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Two top NASA human spaceflight officials explained today that the study they are conducting about whether it would be feasible to put a crew on the first flight of the new Space Launch System (SLS) is just that, a feasibility study. It will lay out pros and cons, but not make a recommendation. Both said they have no preconceived decision about what the study will say.
Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, and Bill Hill, Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development, spoke at a media teleconference this afternoon that had been announced just four hours earlier.
NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot announced last week that he was initiating a study to determine the feasibility of putting a crew on the first launch of the SLS, currently scheduled for late 2018. The existing plan is for that launch to be an uncrewed systems test of SLS and the Orion spacecraft that is being designed to take crews beyond low Earth orbit to orbit the Moon and someday go to Mars. That first uncrewed launch is designated Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1). The second flight, EM-2, scheduled for no earlier than August 2021, would be the first to carry astronauts.
The U.S. space shuttle is the only human spaceflight system ever launched that carried a crew on its first mission (STS-1 in 1981). All other human spaceflight systems flown by the United States, Soviet Union/Russia and China have had uncrewed test flights first to obtain data to better understand system performance and thereby reduce risk. Gerstenmaier spoke at a conference two weeks about the Loss of Crew (LOC) metric it uses to characterize the probability of a failure that could kill a crew. He said that at the time of the first shuttle mission, models predicted the LOC at 1 in 500 to 1 5,000. By the end of the program, after 30 years of experience that included two fatal accidents (Challenger and Columbia), they determined the actual risk for STS-1 had been 1 in 12. The risk overall for the shuttle program was determined to have been 1 in 90.
Needless to say, the decision to assess the feasibility of placing a crew on the first SLS has raised eyebrows. The media teleconference today appeared aimed at explaining that it is only a study and no decision has been made. Gerstenmaier and Hill said it would look at the advantages and disadvantages of adding a crew, including the cost and schedule implications. Gerstenmaier added that he did not know that it even would be a stand-alone study, but instead set in the context of discussions about the FY2018 budget request, a process he said would begin in a couple of weeks.
The Trump Administration plans to issue an overarching "budget blueprint" for the government next month, but a detailed budget request is not expected until April or May. The White House Office of Management of Budget (OMB) writes the President's budget request. Its new Director, Mick Mulvaney, was sworn into office only last week. He was a Congressman from South Carolina and a well known budget hawk committed to reducing federal spending.
Asked whether the Trump White House asked NASA to put a crew on the first flight, Gerstenmaier replied that "the Administration team in concert with Robert [Lightfoot]" asked for the feasibility study. The overall goal, he added, was determining if crews could fly earlier than currently planned. He noted that his office already had been looking at what could be done to "enhance" EM-1 to facilitate getting data that will be needed for EM-2, such as putting crew seats in Orion and placing mannequins there to obtain radiation exposure and reentry loading data. His office briefed the Trump transition team on its activities and "they may have gotten the idea from us" to do the feasibility study. Whether or not a decision is made to add crew to the first flight, the study offers an opportunity to step back and look at the program overall and "if we're testing the right things."
Gerstenmaier said he feels no political pressure to put crew on EM-1 and wants to "let the data drive us to the answer." He and Hill both said they have no preconceived decision one way or the other, but see value in the study regardless of the outcome. They expect it to be completed in about a month, but there is no set date.
EM-1 and EM-2 will use different upper stages. EM-1 will fly the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS), while EM-2 will use a more capable Exploration Upper Stage (EUS). The technical differences between ICPS and EUS are one of the reasons there is such a long gap between EM-1 and EM-2. Gerstenmaier said today that it will take 33 months to reconfigure ground facilities to accommodate the taller EUS.
ICPS is not designed to the "human-rated" safety standards required for carrying crews, however. A decision to place crews on EM-1 would require that ICPS be human-rated and a number of other hardware changes would be needed that could be expensive and time consuming. The Orion spacecraft for EM-1, for example, is not outfitted with life support systems or other hardware needed for a crewed flight.
The study will look at all of those factors and present the advantages and disadvantages, risks and benefits. Gerstenmaier has formed a team to conduct the study that includes one astronaut, although he declined to name who it is or speculate on what the position of the astronaut office as a whole might be to the idea of putting a crew on the first flight. Hill said the team has been asked to look at what it would take to send a crew of two on an 8-9 day mission around the Moon that would include one day in a high Earth orbit to check out the life support systems.
