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Commercial Space News

SpaceX Still Investigating Launch Pad Anomaly and Assessing Launch Pad Damage

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Sep-2016 (Updated: 03-Sep-2016 04:02 PM)

In a statement issued late yesterday, SpaceX said that it was beginning the process of understanding the "anomaly" that occurred on Thursday that destroyed its Falcon 9 rocket and the Amos-6 communications satellite.  The incident occurred during what should have been a routine test two days before the satellite's scheduled launch. The company also said that it was assessing the condition of the launch pad, which "clearly incurred damage."

The anomaly occurred 8 minutes before the test was to begin while the rocket was being fueled, according to the statement.  This was a standard pre-launch static fire test to demonstrate the rocket's readiness for launch.   SpaceX is one of the few -- if not the only -- company that places the satellite on the rocket prior to these tests instead of after they are completed.  Consequently, not only was the rocket destroyed, but the approximately $200 million Amos-6 communications satellite. Built by Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) for Israel's Spacecom, the 39 transponder satellite's primary customer was Facebook, which intended to use it to provide Internet access to parts of Africa.

Chris Quilty of Quilty Analytics, an independent financial research and consulting company, said yesterday via Twitter (@quiltyanalytics) that the satellite was insured for $285 million, which will have to be paid under IAI's marine cargo insurance policy rather than satellite launch insurance "because SpaceX had not yet triggered an intentional ignition."  In his analysis of the business impacts of the incident for SpaceX, Spacecom, and Facebook, Quilty noted that Spacecom's deal to be acquired by China's Xinwei Technology Group was contingent on the successful launch of Amos-6 and thus could be disrupted.

Falcon 9 is SpaceX's only launch vehicle available today.  In addition to launching commercial satellites like Amos-6, it launches Dragon spacecraft filled with cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA.  SpaceX is building a version of Dragon that can carry people, Crew Dragon, as part of NASA's commercial crew program.  Test flights are scheduled for next year with operational flights beginning in 2017 or 2018.  Crew Dragon includes a pad abort system to propel the spacecraft away from the launch pad in the event of an on-pad incident like this.  In reply to a tweet hours after the incident, SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk (@elonmusk) tweeted that Dragon would have been fine if it had been aboard on Thursday.

SpaceX said it is still assessing the amount of damage to the launch pad at Space Launch Complex-40 (SLC-40).  SpaceX leases the pad from the Air Force, which is at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS).   SpaceX also leases a pad at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, adjacent to CCAFS, that once was used for Apollo and space shuttle launches, Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A). 

SLC-40 and LC-39A can accommodate both Falcon 9 and the larger Falcon Heavy rocket SpaceX is currently developing.  The first launch of Falcon Heavy is scheduled for this year and SpaceX said yesterday that LC-39A will be operational by November.  Most satellites are launched from the East Coast because they are destined for orbits accessible from there without overflying populated areas and benefit from launching in an easterly direction -- the same direction as Earth's rotation.   Some satellites must go into orbits around the poles, however, and those are launched from the West Coast to avoid populated areas.  SpaceX leases Space Launch Complex-4E (SLC-4E) at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA for its polar orbit launches and the company said that launch pad is in the "final stages of an operational upgrade." SpaceX also is building its own launch site near Brownsville, TX, although it was not mentioned in yesterday's statement.

The upshot is that SpaceX can continue Falcon 9 launches from other locations while SLC-40 is repaired, although its cadence clearly will be slowed.  Quilty lists 12 more launches SpaceX had planned for this year: nine Falcon 9s from SLC-40, one Falcon 9 from SLC-4E, and two launches of the Falcon Heavy from LC-39A.

SpaceX painted an optimistic picture, however.  Referring to LC-39A and SLC-4E, it said: "We are confident the two launch pads can support our return to flight and fulfill our upcoming manifest needs."


NASA Inspector General Doubts Routine Commercial Crew Flights Before Late 2018

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Sep-2016 (Updated: 01-Sep-2016 11:04 PM)

NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a report today on NASA's management of the commercial crew program under which SpaceX and Boeing are developing systems to provide crew transportation to and from the International Space Station (ISS).  The report warns that technical challenges now are the primary obstacle and routine, certified flights are unlikely before the end of 2018.  NASA's failure to respond to "hazard reports" from the companies in a timely manner exacerbates the problem and could lead to design changes late in the development program that could cause further delays.

Coincidentally, the report was released on the same day that SpaceX suffered an explosion on its Cape Canaveral launch pad during a pre-launch test for a commercial communications satellite.  What impact that will have on SpaceX launches for commercial or government customers -- including for NASA -- is not known at this time.  The Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 satellite were destroyed and video of the incident suggests that the launch pad may have been significantly damaged.  No one was injured.

The NASA OIG report is a follow-up to one that it issued in 2013 on NASA's management of the commercial crew program.  Commercial crew is a public private partnership where NASA and the companies each provide part of the development funding for new crew space  transportation systems in exchange for NASA guaranteeing to purchase a certain number of flights.  A NASA official testified to Congress in 2012 that NASA is paying the majority of the development funding.  The OIG report shows that NASA Is on track to spend $6.165 billion on commercial crew development (not services) by FY2020.

NASA chose SpaceX and Boeing as the two commercial crew companies in 2014 under what is called the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contract. SpaceX is building the Crew Dragon spacecraft to be launched on its own Falcon 9 rockets.  Boeing is building the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft to be launched on United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets.  Boeing and Lockheed Martin jointly own ULA.

