SpacePolicyOnline.com Latest News
Russia's official TASS news agency, which yesterday reported that the next crew launch to the International Space Station (ISS) would be delayed, took half a step back from that report today. Now it says if the problem with the Soyuz MS docking system can be fixed quickly, the launch could still occur on June 24 as originally planned. If it takes longer, then the launch would be delayed to July 7.
The next crew launch is the first for the Soyuz MS variant of the venerable spacecraft, first launched in 1967. Three astronauts -- from NASA, JAXA and Roscosmos -- will be aboard. None of the space agencies has publicly announced a schedule change and today's TASS story states that Roscomos "denied all rumors" that the mission has been delayed.
A decision will be made on Monday (June 6), according to the new TASS report.
The news agency cites unnamed industry sources for both versions -- that there will be a delay or that there might be a delay. One of its sources says that Energia, which builds Soyuz, has three days to solve the problem and if it can be fixed that quickly, the launch will take place as planned. Another source, however, says the decision to delay already has been made and Monday's meeting is simply to finalize it.
The precise nature of the problem has not been specified in the TASS reports.
The three crew members waiting for their ride to ISS are NASA's Kathleen (Kate) Rubins, JAXA's Takuya Onishi, and Roscosmos' Anatoly Ivanishin.
Russia's official TASS news agency reported today that the next launches of Soyuz and Progress spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) are being delayed because of problems with the docking system.
Both spacecraft have recently been upgraded to "MS" versions. The upcoming Soyuz launch is the first of the MS variant (MS-01), while the first Progress MS was launched in December 2015.
The Soyuz spacecraft has been upgraded several times since it was first launched in 1967. Soyuz MS replaces the Soyuz TMA-M series. The MS version has improved solar arrays, a new digital computer, and a new docking system.
TASS reported today that the launch of Soyuz MS-01 has been delayed from June 24 to July 7 "due to control system flaws that may disrupt the ship's docking with the ISS." July 7 was the date of the next Progress MS launch, which is now rescheduled for July 17.
The Soyuz MS-01 spacecraft will take three new crew members to the ISS: NASA's Kathleen (Kate) Rubins, JAXA's Takuya Onishi, and Roscosmos' Anatoly Ivanishin. None of the space agencies had made any announcements as of press time. The crew just passed their final exams yesterday.
Soyuz is also the name of the rocket that launches Soyuz and Progress spacecraft. There are several versions of the rocket, including the Soyuz 2.1b, which launched a GLONASS navigation satellite on May 27. Russia indicated that there was a third stage anomaly in that launch, but the Fregat upper stage compensated for the third stage under performance and put the GLONASS satellite into the correct orbit. That problem is unrelated to the just-announced delays in the Soyuz and Progress launches, which are issues with the spacecraft, not the rocket. In any case, the Soyuz MS-01 launch will use a different version of the rocket, Soyuz FG.
Soyuz spacecraft are the only vehicles capable of taking crews to and from the ISS since the United States terminated the space shuttle program in 2011. Progress is one of four cargo vehicles used to resupply the ISS. The others are Japan's HTV and two U.S. commercial vehicles, SpaceX's Dragon and Orbital ATK's Cygnus. HTVs, which are much larger than the others, are launched once per year. Progress, Dragon and Cygnus are launched several times a year.
Orbital ATK conducted a "hot fire" test of its re-engined Antares rocket today at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops Island, VA. The company is preparing to return Antares to flight status after an October 2014 failure.
The version of Antares that failed in 2014 used Russian NK-33 engines, built four decades ago, refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne, and redesignated AJ26. Each Antares launch used one AJ26 engine. On October 28, 2014, the engine fired, but exploded 15 seconds later. Orbital ATK and Aerojet Rocketdyne disagreed over the root cause, which was tied to foreign object debris in the engine, but Aerojet Rocketdyne ultimately paid Orbital ATK $50 million. The details of the investigation are proprietary.
