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The Senate passed the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act today. The bill is very similar to one that passed the Senate in December as the 114th Congress was coming to an end. The House had completed its legislative business by then so could not act on it and that bill died at the end of the Congress. This new bill, S. 442, represents a compromise with the House, so expectations are high that it will quickly be passed by the House and presented to the President for signature.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who chairs the Space, Science, and Competitiveness subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, and Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), the top Democrat on the full committee, issued a joint press release along with other bipartisan members of the committee praising the bill for providing stability to NASA during this time of a presidential transition.
The new bill has some changes from the version that passed the Senate in December. One clarifies that the primary consideration for the acquisition strategy for the commercial crew program is to carry U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) "safely, reliably, and affordably" and to serve as a crew rescue vehicle. Another directs NASA to report to Congress on how the Orion spacecraft can fulfill the provision in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that it be able to serve as a backup to commercial crew, including with use of a launch vehicle other than the Space Launch System. A third is a finding that NASA has not demonstrated to Congress that the cost of the Asteroid Redirect Mission is commensurate with its benefits, a stronger statement than what was in the 2016 bill. The new bill also has a section on use of Space Act Agreements.
The bill authorizes funding only for FY2017, which is already underway. The total is $19.508 billion, the same as the amount recommended by the House Appropriations Committee, although allocated differently. Authorization bills recommend funding levels, but only appropriations bills actually provide funding to government agencies like NASA. Congress has not completed action on the FY2017 appropriations bills. NASA is currently funded under a Continuing Resolution at its FY2016 funding level, with an exception that funds may be spent on the Space Launch System, Orion, and Exploration Ground Systems programs to keep their schedules on track.
Now that the Senate has passed the bill, action moves to the House. Three weeks ago, the chairmen of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and its Space Subcommittee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Brian Babin (R-TX), urged quick passage of the bill. The House is in recess next week, but action could come anytime thereafter.
SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell reacted to GAO's report yesterday that commercial crew flights may slip from 2018 to 2019 by expressing utmost confidence in her company's schedule. At a Kennedy Space Center (KSC) press conference today in advance of SpaceX's commercial cargo launch tomorrow, she said the company's response to GAO is "The [heck] we won't fly before 2019."
SpaceX is scheduled to launch its 10th operational commercial cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA tomorrow at 10:01 am ET from KSC's historic Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) The press conference was as much about this first use of LC-39A for a Space X mission as about the launch itself. The launch pad was used for Apollo missions to the Moon and many space shuttle launches, including the first one in 1981. Shotwell and KSC Director Bob Cabana, himself a space shuttle astronaut, struggled to find words to express their excitement about seeing the pad back in use.
SpaceX currently takes cargo to the ISS for NASA and also is building a version of its Dragon spacecraft to transport astronauts there. Yesterday's GAO report assessed the progress SpaceX and its competitor in the commercial crew program, Boeing, are making on their programs. It warned that neither is likely to meet their current plans to launch crews in 2018 and called on NASA to develop a contingency plan if those capabilities slip to 2019. NASA agreed to prepare such a plan by March 13.
Asked about the likelihood that SpaceX will meet its 2018 schedule, Shotwell firmly asserted: "I'm confident we will fly in 2018," adding that their response to the GAO report is "the [heck] we won't fly before 2019."
Tomorrow's launch is on schedule as of press time, but Shotwell was asked about a helium leak that was discovered today. She explained that the leak is in the Falcon 9's second stage helium system and is being investigated. The launch remains "go" for now, but she said they would have a better understanding later this evening. If the launch does not take place tomorrow, the backup launch date is Sunday at 9:38 am ET. NASA TV will provide live coverage of the launch and a post-launch press conference currently scheduled for 12:00 pm ET tomorrow.
NASA has agreed to develop a contingency plan for ensuring astronauts can travel to and from the International Space Station (ISS) in case the commercial crew systems under development by Boeing and SpaceX are further delayed. The action comes in response to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released today that outlines delays that have occurred already and problems that may result in further schedule slippage. NASA told GAO in writing it would have the backup plan ready by March 13, 2017.
