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GAO Credits NASA For Improved Acquisition Performance, but Worries About SLS and Orion

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Apr-2014 (Updated: 15-Apr-2014 06:14 PM)

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) gave NASA credit today for improved cost and schedule performance in its major acquisition programs.  Nevertheless, it cited several programs that need continued monitoring.   GAO reviews NASA's major acquisition programs every year as requested by Congress.

GAO said that the portfolio of NASA projects it reviewed "saw cost and schedule growth that remains low compared to GAO's first review."  Not that every project is doing well, though.  

In all, GAO reviewed 19 programs spanning robotic and human spaceflight in its 104 page report.   It did not make any recommendations, but cited several programs that require continued monitoring.  One is the Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite-2, ICESAT-2.  GAO said the cost of the satellite's single instrument -- Advanced Topographical Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS) -- being developed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center will grow by at least 15 percent and the spacecraft will miss its 2017 launch date.  GAO said that NASA traced the problem to immature systems engineering analysis and consequently replaced the project management team and added more expertise.

Among GAO's other top worries are the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion programs.

  • Space Launch System:   "Based on current budget estimates, program officials have expressed concern that the first launch in 2017 could be delayed." GAO says that the program will reach Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C) this month (April 2014) and at that point NASA will establish cost, schedule and performance baselines for the initial (70- ton) version of the launch vehicle.  GAO highlights funding risks associated with the flat budget profile under which NASA plans to spend $6.8 billion between FY2014 and 2018, and calls the schedule "aggressive."   It also worries that two years after the program was established, "many of the SLS program contracts remain undefinitized."
  • Orion:  "The mass of the spacecraft remains a top program risk."  GAO says the spacecraft being designed to take humans beyond low Earth orbit aboard the SLS could be as much as 2,800 pounds overweight at launch for the first exploration mission (EM-1) in 2017.  The maximum lift-off mass for that mission is 73,500 pounds, GAO states.  The report also notes that the contract under which Lockheed Martin is developing Orion is valued at $11.6 billion through 2020.

Other programs that bear watching include:

  • James Webb Space Telescope:  "GAO's analysis of three subsystem schedules determined that the reliability of the project's integrated master schedule ... is questionable."   Today's report notes that GAO made the same conclusion last year.
  • Magnetosphere Multiscale (MMS) project:  "The project is tracking risks that cost reserves may be inadequate and that the project may overrun its cost baseline" due at least in part to a launch postponement from October 2014 to March 2015 caused by the October 2013 government shutdown.  GAO said the launch delay will cost about $39 million, thereby exceeding the cost estimate by $26 million.
  • Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA):  GAO makes no comment on the wisdom of mothballing SOFIA as proposed in the President's FY2015 budget request, but notes that project officials said that the "planned FY2015 budget is insufficient to prepare the observatory for storage."

GAO also provided a snapshot of the status of the three commercial crew competitors -- Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX.  According to the report,

  • Boeing has completed 17 of 20 (85 percent) milestones of which 6 were delayed from initially targeted dates;
  • Sierra Nevada has completed 8 of 13 (62 percent) milestones of which 1 was delayed; and
  • SpaceX has completed 13 of 17 (76 percent) milestones, of which 1 was delayed.

Overall, it reports that commercial crew program officials cite the following challenges: concern that the program will not be fully funded, reducing competition and thereby increasing costs of commercially available transportation capabilities; complications such as development of the system to allow the commercial vehicles to dock with the International Space Station, which could impact schedule; and "closing a risk related to Federal Aviation Administration licensing issues."

The other programs reviewed by GAO for this report are:

  • Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) earth observation mission, which was just launched
  • Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow On (GRACE FO), an Earth-orbiting mission to study the Earth's gravity field, scheduled for launch in 2017
  • Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSIGHT), a Mars mission scheduled for launch in 2016
  • Lunar Atmosphere Dust and Experiment Explorer (LADEE), which was launched last year and is just about to end its brief mission to the Moon
  • Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN), launched last fall and due to arrive at Mars this summer
  • Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) earth observation mission, scheduled for launch this July
  • Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx), an asteroid sample return mission scheduled for launch in 2016
  • Soil Moisture Active and Passive (SMAP) earth observation mission, scheduled for launch later this year
  • Solar Probe Plus heliophysics mission scheduled for launch in 2018
  • Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment
  • Surface Water and Topography (SWOT) earth observation mission, scheduled for launch in 2020
  • Tracking and Data Satellite Replenishment (the most recent, TDRS-L, was launched in January)

Holdren to Discuss Administration's Vision for NASA with NAC on April 16

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Apr-2014 (Updated: 15-Apr-2014 01:57 PM)

Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren is scheduled to discuss the Obama Administration's vision for NASA with the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) tomorrow (April 16, 2014).  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and the head of NASA's human spaceflight program, Bill Gerstenmaier, will also address NAC.  The meeting comes three weeks after a tense exchange between Bolden and House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) over whether NAC Chairman Steve Squyres agrees with NASA's contention that the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) is a step towards someday sending people to Mars.

The Obama Administration is continuing its efforts to convince Congress and the space community in general that ARM should be the next step for the U.S. human spaceflight program.  It has generated little enthusiasm since it was announced almost exactly one year ago when President Obama submitted his FY2014 budget request to Congress.   ARM is an iteration of President Obama's declaration almost exactly three years earlier, on April 15, 2010, that he was directing NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid as the next step in human spaceflight after he cancelled the Bush-era Constellation program to return humans to the lunar surface.

