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Blue Origin relaunched and relanded the same New Shepard rocket that the company used to demonstrate that feat last November. The rocket reached an altitude of 101.7 kilometers (333,582 feet) before returning to Earth, jettisoning its unoccupied crew capsule along the way. The capsule landed separately under parachutes.
The New Shepard suborbital rocket launches and lands vertically. Blue Origin, owned by Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos, posted video and other images of the flight on its website.
Blue Origin, along with SpaceX, is trying to develop reusable rockets in the belief that reusability will lower launch costs. The theory is controversial because it is dependent on factors such as the cost involved in refurbishing a rocket to fly again and the number of launches across which the costs can be amortized. Space aficionados can debate what vehicle deserves the honor of being known as the first reusable rocket -- the X-15, DC-X and SpaceShipOne are candidates -- but NASA's space shuttle was the only operational reusable launch vehicle (its External Tanks were not reused, but the airplane-like orbiters and solid rocket boosters were). The space shuttle did not result in lower launch costs, however..
Nevertheless, the technical feat of launching and landing a rocket is noteworthy. Blue Origin and SpaceX are competing for headlines in that regard. SpaceX successfully landed the first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral, FL in December, although three attempts to land on an autonomous drone ship at sea have failed, most recently last Sunday. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk points out that landing the first stage of a rocket sending a satellite into orbit is much more challenging than a suborbital excursion like that experienced in the New Shepard tests.
Bezos and Musk have similar goals -- expanding opportunities for humans to fly into space by making spaceflight affordable. Bezos said in a statement today that Blue Origin's vision is for "millions of people living and working in space." Musk's long term goal is sending large numbers of humans to Mars.
In addition to the New Shepard rocket, Blue Origin is developing new rocket engines that use a new type of rocket fuel -- liquefied natural gas (methane). United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Blue Origin have teamed together on developing ULA's new Vulcan rocket using Blue Origin's BE-4 rocket engine. Bezos also said today that full-engine testing of the BE-4 will begin this year.
ULA President Tory Bruno tweeted his congratulations to Bezos on today's launch and landing:
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of January 25-29, 2016. The House and Senate are scheduled to be in session, but with the blizzard that's coming, all events in the DC area should be considered tentative. [UPDATE JANUARY 24: The House has decided not to meet this week because of the aftereffects of the blizzard. So far, the Senate's schedule is unchanged. The immediate Washington DC area got between 17 and 30 inches of snow and roads remain impassable in many places. Also, Federal Government offices in the DC area will be closed on Monday. UPDATE JANUARY 25: The January 26 SASC defense acquisition hearing has been postponed. Federal Government offices in the DC area will be closed on Tuesday, too.]
During the Week
The first flakes of the Blizzard of 2016, also known as Snowmageddon II, Snowzilla, or Jonas (that's what The Weather Channel calls it), are falling. The forecast is so grim that we worry whether the electricity will be on this weekend, so decided to post this today (Friday). The Washington DC area does not do well with snow and even if it did, this storm is expected to break records in snowfall totals (18-30 inches is forecast for right here) and winds (30-40 miles per hour in this area, higher elsewhere), so any city would have a problem keeping up with it. If you have plans to travel to the DC area, or the mid-Atlantic generally, check to be sure your meeting or whatever is still taking place before you start your trip. [UPDATED JANUARY 25: The House will not meet this week. The SASC hearing on defense acquisition on Tuesday has been postponed (not the RD-180 hearing on Wednesday, at least not yet). Federal government offices in the DC area are closed Monday and Tuesday.]
Among the highlights of events that are SCHEDULED as of this moment is NASA's annual remembrance of the astronauts who lost their lives in the 1967 Apollo fire and 1986 space shuttle Challenger and 2003 Columbia tragedies. This year is the 30th anniversary of the January 28, 1986 Challenger accident that killed NASA astronauts Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Judy Resnik, Ellison Onizuka and Ron McNair; Hughes Aircraft payload specialist Greg Jarvis; and Teacher in Space Christa McAuliffe. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and other NASA officials will take part in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery on January 28 (Thursday), followed by activities at other NASA centers throughout the day. NASA TV will televise a wreath-laying ceremony at the Space Mirror Memorial at Kennedy Space Center's Visitor Center at 10:00 am ET.
