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Here is our list of space policy related events coming up in the next week and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in recess for the next two weeks -- their annual Easter Recess.
During the Week
The lack of congressional activities makes more time for all the other interesting events coming up, including the National Research Council's Space Science Week -- there's an excellent public lecture associated with it on Wednesday evening, meetings of several NASA Advisory Council (NAC) subcommittees, and a very interesting meeting of the FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC).
To start things off, Roger Launius and Nathan Bridges will hold another of their Space Policy and History Forums tomorrow afternoon at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) on the Mall. The forum meets quarterly and does a great job of introducing new people, topics and ideas to the space policy and history community. Tomorrow is no exception. Teasel Muir-Harmony of the Center for the History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics will talk about "Astronaut Ambassadors: The Apollo 11 Diplomatic Tour and the Role of Spaceflight in Public Diplomacy." Her research focuses on the use of the U.S. space program in public diplomacy during the Cold War. The meeting is at 4:00 pm ET. Be sure to RSVP to Roger in advance to get on the list that allows access to the museum's office area.
The NAC Planetary Science Subcommittee and the Heliophysics Subcommittee will each meet tomorrow and Tuesday at NASA Headquarters. NAC's Ad Hoc Task Force on STEM Education meets there on Friday afternoon. NASA's Applied Sciences Advisory Committee, which is not part of NAC, also is meeting on Monday, virtually we think.
The NRC's Space Science Week, organized by the Space Studies Board (SSB), brings together its five standing committees in individual and plenary sessions. The meetings will take place Tuesday-Thursday, but some are closed, including all day Thursday. All are at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) building on Constitution Avenue, not at the Keck Center on 5th Street. Beginning last year, the SSB instituted the practice of holding a public lecture in connection with Space Science Week for the general public as well as the space science community. This year, Jason Kalirai of the Space Telescope Science Institute will talk about "Our Place in the Universe: As Seen Through Past, Present and Future Telescopes." That's on Wednesday at 6:30 pm ET at the NAS building.
If you are more attuned to commercial space than space science or history, you're in luck, too. COMSTAC meets on Wednesday and opens at breakneck speed with talks by three of the most influential government policymakers in the commercial spaceflight arena: FAA's own George Nield (8:05-8:20 am ET), NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden (8:20 - 8:45 am), and Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations CJS subcommittee (8:45-9:15 am). The agenda (current as of yesterday) is available from our calendar.
And for those of you still hankering for more ideas on how the future of human spaceflight should unfold, the Planetary Society is holding a "Humans Orbiting Mars" workshop at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs on Tuesday and Wednesday. Participation is by invitation only (so it is not in our list), but they will hold a press conference on Thursday at 11:00 pm ET to share their results.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Monday, March 30
Monday-Tuesday, March 30-31
Tuesday-Thursday, March 31-April 2
Wednesday, April 1
Thursday, April 2
Friday, April 3
The House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) committee approved a bill to improve weather research and forecasting on Thursday. Although the bill does not focus specifically on weather satellites, it includes a pilot program to encourage the private sector to build and launch commercial systems to provide weather data that NOAA would purchase.
The Weather Research and Forecast Innovation Act cleared the committee by voice vote on a bipartisan basis. The bill, H.R. 1561, is co-sponsored by Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR).
H.R. 1561 is a revised version of a bill that passed the House last year. The previous bill (H.R. 2413) was sponsored by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), who chairs the House SS&T Environment Subcommittee and spoke in favor of the revised bill during Thursday's markup. He said he is "most proud of" the provision that creates a pilot program to encourage the private sector to launch instruments into space to provide data for the numerical models used to forecast weather. He framed his argument in terms of mitigating against the risk of losing one of NOAA's Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) or Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) spacecraft, calling them "huge, monolithic" satellites, the loss of which could result in gaps in the ability to provide data needed for weather forecasting.
"If we can move to a day -- it's not going to happen overnight and I don't want to cannibalize JPSS or GOES ... -- but if we can move to a day where we change the business model where instead of building, owning, and operating huge, monolithic satellites ... I think this commercial approach ultimately will result in ... a lot a resiliency," Bridenstine said. He called the legislation "a signal to private industry" to invest in these technologies because Congress wants to move to a future "where we are buying data from the private sector and not relying on huge, monolithic satellites that ultimately could challenge our security when it comes to severe weather events."
