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UPDATE: Rep. Aderholt Asks GAO to Investigate If NASA Is Breaking the Law

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Mar-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: This article is updated to include the names of the other Members of Congress who signed the letter.

Representative Robert Aderholt (R-AL) sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on Friday asking for an investigation into whether NASA is violating the law regarding the Constellation program according to a press release from his office. Rep. Aderholt is a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA.

According to his press release, Rep. Aderholt is asking GAO to determine if "NASA's actions regarding the Constellation program, as well as the extent to which it is working on a new, unauthorized plan, violates law." The FY2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act prohibits NASA from spending any funds to cancel Constellation or initiate a new program without specific congressional approval in a subsequent appropriations act.

The other 15 Members of Congress who signed the letter are:

Rep. Parker Griffith (R-AL)
Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL)
Rep. Jo Bonner (R-AL)
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL)
Rep. John Culberson (R-TX)
Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-FL)
Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX)
Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL)
Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX)
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX)
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT)
Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA)
Rep. Gene Green (D-TX)
Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-OH)
Rep. John Fleming (R-LA)

As was true with a previous letter sent to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden on the same subject, perhaps what is most telling about this request to GAO is who did NOT sign it -- the chair and ranking member of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA (Rep. Alan Mollohan and Rep. Frank Wolf), and the chair of the House Science and Technology Committee (Rep. Bart Gordon) and its Space and Aeronautics subcommittee (Rep, Gabrielle Giffords).

UPDATE: Hardball Politics Coming into Play for NASA's New Exploration Plan?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Mar-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: President Obama and Senator Nelson had an "excellent conversation" according to Florida Today, quoting the Senator, who also said that "we'll see the fruits of that conversation" on April 15 when the President holds a space conference in Florida.


Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) tweeted today that he was "Headed to Oval Office for meeting with the president about America's space program. Lots of folks unhappy with newly released plan for NASA." Senator Nelson will chair a hearing on Thursday at 2:30 pm (see our calendar on the right menu) on the state of the commercial space industry. He has been sharply critical of the way the new plan was rolled out because, he says, it gave the impression that the President was killing the human space flight program. President Obama will be holding a "space conference" in Florida on April 15 to elucidate what he has in mind for NASA.

At the same time, the Orlando Sentinel reported today that Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-FL), who represents a district near Kennedy Space Center, was invited to the White House last week so the President could coax her into voting in favor of the health care reform bill, but "she frequently pivoted the conversation to NASA," and has not yet made up her mind on how to vote. The Houston Chronicle reports that the mayor of Houston, Annise Parker, also is on her way to pressure the President.

House Subcommittee to Hold Hearing March 24 on NASA's New Plan

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Mar-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

The Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee has announced a hearing for March 24 on "Proposed Changes to NASA's Exploration Program: What's Known, What's Not, and What Are the Issues for Congress?" NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Doug Cooke and retired Lockheed Martin executive Tom Young are the scheduled witnesses. The hearing will be at 2:00 pm in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building.

Commercial Crew Pros, Cons Explored by Florida Today

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Mar-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

James Dean at Florida Today wrote an interesting article yesterday weighing the pros and cons of the commercial crew approach to sending people to low Earth orbit.

Garver Graphically Illustrates Choices Between Constellation and the New Plan

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Mar-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Lori Garver, NASA Deputy Administrator, debuted a set of graphics illustrating the choices between the new plan for NASA proposed by President Obama and the current plan of pursuing the Constellation program during a speech last week at the American Astronautical Society's Goddard Memorial Symposium.

The two Powerpoint slides show NASA's view of its exploration program for the next 20 years (2010-2030) under the Obama proposal versus Constellation. The first slide - with the work NOTIONAL superimposed across the page - is very busy. It shows three sets of activities: commercial cargo and commercial crew flights to the International Space Station (ISS) through 2028, a robust "transformational R&D" effort with technology demonstration flights on the ISS and other "flagship" and "small" technology demonstration flights, and "sustainable exploration" including robotic precursor flights, heavy lift launch capability, in-space propulsion etc. The second slide is almost empty by comparison, showing the ISS and commercial cargo launches ending in 2016, Ares I/Orion beginning in 2015 with a notation that the Augustine committee said 2017, and Ares V beginning in 2024 with a notation that Augustine said 2028.

Deciphering the slides is challenging in some cases, especially in terms of answering the question of when human exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit would begin. It appears "sustainable, more capable" human exploration missions would begin in 2024 under the Obama plan, with Beyond-LEO Launch Capability and In-Space Transport Capability beginning the same year. Under the Constellation program as illustrated in the second slide, Ares V would be available in 2024 (or 2028 per Augustine), but there is no Altair lunar lander. A heavy lift launch vehicle is shown in the line labeled "human exploration missions" in 2028, but it is not clear exactly what it is designating.

The slides are likely to provoke debate about their accuracy and meaning, but if nothing else they provide insight into NASA's strategy for building support for the new plan.

Events of Interest: Week of March 15-19, 2010

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Mar-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The following events may be of interest in the coming week. For further details, see our calendar on the right menu or click the links below. All locations are in Washington, DC and all times are Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) unless otherwise noted. Times, dates and witnesses for congressional hearings are subject to change; check with the relevant committee for up to date information.

