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Military / National Security News

Nelson, Inhofe Complain AF Not Following Congressional Direction on RD-180

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Mar-2015 (Updated: 17-Mar-2015 11:49 AM)

Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and James Inhofe (R-OK) wrote to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter last week to complain that DOD is not following congressional direction to expeditiously develop a U.S. propulsion system to replace Russia's RD-180.

The letter is dated March 10 and briefly states that congressional direction in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is quite clear that DOD is to develop a new rocket propulsion system by 2019 and authorized $220 million in FY2015 to that end, and the FY2015 appropriations act includes that $220 million.  Written in the first person (it is not clear whether it is Inhofe or Nelson -- both signed it), the letter says "my observations to date leave me skeptical that DoD or the U.S. Air Force are following Congressional intent."

Both Senators are members of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC).

The letter says that the direction in the NDAA is consistent with last year's Air Force-chartered RD-180 Availability Risk Mitigation Study, which was chaired by Maj. Gen. Howard "Mitch" Mitchell (Ret.).   Mitchell is scheduled to be one of the witnesses at this afternoon's hearing across the Hill before the House Armed Services Committee on "Assuring Assured Access to Space."   Air Force Space Command Commander Gen. John Hyten is also scheduled to testify, along with DOD and Air Force acquisition officials and representatives of SpaceX and United Launch Alliance.

What's Happening in Space Policy March 16-20, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Mar-2015 (Updated: 15-Mar-2015 01:52 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events coming up during the week of March 16-20, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session.

During the Week

It's another busy week with two major conferences, lots of congressional hearings, a NAC subcommittee meeting and more.  

It is tough to choose what to highlight because it's all really good stuff, but to pick just one, the House Armed Services Committee's subcommittee hearing on Tuesday should be especially interesting.  The title is "Assuring Assured Access to Space" and witnesses include SpaceX's Gwynne Shotwell and United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Tory Bruno along with two defense department acquisition officials, commander of Air Force Space Command Gen. Hyten, and retired Maj. Gen. Mitch Mitchell who led a study of RD-180 alternatives last year.  Topics are expected to include certifying new entrants like SpaceX to launch EELV-class national security satellites currently launched exclusively by ULA and the need (or not) for a new American-made rocket engine to replace Russia's RD-180 used for ULA's Atlas 5.  SpaceX's position is that its Merlin engines for the Falcon rockets already are an American alternative so why is another one needed.  ULA, meanwhile, announced last fall that it is partnering with Blue Origin on the BE-4 engine as an American alternative.   Everything seemed on a fast track last fall with Congress insisting on no more RD-180s after 2019 (though there are exceptions),but this year's testimony by Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and ULA's most recent statements seem to be putting the brakes on.  Whether that's a dose of reality or slow-rolling the inevitable is unclear at the moment -- perhaps the hearing will shed some light.

Monday-Friday, March 16-20

Monday-Thursday, March 16-19

  • Satellite 2015, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC

Tuesday, March 17

Tuesday-Wednesday, March 17-18

Wednesday, March 18

Thursday, March 19

HASC to Focus on Assuring Assured Access to Space

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Mar-2015 (Updated: 10-Mar-2015 07:04 PM)

The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) will hold a hearing next week on "Assuring Assured Access to Space" with industry and government witnesses.   Building an American alternative to Russia's RD-180 rocket engine and certifying "new entrants" like SpaceX likely will be the key topics.

The committee's official announcement today does not list the industry witnesses, saying only that the panel is "TBA" -- to be announced.  Space News ran a story this afternoon stating that SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk and United Launch Alliance (ULA) President Tory Bruno would testify, but HASC would not confirm that to SpacePolicyOnline.com and Space News reporter Mike Gruss later tweeted (@Gruss_SN) that "Musk has only been invited to testily.  Not yet confirmed."

