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NASA Chooses Plucky Option B for Asteroid Redirect Mission

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Mar-2015 (Updated: 25-Mar-2015 05:24 PM)

NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot announced today that NASA has selected "Option B" for implementing its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). Option B involves plucking a boulder from the surface of a large asteroid and moving just the boulder to lunar orbit.  The alternative, Option A, was to move an entire small asteroid.

The ARM project involves sending a robotic probe to an asteroid and moving all or part of it to lunar orbit where it can be visited by astronauts on an Orion spacecraft.  Today's announcement was about the robotic portion of the mission and follows completion yesterday of a Mission Concept Review (MCR).  ARM now transitions into "Phase A" planning where NASA will refine the concept.  Lightfoot said the next major step will take place in July when officials meet to discuss how to acquire the solar electric propulsion (SEP) system -- in-house or through contractors -- needed for the robotic spacecraft.

Under the preliminary plan, NASA will choose which asteroid to visit in 2019, send the robotic probe in 2020, reach the asteroid and go into a halo orbit around it for 215-400 days to assess which boulders look most promising and then pluck one from the surface and move it to lunar orbit using SEP.  In 2025, an astronaut crew aboard an Orion spacecraft will collect a sample and return it to Earth.  Three asteroids are under serious consideration right now, but NASA is continuing to search for candidates and can wait until 2019 to make a final selection.

Today, NASA said asteroid 2008 EV-5 looks the most promising.  It is a carbonaceous chondrite, the type of asteroid of most interest to scientists.  No spacecraft has visited that asteroid yet, but its characteristics are well known.   The other two asteroids either have been or will be visited by spacecraft before the ARM mission launches:  Itokawa, visited by Japan's Hayabusa, and Bennu, the target for NASA's OSIRIS-REx scheduled for launch in 2016.

NASA repeatedly says that ARM will cost $1.25 billion, but that is only for the robotic portion of the mission, does not include launch costs, and it is not entirely clear what costs are included.   NASA describes ARM funding in two categories:  "leveraged" and "direct" funding.  Leveraged funding is money that NASA asserts it would spend even if there was no ARM mission, while direct funding is unique to ARM.   Of the $220 million NASA is requesting for ARM in FY2016, only $43 million is identified as direct funding; the rest is leveraged, including the sum for SEP.   Lightfoot said he could not break down the $1.25 billion in those terms, but expects SEP to cost $300 million of the $1.25 billion so he seems to include that in the mission's cost estimate even though NASA counts it as leveraged funding.   The situation should become more clear in the FY2017 budget submission next year.

Lightfoot was poised to reveal the Option A versus B choice in December, but when it came time for the press conference, said only that more time was needed.   NASA has not publicly stated what came up at the last minute. Rumors are that Option B was the choice then, too.  The December press conference was announced with 6 hours notice; today's notice was only 2 hours and the briefing was exactly at the same time as Dava Newman's nomination to be NASA Deputy Administrator was being considered by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee (it was approved by the committee).

Lightfoot said today that Option B has several factors in its favor: multiple targets to choose from because whatever asteroid is selected is expected to have many boulders, reducing mission risk; the spacecraft will orbit the asteroid for several months, allowing a demonstration of the gravitational effect a spacecraft can have on a large asteroid, which is relevant to planetary defense objectives (the ability to move an asteroid that threatens Earth); even though it will cost $100 million more than Option A, the technologies are more useful ("extensible") for human missions to Mars, NASA's long term goal; and there was more interest in Option B from domestic and international, traditional and non-traditional, entities responding to a NASA Request for Information (RFI) about ARM.  The spacecraft bus in particular, he said, has "tremendous applicability" to various industries from communications satellites to space tugs.

ARM remains a very controversial project.  It evolved from President Obama's April 2010 directive to NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid as the next step in U.S. human spaceflight instead of sending people back to the lunar surface as President George W. Bush planned.   In 2013, the Obama Administration decided instead to bring an asteroid to the astronauts, but many question the value of such a mission in its own right or as a step towards eventual human missions to Mars.


Palazzo Wins Seat on Key Appropriations Panel

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Mar-2015 (Updated: 25-Mar-2015 06:55 AM)

Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS), who recently captured a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, has been assigned to the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA and NOAA.   He has been serving as chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee's Subcommittee on Space, which authorizes NASA activities , but his position gives him much more power to determine how much money NASA and NOAA get and how they may spend it.

Palazzo also was assigned to the subcommittees on Agriculture and on Legislative Branch.

