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Nelson, Inhofe Complain AF Not Following Congressional Direction on RD-180

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Mar-2015 (Updated: 17-Mar-2015 11:49 AM)

Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and James Inhofe (R-OK) wrote to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter last week to complain that DOD is not following congressional direction to expeditiously develop a U.S. propulsion system to replace Russia's RD-180.

The letter is dated March 10 and briefly states that congressional direction in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is quite clear that DOD is to develop a new rocket propulsion system by 2019 and authorized $220 million in FY2015 to that end, and the FY2015 appropriations act includes that $220 million.  Written in the first person (it is not clear whether it is Inhofe or Nelson -- both signed it), the letter says "my observations to date leave me skeptical that DoD or the U.S. Air Force are following Congressional intent."

Both Senators are members of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC).

The letter says that the direction in the NDAA is consistent with last year's Air Force-chartered RD-180 Availability Risk Mitigation Study, which was chaired by Maj. Gen. Howard "Mitch" Mitchell (Ret.).   Mitchell is scheduled to be one of the witnesses at this afternoon's hearing across the Hill before the House Armed Services Committee on "Assuring Assured Access to Space."   Air Force Space Command Commander Gen. John Hyten is also scheduled to testify, along with DOD and Air Force acquisition officials and representatives of SpaceX and United Launch Alliance.

What's Happening in Space Policy March 16-20, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Mar-2015 (Updated: 15-Mar-2015 01:52 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events coming up during the week of March 16-20, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session.

During the Week

It's another busy week with two major conferences, lots of congressional hearings, a NAC subcommittee meeting and more.  

It is tough to choose what to highlight because it's all really good stuff, but to pick just one, the House Armed Services Committee's subcommittee hearing on Tuesday should be especially interesting.  The title is "Assuring Assured Access to Space" and witnesses include SpaceX's Gwynne Shotwell and United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Tory Bruno along with two defense department acquisition officials, commander of Air Force Space Command Gen. Hyten, and retired Maj. Gen. Mitch Mitchell who led a study of RD-180 alternatives last year.  Topics are expected to include certifying new entrants like SpaceX to launch EELV-class national security satellites currently launched exclusively by ULA and the need (or not) for a new American-made rocket engine to replace Russia's RD-180 used for ULA's Atlas 5.  SpaceX's position is that its Merlin engines for the Falcon rockets already are an American alternative so why is another one needed.  ULA, meanwhile, announced last fall that it is partnering with Blue Origin on the BE-4 engine as an American alternative.   Everything seemed on a fast track last fall with Congress insisting on no more RD-180s after 2019 (though there are exceptions),but this year's testimony by Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and ULA's most recent statements seem to be putting the brakes on.  Whether that's a dose of reality or slow-rolling the inevitable is unclear at the moment -- perhaps the hearing will shed some light.

Monday-Friday, March 16-20

Monday-Thursday, March 16-19

  • Satellite 2015, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC

Tuesday, March 17

Tuesday-Wednesday, March 17-18

Wednesday, March 18

Thursday, March 19

Bolden, Cruz Spar Over NASA Priorities, Especially Earth Science

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Mar-2015 (Updated: 13-Mar-2015 02:30 AM)

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden sparred over NASA’s priorities today (March 12) at a hearing on the President’s FY2016 budget request for the agency.   Cruz, a well-known climate change skeptic, has said several times that he wants to focus NASA on its “core priority” -- space exploration – which does not include earth science research in his view.  Bolden stressed that NASA is a multi-mission agency and strongly defended its earth science role.  He also used the opportunity to urge the committee to confirm Dava Newman, who was sitting the audience, as NASA Deputy Administrator.

The fundamental issue was whether NASA, under the Obama Administration, is spending too much on earth science and not enough on “exploration” -- a term that was used loosely, but clearly encompassed the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft.