If the two did appear together, it undoubtedly would be a lively exchange.  Musk and Bruno's predecessor, Michael Gass, sat next to each other as witnesses at a Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing just about exactly a year ago.  The hearing took place just after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and the U.S.-Russian relationship began its downward spiral.  Musk used the opportunity to highlight U.S. dependence on Russia to supply RD-180 engines for ULA's Atlas V rocket, one of the two U.S. launch vehicles used to launch most national security satellites.  He agreed with U.S. policy that two independent launch systems are needed in order to assure U.S. access to space -- today they are ULA's Atlas V and Delta IV -- but that his Falcon rocket should replace Atlas as the second since it is not dependent on foreign sources.  Thus began a year of hearings and congressional action aimed at reducing or eliminating U.S. dependence on Russia for space launch.

Government witnesses at the March 17  hearing will represent the DOD and Air Force acquisition offices, Air Force Space Command, and the Aerospace Corporation.  A committee spokesman said early this evening that they hope to have the industry panel nailed down very soon.

The hearing is at 3:30 pm ET on March 17, 2015 in 2118 Rayburn House Office Building. 

What's Happening in Space Policy March 9-13, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Mar-2015 (Updated: 08-Mar-2015 02:56 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of March 9-13, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The Senate is in session this week; the House is in recess.

During the Week

The IEEE Aerospace Conference actually began yesterday in Big Sky, Montana; it runs through March 14.   The conference website says it is being held in "a stimulating and thought provoking environment."  Indeed!  

Greenbelt, MD may not compare with Big Sky, MT in terms of breathtaking scenery, but the American Astronautical Society's (AAS's) Goddard Memorial Symposium at the Greenbelt Marriott is undoubtedly of much more interest to the space policy community.   NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will keynote the AAS meeting on Wednesday morning at 9:15 am ET, followed by a panel of top level NASA Headquarters officials including Science Mission Directorate Associate Administrator (AA) John Grunsfeld and newly appointed Space Technology Mission Directorate AA Steve Jurczyk, formerly director of NASA's Langley Research Center.  The two-day AAS meeting ends on Thursday afternoon with a panel including your intrepid SpacePolicyOnline.com editor along with Jeff Foust from Space News and Frank Morring from Aviation Week and Space Technology.

The congressional calendar is less crowded this week since the House is in recess. but Bolden will appear before the Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on Thursday at 9:30 am ET.  Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) was politely inquisitive at his first space hearing two weeks ago, which included no government witnesses.  It will be interesting to see how he and Bolden get along since the NASA Administrator represents President Obama, a man with whom Cruz has serious disagreements on other issues.  Cruz sounded liked a huge space enthusiast at the earlier hearing, with views strongly aligned with key Senators on both sides of the aisle who crafted the 2010 NASA Authorization Act and have appropriated funds since then to execute it.  That suggests that Cruz and Bolden will disagree on the amount of funding requested for SLS and Orion at least -- NASA's request once again is less than Congress wants as everyone knows.

Speaking of SLS, Orbital ATK will have a 2-minute static test fire of an SLS booster on Wednesday.  NASA TV will cover it live at 11:00 am ET (9:00 am local time in Utah).   Two pre-launch briefings (on Tuesday and Wednesday) for the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission (scheduled for launch on Thursday) and the homecoming (on Wednesday) of three International Space Station crew members also are on tap this week.

All the events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.

Saturday-Saturday, March 7-14

Tuesday, March 10

Tuesday-Thursday, March 10-12 (March 10 is an evening reception only)

Wednesday, March 11

Thursday, March 12

What's Happening in Space Policy March 2-6, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Mar-2015 (Updated: 01-Mar-2015 02:11 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of March 2-6, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session.