NASA has been unable to launch astronauts into space since the termination of the space shuttle program in 2011. It pays Russia to launch and return NASA astronauts as well as astronauts from ISS partners Canada, Europe and Japan in conformance with the agreement that governs the ISS program. (When the agreement was signed, NASA anticipated that the space shuttle would be flying until the end of the ISS program and providing crew transportation services was part of the barter arrangements with those countries in exchange for hardware and services they agreed to contribute.  When NASA terminated the shuttle, it remained obligated to provide those crew transportation services).  The OIG reported that NASA will have paid Russia $3.4 billion between 2006 and 2018 to launch 64 NASA/partner astronauts at a price per round-trip seat of $21.3 million at the beginning to the current price of $81.9 million.

When the commercial crew program began, NASA hoped to have routine flights by 2015, but that slipped in large part due to congressional underfunding in the early years.  OIG noted today that its 2013 report found that adequate funding was the major challenge for the program.  Congress has warmed up to the program, however, and now is approving the full President's request so funding is not the issue it once was.  Technical challenges now are the major hurdle according to today's report.

The companies' systems must be certified by NASA before beginning routine flights to ISS.  Boeing anticipates receiving certification in January 2018 with its first certified flight in spring 2018, and SpaceX is working toward late 2017 for its first certified mission, the OIG report says.  But it is skeptical: "Notwithstanding the contractors' optimism, based on the information we gathered during our audit, we believe it unlikely that either Boeing or SpaceX will achieve certified, crewed flight to the ISS until late 2018."

In that vein, the OIG found that NASA is not responding to "hazard reports" from the companies in a timely manner, which could mean significant design changes late in the development program that could lead to additional delays.  Hazard reports "identity potential safety concerns and may result in the contractor requesting a variance to Agency requirements," the OIG report states.  NASA has a "goal" of responding to hazard reports within 8 weeks, but it is taking much longer.  

Between February 2015 and June 2016, the companies submitted a combined total of 172 hazard reports and NASA has reviewed 134 of them and tentatively approved 105.  However, "almost all of the tentative approvals are contingent on receipt of additional verification testing results...  If the contractors are required to make changes to their systems based on NASA's decisions...., there could be more delays."   The OIG reported that the companies themselves have expressed concern on this matter.

The OIG also found that NASA's Commercial Crew Program is not monitoring the timeliness of its hazard report review process.  It recommended that NASA do so, and NASA agreed.  The OIG also recommended that NASA coordinate with Boeing and SpaceX to "document a path to timely resolution" of hazard reports and although NASA agreed that coordination is necessary, the OIG believes that NASA needs to do more.  

NASA's response to a draft of the report is published as an appendix.

Explosion on SpaceX Launch Pad Destroys Rocket, Amos-6 Satellite - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Sep-2016 (Updated: 01-Sep-2016 11:59 PM)

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded today during a pre-launch test at Cape Canaveral Launch Pad 40.  The explosion occurred during preparations for a test of the rocket two days before its scheduled launch to place the AMOS-6 communications satellite into orbit.  AMOS-6 was built by Israel Aerospace Industries and was already attached to the rocket so also was destroyed.  Facebook was one of the customers planning to use the satellite.  A video of the explosion is posted on YouTube showing the extensive damage, but no one was at the pad and no one was injured.

The incident occurred at 9:07 am Eastern Daylight Time as SpaceX was getting ready to test its Falcon 9 rocket in preparation for a scheduled launch on Saturday. Details are still unfolding, but something happened during fueling of the upper stage.  SpaceX has issued two tweets with their official statements on what they know so far. posted a video of the explosion on its YouTube channel.

This was a commercial launch for a commercial company, not for NASA or any other government agency.  However, NASA is a SpaceX customer, both for commercial cargo flights to the International Space Station (ISS) and for launching some of its satellites (such as the Jason-3 satellite earlier this year). SpaceX also is one of the two companies developing commercial crew systems to take astronauts to and from the ISS.   NASA issued the following statement today:

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Representatives Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Brian Babin (R-TX) issued supportive statements highlighting the difficulty of space travel.  The Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) also offered support.   CSF President Eric Stallmer said "We have full confidence that SpaceX will fully investigate and remedy the anomaly, and safely return to launching as soon as possible."

SpaceX's first launch vehicle, Falcon 1, had three launch failures and one launch success before the company terminated it.  The Falcon 9 has had 27 launch successes and one launch failure (a cargo mission for NASA in June 2015).   Today's incident was a test, not a launch, and therefore counts as a test failure, not a launch failure.

It is routine to test a rocket on its launch pad prior to a launch.  The rocket is fueled and ignited, but the hold down clamps are not released, keeping it secured to the pad.  Usually the satellite is not aboard the rocket at that time, however.  After a successful test, the satellite is "integrated" to the rocket, the rocket is refueled, and launch takes place.   SpaceX decided to integrate satellites to its rockets before the tests to save time.  Peter deSelding, a reporter for Space News, tweeted (@pbdes) that the company started the practice this year "to trim a day frm [sic] launch campaign" and insurers were "upset, but not a lot."

AMOS-6 was owned by Spacecom, an Israeli company, the sixth satellite in a series that began in 1996.  It had three Ku-band and 36 HTS Ka-band transponders covering Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.  One of the customers was Facebook, which planned to use it in collaboration with Europe's Eutelsat to provide Internet coverage to Sub-Saharan Africa. 

Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is in Africa now and posted a statement on his own Facebook page about the incident:  "As I'm here in Africa, I'm deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX's launch failure destroyed our satellite that would have provided connectivity to so many entrepreneurs and everyone else across the continent.  Fortunately, we have developed other technologies like Aquila that will connect people as well.  We remain committed to our mission of connecting everyone, and we will keep working until everyone has the opportunities this satellite would have provided."

The impact on SpaceX and its customers will not be known until the cause of the incident is determined and remedied.  The video suggests that the launch pad may have been significantly damaged, which could be costly and time-consuming to repair.  