Cruz and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), the two Republicans who attended the hearing before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, couched their objections to how much NASA spends on earth science not in terms of the climate change debate, but as priority setting in a budget constrained environment.  Their basic argument, which has been made by others in the past, is that NASA has a unique role in space exploration while many agencies are involved in studying the earth.  NASA therefore should focus its resources on what it does uniquely and let the other agencies take responsibility for earth science research including space-based observations.

Cruz stated the question as “Should NASA focus primarily inwards or outwards beyond lower-Earth-orbit [sic],”  inward meaning looking down at Earth.  The Obama Administration has allocated “a disproportionate increase in the amount of federal funds” for earth science “at the expense of and compared to Exploration and Space Operations, Planetary Science, Heliophysics and Astrophysics which I believe are all rooted in exploration and should be central to the core mission of NASA.”  He later said “It’s not that earth sciences are not valuable, but in the last 6 years, there has been a disproportionate increase.”

He displayed a chart showing the percentage change in funding for different parts of NASA’s portfolio between what was appropriated for 2009, when President Obama took office, and the President’s FY2016 request.  It shows that funding for earth science increased by 41 percent while funding for “exploration & space operations” decreased by 7.6 percent.

Source:  Office of Sen. Ted Cruz.  Percentages calculated using the change between enacted
public law for 2009 and the President's Budget Request for 2016.

Bolden and the two Democratic Senators at the hearing, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) all questioned the data in the chart.   For example, funding for NASA facilities, such as Kennedy Space Center, are not included in the “exploration” and “space operations” budget accounts, but clearly are necessary for executing those programs so should count towards the total.   Bolden also pointed out that NASA is, in fact, trying to reduce the costs of human spaceflight and terminating the space shuttle program, which required $2 billion a year “whether it flew or not,” was one step they took.   As for the increase for earth science, Peters pointed out that earth science funding is recovering from deep cuts during the Bush Administration.  He cited a 2012 National Research Council study that called the Bush-era cuts “disastrous” and said the Obama Administration increases are an attempt to rectify that situation.

Bolden vigorously defended the earth science program and listed missions launched in the past 12 months including the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite.   He entered into an extended discussion of the utility of SMAP for measuring soil moisture in Texas, essential for water resource management.   That prompted a spirited exchange over why NASA is studying soil moisture in Texas when other agencies do that already.  “Now I’m a Texan.  I love our Texas soil, but there are a lot of people studying Texas soil, you’ve got a whole Department of Agriculture that spends a lot of time and energy studying the soil in Texas,” Cruz said.   Gardner quipped “are we focusing on the heavens in NASA or are we focusing on dirt in Texas?”   

Bolden later clarified that “we do not do Texas soil conservation.  We provide instruments that provide data to the plethora of people who do Texas soil conservation.  … We teach people how to use the instruments that we create, we teach them how to use the data.”

He also remarked that if Congress were to cut NASA earth science funding “you would just have to move the programs elsewhere” because only NASA launches earth science instruments into space.

When asked by Cruz to define NASA’s core mission, Bolden said that the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act, in short, directs the agency “to investigate, explore space and the earth environment and help us make this place a better place…. And aeronautics is an essential part of what NASA does.  It is the big A in NASA.”

Considering Cruz’s strong views on climate change, the hearing actually was fairly friendly and he did acknowledge that earth sciences are valuable.   In fact, the entire hearing, which lasted only about an hour, was non-confrontational.  The issue of earth science funding certainly was debated on a partisan basis, but it was cordial for the most part.

The vast majority of the hearing dealt with the earth science versus exploration debate, but a few other issues did arise, including Dava Newman’s nomination to be NASA Deputy Administrator.   President Obama originally sent her nomination to the Senate in October 2014 and resubmitted it to the new Congress in January.  The post has been vacant since September 2013.   Nelson noted that Newman was sitting in the front row of the audience, and during a discussion of how to keep America competitive in aeronautics and inspire young people, Bolden said that if the committee supports her nomination, they will have someone who can testify with authority about what interests the next generation.  Newman is a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at MIT.