In the meantime, NASA is proceeding with its "program of record" with an uncrewed EM-1 in late 2018 and a crewed EM-2 no earlier than August 2021. EM-1 already appears likely to slip to 2019 due to facility damage from recent tornadoes at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans where SLS is being built plus delays with the Orion Service Module being provided by the European Space Agency. As for EM-2, NASA's formal commitment is for launch in 2023, but Congress has been providing additional funding to accelerate it to 2021.
SpaceX's CRS-10 Dragon spacecraft successfully arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) this morning, a day late, but with none of the problems that arose in its first attempt yesterday. Meanwhile, Russia's Progress MS-05 spacecraft is continuing on its journey to the ISS and will dock tomorrow morning. Together, they are bringing 5.4 metric tons (MT) of supplies to the six person crew.
Dragon's first attempt was aborted yesterday because of a problem with its GPS navigational system. Dragon's on-board computers recognized an incorrect value in navigational data about the spacecraft's position relative to the ISS and automatically terminated the arrival sequence, placing itself into a holding pattern on a "racetrack" trajectory around the ISS while ground controllers diagnosed and fixed the problem. Other than the navigational error, the spacecraft was in perfect shape.
Dragon does not dock with the ISS, but is berthed to it. Once it reaches a point 10 meters from the ISS, astronauts use the robotic Canadarm2 to reach out and grab it. Once it is in Canadarm2's grasp, ground controllers move it over to a docking port and install it onto the port. In this case. Dragon was grappled by Canadarm2 at 5:44 am Eastern Standard Time (EST), a few minutes ahead of schedule. It will be berthed to the Harmony port at about 8:30 am EST today.
Launched on Sunday, also a day later than originally planned, this is SpaceX's 10th operational cargo mission to the ISS for NASA under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract and is designated SpaceX CRS-10 or SpX-10. Dragon is full of 2.5 metric tons (5,500 pounds) of supplies, scientific experiments, and equipment. It will remain docked to the ISS for about a month and then return to Earth. Dragon is the only one of the four spacecraft (Russia's Progress, Japan's HTV, and the U.S. Dragon and Cygnus) that resupply ISS that is designed to survive reentry. Thus it can return the results of scientific experiments and equipment that needs repair or replacement.
Russia's latest cargo spacecraft, Progress MS-05, was successfully launched yesterday. It docks with the ISS under its own power and is due to arrive at 3:34 am EST tomorrow. It is carrying 2.9 MT of propellant, oxygen, water, and dry cargo.
ISS is a partnership of the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and 11 European countries. The crew members currently aboard are NASA's Peggy Whitson and Shane Kimbrough, Europe's Thomas Pesquet, and Russia's Andrey Borisenko, Sergey Ryzhikov, and Oleg Novitsky. Pesquet and Kimbrough were at the Canadarm2 controls this morning for the grapple.
Russia successfully launched its Progress MS-05 cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) at 12:58 am ET this morning. It is the first Progress launch since a December 1, 2016 failure. Meanwhile, SpaceX's Dragon cargo spacecraft, which was launched on Sunday, will arrive on ISS in a few hours at about 6:00 am ET. [UPDATE: Dragon's arrival was aborted because of an apparent problem with the spacecraft's GPS system. SpaceX will try again tomorrow.]
Russia uses Soyuz rockets to launch both crews and cargo to the ISS (Soyuz is also the name of the spacecraft that transports crews). Several versions of the Soyuz rocket exist. This is the last launch of the Soyuz-U version. A third stage failure of a Soyuz-U rocket doomed the Progress MS-04 mission on December 1, 2016. Although a different version of the Soyuz rocket is used for crews, they are similar enough that NASA and Roscosmos were waiting for the success of this launch before resuming crew flights.
NASA refers to this as Progress 66 because it is the 66th Progress mission to the ISS. Progress has been in use since 1978, however, resupplying the Soviet Salyut 6, Salyut 7 and Mir space stations long before ISS existed. The spacecraft has been upgraded several times over the decades and given different designations: Progress, Progress M, Progress M_M and now Progress MS. The first of the MS series was launched on December 21, 2015.
Progress MS-05 is carrying 2.9 metric tons of propellant, oxygen, water and dry cargo to the ISS. Six crew members are aboard, forming Expedition 50: NASA's Peggy Whitson and Shane Kimbrough, the European Space Agency's Thomas Pesquet, and Roscosmos's Andrey Borisenko, Sergey Ryzhikov and Oleg Novitsky. Docking is scheduled for 3:34 am ET on Friday.