NASA has had to rely on Russia to take astronauts to and from ISS since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011. It contracts with Russia's Roscosmos space state corporation to purchase seats on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft. The current contract covers launches through 2018 and landings in 2019. About three years are required for Russia to build Soyuz spacecraft so NASA has endeavored in the past to sign contracts well in advance. Russia currently charges $82 million per seat.
NASA, Roscosmos and the other international partners in the ISS program -- Canada, Japan, and Europe -- have agreed to continue operating ISS at least until 2024. NASA provides transportation for the Canadian, Japanese and European astronauts under the terms of the Intergovernmental Agreement that governs the ISS partnership.
In 2011, NASA initiated a commercial crew program whereby Boeing and SpaceX are developing the CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon spacecraft, respectively, through public-private partnerships (PPPs). In PPPs, the government and industry share development costs and the government guarantees it will purchase certain services, in this case a fixed number of flights. Boeing will use the United Launch Alliance's (ULA) Atlas V rocket to launch CST-100 Starliner (ULA is a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin). SpaceX will launch Crew Dragon on its own Falcon 9 rocket.
At the beginning, NASA hoped commercial crew flights would begin in 2015, but that date slipped to 2017 at least in part due to lower than requested funding from Congress for NASA's share of the development costs. Additional delays have followed.
NASA's Commercial Crew Program (CCP) oversees the Boeing and SpaceX efforts and must certify that the systems meet strict standards. Operational flights cannot begin until the certification review is complete, which takes place after each company flies an uncrewed test flight and then a crewed test flight. At the moment, officially both companies plan to be certified in late 2018, but GAO reports that the CCP's own analysis "indicates that certification is likely to slip into 2019." GAO provided a chart comparing when the companies originally planned to be ready for their certification reviews and where they are now.
Risks identified by CCP and listed in the GAO report that could delay certification include the following:
With regard to the problems with SpaceX turbine blades, GAO reported: "During qualification testing in 2015, SpaceX identified cracks in the turbines of its engine. Additional cracks were later identified. Program officials told us that they have informed SpaceX that the cracks are an unacceptable risk for human spaceflight. SpaceX officials told us that they are working closely with NASA to eliminate these cracks in order to meet NASA's stringent targets for human rating."
GAO also concluded the companies could have difficulty meeting the requirement set by NASA that the probability of Loss of Crew (LOC) on a given flight be no more than 1 in 270. GAO listed three crew safety risks identified by CCP that apply to both companies:
NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier spoke about LOC requirements at a conference last week. He argued that too much importance is assigned to that metric, that it is useful in comparing designs, but not in determining absolute risk.
In light of all these problems and the impending end of the contract with Russia for Soyuz seats, GAO recommended that NASA develop and report to Congress on a contingency plan for how it could transport astronauts to and from ISS after the contract with Russia expires and whenever the commercial crew systems become available.
In a February 8, 2017 letter to GAO and published in the GAO report, NASA concurred and said it would develop such a plan by March 13, 2017.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued its biennial assessment of high-risk government programs yesterday. The report addresses programs in all parts of the government, including civil and national security space programs. NOAA's weather satellites have been on the high-risk list for several years, but GAO praised NOAA's progress with its GOES series of geostationary weather satellites and concluded they no longer warrant inclusion. NOAA's polar orbiting satellites remain on the list. GAO also added DOD's weather satellite program to the high-risk list because DOD lacks a comprehensive plan for providing required capabilities.
DOD and NOAA historically have operated separate polar-orbiting weather satellite systems to meet national security and civil requirements respectively. In 1994, the Clinton Administration decided to merge the programs with an expectation that a more cost effective solution would result. Instead, the combined program -- the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) -- encountered significant delays and cost overruns. The Obama Administration terminated NPOESS in 2010 and directed NOAA and DOD to resume separate programs. No NPOESS satellites were ever launched.
Polar-orbiting satellites, as the term implies, orbit around Earth's poles and can view the entire globe. The United States and Europe cooperate in obtaining and sharing weather satellite data. DOD, NOAA and Europe's EUMETSAT operate separate polar-orbiting weather satellites that pass over points on Earth at different times of the day. DOD satellites are in the early morning orbit, EUMETSAT's in the mid-morning orbit and NOAA's in the afternoon orbit. Combining all that data results in more accurate forecasts.
