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Updated June 26, 2017
Posted June 26, 2017

Acting administrator of NASA talks Mars, climate change and SpaceX

The acting administrator of NASA says it’s a “very exciting time” in the space industry, with his agency aiming to get a crew to Mars in the 2030s.

Robert M Lightfoot Jr was in Dublin this week to meet space researchers in Trinity and UCD. During the trip, he spoke to Jonathan Healy on The Pat Kenny Show about his agency’s current and future plans.

Mars, it goes without saying, remains the next great goal in space exploration.

Robert explained: “Right now we’re working on trying to get there in the 2030s, with crew. We’re building off what we’re doing in the International Space Station – we’re using that to do research on humans and the technologies we’ll need to go further into space.

“Hopefully in the decade of the 2020s we’ll take those systems out in an area around the mean, so we can really test them out […] before we embark onto the mission to Mars.”

The space industry in the US has grown surprisingly competitive in recent years. Commercial companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are all building technologies to help humans travel beyond Earth.

Robert very much welcomes these companies getting involved.

“We do work together,” he observed. “I think there’s a very complementary activity. We think there’s a role for NASA as a government entity, in terms of doing some of those things that are out there a little further.

“We’re using SpaceX today to get to the International Space Station with cargo, and they’re going to be flying our crew soon. It’s an exciting complementary activity between us – it’s a very exciting time to see industry stepping up the way they are.”

He also spoke about the importance of international co-operation, explaining: “Part of my goal today is to be here in Ireland, and meet with some of the students who are hopefully following in our footsteps to take up that mantle along the road.

“[Space exploration] has gotta be a global endeavour. If you think about what we’re trying to do, we’re talking about civilisation-level impacts with the kinds of science we do, with the kind of exploration we do.”

“Our job is to keep people inspired”

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with the Dragon spacecraft onboard, launches from pad 39A at NASA�s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Bill Ingalls / NASA via CNP

The US has drawn international condemnation recently for the Trump administration’s approach to climate change – most notably when the US president announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Accord.

Where does such an administrative hostility to overwhelming scientific consensus leave NASA – a science organisation whose core objectives include monitoring & reporting on changes to our planet?

Robert explained: “Our job in that arena – and our job continues to be – to provide that data to the decision-makers so they can make decisions what we want to do from a policy perspective.

“The data coming down is real, so we’re very comfortable with the data we’re providing. That’s for us what we should do as a science organisation – to make sure we’re providing the right data.”

He also discussed what many believe is one of the great challenges of space travel – keeping enough people interested in space travel in the first place.

Robert doesn’t seem worried by such concerns, telling Jonathan: “I think it’s kind of written in our DNA as humankind – we want to explore. Think about all the different levels of exploration you can think of in history – whether it’s Mount Everest, whether it’s crossing the Atlantic, whether it’s going around Africa for the first time.”

He spoke about the recent search for people to join NASA’s 2017 astronaut class.

“We had 18,000 people apply for those 12 jobs,” Robert said said. “There’s an excitement to go do that, and I believe one of those people may the one who goes to Mars.

“Our job is to keep people inspired, and I think our missions inspire people.”

Ireland has never sent someone to space, so what would Robert say to anyone young people hoping to become the first Irish astronaut?

“This is the best job you could ever have,” he insisted. “There’s such a depth of understanding and learning that you get working in space.

“I tell kids in the States… ‘we want you to come and join us, because we’re trying to make the impossible possible’ – and there’s nothing better to be part of”.

Amazon's Bezos disrupts another frontier, with just one tweet Inc.’s Jeff Bezos has remained largely invisible in the world of philanthropy. That changed last week in a single tweet — followed by 42,000 more.

The tycoon’s request to Twitter — asking how he can best use his wealth to help people “right now” — has set off a frenzy of responses from every corner of the world. They include pleas to support health care, education and loan forgiveness, offbeat appeals to back a leather fetish museum in Chicago, plus snarky demands to reboot favorite TV shows. Even Madonna chimed in, inviting the world’s second-richest man to visit Detroit to engage with charities there.

