Problems persist with “Moon 2024”


Credit: the

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just delivered yet another report to Congress documenting continuing cost growth and schedule delays in the major systems that NASA is developing to return people to the Moon — by 2024, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine insists.

The title of the new report says it all: “NASA HUMAN SPACE EXPLORATION: Persistent Delays and Cost Growth Reinforce Concerns over Management of Programs.”

Here’s what GAO found in its investigation of cost and schedule for the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion crew capsule, and supporting ground systems: “Due to continued production and testing challenges, [NASA’s]…three related human spaceflight programs have encountered additional launch delays and cost growth. In November 2018, within one year of announcing an up to 19-month delay for the three programs— [SLS], the Orion spacecraft, and supporting ground systems—NASA senior leaders acknowledged the revised date of June 2020 is unlikely. Any issues uncovered during planned integration and testing may push the launch date as late as June 2021. Moreover, while NASA acknowledges about $1 billion in cost growth for the SLS program, it is understated. This is because NASA shifted some planned SLS scope to future missions but did not reduce the program’s cost baseline accordingly. When GAO reduced the baseline to account for the reduced scope, the cost growth is about $1.8 billion.”

And there’s more: “In addition, NASA’s updated cost estimate for the Orion program reflects 5.6 percent cost growth. The estimate is not complete, however, as it assumes a launch date that is 7 months earlier than Orion’s baseline launch date. If the program does not meet the earlier launch date, costs will increase further. Updating baselines to reflect current mission scope and providing complete cost estimates would provide NASA management and Congress with a more transparent assessment of where NASA is having difficulty controlling costs. NASA paid over $200 million in award fees from 2014-2018 related to contractor performance on the SLS stages and Orion spacecraft contracts. But the programs continue to fall behind schedule and overrun costs. Ongoing contract renegotiations with Boeing for the SLS and Lockheed Martin for the Orion program provide NASA an opportunity to reevaluate its strategy to incentivize contractors to obtain better outcomes.”

What did GAO conclude? “NASA’s SLS, Orion, and EGS [ground support] programs NASA “has been unable to achieve agreed-to cost and schedule performance” for SLS, Orion, and ground support systems. “NASA acknowledges that future delays to the June 2020 launch date are likely, but the agency’s approach in estimating cost growth for the SLS and Orion programs is misleading. And it does not provide decision makers, including the Administrator, complete cost data with which to assess whether Congress needs to be notified of a cost increase, pursuant to law. By not using a similar set of assumptions regarding what costs are included in the SLS baseline and updated SLS cost estimates, NASA is underreporting the magnitude of the program’s cost growth. Similarly, NASA is underreporting the Orion program’s cost performance by measuring cost growth to an earlier-than-agreed-to schedule date. As a result, Congress and the public continue to accept further delays to the launch of the first mission without a clear understanding of the costs associated with those delays.”

“Finally, contractor performance to date has not produced desirable program cost and schedule outcomes. Ongoing and planned contract negotiations present an opportunity to restructure the government’s approach to incentives.”

Earlier this year NASA said it wanted to return people to the Moon by 2028. Then the White House directed NASA to do it by 2024. At the same time, it appears that NASA is unable to resolve the cost and schedule problems documented so thoroughly by the GAO.

As I wrote in a March 13 blog post, the administration’s budget request for NASA in 2020 proposes cutting SLS funding (now about $2 billion a year) by 17 percent. Since receiving the Moon-2024 directive, NASA administrator Bridenstine has said NASA will need supplemental billions a year to meet the 2024 goal. Where those billions will come from is not clear.

In 2014, the cost estimate for SLS was $9.7 billion, with first launch proposed for 2018. By 2018, NASA had spent about $11.9 billion on SLS. We still don’t have a firm date for the first launch of the SLS, as far as I know.

Bridenstine told the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee in March that he wanted to launch NASA’s so-called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) in June 2020, on a “commercial rocket.” The SLS was intended to be the launch vehicle for EM-1, which would carry the Orion crew capsule – without crew – and a European-built service module into lunar orbit. (As of 2017, the cost estimate for Orion was $6.6 billion.) Weeks later, Bridenstine said the “commercial rocket” option was off the table.

As I follow the current “back to the Moon” saga, the words that keeping popping into my head include “smoke and mirrors” and “shell game.” The aerospace industry, led by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, is certainly supportive of this initiative. The industry will make a ton of money on it. But, as far as I can tell, neither congressional support nor public support has materialized for the back-to-the-Moon initiative. So, again, I’ll ask, why? Why do we need to return people to the Moon? And why has neither congressional nor public support materialized?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad we have a space program. But I think the space program we have is headed in the wrong direction. It would be nice to have a broad national dialogue on where we should be going and what we should be doing in space. (Alas, in the current political environment, I don’t see such a thing happening.) I was involved in two limited but useful efforts to collect public comment on this subject – the series of public forums held by the National Commission on Space in 1985-1986, and the series of town meetings held by NASA in 1992. I was not involved in a series of “future forums” held by NASA in 2008. Those forums were invitation-only events – meaning that NASA hand-picked attendees. And it’s not at all clear whether and how NASA, Congress, or the White House has incorporated any of this public feedback into its decision-making processes.

Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of “Moon 2024.”


Will space science have to pay for Moon 2024?



At Tuesday ’s hearing of the House Science subcommittee on space and aeronautics, intended to review NASA’s science mission, subcommittee members and witnesses alike expressed concerns about NASA’s push to land people back on the Moon by 2024. (To reiterate, I don’t think it’s a good idea, and I also don’t think it’s do-able.)

