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UPDATE, August 25: Adds the two panel discussions today (Monday, August 25) at NASA re the New Horizons mission to Pluto.
August 24, 2014: Here is our list of space policy-related events for the next TWO weeks, August 25-September 5, 2014, and any insight we can offer about them. Congress returns on September 8.
During the Weeks
The schedule is light for the next two weeks, but the National Research Council (NRC) is hard at work, with meetings of one of its study committees this week and one of its standing committees the following week. The NASA Advisory Council's (NAC's) Planetary Science Subcommittee also will meet the following week.
The NRC study committee -- Survey of Surveys: Lessons Learned from the Decadal Survey Process -- will meet in public session on Monday and Tuesday (check the agenda for the most recent information on exactly when the open sessions will take place). NRC Decadal Surveys are the "bibles" used by NASA and highly valued by Congress in setting priorities for NASA's space and earth science programs. (Some of the Surveys also advise additional agencies like NSF and NOAA.) The most recent versions have encountered challenges in implementation, however, because of sharply changed budgetary realities between the time the study begins and when it ends, usually about two years later. The agencies tell each Decadal Survey committee at the outset what budget "wedge" they expect to have in the next 10 years (a decade) to begin new programs. The committees use that guidance in formulating recommendations on what programs to initiate to answer the top scientific questions they identify. The most recent Decadal Surveys have included "decision rules" on what to do if there is significantly less (or more, as unlikely as that is) money than they are told and NASA, at least, has had to utilize those decision rules a lot lately. This new NRC committee is looking at how to make the next round of Decadal Surveys more effective in guiding the agencies in these ever-changing times.
The NRC standing committee that is meeting the first week of September is the Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science (CAPS). Curiously, the NAC Planetary Science Subcommittee is meeting at exactly the same time (September 3-4). The meetings are on opposite coasts. Both advise NASA on its planetary science programs -- the NRC provides strategic advice while the NAC subcommittee provides tactical advice -- so they do look at the programs from different perspectives. They often get briefings from the same NASA people, though, so this must be an interesting scheduling exercise. Neither has posted their agendas yet.
Here is what we know about as of Sunday evening, August 24.
Monday, August 25
Monday-Wednesday, AUGUST 25-27
Wednesday-Thursday, SEPTEMBER 3-4
An experimental SpaceX reusable rocket exploded in flight yesterday (August 22) when an automated system detected an anomaly and terminated the mission. The "F9R Dev1" vehicle was part of the company's Grasshopper series designed to demonstrate vertical take-off and landing.
SpaceX founder and Chief Designer Elon Musk tweeted "Three-engine F9R vehicle auto-terminated during test flight. No injuries or near injuries. Rockets are tricky..." A video posted on YouTube and by a CBS TV affiliate shows the launch and explosion (it is not clear who took the video).
SpaceX tweeted a statement that said "During the flight, an anomaly was detected in the vehicle and the flight termination system automatically terminated the mission. Throughout the test and subsequent flight termination, the vehicle remained in the designated flight area....An FAA representative was present at all times." The test took place at the company's McGregor, TX facility.
SpaceX has become well known for its Falcon 9 rocket used for cargo flights to the International Space Station and launches of commercial satellites. It is only one of the company's efforts, however. Developing reusable rockets and spacecraft is a major goal. Several Grasshopper tests have taken place successfully already. SpaceX's statement described yesterday's test as "particularly complex, pushing the vehicle further than any previous test."
NASA declined today (August 18) to confirm rumors that it will announce the winner(s) of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contract by the end of the month, but anticipation is mounting. Whenever it happens, it will be a major step forward for the commercial crew program and achieving the oft-stated goal of restoring America’s ability to launch American astronauts into space on American rockets from American soil.
A NASA spokesman replied to an email query this morning by saying only that NASA still expects to make an announcement in the late-August, early-September time frame, as it has been saying for months.
NASA officials are not allowed to discuss the selection process before announcing the award(s), even to say who submitted bids. Expectations are that at least the three companies being funded under the current phase of the program – Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) – did so.
Those three are SpaceX with its Dragon V2 spacecraft, Boeing with the CST-100, and Sierra Nevada with Dream Chaser. Dragon V2 would be launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Boeing and Sierra Nevada have been planning to use Atlas V rockets provided by the United Launch Alliance (ULA).
