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Commercial Space News

SpaceX Plans to Send Two People Around Moon in 2018

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Feb-2017 (Updated: 28-Feb-2017 12:49 AM)

SpaceX today announced plans to send two private citizens on a trip around the Moon next year.  The launch will use the company's Falcon Heavy rocket and Crew Dragon, neither of which has flown yet.

SpaceX is under contract to NASA to develop Crew Dragon as a "commercial crew" vehicle to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).   Today's announcement stated that the private citizen trip to the Moon will take place after operational commercial crew flights have begun.  SpaceX insists that its Crew Dragon, launched by the Falcon 9 rocket, will be operational in 2018, although the Government Accountability Office (GAO) expressed doubt that it would fly before 2019 in a report released earlier this month.   In response, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said "the [heck] we won't fly before 2019."

The company said again today that it plans to launch an unoccupied test version of Crew Dragon later this year and the first flight with a crew in the second quarter of 2018.  Operational flights would ensue thereafter.  SpaceX already launches a cargo version of Dragon to ISS; one is docked there right now.  It is not outfitted for crews, however.

The Falcon Heavy rocket has been under development for several years.  The date for its first launch has slipped repeatedly, most recently from November 2016 to sometime this summer.  SpaceX says that it is two-thirds the size of the Saturn V rocket that sent Apollo astronauts to the Moon.

The two private citizens were not identified, but SpaceX says they have already paid a "significant deposit."  The price was not revealed.

The announcement comes just three days after a NASA media teleconference where two NASA officials discussed an ongoing internal study to determine the feasibility of putting a crew on the first launch of NASA's new rocket -- the Space Launch System (SLS).  Under NASA's current plan, the first SLS, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), will be launched with an unoccupied Orion spacecraft.  It is scheduled for launch at the end of 2018, although that date appears likely to slip into 2019.  A crew would not fly on SLS/Orion until the second launch, EM-2, currently targeted for August 2021.  NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot has asked for a study to determine the safety, technical and cost implications of changing that plan and putting astronauts on EM-1 for an 8-9 day mission to lunar orbit.  The study should be done in about a month.

The initial version of SLS will be able to launch 70 metric tons (MT) into low Earth orbit (LEO), compared to 54 MT for Falcon Heavy. Later versions of SLS will be capable of placing 105 MT and 130 MT into LEO.

Some view SpaceX's announcement as a challenge to NASA -- a new space race.  The two did not paint that picture, however.  SpaceX enthused about NASA's role in getting the company to where it is today:  "Most importantly, we would like to thank NASA, without whom this would not be possible."  Musk frequently praises NASA for rescuing his fledgling company a decade ago after it suffered three Falcon 1 launch failures in a row, but NASA selected it for the COTS commercial cargo development program anyway.  SpaceX just launched its 10th commercial cargo mission for NASA on February 19.   NASA selected SpaceX (and Boeing) for the final phase of the commercial crew program in 2014.

For its part, NASA said in a press release that it "commends its industry partners for reaching higher" and will continue to work with SpaceX "to ensure it safely meets its contractual obligations" on commercial crew and commercial cargo.

In an interview, Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) President Eric Stallmer called the announcement "exciting" and, if it is a race, it is "in the best spirit possible."  If it motivates NASA to move more quickly, "that's a win for everyone."   CSF is working with the international standards organization ASTM International on developing voluntary industry standards for commercial human spaceflight.  The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation has limited regulatory authority now and is prohibited from developing new regulations until 2023, but industry could set its own standards. By law, companies must only provide informed consent to passengers who want to fly into space, warning them of the risks and letting them make their own decisions on whether to accept them.

NASA Buys Soyuz Seats from Boeing with Options Through 2019 if Commercial Crew Is Delayed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Feb-2017 (Updated: 27-Feb-2017 11:19 PM)

NASA has purchased two seats with an option for three more on Russian Soyuz spacecraft through Boeing to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).  One seat each in 2017 and 2018 will allow a fourth U.S.-sponsored astronaut to fly to the ISS while Russia reduces its own crew complement.  The three options are for 2019 in case the new U.S. commercial crew systems, one of which is being built by Boeing, are not ready by then.  The options must be exercised by the fall of this year.