Orbital ATK decided to switch to newer Russian RD-181 engines. Two of those are needed for each launch. Today's test was of an RD-181 engine pair integrated into an Antares rocket. During a hot fire test, the engines are fired as though a launch was going to take place, but the hold down clamps are not released so the rocket stays on the pad. A number of modifications were needed to Antares to accommodate the new engines, including a new thrust adapter structure, modified first stage propellant tanks and engine control avionics, and new propellant feedlines.
Antares is launched from Pad OA at MARS, which is located at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility at Wallops Island, VA on the DELMARVA (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) peninsula. MARS is owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia and operated by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority.
Orbital ATK said in a tweet at 6:19 pm ET that the test was complete.
In a later press release, Mike Pinkston, General Manager and Vice President, Antares Program, said "early indications are that the upgraded propulsion system, core stage, and launch complex all worked together as planned." The test lasted for 30 seconds. The video is on YouTube.
Antares is used for launching Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS). The failed launch took place before Orbital Sciences Corporation merged with ATK and was designated Orb-3, the third operational Orbital Sciences launch to ISS. The missions now are referred to as "OA" for Orbital ATK.
The company has launched two Cygnus spacecraft to ISS using United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets in the meantime. The first, OA-4, was launched in December 2015 and the second, OA-6, in March 2016. A firm date for Antares to launch the next in the series, OA-5, has not been finalized, but is currently planned for July 6. (The numbers are out of sequence because OA-5 on Antares was supposed to launch in the spring. The fixes to Antares took longer than planned, so OA-6, on Atlas V, was moved up. The company decided to keep the mission numbers with their rockets, even though the sequence changed.)
The rocket tested today will not be used for the OA-5 mission, but for OA-7 later in the year. The OA-5 rocket is in the final stages of integration, systems testing and check-out, Pinkston said.
Orbital ATK intends to keep open the option of launching Cygnuses on Atlas V rockets in the future. It recently won a new set of cargo launches to ISS under the second Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract, CRS2. Orbital ATK Space Systems President Frank Culbertson said in March that the ability to launch on either rocket offers flexibility so both were offered in the contract.
Note: This story was updated with the comments from Pinkston and other information in the press release.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of May 30 - June 4, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in recess this week.
During the Week
Tomorrow (Monday) is Memorial Day in the United States, where we honor the men and women who have died in the service of our country. Federal offices will be closed and the House and Senate have taken the week off from legislative business to check in with their constituents back home. It is the unofficial start of summer and a lot of people are off on vacation -- but not everyone!
The Secure World Foundation (SWF) has an interesting panel discussion on Tuesday about national security space strategy that (unfortunately) is at exactly the same time as a meeting of NASA's Applied Sciences Advisory Committee (i.e. applied earth sciences). The NASA advisory committee meeting was rescheduled from April and will be held by telecon. If you're interested in both, but there's only one of you, SWF usually records its seminars and posts the audio on its website soon after the meeting. The speaker line-up is terrific: Joan Johnson-Freese from the Naval War College, Todd Harrison from CSIS, Peter Hays from GWU, John Sheldon from ThorGroup, and Brian Weeden and Victoria Samson from SWF.
Another NASA advisory committee -- the Planetary Protection Subcommittee of the Science Committee of the NASA Advisory Council -- meets in person at NASA HQ on Wednesday and Thursday. There is nothing specifically on the agenda about the new NASA-SpaceX agreement on Red Dragon, which includes NASA providing "consultation and advice" to SpaceX on planetary protection, but perhaps it will come up anyway.
The Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference (NSRC) 2016 runs from Thursday to Saturday at the Omni Interlocken Resort in Broomfield, CO, while back in Washington, the National Air and Space Museum hosts "Space Day" on Saturday with family oriented activities.
Elsewhere in the world, the fourth European Space Solutions conference on "Bringing Space to Earth" is taking place at The Hague all week, the ILA Berlin Air Show is Wednesday-Saturday, and the second Asteroid Impact Deflection Assessment (AIDA) conference is Wednesday-Friday in Nice, France.
