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Commercial Space News

NASA IG: ISS Cost U.S. $75 Billion So Far, Estimates of Future Costs Overly Optimistic

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Sep-2014 (Updated: 19-Sep-2014 01:56 PM)

NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report today examining cost and technical challenges NASA faces in extending operations of the International Space Station (ISS) through 2024.   Among its conclusions is that NASA's estimate that ISS operations will cost $3-4 billion a year is overly optimistic especially because the cost of commercial crew services purchased from U.S. companies are expected to be higher than what NASA currently pays Russia.

Before looking at future ISS costs, the OIG first calculated how much the ISS has cost the United States already (it did not include funds spent by the international partners).   The figure of $100 billion has become an urban legend, but there has been no clarity on its provenance or accuracy.  NASA officials often use $60 billion.  One challenge in calculating ISS costs is how to account for space shuttle launches.  NASA typically uses marginal costs, while the Government Accountability Office (GAO) uses average costs.

The OIG report uses GAO estimates for space shuttle launch costs, adjusted for inflation.  In total, it calculated that the United States spent approximately $75 billion on the ISS through 2013:  $43.7 billion for construction and program costs plus $30.7 billion for 37 shuttle launches. 

Another difficulty in calculating sunk costs, however, is when to begin counting the dollars spent.  The space station program began in FY1985 (President Ronald Reagan announced it in his January 1984 State of the Union Address).  NASA spent $11.2 billion on the program, then called Freedom, before cost overruns and the desire to add Russia to the partnership led to a restructuring in 1993.  Since then it has simply been called the International Space Station and some people consider that the starting point, though it is easy to argue that the first nine years should be included since the design of the Freedom and the design of the ISS are very similar.  Even if the designs were not similar, the cost should be for the space station program in its entirety, not just the phase named ISS (otherwise anytime a program goes over budget, officials could simply change the name and start anew).  The OIG report is not explicit about the starting point for its calculations, but in response to a question from SpacePolicyOnline.com, the report's project manager, Kevin Fagedes, confirmed that the report uses 1994 as the starting point. 

Thus, it is more accurate to say that the space station cost the United States $75 billion from 1994 through 2013 and does not include the first nine years of spending (FY1985-FY1993).  It also does not include the costs borne by the international partners.

The overall thrust of the OIG report is not the past, but the future, in any case.   The OIG identified a number of issues and, as is customary, provided a draft of the report to NASA to allow the agency an opportunity to respond.   NASA's comments are included in their entirety as an appendix and summarized in the text.

Future ISS Costs.  The OIG disagreed with NASA's estimate that future operations will be in the $3-4 billion a year range.  Calling the NASA estimate "overly optimistic," the OIG noted that NASA assumed the cost for transporting crews to and from the ISS using commercial crew systems would be the same as what Russia charges even though "the Program's independent government cost estimates project significantly higher costs" for commercial crew.  NASA is using the Soyuz figure ($70.3 million per seat in FY2016) as "a planning tool and tracking the cost of commercial crew as a program risk...", the OIG reports.

It also cautions that the other ISS partners have not agreed to the extension to 2024 and if any do not participate, the remaining partners may have to pay more.   The OIG recommended that NASA solicit commitments from the other partners to "improve ISS cost sharing."  NASA concurred.

The OIG also is concerned about a projected shortfall in Cost Management Reserves between FY2015 and FY2018 of $663 million.  The OIG notes that those are particularly critical years for reserves as NASA begins paying for new commercial cargo and commercial crew contracts.

Technical Challenges.  Apart from cost issues, the OIG also concluded that technical challenges may be encountered, even though NASA has not identified any "major obstacles."  The OIG focused especially on the potential need to augment the ISS's power generating capacity because of "continued degradation of the solar arrays."  Those and other replacement parts will be difficult to transport to the ISS, it noted.

ISS Utilization.  ISS utilization in another area of concern.  Using ISS for research for four additional years still will not be enough to address all the risks involved in long-term human spaceflight, one of the major research goals for the program, the OIG said.  It wants NASA to prioritize its research to focus on human health risks for long duration exploration.  NASA agreed, but has not yet completed that prioritization so the OIG considers it an open issue.