Bonamici, who is the Ranking Member of the Environment Subcommittee, said the bill is built on "extensive advice" from the weather community and bipartisan agreement on the committee. She characterized it as "even stronger" than the bill that passed the House last year. She said this bill reflects a "more thoughtful process moving towards commercial satellites for weather data and includes a pilot program for NOAA to buy data from space-based commercial providers as proof-of-concept. The program is funded at a very reasonable level, $9 million dollars. The performance of this pilot [program] will inform our efforts on how to move toward the next generation of weather satellite systems."
Bonamici also made clear that she thought the bill could have been even better if the committee had followed "regular order" and held hearings and a subcommittee markup prior to full committee markup. This bill was introduced on Wednesday (March 24) and marked up the next day, which is quite unusual. Although hearings were held on a similar bill in the last Congress, Bonamici argued that "a lot has changed in the world of weather research and policies" since then and "there may be good ideas that we could have included ... if we'd taken a bit more time." She stressed, however, that she nonetheless supports the bill.
Two amendments were adopted during the markup, but did not seem to affect the language regarding satellite data. The text of the bill prior to markup is on the committee's website along with a webcast of the markup itself.
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko are spending their first full day aboard the International Space Station (ISS) today, the beginning of a one-year mission to study the long term effects of spaceflight on humans in preparation for longer trips to Mars. Kelly is the first American to attempt a one-year mission. Kornienko will be the fifth Russian to achieve that distinction.
The two lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan along with crewmate Gennady Padalka at 3:42:57 pm EDT yesterday (March 27) and docked with the ISS about six hours later at 9:33 pm EDT. The hatches between their Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft and the ISS opened at 11:33 pm EDT and they were greeted by the three current ISS crew members: NASA's Terry Virts, the European Space Agency's (ESA's) Samantha Cristoforetti, and Russia's Anton Shkaplerov.
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko. Photo Credit: NASA
The ISS typically is occupied by six crew members who come and go in threes because the Soyuz spacecraft -- the only vehicle now available to take crews to and from ISS -- holds three people. Crews rotate on roughly six month schedules. For short periods of time, when one crew returns to Earth and their replacements are awaiting launch, only three are there.
This routine ballet of rotating crews will continue for the next year, but Kelly and Kornienko will remain on board through two shifts, while others come and go. Since the retirement of the U.S. space shuttle, all the Soyuz seats have been required for crew members from the ISS partners -- the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and 11 European countries through ESA. Since Kelly and Kornienko will not need two of the seats on the next rotation, Russia is able to resume sending "spaceflight participants" (or "tourists") to ISS. A Soyuz launch scheduled for September 2015 (Soyuz TMA-18M) is slated to include singer Sarah Brightman.
Michael Lopez-Alegria holds the U.S. record for the longest single mission in space: 215 days (he spent a total of 258 days in space over the course of four spaceflights). Kelly will break that record on October 29.
Four Russians have spent a year or more in space on a single mission. Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov were the first, jointly spending 366 days aboard Russia's Mir space station in 1987-1988. Next was Valery Polyakhov who spent 438 days aboard Mir from 1994-1995, the current record. Interestingly, he made a previous long-duration flight to Mir when Titov and Manarov were aboard. A physician, he monitored their health during the last months of their record-breaking mission and then remained aboard after they returned to Earth, a total of 240 days. In 1998-1999, Sergei Avdeyev spent 380 days aboard Mir. In all those cases, as with Kelly and Kornienko, other cosmonauts came and went on routine crew rotations so there was a constant turnover of personnel.
Polyakhov may hold the record for longest consecutive mission, but even with his two long duration flights (240 days and 438 days), he does not have the longest cumulative time in space. Sergei Krikalev accumulated 803 days of spaceflight over six missions. Gennady Padalka, a member of the crew that launched yesterday, is on his fifth space mission and will break Krikalev's record on June 28.
The Kelly-Kornienko mission is billed as "one year" in space, but it actually is scheduled to last 342 days, not quite a year. They are expected to return on March 3, 2016. The purpose of extending mission duration to one year or more is to understand how humans react physically and psychologically to spaceflight conditions since sending humans to Mars is a long term goal for NASA and others. Kelly has an identical twin, Mark Kelly, a former astronaut himself. A "twins study" composed of 10 separate investigations will be conducted of the two men.
NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot announced today that NASA has selected "Option B" for implementing its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). Option B involves plucking a boulder from the surface of a large asteroid and moving just the boulder to lunar orbit. The alternative, Option A, was to move an entire small asteroid.
The ARM project involves sending a robotic probe to an asteroid and moving all or part of it to lunar orbit where it can be visited by astronauts on an Orion spacecraft. Today's announcement was about the robotic portion of the mission and follows completion yesterday of a Mission Concept Review (MCR). ARM now transitions into "Phase A" planning where NASA will refine the concept. Lightfoot said the next major step will take place in July when officials meet to discuss how to acquire the solar electric propulsion (SEP) system -- in-house or through contractors -- needed for the robotic spacecraft.
Under the preliminary plan, NASA will choose which asteroid to visit in 2019, send the robotic probe in 2020, reach the asteroid and go into a halo orbit around it for 215-400 days to assess which boulders look most promising and then pluck one from the surface and move it to lunar orbit using SEP. In 2025, an astronaut crew aboard an Orion spacecraft will collect a sample and return it to Earth. Three asteroids are under serious consideration right now, but NASA is continuing to search for candidates and can wait until 2019 to make a final selection.
Today, NASA said asteroid 2008 EV-5 looks the most promising. It is a carbonaceous chondrite, the type of asteroid of most interest to scientists. No spacecraft has visited that asteroid yet, but its characteristics are well known. The other two asteroids either have been or will be visited by spacecraft before the ARM mission launches: Itokawa, visited by Japan's Hayabusa, and Bennu, the target for NASA's OSIRIS-REx scheduled for launch in 2016.
NASA repeatedly says that ARM will cost $1.25 billion, but that is only for the robotic portion of the mission, does not include launch costs, and it is not entirely clear what costs are included. NASA describes ARM funding in two categories: "leveraged" and "direct" funding. Leveraged funding is money that NASA asserts it would spend even if there was no ARM mission, while direct funding is unique to ARM. Of the $220 million NASA is requesting for ARM in FY2016, only $43 million is identified as direct funding; the rest is leveraged, including the sum for SEP. Lightfoot said he could not break down the $1.25 billion in those terms, but expects SEP to cost $300 million of the $1.25 billion so he seems to include that in the mission's cost estimate even though NASA counts it as leveraged funding. The situation should become more clear in the FY2017 budget submission next year.
Lightfoot was poised to reveal the Option A versus B choice in December, but when it came time for the press conference, said only that more time was needed. NASA has not publicly stated what came up at the last minute. Rumors are that Option B was the choice then, too. The December press conference was announced with 6 hours notice; today's notice was only 2 hours and the briefing was exactly at the same time as Dava Newman's nomination to be NASA Deputy Administrator was being considered by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee (it was approved by the committee).
Lightfoot said today that Option B has several factors in its favor: multiple targets to choose from because whatever asteroid is selected is expected to have many boulders, reducing mission risk; the spacecraft will orbit the asteroid for several months, allowing a demonstration of the gravitational effect a spacecraft can have on a large asteroid, which is relevant to planetary defense objectives (the ability to move an asteroid that threatens Earth); even though it will cost $100 million more than Option A, the technologies are more useful ("extensible") for human missions to Mars, NASA's long term goal; and there was more interest in Option B from domestic and international, traditional and non-traditional, entities responding to a NASA Request for Information (RFI) about ARM. The spacecraft bus in particular, he said, has "tremendous applicability" to various industries from communications satellites to space tugs.
ARM remains a very controversial project. It evolved from President Obama's April 2010 directive to NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid as the next step in U.S. human spaceflight instead of sending people back to the lunar surface as President George W. Bush planned. In 2013, the Obama Administration decided instead to bring an asteroid to the astronauts, but many question the value of such a mission in its own right or as a step towards eventual human missions to Mars.
Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS), who recently captured a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, has been assigned to the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA and NOAA. He has been serving as chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee's Subcommittee on Space, which authorizes NASA activities , but his position gives him much more power to determine how much money NASA and NOAA get and how they may spend it.
Palazzo also was assigned to the subcommittees on Agriculture and on Legislative Branch.
