Military / National Security News
The House Appropriations Committee approved the FY2017 defense appropriations bill today. It generally steers clear of the RD-180 controversy that is so prevalent in the other defense committees, approving the $296.6 million requested for building an alternative U.S. engine, offering no comment on how many RD-180s should be procured while that new engine is developed. However, it does dip into the topic of awarding launches on a competitive basis and reduces from five to three the number of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) that may be procured in FY2017. The committee expresses concern about planning for future satellite systems, including weather satellites, and provides funding for a commercial weather pilot project.
Strictly speaking, appropriations committees provide funding while authorizing committees set policy and recommend funding levels. The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) is the defense authorization committee in the House. Its bill, the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act, is currently being debated on the House floor. (Not sure of the difference between an authorization and an appropriation? See SpacePolicyOnline.com's "What's a Markup?" fact sheet.)
The House Appropriations Committee's views on national security space issues include the following:
The Obama Administration issued its Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) on the House version of the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) today. The bill, H.R. 4909, is before the House Rules Committee at the moment and, subject to a rule being granted, will reach the House floor for debate this week. The SAP states that the President's advisers will recommend that he veto the bill if changes are not made. Such threats have become common and last year the President followed through, although a compromise was ultimately reached.
The main obstacle to last year's NDAA was funding. The President vetoed the first FY2016 NDAA that cleared Congress, but after a top-level budget agreement was reached in October, a revised version was passed and it received the President's signature,
Funding is also one of the major issues this time, although the 17-page SAP has a very long list of complaints. The funding issue this year is because the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) decided to redirect $18 billion from the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account -- which pays for operations in Afghanistan, for example -- into activities that are supposed to be part of DOD's base budget, not the special OCO funds that do not count against the budget caps. That way HASC can spend more money for defense without exceeding the caps, but it means that the OCO account has only enough money to pay for American troops fighting overseas until April 2017, not through the end of FY2017. Whoever becomes President in January will have to immediately request a supplemental appropriations bill to keep the troops funded. "By gambling with warfighting funds, the bill risks the safety of our men and women fighting to keep America safe, undercuts stable planning and efficient use of taxpayer dollars, dispirits troops and their families, baffles our allies, and emboldens out enemies," the SAP asserts.
From a space policy standpoint, the SAP also criticizes HASC's actions regarding the Russian RD-180 rocket engine issue. HASC adopted the position held by the Administration and the United Launch Alliance (ULA) that 18 more RD-180s are needed to keep ULA's Atlas V rockets available through the early 2020s, but retains some restrictions on how the money can be spent. Although the language in this bill is more flexible than in the last two NDAAs, the Administration still objects. The debate is over whether the money Congress is providing to develop a U.S. alternative to the RD-180 may be spent only on a new engine, or on other parts of a new launch system. Previous NDAAs forbid using the money for anything other than the engine. This bill has a modified version of that prohibition that allows up to 25 percent of the research and development funds to be spent on a new launch vehicle, upper stage, strap-on motor and related infrastructure. The amendment containing that language was offered by Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), the top Democrat on HASC, and adopted by voice vote at the very end of the 16-hour markup on April 27-28.
The SAP has this to say about it:
Rocket Propulsion System Development Program: The Administration appreciates the amended language to section 1608 of the FY 2015 NDAA to authorize up to 18 RD-180 engines, ensuring a necessary and cost-effective bridge to American-made launch services. However, the Administration strongly objects to section 1601, which would place restrictions on the funds to eliminate the Nation's use of these engines for national security space launches. The Committee's approach overemphasizes one component of a launch vehicle and, in doing so, risks the successful and timely fielding of new domestic launch systems. The Administration is committed to developing new American-made propulsion systems as part of these new launch vehicles, but this should be done in accordance with well-accepted systems engineering principles and not arbitrary funding allocations.
The SAP also rejects a provision that requires the Government to obtain rights and technical data about any new rocket propulsion system.