House Science, Space, and Technology Committee chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (for whom I have great respect), said in her opening statement:

“The one-year [fiscal year 2020 NASA] budget amendment [proposed] in May would give the [NASA] Administrator carte blanche authority to move funds among NASA’s accounts from this year forward, if he determines that ‘the transfers are necessary in support of establishment of a U.S. strategic presence on the Moon.’ Why? Because the Administration, it seems, may not request in the coming years what NASA actually needs” for Moon 2024…. This isn’t a new tactic. The George W. Bush Administration, which initiated the last Moon program” – the so-called Vision for Space Exploration, a back-to-the-Moon-and-on-to-Mars proposal – “tried the same approach. According to a 2006 National Academies report, the Bush Administration indicated its intention to cut significantly from Science to pay for its Moon program.”

Cuts were made, and yet the Vision did not materialize. (For more details, see my April 2 blog post.)

NASA associate administrator for science Thomas Zurbuchen said in his written statement: “There is intense interest in what we can discover at the Moon…. The Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program (LDEP), established within SMD, advances an integrated, innovative and sustainable strategy for exploration. LDEP is rooted not only in fostering improved collaboration across the Agency, but on truly leveraging interagency, international, and commercial partnerships to enable the payloads and services that will address the Nation’s lunar exploration, science and technology demonstration goals. The synergy between robotic and human exploration assets enables valuable opportunities for science that cut across our science disciplines, allowing us to take advantage of the Moon both as a destination and as a unique vantage point to discover the secrets of the universe, and through it protect and improve life on Earth.”

He also said: “In 2020, NASA will commence studies and development of a Mars Sample Return mission – the highest-priority strategic mission identified by the scientific community in the most recent planetary science decadal survey and endorsed in the 2018 midterm assessment – that would allow for the return of the Mars 2020 rover samples. Leveraging commercial and international partnerships, such as with the European Space Agency, this mission may launch as early as 2026. In parallel, the cutting-edge Europa Clipper, a strategic mission to fly by Jupiter’s moon, will be our first step in exploring ocean worlds and their potential habitability for extraterrestrial life.”

Mars sample return and missions to Europa will be multi-billion-dollar initiatives. If NASA administrator Bridenstine were to move money from science to Moon 2024, IMHO these missions would not be able to proceed in a timely fashion (if at all). (Mars sample return has been a top priority in the planetary science community since the late 1970s. It’s continued to be unaffordable. More on this in a later post.)

NASA also has two big-ticket astrophysics missions in the works: the Wide Field Infrared Telescope (WFIRST), which NASA estimates will cost $3.2 billion and is planned for launch in 2025; and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

The Trump administration did not include any funding for WFIRST in its fiscal year 2019 and 2020 budget requests. Congress appropriated funding for 2019 ($312 million). I expect that Congress will do the same for 2020. As Space News reported, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told Congress in March that WFIRST should be cancelled in order to keep JWST on track.

As to JWST, the Government Accountability Office reported in May: “Prior to being approved for development, cost estimates for JWST ranged from $1 billion to $3.5 billion, with expected launch dates ranging from 2007 to 2011. Before 2011, early technical and management challenges, contractor performance issues, low levels of cost reserves, and poorly phased funding levels caused JWST to delay work after confirmation, which contributed to significant cost and schedule overruns, including launch delays. Following an independent review, Congress placed an $8 billion cap on the formulation and development costs for the project in November 2011. NASA rebaselined JWST with a life-cycle cost estimate of $8.835 billion that included additional money for operations and a planned launch in October 2018. Between September 2017 and June 2018, the project’s planned launch date was delayed three times, culminating in another independent review and a replan with a new project cost estimate of $9.663 billion and a new launch date of March 2021.”

And then there’s the Space Launch System (SLS)/Orion project, the key element of NASA’s plan to return people to the Moon. As I wrote here on March 13, “The budget request for NASA in 2020 proposes cutting SLS funding (now about $2 billion a year) by 17 percent. In 2014, the cost estimate for SLS was $9.7 billion, with first launch proposed for 2018. By 2018, NASA had spent about $11.9 billion on SLS…. (As of 2017, the cost estimate for Orion was $6.6 billion.)”

Early this year NASA said it was planning to return people to the Moon by 2028. Then Vice President Pence told NASA that the president wanted NASA to put people back on the Moon by 2024.

(Are you scratching your head yet? I am….)

Now, back to the hearing on space science….

Princeton University astrophysicist David Spergel, former chair of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board, said in his written testimony: “Neither the planetary science decadal survey nor its more recent mid-decadal report have identified a major investment in lunar science as one of the highest priorities of the planetary science community.”

Mark Sykes, CEO and director of the Planetary Science Institute, said in his testimony: “The Administration’s proposed…budget amendment to give the Administration authority to restructure the agency as necessary in support of establishment of a US strategic presence on the Moon would pose, if implemented, a grave danger to the future of all American space science and our nation’s space program in general…. Space science could be radically reduced or expunged. All of this would occur without any Congressional oversight. It does not matter who is the Administrator, the party in power, or the President today or tomorrow. This cannot be allowed under any circumstances.”

More from Sykes: “The plan under the Space Exploration Initiative [SEI – proposed by George H.W. Bush in 1989] for the development of astronomy on the Moon in concert with expanding human activity has been largely superseded over the past 30 years by the successful development of space-based observatories.” (I would add that neither the GHW Bush administration nor Congress provided funding for the SEI.)

During the George W. Bush administration, former Apollo astronaut and former senator Harrison Schmitt, then head of the NASA Advisory Council, was given the go-ahead by NASA to organize a February 2007 “back to the Moon” workshop in Tempe, Arizona, which, according to NASA, produced 35 recommendations relating to exploration science, lunar science, lunar-based science, and “other research enabled by the emerging exploration architecture for returning humans to the Moon by 2020.” I attended this workshop as a consultant to NASA’s Planetary Protection Office. I came away from the workshop with the impression that most lunar scientists thought the research they would like to do on the Moon could be conducted robotically, but if NASA were to put people on the Moon, they could come up with some work for them to do.

