The National Research Council Report on Human Spaceflight

Commentary by Michael Mackowski

On June 4, 2014, the National Research Council issued a congressionally authorized report on the future of human spaceflight. (The report was requested in 2010.) The bottom line of their recommendation is that NASA should focus on Mars as their ultimate goal, but they allowed that there are various options and stepping stones needed to get there, including lunar and asteroid missions. Yet they did not recommend which path to follow. They also acknowledged that the current trend of flat budgets is not likely to be adequate to successfully carry out such a program. So to me, the message is that NASA has many options, we don’t know which one is best, and NASA isn’t likely to get enough funding for any of them to result in putting people on Mars. Thanks and have a nice day.

The report lists all the possible space exploration destinations (Moon, Mars, asteroids, etc.) and makes the obvious conclusion that a human landing on Mars is the most challenging, so that should be the ultimate goal. It took a committee of experts to figure that out?

They also addressed the reasons to send people to Mars. Personally I found it interesting that the list pretty much matches what I have found and presented in my own “Hard Road to Mars” presentation. They conclude that none of those reasons are compelling enough to “justify the value of pursuing human spaceflight”, yet when taken in combination, it makes sense to support the effort. In my presentation, I had a similar list of reasons to go to Mars and a similar conclusion. Here is a mapping of my “Hard Road to Mars” motivators versus the committee’s.

NRC Report Mackowski’s Reasons for Going
Economic benefits Profit
National Security Geopolitical
National stature and international relations Geopolitical
Inspiration of students and citizens Exploration
Scientific discovery Science
Human survival Colonization
Shared destiny and aspiration to explore Exploration

They, like many studies before, found that public interest in space is favorable but shallow. It’s neat but not a priority, and by the way, don’t spend too much money on it until you solve all our other problems first.

The committee suggested NASA’s current plan of developing a beyond Earth orbit capability (which sounds like Orion and SLS although those programs were not mentioned by name) is too vague. They claim that NASA’s plan does not have a “stepping stone” architecture with clear milestones that will result in a sustainable program. NASA sees the ARM project as a sort of stepping stone mission, or at least a demo of some of the capabilities needed for a deep space mission. Yet the committee makes a point that the Asteroid Redirect Mission has no direct benefit to a human Mars mission and suggests that a return to the lunar surface would have more value in reducing the risk of a Mars mission. [From my view, this may be true, but currently NASA has no budget for putting people back on the Moon, but could pull off ARM within existing budgets.] Since the NRC report calls for increased budgets to do these things, how can NASA plan for more ambitious missions (lunar excursions, for example) until the budget is there?

As the report says NASA is on the wrong path to Mars, what is the right path? They propose a “pathway” with stepwise markers that make it clear progress is being made. They don’t like the “flexible approach” (which has no specific destination) and suggest a focus on Mars would be a more efficient use of resources. Then they propose several options to get there including guidelines on how to develop such a pathway but they don’t make specific recommendations as to which path to follow.

Fortunately they do recommend including commercial and international collaboration and an emphasis on sustainability. But the report was too weak and vague in that area. There is almost no consideration of boosters other than SLS, for example, nor how the development of low cost launch vehicles could play into all of this. Some other pathway studies (such as the NSS) are strongly based on commercial involvement to result in a sustainable space infrastructure that is less dependent on unpredictable government funding levels.

The most specific recommendations were to develop some necessary technologies that will be required for deep space missions (power, propulsion, Mars entry, descent, and landing, etc.). This sounds like a plan that is still very infrastructure-oriented, driven by capabilities, and still smells like the “flexible approach” with an acknowledgement that Mars is the ultimate goal. My concern is that if the technology development focuses on Mars only, that may leave out thedevelopments needed to create a sustainable cislunar space economy.

They also make the obvious conclusion that whatever plan is chosen, it must be adequately funded and supported across multiple administrations. We all know those are the problems but this report provides no solutions.

A lot of the report is stuff that space advocates and aerospace industry leaders already knew. No really new ideas are proposed, and no new insights or answers are offered. They don’t think NASA’s current flexible approach is going to get us to Mars but it’s all the agency can afford. So from my perspective, this is another space policy report that is going to sit on the shelf and collect dust.

Orbital Sciences Launches a New Rocket

ImageUp until now the word Antares has had only one meaning in our language, the given name of a star, but not anymore.  Sure, it is still the name of a giant red binary star, the brightest in the constellation Scorpio, about 424 light-years from Earth. The word Antares has its roots in ancient Greek meaning simulating Mars.  It looked red to them, just like Mars.

However, things change.  On Sunday, April 21, from a beach on Wallops Island Virginia, our own Orbital Sciences launched its newest horse in its extensive stable of rockets, the Antares. And for the first time in my memory, a first launch of a new rocket didn’t end prematurely in a puff of smoke or debris cloud. It went so smoothly that almost no one heard about it. That’s success in the rocket industry but a marketing failure.

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ESA to Supply ATV for Use as Orion Service Module

ATV / Orion
European Space Agency ATV as Orion Service Module
Image Credit:

The European Space Agency (ESA) has reached an agreement with NASA to build a Service Module for the Orion spacecraft based on their Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), which has been a workhorse in the resupply of the International Space Station (ISS) since 2008.