DOD purchased a large number of its Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites in the 1990s, several of which remained in storage and available for launch when NPOESS was cancelled. Thus it did not have a sense of urgency to develop a substitute program. By contrast, NOAA did not have spare Polar Operational Environmental Satellites (POES) and quickly proceeded with a new Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) program. The first JPSS is scheduled for launch this year. Until it is operational, NOAA must rely on the Suomi-NPP satellite, which NASA built to demonstrate new earth observation technologies. Launched in 2012, it was not designed as an operational satellite, but NOAA seconded it into service and it is part of the operational weather satellite constellation now. It had only a 3-year design life, however, so GAO continues to be concerned about a potential data gap if Suomi-NPP fails before JPSS is operational.
Because it thought it had sufficient satellites in storage to cover several years, DOD moved slowly in designing its own new system. However, the DMSP-19 satellite failed soon after launch in 2014. DOD's ambivalence about when or if it would launch the last of the series, DMSP-20, led Congress to demand that DOD either launch it by 2016 or dismantle it rather than continuing to pay expensive storage costs. It was not launched.
Consequently, as GAO reported, DOD now finds itself relying primarily on DMSP-17, a satellite launched in 2006. It has a plan for the future, the Weather Satellite Follow-on--Microwave (WSF-M), with the first operational satellite scheduled for launch in 2022. GAO characterized the WSF-M plan as "not comprehensive," however. GAO criticized DOD because it "did not thoroughly assess options for providing its two highest-priority capabilities, cloud descriptions and area-specific weather imagery ... due to an incorrect assumption about the capabilities that would be provided by international partners." The WSF-M does not address those requirements, GAO said, and DOD will have to rely on DMSP-17 until 2022, posing the risk that if DMSP-17 fails before then, a data gap will occur. Hence the decision to add this program to GAO's high-risk list.
NOAA also operates geostationary weather satellites in the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite -- GOES -- series. Geostationary satellites remain in a fixed position relative to a point on Earth and GOES is especially useful for monitoring tropical ocean regions where hurricanes form. The first of a new version of those satellites, GOES-R (now GOES-16), was launched last year. Concerns about potential data gaps in geostationary weather satellite coverage put the GOES program on GAO's high-risk list for several years, but GAO has concluded that NOAA resolved those issues and removed GOES from the high-risk list for this year's report.
Two House members introduced a resolution yesterday to name the first launch of NASA's new Space Launch System (SLS) "Cernan 1" after Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon. Cernan testified to Congress several times in recent years in favor of a strong human spaceflight program and returning humans to the Moon. Cernan died last month. His companion on that Apollo 17 mission was Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, who later became a U.S. Senator. Schmitt will testify to a House committee this morning (Thursday) about NASA's past, present, and future.
Beginning in 2010, after President Obama cancelled the Bush Administration's Constellation program to return humans to the surface of the Moon, Cernan spoke and wrote in opposition to that decision, often in tandem with Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon. Constellation's cancellation meant the end of the new rocket NASA was building at the time, called Ares. Obama's move was harshly criticized by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. After a bitter debate between Congress and the White House, Congress passed and Obama signed into law bipartisan legislation, the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, that directed NASA to build a new large rocket, SLS, and a "multi-purpose crew vehicle" (Orion) to continue human exploration of space.
Those programs are currently underway. Boeing and Lockheed Martin are the prime contractors for SLS and Orion respectively. Representatives of those and other companies working on the program have been meeting in Washington this week at a "supplier's conference."
At an associated event last evening. Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Alabama) announced that he and other members of the House had just introduced a resolution to name the first SLS launch "Cernan 1." The co-sponsor of the resolution is Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), who chairs the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee that funds NASA. Culberson said in a press release that SLS is "an opportunity to forge forward with Captain Cernan's vision to push the boundaries of human exploration" and the resolution will ensure that Cernan's "role in making America's space program the best in the world is never forgotten."
