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Here is our list of space policy events for the week of July 13-18, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
This is Pluto week. While there are other interesting events that will take place, the arrival of NASA's New Horizons mission at Pluto after a 9 1/2 year journey certainly will steal the headlines.
Pluto and New Horizons are about 3 billion miles (4.9 billion kilometers) from Earth, so the two-way signal travel time is about 9 hours. New Horizons will make its closest approach to Pluto on July 14 at 7:49:47 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT), but the signal confirming that the encounter took place as planned will not arrive until evening. NASA has a series of media events about the mission planned for the next several days that will be broadcast on NASA TV (NASA cautions that all times are subject to change; check the NASA TV schedule or the NASA New Horizons website).
Fascinating photos already are being sent back. Mission control is at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (APL) in Laurel, MD (APL built the spacecraft) and its website has a treasure trove of images and other information.
That and other events we know about as of Saturday morning are listed below.
Monday, July 13
Tuesday, July 14
Wednesday, July 15
Thursday, July 16
Thursday-Saturday, July 16-18
Two congressional hearings over the past two days illustrate the complexity of the current U.S.-Russian relationship. At a Senate hearing yesterday, the Marine general nominated to be the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) said that Russia poses the greatest threat to U.S. national security. Today, at a House hearing on the International Space Station (ISS), a NASA official said that human spaceflight "transcends" the differences between the two countries.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, Commandant of the Marine Corps and President Obama's pick to succeed Army Gen. Martin Dempsey as CJCS, was asked at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Service Committee (SASC) yesterday what is the greatest threat to U.S. national security. "My assessment today ... is that Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security," he replied, adding that Russia is a nuclear power whose recent behavior is "nothing short of alarming."
Conversely, at today's House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee hearing on ISS operational challenges, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, said the U.S.-Russian relationship on ISS is "very strong." NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, are "mutually dependent" on each other for operating the ISS.
"The challenge of human spaceflight ... transcends ... the toughness of the outside world," Gerstenmaier said. He characterized the technical relationship between the two countries with regard to operating ISS "extremely strong and extremely transparent in spite of governmental tensions" and the two are working together "extremely effectively."
The two hearings and the comments made therein are independent of each other, but taken together demonstrate the complicated U.S.-Russian relationship.
The Dunford hearing itself did not touch on space activities, though in a 75-page set of answers to questions posed prior to the hearing, Dunford agreed that space situational awareness and protecting space assets need more attention, that he would review U.S. efforts to address China's developments in space, and review policies and programs to ensure U.S. warfighters can depend on the advantages that space confers.
The ISS hearing will be summarized in an upcoming SpacePolicyOnline.com article. Check back here tomorrow.
Republican Presidential candidate and former Florida governor Jeb Bush told a New Hampshire newspaper yesterday that he is a "space guy" who would increase funding for NASA.
During an interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader in Manchester, NH, which was televised by C-Span, Bush was asked what he would do about NASA funding. He replied: "Up! Up! I'm a space guy. I think we need to be aspirational as a country." He went on to support investment in research and development (R&D) in general as the proper role of the government: "We should spend less on the here and now, and more on these long term things because no one else will do it."
The exchange comes at 44 minutes into an almost hour-long discussion of the broad range of issues facing any presidential candidate. As a former Florida governor, it is not unexpected that he has given some thought to the space program. What's surprising is that the Union Leader would ask him about it. Space activities usually are, at best, a tangential issue in presidential campaigns and New Hampshire is not one of the prominent states with space industries or NASA centers.
One might hope that the Union Leader will ask all the presidential candidates about their views on space, but the newspaper's own write-up of the Bush interview did not mention the exchange about NASA or R&D.
NASA announced today the names of four astronauts it has selected to be the first to fly on the commercial crew systems under development by Boeing and SpaceX. The three men and one woman all are spaceflight veterans. NASA hopes Boeing's CST-100 and SpaceX's crew version of Dragon ("Crew Dragon") will be ready to send astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) by 2017.
The four NASA astronauts are:
They will train to fly on both commercial spacecraft, which are being developed under a public private partnership (PPP) between the companies and the government. Boeing and SpaceX were selected for the final phase of the program, Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP), last fall. Their contracts with NASA require them to fly at least one crewed flight test with at least one NASA astronaut to the ISS to verify that the system can launch, maneuver in orbit, and dock to the ISS. To meet that requirement, the companies must provide the requisite training for the crews.
