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Commercial Space News

Russian Progress Cargo Ship in Trouble on Way to ISS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Apr-2015 (Updated: 28-Apr-2015 11:43 AM)

Russia launched a robotic cargo spacecraft, Progress M-27M, to the International Space Station (ISS) this morning.  Progress spacecraft routinely take food, fuel and other supplies to the ISS crews several times a year, but today's launch went awry and the Russians report that it is spinning uncontrollably and in an incorrect orbit.

Russia's official Itar-Tass news agency quotes a Russian rocket and space industry source as saying "The spacecraft is currently very quickly and uncontrollably turning on its axis, one turn in just several seconds."  Itar-Tass also reports that "the spacecraft was failing to transmit telemetric data and also missed its target orbit."

A video posted on YouTube with narration by a NASA announcer shows the view from the Progress spacecraft as it spins.

The spacecraft was launched early this morning Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) with the intention of docking with ISS six hours later under the expedited rendezvous and docking trajectory that has been used recently.   The Russians quickly abandoned that plan and reverted to the 2-day trajectory that was used for decades and is now available as a backup.  That would have meant a docking on Thursday.  

As the situation evolved, however, the Russians lost contact with the spacecraft and docking plans now are on hold "indefinitely."

The spacecraft is carrying three tons of supplies, including fuel and food.

The next opportunity for Russian flight controllers to communicate with Progress is at 8:50 pm EDT tonight.  Check back here for updates.

NASA refers to this as Progress 59 because it is the 59th Progress to resupply the ISS, but Progress spacecraft have been launched since 1977 to resupply Soviet space stations.  There have been several dozen launches over those decades and the spacecraft has been upgraded several times. 

A SpaceX cargo spacecraft, Dragon, is currently docked with the ISS and delivered food and other supplies.   The United States uses two cargo spacecraft -- Dragon and Orbital ATK's Cygnus -- to take cargo to the ISS.  Orbital ATK is currently recovering from a launch failure of its Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft last October, but is planning to launch a Cygnus using a different rocket later this year.   In addition to those two spacecraft and Russia's Progress, Japan's HTV spacecraft can also deliver cargo.  (Europe's ATV was used in the past, but it has completed its final flight.)

Earth Science Takes Hit in Proposed House NASA Authorization Bill

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Apr-2015 (Updated: 26-Apr-2015 06:49 PM)

The NASA authorization bill for 2016 and 2017 that will be marked up by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on Thursday would make deep cuts to NASA’s earth science program under either of the two funding scenarios laid out in the bill – “aspirational” or “constrained.”  Top-line funding for NASA would be the same as the President’s FY2016 budget request ($18.5 billion) under the aspirational level or the same as its current funding ($18.0 billion) under the constrained scenario.  Overall, the bill favors human space exploration, planetary science, and astrophysics.

According to a copy of the legislation obtained by SpacePolicyOnline.com, most of the 129-page bill is policy provisions that appear to be virtually identical to those passed by the House in February in the 2015 NASA Authorization Act.  That bill’s funding recommendations were only for FY2015, which is in progress and reflected what had already been appropriated. This Republican-sponsored bill substitutes funding recommendations for the next two years, FY2016 and FY2017.

In theory, the government should make policy and then propose (and enact) budgets to implement the policy, but in reality it is often the reverse.  The Washington adage that “budgets make policy” is often true, and this bill provides an example.  While the policy section endorses the National Research Council’s Decadal Survey for earth sciences and directs NASA to implement a program that is consistent with its recommendations and priorities, and to ensure a “steady cadence of large, medium and small missions,” the funding section cuts the earth science budget to an extent that it seems impossible to achieve that policy.

The funding section is complicated because two budget levels are recommended depending on whether Congress removes the caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA).

  • The first set of funding recommendations assumes the BCA caps are lifted.  A press release from committee Republicans refers to those levels as “aspirational.” 
  • The second set assumes the BCA caps are not lifted; the press release calls that set “constrained.” 
  • A third scenario is mentioned – where the funding falls somewhere in between – in which case any additional funds above the BCA caps would be applied proportionately across all of NASA’s funding accounts.

In total, the aspirational level for FY2016 is the same as the President’s request of $18.529 billion.  The constrained level is what NASA received for FY2015 -- $18.010 billion.  There are many differences, however, in how the legislation would allocate that money compared to the President’s request.

