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It’s wrong to wish on space hardware

Filed under: — gavin @ 25 February 2009

A number of satellite related issues have come up this weekend: The NSIDC reminded us that satellite sensors are (like all kinds of data) not perfectly reliable and do not last forever. Two satellites collided by accident last week, littering the orbit with dangerous amounts of debris. In San Diego this weekend, I was fortunate enough to attend a meeting with some of the Apollo astronauts and some of the scientists involved in Cassini and the Mars Phoenix missions. And yesterday morning we heard that the Orbiting Carbon Observatory mission launch failed to insert the satellite into orbit, and it is presumably measuring carbon dioxide somewhere at the bottom of the Southern Ocean. Coincidentally, when it came up on the news, I was in a meeting with one of the scientists who had been working on setting up a climate model to assimilate the OCO data in order to pin down the carbon sinks.

All of these events have served to remind me at least, that although the space age is 50 years old, we are a long way from the point where we can take our ability to launch and control off-planet machines for granted. Getting into space was, and remains, a tremendous challenge. This makes the successes we’ve had all the more incredible, and a testament to the hard work the engineers and scientists do over many years before a launch to give the missions the best chance of success.

For the climate-related satellites/instruments – SSM/I for the sea ice, OCO for high-precision CO2 concentrations – there is some redundancy with other existing missions. The JAXA AMSR-E sensor can still be used for sea ice extent (and indeed, SSM/I is still sending enough data back to construct 3 day mean pictures). For CO2, the substitutes are slightly orthogonal – the Japanese Ibuki satellite launched last month will measure CO2 but with a very different footprint than OCO would have used, and the AIRS instrument on Aqua has recently been used to produce a timeseries of mid-troposphere CO2 concentrations since 2004. Nonetheless, both of these other missions should provide some of the information that was anticipated from OCO – though not at the spatial resolution envisaged.

It’s worth discussing a little what OCO was going to be useful for. It wasn’t because we don’t know the average amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and how much it’s increasing – that is actually pretty well characterised by the current station network (around 386 ppm growing at ~2ppm/year). However, the variations about the mean (tens of ppm) have a lot of extra information about the carbon cycle that are only coarsely resolved. The measurements would have been from nearer the surface than the AIRS data, and so closer to the sources and sinks. You would have been able to see point sources quite clearly and this would have been a good check on the national inventories of fossil fuel use, and may have been useful at constraining the rather uncertain deforestation contribution to the anthropogenic carbon dioxide sources. More importantly, the OCO data combined with inverse modelling might have helped with constraining the terrestrial sinks. We know they exist from residual calculations (what’s left over from knowing how much we are adding, and seeing how much is in the air and what is in the ocean), and they’ve mainly been associated with boreal ecosystems from the inverse modelling done so far, but there are quite large uncertainties (see 7.3.2 and fig 7.7 in AR4 Chp. 7). The Ibuki and AIRS data will help with this same issue, but OCO data would have been somewhat orthogonal.

Another important consequence perhaps, is that the upcoming Glory mission may be further delayed since it is slated to use the same launch vehicle as the one that malfunctioned for OCO. Glory has had a troubled past, surviving a number of bouts with near-cancellation, but was basically all set to go in June. This is a big deal because Glory will carry one new instrument (an aerosol polarimeter) that has the unique ability (among sensors flying today) to distinguish between aerosol types in the atmosphere. Currently, aerosol remote sensing can retrieve the total aerosol optical depth, with some ability to discriminate between fine particles and more massive ones, but it can’t tell the difference between sea salt and sulphates, dust or soot. This has been a huge problem for aerosol modellers since it is hard to evaluate simulations of each individual aerosol type (and which consequently are all over the place (AEROCOM)). A polarimeter detects the changes in polarisation associated with the aerosols which differs greatly between the different types. The second instrument on Glory is a total irradiance monitor (TIM) which is needed to prevent a gap from forming in the satellite observations of the sun should the current (6 year old) TIM on the SORCE satellite start to falter.

Ironically, space on satellites is at a huge premium. There are always dozens of possible candidate instruments that could be flown and ensuring that the right mix of monitoring and experimental measurements get made is very hard. For instance, the group behind the polarimeter on Glory were trying to find space on a suitable satellite for years before the Glory mission was resurrected.

All this to say, that while the OCO failure will be devastating for the teams that worked on the mission, the relatively high chances of a complete failure are part of the price to be paid for working on satellite missions. Fortunately, OCO was a relatively cheap proof-of-concept mission and so it might someday get another day in the sun.

(*For the reference in the title, see here).

