Monday, July 30, 2012

NuSTAR: Bumps in the Road

The above image is the cover page of report of Aldridge Commission, Report of the President's Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, 2004. Image Credit: NASA / Aldridge Commission

We now continue our review of NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) mission, which launched June 13th. In this outing we continue on the road to final approval. And along the way we find some bumps in the road…

The Vision for Space Exploration

On January 14, 2004, U.S. President George W. Bush announced a plan for space exploration called the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). The VSE sought to implement a sustained and affordable human and robotic program to explore the solar system and beyond; extend human presence across the solar system, starting with a human return to the Moon by the year 2020, in preparation for human exploration of Mars and other destinations; develop the innovative technologies, knowledge, and infrastructures both to explore and to support decisions about the destinations for human exploration; and to promote international and commercial participation in exploration to further U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests. In pursuit of these goals, the Vision called for the space program to complete the International Space Station by 2010; retire the Space Shuttle by 2010; develop a new Crew Exploration Vehicle (later renamed Orion) by 2008, and conduct its first human spaceflight mission by 2014; explore the Moon with robotic spacecraft missions by 2008 and crewed missions by 2020, and use lunar exploration to develop and test new approaches and technologies useful for supporting sustained exploration of Mars and beyond; explore Mars and other destinations with robotic and crewed missions; pursue commercial transportation to support the International Space Station and missions beyond low Earth orbit.

Spring 2006

By the beginning of 2006, NuSTAR was slated for a 2009 launch. More than two dozen graduate and postdoctoral students were deeply involved. And project expenditures had exceeded $7.5 million. The project team was working around the clock on the project's confirmation review, tying up the loose ends of the process.

But the NuSTAR project could not operate in a vacuum, untouched by events and circumstances without and within NASA. As time passed, NASA was affected more and more by the mandates of the VSE. Eventually, a panel for the National Research Council (NRC) was tasked with assessing the impact of the VSE in the light of the NASA budget proposed Fiscal Year 2007. The NRC panel concluded that the budget provided the agency with insufficient funds to allow it to meet all of its VSE mandates while remaining strong in science. According to one statement in the report, "NASA is being asked to accomplish too much with too little."

The panel's message seemed to be in agreement with NASA's own assessment. In February, NASA announced that, in order to meet the mandates laid out in the VSE, it would have to scale back or eliminate many of its science projects. Specifically, science-program cutbacks of $3 billion over 5 years would be needed.

The cutbacks applied not only to funding for existing programs, but funding for future programs as well. And one of those affected future programs was NuSTAR. As the project team worked long hours to complete its confirmation review, they learned in a televised press briefing that NuSTAR had been cancelled.

The change was immediate. The NuSTAR project went from full funding one day to zero funding the next. And since the news came with no advance warning, there was not time to develop contingencies or to substitute funding from other sources. The project team was immediately dispersed to search for work and academic programs elsewhere.

To be continued.

And now, the mission particulars...

NuSTAR is a Small Explorer mission led by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, also in Pasadena, for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The spacecraft was built by Orbital Sciences Corporation, Dulles, Virginia. Its instrument was built by a consortium including Caltech; JPL; the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkley); Columbia University, New York; NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland; the Danish Technical University in Denmark; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, California; and ATK Aerospace Systems, Goleta, California. NuSTAR will be operated by UC Berkeley, with the Italian Space Agency providing its equatorial ground station located at Malindi, Kenya. The mission's outreach program is based at Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California. NASA's Explorer Program is managed by Goddard. JPL is managed by Caltech for NASA. For more information on the NuSTAR mission, visit 
www.nasa.gov/nustar and http://www.nustar.caltech.edu/ .


To learn more about the High Energy Focusing Telescope (HEFT), visit www.srl.Caltech.edu/HEFT .

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