Part III: All Aboard Elon Musk’s Mars Express

A view from martian orbit. (Credit: SpaceX)

“The goal of SpaceX is really to build the transport system. It’s like building the Union Pacific Railroad. And once that transport system is built then there’s a tremendous opportunity for anyone who wants to go to Mars and create something new or build the foundations of a new planet.

“When they were building the Union Pacific, a lot of people said that’s a super dumb idea because hardly anybody lives in California. But, now today we’ve got the U.S. epicenter of technology development and entertainment, and it’s the biggest state in the nation.

Elon Musk
SpaceX Founder & CEO

By Douglas Messier
Managing Edtior

The idea of a transcontinental railroad to the West Coast came into the world in 1830 as many dreams do: as a visionary, if seemingly outrageous, plan that few people took seriously. Why build a rail line through a howling wilderness where almost nobody lived? It would be a hideously expensive boondoggle, a road to nowhere.

This same problem has dogged the space movement since Sputnik was launched 60 years ago. While Hartwell Carver and other backers of the transcontinental railroad were able to overcome all the obstacles in their way, human progress in the silent vacuum of space has been slow and halting. It has never lived up the expectations people had at the start of the Space Age.

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Musk, Mars & the Iron Horse

A view from martian orbit. (Credit: SpaceX)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Last September, Elon Musk stood on stage in a packed auditorium in Guadalajara, Mexico, and invoked America’s 19th century expansion into the West to support his plan to colonize Mars in the 21st century.

“The goal of SpaceX is really to build the transport system,” he said. “It’s like building the Union Pacific Railroad. And once that transport system is built then there’s a tremendous opportunity for anyone who wants to go to Mars and create something new or build the foundations of a new planet.

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Sample Retrieval System Biggest Challenge for Mars 2020 Mission

This self-portrait of NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity combines dozens of exposures taken by the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on Feb. 3, 2013, plus three exposures taken on May 10, 2013. (Credit: NASA)

The biggest risk for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission meeting its launch window is the development of its soil and rock collecting system, according to a new audit from the space agency’s Office of Inspector General (IG).

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Congressmen Call for Clear NASA Strategy for Putting Humans on Mars


Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) have filed bills calling for NASA to develop a clear strategy for placing astronauts on Mars.

The Mapping a New and Innovative Focus on our Exploration Strategy (MANIFEST) for Human Spaceflight Act of 2017 calls for the space agency to accomplish this goal “through a series of successive, sustainable, free-standing, but complementary missions making robust utilization of cis-lunar space and employing the Space Launch System, Orion crew capsule, and other capabilities.”

The cis-lunar elements include the expansion of human presence into lunar orbit, lunar surface, asteroids, the moons of Mars, and the martian surface. The plan must include opportunities for collaboration with international partners, private companies and other federal agencies.

The strategy would identify how the International Space Station could support the program, and include “a range of exploration mission architectures and approaches for the missions…including capabilities for the Orion crew capsule and the Space Launch System.”

Commercial Crew’s Role in Path to Mars

deep_space_exploration_graphic
By Steven Siceloff,
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida

The spacecraft, rockets and associated systems in development for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program are critical links in the agency’s chain to send astronauts safely to and from the Red Planet in the future, even though the commercial vehicles won’t venture to Mars themselves. The key is reliable access to the International Space Station as a test bed.

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ASAP’s Report Card on NASA Safety

International Space Station (Credit: NASA)
International Space Station (Credit: NASA)

NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel
Annual Report for 2016
January 11, 2017
[Full Report – PDF]

Excerpts

Report Summary

Twelve topic areas, highlighted in this report, are summarized in the table below. They have been broken out to focus attention on individual topics that the Panel feels are worthy of note.

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The Year Ahead in Space

Donald Trump (Credit: Michael Vadon)
Donald Trump (Credit: Michael Vadon)

It’s going to be busy year in space in 2017. Here’s a look at what we can expect over the next 12 months.

A New Direction for NASA?

NASA’s focus under the Obama Administration has been to try to commercialize Earth orbit while creating a foundation that would allow the space agency to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030’s.

Whether Mars will remain a priority under the incoming Trump Administration remains to be seen. There is a possibility Trump will refocus the space agency on lunar missions instead.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), who is currently viewed as a leading candidate for NASA administrator, has written two blog posts focused on the importance of exploring the moon and developing its resources. Of course, whether Bridenstine will get NASA’s top job is unclear at this time.

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Bridenstine Weighs in Favor of Lunar Development

Rep. Jim Bridenstine
Rep. Jim Bridenstine

In a Dec. 29 blog post titled, Why the Moon Matters, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) calls for the United States to focus on the economic and strategic benefits of the moon.

Bridenstine is reported to be a leading candidate for the position of NASA administrator in the Trump Administration. The space agency is focused on sending astronauts to Mars in the 2030’s. However, the new administration might refocus NASA on returning astronauts to the moon.

Here’s an excerpt from the blog post.

