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Commercial Space News

DSCOVR Space Weather Spacecraft On Its Way to L1

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Feb-2015 (Updated: 11-Feb-2015 10:59 PM)

The Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) spacecraft successfully lifted off on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 6:03 pm ET this evening.  Once known as Triana, the spacecraft will provide data for space weather forecasting as well as earth observations after it reaches its final destination, the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point, in approximately 110 days.

The launch was delayed several times due to weather and technical issues, but today was picture perfect with the weather cooperating fully -- for launch.   Unfortunately, however, it was a different story for SpaceX's attempt to land the Falcon 9 first stage on a drone ship 400 miles out at sea.  There, a "megastorm" was underway with 30 foot swells that convinced SpaceX to recall the drone ship and support ships.  The first stage was already set to fire two reentry burns for the landing and those went ahead as planned. SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk tweeted thereafter that the "Rocket soft landed in the ocean within 10m of target & nicely vertical!  High probability of good droneship landing in non-stormy weather."

Landing the first stage on the drone ship was a secondary objective.  Getting DSCOVR on its way was the primary objective and it was a complete success.   DSCOVR is a joint NOAA-NASA-Air Force program with a long history dating back to the 1990s when it was initiated by then Vice President Al Gore.   Gore was at the launch today and said DSCOVR will "give us a wonderful opportunity to see the beauty and fragility of our planet and, in so doing, remind us of the duty to protect our only home."

It was that environmental message that inspired Gore in the first place.  His idea was to place a camera at the Sun-Earth L1 (SEL-1) Lagrange point to send back constant images of the sunlit side of the Earth to remind the people of the world of our planet's fragility.  Other instruments were later added to make the mission more scientifically useful. 

SEL-1 is located between the Earth and the Sun, about 1.5 million miles from Earth.  It is already the location of spacecraft needed to observe the Sun and detect and measure particles ejected by the Sun than can have negative consequences for everything from Earth-orbiting satellites to the terrestrial power grid.  Those events are referred to as "space weather" and NOAA forecasts space weather just as it does terrestrial weather.

The spacecraft conceptualized by Gore was named Triana after a sailor, Rodrigo de Triana, on one of Columbus's ships who first spotted North America.  The spacecraft was built and ready for launch by the end of Clinton-Gore Administration, but then fell victim to politics.  Derisively called "Goresat," it was put into storage in 2001 when George W. Bush became President following the bitter 2000 Gore-Bush presidential election.

Originally, Triana was an earth observing spacecraft with Gore's camera -- Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) -- and a radiometer to measure Earth's albedo as the primary instruments.  Two space weather instruments were also included as secondary payloads.   At the time, space weather observations were provided by NASA's relatively new Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE).   As the years passed, however, it became apparent that a replacement for ACE would be needed.   In 2008, NOAA successfully argued for Triana to be brought out of storage, refurbished and launched with a role reversal where space weather would be the primary mission and earth observations secondary.

Agreement was reached where NOAA would pay NASA tor refurbishing the spacecraft and the two space weather instruments (NASA is NOAA's spacecraft acquisition agent), NASA would pay to refurbish the two earth observation instruments, and the Air Force, which also needs space weather forecasts, would pay for the launch.  NOAA renamed it DSCOVR.

Today witnessed the fruit of all those labors, though it will take 110 days for DSCOVR to reach SEL-1, and 40 days of checkout are needed before operational space weather data become available.  NOAA operates the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) in Boulder, CO and the data will be posted on the SWPC website.  NASA will be in charge of the earth observing instruments, including EPIC.   Images from EPIC will be posted on a NASA website with a one-day delay.

NOAA's FY2016 budget request includes $2.5 million to begin planning for a follow-on to DSCOVR.  NASA and NOAA's responsibilities for earth observing and space weather are undergoing changes.  The Obama Administration is proposing that NASA be responsible for all non-military satellite earth observations, while NOAA is responsible only for weather satellites, including space weather.  

Forecasting space weather is an operational task, but research is still needed to understand the Sun's processes and their effects on Earth, a discipline called solar-terrestrial physics, solar and space physics, or heliophysics.  NASA retains responsibility for that research and is getting ready to launch the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission to further that research with a set of four earth-orbiting satellites. Launch is currently scheduled for March 12.

