Today’s Tidbits: September 13, 2022

Today’s Tidbits: September 13, 2022

Here are’s tidbits for September 13, 2022: NASA science head Thomas Zurbuchen to depart, Astrobotic acquires Masten Space Systems, U.S. Space Force CSO nominee Saltzman warns on China. Be sure to check our website for feature stories and follow us on Twitter (@SpcPlcyOnline) for more news and live tweeting of events.

NASA Science Head Zurbuchen to Depart

Thomas Zurbuchen. Photo Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Direcrorate, announced today that he will leave NASA in December after more than 6 years leading the agency’s science portfolio.

His tenure has brought amazing successes like the launches of the Mars Perseverance rover and its plucky Ingenuity helicopter, the James Webb Space Telescope and the Parker Solar Probe to name just three, with more in the pipeline including Europa Clipper, scheduled for launch in 2024 to study Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, and the Mars Sample Return mission to bring back the samples now being collected by Perseverance.

In a blog post today, Zurbuchen said “I am leaving for two reasons. I believe it is best for NASA, and especially the NASA Science community, and I believe it is best for me.”

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson praised Zurbuchen for making an “indelible mark” on the agency.

NASA said in a press release it is conducting a nationwide search for his successor.

Astrobotic Acquires Masten Space Systems

One of the initiatives Zurbuchen nurtured is the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, a set of public-private partnerships to deliver NASA payloads to the lunar surface. Companies win task orders to build and launch small lunar landers carrying experiments for NASA and other customers. NASA provides money and science and technology experiments, but the companies own the landers and must procure the launches themselves.

Zurbuchen is the first to admit the program has higher risks than most NASA efforts and characterizes the chances of success as “shots on goal.” He repeatedly says he’s OK with a 50-50 success rate.

The risk applies not just to the missions, but to the companies as underscored recently when one filed for bankruptcy, Masten Space Systems. Today, however, another CLPS winner, Astrobotic, announced it has acquired Masten.

Astrobotic announces today the acquisition of Masten Space Systems, a pioneering space technologies company with industry-unique suborbital payload testing services, which include a heritage of more than 600 vertical takeoff and landing (VTVL) rocket flights. The acquisition also includes Masten’s portfolio of advanced space technology development programs advanced over 18 years of operations.

Astrobotic and Masten’s combined workforce of more than 200 employees will continue operations in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The combined company will maintain suborbital flight operations at Masten’s test sites at Mojave, with plans to continue offering the space industry a key testing site for hot fire rocket tests.

As the announcement notes, Masten also launches suborbital rockets and that work will continue.

As for CLPS, Astrobotic already has two task orders and assuming it takes over Masten’s, will have three planned for launch in the next two years. Intuitive Machines also has three. Firefly Aerospace and Draper have one each.

U.S. Space Force CSO Nominee Saltzman Warns on China

Lt. Gen. B. Chance Saltzman testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, September 13, 2022. Screengrab.

The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing today for Lt. Gen. B. Chance Salzman to be promoted to General and become the new Chief of Space Operations (CSO) for the U.S. Space Force, succeeding Gen. Jay Raymond.

He currently is Deputy CSO for Operations, Cyber and Nuclear.

“The most immediate threat, in my opinion, is the pace with which our strategic challengers — first and foremost the Chinese — are aggressively pursuing capabilities that can disrupt, degrade and ultimately even destroy our satellite capabilities and disrupt our ground infrastructure,” he told the committee.

The Space Force was created as a sixth military service within the Department of the Air Force on December 20, 2019. He will be just the second CSO. The military services “organize, train and equip” personnel who are available as needed for the 11 Combatant Commands that are in charge of warfighting. Saltzman said he expects Space Force personnel to primarily support U.S. Space Command, but other combatant commands may need them, too.

“The responsibilities of the chief of space operations are to make sure there are ready forces that have the flexibility, the agility, the training and experience necessary to support all combatant commanders,” he said. “Of note, of course, is that U.S. Space Command has primary responsibilities for that space area of responsibilities, as well as some key missions of providing capabilities for the joint force. While over 90% of the Space Force capabilities are presented to U.S. Space Command, there are critical other capabilities, regional capabilities, that are also presented to the other combatant commands to fulfill their missions as well.”

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