Commercial Space News
NASA is postponing two U.S. spacewalks planned for August 21 and August 29 because of concerns about fuses in the batteries used in the U.S. spacesuits. A Russian spacewalk remains on track for August 18.
New Long Life Batteries for the U.S. spacesuits are to be delivered to the International Space Station (ISS) on the next SpaceX Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission -- SpaceX CRS-4 -- in September. NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman said in an interview broadcast on NASA TV that although he is "a little sad" the spacewalks were postponed, it is OK because "when I go out the door I want [the spacesuit] to be in a good clean configuration." Wiseman also will replace a fan pump separator in one of the U.S. spacesuits next week. A malfunctioning fan pump separator caused a dramatic end to a July 16, 2013 spacewalk when ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano's helmet filled with water.
Wiseman and NASA astronaut Steve Swanson were scheduled to conduct the August 21 spacewalk. Their tasks are to replace a failed Sequential Shunt in order to recover full power-generating capacity on the ISS and to reposition TV external camera equipment. Wiseman and ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst were on tap for the August 29 spacewalk to transfer a failed pump module from a temporary to a permanent stowage location and to install a "Mobile Transporter Relay Assembly that will add capability to the 'keep alive' power to the Mobile Servicing System when the Mobile Transporter is moving between worksites." NASA said that postponing the spacewalks will not affect day-to-day ISS operations.
Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev will proceed with their own spacewalk, using Russia's Orlan spacesuits, on August 18. They will deploy a nanosatellite, install two experiment packages and retrieve two others. NASA TV will provide coverage of that spacewalk beginning at 10:00 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).
Russia's decision to retaliate against the United States, the European Union (EU) and other countries that have imposed sanctions because of Russia's activities in Ukraine does not, at this time, seem to have any impact on existing space cooperation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced earlier this week that he would impose his own sanctions in a tit-for-tat response. Details were released today (August 7) and all are in the agricultural sector. For one year, Russia will prohibit imports of beef, pork, poultry, meat, fish, cheese, milk, vegetables and fruit from the United States, EU, Canada, Australia and Norway. Alcohol imports from the United States and the EU are not affected. Russia plans to increase imports from other countries to compensate. Russia reportedly is considering additional sanctions, such as banning American and European airline flights to pass through Russian airspace as well as sanctions in the automobile, shipbuilding and aircraft production industries, but there is no indication at this time that space cooperation is jeopardized.
The deterioration of relationships this year between the United States and Russia since Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula has raised concern in the space policy community because of U.S. reliance on Russia for crew transportation to the International Space Station (ISS) and Russian RD-180 engines for the U.S. Atlas V launch vehicle. The United States has issued sanctions against Russia several times, but they do not appear to be having any negative impact on space cooperation.
Putin stridently complained against the sanctions imposed by the United States and other countries and warned they can "boomerang." In announcing his retaliatory sanctions, he said "Naturally, this has to be done very accurately so as to support domestic producers and not harm consumers." If his desire to support domestic producers applies broadly and not only to the agricultural sector, that could suggest that he will try to avoid harming companies like Energomash, which produces the RD-180 engines, or the enterprises that build and launch Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS. NASA pays Russia roughly $450 million a year for U.S. and other non-Russian crew members to fly to and from the ISS. The two countries jointly operate the ISS.
NASA insists that nothing has changed in ISS operations because of the geopolitical strains, and the United Launch Alliance (ULA), which builds and launch the Atlas V, and its Air Force customer also say that it is "business as usual" with the Russians. How much ULA pays for the RD-180s is not public and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) requested that information from the Department of Defense in June. Presumably, however, it is revenue Russia would not want to forego.
Here is our list of space policy-related events for the week of August 3-10, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them. Congress is in recess until September 8.
During the Week
It may be a little quiet in Washington this week with Congress gone and many people on vacation, but there's a lot going in space policy elsewhere in the country, world, and the depths of outer space.
Three annual conferences are taking place -- Utah State University's Smallsat Conference in Logan, Utah; AIAA's Space 2014 in San Diego; and the Mars Society's international convention in League City, Texas -- and the biennial COSPAR meeting is in Moscow. Two of them -- Smallsat and COSPAR -- actually began yesterday.
