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NASA’s Bill Gerstenmaier said on Wednesday (February 3) that the key to successful commercialization of low Earth orbit (LEO) is for the space industry to become more innovative and nimble.
Commercial satellite systems like Iridium that were intended to provide voice and data services to underserved parts of the globe lost out to undersea fiber optic cables and terrestrial cell phone towers because the aerospace industry moved too slowly, he argued. “We have to be extremely nimble. … We as an industry were so slow in doing that we got whacked by a terrestrial market that could turn and deliver faster.”
The same threat hangs over potential use of the near-zero gravity environment available in LEO for applications in areas such as pharmaceuticals. Electrophoresis was once envisioned as a promising area for space commercialization because without gravity much purer substances can be produced. However, back on Earth, genetic engineering advances made it possible to do almost as good a job. “We could create a 99% pure insulin on orbit, [but] they could create a 98% pure insulin through genetic engineering. That won because they could turn to the market faster and be responsive.”
Gerstenmaier, the head of human exploration and operations at NASA, reiterated two points that he and other NASA officials have been stressing in recent months. First, it is the commercial sector’s responsibility, not NASA’s, to find the demand for future LEO space stations. Second, future LEO space stations are not likely to resemble the International Space Station (ISS), but be smaller facilities with narrower purposes and they could build on existing or planned spacecraft.
For example, spacecraft that deliver cargo to the ISS can continue to perform additional missions once they depart, he suggested. Russia’s Progress cargo spacecraft are already used in that manner, sometimes remaining in orbit for days or weeks after undocking from ISS to perform remote sensing or other tasks. Similarly, U.S. commercial cargo and crew vehicles -- Cygnus, Dragon, Dream Chaser, and CST-100 Starliner -- could do that or perhaps two such spacecraft could be docked together to serve as a mini-space station.
Decisions on what is needed should be based on what the commercial market requires. “Don’t assume what we need. ... listen to the demand” and be creative in meeting it, he urged.
The panel discussion at the second day of the FAA's Commercial Space Launch conference, moderated by Michael Lopez-Alegria, focused broadly on commercialization of LEO. George Washington University professor Henry Hertzfeld reviewed the “waves” of interest and investment in LEO space commercialization since the 1980s that fell victim to the space shuttle Challenger accident and the “technology bust” at the turn of the century. “We’re in a new wave” now, he said, “let’s hope it continues.” “We’ve been riding these waves and, even if they stagnate, every new one has been larger and bigger and I think that will continue into the future.”
Tauri Group Managing Partner Carissa Christensen explained that investment, supply and demand are the three critical elements of a LEO economy. She delineated the types of investors interested in commercial space – “advocacy” or “affinity” investors with personal enthusiasm; “strategic” investors with a related business looking for associated or aligned benefits like improvement of an existing product; and “financial” investors looking for return on their investment. The supply and demand of commercial LEO activities contemplated today vary widely. Overall, the challenges of this emerging economy are more business than technical, she concluded.
John Elbon, Vice President and General Manager for Space Exploration at Boeing, discussed some of those business challenges. Boeing was the prime contractor for building ISS and supports it today through an engineering services contract. It is also building one of the two commercial crew vehicles (CST-100 Starliner) that will begin taking crews back and forth in another year.
To illustrate what it would take to have a commercial space station, he postulated building a comparatively simple station, more akin to Skylab than ISS. He theorized that it might cost about the same as Starliner ($2.5 billion) to which operations costs would have to be added. He put the annual cost of operating ISS at $4 billion a year ($2.7 billion from NASA plus $1.3 billion from the other partners). Even if those costs could be significantly lowered, he used $5 billion as the money that Boeing would have to invest. “If I took that to the Boeing board and said I want to invest $5 billion in building this station, they would look at me…” and want to know where the return on that investment would come from. He listed a number of experiments being conducted on ISS today that have promise, but not enough without more R&D investment than is likely to come from the corporate world. The possibilities need to be pulled together to “create a revenue stream that’s single digit billions as a minimum to close a business case that would allow us to then put a capability like this in orbit.” He added that tax credits could make a significant difference.
Gerstenmaier also used the opportunity to argue in favor of extending ISS beyond 2024. The Obama Administration proposed extending ISS operations from 2020 to 2024 in 2014. Congress agreed and codified it in the November 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. Most of the other ISS partners -- Russia, Canada and Japan -- have agreed, but the European Space Agency (ESA) is still considering the matter.