NASA is still developing the mission concept for ARM.  Gerstenmaier briefed NAC's Committee on Human Exploration and Operations yesterday on competing concepts for how to carry out the mission. The two options are to try to redirect a small asteroid into a lunar orbit or to go to a larger asteroid and pluck a large sample (e.g. a boulder) from its surface and move that into lunar orbit.  Once in lunar orbit, astronauts would visit it.  Gerstenmaier focused on the value of using cis-lunar space (between the Earth and the Moon) and lunar orbit as a "proving ground" for human missions beyond low Earth orbit.  He also stressed that although ARM has been characterized as a "one-off" mission, in fact it is part of an integrated plan to get humans to Mars. 

There is little disagreement that the long term goal for the U.S. human spaceflight program -- in partnership with other countries and the commercial sector -- should be landing people on Mars (though it is not unanimous).   For decades, the debate has been over whether or not returning to the lunar surface is a prerequisite.  Intermediate destinations, like asteroids, were rarely discussed until a committee created by President Obama shortly after taking office in 2009 posited a "flexible path" approach as an alternative that included asteroids and Lagrange points.  The committee, chaired by Norm Augustine, did not make recommendations, but laid out "Moon First," "Mars First" and "Flexible Path" options.

Holdren is Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which is largely blamed or credited, depending on one's point of view, for choosing Flexible Path and cancelling the Constellation program.    He has testified to Congress about ARM enthusiastically, but does not appear to have won many converts.  In one sign of good news for the Administration, however, the 2014 NASA Authorization Act approved by the  House SS&T's Space Subcommittee last week would not prohibit spending money on ARM.  That is an improvement over last year's version of the bill, which would have done so.  That bill was never reported from committee.

Holdren's appearance before NAC tomorrow may be an effort to win over those members of the space community, especially NAC chairman Steve Squyres, at least, about the value of ARM as part of a plan to send people to Mars.

Squyres testified to the House Space Subcommittee last year that he does not consider ARM as necessary to achieve that goal.    At another hearing three weeks ago on NASA's FY2015 budget request, full committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) challenged Bolden on that point.  Smith quoted Squyres as testifying that "I see no obvious connection between [ARM] and any of the technologies or capabilities that are required for Martian exploration."   Smith is pushing the Mars 2021 Flyby mission as the next step in human spaceflight instead.

In a tense exchange, Smith reminded Bolden about Squyres's testimony and Bolden replied that if Squyres were asked today, he would not hold the same position.  Smith retorted: "I don't doubt you could put political pressure on him."  Bolden responded:  "I put no pressure, I can't put pressure, on Steve Squyres."  Smith insisted Squyres's testimony stands "unless you have other information."  Bolden said:  "I have other information, which is talking to [him] weekly.  Steve Squyres counseled me  'don't make this seem like you're going to save the planet.  Show us, the NASA Advisory Council, how this is relevant to getting people to Mars.'  We've subsequently done that."   Smith said Squyres's testimony stands until he hears differently from Squyres.

Smith continued his criticism in an April 3 press release after Bolden made comments to two National Research Council panels that Mars Flyby 2021, Smith's preference, is not a steppingstone to landing people on Mars.

As for convincing Squyres and the rest of NAC, Bolden, Holdren and Gerstenmaier will be there to make the case for ARM in person and in public tomorrow morning.  The meeting is at NASA Headquarters and is available remotely via WebEx and telecom.  The detailed agenda, as of today, is posted on the NAC website.  Bolden is scheduled for 9:10 am ET, Holdren for 10:00 am ET, and Gerstenmaier for 11:00 am ET.

Sen. Shelby Questions Need for Two NOAA Satellite Programs: COSMIC-2 and SIDAR

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Apr-2014 (Updated: 14-Apr-2014 08:16 PM)

Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, told Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker last week that two of NOAA’s satellite programs are nice-to-have, but not essential and do not meet his priority test in today’s budget environment.  The two are COSMIC-2 and SIDAR (a new program this year that replaces the Polar Free Flyer).

Shelby is the top Republican on both the full committee as well as its Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee, which funds NOAA (as well as NASA).  While his Democratic counterpart Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who chairs the full committee and the subcommittee, is known as an advocate of environmental satellites, both Senators have expressed reservations over the years about NOAA’s ability to manage satellite programs effectively.

In recent years, the disagreements have centered on NOAA’s two major satellite development programs – the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R series.  Those programs appear to have stabilized, but NOAA has several other satellite programs and Shelby believes at least two of them are of lower priority than other NOAA activities.   NOAA has broad-ranging duties, including fisheries and coastal zone management, of great importance to Alabama.

Pritzker testified about the full range of issues at the Department of Commerce at the April 10 hearing.  The President is requesting $8.8 billion for the Department.  It has a panoply of responsibilities from radio frequency spectrum management for federal government users to management of the contract for assigning domain names for the Internet to cyber-security research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to implementing export-import policies to preparing for and conducting the 2020 Census.

NOAA would get $5.5 billion of the $8.8 billion.  NOAA’s satellite programs would get $2 billion of that.

Shelby questioned the need for COSMIC-2 and SIDAR, calling them “nice-to-have” projects rather than “must-haves” like JPSS and GOES.   NOAA is requesting $6.8 million for COSMIC-2 and $15 million for SIDAR, a total of $21.8 million of its $2 billion satellite budget.

