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. 


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.

NASA receives $17.65b FY2014 Budget. Just short of the $18b proposal.

NASA logoThe NASA budget for the current fiscal year is finally taking shape,according to a January 14, 2014 post on Space Policy Online. NASA will get to spend $17.65 billion on its various operations and activities, far more than the $16.1 billion that many feared under sequestration but a little short of the $18 billion that some in Congress desired.

The rough breakdown of NASA spending looks like this:

“$4,113 million for exploration, of which

$696 million is for commercial crew, with $171 million available only after the Administrator certifies that the program has undergone an independent benefit-cost analysis

$1,197 million is for Orion

$1,918 million is for Space Launch System (SLS) of which $1,600 million is for launch vehicle development and $318 million is for exploration ground systems

$302 million is for exploration research and development

$5,151 million for science, of which $80 million is for pre-formulation or formulation activities for a Europa mission, and the James Webb Space Telescope’s development costs remain capped at $8 billion

$576 million for space technology

$566 million for aeronautics

$3,778 million for space operations

$116.6 million for education, of which

$18 million is for EPSCOR and

$40 million is for Space Grant

$2,793 million for Cross Agency Support

$515 million for Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration

$37.5 million for Inspector General”

According to Space Politics there are a number of provisions within the omnibus spending bill the affects NASA policy.

For instance, while planetary science gets only a modest increase over the administration’s request, Congress presses NASA to accelerate the selection of the next Discovery class mission, with an announcement of opportunity no later than May 1, 2014 and a selection of one or more missions in September, 2015.

The bill notes that NASA needs to conduct an independent cost/benefit analysis for the commercial crew program that takes into account the cost to the federal government and the expected life of the International Space Station. A little uncertainty as to the latter has arisen thanks to the recent announcement of the extension of the ISS to 2024.

NASA prohibits NASA from diverting funds from the Space Launch System program to engineering or other activities unrelated to SLS.

Under space operations, “The bill sets aside $100 million for a satellite servicing program, and the report includes a provision directing NASA to propose policies or legislation that address intellectual property concerns regarding ISS research.”

Finally the bill extends the commercial launch liability indemnification provision for another three years.


4 amazing things Nasa invented (and 4 you think it did)

Nasa is everywhere.

Over the past 50 years, the US government space agency has built an awful lot of stuff for, well, space. But with its $17 billion (£10 billion) annual budget, it has also done quite a bit of research and development in other areas, and even its space gear managed to influence so many other things down here on earth.

The liquid cooled space clothing worn by lunar astronauts in the ’70s has been adapted to help burn-victims. In the ’80s, the agency helped develop a lightweight breathing system for firefighters. And more recently, biologists modified the star-tracking algorithms used by the Hubble Telescope to track fish and polar bears. “The list goes on and on, but not many people know about it,” says Daniel Lockney, Technology Transfer Program Executive with Nasa’s Office of the Chief Technologist.

Lockney is the guy you go to if you want access to Nasa’s space-aged technologies. This week, he and his colleagues released a  catalog of about 1,000 Nasa software projects, trying to make it easier for the agency’s research to trickle down to the rest of us. And in the near future, he plans on launching an online software database and repository that will grease the wheels even more.

He’s proud of the work he and his colleagues do, and he loves to talk about Nasa’s long history. When people learn what Lockney does, they often tell him about their favorite Nasa inventions. That can be fun. But sometimes, it’s also a bit of an odd experience. People often name things that weren’t actually invented at Nasa. “It happens all the time,” Lockney says. 

So, the list below provides a kind of quiz. There are eight technologies, four of them came out of Nasa’s tech transfer program. And four did not. Can you tell the myths from the Nasa miracles?

