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White House, NASA Seek to Clarify U.S.-Russian Space Cooperation Status

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Apr-2014 (Updated: 03-Apr-2014 09:55 PM)

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, White House science and technology policy official Richard DalBello, and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden all sought to clarify today whether or not NASA is still cooperating with Russia other than in operating the International Space Station (ISS).  At the end of the day, the best answer seems to be that it’s an evolving situation with no clear guidance other than that the ISS is not affected.

Yesterday, a memo from NASA’s Associate Administrator for International and Interagency Relations became public that instructs NASA personnel to suspend contacts with their Russian government counterparts except for activities related to operation of the ISS because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.  The memo did not explain what stimulated the decision or offer many specifics about how it would impact NASA-Russia cooperation.   Hours later NASA issued an “official” statement that was announced via Twitter with a link to a Google+ webpage that was not helpful in explaining the situation.

The bottom line of the comments today is that the directive applies to all government agencies, not just NASA; that each agency will determine what activities are exempted or not on a case-by-case basis; and it is an evolving situation.  The unambiguous message is that operations of the ISS are not impacted.

Bolden spoke at a long-scheduled joint meeting of the National Research Council’s Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) and Space Studies Board (SSB) this morning.  He opened his remarks by addressing this issue and saying there was a “firestorm in Moscow,” which he blamed on the media and politics.

He said he spoke with his Russian counterpart, Roscosmos Director Oleg Ostapenko, this morning and both agreed that the ISS should be kept out of the political realm. That ISS is not included in this directive has been made clear since the beginning.  The question concerns other NASA activities with Russia.

NASA has not provided a list of non-ISS cooperation, but, for example, NASA uses Russian wind tunnels for aeronautics experiments and a Russian instrument – the Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) – is on the Mars Curiosity rover.  The memo states that NASA personnel can attend multilateral meetings involving Russians as long as they take place outside of Russia, but two major international conferences – the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) and the International Council of the Aeronautical Sciences (ICAS) – both are scheduled to take place in Russia this year.  Whether NASA employees will be able to participate is unclear.

Bolden said this morning that his message to his employees is to keep doing whatever they are doing with Russia unless told to stop, including plans to participate in COSPAR (he did not address ICAS).

DalBello spoke to the ASEB/SSB meeting later in the day.  In response to a question, he stressed three points:  this is an evolving situation, it applies across the government, and the ISS is excluded.  He deferred to White House press spokesman Jay Carney as providing the official Administration guidance on the matter.

At his daily White House press briefing, Carney said the following, putting it in context of other U.S. actions with regard to Russia’s annexation of Crimea:

Given Russia’s ongoing violations of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, the U.S. government has taken a number of actions, to include curtailing official government-to-government contacts and meetings with the Russian Federation on a case-by-case basis consistent with U.S. national interests.  We’ve talked about this previously and as we’ve already said we’ve suspended bilateral discussions with Russia on trade and investment, we’ve suspended other bilateral meetings on a case-by-case basis, and put on hold U.S.- Russia military-to-military engagement including exercises, bilateral meetings, port visits and planning conferences.  We also will not meet with sanctioned individuals.  We have informed the Russian government of those meetings that have been suspended, as you know.  In terms of specific case-by-case decisions that are made in response to this broader directive, I would have to refer you to each agency.   In the case of NASA there are some actions being taken, but obviously with the space station, in particular, that program, and engagement with Russia on that program, continues.

The directive that created this guidance to NASA and other government agencies reportedly was issued by the White House National Security Council and is classified and therefore not in the public domain.