95 Responses to “It’s wrong to wish on space hardware”

  1. 1
    Jeff Pierce says:

    “Currently, aerosol remote sensing can retrieve the total aerosol optical depth, with some ability to discriminate between fine particles and more massive ones, but it can’t tell the difference between sea salt and sulphates, dust or soot.”

    MISR aerosol products include “non-spherical fraction”, which is close to the dust fraction in regions where dust is likely and single scattering albedo information, which is a decent indicator for soot.

    Like most other satellite products, these aren’t perfect, but they are tested and their quality statements are available. Obviously, adding polarization will help retrieve these properties, but I just want to make it known that these products are out there.

  2. 2

    All of these events have served to remind me at least, that although the space age is 50 years old, we are a long way from the point where we can take our ability to launch and control off-planet machines for granted.

    Not only does the American public and their elected representatives, senators and ‘leaders’ take space and rocketry for granted, events like these are the result of a decades long neglect of these scientific and engineering problems, which were easily solvable.

  3. 3
    Doug Bostrom says:

    Off-topic for this entry, but look what the cat has dragged in: a report from Japan’s ” castigating climate models as “astrology”, etc.

    “Japanese scientists have made a dramatic break with the UN and Western-backed hypothesis of climate change in a new report from its Energy Commission.

    Three of the five researchers disagree with the UN’s IPCC view that recent warming is primarily the consequence of man-made industrial emissions of greenhouse gases. Remarkably, the subtle and nuanced language typical in such reports has been set aside.

    One of the five contributors compares computer climate modelling to ancient astrology. Others castigate the paucity of the US ground temperature data set used to support the hypothesis, and declare that the unambiguous warming trend from the mid-part of the 20th Century has ceased.

    The report by Japan Society of Energy and Resources (JSER) is astonishing rebuke to international pressure, and a vote of confidence in Japan’s native marine and astronomical research. Publicly-funded science in the West uniformly backs the hypothesis that industrial influence is primarily responsible for climate change, although fissures have appeared recently. Only one of the five top Japanese scientists commissioned here concurs with the man-made global warming hypothesis.”

    Translation commissioned by (no surprise!) The Register. DenialChow can be more fully sampled here:

    All snark aside, there are some remarkable assertions made in this article, with some seemingly based on unfamiliarity with the sort of models discussed at this site. Any comments from RC? Best to get on it early, because within a short time we’ll see this report cited in George Will’s Washington Post column.

  4. 4
    DrCarbon says:

    Gavin, can you comment on why Triana/The Deep Space Climate Observatory remains in storage? Do the space-based climate change folks think this is worth a mission? Will the OCO be relaunched and if so will it take a $400m bite out of something else like the DESDynI which would help measure ice sheets and sea levels? Sorry, that’s a lot of questions…

  5. 5
    Bruce Vaughn says:


    Thank you for taking this otherwise sad occasion of the OCO failure and turning out thoughts to reevaluate the big picture of the cost/benefit for different approaches measuring global GHG’s. Your points are well taken. Maybe it is time to re-think satellites?

    Satellite data have always been appealing because of the enormous spatial coverage and the 24/7 operation. But they are expensive, and as we have learned this week, not 100% reliable. From its start the satellite age has ushered in alluring data streams that were once inconceivable in size, often outstripping our ability to analyze. For greenhouse gases, there is also some controversy about what is actually being measured by the satellite, and whether it is the proper resolution tool to be using to understand carbon cycle sources and sinks. Clearly it is an important tool and should be part of the measurement solution, but perhaps now is a critical time to realize that it only one of the tools, and as we have recently learned, satellites are a lot of eggs in one basket.

    On the other hand, the value of ground based and airborne GHG measurements will always play a critical role in understanding the science of global change. There is strength in a diversified Earth based approach that offers direct measurements in the biosphere, and that in addition provide essential calibration for satellite measurements. As we move towards various mitigation schemes on GHG reduction, local ground based measurements will be essential for monitoring and assessing the success of reduction or carbon sequestration efforts. As an aside from the science, I don’t know the numbers, but in today’s struggling economy, we might want to also consider what affect either approach has on employing people in meaningful ways to help solve our global problems?

  6. 6
    Aaron Lewis says:

    Nothing about climate change is easy, which is exactly why we need the best and brightest working on these problems. Getting the best and brightest means funding the field. Climatology must work faster and smarter just to keep up with Mother Nature, let alone predict what she will do with our CO2. OCO was about working smarter and faster.

    I do not think that OCO ever got the priority treatment at NASA that it deserved. That was a result of funding priorities set by a Republican Congress and the Bush Administration for NASA during the construction of the OCO.

