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The big news out of the Senate Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee today -- the decision to transfer NOAA's satellite programs to NASA (except for operations) -- overshadowed other key recommendations. Among them are an addition of $100 million for robotic Mars exploration and a cut of $305 million from commercial crew compared to the President's request for FY2013.
The Obama Administration's proposed 21 percent cut to NASA's planetary exploration program, of which Mars exploration is part, has provoked outrage in the planetary science community and among its supporters. Funding for planetary exploration would decrease from $1.5 billion in FY2012 to $1.2 billion in FY2013 with additional decreases in subsequent years. Consequently, NASA had to withdraw from planned cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA) on two Mars missions in 2016 and 2018. It is now planning to launch a smaller mission in 2018 that is yet to be defined. The $100 million added by the subcommittee presumably would be targeted to the new mission. ESA has moved on to partner with Russia instead of the United States for the 2016 mission.
Separately, Congress and the Obama Administration have been sparring for the past three years over the President's desire to use government funds to help companies develop crew space transportation systems to take people to and from low Earth orbit (LEO) instead of NASA building such a system. Congress wants NASA to build a new big rocket (the Space Launch System) and a spacecraft (Orion) to go beyond LEO. The compromise in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act was to do both, but Congress favors SLS/Orion while the Administration favors commercial crew. Today, the United States cannot launch anyone into space. NASA relies on Russia to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The agency is facilitating companies like SpaceX to develop U.S. commercial crew transportation systems with the goal of purchasing services from them instead of Russia beginning in 2017. Congress has allowed the Obama Administration to proceed with commercial crew, but with less funding than requested. For FY2013, NASA is asking for $830 million and insists that much is needed to meet the 2017 date.
The Senate subcommittee, however, is recommending $525 million. Although it is $305 million less than the request, it is $25 million more than Congress provided in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, which covers FY2011-2013. From a congressional viewpoint, therefore, it is an increase even though it is a substantial decrease from what NASA says it needs.
A summary of the subcommittee's action is posted on the committee's website. The decision to move NOAA's satellite programs into NASA, along with the money for them, raises the total for NASA to $19.4 billion, a significant increase from the $17.71 billion requested. The summary says that if the NOAA money was not transferred to NASA, the budget for NASA would be $41.5 million less than what was appropriated for FY2012. NASA received $17.77 billion in FY2012 after an across-the-board cut is taken into account, so that would make the NASA total $17.73 billion.
The Senate subcommittee's action is just the first step in the lengthy congressional process of providing funding for government agencies. Senator Mikulski, chair of the Senate CJS subcommittee, said today that the full Senate Appropriations Committee would markup the bill on Thursday, but it has not yet been announced on the committee's website. The House CJS appropriations subcommittee will markup its version of the bill on Thursday morning at 9:30 am.
Senate Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee appropriators had a surprise for everyone when they marked up the FY2013 appropriations bill today. They want to transfer NOAA's satellite activities other than operations to NASA, increasing NASA's budget accordingly. NASA would get $19.4 billion for FY2013 compared to the $17.7 billion request. NOAA would get $3.4 billion for FY2013, compared to the $5.1 billion requested.
CJS subcommittee chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) complained that they had told NOAA, part of the Department of Commerce, "time and time and time again" that they need to "get their act together." The subcommittee is weary of cost overruns on NOAA satellite programs. She particularly mentioned that the projected life-cycle cost for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) went up $1 billion in the last year, from $11.9 billion to $12.9 billion.
Mary Kicza, head of NOAA's National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) said at a FY2013 budget briefing in February that the $1 billion increase was due to lengthening by four years (from 2024 to 2028) the operational time frame for the system.
Mikulski invoked what she called the Marine rule -- be best at what you do best. She and other subcommittee members clearly believe that NASA is better at building and launching satellites than NOAA. In fact, NASA is already NOAA's procurement agent for satellites. NOAA sets the requirements and reimburses NASA for procuring and launching them. NOAA then operates the satellites once they are in orbit.
If the subcommittee's recommendation becomes law, NOAA would still operate the satellites, but NASA would in charge of everything else and the money would be in NASA's budget. Mikulski estimated that the government would save $100 million per year by having NASA manage the programs directly instead of through the current reimburseable arrangement.
As for NASA's other programs, a summary provided by the committee and statements by Mikulski and ranking member Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) asserted that NASA is fully funded to pursue the balanced program laid out in the 2010 NASA authorization act. Funds are provided for science, the Orion and Space Launch System programs for human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit, and for a commercial crew capability to exist by 2017 to take crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS). The following paragraph and bullet points are from the committee's summary:
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is funded at $19.4 billion, an increase of $1.6 billion over the fiscal year 2012 enacted level. The large increase results from a reorganization of operational weather satellite procurement from NOAA into NASA. Without the funds for weather satellite procurement, this level represents a $41.5 million cut from the fiscal year 2012 enacted level.