Those and other activities we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week for new events that are added later to our Events of Interest list.
Sunday, May 29 - Friday, June 24 (four weeks)
Monday-Friday, May 30-June 3
Tuesday, May 31
Wednesday-Thursday, June 1-2
Wednesday-Friday, June 1-3
Wednesday-Saturday, June 1-4
Thursday-Saturday, June 2-4
Saturday, June 4
"We are declaring manual inflation complete." Those words from CAPCOM Jessica Meir at Johnson Space Center's International Space Station (ISS) Mission Control at 4:10 pm EDT today brought to an end the lengthy process of expanding the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). Air from the ISS was allowed into BEAM by astronaut Jeff Williams aboard the ISS opening a valve for prescribed periods of time -- often only one second long.
A total of 2 minutes and 27 seconds of air was allowed in, but it took 7 hours and 6 minutes to accomplish. A total of 25 valve openings were required between 9:04 am EDT and 4:10 pm EDT. Noises like popcorn popping could be heard as rib stitches inside BEAM gave way as expected. Long periods of inactivity were the norm as NASA and Bigelow Aerospace engineers carefully monitored the pressure inside BEAM before giving Williams the go ahead to introduce more air or waited through periodic losses of Ku-band TV coverage that ground controllers needed to observe the module's expansion.
The goal was for the module to reach 68 inches in length compared to its stowed configuration. During the first try on Thursday, the module expanded only 6 inches, prompting a decision to suspend the effort while engineers reviewed the situation. They determined that the problem probably was friction between the folds of the fabric of which BEAM is comprised. BEAM remained in its compressed state for 10 months longer than planned because of a launch delay of the SpaceX CRS-8 (SpX-8) mission following the SpX-7 failure in July 2015. SpX-8 was launched in April.
The decision was made to try again today and ground controllers took it very slowly throughout the day. As Williams' "crew day" was coming to an end, ground controllers debated whether to suspend the operation again or press on. With Williams' agreement, they kept going and at 4:10 pm ET the module had reached 67 inches. Although one inch short of the goal, they decided it was close enough.
The 67 inches is in comparison to its stowed configuration, not its actual length. When fully deployed, the module is 158 inches (4.01 meters) in length and 127 inches (3.23 meters) in diameter. The expansion today also increased the diameter to the 127 inches. BEAM has a volume of 565 cubic feet (16 cubic meters).
Expansion was followed by pressurization of the module using air from eight tanks inside BEAM. That took only 10 minutes and the work was complete at 4:44 pm EDT.
A series of leak checks will now ensue and sometime in the coming week ISS crew members will enter the module for the first time. Their task is only to take measurements. BEAM is a technology demonstrator and will be attached to ISS for two years of tests. Crews will come and go, but do not plan to use it as an operational portion of the ISS.
Hotel magnate Robert Bigelow, president of Bigelow Aerospace, is trying to convince NASA to allow BEAM to be used to conduct experiments for Bigelow customers. He said at an April 7 press conference that two companies and two countries have expressed interest. His longer term plan is for NASA to attach a full-size B330 module to ISS by 2020. The 330 in B330 refers to its volume of 330 cubic meters, significantly larger than BEAM. Called XBASE, it would be Bigelow's next step in a plan that foresees using such modules as habitats in low Earth orbit, on the Moon, and elsewhere in space. Bigelow is president of Budget Suites of America and envisions space tourism as a promising business.
BEAM is made of fabric (whose details are proprietary) so it can be collapsed into a small volume for launch and then expanded once on orbit. The concept builds on work NASA did in the 1990s through the TransHab program. TransHab was terminated because of budget constraints. Bigelow picked it up and launched two test modules, Genesis I and Genesis II, on Russian rockets in 2006 and 2007. BEAM is the first such module to be attached to the ISS, hence NASA's cautious approach in expanding it.