Space Rose

OK, maybe this isn’t exactly a Miracle, but it’s pretty cool nonetheless. Back in the 1990s, NASA teamed up with a company called International Flavors and Fragrances to grow a rose in space. The scent of that rose was synthesized and then bottled in a “out-of-this-world” perfume called Zen. Answer: Miracle


Yes, NASA has used Velcro in its missions. No, they didn’t invent it. A swiss engineer named George de Mestral came up with it in the late 1940s. Answer: Myth

Baby formula

NASA once gave a contract to Marietta Laboratories to experiment with microalgae as a kind of three-in-one food source, oxygen engine, and an organic waste disposal toolkit. The space food work didn’t pan out, but Marietta would give us the technology to make nutritional supplements for infant formula. Answer: NASA Miracle


Tang’s NASA link dates back to John Glenn’s 1962 Friendship 7 mission. The storied astronaut did drink Tang in space, but it was invented for consumers, not the space program. Answer: Myth

Truck fairings

It all started when Edwin Saltzman was riding his bike. Whenever big trucks passed, he’d get hit with a mighty wallop of air. Since he worked at NASA, which has made a study of wind resistance on aircraft, it was pretty easy to design a more aerodynamic truck. And by the late ’70s his designs were everywhere. Answer: Miracle


Lockney says that he gets this one all the time. NASA uses Teflon in heat shields, in space suits, and even in cargo holds. But Teflon was invented in 1938. That’s long before NASA was around. Answer: Myth

Space pen

In the 1960s, an inventor named Paul Fisher came up with a remarkable pen that would work in zero-gravity. NASA used them in the Apollo 7 mission. The pen was a success, but when Fisher came up with it, he wasn’t working for NASA. Answer: NASA Myth

Smartphone cameras

In the 1990’s, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory team was looking for ways to shrink cameras down for interplanetary travel. They came up with the camera-on-a-chip, also known as the CMOS sensor. Today, CMOS sensors are found in most of the world’s camera phones. Answer: NASA Miracle


5 NASA Inventions You Won’t Believe


Nanoceramics Cure Cancer, Make Hair Shiny

While working as a NASA scientist specializing in nano-materials (which are 10,000 times smaller than a human hair), Dr. Dennis Morrison developed nano-ceramics, which could be formed into tiny balloons called micro-capsules. These little balloons could be filled with cancer-fighting drugs and injected into solid tumors.

Where, you’re wondering, does space come into this process? In order to create the microscopic membrane around the liquid drugs, the micro-capsules had to be formed in low-Earth orbit. Dr. Morrison’s ceramic nano-particles contained metals that would react when the patient was subjected to a magnetic field, like what’s used in an MRI diagnostic machine. The capsules would melt, and the drugs would be released to fight the cancerous tumor.

It turns out that Dr. Morrison’s ceramic-magnetic particles were good for more than fighting tumors — they could also fight frizz. When incorporated into Farouk Systems’s hair styling iron and heated, the nano-particles released ions that made hair smooth and shiny.


Reflective Coatings Save Skylab, Manatees

When the Skylab space-based laboratory was set in position in 1973, a solar panel fell off during the launch, which kept another solar panel from deploying properly once in orbit. These panels had to be replaced — and fast. NASA turned to National Metalizing, a firm it had worked with previously, to create a new panel that would be ready to go into space in 10 days.

National Metalizing had originally developed reflective materials for NASA in the 1950s, so it was able to deliver the necessary thin plastic material coated in vaporized aluminum in time. The material can deflect or conserve radiant energy, depending on which is required — to keep something cool or to warm it up. This flexible reflective material proved so useful, it was inducted into the Space Technology Hall of Fame in 1996.

A former director of the company took this technology, which has been in the public domain for decades, and started a new company, Advanced Flexible Materials. The same materials used to protect Skylab now protects marathon runners from hypothermia after a race, as well as manatees, which can suffer from hypothermia at 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.6 degrees Celsius), while they’re being tagged by researchers.


Deformable Mirrors — Not for the Fun House

Any space nerd who remembers the Hubble Space Telescope launch in 1990 remembers seeing pictures and news videos of the giant mirrors being polished to perfection — or as close as humans can get, anyway. Minor flaws in the surface could obscure important discoveries.

Hubble and its amazing sheets of optical glass paved the way for the Terrestrial Planet Finder and its deformable mirrors, which will have 100 times the imaging power of its predecessor when NASA launches it in the near future. Deformable mirrors don’t need to be absolutely perfect the first time out — they can adjust their positions to correct for blurring or distortion, which in space can be caused by temperature, lack of gravity or getting bumped during launch.

