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NASA Establishes Anomaly Board to Diagnose Problem on Pluto Mission

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Jul-2015 (Updated: 04-Jul-2015 11:55 PM)

After nearly 10 years in space and just 10 days away from its closest approach to Pluto, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft experienced an anomaly today (July 4).   NASA has already established a board to determine what went wrong and how to fix it in such a short period of time.

New Horizons was launched on January 19, 2006 for its long journey to Pluto, once the ninth planet in the solar system and later redesignated as a "dwarf planet."   Its change of status did not diminish interest in learning more about it and its five moons.

In the past several months, New Horizons has been able to obtain data "Better Than Hubble" as it closes in on Pluto.  While the Hubble Space Telescope can see a lot from its perch in earth orbit, New Horizons now is able to see Pluto much more clearly.   Closest approach will be on July 14.

That is if it is functioning properly, of course.  This evening (Eastern Daylight Time) NASA announced the spacecraft "experienced an anomaly this afternoon" and went into safe mode.  Mission control at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, MD lost contact at 1:54 pm EDT, but regained it after the spacecraft automatically switched to a backup computer as it is programmed to do.  Contact was reestablished at 3:15 pm EDT and the spacecraft is transmitting data NASA hopes will enable mission scientists and engineers to determine what went wrong, fix it, and get the mission back to its original flight plan.

The spacecraft is 3 billion miles (4.9 billion kilometers) from Earth, which at the speed of light means that it takes 9 hours for a round-trip communications session. NASA says "full recovery is expected to take from one to several days" during which time the spacecraft will not be able to collect science data.

Russian Progress Cargo Craft Safely Enroute to ISS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Jul-2015 (Updated: 03-Jul-2015 02:30 AM)

Russia's Progress M-28M robotic cargo spacecraft lifted off on time at 12:55:48 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) this morning (July 3) and is successfully on its way to the International Space Station (ISS).  The successful launch is good news, though with two cargo launch failures in the past 8 months, many are waiting for docking on Sunday before breathing a sign of relief.

The last Progress launch, Progress M-27M on April 28, failed due to a "design peculiarity" that affected third stage separation between the Soyuz rocket and the Progress spacecraft.  The spacecraft reached orbit, but the wrong orbit, and was spinning. It reentered over the Pacific Ocean on May 7.

That was just over two months ago, so this is a quick return-to-flight.  The Russians used a different version of the Soyuz rocket today, a Soyuz-U instead of a Soyuz 2.1a. 

The Progress M-27M failure was the middle of three failed cargo flights to the ISS over 8 months.  First was the October 28, 2014 failure of Orbital Sciences Corporation's (now Orbital ATK) Orb-3 launch (Antares/Cygnus), then Progress M-27M (Soyuz/Progress), and most recently the SpaceX CRS-7 failure (Falcon 9/Dragon) on Sunday, June 28.  

There were four successful cargo missions in between -- Progress M-25M on October 29, 2014; SpaceX CRS-5 on January 10, 2015; Progress M-26M on February 17, 2015; and SpaceX CRS-6 on April 14 -- but the cadence of missions demonstrates the need for constant resupply of the crew.  Another cargo mission, Japan's HTV-5, is scheduled for August 16 EDT.

Progress M-28M is taking about 3 tons of supplies to the crew, including fuel needed to periodically boost the ISS orbit, oxygen, water, food and other items.  The spacecraft reached orbit and deployed its solar panels and navigation antenna about 9 minutes after liftoff.  It is on a 34-orbit rendezvous trajectory with docking set for 3:13 am EDT on Sunday morning, July 5.  NASA TV coverage of docking will begin at 2:30 am EDT.  NASA refers to this as Progress 60 or 60P because it is the 60th Progress launched to the ISS.  Progress has been in use since 1977, supporting the Soviet/Russian space stations Salyut 6, Salyut 7 and Mir before ISS.

Three men are aboard the ISS right now:  NASA's Scott Kelly and Russia's Gennady Padalka and Mikhail Kornienko.  Usually there are six people on board, but they are in the middle of a crew changeover, waiting for three colleagues to arrive later this month.

