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China Readies New Space Station, New Heavy Lift Rocket for September Launches

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Sep-2016 (Updated: 06-Sep-2016 05:37 AM)

China is getting ready to launch a new small space station, Tiangong-2, and its new Long March 5 heavy lift rocket this month. Tiangong-2 will be launched by the venerable Long March 2F, but larger space station modules will be launched aboard Long March 5 rockets in the early 2020s.

China's first space station, Tiangong-1 was orbited in 2011.  Over the next two years, it was visited by three spacecraft: an uncrewed Shenzhou-8 spacecraft in 2011 as a systems test, followed by two three-person crews in 2012 and 2013 (Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10).

SpacePolicyOnline.com has a list of all of China's human spaceflight-related flights since the first in 1999.  China has launched a total of 5 crewed flights since then: in 2003 (one man), 2005 (two men), 2008 (three men), 2012 (two men and one woman) and 2013 (two men and one woman).   While some analysts cite this as an aggressive schedule reminiscent of the early Soviet and U.S. human spaceflight programs in the 1960s, it is in fact a very measured pace.

The list is about to get longer with the launch of Tiangong-2 in mid-September.  These space stations are quite small in comparison with the first Soviet and U.S. space stations (Salyut 1 and Skylab, respectively).  Tiangong modules are 8.5 metric tons (MT), while Salyut 1 (launched in 1971) was 18.6 MT and Skylab (1973) was 77 MT.   The International Space Station now in orbit is approximately 400 MT and has been permanently occupied by two-six person crews operating generally on 4-6 month rotations since the year 2000. 

Despite its modest size, the Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 crews remained aboard Tiangong 1 for about two weeks.  The crew size for Tiangong-2 has been reduced to two and they will stay for 30 days.  The first, composed of two men, reportedly will launch on Shenzhou-11 in mid-October.

Tiangong space stations and Shenzhou spacecraft are launched from China's Jiuquan launch center in the Gobi desert, China's original launch site.  Tiangong-2 arrived at Jiuquan in July and Shenzhou-11 and the two rockets in August.

Meanwhile, China has inaugurated its new Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island.   That brings to four the number of Chinese space launch sites.  The others are Xichang near Chengdu, used for launches to geostationary orbit, and Taiyuan, south of Beijing, for polar orbit launches.  

The first launch from Hainan took place in June.  It was the debut of the new mid-sized Long March 7 rocket capable of placing 13.5 MT in low Earth orbit (LEO).   China now is getting ready for the first flight of its Long March 5 from Hainan, expected in mid-September. 

The 5-meter diameter Long March 5 will be the largest in China's fleet, able to put 25 MT into LEO.  The largest U.S. rocket is the Delta IV Heavy, which can place 28.4 MT into LEO.

Long March 5 is the latest in a series of new launch vehicles China is developing to replace its original fleet of various versions of Long March 2, 3 and 4.  It tested two small rockets, Long March 6 (liquid-fueled) and  Long March 11 (solid-fueled), in 2015.  The mid-sized Long March 7 was tested in June and now the large "heavy" Long March 5.  Long March 5, 6 and 7 use environmentally friendly fuels and have a modular design where common components are shared according to China's CCTV news channel.

China lists the Chang'e-5 robotic lunar probe, a robotic Mars probe, and the core module for a new generation space station as upcoming Long March 5 launches.  The launch of Chang'e-5, designed to return samples from the Moon, is expected in 2017.  The 200 kilogram Mars probe (a lander and rover) is scheduled for launch in August 2020.  The new generation space station, a three module design with a total mass of 60 MT, is planned for the early 2020s (Chinese officials variously say 2022 or 2023).

Philae Comet Lander Located -- Just in Nick of Time

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Sep-2016 (Updated: 05-Sep-2016 02:31 PM)

The European Space Agency (ESA) exuberantly announced today that imagery from a camera aboard its Rosetta spacecraft has finally located the Philae lander on the surface of Comet 67P.  After returning data for 57 hours in 2014, contact with Philae was lost.  It briefly resumed transmissions in 2015, but ceased again.  The imagery released today confirms that the problem is Philae's position, which does not allow its solar panels to charge the battery.  The Rosetta mission will end on September 30, so the discovery came just in the nick of time.

The trials and tribulations of the tiny lander made headlines in November 2014 when it separated from Rosetta and headed down to the surface of the comet, the first time such a feat was attempted.  After initial contact, harpoons intended to secure Philae to the surface failed to fire, however, and it bounced twice more before landing elsewhere.  Philae communicates to Earth via Rosetta, which is in orbit around the comet, and communications were established even though ESA and the German space agency, DLR, which built Philae, did not know precisely where it was.