SpaceX leases the launch pad from the Air Force.  It is located at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, which is adjacent to NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC).    NASA has two launch pads at KSC that were used for the Apollo and space shuttle programs.  It now leases one of those pads, Launch Complex 39A, to SpaceX.  SpaceX plans to use it for a larger rocket it is building, Falcon Heavy, which is scheduled for its first test launch this year.  SpaceX also is building its own launch site near Brownsville, TX.   It can  launch from an Air Force pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA, too, but that launch site is used only for satellites that need to be placed in orbits that circle the Earth's poles (polar orbits).  Most satellites are launched into lower inclination orbits more readily accessible from the East Coast.

What's Happening in Space Policy August 29-September 9, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Aug-2016 (Updated: 28-Aug-2016 04:16 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the next TWO weeks, August 29-September 9, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate return for legislative business on September 6.

During the Weeks

We have one last relatively light week before Congress returns on September 6.  The House and Senate leadership and congressional committees have not announced their schedules yet, but we should learn more as the week progresses,

Meanwhile, this week NASA has a press conference on Tuesday to introduce the three International Space Station (ISS) crew members who will launch in November (Whitson, Pesquet and Novitsky) and on Thursday NASA TV will provide live coverage of the second ISS spacewalk by Jeff Williams and Kate Rubins.   Two of the panels of the ongoing National Academies Earth Science and Applications from Space (ESAS) Decadal Survey will meet Tuesday-Wednesday (Solid Earth, in Washington DC) and Thursday-Friday (Hydrology, in Irvine, CA).

Next week begins with a U.S. Federal holiday, Labor Day, on Monday.  On Tuesday, Congress returns to work.   As usual, it is facing the task of passing some sort of appropriations bill -- probably a Continuing Resolution (CR) -- to keep the government operating when FY2017 begins on October 1.  They have four weeks to do it and it is possible that final agreement could be reached on at least one of the 12 regular appropriations bills -- Military Construction-Veterans Affairs (MilCon-VA).  It has already passed the House and Senate, a conference agreement was reached, and the House approved the conference report. An attempt to bring the conference report to the Senate floor. however, failed even though the bill is the legislative vehicle being used to provide funding to deal with the Zika virus.  Senate Democrats assert that it contains "poison pill" provisions Republicans know Democrats will not accept.  Even if that issue gets cleared up by the end of September, there are still the other 11 regular appropriations bills.  Here's a snapshot of where all 12 stand as of today.


Status of FY2017 Appropriations Bills as of August 28, 2016
(prepared by

FY2017 approps bill




committee approved

committee approved


committee approved

committee approved; floor debate began June 15, but suspended over gun control issues


Passed June 16

committee approved; 5 attempts to bring to floor defeated for variety of reasons


Defeated May 26 over gay rights/gender identity issues

Passed May 12

Financial Services

Passed July 7

committee approved

Homeland Security

committee approved

committee approved


Passed July 14

committee approved


committee approved

committee approved

Legislative Branch

Passed June 10

committee approved

Military Construction-Veterans Affairs

Passed May 19; conference completed; House passed conference report June 23

Passed May 19; 2 attempts to bring conference report to floor defeated for variety of reasons

State-Foreign Ops

committee approved

committee approved


committee approved

Passed May 19 (packaged w/MilCon-VA)


One issue is that the House Appropriations Committee approved more funding in its bills than allowed under the budget caps, so that will have to be fixed to avoid sequestration. The Senate bills are below the caps, though, so it can probably be resolved in conference committee(s).

There is little incentive, actually, for Congress to agree to final FY2017 appropriations before the election since who occupies the Oval Office and which part(ies) control the House and Senate will make a significant difference for the fiscal road ahead.  Similarly, there is little incentive for Republicans to allow their most conservative members to force a government shutdown, since that could undermine their goal of retaining control of the House and Senate. The top Democrat on the House Budget Committee and Senate candidate Chris Van Hollen said last week that he could not rule out a shutdown, however, because some Republicans strongly oppose the budget deal worked out among then House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and President Barack Obama last fall. That deal relaxed budget caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act and those Republicans want to stick by the original caps (even though, as noted, the House Appropriations Committee approved funding in excess even of the revised caps).  Still, convincing the electorate to let them retain control of Congress by showing they can keep the government operating probably will outweigh those complaints. Van Hollen said he hopes Congress will pass a CR that covers the time period past the election, with final resolution before the end of the calendar year.

Appropriations will be a key issue, but not the only one.  The FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is in conference already and there continues to be talk of getting a new NASA authorization bill completed this year.   Plus a host of non-space related issues.  September promises to be a busy month before Congress recesses again to continue campaigning in advance of the November 8 elections.

Apart from the congressional schedule, the first week of September offers two especially interesting conferences and a very important space science launch.   The conferences are an aerospace workforce summit co-sponsored by AIAA and AIA to highlight issues for the next President, and a U.S.-Japan space cooperation seminar co-sponsored by the Mansfield Foundation and the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.  The launch is of the robotic asteroid sample return mission OSIRIS-Rex, scheduled for September 8.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday, August 28, are shown below.  Check back throughout the weeks for others we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.

Tuesday, August 30

Tuesday-Wednesday, August 30-31

Thursday, September 1

Thursday-Friday, September 1-2

Tuesday, September 6

  • House and Senate Return for Legislative Business

Wednesday-Thursday, September 7-8

Thursday, September 8

Friday, September 9

  • U.S.-Japan Space Cooperation (Mansfield Foundation/Space Policy Institute), Lindner Family Commons, 1957 E Street, NW, Washington, DC, 9:00 am - 1:00 pm ET

Van Hollen Vows To Continue Mikulski's Passion for Space

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Aug-2016 (Updated: 24-Aug-2016 09:55 PM)

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) vowed to continue the strong support for NASA and NOAA evidenced by Sen. Barbara Mikulski if he is elected as her successor in November.   Mikulski is retiring and Van Hollen is widely considered to be the front runner to replace her.