At the beginning of the markup, Miksulski asked her colleagues to refrain from introducing amendments because they will be considered during full committee markup, which she said would be on Thursday. The time and location are not yet posted on the committee's website.
One place where Mikulski and Hutchison publicly disagreed was whether the funding for commercial crew supports only two competitors or more. Hutchison said "our priority for NASA is to select two competitors" so the commercial crew program can be "robust" but also saves taypayers from funding more companies than necessary. Mikulski rejoined that that was Hutchison's view, not the subcommittee's. Mikulski said she did not know how many companies would be funded, maybe four (the number NASA is currently funding), but that she and Hutchison were in agreement that NASA needs a balanced program including Orion/SLS, commercial crew, and science.
Hutchison is retiring from the Senate this year and several Senators lauded her work over many years and noted this was her last subcommittee markup. She will, however, remain a powerful presence in the Senate on NASA programs for the rest of this year.
As the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee prepares to mark up the FY2013 bill that funds NASA and NOAA later this afternoon, its House counterpart will mark up its version of the bill on Thursday.
The Senate markup, scheduled to begin at 2:30 pm ET in 192 Dirksen, comes just hours after a spectacular flyover of the Nation's capital by the space shuttle Discovery enroute to the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who chairs the Senate CJS subcommittee, tweeted as Discovery, atop a shuttle carrier aircraft, flew past the Capitol that she is "Proud 2 support our space program & American ingenuity." Earlier she tweeted that though the space shuttle is retired "our mission in space will sail on, supporting discovery, innovation, American ingenuity & jobs." The ranking member of the subcommittee, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), tweeted "Sad to see Discovery retire as it flies over DC. America needs a space program we can believe in again. Human space flight is too important!"
The House CJS subcommittee will hold its markup at 9:30 am on Thursday, April 19, in H-140 Capitol. No tweets about the space program from its chairman, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), were evident, but ranking member Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) tweeted that "America's shuttle program and America's leadership in space was not accomplished on the cheap. A great nation must invest in science & tech."
Space Shuttle Discovery just took off from Kennedy Space Center, FL aboard a shuttle carrier aircraft on its way to Dulles Airport, VA just outside Washington DC.
Atop the 747, Discovery is currently taking a victory lap along the Florida coastline. It is expected to arrive in the DC area between 10:00 and 11:00 am. NASA has a map of the best viewing sites as it flies over Washington landmarks like the National Mall. They are:
District of Columbia
Dampening expectations for a complete success was a major theme of today's NASA press conference following the Flight Readiness Review (FRR) for the SpaceX demonstration flight to the International Space Station (ISS). The launch date for the mission remains targeted for April 30.
NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier cautioned, however, that some tests remain to be be completed before a final decision is made and the mission is very challenging.
SpaceX will be conducting those tests, primarily related to software, and reporting back to NASA by April 23. NASA does not expect to perform another FRR at that time, but will consider the results before formally committing to the launch date. If it does not go on April 30, May 3 would be the next opportunity.
SpaceX succeeded in convincing NASA to combine the last two of its ISS demonstration flights, so this mission, dubbed C2+, is especially difficult. The company launched its first demonstration flight, C1, of the Falcon 9 rocket coupled with the Dragon spacecraft in December 2010. It was supposed to launch two more test flights, C2 and C3, but this flight combines the objectives of both, hence the C2+ designation. It will be only the third flight of Falcon 9 and the second flight of Dragon. SpaceX founder Elon Musk sounded optimistic about the performance of those two components of his space transportation system, but stressed that other aspects of the mission are firsts -- such as rendezvous and berthing with the ISS, and the solar arrays for Dragon. "We've got a pretty good shot," he said, "but there's a lot that can go wrong on a mission like this."
Musk noted that SpaceX hopes to launch two more missions to the ISS this year and if berthing is not successful this time it will try again. Gerstenmaier made clear that these commercial cargo missions are "critical" for ISS operations. Dragon, in particular, is the only cargo spacecraft capable of returning materials to Earth. Russia's Progress, Europe's ATV and Japan's HTV spacecraft are not designed to survive reentry and burn up in the atmosphere. Dragon is designed for a survivable water landing, which was demonstrated during the December 2010 mission.
These cargo flights do not carry anyone aboard, but SpaceX hopes to evolve Dragon into a vehicle capable of carrying crew. When pressed today, Musk ventured that a flight with a crew might be possible in about three years if this demonstration flight succeeds.
Following the termination of the space shuttle program last year, NASA has no way to launch cargo or crew to the ISS. It is completely dependent on Russia to take people to and from the ISS, and Russia, Europe and Japan for cargo transport.