On a completely different note, the debate over United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) use of Russian RD-180 rocket engines and efforts to build a U.S. alternative to them resumes on Wednesday with a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC). SASC Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) is livid that Senate appropriators pulled the rug out from under his feet, essentially allowing the use of an indeterminate number of RD-180s instead of capping the number at nine as required by the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) reportedly at the urging of the Air Force and ULA. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and DOD Under Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall will be at the witness table to explain their position. The argument is not over the need to end reliance on Russian engines for national security launches or to build a U.S. alternative, but the timing. ULA and the Air Force do not think a new U.S.-built engine will be ready for service by 2019; McCain thinks that is a reasonable goal. McCain also is an advocate for SpaceX and other "new entrants" who could compete against ULA and bring launch costs down.
Note that there is a more general hearing on defense acquisition the day before. [UPDATE: THIS HEARING HAS BEEN POSTPONED] At that one, the service chiefs will testify about the role they play in the acquisition process. Impossible to know if anything will come up about space, but it wouldn't be surprising. SASC's House counterpart, HASC, held its own defense acquisition hearing on January 7. HASC Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) used it as a opportunity to slam DOD on the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP). DOD bought 20 DMSP weather satellites almost two decades ago. The first 19 have been launched, but the fate of the last one, DMSP-20, is in limbo. In 2014, DOD said it no longer was needed, but changed its mind last year. Congress reacted skeptically and required DOD to certify whether it is needed or not. Meanwhile, millions of dollars have been spent keeping it in storage. Rogers used $518 million as the total amount of money spent on that one satellite and said a lot of aggravation could have been saved if 18 years ago the Air Force and Congress "put a half billion dollars in a parking lot in a pile and just burned it." He said now the satellite will be trashed and "I presume ... be made into razor blades." We'll see if the SASC hearing has any of its own fireworks.
Those and other events that are scheduled for next week are listed below. Check back throughout the week for additional events that we learn about and add to our Events of Interest list. And to all of our readers in the mid-Atlantic area about to endure this storm, pay heed to the experts on how to stay safe.
Tuesday, January 26
Wednesday, January 27
Wednesday-Friday, January 27-29
Thursday, January 28
Thursday-Friday, January 28-29
Friday, January 29
The distinction between climate and weather is on stark display right now as NASA and NOAA scientists announce that Earth experienced the warmest year on record in 2015 while at the same time the mid-Atlantic region is bracing for a blizzard.
Weather is local, climate is global. Weather is short-term, climate is long-term. A single local weather event, like a blizzard in Washington, DC, is not an indicator of what is happening to the planet on a global scale.
NASA and NOAA announced yesterday that 2015 was Earth's warmest year since record keeping began in 1880. NASA reported that the average surface temperature has risen 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, "a change largely driven by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere."
Climate change is hotly debated in political circles, primarily over whether it is human activity or natural causes at work. Exactly one year ago, the Senate voted 98-1 in favor of a statement that "climate change is real and not a hoax." The one vote against was cast by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS). However, the Senate then rejected by a vote of 50-49 a statement that "climate change is real and human activity significantly contributes to climate change." The key point of dispute was the word "significantly."
NASA and NOAA get caught up in that debate because they collect and analyze climate data from instruments in space, in the air, on the land and sea. Republicans in the House and Senate criticize NASA's investment in earth science research ($1.9 billion in FY2016) arguing that such research should be done by other government agencies, like NOAA, while NASA focuses on space exploration. However, some then criticize NOAA when it seeks funding for climate sensors to fly on its satellites because they want NOAA to focus on weather, not climate.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), a powerful member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is a strong supporter of NASA's earth science activities, many of which are led by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, MD. She also supports NOAA, which has its campus in Silver Spring, MD and its satellite operations center in Suitland, MD, though cost growth on NOAA's satellites has resulted in some sharp rebukes by the Senator. She is a key figure in maintaining funding for NASA's earth science program, in particular, and her pending retirement at the end of this year could complicate the agency's efforts to sustain those activities.