One goal of the commercial crew program is to end America’s dependence on Russia for crew access to the International Space Station (ISS) and all of the spacecraft are American-built. The Falcon 9 rocket is American-built. The Atlas V rocket, however, while manufactured in Alabama, is powered by Russian RD-180 engines, so whether it is “American” is a matter of opinion. In addition, the future availability of RD-180s -- and therefore of the Atlas V -- is now in question. The Obama Administration announced in January that it plans to keep the ISS operating until at least 2024 so whatever commercial crew services the companies plan to offer would need to extend to that time period. Department of Defense (DOD) officials acknowledged at a Senate hearing last month that it is time to build a U.S. alternative to the RD-180 because of the changed U.S.-Russia geopolitical environment. The Air Force hopes the RD-180 engines currently on order will be delivered, enabling routine Atlas V launches for several years, but that would not last through 2024. Boeing and Sierra Nevada thus would need an alternative. One possibility is ULA's Delta IV, which uses Aerojet Rocketdyne’s American-built RS-68 engine. The Delta IV is more expensive than Atlas V, though, which could change the cost assumptions of those bids.
How many companies will win is largely dependent on how much money NASA has to pay them. Although they are termed “commercial” efforts, in fact they rely on the government to pay a share of the development costs and to be a market for the services. For the current CCiCAP phase, NASA funded “2 ½” companies – two companies (SpaceX and Boeing) at the full amount they requested and one (Sierra Nevada) at half the amount.
NASA insists that it wants to be able to select at least two companies to continue into this final CCtCAP phase so that in the future it will have two competitors providing services to keep prices down. Congress has never provided NASA with the full amount of funding requested for the program, however. Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate repeatedly make clear that their priority is for NASA itself to build the big, new Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), not the commercial crew program to take them only to LEO and the ISS.
Some influential members of Congress appear to be warming up to commercial crew, perhaps because of the success of the commercial cargo program and the desire to end reliance on Russia. Through the Bush Administration’s commercial cargo initiative, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation developed new rockets (Falcon 9 and Antares) and spacecraft (Dragon and Cygnus) to take cargo to the ISS. NASA now purchases commercial cargo services from those two companies.
The Obama Administration decided to use the same approach, essentially a public-private partnership, to develop systems to take crews to and from the ISS after adopting the Bush Administration’s plan to terminate the space shuttle program once ISS construction was completed. The last space shuttle flight – and the last time America could launch humans into space – was in 2011. NASA has been purchasing crew transportation services from Russia since then at a cost of about $450 million a year.
Based on the FY2015 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill that passed the House and the version agreed to by the Senate Appropriations Committee, Congress plans to provide more for commercial crew than in the past, even if not the full request of $848 million. The House approved $785 million, while the Senate Appropriations Committee agreed to $805 million. Whether either amount is enough for NASA to make more than one CCtCAP award is a question that will be answered only when the announcement is made.
Not everyone in Congress has bought into commercial crew, however. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) is a determined advocate of SLS, which is being built in his state of Alabama, and a commercial crew skeptic. The top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee and its CJS subcommittee, he included language in the committee-approved version of NASA’s FY2015 appropriations bill that would require CCtCAP winners to abide by accounting requirements associated with cost-plus rather than fixed-price contracts. Opponents call it a “poison pill” because complying could cost a small company like SpaceX a lot of money because it does not have a cadre of personnel in place to handle the paperwork, unlike big companies like Boeing. Boeing and SpaceX are considered the two top contenders based on the CCiCAP awards.
That appropriations bill has not passed the Senate, but was briefly debated on the Senate floor in June. At the time, the White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy opposing the Shelby provision because the requirements are “unsuitable for a firm, fixed-price acquisition” and could increase cost and delay schedule.
Selecting the winner(s) of the CCtCAP awards before that appropriations bill or a Continuing Resolution that might include similar language passes Congress could be one motivation for NASA making its decision sooner rather than later.
The CCtCAP award(s) will bring the United States one step closer to once again launching people into space. When the Obama Administration initially proposed the commercial crew program in the FY2011 budget request, it anticipated systems would be ready by 2015, resulting in a four-year gap between the end of the shuttle and the availability of a replacement. That date has slipped to 2017, however, because it did not get the requisite funding. Some of the companies have indicated they could be ready sooner if more money was available, but NASA is planning on 2017. Until then, Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft is the only way for ISS crew members to travel back and forth.
UPDATE: We've added the Ancient Earth, Ancient Aliens event on August 20, which we just found out about..
