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UPDATE, January 20: New House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Chairman Mac Thornberry will lay out his agenda for the 114th Congress at 10:00 am ET this morning (Monday) to the American Enterprise Institute. It will be webcast.
UPDATE, January 19: The White House announced today that astronaut Scott Kelly will be one of the many guests sitting with First Lady Michelle Obama during Tuesday's State of the Union address. Whether or not the President will mention Kelly and his upcoming year-long mission to the ISS or anything else about the space program is unclear, but it raises that possibility.
January18, 2015: Here is our list of space policy related events coming up for the week of January 19-23, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate will be in session for part of the week (Monday is a holiday -- Martin Luther King Jr. Day) and on Tuesday will meet in joint session to hear President Obama's State of the Union Address.
During the Week
The list of events this week is somewhat short, but they are important events that will set the stage for what transpires in months to come.
The two committees that set policy for NASA will hold their organizational meetings this week: the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee on Tuesday and the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee on Wednesday. Committee and subcommittee members are usually formalized at these meetings and the chairs and ranking members often use the opportunity to lay out their priorities for the year. The Senate committee will now be run by Republicans instead of Democrats since Republicans won control of the Senate in last year's elections. Sen. John Thune (R-SD) will be chairman and Sen. BIll Nelson (D-FL) is the ranking member. In space policy circles. a lot of attention is being paid to the selection of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to chair the Space, Science and Competitiveness subcommittee and what that may mean especially for NASA's earth science program. Cruz told the Houston Chronicle his overall priorities for oversight of the U.S. civil space program, starting with reauthorization of the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA) and returning NASA to its "core priority of exploring space."
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS) will retain their leadership positions on the full House SS&T committee and its Space Subcommittee respectively. Smith said last year that CSLA will be one of his top priorities in this Congress. A prohibition on the FAA enacting new regulations on commercial human spaceflight expires this year, so that is certain to be a topic for debate. How the October 2014 Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo crash will affect the outcome is an open question.
On Tuesday, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will speak to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR). While he won't be able to talk about the President's upcoming budget request for FY2016, which will not be released until February 2, he should be able to explain how the agency will spend the extra half billion dollars Congress provided for the current fiscal year above the President's request, and provide updates on ongoing programs. He and members of his NASA Advisory Council (NAC) had frank exchanges about the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) last week and perhaps he will try once more to convince the space community that moving an asteroid -- or part of an asteroid -- from one place in the solar system to another is critical to achieving the long term goal of sending humans to Mars. That is the part of the mission NAC members question. NASA says it will announce in "mid-January" its choice of whether to move an entire small asteroid (Option A) or pluck a boulder off of a larger asteroid (Option B) and move just that part. It is mid-January already. Perhaps Bolden will make the announcement at the MSBR meeting, though we have not heard any rumors to that effect. The decision was supposed to have been announced last month, but was delayed at the last moment.
Also on Tuesday, President Obama will present his annual State of the Union Address. There is no indication that the space program will be mentioned, but it should be interesting nonetheless to see what the President has in mind as he faces his last two years in office with a Congress controlled entirely by Republicans. During his first two years, Democrats controlled both chambers. Democrats lost the House in 2010 and he faced a split Congress for the next four years. Now they have lost the Senate as well and Republicans made significant gains in the House. Expectations are low that Washington gridlock will come to an end. Senate Democrats may be as effective in the minority as the Republicans were for four years and the President wields the veto pen.
Tuesday, January 20
Wednesday, January 21
Today has been a busy day, with many interesting announcements from around the globe ranging from locating Europe's Beagle-2 lander on Mars to SpaceX's release of video of its Falcon 9 first stage crashing into instead of landing on an autonomous drone ship to NASA's release of its source selection statements for the CCtCAP awards to Boeing and SpaceX and several more.
Here are brief summaries with links to more information:
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a pair of reports today on NOAA's two new weather satellite programs -- the polar orbiting JPSS and the geostationary GOES-R series -- warning that schedule challenges could result in data gaps for both types of systems.
For several years NOAA itself has been warning about the possibility of data gaps because of budget constraints and programmatic issues. A number of reviews have been carried out by GAO and an independent review team headed by industry icon Tom Young.