Palazzo represents the district that includes NASA's Stennis Space Center where rocket engines are tested.  He has shown himself to be a strong supporter of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion programs and less than enthusiastic about the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).  He spearheaded a NASA authorization bill two years ago that would have prohibited spending money on ARM and significantly cut NASA's earth science program.   That bill was approved by his subcommittee and the full committee on partisan lines and never reached the floor for the debate. Since then, he has worked with subcommittee Ranking Member Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) to craft bipartisan bills -- the 2014 NASA Authorization Act and the 2015 NASA Authorization Act -- that passed the House, but not the Senate (so far, at least, for 2015).

Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) chairs the CJS subcommittee.  The other Republicans on the CJS subcommittee are Rep. Robert Adeholt (R-AL), John Carter (R-TX), Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA), Martha Roby (R-AL), and David Jolly (R-FL).

Authorization committees like House SS&T set policy and recommend funding levels, but do not actually provide funding.   Money is allocated to federal departments and agencies through appropriations bills.   See our fact sheet What's a Markup for more information on the distinctions between these types of committees.

What's Happening in Space Policy March 23-27, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Mar-2015 (Updated: 21-Mar-2015 01:47 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events coming up for the week of March 23-27, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate will be in session.

During the Week

Another busy week in the space policy business is coming up.   In the NASA realm, the Senate Commerce Committee's expected approval of Dava Newman's nomination to be NASA Deputy Administrator on Wednesday surely is at the top of the list.  It is only one step in the process, and the challenge of getting anyone's nomination through the Senate these days is all too apparent, but the fact that the committee did not see a need to hold a hearing on the nomination is a good sign. 

Perhaps -- but just perhaps -- even bigger news will come from the Mission Concept Review (MCR) for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).  A NASA spokesman says the MCR is on Tuesday (it is not open to the public), but still cannot forecast whether it will result in the long awaited announcement of whether Option A or Option B won the toss for how to implement the mission.  NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot planned to reveal the decision in December, but ultimately announced that more time was needed.   NASA CFO David Radzanowski said the day the FY2016 budget request was released in February that the choice could be announced in days, at the MCR, or afterwards, he simply did not know.  Lightfoot is scheduled to speak at Thursday's USRA/Space Policy Institute symposium, which is about Near Earth Objects (NEOs) -- asteroids and comets -- and other small bodies in the solar system, an opportunity to share the results of the MCR, though it is not clear he will do so.  The symposium has a lot of other very interesting speakers, too.  Unfortunately, we're told it will not be webcast.

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee's hearing on Tuesday about the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) should be especially interesting with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's John Mather there to talk about the science JWST will be able to accomplish.  Mather, a Nobel Prize winner in Physics and JWST's Senior Project Scientist, is exceptionally good at conveying to a non-scientific audience what we do and don't know about the universe, why we need to know more, and how JWST will move us along that path.   NASA science head John Grunsfeld will also be there, along with Cristina Chaplain from GAO and Jeffrey Grant from Northrop Grumman, JWST's prime contractor.  Grunsfeld, an astrophysicist and former astronaut who repaired the Hubble Space Telescope on three shuttle missions, also excels at communicating science to non-scientists, but probably will be handling programmatic questions about whether JWST will meet its cost and schedule targets (its previous cost overruns and delays are legendary).

On the military space front, the House Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing specifically on the FY2016 budget request for national security space activities.  Several hearings have already touched on some of those issues, including last week's hearing on assured access to space, but this is focused on the entire national security space enterprise with a who's who of its leadership in the military and intelligence communities.

Lots more on tap, too, including the launch of Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko on their one-year mission to ISS. 

Here is list of all the events we are aware of as of Saturday afternoon.

Monday, March 23

Tuesday, March 24

Tuesday-Thursday, March 24-26

Wednesday, March 25

Thursday, March 26

Thursday-Friday, March 26-27

Friday, March 27

Dava Newman's Nomination Scheduled for Committee Action Next Week

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Mar-2015 (Updated: 20-Mar-2015 06:29 PM)

The nomination of MIT professor Dava Newman to be Deputy Administrator of NASA is on the agenda of the Senate Commerce Committee's executive session next week.   The committee did not hold a hearing on her nomination,a signal that there is no strong opposition to it.

The committee will mark up five bills and three nominations, including Newman's.  The agenda posted on the committee's website notes that  "all bills under consideration enjoy bipartisan support."

The three top political positions at NASA -- Administrator, Deputy Administrator and Chief Financial Officer (CFO) -- are subject to Senate confirmation.   Administrator Bolden was confirmed in July 2009.    CFO David Radzanowski's nomination went directly to the Senate floor with no action by the committee, and was approved by the Senate in September 2014.