Table 2 in SpacePolicyOnline.com’s fact sheet on NASA’s FY2016 budget request displays the figures in the House bill compared to NASA’s current funding (FY2015) and the President’s request for FY2016.

The proposed cuts to NASA’s earth science program are likely to be the topic of strong debate at the markup.   Whether compared to NASA’s current FY2015 budget or the President’s FY2016 request, under either the aspirational or constrained scenario, earth science would be sharply reduced.

NASA’s earth science program is funded at $1.773 billion in FY2015.  The request for FY2016 is $1.947 billion.   Under the bill’s aspirational scenario, it would receive $1.450 billion in FY2016.  Under the constrained scenario, it would receive $1.199 billion.  Using current funding and the aspirational scenario for FY2016, it would be an approximately 18 percent cut.  Compared to the President’s request, it would be a roughly 26 percent cut.  If the BCA caps are not removed and the constrained scenario plays out for FY2016, it would be about a 32 percent cut compared to current funding or a 38 percent cut compared to the President’s request.

House and Senate Republicans on NASA’s authorization committees argue that NASA’s unique expertise is space exploration and studying the Earth should not be one of its priorities.   Although many also are climate change skeptics, publicly they do not frame their arguments in that context, instead insisting that other agencies should pay for that research, not NASA.  Republicans on this committee proposed deep cuts to NASA’s earth science budget in 2013 and Democrats introduced their own bill with more favorable funding.  The Republican bill was approved, and the Democratic bill rejected, on party line votes in committee.  That bill was never taken to the floor for a vote by the House, however.  Instead, the House has since passed two NASA authorization bills that avoided partisan discord over funding by using figures that already were approved in the appropriations process.  That tactic cannot be used this time since the bill is for future years.

Space technology is another area that would suffer compared to the President’s request.   It is currently funded at $596 million.  The President’s request for FY2016 is $725 million.  Under the bill’s aspirational scenario, it would receive $596 million – its current level – for FY2016.  Compared to the request, that is a cut of about 18 percent.  Under the constrained scenario, space technology would receive $500 million, approximately 16 percent less than today and about 31 percent less than the President’s request.

By comparison, NASA’s human exploration program – the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion, and associated ground systems – and planetary science and astrophysics fare much better. The commercial crew program is fully funded under the aspirational scenario.

SLS is currently funded at $1.7 billion.  The President’s request would reduce that to $1.357 billion.  The House bill would restore it to $1.7 billion for FY2016 under either the aspirational or constrained scenarios.  Similarly, the President requested less for Orion in FY2016 ($1.096 billion) than it currently receives ($1.194 billion) and the House bill would provide $1.2 billion under both the aspirational and constrained scenarios.  So while the House bill is a significant increase compared to the President’s request, it is essentially level funding compared to what Congress provided for FY2015.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress complain that the Obama White House underfunds SLS and Orion knowing full well that they are congressional priorities because the White House favors the commercial crew program.  The House bill does provide the full request for commercial crew in FY2016 ($1.244 billion) under the aspirational scenario, but less ($1.136 billion) in the constrained scenario.  The latter would be a cut of about 9 percent compared to the request, but a significant increase (about 41 percent) over the current funding level of $805 million.

Planetary science, another congressional favorite, is funded at $1.438 billion this year and the President’s request would cut that down to $1.361 billion.  The House bill instead would raise it to $1.5 billion regardless of what happens with the BCA caps. The bill states that up to $30 million is specifically for the Astrobiology Institute.   Astrophysics (excluding the James Webb Space Telescope, which has its own budget account) is currently funded at $685 million and the President’s request would increase it to $709 million.  The House bill would raise it even more, to $731 million, under the aspirational scenario.  In the constrained scenario, it would receive the $709 million requested.

Overall, the House bill demonstrates well known differences between Republicans and the Obama White House over NASA’s priorities.  Congressional Democrats also disagree with the Obama Administration on many of those issues, but earth science funding is one area where Democrats, in the past at least, have tried to protect NASA’s program.

What's Happening in Space Policy April 26-May 2, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Apr-2015 (Updated: 26-Apr-2015 11:59 AM)

This week's space policy related events begin today (Sunday) with many more coming up for the week of April 26-May 2, 2015. The House and Senate are in session.

During the Week

It's another busy week in the space policy business that begins today and runs all the way through Saturday.

Tonight (Sunday), the CBS 60 Minutes program will air a segment on Air Force Space Command and threats posed to U.S. satellites.  In a preview on the CBS website, Gen. Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, is asked if we will defend our satellites by force if necessary and he replies "That's why we have a military.  I'm not NASA."