Overall, Van Hollen's message today at a luncheon sponsored by the Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR) was one of reassurance.  Mikulski's advocacy for NASA and NOAA, especially, but not only, earth science missions, is legendary.  Many in the space community are apprehensive about what her departure will mean for NASA and NOAA space programs and budgets.  Van Hollen is a relative unknown in space circles and today he clearly wanted to convey his enthusiasm and dedication to continue the fight.

Van Hollen currently represents a district that runs from the Washington suburbs to the border with Pennsylvania.  His views on the space program are not well known, though he said today that he meets annually with the Director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (in Greenbelt, MD) to discuss programs and budgets.  He mentioned that he had met with GSFC Director Chris Scolese this morning prior to the luncheon.  He also noted that he was on hand to watch the arrival of the New Horizons spacecraft at Pluto last summer from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (APL) in Laurel, MD.

NASA-Goddard and APL are just two of the space-related enterprises in Maryland located in or near his district.   NOAA headquarters is in Silver Spring, Lockheed Martin's corporate offices are in Bethesda, and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which operates the Hubble Space Telescope, is in Baltimore.

He shared that he majored in physics for part of his college career, inspired by his Swarthmore College roommate Neil Gershenfeld, now Director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms. Though Van Hollen decided to change majors after getting as far as quantum mechanics (ultimately getting a B.A. in philosophy, a master's in public policy with a concentration in national security, and a J.D.), he said the experience gave him a "lifelong passion and thirst for discovery and trying to answer the big questions  -- how did we get here, what is our place in the universe, what does the future hold for Mother Earth."

If he wins the November election, he vowed to be "a fierce advocate" like Mikulski for "NASA Goddard, for NOAA, for Wallops [Flight Facility], for APL, for AURA, for STScI,  and for the entire ecosystem of other organizations, businesses and jobs " that are  "vital to our nation's leadership in space and to Maryland's central place in that galaxy."  AURA is the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, which operates STScI and other astronomical observatories.

Van Hollen specifically praised the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is being built at Goddard and will be operated by STScI.  He noted that he saw the telescope this morning and its mirror "is gold-plated."  He joked that government agencies usually prefer to avoid referring to anything as gold-plated (because it conveys excess). In this case, however, a "fun fact" is that the total amount of gold on JWST is less than one-third the amount in all the Olympic gold medals won by Michael Phelps.  A Maryland native, Phelps has won 23 gold medals for swimming, including five in the recent Rio Olympics.

Van Hollen also highlighted NOAA's work on climate and said the United States must maintain leadership on understanding the impact of climate change, sharply criticizing the chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who has subpoenaed scientists "and worked hard for purely ideological reasons" to cut budgets for earth and climate science.  Congress should never "intimidate" or "stymie" scientists.  "We need to allow the integrity of the scientific process and budget process to stand on its own without political interference."

Heliophysics, satellite servicing, the Europa mission, STEM education programs, and ISS resupply missions launched from Wallops also got shout outs.  Wallops is in neighboring Virginia on the DELMARVA (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) peninsula, but Van Hollen pointed out that "most" of the people who work at Wallops live in Maryland.  That brought him to his final point -- the number of jobs in Maryland attributable to space activities and the positive effect on Maryland's economy.  He mentioned that NASA-Goddard plans to hire 200 civil servants and said that for every civil servant, there are 2 contractors, so that means an additional 400 contractors as well.  That's on top of 10,000 civil service and contractor jobs associated with Goddard already, not to mention additional thousands at APL and NOAA, and hundreds at STSci and Wallops, he said.

"Maryland is a space state and we're going to stay that way," he exclaimed.

A challenge to all of that is getting funding from Congress, of course.  Van Hollen laid out the difficulties Congress faces when it returns after Labor Day to get a FY2017 budget passed, an issue he understands well since he is the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee.  Although he opposes government shutdowns, he said he could not rule out such a possibility because many House Republicans object to the budget deal brokered last fall among outgoing House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and President Barack Obama that softened sequester limits for FY2016 and FY2017.

His hope is that Congress will pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) that will last through the November elections, then return and complete the FY2017 budget process before the end of the year so the incoming President does not have to deal with it.  The road ahead is full of "uncertainty," however.

Van Hollen's Republican opponent for Mikulski's seat is Kathy Szeliga.  Democrats have held both Maryland Senate seats since Republican Charles "Mac" Mathias retired in 1986.  Somewhat ironically, Van Hollen (a Democrat) started his career working for Mathias as a defense and foreign policy aide.


What's Happening in Space Policy August 22-September 2, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Aug-2016 (Updated: 21-Aug-2016 02:14 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the next TWO weeks, August 22-September 2, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.   The House and Senate will return for legislative business on September 6.

During the Weeks

It is just two weeks until Congress returns for legislative business, so this edition of What's Happening covers only those two weeks with the expectation that activity will begin ramping up again and there will be new events to list soon.

Not that the rest of August doesn't have a lot to offer. First is the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) conference coming up this week in Raleigh, NC.  It is certain to whet the appetite with concepts for the longer term future.  When they say innovative, they MEAN innovative.  "Nano Icy Moons Propellant Harvester," "Fusion-Enabled Pluto Orbiter and Lander," and "Stellar Echo Imaging of Exoplanets" are just three of the novel ideas that will be presented. The conference will be livestreamed.

