Shannon Lucid Returns Home

Astronaut Shannon Lucid's six-month space odyssey aboard the Russian space station Mir came to an end on September 26 when she returned to Earth aboard the space shuttle Atlantis.
[Image of Lucid]    The landing marked the end of Lucid's 188-day stay in space, the longest by any American and any woman. She spent an extra six weeks in orbit when booster problems, weather delays, and scheduling conflicts delayed the launch of Atlantis.
    Despite six months in microgravity, Lucid walked off the shuttle after landing under her own power. Doctors had planned to wheel her out on a stretcher, but she insisted on leaving on her own.
    "She asked to come out standing up, so she came out under her own power," said NASA administrator Dan Goldin, who met with Lucid after landing. Goldin brought Lucid a letter of congratulations and a large box of chocolates from President Bill Clinton.
    The shuttle landing marked the end of a ten-day mission for the remainder of the Atlantis crew. The mission included the fourth docking between the shuttle and the ten-year-old space station. Atlantis provided Mir with two tons of food, water, and other supplies during the docking.
    Atlantis also dropped off astronaut John Blaha, who took Lucid's place on Mir. Blaha will spend the next four months conducting experiments on the space station.
    The only complication for the mission was the mysterious shutdown of one of Atlantis's three auxiliary power units (APUs) shortly after reaching orbit. The other two units performed normally, however, and the mission continued as planned.
     Lucid, who in an interview during the shuttle-Mir docking said that she was "very, very anxious" to return home, will spend the next two weeks under close medical supervision as she readjusts to normal gravity. She will also get plenty of time to spend with her family.

New Space Policy Omits Manned Mars Missions

Despite an upswell in interest in Mars after last month's announcement of possible past life on the red planet, the U.S. has no plans to send a manned mission to Mars, according to a national space policy document released Thursday, September 19.
[Image of Mars mission]    The National Space Policy, issued by the National Science and Technology Council, calls for an integrated strategy for space exploration among NASA, other civilian agencies, and the military and intelligence organizations.
    The policy set forth five basic goals for the U.S. space program: human and robotic exploration of the Earth, solar system, and universe; strengthening and maintaining national security; enhancing economic competitiveness and scientific and technical capabilities; encourage private sector investment in space; and promote international cooperation.
    However, the only manned program mentioned in the policy was the development and use of the International Space Station.
    "The new policy drops visionary language which appeared in the existing version," commented David W. Brandt, executive director of the National Space Society. "Without this statement of vision, our space program lacks focus."

Space Commercialization Bill Stalls in Senate

Legislation that would have opened the door to increased commercial use of space was approved in the House of Representatives in September but was stalled in the Senate by one member.
    H.R. 3936, the Space Commercialization Promotion Act of 1996, would have provided additional incentives for the commercial development of space. Many components of the bill had been long-supported goals space activists.
    A grassroots lobbying effort targeted at the Senate shortly after passage of the bill in the House got the support of all but one senator. Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-SC), ranking minority member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, placed a hold on the bill.
    According to a staffer in Hollings's office, the bill was moving "too fast" and said that the State Department had objections to the bill. The staffer was unable to elaborate on those objections.
    "The problem was that they did not see the legislation until a few days before they were asked to support it," said Charles Miller, president of ProSpace, a new non-profit lobbying group that worked with the Space Frontier Foundation to promote the legislation.
    Miller said that Hollings and Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT), chair of the space subcommittee, would consider hearings on this legislation in 1997.
    "This is a huge achievement!" Miller said. "For the last 10 years, the U.S. Senate has been the black hole for pro-space legislation. They have never cared about our issues."
    The provisions of H.R. 3936 include promoting the commercialization of the International Space Station, streamlining regulation of the commercial remote sensing industry, and expanding the Launch Services Purchase Act to include all federal payloads.
    Also included in the bill was a provision for the purchase of space science data from the private sector, a long-sought goal of many space activists.
    The bill had bipartisan support in the House and passed on September 17 on a voice vote. "This bill proves that we can work together and quickly pass legislation that will enable our commercial space sector to grow," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), chairman of the Space and Aeronautics subcommittee of the House Science Committee.

NASA, USA Sign Contract

NASA and the United Space Alliance (USA) signed a $7 billion contract September 30 to turn over many routine space shuttle operations to a single private entity.
[Image of contract signing]    The Space Flight Operations Contract (SFOC) replaces 12 individual shuttle contracts for shuttle ground processing, operations, and related work. The six-year contract includes two two-year options that could bring the total value ot the contract to an estimated $12 billion.
    USA is a joint venture between Lockheed-Martin Space Operations and Rockwell Space operations, the two firms which held the bulk of the previous shuttle operations contracts.
    The goal of the single contract, according to NASA officials, is to reduce the cost of operating the shuttle while at the same time maintaining high levels of safety for the shuttles and their crews. NASA will maintain ultimate responsibility for the shuttle and a variety of mechanisms, including audits of USA operations, to ensure safety is still the highest priority.
    USA also has an incentive to reduce costs: 35% of any cost savings the company realizes will be kept by USA, while the remaining 65% is returned to the government.