The Administration also strongly objects to the direction in section 1601 requiring the acquisition of Government purpose rights and technical data for any new rocket propulsion system. Complying with this direction is not feasible as it would likely require re-negotiation of the current development contracts, thereby delaying the delivery of the new domestic capabilities beyond 2019. Pursuing such robust data rights would also undermine the very nature of the public-private partnerships, require significantly more Government funding, and risk further industry investment and participation. The Administration's public-private partnerships are successfully leveraging willing private investment to develop commercially viable launch vehicles, and this has already saved taxpayers nearly $200 million, while maintaining access to the data that the Government needs. These partnerships could save taxpayers more than $500 million through 2019 and deliver valuable capabilities for the Nation and benefits to our economy faster than the Committee's approach.
The House Rules Committee met this evening to begin discussion about the rule that will govern floor debate on the bill. The meeting continues tomorrow (Tuesday) afternoon where the committee will decide which of the 372 amendments that have been submitted will be allowed on the floor for debate. The rule dictates how much time each side (pro and con) will have to debate the bill in its entirety and each of the permitted amendments and sets other conditions, such as waiving points of order.
The expectation is that the committee will approve a rule tomorrow and floor debate will begin on Wednesday. [UPDATE; Word as of this morning (Tuesday) is that debate will begin later today.] Several of the submitted amendments deal with the RD-180/U.S. replacement issues.
The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) has approved its version of the bill and took a very different approach to RD-180s, so the debate is certain to continue no matter what happens in this bill.
The SAP also raises objections to two other space-related provisions in the bill.
As currently written, the bill requires DOD to initiate concept definition, design, research, development and engineering evaluation and testing for a space-based intercept and defeat missile defense layer and space test bed. The SAP says the Administration appreciates congressional support for its missile defense program, but there is "no requirement for a space-based intercept and there are concerns about the technical feasibility and long-term affordability of interceptors in space."
The bill would also transfer from the Air Force to the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) responsibility for some space-based environmental monitoring missions. The committee states in its report on the bill that it is concerned about the Air Force's lack of planning, coordination, and execution of activities to meet space-based environmental monitoring requirements. It notes that the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) originated in NRO and was later transferred to the Air Force and wants the same arrangement now "in which the NRO develops the program and then transfers it back to the Air Force after it is in operation." The SAP states that the entire DOD weather enterprise should be managed "as an integrated mission" and not split up.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of May 16-22, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them (yes, the 22nd, not the 20th, since ISDC 2016 runs through next Sunday). The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
It's another one of those busy, busy, weeks for space policy aficionados not just in Washington, DC, but in many other places around the world.
On Capitol Hill, House floor debate on the defense authorization bill begins mid-week. The FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), H.R. 4909, was approved by the House Armed Services Committee on April 28. One of the big space-related items was, of course, the RD-180 issue. HASC went along with the Air Force/United Launch Alliance (ULA) position that ULA needs 18 additional RD-180s to ensure Atlas V rockets are available through the early 2020s, instead of 9 engines to keep it available through 2019 as preferred by its Senate counterpart, SASC. (SASC marked up its version of the NDAA last week and stuck to its guns about only 9 more.) Another part of the debate is whether the money Congress is providing for developing a U.S. alternative to the RD-180 may be spent only on the engine or on other elements of an entirely new space launch system. HASC had insisted in previous NDAAs that it be spent only on the engine, but, this year, an amendment was adopted at committee level allowing the funds to be spent on a launch vehicle, upper stage, strap-on motor or related infrastructure. HASC's action on the NDAA is just one step in the defense authorization process. Next, the House Rules Committee will meet Monday and Tuesday to craft the rule that will govern the floor debate. It will decide, for example, which of the 372 submitted amendments may be offered on the floor. Several concern the RD-180/U.S. replacement issues. All of the submitted amendments are posted on the Rules Committee's website.
DOD appropriations also will be tackled this week. The full House Appropriations Committee will mark up the FY2017 defense bill on Tuesday morning (subcommittee markup was completed on May 11). Two other FY2017 appropriations measures also will be considered this week, but at subcommittee level. On Wednesday, the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee will mark up the CJS bill, which includes NASA and NOAA, at 10:00 am ET and the Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) subcommittee will mark up the T-HUD bill, which includes FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, at 11:30 am ET.
