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The Government Accountability Office (GAO) had good news and not so good news for Blue Origin today. On the good news front, GAO agrees with the entrepreneurial space company that GAO does indeed have jurisdiction over determining whether NASA is properly applying its Announcement for Proposals (AFP) as it evaluates proposals for the future of Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center (KSC). However, it then denies Blue Origin's protest that NASA is misapplying the AFP.
NASA wants to establish a "Public-Private or Public-Public Venture (PPV)" through "a lease, a use permit or other form of property out-grant term" for future use of the launch pad once used for Apollo and space shuttle missions, according to the report. NASA has two launch pads at KSC and envisions needing only one for the future Space Launch System (SLS). It is keeping LC 39B and wants to find new users for LC 39A.
SpaceX and Blue Origin were the only two companies to respond to NASA's AFP. SpaceX indicated that it would be the only user of the complex while Blue Origin contemplated a multi-user approach. NASA is still evaluating the proposals; a decision is pending.
What Blue Origin protested was whether NASA, in fact, expresses a preference for a multi-user approach in the AFP and is misapplying the AFP in evaluating the proposals. GAO explains that Blue Origin "reasons that, because the AFP requires additional information and analysis with regard to a proposal for an exclusive use approach ... it follows that the AFP includes an inherent preference for a multi-user approach" and a multi-user approach is the "default" approach envisioned by the AFP.
After determining that it does have jurisdiction over this matter, which was disputed by NASA, GAO's action today denies Blue Origin's protest that the AFP has a preference for one approach over the other. "We find that the agency's interpretation [of the AFP] is reasonable," GAO concluded.
In a press statement, GAO makes clear that it is not taking any position on the relative merits of the SpaceX and Blue Origin proposals.
A problem with a flow control valve on one of the two International Space Station (ISS) coolant loops may delay the planned launch next week of Orbital Sciences Corporation's Cygnus cargo resupply spacecraft. The launch is currently scheduled for December 18.
Kenny Todd, ISS Mission Operations Integration Manager, said in an interview on NASA's Space Station Live program this morning that the agency is still diagnosing the problem and determining what must be done to fix it. Until more is known, he is delaying a "go/no-go" decision on Orbital's launch because whenever another vehicle arrives at the ISS, certain levels of systems redundancy are required and NASA cannot meet those criteria under current circumstances. NASA will revisit the situation on Monday and determine if a launch delay is necessary.
The launch window for this mission, designated Orbital-1 or simply Orb-1, is the company's first flight of the Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft under NASA's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract. Orbital has named this specific Cygnus spacecraft in honor of C. Gordon "Gordo" Fullerton, the former astronaut who passed away in August. At one point in his career, Fullerton flew NASA NB-52B aircraft that were used to deploy Orbital's air-launched Pegasus rocket.
Todd said the launch window for the Cygnus launch runs through December 21 or 22, and, if necessary, the launch could be delayed until the next launch window. None of the 3,217 pounds of cargo on this mission is critical to ISS operations, Todd said.
The coolant loop malfunctioned yesterday. ISS has two external thermal control loops that use ammonia as a coolant. The ammonia must be kept at the proper temperature to ensure that when it flows through a heat exchanger, water that is also in the heat exchanger does not freeze. If the ammonia becomes too cold, the system automatically shuts off. That's what happened yesterday.
Ground-based engineers began to troubleshoot the issue and traced it back to a flow control valve in one of the loops, but they are still trying to determine exactly what went wrong and what is needed to fix it. Meanwhile, the 6-person crew is safe and ISS is in a stable configuration, Todd said. Still, NASA would like to get the loop working "sooner rather than later." All critical ISS systems can operate on just one loop, but both are needed for all systems to work and for redundancy. NASA has moved all the critical systems over to the functioning loop, but some systems in Node 2 (Harmony), Japan's Kibo module, and Europe's Columbus module had to be turned off.