Cernan died on January 16, 2017. He was 82. Armstrong also has passed away. He died in 2012, also at 82. NASA renamed its Dryden Flight Research Center in California in his honor. Twelve NASA astronauts walked on the Moon between 1969 and 1972: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11, 1969), Pete Conrad and Alan Bean (Apollo 12, 1969), Alan Shepard and Ed Mitchell (Apollo 14, 1971), David Scott and Jim Irwin (Apollo 15, 1971), John Young and Charlie Duke (Apollo 16, 1972), and Cernan and Schmitt (Apollo 17, 1972). Six are still living (Aldrin, Scott, Bean, Young, Duke, and Schmitt).
Aderholt and Culberson were two of many members of Congress who spoke at the supplier's conference event last night, all strongly supporting SLS and Orion. Former astronauts Bob Crippen and Tom Stafford also addressed the gathering. Crippen flew on four space shuttle missions, including the very first one in 1981. He stressed the need for program stability for SLS/Orion to succeed. Stafford also is a veteran of four space missions -- two in the Gemini program and two Apollo missions. Cernan was Stafford's crewmate on two of those flights, including Apollo 10, which was a test flight that orbited the Moon in 1969 in advance of the Apollo 11 landing. Stafford regaled the crowd with stories about his spaceflights with Cernan and used the opportunity to criticize the Obama Administration's decision to cancel Constellation. He praised the SLS program and vowed that he would be on hand for its flight flight. Stafford will testify at this morning's House committee hearing along with Schmitt.
Last night's event was a combination of honoring Cernan and demonstrating support for SLS and Orion. The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing at 10:00 am ET this morning is expected to provide another opportunity to address the future of the U.S. civil space program, both human and robotic. Joining Schmitt and Stafford at the witness table will be Ellen Stofan, who recently stepped down as NASA's Chief Scientist, and former NASA and industry executive Tom Young. The committee typically webcasts its hearings on its website.
Several members of the committee were among the speakers last night, including Rep. Ami Bera (D-California), the new ranking member of the Space Subcommittee. He said it is time to get back to "dreaming big." Space subcommittee chairman Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) praised yesterday's announcement by NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot that NASA will study the feasibility of putting a crew on the first SLS mission. Babin called the idea exciting.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma) also spoke. He said SLS and Orion will provide "comprehensive national power" to ensure American preeminence in space, which he considers especially important in light of China's space program advances. Bridenstine is often mentioned as one of the candidates to serve as the new NASA Administrator although the White House has not made any announcements about NASA leadership positions. Lightfoot is Acting Administrator and Greg Autry is the White House liaison to NASA. Both were at the event, but only Autry spoke. He congratulated the SLS/Orion contractors, saying they should give themselves a round of applause for all their good work. Then he noted that he will attend the SpaceX CRS-10 launch on Saturday and asked for a round of applause for SpaceX, too. The group complied.
Correction: An earlier version of this story listed Jim Irwin as among the living Apollo moonwalkers and omitted Alan Bean. We regret the error.
NASA To Study Adding Crew to first SLS/Orion Mission While GAO Worries About Challenges of Flying Without a Crew
Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot today announced that he has requested an internal NASA study of the feasibility of placing a crew on the first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) and its Orion spacecraft. Until now, the "program of record" has called for an uncrewed flight first to test the rocket and spacecraft systems, followed 2-4 years later with the first launch with a crew. Also today, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its biennial report on "high risk" government programs wherein it expressed concerns about challenges ahead for that first SLS flight under the current plan of launching it without anyone aboard.
NASA is building SLS to fulfill the goal of sending humans to Mars. The first version will be able to loft 70 metric tons (MT) into low Earth orbit. Future versions will be able to lift 105 MT and 130 MT, more than the Saturn V rocket that sent astronauts to the Moon. Boeing is the SLS prime contractor. The spacecraft that will carry crews to cis-lunar space and beyond, Orion, is being built by Lockheed Martin. A test model was launched by a Delta IV rocket in 2014 and made two orbits of Earth before splashing down in the Pacific.
The existing plan is to conduct the first launch of SLS in late 2018 (although there are indications that will slip to 2019) carrying an empty Orion. It is designated Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1). The next flight of SLS with an Orion, EM-2, is formally scheduled for 2023 although NASA is working to accelerate that launch to 2021. That would be the first SLS/Orion to carry a crew.
