planned to restore launching astronauts to low Earth orbit (LEO) and the ISS from US soil on US rockets – namely the crewed Dragon and CST-100 Starliner – currently under development by SpaceX and Boeing – thus ending our sole reliance on Russian Soyuz for manned launches.

“Working with commercial partners, NASA will fly astronauts from American soil on the first new crew transportation systems in a generation in the next couple of years.”

“We need commercial partners to succeed in low-Earth orbit, and we also need the SLS and Orion to take us deeper into space than ever before.”

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

However the Trump Administration has terminated NASA’s somewhat controversial plans for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) – initiated under the Obama Administration – to robotically retrieve a near Earth asteroid and redirect it to lunar orbit for a visit by a crewed Orion to gather unique asteroidal samples.

“While we are ending formulation of a mission to an asteroid, known as the Asteroid Redirect Mission, many of the central technologies in development for that mission will continue, as they constitute vital capabilities needed for future human deep space missions.”

Key among those vital capabilities to be retained and funded going forward is Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP).

“Solar electric propulsion (SEP) for our deep space missions is moving ahead as a key lynchpin.”

The Trump Administration’s well known dislike for Earth science and disdain of climate change has manifested itself in the form of the termination of 5 current and upcoming science missions.

NASA’s FY 2018 Earth Science budget suffers a $171 million cut to $1.8 Billion.

“While we are not proposing to move forward with Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3), Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE), Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory Pathfinder (CLARREO PF), and the Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI), this budget still includes significant Earth Science efforts, including 18 Earth observing missions in space as well as airborne missions.”

The DSCOVR Earth-viewing instruments will also be shut down.

NASA’s Office of Education will also be terminated completely under the proposed FY 2018 budget and the $115 million of funding excised.

“While this budget no longer supports the formal Office of Education, NASA will continue to inspire the next generation through its missions and the many ways that our work excites and encourages discovery by learners and educators. Let me tell you, we are as committed to inspiring the next generation as ever.”

Congress will now have its say and a number of Senators, including Republicans says Trumps budget is DOA.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson Sets US Space Endurance Record, Speaks to President Trump

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, currently living and working aboard the International Space Station, broke the record Monday for cumulative time spent in space by a U.S. astronaut – an occasion that was celebrated with a phone call from President Donald Trump, First Daughter Ivanka Trump, and fellow astronaut Kate Rubins. Credits: NASA TV

NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson set the endurance record for time in space by a U.S, astronaut today, Monday, April 24, during her current stint of living and working aboard the International Space Station (ISS) along with her multinational crew of five astronauts and cosmonauts.

Furthermore Whitson received a long distance phone call of exuberant congratulations from President Donald Trump, First Daughter Ivanka Trump, and fellow astronaut Kate Rubins direct from the Oval Office in the White House to celebrate the momentous occasion.

“This is a very special day in the glorious history of American spaceflight!” said President Trump during the live phone call to the ISS broadcast on NASA TV.

As of today, Whitson exceeded 534 cumulative days in space by an American astronaut, breaking the record held by NASA astronaut Jeff Williams.

“Today Commander Whitson you have broken the record for the most total time spent in space by an American astronaut. 534 days and counting,” elaborated President Trump.

“That’s an incredible record to break. And on behalf of the nation and frankly the world I would like to congratulate you. That is really something!”

“You’re an incredible inspiration to us all.”

Trump noted that thousands of school students were listening in to the live broadcast which also served to promote students to study STEM subjects.

“Peggy is a phenomenal role model for young women, and all Americans, who are exploring or participating in STEM education programs and careers,” said President Trump.

“As I have said many times before, only by enlisting the full potential of women in our society will we be truly able to make America great again. When I signed the INSPIRE Women Act in February, I did so to ensure more women have access to STEM education and careers, and to ensure America continues to benefit from the contributions of trailblazers like Peggy.”

How does it feel to break the endurance record? Trump asked Whitson.

“It’s actually a huge honor to break a record like this, but it’s an honor for me basically to be representing all the folks at NASA who make this spaceflight possible and who make me setting this record feasible,” Whitson replied from orbit to Trump.

“And so it’s a very exciting time to be at NASA. We are all very much looking forward, as directed by your new NASA bill — we’re excited about the missions to Mars in the 2030s. And so we actually, physically, have hardware on the ground that’s being built for the SLS rocket that’s going to take us there.”

“It’s a very exciting time, and I’m so proud of the team.”

“We have over 200 investigations ongoing onboard the space station, and I just think that’s a phenomenal part of the day.”

NASA astronaut Jack Fischer is also serving aboard the station on his rookie flight and also took part in the phone call with President Trump.

Whitson is currently serving as Space Station Commander of Expedition 51. She most recently launched to the ISS on Nov 17, 2016 aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, as part of a three person crew.

At the time of her Soyuz launch she had accumulated 377 total days in space.

She holds several other prestigious records as well. Whitson is the first woman to serve twice as space station commander.

Indeed in 2008 Whitson became the first woman ever to command the space station during her prior stay on Expedition 16 a decade ago. Her second stint as station commander began earlier this month on April 9.

Whitson also holds the record for most spacewalks by a female astronaut. Altogether she has accumulated 53 hours and 23 minutes of EVA time over eight spacewalks.

Overall, Expedition 51 involved her third long duration stay aboard the massive orbiting laboratory complex.

Seen here on a spacewalk in March 2017, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson holds the record for most spacewalks conducted by a female astronaut. Credits: NASA

“This is an inspirational record Peggy is setting today, and she would be the first to tell you this is a record that’s absolutely made to be broken as we advance our knowledge and existence as both Americans and humans,” said NASA acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, in a statement.

“The cutting-edge research and technology demonstrations on the International Space Station will help us go farther into our solar system and stay there longer, as we explore the mysteries of deep space first-hand. Congratulation to Peggy, and thank you for inspiring not only women, but all Americans to pursue STEM careers and become leaders.”

