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Methane Mystery at Mars

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Dec-2014 (Updated: 16-Dec-2014 03:37 PM)

The NASA Mars Curiosity science team revealed today that the rover's instruments detected an unexplained spike in atmospheric methane concentrations about this time last year.  One source -- but not the only source -- of methane is biological activity.

The amount and source of methane on Mars is of great interest to scientists not only because it is a possible signature of life, but because of conflicting readings over the years.  For example, in September 2013, a year after Curiosity landed, NASA announced that the rover had not detected significant amounts of methane, a surprise because during the previous decade, Earth-based telescopes and instruments on spacecraft orbiting Mars had detected the gas. 

Today's announcement at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco is that in late 2013 and early 2014, the rover detected a 10-fold spike in methane concentrations in the atmosphere near the rover.  Four measurements during that period averaged 7 parts per billion (ppb), compared to readings before and after, which were one-tenth of that.

The presence of methane is not a sure sign of either past or present life, but opens that possibility.  Sushiel Atreya of the University of Michigan and a member of the Curiosity science team said today that "this temporary increase in methane - sharply up and then back down - tells us there must be some relatively localized source. ... There are many possible sources, biological or non-biological, such as interaction of water and rock."

NASA's carefully worded press release also said that Curiosity detected organic chemicals in powder drilled from a rock, "the first definitive detection of organics in surface materials on Mars."  However, the statement goes on to say these "Martian organics could either have formed on Mars or been delivered to Mars by meteorites" and organic molecules "are chemical building blocks of life, although they can exist without the presence of life."

Curiosity's mission is not to determine if there is life on Mars, but whether or not the planet could have supported life -- its "habitability."  Determining if life exists elsewhere than on Earth is one of NASA's major science objectives.  Mars has fascinated people as a possible site for extraterrestrial life at least since 1877 when the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli reported that he had observed "canali" on the surface and some interpreted that as meaning canals created by intelligent beings rather than naturally occurring channels.  The belief that intelligent beings once lived on Mars persists to this day despite the extensive research conducted there by spacecraft orbiting the planet and roving on its surface. 

Separate from the debate over intelligent life, some scientists think microbial life may once have existed there, or perhaps still does today in subsurface permafrost, for example.  Today's announcement makes no definitive determination about that question, but adds to the mystery of the source of the methane on the planet.

Detecting methane in the Martian atmosphere is one of the objectives of India's Mars Orbiting Mission (MOM), which reached the planet in September.  Europe's Mars Express orbiter also can detect methane and, in fact, it was observations from that spacecraft a decade ago that raised expectations that methane was much more abundant than Curiosity initially measured.

GAO Warns JWST Cryocooler Poses Risk of Schedule Slip

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Dec-2014 (Updated: 15-Dec-2014 05:22 PM)

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued its third annual congressionally-required assessment of the status of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) today warning that the project's schedule is at risk particularly because of challenges developing its cyrocooler.

GAO acknowledged that JWST program officials report that the space telescope's overall schedule reserve is above its plans and standards, but pointed out that with four years until launch, NASA is only now beginning to integrate and test two of the five elements and major subsystems and this is the time period where problems are likely to be found.  Therefore "maintaining as much schedule reserve as possible ... is critical."

JWST also has "limited short-term cost reserves" to deal with potential schedule slips, GAO found.  Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems (NGAS) is the prime contractor for JWST, and GAO criticized the cost risk analyses used by NASA and NGAS because "they do not account for many new risks identified since 2011."  GAO stressed that cost risk analyses must be continually updated to ensure reliability and that is part of adhering to cost estimating best practices. 

It recommended in the report that NASA follow best practices in cost estimating.  NASA "partially concurred" with the recommendation. NASA's comments are published as an appendix to the report and say basically that it agrees it should follow best practices and is already doing so. 

JWST is described as a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope although it operates in different wavelengths (infrared rather than visible) and will be positioned at the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point (rather than in earth orbit).   It has a sunshade to protect it from the Sun and is passively cooled by exposure to space environment.  However, one of its instruments, the Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI), requires additional cooling, which will be provided by a first-of-its-kind cryogenic system -- a cryocooler. 

GAO warned that the JWST project "continues to face major technical challenges building the cryocooler that have significantly delayed delivery of key components, have made it the driver of the project's overall schedule or the project's critical path, and required the use of a disproportionate amount of project cost reserves."  Since the program was replanned in 2011, the cryocooler has experienced 150 percent cost growth and "is contributing to the project's limited cost reserve status" for FY2015.