The ISS experienced a coolant loop problem in 2010 and Todd acknowledged that at first glance people might assume this is similar. In 2010, however, a pump failed. In this case, it is a flow control valve that "is in the same housing, but is a different piece of hardware" that regulates the temperature of the ammonia rather than moving the ammonia through the system like the pump. NASA does not know whether a spacewalk is needed to repair the problem this time as it was in 2010, but, if so, Todd says the "choreography" will be similar and replacement pump modules are aboard. He stressed that NASA needs to ensure that its spacesuits are in good order. The last time the U.S. spacesuits were used, European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano's spacesuit filled with water because of a failure in its cooling system.
The video of this morning's interview with Todd is posted on NASA's YouTube channel.
The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), in cooperation with the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), has created a new lectureship in honor of Yvonne C. Brill. AIAA or NAE members may nominate individuals to receive the award by January 31, 2014.
Brill passed away earlier this year after a superlative career in aerospace engineering that earned her the National Medal of Technology and Innovation among many other honors. She was as well known for her engineering expertise as for her determination to ensure that aerospace and engineering professionals, especially women, receive due recognition for their accomplishments. The AIAA/NAE lectureship will be presented to an individual with a "distinguished career that involves significant contributions in aerospace research and/or engineering and will be selected based on technical expertise, originality, and influence on other important aerospace issues such as ensuring a diverse and robust engineering community."
The first lectureship will be presented in September 2014. AIAA has strict requirements for nomination submissions, which are described in the flyer below. The flyer also provides contact information at AIAA to obtain the necessary form.
The International Space Station (ISS) has encountered another problem with one of its coolant pumps. The 6-person crew is fine according to the agency.
In a statement, NASA said the pump on one of the two coolant loops shut down and flight controllers suspect a flow control valve malfunctioned. Some non-critical systems in Node 2 (Harmony), Japan's Kibo laboratory and Europe's Columbus laboratory were powered down.
NASA's Johnson Space Center (@NASA_Johnson) tweeted that one of the two external cooling loops automatically shut today because it got too cold.
Check back here for more details as they become available.
House Committee Approves Bill Requiring Congressional Approval Before Terminating JWST, ISS, SLS or Orion
The House Science, Space and Technology Committee approved today a bill that changes how NASA would manage termination of four of its major programs if such a decision were made. The committee first adopted an amendment that adds the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to the three human spaceflight programs covered in the original bill -- the International Space Station (ISS), the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion crew spacecraft.
The bill, H.R. 3625, initially had two major thrusts: to require the Administration to obtain congressional approval before terminating SLS, Orion or the ISS, and to prohibit contractors on those programs from setting aside appropriated funds to cover costs the government would have to pay in the event it did terminate any of those programs for the convenience of the government -- called termination liability costs.
Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) said when he introduced the bill that contractors on SLS, Orion and ISS are reserving a total of $507 million that Congress appropriated rather than using the money to implement those programs.
The committee was scheduled to mark up the bill on December 5 at the same time it considered three other unrelated bills. When it came time to mark up this bill, however, committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) announced that more time was needed for Republicans and Democrats to reach agreement and recessed the markup.
The markup was scheduled to resume yesterday, but government offices in Washington, DC were closed because of a snowstorm, so it was rescheduled for today.
The markup lasted less than 10 minutes and the amendment and bill were adopted by voice vote.
The major change made by the amendment, which was offered by Smith, is adding JWST to the list of programs covered by the bill. Smith said in his opening remarks that JWST was added at the request of Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), the top Democrat on the Space Subcommittee who represents a district in Maryland close to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center where JWST is managed. One section of the amendment states that although JWST is "making steady progress," it also "confronts a number of challenging integration tests that will stress a congressionally imposed development cost cap."
JWST has been very controversial because of significant cost overruns and schedule slips. In 2011, Congress imposed a cap of $8 billion for development of the spacecraft in the FY2012 appropriations act that included NASA (P.L. 112-55). The program has encountered a number of technical problems since then, but NASA insists that it has sufficient cost and schedule reserve that they will not impact the cost cap or the 2018 launch date. The language added by Edwards could be construed as suggesting that such optimism may not be warranted.