This Wednesday, Rep. Chris Van Hollen will speak to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable.  As we explained earlier, he is considered the front runner to succeed Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who is retiring at the end of the year.   Should be interesting to learn his views on the space program.  Considering how much government, private sector. and academic space activity there is in Maryland -- from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center to Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab to the Space Telescope Science Institute to Lockheed Martin corporate headquarters, to name just a few -- one could well anticipate that he'll be a strong supporter like Mikulski.  If elected, he won't have her seniority, though, so his influence on the outcome of, say, appropriations, likely will take some time to develop.

Next week, two of the panels for the Earth Science and Applications from Space (ESAS) Decadal Survey will meet.  As we explained in our last issue, this is the second ESAS Decadal Survey from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.  The first was issued in 2007 and they are done every 10 years (a decade, hence "decadal"), so this one is expected to be completed next year.  Meetings of the other panels and two steering committee meetings now are scheduled through January 2017 as shown on our month-by-month FULL CALENDAR OF FUTURE EVENTS view (click on the link at the bottom of the Events of Interest list on our home page).

Those are the only four events we know about for the next two weeks as of Sunday morning (August 21) and are shown below.  Check back throughout the weeks to see new events that we learn about later.

Tuesday-Thursday, August 23-25

Wednesday, August 24

Tuesday-Wednesday, August 30-31

Thursday-Friday, September 1-2

What's Happening in Space Policy August 15 - September 2, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Aug-2016 (Updated: 14-Aug-2016 12:41 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the next THREE weeks, August 15 - September 2, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate return for legislative business on September 6.

During the Weeks

As described in our July 31 and August 7 editions, there's quite a bit going on this month even though it should be vacation time.  In addition to the events mentioned in those earlier issues -- including the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, AL (August 16-18), the NIAC symposium in Raleigh, NC (August 23-26), and the Maryland Space Business Roundtable luncheon in Greenbelt, MD with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (August 24) -- there has been one addition and one deletion over the past week for that time period.  This edition also adds the week of August 29-September 2.

The deletion is the return-to-flight launch of Orbital ATK's Antares rocket that was scheduled for August 22.   It has been postponed until the second half of September (date to be determined). The company said the delay was due to "a variety of interrelated factors" including continued processing, integration and testing of the re-engined rocket and the busy schedule aboard the International Space Station.

The addition is a NASA media briefing on August 17 to discuss the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission that is scheduled for launch on September 8.   OSIRIS-REx is the entirely robotic science mission that will obtain a sample of asteroid Bennu and return it to Earth in 2023 for scientific studies, not the Asteroid Redirect Mission that uses a robotic spacecraft to move part of an asteroid to lunar orbit where astronauts will obtain a sample and return it to Earth in the mid-2020s as part of NASA's effort to send people to Mars.  For the curious, OSIRIS-REx's full name is the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer.

The week added in this version of "What's Happening" includes meetings of two panels of the ongoing Earth Science and Applications from Space (ESAS) Decadal Survey conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.  This is the second ESAS Decadal Survey by the Academies.  The first was released in 2007.  Decadal Surveys are conducted every 10 years (hence "Decadal") for each of NASA's space and earth science disciplines (other agencies may be involved, too), so this one is due to be completed next year.  It has a steering committee and five panels on specific aspects of the topic. The two that are meeting within this period of time are solid earth (August 30-31) in Washington, DC, and hydrology (September 1-2) in Irvine CA.  The ESAS steering committee is co-chaired by Waleed Abdalati, University of Colorado-Boulder, and Bill Gail, Global Weather Corporation.  Again for the curious, the full name of the solid earth panel is Earth Surface and Interior: Dynamics and Hazards panel, which is co-chaired by Douglas Burbank, UC Santa Barbara and David Sandwell, Scripps Institution of Oceanography.  Hydrology is formally the Global Hydrological Cycles and Water Resources Panel and is co- chaired by Ana Barros, Duke University, and Jeff Dozier, UC Santa Barbara. 

The full list of upcoming events for the next three weeks is shown below.  Keep checking back to see additions that we learn about later and add to our Events of List interest (or those that get postponed).

Monday, August 15

Tuesday-Wednesday, August 16-17

Tuesday-Thursday, August 16-18

Wednesday, August 17

Thursday, August 18

Friday, August 19

Tuesday-Thursday, August 23-25

Wednesday, August 24

Tuesday-Wednesday, August 30-31

Thursday-Friday, September 1-2

Orbital ATK's Antares Return to Flight Postponed to September

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Aug-2016 (Updated: 10-Aug-2016 03:26 PM)

Orbital ATK announced today that the return to flight of its Antares rocket is being postponed again.  Scheduled for August 22, it now will take place in the second half of September.  The exact date has not been set.   It will be the first flight of Antares since an October 2014 failure.

Antares was developed under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to launch cargo missions to the International Space Station (ISS) using the Cygnus spacecraft.  Antares/Cygnus competes with SpaceX's Falcon 9/Dragon and, more recently, with Sierra Nevada Corporation's Atlas V/Dream Chaser system for NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts.

It was originally designed to use Russian NK-33 engines built four decades ago, refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne and designated AJ26. Two test flights, one of which took cargo to the ISS as a demonstration mission, and two operational missions to ISS were successfully conducted in 2013 and 2014.  At the time, the company was Orbital Sciences Corporation and the two operational missions were designated Orb-1 and Orb-2.

The launch of Orb-3 on October 28, 2014 ended in failure 15 seconds after liftoff. Orbital Sciences, which merged with ATK in February 2015 to become Orbital ATK, decided to replace the NK-33/AJ26 engines with new Russian RD-181s.  The process is taking longer than expected.  The return to flight of the re-engined Antares was supposed to take place this past spring, but the date has slipped several times since then.

