Section 1.10 - Existing Programs

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A space systems designer should be aware of existing projects and programs in order to:

  • Avoid duplication of effort,
  • Know the current state of the art,
  • Serve as a baseline technical level to improve upon, and
  • As a comparison point to justify the need for new projects.

Existing programs can be categorized by:

  • Time: - past, current, and proposed future,
  • Type of funding: - government, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors, or
  • Type of project: - science and exploration, communications, tourism, mining, etc.

There is significant overlap and interaction between the various sectors and projects. For example, government programs procure equipment and services from commercial entities, and contribute funding to not-for-profit programs.

Wikipedia has extensive article lists for General Spaceflight, more specific Lists and Timelines, and categorized Spaceflight Navigation Boxes. These can be used to get general background on such programs. As of May, 2012, there were an estimated 994 operational spacecraft in Earth orbit, plus 22 Interplanetary Probes, about 4 in Lunar orbit and a small number in free space beyond Earth orbit. This excludes classified spacecraft for which data is not available.

The following sections cover some of the more important programs, but are not exhaustive. It mainly lists those that are directly related to space. A field such as materials science can produce new structural alloys that have dual use on Earth as well as in space. For the many such fields which have more general application, and are less directly related to space, we will not try to list all of the existing programs. If you need information about these fields, there are many online, library, and academic sources which can be used as starting points to research them.

Government Programs - International[edit]

There are many national and international agencies which pursue space programs. A list of such Public Sector Agencies can be found on Wikipedia.

Government Programs - United States[edit]

The US government is a major funding source and operator of space projects. The funding ultimately originates from the nation as a whole through taxation. Funds are appropriated annually through the US Congress to several Executive branch agencies. Activities of the US government in general are covered through 2008 by the annual Aeronautics and Space Report of the President


The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, is the primary civilian space agency of the US government. It was originally created in 1958, and currently is authorized under Title 51--National and Commercial Space Programs (Public Law 111-314, 18 Dec 2010). Funding is appropriated annually by the US Congress to operate NASA. For 2012 it is contained in H.R. 2112 at page 71It is headquartered in Washington, D.C. and currently has 18,800 staff and a number of Centers and Facilities. A large part of its approximately $17 billion annual budget is spent on contracted work.

Wikipedia has an extensive List of NASA Program Articles. The NASA Website Missions Page lists past, current, and future missions.

Past Projects[edit]

NASA inherited facilities and staff from the Department of Defense and the previously existing National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which dates back to 1915. The agency's History Office published a self-history covering 1915-1990. It was originally in paper form as SP-4406, then online as Orders of Magnitude, and also available as a single PDF file. Numerous other history publications have been produced by this office. Care should be taken to recognize bias in any internally written history, but factual data is likely to be correct.

Current Projects[edit]

The Current and Recent Budgets page provides data on recent and current activities from a financial standpoint. The 2013 Complete Budget Estimates from that page, and similar ones for past years under the "Previous Years' Budgets" section, also provide detailed descriptions of on-going projects.

NASA operates under three main mission directorates. The Aeronautics Research Directorate operates a number test facilities and research projects. Some of these have application to space launch. The Science Mission Directorate manages numerous projects and missions related to Earth science, heliophysics (the Sun and space environment), planetary science, and astrophysics. Finally the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate develops and operates the very well known manned programs, and less well known science and technology projects related to human exploration. The division of funding (in US dollars/year) in 2012 and major projects include:

Aeronautics Research ($570 million)

The NASA Aeronautics research directorate works to improve aviation and high speed flight. Entry, descent, and landing through an atmosphere from space is studied elsewhere under Space Technology. In addition to general management, innovation, and education activity, specific programs include:

  • Aviation Safety - Seeks to reduce accident rates, improve aircraft systems and crew operations, and understand inherent atmospheric risks.
  • Airspace Systems - Performs research to improve the complicated task of air traffic management in the long term.
  • Fundamental Aeronautics - Conducts research on vehicle technologies for subsonic and high speed flight using modeling, simulation, and component testing.
  • Aeronautics Test - Although high performance computing has enabled increased modeling and simulation, physical testing is still required. This program operates a variety of wind tunnels, propulsion test facilities, and flight test ranges and aircraft. Testing is coordinated with the DOD, who have similar facilities and test needs.
  • Integrated Systems Research - Works to integrate component technologies and research into complete vehicles and systems. This includes concept and design studies for more efficient aircraft, and integrating unmanned vehicles into the human-populated airspace.

Scientific Research ($5.09 billion)

NASA Science programs include Earth Science, Planetary Science, Heliophysics, and Astrophysics project divisions, and also satellite work NASA performs for other government agencies (NOAA and USGS). The science and technical parameters of astronomy and planetary science projects funded by NASA are listed below under not-for-profit programs for several reasons. The scientists who are the end users of the data generated are often at universities and other not-for-profit institutions, the terrestrial projects often have multiple funding sources, and programs in the sciences are better understood as a whole rather than divided by funding agency. The budget and organizational details are noted in this section.

