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Commercial Space News

NASA To Provide Commercial Crew Backup Plan by March 13 in Response to GAO

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Feb-2017 (Updated: 16-Feb-2017 05:19 PM)

NASA has agreed to develop a contingency plan for ensuring astronauts can travel to and from the International Space Station (ISS) in case the commercial crew systems under development by Boeing and SpaceX are further delayed.  The action comes in response to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released today that outlines delays that have occurred already and problems that may result in further schedule slippage.  NASA told GAO in writing it would have the backup plan ready by March 13, 2017.

NASA has had to rely on Russia to take astronauts to and from ISS since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.  It contracts with Russia's Roscosmos space state corporation to purchase seats on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft.  The current contract covers launches through 2018 and landings in 2019.   About three years are required for Russia to build Soyuz spacecraft so NASA has endeavored in the past to sign contracts well in advance. Russia currently charges $82 million per seat.

NASA, Roscosmos and the other international partners in the ISS program -- Canada, Japan, and Europe -- have agreed to continue operating ISS at least until 2024.  NASA provides transportation for the Canadian, Japanese and European astronauts under the terms of the Intergovernmental Agreement that governs the ISS partnership. 

In 2011, NASA initiated a commercial crew program whereby Boeing and SpaceX are developing the CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon spacecraft, respectively, through public-private partnerships (PPPs).   In PPPs, the government and industry share development costs and the government guarantees it will purchase certain services, in this case a fixed number of flights.  Boeing will use the United Launch Alliance's (ULA) Atlas V rocket to launch CST-100 Starliner (ULA is a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin).  SpaceX will launch Crew Dragon on its own Falcon 9 rocket.

At the beginning, NASA hoped commercial crew flights would begin in 2015, but that date slipped to 2017 at least in part due to lower than requested funding from Congress for NASA's share of the development costs.  Additional delays have followed.

NASA's Commercial Crew Program (CCP) oversees the Boeing and SpaceX efforts and must certify that the systems meet strict standards.  Operational flights cannot begin until the certification review is complete, which takes place after each company flies an uncrewed test flight and then a crewed test flight.   At the moment, officially both companies plan to be certified in late 2018, but GAO reports that the CCP's own analysis "indicates that certification is likely to slip into 2019."  GAO provided a chart comparing when the companies originally planned to be ready for their certification reviews and where they are now.



Government Accountability Office (GAO) chart of commercial crew certification delays.  NASA Commercial Crew Program: Schedule Pressure Increases as Contractors Delay Key Events. GAO report GAO-17-137, February 16, 2017, Highlights page.

Risks identified by CCP and listed in the GAO report that could delay certification include the following:

  • Boeing:  lack of data needed to certify the Atlas V rocket for human spaceflight because it uses Russian RD-180 engines and access to the data is highly restricted under US-Russian agreements, and lack of data on the CST-100 Starliner's parachute system;
  • SpaceX:  whether SpaceX has sufficient time to implement upgrades to the Falcon 9 engines and avionics in response to already planned design changes plus unplanned design changes in response to cracks discovered in engine turbines, and concerns about SpaceX's plans to fuel the rocket while the crew is aboard. 

With regard to the problems with SpaceX turbine blades, GAO reported:  "During qualification testing in 2015, SpaceX identified cracks in the turbines of its engine. Additional cracks were later identified.  Program officials told us that they have informed SpaceX that the cracks are an unacceptable risk for human spaceflight. SpaceX officials told us that they are working closely with NASA to eliminate these cracks in order to meet NASA's stringent targets for human rating."

GAO also concluded the companies could have difficulty meeting the requirement set by NASA that the probability of Loss of Crew (LOC) on a given flight be no more than 1 in 270.  GAO listed three crew safety risks identified by CCP that apply to both companies:

  • the companies' computer models may not accurately predict LOC;
  • the spacecraft may not be able to tolerate the micrometeoroid and orbital debris environment; and
  • if the companies cannot meet the LOC requirements, CCP could take "several actions," but they may not be sufficient.

NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier spoke about LOC requirements at a conference last week.  He argued that too much importance is assigned to that metric, that it is useful in comparing designs, but not in determining absolute risk. 

In light of all these problems and the impending end of the contract with Russia for Soyuz seats, GAO recommended that NASA develop and report to Congress on a contingency plan for how it could transport astronauts to and from ISS after the contract with Russia expires and whenever the commercial crew systems become available.

In a February 8, 2017 letter to GAO and published in the GAO report, NASA concurred and said it would develop such a plan by March 13, 2017.  