Furthermore, the Center for Advancing Science in Space (CASIS), an entity created by NASA to facilitate use of ISS by non-NASA researchers, faces challenges in attracting customers.   NASA provides $15 million a year to CASIS, but apart from that it has raised "just $14,550 in cash and received pledges of $8.2 million to supplement" the NASA funding.

NASA requirements that researchers assign certain patent rights and data rights to the Government is one obstacle, the report says, and NASA has sent a request to Congress to change the law so researchers may retain all rights, but the language has not made its way into legislation yet.  NASA concurred with the OIG recommendation that a legislative remedy be pursued.

Boeing Award Fees.  Finally, the OIG found that NASA has not been accurately performing evaluations for award fees to Boeing for sustaining engineering.  NASA is supposed to use weighted scoring with grades in four categories, but has only been doing so in two.  The OIG concluded that NASA has "paid Boeing between $6.7 and $13.2 million in award fees we could not validate..."  

NASA disagreed with this finding, the report says, arguing that it is not required to do that and instead uses a qualitative assessment.   The OIG report goes on to note that this is not the first time it has questioned NASA's award-fee practices: "In our view, NASA's policy promotes a philosophy that as long as a mission ultimately provides good science data the Agency will overlook cost and schedule overages that occur during project performance."

Note:  This article, originally published on September 18, 2014, was updated on September 19, 2014 with the response from the OIG office about how it calculated the costs of the space station program.

ULA, Blue Origin Announce Partnership on U.S. Alternative to RD-180 Engine

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Sep-2014 (Updated: 18-Sep-2014 09:11 AM)

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Blue Origin announced a partnership today to produce Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine for use in future ULA rockets.

ULA currently launches the Delta IV and Atlas V rockets.  The Atlas V uses Russian RD-180 rocket engines and recent geopolitical tensions with Russia have galvanized interest in building an American-made alternative.

At a press conference today, ULA President Tory Bruno said BE-4 (Blue Engine 4) is not a "one-to-one replacement" for the RD-180 because two BE-4 engines are needed instead of one RD-180, but the BE-4 offers an opportunity to "jump into the 21st century to get more performance at lower cost."  Bruno said the first flight of a ULA rocket with a BE-4 engine would take place in four years, followed by an "appropriate" certification period, after which use of ULA rockets with BE-4s would be "feathered in" with existing ULA rockets over time.  

Therefore this announcement has no impact on the block-buy of 36 engine cores for ULA's existing rockets (called Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles or EELVs) by the Air Force announced last year that is the subject of a lawsuit by SpaceX.

Blue Origin, created and owned by Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos, has been working on the BE-4 for three years.  A less powerful version, BE-3, has completed development and is about to enter flight testing, Bezos said.   The BE-3 is for Blue Origin's New Shepard suborbital rocket to take people to the edge of space.  The company's overall goal is "reliable, cost-effective human access to space."

Bruno said that ULA’s choice of Blue Origin resulted from a set of contracts it established in June with multiple U.S. companies to develop technical concepts and perform business case analyses for alternative engines.  Blue Origin won, he said, because it is so far ahead of other companies, having spent three years already on BE-4, and because its “innovative technology” will allow ULA to modernize and reduce recurring costs.   He declined to provide specifics on the degree of cost reduction, saying only that it would be "substantial."

The BE-4 is a first stage engine and is designed to be reusable.  It uses liquid oxygen (LOX) and Liquified Natural Gas (LNG), a form of methane, as fuel.  It has 550,000 pounds of thrust.  Bezos said the company already had 10,000 seconds of test time, with hundreds of starts and relatively few failures, on the smaller BE-3.  Testing of the BE-4 is expected to begin in 2016.

At the press conference, Bruno and Bezos beamed about the new partnership, although they were not willing to disclose the financial aspects of their relationship.   Bezos exclaimed that one positive feature of the BE-4 is that it is “fully funded,” but when asked about the details of the financial arrangements, he said only that no equity investments are involved and ULA is contributing a “significant” amount to engine development “but we are not disclosing how much.”  For its part, Blue Origin is “committed to finishing the engine,” he said.