Another change made by the amendment replaces language that would have voided existing contract provisions that provide for payment of termination liability costs in a manner inconsistent with the bill. The new language simply states that funds being held in reserve for termination liability "shall be promptly used" for executing the program.
The bill also makes clear that it is the intent of Congress to authorize appropriations to cover termination liability if, in fact, Congress agrees that the Administration should terminate a contract and that it is the Administration's responsibility to spend such funds for that purpose.
Terminating contracts for the convenience of the government is rare. As the findings section of the bill states, in FY2010, the government terminated "28 of 16,343 active contracts and orders -- a termination rate of about 0.17 percent."
House and Senate budget conferees tasked with reaching a budget deal by December 13 surprised many not only by reaching agreement at all, but a few days early.
House Budget Committee chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget Committee chairman Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) announced today a two-year (FY2014-2015) budget agreement that replaces the sequester and sets government spending approximately mid-way between the amounts earlier approved separately by the House and Senate. The total amount of government spending recommended for FY2014 in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 is $1.012 trillion. The House had approved $967 billion while the Senate approved $1.058 trillion.
How those figures filter down to the 12 appropriations subcommittees and the individual agencies -- like DOD, NASA and NOAA -- they fund remains to be seen, but the fact that agreement was reached at all is a positive sign. Senate Appropriations Committee chair Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) lauded the agreement, saying it means "we can meet national security needs while meeting compelling human needs like education, health and housing." Mikulski's House counterpart, Rep. Harold Rogers (R-KY), similarly praised the deal, saying it took "courage and resolve."
The budget conferees had a December 13 deadline based on the agreement that reopened government in October. Few expected they would meet that deadline, much less beat it. The House and Senate still must agree to its recommendations. Then the House and Senate appropriations committees must agree on how to allocate those funds and get the approval of their respective chambers. That step must happen before January 15, 2014 when the current Continuing Resolution (CR) expires.
While the agreement is good news on gridlocked Capitol Hill, it is only for two years rather than 10, does not raise the debt limit (the current agreement on that expires on February 7), and does not reform either entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid or the tax code. If approved by the House and Senate, however, it should avoid another government shutdown and provide a framework for the appropriations committees to make funding decisions for two fiscal years.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden issued a statement clarifying NASA's position on flagship missions for use by senior agency officials attending the American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference in San Francisco this week.
As reported by SpacePolicyOnline.com, at a December 4 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council's Science Committee (NAC/Science), Bolden told the space and earth science communities that they should "stop thinking about ... flagship missions" because they are unaffordable in the current budget environment. Other news outlets including the Huntsville Times picked up on the story.
On December 10, NASAWatch.com editor Keith Cowing published a statement that had been written by Bolden that clarifies the agency's position, which is quite different from what Bolden expressed at the NAC/Science meeting. (H/T to Keith for publicizing its existence.)
In response to a subsequent request from SpacePolicyOnline.com for a copy of the statement and other information, NASA Associate Administrator for Communications David Weaver explained that the statement was written for agency leaders to use at AGU. "This was prepared for use by senior leaders attending the AGU conference this week and distributed to them -- and other agency leaders."
AGU is one of the major annual scientific conferences where results from NASA science missions, especially planetary science missions, are announced. All four divisions of NASA's Science Mission Directorate -- astrophysics, heliophysics, earth science and planetary science -- are feeling the budgetary strain, but the planetary science community has been hit particularly hard and is increasingly concerned about when they will be allowed to initiate a new flagship mission. Flagship missions are the most expensive (over $1 billion) and risky, but offer the greatest scientific reward.