The Humans to Mars (H2M) 2016 summit, sponsored by Explore Mars, will take place at George Washington University Tuesday-Thursday and will be webcast. Among the speakers is Andy Weir, author of The Martian. Not only will he speak there on Wednesday morning, but that afternoon he is scheduled to testify to the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee at a hearing on Deep Space Habitats. NASA no doubt wishes it had the habitats of Weir's fictional characters, both on the surface of Mars and the nifty Earth-Mars transit vehicle, complete with centrifuge. Perhaps he will set an aspirational mood for the subcommittee members and the other witnesses, who hail from NASA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Orbital ATK. The hearing also will be webcast.
Many interesting conferences (in addition to H2M) will take place this week around the globe: GEOINT 2016 in Orlando, FL; ISDC 2016 in San Juan, Puerto Rico; the European Lunar Symposium in Amsterdam, the Netherlands; Astro2016 in Ottawa, Canada; and SpaceOps 2016 in Daejeon, Korea.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week for additions to our Events of Interest list that are announced later.
Sunday-Wednesday, May 15-18
Monday-Tuesday, May 16-17
Monday-Friday, May 16-20
Tuesday, May 17
Tuesday-Thursday, May 17-19
Wednesday, May 18
Wednesday-Thursday, May 18-19
Wednesday-Sunday, May 18-22
The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) approved its version of the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) today. Continuing a two-year dispute over how many Russian RD-180 rockets engines may be obtained for United Launch Alliance (ULA) Altas V rockets, the committee insisted on keeping the number at nine instead of raising it to 18 as recommended by its House counterpart. The SASC bill would also repeal language in the FY2016 appropriations bill that lifted the limit set in last year's NDAA.
The fundamental issue is how quickly a U.S. alternative to the Russian engine can be developed and tested sufficiently to assure that U.S. national security satellites can be launched as needed -- called assured access to space. The RD-180 engine was chosen for the Atlas V rocket in the 1990s when U.S.-Russian relationships were good. Since Russia's annexation of Crimea two years ago and its subsequent actions in Ukraine, broad agreement has arisen among Congress, the White House and the Air Force that the United States should not be reliant on Russian rocket engines to place critical national security satellites into orbit. SASC Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) is a leading voice on this issue and often asserts that U.S. dollars should not go to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his "cronies."
SASC and other congressional committees disagree, however, on the timing for the transition from RD-180-powered Atlas V rockets to a new rocket with U.S.-built engines. At the moment, the argument is over whether ULA should be allowed to obtain nine more, or 18 more, than the number already under contract. Currently the Air Force states that it needs 18 more to ensure the Atlas V is available until the early 2020s when a new launch system -- an engine plus the rest of the launch vehicle -- has been tested and certified. McCain and his supporters argue it can be done by 2019 and only nine more engines are needed. (Last year, the Air Force and ULA said 14 were needed, but now it is 18.)
Another element of the debate is a drive to encourage competition in the national security space launch market. ULA has been virtually a monopoly provider of national security launch services since it was created as a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture in 2006. Last year, SpaceX was certified by the Air Force to compete with ULA. Generally, ULA supporters want to obtain enough RD-180s to keep ULA's Atlas V available for as long as possible to compete with SpaceX's Falcon rockets, while SpaceX supporters want to end the use of Atlas V and its Russian engines quickly with the expectation that SpaceX Falcon rockets coupled with ULA's larger Delta IV launch vehicles can satisfy national security space launch requirements.
U.S. national space transportation policy requires that at least two independent launch systems be available for national security launches. If one suffers a failure, access to space is assured by the other. For more than a decade, those two have been Atlas V and Delta IV, both ULA rockets. SpaceX argues that now the two can be its Falcon plus ULA's Delta IV. ULA and its supporters insist, however, that the Delta IV is prohibitively expensive compared to Atlas V and the best choice for the taxpayers is to keep Atlas V available until the early 2020s when ULA's new Vulcan rocket -- with a U.S. engine -- will be able to compete with SpaceX on price.
SASC insists that a new U.S. engine can be ready by 2019 and only nine more RD-180s are needed until that time. That is the number set by the FY2015 and FY2016 NDAAs. However, the Senate Appropriations Committee undermined that authorization language in the FY2016 appropriations bill, essentially removing all limits. (Not sure of the difference between an authorization and an appropriation? See our "What's a Markup?" fact sheet.)