NASA participation in the COSPAR conference, where the world's space scientists get together to share results and plans for the future, was one of the activities exempted from the White House's directive to government agencies to limit their cooperative activities with Russia because of the geopolitical situation. According to an April memo from NASA's Associate Administrator for International and Interagency Relations to NASA Center Directors, NASA employees are allowed to participate in multilateral meetings that may involve Russians as long as the meeting takes place outside Russia. COSPAR and the upcoming International Council of Aeronautical Sciences (ICAS) both are in Russia this year, however: COSPAR in Moscow and ICAS in St. Petersburg in September.
COSPAR was almost immediately exempted from that restriction, though, apparently thanks to the efforts of the National Academy of Sciences' Space Studies Board (SSB) and especially its former chair Len Fisk, who is now the official U.S. representative to COSPAR. COSPAR is part of the International Council of Science and the SSB is the U.S. National Committee to COSPAR. NASA reports that 35 NASA employees are attending COSPAR, but that a decision on whether any may attend ICAS next month has not yet been made. ICAS is where aeronautical engineers get together to "facilitate collaboration in aeronautics."
Meanwhile, in the depths of space, this week will see at long last the end of Rosetta's 10-year journey to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The European Space Agency (ESA) spacecraft will orbit the 4-kilometer diameter comet and, in November, send a lander (named Philae) to the surface, a first-time feat. ESA's Space Operations Center (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany is expected to confirm Rosetta's arrival at about 11:45 Central European Summer Time (CEST), or 09:45 GMT (5.45 am ET) on August 6. It began its journey on March 2, 2004 and has travelled more than 6.4 billion kilometers to reach the comet, which is currently about 404 million kilometers from Earth (Rosetta made three passes by Earth and one by Mars to get gravity-assist boosts). The one-way signal travel time is 22 minutes 27 seconds. A day-long series of press briefings is planned on August 6 that will be livestreamed.
Those events and everything else we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Saturday - Thursday, August 2-7
Saturday, August 2 - Sunday, August 10
Monday-Thursday, August 4-7
Tuesday, August 5
Wednesday, August 6
Thursday-Sunday, August 7-10
The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) wants NASA to obtain an independent cost and technical estimate of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) before it chooses – “downselects” – between two options for implementing that mission. NASA currently plans to wait until after the decision is made. It is one of three recommendations and one finding NAC is making to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden about the human spaceflight program.
NAC met for a second day today (July 31) at NASA’s Langley Research Center. Among its tasks was finalizing findings and recommendations to send to Bolden on which debate began yesterday. It adopted findings and recommendations in several areas, but those affecting the human spaceflight program were the most contentious.
NAC’s purpose is to advise the NASA Administrator on major issues affecting the agency and NAC Chairman Steve Squyres explained at the beginning of the meeting yesterday that he and Bolden have restructured NAC over the past several months to make it more effective in doing that. He wants a more proactive Council that focuses on the key issues facing NASA and it is clear that the future of the human spaceflight program is at the top of the list.
NAC recommendations follow a standard format: state the recommendation, explain the reasons for it, and identify the consequences of not acting on it. All quotes below are from the final drafts of the recommendations as discussed today in public session. Minor changes could still be made before they are submitted to Bolden.
Recommendation: Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM)
NAC is worried that, as currently defined, ARM may pose an unacceptable cost and technical risk. Tom Young and Scott Hubbard were particularly involved in formulating this recommendation.
ARM is divided into three elements:
It is the second that particularly troubles NAC in terms of cost and technical feasibility. In fact, NAC concludes that the first and third elements have merit even if the second element does not take place.
NASA is studying two options for the second element: Option A, capturing an entire, small asteroid; or Option B, going to a larger asteroid and plucking a boulder from its surface.
NAC recommends that NASA conduct an independent cost and technical assessment before it chooses between the two options. The possible outcome is choosing Option A, Option B, or neither. It also wants NASA to clearly state in advance what the cost and technical criteria are for implementing the mission including affordability within projected budgets.
The Council also states that ARM is not a substitute for sending astronauts to an asteroid in its native orbit, which it sees as a logical step towards sending humans to Mars. In 2010, President Obama directed NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, not to bring an asteroid to the astronauts. In 2013, the White House proposed ARM instead, but some view ARM as insufficient to demonstrate the technical and human factors aspects of a long duration space mission far from Earth, which they believe is needed before making an even longer trip to Mars.