    We stand on the shoulders on giants, so it is part of the scientific tradition and ethic to give credit were credit is due. Thus, the failure of OCO belongs to the Bush Administration, and not to all the good people that worked on it at the technical level.

  7. 7
    William says:

    #5 Aaron
    From the New York Times 2/25/09
    “Agency officials said yesterday that it appears the fairing, a nose cone that shields the satellite as it travels through Earth’s atmosphere, did not detach from the satellite the way it was supposed to.”

    Can you explain how the nose cone fairing detachment failure was the fault of “the Bush administration”?
    Why did just this fairing fail and not the whole rocket or every rocket over the last 8 years?

    In terms of funding, Nasa’s budget increased from $13.4 billion in 2000 to over $17.3 billion in 2008.
    Let us know how much more money Nasa would have needed to get this nose to detach properly.

  8. 8

    The space age is only fifty years old and nearing its end, too. The Space Shuttle will go into mothballs circa 2010 and NASA is spinning its wheels trying to reinvent pre-Shuttle technology and failing. This is the sort of failure which suggests that humans could only reach the moon using 1960’s era technology and therefore the peak of human space occurred in the Apollo program.

    Space science is extremely expensive, prohibitively expensive when humans are sent into space, and it is unlikely that the United States, bankrupt and insolvent, can afford the expense very much longer. Formerly people imagined another nation taking America’s place at the forefront of space exploration, but the Chinese are in as bad or worse shape than the Americans.

    Given resource constraints (Peak Oil) and the increase impacts of pollution (climate related disasters in the form of droughts and hurricanes), I think it safe to predict that technological civilization’s days are numbered. Not that any further catastrophes are needed … there in an infrastructure problem which amounts to our civilization crumbling away right under our feet, the cost of fixing this problem alone would break are already broken budget.

    One thing which I found quite interesting to do while travelling about is paying attention to the condition of the roads, sidewalks, seawalls and buildings. A casual examination of such structures reveals that our civilization entered its decline phase a while ago, interrupted only briefly and incompletely by the bubble economies of the previous two decades. It takes a lot of money and resources to maintain civilization, and these are two things which our civilization lacks.

  9. 9

    Can you explain how the nose cone fairing detachment failure was the fault of “the Bush administration”?

    Because they dictated the payload launch on a vehicle widely regarded as the most expensive per kilo rocket ever flown, with the worst record of any other vehicle.

    Why did just this fairing fail and not the whole rocket or every rocket over the last 8 years?

    Because most of those other rockets are liquid fueled, and fabricated, assembled and launched by professionals.

    Let us know how much more money Nasa would have needed to get this nose to detach properly.

    Another 500 million for a COTS-D competition. It would probably help a lot if they cancelled [edit-lets avoid the politics here] ridiculous Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), the Exploration System Architecture (ESAS) and resulting Ares I, Ares V, Orion capsule, etc, which has already wasted away 10 billion dollars, and are widely regarded as complete failures, even worse than the OSC Taurus,

  10. 10
    Dennis Baker says:

    RE : The solution to climate change.
    ( human excrement + nuclear waste = hydrogen )
    The USA discharges Trillions of tons of sewage annually, sufficient quantity to sustain electrical generation requirements of the USA.
    Redirecting existing sewage systems to containment facilities would be a considerable infrastructure modification project.
    It is the intense radiation that causes the conversion of organic material into hydrogen, therefore what some would consider the most dangerous waste because of its radiation would be the best for this utilization.
    I believe the combination of clean water and clean air, will increase the life expectance of humans.
    yours sincerely
    Dennis Baker

  11. 11
    Marcus says:

    Doug Bostrom (#3): Inhofe cited this report in this morning’s EPW climate hearing. Boxer quickly pointed out that the JSER was more of an industry organization than a scientific organization.

  12. 12
    Spencer says:

    Ah yes, the importance of satellites…

    It would be easy to imagine a civilization based on coal and oil with a population of six billion and climbing, but with pre-1950 technology. With no digital computers to calculate climate models, those people wouldn’t have had a prayer of predicting global warming with any confidence before it slapped them down. And if they did have computers they still would have been at a loss: computer models can produce only rough, scarcely credible outputs unless they get the kind of global data that only satellites can provide (“garbage in, garbage out”). Modelers also require satellite data to check their results and give some confidence that they’re in the right ballpark.

    So we are really, really lucky that we have been able to get a reasonably good idea of climate change in time to do something about it. That is, if we choose to take advantage of our good luck…

  13. 13
    dhogaza says:

    Boxer quickly pointed out that the JSER was more of an industry organization than a scientific organization.

