SpacePolicyOnline.com Latest News
Irritated by continuing delays in construction of Russia's new Vostochny launch site, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said today that he will use webcams to allow "people's monitoring" of construction there by the citizenry at large. The new launch site is intended to replace much of Russia's use of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, but its construction has dragged on for many years.
Rogozin oversees Russia's space sector and he and other high level Russian officials. including President Vladimir Putin, have visited the site in Russia's Far East many times and routinely complain about the delays in construction. Rogozin just completed another visit and said today that "the state of affairs ... leaves much to be desired."
Acknowledging that the weather in that region of the country is "hard," he said that is all the more reason for the work to be well organized.
He plans to increase supervision not only by himself, but by the people of the country, using webcams. Concerned about continuing delays last year, he had webcams installed that allow him to monitor progress using his office computer. He now plans to expand that opportunity to the citizenry at large. "This is people's construction project and I want the webcams that we installed at the mail facilities to be connected not only to my Moscow office computer, but also to the websites of Roscosmos and [Military-Industrial Commission] Collegium. ... this will be a kind of 'people's monitoring' over the construction progress," Rogozin said.
Russia's plans to build a new launch site in the Russian Far East date back to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which left one of its main launch sites, Baikonur, in a different country - Kazakhstan, previously a Soviet republic. Russia has been leasing Baikonur from Kazakhstan since then, but wants a new site within Russian borders to fully or partially replace its launch activities there. In the mid-1990s, the decision was made to convert a former strategic missile site, Svobodny 18, in the Amur region near the city of Blagoveshensk, into a space launch site.
Work at Svobodny proceeded slowly and although a few space launches were conducted there using Start-1 and Rokot, Putin discontinued the project in 2007. The idea of a new launch site in that region was soon resurrected, however, and within a few months plans for a launch site, Vostochny, nearby were announced. Construction of launch pads capable of supporting Soyuz-2 and the new Angara launch vehicle family has been a slow process. Rogozin and Putin have made a number of trips to the site, each time complaining about the lack of progress. Last fall, Putin pledged 50 billion rubles ($1.2 billion) to accelerate construction, but judging by Rogozin's comments today, the situation remains unsatisfactory.
A 2012 Roscosmos video (in English) features Putin explaining the importance of the new site, which is described as the centerpiece of a future new "science city." At the time the video was made, the goal was for the first launch to take place in 2015 and for human spaceflight launches to begin in 2016. Today, the goal apparently still is for a first launch this year, but human spaceflights have slipped to 2018.
NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) released its annual report today. Among its key points is criticism of NASA's commercial crew program for its lack of openness, preventing the panel from offering "any informed opinion" on the certification process or "sufficiency of safety." The report's release coincides with NASA's Day of Remembrance in honor of the astronauts who died as the result of spaceflights. The first of those accidents, the 1967 Apollo fire, led to Congress creating ASAP to advise NASA on safety.
The panel's criticism of the commercial crew program was direct and unambiguous and levied at the very beginning of the report so as not to be missed:
"Within NASA, there are outstanding examples of programs that have inculcated a culture of clear and candid communications. Their approach to accountability, good systems engineering, and respect, both up and down the organization chart, would find strong favor with the authors of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report.
"The Commercial Crew Program (CCP) is an exception to the culture of open communications. Regrettably, the Panel has been denied the necessary timely access to information and is therefore unable to offer any informed opinion regarding the adequacy of the certification process or the sufficiency of safety in the CCP. The NASA Administrator has committed to making the changes necessary to resolve this situation and to ensuring that these barriers are removed going forward into 2015."
ASAP's complaint comes just two days after NASA held a press conference with its commercial crew partners, Boeing and SpaceX, to herald the progress they are making to provide services to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) by the end of 2017.
In a color-coded "traffic signal" chart later in the report, ASAP rated "risk transparency -- Insight and communications" as red, meaning an issue of "long-standing concern or an issue that has not been adequately addressed by NASA." It is the only one of nine areas designated that way. In describing its concerns in that area, ASAP includes not only commercial crew, but the Space Launch System and Orion programs.
