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Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) announced today that this will be her last term in the Senate. One of NASA and NOAA's strongest supporters, her departure in 2016 will mark the end of an era.
Mikulski is currently the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee and on its Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA and NOAA. In the last Congress, when Democrats controlled the Senate, she chaired both the full committee and the subcommittee, the first woman to hold the Appropriations gavel at the full committee level on either side of Capitol Hill.
There is little doubt that her strong support of the civil space program is founded on the location of major space companies and government agencies in her home state of Maryland. NOAA headquarters is in Silver Spring, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center is in Greenbelt, and Lockheed Martin is headquartered in Bethesda to name a few. NASA's Wallops Flight Facility is in neighboring Virginia on the DelMarVa (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) peninsula, but many of its workers live in Maryland and Wallops is managed by Goddard Space Flight Center. Mikulski herself jokes that when someone comes to her asking for funding she asks three questions: "What does this do for the Nation?," "What does this do for Maryland?," and "What did you say again this does for Maryland"?
Her support is not unconditional, however. She has been one of NOAA's harshest critics over the years on its management of weather satellite programs after the NPOESS overruns that led to its cancellation and early indications that the successor JPSS program was headed in the same direction. Just last week she sternly told Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker at a hearing on the FY2016 NOAA budget request that she would be closely watching the Department's management of JPSS and the Polar Follow On program NOAA is requesting this year. She also called NASA to task for the skyrocketing overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) several years ago and demanded an independent review (the Casani report), which led to a development cost cap of $8 billion set by law. The agreement seems to have sealed her support and last year she enthusiastically told an audience at Goddard Space Flight Center (where JWST is managed) that "I saved you from the Tea Party."
This is her fifth term in the Senate, which followed a decade in the House of Representatives representing Baltimore, MD. She was the first Democratic woman Senator elected to the Senate in her own right and one of only two women in the Senate when she took office there in 1987. Today, there are 20. She is the longest serving woman in the U.S. Congress. In announcing her retirement among her constituents in East Baltimore today, she said she had thought long and hard about how she wanted to spend the next two years "fighting to keep my job or fighting for your job," "raising money or raising hell to meet your day-to-day needs," "focusing on my election or the next generation." She said she chose "to give you 120 percent of my time with all of my energy focused on you and your future."
Although her passion is serving her constituents, she also seems to be genuinely interested in NASA's science programs in particular. For the past several years she has been paired with Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) on the CJS subcommittee, an advocate of human spaceflight, giving NASA a strong foundation of support across its portfolio on that crucially important panel. Her departure two years from now will leave quite a void,
Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of March 2-6, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session.
During the Week
A passel of congressional hearings are on tap this week on the FY2016 budget requests for NASA, DOD, the Department of Commerce (including NOAA) and the Department of Transportation (including FAA). Most congressional hearings are webcast on the respective committee's website. The exceptions are hearings held in the Capitol where, unfortunately, the House Appropriations CJS subcommittee holds many of its hearings. Its hearings this week on the Department of Commerce budget request and on NASA's budget request are a case in point. One must be physically present in the tiny room (H-309 Capitol) to hear the discussion. All the other hearings this week should be webcast, however.
For those already weary of Washington politics or just looking for something uplifting, tomorrow's (Monday's) briefing on Dawn's impending arrival at Ceres should be fun. The intrepid spacecraft, which already sent back fascinating data about the asteroid Vesta, will arrive at Ceres on March 6. The briefing is at JPL and will be webcast on JPL's Ustream channel and NASA TV. We haven't seen an announcement about coverage on March 6 itself, but will post whatever information comes our way later this week.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Monday, March 2
Tuesday, March 3
Wednesday, March 4
Thursday, March 5
NASA International Space Station (ISS) program managers decided today that Wednesday's "water in the helmet" episode is not an impediment to proceeding with another spacewalk on Sunday. The ISS Mission Management Team (IMMT) gave approval for the spacewalk to proceed this morning.
