Year Begins, Ends with Future of Human Spaceflight Up in Air

by

The future direction of NASA’s human spaceflight program was the space community’s dominant topic throughout most of 2009, which was appropriate even though the White House’s long-awaited verdict on the matter was still pending as the year drew to a close.

For now, NASA continues to press ahead with development of the hardware it would need to replace the space shuttle by 2015 and return astronauts to the Moon by 2020 under a plan crafted in response to an exploration mandate it was given in 2004. But an independent panel tasked by U.S. President Barack Obama with assessing that plan—and developing alternatives — said in August that NASA is on an “unsustainable path,” setting the stage for what most observers believe will be a change in course.

Amid the often fierce debate, pitting those whose fortunes are tied to the current architecture against those who stand to gain from a revamped plan—and with other space agencies around the world watching from the sidelines — it was easy to forget what was happening elsewhere.

It seems that every year, for example, brings a surprise event that has significant implications for space policy. In2007, it was China’s anti-satellite test; that was followed in 2008 by the U.S. downing of a wayward U.S. spy satellite using a modified missile interceptor. This year it was the destruction of an active Iridium communications satellite in a chance collision with a spent Russian satellite. The incident, which apparently followed several close calls involving Iridium’s 66 low-orbiting satellites, brought new attention and resources to improving space surveillance capabilities and broadening access to that data, particularly for commercial satellite operators, who often rely on the U.S. Air Force for this information.

Meanwhile, 2009 saw a number of key milestones reached, including the last servicing mission to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope; the launch of Herschel and Planck, Europe’s most ambitious astronomy missions; and the successful debut flight of Japan’sHTV space station cargo carrier. But some scheduled milestones were missed in 2009, includingaplanned test in which the Pentagon’s Airborne Laser was to attempt to shoot down a target missile.

The list of spacefaring nations grew by one during 2009, as Iran successfully launched a satellite aboard a domestically built rocket.

South Korea tried to join the club, but the debut mission of its Korea Satellite Launch Vehicle ended in failure due to what officials said was an upper stage or fairing malfunction.

The commercial satellite industry proved its resilience during 2009, with the major satellite operators reporting solid growth and earnings in defiance of the economic recession that took hold throughout much of the world. At the same time, however, there were notable bankruptcies, including Sea Launch Co., and satellite operators ProtoStar Ltd.

and DBSD North America, formerly ICO North America.

Finally, 2009 saw the passing of international space law pioneer Eilene Galloway, who died at her home in Washington at the age of 102.

 

January 2009

The Eutelsat W2M satellite, the first product of a joint venture between Astrium of Europe and the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Antrix commercial arm, fails in orbit just five weeks after launch.

Barack Obama is sworn in as president of the United States.

After a period of 10 months when both of the United States’ primary rocket families were grounded with technical troubles, a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket launches a classified U.S. government satellite.

Mike Griffin steps down as NASA administrator, leaving NASA Associate Administrator Chris Scolese in charge on an acting basis.

Technical issues cause $259 million in cost growth for the Advanced Extremely High Frequency military communications system and delay the launch of the first satellite until 2011.

Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems is awarded a $234 million contract to build the sixth Wideband Global Satcom satellite.

Thales Alenia Space of Europe and Lockheed Martin form a partnership to work together on radar Earth observation satellites.

U.S. President Barack Obama nominates retired Navy Adm. Dennis Blair as the director of national intelligence.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launches its Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite, also known as Ibuki, along with several small satellites from Tanegashima Space Center aboard an H-2A rocket.

The European Commission approves the purchase of small-satellite specialist Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. by Astrium, Europe’s biggest space-hardware contractor.

 

February 2009

The U.S. Congress passes the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a nearly $800 billion stimulus bill that includes $1 billion for NASA and $600 million for satellite and climate modeling projects at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

An active Iridium mobile-communications satellite and Russia’s retired Cosmos 2251 communications spacecraft collide in low Earth orbit, throwing a spotlight on the issue of space traffic management and the growth of orbital debris.

NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory is destroyed when the payload fairing on its Taurus XL rocket fails to separate properly.

The European Commission commits about $263 million for construction of Earth observation satellites being built with the European Space Agency as part of the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program.

Lockheed Martin and Boeing each receive $75 million extensions to their Transformational Satellite communications system risk reduction contracts.

The last of the United States’ current generation of polar-orbiting civilian weather satellites, dubbed N-Prime, is launched on a Delta 2 rocket.

GeoEye begins selling imagery from its recently launched GeoEye-1 satellite.