Three other cargo spacecraft also take supplies to the ISS: Japan's HTV and two U.S. commercial spacecraft, SpaceX's Dragon and Orbital ATK's Cygnus. NASA purchases delivery services from SpaceX and Orbital ATK rather than owning the rockets and spacecraft.
SpaceX launched its 10th operational Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission on Sunday, designated SpaceX CRS-10 or SpX-10. The Dragon spacecraft, carrying 2.5 metric tons (5,500 pounds) of cargo, will arrive at ISS at about 6:00 am this morning. Unlike Progress, which docks with the ISS, Dragon and Cygnus are berthed to the space station. They maneuver close to the ISS and astronauts use the robotic Canadarm2 to reach out and grab them. Ground controllers then use Canadarm2 to move the spacecraft and install them onto docking ports. NASA TV coverage of Dragon's arrival begins at 4:30 am ET, with grapple at about 6:00 am ET and installation at approximately 8:30 am ET.
At Thursday’s House hearing on NASA’s past, present, and future, one point of agreement was that NASA needs stability, sustainability, and priority setting. Still, committee members and witnesses alike advocated for restoring human missions to the surface of the Moon to NASA’s human spaceflight plan. Only one witness, Tom Young, warned about the budget consequences of putting too many tasks on NASA's plate.
The hearing before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee took place as a new presidential administration is taking shape and many space program advocates worry that decisions might be made that will disrupt the progress NASA has made since 2010 in building systems to take humans beyond low Earth orbit (LEO). It was in 2010 that President Obama cancelled the George W. Bush Administration’s Constellation program to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2020 as a steppingstone to Mars.
Intense congressional backlash led to the 2010 NASA Authorization Act wherein Congress directed the Administration to build a new big rocket and crew spacecraft -- the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion – to take astronauts beyond LEO, essentially continuing that part of the Constellation program. Obama and Congress agreed that the long term goal is landing humans on Mars, but not on whether lunar surface missions are a necessary prerequisite.
NASA’s ongoing Journey to Mars involves missions only in lunar orbit, not on the surface. While many in Congress and the space community call for stability and continuity at NASA – no big changes like those imposed by President Obama – an exception is made for the prospect of restoring lunar surface missions.
The future of the human spaceflight program was the focus of the hearing, although the rest of NASA’s portfolio (aeronautics, space technology, earth and space science) was also discussed.
Witnesses were Apollo 17 astronaut and former U.S. Senator Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, Gemini and Apollo astronaut Lt. Gen. Tom Stafford (Ret.), former NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan, and former NASA and industry executive Tom Young.
Schmitt, the only scientist to visit the Moon, and Stafford, who orbited the Moon on Apollo 10, clearly want lunar surface missions back in the plan. Schmitt outlined his own plan for human exploration and utilization of both the Moon and Mars: human return to the lunar surface by 2025, a lunar settlement by 2030 using public and private capital funding, lunar resource production by 2035 using private capital funding and management, fusion-powered interplanetary booster by 2035 using public and private capital funding, a Mars landing by 2040, and a Mars settlement by 2045.
Stofan defended NASA’s current plan and said it is achievable as long as there is focus, constancy of purpose, and continued leadership.
Young’s main argument was that, for budgetary reasons, NASA will have to choose what single path it wants to pursue. Currently it is spending about the same amount of money per year (roughly $4.5 billion) to develop SLS and Orion as to operate the International Space Station (ISS) including the commercial crew and commercial cargo programs. NASA and its ISS international partners are committed to operating ISS until at least 2024, but the question is what happens next.
Young believes that NASA needs to transition LEO operations to the commercial sector and focus its efforts on putting “boots on the ground” on the Moon or Mars. He expressed a preference for Mars because it is more “compelling.”
From Young’s perspective, for NASA to successfully complete all that is already on its plate – operate ISS in LEO and build and launch SLS/Orion for deep space exploration– will cost $10 billion more per year. There are “too many paths competing for the same resources,” he said. “A choice must be made soon between LEO and exploration.” If the program keeps going as it is, 10 years from now everyone will be disappointed because “we will be negligibly closer to landing on Mars.”
Stafford’s remarks focused on the need for SLS. He complimented Congress for insisting that NASA build it after President Obama cancelled Constellation, but expressed concern about the planned launch rate of, at most, one per year. He argued that there must be at least two or preferably three per year to maintain proficiency. Schmitt, Young and Stofan all agreed on the need to launch at least twice a year. Stofan said scientists would be happy to use any of the extra flights.
