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Senate Passes Cromnibus Assuring FY2015 Funds for NASA, NOAA, DOD - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Dec-2014 (Updated: 14-Dec-2014 02:16 PM)

Update:  Links to the text of the bill and joint explanatory statements for CJS (NASA and NOAA) and Defense have been added.

The Senate just passed the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015, colloquially called the "cromnibus."  It funds NASA, NOAA, DOD and most other government departments and agencies -- except the Department of Homeland Security -- through the end of the fiscal year (September 30, 2015).

Demonstrating once again that it is always darkest before the dawn, the 56-40 vote came after a 24-hour period when it looked like the Senate was in for a long debate about the bill.   Senate Democratic and Republican leaders had hoped to spend the weekend at home and come back and vote on the bill Monday, but Tea Party Republicans led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT) objected late last night and consequently the Senate was in session today.  

Throughout much of the day, many worried that the Senate could not even pass a new Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government operating until Wednesday (otherwise funding would have expired tonight).  That CR finally passed this afternoon, but it was unclear when a vote on the cromnibus would take place.

Cruz and Lee did force a vote on the constitutionality of President Obama's immigration executive order "though it was badly defeated by bipartisan opposition, 22-74" according to Politico.   Politico goes on to point out that the Cruz-Lee delay opened an opportunity for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to bring a number of President Obama's long-delayed nominations to the floor for a vote and now "there's little Republicans can do to stop him."

From the standpoint of funding the government, at least, it was good news.   The cromnibus -- a combination of a CR to fund the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through February 27, 2015 and the rest of the government through the end of the fiscal year  -- includes a significant increase for NASA and strong support for NOAA's satellite programs.  DHS is funded only by a shorter-term CR as a signal of Republican disapproval of the President's immigration executive order.  Immigration is part of DHS's portfolio.

The text of the bill was written as a Senate amendment to a House-passed bill on an unrelated topic (H.R. 83).   The joint explanatory statement (formerly a conference report) is separated into "divisions" for each of the regular appropriations bills.  Division B is Commerce-Justice-Science (including NASA and NOAA); Division C is Defense.

Senate Agrees to CR Through Wednesday, Still Debating Cromnibus

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Dec-2014 (Updated: 13-Dec-2014 05:21 PM)

This afternoon the Senate agreed to the second short-term Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government open through Wednesday, December 17, after a morning of high stakes drama where the words "government shutdown" were once again heard.  If this second CR did not pass, government funding would have expired at midnight.

The Senate is trying to complete work on FY2015 funding and a few other measures before bringing the 113th Congress to a close.   One way or another, this Congress will end and the new 114th Congress -- with Republicans in control of both the House and Senate -- will convene in early January.

The FY2015 funding bill, called a "cromnibus" because it combines a CR (through February 27, 2015) for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and a full-year (through September 30, 2015) omnibus appropriations for the rest of the government is very controversial because of policy provisions ("riders") that were added by House and Senate negotiators in order to reach a compromise.  The bill narrowly passed the House on Thursday and is now struggling to win the support of enough Senators to secure passage there.

Tea Party Republicans Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) are seen as the leaders in opposing the cromnibus because it does not send a strong enough message to the President about Republican dissatisfaction with the President's executive order on immigration.  Cruz is viewed as the architect of last year's 16-day government shutdown, which many establishment Republicans opposed and have vowed to prevent from occurring again.  Several were quoted today questioning the Cruz-Lee strategy today.  Sen. Orrin Hatch (R), Utah's senior senator, told reporters "I don't see any end game that can be won, other than irritating people."  Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) said it was "not in keeping with our Republican commitment to return to normal order and to show the people of this country that we can govern responsibly."

Tea Party Republicans are not the only ones unhappy with the cromnibus.  Liberal Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) are equally unhappy with a provision that changes the Dodd-Frank financial regulations and members of both parties object to modifications to the campaign finance law.

Cromnibus Meets Resistance in Senate, House Passes Another Short-Term CR

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Dec-2014 (Updated: 12-Dec-2014 11:24 PM)

Hope that the Senate could expeditiously pass the FY2015 "cromnibus" appropriations bill faded today and the House passed another short-term Continuing Resolution (CR) that would keep the government operating through Wednesday, December 17 if needed.  The two-day CR agreed to yesterday expires tomorrow (Saturday) at midnight.

