Commercial Space News
The Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee (SAC-D) will hear from both entrepreneurial and traditional space launch companies next week at a hearing on national security space launch programs.
Elon Musk will represent his entrepreneurial company, SpaceX, which has been striving for years to break into the market for DOD space launches, a market now dominated by the United Launch Alliance (ULA), which launches the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets. ULA will be represented by its President and CEO Michael Gass.
Cristina Chaplain from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and Scott Pace from George Washington University will also testify.
Congress has essentially forced the Air Force to open up its launch market to "new entrants" like SpaceX, although any company must meet certification criteria before it is allowed to compete. SpaceX is currently going through the certification process, which requires them to achieve three successful launches of any particular launch vehicle configuration.
The first of those three for SpaceX took place last September. The failure of that rocket's second stage to reignite has been a source of contention as to whether it met the criteria or not. The Air Force announced just today that it will count as a successful mission for the purposes of its certification criteria. SpaceX has had two more successful launches since then -- of the SES-8 satellite on December 3, 2013 and of Thaicom-6 on January 6, 2014. The Air Force is still assessing their applicability towards meeting the certification criteria.
The hearing is on Wednesday, March 5, at 10:00 am EST in 192 Dirksen Senate Office Building. The hearing will be webcast at the committee's website.
NASA may have gotten the White House’s blessing to keep the International Space Station (ISS) operating until at least 2024, but it won’t last forever. Speaking to a NASA Advisory Council (NAC) subcommittee today, Bill Gerstenmaier expressed hope that private sector space stations will materialize for the longer term future.
Gerstenmaier, head of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate, spoke to the Research Subcommittee of the NAC HEO Committee this morning. The bulk of his remarks dealt with how best to make use of ISS for research during its lifetime, but he also pointed to the need for the commercial sector to build “mini space stations” as places for future research.
While praising the White House decision to keep ISS operating through 2024 because it gives researchers certainty that they will have time to conduct experiments, he also said “I don’t think there’ll be another government-sponsored space station.” He believes the ISS will be fine through 2028, but he pointed to the desirability of companies flying single-purpose space stations thereafter and the government could buy services or research time from them instead.
In the meantime, ISS facilities are being well utilized today according to Sam Scimemi, Director of ISS at NASA Headquarters, who also briefed the subcommittee. Almost 84 percent of the science racks in the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) are occupied with experiments right now, he said, along with 76 percent of EXPRESS racks. He noted that utilization of available research sites on the exterior of the ISS is only 50 percent and his office is working on filling the rest of the sites.
The availability of transportation systems to take experiments up to the ISS (upmass) and back to Earth (downmass) is OK for now, he added, but demand is expected to exceed capacity beginning in 2015.
One research limitation is the availability of crew time, he continued, and NASA is talking to Russia about making Russian crew members available to conduct some of the research. Scimemi said they were negotiating a barter arrangement for 5 hours per week of Russian crew time. The ISS is split into the USOS segment (which includes hardware from the United States, Europe, Japan and Canada) and the Russian segment (Russian modules and systems). A typical ISS 6-person crew is composed of three Russians and three from the United States and its western partners. NASA is looking forward to increasing the crew size to seven (three Russians, four from the western partners) once commercial crew capabilities are available.
NASA is also looking at other upgrades to the ISS now that it has permission to extend operations through 2024. They include upgrades to video and data systems, new freezers, high throughput facilities for materials science and cell science, and additional Earth-pointing and Sun/space pointing platforms, Scimemi told the subcommittee.
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House and Senate both are in session.
During the Week
It's another comparatively slow week as everyone eagerly awaits the release of the FY2015 budget request a week from now (March 4). In the meantime, perhaps the most interesting event this week is the House Science, Space and Technology Committee's hearing on "Mars Flyby 2021: The First Deep Space Mission for the Orion and Space Launch System?" on Thursday. As far as we know, there is no launch opportunity to Mars in 2021 -- they occur only every 26 months and there's one in 2020 and another in 2022, so we will see what someone has in mind for 2021. There is an interesting group of very knowledgable witnesses.