When she returns to Earth in September she will have accumulated some 666 days in space.

On her 2007 mission aboard the International Space Station, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, Expedition 16 commander, worked on the Capillary Flow Experiment (CFE), which observes the flow of fluid, in particular capillary phenomena, in microgravity. Credits: NASA

Trump made note of the science and commercial industrial work being carried out aboard the station.

“Many American entrepreneurs are racing into space. I have many friends that are so excited about space. They want to get involved in space from the standpoint of entrepreneurship and business,” said President Trump.

“And I’m sure that every student watching wants to know, what is next for Americans in space.”

Indeed the private SS John Glenn Cygnus cargo freighter just arrived at the ISS on Saturday, April 22, carrying nearly 4 tons or science experiments, hardware, parts and provisions.

Whitson was one of two ISS astronauts involved in capturing Cygnus with the Canadian built robotic arm for attachment to the stations Unity node.

Trump also mentioned his strong support for sending humans on a mission to Mars in the 2030s and for NASA’s development of the SLS heavy lift rocket and Orion deep space capsule.

“I’m very proud that I just signed a bill committing NASA to the aim of sending America astronauts to Mars. So we’ll do that. I think we’ll do it a lot sooner than we’re even thinking.”

“Well, we want to try and do it during my first term or, at worst, during my second term. So we’ll have to speed that up a little bit, okay?”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Mars Missions Need To Be Neat Freaks At Key Sites

One of the most common features of space exploration has been the use of disposable components to get missions to where they are going. Whether we are talking about multistage rockets (which fall away as soon as they are spent) or the hardware used to achieve Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) onto a planet, the idea has been the same. Once the delivery mechanism is used up, it is cast away.

However, in so doing, we could be creating a hazardous situation for future missions. Such is the conclusion reached by a new study from the Finnish Meteorological Institute in Helsinki, Finland. With regard to the use of Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) systems, the study’s author – Dr. Mark Paton – concludes that jettisoned hardware from missions to Mars could create a terrible mess near future landing sites.

Dr. Mark Paton is a planetary research scientist who specializes in the interaction between the Martian atmosphere and its surface. As such, he is well-versed in the subject of EDL systems that are designed to land missions on Solar System bodies that have atmospheres. This is certainly a going concern for Mars, where landers and rovers have relied on various means to get to the surface safely.

Consider the Curiosity rover, which used a separate EDL system – known as the Sky Crane – to land on Mars in 2012. As the first EDL system of its kind, the Sky Crane was a essentially a rocket-powered backpack mounted on top of the rover. This system kicked in after Curiosity separated from its Descent module (which was slowed by a parachute) and used rockets to slow the rover’s decent even further.

Once it was sufficiently close to the surface, the Sky Crane lowed the rover to the ground with tethers measuring 6.4 meters (21 ft) long. It then detached and landed a safe distance away, not far from the Descent module’s heat shield, backshell, and parachute landed. These jettisoned bits were all photographed from orbit by the MSL’s HiRISE instrument a day after the landing.

This system is also being planned for use by the Mars 2020 rover. And beyond rockets and parachutes, there are also advanced concepts like the Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerators (HIADs). As part of NASA’s Fundamental Aerodynamics Hypersonics Project, the HIAD is an attempt to develop what are known as Inflatable Reentry Vehicle (IRV) systems which do away with heat shields.

Unfortunately, this kind of technology does not address another major concern – which is the accumulation of spent hardware components on the surface of a planet. In time, these could pose risks for future missions, mainly because they have the potential of being blown around and cluttering up other (and future) landing sites that are located not far away.

Artist’s impression of the Mars 2020 with its sky crane landing system deployed. Credit: NASA/JPL

As Dr. Paton indicated in an interview with Seeker columnist (and Universe Today alumnist) Elizabeth Howell:

“Currently available landing systems, using heat shield and parachutes, might be problematic because jettisoned hardware from these landers normally land within a few hundred meters of the lander. I would imagine a sample return mission would not jettison its parachute in close vicinity of the target sample or the cached sample. The parachute might cover the sample, making its retrieval a problem. Landers using large parachutes or other large devices probably pose the greatest risk as these could be easily blown onto equipment on the surface, damaging or covering it.”

For the sake of his study, Dr. Paton relied on 3D computer modelling (using the space flight simulator Orbiter) to examine different types of ELD systems. He then conducted meteorological measurements to determine wind speeds and direction within the Martian Planetary Boundary Layer (PBL), in order to determine their influence on the distribution of jettisoned components across the surface of Mars.

What he found was that winds speeds within the Martian PBL were sufficient enough to blow around certain types of EDL systems. This included parachutes – a mainstay of space missions – as well as next-generations concepts like the HIAC. Basically, these components could be blown onto prelanded assets, even when the lander itself has touched down several kilometers away.

This could play havoc with robotic missions that have sensitive equipment or are attempting to collect samples for return to Earth. And as for crewed missions – such as NASA’s proposed “Journey to Mars”, which is expected to take place in the 2030s – the results could be even worse. Crew habitats, which will be part of all future crewed missions, will rely on solar panels and other devices that need to be free of clutter in order to function.

Artist’s concept of the Deceleration module of Mars Science Laboratory in entering the Martian Atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As such, Dr. Paton advises that future missions be designed so that the amount of hardware they leave behind is minimized. In addition, he advises that any future missions will need to take into account meteorological measurement to make sure that jettisoned components are not likely to blow back and interfere with missions in progress.

“For new landing systems, a detailed trade-off analysis would be required to determine the best way to mitigate this problem,” he said. “To be sure that the wind is blowing away from any landed assets, the winds in the lower few kilometers of the atmosphere would ideally need to be measured close to the time of the lander’s expected arrival.”

