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Private Sector Witnesses Headline House Committee Hearing on Commercial Crew

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee today released the witness list for its hearing next week on commercial crew.

The October 26 hearing is entitled NASA's Commercial Crew Development Program: Accomplishments and Challenges and will begin at 10:00 am in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building. The witnesses are:

Panel One

Mr. John Elbon, Vice President and General Manger, Space Exploration Division, The Boeing Company
Mr. Steve Lindsey, Director, Space Exploration, Sierra Nevada Space Systems
Mr. Elon Musk, CEO and CTO, Space Exploration Technologies
Mr. Charles Precourt, Vice President and General Manager, ATK Space Launch Systems
Mr. George Sowers, Vice President, Business Development and Advanced Programs, United Launch Alliance

Panel Two

Mr. Bill Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator, Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, NASA

UPDATE: Europe's Galileo Launch Scrubbed for Today

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: reports at 5:26 am EDT October 20 that the launch has been scrubbed for today "after an anomaly during fueling of the Soyuz rocket's third stage," citing the French space agency CNES. ESA issued a press release at 5:36 am EDT confirming the launch has been scrubbed and saying that a new launch date will be announced later today.

At 6:34 am EDT tomorrow, Europe will launch two verification satellites for its Galileo navigation satellite system. The pair will be boosted into orbit by Russia's Soyuz launch vehicle, the first such launch from the French launch site in Kourou, French Guiana.

Europe is heralding both events.

Galileo is a joint program between the European Union and the European Space Agency (ESA). Like the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS), a total of 24 satellites are needed for the system to provide global three-dimensional (latitude, longitude, altitude) coverage, so this launch is only a first step. These two satellites are In-Orbit Validation (IOV) versions. Galileo is designed to be interoperable with GPS and Russia's navigation satellite system, GLONASS.

A joint Russian-European agreement to launch Soyuz rockets from Kourou was signed in 2003. For Europe, Soyuz provides a medium-class launch vehicle to be paired with Europe's large Ariane V and small Vega launch vehicles so a full range of launch services can be offered. The Vega rocket is expected to make its first flight very soon. Europe's launches are conducted by the European company Arianespace, of which the French space agency is a 34 percent shareholder.

For Russia, Kourou offers a land-based launch site that is advantageous for placing satellites into equatorial and low inclination orbits. Kourou is located at 5 degrees North latitude, very close to the equator on the northern coast of South America. A low latitude launch site means that less fuel is needed to place a satellite into an equatorial orbit. That in turn means the satellite can weigh more than if it were launched an on equivalent rocket further North or South. By comparison, Russia's most southern land-based launch facility, Baikonur (which it leases from Kazakhstan) is at 46 degrees North latitude. ESA notes that the Soyuz payload capability to geostationary transfer orbit from Kourou is almost twice that of a launch from Baikonur: 3 metric tons versus 1.7 metric tons.

The basic Soyuz rocket design dates back to the early 1960s; Russia has several versions in service today. The version being launched from Kourou is part of the Soyuz-2 series and uses a Fregat upper stage. It is designated VS01 by Arianespace. The failure of a slightly different version of the Soyuz (Soyuz U) in August that was taking a Progress cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station attracted a lot of headlines, but the Soyuz has quite a good track record over its multi-decade history.

Although launching from Kourou is particularly advantageous for equatorial launches, the Galileo satellites actually are headed for a fairly high inclination orbit, 54.7 degrees, but the mass of the two satellites does not require use of an Ariane V.

The launch will be webcast live

NPP Launch Slips Another Day

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

NASA has delayed the launch of the NPP satellite another day. The current schedule is to launch on October 28.

The agency said the delay will allow "time to complete the necessary engineering review before the payload fairing is installed around the spacecraft."

The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project (NPP) is a NASA earth science mission that will also serve an operational role for NOAA's polar-orbiting weather satellite system.

The launch window that day is 2:48:01 - 2:57:11 PDT (5:48:01-5:57:11 EDT).