During the Week

A passel of congressional hearings are on tap this week on the FY2016 budget requests for NASA, DOD, the Department of Commerce (including NOAA) and the Department of Transportation (including FAA).   Most congressional hearings are webcast on the respective committee's website.  The exceptions are hearings held in the Capitol where, unfortunately, the House Appropriations CJS subcommittee holds many of its hearings.   Its hearings this week on the Department of Commerce budget request and on NASA's budget request are a case in point.   One must be physically present in the tiny room (H-309 Capitol) to hear the discussion.  All the other hearings this week should be webcast, however.

For those already weary of Washington politics or just looking for something uplifting, tomorrow's (Monday's) briefing on Dawn's impending arrival at Ceres should be fun.  The intrepid spacecraft, which already sent back fascinating data about the asteroid Vesta, will arrive at Ceres on March 6.  The briefing is at JPL and will be webcast on JPL's Ustream channel and NASA TV.  We haven't seen an announcement about coverage on March 6 itself, but will post whatever information comes our way later this week.

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

Monday, March 2

Tuesday, March 3

Wednesday, March 4

Thursday, March 5

AF Secretary James Not Sure 2019 is Doable for RD-180 Replacement

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Feb-2015 (Updated: 25-Feb-2015 10:49 PM)

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James added a dose of reality today to projections about when an American-made rocket engine could replace Russia's RD-180s for the Atlas V rocket.  During testimony, she said that meeting the congressional mandate to have a new engine by 2019 may not be doable.  Her experts tell her it will take 6-8 years to get a new engine and another 1-2 years to integrate it into a launch vehicle.  

James spoke before the Senate Appropriations Committee's Defense Subcommittee (SAC-D) on the Air Force FY2016 budget request along with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III.  The two are scheduled to testify to the House counterpart subcommittee (HAC-D) on Friday. 

The issue really is about developing a new propulsion system, of which an engine is a part, but "engine" is commonly used as shorthand.

The deterioration in U.S.-Russian relationships beginning last year because of Russia's action in Ukraine highlighted how dependent the United States is on Russian technology to launch U.S. national security satellites.   The United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V and Delta IV rockets -- referred to as Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs ) -- launch almost all of them, and the Atlas V is powered by Russia's RD-180 engine.   The issue figured prominently in a number of hearings last year and Air Force officials, including Gen. William Shelton, then head of Air Force Space Command, rued the prospect of losing those engines.  Still, Shelton and others eventually accepted that the time had come for the United States to develop its own comparable liquid rocket engine.

The FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 113-291) and its accompanying explanatory statement direct DOD to develop a new U.S. propulsion system by 2019 "using full and open competition." The law authorizes $220 million and notes it "is not an authorization of funds for development of a new launch vehicle."  Section 608 of the law prohibits the Secretary of Defense (SecDef) from "awarding or renewing a contract for the procurement of property or services" under the EELV program if the contract involves "rocket engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation."  The only exceptions are the EELV contract awarded to ULA on December 18, 2013 or unless the SecDef certifies that the offeror can demonstrate that it fully paid for or entered into a legally binding contract for such engines prior to February 1, 2014.

The FY2015 Defense Appropriations Act (Division C of P.L. 113-235) followed suit, appropriating the same $220 million as was authorized "to accelerate rocket propulsion system development with a target demonstration date of fiscal year 2019."  It directs the Air Force, in consultation with NASA, "to develop an affordable, innovative, and competitive strategy ... that includes an assessment of the potential benefits and challenges of using public-private partnerships, innovative teaming arrangements, and small business considerations."

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) and James engaged in two exchanges about the RD-180 today.  Shelby noted that the President's FY2016 request is only for $84 million.  "It's also my understanding that developing an RD-180 replacement engine and the associated launch vehicle and launch pad can cost anywhere from $1 billion to more than $3 billion and take perhaps 7 to 10 years to develop," Shelby said.  James replied that technical experts have advised her that "It's 6 to 8 years ... for a newly designed engine and then an additional 1 to 2 years on top of that to be able to integrate the engine into the launch vehicle."  As for cost, "I've seen $2 billion," James said.