Getting agreement on operating ISS beyond 2024 may be challenging. As Elbon said, it costs $4 billion a year to operate ISS. How long the ISS partners are willing to invest that level of resources in ISS is questionable. Aerospace industry expert Tom Young said at a congressional hearing that was taking place at the same time as the panel discussion that he does not think NASA can afford to both operate ISS and move forward with human exploration beyond LEO, for example.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of February 7-12, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
North Korea's satellite launch last evening (February 6) Eastern Standard Time (today, February 7, local time in North Korea) certainly will be the international space-related story of the week. The United Nations Security Council will meet in emergency session today to discuss whether additional sanctions should be levied. The launch violates two U.N. Security Council resolutions -- Resolution 1718 adopted in 2006 and Resolution 1874 adopted in 2009 -- designed to discourage North Korea from developing ballistic missiles.
Meanwhile back in D.C., President Obama will submit the final budget request of his Administration to Congress on Tuesday. The document will be released by the Government Publishing Office (GPO) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) at 11:00 am EST and should be posted on their websites at that time. DOD, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and NASA are all holding budget briefings during the day. NASA is using the entire day to showcase its activities at all of its centers around the country. Called "State of NASA'" day, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will deliver a State of NASA speech at 1:30 pm EST that will be carried on NASA TV (it is separate from the NASA budget briefing at 5:00 pm EST with NASA Chief Financial Officer Dave Radzanowski).
The release of the budget kicks off congressional hearings on the President's request. From a space policy perspective, first up is the Air Force. SecAF Deborah Lee James and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III will appear before the defense subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.
The House Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on Wednesday as well, but it is not budget related. Instead, it will discuss "Understanding and Deterring Russia." There is no way to know in advance whether any of the government or commercial space arrangements we have with Russia or DOD's space protection efforts will come up (the witnesses are not from the space community), but it is quite possible. A growing number of U.S. officials cite Russia as the current biggest threat to the United States and its allies both on Earth and in space.
It is shaping up to be an intense week, so it's good that on Thursday evening there's something a little more fun to do (other than watching the next Democratic presidential primary debate). NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green will speak at an AIAA-Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) event at the British Embassy in Washington on the science fiction and science fact in the movie The Martian.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below. Check back throughout the week for additions to our Events of Interest list as we learn about others.
Tuesday, February 9
Wednesday, February 10
Wednesday-Thursday, February 10-11
Thursday, February 11
North Korea launched a satellite this evening (February 6) Eastern Standard Time (EST). It had notified the United Nations of its upcoming launch.
The launch, aboard an Unha-3 rocket, took place at 00:30 GMT February 7 (09:00 local time at North Korea's Sohae Space Center), within the date range specified by North Korea in its most recent notification to the United Nations. North Korea says the satellite, Kwongmyongsong-4, is for remote sensing of the Earth.
The North Korean Central News Agency reported that the satellite was in a 494.4 x 500 kilometer polar orbit inclined at 97.4 degrees.
U.S. Strategic Command stated that the launch was at 6:29 pm Central Standard Time and "at no time was the missile a threat to North America."
North Korean satellite launches are widely viewed as ballistic missile tests and such launches violate two U.N. Security Council resolutions designed to dissuade them. Secretary of State John Kerry tweeted (@JohnKerry) than the United States condemns the launch.
The last North Korean satellite launch was in 2012.
A House hearing yesterday (February 3) underscored the dilemma facing NASA as it looks ahead to the future of its human spaceflight program while facing a presidential transition less than a year away. Committee members and witnesses agreed that NASA needs a plan with more specifics that it has offered so far, but not on what the plan should be. While most accept that the long term goal should be human trips to Mars, what the steps in between should be remains as divisive as ever.
The hearing was before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. chaired by Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX). Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) is the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee. The hearing was about NASA's human spaceflight program, but in this case there were no NASA witnesses. Instead three "outside" (non-NASA) experts shared their views: Tom Young, an aerospace industry icon who is retired from Martin Marietta/Lockheed Martin and a member of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), though he was testifying only for himself not NAC; Paul Spudis, senior scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, a fervent advocate of returning humans to Moon before going to Mars, also speaking only for himself, not LPI; and John Sommerer, retired from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab and testifying in his capacity as the former chairman of the Technical Panel of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine committee that wrote the 2014 Pathways To Exploration report.
