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Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX) and six other House Republicans wrote to Presidential science adviser John Holdren today asking him to ensure NASA is able to impose safety standards for astronauts flying on space transportation systems developed and operated by the commercial sector. They also urged Holdren to expedite a request to Congress for another waiver to the Iran-North Korea-Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA) to allow NASA to purchase additional services from Russia to support the International Space Station (ISS).
In addition to Olson, the letter is signed by Representatives Steve Palazzo (R-MS), chair of the space and aeronautics subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee; Lamar Smith (R-TX); Randy Hultgren (R-IL); Steve LaTourette (R-OH); Mo Brooks (R-AL); and Ted Poe (R-TX).
The letter responds to comments made at a February 17 hearing before the full House SS&T Committee where chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) asked Holdren whether it was true that NASA could not impose safety standards on the companies competing for "commercial crew" contracts under the type of procurement approach NASA is currently using, called Space Act Agreements (SAAs). Holdren said it was his understanding that NASA retained responsibility for the safety of its astronauts and if there was a problem in the agreements, "I am sure we will fix it." The letter goes on to explain that SAAs do not permit NASA to impose design or safety requirements. The Congressmen ask Holdren to "heed your own advice" from the hearing and "take immediate action to remedy the situation."
NASA officials acknowledge that they are limited in what they can tell companies to do under SAAs and argued strongly last year that the agency needed to switch to a traditional procurement mechanism -- firm fixed price (FFP) contracts -- instead. However, in December, NASA did an about-face saying that they needed to continue with SAAs because of budget uncertainties. SAAs provide more flexibility than FFP contracts.
With the end of the shuttle program, NASA no longer can launch anyone into space and is relying on the commercial sector to develop their own systems to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) later this decade. Until then, NASA is purchasing transportation services from Russia. NASA is limited in what it can purchase from Russia in connection with the ISS because of language in INKSNA, a law that seeks to dissuade Russia from providing assistance to Iran, North Korea and Syria.
NASA has had to obtain waivers from Congress in order to purchase the services it now receives from Russia. That waiver expires in mid-2016. NASA informed Congress last fall that it will seek another extension and today's letter urges Holdren to expedite that request so Congress can consider it this year. "Without a timely resolution ..., NASA and our international partners could face the need to de-crew the ISS. Such a dire outcome would put the Station at significant risk to its safety and long term viability...."
The members asked for a response from Holdren within 30 days.
According to the House Appropriations Committee's website, this morning's hearing before the Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee on NOAA's FY2013 budget request has been postponed.
The Air Force budget request for FY2013 includes $9.6 billion in funding for space programs according to Air Force testimony to Congress today.
Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff Norman Schwartz presented a joint statement to the House Armed Services Committee. They provided few details about how the money will be spent, but said:
"With the $9.6 billion in funds for space programs in the FY13 budget request, the Air Force is recapitalizing many space capabilities, fielding new satellite communications systems, replacing legacy early missile warning systems, improving space control capabilities, and upgrading position, navigation and timing capabilities with the launch of Global Positioning System (GPS) IIF satellites and the acquisition of GPS III satellites. Consistent with the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and Department of Defense Appropriations Act, the Air Force is canceling the Defense Weather Satellite System, saving $518.8 million in FY13 and $2.38 billion over the FYDP. The Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) will continue to fulfill this critical requirement as the Air Force determines the most prudent way forward."
The testimony also stressed the need to improve procurement of space systems. Last year, the Air Force proposed an Evolutionary Acquisition for Space Efficiency (EASE) procurement approach, which envisioned multi-year appropriations from Congress. Congress was not supportive of the notion, but this year the concept is back -- renamed Efficient Space Procurement (ESP). It also calls for advance appropriations.