James asked that Congress clarify what it wants, because the 2019 deadline is "pretty aggressive" and "I'm not sure 2019 is doable."  She also stressed that they want "at least two" domestic engines "because we want competition of course."

Shelby also revealed that DOD's General Counsel "may" interpret the Section 608 language contrary to congressional intent resulting in a "capability gap for certain launches" and eliminating "real competition."  James explained that the General Counsel is trying to interpret several different provisions of law that may or may not have had the same intent, but said the point she wanted to stress is that "virtually everybody" agrees that the United States should be less reliant on Russia.  The question is how to accomplish that:  "We don't want to cut off our nose to spite our face."

The two also discussed certification of "new entrants." a reference to SpaceX, which has been attempting to obtain certification from the Air Force so it can compete against ULA for these types of national security launches.

ULA manufactures the Atlas V and Delta IV in Decatur, Alabama, Shelby's home state.  Shelby talked about the virtues of competition, but, without mentioning SpaceX by name, said "some of these so-called companies that are planning to compete, and we'd like for them to compete, they have had several mishaps" compared to ULA.  James replied that every developmental program has mishaps and "I'm quite sure they're going to get there from here."

ULA is jointly owned by Lockheed Martin and Boeing.  At yesterday's hearing before the Space, Science and Competitiveness subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, Boeing's John Elbon also urged a "thoughtful" approach to the transition from the RD-180 to a U.S. engine and keeping the pipeline of engines open as long as possible rather setting a hard cut-off date.

Meanwhile, ULA announced last fall that it is partnering with Blue Origin to develop the BE-4 rocket engine as an RD-180 replacement.  ULA and Blue Origin said at the time that the project is fully paid for and not in need of government funding.

What's Happening in Space Policy February 23-27, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Feb-2015 (Updated: 22-Feb-2015 10:50 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of February 23-27, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

This is one of those weeks when so much is going on that it's difficult to choose just a couple of events to highlight.  Please peruse the list below to find your own favorites. 

There are seven congressional hearings of interest to the space policy community, though one suspects two are of particular note to readers of this website:  Tuesday's Senate hearing  on the U.S. human spaceflight program and commercial space competitiveness (with three former astronauts, including Buzz Aldrin), and Friday's House hearing on NASA's commercial crew program.  

But the others should be of interest, too:  Wednesday's House hearing with the NASA Inspector General (and his counterparts at the Departments of Commerce and Justice) and hearings on the FY2016 budget requests for the Department of Transportation (including the Office of Commercial Space Transportation), Air Force (where many national security space programs reside), and the Department of Commerce (home of NOAA).  Many congressional hearings are webcast (though usually not the ones held in the U.S. Capitol), so you can enjoy them live or later in archived webcasts.  We'll provide summaries of as many of them as we can.

Tuesday, February 24

Tuesday-Wednesday, February 24-25

Wednesday, February 25

Thursday, February 26

Friday, February 27

Upgraded Antares Rocket To Fly to ISS in March 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Feb-2015 (Updated: 19-Feb-2015 06:17 PM)

OrbitalATK President and CEO David Thompson said today that the company plans the first flight of its upgraded Antares rocket on March 1, 2016 from Wallops Flight Facility, VA.  An Antares exploded at liftoff in October 2014 destroying a Cygnus capsule loaded with supplies for the International Space Station (ISS).  The upgraded Antares will use a different rocket engine.

Thompson and two other top officials of the new company held an investors teleconference this morning.   The merger of Orbital Sciences Corporation and Alliant Techsystems (ATK) closed on February 9.   Thompson and CFO Garrett Pierce are from the Orbital side of the merger; COO Blake Larson is from ATK.