The announcement yesterday was made by Gavin Schmidt, Director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), and Thomas Karl, Director of NOAA's Centers for Environmental Information. GISS is located in New York City, but is managed by GSFC. Karl's center is in Asheville, NC. They said 15 of the 16 warmest years on record have been since 2001. The other was in 1998.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan, both former astronauts, said in a joint statement that the "direction of the long-term trend is as clear as a rocket headed for space: it is going up." Praising the collaboration between their two agencies, Bolden and Sullivan called the announcement "a key data point that should make policy makers stand up and take notice -- now is the time to act on climate."
NASA and NOAA work extensively with other countries as well in collecting and sharing environmental data. At a meeting of the steering committee for the Earth Science and Applications from Space (ESAS) Decadal Survey at the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine yesterday, Steve Volz. head of NOAA's satellite office, presented a slide showing all the countries involved in space-based earth observation (including space weather) that share data with each other.
Meanwhile, as for the blizzard, the Washington DC area is bracing for a historic storm. One airline (American) has already cancelled flights for Friday afternoon and Saturday. The Washington area's public transit system will shut down at 5:00 pm ET Friday for Metrobus and 11:00 pm ET for Metrorail and not reopen until "at least" Monday. If you are planning to come to DC this weekend or early next week, be sure to check that you can get in and out and your meeting or other event is still taking place. The blizzard warning lasts through Sunday at 6:00 am ET and if the snow accumulates as much as forecast -- 18 to 24 inches -- it is very likely everything will be closed on Monday, too (and perhaps after that).
The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) reports that China will launch a new space station and conduct test flights of two new rockets in 2016.
In a statement, CASC asserted that "more than 20 launches" are planned this year. Among them are test launches of the new Long March 5 and Long March 7 rockets. Both will launch from China's new Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island.
Long March 5 is designed to lift 25 tons into low Earth orbit (LEO), making it China's largest rocket. The most capable U.S. rocket operational today is the Delta IV, which can place 22 tons into LEO. Long March 7 is a smaller vehicle that will be used to launch cargo missions to Chinese space stations, for example.
Launch of a new space station, Tiangong-2, also is on tap this year according to CASC, along with a crewed Shenzhou 11 mission. That would mark just the sixth time China has launched astronauts ("taikonauts") since the first in 2003. Tiangong-1 was launched in 2011 and visited by one robotic spacecraft, Shenzhou-8, and two three-person crews: Shenzhou-9 in 2012 and Shenzhou-10 in 2013. Tiangong-1 was quite small (8.6 metric tons), but China has plans for a 60-ton space station in the early 2020s. The International Space Station, by comparison, is about 400 metric tons.
Long March 5 and Long March 7 are manufactured and tested in Tianjin, China. A chemical explosion in that city in August 2015 killed more than 100 people, but news reports did not indicate how close the Long March production facilities were to the blast site.
China tested two other new rockets last year: Long March 6 and Long March 11. Long March 6 is a liquid fueled rocket, while Long March 11 is solid fueled. Both are relatively small rockets that placed microsatellites into orbit.
The Wenchang Satellite Launch Center has been in development for many years and will become China's fourth space launch site. The other three are Jiuquan in the Gobi desert, China's first launch site, which is used for the human spaceflight program and high inclination launches; Xichang, in southwestern China, for launches to geostationary orbit; and Taiyuan, south of Beijing, for launches to polar orbits.
Chinese space officials said last year than Tiangong-2 would be launched in 2016 using a Long March 5 and be serviced by a Tianzhou-1 cargo ship launched on a Long March 7. CASC's statement appears to confirm those plans.
CASC also noted that two Beidou navigation satellites and the Gaofen-3 high resolution earth observation satellite will be launched in 2016.
Correction: An earlier version of this article used CAST as the acronym for the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. The correct acronym is CASC.