I don’t think returning humans to the Moon by 2024 is possible. The Apollo program made remarkable achievements on a short timeline – at a time when our nation was in a budget surplus and the global political environment drove the U.S. government into an effort to beat the Soviet Union to the Moon. The point was not to establish a presence on the Moon. The point was to establish technological dominance.

Times have changed. The global political environment, and the global aerospace enterprise, is very different in 2019 than it was in the 1960s. Yes, other nations are talking about sending people to the Moon. Perhaps the only sensible, and perhaps somewhat affordable, way to establish a human presence on the Moon would be to build a multinational coalition to do it, as was done to build, staff, and maintain the International Space Station (ISS).

It was the Reagan administration that initiated the building of an international partnership to build a space station. It was the Clinton administration that brought Russia into the ISS partnership. (Russia launched the first ISS module, Zarya, into Earth orbit.)

Could the U.S., Russia, China, India, and other spacefaring nations with an interest in the Moon work together on a lunar base?

What do you think?

Who’s in charge of our future?



Concluding today is Amazon re:MARS, an invitation-only four-day conference organized by Amazon. The company has described the conference as “a new global AI [artificial intelligence] event on machine learning, automation, robotics, and space, to learn why and how to apply the latest AI advances in your business and work.”

The cost of admission was $1,999. The cost of three nights at the conference hotel, the NV Aria Resort & Casino, was $857.16. The conference featured two receptions plus a “re:MARS party” last night.

Amazon told invitees that they should attend because “re:MARS brings together innovative minds with diverse skill sets who share an inventors spirit, a builders mentality, and a desire to use AI to initiate change and shape the future. The event is designed for business leaders and technical builders (including developers, engineers, data scientists, ML experts, and roboticists) who translate customer problems into real-world technology solutions using AI. We want you to learn, have fun, foster new relationships, and find unexpected inspiration.”

Amazon actually provided invitees with “justification letters” intended to convince their bosses to let them attend on the company tab. (Wow.) From these letters: “At re:MARS, I’ll hear the latest AI trends, learn how Amazon and other leading companies use AI to innovate, see the latest invention and business solutions for AI, and connect with other leaders.”

“Gold” sponsors of the conference included Accenture and Intel. “Featured speakers” at the conference included (of course) Jeff Bezos and several other Amazon executives – plus Robert Downey Jr. (what?).

To my eye, perusing its agenda, this conference appeared to be designed in large part as an opportunity to promote Amazon products and services (and perhaps another opportunity for Bezos to air his personal visions for the future of humanity).

(Who put him in charge of our future? I don’t like it.)

Apparently this conference was open to the media (or was it just invited media? I don’t know). VentureBeat reported today that Bezos told conference attendees his aerospace company, Blue Origins, is “going to the moon to ‘save the Earth.’ The idea is that moving more of humanity into space could be part of a long-term strategy to protect the Earth…. ‘To do big things in space’ we need to use in-space resources, and so the moon is great. The reason we go to space, in my view, is to save the Earth. [If] we are going to continue to grow this civilization, we need the moon’,” he said.

I find this rationale specious at best.

I’ve just published a paper in the journal Futures arguing that colonizing other planets is a bad idea. Here’s my abstract: “Should humans seek to colonize outer space? I say no. I have worked in the space community for 35 years with a variety of programs and projects ranging from science to human space flight. My view as a social scientist is that humans are not sufficiently advanced, technologically and socially, to be establishing colonies on Mars, or any other place in space. Except for the threads of Russian cosmism, the ideology of space colonization and exploitation is largely Western, and Christian, as noted above. It appears to be some interpretation of Christian dominion, or dominionist, theology that drives colonization advocates to declare that humans are destined to fill the universe, that humans “must” colonize Mars, that outer space resources are there for the taking. The ideology of space exploration is in need of rejuvenation. The author advocates a vision of a human future in space in which humanity finds its way to a collective peaceful existence on Spaceship Earth, a way to work together to preserve life here and to look for life out there. Perhaps at some point in the distant future, humans might be ready –technologically and socially – to live together peacefully on other planets. But we are not there yet.”

As to VentureBeat, it is supported by corporate and individual investors or sponsors. As of July 2014, Amazon was not an investor. I don’t know about today, as I can’t find any more up-to-date information via Google.

Other media outlets reporting on the conference included GeekWire and CNBC.

It disturbs me that the mass media so readily report on the space “visions” of zealots like Bezos without any critical thinking about their feasibility, utility, or validity. A small but growing community of scholars and analysts are exploring the ethics of colonizing other planetary bodies. The issue of Futures that contains my recent paper is a dedicated issue on the topic of human colonization of other worlds, presenting a wide range of views on the subject, from philosophers, ethicists, natural scientists and social scientists. Alas, the papers are behind a paywall, but at least you can read the abstracts for free to get a flavor of a thoughtful discourse on this subject that is vastly underrepresented in the media.

Planetary defense: the hits keep coming


Catalina Sky Survey. Credit:

Small asteroids hit Earth’s atmosphere and explode on a regular basis – without any harm to people or property. Sometimes people see them, most times not. Various sensors systems, ranging from the network of microbarometers operated by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (which detect infrasound waves), lightning sensors on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s GOES 16 and 17 weather satellites, the National Weather Service’s Next Generation Weather Radar (NEXRAD) system.

Planning for planetary defense against large asteroid impacts — events that could cause damage to people and property — requires, first and foremost, finding, tracking, and characterizing near-Earth objects (NEOs)  –(mostly) asteroids and (some) comets that are predicted to pass within about 30 million miles (50 million kilometers) of Earth on their orbits around the Sun. An expanding global network of ground-based observers is doing this work. The International Asteroid Warning Network (, now five years old, is improving communication and coordination among these observers.