Boeing gained the ability to make seats on Soyuz available to NASA as part of an agreement with the Russian company Energia to settle outstanding financial issues related to the Sea Launch program.  Sea Launch was a U.S. (Boeing)-Russian (Energia)-Ukrainian (Yuzhonye) -Norwegian (Kvaerner) company that launched rockets from a converted mobile oil platform at sea. The platform was based in Long Beach, CA and towed to a location close to the equator to launch satellites in geostationary orbit (which is located above the equator).  Boeing was the major shareholder initially, but launch failures led to the company declaring bankruptcy in 2009 and Russia's Energia took majority ownership in 2010.  Sea Launch utilized Ukraine's Zenit booster and the disrupted Russian-Ukrainian relationship following Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 added to the company's woes.  A Russian venture, S7 Group, is buying Sea Launch, but Boeing and Energia needed to reach a financial settlement first.  Energia builds the Soyuz spacecraft and the five seats were made available to Boeing as part of the settlement. 

In a FedBizOpps solicitation on January 17, 2017, NASA announced its intent to buy the seats via a modification of its existing Vehicle Sustaining Engineering Contract with Boeing.

NASA has not been able to launch astronauts into space since the termination of the space shuttle program in 2011.  Under the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) that governs the ISS partnership, the United States is responsible for transporting astronauts from NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to and from ISS.  The IGA was signed at a time when NASA anticipated that the space shuttle would be available throughout the ISS's operational lifetime.

Without the shuttle, NASA must rely on Russia and its Soyuz spacecraft for crew transport as well as on-orbit lifeboat services so the crew can escape in an emergency.  The size of the resident ISS crew is limited in large part by the number that can be evacuated in an emergency.  Two Soyuzes are usually docked and each can accommodate three people, hence the current six-person limit.

NASA is prohibited from paying Russia for anything associated with the ISS program under the terms of the Iran-North Korean-Syria Non-proliferation Act (INKSNA), however, so must obtain a waiver to the law from Congress whenever it needs to contract with Russia for ISS-related services.  INKSNA applies whether the arrangement is through NASA itself or a U.S. company on behalf of NASA.

A waiver enacted in 2013 allows NASA to purchase ISS-related services from Russia through December 31, 2020 (P.L. 112-273, the Space Exploration Sustainability Act).   In 2015, NASA signed its most recent contract with Russia for six seats and associated training and other support services.  They will accommodate U.S. and partner astronauts traveling to the ISS through the end of 2018 with a final return in the spring of 2019. 

By 2019, NASA hoped that the new commercial crew systems being developed by SpaceX (Crew Dragon) and Boeing (CST-100 Starliner) would be operational.  As noted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) earlier this month, however, it is not certain that those companies will be ready by then.  GAO's report was released on February 16 and called on NASA to provide a contingency plan in case the commercial crew systems are not ready as planned.  NASA agreed to provide such a plan by March 13. 

Five days later, on February 21, NASA posted an article on an ISS research website announcing its purchase of the seats through Boeing.  The agency did not issue a press release. The article explained the advantages of having four U.S.-sponsored crew members aboard ISS in 2017 and 2018 and the flexibility if the commercial crew systems are delayed.

Usually there are three Russians and three U.S.-sponsored crew aboard ISS. The U.S.-sponsored crew members typically include two Americans and one representative from  Europe, Canada or Japan.  Budget constraints in Russia led its space agency, Roscosmos, to temporarily cut back the Russian crew complement from three to two in order to reduce resupply requirements.  Since six people are usually aboard, if only two are Russian, four U.S.-sponsored crew members can be accommodated.

NASA is anxious to increase the number of crew available to conduct scientific research on ISS.  With three U.S.-sponsored crew members available, it strives to spend a total of 35 hours per week on research.  Four will increase how much research can be conducted.

NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz said via email that NASA paid $491 million to Russia for the six Soyuz seats it acquired in 2015, which includes training and preparation for launch, flight operations, landing and crew rescue as well as limited crew cargo delivery to and from the ISS.  That is approximately $81.8 million per seat including the additional services.

Purchasing the Boeing seats increased the Vehicle Sustaining Engineering contract value by $373.5 million, Schierholz said.  That yields a price per seat of $74.7 million.

