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At two congressional hearings last week, Air Force Space Command (AFSC) Commander Gen. William Shelton warned about the "chaos" created in his command because of sequestration, saying its effects "cannot be overstated."
Shelton testified to the Strategic Forces subcommittees of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) and House Armed Services Committee (HASC) on Wednesday (April 24) and Thursday (April 25) respectively.
Among the many topics discussed at the two hearings, Shelton stressed the impacts of sequestration saying that he had to find $508 million in reductions for the rest of this fiscal year (FY2013) within the AFSC budget. "The chaos created by operations and maintenance account reductions this large in this short time period cannot be overstated" he said to both subcommittees.
Furloughs for his civilian staff were at the top of his list of specific impacts, which also included operational changes for radars for missile defense and the "space fence" that tracks objects in orbit. "In one case we are operating at a lower power" and in the other "we are operating for a reduced number of hours per day," he testified. The radar that is needed for missile defense continues to operate at full power because of the threat from North Korea, he continued, but if he has to sustain that for the rest of the fiscal year "that's another $5 million I need to find in my budgets somewhere." He added that he has taken down "one third of the space fence receiver sites," reduced the level of sustainment funds for the Defense Satellite Communication System (DSCS) of communications satellites, and "hosts of other things."
In an exchange with Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN), the top Democrat on the HASC subcommittee, Shelton agreed that while no one likes the amount of the budget cuts, the real problem is the "rigidity in the law that requires every line item to be cut so it gives you no flexiblity to make smart trades." Cooper and subcommittee chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) agreed to see if Congress could do anything in the short term to improve the situation rather than waiting for passage of the FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act, which will take many months.
A House Armed Services Committee (HASC) subcommittee asked a Defense of Department (DOD) official on Thursday if he knew of DOD leasing any commercial satellite services from companies with significant ownership by the People's Republic of China. The somewhat surprising answer was "yes."
The question came as part of a hearing by the HASC Strategic Forces subcommittee on the FY2014 budget request for national security space activities. Witnesses were DOD's new Deputy Assistant Secretary for Space Policy, Doug Loverro; DOD Deputy Assistant Secretary, Space and Intelligence Office, Gil Klinger; Air Force Space Command Commander Gen. William Shelton; and Director of the National Reconnaissance Office, Betty Sapp.
Most of the hearing discussed familiar issues such as DOD's launch services procurement strategy and the role of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) -- Delta IV and Atlas V, offered by the United Launch Alliance (ULA) -- versus "new entrants" like SpaceX. Shelton reiterated what he has said in other venues that DOD is procuring 50 new core launch vehicles, 36 of which will be assigned to ULA while the other 14 are open for competition to certified providers including ULA. New entrants like SpaceX are still working on becoming certified under DOD's criteria.
The launch vehicle debate has been ongoing for several years. What was new at Thursday's hearing was the revelation that DOD is leasing commercial satellite communications services from a company partially owned by China. Many House Republicans are opposed to civilian space cooperation with China and the law prohibits NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) from spending any money in connection with China unless certain conditions are met. No similar restrictions have been placed on DOD, however.
Loverro told the subcommittee that he became aware of the leases when he assumed his new job about a month ago. He did not specify what satellite it is, but explained that an operational commander needed services in a particular area of operations and that was the only satellite with the necessary bandwidth. All the correct procedures were followed, including a security review, in putting the lease together, he insisted. The operational commander understood the situation and the encryption that would be required, but the bottom line is that warfighters need support and "sometimes we must go to ... the only place we can get it from." The Defense Information Services Agency (DISA), which is responsible for procuring communications services for DOD, went out to its suppliers and "only one provider had the bandwidth" to meet the need and it was "on a Chinese satellite," Loverro explained.
The larger issue, he said, is that there is no clear DOD policy on how to make such decisions. He is working with DISA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff now to develop a process, but could not provide details because "we just decided to do this literally a week-and-a-half ago."
Russia's Progress M-19M robotic cargo spacecraft successfully docked with the International Space Station (ISS) on schedule this morning even though one of the navigation antennas did not deploy.
Russian ground controllers sent a software patch to tell the spacecraft's automated KURS docking system to ignore the lack of data that ordinarily would be provided by the ASF2 antenna. It provides data on relative roll of the spacecraft when it is within 20 meters of the ISS.
The ISS crew was ready to use the manual TORU docking system if KURS failed, but it was not needed. After Progress soft-docked with the ISS, ground controllers very slowly withdrew the docking probe, a process that enables the closing of latches that secure the spacecraft to the ISS -- a hard dock. During that process, ground controllers continually asked the ISS crew if they heard anything unusual that would indicate that the undeployed antenna was interfering with the docking mechanism. The crew assured them that nothing sounded awry, but offered to go out on a spacewalk to visually inspect the area. In the end, however, all was well.