    Wow – that’s being on top of things, good prepping by her staff.

  14. 14
    Rod B says:

    Aaron, you think NASA said don’t work so hard on this. It’s only a quarter of a billion dollars and I heard Bush is not that interested, they said…you think? Thomas (2), I think you’re too hard on NASA. 1,146,678, take or leave, things can go wrong with any launch that can ruin it. They weren’t all just foolin’ around these past decades.

    ps missed Thomas’ later post. Maybe he’s not blaming NASA technicians but rather NASA’s appointing Bush as Launch Manager, evidently. Still NASA’s fault: they should never change Launch Managers one month before launch! My! My! My!

    Gavin, this is a real kick in the head. My commiserations.

  15. 15
    Stuart says:

    Marcus (#11): This sort of thing always makes me wonder about whether the companies behind all these “industry organisations” are going to be liable to be sued in the future by people affected by climate change, or whether they have learnt from the tobacco companies and will manage to avoid liability.

  16. 16
    Hank Roberts says:

    See also:

    Instability of the present LEO satellite populations

    Orbital Debris Program Office, NASA Johnson Space Center, NASA, 2101 NASA Parkway, Houston, TX 77058, USA


    Several studies conducted during 1991–2001 demonstrated, with some assumed launch rates, the future unintended growth potential of the Earth satellite population, resulting from random, accidental collisions among resident space objects. In some low Earth orbit (LEO) altitude regimes where the number density of satellites is above a critical spatial density, the production rate of new breakup debris due to collisions would exceed the loss of objects due to orbital decay.

    A new study has been conducted in the Orbital Debris Program Office at the NASA Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, using higher fidelity models to evaluate the current debris environment. The study assumed no satellites were launched after December 2005. A total of 150 Monte Carlo runs were carried out and analyzed. Each Monte Carlo run simulated the current debris environment and projected it 200 years into the future. The results indicate that the LEO debris environment has reached a point such that even if no further space launches were conducted, the Earth satellite population would remain relatively constant for only the next 50 years or so. Beyond that, the debris population would begin to increase noticeably, due to the production of collisional debris. Detailed analysis shows that this growth is primarily driven by high collision activities around 900–1000 km altitude – the region which has a very high concentration of debris at present.

    In reality, the satellite population growth in LEO will undoubtedly be worse than this study indicates, since spacecraft and their orbital stages will continue to be launched into space. Postmission disposal of vehicles (e.g., limiting postmission orbital lifetimes to less than 25 years) will help, but will be insufficient to constrain the Earth satellite population. To better preserve the near-Earth environment for future space activities, it might be necessary to remove existing large and massive objects from regions where high collision activities are expected.

  17. 17
    Milan says:

    I certainly hope NASA and the US government change their future priorities in space.

    Manned missions are only good for making more manned missions possible – a luxury ill suited to our current situation.

    Missions with teh potential to improve our understanding of climate should be getting top priority, followed by those like the Webb telescope which should produce some very good new pure science.

    As for the Shuttle, the ISS, Mars, etc I think we should leave them be until we have dealt with more urgent matters.

  18. 18
    Doug Bostrom says:

    #16 Hank:

    A talented author could weave an excellent SF scenario wherein we are threatened by a large extraterrestrial body and we’re unable to do anything about it because we literally can’t fly through the cloud of rubbish we’ve put in orbit.

  19. 19
    Sasparilla says:

    I’d really like to see some discussion about putting up a sensor on a satellite that can localize Methane emissions (in addition to the CO2 sensors) – so we’ll know if the methane (permafrost or clathrates) starts cooking off faster than we anticipate, by how much and where they’re doing it.

    Since it takes forever for a satellite to come together and get up there we’re looking at 5 years from now or so. Up to this point, its been eerily silent about something like this being put on a satellite.

  20. 20
    Curt Covey says:

    Without commenting on the current state of NASA’s budget and / or quality-control, I agree with Gavin that launching satellites is inherently difficult and that the overall success rate is impressive. In the early 20th century someone “proved” that rockets could never manage to get anything into orbit because the chemical energy per unit mass of the fuel is less than the energy per unit mass of an orbiting body. Obviously there was a flaw somewhere in the argument, but it does show that rocket launches, if not absolutely impossible, are next to impossible! The rockets are basically bombs waiting to explode at the slightest mistake.

  21. 21
    dhogaza says:

    Manned missions are only good for making more manned missions possible – a luxury ill suited to our current situation.

    Science first. Write your congresscritters.