NASA astronauts Terry Virts and Barry "Butch" Wilmore are conducting a trio of spacewalks to get docking ports ready to accept commercial crew spacecraft when they begin flying in 2017. The first two on February 21 and February 25 went fine, but after Virts reentered the airlock on February 25 and it began repressurizing, he noticed water inside his helmet.
Virts was wearing spacesuit 3005 and NASA immediately explained that the same suit had a similar problem after a December 2013 spacewalk. NASA is very sensitive to water incursion after a very serious incident in July 2013 when ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano's helmet filled with water during a spacewalk while he was still outside the ISS.
This time was entirely different, according to NASA officials. The lead EVA spacewalk officer, Alex Kanelakos, said on NASA's Space Station Live program after the IMMT decision that it was only a small amount of water, 15 milliliters (ml), and it has happened seven times previously with this spacesuit. He explained that a small amount of "carryover water" can develop inside the helmet during repressurization. NASA considers up to 57 ml to be permissable. Kanelakos did not say exactly how much water filled Parmitano's helmet in July 2013, but indicated it was many times more.
Because this has happened with suit 3005 several times, Kanelakos said that although NASA does not "expect" it to happen, it is a "known feature" of that suit.
NASA posted an explanation later in the day saying the suit "has a history of what is called 'sublimator water carryover', a small amount of residual water in the sublimator cooling component that can condense once the environment around the suit is repressurized following its exposure to vacuum during a spacewalk...."
Why Virts and his ISS crewmates were surprised and concerned about the water is unclear if it is a known feature and has happened seven times in the past with this suit.
In any case, the spacewalk was given the go-ahead to proceed on Sunday, March 1, beginning at about 7:10 am ET. NASA TV coverage will begin at 6:00 am ET. The spacewalk is expected to last 6 hours 45 minutes.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James added a dose of reality today to projections about when an American-made rocket engine could replace Russia's RD-180s for the Atlas V rocket. During testimony, she said that meeting the congressional mandate to have a new engine by 2019 may not be doable. Her experts tell her it will take 6-8 years to get a new engine and another 1-2 years to integrate it into a launch vehicle.
James spoke before the Senate Appropriations Committee's Defense Subcommittee (SAC-D) on the Air Force FY2016 budget request along with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III. The two are scheduled to testify to the House counterpart subcommittee (HAC-D) on Friday.
The issue really is about developing a new propulsion system, of which an engine is a part, but "engine" is commonly used as shorthand.
The deterioration in U.S.-Russian relationships beginning last year because of Russia's action in Ukraine highlighted how dependent the United States is on Russian technology to launch U.S. national security satellites. The United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V and Delta IV rockets -- referred to as Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs ) -- launch almost all of them, and the Atlas V is powered by Russia's RD-180 engine. The issue figured prominently in a number of hearings last year and Air Force officials, including Gen. William Shelton, then head of Air Force Space Command, rued the prospect of losing those engines. Still, Shelton and others eventually accepted that the time had come for the United States to develop its own comparable liquid rocket engine.
The FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 113-291) and its accompanying explanatory statement direct DOD to develop a new U.S. propulsion system by 2019 "using full and open competition." The law authorizes $220 million and notes it "is not an authorization of funds for development of a new launch vehicle." Section 608 of the law prohibits the Secretary of Defense (SecDef) from "awarding or renewing a contract for the procurement of property or services" under the EELV program if the contract involves "rocket engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation." The only exceptions are the EELV contract awarded to ULA on December 18, 2013 or unless the SecDef certifies that the offeror can demonstrate that it fully paid for or entered into a legally binding contract for such engines prior to February 1, 2014.
The FY2015 Defense Appropriations Act (Division C of P.L. 113-235) followed suit, appropriating the same $220 million as was authorized "to accelerate rocket propulsion system development with a target demonstration date of fiscal year 2019." It directs the Air Force, in consultation with NASA, "to develop an affordable, innovative, and competitive strategy ... that includes an assessment of the potential benefits and challenges of using public-private partnerships, innovative teaming arrangements, and small business considerations."