House Vote on NASA Authorization Bill Delayed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Feb-2017 (Updated: 27-Feb-2017 08:34 PM)

Despite the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 appearing on the list of legislation scheduled for consideration by the House today on the House Majority Leader's website, it was not, in fact, brought up for a vote.  The bill, S. 442, passed the Senate on February 17 after extensive negotiations between the House and Senate dating back to last year. Its inclusion on the House's suspension calendar -- used for noncontroversial legislation -- suggested it had an easy path to passage. 

Varying views exist on what happened to cause the vote's sudden postponement as well as the implications for the future of the bill.  Throughout much of today, the House Majority Leader's website sent conflicting messages, with S. 442 included on one list of legislation scheduled for consideration today, but omitted from another.

This is the first NASA authorization act to get this far since 2010.   Its purpose is to codify congressional intent with regard to NASA's future during a presidential transition in order to avoid the type of disruption that occurred when President Obama cancelled the George W. Bush Administration's Constellation program.  It is a very broad bill,146 pages in length, that addresses all of NASA's activities except earth science.  That is one of the few NASA topics that creates partisan discord and to advance the bill, earth science is simply omitted.

Three sections are cited as having raised flags at the White House and/or the Department of Justice as needing further review: 303, 305 and 702.  Section 303 requires NASA to produce an "ISS transition plan" to move from the government-operated International Space Station to a regime where NASA is only one of many customers of a low Earth orbit commercial human spaceflight enterprise; Section 305 provides government indemnification for commercial launch and reentry services provided to NASA that are unusually hazardous (presumably including carrying crews) or nuclear in nature; and Section 702 concerns space technology investments.

Some sources are optimistic that this is a temporary problem that will soon be resolved.  Others think is an indication that certain parties want to sink the legislation permanently. What happens next is unclear.   Stay tuned.  ['s fact sheet on NASA's FY2017 budget request summarizes the bill as it passed the Senate.]

What's Happening in Space Policy February 27-March 3, 2017 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Feb-2017 (Updated: 27-Feb-2017 09:03 AM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of February 27-March 3, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

The week starts off tomorrow (Monday) with two important votes, one in the House and one in the Senate.

The House will vote on the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act.  The bill, S. 442, passed the Senate on February 17.   It is being brought up on the suspension calendar, which is used for non-controversial legislation, making its passage all but assured.  It then would go the President for signature.  President Trump's position on NASA is unclear.  Perhaps this legislation will give the White House an opportunity to signal its intentions.  Authorization bills set policy and recommend funding levels, but do not actually appropriate any funding.  The key will be if the Trump White House agrees with the overall goals as set out in the bill.  The House meets for legislative business at 2:00 pm ET, with votes postponed until 6:00 pm ET.  [UPDATE, February 27:  The bill apparently has been pulled from consideration today.]

Also on Monday, the Senate will vote on the confirmation of Wilbur Ross to be the new Secretary of Commerce and therefore in charge of NOAA.  As part of his confirmation process, he vowed that "science should be left to the scientists" and NOAA should continue to conduct climate change research and monitoring.  His nomination has been less controversial than other Trump nominees.  The vote is scheduled for 7:00 pm ET.

Trump will have an opportunity to say something about the space program when he speaks at to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night at 9:00 pm ET.  We haven't heard any rumors that any aspect of space activities will be mentioned, but one never knows.  He did have a sentence in his inaugural address that said "We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the Earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow."  But there has been nothing else from the Trump White House itself about the space program.

NASA is holding the "Planetary Science Vision 2050" Workshop Monday-Wednesday at NASA Headquarters. The purpose is to look at a longer term future than what is considered by the 10-year Decadal Surveys produced by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.  The workshop will identify science goals and enabling technologies that can be implemented by the end of the 2040s to support the next phase of solar system exploration.  So many people responded that NASA is limiting in-person participation to invited panelists and oral/poster presenters.  Everyone else can participate virtually.

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 27

Monday-Wednesday, February 27-March 1

Tuesday, February 28


SpaceX's Dragon Arrives at ISS on Second Try, Russia's Progress Due Tomorrow

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Feb-2017 (Updated: 23-Feb-2017 06:44 AM)

SpaceX's CRS-10 Dragon spacecraft successfully arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) this morning, a day late, but with none of the problems that arose in its first attempt yesterday.  Meanwhile, Russia's Progress MS-05 spacecraft is continuing on its journey to the ISS and will dock tomorrow morning.  Together, they are bringing 5.4 metric tons (MT) of supplies to the six person crew.

