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The National Research Council (NRC) in separate actions today announced the creation of a new roundtable on space technology and a new standing committee on space biology and physics. The first meeting of the roundtable will take place in Washington, DC on September 11.
The Space Technology Industry-Government-University Roundtable (STIGUR) will operate under the aegis of the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB). Chaired by Ray Johnson, Lockheed Martin's Chief Technology Officer and head of the company's Advanced Technology Laboratories, STIGUR is a "convening body" in NRC parlance. It is not chartered to give advice, but is a venue for representatives from industry, academia, NASA and other government agencies to facilitate dialogue on issues associated with NASA's space technology efforts. According to its statement of task, its assignment is "to define and explore critical issues related to NASA's space technology research agenda that are of shared interest; to frame systems-level research issues; and to explore options for public-private partnerships." More information and a list of members is posted on its website.
The NRC's Space Studies Board (SSB) is also creating a new entity to serve as a forum for discussion, in this case on space biology and physics. Co-chaired by Betsy Cantwell of Lawrence Livermore National Lab and Robert Ferl of the University of Florida, the new SSB Committee on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space (CBPSS) will, among other things, monitor progress in implementation of the NRC's Decadal Survey for this field. Cantwell co-chaired that Decadal Survey, the first for space biology and physics. Published in 2011, the report, Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration: Life and Physical Sciences Research for a New Era, is often referred to as RFSE for the last four words of the title. The date for the first meeting was not announced. CBPSS joins four other SSB standing committees whose jurisdictions roughly correspond to the scientific disciplines covered by five NRC Decadal Surveys that affect NASA. Information on all of them is available on the SSB website.
Michael Moloney, who is Director of both SSB and ASEB, said via email that he is "happy to be able to diversify the way the Boards support [NASA], the people who work there, and its full portfolio of activities."
Editor's Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I am honored to have been appointed as a member of STIGUR.
The top two Republicans who oversee NASA activities on the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee sent NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden a letter yesterday with a list of questions about the status of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion programs. The questions stem from a recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and prior congressional testimony by Bolden. The letter does not reference NASA's announcement yesterday that it is committing to a launch readiness date for SLS that is almost one year later than previously projected.
House SS&T Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Space Subcommittee Chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) sent the four page letter yesterday, August 27, the same day that NASA announced it is committing to a November 2018 launch readiness date for SLS at a development cost of $7 billion. NASA officials have been saying publicly for years that the first SLS launch would take place by December 2017, although in recent months hints that it would slip into 2018 emerged.
In their letter, Smith and Palazzo challenged Bolden on prior testimony he gave to the committee on the schedule for SLS and Orion and criticized the Obama Administration for not requesting sufficient funding to keep the programs on track. The letter cites a July 2014 GAO study that concluded NASA needs $400 million more in order to meet the December 2017 date, a conclusion based on analysis by the SLS program itself. Smith and Palazzo also say that the committee "recently learned" that the first SLS launch, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), might slip 6 months "due to insufficient funding and unresolved technical challenges that are facing the Orion." Orion is the spacecraft being built to carry crews launched by SLS, although EM-1 is a test flight and no crew will be aboard. (The first flight with a crew is expected about 4 years later.)
In its announcement yesterday, NASA officials did not provide a date for the first SLS launch. Instead, they stressed that the agency is making a commitment to have SLS ready to launch by November 2018 -- a "launch readiness" date, not a "launch" date. Yesterday's announcement followed completion of the Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C) process for SLS. The agency is still working on the KDP-C processes for Orion and the ground infrastructure needed at Kennedy Space Center, FL. Only when all three are completed will the agency commit to a launch date.