Earth Science - This division is directed at studying the Earth, but the spacecraft hardware and instruments are often similar to what is needed at other locations. In addition to the specific projects noted below, the division funds data archiving, organization, and delivery, advanced technology development, and application of the data to human needs.

  • Earth Science Research - Scientific research aimed at understanding the Earth, its components, interactions, changes, and how these affect life. It includes a substantial effort at high performance computing for modeling and analyzing the large volume of data generated by satellites and other instruments.
  • Earth Systematic Missions - This is a collection of Earth-observing research satellite missions which collect different types of data on the Earth as a whole. Some of the projects are jointly between NASA and other US agencies, or other national agencies. New satellites include Global Precipitation Measurement, Landsat Data Continuity Mission, ICESat-2 laser ice, cloud, and vegetation measurement, and Soil Moisture Active and Passive. It also includes 11 current missions, and scientific analysis of the collected data.
  • Earth System Science Pathfinder - These are small to medium projects and satellites aimed at collecting Earth data.

Planetary Science - This division is directed at studying the content, origin, evolution, and potential for life of our Solar System and planetary systems beyond our Sun. To get better data than observing from a distance (i.e. astronomy) it has a progressive strategy of flyby, orbiting, landing, roving, and sample return for each object. Generally astronomy is how original detection of new objects occurs, although the Near Earth Object Program within this division is directed to find close and possibly hazardous objects down to 140 meters in size. It funds general science research and technology development projects, plus specific groups of spacecraft and missions noted below.

  • Discovery Program - This includes relatively smaller missions with shorter development times. It includes the Dawn dual asteroid, GRAIL lunar gravity mapping, and Messenger Mercury orbiter missions.
  • New Frontiers - This includes larger, high priority science missions, including the New Horizons Pluto flyby, Juno Jupiter orbiter, and OSIRIS-REx NEO sample return missions.
  • Mars Exploration - This program seeks to understand the past, present, and future habitability of Mars through a series of incremental missions. It includes the Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance orbiters, Opportunity and Curiosity surface rovers, and future MAVEN atmosphere sampler missions.
  • Outer Planets - This program is aimed at understanding the origin and evolution of the outer solar system. It includes the Cassini mission to Saturn, scientific research, and planning and technology development for future missions.
  • Technology - This program develops improved technology for future planetary missions. It currently includes projects in electric propulsion, radioisotope generators, and mission management software.

Astrophysics - The areas of research for this division include the Universe as a whole, the evolution of galaxies, stars, and planets, and the characteristics, habitability, and presence of life on current extrasolar planets. It funds general research and data analysis from NASA missions, as well as specific programs as follows.

  • Cosmic Origins - This program investigates the evolution of the Universe and its components. Major projects include the Hubble Space Telescope, SOFIA airborne telescope, and Spitzer infrared telescope.
  • Physics of the Cosmos - Investigates how the universe behaves under extreme conditions. It supports two operating missions: the Fermi gamma ray telescope and Chandra X-ray observatory, and contributes to the ESA-led Planck and XMM programs, along with supporting science and technology work.
  • Exoplanet Exploration - Searches for and tries to characterize planets outside our solar system. Much of this research happens with ground-based telescopes such as Keck and LBT, but this program includes the Kepler space telescope, which is a dedicated planet finding mission. It also includes science and technology development for future instruments and missions.
  • Astrophysics Explorer - This program funds smaller, dedicated science missions. Current projects include the NuSTAR high energy X-ray telescope, Gravity and Extreme Magnetism spacecraft, and continued operation of a number of previous missions.

James Webb Space Telescope - The extreme cost of this project ($8.8 billion total) has generated congressional scrutiny and separate budget tracking from the rest of the Astrophysics science budget.

Heliophysics - This division studies the Sun and the space environment between bodies, and surrounding plants. Like the other science divisions, it funds topical science research, data analysis and archiving, and more specific programs noted below. Sub-orbital launches and continuing operation of previously launched satellites are also funded by this division. This includes the two Voyager spacecraft, which have completed their planetary science work and are now primarily collecting data on the space environment.

  • Living with a Star - Studies the interaction of the Sun and Earth and its effects on life and society. Current projects include the Radiation Belt Storm Probes, Solar Probe Plus, and Solar Dynamics Observatory.
  • Solar Terrestrial Probes - Studies the plasma environment between the Sun, Earth, and solar system. Projects include the four Magnetospheric MultiScale spacecraft, and continuing operation of previous missions.
  • Heliophysics Explorers - Includes small to medium targeted science missions. It includes the IRIS mission to observe the edge of the Sun, and operation of a number of previous missions.