Schmitt and Gene Cernan were the last two men to walk on the Moon in December 1972. Cernan died last month. He was an outspoken advocate for returning humans to the lunar surface. Legislation has been introduced in the House to name SLS “Cernan 1” in his honor.
The day before the hearing, NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot announced that he had requested an internal NASA study to assess the feasibility of launching a crew on the first SLS/Orion flight instead of waiting for the second launch as currently planned. Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), who chairs the Space Subcommittee, asked the witnesses if they thought it was feasible.
Stafford was enthusiastic, noting that the first launch of the space shuttle carried a crew. (That was the only time in the history of human spaceflight in the United States, Soviet Union/Russia, or China that a crew was on the first flight of a new rocket.)
Schmitt’s first response was “I have no idea,” stressing that while there will always be risks, they need to be well understood. The question is “whether you can man-rate the system that fast” and still meet the safety requirements. Later, however, he noted that the first “full up use” of the Saturn V rocket was the Apollo 8 mission that sent three astronauts to orbit the Moon, so the question is whether to do that again with SLS. (There were two Saturn V launches to Earth orbit before the Apollo 8 mission. Schmitt may have meant there had been no prior Saturn V launches to the distance of the Moon.)
Stofan and Young endorsed Lightfoot’s plan of doing a study.
Stafford also argued in favor of reestablishing a White House National Space Council. President George H.W. Bush was the last President to utilize a Space Council. It was chaired by Vice President Dan Quayle. Stafford was closely involved in the Quayle Space Council, chairing the “Synthesis Group,” which wrote a report that laid out various options for sending humans to Mars in response to the first President Bush’s 1989 Space Exploration Initiative (SEI). Stafford reminded the committee of his report, showing them a copy, and the fact that the first President Bush’s goal was to land people on Mars in 2019, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon.
Although most of the hearing dealt with human spaceflight, Stofan also defended NASA’s earth and space science activities, as well as aeronautics, and some committee members asked about those programs.
Stofan made the point that while it is important to push limits and send people to Mars, “the only planet we can live on is Earth” and NASA’s earth observations are critical to understanding it.
In response to Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), she said NASA’s earth science budget has been relatively flat in recent years when adjusted for inflation, not growing. She listed a number of applications of earth science data that are critical to different economic sectors and have led to creation of new companies.
More broadly, she urged Congress to continue to support NASA’s current plan to implement the Decadal Surveys produced by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that identify key science questions that can be answered using NASA’s space and earth science spacecraft.
The bottom line of the hearing was strong support for human exploration of the Moon and Mars with scant attention to how it will be funded, other than Young’s warning. Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) repeated the refrain that NASA’s funding should be doubled to 1 percent of the federal budget. Whether the Trump Administration will propose a doubling of NASA’s budget, or Congress would approve it, remains to be seen. The Members of Congress who authorize and appropriate funds for NASA clearly are enthusiasts on a bipartisan basis, but where NASA will fit in national priorities for government spending is always the question.
Scant attention also was paid to the role of the commercial sector in the future U.S. space program. Schmitt raised it in connection with his plan for human exploration, where he envisions a critical role for the private sector in exploiting lunar resources, for example. Young advocated turning LEO over to the commercial sector so NASA can concentrate on exploration beyond LEO. Overall, however, the hearing was aimed at government-funded activities at NASA.
The second time was the charm for Space X with the launch of its 10th operational cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) taking place on time at 9:39 am ET this morning. The launch was scrubbed 13 seconds before liftoff yesterday, but all went well today. The Falcon 9 rocket's first stage then returned to Earth, landing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), Florida.
The was SpaceX's first launch from NASA's Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center, which is adjacent to CCAFS. LC-39A was the site of launches of Apollo missions to the Moon and many space shuttle launches. NASA has two launch complexes -- 39A and 39B -- but only needs one for its future missions. It retained 39B, but now leases 39A to SpaceX.
The SpaceX Commercial Resupply Services 10 (SpaceX CRS-10 or SpX-10) launch was scrubbed yesterday because of concerns about the Thrust Vector Control system on the rocket's second stage, but the second stage worked perfectly today delivering the Dragon spacecraft into the correct orbit. Dragon is packed with 5,489 pounds of supplies and equipment for the ISS crew. A series of maneuvers will now take place to position Dragon next to the ISS so astronauts can use the robotic Canadarm2 to reach out and grab it so it can be berthed to an ISS docking port. That is scheduled for Wednesday, February 22, at approximately 6:00 am ET (NASA TV will provide live coverage).