In a memo to employees today, Lightfoot referenced President Trump's inaugural address where the President said the country will "unlock the mysteries of space." Lightfoot then stated "Accordingly it is imperative to the mission of this agency that we are successful in safely and effectively executing both the SLS and Orion programs." In that connection, he continued, "I have asked [NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations] Bill Gerstenmaier to initiate a study to assess the feasibility of adding a crew to Exploration Mission-1.... I know the challenges associated with such a proposition ... [but] want to hear about the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight..." The announcement was made in conjunction with the SLS/Orion "suppliers conference" taking place in Washington, D.C. right now.
Lockheed Martin spokesperson Allison Miller said in a statement that "Lockheed Martin will support NASA on a study to determine the feasibility of flying a crew on Exploration Mission-1. We’ll look at accelerating remaining crew system designs, as well as potential technical and schedule challenges and how to mitigate them." Boeing spokesperson Kelly Kaplan said: "The possibility of NASA accelerating the timeline to put humans into the vicinity of the moon and onto Mars is exciting. Safety of the crew is most important, so of course there will be many factors we will consider as we assess the feasibility of adding crew to EM-1. We applaud NASA's bold path forward in this transition time and we're proud to be a part of the journey to Mars."
Every two years, GAO publishes a report on high-risk programs across the government. NASA's human spaceflight program has been on the list for many years, including SLS and Orion and their associated Exploration Ground Systems (EGS). This year's report cites "unreliable cost estimating, overly ambitious internal deadlines, limited reserves, and operating for extended periods of time without definitized contracts" as issues that "have increased the likelihood that it will incur overruns and schedule delays, particularly when coupled with the broad array of technical risks that are inherent in any human spaceflight development."
Speaking directly to the EM-1 mission as currently planned -- without a crew -- GAO says SLS, Orion and EGS "will need to resolve a multitude of technical and design challenges, complete fabrication and testing, and be delivered to the Kennedy Space Center where they will be integrated with each other and prepared for launch. ... If delays materialize during individual systems integration and testing, they could cause a cascading effect of cross-program problems."
Only three countries have launched people into space -- the United States, Russia/Soviet Union, and China. The United States is the only one that has ever launched a crew on the first flight of a new launch system -- the first launch of the space shuttle (STS-1) in 1981. Gerstenmaier addressed the risks in new human spaceflight systems at a conference last week. He noted that before STS-1, models indicated that the risk of losing the crew was between 1 in 500 and 1 and 5,000. At the end of the program in 2011, after 30 years of experience that involved two fatal shuttle flights (Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003), Gerstenmaier said NASA concluded that the actual risk of losing the crew on that flight was 1 in 12.
Note: This article was updated with the quote from Boeing.
Update, February 15: At press time this morning, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee's website listed Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) as the ranking member of its space subcommittee. However, later this morning committee Democrats issued a press release with an updated list of its members showing that Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) is the ranking member of that subcommittee. Our table has been updated accordingly. Peters remains as a member of the subcommittee.
Original Story, February 15, 2017. House Democrats have announced their full committee and subcommittee members of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee, filling out the rosters for the congressional committees that oversee the nation's space programs for the 115th Congress. Memberships on the other space-related committees were announced earlier.
Oversight and funding of the U.S. space program involves a number of committees. The list below is only of those with the most direct responsibilities and is not meant to be comprehensive. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee have jurisdiction over all government agency operations, for example, but they rarely deal with space issues. Similarly, the committees that oversee the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in the Department of the Interior (which operates the Landsat satellites) or the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in the Department of Commerce that assign spectrum to commercial and government users respectively do not often focus on space issues.
The following table, therefore, is limited to the authorization and appropriations committees for NASA, NOAA, DOD, the Intelligence Community (IC), and the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is part of the Department of Transportation. It shows the top Republicans and Democrats ("ranking members") at the full committee and subcommittee level. Complete rosters of committee and subcommittee members are on each committee's website.