Bolden said that relations with Roscosmos are “good” and “healthy.”  As for the Russian government reaction more broadly, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin oversees Russia’s space sector.  He is one of the Russian individuals sanctioned by the Obama Administration on March 17, 2014 because of his role in the Ukrainian situation.  An English-language Twitter account purportedly belonging to him (@drogozin) carried this rather sarcastic message:

NASA suspends cooperation with Roscosmos (Rus Fed Space Agency) apart from work on the ISS http://t.co/IJ0Td5PjEe Yet, apart from over the ISS we didn't cooperate with NASA anyway)

That account had a separate tweet about U.S. reliance on Russia’s RD-180 rocket engines:

A Russian broom for an American witch. Still, our engines are better) http://t.co/Xf4gM8bR7w
Russia&US go to space together for 50th time. Tomorrow US booster vehicle Atlas 5 equipped with Russian RD-180 engine will be launched across the ocean to carry a satellite

Indeed, the United Launch Alliance sent DOD’s 19th Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) weather satellite into orbit today aboard an Atlas V, which uses the RD-180 engines.   DOD officials testified to a House Armed Services Committee (HASC) subcommittee this afternoon that they are conducting a 45-day study on what it would take to build a U.S. designed and produced alternative to the RD-180.  (Check back later for our summary of the hearing; meanwhile, the webcast is posted on the committee’s website.)

Rep. Smith Criticizes Bolden's Defense of ARM Versus Mars 2021

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Apr-2014 (Updated: 04-Apr-2014 09:25 AM)

House Science, Space and Technology  (SS&T) Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) issued a press release today criticizing remarks by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden earlier in the day to the effect that the Mars 2021 mission is not a steppingstone to sending humans to the surface of Mars.

Bolden spoke to a joint meeting of the National Research Council's Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) and Space Studies Board (SSB) on a wide range of issues, including yesterday's announcement that some contacts with Russia will be suspended because of the Ukraine situation.   One issue was the future of human spaceflight.  He defended the Obama Administration's Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as a steppingstone to Mars because it provides an opportunity in cis-lunar space (between the Earth and the Moon) to test technologies needed for longer forays into deep space including the ultimate goal to land people on Mars.  NASA calls cis-lunar space a "proving ground."

He compared ARM to the Inspiration Mars proposal put forward by Dennis Tito to send astronauts on a free-return trajectory to Mars where the two-person crew would fly around Mars, not land there, and return to Earth.  The original proposal was to do this in 2018, but a newer version dubbed Mars 2021 would send the crew first to get a gravity assist from Venus by flying around that planet and then go on to Mars.

Bolden said Tito's idea is a "one time feat" that does not help with the goal of landing people on Mars and "not inspirational."

Smith, an ardent advocate of Mars 2021, strongly disagreed in a press release issued late this afternoon.

Chairman Smith: “In comments before the National Academies, Administrator Bolden today misrepresented a Mars Flyby 2021 mission.  The Administrator indicated that a Mars Flyby is not a worthy stepping stone to an eventual Mars landing because it doesn’t demonstrate technologies. That is factually incorrect. Experts have testified that a Mars Flyby mission would utilize the Space Launch System, architecture that will be central to a Mars landing. He further contended that the Obama administration’s proposed Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM) is a better stepping stone to Mars. However, the administration has not provided any details of how it fits into a larger exploration roadmap. The ARM mission lacks support from the stakeholder community and NASA’s own advisory bodies. It is a mission without a realistic budget, without a destination and without a certain launch date. I urge the Administrator to get his facts straight when comparing the value of potential NASA missions.”

The Obama Administration and Congress have been battling over the future of the human spaceflight program since Obama terminated the Bush-era Constellation program to send humans back to the Moon and on to Mars.  Instead he wants to send astronauts to an asteroid first and then go to Mars.   Bolden and the House SS&T committee debated this issue most recently at a hearing on NASA's FY2015 budget request. 

NASA Restricts Contacts with Russia Except for ISS - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Apr-2014 (Updated: 02-Apr-2014 10:26 PM)

UPDATE:   This article is updated to reflect an "official" NASA statement about suspension of "some NASA activities with Russia" posted to a Google+ page this evening.

NASA's Associate Administrator for International and Interagency Relations has told NASA Center Directors to suspend NASA contacts with Russian government representatives unless an activity is specifically excepted.   Currently, the only excepted activity is operations of the International Space Station.