Today, SASC insisted on nine engines only and called for repeal of the appropriations language. A committee summary of its action allocates three paragraphs to the issue:
"Providing Assured Access to Space and Ending Reliance on Russia
"Despite the efforts of the committee, United States assured access to space continues to rely on Russian rocket engines, the purchase of which provide financial benefit to aides and advisors to Vladimir Putin – including individuals sanctioned by the United States – and subsidizes the Russian military-industrial base. This is unacceptable at a time when Russia continues to occupy Crimea, destabilize Ukraine, menace our NATO allies, send weapons to Iran, violate the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and bomb U.S.-backed forces in Syria fighting the Assad regime.
"That is why the NDAA repeals a provision from last year’s omnibus appropriations bill that furthered dependence on Russia and requires that assured access to space be achieved without the use of rocket engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation. In testimony before the committee, the Secretary of Defense, the Director of National Intelligence, and the Secretary of the Air Force each confirmed to the committee that the United States can meet its assured access to space requirements without the use of Russian rocket engines. Once the nine Russian rocket engines allowed by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 and Fiscal Year 2016 are expended, the Defense Department would be authorized to utilize only those launch vehicles that do not require rocket engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation.
"According to the Department of Defense Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) and a study commissioned by the Air Force, the continued use of Russian rocket engines will not provide the cost competitive launch environment the Air Force was hoping would materialize. Given the urgency of eliminating reliance on Russian engines, the NDAA would allow for up to half of the funds made available for the development of a replacement launch vehicle or launch propulsion system to be made available for offsetting any potential increase in launch costs as a result of prohibitions on Russian rocket engines. With $1.2 billion budgeted from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2021 for the launch replacement effort and $453 million already appropriated in fiscal year 2015 and fiscal year 2016, there is more than sufficient funding available and budgeted for a replacement propulsion system or launch vehicle and to offset any additional costs required in meeting our assured access to space requirements without the use of Russian rocket engines."
The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) marked up its version of the FY2017 NDAA in April and agreed to the ULA/Air Force position of 18 more. The House is expected to take up the bill next week.
Mike Gold, the Washington voice of Bigelow Aerospace for more than a decade, has joined SSL (formerly Space Systems Loral) as its Vice President of Washington Operations.
Gold is well known in Washington space policy circles as chairman of the FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), dogged reformer of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), and indefatigable supporter of the Boston Red Sox.
During his time with Bigelow, the company signed an agreement with NASA to attach a test version of Bigelow's expandable habitat to the International Space Station (ISS). The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) was delivered to ISS aboard the SpaceX CRS-8 mission last month and is currently attached to an ISS docking port. The process of expanding it to full size is expected to begin later this month. Bigelow and SpaceX also announced plans in 2012 to send people to Bigelow space stations in low Earth orbit (LEO) aboard SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, an effort aimed at the international market.
The international aspect of space is one with which Gold is especially identified because of his role in ITAR reform, which came to fruition in 2014 with changes that make it easier to export communications satellites by moving them from the State Department's Munitions List to the Department of Commerce's Commerce Control List.
SSL is one of the world's major manufacturers of communications satellites. Once owned by Loral (and before that by Ford Aerospace), it was bought by Canada's MacDonald Dettwiler & Associates (MDA) in 2012. It also builds other types of satellites and is one of four companies selected by JPL for study contracts for the design of the robotic spacecraft for NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission. SSL also is working with JPL on a potential Discovery mission to study the asteroid Psyche and with DARPA on on-orbit satellite assembly.
SSL is based in Palo Alto, CA. SSL President John Celli said in a press statement that Gold "brings a wealth of experience with both civil and defense organizations and will strengthen our ability to make a contribution to government programs."
Gold has a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and a bachelor's degree in political science from Brandeis University.
Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of May 9-13, 2016. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
It's another busy week for space policy aficionados -- especially Tuesday. So many excellent events on top of each other, one either needs a large staff (alas, we don't) or a clone (none of those either). Three of the events that day certainly or probably will deal with launch vehicles. First is CSIS's event on State of Defense Acquisition where Frank Kendall may have something to say about RD-180 rocket engines and public private partnerships to build a U.S. replacement. Then Orbital ATK's Dave Thompson will speak at WSBR and questions about Antares might well arise. At the same time, the Space Transportation Association is hosting a lunch roundtable discussion to provide an update on NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft with the NASA program managers for those programs and their associated Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) program.
