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NASA Cancels Nanosat Challenge

samzenpus posted about 2 years ago | from the on-second-thought dept.

NASA 35

RocketAcademy writes "NASA has canceled funding for the Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge, a $2-million prize competition that was intended to promote development of a low-cost dedicated launch system for CubeSats and other small satellites. The cancellation is a setback for small satellite developers, many of whom have satellites sitting on the shelf waiting for a launch, and the emerging commercial launch industry. The Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge was being run by NASA and Space Florida as part of NASA's troubled Centennial Challenges program. The sudden cancellation of the Launch Challenge, before the competition even began, is calling NASA's commitment to Centennial Challenges into doubt."

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Real funding problem, or Washington Monument? (4, Insightful)

girlinatrainingbra (2738457) | about 2 years ago | (#42127481)

So is this a real funding issue, or is this a clarion call about the overall general funding issue which NASA has in that it wants more money?
.
I read that the "Washington Monument" model of funding allocation is that if the National Parks service is given a smaller budget, the first response in trying to scale back expenditures is to close the Washington Monument. Thus, a very popular and impressive program is shut down rather than trying to actually trim real money-wasters or really trivial non-essential or non-popular budget items. The plan is that the uproar will be loud enough to get the budget reinstated to full values, or least not cut as much. The police do this locally too, in the "if you cut our budget, we have to cut down the number of patrol officers", rather than reallocating overtime payments and schedules.
But then again, that might have been what they were trying to do with shutting the Space Shuttle program down. I don't know that this cubesat thing had gotten ahold of the popular imagination, or even any hold on publicity. I hadn't heard of it til now. :>(

Re:Real funding problem, or Washington Monument? (5, Interesting)

osu-neko (2604) | about 2 years ago | (#42127561)

Ah yes, the alleged Washington Monument Symdrome [wikipedia.org] . It's hard to prove beyond the one obvious case in 1969 from which the name is derived, and it led to the firing of the person responsible, so it's questionable to what degree anyone actually does this. Most civil servants like their jobs...

Re:Real funding problem, or Washington Monument? (2)

Shivetya (243324) | about 2 years ago | (#42128577)

Its practiced all the time by governments as a whole. California recently did it and the voters fell for it. Pass these tax increases or schools get cut.

As in, the people will always fall in line when you threaten their children or their safety. It is a tried and true method of getting people to accept fee and tax increases.

Re:Real funding problem, or Washington Monument? (3, Interesting)

guises (2423402) | about 2 years ago | (#42129059)

I expect it's used much more often by conspiracy theorists than conspirators. Consider your California example: it's well known that the state is in trouble financially and lack of money always means cuts somewhere. How is it that you can say with such confidence that the education system wouldn't lose funding?

Re:Real funding problem, or Washington Monument? (1)

Hatta (162192) | about 2 years ago | (#42129511)

Education might lose funding. The point is that education is used as a distraction to keep them from having to cut pork.

Re:Real funding problem, or Washington Monument? (1)

guises (2423402) | about 2 years ago | (#42130015)

I did understand that part, but again: how can you say this for sure? Every program is considered pork by someone, even education. All the news I get out of California (and I don't live there, so I don't get everything) is cut after cut after cut. Some of those may be good, some of those may be bad, but every cut has people cheering and jeering about it.

Re:Real funding problem, or Washington Monument? (2)

tlhIngan (30335) | about 2 years ago | (#42131959)

I did understand that part, but again: how can you say this for sure? Every program is considered pork by someone, even education. All the news I get out of California (and I don't live there, so I don't get everything) is cut after cut after cut. Some of those may be good, some of those may be bad, but every cut has people cheering and jeering about it.

Exactly. Every program done by governement is considered pork by someone. Teachers want a pay raise? Pork - chop their salaries - who else gets 10+ weeks of vacation a year? 5 people at the police station nightly? Cut it down to 2 and save 3 union OT salaries. Library? Cut it - who reads books anymore? Lighting up some tree in city square (it's the season)? Definitely pork - let's just refuse to honor the season and make it as miserable as possible - happy feelings are pork.

Hell, people will complain about road maintenance as well - those who don't drive probably complain how much is spent on them, and those who do complain how little is spent.