Objections to the cromnibus -- a mix of a CR for the Department of Homeland Security and a full-year omnibus appropriations for everyone else -- in the Senate parallel those in the House.  Conservative Republicans want to send a stronger message to President Obama about their disapproval of his executive order on immigration, liberal Democrats are angry at a provision that would change financial regulations under the Dodd-Frank law, and some in each party dislike language that would change campaign finance laws.

In the Senate, a single Senator can block action.  A small example of that just occurred when Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) wanted to recess the Senate until Monday afternoon to continue consideration of the bill, but Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) objected.  Lee argued that the Senate should not take the weekend off when these issues require debate.  Reid's motion to recess until Monday required unanimous consent, so Lee's objection was all that was needed to reject that plan.  Reid apparently expected the objection and had another resolution in hand to have the Senate return to work tomorrow instead.  There was no objection to that motion.

It is still possible that the cromnibus could pass the Senate tomorrow and the new CR would not be needed, but that seems unlikely at this point.   It is more likely that the Senate will pass the new CR tomorrow instead of the cromnibus and -- hopefully -- complete work by next Wednesday. The key is that there seems to be no talk of a government shutdown and Congress can pass CRs of any duration as required. 

In addition to the cromnibus, the Senate is still expected to act on at least two other bills -- extension of tax breaks and reauthorization of the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA) -- as well as a number of presidential nominations.  The Hill newspaper reports, in fact, that it is the presidential nominations that are the real sticking point.

Today, the Senate did pass the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), clearing it for the President.

Virginia's Senators Tout Money Added In Cromnibus for Wallops Launch Pad Repairs

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Dec-2014 (Updated: 12-Dec-2014 02:40 PM)

Virginia's two Senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, issued a press release yesterday touting $20 million included in the  FY2015 "cromnibus" spending bill that just cleared the House.  The money is to help pay for damages to a launch pad at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility caused by the October 28 Antares rocket failure.  Wallops is on the coast of Virginia.

Warner and Kaine, both Democrats, thanked fellow Democrat and Maryland neighbor Barbara Mikulski for being a "supporter and advocate of NASA and the Wallops facility."  Mikulski chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares is launched from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops.  Orbital is headquartered in Dulles, Virginia, just outside Washington, DC.  MARS is owned by the State of Virginia and state officials reportedly were unhappy to discover what their financial responsibility is for repairing MARS under these circumstances.

The Senators' press statement said the money would "support repairs following a launch failure on October 28 that caused significant damage to the [MARS] launch pad."  It added that the Senators would release a complete list of "Virginia priorities" included in the spending package after the bill clears Congress.  (They also issued a press release listing what they achieved for Virginia in the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act, also expected to clear Congress imminently.  None are space-related.)

The House passed the bill -- the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015, colloquially called the "cromnibius" because it is a combination of a Continuing Resolution (CR) and an omnibus appropriations bill -- last night.  The Senate is expected to pass it today or tomorrow.  It includes $18.010 billion for NASA, an increase of $549 million above the President's request.  It is not obvious where in the bill the $20 million is added, but presumably somewhere in that increase.

Antares exploded 15 seconds after launch on a mission to deliver cargo to the International Space Station under a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.   Orbital and SpaceX both developed cargo space transportation systems through a public-private partnership often called "commercial cargo."   Skeptics of the "commercial" nature of the effort are watching how Orbital and the government recover from the failure to see who ends up paying for what.  Orbital has announced its own recovery plan, which includes buying at least one launch from United Launch Alliance, and insists that it does not expect "any material adverse financial impacts in 2015 or future years" because of the failure.

House Narrowly Passes FY2015 Funding Bill and Two-Day CR

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Dec-2014 (Updated: 11-Dec-2014 11:33 PM)

The House approved the FY2015 "cromnibus" spending package tonight by a vote of 219-206.  The Senate still must act on the measure so the House also passed another Continuing Resolution (CR) to extend government funding for two more days, through midnight Saturday.  The Senate quickly passed the two-day CR, averting a government shutdown tonight.