Dragon's first attempt was aborted yesterday because of a problem with its GPS navigational system.  Dragon's on-board computers recognized an incorrect value in navigational data about the spacecraft's position relative to the ISS and automatically terminated the arrival sequence, placing itself into a holding pattern on a "racetrack" trajectory around the ISS while ground controllers diagnosed and fixed the problem.  Other than the navigational error, the spacecraft was in perfect shape.

Dragon does not dock with the ISS, but is berthed to it.   Once it reaches a point 10 meters from the ISS, astronauts use the robotic Canadarm2 to reach out and grab it.  Once it is in Canadarm2's grasp, ground controllers move it over to a docking port and install it onto the port.   In this case. Dragon was grappled by Canadarm2 at 5:44 am Eastern Standard Time (EST), a few minutes ahead of schedule.  It will be berthed to the Harmony port at about 8:30 am EST today.

Launched on Sunday, also a day later than originally planned, this is SpaceX's 10th operational cargo mission to the ISS for NASA under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract and is designated SpaceX CRS-10 or SpX-10.  Dragon is full of 2.5 metric tons (5,500 pounds) of supplies, scientific experiments, and equipment.  It will remain docked to the ISS for about a month and then return to Earth.  Dragon is the only one of the four spacecraft (Russia's Progress, Japan's HTV, and the U.S. Dragon and Cygnus) that resupply ISS that is designed to survive reentry.  Thus it can return the results of scientific experiments and equipment that needs repair or replacement.

SpaceX CRS-10 (SpX-10) Dragon captured by International Space Station's robotic Canadarm2, February 23, 2017.  Photo credit: NASA

Russia's latest cargo spacecraft, Progress MS-05, was successfully launched yesterday.  It docks with the ISS under its own power and is due to arrive at 3:34 am EST tomorrow.  It is carrying 2.9 MT of propellant, oxygen, water, and dry cargo.

ISS is a partnership of the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and 11 European countries. The crew members currently aboard are NASA's Peggy Whitson and Shane Kimbrough, Europe's Thomas Pesquet, and Russia's Andrey Borisenko, Sergey Ryzhikov, and Oleg Novitsky.   Pesquet and Kimbrough were at the Canadarm2 controls this morning for the grapple.

Progress MS-05 Cargo Ship Successfully Launched to ISS While Dragon Closes In - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Feb-2017 (Updated: 22-Feb-2017 09:10 AM)

Russia successfully launched its Progress MS-05 cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) at 12:58 am ET this morning.  It is the first Progress launch since a December 1, 2016 failure.  Meanwhile, SpaceX's Dragon cargo spacecraft, which was launched on Sunday, will arrive on ISS in a few hours at about 6:00 am ET. [UPDATE:  Dragon's arrival was aborted because of an apparent problem with the spacecraft's GPS system.  SpaceX will try again tomorrow.]

Russia uses Soyuz rockets to launch both crews and cargo to the ISS (Soyuz is also the name of the spacecraft that transports crews).  Several versions of the Soyuz rocket exist.  This is the last launch of the Soyuz-U version.  A third stage failure of a Soyuz-U rocket doomed the Progress MS-04 mission on December 1, 2016.  Although a different version of the Soyuz rocket is used for crews, they are similar enough that NASA and Roscosmos were waiting for the success of this launch before resuming crew flights.

Launch of Russia's Progress MS-05 Cargo Spacecraft on Soyuz-U Rocket from Baiknour Cosmodome, February 22, 2017 EST.  Photo credit:  NASA tweet.

NASA refers to this as Progress 66 because it is the 66th Progress mission to the ISS.  Progress has been in use since 1978, however, resupplying the Soviet Salyut 6, Salyut 7 and Mir space stations long before ISS existed.  The spacecraft has been upgraded several times over the decades and given different designations:  Progress, Progress M, Progress M_M and now Progress MS.  The first of the MS series was launched on December 21, 2015.