For NASA, perhaps this was considered pork as well - surely if it wasn't, the private sector would be more than happy to pay for it all. After all, they're doing al lthe space-y things as well.

Re:Real funding problem, or Washington Monument? (1)

cduffy (652) | about 2 years ago | (#42142661)

Hell, people will complain about road maintenance as well - those who don't drive probably complain how much is spent on them, and those who do complain how little is spent.

Folks who don't drive largely don't mind spending money on roads -- spending money on on-street parking (subsidizing others' use of a limited resource), and claiming that roads are paid for by use taxes (when that's only 51% of the budget, and only for highways) are a different matter.

Being willing to spend literally 1% of the transportation budget on human-powered alternatives much more than pays for itself -- providing better transportation infrastructure for folks who can't afford a car increases employment levels (as people can travel further to work, and have more last-mile options before and after using other transit mechanisms), and dedicated bike paths (when designed to be useful for commuting rather than sport) have far greater throughput per square foot of dedicated roadway in city centers during high-congestion periods.

Finally, building roads out to suburbs leads to lower population density -- building out rather than up -- increasing infrastructure costs and decreasing the opportunities for active transportation.

But with those caveats? Active transportation activists are (for the most part) happy to pay for road infrastructure -- where we have trouble is when it's design in ways that increase costs down the road and ensure further generations of sprawl.

Re:Real funding problem, or Washington Monument? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42129791)

The other California example was the parks department. The parks budget is tiny compared to the rest of the budget and they were threatening...more than threatening, they started closing parks to save something on the order of $17 million per year. This while California was facing a $6 billion dollar deficit. Other 'real' sources of fiscal problems like out of control pensions, magic trains to nowhere, etc. were kept whole and not even mentioned by the politicians in charge.

So yes, the Washington Monument scam is alive and well on the West Coast.

Re:Real funding problem, or Washington Monument? (1)

The Great Pretender (975978) | about 2 years ago | (#42130823)

That's interesting, a couple of years ago Washington State did the same thing, - please pass these taxes and the schools get cut. Here in Washington folks didn't vote for any tax increase and then the following year wondered why there was a major funding issue for schools. Guess some people call the bluff, or there's an actual reason for statements like that.

Re:Real funding problem, or Washington Monument? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42133465)

As in, the people will always fall in line when you threaten their children or their safety. It is a tried and true method of getting people to accept fee and tax increases.

Personally, I say fuck the children.
I mean screw the children.
I mean give them the short end of the stick.
I mean as long as I get mine I don't care if the children get boned in the process.
I mean give them a raw deal.
I mean kids should just suck it up.

I mean society as a whole should stop paying for, worrying about, and coddling other people's children. It inconveniences everyone else, and we still get rampant hoodlumism, broken homes, and in general successive classes of increasing failure. Instead, we should go back to holding parents responsible for their spawn, let children fail in school and be held back a year, stop telling them they're all destined for a 4 year university and fantastic success, stop pretending they're all special snowflakes, etc.

Re:Real funding problem, or Washington Monument? (1)

Hatta (162192) | about 2 years ago | (#42129493)

Every agency does this all the time. Whenever there's budget problems in any city, it's always police and fire departments that are first on the chopping block.

Re:Real funding problem, or Washington Monument? (1)

Raenex (947668) | about 2 years ago | (#42162791)

It's hard to prove beyond the one obvious case in 1969 from which the name is derived, and it led to the firing of the person responsible, so it's questionable to what degree anyone actually does this.

Guess you missed this [sacbee.com] in the news this year:

"The California Department of Parks and Recreation has been hit by scandal this summer. It began with news in July, first reported by The Sacramento Bee, of an unauthorized vacation buyout program offered to employees at agency headquarters, which resulted in payouts of more than $271,000. A week later, state officials revealed that the department had been sitting on $54 million in surplus money in two special funds, even as it moved to close 70 state parks because of supposed funding shortfalls. The long-serving department director, Ruth Coleman, resigned on July 19, and her chief deputy was fired. Numerous other employees have been demoted, and an attorney general's investigation is under way."