Data presented by the trio this morning show that 56 percent of the company's revenue is from national security programs, 26 percent from commercial programs, and 18 percent from NASA and other civil government programs.  NASA programs were numbers two and three of the five top revenue producers last year:  NASA's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract to take cargo to the ISS (approximately $300 million) and the propulsion system for the Space Launch System (about $250 million).  In first place was small caliber ammunition for the Army ($430 million).  Fourth was medium and large caliber ammunition for the Army ($225 million) and fifth place was a tie between missile defense interceptors and tactical missiles, both at $150 million.

Public attention is focused on the merged company's recovery from the Antares failure.  Thompson was confident that OrbitalATK will be able to fulfill its contract with NASA to deliver 20 tons of cargo to the ISS by the end of 2016.  Between now and the first launch of the upgraded Antares, OrbitalATK will launch one of its Cygnus spacecraft on a competitor's rocket -- United Launch Alliance's Atlas 5.  Thompson said that launch will be ready for flight in early October, but NASA may want to wait until later that month or November, depending on other ISS activities.   That will be followed by the March 1 launch of the upgraded Antares and two more later in the year.  The Cygnus itself is an upgraded model as well that can carry more cargo than the earlier version, allowing OrbitalATK to meet the tonnage requirements with only four more launches instead of five.

Thompson said that NASA is not asking the company to fly a demonstration launch of the upgraded rocket -- the March 1 launch will have a full cargo load.  However, in January the company will conduct a test firing of the first stage on the launch pad at Wallops.

The first stage is built in Ukraine by Yuzhmash and Thompson was asked if he had any concerns considering the situation there.  Thompson replied that he needs five more Antares first stages over the next two-and-a-half years and three are complete and the other two are "almost" complete.  "We're watching closely with nearly full time presence" at Yuzhmash and "we do have a fallback plan if things really deteriorate there."   No details were provided during the teleconference and the company has not yet responded to a query from SpacePolicyOnline.com about what that plan is.

The engines used for the original version of Antares were old Russian NK-33 engines manufactured more than four decades ago and refurbished here by Aerojet Rocketdyne and redesignated AJ26.   Thompson said shortly after the October 28 launch failure that early indications were that the engines were the cause of the failure 15 seconds after launch. 

The replacement engines also are Russian, but newer RD-181s built by NPO Energomash, a subsidiary of Energia.  In a January 16, 2015 press release, Energia's President Vladimir Solntsev said the two companies had been working on the contract for three years.  According to that press release, the contract value is $1 billion for 60 engines (plus engineering services), but apparently that is a firm contract for 20 engines plus two options for 20 more engines each.  The first two engines are due to be delivered in June 2015.   The RD-181 was "developed specifically" for Antares, according to the Energia press release, based on the RD-191 engine built for Russia's new Angara rocket family.  Orbital/OrbitalATK itself has released very little information about the contract.

Johnson-Freese: Why Wolf is Wrong About U.S.-China Space Cooperation

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Feb-2015 (Updated: 18-Feb-2015 06:54 PM)

Joan Johnson-Freese explained to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission today why former Rep. Frank Wolf was wrong to effectively ban all U.S.-China bilateral space cooperation.  Wolf retired at the end of the last Congress, but his successor as chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA holds similar views.

Johnson-Freese is a professor at the Naval War College and author of "The Chinese Space Program:  A Mystery Within a Maze" and "Heavenly Ambitions: America's Quest to Dominate Space."   She was one of the witnesses at today's hearing on China's space and counterspace programs.

Wolf included language in several Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bills that prohibits NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) from engaging in any bilateral activities with China on civil space cooperation unless specifically authorized by Congress or unless NASA or OSTP certifies to Congress 14 days in advance that the activity would not result in the transfer of any technology, data, or other information with national security or economic implications.   His indefatigable opposition to cooperating with China was based largely on its human rights abuses and efforts to obtain U.S. technology.  He was one of the strongest, but certainly not only, congressional critic of China, always stressing that he loved the Chinese people, but not the Chinese government.

Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) is Wolf's successor as chairman of the CJS subcommittee.  In December 2013 when rumors swirled that he would replace Wolf, he was interviewed by a reporter for the Houston Chronicle and when asked whether he agreed with Wolf about China replied: "Yes.  We need to keep them out of our space program, and we need to keep NASA out of China. They are not our friends." 

It remains to be seen whether he will include the same language in this year's CJS bill, but Johnson-Freese spelled out why she thinks it is the wrong approach.

She provides a comprehensive rebuttal to Wolf's reasoning, but in essence her contention is that "the United States must use all tools of national power" to achieve its space-related goals as stated in U.S. National Space Policy, National Security Strategy, and National Security Space Strategy.  Wolf's restrictions on space cooperation simply constrain U.S. options, she argues:  "Limiting U.S. options has never been in U.S. national interest and isn't on this issue either."    She disagrees with Wolf's assumption that the United States has nothing to gain from working with China:  "On the contrary, the United States could learn about how they work -- their decision-making processes, institutional policies and standard operating procedures.  This is valuable information in accurately deciphering the intended use of dual-use space technology, long a weakness and so a vulnerability in U.S. analysis."

For some issues, there really is no choice, she continues.  China must be involved in international efforts towards Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs) and space sustainability, especially with regard to space debris, a topic given urgency by China's 2007 antisatellite (ASAT) test that created more than 3,000 pieces of debris in low Earth orbit.   She notes that since that test and the resulting international condemnation,  "China has done nothing further in space that can be considered irresponsible or outside the norms set the United States."

Not that China has refrained from tests related to negating other countries' satellites, however.  She and other witnesses detailed China's recent activities in that regard.   Kevin Pollpeter of the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation and Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation joined her at the witness table.  They reported on "missile defense tests" in 2010, 2013 and 2014 that are widely considered in the West to be de facto ASAT tests, along with a  2013 "high altitude science mission" and co-orbital satellite tests in 2010 and 2013, as potentially related to ASAT development.  These tests were non-destructive, however, and did not generate space debris.

Former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Missouri), who co-chaired today's hearing, said that the Commission will publish a report by Pollpeter's institute on China's counterspace activities "in the coming days."   The Commission was created by Congress in 2000 and submits an annual report on national security implications of the U.S.-China trade and economic relationship.

What's Happening in Space Policy February 16-20, 2015 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Feb-2015 (Updated: 18-Feb-2015 12:39 PM)

UPDATE, February 18:  Friday's WSBR luncheon has been postponed.

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of February 16-20, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.   Congress is in recess this week in observance of Presidents' Day (which commemorates Abraham Lincoln's birthday on February 12 and George Washington's on February 22).

During the Week

Members of Congress will be working in their State or District offices this week instead of Washington, D.C., hearing directly from their constituents about whatever is on their minds. 

Lots of non-congressional events are on tap, though, including what could be a very interesting investors conference call with the leadership of the brand new OrbitalATK on Thursday.   This is the first such call for the merged company, which melds Orbital Sciences Corporation and Alliant TechSystems' (ATK's) aerospace business (it spun off its sporting division as part of the merger). Only financial folks get to ask questions, but anyone can listen and the company is actually making this available via webcast.  Orbital's David Thompson is President and CEO of the merged company, and Garrett Pierce is CFO, the same positions they held at Orbital.  Blake Larson, who headed ATK's Aerospace Group, is COO of the merged company.

The Director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Chris Scolese, will speak to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR) on Tuesday.

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

Editor's Note:  Some of you may have heard about the Pioneering Space National Summit scheduled for Thursday and Friday.  That event is by invitation only, so we do not list it.   On a personal note, I wish them luck.  I've been involved in too many of these exercises over the decades and declined their kind invitation to participate in yet another one.   Perhaps this will be the one that makes a difference, but I admit to being skeptical.

Tuesday, February 17

Wednesday, February 18

Thursday, February 19

Thursday-Friday, February 19-20

Friday, February 20