NOAA launched the last of its current generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites, NOAA-19, in 2009. That series was supposed to be replaced by the NOAA-DOD-NASA National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), but that program was terminated in 2010 after years of schedule slips and cost overruns. The Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) is NOAA's successor to NPOESS to meet civil weather satellite requirements, but encountered its own delays and cost growth since that time. Currently, the first JPSS is expected to be launched in 2017. Concerned about a data gap between NOAA-19 and JPSS-1, NOAA is using a NASA technology development satellite, Suomi-NPP, as a bridge between the two systems and hoping Suomi-NPP, launched in 2011, continues to function until JPSS-1 is operational.
Today's GAO report on JPSS found that "recent cost growth on key components likely is unsustainable and risks remain that could increase the potential for near-term satellite data gaps." It warns that "a gap in satellite data may occur earlier and last longer than NOAA anticipates." Almost 40 alternatives have been identified for mitigating any gap, GAO reports, but NOAA's contingency plan has "shortfalls" that GAO wants addressed. It made five recommendations and said the agency agreed with them.
As for geostationary satellites, NOAA plans to launch the first of the new GOES-R series in March 2016. NOAA keeps three Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) in orbit -- two operational (GOES-East and GOES-West) and one on-orbit spare. The satellites have letter designations while in development and numbers after launch. GOES-13, -14 and -15 are now in orbit. They are third-generation satellites that will be replaced by the fourth-generation GOES-R series (-R, -S, -T and -U).
GAO reported today that the GOES-R program "continues to face challenges in the areas of schedule, cost, and functionality" with "delays in major milestones and cost overruns on key components." The concern in this case is that a gap may develop in the availability of the on-orbit spare. NOAA faces "a potential gap of more than a year during which an on-orbit backup satellite would not be available" so if one of the operational satellites failed, a gap in data could occur. NOAA has, in fact, experienced problems with GOES-13 and GOES-14 (the spare) has been activated to replace it, though ultimately GOES-13 was brought back into service each time.
GAO wants NOAA to "address shorfalls in its defect management approach, reduce the number of open high priority defects, and add information to its satellite contingency plan." As with the JPSS report, GAO said that NOAA concurred with the recommendations.
For more information on NOAA's satellite programs and how they fared in the FY2015 budget process, see our fact sheet.
What turned out to be a malfunctioning data relay caused the three International Space Station (ISS) crew members who spend most of their time in the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) to evacuate into the Russian segment while ground controllers determined just what was going on. Initially it appeared there had been an ammonia leak.
ISS program manager Mike Suffredini explained at an 11:00 am EST briefing that at 4:00 am EST (3:00 am Central) systems indicated that four measurements were "off scale." An alarm indicated that water was building up in one of two coolant loops (Loop B) used to transfer heat out of the interior of the space station. The water carries heat away, through a heat exchanger, to an ammonia loop on the exterior of the station. The system is designed to prevent ammonia from getting into the interior of the facility, but there are failure scenarios that could cause such an incursion. One sign is that the water level rises in one of the loops.
Consequently NASA astronauts Barry "Butch" Wilmore and Terry Virts and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Samantha Cristoforreti were ordered to don protective masks and move into the Russian segment.
Suffredini said that initial checks indicated there was no ammonia leak and the crew members were allowed to return to the USOS, but shortly after that an air pressure spike was detected, another "cue" there could be an ammonia leak. The crew was sent back to the Russian segment.
Ground control teams troubleshot the issue and after several hours determined that a "transient error message" in a multiplexer-demultiplexer (MDM) computer relay system had, by chance, sent erroneous data that mimicked an ammonia leak. Ground controllers recycled the MDM and the false readings disappeared. The crew returned to the USOS at 3:05 pm EST, still wearing protective masks, to sample the atmosphere. No ammonia was detected.
Suffredini said that the research being conducted by the astronauts would have to be replanned because of the "impromptu" day off, but did not expect any major impacts.
The ISS is a modular facility with part composed of modules and equipment built by Russia (the Russian Orbital Segment-ROS) and the other part by the United States, Japan, Europe and Canada (the USOS segment). A hatch separates the two segments so in circumstances like this, one can serve as a safe haven if there is a problem in the other. The Russian segment uses a different type of cooling system and was not affected by this problem.
Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) laid out his agenda on space issues today, issuing the transcript of an interview with the Houston Chronicle's Eric Berger as a press release. Cruz is set to chair the Senate Commerce Committee's Space, Science and Competitiveness subcommittee, which oversees NASA.
One of his subcommittee's first priorities will be reauthorization of the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA), he said. He expressed support for SpaceX's "substantial investments" in Texas, which has a rocket development and testing facility in McGregor and is building a launch site near Brownsville. "I am an enthusiastic advocate of competition and allowing the private sector to innovate," he told Berger.