The consequences of not acting on its recommendation, NAC says, is the potential that a mission with significant cost and technical risk could be implemented without fully understanding the potential for cost overruns or schedule slips.
Recommendation: Human Spaceflight Mismatch -- Aspirations Versus Budget
Yesterday and at NAC’s last meeting, several members expressed concern that although the overall human spaceflight strategy NASA is developing sounds reasonable, it is not executable within expected budgets. The strategy includes ARM, but extends out to human trips to Mars. Squyres was the leading force on this recommendation. He wanted stronger wording than the group as a whole was willing to adopt, but the consensus version is still quite direct.
“The mismatch between NASA’s aspirations for human spaceflight and its budget for human spaceflight is the most serious problem facing the agency,” NAC said in the final draft adopted today.
It wants NASA to carefully consider what steps need to be taken in the years ahead to meet the goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s -- the goal that is articulated in the U.S. National Space Policy -- with a realistic budget. The agency should identify the minimum path of what is absolutely required to meet that goal and compare it with a human spaceflight budget that grows only at the rate of inflation. NAC anticipates there will be a shortfall and wants NASA to explain how it will address that gap.
The Council said that it agrees with the recent Pathways to Exploration report from the National Research Council (NRC) that sending humans to Mars is the appropriate “horizon goal,” but also agrees with the NRC that under currently projected budgets, that goal will never be achieved. NAC asserts that there are only four ways to fix the mismatch: increase NASA’s budget, remove content from NASA’s portfolio, offset costs by new efficiencies and/or contributions from outside partners, or adopt a different goal.
The consequences of not acting on the recommendation are that the agency “runs the risk of squandering precious national resources on a laudable but unachievable goal.”
NAC requests a briefing from NASA at its next meeting and subsequent meetings on how it is implementing this recommendation.
Recommendation: SLS Launch Rate
The third human spaceflight recommendation addressed what many NAC members consider the unacceptably low launch rate now planned for the Space Launch System (SLS) of one launch every two years. Squyres also has been a leader in raising awareness of this issue, but many other NAC members clearly agree.
NAC warned that the rate is “less than optimal for maintenance of the supplier base, and the ability of the engineering, production, launch and operations teams to make appropriate risk decisions in a timely fashion.” NASA therefore should conduct a trade study to determine a minimum launch rate for SLS with respect to cost, safety, mission success, and performance.
Finding: Endorsement of Some Aspects of the Human Spaceflight Strategy
While those three recommendations convey criticism of NASA’s plans, that is not to say the Council found nothing positive about NASA’s efforts. It also adopted a finding that says, despite its concerns, it endorses the following aspects of the human spaceflight strategy:
Ken Bowersox, who chairs NAC’s human exploration and operations committee, and Wayne Hale were particularly intent on ensuring that the Council tells NASA what it is doing right, not only the negatives.
Next Steps: A NAC Press Release?
Traditionally, NAC findings and recommendations are sent to the NASA Administrator in a letter from the NAC Chair. Eventually the Administrator responds and the exchange is posted on the NAC website and they receive little notice.
Today, NAC member Miles O’Brien suggested that NAC issue a press release to raise awareness of these issues. The other NAC members, including Squyres, were enthusiastic about the idea. It apparently would be a precedent-setting event. Squyres seemed to feel it is in keeping with the goal he and Bolden share to make NAC more effective.
Squyres says he will try to have a press release issued after he formally transmits all of NAC’s findings and recommendations to Bolden in about two weeks.
NAC's next meeting is scheduled for December 8-9, 2014 at Stennis Space Center.
Updated August 1, 2014: This article was updated with links to two other SpacePolicyOnline.com stories that appeared in subsequent days on related meetings. See end.
July 30, 2014: The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) met this afternoon (July 30) for the first part of a two-day meeting. The members have not yet finalized any findings or recommendations, but it is clear there is a broad range of issues on their minds. A clear consensus on what, if any, actionable recommendations to make to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden had not emerged by the end of the day. That’s tomorrow’s task.
The following is a quick roundup of what happened today. We’ll have more on this meeting and on a separate meeting today of NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) in coming days (see links below). A common topic in the two groups was NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which generated controversy in both venues.