There are several Soyuz rocket variants and the one used for launching crews is the Soyuz FG.   The next crew launch, Soyuz TMA-17M, is scheduled for 5:02 pm July 22 EDT, although NASA apparently wants more details about the Progress M-27M failure before signing off.  NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, Bill Gerstenmaier, indicated on Sunday at a press conference following the SpaceX failure that NASA wants to "fully understand" the April 28 Progress incident and for the Flight Readiness Review to take place before committing to the TMA-17M launch date.  The crew includes Kjell Lindgren from NASA, Kimiya Yui from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and Oleg Kononenko from Roscosmos.

The successful launch this morning is one step towards restoring confidence in the Russian systems.   Russia is the only ISS partner capable of launching people to the space station.  The United States has not been able to launch crews since it discontinued the space shuttle program in 2011.  It hopes to have two commercial crew systems in place by 2017 -- the crew version of SpaceX's Dragon and Boeing's CST-100.  How Sunday's failure of the cargo version of Dragon will affect SpaceX's commercial crew schedule will not be known until it determines and fixes the problem.

 

Shelton Versus McCain on Import of SpaceX Failure

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Jul-2015 (Updated: 02-Jul-2015 04:55 PM)

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), and Gen. William Shelton (Ret.) view the June 28 SpaceX launch failure very differently.   In a McCain statement and a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Shelton, the two take opposite positions on what should be learned from the failure in terms of national security space launches and how long Russian RD-180 engines are needed by the U.S. military to have assured access to space.

The congressional push to end reliance on RD-180s began while Shelton was still on active duty and Commander of Air Force Space Command and he and McCain differed on these issues all along.  At the last congressional hearing on the topic during Shelton's tenure, in July 2014, they were fully were on display.  Apparently nothing has changed.

 
Gen. William Shelton while on active duty.  He
is now retired from the Air Force.
(Photo credit:  U.S. Air Force /Duncan Wood)

Ending reliance on RD-180s, which are used for the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket to launch national security satellites, and allowing SpaceX to compete with ULA for those launches, have become inextricably entwined.  Sunday's SpaceX launch failure adds fuel to the debate.

At the July 2014 hearing, Shelton agreed that it is time to build an American alternative to the RD-180, though he did not hide his admiration for the technical performance of the RD-180-powered Atlas V.  Atlas V has a 100 percent success rate so far.  He worried that it not be phased out before an American alternative is fully ready to replace it to ensure that ULA can be competitive with SpaceX later this decade.   McCain, however, insinuated that Shelton was favoring ULA and was against SpaceX.  He asserted that he did not like the Air Force's "block buy" contract with ULA for 36 rocket engine cores signed in 2013 and reminded everyone of the improprieties he uncovered in an aerial tanker lease deal with Boeing when "people went to jail and people got fired."  ULA is a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.


Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).  Photo credit:  McCain Senate website.

Shelton's successor as Air Force Space Command commander, Gen. John Hyten, has testified a number of times since then with essentially the same message -- yes, a new American-made engine should replace the RD-180, but make sure the new engine (and launch vehicle, if needed) is fully functional before ending use of the RD-180s.  Hyten and higher level DOD officials, including Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, are currently trying to get Congress to relax a requirement in last year's National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that RD-180 use end by 2019.

Meanwhile, SpaceX was certified at the end of May to compete with ULA for national security launches.  At the time, it had 18 consecutive Falcon 9 launch successes.   The question is how important Sunday's Falcon 9 failure is to SpaceX's ability to compete and, on a larger scale, what it might mean later this decade when Atlas V's no longer are in service because of the RD-180 ban if an alternative is not ready.  Critics argue SpaceX will become a monopoly supplier with a less reliable rocket.  ULA has been the monopoly provider of national security launches since it was formed in 2006.  It launches Atlas V and Delta IV, but Delta IV is very expensive -- ULA puts the price at $400 million per launch -- so is not cost competitive with SpaceX, the argument goes.  Thus SpaceX would win all the competitions in that time frame and become a monopoly itself..

In his Wall Street Journal op-ed on June 29, the day after the SpaceX failure, Shelton, now retired, made his points again.  Agreeing that it is "smart policy" to build a U.S. alternative to the RD-180, he argued that "an abrupt ban is not smart."   The House-passed FY2016 NDAA (H.R. 1735) provides flexibility as to how long the RD-180 may be used, as requested by the Air Force.  Shelton wants Congress to adopt that position during the conference between the House and Senate on the final version of the FY2016 NDAA.  The Senate version, written by McCain and his SASC colleagues, insists on 2019 as required by current law.