As if planning missions to Mars wasn’t already challenging enough! In addition to all the things we need to worry about in getting there, now we need to worry about keeping our landing sites in pristine order. But of course, such considerations are understandable since our presence on Mars is expanding, and many key missions are planned for the coming years.

These include more robotic rovers in the next decade – i.e NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, the ESA’s Exomars rover, and the ISRO’s Mangalyaan 2 rover – an even NASA’s proposed “Journey to Mars” by the 2030s. If we’re going to make Mars a regular destination, we need to learn to pick up after ourselves!

Further Reading: Acta Astronautica,

Honorable Mention: Elizabeth Howell – Seeker

Trump’s NASA Authorization Act In All Its Glory

It’s no secret that NASA has had its share of worries with the Trump administration. In addition to being forced to wait several months to get a sense of the administration’s priorities, the space agency has also had to contend with proposed cuts to its Earth Observation and climate monitoring programs. But one thing which does not appear to be threatened is NASA’s “Journey to Mars“.

In accordance with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Transition Authorization Act of 2017, the Trump administration has finally committed to funding NASA’s plans for deep space human exploration in the coming decades, and to the tune of $19.5 billion. Central to these plans is the proposed crewed mission to Mars, which is scheduled to take place by 2033.

The Act was introduced to Congress back in February and presented to President Trump for approval on Tuesday, March. 9th. Consistent with the Space Administration Authorization Act of 2010 and the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016, this bill approved of $19.5 billion in funding for NASA for fiscal year 2017, much of which was earmarked for the continuation of NASA’s “Journey to Mars”.

NASA has unveiled a new exercise device that will be used by Orion crews to stay healthy on their mission to Mars. Credit: NASA

In addition to maintaining the US government’s commitment “to extend humanity’s reach into deep space, including cis-lunar space, the Moon, the surface and moons of Mars, and beyond”, the Act also expressed the need for a continued commitment to the International Space Station and the utilization of Low Earth Orbit, and other related space ventures.

However, it is Section. 431, Subtitle C – Journey to Mars, that contains all the articles that are of particular interest to space enthusiasts – as these deal with the planned missions to Mars. Article 432, titled “Human Exploration Roadmap”, specifically states that:

“The Administrator shall develop a human exploration roadmap, including a critical decision plan, to expand human presence beyond low-Earth orbit to the surface of Mars and beyond, considering potential interim destinations such as cis-lunar space and the moons of Mars.

This roadmap, according to the Act, will include all the science and exploration goals that were outlined in the 2014 report, “Pathways to Exploration: Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration”, which was prepared by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Committee on Human Spaceflight.

Artist concept of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) 70-metric-ton configuration launching to space. Credit: NASA/MSFC

In addition, they cite the many plans prepared by NASA and other advocates for Mars exploration over the years. These include “The Global Exploration Roadmap” (2013), “NASA’s Journey to Mars – Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration” (2015), the JPL’s “Minimal Architecture for Human Journeys to Mars” (2015), and Explore Mars’ “The Humans to Mars Report 2016“.

The Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion Space Capsule, a deep space habitat, and other capabilities are cited as crucial technologies. Other technologies that are identified are “space suits, solar electric propulsion, deep space habitats, environmental control life support systems, Mars lander and ascent vehicle, entry, descent, landing, ascent, Mars surface systems, and in-situ resource utilization.”

And last, but not least, is the need to pursue robotic and crewed missions that are intended to test these technologies – aka. Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) and Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2). The former mission (which is scheduled for launch on September 30th, 2018) will be the first launch of the SLS with the Orion Capsule on-board, and will involve an uncrewed Orion being sent on a translunar mission.

Exploration Mission-2 (which is expected to launch in August of 2021) will be consists of a crew of four astronauts conducting another flight around the Moon and returning to Earth. Other crewed explorations are expected to follow during the 2020s, which may or may not include the crewed exploration of an asteroid towed into lunar orbit (as part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission, or ARM).

Here too, the Act was consistent with the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016. Based on growing budget assessments and the judgement that the benefits of “the Asteroid Robotic Redirect Mission have not been demonstrated to Congress to be commensurate with the cost”, the Act recommends that NASA select a more “cost-effective” option for testing the Orion capsule.

Aside from testing the components and developing the expertise necessary for a crewed mission to Mars, these mission will also establish an all-important “launch cadence”. In other words, NASA hopes to begin conducting regular launches using the SLS between 2021 and 2023, which will be key to restarting crewed exploration of the Solar System.

Of course, the Act also emphasizes the need for continued research into the potential health risks, which are currently being performed aboard the ISS. These include the dangers of exposure to radiation, the long-term effects of time spent in microgravity environments (i.e. muscle degeneration, loss of bone density, organ degeneration, and loss of eyesight), and efforts to mitigate them.

Of course, critics of the Act cite the adjustments made to spending on Earth sciences and heliophysics. In addition, this funding is only for the coming year, and future commitments will need to be made to ensure that the “Journey to Mars” can happen in the time frame provided. But the Act passed with almost unanimous support, and seems to have confirmed what many observers claimed about the space priorities of a Trump administration.

Proponents of space exploration and a mission to Mars can therefore rest easy, as it seems that both are safe for another year. As for Earth science and research, which are intrinsic to helping us predict the effects of climate change, that’s another battle!

Further Reading: congress.gov

So it Begins, Red Dragon Delayed 2 Years to 2020

Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2020. Credit: SpaceX
Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2020. Credit: SpaceX

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – With so many exciting projects competing for the finite time of SpaceX’s super talented engineers, something important had to give. And that something comes in the form of slipping the blastoff of SpaceX’s ambitious Red Dragon initiative to land the first commercial spacecraft on Mars by 2 years – to 2020. Nevertheless it will include a hefty science payload, SpaceX’s President told Universe Today.

