Thursday, February 16

Griffin under fire

NASA chief Mike Griffin had to defend his agency's budget request before Congress today, and boy was he on the hotseat. Before he even started, the Planetary Society announced a major campaign opposing this budget's proposal's slashing of science in favor of a moribund space shuttle and a never-to-be-finished space station. PlanSoc prez Lou Friedman says "the Bush Administration's proposed 5-year budget for NASA, just submitted to Congress, is an attack on science."
The society's statement goes on "the Planetary Society supports space ventures. We have supported the shuttle: it has been a great technical achievement, unequalled on Earth. We have supported the International Space Station." However, it says, "we cannot support a proposal that hobbles, or eventually destroys, the NASA science program." Strong stuff.
The Congressmen came out loaded for bear at Thursday's hearing as well. "This budget is bad for space science, worse for earth science, even worse for aeronautics," said the committee's chairman, U.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-New York. "It basically cuts or de-emphasizes every forward-looking truly futuristic program of the agency."

Tuesday, February 14

Just 22,239 miles to go

An impressive demonstration and test of technologies needed for the construction of a space elevator has been successfully carried out by a company called Liftport.
They deployed a mile-long tether, carried up by three weather balloons, and had it in place for six hours while experimental crawlers tried to climb up it. One succeeded in climbing 1500 feet.
This is far more advanced that anything achieved at last October's Space Elevator competition. (More stories about that HERE and HERE). The technology is growing, and SpaceLift seems to think there may be interim market opportunities in tethers to platforms far short of orbit, such as balloons for aerial surveillance or for emergency communications, for example during a natural disaster.
There will apparently be another competition this year, in July or August in Mountain View, California. Details HERE.

Monday, February 13

Falcon 1 launch attempt: glass half full?

Ok, once again the Falcon 1 launcher, developed by Elon Musk's SpaceX company, did not get off the ground in its launch attempt last Friday from Kwajelien Atoll in Pacific -- a frequent test site for Air Force missile tests. There have been several delays, as a result of a series of technical glitches. This time, the rocket engine actually did fire successfully for a few seconds, so at least it ended up being a successful engine test, even if not the expected first test launch.
But this does demostrate one of the virtues of this mixed-bag design. Unlike most traditional rockets, this one can be shut down, and then fired again, without a lot of fuss and kerfuffle. That's one of the very key aspects to bringing launch costs down by making launch and landing operations simple, routine and airplane-like.

Slashing science at NASA

People are beginning to absorb the consequences of the deep cuts in space science outlined in the new budget unveiled last monday and which NASA chief Mike Griffin defended before Congress last Thursday. In a nutshell, about $3.7 billion of science gets cut out or deffered indefinitely. Among the really important programs that are now in question are the Terrestrial Planet Finder, an important new space telescope aimed at studying nearby planetary systems, and the Sofia airborne infrared telescope, nearing completion now, and plans for a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa, with its frozen-over ocean, and the planned outrigger telescopes to allow the Keck Observatory to fulfill its high-resolution potential as an interferometer.
Sure, hard choices are going to need to be made. But it looks like some serious science is going to be closed down in favor of paying the escalating costs of a space shuttle that's going to be retired anyway, and a space station that's never really going to be finished.

Sunday, February 12

Is there beer on Mars?

Time for a little comic relief.
If you really want to know how thoroughly the Mars rover mission has sunk into the mainstream of public consciousness, check out this new Heineken ad (apparently from Holland, I guess):
Heineken on Mars

I think it's encouraging, really. People really love those rovers. And I kind of like the transformations the rover does in the ad -- is NASA picking up on this?