Committee Approves Bipartisan NASA Authorization Act

Washington, D.C. – The Committee on Science, Space, and Technology today approved the NASA Authorization Act of 2014 (H.R. 4412) with unanimous bipartisan support. The bipartisan bill reaffirms Congress’s commitment to space exploration, both human and robotic, and makes clear that human spaceflight to Mars is NASA’s primary goal.

Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas): “Today’s bill ensures that NASA will continue to innovate and inspire. The scientists, engineers and astronauts who find creative and new solutions to the challenges of exploring the universe serve as role models for our students. NASA has accomplished some of the most awe-inspiring and technologically advanced space initiatives in the history of humankind. There is strong, bipartisan support for NASA’s unique role, and the Manager’s Amendment offered today reflects this.”

The bipartisan Manager’s Amendment, offered by Space Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.) and Ranking Member Donna Edwards (D-Md.), increases the use of the International Space Station for science research, encourages commercial use of space, protects us from the effects of solar flares, helps remove orbital debris, and supports the development of a new space telescope that will detect Earth-sized planets.

Subcommittee Chairman Palazzo: “I would like to thank Chairman Smith, Ms. Edwards, and Ms. Johnson for their efforts in pulling together this agreement, as well as all of our staff who labored over this bill. I look forward to continuing our work to pass this bill on the House floor. I am proud that we are able to put our names on a bipartisan bill for the sake of our nation’s space program, national pride, and our national security.”

The NASA Authorization Act of 2014 continues the consistent guidance Congress has given to NASA for nearly a decade by reaffirming a stepping stone approach to exploration in a go-as-you-can-afford-to-pay manner by developing an exploration roadmap.  It supports the development on the Space Launch System and the Orion Crew Vehicle to push the boundaries of human exploration, and focuses NASA’s efforts to develop a capability to access low Earth orbit and the International Space Station so that America can once again launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil.

The bill also supports a healthy science directorate that reflects the input from the scientific community and an aeronautics research directorate that contributes to our nation’s aerospace economy. 


Polymer Fabric Protects Firefighters, Military, and Civilians

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

PBI fiber
The PBI plant, located in Rock Hill, South Carolina, produced its first commercial bale of PBI fiber on March 18, 1983.

Insulating and protecting astronauts from temperature extremes, from the 3 K (-455 °F) of deep space to the 1,533 K (2,300 °F) of atmospheric reentry, is central to NASA’s human space flight program. While the space shuttle and capsule vehicles necessarily receive a great deal of thermal barrier and insulation protection, at least as much attention is also paid to astronaut clothing and personal gear. NASA has spent a great deal of effort developing and refining fire-resistant materials for use in vehicles, flight suits, and other applications demanding extreme thermal tolerances, and kept a close eye on the cutting edge of high-temperature stable polymers for its entire 50-year history.

In the late 1950s, Dr. Carl Marvel first synthesized Polybenzimidazole (PBI) while studying the creation of high-temperature stable polymers for the U.S. Air Force. In 1961, PBI was further developed by Marvel and Dr. Herward Vogel, correctly anticipating that the polymers would have exceptional thermal and oxidative stability. In 1963, NASA and the Air Force Materials Laboratory sponsored considerable work with PBI for aerospace and defense applications as a non-flammable and thermally stable textile fiber.

On January 27, 1967, the severity and immediacy of the danger of fire faced by astronauts was made terribly clear when a flash fire occurred in command module 012 during a launch pad test of the Apollo/Saturn space vehicle being prepared for the first piloted flight, the AS-204 mission (also known as Apollo 1). Three astronauts, Lieutenant Colonel Virgil I. Grissom, a veteran of Mercury and Gemini missions; Lieutenant Colonel Edward H. White II, the astronaut who had performed the first U.S. extravehicular activity during the Gemini program; and Lieutenant Commander Roger B. Chaffee, an astronaut preparing for his first space flight, died in this tragic accident.

A final report on the tragedy, completed in April 1967, made specific recommendations for major design and engineering modifications, including severely restricting and controlling the amount and location of combustible materials in the command module and the astronaut flight suits. NASA intensified its focus on advanced fire-resistant materials, and given the Agency’s existing familiarity with the fabric and its inventor, one of the first alternatives considered was PBI.


NASA contracted with Celanese Corporation, of New York, to develop a line of PBI textiles for use in space suits and vehicles. Celanese engineers developed heat- and flame-resistant PBI fabric based on the fiber for high-temperature applications. The fibers formed from the PBI polymer exhibited a number of highly desirable characteristics, such as inflammability, no melting point, and retention of both strength and flexibility after exposure to flame. The stiff fibers also maintained their integrity when exposed to high heat and were mildew, abrasion, and chemical resistant.

Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, PBI was instrumental to space flight, seeing application on Apollo, Skylab, and numerous space shuttle missions. Applications ran the gamut from the intended applications in astronaut flight suits and clothing, to webbing, tethers, and other gear that demanded durability and extreme thermal tolerance.

Product Outcome

Firefighters wearing protective PBI suits during a training fire
Andre Baur, a firefighter instructor in Switzerland, runs out of a training fire that has gotten out of hand. Like many other “Golden Knights” around the world, Andre escaped with only minor injuries.

In 1978, PBI was introduced to fire service in the United States, and Project FIRES (Firefighters Integrated Response Equipment System) lauded a recently developed outer shell material for turnout gear, PBI Gold. In 1983, PBI fibers were made commercially available and a dedicated production plant opened in Rock Hill, South Carolina, to meet demand. In 1986, NASA Spinoff chronicled this first phase of PBI’s history, and Marvel was awarded the “National Medal of Science” by President Ronald Reagan.

Since 1986, PBI has undergone a steady evolution into countless military and civilian applications and established a distinct profile and reputation in the fire retardant materials industry. In 2005, Celanese Corporation sold the PBI fiber and polymer business to PBI Performance Products Inc., of Charlotte, North Carolina, which is under the ownership of the InterTech Group, of North Charleston, South Carolina.

Produced by a dedicated manufacturer that takes great pride in the history and future of the product, the fabrics incorporating PBI have become prominent players in such diverse applications as firefighting and emergency response, motor sports, military, industry, and (still) aerospace. PBI Performance Products now offers two distinct lines: PBI, the original heat and flame resistant fiber; and Celazole, a family of high-temperature PBI polymers available in true polymer form.

