Commercial Space News
The 2014 International Astronautical Congress (IAC2014) kicked off in Toronto, Canada today (September 29). The highlight was a panel of space agency heads from around the world, but the biggest space policy news was the absence of representatives from China and Russia.
The printed program included Xu Dazhe, Administrator of the China National Space Administration, and Denis Lyskov, Deputy Head of Russia’s Roscosmos (representing Roscosmos Head Oleg Ostapenko) as participants in a “Heads of Agencies” panel discussion this afternoon. Instead, the panel included representatives only of the U.S., European, Japanese, Canadian, Indian and Mexican space agencies.
When asked how the panel could discuss international cooperation when two of the major space nations were missing, moderator Berndt Feuerbacher, a past president of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), emphasized that it was not what organizers had planned. Both countries were unable to attend because of visa problems, he indicated. During a later press conference, Walter Natynczyk, President of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), said he had no details on the nature of the visa problems. He only learned about it 48 hours in advance, he added, and was not provided with any details from Canada’s foreign ministry, which handles such matters.
IAF is one of the three organizations that sponsors the annual IAC, which also includes the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) and the International Institute of Space Law (IISL). The IAF, IAA and IISL presidents jointly proclaimed the beginning of IAC2014 after a two-hour opening ceremony that included three Canadian government astronauts and Cirque du Soleil performers. Cirque du Soleil is a Canadian company whose founder, Guy Laliberté, is Canada’s first “spaceflight participant” or space tourist. He flew to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2009 and is jokingly referred to as the “first clown in space” for wearing a clown’s nose during portions of the mission. He appeared in a pre-recorded interview. Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield, now retired, who rose to fame due to his social media outreach and rendition of David Bowie’s Space Oddity while aboard the ISS, rallied the troops at the end of the morning event.
During a press conference following the afternoon “Heads of Agencies” panel session, reporters attempted to elicit information from NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden on Sierra Nevada’s protest of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contract and whether the protest could affect work by Boeing and SpaceX, the two companies selected for the contract. Bolden answered firmly that he was not allowed to comment while the protest is underway.
A few news tidbits did emerge from the panel discussion and press conference. Noaki Okumura, President of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), said in response to a question that the Japanese government will not decide until 2016 whether to agree with NASA’s proposal to extend the life of the ISS to 2024. CSA’s Natynczyk said the Canadian government has agreed to funding through 2020. CSA’s focus now is to maximize life sciences research on ISS and will examine the value proposition of that research before asking the government for an extension. Jean-Jacques Dordain, Director General of the European Space Agency (ESA), said that ESA is still deciding on NASA’s previous request to extend operations to 2020, a topic that will be on the agenda of ESA’s December 2014 ministerial meeting. Only once that decision is formally made by ESA’s member states will it consider the new request.
Also on the agenda of ESA’s December ministerial meeting is what new launcher ESA should build. Dordain stressed that, in his opinion, ESA needs a family of launchers, but exactly what ESA will do is a decision to be made by the member states, not by him. When asked whether the decisions on extending ISS and on a new launcher might conflict, with the ministers choosing one or the other, Dordain said no, they are not in competition with each other. It is not an a la carte menu, he joked, but “cheese AND dessert.”
Dordain indicated that ESA cooperation with Russia has not been impacted by sanctions imposed on Russia by European countries because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Bolden added that ISS demonstrates that countries can cooperate together in space even when geopolitical tensions on Earth flare.
Bolden was asked about recent comments by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin that Russia is planning to spend $8 billion on ISS through 2025 and whether that is a signal that Russia is, in fact, committed to extending ISS. Bolden replied that 2025 is the end of their budget cycle and a budget request for that cycle has been submitted to Russia’s Duma. That is all. “You shouldn’t read too much into it,” he cautioned.
K. Radhakrishnan, Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), was awarded the IAF’s prestigious Allan D. Emil Award at the opening ceremony this morning, and received accolades during the panel session for ISRO’s successful Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), which entered orbit around Mars last week. Four of MOM’s five scientific instruments already have been switched on, he said, and images are being returned from MOM’s camera. Radhakrishnan spoke of the broad array of space activities ISRO is planning for the remainder of the decade, including space science, but India’s main focus continues to be space applications including navigation and communications.
Francisco Javier Mendieta Jimenéz, Director General of the recently established Mexican Space Agency, spoke enthusiastically about Mexico’s plans in space, which will focus in the near term on earth observation for disaster management. Stressing that Mexico is an emerging economy, he explained that three crucial elements of the Mexican space program will be technology transfer, training, and capacity building. Mexico will host the 2016 IAC.
Here is our list of space policy events for the next TWO weeks and any insight we can offer about them. Congress returns on November 12.