SpacePolicyOnline.com has obtained a copy of an email circulated by NASA Ames Center Director Pete Worden dated today, April 2, 2014, explaining the new policy:

From: Centerwide Announcement <centerwide@centerwide.arc.nasa.gov>
Date: Wednesday, April 2, 2014 1:46 PM
To: ARC-cwdist <
arc-cwdist@mail.nasa.gov>
Subject: MESSAGE FROM THE CENTER DIRECTOR: Suspension of NASA Contact with Russian Entities

MESSAGE FROM THE CENTER DIRECTOR:
Suspension of NASA Contact with Russian Entities

All NASA Centers have received direction from Michael F. O¹Brien, the agency Associate Administrator for International and Interagency Relations regarding suspension of NASA contact with Russian entities. That direction is provided as follows:

Given Russia¹s ongoing violation of Ukraine¹s sovereignty and territorial integrity, until further notice, the U.S. Government has determined that all NASA contacts with Russian Government representatives are suspended, unless the activity has been specifically excepted. This suspension includes NASA travel to Russia and visits by Russian Government representatives to NASA facilities, bilateral meetings, email, and teleconferences or videoconferences. At the present time, only operational International Space Station activities have been excepted. In addition, multilateral meetings held outside of Russia that may include Russian participation are not precluded under the present guidance.

If desired, the NASA HQ Office of International and Interagency Relations (OIIR) will assist in communication with Russian entities regarding this suspension of activities. Specific questions regarding the implementation of this guidance can be directed to Ms. Meredith McKay, (202) 358-1240 or mailto:meredith.mckay@nasa.gov . OIIR remains in close contact with the Department of State and other U.S. Government departments and agencies. If the situation changes, further guidance will be disseminated.

S. Pete Worden

NASA Headquarters did not respond to a SpacePolicyOnline.com request for comment by the time this article was originally posted at 2:37 pm ET, but later NASA tweeted (@nasa) a link to a Google+ page with what appears to be an official NASA statement on the situation:  https://plus.google.com/+NASA/posts/eihoeSm5fVy

The statement says that NASA is "suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation" but will work together with its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, to maintain safe and continuous operation of the ISS.    The rest of the NASA statement then goes on to blame Congress for not fully funding the commercial crew program to ensure that American astronauts can be launched on American rockets from American soil instead of needing to rely on Russia for such launches.  It then turns into a fairly blatant political statement aimed at Congress:  "The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians.  It's that simple.  The Obama Administration chooses to invest in America - and we are hopeful that Congress will do the same."

Editor's Note:  A U.S. decision to suspend NASA interactions with Russian government officials on everything other than ISS is a serious matter.  It is peculiar that the decision was revealed by a leaked email from a NASA Center Director to his employees, that the "official" NASA response was posted to a Google+ website and advertised via Twitter rather than being announced through regular NASA news channels (e.g, a press release), and that the official response was more a message to Congress about the need to fund the commercial crew program rather than to the American people explaining the state of U.S.-Russian space cooperation in light of the situation in Ukraine. 

Meanwhile, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove told CNN this afternoon that NATO was suspending "all practical civilian and military cooperation with Russia."  It remains unclear as to whether this decision about NASA interactions with Russia is part of a larger cross-government policy or, indeed, a cross-NATO policy where other NATO partners similarly are suspending non-ISS space and aeronautics cooperation with Russia.

House Passes Weather Forecasting Improvement Act

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Apr-2014 (Updated: 01-Apr-2014 08:06 PM)

The House passed the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act today by voice vote.  Republican and Democratic members of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee praised passage of the bill.

When the bill (H.R. 2413) was first introduced, there was concern that it prioritized weather research at NOAA at the expense of climate research, but the bill was revised to ease those concerns before it was approved by the House SS&T committee in December.  The version approved today was co-sponsored by Republicans and Democrats.