The Smith-Palazzo letter hones in schedule and funding issues, asking Bolden to respond by September 10, 2014. The overall theme is that the Obama Administration is "starving these programs" resulting in schedule delays.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress have had a testy relationship with the Obama White House over NASA's future since February 2010 when President Obama proposed cancellation of the Constellation program, initiated by his predecessor, George W. Bush, to take astronauts back to the Moon and on to Mars. Under Constellation, NASA was building two versions of a new rocket, Ares, and a spacecraft, Orion, to replace the space shuttle for ferrying crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS) in low Earth orbit (LEO) and for taking astronauts beyond LEO to the Moon and Mars. Obama proposed terminating all of that, but still adopting President Bush's decision to terminate the space shuttle program as soon as construction of ISS was completed. Under the Bush plan, a four-year gap (2010-2014) would have existed between the end of the shuttle program and the availability of his new Ares/Orion system. The Obama proposal was to kill Ares/Orion and instead rely on the private sector, with help from the government, to develop "commercial crew" transportation systems to take astronauts back and forth to ISS. The Obama plan also envisioned a four-year gap (2011-2015) in America's ability to launch people into LEO. Initially Obama offered no plan for the future of human spaceflight beyond LEO, but in April 2010 made a speech rejecting the Moon as a destination and directing NASA to send astronauts to as asteroid as the next step in human exploration, with Mars as a longer term goal.
After a contentious debate, a compromise was reached in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act where Congress agreed to the commercial crew program, but also directed NASA to build a big new "heavy lift" rocket and a spacecraft to take crews beyond LEO -- essentially a replacement for Constellation. The new rocket is SLS; NASA kept Orion as the spacecraft.
The 2010 law did not end the controversy, however. As the Smith-Palazzo letter illustrates, some in Congress continue to accuse the Obama Administration of favoring commercial crew over SLS/Orion in its budget requests. Congress routinely appropriates less money than requested for commercial crew and more than requested for SLS/Orion. Because it has appropriated less money than NASA says it needs for commercial crew, the gap during which the United States is unable to launch people into space has grown from 4 years to at least 6 years. NASA currently expects a commercial crew system to be available by 2017. NASA had has to rely on Russia to take crews to and from ISS since the final space shuttle mission in 2011.
Congressional advocacy for SLS/Orion is largely based on a desire for U.S. preeminence in space exploration, skepticism over the commercial crew concept, as well as constituent interests. Smith is from Texas, home to NASA's Johnson Space Center where NASA's astronaut corps is based, though Smith's district is not near JSC. Palazzo represents the district in Mississippi that includes NASA's Stennis Space Center, where NASA tests rocket engines like those that will be used for SLS (which were originally built for the space shuttle program).
With short notice, NASA held a teleconference today to announce the results of the Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C) review of the Space Launch System (SLS). NASA officials said the agency is making a commitment that the new rocket will be ready by November 2018 at a development cost of about $7 billion, with a Joint Confidence Level (JCL) of 70 percent. They emphasized that they do not consider the new date a schedule slip even though it is almost a year later than the previous projection, but instead reflects an acknowledgement that margin is needed in case unexpected problems arise and therefore the agency does not want to make a formal commitment to the original December 2017 date.
NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, the highest ranking civil servant in the agency, and NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier, were upbeat about the status of SLS. Lightfoot is a former Director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, which manages the SLS program, and in his current capacity chaired the KDP-C process. This is the first time the process has been used for a human spaceflight program.
NASA flight programs go through an array of phases, gates and milestones with letter designations that can confuse the most intent listener -- Phases A, B, C, D, and E; SDR, PDR and CDR; and KDP-A, -B, -C and so forth. Each has specific meaning for those deeply involved in the programs, but KDP-C is perhaps the most significant for both internal and external stakeholders. It is the point at which NASA makes an agency-level commitment to the cost and schedule for a program against which schedule slips or cost overruns will be measured. NASA currently uses a "Joint Confidence Level" (JCL) computation as part of the process before committing to a program's cost or schedule because of problems in the past. NASA's internal guidance calls for using a 70 percent JCL -- which means there is a 70 percent chance the program will meet the cost and schedule estimate and a 30 percent chance it will not. Previously, NASA used a 50 percent probability (at best), resulting in a large number of programs with cost overruns and delays. The challenge in using the higher probability is that more money is needed in the early stages of a program, which can be a problem in a budget-constrained environment.
Earlier this year, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) that NASA would not use a 70 percent JCL for the SLS program and he was comfortable with that because of the maturity of many of the SLS systems, some of which (like the engines) are from the space shuttle program. Apparently the agency's position on that issue has changed.
Lightfoot and Gerstenmaier announced that the "development" cost estimate for SLS from February 2014 through the first launch -- whose date was not announced -- at a 70 percent confidence level is $7.021 billion. That does not include "formulation" costs over the past three years. If those are included, the total is $9.695 billion, Gerstenmaier said.
