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The House Science, Space and Technology Committee delayed its planned markup today of a bill that would affect how NASA handles termination liability for three of its major human spaceflight programs -- Orion, the Space Launch System (SLS), and the International Space Station (ISS). The committee did approve three other bills, but committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) said that committee Republicans and Democrats needed more time to work on this one. The markup was rescheduled for Tuesday.
The bill, H.R. 3625, was introduced by Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) earlier this week. The language originally appeared as sec. 702 of the committee's version of the 2013 NASA Authorization Act (H.R. 2687), which was approved by the committee on a party line vote in July, but has not been reported from the committee yet. The chances of that bill passing anytime soon is rather slim, and committee Republicans apparently are anxious to deal with this one issue sooner rather than later.
Early in today's markup session, Smith said that he supported an amendment to the bill by Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), the top Democrat on the Space Subcommittee, which gave the bill bipartisan support and he urged all members to vote for it. However, after completing action on the three other bills, Smith announced that more time was needed to iron out the language and the committee would recess for 10 minutes. When he returned, he said that Edwards and Brooks needed still more time and the committee would recess "likely" until Tuesday at 2:00 pm ET. Smith said he was confident Brooks and Edwards would reach agreement "because they have the same goals."
In a statement explaining the intent of the bill, Brooks said that a total of $507 million is being held by the Orion, SLS and ISS contractors against the possibility that the government might terminate the contracts. Government contracts include a provision that the contract can be cancelled at the convenience of the government and under Federal Acquisition Regulations the government is liable to pay certain costs if it does. In some cases funds are set aside to pay for those costs. Brooks wants that money spent on executing the programs rather than being held in reserve. The bill would also prohibit NASA from unilaterally cancelling the programs without congressional consent.
"According to NASA reports to Congress, as of October 2013, $192 million from SLS, $226 million from Orion, and $89 million from the Space Station are being held to cover termination liability costs that would otherwise be used to timely complete these scientific efforts," Brooks asserted. He added that "the issue of limiting funding for potential termination liability costs contributed to the Obama Administration's decision to cancel the Constellation program."
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden had a tough message for the space science community today – forget about flagship missions, they’re not affordable these days. At the very same time on Capitol Hill, however, the chairman of one of NASA’s key committees was expressing enthusiasm about a mission to Europa – unquestionably a flagship mission. The disconnect could not be more stark.
Flagship missions are NASA’s most expensive (over $1 billion) and risky space science missions, but offer exceptional scientific payoff.
Bolden stopped by the NASA Advisory Council’s (NAC’s) Science Committee this morning during a break in a meeting of his Strategic Management Council, composed of NASA leaders at Headquarters and its 10 centers around the country. By happenstance, his arrival interrupted a briefing on “lessons learned” from one of NASA’s most recent flagship missions – the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) with its Curiosity rover. Though Curiosity is a tremendous technological, scientific and public relations success, it was two years late and significantly over budget.
Bolden’s message to the NAC Science Committee was unambiguous: “We have to stop thinking about … flagship missions. … The budget doesn’t support that.” Bolden went on to explain that he and NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan have talked about “the importance of cadence,” flying “more, less expensive types of missions.” Noting that the science community has many interest groups and his job is "to find a way to be able to satisfy" them all, he said "increasing the cadence, letting them fly more, although smaller" missions is "an answer" though "it may not be the answer." Trying to win approval for flagship missions would mean “eternal battles” with the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), he said.
A few blocks away, by contrast, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee was holding a hearing on astrobiology -- the search for life elsewhere in the solar system and the universe. One of the witnesses, Steve Dick, responded to a question about what the goals should be for astrobiology by saying that he wants a voyage to Europa, a moon of Jupiter. Committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) said “I would too.”
Dick is the Baruch S. Blumberg chair of astrobiology at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress.
Scientists believe Europa has a liquid ocean under its icy crust. Where there’s water, there may be life. A mission to Europa was the second priority for large missions in the most recent National Research Council Decadal Survey on planetary science. Its $4.7 billion pricetag was one reason it was not at the top of the list. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has since developed a scaled down mission concept called Europa Clipper that it says will cost $2.1 billion instead. Even then, it definitely would count as a flagship mission.