The bill primarily concerns non-space related aspects of weather forecasting, but a few provisions are directed at NOAA's weather satellite programs.  The bill --  

  • clarifies that existing law that prohibits privatizing or commercializing the government's weather satellites does not prevent the government from buying commercial weather data or placing weather satellite instruments on co-hosted government or private payloads.
  • calls for a report from NOAA assessing the range of commercial opportunities for obtaining space-based weather observations and their cost-effectiveness.   NOAA already obtains some weather data from commercial sources and, in a 2010 congressionally-requested report, said that it plans to continue doing so.
  • requires NOAA's Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) to conduct Observing System Simulation Experiments (OSSEs) to quantitatively assess the relative value and benefits of observing capabilities and systems, including satellites, prior to their acquisition.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), who introduced the bill, called it a "first step toward restoring America's leadership in weather forecasting and prediction."   The University of Oklahoma is home to the National Weather Center, a confederation of federal (NOAA), state and academic organizations that try to improve understanding of atmospheric events.

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), ranking member of the House SS&T's Environment Subcommittee, said the bill "makes real and measurable improvements in weather research and weather forecasting."

There is no companion bill in the Senate at the moment, but the easy bipartisan passage of H.R. 2413 could improve its chances of making it through the congressional process. 

GAO: EELV Program To Cost $70 Billion Through 2030

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Mar-2014 (Updated: 31-Mar-2014 11:11 PM)

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its annual assessment of DOD's acquisition of selected weapon programs today.   The Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) was one of several DOD space programs reviewed and GAO reports that the program's cost will be $70 billion through 2030, $35.7 billion more than the previous estimate from 2012.

Each year GAO assesses a selected set of DOD's major acquisition programs.   Currently, DOD has 80 such programs and GAO reviewed 38 of them for the report released today.  The space programs included in the report are:

  • Enhanced Polar System (Air Force communications satellites, adjuncts to the Advanced Extremely High Frequency -- AEHF -- system)
  • EELV
  • Global Positioning System III
  • Mobile User Objective System (Navy communications satellites)
  • Next Generation Operational Control System (GPS OCX, new ground control system for GPS)
  • Space Fence
  • Space Based Infrared Satellite System (SBIRS High)

The Air Force EELV program office procures launches for national security and other satellites from the United Launch Alliance using the Delta IV and Atlas V rockets.   GAO said that after the program exceeded a congressionally-mandated threshold for cost growth (a "Nunn-McCurdy breach") in 2012, DOD restructured the program as required and established a new baseline in 2013.   The new program cost estimate grew to $70 billion through 2030, an increase of $35.7 billion, which program officials attributed to "extension of the program life-cycle from 2020 to 2030, procurement of 60 additional launch vehicles, the inherently unstable nature of the demand for launch services, and industrial base instability." 

Often described as the congressional watchdog agency, GAO also noted that there are nine variants of the Atlas V and five variants of the Delta IV -- a total of 14 EELV variants.  While there have been 66 successful EELV launches, and each of the 14 variants has flown at least once, only three have demonstrated technology, design and production maturity by meeting Aerospace Corporation's "3/7 reliability rule." 

Under that rule, GAO explains, a launch vehicle is considered to have design maturity after three successful launches and production maturity after seven successful launches.   By GAO's reckoning, all 14 variants have demonstrated technology maturity, 10 have demonstrated design maturity (with three successful flights), and only three have demonstrated production maturity with seven successful flights.  Those three are the Atlas V 401, the Delta IV Medium and the Delta IV Heavy. 

GAO's point is that until design and production maturity have been demonstrated "problems with fleetwide designs or production processes may go undiscovered, which could cause significant cost and schedule risk."

The Air Force is still investigating the root cause of a Delta IV upper stage anomaly in October 2012, GAO continues.  "While the engine performed normally on launches in May and August 2013, the Air Force delayed a third launch of the Delta IV scheduled for October 2013, due to new conclusions from the investigation and to fully understand the anomaly and reduce any potential risks."

