Commercial Space News
President Obama mentioned NASA twice (and NOAA once) in his State of the Union (SOTU) address tonight. First he talked about the Orion EFT-1 flight last year and Scott Kelly's upcoming year-long mission to the International Space Station (ISS) as steppingstones to Mars. Later he turned to climate change and lauded NASA and NOAA scientists among those warning that humans are affecting the climate.
Part of the coveted currency of Washington politics is getting mentioned in the SOTU. Agencies and interest groups jockey to get a single sentence in the typically hour-long speech to raise awareness of their issues. The actual value of that currency is questionable, but seems no less desirable as the years pass. This is not the first time Obama has mentioned NASA or the space program in an SOTU address (he did so in 2011 and 2013), but his one major space policy speech was a separate event at Kennedy Space Center in April 2010.
Thinking back over the history of when being singled out in the SOTU resulted in a significant policy change for NASA, the only one that comes to mind is President Ronald Reagan's 1984 address where he directed NASA to build a space station "within a decade" and invite other countries to join. That eventually became the ISS program, though it took two-and-a-half decades instead of one. In 1986, Reagan called for development of an "Orient Express" -- a single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) vehicle that could not only put payloads into orbit but be used as a commercial hypersonic plane to take passengers from Washington to Tokyo in two hours. The resulting National Aero-Space Plane (NASP) program did not succeed. (John F. Kennedy's May 1961 speech to Congress that began the Apollo program was not a State of the Union address, but a separate speech on Urgent National Needs.)
Nonetheless, NASA undoubtedly is delighted to get two mentions tonight. First was human spaceflight. Obama does not identify the Orion spacecraft or the EFT-1 mission by name, but refers to a spaceflight "last month" as part of a program to send people to Mars that can only mean that flight. He also introduced astronaut Scott Kelly, who was sitting in First Lady Michelle Obama's box. Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will begin a year-long mission aboard ISS in March. Here is the text of that portion of the speech as published on the White House website.
"I want Americans to win the race for the kinds of discoveries that unleash new jobs – converting sunlight into liquid fuel; creating revolutionary prosthetics, so that a veteran who gave his arms for his country can play catch with his kid; pushing out into the Solar System not just to visit, but to stay. Last month, we launched a new spacecraft as part of a re-energized space program that will send American astronauts to Mars. In two months, to prepare us for those missions, Scott Kelly will begin a year-long stay in space. Good luck, Captain – and make sure to Instagram it."
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly (in blue flight suit) at January 20, 2015 State of the Union address. Photo tweeted by NASA
Later the President spoke about climate change and mentioned both NASA and NOAA.
"2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record. Now, one year doesn’t make a trend, but this does – 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century.
Whether his words will lead to action in the form of more funding for Mars missions or climate change science should become evident on February 2 when his FY2016 budget request is submitted to Congress.
No mention was made of NASA, the space program or climate change in the much briefer Republican response to the SOTU by Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA).
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) today released the text of its decision denying Sierra Nevada Corporation's (SNC's) protest of NASA's decision to award the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) awards to SpaceX and Boeing. The public release of the redacted document follows NASA's release of its Source Selection Statement late last Friday.
GAO denied SNC's protest on January 5, but the text of its decision had to be reviewed and some information redacted because it was subject to a GAO Protective Order. The public version released today is 21 pages long and has a fair number of [DELETED] notations including detailed price information for all three bidders although the total price bid by each is presented: Boeing, $3,099,016,464; SpaceX, $1,753,698,691; and SNC, $2,552,271,681.
Price was not the only factor in NASA's decision, as evidenced by NASA's Source Selection Statement, signed by Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations. The other two were Mission Suitability and Past Performance. Price was more important than Mission Suitability, which was more important than Past Performance. The combination of Mission Suitability and Past Performance was approximately equal to Price. NASA determined that SpaceX "had the best price and also Very Good mission suitability and a High level of confidence in past performance." Boeing "is the strongest of all three proposals in both Mission Suitability and Past Performance" even though it is higher in price. SNC "has a strong management approach" and its "performance on other very relevant work has been very good," but Gerstenmaier said he agreed with the Source Evaluation Board's "evaluation that SNC has the lowest rating for the technical subfactor" and SNC's design is "at the lowest level of maturity."