During the Week
We are here in Toronto to cover the annual International Astronautical Congress, the joint meetings of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), and International Institute of Space Law (IISL). As always, it promises to be fascinating ... and overwhelming. So many sessions, so little time. It'll be quite a challenge to choose the "best" sessions to cover, but we'll do what we can.
If you're not here and are back in Washington, DC, be sure not to miss Adam Steltzner's lecture at the National Academy of Sciences on Tuesday afternoon. He is the winner of the first Yvonne C. Brilll Lectureship in Aerospace Engineering. The lecture was created by AIAA and the National Academy of Engineering in honor of Brill, a distinguished aerospace engineer who passed way last year.
Lots more going on. Our list of what we know about as of Sunday afternoon follows.
Monday, September 29
Monday-Friday, September 29-October 3
Tuesday, September 30
Saturday-Friday, October 4-10, 2014
Tuesday, October 7
Tuesday-Thursday, October 7-9
Tuesday-Friday, October 7-10
Thursday, October 9
This story has been updated throughout.
Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) has filed a protest over NASA's award of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contracts to Boeing and SpaceX last week. Noting that this is the first time it has filed a legal challenge to a government contract award in its 51-year history, the company said in this case there are "serious questions and inconsistencies in the source selection process."
In a press release issued late this afternoon, SNC said that with the awards to Boeing and SpaceX, the government "would spend up to $900 million more ... for a space program equivalent to what SNC proposed." NASA's CCtCAP solicitation "prioritized price as the primary evaluation criteria ... setting it equal to the combined value of the other two primary evaluation criteria: mission suitability and past performance" and its Dream Chaser was the "second lowest priced proposal," SNC continues. Asserting that its design provides "a wider range of capabilities and value including preserving the heritage of the space shuttle program," it believes that a "thorough review of the award decision" is needed.
NASA has been supporting Sierra Nevada, Boeing and SpaceX under the current phase of the commercial crew program, called Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP). Last week's CCtCAP decision is intended to begin the final phase of the program whose goal is to develop a U.S. capability to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) beginning around 2017. NASA has not been able to launch people into space since the space shuttle was terminated in 2011 and currently pays Russia for such services. The commercial crew program is a public-private partnership where the government and the private sector share the development costs and the government provides a market for the resulting services.
NASA was not expected to be able to support all three of its current partners into the CCtCAP phase. The agency has not revealed how many bids there were, but obviously there were at least those three. NASA awarded a total of $6.8 billion for CCtCAP: $4.2 billion to Boeing and $2.6 billion to SpaceX.
Sierra Nevada's design is the only winged vehicle. The Boeing and SpaceX designs both are capsules.
The possibility that SNC might file a protest was first reported by Frank Morring at Aviation Week & Space Technology yesterday. Today was the deadline for filing a protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO). James Dean at Florida Today seemed to be first on Twitter (@flatoday_jdean) to break the story today, about 3 hours ago, that the protest had in fact been filed.
Note: this story was updated about 10 minutes after it was originally published when Sierra Nevada issued its press release.
Sierra Nevada Corporation's (SNC's) Space Systems division laid off about 10 percent of its Dream Chaser workforce after losing NASA's Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contract last week, but is not abandoning the program.
The Denver Post reported yesterday that Mark Sirangelo, Corporate Vice President of SNC Space Systems, confirmed that 90 employees were laid off from the Dream Chaser program, representing about 9.4 percent of its workforce. The newspaper added that Sirangelo said the Dream Chaser program "will continue and Space Systems intends to bid on upcoming NASA contracts." SNC Space Systems is based in Louisville, CO, just outside Denver.
NASA announced on September 16 that Boeing and SpaceX were the two winners of CCtCAP contracts. The agency declines to say what other companies bid for the contract until it has debriefed those who lost, but it was widely expected that Sierra Nevada was one of them. It is already a partner with NASA on the commercial crew program as one of three companies (along with Boeing and SpaceX) funded in the current phase -- Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP).
In May, NASA and Sierra Nevada agreed to extend their existing CCiCAP agreement to March 2015, so the company will continue to be a NASA partner until then. The CCiCAP awards were made in 2012. At that time, NASA chose "2 1/2" companies to support: Boeing and SpaceX were the "2" that received the full amount they requested, while Sierra Nevada was the "1/2," receiving half its request.
The commercial crew program is a public-private partnership with the goal of developing a U.S. capability to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). The United States has not been able to launch people into space since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011. NASA and the private sector share the development costs and NASA guarantees a market, albeit limited, for the resulting services.
How many companies NASA should support has been a matter of much debate. NASA insists that it wants at least two competitors to keep prices down in the long term, while Congress has been reluctant to provide the funded needed to support more than one company during the development process. The decision to fund 2 1/2 companies during the CCiCAP phase was the result of an agreement between NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and the chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA). NASA's choice of two companies for the CCtCAP phase reflects its position but is, of course, subject to congressional approval.