Editor's Note: A number of sources report on the launch capability of the world's rockets and not all agree. For consistency, SpacePolicyOnline.com uses the figures in the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation's "Year in Review" reports. Our statement in this article that the most capable U.S. rocket is the Delta IV at 22 tons to LEO is based on the FAA's 2014 report. However, the United Launch Alliance, which builds and launches Delta IV, says on its website that the Delta IV can place 28 tons into LEO. The higher figure reflects introduction of an uprated RS68A engine, whose first launch was in 2012.
NASA is investigating how water got into astronaut Tim Kopra's spacesuit during a spacewalk on Friday. The spacewalk was terminated early after Kopra reported that a small bubble of water was floating in his helmet and an absorbent pad behind his head was wet.
The incident is reminiscent of a more serious water incursion when European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Luca Parmitano was performing a spacewalk in July 2013. NASA at first assumed the water Parmitano reported in his helmet came from his drink bag, but the quantity continued to increase and eventually covered his ears, eyes and mouth as he worked his way back to the safety of the airlock. He remained calm throughout the ordeal, but wrote about it afterward saying that he felt "like a goldfish in a fishbowl."
NASA later determined that the water was from the spacesuit's cooling system that regulates the astronaut's temperature when on a spacewalk -- or extravehicular activity (EVA). The temperature changes dramatically as the International Space Station (ISS) circles the Earth every 90 minutes, moving from blistering sunlight to frigid cold. NASA determined that a clogged filter in a fan separator unit allowed the cooling water to make its way into the spacesuit itself -- something thought to be impossible until then. A Mishap Investigation Board identified five organizational root causes, apart from technical problems, that contributed to that life threatening incident.
As a contingency, the astronauts now place a Helmet Absorption Pad (HAP) -- similar to a diaper -- in the back of their helmets to absorb any water that might get in. They also have a type of snorkel that would allow them to breathe even if water covered their nose and mouth. Without gravity, water attaches itself through surface tension and there is no way to get rid of it without wiping it off, which is impossible to do when inside a spacesuit.
Parmitano's spacewalk partner that day was NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, who is now head of the astronaut office at Johnson Space Center. On Friday, Cassidy quickly directed that the spacewalk be terminated after Kopra reported on the size of the bubble and the fact that the water was cold. That indicated the water was not from the drink bag, but the cooling system in the backpack.
Cassidy said the size of the bubble (a half-inch wide and 2-3 inches long) and the fact that the HAP was "squishy" were troubling, but "for me the big hook" was the temperature of the water: "as soon as you can tell it is cold water .... that's coming from a source in your backpack and that's a significant concern for us."
The two astronauts directly made their way back to the airlock. NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who was inside the ISS during the EVA, helped Kopra get out of his spacesuit and tried to capture any loose water bubbles and put the HAP into a bag for later analysis to help engineers determine the leak rate. Cassidy said there should be no water in the HAP at all unless an astronaut is perspiring profusely.
Kopra and ESA astronaut Tim Peake were performing the spacewalk to replace a failure voltage regulator -- a Sequential Shunt Unit or SSU -- and that was accomplished successfully. They were beginning to do some additional tasks when the spacewalk was terminated. The total duration was 4 hours 43 minutes.
CBS News space correspondent BIll Harwood tweeted that the suit Kopra was wearing on Friday is the same one that Parmitano wore in July 2013, but that the fan separator unit thought to be at fault was replaced and the spacesuit cleaned and inspected. It was used without incident on a spacewalk in December.
NASA made no official announcement about the problem, but said in its space station blog that "[t]eams will continue to look over data collected during the spacewalk and discuss forward plans in the days to come." A link to an audio recording of Cassidy's comments are in that blog post.
SpaceX successfully launched the Jason-3 ocean altimetry satellite on a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA today. The company made another attempt to land the rocket's first stage on an autonomous drone ship out at sea, but that failed like previous attempts. Its one landing success was last month, on land.
Getting Jason-3 into the correct orbit was the primary objective of the launch and that appeared to go flawlessly. The launch pad was enshrouded by fog, but that was not a launch constraint and liftoff was on time at 1:42 pm ET (10:42 am local time at the launch site). The first and second stages of the Falcon 9 performed nominally and the spacecraft separated and its solar panels deployed as planned.