ESA Plans Two 1997 Ariane-5 Flights

The European Space Agency announced September 26 that two Ariane-5 launches had been scheduled for 1997 after correcting problems that caused the loss of the first Ariane-5 shortly after launch in June.
[Image of Ariane-5 launch]    The next Ariane-5 flight, Ariane 502, is scheduled for mid-April. Its payload will be two instrumented but otherwise "dummy" masses to test the rocket's ability to place two communications satellites into geostationary orbit.
    The Ariane 502 launch will also carry a 500-kg (1,100-lb.) AMSAT satellite into orbit.
    If the 502 launch succeeds, Ariane 503 will launch in September 1997. It will carry a commercial payload as well as the Atmospheric Reentry Demonstrator, a test vehicle for future unspecified manned spacecraft programs.
    At the September 26 press conference, ESA and CNES, the French space agency, announced they had accepted the recommendations of a Board of Inquiry which investigated the accident. The Board of Inquiry released its report in July.
    According to that report, the launch failed due to programming errors in the guidance software for the rocket. The error caused the rocket nozzles to swivel out of alignment, sending the rocket off course. Ground controllers were forced to destroy the rocket while in the air.
    The explosion destroyed the Ariane-5 as well as its payload, a constellation of four Cluster scientific spacecraft. The Cluster spacecraft were to have studied the interaction between the solar wind and the Earth's magnetic field.
    The accident resulted in a $350-million loss for ESA, according to director Jean-Marie Luton. "We are considering restructuring the program's financing by a redistribution of Ariane-5's budget, more funding from member states and a contribution from the program's industrial partners," Luton said.

NASA Demurs on Mars Life Experiment

A proposal to modify an instrument on a future Mars spacecraft to look for present life on the red planet has received a lukewarm response from NASA, according to a report in the September 23 issue of the Boston Globe.
[Image of Viking lander]    Gilbert Levin, president of Maryland-based Biospherics, Inc., and a scientist on the Viking mission twenty years ago, proposed making a modification to an instrument on the 1998 Mars Surveyor Lander that would clarify ambiguous test results from the Viking landers.
    The new test, however, would require sterilizing the spacecraft to a much greater degree than planned to eliminate any terrestrial contamination, a process NASA says would be too difficult to do on such short notice.
    Levin's proposal would modify the spacecraft's Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer (TEGA) to perform an experiment similar to that done on the two Viking landers: feed nutrients to a sample of Martian soil and look for carbon dioxide: evidence of life.
    The Viking results were chalked up to unusual chemistry in the soil, so Levin proposes to test the soil using nutrients made of left- and right-handed molecules separately. Earth life only uses left-handed molecules, so if reactions are observed in only one set of nutrients (either left- or right-handed molecules), it would be evidence of life.
    Scientists agree that this experiment would help prove whether microbes do exist on Mars today, but those working on the mission believe there isn't enough time to modify the spacecraft in time for its launch in two years.
    "If we'd had another year to develop the instrument, it would have been no problem," the University of Arizona's William Boynton, head of the team that designed the TEGA, told the Globe.
    NASA's Wes Huntress suggested that Levin resubmit his instrument proposal for the following Mars mission, scheduled for launch in 2001.

Mars Meteorite Sample Requests Roll In

About fifteen groups have requested samples of the Mars meteorite which showed evidence of past life on Mars, NASA sources said last week as they prepared to evaluate the requests.
[Image of ALH 84001]    "We are getting requests to do a variety of studies that are aimed at confirming, or perhaps denying, the results that have already been published," Marilyn Lindstrom, a meteorite sample curator with NASA, told Reuters.
    Lindstrom expects about fifty requests for samples to come through her office in the near future.
    NASA and the National Science Foundation will evaluate these requests and decide which groups will get samples and also funding to carry out their studies. The joint panel was meeting through the weekend of September 28-29 to evaluate the current proposals.
    Already about 30 slices and 100 chips of ALH84001 have been distributed to researchers. A large sample of the meteorite has been given to the Smithsonian Institution for public display and is also being used as a display piece during Congressional testimony.