The House Science, Space and Technology Committee will hear from NASA and NOAA next week about their FY2013 budget requests.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will testify at the NASA hearing on Wednesday, March 7, at 2:00 pm in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building. NASA's FY2013 budget request is $17.71 billion, a slight decrease from the $17.77 billion provided by Congress for the current fiscal year, FY2012, but a sharp contrast with the $18.7 billion that had been requested for FY2012 and projected for FY2013. Committee chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) complained to Presidential science adviser John Holdren at a February 17 hearing that NASA was singled out for "unequal treatment" in the FY2013 budget. All the agencies under the committee's jurisdiction would receive increases in FY2013, Hall said, except for NASA. He and ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) criticized cuts to the robotic Mars exploration program in particular.
The committee's energy and environment subcommittee will hold a hearing on NOAA's budget request a day earlier. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, who will testify at the hearing on NOAA's behalf, and Mary Kicza, head of the part of NOAA in charge of weather satellites, were each apologetic in budget briefings over the past two weeks about the significant percentage of the NOAA budget allocated to satellite programs. Twenty NOAA activities are being terminated while funding for satellites increases significantly.
NASA's Associate Administrator for Science, John Grunsfeld, announced today that he is creating a Mars Program Planning Group to chart a path forward for robotic Mars exploration with the goal of defining an affordable mission that could be launched in 2018. Steve Squyres, chair of the recent National Research Council (NRC) Decadal Survey for planetary science, however, indicated that such a mission would conform with the Survey's recommendations only if it is directly linked to returning a sample of Mars to Earth.
Grunsfeld told a meeting of NASA's Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) this morning that NASA remains committed to Mars exploration. His comment comes in the wake of NASA's withdrawal from a cooperative program with the European Space Agency (ESA) for Mars missions in 2016 and 2018 that were deemed unaffordable by the Obama Administration.
A physicist and former NASA astronaut, Grunsfeld wryly noted that every astronaut class since 1990 has been told they will be the ones to travel to Mars. While expressing his disappointment with the decision to cut spending on robotic planetary exploration, he pointed to the country's difficult economic situation as forcing tough choices on priorities. Those decisions have been made, he said.
Still, he strongly believes it is important to keep Mars exploration vibrant to retain critical workforce skills as well as public and political interest in exploring the planet both with robots and humans. The ultimate goal, he says, is having astrobiologists and geologists on the surface of Mars. The Obama Administration's goal as expressed in the President's National Space Policy is to send humans to orbit Mars in the 2030's, but not to land there until some indefinite time thereafter. President Obama said in a major speech about the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program on April 15, 2010 that he anticipates humans landing on Mars within his lifetime, but was not more specific.
Grunsfeld was NASA's Chief Scientist from 2003-2004 before returning to his astronaut duties and flying on a shuttle mission in 2009 to repair the Hubble Space Telescope (his fifth shuttle mission and third as a Hubble repairman). He later left NASA and joined the Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates Hubble and will operate the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). He returned to NASA headquarters at the beginning of this year to head the Science Mission Directorate (SMD), which is struggling to cope with cost overruns on JWST that some space scientists blame for the cuts to the planetary science budget.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden announced on February 13, 2012, the day the FY2013 budget request was released, that he was establishing a team within NASA to develop an "integrated approach" to Mars exploration that responds to NASA's goals both for science and human exploration. Grunsfeld is heading that team. The other members are Bill Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations; Waleed Abdalati, NASA Chief Scientist; and Mason Peck, NASA Chief Technologist.
What Grunsfeld announced today was another team that will be headed by Orlando Figueroa, a veteran leader of NASA's robotic Mars missions, who retired in 2010. Figueroa is tasked to provide a "framework" by the end of March and a final report by late summer on how to "recapture" an opportunity to send a probe to Mars in 2018 or, if necessary, 2020. Earth and Mars are correctly aligned every 26 months to allow probes to be sent there. Some of those opportunities are better than others and Grunsfeld describes 2018 as a "sweet spot" in planetary alignments, but 2020 would be acceptable. It is being promoted primarily as a 2018 mission, however.