Jason-3 is a joint project among NOAA and NASA on the U.S. side, and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (Eumetsat) and the French space agency, CNES, on the European side. It is the fourth in a series of experimental and now operational spacecraft to measure the height of the ocean's surface that began with Topex-Poseidon (1992), followed by Jason-1 (2001) and Jason-2 (2008). The launch of Jason-3 was delayed several times, making today's success that much more of a relief to scientists who rely on this type of data.
SpaceX's attempt to land the first stage on its Just Read the Instructions autonomous spaceport drone ship (often incorrectly referred to as a barge) was a secondary objective, but of at least as much interest to space enthusiasts. The company's successful landing last month on terra firma at Cape Canaveral, FL generated a lot of media attention. Its two previous attempts to land on drone ships failed in January and April 2015. As Musk explained in a series of tweets today, landing on a ship at sea is more difficult than on land, but the fundamental failure today appears to be related to one of the four landing legs not locking into place. SpaceX later released a video of the landing on Instagram.
The landings are related to Musk's goal of developing reusable rockets that he anticipates will lead to lower launch costs. The economics of reusable launch vehicles is very controversial, with NASA's space shuttle used as an example of why reusability may not yield such results. The costs of refurbishing the space shuttle after each use were so high and the number of launches per year so low that launch costs never came down. The space shuttle was a very complex vehicle, however, and its relevance to a simpler rocket like the Falcon 9 is unclear.
Note: This article, published on January 17, was updated on January 18 with the link to the video of the landing.
Here is our list of space policy related events for January 17-22, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The Senate is in session part of the week; the House is in recess.
During the Week
Tomorrow (Monday) is a Federal holiday -- Martin Luther King's birthday -- and federal offices will be closed. The House is taking the entire week off, but the Senate will be in session beginning Tuesday.
The big news for this week has already happened: today's successful launch of the NOAA-Eumetsat-NASA-CNES Jason-3 ocean altimetry spacecraft. Despite the fog, the launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA went off on time at 1:42 pm Eastern Time (10:42 am local time at the launch site) and as of this moment, the satellite is in the correct orbit and the solar arrays have deployed. The Falcon 9 launch was flawless, but SpaceX's attempt to land the first stage on one of its autonomous drone ships about 200 miles off the California coast failed. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted that one of the landing legs did not lock into place so the rocket tipped over when landing on the drone ship.
The successful launch of Jason-3 will provide a nice backdrop for Wednesday's NASA-NOAA media telecon on weather and climate, although the telecon's focus is what happened last year. The telecon will be broadcast on NASA's News Audio website at 11:00 am ET. An hour later, NOAA's Chief Scientist, Rick Spinrad, will have a chance to tout the success at a Maryland Space Business Roundtable luncheon.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below. Check back throughout the week to see any additional events we learn about later and post on our Events of Interest list.
Sunday-Wednesday, January 17-20
Wednesday, January 20
Thursday, January 21
NASA announced the winners of the second round of Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) awards today (Thursday, January 14). All three companies still in the running for these CRS2 awards -- Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX -- came up winners.
At a press conference at NASA's Johnson Space Center, International Space Station (ISS) Program Director Sam Scimemi announced that each company won a minimum of six launches each, though no orders have been made for any of them yet. The launches will take place between 2019 and 2024.
SpaceX and Orbital ATK are the two incumbents. They won the first round of CRS awards and have been launching cargo missions to the ISS since 2012 and 2013 respectively. SpaceX launches its Dragon cargo spacecraft on its Falcon 9 rockets. Orbital ATK developed the Antares rocket to launch its Cygnus cargo spacecraft. Both suffered launch failures: Orbital (before its merger with ATK) in October 2014 and SpaceX in June 2015.