NASA calls this Progress 51 because this is the 51st Progress cargo spacecraft to dock with the ISS. The Progress program dates back to 1978, however, and there were many, many Progress flights to Soviet space stations before the ISS was built. The Soviet Union launched six successful Salyut space stations beginning in 1971 followed by the modular Mir space station, which operated from 1986-2001.
The Progress spacecraft itself has been upgraded several times over the decades. This is the 19th flight of the current version, hence its Russian designation of Progress M-19M.
Although Progress dockings have long since become routine, there are always risks. A Progress spacecraft collided with the Mir space station in 1997 during a manual docking procedure. It punctured one of Mir's modules, creating an emergency situation when the space station began to depressurize. Quick work by the Mir crew saved the space station, although that module (Spektr) was unusable for the remainder of Mir's lifetime. The accident occurred during a period of U.S.-Russian space cooperation where Russians flew on the U.S. space shuttle and American astronauts were included in Mir crews. NASA astronaut Michael Foale was aboard Mir at the time. A brief and compelling account of the accident is available on NASA's history office website with links to additional material.
Russia's RIA Novosti is quoting Russian space officials as saying that the docking of Progress M-19M will proceed on schedule tomorrow morning Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) even though its navigation antenna did not deploy.
The robotic cargo spacecraft was launched yesterday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Once on orbit, one of the antennas for its KURS navigation system used to bring it in for docking with the International Space Station (ISS) failed to deploy, however. The spacecraft is continuing on its 2-day rendezvous course to meet up with ISS tomorrow morning, Friday, April 26. The nominal schedule calls for docking at 8:26 am EDT. NASA TV will provide live coverage beginning at 6:30 am EDT.
RIA Novosti reported that ground controllers will continue to try to get the antenna to deploy, but quoted a spokesman for the Russian space enterprise Energia as saying "Even if we fail, the problem with the antenna should not hamper the docking." The ISS crew will be instructed to conduct a manual docking instead of an automated docking if the antenna remains undeployed.
In an abbreviated hearing on NASA's FY2014 budget request this morning, Senate appropriators ploughed little new ground, but one message that came through loud and clear is that if the sequester continues past the current fiscal year "all bets are off" in terms of what will happen to NASA.
That is the phrase used by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden today as well as at yesterday's hearing on the House side. Today he went into slightly more detail about the potential consequences at the request of Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD). Mikulski chairs the full Senate Appropriations Committee as well as the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that took testimony from Bolden today. Mikulski was late to the 9:30 am ET hearing, apologizing that it took her two hours to get to Capitol Hill from her home in Baltimore this morning. She joked that she needed one of Bolden's rockets. She thanked committee vice-chairman Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) for starting the hearing without her and said it was a sign of the committee's bipartisanship. The hearing was limited in its duration because a special briefing for Senators was scheduled for 10:30 on North Korea and Syria, Mikulski explained. NASA Inspector General Paul Martin was scheduled to testify, but his statement was submitted for the record instead.
Mikulski, Shelby, and Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) were the only Senators present and the questions fell along familiar lines. Shelby made clear that he wants NASA to spend money on the Space Launch System (SLS), which is being built at Marshall Space Flight Center in his state, and not the commercial crew program. Cochran wanted to ensure that the interests of Stennis Space Center in his state were represented. Mikulski wanted assurances that the James Webb Space Telescope, being built at Goddard Space Flight Center in her state, remains on cost and schedule. She brought up last week's GAO report that says the telescope is overweight and two instruments will be 11 months late. Bolden was surprised by a similar question at yesterday's House hearing, but was ready today. He referenced the 14 month schedule reserve that the program has and said instrument delivery was adjusted to compensate for the 11- month slip and the project overall remains on cost and schedule for launch in 2018.
Mikulski pressed Bolden on what will happen if the sequester remains in place as it will under current law. Although attention has been focused on the impact of the sequester on FY2013, under the 2011 Budget Control Act, it actually remains in place through FY2021. The Administration's budget requests for NASA and other departments and agencies assume that agreement will be reached to replace the sequester with another method of deficit reduction.
If it remains in place, however, Bolden said that NASA's budget would drop from its $16.8 billion sequestered level for FY2013 to $16.2 billion. Such a cut would impact JWST and SLS/Orion and "devastate" commercial cargo and commercial crew, he said. He added that he also would have to furlough civil servants when the FY2014 budget becomes effective. NASA was funded at $17.8 billion in FY2012 and the request for FY2014 is $17.7 billion.