Progress MS-05 is carrying 2.9 metric tons of propellant, oxygen, water and dry cargo to the ISS.  Six crew members are aboard, forming Expedition 50:  NASA's Peggy Whitson and Shane Kimbrough, the European Space Agency's Thomas Pesquet, and Roscosmos's Andrey Borisenko, Sergey Ryzhikov and Oleg Novitsky.   Docking is scheduled for 3:34 am ET on Friday.

International Space Station Expedition 50 Crew.  Photo credit:  NASA

Three other cargo spacecraft also take supplies to the ISS:  Japan's HTV and two U.S. commercial spacecraft, SpaceX's Dragon and Orbital ATK's Cygnus.  NASA purchases delivery services from SpaceX and Orbital ATK rather than owning the rockets and spacecraft.

SpaceX launched its 10th operational Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission on Sunday, designated SpaceX CRS-10 or SpX-10.  The Dragon spacecraft, carrying 2.5 metric tons (5,500 pounds) of cargo, will arrive at ISS at about 6:00 am this morning.   Unlike Progress, which docks with the ISS, Dragon and Cygnus are berthed to the space station.  They maneuver close to the ISS and astronauts use the robotic Canadarm2 to reach out and grab them.  Ground controllers then use Canadarm2 to move the spacecraft and install them onto docking ports.  NASA TV coverage of Dragon's arrival begins at 4:30 am ET, with grapple at about 6:00 am ET and installation at approximately 8:30 am ET.

House Hearing: NASA Needs Stability, Except for Adding Back Lunar Surface Missions

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Feb-2017 (Updated: 21-Feb-2017 12:57 PM)

At Thursday’s House hearing on NASA’s past, present, and future, one point of agreement was that NASA needs stability, sustainability, and priority setting.  Still, committee members and witnesses alike advocated for restoring human missions to the surface of the Moon to NASA’s human spaceflight plan.  Only one witness, Tom Young, warned about the budget consequences of putting too many tasks on NASA's plate.

The hearing before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee took place as a new presidential administration is taking shape and many space program advocates worry that decisions might be made that will disrupt the progress NASA has made since 2010 in building systems to take humans beyond low Earth orbit (LEO).  It was in 2010 that President Obama cancelled the George W. Bush Administration’s Constellation program to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2020 as a steppingstone to Mars.

Intense congressional backlash led to the 2010 NASA Authorization Act wherein Congress directed the Administration to build a new big rocket and crew spacecraft -- the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion – to take astronauts beyond LEO, essentially continuing that part of the Constellation program.  Obama and Congress agreed that the long term goal is landing humans on Mars, but not on whether lunar surface missions are a necessary prerequisite. 

NASA’s ongoing Journey to Mars involves missions only in lunar orbit, not on the surface. While many in Congress and the space community call for stability and continuity at NASA – no big changes like those imposed by President Obama – an exception is made for the prospect of restoring lunar surface missions.

The future of the human spaceflight program was the focus of the hearing, although the rest of NASA’s portfolio (aeronautics, space technology, earth and space science) was also discussed.

Witnesses were Apollo 17 astronaut and former U.S. Senator Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, Gemini and Apollo astronaut Lt. Gen. Tom Stafford (Ret.), former NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan, and former NASA and industry executive Tom Young.

Witnesses at House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing February 16, 2017.  Left to right:  Harrison Schmitt, Tom Stafford, Ellen Stofan, Tom Young. Screengrab from committee webcast.

Schmitt, the only scientist to visit the Moon, and Stafford, who orbited the Moon on Apollo 10, clearly want lunar surface missions back in the plan.  Schmitt outlined his own plan for human exploration and utilization of both the Moon and Mars: human return to the lunar surface by 2025, a lunar settlement by 2030 using public and private capital funding, lunar resource production by 2035 using private capital funding and management, fusion-powered interplanetary booster by 2035 using public and private capital funding, a Mars landing by 2040, and a Mars settlement by 2045. 

Stofan defended NASA’s current plan and said it is achievable as long as there is focus, constancy of purpose, and continued leadership.  