SpaceX founder, CEO and lead designer Elon Musk said last summer that SpaceX does not plan to have any astronauts of its own and only astronauts selected by NASA will fly to the ISS on Crew Dragon. (NASA is responsible for getting not only its own astronauts, but those of the non-Russian ISS partners -- Japan, Canada and Europe -- to and from the ISS under the Intergovernmental Agreement that governs the program.) Boeing's John Elbon, vice president and general manager for space exploration, said in April that Boeing plans to fly one NASA astronaut and one Boeing test pilot on its test flight.
NASA continues to try to convince Congress to provide full funding for the commercial crew program so American companies can launch American astronauts on American systems from American soil by 2017. The United States has not been able to launch anyone into space since it terminated the space shuttle program in 2011. It pays Russia to launch crews to the ISS and bring them home. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden repeatedly says that if Congress had fully funded the program in the past, the systems would be flying this year instead of 2017.
NASA is requesting $1.244 billion for commercial crew in the FY2016 budget now before Congress. The House approved $1.000 billion and the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended $900 million, so they clearly are not yet convinced. While there is broad agreement that the United States should be able to launch its own astronauts and should spend its money supporting the U.S., not Russian, economy, many in Congress remain skeptical that the market for sending people into space is sufficiently substantial to keep two companies in business without significant ongoing government support. The idea is that the government should be a customer, but not the only customer, of these systems. Some also argue that NASA should fund only one company, not two, but NASA insists that it needs competition to keep prices down and redundancy in case one of the systems suffers a major failure.
The failure of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket on June 28 may buttress NASA's redundancy argument. How SpaceX recovers from the accident, and whether the government is expected to pay any of the recovery costs, may factor into the skeptics' argument. The Falcon 9 was launching a cargo mission to the ISS that day -- no people were aboard -- when the rocket failed 139 seconds after launch. SpaceX is still trying to determine what went wrong.
The SpaceX and Boeing capsules will allow NASA to send four people to the ISS at a time. Added to three that can travel to the ISS on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft, the typical ISS crew complement could increase from six to seven. NASA emphasizes that the extra crew person can devote his or her time to research rather than maintenance tasks that currently occupy a large part of the crew's time. Research is the raison d'être of the ISS, so additional crew time for research is considered very valuable.
A three-day conference in Boston this week organized by the American Astronautical Society (AAS) in cooperation with NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) focused on ISS research -- results from experiments already conducted and what's coming up in the future.
NASA has consistently said for the past several years that it hopes commercial crew will be operational by 2017, but at the AAS conference on Tuesday, NASA ISS Program Manager Mike Suffredini said NASA looks forward to adding a fourth crew member to the ISS complement in 2018, not 2017, suggesting a delay.
The ISS partners -- the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency -- are currently planning to operate the ISS through 2020, though NASA is trying to convince them to extend it to 2024. How many NASA astronauts will have a chance to fly to ISS on the commercial crew vehicles is an open question.
NASA's New Horizons probe is just five days and a few hours away from its closest approach to Pluto after a nine-and-a-half year journey. Once counted as the ninth planet in the solar system, Pluto was redesignated a "dwarf planet" by the International Astronautical Union (IAU) in 2006, months after New Horizons was launched, a decision that remains controversial in the planetary science community and with the public.
Principal Investigator Alan Stern often jokes that New Horizons is a mission characterized by delayed gratification because of the long journey to Pluto and the 9-hour two-way travel time for radio signals to get to and from the spacecraft. It will make its closest approach to Pluto at 7:49:47 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) on July 14, but mission control at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (APL) in Laurel, MD will not get the confirming signal that the close approach took place until 9:02 pm EDT. The spacecraft is designed to focus its resources on obtaining science data during the encounter rather than transmitting it back to Earth and only engineering data will be transmitted the day of the encounter, Stern said on Monday.
A glitch over the weekend generated concern about the spacecraft's health, but mission controllers quickly realized what went wrong and remedied it. Essentially the main computer became overloaded and crashed trying to do too many things at once -- burning data to flash memory at the same time it was compressing data. As programmed to do when such an anomaly occurs, the probe switched to a backup computer, which sent a signal to Earth that humans needed to intervene. They did, reset the computer, and although a small amount of data collection did not take place, Stern described the loss as inconsequential.
The close approach is on July 14, but the 9-day "flyby sequence" already has begun and runs through July 16. Science data from the close approach will be sent back to Earth beginning July 15 Stern explained. The probe will pass Pluto at a distance of 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) above its surface. Pluto and New Horizons are approximately 3 billion miles (4.9 billion kilometers) from Earth. New Horizons was launched on January 19, 2006.