Space Technology ($575 million)

This category funds space technology development from very early concepts to flight demonstration, after which it would be incorporated into operational programs. It is managed by the Office of Chief Technologist (OCT), and the actual work is done within NASA centers, and the commercial and not-for-profit sectors. The OCT developed roadmaps to plan their work, which was reviewed in a Report by the independent National Academies, and guides funding plans. In addition to fostering technology transfer across NASA programs, and externally across other agencies and society in general, specific programs include:

  • Small Business Programs - These are competitively awarded contracts to small (<500 employee) business for innovative technology.
  • Crosscutting Space Technology - For early development, funds external research grants and innovative concepts, internal innovation at NASA centers, and Centennial Challenge prize competitions. For transition from early to flight demonstration, funds work in a changing set of "game changing technologies", such as manufacturing innovation, robotic servicing, nanotechnology, and synthetic biology. To demonstrate readiness for operational use, funds demonstration missions such as supersonic decelerators, laser communications relay, deep space atomic clock, and large area solar sail. Also procures flight opportunities to test the various technology that requires it.
  • Exploration Technology Development - Develops critical technology for human exploration, for later use in the main Exploration and Space Operations programs. Current topics include In-Space Propulsion, Power Generation, Nuclear Systems, Lightweight Structures, Human-Robotic and Autonomous Systems, Life Support, Flexible Thermal Protection, Resource Utilization, Composite Cryogenic Tanks, Hypersonic Decelerator, and Radiation Protection.

Exploration ($3.77 billion)

This budget account is focused on human exploration beyond low Earth orbit and transport to the existing International Space Station (ISS). The program is based on goals in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010.

Exploration Systems Development - About three quarters of exploration funding goes to three major programs under this heading:

Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office (C3PO) - This program is aimed at stimulating private sector systems by buying crew and cargo transport services. It was allocated $406 million funding in 2012.

Human Research Program - Conducts research and develops technologies that allow humans to travel safely and productively in the environment of space. It was allocated $158 million funding in 2012.

Advanced Exploration Systems - Funds high priority projects for future human missions. The projects are in the areas of crew mobility, habitats, vehicles, operations, and robotics. They were allocated $142 million funding in 2012.

Space Operations ($4.23 billion)

This part of the budget includes operating the International Space Station, the space communications network, and launch and test operations on Earth. It formerly included the Space Shuttle, which is now retired.

International Space Station (ISS) - As the name indicates, this is an international program. This paragraph covers the NASA funded portion, which amounted to $2.83 billion in 2012. The program is currently authorized through fiscal year 2020. One domestic purpose of the ISS is to promote commercial research and transportation in Earth orbit. Tasks within the program include:

  • ISS Sytems Operations and Maintenance - Responsible for assembling, operating, and maintaining the ISS with an onboard crew of 6. This includes mission planning, ground monitoring and communications, spares and logistics, crew training, mission integration (allocating all orbital resources), handling system failures, and safety and mission assurance.
  • ISS Research - Funds biological and physical research which benefits from the orbital environment. Major areas of research include human microgravity effects, plant and microbiology, fluid, thermal, and particle physics, combustion, and materials processing. It is also a platform for Earth and space observation, although not unique in this aspect. The ISS is also being used as a demonstration platform for robotics, life support, and fire safety technology. An ISS National Laboratory organization is being set up to manage scientific payloads.
  • ISS Crew and Cargo Transportation - Funds crew and cargo transportation to and from the ISS. This currently uses Roscosmos Progress, Orbital Sciences CRS, and SpaceX Dragon vehicles.

Space and Flight Support - This includes other operational activities, including the communications network, launch services, propulsion testing, and human space flight.

  • 21st Century Space Launch Complex - This project is to update facilities at the Kennedy Space Center that are multi-user. It overlaps with Exploration Ground Systems work which is specific to the SLS.
  • Space Communications and Navigation - Operates the communications network and navigation services for all NASA spacecraft. It includes the Deep Space Network for long range communication and NASA-owned Tracking and Data Relay Satellites in synchronous orbit, and development of future laser communications for higher data rates.
  • Human Space Flight Operations - Provides astronaut crew training, and health and safety monitoring.
  • Launch Services Program - Manages the Expendable Launch Vehicle program. Actual cost of individual rockets is included under the project or mission that requires them, while contracting, and launch site operations are funded here.
  • Rocket Propulsion Test - Operates four rocket engine test facilities.

Support Activities ($3.56 billion)

This includes education activities, agency staff, facilities construction and maintenance, and inspector general.

Education - Interacts with all levels of education institutions, museums, and science centers to promote interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Cross-Agency Support - Operates NASA centers and headquarters, including 18,000 agency staff and IT.

Construction - Includes new construction, demolition, environmental compliance, and repair of existing buildings and other facilities.

Future Projects[edit]

The 2011 NASA Strategic Plan provides a general description of planned future projects. You have to distinguish, however, between a general set of goals like this document, and what actually or is likely to get funded and built. Better detail for the next few years can be found in annual budget requests, such as the one for Fiscal Year 2013. Individual departments and projects usually have plans and schedules which run somewhat longer. The duration of current and upcoming projects often runs longer than the 5 year budgeting horizon.

As an agency NASA does not publish long range project plans except in very general terms, or internally to individual research projects. Since funding is on an annual basis, and the nature of research and technology development is to find out things you did not know before, detailed long range planning does not make sense. Additionally, concrete plans for future projects would immediately raise funding issues with the US Congress, who would have to approve the money for those projects.

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