Newman was originally nominated by President Obama in October 2014 and the nomination was resent to the Senate at the beginning of this Congress.   She is a Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems at MIT and perhaps best known for her work designing spacesuits for use on the surface of Mars.  She is also director of MIT's Technology and Policy Program, Director of the MIT Portugal Program, co-director of the Man-Vehicle Laboratory at MIT, and a Harvard-MIT Health, Sciences and Technology faculty member.

 MIT Professor Dava Newman.   Photo Credit:  MIT

If confirmed, she would be the third woman to serve in that position, succeeding Shana Dale and Lori Garver.   The position has been vacant since Garver left in September 2013.

The Senate committee's executive session is scheduled for 2:30 pm ET on March 25, 2015.

NOAA's Sullivan: PFO New Way To Buy Satellites After Wirebrushing From Tom Young Panel

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Mar-2015 (Updated: 20-Mar-2015 12:26 AM)

NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan explained to a House appropriations subcommittee yesterday that its proposal for a new Polar Follow On (PFO) satellite program is the result of advice from an Independent Review Team (IRT) chaired by Tom Young that “really wirebushed us” for procuring satellites ineffectively.  During the same discussion, subcommittee chairman John Culberson suggested that he thinks NOAA should let NASA build its satellites.

NOAA is requesting $380 million in FY2016 to initiate the PFO program, which would begin building instruments for the third and fourth Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) spacecraft, JPSS-3 and JPSS-4.  That figure includes $10 million for an Earth Observing Nanosatellite-Microwave (EON-MW) microwave sounder.   PFO is a portion of the $2.2 billion request for satellite programs at NOAA, which is part of the Department of Commerce.

Sullivan said Young and Tom Moorman, another member of the IRT, “wirebrushed us really properly, but also thoroughly, over the fact that we were buying these systems in about as dumb a way as you possibly could.”  After doing all the design and engineering and getting the supply chain in place, one satellite is produced.  Then a few years later the government says it needs another one and we “incur all those expenses again.  It’s exactly the wrong way to buy any complex system and certainly satellites.”

The IRT also convinced NOAA that it needs “robustness” in its satellite systems so there is no concern about gaps in coverage in the future as there is now.   She described robustness as a weather satellite system that can tolerate one failure and still support weather forecasting and the missing capability could be replaced in about a year.  Since the greatest risk is launch, at the time one satellite is being launched, ideally its successor should be already built.   “If we don’t start right about now on those next two [JPSS] spacecraft, we will be repeating the prospect of a big gap like we’re looking at now,” she said.

The hearing before the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee on March 18, 2015 was chaired by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX).   Culberson asked Sullivan for her estimate of the chances that there will be gap in coverage before the first JPSS is launched in 2017 and if that launch can be moved up.

The potential length of the gap is controversial.   After years of issuing dire warning to Congress about the likelihood of a lengthy gap, the head of NOAA’s satellite division, Steve Volz, conveyed a very different message at a February 2015 hearing before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing.   Volz downplayed the chances that there would be any gap.  His statements were met with surprise and disbelief by fellow witness David Powner, the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO’s) expert on NOAA’s weather satellites.  Powner asked that NOAA’s new estimate be put down in writing.

Yesterday, Sullivan tried her best to avoid answering the question, calling it a “pretty random exercise” that depends on “what probability” one wants to use.  As for moving up the launch of JPSS-1, she said NOAA has “turned over every rock” and asked its vendors what could be done and the answer is that a new “slug of money” will not help.

Culberson seemed primarily interested in the NASA-NOAA relationship and implied that he thinks NASA should be in charge of building the weather satellites instead of NASA, though he did not say that explicitly and told Sullivan he wanted to have further discussions with her about it.

“It seems to me logically [that] you should just let NASA build the spacecraft for you.  And NOAA obviously would be the customer and provide funding, but NASA does a pretty good job,” he said.

NOAA manages the nation’s civil weather satellite programs, setting the requirements for those satellites, managing the programs, and operating the satellites.   It uses NASA as its acquisition agent whereby NASA contracts with companies to build the instruments and spacecraft and to launch the spacecraft.  NOAA reimburses NASA for those costs.  Culberson seemed to be suggesting that NASA should play a bigger role than simply as an acquisition agent.

The Obama Administration is already requesting that some NOAA activities be shifted to NASA.   Conversely, others in Congress, including Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) of the Senate Commerce subcommittee that oversees NASA, make the argument that NASA should focus on space exploration, not earth science.