"Risk communications concerning commercial crew activities by the Director of Commercial Spaceflight Development has been less than forthcoming. Because Probabilistic Risk Assessment results provide a risk assessment of the design capability at maturity, actual risks for early operations of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion could be significantly higher than the calculated or 'advertised' risk. Because the perception of external stakeholders is vitally important, NASA's Office of Communications must be cautious not to create or reinforce inaccurate perceptions of risk."
A second key concern of the panel is what it calls the need for "constancy of purpose" at NASA. It reflects the panel's assessment that there is a "perceived lack of a well-defined mission for NASA's space program" and a mismatch between NASA's budget and what it is expected to do. Reiterating what it said in prior years, ASAP finds that it is "imperative that NASA unambiguously articulate a well-defined purpose, including a path toward the execution of that mission, the technologies that need to be developed and matured, and the resources needed to accomplish that mission."
ASAP criticizes NASA's current "capabilities-based approach" which it believes is driven by budgets rather than a "purposeful, schedule-driven, goal-oriented endeavor." While acknowledging that may be a pragmatic approach that could bridge a transition between presidential administrations, ASAP believes NASA would be better served to "focus on doing fewer things and on doing them better."
Without a clear and consistent goal, ASAP worries that schedule will become a "casualty" that could affect SLS and Orion in particular.
The panel expressed other concerns about Orion and its use for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The panel assessed ARM itself as "a reasonable approach to a mission that is achievable," but worries that the lack of an airlock on Orion adds risk because the entire capsule will have to be depressurized to allow the crew to exit and collect samples of the asteroid. That means the crew will be entirely reliant on their spacesuits. The spacesuits used for ISS spacewalks are "unworkable" for Orion, ASAP said, and although NASA officials have indicated that they have no plans to develop new spacesuits for ARM, ASAP suggests otherwise: "design and development of new-design suits, while underway, are still preliminary and untested." In addition, the panel notes, Orion is small and does not have much room for astronauts to move about or exercise even though the missions may last as long as three weeks: "This long duration, crew habitability risk remains to be assessed and evaluated in order to develop an objective mission risk estimate."
ASAP also is concerned about the small number of flights planned for SLS in terms of maintaining ground crew proficiency. SLS and Orion are part of NASA's Exploration Systems Development (ESD) program, which ASAP rates as "progressing very well." but "there is much more work to be done ... [in] defining the risks and the road to Mars. These risks should continue to be communicated openly and transparently."
The full ASAP report is posted on NASA's website. ASAP submits it both to NASA and to Congress. ASAP chairman Vice Admiral Joseph Dyer (retired) typically is invited to testify to Congress about the panel's findings each year.
ASAP was created by Congress in the NASA Authorization Act of 1968 (P.L. 90-67) following the January 27, 1967 Apollo fire that killed Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee during a pre-launch ground test of what was expected to be the first Apollo mission. Fourteen more astronauts subsequently died in two space shuttle accidents. The January 28, 1986 space shuttle Challenger tragedy killed NASA astronauts Francis "Dick" Scobee, Mike Smith, Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka and Judy Resnik; Hughes Aircraft engineer Greg Jarvis; and New Hampshire schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe. On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during its return to Earth, killing NASA astronauts Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, and Laurel Clark, and Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.
Each year NASA holds a Day of Remembrance honoring all the astronauts who lost their lives in spaceflights. Today is NASA's 2015 Day of Remembrance, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, members of the Challenger families and others participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington Cemetery. Several NASA centers held their own remembrance events.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III told a Senate committee today that the bill has come due for a number of infrastructure activities that were postponed because of sequestration, including space launch infrastructure. By law, sequestration returns in FY2016 and Welsh and the other military service chiefs warned about the impacts if the law is not changed.
Welsh began his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) by commenting that the Air Force is the smallest it has ever been, with 54 fighter squadrons, down from the 188 at the time of Operation Desert Storm in 1990, and 200,000 fewer active duty airmen than the 511,000 in place at that time. Additional cuts will be required if sequestration -- part of the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) -- returns, making the Air Force "even smaller and less able to do the things that we're routinely expected to do," Welsh said.
"Now, I would like to say that that smaller Air Force would be more ready than it's ever been, but that's not the case," he continued. Even though the last two years, when BCA budget caps were relaxed, have permitted improvements, there is a "broader readiness issue" involving infrastructure, including space launch infrastructure, that was "intentionally underfunded" in order to ensure individual and unit readiness instead. "That bill is now due, but BCA caps will make it impossible to pay," Welsh warned.