Here is our list of space policy-related events for the next TWO weeks, August 18-29, 2014, and any insight we can offer about them. Congress returns on September 8.
During the Weeks
At last, things have quieted down for these last two weeks of August. Perhaps what is most interesting is what's NOT on the calendar -- two U.S. spacewalks from the ISS that were supposed to take place in addition to the Russian spacewalk tomorrow. NASA is still recovering from the alarming failure last summer when water filled Luca Parmitano's spacesuit helmet while he was out on a spacewalk. NASA determined that a blocked filter caused the problem and replaced the filters on the spacesuits and added other safety features, but still has not approved routine U.S. spacewalks. Only contingency spacewalks required to address specific issues are allowed. Two were scheduled for August 21 and August 29, but NASA postponed them because of concerns about the spacesuit batteries. The next SpaceX cargo resupply flight on September 19 will deliver replacements and the spacewalks will be rescheduled. NASA officials reportedly met last week to review whether to resume routine spacewalks, but the agency has not issued any press statements to that effect yet.
The Russians have their own spacesuits, Orlan, and are not affected by the concerns about the U.S. suits. Oleg Artemyev and Alexander Skvortsov will perform a 6.5 hour spacewalk -- or extravehicular activity (EVA) -- to retrieve two experiments on the exterior of the ISS and install two new ones, and deploy a nanosatellite. NASA TV coverage begins at 9:30 am ET.
That and other events during the next two weeks that we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below.
Monday, August 18
Tuesday, August 19
Wednesday, August 20
Monday-Wednesday, August 25-27
Gen. John E. Hyten became the 16th commander of Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) today (August 15), replacing Gen. William Shelton. He has a long career in Air Force space units in the United States and overseas and has been serving as AFSPC's vice commander.
Hyten takes over at a challenging time for the Air Force in the space launch business, at least. SpaceX filed suit against the U.S. government for issuing a sole source contract to the United Launch Alliance (ULA) for 36 launch vehicle cores instead of opening the contract to competition. That lawsuit is pending before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. Separately, the government is reassessing its dependence on Russian RD-180 engines for ULA's Atlas V launch vehicle and what it will take to develop a U.S.-built engine to replace it.
Shelton testified to a joint hearing of two Senate committees last month on those very topics. In that testimony and other speeches, Shelton came across as defensive of ULA and less than enthusiastic about SpaceX. He was rebuked by Senator John McCain (R-AZ) over comments he made earlier in the year criticizing SpaceX for filing the lawsuit. McCain made it clear that he thinks there were improprieties in the sole source award. As for the RD-180 engine issue, Shelton acknowledged at the hearing that it is time for the United States to develop its own liquid rocket engine to replace dependence on the RD-180, but almost seemed regretful about it. He talked about "dire" consequences for national security satellite launches if the supply of RD-180 engines is cut off before an American engine is available.
Hyten's career includes serving as commander of the 50th Space Wing at Schriever Air Force Base, which has responsibility for command and control, launch and early orbit operations, and operational support for more than 150 satellites, which should give him keen insight into the launch vehicle issues. After graduating from Harvard with a B.A. in engineering and applied sciences through an Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship, his career reflects a long history in space acquisition and operations, including senior engineering positions on Air Force and Army anti-satellite weapons programs. He served as Director of Space Forces for Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. In addition to commanding the 50th Space Wing, he also commanded the 595th Space Group and was Director, Space Programs, in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition before becoming Vice Commander of AFSPC. His promotion to General was confirmed by the Senate on April 9, 2014.
General John E. Hyten. Photo Credit: Air Force Space Command
Hyten spoke at the Space and Missile Defense (SMD) Symposium in Huntsville, AL this week. As reported by Space News, Hyten characterized the Atlas V as "the most beautiful rocket ever built by man" but agreed that the United States should not be dependent on Russia for access to space.
State Department official Frank Rose pressed the case yesterday that the Chinese conducted another antisatellite (ASAT) test on July 23. This is only the second time the U.S. Government has accused China of conducting an ASAT test -- other analysts insist there have been others -- and Rose's comments reemphasized a statement released by the State Department on July 25 perhaps to raise the visibility of the U.S. government's concern.
The July 25 statement from the State Department asserted that China conducted a non-destructive ASAT test on July 23 and called on China to "refrain from destabilizing actions." China announced it was a missile intercept test.