In a statement (reproduced below), McCain called Sunday's launch failure "a minor setback" that "will in no way impede the future success of SpaceX and its ability to support U.S. national security space missions."   As for those who try to "leverage" the failure to argue for more RD-180s than the nine allowed in the Senate bill, this "mishap in no way diminishes the urgency of ridding ourselves" of RD-180s.  He often states that paying Russia for the engines funds Russian President Vladimir Putin and his "cronies."   He vowed that "With Russian troops still occupying Ukraine and killing its citizens, I will continue to oppose" the House language.

The House and Senate began appointing conferees for the NDAA before Congress recessed for the July 4 holiday.  How long it will take for them to reach agreement on this and other issues is unknown.  President Obama has threatened to veto the bill for a variety of reasons.  His Statement of Administration Policy on the Senate bill (S. 1376) criticized several of the launch-related provisions including insistence on 2019 for ending use of RD-180s.

Sen. McCain's statement is not published on his website yet.  The text was provided to SpacePolicyOnline.com by his press officer, Julie Tarallo, via email and reads as follows:

I will be closely monitoring the outcome of the pending investigation into this launch failure, which comes after seven successful Falcon 9 launches to the International Space Station.
 
Any time we have a launch failure is a bad day for the United States space program. But our nation did not go to space because it was easy, but because it was hard. Space is still hard, and challenges like these serve as a reminder that space launch remains a very high-risk endeavor requiring unwavering perseverance and utmost dedication among the select few who strive to one day make it commonplace, reliable, and affordable. I am confident that the that this minor setback will in no way impede the future success of SpaceX and its ability to support U.S. national security space missions.
 
There will be those that will seek to leverage this incident to argue for deepening America’s dependence on Russian rocket engines for national security space launches. This mishap in no way diminishes the urgency of ridding ourselves of the Russian RD-180 rocket engine. The Department of Defense will continue to have two launch providers until at least 2018, if not later. If that competitive environment were placed at risk in the coming years, I am confident the Congress could revisit this issue in order to mitigate any national security impacts.
 
With Russian troops still occupying Ukraine and killing its citizens, I will continue to oppose language currently in the House defense authorization bill, which guarantees that $300 million of taxpayer money will go to Vladimir Putin, his cronies, and the Russian military industrial base.
 

Editor's Note:  The statement refers to seven successful Falcon 9 flights to the ISS, a count that must include the C2+ demonstration flight in 2012 plus the six operational cargo missions prior to Sunday's attempt.

SpaceX Still Looking for Cause of Falcon 9 Failure as Russia Readies Next Progress

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Jul-2015 (Updated: 02-Jul-2015 05:22 AM)

SpaceX continues to sort through reams of data to determine what happened on June 28 to its Falcon 9 rocket that was to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).  A SpaceX spokesman said there is "no one theory yet that is consistent with the data" they have looked at so far.   Meanwhile, Russia plans to launch its next cargo mission to the ISS, Progress M-28M, in less than 24 hours.  The launch comes just over two months after the previous mission, Progress M-27M, failed.

SpaceX's Falcon 9, carrying a Dragon capsule full of supplies for the ISS, failed 139 seconds into flight on Sunday, June 28.  It was the 19th Falcon 9 launch after 18 consecutive successes.  SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said shortly thereafter that "there were pressurization indications in the second stage" and the first stage is not suspect.

SpaceX spokesman John Taylor said via email late yesterday that the company's engineering teams are "reviewing every piece of flight data as we work through a thorough fault tree analysis in order to identify root cause."  After that is completed, it will know more about rescheduled launch dates.  Although some debris has been recovered from the ocean, the flight data is expected to hold the key to the cause.

Among the first launches affected by the failure is that of Jason-3 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.  The ocean altimetry satellite had been scheduled for launch on August 8 after several delays.  NOAA and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT) are the lead agencies for Jason-3, partnered with NASA and its French counterpart, CNES, who were responsible for Jason-1 and Jason-2, as well as the original satellite in the series, Topex-Poseidon.  Jason-2, launched in 2008, continues to function nominally.

