Latest News

NASA Sets May 16 for Endeavour Launch

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

May 16 it is! NASA has announced that space shuttle Endeavour will launch on May 16 at 8:56 am EDT. This is the final launch of Endeavour on its STS-124 mission.

Events of Interest: Week of May 9-13, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The following events may of interest in the coming week. For more information, check our calendar on the right menu or click the links below. Times, dates and witnesses for congressional hearings and other activities are subject to change; check the relevant committee's website for up to date information.

During the Week

The House is in session Tuesday-Friday and is scheduled to debate the FY2011 Intelligence Authorization Act (H.R. 754) on Thursday and Friday. The Senate is in session Monday-Friday.

Monday, May 9

  • NASA news conference on progress of repairs to space shuttle Endeavour, Kennedy Space Center, FL, 3:00 pm EDT (watch on NASA TV)

Monday-Thursday, May 9-12

Tuesday-Wednesday, May 10-11

  • FAA Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), National Housing Center, 1201 15th St., NW, Washington, DC
    • Tuesday, working group meetings, 8:00 am - 5:00 pm EDT
    • Wednesday, meeting of full committee, begins at 8:00 am EDT
  • NASA Advisory Council (NAC) Planetary Protection Subcommittee, NASA Headquarters, Washington DC
    • Tuesday, 9:00 am - 5:00 pm EDT, room 5H45
    • Wednesday, 9:00 am - 1:00 pm EDT, room 9H40

Wednesday, May 11

Wednesday-Thursday, May 11-12

Thursday, May 12

New Endeavour Launch Date to be Set Tomorrow

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 06-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA is expected to set a new launch date for space shuttle Endeavour (STS-134) Friday afternoon.

A post on NASA's shuttle website states that "Endeavour's no earlier than launch date remains May 10, but senior NASA managers will meet Friday to evaluate the progress of repairs and select a new launch date for the STS-134 mission to the International Space Station." Technicans are replacing a faulty Load Control Assembly needed for the shuttle's Auxiliary Power Units that control hydraulic systems that steer the vehicle. This mission was intended to launch on April 29.

FAA Defends Requested 74 Percent Budget Increase for FY2012

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 06-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

George Nield, director of the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA's) Office of Commercial Space Transportation, defended his office's request for a 74% budget increase at a hearing today. Nield fielded numerous questions - some surprisingly antagonistic - from members of the Space and Aeronautics subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

According to Nield, the office is requesting $26.6 million for FY2012, of which $15.8 million is to pay for 103 full time employees and $10.8 million is for "non-pay" activities. That compares to $15.2 million and 71 full time employees in FY2010 (the same level at which it is funded for FY2011) according to the FAA's FY2012 budget submission. Nield defended the increase by saying that his office anticipates a ten-fold increase in the number of commercial launches in FY2012 and his office's responsibilities are expanding as the industry expands. He also pointed to new initiatives to stimulate the industry, including $5 million and 50 employee positions for a Commercial Spaceflight Technical Center at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, and $5 million for a "prize" program for the first non-governmental team to develop and demonstrate the ability to launch a 1 kilogram cubesat to orbit using a partially reusable system. His office also plans to continue funding the Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces.

The Government Accountability Office's (GAO's) Gerald Dillingham noted that the request is a 74 percent budget increase compared to FY2010, and the number of employees would increase by 45 percent. Dillingham said in his opening statement that he agreed the request is "reasonable," but that Congress should give it careful consideration given today's budget constraints.

Several members of the subcommittee questioned the increase, including Rep. Sandy Adams (R-FL), whose district includes Kennedy Space Center. She lambasted Nield for requesting such a large increase in these difficult budget times. She asked how creating a regulatory regime for commercial human spaceflight based on a lot of unknowns would be helpful. Nield replied that industry leaders are asking for it because they want a "consistent and compatible set of results" that will satisfy both NASA and FAA requirements. Later, ending a harsh interrogation of Nield over how long it took his office to issue the first reentry license and after getting GAO's Dillingham to reverse himself and say that he did not believe the increase was necessary, she lectured Nield that a "74 percent increase in a time of economic restraint ... you're asking us to increase your budget for what-if. I have great concern about that. I just want you to know that."