Philae had enough battery power for one round of experiments and it successfully completed 80 percent of them, but contact then was lost and mission managers assumed that the spacecraft landed in a position where sunlight could not reach its solar panels to charge a secondary battery that is aboard.  They hoped that as the comet neared the Sun, more sunlight would reach the panels.  Indeed, Philae "phoned home" briefly in June and July 2015, only to disappear again.

Rosetta has continued to orbit the comet, whose full designation is 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after the two Ukrainian astronomers who discovered it, on its journey in toward the Sun and out again.  The comet-spacecraft duo came closest to the Sun (perihelion) in August 2015.  This is 67P's first encounter with the Sun and thus it still contains the primordial material of which it was made 4.5 billion years ago making it of special interest to scientists.  

The comet and spacecraft are now on their way back to the outer edges of the solar system.  On October 1, they will move behind the Sun relative to Earth, preventing communications.  Coupled with other technical factors affecting the longevity of the spacecraft and its instruments, program managers decided to formally end the mission on September 30 when they will command it to make a controlled impact with the surface for one last set of observations. 

That final descent is still almost a month away, but the images showing Philae were taken by Rosetta's narrow-angle camera, OSIRIS, when it was just 2.7 kilometers (1.7 miles) above the surface. Cecilia Tubiana of the OSIRIS team was the first to see the images and identify Philae.   ESA has been looking for Philae all this time and narrowed its location down to a few potential sites, but this is the first time its location could be confirmed.  Philae is "wedged into a dark crack," ESA said, also proving that the problem is lack of sunlight to charge the secondary battery.


Image of Philae on the surface of Comet 67P from camera aboard ESA's Rosetta orbiter, September 2, 2016.  Photo credit:  ESA

ESA also released a copy of the image with the spacecraft components labeled.


Image of Philae on the surface of Comet 67P with labels added by ESA to identify spacecraft components.  Photo credit: ESA

ESA Rosetta mission manager Patrick Martin said "[w]e were beginning to think that Philae would be lost forever. It is incredible we have captured this at the final hour."   ESA Rosetta program scientist Matt Taylor added that now scientists have "ground truth" that will allow them to put Philae's science data into the proper context.

ESA explains that Rosetta and Philae "aim to unlock the mysteries of the oldest building blocks of our solar system -- comets" and hence the names are connected to the deciphering of hieroglyphics. 

  • Rosetta is named after the Rosetta Stone that allowed the deciphering of hieroglyphics and therefore an understanding of Egyptian civilization.
  • Philae is the name of an island in the Nile river where an obelisk was found with the final clues to enable the decryption.
  • Philae was flooded when the Aswan dams were built in the 20th century and a complex of Ancient Egyptian buildings, including the Temple of Isis, were moved to another island, Agilkia,   ESA held a contest to name Philae's intended landing site on 67P and of 8,000 entries, more than 150 suggested Agilkia and that was the winner.  Although Philae briefly touched down there, its final landing site is named Abydos after one of the oldest cities in Egypt.

Rosetta and Philae were launched on March 2, 2004.  It took 10 years for them to reach their destination -- the 4 kilometer (2.5 mile) diameter Comet 67P.  It was 540 million kilometers (335 million miles) from the Sun or 404 million kilometers (251 million miles) from the Earth at that time. As of today, they have traveled 7.9 billion kilometers (4.9 billion miles).  ESA has an interactive "Where is Rosetta" graphic that shows Rosetta's location at every point along its route.

Rosetta is an ESA mission, but NASA provided three of its instruments and part of the electronics for a fourth.

NASA-Goddard's Hartman, Gilbert Among 2016 WIA Award Winners

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Sep-2016 (Updated: 04-Sep-2016 10:22 PM)

Women in Aerospace (WIA) has announced the winners of its 2016 awards.  Among the six women being honored are Colleen Hartman and Holly Gilbert from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.  WIA will present all of its awards on October 13, 2016 at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Arlington, VA.

Hartman currently is Director of Goddard's Sciences & Exploration Directorate and has worked at Goddard and NASA headquarters since 1994.  She is receiving the 2016 WIA Leadership Award for "30 years of exemplary leadership at the highest levels of government and for inspiring the next tier of scientists, engineers and managers."

Gilbert is Deputy Director of the Heliophysics Science Division within Goddard's Sciences & Exploration directorate.  She is being recognized with the 2016 Aerospace Awareness Award for "outstanding leadership in bringing heliophysics science to the public."   NASA's heliophysics discipline incorporates the study of the Sun and solar-terrestrial interactions (the field is sometimes referred to as solar and space physics).

WIA is also honoring four other women, one of them posthumously.