NASA will try again tomorrow (May 28) to expand the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) that is attached to the International Space Station (ISS). NASA TV coverage begins at 8:45 am ET. The agency and Bigelow Aerospace believe they understand what led to the unexpected events yesterday when the procedure was first attempted. Both are very optimistic that the module will be fully deployed, if not tomorrow, then soon. It will be attached to the ISS for two years, so there is no critical deadline.
BEAM is an expandable module made from a fabric whose details are proprietary. The idea is that it can be packed into a comparatively small shape, launched, and then expanded once in space, reducing launch mass and volume requirements.
BEAM was packaged to fit into the "trunk" of SpaceX's Dragon capsule for launch to ISS last year on the SpaceX CRS-8 (SpX-8) mission, but the failure of SpX-7 in June 2015 delayed the launch of SpX-8 until April 2016. Bigelow Aerospace said in a press release today that the extended duration in a folded state could explain why it did not expand as expected yesterday: "The BEAM spacecraft has been in a packed state for a significantly longer time than expected. It has undergone a tremendous squeeze for over 15 months, which is 10 months longer than planned."
During yesterday's attempt, the module did not expand as expected so NASA terminated the effort. Overnight, however, it expanded more, one of the clues that friction between layers of the fabric were likely the root cause. NASA's Jason Crusan, Director for Advanced Exploration Systems at NASA Headquarters, explained during a media teleconference this afternoon that when operations ended yesterday, the module's diameter was 96 inches and the axial distance had moved 5 inches. By this morning, those figures had grown to 111 inches and 6 inches. When fully deployed, it will be 127 inches in diameter and 73 inches longer than its packed configuration.
Lisa Kauke, Bigelow Aerospace's BEAM deputy program manager, said during the teleconference that the fabric has "memory" and it takes time for it to relax. She and Crusan explained that although there were models for how it would unfold, the space environment cannot be duplicated on Earth, especially in terms of thermal forces on the module, so were not exact.
NASA decided to depressurize the module today and repressurize it tomorrow (Saturday) with the expectation that cycling between the two procedures will loosen the folds and reduce the friction.
NASA TV will cover the pressurization activities tomorrow beginning at 8:45 am ET.
If the module had been deployed yesterday, ISS astronauts were to enter ("ingress") it for the first time on Thursday. With the delay, it is not clear exactly when that will happen. ISS mission operations integration manager Kenny Todd said at the teleconference that the timeline will have to be redrawn once the module is fully deployed and he did not expect ingress to occur on Thursday.
If something goes awry tomorrow, the timing for the next attempt at pressurization is unclear. The ISS crew is getting ready to deploy a number of cubesats using Japan's robotic arm (part of its Kibo module, from which cubesats are deployed) beginning on Monday and Todd does not want that taking place if BEAM is in a partially deployed condition.
Todd, Crusan and Kauke all pointed out that this is a technology demonstration project. Although Bigelow launched two test modules on Russian rockets in 2006 and 2007, this is the first time one is being expanded as part of the ISS. They want to take everything slowly to avoid significant loads being placed on the ISS structure, especially at interfaces between the existing modules.
All three expressed confidence that BEAM will be fully expanded, hopefully tomorrow, but if not, in the course of time. It will be attached to ISS for two years, so there is no rush. After the two years, it will be detached from ISS and burn up in the atmosphere. As Crusan explained, once expanded, there is no way to unexpand it and put it back into its stowed configuration and therefore no way to bring it back to Earth.
Note: This article was updated with the time NASA TV will begin showing the pressurization activities and to clarify that the length of 73 inches is in comparison to its packed configuration, not its total length when fully deployed.
UPDATE, MAY 27, 11:30 AM ET. Today's media telecon has been postponed by two hours, to 2:00 pm ET.
UPDATE, MAY 26, 2016, 5:45 PM ET. NASA has decided NOT to try again tomorrow (Friday) to expand BEAM. A media teleconference will be held tomorrow, May 27, at 12:00 pm ET to explain the situation. It will be broadcast on NASA's NewsAudio site.