NASA Budget Signed by Clinton

President Bill Clinton signed legislation on September 26 which included funding for NASA for fiscal year 1997, giving the space agency $13.7 billion for the next twelve months.
    A House-Senate conference committee reached the figure earlier this month. The amount is equal to the Senate's budget and greater than the amount approved earlier by the House.
    The amount approved was $100 million less than the request submitted by the Clinton Administration earlier in the year. The difference comes from a $5 million cut to the GLOBE program, part of Mission to Planet Earth, and a $95 million general cut to the science, aeronautics, and technology section of the budget.
    The committee also made $69 million in increases to smaller programs within NASA. A radar satellite and advanced space transportation programs each got $12 million increases, while the TIMED mission, museum, and education programs each got $10 million more.
    The committee instructed NASA to make offsetting cuts in other programs to account for these reappropriations.
    The space shuttle and space station programs each were fully funded.

New Gamma Ray Bursts Puzzle Astronomers

A pair of gamma ray bursts from a distant black hole, including one burst that lasted for only 30 minutes, have left astronomers puzzles as to their cause, an international team of astronomers reported in the British journal Nature.
    Observations of the active nucleus of the galaxy Markarian 421 -- believed to harbor a black hole -- revealed two gamma ray bursts in an eight-day period in May. Both bursts were brighter than any other bursts ever seen, including one burst with ten times the flux of the Crab Nebula.
    One burst observed lasted for only half an hour, much shorter than a typical burst, which can last for days. "No model predicts anything happening this fast," said John Finley of Purdue University. "These flares occurred much faster than any theory can explain at this point."
    Finley said the bursts were probably caused by an object falling into the black hole.
    The observations for this study were carried out at the Whipple Observatory in Arizona. Astronomers observed flashes of light in the atmosphere caused by the gamma rays. Astronomers from the United States, Great Britain, and Ireland contributed to the research.

New Millennium Spacecraft to Go to Mars

NASA announced September 25 that the next mission in its New Millennium program of flight technology development will be two microprobes that will hitch a ride to Mars on the 1998 Mars Surveyor Lander.
    The two spacecraft, each weighing less than 2 kg (4.4 lbs.), will separate from the from the Mars Surveyor Lander shortly before arrival at Mars. They will plunge through the Martian atmosphere and impact the surface at speeds up to 200 meters per second (446 mph).
    At impact, the spacecraft will split into two sections. One will burrow up to two meters into the Martian surface, obtaining information on the Martian soil and looking for any evidence of polar subsurface water.
    The second section of the spacecraft will remain near or on the surface to relay data back to Earth.
    "A successful demonstration of the microprobe technologies will enable a wide range of scientific activities that would not be affordable with conventional technologies," said Dr. John McNamee, manager of the 1998 Mars Surveyor Lander.
    The Mars microprobe mission will help chart the course for NASA's vision of space science in the 21st century, a vision that incorporates the concept of 'network science' through the use of multiple planetary landers," added Kane Casani, manager of the New Millennium program.
    Previously announced New Millennium projects include Deep Space-1, a 1998 mission to an asteroid and a comet that will use a xenon ion engine; and the Advanced Land Imager, an Earth-orbiting remote sensing spacecraft.

Other News

Dan Goldin had been quiet about his opinions of the two presidents he served under, but an open mike last Friday caught some of his words. Speaking to JSC director George Abbey after a speech by Clinton in Houston, Goldin could be heard saying, "Despite all the hits, I think he's [Clinton's] done a better job for NASA than Bush." Goldin was also heard saying that he joined the space program because of John Kennedy, and was staying because of Clinton... The exact opposite opinion was stated by Alcestis "Cooky" Oberg in an editorial in the September 22 issue of the Houston Chronicle. "To date, Clinton has been the worst president America has ever had in space matters," Oberg wrote. "[On space policy] Bill Clinton has no rationale or coherence. He hasn't behaved like a president, but more like a child with a gun -- wantonly shooting at whatever grabs his fancy, not knowing or caring about what he has destroyed."

The NASA Inspector General's report on the elimination of MacOS computers at the Johnson Space Center is scheduled for release in early October. As stated in the September issue of SpaceViews, JSC is seeking to replace the remaining Macintosh computers at the center with PCs running Windows, and has met with stiff opposition from a small group of Mac users derisively known as "Mac huggers". According to NASA RIF Watch, the upcoming report is among the most widely requested reports in the history of the Inspector General's office, and may vindicate the Mac users.

What irony: What was the Newsweek cover story the week the National Space Policy, which made no mention of a manned mission to Mars, was release? The possibility of a manned Mars mission, of course... All four major news networks in the US (ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN) covered the landing of Atlantis last Thursday, a rare event. NBC interviewed former astronaut and Mir resident Norm Thagard while ABC spoke with Joe Welles, brother of Shannon Lucid.

What exactly was the software error that caused the first Ariane-5 launch to go out of control? According to various sources, a faulty conversion from a DOUBLE variable to INT variable in the program was the cause. The floating point figure was larger than the 16-bit limit for integers, and the Ada program shut down. The backup computer had shut down seconds before the primary failed, and the guidance system used the error codes as data. Something to keep in mind the next time you're debugging code...

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