Commercial Space News
United Launch Alliance (ULA) President Michael Gass announced today that the company is initiating an advertising campaign to change misperceptions and correct misinformation as its Air Force customer fights a lawsuit filed by competitor SpaceX and controversy swirls over the future of the Russian RD-180 rocket engines it uses for the Atlas V rocket.
ULA builds and launches the nation's two major launch vehicle families -- Atlas V and Delta IV -- that are primarily used for putting national security satellites into space. NASA and NOAA also use those rockets. The Air Force awarded ULA a sole-source block-buy contract for 36 rocket engine cores last year. SpaceX filed a lawsuit against the Air Force in April arguing that it should have had a chance to compete for some of those launches.
The SpaceX lawsuit was one of three topics Gass wanted to discuss with representatives of the trade press at a media roundtable this morning in ULA's Washington-area office. Among the points he stressed were that SpaceX was not -- and is not -- a certified launch services provider for the Air Force even today and "was not a viable competitor" when the Air Force issued the Request for Proposals in March 2012. Another key message was that ULA has more than 100 years of combined experience launching rockets -- roughly 50 years each for the Atlas and Delta, which date back to the earliest days of the Space Age -- versus newcomer SpaceX. The national security satellites launched by ULA "save lives," Gass emphasized, and experience counts to be sure they get into orbit when needed.
SpaceX not only wants to be able to compete against ULA for Air Force launches, but founder and Chief Designer Elon Musk argues that ULA's Atlas V rocket should be discontinued entirely because it relies on Russia's RD-180 engines. National space policy calls for the government to support two families of launch vehicles to ensure access to space in case one requires a lengthy stand-down because of a failure. Atlas and Delta are those two rockets today. Musk wants his all-American Falcon to replace Atlas.
The future availability of RD-180s is a hot topic in Washington right now as the House debates the FY2015 Defense Appropriations bill, which would add $220 million to the Air Force budget to begin development on a new U.S. liquid rocket engine to replace it. Gass made clear today that despite threats from Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin to prohibit RD-180s from being used to launch U.S. national security satellites, it is "business as usual" with the engines' Russian manufacturer Energomash. However, ULA decided to accelerate delivery of the RD-180 engines it already has under contract. Five engines were due to be delivered in November, but now two will arrive in August and the remaining three in November. The plan had been for six engines per year after that, but instead Energomash will deliver eight per year. That means the contract will be fulfilled a year earlier and Gass expects savings because of the shorter period of performance.
Although he still has confidence in the supply of RD-180s from Russia, Gass said ULA wants to position itself for any eventuality. Therefore it announced earlier this week that it has contracted with "multiple" U.S. companies to develop technical concepts and perform business case analyses for alternative engines. He declined to say how many companies, who they are, or precisely how much they are being paid, but he said it was company money. ULA expects to choose one design and supplier by the end of this year with the goal of having a new engine ready for launch in 2019.
Gass complained about widespread misperceptions and "misinformation" being spread about ULA. Consequently, the company is launching an advertising campaign aimed at decision makers to "illuminate the contrast between ULA and SpaceX." The nation "has made mistakes in the past," Gass said, and "it is incumbent on us to not let the nation make those same mistakes again."
The White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) on the FY2015 defense appropriations bill this evening. The bill is scheduled for House floor action tomorrow. The White House "strongly opposes" the bill for many reasons, one of which is the $220 million it provides to begin development of a new rocket engine to replace Russia's RD-180 used for the Atlas V launch vehicle.
The White House asserts that it is premature to commit that level of resources to a new engine while it is still "evaluating several cost-effective options including public-private partnerships with multiple awards that will drive innovation, stimulate the industrial base, and reduce costs through competition."
As the SAP says, a recent study of alternatives to the RD-180 concluded that building a new engine would take eight years and cost $1.5 billion, with another $3 billion needed for a suitable launch vehicle to utilize it. The White House apparently believes it can reduce that cost and schedule through public-private partnerships.