NASA has not requested funding for Europa Clipper, but Congress appropriated $75 million in FY2013 for concept studies based largely on support from Smith’s fellow Texan John Culberson and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) who serve on the subcommittee that approves NASA’s appropriations. Today, Smith said that “I think Europa is already on the list, but we’ll have to expedite that.”
Republicans and Democrats alike were full of nothing but praise for NASA’s astrobiology program at today’s hearing. One member, Steve Palazzo (R-MS), who chairs the Space Subcommittee, did bring up the fiscal constraints that define the federal budget debate today and asked the witnesses how to choose among priorities, but Dick and his fellow witnesses – NASA’s Mary Voytek and MIT’s Sara Seager – demurred.
Dick and Voytek also cited Enceladus, a moon of Saturn that ejects plumes of water vapor, as a preferred destination to further astrobiology studies. That, too, would be a flagship mission.
Clearly, Congress has a strong interest in getting the scientific knowledge that comes from flagship missions. Whether it will provide NASA with the funds to pursue them on a year by year basis over many, many years is another question. The only way to get a new program into the budget for the long term is through the President’s budget request, which comes through OMB. As Bolden said, that is a challenge.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly stated the first name of the Congressman from California. He is Adam Schiff, not Steven Schiff. (The latter was a Congressman from New Mexico who served from 1989-1998. Our apologies for the brain freeze. At times like this we wonder if we've been in this business too long!).
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has decided to significantly restructure the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), which provides independent external advice to the agency. Three of the NAC's eight committees will be eliminated, including the Education and Public Outreach Committee, and the activities of a fourth -- the Commercial Space Committee -- will be merged with another.
NASA just renewed the NAC charter in October, making only minor changes to the number of times a year it meets (three instead of four) and reducing its level of funding. That renewal kept the same committees NAC has had since Bolden became Administrator: Aeronautics; Audit, Finance, and Analysis; Commercial Space; Education and Public Outreach; Human Exploration and Operations; Information Technology Infrastructure; Science; and Technology and Innovation.
A blog post by NAC Chairman Steve Squyres posted on NASA's website reveals a decision to eliminate three committees: Audit, Finance, and Analysis; Education and Public Outreach; and IT Infrastructure. Squyres distinguishes between the elimination of those three committees and the fate of the Commercial Space Committee, which he describes as being "merged" with the Human Exploration and Operations Committee.
The new committee lineup will be:
NAC will also set up two task forces -- one on STEM Education and another Big Data. They will have "a focused task and limited duration."
NAC reports to the NASA Administrator and every iteration of the NAC structure and membership reflects each Administrator's personal preferences on how he obtains advice. During Bolden's tenure, the membership of NAC has been the NAC chairman plus the chairs of the eight NAC committees he created. (The chairs of the National Research Council's Space Studies Board and Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board are ex officio members of NAC as well.)
Now, with only five committees, several 'at-large' members will be added. They are to provide "strategic insight and expert advice across the work of the entire Agency" according to Squyres.
Squyres says the decision was made after "a recent internal review" by Bolden. "The restructuring process ... will begin immediately and will be fully realized over the next several months. As Chairman of NAC, I'm looking forward to putting this new structure in place."
NAC's next meeting is at Kennedy Space Center, FL on December 11-12. A detailed agenda has not yet been posted, but an overall agenda posted in the Federal Register shows that it will discuss topics in each of the areas of the original eight committees except for commercial space.
SpaceX succeeded today in launching the SES-8 communications satellite. This was the company's third try -- or sixth depending on how one counts it.
Three attempts on November 25 and two on November 28 failed to leave the pad for a variety of technical reasons. Today's countdown, however, proceeded nominally and launch took place at 5:41 pm Eastern Standard Time (EST) from Cape Canaveral, FL.
SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 lifts off from Cape Canaveral, FL carrying SES-8 satellite, December 3, 2013. Photo credit: SpaceX
Getting off the launch pad was only the first step, though. The Falcon 9 v1.1's second stage had to reignite in order to continue boosting the satellite into its correct orbit. This is only the second flight of this version of the Falcon 9 and second stage reignition did not work on its inaugural launch in September. SpaceX ended live coverage of the launch prior to that critical event, providing updates only via Twitter and on its website. It tweeted (@SpaceX) at 6:12 pm ET that "#Falcon9 second stage restart burn successful. Orbit looks nominal."