The estimate does not include any costs associated with the since-cancelled Constellation program or costs beyond the first launch. In fact, Gerstenmaier and Lightfoot repeatedly stressed that SLS is a series of launch vehicles. These development costs are for the initial version capable of taking 70 metric tons (MT) to low Earth orbit (LEO). NASA plans to build 105 MT and 130 MT versions as part of its effort to send people to Mars someday.
Another point the two officials stressed is that this KDP-C review and associated estimates are only for SLS. The main purpose for SLS is to take astronauts beyond LEO aboard the Orion spacecraft. Launches will take place from Kennedy Space Center, FL, where ground infrastructure is needed to process and launch SLS/Orion. Separate KDP-Cs will be conducted for the ground systems and Orion. Only after those are completed can NASA determine an integrated schedule that will set the date for the first launch. Gerstenmaier extolled media participating in the teleconference not to get "hung up on the first launch date." November 2018 is just the date NASA is willing to commit to for SLS to be ready -- a "launch readiness" date. Not a date when the first launch will take place. In fact, Gerstenmaier insisted that the SLS team is continuing to work towards the original December 2017 launch readiness date for SLS and there is a "reasonable chance" it will be ready by then, but the agency-level commitment is November 2018.
Lightfoot and Gerstenmaier also emphasized that the cost and schedule estimates assume current (FY2014) funding and amounts included in the FY2015 request and associated projections. Those projections are for 5 years -- through FY2019. That should take the program through the first SLS launch, designated EM-1, which will launch an unoccupied Orion spacecraft for a 3-week test flight to cislunar space. NASA has been saying that the second SLS launch, EM-2, which will be the first to carry a crew, would take place in 2021, but today Gerstenmaier said 2021 or 2022. The launch rate thereafter is only once "every couple of years," Lightfoot said. One criticism of SLS is that there is no use for it other than to send people beyond LEO and the agency does not have enough funding to do that very often. Although there is talk about using SLS for space science missions, including launching spacecraft to the outer planets and their moons, the cost may be prohibitive.
NASA is building the SLS and Orion as part of a compromise between Congress and the Obama Administration that was reached in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. In February 2010, President Obama submitted his FY2011 budget request to Congress wherein he revealed his plan to cancel the Constellation program begun by his predecessor, George W. Bush, to send humans back to the Moon and on to Mars. Instead, he wanted to spend money on "game changing" technologies before deciding what, if any, new rocket NASA should build. In the meantime, he wanted to turn transportation of astronauts to LEO, including the International Space Station, over to the commercial sector -- called "commercial crew." The proposal created a firestorm and led both Republicans and Democrats in Congress to insist that NASA itself -- not the commercial sector -- build a new large rocket and spacecraft to take astronauts beyond LEO as a replacement for Constellation.
After months of rancorous debate, the compromise was to do both: NASA was allowed to proceed with the commercial crew program for LEO, and is building SLS/Orion for beyond LEO as Congress demanded. The agency was not given a larger budget to accommodate the increased responsibilities, however, leading to continued criticism that NASA is being asked to do too much with too little. Debate also continues on what the next destination should be for the human spaceflight program -- an asteroid (as President Obama wants) or the Moon (as many human spaceflight advocates and potential international partners want) -- though there is widespread agreement that the ultimate destination is Mars.
SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk decided to postpone the launch of a commercial communications satellite, AsiaSat 6, hours before its expected launch to "triple-check" that the launch will not be affected by a problem that doomed a SpaceX test vehicle last week.
The AsiaSat 6 launch was scheduled for 12:50 am Eastern Daylight Time tomorrow morning, August 27. Reporters on-site at Cape Canaveral, FL reported in late afternoon that the launch was postponed, but the company provided no official information via the SpaceX.com website, the @SpaceX or @ElonMusk Twitter accounts, or in response to emails until late evening. The text of the SpaceX statement that was finally released is as follows:
"The following statement on Aug. 26, will be posted to SpaceX.com and should be attributed to Elon Musk, CEO & Chief Designer, SpaceX.
'SpaceX has decided to postpone tomorrow's flight of AsiaSat 6. We are not aware of any issue with Falcon 9, nor the interfaces with the Spacecraft, but have decided to review all potential failure modes and contingencies again. We expect to complete this process in one to two weeks.