Commercial Crew Next Up for HSS&T Hearing

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The House Science, Space and Technology (HSS&T) Committee's next space-related hearing will be held next week. The topic is the commercial crew program.

The hearing is on Wednesday, October 26, at 10:00 am in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building. The witnesses have not been publicly announced, but the precise title of the hearing is NASA's Commercial Crew Development Program: Accomplishments and Challenges.

This will be the committee's sixth hearing this year on issues affecting the human spaceflight program. In March, it held a hearing reviewing NASA's exploration program in transition. In May, it looked at commercial cargo issues and in July at NASA's Space Launch System. In September, the committee heard from Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan, Mike Griffin and Maria Zuber about the past, present and future of human spaceflight, and last week held a hearing on lessons learned from Russia's Soyuz launch failure for operations of the ISS.

ROSAT Reentry Prediction Updated

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

The German Aerospace Center (DLR) has updated its prediction for when the ROSAT satellite will reenter.

The German-US-UK ROentgen SATellite (ROSAT) will make an uncontrolled reentry between October 21 and 24. This is a slightly narrower time window than the last prediction, which lasted until October 25. The x-ray astronomy satellite was launched in 1990 and does not have its own propulsion system.

DLR estimates that 30 individual pieces of the satellite could survive the heat of reentry, including its 1.7 ton main mirror. The debris could fall anywhere between 53 degrees North latitude and 53 degrees South latitude, bearing in mind that 70 percent of the Earth's surface is covered with water so the threat to populated areas is less than one might imagine.

NASA Advisory Committees Hopeful, Cautious About Commercial Resupply Services

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Oct-2011 (Updated: 17-Jul-2012 11:09 AM)

Two NASA advisory committees that spent one day reviewing progress on the development of Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) for the International Space Station (ISS) expressed some reservations, but generally appeared cautiously optimistic about the effort.

Joe Dyer and Tom Stafford, chairs of NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel and the ISS Advisory Committee, respectively, testified to a House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee last week on a related topic. Stafford told the subcommittee that the report of their joint one-day review was attached to his testimony as an appendix. The appendix is not yet posted on the committee's website, but has obtained a copy.

The report summarizes a joint public meeting of the two advisory committees held on September 9, 2011 in which committee members commented on what they learned at an August 9 "fact finding" meeting that was not open to the public. At the August meeting, the two committees were briefed by SpaceX and Orbital about the status of their CRS systems. Stafford and Dyer emphasized at the September meeting that they had only one day to review the companies' plans and progress, so the review was not comprehensive, and they were calling themselves a "Review Team" for this exercise.

NASA anticipates that both companies will begin offering cargo services to the ISS next year.

The Review Team expressed concern that the schedules are success oriented, with SpaceX anticipating the next launch of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft in November, and Orbital planning the first flight of its Taurus II rocket and Cygnus spacecraft in February 2012. (The launch date for Falcon/Dragon is expected to slip because of changes to the crew rotation schedule for the ISS necessitated by a Russian launch failure in August.) They commented that SpaceX's plan to combine their second and third test flights and include two Orbcomm satellites "appears to be very aggressive mission planning."

Regarding safety, the Review Team said it could not "unequivocally endorse" the companies' safety efforts because it did not have time for a thorough review, but from what the members did learn, there were no "indications of significant systemic failings of ... safety efforts." However, they were concerned about "the perceived responsibility in the event of a catastrophic failure." Discussions with the ISS Program Office about who is responsible for safety and mission assurance "seemed somewhat casual," the report says, concluding that "Written ground-rules and assumptions need to be well documented." Similarly, it said that formal rules need to be written about who has go-no go authority for each phase of flight.

SpaceX and Orbital are using very different approaches to design and verification, the Review Team noted, and both "can be made to work with a performance-based contract."

