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SpaceX Static Fire Test Today Prepares for Launch Next Week - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Apr-2012 (Updated: 30-Apr-2012 04:22 PM)

UPDATE:  The static test fire was successful on the second attempt at about 4:15 pm ET.

SpaceX will conduct a static fire engine test at 3:00 pm ET today in preparation for its scheduled test launch to the International Space Station (ISS) next week.  The company's webcast of the engine test begins at 2:30 pm.

It is a 2-second test of the nine Merlin engines on SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and is part of a complete dress rehearsal for the next Falcon 9 launch scheduled for May 7. 

If all goes according to plan, SpaceX will launch the Falcon 9 with a Dragon spacecraft at 9:38 am ET on May 7 as the second test launch in NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.  The COTS program is funding two companies, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp., to develop launch vehicles and spacecraft that can deliver cargo to the ISS.

Three SpaceX test launches were planned as part of the COTS program.  The first was successfully conducted on December 8, 2010 when the Falcon 9 delivered a Dragon spacecraft to orbit and was then deorbited and recovered at sea.  SpaceX convinced NASA to let it combine the objectives of the last two test launches into this flight, which NASA calls C2+ -- the second COTS test flight plus the additional objectives that had been planned for the third.  Under the type of agreement NASA and SpaceX have -- a Space Act Agreement -- the company is paid only when it successfully completes milestones.  However, NASA cannot set requirements and has more limited insight and oversight of the company's activities than with a traditional procurement method such as a fixed price or cost plus contract.

A lot is riding on this launch and the COTS program overall.  NASA has no way of its own to send cargo -- or people -- to the ISS now that the space shuttle program has ended.   Russia, Europe and Japan, all of whom are partners with NASA in the ISS program, have cargo spacecraft that deliver supplies to the ISS crews, but the volume of cargo required to support six crewmembers 365 days a year exceeds their capacity.  When the ISS program was planned, it assumed that the space shuttle would be available throughout the ISS's utilization period.  President George W. Bush's decision to terminate the space shuttle program as soon as ISS construction was completed changed those plans and the COTS -- or "commercial cargo" -- program emerged.

SpaceX is planning to evolve its Dragon spacecraft to carry people as well as cargo as part of NASA's commercial crew program to take astronauts to and from the ISS.  Today, only Russia can launch and return ISS crews.

Demonstrating commercial cargo is the first step.  NASA and SpaceX are cautioning everyone to keep their expectations in check for this flight, stressing that it is a test flight.  In fact, this flight has been postponed several times, mostly recently from April 30, as SpaceX strives to ensure it goes well.  Today's test is another step in that process.

Events of Interest: Week of April 30-May 4, 2012

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Apr-2012 (Updated: 29-Apr-2012 09:19 PM)

The following events may be of interest in the coming week.  The House and Senate both are in recess this week.

Tuesday, May 1

Tuesday-Wednesday, May 1-2

Wednesday-Thursday, May 2-3

Wednesday-Friday, May 2-4

Russia Outlines Human and Robotic Spaceflight Plans to 2030

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Apr-2012 (Updated: 28-Apr-2012 01:07 PM)

Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, has posted its long term plans for human and robotic spaceflight on its website.  The plan outlines Russia's space goals through 2030.

The document is in Russian, but Anatoly Zak of provides a summary of its key points in English along with his analysis of their feasibility.

One focus is completing construction of the new Vostochny ("Eastern") launch site near Svobodny in far eastern Russia.  The Russian government has had a goal of building a new launch site within its borders since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.  One of its two launch sites, the Baikonur Cosmodrome, is in Kazakhstan.   Russia has been leasing the site from Kazakhstan since the former Soviet republic became an independent country.  Baikonur (formerly referred to as Tyuratam) is used for launches to the International Space Station, to geostationary orbits, and many other orbital and deep space destinations.    Russia's plans to build a new launch site inside Russia to replace its use of Baikonur have had their twists and turns over the past 20 years.  (Russia's other major launch site, Plesetsk, is within Russia's boundaries near the Arctic Circle and is used for launches into polar orbit, primarily military satellites.) 

