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Many Witnesses, Only One Senator

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Mar-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

The Senate had a busy day today, so the Senate hearing on assessing commercial space capabilities was both delayed and interrupted by votes on the floor, and Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) was the only Senator present except for a brief visit by Senator Hutchison (R-TX) to read an opening statement. The prepared testimony of the seven witnesses and the webcast of the hearing are on the committee's website.

Senator Nelson again said that the biggest problem with NASA's new plan for human space flight is the way it was rolled out, and reiterated that President Obama is a strong supporter of human space flight, which he will make clear at his April 15 "space conference" at Kennedy Space Center. The Senator revealed that he is trying to convince the President to launch one more shuttle mission beyond the four remaining on the manifest. NASA will have a "launch on need" mission ready to go in case any problems develop with the last mission and Senator Nelson wants to see that one launched regardless of whether it is needed as a rescue flight. As for more shuttle flights beyond that, he seems convinced that the time has passed for trying to extend the shuttle. As others have stated, it would take two to two-and-a-half years to ready another External Tank, so a gap between the shuttle and whatever comes after it is inevitable.

In her brief appearance, Senator Hutchison spoke about her bill (S. 3068), which would extend the shuttle. She emphasized the need to assure that the United States can send its own astronauts into space rather than relying on the Russians, and that the commercial sector needs time to prove its capabilities.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell stuck to the company's guns that SpaceX could launch astronauts to the space station within three years of getting a contract to do so. Michael Gass of United Launch Alliance and Frank Culbertson of Orbital Sciences were a little more reserved. Gass said that that four years is achievable for a human flight (three years for an uncrewed test flight). Culbertson declined to give a firm estimate, emphasizing that his company has not yet seen the requirements it will have to meet. He said it could be three to four years, or even five.

A summary of the hearing will be available soon.

Senate Hearing on Commercial Space Today Chock Full of Witnesses

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Mar-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Seven witnesses are scheduled to testify this afternoon before the Science and Space Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on commercial space activities. It's an unusually large group for a space hearing, and spans a range of government and private sector expertise. Three former astronauts (Stafford, O'Connor and Culbertson) are among them. The hearing is at 2:30 pm in 253 Russell Senate Office Building.

  • Lt. Gen. Thomas Stafford (USAF, Ret.)
  • Bryan O'Connor, NASA Chief of Safety and Mission Assurance
  • George Nield, FAA Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transporation
  • Malcolm Peterson, former NASA Comptroller
  • Michael Gass, President, United Launch Alliance
  • Frank Culbertson, Senior Vice President and Deputy General Manager, Advanced Programs Group, Orbital Sciences Corp.
  • Gwynne Shotwell, President, SpaceX

Astronauts Land Safely in Kazakhstan

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Mar-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

U.S. astronaut Jeffrey Williams and Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suraev safely returned to Earth this morning, landing in Kazakshtan at 7:24 am EDT. They spent five and a half months aboard the International Space Station. NASA has a great image of the landing in the snow-covered Kazakh steppes.

ISS Temporarily Down to Three Crew Members After Tomorrow

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Mar-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

Two of the five International Space Station crew members, including the current commander, will return to Earth tomorrow, leaving just three aboard the orbiting facility. A change of command ceremony today marked the imminent end of Expedition 22, commanded by American Jeff Williams, and beginning of Expedition 23, to be commanded by Russian Oleg Kotov as soon as Williams departs.

Williams and Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suraev will return to Earth tomorrow on Soyuz TMA-16. Undocking is scheduled for 4:00 am with a landing in Kazakhstan at 7:23 am. "Frigid weather and gusty winds" are predicted at the landing site according to NASA.

Kotov's crewmates Soichi Noguchi from Japan and T.J. Creamer from the United States remain aboard ISS waiting to greet three new colleagues in about three weeks. They are Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Alexander Skvortsov, and American astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson. The three are scheduled to be launched aboard Soyuz TMA-18 on April 2. The next space shuttle flight to the ISS is currently scheduled for launch on April 5. To keep abreast of the comings and goings on the ISS, visit NASA's ISS website.

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

Events of Interest 

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


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