Bolden also again urged Congress to fully fund the request for commercial crew so NASA can end its reliance on Russia.

A webcast of the hearing is on the committee’s website and a press release, video clips and the chart he used are on Cruz’s website.

Unexpected Drama Accompanies Safe Landing of Three ISS Crew

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Mar-2015 (Updated: 12-Mar-2015 12:01 AM)

Three International Space Station (ISS) crew members returned safely to Earth tonight after an unexpected communications dropout during the deorbit burn added a bit of drama to their landing.

NASA astronaut Barry "Butch" Wilmore and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova landed in the steppes of Kazakhstan around 10:07 pm ET.  The exact landing time of their Soyuz TMA-14M was not confirmed at press time.  Poor visibility at the landing site due to fog and low clouds prevented visual confirmation of the landing by TV viewers.  Tense moments passed before the screen at Russia's mission control finally displayed the comforting words -- ЕСТЬ ПОСАДКА-- the spacecraft landed.

The reason for the communications dropout one-and-a-half minutes into a four-minute-41-second deorbit burn is unexplained for now.   CBS News space reporter Bill Harwood tweeted (@cbs_spacenews): "TMA14M: Comm dropouts during Soyuz entries are not unusual, but they usually don't happen so early or last so long."

Telemetry received at a  ground station in Egypt confirmed that the Soyuz modules separately correctly, but it was not until Soyuz commander Samokutyaev was finally heard saying that everything was fine onboard that a sigh of relief could be uttered.

Though it happened decades ago, veteran space analysts still remember the 1971 Soyuz 11 flight where communications were lost during reentry and many assumed it was a radio failure, but in fact the three Soviet cosmonauts had perished during reentry.   Recovery forces opened the Soyuz hatch expecting to find Georgy Dobrovolskiy, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev eagerly awaiting them, but instead found them dead.  They had asphyxiated when a valve between their descent module and the orbital module -- which separate during reentry -- malfunctioned, allowing the spacecraft atmosphere to vent into space.  The three were not wearing spacesuits, a practice the Soviets had discontinued because they had confidence in their systems and the small interior of the Soyuz was difficult for three spacesuited crew members.  Following this tragedy, the Soviets returned to the practice of requiring spacesuits during launch and reentry, which limited them to two-person crews until a slightly more commodious version of Soyuz, Soyuz T, was introduced in 1980.  Soyuz 11 was the first spacecraft to dock successfully with a space station, Salyut 1.  The three men were in space for 24 days, a record at that time.

Fortunately, tonight's anomaly, whatever it was, did not have any effect on the crew's safety.  The three ISS crew members were extracted from their Soyuz spacecraft by Russian recovery forces and soon sat smiling and waving in special chairs on the frozen steppes awaiting medical checkups.  The two Russians were expected to return to Star City, outside of Moscow, while Wilmore boarded an airplane back to Johnson Space Center, TX.  The three spent 167 days in space on this mission.


From left to right, Soyuz TMA-14M crew members Elena Serova, Alexander Samokutyaev, and Barry "Butch" Wilmore, after landing in Kazakhstan,
March 11, 2015 ET.  Photo credit:  NASA TV.



First SLS Booster Qualification Static Fire Test a Success

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Mar-2015 (Updated: 11-Mar-2015 09:49 PM)

A two-minute static fire test of a booster segment for NASA's new Space Launch System (SLS) was successfully completed this morning at Orbital ATK's facility in Promontory, Utah.  It was the first of two qualification tests need to qualify the booster for flight as part of the SLS.  The second qualification test is expected next year.  

NASA has not announced a date for the first flight of SLS itself, saying only that it will be ready by November 2018.  That first flight, dubbed Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), will carry a test version of the Orion spacecraft.  No crew will be aboard.   The SLS, its associated ground systems, and the test version of Orion all must be ready for that flight.   NASA has committed to a schedule for SLS and the ground systems to be ready by November 2018, but Orion has not yet completed its Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C) review where such a commitment is made at the agency level.