DSCOVR represents three "firsts": it is NOAA's first operational space weather satellite and its first deep space satellite, and this was SpaceX's first deep space launch.  It will join NASA's ACE research satellite, still working after more than 17 years on the job and long past its design lifetime, and a European spacecraft, the Solar and Heliophysics Observatory (SOHO), which carries a type of telescope called a coronagraph that provides the first indication of an eruption on the Sun.   The particles then fly past ACE, and soon DSCOVR, which collect data about intensity and polarization that in turn allows SWPC to make its forecasts.

House Passes 2015 NASA Authorization Bill

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Feb-2015 (Updated: 10-Feb-2015 06:03 PM)

Just one day after it was officially introduced, and with no committee action, the House today passed the 2015 NASA Authorization Act, H.R. 810.

The bill is virtually identical to the 2014 NASA Authorization Act passed by the House last year by a vote of 401-2.   There was no recorded vote today; it passed by voice vote.  The bill was brought up under a procedure called "suspension of the rules" where two-thirds of the House must vote in favor.  If only a voice vote is required, it is two-thirds of however many members are present at the time.

Republicans and Democrats each had 20 minutes to speak on the bill and all who did praised the bipartisanship that allowed the bill to be brought to a vote so quickly.  The sponsors avoided tricky budget issues by authorizing funds only for the fiscal year that is already underway (FY2015) at the same levels that already were appropriated. 

Common themes were that NASA needs "constancy of purpose" and the bill provides that and will keep the United States as the world's leader in space exploration.

The next step for this bill is passage by the Senate, which has not announced its plans.   The Senate never took up the bill that passed the House last year (H.R. 4412).

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), the ranking member of the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T), stressed that once this bill is enacted, work will begin on a multi-year authorization bill. 

The bipartisan leadership of the House SS&T Committee and its Space Subcommittee announced agreement on the bill on Friday.   They skipped over holding hearings and markups, presumably since the bill is so similar to last year's version.  The committee's summary of the bill described these key features:

  • Human Spaceflight
    • states that a human mission to Mars is the goal for NASA's human spaceflight program and calls on NASA to develop a roadmap to achieve that goal
    • continues the commitment to the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion, and reiterates the directive in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that Orion serve as a backup to commercial crew if necessary
    • supports building "at least one" commercial crew system
  • Science
    • relies on guidance from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) regarding NASA's earth and space science programs and asks for additional NAS studies on long-term goals of the Mars robotic program and an exoplanets strategy
    • emphasizes the need for a "steady cadence" of science missions, including a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa for launch by 2021
    • stresses the importance of fulfilling previous congressional direction regarding detecting, tracking, cataloging and characterizing Near Earth Objects 140 meters in diameter or more
    • asserts that if earth science responsibilities are transferred to NASA from other agencies that NASA be reimbursed for that cost
    • maintains funding to support launch of the James Webb Space Telescope by 2018
  • Aeronautics
    • authorizes a robust program including efforts to integrate unmanned aerial systems into the national airspace, development of NextGen technology for air traffic management and research on aviation safety
  • Infrastructure
    • directs NASA to develop a plan to better position the agency to have facilities and infrastructure necessary to meet future requirements
    • provides transparency provisions to ensure NASA's property and facilities are managed appropriately
  • Education
    • requires that NASA's educational and outreach activities continue to support STEM curriculum and inspire the next generation of explorers
 

Orbital and ATK Complete Merger, Now Orbital ATK

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Feb-2015 (Updated: 09-Feb-2015 03:57 PM)

Orbital Sciences Corporation and Alliant Techsystems Inc. (ATK) completed their merger today.  The new company is named Orbital ATK.

The "merger of equals" was announced in April 2014.  The tax-free, all-stock merger became final after ATK spun off its sporting business as a separate company, Vista Outdoors.

ATK decided to proceed with the merger despite the launch failure of Orbital's Antares rocket in October 2014, although it was a factor in delaying the merger from December until now.  The Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission approved the merger in December pending the spinoff of Vista Outdoors.