The Red Dragon launch postponement from 2018 to 2020 was announced by SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell during a Falcon 9 prelaunch press conference at historic pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“We were focused on 2018, but we felt like we needed to put more resources and focus more heavily on our crew program and our Falcon Heavy program, said SpaceX Gwynne Shotwell at the pad 39a briefing.

“So we’re looking more in the 2020 time frame for that.”

And whenever Red Dragon does liftoff, it will carry a significant “science payload” to the Martian surface, Shotwell told me at the pad 39A briefing.

“As much [science] payload on Dragon as we can,” Shotwell said. Science instruments would be provided by “European and commercial guys … plus our own stuff!”

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell meets the media at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 17 Feb 2017 ahead of launch of the CRS-10 mission on 19 Feb 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

Another factor potentially at play is yesterdays (Feb 27) announcement by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk that he has two hefty, revenue generating paying customers for a manned Moonshot around the Moon that could blastoff on a commercial crew Dragon as soon as next year atop a Falcon Heavy from pad 39A – as I reported here.

Whereas SpaceX is footing the bill for the private Red Dragon venture.

Pad 39A is the same pad from which the Red Dragon mission will eventually blastoff atop a heavy lift SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket – and which just reopened for launch business last week on Feb. 19 after lying dormant for more than 6 years since the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program in July 2011.

So at least the high hurdle of reopening pad 39A has been checked off!

Raindrops keep falling on the lens, as inaugural SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon disappears into the low hanging rain clouds at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center after liftoff from pad 39A on Feb. 19, 2017. Dragon CRS-10 resupply mission is delivering over 5000 pounds of science and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX continues to dream big – setting its extraterrestrial sights on the Moon and Mars.

Musk founded SpaceX with the dream of transporting Humans to the Red Planet and establishing a ‘City on Mars’.

Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to Mars as early as 2020. Credit: SpaceX

Since launch windows to Mars are only available every two years due to the laws of physics and planetary alignments, the minimum Red Dragon launch delay automatically amounts to 2 years.

Furthermore the oft delayed Falcon Heavy has yet to launch on its maiden mission.

Shotwell said the maiden Falcon Heavy launch from pad 39A is planned to occur this summer, around mid year or so – after Pad 40 is back up and running.

And the commercial crew Dragon 2 spacecraft being built under contract to NASA to launch American astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) has also seen its maiden launch postponed more than six months over the past calendar year.

Finishing the commercial crew Dragon is absolutely critical to NASA for launching US astronauts to the ISS from US soil – in order to end our total dependence on Russia and the Soyuz capsule at a cost in excess of $80 million per seat.

Artistic concepts of the Falcon Heavy rocket (left) and the Dragon capsule deployed on the surface of Mars (right). Credit: SpaceX

The bold Red Dragon endeavor which involved launching an uncrewed version of the firms Dragon cargo spacecraft to carry out a propulsive soft landing on Mars as soon as 2018, was initially announced with great fanfare by SpaceX less than a year ago in April 2016.

At that time, SpaceX signed a space act agreement with NASA, wherein the agency will provide technical support to SpaceX with respect to Mars landing technologies for ‘Red Dragon’ and NASA would reciprocally benefit from SpaceX technologies for Mars landing.

But given the magnitude of the work required for this extremely ambitious Mars landing mission, the two year postponement was pretty much expected from the beginning by this author.

The main goal is to propulsively land the heaviest payload ever on Mars – something 5-10 times the size of anything landed before.

“These missions will help demonstrate the technologies needed to land large payloads propulsively on Mars,” SpaceX noted last April.

Red Dragon will utilize supersonic retropropulsion to achieve a safe touchdown.

I asked Shotwell whether Red Dragon would include a science payload? Would Universities and Industry compete to submit proposals?

“Yes we had planned to fly [science] stuff in 2018, but people are also more ready to fly in 2020 than 2018,” Shotwell replied.

“Yes we are going to put as much [science] payload on Dragon as we can. By the way, just Dragon landing alone will be the largest mass ever put on the surface of Mars. Just the empty Dragon alone. That will be pretty crazy!”

“There are a bunch of folks that want to fly [science], including European customers, commercial guys.”

“Yeah there will be [science] stuff on Dragon – plus our own stuff!” Shotwell elaborated.

Whenever it does fly, SpaceX will utilize a recycled cargo Dragon from one of the space station resupply missions for NASA, said Jessica Jensen, SpaceX Dragon Mission manager at a KSC media briefing.

NASA’s still operating 1 ton Curiosity rover is the heaviest spaceship to touchdown on the Red Planet to date.

Dramatic wide angle mosaic view of butte with sandstone layers showing cross-bedding in the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp with distant view to rim of Gale crater, taken by Curiosity rover’s Mastcam high resolution cameras. This photo mosaic was assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 8, 2016 and stitched by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo, with added artificial sky. Featured at APOD on 5 Oct 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

NASA’s agency wide goal is to send humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ by the 2030s utilizing the SLS rocket and Orion deep space capsule – slated for their uncrewed maiden launch in late 2018.

Although NASA has just initiated a feasibility study to alter the mission and add 2 astronauts with a revised liftoff date of 2019.

Of course it all depends on whether the new Trump Administration bolsters NASA or slashes NASA funding.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NASA Studies Whether to Add Crew to 1st SLS Megarocket Moon Launch in 2019

NASA’s Space Launch System rocket will be the most powerful rocket in the world and, with the agency’s Orion spacecraft, will launch America into a new era of exploration to destinations beyond Earth’s orbit. Their first integrated mission is planned as uncrewed, but NASA now is assessing the feasibility of adding crew. Credits: NASA/MSFC

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – At the request of the new Trump Administration, NASA has initiated a month long study to determine the feasibility of converting the first integrated unmanned launch of the agency’s new Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket and Orion capsule into a crewed mission that would propel two astronauts to the Moon and back by 2019 – 50 years after the first human lunar landing.