Young’s main argument was that, for budgetary reasons, NASA will have to choose what single path it wants to pursue.  Currently it is spending about the same amount of money per year (roughly $4.5 billion) to develop SLS and Orion as to operate the International Space Station (ISS) including the commercial crew and commercial cargo programs.  NASA and its ISS international partners are committed to operating ISS until at least 2024, but the question is what happens next. 

Young believes that NASA needs to transition LEO operations to the commercial sector and focus its efforts on putting “boots on the ground” on the Moon or Mars.  He expressed a preference for Mars because it is more “compelling.” 

From Young’s perspective, for NASA to successfully complete all that is already on its plate – operate ISS in LEO and build and launch SLS/Orion for deep space exploration– will cost $10 billion more per year.   There are “too many paths competing for the same resources,” he said.  “A choice must be made soon between LEO and exploration.”   If the program keeps going as it is, 10 years from now everyone will be disappointed because “we will be negligibly closer to landing on Mars.”

Stafford’s remarks focused on the need for SLS.  He complimented Congress for insisting that NASA build it after President Obama cancelled Constellation, but expressed concern about the planned launch rate of, at most, one per year.  He argued that there must be at least two or preferably three per year to maintain proficiency.  Schmitt, Young and Stofan all agreed on the need to launch at least twice a year.  Stofan said scientists would be happy to use any of the extra flights.

Schmitt and Gene Cernan were the last two men to walk on the Moon in December 1972.  Cernan died last month.  He was an outspoken advocate for returning humans to the lunar surface.  Legislation has been introduced in the House to name SLS “Cernan 1” in his honor.

The day before the hearing, NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot announced that he had requested an internal NASA study to assess the feasibility of launching a crew on the first SLS/Orion flight instead of waiting for the second launch as currently planned. Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), who chairs the Space Subcommittee, asked the witnesses if they thought it was feasible.

Stafford was enthusiastic, noting that the first launch of the space shuttle carried a crew.  (That was the only time in the history of human spaceflight in the United States, Soviet Union/Russia, or China that a crew was on the first flight of a new rocket.) 

Schmitt’s first response was “I have no idea,” stressing that while there will always be risks, they need to be well understood.  The question is “whether you can man-rate the system that fast” and still meet the safety requirements.  Later, however, he noted that the first “full up use” of the Saturn V rocket was the Apollo 8 mission that sent three astronauts to orbit the Moon, so the question is whether to do that again with SLS.  (There were two Saturn V launches to Earth orbit before the Apollo 8 mission.  Schmitt may have meant there had been no prior Saturn V launches to the distance of the Moon.) 

Stofan and Young endorsed Lightfoot’s plan of doing a study.

Stafford also argued in favor of reestablishing a White House National Space Council.  President George H.W. Bush was the last President to utilize a Space Council.  It was chaired by Vice President Dan Quayle.  Stafford was closely involved in the Quayle Space Council, chairing the “Synthesis Group,” which wrote a report that laid out various options for sending humans to Mars in response to the first President Bush’s 1989 Space Exploration Initiative (SEI).  Stafford reminded the committee of his report, showing them a copy, and the fact that the first President Bush’s goal was to land people on Mars in 2019, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon.

Although most of the hearing dealt with human spaceflight, Stofan also defended NASA’s earth and space science activities, as well as aeronautics, and some committee members asked about those programs.

Stofan made the point that while it is important to push limits and send people to Mars, “the only planet we can live on is Earth” and NASA’s earth observations are critical to understanding it.  

In response to Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), she said NASA’s earth science budget has been relatively flat in recent years when adjusted for inflation, not growing.  She listed a number of applications of earth science data that are critical to different economic sectors and have led to creation of new companies. 

More broadly, she urged Congress to continue to support NASA’s current plan to implement the Decadal Surveys produced by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that identify key science questions that can be answered using NASA’s space and earth science spacecraft.

The bottom line of the hearing was strong support for human exploration of the Moon and Mars with scant attention to how it will be funded, other than Young’s warning.  Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) repeated the refrain that NASA’s funding should be doubled to 1 percent of the federal budget.  Whether the Trump Administration will propose a doubling of NASA’s budget, or Congress would approve it, remains to be seen.  The Members of Congress who authorize and appropriate funds for NASA clearly are enthusiasts on a bipartisan basis, but where NASA will fit in national priorities for government spending is always the question.