The delayed launch in October 2013 was of the GPS IIF-5 satellite.   The Air Force successfully launched that satellite on a Delta IV Medium on February 21, 2014.

Space Policy Events for March 30 - April 4, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Mar-2014 (Updated: 30-Mar-2014 05:14 PM)

The following events may be of interest in the week ahead.  The House and Senate are in session.

During the Week

On Tuesday, the House will take up H.R. 2413, the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act. Its broad focus is on improved weather forecasting and telling NOAA to focus on weather rather than climate (though it does not preclude climate activities), but there are a couple of satellite-related provisions in it.  The bill is being brought up on the suspension calendar, which is usually reserved for bills that are not very controversial and are expected easily to garner a two-thirds vote in favor.  There were early concerns that the bill was too anti-climate, but those were largely resolved during full committee markup of the bill in December when a revised version ("amendment in the nature of the substitute") was approved by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.  It was adopted by voice vote, which indicates it was acceptable to both sides (or opponents would have insisted on a recorded vote).  There were no major changes to the satellite-related provisions.

Speaking of the weather, while we'd like to be able to report that the chance of wintry weather interfering with Washington, DC events is over for the year, it's actually snowing right now.  Not to whine, but first they said there'd be a few "conversational" snowflakes and nothing would stick, then they promised it wouldn't stick to the roads but would on the grass, but now there's a winter weather advisory with a forecast of 1-3 inches across the area.  We definitely need improved weather forecasting!   Fortunately we don't have any Washington, DC based space policy events on our list for tomorrow that might be disrupted.  (But seriously!  When will this winter be over?)

Just as the weather gets nice mid-week (they say), we'll all be sitting in congressional hearings (or at our desks watching them on the Internet) or over at the Keck Center on Fifth Street attending meetings of the NRC's Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) and Space Studies Board (SSB).  ASEB meets on Wednesday, SSB on Friday, and in between they meet jointly on Thursday.  The meetings are free to attend, but advance online registration is HIGHLY recommended to ease passing through security to get to the meeting room.  Some sessions will be available by webcast; check the agendas for more information and instructions on how to listen in.

Several congressional hearings will be held on U.S. Strategic Command, the Air Force budget request, and national security space programs.  Issues concerning the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program and the use of Russian RD-180 engines for the Atlas 5 rocket have come up in similar hearings for the past several weeks and could well come up again this week.

The list below shows all the hearings and meetings we know about as of Sunday afternoon.

Tuesday-Thursday, April 1-3

Wednesday, April 2

Thursday, April 3

Friday, April 4

Bolden Reassures on ISS, Defends ARM, Insists on Commercial Crew

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Mar-2014 (Updated: 01-Apr-2014 10:50 AM)

At a hearing that was more lively than usual, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden reassured a House committee on Thursday that the International Space Station (ISS) will not be affected by current U.S.-Russian tensions and assertively defended the President’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and the need for Congress to fully fund the commercial crew program.

The hearing was before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee.  There was a wide range of questions, including a couple on the proposed termination of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) that received considerable attention at a hearing on Wednesday.

The meat of this hearing, however, was a continuation of the debate over the future of the human spaceflight program.   By far the most interesting exchange concerned the relationship among ISS, commercial crew, the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion spacecraft.  Bolden argued that without ISS, medical research and technology development required before sending humans into deep space would not be possible.  If there is no ISS, he asserted, there is no need for SLS or Orion.

Congress and the Administration have argued over these programs since enactment of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that set NASA on its current course of pursuing commercial crew as the Administration’s priority and building SLS and Orion as Congress’s priority.  With each Administration budget request since then, Congress argues that the Administration is favoring commercial crew over SLS/Orion and consequently adds money for SLS/Orion and cuts it for commercial crew.