Culberson also asked about the $10 million request (part of the $380 million for PFO) for an EON-MW.  Sullivan explained it is a possible avenue towards getting smaller, lighter, less expensive microwave sounders and NOAA is talking to NASA about co-investing in it.

The hearing was about NOAA’s total FY2016 request and most of the questions were about other issues, not satellites. 

NASA IG: SLS, Orion, Ground Systems Interdependency Creates Unique Challenges

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Mar-2015 (Updated: 18-Mar-2015 02:50 PM)

NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) is concerned about the interdependencies among the three elements of NASA's effort to build a system to take humans beyond low Earth orbit -- the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion spacecraft, and their Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) -- especially the timing of conducting Critical Design Reviews (CDRs) for each of them.  The GSDO CDR was going to be first, but the OIG thought it should be last.  NASA agreed and switched the order, but also warned the OIG that there might be delays in those for Orion and SLS.  Thus, the OIG remains concerned that the CDRs be conducted in the most effective order.

GSDO is the ground infrastructure at Kennedy Space Center needed to support SLS and Orion. NASA already has spent $975 million on GSDO and plans to spend another $2.4 billion over the next 5 years.   The OIG report concluded that GSDO is making steady progress, but "significant technical and programmatic challenges remain to meet a November 2018 launch date."

The OIG's major concern is getting the timing aligned for all three elements:  SLS, Orion and GSDO.   The interdependencies among the three create unique challenges "particularly since NASA historically has used a single program structure to manage similar efforts such as Apollo and the Space Shuttle."  NASA has identified 462 interdependencies and 295 (62.8 percent) have been resolved, the OIG reports.

When it began its investigation, the OIG says, NASA planned to conduct the CDR for GSDO before those for SLS or Orion.  Because the three elements are so interdependent, though, it recommended that NASA reconsider performing the GSDO CDR first.   NASA agreed and rescheduled the CDRs so GSDO would be last instead of first.  The new plan is to conduct the CDR for SLS in July 2015, for Orion in October 2015 and for GSDO in December 2015.  

NASA informed the OIG, however, that the dates for the SLS and Orion CDRs could slip and GSDO could once again be first in the queue.  Thus the OIG remains concerned. 

The report notes that the original launch date for SLS was December 2017 and the 11-month slip to November 2018 increased the GSDO cost by $208 million above its baseline estimate of $2.6 billion. 

It should be noted that although the OIG report states in several places that NASA committed to the first launch of SLS in November 2018, that is actually a launch readiness date.   Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, carefully distinguishes between a launch readiness date (when the systems will be ready to fly) and a launch date (when the launch will actually take place).  He explains that because Orion has not yet completed its Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C) review, NASA cannot commit to a launch date.  Instead, it is committed to having SLS and GSDO ready by November 2018 -- their launch readiness date.  The launch date will be determined after Orion's KDP-C is finished. The Orion capsule that will be used for that first flight of SLS, called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), will not carry a crew.


HASC Grills Company and Government Officials on Space Launch, But No Clear Solution

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Mar-2015 (Updated: 18-Mar-2015 03:09 PM)

A lengthy House subcommittee hearing with top officials from the government and private sector yesterday (March 17) left as many questions as answers on how to assure “assured access” to space for national security satellites.  Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) remarked at one point “The more I learn, the more confused I get.”  Maj. Gen. Howard “Mitch” Mitchell (Ret.) offered perhaps the sagest advice, recommending a new Space Launch Modernization Plan be developed, akin to the Moorman study of the 1990s.

Sanchez’s statement is a succinct exposition of what came out of the hearing before the Strategic Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), which featured two panels.  The first was composed of United Launch Alliance (ULA) President Tory Bruno and SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell.  The second was mostly government witnesses:  Katharina McFarland, DOD assistant secretary for acquisition; William LaPlante, Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition; Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command; and Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Howard “Mitch” Mitchell, who now works for the Aerospace Corporation, but was testifying in his personal capacity as chairman of last year’s study group on alternatives to the RD-180 engine (the “Mitchell Commission”).

The hearing, scheduled to begin at 3:30 pm ET, started 45 minutes late because the members were on the House floor casting votes.  Once it began, opening statements by members and witnesses were brief, but the question-and-answer period was extensive and the hearing lasted until 6:30 pm ET with subcommittee chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) finally drawing it to a close even though he seemed to have many more questions that he wished to pose.