What's Happening in Space Policy February 9-13, 2015 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Feb-2015 (Updated: 09-Feb-2015 08:33 AM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of February 9-13, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week. (Updated to show new launch date for DSCOVR)

During the Week

The launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) (formerly Triana) was scrubbed on Sunday due to a problem with a radar on the Eastern Test Range needed to track the rocket.  The launch was TENTATIVELY rescheduled for Monday, BUT ON MONDAY MORNING NOAA ANNOUNCED THAT THE LAUNCH DATE WILL BE TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 10, AT 6:05 PM ET BECAUSE THE WEATHER TODAY IS UNFAVORABLE.  Wednesday at 6:03 PM ET is a backup launch opportunity.  If it doesn't go by then, DSCOVR will have to wait until February 20.

The House is poised to pass a new NASA authorization bill.  The bill has not yet been introduced, but the bipartisan leadership of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee announced agreement on Friday.  They said the bill would be introduced this coming week and not only is that still expected, but the bill is skipping over committee action entirely and going directly to the House floor for a vote on Tuesday under suspension of the rules.  From the information released by the committee so far, the bill is very similar to last year's bill, which passed the House 401-2.  It was never considered by the Senate, however, and died at the end of the 113th Congress. 

That committee also will hold the first hearing of the 114th Congress dedicated to a space topic -- weather satellites -- on Thursday.  No space-specific hearings are scheduled in the Senate, but the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) tentatively plans to vote on the nomination of Ash Carter to be Secretary of Defense on Tuesday.

Three non-legislative events of particular interest this week are: (1) on Tuesday, the monthly ISU-DC Space Cafe will feature a panel of representatives of several European countries discussing the recent ESA ministerial meeting; (2) on Wednesday, the National Research Council's Space Technology Industry, Government, University Roundtable will hold its second meeting, and (3), on Friday, GWU's Space Policy Institute will hold a symposium on U.S.-Japan Relations and Space Cooperation in the Asia Pacific Region

NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel also is meeting this week, but their public meetings are usually pretty pro forma even though they have some very interesting observations that appear in their public reports, like this year's recently released annual report.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday evening are listed below.


Tuesday, February 10

Wednesday, February 11

Thursday, February 12

Friday, February 13

House Will Vote on New NASA Authorization Bill on Tuesday - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Feb-2015 (Updated: 09-Feb-2015 10:40 PM)

UPDATE, February 9:  The bill number was assigned today: H.R. 810.

ORIGINAL STORY,  February 8, 2015:  Skipping several steps in the usual legislative process, the House is scheduled to vote on a 2015 NASA Authorization Act on Tuesday, February 10.   Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee announced their bipartisan agreement on the bill on Friday.

Usually a bill is introduced, hearings are held, a subcommittee marks up the bill and reports it to the full committee, the full committee holds its own mark up session and reports the bill to the House.   Some bills then go through the House Rules Committee where decisions are made, for example, on what amendments will be considered and how much time is allowed for debate while the bill is on the floor.  Others are sufficiently non-controversial that they do not need a rule and are considered under "suspension of the rules" and placed on the suspension calendar.   Bills considered under suspension must be approved by at least two-thirds of the House.

This bill, which does not yet have a number, is skipping all the intermediate steps and going directly from being introduced (which has not happened yet) to a vote under suspension.  It is included in the list of legislation on the House Majority Leader's website scheduled for consideration on Tuesday.

The committee leaders announced their agreement on the bill two days ago.  From the summary that was provided, it seems very similar to last year's bill, H.R. 4412, which passed by a vote of 401-2. 

Passing a bill so quickly gives the Senate plenty of time to consider its own legislation or pass this version.

House SS&T Committee Announces Bipartisan 2015 NASA Authorization Act

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 06-Feb-2015 (Updated: 06-Feb-2015 07:12 PM)

Top Republicans and Democrats on the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) committee today announced details of a new bipartisan NASA Authorization Act that will be introduced next week.  The bill avoids budget issues by authorizing funds only for FY2015, for which funding already has been appropriated.

House SS&T Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Space Subcommittee Chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) and Ranking Member Donna Edwards (D-MD), and Space Subcommittee Vice-Chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL) issued a joint press release laying out the major provisions of the legislation, which seem to parallel the bill passed the House (but not considered by the Senate) last year.   Whether the text is identical to last year's other than updating the budget figures is not clear, but Smith said "this bill was approved unanimously" by the committee and "passed in the House" in the last Congress, suggesting that it must be very close.  Last year's bill included budget figures only for FY2014, which was already in progress at the time the bill was under consideration.  They have taken the same tack for this bill.