SES-8 is owned by Luxembourg-based SES, one of the largest communications satellite operators in the world with a fleet of 54 satellites, not including this one.
The Falcon 9 v1.1's job is to place SES-8 into a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) at 295 x 80,000 kilometers (km). The satellite eventually will be circularized into geostationary orbit (GEO) at 35,800 km using other propulsion.
SpaceX spokeswoman Emily Shanklin tells SpacePolicyOnline.com this morning that they will try to launch SES-8 tomorrow, Tuesday, December 3, not today. Earlier the company had said that today was the "earliest" it would be ready to try again.
In an email, Shankin said that "we're now targeting launch on Tuesday with Wednesday as a back-up day. We made great progress over the weekend so looks good for Tuesday."
SpaceX made three attempts on November 25 and two attempts on November 28 to launch the SES-8 communications satellite. This is SpaceX's first launch to geostationary transfer orbit. On November 28, the autosequencer aborted the launch at the very last instant. SpaceX reported on its website that it was "caused by oxygen in the ground side ingiter fluid (TEA-TEB). Rocket engines are healthy, but cleaning turbopump gas generators wlll take another day. Earliest possible launch attempt is Monday evening."
SpaceX founder and CTO Elon Musk tweeted (@elonmusk) yesterday that they "Replaced gas generator on engine 9 (center) as a precautionary measure." This morning he tweeted that "All known rocket anomalies resolved. Will spend another day rechecking to be sure. Launch attempt tmrw eve w Wed as backup."
Shanklin added later than the launch window tomorrow is 5:41 - 6:47 pm ET.
UPDATE, DECEMBER 2, 2013: The House passed the bill 376-5. All five "nays" were Republican. Of the ayes, 201 were Republican and 175 were Democrat. Fifty members did not vote: 25 Republicans and 25 Democrats.
ORIGINAL STORY, DECEMBER 1, 2013: The House is scheduled to debate and vote on H.R. 3547 tomorrow. It would extend the FAA's authority to indemnify commercial space launch services companies from certain levels of liability for third party claims that could arise from a launch accident. FAA's current authority expires on December 31.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee, would extend the indemnification authority for one year. It is listed first of three bills due to be considered under suspension of the rules tomorrow on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's website. The House meets at 2:00 pm ET, but votes are delayed until 6:00 pm ET.
The liability indemnification provision was originally enacted in 1988 and has been extended numerous times since then. It was due to expire last year, and at the last minute Congress extended it for one more year. Hence it is again about to expire.
The launch services and communications satellite industries are anxious to get the indemnification authority extended and want a longer extension or, better yet, to make the provision permanent. The bill was introduced shortly after a House SS&T hearing on this and other commercial space issues on November 20. In a joint statement, Smith and Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), chairman of the Space Subcommittee, said they wanted a longer extension, but the top Democrat on the full committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and the top Democrat on the Space Subcommittee, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), said they wanted more hearings before deciding to extend for more than one year.
The Senate version of the bill (S. 1753) would extend it for three years.
This article has been corrected since its original publication. See note at end.
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House is in session. The Senate is in recess, scheduled to return next week.
During the Week
Tomorrow (Monday), the House is scheduled to vote on the bill (H.R. 3547) to extend third party liability indemnification for one year. It is the first of three bills to be considered under suspension of the rules. The House meets at 2:00 pm ET, but votes are postponed until 6:00 pm.
Also tomorrow, SpaceX may try again to launch the SES-8 communications satellite. Three attempts on Monday, November 25, and two on Thursday (Thanksgiving Day) didn't succeed for various reasons. The company has not officially announced a new launch date and time, saying only that Monday is the earliest it will go. The launch window is open from 5:41 - 7:07 pm ET if they are, indeed, ready to try again. A lot is riding on the success of this launch.
