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Events of Interest: Week of September 19-23, 2011

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

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

During the Week

FY2011 ends in two weeks, which means that Congress should pass the 12 appropriations bills to fund the government for FY2012 before then. Not likely, especially considering that the House and Senate will be in recess the last week of September as some members observe Rosh Hashanah. To date, six of the 12 appropriations bills have passed the House and one has passed the Senate.

Thus, Congress needs to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) this week to fund the government after October 1. The House Appropriations Committee introduced a CR that would last until November 18 and calls for a 1.5 percent cut in spending during that time. This is "must pass" legislation for Congress this week unless they change their schedule to be in session next week.

Monday-Wednesday, September 19-21

Tuesday, September 20

  • Senate Appropriations Committee markup of the Transportation-HUD bill (including the FAA's space office), 124 Dirksen Senate Office Building, 10:30 am EDT (listed in National Journal's Daybook, but not yet on the committee's website)
  • NASA media teleconference on Development of Composite Cryogenic Propellant Tanks, 1:00 pm EDT, virtual (listen at

Wednesday, September 21

Thursday, September 22

  • HSS&T hearing on human spaceflight, 2318 Rayburn House Office Building, 10:00 am EDT

Friday, September 23

  • HSS&T hearing on NOAA's Joint Polar Satellite System, 2318 Rayburn House Office Building, 10:00 AM EDT

NRO Declassifies Two Legacy Reconnaissance Satellite Programs

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

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which builds and operates the nation's spy satellites, celebrated its 50th anniversary yesterday with an event at the Smithsonian Institution's Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA. As part of the celebration, the super secret agency, whose name was not even known outside classified circles until 1992, opened the door into its world a bit wider. Two reconnaissance satellite programs from the 1960s were declassified -- Gambit (KH-7 and KH-8) and Hexagon (KH-9).

Keith Cowing of NASAWatch posted video he shot while visiting the Udvar Hazy Center on YouTube showing the KH-9 satellite that NRO displayed.

NRO has a website with considerable information about both programs.

The nation's first reconnaissance satellite program, Corona, was declassified years ago. A book about it, Eye in the Sky: The Story of the Corona Spy Satellites, was written by Dwayne Day, John Logsdon, and Brian Latell in 1999 and is available from (and undoubtedly other vendors).

Senate Approps Says DOD Should Allow Competition in Space Launch, No to ASSIST

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

The Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS) wasn't the only military space program of concern to the Senate Appropriations Committee. The appropriators also singled out the need for more competition in the space launch arena for comment, and zeroed a $416 million request for the ASSIST program. The latter is intended to reduce the Department of Defense's (DOD's) costs of leasing commercial communications satellite capacity.

The committee approved its version of the FY2012 defense appropriations bill (H.R. 2219) on Thursday and released the accompanying report (S.Rept. 112-77) yesterday.

The committee said it supports DOD's plan to buy eight core Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) per year for the next five years in order to "stabilize production capacity and control costs," but stressed that DOD's goal really should be to significantly reduce the cost of launch. Competition is the solution, it said. "The Committee intends to examine future budget requests to balance the need to stabilize the EELV industrial base with the need to promote competition. Therefore, [DOD] is urged to retain flexibility with its block-buy acquisition strategy as opportunities for competition by new launch entrants become available."

SpaceX has made no secret of its desire to offer space launch services to DOD with its existing Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle it plans to develop. On its website, the company asserts that "If allowed to compete, SpaceX can help [DOD] save at least one billion dollars annually in space launch services."

The committee zeroed DOD's $416 million request for the Assured SATCOM Services in Single Theater (ASSIST) program (called SATCOM Services Enhancements in the DOD budget request documents). As explained in the committee's report, under ASSIST, DOD would lease a single commercial communications satellite operating in both the Ka- and Ku-bands instead of leasing capacity on multiple commercial communications satellites as it does now. The Senate appropriators reported that DOD estimated the cost of leasing a new satellite would be paid back in two and a half years "if satellite communications were to continue to be purchased in the same method and volume as they are today." The committee is skeptical about those assumptions, however. Saying that it had "learned of a number of innovative proposals from commercial providers," it zeroed the request, which is part of the Defense-Wide Procurement account. Instead, it recommended that DOD conduct an Analysis of Alternatives of how best to meet its satellite communications needs.