Plenty of data has been returned already, however, throughout the journey and especially during the past months as the probe nears the dwarf planet. Pluto has five moons, the largest of which is Charon. This image, courtesy of APL, was taken on July 7 by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on New Horizons and shows both bodies.
New Horizons image of Pluto and Charon. Photo Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab New Horizons website.
All times are subject to change. NASA and APL will post updates on their websites.
SpaceX is still trying to find a theory that fits the data transmitted back to Earth on June 28 as its Falcon 9 rocket failed 139 seconds after launch. It hopes to have preliminary findings by the end of this week as it works to establish an extremely detailed timeline of events.
SpaceX founder, CEO and lead designer Elon Musk spoke at the 4th International Space Station R&D conference in Boston this morning. The conference is organized by the American Astronautical Society (AAS) in cooperation with NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). It continues through Thursday. He participated as part of an on-stage "conversation" with NASA ISS Program Manager Mike Suffredini
Musk's message this morning repeated what the company said last week -- there was an overpressure event in the upper stage (or second stage) liquid oxygen tank, but apart from that, the data do not fit any known theories of what could have happened.
Calling the failure a "huge blow to SpaceX," he emphasized that "whatever happened is totally not simple or straightforward." A "super detailed timeline" at the millisecond level is being generated to determine precisely what happened. They are comparing video taken during the launch with data that was received. The timeline must account for each millisecond between when a sensor took a reading, the data got encoded to a data packet, the packet was transmitted to the ground, and received on the ground. Because the data do not fit any known theories so far, they are also considering whether there might be data measurement errors.
Suffredini asked whether there were any hints yet, but Musk declined to answer because there was media in the room and he did not want to say anything that "turns out to be a misunderstanding of the situation."
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket failed while attempting to send a Dragon capsule full of supplies and equipment to the International Space Station (ISS) under its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA. This was the seventh mission in that series -- CRS-7 or SpX-7. It was the third failure of cargo missions to the ISS over 8 months: an Orbital Sciences Corporation (now Orbital ATK) Antares launch of a Cygnus capsule on October 28, 2014; the Russian Soyuz launch of the Progress M-27M spacecraft on April 28, 2015; and this Falcon 9 launch of a Dragon capsule on June 28.
The conference is for the community that conducts research aboard the ISS and Suffredini reassured them that the ISS itself is healthy and still open for business. However, he acknowledged that the failure has a "big impact to us," and while the ISS program "always assumed we'd lose one or two" cargo flights, "never in my wildest dreams" did he think three would fail in such a short period of time.
Nonetheless, one must play the hand that is dealt, he continued, and the program is resilient. The Russians now have launched the next in the Progress series, Progress M-28M, which successfully docked with the ISS on Sunday. Japan's HTV cargo vehicle is being readied for launch on August 16. Suffredini said NASA did make changes to the supplies that HTV will deliver because of the CRS-7 failure, but the research component is relatively unchanged. Orbital ATK plans to launch a Cygnus spacecraft on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in December while updating its Antares rocket with a different engine.
Suffredini conveyed optimism and enthusiasm for the potential of the ISS for research that will benefit people on Earth, calling it the "next dot com" that is worthy of the challenges it presents.
In a panel discussion following the Suffredini-Musk conversation, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, similarly praised the potential of ISS, but also stressed a theme he often expresses these days -- that ISS has a finite lifetime and the key question is how to prepare for the next step since he does not anticipate that the U.S. government, at least, will build another ISS.
SpaceX founder, CEO and lead designer Elon Musk said tonight that he expects preliminary conclusions about the cause of the June 28 Falcon 9 failure by the end of the week.
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket failed 139 seconds into flight last Sunday, carrying a Dragon spacecraft full of supplies for the International Space Station (ISS). It was the company's seventh operational Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission under contract to NASA -- SpaceX CRS-7 or SpX-7. The first six, and an initial demonstration flight, were all successful.
Musk tweeted this evening that he expects preliminary conclusions by the end of the week.
The failure came after 18 consecutive Falcon 9 mission successes.
That would be about two weeks to determine the cause and inform customers and the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), which facilitates and regulates the commercial space launch industry. Sunday's launch was authorized pursuant to FAA's regulations. Under those provisions, the company leads the failure investigation with oversight by FAA.
SpaceX has a long list of government and commercial customers who are awaiting word on the launch schedule impact of the failure.