GAO agreed with NASA's determinations. It denied SNC's four protests --
CCtCAP is the final phase of NASA's efforts to facilitate commercial development of crew space transportation systems to service the International Space Station (ISS) through what are essentially public-private partnerships. NASA supported all three companies in the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) phase, but had to choose only two of the three to proceed to this phase, which is intended to result in systems capable of entering service by the end of 2017.
SNC has vowed to continue with its vehicle, Dream Chaser, despite losing the protest. Dream Chaser is a winged vehicle that resembles a small space shuttle. The Boeing CST-100 and SpaceX Dragon vehicles are capsules reminiscent of an Apollo spacecraft. SpaceX is already launching an uncrewed version of Dragon as a cargo carrying spacecraft. SpaceX's most recent "commercial cargo" launch to the ISS was on January 10. That Dragon spacecraft is still attached to the ISS and expected to return to Earth in February.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden conveyed optimism today in a speech to the space business community in Maryland, urging them to not get discouraged and to “move the ball forward.” Without promising that President Obama would mention space in tonight’s State of the Union address, Bolden offered suggestions on what the President could say if he chose to.
Bolden avoided specifics in his first major public speech of the year. The President’s FY2016 budget request will not be released until February, so he could not talk about what the President has in mind for the agency other than commenting that he expects it to reflect a “vote of confidence” that the agency is on the right track. “If you want to know what the future holds in our field, I think ‘more of the same’ is not too hard of a prediction to make.”
The key is “we’re moving the ball forward … bit by bit,” he said early in the speech to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR) in Greenbelt, MD, a theme he repeated to the end.
The “absolute worst thing” would be “to interrupt that progress and go back to the beginning” he said, acknowledging “we did it in this Administration, almost, we didn’t quite go back and reset, there was an attempt made to do that, and we chose not to do that” but instead we “took the work that had been done prior to this Administration .. and adopted and adapted some of it so we are where we are today.”
Stressing that he was not suggesting President Obama would say anything about space exploration in tonight’s State of the Union address, Bolden said the President could say “for the first time in human history we may be going inside the 20-years-to-Mars.” Sending humans to Mars still is “without a doubt” at least 20 years away, he clarified, but “we’re about to slip under that 20-year threshold.”
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly will sit with First Lady Michelle Obama during tonight’s speech. Kelly is about to embark on a year-long mission to the International Space Station (ISS) to learn more about human adaptation to living in space in preparation for eventual human trips to Mars.
Other nations are counting on the United States to continue to lead in space exploration, Bolden said, and when he meets with other ISS partners about what they want to do next, they say “we’re going where you go.” They have an expectation “that we know what the heck we’re doing,” and “we’ve got to be able to deliver on that promise.”
“We’re on a journey to Mars,” he proclaimed, adding that he realizes that people in the audience have heard that for so long they may not be as convinced as he is, but “I mean that…..I’m dedicated to that.”
“You’re moving the ball forward,” he told the audience. “Do not get discouraged. Do not let people tell you what you’re doing is not of great value to this nation…. Hang in there. … We’re gonna get there.”
UPDATE, January 20: New House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Chairman Mac Thornberry will lay out his agenda for the 114th Congress at 10:00 am ET this morning (Monday) to the American Enterprise Institute. It will be webcast.
UPDATE, January 19: The White House announced today that astronaut Scott Kelly will be one of the many guests sitting with First Lady Michelle Obama during Tuesday's State of the Union address. Whether or not the President will mention Kelly and his upcoming year-long mission to the ISS or anything else about the space program is unclear, but it raises that possibility.
January18, 2015: Here is our list of space policy related events coming up for the week of January 19-23, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate will be in session for part of the week (Monday is a holiday -- Martin Luther King Jr. Day) and on Tuesday will meet in joint session to hear President Obama's State of the Union Address.
During the Week
The list of events this week is somewhat short, but they are important events that will set the stage for what transpires in months to come.