WIA's 2016 Achievement Award will be presented to Celia Blum of Lockheed Martin for "leading the team that reduced the mass of the Orion Crew Module pressure vessel and delivered it to Kennedy Space Center for Exploration Mission 1 integration."   Orion is part of NASA's new human space transportation system intended to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit for the first time since the Apollo lunar missions.  Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) will be the first flight of Orion aboard the Space Launch System (SLS), a large rocket NASA is building for that purpose.  The EM-1 mission will not carry a crew.  It is a test launch scheduled for 2018.

Mary Bowden of the University of Maryland, College Park, is receiving the 2016 Aerospace Educator Award for "motivating interest in space systems, being an inspiring role model and promoting the success of students at all levels."

Lt. Amanda Lippert, Naval Air Systems Command, is the winner of the 2016 Initiative, Inspiration, Impact Award for "her multiple achievements and contributions to the field of aerospace science and industry within the past twenty-four months."

The 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented posthumously to Molly Macauley, who was murdered in July.  Macauley was one of the few economists who specialized in the economic aspects of the space program.

The WIA Awards Dinner is October 13, 2016 at the Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City in Arlington, VA.   WIA will also honor the late Patti Grace Smith, who died of cancer earlier this year.  She will be recognized for "her tremendous impact not only for women in the aerospace community, but for her influence on the aerospace industry as a whole."

WIA Honors Molly Macauley with Lifetime Achievement Award - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Sep-2016 (Updated: 06-Sep-2016 03:37 PM)

Women in Aerospace (WIA) is honoring Molly Macauley with its 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award.  It will be presented posthumously at the WIA Awards Dinner on October 13.  Her murder on July 8 remains unsolved. Resources for the Future (RFF), where she spent most of her career, will hold a memorial service on September 23.

Macauley was one of the few economists who specialized in studying the economic implications of space activities, especially earth observation satellites. After four years working at the Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT), she spent the rest of her career at RFF, a Washington-based think tank that focuses on the economics of natural resources.  She also was a visiting professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University for many years.

She was murdered while walking her dogs near her home in Baltimore.  The police said at the time there was no motive and no suspects. No further news has been forthcoming.

Macauley published widely and she was a member of the International Editorial Board of the quarterly journal Space Policy.  Elsevier, the publisher of Space Policy, is making the articles she wrote for the journal available for free for the remainder of this year and published tributes to her by other members of the Editorial Board and many space policy colleagues.  

RFF also has a tribute page and will hold a memorial service for her on September 23 at the Metropolitan Club in Washington, DC from 3:30-5:30 pm ET.  (All of Molly's friends and colleagues are welcome, but please RSVP in advance to specialevents@rff.org.)

In its press release announcing the winners of its 2016 awards, WIA said that Macauley was being honored for "having successfully pioneered the field of 'space economics' over the lifetime of her professional career and contributing to academic and public policy impacts of linking economics with space science."

The WIA Awards Dinner is on October 13 at the Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City in Arlington, VA.

Updated with RSVP instructions for Molly Macauley's memorial service.

What's Happening in Space Policy September 5-9, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Sep-2016 (Updated: 04-Sep-2016 02:39 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of September 5-9, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate return to work on Tuesday.

During the Week

Monday is a U.S. Federal holiday, Labor Day.  Congress returns to work on Tuesday.  As we reported last week, its essential task is to pass appropriations legislation to keep the government operating past September 30 when FY2016 ends. They have a lot of work to do in the next four weeks.  None of the 12 regular appropriations bills has passed yet (see our table of where the 12 appropriations bills stand at this point). 

The House plans to go into recess again on October 1 and the Senate will follow suit before October 10 (the exact date is TBD).  They won't return until after the November 8 elections.   Whether they return at all in 2016 for a "lame duck" session or wait until the new 115th Congress begins in January 2017 is being debated.  This is a standard debate in election years.  Some argue that those who lost their elections should not continue to legislate and any issue not resolved before the pre-election recess should wait until the new Congress is in place.   Others insist that the nation's work must be done and that time is needed to pass critical legislation.  Congress is virtually certain to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the first part of FY2017, so whether or not there will be a lame duck session makes a big difference in how long the CR lasts.  Many in Congress want a short term CR that carries the government through to mid-December, meaning that Congress must still be meeting at that time to pass either another CR or, hopefully, final FY2017 appropriations. The most conservative House Republicans, however, reportedly want to push final FY2017 funding decisions into next year.  We'll see what happens, but if what's past is prologue, there will indeed be a lame duck session.