State Abbreviations: AL (Alabama), AZ (Arizona), CA (California), FL (Florida), IL (Illinois), IN (Indiana), MA (Massachusetts), MS (Mississippi), NC (North Carolina), NH (New Hampshire), NJ (New Jersey), NY (New York), OR (Oregon), RI (Rhode Island), SD (South Dakota), TN (Tennessee), TX (Texas), VA (Virginia), VT (Vermont), WA (Washington)
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of February 13-18, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
The House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee will hold the year's first congressional hearing on NASA this week. Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) said that it was intended to provide a "panoramic" view of NASA's past, present and future to acquaint new committee members with the agency. No current NASA employees are on the witness list, but all four worked at the agency at one time: Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, who along with Gene Cernan were the last two men on the Moon (he also was a U.S. Senator from 1977-1983); famed Gemini and Apollo astronaut Tom Stafford, who currently chairs NASA's International Space Station Advisory Committee; Ellen Stofan, who just stepped down after three years as NASA's Chief Scientist; and Tom Young, whose storied career includes serving as mission director for the Viking program, director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, and industry executive with Martin Marietta and Lockheed Martin (after Martin Marietta and Lockheed merged to form the current company). Schmitt was the only scientist to walk on the Moon. He is a geologist, as is Stofan. Should be really interesting. No shrinking violets on that panel! That's on Thursday at 10:00 am ET. The committee webcasts its hearings on its website and YouTube channel.
Earlier in the week. the D.C. alumni chapter of the International Space University is holding another of its "Space Cafes." These monthly informal get togethers always feature really interesting speakers and this time is no exception -- there will be four of them, in fact, all from Europe. Jean-Luc Bald from the European Union's Washington office; Micheline Tabache, the Washington representative of the European Space Agency (ESA); and Norbert Paluch and Juergen Drescher, the Washington reps for the French and German space agencies respectively. Remember that the venue for the ISU-DC Space Cafes has changed to The Brixton at 901 U Street, NW. The Space Cafes usually are on Tuesdays, but this one is Monday (tomorrow).
The date has slipped a couple of times already, but the current plan is for SpaceX to launch its first cargo mission to the ISS since the September 1, 2016 on-pad explosion on Saturday at 10:01 am ET. This is SpaceX's 10th operational Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission for NASA -- SpaceX CRS-10 or SpX-10. It will mark SpaceX's first launch from NASA's Launch Complex 39A, which SpaceX is leasing from NASA. Previous SpaceX East Coast launches have been from the pad SpaceX leases from the Air Force at the adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. That is Launch Complex-40, which was damaged in the September 1 incident. SpaceX plans to use LC-39A for launches of both its current Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy (FH) still in development. The company expected that the first launch from LC-39A would be the maiden flight of the FH last November. That didn't work out, but the launch pad was close to being ready so is available for this flight. SpaceX is confident it has fixed the problem that caused the September 1 explosion and the Falcon 9 returned to flight status with an Iridium launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA last month. No new date for the FH's maiden flight has been announced.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week for others we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.
Monday, February 13
Tuesday, February 14
Wednesday-Friday, February 15-17
Wednesday-Saturday, February 15-18
Thursday, February 16
Thursday-Friday, February 16-17
Thursday-Saturday, February 16-18
Saturday, February 18
The House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee will hold its first NASA hearing of the 115th Congress on February 16. Two former astronauts (one of whom also is a former U.S. Senator), a former NASA chief scientist, and a former NASA center director and industry executive will discuss NASA's past, present, and future.
Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) announced last week that the first space hearing this year would be a "panoramic view" of NASA in order to acquaint the many new members of the committee with NASA's activities.
The list of witnesses includes Apollo 17 astronaut and former U.S. Senator Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, the only scientist (geology) to have walked on the Moon, and legendary Gemini and Apollo astronaut Lt. Gen. Tom Stafford (Ret.), who currently chairs NASA's International Space Station (ISS) Advisory Committee.