SpaceX designed the Falcon 9 first stage to be reusable and once it separates from the second stage fires its engines to return to Earth. Depending on the rocket's trajectory and how much fuel remains, it lands on an autonomous drone ship at sea or back at CCAFS. Today it landed at CCAFS 8 minutes after liftoff. This is the third land landing of a 1st stage.
SpaceX later posted a video of the landing taken by an airborne drone.
The first use of one of these recovered first stages will take place next month with the launch of the SES-10 commercial communications satellite.
Note: Updated with the link to the SpaceX landing video.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of February 20-24, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in recess this week.
During the Week
The week begins with a Federal holiday on Monday, Presidents' Day -- combining recognition of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and George Washington (February 22). The House and Senate are taking the entire week off from their Washington duties and will work in their States and districts instead. Just before it left, the Senate passed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017. The House could take it up anytime once it returns.
While things will be relatively quiet in Washington, there's a lot happening in Earth orbit.
SpaceX launched its 10th operational cargo mission (SpaceX CRS-10 or SpX-10) to the International Space Station (ISS) today on the second try (the first attempt was scrubbed on Saturday for technical reasons). The Dragon spacecraft, full of 5,489 pounds of supplies and equipment, will arrive at the ISS on Wednesday morning about 6:00 am ET. NASA TV will cover the arrival as astronauts use the robotic Canadarm2 to reach out and grab it so it can be attached (berthed) to a docking port. NASA TV coverage begins at 4:30 am ET.
Russia is also launching a cargo ship to ISS this week. The launch of Progress MS-05 is very early Wednesday morning Eastern Standard Time (12:58 am), with docking on Friday (NASA TV will cover both). This is the first Progress launch since a December 1, 2016 launch failure. A lot is riding on it, and not just the cargo. Russia uses the same type of rocket to send crews to ISS so this launch needs to demonstrate that the problems have been fixed so crew launches can resume.
Meanwhile, NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) will meet at Kennedy Space Center in public session on Thursday. The agenda includes updates on NASA's development of Exploration Systems (SLS, Orion and associated ground systems), commercial crew, and the iSS. One can listen to the meeting via telecon (no WebEx though). ASAP's most recent annual report expressed both praise and concern about safety at NASA. NASA's announcement last week that it is assessing whether to put a crew on the first flight of the Space Launch System might provoke discussion, too.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week for others that we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.
Monday, February 20
Wednesday, February 22
Wednesday-Thursday, February 22-23
Thursday, February 23
Friday, February 24
SpaceX scrubbed the launch of its 10th Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) today just 13 seconds before liftoff. Two technical problems cropped up with the Falcon 9 rocket during the final phases of the countdown. One was resolved, but the other -- involving a steering mechanism on the Falcon 9 rocket's second stage -- worried flight controllers who decided to wait until the problem was better understood. Another launch opportunity exists tomorrow (Sunday) morning, but the company and NASA have not yet announced if they will try to launch at that time.
The Dragon spacecraft on this SpaceX CRS-10 or SpX-10 mission is carrying approximately 5,500 pounds of supplies and experiments to the ISS crew. Among the cargo are 40 mice (jokingly called mousetronauts) that are part of a bone healing experiment conducted by the U.S. Army Center for Environmental Health called Rodent Research IV. They were loaded into Dragon yesterday as part of the "late load" cargo. If the launch does not take place tomorrow, they and other late load items will have to be removed and replaced, so the launch could not occur again until Tuesday at the earliest. However, Russia is launching its own cargo spacecraft, Progress MS-05, early Wednesday morning Eastern Standard Time, so NASA will have to determine how to interweave the schedules.
This will be the first SpaceX launch from NASA's Launch Complex-39A, which was used for Apollo missions to the moon and space shuttle launches. NASA is leasing the pad to SpaceX. SpaceX also leases launch pads from the Air Force at the adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. SpaceX's prior ISS cargo missions have launched from CCAFS Space Launch Complex-40, but it was badly damaged during a September 1, 2016 explosion that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and its Amos-6 commercial communications satellite payload. SpaceX already was preparing LC-39A for launches of Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy, which is in development, so was able to rather quickly move this launch to LC-39A. Whenever this launch takes place, SpaceX plans to land the Falcon 9 first stage at a different CCAFS launch complex for a third time. SpaceX routinely tries to recover its first stages so they can be reused. Sometimes they land on autonomous drone ships at sea and sometimes on land depending on the rocket's trajectory and how much fuel remains after deploying the payload into orbit.