SpaceX finally won certification from the Air Force in May to compete for national security launches after a lengthy process. How this failure will affect its competitiveness with the United Launch Alliance (ULA), which has been the monopoly provider of those services since 2006, or SpaceX's ongoing effort to develop a crew version of its Dragon capsule as part of NASA's commercial crew program, is yet to be seen. It may depend in large measure on how long it takes to rectify the problem and restore confidence in the Falcon 9 rocket.
NASA's New Horizons spacecraft that is just days away from its closest approach to Pluto is expected to resume normal operations on July 7 after an anomaly yesterday. The spacecraft has been enroute to Pluto since January 2006 and will get its best view of the dwarf planet as it flies past on July 14.
NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green said in a statement posted on the New Horizons website this evening (Eastern Daylight Time--EDT) that "we're on the verge of returning to normal operations and going for the gold."
Mission managers announced yesterday (July 4) that the probe had stopped communicating with Earth at 1:34 pm EDT and although communications were restored at 3:15 pm EDT, it was with the probe's backup computer. Under those circumstances systems data could be transmitted back to Earth to help diagnose the problem, but planned science observations could not be undertaken.
The spacecraft is 3 billion miles (4.9 billion kilometers) from Earth and it takes 9 hours for radio signals to make the two-way trip.
Tonight's statement provided few details, saying that it was not a hardware or software error, but a "hard to detect timing flaw in the spacecraft command sequence that occurred during an operation to prepare" for the July 14 flyby. No similar events are planned for the remainder of the journey to Pluto.
The lost science observations during this period are not considered significant by the mission's principal investigator, Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI). He said the loss of the data will not "change an A-plus even into an A."
Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of July 6-10, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week (starting on Tuesday).
During the Week
NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto went into safe mode yesterday, just 10 days away from its closest encounter with Pluto after a nearly 10 year journey. Keeping up to date on efforts to remedy that situation and on SpaceX's progress in determining the cause of its Falcon 9 failure on June 28 certainly will be key topics to follow this week.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 was taking supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) crew and the good news is that a Russian Progress cargo spacecraft safely docked very early this morning Eastern Daylight Time (EDT). Still, ensuring effective operations on ISS to achieve the scientific research that is its raison d'être is a hot topic that will be addressed at a major conference in Boston and on Capitol Hill this week.
From Tuesday-Thursday, the American Astronautical Society (AAS) will hold its fourth annual conference on ISS R&D in collaboration with NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). This year's conference is in Boston. (A pre-conference user workshop featuring NASA astronaut Cady Coleman and an opening reception will be held tomorrow).
The morning sessions each day will be webcast. Of the conference's many sessions, those likely of most interest to the policy community that will be webcast are the following:
On Friday, action shifts to Washington where the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee will hold a hearing at 9:00 am ET on "International Space Station: Addressing Operational Challenges." Witnesses include Gerstenmaier, Boeing's John Elbon, NASA Inspector General Paul Martin, and GAO's Shelby Oakley.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below.
Tuesday-Thursday, July 7-9 (with pre-conference activities on Monday, July 6)
Friday, July 10
Russia's Progress M-28M robotic cargo spacecraft docked with the International Space Station at 3:11 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) this morning (July 5), a little over two days after it was launched early Friday morning EDT.
The cargo vehicle, called Progress 60 or 60P by NASA, is delivering 1,940 pounds of propellant, 106 pounds of water, 106 pounds of oxygen, and 3,133 pounds of food, parts, supplies and experimental hardware.
NASA calls it 60P because it is the 60th Progress mission launched to support ISS, an indication of how often these spacecraft take supplies to the ISS crew. They are so routine that they often get little notice, but the previous Russian flight, Progress M-27M, failed. Two U.S. cargo spacecraft also failed over the past eight months: Orbital Sciences Corporation's (now Orbital ATK) Orb-3 mission on October 28, 2014 and SpaceX's CRS-7 last Sunday (June 28).
Although there were four successful cargo flights over that 8-month span (two Russian, two SpaceX) and NASA said the crew has plenty of supplies through October, the failure of three of the four ISS cargo systems in such a short period of time was worrying.
The fourth system is Japan's HTV and the fifth in that series, HTV-5, is scheduled for launch next month.
The successful docking gives everyone a sigh of relief. One of the crew exclaimed that it was like "Christmas in July."
SpaceX is still trying to determine what went wrong 139 seconds into the launch of its seventh operational Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-7) mission to ISS on June 28. Orbital ATK found that a problem with the NK33/AJ26 engine of its Antares rocket caused the Orb-3 failure last October and is switching to a completely different engine (RD-181). While waiting for the re-engined Antares to enter service in the first quarter of 2016, it will launch its next Cygnus cargo craft on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket later this year.
Events of Interest