'The natural question is whether this is related to the test vehicle malfunction at our development facility in Texas last week. After a thorough review, we are confident that there is no direct link. Had the same blocked sensor port problem occurred with an operational Falcon 9, it would have been outvoted by several other sensors. That voting system was not present on the test vehicle.
'What we do want to triple-check is whether even highly improbable corner case scenarios have the optimal fault detection and recovery logic. This has already been reviewed by SpaceX and multiple outside agencies, so the most likely outcome is no change. If any changes are made, we will provide as much detail as is allowed under U.S. law.'"
The failure last week was of an experimental SpaceX F9R Dev1 vehicle designed to demonstrate vertical take off and landing. It was destroyed in-flight by an automated flight termination system after it detected an anomaly.
SpaceX has said nothing via its website or Twitter account explaining the reasons for today's delay of the AsiaSat-6 launch, previously scheduled for 12:50 am Eastern Daylight Time on August 27, about three hours from now.
The Falcon 9 launch initially was scheduled for the early hours today, August 26, but was delayed for one day after the launch of an experimental SpaceX reusable rocket was destroyed by an automatic termination system on Friday.
Reporters on-site at Cape Canaveral, FL tweeted that the launch had been delayed indefinitely, but SpaceX officially remained silent about the delay or the reasons for it. Emailed inquiries from SpacePolicyOnline.com remain unanswered as of the time of this posting. The SpaceX website (spacex.com) and Twitter account @spacex, as well as Elon Musk's Twitter account @elonmusk, also provide no information on the delay.
SpaceX conducts these launches from Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 40 operated by the Air Force 45th Space Wing. A tweet from @45thspacewing earlier today referencing the launch links to a Facebook page that says "this content is currently unavailable."
SpaceX is trying to demonstrate its reliability both as part of an effort to win launch contracts from the Air Force and as part of the NASA's selection of one or more companies for the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) award.
The European Commission (EC), the executive body of the European Union (EU), is demanding answers from Arianespace and the European Space Agency (ESA) on why two of its Galileo navigation satellites were placed into the wrong orbit last week. The satellites were launched by Arianespace on a Russian Soyuz rocket from Arianespace’s launch site in Kourou, French Guiana.
In a statement yesterday (August 25), the EC said it had “invited” ESA and Arianespace to its headquarters in Brussels to present initial results next week. The EC is participating in the Board of Inquiry and says preliminary results are expected “in the first half of September.” It wants ESA and Arianespace to provide “full details of the incident, together with a schedule and an action plan to rectify the problem.”
Also yesterday, Arianespace named an independent inquiry commission headed by Peter Dubock, former Inspector General of ESA, and said its initial conclusions will be submitted “as early as September 8, 2014.” Alexander Daniluk, Deputy Director General of Russia's TsNIImash, will serve as a liaison between the Arianespace inquiry and one being conducted in Russia.
The August 22 launch of the Soyuz ST-B rocket initially looked good, but later analysis showed that the two satellites were not placed into the correct orbit apparently due to a failure of the Fregat upper stage. Instead of ending up in a 29,900 kilometer circular orbit inclined at 55 degrees, they are in a 26,200 kilometer elliptical orbit (eccentricity 0.23) inclined at 49.8 degrees.
These are the first two “Full Operational Capability” (FOC) Galileo satellites, the initial launches towards an eventual 30-satellite constellation to provide positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) services similar to the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS). Four “In-Orbit Validation” (IOV) satellites were launched in 2011 and 2012 using the same type of rocket. Last week’s FOC launch was to herald the beginning of the fully operational phase.
Russian Soyuz rockets are launched from Kourou through a partnership among Russia’s space agency (Roscosmos), two Russian manufacturers (RKTs-Progress, which builds Soyuz, and NPO Lavochkin, which builds Fregat) and Arianespace. The Soyuz rocket has been in use since the beginning of the Space Age, though it has been upgraded many times over those decades. Russia’s enviable track record of launch successes began deteriorating in 2010 and a solution to those woes is proving elusive. Russian government and industry officials have been fired and a complete restructuring of the Russian space industry is underway, but failures continue. The venerable Proton rocket suffered yet another failure in May and has not yet returned to flight.