Last night, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced that it had awarded commercial contracts to "multiple" U.S. companies to develop concepts for a new U.S. liquid rocket engine that could be ready in five years -- by 2019. ULA said it plans to choose one design and supplier by the end of this year. ULA is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing that builds and launches the Atlas V and Delta IV families of rockets. They are primarily used for national security space launches, as well as for NASA and NOAA satellites. ULA President Michael Gass said that as "the nation's steward of the launch industrial base" it is "incumbent" on the company to "bring forward the best solutions." ULA added that it is evaluating the technical feasibility of the new concepts for "both private investment and the potential for government-industry investment" -- in short, public-private partnerships.
U.S. reliance on Russian RD-180 rocket engines for launching national security satellites entered the spotlight earlier this year when the U.S.-Russian geopolitical relationship deteriorated after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea region. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees Russia's aerospace sector and is one of the Russians sanctioned by the Obama Administration, threatened to prohibit use of the RD-180s for launching U.S. national security satellites. The response from the Administration and Congress has been to eliminate U.S. reliance on Russian rocket engines by building a U.S. alternative, though there clearly are differences in how to accomplish that goal.
Lockheed Martin's decision to use Russian rocket engines for the Atlas V dates back to the 1990s, soon after the Soviet Union collapsed. At the time, the Air Force required the company to build a co-production facility in the United States to manufacture the engines independently of Russia in case the geopolitical relationship changed. The Air Force later waived that requirement and Lockheed Martin -- through ULA -- stockpiled a two-year supply of the engines to guard against any such eventuality. Consequently, today the engines are still manufactured in Russia by Energomash and provided to ULA through RD-AMROSS, a joint venture between Energomash and United Technologies, a U.S. company.
Adding to the complexity of the situation, SpaceX filed a lawsuit against the Air Force for awarding a sole-source block-buy contract to ULA in December rather than allowing SpaceX to compete. SpaceX founder and Chief Designer Elon Musk argues that the Atlas V should be discontinued because of its reliance on Russian engines. U.S. space policy requires that the government support two launch vehicle families to ensure access to space in case one should experience a lengthy hiatus because of a failure. Atlas V and Delta IV are those two families today, but Musk sees a future when it is Delta IV and his American-made Falcon.
The Senate Appropriations Committee says that the Senate will begin consideration of a FY2015 "minibus" appropriations bill today that bundles three regular appropriations bills together: Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS, including NASA and NOAA), Transportation-HUD (T-HUD, including the FAA and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation), and Agriculture. The White House supports the Senate bill, but expressed concerns about certain NASA provisions.
Congress routinely combines several appropriations bills together. When all 12 of the regular appropriations bills are grouped into one it is called an "omnibus" bill. When a smaller number are bundled they are somewhat jokingly referred to as a minibus.
The Senate is using the House CJS appropriations bill, H.R. 4660, as the vehicle for its minibus, inserting its language combining the three Senate bills in place of what the House passed. This "amendment in the nature of a substitute" is posted on the Senate Appropriations Committee's website.
The White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) on the bill today. The SAP supports the bill overall, but warns against using it to "advance ideological riders, which the President has made clear are unacceptable."
With regard to NASA, the SAP expresses concern about three issues in the version of the bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee:
The SAP does not list any concerns about NOAA's satellite programs or the FAA's space office.
These three bills -- CJS, T-HUD and Agriculture -- also were bundled together for FY2012. The House already has passed its versions of the FY2015 CJS and T-HUD bills and begun consideration of the Agriculture bill, stoking optimism that this may be a rare year when at least some appropriations bills are enacted before the new fiscal year begins on October 1. That is far from guaranteed, of course, but it has been many years since Congress has gotten even this close.
The Senate-passed version of the latest Intelligence Authorization bill would require that the Director and Inspector General (IG) of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) be subject to Senate confirmation, as well as the Director and IG of the National Security Agency (NSA). The House-passed bill requires only that the NSA IG receive Senate confirmation. A Senate Intelligence Committee press release, however, predicts that the House will accept its version.
