NASA Suspends Ties With Russia’s Space Agency, Except For ISS

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Expedition 38 crew on the ISS on February 22, 2014. Image Credit: NASA

NASA is suspending all contact with the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, citing Russia’s ongoing violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, officials said Wednesday. However, work related to the safe and continued operation of the International Space Station are exempt from the suspension.

According to an internal memo obtained by SpaceRef, NASA has been added to the list of U.S. government agencies prohibited from making contact with Russian government officials. “This suspension includes NASA travel to Russia and visits by Russian Government representatives to NASA facilities, bilateral meetings, email, and teleconferences or videoconferences” NASA Associate Administrator for International and Interagency Relations Michael O’Brien wrote in the memo to employees.

In response to media reports, NASA released this statement Wednesday evening via their social media accounts:

Given Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, NASA is suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation. NASA and Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station. NASA is laser focused on a plan to return human spaceflight launches to American soil, and end our reliance on Russia to get into space. This has been a top priority of the Obama Administration’s for the past five years, and had our plan been fully funded, we would have returned American human spaceflight launches – and the jobs they support – back to the United States next year. With the reduced level of funding approved by Congress, we’re now looking at launching from U.S. soil in 2017. The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians. It’s that simple. The Obama Administration chooses to invest in America – and we are hopeful that Congress will do the same.

NASA has relied on Russia to transport our astronauts to the International Space Station since the space shuttle was retired in 2011. The U.S. is currently paying Russia just over $70 million per seat to transport our astronauts to the ISS via a Soyuz rocket.

Plans for launching astronauts from U.S. soil have been delayed due to the failure of Congress to fully fund the Commercial Crew Program in recent years. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program aims to stimulate the development of privately operated crew vehicles capable of transporting astronauts into low-Earth orbit. Initially planned to begin launching crews from U.S. soil in 2015, it is now expected to begin no sooner than 2017.

Tell Congress that you support fully funding the Commercial Crew Program and that you want to end NASA’s dependence on expensive Soyuz trips: http://www.penny4nasa.org/take-action/

One Year After Chelyabinsk Meteor Strike, NASA Ramps Up Asteroid Detection Efforts

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(Photo Credit: Aleksandr Ivanov)

One year since an asteroid exploded over Russia, NASA has ramped up its efforts aimed at identifying and coping with the threat of near-Earth objects.

The Chelyabinsk meteor that entered the Earth’s atmosphere above Russia on February 15, 2013, exploded with 20-30 times the energy of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. It is the largest known object to have entered Earth’s atmosphere since the Tunguska event in 1908.

Despite exploding over 18 miles up in the atmosphere, the asteroid had enough explosive power to shatter windows down on the ground, injuring 1,500 people seriously enough to seek medical attention.

Because the asteroid was undetected prior to atmospheric entry it generated international media attention and a renewed interest in the threats posed by near-Earth objects.

What has changed in the past year?

In the year since, NASA’s NEO Program Office, which is responsible for the detection and tracking of potentially dangerous asteroids and comets, saw its budget effectively doubled, going from $20.4 million in FY2013 to $40.5 million in FY2014. The NEO Program Office has already detected over 90 percent of near-Earth objects (NEOs) larger than one kilometer and is now focusing its efforts on finding 90 percent of NEOs larger than 140 meters in size.

In 2013, NASA announced the Asteroid Grand Challenge, an effort to enhance collaboration between private industry, academia, government agencies and citizen scientists in the detection of asteroids. Planetary Resources, an asteroid mining startup, has already partnered with NASA as a part of the Asteroid Grand Challenge to help develop crowdsourced software solutions to improve the detection of near-Earth objects.

NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission is also moving forward with the aim of capturing an asteroid and moving it into a stable Earth orbit in order to study it. The mission would involve the development of technologies that could one day be used to protect us from objects that threaten Earth.