Orbital ATK returned the Cygnus spacecraft to service in December 2015, but using United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V rocket rather than Antares. Flights using Antares are expected to resume in May. SpaceX's Falcon 9 returned to flight in December sending seven ORBCOMM OG-2 communications satellites into low Earth orbit. Two more Falcon 9 launches -- including one on Sunday of the Jason-3 satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA -- are planned before the company attempts the next cargo launch to ISS (SpaceX CRS-8 or SpX-8). That was scheduled for February, but rumors are that it will take place in March instead.
For this second round of CRS awards, three more companies joined the competition: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada. Lockheed Martin and Boeing were dropped from the competition last year. That left the two incumbents plus Sierra Nevada. All three won awards today.
The three companies offer different solutions for ISS cargo services. Orbital ATK and SpaceX use capsules reminiscent of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. Orbital ATK's Cygnus can be used only to take cargo to the ISS and to dispose of trash when it departs the ISS and burns up during reentry. SpaceX's Dragon can take cargo to the ISS as well as return it to Earth since it is designed to survive reentry and land in the ocean. Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser is a very different design. It resembles a very small version of the space shuttle. Like Dragon, it can take cargo to and from ISS and it lands on a runway as did the space shuttle.
NASA now has a range of options available depending on its needs -- pressurized or unpressurized one-way or two-way cargo. ISS Program Manager Kirk Shireman said today that it is too early to say how many of each version will be needed when, but the minimum number of flights guaranteed to each company through 2024 is six.
A total of four U.S. commercial cargo missions to the ISS are needed each year. Those are in addition to cargo missions flown by Russia's Progress and Japan's HTV spacecraft. Shireman declined to reveal the value of the contracts awarded today. He said only that the total amount available is $14 billion through 2024, but the current awards fall well short of that. Orbital ATK said in a statement that the value of the six missions it was awarded today is $1.2-$1.5 billion.
SpaceX uses its own Falcon 9 for the Dragon missions. Sierra Nevada will launch Dream Chaser on United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets. Both SpaceX and Sierra Nevada will launch from Cape Canaveral, FL.
Orbital ATK's Antares launches from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, VA. The third operational launch, Orb-3, failed. To ensure that it met its requirement to launch 20 tons of cargo to ISS by the end of 2016, it contracted with ULA to launch two Cygnus capsules using ULA's Atlas V while Antares is being outfitted with new engines. The first ULA launch of a Cygnus capsule took place in December and another is planned in March. Those launches are from Cape Canaveral. Orbital ATK plans to resume Cygnus launches using the upgraded Antares from Wallops in May. Its CRS2 proposal offered both variants -- launches on Atlas V from Cape Canaveral or on Antares from Wallops.
NASA officials said today that this round of CRS awards reflects lessons learned from the first round. Among the changes is insurance requirements for the companies to cover damage to government property during launch, reentry, or in proximity to or docking with the ISS.
Today's announcement came months later than expected. Originally the CRS2 awards were to be announced in June 2015. That slipped to September and then November. At that time, NASA gave January 30 as the expected award date, so in that sense, today's announcement could be considered "early."
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, and Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), chairman of its Space Subcommittee, commended the awards. They said that the recently enacted Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act demonstrated Congress's support of the commercial space industry.
NASA's efforts to facilitate the development of new cargo and crew systems to service the ISS through Public-Private Partnerships began under the George W. Bush Administration. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin initiated the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) or "commercial cargo" program in 2006 wherein both the government and the private sector invested in the development of the systems with the agreement that NASA would purchase a certain amount of services. Using the same type of arrangement to develop systems capable of taking astronauts -- "commercial crew" -- to and from ISS was envisioned at that time, but was kick-started by the Obama Administration and made a centerpiece of NASA's strategy for maintaining the ISS once the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.
Today, SpaceX has contracts for both commercial cargo and commercial crew, with the first commercial crew launch expected around 2017. It builds its own spacecraft (Dragon and Crew Dragon) and rockets (Falcon 9).
Orbital ATK and Sierra Nevada have contracts for commercial cargo. Orbital ATK can launch its Cygnus spacecraft either on its own Antares rockets or ULA's Atlas V. Sierra Nevada will launch Dream Chaser on ULA Atlas V rockets.