One key is how much such a mission would cost. NASA categorizes planetary science missions as Discovery-class, New Frontiers-class, or flagship. Discovery-class missions cost about $500 million; New Frontiers-class are about $1 billion; and flagship missions are those more expensive than the others. The 2016 and 2018 missions planned with ESA were flagship-class missions and Grunsfeld and other NASA officials have firmly made clear that there is no room in the NASA budget for new flagship missions. The Mars Program Planning Team headed by Figueroa is supposed to come up with creative and innovative ideas for a Mars mission in 2018 that is affordable within NASA's currently anticipated budget. It will include representatives of the Office of the Chief Technologist and the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD). Grunsfeld indicated that he hopes those parts of NASA will bring additional money to the table to accomplish a 2018 Mars mission.
Grunsfeld's determination to find a way to launch a Mars probe in 2018 is not sitting well with others in the planetary exploration community who view it as inconsistent with the recommendations of the NRC's planetary science Decadal Survey.
Steve Squyres, best known as the top scientist for the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, chaired the Decadal Survey and spoke to MEPAG this morning after Grunsfeld. Sqyures also chairs the NASA Advisory Council (NAC). He was not optimistic about other parts of NASA, especially HEOMD, providing additional funding for a Mars mission since they have their own budget challenges. More importantly, he implied that inserting a 2018 Mars mission into the planetary exploration queue does not conform with the Decadal Survey recommendations unless it is connected with the ultimate goal of returning samples to Earth.
The Decadal Survey represents a consensus of the planetary science community on the top scientific questions in planetary exploration overall, not just Mars, and identifies missions to answer them. It also establishes "decision rules" to guide NASA if budgets are less than envisioned when the Survey was conducted. It began in 2009 when the budget situation was comparatively robust. By the time the report was released in early 2011, the situation had changed for the worse and deteriorated thereafter.
Under the decision rules, if budgets are tight, NASA is "to go after flagships first," Squyres said, and that is what NASA did, terminating its role in the 2016 and 2018 missions with ESA. Those missions were the first in a series leading to returning a sample of Mars to Earth. The Decadal Survey identified Mars sample return as its top priority in the flagship class and set out a number of missions over many years -- a "campaign" -- to accomplish it. Early missions would select and set aside ("cache") samples to be collected and returned to Earth by subsequent missions. It was this mulit-spacecraft, multi-decade commitment that worried the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and failed to win support.
The Decadal Survey said that that if the Mars sample return campaign did not proceed, NASA should turn to the second priority flagship mission, the Jupiter Europa Orbiter. The solar system is full of fascinating objects to explore and Squyres stressed that the Decadal Survey was for all of planetary exploration, not just Mars. He also reminded the audience that the overarching consensus of the community was to protect the smaller missions in the Discovery and New Frontiers programs, along with Research and Analysis (R&A) and technology development. They have priority over flagship missions if budget constraints are severe, he said, which is the situation NASA finds itself in today.
His bottom line is that under the Decadal Survey's decision rules, new missions to Mars "that lead directly to sample return" -- a phrase he repeatedly stressed -- have very high priority. If a proposed Mars mission does not lead directly to sample return, it should be openly competed in the Discovery program. A Mars mission already is one of three proposals in contention for the Discovery 12 selection this summer. Thus, although Squyres did not explicitly say so, the implication is that unless the new 2018 Mars mission Grunsfeld is seeking "leads directly to sample return," it would not be consistent with the Decadal Survey.
NRC Decadal Surveys are often referred to as "bibles" because they are faithfully followed by NASA and Congress since they represent a hard-won consensus of the relevant science community. The NRC produces Decadal Surveys every ten years (a decade) for each of NASA's science disciplines -- astrophysics, heliophysics (the study of the Sun and the solar-terrestrial relationship), earth science, and planetary exploration.
Update: The NAC heliophysics subcommittee meeting Feb. 27-28, and the HASC hearing on DOD's FY2013 S&T budget request on Feb. 29 have been added.
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead.
The House and Senate are in session this week.