That and other events we know of at the moment are listed below.
Monday, February 24
Tuesday, February 25
Wednesday, February 26
Thursday, February 27
Google Lunar X PRIZE (GLXP) selected five teams as finalists for Milestone Prizes worth a total of $6 million today in the effort's quest to incentivize privately funded teams to send a robotic rover to the surface of the Moon by the end of 2015. The winner of the overall competition will receive a grand prize of $20 million.
The Milestone Prizes are an optional part of the competition and provide funding to competitors to demonstrate hardware and software that will overcome technical risks associated with their missions. If a winner of a Milestone Prize wins the overall competition, the money is subtracted from the $20 million. The same is true for a second place finish, which wins $5 million. Teams that do not win first or second place keep the money.
The goal of the competition is to land a rover on the Moon that then travels at least 500 meters and transmits high definition video and imagery to Earth. The deadline for achieving the goal is December 31, 2015. Bonus Prizes totaling $4 million can be won if the rover survives the lunar night, travels more than 5 kilometers, detects water, or makes a precision landing near an Apollo lunar landing site or other place of interest.
Eighteen teams remain in the race, which began in 2007.
The five teams announced today were selected by an independent panel of nine judges who made awards in three categories: Landing System Milestone Prize ($1 million per team), Mobility System Milestone Prize ($500,000 per team), and Imaging Subsystem Milestone Prize ($250,000 per team).
The five teams and the categor(ies) in which they won are:
The teams were required to submit details on the technical risks they face and how they plan to solve them. To win the prizes announced today, they must accomplish those plans in accordance with milestones provided in their submissions. Teams are expected to meet all the milestones by September 30, 2014.
Governments are not allowed to participate directly in the Google Lunar X PRIZE, nor are nationals and residents of certain countries restricted by U.S. export laws or sanctions (including Burma/Myanmar, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria).
As the name implies, the Prize is sponsored by Google and administered through the X PRIZE Foundation.
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House and Senate are in recess this week: Monday is a federal holiday -- Presidents' Day -- commemorating the birthdays of Presidents Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and George Washington (Feb. 22).
During the Week
It's a quiet week from a space policy perspective, but the departure of Orbital Sciences Corporation's Cygnus spacecraft from the International Space Station (ISS) early Tuesday morning Eastern Standard Time (EST) and the launch of an Air Force GPS satellite from Cape Canaveral on Thursday should be of interest more generally. Cygnus will be unberthed on Tuesday, ending the Orb-1 mission, Orbital's first operational Commercial Resupply Services mission for NASA. The spacecraft is being loaded with trash and will burn up on reentry Wednesday. The launch of the 5th GPS Block IIF satellite (GPSIIF5) aboard an Atlas V is scheduled for Thursday at 8:40 pm EST with a 19 minute launch window. Weather is 80% go at the moment.
While not directly space-related, CSIS is having a meeting on Tuesday morning about National Security and Economic Issues in Spectrum Allocation that also could prove interesting. Government (DOD, FCC, NTIA) and industry (AT&T, T-Mobile) will discuss the thorny issues of how to allocate spectrum to satisfy the insatiable demand for this limited natural resource.
Here's a list of the events we know about as of Sunday afternoon.
Tuesday, February 18
Wednesday, February 19
Thursday, February 20
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) says that he was "taken aback" at security challenges identified at NASA by an independent report commissioned by NASA at Wolf's request. The report was led by former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh under the auspices of the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA).
Eleven months ago, Wolf blasted NASA for what he termed a "management culture that turns a blind eye, or in some cases may outright encourage, violations of security regulations." He laid out seven steps he wanted NASA to follow to rectify the situation and recommended that NASA ask an independent entity like NAPA to conduct a study chaired by someone like Thornburgh. Wolf chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA. The agency followed that direction.