Past cost overruns and schedule delays in the JWST program have caused concern at NASA and in Congress.  JWST is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and has strong support from Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who currently chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.   Even her support was tested in 2010 with the announcement of additional cost growth, leading to a study headed by JPL's John Casani that concluded the problems were primarily managerial, not technical.  Consequently, NASA restructured how the program is managed and developed a new life-cycle cost estimate.  The Casani report estimated that the cost would grow from $5.1 billion to $6.5 billion and the launch date would slip from 2014 to 2015, but after further analysis, NASA concluded the development cost would be $8 billion, with launch in 2018. 

Congress capped JWST development at $8 billion.  Another $800 million is needed for operations, yielding a lifecycle cost estimate of $8.8 billion.  That is based on launch in 2018.  JWST is being launched on an Ariane rocket as part of an international cooperative agreement with ESA (meaning NASA does not pay for the launch).

JWST is one of NASA's top three priorities according to an agreement reached between the White House and Congress in 2011. The other two are the International Space Station and commercial crew, and the Space Launch System and Orion.

 

DalBello Leaving OSTP for Virgin Galactic

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Dec-2014 (Updated: 15-Dec-2014 05:37 PM)

Virgin Galactic announced today that Richard DalBello will join the company as Vice President of Business Development and Government Relations.  DalBello is currently assistant director for aeronautics and space at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

This is DalBello's second stint at OSTP, having served there during the Clinton Administration.  He moved to the private sector thereafter and just prior to rejoining OSTP last year, he was Vice President for Government Affairs at Intelsat General.     

Richard DalBello

In the Virgin Galactic press release, DalBello says that he is "excited to be joining one of the true leaders of the commercial space era."

Virgin Galactic is currently recovering from the SpaceShipTwo (SS2) crash on October 31, 2014.  The air-launched spacecraft was destroyed and one of the two pilots died.  The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is still investigating the accident. 

SS2 is intended to take people on suborbital flights, but the company also is building a two-stage launch vehicle, LauncherOne, for placing small satellites in orbit.   DalBello will be in charge of business development for LauncherOne and for managing Virgin Galactic's interactions with the government.

DalBello's career includes a mix of government and private sector positions.   In addition to his four years at OSTP during the Clinton Administration, previous government jobs include working at the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, for NASA as director of commercial communications where he was responsible for private sector experiments on the Advanced Communications Technology Satellite (ACTS), and for the Department of Commerce as Director of the Office of Space Commercialization.  He also worked on the staff of the 1985-1986 National Commission on Space.    In the private sector, he was Vice President of Government Affairs for Intelsat General, president of the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association, president of the Satellite Industry Association, general counsel of Spotcast Communications Inc., and Vice President for Government Affairs, North America for ICO Global Communications.

 

What's Happening In Space Policy December 15-31, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Dec-2014 (Updated: 14-Dec-2014 06:03 PM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events for the rest of 2014 as the holidays approach.  This edition covers December 15-31, 2014.   The Senate will be in session tomorrow, at least, but the expectation is that the 113th Congress will come to a close very soon.

During the Week

The Senate is scheduled to be in session tomorrow for what may be the last day of the 113th Congress, though even at this late date it is difficult to say that with any certainty.   After a tumultuous few days, the House and Senate have passed and sent to the President the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015 -- the "CRomnibus" -- which funds NASA, NOAA, DOD and most other government departments and agencies through the end of FY2015 (September 30, 2015).  Only the Department of Homeland Security is funded under another Continuing Resolution (CR), through February 27, 2015, because of the immigration debate.   We've published many stories about the debate, the angst, the uncertainty, etc. and will not reiterate it here (type "cromnibus" into our search box and you should be able to retrieve them).  Suffice it to say that it was a very nice holiday gift for NASA -- a $549 million increase above the President's request, or $363 million more than FY2014.  The question will be whether Congress will sustain that level of funding in future years.  A one-year plus-up is nice, but it's the long haul that counts.   NOAA's satellite programs also did well.  We'll publish an article summarizing the DOD space program provisions shortly.

Outside the beltway, the highlight of this week certainly will be the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco.   AGU is webcasting many of its press conferences and those related to NASA are listed below and on our calendar on the right menu.   Among them -- findings from MAVEN, Curiosity, and Rosetta are on tap for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, and a look forward at New Horizons' arrival at Pluto next year is on Thursday.