    And remember the planning for the mars manned fantasy, staging through a moon base, came through DOD. Ask yourself why.

  22. 22
    Jim Bouldin says:

    Gavin, do you think this will serve to accelerate the ASCENDS mission? Or was that going to be dependent on results and experiences from the OCO?

  23. 23
    Joe Hunkins says:

    OCO was a relatively cheap proof-of-concept mission and so it might someday get another day in the sun

    If OCO is an example of relative cheapness at $240,000,000 I’m wondering what you’d consider expensive?

  24. 24
    Hank Roberts says:

    If we don’t get the Shuttle out to the Hubble, it won’t get fixed. We need hands as well as tools in space.

  25. 25
    James Staples says:

    This just reminds me of how beneficial it WOULD have been, if we’d built the ISS to spec; as it’s design originally called for it to have a kind of ‘Space Garage’ in which satelites and probes could be assembled.
    Not only could we be building LARGE, Highly Complex Probes and Satellites; as they would not have to ‘fit’ inside the nose-cone of a Rocket; probes like the Gallileo would not have been such a dismal disappointment (which it was, only because the folded up Antenna failed to deploy properly).
    Sir Arthur C. Clarke called the ISS a “Flying pile of Junk” – change that ‘Junk’ to ‘Pork’, and you’ll know how I feel about it!

  26. 26
    John Mashey says:

    1) Space debris.
    If you don’t own a copy of Ed Tufte’s “Envisioning Information” (1990, the third book), borrow one and look at p48-49, which has visualizations of the debris cloud. Maybe someone can point to on online resource like that.

    2) Framework for satellites & climate.

    Maybe RC folks can do another post, or point at a reference on satellites – I’d love to see a nice terse list of:

    a) Climate-relevant satellite missions expected over the next few years, when they launch, and briefly what they are expected to do.

    b) Since this was about wishes, maybe some indication of priority/wishlist, including things wished-for that aren’t on the near-term launch list.

    I’m trying to understand the extent to which climate researchers are getting what they want or not, and what’s missing, and which sources or uncertainty get reduced or data holes filled. Of course that not everyone would agree and there must be fierce fights over which instruments go up when, but any overview would help.

  27. 27
    Alan of Oz says:

    “It’s wrong to wish on space hardware”

    Maybe I’m a bit thick but I don’t see a relationship between the title and your informative article?

  28. 28
    bi -- IJI says:

    Doug Bostrom:

    Off-topic for this entry, but look what the cat has dragged in: a report from Japan’s [JSER] castigating climate models as “astrology”, etc.

    The Register article totally ignored the rebuttals by IPCC scientist Seita Emori. Also, Kusano never actually said that climate modelling is like ancient astrology; he only said that celestial mechanics started as a branch of astrology (and is now a perfectly good first-class citizen of science!). The original Japanese text is here.


  29. 29

    In the early 20th century someone “proved” that rockets could never manage to get anything into orbit because the chemical energy per unit mass of the fuel is less than the energy per unit mass of an orbiting body.

    Well gosh golly darn.

    May I introduce you to the 21st Century?

  30. 30
    Ray Ladbury says:

    There seem to be a lot of misconceptions about spaceflight and satellites here. First, this was not a NASA rocket. It was a Taurus, built and launched by Orbital Sciences. What happened is that the explosive bolts that are supposed to fire and jetison the fairing did not fire. As such the satellite had a bunch of extra mass attached and the rocket could not provide enough velocity to achieve orbit. While the Taurus does not have an admirable track record, there have been several other similar incidents within the past decade. It may be something as simple as an improperly wired harness, and as such it is premature to blame the launch vehicle. It’s just flat stupid to blame NASA, though, since the satellite is no longer in the agency’s control once it in the rocket. Moral: There’s a reason why rocket scientists are supposed to be smart.

    As to human spaceflight, anyone who knows me knows I am not a big fan. However, NASA has gotten zero support from the public for its science mission. This has led many, including the former Administrator, to conclude that increasing the exploration budget was the only way to keep the Agency from dying the death of a thousand budget cuts. No serious person makes any contention that manned exploration serves any scientific purpose–other than maybe helping us learn how to keep humans alive in a place they have no business being. Every astronaut that flies (and their gear) means about 500 kg of instruments that don’t. Manned flight does inspire, though, in a way that science and unmanned exploration do not. A lot of the engineers that I know became engineers because of the space program. Now, smart kids become lawyers or MBAs precisely because they can do the math and apply it to their own future earnings. The astronauts say “No Buck Rogers, no bucks.” I can’t refute them.
    William refers above to the nearly $4 billion increase in NASA’s budget. However, all of that and more has gone to manned flight. The science budget has actually decreased (at least up to the passage of the stimulus). James Staples alludes to the possibility of the ISS as an assembly facility for satellites. This was always just propaganda–never a real possibility. You still have to orbit all the material, and maintaining adequate clean-room status on the ISS isn’t feasible. As to failures–well, 95% of NASA missions are successful. Sometimes, as with Galileo, they even succeed when portions of them fail. Galileo taught us more about Jupiter and its moons than everything we’d ever learned before.
    Space flight is tough. Mass, power and budget constraints mean that there are bound to be single-point failures. To paraphrase Ben Franklin–for want of an explosive bold, the satellite was lost.

