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Space shuttle

Obama's NASA plan could benefit Southern Arizona

Cuts to shuttle, moon programs could bring more funds to local projects

The Obama administration’s new direction for NASA's human spaceflight program could be a major boost for Southern Arizona should its admittedly vague long-term goals pan out.

At the very least, it should be a modest benefit to Tucson’s aerospace community in the short term.

President Obama announced plans for human missions to asteroids in the 2020s and flights to Mars in the next decade in a speech in Florida on April 15 at the Kennedy Space Center. The aerospace industry is facing the loss of hundreds of jobs as the space shuttle program winds down.

Obama’s reference to a possible human mission to an asteroid is positive news for Tucson’s planetary science and ground-based astronomy communities, which already specialize in efforts to locate, characterize and fly robotic probes to these primitive and potentially resource-rich rocky bodies.

A human mission to an asteroid “certainly requires homework to be done” in picking safe and useful objects to visit, said Mark Sykes, director and CEO of the Tucson-based Planetary Science Institute.

“A lot of that work can be done in Arizona,” he said.

Sykes is a co-investigator and leader of the data archiving team for the NASA Dawn mission, which is on its way to two major asteroids, Vesta and Ceres. Dawn is due to arrive at Vesta in July 2011 and spend a year in orbit studying the asteroid’s composition and physical properties before zooming off to arrive at Ceres in February 2015.

Phased approach

As part of the 2011 budget, Obama proposes canceling the Constellation program, President George W. Bush’s phased approach to returning astronauts to the Moon and eventually to Mars.

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In its place, bolstered by the findings of a recent blue-ribbon review committee, the administration proposes to follow a “flexible path” that could lead to a variety of deep-space missions by astronauts and robotic probes.

In total, the administration requests an increase of $6 billion for NASA over the next five years to foster this approach, at a time when many federal agencies are facing budget decreases.

However, many critics and members of Congress whose districts have a stake in the current approach have derided the changes as happening too quickly and threatening to trigger thousands of lost jobs in the short term.

Stating he was “100 percent committed to the mission of NASA and its future,” Obama said his plan would produce 2,500 more jobs than the previous Moon-centric program, which suffered from a “we’ve been there before” approach.

'Bright spotlight'

Jane Poynter, president of Tucson’s Paragon Space Development Corp., attended the Obama speech as part of a group of new commercial space company leaders who have been dubbed the “Merchant 7,” a play on the nickname given to the original seven Mercury program astronauts of the early 1960s.

“It was really exciting,” Poynter said. “You can argue the details, but what is fantastic is that the president shown a really bright spotlight on NASA and space exploration in general.”

Paragon’s specialty is developing environmental and life support systems for manned spacecraft. It won a $1.4 million contract from NASA in February to develop a generic system for future human spacecraft. This makes the company well placed to work with any larger rocket-manufacturing company that might emerge with a successful design for launching humans, whether it be a capsule, such as the NASA Orion system that may be retained (at least in part), or a new design.

“It’s particularly exciting this [system] is applicable to any spacecraft going to low-Earth orbit,” Poynter explained. “We’re in the happy position of hopefully making the customer happy, no matter who they are.”

Local opportunities

U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, chair of the House Committee on Science and Technology’s subcommittee on space and aeronautics, is also hopeful that local businesses have a part in future projects.

"There may be opportunities for companies like Paragon to compete to develop technologies like life support for the commercial crew industry supported by the president’s plan. Luckily, these companies are smart and agile.

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"Maintaining the aerospace industry, one of America’s few industries with a positive trade balance, and the skilled technical workforce is really important to me. Unfortunately, it is not clear how the president’s plan will assure a robust industry. We are working hard to develop a plan that does just that."

Giffords has been critical of the administration’s decision to cancel the Constellation program. After Obama's speech in Florida, while pleased the Orion project might continue, she said she's worried about the long-term viability of a "slimmed-down system."

"The new plan raises new questions regarding the rationale for the Orion-Lite space station crew rescue project as well as its likely impact on an already constrained NASA budget – an impact that could be significant if additional resources aren’t made available.  In the weeks since the president’s announcement we’ve seen nothing to indicate the cost of such a program."

In a statement before a March 24 hearing by her committee, Giffords said there remained “too many unanswered questions” about the flexible path. She expressed concerned about lost jobs among its contractors and the potential waste of billions of dollars spent designing and developing pieces of the Constellation rockets. Several other members of Congress, particularly those with major aerospace companies or NASA centers in their states, have expressed similar concerns.