Ironically, NOAA requested no funding for COSMIC-2 last year, but this committee added $4 million.  That amount was cut in half after negotiations with the House, for a total of $2 million in FY2014.   For FY2015, NOAA is requesting $6.8 million.  A follow-on to COSMIC, a joint project with Taiwan, it involves a constellation of satellites that uses GPS signals for radio occultation (GPS-RO, or alternatively GNSS-RO for Global Navigation Satellite System-Radio Occultation) measurements to enhance the accuracy of polar-orbiting weather satellites.   Rick Anthes and Thomas Bogdan published an op-ed in the Washington Post today explaining why COSMIC-2 is a “crucial element” in enhancing weather prediction.   Anthes was co-chair of the National Research Council’s 2007 decadal survey on Earth Science and Applications from Space.

SIDAR is new in the FY2015 request, replacing last year’s Polar Free Flyer (PFF), which received none of the $62 million requested.   In that case, the House position to not fund PFF was adopted in negotiations with the Senate.

PFF was an effort to get into orbit three instruments that were orphaned after the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) was cancelled and replaced by the much smaller JPSS spacecraft.   They are the Total Solar Irradiance Sensor (TSIS), Advanced Data Collection System (A-DCS), and transponders for the Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking (SARSAT) system.

With no funding provided for PFF in FY2014, NOAA created the SIDAR (Solar Irradiance-Data-Rescue) line item for FY2015.  The FY2015 request is modest -- just $15 million – and the projection for the next four years is shown as TBD.

Shelby did not mention two other NOAA satellite programs – Jason-3 and DSCOVR – for which funding is also requested this year ($25.7 million and $21.1 million respectively).   The request for JPSS is $916.3 million and for GOES-R is $980.8 million.

Shelby said that he was concerned that “not all of the satellite projects ... are truly necessary to the core mission of NOAA” and that NOAA has not presented a “viable gap mitigation plan” for a potential gap in data from polar-orbiting weather satellites between the time existing satellites stop working and the first JPSS is launched.

Mikulski also asked when the committee would get that plan.  Pritzker said NOAA is currently focused on trying to move up the launch date for JPSS-2 so there is greater overlap with JPSS-1 (which does not answer the question of the gap between existing satellites and JPSS-1).  Mikulski wanted Pritzker to assure her than Pritzker was “standing ... sentry over this” and would provide a new cost estimate for JPSS this month as promised.  Pritzker said she was not sure of the timing.   Mikulski also lauded Kathy Sullivan, recently confirmed as NOAA’s Administrator after serving in an acting capacity, for improving communications between NOAA and the Senate and better management of satellite programs.

Pritzker testified to the House Appropriations CJS subcommittee the previous day (April 9), but satellite issues were barely mentioned.   Subcommittee chairman Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) did, however, take the time to praise the service of NOAA Assistant Administrator for Satellite and Information Services (NESDIS) Mary Kicza for her “yeoman” work as head of NOAA’s satellite programs for many years.  Kicza had just announced plans to retire this summer.  Wolf and Pritzker agreed on the need to find a successor as soon as possible.

SpaceX Scrubs CRS-3 Launch Due to Helium Leak

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Apr-2014 (Updated: 14-Apr-2014 04:14 PM)

At 3:39 pm EDT, SpaceX's launch director stated that the planned 4:58 pm launch of CRS-3, the company's third operational cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS), was scrubbed for the day.  The next launch opportunity is Friday, but the weather forecast is iffy that day.

As many people tuned in to NASA TV at 3:45 pm EDT to listen to live launch coverage, the NASA announcer said that launch had just been scrubbed and replayed the SpaceX announcement from minutes earlier.  The speaker identifies himself as the LD -- launch director -- and says "We have encountered an issue that will result in our scrubbing today's 4/14 launch attempt."

SpaceX soon posted a message on its website stating that the problem is a helium leak on the Falcon 9's first stage. 

NASA and SpaceX earlier had stated that if the launch did not go today, the next opportunity is Friday, but an Air Force weather officer at a pre-launch briefing yesterday said the weather was only 40 percent favorable on Friday.  

SpaceX says on its website that it will fix the helium leak by then, but acknowledges the poor forecast.

The launch window on Friday, April 18, opens at 3:25 pm ET.


What's Happening in Space Policy: April 14-19, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Apr-2014 (Updated: 13-Apr-2014 04:37 PM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events for the upcoming week and any insight we can offer about them.   The House and Senate are on Spring Break until April 28.

During the Week

SpaceX was given the go-ahead today (Sunday) to proceed with launch of its third operational cargo mission (CRS-3) to the International Space Station (ISS) tomorrow, April 14, at 4:58 pm EDT.   Failure of a computer aboard the ISS late Friday meant ISS mission managers needed to assess whether the computer -- a Multiplexer/DeMultiplexer (MDM) -- had to be replaced before the Dragon spacecraft arrives at ISS.  The MDM controls some robotic operations aboard ISS that are needed to berth Dragon to an ISS docking port.   Some ISS cargo spacecraft (Russia's Progress and Europe's ATV) dock with ISS using their own systems.  Others (Japan's HTV, Dragon, and Orbital Sciences' Cygnus) berth with ISS.  That means they position themselves close to the space station, but then the robotic Canadarm2 must reach out and grapple them and move them over to a docking port when they are "installed" onto the port.  Canadarm2 is fine. The primary MDM is fine.  It is only the backup MDM that is malfunctioning.   NASA is planning a spacewalk to replace that unit on April 22.   Assuming the launch goes as scheduled, Dragon will arrive at the ISS Wednesday morning around 7:00 am EDT.