During the countdown this morning, one problem developed with the autonomous flight termination system (FTS) being used as the primary range safety abort system for the first time on a SpaceX launch. Range safety is an Air Force responsibility and the Air Force is transitioning to this new type of automated system for all launches. SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said at a press conference yesterday that they have been flying the automated system in "shadow" mode for some time and although they were directed by the Air Force to use it as the primary system for this launch "we would have done it anyway." NASA Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana said at the same press conference that NASA is in complete agreement with the Air Force. He views the autonomous system as safer and more reliable than the "human-in-the-loop" system that has been used historically. Today's problem was a software issue that produced "inconsistent data," but was readily resolved.
The other problem was with a thrust vector control (TVC) system on the rocket's second stage. The TVC system steers the rocket. The SpaceX team tried to resolve the issue, but decided at T-13 seconds to abort the launch. SpaceX President Elon Musk tweeted in response to a question that he was the one who made the decision.
He explained his reasoning in other tweets
Yesterday, a different problem arose. A small helium leak was discovered in a second stage system that, if it did not work properly, the second stage could not have been deorbited after it placed the Dragon spacecraft into orbit. Rocket stages can pose debris hazards in space if they are not deorbited. SpaceX decided to proceed with the countdown and perform a helium spin-up pressurization test at T-1 minute before liftoff. Musk said today that he did not see a connection between that leak and the TVC problem, but also did not rule it out.
The Senate passed the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act today. The bill is very similar to one that passed the Senate in December as the 114th Congress was coming to an end. The House had completed its legislative business by then so could not act on it and that bill died at the end of the Congress. This new bill, S. 442, represents a compromise with the House, so expectations are high that it will quickly be passed by the House and presented to the President for signature.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who chairs the Space, Science, and Competitiveness subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, and Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), the top Democrat on the full committee, issued a joint press release along with other bipartisan members of the committee praising the bill for providing stability to NASA during this time of a presidential transition.
The new bill has some changes from the version that passed the Senate in December. One clarifies that the primary consideration for the acquisition strategy for the commercial crew program is to carry U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) "safely, reliably, and affordably" and to serve as a crew rescue vehicle. Another directs NASA to report to Congress on how the Orion spacecraft can fulfill the provision in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that it be able to serve as a backup to commercial crew, including with use of a launch vehicle other than the Space Launch System. A third is a finding that NASA has not demonstrated to Congress that the cost of the Asteroid Redirect Mission is commensurate with its benefits, a stronger statement than what was in the 2016 bill. The new bill also has a section on use of Space Act Agreements.
The bill authorizes funding only for FY2017, which is already underway. The total is $19.508 billion, the same as the amount recommended by the House Appropriations Committee, although allocated differently. Authorization bills recommend funding levels, but only appropriations bills actually provide funding to government agencies like NASA. Congress has not completed action on the FY2017 appropriations bills. NASA is currently funded under a Continuing Resolution at its FY2016 funding level, with an exception that funds may be spent on the Space Launch System, Orion, and Exploration Ground Systems programs to keep their schedules on track.
Now that the Senate has passed the bill, action moves to the House. Three weeks ago, the chairmen of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and its Space Subcommittee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Brian Babin (R-TX), urged quick passage of the bill. The House is in recess next week, but action could come anytime thereafter.
SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell reacted to GAO's report yesterday that commercial crew flights may slip from 2018 to 2019 by expressing utmost confidence in her company's schedule. At a Kennedy Space Center (KSC) press conference today in advance of SpaceX's commercial cargo launch tomorrow, she said the company's response to GAO is "The [heck] we won't fly before 2019."
SpaceX is scheduled to launch its 10th operational commercial cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA tomorrow at 10:01 am ET from KSC's historic Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) The press conference was as much about this first use of LC-39A for a Space X mission as about the launch itself. The launch pad was used for Apollo missions to the Moon and many space shuttle launches, including the first one in 1981. Shotwell and KSC Director Bob Cabana, himself a space shuttle astronaut, struggled to find words to express their excitement about seeing the pad back in use.