This list highlights only the issues at NAC, which is meeting at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA. Several of the NAC committees met earlier in the week and the discussion tomorrow will include findings and recommendations from those interactions as well as the debate today among the full NAC, which consists of the committee chairs, six at-large members, and chairman Steve Squyres. NASA Administrator Bolden was at the meeting for most of the afternoon.
NASA’s Future Human Spaceflight Program
Not surprisingly, this topic dominated the meeting. At the last NAC meeting, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier rolled out a new NASA roadmap that explains the connections between ARM and the long term goal of sending humans to Mars by the 2030s. NAC members expressed concern at the time that while the plan itself sounded reasonable, it was not executable because of its cost -- Gerstenmaier himself said that it required an increase in the human spaceflight budget above the rate of inflation.
NAC asked for a more detailed briefing at its next meeting – today – which was presented by Gerstenmaier’s deputy, Greg Williams (Gerstenmaier was in Kourou for the ATV-5 launch yesterday).
At the top level, the response today was the same – that NASA is developing a plan that is not executable. Some members said they want to know what NASA can do with the money it can reasonably expect, while others wanted a realistic assessment of what it will actually cost to achieve the goal of getting people to Mars by the 2030s. Tom Young said he felt that “we are collectively perpetrating a fraud” by pretending the program is executable. He said he worries that the country will spend $160 billion on human spaceflight over the next 20 years and be only “negligibly closer” to landing humans on Mars. However, when Squyres suggested that NAC make a recommendation that NASA publicly state what activities it would have to terminate in order to achieve the goal of humans on Mars by the 2030s absent a bigger budget, most NAC members demurred.
There also was strong debate about ARM itself. One criticism is that President Obama’s directive in 2010 was for NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid, not to bring an asteroid to the astronauts. Some NAC members insisted that the original goal was preferable – to visit an asteroid is its native orbit – if the real goal is to serve as a steppingstone to Mars. Young said that when he first heard about ARM, he thought it was a joke and that it “dumbs down NASA.” “NASA is better than this,” he declared.
Another criticism is that NASA does a poor job of explaining why it is pursuing ARM. Williams used a chart with several bullets, one of which pointed to ARM’s role in demonstrating techniques that could be used to defend Earth from potentially hazardous asteroids -- planetary defense. During questioning about those bullets, Bolden quickly chimed in to say that planetary defense is NOT a goal of ARM. It is a goal of the Asteroid Grand Challenge, which NASA is funding at $7 million in FY2014, he said, but not of ARM. He acknowledged that because NASA is doing both ARM and the Grand Challenge, there is a lot of confusion. "We need to get that confusion out of it. We are not saving the planet," he exclaimed. However, many other NASA officials, including Williams, include planetary defense in the list of rationales for ARM. Scott Hubbard insisted that NASA needs to have a single bullet explaining why ARM is needed, not a list of them, in any case.
There did seem to be agreement that NASA should conduct an independent cost estimate of ARM before making a decision on which of two options it will choose for the mission (Option A is capturing an entire small asteroid; Option B is going to a larger asteroid and plucking a boulder from its surface). NASA does not plan to have an independent estimate until after the choice is made.
Space Launch System (SLS) Launch Rate
Squyres has been a leader in stressing that launching SLS at a rate of one every 2-3 years is very risky because launch teams cannot maintain proficiency at such a low launch rate. He raised the issue again today and many NAC members agreed it not only adds risk, but cost. Bill Ballhaus, a past President of the Aerospace Corporation, which oversees Air Force launches of the Atlas V and Delta IV, said that for those two launch vehicles, a rate of four per year is needed to maintain expertise. Discussion on this issue will continue tomorrow.
Launching the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) on Ariane
At the very end of the meeting, Tom Young and Bill Ballhaus raised an issue about whether NASA has an adequate mission assurance role for the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) on Europe’s Ariane rocket. Since NASA and Europe agreed to launch JWST on Ariane on a cooperative basis (there is no exchange of funds), the JWST schedule has slipped from 2013 to 2018 and its cost has exploded to $8 billion. Ballhaus pointed out that the Air Force has strict mission assurance criteria to ensure its satellites get into orbit safely and they are less expensive than that. While Arianespace undoubtedly has its own criteria, he said, considering JWST’s cost, he asked whether NASA should consider renegotiating the agreement so it has a greater mission assurance role. Others agreed that much has changed with JWST since the agreement was signed. The group will ask for a briefing on this topic at its next meeting.