The cromnibus is a mix of a CR and an omnibus appropriations bill.  A CR provides funding for a short period of time at the previous year's level.  An omnibus consolidates several regular full-year appropriations bills into a single legislative package.  This bill combines full year appropriations for departments and agencies in 11 of the 12 regular appropriations bills (including NASA, NOAA and DOD) with a short term CR for the 12th (the Department of Homeland Security-DHS).  Funding DHS only through February 27, 2015, is intended to signal Republican dissatisfaction with President Obama's executive order on immigration.  Immigration is part of DHS.

The battle over the cromnibus was intense and at times its passage seemed in jeopardy.  The final vote was 219-206.   Voting in favor were 162 Republicans and 57 Democrats.  Voting against were 67 Republicans and 139 Democrats.  Five members from each party did not vote.

The rancor was over provisions agreed to by House and Senate negotiators endeavoring to reach a compromise.  The end result clearly does not please everyone.  Conservative Republicans reportedly want a stronger reaction against the President's immigration executive order, liberal Democrats and some Republicans object to a provision weakening the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, and liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans object to changes to the campaign finance law. 

The White House supported passage, but House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said the House was being "blackmailed" into voting for it.

The battle now moves to the Senate.  With passage of the new two-day CR, it has until midnight Saturday to act.

The bill contains a significant budget boost for NASA -- an increase of $549 million above the President's request for a total of $18.010 billion.  NOAA's satellite programs also fare well.

House SS&T Members Question Obama Commitment to SLS/Orion, Absence of NASA CFO

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Dec-2014 (Updated: 11-Dec-2014 10:30 PM)

A hearing before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee on the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft yesterday covered familiar ground, especially Republican criticism that the Obama Administration does not sufficiently support those programs.  Perhaps the most interesting elements were the minimal discussion of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and the absence of NASA’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO), David Radzanowski, who was asked to testify. 

Radzanowski was included on the witness list prior to the hearing as “(invited)”.  As the hearing began, Subcommittee Chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) noted that Radzanowski was not there “despite numerous invitations and attempts to secure his attendance” to explain NASA’s budget development process and guidance.  Palazzo said NASA’s other witness, Bill Gerstenmaier, “may not be the appropriate person to explain many of the policies and practices being advanced by the CFO’s office.”

Saying they understood the CFO has a busy schedule, Palazzo reported that the committee told NASA it was willing to accept a substitute, but “unfortunately, NASA prohibited any other CFO representative from appearing today.”  He argued that the CFO is a Senate-confirmed position, which requires that individual to appear before the relevant congressional authorization committees and “I look forward to Mr. Radzanowski’s appearance before this committee in the near future.”

NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs told SpacePolicyOnline.com via email today, however, that “Unfortunately, we knew [he] would be out of town at the time of the proposed hearing.  The agency determined that he was best suited to address any questions and did offer an alternative date for his availability, which was declined.”

Consequently, the only two witnesses were Gerstenmaier, who is NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, and Cristina Chaplain, director, acquisition and sourcing management, Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Republicans and Democrats paid tribute to Gerstenmaier personally and to the NASA/Lockheed Martin/United Launch Alliance team that successfully flew the Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission last week.  GAO’s Chaplain, sitting next to Gerstenmaier at the witness table, also congratulated NASA on the flight.

Apart from that, the hearing was a familiar litany of complaints by Republicans against the Obama Administration for what they perceive to be its lack of support for SLS and Orion. Indeed, Congress – with both Republican and Democratic backing – added money above the President’s request for these programs in the FY2015 omnibus appropriations bill now working its way through Congress as it did in prior years.

The exception was Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) who told Gerstenmaier that SLS was “a rotten decision on the part of this committee.  It’s not your fault. You’re good soldiers [but] we have given you an undoable task.”  Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) retorted that “I’m glad that didn’t stop Apollo.”

The two Democratic members who attended -- Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) -- offered support for the Administration’s long-term goal of sending humans to Mars, but were silent about its near-term goal, ARM, that involves redirecting an asteroid into lunar orbit to be visited by astronauts.