The Senate's FY2014 Intelligence Authorization Act, S. 1681, was reported from committee last fall (S. Rept. 113-120), but the version passed by the Senate on June 11 is an "amendment in the nature of a substitute." The new version retains language from the previous text, however, requiring Senate confirmation for the NRO Director and IG. The bill passed by voice vote.
The House passed a two-year bill for both FY2014 and 2015 on May 30. It was an amended version of what the House Intelligence Committee cleared in November. There is nothing in the unclassified version of that bill about national security space activities including any requirement for Senate confirmation of the NRO Director and IG.
NRO design, builds, and operates the nation's signals and imagery reconnaissance satellites. Its Director and IG are currently appointed by the President. The Senate's requirement that they henceforth be confirmed by the Senate come at a time when relationships between the Executive Branch and Congress on intelligence matters are under considerable strain. The Senate committee also has shown strong interest for several years in tradeoffs between the expensive government-built imagery satellites under NRO's control versus buying commercial imagery from companies like DigitalGlobe.
Senate confirmation is required for a wide range of top level Executive Branch officials from Cabinet secretaries to NASA's Chief Financial Officer. The confirmation process not only gives the Senate leverage over who is appointed in the first place, but subsequently those individuals can be required to testify, presumably providing more transparency for Congress to know what is going on in the Executive Branch.
Quite a few top-level intelligence officials already are subject to Senate confirmation, including the Director of National Intelligence and Director of Central Intelligence along with several of their top staff and their agencies' IGs and the Under Secretaries of Intelligence at DOD and the Department of Homeland Security, as a few examples.
The Senate bill would add a total of four more positions to the list: the Director and IG of NRO and the Director and IG of NSA.
In its report, the Senate committee said that Senate confirmation "will improve oversight and accountability and, ultimately, the effectiveness of the agencies in question." The committee added, however, that it actually thinks fewer positions across the government should be subject to Senate confirmation and it would "evaluate" whether other positions in the Intelligence Community that currently require Senate confirmation can be relieved of that requirement.
The House-passed bill would add a requirement of Senate confirmation only for the NSA IG. Even though the Senate bill affects four positions and the House version only one, a press release from the Senate committee issued after the bill cleared the Senate asserts that the measure would now go to the House "where it is expected to be passed in its current form and sent to the president for enactment." Whether the President will agree to Senate confirmation for these positions remains to be seen.
Separately, in its report on the bill last fall, the Senate committee included extensive language encouraging the use of commercial satellite imagery generally and specifically allowing commercial firms to sell data with higher resolution -- 0.25 meter -- than the 0.50 meter then allowed. The government recently agreed to the 0.25 meter limit.
Here is our list of upcoming space policy related events for the week of June 16-20, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate both are in session this week.
During the Week
Inside the Beltway, perhaps the most interesting event will be Senate debate on a "minibus" appropriations bill that bundles the bill that funds NASA and NOAA (Commerce-Justice-Science or CJS), the bill that funds FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (Transportation-HUD or T-HUD), and the Agriculture bill. The Hill newspaper reports that's the plan and the Senate did begin debate on the motion to proceed to the CJS bill last week, a procedural step. Those three bills were bundled together in FY2012, too.
It's hard to remember the last time the Senate took up the CJS appropriations bill so early in the year. Typically the Senate turns to such bills after the August recess. It is amazing to see how much progress is being made on appropriations bills on both sides of Capitol Hill this year thanks to the Ryan-Murray budget agreement reached last December that set the spending limits for FY2014 and FY2015. It's never over till the fat lady sings, of course, but one kernel of optimism for those three bills, at least, is that the House already has passed two (CJS and T-HUD) and begun debate on the third (Agriculture) though it is not the Majority Leader's schedule for the coming week. Instead the House will be debating the defense appropriations bill, which was reported from committee on Friday (H.R. 4870, H. Rept. 113-473).
Outside the Beltway, the third International Space Station Research and Development Conference in Chicago should be interesting. Organized by the American Astronautical Society (AAS) in cooperation with NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the conference has a very impressive agenda. AAS sometimes offers webcasts of key sessions of its conferences; we're checking to see if they are providing webcasts this time and will add the information to our calendar item for that event if the answer is yes.