The second day of the NAC meeting was summarized in: NAC Wants Independent Cost and Technical Estimate of ARM Before Downselect (SpacePolicyOnline.com, July 31, 2014)
NASA intends to use future U.S. commercial crew vehicles to carry not only its astronauts, but also those of its Russian partner, to the International Space Station (ISS), said Dan Hartman, deputy space station program manager, at a NASA Advisory Council (NAC) meeting on Monday (July 28).
Different international vehicles routinely transport crew and cargo to and from the ISS, a laboratory circling some 250 miles above Earth. Currently, the U.S. commercially provided Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Cygnus and SpaceX’s Dragon, Russia’s Progress, Japan’s H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) and Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) provide cargo resupply to the space station. ATV-5, scheduled to lift off today from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, is the last of its kind.
Russia’s Soyuz, however, remains the world’s sole operational crew vehicle, on which NASA must continue to rely until U.S. commercial alternatives are ready.
“We’re going to stay mixed” though, Hartman said at a meeting of NAC’s Committee on Human Exploration and Operations at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. NASA’s plan is for some NASA astronauts to continue launching on the Soyuz from Kazakhstan and some Russian cosmonauts to be launched from the United States by private companies, he explained. The idea is to barter: “It would be just a seat for a seat.”
Soyuz spacecraft not only transport crews to and from ISS, but serve as “lifeboats,” always docked to the ISS as an emergency evacuation route if needed. The number of crew aboard the ISS is, in part, limited by how many Soyuz seats are available for evacuation. Each Soyuz can accommodate a three-person crew. If two Soyuz are attached, six people can be in residence. Soyuz spacecraft can remain attached to the ISS for as long as six months, setting up what is now the routine 4-6 month crew rotation schedule. SpaceX, at least, is designing its Dragon V2 so that it could serve as a lifeboat as well. Other commercial crew competitors may have similar plans.
Hartman’s point was that in an emergency, it might not make sense to have all the Russians leave on one spacecraft and the Americans and others on a separate spacecraft because a mixture of experience may be needed to conduct operations. “When you have these rescue vehicles on orbit and you have to leave the station…it doesn’t make much sense for three Russians to leave and expect the four Americans onboard to operate the Russian segment [of the ISS] and vice versa, right?” Hartman said.
NASA plans to award at least one contract under the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) phase of the commercial crew program in August or September 2014. NASA officials are prohibited from providing any details of the bids that have been submitted, including which companies made the bids. NASA is funding three companies in the current phase of the program, CCiCap (Commercial Crew Integrated Capability) – Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX. Under CCtCap, at least one crewed flight test to the space station is required before certification is granted. NASA hopes that at least one U.S. commercial crew vehicle will be ready to transport astronauts to the ISS by late 2017.
President Obama has proposed extending ISS operations until at least 2024. The governments of NASA’s space station partners—Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan—have not formally accepted yet.
“I don’t think we need that answer from them for another year or so,” Hartman said. Other NASA officials have said they do not expect answers from the partners for several years and today’s strained U.S.-Russian geopolitical relationship complicates future planning on many fronts.
Presently, three Russians, one European and two Americans are living and working aboard the space station.
The United States and its major European allies announced on Monday they are finalizing more sanctions against Russia in the wake of the downing of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine on July 17. The United States also reportedly formally accused Russia of violating a treaty prohibiting development of new medium range cruise missiles. The extent to which these developments might impact U.S.–Russian space relationships is unclear.
Sanctions imposed by the Obama Administration over the past several months following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula have largely skirted civil space cooperation. The United States relies on Russia for transporting American astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) and Russian rocket engines are used to power two U.S. launch vehicles – Atlas 5 with its Russian RD-180 engines, and Antares and its Russian AJ-26 (NK-33) engines.
Although NASA, along with other government agencies, was directed to limit cooperation with Russia, the ISS was specifically exempted and other NASA programs were given waivers. Three Russian cosmonauts, two American astronauts and one German astronaut are currently living together aboard the ISS, which is jointly operated by the United States and Russia.
The shoot-down of the commercial Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) airliner as it transited Ukrainian airspace at 33,000 feet on July 17, 2014, and Russia’s refusal to accept responsibility despite Western insistence that Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine used a Russian BUK surface-to-air missile system in that horrific tragedy, pushed the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy to announce today (July 28) they will impose new sanctions imminently. Specifics were not released. The New York Times said Europe will finalize its sanctions package tomorrow (Tuesday), with the United States following suit thereafter.