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) and James engaged in two exchanges about the RD-180 today. Shelby noted that the President's FY2016 request is only for $84 million. "It's also my understanding that developing an RD-180 replacement engine and the associated launch vehicle and launch pad can cost anywhere from $1 billion to more than $3 billion and take perhaps 7 to 10 years to develop," Shelby said. James replied that technical experts have advised her that "It's 6 to 8 years ... for a newly designed engine and then an additional 1 to 2 years on top of that to be able to integrate the engine into the launch vehicle." As for cost, "I've seen $2 billion," James said.
James asked that Congress clarify what it wants, because the 2019 deadline is "pretty aggressive" and "I'm not sure 2019 is doable." She also stressed that they want "at least two" domestic engines "because we want competition of course."
Shelby also revealed that DOD's General Counsel "may" interpret the Section 608 language contrary to congressional intent resulting in a "capability gap for certain launches" and eliminating "real competition." James explained that the General Counsel is trying to interpret several different provisions of law that may or may not have had the same intent, but said the point she wanted to stress is that "virtually everybody" agrees that the United States should be less reliant on Russia. The question is how to accomplish that: "We don't want to cut off our nose to spite our face."
The two also discussed certification of "new entrants." a reference to SpaceX, which has been attempting to obtain certification from the Air Force so it can compete against ULA for these types of national security launches.
ULA manufactures the Atlas V and Delta IV in Decatur, Alabama, Shelby's home state. Shelby talked about the virtues of competition, but, without mentioning SpaceX by name, said "some of these so-called companies that are planning to compete, and we'd like for them to compete, they have had several mishaps" compared to ULA. James replied that every developmental program has mishaps and "I'm quite sure they're going to get there from here."
ULA is jointly owned by Lockheed Martin and Boeing. At yesterday's hearing before the Space, Science and Competitiveness subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, Boeing's John Elbon also urged a "thoughtful" approach to the transition from the RD-180 to a U.S. engine and keeping the pipeline of engines open as long as possible rather setting a hard cut-off date.
Meanwhile, ULA announced last fall that it is partnering with Blue Origin to develop the BE-4 rocket engine as an RD-180 replacement. ULA and Blue Origin said at the time that the project is fully paid for and not in need of government funding.
NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Terry Virts performed a successful 6 hour 43 minute spacewalk from the International Space Station (ISS) today, but after they were back inside the airlock, during repressurization, Virts noticed water inside his helmet. It was a small amount compared to a major incident in July 2013, but NASA is now investigating what went wrong and whether another spacewalk planned for Sunday can go forward.
What little is known at this moment is that Virts noticed the water while he was face down in the airlock during repressurization. In zero gravity, being face up or down should not matter. He immediately reported it and ISS crewmate Samantha Cristoforetti (from the European Space Agency -- ESA) began to help him remove the helmet. That requires a number of steps and the process was not rushed since there was no emergency. At one point ground controllers asked Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, who was assisting Cristoforetti, to point a camera directly at Virts' helmet so they could see what he was experiencing. The blob of water was clearly visible adhering to the interior of his visor.
No problems were reported during the spacewalk itself. It occurred only once Virts and Wilmore were back inside the airlock and it was repressurized to 5 pounds per square inch (psi). Repressurization pauses at that point for a suit check before continuing to full repressurization to 14.7 psi.
At the request of ground controllers, once the helmet was removed, Cristoforetti touched the water to determine its temperature as part of troubleshooting steps. She reported that it was cold. She also reported that the Helmet Absorption Pad (HAP) at the back of the helmet was damp, but not saturated. Virts later added that the water was not from his drink bag, which was fine, and that the water had a chemical taste.
NASA's TV commentator reported that this suit, 3005, had a similar problem after a December 2013 spacewalk and that it occurred at exactly the same point -- when repressurization reached 5 psi.