Rose said yesterday at U.S. Strategic Command's Deterrence Symposium that "Despite China's claims that this was not an ASAT test; let me assure you the United States has high confidence in its assessment, that the event was indeed an ASAT test." Russia also has ASAT weapons, he continued, citing congressional testimony by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Rose, who is Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, said ASAT systems are "both destabilizing and threaten the long-term security and sustainability of the outer space environment."
Rose's remarks then returned to the familiar themes that space is congested and contested and in need of voluntary, non-legally binding Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs) such as those to which China and Russia agreed last year through the United Nations (U.N.) Group of Governmental Experts (GGE). He also cited the "important multilateral initiative" being pursued through development of an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities as well as efforts within the U.N. Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.
The key point was his public, official insistence that China conducted another ASAT test. There is no disagreement that China conducted an ASAT test in 2007, destroying one of its own satellites and earning international condemnation because of the resulting cloud of orbital debris that will imperil satellites in low Earth orbit indefinitely. China conducted "missile intercept" tests in 2010 and 2013 that some Western analysts also assert were ASAT tests, but the U.S. Government has not publicly placed them in that category. This is only the second time that the U.S. Government has accused China of an ASAT test. Rose allowed that this was a "non-destructive" test even though the rest of his comments stressed the grave consequences of debris-generating ASAT systems.
The United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced today (August 12) that Lockheed Martin's Tory Bruno is replacing Michael Gass as its President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO), effective immediately. Gass has been President and CEO since ULA was created in 2006. ULA said the two men would work "collaboratively to ensure a smooth transition."
ULA is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing that builds and launches the Delta and Atlas rockets. Gass has an extensive career in the launch vehicle business, but that business is changing with the entrance of SpaceX's Falcon 9 into the marketplace and deteriorating geopolitical relationships between the United States and Russia that pose challenges for ULA's acquisition of the Russian RD-180 rocket engines that power the Atlas V. The announcement said that he is retiring.
Bruno comes to his new job from serving as vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin Strategic and Missile Defense Systems. Both men won praise from Lockheed Martin and Boeing executives in today's press release. Lockheed Martin's Rick Ambrose pointed out that "Mike's track record speaks for itself: 86 successful launches in a row." As for Bruno, Ambrose called him "an ideal leader to take the reins of ULA" who will "apply his proven track record of driving customer focus, innovation and affordability to shape ULA's future." Boeing's Craig Cooning expressed gratitude for Gass's leadership and said Bruno is "well-qualified to ensure ULA keeps pace with changing customer needs and launch industry dynamics."
ULA recently initiated a marketing campaign focusing on ULA's reliability and experience in launching satellites, especially for national security purposes. It is getting ready to launch a commercial satellite, Worldview-3, tomorrow and conducted two successful launches -- AFSPC-4 and a GPS navigation satellite -- in one week in late July-early August.
But SpaceX is nipping at its heels, accusing the Air Force of illegally awarding a sole-source contract to ULA last year. The case is pending before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. Pressure is building to allow "new entrants" like SpaceX to compete for government launches to reduce launch costs.
Editor's note: The ULA press release states that Bruno was most recently "vice president and general manager" of Lockheed Martin Strategic and Missile Defense Systems. However, his LinkedIn profile states that he is President of that part of the company.
Adam Steltzner of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has been selected as the inaugural recipient of the Yvonne C. Brill Lectureship in Aerospace Engineering by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and National Academy of Engineering (NAE). The lecture will be presented on September 30, 2014 in Washington, D.C.
Steltzner headed the Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) team for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover. While perhaps not as well known publicly as Bobak Ferdowsi (the "Mohawk Guy"), Steltzner is credited with his effectiveness as the team leader for development of the Sky Crane system that successfully lowered Curiosity to the Martian surface and his communications skills since then in exciting the public about space exploration.
Adam Steltzner (photo posted on his Facebook page captioned "At the MSL launch, Cape Canaveral, FL
The Brill Lectureship was created by AIAA and NAE to honor Yvonne Brill, an esteemed aerospace engineer, AIAA Honorary Fellow and NAE member who passed away last year. The biannual award recognizes achievements in research or engineering issues for space travel and exploration, aerospace education of students and the public, and other aerospace issues such as ensuring a diverse and robust engineering community. Brill was the recipient of many awards during her lifetime, including the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, which was presented to her by President Barack Obama in 2011.
Yvonne Brill receives 2010 National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama at the
Steltzner will present his public lecture on September 30, 2014 at a symposium at the National Academy of Sciences building at 2101 Constitution Ave., NW, Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the annual NAE meeting.