More broadly, he worried about technological gaps that could develop if sequestration is not reversed. One of those is space: "we cannot forget that that is one of the fastest growing and closing technological gaps," Welsh said. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert also mentioned space capabilities as an area of concern saying that "we're slipping behind and our advantage is shrinking very fast" in "electronic attack, the ability to jam, the ability to detect seekers, radars, satellites ...."
SASC is a friendly audience for airing such concerns. SASC Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) referred to the "mindlessness of sequestration" and its requirement to cut $1 trillion from defense spending by 2021. "If we in Congress don't act, sequestration will return in full in fiscal year 2016, setting our military on a far more dangerous course." The top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), put it in a broader context saying that sequestration relief is needed at DOD "and for other critical national priorities, including public safety, infrastructure, health and education."
The BCA was enacted in 2011 when Republicans and Democrats in Congress and the Obama Administration could not reach agreement on how to fund the government in the face of political gridlock over Republican insistence that the deficit be reduced through spending cuts alone and Democratic insistence that it be achieved through a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. A congressional "supercommittee" was created to find a solution, with the "poison pill" that if they did not, then automatic across-the-board cuts -- sequestration -- would ensue for all departments and agencies funded by congressional appropriations. They did not reach agreement, and sequestration went into effect. Across-the-board cuts do not allow choosing priorities -- every budget account is cut by the same percentage. Republican and Democrats in Congress and the White House oppose sequestration and agreed to temporary relief through the Ryan-Murray agreement in December 2013, but that covered only FY2014 and FY2015.
President Obama is expected to submit his FY2016 budget request on Monday (February 2), the formal kick-off of the FY2016 budget debate. The BCA was enacted when the House was controlled by Republicans and the Senate by Democrats. Now both chambers are under the control of Republicans, but whatever they pass still must be signed into law by a Democratic President, so the outcome of the debate is still very much up in the air. Whether either side has moderated its views on the amount of deficit reduction required or how to achieve it will become known in the coming months.
The House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee held its organizational meeting for the 114th Congress this morning. The typically routine meeting held at the beginning of each new Congress had a strong partisan flavor to it this year, however. The committee's top Democrat, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), issued a sharply worded news release detailing changes Republicans made to committee rules on party-line votes, calling it the "single greatest attack" on the rights of the minority party in the history of the committee.
Johnson is the "ranking minority member" of the committee, meaning the highest ranking member of the party that is not in power. In the 114th Congress, Republicans are the Majority Party and Democrats are the Minority Party in both the House and Senate.
Historically, the House SS&T committee and many other congressional committees have trumpeted the fact that they work in a bipartisan manner, but party-line votes undermine such claims.
In fact, in his opening statement, committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) heralded the fact that in the last Congress the committee approved 20 bills (of which six became law), 18 of them on a bipartisan basis, and said he hoped "we can build on this bipartisan success and do more in this Congress."
Despite that sanguine note, Republicans then voted down all the Democratic amendments to modify the proposed rules (on one of the eight votes today, one Democrat voted with the Republicans). Smith said in a statement after the meeting that what the committee adopted "preserves the legitimate rights of the Minority." He said during the meeting that the goal was to eliminate duplication and align the committee's rules with those of the House (which also have been amended in this Congress).
Johnson, who has served on the committee for 23 years under both Democratic and Republican leadership, clearly disagrees. She listed the following changes that she believes diminishes the Minority's rights:
Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) contrasted this committee's stance with that of another committee on which she serves, House Transportation and Infrastructure, where the entire organizational meeting, including adoption of rules, took "five minutes" rather than beginning "a new Congress and a new year fighting about the rules."
A webcast of the contentious meeting is on the committee's website.
The rules may seem arcane (read our "What's a Markup" fact sheet to learn what some of them mean), but they give the Majority power to hold hearings, subpoena witnesses and documents, and to more easily pass legislation out of committee and to the floor of the House on a partisan basis. Of all the changes, giving the chairman unilateral authority to issue subpoenas could have the greatest impact. In the last Congress, only the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (Rep. Darrell Issa, R-CA) had such power. House SS&T is one of several committees planning to give their chairs such authority in this Congress. Smith said repeatedly that the authority is necessary because of the Obama Administration's "dilatory tactics in responding to letters from this committee" and its "lack of transparency."