Shelby has not been shy about expressing his lack of enthusiasm for the commercial crew program, today calling privately funded vehicles a "fiction" that diverts funding from NASA developing human spaceflight capabilities with SLS. Asserting that he is a long time supporter of public-private partnerships to leverage private resource, but in this case, he said, NASA is giving the companies $1.5 billion without knowing how much the companies themselves are investing. He objects to the use of Space Act Agreements (SAAs) instead of traditional contracts under Federal Acquisition Regulations (FARs). Bolden said that the amount of money the companies are investing is competition-sensitive proprietary information and that the SAAs provide "satisfactory insight and oversight."
Bolden repeated what he said yesterday that if the agency does not receive the full $822 million request for commercial crew in FY2014, "it will be my unfortunate duty" to tell Congress and the White House that the United States probably will not be able to launch astronauts by 2017. He added that he will need to ask for new authority to contract with the Russians for additional launches. It is "not my desire" to come back and ask for more money to pay the Russians, he stressed.
No questions were asked about NASA's new asteroid retrieval strategy. In his opening statement, Shelby said he was concerned that the budget request is an example of "chasing the next great idea while sacrificing current investments," but did not mention the asteroid mission specifically.
A webcast of the hearing is available on the committee's website.
Russia launched the Progress M-19M cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) today, April 24, but a navigational antenna failed to deploy once it reached orbit.
The robotic spacecraft is on a two-day rendezvous course to the ISS and ground controllers are continuing to try to resolve the problem. It is carrying 2.5 tons of cargo for the ISS crew.
Russia's RIA Novosti quotes a Russian mission control spokesman as saying that "We have failed so far to deploy the antenna (after two attempts), but we consider this a secondary issue at this point." The antenna is part of the Kurs navigation system that guides the spacecraft to its docking port.
The only word from NASA appears to be a tweet this morning that said: "Update: Once in orbit, an antenna used as a navigational aid on the Progress did not deploy. Russian ground controllers are assessing a fix."
Members of a House subcommittee expressed concern on a bipartisan basis today about NASA's new asteroid retrieval mission as well as whether NASA will get the resources needed to fund responsibilities transferred from other agencies if the FY2014 budget request is approved.
The Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee heard from NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden about the FY2014 NASA budget request. Questions focused on four major areas of concern.
At one point, Smith asked Bolden about new problems in the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) program. Bolden insisted at first that he is briefed on JWST weekly and the program is on track. Smith then read from a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released last week that identified 11 month delays in two JWST instruments and other issues. Bolden clearly was taken by surprise. GAO says "JWST is currently experiencing technical issues" including the spacecraft being overweight and "two instruments will be delivered at least 11 months late." NASA officials in other forums have emphasized that the re-baselined program has sufficient schedule and funding reserves to cope with any problems that arise and still maintain the 2018 launch schedule. It is surprising, however, that Bolden apparently had not been briefed on the GAO report.
NASA's budget request, like that of the other Executive Branch agencies, assumes that sequestration will be replaced by another method of deficit reduction. Edwards asked Bolden what will happen if that does not happen and sequestration continues. Bolden replied: "to be candid, all bets are off" if sequestration remains the law of the land.
NASA’s new asteroid retrieval mission has not won over two influential voices in space policy debates. Cornell University’s Steve Squyres and George Washington University’s Scott Pace told the National Research Council (NRC) on Monday that it is not necessarily the best next step for the U.S. human spaceflight program.
The NRC’s Committee on Human Spaceflight met Monday and Tuesday in Washington, DC. The committee is tasked with describing the value proposition of the human spaceflight program – what do taxpayers see as its value for the money spent – and providing advice on future planning for that program. Among the topics discussed was NASA's new asteroid retrieval strategy to capture an asteroid, redirect it into a retrograde lunar orbit, and send astronauts to retrieve a sample.
Squyres chairs the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and is perhaps best known as the principal investigator for the twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. He also chaired the NRC's 2011 Decadal Survey for planetary science. In addition to talking about NAC’s view of NASA's human exploration program, he shared his personal views on topics NAC had not yet considered, including the new asteroid retrieval strategy.
His personal recommendation is that NASA not attempt to sell the asteroid retrieval mission either on the basis of exploring asteroids or that it is a more effective way to satisfy President Obama’s goal of using an asteroid mission as a step towards Mars. Quoting the President's April 15, 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center, Squyres reminded the committee that the President's goal was to build "new spacecraft designed for long journeys ... beyond the Moon into deep space," which is not what the new strategy entails. He agrees that understanding asteroids is an important scientific goal, but not one that requires humans on-site. Humans and robots work effectively together in exploring complex environments like Mars where Earth-bound scientists cannot anticipate the many surprises that lie ahead. Comparatively straightforward environments like that of an asteroid can be effectively explored with robotic spacecraft alone, he believes.