Write Congress and tell them you support increased funding for the search for potentially dangerous asteroids. Take action here: http://wwww.penny4nasa.org/take-action/

NASA Shuts Down “Almost Entirely” On Its 55th Anniversary

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On the 55th anniversary of the day it began operations, NASA has been forced to furlough 97 percent of its workforce in accordance with the government shutdown.

According to the plan for shutdown, NASA is required to furlough nearly all of its 18,250 employees. The plan would allow for 367 full time employees to stay on the job to support activities which are exempt from the shutdown, such as operations related to the International Space Station and other NASA satellites.

NASA has been forced to furlough a greater percentage of its employees than any other agency affected by the shutdown. Being forced to send 97 percent of its workforce home, President Obama stated that “NASA will shutdown almost entirely,” going on to say that, “Mission Control will remain open to support the astronauts serving on the space station.”

The shutdown could potentially delay the launch of the Mars MAVEN mission, which is slated for November 18. The mission has a narrow launch window, which if missed could push back the launch to 2016. However, NASA’s newest Mars rover, Curiosity, will continue operating despite the government shutdown. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which operates the rover, is a private contractor and thus its staff are not among the NASA employees that have been furloughed.

NASA’s online presence is also impacted by the shutdown, with the newly redesigned NASA.gov now displaying this message, “Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available.” Additionally, NASA’s social media accounts have either halted all activity or disappeared entirely, as was the case with NASA’s Facebook page. NASA’s Twitter account posted this message on Monday in response to the shutdown, “Sorry, but we won’t be tweeting/responding to replies during the government shutdown. Be back as soon as possible.”

All of this occurring on the same day that NASA was supposed to be celebrating the 55th anniversary of the day NASA began operations on October 1, 1958.

House Democrats Propose Increasing NASA’s Budget, Roadmap For Mars

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Earlier this week Democrats on the House Subcommittee on Space proposed legislation to increase NASA’s funding over the next three years. The bill also calls on NASA to establish a roadmap for a manned mission to Mars.

The bill introduced by the ranking member of the Space Subcommittee Donna Edwards (D-MD) proposes funding NASA at $18.10 billion in fiscal year 2014 and increasing it by 2 percent a year through fiscal year 2016 to a level of $18.87 billion.

The legislation also establishes the goal of a crewed mission to Mars and mandates that NASA develop a roadmap toward that end. In order to meet that goal, the Space Launch System and Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle would be prioritized under this budget being funded at $1.65 billion and $1.23 billion respectively. The Commercial Crew Program would also be funded at $700 million per year, significantly higher than Congress has previously authorized.

The proposal would also restore NASA’s public outreach and education programs, which were recently suspended because of the sequestration cuts required by the Budget Control Act. Planetary Science funding would be sustained at $1.5 billion annually, instead of receiving the significant cuts proposed under the Obama administration’s budget request.

Edwards’ bill is a response to the recent Republican proposal for funding NASA at $16.8 billion in fiscal year 2014. “It is my hope that we can work together with Members on both sides of the aisle to ensure that NASA’s mission is clear, expectations will inspire the public and workforce, and that the level of resources enables the agency to be successful.” Edwards added.

Read the press release here: http://democrats.science.house.gov/press-release/ranking-member-edwards-introduces-legislation-authorize-nasa-cites-need-return-agency

What If?: NASA and the Budget Woes

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(Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Guest author Jeannette Remak is the founder of Phoenix Aviation Research. She is a military aviation historian, researcher and author. In addition to writing articles for the Atlantic Flyer and the Air Force Association, she’s also published a number of books including her most recent book, “NASA and the Shuttle Shuffle.” She is also an accomplished artist, with her paintings a part of the U.S. Air Force Art Collection

I think all of us out there play the game of “What if?” Our space program is currently going through a bad case of the “what ifs.” What if NASA doesn’t get more money for the budget? What if the Russians won’t accept the contract on the table for $70 million to train and haul our astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station? The biggest “what if” has to do with the 2014 budget for NASA. What if there just isn’t enough money to keep our manned spaceflight program alive or any other NASA program for that matter?