Monday, February 27
Monday-Tuesday, February 27-28
Monday-Wednesday, February 27-29
Tuesday, February 28
Friday, March 2
Mars is the Roman god of war, an apt connection as budget battles heat up with the release of NASA's FY2013 request. Lines are being drawn in the space science community generally and among planetary scientists specifically as everyone fights for scarer resources. Future plans for Mars probes are at the center of the debate. All eyes are on Congress to see if it will save the planetary exploration budget and, if it does, what will be sacrificed in this zero-sum budget environment.
NASA's total budget would decline by only a small amount if Congress appropriates the President's request, but a $300 million cut to NASA's $1.5 billion planetary science budget is sparking controversy. The complaints come both from those who believe that budget suffered because of overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and those who feel that NASA is trying to salvage some sort of robotic Mars exploration program at the expense of exploring other places in the solar system.
The cut from $1.5 billion to $1.2 billion means that NASA will not be able to fulfill its pledge to participate with the European Space Agency (ESA) in a series of missions that ultimately would return a sample of Mars to Earth. NASA informed ESA that it could not participate in missions planned for 2016 and 2018 that were to kick off that effort. The decision resulted in a storm of controversy in the planetary science community that blamed overruns on JWST for the reduced funding for planetary science. JWST is part of NASA's astrophysics program. Planetary science and astrophysics are two of the four disciplines within NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD). The other two are earth science and heliophysics (studies of the Sun and the solar-terrestrial environment). The budget request for all of astrophysics -- including JWST, which is bookkept separately -- would increase substantially, and earth science and heliophysics would increase slightly. Only planetary science would decrease in FY2013.
NASA officials have been careful not to make any connection publicly between JWST overruns and cuts to the planetary science budget. They insist that several planetary science missions have completed their development phases or soon will. Thus, a reduction should not be surprising, they say. That argument has not assuaged those who draw the battle line between JWST and planetary science.
But a new front opened on Thursday during a teleconference meeting of the NASA Advisory Council's (NAC's) Planetary Science Subcommittee. Divisions within the planetary science community became apparent there, and may continue on Monday and Tuesday at a meeting of NASA's Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) near Dulles Airport outside Washington, DC.
At Thursday's meeting, advocates of exploring the outer planets -- those that lie beyond Mars and the asteroid belt -- were particularly vocal in arguing that the recent National Research Council's Decadal Survey for planetary science gave them the next priority if the Mars sample return missions did not proceed. Instead, they complained, NASA is continuing to talk about Mars missions, albeit smaller than those that were planned with ESA. On February 13, the day the budget request was released, for example, SMD Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld spoke about options for sending smaller probes to Mars in 2016 and 2018 despite cancellation of the plans with ESA for the large "flagship" (most expensive) missions. Grunsfeld also restated what NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said earlier in the day that the agency is developing an "integrated strategy" for Mars exploration that responds to the needs of both science and human exploration goals at NASA.
Jim Green, director of SMD's planetary science division, confirmed at Thursday's meeting that a Mars sample return mission will not be pursued in this decade. He also repeated what he has said at previous meetings of this subcommittee that the planetary science community needs to make its case that the return on investment for planetary exploration is worth the cost. NASA's budget includes a four-year projection that shows planetary science will continue on a downward trajectory through FY2015 to $1.1 billion and then receive very slight increases the next two years. By FY2017 the budget ekes its way back to the $1.2 billion it would get in FY2013.
NRC Decadal Surveys are performed for each of the space and earth science disciplines every 10 years (a decade) and prioritize what science questions are most important and identify missions to answer them. The Decadal Surveys are often referred to as "bibles" because NASA and Congress usually follow their recommendations faithfully since they represent a consensus of the relevant science community. The planetary science Decadal Survey stated that the Mars sample return missions had top priority for flagship missions and if they did not proceed, then NASA should go to the next on the list -- a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa called the Jupiter Europa Orbiter (JEO). Europa has an icy crust that scientists believe covers a liquid ocean of water. In the "follow the water" quest for extraterrestrial life, it is a very high priority target for outer planet exploration.