Zak says the new Russian space strategy, publicly released on  April 26, calls for Vostochny to be completed by 2015, which he calls "a practically impossible to fullfill promise."  By 2020, a launch complex for a new Russian launch vehicle, Rus-M, would be completed.  Russia has been working on several new families of rockets for years, too, and Zak's assessment is that 2020 is "another unreachable goal."  A new crew spacecraft to replace the venerable Soyuz, another development planned for many years, would be ready about the same time under the new strategy, but Zak is similarly pessimistic about achieving that milestone.  Russian participation in robotic missions to Venus, Jupiter and asteroids are also listed for this time period, but without specific launch dates.  Right now, Russia is working with the European Space Agency (ESA) on a 2016 mission to Mars

During the 2020s, a heavy lift rocket is to be developed for launch from Vostochny to support human trips to the moon and Russia would launch robotic missions to Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn.  Russia has never sent spacecraft to the outer planets.  It has launched a number of very successful robotic missions to the Moon and Venus and two probes that intercepted Halley's Comet.  Its attempts to send robotic probes to Mars have largely failed.    The Russian document included launching spacecraft to clean up debris in Earth orbit and to mitigate the threat to Earth from asteroids during the 2020s, according to Zak. 

The document sets priorities among its various goals, Zak adds.  The first priority is applications missions; second is "manned transport systems, including reusable rockets"; while an internationally-sponsored human mission to Mars and a new space station are last. Zak's summary does not mention the timeframe envisioned for the latter objectives.

The strategy was created in response to a directive from Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin shortly after he took on the assignment of finding the problems in the Russian space sector and fixing them at the end of 2011.   Russia suffered an unusual number of launch failures last year, including the failure of its highly anticipated Phobos-Grunt sample return mission to Mars' moon Phobos.   On December 29, 2011, Rogozin gave Roscosmos 50 days to present a strategy through 2030.  According to Zak, it was approved by Roscosmos on March 6, 2012 and then submitted to the Kremlin and other parts of the Russian government, all leading to its release April 26.

Zak, a highly respected New York-based Russian space analyst, criticizes the plan for "vague wording and hefty proclamations," but calls it an effort "to steer the industry toward more pragmatic goals than prestige-oriented projects inherited from the Soviet period."  Nevertheless, "the agency apparently still had no choice but to confirm its commitment to a costly and mostly politically motivated enterprise" to build Vostochny, he says.  

Soyuz TMA-22 and Three ISS Crew Are Home -- UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Apr-2012 (Updated: 27-Apr-2012 07:50 AM)

UPDATE:  The crew landed as planned at 7:45 am ET.

Russia's Soyuz TMA-22 undocked from the International Space Station (ISS) at 4:18 am ET and is on its way home.  The deorbit burn is scheduled for 6:49 am ET, with landing at 7:45 am ET in Kazakshtan.

Aboard are three ISS crewmembers:  American Dan Burbank and Russians Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin.  They were aboard ISS for five-and-a-half months.

NASA TV has live coverage of the landing and reports that weather at the landing site is "ideal."

Three ISS Crew Members Return Home Early Friday Morning

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Apr-2012 (Updated: 26-Apr-2012 07:09 PM)

With space shuttles whizzing above us in the skies and Congress busy at work funding NASA and other space activities, it's easy to forget that there is a space station in orbit right now with six hard working astronauts and cosmonauts aboard.   Until tomorrow, that is, when three will return to Earth.  They will soon be replaced by three new crewmembers, however, so not to worry.

The three coming home very early tomorrow, Friday, April 27, are American Dan Burbank and Russians Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin.  They have been on the International Space Station (ISS) for five-and-a-half months.  They will undock from ISS at 4:18 am ET and land in Kazakhstan at 7:45 am. 