Committee Rosters for 115th Congress Fill Out - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Feb-2017 (Updated: 16-Feb-2017 06:33 AM)

Update, February 15:  At press time this morning, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee's website listed Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) as the ranking member of its space subcommittee.  However, later this morning committee Democrats issued a press release with an updated list of its members showing that Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) is the ranking member of that subcommittee.  Our table has been updated accordingly.  Peters remains as a member of the subcommittee.

Original Story, February 15, 2017.  House Democrats have announced their full committee and subcommittee members of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee, filling out the rosters for the congressional committees that oversee the nation's space programs for the 115th Congress.   Memberships on the other space-related committees were announced earlier.

Oversight and funding of the U.S. space program involves a number of committees.  The list below is only of those with the most direct responsibilities and is not meant to be comprehensive.  The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee have jurisdiction over all government agency operations, for example, but they rarely deal with space issues.   Similarly, the committees that oversee the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in the Department of the Interior (which operates the Landsat satellites) or the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in the Department of Commerce that assign spectrum to commercial and government users respectively do not often focus on space issues.

The following table, therefore, is limited to the authorization and appropriations committees for NASA, NOAA, DOD, the Intelligence Community (IC), and the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is part of the Department of Transportation.  It shows the top Republicans and Democrats ("ranking members") at the full committee and subcommittee level.   Complete rosters of committee and subcommittee members are on each committee's website.

 

House

Senate

Authorization

Cmte/Sbcmte

Republicans

Democrats

Cmte/Sbcmte

Republicans

Democrats

Science, Space &Technology

Commerce, Science, &Transportation

Full Committee

Lamar Smith (TX)

Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX)

Full Committee

John Thune (SD)

Bill Nelson (FL)

Space Sbcmte

(NASA, FAA/AST)

Brian Babin (TX)

Ami Bera (CA)

Space, Science & Competitiveness Sbcmte (NASA, FAA/AST)

Ted Cruz (TX)

Ed Markey (MA)

Environment Sbcmte (NOAA)

Andy Biggs (AZ)

Suzanne Bonamici (OR)

Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries & Coast Guard

Dan Sullivan (Alaska)

Cory Booker (NJ)

Armed Services

Armed Services

Full Committee

Mac Thornberry (TX)

Adam Smith (WA)

Full Committee

John McCain (AZ)

Jack Reed (RI)

Strategic Forces Sbcmte

Mike Rogers (AL)

Jim Cooper (TN)

Strategic Forces Sbcmte

Deb Fischer (Nebraska)

Joe Donnelly (IN)

Intelligence

Intelligence

Full Committee

Devin Nunes (CA)

Adam Schiff (CA)

Full Committee

Richard Burr (NC)

Mark Warner (VA)

Appropriations

Full Committee

Rodney Frelinghuysen (NJ)

Nita Lowey (NY)

Full Committee

Thad Cochran (MS)

Patrick Leahy (VT)

Commerce-Justice-Science Sbcmte

(NASA, NOAA)

John Culberson (TX)

José Serrano (NY)

Commerce-Justice-Science Sbcmte

(NASA, NOAA)

Richard Shelby (AL)

Jeanne Shaheen (NH)

Defense Subcmte

(DOD, IC)

Kay Granger (TX)

Peter Visclosky (IN)

Defense Subcmte

(DOD, IC)

Thad Cochran (MS)

Dick Durbin (IL)

Transportation-HUD Subcmte

(FAA/AST)

Mario Diaz-Balart (FL)

David Price (NC)

Transportation-HUD Subcmte

(FAA/AST)

Susan Collins (Maine)

Jack Reed (RI)

State Abbreviations:  AL (Alabama), AZ (Arizona), CA (California),  FL (Florida), IL (Illinois), IN (Indiana), MA (Massachusetts), MS (Mississippi),  NC (North Carolina), NH (New Hampshire), NJ (New Jersey),  NY (New York), OR (Oregon), RI (Rhode Island), SD (South Dakota), TN (Tennessee), TX (Texas), VA (Virginia), VT (Vermont), WA (Washington)

What's Happening in Space Policy February 13-18, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Feb-2017 (Updated: 12-Feb-2017 05:50 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of February 13-18, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

The House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee will hold the year's first congressional hearing on NASA this week. Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) said that it was intended to provide a "panoramic" view of NASA's past, present and future to acquaint new committee members with the agency.   No current NASA employees are on the witness list, but all four worked at the agency at one time:  Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, who along with Gene Cernan were the last two men on the Moon (he also was a U.S. Senator from 1977-1983); famed Gemini and Apollo astronaut Tom Stafford, who currently chairs NASA's International Space Station Advisory Committee; Ellen Stofan, who just stepped down after three years as NASA's Chief Scientist; and Tom Young, whose storied career includes serving as mission director for the Viking program, director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, and industry executive with Martin Marietta and Lockheed Martin (after Martin Marietta and Lockheed merged to form the current company).  Schmitt was the only scientist to walk on the Moon.  He is a geologist, as is Stofan.  Should be really interesting.  No shrinking violets on that panel!  That's on Thursday at 10:00 am ET.  The committee webcasts its hearings on its website and YouTube channel.