Top NASA officials outlined the details of the study at a hastily arranged media teleconference briefing on Friday, Feb 24. It will examine the feasibility of what it would take to add a crew of 2 astronauts to significantly modified maiden SLS/Orion mission hardware and whether a launch could be accomplished technically and safely by the end of 2019.

On Feb. 15, Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot announced that he had asked Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate in Washington, to start detailed studies of what it would take to host astronauts inside the Orion capsule on what the agency calls Exploration Mission-1, or EM-1.

Gerstenmaier, joined by Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development in Washington, at the briefing said a team was quickly assembled and the study is already underway.

They expect the study to be completed in early spring, possibly by late March and it will focus on assessing the possibilities – but not making a conclusion on whether to actually implement changes to the current uncrewed EM-1 flight profile targeted for blastoff later in 2018.

“I want to stress to you this is a feasibility study. So when we get done with this we won’t come out with a hard recommendation, one way or the other,” Gerstenmaier stated.

“We’re going to talk about essentially the advantages and disadvantages of adding crew to EM-1.”

“We were given this task a week ago, appointed a team and have held one telecon.”

“Our priority is to ensure the safe and effective execution of all our planned exploration missions with the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket,” said Gerstenmaier.

“This is an assessment and not a decision as the primary mission for EM-1 remains an uncrewed flight test.”

Artist concept of the SLS Block 1 configuration on the Mobile Launcher at KSC. Credit: NASA/MSFC

Gerstenmaier further stipulated that the study should focus on determining if a crewed EM-1 could liftoff by the end of 2019. The study team includes one astronaut.

If a change resulted in a maiden SLS/Orion launch date stretching beyond 2019 it has little value – and NASA is best to stick to the current EM-1 flight plan.

The first SLS/Orion crewed flight is slated for Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2) launching in 2021.

“I felt that if we went much beyond 2019, then we might as well fly EM-2 and actually do the plan we’re on,” Gerstenmaier said.

NASA’s current plans call for the unmanned blastoff of Orion EM-1 on the SLS-1 rocket later next year on its first test flight on a 3 week long mission to a distant lunar retrograde orbit. It is slated to occur roughly in the September to November timeframe from Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center.

Lightfoot initially revealed the study in a speech to the Space Launch System/Orion Suppliers Conference in Washington, D.C. and an agency wide memo circulated to NASA employees on Feb. 15 – as I reported here.

The Orion EM-1 capsule is currently being manufactured at the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at the Kennedy Space Center by prime contractor Lockheed Martin.

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

To launch astronauts, Orion EM-1 would require very significant upgrades since it will not have the life support systems, display panels, abort systems and more needed to safely support humans on board.

“We know there are certain systems that needed to be added to EM-1 to add crew,” Gerstenmaier elaborated. “So we have a good, crisp list of all the things we would physically have to change from a hardware standpoint.

In fact since EM-1 assembly is already well underway, some hardware already installed would have to be pulled out in order to allow access behind to add the life support hardware and other systems, Hill explained.

The EM-1 pressure shell arrived last February as I witnessed and reported here.

Thus adding crew at this latter date in the manufacturing cycle is no easy task and would absolutely require additional time and additional funding to the NASA budget – which as everyone knows is difficult in these tough fiscal times.

“Then we asked the team to take a look at what additional tests would be needed to add crew, what the additional risk would be, and then we also wanted the teams to talk about the benefits of having crew on the first flight,” Gerstenmaier explained.

“It’s going to take a significant amount of money, and money that will be required fairly quickly to implement what we need to do,” Hill stated. “So it’s a question of how we refine the funding levels and the phasing of the funding for the next three years and see where it comes out.”

Hill also stated that NASA would maintain the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion stage for the first flight, and not switch to the more advanced and powerful Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) planned for first use on EM-2.

Furthermore NASA would move up the AA-2 ascent abort test for Orion to take place before crewed EM-1 mission.

Components of the SLS-1 rocket are being manufactured at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility and elsewhere around the country by numerous suppliers.

Michoud is building the huge fuel liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen SLS core stage fuel tank, derived from the Space Shuttle External Tank (ET) – as I detailed here.

The liquid hydrogen tank qualification test article for NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket lies horizontally after final welding was completed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans in July 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Gerstenmaier noted that Michoud did suffer some damage during the recent tornado strike which will necessitate several months worth of repairs.

The newly assembled first liquid hydrogen tank, also called the qualification test article, for NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket lies horizontally beside the Vertical Assembly Center robotic weld machine (blue) on July 22, 2016. It was lifted out of the welder (top) after final welding was just completed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The 2018 launch of NASA’s Orion on the unpiloted EM-1 mission counts as the first joint flight of SLS and Orion, and the first flight of a human rated spacecraft to deep space since the Apollo Moon landing era ended more than 4 decades ago.

SLS is the most powerful booster the world has even seen – even more powerful than NASA’s Saturn V moon landing rocket of the 1960s and 1970s.

For SLS-1 the mammoth booster will launch in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) Block 1 configuration with a liftoff thrust of 8.4 million pounds.

If NASA can pull off a 2019 EM-1 human launch it will coincide with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 – NASA’s first lunar landing mission manned by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, along with Michael Collins.

If crew are added to EM-1 it would essentially adopt the mission profile currently planned for Orion EM-2.

“If the agency decides to put crew on the first flight, the mission profile for Exploration Mission-2 would likely replace it, which is an approximately eight-day mission with a multi-translunar injection with a free return trajectory,” said NASA. It would be similar to Apollo 8 and Apollo 13.

This artist concept depicts the Space Launch System rocket rolling out of the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built and will launch the agency’s Orion spacecraft into a new era of exploration to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit. Credits: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center

Orion is designed to send astronauts deeper into space than ever before, including missions to the Moon, asteroids and the Red Planet.