The White House released a read-out of a telecom among the leaders of the five countries discussing several global hot spots including Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq and Libya. On this topic, it said only that all agreed on the need for “coordinated sanctions measures on Russia for its continued transfer of arms, equipment, and fighters into eastern Ukraine, including since the crash, and to press Russia to end its efforts to destabilize the country…”
At the same time, also according to the New York Times, President Obama formally notified Russian President Vladimir Putin that the United States has concluded Russia violated the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by testing a ground-launched cruise missile with a range of 500-5,500 kilometers. Multiple sources reported the news this evening, with most citing the New York Times as breaking the story. President Obama’s letter to Putin is not yet posted on the White House Web site.
Check back here as more details of these actions are made public.
Here is our list of upcoming events for the week of July 28-August 1, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate will be in session this week.
During the Week
The House and Senate do not currently have any space policy-related hearings or actions on their public agendas during this last week of legislative work before their August recess. The "August" recess actually extends until September 8, so it's a full five weeks. Despite early rumors last week that they would take up a FY2015 Continuing Resolution (CR) before the break, House Speaker John Boehner made it absolutely clear on Thursday that he would not bring a CR to the House floor until they return in September. He said the CR would last until early December.
The memories of last year's 16-day government shutdown have not faded and a lot of people are hoping the same scenario does not play out again. Many politicians are saying they don't want a shutdown, but whether they will feel the same way after five weeks with their constituents is the big question. Analysts of last year's shutdown argue that one factor that fueled it was constituent angst -- primarily over Obamacare -- directed at their representatives during the August break. (A lot of people blame Congress for not working hard enough and point to the number of days they are in session in Washington. It is important to remember that most of the time they are not in Washington, they are still working, just back in their districts. The August "recess" doesn't mean they are on vacation for five weeks. Indeed, in this election year, they will be interacting with the people whose votes they need and listening carefully to their concerns.)
In any case, for space policy aficionados, most of the action will be in Cleveland, OH with the AIAA's Propulsion and Energy 2014 Conference, or Hampton, VA at NASA's Langely Research Center where the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and its committees are meeting. All of the NAC meetings are available via WebEx and telecom. Instructions are provided in the individual entries on our calendar.
In Washington, NASA's Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) meets Tuesday-Thursday (available via WebEx/telecom). Also on Thursday, American University (AU) and Explore Mars Inc. are holding an interesting panel discussion at AU on "Is It Time To Search for Life on Mars?" Thought we were already searching for life on Mars? Go to the panel and find out why they titled their event as they did. They've got a great lineup of speakers -- and a reception afterwards. It appears as though it will be webcast (there's a Ustream link on the event's website).
Here's the list of events we know about as of Sunday afternoon.
Monday-Tuesday, July 28-29, 2014
Monday-Wednesday, July 28-30, 2014
Tuesday, July 29
Tuesday-Wednesday, July 29-30
Tuesday-Thursday, July 29-31
Wednesday-Thursday, July 30-31
Thursday, July 31
Correction: An earlier version of this article had incorrect dates for the meeting of the NAC Human Exploration and Operations Committee. The correct dates are July 28-29 (not July 29-30).
Just as the decision to rely on the RD-180 engine was driven by “geopolitical interests,” rather than “space community necessity,” the answer of whether to continue to use the Russian engine or build a U.S. alternative will not be “in the space community’s hands,” says a member of Air Force’s RD-180 Alternative Study.
At an event yesterday hosted by the George C. Marshall Institute, Josh Hartman, CEO of Horizon Strategies Group and a member of the independent advisory panel that examined alternatives to the Russian RD-180 rocket engine, summarized the findings and recommendations of the Air Force-convened panel. Chaired by Major General Howard J. ‘Mitch’ Mitchell, USAF (ret.), the expert panel was asked to submit its report in just 30 days – rather than the original 60 days – because of congressional interest in the study, Hartman explained. While the final report is classified, SpacePolicyOnline.com posted a set of unclassified briefing charts and summarized highlights from them in May.
