When it comes to the next generation of space exploration, a number of key technologies are being investigated. In addition to spacecraft and launchers that will be able to send astronauts farther into the Solar System, NASA and other space agencies are also looking into new means of propulsion. Compared to conventional rockets, the goal is to create systems that offer reliable thrust while ensuring fuel-efficiency. Continue reading “Aerojet Rocketdyne Tests Out its New Advanced Ion Engine System”
In recent years, NASA has been busy developing the technology and components that will allow astronauts to return to the Moon and conduct the first crewed mission to Mars. These include the Space Launch System (SLS), which will be the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V (which brought the Apollo astronauts to the Moon), and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV).
Elon Musk has a reputation for pushing the envelop and making bold declarations. In 2002, he founded SpaceX with the intention of making spaceflight affordable through entirely reusable rockets. In April of 2014, his company achieved success with the first successful recovery of a Falcon 9 first stage. And in February of this year, his company successfully launched its Falcon Heavy and managed to recover two of the three boosters.
But above and beyond Musk’s commitment to reusability, there is also his longer-term plans to use his proposed Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) to explore and colonize Mars. The topic of when this rocket will be ready to conduct launches was the subject of a recent interview between Musk and famed director Jonathon Nolan, which took place at the 2018 South by Southwest Conference (SXSW) in Austin, Texas.
During the interview, Musk reiterated his earlier statements that test flights would begin in 2019 and an orbital launch of the full BFR and Big Falcon Spaceship (BFS) would take place by 2020. And while this might seem like a very optimistic prediction (something Musk is famous for), this timeline does not seem entirely implausible given his company’s work on the necessary components and their success with reusability.
As Musk emphasized during the course of the interview:
“People have told me that my timelines have historically been optimistic. So I am trying to re-calibrate to some degree here. But I can tell what I know currently is the case is that we are building the first ship, the first Mars or interplanetary ship, right now, and I think we’ll probably be able to do short flights, short sort of up-and-down flights probably in the first half of next year.”
To break it down, the BFR – formerly known as the Interplanetary Transport System – consists of a massive first stage booster and an equally massive second stage/spaceship (the BFS). Once the spacecraft is launched, the second stage would detach and use its thrusters to assume a parking orbit around Earth. The first stage would then guide itself back to its launchpad, take on a propellant tanker, and return to orbit.
The propellant tanker would then attach to the BFS and refuel it and return to Earth with the first stage. The BFS would then fire its thrusters again and make the journey to Mars with its payload and crew. While much of the technology and concepts have been tested and developed through the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, the BFR is distinct from anything else SpaceX has built in a number of ways.
For one, it will be much larger (hence the nickname, Big F—— Rocket), have significantly more thrust, and be able carry a much larger payload. The BFR’s specifications were the subject of a presentation Musk made at the 68th International Astronautical Congress on September 28th, 2017, in Adelaide, Australia. Titled “Making Life Interplanetary“, his presentation outlined his vision for colonizing Mars and presented an overview of the ship that would make it happen.
According to Musk, the BFR will measure 106 meters (348 ft) in height and 9 meters (30 ft) in diameter. It will carry 110 tons (~99,700 kg) of propellant and will have an ascent mass of 150 tons (~136,000 kg) and a return mass of 50 tons (~45,300 kg). All told, it will be able to deliver a payload of 150,000 kg (330,000 lb) to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) – almost two and a half times the payload of the Falcon Heavy (63,800 kg; 140,660 lb)
“This a very big booster and ship,” said Musk. “The liftoff thrust of this would be about twice that of a Saturn V (the rockets that sent the Apollo astronauts to the Moon). So it’s capable of doing 150 metric tons to orbit and be fully reusable. So the expendable payload is about double that number.”
In addition, the BFR uses a new type of propellant and tanker system in order to refuel the spacecraft once its in orbit. This goes beyond what SpaceX is used to, but the company’s history of retrieving rockets and reusing them means the technical challenges this poses are not entirely new. By far, the greatest challenges will be those of cost and safety, since this will be only the third reusable second stage spacecraft in history.
The other two consist of the NASA Space Shuttles, which were officially retired in 2011, and the Soviet/Russian version of the Space Shuttle known as the Buran spacecraft. While the Buran only flew once (an uncrewed flight that took place in 1988), it remains the only Russian reusable spacecraft to have even been built or flown.