This mission will take 521 kilograms of cargo to the ISS, primarily crew provisions including food, as well as one Nanorack with student experiments, and some replacement parts. It will return 660 kilograms of material to Earth, landing in the ocean off the California coast after 18 days berthed with the ISS. Decisions are not final on what will be returned.
Musk said he did not know how much SpaceX has spent on this commercial cargo vehicle specifically, but said the company has spent a total of about $1 billion over the course of its history. NASA provided $381 million of that, while Musk and other investors provided the rest. NASA said it owes SpaceX another $15 million when it achieves the remaining three milestones under the Space Act Agreement through which NASA is facilitating SpaceX's development of the transportation system. Alan Lindenmoyer, NASA's manager of commercial crew and cargo at Johnson Space Center, replied to a question by saying that studies have concluded that it would have cost NASA four to ten times more to develop this capability under conventional contracting methods.
Between now and April 23, the company will continue tests to make certain that its hardware and software interact correctly under various circumstances. Musk stressed that Dragon is autonomous -- no one is aboard with a joystick to make decisions. It is all done by software. "Dragon is making a lot of decisions all the time," he said. In the past month, he continued, the biggest problem is "false aborts" when Dragon gets "worried" about something and aborts the mission when it is not necessary.
UPDATE: Bob Jacobs at NASA tweets that the press conference will be held about 3:30 pm ET.
NASA's Flight Readiness Review (FRR) for the upcoming SpaceX mission to the International Space Station is now underway. You can follow the action via NASA's Twitter account using the hashtag #FRR.
NASA plans a press conference this afternoon after the FRR is completed. The time is TBD, depending on when the FRR concludes. Follow NASA on Twitter to keep track of what time it will take place. It will be aired on NASA TV.
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House and Senate both return to work after a two-week recess.
During the Week
Weather permitting, Tuesday is the day the space shuttle Discovery will make its last trip aboard the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft as it moves from Kennedy Space Center to the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport, VA just outside of Washington for permanent exhibition. NASA is anticipating spectacular views of Discovery's arrival as it is flown over national landmarks in the Washington area. Details on where to get the best view are on the Smithsonian's website as well as NASA's.
If all goes according to schedule, you can watch Discovery arrive and then hop up to Capitol Hill for the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee markup of the FY2013 budget requests under its jurisdiction, which include NASA and NOAA. It is at 2:30 pm in 192 Dirksen. This is the first markup of the FY2013 appropriations season that affects NASA and NOAA. It is followed one hour later with the markup of the T-HUD bill that includes the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation.
Of course it's not clear how many of the space policy community will be in Washington on Tuesday since the National Space Symposium is being held this week (Monday-Thursday) in Colorado Springs, CO.
Those are just a few of the space policy-related events coming up this week. See below for a complete list.
Monday, April 16
Monday-Thursday, April 16-19
Tuesday, April 17
Wednesday, April 18
Friday, April 20
Details remain scant, but NASA held a teleconference today to provide an update on the work of the Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG) headed by Orlando Figueroa. The MPPG was created when NASA had to dramatically change its plans for future robotic Mars exploration because of budget constraints that forced it to pull out of a cooperative effort with the European Space Agency (ESA).
At today's media teleconference, John Grunsfeld, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate (SMD), and Doug McCuistion, head of NASA's Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters, joined Figueroa in explaining the scope and timetable for the MPPG. Figueroa said that he made a preliminary report to Grunsfeld a week and a half ago. The next major step will be a workshop in June at the Lunar and Planetary Institute to obtain input from a broad cross section of the global science and technical community, which is encouraged to submit abstracts to bring forward ideas that "will inform a strategy for exploration within available resources, beginning as early as 2018," according to NASA's press release. The final report from the MPPG is due to Grunsfeld in August.
The report is intended to provide options and pathways for the future of an integrated Mars exploration program that brings together the goals of SMD and the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD). Grunsfeld, a former astronaut, emphasizes that President Obama directed NASA to send humans to the vicinity of Mars in the 2030s and robotic missions are needed to work in concert with NASA's human exploration office, along with NASA's technology office, to achieve that goal.
August is an interesting time for such a report to emerge. NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) with its Curiosity rover is due to land at Gale Crater on Mars on August 6 EDT (August 5 PDT). The mission involves a never-before-used landing system called a sky crane that adds another layer of risk to what is always a risky endeavor -- landing a spacecraft on Mars. When the chair of the National Research Council's (NRC's) Space Studies Board asked a panel of NASA science officials last week "what keeps you awake at night," Jim Green, director of NASA's planetary science division, replied the "seven minutes of terror from the top of the [Mars] atmosphere to landing."
Leonard David, reporting for Aerospace America, asked at today's teleconference what will happen to the MPPG results if the Curiosity landing fails. Would congressional support for a new Mars mission dim if Curiosity -- a $2.5 billion mission -- crashes, he queried? The NASA officials avoided a direct answer to the question, although Grunsfeld eventually responded by emphasizing that all such missions are very risky and there are "no guarantees," but he thinks interest in Mars will continue to be strong regardless.