That pretty well characterizes the hearing – leaving as many questions as answers.  One interesting aspect was the change in tone between witnesses for SpaceX (Shotwell)  and Air Force Space Command (Hyten) who, while on different panels, sang each other’s praises after a bruising year in which SpaceX sued the Air Force for awarding ULA a sole-source contract in 2013.  SpaceX dropped the suit in January after a settlement was reached.  The terms of the settlement were sealed by the judge, but whatever they are, the two parties seem determined to present a united public face now.   (Rogers asked whether SpaceX or ULA would have any objection to the subcommittee seeing the terms of the agreement. Shotwell and Bruno each said it was fine with them, but only the court could make that decision.)

Shotwell emphasized again and again that SpaceX and the Air Force are working “shoulder to shoulder” to get the Falcon 9 certified to compete for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV)-class launches.  Air Force officials publicly promised during 2014 that certification would be completed by that December, but it was delayed and now is expected by June.   For his part, Hyten lauded SpaceX and said that people who might have bet against the company meeting its goals in the past would have lost.  Although he joined other government witnesses in agreeing that Shotwell’s expectation that SpaceX’s new Falcon Heavy rocket will be ready to launch national security satellites by 2018 is optimistic, he said SpaceX has been “amazing, so I won’t say it’s impossible.”  He also downplayed a statement made by Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James at an earlier hearing where she mentioned that some of the SpaceX launches experienced anomalies.  Hyten acknowledged that SpaceX has had some problems, which are “proprietary,” but “we’ve had the same things with Atlas and Delta.”  The key is that all of the launches were “mission successes,” he stressed.

The issues debated at the hearing basically are how to end U.S. reliance on Russia’s RD-180 engines, used for ULA’s Atlas V rocket, and how to create competition in the U.S. national security space launch marketplace.  ULA has almost exclusively launched U.S. national security satellites on the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets since it was created in 2006 as a joint company owned 50-50 by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, the two companies that had been providing those launch services on Atlas and Delta respectively.  The creation of ULA was driven by market factors and government requirements.

An archived webcast is available on the committee’s website.  The central questions were:

  • Does language in Section 1608 of the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requiring DOD to build a new American-made propulsion system by 2019 to replace Russia’s RD-180 create the possibility of a “gap” in the U.S. ability to launch national security satellites in the 2018-2022 time frame because
    • ULA has decided to discontinue the medium/intermediate versions of the Delta IV around 2018 because they are too expensive to compete in the current marketplace (they are often referred to as the “single stick” version of Delta IV);
    • Atlas V would no longer be available;
    • SpaceX’s new Falcon Heavy is not likely to be ready by then; and
    • Therefore only the Delta IV Heavy would be available for national security launches and they would be prohibitively expensive
  • Does Section 1608 need to be clarified so ULA can use all of the RD-180 engines it currently plans to buy from Russia because the Air Force is interpreting the law such that only a small number would be permitted (the number is widely cited as five, but the government witnesses did not specify it in their statements).

Overall, many of the subcommittee members and all of the witnesses other than SpaceX seemed to want Congress to change Section 1608 to allow RD-180 engines to be used for the Atlas V until 2021-2022 when ULA’s Next Generation Launch System (NGLS) with an American-made engine is ready.   SpaceX’s position is that no more RD-180s are needed because its Falcon 9 and new Falcon Heavy – which it plans to launch for the first time later this year -- can provide the launch capability and redundancy needed to assure U.S. access to space after 2018.

Section 1608 requires DOD to develop an American replacement for Russia’s RD-180 engines by 2019, but it also contains a number of waivers that seem to add flexibility if an American replacement is not ready by then.  Nonetheless, the witnesses other than SpaceX clearly view 2019 as a hard cut-off date and want it extended.  Also, Air Force acquisition official LaPlante explained in his written statement that the language allows use only of RD-180s that were purchased or included in a legally binding contract prior to February 1, 2014 (when Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula) and according to the documentation DOD has available “only a small number of engines actually meet that statutory language.”   DOD wants Congress to clarify that all of the RD-180 engines intended to be purchased under ULA’s current contract can be utilized.

ULA’s Development of New Engines – BE-4 and AR1

Last fall, ULA and Blue Origin announced that they are partnering to develop the BE-4 rocket engine, which uses methane as fuel, as an RD-180 alternative.  At the hearing, Bruno said that ULA also has a “backup” plan with Aerojet Rocketdyne to develop the AR1, which uses traditional kerosene.  Bruno said the BE-4 is three years ahead of AR1 in development and ULA will choose one of the two to pursue in 2016 or 2017.  The new engine would be used for ULA’s NGLS that ultimately will replace both Atlas and Delta.  Whichever engine is chosen, the NGLS will require a significant redesign of tankage and launch pad modifications.