Within planetary science, NASA is currently building the Mars2020 rover, which, based on its cost, is a flagship mission. However, it is being built largely using heritage technology and leftover parts from the Mars Curiosity rover. The planetary science community wants a new ground-breaking project such as a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa, which has a liquid ocean under an icy shell. Many also want a mission to the outer planets - beyond the asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter -- since NASA's current planetary science missions in that region of the solar system will complete their missions by 2017. A Europa mission has the support of key members of Congress and Congress added $75 million to NASA's FY2013 budget for concept studies. That is quite different, however, from coming up with more than $1 billion over the next several years to actually proceed with a mission in addition to everything else NASA is currently being asked to do.
Bolden's remarks to NAC/Science conveyed that such a mission is not in NASA's foreseeable future -- for planetary science or any of the other science disciplines. At that time, Bolden stressed the importance of having a reliable cadence of smaller missions that could be spread over a broader set of space and earth science objectives.
The text of Bolden's clarifying statement as provided by Weaver today is as follows:
Statement of Administrator Charles Bolden Re: NASA’s Commitment to Flagship Missions
"NASA remains committed to planning, launching and operating flagship missions that meet the challenging objectives of our science, technology and aeronautics communities as identified through decadal surveys, advisory groups, the Administration and Congress. We are dedicated to pursuing the most cost-effective ways to accomplish this goal in order to provide balance with an increased cadence of missions that vary in size, destination and complexity."
The chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees announced today that their committees, at least, have reached compromise on the FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The House passed its version in June, but the Senate version got stuck in partisan debate over amendments when it was brought to the floor for a vote just before Thanksgiving.
Republican House Armed Services Committees (HASC) chairman Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-CA) and Democratic Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) held a press conference today and released a fact sheet spelling out key aspects of the agreement. While it is only between the committees at this point and does not ensure the bill will clear Congress by the end of this week, it could speed the process along. The House currently plans to adjourn for the rest of the year on Friday.
The annual defense authorization bill is one of the few authorization bills that always clears Congress despite the depth of political gridlock. It enjoys a 51-year record of success because members of both parties on both sides of Capitol Hill consider defense issues to be such a high priority. Nonetheless, with the clock ticking, concern has been growing that this year might be the exception.
The plan apparently is for the House to pass the compromise bill this week before it leaves town and the Senate to pass it next week. However, that would mean no changes could be made in the Senate since the House no longer will be in session to approve a revised version. That could be a risky strategy since many Senators had amendments they wanted to offer to the SASC version of the bill. That was the main obstacle in getting it through the Senate last month. Still, if enough people want a bill, even one that is far from perfect, it could work. Or if there were relatively minor changes, it is conceivable that the House could reconvene to consider an amended version, perhaps hoping to pass it by voice vote so not all members would need to return to town.
In any case, the nine page fact sheet makes several statements about certain national security space issues, but provides little other detail. Under the heading Accountability for Vital Strategic Programs and Assets, it says:
Although the fact sheet does not provide details, the third bullet probably refers to the debate over whether monitor stations for Russia's GLONASS navigation satellite system should be placed in the United States as proposed by the State Department but opposed by DOD and CIA.
The bill would fund DOD at $552.1 billion for FY2014, plus another $80.7 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations (e.g. the war in Afghanistan).
A Chinese Long March 4B rocket failed to place a remote sensing satellite into orbit today, a rare launch failure for China.
The joint Chinese-Brazilian Ziyuan I-03 satellite lifted off from China's Taiyuan launch site at 11:26 am today, December 9, Beijing time (10:26 pm yesterday Eastern Standard Time). China's news agency Xinhua quoted unnamed sources, however, as saying "The rocket malfunctioned during the flight, and the satellite failed to enter orbit."
Ziyuan I-03 is also called CBERS-3. It is the latest in a series of Chinese-Brazilian satellites under the China-Brazil Earth Remote Sensing (CBERS) program. Ziyuan I-01 (CBERS-1), Ziyuan I-02 (CBERS-2), and Ziyuan I-02B (CBERS-2B) were launched in 1999, 2003, and 2007, respectively, according to the website of Brazil's space agency INPE. The satellite that was lost today carried what INPE describes as "the first satellite camera entirely developed and produced in Brazil" called MUX, which is a 20-meter resolution multispectral camera. NASASpaceflight.com lists three other sensors on the satellite, a Brazilian Panchromatic and Multispectral Camera (PanMUX), a Chinese Infrared System (IRS) and a Chinese Wide-Field Imager (WFI).