Labor Day marks the end of "summer" and signals a resumption of the usually busy schedule of space policy events in Washington, far too many to highlight here (see full list below).   One of special interest is Wednesday's hearing before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on "Commercial Remote Sensing; Facilitating Innovation and Leadership." Witnesses include the former chair of NOAA's Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing (ACCRES), Kevin O'Connell; the Executive Director of the Center for Spatial and Law Policy, Kevin Pomfrel; the President of Sunesis Nexis, LLC, Michele Weslander; University of North Dakota Assistant Professor of Space Studies Michael Dodge; and University of Mississippi School of Law Professor Emerita Joanne Gabrynowicz.  The committee is dissatisfied with NOAA's regulatory oversight of the industry (taking too much time to decide on company requests, for example), although there are no NOAA witnesses on the list.  NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce and the committee's Republican leaders recently wrote a letter to Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker asking for a statutorily required report that is overdue by more than 3 months.  It is the fourth letter they have written to her about commercial remote sensing issues since February.

Congress's return is certainly important news, but Thursday's launch of the robotic asteroid sample return mission OSIRIS-REx surely will take the spotlight.  NASA has scheduled pre-launch briefings over two days (Tuesday and Wednesday) and will provide live coverage of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V launch on Thursday evening.  The 2-hour launch window opens at 7:05 pm ET.  NASA TV coverage begins at 4:30 pm ET and a post-launch press conference will begin about 2 hours after launch.  The weather forecast as of today (Sunday) is 80 percent go.  (As we've said before, it's important not to confuse OSIRIS-REx with the Asteroid Redirect Mission, which also will return an asteroid sample to Earth, but is part of NASA's human spaceflight program, not its science program, and has very different objectives.)

Speaking of human spaceflight, three ISS crew members return to Earth on Tuesday night ET.  Jeff Williams, Alexey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka will land in Kazakhstan at 9:14 pm ET (7:14 am Wednesday local time at the landing site).  NASA TV will provide live coverage of undocking and landing.

George Washington University's Space Policy Institute and the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation are having a seminar on Friday on U.S.-Japan Space Cooperation featuring government, academic, and industry officials from both countries.  It is part of a series of meetings of the U.S.-Japan Space Forum that began in 2014 to address how the two countries could work together to use space for common interests.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week to see others that we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.

Tuesday, September 6

Wednesday, September 7

Wednesday-Thursday, September 7-8

Thursday, September 8

Friday, September 9

 

SpaceX Still Investigating Launch Pad Anomaly and Assessing Launch Pad Damage

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Sep-2016 (Updated: 03-Sep-2016 04:02 PM)

In a statement issued late yesterday, SpaceX said that it was beginning the process of understanding the "anomaly" that occurred on Thursday that destroyed its Falcon 9 rocket and the Amos-6 communications satellite.  The incident occurred during what should have been a routine test two days before the satellite's scheduled launch. The company also said that it was assessing the condition of the launch pad, which "clearly incurred damage."

The anomaly occurred 8 minutes before the test was to begin while the rocket was being fueled, according to the statement.  This was a standard pre-launch static fire test to demonstrate the rocket's readiness for launch.   SpaceX is one of the few -- if not the only -- company that places the satellite on the rocket prior to these tests instead of after they are completed.  Consequently, not only was the rocket destroyed, but the approximately $200 million Amos-6 communications satellite. Built by Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) for Israel's Spacecom, the 39 transponder satellite's primary customer was Facebook, which intended to use it to provide Internet access to parts of Africa.

Chris Quilty of Quilty Analytics, an independent financial research and consulting company, said yesterday via Twitter (@quiltyanalytics) that the satellite was insured for $285 million, which will have to be paid under IAI's marine cargo insurance policy rather than satellite launch insurance "because SpaceX had not yet triggered an intentional ignition."  In his analysis of the business impacts of the incident for SpaceX, Spacecom, and Facebook, Quilty noted that Spacecom's deal to be acquired by China's Xinwei Technology Group was contingent on the successful launch of Amos-6 and thus could be disrupted.

Falcon 9 is SpaceX's only launch vehicle available today.  In addition to launching commercial satellites like Amos-6, it launches Dragon spacecraft filled with cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA.  SpaceX is building a version of Dragon that can carry people, Crew Dragon, as part of NASA's commercial crew program.  Test flights are scheduled for next year with operational flights beginning in 2017 or 2018.  Crew Dragon includes a pad abort system to propel the spacecraft away from the launch pad in the event of an on-pad incident like this.  In reply to a tweet hours after the incident, SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk (@elonmusk) tweeted that Dragon would have been fine if it had been aboard on Thursday.

SpaceX said it is still assessing the amount of damage to the launch pad at Space Launch Complex-40 (SLC-40).  SpaceX leases the pad from the Air Force, which is at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS).   SpaceX also leases a pad at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, adjacent to CCAFS, that once was used for Apollo and space shuttle launches, Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A). 