Where costs are concerned, the Space Shuttle Program provides a pretty good glimpse into what Musk and his company will be facing in the years ahead. According to estimates compiled in 2010 (shortly before the Space Shuttle was retired), the program cost a total of about $ 210 billion USD. Much of these costs were due to maintenance between launches and the costs of propellant, which will need to be kept low for the BFR to be economically viable.
Addressing the question of costs, Musk once again stressed how reusability will be key:
“What’s amazing about this ship, assuming we can make full and rapid reusability work, is that we can reduce the marginal cost per flight dramatically, by orders of magnitude compared to where it is today. This question of reusability is so fundamental to rocketry, it is the fundamental breakthrough that’s needed.”
As an example, Musk compared the cost of renting a 747 with full cargo (about $500,000) and flying from California to Australia to buying a single engine turboprop plane, – which would run about $1.5 million and cannot even reach Australia. In short, the BFR relies on the principle that it costs less for an entirely reusable large spaceship to make a long trip that it does to launch a single rocket on a short trip that would never return.
“A BFR flight will actually cost less than our Falcon 1 flight did,” he said. “That was about a 5 or 6 million dollar marginal cost per flight. We’re confident the BFR will be less than that. That’s profound, and that is what will enable the integration of a permanent base on the Moon and a city on Mars. And that’s the equivalent of like the Union Pacific Railroad, or having ships that can quickly cross the oceans.”
Beyond manufacturing and refurbishing costs, the BFR will also need to have an impeccable safety record if SpaceX is to have a hope of making money from it. In this respect, SpaceX hopes to follow a development process similar to what they did with the Falcon 9. Before conducting full launch tests to see if the first stage of the rocket could safely make it to orbit and then be retrieved, the company conducted short hop tests using their “Grasshopper” rocket.
According to the timeline Musk offered at the 2018 SXSW, the company will be using the spaceship that is currently being built to conduct suborbital tests as soon as 2019. Orbital launches, which may include both the booster and the spaceship, are expected to occur by 2020. At present, Musk’s earlier statements that the first flight of the BFR would take place by 2022 and the first crewed flight by 2024 still appear to be on.
For comparison, the Space Launch System (SLS) – which is NASA’s proposed means of getting to Mars – is scheduled to conduct its first launch in 2019 as well. Known as Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), this launch will involve sending an uncrewed Orion capsule on a trip around the Moon. EM-2, in which a crewed Orion capsule will delver the first module of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G, formerly the Deep Space Gateway) to lunar orbit, will take place in 2022.
The ensuing missions will consist of more modules being delivered to lunar orbit to complete construction of the LOP-G, as well as the Deep Space Transport (DST). The first interplanetary trip to Mars, Exploration Mission 11 (EM-11), won’t to take place until 2033. So if Musk’s timelines are to be believed, SpaceX will be beating NASA to Mars, both in terms of uncrewed and crewed missions.
As for who will be enabling a permanent stay on both the Moon and Mars, that remains to be seen. And as Musk emphasized, he hopes that by showing that creating an interplanetary spaceship is possible, agencies and organizations all over the planet will mobilize to do the same. For all we know, the creation of the BFR could enable the creation of an entire fleet of Interplanetary Transport Systems.
The South by Southwest Conference began on Friday, March 9th and will continue until Sunday, March 18th. And be sure to check out the video of the interview below:
NASA is in an awkward in-between time right now. Since the beginning of the space age, the agency has had the ability to send its astronauts into space. The first American to go to space, Alan Shepard, did a suborbital launch on board a Mercury Redstone rocket in 1961.
Then the rest of the Mercury astronauts went on Atlas rockets, and then the Gemini astronauts flew on various Titan rockets. NASA’s ability to hurl people and their equipment into space took a quantum leap with the enormous Saturn V rocket used in the Apollo program.
It’s difficult to properly comprehend just how powerful the Saturn V was, so I’ll give you some examples of things this monster could launch. A single Saturn V could blast 122,000 kilograms or 269,000 pounds into low-Earth orbit, or send 49,000 kilograms or 107,000 pounds on a transfer orbit to the Moon.