  • PBI fabric withstands the dangers associated with firefighting, arc flash, and flash fire. In 1992, lightweight PBI fabrics were adapted for flame-resistant work wear for electric utility and petrochemical applications, and are now providing flame protection for U.S. Army troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Short-cut PBI fibers were introduced for use in automotive braking systems and PBI staple fibers are employed as fire blocking layers in aircraft seats.
  • PBI Gold blends 40 percent thermal-resistant PBI fibers with 60 percent high-strength aramid, resulting in a fabric which does not shrink, become brittle, or break open under extreme heat and flame exposure. PBI Gold provides firefighters and industrial workers with superior protection and meets or exceeds every National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and EN 469 (rating standard for protective clothing for firefighters) requirement. In 1994, the New York City Fire Department specified the use of PBI Gold fabric engineered in black for their turnout gear. Over the last 10 years, PBI Gold has grown internationally, with major industrial, military, and municipal fire brigades specifying the product across Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Australia, and the South Pacific.
  • PBI Matrix employs a “power grid,” a durable matrix of high-strength aramid filaments woven into the PBI Gold fabric to enhance and reinforce its resistance to wear and tear while retaining its superior flame and heat protection. In 2003, PBI Matrix was commercialized and introduced in the United States as the next-generation PBI for firefighter turnout gear. In 2008, Matrix will be introduced in Europe.
  • PBI TriGuard fabric is a three-fiber blend of PBI, Lenzing FR, and MicroTwaron designed for flame protection, comfort, and durability. This advanced fabric meets or exceeds all U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and NFPA standards and is certified for wildlands, special operations, and motorsports applications, as well as the petrochemical, gas utility, and electric utility industries. PBI TriGuard and PBI Gold knits are now in use at several major motorsport racetracks around the country.
  • Celazole T-Series is a form-, shape-, and an injection-moldable blend of PBI and PEEK (polyetheretherketone) polymers.
  • Celazole U-Series utilizes PBI’s high-heat dimensional stability, strength, and chemical resistance to allow it to be formed into parts and used in the tools that produce flat panel displays and in the plasma etch chambers used to make semiconductor wafers.

New applications for PBI are continuing to come to light in new fields that demand material stability at high temperatures. PBI is now being developed into high-temperature separation membranes that increase efficiency in ethanol production and separate carbon dioxide from natural gas for carbon dioxide sequestration, and will see application in hydrogen fuel cells. PBI in short-cut form has also been used as a safe and effective replacement for asbestos. Fittingly, PBI may also return to space as part of NASA’s Constellation Program, as the polymer once applied for space suits in the Apollo and Skylab missions is under consideration for use as insulation material in the rocket motors for NASA’s next generation of spacecraft, the Ares I and Ares V rockets.

PBI TriGuard™ is a trademark, and PBI Gold®, PBI Matrix®, and Celazole® are registered trademarks of PBI Performance Products Inc.

Lenzing FR® is a registered trademark of Lenzing Fibers GmbH.

MicroTwaron™ is a trademark of Akzo N.V.

Bringing Thunder and Lightning Indoors

Originating Technology/ NASA Contribution

Piezoelectric materials convert mechanical energy into electrical energy and electrical energy into mechanical energy. They generate electrical charges in response to mechanical stress and generate mechanical displacement and/or force when subjected to an electric current.

Scientists at Langley Research Center have developed a piezoelectric device that is superior in many ways to those that used to be the only ones commercially available. It is tougher, has far greater displacement and greater mechanical load capacity for a comparative voltage operation, can be easily produced at a relatively low cost, and lends itself well to mass production.

Face International Corporation manufacturing plant in Taiwan
Face International Corporation has a manufacturing plant in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, where it mass produces the Thunder and Lightning piezoelectric components.

The NASA-developed piezoelectric device is also unique in that it is more efficient in extracting electrical energy from the mechanical energy that goes in. It works on a simple principle. A thin ceramic piezoelectric wafer is sandwiched between an aluminum sheet and a steel sheet and held together with LaRC-SI, an amorphous thermoplastic adhesive with special properties created by NASA at Langley. The sandwich is heated in an autoclave, and the adhesive melts. When the sandwich cools, the adhesive bonds the parts together into one piezoelectric element. While they cool, the components of the element contract at different rates, since they are made of different materials. This differential shrinkage causes the element to warp in either a convex or concave shape, depending on which way it is oriented. The shrinking of the outside metal layers places the inside piezoelectric ceramic under mechanical stress. If the element is cantilevered by clamping one side and then plucked, it reverberates like a diving board that has just ejected a diver.

This way, a small amount of mechanical energy can result in a relatively long period of electrical generation. When the piezoelectric element is used for the creation of electricity, it is called Lightning.

This same sandwiched piezoelectric wafer can also convert electrical energy into mechanical energy. Then, it is called Thunder. Electricity goes in, excites the element, and then, mechanical energy in the form of movement is generated.


Face International Corporation, of Norfolk, Virginia, holds several licenses to the Langley piezoelectric technology, including the patent on LaRC-SI and the exclusive international marketing rights. Face is now manufacturing a commercial version in mass quantities with its manufacturing partner, Sunnytec Company Ltd., at a new plant in Taiwan.

Product Outcome

The Lightning Switch assembly
When completely assembled, the Lightning Switch looks much like a typical garage door opener.

The first mass application of this piezoelectric technology is Face International’s Lightning Switch. The Lightning Switch is a wireless, batteryless, remote-controlled light switch, a way to install or replace light switches without any new wiring and without batteries. It is certified for use in the United States and Canada.

Test marketing of the Lightning Switch product started rather humbly last fall, with three mall kiosks in Hampton Roads, Virginia, and an Internet site devoted to the device.

During the test marketing, the product was also aimed at holiday shoppers who might want a remote switch for turning on and off Christmas lights. Holiday revelers who plugged the lights in behind the tree and would otherwise have to move mounds of gifts could now turn the lights on and off without having to brave the tinsel.

The Lightning Switch consists of a remote control transmitter that is modeled after a standard European light switch and a receiver that either plugs into an electrical socket or is wired into an electrical junction box. Pushing the button on the remote control generates enough electricity to send a coded radio signal to the receiver to switch on whatever is plugged or wired into the receiver.

Holiday sales at the kiosks were promising, and Internet sales also contributed to the early success, but these were essentially a marketing experiment for Face International. Serious efforts to penetrate the North American market are underway during this second half of 2005 as Face International begins offering the Lightning Switch for sale through electrical supply houses.

The Lightning Switch mounted on a wall
The Lightning Switch mounts anywhere and requires no wiring.

Although it was, in part, marketed as a device for turning on and off Christmas lights, the customers have found many additional, clever uses for the Lightning Switch. The majority of people have used it to install, replace, or rewire lighting controls without the hassle and cost of knocking holes in the walls and ceilings, or having to hire an electrician. The Lightning Switch installs in minutes and can save hundreds of dollars per switch in rewiring costs.

A popular use of the Lightning Switch is in leased or rental properties, where certain tenants may want a switch in one spot, while the next resident may want to have the switch elsewhere. With this device, both can be accommodated, and with no added expenditure by the landlord.

Other uses that customers have found for the device include a taxi-calling system for hotel bellmen; as a call-for-assistance system in assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and hospitals; a control lift for the elderly or disabled; and a signal for a casino table dealer to call for drinks or additional chips.

In addition, it has been used as a notification system for doctors to indicate to nurses when they are ready for the next patient, to trigger lights on the end of a boat dock, as a safety alert for factory floors, in foot switches for wireless tattoo guns, and to control heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning elements.