Squyres does, however, support the idea of sending astronauts into cis-lunar space for longer periods of time than during the Apollo era, such as the 22-day mission envisioned for the asteroid retrieval mission. In his view, that is worth doing whether or not an asteroid has been redirected there. His major concern personally, which he said also has been expressed by NAC, is that "NASA needs a compelling and clearly articulated goal for future human spaceflight that is consistent with its budget."
Pace strongly supported a robust U.S. human spaceflight program, but not the asteroid mission as a step towards Mars. He said he is “hard pressed to run into anybody who thinks that going to an asteroid is the right way primarily to go to Mars.” He believes that the Obama Administration made a decision “not to do anything the prior Administration was doing” in space, and that is how the asteroid idea emerged despite broad bipartisan and international support for returning to the Moon as laid out in President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration. Pace was a high ranking NASA official in the Bush Administration.
Asked what would happen if the United States abandoned human spaceflight entirely, Pace said it would diminish U.S. influence on the global stage in discussions about space issues such as orbital debris and sustainability. "We will have made ourselves irrelevant to a lot of discussions," adding that he sees some of that reduced influence already with the U.S. decision to withdraw from cooperation with Europe in the robotic ExoMars missions. "Countries are not upset at us. They simply think we're irrelevant....I can't think of [anything] that is ... more dangerous or serious for a great power than to be considered irrelevant.”
Lt. Gen. Thomas Stafford (Ret.) told a Senate subcommittee today that a human mission to an asteroid should not be a central element of any "sensible" human spaceflight program. Instead, a return to the Moon is a prerequisite to the ultimate goal of sending people to Mars and should be the next step.
Stafford is an iconic presence in the space community. A former astronaut who flew four space missions -- including commanding the 1975 U.S.-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) -- he has remained closely involved in the civil space program even as his career took him back to the Air Force and ultimately into retirement.
In his written statement today to the Subcommittee on Science and Space of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, he noted that a number of studies conducted over many decades are "remarkably consistent" that "[l]eadership in space is, for any society that can aspire to attain it, a key to leadership on Earth and in human society, for all the generations to come." He led one of those studies during the George H.W. Bush Administration entitled America at the Threshold: America's Space Exploration Initiative.
He asserted that the "choice of destinations has ... already been made for us. The surface of the Moon is ... our proper next frontier." He acknowledged that the concept of sending astronauts to an asteroid, whether the original plan announced by President Obama in 2010 or the new idea of directing an asteroid into cis-lunar space, has "inherent scientific interest." However, it "should not be the central theme of any sensible long-term human spaceflight program. Such missions are an interesting adjunct to the far more interesting theme of human presence on the Moon" and then Mars.
Stafford also highlighted the importance of international cooperation in pursuing future human spaceflight goals. He has been deeply involved with U.S.-Soviet/Russian space cooperation since ASTP and chairs NASA's International Space Station (ISS) Advisory Committee. That committee and its Russian counterpart meet regularly to review and identify major issues for the ISS. At a meeting last year, he told the Senate committee, the Russians shared their long term plan for human spaceflight. It is based on international cooperation modeled on the ISS partnership, he reported. "I have said that we should make it the nation's business to lead in space. We should. But I have also noted that leaders need partners and allies."
Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, and Steve Cook, Director, Space Technologies, at Dynetics, also testified. Gerstenmaier was very upbeat about the state of the human spaceflight program today and the road ahead, including the asteroid retrieval mission announced in the FY2014 budget request. Cook represented the commercial space industry and emphasized the need for "stable, long-term space policy and supporting programs" in order for the "commercial space sector to flourish." In response to a question from subcommittee chairman Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), Cook said the key is to have a long term plan with associated dates that the private sector can leverage in order to develop business plans and look for ways to be profitable.
A webcast of the hearing and the prepared statements of the witnesses are on the committee's website.
The third time WAS the charm for Orbital Sciences Corporation. The test launch of its Antares rocket lifted off on schedule at 5:00 pm ET today from Wallops Island, VA. A post-launch press conference is scheduled for 6:30 pm ET.
Two previous attempts were scrubbed -- one for technical reasons, the other for weather -- but all went well today as Antares inaugurated use of the new Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, VA.
An engineering model of Orbital's Cygnus spacecraft and several small satellites -- called Phonesats -- that hitched a ride on this launch were successfully deployed.
Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren applauded the launch.
Orbital plans the next test launch at the end of June or early July. An actual Cygnus spacecraft will be aboard that launch and will test the rest of the sequence of rendezvous and berthing with the International Space Station (ISS). Antares and Cygnus are part of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to develop commercial space transportation systems to take cargo to the ISS.
SpaceX is Orbital's competitor in the COTS program, although NASA already has signed contracts with both companies for operational "Commercial Resupply Services" (CRS) missions to the ISS -- 12 for SpaceX and eight for Orbital.
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