The test today, Qualification Motor 1 (QM-1), was of a solid rocket booster (SRB) that will fire for about the first two minutes of an SLS launch, similar to the SRBs that were used for the space shuttle program.  Those were four-segment SRBs.  For SLS, a fifth segment has been added and that is what was tested today.  NASA called it the "largest, most powerful rocket booster even built." Orbital ATK, which builds the SRBs,  said it produces 20 percent more thrust than the four segment version.  Orbital ATK's Charlie Precourt said "The data from today and from our three development motor tests ... confirms this is the most capable and powerful solid rocket motor ever designed."

SLS will be powered by two of these SRBs plus four RS-25 main engines, which also were used for the space shuttle program; at the time they were referred to as Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs).   The two SRBs will provide more than 75 percent of the thrust needed for Orion (or any other payload) to reach orbit. 

The initial version of SLS will be able to place 70 metric tons into Earth orbit.  The rocket is expected to be upgraded in future years eventually to lift 130 metric tons, more than the Saturn V used to send Apollo astronauts to the Moon.  No humans have traveled beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) -- where the International Space Station is located -- since the last Apollo crew.  The goal for SLS and Orion is to once again send astronauts beyond LEO, although NASA currently does not plan to return humans to the lunar surface. Instead it is focused on activities in cis-lunar space (between the Earth and the Moon) as a "proving ground" to ultimately send people to Mars.

HASC to Focus on Assuring Assured Access to Space

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Mar-2015 (Updated: 10-Mar-2015 07:04 PM)

The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) will hold a hearing next week on "Assuring Assured Access to Space" with industry and government witnesses.   Building an American alternative to Russia's RD-180 rocket engine and certifying "new entrants" like SpaceX likely will be the key topics.

The committee's official announcement today does not list the industry witnesses, saying only that the panel is "TBA" -- to be announced.  Space News ran a story this afternoon stating that SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk and United Launch Alliance (ULA) President Tory Bruno would testify, but HASC would not confirm that to and Space News reporter Mike Gruss later tweeted (@Gruss_SN) that "Musk has only been invited to testily.  Not yet confirmed."

If the two did appear together, it undoubtedly would be a lively exchange.  Musk and Bruno's predecessor, Michael Gass, sat next to each other as witnesses at a Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing just about exactly a year ago.  The hearing took place just after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and the U.S.-Russian relationship began its downward spiral.  Musk used the opportunity to highlight U.S. dependence on Russia to supply RD-180 engines for ULA's Atlas V rocket, one of the two U.S. launch vehicles used to launch most national security satellites.  He agreed with U.S. policy that two independent launch systems are needed in order to assure U.S. access to space -- today they are ULA's Atlas V and Delta IV -- but that his Falcon rocket should replace Atlas as the second since it is not dependent on foreign sources.  Thus began a year of hearings and congressional action aimed at reducing or eliminating U.S. dependence on Russia for space launch.

Government witnesses at the March 17  hearing will represent the DOD and Air Force acquisition offices, Air Force Space Command, and the Aerospace Corporation.  A committee spokesman said early this evening that they hope to have the industry panel nailed down very soon.

The hearing is at 3:30 pm ET on March 17, 2015 in 2118 Rayburn House Office Building. 

Rep. Donna Edwards Launches Campaign to Succeed Barbara Mikulski

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Mar-2015 (Updated: 10-Mar-2015 04:48 PM)

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) formally initiated her campaign to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski today.  In a two-minute video announcing her intentions, she gave a shout-out to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, close to her district and where she once worked as a contractor.

Mikulski revealed last week that she will not run for reelection in 2016.   Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) was the first sitting member of Congress to make clear that he will run for the seat.  Edwards is the second and it would not be surprising if others follow suit, along with many other Democrats and Republicans in state and local politics.