This year is no exception, but the debate has a new twist – a growing sense of urgency to be able to “launch American astronauts from American soil on an American rocket” as the saying goes.  One might imagine that would mean increased congressional support for commercial crew to get it ready as soon as possible, but, instead, members of this subcommittee from both sides of the aisle continue to fight for SLS/Orion as the top priority.   (The budget requests for these programs are available in our FY2015 NASA Budget Request Fact Sheet.)

First, on the question of whether ISS is at risk because of the current geopolitical climate, Bolden insisted repeatedly that he does not believe it is.   He said that NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, talk every day and the two countries are mutually dependent to keep ISS operating.   “Russia has one thing we need – access,” Bolden said, while Russia needs NASA’s electrical power, communications and navigation systems.   Russia cannot operate the ISS without NASA, he maintained.

The United States is dependent on Russia for access to the ISS because the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011 with no U.S. system to replace it.   The commercial crew program is striving to develop systems that NASA currently hopes will be ready by 2017, but that depends on Congress providing the requisite funding.  In response to a question from subcommittee chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS), Bolden said that “this committee, this Congress, chose to rely on Russia” by deciding not to fully fund the commercial crew request in prior years – “you can’t have it both ways.”

The discussion broadened as the hearing progressed to encompass the connection between commercial crew and access to the ISS in low Earth orbit (LEO) and plans for human exploration beyond LEO.  Although he had made the same point earlier, it came to a head after Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) asked about the consequences if Russia stops transporting U.S. astronauts to the ISS.  After restating that he does not think that will happen, Bolden said that if it did, the ISS probably would have to be shut down and “I will go to the President and recommend that we terminate SLS and Orion because without the International Space Station I have no vehicle to do the [necessary] medical tests and technology development and we’re fooling everybody that we can go to deep space if the International Space Station is not there.  ...  I don’t want anyone to think I need SLS or Orion if I don’t have the International Space Station.”

As the back and forth continued – with Brooks asking if the ISS could be resuscitated if it were shut down (Bolden said he would provide an answer for the record later) – Bolden exclaimed “there is no either/or in terms SLS and Orion and commercial crew... If I don’t have commercial crew and I can’t get to low Earth orbit, I don’t need SLS and Orion.... if I can’t get to low Earth orbit, there is no exploration program.”

Assuming the exploration program continues, the Obama Administration is still trying to gain support for its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).   Bolden assiduously defended ARM at the hearing, though he did not appear to win over many committee members. In fact, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), the top Democrat on the subcommittee, used her opening statement to clarify recent remarks she made that many interpreted as indicating that she now supports ARM.  In her statement, she said that she still has many questions about it.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the full committee, contends that ARM has no realistic budget, no destination (in terms of a specific asteroid), or certain launch date, and is not part of a larger exploration roadmap.  Edwards voiced similar concerns.   Bolden’s message was that ARM is a “proving ground” in cislunar space (between the Earth and the Moon) as a steppingstone to Mars.  He presented a chart to which he referred many times that lays out the steps to Mars showing how ARM fits within a bigger picture.

Graphic used by Administrator Bolden at the March 27, 2014 House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing.   Source:  NASA

A webcast of the hearing, member opening statements and Bolden's prepared statement are available on the committee’s Republican and Democratic websites.

A note to those who may be confused about the amount of NASA’s FY2015 budget request:   Some subcommittee members referenced an $18.3 billion budget request, while Bolden and everyone else discussed a $17.5 billion request.  The difference is $886 million the President included for NASA in his Opportunities, Growth and Security Initiative (OGSI).   The $17.5 billion request is called NASA’s “base” budget and conforms with the budget caps Obama and Congress agreed to in December.   The OGSI is a separate request for $56 billion across the government above those caps, including $886 million for NASA.   If the OGSI request for NASA is added to the base budget request, it’s $18.3 billion.  For more information, see our FY2015 NASA Budget Request Fact Sheet.

Soyuz Crew Docks with ISS After Two-Day Delay

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Mar-2014 (Updated: 27-Mar-2014 07:58 PM)

Two days later than expected, the Soyuz TMA-12M spacecraft successfully docked with the International Space Station (ISS) at 7:53 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) tonight, March 27.