Re:Real funding problem, or Washington Monument? (1)

gl4ss (559668) | about 2 years ago | (#42127883)

doesn't sound funding. sounds like politics preferring the government backed programs.

Re:Real funding problem, or Washington Monument? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42132893)

NASA has been cutting everything for many years now. As you say, you'd never even heard of this project, but you're willing to accuse NASA of cutting it just because it's popular?

Most people want to cut the size of government, but they don't want to cut "earned" entitlements or the military. Once you exclude those, there isn't much else left to cut.

Re:Real funding problem, or Washington Monument? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42134637)

Hardly anyone knows or cares about the CubeSat Centennial Challenge--it's not a "Washington Monument" strategy because hardly anyone will bat an eye if the program is cut. Maybe I'd agree with you if NASA were threatening to close something like ISS for a month each year.

What most people don't realize is that NASA's mission has expanded way beyond it's original scope of engineering research and development for civil aircraft and spacecraft. NASA now works earth science, climate science, astronomy, biology, energy, etc, in addition to it's original core areas. This means that NASA's pool of money keeps getting stretched thinner and thinner; in particular, procurement funding gets hit, because it's easier to cut than people. Many of these areas are specifically designated by Congress, so it's not like NASA could just stop doing them if it wanted, moreover even if it could the people working on these things are specialists--you can't just tell a Ph.D. in earth science to start drafting up rocket nozzles. These budgetary issues are fundamental and dictated at the top level.

If the American people want NASA to go back to it's NACA roots, they need to tell their representatives that. Much of NASA's "new" work is stuff most people would consider worthwhile science and engineering, so this isn't an easy choice. Perhaps some NASA programs would be better placed under other agencies, like NOAA. However, if the people want NASA to accomplish everything on it's plate, they need to raise funding to match ambitions. Otherwise the cycle of planning, early development, delays, overruns, possible cancellation with little to show for it will continue.

Another example of how austerity kills innovation. (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42127641)

No text.

Re:Another example of how austerity kills innovati (1)

gagol (583737) | about 2 years ago | (#42127663)

When you are hungy enough, you will innovate something to feed yourself. Now too much austerity and people will not be able to afford education, but who will see the actual difference?

Re:Another example of how austerity kills innovati (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42127717)

The problem really emerges when innovation is underfunded to begin with. Cutting an agency that's already on a starvation diet leaves nothing left to trim from their budget. Cutting the same amount from the military means only a million bullets and a thousand missiles instead of the originally planned two million and five thousand.
I'm biased, certainly. I'm a biology student on a federal grant. But it's silly that I need to justify the purchase of a computer monitor, I'm not allowed to purchase printer paper with my grant, and I need to be reviewed each year. Yet the first place Congress looks for spare change is in research and exploration.

Re:Another example of how austerity kills innovati (2)

gagol (583737) | about 2 years ago | (#42127729)

I experienced similar experiences in the private sector. Not allowed to buy paper while the boss buys 5000$ worth of winter tires for its high end mercedes. Maybe you should look for something else like I did.

There's an easier answer: terrorists. (4, Insightful)

Areyoukiddingme (1289470) | about 2 years ago | (#42127773)

Ok, not terrorists precisely. Iran, actually.

A Cubesat launcher terrifies non-proliferation wonks who are afraid that a bunch of little commercial competitors would be sloppy controlling access to their blueprints, or worse, would just publish them online, thereby giving Iran detailed plans for upgraded rockets. We have to remember that the other name for an orbital launcher is an ICBM. If the parts truly can be had at Radio Shack, it's just a matter of the skill to design a way to assemble them, and to write some software to control what you've made. Shoestring development projects encourage shoestring organizations, who in turn are far more likely to open source designs these days than, say, the entrenched military-industrial complex. Given Iran's continued and persistent efforts to prevent anybody from being educated in anything other than verses from a particular medieval book, having The Great Satan design and build the tool for The Next Big Attack (that we're all supposed to be frightened of) would appeal to the ayatollahs. (Of course the likely first target would be Israel, who would feel obliged to retaliate with their own nuclear arsenal, and the Middle East would be a whole lot quieter for a while afterwards. Craters don't complain about who is squatting on whose land.)