Schmitt and Gene Cernan, who passed away on January 16, were the last two men to walk on the Moon during the 1972 Apollo 17 mission. He represented New Mexico in the Senate from 1977-1983. He is a long time advocate of mining Helium-3 on the Moon and using it to fuel fusion reactors on Earth. He chaired the NASA Advisory Council when Mike Griffin was NASA Administrator (2005-2009). Stafford flew on two Gemini missions (VI and IX) and the Apollo 10 mission that orbited the Moon in preparation for the Apollo 11 lunar landing. He also commanded the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) where a U.S. Apollo and a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft docked together in space for the first time. It was an amazing political feat in the Cold War era that presaged the ongoing long-term U.S.-Russian cooperation in building and operating the ISS along with Europe, Japan, and Canada.
Schmitt is not the only scientist on the witness list. Ellen Stofan, who stepped down as NASA's Chief Scientist just two months ago, is also on the panel. A geologist, she was an associate member of the radar team for the Cassini mission to Saturn, chief scientist for NASA's New Millennium program, and deputy project scientist for the Magellan mission to Venus. She was NASA's Chief Scientist from August 2013-December 2016.
The fourth witness is Tom Young, who was mission director for NASA's Viking Mars missions before becoming Director of Goddard Space Flight Center. After leaving NASA, he joined Martin Marietta, which merged with Lockheed in 1995 to form Lockheed Martin. He was President and COO of Martin Marietta before the merger and Executive Vice President of Lockheed Martin afterwards. For the past two decades, he has chaired many review boards and investigation teams to determine why failures occurred or programs went off course, most recently Independent Review Teams for NOAA's weather satellite programs. He was a member of the NASA Advisory Council under Charlie Bolden's leadership.
No current NASA employees are on the list. The hearing is at 10:00 am ET in 2318 Rayburn House Office, Washington, DC. The committee typically webcasts its hearings.
The 20th FAA Commercial Space Transportation conference in Washington, DC ended today. Among the many interesting keynotes and panel discussions were presentations by Reps. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) and Brian Babin (R-TX) and the head of NASA's human spaceflight program Bill Gerstenmaier.
Babin chairs the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. Bridenstine is a member of that subcommittee as well as the Strategic Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, which oversees many national security space programs. Gerstenmaier is NASA's Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations (HEO), which oversees the International Space Station (ISS) and its associated commercial cargo and commercial crew programs, as well as development of the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion crew spacecraft, and other systems needed to send humans beyond low Earth orbit.
The conference was organized by the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) for the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST).
CSF Chairman Alan Stern opened the conference yesterday with an announcement that surprised many in the audience. Pointedly telling reporters in the room that he wanted them to hear him clearly, he said CSF was announcing that it supports SLS. "Exploration of space for all purposes, including commercial spaceflight, is our interest and to that end the CSF is announcing that we see many potential benefits" in NASA's SLS program. "There are bright futures across the spectrum in commercial space and the SLS can be a resource that ... makes our future .. even brighter."
The statement is somewhat surprising because there is a tension between those who support government development of new launch vehicles and those who think that should be left to private sector companies with the expectation they can do it more quickly and cost effectively. Since CSF represents many of the companies developing and marketing space launch services, its support for a government-developed system was far from assured.
Here are snapshots from the remarks by Bridenstine, Babin, and Gerstenmaier.
Bridenstine's prepared remarks closely tracked those he made last year at this conference and in other venues. Today he listed four actions that are needed to effectively leverage the commercial space industry:
With regard to the last point, he advocates that AST be assigned responsibility for regulating non-traditional commercial space activities like asteroid mining or placing habitats on the Moon in order to comply with U.S. obligations under the Outer Space Treaty. He is developing legislation that would create an "enhanced payload review process" building on AST's existing payload review process to authorize and continually supervise private sector activities in space. Currently AST regulates only launch and reentry, not what takes place in space. "We must ensure there is no question as to the statutory and regulatory mechanisms the United States government can utilize to affirmatively approve" non-traditional space activities.
His views on regulation of non-traditional space activities contrast with those advocated by Babin (discussed below). Bridenstine said in response to a question that he and Babin are good friends and although they have not reached agreement on how to harmonize their disparate approaches, he is optimistic they will.
