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Military / National Security News

ULA, Blue Origin Announce Partnership on U.S. Alternative to RD-180 Engine

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Sep-2014 (Updated: 18-Sep-2014 09:11 AM)

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Blue Origin announced a partnership today to produce Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine for use in future ULA rockets.

ULA currently launches the Delta IV and Atlas V rockets.  The Atlas V uses Russian RD-180 rocket engines and recent geopolitical tensions with Russia have galvanized interest in building an American-made alternative.

At a press conference today, ULA President Tory Bruno said BE-4 (Blue Engine 4) is not a "one-to-one replacement" for the RD-180 because two BE-4 engines are needed instead of one RD-180, but the BE-4 offers an opportunity to "jump into the 21st century to get more performance at lower cost."  Bruno said the first flight of a ULA rocket with a BE-4 engine would take place in four years, followed by an "appropriate" certification period, after which use of ULA rockets with BE-4s would be "feathered in" with existing ULA rockets over time.  

Therefore this announcement has no impact on the block-buy of 36 engine cores for ULA's existing rockets (called Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles or EELVs) by the Air Force announced last year that is the subject of a lawsuit by SpaceX.

Blue Origin, created and owned by Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos, has been working on the BE-4 for three years.  A less powerful version, BE-3, has completed development and is about to enter flight testing, Bezos said.   The BE-3 is for Blue Origin's New Shepard suborbital rocket to take people to the edge of space.  The company's overall goal is "reliable, cost-effective human access to space."

Bruno said that ULA’s choice of Blue Origin resulted from a set of contracts it established in June with multiple U.S. companies to develop technical concepts and perform business case analyses for alternative engines.  Blue Origin won, he said, because it is so far ahead of other companies, having spent three years already on BE-4, and because its “innovative technology” will allow ULA to modernize and reduce recurring costs.   He declined to provide specifics on the degree of cost reduction, saying only that it would be "substantial."

The BE-4 is a first stage engine and is designed to be reusable.  It uses liquid oxygen (LOX) and Liquified Natural Gas (LNG), a form of methane, as fuel.  It has 550,000 pounds of thrust.  Bezos said the company already had 10,000 seconds of test time, with hundreds of starts and relatively few failures, on the smaller BE-3.  Testing of the BE-4 is expected to begin in 2016.

At the press conference, Bruno and Bezos beamed about the new partnership, although they were not willing to disclose the financial aspects of their relationship.   Bezos exclaimed that one positive feature of the BE-4 is that it is “fully funded,” but when asked about the details of the financial arrangements, he said only that no equity investments are involved and ULA is contributing a “significant” amount to engine development “but we are not disclosing how much.”  For its part, Blue Origin is “committed to finishing the engine,” he said.

Bruno emphasized that ULA will continue to use the same upper stages as it does now with Delta IV and Atlas V, and has no plans to change the Delta IV RS-68 engine.  As for future vehicles, however, he said trade studies were still underway as to whether BE-4 would be the only engine or just one of several.   Bezos responded that Blue Origin's goal is "to make the engine so operable, so low cost, so reliable that ULA would be crazy to use anything else."

They emphasized that today's announcement is not related to yesterday's announcement of the winners of NASA's Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contracts.  One of the two CCtCAP awardees, Boeing, plans to use ULA's Atlas V as the launch vehicle for its CST-100 crew spacecraft, and Blue Origin is one of Boeing's CCtCAP partners.  "Of course we're a part of Boeing's team," Bezos said, "and we stand ready to help them in any way they want us to."   He said earlier, however, that Blue Origin is still committed to building its own capability to send humans into space by the end of this decade.

Senate Expected to Pass CR Tomorrow; Could Consider NASA Authorization

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Sep-2014 (Updated: 17-Sep-2014 10:42 PM)

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) plans to bring up the FY2015 Continuing Resolution (CR) for a vote tomorrow (Thursday, September 18).  The House passed the CR today.  The Senate could consider other legislation, including a NASA authorization bill, as it strives to adjourn by the end of the week until after the November elections.

The Hill newspaper reports that Senate debate on the CR will commence at 1:00 pm ET.   The CR funds the government through December 11, 2014 at the same level as FY2014, although it includes an across-the-board 0.0544 percent cut to fund new activities mostly related to national security, veterans affairs, customs and immigration, and responding to the Ebola crisis.  The House included an authorization for President Obama to engage in certain military activities related to Syria and the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS), but that authorization also will expire on December 11.  A more intense debate on that topic is anticipated in the lame-duck session after the elections.

