FleaPlus writes: NASA and the White House have officially released their FY2013 budget proposal, the first step of the Congressional budget process. As mentioned previously on Slashdot, the proposal decreases Mars science funding (including robotic Mars missions) down to $361M, arguably due in part to cost overruns by the Webb telescope. The proposal also lowers funding for the in-house SLS rocket and Orion capsule to $2.8B, while doubling funding for the ongoing competitive development of commercial crew rockets/vehicles to $830M. Ranking member of the Senate science committee, Sen. Hutchison (R-TX), expressed her frustration with 'cutting SLS and Orion to pay for commercial crew,' as it would allegedly make it impossible for SLS to act as a backup for the commercial vehicles.
FleaPlus writes: Besides using the SpaceX Dragon capsule to deliver supplies to the ISS this year and astronauts in following years, the company wants to use Dragon as a platform for propulsively landing science payloads on Mars and other planets. Combined with their upcoming Falcon Heavy rocket, 'a single Dragon mission could land with more payload than has been delivered to Mars cumulatively in history.' According to CEO Elon Musk, SpaceX is working with NASA's Ames Research Center on a mission design concept that could launch in as early as 5-6 years.
FleaPlus writes: Continuing last year's successful CCDev (Commercial Crew Development) program, NASA has selected 4 companies to receive "CCDev2" seed funding for commercial crew systems. The companies will only receive money if they meet development and testing milestones in the next year, with up to $75M to SpaceX for developing their sidemount escape system and testing their Dragon capsule, $92M to Boeing for developing their CST-100 capsule, $80M to Sierra Nevada Corp.'s DreamChaser top-mounted spaceplane, and $22M for Blue Origin's capsule and pusher escape system.
FleaPlus writes: Utah congressmen Orrin Hatch, Bob Bennett, Rob Bishop, and Jim Matheson issued a statement claiming that NASA's design process for a new congressionally-mandated heavy-lift rocket system may be trying to circumvent the law. According to the congressmen and their advisors from solid rocket producer ATK, the heavy-lift legislation's requirements can only be met by rockets utilizing ATK's solid rocket boosters. They are alarmed that NASA is also considering other approaches, such as all-liquid designs based on the rockets operated by the United Launch Alliance and SpaceX. ATK's solid rockets were arguably responsible for many of the safety and cost problems which plagued NASA's canceled Ares rocket system.
FleaPlus writes: NASA is spending a total of $475,000, split between Masten Space Systems and John Carmack's Armadillo Aerospace, for a series of seven test flights of the companies' reusable suborbital rockets over the next several months, going to altitudes as high as 25 miles. NASA's goal is to foster a more cost-effective and flexible way to conduct microgravity and upper-atmosphere research. Jeff Bezos's suborbital spaceflight company Blue Origin has also been making steady progress this year on their $3.7M contract to test pusher-escape system and composite pressure vessel technologies, which NASA is interested in for orbital spaceflight.
FleaPlus writes: Although commercial launch providers have been used for all US national security and unmanned science missions since the 1990s, plans by the White House and NASA to do the same for crewed missions are facing continued problems in Congress. While the White House originally sought $3.3B over 3 years to jump-start commercial crew vehicle development by multiple providers like SpaceX, Boeing, and the United Launch Alliance, the current bill in the House would cut this amount to $150M. The House bill would put the removed money from commercial crew and technology development towards $13.2B in development costs for a government-operated shuttle-derived launcher and crew capsule. The White House, SpaceX, and others have offered tentative support for a Senate bill which would put 3-year commercial crew funding at $1.3B.
FleaPlus writes: NASA has announced three new 'Centennial Challenge' technology prizes totaling $5M, awarded via competitions to achieve technological goals important to NASA: The $2M Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge for launching small satellites (at least 1kg) into orbit twice in one week, the $1.5M Night Rover Challenge for demonstrating a rover capable of storing and using solar energy over day/night cycles, and the $1.5M Sample Return Robot Challenge for a robot capable of locating and retrieving identifiable geologic samples in varied terrain without human control or GPS. This is in addition to the ongoing Strong Tether, Power Beaming, and Green Flight Challenges. The White House is currently seeking to boost funding for Centennial Challenges and other NASA technology programs, although many in Congress have other plans.
FleaPlus writes: Members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation are drafting a bill (due this week) which slashes NASA technology development/demonstrations, commercial space transportation, and new robotic missions to a small fraction of what the White House proposed earlier this year. The bill would instead redirect NASA funds to 'immediate' development of a government-designed heavy lift rocket, although it's still unclear if NASA can afford a heavy lifter in the long term or if (with the new technology the Senators seek to cut like in-space refueling) it actually needs such a rocket. The Senators' rocket design dictates a payload of 75mT to orbit, uses the existing Ares contracts and Shuttle infrastructure as much as possible, and forces use of the solid rocket motors produced by Utah arms manufacturer ATK.