  31. 31
    kevin says:

    dhogaza: “And remember the planning for the mars manned fantasy, staging through a moon base, came through DOD. Ask yourself why.”

    I asked myself why, and I’m stumped, actually. Do you have a theory?

  32. 32
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    I was very saddened to read about this. (Do you think the Republicans who don’t want to learn about GW left a wrench in the works somewhere?) Hope it gets going again sometime. If we could only tell everyone, “Stop fighting so we can divert some war money to this important program. The enemy is us.”

    At least this failure doesn’t make a lot of difference in our need to mitigate and the vast bulk of the mitigation strategies we must implement. So by the time we get another satellite up there, the CO2 emissions should be cut in half at least :) So let’s get too it.

    RE the Challenger disaster years back, I vaguely remember a sociology text using it as an example of problems with groupthink. And I remember reading in the newspaper that PowerPoint may have played a role — things being presented in too simplistic and bulletted a way.

  33. 33
    dhogaza says:

    Kevin, because the goal is to build a permanent facility on the moon, a manned mission to mars is just a smokescreen. If you want to go to mars, you don’t need to build a permanent facility on the moon.

    As to why DOD might think the US should be the first to build such a facility, it doesn’t require all that much imagination to figure out, does it???

  34. 34
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Kevin and dhogoza, One obvious benefit accruing to DOD from the expansion of the manned program would be development of a heavy-lift capable launch vehicle.

  35. 35
    John Mashey says:

    re: #32 Lynn
    Powerpoint: see Tufte’s 4th book, “Envisioning Information”, chapter “The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within”, pp.162-168.

    [I actually think Powerpoint is useful, but then I used to fight with marketeers all the time for showing really-dense slides rather than 3-bullet-item ones.]

    re: #30 Ray where does one get explosive bolds? :-)

  36. 36
    Ike Solem says:

    Thanks Ray for the overview, but I hope that NASA holds a transparent and public inquiry into what went wrong – if it really was something as simple as a mis-wired harness, then that’s a problem – similar to the crash-landing of that Mars probe. You would think that multiple people would have checked that as part of the pre-launch inspection – and so maybe the real problem here is excessive outsourcing on the part of NASA, leading to communication problems – it’s happened before.

    Regarding NASA’s budget increase: it’s a little more complicated. As noted, “In terms of funding, Nasa’s budget increased from $13.4 billion in 2000 to over $17.3 billion in 2008.” Maybe this had something to do with it: HP Wins $5.6 Billion Contract With NASA, May 2007.

    What NASA really needs is a new administrator who will consider some changes, such as:

    1. Put “monitoring the Earth” back up on the list of primary NASA goals. It would be best if that was the largest area of the budget, which is currently occupied by the international space station, for which ~43 billion was set aside by Congress c. 2001, plus additional costs added in 2007. In any case, the human space flight program has grown while all others shrunk – which is why it took 9 years to get the OCO launched:

    (AAAS 2007) Despite the emergency dollars, for most NASA programs the theme continues to be doing more with less. Although NASA’s R&D funding would climb $871 million or 7.7 percent to $12.2 billion in the Senate appropriation, putting the agency near the head of the class among the top R&D funding agencies, the entire increase and more would go to Constellation Systems, the NASA effort to develop the next generation of human space vehicles. Constellation Systems funding would soar $1.2 billion or 72 percent to $3.0 billion, leaving all other NASA R&D programs collectively with falling funding.

    However, it is nice to see that the shuttle has been abandoned – apparently, the major reason behind the shuttle was that a pilot could fly it on landing, which was more dignified and photogenic – even though that raised the risk of accidents at launch and re-entry. Instead, why not focus the human space program on space planes? – they’re piloted, and cheap, and serve the same purpose. You can build experimental space habitats on the ground, as well.

    2. Develop more in-house expertise – at the very least, insist that any “handoff” is accompanied by a team of NASA technicians and engineers who will double-check the whole process.