One interesting aspect of this launch is unrelated to the ISS cargo mission.  SpaceX wants to make the Falcon 9 rocket reusable.  This launch will test landing legs on the Falcon 9's first stage.  After its work is done of getting the second stage and Dragon on their way, the first stage will come back down vertically and deploy the four 25-foot long landing legs.  The rocket stage will be over the ocean, not land, and will fall over into the water, but not before SpaceX collects the data it needs.  A SpaceX official said the company gives the experiment only a 30-40 percent chance of success, but someday Falcon 9 first stages could return to a landing pad for reuse.

Apart from the SpaceX events, a number of NASA Advisory Council meetings are on tap this week, along with a Marshall Institute panel discussion on the scientific, technical and legal aspects of  "Human Settlement in Space:  Bases in Near Space."  That's on Thursday.  On Saturday, the irrepressible Mike Gold of Bigelow Aerospace has organized an out-of-the-box panel discussion at an unusual (for the space crowd) venue -- the Awesome Con event at the Washington Convention Center.  Awesome Con is a three-day "celebration of popular culture" and Gold's panel will discuss "From Dreams to Reality: How Science Fiction Has Served as an Inspiration for Lifelong Careers and Activities in Space Exploration."  He's got a great group of folks on the panel:  himself, former astronaut Pam Melroy, Tim Hughes from SpaceX and Peter Marquez from Planetary Resources. (Peter formerly worked for Orbital Sciences and before that was best known as "the space guy" at the White House National Security Council who gets the credit, along with Damon Wells, then with OSTP, for getting President Obama's 2010 National Space Policy completed and released just 17 months after the President took office.)  Sounds like fun!

The rescheduled GEOINT 2013 conference also is taking place in Tampa, FL,  Monday-Thursday.   The conference was originally scheduled for early October 2013, but suffered from Congress's decision to shut the government down for two weeks.  No government employees could go to the conference as either speakers or attendees, so it had to be rescheduled (we can only imagine how much that must have cost -- ouch).   Anyway, it looks like an amazing program with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Director of the National-Geospatial Intelligence Agency Letitia Long, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, and Director of the National Reconnaissance Office Betty Sapp among the impressive lineup of speakers.

Here's the list of what we know about as of Sunday afternoon.

Monday, April 14

Monday-Tuesday, April 14-15

Monday-Wednesday, April 14-17

Tuesday, April 15

Tuesday-Wednesday, April 15-16

Wednesday, April 16

Wednesday-Thursday, April 16-17

  • NASA Advisory Council, NASA HQ, Washington, DC
    • Wednesday, 9:00 am - 5:00 pm
    • Thursday, 9:00 am - 12:30 pm

Thursday, April 17

Saturday, April 19

  • Space panel at Awesome Con "From Dreams to Reality:  How Science Fiction Has Served as an Inspiration for Lifelong Careers and Activities in Space Exploration," Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC, 2:45-4:00 pm ET


SpaceX CRS-3 Launch "Good to Go" for April 14; Spacewalk April 22 to Fix MDM

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Apr-2014 (Updated: 13-Apr-2014 02:30 PM)

NASA International Space Station (ISS) Program Manager Mike Suffredini said the agency will go ahead with the launch of SpaceX's CRS-3 cargo mission tomorrow, April 14, despite a malfunctioning computer aboard ISS.  A spacewalk is now planned for April 22 to repair that unit.

The launch of a Dragon spacecraft aboard a Falcon 9 rocket  is scheduled for 4:58 pm ET Monday and the weather is 80 percent favorable for the launch.  If anything should delay it, the next opportunity will be on Friday, April 18, when the weather outlook is worse.

Suffredini declared at a noon press conference that the launch is "good to go" after mission managers concluded that appropriate positioning of the ISS solar arrays would protect ISS operations in case of another MDM failure.  MDM is a Multiplexer/Demuliplexer - a computer that controls some of the robotic functions aboard the ISS.   The primary MDM is working fine; it is the backup that is not responding to commands.  Suffredini said they did not know why and will replace it with a new unit during a spacewalk now planned for April 22. 

Among the cargo being taken to the ISS is a new spacesuit and replacement parts for the spacesuits already on board.  A clogged filter in one of the onboard spacesuits imperiled European astronaut Luca Parmitano during a spacewalk last summer when his helmet filled with water from the spacesuit's cooling system.   NASA ultimately traced the problem to silica contamination from filters in the spacesuit that are designed to clean and scrub the water loops.  New filters are included in the spacesuit components being taken to ISS aboard Dragon.

SpaceX Vice President of Mission Assurance Hans Koenigsmann said at the same press conference that SpaceX is only 30-40 percent confident that its test of landing legs for the Falcon 9 rocket's first stage will work.  SpaceX is working on making the Falcon 9 reusable and is experimenting with landing legs that someday could allow the first stage to return to a landing pad.  The test on this flight is not that ambitious and will take place over the ocean.  Stressing that it is experimental, Koenigsmann said that the first stage will descend vertically and deploy the four 25-foot high legs over the water before eventually falling over into the water.  The first stage is heavily instrumented and cameras aboard a recovery ship will try to take video.  He said the test happens quickly and will be over by the time the rocket's second stage reaches orbit.

When asked for NASA's reaction to SpaceX's reusability test, Suffredini said NASA supports commercial space and is happy to help as long as the primary mission is not affected.   NASA determined this test would not impact Dragon's mission to ISS.



