Friday, May 25, 2007

What is up with the Lunar Robotic Program? - Update

Well, it looks like Marshall is keeping it's Lunar Robotic Program office. According to an article in today's Huntsville Times (via NASAwatch), "The 32-employee Lunar Precursor Robotic Program office will be included in the NASA budget at $20 million a year for the next six years. Also, the office will continue to manage two planned NASA lunar probe missions and begin a new assignment: mapping the moon to find sites of scientific value, Shelby's office said."

I don't always agree with Keith Cowing, but he's right on the money here:

Reversing the decision could become a problem for Griffin and his successors, and "it opens up their decisions for further second-guessing," said Keith Cowing, who runs

"It makes a joke of any leadership on Mike Griffin's part if he makes a decision and then he reverses it because Senator Shelby or (Rep. Bud) Cramer tell him to back off," Cowing said. "How can NASA administrators actually manage if they constantly have Congress reversing decisions they don't like?"

It's hard to blame Mr. Griffin though, it's not like he had a lot of options here, when Congress tells you to do something, you can't just say no. And it wasn't just one congressman, Senator Shelby convinced Senator Mikulski and Representative Mollohan, the chairs of the respective appropriations committees which oversee NASA's budget (i.e. people you don't want to piss off). I don't think Mr. Griffin had any choice here, I think the blame lies with Congress who shouldn't have made the request in the first place. Congress' job is not to micromanage. Does Sen. Shelby really think that he knows better how to get us back to the Moon than NASA does?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Breaking news: Evidence of water found on Mars!

Yes, it's true. Once again those little energizer-bunny rovers have made news because once again one of them has discovered evidence of water in Mars' past.

Doesn't it seem like every few months we find new and exciting evidence of water on Mars? Is anybody else impressed by how they can continue to make the same headline newsworthy over and over again?

Okay, in all seriousness, what is truly impressive to me is that they continue to make new discoveries after wandering around for so long. I think that really says something about the complexity of Mars, not to mention the complexity of the rovers.

The cynic in me read this headline and thought that the rover teams are sending out press releases for some minor thing in an attempt to stay in the news and stay relevant and not have their extended mission funding cut and their rovers turned off. But actually, this looks to be a genuine find.

What the rover found was a patch of soil that is 90% silica - something you just can't do without a whole lot of water. It was discovered by the aging rover Spirit, who has a broken wheel that won't rotate anymore, and so it leaves a deep trench as it drags through the soil, which is what exposed the silica-rich stuff (in fact several of it's recent discoveries have been made this way).

The patch of soil has been named "Gertrude Weise," after a player in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Seriously, they named a patch of soil after some random baseball player. I looked her up, she wasn't even a particularly famous AAGPBL player (by which I mean that there was no character based on her in A League of Their Own), and she died last year, so she will never even know about the great honor bestowed upon her.

Like many in the planetary community, I dream of one day having something in the solar system named after me, an asteroid or a crater, but a patch of soil? meh.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

This made me laugh today...

I can always count on Homestarrunner to amuse me. Today's adventure involves some mysterious DNA evidence.

Friday, May 11, 2007

What is up with the Lunar Robotic Program?

In the beginning, the plan was to go to the Moon, first with robots, then with people. An extensive precursor program (the Robotic Lunar Exploration Program, or RLEP - pronounced R-Lep) was planned following the model put forth by the Apollo program with it's Lunar Orbiter and Ranger missions. There was to be first an orbiter - the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which is on track and should launch in 2008 - followed by a lander, probably to a polar location, maybe even a permanently shadowed region, followed by another orbiter, then another lander.

Then people started doing the math, and realized we couldn't afford all that and it was pared down to the LRO and 1 lander. The program's named was also changed for no apparent reason from RLEP, to the Lunar Precursor and Robotic Program (LPRP) and the program office was moved to Marshall (from Ames, and before that Goddard).

Along the way, cost estimates for the lander started to balloon from an initial New Frontier's Class mission to something in the several billion dollar range from the rumors I heard. So the lander was scrapped all together and we were told it was not needed, as Scott Horowitz, NASA's exploration chief, made perfectly clear at the Lunar Science Meeting in Tempe a couple months ago when he said that all he really needs is "a damn good map," which LRO will provide.