Russia's Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev and NASA's Steve Swanson launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 5:17 pm EDT on Tuesday expecting to dock with the ISS about 6 hours (4 orbits) later.   A series of engine burns is needed for the Soyuz to reach the ISS and the third burn did not take place because the Soyuz was not in the expected orientation.

The 4-orbit rendezvous profile has been in use only since last year - for the last four missions.  The traditional route to the ISS takes 34 orbits over two days and that approach remains as a backup plan.  Computers automatically switched to the 34-orbit profile when the third engine burn failed to occur.

Apart from that glitch, everything has worked perfectly on the flight.   The Soyuz docked with the ISS five minutes ahead of schedule.  The hatches will open and the crew will enter the ISS around 10:40 pm ET tonight after leak checks and other tasks are competed.  They will join three ISS crewmembers already there:  Japan's Koichi Wakata, currently in command of the ISS, NASA's Rick Mastracchio, and Russia's Mikhail Tyurin.

Proposed SOFIA Cancellation Rankles Congress, Scientists

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Mar-2014 (Updated: 26-Mar-2014 08:28 PM)

NASA’s proposal to mothball the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is not being well received in Congress or the astrophysics community.  The proposal is part of NASA’s FY2015 budget request.

SOFIA is a modified 747 aircraft that carries a 100-inch (2.5 meter) diameter infrared telescope. It is a joint project between NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR).  About $1 billion has been spent on the project over many years and it is just at the point of being fully certified as operational.   NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center (formerly Dryden FRC) in California is its home port, but it can also fly from other locations around the globe.  SOFIA reaches an altitude of about 43,000 feet, above much of the atmosphere that absorbs infrared light, so the higher the better.  Educators designated “Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors” often join astronomers aboard the plane for hands-on experience.

SOFIA’s international collaboration and appeal to educators in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields make it appealing to a much broader community than astrophysicists.

NASA’s FY2015 budget request proposes placing the airplane in storage until and unless a better budgetary situation arises.  The $84 million in FY2014 would drop to $12 million in FY2015 and to zero in FY2016, giving the agency little time to plan.

Republicans and Democrats on the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee grilled Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren about the decision to mothball  SOFIA at a hearing this morning.  At the very same time a few blocks away, members of the NASA Advisory Council’s Astrophysics Subcommittee were asking similar questions of NASA officials.

The hearing broadly addressed President Obama’s FY2015 budget request for science and technology, but the questions focused on two topics:  climate change and SOFIA.  Holdren was the only witness.  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden is scheduled to testify to the committee tomorrow morning (March 27).

A surprising number of House SS&T committee members from both parties made clear their disagreement with the proposal to mothball SOFIA.   Some argued in favor of the program on STEM grounds, others because of its impact on international partnerships and the large investment already made in the program.  Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) summed it up by saying “I do not believe that the Congress is going to accept the elimination of SOFIA ... there will be a bipartisan effort to change that and I hope and plan to be part of that bipartisan effort.”

Among those in favor of SOFIA was Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS) who chairs the committee’s Space Subcommittee.  He asked Holdren why SOFIA no longer is important and what kind of message the United States is sending to its European space partners at a time when China is trying to make inroads there.  He also asked if there had been an independent review of the program.

Holdren replied that it was not a matter of importance, but that the operating costs were too high for today’s budget environment, but if Congress approved the President’s Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative (OGSI), the SOFIA decision would be revisited.   As to whether there had been an independent review, he deferred to NASA Administrator Bolden.

OGSI is the President’s request for $56 billion across the government in FY2015 above the budget caps that he and Congress agreed to in December.   NASA would get $885.5 million of that amount.  The “base” FY2015 budget request that mothballs SOFIA, however, adheres to the budget caps.  The OGSI represents the additional funds the President would like to allocate to agencies like NASA if the money were available.