Here is our list of events for the next TWO weeks, September 21-October 3, 2014, starting with MAVEN's arrival at Mars tonight (Sunday). Congress is in recess until November 12.
During the Weeks
Mars will get two new visitors this week. NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission is due to enter orbit around Mars tonight, September 21, at 9:37 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT). Signal travel time between Mars and Earth means that NASA won't know certain that everything went smoothly until 9:50 pm EDT. NASA TV coverage begins at 9:30 pm EDT.
On Tuesday evening (Wednesday morning local time in India), India's first mission to Mars, Mars Orbiting Mission (MOM), will join MAVEN and three other U.S. and European spacecraft orbiting Mars. MOM is scheduled to fire its engine to enter orbit at 07:17 Indian Standard Time on Wednesday (9:47 pm Tuesday EDT). The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has not announced its plans for live coverage. Check the ISRO website for up to date information.
Back here in Earth orbit, SpaceX's CRS-4 cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS), with its cargo of mice, fruit flies, spacesuit batteries, a 3D printer and many other supplies and scientific experiments, will arrive at the ISS on Tuesday morning at 7:04 am ET. Two days later three new ISS crew members will launch to and dock with the ISS on Soyuz TMA-14M.
Meanwhile, here on terra firma, there are many interesting events on the schedule. John Logsdon will provide an update on his research for his upcoming book Richard Nixon and the American Space Program at 4:00 pm EDT on Monday at the National Air and Space Museum. The event is free, but you MUST register in advance in order to access the museum's office area. Later on Monday (8:00 pm EDT), the Secure World Foundation and The Space Show will host a webinar on Satellites and Disaster Management. The NASA Advisory Council's heliophysics subcommittee meets on Tuesday and Wednesday at NASA Headquarters, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Frank Rose will talk to the AIAA National Capital Section in Arlington, VA on Thursday.
Quite a full week, as many in the space community also get ready to head to Toronto for the annual International Astronautical Congress (IAC) next week. It officially runs from September 29-October 3, but there are a number of associated meetings in the days preceding the conference beginning on September 25.
For those not traveling to Toronto, there are two very interesting events in the Washington, DC area that week. On Monday, September 29, Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) will talk to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable in Greenbelt, MD.
On Tuesday afternoon (September 30), the inaugural Yvonne C. Brill Lectureship in Aerospace Engineering will be presented at the National Academy of Sciences building in Washington (the one on the Mall, not on 5th Street). This first Brill Lectureship, created in honor of the distinguished aerospace engineer Yvonne Brill, was awarded to Adam Steltzner of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Steltzer led the entry, descent and landing team for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover. Steltzer's lecture will be on "Engineering and the Mars Entry Descent and Landing (EDL) System."
Here is the list of the events we know about as of Sunday afternoon, September 21, for the two-week period through October 3, 2014.
Sunday, September 21
Monday, September 22
Tuesday, September 23
Tuesday-Wednesday, September 23-24
Thursday, September 25
Thursday-Sunday, September 25-28
Monday-Friday, September 29-October 3
Monday, September 29
Tuesday, September 30
SpaceX will break ground for its new launch site near Brownsville, TX on Monday, September 22, 2014. It will cap quite a busy week-long period for the entrepreneurial space launch company that started with winning a CCtCAP award from NASA and, hopefully, launching a cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) this weekend.
On Tuesday, NASA awarded SpaceX one of two Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contracts (Boeing got the other). The $2.6 billion contract is for SpaceX to complete development of its Dragon V2 spacecraft for taking astronauts to and from the ISS, fly a demonstration mission, and up to six missions thereafter. NASA’s goal is to have SpaceX and/or Boeing commercial crew vehicles operational by 2017. Boeing received a $4.2 billion award.
Right now, SpaceX is waiting for the weather to cooperate at Cape Canaveral, FL for the launch of its fourth operational “commercial cargo” to the ISS, Commercial Resupply Services (CRS)-4. The SpaceX CRS-4 cargo mission was supposed to launch early this morning, but was postponed to early tomorrow morning (September 21, 1:52 am ET) because of bad weather. The forecast is only 40 percent favorable for launch tomorrow morning. If it is delayed again, the next opportunity is on September 23.
Both the commercial crew and commercial cargo programs are essentially public-private partnerships where NASA and the private sector each provide funding for development (instead of the government providing all of the funds), with the government serving as a market for the resulting services. SpaceX competes with Orbital Sciences Corporation for the commercial cargo launches. Its competition for commercial crew will be Boeing and perhaps other companies that are willing to proceed without government funds in the hope that the market for taking people to and from space is larger than just NASA.