Hyten will have a different kind of appearance later in the week (Wednesday) when he and Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James testify to the Senate Armed Services Committee's Strategic Forces subcommittee about the FY2016 budget request for military space programs.  They will be joined by GAO's Cristina Chaplain.  That same day the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) will be marking up its version of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), including recommendations on the military space program that were adopted by the HASC Strategic Forces subcommittee last week.  Full committee markup is typically a lengthy affair with many amendments debated.  Check back here for a recap of any related to the space program.  

Speaking of NASA, Dava Newman's nomination to be NASA Deputy Administrator is scheduled for debate and (hopefully) passage by the Senate on Monday beginning at 5:00 pm ET.  The agreement between the parties is for 30 minutes of debate divided equally, so if all time is used, the vote would be at 5:30 pm ET.  Later in the week (Thursday) and across the Hill, the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) committee will markup a new NASA authorization bill.  This one (no bill number yet) covers 2016 and 2017.  The House already passed a bill for 2015, so together they would provide a three-year authorization for the agency.  The Senate has not acted on a new NASA authorization bill, but indications are that they plan to do so, although the timing is not clear.  NASA's most recent authorization act covered only through FY2013.

Meanwhile, the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation will learn how its FY2016 budget request fares in the House Appropriations subcommittee that provides its funding.  The Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) subcommittee markup is on Wednesday morning.

Many more events are on tap, including one that is just plain fun.  If you're in the Washington, DC area on Saturday, you and your family can enjoy Space Day at the National Air and Space Museum downtown.  This year it commemorates 50 years of spacewalks.  Astronauts will be on hand to give talks and there are kid-friendly activities planned.

All the events we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below.

Sunday, April 26

Monday, April 27

Monday-Friday, April 27 - May 1

Tuesday-Thursday, April 28-30

Wednesday, April 29

Thursday, April 30

Thursday-Saturday, April 30 - May 2

Friday, May 1

Saturday, May 2

House SS&T To Markup New NASA Authorization Bill Next Week - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Apr-2015 (Updated: 24-Apr-2015 06:26 PM)

Update:  The committee has posted a summary of the bill on its website.

The House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee will mark up a new NASA authorization bill for FY2016 and FY2017.  The markup will be on Thursday, April 30.

Details of the bill have not been publicly released, but the title of the bill is National Aeronautics and Space Administration Act for 2016 and 2017.  The House already passed a bill for 2015, so that would effectively make a three-year authorization, similar to NASA's previous authorization bill that covered FY2011-FY2013. 

The agency has been working without an authorization since the end of FY2013.  The House passed a bill for 2014, in addition to the 2015 bill, but neither was acted upon by the Senate.  Sen.Ted Cruz, chairman of the Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, has said that he is working on a NASA authorization bill, but no timetable for consideration has been announced.  Cruz held a hearing on NASA's FY2016 budget request last month.

Authorization bills set policy and recommend funding levels, but do not provide any money to an agency.  Only appropriations bills provide money.

Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS), chairman of House SS&T's Space Subcommittee, held a hearing on the NASA FY2016 budget request last week.  Palazzo recently was named to become a member of the House Appropriations Committee and assigned to the Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee that funds NASA.  A House SS&T committee spokeswoman confirmed today that the House Republican Conference granted Palazzo a waiver from the rule that members of the Appropriations Committee may not serve on other committees and thus he retains his position on House SS&T.   As a member of both NASA's authorization and appropriations committees, he is in a unique position to influence NASA's policy and budget. 

Palazzo is a strong proponent of the Space Launch System, whose engines are tested at Stennis Space Center in his district, the Orion spacecraft, and most of NASA's science programs.  He is less enthusiastic about how NASA is implementing the commercial crew program, NASA's earth science program, and the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).  He supports development of an American capability to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station, but does not agree that NASA needs to support two companies (Boeing and SpaceX).  Instead, he insists that an Orion spacecraft launched on an existing launch vehicle could serve as a redundant ISS transportation capability and therefore only one commercial crew system is necessary.  Regarding earth science, he believes NASA's budget for those programs are receiving a disproportionate increase and that NASA is being asked to take on programs that should be funded by NOAA and USGS.  As for ARM, he points out that it has not received support even from NASA's own advisory committees and without consensus or a clear explanation of how it fits into a broader exploration architecture, it is difficult to see how it will persevere.