Sunday's launch was SpaceX's seventh robotic ISS cargo resupply mission under its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA -- CRS-7 or SpX-7.  About two tons of crew supplies, scientific experiments and equipment was lost, including the first of two International Docking Adapters needed for the crew version of Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 spacecraft to dock with the ISS.  They were the winners of the final phase of the commercial crew program and NASA hopes that the systems will be operational by the end of 2017.  The crew version of Dragon incorporates an abort system that can carry a crew to safety if the rocket fails, but it is not in the cargo version of Dragon used on Sunday.  No one was aboard Sunday's launch.

This was the third failure in 8 months of systems that take cargo to the ISS:  Orbital Sciences Corporation's (now Oribtal ATK) Antares rocket with a Cygnus spacecraft on October 28, 2014; Russia's Soyuz rocket with the Progress M-27M capsule on April 28; and now SpaceX's Falcon 9/Dragon combination.

Russia plans to launch the next Progress resupply mission tomorrow, July 3, at 12:55 am Eastern Daylight Time.  Although NASA insists that the ISS crew has plenty of supplies to take them through to October, at least, a lot is riding on the success of the Progress M-28M flight (which NASA calls Progress 60 or 60P because it is the 60th Progress intended to supply the ISS).   The Russians concluded the April failure was due to a "design peculiarity" related to frequency-dynamic characteristics between the third stage of the Soyuz 2.1a rocket and the Progress spacecraft.

One advantage of the ISS program is that it is an international partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Europe, and Canada.   Europe has discontinued its ATV cargo spacecraft, but there still are four systems to take cargo to the crew:  the U.S. Antares/Cygnus and Falcon 9/Dragon, Russia's Soyuz/Progress, and Japan's H2B/HTV.  It is extremely unusual that three of the four systems should fail over such a short span of months.

Fortunately, should anything go awry with Progress M-28M, Japan's HTV cargo spacecraft is scheduled for launch next month. 

Senate Appropriators Approve More than House But Less Than Request for FAA Space Office

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Jul-2015 (Updated: 01-Jul-2015 06:57 PM)

Before leaving for the July 4 recess, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the FY2016 Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) bill that includes funding for the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST).  It approved an increase over current funding, but less than the request.  Funding for AST could become an issue as it oversees the investigation into Sunday's SpaceX launch failure on top of its current oversight of the October 2014 Antares failure. The Senate committee action took place before the SpaceX accident.

Funding for commercial space launch activities is located in three parts of the FAA's budget request this year: Operations; Research, Engineering & Development (RE&D); and Facilities and Equipment (F&E).  The RE&D and F&E requests are related to safety and to integrating commercial space launch into the National Air Space (NAS).

The request for AST itself is in the Operations portion.  The Administration is asking for $18.114 million, approximately $1.5 million more than its current funding of $16.605 million.  FAA said in its budget justification that the money would pay for an additional 13 full time equivalent (FTE) staff positions needed due to the expected increase in requests for commercial launch licenses, permits, certifications and technical outreach. 

The explanation did not specify that any of the positions were needed to support AST's oversight of the October 2014 failure of Orbital Sciences Corporation's (now Orbital ATK) Antares rocket, which may be completed by the time FY2016 begins, but AST now has a second investigation on its hands with the June 28 failure of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket.  In each case, the companies are in charge of the investigation, but AST provides oversight.  The companies must obtain licenses from AST for commercial space launches.

The Senate Appropriations Committee (S. Rept. 114-75) approved $17.425 million for AST, $820 million above current funding, but $689 million less than the request.   The House-passed T-HUD bill (H.R. 2577) approved only a $250,000 increase over current spending, and that was added during floor debate, not by the House Appropriations Committee.

Commercial Spaceflight Federation President Eric Stallmer praised the Senate committee's action, singling out the chair and ranking member of the T-HUD subcommittee, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sen. Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) for their support.  He said that while the Senate committee's level does not fully fund the AST request, "it should ensure that AST can diligently process commercial space licenses and permits in a timely manner."