He also signaled support for the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion, which he labeled "critical to our medium- and long-term ability to explore space, whether it's the Moon, Mars or beyond." As for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), he was noncommittal: "The [ARM] mission has at times seemed to have had a changing and shifting focus." He said he wants to hold hearings "to help NASA articulate and formulate its priorities for space exploration, whether to an asteroid, the moon, Mars or beyond."
A number of articles have been published in recent days expressing concern about the fate of science, especially climate change science, under his stewardship. He is a climate change skeptic. He is chairing an authorization subcommittee, which has an important policy role, but it would be difficult for him to get a law enacted to curtail that research.
Berger did not ask him about that, but in response to a question about whether he was interested in space while growing up, Cruz criticized the Obama Administration for losing sight of NASA's "core mission" and vowed to refocus NASA on "its core priority of exploring space." "We need to get back to the hard sciences, to manned space exploration and to the innovation that has been integral to the mission of NASA. We should not be allowing NASA to have its resources diverted to extraneous political agendas and apart from exploring space."
What he means by that is not entirely clear. Some speculate he was referring to climate change science, while others thought it might mean science overall or perhaps a reference to geopolitical competition. Cruz made clear that he does not like the United States being reliant on Russia for launches to the International Space Station (ISS) and complained that the Obama Administration has provided "insufficient" responses to his questions about the consequences if Russia "shut off the Soyuz." He also said he did not want U.S. dependence on RD-180 engines.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told the NASA Advisory Council today that he has met Cruz once and he was "cordial," but Bolden does not know if Cruz will be as active on NASA issues as was Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). Nelson chaired the subcommittee in the last Congress when Democrats controlled the Senate. Bolden and Nelson are close friends. Nelson flew on the space shuttle in 1986 (STS-61C) when he was a Congressman and Bolden was the pilot of that mission. Nelson is widely credited with getting Bolden the job as NASA Administrator. He is now the top Democrat on the full Senate Commerce Committee.
Much is being made of Senator Ted Cruz’s ascension to chairmanship of a Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA and a few other government science and technology programs. Cruz critics postulate Armageddon for climate science research because Cruz is a climate change skeptic. A quick reminder about how Congress works may lend perspective in assessing how much impact his views may have.
If approved by the full committee on January 20 as expected, Cruz will chair one of six subcommittees of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee – the subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness.
In the last Congress, the Science and Space Subcommittee covered NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The reordering of the words "science" and "space" is new, along with the addition of "competitiveness," a topic that previously was part of a seventh subcommittee that has been abolished and its oversight areas redistributed. Contrary to some news reports today, it does NOT cover atmospheric sciences. That is under the Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard subcommittee, which will be chaired by Marco Rubio (R-FL). NOAA is covered by Rubio’s subcommittee.
The committee and its subcommittees are part of the authorization process in Congress. Authorizers provide oversight, set policy and recommend funding levels. They do not provide any money to anyone. Only appropriations committees provide money to federal departments and agencies like NASA that are part of “discretionary” spending (as opposed to mandatory spending for programs like Social Security and Medicare).
The Senators with the most power to decide how much money NASA (and NOAA) will get and how that money is spent are Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) who are the chair and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Both are NASA advocates and Mikulski is particularly supportive of NASA earth science programs and NOAA’s weather satellites. Even though she is in the minority now, she still is very powerful and it is difficult to imagine a Senate appropriations bill that includes disproportionate cuts to either of those programs. (Not that there might not be cuts – that depends on spending caps.)
Cruz, by contrast, has authority over policy and theoretically could write a NASA authorization bill that restricts what climate science research NASA could do or even abolishes NASA’s entire earth science program. Such a bill, however, would have to get through the full committee, the Senate, the House and be signed into law by the President before becoming law. While one should “never say never,” the chances of that happening are extremely small.
The very first step in that process could be a challenge since the full Senate Commerce Committee is chaired by Sen. John Thune (R-SD), who is also the third ranking Republican in the Senate. His views are much more moderate than Cruz’s. As reported by the Washington Post in November, Thune acknowledged on Fox News that he accepts that human activity contributes to climate change.
South Dakota is home to the Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center that, among other things, manages data from the Landsat series of spacecraft. While it is USGS in the Department of Interior that operates the EROS Center and the Landsat satellites already on orbit, NASA is the agency that designs, builds and launches new Landsat satellites. Thus, he probably is more familiar with at least some aspects of NASA earth science programs and has constituent interests at stake. Also, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), an ardent NASA supporter, is the top Democrat on the committee and while he is now in the minority, he is a highly respected voice on NASA issues.