Instead of continuing on with the Saturn program, NASA decided to shift gears and build the mostly reusable space shuttle. Although it was shorter than the Saturn V, the space shuttle with its twin external solid rocket boosters could put 27,500 kilograms or 60,000 pounds into Low Earth orbit. Not too bad.
And then, in 2011, the space shuttle program wrapped up. And with it, the United States’ ability to launch humans into the space. And most importantly, to send astronauts to the continuously inhabited International Space Station. That task has fallen to Russian rockets until the US builds back the capability for human spaceflight.
Since the cancellation of the shuttle, NASA’s workforce of engineers and rocket scientists has been developing the next heavy lift vehicle in NASA’s line up: the Space Launch System.
The SLS looks like a cross between a Saturn V and the space shuttle. It has the same familiar solid rocket boosters, but instead of the space shuttle orbiter and its orange external fuel tank, the SLS has the central Core Stage. It has 4 of the space shuttle’s RS-25 Liquid Oxygen engines.
Although two shuttle orbiters were lost in disasters, these engines and their liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen performed perfectly for 135 flights. NASA knows how to use them, and how to use them safely.
The very first configuration of the SLS, known as the Block 1, should have the ability to put about 70 metric tonnes into Low Earth Orbit. And that’s just the beginning, and it’s just an estimate. Over time, NASA will increase its capabilities and launch power to match more and more ambitious missions and destinations. With more launches, they’ll get a better sense of what this thing is capable of.
After the Block 1 is launching, NASA will develop the Block 1b, which puts a much larger upper stage on top of the same core stage. This upper stage will have a larger fairing and more powerful second stage engines, capable of putting 97.5 metric tonnes into low Earth orbit.
Finally, there’s the Block 2, with an even larger launch fairing, and more powerful upper stage. It should blast 143 tonnes into low Earth orbit. Probably. NASA is developing this version as a 130 tonne-class rocket.
With this much launch capacity, what could be done with it? What kinds of missions become possible on a rocket this powerful?
The main goal for SLS is to send humans out, beyond low Earth orbit. Ideally to Mars in the 2030s, but it could also go to asteroids, the Moon, whatever you like. And as you’ll read later on in this article, it could send some amazing scientific missions out there too.
The very first flight for SLS, called Exploration Mission 1, will be to put the new Orion crew module into a trajectory that takes it around the Moon. In a very similar flight to Apollo 8. But there won’t be any humans, just the unmanned Orion module and a bunch of cubesats coming along for the ride. Orion will spend about 3 weeks in space, including about 6 days in a retrograde orbit around the Moon.
If all goes well, the first use of the SLS with the Orion crew module will happen some time in 2019. But also, don’t be surprised if it gets pushed back, that’s the name of the game.
After Exploration Mission 1, there’s be EM-2, which should happen a few years after that. This’ll be the first time humans get into an Orion crew module and take a flight to space. They’ll spend 21 days in a lunar orbit, and deliver the first component of the future Deep Space Gateway, which will be the subject of a future article.
From there, the future is unclear, but SLS will provide the capability to put various habitats and space stations into cislunar space, opening up the future of human space exploration of the Solar System.
Now you know where SLS is probably headed. But the key to this hardware is that it gives NASA raw capability to put humans and robots into space. Not just here on Earth, but way across the Solar System. New space telescopes, robotic explorers, rovers, orbiters and even human habitats.
In a recent study called “The Space Launch System Capabilities for Beyond Earth Missions,” a team of engineers mapped out what the SLS should be capable of putting into the Solar System.
For example, Saturn is a difficult planet to reach, and it order to get there, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft needed to do several gravitational slingshots around Earth and one past Jupiter. It took almost 7 years to get to Saturn.
SLS could send missions to Saturn on more direct trajectory, cutting the flight time down to just 4 years. Block 1 could send 2.7 tonnes to Saturn, while Block 1b could loft 5.1 tonnes.
NASA is considering a mission to Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids. These are a collection of space rocks trapped in Jupiter’s L4/L5 Lagrange points, and could be a fascinating place to study. Once put into the Trojan region, a mission could visit several different asteroids, sampling a vast range of rocks that detail the Solar System’s early history.
The Block 1 could put almost 3.97 tonnes into these orbits, while the Block 1b could do 7.59 tonnes. That’s 6 times the capability of an Atlas V. A mission like this would have a cruise time of 10 years.