SLC-40 and LC-39A can accommodate both Falcon 9 and the larger Falcon Heavy rocket SpaceX is currently developing.  The first launch of Falcon Heavy is scheduled for this year and SpaceX said yesterday that LC-39A will be operational by November.  Most satellites are launched from the East Coast because they are destined for orbits accessible from there without overflying populated areas and benefit from launching in an easterly direction -- the same direction as Earth's rotation.   Some satellites must go into orbits around the poles, however, and those are launched from the West Coast to avoid populated areas.  SpaceX leases Space Launch Complex-4E (SLC-4E) at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA for its polar orbit launches and the company said that launch pad is in the "final stages of an operational upgrade." SpaceX also is building its own launch site near Brownsville, TX, although it was not mentioned in yesterday's statement.

The upshot is that SpaceX can continue Falcon 9 launches from other locations while SLC-40 is repaired, although its cadence clearly will be slowed.  Quilty lists 12 more launches SpaceX had planned for this year: nine Falcon 9s from SLC-40, one Falcon 9 from SLC-4E, and two launches of the Falcon Heavy from LC-39A.

SpaceX painted an optimistic picture, however.  Referring to LC-39A and SLC-4E, it said: "We are confident the two launch pads can support our return to flight and fulfill our upcoming manifest needs."

 

NASA Inspector General Doubts Routine Commercial Crew Flights Before Late 2018

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Sep-2016 (Updated: 01-Sep-2016 11:04 PM)

NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a report today on NASA's management of the commercial crew program under which SpaceX and Boeing are developing systems to provide crew transportation to and from the International Space Station (ISS).  The report warns that technical challenges now are the primary obstacle and routine, certified flights are unlikely before the end of 2018.  NASA's failure to respond to "hazard reports" from the companies in a timely manner exacerbates the problem and could lead to design changes late in the development program that could cause further delays.

Coincidentally, the report was released on the same day that SpaceX suffered an explosion on its Cape Canaveral launch pad during a pre-launch test for a commercial communications satellite.  What impact that will have on SpaceX launches for commercial or government customers -- including for NASA -- is not known at this time.  The Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 satellite were destroyed and video of the incident suggests that the launch pad may have been significantly damaged.  No one was injured.

The NASA OIG report is a follow-up to one that it issued in 2013 on NASA's management of the commercial crew program.  Commercial crew is a public private partnership where NASA and the companies each provide part of the development funding for new crew space  transportation systems in exchange for NASA guaranteeing to purchase a certain number of flights.  A NASA official testified to Congress in 2012 that NASA is paying the majority of the development funding.  The OIG report shows that NASA Is on track to spend $6.165 billion on commercial crew development (not services) by FY2020.

NASA chose SpaceX and Boeing as the two commercial crew companies in 2014 under what is called the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contract. SpaceX is building the Crew Dragon spacecraft to be launched on its own Falcon 9 rockets.  Boeing is building the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft to be launched on United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets.  Boeing and Lockheed Martin jointly own ULA.

NASA has been unable to launch astronauts into space since the termination of the space shuttle program in 2011. It pays Russia to launch and return NASA astronauts as well as astronauts from ISS partners Canada, Europe and Japan in conformance with the agreement that governs the ISS program. (When the agreement was signed, NASA anticipated that the space shuttle would be flying until the end of the ISS program and providing crew transportation services was part of the barter arrangements with those countries in exchange for hardware and services they agreed to contribute.  When NASA terminated the shuttle, it remained obligated to provide those crew transportation services).  The OIG reported that NASA will have paid Russia $3.4 billion between 2006 and 2018 to launch 64 NASA/partner astronauts at a price per round-trip seat of $21.3 million at the beginning to the current price of $81.9 million.

When the commercial crew program began, NASA hoped to have routine flights by 2015, but that slipped in large part due to congressional underfunding in the early years.  OIG noted today that its 2013 report found that adequate funding was the major challenge for the program.  Congress has warmed up to the program, however, and now is approving the full President's request so funding is not the issue it once was.  Technical challenges now are the major hurdle according to today's report.

The companies' systems must be certified by NASA before beginning routine flights to ISS.  Boeing anticipates receiving certification in January 2018 with its first certified flight in spring 2018, and SpaceX is working toward late 2017 for its first certified mission, the OIG report says.  But it is skeptical: "Notwithstanding the contractors' optimism, based on the information we gathered during our audit, we believe it unlikely that either Boeing or SpaceX will achieve certified, crewed flight to the ISS until late 2018."

In that vein, the OIG found that NASA is not responding to "hazard reports" from the companies in a timely manner, which could mean significant design changes late in the development program that could lead to additional delays.  Hazard reports "identity potential safety concerns and may result in the contractor requesting a variance to Agency requirements," the OIG report states.  NASA has a "goal" of responding to hazard reports within 8 weeks, but it is taking much longer.  