Iran conducts its first successful space launch, putting the Omid research satellite into low Earth orbit with a domestically produced Safir-2 rocket.

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft swings by Mars for an added boost of speed on its way to an August 2011 encounter with the asteroid Vesta.

Arabsat selects Astrium Satellites and Thales Alenia Space as co-prime contractors to build the Arabsat 5C and Arabsat 6B telecommunications satellites.

 

March 2009

NASA’s Kepler space telescope is launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket on a three-year planet-hunting mission.

The U.S. Air Force agrees to share more detailed space situational awareness data with commercial and foreign entities.

The U.S. Senate confirms John Holdren and Jane Lubchenco, President Barack Obama’s nominees to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, respectively.

The European Space Agency’s gravity-fieldmeasuring satellite, GOCE, is successfully launched into low Earth orbit by a Russian Rockot vehicle. It is expected to operate for two years.

Astronauts aboard the international space station successfully deploy a final set of solar arrays, boosting the station’s on-board power by 25 percent.

U.S. Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) criticizes a plan agreed upon by the secretary of defense and director of national intelligence for a new generation of classified U.S. spy satellites as too expensive and too risky.

China’s first Moon probe, Chang’e 1, is deliberately crashed into the lunar surface.

Mobile satellite communications company Globalstar receives $574 million in loan guarantees from the French export-credit agency, Coface, a development that, coupled with other money Globalstar is raising, will finance construction of Globalstar’s secondgeneration satellite constellation.

Former NASA Chief of Staff Courtney Stadd is indicted in federal court on charges he inappropriately steered agency funds toward a consulting client.

NASA receives $17.8 billion for 2009 in an omnibus spending bill signed into law by President Barack Obama.

David King steps down as director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

NASA awards a $9.6 million contract to Oceaneering International to resume work on a next-generation spacesuit.

The European Space Agency signs a contract with the French space agency, CNES, for five years of maintenance and operation of Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport.

The contract is valued at 435 million euros ($574 million).

 

April 2009

The U.S. Defense Department submits its 2010 budget request to Congress, which kills several major space and missile defense programs, including the Transformational Satellite communications system and the Multiple Kill Vehicle and Kinetic Energy Interceptor.

NASA Inspector General Robert “Moose” Cobb resigns following years of criticism from U.S. lawmakers.

India launches its first radar Earth observation satellite, Risat-2, which was built in collaboration with Israel Aerospace Industries. India plans to launch three more satellites in the Risat series in the coming five years.

Harris Corp. wins a five-year contract that, with a fiveyear renewal option, could be valued at up to $600 million to provide the U.S. Army with satellite communications terminals under the Modernization of Enterprise Terminals (MET) program.

Scott Large resigns as director of the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office. He is replaced on an acting basis by U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski.

Development troubles with the primary instrument on the United States’ next generation of polar-orbiting weather (NPOESS) satellites cause a 16-month launch slip for the first satellite, to May 2014.

Satellite fleet operator Intelsat signs a 15-year, $167 million contract with the Australian Defence Force to provide Australia with a UHF-band mobile communications payload on Intelsat’s IS-22 satellite, which will feature a new Boeing platform.

The U.S. Air Force launches the second Wideband Global Satcom satellite.

The European Space Agency invests 100 million euros ($132 million) in its Soyuz and Vega rocket-development programs to account for delays in both vehicles’ inaugural launches at Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport in French Guiana.

Mobile satellite services provider Inmarsat signs a new five-year agreement with its distributors that gives Inmarsat more control over distribution and reduces the volume discounts that had favored large distributors.

 

May 2009

Europe’s Herschel and Planck science satellites are launched together aboardanAriane 5 rocket,amission valued at 1.8 billion euros ($2.5 billion) that European Space Agency officials say is one of the agency’s most ambitious science endeavors ever.

The White House orders a review of NASA’s human spaceflight plans. Former Lockheed Martin chief Norm Augustine is picked to lead the blue-ribbon panel.

The Space Shuttle Atlantis launches on a nearly two-week mission to repair and upgrade the Hubble SpaceTelescope.

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden, a former fighter pilot and space shuttle commander, is nominated by President Barack Obama to serve as NASA’s 12th administrator. Bolden becomes the first African-American to serve in that position.

Launch of the U.S. Navy’s first Mobile User Objective System satellite is delayed by 11 months, to early 2011, due to difficulties in integrating a payload designed for the legacy system with the new spacecraft bus.

Earth observation services provider DigitalGlobe successfully completes an initial stock offering on the New York Stock Exchange.

After a decade of on-orbit construction, the international space station reaches its full six-person crew size, a complement that includes representatives from each partner nation contributing to the $100 billion orbiting outpost.