Bruno emphasized that ULA will continue to use the same upper stages as it does now with Delta IV and Atlas V, and has no plans to change the Delta IV RS-68 engine.  As for future vehicles, however, he said trade studies were still underway as to whether BE-4 would be the only engine or just one of several.   Bezos responded that Blue Origin's goal is "to make the engine so operable, so low cost, so reliable that ULA would be crazy to use anything else."

They emphasized that today's announcement is not related to yesterday's announcement of the winners of NASA's Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contracts.  One of the two CCtCAP awardees, Boeing, plans to use ULA's Atlas V as the launch vehicle for its CST-100 crew spacecraft, and Blue Origin is one of Boeing's CCtCAP partners.  "Of course we're a part of Boeing's team," Bezos said, "and we stand ready to help them in any way they want us to."   He said earlier, however, that Blue Origin is still committed to building its own capability to send humans into space by the end of this decade.

Senate Expected to Pass CR Tomorrow; Could Consider NASA Authorization

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Sep-2014 (Updated: 17-Sep-2014 10:42 PM)

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) plans to bring up the FY2015 Continuing Resolution (CR) for a vote tomorrow (Thursday, September 18).  The House passed the CR today.  The Senate could consider other legislation, including a NASA authorization bill, as it strives to adjourn by the end of the week until after the November elections.

The Hill newspaper reports that Senate debate on the CR will commence at 1:00 pm ET.   The CR funds the government through December 11, 2014 at the same level as FY2014, although it includes an across-the-board 0.0544 percent cut to fund new activities mostly related to national security, veterans affairs, customs and immigration, and responding to the Ebola crisis.  The House included an authorization for President Obama to engage in certain military activities related to Syria and the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS), but that authorization also will expire on December 11.  A more intense debate on that topic is anticipated in the lame-duck session after the elections.

The Senate may also consider a new NASA authorization bill before it leaves town.  The House passed its version in June and sent it to the Senate, where there has been no action since then. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved a bill last year on a party-line vote and Senate sources have been saying for some time that a revised version is in the works.  The committee held a markup session today, but a revised NASA authorization bill was not considered.   Nonetheless, a revised version could be brought up on the Senate floor as an amendment to the House version.  Whether that happens or not depends on many factors and even if the Senate did pass a bill, it would have to go back to the House, which is also expected to adjourn by the end of the week.  Final resolution, therefore, will not come in the near term.

House Approves CR Funding Government Through December 11, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Sep-2014 (Updated: 17-Sep-2014 05:49 PM)

The House approved a FY2015 Continuing Resolution (CR) this afternoon (September 17) that will fund the government through December 11, 2014.  An amendment allowing President Obama limited authority to spend funds on military actions in Syria was adopted.  The next step is the Senate.

The House was poised to pass a CR last week, but a White House request to add the Syria authorization complicated that plan.  The authority adopted by the House today is limited and it is expected that a more intense debate on U.S. actions in fighting the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) may come in the lame-duck session after the elections.

As far as funding the government is concerned, however, the House action is good news.  The bill passed by a vote of 319-108.  None of the FY2015 regular appropriations bills has cleared Congress yet, so if Congress does not pass a CR by midnight September 30, there will be another government shutdown like last year.  The Senate is also hoping to complete its legislative work this week so hopefully it will deal with the CR swiftly (but should not be taken for granted).

The CR funds the government at its FY2014 level of $1.012 trillion.  Government agencies, including NASA, NOAA and DOD, would be funded at their FY2014 levels minus a 0.0554 percent across-the-board cut to pay for new activities in the bill that are mostly related to national security, veterans affairs, customs and immigration, and responding to the Ebola crisis.  Two space-related provisions would allow funding flexibility for weather satellite programs, and an extension of the authorization for the Export-Import Bank through June 30, 2015.

Boeing, SpaceX Win CCtCAP Contracts

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Sep-2014 (Updated: 17-Sep-2014 11:54 PM)

Boeing and SpaceX are the two winners of Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contracts, NASA announced today (September 16).  NASA hopes that through those awards, a U.S. crew space transportation capability will be ready to take astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) by 2017, ending U.S. dependence on Russia for ISS transport services.