How that will play out in the space policy arena remains to be seen, but the sharp differences between the parties on NASA were evident in 2013 when, under the previous rules, the committee approved on party-line votes a new NASA authorization bill that would have prohibited NASA from proceeding with the Asteroid Redirect Mission, dramatically cut funding for NASA overall and especially for Earth Sciences, and established the position of NASA Administrator as an appointed 6-year term. That bill was never voted on by the House and a bipartisan version was crafted the next year after budget caps were raised, promoting greater agreement. That bill did pass the House, but was not considered by the Senate and died at the end of the last Congress, so this Congress will be starting over again. Smith did say today that he hopes a new NASA authorization bill can clear the committee in a bipartisan manner as it did last year.
The number of committee members from each party is roughly proportional to the ratio of Republicans to Democrats in the full House. For the 114th Congress, Republicans have 22 slots on the House SS&T committee and the Democrats have 17.
The Republicans announced their membership, including all their subcommittee assignments today. Democrats are still awaiting appointment of four of their 17 full committee members by the House Democratic leadership and have not announced subcommittee assignments. The 13 Democrats currently assigned to the full committee are Johnson, Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Daniel Lipinski (D-IL), Donna Edwards (D-MD), Frederica Wilson (D-FL), Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), Eric Swalwell (D-CA), Alan Grayson (D-FL), Ami Bera (D-CA), Elizabeth Esty (D-CT), Marc Veasey (D-TX), Katherine Clark (D-MA), and Don Beyer (D-VA).
The Space Subcommittee, which oversees NASA and the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, will have nine Republicans and six Democrats. Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS) will continue to chair the subcommittee. The Subcommittee on Environment, which oversees NOAA's weather forecasting activities, will also have nine Republicans and six Democrats and Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) will serve as chairman. The Subcommittee on Oversight, which has broad jurisdiction, including NOAA's Satellite Modernization activities, was very active in the last Congress under the chairmanship of Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), who lost his Republican primary last year. This year the subcommittee will have six Republicans and four Democrats and be chaired by another Georgian, Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-GA).
The committee also adopted its oversight plan for the 114th Congress today. With regard to NASA, NOAA satellite programs, and the FAA's commercial space activities, the language is virtually identical to the 113th Congress plan. The only notable difference is that oversight of NASA's earth science program is now under the Space Subcommittee's purview; last time it was listed with the Environment Subcommittee.
NASA held a press conference today with its Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) partners Boeing and SpaceX today to highlight progress on developing U.S. systems to take astronauts to space. Both companies said they will be ready by the end of 2017, but CBS News adds that NASA still plans to use one seat on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for the duration of the space station program and for Russians to fly on the U.S. systems.
Launching American astronauts on American vehicles from American soil has been a NASA goal since the Obama Administration terminated the space shuttle program in 2011. NASA currently pays Russia approximately $75 million per seat to launch U.S. astronauts (and those from its Canadian, European and Japanese ISS partners) on Soyuz spacecraft. Russia is the only ISS partner capable of launching humans into space today.
Last September, NASA picked Boeing and SpaceX to continue to the final phase of developing new U.S. crew space transportation systems in a public private partnership where both the government and the company invest capital in the new systems. NASA not only pays part of the development cost, but is a guaranteed market for a certain number of flights.
Boeing’s John Elbon and SpaceX’s Gwynne Shotwell briefly laid out their companies’ plans for meeting the 2017 goal today. Elbon said that Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft will have its first uncrewed orbital test to the ISS in April 2017, with a crewed test in July 2017 and operational services beginning in December 2017. Shotwell said SpaceX’s test flight of the crew version of its Dragon spacecraft would be late in 2016 and the first operational mission in early 2017. Dragon is already used for uncrewed cargo missions to the ISS – one is docked there right now.