ESA and the EU shared the cost of the IOV phase of the Galileo program. The EU is fully funding the FOC operational phase, which is managed by the EC with ESA as its design and procurement agent. A 2011 EU document says that the IOV phase cost €2100 million, a substantial increase over the €1100 million estimate, and the EU had allocated €3405 million for the FOC phase. Today, one Euro (€) is $1.32. In today’s dollars, then, the IOV phase cost about $2.8 billion and the operational phase is projected to cost about $5 billion. That estimate could change, of course, because of this failure.
The EC hopes to have the full complement of 30 satellites in orbit before the end of this decade. The remaining satellites are to be launched on a combination of Soyuz and Ariane V rockets.
Galileo is designed to operate autonomously, but also is interoperable with the U.S. GPS and Russia’s GLONASS systems. (China is building its own global navigation satellite system, Beidou-2).
ESA said today that the two satellites are “safely under control” by the ESA/CNES team at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany. CNES is the French space agency. The satellites were built by Germany’s OHB AG. ESA said that it is working with CNES and OHB to determine how to best utilize the satellites despite the incorrect orbit. The solar panels on one of the two satellites were fully deployed as of yesterday and those on the second satellite were expected to be deployed soon, meaning that they have power to function.
Dr. Lennard A. Fisk has been elected President of the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) of the International Council of Science (ICSU), the first American to hold that position. Created at the beginning of the Space Age, COSPAR promotes scientific research in space on an international level and provides a forum for discussion for space scientists around the world.
A solar physicist by training, Fisk is currently the Thomas M. Donohue Distinguished University Professor of Space Science at the University of Michigan. He joined the university faculty in 1993 after 6 years serving as NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science and Applications. A member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), he served as chairman of the National Research Council's Space Studies Board (SSB) from 2003-2008. (The National Research Council is the operating arm of the NAS, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine -- collectively called The National Academies.)
Dr. Lennard A. Fisk. Photo credit: University of Michigan website
COSPAR members are national scientific institutions, primarily Academies of Science. The NAS is the U.S. member of COSPAR and the SSB is the U.S. National Committee to COSPAR. NAS President Ralph Cicerone appointed Fisk to be the U.S. representative to COSPAR in 2012.
Historically, the President of COSPAR was a European and the United States and the Soviet Union were each allocated a Vice President slot. That tradition was discontinued after the end of the Cold War, but Fisk is the first American to be elected President. It is a 4-year term.
Fisk said via email that "I have always believed and believe even more today that space research and human space exploration should be pursued, where possible, through international cooperation." COSPAR can be an "important contributor" in promoting cooperation, he added, and as President he plans to "actively use all the tools that COSPAR has available" to ensure that the scientific exploration of space is a "truly international endeavor."
COSPAR was established by ICSU in 1958 as an outgrowth of the International Geophysical Year (IGY), an 18-month effort from July 1957-December 1958 during which scientists from 66 nations cooperated together in studying the geophysics of planet Earth. The Soviet Union and the United States both announced that they would launch satellites in support of the IGY and, indeed, both did launch their first satellites during that time period. While he was chairman of the SSB, Fisk led an international commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the IGY with public lectures across the United States and in Paris, where COSPAR is headquartered. Many of the lectures from that series are published in Forging the Future of Space Science: The Next 50 Years, published by the National Academies Press.
COSPAR is perhaps best known for its biennial scientific assemblies that attract the world's top space scientists to share discoveries and plans for the future. The 40th COSPAR meeting recently concluded in Moscow. The venue became problematic in April when the White House directed agencies to limit their interactions with Russia because of Russia's actions in Ukraine. A NASA memo explaining the White House guidance said that NASA personnel could participate in multilateral meetings that involved Russians, but only if they were held outside Russia. Fisk is widely credited with convincing administration officials to exempt the COSPAR meeting in Moscow from that restriction. NASA said that 35 NASA employees were given permission to participate in the meeting.
UPDATE, August 25: Adds the two panel discussions today (Monday, August 25) at NASA re the New Horizons mission to Pluto.
August 24, 2014: Here is our list of space policy-related events for the next TWO weeks, August 25-September 5, 2014, and any insight we can offer about them. Congress returns on September 8.