The House SS&T committee markup is on April 30 at 11:00 am ET.    

HASC Subcommittee Proposes Changes to RD-180 Restrictions Among Multiple Other Space Issues - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Apr-2015 (Updated: 23-Apr-2015 06:57 PM)

UPDATE:  The subcommittee approved the draft on April 23 with a few amendments.  The only one related to space was offered by Rep. Lamborn (R-CO) as part of an en-bloc package.  It would specifically prohibit DOD from relying on China or Russia for space-based weather data.

The Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) will mark up its portion of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) tomorrow.  A draft of the subcommittee's bill and report, which covers most DOD space programs including national security space launch, was released today. Among its provisions, the draft favorably disposes of Air Force and United Launch Alliance (ULA) concerns about provisions in last year's NDAA restricting use of Russia's RD-180 rocket engines.

Last year's law told DOD that it could not use RD-180s for national security space launches after 2019, although waivers were permitted under certain circumstances.  Those waivers were not sufficient for the Air Force and ULA, however, and they have been lobbying for more flexibility because they do not think a U.S. alternative to the RD-180 will be ready by 2019.   The RD-180 powers ULA's Atlas V rocket, one of the two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) that launch most national security satellites.  ULA's Delta IV is the other.  SpaceX is diligently trying to be certified to compete against ULA for those launches.

At a subcommittee hearing last month, ULA and the Air Force laid out their concerns and the subcommittee clearly heard them.  In the draft text, expected to be approved at subcommittee level tomorrow and by the full committee next week, even more flexibility would be provided by allowing the Secretary of Defense (SecDef) simply to invoke "national security interests" as a reason for waiving the current law's provisions and certifying those interests to the relevant congressional committees. 

The draft also clarifies that the prohibition on buying RD-180s applies to engines ordered pursuant to the December 18, 2013 contract between ULA and the Air Force regardless of whether payment was made prior to February 1, 2014.  Last year's law exempted engines ordered under that contract, but DOD lawyers were interpreting the law to mean that payment had to have been made by February 1, 2014, as opposed to the engines being options under that contract.

The draft also would change section 1604 of last year's law that authorizes $220 million to build a U.S. alternative to the RD-180 engine, but specifically not to develop a new launch vehicle.  The draft language clarifies that it is permissible to use the funds for "the necessary interfaces" to a launch vehicle.   It also adds language requiring the SecDef to use a "streamlined acquisition approach, including tailored documentation and review processes."

In addition, the draft addresses the "EELV Launch Capabilities" (ELC) contract that the Air Force has with ULA that covers infrastructure and engineering services.  The Air Force pays ULA for launches under two contracts:  the cost-plus-incentive-fee ELC contract and a fixed-price EELV Launch Services (ELS) contract that covers hardware.   Critics call the approximately $1 billion per year ELC a subsidy, but ULA and the Air Force defend it as a mechanism adopted when ULA was created in 2006 to assure that the Air Force could launch its satellites whenever needed.  Air Force and ULA officials concede, however, that times have changed and ELC will not be repeated in future contracts.  The draft report language would, indeed, make that reality, although the language is quite generous saying that the ELC contract must be discontinued by the latter of the dates when obligations under the current contract are met (the contract is through 2017) or December 31, 2020, and the SecDef can waive the provision entirely for national security reasons. 

The draft contains other language that could be construed as supporting either ULA or SpaceX.  For example, it calls for a 10-year acquisition strategy for the EELV program that requires competition, but also ensures that any contract takes into account "the effect of all Federal contracts entered into and any assistance provided" to the competitors.   SpaceX argues that the ELC contract is a subsidy to ULA, but others points out that SpaceX has benefited from its Space Act Agreements and contracts with NASA for development of the Falcon 9 rocket under the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs and those should be taken into account, too.

The draft addresses a range of other national security space issues as well, including the following:

