Space exploration

The space program and space exploration has added a tremendous amount of information to our vault of knowledge. We know and understand a lot more about our local star the sun. Take for instance we know of coronal mass ejections from the sun, that wasn’t discovered until 1971 from observations through the 7th Orbiting Solar Observatory (OSO 7).

One of the most widely known publicly is the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). The HST launched into orbit in 1990, is considered groundbreaking on the account that it has given scientists the capability to look into the far reaches of the vast universe. This has lead some long-standing problems in astrophysics to be resolved by scientists. One concerns the location of black holes. For some time, black holes were speculation in academia and not widely accepted. But now, due to the observation of matter in neighboring galaxies, we know that some black holes lie in the center of galaxies, which are supermassive. Another thing that has come to be resolved is the age of the universe. For some time in academia, it was thought that the age of the universe was between 10 – 20 billion years. Now thanks to data from HST, we have a more accurate age of the Universe that lies in the range 13 – 14 billion years. One satellite that has helped to change our understanding of the universe is the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE). COBE, launched into orbit in 1989, provided evidence that the big bang theory of how the universe formed, fit an early universe. COBE did this by mapping the cosmic microwave background radiation that was left across the universe after the big bang event.

From type Ia supernovae and CMB radiation observations, we know that the universe is almost flat and the expansion of it is happening and that this expansion is accelerating. But the question arose as what is the mechanism that is the cause of this acceleration. Scientists in attempt to answer this came to the concept of dark energy. The dominance of a dark energy component with negative pressure in the present era is responsible for the universe’s accelerated expansion.

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The decadal survey is a broad-based survey conducted by the Space Studies Board of the National Academies, that deals with a specific region of science as it relates to space in priority order in different categories. It is produced periodically in approximately ten year intervals. It is basically a document that sets recommendations and goals guidance for NASA, the NSF and other government agencies to highly consider funding and/ or set top priorities for. The decadal survey seeks to clearly define what questions has been answered in the last ten years, to identify and define what high priority questions that have yet to be answered and to define what critical experiments and science missions that can rightfully address those issues.

The decadal survey process goes as the following:

The National Academy of Academies assigns a head panel committee to the Space Studies Board.

At the request of the NSF and/or NASA, studies related to space are initiated by the Space Studies Board. This head steering committee panel then assigns different topic region subset for committee representation. Those subset committees are the following:

  • Current standing;
  • Astronomy & Astrophysics
  • Planetary and Lunar Exploration
  • Solar & Space Physics
  • Origins & Evolution of Life planned;
  • Earth Observation from Space
  • Life & Microgravity Sciences

They decide upon framed recommendations in terms of five “challenges”. The committee sub-panels are created of approximately ten to twelve members. The committees are headed by scientists, engineers, researchers, private industry leaders in the relevant respective field. The subset committees, then each make the call for white-papers in their respective topic region. Scientists, engineers, researchers, send in their white-papers for critical review in their respective topic region to the respective subset committees. Also along with the community white-papers, there are other community input such as individuals, public forums, with science and agency presentations which are geared to the panels and steering committees.

Once the report is finalized, published, sent to NASA, released to the public.

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Mission recommendations prioritize missions by categorize them by program size of large to moderate to small to then assigned rank of 1-4, where a rank of 1 is high priority and then define the program thru description.

In the report, the top budget funding requests for NASA missions are showcased for two fiscal years past, current fiscal year and may show up-to-the next five fiscal years. The NASA Science Mission Directorate and the overall NASA current fiscal year request.

Strengths of the decadal survey that are highly praised.

A “science first” model is universally accepted as the best approach for surveys to take.

By going this way, fundamental questions get to be addressed

Well-regarded by funding agencies, Congress, and the executive branch.

A great help in determining where areas funds needs to be funneled to. At times justification for funding of a mission is clearly explained in a way that government officials can understand. Provides a road-map and priorities for the relatively near-term future.

Focuses on consensus-building among all of the relevant constituencies (government, science, industry, academia).