The two companies will share $6.8 billion:  Boeing gets $4.2 billion, while SpaceX gets $2.6 billion.  When asked why Boeing is receiving a substantially larger amount, NASA commercial crew program manager Kathy Lueders said only that the awards were based on the proposals that were submitted and both companies proposed to the same set of requirements.

The funding is for the final phase of the commercial crew program which includes final development and certification of the systems, at least one demonstration flight to the ISS carrying at least one NASA crew member, between two and six additional flights to the ISS, and "special studies."

The awards were announced at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), FL by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, KSC Director Bob Cabana, Lueders, and NASA astronaut Mike Fincke representing the astronaut corps.  Leuders held a teleconference after the press conference to provide further details.

CCtCAP is the final phase of NASA's commercial crew program, a public-private partnership where both the government and private sector companies are paying to develop new systems to take astronauts to and from the ISS, with the government providing the market to purchase the resulting services from the companies.   Currently, the United States pays Russia about $450 million per year to take NASA astronauts to and from ISS.  The United States has not been able to launch astronauts into space since it terminated the space shuttle program in 2011.

CCtCAP Announcement at 4:00 pm ET Today, September 16

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Sep-2014 (Updated: 16-Sep-2014 10:32 AM)

NASA has confirmed that the announcement of the winner(s) of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) award will be made today, September 16, 2014.   The announcement will be made at Kennedy Space Center, FL at 4:00 pm ET, followed by a teleconference at 4:45 pm ET with program manager Kathy Lueders.

The 4:00 news conference includes NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, KSC Director Bob Cabana, Lueders and astronaut Mike Fincke.  It will be followed by a brief question and answer session with media, but more detailed questions will be part of the subsequent teleconference with Lueders.

NASA's press release provides more detail. 

Rumors about an imminent announcement have circulated since mid-August and got new life yesterday.

Rumors Swirl About Imminent CCtCAP Announcement

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Sep-2014 (Updated: 15-Sep-2014 10:37 PM)

Rumors are swirling today that NASA will announce the winner(s) of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) award tomorrow, Tuesday, September 16.  Similar speculation abounded at the end of August, but the month came and went with no news.  NASA has been saying for months that it would make the decision in late August or early September, so if tomorrow is not the day, presumably it will be soon.

Andy Pasztor at the Wall Street Journal wrote today that Boeing "appears positioned to beat out two smaller rivals for the bulk" of the award, but cautioned later in the article that NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden could made "a last-minute shift" that "could change the result..."   Pasztor said the announcement could come "as early as" tomorrow.

NASA officials are precluded from saying anything about the competition while the selection process is underway, so which companies are competing is officially unknown.  The agency is funding three companies -- Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX -- in the current phase of the program, called Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP), and it is widely expected that those three at least are competing for CCtCAP.  CCiCAP and its predecessor phases were conducted under Space Act Agreements rather than through the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) contracting process.   CCtCAP is a FAR-based award and expected to lead to restoring an American capability to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil.   The United States has not been able to launch people into space since the final space shuttle flight in 2011.

NASA hopes that at least one commercial crew system will be ready to take astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) in low Earth orbit (LEO) by 2017.  It must rely on Russia to transport astronauts to and from the ISS until then.

The Obama Administration decided to rely on the commercial sector -- supported by significant government funding -- to develop a new crew space transportation capability to take astronauts to and from LEO rather than NASA building a new LEO system itself.  Instead, pursuant to a compromise agreement with Congress enacted in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act,  NASA is building a new big rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and spacecraft (Orion) to take astronauts beyond LEO.

The commercial crew program is essentially a public-private partnership where the government and industry share the development costs and the government provides a market for the resulting services.   NASA successfully used this approach to develop systems to take cargo to the ISS.  SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation each provide commercial cargo services to the ISS today.  SpaceX is scheduled to launch its fourth operational cargo mission to the ISS, SpaceX CRS-4, this Saturday, September 20.   Orbital's next cargo flight, Orb-3, is scheduled for October 14.  Orbital has not been involved in the commercial crew program to date and is not expected to be one of the CCtCAP competitors.