Balky ISS Computer May Delay Monday's SpaceX CRS-3 Launch - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Apr-2014 (Updated: 12-Apr-2014 11:38 PM)

UPDATE:  NASA will air a press conference on NASA TV at noon EDT on Sunday, April 13, with an update on the mission's status.

NASA reported late last night (EDT) that a backup computer on the exterior of the International Space Station (ISS) is malfunctioning.  If the problem cannot be overcome by Monday, SpaceX's CRS-3 cargo flight to the ISS could be delayed.

NASA posted on its website that the computer, called a Multiplexer-Demultiplexer (MDM), is not responding to commands.  MDMs control some of the systems associated with robotic systems like Canadarm2, which is needed to grapple SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft and move it a docking port.  Canadarm2 itself is fine and the primary MDM also is fine.  Only the backup MDM is affected.

If NASA cannot get it to work, a spacewalk will be needed to replace it, NASA said. That would mean a delay in the SpaceX launch of its third operational cargo mission to ISS, CRS-3.

The launch was originally scheduled for March 16, but was delayed because of a fire at an Air Force radar tracking site at Cape Canaveral that also delayed a national security space launch.

In the meantime, NASA and SpaceX continue to work toward an on-time launch of SpaceX CRS-3 at 4:58 pm EDT on Monday.  If the launch proceeds as planned, SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft would arrive at the ISS early Wednesday morning EDT.

Check back here for updates as they become available.

NASA-Russia Cooperation: What You Need To Know

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Apr-2014 (Updated: 11-Apr-2014 12:13 AM)

Russia’s official news agency Itar-Tass reported today that Russian President Vladimir Putin will talk with the International Space Station (ISS) crew tomorrow (April 11) by videoconference.  Currently there are three Russians, two Americans and a Japanese aboard ISS.  All seems well in U.S.-Russian space cooperation.  Is it?

Space aficionados in Russia, the United States, and around the globe are preparing to commemorate the anniversary of when Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to orbit the Earth on April 12, 1961.  This year is also the 80th anniversary of Gagarin’s birth (he died in a MIG crash in1968).  As that celebration nears, space cooperation seems to be proceeding smoothly, but what happened to the news last week that NASA is suspending interactions with Russia other than for the ISS program because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine?

Here’s what we know today.

The news that NASA was suspending interactions with Russia – except for operations of ISS – came as quite a surprise and generated a lot of media attention. since has asked many questions of Administration officials (including NASA) and we have been asked many questions by you.   Here are the most often-asked questions and our answers.   It is an evolving situation – things could change at any time --but this is what we can say as of April 10, 2014.

Why did NASA do this?

  • NASA didn’t “do this.”  Administration officials tell us that NASA is following a classified directive from the White House National Security Council that applies to all government agencies.  The directive is not aimed at NASA specifically. NASA is part of the Executive Branch of government and must follow White House directives.

Then why is NASA the only agency in the headlines?

  • Good question.  The best answer we can discern is that NASA is a comparatively transparent agency.   NASA’s Associate Administrator for International and Interagency Relations sent a memo to Headquarters and field center leaders directing them to suspend interactions with Russia except for the ISS.   At least one center director passed that message along to his staff.  Someone shared it with the media.  Other agencies apparently dealt with the directive differently and/or have more control over their personnel.

Are operations of the International Space Station in jeopardy?

  • No.  ISS was exempted from the beginning.

Then why did NASA’s official statement devote most of its text to a rant against Congress for not providing sufficient funding for the commercial crew program?

  • Administrator Bolden is laser-focused on convincing Congress to fully fund NASA’s $848 million FY2015 request for commercial crew this year and uses every opportunity to highlight the issue.   Apparently he decided to use this as one of those opportunities.  It has, however, confused the situation because it makes some people think the ISS *is* affected or commercial crew would not be part of the conversation.

Why did NASA post its official statement on a Google+ page and announce it via Twitter instead of using regular news releases?

  • Good question.  We have no idea.  Definitely odd and not helpful.

What other NASA programs or activities are affected?

  • NASA has not released a list of its other programs and activities that involve Russia, but examples we’ve heard about include:
    • NASA personnel plan to participate in two major conferences that by happenstance are being held in Russia this year – the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) that brings together the world’s space scientists, and the International Council of the Aeronautical Sciences (ICAS), which does the same for aeronautics researchers. Although multilateral meetings in general are exempted from the new policy, meetings held inside Russia are not.
    • A Russian instrument, DAN, is on the Mars Curiosity rover.
    • NASA is building mirrors for instruments on Russia’s Spectrum-Roentgen-Gamma (Spektr-RG) space telescope.
    • NASA scientists are part of a working group discussing Russia’s planned Venera-D mission to Venus. 
    • NASA uses Russian wind tunnels for aeronautics research

Are there exemptions for any of those?

  • Yes.   NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and other NASA officials say that exemptions have been made for COSPAR, Curiosity, and the Spektr-RG mirrors.    The status of ICAS, the Venera-D working group, and use of Russian wind tunnels is unknown.   

So what’s changed in NASA-Russia interactions?

  • From what we’ve been able to ascertain, not much so far.

Since so little has changed, this seems to be a tempest in a teapot.  Is it just a ruse by NASA to get Congress to fund commercial crew?

  • No.  And if anyone had that in mind as a potential benefit, it hasn’t worked out.  The House Science, Space and Technology Committee – Republicans and Democrats alike – continue to insist that funding for the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft are their priorities, not commercial crew.

Is this the first time NASA has been drawn into geopolitical disputes?