Bridenstine is a leading candidate to become NASA Administrator. Although he is best known for his leadership in Congress on space issues at DOD, FAA and NOAA, his American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA) from last year addressed NASA issues, too. Today he declined to answer a question about whether he might become Administrator, but did express his strong support for NASA's SLS and Orion programs. He is identified with the commercial space sector and some SLS/Orion advocates worry that commercial space supporters may try to undermine SLS/Orion by arguing that the commercial sector can provide requisite capabilities quicker and cheaper. Bridenstine clearly stated today that SLS and Orion have his full support, however. He also said he is "100 percent" in favor of sending humans to Mars and reiterated his enthusiasm for a return to the Moon.
ASRA was never intended to pass as a stand-alone bill, but rather to serve as a repository for provisions that could be incorporated into other legislation. Ten of its provisions were included in the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act. Bridenstine said today that he plans to introduce an updated version of ASRA and welcomes input.
Bridenstine also was asked about a letter he recently sent, along with two other Members of Congress, questioning whether DARPA's Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program conforms with National Space Policy wherein the government is not supposed to compete with the private sector and is supposed to make government technologies available to commercial companies on an equitable basis. The letter states that DARPA's plan to award a $200 million contract to a single company, which would retain the satellite and the intellectual property, violates the policy and would distort the market. DARPA was about to award that contract to Space Systems/Loral, but Orbital ATK filed suit against DARPA yesterday to stop it. Orbital ATK is developing geosynchronous satellite servicing technologies itself. Bridenstine said today that RSGS is critical for national security and while there are some technologies that only DARPA can develop, such as completely autonomous mechanical servicing, others can be provided commercially, such as maneuvering capabilities. DARPA demonstrating technologies is one thing, but commercializing them is another, he argued, and that is why he wrote the letter.
Babin's speech also closely paralleled what he said last year. He and Bridenstine disagree on how to regulate new non-traditional space activities to ensure the United States complies with its international treaty obligations. While Bridenstine wants to create an enhanced payload review process administered by AST to provide regulatory certainty to companies, Babin does not accept that regulations are needed at all. He asserts that companies should not have to obtain government permission to conduct any space activity. Instead, the burden should be on the government to demonstrate that it has a requirement to intrude. He wants a regime where private sector activities are "presumed authorized" and the government can place restrictions on those activities only if it cannot address its concerns by any other means.
Babin also disagrees on the idea of AST taking responsibility for providing SSA to non-military users. He argues that there are other options -- other government agencies or a public private partnership -- that need to be explored first. As he said last year, he plans to hold hearings on these topics this year.
Gerstenmaier focused his remarks on risk -- specifically the risks inherent in human spaceflight. His office oversees the development of commercial crew systems by SpaceX and Boeing that will take crews to and from ISS beginning next year, as well as the Orion spacecraft that will take astronauts to cis-lunar space and eventually to Mars.
One metric for characterizing risk in this context is the probability of a failure that would kill the crew -- Loss of Crew (LOC). Gerstenmaier's message is that there will always be "unknown unknowns" in any system, no matter how many times it flies, and thus there will always be some level of risk The more the system flies, the more experience is gained, and the more engineers learn about what might fail. He noted that when the first space shuttle flew in 1981, models calculated the LOC at 1 in 500 to 1 in 5000. After accumulating data on all 135 shuttle flights -- two of which, Challenger and Columbia, ended with the deaths of their crews -- NASA concluded that the actual risk for that first flight was 1 in 12. At the end of the program, after those 135 flights, the risk overall was put at 1 in 90.
The LOC for the commercial crew program was set at 1 in 275, but he stressed that too much importance is assigned to that figure. He argued that LOC numbers are useful for comparing different designs, for example, but not in determining absolute risk. "Do not judge a spacecraft by its LOC number," he urged. The challenge is to not become complacent as systems start flying because there is always more to learn. "Stay hungry, stay curious, stay humble" and do not be afraid to discover new problems, discuss them, understand them, and solve them.
The public and other stakeholders need to understand and acknowledge these risks, he said, so NASA needs to learn how to effectively communicate with them as these new systems are about to come on line.
Note: Gerstenmaier said the LOC metric is 1 in 275 for commercial crew, but it actually is 1 in 270.
Events of Interest