Palazzo represents the district that includes NASA's Stennis Space Center where rocket engines are tested. He has shown himself to be a strong supporter of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion programs and less than enthusiastic about the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). He spearheaded a NASA authorization bill two years ago that would have prohibited spending money on ARM and significantly cut NASA's earth science program. That bill was approved by his subcommittee and the full committee on partisan lines and never reached the floor for the debate. Since then, he has worked with subcommittee Ranking Member Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) to craft bipartisan bills -- the 2014 NASA Authorization Act and the 2015 NASA Authorization Act -- that passed the House, but not the Senate (so far, at least, for 2015).
Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) chairs the CJS subcommittee. The other Republicans on the CJS subcommittee are Rep. Robert Adeholt (R-AL), John Carter (R-TX), Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA), Martha Roby (R-AL), and David Jolly (R-FL).
Authorization committees like House SS&T set policy and recommend funding levels, but do not actually provide funding. Money is allocated to federal departments and agencies through appropriations bills. See our fact sheet What's a Markup for more information on the distinctions between these types of committees.
Here is our list of space policy related events coming up for the week of March 23-27, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate will be in session.
During the Week
Another busy week in the space policy business is coming up. In the NASA realm, the Senate Commerce Committee's expected approval of Dava Newman's nomination to be NASA Deputy Administrator on Wednesday surely is at the top of the list. It is only one step in the process, and the challenge of getting anyone's nomination through the Senate these days is all too apparent, but the fact that the committee did not see a need to hold a hearing on the nomination is a good sign.
Perhaps -- but just perhaps -- even bigger news will come from the Mission Concept Review (MCR) for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). A NASA spokesman says the MCR is on Tuesday (it is not open to the public), but still cannot forecast whether it will result in the long awaited announcement of whether Option A or Option B won the toss for how to implement the mission. NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot planned to reveal the decision in December, but ultimately announced that more time was needed. NASA CFO David Radzanowski said the day the FY2016 budget request was released in February that the choice could be announced in days, at the MCR, or afterwards, he simply did not know. Lightfoot is scheduled to speak at Thursday's USRA/Space Policy Institute symposium, which is about Near Earth Objects (NEOs) -- asteroids and comets -- and other small bodies in the solar system, an opportunity to share the results of the MCR, though it is not clear he will do so. The symposium has a lot of other very interesting speakers, too. Unfortunately, we're told it will not be webcast.
The House Science, Space and Technology Committee's hearing on Tuesday about the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) should be especially interesting with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's John Mather there to talk about the science JWST will be able to accomplish. Mather, a Nobel Prize winner in Physics and JWST's Senior Project Scientist, is exceptionally good at conveying to a non-scientific audience what we do and don't know about the universe, why we need to know more, and how JWST will move us along that path. NASA science head John Grunsfeld will also be there, along with Cristina Chaplain from GAO and Jeffrey Grant from Northrop Grumman, JWST's prime contractor. Grunsfeld, an astrophysicist and former astronaut who repaired the Hubble Space Telescope on three shuttle missions, also excels at communicating science to non-scientists, but probably will be handling programmatic questions about whether JWST will meet its cost and schedule targets (its previous cost overruns and delays are legendary).
On the military space front, the House Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing specifically on the FY2016 budget request for national security space activities. Several hearings have already touched on some of those issues, including last week's hearing on assured access to space, but this is focused on the entire national security space enterprise with a who's who of its leadership in the military and intelligence communities.
Lots more on tap, too, including the launch of Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko on their one-year mission to ISS.
Here is list of all the events we are aware of as of Saturday afternoon.
Monday, March 23
Tuesday, March 24
Tuesday-Thursday, March 24-26
Wednesday, March 25
Thursday, March 26
Thursday-Friday, March 26-27
Friday, March 27
The nomination of MIT professor Dava Newman to be Deputy Administrator of NASA is on the agenda of the Senate Commerce Committee's executive session next week. The committee did not hold a hearing on her nomination,a signal that there is no strong opposition to it.
The committee will mark up five bills and three nominations, including Newman's. The agenda posted on the committee's website notes that "all bills under consideration enjoy bipartisan support."
The three top political positions at NASA -- Administrator, Deputy Administrator and Chief Financial Officer (CFO) -- are subject to Senate confirmation. Administrator Bolden was confirmed in July 2009. CFO David Radzanowski's nomination went directly to the Senate floor with no action by the committee, and was approved by the Senate in September 2014.