NASA’s commercial crew program manager, Kathy Lueders, suggested there is some flexibility about the timing, saying that NASA needs the services in the “late 2017, 2018 time frame.” NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden also was careful in his wording about the date, saying that he is looking to the companies to deliver as promised by the end 2017 and “if we can make that date, I’m a happy camper.” Lueders also said that Boeing would be the first to fly crews to the ISS, even though Elbon's timeline was later than Shotwell's.
NASA funding is critical to the CCtCAP program and Congress has taken several years to warm up to the idea, initially providing roughly half of the money the Administration requested. NASA originally hoped commercial crew systems would be ready by 2015, but Bolden often cites congressional underfunding of the program as the reason the date slipped to 2017.
Today, however, Bolden was optimistic that Congress would provide the full amount that the President will request in his FY2016 budget proposal. The President is expected to submit his FY2016 budget request to Congress on February 2. Agencies like NASA are not allowed to discuss what is in the budget request until it is released. For FY2015, the President requested $848 million and Congress appropriated $805 million, the closest Congress has come to appropriating what the Administration wanted for this program.
Lueders said that by the end of the program, NASA will have spent about $5 billion on development and the average cost per seat will be $58 million. She said that figure is not traceable back to the contracts, however. It is a “derived” value based on the mission costs over five years for crew and cargo (CST-100 and Dragon can carry both). She said it is not NASA’s intent to have an exact price, but only to indicate that U.S. industry has “stepped up to provide cost effective solutions to flying crews” to ISS.
Bolden emphasized today his desire to end U.S. dependence on Russia, saying he hopes to never have to write a check to Russia’s Roscosmos after 2017. That does not mean, however, that American astronauts no longer will fly on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. CBS News space correspondent Bill Harwood reported today on a January 15 interview with ISS Program Manager Mike Suffredini who said that NASA plans to use one seat on Soyuz for the duration of the ISS program and Russians would fly on the U.S. commercial vehicles. “We’re assuming two Russian seats a year and we’re assuming two Russians will fly in our seats per year … And it’ll just be a quid pro quo, we won’t ask for compensation,” Suffredini told Harwood.
Bolden also said at the press conference today that he thinks the Russians will be “perfectly happy” with the advent of the U.S. commercial systems because they provide redundancy in crew access to the ISS and the “intent is to fly mixed crews.”
Bolden’s theme throughout the press conference was that NASA needs to focus on space exploration, specifically going to Mars, and that will require participation of international and commercial partners. Turning transportation to and from low Earth orbit (LEO) over to the commercial sector frees NASA to focus on deep space exploration. After the ISS has fulfilled its purpose around 2024, it will be taken apart and deorbited, he said, and future LEO infrastructure will be provided by commercial companies: the “world of LEO belongs to industry, it doesn’t belong to the government, it doesn’t belong to NASA at all.”
Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of January 26-30, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
On the off chance you haven't been watching the weather forecasts, the week starts off with a major winter storm for the Northeast, so if you're headed in this direction for meetings, be prepared for delays. The Washington, DC area is not expected to get much snow (a few inches) but it may as well be the two feet they're forecasting for New England when it comes to impact. This area just does not do well in snow.
Tomorrow in warmer climes -- Houston -- NASA and its Commercial Crew Transportation Program (CCtCAP) partners, Boeing and SpaceX, will hold a news briefing at Johnson Space Center to provide an update on their progress in developing crew transportation systems to service the International Space Station (ISS) by 2017. The 11:00 am Central Time (12:00 noon Eastern) briefing will be broadcast on NASA TV.
Or head to Cocoa Beach, FL for the three-day (Tuesday-Thursday) NASA Advanced Innovative Concepts (NIAC) 2015 symposium. If you can't make it in person, it will be webcast.
Back here in DC, on Tuesday, when it may still feel like the Arctic, the Secure World Foundation will hold a really interesting seminar on "Space and the Arctic: Why Space Capabilities are Important for Sustainable Arctic Development" from 12:00-2:00 pm ET. Please RSVP in advance if you plan to attend.
An hour before that, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee will hold its 114th Congress organizational meeting, postponed from last week. The House Appropriations Committee holds its organizational meeting on Wednesday. The House and Senate Armed Services Committees (HASC and SASC) have interesting hearings on broad topics this week. It is not clear whether national security space issues will come up at all, but they may, and the hearings seem interesting nonetheless. One SASC hearing is on the impact of sequestration on national security with the military service chiefs (the sequester comes back into effect in FY2016 unless the law is changed) and the other is on global challenges with three former Secretaries of State (Kissinger, Shultz and Albright). The HASC hearing is on how to improve DOD's ability to respond to technological change.