During the Weeks
The schedule is light for the next two weeks, but the National Research Council (NRC) is hard at work, with meetings of one of its study committees this week and one of its standing committees the following week. The NASA Advisory Council's (NAC's) Planetary Science Subcommittee also will meet the following week.
The NRC study committee -- Survey of Surveys: Lessons Learned from the Decadal Survey Process -- will meet in public session on Monday and Tuesday (check the agenda for the most recent information on exactly when the open sessions will take place). NRC Decadal Surveys are the "bibles" used by NASA and highly valued by Congress in setting priorities for NASA's space and earth science programs. (Some of the Surveys also advise additional agencies like NSF and NOAA.) The most recent versions have encountered challenges in implementation, however, because of sharply changed budgetary realities between the time the study begins and when it ends, usually about two years later. The agencies tell each Decadal Survey committee at the outset what budget "wedge" they expect to have in the next 10 years (a decade) to begin new programs. The committees use that guidance in formulating recommendations on what programs to initiate to answer the top scientific questions they identify. The most recent Decadal Surveys have included "decision rules" on what to do if there is significantly less (or more, as unlikely as that is) money than they are told and NASA, at least, has had to utilize those decision rules a lot lately. This new NRC committee is looking at how to make the next round of Decadal Surveys more effective in guiding the agencies in these ever-changing times.
The NRC standing committee that is meeting the first week of September is the Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science (CAPS). Curiously, the NAC Planetary Science Subcommittee is meeting at exactly the same time (September 3-4). The meetings are on opposite coasts. Both advise NASA on its planetary science programs -- the NRC provides strategic advice while the NAC subcommittee provides tactical advice -- so they do look at the programs from different perspectives. They often get briefings from the same NASA people, though, so this must be an interesting scheduling exercise. Neither has posted their agendas yet.
Here is what we know about as of Sunday evening, August 24.
Monday, August 25
Monday-Wednesday, AUGUST 25-27
Wednesday-Thursday, SEPTEMBER 3-4
An experimental SpaceX reusable rocket exploded in flight yesterday (August 22) when an automated system detected an anomaly and terminated the mission. The "F9R Dev1" vehicle was part of the company's Grasshopper series designed to demonstrate vertical take-off and landing.
SpaceX founder and Chief Designer Elon Musk tweeted "Three-engine F9R vehicle auto-terminated during test flight. No injuries or near injuries. Rockets are tricky..." A video posted on YouTube and by a CBS TV affiliate shows the launch and explosion (it is not clear who took the video).
SpaceX tweeted a statement that said "During the flight, an anomaly was detected in the vehicle and the flight termination system automatically terminated the mission. Throughout the test and subsequent flight termination, the vehicle remained in the designated flight area....An FAA representative was present at all times." The test took place at the company's McGregor, TX facility.
SpaceX has become well known for its Falcon 9 rocket used for cargo flights to the International Space Station and launches of commercial satellites. It is only one of the company's efforts, however. Developing reusable rockets and spacecraft is a major goal. Several Grasshopper tests have taken place successfully already. SpaceX's statement described yesterday's test as "particularly complex, pushing the vehicle further than any previous test."
NASA declined today (August 18) to confirm rumors that it will announce the winner(s) of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contract by the end of the month, but anticipation is mounting. Whenever it happens, it will be a major step forward for the commercial crew program and achieving the oft-stated goal of restoring America’s ability to launch American astronauts into space on American rockets from American soil.
A NASA spokesman replied to an email query this morning by saying only that NASA still expects to make an announcement in the late-August, early-September time frame, as it has been saying for months.
NASA officials are not allowed to discuss the selection process before announcing the award(s), even to say who submitted bids. Expectations are that at least the three companies being funded under the current phase of the program – Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) – did so.
Those three are SpaceX with its Dragon V2 spacecraft, Boeing with the CST-100, and Sierra Nevada with Dream Chaser. Dragon V2 would be launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Boeing and Sierra Nevada have been planning to use Atlas V rockets provided by the United Launch Alliance (ULA).