Bigelow Aerospace's Mike Gold, who chairs the FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), said in an interview on June 29, the day after the SpaceX launch failure, that it would be a "tragedy" if commercial space is substantially delayed "for want of $1.5 million" to adequately fund AST.   He added that AST was "already in a rough situation" before the SpaceX failure and hopes Congress adopts the Senate figure rather than the House's in the final appropriations bill.  That still is not the full $1.5 million increase requested, but is an improvement.

The FAA also requested $3 million for "Commercial Space Transportation Safety" in the Research, Engineering & Development part of its budget.  The money is for research related to the "safe and efficient integration of commercial space launches into the NAS, advanced safety assessments methods, advanced vehicle safety technologies, and safety factors for high utilization reusable vehicles."   The House approved $1 million.  The Senate committee approved $2 million.  There was no similar line item in FY2015 budget although, interestingly, the House report has a notation that in FY2015 the funding was "buried in NextGen Ground Integration per FY14 congressional language."

Another $2 million was requested for "commercial space integration into the NAS" in the Air Traffic Management section of the F&E budget.  The FAA budget documentation says it is needed to advance Commercial Space Integration into the NAS "through the mission analysis phase of the Acquisition Management System (AMS)."  This is the first time such funding is being requested.   It is one of four items comprising a $13.7 million request for Air Traffic Management in the F&E account.  The House and Senate Appropriations Committee reports do not provide that level of detail, but the Senate committee approved the full $13.7 million for that line, while the House apparently cut it to $5.739 million.

Ex-Im Bank Fades Softly Into the Night, For Now At Least

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Jun-2015 (Updated: 01-Jul-2015 12:13 AM)

The authorization for the Export-Import Bank, which gives out loans to U.S. companies trying to do business overseas, ends today.  Red flags were waived last fall when its authorization was about to expire and Congress reauthorized it at the last moment.  Not so this time, and its authorization ends at midnight tonight (June 30) with little fanfare.

Congress left town last week without reauthorizing the bank, which was created in 1934.  The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) issued a press release in the middle of the day today pointing out that it is a long term supporter of the bank because of its impact on aerospace jobs.

New AIA President and CEO David Melcher said Congress "missed an opportunity" to support jobs at American companies.  "Despite the Export-Import Bank of the United States having the support of broad bipartisan majorities" in the House and the Senate, he said, "a small minority has prevented a vote reauthorizing this vital export financing tool for U.S. exporters."  "Thousands of businesses" big and small benefit "directly and indirectly" from Ex-Im bank loan guarantees, AIA said, and a "failure to restore the bank will strike a blow" at American companies.

The last time the bank's existence was threatened in the fall of 2014, AIA, the Satellite Industry Association (SIA), and several other space-related organizations sent a letter to Congress saying that during FY2013 "Ex-Im Bank enabled more than $37 billion in export sales from thousands of U.S. companies," and failure to reauthorize it "would force U.S. exporters to forfeit opportunity in the face of other nations' aggressive trade finance programs."  

Congress responded favorably that time, reauthorizing the bank until today, but efforts to defend the bank this time seemed much more subdued.

The bank may continue existing operations for now, but cannot take on new projects.

Critics complain that the bank is "corporate welfare" for big business, according to a National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast today.  Boeing and General Electric are targets of those critics because they received two-thirds of the bank's loan commitments between 2007 and 2013, The Hill reported, adding that President Obama held a conference call defending the bank because it "helps small and medium-sized businesses -- and by the way, big companies like Boeing and G.E. have a whole lot of small and medium-sized businesses who are suppliers of theirs."

Supporters of the bank are relying on the Senate to vote on reauthorizing the bank when it returns from the July 4 recess; the House's position is less certain.  National Journal says that while reauthorizing the bank has clear majorities in the House and Senate, it is not clear if Republican House leaders have agreed to allow a vote.

AIA argues that the Ex-Im Bank has helped U.S. companies compete for foreign sales of "U.S. civilian aircraft, launch services and commercial satellites" and "helps level the playing field for America's aerospace manufacturers."

For its part, the Ex-Im Bank states on its website tonight that "Due to a lapse in EXIM Bank's authority, as of July 1, 2015, the Bank is unable to process applications or engage in new business or other prohibited activities."

