Commercial Space News
Today the Senate confirmed the nominations of two new members of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), including a new chairman, after two Senators lifted their holds.
Thomas Wheeler was confirmed to be the new FCC chairman, filling a Democratic slot, while Michael O'Rielly was confirmed to fill a Republican slot. With their confirmations, the FCC leadership is now back to full strength. The FCC has five commissioners, three from the party of the President and two from the other party.
The Hill newspaper reports that the votes to confirm the nominations today were unanimous.
Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) was blocking Wheeler's confirmation because he does not want the FCC to increase requirements to identify sponsors of political ads. In a statement this afternoon, Cruz said that Wheeler conveyed that "he had heard the unambiguous message" that trying to impose such additional requirements required congressional action and was not a decision for the FCC to make unilaterally.
Separately, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) vowed yesterday that he would block all nominations until the Obama Administration released more information about the survivors of the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi last year. He allowed the vote today reportedly because the nominations predated his hold.
A single Senator can block the confirmation of any nominee by placing a hold on the nomination for any reason.
The FCC regulates use of the electromagnetic spectrum by the private sector, including for commercial communications satellites, as well as orbital slots for those satellites in geostationary orbit.
Former astronaut Piers Sellers and Mike Freilich, head of NASA's earth science program, will headline an event on "Earth from Space" held by the American Astronautical Society (AAS) on November 13, 2013.
Sellers, who is currently Deputy Director of the Science and Exploration Directorate at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, will introduce a condensed version of NOVA's "Earth from Space" film. Freilich then will moderate a panel discussion among Sellers, Jon Malay of Lockheed Martin, Jeff Puschell of Raytheon, and Paula Wamsley of Ball Aerospace. Malay is a past president of AAS and a past president of the American Meteorological Society (AMS).
The event will be held at the U.S. Navy Memorial (Naval Heritage Center), 701 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC. Doors open at 5:30 pm ET, with the film beginning at 6:00 pm and the panel discussion from 6:30-7:30 pm, followed by a reception at 7:30 pm. RSVP by November 6 to email@example.com.
Sellers has a lot of personal experience viewing the Earth from space. He flew to the International Space Station (ISS) three times, in 2002, 2006 and 2010, and made six spacewalks.
UPDATE, October 28: We've added David Grinspoon's lecture on Thursday.
The following space policy-related events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
Though space programs are only a small part of what they'll be discussing, perhaps the most important event this week for the government's space program is the first formal meeting of the conference committee on the budget. The House passed a 10-year budget on March 21 and the Senate passed its version on March 23. They deal with the federal budget on a broad scale, not with specific agencies or programs, but the budget totals they set are used to determine how much each of the 12 appropriations subcommittees can spend on the agencies and programs within their purviews.
The House and Senate budget plans are extremely different and the two sides had not scheduled a conference committee to try and negotiate a compromise version until now. The establishment of the conference committee was part of the deal to reopen the government, which calls for the committee's work to be completed by December 13.
The conference committee is chaired by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), Chairman of the House Budget Committee, and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. The first formal meeting is on Wednesday at 10:00 am ET in room HC-5 of the Capitol. As Politico said at the time, it is not that the House and Senate budget bills are like apples and oranges, but "more like apples and bicycles." Their titles hint at those differences. The House plan is called "The Path to Prosperity: A Responsible, Balanced Budget." The Senate plan is entitled "Foundation for Growth: Restoring the Promise of Opportunity."
Here's what else is coming up this week that we know about as of Sunday afternoon.
Monday, October 28
Tuesday, October 29
Tuesday-Wednesday, October 29-30
Wednesday, October 30
Thursday, October 31
Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser spacecraft had a good test flight today until the very end when a problem with its left landing gear marred the event.
Dream Chaser is one of three competitors in NASA's commercial crew program. It looks like a small space shuttle and successfully achieved two captive-carry tests when tethered to a helicopter. Today was the first time it was released from the helicopter and left to land on its own. Everything went well at first. As Sierra Nevada said in a press statement, Dream Chaser "adhered to the design flight trajectory throughout the flight profile" and "smoothly flared and touched down" on the runway at Edwards Air Force Base. At that point, however, there was "an anomaly with the left landing gear deployment."