Three other ISS crew members will remain aboard -- commander Oleg Kononenko (Russia) and flight engineers Andre Kuipers (European Space Agency) and Don Pettit (U.S.).  They wll be joined by three new crewmates on May 17.

Follow the undocking and landing on  NASA TV.

HASC Subcommittee Rescues ORS, Denies Advanced Appropriations for SBIRS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Apr-2012 (Updated: 26-Apr-2012 06:00 PM)

In less than 5 minutes today, the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) approved the subcommittee's recommendations for its portion of the FY2013 defense authorization act.  One of those recommendations is to preserve the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) program, which the Department of Defense (DOD) wants to dissolve.  The draft bill also denies DOD's request for advance appropriations as part of its Efficient Space Procurement (ESP) strategy, and restricts spending for launch vehicles until the Air Force submits an associated acquisition plan.

The various HASC subcommittees are marking up their portions of the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, H.R. 4310 ) today and tomorrow.  The Strategic Forces subcommittee has jurisdiction over most DOD space activities.

HASC has a special section of its website with the bill and report language recommended by each of the subcommittees and video of the markups.

The Strategic Forces subcommittee denied DOD's request to dissolve the ORS program office and integrate the ORS concept into other parts of the Air Force space program.   ORS was created in the FY2007 John Warner National Defense Authorization Act to demonstrate the ability to build and launch small specialized satellites quickly to respond to the needs of joint commanders.  The committee rejected DOD's request to repeal that section of the law, denied the $10 million DOD requested over five different budget accounts to integrate ORS into its other activities, and added $25 million to continue the ORS program.

Separately, the subcommittee disapproved DOD's request for advanced appropriations for the Space-Based InfraRed System (SBIRS) as part of its latest attempt at reforming satellite procurement.  The committee agrees with the effort to reduce costs through acquisition reform, but not with providing the money in advance.  This year's effort, ESP, replaces last year's Evolutionary Acquisition for Space Efficiency (EASE).  Congress did not agree with advanced appropriations last year either.   DOD believes that block-buys of multi-satellite systems, like SBIRS, could reduce costs if it had the money in advance.  Congress, however, appropriates money incrementally, one year at a time. The language in the draft bill adopted today says that the committee "does not support the request for advanced appropriations authority and notes ... [it] would limit the oversight ability of future Congresses."  The committee does, however, support other aspects of ESP, saying that it anticipates DOD will "realize substantial savings from the ESP block buy approach, enabled by a fixed-price contract and fixed requirements."   It directs DOD to reinvest any money it saves into a "spacecraft modernization initiative, where research and development activities are competitively awarded and new technologies are matured for insertion in future blocks of SBIRS satellites or other space-based infrared sensors."

Regarding launch vehicles, the committee noted that DOD has not submitted its acquisition strategy for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) and prohibits spending 10 percent of the funds allocated to EELVs until it does.  It lists a number of topics that must be addressed in the report, including "an assessment of when new entrants will be certified to compete" for EELV-class launches.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is then required to review the acquisition plan.  SpaceX, a "new entrant," announced plans to build a "Falcon-Heavy" version of its Falcon rocket and does not want to be shut out of competing for DOD space launches, but DOD is reluctant to risk its vital, expensive satellites on unproven rockets.

Among other things, the draft bill also --

  • requires DOD to report to Congress by December 1, 2012 on a lower cost solution for providing GPS capability following the procurement of GPS III;
  • encourages DOD to use existing or easily modified government and commercial applications for the Joint Space Operations Center Mission System in order to reduce costs, with a report due to Congress 270 days after enactment certifying that the Air Force has conducted thorough market research and technical evaluation of non-developmental items; and
  • requires DOD to submit annual reports on the "synchronization of satellite, ground and user terminal segments of space major defense acquisition programs" in response to concerns that the ground segments for space-based systems sometimes are not ready at the time the satellites are launched, wasting that capability.