The main theme is that NASA is a multi-mission agency involved in range of aeronautics and space research and development activities.  Key elements include the following:

  • Human Spaceflight
    • states that a human mission to Mars is the goal for NASA's human spaceflight program and calls on NASA to develop a roadmap to achieve that goal
    • continues the commitment to the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion, and reiterates the directive in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that Orion serve as a backup to commercial crew if necessary
    • supports building "at least one" commercial crew system
  • Science
    • relies on guidance from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) regarding NASA's earth and space science programs and asks for additional NAS studies on long-term goals of the Mars robotic program and an exoplanets strategy
    • emphasizes the need for a "steady cadence" of science missions, including a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa for launch by 2021
    • stresses the importance of fulfilling previous congressional direction regarding detecting, tracking, cataloging and characterizing Near Earth Objects 140 meters in diameter or more
    • asserts that if earth science responsibilities are transferred to NASA from other agencies that NASA be reimbursed for that cost
    • maintains funding to support launch of the James Webb Space Telescope by 2018
  • Aeronautics
    • authorizes a robust program including efforts to integrate unmanned aerial systems into the national airspace, development of NextGen technology for air traffic management and research on aviation safety
  • Infrastructure
    • directs NASA to develop a plan to better position the agency to have facilities and infrastructure necessary to meet future requirements
    • provides transparency provisions to ensure NASA's property and facilities are managed appropriately
  • Education
    • requires that NASA's educational and outreach activities continue to support STEM curriculum and inspire the next generation of explorers

The bill also provides greater public accountability and transparency, requires enforcement of cost estimating discipline, strengthens the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), and provides for additional tools to protect against waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement.

The phrasing that NASA is a multi-mission agency is important because some argue that NASA only should be involved in human spaceflight.   Science should be done by the National Science Foundation and other government agencies, and aeronautics research should be under the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), they argue.  This bill makes clear that NASA should continue to have a range of missions as described in the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act that created the agency.

The language about support for "at least one" commercial crew system and that Orion continue to be able to serve as a backup to commercial crew also is important.   Committee Republicans do not necessarily agree that NASA should support two commercial crew companies.  SpaceX and Boeing were selected by NASA last year, which believes that it needs two competitors to keep prices down and provide redundancy in case one of the systems has a failure.  Some in Congress think there should be only one commercial crew company and the redundant capability could be filled by Orion.

Launching a mission to Europa by 2021 is quite different from NASA's FY2016 budget plan, which foresees such a launch in the mid-2020s.

The bipartisan announcement is in contrast to the partisan wrangling at the committee's organizational meeting last month,

 

President Requests $18.5 Billion for NASA, How Will Congress React?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Feb-2015 (Updated: 04-Feb-2015 09:44 AM)

President Obama submitted his FY2016 budget request to Congress today.  It includes $18.5 billion for NASA, a 2.9 percent increase over the FY2015 appropriated level, which itself was a half-billion increase over the President's request for FY2015.  In less than 12 months, NASA's budget fortunes have improved considerably though, predictably, not enough to satisfy everyone.  Also not surprisingly, the President's request has not been welcomed with open arms by everyone in Congress, though statements today focused more on the overall request, not specifically that for NASA.

Those who see the glass as half empty point to the fact that the President decided to ignore the budget caps put in place by the 2011 Budget Control Act, and requested a 6 percent increase for research and development spending across the federal government.  They see the 2.9 percent increase for NASA as too small.  On the other hand are those who see the glass half full, a decided improvement over what the President requested last year ($17.460 billion) and what the White House projected last year would be the request for FY2016 ($17.635 billion).