The Senate may also consider a new NASA authorization bill before it leaves town.  The House passed its version in June and sent it to the Senate, where there has been no action since then. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved a bill last year on a party-line vote and Senate sources have been saying for some time that a revised version is in the works.  The committee held a markup session today, but a revised NASA authorization bill was not considered.   Nonetheless, a revised version could be brought up on the Senate floor as an amendment to the House version.  Whether that happens or not depends on many factors and even if the Senate did pass a bill, it would have to go back to the House, which is also expected to adjourn by the end of the week.  Final resolution, therefore, will not come in the near term.

House Approves CR Funding Government Through December 11, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Sep-2014 (Updated: 17-Sep-2014 05:49 PM)

The House approved a FY2015 Continuing Resolution (CR) this afternoon (September 17) that will fund the government through December 11, 2014.  An amendment allowing President Obama limited authority to spend funds on military actions in Syria was adopted.  The next step is the Senate.

The House was poised to pass a CR last week, but a White House request to add the Syria authorization complicated that plan.  The authority adopted by the House today is limited and it is expected that a more intense debate on U.S. actions in fighting the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) may come in the lame-duck session after the elections.

As far as funding the government is concerned, however, the House action is good news.  The bill passed by a vote of 319-108.  None of the FY2015 regular appropriations bills has cleared Congress yet, so if Congress does not pass a CR by midnight September 30, there will be another government shutdown like last year.  The Senate is also hoping to complete its legislative work this week so hopefully it will deal with the CR swiftly (but should not be taken for granted).

The CR funds the government at its FY2014 level of $1.012 trillion.  Government agencies, including NASA, NOAA and DOD, would be funded at their FY2014 levels minus a 0.0554 percent across-the-board cut to pay for new activities in the bill that are mostly related to national security, veterans affairs, customs and immigration, and responding to the Ebola crisis.  Two space-related provisions would allow funding flexibility for weather satellite programs, and an extension of the authorization for the Export-Import Bank through June 30, 2015.

What's Happening in Space Policy September 15-20, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Sep-2014 (Updated: 14-Sep-2014 05:19 PM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events coming up during the week of September 15-20, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

This may be the last week Congress is in session prior to the November elections if they can complete action on a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government for the initial part of FY2015, which begins on October 1.   None of the 12 regular appropriations bills has cleared Congress yet, so some action must be taken to avoid a government shutdown. 

The White House also is hoping Congress will authorize it to take certain military actions in Syria.  Whether that authorization will be attached to the CR or not is an open question.  The White House plan was to add the Syria authorization to the CR knowing that is the one piece of legislation that Congress must pass imminently, but the issue is highly controversial and could derail the CR.  House Republican leaders were poised to pass a CR last week before the Syria authorization issue arose, but are now debating whether to deal with the Syria authorization and FY2015 government appropriations issues separately or in a combined bill.  Stay tuned.

It is conceivable that there might be Senate action on a NASA authorization bill in the coming week.  The House passed its version in June.  The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has a markup session scheduled for Wednesday for a long list of bills.  At the moment, the NASA authorization is not on the list, but that could change.  Stay tuned on this one, too.

NASA has made no further announcement about when the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) award will be made.   Expectations were high that it would be announced at the end of August, but it wasn't.   Another "stay tuned" situation.

One certainty is that the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft will reach Mars on Sunday, September 21.  Hopefully it will enter orbit as planned.  NASA will hold a pre-arrival news conference on Wednesday at 1:00 pm ET.  It will provide coverage of orbital insertion as well, but that will be included in our next issue of "What's Happening."

The next cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS), SpaceX CRS-4, is also coming up this week.  The launch itself is currently scheduled for early Saturday morning (2:16 am ET) and NASA plans five pre-launch events on Thursday and Friday.  Launch dates are not nearly as reliable as arrival dates, however, so don't set your alarm clock yet.

This entire week, beginning today (Sunday), is National Aerospace Week.  Established by the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), its goal is to recognize the contributions that the aerospace industry makes to the U.S economy and global competitiveness.