Between February 2015 and June 2016, the companies submitted a combined total of 172 hazard reports and NASA has reviewed 134 of them and tentatively approved 105.  However, "almost all of the tentative approvals are contingent on receipt of additional verification testing results...  If the contractors are required to make changes to their systems based on NASA's decisions...., there could be more delays."   The OIG reported that the companies themselves have expressed concern on this matter.

The OIG also found that NASA's Commercial Crew Program is not monitoring the timeliness of its hazard report review process.  It recommended that NASA do so, and NASA agreed.  The OIG also recommended that NASA coordinate with Boeing and SpaceX to "document a path to timely resolution" of hazard reports and although NASA agreed that coordination is necessary, the OIG believes that NASA needs to do more.  

NASA's response to a draft of the report is published as an appendix.

Explosion on SpaceX Launch Pad Destroys Rocket, Amos-6 Satellite - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Sep-2016 (Updated: 01-Sep-2016 11:59 PM)

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded today during a pre-launch test at Cape Canaveral Launch Pad 40.  The explosion occurred during preparations for a test of the rocket two days before its scheduled launch to place the AMOS-6 communications satellite into orbit.  AMOS-6 was built by Israel Aerospace Industries and was already attached to the rocket so also was destroyed.  Facebook was one of the customers planning to use the satellite.  A video of the explosion is posted on YouTube showing the extensive damage, but no one was at the pad and no one was injured.

The incident occurred at 9:07 am Eastern Daylight Time as SpaceX was getting ready to test its Falcon 9 rocket in preparation for a scheduled launch on Saturday. Details are still unfolding, but something happened during fueling of the upper stage.  SpaceX has issued two tweets with their official statements on what they know so far.

USLaunchReport.com posted a video of the explosion on its YouTube channel.

This was a commercial launch for a commercial company, not for NASA or any other government agency.  However, NASA is a SpaceX customer, both for commercial cargo flights to the International Space Station (ISS) and for launching some of its satellites (such as the Jason-3 satellite earlier this year). SpaceX also is one of the two companies developing commercial crew systems to take astronauts to and from the ISS.   NASA issued the following statement today:

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Representatives Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Brian Babin (R-TX) issued supportive statements highlighting the difficulty of space travel.  The Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) also offered support.   CSF President Eric Stallmer said "We have full confidence that SpaceX will fully investigate and remedy the anomaly, and safely return to launching as soon as possible."

SpaceX's first launch vehicle, Falcon 1, had three launch failures and one launch success before the company terminated it.  The Falcon 9 has had 27 launch successes and one launch failure (a cargo mission for NASA in June 2015).   Today's incident was a test, not a launch, and therefore counts as a test failure, not a launch failure.

It is routine to test a rocket on its launch pad prior to a launch.  The rocket is fueled and ignited, but the hold down clamps are not released, keeping it secured to the pad.  Usually the satellite is not aboard the rocket at that time, however.  After a successful test, the satellite is "integrated" to the rocket, the rocket is refueled, and launch takes place.   SpaceX decided to integrate satellites to its rockets before the tests to save time.  Peter deSelding, a reporter for Space News, tweeted (@pbdes) that the company started the practice this year "to trim a day frm [sic] launch campaign" and insurers were "upset, but not a lot."

AMOS-6 was owned by Spacecom, an Israeli company, the sixth satellite in a series that began in 1996.  It had three Ku-band and 36 HTS Ka-band transponders covering Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.  One of the customers was Facebook, which planned to use it in collaboration with Europe's Eutelsat to provide Internet coverage to Sub-Saharan Africa. 

Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is in Africa now and posted a statement on his own Facebook page about the incident:  "As I'm here in Africa, I'm deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX's launch failure destroyed our satellite that would have provided connectivity to so many entrepreneurs and everyone else across the continent.  Fortunately, we have developed other technologies like Aquila that will connect people as well.  We remain committed to our mission of connecting everyone, and we will keep working until everyone has the opportunities this satellite would have provided."

The impact on SpaceX and its customers will not be known until the cause of the incident is determined and remedied.  The video suggests that the launch pad may have been significantly damaged, which could be costly and time-consuming to repair.  

SpaceX leases the launch pad from the Air Force.  It is located at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, which is adjacent to NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC).    NASA has two launch pads at KSC that were used for the Apollo and space shuttle programs.  It now leases one of those pads, Launch Complex 39A, to SpaceX.  SpaceX plans to use it for a larger rocket it is building, Falcon Heavy, which is scheduled for its first test launch this year.  SpaceX also is building its own launch site near Brownsville, TX.   It can  launch from an Air Force pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA, too, but that launch site is used only for satellites that need to be placed in orbits that circle the Earth's poles (polar orbits).  Most satellites are launched into lower inclination orbits more readily accessible from the East Coast.