The Review Team expressed concern about SpaceX's software presentation, calling it "unsettling" because the company's "software chief said he didn't worry about errors because 'there were no mistakes in the software.' In the Review Team's experience, this is unlikely." Later, the Review Team commented that while Orbital "generates the confidence of a company that has 'been there, done that,'" SpaceX is "entrepreneurial; their thinking is a fresh approach ... [with] the potential to deliver at lower cost with innovations." However, they cautioned that SpaceX's software comments were "very disturbing and presented a lack of insight and sophistication on what can go wrong in this business."

The report also stressed that attention is needed to cultural differences between the companies and NASA. It commented that the two companies "could pay more attention .... in a more formal manner" to cultural differences, and NASA personnel "have an excellent opportunity to be alert to cultural issues ... and it is not clear that they are effectively trained to recognize their role and execute against it." All three organizations need to establish a "good 'tone at the top,'" the Review Team noted.

Transparency within NASA and between NASA and the companies regarding issues and challenges was strongly encouraged by the Review Team.

Stafford said at the September meeting that a transcript would be made available, but one is not yet posted on the websites of either advisory committee. One comment made by Dyer at the end of the September meeting, but not reflected in the report, is that "if we could put these two companies in a blender, we'd have it just right." Absent that, "transparency will help get us to the right place," he said.

Obama Administration "Strongly Supports" CJS and T-HUD Senate Bills

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

The Senate is beginning debate on the "minibus" appropriations bill, H.R. 2112, that combines the bills for Agriculture, Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS), and Transportation-HUD (T-HUD). The Obama Administration said today that it "strongly supports" passage of the bill.

The CJS bill includes NASA and NOAA. In its Statement of Administration Policy (SAP), the Administration supported the Senate Appropriations Committee's actions. For NOAA's Joint Polar Satellite System, which would receive $920 million instead of the $1.07 billion requested, the SAP notes that it is less than what is needed to maintain the current launch date of 2017 for JPSS-1 and "encourages" the Senate not to cut any further.

For NASA, the SAP "appreciates" support for the Space Launch System, Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, and James Webb Space Telescope. Although the committee significantly cut funding for space technology, the SAP simply "urges" the full Senate to provide that level of funding ($637 million instead of the $1.02 billion requested). Similarly for commercial crew, which would be cut from $850 million to $500 million, the SAP "encourages" the Senate to provide sufficient funding to prevent delays in the program.

The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation is not mentioned in the T-HUD part of the SAP. Its FY2012 request of $26.5 million was cut in half by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

GAO Tells DOD To Reassess Length of EELV Block Buy

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

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report today recommending that the Department of Defense (DOD) reconsider the number of years its block buy of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) will last. SpaceX, in particular, has expressed concern that if DOD commits to buying 40 EELVs over the next five years, it will effectively preclude the company from competing with its Falcon Heavy design because it is not clear that the government will need that many launches.

The GAO report comes on the heels of an announcement by NASA, the Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) last week that could create opportunities for emerging launch service suppliers like SpaceX. On Friday, the three agenices announced a coordinated certification process for commercial launch services, including "new entrants."

To date, DOD's focus has been on stabilizing the launch industry industrial base. The argument is that DOD's current approach of purchasing launch services one at a time creates uncertainty that wreaks havoc with suppliers, especially at the sub-tier level. DOD relies primarily on the Atlas V and Delta IV EELVs built and launched by the United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing. DOD therefore is working on revising its acquisition strategy to a block buy approach, guaranteeing the purchase of eight EELV cores per year for the next five years at an expected cost of $15 billion.

Whether the government demand for launches requires that many vehicles is uncertain, however. If the 40 vehicles satisfy demand, there would no opportunity for other companies, like SpaceX, to compete.

GAO agrees that DOD should leave the door for competition from new entrants. The report notes that SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation are potential providers "that may be capable in the near future" to compete for the type of services DOD requires. Both companies told GAO that they needed a "clear set of criteria" from DOD; the deparrment was supposed to issue them by July 31. Those apparently are the NASA-USAF-NRO criteria announced on Friday.

