Findings & Concerns

Meeting of January 21, 1998
Sounding Rocket Working Group
National Aeronautics and Space Administration



The Sounding Rocket Working Group (SRWG) appreciates the difficult job that the NASA Sounding Rocket Operatons Contract (NSROC) committee has undertaken. We are pleased that they have been able to maintain several key features of the sounding rocket program as part of the new proposed arrangement. The SRWG looks forward to working with Wallops during the transition period to help facilitate the successful enactment of the new program guidelines.

From our perspective, the NSROC committee has averted a disaster while being responsive to the user community. To their efforts, we extend our sincere congratulations and thanks.

2. Flight Rates and Competition for Resources

The SRWG is alarmed by the prospects of reduced flight rates under the new NSROC arrangement. The switch to a contractor with no compensation to replace the loss of civil servant support will likely result in a lower flight rate.

Although we are painfully aware that finances are scarce and that all areas of NASA are asked to tighten belts, a healthy sounding rocket program is vital to the nation's space research program, as concluded by numerous recent blue ribbon review panels, both within and outside of NASA. In our view, a new target average rate of only 20 flights/year not only undermines the advantages that the program accrues from "economies of scale" but also would starve the technology development opportunities that rockets provide, particularly to support future orbital missions. We urge NASA to maintain a robust, healthy baseline of sounding rocket support that the scientific community can continue to count on when planning research programs.

3. Poker Flat

The SRWG appreciates the presentation by Wallops personnel on the current NASA arrangement with the Poker Flat Research Range, and the elucidation (at least at the highest level) of the rough financial exchanges between Wallops and the University of Alaska, which owns the rocket range.

The current arrangement between NASA and the Poker Flat range allows sounding rocket launch opportunities only in alternate years. The cost to NASA in non-flight years is roughly half (about $700K) the cost during flight years ($1.5M). Although the SRWG understands that the decision for Wallops to launch rockets at Poker every other year is based both on cost savings and the decline in the numbers of Poker-launched sounding rockets, we are both startled and perplexed by the high cost (borne by the Sounding Rocket Project Office) of maintaining the Poker range during off years. Besides this drain in resources, the alternate year arrangement means that delays in launch schedules caused by weather or other uncontrollable factors creates scheduling slips of up to two years as well as the delay of priority science and technology development. Such two-year delays are not commensurate with NASA's emphasis on faster turn-around projects.

The SRWG notes that new activities at Poker Flat have been developing rapidly in many ways in recent years. For example, new ground-based scientific research initiatives are being instigated and run by the University of Alaska and other groups, and NASA continues to invest and expand in its orbital tracking stations that operate there continuously. Furthermore, other countries and agencies (e.g., Japan, DoD) are investing heavily in the scientific and operational infrastructure at Poker.

Since the new NSROC contract will soon be in place, and since one of the goals of this contract is to encourage better utilization of the facilities associated with NASA/Wallops, it seems logical that the alternate year arrangement at Poker Flat be revisited with the winning contractor under the NSROC arrangement. For example, non-NASA projects may be interested in exploring research opportunities that are afforded by the NSROC provider. In this manner, the NASA-owned Poker Flat facilities could become a source of income under NSROC (e.g., they could be leased in support of non-NASA programs), and help facilitate new arrangements whereby sounding rocket launches might be scheduled with more flexibility.

Community support for including the possibility of rocket launches from Poker every year is strong. In view of the new NSROC contract and the numerous changes now going on at Poker, the SRWG urges NASA/Wallops to search for creative, new scenarios with which to enable launch opportunities at Poker Flat every year, particularly if such activities can be carried out for the same total amount of funding presently allocated for Poker Flat support.

4. New Technology Presentations

The SRWG appreciates the presentations by the Wallops engineering staff concerning the new technologies being developed under the auspices of the NASA/Wallops Sounding Rocket Project Office. We are quite impressed with the developments concerning GPS, PCM CD-ROM storage, and the new ground systems at White Sands and at Wallops. The fact that Wallops is responsive to the user needs, which themselves are driven by new science requirements and emerging technologies, is indeed a hallmark of the sounding rocket program which can not be overemphasized. In our view, this an excellent example of why NASA's Sounding Rocket program enjoys such a first-rate reputation within the international space science community.