Those and the other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Monday, June 16
Monday-Friday, June 16-20
Tuesday-Thursday, June 17-19
Wednesday, June 18
Wednesday-Thursday, June 18-19
Friday, June 20
Commercial satellite imagery company DigitalGlobe announced today that it has received permission from the U.S. government to collect and sell satellite imagery with greater resolution than allowed in the past. The company has been seeking a change to the resolution restriction for quite some time.
Under the new limits, DigitalGlobe can collect and sell imagery as sharp as 0.25 meters (m) instead of 0.50 m. Until now, if the satellite could image the Earth with greater accuracy, the company had to degrade the data so it had only the allowable resolution. (Resolution is essentially the ability to "see" an object on Earth.) Beginning immediately, it may sell the imagery from its existing satellites at its "native" resolution. DigitalGlobe, after its merger with competitor GeoEye in 2013, operates a fleet of five high-resolution imaging satellites, two of which can provide better than 0.50 m resolution with their panchromatic (black and white) sensors: GeoEye-1 (0.41 m) and WorldView-2 (0.46 m).
The WorldView-3 satellite is scheduled for launch in August 2014. It will have 0.31 m resolution. Six months after it is operational, DigitalGlobe will be allowed to offer imagery with that resolution for sale to commercial customers.
DigitalGlobe CEO Jeffrey Tanber thanked Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker as well as the Departments of Defense and State and the Intelligence Community for making this "forward-leaning change to our nation's policy."
DigitalGlobe also operates Ikonos, QuickBird, WorldView-1 and GeoEye-1. Another satellite, GeoEye-2, also with 0.31 m resolution, is under construction.
The U.S. government has steadily relaxed image resolution limits for commercial imaging satellites since commercial satellite remote sensing was first envisioned in the 1980s. NOAA, which is part of the Department of Commerce, is responsible for licensing commercial remote sensing satellites under the 1992 Land Remote Sensing Policy Act, which replaced the 1984 Land-Remote Sensing Commercialization Act. The resolution limits reflect a tension between those who want to restrict availability of the very best imagery to those involved in protecting U.S. national security and those who want to make such data widely available for multiple uses and to more easily enable sharing with other countries.
SpaceX Founder and Chief Designer Elon Musk said in an interview this evening that the version of the Dragon spacecraft designed to take humans into space initially will be tested in an automated mode, but the first time it carries people, they will be NASA astronauts.
Dragon was the center of attention at a SpaceX event tonight in Washington, DC. The company unveiled this version of the spacecraft -- Dragon V2 -- on May 29 at an event in California. Now it is D.C.'s turn to see, touch, and sit in the vehicle. It will be on display through tomorrow (June 11) at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.
The capsule can accommodate seven people. Though it seems cozy by most standards, the interior is more spacious than Russia's Soyuz spacecraft, which is currently used to transport International Space Station (ISS) crews. When asked about the cost for a Dragon capsule, Musk replied it was about $60 million, and the total cost including launch is $140 million. SpaceX has said for many years that the price to NASA for a Dragon flight is $140 million. When asked if that is the price or the cost, Musk said it was the cost. He pointed out that if NASA uses all seven seats, that calculates out to $20 million a seat, much less than what Russia charges for a seat on Soyuz (in the $60-70 million range). However, NASA is not planning to use all seven seats. The ISS was designed to accommodate only seven crew members in total -- three launched by Russia and four by the United States. Presumably NASA would use any extra volume for cargo.
Musk confirmed that Dragon can remain in orbit for many months and hence could also serve as an ISS "lifeboat." Even when the space shuttle was flying, only Russia's Soyuz spacecraft could remain on orbit for six months at a time and perform the lifeboat function, remaining attached to ISS as an escape route for the crew in case of an emergency. Musk actually said this evening that Dragon can remain on orbit indefinitely whether or not it is attached to the ISS. Soyuz's lifetime is limited by how long its fuel can withstand the cold. Russia decided long ago that six months was as long as Soyuz should stay in orbit and be expected to safely return crews to Earth.