LockheedMartinisagainselectedbyNASAtobuildtheGeostationary orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite-R series. The contract, originally awarded in 2008 but held up by a Boeing protest, is expected to be worth $1.09 billion.

NASA receives a 5 percent increase in President Barack Obama’s 2010 budget proposal. The nearly $18.7 billion request gives a near-term boost to aeronautics and human spaceflight, but lowers the five-year outlook for the Moonbound Constellation program.

Startup mobile satellite services provider ICONorth America files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection as $750 million in debt comes due.

NASA and the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, sign a $306 million deal to send U.S. astronauts to the international spacestation aboardSoyuz spacecraft in2012 at $51 million per seat.

An S-band antenna aboard Eutelsat’s W2A satellite that was designed to provide service for a Eutelsat-SES joint venture, called Solaris Mobile, is reported defective and may not be able to provide full service under Solaris’ European Commission license.

The U.S. military’s TacSat-3 satellite, equipped with an experimental hyperspectral imager, is launched on a Minotaur 1 rocket.

 

June 2009

Sea Launch Co. files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, citing nearly $2 billion in debt.

The company says it expects to reorganize its debt and return its floating Pacific Ocean launch platform to operations by 2011.

NASA and the European Space Agency shut down the Ulysses sun probe, which has provided data for 18 years. It originally was designed to operate for five years.

NASA names the 10 members of the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, led by former Lockheed Martin chief Norm Augustine. The committee holds its first public hearing in Washington.

A blue-ribbon panel assembled to assess the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System reports that the program suffers from management gridlock and needs a near-term infusion of cash to be successful.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems is awarded a $1.5 billion contract from the U.S. Air Force to build the third geosynchronous satellite and third highly elliptical orbiting payload for the Space Based Infrared System.

Japan releases its Basic Plan for Space Policy, a blueprint for space activity stemming from the passage of a law the year before that lifted a longstanding ban on military space activities. The document identifies space-based missile warning as a priority.

Retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Bruce Carlson, a combat pilot who also served as commander of Air Force Materiel Command, is appointed to serve as the 17th director of the National Reconnaissance Office.

The U.S. House of Representatives approves legislation that would give the president authority to remove commercial communications satellites from the State Department’s U.S. Munitions List, the first legislative attempt to address U.S. arms export control reform in nearly a decade.

A French government panel advises that the next-generation Ariane vehicle be a modular rocket designed to carry telecommunications satellites weighing 3,000 kilograms to 6,000 kilograms into orbit one at a time starting around 2020.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announces plans to close the National Applications Office, a Bush administration effort that sought to facilitate the use of spy satellites for domestic law enforcement purposes.

Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, India and Vietnam agree to design small Earth observation satellites together as part of the Satellite Technology for the Asia-Pacific Region (STAR) program. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency is coordinating the effort at its Sagamihara campus.

Space Systems/Loral is selected by Hughes Network Systems to build a large all-Ka-band consumer-broadband satellite in a contract valued at about $250 million.

 

July 2009

Charles Bolden and Lori Garver are sworn into office as NASA administrator and deputy administrator, respectively. In his first public appearance as administrator, Bolden tells employees during an “all-hands” address that the agency “cannot continue to survive on the path we are on.”

An Ariane 5 rocket places the largest commercial satellite ever built—the 6,910-kilogram TerreStar-1 S-band mobile communications satellite — into geostationary orbit for TerreStar Networks.

Four commercial satellite fleet operators— Intelsat, SES, Telesat and EchoStar—collaborate on an effort to persuade the U.S. government to take steps to increase the supply of rockets on the commercial market, including China’s Long March vehicle, which for a decade has been barred from launching U.S.-built satellite components.

The U.S. Air Force and Lockheed Martin complete a 20-month, $750 million overhaul of the flight software for the Space Based Infrared System’s geostationary orbiting satellites.

Startup satellite operator ProtoStar Ltd. files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and says it intends to auction its two in-orbit satellites.

In an effort to avoid layoffs, NASA awards $65 million of its $1 billion in 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to Northrop Grumman Corp. for work on the James Webb Space Telescope.

Telespazio and the Italian Space Agency form e-Geos, a company to market Earth observation data including imagery from Italy’s Cosmo-SkyMed satellites.

Intelsat orders four Boeing telecommunications satellites, inaugurating its 702B platform.

 

August 2009

NASA awards $166 million in economic stimulus funds to Lockheed Martin Corp. for work on the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle.