With no "program" to speak of, the LPRP program office at Marshall was to be shut down and management of LRO (and it's tag-along package LCROSS) was to be moved to HQs. But then Congress got involved, or specifically Sen Shelby (R-Al), who wanted to keep a little piece of the Moon in his backyard and the 32 jobs that go with it (although in reality, none of those people would have been laid off, just reassigned to other duties). Sen Shelby was apparently able to convince Sen. Mikulski (D-Md.) and Rep. Mollohan (D-W.Va.), who respectively chair the Senate and House appropriations panels with NASA oversight, that this was important and last month they wrote a letter to Administrator Griffin proclaiming their displeasure over the closing of the Marshall office and directed $20M "be provided to continue planning for a potential LPRP mission during the remainder of the year." (See the recent article in Science.)

Mr Griffin response reiterated the "all we need is a damn good map" mantra:

“I do not need a robotic lander to reduce risks for the human landings,” Griffin said. “Everybody who has carefully looked at that has said you don’t need it.”

Griffin said such a mission, while “it would be nice to have,” is not necessary. “Right now, the budget is such that I have to focus on what’s necessary,” he said, adding that the decision to cancel the lander was not taken lightly.

“The lander wasn’t the first thing I removed from the program. It was the last thing,” he said.

It's not immediately clear how NASA will respond to the congressional directive, or more importantly, what they are going to do with that $20M, since there is no sign that they are going to change their mind about sending a lander.

I have a few problems with this situation.

First of all, I'd really like to see a lander. For science reasons obviously, but also because I'm not convinced we know enough about the conditions at the poles to start putting up a permanent base there. In particular, the electrostatic conditions in a place like the rim of Shackleton crater (the currently favored site) which is always near the terminator, may make life very hard to deal with for the astronauts and their equipment, or maybe it will be fine, but we don't really know and a lander could definitely help us find out. There are many other unknowns and risks that a lander could help us reduce, biological experiments on the reactivity of the soil and the radiation environment, for example. Deciding whether these things are "necessary" or just "useful" is above my pay grade, as they say, but if it were up to me, I would say necessary.

Secondly, I think it's ridiculous that Congress is trying to dictate to NASA how it should be run at this level. Oversight is one thing, I am a firm believer in oversight, but this is not oversight, it's practically an earmark. NASA so strapped for cash right now that we are darn near begging in the streets, and now they are going to have to cough up $20M for a project that is never going to go anywhere.

I realize that many of you are probably thinking about now that my problem #2 contradicts my problem #1 - I want NASA to fund the stupid lander, but I'm mad at Congress for forcing them to keep the program office open. What I really want is for Congress to fund NASA at an appropriate level for them to accomplish all the things that Congress has asked them to do and to let NASA figure out the best way to do it. And I want NASA to stop basing their decisions on whether or not we can afford it and instead decide the best course of action and do it, even if it takes a little longer. NASA often uses the phrase "pay-as-you-go" but they don't believe it. Of course, Congress keeps putting timetables on things (Ahh, Congress and their timetables), like phase-out of the shuttle and when the CEV has to be ready that force NASA's hand. So they are both in my doghouse.

Going to the Moon on a budget is hard, but going to the Moon unprepared will be disastrous.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Defending Peer Review on the Floor of the House

Thank God for the levelheaded members of the House Committee on Science and Technology!

Today's hero is Rep. Baird, who, as the Chair of the Research Subcommittee, successfully defended the peer review process from overzealous republicans yesterday by helping to defeat two ridiculous amendments to the NSF Reauthorization Act that would have cut the funding for several specific studies that were considered "frivolous", such as a study of "accuracy in the cross-cultural understanding of others' emotions". Mr. Baird pointed out that "The scientific merit of a federal research grant often isn't obvious from "a cursory examination of the title or an abstract, that's why we have peer review." The man had clearly done his homework too, he went on to explain that the emotions study, for example, has been endorsed by the U.S. Army Research Institute because its findings could help soldiers correctly read the emotional expressions of people from other cultures and so avoid an accidental firefight that could kill fellow soldiers and innocent civilians.

The amendments were defeated by votes of 195-222 and 126-292, which I find a bit scary.

Way to go Mr. Baird!

The Chronicle of Higher Ed has a good article about it today.