What's Happening in Space Policy September 15-20, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Sep-2014 (Updated: 14-Sep-2014 05:19 PM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events coming up during the week of September 15-20, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

This may be the last week Congress is in session prior to the November elections if they can complete action on a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government for the initial part of FY2015, which begins on October 1.   None of the 12 regular appropriations bills has cleared Congress yet, so some action must be taken to avoid a government shutdown. 

The White House also is hoping Congress will authorize it to take certain military actions in Syria.  Whether that authorization will be attached to the CR or not is an open question.  The White House plan was to add the Syria authorization to the CR knowing that is the one piece of legislation that Congress must pass imminently, but the issue is highly controversial and could derail the CR.  House Republican leaders were poised to pass a CR last week before the Syria authorization issue arose, but are now debating whether to deal with the Syria authorization and FY2015 government appropriations issues separately or in a combined bill.  Stay tuned.

It is conceivable that there might be Senate action on a NASA authorization bill in the coming week.  The House passed its version in June.  The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has a markup session scheduled for Wednesday for a long list of bills.  At the moment, the NASA authorization is not on the list, but that could change.  Stay tuned on this one, too.

NASA has made no further announcement about when the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) award will be made.   Expectations were high that it would be announced at the end of August, but it wasn't.   Another "stay tuned" situation.

One certainty is that the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft will reach Mars on Sunday, September 21.  Hopefully it will enter orbit as planned.  NASA will hold a pre-arrival news conference on Wednesday at 1:00 pm ET.  It will provide coverage of orbital insertion as well, but that will be included in our next issue of "What's Happening."

The next cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS), SpaceX CRS-4, is also coming up this week.  The launch itself is currently scheduled for early Saturday morning (2:16 am ET) and NASA plans five pre-launch events on Thursday and Friday.  Launch dates are not nearly as reliable as arrival dates, however, so don't set your alarm clock yet.

This entire week, beginning today (Sunday), is National Aerospace Week.  Established by the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), its goal is to recognize the contributions that the aerospace industry makes to the U.S economy and global competitiveness.

The full list of events that we know about as of Sunday afternoon is provided below.

Sunday-Saturday, September 14-20

Monday, September 15

Monday-Wednesday, September 15-17

Tuesday, September 16

Tuesday-Wednesday, September 16-17

  • COMSTAC, NTSB Conference Center, 429 L'Enfant Plaza, S.W., Washington, DC

Wednesday, September 17

Wednesday-Friday, September 17-19

Thursday, September 18

Thursday-Friday, September 18-19

Saturday, September 20

  • SpaceX CRS-4 launch, Cape Canaveral, FL, 2:16 am ET, with post-launch briefing about 90 minutes after launch

SpaceX CRS-4 Launch Slips One Day While ISS Joint Commission Worries About Delays

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Sep-2014 (Updated: 12-Sep-2014 07:23 PM)

NASA announced today that the launch of SpaceX's next cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) has been delayed one day to September 20, 2014.  A one-day delay is minor, but at a recent meeting of the U.S.-Russian joint commission that oversees ISS safety and readiness issues, concern was expressed about delays in U.S. resupply missions.

NASA said the "adjustment" in the SpaceX CRS-4 launch date was made to accommodate preparations of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and "was coordinated with the station's partners and managers."  This is the fourth operational SpaceX cargo flight to the ISS (SpaceX CRS-4).  Launch is currently scheduled for 2:16 am ET on September 20 from Cape Canaveral, FL, and NASA has several pre- and post-launch briefings planned.  If the launch does, in fact, take place on September 20, berthing to the ISS will be on September 22.

In a June 20, 2014 letter to the heads of NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, obtained by SpacePolicyOnline.com, the ISS Joint Commission (JC) expressed mild concern about schedule delays for U.S. "visiting vehicles" -- SpaceX's Dragon and Orbital Sciences Corporation's Cygnus.  Dragon and Cygnus deliver supplies to ISS.