One goal of the commercial crew program is to end America’s dependence on Russia for crew access to the International Space Station (ISS) and all of the spacecraft are American-built. The Falcon 9 rocket is American-built. The Atlas V rocket, however, while manufactured in Alabama, is powered by Russian RD-180 engines, so whether it is “American” is a matter of opinion. In addition, the future availability of RD-180s -- and therefore of the Atlas V -- is now in question. The Obama Administration announced in January that it plans to keep the ISS operating until at least 2024 so whatever commercial crew services the companies plan to offer would need to extend to that time period. Department of Defense (DOD) officials acknowledged at a Senate hearing last month that it is time to build a U.S. alternative to the RD-180 because of the changed U.S.-Russia geopolitical environment. The Air Force hopes the RD-180 engines currently on order will be delivered, enabling routine Atlas V launches for several years, but that would not last through 2024. Boeing and Sierra Nevada thus would need an alternative. One possibility is ULA's Delta IV, which uses Aerojet Rocketdyne’s American-built RS-68 engine. The Delta IV is more expensive than Atlas V, though, which could change the cost assumptions of those bids.
How many companies will win is largely dependent on how much money NASA has to pay them. Although they are termed “commercial” efforts, in fact they rely on the government to pay a share of the development costs and to be a market for the services. For the current CCiCAP phase, NASA funded “2 ½” companies – two companies (SpaceX and Boeing) at the full amount they requested and one (Sierra Nevada) at half the amount.
NASA insists that it wants to be able to select at least two companies to continue into this final CCtCAP phase so that in the future it will have two competitors providing services to keep prices down. Congress has never provided NASA with the full amount of funding requested for the program, however. Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate repeatedly make clear that their priority is for NASA itself to build the big, new Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), not the commercial crew program to take them only to LEO and the ISS.
Some influential members of Congress appear to be warming up to commercial crew, perhaps because of the success of the commercial cargo program and the desire to end reliance on Russia. Through the Bush Administration’s commercial cargo initiative, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation developed new rockets (Falcon 9 and Antares) and spacecraft (Dragon and Cygnus) to take cargo to the ISS. NASA now purchases commercial cargo services from those two companies.
The Obama Administration decided to use the same approach, essentially a public-private partnership, to develop systems to take crews to and from the ISS after adopting the Bush Administration’s plan to terminate the space shuttle program once ISS construction was completed. The last space shuttle flight – and the last time America could launch humans into space – was in 2011. NASA has been purchasing crew transportation services from Russia since then at a cost of about $450 million a year.
Based on the FY2015 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill that passed the House and the version agreed to by the Senate Appropriations Committee, Congress plans to provide more for commercial crew than in the past, even if not the full request of $848 million. The House approved $785 million, while the Senate Appropriations Committee agreed to $805 million. Whether either amount is enough for NASA to make more than one CCtCAP award is a question that will be answered only when the announcement is made.
Not everyone in Congress has bought into commercial crew, however. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) is a determined advocate of SLS, which is being built in his state of Alabama, and a commercial crew skeptic. The top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee and its CJS subcommittee, he included language in the committee-approved version of NASA’s FY2015 appropriations bill that would require CCtCAP winners to abide by accounting requirements associated with cost-plus rather than fixed-price contracts. Opponents call it a “poison pill” because complying could cost a small company like SpaceX a lot of money because it does not have a cadre of personnel in place to handle the paperwork, unlike big companies like Boeing. Boeing and SpaceX are considered the two top contenders based on the CCiCAP awards.
That appropriations bill has not passed the Senate, but was briefly debated on the Senate floor in June. At the time, the White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy opposing the Shelby provision because the requirements are “unsuitable for a firm, fixed-price acquisition” and could increase cost and delay schedule.
Selecting the winner(s) of the CCtCAP awards before that appropriations bill or a Continuing Resolution that might include similar language passes Congress could be one motivation for NASA making its decision sooner rather than later.
The CCtCAP award(s) will bring the United States one step closer to once again launching people into space. When the Obama Administration initially proposed the commercial crew program in the FY2011 budget request, it anticipated systems would be ready by 2015, resulting in a four-year gap between the end of the shuttle and the availability of a replacement. That date has slipped to 2017, however, because it did not get the requisite funding. Some of the companies have indicated they could be ready sooner if more money was available, but NASA is planning on 2017. Until then, Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft is the only way for ISS crew members to travel back and forth.
Events of Interest