The hearing focused on SLS and Orion and where they can take the U.S. human spaceflight program, but discussion of ARM was negligible.  In 2010, President Obama directed NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid as the next step in human spaceflight.  When asked early in the hearing what the first destination is for SLS and Orion, Gerstenmaier talked about cis-lunar space without mentioning ARM, however.  Only after being asked directly by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) toward the end of the hearing about the international community’s reaction to ARM did Gerstenmaier defend it as part of the path to Mars.

Bridenstine referenced the National Research Council (NRC) report on the future of the human spaceflight program – the “pathways” report – as saying ARM is not in alignment with the international community and could result in spending money on “dead-end technologies.”   Gerstenmaier said they were not dead-end.  He offered that NASA did not have an opportunity to brief the NRC committee on how the technical capabilities needed for ARM could translate into delivering cargo to Mars, for example.  ARM envisions using a robotic spacecraft powered by solar electric propulsion to nudge an asteroid from its native orbit into an orbit around the Moon, where it could be studied by astronauts.  Technologies needed to redirect the asteroid conceivably could be used to send cargo to Mars.  “We ran out of time towards the end” of the NRC committee’s deliberations, Gerstenmaier said, so its members did not see how NASA envisioned the pieces coming together.

Bridenstine mentioned the NRC report a number of times, noting that it cost $3.2 million.  It seemed less a complaint about the cost than an admonition that Congress should pay attention to what it recommended considering the investment.

Palazzo seemed particularly interested in discovering when NASA realized that SLS might need an additional $400 million to meet its schedule.   GAO reported on the potential shortfall earlier this year.  Gerstenmaier said that because Congress appropriated more money than the President requested and NASA has slipped the launch date, the “risk will be retired,” explaining that the program carries technical risk, schedule risk, and budget risk.

Gerstenmaier stressed that what the SLS and Orion programs really need is budget certainty, with agreement between the Administration and Congress on how much the programs will get each year.  “One thing that could be very helpful to us is getting stability and understanding what the budget is,” he told Edwards, adding later that he is managing the program “in this kind of interesting environment where we get different funding levels.”

He also conveyed that it is not only budget issues that will determine the pace at which humans explore Mars.   It is also a matter of becoming “proficient at these skills” to take the steps needed to reach Mars.

Last month, NASA released its Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C) analysis for SLS in which it committed to an SLS readiness date of November 2018, almost a year later than the original December 2017 deadline.  At the time, though, NASA said it was keeping December 2017 as an internal goal.  At this hearing, however, Gerstenmaier said the agency has moved beyond that date and now estimates June 2018 for the first launch of SLS with an uncrewed Orion.  More money cannot move up the date, he said.

Chaplain, in fact, intimated that Orion may not be ready by then:   “At this time, it does not look like they could make 2017 and 2018 is a challenge in and of itself.”  She said there is a funding risk for Orion “that is considerably high.”  GAO thinks an integrated schedule for SLS, Orion and associated ground systems is needed, with all achieving readiness at the same time.

Gerstenmaier disagreed.  He argued that they do not have to be ready simultaneously and, in fact, there is an advantage to SLS being ready before Orion.  Emphasizing that typically a rocket is ready before a payload arrives at the launch site, he insisted that “SLS coming first, having the ground systems ready in Florida, and then Orion showing up at the third place is perfectly fine.”  Trying to synch all three “puts another burden” on the program and can result in inefficiency.

Overall, the hearing broke little new ground, but afforded an opportunity for subcommittee members, albeit with strong political overtones, to applaud the success of Orion EFT-1 and the possibilities it represents.

SpaceX's Fifth Cargo Mission to ISS Slips Three Days

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Dec-2014 (Updated: 11-Dec-2014 03:57 PM)

SpaceX and NASA announced today that the launch of the fifth operational SpaceX cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS), SpaceX CRS-5 (SpX-5), has been delayed from December 16 to December 19.

NASA said the three-day slip will allow SpaceX "to take extra time to ensure they do everything possible on the ground to prepare for a successful launch," adding that the Falcon rocket and Dragon spacecraft are in "good health."  Launch will be at 1:20 pm EST.  NASA TV coverage begins at 12:15 pm EST.

That means complementary shifts in the schedule of briefings associated with the launch and berthing to ISS.   The three pre-launch news conferences will shift to December 18 (at 12:00 noon, 1:30 pm and 3:00 pm EST)) and grapple and berthing will take place on December 21.   See our calendar for more details.