Some of the companies competing for the commercial crew contract have indicated that initial orbital crewed flights may involve one crewperson from the company and another from NASA. Musk said tonight that SpaceX has no astronauts and the first crewed flight would be with NASA astronauts only. When asked when the first crewed flight would take place, therefore, Musk said that was NASA's call since it is the customer. He said little training is needed to fly aboard Dragon since it is entirely automated, including docking.
SpaceX's current version of Dragon, used for cargo flights to the ISS, berths with ISS rather than docks. In berthing, Dragon flies close to the ISS and then the ISS crew uses Canadarm2 to grapple Dragon and maneuver it onto a docking port. The reverse is done at the end of the mission. Berthing therefore requires a crew to be aboard. That is not a desirable situation for crewed flights, which may be sent to the ISS when it is unoccupied or if a crew is evacuating the ISS. Therefore this version of Dragon must be able to dock and undock instead, where no human intervention from the ISS side of the docking ring is required.
Unlike the cargo version of Dragon, which splashes down in the ocean, the Dragon V2 will return to land using parachutes and propulsive landing systems. The goal is to land at Cape Canaveral, FL, but Musk said initial landings may be at White Sands, NM until they are certain of the spacecraft's landing precision.
The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is continuing to work on a NASA authorization bill although its version may be for more than just one year.
The House passed a one-year NASA authorization bill (H.R. 4412) yesterday, meaning that its funding recommendations cover only FY2014, which is already in progress. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) said during floor debate that she wished the committee had been able to agree on a multi-year bill.
Last year the Senate committee approved a three-year bill on a party line vote. A Senate aide confirmed to SpacePolicyOnline.com that the committee continues to work on that bill and its multi-year time span remains an important feature.
NASA’s authorizations are under the purview of the Senate Commerce Committee and the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. Each committee approved bills last year, but intense disagreements between Republicans and Democrats over top-level funding caps – based on budget resolutions independently passed by the House and Senate using entirely different assumptions – resulted in the bills being approved on party line votes and they did not progress past the committees.
Following the Ryan-Murray budget agreement for FY2014 and FY2015 reached in December, budget tensions have eased, opening the door to greater bipartisan agreement as evidenced by the House bill.
The Senate committee similarly may be able to reach bipartisan agreement on budget matters now and the main issues will be in the policy arena. One key will be whether the goal is for a two-year bill or if the committee pushes for maintaining the three-year time horizon. A two-year bill would be for FY2014 and FY2015, the years covered by the Ryan-Murray agreement. A three-year bill would take the budget recommendations into FY2016, which is unknown territory.
The sequester will return in FY2016 unless Congress again changes the law. That may depend on the outcome of the November elections. Currently the House is controlled by Republicans and the Senate by Democrats. The House is expected to remain in Republican hands, but the Senate is up in the air. If Republicans also gain control of the Senate, the Republican Party may fight for deeper government spending cuts and the sequester may be upheld.
No timetable for Senate action is set, but the ball is in their court.
UPDATE, June 10, 2014: This article was updated with the names of the two members who voted against the bill and a link to the Congressional Record page where the full roster of votes is available.
ORIGINAL STORY, June 9, 2014: The House passed the 2014 NASA Authorization Act, H.R. 4412, today under a legislative procedure called suspension of the rules. No amendments are allowed under that procedure, which is used for bills expected to be non-controversial. The bill passed by a vote of 401-2.
The chairmen and ranking members of the full House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee and its Space Subcommittee were the main speakers: Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS), and Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD). The only other speakers were committee members Randy Weber (R-TX) and Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR).
Bipartisanship was the order of the day, although all three Democrats noted how far the two sides had come since last year when sharp political divisions on an earlier version of the bill resulted in tense party-line votes in committee. Much of the rancor was because Republicans were working under strict budget limits adopted by the House for FY2014 while Democrats rejected those limits. In December, the Ryan-Murray budget agreement for FY2014 and FY2015 eased those limits, which has enabled significantly greater cooperation between the two parties on many issues this year, including authorization and appropriations legislation.