Wolf's statement yesterday was in response to the resulting report, which has not been made public. He said: "Frankly, I was taken aback at the breadth and depth of security challenges identified across NASA and I am deeply disappointed the agency has restricted access to the report. The report should be made public as soon as possible, with any necessary redactions in the interest of national security, because it confirms not only the serious security challenges that need to be addressed, but a persistent organizational culture that fails to hold center leadership, employees and contractors accountable for security violations. This must change."
Wolf has expressed deep concern over the past several years about NASA's Langley Research Center and Ames Research Center, in particular, with regard to allowing foreign nationals -- especially Chinese -- to have access to their facilities.
In conjunction with French President Francois Hollande's visit to Washington, the White House issued two facts sheets heralding U.S.-French cooperation on a range of security and science and technology issues, including space.
The fact sheet on U.S-France Security Cooperation summarized cooperation in operations and planning, exercise and training programs, exchange personnel, space, cybersecurity, acquisition, nuclear security, and countering nuclear terrorism. It points to an agreement between the French Ministry of Defense and U.S. Strategic Command on space situational awareness signed on January 21 as an example of how the two countries are working together to enhance spaceflight safety and reduce the risk of collisions. It also notes that the two countries are working on "bilateral and multilateral transparency and confidence building measures to encourage responsible actions in, and the peaceful use of, space."
In the civil space arena, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and Jean-Yves Le Gall, head of the French space agency CNES, signed an agreement on Monday (February 10) regarding cooperation on NASA's 2016 Mars mission, InSight. CNES is providing (along with several other European countries) the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument for that mission. A separate White House fact sheet on U.S-French Cooperation on Science and Technology notes that agreement as well as another agreement still being negotiated on solar activity and space weather. Cooperative earth science missions also warranted a mention.
Le Gall was on the guest list for the White House state dinner on Tuesday night, though Bolden was not. Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, was invited, however, which may have provided an opportunity for interesting discussions about "traditional space" versus "NewSpace", since Le Gall previously was President of Arianespace, Europe's launch services provider.
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House and Senate both are in session.
During the Week
The week starts off quickly, with a field hearing at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center on Monday morning at 9:00 am ET on "Assessing NASA's Underutilized Real Property Assets at the Kennedy Space Center." This is a somewhat unusual hearing in that it is not being held by any of the committees that typically oversee NASA. Instead, this is being held under the auspices of the Subcommittee on Government Operations of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Subcommittee chairman John Mica (R-FL) represents a district near KSC. His subcommittee "oversees the efficiency and management of government operations and activities," according to its website. The list of witnesses span federal, state and local government as well as the Audubon Society.
Other congressional hearings this week center on issues that could affect national security space programs. Of greatest interest may be Wednesday's HASC hearing on defense acquisition reform. Not that there haven't been an awful lot of hearings on this topic over the years, but Wednesday's includes the esteemed Norm Augustine, who can always be counted on to provide extremely wise words of advice. In the space community he is probably best known these days as the chair of the 2009 "Augustine Committee" that offered options for the future of the human spaceflight program, but he has chaired many such review/advisory committees over the decades and is a former Chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, not to mention a former under secretary of the Army and author of the incisive Augustine's Laws.
Those and other events that we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Monday, February 10
Tuesday, February 11
Wednesday, February 12
Thursday, February 13
The FAA’s annual Commercial Space Transportation conference covered a lot of ground this week (February 5-6, 2014), but two topics were highlights: the Obama Administration’s recent decision to extend operations of the International Space Station (ISS) by four more years and debate about the extent of government regulation of commercial human spaceflight.
Extending ISS to 2024. NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier opened the conference by noting progress in the commercial crew and cargo programs and how the business environment for those companies has improved with the decision to keep ISS operating through 2024. Gerstenmaier praised that “tremendous decision” by the Obama Administration, announced last month, and the fact that it was made quickly rather than requiring independent reviews or extended debate. Gerstenmaier acknowledged that it may take several years for the other partners in the ISS to decide if they will follow suit, but “I believe they will over time.” (Editor’s Note: As we pointed out in a recent editorial, SpacePolicyOnline.com does not share his enthusiasm for extending the ISS to 2024 without an independent technical review.)