The December 2013 spacewalk was necessitated by the failure of a key ISS component (a coolant loop) and performed on a contingency basis because of an earlier and much more serious event in July 2013. At that time, ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano's helmet filled with water while he was outside the ISS performing the spacewalk. The cause ultimately was determined to be a clogged filter that allowed water from the suit's cooling system to enter the helmet. Parmitano later wrote a compelling account of the experience. NASA has been even more careful about ensuring the spacesuits are functioning properly since then and implemented a number of changes -- including installing HAPs to soak up any water that does enter a helmet. That apparently was at least partially successful today.
NASA will now investigate this incident. NASA said this afternoon that a decision on whether to proceed with Sunday's spacewalk will be made at an already scheduled management meeting on Friday.
Today's spacewalk is the second of a trio that Wilmore and Virts are performing to ready ISS docking ports to be able to accommodate U.S. commercial crew spacecraft. The first was successfully conducted on February 21. NASA hopes to complete all three before March 12 when Wilmore will return to Earth as part of a routine crew rotation. Two of the three spacewalks were delayed by a day as NASA worked an earlier issue with the suits' fan pump separators.
Sen. Ted Cruz’s first hearing as chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA and commercial space activities was politely inquisitive and not confrontational as some expected. Cruz (R-TX), a leading Tea Party activist, is a relative unknown quantity on space issues. The hearing exhibited that he is an advocate of U.S. leadership in space, ending U.S. reliance on Russia, and supporter of commercial space.
As is typical, few Senators attended yesterday’s hearing before the Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), the top Democrat (Ranking Member) on the subcommittee, and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), were there only briefly because they also serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where Secretary of State John Kerry was testifying at the same time. (Ironically, Gardner unseated Udall’s cousin, Mark Udall, for that Colorado Senate seat in last year’s election.)
Cruz chaired the hearing for the full duration and was joined for most of it by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who was the chairman of this subcommittee in the last Congress when Democrats controlled the Senate. Nelson is now Ranking Member of the full committee. Cruz was the Ranking Member on the subcommittee in the last Congress, so the two have worked together on these topics in the past as well as on other committees and rarely see eye to eye. In this case, however, Cruz’s opening statement was a pep talk about the space program full of familiar themes about the need for U.S. leadership in space and ending U.S. dependence on Russia. Nelson noted the similarities in their views on those subjects, at least, and the two bantered about how the fact that they agreed on something could be used against them in future political campaigns.
The hearing broke little new ground, but sparked interesting dialogue. One panel of former astronauts offered the usual hopes of human trips to Mars coupled with familiar warnings that NASA’s budget needs to grow to accomplish such a goal. A second panel of industry and academic experts offered perspectives on commercial space, U.S. leadership, future human spaceflight destinations, and preferences in reauthorizing the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA).
The first panel was comprised of three former astronauts: Apollo 7’s Walter Cunningham, Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin (the second man to walk on the Moon), and space shuttle astronaut Mike Massimino. The second panel was Boeing’s John Elbon, George Washington University’s Scott Pace, and the Commercial Spaceflight Federation’s Eric Stallmer.
Cruz is a vocal climate change skeptic and concerns were widely expressed in the space community when he became chairman of this subcommittee that he would use his position to try to restrict funding for NASA’s earth science research. Cunningham is also a climate change skeptic and his inclusion on the panel fueled expectations that the hearing would focus on that topic. In fact, however, climate change barely arose and only in response to a question from Udall to Massimino about whether he agreed that NASA should remain a multi-mission agency including funding programs for earth observation. Massimino discoursed about how the International Space Station is a great “perch” for viewing Earth and his belief that if NASA can help with any of the problems facing the country and the world, it should.
Except for his opening statement, Cruz kept his own views to himself and asked thought provoking questions that allowed the witnesses an opportunity to share their perspectives.
Cruz’s key messages in that statement were: NASA needs to get back to its “core priorities” of exploring space; the United States should be the leader in space; SLS and Orion are critical to exploring space “whether it is Moon, Mars or beyond” (omitting mention of asteroids); U.S. dependence on Russia for access to ISS is “unacceptable” and it is “imperative” that we be able to get to the ISS without the Russians; the commercial crew program is “critical” to ending U.S. dependence on Russia; and the United States should be able to launch national security satellites without Russian engines. He said he is encouraged by progress on commercial cargo and crew, but “maximum efficiency and expedition” are needed, and he will be an “enthusiastic advocate of competition and the enabling of the private sector to compete and innovate.” He ended by saying “There is no limit to human imagination or desire for exploration …. America has always led the way in space exploration and we need to reclaim that leadership.”