Customers have found it helpful for controlling landscape lighting, fountains, and pumps for ponds, and as a safe electrical device in wet areas, such as by pools or hot tubs. Some have even planned to employ it for grounds security, with the transmitters packaged to be put in the ground, on doors, gates, and entryways, for permanent wireless and batteryless intruder alerts.

Design-oriented entrepreneurs at retail establishments have used the Lightning Switch as a control for store fixture lighting, while art collectors have used it for backlighting framed pieces. So, while it was being marketed in malls as a Christmas light switch, consumers saw even more potential.

Worker in a cleanroom at the plant in Taiwan
Worker in a cleanroom at the plant in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, where the piezoelectric elements are manufactured. The plant has the capability to produce tens of thousands of pieces per month.

During this test marketing phase, Brad Face, Face International president, had even larger plans. He was in negotiations to have a manufacturing plant erected to meet the growing need for this technology in additional applications. The new plant, in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, opened in February 2005. It manufactures and assembles the Lightning Switch products as well as Lightning and Thunder piezoelectric elements. The manufacturing lines mainly consist of machinery that was designed and built for the express purpose of making these products. It gives Face International the capacity to produce 30,000 Lightning or Thunder piezoelectric elements, 30,000 Lightning transmitters, and 100,000 receivers each month. The capacity can be increased in increments of 30,000 by adding work shifts or duplicating the manufacturing line. With this capability, the company is prepared to respond to any demand.

There is a large demand developing for these products and not only in North America. Currently, Face International is in contract negotiations with housing development contractors in South Africa, where the Lightning products have the potential to save builders millions of dollars annually. Houses can be assembled quicker without electrical wiring to the switches, and at considerable savings of skilled labor and materials. The Lightning Switch can then be used to install switches in houses after construction.

Beyond the Lightning Switch, Face International has other applications of the NASA-invented piezoelectric element in development. Using the Thunder version of this piezoelectric product, Face International is working on improving hearing loss assessment technologies. Assessment of hearing loss is normally conducted by testing for minimum sound level detection. There are two forms of tests used for the basic evaluation of auditory function. The first, air-conduction testing, involves presenting precisely calibrated sounds to the ears, usually by routing the signals through headphones to the external ear canal. The second, bone-conduction testing, sends precisely calibrated vibrations through the bones of the skull to the inner ear system. Stimulation is received at the skull by placing a transducer either on the mastoid region behind the ear to be tested or through transducer placement on the forehead.

A man wearing hearing test equipment
Face International Corporation has partnered with the Hearing Center of the Hollins Communications Research Institute to create durable and accurate hearing test equipment using the NASA piezoelectric technology.

There has been a long-standing problem inherent in the construction and function of bone-conduction transducers used in auditory testing. Typically, these devices have been restricted in the usable frequency range, particularly above 4000 Hertz, and they have been limited in the amplitude with which sound can be presented to the skull. Bone-conduction transducers have relied on electromechanical components to generate the vibrations. Such transducers do not operate in a linear manner, and, as a result, individual audiometers must be calibrated to the idiosyncratic properties of the bone-conduction transducer to be used with that system. A further problem arises when the transducers are used on a daily basis. When dropped, the transducers frequently break or alter their output characteristics.

Researchers at the Hearing Center of the Hollins Communications Research Institute (HCRI), in Roanoke, Virginia, have been working on development of a new audiometric system for hearing assessment. They have partnered with Face International to create a new bone-conduction transducer that would overcome the major shortcomings of traditional transducers. The new transducers are the correct physical size, with the desired frequency range, linear operation across the relevant range, significant increases in power levels, and they come in a rugged package. The new HCRI/Face International bone-conduction transducers hold up to daily clinical use and even passed the informal stress tests of being dropped on the floor repeatedly.

Brad Face alludes to other applications, most of which are still in their infancy. But with the ability of the new manufacturing plant to create as many of the elements as he could need, and the myriad uses customers are finding for the technology, the applications are limitless.

Lightning® and Thunder® are registered trademarks of Face International Corporation.
Lightning Switch™ is a trademark of Face International Corporation.

Drill Here? NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover Inspects Site

Sandstone Target 'Windjana' May Be Next Martian Drilling Site

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has driven within robotic-arm’s reach of the sandstone slab at the center of this April 23 view from the rover’s Mast Camera. The rover team plans to have Curiosity examine a target patch on the rock, called “Windjana,” to aid a decision about whether to drill there. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS


April 25, 2014

The team operating NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is telling the rover to use several tools this weekend to inspect a sandstone slab being evaluated as a possible drilling target.

If this target meets criteria set by engineers and scientists, it could become the mission’s third drilled rock, and the first that is not mudstone. The team calls it “Windjana,” after a gorge in Western Australia.

The planned inspection, designed to aid a decision on whether to drill at Windjana, includes observations with the camera and X-ray spectrometer at the end of the rover’s arm, use of a brush to remove dust from a patch on the rock, and readings of composition at various points on the rock with an instrument that fires laser shots from the rover’s mast.

Curiosity’s hammering drill collects powdered sample material from the interior of a rock, and then the rover prepares and delivers portions of the sample to onboard laboratory instruments. The first two Martian rocks drilled and analyzed this way were mudstone slabs neighboring each other in Yellowknife Bay, about 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) northeast of the rover’s current location at a waypoint called “the Kimberley.” Those two rocks yielded evidence of an ancient lakebed environment with key chemical elements and a chemical energy source that provided conditions billions of years ago favorable for microbial life.

From planned drilling at Windjana or some nearby location on sandstone at the Kimberley, Curiosity’s science team hopes to analyze the cement that holds together the sand-size grains in the rock.

“We want to learn more about the wet process that turned sand deposits into sandstone here,” said Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “What was the composition of the fluids that bound the grains together? That aqueous chemistry is part of the habitability story we’re investigating.”

Understanding why some sandstones in the area are harder than others also could help explain major shapes of the landscape where Curiosity is working inside Gale Crater. Erosion-resistant sandstone forms a capping layer of mesas and buttes. It could even hold hints about why Gale Crater has a large layered mountain, Mount Sharp, at its center.

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Project is using Curiosity to assess ancient habitable environments and major changes in Martian environmental conditions. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech, built the rover and manages the project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

The spectrometer on the rover’s robotic arm is the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS), which was provided by the Canadian Space Agency. The camera on the arm is the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), built and operated by Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. The laser on the mast is part of the Chemistry and Camera instrument (ChemCam), from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the French national space agency, CNES. The rover’s wire-bristle brush, the Dust Removal Tool, was built by Honeybee Robotics, New York.


Reflecting on Space Benefits: A Shining Example

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

NASA has long been known for having developed the thin, shiny reflective material used to insulate everything from the Hubble Space Telescope to hikers, from the Mars rovers to marathon runners, from computers to campers, from satellites to sun shields, and from rockets to residences. It is one of the simplest, yet most versatile spinoffs to come out of the Agency.