The two committees that set policy for NASA will hold their organizational meetings this week: the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee on Tuesday and the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee on Wednesday. Committee and subcommittee members are usually formalized at these meetings and the chairs and ranking members often use the opportunity to lay out their priorities for the year. The Senate committee will now be run by Republicans instead of Democrats since Republicans won control of the Senate in last year's elections. Sen. John Thune (R-SD) will be chairman and Sen. BIll Nelson (D-FL) is the ranking member. In space policy circles. a lot of attention is being paid to the selection of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to chair the Space, Science and Competitiveness subcommittee and what that may mean especially for NASA's earth science program. Cruz told the Houston Chronicle his overall priorities for oversight of the U.S. civil space program, starting with reauthorization of the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA) and returning NASA to its "core priority of exploring space."
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS) will retain their leadership positions on the full House SS&T committee and its Space Subcommittee respectively. Smith said last year that CSLA will be one of his top priorities in this Congress. A prohibition on the FAA enacting new regulations on commercial human spaceflight expires this year, so that is certain to be a topic for debate. How the October 2014 Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo crash will affect the outcome is an open question.
On Tuesday, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will speak to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR). While he won't be able to talk about the President's upcoming budget request for FY2016, which will not be released until February 2, he should be able to explain how the agency will spend the extra half billion dollars Congress provided for the current fiscal year above the President's request, and provide updates on ongoing programs. He and members of his NASA Advisory Council (NAC) had frank exchanges about the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) last week and perhaps he will try once more to convince the space community that moving an asteroid -- or part of an asteroid -- from one place in the solar system to another is critical to achieving the long term goal of sending humans to Mars. That is the part of the mission NAC members question. NASA says it will announce in "mid-January" its choice of whether to move an entire small asteroid (Option A) or pluck a boulder off of a larger asteroid (Option B) and move just that part. It is mid-January already. Perhaps Bolden will make the announcement at the MSBR meeting, though we have not heard any rumors to that effect. The decision was supposed to have been announced last month, but was delayed at the last moment.
Also on Tuesday, President Obama will present his annual State of the Union Address. There is no indication that the space program will be mentioned, but it should be interesting nonetheless to see what the President has in mind as he faces his last two years in office with a Congress controlled entirely by Republicans. During his first two years, Democrats controlled both chambers. Democrats lost the House in 2010 and he faced a split Congress for the next four years. Now they have lost the Senate as well and Republicans made significant gains in the House. Expectations are low that Washington gridlock will come to an end. Senate Democrats may be as effective in the minority as the Republicans were for four years and the President wields the veto pen.
Tuesday, January 20
Wednesday, January 21
Today has been a busy day, with many interesting announcements from around the globe ranging from locating Europe's Beagle-2 lander on Mars to SpaceX's release of video of its Falcon 9 first stage crashing into instead of landing on an autonomous drone ship to NASA's release of its source selection statements for the CCtCAP awards to Boeing and SpaceX and several more.
Here are brief summaries with links to more information:
Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) laid out his agenda on space issues today, issuing the transcript of an interview with the Houston Chronicle's Eric Berger as a press release. Cruz is set to chair the Senate Commerce Committee's Space, Science and Competitiveness subcommittee, which oversees NASA.
One of his subcommittee's first priorities will be reauthorization of the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA), he said. He expressed support for SpaceX's "substantial investments" in Texas, which has a rocket development and testing facility in McGregor and is building a launch site near Brownsville. "I am an enthusiastic advocate of competition and allowing the private sector to innovate," he told Berger.
He also signaled support for the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion, which he labeled "critical to our medium- and long-term ability to explore space, whether it's the Moon, Mars or beyond." As for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), he was noncommittal: "The [ARM] mission has at times seemed to have had a changing and shifting focus." He said he wants to hold hearings "to help NASA articulate and formulate its priorities for space exploration, whether to an asteroid, the moon, Mars or beyond."
A number of articles have been published in recent days expressing concern about the fate of science, especially climate change science, under his stewardship. He is a climate change skeptic. He is chairing an authorization subcommittee, which has an important policy role, but it would be difficult for him to get a law enacted to curtail that research.
Berger did not ask him about that, but in response to a question about whether he was interested in space while growing up, Cruz criticized the Obama Administration for losing sight of NASA's "core mission" and vowed to refocus NASA on "its core priority of exploring space." "We need to get back to the hard sciences, to manned space exploration and to the innovation that has been integral to the mission of NASA. We should not be allowing NASA to have its resources diverted to extraneous political agendas and apart from exploring space."