The unusually public approach bears the stamp of Silicon Valley disruption, and it’s turning heads in a realm that usually enlists consultants and experts to parcel out big-dollar gifts. Seeking ideas on Twitter shows Bezos is acting like a venture capitalist, scouring proposals in the hope of finding a few worthy of investment, says Eileen Heisman, chief executive officer of the National Philanthropic Trust, a charity that manages $4.2 billion on behalf of individual philanthropists.

The crowd-sourcing strategy could signify an expansion of Bezos’ relatively restrained approach to philanthropy. The Bezos Family Foundation, which is best known for its support of children’s education, has been largely funded by his parents from Amazon holdings they acquired as early investors in their son’s enterprise. Outside of that, Bezos and his family’s known donations have totaled about $100 million, including gifts to Princeton University and Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. That pales in comparison to the billions of dollars donated by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

“Everybody has been watching to see when he would get into the philanthropy game, what he would do and then how he would do it,” said Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “Given what he did with Amazon, I don’t think it surprises anybody that he’s doing it in an untraditional way.”

Bezos amassed an $86 billion fortune while building Amazon into the world’s largest online retailer. Just hours after his tweet, he announced the company’s takeover of organic grocer Whole Foods Market Inc., and he’s been tight-lipped since. He hasn’t yet responded to any suggestions, nor has he indicated publicly how much he intends to donate or when it might start. Amazon and the Bezos Family Foundation didn’t respond to requests for comment.

And while legions on Twitter are eager to help him decide, some of his peers are cautioning against the approach. “The most effective philanthropy is targeted,” said Irish billionaire Denis O’Brien, whose Digicel Foundation is the largest builder of schools in the Caribbean. “He will get thousands of replies, but at the end of the day you do things that are strategic and do things that you are interested in. You could be overwhelmed with choices and ideas.”

Other billionaires are more reticent. “Not for me to tell him what to do with his money,” said Leon Cooperman — who has pledged to give away the majority of his $2.3 billion fortune — in response to an email from Bloomberg. Several other wealthy philanthropists contacted for comment didn’t respond or declined to weigh in.

To be sure, other technology entrepreneurs have put twists on philanthropy.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, who pledged to give away 99 percent of their $63 billion stake in the social network, are channeling their efforts with a limited liability company. That gives the couple more flexibility than a traditional foundation; for example, they don’t have to give to charity every year and can make investments and political donations. Sean Parker, who has a $3 billion net worth, is using a cancer research institute he funded to the tune of $250 million to overturn traditional research practices.

“The world is full of pretty stodgy foundations that generally do pretty safe things,” Parker said in a December interview with Bloomberg. “I’d rather see what happens when you do something totally different that’s never been tried.”

Even if Bezos is able to outsource idea generation he will likely need at least some apparatus to make a meaningful impact. Demands on his time already include Amazon, his ownership of the Washington Post, and his funding of space exploration company Blue Origin.

One earlier attempt at crowd-sourcing — via the more traditional venue of a newspaper — made a smaller splash and still required a lot of work. In 2011, billionaire Bill Conway, a co-founder of the Carlyle Group, told a columnist he wanted advice on how to donate at least $1 billion. The response, about 700 emails after a week, required four people to vet. Bezos already has 60 times more to consider.

“I don’t imagine he wants to be physically writing checks all day,” said Emmett Carson, CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which manages $8.2 billion in assets and helps philanthropists distribute grants.

Even if Bezos ramps up quickly he’ll have a ways to go to catch up with tech titans before him.

Bill and Melinda Gates have given more than $30 billion of stock and cash since 1994, valued at the time of gift, according to a review of two decades worth of Gates Foundation tax returns, annual reports and regulatory filings. Gates has probably directed more than 700 million Microsoft shares into his foundation, adjusting for stock splits. Those would be worth about $50 billion today had he held onto them, enough to catapult his fortune to $140 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Buffett’s charity efforts kicked off in earnest in 2006 and since then he has given about 270 million Berkshire Hathaway Class B shares, worth around $24 billion at the time of the donations, to charities led by the Gates Foundation. Those shares are now worth more than $45 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The Gates Foundation has given away $36.7 billion and has an endowment of $40.6 billion, Andrew Estrada, a foundation spokesman, said in an email. If Bezos intends to match those kind of numbers it is unlikely he’ll be able to rely solely on crowd-sourcing.