The insulating material, a strong, plastic, vacuum-metallized film with a highly-efficient, infrared-reflective, vapor-deposited coating of aluminum, was created to be very lightweight in order to minimize weight impact on vehicle payload while also protecting spacecraft, equipment, and personnel from the extreme temperature fluctuations of space.

It has been employed on virtually all manned and unmanned NASA missions. The shiny insulation which coated the base of the Apollo lunar landing vehicles is perhaps one of the most memorable early displays of this technology, and the bright, reflective honeycomb on the James Webb Space Telescope prototype is a testament to its lasting usefulness.


Picture of a sun shield on the exterior of the Sky lab space station
During the first days Skylab was in space, the station was besieged by problems caused when the meteoroid shield that was designed to protect it from micro-meteorites and the Sun’s intense heat tore off during launch. Scientists, engineers, astronauts, and management personnel at Marshall Space Flight Center and elsewhere worked to devise the means for its rescue. Their solution was to deploy a reflective parasol-like sunshield. Concern over the possibility that the parasol would deteriorate with prolonged exposure to the Sun’s rays prompted the installation of a second sunshield (pictured here) during the Skylab-3 mission.

The material is created by depositing vaporized aluminum onto thin plastic substrates. The result is a thin, flexible material that provides superior thermal-reflective properties. The highly pure aluminum coatings are carefully matched to their substrates to efficiently redirect infrared energy—infrared waves being the chief component of thermal energy in the near-vacuum conditions of outer space—to create either first- or second-surface reflecting. In some instances, the material is intended to deflect the infrared rays, and in other cases, it is meant to conserve them as a passive warming system.

Early in the Space Program, the National Metallizing Division of Standard Packaging Corporation, headquartered in Cranbury, New Jersey, was a supplier of this reflective material to NASA. In fact, it was one of the original subcontractors NASA turned to for design and supply of the material, and it was able to branch off from this work into the more general, terrestrial insulating applications, like building insulation.

It was National Metallizing that NASA turned to for assistance when, in May 1973, during the first few days that Skylab was in orbit, it was malfunctioning and overheating. A heat shield broke off during launch, and air temperature inside the orbiting station began approaching 130 °F. NASA was concerned about the condition of food, film, and other equipment inside, as well as plastic insulation and possible toxic gases if the temperature rose too high. The staff at National Metallizing was called upon by engineers at Marshall Space Flight Center to help create an emergency parasol-type sunshield that helped save millions of dollars worth of equipment, years of research, and allowed, for the first time, a habitat for astronauts to live and work in space.

Through a series of mergers, acquisitions, and transfers of ownership, National Metallizing’s factory doors eventually closed. A former employee, though, David Deigan, took advantage of the remarkable material the company had been manufacturing for NASA and founded a company to continue producing it, branding it as Heatsheets. The company, AFMInc, was originally founded as JSC Enterprises, a solely owned proprietorship, in Ridgewood, New Jersey. The “J” stood for Jennifer, “S” for Stephanie, and the “C” for Christopher, the names of Deigan’s three children.

He incorporated in 1982 as AFMInc (Advanced Flexible Materials), because the name JSC, Inc. was already taken, but the company’s story actually goes back a few decades further than this.

Product Outcome

In 1959, the Russians were the first to successfully launch a probe to the far side of the Moon—and return pictures—thus firing the starter pistol for the Space Race. Meanwhile, back in New York, a high schooler, David Deigan, heard a similar shot ring out, and on a lark with some friends, fell in step with a crowd running a marathon. With little prior training, he still managed to finish the event, and even though he paid for it with muscle aches and soreness, he had caught the marathon bug.

Marathon runners draped in reflective blankets to keep them warm
Runners winding down after the 2005 Boston Marathon. When they stop running, body temperatures drop rapidly. The reflective blankets, which have become standard at marathons worldwide, help stabilize body temperatures.

Granted, the illness remained dormant for 20 years, as it wasn’t until 1978 that Deigan attempted another marathon—this time with more training and preparation. It was a marathon in New York City that stretched its 26.2 miles throughout Manhattan’s five boroughs: Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan, where it finished in Central Park at the Tavern on the Green.

When the runners finished, one of the problems they ran into was keeping themselves warm. The race is held in the fall of each year, either in October or November, and weather in New York, like in many places around the country during these months, can be rather fickle. It might be balmy. It might snow. With masses of people crossing the finish line, it was taking each person an average of 20 minutes to get to their clothes. Hypothermia was settling in when the runners stopped running, and more people were making it to the first aid tent than were to their street clothes.

The Association of International Marathons and Road Races, a nonprofit group that organizes races, met to discuss this problem. They tested several products and settled on the original “Space Blanket” from Metallized Products, an early company that had taken advantage of the NASA technology. Although fine for many situations, and ideally suited for this use in many ways, the blankets were each folded and packaged, a seemingly small detail that had severe impact on their usefulness in this situation—with hundreds of runners crossing the line every few minutes, the blankets just took too long to dispense, unwrap, and unfold, but they were still, at that time, the most viable solution.

Still running, during the 1979 New York City Marathon, Deigan crested a hill in Central Park and crossed the finish line. What stood out to him was not that he had made it 26.2 miles; rather, he was marveling at the silver caterpillar of people wiggling away from the finish line. As he recalls “I crossed the finish line and followed the runners in front of me as we were wrapped in metallized polyester sheets and guided onto and over a hilly path to the reunion area.” He recalls that it looked like a dragon from a Chinese New Year’s celebration. He had the idea at that point that the New York Road Runners Club, Inc., the group that organizes the New York City Marathon, could transform the expense of the silver blankets into racing revenue through branding.

Deigan, the former employee of National Metallizing, also thought of a solution to the problem of having to unwrap and unfold the blankets. The insulating material could be shipped flat and unwrapped on a pallet, thus eliminating the time-consumption problem.

Marines hold camouflaged blankets they wore after the Marine Marathon
AFMInc supplied the Marine Corps Marathon with 24,000 camouflage printed Heatsheets for the 2005 run

During the first few years, the blankets were branded with the Road Runners logo, a bright red apple; but in 1982, industry had taken notice of the advertising opportunity and major corporations branded the marathon as well as 10 smaller races, and the idea really took hold. That following year, the Chicago and Boston Marathons took interest in the new product and found sponsors to brand their races as well.

Now, most major marathons in the United States, many in other parts of the world, and a number of smaller races employ the blankets, mostly for the purposes of preventing hypothermia, but also because runners have come to expect them. They have become synonymous with finishing a race.

The blanket printing process has, over the last few years, gotten increasingly sophisticated. This past year, for the Marine Corps Marathon, in Arlington, Virginia, AFMInc shipped 24,000 camouflaged finish line Heatsheets to cover the runners as they finished the race. The product has also advanced over time and is now manufactured in a variety of ways, including on rolls and perforated at 6-foot intervals for quick dispensing. Most notably, though, the sport has really progressed. It has taken on mass appeal as a sport where amateurs line up with Olympians. In fact, it is estimated that 700,000 marathoners cross the finish line in the United States alone each year, in the dozens of races taking place around the country.