Earlier in the week. the D.C. alumni chapter of the International Space University is holding another of its "Space Cafes."  These monthly informal get togethers always feature really interesting speakers and this time is no exception -- there will be four of them, in fact, all from Europe.  Jean-Luc Bald from the European Union's Washington office; Micheline Tabache, the Washington representative of the European Space Agency (ESA); and Norbert Paluch and Juergen Drescher, the Washington reps for the French and German space agencies respectively.  Remember that the venue for the ISU-DC Space Cafes has changed to The Brixton at 901 U Street, NW.  The Space Cafes usually are on Tuesdays, but this one is Monday (tomorrow).

The date has slipped a couple of times already, but the current plan is for SpaceX to launch its first cargo mission to the ISS since the September 1, 2016 on-pad explosion on Saturday at 10:01 am ET.  This is SpaceX's 10th operational Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission for NASA -- SpaceX CRS-10 or SpX-10.   It will mark SpaceX's first launch from NASA's Launch Complex 39A, which SpaceX is leasing from NASA.   Previous SpaceX East Coast launches have been from the pad SpaceX leases from the Air Force at the adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  That is Launch Complex-40, which was damaged in the September 1 incident.  SpaceX plans to use LC-39A for launches of both its current Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy (FH) still in development.  The company expected that the first launch from LC-39A would be the maiden flight of the FH last November.  That didn't work out, but the launch pad was close to being ready so is available for this flight.  SpaceX is confident it has fixed the problem that caused the September 1 explosion and the Falcon 9 returned to flight status with an Iridium launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA last month.  No new date for the FH's maiden flight has been announced.

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

Monday, February 13

Tuesday, February 14

Wednesday-Friday, February 15-17

Wednesday-Saturday, February 15-18

Thursday, February 16

Thursday-Friday, February 16-17

Thursday-Saturday, February 16-18

Saturday, February 18

FAA Commercial Space Conference Takeaways From Bridenstine, Babin, Gerstenmaier, and Stern

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Feb-2017 (Updated: 16-Feb-2017 05:20 PM)

The 20th FAA Commercial Space Transportation conference in Washington, DC ended today.  Among the many interesting keynotes and panel discussions were presentations by Reps. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) and Brian Babin (R-TX) and the head of NASA's human spaceflight program Bill Gerstenmaier.

Babin chairs the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.  Bridenstine is a member of that subcommittee as well as the Strategic Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, which oversees many national security space programs. Gerstenmaier is NASA's Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations (HEO), which oversees the International Space Station (ISS) and its associated commercial cargo and commercial crew programs, as well as development of the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion crew spacecraft, and other systems needed to send humans beyond low Earth orbit.

The conference was organized by the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) for the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST). 

CSF Chairman Alan Stern opened the conference yesterday with an announcement that surprised many in the audience.  Pointedly telling reporters in the room that he wanted them to hear him clearly, he said CSF was announcing that it supports SLS.   "Exploration of space for all purposes, including commercial spaceflight, is our interest and to that end the CSF is announcing that we see many potential benefits" in NASA's SLS program.  "There are bright futures across the spectrum in commercial space and the SLS can be a resource that ... makes our future .. even brighter."

The statement is somewhat surprising because there is a tension between those who support government development of new launch vehicles and those who think that should be left to private sector companies with the expectation they can do it more quickly and cost effectively.  Since CSF represents many of the companies developing and marketing space launch services, its support for a government-developed system was far from assured.

Here are snapshots from the remarks by Bridenstine, Babin, and Gerstenmaier.

Bridenstine

Bridenstine's prepared remarks closely tracked those he made last year at this conference and in other venues.  Today he listed four actions that are needed to effectively leverage the commercial space industry:

  • strike a balance between what the government should purchase, own and operate and what the government should acquire as a service;
  • fix the regulatory structure by restoring AST to the more prominent position it had before 1995 in the Office of the Secretary of Transportation and adequately fund it;
  • relieve DOD of the task of providing space situational awareness (SSA) data to non-military entities by reassigning it to a civil agency like AST (but not necessarily AST -- it is an issue Congress should discuss);
  • provide commercial space companies with a process that ensures a minimum regulatory burden with maximum regulatory certainty.

With regard to the last point, he advocates that AST be assigned responsibility for regulating non-traditional commercial space activities like asteroid mining or placing habitats on the Moon in order to comply with U.S. obligations under the Outer Space Treaty.   He is developing legislation that would create an "enhanced payload review process" building on AST's existing payload review process to authorize and continually supervise private sector activities in space.  Currently AST regulates only launch and reentry, not what takes place in space.  "We must ensure there is no question as to the statutory and regulatory mechanisms the United States government can utilize to affirmatively approve" non-traditional space activities. 