SpacePolicyOnline.com has a free fact sheet summarizing NASA's FY2016 budget request and identifying four of the top issues likely to arise as Congress considers it.  In brief, they are:

  • Earth Science.  The request of $1.947 billion is a $174.8 million increase over FY2016.  Some of that -- though NASA officials could not say today how much -- is because the Administration is proposing that some NOAA satellite activities be transferred to NASA.  One is the Total and Spectral Solar Irradiance Sensor (TSIS-1).  NASA also is requesting funds for a "multi-decadal sustainable land imaging program" that includes money to build the next Landsat satellite (Landsat 9) for launch in 2023; a separate free-flyer for an infrared sensor for launch in 2019; and funds for technology development and system innovations to reduce the costs of Landsat 10 and beyond.  Such an increase for earth science may encounter opposition from Members who are climate change skeptics and see little need for government programs in this area, or who think that NOAA should not shift its responsibilities to NASA.
  • Planetary Science.   The request of $1.361 billion is a decrease of $76.6 million from the FY2015 appropriated level and includes only $30 million for a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa.  Planetary science is very popular on Capitol Hill and any decrease is likely to be met with opposition.  The new chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), is an ardent supporter of planetary exploration and Europa in particular.   He has led efforts to add money to NASA's budget for Europa.  Congress provided $100 million for FY2015, an increase of $85 million above NASA's request.
  • Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).  NASA continues to struggle to convince the space community and Congress of the value of ARM.  The NASA Advisory Council is asking pointed questions about the cost of ARM and its relevance to NASA's long-term goal of sending humans to Mars.  NASA has missed self-imposed deadlines for choosing between two options for implementing ARM:  Option A (move a small asteroid to lunar orbit) or Option B (pluck a boulder from a large asteroid and move that to lunar orbit).  NASA Chief Financial Officer David Radzanowski revealed today that the Mission Concept Review (MCR) for ARM has been delayed by at least a month, from the end of February to the end of March, and he does not know when the Option A versus B decision will be made.  It could be made days from now, at the MCR, or afterwards he said, he simply does not know.  The FY2016 budget request includes $220 million for the "Asteroid Initiative" of which ARM is part, though Radzanowski stresses that most of that money is "leveraged," meaning that NASA would spend it anyway, even if there was no ARM.   Our FY2016 NASA Budget Request fact sheet includes a table showing where the ARM money is in the NASA budget, which is difficult to track because ARM is not a program with its own line item in the budget; the money is spread across three of NASA's four mission directorates.  
  • Space Launch System/Orion/Commercial Crew.   Once again, NASA is requesting less for SLS/Orion than Congress appropriated, and more for commercial crew than has been requested in the past.   NASA and Congress have had a tense relationship over these programs since a compromise was reached in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act wherein Congress would fund both the commercial crew program proposed by the Obama Administration to build commercial systems to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station in low Earth orbit (LEO), as well as a new NASA-developed crew transportation system -- SLS and Orion -- to take crews beyond LEO that Congress preferred.  Congress insists that the Obama Administration favors commercial crew over SLS/Orion and routinely adds money for SLS/Orion and cuts funding for commercial crew.  This year's request for commercial crew is $1.244 billion, a substantial increase over the $805 million appropriated for FY2015.   NASA explains that full funding is needed to pay for the milestones its two contractors, SpaceX and Boeing, are expected to meet through the end of FY2016 and if Congress does not provide the funds, the fixed-price contracts will have to be renegotiated.  In that event, NASA says, it cannot promise that the systems will be available by the end of 2017 as currently planned.

More information on these issues in available in our fact sheet.

House Science Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) said he was disappointed the NASA request does not adequately support programs to take us to "destinations like Mars" and includes "costly distractions, such as climate funding better suited for other agencies, and an asteroid retrieval mission that the space community does not support."

House SS&T Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) did not mention NASA in her statement about the budget, but said she is pleased with the 6 percent increase in funding for R&D across the government.

Senator John Thune, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, also did not mention NASA or other agencies.  Instead, he criticized the President's request overall as clinging to the "same old failed top-down economic policies of spending increases and tax hikes..."

On the appropriations side, Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee, and Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, each rejected the request out of hand. Neither mentioned NASA or any other agency, but reacted to the budget proposal overall.  Shelby called it "unserious" and called for a balanced budget.  Rogers called on Congress to "reject this irresponsible budget plan."   The Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Committee, Nita Lowey (D-NY), praised many aspects of the request, but the only scientific area she mentioned was biomedical research.  

Clarification.  Sen. Shelby chairs the Senate Appropriations CJS subcommittee, not the full committee as earlier wording in this article suggested.

What's Happening in Space Policy February 2-6, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Feb-2015 (Updated: 01-Feb-2015 05:18 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of February 2-6, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate will be in session this week.