  • Limits the availability of funds for a new Weather Satellite System until the SecDef briefs certain congressional committees on a plan to address DOD cloud characterization and theater weather imagery needs, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certifies to Congress that the plan will not negatively affect commanders of combatant commands and meet those requirements.   This provision addresses concerns that DOD may become dependent on Chinese or Russian geostationary weather satellites for weather data over the Middle East currently provided by a European satellite that is scheduled for decommissioning next year and will not be replaced. At a March 25 hearing, HASC Strategic Forces subcommittee chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) said he is concerned DOD is "headed down a path with significant risk.  We will not allow critical capabilities our warfighters rely on to be based out of Moscow or Beijing" and Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) queried DOD Deputy Assistant Secretary for Space Policy Doug Loverro on the issue.  Loverro replied that DOD does not know how it will address the gap in European coverage right now, but is working with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on the issue.  NOAA manages the U.S. civil weather satellite program and has cooperative agreements with Europe.
  • Requires an evaluation of the ability of the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) to detect, track and target, or develop a capability to do so, against the full range of threats to the United States and its allies.
  • Modifies language in last year's law concerning DOD's pilot project for acquisition of commercial satellite communication services.
  • Requires the SecDef to designate a senior DOD official to procure wideband satellite communications unless the procurement is required to meet an urgent national need, and to provide a plan to meet DOD's requirements for satellite communications, including identification of roles and responsibilities.
  • Amends chapter 9 of Title 10 of the U.S. Code to establish a unified major force program for national security space programs and requires an assessment of the budget needed for those programs for 2017-2020 and a report on how to carry them out.
  • Requires the SecDef and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to develop and implement a space science and technology strategy.
  • Requires briefings on the utility and impacts of combatant commanders directly tasking commercial imagery satellites.
  • Requires a briefing on commercial space-based environmental monitoring capabilities and their utility in meeting DOD requirements.
  • Requires an evaluation of national security space and missile test ranges and infrastructure.
  • Recommends that DOD accelerate the development and fielding of M-code capable GPS user terminals.
  • Requires a briefing on the potential value and advisability of establishing a temporary advisory team for the GPS Next Generation Operational Control Segment (OCX).
  • Requires a briefing on the potential to accelerate the current increment of the Joint Space Operations Center Mission System (JMS) program.
  • Requires a briefing from the SecDef on DOD's requirements for a backup positioning, navigation and timing system to GPS.
  • Requires a briefing on acquisition practices for national security space programs.
  • Requires the SecDef, the DNI and the Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to submit a plan to strengthen national security space stewardship, leadership, management and organization while streamlining decision-making and limiting unnecessary bureaucracy.

Subcommittee markup is at noon tomorrow, April 23.  Full committee markup is on April 29.

 

 

 

SpaceX Pad Abort Test Set for NET May 5

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Apr-2015 (Updated: 21-Apr-2015 09:10 PM)

SpaceX is planning to conduct a much-anticipated pad abort test on May 5, 2015 as part of its development of a crew version of its Dragon capsule. There is a four-hour launch window that day and a backup opportunity on May 6,

Apparently to moderate expectations, the NASA press release announcing the date cautions that as a "development test, the likelihood of encountering an issue is higher than with operational missions."  As typical, May 5 is designated as a "no earlier than" (NET) date, meaning that is the first opportunity for the test, but it could be later.

The window opens at 9:30 am ET and live coverage will be provided on NASA TV.  

The test is being conducted under the NASA-SpaceX Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) agreement.  SpaceX is one of the two companies selected by NASA last year to continue with full development of a crew space transportation system to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) under the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contract.  Boeing is the other with its CST-100 capsule.

Similar to the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo systems of the 1960s and 1970s, the Dragon capsule will be positioned on top of its rocket, unlike the space shuttle where the crew was located in the side-mounted orbiter.  The crew version of Dragon will incorporate an abort system that can carry its occupants to safety in case the rocket explodes, for example.  The intent is the same as the abort systems used by Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo (usually referred to as "escape towers") although the Dragon design is different.

SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk unveiled the crew version, Dragon V2, last year. NASA expects that it will be operational by 2017, but there are many milestones that must be achieved between now and then, including this test.  (SpaceX already launches a cargo version of Dragon that is not outfitted to accommodate people.  One of those is currently attached to the ISS.)

The commercial crew program is a public private partnership (PPP) where NASA pays some, but not all, of the development costs and agrees in advance to buy a certain number of launches. The company pays the rest of the development costs and is expected to find other customers to create a viable business case. 

The CCtCAP contracts awarded to SpaceX and Boeing last year guarantee that each company will be paid for two launches, with an option for four more each.  The total contract value is $2.6 billion for SpaceX and $4.2 billion for Boeing if all options are exercised.  Those costs are for the final phases of development and services.  