GAO's recommendations about DOD's acquisition strategy are much broader, however. The agency concludes that DOD should resolve a number of questions before finalizing the block buy. DOD is planning to release it by the end of the year, but GAO found "some critical knowledge gaps" and was particularly critical of DOD for relying on "contractor data and analyses" about the industrial base rather than independent reviews.

Considering that the purpose of the block buy is to stabilize the launch vehicle industrial base, it is somewhat surprising that GAO found DOD's knowledge of the state of the industrial base lacking. Flaws and "metholodological weaknesses" were found in surveys conducted by ULA that were used in several DOD studies, and the data generated by the surveys were not "reviewed or independently assessed by DOD officials," GAO said.

Among its recommendations, GAO called on DOD to do an independent study of the launch vehicle industrial base, reassess the block buy contract length, work closely with NASA to facilitate its ability to negotiate EELV launch contract prices, refrain from waiving federal regulatory requirements that prevent the department from knowing more about EELV costs, and ensure mission assurance activites are "sufficient and not excessive."

DOD concurred with six of the seven recommendations and partially concurred with one -- the recommendation to reassess the block buy contract length. On that one, DOD said that it would make its decision "balanced among price, operational requirements, budget realities and the potential for new entrant competition."

GAO conducted the study at the request of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. It apparently was completed some time ago since it refers to the need for DOD to obtain knowledge about NASA's design for the Space Launch System. The design was released on September 14.

ROSAT Reentry Predicted for October 21-25

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

The German Aerospace Center's (DLR's) most recent prediction for reentry of its ROSAT satelite is between October 21 and 25.

DLR estimates that 30 individual pieces of the satellite could survive the heat of reentry, including its 1.7 ton main mirror.

The ROetngen SATellite (ROSAT) was an x-ray astronomy satellite. Launched in 1990, it is in a 53 degree inclined orbit, meaning that it travels between 53 degrees North latitude and 53 degrees South latitude. The satellite does not have a propulsion system. Like many other satellites, including NASA's Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) last month and countless pieces of space debris routinely, it will make an uncontrolled reentry.

Debris could fall anywhere along the defunct satellite's orbital path within an 80 kilometer (50 mile) wide swath of that path according to DLR. The precise time and place for reentry cannot be calculated with precision, but it is important to bear in mind that 70 percent of the Earth's surface is covered with water. DLR estimates the chance of "someone somewhere on Earth getting injured is about 1 in 2000."

ROSAT was a cooperative program among Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom.

In addition to DLR's ROSAT reentry website, and the websites of amateur satellite observers such as and, New Scientist reports that a team of programmers in Australia have designed an iPhone App -- ROSAT Reentry -- for those who want to follow the action.

Events of Interest: Week of October 16-22, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The following events may be of interest in the coming week. The Senate is in session this week; the House is having a Constituent Work Week and meets in pro forma session only on Tuesday and Friday.

During the Week

The Senate is scheduled to take up the CJS appropriations bill, which includes NASA and NOAA, and the T-HUD bill, which includes FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, as part of a package that also includes the Agriculture appropriations bill.

The German-US-UK ROentgen SATellite (ROSAT) will make an uncontrolled reentry between October 21 and 25 based on current projections by the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

Sunday-Wednesday, October 16-19

Tuesday-Thursday, October 18-20

  • National Research Council Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB), Board meeting, Irvine, CA (no details are posted on the ASEB website, presumably the meeting is at the NRC's Beckman Center)

Wednesday-Thursday, October 19-20

  • NASA Advisory Council Astrophysics Subcommittee meeting, NASA HQ, Washington DC
    • Wednesday, 8:30 am - 5:30 pm, room 9H40
    • Thursday, 8:30 am - 4:00 pm, room 7H45
  • International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS), Las Cruces, NM

Thursday, October 20

Friday, October 21

Events of Interest

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

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