The Space Data Association (SDA) has reached a data sharing agreement with U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) to enhance space situational awareness. SDA's members include several of the world's major commercial satellite operators who share certain data with each other to avoid in-orbit collisions. USSTRATCOM is the first non-satellite operator to sign an agreement with the group.
SDA was founded by three of the largest commercial communications satellite operators -- Intelsat, Inmarsat and SES -- after the 2009 collision between an operating Iridium communications satellite (Iridium 33) and a defunct Russian military communications satellite (Cosmos 2251). The collision added to the population of space debris in low Earth orbit, which had increased significantly two years earlier following a Chinese antisatellite (ASAT) test that created about 3,000 pieces of debris.
The Chinese ASAT test and the Iridium-Cosmos collision raised the profile of the problems posed by space debris and the need for countries and companies to work together to ensure that Earth orbit will remain usable in the future. Space Situational Awareness (SSA) refers to the goal of knowing where everything is in Earth orbit and where it's going. (Some definitions add the goal of knowing what each satellite is doing). It is one element of President Obama's 2010 National Space Policy.
SDA created a mechanism for its members to share data on the locations of their satellites and any plans to reposition them that avoids revealing sensitive information yet contributes to SSA and the broader goal of "space sustainability." For several years it has been seeking agreement with the Department of Defense to access data from the Joint Space Operations Center (JSPoC), which tracks objects in Earth orbit for the U.S. government, predicts when they will decay from orbit, and conducts "conjunction analyses" to determine if a collision is likely. JSPoC is part of the Joint Functional Component Command for Space (JFCC Space) under USSTRATCOM. It is currently tracking more than 17,000 objects in Earth orbit of which approximately 4,000 are functioning payloads or satellites, 2,000 are rocket bodies, and 11,000 are debris/inactive satellites according to its space-track.org website.
In addition to concern about physical collisions between space objects, there is growing concern about electromagnetic interference (EMI) and radiofrequency interference (RFI), particularly intentional jamming of satellite frequencies by countries that object to certain programming or otherwise choose to interfere with the transmissions.
SDA called the agreement a "critical milestone" that allows the two organizations to formally collaborate on SSA issues including EMI and RFI. The agreement creates "a framework to exchange data," SDA President Ron Busch said in an August 8 press release, and is an acknowledgment by USSTRATCOM that "collaboration can enhance" SSA.
The Secure World Foundation (SWF) is a champion of SSA and space sustainability. Brian Weeden, SWF's technical advisor and a former Air Force officer who worked at JSPoC, said via email that "This agreement could be a major step forward, but as always the devil is in the details and right now we don't have many details."
SDA announced the agreement in a press release; USSTRATCOM does not appear to have made a public announcement.
China plans to launch a robotic spacecraft soon that will test technologies needed to return a lunar sample to Earth. It did not announce the name of the spacecraft, but said it would be launched by the end of this year.
China laid out its robotic lunar exploration program several years ago. All the spacecraft are named after Chang'e, China's mythological goddess of the Moon. Three already have been launched: Chang'e-1 (2007) and Chang'e-2 (2010) were orbiters; Chang'e-3 (2013) is a lander/rover combination (the rover, Yutu, did not function as planned).
The next in that series, Chang'e-4, originally was described as a backup for Chang'e-3, but China now says it will verify technologies for the Chang'e-5 robotic sample return mission. Chang'e-4 presumably is still planned for launch in 2015, though little is said about it in recent Chinese accounts. As recently as March 2014, China was saying Chang'e-5, the robotic sample return mission, would launch in 2017, but in August China's official Xinhua news service said it would launch "around 2020." It will use China's new Long March 5 rocket. The rocket and its launch site on Hainan Island are both still in development.
Yesterday, Xinhua revealed plans to launch a "recoverable lunar orbiter" by the end of this year that will test capabilities to return a spacecraft to Earth in preparation for Chang'e-5. This spacecraft, which apparently will not carry the Chang'e designation, arrived at China's Xichang launch site on Sunday (Beijng time). Xinhua said it is a "test model" that will test technologies "vital" to Chang'e-5's success.
Bob Christy at zarya.info calls it an engineering test for components of a sample return mission, including a prototype reentry vehicle, and a "full command and control 'dress rehearsal' for Chang'e 5 in 2017 including setting up the Earthbound trajectory, conducting mid-course corrections, tracking, re-entry and vehicle recovery." He anticipates launch in early November, perhaps November 1.
Events of Interest