Republican members of the subcommittee and the chairman of the full committee, Rep, Lamar Smith (R-TX) continued their attacks on the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as unnecessary and a waste of resources. Democratic members, including the ranking Democrat of the full committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), did not defend ARM, and Edwards said NASA's current Evolvable Mars Campaign strategy does not answer the question of whether an asteroid mission is a necessary element of the humans-to-Mars goal. Johnson and Edwards reiterated their strong support for NASA to produce a roadmap for the future of the human spaceflight program as required by the 2015 NASA Authorization Act that passed the House last year (no further action has been taken).
None of the witnesses offered support for ARM, either, although Young noted that NAC is enthusiastic about the development of Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP), which is part of the ARM program. NAC considers SEP to be a critical element of any effort to send humans to Mars and recommended that NASA send an SEP-powered probe all the way to Mars as a test instead of to an asteroid. NAC worries that ARM itself, as a program, will cost more than the $1.25 billion advertised by NASA officials and divert resources from the real goal of humans-to-Mars.
Sending people to Mars was widely, but not universally, accepted by committee members and witnesses as the long term goal of NASA's human spaceflight program. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) was one exception, who thinks other missions -- such as planetary defense and solving the space debris problem -- are more important and champions private sector activities. He said he believes SpaceX founder Elon Musk will get to Mars before NASA. He and other Republican members also expressed concern about the costs involved in a humans-to-Mars mission when the national debt is so high. Rohrabacher argued for an incremental program that can change directions if, for example, an asteroid threatens Earth and planetary defense becomes a higher priority, instead of a "20 year program of gigantic spending that will suck the money away from all the other projects" that NASA might initiate. He said the only affordable way to send Americans to Mars is on a one-way trip.
NASA's Evolvable Mars Campaign was criticized for lacking the specifics needed to win support, especially in a vulnerable period of time when the presidency will change hands. Many of the committee members, Republican and Democratic, stressed the need to have a baseline program and a roadmap in place before the presidential transition to avoid another disruption like what occurred when President Obama took office and cancelled the Constellation program. Edwards called NASA's Evolvable Mars Campaign a strategy, but insufficiently detailed for mission planning. It does not answer questions such as whether a return to the lunar surface or an asteroid mission is necessary to reduce risks for the longer-term Mars goal, she said.
The need for a "plan," rather than a broader strategy that lacks details, was also emphasized by the witnesses. Young calculated that if NASA's current level of funding for human spaceflight, about $9 billion in FY2016, is maintained for the next 20 years, $180 billion will be available over that period of time. He concludes that although this is a great deal of money, it is not enough to both send humans to Mars and support the International Space Station beyond 2024 and a choice must be made between them. He thinks that choice should be sending humans to Mars. He cited the 2015 study by the Planetary Society as one option for how to accomplish it, although he wants humans to land on Mars not just orbit it and he thinks it will cost more than the $180 billion.
Sommerer said that his panel estimated that it would take 20-40 years to get people on Mars and cost "half a trillion dollars." He and Young both stressed that the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft are just the beginning of the systems that are needed for a Mars mission. Sommerer noted that there are only a handful of destinations for human spaceflight today -- the Moon, asteroids and Mars -- and what is needed is agreement on the sequence of missions with a "logical feed forward" that minimizes "dead ends," is affordable, has acceptable development risks and a reasonable operational tempo. The NAS Pathways committee looked at three options, but did not recommend any of them, concluding that in the current fiscal environment there are "no good pathways to Mars."
Later in the hearing, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) argued for adopting the goal of sending humans to Mars by 2033 -- he displayed a bumper sticker with that date on it. He asked if that could be achieved if $200-300 billion -- a percent of the federal budget -- was allocated over that period of time. Sommerer replied, yes, if you have a plan -- "if you give them the date and the money and help with the discipline [to make difficult choices], the answer is yes. If any of those three things is missing, the answer is almost certainly no."
Despite the consensus that a specific plan is needed, there was no agreement on what the plan should be. Although Perlmutter wants to focus on Mars, Spudis insists that returning to the surface of the Moon first is essential, for example. The decades-long debate over Moon versus Mars remains unresolved. Even if there might be agreement on Mars, there is debate over whether to land on the surface, as Young advocates, or put humans in orbit first as outlined in the Planetary Society report. That makes crafting a detailed plan, especially in the few months before a new President is elected, a daunting challenge. Without it, though, as committee members and witnesses expressed yesterday, there is concern that the current elements of the program -- SLS and Orion -- could end up on the chopping block.