Utilizing propellant and materials on the Moon is also the first step for manned missions deeper into our solar system.  A permanent human presence on other celestial bodies requires in situ resource utilization.  The Moon, with its three-day emergency journey back to Earth, represents the best place to learn, train, and develop the necessary technologies and techniques for in situ resource utilization and an eventual long term human presence on Mars.  Fortunately, the Space Launch System and Orion are close to being developed and will start testing in 2018.  This system, with a commercial lander, could quickly place machines and robots on the moon to begin the cis-lunar economy.  With the right presidential guidance, humans could return in short order as well…this time, to stay.
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NASA Looks Ahead to Major Milestones for Orion Program

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. (NASA PR) — From the beginning of assembly work on the Orion crew module at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to testing a range of the spacecraft systems, engineers made headway in 2016 in advance of the spacecraft’s 2018 mission beyond the moon. A look at the important milestones that lie ahead in the next year give a glimpse into how NASA is pressing ahead to develop, build, test and fly the spacecraft that will enable human missions far into deep space.
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Will Trump Refocus NASA on the Moon?

Donald Trump (Credit: Michael Vadon)
Donald Trump (Credit: Michael Vadon)

After a meeting with president Donald Trump on Wednesday, historian Douglas Brinkley told reporters the president elect “was very interested in a man going to the moon and the moon shot so we were talking a little bit about that.”

This could mean that Trump will refocus NASA’s deep space exploration on the moon rather than Mars. On the other hand, it might mean nothing.

Some observers have noted that Trump’s position on issues often reflects what he discussed with the last person he talks to. Brinkley is from Rice University in Houston, a city that is home of NASA’s Mission Control.

Trump also has a habit of disavowing things he has said, even if the tweeted it for anyone to see or said it on television with millions of people watching.

So, it’s possible that at some point in the near future, Trump will say he never said anything about sending astronauts to the moon, accuse Brinkley and the journalists who quoted him of lying, and threaten the launch the whole lot of them into the sun.

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China Space Program White Paper Outlines Lunar & Mars Missions

china_flagA white paper outlining China’s space policy for the next five years calls for a sample return mission to the moon, a landing on the far side of Earth’s closest neighbor, and the launch of an orbiter and lander to Mars by 2020.

China will also begin constructing a permanent space station and research and development work on a heavy-lift launcher, reusable boosters and satellite servicing systems.

The nation also wants to expand international cooperation in areas that include remote sensing, space applications, lunar and planetary exploration, and human spaceflight.

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NASA’s Exploration Year in Review

BEAM module (Credit: NASA TV)
BEAM module (Credit: NASA TV)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — In 2016, NASA drove advances in technology, science, aeronautics and space exploration that enhanced the world’s knowledge, innovation, and stewardship of Earth.

“This past year marked record-breaking progress in our exploration objectives,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “We advanced the capabilities we’ll need to travel farther into the solar system while increasing observations of our home and the universe, learning more about how to continuously live and work in space, and, of course, inspiring the next generation of leaders to take up our Journey to Mars and make their own discoveries.”
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UK Space Agency Allocates 1.4 Billion Euros to ESA Budget

UK_space_agencySWINDON, England (UKSA PR) — UK Space Agency allocates more than €1.4 billion over the next five years to European Space Agency programmes at the Council of Ministers in Lucerne, Switzerland.

  • €670.5 million investment in satellite technology for UK industry and science, including telecommunications, Earth observation, navigation and satellite services supporting every sector of the economy, including
  • €23 million to build on UK leadership of ESA’s climate change monitoring programme, based at the ECSAT facility in Harwell, Oxford.
    €82.4 million for the next phase of the ExoMars programme, to put a British-built rover on the surface of Mars.
  • €71 million for ESA’s International Space Station programme to 2021 and for the future of deep space exploration, building on the legacy of Tim Peake’s Principia mission

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GAO: Spaceport Operators Confused Over Insurance Requirements

us_spaceports_2016

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) review has found that the nation’s spaceport operators are confused about the insurance they should have for launch accidents.

“Specifically, several spaceport operators GAO interviewed said that, based on their interpretation of the financial responsibility regulations, they were unsure whether their property would be covered under a launch company’s insurance policy or whether they would need to purchase their own insurance for their property to be covered,” the report states.

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NASA Seeks Input on Long-term Sustainability of SLS, Orion

Artist concept of the Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS Program has completed its critical design review, and the program has concluded that the core stage of the rocket will remain orange along with the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter, which is the natural color of the insulation that will cover those elements. (Credit: NASA)
Artist concept of the Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS Program has completed its critical design review, and the program has concluded that the core stage of the rocket will remain orange along with the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter, which is the natural color of the insulation that will cover those elements. (Credit: NASA)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — The early missions of Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the Orion spacecraft will be the first of several missions that travel more than 40,000 miles beyond the moon to demonstrate capabilities in deep space farther than humans have ever traveled, but close enough to return home in days or weeks if needed. With the SLS, Orion, and Exploration Ground Systems programs now past their respective critical design reviews and flight hardware in production for the first integrated mission, NASA is transitioning from design and development to long-term affordability and sustainability in support of the Journey to Mars.

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