Boeing is the other company that has a commercial crew contract. Its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft will launch on ULA's Atlas V. The first launch is expected around 2017.
Although Lockheed Martin does not have any of the commercial cargo or commercial crew contracts, it is building the Orion spacecraft under a traditional government contract with NASA to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) to the vicinity of the Moon and someday to Mars beginning in the early 2020s.
The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) has awarded Orbital ATK and SpaceX a total of $80 million in "Other Transaction Agreements" (OTAs) for work connected to its efforts to develop a U.S. alternative to Russia's RD-180 rocket engines.
SMC characterized the awards of $46.9 million to Orbital ATK and $33.6 million to SpaceX as "initial government contributions" for Rocket Propulsion System (RPS) prototypes. The OTAs are similar to NASA's Space Act Agreements and are part of the move towards public private partnerships for developing new space hardware. SMC says that it is still negotiating with other offerors and all of the awards are part of a portfolio of planned investments "in industry's RPS solutions." Companies could submit proposals for addressing a range of requirements for the national security space sector from developing a new RPS to modifying an existing RPS to addressing high risk items for an RPS or subcomponents, or testing of qualifying a new or existing RPS.
The award to Orbital ATK is for development of the Common Booster Segment main stage, the Graphite Epoxy Motor 63XL strap-on booster, and an extendable nozzle for Blue Origin's BE-3U/EN upper stage engine. SpaceX's award is for development and testing of its Raptor upper stage.
The national security sector currently relies on the United Launch Alliance's Delta IV and Atlas V Evolved Expandable Launch Vehicles (EELVs). The Atlas V is powered by Russia's RD-180 engines and the strained U.S.-Russian relationship following Russia's annexation of Crimea and other actions in Ukraine galvanized political pressure to end that reliance on Russia. The Air Force and ULA agree on the need to build a U.S. alternative, but disagree with those, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who want to set 2019 as a firm date for ending use of the RD-180.
Orbital ATK said in a statement that the $47 million award has options valued up to $133 million and "the company will also contribute additional development funds." The SMC announcement stated that for all of these awards "at least one third" of the total cost would be paid by "parties to the transactions other than the federal government."
NASA astronauts will continue flying on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft even after U.S. commercial crew systems come on line and Russian cosmonauts will fly on the U.S. systems according to NASA astronaut Jeff Williams. The point is to ensure that all crew members are cross-trained on the various systems.
Williams is getting ready to launch to the International Space Station (ISS) on March 18 with two Russian crewmates, Alexei Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka. During a pre-flight press conference at NASA's Johnson Space Center last week, he said it is "fair to say, to assume" that there "will be continue to be one U.S crew member on every Soyuz and one Russian cosmonaut on every U.S. commercial vehicle."
During his time on ISS, the first International Docking Adapter (IDA) for commercial crew vehicles is expected to be delivered via a SpaceX commercial cargo launch. (The June 2015 SpaceX CRS-7 mission had the first IDA aboard, but the launch failed. This is the second IDA, but, hopefully, the first to arrive at the ISS.) Williams is scheduled to take part in a spacewalk to attach it to the ISS. When talking about the enhanced capabilities that will enable, Williams noted that although today there is much discussion about U.S. reliance on Russia for taking crews to and from ISS, from an operational standpoint, the crews need to be trained on all the spacecraft that will be available to them.
NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz confirmed via email to SpacePolicyOnline.com that Williams' statements are correct. She stressed that the United States no longer will be "solely reliant" on Russia and it is important to have more than one system capable of taking crews back and forth.
When the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) that governs the ISS international partnership was signed, NASA planned to operate the space shuttle throughout the ISS's lifetime and agreed to be responsible for launching not only U.S astronauts, but those from Europe, Canada and Japan, as part of each nation's contribution. NASA still has that obligation even though the United States decided to terminate the space shuttle program. NASA pays Russia for seats on the Soyuz spacecraft to take all those crew members to and from ISS. The current price is about $75 million per seat.
Schierholz said that in the commercial crew era there will be no exchange of funds between the United States and Russia for crew transportation.
Events of Interest