And, if all goes well, SpaceX will launch its fifth operational cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) on Friday.  Three pre-launch briefings are scheduled for Thursday.   Arrival at the ISS will be on Sunday if the launch goes on Friday.  NASA TV will cover it all.

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

SpacePolicyOnline.com wishes all of you Happy Holidays and a fantastic New Year!

Monday-Friday, December 15-19

Monday, December 15

  • AGU Press Conferences on NASA Topics (webcast)
    • 9:00 am PST (12:00 noon EST), Early Results from MAVEN
    • 10:30 am PST (1:30 pm EST), X-rays and Gamma Rays in Thunderstorms
    • 1:30 pm PST (4:30 pm EST), Greenland's Melt Dynamics

Tuesday, December 16

Wednesday, December 17

  • AGU Press Conferences on NASA Topics (webcast)
    • 8:00 am PST (11:00 am EST), Rosetta Comet Science Results
    • 11:30 am PST (2:30 pm EST), Arctic Heating:  15 Years of Sea Ice Loss -- and Absorbed Solar Radiation Gains
    • 2:30 pm PST (5:30 pm EST), After the Pulse Flow: Greening the Colorado River Delta

Thursday, December 18

Friday, December 19

Sunday, December 21

  • SpX-5 Arrival at ISS (if launched on Friday), grapple approximately 6:00 am EST (NASA TV coverage begins 4:15 am EST)

Senate Passes Cromnibus Assuring FY2015 Funds for NASA, NOAA, DOD - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Dec-2014 (Updated: 14-Dec-2014 02:16 PM)

Update:  Links to the text of the bill and joint explanatory statements for CJS (NASA and NOAA) and Defense have been added.

The Senate just passed the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015, colloquially called the "cromnibus."  It funds NASA, NOAA, DOD and most other government departments and agencies -- except the Department of Homeland Security -- through the end of the fiscal year (September 30, 2015).

Demonstrating once again that it is always darkest before the dawn, the 56-40 vote came after a 24-hour period when it looked like the Senate was in for a long debate about the bill.   Senate Democratic and Republican leaders had hoped to spend the weekend at home and come back and vote on the bill Monday, but Tea Party Republicans led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT) objected late last night and consequently the Senate was in session today.  

Throughout much of the day, many worried that the Senate could not even pass a new Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government operating until Wednesday (otherwise funding would have expired tonight).  That CR finally passed this afternoon, but it was unclear when a vote on the cromnibus would take place.

Cruz and Lee did force a vote on the constitutionality of President Obama's immigration executive order "though it was badly defeated by bipartisan opposition, 22-74" according to Politico.   Politico goes on to point out that the Cruz-Lee delay opened an opportunity for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to bring a number of President Obama's long-delayed nominations to the floor for a vote and now "there's little Republicans can do to stop him."

From the standpoint of funding the government, at least, it was good news.   The cromnibus -- a combination of a CR to fund the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through February 27, 2015 and the rest of the government through the end of the fiscal year  -- includes a significant increase for NASA and strong support for NOAA's satellite programs.  DHS is funded only by a shorter-term CR as a signal of Republican disapproval of the President's immigration executive order.  Immigration is part of DHS's portfolio.

The text of the bill was written as a Senate amendment to a House-passed bill on an unrelated topic (H.R. 83).   The joint explanatory statement (formerly a conference report) is separated into "divisions" for each of the regular appropriations bills.  Division B is Commerce-Justice-Science (including NASA and NOAA); Division C is Defense.

Senate Agrees to CR Through Wednesday, Still Debating Cromnibus

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Dec-2014 (Updated: 13-Dec-2014 05:21 PM)

This afternoon the Senate agreed to the second short-term Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government open through Wednesday, December 17, after a morning of high stakes drama where the words "government shutdown" were once again heard.  If this second CR did not pass, government funding would have expired at midnight.

The Senate is trying to complete work on FY2015 funding and a few other measures before bringing the 113th Congress to a close.   One way or another, this Congress will end and the new 114th Congress -- with Republicans in control of both the House and Senate -- will convene in early January.

The FY2015 funding bill, called a "cromnibus" because it combines a CR (through February 27, 2015) for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and a full-year (through September 30, 2015) omnibus appropriations for the rest of the government is very controversial because of policy provisions ("riders") that were added by House and Senate negotiators in order to reach a compromise.  The bill narrowly passed the House on Thursday and is now struggling to win the support of enough Senators to secure passage there.