Heads Up New York! Your Chance to See a Shuttle Flying Through the Skies

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Apr-2012 (Updated: 26-Apr-2012 04:25 PM)

People in the Northeast will have another chance tomorrow to spot a space shuttle flying atop a 747 airplane.  This time it is space shuttle Enterprise, enroute from Washington, DC to New York City between 9:30 and 11:30 am ET.

Enterprise never flew into space.  Instead it was used for atmospheric drop tests before the first shuttles were launched to orbit.   It was transferred to the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum in 1985 and has been on display near Dulles International Airport since then.  Its home since 2003 has been the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles, but it lost its spot to space shuttle Discovery, an orbiter that has actually been to space.  

Discovery arrived last week and it is time for Enterprise to go to its new home at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City.   Enterprise is scheduled to be flown atop a shuttle carrier aircraft between 9:30 and 11:30 am tomorrow morning (April 27).  After flying over landmarks like the Statue of Liberty, it will land at JFK Airport.  It will later be placed on a barge for transport along the Hudson River to the Intrepid museum and placed on the deck of the Intrepid, an aircraft carrier used to recover Mercury and Gemini crews in the 1960s.

House Appropriators Report CJS Bill, Floor Debate Scheduled for May 8

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Apr-2012 (Updated: 26-Apr-2012 02:22 PM)

The House Appropriations Committee completed markup of the FY2013 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill that funds NASA and NOAA today and favorably reported the bill to the House.  The chairman of the committee, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), announced that it will be the first FY2013 appropriations bill to be debated on the House floor this year.  Debate is set to begin on May 8.

Rogers applauded the fact that the bill is proceeding through committee and floor consideration in "regular order" this year.  Last year, the appropriations process was caught up in high stakes political battles.   The CJS bill made it through full committee markup in the House and Senate, but no further.  The final numbers were negotiated behind closed doors and wrapped into a "minibus" appropriations bill that passed in November.

The appropriations committees on both sides of the Hill are trying to return to regular order this year, and the CJS bill is one of the first to move through subcommittee and full committee markup in both the House and the Senate.  Most Washington pundits still do not believe that the appropriations process will be finalized by October 1 when FY2013 begins, however.   Negotiations are still needed on many issues and the House adopted a budget resolution that gives most of its appropriations subcommittees less money to spend than their Senate counterparts. In total, the House CJS bill provides $51.1 billion for the agencies under its jurisdiction.  The House CJS subcommittee had $731 million less to spend than its Senate counterpart because the House passed a budget resolution with lower spending thresholds than agreed to last year in the Budget Control Act (BCA).  The Senate is using the BCA figures.

For civilian space activities, the biggest difference between the House and Senate is that the Senate wants to transfer NOAA's satellite activities to NASA.

Much larger political issues loom over the entire federal spending debate, starting with the threat of a sequester beginning on January 1, 2013 if the House, Senate and White House do not reach agreement on how to avoid it.  Coupled with an expected debate over extending the Bush-era tax cuts that are due to expire at the end of this year and election year politics, the alacrity and civility in moving the CJS and some of the other appropriations bills may not stand the test of time.

Today, however, civility and regular order were the watchwords.  The House committee adopted a manager's amendment offered by CJS subcommittee chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA).  The text of the amendment has not been posted on the committee's website yet so whether it affects NASA or NOAA is not clear.  The committee states only that it "makes technical changes to the bill and report, as well as adjustments and additions to various non-controversial language provisions."   Several other amendments were offered, but none was directed at NASA or at NOAA's space activities.

One member, Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA), engaged in a colloquy about the need for more money to study the oceans, complaining that too much money is spent on atmospheric and space science and not enough on the oceans.  He did not offer an amendment, however.