  • Absolutely not, starting with the response to Sputnik (which led to creation of NASA) and the Apollo program.  We’re sure you know that story.  Here’s a brief history of what happened in the succeeding decades:
    • U.S.-Soviet relationships improved in the early 1970s and the joint Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) was mounted to demonstrate détente between the two superpowers. A geopolitical decision.  
    • An agreement was signed in 1977 for follow-on space cooperation, but that was terminated (except for biosatellite missions) after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979.  A geopolitical decision.
    • Space relationships were cold during the 1980s as the Reagan Administration focused on the Strategic Defense Initiative (the “Star Wars” program) and initiating the space station program in 1984 partially because the Soviet Union had a space station and we didn’t  (by then the USSR was on its 6th space station, actually).   Yes, the space station program began in 1984, not in 1993 when Russia joined.
    • Only after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 did U.S.-Russian space cooperation resume in a big way.  That was during the George H. W. Bush Administration with a 1992 announcement that a Russian would fly on the U.S. space shuttle and an American would fly on a long duration mission on Russia’s Mir space station (its 7th  space station).  It was a geopolitical response to the USSR’s collapse.
    • The Clinton Administration expanded U.S.-Russian space cooperation in 1993 for geopolitical reasons.   Yes, it was also argued that NASA’s space station effort would benefit (that’s another long story), but essentially the United States wanted Russia to abide by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and to keep Russian scientists and engineers from going to work for countries that did not have U.S. best interests at heart.  Russia wanted to join the space station program and to be allowed to launch U.S.-built satellites on a commercial basis.  A deal was made.
    • In the late 1990s, some people argued that Russia was not abiding by the MTCR and Congress made the ISS program part of the Iran Nonproliferation Act (INA) whose purpose was to deter Russia from providing certain assistance to Iran.  The INA prohibited the United States (government or industry) from paying Russia for anything related to the ISS program or human spaceflight in general unless the President certified that Russia was abiding by the MTCR.  Presidents have not been willing to do that, which is why NASA must get a waiver from that law (now the Iran, North Korea, Syria Nonproliferation Act – INKSNA) to be able to pay Russia to launch non-Russian astronauts to ISS.
    • Everything has been going well between the two countries on space cooperation since then, with the value of cooperation demonstrated in particular after the U.S. space shuttle Columbia tragedy in 2003 when Russia provided the only access to the ISS.  Similarly, Russia is the only country able to take crews to and from the ISS since the U.S. space shuttle program ended in 2011.  The two counties are co-dependent in operating the ISS.  While one should never say never, it seems very problematical for either country to operate ISS without the other.

Is Russia the only example of geopolitics mixing with the space program?

  • No.   Congress passed laws prohibiting NASA from cooperating with China because of the Chinese government’s human rights abuses and other issues.

What happens next?

  • This is an evolving situation.  Stay tuned!

House Subcommittee Approves New Version of NASA Bill - No Prohibition on ARM

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Apr-2014 (Updated: 11-Apr-2014 06:20 PM)

The Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee (SS&T) this morning approved a revised version of a new NASA authorization bill, H.R. 4412.   The text adopted today contains significant differences from what was posted on the committee's website yesterday.  Among the changes for NASA's human spaceflight program: this version does not prohibit spending on development of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and a requirement is added for an independent analysis of the Mars 2021 flyby mission championed by House SS&T committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX).

The version adopted today is called an "amendment in the nature of a substitute" or a "manager's amendment" that replaces the previous text.  Subcommittee Chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) and ranking member Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) lauded each other for their ability to reach "true bipartisan agreement" on the text, but both agreed that more work needs to be done to "strengthen" the bill before it takes the next step -- markup before the full committee.  No date was announced for full committee markup.  (Not sure what a "markup" is?  See our fact sheet:  What's a Markup? -- Answer's to That and Other Legislative Mysteries.) 

Two sections Palazzo specifically mentioned as in need of more work concern Space Act Agreements and Advanced Booster Competition.  Edwards noted that she wants a bill that covers more years; the funding recommendations in this bill are only for one year (FY2014, already underway).  She also wants more discussion about NASA's education and Earth science activities "and a range of other topics."

The tone of the markup today was completely different from last year, which took place amid intense partisan discord throughout Capitol Hill.  At that time Palazzo and Edwards had completely different bills.  Edwards' bill was rejected on a party-line vote and Palazzo's bill was approved on a party-line vote.   The bill never moved out of committee, however.   Instead, the process is starting anew this year and bipartisanship is the watchword.   Only one dissenting voice was heard at the subcommittee markup today, that of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who objects to the bill's focus on the goal of landing humans on Mars.   The bill was approved by voice vote, and it did not appear that any "nays" were spoken, so his objections apparently were not sufficient to cause him to vote against the bill.

In their remarks, Palazzo and Edwards highlighted the human spaceflight sections of the bill which require NASA to submit to Congress an "exploration roadmap" that clearly states that the goal of the human spaceflight program is landing people on Mars and outlining the steps to achieve that goal.  Palazzo said the bill "makes absolutely clear that NASA's goal for the human space flight program should be to send humans to Mars.  It is also the Committee's intent to be clear that proposals that cannot be proven essential to a Mars mission be removed from this portfolio."   

That probably is a reference to ARM, which committee Republicans opposed as recently as yesterday's version of this bill.  However, the revised version approved today omits the section that would have prohibited NASA from spending money on developing ARM.  Instead it requires NASA to submit more details about the mission.  Whether or not ARM is essential to sending people to Mars is a matter of opinion.  NASA asserts that ARM is essential to that goal because it will take place in cis-lunar space (between the Earth and Moon), a "proving ground" that is close enough to Earth for astronauts to return in an emergency.