Tea Party Republicans Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) are seen as the leaders in opposing the cromnibus because it does not send a strong enough message to the President about Republican dissatisfaction with the President's executive order on immigration.  Cruz is viewed as the architect of last year's 16-day government shutdown, which many establishment Republicans opposed and have vowed to prevent from occurring again.  Several were quoted today questioning the Cruz-Lee strategy today.  Sen. Orrin Hatch (R), Utah's senior senator, told reporters "I don't see any end game that can be won, other than irritating people."  Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) said it was "not in keeping with our Republican commitment to return to normal order and to show the people of this country that we can govern responsibly."

Tea Party Republicans are not the only ones unhappy with the cromnibus.  Liberal Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) are equally unhappy with a provision that changes the Dodd-Frank financial regulations and members of both parties object to modifications to the campaign finance law.

Cromnibus Meets Resistance in Senate, House Passes Another Short-Term CR

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Dec-2014 (Updated: 12-Dec-2014 11:24 PM)

Hope that the Senate could expeditiously pass the FY2015 "cromnibus" appropriations bill faded today and the House passed another short-term Continuing Resolution (CR) that would keep the government operating through Wednesday, December 17 if needed.  The two-day CR agreed to yesterday expires tomorrow (Saturday) at midnight.

Objections to the cromnibus -- a mix of a CR for the Department of Homeland Security and a full-year omnibus appropriations for everyone else -- in the Senate parallel those in the House.  Conservative Republicans want to send a stronger message to President Obama about their disapproval of his executive order on immigration, liberal Democrats are angry at a provision that would change financial regulations under the Dodd-Frank law, and some in each party dislike language that would change campaign finance laws.

In the Senate, a single Senator can block action.  A small example of that just occurred when Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) wanted to recess the Senate until Monday afternoon to continue consideration of the bill, but Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) objected.  Lee argued that the Senate should not take the weekend off when these issues require debate.  Reid's motion to recess until Monday required unanimous consent, so Lee's objection was all that was needed to reject that plan.  Reid apparently expected the objection and had another resolution in hand to have the Senate return to work tomorrow instead.  There was no objection to that motion.

It is still possible that the cromnibus could pass the Senate tomorrow and the new CR would not be needed, but that seems unlikely at this point.   It is more likely that the Senate will pass the new CR tomorrow instead of the cromnibus and -- hopefully -- complete work by next Wednesday. The key is that there seems to be no talk of a government shutdown and Congress can pass CRs of any duration as required. 

In addition to the cromnibus, the Senate is still expected to act on at least two other bills -- extension of tax breaks and reauthorization of the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA) -- as well as a number of presidential nominations.  The Hill newspaper reports, in fact, that it is the presidential nominations that are the real sticking point.

Today, the Senate did pass the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), clearing it for the President.

Virginia's Senators Tout Money Added In Cromnibus for Wallops Launch Pad Repairs

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Dec-2014 (Updated: 12-Dec-2014 02:40 PM)

Virginia's two Senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, issued a press release yesterday touting $20 million included in the  FY2015 "cromnibus" spending bill that just cleared the House.  The money is to help pay for damages to a launch pad at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility caused by the October 28 Antares rocket failure.  Wallops is on the coast of Virginia.

Warner and Kaine, both Democrats, thanked fellow Democrat and Maryland neighbor Barbara Mikulski for being a "supporter and advocate of NASA and the Wallops facility."  Mikulski chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares is launched from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops.  Orbital is headquartered in Dulles, Virginia, just outside Washington, DC.  MARS is owned by the State of Virginia and state officials reportedly were unhappy to discover what their financial responsibility is for repairing MARS under these circumstances.

The Senators' press statement said the money would "support repairs following a launch failure on October 28 that caused significant damage to the [MARS] launch pad."  It added that the Senators would release a complete list of "Virginia priorities" included in the spending package after the bill clears Congress.  (They also issued a press release listing what they achieved for Virginia in the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act, also expected to clear Congress imminently.  None are space-related.)

The House passed the bill -- the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015, colloquially called the "cromnibius" because it is a combination of a Continuing Resolution (CR) and an omnibus appropriations bill -- last night.  The Senate is expected to pass it today or tomorrow.  It includes $18.010 billion for NASA, an increase of $549 million above the President's request.  It is not obvious where in the bill the $20 million is added, but presumably somewhere in that increase.