The committees incorporates people & personnel from the relevant respective fields of scientists, engineers, researchers, and private industry leaders

Provides a useful overview of the state of research within a given field.

Past surveys have under-estimated the costs of some missions (by factors from ~1.5 to 4).

According to the Government Accountability Office’s review of 18 of NASA’s large-scale projects, NASA had difficulty meeting cost, schedule, and performance objectives for a majority of those projects. Due in part to mission project schedules not being adhered to, unforeseen technical difficulties, the private industry overcharging. The surveys may give clear justifications for missions, but donot give a clear explanation on how to design for such missions and bring costs down. As such, many in the respective engineering field refer to the SMAD textbook. Even though, this is hard to swallow as the National Academies brings together experts in all areas of scientific and technology arena

Surveys have not reconsidered their recommendations in light of changing political and budgetary conditions.

The changing political and budgetary conditions forced previous NASA administrator Dr. Michael Griffin to change priorities and reduce funding to many programs. A direct result of the 2003 Columbia Shuttle disaster. In testimony on 9/15/09 to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology, Dr. Griffin gave the following statements:

“The recognition of the impact of substantial, consistent, long-term real-dollar budget cuts at NASA (more than 20% in the last 15 years)”

“the need for and benefit of a focused effort in technology development and maturation as part of the overall space exploration enterprise”

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The Apollo program was very successful on the account of that the U.S. government had a political agenda to achieve. At the time, the U.S. government had propaganda to sell to the American public such as instilling negative perceptions of the Soviet Union. The Apollo program was a tool that as a result, NASA was allocated a significant amount of funding during the middle of the 1960’s as compared to the amount of funding that NASA now receives. It was mainly a funding issue that allowed NASA to excel in the completion of the Apollo program.

The Space Transportation System (STS), ‘the Shuttle’ program has been viewed by many as not being very successful, even though the Space Transportation System has had 128 successful launches and 127 mission completions out of a total of 129. The Space Transportation System has been a technological achievement that few things presently can rival and surpass it, even though it was originally designed from technology of the 1970’s with an operational lifespan of approximately ten years. The issue is that it didn’t do what the proponents originally proposed. It was originally proposed that the utilization of the STS would significantly lower the cost to launch payloads into low Earth orbit, by making space transportation an everyday occurrence. Although, after 1986 the Reagan administration had limited the STS to the launching of only government payloads, the launches of the STS became limited. Also the final designs of the STS had become different than what was originally the design concept lead to higher than expected operational costs of the STS. Furthermore due to the very unfortunate disasters of the shuttle Challenger exploding at launch and the shuttle Columbia burning up in reentry which eventually lead to the planned retirement of the shuttle fleet in 2010, the public views the STS as not so successful. The STS did not lower the cost of assess to space.

The Space Exploration Initiative program ,SEI, was not successful at all. In the summer of 1989, the George H.R. Bush administration directed NASA to draw up plans for a continued manned space exploration program into the solar system. NASA did not take the program seriously. The program produced conflicting ideas from competing arenas of academia, industry, government labs and NASA centers. Many in the public and government did not understand the engineering complexities and attained a harsh negative perception of the program on the account of the high cost estimate that was presented. The program presented an enlargement of the already planned Space Station Freedom that allowed for a fuel depot and spacecraft shipyard that haven’t even begun construction yet at the time. The 90-day study gave a cost estimate of $100 billion for a permanent Moon base and a cost estimate of $258 billion for a Mars landing.

The Vision for Space Exploration program, VSE, can be viewed as successful. Again a Bush administration directed NASA to draw up plans for a continued manned space exploration program into the solar system. With this second chance, VSE got the ball rolling and gave NASA a focused direction with an end goal to achieve. A focused direction was something that NASA has been missing for years. That end goal is to have a continued human presence on the Moon, Mars and throughout deep space of the local solar system. The Vision for Space Exploration presented NASA with a point roadmap to achieve on a low budget that allows for the retiring of the shuttle fleet in 2010.

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