Also during the week, hopefully members of the budget conference committee will be trying to find a solution to the nation's deficit situation so the FY2014 budget, at least, can be finalized even if they cannot reach agreement on a long term solution. Whatever hope there was -- and it wasn't much -- is fading, however, as the committee's December 13 deadline nears. December 13 is also the last day the House is scheduled to be in session for this year. Since the Senate does not return until December 9, there is little time for anything to happen. The current Continuing Resolution expires on January 15, 2014, the day that another round of sequester cuts takes effect if Congress does not act to stop it. The story hasn't changed -- no one likes the sequester, but no agreement appears achievable on an alternative because Democrats want to reduce the deficit through a combination of spending cuts and tax increases while Republicans want only spending cuts.
Many House committees are holding hearings on Obamacare this week, but the House Science, Space and Technology Committee will have one on a more uplifting subject -- astrobiology -- on Wednesday.
Those and other events we know of as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Monday, December 2
Tuesday, December 3
Tuesday-Wednesday, December 3-4
Wednesday, December 4
Wednesday-Thursday, December 4-5
Thursday, December 5
Friday, December 6
CORRECTION: In an earlier version, we mistakenly listed the WSBR luncheon with Stephane Israel for December 4. Instead it was December 3. Our apologies.
China successfully launched the Chang'e-3 lunar probe today, December 1, on time at 12:30 pm Eastern Standard Time (December 2, 1:30 am in Beijing). The probe is China's first that is designed to make a survivable landing on the Moon and will deploy a 6-wheeled rover named Yutu.
Chang'e is China's mythological goddess of the Moon, who travels with her pet rabbit, Yutu, hence the name of the rover.
The European Space Agency is helping China track the probe and says that arrival in lunar orbit is expected on December 6 and landing on December 14.
This is China's third lunar probe. Chang'e-1 in 2007 orbited the Moon and was commanded to impact the Moon after its mission was completed. Chang'e-2, launched in 2010, orbited the Moon and then was redirected to encounter the asteroid Toutatis. It continues its journey in space and is currently 60 million kilometers from Earth.
Many countries have launched probes to flyby, impact, orbit or land on the Moon: the United States, Russia/Soviet Union, Japan, and India, as well as the European Space Agency. The Soviet Union landed two robotic rovers and three robotic sample return missions.
The United States is the only country to land not ony robotic spacecraft on the Moon, but people. Six two-man Apollo crews landed on the Moon between 1969 and 1972. The last three Apollo crews (Apollo 15, 16, and 17) brought rovers -- "moon buggies" -- with them that they used to traverse greater distances that could be covered on foot.
China plans to launch its first lunar rover early tomorrow afternoon (Sunday) Eastern Standard Time (Monday, December 2, Beijing time). Chang'e-3 is the country's third lunar probe, but the first designed to make a survivable landing on the surface and it will deliver a 6-wheeled rover.
Launch on a Long March-3B rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center is scheduled for 12:30 pm EST (1730 GMT, or 1:30 am Monday in Beijing). Chang'e is China's mythological goddess of the Moon. The rover is named Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, after Chang'e's pet white rabbit. China says there are two narrow launch windows each day for three consecutive days.
The lander is equipped with cameras and a near-ultraviolet telescope. The rover has a radar attached to its bottom that will "explore 100 to 200 meters beneath the moon's surface" according to China's press service Xinhua.
As its designation implies, this is China's third robotic lunar mission. Chang'e-1 was launched in October 2007 and orbited the Moon until March 2009 when it was commanded to crash into the surface. Chang'e-2, launched in October 2010, also orbited the Moon, taking 1.5 meter resolution images of Sinus Iridum, the site where Chang'e-3 will land. When Chang'e-2's primary mission was completed, the spacecraft was redirected to fly to the asteroid Toutatis where it collected 10-meter imagery. That spacecraft is currently 60 million kilometers (km) from Earth and China expects to stay in contact with it until it reaches 300 million km.
The plan is for Chang'e-3 to land on the lunar surface at Sinus Iridum in mid-December. It is powered by a plutonium-238 radioisotope thermal generator (RTG). NASA has used RTGs for decades for spacecraft that journey too far from the Sun or spend long periods of "night" on the Moon or planetary surfaces to use solar power. This is the first time China is using one, however.