NASASpaceflight.com phrased it less delicately, saying that the vehicle flipped over on the runway.
NASA is funding "2 1/2" companies to develop crew space transportation systems to take crews back and forth to the International Space Station. Sierra Nevada is the "1/2," receiving half the funds it requested under NASA's Commercial Crew Integrated Capabilities (CCiCAP) program. Sierra Nevada's plan is to launch the Dream Chaser to orbit using an Atlas V rocket. SpaceX and Boeing are the "2" that received full funding under CCiCAP. Their designs are capsules reminiscent of an Apollo spacecraft. Boeing also would use the Atlas V for launches of its CST-100 spacecraft. SpaceX would use its own Falcon rocket to launch a version of the Dragon spacecraft outfitted for human crews rather than cargo as it already is doing under NASA's commercial cargo program.
Dream Chaser during captive carry test, May 2012. Photo credit: Sierra Nevada
What impact the imperfect landing will have on the Dream Chaser program is unknown at this time. Sierra Nevada said simply that "As with any space flight test program, there will be anomalies that we can learn from, allowing us to improve our vehicle and accelerate our rate of progress."
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told a National Research Council (NRC) committee this week that there are two main reasons for extending the lifetime of the International Space Station (ISS) beyond 2020: business and science. He also said that the Space Launch System is actually a NASA design.
Bolden spoke to the NRC's Committee on Human Spaceflight. The committee was set up in response to a provision in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that directed NASA to contract with the NRC in FY2012 for a study on the future of the human spaceflight program. NASA provided the funding to the NRC late in FY2012 and the committee began meeting last December. It heard from Bolden at that time. This week's meeting was an opportunity for him to update the committee and respond to questions that emerged in the past 10 months. It also was the first time committee co-chair Mitch Daniels heard from him. Daniels, a former Republican Indiana Governor and now the President of Purdue University, replaced former defense secretary Bill Perry as co-chair this spring. Jonathan Lunine, a Cornell space scientist, is the other co-chair. The committee's task is to articulate the value proposition for human spaceflight -- what does the nation get for the money it expends.
Under current plans, the ISS partners (the United States, Russia, Japan, Europe and Canada) will keep the space station operating until 2020. NASA, however, is making the case for extending it to 2028, a year that will mark the 30th anniversary of the launches of the first two ISS modules. The modules have a 15 year design life, but NASA is confident they can operate for twice that.
The burning question is whether there is sufficient value to justify eight more years of spending. NASA's budget for the ISS is about $3 billion a year, not including the costs for developing the commercial crew systems or purchasing services once they become available. Commercial crew development is expected to be completed around 2017 and presumably the price for U.S. commercial crew flights will not exceed what NASA currently pays the Russians for such services, so that may not add much to the annual operating costs post-2020. Nonetheless, $3 billion a year is a lot especially as NASA's budget is increasingly constrained and trade-offs inevitably will have to be made between maintaining today's programs versus future space exploration.
Bolden's business argument is that the companies who are investing their own funds in commercial crew need to be assured of recouping those costs and the longer NASA needs those services, the more revenue they will make. NASA is hoping that commercial crew will become available in 2017. Though one goal of commercial crew is for the companies to find non-NASA users, the NASA business is a staple. If ISS is terminated in 2020, NASA business will represent a very small market, however. If ISS is extended to 2028, the market looks somewhat better. NASA is paying a large percentage of the development costs and how much the companies are investing of their own money is proprietary, so it is not possible to know how much revenue they need to achieve a decent Return on Investment (RoI), but it is obvious that the longer time frame is more advantageous.
As for science, Bolden argues that scientists need 5-10 years to come up with ideas for experiments and implement them. They need to know that the ISS will be available for more than just a few years or they are not likely to utilize it. The ISS is a scientific laboratory and while a great many experiments have been conducted over the past 13 years of permanent human occupancy, to date none has been a "killer app" that unambiguously demonstrates the value of performing research in a microgravity environment. Committee member Pascale Ehrenfreund made the same point, noting that she has several ISS experiments but is wondering whether to propose any more since the future of the ISS is uncertain.
Ehrenfreund wanted to know when a decision would be made. Bolden exclaimed that ISS is a steppingstone to the universe, but that if we are not going to move foward in exploring space, there is no point in continuing ISS. One decision point will be when the NRC committee makes its report, he said, because it all gets back to the value proposition that the committee is expected to articulate.