Neither NASA nor the companies will reveal what percentage of the development costs are being borne by the taxpayers, although NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier acknowledged at a 2012 House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee hearing that the government was paying the majority of those costs and did not disagree when asked if it was 80-90 percent.  At a February 2015 hearing before the House SS&T Space Subcommittee, representatives of SpaceX and Boeing demurred when asked the question, but neither disagreed with committee members who used 90 percent as the figure.  Boeing's John Mulholland conceded that NASA was paying the "preponderance" of the costs, while SpaceX's Garrett Reisman said "we put a lot of our own money in ... but we've also enjoyed a lot of help from NASA." 

When asked to compare the costs of using a PPP to NASA's traditional procurement methods, Gerstenmaier said he could not offer a specific number, but the PPP is "extremely more efficient."

The United States has not been able to launch anyone into space since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.  NASA buys ISS crew transportation services from Russia on its Soyuz spacecraft.  Today's price is about $76 million per seat and NASA needs six seats per year, a total of $456 million annually.  The oft-stated goal of the commercial crew program is to restore America's ability to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil and to stop sending money to Russia.  Gerstenmaier said in his written statement for the February 2015 hearing that while it is difficult to compare the Russian prices (purchased on a per-seat basis) to commercial crew prices (purchased on a per-mission basis), an equivalent price-per-seat over the duration of the CCtCAP contracts will be $58 million.

What's Happening in Space Policy April 20-25, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Apr-2015 (Updated: 19-Apr-2015 09:05 AM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of April 20-25, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

NASA and the astrophysics community celebrate the 25th anniversary of the iconic Hubble Space Telescope this week. There are a number of events at the Space Telescope Science Institute near Baltimore, which operates Hubble, and in Washington, DC to highlight the breathtaking images and science from Hubble that have captivated the scientific community and the public for two-and-a-half decades -- with more to come.  Some of the events are by invitation only, but NASA TV will broadcast three (see below) on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.  The Saturday event at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport is an open family day.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the House Armed Services Committee's subcommittees will mark up their respective portions of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) this week.  The Strategic Forces subcommittee, which handles most DOD space programs, holds its markup at noon on Thursday.  Many subcommittee markups have been rather pro forma in recent years, with agreements worked out ahead of time or deferred for debate at the full committee markup (scheduled for next week).   The text of the bill, H.R. 1735, is posted on congress.gov, but it says very little about space programs.   Most of those details are included in the report to accompany the bill.  The draft report is not public yet.

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

Monday-Friday, April 20-24

Tuesday-Wednesday, April 21-22

Wednesday, April 22

Wednesday-Thursday, April 22-23

  • NRC Space Studies Board (SSB), National Academy of Sciences building, 2101 Constitutive Ave,m Washington, DC ( Wednesday is joint with ASEB),  Some sessions are closed.

Thursday, April 23

Friday, April 24

  • Hubble 25th Anniversary Event, National Air and Space Museum (NASM), 600 Independence Ave. NW, Washington, DC, 8:00-9:00 pm ET (by invitation only, but watch on NASA TV)

Saturday, April 25

Musk: Falcon 9 Landing Failure Due to Throttle Valve Response

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Apr-2015 (Updated: 18-Apr-2015 10:11 PM)

SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk tweeted this evening that the failure of the Falcon 9 first stage to land successfully on a drone ship was due to a "slower than expected throttle valve response."  Another attempt will be made in two months, he added.

SpaceX made its second attempt to land a Falcon 9 first stage on its autonomous drone ship named Just Read the Instructions on Tuesday, April 14, 2015.  The first stage had just successfully propelled the rocket's second stage and the Dragon spacecraft full of supplies for the International Space Station into space.  Musk wants to develop a reusable first stage that eventually will land back at its launch site.  For now, he is testing landing on the drone ship.  The first test earlier this year also was unsuccessful.

Video of the April 14 attempt shows the rocket descending vertically and almost making it to a safe landing on the drone ship, but it slews sideways in the final moments and crashes onto the deck.   This evening Musk sent two tweets explaining what went wrong:

 

Senate Appropriators Unhappy with NASA FY2016 Budget Request

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Apr-2015 (Updated: 17-Apr-2015 12:52 AM)

Hours after defending the President’s FY2016 budget request before a House subcommittee, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was in front of a Senate subcommittee with the same task – convincing skeptical lawmakers that the request reflects the right priorities for the space agency.  He also used the opportunity to once again urge Senate confirmation of Dava Newman as Deputy Administrator.

Bolden testified before the House subcommittee that authorizes NASA's activities this morning.  This afternoon’s hearing was across Capitol Hill in the Senate and before the appropriations subcommittee that funds the agency.  Authorizing committees set policy and recommend funding levels, but only appropriators have money to spend.