Young wryly commented that "We have a graveyard today ... that has headstones of human spaceflight programs that consumed a lot of resources and ended up with no basic product. I don't think we need any more headstones in that cemetery. What we really need [are] monuments to accomplishment."
The head of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) and a key Member of Congress are making the case for expanding AST's regulatory responsibilities to include much more than commercial launches and reentries. Both spoke at the first day of AST's annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference, which continues today (Wednesday). The Commercial Spaceflight Federation is webcasting the event.
Over the past year, interest has grown in both the government and commercial space sectors over what agency should have the responsibility for ensuring U.S. compliance with Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that requires governments to "authorize and continually supervise" the activities of their non-government entities, such as companies. U.S. companies have been operating in space since the 1960s, primarily commercial communications and remote sensing satellites, but the potential expansion of commercial activities to other realms, such as asteroid mining or habitats on the lunar surface, is raising the visibility of the issue of who in the U.S. government is responsible for that task.
The recently enacted Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to recommend approaches for oversight of commercial activities in space. The law was enacted on November 25, 2015 and the report is due 120 days thereafter.
FAA Associate Administrator for AST George Nield wants his office to be given that responsibility. He said that his office could issue a "mission license" for in-space operations not already regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) or NOAA. FCC licenses the use of the radio spectrum by commercial companies. NOAA licenses commercial remote sensing satellites.
Another growing issue is who should be responsible for determining if satellites are going to collide with each other or with space debris and warn affected parties. This is often referred to as Space Traffic Management. Today, DOD's Joint Space Operations Center (JSPoC) performs the calculations -- "conjunction analyses" -- and alerts appropriate parties, but some argue that JSPoC should focus on DOD's requirement to protect U.S. national security satellites, not those of the civil or commercial sectors.
Nield said the FAA should take on that responsibility as well; "We think it makes sense for the FAA to take on this role, and we believe that there is consensus in the interagency community that we are the right ones to do it, but we need to make the decision soon and get on with it." He also advocated for the FAA to process safety-related space situational awareness data and release it "to any entity, consistent with national security interests and public safety obligations." The FAA and DOD are in agreement that this is feasible, he added, though his office needs additional resources to do it.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), a member of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee, agrees. Speaking at the conference yesterday, he stressed that DOD must focus on the threats posed to national security satellites rather than spending its time determining whether the International Space Station (ISS) is "going to hit a screw." DOD must be relieved of the "burden" of performing conjunction analyses for the civil and commercial sectors, he said, and the FAA is the proper agency to take on that task. He added that DOD does not want to relinquish JSPoC, but instead to use it for what it is intended -- national security. He also agreed that FAA/AST needs more money if it takes on additional tasks. He noted that he tried to add $1 million for FAA/AST in the House-passed version of the FY2016 Transportation-HUD appropriations act, but only $250,000 was approved.
Bridenstine also raised the issue of who should be responsible for ensuring compliance with Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty, calling it a "challenge we have to own up to and ultimately solve. It won't be easy and won't happen overnight." He stopped short of recommending FAA/AST as the answer, but said government regulation of commercial space activities overall must be consistent and simplified.
The conference continues today, with Rep. Brian Babin, chairman of the House SS&T Space Subcommittee, scheduled to speak at 8:30 am ET, followed by NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman.
The Commercial Spaceflight Federation indicated that it will webcast today's sessions as well.
Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of February 1-5, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
A conference on commercial space transportation and a House hearing on NASA's human exploration proposals are just two highlights of the coming week.
The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation's (AST's) 19th annual conference is in Washington, DC on Tuesday and Wednesday. Neither the conference's website nor the agenda indicate that any of the sessions will be webcast, which is a shame because they look really interesting. If we learn that remote access will, in fact, be available, we'll add that information to the entry in our Events of Interest list. [UPDATE: FAA/AST confirms that there will NOT be a webcast. UPDATE 2 -- AS WE JUST LEARNED NOW THAT WE'RE HERE AT THE CONFERENCE, THE COMMERCIAL SPACEFLIGHT FEDERATION IS WEBCASTING THE EVENT.] There are keynotes and panels featuring top leaders from the Administration (e.g. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman), Congress (Rep. Brian Babin, R-TX, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-TX, and a panel of congressional staff), and industry (Sierra Nevada Corporate VP for Space Systems Mark Sirangelo and SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell). For those who are advocating for an expansion of AST's jurisdiction beyond launch and reentry of satellites, one of the panels will discuss European Space Agency (ESA) Director General Jan Woerner's Lunar Village (or Moon Village) concept. AST's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) recently recommended that AST "engage directly" with ESA to foster the participation of U.S.-based commercial entities in planning and creation of such a village. Woerner spoke to COMSTAC during a telecon meeting last month and will participate in this conference via livestream.