I received an in-depth update on this enterprise by attending the 2019 Planetary Defense Conference (PDC), which convened in College Park, Maryland, on April 29. These biennial, week-long PDCs are an opportunity for the global community of experts involved in NEO science and planning for planetary defense to come together and report on their work. This was my third PDC. (Full disclosure: I am a consultant to NASA’s planetary defense program on communication issues. No one asked me to write this blog post.) This post provides a brief glimpse of the proceedings.

With a bigger annual budget – currently around $150 million – and the world’s first planetary defense mission – the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) – in development (for launch in 2021), NASA’s planetary defense program is making progress. According to Kelly Fast, manager of NASA’s NEO observations program (a key element of the planetary defense program), the ongoing NEO survey hit the 20,000 mark on April 26. That is, observers (more than 90 percent funded by NASA) have found more than 20,000 NEOs thus far. NEO discoveries reached 15,000 in October 2016, a milestone marking a 50 percent increase in discoveries since 2013, when the 10,000 threshold was reached. In 2012 the rate of NEO discovery was about half of what it is today. (As of June 2, discoveries totaled 20,224).

Two space agencies now have planetary defense officers: Lindley Johnson at NASA, and Ruediger Jehn at the European Space Agency (ESA). Planetary defense could involve launching a mission to deflect an asteroid off an impact course with Earth (the DART mission will demonstrate this technique on a non-hazardous asteroid), or, if deflection is not an option, planning for impact mitigation. No known NEO is predicted to be on an impact course with Earth for the next 100 years. Observers have found, and are tracking, most of the big ones – 1 kilometer in size or larger – objects that might cause global damage if they were to impact Earth (either by exploding in the atmosphere or hitting land or sea).

Though the network of NEO observation sites has been growing in recent years and while NEO observing technologies and techniques are improving, ground-based observations can only be conducted at night when skies are clear. These limitations mean that using current assets, says NASA’s Lindley Johnson, it would take 30 years to meet the congressionally mandated goal of finding, tracking, and characterizing 90 percent of 140-meter and larger NEOs (Congress wanted this goal met by 2030).

Given these limitations, the planetary defense community has been advocating for a space-based NEO survey telescope that will observe in the infrared (IR). NASA’s planetary defense program is funding an “extended-phase-A” study of the proposed NEO Camera (or NEOCam) mission – a space-based, dedicated NEO survey telescope. The primary challenge is to refine key technology for the mission — and then, if all goes well, advance to “phase B” — mission definition.

As NEOCam principal investigator Amy Mainzer explains, asteroids typically reflect less than 10 percent of the sunlight that hits them in visible wavelengths. This visible light reflection is what ground-based observers can detect. The rest of the sunlight that hits an asteroid is emitted in infrared (IR wavelengths – hence, the desirability of an IR NEO survey telescope.

Meanwhile, the NASA-funded Catalina Sky Survey and the Pan-STARRS project are the two most productive NEO search initiatives. A newer asset, funded by NASA in 2013, is the Asteroid Terrestrial Impact Last Alert System (ATLAS), which aims to provide one day’s warning for an impact of an asteroid that would release 30 kilotons of energy, one week for a 5-megaton impact event, and three weeks for a 100-megaton impact event. The privately funded Las Cumbres Observatory, a global network of robotically operated telescopes, devotes some of its observing time to NEO searching.

The DART mission, being the first of its kind, presents numerous technical challenges. For instance, according to Angela Stickle, a member of the DART team at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), which is building the spacecraft, “initial impactor parameters” – such as impactor mass and speed – “are well known.” However, “physical properties of the target are not well known.” Factors that could affect the kinetic impact demonstration include the porosity, strength, and crack spacing of the asteroid target.

Finally, I’d like to say a few words about a first-time event for a PDC – a panel of journalists (organized by yours truly) who were invited to PDC 2019 to tell the experts what they need to know about planetary defense and how and when they need to know it.

Journalists on the panel were science reporter Dan Vergano with Buzzfeed News, science reporter Sarah Kaplan with the Washington Post, and broadcast meteorologist Melissa Nord of CBS Channel 9 TV in Washington, D.C. (Broadcast meteorologists routinely report on natural phenomena such as asteroid close approaches and meteor showers.)

Addressing ongoing concerns among some scientists about erroneous reporting, Kaplan told attendees, “You need to know how hard we work to get it right.” She said she would much rather be corrected during interviews than have to correct a story after publication. Kaplan said people in the planetary defense community use too much technical jargon in communications with journalists. Don’t “dumb it down” for us, she said. Instead, “translate” – that is, take the time to explain what you are telling us about.

All three panelists said the planetary defense community needs to put more thought into graphics provided to journalists and the public. Graphics that are useful and meaningful to experts are not necessarily useful, meaningful, or comprehensible to others. All three also expressed frustration at having to go through public affairs offices in order to make contact with experts. They prefer communicating directly with sources. With deadlines always looming, having to wait for hours to get in contact with an expert can mean that a story is published or aired without comment from the appropriate person. “It’s tremendously frustrating,” Vergano said; “the PR folks often get in the way.”

Vergano urged experts not to “fudge” on what they do not know for sure. We can live with uncertainty, he said. And we need patience from our sources, he added.  He also advised experts to “get over” their frustrations with headlines and stories that might appear misleading or sensationalized to them. Journalists are not going to use the same scientific language that the experts use, he said.

Nord, who serves a local audience but in a large metropolitan area with an educated population, suggested that NASA’s PDCO could better assist broadcast meteorologists working in smaller towns by providing them a short video on NEOs, close approaches, and planetary defense. (Good idea.)

That’s all for now.