Newman was originally nominated by President Obama in October 2014 and the nomination was resent to the Senate at the beginning of this Congress. She is a Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems at MIT and perhaps best known for her work designing spacesuits for use on the surface of Mars. She is also director of MIT's Technology and Policy Program, Director of the MIT Portugal Program, co-director of the Man-Vehicle Laboratory at MIT, and a Harvard-MIT Health, Sciences and Technology faculty member.
MIT Professor Dava Newman. Photo Credit: MIT
If confirmed, she would be the third woman to serve in that position, succeeding Shana Dale and Lori Garver. The position has been vacant since Garver left in September 2013.
The Senate committee's executive session is scheduled for 2:30 pm ET on March 25, 2015.
NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan explained to a House appropriations subcommittee yesterday that its proposal for a new Polar Follow On (PFO) satellite program is the result of advice from an Independent Review Team (IRT) chaired by Tom Young that “really wirebushed us” for procuring satellites ineffectively. During the same discussion, subcommittee chairman John Culberson suggested that he thinks NOAA should let NASA build its satellites.
NOAA is requesting $380 million in FY2016 to initiate the PFO program, which would begin building instruments for the third and fourth Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) spacecraft, JPSS-3 and JPSS-4. That figure includes $10 million for an Earth Observing Nanosatellite-Microwave (EON-MW) microwave sounder. PFO is a portion of the $2.2 billion request for satellite programs at NOAA, which is part of the Department of Commerce.
Sullivan said Young and Tom Moorman, another member of the IRT, “wirebrushed us really properly, but also thoroughly, over the fact that we were buying these systems in about as dumb a way as you possibly could.” After doing all the design and engineering and getting the supply chain in place, one satellite is produced. Then a few years later the government says it needs another one and we “incur all those expenses again. It’s exactly the wrong way to buy any complex system and certainly satellites.”
The IRT also convinced NOAA that it needs “robustness” in its satellite systems so there is no concern about gaps in coverage in the future as there is now. She described robustness as a weather satellite system that can tolerate one failure and still support weather forecasting and the missing capability could be replaced in about a year. Since the greatest risk is launch, at the time one satellite is being launched, ideally its successor should be already built. “If we don’t start right about now on those next two [JPSS] spacecraft, we will be repeating the prospect of a big gap like we’re looking at now,” she said.
The hearing before the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee on March 18, 2015 was chaired by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX). Culberson asked Sullivan for her estimate of the chances that there will be gap in coverage before the first JPSS is launched in 2017 and if that launch can be moved up.
The potential length of the gap is controversial. After years of issuing dire warning to Congress about the likelihood of a lengthy gap, the head of NOAA’s satellite division, Steve Volz, conveyed a very different message at a February 2015 hearing before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing. Volz downplayed the chances that there would be any gap. His statements were met with surprise and disbelief by fellow witness David Powner, the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO’s) expert on NOAA’s weather satellites. Powner asked that NOAA’s new estimate be put down in writing.
Yesterday, Sullivan tried her best to avoid answering the question, calling it a “pretty random exercise” that depends on “what probability” one wants to use. As for moving up the launch of JPSS-1, she said NOAA has “turned over every rock” and asked its vendors what could be done and the answer is that a new “slug of money” will not help.
Culberson seemed primarily interested in the NASA-NOAA relationship and implied that he thinks NASA should be in charge of building the weather satellites instead of NASA, though he did not say that explicitly and told Sullivan he wanted to have further discussions with her about it.
“It seems to me logically [that] you should just let NASA build the spacecraft for you. And NOAA obviously would be the customer and provide funding, but NASA does a pretty good job,” he said.
NOAA manages the nation’s civil weather satellite programs, setting the requirements for those satellites, managing the programs, and operating the satellites. It uses NASA as its acquisition agent whereby NASA contracts with companies to build the instruments and spacecraft and to launch the spacecraft. NOAA reimburses NASA for those costs. Culberson seemed to be suggesting that NASA should play a bigger role than simply as an acquisition agent.
The Obama Administration is already requesting that some NOAA activities be shifted to NASA. Conversely, others in Congress, including Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) of the Senate Commerce subcommittee that oversees NASA, make the argument that NASA should focus on space exploration, not earth science.
Culberson also asked about the $10 million request (part of the $380 million for PFO) for an EON-MW. Sullivan explained it is a possible avenue towards getting smaller, lighter, less expensive microwave sounders and NOAA is talking to NASA about co-investing in it.