Edwards is probably the best known of the group to the space policy community, however.   She is the top Democrat on the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and a champion of the space program, if not always in agreement with the Obama Administration and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden.  She has made clear, for example, that she does not endorse the Asteroid Redirect Mission and only slowly warmed up to the concept of commercial crew.  At a February 27, 2015 hearing focused on the commercial crew program, she said "As I have recounted on other occasions, I used to be a skeptic of commercial crew and cargo transportation to support NASA requirements.  And while I am now supportive of the commercial space transportation industry's partnership with NASA, I remain committed to ensuring that these systems are safe."

In today's video explaining what she has done for Maryland already in the House and will do if elected to the Senate, she says "As the ranking Democrat on the space subcommittee, I passed a bipartisan investment in NASA for space programs that employ over 10,000 Marylanders and lift our sights just a little higher."  The backdrop is video of the entrance to NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and text on the screen says "NASA GODDARD: 10,000 MARYLAND JOBS."   She also notes her work in getting more Maryland schools focused on STEM education.  She was a strong critic of the Obama White House's proposal in 2013 to reorganize federally funded STEM education programs and shift most NASA-related programs to other agencies.  Congress rejected the White House proposal.

Her official bio on her House website explains that she "has enjoyed a diverse career as a nonprofit public interest  advocate and in the private sector on NASA's Spacelab project."  In campaign material from her 2008 bid for the House, she said she had been a systems engineer for Lockheed Martin working at NASA.   She has an undergraduate degree from Wake Forest University and a J.D. from the University of New Hampshire School of Law.

She represents Maryland's 4th district, which more or less surrounds Greenbelt, where Goddard is situated.  Greenbelt itself is in Rep. Steny Hoyer's (D-MD) district.  He is the one member of the House (out of eight in Maryland's delegation, seven of whom are Democrats) who has indicated he will NOT run for Mikulski's seat.  He is the House Minority Whip, second only to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in the Democratic House leadership.


China Plans New Space Laboratory in 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Mar-2015 (Updated: 09-Mar-2015 11:24 PM)

China plans to launch a second space laboratory in 2016 that will be serviced by a robotic cargo spacecraft.  The new laboratory module reportedly will be launched with a Long March 5 rocket and the cargo ship with a Long March 7.  Neither of those rockets has made its debut yet.

China launched the Tiangong-1 space laboratory, or space station, in 2011.  Three spacecraft docked with the module:  Shenzhou 8, a robotic spacecraft that tested automated rendezvous and docking, in 2011; Shenzhou 9 in 2012, carrying a three-person crew including China's first female astronaut ("taikonaut"); and Shenzhou 10 in 2013 with another three-person crew (also two men and one woman).

China's official Xinhua news service today quoted Zhou Jianping, chief engineer of China's human spaceflight program, as updating plans for China's next attempts at Earth orbit human spaceflight.  A new module, Tiangong-2, will be launched in 2016 and a robotic Tianzhou-1 spacecraft will deliver propellant, supplies, research facilities and repair equipment.  How many crews will occupy Tiangong-2 over what period of time was not revealed.  Zhou said only that selection of the astronauts was "progressing in an orderly manner."

Xinhua said Tiangong-2 will be launched with a Long March 5 rocket and the Tianzhou-1 supply ship with a Long March 7.  China said for years that the Long March 5, its largest rocket to date, would make its debut in 2014 from the new Wenchang Space Launch Center on Hainan Island, but that has not happened yet.  Long March 5 will be able to launch 25 tons into low Earth orbit, slightly more than a U.S. Delta IV (22 tons).