More on “technosignatures” (a.k.a. SETI)


Credit: YouTube

I’m just now reading the November 2018 report on the technosignatures workshop hosted by NASA in Houston, Texas, in September 2018. (I attended much of this workshop via livestreaming.) “Technosignatures” is the label that advocates for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) have adopted in recent years to replace “SETI” – part of the community’s ongoing effort to further legitimize their work as “science” (and because it’s a long word, I’m going to shorten it to TSs here.) As I’ve said before, the search for TSs is still SETI.

SETI advocate Adam Frank said at the workshop that work going on today is “not your grandmother’s SETI” – that is, listening for radio signals from intelligent extraterrestrial life. SETI today involves consideration of radio, optical/near-infrared laser, atmospheric, structural and planet-scale signals (or signatures).

Nonetheless, SETI today continues to proceed on a pile of assumptions. (See below for a recap.)

Now-retired Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who chaired the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee from January 3, 2013 to January 3, 2019, is a self-described SETI fan. In 2017, Smith advised NASA that it should be funding the search for TSs and said his committee would be authorizing $10 million for NASA TS research in 2018-2019 (fiscal year 2019). Responding to Smith’s direction, NASA hosted the September workshop, organized by the scientific community, to gather information on the state of the art of TS search.

I found the workshop report to be, first, a strongly worded advocacy document for federal funding of TS research, and, second, a review of the state of the art in TS research.

(Note: While the funding was authorized, NASA’s fiscal year 2019 appropriations did not include the $10 million for TS research.)

Michael New, deputy associate administrator for research in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said at the workshop that it was taking place because “there’s language in our authorization bill that says we should be interested” in TSs. Over the past 20 years, he noted, the astrobiology community has been developing a framework for identifying and exploring for biosignatures. TSs are a subset of this larger framework, he said. New also noted that NASA’s current call for exobiology research proposals includes TS research, excluding searches for radio signals.

(Note: New has advised me that NASA has modified language in its exobiology and astrophysics data analysis program calls for proposals to clarify the types of TS proposals these research and analysis programs are willing to consider. Again, the additional $10 million authorized for TS research was not appropriated, so proposals for TS research must compete with other proposals for funding.)

At NASA headquarters, the view as far as I understand it is that TS research is more within the purview of astrophysics than it is within astrobiology. Nonetheless, the workshop report – edited by SETI scientist Jason Wright and exoplanet researcher Dawn Gelino – states: “Technosignatures are analogous to biosignatures in that they are a detectable sign of extant or extinct life…. [W]hile some consider technosignatures to be a subset of biosignatures and others think of them as being complementary to biosignatures, either way searches for technosignatures are logically continuous with the search for biosignatures as part of astrobiology.”

In an introduction to the workshop report, Jason Wright wrote:

“As with biosignatures, one must proceed by hypothesizing a class of detectable technosignatures, motivated by life on Earth, and then designing a search for that technosignature considering both its detectability and its uniqueness. The search for technosignatures is thus broad, encompassing much of astronomy. Unlike biosignatures, many proposed technosignatures are self-luminous or involve the manipulation of energy from bright natural sources. Also, since technological life might spread through the galaxy, its technosignatures might be found far in both space and time from its point of abiogenesis. Compared to biosignatures, technosignatures might therefore be more ubiquitous, more obvious, more unambiguous, and detectable at much greater (even extragalactic) distances.”

I question this statement. Wright says, “many proposed technosignatures are self-luminous or involve the manipulation of energy from bright natural sources.” IMHO, it would be more accurate to say that “we believe that many of the technosignatures we propose to look for would be self-luminous or involve the manipulation of bright natural sources.” I also question the claim that “compared to biosignatures, technosignatures might…be more ubiquitous” etc. etc. This claim is speculative – based largely on assumptions, not knowledge.

The workshop report speculates about interstellar visitors to our solar system or past, extinct, technological cultures on Earth – speculations that I find far-fetched. “Because our exploration of the solar system remains so incomplete…it remains a potential search space for technosignatures. Most obvious is the investigation of hypothetical interstellar probes…. Because the geological, paleontological, and archaeological records on Earth are so incomplete, it is even possible that the Earth itself hosts such artifacts…. If technosignatures were discovered in the solar system, it would be worth considering whether their origin might not be interstellar. Specifically, since the Earth is home to the only known species capable of interstellar communication and planetary travel (although both technologies remain in their early development), the Earth remains the only known planet fecund enough to promote technological life, and so it or an early, habitable Mars or Venus could even be the origin  of such technology…. [P]revious episodes of widespread, planet-altering technology on the Earth by putative, now-extinct species (that existed long before humans did) might be identified through paleoclimate investigations using isotopic proxies, land-use analysis, transuranic elements (or fission byproducts), or by searching for artifacts in the geologic record..”


The report also suggests that the Library of Congress Blumberg Chair in Astrobiology program could provide an opportunity to fund a scholar who wants to study SETI. This program, intended to foster “research at the intersection of the science of astrobiology and its humanistic and societal implications,” could “overlap into technosignatures…. [R]esearch and events produced do not necessarily filter deeply into the science community. There may be ways to amplify the extent and impact of this program for both biosignatures and technosignatures.”

I’m quite familiar with this program and all of its chairs, and I doubt this will happen. (Just FYI, I will be moderating a free public program at the University of Washington on June 25 featuring three Blumberg chairs who will discuss their work at the Library of Congress.)

As to the “social dimensions and implications” of TS research, the report notes that “a recent significant public consultationprocess was undertaken by NASA in collaboration with researchers from Arizona State University’sConsortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes.” This public consultation project was conducted in connection with a then-high-priority project at NASA, the Asteroid Initiative. The report suggests that NASA could fund a similar public consultation project about SETI, “which truly takes into account current public interests and concerns (instead of presuming to already know what those are).”

Since SETI is not a priority for NASA, this is not going to happen, either.