The panel concluded that the loss of the Russian RD-180s, on which the United States depends to power the Atlas V rocket, one of two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) that are the workhorses of national security space launches, would be “significant.” Although the United States has enough RD-180s for two years’ worth of launches, the current launch manifest would need to be prioritized, costing billions of dollars in delays and in retrofitting existing payloads to launch on other rockets.
In a scenario where the RD-180s disappeared, the United States would lose its ability to use the Atlas V. While the second EELV –Delta IV – is technically capable of launching the satellites now manifested on Atlas V, some question whether the production rate could be accelerated sufficiently to compensate. Therefore, the national security sector would need to rely on new entrants, such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, both of which have expressed an interest in providing national security space launches.
However, doing so would mean incurring a “great level of risk,” said Hartman. On the one hand it is a question of how soon new entrants would be ready to launch rockets equivalent in capability to Atlas V. The Mitchell panel found that even if new entrants were certified and ready to compete for national security launches in 2015, the first launch would not be before 2017. On the other hand, Hartman said these companies are not advertising that they would meet the full spectrum of national security launches. He added that SpaceX and Blue Origin are “not motivated by national security launches” but see these as a “stepping stone” to other activities.
The second speaker, Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University, expanded on the policy questions, opportunities and risks of what he said was a “looming crisis.” He argued that the reasons to reconsider U.S. launch options go beyond the current geopolitical situation and include longer-term issues. These include the increasing cost of the EELV program, which includes “imposed costs” that come with the U.S. government’s “way of doing business,” and the interest created by new entrants. In his remarks, Pace highlighted the need to reexamine the benefit of imposing extensive rules and restrictions on industry partners – some that have no value-added – and can sometimes hamper innovation.
To a question about the potential role of foreign partners in this effort, Hartman said that new partnerships would be considered on a “case-by-case basis.” He noted that while the Russian engine was the main issue of interest, there is ongoing foreign participation in other components of the EELV program.
Pace said that he sees more opportunities for foreign partners in civil space exploration, including launch infrastructure. For national security launches he thinks it will be commercial rather than international partners.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) praised NASA's technical progress in building the Space Launch System (SLS) in a report released today, but warned that the agency does not have enough funding to complete the rocket in time for its promised first flight in 2017.
GAO pointed out that most NASA programs are required to have a funding and schedule profile that affords at least a 70 percent chance of success -- a "joint confidence level" or JCL -- and SLS does not have that. The program may be $400 million short of what it needs in order to be ready for the first test launch in 2017 at a 70 percent confidence level, GAO concluded using analysis by the SLS program itself.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden conceded in a Senate hearing earlier this year that NASA is not using the 70 percent confidence level for SLS. In a colloquy with Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), SLS's strongest supporter in the Senate (it is being built in Alabama), Bolden said: "You can't fund enough to get SLS to a 70 percent JCL and I don't want you to do that, I'm not asking for that, that would be unrealistic." He told Shelby he had enough money to be ready to launch in 2017, but also hedged by saying "in fiscal year 2018." Only the first three months of FY2018 are in calendar year 2017 (October-December). Bolden said that he is comfortable with not meeting a 70 percent JCL because SLS relies on mature technology.
SLS is being developed pursuant to the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, a bipartisan agreement between Republicans and Democrats in Congress on the one hand, and the Obama Administration on the other. SLS and its Orion spacecraft are intended to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit (LEO). The 2017 version of SLS will be able to place 70 metric tons into LEO. Two enhanced versions are planned for the future capable of 105 tons and 130 tons. In some respects SLS/Orion replaces the Bush-era Constellation program; in others it is much the same -- developing a big rocket and a spacecraft to take people to Mars someday.
NASA plans to spend $12 billion on SLS and associated ground systems through the 2017 launch, GAO said, and "potentially billions more" for the future variants.
The first test flight is supposed to take place in 2017. The next flight would not be until 2021. That would be the first to carry a crew aboard an Orion spacecraft. Noting that NASA has not developed plans for SLS beyond that flight, GAO concluded that presents opportunities "to improve long term affordability through competition" to build other elements of the system, such as an improved upper stage.
In today's report, GAO recommends that NASA "develop an executable business case for SLS that matches resources to requirements, and provide to the Congress an assessment of the SLS elements that could be competitively procured for future SLS variants before finalizing acquisition plans for those variants." It adds that "NASA concurred" with the recommendations.