We also have to remember that SpaceX was supposed to fail. It was supposed to be impossible to engineer a heavy lift launch vehicle from scratch in less than a decade for less than half a billion dollars. We got ULA partisans posting on Slashdot for years telling us how SpaceX couldn't possibly succeed. Now that SpaceX has undeniably succeeded, with an order of magnitude or two less money than they were supposed to require, there's a very real possibility that a Cubesat launcher project could also succeed for yet more orders of magnitude less money. That brings the cost of an orbital launch vehicle down to practically backyard standards. (I hear suborbital is already a backyard project.) Admittedly with a relatively tiny payload, if it's only supposed to launch one Cubesat at a time, but still. Once you've got something that works, you build it a little bit bigger and you can launch something dangerous with it. And of course, it's already fairly dangerous kinetically all by itself.

The CIA allegedly pursued a global space denial program for decades, and fear of the potential payloads is the reason why. Space is expensive because the only thing that works is missile technology, and that scares people. (And that also explains why NASA spent a lot of time pushing the space elevator Centennial Challenges that the last blog post linked in the summary is complaining about. Space elevators aren't missiles.)

Re:There's an easier answer: terrorists. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42128067)

"Given Iran's continued and persistent efforts to prevent anybody from being educated in anything other than verses from a particular medieval book"

I think you are confusing Iran with the Taliban. Iran is a pretty normal country, just with a leadership that searches the confrontation with some other countries.

Otherwise I agree with you.

Re:There's an easier answer: terrorists. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42128093)

Ok, not terrorists precisely. Iran, actually.

Government suit A: So, why are we funding all these CubeSats?

Government suit B: National security.

Government suit A: And why did we cancel the competitive development program for CubeSats?

Government suit B: Terrorists.

Government suit A: And why do so many of our CubeSats suck?

Government suit B: National security.

Government suit A: How do we even get funding?

Government suit B: You know why.

Terrorists is right (1)

Mister Liberty (769145) | about 2 years ago | (#42128207)

Only you got the notion of agressor and agressee a bit backwards, via a vis
Iran and Israel.

Re:Terrorists is right (0)

Chibi Merrow (226057) | about 2 years ago | (#42136387)

Yes, because Israel's leaders are publicly proclaiming every day that they will see to it that Iran is cleansed from the Earth by holy fire...

Re:There's an easier answer: terrorists. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42128337)

Every time I hear about the "commercialization" of space I wonder who is going to inspect all the payloads to insure that they are "harmless".

There is no global (or even national) enforcement agency with this charter.

It seems that "commercialization" necessitates "militarization".

Re:There's an easier answer: terrorists. (1)

BeanThere (28381) | about 2 years ago | (#42131103)

The problem is if you outlaw Cubesat launchers, only outlaws will have Cubesat launchers.

Re:There's an easier answer: terrorists. (1)

gl4ss (559668) | about 2 years ago | (#42131529)

Every time I hear about the "commercialization" of space I wonder who is going to inspect all the payloads to insure that they are "harmless".

There is no global (or even national) enforcement agency with this charter.

It seems that "commercialization" necessitates "militarization".

who inspects the payloads now with militarization of space? that's right - nobody.

Re:There's an easier answer: terrorists. (1)

RocketAcademy (2708739) | about 2 years ago | (#42131629)

Every time I hear about the "commercialization" of space I wonder who is going to inspect all the payloads to insure that they are "harmless".

The FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation, as specified by law.

It seems that "commercialization" necessitates "militarization".

You say that like it's a bad thing. Space has been militarized for 70 years. Von Braun bombed London from space. People only complain about "militarization of space" when DoD proposes a new system that upsets someone's agenda.

Re:There's an easier answer: terrorists. (2)

wvmarle (1070040) | about 2 years ago | (#42128449)

If it is really to prevent Iran getting their hands on such a technology, what is preventing Iran to host the contest by themselves? The prize money is a mere US$ 2 mln, nothing a country like Iran can't afford. Heck, many bigger companies would have no problem with that.

The most remarkable part to me is that so many companies were willing to invest in such a contest, which likely will require real-life demonstration of their tech, for so small a reward.