Range Safety Destruct Signal Was Sent To Falcon 9, But Too Late

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Jun-2015 (Updated: 29-Jun-2015 09:21 PM)

SpaceX officials confirmed today that although a range safety destruct signal was sent to the Falcon 9 rocket yesterday, it was 70 seconds too late. The "mishap" had already occurred and the signal played no role in the loss of the vehicle. 

Until this statement from SpaceX, it was not clear if the rocket malfunctioned, veered off course, and was destroyed by the Range Safety Officer, or if the rocket exploded on its own.  Rockets are equipped with Flight Termination Systems that can be activated by sending an abort signal in order to protect public safety.

The Falcon 9 rocket exploded 139 seconds after launch yesterday (June 28).  The launch, at 10:21 am ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, part of the Air Force's Eastern Test Range, came after a flawless countdown with excellent weather conditions.   It was sending a robotic Dragon spacecraft loaded with about two tons of supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).  The mission was the seventh operational flight under SpaceX's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA -- CRS-7 or SpX-7.

No one was aboard this flight.  SpaceX is designing a crew version of Dragon for NASA's commercial crew program, but that is not in service yet.  An emergency abort system is integrated into the crew version of Dragon.  It would allow the crew capsule to detach from its rocket at any point on the trip up to orbit and carry the crew away to a safe landing.

Two more SpaceX ISS cargo flights were planned this year, in September and December.   The schedule for those and all other launches of the Falcon 9 are on hold until this failure is understood. 

While many are focused on the impact to the ISS program or SpaceX's efforts to compete for national security launches, SpaceX has many other customers who will be affected.  Among them is NOAA.  The launch of the Jason-3 ocean altimetry satellite had been scheduled for August 8 after several delays.  A NOAA spokesman confirmed today that the failure has affected the Jason-3 launch and NOAA is working with its partners to determine the next steps.   NOAA and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT) are the lead agencies for Jason-3, partnered with NASA and its French counterpart, CNES, who were responsible for Jason-1 and Jason-2, as well as the original satellite in the series, Topex-Poseidon.  The NOAA spokesman added that Jason-2, launched in 2008, continues to function nominally.

Financial analyst Chris Quilty of Raymond James & Associates said today that he is betting on a 4-6 month delay "which shouldn't be tremendously impactful" to the companies whose satellites are on SpaceX's manifest.  Quilty is Senior Vice President, Equity Research, and closely follows the space business. He added that if the delay is longer than that, it "could have a material impact on 2016/2017 revenues." 

At a press conference yesterday, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said she could not provide a timeframe for when Falcon 9 will return to flight, but confidently predicted it will be less than a year.  She said then, and the company reiterated today, that it is in an extraordinary position to identify the problem and fix it because it owns the majority of the launch vehicle and its components, which streamlines the investigation.  SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk tweeted that they still do not know what happened even after several thousand engineering hours of review.

 

SpaceX vowed today that it would examine every available piece of data to identify the root cause, fix it, and return to flight.

House Plans ISS Hearing for July 10 Amid Reactions to SpaceX Launch Failure

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jun-2015 (Updated: 28-Jun-2015 11:36 PM)

In a statement on the SpaceX launch failure today, the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee announced that it will hold a hearing on the status of the International Space Station (ISS) on July 10.   The statement, from the chairs of the full committee and its space subcommittee, was one of several expressing disappointment about the failure but determination to learn what went wrong and continue to support the ISS.

The failure of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket 139 seconds after launch this morning (Sunday, June 28) marked the third failure in eight months of the systems that resupply the ISS with food, water, science experiments, spare parts and other equipment needed to sustain the station and its crew.  Usually six people inhabit the ISS although only three are there now because they are in the middle of a crew rotation. It was SpaceX's seventh operational cargo mission to the ISS under its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA -- CRS-7 or SpX-7.  The first six were successful.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, several members of Congress, and the Commercial Spaceflight Federation issued statements today.

Bolden said that although NASA was disappointed, the ISS crew is safe and has sufficient supplies for several months.  "SpaceX has demonstrated extraordinary capabilities in its first six cargo resupply flights to the station, and we know they can replicate that success."  Spaceflight "is an incredible challenge, but we learn from each success and each setback....Today's launch attempt will not deter us from our ambitious human spaceflight program."  Bolden is a former astronaut who piloted or commanded four space shuttle missions.