    3. Review the entire “public-private partnership” contracting program at NASA, especially with respect to transparency. It’s amazing that at NASA research labs, employees must file lengthy requisitions for small purchases (and wait weeks or months to have them filled), while at the same time billions are handed over in bulk to large firms with little oversight – that is one thing that needs to change.

    Anyway, as long as we are wishing, how about two more:

    A) A National Climate Service to deal with climate data and prepare regional climate forecasts, as the National Weather Service does with short-term weather data and forecasts.

    B) U.S. membership in the International Renewable Energy Agency, which has something like 75 nations signed up – much along the lines of the IPCC.

    Both of those ideas have some political momentum right now, as does restructuring at NASA.

    There’s no reason that the satellite can’t be rebuilt and relaunched, by the way – compare the costs to those of the space station and the rest of the human flight program.

  37. 37

    “Explosive bolds”–part of the “Wingding” font, I think.

  38. 38

    There’s no reason that the satellite can’t be rebuilt and relaunched, by the way – compare the costs to those of the space station and the rest of the human flight program.

    You don’t seem to understand the depth and complexity of the deficiencies in US strategic launch architecture. There are well designed and reliable launch vehicles and gigantic and modern launch vehicle factories sitting idle. There was no good reason to commit this valuable and critical environmental mission payload to the vehicle selected. This failure was entirely predictable.

    The thing is cobbled together ICBM stages, it’s almost embarrassing. America can do much better than this. NASA and the DOD needs to better fund and fast track the first and second generation COTS vehicles already in motion and use the ones they have, the Delta IV and Atlas V, and if they’d put the moon money into reasonably designed next generation reusable with great growth potential, they’d soon have their commercial heavy lift, and could have a reasonable space program. The path America is on in science and space is still entirely wrong, unsustainable and unaffordable, and Mr. Obama has not directly addressed this issue as yet, which is disappointing.

    Quite honestly, the powers that be do not actually want a fully commercialized launch vehicle sector, and are merely paying lip service to them and their customers.

  39. 39
    TDoc says:

    I’m delighted to see the US government is going to place NASA’s priorities on environmental research, but apparently some people (like Gene Cernan) are really upset with the shift. And the failure to launch the OCO had definitely shed bad light to the agency even more:

  40. 40

    I gotta leave a comment if only for the recaptcha, but this is off topic —

    Dano, you are sorely needed over at Dot Earth. Trolls on steroids are materializing from their parallel universe.

    Also, my sympathies to the scientists who were working on the climate satellite project.

    recaptcha fonics: day’s Bernin

  41. 41
    Doug Bostrom says:

    Regarding the demise of the Space Shuttle, I have the same concerns as do others regarding the cost and complexity of the system.

    On the other hand, could we or would we have launched a replacement (3 so far and still counting, actually) for Hubble, if we’d not had a shuttle? Certainly the savings from the shuttle program would have paid for Hubble replacements, but I wonder if human nature would see to it that any replacements were orbited? Would we instead have seen a number of highly productive observation plans interrupted or terminated, along with attached scientific careers? Probably.

    It’ll be another few years before work accomplished by the first Hubble service mission could be accomplished by robots or even for that matter tele-operated prosthetics; the upcoming mission is decades beyond our robotic abilities. Meanwhile, I don’t think Ares has remotely the capabilities required for on-orbit service missions of the Hubble variety.

    Ditching the shuttle means that any on-orbit human presence will necessarily be concentrated at the ISS, the orbit of which is chosen for a melange of reasons, many of those having nothing to do with utility for data gathering.

    It’s a fallacy to say there’s no point in orbiting humans, unless we assume that we have no plans on fixing anything orbited and instead faithfully replace via relaunch whatever experiments or services break prematurely in orbit.

    What’s really aggravating is how we’ve poured enough money down various ratholes in the past few years to have lofted an entire fleet of shuttles, shuttle follow-ons, or whatever we might have chosen. This discussion should not even be happening.

  42. 42
    Mark says:

    TDoc, we have maybe a few thousand years if we’re careful before we have to start expecting an extinction level event on earth within that timeframe.

    On current trajectory, we may have a few decades to start to do something drastically different environmentally.

    Concentrating on a short term goal that helps make the best “do something” determination seems like a sensible idea to me.

  43. 43
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Ike and T. L. Elfritz, First, the requisite disclaimer: my opinions are my own and do not reflect anything to do with any US agency or department. There, I feel relieved.