During the Week

This is budget week in Washington.  The President will submit his FY2016 budget request to Congress tomorrow (Monday), kicking off debate over how much the government should spend and on what in the "discretionary spending" portion of the federal budget.  FY2016 begins on October 1, 2015.   Discretionary spending is generally broken into two parts -- defense and non-defense.   NASA and NOAA are part of non-defense discretionary spending.  Although by law the sequester goes back into effect in FY2016, a senior administration official told reporters last week that the President's budget request will not adhere to the spending caps set by the law.  The President apparently believes that the deeply unpopular sequester rules will be waived again (as they were for FY2014 and FY2015) or repealed or replaced entirely.  

Most departments and agencies hold budget briefings the day the budget is released, as does the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).  Typically the budget is posted on the Office of Management and Budget's website in mid-morning, followed by the individual briefings.  Traditionally the NASA Administrator holds a budget briefing in Washington, but this year Administrator Bolden will be at Kennedy Space Center and instead will "address the progress made and the exciting work ahead on the agency's exploration initiative that secures America's leadership in space."  That talk will be broadcast on NASA TV, especially to all the NASA field centers, which are holding "State of NASA" events for the public that include tours, briefings, and listening to Bolden.  For all the budget-watchers and policy wonks, explaining the budget request will be left to NASA Chief Financial Officer (CFO) David Radzanowski, who succeeded Beth Robinson as CFO last year.   He will hold a telecon with the media at 4:00 pm ET that will be broadcast on NASA's News Audio website.

Another big event this week will be the confirmation hearing for Ash Carter to be the new Secretary of Defense.  That hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled for Wednesday at 9:30 am ET.

Also on Wednesday, as well as Thursday, is the annual Commercial Space Transportation conference sponsored by the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation.  It will be held at the National Housing Conference Center in Washington, DC, the same locale as the last several years.

On Thursday, the American Astronomical Society (AAS) will hold its 2nd annual "State of the Universe" briefing on Capitol Hill to highlight new discoveries about the universe in the past year.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.

Monday, February 2

Monday, February 2 - Friday, February 13

Wednesday, February 4

Wednesday-Thursday, February 4-5

Thursday, February 5

NASA Safety Panel Criticizes Commercial Crew Program for Lack of Openness

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jan-2015 (Updated: 28-Jan-2015 10:34 PM)

NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) released its annual report today.  Among its key points is criticism of NASA's commercial crew program for its lack of openness, preventing the panel from offering "any informed opinion" on the certification process or "sufficiency of safety."  The report's release coincides with NASA's Day of Remembrance in honor of the astronauts who died as the result of spaceflights.  The first of those accidents, the 1967 Apollo fire, led to Congress creating ASAP to advise NASA on safety.

The panel's criticism of the commercial crew program was direct and unambiguous and levied at the very beginning of the report so as not to be missed:

"Within NASA, there are outstanding examples of programs that have inculcated a culture of clear and candid communications.  Their approach to accountability, good systems engineering, and respect, both up and down the organization chart, would find strong favor with the authors of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report.

"The Commercial Crew Program (CCP) is an exception to the culture of open communications.  Regrettably, the Panel has been denied the necessary timely access to information and is therefore unable to offer any informed opinion regarding the adequacy of the certification process or the sufficiency of safety in the CCP.  The NASA Administrator has committed to making the changes necessary to resolve this situation and to ensuring that these barriers are removed going forward into 2015."

ASAP's complaint comes just two days after NASA held a press conference with its commercial crew partners, Boeing and SpaceX, to herald the progress they are making to provide services to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) by the end of 2017.

In a color-coded "traffic signal" chart later in the report, ASAP rated "risk transparency -- Insight and communications" as red, meaning an issue of "long-standing concern or an issue that has not been adequately addressed by NASA."  It is the only one of nine areas designated that way.  In describing its concerns in that area, ASAP includes not only commercial crew, but the Space Launch System and Orion programs.

"Risk communications concerning commercial crew activities by the Director of Commercial Spaceflight Development has been less than forthcoming.  Because Probabilistic Risk Assessment results provide a risk assessment of the design capability at maturity, actual risks for early operations of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion could be significantly higher than the calculated or 'advertised' risk.  Because the perception of external stakeholders is vitally important, NASA's Office of Communications must be cautious not to create or reinforce inaccurate perceptions of risk."

