Desert RATS

by Dave Fischer

If you want humanity to explore the Solar System, you have to test the systems you plan to use for moving around and living. And where is there a readily available harsh environment for such testing? Arizona. In the Summer it is hot and dry. In the Winter it is cold and dry (or wet, depending on the state of the Arctic storm systems).

Currently underway (31 August through 15 September) is the 13th iteration of the Desert RATS program. You can follow their exploits on the RATS’ Blog.

RATS site in Northern Arizona
Image Credit: NASA

NASA Athlete Vehicle
(All-Terrain Hex-Legged
Extra-Terrestrial Explorer)
Image Credit: NASA

Space Exploration Vehicle
Image Credit: NASA / Regan Geeseman

NASA’s Research and Technology Studies (RATS) program is designed to gather engineers, astronauts and scientists and test technology. This year, the major objectives include:

  • Space Exploration Vehicles (pdf) – a pair of rovers that astronauts will live in for 7 days at a time
  • Habitat Demonstration Unit (interactive pdf)/Pressurized Excursion Module – a simulated habitat where the rovers can dock to allow the crew room to perform experiments or deal with medical issues
  • Tri-ATHLETEs, or –Terrain Hex-Legged Extra-Terrestrial Explorer – two heavy-lift rover platforms that allow the habitat, or other large items, to go where the action is
  • Portable communications terminals
  • Centaur 2 – a possible four-wheeled transportation method for NASA Robonaut 2
  • Portable Utility Pallets, or PUPs for short – mobile charging stations for equipment
  • A suite of new geology sample collection tools, including a self-contained GeoLab glove box (pdf) for conducting in-field analysis of various collected rock samples.

During this mission, there will be four crew members living in the two rovers. Their traverse routes will include driving up and down steep slopes and over rough terrain at various speeds. The crew will also demonstrate docking and undocking with the PUPs and the habitat. Other objectives for the rovers include demonstrating the differences in productivity for crew members and their ground support that come with different communication methods, and evaluating different operational concepts for the trips the rovers make.

Let us know what you think. What do you want to know about? Post a comment.


by Dave Fischer

Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research Program

NASA has awarded $475,000 as part of its program to development recoverable launch vehicles to be used for small payloads going to “near-space,” the region of Earth’s atmosphere between 65,000 and 350,000 feet. The awards were made under the CRuSR program (Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research Program). NASA’s press release states:

The CRuSR program fosters the development of commercial reusable transportation to near space. The overall goal of the program is regular, frequent and predictable access to near-space at a reasonable cost with easy recovery of intact payloads.

The awards were made to Armadillo Aerospace, home to the Super-Mod vehicle, and Masten Space Systems, home to the Xaero vehicle.

Armadillo will fly three missions from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Two are schedule for an altitude of nine miles each, and the third is scheduled for 25 miles (132,000 feet – 40,200 meters).

Masten will fly four missions this winter from the Mojave Spaceport in California. Two of the flights are slated for three miles and two are slated for 18 miles (95,000 feet – 29,000 meters).

Image Credit: Armadillo Aerospace
Image Credit: Masten Space Systems

Let us know what you think. What do you want to know about? Post a comment.

Human Spaceflight Committee Summary Report Released

The Human Spaceflight Committee, chaired by Norman Augustine, has just released their Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee Summary Report which will be followed by a final report to be issued at a future date. A copy of the report is available from the NSS Space Policy Library.

The first sentence of the report is not encouraging: “The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory. It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources.” Of particular interest is section 3: FUTURE DESTINATIONS FOR EXPLORATION.

NSS would be interested in knowing your thoughts on the content of the report. Please download the PDF Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee Summary Report, give it a read and post your comments here.

For additional info, see the NPR news story Panel Tells Obama Moon Return Is A No-Go

Ad Astra, Jim Plaxco, NSS Director

The Importance of Space to the US Economy

Shortsighted, reckless plan: Cutting NASA’s budget would hurt economy BY ROBERT HOPKINS in Florida Today

Hertzfeld observed, although immense, the economic value of these space-based services and applications is not fully appreciated and is not included when calculating the size of the space economy.

In the same vein, former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher explained that more than 87 percent of the U.S. GDP, or $12.1 trillion, results from private-sector activity that depends on access to and use of space systems, applications and infrastructure.

This activity comprises nearly every conceivable industry — agriculture, mining, transportation, utilities, insurance, finance, education, information.

Historic Picture

I was reading a copy of News & Notes, a publication of the NASA Historical Division and on page 25, I came across a historic picture with the caption “Lori Garver, of the Obama Transition Team, talks with NASA Administrator Michael Griffin during the reception.” for the book signing of Exploring the Unknown Volume VII (NASA SP-4407), edited by John M. Logsdon with Roger D. Launius.