Bolden also defended the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and, in response to a question, remarked that the design of the Space Launch System (SLS) originated at NASA. SLS is new rocket being developed by NASA to enable space exploration beyond low Earth orbit, including the ARM and eventually human trips to Mars.
In February 2010, as part of the FY2011 budget request, President Obama terminated the Constellation Moon/Mars program initiated under the George W. Bush Administration and proposed that the United States spend 5 years developing "game changing" space technologies before deciding what rocket to build and where to go. Congress disagreed and in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act directed NASA to build SLS with an initial capability of 70 tons to low Earth orbit, growing to 130 tons. Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Richard Shelby (R-AL) were seen as instrumental in insisting on NASA developing a new rocket immediately, not in 5 years, and including those specifications in the law. Detractors of the rocket sometimes derisively refer to it as the Senate Launch System -- one designed not by NASA but by Senators.
Bolden, however, made clear that SLS is a NASA design. A committee member referred to SLS as being "old technology" and wanted to know why Congress told NASA to pursue "the old stuff." Bolden replied that "Congress didn't pick the vehicle, we did. We picked it based on many decades of going over and over and over...what we need." He described SLS as an open architecture that can incorporate new game-changing propulsion technology if it emerges, with nuclear propulsion as an example.
A proposed alternative -- to rely on rockets developed by the commercial sector that would be refueled in orbit at fuel depots -- is not realistic in his view. Turning the nation's deep space human exploration program over to the commercial sector is "a risk that I don't think I am willing to undertake for the nation. To say that we're going to turn the nation's exploration program over to private enterprise. I'm not ready for that yet."
He also eschewed the notion of a five-year hiatus before picking what launch vehicle to build, as the Administration proposed in 2010. He said industry's response was that when NASA came back in five years, it might well find an empty room. Human space exploration "is not something from which you can take a break," Bolden emphasized.
Yesterday, Senator David Vitter (R-LA) placed a hold on Beth Robinson's nomination to become Under Secretary of Energy; she currently is NASA's Chief Financial Officer. Vitter is the third Senator in recent weeks to block action on the nominations of individuals for space-related positions in the Obama Administration, although one was subsequenlty released.
A single Senator can prevent a nomination from being considered by the Senate by placing such a hold.
Vitter claims that NASA is "stalling on a job-creating project at the Michoud Assembly Facility" near New Orleans. His press release asserts that NASA has failed to approve contracts for the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft that would put "approximately 300 to 600 Louisianans back to work." In his letter to Robinson, attached to the press release, he says "I think it is important to conduct a thorough review of your job performance in your current position." Vitter was the ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation's Subcommittee on Science and Space when the 2010 NASA Authorization Act was written. That Act directed NASA to build SLS and Orion.
The first space-related hold was against the nomination of Deborah Lee James to be Secretary of the Air Force. Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) placed the hold because she wanted assurances that, if confirmed, James would not eliminate the A-10 aircraft before a replacement (the next generation F-35) is available. The Huffington Post noted that Ayotte's husband is a former A-10 pilot. Ayotte apparently received sufficient assurances because she subsequently released the hold. Politico reports that the answer to Ayotte's question was that the Air Force could save $3.5 billion over four years by retiring the A-10, but that no decision has been made to do that. James has not yet been confirmed.
Last week, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) placed a hold on the nomination of Thomas Wheeler to be Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The Hill newspaper reports that Cruz wants Wheeler to clarify whether, if confirmed, he would require increased disclosure of who is funding political TV ads. Cruz does not want additional disclosures. Wheeler's nomination was on a fast track for approval along with that of Michael O'Rielly to be an FCC Commissioner. The FCC regulates use of the electromagnetic spectrum by the private sector and has five commissioners -- three from the same party as the President and two from the other party. At the moment there is one Democratic and one Republican vacancy and typically the Senate votes on such nominations as a pair. Wheeler is nominated for the Democratic slot, which is also the chairman's position; O'Rielly is the Republican. The FCC will have to continue to operate with only three commissioners until the two nominations are approved. Wheeler's nomination is for a 5-year term. O'Rielly is under consideration to fill a term that ends on June 30, 2014.