Deformable mirrors are not so new. They were proposed by astronomers in the 1950s and developed by the United States Air Force in the 1970s. Each system consists of the deformable mirror itself, a sensor that measures any aberrations it finds hundreds of times a second, and a small computer that receives the sensor’s readings and tells the mirror how to move to correct for the problem.


Nanotubes Look for Life on Mars

No matter what the movies have been telling us for decades, Martians are not likely to be humanoid, sentient beings. They won’t have ray guns or space suits. If there is life on Mars, it will be very, very small, and probably not too far up the evolution ladder. Pity.

In order to find such small forms of life, small detectors were necessary. Enter nano-tubes, which is a fun word to say. Scientists at the Ames Research Center developed carbon nano-tubes, each 1/50,000th the diameter of a human hair, that can conduct heat and electricity. Each nano-tube is tipped with single strands of nucleic acid (the “NA” in “DNA”) from a microorganism. When it comes into contact with a matching strand, the pair form a double helix and send a faint electrical charge through the nano-tubes. This charge is how anyone looking at the bio-sensor, as the tiny apparatus is called, knows life has been detected.

Sadly, no life has yet been found on Mars, but these bio-sensors are being put to good use on Earth. Tipping the nano-tubes with waterborne pathogens like E. Coli and Cryptosporidium means an analyst can get results from the bio-sensor in the field within two hours — no lab work required.


Mars Missions Create Tough Armor

When the Mars Pathfinder (1997) and Mars Rover (2004) missions landed on the Red Planet, they landed hard. These were unmanned missions, of course, with some guidance from engineers on Earth — but not as much as they’d like. The equipment was designed to crash land, gently, with a cage of airbags to cushion the fall from space.

Obviously, not just any airbag would work. NASA required the material to be lightweight and able to withstand extreme temperatures for the interplanetary flight. The material also had to be tough enough to keep the airbags inflated as the whole apparatus bounced along the rocky, sharp surface of Mars.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory worked with Warwick Mills, the company that had woven the reentry parachutes for the Apollo missions in the 1960s, to create a layered, coated, liquid-crystal polyester fiber that would fit the bill.

Warwick took the technology and ran with it, creating TurtleSkin protective gear that can withstand punctures from needles, knives and even bullets. The flexibility of the tightly woven fabric, which helped keep the Mars landers safe, now also keeps military and police officers safe.


Contact your Representative and reverse Obamas budget cuts to NASA’s Planetary Science Program!

Dear [your rep],
Congress’ budget for NASAs Planetary Science program is now being reversed by the Obama administration and NASA officials. Sequestration cuts of more than 15% are being preferentially applied to Solar System research in addition to the further reallocation of funds away from these important programs, including Discovery, New Frontiers, Mars Exploration, and technological research & development.

Solar System research programs have a significant return on their investment for the U.S. economy by reducing the risks from space hazards and driving the opening of new markets from technological innovation. The sequestration burden on planetary should be reduced.

Augmentations and new initiatives, identified and funded by Congress, should be paid out of additional funds remaining after sequestration. Important research and competed mission programs should not be reduced below their currently funded levels.
Thank you,
[your name]

Click Here for a list of U.S. Representatives.

No science = No small growth in the 21st Century

I get that the federal government needs to cut its budget. We can’t spend more than we take in forever.

But I also want the country to have a bright future, and without investments in science and technology that’s just not possible. The real key to solving our present economic difficulties is to grow our economy.

If you’re looking for a local example, look no further than the science of nanotechnology, which in some respects was launched at Rice University with the 1985 discovery of the buckyball by Richard Smalley, Bob Curl and Harry Kroto.

That very basic science discovery — of a molecule made of 60 carbon atoms — stimulated some early basic research interest in the field of nanoscience. Some promising results led to U.S. government investment beginning in 2001 under the National Nanotechnology Initiative. These funds stimulated more research.

The cumulative investment in this nanotechnology initiative since fiscal year 2001, including the 2012 request, now totals almost $18 billion.

And what has America gotten for its investment?

As of 2009, just eight years into the initiative, we had created a $91 billion U.S. industry. And it’s rapidly growing. It should be a $1 trillion industry by 2020.

Science, in short, is key to growth in the 21st century.