A second key concern of the panel is what it calls the need for "constancy of purpose" at NASA.  It reflects the panel's assessment that there is a "perceived lack of a well-defined mission for NASA's space program" and a mismatch between NASA's budget and what it is expected to do.  Reiterating what it said in prior years, ASAP finds that it is "imperative that NASA unambiguously articulate a well-defined purpose, including a path toward the execution of that mission, the technologies that need to be developed and matured, and the resources needed to accomplish that mission."

ASAP criticizes NASA's current "capabilities-based approach" which it believes is driven by budgets rather than a "purposeful, schedule-driven, goal-oriented endeavor." While acknowledging that may be a pragmatic approach that could bridge a transition between presidential administrations, ASAP believes NASA would be better served to "focus on doing fewer things and on doing them better." 

Without a clear and consistent goal, ASAP worries that schedule will become a "casualty" that could affect SLS and Orion in particular. 

The panel expressed other concerns about Orion and its use for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).   The panel assessed ARM itself as "a reasonable approach to a mission that is achievable," but worries that the lack of an airlock on Orion adds risk because the entire capsule will have to be depressurized to allow the crew to exit and collect samples of the asteroid.  That means the crew will be entirely reliant on their spacesuits.  The spacesuits used for ISS spacewalks are "unworkable" for Orion, ASAP said, and although NASA officials have indicated that they have no plans to develop new spacesuits for ARM, ASAP suggests otherwise: "design and development of new-design suits, while underway, are still preliminary and untested."   In addition, the panel notes, Orion is small and does not have much room for astronauts to move about or exercise even though the missions may last as long as three weeks:  "This long duration, crew habitability risk remains to be assessed and evaluated in order to develop an objective mission risk estimate."

ASAP also is concerned about the small number of flights planned for SLS in terms of maintaining ground crew proficiency.   SLS and Orion are part of NASA's Exploration Systems Development (ESD) program, which ASAP rates as "progressing very well." but "there is much more work to be done ... [in] defining the risks and the road to Mars.  These risks should continue to be communicated openly and transparently."

The full ASAP report is posted on NASA's website.   ASAP submits it both to NASA and to Congress.  ASAP chairman Vice Admiral Joseph Dyer (retired) typically is invited to testify to Congress about the panel's findings each year.

ASAP was created by Congress in the NASA Authorization Act of 1968 (P.L. 90-67)  following the January 27, 1967 Apollo fire that killed Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee during a pre-launch ground test of what was expected to be the first Apollo mission.   Fourteen more astronauts subsequently died in two space shuttle accidents.  The January 28, 1986 space shuttle Challenger tragedy killed NASA astronauts Francis "Dick" Scobee, Mike Smith, Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka and Judy Resnik; Hughes Aircraft engineer Greg Jarvis; and New Hampshire schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.  On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during its return to Earth, killing NASA astronauts Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, and Laurel Clark, and Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.

Each year NASA holds a Day of Remembrance honoring all the astronauts who lost their lives in spaceflights.  Today is NASA's 2015 Day of Remembrance,  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, members of the Challenger families and others participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington Cemetery.  Several NASA centers held their own remembrance events.

House SS&T Committee Starts Off 114th Congress on Partisan Footing

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Jan-2015 (Updated: 27-Jan-2015 06:34 PM)

The House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee held its organizational meeting for the 114th Congress this morning.  The typically routine meeting held at the beginning of each new Congress had a strong partisan flavor to it this year, however.   The committee's top Democrat, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), issued a sharply worded news release detailing changes Republicans made to committee rules on party-line votes, calling it the "single greatest attack" on the rights of the minority party in the history of the committee.

Johnson is the "ranking minority member" of the committee, meaning the highest ranking member of the party that is not in power.  In the 114th Congress, Republicans are the Majority Party and Democrats are the Minority Party in both the House and Senate.

Historically, the House SS&T committee and many other congressional committees have trumpeted the fact that they work in a bipartisan manner, but party-line votes undermine such claims.

In fact, in his opening statement, committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) heralded the fact that in the last Congress the committee approved 20 bills (of which six became law), 18 of them on a bipartisan basis, and said he hoped "we can build on this bipartisan success and do more in this Congress."

