Thursday, June 18, 2009

Update: US Space Mission. Where are we going with NASA? I remember watching LIVE the TV broadcast of our first landing on the Moon on July 21, 1969..

Forty Years Later, Where are we going with all this?

After a lengthy fueling delay because of stormy weather, launch of the shuttle Endeavour on a space station mission was scrubbed Wednesday when a presumably repaired hydrogen vent line umbilical began leaking potentially dangerous vapor for the second launch try in a row. Endeavour will be grounded until at least July 11 when the next shuttle/space station launch window opens.

There are only eight remaining shuttle fights on the schedule this year to finish the construction of the International Space Station, which will be managed by Russian and the European Space Agency. Next year the thirty year old shuttle craft will be off to museums and exhibitions, and the manned USA race into Space will have ended.

Later today — if weather conditions and hardware permit — NASA will launch its much anticipated and deeply imaginative Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), the first American spacecraft of any kind to make a lunar trip since 1999. Not only will the LRO help us study the moon in greater detail than ever before, it should also give us our first look at the six Apollo landing sites since we abandoned the historic campgrounds in December 1972 -- 37 years ago.

NASA plans to return to Space with expendable rockets, known as Ares, and a beefed-up Apollo-style capsule called Orion that can ferry crews to the moon and other destinations. Orion's debut flight to the space station is targeted for 2015 -- five years after the shuttle stops flying -- 43 years after we left the Moon.

However, a presidential panel on Wednesday began looking at alternative ways to get there and whether the United States should even go back to the Moon - been there, done that.

In this decade, the moon has once again become the hot place to go. Three countries with little spacefaring history — Japan, China and India — have all sent probes moonward since 2007, and China in particular has made it clear that it plans to return, first with more robot ships, then with astronauts. Time Magazine this week has a feature on these other space programs: (See a photo-essay of the world's most competitive space programs.)

In 2004, the U.S. restarted its own lunar program when President George W. Bush announced a new commitment to have astronauts back on the moon by 2020 and on Mars in the years after. There was surely some political motivation in Bush's election-year proposal, but it was followed up by hardheaded planning and real NASA action.

With the shuttles scheduled to be mothballed by 2010, the space agency has committed itself to building and flying a lunar-capable manned ship by 2015, and though the Obama Administration is reconsidering the entire lunar program, so far it's still on track.

The Obama review panel, led by Norman R. Augustine, former chief executive of Lockheed Martin, was appointed by the Obama administration to re-evaluate NASA’s human spaceflight program and make recommendations by the end of August. The daylong meeting on Wednesday, at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, was the first of four planned public sessions.

Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who is a leading lawmaker on NASA issues, told the panel that its recommendations would probably shape the United States’ space program for years to come and that supporters of any competing vision would be hard pressed to gain support in Congress.

As the panel held its meeting to explore NASA’s future, t
echnical problems were showing up in the degrading the accuracy of signals from the last GPS satellite launched by the Pentagon, sparking concerns among U.S. military and aerospace industry officials that the next generation of the widely used satellites could face similar troubles.

The Air Force's Southern California space acquisition center on Tuesday announced that a Global Positioning System satellite, manufactured by Lockheed Martin Corp. and launched in March, is experiencing performance problems in orbit.

It hasn't become part of the "operational constellation" of more than two dozen other GPS satellites, and is slated to undergo a battery of tests expected to stretch through October to try to resolve the problems, according to an Air Force news release.

The GPS system, which serves both military and civilian users, provides precise time and location coordinates for everything from military missile launches and "smart" bombs to automated bank-teller machines to aircraft, ships and everyday vehicles.

The Lockheed satellite is the first to include a new civilian frequency -- dubbed L5 -- designed for, among other things, use by future nationwide air-traffic control systems. But that signal, part of test package, apparently is interfering with other signals from the satellite and reducing their accuracy, according to industry and Air Force officials. The degraded signals are accurate only to about 20 feet, versus about two feet for typical GPS signals, industry officials said.

The issue is significant, according to these officials, because it could complicate deployment of a new family of Boeing Co. GPS satellites currently being built that also feature the L5 signal.

Already years behind schedule and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget, the 12 satellites, which are scheduled to replace satellites currently in orbit, could face further testing and delays to ensure that they are free of interference problems. The Boeing satellites have a history of quality-control and manufacturing problems unrelated to the latest concerns.

In its release, the Air Force said the routine in-orbit checkout of the suspect Lockheed satellite revealed that some signals "were inconsistent" with comparable GPS satellites. The Air Force also said upcoming tests will include simulations and "testing of real-life GPS receiver equipment to the greatest extent possible" to prevent "inadvertent impacts to GPS users."

So, the question remains for both NASA and you in the car,
where do we go from here?
And, can we get there with this technology and approach?


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