His views on regulation of non-traditional space activities contrast with those advocated by Babin (discussed below).  Bridenstine said in response to a question that he and Babin are good friends and although they have not reached agreement on how to harmonize their disparate approaches, he is optimistic they will.

Bridenstine is a leading candidate to become NASA Administrator.  Although he is best known for his leadership in Congress on space issues at DOD, FAA and NOAA, his American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA) from last year addressed NASA issues, too. Today he declined to answer a question about whether he might become Administrator, but did express his strong support for NASA's SLS and Orion programs.  He is identified with the commercial space sector and some SLS/Orion advocates worry that commercial space supporters may try to undermine SLS/Orion by arguing that the commercial sector can provide requisite capabilities quicker and cheaper.  Bridenstine clearly stated today that SLS and Orion have his full support, however.  He also said he is "100 percent" in favor of sending humans to Mars and reiterated his enthusiasm for a return to the Moon.

ASRA was never intended to pass as a stand-alone bill, but rather to serve as a repository for provisions that could be incorporated into other legislation.  Ten of its provisions were included in the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act. Bridenstine said today that he plans to introduce an updated version of ASRA and welcomes input.  

Bridenstine also was asked about a letter he recently sent, along with two other Members of Congress, questioning whether DARPA's Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program conforms with National Space Policy wherein the government is not supposed to compete with the private sector and is supposed to make government technologies available to commercial companies on an equitable basis. The letter states that DARPA's plan to award a $200 million contract to a single company, which would retain the satellite and the intellectual property, violates the policy and would distort the market.  DARPA was about to award that contract to Space Systems/Loral, but Orbital ATK filed suit against DARPA yesterday to stop it.  Orbital ATK is developing geosynchronous satellite servicing technologies itself.  Bridenstine said today that RSGS is critical for national security and while there are some technologies that only DARPA can develop, such as completely autonomous mechanical servicing, others can be provided commercially, such as maneuvering capabilities.  DARPA demonstrating technologies is one thing, but commercializing them is another, he argued, and that is why he wrote the letter. 

Babin

Babin's speech also closely paralleled what he said last year.   He and Bridenstine disagree on how to regulate new non-traditional space activities to ensure the United States complies with its international treaty obligations.  While Bridenstine wants to create an enhanced payload review process administered by AST to provide regulatory certainty to companies, Babin does not accept that regulations are needed at all.  He asserts that companies should not have to obtain government permission to conduct any space activity.  Instead, the burden should be on the government to demonstrate that it has a requirement to intrude.  He wants a regime where private sector activities are "presumed authorized" and the government can place restrictions on those activities only if it cannot address its concerns by any other means.

Babin also disagrees on the idea of AST taking responsibility for providing SSA to non-military users.  He argues that there are other options -- other government agencies or a public private partnership -- that need to be explored first.  As he said last year, he plans to hold hearings on these topics this year.

Gerstenmaier

Gerstenmaier focused his remarks on risk -- specifically the risks inherent in human spaceflight.  His office oversees the development of commercial crew systems by SpaceX and Boeing that will take crews to and from ISS beginning next year, as well as the Orion spacecraft that will take astronauts to cis-lunar space and eventually to Mars.

One metric for characterizing risk in this context is the probability of a failure that would kill the crew -- Loss of Crew (LOC).  Gerstenmaier's message is that there will always be "unknown unknowns" in any system, no matter how many times it flies, and thus there will always be some level of risk  The more the system flies, the more experience is gained, and the more engineers learn about what might fail.  He noted that when the first space shuttle flew in 1981, models calculated the LOC at 1 in 500 to 1 in 5000.   After accumulating data on all 135 shuttle flights -- two of which, Challenger and Columbia, ended with the deaths of their crews -- NASA concluded that the actual risk for that first flight was 1 in 12.  At the end of the program, after those 135 flights, the risk overall was put at 1 in 90.

The LOC for the commercial crew program was set at 1 in 275, but he stressed that too much importance is assigned to that figure. He argued that LOC numbers are useful for comparing different designs, for example, but not in determining absolute risk.  "Do not judge a spacecraft by its LOC number," he urged.   The challenge is to not become complacent as systems start flying because there is always more to learn.  "Stay hungry, stay curious, stay humble" and do not be afraid to discover new problems, discuss them, understand them, and solve them.

The public and other stakeholders need to understand and acknowledge these risks, he said, so NASA needs to learn how to effectively communicate with them as these new systems are about to come on line.

Note:  Gerstenmaier said the LOC metric is 1 in 275 for commercial crew, but it actually is 1 in 270.