Green was challenged at Thursday's meeting to explain why NASA is talking about smaller Mars missions instead of focusing on a Europa mission as the Decadal Survey recommended. He insisted that NASA is following the Decadal Survey recommendations because the 2016 Mars mission it is considering already had been proposed as a candidate for a small Discovery-class mission, and the agency is not trying to add a medium-class New Frontiers mission for Mars.
The Decadal Survey stipulated that if JEO was to proceed, its costs would have to be sharply reduced. Robert Pappalardo of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a NASA-funded federal research and development center operated by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, CA, is heading a study to do just that. He stated at Thursday's meeting that his group has come up with "multiple fly-by missions that will come in at the cost target" and demanded to know why NASA is "abandoning the Decadal Survey recommendation."
Green replied that looking at the budget through FY2017, there is "no room for a flagship level activity," but Pappalardo countered that the mission his study committee has developed is "sub-flagship now." Two other studies also are underway for outer planet flagship missions and Green replied that until all three go through an independent cost review, NASA cannot make any announcement about what might be the next flagship mission.
Others at the meeting pointed out that when NASA's Cassini mission, currently studying Saturn, completes operations in 2018, it will be the end of the outer planets flagship program. One called the FY2013 budget request a "going out of business" scenario for outer planets exploration. Green did not disagree.
The United States is the only country to launch probes to the outer planets, although ESA built the Huygens probe that landed on Saturn's moon Titan as part of NASA's Cassini program. ESA is considering a mission to Jupiter and its moons called JUICE. It is one of three proposals vying for selection as ESA's next major space science program. A decision is expected this spring. Green said that if JUICE is selected by ESA, NASA might be able to participate in a small way. Green complimented ESA for reacting "with vision and not with anger" to NASA backing out of the Mars 2016 and 2018 missions and its willingness to continue considering cooperation with NASA.
JPL, which builds many of NASA's planetary exploration spacecraft, and planetary exploration in general are popular in Congress. Several of the scientists at Thursday's meeting spoke confidently that Congress will restore funding for planetary science. The debate may well have a different dimension on Capitol Hill. At a February 17 hearing on the President's FY2013 budget request for research and development, Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, asked why NASA was singled out for "unequal treatment." He said the request proposes increases for all the agencies within the committee's jurisdiction except NASA. He and ranking member Eddie Bernie Johnson (D-TX) both complained about the cuts to the Mars budget.
Getting Congress to increase NASA funding above the President's request will be challenging to say the least in the current budget environment. For FY2012, Congress cut NASA's request from $18.72 billion to $17.77 billion (after a $30 million across-the-board rescission). However, Congress might make other choices on how to allocate the funds it provides to NASA. The question then is what NASA programs might suffer in order to restore funding for planetary exploration. Few expect the FY2013 budget to be finalized before the November elections meaning that NASA and other agencies will have to operate on a Continuing Resolution (CR) for some number of months. CRs usually fund programs at their previous year's level, so in this particular case, that could be good news for the planetary science community -- if only for a few months.
Green pointed out at Thursday's meeting that even if Congress added money for planetary science in FY2013, that does not mean a new program could be initiated because there is no guarantee increased funding would be provided in future years. He also noted that if Congress increases funding for planetary science, it might direct NASA on how to spend it rather than giving the agency flexibility to make those decisions.
Renowned space lawyer Carl Christol, who literally wrote the book on space law, passed away on February 22 at the age of 98.
Professor Christol pioneered the field of space law and authored "The International Law of Outer Space," as well as seven other books on political science, foreign policy and related topics. His extensive and distinguished career is summarized in an obituary available on the website of the International Institute of Space Law, in which he was a very active participant.
A graduate of Yale Law School, he spent most of his career as a professor at the University of Southern California. He also was a retired Army Colonel and recipient of the Bronze Star for service during World War II.
Mary Kicza, who heads the part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that is responsible for weather satellites, said yesterday that NOAA has agreed to a life-cycle cost cap of $12.9 billion for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).