Senate Appropriators Want DOD To Start Over on Weather Satellite Program

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

Saying they did not want "to repeat the costly mistakes of the NPOESS program," Senate appropriators told the Department of Defense (DOD) to terminate the Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS) and start over.

DWSS is DOD's part of the restructured National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). It was created when the White House decided to end NPOESS -- a joint program among DOD, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and NASA -- and return to past practice of having separate weather satellites for the civil and military sectors. NOAA and NASA are now trying to win support for their civil system, the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), while DOD is trying to restructure its part of NPOESS into DWSS. NPOESS was being acquired through DOD and DOD holds the contract with Northop Grumman.

The Senate Appropriations Committee made their unhappiness with this arrangement clear in its report (S. Rept. 112-77) on its version of the FY2012 defense appropriations bill (H.R. 2219). The report was released yesterday.

Saying the DWSS program "remains challenged by a difficult and confusing set of management issues," the committee zeroed the $445 million request and replaced it with $250 million for "continued common sensor development, as well as requirements definition and source selection activities for a full and open competition for a follow-on program."

It also provided $150 million to cover termination liability costs for ending the Northrop Grumman contract.

In its version of the FY2012 defense appropriations bill, the House halved the DWSS request. The House Appropriations Committee's report on the bill (H. Rept. 112-110) says only that the cut was due to "excess to need -- poor justification."

Projected UARS Reentry Moves Up A Day

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

NASA has updated its projection of when the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) will reenter.

The UARS website reports that reentry is now expected on September 23 -- this coming Friday -- plus or minus a day. The previous projection was September 24.

It is still far too early to estimate where pieces of the satellite might land. The Earth is 70 percent covered with water, so there is a good chance the pieces will not hit land at all, but there is a possibility. NASA's risk assessment concluded that there is a 1 in 3,200 chance of a human casualty.

NOAA, NASA, GAO To Testify on JPSS at HSS&T Hearing

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

The House Science, Space and Technology (HSS&T) Committee has released the names of the witnesses who will testify about the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) next Friday.

The September 23 hearing will feature Kathy Sullivan, Deputy Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Christopher Scolese, Associate Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); and David Powner, Director, Information Technology Management Issues, Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The topic is "From NPOESS to JPSS: An Update on the Nation's Restructured Polar Weather Satellite Program." NPOESS was a joint Department of Defense(DOD)-NOAA-NASA program to build a single U.S. weather satellite system to service both the civil and military sectors. After many years of cost overruns and schedule delays, the Obama White House restructured the program last year, restoring the historical arrangement of separate civil and military systems.

NOAA has been struggling to build support for its new system, JPSS. (NASA is NOAA's acquisition agent for the program.) The House and Senate Appropriations Committees have each recommended almost, but not quite, as much as NOAA requested for FY2012 ($1.07 billion) after a significant shortfall in FY2011.

DOD also is struggling to build support for its new system, the Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS). The Senate Appropriations Committee just recommended terminating DWSS and starting all over again with a new competition to build the system. The House Appropriations Committee cut DOD's request ($445 million) in half.

Many in Congress are skeptical of the agencies' abilities to manage these programs after years of problems with NPOESS.

Maria Zuber to Join Witnesses At HSS&T Human Spaceflight Hearing

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

MIT's Maria Zuber has been added to the list of witnesses for the House Science, Space and Technology (HSS&T) Committee hearing on human spaceflight next week. The geophysicist is the principal investigator of the GRAIL robotic mission to the Moon launched earlier this month.

The other witnesses are well known advocates of human spaceflight: Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan, and former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin. They are expected to argue that human exploration of the Moon should be a national priority.

The hearing is on Thursday, September 22, in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building at 10:00 am EDT.

UPDATED: Senate Approps Approves Defense, CJS Bills, but CR Looms

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

UPDATE: The committee now has posted the reports to accompany the four bills it approved yesterday. This article has not been changed to reflect that additional information, but a new article will be posted soon.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved four FY2012 appropriations bills yesterday, including defense and Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS). The latter
includes NASA and NOAA. Congress is far from completing action on the 12 appropriations bills needed to fund the government after midnight September 30, however, so a Continuing Resolution (CR) is inevitable.