ORIGINAL STORY, MAY 26, 2016, 10:55 AM ET. NASA halted expansion of the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) this morning when it did not expand as expected. BEAM is attached to the International Space Station (ISS). Agency and Bigelow Aerospace experts are assessing the situation to determine how to proceed. A media teleconference scheduled for this morning was postponed.
BEAM was delivered to the ISS on the Space-X CRS-8 cargo mission in April and moved to a docking port on the ISS Tranquillity module. Often referred to as "inflatable" rather than "expandable," such modules are designed to be launched in collapsed form to reduce mass and volume requirements and filled with air once on orbit. BEAM is being expanded using air from inside the ISS.
Astronaut Jeff Williams followed detailed instructions from ground controllers this morning to allow air into BEAM one second or a few seconds at a time. After several tries, ground controllers determined the module had expanded only a few inches in length and diameter, less than expected. Operations were halted at that point.
In a statement on its ISS blog, NASA said it is "working closely with Bigelow Aerospace to understand why its module did not fully expand today as planned." Engineers are evaluating the situation and depending on the outcome, another attempt could be made as early as tomorrow.
BEAM is based on technology NASA developed in the 1990s under the TransHab program to build an expandable module to serve as crew quarters on the ISS. It was cancelled for budgetary reasons, but hotel magnate Robert Bigelow decided to invest his own money in developing the system with an eye to providing habitats not only in low earth orbit (LEO), but on the Moon and elsewhere beyond LEO. He launched two test modules, Genesis I and Genesis II, on Russian rockets in 2006 and 2007 respectively. Those tests went well, but BEAM is larger and had to be configured differently for launch in the "trunk" of SpaceX's Dragon capsule.
Assuming BEAM ultimately is expanded, it will remain attached to ISS for two years of tests, then it will be detached and burn up in the atmosphere.
BEAM is a technology demonstrator. Bigelow is trying to convince NASA to allow him to attach a full size module, B330, to ISS in 2020, which he calls XBASE. The 330 refers to its volume of 330 cubic meters.
The Senate Appropriations Committee's Defense Subcommittee approved its version of the FY2017 defense appropriations bill today. Few details have been released, but in at least one area -- Russian RD-180 rocket engines -- the schism between Senate appropriators and authorizers seems destined to continue. The full appropriations committee will mark up the bill on Thursday. [UPDATE: The committee approved the bill on May 26.]
Senate appropriators and authorizers clashed last year over the number of Russian RD-180 rocket engines the United Launch Alliance (ULA) may obtain for its Atlas V rockets for launching national security satellites. The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), chaired by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), limited the number to an additional nine. The Senate Appropriations Committee essentially lifted that limit in the FY2016 appropriations act at the urging of two of its most senior members -- Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL). ULA builds its rockets in Alabama. It is a 50-50 joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Boeing is headquartered in Chicago, IL.
McCain vehemently opposes the appropriations action and SASC's FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) -- which is scheduled to be debated on the Senate floor this week -- would repeal that section of the law. (McCain and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-CA, introduced stand-alone bills in January to repeal that provision, but there has been no action on them.)
The ongoing argument over the number of engines has overshadowed related issues. One is highlighted in the Senate Appropriations Committee's brief summary of the bill approved at subcommittee level today.
"Space Launch/RD-180 Engines – The Committee recommendation includes a general provision, as requested by the Administration, which requires all competitive launch procurements to be available to all certified launch providers regardless of the country of origin of the launch vehicle rocket engine."
That appears to push back on language in McCain's NDAA that prohibits the Secretary of Defense from certifying any entity to bid for the award or renewal of a contract for space launch services if that entity would use a rocket engine designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation. If enacted, that would preclude ULA from bidding for national security launches using the Atlas V since its engines are built in Russia. ULA operates two launch vehicles -- the Atlas V and Delta IV. SpaceX is the only other certified provider for national security launches and ULA argues that its Delta IV is not cost competitive with SpaceX, so Atlas V is its only option in such competitions. SASC's NDAA addresses that issue by allowing half of the money allocated for developing a U.S. alternative to the RD-180 to be used to offset increased launch costs (presumably for using the pricey Delta IV).