The hearing was about NOAA’s total FY2016 request and most of the questions were about other issues, not satellites.
NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) is concerned about the interdependencies among the three elements of NASA's effort to build a system to take humans beyond low Earth orbit -- the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion spacecraft, and their Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) -- especially the timing of conducting Critical Design Reviews (CDRs) for each of them. The GSDO CDR was going to be first, but the OIG thought it should be last. NASA agreed and switched the order, but also warned the OIG that there might be delays in those for Orion and SLS. Thus, the OIG remains concerned that the CDRs be conducted in the most effective order.
GSDO is the ground infrastructure at Kennedy Space Center needed to support SLS and Orion. NASA already has spent $975 million on GSDO and plans to spend another $2.4 billion over the next 5 years. The OIG report concluded that GSDO is making steady progress, but "significant technical and programmatic challenges remain to meet a November 2018 launch date."
The OIG's major concern is getting the timing aligned for all three elements: SLS, Orion and GSDO. The interdependencies among the three create unique challenges "particularly since NASA historically has used a single program structure to manage similar efforts such as Apollo and the Space Shuttle." NASA has identified 462 interdependencies and 295 (62.8 percent) have been resolved, the OIG reports.
When it began its investigation, the OIG says, NASA planned to conduct the CDR for GSDO before those for SLS or Orion. Because the three elements are so interdependent, though, it recommended that NASA reconsider performing the GSDO CDR first. NASA agreed and rescheduled the CDRs so GSDO would be last instead of first. The new plan is to conduct the CDR for SLS in July 2015, for Orion in October 2015 and for GSDO in December 2015.
NASA informed the OIG, however, that the dates for the SLS and Orion CDRs could slip and GSDO could once again be first in the queue. Thus the OIG remains concerned.
The report notes that the original launch date for SLS was December 2017 and the 11-month slip to November 2018 increased the GSDO cost by $208 million above its baseline estimate of $2.6 billion.
It should be noted that although the OIG report states in several places that NASA committed to the first launch of SLS in November 2018, that is actually a launch readiness date. Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, carefully distinguishes between a launch readiness date (when the systems will be ready to fly) and a launch date (when the launch will actually take place). He explains that because Orion has not yet completed its Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C) review, NASA cannot commit to a launch date. Instead, it is committed to having SLS and GSDO ready by November 2018 -- their launch readiness date. The launch date will be determined after Orion's KDP-C is finished. The Orion capsule that will be used for that first flight of SLS, called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), will not carry a crew.
A lengthy House subcommittee hearing with top officials from the government and private sector yesterday (March 17) left as many questions as answers on how to assure “assured access” to space for national security satellites. Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) remarked at one point “The more I learn, the more confused I get.” Maj. Gen. Howard “Mitch” Mitchell (Ret.) offered perhaps the sagest advice, recommending a new Space Launch Modernization Plan be developed, akin to the Moorman study of the 1990s.
Sanchez’s statement is a succinct exposition of what came out of the hearing before the Strategic Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), which featured two panels. The first was composed of United Launch Alliance (ULA) President Tory Bruno and SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell. The second was mostly government witnesses: Katharina McFarland, DOD assistant secretary for acquisition; William LaPlante, Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition; Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command; and Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Howard “Mitch” Mitchell, who now works for the Aerospace Corporation, but was testifying in his personal capacity as chairman of last year’s study group on alternatives to the RD-180 engine (the “Mitchell Commission”).
The hearing, scheduled to begin at 3:30 pm ET, started 45 minutes late because the members were on the House floor casting votes. Once it began, opening statements by members and witnesses were brief, but the question-and-answer period was extensive and the hearing lasted until 6:30 pm ET with subcommittee chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) finally drawing it to a close even though he seemed to have many more questions that he wished to pose.
That pretty well characterizes the hearing – leaving as many questions as answers. One interesting aspect was the change in tone between witnesses for SpaceX (Shotwell) and Air Force Space Command (Hyten) who, while on different panels, sang each other’s praises after a bruising year in which SpaceX sued the Air Force for awarding ULA a sole-source contract in 2013. SpaceX dropped the suit in January after a settlement was reached. The terms of the settlement were sealed by the judge, but whatever they are, the two parties seem determined to present a united public face now. (Rogers asked whether SpaceX or ULA would have any objection to the subcommittee seeing the terms of the agreement. Shotwell and Bruno each said it was fine with them, but only the court could make that decision.)