Much of today’s discussion focused on the need for the long-term human spaceflight plan required by the bill – a Human Exploration Roadmap. That provision is strongly supported by both Republicans and Democrats. The report released last week by the National Research Council on the future of the human exploration program was repeatedly cited as the type of plan they are hoping to get from NASA.
Not surprisingly, Republicans continued their criticism of President Obama’s cancellation of the Constellation program and the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) he proposed to replace it. However, Democrats did not come to the defense of ARM and just as enthusiastically supported the need for a new roadmap.
Palazzo said the human spaceflight program has been “adrift” since Constellation ended and the country “can’t keep changing our program of record every time there’s a new President.” The bill does not require that NASA reinstate lunar surface missions to its human exploration plan, but Palazzo noted that the NRC report pointed to the “significant contributions” such missions could provide for the longer term goal of human landings on Mars.
Republicans and Democrats agreed it was “not a perfect bill,” but they supported it because there was broad agreement on so many topics. Palazzo said he would continue to raise concerns about certain issues, however, including “distractions” like ARM and the need for adequate funding for the Space Launch System (SLS).
The funding recommendations in the bill are only for FY2014, which is already underway so are not very important. Edwards said she would have preferred a multi-year authorization, but this bill is “foundational” and provides important policy guidance.
The two "nay" votes were cast by Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) and Mark Sanford (R-SC). Thirty members did not vote. A full roster of the votes is printed in the Congressional Record.
The final version of the bill as reported from committee is available on the Library of Congress THOMAS website, but not the accompanying report. (The report number is there, H. Rept. 113-470, but it does not link to anything yet.)
The next step is Senate action. Like the House SS&T committee, last year the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee approved a bill on a party line vote. There has been no committee action this year.
UPDATE, June 10, 2014: The committee approved the bill today with no changes to the space provisions.
ORIGINAL STORY, June 9, 2014: The House Appropriations Committee supports adding $220 million to begin development of a U.S. liquid rocket engine to replace the Russian RD-180s currently used for the Atlas V rocket in its draft FY2015 defense bill. The committee also directs the Air Force to provide more information about changes in the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.
Those recommendations are included in the committee's draft bill and report on the FY2015 defense budget request, which are posted on the committee's website. The defense subcommittee approved the draft on May 30. Full committee markup is scheduled for tomorrow (Tuesday, June 10).
U.S. dependence on Russian engines for one of the two rockets used to launch most U.S. national security satellites is getting a lot of attention as U.S.-Russian relationships remain strained due to events in Ukraine. Lockheed Martin's decision to use Russian engines for its Atlas V rocket dates back to the 1990s and was approved by DOD initially with the requirement that the company build a co-production facility in the United States where the engines could be provided independently of Russia in case geopolitical circumstances changed. That requirement was later waived by the government, with the company buying extra engines to stockpile instead. Today, a Lockheed Martin-Boeing joint venture, United Launch Alliance (ULA), builds both Atlas V and Boeing's Delta IV. ULA says it has a two-year supply of RD-180s, but it would take longer than that to develop a U.S.-built replacement creating the conundrum now being faced by the U.S. government.
The House passed the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in May, which includes $220 million to begin development of a U.S. engine to replace the RD-180. That is an authorization bill, though, not an appropriation. (Authorization bills set policy and recommend funding levels, but do not actually provide money. Only appropriations bills provide money). Winning support from House appropriators is a key step, though not the only one.
The Senate Appropriations Committee has not acted on its version of the bill so it is too early to tell if it will follow the lead of the Senate's DOD authorization committee. The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) recommended $100 million for FY2015 rather than $220 million for this purpose when it approved its version of the NDAA in May. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) included language in the committee-approved NDAA prohibiting the purchase of any more RD-180 engines after the current block buy contract is completed, although waivers are permitted in certain circumstances. Even if the Senate Appropriations Committee does agree with SASC, there is quite a difference in the dollar amount between the House and Senate that would have to be negotiated.
Apart from the RD-180 issue, the House Appropriations Committee's draft bill and report highlight these other space-related recommendations:
Full committee markup is at 9:30 am ET tomorrow morning.