For those less interested in rockets, during that same time NASA will have a telecon announcing new discoveries from its exoplanet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope, and the Secure World Foundation (SWF) is holding a seminar on challenges and opportunities for new space actors. SWF's speaker lineup includes representatives of both familiar (PlanetLabs) and less familiar (Observer Research Foundation and Astroscale) organizations. Observer Research Foundation is a think tank in India; Astroscale is a Singapore-based startup developing satellites to remove space debris. SWF usually records its seminars and posts the audio on its website soon thereafter.
That's just Tuesday. Meanwhile, up on Capitol Hill, all this week the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) will mark up the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Unlike HASC (which marked up its version already), most of the SASC subcommittee markups are closed, as is full committee markup, so there will be no public information about the debates that go on to produce the final result. Across the Hill, the Defense Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee will mark up the FY2017 DOD appropriations bill late Wednesday afternoon. It is open. Many of the committee's markups are webcast, although there is no indication whether this one will be or not. [UPDATE: Although the committee's website does not indicate that the markup is closed, the official notice of the meeting does, so apparently it is closed after all.)
The Heritage Foundation is having what sounds like an interesting discussion on Wednesday about the national security implications of rapid access to space. It's only for one hour, which seems a short amount time to pack in all the interesting speakers they have, including Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), Eric Stallmer from the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, Everett Dolman from the Air University, and Dean Cheng, Heritage's in-house expert on the Chinese space program. It will be webcast.
And just for fun, JPL's Bob Pappalardo will speak at a public lecture on the Europa mission at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) on Thursday evening. He is the Europa mission project scientist and was deeply involved in reformulating the original proposal into the more affordable version often referred to as Europa Clipper. The lecture is part of a series offered by NASM for ages 11 and up and will be webcast.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below. Check back throughout the week for additional events announced later and added to our Events of Interest list.
Monday-Friday, May 9-13
Tuesday, May 10
Wednesday, May 11
Thursday, May 12
The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is proposing to Congress that the Department of Transportation (DOT) be placed in charge of "mission authorization" for new types of private sector space activities in earth orbit and beyond. The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) has been floated as a likely candidate for this role for quite some time. The FAA is part of DOT.
The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA) signed into law last November required OSTP to submit a report to Congress assessing current and near-term commercial activities in space. OSTP was also directed to recommend an approach for authorizing and continually supervising those activities as required by Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. The term "mission authorization" now is used to refer to authorizing and supervising commercial on-orbit activities such as satellite servicing (including refueling, repair, or adding end-of-life extension modules to existing spacecraft), building orbital habitats, or extracting resources from the Moon or asteroids.
OSTP submitted the report to Congress on April 4. It includes an appendix with draft legislative language designating DOT as the federal agency to grant such authorizations, maintain a registry of those authorizations, and require holders of such authorizations to report on their activities periodically and if there is any material change to their operations. The Secretary of Transportation is required to coordinate with the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, Secretary of Commerce, the NASA Administrator, the Director of National Intelligence, and other appropriate government departments and agencies.
The report does not specify the FAA or FAA/AST, but FAA/AST is the only office within DOT that currently has responsibility for issuing space-related licenses. It facilitates and regulates commercial space launches and reentries. FAA/AST Associate Administrator George Nield has spoken in many venues about expanding that office's regulatory responsibilities to include on-orbit and deep space commercial activities. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) is a strong advocate for that idea.
Nield and Bridenstine also have proposed that FAA/AST assume responsibility for non-military space situational awareness (SAA) duties. DOD's Joint Space Operations Center (JPSoC) tracks objects in orbit and issues "conjunction analyses" -- warnings that a collision may occur -- to other U.S. government agencies, other governments, and commercial entities. Bridenstine argues that JSPoC needs to focus on its military mission of "fighting and winning wars," not on warning NASA or other space operators about potential collisions. He sees a transition where a commercial Conjunction Analysis and Warning Center, overseen by FAA/AST, would fuse unclassified DOD data with data from international partners and commercial operators. At a meeting of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) last week, Nield said that "senior Air Force and DOD leadership are right with us on this one," although "not everyone" in DOD shares the vision. He suggested a quick, inexpensive pilot program to answer questions about how much it would cost and whether the data are accurate. for example.