Wednesday's hearing before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee also should be interesting. The topic is NASA's human exploration proposals, but in this case there are no NASA witnesses. Instead, three "outside" witnesses will present their views. Aerospace industry icon Tom Young is one of them. He has testified many times, perhaps most memorably answering "never" to a question about when humans would get to Mars under NASA's current budget. He is a member of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), which has been deliberating for at least two years over NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and NASA's planning for sending humans to Mars. Young will be speaking only for himself, but NAC has not been enthusiastic about ARM for many reasons, one of which is skepticism that it will cost only $1.25 billion as NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden insists. NAC members also criticize NASA's Evolvable Mars Campaign because it lacks specifics. The other two witnesses are Paul Spudis, a fervent advocate of returning humans to the lunar surface before going to Mars, and John Sommerer, who chaired the Technical Panel of the 2014 "Pathways" report from the National Academies that also endorsed returning astronauts to the lunar surface and raised questions about the value of ARM to the long term goal of human Mars exploration.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below. Check back throughout the week to see any new meetings we learn about and post to our Events of Interest list.
Monday-Tuesday, February 1-2
Tuesday, February 2
Tuesday-Wednesday, February 2-3
Wednesday, February 3
Today is NASA's annual Day of Remembrance in honor of the astronauts who lost their lives in performance of their duties. The day honors all of them -- particularly the crews of the first Apollo mission, the space shuttle Challenger, and the space shuttle Columbia -- but since this is the 30th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, it was the focus of this year's commemorations. Of the many speeches and missives, two stand out for their positive messages about why these individuals took the risks they did and what it should mean to each of us.
On January 27, 1967, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died when a fire erupted in the 100 percent oxygen atmosphere of their Apollo spacecraft during a pre-launch test at Kennedy Space Center, FL. They would have been the first crew to launch into space aboard an Apollo spacecraft and hence many refer to this as Apollo 1. Since it did not leave the ground, however, others call it Apollo 204 or Apollo-Saturn 204, the designation of the spacecraft/launch vehicle combination.
On January 28, 1986, five NASA astronauts (Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judy Resnik, and Ron McNair), a payload specialist from Hughes Aircraft (Greg Jarvis) and a New Hampshire schoolteacher flying as a Teacher in Space (Christa McAuliffe) died when an "O-ring" in one of the two space shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters failed due to very cold weather at the launch site. The shuttle exploded 73 seconds after launch.
Space Shuttle Challenger crew: from left - front row Mike Smith, Dick Scobee, Ron McNair; back row, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, Judy Resnik. Photo credit: NASA
On February 1, 2003, six NASA astronauts (Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, and Laurel Clark) and an Israeli Air Force pilot flying as a payload specialist (Ilan Ramon) died during their return from a 16-day science mission aboard space shuttle Columbia when superheated gases (plasma) that surround the shuttle during reentry through the Earth's atmosphere entered a hole in the wing created during liftoff by foam falling from the External Tank. The wing deformed and aerodynamic forces tore the shuttle apart.
Many poignant remarks were made today, but two stand out for their positive messages.
Barbara Morgan was Christa McAuliffe's backup and went through the entire training regimen with her prior to the Challenger launch. After the accident, Morgan returned to her career as an elementary school teacher in Idaho, but later was selected by NASA as one of three "Educator Astronauts" and flew on a space shuttle mission (STS-118) in 2007. Morgan spoke today at a ceremony hosted by the Astronauts Memorial Foundation near Kennedy Space Center. After recounting what she learned from each of the Challenger crew members individually, she spoke of what she learned from them as a team and from their families:
"Courage is contagious. Courage is shared. Courage is much more than bravery and boldness because courage lives in the heart. Once you weigh the risk and once you decide that to explore and to discover are worth the risk, then you can dream, you can plan, and you can build. And then you train, and you train, and you train, and you train. So that when the crew launches, they launch ready, with happy hearts, thankful for the opportunity to represent America, happy to represent history and all of humankind as humankind reaches for the stars."