Shotwell emphasized again and again that SpaceX and the Air Force are working “shoulder to shoulder” to get the Falcon 9 certified to compete for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV)-class launches. Air Force officials publicly promised during 2014 that certification would be completed by that December, but it was delayed and now is expected by June. For his part, Hyten lauded SpaceX and said that people who might have bet against the company meeting its goals in the past would have lost. Although he joined other government witnesses in agreeing that Shotwell’s expectation that SpaceX’s new Falcon Heavy rocket will be ready to launch national security satellites by 2018 is optimistic, he said SpaceX has been “amazing, so I won’t say it’s impossible.” He also downplayed a statement made by Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James at an earlier hearing where she mentioned that some of the SpaceX launches experienced anomalies. Hyten acknowledged that SpaceX has had some problems, which are “proprietary,” but “we’ve had the same things with Atlas and Delta.” The key is that all of the launches were “mission successes,” he stressed.
The issues debated at the hearing basically are how to end U.S. reliance on Russia’s RD-180 engines, used for ULA’s Atlas V rocket, and how to create competition in the U.S. national security space launch marketplace. ULA has almost exclusively launched U.S. national security satellites on the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets since it was created in 2006 as a joint company owned 50-50 by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, the two companies that had been providing those launch services on Atlas and Delta respectively. The creation of ULA was driven by market factors and government requirements.
An archived webcast is available on the committee’s website. The central questions were:
Overall, many of the subcommittee members and all of the witnesses other than SpaceX seemed to want Congress to change Section 1608 to allow RD-180 engines to be used for the Atlas V until 2021-2022 when ULA’s Next Generation Launch System (NGLS) with an American-made engine is ready. SpaceX’s position is that no more RD-180s are needed because its Falcon 9 and new Falcon Heavy – which it plans to launch for the first time later this year -- can provide the launch capability and redundancy needed to assure U.S. access to space after 2018.
Section 1608 requires DOD to develop an American replacement for Russia’s RD-180 engines by 2019, but it also contains a number of waivers that seem to add flexibility if an American replacement is not ready by then. Nonetheless, the witnesses other than SpaceX clearly view 2019 as a hard cut-off date and want it extended. Also, Air Force acquisition official LaPlante explained in his written statement that the language allows use only of RD-180s that were purchased or included in a legally binding contract prior to February 1, 2014 (when Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula) and according to the documentation DOD has available “only a small number of engines actually meet that statutory language.” DOD wants Congress to clarify that all of the RD-180 engines intended to be purchased under ULA’s current contract can be utilized.
ULA’s Development of New Engines – BE-4 and AR1
Last fall, ULA and Blue Origin announced that they are partnering to develop the BE-4 rocket engine, which uses methane as fuel, as an RD-180 alternative. At the hearing, Bruno said that ULA also has a “backup” plan with Aerojet Rocketdyne to develop the AR1, which uses traditional kerosene. Bruno said the BE-4 is three years ahead of AR1 in development and ULA will choose one of the two to pursue in 2016 or 2017. The new engine would be used for ULA’s NGLS that ultimately will replace both Atlas and Delta. Whichever engine is chosen, the NGLS will require a significant redesign of tankage and launch pad modifications.
Bruno asserted that the engine development is “largely privately funded.” “I do not require government funding, but there are wise investments the government can make to reduce risk and I won’t say no to help,” he said.
An interesting wrinkle in the discussion came up late in the hearing when subcommittee chairman Rogers made clear that what he wants is an American version of the RD-180, not a new engine that would require changes to the rest of the Atlas V rocket or launch pads. LaPlante said that “we build the rocket around the engine” and Mitchell explained that “you can’t jack up the Atlas V and put in a new engine,” but Rogers said that is exactly what he wants to do. That is not one of the options currently being pursued by ULA, however.
Significant discussion occurred concerning the prices charged by SpaceX and ULA. Shotwell explained that she does not know what ULA charges the government, but it was awarded an $11 billion contract for 28 launches (the “block buy” contract signed in 2013), which SpaceX calculates to be an average of $400 million per launch.