To be clear, considering the vastness of the universe and what we’ve learned about its evolution and physical and chemical composition, I have no trouble accepting the idea that life could exist, or could have existed, elsewhere. But for me, that’s the end of acceptable assumptions about SETI. No matter how rhetorically or technologically sophisticated the SETI community has become, the work of this community still depends on a pile of assumptions that I deem shaky – that intelligence will evolve in life on other planets, that we know what intelligence is and will recognize it when we encounter it, that extraterrestrial intelligence will be like human intelligence, that human intelligence is the pinnacle of the evolution of intelligence on Earth…. The TS workshop report addresses the limits of various approaches to searching for TSs. Again, considering the vastness of the universe, these limits are, and always have been, a weak point in the rationale for SETI. The chances of finding and verifying a signature are extremely slim. For years, some SETI advocates have been claiming that detection of a signal is imminent. I doubt it.

Preparing for subsurface planetary exploration


DEPTHX. Credit:

In October 2018, a study committee of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) – specifically, the Committee on the Astrobiology Science Strategy for the Search for Life in the Universe, Space Studies Board –  published a reportproviding recommendations for a NASA astrobiology strategy for the search for life in the universe. IMHO, the report is on the mark. (Whether the White House and Congress will provide needed funding to enable the implementation of these recommendations remains to be seen.)

I am a (part-time) consultant to the NASA astrobiology program and was asked to help prepare a NASA response to the NAS committee’s recommendations. Much of the content I prepared was deleted. But it’s still interesting. So I’ll provide it here.

One of the NAS study committee’s recommendations was that “NASA’s programs and missions should reflect a dedicated focus on research and exploration of subsurface habitability in light of recent advancesdemonstrating the breadth and diversity of life in Earth’s subsurface, the history and nature of subsurface fluids on Mars, and potential habitats for life on ocean worlds.”

Exploring for evidence of subsurface habitability in the solar system is a big deal in planetary science these days. Astrobiologists are itching to get beneath the surface of Mars, Europa, and Enceladus (I should note that such missions are only ideas at this point…but good ideas, IMHO).

The work on this goal that the NASA astrobiology program has funded over the past 10-15 years (and continues to fund today) is fascinating (at least to this space science geek). And it shows how slowly, but methodically, the development of planetary exploration technologies proceeds, step by step.

Over the past several years NASA has taken some steps to advance research and exploration of subsurface habitability by funding a number of projects to develop and demonstrate subsurface exploration technologies and techniques. NASA’s Planetary Science and Technology Through Analog Research (PSTAR) Program has funded the Atacama Rover Astrobiology Drilling Studies (ARADS) project, led by Brian Glass of NASA Ames Research Center. The ARADS project, intended to iteratively develop a simulated Mars rover mission, conducted its first field test in Chile’s Atacama Desert in 2016. Several instruments have been designed, developed or modified to be tested in ARADS field experiments, including the fifth generation of a series of space-prototype, one- to two-meter-class rotary-percussive drills by Honeybee Robotics; a sample-transfer robotic arm from MDA Aerospace (the developer of robotic arms for NASA’s Phoenix and InSight missions to Mars); and a new autonomous mid-sized rover concept (K- REX2) developed by NASA Ames.

NASA also has funded the Mars Analog Rio Tinto Experiment (MARTE), led by Carol Stoker of NASA Ames. The MARTE project is developing drilling, core- and sample-handling, and instrument technologies relevant to searching for life in the martian subsurface and demonstrating them in a Mars-analog site on Earth, Spain’s Rio Tinto region. The MARTE drilling system is being developed by Honeybee Robotics for future use on Mars. Honeybee Robotics has developed drilling and sample-handling systems for NASA’s last three Mars landers, including systems for the last three of NASA’s Mars landers, including the first drill ever to look inside a rock on Mars and the sample-handling system on the Mars Science Laboratory. (I visited Honeybee Robotics in New York City several years ago – those people produce amazing technology.)

NASA’sMars 2020 rover will feature a drill that can collect core samples of the most scientifically promising rocks and soils and cache them on the surface of Mars for future retrieval and return to Earth.The European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) ExoMars 2020 rover willcollect samples with a drill down to a depth of two meters and analyze them with next-generation instruments in an onboard laboratory. NASA and ESA are closely coordinating work on these two missions and will be sharing data from science operations.NASA is providing a major portion of the premier instrument for ESA’s ExoMars mission: the mass spectrometer for the Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer.  In addition, European scientists are on a number of instrument teams for NASA’s Mars 2020 mission.  In 2018,the NASA astrobiology program awarded a $7 million grant to a Georgia Institute of Technology-led Oceans Across Space and Time alliance to intensify the search for life in our solar system’s present and past oceans. This alliance is a member of the Network for Life Detection (N-FoLD), an astrobiology research coordination network (RCN) focusing on life detection strategies and methods.

The NASA astrobiology program has supported two recent “workshopswithout walls” (virtual workshops) that focused on research and exploration of subsurface habitability: “Upstairs Downstairs: Consequences of Internal Planet Evolution for the Habitability and Detectability of Life on Extrasolar Planets,” held February 17 – 19, 2016, in Tempe, Arizona, and virtually; and “Serpentinizing Systems Science,” held January 31, 2017, virtually. NASA Astrobiology is also co-hosting a conference, “Mars Extant Life: What’s Next?” January 29–February 1, 2019, at the National Cave and Karst Research Institute. This conference will focus on understanding and discussing strategies for exploring candidate target environments on Mars that may host evidence of extant life including surface, shallow subsurface, and deep subsurface niches.