That may seem like quite a steep price for two satellites, but Kicza explained that the JPSS program pays for more than two JPSS spacecraft, their instruments, launch and operations. The program also includes costs associated with completing the Total Solar and Spectral Irradiance Sensor (TSIS) that was to have flown on the since-cancelled National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). The JPSS-1 satellite cannot accommodate the TSIS instrument, and although NOAA currently has no plans to launch it, the agency is trying to find such an opportunity. JPSS costs also include building and launching separate spacecraft for search and rescue transponders used to locate and rescue people in distress as part of the international COSPAS-SARSAT system, and the Advanced Data Collection System (A-DCS) to collect data from ocean buoys. Both of those also could not be accommodated on the JPSS-1 satellite. NOAA had planned to launch them on the Department of Defense's (DOD's) new weather satellites, the Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS), but that program has just been terminated.
Additionally, the JPSS cap covers operating the satellites through the year 2028.
The first JPSS is expected to be launched in early calendar year (CY) 2017 (which is the second quarter of FY2017). NOAA's FY2013 request for JPSS is $916.4 million, slightly less than the $924 million it received from Congress for FY2012. Kicza said the Administration plans to keep the program funded at approximately $900 million per year for the next several years.
The NOAA cap is more than what Senate appropriators wanted in their version of the FY2012 appropriations bill that includes NOAA (P.L. 112-55). They wanted to impose a cap of $9.43 billion through 2024 (S. Rept. 112-78), but it was not adopted in the conference report (H. Rept. 112-284). NOAA said in its briefing slides that the $12.9 billion life cycle cost estimate through 2028 is an increase over its previous estimate of $11.9 billion through 2024 reflecting "an extended estimate of satellite performance."
JPSS is NOAA's polar-orbiting weather satellite program that replaces its part of NPOESS. NOAA also operates a companion system in geostationary orbit, Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES), and is in the process of building a new version of those as well. Called GOES-R, it would get a significant "planned" increase in FY2013: $802.0 million compared to $615.6 million in FY2012. GOES-R has had its share of overruns and delays, but NOAA has agreed to a $10.9 billion cap on that program. That pays for four GOES-R satellites, their instruments, launches and operations through the year 2036. The first launch is scheduled for late CY2015 (first quarter FY2016).
Kicza, assistant administrator for NOAA's 's National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS), made the remarks at a briefing on the FY2013 budget request for NESDIS. Echoing comments by NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco during her budget briefing last week, Kicza seemed apologetic that the satellite systems are consuming such a large part of the NOAA budget. Kicza reminded the audience that 20 NOAA programs were being terminated while the satellite budget is going up 8.8 percent. It represents 40 percent of the total NOAA request of $5.1 billion, she said.
She lauded the successful launch and initial operations of NASA's Suomi NPP satellite last fall, which will serve as a bridge between NOAA's current generation of polar orbiting weather satelites and JPSS. The last of NOAA's polar orbiting satellites was launched in 2009. NOAA officials have been warning Congress for the past two years that because Congress appropriated less funding than requested for JPSS in FY2011 and FY2012 that a data gap is very likely if the satellites meet, but do not exceed, their design lifetimes.
NASA's Chris Scolese and Robert Lightfoot are about to assume new roles at the agency. Scolese will be the new director of the Goddard Space Flight Center while Lightfoot replaces Scolese at NASA Headquarters.
Scolese is currently NASA's Associate Administrator, the third highest ranking official at the agency and the top civil servant (the Administrator and Deputy Administrator are political appointees). He served as Acting Administrator after the departure of Mike Griffin while the current Administrator, Charlie Bolden, was being selected and confirmed. He will replace Rob Strain as director of Goddard in Greenbelt, MD; Strain recently left to join Ball Aerospace.
Lightfoot is the director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. He will replace Scolese as Acting Associate Administrator.
Both men are NASA veterans and will assume their new roles on March 5.
Events of Interest