In 1996, Runner’s World, a monthly publication devoted to news of interest to joggers, ran an article on Deigan and AFMInc’s endurance in the marathon safety culture. Deigan received a call from a plant manager at Encompass Group, of Addison, Texas, who had just started running marathons and had read the article. The plant manager, Lloyd Burnett, told Deigan about Thermo-Lite, an advanced variation of the infrared-reflective aluminized material that his company was manufacturing.

At the time, Thermo-Lite was being used as bed sheets in hospital settings as passive hypothermia prevention for pre- and post-operational patients, for staff in scrubs who work in chilled environments, and as surgical drapes, often including a cut-out access area, giving surgeons access to specific areas of the body while covering the rest. The sheets were softer and quieter than most reflective insulating materials, as they did not have the crinkle and rustle of metallized plastics.

Picture of the solar panels and the mushing dogs at the Alaskan roadhouse
At the Tolovana Roadhouse in Alaska, 50 miles from the nearest road, Doug and Becky Bowers live with their 25 sled dogs and operate their small company, Midnight Mushing Outdoor Gear, via solar electricity.

Burnett and Deigan saw potential for the Thermo-Lite and Heatsheets in a line of adventure and extreme weather gear, which AFMInc then sold through Adventure Medical Kits, of Oakland, California. The products, emergency bivvies and rescue blankets, made their way to Alaska where they were purchased by Becky and Doug Bowers.

The Bowers live at the Tolovana Roadhouse in the outreaches of Alaska, 50 miles from the nearest road and the small town of Nenana. They grow their own vegetables, hunt, fish, and trap. Since public utilities do not run to their remote outpost, their power is generated by wind mills and solar collectors. They use this power, in part, to run a small business, Midnight Mushing Outdoor Gear, making the types of rugged, cold-tolerant outdoor gear needed for their climate, where, on a nice day, temperatures run well into the negative digits.

Most of the year, they are confined to their home, where Doug conducts the marketing and business side of their enterprise, while also making the buttons and pulls for their line of parkas and anoraks out of caribou bone and antlers, and Becky designs the garments. Each item, including the vests, mittens, parkas, walking bags (a type of mobile sleeping bag), and pullovers, is made by hand, with added details that make each one unique, but still representative of traditional Alaskan designs.

In addition to their aesthetics, though, the garments are tested thoroughly for high performance. Becky and Doug use everything for a full season before offering them for sale. As might be imagined, one of the key factors they test is an item’s insulating ability. Many contemporary insulating fabrics are wicking, which draws the perspiration away from the body; but after it has been wicked, the insulating barrier is then wet. The ideal solution is to combine the insulating material with a vapor barrier. Unfortunately, many of the different materials traditionally used as vapor barriers are bulky or noisy. This is where Thermo-Lite enters the picture.

A look at the silver reflective material that is sewn into a pair of red gloves
All of the items in the Midnight Mushing catalog are handmade, and several contain an advanced variation of the infrared-reflective material used by NASA to control temperatures on spacecraft and equipment.

On one of their trips into Nenana, Becky purchased one of the Thermo-Lite blankets. She cut it into pieces and sewed it into the linings of several pairs of mittens.

The mittens were put to the test in the winter of 1999, shortly after Christmas, when Becky and Doug left Nenana to trek the 50 miles back to their home after conducting some routine business. Doug was leading the way on the snowmobile with a load of gear, and Becky was following with a team of sled dogs. The two were enjoying the unseasonably warm weather, and the trip was uneventful.

Two days later, the temperature started to drop, reaching -55 °F by the time night fell and continued dropping through the night. The thermometer in their woodshed the next morning read -65 °F. The weather was expected to hold at this temperature for at least a week, and the Bowers had only enough food for their 25 sled dogs to last another 4 days.

They determined to make the trek back, through the bitter cold, into Nenana, so they made makeshift dog coats out of squirrel-damaged blankets, fired up the snowmobile, and left. The trip took 7½ hours, with temperatures nearing -72 °F, 144 degrees below room temperature!

During that time, the starter pull rewind failed on the snowmobile, which meant Doug had to run the engine idle high to avoid stalling and then drive extra slowly so as not to overheat the engine. Meanwhile, Becky’s chemical hand warmer failed near the halfway point. She wore her new, experimental Heat Barrier Mitts the rest of the way, and to her surprise, and great relief, her hands stayed warm. Ahead on the snowmobile, which is not equipped with heated grips, Doug wore a pair of work gloves under a pair of the mitts, and his hands, too, stayed warm.

After this event, Becky and Doug decided to add the Thermo-Lite mittens to their Midnight Mushings product line. Becky eventually worked her way through a line of phone calls and got through to Deigan, then asked if she could buy seconds of the material. After hearing her story, not only did Deigan agree to supply Becky with factory seconds, he took a plane up the West Coast to see the Tolovana Roadhouse where the Bowers live.

Midnight Mushing’s resulting Heat Barrier Mitts employ a 330-denier Supplex Cordura outer shell, a material that owes its origin to work done by DuPont in the 1920s to make super-strong tires for Army vehicles. It has been refined to the point now, where it is as supple as cotton. The mittens also have Tuff-Grip palms, which stay flexible even in extreme cold, and, of course, the Thermo-Lite insulation. They are very popular with the trappers who turn the mittens inside out when perspiration builds inside, wait a few seconds for the moisture to freeze, give the mittens a whack to crack off the ice, and then put them back on.

Becky has been wearing the mittens for several seasons now, and with the money she has saved from not having to purchase a case of chemical warmers each season, the mittens paid for themselves within the first year. She had had considerable tissue damage to her hands from repeated frostbite, and wearing these mittens for the past few years, her hands have had a chance to start healing—a considerable boon considering that she is a seamstress by trade.

Midnight Mushing also incorporates the space-age Thermo-Lite into a line of vests, which is handy not only for activities like running the dogs in extreme cold, but for sedentary activities, like sewing, where the body has the tendency to lose heat.

The Bowers are not the only people who have bought this space-age material from AFMInc; many have realized its potential and then wanted it for their own unique use. What is remarkable, though, is the extent to which this space technology can be applied and that it has worked its way into such remote locations.

A camper demonstrates the emergency sleeping bag that maintains body heat
The Emergency Sleeping Bag by Adventure Medical Kits weighs only 2.5 ounces and reflects up to 90 percent of a person’s body heat, making it ideal for survival situations.

In October 2005, an earthquake registering 7.6 on the Richter scale caused widespread destruction in northern Pakistan, as well as in Afghanistan and northern India. The following day, the area felt 147 aftershocks, the strongest of which registered 6.2. During the first 4 days after the initial quake, 28 aftershocks occurred with a magnitude greater than 5. Even 11 days later, there were still major quakes.

It is estimated that over 79,000 people died, 135,000 people were injured, and 400,000 houses were destroyed—a true natural disaster. The area was devastated, and the aid started pouring in to assist in relief efforts.