Interesting tidbits from the hearing include the following:
The written statements of the witnesses and an archived webcast are available on the committee’s website.
Editor's Note: For anyone who's interested, I've written another op-ed for Aviation Week & Space Technology's IdeaXchange entitled "Let's Fix the Asteroid Redirect Mission."
The Space Frontier Foundation, the National Space Society and nine other organizations are forming a new Alliance for Space Development "dedicated to influencing the goals of space development and settlement."
A press conference announcing the formation of the alliance is scheduled for Wednesday (February 25) on Capitol Hill.
A Space Frontier Foundation press release identifies the other nine organizations as:
Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of February 23-27, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
This is one of those weeks when so much is going on that it's difficult to choose just a couple of events to highlight. Please peruse the list below to find your own favorites.
There are seven congressional hearings of interest to the space policy community, though one suspects two are of particular note to readers of this website: Tuesday's Senate hearing on the U.S. human spaceflight program and commercial space competitiveness (with three former astronauts, including Buzz Aldrin), and Friday's House hearing on NASA's commercial crew program.
But the others should be of interest, too: Wednesday's House hearing with the NASA Inspector General (and his counterparts at the Departments of Commerce and Justice) and hearings on the FY2016 budget requests for the Department of Transportation (including the Office of Commercial Space Transportation), Air Force (where many national security space programs reside), and the Department of Commerce (home of NOAA). Many congressional hearings are webcast (though usually not the ones held in the U.S. Capitol), so you can enjoy them live or later in archived webcasts. We'll provide summaries of as many of them as we can.
Tuesday, February 24
Tuesday-Wednesday, February 24-25
Wednesday, February 25
Thursday, February 26
Friday, February 27
Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) will hold his first space-related hearing next week as chairman of the Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Among the six witnesses is Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin along with another Apollo veteran, Walt Cunningham, and space shuttle astronaut Mike Massimino.
The hearing is entitled "U.S. Human Exploration Goals and Commercial Space Competitiveness." In addition to the panel of former astronauts, a second panel includes representatives of industry and academia: John Elbon, Vice President and General Manager, Boeing Space Exploration; Scott Pace, Director, Space Policy Institute at George Washington University; and Eric Stallmer, President, Commercial Spaceflight Federation.
In an interview with the Houston Chronicle's Eric Berger last month that Cruz posted on his office website, he said that he is "an enthusiastic advocate of competition and allowing the private sector to innovate." He also signaled support for Orion and the Space Launch System and said he wants to refocus NASA on its "core priority of exploring space."
Cruz is an ardent advocate of cutting federal spending and is widely credited (or blamed) for the 16-day government shutdown in 2013 and delaying Senate adjournment in December 2014 due to his strong views on budgetary and other issues. What that will mean for NASA is anyone's guess this early in deliberations.
Democrats recently announced that Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) will be the ranking member of this subcommittee. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who chaired the subcommittee in the last Congress when the Senate was under Democratic control, is now the ranking member of the full committee. Sen. John Thune (R-SD) chairs the full committee.
This is the committee that will consider the President's nomination of MIT Professor Dava Newman to be NASA Deputy Administrator. No date has been announced for a confirmation hearing. Under usual procedures, it is also the committee that would consider a new NASA authorization bill, although the House has already passed such a bill and it could go directly to the Senate floor for debate if desired. The Senate never took up the House-passed NASA authorization bill last year. This year's House bill is virtually identical to last year's although it contains funding recommendations based on FY2015 rather than FY2014 appropriations levels. It does not make recommendations for future year funding.
The hearing is on Tuesday, February 24, 2015 at 2:00 pm ET in 253 Russell Senate Office Building.
Events of Interest