Astrobiology is well represented on NASA’s Europa Clipper mission team. Europa Clipper (to launch some time in the 2020s) willconduct detailed reconnaissance of Jupiter’s moon Europa to see whether the icy body might be habitable. The science definition team for the Europa Lander mission concept study included several astrobiologists, including Alison Murray as one of the co-chairs and Ken Nealson, Chris German (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute), Britney Schmidt (Georgia Institute of Technology), and Alexis Templeton (University of Colorado) as team members. (All three of these scientists have done fascinating astrobiology research in the field.) The SDT identified three science goals for the mission: detect and characterize biosignatures and signs of life, analyze in-situ habitability, and prepare for future exploration. The mission concept team identified a model payload for this mission that includes, among other instruments, a microscope for life detection and an organic compositional analyzer.

The technological challenges of exploring subsurface environments on icy worlds are formidable. On Earth, researchers have only reached a depth of 3.5 kilometers beneath ice. Europa’s ice shell could be as much as 15 kilometers deep. Consequently, the NASA astrobiology program has supported a number of technology development and demonstration projects for in-situ exploration of subsurface environments on other planetary bodies.

For example, the program has supported the development of four Stone Aerospace autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) that are prototypes for subsurface exploration of Europa: DEPTHX (Deep Phreatic Thermal Explorer), ENDURANCE (Environmentally Non-Disturbing Under-ice Robotic ANtarctiC Explorer), VALKYRIE (an ice-penetrating robot), and ARTEMIS (Autonomous Rovers/airborne-radar Transects of the Environment beneath the McMurdo Ice Shelf). (Bill Stone, founder and head of Stone Aerospace, is a brilliant engineer and obsessed with Europa.)

The NASA astrobiology program also funded the development oftwo underwater autonomous vehicles (AUVs) called Jaguar and Puma, developed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and deployed on WHOI’s 2007 Arctic Gakkel vents expedition (AGAVE). Jaguar and Puma are prototypes of AUVs that could look for evidence of subsurface hydrothermal activity on other planetary bodies. The NASA astrobiology program also funded the Monterey BayAquarium Research Institute’s development of another subsurface planetary exploration prototype, an Environmental Sample Processor for Deep-Sea Seep and Hydrothermal Vent Applications.

The Science Mission Directorate’s Planetary Instrument Concepts for the Advancement of Solar System Observations (PICASSO), MATuration of Instruments for Solar System Exploration (MatISSE), and Planetary Science and Technology from Analog Research (PSTAR) R&A programs have also funded a number of projects aimed at aiding the exploration of subsurface planetary environments. For example, the PICASSO program has funded work on a rover-mounted dielectric (non-conducting) spectrometer for in-situ subsurface planetary exploration, which could measure subsurface material composition at radio frequencies; and a compact color “biofinder” for fast, non-contact detection of biomarkers, biomolecules and polyaromatic hydrocarbons in ocean worlds.

The MatISSE program has funded the development and testing of a prototype digital beam-forming polarimetric synthetic aperture radar (look it up) for subsurface imaging. This instrument could detect and map buried ice deposits and measure the depths of such deposits. The PSTAR program has funded the development and demonstration of a thermal high-voltage ocean-penetrator research platform, a cryobot (a robot that can operate in freezing temperatures) capable of rapid, deep subglacial access that carries an onboard science payload optimized for environmental characterization and life detection; a seismometer designed to investigate ice and ocean structure (SIIOS) on Europa and Enceladus; the SUBSEA project, which is exploring the habitability of a seamount (a mountain on the sea floor whose peak is well below the surface of the water) off the coast of the Big Island of Hawaii as an analog for icy moons, using two submarine-type remotely operated vehicles; and the DEEP project – Detecting Extraterrestrial Piezophiles in ocean-world analog environments – which is testing a high-pressure sampling system in deep hydrothermal vents in the mid-Cayman Rise that would allow sample retrieval and manipulation without decompression, enabling sample-handling protocols that optimize life detection in high-pressure environments. (A piezophile, also known as a barophile, is an organism that thrives in high-pressure environments.)

NASA’s publicity machine tends to focus on promoting missions. But those missions are made possible by projects such as those described here. It’s going to be a long, slow trip to exploring subsurface environments in the solar system. But the trip will be worth it, I think. Given NASA’s current obsession with sending people back to the Moon and on to Mars, I keep thinking that robotic planetary exploration has been what’s delivered the goods for decades.

Moon-Mars Madness, Redux



As Yogi Berra once said, “it’s like déjà vu all over again.”

Last week, the Vice President of the United States, who chairs the National Space Council, told NASA that the President is directing the agency to land people back on the Moon by 2024, “by any means necessary.”

Today, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine testified to the House Science, Space and Technology Committee – the committee in charge of authorizing NASA spending – about the administration’s $20 billion fiscal year 2020 budget request for NASA – which does not include funds for a return to the Moon by 2024.

In fact, the 2020 budget request calls for a return to the Moon by 2028.

Rep. Kendra Horn (D-OK), chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics noted in her opening statement for today’s hearing, in September 2018, “a full year and a half AFTER its Congressionally-directed due date, the Committee received the report directed in Section 435 of the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017.”

According to Rep. Horn, this report – the NASA Exploration Campaign Report – “is a high-level strategy…mainly a plan for a plan…and may not ultimately play a substantive role in efforts to place humans in Mars orbit by 2033. Further specificity of NASA’s long-term plans in a public document would help Congress and other public policy officials make informed decisions over the coming decades.”

According to the Exploration Campaign Report, “The National Space Exploration Campaign strategy is ready. It includes direction from the White House and Congress, with input from industry, academia, international partners and, most importantly, the American public. It is not a repeat of efforts of the past 50 years. The National Space Exploration Campaign does not assume or require significant funding increases.”


Today, Bridenstine told the House committee that meeting the President’s 2024 goal would require a supplemental budget request.

According to the Exploration Campaign Report, “NASA is building a plan for Americans to orbit the Moon, starting in 2023, and land astronauts on the surface no later than the late 2020s…. By the late 2020s, a lunar lander capable of transporting crews and cargo will begin sortie missions to the surface of the Moon.”