Bruno asserted that the engine development is “largely privately funded.”  “I do not require government funding, but there are wise investments the government can make to reduce risk and I won’t say no to help,” he said.

An interesting wrinkle in the discussion came up late in the hearing when subcommittee chairman Rogers made clear that what he wants is an American version of the RD-180, not a new engine that would require changes to the rest of the Atlas V rocket or launch pads.  LaPlante said that “we build the rocket around the engine” and Mitchell explained that “you can’t jack up the Atlas V and put in a new engine,” but Rogers said that is exactly what he wants to do.   That is not one of the options currently being pursued by ULA, however.

Launch Prices

Significant discussion occurred concerning the prices charged by SpaceX and ULA.  Shotwell explained that she does not know what ULA charges the government, but it was awarded an $11 billion contract for 28 launches (the “block buy” contract signed in 2013), which SpaceX calculates to be an average of $400 million per launch.

She said a Falcon 9 average price is $60 million for commercial customers and $80-90 million for the government, which has special requirements, and the cost to the government for a Falcon Heavy launch will be about $150-160 million.  That yields an average cost across all its vehicles of about $120 million, she said, roughly 25 percent of ULA prices.   Asked how SpaceX can offer such low prices, she replied that “I don’t know how to build a $400 million rocket” and “I don’t understand how they are as expensive as they are.”

Bruno said he did not recognize the $400 million number and the cost of an Atlas V 401 launch, equivalent to a Falcon 9, is $164 million on average and will be about $140 million in the future.   Averaged across all of the launches envisioned in the block buy, the cost is $225 million, he said, a 30 percent reduction from its prices before the block buy.  He did acknowledge separately that the cost of a Delta IV Heavy launch today is $400-600 million.

The “Gap”

DOD acquisition official McFarland’s written statement clarifies that the “gap” they are worried about is a period late in this decade “without at least two price competitive launch providers servicing medium to intermediate class missions.”

That is an important point.   It is not a gap in the U.S. ability to launch satellites, but whether there is competition for medium and intermediate class payloads.   Hyten said “gap” is not the right word, it is really about a “transition” between 2018 and 2022, but everyone else referred to it as a gap.

The gap is precipitated in part by ULA’s recent decision to discontinue the single stick version of the Delta IV, leaving the Atlas V as its only launch vehicle for that class of payload.  If Atlas V is no longer available after 2019, and SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is not ready by then, these intermediate size payloads would have to be launched by the more capable Delta IV Heavy, but the price would be prohibitive.   Bruno assured the subcommittee that he is committed to launching the Delta IV Heavy as long as the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) needs it.   If it is ULA’s only rocket, however, all of ULA’s fixed costs would have to be absorbed in those launch costs, raising the price from the current $400-600 million per launch to “upwards” of $1 billion, Bruno said.

Subcommittee chairman Rogers asked incredulously if Bruno thought the government would pay that much per launch and Bruno said no, but Mitchell – who has long experience with national security space launch – pointed out that in the 1990s, launch costs were $550 million “and we launched 41 of them.”  The suggestion was that when escalated to today’s dollars, the cost would not be much different.

Bruno told the subcommittee that he decided to terminate the Delta IV single stick as soon as its current commitments are met around 2018 because it cannot compete in the current marketplace.

Curiously, no one questioned ULA’s decision to phase it out even though that seems to be a critical driver in this debate.

The solution to the gap sought by ULA and witnesses on the government panel are to purchase enough RD-180 engines so the Atlas V can remain available until SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and ULA’s NGLS are ready in 2021-2022.  Shotwell insisted that Falcon Heavy would be ready and certified for flight by 2018, but the other witnesses considered that an optimistic timetable.

Business Case

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) asked about the business case for either ULA or SpaceX and whether the government needs to guarantee a number of launches to make their businesses viable.  DOD’s McFarland said that from what she has seen, all the launch providers are competing for the same pie.

Shotwell said that 60 percent of the SpaceX market is commercial, while Bruno said that ULA’s is “just under 20 percent” today.

Is Falcon 9 “American”?

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) grilled Shotwell on SpaceX’s assertion that Falcon is an all-American rocket.  He forced Shotwell to acknowledge that certain raw materials like aluminum and a GPS “box” are from foreign sources, but “99 percent” is American, she asserted.  Bishop challenged her by asking if she knew there is a statute in California (where SpaceX is based) that would not allow the company to advertise its product as all-American and Shotwell said she was not aware of it.