The OSTP proposal takes a step in that direction. It would authorize the Secretary of Transportation, in coordination with the Secretary of Defense, to examine planned and actual operational trajectories of space objects and advise satellite operators so as to prevent collisions.
Bridenstine introduced the American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA) on April 14 (H.R. 4945) that is very broad and goes further than the OSTP proposal with regard to SSA. In the longer term, for example, he wants FAA/AST to become a Space Traffic Management (STM) entity with authority to compel operators to move their spacecraft to avoid collisions, though that is some years off. He has stated that he does not expect his bill to pass en toto, but instead is a repository for provisions that will be inserted into other legislation.
The OSTP proposal would not affect activities that are already regulated by the FAA (commercial launch and reentry), the Federal Communications Commission (commercial communications satellites), or NOAA (commercial remote sensing satellites). It also stresses that the intent is not to establish a comprehensive regulatory framework -- that would be premature -- but to "establish a process no more burdensome that is necessary to enable the United States Government to authorize these pioneering space activities in conformity with its treaty obligations, and to safeguard our public interests, such as national security."
Commercial space advocates argue that although the private sector does not seek government regulation, investors want regulatory certainty before they put their money on the table. Therefore clarification is needed on how the government plans to fulfill its obligations under Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty to help incentivize potential investors. Hence the requirement that OSTP make these recommendations, which puts the ball back in Congress's court.
Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of May 2-6, 2016. The House and Senate are in recess this week.
During the Week
With Congress taking a week off from legislative business (while they are back in their States and districts), we have a chance to take a break from the intense activity of the past few weeks. Not that there are no space policy events coming up, but it is much more manageable this week.
Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) will tour the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) facilities at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, VA on Tuesday. Orbital ATK launches its Antares rocket from Pad-01 at MARS, which is owned by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority (VCSFA). Mikulski will be joined by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and other officials from NASA, VCSFA, and Orbital ATK. Mikulski represents Maryland, not Virginia, of course, but Wallops is close to the Maryland-Virginia border and many of the workers reside in Maryland. The press release does not mention that any of it will be televised or webcast, unfortunately. If we hear differently, we will add it to our calendar post.
Orbital ATK is getting ready for a hot fire test of its re-engined Antares rocket at MARS in preparation for the Antares return-to-flight this summer. The last Antares launch ended in failure on October 28, 2014. The company has changed engines -- from old Russian NK-33s refurbished by Aerojet and redesignated AJ26 to new Russian RD-181s. Orbital ATK will hold its quarterly investors conference call on Thursday morning where more information may be available about the timing of the hot fire test and the next launch.
Also on Thursday, the Secure World Foundation (SWF) will hold a panel discussion on "Asteroids, Mining, and Policy" with an impressive list of speakers. Those events are not livestreamed, but SWF typically records them and posts them on their website later. One of the speakers is Rep. Jim Bridenstine's space staffer, Christopher Ingraham. Bridenstine was one of the key Members of Congress in getting the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act passed last year, with its asteroid property rights provisions. Should be very interesting. Be sure to RSVP by tomorrow (May 2) if you want to attend in person.
Those events are listed below. Check back throughout the week for additional events we become aware of and add to our Events of Interest list.
Tuesday, May 3
Thursday, May 5
The United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced today that the anomaly on its Atlas V rocket during the launch of Orbital ATK's OA-6 cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) was due to a malfunctioning valve. The Atlas V first stage under performed, but the Centaur upper stage was able to compensate and OA-6 reached the ISS successfully.
During the March 22 launch, the Atlas V first stage shut down six seconds early. The Centaur upper stage rescued the mission by firing 60 seconds longer than planned, placing Orbital ATK's Cygnus cargo spacecraft into its proper orbit nonetheless. Cygnus reached the ISS on schedule.