"Disappointed" was a common term expressed today, including by House SS&T Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) who added that he wants to ensure the safe and timely supply of ISS.  New space subcommittee chairman Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), who represents the district that includes Johnson Space Center, said he was eager to learn what went wrong and determine "how it can be fixed to strengthen and advance our commercial cargo program."  Their press release announced the July 10 hearing.

Their Democratic counterparts, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the ranking Democrat on the full committee, and Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking Democrat on the space subcommittee, also issued statements.  Johnson said she was grateful no one was hurt and is confident SpaceX and NASA will take appropriate corrective actions.  Edwards also said she was thankful no one was hurt and the failure "shows us once again that space is difficult."  She stressed that she will continue to press members of the House Appropriations Committee to fully fund the Obama Administration's requests for transporting cargo and crew to the ISS.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, tweeted the following:

 

As a Congressman, Nelson flew as part of the crew of the space shuttle mission STS-61C in January 1986 (Bolden was the pilot of that mission).  The next shuttle launch, 10 days after he landed, was the Challenger tragedy.  His flight used the orbiter Columbia, which was lost in the space shuttle program's second tragedy in 2003.

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), which promotes the development of commercial human spaceflight, praised the "amazing success of a track record that a commercial launch provider like SpaceX has and continues to enjoy" although failures like today's "remind us that there is still work to be done."

What's Happening in Space Policy June 29-July 3, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jun-2015 (Updated: 28-Jun-2015 10:27 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of June 29-July 3, 2015.  Congress is in recess this week for the July 4 holiday.

During the Week

Today's SpaceX launch failure of its CRS-7 mission to the International Space Station (ISS) is likely to continue to resonate this week, especially as NASA awaits Friday's return-to-flight of Russia's Progress cargo spacecraft.   Although the ISS has a lot of redundancy for cargo resupply, the failure of three of the four existing systems within eight months is certainly something that could not be anticipated.   Orbital ATK is still recovering from the October 2014 Antares/Cygnus launch failure.  Russia hopes its diagnosis is correct that the April Soyuz/Progress failure was the result of a one-time "design peculiarity" and the system will work this time, just two months after the failure.  How long it will take for SpaceX to recover from today's failure is an unknown, though SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell confidently predicted it would be less than a year.  In any case, the space commuity will be on pins and needles for the 12:55 am ET launch of Progress M-28M on July 3.

Apart from that high drama, NASA's Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) is meeting Monday-Wednesday.   On Tuesday, it will hold a special one-hour panel on progress in finding, tracking and characterizing Near Earth Objects (NEOs) -- asteroids and comets -- and planning for planetary defense.  The SBAG sessions and the panel will be webcast.   Tuesday actually is "Asteroid Day" with events around the globe.  Two are "premier events" in London and San Francisco and some may have their own webcasts.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday evening are listed below.

Monday-Wednesday, June 29-July 1

Tuesday, June 30

Tuesday-Wednesday, June 30-July 1

Friday, July 3

Pressurization Event in Second Stage Likely Cause of SpaceX CRS-7 Failure

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jun-2015 (Updated: 28-Jun-2015 06:53 PM)

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said during a press conference this afternoon that early data indicate that the cause of the Falcon 9 launch failure today was due to pressurization issues in the second stage.  Some confusion remains as to whether the rocket exploded on its own or because of a destruct signal sent by the Range Safety Officer, but Shotwell said she did not believe it was due to a destruct signal. 

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket exploded 139 seconds (2:19 minutes) into flight this morning (Sunday, June 28) following a 10:21 am ET launch.   NASA posted a video of the launch and failure on YouTube.  Shotwell said data showed "some pressurization indications in the second stage" that the company will be "tracking down and following up on."  She could not provide any other details at this early stage of the investigation other than saying they do not suspect the first stage.

The Falcon 9 was carrying a Dragon capsule with two tons of supplies for the International Space Station (ISS) under SpaceX's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.  This was the seventh operational mission -- SpaceX CRS-7 or SpX-7.