The European Space Agency (ESA) will help China track Chang'e-3 and reports that the spacecraft will reach lunar orbit on December 6 and land on December 14.
Since the beginning of the Space Age in the late 1950s, many, many robotic spacecraft have been sent to fly by, impact, orbit or land on the Moon by a number of countries. Only the United States, however, has landed people there.
The Soviet Union was the first country to send a probe to the Moon successfully, in 1959. That began an intense robotic lunar program that lasted until 1976 and included three sample return missions (Luna 16, 20 and 24) and two rovers (Lunokhod 1 and 2). Lunokhod 2, launched in 1973, still holds the record for the longest distance traveled by a robotic rover on the Moon or Mars. Measurements using recent high resolution images taken by the U.S. Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) of Lunokhod-2's tracks show that it traveled 42 km (26 miles). NASA's Opportunity rover on Mars is getting close -- it has traveled about 38 km (24 miles). The distance China expectes Yutu to traverse has not been made public.
The United States also successfully launched many robotic spacecraft to the Moon in the 1960s, including several landers in the Surveyor series, but they paled in comparison to the six landings of astronauts -- Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17 between 1969 and 1972. The last three crews (Apollo 15, 16, and 17) had rovers -- "moon buggies" -- to take them further from their landing sites than possible on foot. In total, the Apollo crews returned over 380 kilograms of lunar material to Earth for study (by comparison, the three robotic Soviet sample return missions brought back a total of 330 grams).
The Soviet Union's Luna 24 in 1976, the final sample return mission, was the last spacecraft to make a survivable lunar landing. From that point until the mid-1990s, there was little interest in the Moon Then, beginning with Clementine in 1994, the United States resumed robotic lunar exploration using orbiters. Two are operating there today: LRO, launched in 2009, and the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), launched in September and quite recently placed into its operational lunar orbit.
Others that have launched lunar orbiters are the European Space Agency (SMART-1,2004), Japan (Kaguya, 2007), and India (Chandrayaan-1, 2008). None of those is operating any longer. Nor are the U.S. Lunar Prospector or GRAIL missions, which were commanded to impact the lunar surface at the end of their missions (as did SMART-1, the LCROSS probe launched with LRO, and an impact probe launched with Chandrayaan-1).
China's plans to send a series of robotic probes to the Moon are not new. Almost a decade ago it announced a three-step plan for a spacecraft to orbit the Moon in 2007, a rover in 2010, and a sample return mission around 2020. It achieved the first goal with Chang'e-1, but, based on that schedule, is three years late with its rover.
India's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) successfully fired its engine for 23 minutes today, November 30 Eastern Standard Time (EST; December 1 Indian Standard Time), to begin its 10 month trek to Mars.
MOM, or Mangalyaan-1 as it is sometimes called, has been circling Earth since launch on November 5. A series of engine burns gradually raised the orbit until it was in the proper position for trans-Mars injection (TMI) -- the engine burn conducted today.
Arrival at Mars is scheduled for September 2014. MOM will enter an elliptical, rather than circular, orbit around Mars that is 350 x 80,000 kilometers. MOM carries five scientific instruments, including one that will search for methane in the atmosphere, but is primarily a technology test to demonstrate that India can build and launch a spacecraft that attains Martian orbit. If successful, it will be the first Asian country to do so. Japan's attempt to place a spacecraft (Nozomi) in orbit around Mars failed. China had a small orbiter (Yinghuo-1) on Russia's doomed Phobos-Grunt mission.
Europe, Russia/Soviet Union and the United States have successfully placed spacecraft in Martian orbit. The U.S. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Odyssey spacecraft, and Europe's Mars Express, are currently operating there, and NASA's MAVEN is on the way (it will arrive at Mars about the same time as MOM). Only the United States has successfully landed spacecraft on the surface. Two are currently operating: Opportunity and Curiosity. Several other U.S. and Russian/Soviet Mars probes, and one other European Mars spacecraft, failed.
Wary planetary scientists joke about the Galactic Ghoul, a monster inhabiting space that eats Mars-bound spacecraft. Time will tell if MOM avoids it.
Events of Interest