Launch Pads

Bruno said that in the interest of cost cutting, ULA will be reducing the number of launch pads it has from five to two – one on the east coast and one on the west coast.

A Potential Path Forward

Mitchell articulated what is perhaps the clearest statement on what is needed to move forward on a plan for assured access to space.  In his written statement, he said the government needs to take ownership of the issue and define the desired end-state, take action to reach that end-state, and “adequately resource” the plan.

He recommended that the government initiate an effort similar to the Space Launch Modernization Plan (the Moorman report) of the 1990s “with all the stakeholders participating to assess the risks of the current and planned activities” and make recommendations on how to mitigate them.   Quoting an unnamed “colleague and friend,” Mitchell wrote: “Currently no stakeholder has a credible plan that ‘closes.’ Each stakeholder has a different endgame solution, and each stakeholder’s current ‘non-closing’ game plan has ‘and then a miracle happens’ as the last element of their plan…and ALL the miracles are different.”


Nelson, Inhofe Complain AF Not Following Congressional Direction on RD-180

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Mar-2015 (Updated: 17-Mar-2015 11:49 AM)

Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and James Inhofe (R-OK) wrote to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter last week to complain that DOD is not following congressional direction to expeditiously develop a U.S. propulsion system to replace Russia's RD-180.

The letter is dated March 10 and briefly states that congressional direction in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is quite clear that DOD is to develop a new rocket propulsion system by 2019 and authorized $220 million in FY2015 to that end, and the FY2015 appropriations act includes that $220 million.  Written in the first person (it is not clear whether it is Inhofe or Nelson -- both signed it), the letter says "my observations to date leave me skeptical that DoD or the U.S. Air Force are following Congressional intent."

Both Senators are members of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC).

The letter says that the direction in the NDAA is consistent with last year's Air Force-chartered RD-180 Availability Risk Mitigation Study, which was chaired by Maj. Gen. Howard "Mitch" Mitchell (Ret.).   Mitchell is scheduled to be one of the witnesses at this afternoon's hearing across the Hill before the House Armed Services Committee on "Assuring Assured Access to Space."   Air Force Space Command Commander Gen. John Hyten is also scheduled to testify, along with DOD and Air Force acquisition officials and representatives of SpaceX and United Launch Alliance.

What's Happening in Space Policy March 16-20, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Mar-2015 (Updated: 15-Mar-2015 01:52 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events coming up during the week of March 16-20, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session.

During the Week

It's another busy week with two major conferences, lots of congressional hearings, a NAC subcommittee meeting and more.  

It is tough to choose what to highlight because it's all really good stuff, but to pick just one, the House Armed Services Committee's subcommittee hearing on Tuesday should be especially interesting.  The title is "Assuring Assured Access to Space" and witnesses include SpaceX's Gwynne Shotwell and United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Tory Bruno along with two defense department acquisition officials, commander of Air Force Space Command Gen. Hyten, and retired Maj. Gen. Mitch Mitchell who led a study of RD-180 alternatives last year.  Topics are expected to include certifying new entrants like SpaceX to launch EELV-class national security satellites currently launched exclusively by ULA and the need (or not) for a new American-made rocket engine to replace Russia's RD-180 used for ULA's Atlas 5.  SpaceX's position is that its Merlin engines for the Falcon rockets already are an American alternative so why is another one needed.  ULA, meanwhile, announced last fall that it is partnering with Blue Origin on the BE-4 engine as an American alternative.   Everything seemed on a fast track last fall with Congress insisting on no more RD-180s after 2019 (though there are exceptions),but this year's testimony by Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and ULA's most recent statements seem to be putting the brakes on.  Whether that's a dose of reality or slow-rolling the inevitable is unclear at the moment -- perhaps the hearing will shed some light.

Monday-Friday, March 16-20

Monday-Thursday, March 16-19

  • Satellite 2015, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC

Tuesday, March 17

Tuesday-Wednesday, March 17-18

Wednesday, March 18

Thursday, March 19

Bolden, Cruz Spar Over NASA Priorities, Especially Earth Science

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Mar-2015 (Updated: 13-Mar-2015 02:30 AM)

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden sparred over NASA’s priorities today (March 12) at a hearing on the President’s FY2016 budget request for the agency.   Cruz, a well-known climate change skeptic, has said several times that he wants to focus NASA on its “core priority” -- space exploration – which does not include earth science research in his view.  Bolden stressed that NASA is a multi-mission agency and strongly defended its earth science role.  He also used the opportunity to urge the committee to confirm Dava Newman, who was sitting the audience, as NASA Deputy Administrator.