SpaceX launches cargo to the ISS under a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.  Twelve Space-X CRS flights delivering 20 tons of cargo to the ISS are scheduled through the end of 2016. 

Orbital Sciences Corporation is the other company that provides CRS services to NASA.  The most recent launch of its Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft failed on October 28.  Orbital is purchasing launch services from the United Launch Alliance and upgrading Antares and Cygnus to allow the company to meet its own contractual commitment of delivering 20 tons of cargo to the ISS by the end of 2016, which it now expects to accomplish in seven rather than eight launches.

Vote Expected to Be Close in House Tomorrow on FY2015 CRomnibus

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Dec-2014 (Updated: 10-Dec-2014 11:18 PM)

The House is expected to vote tomorrow (Thursday) on the FY2015 appropriations bill dubbed the "CRomnibus."  It combines an omnibus appropriations providing full-year funding for agencies covered by 11 of the 12 regular appropriations bills (including NASA, NOAA and DOD) and a Continuing Resolution (CR) for the 12th (the Department of Homeland Security).  The vote is expected to be close because of dissatisfaction on both sides of the aisle with policy provisions ("riders") that were added during negotiations.  Congress must pass this bill or some other funding measure before midnight tomorrow to avoid a government shutdown.

Objections to the CRomnibus reportedly range from conservative Republicans who feel it does not send a strong enough message to the President protesting his executive order on immigration to liberal Democrats and some Republicans who object to changes in the Dodd-Frank financial services regulations to liberal Democrats who object to changes in campaign finance laws.  (The Department of Homeland Security includes immigration.  The proposal to provide it only with a CR and not a full-year appropriation like everyone else is to signal Republican ire at the Obama immigration executive order, but some Republicans want to go further.)

Although appropriations bills are not supposed to include policy provisions, only funding, they often do.  That is especially true at the end of a Congress where members are trying one last time to get favored legislation passed and the only bill likely to clear Congress and be signed by the President is an appropriations bill.  

It is still possible that no agreement on funding will be reached and the government will shut down at midnight tomorrow, but that still is considered very unlikely.  If the CRomnibus does not pass the House tomorrow, House Speaker John Boehner reportedly plans to bring a three-month CR for the entire government to the floor for a vote, pushing funding decisions over into the Republican-controlled 114th Congress.  If the CRomnibus does pass the House, a very short term CR may be needed to give the Senate time to act, but that presumably would be only for a couple of days.

None of the concerns appear to be directed at provisions regarding NASA, NOAA or DOD.

We'll provide updates as they are available.

NASA Gets Big Increase in FY2015 Omnibus, NOAA Satellites Do OK

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Dec-2014 (Updated: 09-Dec-2014 11:54 PM)

House and Senate appropriators introduced the long-awaited compromise version of the FY2015 appropriations bill late today.  If approved as expected, NASA will get a significant increase compared to the President's request, and NOAA satellite programs will fare well overall, with GOES-R and JPSS fully funded.

As expected, the bill combines 11 of the 12 regular appropriations bills, funding all of those departments and agencies for the rest of FY2015 (through September 30, 2015).  The 12th bill, for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), is funded only temporarily, through February 27, 2015, as a protest against President Obama's executive order on immigration.   This combination of a Continuing Resolution (CR) for DHS and an omnibus for the rest of the government is sometimes referred to as a "cromnibus."  It is designated as "Senate amendment to H.R. 83."   NASA and NOAA are part of Division B, the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) portion.

The total for NASA in the compromise accord is $18.010 billion, a $549 million increase over the request of $17.461 billion.  Despite the significant increase, some programs were cut, including:. 

  • Space Technology, which gets $596 million instead of $706 million.
  • commercial crew, which will receive $805 million instead of $848 million.  Senate language that would have required adherence to certain regulations regarding cost and pricing data is not included, but the compromise requires technical and financial quarterly reports to Congress for each awardee.
  • Space Operations (including the International Space Station), which gets $3.828 billion instead of $3.905 billion

 But many others get increases.  Among the big winners are --

  • planetary science, receiving $1.438 billion instead of $1.280 billion, including not less than $100 million for a Europa mission
  • astrophysics, $684 million instead of $607 million, including $70 million for SOFIA
  • aeronautics, $651 million instead of $551 million
  • Orion, $1.194 billion instead of $1.053 billion
  • SLS, $1.700 billion instead of $1.380 billion

More information is in our fact sheet on NASA's FY2015 budget request.