Re:There's an easier answer: terrorists. (1)

EdZ (755139) | about 2 years ago | (#42128473)

The tricky part about an ICB is hitting the target i.e. your ring-laser gyros, PIGA accelerometers, and the algorithms to turn that into a useful inertially tracked position and velocity. The actual Big Grunty Rocket part is trivial in comparison, especially if you're not a commercial entity and cost effectiveness is not a particular concern. Inertial guidance isn't really something that goes into commercial launch vehicles, as you're expected to have good ground tracking station coverage.

Re:There's an easier answer: terrorists. (3, Informative)

k6mfw (1182893) | about 2 years ago | (#42129321)

>remember that the other name for an orbital launcher is an ICBM.

I asked someone that worked on the CSXT spaceshot (private rocket that went to 67 miles in 2004 or about then) about such a thing be used as a weapon. His answer was, "don't let your imagination go wild. There are many things [besides rockets] that are dual use technology."

I asked Al Stern at SETIcon II panel on commercial space if there is "conspiracy" in government making spaceflight so difficult to have a high barrier of entry to prevent small countries from acquiring ICBM capability. His answer was "that's BS."

Main argument is programs such as Nanosat challenge that provide entry level are getting cut but money pits (SLS) charge on. And forget this about "They" are going to steal our secrets. There is no need for foreign spies to work in US as we simply export the engineering to other countries. Going back to commercial space, Spacex and others do it cheaper because legacy launch vehicles built by Boeing, LM (no, NASA never built rockets as there is no US Govt Rocket Factory) is because LV such as Atlas, Delta, etc were designed as military rockets where performance is the issue, not the cost.

too bad (1)

slashmydots (2189826) | about 2 years ago | (#42129311)

Too bad this isn't a military project instead or it'd have been cancelled, reinstated, cancelled, reinstated, cancelled, reinstated, cancelled, reinstated, cancelled, and then reinstated as a missile.

The Linked Article Explains All (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42132093)

Per the updated Link in the original article, NASA cancelled this challenge because of duplication of effort between the challenge and other programs. Here is the original text:

"A NASA prize competition to support the development of very small launch vehicles appears to be aborted by the space agency before it can get off the launch pad. In an email Tuesday afternoon, Space Florida vice president Percy Luney announced that NASA had notified the agency of its plans to terminate the Space Act Agreement between the two organizations regarding management of the Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge. Under that agreement, Space Florida was responsible for running the prize competition, with NASA providing oversight as well as the prize purse as part of the space agency’s Centennial Challenges prize program. “Space Florida is extremely disappointed at NASA’s decision and has made a significant investment of staff and resources in implementing this Challenge,” Luney wrote.

Luney’s email did not indicate a specific reason for the termination of the agreement between the organizations. “The existence of the SWORDS and ALASA projects may have contributed to this NASA decision to end the Challenge,” he wrote. That’s a reference to two government-funded efforts to develop dedicated nanosatellite launchers, the Soldier-Warfighter Operationally Responsive Deployer for Space (SWORDS) vehicle under development by the US Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command, and the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program at DARPA.

NASA confirmed in response to an inquiry that it was canceling the competition for the reasons suspected by Luney, namely, the development of SWORDS and ALASA. Spokesman David Steitz said the NASA Engineering and Safety Center (NESC) performed a study of ongoing nanosat launcher efforts. “The study identified more than 15 efforts under way and concluded that other than the teams selected for ALASA and SWORDS, the companies lacked experience in designing, developing, or operating launch vehicles and none of the companies seemed to be sufficiently capable of self-financing to deliver the target capability (at approximately $1 million per launch) in the next 3-5 years,” he said."

So the idea of having a small launcher for CubeSats/NanoSats is not only alive and well, but being funded by two different agencies that have a vested interest in having the idea succeed. Sounds like a win/win to me.

Gordon (I really ought to sign up for an account)

Thats not too bad... (1)

wakeboarder (2695839) | about 2 years ago | (#42138081)

We don't need a program like this. We already have plenty of launch vehicles for cubesats... every rocket that goes up has some mass margin for at least a few cubesat. The money would be better spent prepping rockets for launch, not on some contest that is not guaranteed to produce results. http://www.nasa.gov/directorates/heo/home/CubeSats_initiative.html [nasa.gov]

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