Scant attention also was paid to the role of the commercial sector in the future U.S. space program.   Schmitt raised it in connection with his plan for human exploration, where he envisions a critical role for the private sector in exploiting lunar resources, for example.   Young advocated turning LEO over to the commercial sector so NASA can concentrate on exploration beyond LEO.  Overall, however, the hearing was aimed at government-funded activities at NASA.

SpaceX Launches 10th Cargo Mission to ISS, Lands First Stage Back on Land

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Feb-2017 (Updated: 19-Feb-2017 06:01 PM)

The second time was the charm for Space X with the launch of its 10th operational cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) taking place on time at 9:39 am ET this morning.  The launch was scrubbed 13 seconds before liftoff yesterday, but all went well today.   The Falcon 9 rocket's first stage then returned to Earth, landing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), Florida.

The was SpaceX's first launch from NASA's Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center, which is adjacent to CCAFS.   LC-39A was the site of launches of Apollo missions to the Moon and many space shuttle launches.  NASA has two launch complexes -- 39A and 39B -- but only needs one for its future missions.  It retained 39B, but now leases 39A to SpaceX.

The SpaceX Commercial Resupply Services 10 (SpaceX CRS-10 or SpX-10) launch was scrubbed yesterday because of concerns about the Thrust Vector Control system on the rocket's second stage, but the second stage worked perfectly today delivering the Dragon spacecraft into the correct orbit.   Dragon is packed with 5,489 pounds of supplies and equipment for the ISS crew.   A series of maneuvers will now take place to position Dragon next to the ISS so astronauts can use the robotic Canadarm2 to reach out and grab it so it can be berthed to an ISS docking port.  That is scheduled for Wednesday, February 22, at approximately 6:00 am ET (NASA TV will provide live coverage).

SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off from NASA Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39A on CRS-10 cargo mission to ISS, February 19, 2017.  Screengrab from NASA TV (at 8 seconds after liftoff).  Low cloud cover limited the view.

SpaceX designed the Falcon 9 first stage to be reusable and once it separates from the second stage fires its engines to return to Earth.   Depending on the rocket's trajectory and how much fuel remains, it lands on an autonomous drone ship at sea or back at CCAFS.  Today it landed at CCAFS 8 minutes after liftoff.  This is the third land landing of a 1st stage.

Falcon 9 1st stage, with landing legs deployed, about to land at Landing Zone 1, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, February 19, 2017.  SpaceX CRS-10 mission. Photo credit:  Space X.  (Tweeted by @ElonMusk)

SpaceX later posted a video of the landing taken by an airborne drone.

The first use of one of these recovered first stages will take place next month with the launch of the SES-10 commercial communications satellite.


Note:  Updated with the link to the SpaceX landing video.

What's Happening in Space Policy February 20-24, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Feb-2017 (Updated: 22-Feb-2017 02:01 AM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of February 20-24, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in recess this week.

During the Week

The week begins with a Federal holiday on Monday, Presidents' Day -- combining recognition of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and George Washington (February 22).   The House and Senate are taking the entire week off from their Washington duties and will work in their States and districts instead.  Just before it left, the Senate passed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017.  The House could take it up anytime once it returns.

While things will be relatively quiet in Washington, there's a lot happening in Earth orbit.

SpaceX launched its 10th operational cargo mission (SpaceX CRS-10 or SpX-10) to the International Space Station (ISS) today on the second try (the first attempt was scrubbed on Saturday for technical reasons).  The Dragon spacecraft, full of 5,489 pounds of supplies and equipment, will arrive at the ISS on Wednesday morning about 6:00 am ET.  NASA TV will cover the arrival as astronauts use the robotic Canadarm2 to reach out and grab it so it can be attached (berthed) to a docking port.  NASA TV coverage begins at 4:30 am ET.

Russia is also launching a cargo ship to ISS this week.  The launch of Progress MS-05 is very early Wednesday morning Eastern Standard Time (12:58 am), with docking on Friday (NASA TV will cover both).  This is the first Progress launch since a December 1, 2016 launch failure.  A lot is riding on it, and not just the cargo.  Russia uses the same type of rocket to send crews to ISS so this launch needs to demonstrate that the problems have been fixed so crew launches can resume.