China has been enjoying a long string of launch successes. Its last failure of any version of the Long March was in August 2011 when a Long March 2C failed to place Shijian-11-04 into orbit. Jonathan McDowell's Jonathan's Space Report said a second stage engine malfunctioned in that case. The Long March 4B used today has not had a failure since 1999 according to SpaceflightNow.com.
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House and Senate both are in session.
During the Week
The House is scheduled to adjourn for the year on Friday; the Senate plans to be here one more week after that. If those schedules hold, this is the last week in 2013 that they both will be in session and thus able to get legislation passed and to the White House. Many Senators say that of all the pending legislation, they really want to get the FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed, but they didn't make much progress before the Thanksgiving break because of partisan disputes over amendments. The House passed its version in June. This is the one authorization bill that always gets through no matter how tough the political times -- a 51-year record. Will this year be the exception?
Friday, December 13, is not only the last scheduled day for the House to meet this year, but is also the deadline for the budget conference committee to reach agreement on federal funding for FY2014, at least. The conference committee was created as part of the deal to reopen the government in October and even at the time few were optimistic it would meet that deadline. Nothing has changed.
Lots of interesting events this week, including a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on "weather readiness" that includes Tom Young reporting on his Independent Review Team that is watching over NOAA's weather satellite programs. That's on Thursday at 10:30 am. Note that It's not in the committee's regular hearing room in the Russell Building, but in G-50 Dirksen. The previous day, a House subcommittee will hold a hearing on "A Factual Look at the Relationship Between Climate and Weather." The witnesses have not been announced yet, so it's not clear how much if any of that deals with satellite issues.
Separately, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee may resume its markup of the bill that affects how NASA handles termination liability for its major human spaceflight programs (SLS, Orion and ISS). The committee approved three bills on Thursday, but when it came to this one, chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) said more time was needed for Republicans and Democrats to work out their differences so the bill has bipartisan support. He tentatively set Tuesday at 2:00 pm EST to resume the markup, but it is not definite. At stake is how $507 million in the hands of contractors will be spent -- to execute the programs or held in reserve in case the government terminates the contracts.
Across the country in San Francisco all week, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) annual meeting is certain to be chock full of fascinating scientific findings. Many press conferences are scheduled and will be livestreamed. We created a list of those that are probably most interesting to the space community, but the full list is on the AGU website, so you can pick your own. That website has a tab labeled "Webstreaming." Click on that to listen in.
Meanwhile, the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and several of its committees are meeting down in Florida, at Kennedy Space Center. NASA is restructuring NAC, getting rid of three committees and merging a fourth (Commercial Space) into one of the remaining committees. The way NASA and NAC chairman Steve Squyres describe the situation it's a done deal, but there might be some discussion of why the decision was made and its implications. NAC itself meets on Wednesday and Thursday. The NAC meeting and most NAC committee meetings are available via WebEx and telecom. See our calendar entries for instructions on how to tune in. NASA has not posted an agenda for the NAC meeting yet. Hopefully it will before the meeting takes place. If so, it should be posted on the NAC website.
Those and many more meetings of interest are in the list below. These are the ones we know of as of Sunday morning. We're posting this a bit early today because there's a nasty ice storm coming this afternoon and there's a chance of losing power, so we wanted to get this up on the website before anything bad happens.
Monday, December 9
Monday-Tuesday, December 9-10
Monday-Friday, December 9-13
Tuesday, December 10
Tuesday-Wednesday, December 10-11
Wednesday, December 11
Wednesday-Thursday, December 11-12
Thursday, December 12
Friday, December 13
Events of Interest