In a previous video, we talked about future Uranus and Neptune missions, and how a single SLS could send spacecraft to both planets simultaneously.
Another idea that I really like is an inflatable habitat from Bigelow Aerospace. The BA-2100 module would be a fully self-contained space habitat. No need for other modules, this monster would be 65 to 100 tonnes, and would go up in a single launch of SLS. Once inflated, it would contain 2,250 cubic meters, which is almost 3 times the total living space of the International Space Station.
One of the most exciting missions, to me, is a next generation space telescope. Something that would be the true spiritual successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. There are a few proposals in the works right now, but the idea I like best is the LUVOIR telescope, which would have a mirror that measures 16 meters across.
The SLS Block 1b could put 36.9 tonnes into Sun-Earth Lagrange Point 2. Really there’s nothing else out there that could put this much mass into that orbit.
Just for comparison, Hubble has a mirror of 2.4 meters across, and James Webb is 6.5. With LUVOIR, you would have 10 times more resolution than James Webb, and 300 times more power than Hubble. But like Hubble, it would be capable of seeing the Universe in visible and other wavelengths.
A telescope like this could directly image the event horizons of supermassive black holes, see right to the edge of the observable Universe and watch the first galaxies forming their first stars. It could directly observe planets orbiting other stars and help us determine if they have life on them.
Seriously, I want this telescope.
At this point, I know this is going to set off a big argument about NASA versus SpaceX versus other private launch providers. That’s fine, I get it. And the Falcon Heavy is expected to launch later this year, bringing heavy lift launch capabilities at an affordable price. It’ll be able to loft 54,000 kilograms, which is less than the SLS Block 1, and almost a third of the capability of the Block 2. Blue Origins has its New Glenn, there are heavier rockets in the works from United Launch Alliance, Arianespace, the Russian Space Agency, and even the Chinese. The future of heavy lift has never been more exciting.
If SpaceX does get the Interplanetary Transport Ship going, with 300 tonnes into orbit on a reusable rocket. Well then, everything changes. Everything.
“American will once again lead in space for the benefit and security of all of our people and all of the world,” Vice President Mike Pence said during a speech on Thursday, July 6, addressing a huge crowd of more than 500 NASA officials and workers, government dignitaries and space industry leaders gathered inside the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center – where Apollo/Saturn Moon landing rockets and Space Shuttles were assembled for decades in the past and where NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket and Orion deep space crew capsule will be assembled for future human missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.
Pence pronounced the bold space exploration goals and a reemphasis on NASA’s human spaceflight efforts from his new perch as Chairman of the newly reinstated National Space Council just established under an executive order signed by President Trump.
However Pence was short on details and he did not announce any specific plans, timetables or funding during his 25 minute long speech inside the iconic VAB at KSC.
It remains to been seen how the rhetoric will turn to reality and all important funding support.
The Trump Administration actually cut their NASA 2018 budget request by $0.5 Billion to $19.1 Billion compared to the enacted 2017 NASA budget of $19.6 Billion – including cuts to SLS and Orion.
By contrast, the Republican led Congress – with bipartisan support – is working on a 2018 NASA budget of around 19.8 Billion.
“Let us do what our nation has always done since its very founding and beyond: We’ve pushed the boundaries on frontiers, not just of territory, but of knowledge. We’ve blazed new trails, and we’ve astonished the world as we’ve boldly grasped our future without fear.”
“From this ‘Bridge to Space,’ our nation will return to the moon, and we will put American boots on the face of Mars.” Pence declared.
Lined up behind Pence on the podium was the Orion spacecraft flown on Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) in 2014 flanked by a flown SpaceX cargo Dragon and a mockup of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner crew capsule.
The crewed Dragon and Starliner capsules are being developed by SpaceX and Boeing under NASA contracts as commercial crew vehicles to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).
Pence reiterated the Trump Administrations support of the ISS and working with industry to cut the cost of access to space.
Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot also welcomed Vice President Pence to KSC and thanked the Trump Administration for its strong support of NASA missions.
“Here, of all places, we can see we’re not looking at an ‘and/or proposition’,” Lightfoot said.
“We need government and commercial entities. We need large companies and small companies. We need international partners and our domestic suppliers. And we need academia to bring that innovation and excitement that they bring to the next workforce that we’re going to use to actually keep going further into space than we ever have before.”