What's Happening in Space Policy February 6-10, 2017 - UPDATE 2

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Feb-2017 (Updated: 06-Feb-2017 08:16 AM)

Here's our list of space policy events for the week of February 6-10, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session part of the week.

During the Week

The big event this week is the FAA's annual Commercial Space Transportation conference in Washington, DC on Tuesday afternoon and all day Wednesday.  This year it is being organized by the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) and held at the Ronald Reagan Building.  As usual it has top notch keynote speakers and panel sessions.  One keynote many will be watching is Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), who is speaking at 12:30 pm ET on Wednesday.   He is widely rumored to be seeking the NASA Administrator job and, in any case, is a prominent congressional advocate for commercial space, especially broadening the role of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation.  The agenda says nothing about webcasting.  If we learn anything about a webcast, we'll add the link to our calendar item for this event. [UPDATE: A CSF spokeswoman says there will NOT be a webcast this year.]

The Senate will continue to consider nominations, some more contentious than others.  No date seems to be set for confirming Wilbur Ross for Secretary of Commerce, but he was easily approved by the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.  A Senate vote could come at any time.

Over on the House side, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will hold its 115th Congress organizational meeting on Tuesday at 10:00 ET according to National Journal's Daybook, although it is not posted on the committee's website (as of Sunday morning, at least). The committee is holding its first hearing of the year (on EPA) at 11:00 that morning, so an organizational meeting in advance makes sense.  The Republican committee leadership identified its key priorities for this Congress and announced subcommittee leadership and membership positions last week.   "Constancy of Purpose Within NASA" is the fifth of the committee's top five priorities.  Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) will continue to chair the Space Subcommittee and Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) takes over as chair of the Environment Subcommittee (which oversees NOAA's satellite programs).

On a completely different topic, the Washington Space Business Roundtable (WSBR) will have a panel discussion on Spectrum Traffic Jams on Friday.  The battle for spectrum -- especially freeing spectrum for use by the commercial sector by taking it away from government users, and satellite versus terrestrial needs  -- wages on.  Al Wissman from NOAA, Victoria Samson from the Secure World Foundation, and Valerie Green from Ligado join Caleb Henry of Space News for the lunchtime discussion.  Note that the meeting is at the City Club of Washington (555 13th Street, NW), not the University Club where WSBR often holds its luncheon meetings.

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

Monday-Friday (February 6-10) (second week of meeting)

Tuesday, February 7

Tuesday-Wednesday, February 7-8

Tuesday-Thursday, February 7-9

Wednesday, February 8

Friday, February 10

 Note:  This article has been updated.

Wall Street Journal: Draft GAO Report Finds Problems with SpaceX Turbine Blades

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Feb-2017 (Updated: 03-Feb-2017 12:15 AM)

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported today that a draft study from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reveals problems with the turbine blades on SpaceX rockets that could impact safety and therefore the schedule for commercial crew launches.  A GAO spokesman told SpacePolicyOnline.com that he could not confirm the contents of the report because it is only in draft form.

WSJ's Andy Pasztor cites unnamed "government and industry officials familiar with the details of the report" as the sources of the story that GAO found "persistent cracking" of  turbine blades in SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket engines.  Pasztor goes on to say that NASA "has warned SpaceX that such cracks pose an unacceptable risk for manned flights."

SpaceX did not respond to a request from SpacePolicyOnline.com for comment on the WSJ story by press time. Pasztor quotes an unnamed SpaceX spokesman as saying that the company is modifying its design to avoid the cracks.

GAO Public Affairs Managing Director Chuck Young could confirm to SpacePolicyOnline.com only that GAO has work underway in response to language in the House Appropriations Committee's report to accompany the FY2016 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill (H.R. 2578).   He said he could not comment on the contents of a draft report and GAO had not provided copies to reporters.  The final report is expected to be released by the end of the month.

GAO is the investigative arm of Congress.  It typically allows the agency it is reviewing to comment on drafts and incorporates the comments into its final report as appropriate.  It also publishes the text of the agency's response as an appendix.

SpaceX and Boeing were selected by NASA in 2014 to complete development of crew space transportation systems to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) through public-private partnerships. The concept is that the government and the companies both fund the development costs for systems that will be owned and operated by the companies, while the government guarantees to purchase a certain number of launches from them.  NASA does this already for robotic cargo spaceflights that resupply the ISS -- commercial cargo.  SpaceX and Orbital ATK currently provide commercial cargo services for NASA and Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) will join them in the future.

NASA initiated the companion commercial crew program in FY2011 with the expectation that the systems would be operational by 2015. That date slipped to 2017 at least in part because Congress provided less funding than requested in the program's early years.  That eventually changed, however, and Congress provided full or almost full funding for FY2015 and FY2016.  The FY2017 budget has not been approved yet.  NASA is operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) at its FY2016 level, which in the case of commercial crew is actually more than the request for FY2017. 