Women in Aerospace (WIA) will hold its awards dinner next week to honor women selected for its awards as well as the winners of two college scholarships sponsored by the Women in Aerospace Foundation. The Foundation is raising money for its scholarship fund by selling unique jewelry -- limited edition pins designed by Ann Hand to commemorate space shuttle missions.
The winners of this year's WIA Foundation scholarships are Erin M. Kirchmeier and Samantha B. Rawlins. Each receives a $2,000 scholarship for the 2013-2014 academic year. Kirchmeier is studying aerospace engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology. Rawlins is studying mechanical engineering at the University of California-Los Angeles. The Foundation awards two scholarships each year to encourage young women who are interested in a career in the aerospace field to pursue higher education degrees in engineering, science or math. It is accepting applications for the 2014 awards from now through February 3, 2014.
The Foundation is raising funds through sales of pins by renowned jewelry designer Ann Hand. She made one pin for each of the 135 space shuttle flights. WIA says that all proceeds from the sale of the pins benefit the WIA Foundation and part of the purchase price is tax deductible. An order form and a photograph of the pin is available on WIA's website.
Kirchmeier and Rawlins will be honored along with the winners of seven awards at the WIA awards dinner on October 29, 2013 at the Ritz Carlton Pentagon City in Arlington, VA. The WIA award winners this year are:
Established and entrepreneurial space companies met last week at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS), where innovation was touted as one solution to budgetary constraints both in industry and the government.
NASA was not represented at the symposium because of the government shutdown, but Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX, expressed the constraints on NASA’s budget by comparing it to how much the nation spends yearly on beer -- $18 billion for NASA versus about $100 billion on beer. Industry faces similar funding challenges, but Jon Gertner, Editor-at-Large of the magazine Fast Company, and others said that has one good side-effect: innovation.
In his keynote address, Gertner used a narrative about the development of the transistor at Bell Labs as a metaphor for how innovations are often under-rated at the beginning: “Even when we think we understand the value of a breakthrough, we probably don’t.” During a session entitled “Environments that Foster Innovation,” panelists Cassie Kloberdanz of Sierra Nevada, Makenzie Lystrup of Ball Aerospace, and Chris Boshuizen of Planet Labs discussed various elements of their current and past work environments that led to better innovation. (Planet Labs is a small start-up that is planning to launch a constellation of 28 earth imaging cubesats and provide free, real-time data about the planet.) They include promoting inclusivity, allowing workers to find their passion and grow into their positions, and modeling the business practices and faster turnaround time after other industries that are experiencing success.
Unexpected breakthroughs like the ones Gertner mentioned are a subset of the “unknown unknowns” that were discussed at ISPCS. Failures encountered along the way are another. Safety and reliability are paramount in the commercial and personal spaceflight business, participants emphasized. There seemed to be consensus that human fatalities would be difficult for the industry if they happened relatively early on. Alan Ladwig, who recently retired from NASA and founded To Orbit Productions, spoke of the inherent risks of spaceflight in his keynote address, and recommended that the space tourism industry develop a comprehensive contingency plan in case of an accident. He also wondered aloud why deaths related to spaceflight are perceived so differently from deaths due to automobile accidents or military activities. Perhaps, he suggested, equating space tourism with more commonplace activities would reduce that disparity.
One area of debate at the symposium was whether space is inherently interesting to the average person. Some believe it is. Pat Hynes of the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium mentioned an upcoming reality show where contestants will compete for a ticket to space. Sean Mahoney from Masten Space Systems said that people are excited about space worldwide: “[space] is our new exploration story.”
Others, however, lamented that the public no longer feels the excitement of the space race era. Duane Ratliff of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) and Shotwell remarked that in the 1960s and 1970s, things were different; the public was much more engaged with the space program. Ratliff noted that in that era, children owned lunchboxes with astronauts on the side. These days, he said, it is harder to generate excitement among the public about the International Space Station, for example, because they cannot see or touch it and therefore it must be made more accessible. CASIS is a non-profit whose purpose is to find non-NASA users for the ISS.