With regard to specific new technologies, the SRWG has comments at this time on three areas:

(a.) Future Startrackers

At the January 21, 1998 meeting, the committee heard a report from Dr. Clarence Korendyke (NRL) showing some beautiful solar data gathered with the current version of the SPARCS pointing system that achieved almost 0.1 arc-second pointing stability over 10-30 seconds on a recent NASA sounding rocket solar physics mission. In contrast, fine-pointed astronomy sounding rocket payloads are using 20 year old technology that provide at best several arc-second stability. Moreover, the Ball startracker currently used with the sounding rocket Mark VI guidance system has some serious limitations; notably its inability to guide on targets fainter than 4th magnitude and the need to have ONLY one bright object in its 4 or 2 degree field-of-view.

One area of new technology that the NASA suborbital program is well suited to develop is a "smart" startracker -- one that can track on crowded star fields as faint as 8th magnitude without becoming lost. The development of this technology would significantly enhance the current capability of fine pointed sounding rockets by eliminating the need for guide star acquisitions that use targets far from the intended target. Additionally, this will provide a means of testing a guidance system critical to the development of future low cost NASA orbital astronomy missions. The SRWG requests that Wallops consider the development of such new startrackers for astronomy payloads, and that the requirements and possibilities be discussed at a future meeting.

(b.) Telemetry Simulator Cards.

Now that the new Wallops telemetry system (WFF93) is standard, including the provision for up to 10Mbps per link, the SRWG suggests that WFF develop and provide a standard simulator card for this telemetry system that would permit investigators to test their instruments for compatibility before traveling to integration and into the field. This would save much time and resources, both for the scientists and for Wallops. Indeed, in one case involving a recent sounding rocket launched from Spitzbergen, a team at Goddard (Pfaff group) fabricated such boards and distrib uted them to 3 co-investigators (U. Md, SwRI, Norway) prior to integration, which resulted in substantial time and cost savings, as well as a more realistic instrument calibration in several cases. The SRWG suggests that Wallops explore providing (i.e., loaning) such simulator cards to all investigators early in the mission development phase.

In addition to the telemetry simulator card, we also suggest that Wallops consider a PCMCIA interface for the TM stack emulator, as this would allow both IBM/PC and Macintosh notebook computers to be used by the experimenters during checkout. Notebooks are much more practical for bench checkout as they allow users to have the exact same hardware to check their instruments during integration as was used for testing and calibration in their laboratories.

(c.) Future Data Formats

With today's complex payloads, analog recorders, while valuable for quicklook purposes, are often incapable of providing critical diagnostics for instruments involving large quantities of complex digital data (such as images). Investigators currently have to wait for long periods, often days, to get digital data from integration tests and flights from the WFF T/M section, thereby seriously compromising the utility of integration test sequences. (It is not uncommon, for example, for T&E to be completed before receiving digital data from the pre-T&E horizontal tests.) Data at some facilities (notably White Sands) are available on much shorter times (hours), but in formats incompatible with the formats used by WFF.

The SRWG applauds NASA's current plans to install CD-ROM writers in F-10 ground stations and remote field ground stations as a first step in the direction of remedying the situation. We find that the WFF T/M section should move as quickly as possible to insure the capability of providing the experimenter with rapid access (less than 1 hour from time of test) to the entire T/M stream of digital data at all ground stations (both at WFF and remote sites), using a common, well documented data format and readily available transfer media such as FTP file transfers across the Internet and CD-ROMs for permanent records.


NASA Sounding Rocket Working Group

Dr. Robert F. Pfaff, Jr. (Chair)
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Prof. Dave Burrows
The Pennsylvania State University

Prof. Greg Earle
University of Texas at Dallas

Prof. Paul D. Feldman
Johns Hopkins University

Dr. Mark Hurwitz
University of California, Berkeley

Prof. Timothy J. Kane
The Pennsylvania State University

Prof. Craig Kletzing
University of Iowa

Dr. Clarence Korendyke
Naval Research Laboratory

Dr. Fletcher Miller
NASA/Lewis Research Center

Dr. Alan Stern
Southwest Research Institute

Dean and Prof. Roy B. Torbert
University of New Hampshire

Prof. Edward C. Zipf
University of Pittsburgh