"While the ISS program has done a good job of managing the manifest to ensure no resupply issues, the JC observed that there continues to be schedule delays with the U.S. visiting vehicles.  Although this has not presented any problems to date, it should be monitored as the U.S. commercial resupply program matures," it said.

The JC is co-chaired by Lt. Gen. Tom Stafford (ret.), who chairs NASA's ISS Advisory Committee, and Alexander Milkovskiy, head of the Roscosmos Advisory Expert Council.  It met most recently in Korolev, Russia (outside Moscow) from June 16-20, 2014.  its task is to advise the NASA Administrator and Roscosmos Director on the safety and operational readiness of ISS. Milkovskiy is Director General of Russia's TsNIIMash, the Central Research Institute of Machine Building.  Stafford is a legendary Apollo-era astronaut who flew on Gemini and Apollo missions and commanded the U.S. portion of the joint U.S.-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) mission in 1975.

SpaceX's last launch to ISS in April was delayed several times due to technical and weather problems.  The technical issues included a helium leak discovered about one hour before a planned launch on April 14.  Orbital's subsequent cargo mission, Orb-2, was delayed initially because of the SpaceX problems, and then because of a test failure of an engine similar to the one used for the Orb-2 launch.

ISS resupply is also provided by Russia (Progress), Europe (ATV) and Japan (HTV), but the letter mentioned only the U.S. vehicles as a matter of concern.  Europe's final ATV mission, ATV-5, is currently docked to the ISS.

Gabrynowicz Warns ASTEROIDS Act Needs More Work

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Sep-2014 (Updated: 11-Sep-2014 07:11 AM)

Space law expert Joanne Gabrynowicz warned a House subcommittee yesterday (September 10) that a proposed bill to grant property rights to materials mined from asteroids could face legal and political challenges if passed in its current form.

Gabrynowicz, a Director of the International Institute of Space Law (IISL) and Professor Emerita of the University of Mississippi’s National Center for Remote Sensing, Air and Space Law, testified to the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

The title of the hearing suggested that the main topic would be issues posed by the ASTEROIDS Act (H.R. 5063) introduced by Reps. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Derek Kilmer (D-WA).  The other four witnesses were space scientists, however, and the hearing was more about the status of NASA’s planetary science program than legal issues of property rights in space.

ASTEROIDS Act

Key points stressed by Gabrynowicz were that --

  • the potential legal impact of the ASTEROIDS Act on treaties is likely to be modest, but the potential political impact is likely to be sizeable;
  • there is no legal clarity on some of the issues addressed in the bill;
  • the bill uses terms of art – e.g. “harmful interference” and “first in time” -- in a novel context and require further elaboration;
  • resource extraction in space is a “volatile and contentious issue at the international level” -- it will take years to reach agreement and political groundwork is needed;
  • in the United States, the issues cut across a number of agencies and a coordinated interagency mechanism is needed to facilitate policy development; and
  • the bill does not appear to be written to advance a new industry – asteroid mining – as a whole, but instead is aimed at the interests of particular companies.

Posey countered that if the United States does not act quickly, other countries, such as Russia and China, will take the lead and may not give the issues “thoughtful consideration.”

In response to questions from Rep. Kilmer, two of the planetary scientists on the witness panel – Jim Bell, a professor at Arizona State University and President of The Planetary Society and Mark Sykes, CEO and Director of the Planetary Science Institute – conveyed their views that asteroid mining is not likely for many years (Bell said decades) and its cost-effectiveness still must be determined.

Posey took issue with the time scale, saying at least one company is ready to do it now.  He cited a letter from Planetary Resources, Inc. that was entered into the record of the hearing, but is not yet posted on the committee’s website or the company’s.