She said a Falcon 9 average price is $60 million for commercial customers and $80-90 million for the government, which has special requirements, and the cost to the government for a Falcon Heavy launch will be about $150-160 million. That yields an average cost across all its vehicles of about $120 million, she said, roughly 25 percent of ULA prices. Asked how SpaceX can offer such low prices, she replied that “I don’t know how to build a $400 million rocket” and “I don’t understand how they are as expensive as they are.”
Bruno said he did not recognize the $400 million number and the cost of an Atlas V 401 launch, equivalent to a Falcon 9, is $164 million on average and will be about $140 million in the future. Averaged across all of the launches envisioned in the block buy, the cost is $225 million, he said, a 30 percent reduction from its prices before the block buy. He did acknowledge separately that the cost of a Delta IV Heavy launch today is $400-600 million.
DOD acquisition official McFarland’s written statement clarifies that the “gap” they are worried about is a period late in this decade “without at least two price competitive launch providers servicing medium to intermediate class missions.”
That is an important point. It is not a gap in the U.S. ability to launch satellites, but whether there is competition for medium and intermediate class payloads. Hyten said “gap” is not the right word, it is really about a “transition” between 2018 and 2022, but everyone else referred to it as a gap.
The gap is precipitated in part by ULA’s recent decision to discontinue the single stick version of the Delta IV, leaving the Atlas V as its only launch vehicle for that class of payload. If Atlas V is no longer available after 2019, and SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is not ready by then, these intermediate size payloads would have to be launched by the more capable Delta IV Heavy, but the price would be prohibitive. Bruno assured the subcommittee that he is committed to launching the Delta IV Heavy as long as the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) needs it. If it is ULA’s only rocket, however, all of ULA’s fixed costs would have to be absorbed in those launch costs, raising the price from the current $400-600 million per launch to “upwards” of $1 billion, Bruno said.
Subcommittee chairman Rogers asked incredulously if Bruno thought the government would pay that much per launch and Bruno said no, but Mitchell – who has long experience with national security space launch – pointed out that in the 1990s, launch costs were $550 million “and we launched 41 of them.” The suggestion was that when escalated to today’s dollars, the cost would not be much different.
Bruno told the subcommittee that he decided to terminate the Delta IV single stick as soon as its current commitments are met around 2018 because it cannot compete in the current marketplace.
Curiously, no one questioned ULA’s decision to phase it out even though that seems to be a critical driver in this debate.
The solution to the gap sought by ULA and witnesses on the government panel are to purchase enough RD-180 engines so the Atlas V can remain available until SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and ULA’s NGLS are ready in 2021-2022. Shotwell insisted that Falcon Heavy would be ready and certified for flight by 2018, but the other witnesses considered that an optimistic timetable.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) asked about the business case for either ULA or SpaceX and whether the government needs to guarantee a number of launches to make their businesses viable. DOD’s McFarland said that from what she has seen, all the launch providers are competing for the same pie.
Shotwell said that 60 percent of the SpaceX market is commercial, while Bruno said that ULA’s is “just under 20 percent” today.
Is Falcon 9 “American”?
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) grilled Shotwell on SpaceX’s assertion that Falcon is an all-American rocket. He forced Shotwell to acknowledge that certain raw materials like aluminum and a GPS “box” are from foreign sources, but “99 percent” is American, she asserted. Bishop challenged her by asking if she knew there is a statute in California (where SpaceX is based) that would not allow the company to advertise its product as all-American and Shotwell said she was not aware of it.
Bruno said that in the interest of cost cutting, ULA will be reducing the number of launch pads it has from five to two – one on the east coast and one on the west coast.
A Potential Path Forward
Mitchell articulated what is perhaps the clearest statement on what is needed to move forward on a plan for assured access to space. In his written statement, he said the government needs to take ownership of the issue and define the desired end-state, take action to reach that end-state, and “adequately resource” the plan.
He recommended that the government initiate an effort similar to the Space Launch Modernization Plan (the Moorman report) of the 1990s “with all the stakeholders participating to assess the risks of the current and planned activities” and make recommendations on how to mitigate them. Quoting an unnamed “colleague and friend,” Mitchell wrote: “Currently no stakeholder has a credible plan that ‘closes.’ Each stakeholder has a different endgame solution, and each stakeholder’s current ‘non-closing’ game plan has ‘and then a miracle happens’ as the last element of their plan…and ALL the miracles are different.”
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