Meanwhile, NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) will meet at Kennedy Space Center in public session on Thursday.   The agenda includes updates on NASA's development of Exploration Systems (SLS, Orion and associated ground systems), commercial crew, and the iSS.  One can listen to the meeting via telecon (no WebEx though).  ASAP's most recent annual report expressed both praise and concern about safety at NASA.  NASA's announcement last week that it is assessing whether to put a crew on the first flight of the Space Launch System might provoke discussion, too.

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

Monday, February 20

  • Federal holiday (Presidents' Day)

Wednesday, February 22

Wednesday-Thursday, February 22-23

Thursday, February 23

Friday, February 24



SpaceX Scrubs CRS-10 Launch 13 Seconds Before Liftoff

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Feb-2017 (Updated: 18-Feb-2017 01:57 PM)

SpaceX scrubbed the launch of its 10th Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) today just 13 seconds before liftoff.  Two technical problems cropped up with the Falcon 9 rocket during the final phases of the countdown.  One was resolved, but the other -- involving a steering mechanism on the Falcon 9 rocket's second stage -- worried flight controllers who decided to wait until the problem was better understood.  Another launch opportunity exists tomorrow (Sunday) morning, but the company and NASA have not yet announced if they will try to launch at that time.

The Dragon spacecraft on this SpaceX CRS-10 or SpX-10 mission is carrying approximately 5,500 pounds of supplies and experiments to the ISS crew.  Among the cargo are 40 mice (jokingly called mousetronauts) that are part of a bone healing experiment conducted by the U.S. Army Center for Environmental Health called Rodent Research IV.   They were loaded into Dragon yesterday as part of the "late load" cargo.   If the launch does not take place tomorrow, they and other late load items will have to be removed and replaced, so the launch could not occur again until Tuesday at the earliest.  However, Russia is launching its own cargo spacecraft, Progress MS-05, early Wednesday morning Eastern Standard Time, so NASA will have to determine how to interweave the schedules.

This will be the first SpaceX launch from NASA's Launch Complex-39A, which was used for Apollo missions to the moon and space shuttle launches.  NASA is leasing the pad to SpaceX.  SpaceX also leases launch pads from the Air Force at the adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.  SpaceX's prior ISS cargo missions have launched from CCAFS Space Launch Complex-40, but it was badly damaged during a September 1, 2016 explosion that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and its Amos-6 commercial communications satellite payload.  SpaceX already was preparing LC-39A for launches of Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy, which is in development, so was able to rather quickly move this launch to LC-39A.   Whenever this launch takes place, SpaceX plans to land the Falcon 9 first stage at a different CCAFS launch complex for a third time.  SpaceX routinely tries to recover its first stages so they can be reused.  Sometimes they land on autonomous drone ships at sea and sometimes on land depending on the rocket's trajectory and how much fuel remains after deploying the payload into orbit.

During the countdown this morning, one problem developed with the autonomous flight termination system (FTS) being used as the primary range safety abort system for the first time on a SpaceX launch.  Range safety is an Air Force responsibility and the Air Force is transitioning to this new type of automated system for all launches.  SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said at a press conference yesterday that they have been flying the automated system in "shadow" mode for some time and although they were directed by the Air Force to use it as the primary system for this launch "we would have done it anyway."   NASA Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana said at the same press conference that NASA is in complete agreement  with the Air Force.   He views the autonomous system as safer and more reliable than the "human-in-the-loop" system that has been used historically.   Today's problem was a software issue that produced "inconsistent data," but was readily resolved.

The other problem was with a thrust vector control (TVC) system on the rocket's second stage.  The TVC system steers the rocket.  The SpaceX team tried to resolve the issue, but decided at T-13 seconds to abort the launch.   SpaceX President Elon Musk tweeted in response to a question that he was the one who made the decision.

He explained his reasoning in other tweets

Yesterday, a different problem arose.  A small helium leak was discovered in a second stage system that, if it did not work properly, the second stage could not have been deorbited after it placed the Dragon spacecraft into orbit.   Rocket stages can pose debris hazards in space if they are not deorbited.  SpaceX decided to proceed with the countdown and perform a helium spin-up pressurization test at T-1 minute before liftoff.  Musk said today that he did not see a connection between that leak and the TVC problem, but also did not rule it out.