Despite that sanguine note, Republicans then voted down all the Democratic amendments to modify the proposed rules (on one of the eight votes today, one Democrat voted with the Republicans).  Smith said in a statement after the meeting that what the committee adopted "preserves the legitimate rights of the Minority."  He said during the meeting that the goal was to eliminate duplication and align the committee's rules with those of the House (which also have been amended in this Congress). 

Johnson, who has served on the committee for 23 years under both Democratic and Republican leadership, clearly disagrees.  She listed the following changes that she believes diminishes the Minority's rights: 

  • shortened notice requirements for markups and allowing the Majority to waive notice requirements entirely;
  • eliminating review periods for Members to review legislative reports prior to filing;
  • requiring more Members to support a request for a recorded vote;
  • allowing the Majority to hold a hearing without a single Minority member present;
  • providing the committee chair with unilateral subpoena authority;
  • eliminating requirements for consultation with the Minority; and
  • the Committee receiving blanket deposition authority in House Rules "for the first time in the half century history of the committee."

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) contrasted this committee's stance with that of another committee on which she serves, House Transportation and Infrastructure, where the entire organizational meeting, including adoption of rules, took "five minutes" rather than beginning "a new Congress and a new year fighting about the rules."

A webcast of the contentious meeting is on the committee's website.

The rules may seem arcane (read our "What's a Markup" fact sheet to learn what some of them mean), but they give the Majority power to hold hearings, subpoena witnesses and documents, and to more easily pass legislation out of committee and to the floor of the House on a partisan basis.  Of all the changes, giving the chairman unilateral authority to issue subpoenas could have the greatest impact.  In the last Congress, only the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (Rep. Darrell Issa, R-CA) had such power.  House SS&T is one of several committees planning to give their chairs such authority in this Congress.  Smith said repeatedly that the authority is necessary because of the Obama Administration's "dilatory tactics in responding to letters from this committee" and its "lack of transparency."

How that will play out in the space policy arena remains to be seen, but the sharp differences between the parties on NASA were evident in 2013 when, under the previous rules, the committee approved on party-line votes a new NASA authorization bill that would have prohibited NASA from proceeding with the Asteroid Redirect Mission, dramatically cut funding for NASA overall and especially for Earth Sciences, and established the position of NASA Administrator as an appointed 6-year term.   That bill was never voted on by the House and a bipartisan version was crafted the next year after budget caps were raised, promoting greater agreement.  That bill did pass the House, but was not considered by the Senate and died at the end of the last Congress, so this Congress will be starting over again.  Smith did say today that he hopes a new NASA authorization bill can clear the committee in a bipartisan manner as it did last year.

The number of committee members from each party is roughly proportional to the ratio of Republicans to Democrats in the full House.  For the 114th Congress, Republicans have 22 slots on the House SS&T committee and the Democrats have 17. 

The Republicans announced their membership, including all their subcommittee assignments today.   Democrats are still awaiting appointment of four of their 17 full committee members by the House Democratic leadership and have not announced subcommittee assignments.  The 13 Democrats currently assigned to the full committee are Johnson, Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Daniel Lipinski (D-IL), Donna Edwards (D-MD), Frederica Wilson (D-FL), Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), Eric Swalwell (D-CA), Alan Grayson (D-FL), Ami Bera (D-CA), Elizabeth Esty (D-CT), Marc Veasey (D-TX), Katherine Clark (D-MA), and Don Beyer (D-VA).

The Space Subcommittee, which oversees NASA and the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, will have nine Republicans and six Democrats.  Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS) will continue to chair the subcommittee.  The Subcommittee on Environment, which oversees NOAA's weather forecasting activities, will also have nine Republicans and six Democrats and Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) will serve as chairman.  The Subcommittee on Oversight, which has broad jurisdiction, including NOAA's Satellite Modernization activities, was very active in the last Congress under the chairmanship of Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), who lost his Republican primary last year.  This year the subcommittee will have six Republicans and four Democrats and be chaired by another Georgian, Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-GA).

The committee also adopted its oversight plan for the 114th Congress today.  With regard to NASA, NOAA satellite programs, and the FAA's commercial space activities, the language is virtually identical to the 113th Congress plan.  The only notable difference is that oversight of NASA's earth science program is now under the Space Subcommittee's purview; last time it was listed with the Environment Subcommittee.