The delay announced today was due to "a variety of interrelated factors," the company said.   They include Orbital ATK's continued processing, inspection and testing of the Antares rocket and NASA's scheduling of activities aboard the ISS.  Cygnus is one of four cargo vehicles that resupply the ISS.  Russia's Progress, SpaceX's Dragon, and Japan's HTV are the others; Japan just announced its own delay of the next HTV launch that was scheduled for October because of a spacecraft problem.  The ISS crew also is preparing for spacewalks in August and September, and a Soyuz crew rotation flight is coming up in September as well.  All of these activities must be coordinated.

While waiting for Antares to resume flights, Orbital ATK purchased two launches for its Cygnus spacecraft on United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets to ensure that it could meet its contractual requirements to deliver cargo for NASA.   Those launches took place in December 2015 and March 2016 and were designated Orbital ATK-4 (OA-4) and OA-6.   The Antares flight will launch OA-5 which, as its designation indicates, was supposed to take place in between the two ULA launches.

Orbital ATK made the announcement this morning at the same time as its preliminary second quarter (2Q) 2016 financial results.  The company revealed that it was delaying filing its official 2Q results and would be restating financial results going back several quarters because of recently discovered financial misstatements associated with an Army ammunition contract signed in 2012.  The issue is unrelated to Orbital ATK's space business, but the company's stock fell on the news.


Asteroid Redirect Mission at Critical Juncture

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Aug-2016 (Updated: 10-Aug-2016 12:23 PM)

Three weeks after NASA completed a key milestone review of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), the agency still has not officially announced the results.  A NASA official indicated at a NASA Advisory Council (NAC) meeting that the review revealed cost growth, forcing a reexamination of its objectives versus the cost.  An Obama Administration initiative, it is at a critical juncture as the House Appropriations Committee denied funding earlier this year and President Obama’s term in office comes to an end in just 5 months.

NASA conducted its Key Decision Point-B, or KDP-B, review of the robotic portion of the ARM project on July 15.  At a meeting of NAC’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee (NAC/HEO) on July 25, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, said the review showed that costs are growing and the agency must evaluate whether to accept the increase or reduce the program’s scope to stay within the cost cap set by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden.

NAC sent recommendations to Bolden in July 2014 and January 2015 expressing concern about this exact possibility – that costs would grow and choices would need to be made about the program’s content.  The 2014 recommendation was for NASA to conduct an independent cost and technical assessment of ARM.  The 2015 recommendation was for NASA to preserve two key objectives if the program needed to be descoped: development of high power Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) and the ability to maneuver in a low gravity environment in deep space.  It went further in April 2015, issuing a finding (but not a recommendation) that instead of demonstrating SEP technology through the ARM program, it be used to send a spacecraft on a round trip journey to Mars, which it considered a more exciting prospect.

ARM’s Origin, Evolution and Controversy

ARM was initiated by President Obama in 2010 in the wake of his cancellation of the Bush Administration’s Constellation program to return humans to the Moon by 2020 and someday go to Mars.  Instead, the President wanted to spend $6 billion over 5 years on the “commercial crew” program, putting the private sector in charge of developing systems to take crews back and forth to the International Space Station with the government providing much of the funding, but private sector companies also putting some of their own capital into the effort.   He also wanted to invest in “game changing” propulsion technologies over 5 years, after which a decision would be made on the next destination for the U.S. human spaceflight program.

Turning crew space transportation over to the private sector was a major paradigm shift for the nation’s human spaceflight program and cancelling Constellation was a blow to those who saw it as the future of that program and a way to keep the space workforce employed as the space shuttle program ended.

Rather than making a major policy pronouncement, the Obama Administration simply included the changes in its FY2011 budget request to Congress on February 1, 2010.   No substitute human spaceflight vision was offered other than extending the International Space Station for 5 more years (to 2020) and servicing it with the proposed commercial crew systems (a similar program for cargo already was underway, initiated by the Bush Administration).

Congress was surprised and backlash from Republicans and Democrats alike was intense, forcing the President into making a speech at Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010 where he outlined a replacement destination and timetable.  He directed NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 as a steppingstone to orbiting Mars in the 2030s and landing there sometime within his lifetime.  He eschewed the idea of returning astronauts to the Moon, saying “We’ve been there before…There’s a lot more of space to explore.”

Dismissing the need for U.S. astronauts to return to the Moon and directing NASA to send them to an asteroid instead was not well received.   The commercial crew concept also was controversial.   By the end of the year, Congress passed – and the President signed – a compromise 2010 NASA Authorization Act under which NASA would build a new big rocket (the Space Launch System) and crew spacecraft (Orion) to enable humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit as Congress wanted, and the President was not prohibited from proceeding with commercial crew and ARM.  Friction has remained between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue on the relative priorities for those programs ever since, however.

Sending astronauts to an asteroid requires crew spacecraft that can support human life for many months, though, posing technical and budget challenges.  A 2012 study by the Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS), associated with the California Institute of Technology and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, suggested that instead of sending astronauts to an asteroid, a robotic spacecraft could be used to move an asteroid into lunar orbit where astronauts could visit it more readily.  The idea was adopted by NASA and modified yet again into its current form where, instead of moving an entire asteroid, a robotic spacecraft will pluck a boulder from an asteroid’s surface and move just the boulder into lunar orbit.


NASA describes ARM as consisting of two portions:  the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) – sending the robotic probe to the asteroid, plucking the boulder from its surface, and moving the boulder to lunar orbit; and the Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission (ARCM) – sending astronauts to study it there and return samples to Earth.

Bolden has insisted since the beginning that ARRM will cost no more than $1.25 billion excluding launch and operations.  No cost estimate has been made public for ARCM.

Because ARRM is a robotic asteroid mission, it can be easily confused with a completely unrelated mission scheduled for launch next month, OSIRIS-REx. That robotic spacecraft also will go to an asteroid, grab a sample, and return it to Earth.  OSIRIS-REx is a science mission designed to advance scientific understanding of asteroids.