Other members focused on the perennial question of whether there is a conflict of interest between the office's dual role as both a regulator and promoter of commercial space launch and reentry services. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) and others noted that originally the FAA had a similar dual role for aviation, but as the years passed the two roles became contradictory and Congress removed the facilitator role so the FAA could focus on safety. Dillingham suggested that the Department of Commerce might one day take on promoting the commercial space launch industry while the FAA focuses on regulation. He said, however, that GAO did not see any conflicts of interest in its most recent review of the office a few years ago.

George Washington University Professor Henry Hertzfeld went further in discussing potential conflicts of interest, noting that originally the office regulated only expendable launch vehicles (ELVs). Today it regulates several competing modes of transportation -- ELVs, reusable launch vehicles (RLVs), suborbital launch vehicles, and perhaps unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), he said. He sees a potential conflict of interest among those responsibilities as well. However, he said there were no complaints from industry yet about the dual role, and one measure for determining when it is time to review the issue would be when such complaints arise. He agreed with Dillingham that the time is not yet ripe for Congress to reconsider the office's mandate, but that someday other agencies might be charged with promoting the industry to "preserve the integrity of the regulatory process."

Regulating the safety of commercial human spaceflight was also a focus of attention. The 2004 Commercial Space Launch Act Amendments directed that the FAA take no action to regulate the safety of passengers on commercial human spaceflight missions for eight years after the law was enacted. That time period will expire in 2012. Instead, "informed consent" is all that is required - the commercial operator must tell passengers what the risks are, but it is up to the passenger to decide whether or not to board the craft. When the Act was passed, commercial human spaceflight was expected to occur within a few years and after eight years there would be sufficient experience to inform regulatory efforts. No such flights have yet occurred, however, so the question is whether the time period should be extended. The FAA Reauthorization Act that passed the House on April 1 (H.R. 658) contains a provision (sec. 1301) that would prohibit such regulations until eight years after the "first licensed launch of a spaceflight participant" instead of after enactment of the law.

GAO's Dillingham said that he did not know how eight years was selected in the first place, and did not think that a specific number of years is appropriate. Instead, such regulations should develop as the industry matures, he said, stressing that regulations should not be made in times of crisis, such as after an accident: "We're for incrementalism." Hertzfeld agreed, arguing that it is a matter of the maturity of the industry. He also alerted the committee that some states are developing their own passenger waivers of liability for commercial human spaceflight, including Florida, Virginia, New Mexico, and Texas, and each law is worded differently. "Federal preemption on this issue might be warranted," he said, "to prevent competition among states on an issue that involves interstate commerce and may adversely affect safety decisions" by the companies.

Nield pointed out that his office is holding a meeting at the end of this month in Florida to solicit input from the public about how to approach regulating commercial orbital human spaceflight. (The meeting is on May 26 -- see our calendar for a link to the announcement.)

A webcast and statements are available on the subcommittee's website.

Endeavour Launch Date Moves to NET May 16

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 06-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

NASA has set May 16 as the newest "no earlier than" launch date for space shuttle Endeavour (STS-134). It also extended the mission, once it launches, from 14 to 16 days.

The agency said that launch opportunities continue through May 26, with May 21 as the only day when it cannot launch. If it did, its arrival at the International Space Station on May 23 would conflict with the departure of three of the Expedition 27 crew members who are due to return to Earth that day. NASA said that it determined that all of Endeavour's tasks could be accomplished with only three ISS crew members aboard.

A news conference will be held on May 9 at 3:00 pm to discuss the progress of repairs to the Launch Control Assembly that failed and scrubbed the April 29 launch attempt. NASA TV will cover the news conference live.

NASA's Planetary Program Picks Three Mission Candidates Plus Three Technology Development Projects

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA announced today its selection of three planetary mission candidates as part of its Discovery program, as well as three planetary exploration-related technology development projects.

Next year, one of the three mission candidates will be selected for a 2016 launch. In the meantime, each project team will receive $3 million to conduct the concept phase or preliminary design studies and analyses. The three, which were chosen from 28 submissions, are the following:

  • Geophysical Monitoring Station (GES) to study the interior of Mars (Bruce Banerdt, JPL, principal investigator; JPL would manage the project),
  • Titan Mare Explorer (TiME) to land in and float on a methane-ethane sea on Saturn's Moon Titan (Ellen Stofan, Proxemy Research, principal investigator; Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab would manage the project), and
  • Comet Hopper to land on a comet multiple times and observe its changes as it interacts with the Sun (Jessica Sunshine, University of Maryland, principal investigator; NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center would manage the project)

Discovery missions are cost-capped at $425 million not including launch costs. Eleven spacecraft in the Discovery series have been launched so far, including the MESSENGER spacecraft that recently entered orbit around Mercury.