After the VAB speech, Pence went on an extensive up close inspection tour of KSC facilities led by Kennedy Space Center Director and former shuttle astronaut Robert Cabana, showcasing the SLS and Orion hardware and infrastructure critical for NASA’s plans to send humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ by the 2030s.
“We are in a great position here at Kennedy, we made our vision a reality; it couldn’t have been done without the passion and energy of our workforce,” said Kennedy Space Center Director Cabana.
“Kennedy is fully established as a multi-user spaceport supporting both government and commercial partners in the space industry. As America’s premier multi-user spaceport, Kennedy continues to make history as it evolves, launching to low-Earth orbit and beyond.”
Pence toured the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building (O & C) where the Orion deep space capsule is being manufactured for launch in 2019 on the first integrated flight with SLS on the uncrewed EM-1 mission to the Moon and back – as I witnessed for Universe Today.
Watch for Ken’s onsite space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
In order to get a better idea of the implications of the 2018 NASA budget proposal for KSC, I spoke one-on-one with Robert Cabana – one of NASA’s top officials, who currently serves as Director of the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) as well as being a former astronaut and Space Shuttle Commander. Cabana is a veteran of four space shuttle missions.
How did NASA and KSC fare with the newly announced 2018 Budget?
“We at KSC and NASA as a whole did very well with the 2018 budget,” KSC Director Robert Cabana explained during an interview with Universe Today by the Rocket Garden at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSCVC) in Florida.
“I think it really solidifies that the President has confidence in us, on the path that we are on,” Cabana noted while attending a student robotics competition at KSCVC sponsored by NASA.
“With only a 1 percent cut – when you look at what other agency’s got cut – this budget allows us to stay on the path that we are on.”
Trump cut NASA’s 2018 budget request by $0.5 Billion compared to the recently enacted FY 2017 budget of $19.6 Billion approved by the US Congress and signed by the President.
Other Federal science agency’s also critically vital to the health of US scientific research such as the NIH, the NSF, the EPA, DOE and NIST suffered terrible double digit slashes of 10 to 20% or more.
KSC is the focal point for NASA’s human spaceflight programs currently under intense development by NASA – namely the Space Launch System (SLS) Mars megarocket, the Orion deep space crew capsule to be launched beyond Earth orbit (BEO) atop SLS, and the duo of Commercial Crew Program (CCP) space taxis being manufactured by Boeing and SpaceX that will ferry our astronauts to low Earth orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station (ISS).
Numerous NASA science missions also launch from the Florida Space Coast.
“At KSC the budget keeps us on a path that continues to provide a commercial crew vehicle to fly crews to the ISS in 2018,” Cabana stated.
“The budget also keeps us on track to launch SLS and Orion in 2019.”
“I think that’s really important – along with all the other stuff we are doing here at KSC.”
“From our point of view it’s a good budget. We need to press ahead and continue on with what we promised.”
What’s ahead for commercial crew at KSC?
“We are moving forward with commercial crew,” Cabana told me.
“Within the next calendar year  we are moving ahead with flying the first certification flight with crew to the ISS. So that’s test flights and by the end of the year an actual crewed flight to the ISS. I want to see that happen.”
Industry partners Boeing and SpaceX are building the private CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon spaceships respectively, as part of NASA’s commercial crew initiative aimed at restoring America’s human spaceflight capability to launch our astronauts aboard American spaceships on American rockets from American soil.
Commercial Crew is a public/private partnership initiative with commercial contracts valued at $4.2 Billion and signed by Boeing and SpaceX with NASA in September 2014 under the Obama Administration.
The goal of commercial crew is to end our sole reliance on the Russian Soyuz capsule for astronaut flights to the space station since the retirement of the space shuttles back in 2011 – by manufacturing indigenous rockets and human rated spaceships.
However the CCP program suffered severe budget reductions by the US Congress for several years which forced significant work stretch-outs and delays in the maiden crew launches by both companies from 2015 to 2018 – and thus forced additional payments to the Russians for Soyuz seat purchases.
Both the Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Dragon crew vehicles can carry 4 or more astronauts to the ISS. This will enable NASA to add another crew member and thereby enlarge the ISS crew from 6 to 7 permanent residents after they become operational.