What's Happening in Space Policy August 29-September 9, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Aug-2016 (Updated: 28-Aug-2016 04:16 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the next TWO weeks, August 29-September 9, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate return for legislative business on September 6.

During the Weeks

We have one last relatively light week before Congress returns on September 6.  The House and Senate leadership and congressional committees have not announced their schedules yet, but we should learn more as the week progresses,

Meanwhile, this week NASA has a press conference on Tuesday to introduce the three International Space Station (ISS) crew members who will launch in November (Whitson, Pesquet and Novitsky) and on Thursday NASA TV will provide live coverage of the second ISS spacewalk by Jeff Williams and Kate Rubins.   Two of the panels of the ongoing National Academies Earth Science and Applications from Space (ESAS) Decadal Survey will meet Tuesday-Wednesday (Solid Earth, in Washington DC) and Thursday-Friday (Hydrology, in Irvine, CA).

Next week begins with a U.S. Federal holiday, Labor Day, on Monday.  On Tuesday, Congress returns to work.   As usual, it is facing the task of passing some sort of appropriations bill -- probably a Continuing Resolution (CR) -- to keep the government operating when FY2017 begins on October 1.  They have four weeks to do it and it is possible that final agreement could be reached on at least one of the 12 regular appropriations bills -- Military Construction-Veterans Affairs (MilCon-VA).  It has already passed the House and Senate, a conference agreement was reached, and the House approved the conference report. An attempt to bring the conference report to the Senate floor. however, failed even though the bill is the legislative vehicle being used to provide funding to deal with the Zika virus.  Senate Democrats assert that it contains "poison pill" provisions Republicans know Democrats will not accept.  Even if that issue gets cleared up by the end of September, there are still the other 11 regular appropriations bills.  Here's a snapshot of where all 12 stand as of today.

 

Status of FY2017 Appropriations Bills as of August 28, 2016
(prepared by SpacePolicyOnline.com)

FY2017 approps bill

House

Senate

Agriculture

committee approved

committee approved

Commerce-Justice-Science

committee approved

committee approved; floor debate began June 15, but suspended over gun control issues

Defense

Passed June 16

committee approved; 5 attempts to bring to floor defeated for variety of reasons

Energy-Water

Defeated May 26 over gay rights/gender identity issues

Passed May 12

Financial Services

Passed July 7

committee approved

Homeland Security

committee approved

committee approved

Interior-Environment

Passed July 14

committee approved

Labor-HHS

committee approved

committee approved

Legislative Branch

Passed June 10

committee approved

Military Construction-Veterans Affairs

Passed May 19; conference completed; House passed conference report June 23

Passed May 19; 2 attempts to bring conference report to floor defeated for variety of reasons

State-Foreign Ops

committee approved

committee approved

Transportation-HUD

committee approved

Passed May 19 (packaged w/MilCon-VA)

 

One issue is that the House Appropriations Committee approved more funding in its bills than allowed under the budget caps, so that will have to be fixed to avoid sequestration. The Senate bills are below the caps, though, so it can probably be resolved in conference committee(s).

There is little incentive, actually, for Congress to agree to final FY2017 appropriations before the election since who occupies the Oval Office and which part(ies) control the House and Senate will make a significant difference for the fiscal road ahead.  Similarly, there is little incentive for Republicans to allow their most conservative members to force a government shutdown, since that could undermine their goal of retaining control of the House and Senate. The top Democrat on the House Budget Committee and Senate candidate Chris Van Hollen said last week that he could not rule out a shutdown, however, because some Republicans strongly oppose the budget deal worked out among then House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and President Barack Obama last fall. That deal relaxed budget caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act and those Republicans want to stick by the original caps (even though, as noted, the House Appropriations Committee approved funding in excess even of the revised caps).  Still, convincing the electorate to let them retain control of Congress by showing they can keep the government operating probably will outweigh those complaints. Van Hollen said he hopes Congress will pass a CR that covers the time period past the election, with final resolution before the end of the calendar year.

Appropriations will be a key issue, but not the only one.  The FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is in conference already and there continues to be talk of getting a new NASA authorization bill completed this year.   Plus a host of non-space related issues.  September promises to be a busy month before Congress recesses again to continue campaigning in advance of the November 8 elections.