SpaceX currently takes cargo to the ISS for NASA and also is building a version of its Dragon spacecraft to transport astronauts there. Yesterday's GAO report assessed the progress SpaceX and its competitor in the commercial crew program, Boeing, are making on their programs. It warned that neither is likely to meet their current plans to launch crews in 2018 and called on NASA to develop a contingency plan if those capabilities slip to 2019. NASA agreed to prepare such a plan by March 13.
Asked about the likelihood that SpaceX will meet its 2018 schedule, Shotwell firmly asserted: "I'm confident we will fly in 2018," adding that their response to the GAO report is "the [heck] we won't fly before 2019."
Tomorrow's launch is on schedule as of press time, but Shotwell was asked about a helium leak that was discovered today. She explained that the leak is in the Falcon 9's second stage helium system and is being investigated. The launch remains "go" for now, but she said they would have a better understanding later this evening. If the launch does not take place tomorrow, the backup launch date is Sunday at 9:38 am ET. NASA TV will provide live coverage of the launch and a post-launch press conference currently scheduled for 12:00 pm ET tomorrow.
NASA has agreed to develop a contingency plan for ensuring astronauts can travel to and from the International Space Station (ISS) in case the commercial crew systems under development by Boeing and SpaceX are further delayed. The action comes in response to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released today that outlines delays that have occurred already and problems that may result in further schedule slippage. NASA told GAO in writing it would have the backup plan ready by March 13, 2017.
NASA has had to rely on Russia to take astronauts to and from ISS since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011. It contracts with Russia's Roscosmos space state corporation to purchase seats on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft. The current contract covers launches through 2018 and landings in 2019. About three years are required for Russia to build Soyuz spacecraft so NASA has endeavored in the past to sign contracts well in advance. Russia currently charges $82 million per seat.
NASA, Roscosmos and the other international partners in the ISS program -- Canada, Japan, and Europe -- have agreed to continue operating ISS at least until 2024. NASA provides transportation for the Canadian, Japanese and European astronauts under the terms of the Intergovernmental Agreement that governs the ISS partnership.
In 2011, NASA initiated a commercial crew program whereby Boeing and SpaceX are developing the CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon spacecraft, respectively, through public-private partnerships (PPPs). In PPPs, the government and industry share development costs and the government guarantees it will purchase certain services, in this case a fixed number of flights. Boeing will use the United Launch Alliance's (ULA) Atlas V rocket to launch CST-100 Starliner (ULA is a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin). SpaceX will launch Crew Dragon on its own Falcon 9 rocket.
At the beginning, NASA hoped commercial crew flights would begin in 2015, but that date slipped to 2017 at least in part due to lower than requested funding from Congress for NASA's share of the development costs. Additional delays have followed.
NASA's Commercial Crew Program (CCP) oversees the Boeing and SpaceX efforts and must certify that the systems meet strict standards. Operational flights cannot begin until the certification review is complete, which takes place after each company flies an uncrewed test flight and then a crewed test flight. At the moment, officially both companies plan to be certified in late 2018, but GAO reports that the CCP's own analysis "indicates that certification is likely to slip into 2019." GAO provided a chart comparing when the companies originally planned to be ready for their certification reviews and where they are now.
Risks identified by CCP and listed in the GAO report that could delay certification include the following:
With regard to the problems with SpaceX turbine blades, GAO reported: "During qualification testing in 2015, SpaceX identified cracks in the turbines of its engine. Additional cracks were later identified. Program officials told us that they have informed SpaceX that the cracks are an unacceptable risk for human spaceflight. SpaceX officials told us that they are working closely with NASA to eliminate these cracks in order to meet NASA's stringent targets for human rating."
GAO also concluded the companies could have difficulty meeting the requirement set by NASA that the probability of Loss of Crew (LOC) on a given flight be no more than 1 in 270. GAO listed three crew safety risks identified by CCP that apply to both companies:
NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier spoke about LOC requirements at a conference last week. He argued that too much importance is assigned to that metric, that it is useful in comparing designs, but not in determining absolute risk.
In light of all these problems and the impending end of the contract with Russia for Soyuz seats, GAO recommended that NASA develop and report to Congress on a contingency plan for how it could transport astronauts to and from ISS after the contract with Russia expires and whenever the commercial crew systems become available.
In a February 8, 2017 letter to GAO and published in the GAO report, NASA concurred and said it would develop such a plan by March 13, 2017.
Events of Interest