ARM advocates point out that the amount of asteroid material that can be returned using OSIRIS-REx is small compared to what the astronauts will be able to collect from the boulder.  Critics argue that asteroid sample return missions can be accomplished by robotic spacecraft alone and do not require astronauts.

ARM Funding

There is no specific line item in NASA’s budget for ARM.  Instead funding is spread across the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD), the Science Mission Directorate (SMD), and the Office of the Chief Technologist (OCT).

NASA has been careful to differentiate between “direct” work that is unique to ARM and “leveraged” work the agency would pursue even if ARM did not exist.  STMD’s development of high power SEP is considered enabling to many missions in Earth orbit and beyond, not just ARM, for example sending cargo to Mars as part of human expeditions there. SMD’s efforts to locate and track asteroids similarly were underway before ARM.  In NASA parlance, ARM is leveraging the investments in SEP and asteroid tracking and they would continue even if ARM did not.

Table 4 in’s fact sheet on NASA’s FY2017 budget request shows the funding requested for ARM since FY2014 based on data from NASA.   It does not, however, show how much NASA actually spent in any of those years.  As discussed below, finding money within the agency’s budget for ARM has been a challenge and resulted in a one-year delay already.

For FY2017, the requested funding for ARM is $217 million, of which direct funding associated uniquely with ARM is $67.8 million in HEOMD and approximately $1 million in OCT. 

ARM has earned little support over the years outside of NASA and the White House and Congress has been particularly skeptical.  It has not denied funding yet, but the House Appropriations Committee proposed that step earlier this year in its version of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill.   It provided no funding for “NASA to continue planning efforts to conduct either robotic or crewed missions to an asteroid,” language that apparently is aimed at the $67.8 million in HEOMD and perhaps the $1 million in OCT.

The bill has not been voted on by the House and there is no similar provision in the Senate version (which reached the Senate floor in June, but was derailed by the gun control debate), so it is not yet law, but is an expression of non-support by a key congressional committee.

ARM, the Science Community, and NAC

ARM is part of NASA’s human spaceflight program to demonstrate technologies, especially high power SEP, and other capabilities needed to send people to Mars.  It has other objectives, such as demonstrating the ability to alter the course of an asteroid headed towards Earth – referred to as planetary defense – but the science community makes clear that it is not a science mission.

Asteroids, comets and other small celestial objects not orbiting planets are categorized as “small bodies.”  Scientists who study small bodies in the solar system gather as part of NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) to debate issues and express their views. They were not consulted prior to the decision to create ARM and have been among its strongest critics arguing that if the goal is to understand asteroids, there are better methods to do so.

SBAG provides input to NAC through NAC’s Science Committee.   NASA officials including Michele Gates, ARM program director, and Lindley Johnson, program executive for the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (which includes the Near Earth Object Observations program) in the Science Mission Directorate, subsequently have worked assiduously with SBAG to solicit their input and win their acquiescence.

SBAG finally approved a finding at its June 2016 meeting expressing approval of two aspects of ARM – a plan to create opportunities for hosted payloads on the robotic spacecraft that will focus on science objectives and a competitively selected science investigation team. The text of its finding, as posted on the SBAG website, is as follows:

"Asteroid Redirect Mission
"SBAG supports and appreciates the continued engagement of the small bodies community by the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), through mechanisms such as the recent Formulation Assessment and Support Team (FAST). SBAG supports the plan as presented by the ARM team to create opportunities for hosted payloads on the ARM spacecraft and to have a competitively selected Investigation Team, both of which would maximize the science return of the mission."

Debate over ARM was intense at meetings of the full NAC resulting in the 2014 and 2015 recommendations and April 2015 finding described earlier.  The recommendations are posted on NAC's website.  The July 2014 recommendation states:

"Recommendation: The Council recommends that NASA should conduct an independent cost and technical assessment of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). NASA should state clearly in advance what the cost and technical criteria are for implementing the mission. These criteria should include affordability within currently projected budgets. The independent assessment should be performed before the downselect between Options A and B. The possible outcomes of this process are: fly Option A, fly Option B, or (if the projected cost is unacceptable) fly neither."

The January 2015 recommendation reads as follows:

"The Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) has two objectives that are particularly important contributors to Humans to Mars (H2M): Large scale solar electric propulsion (SEP) and maneuvering in a low gravity environment in deep space. As work on ARM goes forward and · costing is completed, focus on a mission architecture that will preserve these two key H2M objectives if the redirection of an asteroid must be descoped."

NAC provides advice to, and its members are appointed by, the NASA Administrator.  Under the NAC terms of reference, the Administrator responds to recommendations, but not findings.  The responses also are posted on the NAC website.  His response to the 2014 recommendation was that an independent cost and technical review would be conducted, but only after the decision between Options A and B was made.   The response to the 2015 recommendation was that NASA had no plans to descope the mission at that time.  The text of the April 2015 finding was published in a article.

Cornell space scientist Steve Squyres chaired NAC during the most energetic debates over ARM, but he stepped down in April 2016.  Two other members with strong views on the subject, Tom Young and Scott Hubbard, also no longer are on NAC.  Former astronaut Ken Bowersox now is the interim chair.  Bowersox had been chairing the NAC/HEO committee, currently led by Wayne Hale.  During the July 2016 NAC meeting, Hale suggested that the prior NAC recommendations on ARM be reconsidered to reflect changes in the past year, such as SBAG’s expression of support for some aspects of the program.

KDP-B Review

It was against this backdrop – a spark of support from SBAG and a changing of the guard at NAC, but opposition from a key congressional committee and the imminent end of the Obama Administration – that NASA conducted its KDP-B review.