The fundamental issue was whether NASA, under the Obama Administration, is spending too much on earth science and not enough on “exploration” -- a term that was used loosely, but clearly encompassed the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft.

Cruz and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), the two Republicans who attended the hearing before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, couched their objections to how much NASA spends on earth science not in terms of the climate change debate, but as priority setting in a budget constrained environment.  Their basic argument, which has been made by others in the past, is that NASA has a unique role in space exploration while many agencies are involved in studying the earth.  NASA therefore should focus its resources on what it does uniquely and let the other agencies take responsibility for earth science research including space-based observations.

Cruz stated the question as “Should NASA focus primarily inwards or outwards beyond lower-Earth-orbit [sic],”  inward meaning looking down at Earth.  The Obama Administration has allocated “a disproportionate increase in the amount of federal funds” for earth science “at the expense of and compared to Exploration and Space Operations, Planetary Science, Heliophysics and Astrophysics which I believe are all rooted in exploration and should be central to the core mission of NASA.”  He later said “It’s not that earth sciences are not valuable, but in the last 6 years, there has been a disproportionate increase.”

He displayed a chart showing the percentage change in funding for different parts of NASA’s portfolio between what was appropriated for 2009, when President Obama took office, and the President’s FY2016 request.  It shows that funding for earth science increased by 41 percent while funding for “exploration & space operations” decreased by 7.6 percent.

Source:  Office of Sen. Ted Cruz.  Percentages calculated using the change between enacted
public law for 2009 and the President's Budget Request for 2016.

Bolden and the two Democratic Senators at the hearing, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) all questioned the data in the chart.   For example, funding for NASA facilities, such as Kennedy Space Center, are not included in the “exploration” and “space operations” budget accounts, but clearly are necessary for executing those programs so should count towards the total.   Bolden also pointed out that NASA is, in fact, trying to reduce the costs of human spaceflight and terminating the space shuttle program, which required $2 billion a year “whether it flew or not,” was one step they took.   As for the increase for earth science, Peters pointed out that earth science funding is recovering from deep cuts during the Bush Administration.  He cited a 2012 National Research Council study that called the Bush-era cuts “disastrous” and said the Obama Administration increases are an attempt to rectify that situation.

Bolden vigorously defended the earth science program and listed missions launched in the past 12 months including the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite.   He entered into an extended discussion of the utility of SMAP for measuring soil moisture in Texas, essential for water resource management.   That prompted a spirited exchange over why NASA is studying soil moisture in Texas when other agencies do that already.  “Now I’m a Texan.  I love our Texas soil, but there are a lot of people studying Texas soil, you’ve got a whole Department of Agriculture that spends a lot of time and energy studying the soil in Texas,” Cruz said.   Gardner quipped “are we focusing on the heavens in NASA or are we focusing on dirt in Texas?”   

Bolden later clarified that “we do not do Texas soil conservation.  We provide instruments that provide data to the plethora of people who do Texas soil conservation.  … We teach people how to use the instruments that we create, we teach them how to use the data.”

He also remarked that if Congress were to cut NASA earth science funding “you would just have to move the programs elsewhere” because only NASA launches earth science instruments into space.

When asked by Cruz to define NASA’s core mission, Bolden said that the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act, in short, directs the agency “to investigate, explore space and the earth environment and help us make this place a better place…. And aeronautics is an essential part of what NASA does.  It is the big A in NASA.”

Considering Cruz’s strong views on climate change, the hearing actually was fairly friendly and he did acknowledge that earth sciences are valuable.   In fact, the entire hearing, which lasted only about an hour, was non-confrontational.  The issue of earth science funding certainly was debated on a partisan basis, but it was cordial for the most part.

The vast majority of the hearing dealt with the earth science versus exploration debate, but a few other issues did arise, including Dava Newman’s nomination to be NASA Deputy Administrator.   President Obama originally sent her nomination to the Senate in October 2014 and resubmitted it to the new Congress in January.  The post has been vacant since September 2013.   Nelson noted that Newman was sitting in the front row of the audience, and during a discussion of how to keep America competitive in aeronautics and inspire young people, Bolden said that if the committee supports her nomination, they will have someone who can testify with authority about what interests the next generation.  Newman is a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at MIT.

Bolden also again urged Congress to fully fund the request for commercial crew so NASA can end its reliance on Russia.

A webcast of the hearing is on the committee’s website and a press release, video clips and the chart he used are on Cruz’s website.

Events of Interest

Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »


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