NASA also selected three technology development proposals. Each team will receive an amount of money yet to be negotiated to bring the technologies to a higher level of readiness. The three that were selected are the following:

  • Primitive Material Explorer (PME) to develop a mass spectrometer that can provide highly precise measurements of the chemical composition of a comet and the role of comets in delivering volatiles to Earth (Anita Cochran, University of Texas at Austin, principal investigator),
  • Whipple: Reaching into the Outer Solar System to develop and validate a technique called blind occultation that could lead to discovery of various celestial objects in the outer solar system (Charles Alcock, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Cambridge, MA, principal investigator), and
  • NEOCam to develop a telescope to study the origin and evolution of Near Earth Objects (NEOs) -- comets and asteroids -- and study the present risk of Earth impact (Amy Mainzer, JPL, principal investigator)

Bolden: 50 Years Later "We Are Just Getting Started"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

Commemorating the 50th anniversary of Alan Shepard's historic spaceflight, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said in a statement today that "we are still driven to reach for new heights in human exploration" and "we are just getting started."

Calling May 5, 1961 "a good day," Bolden noted that he was a teenager at the time and while "I never dared dream it growing up in segregated South Carolina, I was proud to follow in Alan's footsteps several years later and become a test pilot myself."

The statement went on to extol the Obama Administration's policy of using NASA to facilitate the development of commercial crew for access to low Earth orbit, "allowing NASA to focus on those bigger, more challenging destinations and to enable our science missions to peer farther and farther beyond our solar system."

NASA Celebrates 50 Years of American Human Spaceflight Tomorrow

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

Fifty years ago tomorrow, May 5, Alan Shepard became the first American to reach space. Although his 15 minute flight was only suborbital, not orbital like Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's on April 12, it gave President John F. Kennedy enough confidence to announce just three weeks later the goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth by the end of the decade.

Shepard launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), FL in a Mercury capsule atop a Redstone rocket. The event is being commemorated tomorrow at CCAFS, adjacent to NASA's Kennedy Space Center, at 9:00 am EDT and will be covered live on NASA TV. Shepard died in 1998. He was one of the original seven astronauts selected in 1959. Scott Carpenter, another member of that group, will be at the event tomorrow. It includes a recreation of the flight and recovery, and a tribute to Shepard's second spaceflight, Apollo 14. (Shepard was grounded for most of the 1960s because of an inner ear disorder.)

The U.S. Postal Service released a stamp honoring Shepard's flight earlier today.

Musk Takes on Skeptics

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

Elon Musk, founder, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of SpaceX, the entrepreneurial space transportation company, took on skeptics today, releasing details of how much the company has spent and how much it charges for its services. The information was provided in response to "a steady stream of misinformation and doubt expressed about SpaceX's actual launch costs and prices," according to his post on the SpaceX website.

He stated, for example, that the company has a firm fixed price contract with NASA for 12 cargo flights to the International Space Station (ISS) at an average price of $115 million each (or $133 million including inflation), including the Falcon 9 launch, Dragon spacecraft, all operations, maintenance, and overhead.

As for sending NASA crews to the ISS, Musk stated that his Dragon capsule can carry seven people "more than double the capacity of the Russian Soyuz, but at less than a third of the price per seat." An often quoted figure for what NASA is currently paying Russia per seat is $51 million. The Soyuz can launch three people. It is not clear if Musk's price per seat holds if there are fewer than seven passengers aboard.

Comparing the SpaceX and Russian prices is challenging since the services the two provide are different. NASA recently signed a new firm fixed price agreement with Russia covering 2014-2016, for example, for "crew transportation, rescue and related services" for $753 million. That covers "comprehensive Soyuz support, including all necessary training and preparation for launch, flight operations, landing and crew rescue of long-duration missions for 12 individual space station crew members." If the $753 million were only for taking crews back and forth, it would be $63 million per astronaut, but the "crew rescue" service is separate from crew transportation. NASA did not differentiate the prices. Crew rescue is essentially a lifeboat function Russia provides by having sufficient Soyuz spacecraft always docked to the International Space Station (ISS) so all members of the crew can escape in an emergency. SpaceX does not appear to offer a comparable service and it also is not clear if SpaceX's price includes training. Thus, an apples-to-apples comparison is difficult to make.