Meanwhile NASA is focusing on developing the SLS heavy lift rocket and Orion crew capsule with prime contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin in an agency wide effort to send humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s.
The European Space Agency(ESA) is also partnered with NASA and providing the service module for Orion.
What’s the status of the delivery of the European Space Agency’s service module?
“The service module will be here sometime next year,” Cabana said.
He noted that the details and exact timing are yet to be determined.
The first integrated launch of SLS and Orion on the unpiloted Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is now slated for sometime in 2019 after NASA recently slipped the date to the right from Fall 2018.
I asked Cabana for his insight and opinion on NASA not adding crew to Orion on the EM-1 flight.
“No we are not launching crew on the first flight [EM-1],” Cabana stated.
“With the budget that we have and what we need to do, this is the answer we got to at the end.”
“You know the crew study was still very important. It allowed us to find some things that we should still do on [EM-1], even though we are not going to launch crew on that flight.
“So we will make some further modifications that will reduce the risk even further when we do fly crew [on the next flight of EM-2].”
So for 2017 what are the major milestone you hope to complete here at KSC for SLS and Orion?
“So for me here at the Kennedy Space Center, my goal for the end of this calendar year 2017 we will have completed all of the construction of all of the [ground systems] hardware and facilities that are necessary to process and launch the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion,” Cabana elaborated.
‘We will still have a lot of work to do with the software for the spacecraft command and control systems and the ground systems.”
“But my goal is to have the hardware for the ground systems complete by the end of this year.”
What are those KSC facilities?
“Those facilities include the VAB [Vehicle Assembly Building] which will be complete to accept the mobile launcher in September and pad 39B will be complete in August,” Cabana said.
“The RPSF is already complete. The NPFF is already complete and we are doing testing in there. The LASF [Launch Abort System Facility] is complete – where they put the abort rocket on.”
“The Mobile Launcher will be complete from a structural point of view, with all the systems installed by the end of the year [including the umbilical’s and while room].”
Watch for Ken’s onsite CRS-11 mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Learn more about the SpaceX Dragon CRS-11 resupply launch to ISS, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:
May 30/31: “SpaceX CRS-11 and CRS-10 resupply launches to the ISS, Inmarsat 5 and NRO Spysat, EchoStar 23, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, ULA Atlas/John Glenn Cygnus launch to ISS, SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings
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.”
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.”
“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 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.
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 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.”
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.
Eric Fisher is the head of Labfundr, a Canadian crowdsourcing platform for science research and outreach. Eric is an entrepreneur, recovering biochemist, and son of a glaciologist. He completed a PhD in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. At Dalhousie, Eric investigated how liver cells create and destroy “bad” cholesterol particles. Eric recently founded Labfundr, Canada’s first crowdfunding platform for science, which aims to boost public engagement and investment in research. He stays on his toes by trying to keep up with his dog Joni, who is smarter and faster than him.
We use a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!
The WSH recently welcomed back Mathew Anderson, author of “Our Cosmic Story,” to the show to discuss his recent update. He was kind enough to offer our viewers free electronic copies of his complete book as well as his standalone update. Complete information about how to get your copies will be available on the WSH webpage – just visit http://www.wsh-crew.net/cosmicstory for all the details.
If you’d like to join Fraser and Paul Matt Sutter on their Tour to Iceland in February 2018, you can find the information at astrotouring.com.
If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!
We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Universe Today YouTube page
The announcement to forgo adding crew to the flight dubbed Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) was made by NASA acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot during a briefing with reporters on May 13.
“We appreciate the opportunity to evaluate the possibility of this crewed flight,” said NASA acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot during the briefing.
“The bi-partisan support of Congress and the President for our efforts to send astronauts deeper into the solar system than we have ever gone before is valued and does not go unnoticed. Presidential support for space has been strong.”
Although the outcome of the study determined that NASA could be “technically capable of launching crew on EM-1,” top agency leaders decided that there was too much additional cost and technical risk to accommodate and retire in the limited time span allowed.
Lightfoot said it would cost in the range of $600 to $900 million to add the life support systems, display panels and other gear required to Orion and SLS in order to enable adding astronauts to EM-1.
“It would be difficult to accommodate changes needed to add crew at this point in mission planning.”