Stateside, Richard Berger, an avid hiker, was so moved by the plight of the people in the remote villages of Pakistan that he literally got into his car and started a search for products that might help relieve their suffering. He found his way to a large REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc.) retail store in his hometown of Seattle. REI is a supplier of specialty outdoor gear and equipment. There, Berger sorted through as many products as he could and settled on the Heatsheets rescue blanket AFMInc and Adventure Medical Kits had created. It is a larger version of the finish line blanket. At finish lines, where tripping hazards are a problem, the blankets measure 48 by 72 inches. These emergency blankets, though, are big enough for two people to wrap up and share body heat. They measure 60 by 96 inches, and the retail version is printed with a complete set of illustrated survival instructions in two languages.

Berger, like the Bowers, worked his way from the supplier to the distributor, to the manufacturer, and eventually to Deigan, asking what AFMInc could do to help. With the cooperation of a network of small companies, and a remarkable Internet fundraising effort through friends and acquaintances, Berger began to generate a buzz. The efforts were successful, and the newly formed collective received e-mails and letters from nurseries and day schools, from various nonprofit organizations, and from individuals willing to assist the refugees of the Pakistani earthquake.

Through this fundraising campaign, they produced approximately 150,000 60- by 90-inch Heatsheets out of a special performance resin polyethylene with the standard infrared-reflective coating. All of the work was done at cost, with no profit, and they went through two production runs to produce enough Heatsheets to reach as many people as possible.

Two children share a heat blanket following an earthquake in Pakistan
Mercy Corps coordinated with individuals and institutions, large and small, to deploy tens of thousands of the reflective emergency blankets to Pakistan in fall of 2005, after earthquakes devastated the region.

Once the campaign had grown quite sizeable, Berger contacted Mercy Corps, of Portland, Oregon, to assist in the final, but most critical, stage—distributing the materials. Mercy Corps has a 25-year history of disaster relief response around the world and had already been conducting aid work in Pakistan for over 20 years. It was integral to the earthquake response and the ideal group to manage the next stages of the effort.

The group supplied both folded Heatsheets and Heatsheets-on-a-Roll for this effort, and suggested ways to employ Heatsheets as structural insulation and as emergency blankets. AFMInc also donated thousands of smaller Thermo-Lite blankets that were tremendously helpful, especially for smaller children and the elderly. These doubled as ground covers during the day and much-needed blankets at night.

Dan McHugh, a senior vice president at DHL International, Ltd., assisted the group by arranging for the large shipping firm to provide air shipments of the relief supplies at no charge, on three separate occasions. This generosity made it possible to nearly double the amount of Heatsheets supplied and provided some relief to people halfway around the world.

Both the Heatsheets and Thermo-Lite have been named Certified Space Technologies by the Space Foundation. The Space Foundation, in cooperation with NASA, created the Space Certification Program to promote the extraordinary products and services that bring the benefits of space technology home to Earth and enhance public interest and awareness in space.

Heatsheets® is a registered trademark of AFMInc.
DuPont® is a registered trademark of E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company.
Supplex® and Cordura® are registered trademarks of INVISTA, Inc.
Thermo-Lite® is a registered trademark of Encompass Group, LLC.

Circulation-Enhancing Device Improves CPR

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Ever stand up too quickly from a sitting or lying position and feel dizzy or disoriented for a brief moment? The downward push of Earth’s gravity naturally causes blood to settle in the lower areas of the human body, and occasionally, with a quick movement—such as rising swiftly from a chair—the body is not able to adjust fast enough to deliver an adequate supply of blood to the upper parts of the body and the brain. This sudden, temporary drop in blood pressure is what causes brief feelings of lightheadedness upon standing. In essence, when the heart pumps blood to different parts of the body, it is working against the physical phenomenon of gravity in its efforts to send blood up to the brain.

ResQPOD circulation-enhancing device
The ResQPOD is an impedance threshold device used to enhance circulation during CPR. It could be used to increase circulation for astronauts as their bodies initially adjust to a return to gravity from the weightlessness of space.

In more cases than not, the body is able to make the necessary adjustments to ensure proper blood flow and pressure to the brain; but when the disorientation lasts a long time and/or become chronic, individuals may have a condition called orthostatic intolerance. According to the American Journal of Physiology–Heart and Circulatory Physiology, an estimated 500,000 Americans are affected by orthostatic intolerance. Symptoms range from occasional fainting, blurry vision, and pain or discomfort in the head and the neck, to tiredness, weakness, and a lack of concentration. Though research indicates that the condition is not life-threatening, it could impact the quality of life and contribute to falls that result in serious injuries.

The condition is a prominent concern for NASA, since astronauts have to readjust to the gravitational environment of Earth after spending days in the weightlessness of space. NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate has found that roughly 20 percent of astronauts coming off of short-duration space flights experience difficulty maintaining proper blood pressure when moving from lying down to either sitting or standing during the first few days back on Earth. The difficulties are even more severe for astronauts coming off of long-duration missions, according to the mission directorate, as 83 percent of these crewmembers experience some degree of the condition.

Cardiovascular experts at NASA have found that the blood that normally settles in the lower regions of the body is instead pulled to the upper body in the microgravity environment of space. Blood volume is subsequently reduced as some cardiovascular reflexes are no longer being used, and less blood flows to the legs. Additionally, the muscles weaken, especially in the lower portion of the body, because they are not working (contracting) as hard as they usually do. This is not so much a concern for the astronauts while they are in space, since the action of floating around takes the place of putting center-of-gravity pressure on their legs. (They do exercise strenuously while in microgravity, though, to keep their muscles and circulatory systems conditioned, thus preparing their bodies for the return to gravity as best they can.) When they return to Earth’s gravity, however, more blood returns to the legs. Since there is a lower volume of blood, the flow that is supposed to be traveling to the brain can be insufficient. That is when orthostatic intolerance can set in.

NASA has conducted and sponsored a wealth of studies to counter the effects of orthostatic intolerance, especially since the condition could prevent an astronaut from exiting a landed spacecraft in the event of an emergency. In one study conducted by Johnson Space Center’s Cardiovascular Laboratory, astronauts in orbit tested the efficacy of a drug called midodrine that has successfully reduced orthostatic intolerance in patients on Earth. The early results were promising, but further testing will be conducted by the laboratory before more conclusive results can be determined. In another study, the laboratory is using a controlled tilt test on Earth to replicate the body’s responses to a shift from reclining to sitting or standing.

At Ames Research Center, researchers are utilizing NASA’s 20-G artificial gravity centrifuge machine in a pilot study on cardiovascular responses and fluid shifts in the body. A separate Ames study is evaluating the possibility of expanding astronauts’ plasma volumes (the fluid part of the blood, minus the blood cells), as a preventative measure.

Patient receiving respiratory support
The ResQPOD increases circulation in states of low blood pressure. When used on patients in cardiac arrest, the ResQPOD harnesses the chest wall recoil after each compression to generate a small but critical vacuum within the chest. This vacuum enhances blood flow back to the heart and results in a marked increase in blood flow out of the heart with each subsequent chest compression.