In this case, Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the Hill, authorizers and appropriators alike, expressed dissatisfaction with the choices made in the President’s $18.5 billion budget request for NASA.

The hearing before the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee was comparatively brief, lasting less than an hour.  The four Senators present focused almost entirely on issues affecting their constituents, but the opening statements by subcommittee chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) touched on broader issues.

Shelby said the significant increase in the request compared to FY2015 should have represented balanced funding for NASA priorities, but instead there are significant increases for commercial crew and for space technology, but reductions for science missions and exploration systems development.   His primary interest is the Space Launch System (SLS), being built in his state of Alabama, and he criticized the “20 percent cut” to SLS at a critical phase in its development.  Warning that “a lot of us are troubled” by the request, Shelby said that “requiring development programs to operate with insufficient funding is irresponsible.”  

Later in the hearing Shelby queried Bolden about the commercial crew program.  Shelby is a strong skeptic about that program.  Today he wanted to know why NASA was buying more seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for a period of time when commercial crew systems should be available.  What is worrying NASA about the progress of that program, he asked, that is causing it to buy more Russian seats?  Bolden replied that his concern is that Congress will not provide the needed funding for the program.   Congress historically has not fully funded the commercial crew program and Bolden often reminds Congress that if full funding had been provided, the commercial crew systems would be ready this year.  Instead, there is a two-year slip.  Shelby retorted that NASA wasted resources by supporting too many companies.

Shelby also wanted an update on Russia's commitment to the International Space Station (ISS) and whether it has formally notified NASA that it plans to end its participation in 2024 and remove some of its modules as reported in the press.  Bolden said no, it was quite the opposite.  He met with the new head of the Russian space agency, Igor Komarov, last month and Komarov made it clear that Russia is committed to ISS until 2024 and has no plans to remove any modules.  Bolden added that the other ISS partners had been waiting for Russia to make that commitment and he now expects that they will do so as well.  Bolden firmly said "yes" when Shelby asked if NASA can operate ISS without the Russian segments.

Mikulski was particularly distressed about cuts to Goddard Space Flight Center in her state of Maryland, but more broadly worried that the choices made in the request would undermine the bipartisan agreement on a balanced space program that has been in place for several years.  “I have very deep concerns” about the threat posed to that balanced program, she said in her opening statement, later adding that “I want to make sure our best days aren’t behind us.”

Mikulski was especially concerned about cuts to the satellite servicing development program at Goddard.  Bolden asked if he could talk to her in person later  to explain why he reduced its funding.  The private sector is already working on those technologies, he explained, and for four years he has been trying to determine who the customer for NASA's efforts would be.  "I want to make sure we are not at odds with industry" because his experience is that industry wants NASA to be its customer, not the reverse.  Mikulski also worried about an overall cut of more than $300 million for activities at Goddard, but Bolden assured her that as more programs are assigned to Goddard during the year, more money will accompany them.

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), chairman of the full Appropriations Committee, asked if Bolden thinks Congress and the Administration are working together constructively on the SLS program.  SLS will be tested at Stennis Space Center in Cochran’s state of Mississippi.  Bolden exclaimed that he did not think he has been as effective as he could be and promised to spend more time with the committee explaining what NASA is doing, adding that "I am pleading for the Senate to confirm Dr. Dava Newman as my Deputy because I need the help.”

Cochran later commented that a "robust testing infrastructure" is needed at Stennis to test new rocket engines in the future and then asked "Is there a future?"   Bolden used the opportunity to declare, in reaction to Mikulski's earlier comment, that "our best days are in front of us.  I can promise you that."

Sen. Shelley Capito (R-WV) also attended the hearing, asking questions about the future of NASA's Independent Verification and Validation (IV&V) facility in her state of West Virginia (Bolden assured her of its importance) and diversity in NASA's workforce (Bolden said he was not happy with it and is seeking ways to encourage women and minorities to remain in science and engineering leadership positions).

Several other topics were discussed.  A webcast of the hearing is available on the committee's website.

Bolden Defends ARM, Earth Science, American Preeminence at House Hearing

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Apr-2015 (Updated: 17-Apr-2015 12:54 AM)

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden spent two hours this morning defending the Obama Administration’s FY2016 budget request for the agency before a House subcommittee.  Perhaps the most contentious moment came during a debate between Bolden and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) who was arguing that America has lost its preeminence in human spaceflight.  Bolden forcefully countered that he just returned from the Space Symposium and no one there had such a low opinion of NASA and the United States:  “We are the preeminent leader in the world. Always have been, always will be.”