Sol 150 – Curiosity uses Brush Tool

Curiosity Brush
Curiosity Brush Use Cleans Rock Surface on Mars
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

On Sol 150, the Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity) used its Dust Removal Tool (DRT) to clean the surface of the rock target called “Ekwir_1.”

The image was captured by Curiosity’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI).

The DRT is a motorized wire-bristle brush on the turret at the end of the rover’s arm.

Curiosity – Sol 130

By the middle of December, Curiosity had reached the Glenelg region of Gale Crater and descended into the Yellowknife Bay depression. Curiosity is now exploring for the first target rock for it’s hammering drill.

After leaving Bradbury Landing, Curiosity spent extensive time at Rocknest (Sols 55-100), and followed this with investigations around Point Lake (Sols 102-124).

Curiosity Map
Map of Curiosity’s Travels During the first 130 Sols
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / University of Arizona

NASA’s GRAIL Lunar Impact Site Named for Astronaut Sally Ride

PASADENA, Calif. — NASA has named the site where twin agency spacecraft impacted the moon Monday in honor of the late astronaut, Sally K. Ride , who was America’s first woman in space and a member of the probes’ mission team.

Last Friday, Ebb and Flow, the two spacecraft comprising NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission, were commanded to descend into a lower orbit that would result in an impact Monday on a mountain near the moon’s north pole. The formation-flying duo hit the lunar surface as planned at 2:28:51 p.m. PST (5:28:51 p.m. EST) and 2:29:21 p.m. PST (5:29:21 p.m. EST) at a speed of 3,760 mph (1.7 kilometers per second). The location of the Sally K. Ride Impact Site is on the southern face of an approximately 1.5 mile- (2.5 -kilometer) tall mountain near a crater named Goldschmidt.

“Sally was all about getting the job done, whether it be in exploring space, inspiring the next generation, or helping make the GRAIL mission the resounding success it is today,” said GRAIL principal investigator Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “As we complete our lunar mission, we are proud we can honor Sally Ride’s contributions by naming this corner of the moon after her.”

The impact marked a successful end to the GRAIL mission, which was NASA’s first planetary mission to carry cameras fully dedicated to education and public outreach. Ride, who died in July after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer, led GRAIL’s MoonKAM (Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle School Students) Program through her company, Sally Ride Science, in San Diego.

Along with its primary science instrument, each spacecraft carried a MoonKAM camera that took more than 115,000 total images of the lunar surface. Imaging targets were proposed by middle school students from across the country and the resulting images returned for them to study. The names of the spacecraft were selected by Ride and the mission team from student submissions in a nationwide contest.

“Sally Ride worked tirelessly throughout her life to remind all of us, especially girls, to keep questioning and learning,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. “Today her passion for making students part of NASA’s science is honored by naming the impact site for her.”

Fifty minutes prior to impact, the spacecraft fired their engines until the propellant was depleted. The maneuver was designed to determine precisely the amount of fuel remaining in the tanks. This will help NASA engineers validate computer models to improve predictions of fuel needs for future missions.

“Ebb fired its engines for 4 minutes, 3 seconds and Flow fired its for 5 minutes, 7 seconds,” said GRAIL project manager David Lehman of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “It was one final important set of data from a mission that was filled with great science and engineering data.”

The mission team deduced that much of the material aboard each spacecraft was broken up in the energy released during the impacts. Most of what remained probably is buried in shallow craters. The craters’ size may be determined when NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter returns images of the area in several weeks.

Launched in September 2011, Ebb and Flow had been orbiting the moon since Jan. 1, 2012. The probes intentionally were sent into the lunar surface because they did not have sufficient altitude or fuel to continue science operations. Their successful prime and extended science missions generated the highest resolution gravity field map of any celestial body. The map will provide a better understanding of how Earth and other rocky planets in the solar system formed and

“We will miss our lunar twins, but the scientists tell me it will take years to analyze all the great data they got, and that is why we came to the moon in the first place,” Lehman said. “So long, Ebb and Flow, and we thank you.”

JPL manages the GRAIL mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. GRAIL is part of the Discovery Program managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft.

For more information about GRAIL, visit:

Asteroid Toutatis Tumbles Past Earth

Radar Image of Asteroid Toutatis on 12 December 2012
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

The asteroid Toutatis passed 18 lunar distances (6.9 million kilometers) away from the Earth on 12 and 13 December 2012. NASA has released a movie based on a series of radar images taken by the Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California.

Toutatis is an elongated asteroid with a maximum length of about 4.8 kilometers. It tumbles slowly, once every 5.4 days, and precesses like a badly thrown football around the long axis every 7.4 days.

Currently, its orbit will bring it back to the Earth’s neighborhood in 2069 and it will pass by at a distance of about 3 million kilometers.

Tracking Toutatis is the job of Near-Earth Object Observations Program. The program discovers and tracks asteroids and comets and plots their orbits to determine if any could be potentially hazardous to our planet.