The Senate Appropriations Committee still has not posted details of what is in the defense or CJS bills. What is known publicly at the moment is that defense was frozen at last year's level of $513 billion, $26 billion less than requested and $17 billion less than what the House approved. NASA's budget was reduced to its FY2009 level of $17.9 billion, $509 million less than its current spending level and $785 million less than the request, but $1.1 billion more than what the House Appropriations Committee approved. The Senate committee not only restored funding for NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), but provided more money than NASA requested so that it could be launched in 2018. The House Appropriations Committee voted to terminate JWST because of its cost overruns. The House has not yet considered the CJS bill; it only has been approved at the committee level.

Where the Senate committee cut the NASA FY2012 request is not publicly known yet.

NOAA fared better overall in the Senate committee's markup than in the House committee, but funding for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) is about the same. The House committee cut NOAA's budget request of $5.5 billion to $4.5 billion; the Senate committee approved $5 billion. The Obama Administration requested $1.07 billion for JPSS as part of the NOAA budget. The House committee approved $901 million; the Senate committee approved $920 million.

In total, House has passed six of the 12 annual appropriations bills and the Senate has passed one. With FY2011 quickly drawing to a close, House Republicans -- who sharply criticized Democrats during last year's elections for not being able to complete work on the appropriations bills in a timely manner -- are conceding that they will not either. They are proposing a CR that would last through November 18 and includes an across-the-board cut of 1.5 percent from current levels according to a summary posted on the House Appropriations Committee's website.

Note: This article has been clarified to indicate that the amount approved by the committee for NASA is $509 million less than its FY2011 spending level of $18.448 billion. It is $775 million below the FY2012 request of $18.724 billion.

UPDATE 4: Three ISS Crew Undock, Headed Home

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

UPDATE 4: Touchdown!

: NASA TV announcer says that an Antonov aircraft has confirmed it is in voice contact with the crew and they are OK.

UPDATE 2: Capsule separation should have occurred at 11:33 pm EDT (about 7 minutes ago), but there appears to be a communications problem and Moscow ground control has not been able to confirm it with the crew.

UPDATE 1: The deorbit burn is underway.

ORIGINAL STORY: Three of the six International Space Station (ISS) crew members are in their Soyuz spacecraft and have undocked from the ISS as they head back to planet Earth.

Russian cosmonauts Andrei Borisenko and Alexandr Samokutayev and NASA astronaut Ron Garan are in the Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft. They undocked from the ISS at 8:38 pm EDT (00:38 GMT Friday). Landing is expected at 12:00 am EDT Friday (11:00 pm CDT Thursday).

NASA TV is providing live coverage.

Senate Appropriators Rue Cuts to NASA Technology, Constrain Availability of Commercial Crew Funds

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

An updated edition of our fact sheet on NASA's FY2012 budget request is now available reflecting the actions taken by the Senate Appropriations Committee yesterday. The committee posted the report to accompany the FY2012 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill (S. 1572) today, providing details on the "puts and takes" that resulted in the final total of $17.9 billion recommended for the agency.

The Senate committee-approved amount is $509 million less than NASA's current spending level and $775 million less than the FY2012 request. That sounds like bad news, but it is $1.1 billion more than what the House Appropriations Committee approved, so in these austere budget times, it actually seems like good news! It is roughly the same amount as the agency received in FY2009.

The report (S. Rept. 112-78) shows that the $775 million in cuts from the requested level were taken from every NASA budget account except science, education, and the Inspector General's (IG's) office. Science received $84 million more than requested while education received the same as the request and the IG office received $1 million more than requested.

The biggest cuts were to space technology and commercial crew. Space technology was provided with $638 million compared to its $1.024 billion request. The committee said that it "regrets not being able to fund this promising new program more robustly." Commercial crew was allocated $500 million compared to the request of $850 million. The committee made availability of $192 million of that contingent upon NASA moving forward with the Space Launch System, however.

The committee added $156 million to the $374 million requested for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) so that the telescope can be launched in 2018. The total amount for the Science Mission Directorate, of which JWST is part, was increased by $84 million. Cuts to Earth science ($32 million) and planetary exploration ($40 million) made up the difference. The committee blamed NASA for not requesting adequate funds for JWST in prior years, saying that "budget optimism led to massive ongoing cost overruns." It capped the development cost for JWST at $8 billion, noting that NASA's current cost estimate for the project is $8.7 billion (which includes some funding for science operations).

Neither the House nor Senate has voted on the CJS appropriations bill yet, so there are several more steps to go before NASA's FY2012 budget will be finalized. Assuming no changes are made when the bills are debated by those bodies, they still need to reach a compromise between the two very different versions of the bill.

Events of Interest

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