NASA is developing SLS and Orion for sending humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s.

They are but the first hardware elements required to carry out such an ambitious initiative.

Looking up from beneath the enlarged exhaust hole of the Mobile Launcher to the 380 foot-tall tower astronauts will ascend as their gateway for missions to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars. The ML will support NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft during Exploration Mission-1 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

An artist’s interpretation of NASA’s Space Launch System Block 1 configuration with an Orion vehicle. Image: NASA

‘Insufferable’ Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin Recovering From ‘Record Setting’ Antarctic Expedition Emergency Evacuation

Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin trekking across Antarctica as the oldest man to reach the South Pole. Credit: Team Buzz
Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin trekking across Antarctica as the oldest man to reach the South Pole, prior to emergency medical evacuation on Dec. 1, 2016. Credit: Team Buzz

Buzz Aldrin – the second man to walk on the Moon – is recovering nicely today in a New Zealand hospital after an emergency medical evacuation cut short his record setting Antarctic expedition as the oldest man to reach the South Pole – which Team Buzz lightheartly noted would make him “insufferable”!

“He’s recovering well in NZ [New Zealand],” Team Buzz said in an official statement about his evacuation from the South Pole.

Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, who followed Neil Armstrong in descending to the lunar surface in 1969 on America’s first Moon landing mission, had to be suddenly flown out of the Admunsen-Scott Science Station late last week per doctors orders after suffering from shortness of breath and lung congestion during his all too brief foray to the bottom of the world.

He was flown to a hospital in Christchurch, New Zealand for emergency medical treatment on Dec. 1.

Upon learning from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that Aldrin “now holds the record as the oldest person to reach the South Pole at the age of 86,” his Mission Director Christina Korp jokingly said: ‘He’ll be insufferable now.”

“Buzz Aldrin is resting in hospital in Christchurch, New Zealand. He still has some congestion in his lungs so has been advised not to take the long flight home to the States and to rest in New Zealand until it clears up,” Team Buzz said in an official statement on Dec. 3.

Buzz had been at the South Pole for only a few hours when he took ill, apparently from low oxygen levels and symptoms of altitude sickness.

“I’m extremely grateful to the National Science Foundation (NSF) for their swift response and help in evacuating me from the Admunsen-Scott Science Station to McMurdo Station and on to New Zealand. I had been having a great time with the group at White Desert’s camp before we ventured further south. I really enjoyed the time I spent talking with the Science Station’s staff too,” said Aldrin from his hospital room in a statement.

Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin being evacuated from Antarctica for emergency medical treatment on Dec. 1, 2016. Credit: Team Buzz
Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin being evacuated from Antarctica for emergency medical treatment on Dec. 1, 2016. Credit: Team Buzz

Prior to the planned Antarctic journey, his doctors had cleared him to take the long trip – which he views as “the capstone of his personal exploration achievements”.

Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin is seen recovering well in New Zealand hospital on Dec. 2 after medical emergency evacuation from expedition to the South Pole on Dec. 1, 2016. Credit: Team Buzz
Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin is seen recovering well in New Zealand hospital on Dec. 2 after medical emergency evacuation from expedition to the South Pole on Dec. 1, 2016. Credit: Team Buzz

Buzz’s goal in visiting the South Pole was to see “what life could be like on Mars” – which he has been avidly advocating as the next goal for a daring human spaceflight journey to deep space.

“His primary interest in coming to Antarctica was to experience and study conditions akin to Mars that are more similar there than any other place on earth,” Team Buzz elaborated.

He had hoped to speak more to the resident scientists about their research but it was all cut short by his sudden illness.

“I started to feel a bit short of breath so the staff decided to check my vitals. After some examination they noticed congestion in my lungs and that my oxygen levels were low which indicated symptoms of altitude sickness. This prompted them to get me out on the next flight to McMurdo and once I was at sea level I began to feel much better. I didn’t get as much time to spend with the scientists as I would have liked to discuss the research they’re doing in relation to Mars. My visit was cut short and I had to leave after a couple of hours. I really enjoyed my short time in Antarctica and seeing what life could be like on Mars,” Aldrin explained.

Buzz also thanked everyone who sent him well wishes.

“Finally, thanks to everyone from around the world for their well wishes and support. I’m being very well looked after in Christchurch. I’m looking forward to getting home soon to spend Christmas with my family and to continue my quest for Cycling Pathways and a permanent settlement on Mars. You ain’t seen nothing yet!”, concluded Aldrin.

I recently met Buzz Aldrin at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida, as part of the Grand Opening of the new ‘Destination Mars’ attraction.

Destination Mars is a holographic exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida. Be sure to catch it soon because the limited time run end on New Year’s Day 2017.

Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin discusses the human ‘Journey to Mars with Universe Today at newly opened ‘Destination Mars’ holographic experience during media preview at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida on Sept. 18, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin discusses the human ‘Journey to Mars with Universe Today at newly opened ‘Destination Mars’ holographic experience during media preview at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida on Sept. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The new ‘Destination Mars’ limited engagement exhibit magically transports you to the surface of the Red Planet via Microsoft HoloLens technology.

It literally allows you to ‘Walk on Mars’ using real imagery taken by NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover and explore the alien terrain, just like real life scientists on a geology research expedition – with Buzz Aldrin as your guide.