In response to a question, McCuistion revealed that the money for a new Mars mission based on whatever comes out of the MPPG report is already in his budget, though all funding in the out-years is notional. Grunsfeld has been quoted in other venues as saying the cost of the mission will be about $700 million and one question expected to arise in the planetary science community is whether those funds are best spent on a Mars mission.
The NRC issues "Decadal Surveys" for NASA's space and earth science disciplines every 10 years. The most recent planetary science Decadal Survey was published last year. Ordinarily, NRC Decadal Surveys are rigorously followed by NASA because they represent a consensus of the relevant science community and because Congress holds them in high esteem.
The first Decadal Survey for planetary exploration in 2003 dealt with Mars separately from the rest of the planetary exploration program. This time, however, NASA directed the NRC to consider Mars as part of planetary exploration generally rather than as a special subset. As the 2011 report Decadal Survey states, "Priorities for the Moon, Mars and other solar system bodies were treated in a unified manner with no pre-determined 'set-asides" for specific bodies. This approach differs distinctly from the ground rules for the 2003 planetary science decadal survey, in which missions to Mars were prioritized separately."
With all of NASA's planetary exploration program under stress, questions are almost certain to arise about why the $700 million is already being allocated to Mars before a study has concluded that it can be wisely used to advance our understanding of Mars in accordance with the priorities laid out in the Decadal Survey.
At a meeting of NASA's Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) in March, Cornell University's Steve Squyres, who chaired the planetary science Decadal Survey and is now chair of the NASA Advisory Council said that a new Mars mission would conform with the Decadal Survey only if it advanced the goal of returning a sample of Mars to Earth -- the 2011 Decadal Survey's top priority for large planetary science missions. The two Mars missions with ESA that were cancelled in the FY2013 budget request were part of a series of missions to accomplish that goal. ESA is now planning to proceed with the first of the two missions, ExoMars, with Russia instead of the United States.
The frequent reference to the need for NASA to develop an integrated approach for Mars exploration addressing the combined goals of SMD and HEOMD prompts a related question about why so little attention is being made to advancing a nearer-term goal expounded by the President -- sending astronauts to visit an asteroid by 2025. That also would require an integrated approach by SMD and HEOMD. Some scientists insist that one requirement is to launch a spacecraft designed to search for candidate asteroids that cannot be observed from Earth. A "Venus-trailing" spacecraft that could view a much larger part of the sky is needed for such observations, they argue. Although it was considered in a different context, a 2009 NRC report on the potential threat to Earth from asteroids and comets ("Near Earth Objects") described such an asteroid-hunting mission as costing about $600 million.
The message of today's press conference was that NASA is looking for innovative ideas for robotic Mars exploration that fit into the agency's longer term goal of sending humans to Mars and its constrained budget. Convincing the planetary science community and its supporters that another Mars mission is more important than other planetary exploration missions waiting their turn may be a challenging task, and whether it advances President Obama's goals for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit -- which starts with a human mission to an asteroid, not to Mars -- is an open question.
NASA will hold a teleconference at 1:00 pm ET today (Friday) to provide an update on its new plan for Mars exploration.
Audio of the event will be streamed at http://www.nasa.gov/newsaudio
The U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command, NORAD, confirmed in a statement that North Korea's attempted launch of a satellite -- or missile -- failed on April 12, 2012 Eastern Daylight Time (April 13 local time in North Korea).
NORAD said that the launch took place at 6:39 pm EDT and was tracked over the Yellow Sea. "Initial indications are that the first stage of the missile fell into the sea 165 km west of Seoul, South Korea. The remaining stages were assessed to have failed and no debris fell on land. At no time were the missile or the resultant debris a threat."
NBC news reported that the rocket broke apart 90 seconds after launch.
This was North Korea's third attempt, and third failure, to launch a satellite into orbit. On the first two occasions, North Korean media sources told its isolated populace that the launch succeeded. In this case, North Korea invited in foreign journalists prior to the launch, but apparently they were not told that the launch had taken place. Many reports from western news sources soon after the launch quoted U.S. officials as saying the launch failed. The launch was to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the country's founder, Kim Il-sung, grandfather of the current leader, Kim Jong-un.
Western analysts had expressed skepticism about the chances of a successful launch in recent days.
North Korea proceeded with the launch despite strong objections from the United States and other countries. The United States and North Korea signed an agreement on February 29, 2012 in which the United States would provide food aid as long as North Korea adhered to international obligations, including not using ballistic missile technology. The launch today violated that agreement and two United Nations Security Council resolutions. Several news sources cited a White House statement, which is not yet on the White House website, saying that even though the launch failed, the act "threatens regional security, violates international law and contravenes its own recent commitments."
Events of Interest