The exchange took place as part of Brooks’ proposition that the approximately $2 billion NASA spends on earth science should be reallocated to NASA’s other space and aeronautics programs and the earth science activities be transferred to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Bolden strongly defended the earth science component of NASA’s program as part of a balanced portfolio.

Brooks, who represents Marshall Space Flight Center, contended that more money is needed to support human exploration because, since the end of the space shuttle program, America has had to “hitch a ride” with the Russians to the International Space Station (ISS) and thus lost its preeminence.   Bolden’s rejoinder that no one at the Space Symposium would agree with that assessment did not persuade Brooks:  “When Russia is reducing the United States of America to saying if we want to go to the space station we can do it by a trampoline, that’s not the kind of preeminence I’m accustomed to, having seen the Saturn V rocket built … in the 5th congressional district of Alabama.”

Other Republican subcommittee members also argued against NASA’s earth science funding.  The discussion followed the familiar lines expressed by committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and others at least since 2013 that 13 federal agencies are involved in climate change/earth science research, while NASA uniquely is responsible for space exploration.  Therefore NASA should focus on its unique role of exploration and shift earth science to the other agencies.

The hearing on NASA's FY2016 budget request was held before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee today.  Generally speaking, members of both parties criticized the request.

The Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) was one key topic, both in terms of why Bolden is ignoring advice from the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and more broadly about where it fits into the longer term plan for human exploration of Mars.

Bolden was grilled by subcommittee chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) and committee chairman Smith on why he was ignoring NAC’s advice to (1) obtain an independent cost evaluation (ICE) of ARM prior to the Mission Concept Review (which just took place), and (2) modify it so that its primary objective is demonstration of high power solar electric propulsion rather than obtaining a sample of an asteroid, and to send the spacecraft to Mars and back rather than to an asteroid.  Bolden replied that he is not changing ARM’s objectives because he is committed to “constancy of purpose” and will do an ICE now that the Mission Concept Review is completed.  Palazzo warned that "without consensus in the scientific, exploration and international communities, not to mention the people here on Capitol Hill, I think you will be challenged" on ARM.

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) focused on the fact that NASA has not provided a roadmap for the human exploration program and how ARM fits into it.  She argued that the committee needs to know why NASA is choosing various options instead of simply being told what it is going to do without any communications.

Edwards, the top Democrat on the subcommittee, also pressed Bolden on why the budget request cuts funds for programs the Administration knows are congressional priorities, such as the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft, aeronautics, and the Europa mission. “Part of me thinks it’s a game,” she said.    Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the top Democrat on the full committee, asked why NASA was ignoring the advice of the National Research Council (NRC) in its “Pathways” report last year.  The report provided “unambiguous” advice that NASA needs more funding to achieve the goal of sending people to Mars, so “it came as a bit of a shock to me that the very next  budget request” cuts funding for SLS and Orion.  That is “directly counter” to the NRC’s advice and “Congress needs to correct that.”

Bolden insisted it was all a matter of priorities.  He repeated several times that he believes the budget request for SLS and Orion will enable the agency to meet the milestones it has promised. Regarding Europa, he said he knows the planetary science community wants to launch that spacecraft in 2022, but “it can’t be done in that time frame.” In an unrelated exchange later in the hearing, he said he thinks Europa could be launched in 2029, but it was clear he was not committing to that date.

Palazzo and Smith repeated their criticism of NASA’s decision to fund two commercial crew companies instead of one and using SLS/Orion as the redundant capability if it is needed.  The 2010 NASA authorization act requires NASA to design SLS/Orion so it can service the ISS in case the commercial crew concept did not result in viable systems.  Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH) asked if NASA could downselect to just one of the two companies and thereby accelerate when a commercial crew system would be ready.  Bolden said no, and choosing only one company could actually slow the program because that company would become a “monopoly that dictates to me what it can or can’t do.”

Many other topics were discussed (a webcast of the hearing is available on the committee’s website) that covered familiar ground.  The overall thrust was that Republicans and Democrats are unhappy with the budget request because it cuts programs that the Administration knows are congressional priorities and does not lay out a roadmap for human exploration.   Republicans also disagree with the funding for earth science because that should not be a NASA priority.

Bolden testified to the Senate Appropriations Committee's Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee on the FY2016 budget request later in the day.