While NASA's share of the funding may not be an issue now, the date for both SpaceX and Boeing commercial crew flights already has slipped to 2018 and few would be surprised if flights are further delayed. 

In its most recent annual report, NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) concluded that "there is still much left to do from a technical perspective" for both companies' systems -- SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner.  While it found that there is "no evidence that needed safety considerations are being sacrificed merely to maintain schedule" and praised NASA's "excellent certification process," it cited challenges facing each company.   SpaceX turbine blades were not among the issues addressed in the ASAP report.   For SpaceX, it focused on the company's "load and go" procedure under which SpaceX plans to fuel the Falcon 9 rocket just prior to launch when the crew is already aboard. 

That has never been done in the U.S. human spaceflight program before for safety reasons. The on-pad explosion of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on September 1, 2016 while it was being fueled for a pre-launch test accentuated those concerns.  Its payload, an Israeli commercial communications satellite (AMOS-6), was destroyed in the accident.  SpaceX noted at the time that if a crew had been aboard, the Crew Dragon's emergency abort system would have carried the capsule away from the pad and the crew would have been safe.  Nevertheless, NASA's International Space Station Advisory Committee expressed alarm about SpaceX's plan in November 2016.  ASAP's January 2017 report echoed those concerns and "strongly" encouraged NASA "to scrutinize" SpaceX's  plan and ensure that any additional risks are worth the gains.

NASA is and will remain dependent on Russia to take astronauts to and from ISS and provide "lifeboat" services for the crews while they are aboard the ISS until the commercial crew systems are operational.   NASA has not been able to launch people into space since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.

Constancy of Purpose at NASA a Top Priority of House Committee

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Feb-2017 (Updated: 01-Feb-2017 11:08 PM)

The House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee laid out its top five priorities for the 115th Congress today.   Fifth on the list is "constancy of purpose within NASA."

Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) said in a press release that an "active two years lay ahead" for the committee and identified the following priorities:

  • Cutting Government Red Tape, Emphasizing Sound Science at EPA
  • Reforms to Department of Energy Programs
  • STEM Education and Reauthorization of NSF and NIST Programs
  • Oversight of FDIC Cybersecurity Failures, FISMA, and Ongoing Investigations
  • Constancy of Purpose Within NASA

Although not on that list, at a Space Transportation Association (STA) event on Monday Smith stressed the need to pass NASA authorization acts for 2017 as well as for 2018.  A 2017 authorization act is in the final stages of drafting and may be taken up by the Senate soon.  Smith also said that the first NASA hearing will take place in mid-February.  It will be aimed at acquainting the committee's new members with NASA's past, present, and future activities.

Today's press release said that the committee will "continue to ensure" that NASA "pursues a balanced portfolio of programs reinvigorated with bold exploration objectives.  Building upon the progress made towards the development of the Space Launch System, Orion, and the commercial crew and cargo programs, the committee will ensure NASA stays the course and leads the world in not only space exploration, but also space science."

No mention is made of earth science.  Smith and other congressional Republicans have argued for several years that agencies other than NASA should be responsible for earth science research so NASA can focus on space exploration.  Advocates for NASA's earth science program point out that NASA is the only agency that launches earth science research satellites, which are critical for understanding the Earth and its environment.  The debate over NASA's almost $2 billion per year earth science program is expected to be a major source of contention between Republicans and Democrats this year.

Smith announced Republican subcommittee assignments yesterday.   Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), who represents the Texas district that includes Johnson Space Center, will continue to chair the Space Subcommittee with Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) as vice-chairman.  Brooks' district includes Marshall Space Flight Center.  Twelve other Republicans will serve on the Space Subcommittee, most from districts with government and/or commercial space interests:  Dana Rohrabacher (CA), Frank Lucas (OK), Bill Posey (FL), Jim Bridenstine (OK), Stephen Knight (CA), Barbara Comstock (VA), Ralph Lee Abraham (LA), Daniel Webster (FL), Jim Banks (IN), Andy Biggs (AZ), Neal Dunn (FL), and Clay Higgins (LA).

Biggs will chair the Environment Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over NOAA's satellite programs.  He replaces Bridenstine, who chaired it in the 114th Congress.  Banks will serve as vice chair.  The eight other Republicans on this subcommittee are: Rohrabacher, Posey, Brooks, Randy Weber (TX), Babin, Gary Palmer (AL), Barry Loudermilk (GA), and Higgins.

The other three subcommittees -- Energy, Oversight, and Research and Technology -- have little or no direct involvement in space issues.

Democrats have not yet announced their full committee or subcommittee members.

