Where does NASA go from here?

The view of Hurricane Ian from cameras on the International Space Station, as the orbiting research laboratory passed near the storm around 3 pm ET on Sept. 28, 2022.

NASA TV

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Overview: Where Does NASA Go from Here?

Two NASA missions were in the spotlight this week – the more expensive one crawled back for shelter, and the other, less-costly one was a smashing success – and raise the question of what the government space agency’s role is in an increasingly private space industry .

NASA on Monday rolled back its Artemis moon program’s SLS rocket, moving out of the path of Hurricane Ian. After more than a month out in the Florida sunshine, SLS remains grounded by technical obstacles, as much of the rocket is built from decades-old tech and parts. The program is five years behind schedule and over budget, already totaling more than $ 40 billion.

At the same time on Monday, a separate wing of NASA cheered after the DART mission successfully hit the asteroid Dimorphos, the first demonstration of a planetary defense mission. DART’s price tag, at just over $ 300 million, is the latest in a string of low-cost NASA missions testing new tech at a steep risk-to-reward profile, such as the Mars helicopter Ingenuity and the lunar CAPSTONE flight.

“We are in an enviable position today where we have private companies able to do – and I’m gonna just say it – the boring stuff, the launching. It’s never been about the rocket, it’s about what you can do when you get there , and we have companies providing that, “Lori Garver, former NASA deputy administrator, told CNBC. “The value proposition for NASA is in what they put on the rocket – and DART was an awesome example of that.”

Another former NASA official emphasized to me the SLS is the product of congressional mandates and not what the agency would have built on its own. But that person also contended SLS is the only deep space rocket the US currently has, with privately held SpaceX’s Starship still in development. “I don’t think it’s in America’s interest to quit,” the ex-official said.

And, of course, America’s interest includes taxpayer dollars. So how do they think the agency should spend its money? A Pew survey in 2018 painted a stark picture: Just 13% of Americans thought sending astronauts back to the moon should be a top priority, whereas 62% prioritized tracking objects that could hit Earth. It’s a sharp difference from where the agency is spending most of its money currently.

NASA maintains the path back to the moon through SLS and Orion is “sustainable,” even if costly and behind schedule. And don’t get me wrong: There’s a huge difference in what Artemis seeks to accomplish, versus missions like DART.

But the path to building a permanent human presence on the moon and beyond will require more than what one space agency or company can create, and it’s a disservice to think that flying passengers to the surface with the regularity of SLS – at most once a year – represents a meaningful return to the moon. Ultimately, the Artemis mission tagline, “We are going,” undersells what NASA can, and does, take on.

What’s up

  • Hurricane Ian barrels through Florida, with the eye passing directly over the Space Coast launch sites. The weakened storm arrived on the east side of the state on Thursday morning, after bringing devastating wind, rain and storm surge to Florida’s western coast. As the hurricane made landfall, the vast storm was visible to the astronauts passing in orbit on the International Space Station. – CNBC
  • NASA’s Artemis I mission is likely delayed to November. With the agency moving the rocket out of the path of Ian and back into the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy center, NASA officials said on Tuesday that it will be “a challenge” to make any launch opportunities in October as work is done on the rocket to replace “limited life items.” – CNBC
  • DART, a refrigerator-sized spacecraft, slammed successfully into an asteroid. The NASA mission made contact with the Dimorphos at a projected 14,000 miles per hour, in the first ever test of a planetary defense mission. – CNBC
  • SpaceX passed 1 million Starlink antennas manufactured, as the company continues to ramp expansion of its satellite internet service around the globe. Elon Musk’s company is also now selling a “flat high performance” version of its Starlink satellite antenna, which is currently only available to maritime customers. A maritime order includes two flat antennas and mounts for $ 10,000. – @elonmusk / SpaceX
  • Amid protests in Iran, Musk declares SpaceX is “activating Starlink” in the country. As Iran’s government closes access to the internet, Musk responded to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who said the US was taking action “to advance Internet freedom and the free flow of information for the Iranian people.” – CNBC
  • SpaceX looking to add another crew launchpad at NASA’s Kennedy. During a press briefing, NASA Commercial Crew program manager Steve Stich said that, alongside SpaceX, the agency is reviewing plans to build another crew launch tower at the LC-40 pad, as the company continues work to add a Starship tower next to the LC -39A where it currently launches astronauts on its Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon capsules. – NASA
  • Ark Invest dips back into a space SPAC, buying shares of Rocket Lab. Cathie Wood’s firm only bought a small stake in the space company, but it marked the first recent space SPAC investment by Ark’s ETFs since selling its position in Virgin Galactic more than a year ago. – CNBC
  • Astra continues to investigate June launch failure, as NASA puts remaining missions up for other bidders. The small rocket builder said its investigation into the TROPICS-1 launch is nearing completion of a fault tree analysis, with the root cause narrowed to an upper stage engine issue. – Astra / Astra

Industry maneuvers

  • Sierra Space considering going public, as the subsidiary of private contractor Sierra Nevada Corporation weighs options to raise funding and accelerate its space infrastructure plans. Separately, the company announced it hired former Bank of America Senior Vice President of Human Resources Heidi Hendrix as its Chief People Officer. – Reuters / Sierra Space
  • Two startups win UK funding to remove spacecraft from orbit. Japanese company Astroscale and Swiss-founded ClearSpace were awarded $ 4.3 million in funding from the UK Space Agency to demonstrate the feasibility of removing spacecraft from low Earth orbit by 2026, with Colorado-based Orbit Fab joining ClearSpace’s effort. – SpaceNews
  • National Reconnaissance Office dished out satellite radio frequency contracts to six companies – Aurora Insight, HawkEye 360, Kleos Space, Terran Orbital subsidiary PredaSAR, Spire Global, Umbra Lab – as the spy agency looks to explore uses of RF data. The NRO told CNBC the initial value of each contract is expected to be about $ 300,000, but “can quickly be scaled” up. – NRO
  • Spire wins $ 4 million NOAA contract for hyperspectral satellite tech. The National Oceanographic and Oceanic Administration award will fund Spire’s development of a hyperspectral microwave sensing payload, to be added to a satellite. – Spire

On the horizon

  • Sept. 30 – Firefly is due for a second attempt at an Alpha rocket launch from California. After postponing attempts earlier this month, the company aims to reach orbit for the first time.
  • Oct. 5 – NASA and SpaceX are targeting a noon launch of the Crew-5 missionwhich was delayed due to Hurricane Ian.

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