Apart from the congressional schedule, the first week of September offers two especially interesting conferences and a very important space science launch.   The conferences are an aerospace workforce summit co-sponsored by AIAA and AIA to highlight issues for the next President, and a U.S.-Japan space cooperation seminar co-sponsored by the Mansfield Foundation and the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.  The launch is of the robotic asteroid sample return mission OSIRIS-Rex, scheduled for September 8.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday, August 28, are shown below.  Check back throughout the weeks for others we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.

Tuesday, August 30

Tuesday-Wednesday, August 30-31

Thursday, September 1

Thursday-Friday, September 1-2

Tuesday, September 6

  • House and Senate Return for Legislative Business

Wednesday-Thursday, September 7-8

Thursday, September 8

Friday, September 9

  • U.S.-Japan Space Cooperation (Mansfield Foundation/Space Policy Institute), Lindner Family Commons, 1957 E Street, NW, Washington, DC, 9:00 am - 1:00 pm ET

House FY2017 Appropriations Bills Exceed Budget Caps by $792 Million

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Aug-2016 (Updated: 26-Aug-2016 06:17 PM)

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has informed the White House and Congress that the 12 appropriations bills reported from the House Appropriations Committee for FY2017 exceed budgets caps by $792 million -- $17 million in defense and $775 million in non-defense spending.  If enacted, they therefore would be subject to automatic reductions (sequestration) to bring the total in line with the levels Congress and the President agreed to last fall.  The companion bills reported from the Senate Appropriations Committee, however, are below the caps.

In an effort to curb deficits, the White House and Congress agreed to 10-year limits on federal spending in the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA).  After a congressional "supercommittee" could not agree on how to implement the reductions, automatic cuts -- the sequester -- went into effect for FY2013. The consequences were sufficiently dire for both defense and non-defense agencies that agreements were reached to relax the limits for FY2014-2015 (the Ryan-Murray agreement) and FY2016-2017 (the Boehner-McConnell-Obama agreement).  Currently, the top line for defense spending for FY2017 is $609.868 billion and for non-defense (including NASA and NOAA) is $543.597 billion.

In a required "Sequestration Update" to the President and Congress on August 19, OMB reported that the House bills surpass the modified limits for FY2017 by $17 million in defense spending and by $775 million in non-defense spending.  The Senate bills are under the limits, however.  They provide $167 million less for defense and $2.032 billion less for non-defense.

Only one of the 12 bills (Military Construction-Veterans Affairs) has passed both the House and Senate.  Four others have passed the House (Defense, Financial Services, Interior and Environment, and Legislative Branch).  One other has passed the Senate (Transportation-HUD, as part of a package with MilCon-VA, but it was not incorporated into the House-passed bill). 

Congress will have to do something about appropriations before October 1 when FY2017 begins or the government will shut down.  The House and Senate reconvene on September 6, giving them four weeks.  They most likely will pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government funded at FY2016 levels for a period of time, although Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said earlier this week that he could not rule out a shutdown because of Republican opposition to last fall's Boehner-McConnell-Obama agreement.  His hope, however, is that a CR will be enacted to cover through the November elections, with final agreement on FY2017 funding levels before the end of 2016 and the 114th Congress.

How the House and Senate resolve their differences to avoid breaching the budget caps and what effect that will have on civil or national security space programs is unknowable at this point. The caps are not broken down by agencies, only into defense and non-defense categories.  It is up to Congress to decide how to allocate the funds, which involves a lot of give-and-take. 

At this point, FAA's space office, NOAA's satellite programs, and NASA have fared well in the House and Senate appropriations committees.  The committees have been especially generous to NASA when compared to the President's request for FY2017, although the amounts are similar to what Congress appropriated for FY2016.

The House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill provides $19.508 billion for NASA and the Senate committee approved $19.306 billion.  Congress appropriated $19.285 billion for FY2016, but for FY2017 the President requested $18.262 billion in appropriated funds -- a $1 billion cut. (As explained in SpacePolicyOnline.com's fact sheet on NASA's FY2017 budget request, NASA displays its request as $19.025 billion because it includes $763 million in non-appropriated funding from mandatory accounts and a tax on oil companies.  NASA has never received money from the mandatory part of the federal budget, which pays for programs like Social Security and Medicare, and how the White House imagined that it would this year is a mystery. The tax on oil companies was part of a White House "clean transportation" initiative that never materialized.  The inclusion of the $763 million is widely viewed as an attempt to obscure the fact that the President's request was a significant cut for NASA.)

Congress's ability to provide so much more than the request is largely because the budget caps were relaxed and NASA has powerful champions on the House and Senate Appropriations committees. 

As a new President takes office and a new Congress convenes next year, decisions will need to be made on whether to change or eliminate the sequester rules.  They are set in law and will go back into full effect with the FY2018 budget, the first that will be submitted by the incoming President.

Events of Interest


 

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