Bell and Sykes said that water is the most likely substance to be mined since it is needed to support human space exploration.  The two disagreed on the ease of reaching asteroids of interest in the mining context, with Sykes enthusiastically explaining the abundance of asteroids and their closeness to Earth, but Bell cautioning that those with water might be further away, perhaps in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.  Sykes stressed the need for a survey to locate and characterize more asteroids.  (Congress has played a critical role in directing NASA to conduct surveys to find asteroids and comets – collectively called Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) – that could threaten Earth.  NASA is currently under congressional direction to detect, track, catalogue and characterize 90 percent of NEOs equal to or greater than 140 meters in diameter by 2020.  NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group recently issued a finding that the agency has no plan to achieve that goal and a space-based NEO survey telescope is needed.)

NASA’s Planetary Science Program

Much of the hearing focused on the state of NASA’s planetary science program.  The discussion covered familiar ground, with NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green and other witnesses reviewing NASA’s ongoing and planned missions followed by complaints from non-NASA witnesses and subcommittee members about recent cutbacks in the planetary science budget and some Republican subcommittee members adding their objections over how much NASA spends on earth science instead.

Philip Christensen, Regents Professor at Arizona State University (ASU) and co-chair of the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science, stressed three themes: 

  • excellent opportunities for continuing robotic solar system exploration exist and are laid out in the NRC’s most recent Decadal Survey for planetary science;
  • significant reductions in funding for planetary science compared to the previous decade have significantly slowed the pace of new missions; and
  • a lack of year-to-year stability makes long range planning difficult.  

Bell pointed out that while the planetary science program seems healthy today, that is only because of investments made in the last decade and the pace will not be maintained at today’s funding level.

Since FY2013, NASA has been requesting about $1.3 billion per year for planetary science compared to $1.5 billion in the past.

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), who represents the district that includes Marshall Space Flight Center where the Space Launch System (SLS) is being built, asked Green about the potential of using SLS for robotic planetary science missions.  SLS’s primary purpose is for sending humans beyond low Earth orbit, but SLS advocates are seeking other uses for the Saturn V-class rocket.   Congress has been adding money to NASA’s budget to send a probe to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, and using SLS for that mission is an oft discussed possibility.  Green replied that SLS could provide a “great capability” for missions to the outer planets and “could fit well” with the Europa mission.  He explained that SLS could reduce trip times to the outer planets by half.

Rohrabacher, a critic of SLS, countered that he did not find that a compelling justification for SLS considering its cost of about $1 billion per year while planetary science funding is being cut.

The availability of plutonium-238 (Pu-238) needed to power spacecraft that cannot rely on solar power because they travel too far from the Sun or land on planetary bodies with day/night cycles was another topic discussed.  Green assured the subcommittee that NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE) are working well together on reestablishing Pu-238 production and there is a sufficient supply for the next mission that will require it – the Mars 2020 mission.  It is not so much an issue of Pu-238 itself, he said, but the ability to produce the pellets that are needed.

Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM)

Subcommittee chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) stressed at the outset of the hearing that planetary science efforts to find and characterize asteroids should not be confused with the Obama Administration’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).  He does not support the latter.

The White House announced the ARM program last year.  The concept is to send a robotic probe to an asteroid and use it to change the asteroid’s orbit, redirect it into lunar orbit where it would be visited by astronauts who would return a sample to Earth.  ARM has gained little support in Congress or the space community.  Asteroids are “small bodies” in planetary science parlance, and NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) recently issued a finding that ARM’s “benefits for advancing the knowledge of asteroids and furthering planetary defense strategies are limited and not compelling.”

Sykes called ARM a “poorly conceived and designed” mission that does not advance human exploration, science, planetary defense, or In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) of asteroids.  He said NASA’s $1.25 billion cost estimate for ARM “strains credulity” considering that the robotic OSIRIS-REx mission, which will be launched in 2016 to return a small sample of an asteroid to Earth, cost $1.05 billion itself.   Rohrabacher thanked Sykes for his frank assessment.

(ARM is a much more complicated mission that involves not only sending a robotic spacecraft to an asteroid, but developing the technologies to move the asteroid into a different orbit and then sending astronauts to obtain a sample.  NASA does use $1.25 billion as its current, informal cost estimate for ARM, but it does not include costs for activities NASA was pursuing anyway, such as the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft needed for the astronaut portion of the mission, or launch costs for the robotic portion of the mission.   A formal cost estimate will not be made until the program is further along.)