South Korea’s first attempted space launch ends in failure, destroying an atmospheric research satellite. The failure of the Korea Satellite Launch Vehicle, developed jointly by South Korea and Russia, is attributed to a malfunction involving the rocket’s upper stage or fairing.

The White House announces U.S.

President Barack Obama has directed his economic and national security advisers to launch a broad-based interagency review of U.S. export controls governing military and dual-use technology transfers, which include restrictions on the export of U.S. commercial communications satellites.

Mission controllers lose control of India’s first planetary probe, Chandrayaan-1, which was launched in October 2008 on what was supposed to be a two-year mission studying the Moon. The probe, which succumbed to a thermal issue first detected in April, later crashes into the lunar surface.

During its final public meeting in Washington, the Augustine panel narrows its list of possible recommendations for human spaceflight to include sticking with NASA’s current Moonfocused Constellation program or skipping the Moon in favor of other destinations, an option dubbed “Flexible Path.”

NASA names Robert Lightfoot to lead its Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems announces plans to lay off 800 employees by the end of the year.

For the first time, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s Airborne Laser fires its high-power chemical laser in flight.

France’s Coface export-credit agency agrees in principle to provide $465 million in loan guarantees to O3b Networks, a startup satellite-broadband company planning to launch eight satellites into a low equatorial orbit to deliver bandwidth to regions without terrestrial broadband links.

 

September 2009

In an executive summary of its final report delivered to senior NASA and White House officials, the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee finds that NASA’s plan to develop rockets and spacecraft optimized for the Moon is incompatible with its budget, and urges the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama to consider outsourcing operations in low Earth orbit to the private sector.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency launches its first H-2 Transfer Vehicle cargo carrier to the international space station from Tanegashima Space Center.

The launch also marks the first flight of the H-2B rocket, the most powerful launcher in Japan’s fleet.

The U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency solicits proposals for commercial radar satellite data.

In a rare public appearance, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden tells an audience of space entrepreneurs and U.S. lawmakers he is skeptical of the private sector’s ability to take over manned operations in low Earth orbit, but is hopeful commercial space companies will succeed.

Two Space Tracking and Surveillance System missile-tracking satellites are launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket, part of a $1.4 billion program to track ballistic missiles during all phases of flight.

The United States announces it will change its plan for installing a missile defense shield in Europe, electing to use sea- and land-based versions of the Standard Missile-3 interceptor instead of a two-stage variant of the Ground Based Interceptor.

NASA and the European Space Agency sign a memorandum of understanding on space transportation that is designed to increase interoperability of future orbital hardware and launch vehicles.

In a letter, the White House asks House and Senate appropriators to restore $670million in 2010 NASA funding that House lawmakers cut from the agency’s $4 billion request for Constellation.

During a press conference NASA releases new images taken by the refurbished Hubble Space Telescope, including a “pillar of creation,” a “butterfly nebula,” a group of five galaxies and a densely packed star cluster.

Japan proposes a 25 percent space budget hike forthecomingfiscalyearjustonedayafterelections bring a new ruling party to power, raising questionsaboutthecountry’sdirectioninspace.

Elizabeth Robinson, director of budget for the White House Office of Management and Budget, is nominated to be NASA’s chief financial officer.

Space Exploration Technologies announces it will launch a prototype of its reusable Dragon cargo capsule on the maiden flight of the Falcon 9 rocket.

 

October 2009

Members of the White House-appointed committee tasked with reassessing NASA’s human spaceflight plans voice disagreement about how safety should be factored into the group’s ranking of space exploration options in the post-space-shuttle era, two weeks before the panel issues its final report.

NASA’s $79 million Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, preceded by its Centaur rocket stage, slams into a southpole crater of the Moon, blasting out a curtain of debris in which scientists later detect signs of water ice.

DigitalGlobe launches its newest and most capable imaging satellite, WorldView-2, aboard a Delta 2 rocket.

The U.S. Senate gives final passage to the Department of Energy’s 2010 spending bill, denying President Barack Obama’s request for $30 million to restart domestic production of plutonium-238, a critical material used by NASA in long-lasting nuclear batteries for deep space missions.

Former NASA scientist Stewart D. Nozette is arrested at his home in Chevy Chase, Md., on a charge that he sold classified information about U.S. satellites, early warning systems and other national defense capabilities to an undercover FBI agent posing as an Israeli intelligence officer.

A Russian Soyuz vehicle carrying Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte docks at the international space station two days after lifting off from Kazakhstan.

The U.S. House of Representatives passes a bill extending for three years a liability shield meant to protect the commercial space launch industry against claims from uninvolved third parties resulting from a launch accident.