“It’s an overwhelming task that is innovative now but won’t sustain itself long-term because of the resources and time involved in filtering ideas,” said National Philanthropic Trust’s Heisman. “In five years his approach will likely have evolved into something very different, just like Amazon has over and over again.”

House lawmakers endorse reusable rockets for military purposes

Enlarge / SpaceX launched its first military payload on May 1. Now the US House of Representatives said the military should consider reusable rockets.

The US Congress has begun the “markup” process to consider budget appropriations for fiscal year 2018, and on Thursday, the House subcommittee overseeing Strategic Forces held a hearing for the National Defense Authorization Act. This bill provides funding for the military, including the Air Force, which oversees efforts to launch spy and communications satellites, as well as other national defense payloads.

As part of the process, Arizona Republican Trent Franks offered an amendment that stated the government should move rapidly to evaluate the potential use of reusable space launch vehicles such as those being flown by SpaceX. Co-sponsored by New Jersey Democrat Donald Norcross, the amendment passed on a voice vote.

This represents a remarkable turnaround for SpaceX and the federal government. After filing a lawsuit against the Air Force three years ago for the right to bid on military launch contracts, the California-based company only began flying military payloads for the government in May. Now lawmakers seem to be warming quickly to the company’s vision of low-cost access to space.

During the hearing, Franks said reusable rockets had the potential to enhance the nation’s warfighting capability.

He said:

The US government should fly reusable rockets when it’s safe and makes sense to do so… Reusable rockets are proven. Blue Origin flew a reusable suborbital rocket, and SpaceX has flown reused orbital rockets. Reusability is not inherently less safe, and other countries are moving toward that capability. If savings are to be achieved at reasonable risk, why not use reusable rockets?

The amendment directs the Secretary of Defense to brief the Committee on Armed Services by March 1, 2018 on the department’s plan to evaluate the risks, benefits, costs, and potential cost-savings of the use of reusable launch vehicles for use in national security space missions.

In recent weeks, the US Department of Defense has signaled its openness to commercial spaceflight. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson recently praised competition in the commercial space industry for bringing down the price of access to space. And just this week,  Gen. John Hyten, the head of US Strategic Command, said the military must embrace risk and be willing to fail when it comes to 21st-century activities in space. Now the US House seems to be coming on board with this approach.

Former astronaut Rick Mastracchio joins Orbital ATK

Rick Mastracchio hovers above the cupola window in the Tranquility module of the International Space Station during his STS-131 mission in 2010. He recently retired from NASA and joined Orbital ATK's Commercial Resupply Services program. Photo Credit: NASA

Rick Mastracchio hovers above the cupola window in the Tranquility module of the International Space Station during his STS-131 mission in 2010. He recently retired from NASA and joined Orbital ATK’s Commercial Resupply Services program. Photo Credit: NASA

Orbital ATK has hired former NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio as its new senior director of operations for the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program. The company made the announcement via a June 19, 2017, press release welcoming the three-time Space Shuttle astronaut to its Space Systems Group team.

Orbital ATK is one of two companies working with NASA to regularly resupply the International Space Station with consumables and experiments. Using the Cygnus spacecraft, the Dulles, Virginia-based company has been sending cargo to the outpost since 2013.

Rick Mastracchio takes an "EVA selfie" during a spacewalk in April 2014. Photo Credit: Rick Mastracchio / NASA

Rick Mastracchio takes an “EVA selfie” during a spacewalk in April 2014. Photo Credit: NASA

Mastracchio, who retired from NASA on June 16, 2017, will be responsible for managing Orbital ATK’s mission and cargo operations teams. Additionally, he will support the company’s other interests in human spaceflight, according to the release, including pursuits beyond low-Earth orbit.