The cargo included food and other crew supplies, science experiments, a new extravehicular spacesuit to replace one aboard ISS that has partially failed, and the first of two International Docking Adapters (IDAs).  The IDAs are needed for the crew version of Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 spacecraft to dock with the ISS.  Both were selected for the final phase of NASA's commercial crew program.  NASA has been hoping that both systems will be available by 2017, although today's failure certainly will impact SpaceX's launch plans.  The crew version of Dragon is equipped with a launch abort system that allows the crew capsule to separate from the rocket at any time during the ride to orbit and carry the astronauts away to a safe landing.  That was not the version of Dragon on this launch, but the capsule did appear to survive for at least a short time after the explosion.

This was a commercial launch authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which facilitates and regulates commercial space launch services.  Pam Underwood, Deputy Division Manager of the Operations Integration Division of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, said during the press conference that the incident has been categorized as a "mishap."  Under those regulations, the company takes charge of the investigation, while FAA oversees it.   This is the same process used for the failure of Orbital Sciences Corporation's (now Orbital ATK) Antares rocket in October 2014 on its third operational cargo mission to the ISS (Orb-3).

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, and Mike Suffredini, ISS Program Manager at NASA, also participated in the post-failure press conference at Kennedy Space Center.

Gerstenmaier, Suffredini and Shotwell conveyed a similar theme -- launching rockets is hard, sometimes they fail, and the key is learning from whatever went wrong and moving on.

Gerstenmaier and Suffredini also made clear they do not want to underplay this "big loss" that is "a blow to us," but they wanted to focus on the fact that the ISS crew is safe and well provisioned.  SpaceX recently completed its sixth operational mission to the ISS, taking up many supplies and returning to Earth much of the scientific experiments and other hardware NASA wanted back on Earth.  

Russia suffered its own failure of a cargo mission to the ISS, Progress M-27M, in April.  It is set to try again on Friday, July 3.  When asked if NASA wants to add any items to that spacecraft at the last minute to compensate for anything lost today, Suffredini said no, that the crew has everything it needs.  NASA tries to "protect" against such failures by having extra supplies aboard and the crew will be fine through October even if no additional supplies are delivered.  He noted that other cargo vehicles are on track to deliver cargo to the ISS in the near future:  Progress M-28M on July 3 and Japan's HTV in August.   Orbital ATK is also planning for the next launch of its Cygnus cargo ship before the end of 2015 using the United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket.  Its own Antares rocket is expected to return to flight in the first quarter of 2016.

The NASA representatives said they do not expect any change to the launch of the next ISS crew in July because of this failure.  Usually there are six people aboard the ISS, but currently there are only three -- NASA's Scott Kelly and Russia's Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka -- because they are in the middle of a crew changeover.   Three crew members just returned to Earth.  Their replacements -- NASA's Kjell Lindgren, Japan's Kimiya Yui, and Russia's Oleg Kononenko -- are scheduled for launch on July 22.   Gerstenmaier stressed that the Flight Readiness Review still needs to be held for that launch and NASA wants to fully understand the Progress M-27M failure to make sure a similar problem could not happen on a crew launch (both use Soyuz rockets, although they are different versions), but the SpaceX failure today should not be a factor.  Russia concluded the Progress M-27M failure was due to a "design peculiarity," but Gerstenmaier's comments implied that NASA is not yet fully satisfied with that answer.

Asked about whether this might hamper NASA's efforts to convince Congress to provide full funding for the commercial crew program, Gerstenmaier stressed the need for the full $1.244 billion requested for FY2016.  The House approved $1.000 billion and the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended $900 million.  Both are above the current level of funding ($805 million), but less than the request.   Gerstenmaier said the money is needed to do the technical work necessary to move forward, pointing to the three failures over the past eight months in the commercial cargo program (Orb-3, Progress M-27M, and today's CRS-7) as examples of what can go wrong.  There is no commonality across the failures, he said, except that "it's space and it's difficult" to fly.

Some members of Congress have suggested that only one company is needed or that if two are needed as NASA insists, they be funded in a "leader-follower" mode where one company proceeds more quickly than the other to spread out the costs. Gerstenmaier remained steadfast that two systems are needed to provide redundancy, and there is no way to predict which company might be ready sooner than the other.

Shotwell was optimistic about how long it will take to identify and fix the problem.  While reluctant to provide a time frame at this early stage, she said she expects it will be "a number of months" but less than a year.  She declined to say how much the launch cost, saying that SpaceX does not discuss costs in public.  

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