Long March 5, 6, and 7 are a new family of rockets being developed to use liquid oxygen/kerosene propellants, more environmentally friendly than the current generation of Long March launch vehicles.  Long March 5 is the largest, Long March 6 the smallest, and Long March 7 for mid-sized payloads.  The U.S. Department of Defense's most recent annual report on China's military and security developments, generated in April 2014, anticipated the first Long March 7 launch by the end of 2014, and that did not occur.  It said the first Long March 5 launch would be "no sooner than 2015" because of "recent manufacturing difficulties."

Tiangong-1 and -2 are steps toward a 60-ton space station the China currently says it will launch in 2022.   It reportedly will be composed of three 20-ton modules.

What's Happening in Space Policy March 9-13, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Mar-2015 (Updated: 08-Mar-2015 02:56 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of March 9-13, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The Senate is in session this week; the House is in recess.

During the Week

The IEEE Aerospace Conference actually began yesterday in Big Sky, Montana; it runs through March 14.   The conference website says it is being held in "a stimulating and thought provoking environment."  Indeed!  

Greenbelt, MD may not compare with Big Sky, MT in terms of breathtaking scenery, but the American Astronautical Society's (AAS's) Goddard Memorial Symposium at the Greenbelt Marriott is undoubtedly of much more interest to the space policy community.   NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will keynote the AAS meeting on Wednesday morning at 9:15 am ET, followed by a panel of top level NASA Headquarters officials including Science Mission Directorate Associate Administrator (AA) John Grunsfeld and newly appointed Space Technology Mission Directorate AA Steve Jurczyk, formerly director of NASA's Langley Research Center.  The two-day AAS meeting ends on Thursday afternoon with a panel including your intrepid editor along with Jeff Foust from Space News and Frank Morring from Aviation Week and Space Technology.

The congressional calendar is less crowded this week since the House is in recess. but Bolden will appear before the Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on Thursday at 9:30 am ET.  Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) was politely inquisitive at his first space hearing two weeks ago, which included no government witnesses.  It will be interesting to see how he and Bolden get along since the NASA Administrator represents President Obama, a man with whom Cruz has serious disagreements on other issues.  Cruz sounded liked a huge space enthusiast at the earlier hearing, with views strongly aligned with key Senators on both sides of the aisle who crafted the 2010 NASA Authorization Act and have appropriated funds since then to execute it.  That suggests that Cruz and Bolden will disagree on the amount of funding requested for SLS and Orion at least -- NASA's request once again is less than Congress wants as everyone knows.

Speaking of SLS, Orbital ATK will have a 2-minute static test fire of an SLS booster on Wednesday.  NASA TV will cover it live at 11:00 am ET (9:00 am local time in Utah).   Two pre-launch briefings (on Tuesday and Wednesday) for the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission (scheduled for launch on Thursday) and the homecoming (on Wednesday) of three International Space Station crew members also are on tap this week.

All the events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.

Saturday-Saturday, March 7-14

Tuesday, March 10

Tuesday-Thursday, March 10-12 (March 10 is an evening reception only)

Wednesday, March 11

Thursday, March 12

Bolden Reassures Appropriators on Russia; Culberson Wants Interstellar Propulsion

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Mar-2015 (Updated: 05-Mar-2015 12:30 AM)

At a House hearing today (March 4), NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was asked about contingency plans if Russia stops launching U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).  He underscored again and again the need for Congress to fully fund the commercial crew program.

The hearing before the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee covered familiar ground and produced few surprises.  Subcommittee chairman John Culberson (R-TX), an unabashed NASA supporter who just became chairman following the retirement of Frank Wolf, started the hearing by asserting that Congress will not be able to fund President Obama’s overall budget request for the nation “because it assumes a lot of tax increases that certainly aren’t going to happen,” but that the subcommittee will do all it can to support NASA.  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden defended the President’s request for his agency.

Perhaps the most interesting exchanges concerned the future of the ISS and whatever will come thereafter.  One set of issues involves U.S. dependence on Russia for launching astronauts to the ISS today, another concerns recent Russian statements that it will support ISS through 2024 and then detach its modules to form an autonomous space station, and a third is U.S. plans for what comes after ISS.