The House bill provides NASA with $17.574 billion, which it says is $138 million below the request of $17.711 billion.   The Senate bill (S. 2323), which was marked up by the full Senate Appropriations Committee last week, provides NASA with $19.4 billion, but the increase is because it transfers NOAA's satellites activities to NASA.  Without the transfer, the Senate committee said the bill cuts NASA's budget by $41.5 million compared to its FY2012 enacted level.  Congress appropriated $17.800 billion to NASA for FY2012, but also included an across-the-board rescission that brought the figure down to $17.770 billion.  Thus, the Senate recommendation for NASA for FY2013 would be $17.729 billion, $155 million more than the House.  (The House committee report says that its recommendation of $17.574 billion is a $226.2 million reduction from the enacted level for FY2012, but that must not include the rescission since $17.574 billion plus $226 million is $17.8 billion.)

The House bill gives NOAA $4.962 billion, which it says is $92.877 million less than the President's request for FY2013 ($5.1 billion), and $67.994 million above the FY2012 enacted level.    It does not call for NOAA's satellite programs to be transferred to NASA, and fully funds NOAA's request for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) at $916 million.   The Senate bill cuts NOAA's request to $3.4 billion by transferring JPSS and NOAA's other satellite programs to NASA. 


House Approps to Markup CJS Bill Today for NASA and NOAA -- UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Apr-2012 (Updated: 26-Apr-2012 09:15 AM)

UPDATE:   The time (10:00 am) and place (2359 Rayburn) have been added and "tomorrow" changed to "today."   NOTE TO INTERNET EXPLORER USERS:  Due to some technical glitch, the hyperlink to the committee's draft report is not working in some versions of IE, though it is fine in Firefox.  To obtain the report, go the committee's main website, and scroll down under the photographs and it's the first item.

The House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to markup the FY2013 funding bill for NASA and NOAA today, April 26, 2012, at 10:00 am in 2359 Rayburn House Office Buildiing.  The bill funds agencies under the jurisdiction of the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, which includes NASA and NOAA.  Subcommittee markup was completed last week.

The committee posted the draft report to accompany the bill, which provides more detail on what it has in mind for NASA and NOAA than the bill, which was released last week.

The House bill provides $17.6 billion for NASA, $138 million less than the President's request.   The Administration's proposal to cut funding for planetary exploration is of particular interest this year, especially its impact on robotic Mars exploration.  The committee's report clarifies that it wants to add $88 million for the Mars Next Decade project, for a total of $150 million.  It does require that the National Research Council certify that any new Mars mission conform with the recommendation of the 2011 NRC Decadal Survey for planetary exploration that called for a program leading to return of a sample of Mars to Earth.  If the NRC cannot make the certification, the funding is to be reallocated to the NRC's second priority for large "flagship" missions -- a probe to study Jupiter's moon Europa.

The committee's report also has extensive language about the human spaceflight program, including the Space Launch System, the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion), and commercial crew.  The committee criticizes many aspects of the commercial crew program and calls for "an immediate downselect to a single competitor or, at most, the execution of a leader-follower paradigm in which NASA makes one large award to a main commercial partner and a second small award to a back-up partner."






SpaceX and NASA Set May 7 as New Launch Target

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Apr-2012 (Updated: 24-Apr-2012 07:56 PM)

SpaceX announced today that May 7 is the new date it has chosen to attempt its second test launch as part of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. 

The Space X announcement in the form of an email said "NASA and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station have approved SpaceX’s request to set May 7th as the target launch date for the upcoming COTS 2 mission."   NASA later issued its own press release quoting NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier as saying:  "We appreciate that SpaceX is taking the necessary time to help ensure the success of this historic flight. We will continue to work with SpaceX in preparing for the May 7 launch to the International Space Station."

NASA refers to the mission as C2+ -- the second COTS test flight that combines objectives from the third (and last) test flight at SpaceX's request.  SpaceX refers to it as COTS 2.  The goal is not only to launch the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft to the vicinity of the International Space Station (ISS), but to actually berth with the ISS and transfer supplies and equipment.  That latter objective was to be part of the third test flight, but SpaceX convinced NASA to let it try on this flight.



Events of Interest


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