In NASA-sponsored research at Vanderbilt University, researchers have successfully identified a genetic cause for orthostatic intolerance. The findings marked the first time a genetic defect had been linked to a disorder of the autonomic immune system, according to the discoverers, and could eventually lead to new drugs and treatments for the condition.

At Kennedy Space Center, a collaborative research effort with the U.S. Army and private industry has yielded an important application for a new, non-invasive medical device called ResQPOD that is now available for astronauts returning from space. In helping to reacquaint the astronauts with the feeling of gravity, ResQPOD quickly and effectively increases the circulation of blood flow to the brain. This device is also available to the public as a means to enhance circulation for breathing patients suffering from orthostatic intolerance and for non-breathing patients suffering cardiac arrest or other high-risk clinical conditions attributed to low blood pressure.


Advanced Circulatory Systems Inc., of Minneapolis, collaborated with Kennedy and the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research for more than 5 years to develop ResQPOD. Don Doerr, an engineer at Kennedy, led the testing and development effort; Dr. Victor Convertino of the Institute of Surgical Research (and a former NASA scientist at Kennedy) also played an instrumental role in developing the technology.

Multiple clinical studies were conducted during the research effort, including six published studies. The published works demonstrate that ResQPOD offers a significant improvement in cardiac output and blood flow to the brain and in preventing shock in the event of considerable blood loss, when compared to conventional resuscitation. According to Advanced Circulatory Systems, data from the NASA studies played a major role in the company obtaining U.S. Food and Drug Administration 501K clearance for the device.

Dr. Keith Lurie, chief medical officer at Advanced Circulatory Systems and a primary member of the collaborative research effort, said, “The three-way partnership between NASA, private industry, and the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research is really a model for how organizations can work together to benefit both government programs and civilians.”

In 2006, Dr. Smith Johnston, the lead flight surgeon for NASA’s space shuttle missions, added ResQPOD to the list of medical equipment that is available for returning astronaut crews. The device was on hand for the landing of Space Shuttle Atlantis (STS-115) on September 21, 2006.

“We’re excited that our devices were available to the medical team [for the STS-115 mission] and look forward to continued collaboration with NASA to assist its efforts to safeguard the health of the astronauts,” added Lurie.

Diagram showing blood flow to the heart during CPR
During the decompression (release) phase of CPR, an increase in negative pressure in the thoracic cavity results in drawing more blood back into the chest, providing greater venous return to the heart.
Diagram showing increased blood flow to the heart with ResQPOD
CPR delivers approximately 15 percent of normal blood flow to the heart. The ResQPOD doubles blood flow back to the heart.

Product Outcome

Manufactured commercially by Advanced Circulatory Systems and distributed by Sylmar, California-based Tri-anim Health Services Inc., the ResQPOD circulatory enhancer improves upon the standard of care for patients with a variety of clinical conditions associated with low blood flow. Advanced Circulatory Systems’ primary commercial focus, though, is on non-breathing patients who can benefit from enhanced circulation, such as those experiencing cardiac arrest.

According to the American Heart Association, about 900 Americans fall victim to sudden cardiac arrest every day, with approximately 95 percent dying before they reach the hospital. This is why cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) can mean the difference between life and death, as increasing blood flow to the heart and brain until the heart can be restarted is critical to improving survival rates with normal neurological functioning.

ResQPOD is an American Heart Association-rated Class IIa impedance threshold device, meaning that it is the highest recommended “adjunct” in the association’s latest guidelines for CPR. As a Class IIa impedance threshold device, it also carries a higher recommendation than any medication used to boost circulation in adults suffering cardiac arrest, according to these guidelines.

Diagram showing blood flow to the brain during CPR
Improved venous return results in increased cardiac output during the subsequent compression phase of CPR, providing greater blood flow to the brain.
Diagram showing increased blood flow to the brain with ResQPOD
CPR delivers approximately 25 percent of normal blood flow to the brain. The ResQPOD delivers more than 70 percent of normal blood flow to the brain.

The device is about the size of a fist and can be affixed to either a facemask or an endotracheal breathing tube during CPR. It enhances the intrathoracic vacuum that forms in the chest during the chest recoil phase of CPR by temporarily sealing off the airway between breaths and preventing unnecessary air from entering the chest (timing-assist lights on the device will aid the rescuer in ventilating the patient at a proper rate). The vacuum that is created pulls blood back to the heart, doubling the amount of blood that is pulled back by conventional mouth-to-mouth/chest compression CPR, according to clinical studies, which also show that blood flow to the brain is increased by 50 percent. In sustaining proper blood flow to the heart and to the brain, ResQPOD increases the likelihood of survival and decreases the likelihood of neurological disorders.

ResQPOD is being used by emergency medical technicians in cities all around the country, including Boston, Houston, Indianapolis, Miami, and Oklahoma City, as well as Hartford, Connecticut; Kansas City, Missouri; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Toledo, Ohio. In some cities, it has reportedly increased the number of cardiac arrest patients delivered alive to the hospital by as much as 50 percent. At Cypress Creek Emergency Medical Services (EMS), a large medical care organization serving more than 400,000 residents in the greater Houston area, ResQPOD has become a standard of care. Overall resuscitation rates climbed to nearly 50 percent since the organization began deploying the device in 2005, boosting hospital admission rates from 26 percent to an astounding 38 percent.

“These results are gratifying, and we applaud the entire Cypress Creek EMS organization for their advanced emergency medical service care and their ability to turn around the dismal statistics that surround cardiac arrest,” noted Advanced Circulatory Systems’ Lurie.

In its secondary commercial applications, Advanced Circulatory Systems is offering ResQPOD to improve circulation in patients suffering from orthostatic intolerance and general low blood pressure. These secondary uses also apply to individuals who undergo dialysis treatments and may experience a drop in blood pressure, as well as those who go into shock after severe blood loss.

Outside of the traditional hospital setting, the company is investigating the beneficial impact ResQPOD could have on wounded soldiers in the battlefield who may have lost a great deal of blood and are in danger of going into shock.

Advanced Circulatory Systems is also harnessing the physiological principles discovered during its research collaboration with NASA to develop another promising technology: an intrathoracic pressure regulator for patients requiring ventilation assistance because they are too sick to breathe on their own.

ResQPOD® is a registered trademark of Advanced Circulatory Systems Inc.


NASA 2014 Budget: More for Asteroids, Less for Planets and Education

The White House released its requested federal budget yesterday, which includes NASA funding. Trying to figure it all out is a little difficult—NASA does a lot of different things—but I have some overall impressions. I’ll note that I’m basing what follows on the released budget, a presentation by NASA, and my own experience working for companies that contracted with NASA. I’ll also note what follows are my opinions based on what I know. If more info comes along, I’ll happily re-examine my own conclusions. Don’t consider this final!