Edwards agreed that Mars is the goal, but her take on the legislation is that it gives NASA the responsibility for "deciding the pathway forward" to get there.   The common denominator is that both Palazzo and Edwards want the exploration roadmap that will define specific capabilities and technologies needed to land people on Mars.  NASA is required to submit the plan within 180 days of when the bill become law.

Rohrabacher disagreed with the goal of landing humans on Mars, at least as it is envisioned in the bill.  He objected to tying the U.S. government space program so closely to such a goal.  He said the odds are that resources will be wasted: "When you try to cross a bridge too far, someone will get soaked" and it will be "the U.S. taxpayer."

Other differences from yesterday's version include the following:

  • The new version requires NASA to contract with an "independent, private systems engineering and technical assistance organization" to provide a technical assessment of the Mars 2021 Flyby mission concept that would send a crew to fly around Mars, after first flying around Venus to get a gravity assist, in 2021 on one of the first SLS flights.  The assessment is due to  NASA and Congress 60 days after the bill is signed into law.  Then, in another 60 days, NASA is required to send Congress an assessment by the NASA Advisory Council whether the mission is in the strategic interests of the United States. 
  • Edwards says in her prepared statement that the termination liability section of the bill no longer protects the four "covered programs" -- SLS. Orion, ISS and JWST -- from termination any differently from other NASA programs:  "These covered programs are no more protected than any other NASA program, nor should they be." [CLARIFICATION:   Edwards was comparing the termination liability section of this bill to what was contained in H.R. 3625, marked up by the committee in December.  The NASA authorization bill considered by the committee last year contained a section on termination liability, but as the year progressed and it became apparent that congressional agreement on a NASA authorization bill would not be achieved soon, the termination liability language was extracted and introduced as a separate bill, H.R. 3625.  Section 2(e) of H.R. 3625 required congressional approval before NASA could terminate a covered program.  H.R. 3625 also did not progress out of committee, however, and now that a new NASA authorization bill is under consideration, the termination liability section has been restored.  The new language is different from what was approved in December.  Among the changes is omission of Section 2(e).]
  • Edwards also says the bill "unequivocally states that safety shall be the highest priority" in selecting and developing commercial crew systems.

Palazzo says in his statement that the bill seeks to limit U.S. dependence on Russia and "allows NASA to better focus its efforts on once more launching American astronauts on American rockers from American soil." He also said it makes clear that SLS and Orion "are top priorities for Congress and the American people" as is the James Webb Space Telescope.



House Hearing Generates Heat, But Bolden Stays on Message -- Fund Commercial Crew - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Apr-2014 (Updated: 14-Apr-2014 05:01 PM)

In a combative hearing today (April 8, 2014)  before the House appropriations subcommittee that funds his agency, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden displayed anger and exasperation, but stayed on message – NASA needs full funding for the commercial crew program this year.

In a break with tradition, the annual hearing before the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on NASA’s budget request was not solely focused on the budget.   The first hour of today’s three-and-a-half hour hearing was devoted to a report by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) on security at NASA and its field centers.   CJS subcommittee chairman Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) essentially told NASA to commission the study last year because of his concerns about the access that foreign nationals, especially Chinese, have to NASA facilities.

The NAPA committee was chaired by former Attorney General and former Pennsylvania Governor Richard Thornburgh.  It issued 27 recommendations and, as Thornburgh testified today, NASA agrees with and is implementing all of them.   Nevertheless, Wolf and other subcommittee members used the opportunity to criticize NASA, especially its decision to categorize the report as “Sensitive but Unclassified” (SBU) so that it cannot be made public.  Only a short summary is in the public domain.

Subcommittee member John Culberson (R-TX), rumored to be in line to take over chairmanship of the subcommittee after Wolf retires at the end of the year, charged that NASA gave it an SBU classification because it was “embarrassing.”

When it was Bolden’s turn to testify, he denied that characterization.  He insisted the report revealed potential vulnerabilities at NASA that he did not want made public.   Wolf called the SBU classification a “blunt instrument” and wondered why NASA could not have redacted potentially damaging information and released the rest of the report.  It was a bruising exchange and Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) made it a point to elaborate on Bolden’s decades of public service as a military pilot, astronaut, and U.S. Marine Corps Major General to make it clear that Bolden is committed to protecting the nation’s security.

The next two-and-a-half hours were no less confrontational, however.   Many, many topics were covered, but by far the most contentious was debate over NASA’s commercial crew program.   Bolden is laser focused on convincing Congress to fund the full $848 million request for commercial crew this year.   The debate has special significance now because of the tense geopolitical relationship between the United States and Russia.   While the International Space Station (ISS) is not affected by last week’s Administration policy decision to limit U.S.-Russian interactions – the ISS is specifically exempted – NASA is using the situation to drive home the need for American systems to take American astronauts to and from the ISS so NASA is not dependent on Russia.

Bolden stated his understanding of how much money Congress has approved for commercial crew in the past several years compared to the request.  Wolf had different numbers and challenged Bolden’s account.  The two threw down the gauntlet to each other to meet, with their staffs, to sort out whose numbers are correct, but the exchange became quite personal.