Musk provided other price details and said his company spent "less than $800 million" from when it was founded in 2002 through fiscal year 2010, including all the development costs for its two launch vehicles, Falcon 1 and Falcon 9, and the Dragon spacecraft. He also said the company has been profitable every year since 2007.

He wrapped his statement in a cloak of competition with China, stating that a Chinese official said last month that SpaceX currently has the best launch prices in the world and the Chinese official does not believe China can beat those prices. Musk then asserted that "China has the fastest growing economy in the world. But the American free enterprise system, which allows anyone with a better mouse-trap to compete, is what will ensure that the United States remains the world's greatest superpower of innovation."

SpaceX also recently announced that it would build a heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV). Calling it "Falcon Heavy," Musk proclaimed that it would be the largest launch vehicle in history other than NASA's Saturn V, which was used to send the Apollo capsules to the Moon. He expects the vehicle to be ready for launch in 2013 or 2014, and capable of lifting 117,000 pounds to orbit, twice the capability of the Delta IV, currently the most capable U.S. expendable launch vehicle. (The reusable space shuttle is more capable, but is being terminated.) Musk said that his Falcon Heavy would cost about $1,000 per pound to orbit, which he claims is one-third the cost of a Delta IV based on figures in the Air Force's FY2012 budget request.

HASC Strategic Forces Subcommittee Recommends Modest Cut to DOD's FY2012 Space Budget

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) is busy working on the FY2012 National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 1540), which includes the Department of Defense's (DOD's) annual request for national security space activities. The six subcommittees are marking up their portions of the bill this week, with full committee markup scheduled for next week.

Most national security space programs are under the purview of the Strategic Forces subcommittee. Yesterday, Strategic Forces subcommittee chairman Mike Turner (R-OH) and ranking member Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) released an overview of the action taken by their subcommittee. In total, the subcommittee recommended cutting $79.5 million from the $10.2 billion request for unclassified space activities (classified space activities are dealt with separately and, obviously, are not publicly discussed). The following list of changes is taken verbatim from the subcommittee's press release.

National Security Space

  • Overall, a decrease of $79.5 million for National Security Space Programs from the $10.2 billion request. Specifically, the mark includes:
  • Transfer $142.2 million from Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) for evolved AEHF military satellite communications (MILSATCOM) to a separate program element for Next-Generation MILSATCOM Technology Development.
  • Decrease of $124.5 million (from $134.5 million) for launch support services for Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) mission;
  • Increase of $20 million for Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) data exploitation;
  • Increase of $25 million for Defense Reconnaissance Support Activities.
  • AEHF Procurement-Authorizes the Secretary of the Air Force to enter into a fixed price contract to procure two Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellites and incrementally fund those two satellites over five years. Also requires the Secretary to submit a report on contract details, cost savings, and plans for reinvesting cost savings into capability improvements for future AEHF satellites. Does not authorize advanced appropriations, as OMB requested, but meets Air Force intent.
  • Commercial Imaging Satellite Contracts-Repeals Sec. 127 from the Fiscal Year 2011 National Defense Authorization Act, which specified that any Department of Defense contract for commercial imaging satellite capability or capacity after December 31, 2010, shall require that the commercial imaging telescope have an aperture of not less than 1.5 meters.
  • Joint Space Operations Center Management System-Limits Fiscal Year 2012 funds for Release One of the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) Management System (JMS) until the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (AT&L) and Secretary of the Air Force provide the JMS acquisition strategy.
  • Harmful Interference with Global Positioning System (GPS)-Directs the Secretary of Defense to notify Congress if he determines a space-based or terrestrial-based commercial communications service will cause widespread harmful interference with DOD GPS receivers.
  • Plan for Joint Space Operations Center-Directs the Commander, Air Force Space Command to develop a continuity of operations plan for the Joint Space Operations Center by March 2, 2012.
  • Assessment on satellite operations efficiencies-Directs GAO to provide an assessment of the Department's efforts to modernize its satellite operations capabilities and identify commercial and other government best practices that could improve its satellite operations by February 6, 2012.

Events of Interest


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