Tuesday, March 16

Tuesday-Thursday, March 16-18

  • Satellite 2010. Gaylord National Convention Center (just outside Washington, DC)

Wednesday, March 17

Thursday, March 18

SpaceX Reports Successful Engine Test Firing

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Mar-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

SpaceX announced today that it successfully conducted a test firing of all nine engines of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle at Cape Canaveral, FL. The test had been delayed several times, which is quite common in launch vehicle development programs, but attracted significant attention for a variety of reasons. One is the debate over whether commercial companies like SpaceX can take over responsibility for launching people to low Earth orbit instead of NASA. Another is that the tests are leading up to the inaugural launch of the Falcon 9, which could take place at about the same time that President Obama is in Florida to talk about his vision for the space program.

In an emailed press statement that is not yet on SpaceX's website, the company said:

"Today, SpaceX successfully completed a test firing of the inaugural Falcon 9 launch vehicle at Space Launch Complex 40 located at Cape Canaveral. Following a nominal terminal countdown, the launch sequencer commanded ignition of all 9 Merlin first stage engines for a period of 3.5 seconds.

"Just prior to engine ignition, the pad water deluge system was activated providing acoustic suppression to keep vibration levels within acceptable limits. The test validated the launch pad propellant and pneumatic systems as well as the ground and flight control software that controls pad and launch vehicle configurations. The completion of a successful static fire is the latest milestone on the path to first flight of the Falcon 9 which will carry a Dragon spacecraft qualification unit to orbit."

Space Station Partners Shooting for 2028

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Mar-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Congress has yet to approve President Obama's proposal to extend U.S. support for the International Space Station (ISS) to 2020, but the partners in the ISS program are working on certifying the ISS for operating eight years even beyond that -- to 2028. That year will mark the 30th anniversary of the launch of the first ISS modules, Zarya and Unity.

There seems to be strong support in Congress for extending ISS to "at least 2020" as proposed by the President, but the cost for operating it beyond 2015 is one of factors cited by Administration officials for also proposing the cancellation of the Constellation program. In their view it is a zero-sum game. If extending ISS operations and investing in more science and technology development activities is desired, then the Constellation program has to go; there is not enough money for it all. The idea of cancelling Constellation has not been warmly received in Congress, however.

The other partners also will have to convince their political leaders to continue supporting the ISS. In the joint statement from the Heads of Agency meeting in Japan last week, the partners "emphasized their common intent to undertake the necessary procedures within their respective governments to reach consensus later this year on the continuation of the ISS to the next decade."

The Heads of Agency meeting brings together the leaders of the space agencies cooperating in the ISS program: the United States, Russia, Japan, Europe and Canada. In their joint statement, they also said that "there were no identified technical constraints" to continuing operations to at least 2020, and that they are "currently working to certify on-orbit elements through 2028."

The U.S. ISS modules have a 15-year design life, but spacecraft often operate well past their design lives. The longest operating space station, Russia's Mir, had a 15-year life. Its first module was launched in 1986 and the facility was deorbited in 2001. How engineers will certify that modules, solar arrays, robot arms and other hardware can withstand the harsh space environment for twice that time will be an interesting exercise.

Shuttle Discovery Launch Delay Possible

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Mar-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM) reports that a problem with the space shuttle Discovery could threaten its scheduled launch on April 5. According to NASA, a problem was identified in a helium isolation valve in the Right Reaction Control System. Engineers will meet on Monday to discuss options and April 5 remains the targeted launch date according to NASA, but says that the "engineering options are limited" for resolving the problem without taking the shuttle back to the Vehicle Assembly Building.

House Members Press Their Case for an Alternative to Obama's Plan for NASA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Mar-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee ranking member Frank Wolf (R-VA) and other Members of the House pressed their case for an alternative to President Obama's plan for NASA this past week. At a Thursday press conference, available on YouTube, Congressman Wolf and several other Republican Members and at least one Democrat -- Rep.Gene Green (TX) - asked for an alternative to cancelling the Constellation program and turning U.S. human access to low Earth orbit over to commercial companies.

They and a total of 15 bipartisan House Members sent a letter to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden calling for a 30-day NASA study "to review how exploration spacecraft and launch vehicle development and testing may be maintained within the proposed budget request to ensure uninterrupted, independent U.S. human space flight access to the International Space Station and beyond." The letter specifies that the members of the team be selected by the Directors of the Johnson, Marshall and Kennedy Space Centers. The 15 Members who signed the letter are predominantly, but not completely, from districts that would be negatively impacted by the cancellation of the Constellation program.

Meanwhile, Representatives Suzanne Kosmas (D-FL) and Bill Posey (R-FL) and about a dozen other Members introduced H.R. 4804, the "Human Space Flight Capability Assurance and Enhancement Act," a companion bill to the one introduced by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (S. 3068) on March 3.

President Obama has scheduled a meeting in Florida for April 15 to discuss his vision for NASA. Referred to by the Administration as a "conference," not a summit as it is often described in the media, details are pending. Latest rumors are that it will be by invitation only.

Events of Interest   

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


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