Although “international” is part of the symposium’s title, there was no obvious international showing in attendees or presenters. Even in the dialogue, the American focus was evident: Ratliff talked about how decisions on what experiments will fly on the ISS should benefit U.S. citizens; Paul Guthrie of the Tauri Group discussed how innovation contributes to the U.S. economy; and Bob Allen of Innovation, Design, Entertainment, Art and Storytelling (IDEAS) exclaimed at one point that “We [Americans] own space. Like it or not, we do.” About the only mention of international space activities was by Boeing’s John Elbon, who praised the international partnership that built and operates the International Space Station.
ISPCS 2013 is a familial symposium, and break times certainly hummed with both greetings from friends and acquaintances and networking powwows. Although many attendees were from large, well-known corporations, there was also a strong showing of emerging small startups, eager to find their niche and make their mark on the field.
It is difficult to say whether the tone would have been different if NASA representatives had been present, but perhaps it is symbolic that even with government shut down, the symposium went on and was a success.The symposium agenda can be found on the ISPCS website and videos of the sessions should be uploaded there soon.
International Space Station (ISS) crew members released Orbital Sciences Corporation's Cygnus cargo spacecraft this morning. Cygnus is now maneuvering away from the ISS and will reenter tomorrow. The spacecraft, filled with 3,000 pounds of trash, will burn up in the atmosphere. That will bring to an end not only this demonstration mission, but NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program as Orbital joins SpaceX in providing operational cargo resupply services.
The COTS program, also called "commercial cargo," began in 2006. It is a public-private partnership where NASA and two companies, Orbital and SpaceX, shared the costs of developing space transportation systems to take cargo to the ISS. The two systems, Orbital's Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft and SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft, are now operational and transitioning into the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program.
NASA contracted with Orbital for eight CRS missions and with SpaceX for 12 CRS missions through 2016. Orbital's first CRS mission is scheduled for December 8, just over six weeks from now. SpaceX already has launched two and the next is scheduled for February 2014. The fixed price CRS contracts are for $1.9 billion with Orbital, and $1.6 billion with SpaceX.
These two U.S. systems join Russia's Progress, Japan's HTV and Europe's ATV cargo transportation systems as means to take cargo to the ISS, which typically has six people aboard at any time. Crews rotating on 4-6 month shifts have permanently occupied the ISS since November 2000. The space shuttle was originally intended to be the main transportation system to take crews and cargo back and forth to ISS throughout its lifetime, but the U.S. decision to terminate the shuttle program after construction was completed meant that other systems were needed for the space station's operational period, which will last through at least 2020. (NASA is trying to build support for extending that to 2028, which would be 30 years after the first ISS modules were launched.)
Cygnus, HTV, ATV and Progress are designed only for transporting cargo up to ISS; none of them return to Earth. Only SpaceX's Dragon makes a round trip. Crews are ferried to and from ISS on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. NASA is in the midst of another public-private partnership, the "commercial crew" program, where three companies are competing to build systems to transport crews so that NASA does not need to pay Russia for such services and also to provide redundancy. SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft is one of the contenders in that program. It can be outfitted to carry people as well as cargo. Orbital is not competing in the commercial crew program, however. The other two commercial crew competitors are Boeing and Sierra Nevada.
The COTS program achieved its technical goal; NASA now has two companies competing to provide cargo resupply services for the ISS on a commercial basis. Whether the business case will prove out probably will not be known for many years.
Lori Garver may have left her post as NASA Deputy Administrator to be General Manager of the Air Line Pilots Association, but she clearly is not stepping out of the space limelight. On November 15, she will headline a discussion at the National Press Club on "Space Exploration: How and Why?"
Garver departed NASA on September 6 after four years as second-in-command at the space agency. That was her second tour of duty at the agency having served as a top policy advisor to then NASA Administrator Dan Goldin. Before that she headed the National Space Society and in between her NASA posts was a space industry consultant.
She is one seven panelists for the Arizona State University meeting, which will be moderated by Jim Bell, President of the Planetary Society. The session is just 90 minutes (9:00-10:30 am ET) so each person will have only a short time to express his or her views, but it should be interesting.
Garver is credited with pushing for commercial space activities while she was Deputy Administrator, particularly the commercial crew program, as well as for investments in space technology. The panelists include three other former NASA officials, but no one who currently works at the agency.
RSVP instructions are on the emailed announcement.