Thus NASA will continue implementing the current baseline plan for EM-1 that will eventually lead to deep space human exploration missions starting with the follow on EM-2 mission which will be crewed.
Had the crewed lunar SLS/Orion flight been approved it would have roughly coincided with the 50th anniversary the first human lunar landing by NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin during the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969.
Instead NASA will keep to the agencies current flight plan.
The first SLS/Orion crewed flight is slated for Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2) launching no earlier than 2021.
If crew had been added to EM-1 it would have essentially adopted 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 earlier. It would be similar to Apollo 8 and Apollo 13.
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 initially to cislunar space and eventually on a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s.
They are but the first hardware elements required to carry out such an ambitious initiative.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Engineers carried out a critical hot fire engine test firing with the first new engine controlling ‘brain’ that will command the shuttle-era liquid fueled engines powering the inaugural mission of NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket.
The first integrated SLS launch combining the SLS-1 rocket and Orion EM-1 deep space crew capsule could liftoff as soon as late 2018 on a mission around the Moon and back.
The full duration static fire test involved an RS-25 engine integrated with the first engine controller flight unit that will actually fly on the maiden SLS launch and took place on Thursday, March 23 at the agency’s Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.
The 500 second-long test firing was conducted with the engine controller flight unit installed on RS-25 development engine no. 0528 on the A-2 Test Stand at Stennis.
The RS-25 engine controller is the ‘brain’ that commands the RS-25 engine and communicates between the engine and the SLS rocket. It is about the size of a dorm refrigerator.
The newly developed engine controller is a modern version from the RS-25 controller that helped propel all 135 space shuttle missions to space.
“This an important – and exciting – step in our return to deep space missions,” Stennis Director Rick Gilbrech said. “With every test of flight hardware, we get closer and closer to launching humans deeper into space than we ever have traveled before.”
The modernized RS-25 engine controller was funded by NASA and created in a collaborative effort of engineers from NASA, RS-25 prime contractor Aerojet Rocketdyne of Sacramento, California, and subcontractor Honeywell of Clearwater, Florida.
“The controller manages the engine by regulating the thrust and fuel mixture ratio and monitors the engine’s health and status – much like the computer in your car,” say NASA officials.
“The controller then communicates the performance specifications programmed into the controller and monitors engine conditions to ensure they are being met, controlling such factors as propellant mixture ratio and thrust level.”
A quartet of RS-25 engines, leftover from the space shuttle era and repeatedly reused, will be installed at the base of the core stage to power the SLS at liftoff, along with a pair of extended solid rocket boosters.
The four RS-25 core stage engine will provide a combined 2 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.
In addition to being commanded by the new engine controller, the engines are being upgraded in multiple ways for SLS. For example they will operate at a higher thrust level and under different operating conditions compared to shuttle times.
To achieve the higher thrust level required, the RS-25 engines must fire at 109 percent of capability for SLS compared to operating at 104.5 percent of power level capability for shuttle flights.
The RS-25 engines “also will operate with colder liquid oxygen and engine compartment temperatures, higher propellant pressure and greater exhaust nozzle heating.”
SLS will be the world’s most powerful rocket and send astronauts on journeys into deep space, further than human have ever travelled before.
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 – more powerful than NASA’s Saturn V moon landing rocket.
The next step is evaluating the engine firing test results, confirming that all test objectives were met and certifying that the engine controller can be removed from the RS-25 development engine and then be installed on one of four flight engines that will help power SLS-1.
During 2017, two additional engine controllers for SLS-1 will be tested on the same development engine at Stennis and then be installed on flight engines after certification.
Finally, “the fourth controller will be tested when NASA tests the entire core stage during a “green run” on the B-2 Test Stand at Stennis. That testing will involve installing the core stage on the stand and firing its four RS-25 flight engines simultaneously, as during a mission launch,” says NASA.
Numerous RS-25 engine tests have been conducted at Stennis over more than 4 decades to certify them as flight worthy for the human rated shuttle and SLS rockets.
Although NASA is still targeting SLS-1 for launch in Fall 2018 on an uncrewed mission, the agency is currently conducting a high level evaluation to determine whether the Orion EM-1 capsule can be upgraded in time to instead fly a human crewed mission with two astronauts before the end of 2019 – 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.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.