FleaPlus writes: Boeing has released a number of new details on the development of their CST-100 manned space capsule being developed in collaboration with commercial space station builder Bigelow Aerospace. Competing with SpaceX's Dragon capsule, the vehicle is designed to be compatible with existing Atlas V, Delta IV, and Falcon 9 rockets, and is planned to carry 7 people in a capsule 'a little smaller than Orion, but a little bigger than Apollo.' Funding was jump-started this year with $18M of fixed-price Commercial Crew Development funding from NASA, which requires completion of several fabrication and demonstration milestones this year (heat shield, escape system, landing tests, etc.) in order to get the full payment.
FleaPlus writes: In a surprise move in the battle between NASA and certain members of Congress over NASA's future direction, NASA has told its contractors to cutback nearly $1 billion on this year's Ares/Constellation program, stating that the cutback is necessary to remain in compliance with federal spending laws requiring contractors to withhold contract termination costs. While complying with budgeting laws (and in line with NASA's desire to cancel Constellation), this move is also potentially in violation of a 2010 appropriations amendment by Sen. Shelby (R-AL) and Sen. Bennett (R-UT) which prohibits NASA from terminating any Constellation contracts. If NASA's move goes through, the biggest liability is $500M for ATK, the contractor who is/was responsible for the first stage of the Ares I medium-lift rocket.
FleaPlus writes: As part of its new plans, NASA has outlined the initial series of large-scale 'flagship' technology demonstration (FTD) missions for developing and testing technologies needed for sustainable beyond-Earth exploration, complementing the smaller-scale ETDD missions outlined previously. The first four 'FTD' missions (costing $400M-$1B each, about the cost of the recent Ares I-X suborbital rocket launch) are scheduled to launch between 2014 and 2016, demonstrating advanced in-space propulsion (next-generation ion propulsion and solar arrays), in-space propellant transfer and storage, a lightweight/inflatable mission module at the ISS (which will also test closed-loop life support), and an inflatable aeroshell for aerocapture at Mars. A multi-purpose robotic rendezvous & docking vehicle will also be developed to support these missions.
FleaPlus writes: This past week NASA announced that it would provide $15M/year for 5 years (pending Congressional approval) for launching science payloads on commercial suborbital spacecraft, which provide a more cost-effective and productive way to perform many types of research. The announcement was made at the first-ever Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference, where a few hundred scientists and rocket builders gathered to get a better understanding of each others' needs and capabilities. In addition to space tourism flights, several companies, like John Carmack's Armadillo Aerospace, Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin, Masten Space Systems, XCOR, and Virgin Galactic, are competing for the lucrative scientific market to fly payloads for fields like microgravity biology/chemistry, atmospheric science, astrophysics, and space technology testing.
shadowspawn1 writes: The NASA Chief Technologist is the principal adviser for NASA regarding agency-wide technology policy and program development. You want NASA to develop your rocket-packs? You'll need to make your case to this fellow.
'SPACE.com spoke with Braun near the end of his first week doing what he calls his dream job. The chief technologist talked about how NASA can tap new innovations and game-changing technologies to realize any number of possible futures for exploring the moon, the asteroids, Mars and beyond'
FleaPlus writes: Alabama politicians have formed a 'task force' dedicated to fighting NASA's new plans to cancel the costly Constellation/Ares program (largely based in Alabama) and receive a boosted budget. The chronically-mismanaged Constellation project attempted to build new rockets in-house and replicate an Apollo-style lunar program with minimal investment in new technologies. NASA's new boosted budget revives formerly-suppressed R&D efforts into critical technologies needed for a sustainable push towards Mars and intermediate waypoint destinations, works with (instead of trying to compete with) existing commercial rockets to transport cargo/crew to orbit, and funds a stream of robotic precursor missions to scout other worlds and demonstrate new technologies. The Alabama task force fighting the new plan includes former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and former Ares project manager Steve Cook.
FleaPlus writes: NASA's C3PO program has announced the first year's winners of a $50M contract competition for developing commercial spaceflight systems; their initially-planned $150M in funding was diverted by Congress towards the soon-to-be-cancelled Constellation project. The contracts are for $20M to Sierra Nevada for their in-progress Dream Chaser reusable lifting-body spacecraft, $18M to Boeing to develop a capsule with Bigelow Aerospace to launch on a variety of existing rockets, $6.7M to the ULA for an emergency detection system (needed for human-rating their existing rockets), $3.7M to the normally-secretive Blue Origin for developing a novel 'pusher' launch escape system and testing a crew module made of composite materials, and $1.4M to Paragon Space Systems to build and demonstrate a turn-key air vitalization system. SpaceX and Orbital will continue their earlier COTS contracts for cargo delivery to the ISS. Contracts in future years, totaling $6 billion over 5 years, will be competitively awarded based on performance and the goal of achieving safe, reliable, and cost-effective access to orbit.