After the accident, the astronauts' families created the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, which has more than 40 learning centers across the country. The Challenger Center posted a letter today written by Judy Resnik's 13 year old niece, Jenna Resnik. Although she never knew her aunt, she writes, many in her family say that she is very much like her. Jenna Resnik extols people not to focus on the accident and the deaths of her aunt and the other crew members, but to "be positive and focus on the triumph and the memories that are being created every day because of this crew's legacy." She remarks that when she thinks of her aunt and the other Challenger crew members, she focuses on the fact that they "died doing what they absolutely loved most, and that's more than many people can say."
Her message to everyone is: "Go do what you want to do. Be who you want to be. Create a life for yourself that you will love with all of your heart, and never lose hope or hesitate to step outside of your comfort zone, because, in the end, the outcome, whatever it may be, is rewarding and leaves you with a good feeling in your heart. ... The sky's the limit people!..."
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) are introducing legislation to repeal a provision in the FY2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act that undermines a section of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that limits the number of Russian RD-180 engines that can be obtained by the United Launch Alliance (ULA) for its Atlas V rockets. The appropriations law, enacted after the NDAA, essentially allows an unlimited number to be procured. McCain announced his new legislation in conjunction with a Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing on the topic today.
Since Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula two years ago, McCain has led efforts to end U.S. reliance on Russian RD-180 engines used in rockets that launch national security satellites. He argues that Russia's actions in Ukraine and elsewhere are inimicable to U.S. interests and the money ULA pays for the engines goes to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his "cronies." As chairman of SASC, he included language in the FY2015 and FY2016 NDAAs that limits the number of RD-180s ULA may obtain and directs DOD to fund the development of a U.S. alternative. McCain also is a champion of SpaceX and its drive to compete with ULA for Air Force contracts to launch national security satellites. The Air Force certified SpaceX's Falcon 9 to launch its satellites last year.
Little new was added to the debate at this morning's hearing. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall repeated their oft-stated position that they agree on the need to end reliance on Russian engines and to build a new U.S. engine by McCain's target date of 2019. They argue, however, that an engine is only part of a launch system and it will take at least two more years, to 2021, to integrate a new engine into a new launch vehicle, test it and certify it to launch national security satellites. McCain and other members of the committee insisted that the transition to a new rocket with an American engine must happen sooner.
The distinction between an engine and a complete launch system was reiterated by James and Kendall throughout the hearing. They are seeking relief from language in the FY2016 NDAA (Sec 606) that restricts them to spending funds on developing new rocket engines only and not entire new launch vehicles. James and Kendall said if they can only use the money for a new engine to replace the RD-180, just one company will benefit, ULA, which would get a new engine for its Atlas V. If instead they could use the money to invest in a public private partnership to develop a new, modern launch system to replace the Atlas V, greater benefits would accrue.
According to James, Congress has authorized and appropriated over $400 million for a new engine: $41 million that was reprogrammed in FY2014, $220 million in FY2015, and $227 million in FY2016. Of that, $176 million has been obligated to date, she added.
One point on which McCain and the witnesses agreed was unhappiness that ULA chose not to bid on the first launch where SpaceX could compete. Competition for that launch, of a GPS 3 navigation satellite, opened last fall, but ULA asserted that it could not enter a bid because of the limitation on how many RD-180 engines it may obtain under the FY2015 NDAA in effect at that time and for other reasons.
McCain repeatedly expressed exasperation at ULA's decision not to bid. James said the Air Force was "surprised and disappointed" and Kendall said "we are all upset." James said she has asked her legal team to review the Air Force contract with ULA to see what can be done possibly "including early termination" of the EELV Launch Capability (ELC) contract that pays for infrastructure and other ULA costs. That funding is separate from the money paid for individual launches.
McCain repeatedly referred to the ELC funding -- approximately $800 million per year -- as money the government pays ULA "to do nothing" or "to just stay in business." Kendall explained that the ELC contract was designed to cover fixed and variable costs associated with launch infrastructure and meant to ensure stability in a sole source environment. ULA has been virtually a monopoly provider of national security launch services since it was formed in 2006 as a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. While Kendall defended the ELC as a good business deal under those circumstances and "not a subsidy," he agreed it is the only DOD contract of its kind, is being phased out, and a model that will not be used in the future. What DOD wants to do now is to provide "at least two launch service providers" with some of the capital to develop, test and certify new launch systems through public private partnerships. A draft request for proposals (RFP) will be released this spring, he said, and a final RFP by the end of the year with awards expected in FY2017.