I bet former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin wishes he had laryngitis that day. It certainly would have changed his future.  He would probably still be NASA Administrator. It might have also changed the history of the space program.  We may have avoided this power vacuum during this critical time in America’s Space Program.

I love the way it was simply published without explanation by the historians. They know its significance and those in the know, know its significance.  Others just see a bland picture but nice picture of two important people talking at a party.

For those you aren’t in the know. This picture was taken during a long heated conversation, which was parodied on Saturday Night Live, and resulted in Michael Griffin getting the, Act Clueless Award, in the Washington Post’s The Worst Leadership Performances of 2008.   Administrator Michael Griffin told Lori Garver, Head of President Obama’s Transition Team, she was not qualified to judge his rocket. Administrator Griffin, obviously needed to go through Professor John Logsdon’s Space Policy Program, then he would have understood that having the office makes you qualified to judge things under your jurisdiction.  And if you want projects funded it is critical to convince, those with the power to control the money, of the project’s value.  This is the most important thing for anyone involved in space policy to always remember.

Karen Cramer Shea

Mankins on NASA Technolgy Development

To boldly go: the urgent need for a revitalized investment in space technology by John C. Mankins


At the beginning of the space age, the United States realized that preeminence in space exploration and development could only be achieved through a commitment to robust investments in advanced space research and technology. Starting with the Kennedy Administration, and continuing until just the past four years, the US civil space program has been characterized not only by remarkable achievements in space (e.g., Surveyor, Mercury, Pioneer, Gemini, Apollo, and other programs), but also by ambitious investments in space technology. For example, in the mid-1960s, NASA’s investment in advanced space research and technology was approximately $1 billion per year (in current year dollars), and was directed toward truly ambitious technical objectives such as nuclear propulsion, high-energy cryogenic engines, thermal protection for reusable launch vehicles, electric propulsion, solar energy, automation and robotics, and more. For its day, NASA’s advanced space research and technology program was truly transformational—pressing the frontiers in technology and enabling the space missions of the 1970s and 1980s to achieve goals that were unimaginable for any other nation in the world.

That foundation of research and technology investments resulted not only in new “widgets” to put on the shelf, but also in a variety of important new space systems concepts, companies, and individual subject matter experts—the human foundations of excellence in the aerospace industry of the 1970s, 1980s, and beyond. This “orchard of innovation” yielded missions such as the Viking landers and orbiters at Mars (1976) and the Voyager missions to the outer planets; systems such as the Space Shuttle (1981–present); and, international initiatives such as the International Space Station (1982–present). At the same time, these technological foundations (systems, technologies, facilities, and skilled people) benefited a wide range of critical national security space missions.

Unfortunately, the US investment in advanced research and technology for space exploration and development has been reduced to historically low levels, and concurrently has been focused more narrowly than ever before on immediate system designs and development projects. In many respects, the current budget is little more than an “advanced development” program with minimal opportunity for innovation and essentially no possibility that an invention arising from civil space research and technology programs could influence system design decisions, inform budget estimates or inspire new, more ambitious space program goals.

NASA May Abandon Plans for Moon Base

NASA may abandon plans for moon base

NASA will probably not build an outpost on the moon as originally planned, the agency’s acting administrator, Chris Scolese, told lawmakers on Wednesday. His comments also hinted that the agency is open to putting more emphasis on human missions to destinations like Mars or a near-Earth asteroid.

NASA has been working towards returning astronauts to the moon by 2020 and building a permanent base there. But some space analysts and advocacy groups like the Planetary Society have urged the agency to cancel plans for a permanent moon base, carry out shorter moon missions instead, and focus on getting astronauts to Mars.

Under Scolese’s predecessor, Mike Griffin, the agency held firm to its moon base plans. But the comments by Scolese, who will lead NASA until President Barack Obama nominates the next administrator, suggest a shift in the agency’s direction. He spoke to the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies of the House Committee on Appropriations.

NASA Honors Gemini and Apollo Astronaut James Lovell


NASA will honor astronaut James “Jim” Lovell, Jr., with the presentation of an Ambassador of Exploration Award for his contributions to the U.S. space program. During a ceremony Friday, April 3, Lovell will accept the award at the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum in Lexington Park, Md., and present it to the museum for display.

Nick Lampson for NASA Administrator?

NASA Watch is reporting a rumor that former congressman Nick Lampson is a candidate for NASA Administrator.  He was the congressman from NASA’s Johnson Space Center and chairman of the House Science Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, so he obviously knows the issues, and knows how to work with congress and the President.

Buzz Aldrin for NASA Administrator?

There is a new Facebook group aimed at getting Buzz Aldrin appointed the next NASA Administrator. Buzz Aldrin for NASA Admin

We need a NASA administrator that has the vision, tenacity, and talent to achieve the vision of a multi-planet species.

NASA is at a crossroads, and we need someone to lead it.

Contact Obama today, and tell him to nominate Buzz!