NOAA's satellite programs also fare well.  The two premier programs -- GOES-R and JPSS -- are fully funded.   The Senate had proposed transferring two other programs, DSCOVR and Jason-3, to NASA, but that was not adopted and both programs are funded in NOAA's budget at or close to their requested levels.  COSMIC-2 received its full request of $6.8 million.

The House-passed CJS bill and the version approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee both zeroed NOAA's $15 million request for the Solar Irradiance, Data and Rescue (SIDAR) program that pulls together plans for launching three instruments -- Total Solar Irradiance Sensor (TSIS), Advanced Data Collection System (A-DCS), and Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking (SARSAT).  SIDAR fared better in the compromise omnibus bill, getting half its requested funding, $7.3 million.  Report language accompanying the bill says it is to support hosting TSIS-1 on the International Space Station (ISS) and maintaining international partnerships on A-DCS and SARSAT.  It notes that hosting TSIS-1 on ISS was not part of the President's FY2015 budget request and asks for a report on those plans.

More information is in our fact sheet on NOAA's FY2015 budget request.

NASA, NOAA and most of the rest of the government are currently funded by a CR that expires at midnight on Thursday, December 11.   Because negotiations on this compromise bill took longer than planned, and ordinarily there is a three-day waiting period in the House for members to read a bill and other procedural steps in the Senate, Congress may not complete action on it before that deadline.   A very short-term CR may be passed to cover a couple of days while Congress completes work on this bill.

Orbital to Buy At Least One Launch for Cygnus from ULA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Dec-2014 (Updated: 09-Dec-2014 05:36 PM)

Orbital Sciences Corporation gave more details today about its plans to fulfill its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA to send cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) in the wake of its October Antares rocket failure.

Antares exploded 15 seconds after liftoff on October 28, 2014, destroying its Cygnus cargo spacecraft filled with cargo destined for the ISS.   It was Orbital's third operational cargo flight to the ISS.  An investigation is ongoing, but Orbital Chairman, President and CEO David Thompson indicated last month that the AJ26 rocket engines are the likely culprit.  Orbital was already in the process of deciding to switch to a different rocket engine, but still has not announced which one it has selected.  The AJ26 is a Russian NK-33 engine built in the 1970s and imported to the United States and refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Thompson said last month that his company would purchase launch services from another company to take Cygnus spacecraft to the ISS and still meet its contractual commitment to deliver 20 tons of cargo by the end of 2016.   An upgraded version of Cygnus capable of handling more tonnage already was in development and Orbital will combine the cargo that was to be launched on five more missions into just four.

Today, Orbital announced that the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V rocket is its choice for at least one Cygnus mission in the fourth quarter of 2015, with an option for a second in 2016 if needed.  Between the greater lift capability of the Atlas V compared to Antares, and the more commodious Cygnus, the mass to ISS will increase by 35 percent.

Meanwhile, the company is proceeding with its plans to replace the AJ26 engines with something new, though the announcement today still did not identify what it is.  Three launches of the upgraded Antares are planned in 2016.  The upgraded Antares with the new Cygnus will increase the mass to ISS by 20 percent over the original Antares and Cygnus.

Antares is launched from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, VA.  The October 28 explosion damaged the pad and surrounding structures, though not as badly as many feared.  Orbital said today that repairs will be completed and the pad recertified by the end of 2015.

Orbital, which is in the middle of a merger with ATK, said in its statement today that its revised approach to meeting the CRS contract commitments "is not expected to create any material adverse financial impacts in 2015 or future years..." 

The CRS contract is for services provided to NASA using spacecraft and launch vehicles developed under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, colloquially known as "commercial cargo."  COTS was a public-private partnership where both the government and the private sector invested in developing these new capabilities with a goal of reduced costs to the government compared to a traditional contracting mechanism.  Skeptics are closely watching how Orbital and NASA cope with the Antares accident and whether the federal government must shoulder any of the costs.

 

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