The full list of events that we know about as of Sunday afternoon is provided below.

Sunday-Saturday, September 14-20

Monday, September 15

Monday-Wednesday, September 15-17

Tuesday, September 16

Tuesday-Wednesday, September 16-17

  • COMSTAC, NTSB Conference Center, 429 L'Enfant Plaza, S.W., Washington, DC

Wednesday, September 17

Wednesday-Friday, September 17-19

Thursday, September 18

Thursday-Friday, September 18-19

Saturday, September 20

  • SpaceX CRS-4 launch, Cape Canaveral, FL, 2:16 am ET, with post-launch briefing about 90 minutes after launch

Vote on CR Delayed Due To Syria Issues

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Sep-2014 (Updated: 10-Sep-2014 05:26 PM)

The House leadership has decided to postpone a vote on the FY2015 Continuing Resolution (CR) while deciding how to handle a White House request to add authorization for the President to provide arms to Syrian rebels. 

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) introduced the CR yesterday and a vote was planned for tomorrow.   However, President Obama now wants Congress to include language authorizing his plan to arm Syrian rebels as part of a strategy to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  The President will speak to the nation tonight at 9:00 pm about that strategy.

Officially, appropriations bills are only supposed to provide funding, not authorizations.  Some members of the House reportedly are objecting to including the Syria authority on that basis, but others point out the CR already contains two authorization measures (reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank and an Internet tax matter) so adding another should not be a problem.   It is theoretically possible to pass the Syria authorization as a separate bill, but with Congress anxious to complete legislative business in the next two weeks, and the CR the only "must pass" bill on its docket, the White House and its congressional supporters want everything included in one bill to ensure swift action.

House Republican leaders reportedly will wait until after tonight's speech to decide how to proceed.  If the House does not include the language in its version of the CR, the Senate could add it and send the bill back to the House, but with every exchange, the possibility grows of other issues arising and setting back agreement.  As noted yesterday, Senator Ted Cruz wants to add language to block executive action on immigration, so the fate of the CR remains up in the air.  

Congress must pass an appropriations bill to fund all or part of FY2015 by midnight on September 30 or there will be another government shutdown like last year.  As introduced, the CR would fund the government at its current level through December 11, 2014.

Bill Introduced in House to Fund Government Past Mid-Term Elections

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Sep-2014 (Updated: 09-Sep-2014 10:47 PM)

Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, introduced a stop-gap Continuing Resolution (CR) today (September 9) to fund the government through December 11, 2014.  The bill could be voted on in the House as early as Thursday.

The CR (H. J. Res. 124) generally continues funding for the government at current levels and does not include "highly controversial provisions" according to the committee's press release.  Rogers called it a "temporary, imperfect measure" and said what is really needed is passage of the 12 regular appropriations bills.  The House has passed seven of them, but none has passed the Senate. 

The bill keeps total government spending at its current level of $1.012 trillion, but some changes are made within that total to fund new activities.  Most are related to national security, veterans affairs, customs and immigration, and responding to the Ebola crisis.  The amounts appropriated in the FY2014 appropriations bills (including for NASA, NOAA and DOD) are reduced by 0.0554 percent presumably to pay for those new activities. 

Two space-related provisions would allow funding flexibility for weather satellite programs and extension of the authorization for the Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank through June 30, 2015.  Despite the press release's assertion that the CR does not contain highly controversial provisions, reauthorization of the Ex-Im Bank is a topic of strong debate.  The bank helps finance U.S. exports of manufactured goods and services.   From a space policy standpoint, organizations like the Aerospace Industries Association argue that Ex-Im bank financing is critical to support exports of satellites, for example, and reauthorization is needed.  Opponents argue that it distorts the free market by the government picking winners and losers.  The bank's current authorization expires on September 30.

The House and Senate are both hoping to complete must-pass legislative business by the end of next week or shortly thereafter so members can return to the campaign trail.  That does not necessarily mean smooth sailing for the CR.  Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), for one, has said that he wants to include language to block President Obama from taking action on immigration using executive action.  Cruz is widely criticized or praised, depending on one's point of view, for last year's 16-day government shutdown. Whether he would attempt that again in an election year is an open question.  He has been quoted in recent days as saying he does not want another shutdown, but that was before his comments today that "we should use any and all means necessary to prevent the president from illegally granting amnesty."