One new piece of information that surfaced today was the cost of an RD-180 engine. Kendall pegged it at $30 million. The fundamental dispute is whether ULA should be able to obtain nine more, or 14 more, RD-180 engines than the five they already have under contract as part of a 2013 block buy awarded by the Air Force. That is a difference of five engines, or $150 million, money McCain argues would go to Putin and associates including three he said have been sanctioned by the United States - Igor Komarov, Sergey Chemezov and Dmitry Rogozin. Rogozin is the Russian Deputy Prime Minister who oversees the aerospace sector. Komarov is the head of Roscosmos, which recently transitioned from a government space agency into a state corporation. McCain identified them as members of the Board ot RD-AMROSS, the intermediary between the Russian company that manufactures RD-180s. Energomash, and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, which imports them for use in the Atlas V.
The Air Force and ULA want 14 more; McCain wants to limit it to nine. The FY2016 NDAA states that only nine may be obtained, but Senate appropriators, led by Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) included a provision in the DOD portion of the FY2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act that removes that limit. ULA builds its rockets in Alabama; Boeing is headquartered in Illinois. McCain verbally attacked both Senators during a floor speech after the appropriations bill language became public.
Just before this morning's hearing, McCain revealed that he and House Majority Leader McCarthy will introduce legislation imminently to repeal the provision in the appropriations law. In a statement, McCain said the provision was "airdopped" into the appropriations bill "in secret, with no debate" after the nine-engine limitation in the NDAA was "debated for months and passed by the Senate not once, but twice."
The Washington, D.C. area is slowly recovering from the Snowzilla blizzard and government offices reopen today with a three hour delay. The Senate Armed Services Committee's (SASC's) website shows that the 9:30 am ET hearing on RD-180 rocket engines will take place as scheduled.
Most schools are still closed and the traffic reports at this hour (6:00 am) are chock full of accidents closing portions of major highways, so still be sure to check to see if any meeting you plan to attend will, in fact, take place.
Virtually all congressional committees webcast their hearings, so the SASC hearing should be viewable on the committee's website without making the trek to Capitol Hill. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall are scheduled to be at the witness table to continue the debate over how quickly an American alternative to Russia's RD-180 rocket engine will be ready. The issue is a bone of contention between SASC and the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Blue Origin relaunched and relanded the same New Shepard rocket that the company used to demonstrate that feat last November. The rocket reached an altitude of 101.7 kilometers (333,582 feet) before returning to Earth, jettisoning its unoccupied crew capsule along the way. The capsule landed separately under parachutes.
The New Shepard suborbital rocket launches and lands vertically. Blue Origin, owned by Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos, posted video and other images of the flight on its website.
Blue Origin, along with SpaceX, is trying to develop reusable rockets in the belief that reusability will lower launch costs. The theory is controversial because it is dependent on factors such as the cost involved in refurbishing a rocket to fly again and the number of launches across which the costs can be amortized. Space aficionados can debate what vehicle deserves the honor of being known as the first reusable rocket -- the X-15, DC-X and SpaceShipOne are candidates -- but NASA's space shuttle was the only operational reusable launch vehicle (its External Tanks were not reused, but the airplane-like orbiters and solid rocket boosters were). The space shuttle did not result in lower launch costs, however..
Nevertheless, the technical feat of launching and landing a rocket is noteworthy. Blue Origin and SpaceX are competing for headlines in that regard. SpaceX successfully landed the first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral, FL in December, although three attempts to land on an autonomous drone ship at sea have failed, most recently last Sunday. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk points out that landing the first stage of a rocket sending a satellite into orbit is much more challenging than a suborbital excursion like that experienced in the New Shepard tests.
Bezos and Musk have similar goals -- expanding opportunities for humans to fly into space by making spaceflight affordable. Bezos said in a statement today that Blue Origin's vision is for "millions of people living and working in space." Musk's long term goal is sending large numbers of humans to Mars.
In addition to the New Shepard rocket, Blue Origin is developing new rocket engines that use a new type of rocket fuel -- liquefied natural gas (methane). United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Blue Origin have teamed together on developing ULA's new Vulcan rocket using Blue Origin's BE-4 rocket engine. Bezos also said today that full-engine testing of the BE-4 will begin this year.
ULA President Tory Bruno tweeted his congratulations to Bezos on today's launch and landing:
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