Even if such a bill nonetheless made it out of committee and all the way through Congress, it is next to impossible to imagine President Obama signing it. While Republicans control the House and Senate, they do not have veto-proof majorities.
While the ringing of alarm bells has focused mostly on Cruz’s climate change views, others are worried that his determination to cut federal spending could cast a pall on other NASA programs, too. That is a much greater concern, but is not really related to his subcommittee chairmanship.
Cutting federal spending across the board is where Cruz has made his stand and there is little reason to expect he will change that stance. He is blamed (or credited) for leading the effort that shut down the government for 16 days in 2013 and keeping the Senate in session longer than even his Republican colleagues wanted last month over the final FY2015 appropriations bill (though the main issue there was immigration).
Cruz might use his subcommittee chairmanship to hold hearings lambasting the Obama Administration’s support for climate science research – as the House Science, Space and Technology Committee has been doing for several years – but he does not need a subcommittee chairmanship to be a powerful force for government spending cuts that could affect NASA.
Under current law, sequestration returns in FY2016. For those who want to anguish over the outlook for NASA funding for climate science research or anything else, that is the real issue – will Congress repeal sequestration and, if it does, will non-defense discretionary programs like NASA fare any better under whatever replaces it.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of January 12-16, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
The week starts off with the berthing of the SpaceX CRS-5 (SpX-5) Dragon spacecraft with the International Space Station at about 6:00 am ET Monday morning. It may seem anticlimatic compared with Saturday's SpX-5 launch -- or rather the attempted landing of the Falcon 9 first stage on an autonomous drone ship. While that didn't go as planned, as a test it certainly was a success as a step towards reusability.
Congressional committee activities for the 114th Congress get off to a start this week. Many House committees, including the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), are holding their organizational meetings to adopt rules, lay out majority and minority agendas, and complete administrative tasks. Rep. MacThornberry (R-TX) takes over the HASC gavel this Congress from Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-CA), who retired. Over in the Senate, SASC is holding an actual hearing with a single witness -- Henry Kissinger -- expounding on global challenges and U.S. national security. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) will chair SASC in this Congress. Space topics do not usually arise in hearings like these on broad, top level national security issues, but U.S. dependence on Russia for rocket engines, the overall state of national security space assets, or perceived threats posed by China's space activities might come up depending on where the conversation goes.
Down at Stennis Space Center, MS, the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and two of its committees -- Science and Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) -- will meet this week. A joint session Monday afternoon between the Science and HEO committees might be particularly interesting. Then, on Tuesday morning HEO Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier will provide the HEO committee with an update on HEO activities overall and Michele Gates and Lindley Johnson will present an update on the Asteroid Redirect Mission. Later in the day, Alan Lindenmoyer will offer NAC-HEO "lessons learned" from the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. The meetings are available virtually via WebEx and telecon (click on the links to those meetings below or on the right menu for instructions).
Those and other events of interest that we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Monday, January 12
Monday-Tuesday, January 12-13
Tuesday, January 13
Wednesday-Thursday, January 14-15
Thursday, January 15
Friday, January 16
SpaceX founder and Chief Designer Elon Musk reported early this morning (January 10) that the landing of his Falcon 9 first stage on a drone ship did not go as planned: "Close, but no cigar." However, the main objective of the launch today was sending a Dragon cargo resupply spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) and that part of the mission is proceeding flawlessly.
Liftoff of this fifth SpaceX operational cargo resupply mission, SpaceX CRS-5 or SpX-5, was on time at 4:47 am EST this morning from Cape Canaveral, FL. The countdown proceeded without a hitch this time, unlike the previous launch attempt on Tuesday when launch was scrubbed with just over one minute to go because of a malfunctioning second stage thrust vector control actuator. SpaceX replaced that actuator for today's launch.
The first and second stages of the Falcon 9 rocket performed as planned, placing Dragon into the correct orbit for it to reach the ISS on Monday at about 6:00 am EST. It carries 5,108 pounds of food, water, clothing, experiments and equipment for the six-person crew living aboard the space station.
Delivering cargo for NASA is the main job, but interest in the launch was especially high because of SpaceX's test of landing the Falcon 9 first stage on a platform in the ocean -- an "autonomous drone ship." The company already successfully conducted two "landings" on water, but the stage, of course, tipped over into the water at the end. Today's test was to have a survivable landing. The tests are related to Musk's goal of developing a reusable rocket. The only reusable launch vehicle successfully developed and flown to date was the U.S. space shuttle. The shuttle's airplane-like orbiters, which included the system's three main engines, and its solid rocket boosters were all reusable. The shuttle program was terminated in 2011 after 30 years of flights.