What's Happening in Space Policy September 8-12, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Sep-2014 (Updated: 07-Sep-2014 12:17 PM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events on tap for the week of September 8-12, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them.  Congress returns to work on Monday.

During the Week

Congress returns from its summer break this week.   Between now and the end of the fiscal year (FY) on September 30, the House is scheduled to be in session for eight days and the Senate for ten.   That is certainly enough time for them to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government operating when FY2015 begins on October 1 if agreement can be reached.   Republican leaders on both sides of Capitol Hill insist that they do not want another government shutdown like last year, so that bodes well, but one never knows until a bill is passed and signed into law.   House Speaker Boehner has said he plans to pass a bill to fund the government through early December -- past the November election.  "Possible" consideration of a CR is on the House schedule this week.

The Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology (SST) Committee will hold a hearing on Wednesday on the ASTEROIDS Act introduced by Reps. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Derek Kilmer (D-WA).  The bill would grant property rights to materials mined from asteroids by U.S. companies (though not property rights to the asteroid itself).   Four scientists and one expert on space law will testify.  The issue of property rights in space has been debated vigorously for decades on a theoretical basis, with opinions strongly held on what is or is not allowed under the terms of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to which the United States and 101 other countries are party.  The legislation and this hearing provide an opportunity to address the issue from a more focused perspective.

The first meeting of the National Research Council's new Space Technology Industry, Government, University Roundtable (STIGUR) is on Thursday.  Note that it is at the NAS building on Constitution Avenue, not the Keck Center on 5th Street.   Chaired by Lockheed Martin Chief Technology Officer Ray Johnson, STIGUR is a forum for dialogue about NASA's space technology efforts.

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

Monday, September 8

Monday-Friday, September 8-12

  • Euroconsult World Satellite Business Week, Westin Hotel, Paris, FR
    • Summit on Satellite Financing, September 8-10
    • Symposium on Market Forecasts, September 11 
    • Summit on Earth Observation Business, September 11-12

Tuesday, September 9

Tuesday-Friday, September 9-12

Wednesday, September 10

Thursday, September 11

Friday, September 12

 

What's Happening in Space Policy September 1-12, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Aug-2014 (Updated: 31-Aug-2014 10:42 AM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events for the next TWO weeks, September 1-12, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them.  Congress returns on September 8.

During the Weeks

This coming Wednesday and Thursday (September 3-4), two committees that guide NASA's astrobiology and planetary science activities will meet at the same time, although offset by three hours since one is on the East Coast and the other is on the West Coast.  The NASA Advisory Council's Planetary Science Subcommittee (NAC/PSS) provides tactical advice to NASA, while the National Research Council's (NRC's) Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science (CAPS) is an NRC standing committee that cannot formally give "advice," but provides strategic guidance.  NAC/PSS is meeting at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC, while CAPS is meeting at the NRC's Beckman Center in Irvine, CA.  Both committees usually get briefings from many of the same NASA officials to inform their deliberations, so they have arranged to have portions of the meetings held jointly via videoconference.  (The joint sessions are shown on the CAPS agenda, but not on the NAC/PSS agenda. at least as of today).

NASA has made no official announcement, but its decision on the winner(s) of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contract(s) could be revealed this week.  Rumors that the agency would announce its choice(s) in late August proved unfounded.  NASA itself has been vague all along, saying it would happen in "late August or early September."

Next week, on September 8, Congress returns.  The House and Senate will have just over three weeks to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government funded when FY2015 begins on October 1.  House and Senate Republican leaders are vowing that there will be no government shutdown this year.  The House is scheduled to be in session September 8-11, September 16-19, and September 29 - October 2 before recessing for the elections.  The Senate will be in session September 8-12 and September 15-19, with its schedule for the remainder of the month TBA.

No space-related hearings have been announced for September yet, but that could change as everyone gets back into the swing of things.   

Meanwhile, here are the meetings we know about for September 1-12, 2014 as of Sunday morning, August 31.   Enjoy the Labor Day weekend!