If you're interested in a career in space policy and in the D.C. area on Tuesday, don't miss the panel discussion on that topic Tuesday evening at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. Five young professionals who are climbing that ladder of success right now will be there to offer their perspectives and advice.
We also want to note that this week begins the anniversaries of the three fatal spaceflight accidents: Apollo 1 (or Apollo 204) on January 27, 1967; Challenger, January 28, 1986; and Columbia, February 1, 2003. NASA usually holds a remembrance event around this time, but we have not heard when/where/what it will be this year.
The meetings that we do know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Monday, January 26
Tuesday, January 27
Tuesday-Thursday, January 27-29
Wednesday, January 28
Wednesday-Thursday, January 28-29
Thursday, January 29
SpaceX announced today that it reached agreement with the Air Force on a "path forward" and is dropping its lawsuit against a 2013 Air Force contract with the United Launch Alliance (ULA) for a "block-buy" of 36 launch vehicle cores for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.
SpaceX filed suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in April 2014 arguing that the 2013 contract should not have been awarded on a sole-source basis, but opened for bid. The company's founder and Chief Designer, Elon Musk, said at the time that ULA's prices for launching the two EELVs -- Atlas V and Delta IV -- were "four times as expensive" as a SpaceX launch and the award was "not right."
SpaceX has been awarded a few Air Force launch contracts (such as the DSCOVR launch now scheduled for February 8), but not for the potentially more lucrative launches of national security satellites by EELV-class rockets. It is still awaiting certification from the Air Force to be able to compete for those launches. Air Force officials indicated last year that certification was expected by the end of 2014, but most recently said it may not come until this summer.
The company said in statement today that its agreement with the Air Force "improves the competitive landscape and achieves mission assurance for national security space launches." The agreement calls for the Air Force to "work collaboratively" with SpaceX to complete the certification process, The SpaceX statement also said that the Air Force "has expanded the number of competitive opportunities for launch services under the EELV program while honoring existing contractual obligations."
"Per the settlement, SpaceX will dismiss its claims relating to the EELV block buy contract pending in the United States Court of Federal Claims," the SpaceX statement concludes.
Senator John McCain (R-AZ) is a strong supporter of SpaceX's efforts to win EELV contracts. At a Senate hearing last summer, he left no doubt about his dissatisfaction with the Air Force's handling of the EELV block-buy award and its treatment of SpaceX. He is now the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), which oversees the Air Force.
SpaceX's complaint against the ULA contract came at the same time U.S.-Russian geopolitical relationships soured because of Russia's actions in Ukraine. It highlighted ULA's utilization of Russian RD-180 rocket engines for the Atlas V rocket and catalyzed a debate about U.S. dependence on Russian rocket engines. The FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) essentially prohibits DOD from entering into a new contract or renewing a current contract for purchasing Russian rocket engines for national security space launches. The law authorizes $220 million in FY2015 for the Air Force to develop a "next generation" rocket propulsion system by 2019. Meanwhile, ULA and Blue Origin announced last fall that they are teaming to develop a new U.S.-produced engine for the Atlas V that is already completely funded (i.e., no government funds are required).
January 22, 2015: This article was updated throughout with additional information and quotes. A correction also has been made.
The Russian government announced another restructuring of its space program management yesterday (January 21). Most recently, responsibilities were split between the Russian federal space agency, Roscosmos, headed by Oleg Ostapenko, and the United Rocket and Space Corporation (URSC, or ORKK using its Russian initials) headed by Igor Komarov. Now the two parts will be combined and retain the name Roscosmos, but the new entity is described as a state corporation rather than an agency. Ostapenko is out. Komarov will run the new entity and said today that he will develop a new draft federal space plan by May.