NASA conducts a successful suborbital test flight of the Ares 1-X, a four-segment booster with a dummy upper stage.

Following the release of a report by a White House-appointed panel tasked with reassessing NASA’s manned spaceflight plans, senior NASA officials coalesce around the idea of canceling the Ares 1 rocket in favor of outsourcing operations in low Earth orbit to private companies and freeing the U.S. space agency to pursue more challenging missions in outer space.

ViaSat Inc. agrees to purchase satellite consumer broadband provider WildBlue Communications, a key ViaSat customer, for $443 million in cash and $125million in ViaSat stock.

K. Radhakrishnan takes the reins as chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation, succeeding G. Madhavan Nair, who had served in the position since 2003.

Bruce Carlson, director of the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, defends the Obama administration’s plan for the next generation of electro-optical spy satellites, saying it is the only reliable way to meet the U.S.

military’s needs.

The U.S. Department of Commerce relaxes its restrictions on U.S. commercial firms seeking to sell data from radar satellites.

 

November 2009

U.S. President Barack Obama agrees to explore civil space cooperation with China during meetings in Beijing with Chinese President Hu Jintao. Less thanaweek later, in Washington, Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pledge expanded cooperation in space.

With no near-term successor on the horizon, NASA’s QuikScat ocean wind monitoring satellite stops working after a decade on orbit providing data that proved valuable in hurricane forecasting.

Astrium Satellites of Europe wins a contract valued at more than 500 million euros ($750 million) to build four commercial telecommunications satellites for SES of Luxembourg.

More than 80 members of the U.S. House of Representatives sign a letter to President Barack Obama calling for a $3 billion annual funding increase for NASA’s human spaceflight program.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden says sending astronauts to various solar system destinations instead of focusing exclusively on the Moon, a scenario presented by a White House panel tasked with reassessing NASA’s manned spaceflight plans, is an “attractive” option that could allow the U.S. space agency to phase in promising new technologies while inspiring the American public at regular intervals along the way.

An H-2A rocket successfully launches Japan’s newest Information Gathering Satellite system imaging spy craft from Tanegashima.

Mojave, Calif.-based Masten Space Systems wins a $1 million NASA prize in a competition to fly homemade rockets on mock Moon landing missions.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp.

protests the award of a government launch contract to Orbital Sciences Corp., arguing that the deal, under which Orbital will assemble a rocket using excess U.S. missile hardware, violates federal law.

Northrop Grumman Corp. sells off its TASC consulting business in order to comply with new U.S. rules meant to curb conflicts of interest in defense contracting.

An Atlas 5 rocket launches the Intelsat 14 communications satellite that hosts an Internet routing demonstration payload, the first dedicated U.S. military payload to reach orbit aboard a commercial satellite.

Russia launches a Progress cargo vehicle toward the international space station aboard the 1,750th mission of the Soyuz rocket.

The U.S. Air Force issues a request for information for the possible development of a constellation of cubesats to collect space weather data.

The U.S. Senate approves the $65 billion 2010 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bill, fully funding NASA’s $18.7 billion budget request in the broader spending package.

Former NASA Chief of Staff Courtney Stadd, convicted of lying to U.S. government ethics officials and inappropriately steering agency funds to a consulting client, is sentenced to three years probation and six months of home confinement, and fined $2,500.

December 2009

In a hearing of the House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee, lawmakers rule out safety as a reason to replace NASA’s Ares 1 rocket with alternative launchers.

Russia’s Soyuz capsule touches down in Kazakhstan, returning three astronauts—a Russian, a European and a Canadian—to Earth after a six-month stay at the international space station.

A primary instrument that will fly on the United States’ next generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites, the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, completes its last major test phase and is ready for integration with its spacecraft.

NASA gives a green light to the Global Precipitation Measurement mission, committing to a July 2013 launch date.

Space Exploration Technologies sets a window for first Dragon flight to the international space station for between May and November 2010.

The first Space Based Infrared System missile warning satellite completes thermal vacuum testing, putting it on track to launch in early 2011.

Virgin Galactic unveils its SpaceShipTwo suborbital space tourism vehicle in Mojave, Calif.

The vehicle is expected to undergo testing throughout 2010 in preparation for a commercial debut slated for no earlier than 2011.

A Land Launch rocket operating from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan successfully launches Intelsat’s IS-15 telecommunications satellite following approval of the U.S. bankruptcy judge handling the Chapter 11 reorganization of Sea Launch Co. of California, which markets the Land Launch and Sea Launch versions of the same Russian-Ukrainian Zenit 3 rocket.