KDPs are part of NASA’s project management tools to make decisions on whether to proceed with or change programs at various points along their developmental paths.  To move into Phase B (preliminary design and technology completion), a program must successfully pass the KDP-B review.

HEOMD Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier told NAC/HEO on July 25 that ARM’s cost has grown, in part because of a one-year delay announced earlier this year.   “We had trouble getting the money together for this thing,” he said, and the slip was due to internal budget decisions, not technical problems.  ARM is “competing with all the other” development programs in the HEOMD portfolio, which include the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion crew spacecraft, commercial crew, and a habitation module for sending humans to Mars.

The “intent is to live within the effective cap,” but the “effective” cap may be larger than $1.25 billion if it is adjusted for inflation and the one-year delay.  The question, he said, is “can we legitimately stay within the cap and remove content such that we stay within the cost cap, or are we better off asking for an exception.”  He projected that when a formal memo about the KDP-B results is released – which he anticipated in early August -- it would show a range of budgets, adding that is not unusual for a KDP-B review.

Gerstenmaier strongly defended ARM as a critical element of the Journey to Mars not only at the NAC meetings, but at a July hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee.  At the hearing, he also pleaded that Congress not be overly prescriptive in telling NASA how to accomplish its missions, but to allow the technical experts to make those decisions.

The Months Ahead

Congress may not complete action on the FY2017 funding bills for some months, so whether the House Appropriations Committee’s recommendation stands or is altered in conference may not be known for some time.  Senators at the hearing indicated a strong desire to pass a new NASA authorization bill this year.  Time is getting short, but that could be another avenue for Congress to express its views on ARM.

In the meantime, NASA – like other government agencies -- is preparing to brief the transition teams for the Clinton and Trump campaigns.  The future of the human spaceflight program surely will be a key issue.

Thus the results of the KDP-B review are of special import.   NASA did not respond to's most recent request today (August 8) asking when the results would be made public.

What's Happening in Space Policy August 8-26, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Aug-2016 (Updated: 07-Aug-2016 10:46 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the next THREE weeks, August 8-26, 2016, and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in recess until September 6.

During the Weeks

It may be the dog days of August, but after a one-week respite, there's a lot happening, starting with the Small Satellite Conference in Utah.  It actually began yesterday with a 2-day pre-conference workshop that is being livestreamed.  It's not clear from the meeting's website whether the Monday-Thursday sessions also will be available that way.  Lots of creative ideas will be discussed, no doubt, at this, its 30th anniversary. Jeff Foust (@jeff_foust) from Space News is on site tweeting if there's no livestream or you don't have time to listen in.

Last week we laid out all the meetings through August 19 that we knew about at the time.  They are all still posted on our Events of Interest list and in the summary below.  In this section, we will focus on August 22-26, a week that wasn't included last time.

At the top of the list is the scheduled return to flight of Orbital ATK's Antares rocket on August 22 from Wallops Island, VA.  It's a daytime launch (5:59 pm ET) so won't be as visible from surrounding areas as the night launches, but still could be viewable from the D.C. area (depending on the weather).  Orbital ATK often posts maps of where to look and we will add links to them to our calendar entry when they're available.  As anyone who follows space launches knows, plans can always change for technical or weather reasons.  We'll update our calendar entry with any news we get.  (Orbital ATK will discuss its 2Q 2016 financial results this Wednesday; more information may be provided at that time.) This is the first flight of the re-engined Antares (now using new Russian RD-181s instead of refurbished Russian NK-33/AJ26s) following the October 28, 2014 failure.  Orbital ATK has launched two Cygnus cargo spacecraft on United Launch Alliance Atlas V rockets in the meantime.  They were designated OA-4 and OA-6; this one is OA-5 and, as one may guess, was originally intended to launch in between those two, but was delayed.

If the Small Satellite Conference piques your curiosity with all those new ideas, another place to hear fresh views is the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) symposium.  It will be held August 23-25 in Raleigh, NC and will be livestreamed.

On August 24, the Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR) is hosting a luncheon with Rep. Chris Van Hollen that may be particularly interesting. He is widely expected to succeed Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who is retiring at the end of this year.  Van Hollen won the Democratic primary (against Rep. Donna Edwards) earlier this year.  He faces Republican Kathy Szeliga in November, but Democrats have held both Maryland Senate seats since 1986 and therefore is expected to win.  His views on the space program are not well known, so this will give the space community an opportunity to hear directly from him.  Mikulski is one of NASA's biggest supporters in Congress, especially for earth science and other programs executed at Goddard Space Flight Center, so the extent to which her successor shares those views is important.   Whatever his views, though, he'll be a freshman in a system that thrives on seniority and it will take some time before he can attain Mikulski's influence, especially on the all-important Senate Appropriations Committee. She chaired the committee when Democrats controlled the Senate and is now the top Democrat there.  (For those interested in such matters, usually the highest ranking committee or subcommittee member of the party that is not in power is referred to as the "ranking member."  On Senate Appropriations, though, it has become common to designate that person as the "vice chairman" or "vice chairwoman" in a nod to bipartisanship, so Mikulski is currently vice chairwoman of the committee.)

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday (August 7) morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the weeks for events that we learn about later and add to the Events of Interest list.

Saturday-Thursday, August 6-11

Monday-Tuesday, August 8-9

Tuesday, August 9

Wednesday, August 10

Thursday-Friday, August 11-12

Monday, August 15

Tuesday-Wednesday, August 16-17

Tuesday-Thursday, August 16-18

Thursday, August 18

Friday, August 19

Monday, August 22

Tuesday-Thursday, August 23-25

Wednesday, August 24


Note:  This article was updated to add the August 19 spacewalk and the preview press conference on August 15.  It was later corrected with the name of Van Hollen's Republican opponent, who is Kathy Szeliga, not Katie McGinty.