Meanwhile on September 22, SpaceX will break ground near Boca Chica Beach, TX, close to Brownsville, for an orbital launch facility which it hopes will be completed by 2016. The FAA approved SpaceX’s application to conduct launches from the site in July. The license allows up to 12 commercial launch operations per year of the Falcon 9 and prospective SpaceX rockets including Falcon Heavy and “a variety of reusable suborbital vehicles.” The launch site is on 68.9 acres of land just three miles north of the U.S./Mexico border. Space launches from there can travel out over the Gulf of Mexico, avoiding overflight of land during the early stages of launch just like the other U.S. orbital sites in Virginia (Wallops Island), Florida (Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and NASA's adjacent Kennedy Space Center), California (Vandenberg Air Force Base) and Alaska (Kodiak). By having its own launch site, SpaceX will have more flexibility in launch dates by not having to coordinate with other users. SpaceX currently launches from Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg. It will continue to use those facilities when necessary and its commercial crew flights will launch from Pad 39A at KSC, which SpaceX is leasing from NASA.
Note: SpaceX CRS-4 was successfully launched at 1:52 am EDT, September 21, 2014.
UPDATE 2: September 21, 2014. SpaceX CRS-4 was successfully launched at 1:52 am EDT today.
UPDATE: September 20, 2014. The launch was scrubbed due to weather just after 1:30 pm EDT. It had deteriorated to only 10 percent favorable. The next opportunity is 1:52 am Sunday, September 21, when the weather is only 40 percent favorable for launch. If it does not go then, September 23 is the next chance.
ORIGINAL STORY, September 19, 2014: NASA and SpaceX are getting ready for the launch of the SpaceX CRS-4 cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) at 2:14 am Eastern Daylight Time Saturday morning, about 8 hours from now, but the forecast is for just a 50 percent chance of favorable weather. If the launch is postponed to Sunday, the weather chances improve to 70 percent.
This is SpaceX's fourth operational cargo mission to the ISS and the first to carry mammals -- 20 mice. The mice, jokingly referred to as "moustronauts," are in their own enclosure with a dedicated life support system.
The "Rodent Research-1" experiment is joint between NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), an organization established by NASA to facilitate non-NASA use of ISS. Ten of the mice are for NASA and 10 are for CASIS. The main objective of this flight is to validate the hardware for subsequent rodent flights. The mice will be transferred by the ISS crew to an ISS EXPRESS rack inside the ISS after SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft docks. According to a NASA fact sheet, the mice will be euthanized after about 30 days while still on the ISS, frozen, and returned to Earth for study on a subsequent SpaceX flight. Future rodent missions will be for increasingly longer durations to study the effects of spaceflight on mammals.
These are not the first rodents in space or the first on the ISS. NASA flew rats and mice on 27 space shuttle missions, but the advantage of the ISS is that the experiments can run for a longer period of time. Mice already have been on ISS as part of a 90-day Italian scientific experiment according to Ruth Globus from NASA's Ames Research Center who spoke at a NASA press conference yesterday. Russia also has launched a number of robotic biosatellite missions carrying rodents.
The mice are part of a total of 2.5 tons of supplies, experiments and technology demonstrations being delivered by Dragon. Among the rest of the cargo is NASA's RapidScat, the first of two earth science instruments due to be attached to the exterior of the ISS this year. It will monitor ocean surface wind speed and direction. The other, Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS), is scheduled for the next SpaceX cargo flight.
Dragon is also delivering new batteries for the U.S. spacesuits aboard the ISS. Two U.S. spacewalks planned in August were postponed until the new batteries could be delivered. Another set of batteries will be delivered by the next ISS crew, scheduled for launch on September 25. The spacewalks are now scheduled for October.
If the SpaceX CRS-4 launch is delayed beyond Sunday, the next opportunity will be on September 23. After that, the mission will have to wait until after the September 25 ISS crew launch, probably until September 28.
NASA TV will provide live coverage of the SpaceX CRS-4 launch beginning at 1:00 am EDT.
The Senate just passed the FY2015 Continuing Resolution (CR), funding the government through December 11, 2014 and avoiding a government shutdown.
The House and Senate are still in session at this hour (September 18, 7:00 pm EDT), but are expected to adjourn later today and not return until after the November elections.
The vote on the CR, which also includes a limited authorization for President Obama to take military actions related to defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), was 78-22. The bill passed the House yesterday and now goes to the President, who is expected to sign it.
The CR funds the government at its FY2014 level of $1.012 trillion. Government agencies including NASA, NOAA and DOD are funded at their FY2014 levels minus a 0.0544 percent across-the-board reduction to pay for new activities included in the bill that are primarily related to national security, veterans affairs, customs and immigration, and responding to the Ebola crisis. Two space-related provisions allow funding flexibility for weather satellite programs and extend the authorization for the Export-Import Bank until June 30, 2015.
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.
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.