Keep in mind, too, this is a budgetrequest: The President submits this to Congress, who will then haggle. Also bear in mind that NASA’s share of the entire federal budget is a mere 0.5 percent. For every dollar spent by the government, cut a penny in half. That’s what goes to NASA.

The Whole Schmeer

The total proposed NASA budget for Fiscal Year 2014 (which starts Oct. 1, 2013) is $17.7 billion. This is $55 million lower than 2012, and $170 lower than 2013. That’s a drop of roughly only 1 percent, which these days can be considered holding steady.

That’s the overall budget, but the devil’s in the details, of course. With a fixed budget and changing needs, some things win and others lose. Clearly, the specifics are what are important, because some have changed a lot.

What follows are some specifics, and my rant opinion on them. These numbers are from NASA’s official release about the budget. They also have some details in the budget summary.

Asteroid retrieval

asteroid capture mission
Proposed asteroid capture and retrieval mission concept.

The splashiest news is that NASA is indeed funding a mission to find, snag, bag, and bring a 5-7 meter wide asteroid to an Earth-accessible orbit. This is a fascinating idea, funded at $105 million in FY14 (which is starter money for the multiple-year project). The breakdown goes like this: finding near-Earth asteroids in general gets an addition of $20 million (on top of $20 they already got in the last budget), and of the $45 million allocated generally to space technology in the budget, $38 million of it goes to investigating an electric propulsion drive using solar power, which would be the main drive of the asteroid mission. An additional $7 million goes to general asteroid hazard mitigation technology. Finally, $40 million will go toward figuring out to how nab “uncooperative” targets—asteroids that spin or tumble—which will be a major engineering task of the mission.

In a perfect world I would be all for this. However, as I said, NASA has a fixed budget, so that money has to come from somewhere… and the total mission cost over the next few years will be $2.6 billion (not including the cost to send a crew up there to poke at it). That’s a lot. It doesn’t look like the White House will increase NASA funding for this, so that money will have to be found. *

Planetary Science

Last year, the President asked for a brutal $300 million dollar cut to planetary sciences. In this year’s budget, planetary science gets $1.2 billion, which Casey Dreier from The Planetary Society reports maintains that huge hit (even though Congress originally approved more money for it).

In the press conference, NASA chief Charles Bolden noted that some missions need less money now—Curiosity, for example, is on Mars and so does not need as much in its budget as it once did. That’s true enough, but doesn’t explain the huge drop in funding. As Dreier points out, it looks like there’s some robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul going on, which I expected. Missions and other work got moved around a bit, so now planetary science gets a couple of projects that used to be under other umbrellas*, and has to pay for them. In terms of actual money going to planetary work, they get a pretty big cut.

There is some good news in there: Included is seed money for the 2020 launch of another Mars rover, and the launch of the MAVEN Mars atmospheric mission in 2014. They’ll also be launching OSIRIS-Rex in 2016, an exciting mission to near-Earth asteroid 1999 RQ36, which includes a sample return in 2023.

But overall, cutting planetary science is crazy. It’s one of the leading faces NASA has with the public—people gathered in Times Square to watch Curiosity land, for criminy sake!—and those missions are among the most successful scientifically. We need more of them, not fewer.

I know NASA has a fixed budget, I know everyone is screaming “Austerity!”, and I know the government wants to shave every dime it can. But investing in this kind of science always pays off. Also, the public loves it, so it’s a political win.

Unless I’m missing something, cutting funding of planetary research is nuts. Keep your eyes on The Planetary Society; they’ve been quite vocal about all this.


Continuing the bad news, education takes a big hit, going from $137 million to $94 million, a 33 percent cut. Some of this is in the form of consolidating NASA’s educational efforts with the Department of Education. Right now, a lot of NASA education is already centralized, but quite a bit is done on a mission basis; each mission has a percentage of its money go toward education. This new consolidation idea wasn’t spelled out completely in the budget release or the press conference. While saving money sounds like a good idea, what happens to those folks working on mission E/PO? Will they simply lose their jobs, or will they be told to take new jobs and move, or what?

I imagine a lot of E/PO folks are very worried right now. I wonder what Congress will say to this cut?

Crewed Flight

NASA is currently building the Orion capsule to be used to take humans into space. This has been “fully funded”, with the first planned uncrewed launch in 2014. The Space Launch System (SLS)—a heavy-lift replacement for the Shuttle—is also fully funded. The Shuttle funding has of course been zeroed out, so in essence that’s like $600 million back into the NASA ecosystem, which helps.

Artist’s illustration of an SLS launch. Click to enlaunchenate.

Image credit: NASA/MSFC

Right now, the plan is for SLS to have its first test flight in 2017, and a crewed launch in 2021 (the mission to take humans to the asteroid towed into near-Earth space would be planned for 2025 or so). I’ll note some members of Congress are openly advocating for a return to the Moon around that time as well.

I wonder, though. The SLS is a good idea in principle, but I worry. The Shuttle was supposed to launch every two weeks and be much cheaper than comparable rockets. It never came close to that. Commercial space ventures can do this sort of thing much cheaper than NASA can; SpaceX is demonstrating that, and there are several other contenders.

So do we really need the SLS? My feelings run parallel to my friend and space historian Andy Chaikin’s; NASA needs to be very aware of costs and need. I like the idea of having a backup to commercial rockets, but when it costs so much, that makes me uneasy. Constellation, the first follow-up proposed for the Shuttle, overran its budget and got so far behind schedule President Obama canceled it (and SLS took its place).

If NASA’s budget were upped by, say, two or three billion bucks, and it’s demonstrated that the SLS is under control and needed, I’d support all this happily. But with the budget the way it is, and a new very expensive mission to an asteroid is added in, I wonder over these big expenditures for a new rocket.

…And The Rest

There’s a host of other stuff in the budget. James Webb Space Telescope will see an extra $140 million over last year, which is expected to meet its launch date of October 2018. Commercial space funding goes from about $400 to $800 million, which is expected and welcome. I like the idea of partnering with business for “routine” launches since, as I pointed out above, they can do it cheaper (and be more flexible about it, too). This also reduces reliance on having to pay Russia for launches.

I was glad to see Earth Science go from $1.76 billion to $1.85 billion, with lots of climate missions. NASA (partnering with NOAA) is on the forefront of investigating climate change, and more power (and dollars) to them for it.

There’s a lot more in the budget, but for now I think that’s enough. This budget is preliminary and therefore bound to change quite a bit. To be honest: it better change. I’m happy with some bits, but very unhappy with others. It always seems to come down to not having quite enough money to do what needs to be done, and to be frank, that’s dumb. NASA’s budget is a pittance compared to many other agencies and the federal budget as a whole. It costs a lot just to get NASA able to do the basics, and what it costs to do all this right is only a little bit more. This budget, like every NASA budget for the past several years, strikes me as penny wise and pound foolish. It’s like buying a car and saying you can’t afford to put gas in it.

Perhaps Penny4NASA has the right idea: Increase NASA’s budget to a full penny per dollar—1 whole percent of the budget—and see where they can take us. I’m betting it’s a long, long way.