The appropriations subcommittee also approved $396.6 million, $100 million above the request, to develop a U.S. alternative to the RD-180. The markup was short and sweet. It lasted only about 30 minutes and the topic of rocket engines did not arise. Full committee markup on Thursday begins at 10:30 am ET. [UPDATE: The committee approved the bill on May 26.]
(Not sure of the difference between an authorization and an appropriation? See SpacePolicyOnline.com's "What's a Markup?" fact sheet.)
During markup of the FY2017 Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) appropriations bill today, the House Appropriations Committee adopted an amendment to fully fund the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) at the requested level of $19.8 million. That is $1 million more than the T-HUD subcommittee recommended.
The amendment was sponsored by Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA), who is a member of the Appropriations Committee. The effort builds on efforts led by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) to increase funding for FAA/AST in recognition of its growing responsibilities and consequent need for additional staff. Bridenstine and 17 other members sent a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the T-HUD subcommittee in March arguing for full funding.
Bridenstine serves on the House Armed Services Committee and the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, but not Appropriations, so could not sponsor or co-sponsor the amendment himself. He and Kilmer have worked closely together on commercial space legislation in the past, notably last year's Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. Kilmer represents a district near Seattle that is teeming with entrepreneurial space companies, including Blue Origin and Planetary Resources Inc. Bridenstine's Oklahoma district has little or no involvement in the space industry, but he has a strong personal interest and has taken a leadership role in the House on these issues.
The T-HUD subcommittee approved $18.826 million for FAA/AST, $1.026 million more than current FY2016 funding, but $1 million less than the request of $19.826 million.
Appropriations is a zero-sum game -- more money for one activity means less money for another. In this case, the $1 million was moved from the FAA's Office of Finance and Management to FAA/AST. The Kilmer amendment was combined with other changes and packaged into the so-called "manager's amendment," which was adopted by voice vote.
In a joint press release, Kilmer said full funding "will allow entrepreneurs and companies to innovate and grow their businesses and in the process strengthen our tech economy and the quality jobs it creates." Bridenstine noted that FAA/AST oversees the commercial space industry, which is "critically important to modern life in America."
The Senate Appropriations Committee also approved $19.8 million for FAA/AST is its markup of the T-HUD bill.
The House Appropriations Committee not only wants NASA to replace the Asteroid Redirect Mission with a focus on returning humans to the lunar surface, but it has other big plans for the agency. One is to develop interstellar propulsion to enable a probe to be sent to Alpha Centauri at one tenth the speed of light in 2069. Overall, the committee recommends $19.508 billion for the agency, an increase of $223 million above its current FY2016 funding level.
The draft Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) FY2017 appropriations bill and report were released today in preparation for full committee markup tomorrow (Tuesday). Subcommittee markup took place last week. The bill and report remain a draft until markup is completed, and that is only one step in the lengthy congressional appropriations process, but the committee certainly offers some far ranging recommendations for NASA's future. [UPDATE: The committee approved the bill on May 24. Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) offered an amendment to increase funding for earth science by $342 million, but then withdrew it because he did not have offsetting cuts elsewhere to recommend.]
Key committee decisions are outlined in SpacePolicyOnline.com's NASA FY2017 Budget Request fact sheet, updated today. Typically in such reports, comparisons are made between a committee's recommendations and the President's budget request, but that is not useful this year. As our fact sheet explains, the request included funding from non-appropriated "mandatory funding" accounts. Appropriations committees have no jurisdiction over mandatory funding. Both the House and Senate appropriations committees criticized the President's request as a "gimmick" and rejected it. In the committee reports, comparisons are made to the President's request for appropriated funds, not the mandatory funds, which makes it very difficult to follow. In our fact sheet, and in the narrative below, we compare the committee's actions to the appropriated levels for FY2016, not to either version of the request.
Among its major actions, the House committee --
Committee markup is at 10:30 am ET tomorrow (May 24). [UPDATE: As noted, the committee approved the bill on May 24.]
Events of Interest