23Feb2012

NASA Buying Rides To Space

Fifty years ago, John Glenn performed America’s first manned orbital flight in space

Fifty years after John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth, NASA no longer has the ability to fly astronauts in space, a decision Glenn lays squarely on the shoulders of the Bush administration.

Glenn’s groundbreaking flight on February 20, 1962, put the United States into a heated space race with the Soviet Union, which had launched cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit 10 months earlier.

The retirement of the shuttles last year left the United States dependent on its former Cold War foe to get astronauts to and from the jointly owned International Space Station, which flies about 240 miles above the planet.

“I regret that that is the way things have developed,” Glenn told a crowd of current and former NASA employees and guests at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on Saturday night, part of a series of celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of his flight.

“We spent over $100 billion dollars putting the space station up there. It’s too bad in the previous administration the decision was made to end the shuttle, so now we have to go somewhere else to even get up to our station,” said Glenn, who served as a Democratic senator from Ohio between 1975 to 1999.

The United States grounded its aging shuttles last year due to high operating costs and to free up funds for a new generation of spacecraft that can fly farther from Earth. More money would have been needed years earlier in order for the new ships to be ready by the time the old ones were retired.

Glenn parlayed his political connections into a long-awaited return to space in 1998 when, at age 77, he flew aboard the space shuttle Discovery as a research subject for experiments on aging sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

Slayton and Glenn are wearing spray-painted work boots. (Wikimedia Commons)”]

Now 90, Glenn, a retired Marine Corps pilot, said research is the most important benefit of the U.S. space program and lauded the decision to extend the International Space Station’s life to at least 2020 from 2015.

“People say, ‘Well, what good is research?’ I think every bit of progress made by human beings has been made because somebody was curious about the unknown,” Glenn said.

“If there’s one thing we have learned through the history of our country, it’s that money spent on basic research has a way of paying back in the future beyond anything we ever see at the outset,” he said.

Though research was not the reason Glenn and his Mercury Seven colleagues were launched into orbit, scientists had many questions about how the human body would manage in the weightless environment of space.

“The things we were looking at back on those first flights seem so primitive now, they’re almost laughable,” Glenn said. “The doctors were literally concerned that your eyes might change shape and your vision might change enough that you couldn’t even see the instrument panel. We actually put a little miniaturized eye chart on the top of instrument panel.

Scott Carpenter, who followed Glenn into orbit three months later, said he swallowed radioactive food so doctors could see if his body could metabolize food in weightlessness.

“It was senseless, because you can eat food standing on your head and you process it very nicely. Why couldn’t we do it the same way in zero gravity? Well, we had to prove it. I was given some radioactive food in a toothpaste tube and I was told to eat that on the first orbit. It was radioactive so they could trace its movement through my body,” Carpenter said.

Two more Mercury missions followed Glenn and Carpenter’s three-orbit flights, paving the way for the Gemini program and finally the real goal of the nascent human space program – sending a crew to the Moon.

“Although we were behind the Soviet Union, we were able to overtake them and do exactly what (President John F.) Kennedy told us to do,” Glenn said. “In so doing we would beat the Russians to the Moon.”

 Now it is Russia that flies Americans into space aboard its Soyuz spacecraft, a service that costs NASA more than $300 million a year. The U.S. space agency also is spending about $3 billion a year to develop a capsule and rocket that can carry astronauts to the Moon, asteroids, Mars and other destinations beyond the space station. The first manned test flight is expected in 2021.

Meanwhile, in hopes of breaking Russia’s monopoly on station crew transportation, NASA has invested $365.5 million since 2010 in six companies working to develop commercial space taxis. The agency wants $830 million for the year beginning October 1 to keep work going at two or more firms.

“I hope that some of these efforts to re-create our own transportation system come through and don’t have a lot of problems because until then we are dependent on the Russians to get us into space,” Glenn told Reuters.