Smith also made staffing announcements yesterday.  Among them:  Jennifer Young Brown will continue as the committee's chief of staff; Tom Hammond will continue as staff director of the Space Subcommittee; and Joseph Brazauskas will serve as staff director of the Environment Subcommittee.

Smith, Babin Urge Passage of NASA Transition Authorization Act

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Jan-2017 (Updated: 31-Jan-2017 12:20 AM)

Two top Republicans on the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee are urging quick passage of the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act.  As we reported yesterday, a new draft is circulating right now and could see action in the Senate this week.

House SS&T Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), who chaired the Space Subcommittee in the last Congress and is expected to do so again, both spoke at a Space Transportation Association (STA) event this evening.  Smith said he hoped for action in the Senate in the next few days.

The Senate passed the 2016 NASA Transition Authorization Act in the closing days of the 114th Congress, but the House had already completed its legislative business for the year so the bill did not clear Congress.  A slightly revised version is now being readied and Smith and Babin both spoke optimistically about its passage in order to achieve one of its key themes -- continuity.   Congressional Republicans and Democrats have stressed the need to avoid any major disruptions to NASA programs as happened early in President Obama's administration.  Obama cancelled President George W. Bush's Constellation program to return humans to the surface of the Moon by 2020 and replaced it with a program to send humans to orbit Mars by the 2030s, with the Asteroid Redirect Mission in between. Obama also shifted NASA out of transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS), instead using public-private partnerships to develop "commercial crew" capabilities.  NASA will buy services from companies rather than building and owning its own system.  Boeing and SpaceX were chosen to develop the commercial crew systems, which have not yet flown.  NASA has not been able to launch people into space since the space shuttle was terminated in 2011.  It relies on Russia to take astronauts to and from ISS.

The most recent NASA authorization act became law in 2010.  Its funding recommendations covered only three years, through FY2013, although its policy provisions remain in force.  The new draft NASA Transition Authorization Act would recommend funding only for FY2017, which is already in progress, but provides policy guidance for most of NASA's programs.  Policy provisions typically do not expire.

Smith and Babin did not commit to when the House would take up a Senate-passed bill, but made clear that they hope for quick action, followed by a 2018 NASA authorization act.

Smith also said that the committee's first space-related hearing would take place in mid-February and would be a "panoramic view" of NASA's past, present and future to acquaint the many new members of the committee with NASA's activities.  Republican members of the committee have been named, but not the Democrats, and subcommittee assignments are pending.   Smith said there would be many space hearings this year, perhaps more than the 19 held last year.

No news was offered on when a new NASA Administrator might be nominated.  Smith said only that he expected it "in coming weeks."  Babin added that although he and Smith do not know any details of what President Trump's budget request for NASA will be, he is "confident" they all are on the same page -- providing NASA with appropriate funding because "a great nation needs a robust, reliable, executable and rational space exploration program and I think that our President Trump realizes this and knows it."

What's Happening in Space Policy January 30 - February 3, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Jan-2017 (Updated: 29-Jan-2017 09:59 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of January 30 - February 3, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

Tuesday is NASA's official Day of Remembrance, honoring the crews of Apollo 1, space shuttle Challenger, space shuttle Columbia and other astronauts who lost their lives in connection with spaceflight.  Some events have already taken place, including two at Kennedy Space Center last week to specially honor the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire that killed Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee on January 27, 1967.  Nineteen years and a day later, on January 28, 1986, Challenger's 7-person crew died 73 seconds after launch when an O-ring on a solid rocket booster failed.  Seventeen years and four days after that, on February 1, 2003, Columbia's 7-person crew died during their descent to Earth after a 16-day mission when superheated gases entered a hole in Columbia's wing punctured by a piece of foam that fell from the shuttle's External Tank during launch.  NASA has a special Day of Remembrance webpage honoring all of them.  Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot will lay a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery on Tuesday and other events will take place at various NASA centers around the country.

In Congress this week, a new version of the NASA Transition Authorization Act is being readied for potential consideration by the Senate.  The Senate passed a 2016 bill in the closing days of the 114th Congress, unfortunately after the House already had completed its legislative business so the bill did not clear Congress.   Members and staff have kept working on it and a 2017 version with some modifications is being circulated.  According to a draft we've seen, there are three especially interesting changes.  One clarifies that the primary consideration for the acquisition strategy for the commercial crew program is to carry U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) "safely, reliably, and affordably."  Another directs NASA to report to Congress on how the Orion spacecraft can fulfill the provision in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that it be able to serve as a backup to commercial crew, including with use of a launch vehicle other than the Space Launch System.  The third is a finding that NASA has not demonstrated to Congress that the cost of the Asteroid Redirect Mission is commensurate with its benefits, a stronger statement than what was in the 2016 bill.  Discussions are still ongoing, apparently, about potential language regarding best practices for using Space Act Agreements.  The course of legislation is rarely smooth, so there's no guarantee the bill will be introduced and considered this week, but we hear that's the plan.