Today, one of the nine Falcon 9 first stage engines reignited for the "boost back" stage of the flight and it reached the ship, but "landed hard" as Musk tweeted (@elonmusk) in the first of several messages throughout the morning:
"Rocket made it to drone ship, but landed hard. Close, but no cigar this time. Bodes well for the future, tho."
"Ship itself is fine. Some of the support equipment on the deck will need to be replaced ...."
"Didn't get good landing/impact video. Pitch dark and foggy. Will piece it together from telemetry and ... actual pieces."
"Grid fins worked extremely well from hypersonic velocity to subsonic, but ran out of hydraulic fuel right before landing."
"Upcoming flight already has 50% more hydraulic fluid, so should have plenty of margin for landing attempt next month."
"Am super proud of my team for making huge strides towards reusability on this mission, You guys rock!"
On January 16, Musk tweeted video taken by a camera on the done ship of the first stage crashing into it. The video does not appear to be posted on SpaceX's website, but other sites, such as SpaceflightNow.com, have done so.
Note: This article was updated shortly after noon EST on January 10 (the day of launch) with more of Musk's tweets and deleting the reference to a NASA press conference that had been scheduled for 6:30 am, but subsequently cancelled. It also was updated on January 17 with the link to the video of the crash landing on the drone ship.
As of 10:00 pm Eastern Standard Time (EST) tonight, January 9, SpaceX's fifth operational cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) is still on schedule for launch at 4:47 am EST tomorrow morning.
The launch of Space X CRS-5, or SpX-5, has been delayed several times since its original December 9, 2014 launch date. Most recently it was scrubbed just over one minute before launch on January 6 because of a malfunctioning thrust vector control actuator in a second stage engine. SpaceX reportedly has replaced that actuator and is on track for tomorrow morning's launch. The weather forecast is 80 percent favorable.
NASA TV coverage of the launch begins at 3:30 am EST.
Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides made clear today that the company remains committed to its goal of opening space for all both with suborbital flights of passengers and launches of small satellites.
The company, owned by Richard Branson, is still recovering from a fatal SpaceShipTwo spaceplane test flight accident on October 31, 2014 that killed one of the two pilots. Co-pilot Michael Alsbury died. Pilot Peter Siebold survived. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has not completed its investigation, but determined that Alsbury prematurely moved a lever to initiate a "feathering system" designed to slow the spaceplane during its descent. It should have been moved when the spaceplane was at Mach 1.4, but he moved it at Mach 1.02 during ascent. Deployment of the feathering system was supposed to require a second lever to be moved by the pilot and that did not take place. Why it deployed nonetheless is still under scrutiny. The deployment of the feathering system at the wrong time apparently created aerodynamic forces that ripped the spaceplane apart.
Whitesides said that Virgin Galactic (VG) will "recover, we'll learn the hard lessons from the accident, and return to flight." In fact, he said test flights will resume in 2015 and commercial flights will begin in 2016.
VG was planning to build five SpaceShipTwo vehicles. The one lost in the October accident was the only completed vehicle, but a second was already in manufacturing. Today, Whitesides said structural fabrication is over 90 percent complete as well as two-thirds of the systems. "Weight on wheels is now in sight," he told the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) SciTech2015 conference in Kissimmee, FL, adding that the vehicle will accommodate any changes identified by the NTSB to enhance safety.
Society has become "risk intolerant," Whitesides observed, which has both positive and negative consequences. Injuries may be reduced by people wearing bike helmets, but taking "smart risks" is essential to progress. He said he has spent a great deal of time since the accident explaining the nature of test flights to the public and press and concedes that VG could have done a better job of managing expectations. There is no simple answer to when a vehicle is ready to fly, he stressed.
As for launching small satellites (smallsats), VG is developing LauncherOne, an air-launched vehicle. Whitesides was optimistic about the market for such satellites, especially constellations of low Earth orbit (LEO) smallsats that will need continual replenishment. The first flight test of LauncherOne is expected in 2016.
Branson "has redoubled his commitment" to VG, Whitesides asserted. "A second spaceship is close at hand and we are hard at work on LauncherOne. We will persevere and ultimately succeed," he vowed.
Correction: An earlier version of this article identified Whitesides as President of VG. He is currently its CEO.
Events of Interestl