The Russian space sector has suffered an unusual string of launch failures since December 2010 resulting in several reorganizations and leadership changes in an attempt to fix the underlying problems. The last restructuring, in October 2013, divided Roscosmos into two parts: the Roscosmos space agency and a newly created URSC. Ostapenko was named Director of Roscosmos at that time, replacing Vladimir Popovkin, who had been tapped for the job two years earlier, replacing Anatoly Perminov. Like Perminov, however, Popovkin was unable to end the string of launch failures and suffered the same fate.
Ostapenko was placed in charge of the space agency in October 2013, and URSC was formally created by presidential decree two months later. Komarov's impending appointment as Director General of URSC was announced in October 2013, but he did not officially take the position until March 2014. In between, he was a Deputy Director of Roscosmos. Prior to October 2013 he was CEO of Russia's AvtoVAZ, which manufactures automobiles.
That bifurcated management structure has lasted barely a year however. Russia's official news agency Itar-Tass reported on Wednesday that the two entities will recombine. The name Roscosmos will be retained, but it is described as a "state corporation," that will "replace the federal space agency of the same name." Komarov won the job as CEO of the new Roscosmos. Itar-Tass said Ostapenko will be offered an "executive position" in industry.
Komarov said today that "We are to submit to the government a draft federal space program and a program of development of Russian space center [sic] by May."
What the reorganization means for relationships between NASA and Roscosmos, which represents Russia in the International Space Station (ISS) partnership, or U.S. corporate deals with Russian aerospace companies is difficult to discern at this point. Russian space expert Anatoly Zak, editor of RussianSpaceWeb.com, said via email Wednesday evening that "even long time observers inside Russia are confused."
Veteran Russian space analyst Bob Christy said via email today that he sees the formation of Roscosmos as a state corporation rather than an agency as a way to make it operate more like a business, less assured of government funding, but with greater flexibility to work with private industry to create viable new companies, including merging or separating functions "across the satellites/launchers divide."
As noted, the changes began in response to Russian launch vehicle failures, but Russia's top leadership has also complained about widespread corruption that reportedly has affected everything from the GLONASS navigation satellite system to construction of the new Vostochny launch site in Siberia.
At the Maryland Space Business Roundtable event Tuesday, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was asked about the status of U.S.-Russian space cooperation given the tense geopolitical environment caused by Russia's actions in Ukraine. Bolden responded that he and Ostapenko had an excellent working relationship, agreeing that ISS must be kept out of the political fray. He also emphasized the importance of personal relationships among Americans and Russians working on the ISS program to make "all this stuff work." It appears that at his level, at least, a new set of relationships will need to be established once more. This is the fourth Roscosmos director Bolden has worked with since becoming Administrator in 2009 (Perminov, Popovkin, Ostapenko and now Komarov).
Other Roscomos officials may also be on their way out. Itar-Tass cited Komarov today as saying that the new Roscosmos will have a smaller staff than the combined total of the previous Roscosmos and URSC.
Although the launch failures have gotten a lot of attention, Russia also has many successful space launches. In 2014, there were 31 successful space launches to orbit from Russian launch sites and one failure (of a Proton in May) according to data on Bob Christy's zarya.info website. (That number does not include launches of Russian rockets from Europe's launch site in French Guiana -- one of which placed the satellites into the wrong orbit -- or the Sea Launch platform. Also, one of the 31 "successes" placed the Ekspress AM-6 satellite into an incorrect orbit, but on-board engines are being used to raise it to its intended geostationary destination).
The successes in 2014 included launch of the new Angara 5 rocket with a test payload to geostationary orbit in December. Angara is a new family of launch vehicles of varying capabilities. Russia also had a successful suborbital test launch of the smallest version, Angara 1, in July 2014 (not included in the 31 since it was not orbital). Russia expects to replace its old Soviet-era rockets like Proton with different versions of Angara over the next several years.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the count of Russian launch successes in 2014 included Foton-M4 even though it was placed into an incorrect orbit, but the spacecraft was nonetheless able to complete its mission. According to Christy, the launch vehicle operated properly, delivering the satellite into an elliptical orbit, but a communications failure prevented operation of a thruster on the spacecraft; that is why the orbit could not be circularized. The earlier version also omitted mention of the problem with the Ekpress AM-6 satellite since the satellite is expected to be able to fulfill its mission (albeit with a shortened lifetime), but the Briz-M upper stage did underperform so should be noted as only a partial success.
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.
Events of Interestl