What he means by that is not entirely clear. Some speculate he was referring to climate change science, while others thought it might mean science overall or perhaps a reference to geopolitical competition. Cruz made clear that he does not like the United States being reliant on Russia for launches to the International Space Station (ISS) and complained that the Obama Administration has provided "insufficient" responses to his questions about the consequences if Russia "shut off the Soyuz." He also said he did not want U.S. dependence on RD-180 engines.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told the NASA Advisory Council today that he has met Cruz once and he was "cordial," but Bolden does not know if Cruz will be as active on NASA issues as was Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). Nelson chaired the subcommittee in the last Congress when Democrats controlled the Senate. Bolden and Nelson are close friends. Nelson flew on the space shuttle in 1986 (STS-61C) when he was a Congressman and Bolden was the pilot of that mission. Nelson is widely credited with getting Bolden the job as NASA Administrator. He is now the top Democrat on the full Senate Commerce Committee.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of January 12-16, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
The week starts off with the berthing of the SpaceX CRS-5 (SpX-5) Dragon spacecraft with the International Space Station at about 6:00 am ET Monday morning. It may seem anticlimatic compared with Saturday's SpX-5 launch -- or rather the attempted landing of the Falcon 9 first stage on an autonomous drone ship. While that didn't go as planned, as a test it certainly was a success as a step towards reusability.
Congressional committee activities for the 114th Congress get off to a start this week. Many House committees, including the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), are holding their organizational meetings to adopt rules, lay out majority and minority agendas, and complete administrative tasks. Rep. MacThornberry (R-TX) takes over the HASC gavel this Congress from Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-CA), who retired. Over in the Senate, SASC is holding an actual hearing with a single witness -- Henry Kissinger -- expounding on global challenges and U.S. national security. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) will chair SASC in this Congress. Space topics do not usually arise in hearings like these on broad, top level national security issues, but U.S. dependence on Russia for rocket engines, the overall state of national security space assets, or perceived threats posed by China's space activities might come up depending on where the conversation goes.
Down at Stennis Space Center, MS, the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and two of its committees -- Science and Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) -- will meet this week. A joint session Monday afternoon between the Science and HEO committees might be particularly interesting. Then, on Tuesday morning HEO Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier will provide the HEO committee with an update on HEO activities overall and Michele Gates and Lindley Johnson will present an update on the Asteroid Redirect Mission. Later in the day, Alan Lindenmoyer will offer NAC-HEO "lessons learned" from the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. The meetings are available virtually via WebEx and telecon (click on the links to those meetings below or on the right menu for instructions).
Those and other events of interest that we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Monday, January 12
Monday-Tuesday, January 12-13
Tuesday, January 13
Wednesday-Thursday, January 14-15
Thursday, January 15
Friday, January 16
SpaceX founder and Chief Designer Elon Musk reported early this morning (January 10) that the landing of his Falcon 9 first stage on a drone ship did not go as planned: "Close, but no cigar." However, the main objective of the launch today was sending a Dragon cargo resupply spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) and that part of the mission is proceeding flawlessly.
Liftoff of this fifth SpaceX operational cargo resupply mission, SpaceX CRS-5 or SpX-5, was on time at 4:47 am EST this morning from Cape Canaveral, FL. The countdown proceeded without a hitch this time, unlike the previous launch attempt on Tuesday when launch was scrubbed with just over one minute to go because of a malfunctioning second stage thrust vector control actuator. SpaceX replaced that actuator for today's launch.
The first and second stages of the Falcon 9 rocket performed as planned, placing Dragon into the correct orbit for it to reach the ISS on Monday at about 6:00 am EST. It carries 5,108 pounds of food, water, clothing, experiments and equipment for the six-person crew living aboard the space station.
Delivering cargo for NASA is the main job, but interest in the launch was especially high because of SpaceX's test of landing the Falcon 9 first stage on a platform in the ocean -- an "autonomous drone ship." The company already successfully conducted two "landings" on water, but the stage, of course, tipped over into the water at the end. Today's test was to have a survivable landing. The tests are related to Musk's goal of developing a reusable rocket. The only reusable launch vehicle successfully developed and flown to date was the U.S. space shuttle. The shuttle's airplane-like orbiters, which included the system's three main engines, and its solid rocket boosters were all reusable. The shuttle program was terminated in 2011 after 30 years of flights.