Here’s my Q & A with moonwalker Buzz Aldrin speaking to Universe Today at Destination Mars:

Video Caption: Buzz Aldrin at ‘Destination Mars’ Grand Opening at KSCVC. Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin talks to Universe Today/Ken Kremer during Q&A at ‘Destination Mars’ Holographic Exhibit Grand Opening ceremony at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSCVC) in Florida on 9/18/16. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

And Buzz seemed quite healthy for the very recent Grand Opening of the new ‘Heroes and Legends’ exhibit on Nov. 11 at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about ULA Delta 4 launch on Dec 7, GOES-R weather satellite, Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, OSIRIS-REx, InSight Mars lander, ULA, SpaceX and Orbital ATK missions, Juno at Jupiter, SpaceX AMOS-6 & CRS-9 rocket launch, ISS, ULA Atlas and Delta rockets, Orbital ATK Cygnus, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Dec 5-7: “ULA Delta 4 Dec 7 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, SpaceX and Orbital ATK missions to the ISS, Juno at Jupiter, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

NASA Stands Ready For Trump Transition Team

For almost a week now, NASA has been preparing for the transition between the Obama administration and that o Donald Trump, the president-elect. Unfortunately, little seems clear at this point, as the Trump campaign has yet to send representatives to speak to them, or give any indication of what the future budget environment might look like.

In lieu of clear statements, speculation has been the norm, and has been based almost entirely on statements made during the election. And with many important missions approaching, NASA has been understandably antsy. Luckily, with the appointment of a Agency Research Team (ART), it appears that the much-needed meeting may be on the way.

This news is certainly a welcome relief in a post-election atmosphere characterized for the most part by uncertainty and ambiguity. And it certainly is good news for NASA administrators, who have been getting increasingly anxious about what the new administration’s policies will mean for their future.

Artist's conception of NASA's Space Launch System with Orion crewed deep space capsule. Credit: NASA
Artist’s conception of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) with the Orion crewed deep space capsule. Credit: NASA

As Greg Williams – the Deputy Associate Administrator for Policy and Plans at NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate – was quoted as saying this past Monday (Nov. 14th):

“The new administration has not yet named its transition team members that interface with NASA, so we don’t yet know who we’ll be talking to. We are prepared to talk with them when they arrive… We hope to be building on the consensus we’ve achieved on the phases of exploration, the progression of human exploration from the ISS all the way to the surface of Mars.”

Once the election wrapped up after Nov. 8th, it was rumored that Mark Albrecht – the former executive secretary of the National Space Council during George H.W. Bush’s presidency – would be leading the NASA transition efforts. However, these rumors were not followed by any formal announcement, and no other individuals were named to the team.

This was certainly disconcerting, since NASA and other large agencies are used to meeting with transitional teams within days of an election. This is seen as essential for ensuring that there is continuity, or that they are apprised of changes long before they take effect. Given the nature of their work, NASA planners need to know in advance what kind of budgets they will have to work with, since it will determine what missions they can do.

NASA's Journey to Mars. NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. Credit: NASA/JPL
NASA’s Journey to Mars. NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. Credit: NASA/JPL

As Williams indicated, NASA is particularly concerned about their “Journey to Mars“, a long-term goal which requires a consistent commitment in terms of financial resources. And while transitional funding was made available for fiscal year 2017 – thanks to the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016 – NASA is looking far beyond the coming year.

In the coming years, NASA will need a solid commitment from the Trump presidency to ensure the completion and testing of the Space Launch System (SLS) – the successor to the Space Shuttle Program. They also require a multi-billion dollar commitment to continue testing the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle, not to mention the several crewed missions they hope to conduct using both.

Another thing that is central to mounting a crewed mission to Mars in the 2030s are the ongoing studies aboard the ISS. In particular, NASA hopes to use long-duration stays aboard the station to determine the risks to astronaut health. A crewed mission to Mars will spend several months in space, during which time they will be living in zero-gravity conditions and exposed to a great deal of radiation.

In addition, NASA hopes to mount a crewed mission to an asteroid in the coming decade. The plan entails sending a robotic spacecraft to capture and tow a Near-Earth Object (NEO) into lunar orbit – known as the Asteroid Robotic Redirect Missions (ARRM). This is to be followed by a crewed Orion spacecraft being sent to explore the asteroid, which will develop key systems and expertise for the coming mission to Mars.

NASA's new budget could mean the end of their Asteroid Redirect Mission. Image: NASA (Artist's illustration)
NASA’s new budget could mean the end of their Asteroid Redirect Mission. Image: NASA (Artist’s illustration)

Unfortunately, the Transition Authorization Act contained some strongly-worded language about the robotic asteroid mission. Essentially, it was deemed as not falling within the original budget constraints of $1.25 billion (it is now estimated at $1.4 billion). NASA planners were therefore encouraged to find “a more cost effective and scientifically beneficial means to demonstrate the technologies needed for a human mission to Mars.”

As such, NASA is very interested to know if the new administration will make the necessary commitment to fund the ARRM, or if they need to scrub it at this point and go back to the drawing board. One way or another, NASA needs to know what it will be capable of doing in the coming years so that they can develop a plan for what they intend to do.

The current state of uncertainty has been largely attributed to the fact that the Trump campaign engaged in little planning before the election. While various statements were made about the important role NASA plays, nothing concrete was laid out. And Trump even went so far as to say that long-term exploration goals would depend upon the economic climate.

One can only hope that the new Agency Research Team will have an agenda prepared when they meet with NASA administrators. We can also hope that it won’t impede NASA’s more ambitious efforts for the coming years. The agency has made it clear that its plans to explore Mars are in keeping with the goal of remaining the leader in the field of space exploration and research. If they can’t get there in the time period desired, someone else just might!

Further Reading: Space News

Where Will President-Elect Trump Take American Space Endeavours?

With the 2016 election now finished and Donald Trump confirmed as the president-elect of the United States, there are naturally some concerns about what this could means for the future of NASA. Given the administration’s commitment to Earth science, and its plans for crewed missions to near-Earth Orbit and Mars, there is understandably some worry that the budget environment might be changing soon.

At this juncture, it is not quite clear how a Trump presidency will affect NASA’s mandate for space exploration and scientific research. But between statements made by the president-elect in the past, and his stances on issues like climate change, it seems clear that funding for certain types of research could be threatened. But there is also reason to believe that larger exploration programs might be unaffected.

