An InSight into NASA Leadership

Early Saturday morning (May, 5th 2018), a United Launch Alliance Atlas V launched NASA’s Mars mission for this year’s Earth/Mars conjunction.

The first interplanetary mission launched from the West coast, this Mars shot demonstrated NASA and ULA’s unique experience in sending payloads to Mars. InSight will land on Mars and take seismic readings to help scientists better understand the composition of Mars below the surface. The Viking landers carried seismic instruments on board, but those experiments weren’t successful. InSight carries a seismic sensor that will use Marsquakes and meteor strikes to map the interior of Mars in the same way that geologists have done with Earthquakes for 150 years. We’ve needed to study that aspect of Mars for a long time, and should have done so sooner. This probe missed the last Mars launch window because the seismic sensor package on board was found to be faulty and could not be repaired in time.

After InSight separated from the Centaur Upper stage of Atlas, a cubesat dispenser mounted on Centaur kicked out two small communications satellites. Named Wall-E and EVA, these experimental Mars fly-by craft will relay InSight’s transmissions back to Earth from the far-side of Mars during planet fall and landing. Collectively called MarCO (Mars Cube One) these inexpensive spacecraft are a proof of concept for the use of cubesats for communications and navigation in Interplanetary Space. If they succeed, then you can expect to see many organizations start flying these cheap probes to accelerate the exploration of our solar system, utilize its resources, and start putting space entrepreneurship into the hands of the world’s millionaires…not just its billionaires.

NASA and JPL prepared and ran this mission and it will reach Mars in October. Currently, only NASA and its partners like ULA can do this kind of work, with so many combined firsts, with this level of confidence in the outcome. This mission further demonstrates NASA’s continued global leadership in Space and Mars exploration. Just because NASA does not currently launch their own people into space, that doesn’t mean that they do not lead. Mars has earned its reputation as the Skeleton Coast of exploration spacecraft, but the folks at NASA have many times earned their reputation as the masters of Mars.

I could name some other examples…and more will fly very soon.

The first test flight of the Space Launch System will happen in the next two years. In spite of the many critics of SLS (myself being among them) NASA’s new ride will push back the envelope, again, as the heaviest lifting launcher in the world.

Under NASA leadership, private companies with internally designed and owned spacecraft and launchers, have been shuttling cargo to and from the International Space Station at a fraction of the cost of using government-owned systems. This year, the same procurement structure (Space Act Agreement Contracts) will be used to begin hauling crew.

NASA had begun serious work on a new International, Lunar orbiting research and construction station…sort of an ISS version 2…which looks like it will use the above named commercial partnering method (under the label “NextSTEP”) from its inception. I think it will also include many habitat and research modules from international and commercial partners as well.

The James Webb Space Telescope, the long awaited first interstellar research probe targeted for a Lagrange point orbit, has begun rattling through it’s “shake-down” testing. Yes, they shook some nuts and bolts loose but hey, that’s what testing is for, right? Better now than on launch day.

On Tuesday, NASA is holding a commercial partners conference at their headquarters in Washington to begin preparations for next cycle of crewed exploration of Luna.

The list goes on. Stay tuned.


~ by Bill Housley on May 7, 2018.

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