    The problems with NASA go well beyond any administrator or launch vehicle or other hardware. It has been a long time since the Agency had a coherent mission. Every once in a while, a politician will try to win some votes by exercising the “Vision Thing”–hence Martian Madness and Lunar Lunacy. The long-term lack of leadership and mission have led to a balkanization and empire building, with a lot of “career bureaucrats” who see the Agency as a place to carve out empires. For Congress, it’s a conduit for corporate welfare–now just try to pull expertise in house under those conditions.

    And bureaucracy? The procurement process is just the start of it. Let’s just say: Human resources now procures “Talent” for the agency. Training is now called “Talent Cultivation”. And last year, the entire agency took a 75% hit to its travel budget just because some loon in Congress didn’t like how some loons at HQ used their travel budget. Where else would that happen, I ask you?

    And yet despite this, the overwhelming majority of NASA missions succeed, and they do so because there are dedicated civil servants and contractors for whom this isn’t just a job. Frankly, I don’t know another way to make these birds work–but if you want to give us more money, we’ll sure take it!

    Thomas, I think the “reusable” launch vehicle is pretty much dead for now. The shuttle has left a very bitter taste in peoples’ mouths–and not just due to safety problems. It was also amazingly expensive. The philosophy now is reuse where it makes sense–electronics, etc., but reusing structures that have to decelerate from 7 km/s to 0 while falling 300 km has proved to be a daunting problem.

  44. 44
    Harry says:

    “It’s just flat stupid to blame NASA, though, since the satellite is no longer in the agency’s control once it in the rocket.”

    But feel free to continue to blame George Bush for this, and any future failures on either launching a satellite designed to find some looming catastrophe you’re hoping to find, or the damned thing’s inability to actually find it.

  45. 45

    Thomas, I think the “reusable” launch vehicle is pretty much dead for now.

    I guess that explains why Elon Musk plans to recover his booster stages. It would be nice if you took an active interest in the details of that which you have opinions.

    The shuttle might fly next month. In dollars per kilo, the shuttle beats the Taurus by an order of magnitude. Recent developments in conventional launch vehicle costs have rendered the shuttle system competitive. Only the presumed lower costs of commercial launch vehicle entries still in development will render the shuttle obsolete, and even those costs are escalating. The SSMEs, if properly amortized over fill life cycle costs, are phenomenally competitive to modern disposable launch vehicle engines. The only metric preventing them from beating the costs of expendables is flight rate.

    Opinions are cheap, the numbers speak for themselves.

  46. 46
    Al says:

    Nice Billy Bragg reference.

  47. 47
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Thomas Elfritz, your assertion that the space shuttle is cost effective is surprising given that each launch runs about a billion dollars and the payload is less than 23000 kg, and that the vehicle has only a LEO delivery capability. That works out to nearly $45k per kilo–not exactly cheap. Your cost also doesn’t consider the loss of 2 vehicles with their crews and the damage that did to NASA’s prestiege and funding. Again, these are not my opinions. The agency has decided that 100% resuability or even 70% resuability isn’t cost effective. Were it up to me, we wouldn’t be flying manned missions at all.
    What you fail to take into account is that NASA is an agency in a fishbowl, but having no cabinet level representation, few true friends in Congress, no clear mission and no really strong public support. This is a limiting factor when it comes to considering strategy based solely on technical merit. The numbers that speak to risk-averse politicians and the public tend to be different from cost per kg and lift capacity.

  48. 48
    Mark says:

    Problem is, Al, I wish I wish I didn’t care.

    I currently have no children and no real desire for procreation and continuation of my line. I could live fat and happy like larry and leave a huge possibly lethal mess to someone else’s kids.

    If I didn’t care.

    Then again, if I didn’t care, there would have been several grisly murders over the past two decades. Those food tubes did nothing for me except get in my way and if I didn’t care for the ones left behind without them, the entire world would have been marginally better off without them. But then their significant other or their mum and dad didn’t do anything to me and I cared for their feelings and refrained from murder most horrid (and fun).

    If only I didn’t care…

  49. 49
    Mark says:

    #44 but that still fits the known facts better than “climatologists sabotaged it so their lies could not be uncovered”.

  50. 50
    John says:

    There are of course many reasons to dislike solid rocket motors. They destroy the ozone layer, they pollute the ground water, the have low ISP and they are less reliable than other forms of propulsion. The thought you could launch these small missions however on a Delta 4, Atlas 5 or shuttle is pretty funny though. The cost of these vehicles and the these vehicles payload weight make them overkill for this type of mission. NASA would never of green lighted OCO at all had it needed to rely on these expensive launch vehicles. Even sadder for those involved was that the failure came not at with the rocket motor but a part of the launch vehicle used many times before.