Back in September, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation passed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016. This bill granted $19.5 billion in funding for NASA for fiscal year 2017, thus ensuring that NASA’s proposed activities would not be affected by the transition in power. Central to this bill was the continued funding of operations that NASA considered to be central to its “Journey to Mars“.

Looking forward, it is unclear how the new administration will affect NASA's plans for space exploration. Credit: NASA/AESP
Looking forward, it is unclear how the new administration will affect NASA’s plans for space exploration. Credit: NASA/AESP

Beyond FY 2017, though, the picture is unclear. When it comes to things like NASA’s Earth Science program, the administration of a president that denies the existence of Climate Change is expected to mean budget cuts. For instance, back in May, Trump laid out his vision for an energy policy. Central to this was a focus on oil, natural gas and coal, the cancellation of the Paris Agreement, and the cessations of all payments to the UN Green Climate Fund.

This could signal a possible reverse of policies initiated by the Obama administration, which increased funding for Earth science research by about 50 percent. And as NASA indicated in a report issued on Nov. 2nd by the Office of the Inspect General – titled “NASA’s Earth Science Mission Portfolio” – this has resulted in some very favorable developments.

Foremost among these has been the increased in the number of products delivered to users by NASA, going from 8.14 million in 2000 to 1.42 billion in 2015. In other words, usage of NASA resources has increased by a factor of 175, and in the space of just 15 years (much of that in the last 8). Another major benefit has been the chance for collaboration and lucrative partnerships. From the report:

“Government agencies, scientists, private entities, and other stakeholders rely on NASA to process raw information received from Earth observation systems into useable data. Moreover, NASA’s Earth observation data is routinely used by government agencies, policy makers, and researchers to expand understanding of the Earth system and to enhance economic competitiveness, protect life and property, and develop policies to help protect the planet. Finally, NASA is working to address suggestions that it use commercially provided data to augment its Earth observation data. However, NASA must reconcile its policy that promotes open sharing of data at minimal cost to users with a commercial business model under which fees may create a barrier to use.”
Much of NASA's research into Climate Change takes place through the Earth Sciences Directorate. Credit: NASA
Much of NASA’s research into Climate Change takes place through the Earth Science division of the Mission Directorate. Credit: NASA

Unfortunately, it has been this same increase in funding that prompted Congressional Republicans, in the name of fiscal responsibility, to demand changes and new standards. These sentiments were voiced back in March of 2015 during NASA’s budget request for 2016. As Senator Ted Cruz – currently one of the Trump campaign’s backers – said at the time:

“We’ve seen a disproportionate increase in the amount of federal funds going to the earth sciences program at the expense of funding for exploration and space operations, planetary sciences, heliophysics, and astrophysics, which I believe are all rooted in exploration and should be central to NASA’s core mission. We need to get back to the hard sciences, to manned space exploration, and to the innovation that has been integral to NASA.

While Trump himself has little to say about space during his long campaign, his team did manage to recruit Robert Walker – a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania – this past October to draft a policy for them. In an op-ed to SpaceNews in late October, he echoed Cruz’s sentiments about cutting back on Earth sciences to focus on space exploration:

“NASA should be focused primarily on deep space activities rather than Earth-centric work that is better handled by other agencies. Human exploration of our entire solar system by the end of this century should be NASA’s focus and goal. Developing the technologies to meet that goal would severely challenge our present knowledge base, but that should be a reason for exploration and science.”

“It makes little sense for numerous launch vehicles to be developed at taxpayer cost, all with essentially the same technology and payload capacity. Coordinated policy would end such duplication of effort and quickly determine where there are private sector solutions that do not necessarily require government investment.

NASA's Journey to Mars. NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. Credit: NASA/JPL
NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. Credit: NASA/JPL

Next, there is the issue of NASA’s long-term goals, which (as noted) seem more secure for the time being. In May of 2016, Trump was issued the Aerospace America Questionnaire – a series of ten questions issued by NASA to determine the stances of the candidates on space exploration. On the subject of a crewed mission to Mars in the future, Trump’s campaign indicated that things would depend upon the state of the country’s economy:

“A lot of what my administration would recommend depends on our economic state. If we are growing with all of our people employed and our military readiness back to acceptable levels, then we can take a look at the timeline for sending more people into space.

However, they also professed an admiration for NASA and a commitment to its overall goal:

“NASA has been one of the most important agencies in the United States government for most of my lifetime. It should remain so. NASA should focus on stretching the envelope of space exploration for we have so much to discover and to date we have only scratched the surface.”

From all of this, a general picture of what NASA’s budget environment will look like in the near future begins to emerge. In all likelihood, the Earth Science division (and other parts of NASA) are likely to find their budgets being scrutinized based on newly-developed criteria. Essentially, unless it benefits space exploration and research beyond Earth, it’s not likely to see continued funding.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. Credit: NASA
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. Credit: NASA

But regardless of the results of the election, it appears at this juncture that NASA is looking forward with cautious optimism. Addressing the future, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden issued an internal memo on Wednesday, Nov. 9th. Titled “Reaching for New Heights in 2017 and Beyond“, Bolden expressed positive thoughts about the transition of power and what it would mean:

“In times when there has been much news about all the things that divide our nation, there has been noticeable bipartisan support for this work, our work – support that not only reaches across the aisle, but across the public, private, academic and non-profit sectors.

“For this reason, I think we can all be confident that the new Trump Administration and future administrations after that will continue the visionary course on which President Barack Obama has set us, a course that all of you have made possible.”

For NASA’s sake, I hope Bolden’s words prove to be prophetic. For no matter who holds of the office of the President of the United States, the American people – and indeed, all the world’s people – depend upon the continued efforts of NASA. As the leader in space exploration, their presence is essential to humanity’s return to space!

Further Reading: Planetary Society