Today, one of the nine Falcon 9 first stage engines reignited for the "boost back" stage of the flight and it reached the ship, but "landed hard" as Musk tweeted (@elonmusk) in the first of several messages throughout the morning:
"Rocket made it to drone ship, but landed hard. Close, but no cigar this time. Bodes well for the future, tho."
"Ship itself is fine. Some of the support equipment on the deck will need to be replaced ...."
"Didn't get good landing/impact video. Pitch dark and foggy. Will piece it together from telemetry and ... actual pieces."
"Grid fins worked extremely well from hypersonic velocity to subsonic, but ran out of hydraulic fuel right before landing."
"Upcoming flight already has 50% more hydraulic fluid, so should have plenty of margin for landing attempt next month."
"Am super proud of my team for making huge strides towards reusability on this mission, You guys rock!"
On January 16, Musk tweeted video taken by a camera on the done ship of the first stage crashing into it. The video does not appear to be posted on SpaceX's website, but other sites, such as SpaceflightNow.com, have done so.
Note: This article was updated shortly after noon EST on January 10 (the day of launch) with more of Musk's tweets and deleting the reference to a NASA press conference that had been scheduled for 6:30 am, but subsequently cancelled. It also was updated on January 17 with the link to the video of the crash landing on the drone ship.
As of 10:00 pm Eastern Standard Time (EST) tonight, January 9, SpaceX's fifth operational cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) is still on schedule for launch at 4:47 am EST tomorrow morning.
The launch of Space X CRS-5, or SpX-5, has been delayed several times since its original December 9, 2014 launch date. Most recently it was scrubbed just over one minute before launch on January 6 because of a malfunctioning thrust vector control actuator in a second stage engine. SpaceX reportedly has replaced that actuator and is on track for tomorrow morning's launch. The weather forecast is 80 percent favorable.
NASA TV coverage of the launch begins at 3:30 am EST.
Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides made clear today that the company remains committed to its goal of opening space for all both with suborbital flights of passengers and launches of small satellites.
The company, owned by Richard Branson, is still recovering from a fatal SpaceShipTwo spaceplane test flight accident on October 31, 2014 that killed one of the two pilots. Co-pilot Michael Alsbury died. Pilot Peter Siebold survived. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has not completed its investigation, but determined that Alsbury prematurely moved a lever to initiate a "feathering system" designed to slow the spaceplane during its descent. It should have been moved when the spaceplane was at Mach 1.4, but he moved it at Mach 1.02 during ascent. Deployment of the feathering system was supposed to require a second lever to be moved by the pilot and that did not take place. Why it deployed nonetheless is still under scrutiny. The deployment of the feathering system at the wrong time apparently created aerodynamic forces that ripped the spaceplane apart.
Whitesides said that Virgin Galactic (VG) will "recover, we'll learn the hard lessons from the accident, and return to flight." In fact, he said test flights will resume in 2015 and commercial flights will begin in 2016.
VG was planning to build five SpaceShipTwo vehicles. The one lost in the October accident was the only completed vehicle, but a second was already in manufacturing. Today, Whitesides said structural fabrication is over 90 percent complete as well as two-thirds of the systems. "Weight on wheels is now in sight," he told the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) SciTech2015 conference in Kissimmee, FL, adding that the vehicle will accommodate any changes identified by the NTSB to enhance safety.
Society has become "risk intolerant," Whitesides observed, which has both positive and negative consequences. Injuries may be reduced by people wearing bike helmets, but taking "smart risks" is essential to progress. He said he has spent a great deal of time since the accident explaining the nature of test flights to the public and press and concedes that VG could have done a better job of managing expectations. There is no simple answer to when a vehicle is ready to fly, he stressed.
As for launching small satellites (smallsats), VG is developing LauncherOne, an air-launched vehicle. Whitesides was optimistic about the market for such satellites, especially constellations of low Earth orbit (LEO) smallsats that will need continual replenishment. The first flight test of LauncherOne is expected in 2016.
Branson "has redoubled his commitment" to VG, Whitesides asserted. "A second spaceship is close at hand and we are hard at work on LauncherOne. We will persevere and ultimately succeed," he vowed.
Correction: An earlier version of this article identified Whitesides as President of VG. He is currently its CEO.