Antares exploded 15 seconds after launch on a mission to deliver cargo to the International Space Station under a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.   Orbital and SpaceX both developed cargo space transportation systems through a public-private partnership often called "commercial cargo."   Skeptics of the "commercial" nature of the effort are watching how Orbital and the government recover from the failure to see who ends up paying for what.  Orbital has announced its own recovery plan, which includes buying at least one launch from United Launch Alliance, and insists that it does not expect "any material adverse financial impacts in 2015 or future years" because of the failure.

House Narrowly Passes FY2015 Funding Bill and Two-Day CR

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Dec-2014 (Updated: 11-Dec-2014 11:33 PM)

The House approved the FY2015 "cromnibus" spending package tonight by a vote of 219-206.  The Senate still must act on the measure so the House also passed another Continuing Resolution (CR) to extend government funding for two more days, through midnight Saturday.  The Senate quickly passed the two-day CR, averting a government shutdown tonight.

The cromnibus is a mix of a CR and an omnibus appropriations bill.  A CR provides funding for a short period of time at the previous year's level.  An omnibus consolidates several regular full-year appropriations bills into a single legislative package.  This bill combines full year appropriations for departments and agencies in 11 of the 12 regular appropriations bills (including NASA, NOAA and DOD) with a short term CR for the 12th (the Department of Homeland Security-DHS).  Funding DHS only through February 27, 2015, is intended to signal Republican dissatisfaction with President Obama's executive order on immigration.  Immigration is part of DHS.

The battle over the cromnibus was intense and at times its passage seemed in jeopardy.  The final vote was 219-206.   Voting in favor were 162 Republicans and 57 Democrats.  Voting against were 67 Republicans and 139 Democrats.  Five members from each party did not vote.

The rancor was over provisions agreed to by House and Senate negotiators endeavoring to reach a compromise.  The end result clearly does not please everyone.  Conservative Republicans reportedly want a stronger reaction against the President's immigration executive order, liberal Democrats and some Republicans object to a provision weakening the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, and liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans object to changes to the campaign finance law. 

The White House supported passage, but House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said the House was being "blackmailed" into voting for it.

The battle now moves to the Senate.  With passage of the new two-day CR, it has until midnight Saturday to act.

The bill contains a significant budget boost for NASA -- an increase of $549 million above the President's request for a total of $18.010 billion.  NOAA's satellite programs also fare well.

House SS&T Members Question Obama Commitment to SLS/Orion, Absence of NASA CFO

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Dec-2014 (Updated: 11-Dec-2014 10:30 PM)

A hearing before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee on the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft yesterday covered familiar ground, especially Republican criticism that the Obama Administration does not sufficiently support those programs.  Perhaps the most interesting elements were the minimal discussion of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and the absence of NASA’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO), David Radzanowski, who was asked to testify. 

Radzanowski was included on the witness list prior to the hearing as “(invited)”.  As the hearing began, Subcommittee Chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) noted that Radzanowski was not there “despite numerous invitations and attempts to secure his attendance” to explain NASA’s budget development process and guidance.  Palazzo said NASA’s other witness, Bill Gerstenmaier, “may not be the appropriate person to explain many of the policies and practices being advanced by the CFO’s office.”

Saying they understood the CFO has a busy schedule, Palazzo reported that the committee told NASA it was willing to accept a substitute, but “unfortunately, NASA prohibited any other CFO representative from appearing today.”  He argued that the CFO is a Senate-confirmed position, which requires that individual to appear before the relevant congressional authorization committees and “I look forward to Mr. Radzanowski’s appearance before this committee in the near future.”

NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs told SpacePolicyOnline.com via email today, however, that “Unfortunately, we knew [he] would be out of town at the time of the proposed hearing.  The agency determined that he was best suited to address any questions and did offer an alternative date for his availability, which was declined.”

Consequently, the only two witnesses were Gerstenmaier, who is NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, and Cristina Chaplain, director, acquisition and sourcing management, Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Republicans and Democrats paid tribute to Gerstenmaier personally and to the NASA/Lockheed Martin/United Launch Alliance team that successfully flew the Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission last week.  GAO’s Chaplain, sitting next to Gerstenmaier at the witness table, also congratulated NASA on the flight.