Wolf accused Bolden of misleading people about Congress’s support for commercial crew.  At that point – after the hour of listening to criticism of how NASA handles foreign access to its centers and now hearing Wolf accuse him of misleading people – Bolden clearly had had enough.  “I’m tired of having my integrity impugned,” he exclaimed.  Though the discussion briefly moved on to another topic, Bolden was still smarting.  After answering an unrelated question about the James Webb Space Telescope he said “If someone’s going to call me a liar, I take that personally.”

Wolf replied that no one had called Bolden a liar.  After a few more minutes of unrelated discussion, Bolden apologized for losing his temper.  [UPDATE:  At a hearing the next day with Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, Wolf also swore her in while assuring her that his decision to do so had nothing to do with her or her Department.  Instead he referenced this hearing, saying that "maybe everything wasn't as accurate as was said... I think it's important that there be integrity when people come up; they just tell ... the truth. .... I'm going to send members information so you can see what I'm talking about and that's why we swear people in...."]

Throughout it all, however, Bolden kept his eye on the ball – insisting on the need for full funding of the request for commercial crew to reduce U.S. dependence on Russia.

Some of the other substantive topics of discussion included the following.

  • Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).   Wolf asked when NASA would have a final mission concept and associated budget plan for Congress to review.  Bolden said it was still too early.  Wolf commented that ARM has not generated very much excitement, including with potential international partners.  Bolden referred to last year’s Global Exploration Roadmap (GER) produced by 12 countries, including the United States, and to the International Space Exploration Forum (ISEF) at the State Department in January as examples of how everyone is on the same page – Mars is the ultimate destination with a steppingstone approach to get there that could include the asteroid mission.
  • Russia and the ISS.   Culberson pressed Bolden on NASA’s contingency plans for the ISS in case Russia invades more of Ukraine.  Bolden reiterated what he has said in other venues that he does not want to speculate on hypothetical situations, but his contingency plan is commercial crew – restoring America’s ability to launch American astronauts from American soil rather than being dependent on Russia.  This was another confrontational exchange.   Culberson referenced an Aviation Week article that talked about an Air Force estimate that it would take 5 years and $1 billion to build a production facility in the United States to build RD-180 rocket engines for the Atlas V rocket that currently come from Russia.  He wanted to know what NASA’s equivalent contingency plan is for the ISS.  Bolden stressed again and again that his contingency plan is commercial crew.   Culberson said two of the commercial crew competitors plan to use the Atlas V. [Sierra Nevada Corporation and Boeing both plan to use Atlas V for Dream Chaser and CST-100, respectively.]  Bolden clearly did not know that and impatiently responded that Culberson was not accepting his answer that NASA’s ISS contingency plan is commercial crew.
  • Restrictions on NASA's Interactions with Russia.   Bolden announced that two more activities – in addition to ISS -- have been exempted from limits on interactions with Russia:   NASA participation in the COSPAR meeting in August being held in Moscow and operations of a Russian instrument (DAN) on the Mars Curiosity rover.  He said three more requests are pending.    The ISS was never included in the restrictions.
  • ISS Extension to 2024.   Bolden acknowledged that Russia is the only ISS partner that has agreed to extending operations to 2024.   He is confident the other partners eventually will agree, but it will be a multi-year process.
  • Aeronautics.   Everyone agreed that NASA’s aeronautics program is vital to the nation and needs more funding.  Bolden singled out hypersonics and rotary wing research as especially important, but does not know how to fund it within current constraints.
  • SOFIA.  Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), whose district is near NASA Ames Research Center, which runs the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) program, challenged the decision in the President’s budget request to mothball the airplane-mounted infrared telescope.   Bolden insisted, as did Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren at a House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing on March 26, that it is only a proposal at this point, not a decision: “we are still looking for ways to save SOFIA.” He is anticipating a report at the end of this month from a joint committee between NASA and its German counterpart, DLR, on options for moving forward. NASA also has issued a solicitation for other partners who want to help fund the project.  If SOFIA is as important as scientists say, Bolden asserted, he expects “people will be standing in line to add their funds to maintain SOFIA.”
  • Europa.  Culberson continue to champion funding for a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa.  He has led efforts to add money for it in the past two years ($75 million in FY2013 and $80 million in FY2014).  NASA is requesting $15 million for FY2015, but there is no money planned for future years, so it is not a new program start and Culberson thinks $15 million is too little.   Separately there was a discussion about using the Space Launch System (SLS) to launch a spacecraft to Europa. Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) argued for building a “robust” upper stage that would make it useful for such a mission.   Bolden demurred on that part of the discussion (because a choice first needs to be made between developing the upper stage or an advanced booster), but said the scientific community is just warming up to the idea of using SLS for a Europa mission.
  • Mars 2020.   Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), whose district includes the Jet Propulsion Lab, worried about a “disquieting” rumor that the Mars 2020 rover mission might slip to 2022.  Bolden assured him the FY2015 request assumes launch in 2020.
  • Extended Science Missions.  Schiff also is concerned that older operating spacecraft like the Opportunity rover on Mars and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) will not receive funding for extended operations beyond their currently defined cut-off date.  He said he didn’t want to “turn off good science.”  Bolden replied that extended missions are good, but not if they jeopardize initiating new missions because of funding constraints.

It was a rancorous hearing, but Culberson insisted to Bolden that “you’ve got no better group of friends up here than this subcommittee.”   That may well be true – NASA is quite popular on Capitol Hill – but it was not all that obvious today.

Note:  This article was updated with Wolf's comments at the hearing with Department of Commerce Secretary Pritzker on April 9, 2014.

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