As we look around at other nations, including China, Japan, North Korea and Iran, they are all working on their space programs and sparing no expense in doing so. Yet, the United States is not. Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, one of the most powerful Democrats in the Senate, is asking a big “what if” concerning NASA’s 2014 budget and how to sustain the U.S. space program.

In a recent interview with Aviation Week, Sen. Mikulski said, “NASA’s mission faltering or sputtering really can blow the whole program.” Why is that? The 2014 budget allows for $17.7 billion in funding and NASA is hoping desperately that Congress might cut them some slack and award them something more substantial.

Artist concept of SLS launching (Photo Credit: NASA)

Artist concept of SLS launching (Photo Credit: NASA)

NASA is trying to build the Space Launch System, which is a heavy lift rocket that will allow us to leave low-Earth orbit and head the United States space program out towards the moon or an asteroid capture. Back in the days of the Apollo program, and partly to fulfill the legacy of beloved President John F. Kennedy, money flowed like water into the NASA coffers. We were able to build the magnificent Saturn V rocket that hurled us to the moon. Today, we struggle to complete the preliminary design work for the SLS. NASA would need a minimum of $800 million to allow competitors to stay in the race and build a possible commercial vehicle that would allow the United States to get to the ISS on our own without the help of the Russians. However, some in Congress would like to see some of those funds switched over to other programs like the SLS.

The poor logic to that move is that while we may have a heavy lift vehicle some day, the Ares I capsule that should have been aboard that heavy lift rocket has been canceled. What would we fly on that heavy lift vehicle? Should we continue to support the NASA Commercial Crew Program, which may one day provide us with a vehicle capable of getting astronauts to the ISS, but nothing more. Or should we direct those funds toward the Orion space capsule, which is designed to take astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit and into deep space. Looking back at how the Apollo program was directed, NASA held in their hands the money and the wherewithal to get to the moon. And yes, they got there on time!

The Space Shuttle Program, while a successful program in many respects, cost money to upkeep. Yet, money was reallocated from the safety program—as we found out after the Columbia disaster—to support the construction of the ISS. Just what sort of problem do we have here:

  • Is NASA unable to manage its money, leaving Congress reluctant to grant more?
  • Is NASA caught in the middle of pork barrel politics?
  • Is there mismanagement between Congress, NASA and the Bureau of Budgets?
The list could go on. However, what needs to happen is NASA needs to be allowed to restructure itself so that it can maintain the programs necessary to keep the United States in the forefront of space exploration. NASA is attempting to work with a “stone knives and bearskins” budget that allows them to only minimally maintain what programs they do have running. The budget doesn’t allow NASA much in the line of speculation or exploration. It doesn’t allow NASA to keep to the high standards it is used to. The Obama administration doesn’t seem to understand the need or nature of the U.S. manned space program, and that is putting this country in peril. There are sharks like North Korea and Iran, and they are circling the waters with heavy lift rockets for their fledging space programs, while the United States is nowhere near completing the SLS.

With an expanded budget, NASA would be able to bring their portfolio of missions back to a sustainable level. Our manned spaceflight program would be able to stand on its own once again. Instead of having to spend money to hitch a ride to the ISS, NASA would be able to control its own destiny in taking part in the ISS fully. NASA would once again be able to sustain the most important part of American history. NASA needs to be reestablished as the premier agency it once was and be able to sustain its robotic and research programs that allow it to go beyond the ISS and out into real space. Attention needs to be paid to raising the pittance of a budget that NASA is receiving, to allow it to dream and make those dreams a reality instead of wasting time scratching for every dime at budget time.

It is time to fund NASA reasonably and with thought to allow the United States to surpass every nation in space as we once did. We need to make space a priority again, and not just a backhanded thought.