ULA quickly determined the problem was in the RD-180 engine's fuel system and decided to postpone the next scheduled Atlas V launch until it understood and remedied the problem. The Navy's fifth Multi-User Objective System (MUOS-5) communications satellite was scheduled for launch on May 5. That date slipped to May 12 and then indefinitely.
Today, ULA issued a statement that the RD-180's Mixture Ratio Control Valve assembly had caused a reduction in fuel flow during launch and all RD-180 engines are now being inspected. It did not announce a new launch date for MUOS-5, saying only that the launch will be in "early summer." The company asserted that all its Atlas V launches planned for 2016 "are expected to be successfully executed by the end of the year." That includes NASA's robotic asteroid sample return mission OSIRIS-REx, scheduled for September.
Russia's RD-180 engines are currently the topic of considerable controversy. Following Russia's actions in Ukraine, Congress and the Administration became determined to end U.S. reliance on Russian rocket engines to launch U.S. national security satellites. Efforts are underway to develop a U.S.-built engine to replace it, but there are disputes about the timing of transitioning from the RD-180 powered Atlas V rockets to something new.
The full text of the emailed ULA statement is as follows:
Centennial, Colo., (April 29, 2016) -- ULA successfully delivered the OA-6 Cygnus spacecraft to its precise orbit as planned on March 22. During the launch, the system experienced a premature first stage shutdown. Atlas is a robust system. The Centaur upper stage compensated for the first stage anomaly, delivering Cygnus to a precise orbit, well within the required accuracy. The ULA engineering team has reviewed the data and has determined an anomaly with the RD-180 Mixture Ratio Control Valve (MRCV) assembly caused a reduction in fuel flow during the boost phase of the flight. In addition to analysis and testing, all RD-180 engines are being inspected.
Last Friday, in preparation for the MUOS-5 launch, the Atlas V completed the Launch Vehicle on Stand (LVOS) operation, erecting the Atlas V into the Vertical Integration Facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. LVOS will allow configuration of the vehicle to support RD-180 engine inspections and confirm all engine components are ready for launch. The Atlas V MUOS-5 launch is targeted for early summer; a new launch date has not been secured on the Eastern Range. The impact to the remainder of the Atlas V manifest is in review with new launch dates being coordinated with our customers. All missions manifested for 2016 are expected to be successfully executed by the end of the year, including OSIRIS-REx, which will remain in early September to support its critical science window.
In the wee hours overnight, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) approved an amendment regarding the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) use of Russian RD-180 engines for its Atlas V rocket. The Atlas V launches many national security satellites. Its Russian engines have been a source of contention since Russia annexed Crimea two years ago. The amendment favors ULA and the Air Force versus ULA's competitor, SpaceX. The committee also adopted an amendment allowing government funds to be spent on a new launch vehicle, not just a new engine.
HASC marked up the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) beginning at 10:00 am ET on April 27 and ending more than 16 hours later at 2:34 am ET today (April 28). The very last topic considered just prior to a series of postponed roll call votes was the RD-180 controversy. HASC Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) said it was because negotiations had been underway throughout that time to determine if a compromise could be reached. Apparently it could not.
The fundamental debate has not changed over the past two years. There is broad agreement in Congress, the Administration, and industry that the United States should not be dependent on Russian RD-180 rocket engines to launch U.S. national security satellites and that a U.S. alternative to the RD-180 should be built. The debate is over the timing of the transition from RD-180 powered Atlas V rockets to a rocket using a U.S.-built engine.
ULA has been a monopoly provider of national security launches using its Atlas V and Delta IV rockets since its creation in 2006. ULA is a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing (Delta IV) and Lockheed Martin (Atlas V). In 2015, SpaceX was certified to launch national security satellites in competition with ULA. Yesterday it was formally awarded its first contract for launch of an Air Force GPS satellite. SpaceX's $82.7 million price reportedly was 40 percent less than what ULA has been charging for GPS launches.
ULA did not bid against SpaceX for that launch, publicly arguing that, among other things, it was precluded from doing so because of the restrictions on how many RD-180 engines it could obtain. (Statements made later by a ULA official called that account into question, however, spurring a DOD Inspector General investigation into whether there were contracting improprieties. The investigation is ongoing.)