“We are thrilled to welcome Rick Mastracchio to Orbital ATK,” said Frank DeMauro, vice president and general manager of Orbital ATK’s Advanced Programs Division. “With his experience as an astronaut and his time spent on the International Space Station, Rick brings a unique understanding of human space flight, making him an invaluable resource for our human space flight endeavors.”

Mastracchio started out at NASA as a member of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate in 1990. Before working for NASA directly, he worked for Rockwell at Johnson Space Center beginning in 1987.

As a member of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate, Mastracchio worked on the Space Shuttle’s avionics software as well as planning ascent and abort procedures. Joining the staff of NASA’s Mission Control in 1993, he served as an ascent/entry Guidance Procedures Officer, supporting 17 missions as a flight controller.

Mastracchio was selected as an astronaut candidate in 1996 and began training in August of that year. His first flight was on STS-106 as a mission specialist aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis. He flew again on STS-118 aboard Endeavour, and finally on STS-131 aboard Discovery. All three missions served as assembly and resupply missions to the ISS.

In 2013, Mastracchio flew to the outpost aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and served as a member of Expeditions 38 and 39. It was during this mission that the first Cygnus under the CRS contract, the Orb-1 mission, arrived at the outpost.

In total, Mastracchio has spent 228 days in space across his four spaceflights. During that time, he went on nine spacewalks totaling just over 53 hours.

After his last trip into space, he continued working for NASA as a designer for the cockpit on the Orion spacecraft, building on his experience helping the space agency upgrade the Shuttle’s cockpit in 2003.

“Rick is a classmate and a friend and he has done great work for NASA, both in space and on the ground,” said Chief Astronaut Pat Forrester, who was selected as an astronaut in the same class as Mastracchio. “His breadth of experience over three decades in human spaceflight will serve him well as he moves on to his next endeavor.”


Christopher Paul has had a lifelong interest in spaceflight. He began writing about his interest in the Florida Tech Crimson. His primary areas of interest are in historical space systems and present and past planetary exploration missions. He lives in Kissimmee, Florida, and also enjoys cooking and photography. Paul saw his first Space Shuttle launch in 2005 when he moved to central Florida to attend classes at the Florida Institute of Technology, studying space science, and has closely followed the space program since. Paul is especially interested in the renewed effort to land crewed missions on the Moon and to establish a permanent human presence there. He has covered several launches from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral for space blogs before joining SpaceFlight Insider in mid-2017.

Russia studying dedicated space tourism missions using its Soyuz spacecraft

Sunrise as viewed from the International Space Station in November. Framing the edge of sun is the Soyuz TMA-17M (front) which brought NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, JAXA astronaut Kimiya Yui and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko to the station and a Russian Progress 60 (back) cargo craft which arrived back in July. Credit: NASA JSC

Russia is studying dedicated space tourism missions using its Soyuz spacecraft.

Glavkosmos Director General Denis Lyskov said at the Paris Air Show Tuesday that future missions could fly two tourists and one professional cosmonaut, possibly visiting the ISS.

The head of RSC Energia, meanwhile, said he thought Soyuz missions could continue to fly even after the introduction of Russia’s new Federation crew vehicle, with the Soyuz being devoted to tourism missions and possibly, with upgrades, circumlunar flights. [TASS]

More News

A House bill under development would require the Air Force to establish a “Space Corps.” The fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act is expected to include language that would call on the Air Force to create a Space Corps by the beginning of 2019, giving it responsibility for national security space programs. The provision has the backing of Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the strategic forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, and the subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) That subcommittee is scheduled to mark up its portion of the authorization bill on Thursday. [SpaceNews]

A Falcon 9 successfully performed a static fire Tuesday in advance of a Sunday launch of 10 Iridium satellites. The static fire, part of SpaceX’s standard pre-launch preparations, clears the way for a launch attempt at 4:25 p.m. Eastern Sunday. The launch is the second of eight that will be used to deploy Iridium’s next-generation satellite constellation. [Spaceflight Now]