“If anything happens to the Soyuz, if it should have to be grounded for any particular reason, we have no way of getting into space. It would end our manned program until we can invent new ways to get up there,” Glenn said.

“There are lots of reasons behind our current predicament,” added Carpenter. “But what it boils down to is the simple fact that when John and I went to work for this country, the United States was recognized around the world as a can-do nation. We have become viewed around the planet as a can’t-do nation and I deplore that.”  Source: Reuters

 

Scientists Say Obama Mars Cuts To Hit Research

The flagship Mars programs have now suffered the dreaded budgetary cuts.

The United States will scale back Mars exploration under a proposed budget by President Barack Obama released Monday that has some scientists fuming over the risk of a NASA brain-drain.

The plan kills a deal between the US and European space agencies to cooperate on Mars robotic rover missions in 2016 and 2018, with a view to preparing to return samples from the red planet in the next decade.

“It is a real scientific tragedy and I personally believe it is a national embarrassment,” G. Scott Hubbard, a Stanford University professor who served as the first NASA Mars program director, told AFP.

“Here we had one of the most successful NASA programs of the last decade and it is being effectively turned off.”

NASA administrator Charles Bolden admitted that “tough choices” had to be made in axing the European deal, but vowed to restructure the Mars program so that future robotics mission could potentially be revisited in 2018-2020.

The fiscal 2013 budget, which is unlikely to face a vote in Congress while Obama seeks re-election, called for a $226 million reduction, or a near 39 percent cut in the US space agency’s Mars exploration program.

Meanwhile, it funds other big projects such as the James Webb Space Telescope and a new heavy-lift rocket to propel an eventual deep space mission to an asteroid, and provides seed money for private companies seeking to replace the space shuttle which was retired last year.

The overall proposal is to give NASA $17.7 billion, a decrease of 0.3 percent or $59 million less than 2012.

Obama’s budget pointed to the successful launch last year of the Mars Science Laboratory, also known as Curiosity, the biggest and most advanced rover ever built which should land in August, as it called for reduced support for new robotic projects.

But according to Bill Nye, chief executive of the Planetary Society, an association of scientists skilled in the search for alien life, such program cuts could have devastating consequences. “We are concerned that once planetary exploration programs are stopped, they just can’t be restarted,” Nye told AFP.

NASA currently employs the world’s top experts in landing robotic vehicles on Mars, he said, noting that the recent failure by Russia to get its Mars probe off to a successful launch provides evidence of the danger.

“If all the (NASA) people expert in Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) on Mars have no missions and then retire, the program just cannot recover,” Nye said.

Russia has been floated as potential partner with Europe in the ExoMars project should the United States withdraw.

According to the ExoMars deal NASA and ESA made in 2009, NASA would have contributed $1.4 billion to the project and ESA would have chipped in $1.2 billion.

The ExoMars plan would have sent an orbiter to Mars in 2016 and called for two rovers to land on the red planet in 2018. Tens of millions of US dollars have already been spent on the plans, according to Hubbard.

John Logsdon, an external White House adviser and longtime space analyst, said the United States withdrew from ExoMars because it “cannot afford now to commit itself to another multi-billion dollar project.”

Other politically controversial projects did receive funding, including the elaborate James Webb Space Telescope. The Obama budget urges that the project be capped at $8 billion.

The project to build the world’s most powerful telescope, 100 times more sensitive than its predecessor the Hubble space telescope, was on track to launch in 2018 at a total project cost of $8.8 billion, NASA said in December after a series of delays and cost overruns.

NASA would also get $3 billion for developing new spacecraft and rockets to take the next generation of astronauts to space, after the space shuttle program ended last year, leaving Russia as the sole taxi to the International Space Station.

Big projects include $1.86 billion for the continued development of a Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket and $1.2 billion for the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle to “with a key initial goal of visiting an asteroid next decade,” it said.

The budget comes as Obama is seeking re-election and it is widely regarded in Washington as a partisan document that has little chance of being voted into law. Source: Mars Daily

 

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