But local companies look safe, at least for now.

In addition to an added $1.5 billion for exploration research and development and $812 million for commercial spaceflight, the NASA budget request includes $145 million for planetary exploration. This matches with the continuing growth of NASA funding for the local Planetary Science Institute, which received $5.5 million from NASA in 2009, after a 22 percent annual growth each of the past two years. PSI stands to see a 12 percent increase in NASA funding in 2010 even if it wins no new awards, Sykes added.

“The big question is ‘Where do we want to be in 200 years from now?’ ” in our national space exploration program, Sykes said. “We can’t answer it today, but it’s a good question to ask.”

Asteroid samples

Another possible NASA robotic mission based in Tucson could help determine the precise compositions of asteroids (which vary widely), a step toward deciding whether it would be economically feasible to mine them for minerals or water, which is valuable for making rocket fuel.

Dr. Michael Drake, director of the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Lab, is principal investigator for a $3.3 million study funded by NASA for a mission to return an asteroid sample to Earth. The mission could bring $100 million to Arizona organizations, Drake’s team has estimated.

The flexible path outlined by the Obama administration “has the potential to bring more excitement to Arizona in general,” Drake said. “It is a logical path” and a way to do “something exceptional” in space exploration that no other nation has done before or could do in the near future, he added.

The proposed increases in the NASA Earth science research budget could also benefit the UA’s geosciences program and the local office of the U.S. Geological Survey, the local experts said.

Giffords Q & A

Giffords, who is married to Navy Capt. Mark E. Kelly, a NASA astronaut has been on three shuttle missions and is set for a fourth in November, responded to emailed questions from TucsonSentinel.com. Here are her complete answers:

Did Obama's stated vision for human missions to an asteroid and then to orbit Mars, along with continuing to develop the Orion crew capsule, alter any of your concerns about the administration's proposed new approach to NASA funding?

"I was happy to hear the president address the nation’s concern with the lack of specificity, the lack of a clear vision in his plan. As I have said time and time again, we need destinations, we need timelines, and we need a mission for human exploration. The president has begun to flesh that vision out.

"I am encouraged that the president’s modified plan indicates a willingness to listen to concerns raised by Congress and others about the Administration’s original proposal.  I am also pleased that it appears that work will now continue on the Orion program over the coming months—Orion will be needed if we are to have a meaningful exploration program in the future.  However, it is not clear that we would truly continue an 'Orion crew capsule,' or such a slimmed down system that it would never be evolvable to our exploration needs. The new plan raises new questions regarding the rationale for the Orion-Lite space station crew rescue project as well as its likely impact on an already constrained NASA budget—an impact that could be significant if additional resources aren’t made available.  In the weeks since the president’s announcement we’ve seen nothing to indicate the cost of such a program.

"More fundamentally, the new plan does not address the human space flight gap, it doesn’t provide a clear plan or path beyond low Earth orbit, and it doesn’t address the risks posed by sole dependence on commercial crew that have been raised in numerous congressional hearings."

What is your view of the implications of this new NASA policy for the space community and aerospace industry in Southern Arizona?  Could companies such as Paragon Space Development actually benefit more from this new approach?

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"There is no question that the president’s plan would impact aerospace industry throughout the country. However, the impact on our high tech and nimble companies in Arizona is less certain. For example, the president’s plan would likely cancel Paragon’s contract to develop the next generation of space suits for NASA. But there may be opportunities for companies like Paragon to compete to develop technologies like life support for the commercial crew industry supported by the president’s plan. Luckily, these companies are smart and agile.

"Maintaining the aerospace industry, one of America’s few industries with a positive trade balance, and the skilled technical workforce is really important to me. Unfortunately, it is not clear how the president’s plan will assure a robust industry. We are working hard to develop a plan that does just that."

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1 comment on this story

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24 comments
May 3, 2010, 11:58 am
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We misstated Capt. Mark Kelly’s future with the space program. He will be leaving NASA before the implementation of any commercial launch system.

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NASA/Bill Ingalls

President Obama tours Space Exploration Technologies' commercial rocket processing facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida with CEO Elon Musk on April 15. Obama also visited the NASA Kennedy Space Center to talk about NASA's future.