Apart from that, the hearing was a familiar litany of complaints by Republicans against the Obama Administration for what they perceive to be its lack of support for SLS and Orion. Indeed, Congress – with both Republican and Democratic backing – added money above the President’s request for these programs in the FY2015 omnibus appropriations bill now working its way through Congress as it did in prior years.

The exception was Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) who told Gerstenmaier that SLS was “a rotten decision on the part of this committee.  It’s not your fault. You’re good soldiers [but] we have given you an undoable task.”  Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) retorted that “I’m glad that didn’t stop Apollo.”

The two Democratic members who attended -- Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) -- offered support for the Administration’s long-term goal of sending humans to Mars, but were silent about its near-term goal, ARM, that involves redirecting an asteroid into lunar orbit to be visited by astronauts.

The hearing focused on SLS and Orion and where they can take the U.S. human spaceflight program, but discussion of ARM was negligible.  In 2010, President Obama directed NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid as the next step in human spaceflight.  When asked early in the hearing what the first destination is for SLS and Orion, Gerstenmaier talked about cis-lunar space without mentioning ARM, however.  Only after being asked directly by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) toward the end of the hearing about the international community’s reaction to ARM did Gerstenmaier defend it as part of the path to Mars.

Bridenstine referenced the National Research Council (NRC) report on the future of the human spaceflight program – the “pathways” report – as saying ARM is not in alignment with the international community and could result in spending money on “dead-end technologies.”   Gerstenmaier said they were not dead-end.  He offered that NASA did not have an opportunity to brief the NRC committee on how the technical capabilities needed for ARM could translate into delivering cargo to Mars, for example.  ARM envisions using a robotic spacecraft powered by solar electric propulsion to nudge an asteroid from its native orbit into an orbit around the Moon, where it could be studied by astronauts.  Technologies needed to redirect the asteroid conceivably could be used to send cargo to Mars.  “We ran out of time towards the end” of the NRC committee’s deliberations, Gerstenmaier said, so its members did not see how NASA envisioned the pieces coming together.

Bridenstine mentioned the NRC report a number of times, noting that it cost $3.2 million.  It seemed less a complaint about the cost than an admonition that Congress should pay attention to what it recommended considering the investment.

Palazzo seemed particularly interested in discovering when NASA realized that SLS might need an additional $400 million to meet its schedule.   GAO reported on the potential shortfall earlier this year.  Gerstenmaier said that because Congress appropriated more money than the President requested and NASA has slipped the launch date, the “risk will be retired,” explaining that the program carries technical risk, schedule risk, and budget risk.

Gerstenmaier stressed that what the SLS and Orion programs really need is budget certainty, with agreement between the Administration and Congress on how much the programs will get each year.  “One thing that could be very helpful to us is getting stability and understanding what the budget is,” he told Edwards, adding later that he is managing the program “in this kind of interesting environment where we get different funding levels.”

He also conveyed that it is not only budget issues that will determine the pace at which humans explore Mars.   It is also a matter of becoming “proficient at these skills” to take the steps needed to reach Mars.

Last month, NASA released its Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C) analysis for SLS in which it committed to an SLS readiness date of November 2018, almost a year later than the original December 2017 deadline.  At the time, though, NASA said it was keeping December 2017 as an internal goal.  At this hearing, however, Gerstenmaier said the agency has moved beyond that date and now estimates June 2018 for the first launch of SLS with an uncrewed Orion.  More money cannot move up the date, he said.

Chaplain, in fact, intimated that Orion may not be ready by then:   “At this time, it does not look like they could make 2017 and 2018 is a challenge in and of itself.”  She said there is a funding risk for Orion “that is considerably high.”  GAO thinks an integrated schedule for SLS, Orion and associated ground systems is needed, with all achieving readiness at the same time.

Gerstenmaier disagreed.  He argued that they do not have to be ready simultaneously and, in fact, there is an advantage to SLS being ready before Orion.  Emphasizing that typically a rocket is ready before a payload arrives at the launch site, he insisted that “SLS coming first, having the ground systems ready in Florida, and then Orion showing up at the third place is perfectly fine.”  Trying to synch all three “puts another burden” on the program and can result in inefficiency.

Overall, the hearing broke little new ground, but afforded an opportunity for subcommittee members, albeit with strong political overtones, to applaud the success of Orion EFT-1 and the possibilities it represents.

Events of Interest  

Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »


 

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