ULA officials have also indicated that it is difficult for them to compete against SpaceX on price. The company is working to reduce costs by building a new rocket, Vulcan, which will use an American-built engine from either Blue Origin or Aerojet Rocketdyne. The question is when Vulcan will be available. Congress set 2019 as the date by which a new engine must be ready, and there is agreement that is achievable, but the Air Force and ULA argue that it will take 2-3 more years before a launch vehicle using the new engine is certified to launch expensive national security satellites. They want to buy up to 18 more RD-180 engines to ensure the Atlas V is available until Vulcan is certified. Previous NDAAs limited that number to nine, however.
U.S. space transportation policy requires that two separate launch vehicle families be available to launch national security satellites in case there is an accident that grounds one of them. SpaceX advocates argue that its Falcon 9 is one and ULA's Delta IV is the other, and both will be available in 2019 and beyond, so Atlas V is not needed to fulfill the policy. Others worry that if SpaceX's rocket fails, all national security satellites would have to be launched on the very expensive Delta IV. Air Force Secretary James estimates the potential pricetag as $1.5 - $5 billion.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), is the most prominent voice in holding the line at only nine more engines. That position has the support of some HASC members, including Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), who district is near SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, CA.
Air Force and ULA supporters, including HASC's Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO), insist that 18 more are required. His district is close to ULA's headquarters in Centennial, CO. Coffman's amendment to raise the number from nine to 18 was adopted by HASC by voice vote.
Hunter intended to offer an amendment to keep the number at nine, but said that it had been ruled out of order. He insisted that there was no need to commit to 18 now and "line Putin's pockets," referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin. "We can get away with with nine or 10 now," he argued, and return to the issue in future years rather than giving Russia "$540 million in direct payments to Russian military modernization." Coffman insisted that the figure of 18 came from the Air Force so that is the requirement.
A long debate ensued about whether the amendment was for 18 or "up to" 18 engines. A verbal understanding seemed to be reached that "up to 18" was intended, although the amendment says "a total of eighteen." Thornberry pointed out that this is an authorization bill and how many are purchased ultimately is determined by appropriations. (In fact, the RD-180 issue splits Senate authorizers and appropriators.)
The origin of the 18 number is complicated. Until last summer, the Air Force and ULA said 14 more RD-180s were needed based on a "block buy" contract that was awarded by the Air Force to ULA in 2013. The block buy was for 36 launches, 29 of which were Atlas Vs powered by Russia's RD-180s. At the time of Russia's incursion into Ukraine in 2014, 15 were purchased, leaving 14, of which 5 were under contract. That left nine. Congress agreed ULA could continue to procure those. Last summer, however, William LaPlante, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force (Acquisition), wrote a letter to Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) asserting that "up to 18" were needed. Air Force officials, including Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, now use 18, or "about 18," as the requirement. LaPlante's letter did not explain how the number was derived, saying only it is "a reasonable starting point to mitigate risk associated with assured access to space and to enable competition." (ULA manufactures its rockets in Shelby's home state of Alabama. Shelby, a top member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and McCain are battling each other over this issue.)
Another layer of the debate is whether research and development (R&D) funding provided by the government to build a U.S.alternative to the RD-180 can be spent only on a new engine or also on a new launch vehicle to go with it. HASC has insisted that the money be spent only for a new engine -- that a new launch vehicle is not required. Others insist that an engine is only part of a launch vehicle and the rest must also be built.
Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), the top Democrat on the committee (whose district is near Blue Origin's rocket engine manufacturing facility in Kent, WA), offered an amendment that allows not more than 25 percent of the R&D funding to be spent on a new launch vehicle, upper stage, strap-on motor, or related infrastructure. The amendment allocates $100 million and specifies where the money comes from, which does not appear to be all from R&D accounts. In response to questions from committee members, Smith explained there is $294 million in the bill for development of the engine and there was money in prior years for the same purpose, but it was only allowed to be used only for the engine. Not all of the prior year money was spent. "This amendment does not add any money to anything. It takes out of that $294 million some money to also help those same companies that are developing the engine develop a launch vehicle to go with it." The amendment was adopted by voice vote.
The debate was fractious, especially considering the hour (approximately 2:00 am ET) and the length of time the committee had been debating the bill (since 10:00 am ET the previous day).