Uh huh.

Those of us who have been working in the space community for some time (for me, since 1983), we’ve heard “bold” calls over and over again for a return to the Moon and human missions to Mars. I have a large stack of reports in my office on Moon-Mars proposals and plans.

In 1986, President Reagan received a report from a National Commission on Space (NCoS – which I worked for) outlining goals for the next 20 years of U.S. space exploration. NCoS offered a rationale for exploring and settling the solar system and a “vision” of making the solar system “the home of humanity.”  At the same time, NCoS noted, “financial realities will dictate the pace at which we proceed.”

By 2006, we had not proceeded very far along the way to executing the NCoS vision.

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush directed NASA to develop what became the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI), which would send people back to the Moon and on to Mars. According to NASA’s “Report of the 90-Day Study on Human Exploration of the Moon and Mars” (November 1989), “The basic mission sequence is clear”: first build a space station, then “return to the Moon to stay early in the next century, and then journey to Mars” by 2019.

In 1991, a “Synthesis Group” tasked with reporting on the Space Exploration Initiative produced four possible architectures for the SEI.

Funding did not materialize.

In 2004, President George W. Bush announced his “Vision for Space Exploration”, directing NASA to develop a Crew Exploration Vehicle by 2008 “and to conduct the first [crewed] mission no later than 2014. The Crew Exploration Vehicle will be capable of ferrying astronauts and scientists to the Space Station after the shuttle is retired. But the main purpose of this spacecraft will be to carry astronauts beyond our orbit to other worlds…. Beginning no later than 2008, we will send a series of robotic missions to the lunar surface to research and prepare for future human exploration. Using the Crew Exploration Vehicle, we will undertake extended human missions to the moon as early as 2015, with the goal of living and working there for increasingly extended periods.”

And…here we are.

In her opening statement for this morning’s hearing with Bridenstine, Science, Space, and Technology Committee chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) got right to the point:

“You have stated that NASA’s fiscal year 2020 budget request is a good one, apparently in part because the President didn’t cut your budget as much as he is proposing to cut the rest of America’s federal R&D investments, including misguided and harmful cuts to DOE’s and NSF’s research budgets. I am not persuaded. In fact, I find both this NASA budget request and your written testimony for today’s hearing to be disappointing and inadequate.”

Rep. Johnson indicated that the budget request as it stands will likely not make it through Congress. “The President’s budget request for FY 2020 proposes the same ill-advised cuts to important NASA science and education initiatives that it did last year—cuts which Congress has already considered and rejected in the FY 2019 appropriations act.” She and other members of the committee criticized proposals to de-fund key NASA STEM activities—especially those that support students – the WFIRST mission – “the highest ranked astrophysics decadal priority” and “two critical Earth Science missions.” These cuts “made no sense last year,” Rep. Johnson said, “and they make no sense this year. I have little doubt that those cuts will be rejected by Congress once again.”

“And what is the justification for this crash program?” Johnson went on. “To quote the Vice President again, it’s because ‘we’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher.’ Moreover, according to the Vice President, the Chinese have ‘revealed their ambition to seize the lunar strategic high ground,’ whatever that means. The simple truth is that we are not in a space race to get to the Moon. We won that race a half-century ago, as this year’s commemoration of Apollo 11 makes clear. And using outdated Cold War rhetoric about an adversary seizing the lunar strategic high ground only begs the question of why if that is the Vice President’s fear, the Department of Defense with its more than $700 billion budget request, doesn’t seem to share that fear and isn’t tasked with preventing it from coming to pass…. Given the absence of an urgent crisis, it would be the height of irresponsibility for the Vice President of the United States to direct NASA to land astronauts on the Moon within the next five years without knowing what it will cost, how achievable the schedule is, and how it will impact NASA’s other programs.”

I heartily agree with Rep. Johnson.

Rep. Horn had this to say in her statement:

“Let’s take a moment to review the last three to four months. First, the Administration shut down the Federal Government for a total of 35 days…. [M]any projects will experience delays and some level of cost increase due to the disruption.  Second, in a delayed release of the FY 2020 budget request due to the shutdown, the Administration proposed a more ambitious Moon program– to send humans to the lunar surface by 2028 — while also proposing to cut a half billion dollars from the agency’s topline relative to the FY 2019 enacted appropriation. Third, just two weeks AFTER the Administration released its FY 2020 request for NASA, the Vice President announced that ‘it is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the Moon within the next five years’….Fourth, last Friday, again just weeks AFTER releasing the FY 2020 Request, the Committee received notice of NASA’s request for a major reorganization of NASA’s technology and exploration activities that NASA is proposing through a ‘reprogramming request’ to the Committee on Appropriations.”

(Are you confused? I am.)

Horn went on, “This request would create a new Moon to Mars Mission Directorate that would subsume the space technology program into a Directorate focused on large exploration development programs like the Gateway. NASA’s request proposes other major organizational changes that, if approved, would bypass this Committee’s authorizing role in considering such drastic reorganizational changes.”

“These issues are not partisan,” she said. “We have learned over several Congresses and Administrations that attempting to implement major programs through fits and starts creates confusion and often delays progress. Changes in direction also present challenges for the Committee’s work toward providing effective guidance and policy through the reauthorization process.”

She is right on.

Finally, I will note that a recent poll by a reputable organization, the Pew Research Center, showed that respondents ranked returning people to the Moon and sending people to Mars #8 and #9 – next to last and last – on a list of nine priorities for NASA.

Perhaps the worst aspect of these stop-and-start plans is that so many people work diligently on them, only to see them shelved. NASA wastes hundreds of millions of dollars on studies mandated by the White House and Congress for projects and programs that don’t receive adequate funding. (I wonder if we’ll ever know how much money NASA invested in the now-defunct Asteroid Initiative.) It’s too bad.