He went on to praise Russia’s “innovative spirit ... that pushes us in the right direction and helps us,” offering space tourism, the just-installed Earthkam, and the Olympic torch relay as examples: “Think Russian, think commercial.”
Not surprisingly, the decision to extend ISS to 2024 was greeted warmly by the commercial crew and commercial cargo companies whose business plans benefit from the decision. Representatives of Boeing, Orbital Sciences, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada participated in a panel discussion later that day along with Phil McAlister, NASA’s Director of Commercial Spaceflight.
McAlister said the decision took him by surprise, but he was delighted because “as of now we’ve never had a better business plan” for commercial crew. Chris Ferguson, director of commercial crew for Boeing, praised the decision, but wondered what the industry will do after 2024. “We really need to maintain this toehold” in low Earth orbit (LEO), he stressed, then asked rhetorically whether ISS will be extended to 2028 or will there be a market for commercial LEO stations. “We have to have a destination in low Earth orbit or we’ll struggle to keep the business model going,” he concluded.
McAlister was asked why ISS was extended only to 2024 instead of 2028 (when the first ISS modules will be 30 years old, a timeframe NASA has been discussing for quite some time), but said he had no insight into that decision.
Regulating Commercial Human Spaceflight. Another panel debated the regulatory environment for commercial human spaceflight. Moderated by Wayne Hale, it had an interesting group of participants– a former astronaut, Ken Reightler; an economist with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Ken Heyer; a Boeing lawyer, Russ McMurry; and a commercial space industry political insider, Jim Muncy. Collectively they offered a range of views on the issues of informed consent and the role, if any, for government regulation beyond what is already provided by the 2004 Commercial Space Launch Act Amendments (CSLAA). Muncy was substituting for XCOR's Jeff Greason. All were speaking in their personal capacities.
The primary areas of contention were the need for government regulation versus voluntary industry standards and how to ensure spaceflight participants (passengers) really do have informed consent when deciding whether or not to step aboard an orbital or suborbital commercial human spaceflight vehicle.
Under the informed consent provisions of CSLAA, companies must explain the risks and provide information on their vehicle’s safety record. Prospective passengers then make their own decisions on whether to board the flight. CSLAA prohibits the FAA from adding more regulations for a fixed period of time except under certain conditions (like a fatal accident) and one of the debates is over whether this “moratorium” or “learning period” should be extended beyond its current expiration date of September 30, 2015.
Generally, Reightler and McMurry argued in favor of some level of government regulation, while Heyer and Muncy questioned the need for anything beyond current law.
Heyer, the economist, focused on whether or not there is a market failure that makes it essential for the government to step in. He does not see one now. McMurry took the position that the government is the repository of lessons learned from 50 years of human spaceflight and “the more we push government away” the more “we fail to avail ourselves of some valuable lessons learned.” Muncy agreed that it would be “insane” to not take advantage of government help in developing space systems that are as safe as possible, but “there are a thousand ways” to do that “other than writing regulations.”
McMurry disagreed, worrying that companies who chafe at oversight by a government that has 50 years of experience in human spaceflight are exactly the ones that will “ruin the industry by creating a death that is avoidable” because they will adhere only to minimum safety standards. Reightler agreed with McMurry, cautioning that a spaceflight accident will get more public attention than a train wreck, for example.
McMurry went further, arguing that industry self-regulation lends itself to manipulation of the rules in order to turn situations to a competitive advantage. He likened it to the difference between a pick-up sports game versus a game with a referee: “If you really want fairness and ... equality, you need regulations. To what extent? Up for debate. But we need a referee.” Heyer argued that in most industries consumers are the referees. If they do not approve of a company, they take their business elsewhere. He wondered why it would be different in this case.