Also on the Senate side, a vote is scheduled for Tuesday at 12:20 pm ET on the nomination of Elaine Chao to be Secretary of Transportation.  A vote on Wilbur Ross's nomination to be Secretary of Commerce has not been formally scheduled, but is expected this week.

Subject to a rule being granted, the House will take up a completely different piece of legislation this week.  A still unnumbered House Joint Resolution (H. J. Res.) would disapprove of a final rule issued by DOD, NASA and the General Services Administration (GSA) on August 25, 2016 that went into effect on October 25, 2016 to implement Executive Order 13673 regarding Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces.  The resolution is posted on the House Rules Committee's website and states that Congress disapproves of 81 Fed. Reg. 58562 to improve contractor compliance with labor laws.  The House Rules Committee will take it up on Tuesday.  Assuming the rule is granted, the House is scheduled to vote on it on Thursday.

Off the Hill, the American Physical Society is holding its "April Meeting" in January.  It began yesterday and runs through January 31.  Of particular note is a presentation by the Russian Ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, on Tuesday.  He will talk about "Science and Technology Cooperation as an Effective Bridge for Strengthening Relations Between Russia and the US."   The conference is not focused on space and Kislyak's talk may be quite broad about S&T cooperation, but it would be surprising if the ISS doesn't get mentioned.

Way, way, way off the Hill -- in Vienna, Austria -- the Science and Technology Subcommittee of the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) holds its annual two-week meeting beginning tomorrow. 

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

Monday, January 30

Monday-Tuesday, January 30-31 (actually began on January 28)

Monday, January 30 - Friday, February 10

Tuesday, January 31

  • NASA Day of Remembrance, wreath-laying at Arlington National Cemetery, 11:00 am ET, events also at other locations and times

Thursday, February 2

Friday, February 3

Former NOAA Administrator, Astronaut Sullivan to Write Book on Satellite Servicing

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Jan-2017 (Updated: 26-Jan-2017 06:16 PM)

Former NOAA Administrator and NASA astronaut Kathy Sullivan has been selected by the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum (NASM) as the 2017 Charles A. Lindbergh Chair of Aerospace History.   She will spend her one year in that position writing a book about satellite servicing as a philosophy and practice.  As a space shuttle astronaut, she not only was the first American woman to conduct a spacewalk, but was on the shuttle mission that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope, the poster child of satellite servicing.

Sullivan resigned as Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Administrator of NOAA on January 20 at the end of the Obama Administration.  An oceanographer by training, she has a long career in aerospace including her years as a NASA astronaut (1978-1993), president and CEO of the interactive science center COSI Columbus (Ohio), Director of Ohio State's Battelle Center for Mathematics and Science Education, and an earlier stint at NOAA as chief scientist.  


Kathy Sullivan.   Photo Credit:  NOAA

The Lindbergh Chair of Aerospace History is a competitive one-year fellowship for senior scholars who are writing or plan to write books in aerospace history.  According to the NASM press release, Sullivan's book on satellite servicing will discuss its "philosophy and practice, with attention to the creation of design features, tools, procedures, training, tests and evaluation."

Sullivan flew on three space shuttle missions:  STS 41-G in 1984 when she became the first American woman to make a spacewalk, just months after Svetlana Savitskaya became the first woman ever to do it; STS-31 in 1990 that deployed Hubble; and STS-45 in 1992, the first Spacelab mission devoted to studying planet Earth.

Hubble is renowned today for its spectacular images of the universe and groundbreaking science.  It was the first space telescope designed to be serviced by astronauts, which turned out to be a really good thing because its mirror was deformed.  Astronauts on the first servicing mission essentially fitted the telescope with a special pair of glasses that made it see properly.  Over the course of four more servicing missions, the instruments and major components, including the solar arrays, were replaced.  Launched almost 27 years ago, it is still returning valuable data because of its ability to be serviced.

Its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), however, is not designed to be serviced and debate continues about whether it should have been and whether future space telescopes should be.  NASA has been working on developing robotic satellite servicing technology through the RESTORE-L program at Goddard Space Flight Center for more than a decade and recently elevated those efforts from an "office" to a "division."   NASA efforts are aimed at servicing satellites in low Earth orbit.  The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has its own Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) technology development program.   Orbital ATK and Space Systems Loral also are working on satellite servicing technologies.

The idea has many skeptics in terms of whether it could ever become a commercially viable enterprise and others question whether the government is competing with the private sector in developing the technologies, so there is much for Sullivan's book to elucidate.