Bolden was asked what contingency plans NASA has if Russia decides not to launch U.S. astronauts to ISS because of the current geopolitical situation.  He stressed that the only plan is to fully fund the President’s $1.244 billion request for the commercial crew program.  He assured the subcommittee that he is confident Boeing and SpaceX will meet their milestones and provide operational systems by the 2017 target date.

Pressed on the point of contingency plans, Bolden reiterated that relationships between NASA and Roscosmos remain strong and Russia needs NASA to operate the ISS, but if the Russians decided they no longer were interested in space exploration, the ISS can be evacuated in an orderly manner:  “You are forcing me into this answer, and I like to give you real answers … but if the nations of the world decided that human exploration is done, we have the capability to bring all six crewmembers home. … I don’t anticipate that that day is going to come.”  He continued that he is “not worried about getting people to the space station as long as the Congress funds the President’s budget at $1.2 billion in 2016 because we will have an American capability” to do that.

Culberson continue to bore in on NASA’s contingency planning, but Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) intervened saying that Congress must “own” the current situation because it did not provide adequate funding.  As Bolden pointed out once more, if Congress had done so, commercial crew would be ready this year rather than 2017.  Culberson shot back that if the Constellation program had not been canceled, “we would have been ready to fly within 12 months.” Bolden retorted “That is not correct…whoever told you that, that is not correct.”

Russian officials announced last week that Russia will remain in the ISS partnership through 2024, but then will detach its modules to form its own space station.   The announcement was made on February 24 by the Roscosmos Science and Technology Council, chaired by Yuri Koptev, who once headed the predecessor to Roscosmos and was integral in working with then NASA Administrator Dan Goldin as Russia joined the ISS program in 1993.  Somewhat lost in U.S. media reports is that the modules they said they will detach have not yet been launched (a multipurpose laboratory module, a docking node, and a scientific power module), so they are not proposing to take away anything that is currently part of the ISS complex.  In any case, Bolden urged caution in evaluating what the Russians said because “what you hear coming out of Russia is not always what they intended to say,” but he is encouraged by the stated intention to remain with ISS through 2024.

As for what LEO facilities will come after ISS, Bolden focused on the need for the private sector to make those decisions.  He said that a NASA request for information produced disappointing results, however, because those who responded just wanted NASA to continue funding LEO infrastructure.  Bolden noted the efforts of Bigelow Aerospace as the type of effort that is required.  Bigelow launched two test modules on Russian rockets several years ago that are still in orbit. Another will be attached to the ISS this year.  (He lightheartedly noted that Robert Bigelow, the millionaire behind Bigelow Aerospace, insists that the modules are “expandable,” not “inflatable” as they often are described.)  Bolden hopes other companies will buy modules from Bigelow or build their own.

There was one surprise, at least.   Culberson closed the hearing with a clarion call for NASA to develop interstellar propulsion, not a topic that typically arises in NASA budget hearings.

At the very end, Culberson brought up the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), for which NASA is developing high power solar electric propulsion to send a robotic spacecraft to an asteroid to nudge it from its native orbit into lunar orbit so it can be visited by astronauts.  Culberson contended today that the “great value” of ARM is the development of new propulsion -- but his goal is for travel to other stars.

Explaining what he hopes will be his legacy for the space program, he listed a robust LEO capability, SLS and Orion for human exploration beyond LEO, a robotic program that follows the recommendations of the National Research Council’s Decadal Surveys, and a propulsion system that allows spacecraft to explore exoplanets.

“The fact that we are still flying rocket engines that were designed by Robert Goddard in the 1920’s is just inexcusable. ….  Let us also leave for future generations the development of the first interstellar rocket propulsion system that would carry us to Alpha Centauri and beyond… to go explore those exoplanets that are most like Earth, which appear to be much more common than we ever realized.”

Events of Interest

Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »


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