At the end, the panelists were asked if they, personally, would fly on one of the commercial vehicles, which elicited some of the more entertaining answers of the day. Reightler – who flew on two space shuttle missions – offered what he said was a good engineer’s answer: “it depends.” In this case, it would depend on the details, into which he would dive deeply. Heyer asked “will it cost money?” evoking jokes that that was a good economist’s answer. He added, however, “even if it was perfectly safe I still might not do it.” More broadly, he said the question is whether the average person will fly. He thinks the initial market will be wealthy thrill-seekers and scientists who have experiments to conduct, not the average person. McMurry displayed company loyalty: “If it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going.” Muncy said he would be delighted to go, “but I’m not paying for the ticket.”
Other Notable Notes from the Conference
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD) pressed Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper about other countries' counterspace capabilities at a House Intelligence Committee hearing yesterday. Though it seems an unusual venue for such a discussion, he also called for relaxing "out-dated regulations" that may hamper the U.S. commercial space industry.
The hearing on worldwide threats was the House committee's counterpart to the Senate Intelligence Committee's hearing on the same topic last week, with the same set of witnesses: DNI Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, FBI Director James Comey, and Director of the National Counterterrorism Center Matthew Olsen.
Ruppersberger is the top Democrat, or ranking member, on the committee and therefore one of the "Gang of Eight" (the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, the Speaker of the House, the House Minority Leader, the Senate Majority Leader and Senate Minority Leader) whom the President must keep informed of the country's most secret intelligence activities.
Clapper's testimony yesterday was similar to what he told the Senate Committee, which is based on the U.S. Intelligence Community's assessment of current worldwide threats. An unclassified version of that report has one paragraph describing Chinese and Russian counterspace threats.
Yesterday, Ruppersberger broached space issues as part of his opening statement and followed up during the question and answer period. Space was just a small part of the discussion, but is nonetheless significant in the context of this broad hearing. He called out China's counterspace activities as one of three areas of particular concern to him (cyber and the East China Sea were the other two), and also cited keeping the U.S. commercial space industry competitive as another important issue.
"This year, we must also continue to focus our attention on space. We must continue to promote our commercial space industry and relax those out-dated regulations that are hampering our competitive advantage. I cannot emphasize enough that U.S. companies must also be allowed to compete in the free market. This competition will promote innovation in our space industry."
Commercial space did not arise again, but Ruppersberger did have a dialog with Clapper about counterspace activities, a subject the two apparently already had discussed in a classified session the previous day.
Ruppersberger began by stressing the importance of space: "We have to keep our eye on the ball as it relates to space. With all the other issues, Snowden and Syria and Iran, space is still one of the most important things that we do to protect the United States of America." He expressed concern about China's 2007 antisatellite (ASAT) test and the resulting debris that threatens U.S. space operations, but primarily he worried that "countries are working on the ability to destroy our satellites, on which so much of our daily lives and our military intelligence capabilities depend." He asked Clapper to describe the counterspace threat and whether China understands the "ramifications" of disabling a U.S. satellite.
Clapper replied that the importance of space assets is "why I intentionally brought this up at our closed session yesterday evening" where he had explained "there are countries who are pursuing very aggressive, very impressive counterspace capabilities which I cannot go into here because of classification restrictions." In the report he presented to Congress, China and Russia were the only countries specifically identified as pursuing counterspace systems and at yesterday's hearing he again singled them out. He asserted that both of those countries "well understand the implications of -- as an act of war -- to do something destructive against any of our satellites."
The question of whether China understands the repercussions of attacking U.S. space systems arose at a House Armed Services Committee (HASC) hearing on January 28. Michael Krepon of the Stimson Center, a witness at the hearing, said he was not sure China does understand the consequences because the United States and China are not engaged in the types of dialogues and negotiations that characterized the U.S.-Soviet relationship during the Cold War. Krepon argued that he sees dysfunction between the Chinese political and military leadership and having bilateral discussions between the two countries would get everyone sitting at the same table talking about "red lines." Another witness, Robert Butterworth of Aries Analytics, disagreed, saying that he believes China fully understands that attacking U.S. satellites "means war," the same assessment Clapper provided yesterday.