Later in the hearing, however, Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) challenged Holdren on his statement about revisiting SOFIA if Congress approves the OGSI.  He held up a copy of a document explaining how the OGSI funds would be spent and noted that SOFIA was not included.  “SOFIA is not listed there ... why have you left this committee with the impression that SOFIA is a priority of the administration when clearly it is not?”  During the tense exchange, Holdren conceded that SOFIA is a “lower priority than other things we are funding.”

Overall, the congressional committee members wanted to understand the process by which the decision was made to terminate funding for SOFIA.

That was the same question being asked at a meeting of the Astrophysics Subcommittee (APS) of the NASA Advisory Council that met at NASA Headquarters today.  The meeting continues tomorrow.

APS members asked many of the same questions – basically, what was the process for determining that SOFIA would be mothballed just as it was being certified as operational and the impact on future international space science collaboration.

Paul Hertz, Director of NASA’s astrophysics division, answered that the budget simply did not support SOFIA.  Describing the intricacies of how budgets are developed, he explained that the December agreement on budget caps for FY2014 and FY2015 in the Bipartisan Budget Act (BBA) changed the dynamics of the FY2015 budget request with sudden alterations to his budget profile.  To meet the new budget caps, SOFIA needed to be defunded.   He noted that a joint NASA-DLR working group has been established and is on a tight schedule to make recommendations on a path forward.  Its final report is due on April 25.

DLR told NASA that it cannot increase its 20 percent contribution to the program’s roughly $100 million per year operating budget.  Hertz said NASA will seek other international partners.

John Grunsfeld, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD, of which astrophysics is part) joined the APS discussion later.  He agreed with sentiments expressed by APS members that a preferable scenario would allow SMD to phase out SOFIA on a longer time scale, giving it time to go through a Senior Review.   NASA’s Senior Review process assesses operating science missions on a competitive basis and determines which should continue to be funded.  Grunsfeld said the science case for SOFIA is better than it has ever been, but “this isn’t a science discussion, it’s a budget discussion,” adding that “Hopefully we’ll find a path forward.  If you’ve got better ideas, I’m all ears.”

Soyuz Conducts Two Engine Burns, AOK for Docking Thursday Night

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Mar-2014 (Updated: 26-Mar-2014 04:59 PM)

Experts are still analyzing why the third engine burn of the Soyuz TMA-12M spacecraft did not take place as scheduled last night, but two more engine burns were conducted today and systems appear to be operating normally.  The crew is fine and the rescheduled docking with the International Space Station (ISS) remains on track for 7:58 pm EDT tomorrow night (March 27).

Soyuz TMA-12M lifted off from its pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan as planned at 5:17 pm EDT last night on its way to dock with the ISS just under six hours later.  The Soyuz must complete a series of engine burns to put the spacecraft onto the right trajectory to reach the ISS and the third burn did not occur.  

The six-hour (four orbit) approach to the ISS is new.  Typically, the Soyuz takes 34 orbits over a two-day period to reach the ISS.  Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, and NASA designed this shorter, expedited trajectory so the crew does not need to remain in the small spacecraft for longer than necessary and can begin work on the ISS as quickly as possible.  They began using it last year and it has been used successfully four times.  They are still diagnosing what went wrong last night.

The Soyuz still needs to execute engine burns to reach the ISS and the fact that two were successfully completed today indicated that the engine itself is in good working order.  NASA's ISS Mission Integration Operations Manager Kenny Todd sounded confident in an interview on NASA TV that the rest of the trip to the ISS will go smoothly.  He repeated what NASA posted on its website last night that the burn did not take place because the attitude (orientation) of the Soyuz spacecraft could not be confirmed.  The question they need to answer is why that happened.

Todd also said that SpaceX's cargo mission to the ISS, planned for Sunday, will not be affected by the delayed docking.

The three crew members aboard the Soyuz TMA-12M are Russia's Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev and NASA's Steve Swanson.

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