Wednesday-Thursday, September 3-4

Monday, September 8

  • Congress returns from recess

Monday-Friday, September 8-12

Tuesday, September 9

Tuesday-Wednesday, September 9-10

Wednesday, September 10

Thursday, September 11

Friday, September 12

What's Happening in Space Policy August 25-September 5, 2014 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Aug-2014 (Updated: 25-Aug-2014 08:03 AM)

UPDATE, August 25:  Adds the two panel discussions today (Monday, August 25) at NASA re the New Horizons mission to Pluto.

August 24, 2014: Here is our list of space policy-related events for the next TWO weeks, August 25-September 5, 2014, and any insight we can offer about them.  Congress returns on September 8.

During the Weeks

The schedule is light for the next two weeks, but the National Research Council (NRC) is hard at work, with meetings of one of its study committees this week and one of its standing committees the following week.  The NASA Advisory Council's (NAC's) Planetary Science Subcommittee also will meet the following week.

The NRC study committee -- Survey of Surveys: Lessons Learned from the Decadal Survey Process -- will meet in public session on Monday and Tuesday (check the agenda for the most recent information on exactly when the open sessions will take place).  NRC Decadal Surveys are the "bibles" used by NASA and highly valued by Congress in setting priorities for NASA's space and earth science programs.  (Some of the Surveys also advise additional agencies like NSF and NOAA.)   The most recent versions have encountered challenges in implementation, however, because of sharply changed budgetary realities between the time the study begins and when it ends, usually about two years later. The agencies tell each Decadal Survey committee at the outset what budget "wedge" they expect to have in the next 10 years (a decade) to begin new programs. The committees use that guidance in formulating recommendations on what programs to initiate to answer the top scientific questions they identify.  The most recent Decadal Surveys have included "decision rules" on what to do if there is significantly less (or more, as unlikely as that is) money than they are told and NASA, at least, has had to utilize those decision rules a lot lately.  This new NRC committee is looking at how to make the next round of Decadal Surveys more effective in guiding the agencies in these ever-changing times.

The NRC standing committee that is meeting the first week of September is the Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science (CAPS).  Curiously, the NAC Planetary Science Subcommittee is meeting at exactly the same time (September 3-4).  The meetings are on opposite coasts.  Both advise NASA on its planetary science programs -- the NRC provides strategic advice while the NAC subcommittee provides tactical advice -- so they do look at the programs from different perspectives.  They often get briefings from the same NASA people, though, so this must be an interesting scheduling exercise.  Neither has posted their agendas yet.

Here is what we know about as of Sunday evening, August 24.

Monday, August 25

Monday-Wednesday, AUGUST 25-27

Wednesday-Thursday, SEPTEMBER 3-4

What's Happening in Space Policy August 18-29, 2014 - UPDATED

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Aug-2014 (Updated: 17-Aug-2014 11:30 PM)

UPDATE:  We've added the Ancient Earth, Ancient Aliens event on August 20, which we just found out about..

Here is our list of space policy-related events for the next TWO weeks, August 18-29, 2014, and any insight we can offer about them.  Congress returns on September 8.

During the Weeks

At last, things have quieted down for these last two weeks of August.   Perhaps what is most interesting is what's NOT on the calendar -- two U.S. spacewalks from the ISS that were supposed to take place in addition to the Russian spacewalk tomorrow.   NASA is still recovering from the alarming failure last summer when water filled Luca Parmitano's spacesuit helmet while he was out on a spacewalk.  NASA determined that a blocked filter caused the problem and replaced the filters on the spacesuits and added other safety features, but still has not approved routine U.S. spacewalks.  Only contingency spacewalks required to address specific issues are allowed.  Two were scheduled for August 21 and August 29, but NASA postponed them because of concerns about the spacesuit batteries.  The next SpaceX cargo resupply flight on September 19 will deliver replacements and the spacewalks will be rescheduled.  NASA officials reportedly met last week to review whether to resume routine spacewalks, but the agency has not issued any press statements to that effect yet.

The Russians have their own spacesuits, Orlan, and are not affected by the concerns about the U.S. suits.   Oleg Artemyev and Alexander Skvortsov will perform a 6.5 hour spacewalk -- or extravehicular activity (EVA) -- to retrieve two experiments on the exterior of the ISS and install two new ones, and deploy a nanosatellite.  NASA TV coverage begins at 9:30 am ET.

That and other events during the next two weeks that we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below.

Monday, August 18

Tuesday, August 19

Wednesday, August 20

Monday-Wednesday, August 25-27