That launch will use a new Falcon 9, but Iridium says it’s open to using previously flown boosters. Iridium CEO Matt Desch said his contract with SpaceX calls for the use of new boosters for all its launches, but that he would be open to using reflown boosters for later launches, particular if that would accelerate the overall launch schedule. He said while reused boosters would offer some cost savings, those savings would need to be greater to convince him it was worth using one. [SpaceNews]

Weather is promising for a Friday launch of a Falcon 9 from Florida. Forecasts predict a 90-percent chance of acceptable weather for the Friday afternoon launch of the BulgariaSat-1 spacecraft, and 80 percent should the launch slip to Saturday. The launch, previously scheduled for Monday, was postponed to replace a fairing valve; weather forecasts were also less favorable for a launch. That launch will be the second Falcon 9 mission to use a previously flown first stage. [Florida Today]

The European Space Agency has formally selected a gravitational-wave observatory as its next major science mission. ESA announced Tuesday the selection of the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) for launch by 2034. LISA was widely expected to be chosen, given recent discoveries of gravitational waves by groundbased observatories and the success of the LISA Pathfinder technology demonstration mission. ESA also approved for continued development PLATO, an exoplanet survey mission scheduled for launch in 2026. [SpaceNews]

Russian company Glavkosmos seeks to become a major smallsat launch provider. The company, a subsidiary of Russian state space corporation Roscosmos, will fly 72 smallsats as secondary payloads on a Soyuz launch next month, and plans to launch about 40 more on two Soyuz launches scheduled for December. Glavkosmos expects to to provide secondary payload opportunities on three more Soyuz missions in 2018 and on a continuing basis thereafter, competing primarily with India’s PSLV for smallsat missions. [SpaceNews]

Brexit is clouding the prospects for British space startups. Uncertainty about how the United Kingdom will exit the European Union means companies don’t know how they will be able to participate in future EU missions or have access to EU research programs. Startups warn that a “hard” Brexit could be disastrous to them. [SpaceNews]

The B612 Foundation is studying smallsat mission concepts that could detect smaller near-Earth asteroids. The foundation announced plans nearly five years ago for a large space mission, Sentinel, to look for asteroids that could pose an impact threat to Earth, but struggled to raise money for it. B612 is now studying how smaller spacecraft, coupled with advanced computer technologies, could be used to detect smaller asteroids that are not a priority for existing survey efforts but still pose threats to the Earth. B612 also recently established an “Asteroid Institute” supporting postdoctoral fellows studying these issues at the University of Washington. [SpaceNews]

A leading contender in the Google Lunar X Prize is still waiting for confirmation of its launch plans. Team Indus said last year it had a contract for a launch of its lunar lander on a PSLV in late December of this year. However, the chairman of Antrix, the commercial arm of the Indian space agency ISRO, said government approvals for the launch were still in progress. Team Indus said it was not aware of any government questions about the mission, despite sources reporting that the launch agreement was facing scrutiny. Team Indus and the other remaining Google Lunar X Prize teams have until the end of this year to launch their missions. [Indian Express]

The commander of U.S. Strategic Command said that the country needs to be willing to accept risk if it is to remain a world power in space. “We’ve lost the ability to go fast, test, and fail,” said Gen. John Hyten Tuesday. He noted the speed at which the U.S. developed early ICBMs and launch systems in the early Space Age despite numerous failures. He also criticized the media coverage of a Blue Origin engine testing mishap last month: “Blue Origin just had a failure. Son of a gun. That’s part of learning.” [SpaceNews]

Thales Alenia Space is taking a stake in a French airship maker. Thales said this week it will make an undisclosed investment in Airstar Aerospace, which is developing a high-altitude airship called Stratobus that could carry out Earth observation or communications applications. Stratobus is scheduled to become operational in 2021. [SpaceNews]

SpaceX, Blue Origin Set to Solve America's Rocket Problem

Until the United States can wean itself from Russian rocket engines, the Senate acknowledges that it must swallow this bitter pill. “I think it’s important, over a very short time, that we get off of purchasing Russian rockets,” said Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from Vermont. “But we need that transition period.”

Helping America do just that are Blue Origin and SpaceX.

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