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In a talk to senior government leaders today, President Obama praised the work of Orion chief engineer Julie Kramer White and joked that he might hitch a ride to Mars himself one day. He also said he was "proud" to see the Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) succeed in its mission last week.
Obama gave three examples of outstanding work by government employees: a State Department employee helping with the Ebola outbreak in Africa, a Transportation Department employee involved in getting Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles safely onto a ship, and Kramer.
"Although everybody here is doing remarkable work, let’s face it, usually what we do isn’t rocket science -- unless it is. (Laughter.) So Julie Kramer White is helping America launch a new era of space exploration. Julie is NASA’s chief engineer for Orion, the new spacecraft that could carry humans farther into space than we’ve ever seen before. (Applause.) I’m sure you were all as proud as I was to see Orion’s first successful flight test last Friday. America was already the first nation to land a rover on Mars; when an American is the first human to set foot there, we’ll have Julie and her team to thank. And at that point, I’ll be out of the presidency and I might hitch a ride. (Laughter.) So thank you, Julie, for your great work. (Applause.)"
The President himself had not publicly commented on the EFT-1 mission until now, although his science adviser, John Holdren, released a short statement the day it flew.
Efforts by congressional leaders to pass a new FY2015 appropriations bill by midnight Thursday to avoid a government shutdown hit a snag last night. Although it is certainly possible still to complete action by Thursday, it would require agreement not only on outstanding policy issues, but skipping over some procedural steps.
The government is currently operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) that expires at midnight on Thursday, December 11. Congress needs to pass some type of appropriations bill -- another CR or full-year appropriations or a combination of both -- before then or there will be another shutdown as there was last year. (It is common to refer to a "government shutdown" although some parts of government do continue operating, including programs and services funded by fees rather than appropriations and those involving safety of life and property.)
A new FY2015 appropriations bill combining funding for departments and agencies covered by 11 of the 12 regular appropriations bills through the end of the fiscal year (September 30, 2015) and the 12th for a shorter period of time was expected to be introduced by midnight last night (Monday). The one bill that would not be funded through the end of the fiscal year is for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which includes immigration. As a signal of Republican disapproval of President Obama's executive order on immigration, DHS would be funded by a CR until January when Republicans will control both the House and Senate and will have more power to shape the congressional response to the President's executive order. This combination is sometimes referred to as a "cromnibus" -- a mix of a CR and an omnibus spending measure.
Ordinarily, bills must be made publicly available to Members of the House at least three days prior to a vote and since the vote is needed Thursday, the three day clock is already ticking.
However, disagreements over reauthorizing the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA) and modifying financial regulations under the Dodd-Frank law are still being worked according to media reports. In addition, some Republicans are opposed to funding any agencies to the end of the fiscal year. They want a short term CR for everyone until they control both the House and Senate.
No information has been made public about how any of those departments and agencies have fared in negotiations to date. NASA would receive a significant increase compared to the President's request if the final bill resembles what passed the House and was approved the Senate Appropriations Committee this year. NOAA satellite programs also generally fared well.
The goal has been for this 113th Congress to adjourn on Thursday, but an extension is quite possible. At least four scenarios could play out:
Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have made clear that they do not want another shutdown, so that seems the least likely outcome.
NASA has released photos of its Orion capsule floating in the Pacific at the end of its Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission on Friday. The capsule was recovered by a NASA-U.S. Navy team and will be on display for the media today (Monday, December 8) at Naval Base San Diego.
Orion was successfully launched on Friday, December 5, from Cape Canaveral, FL on a Delta IV rocket, after a one-day delay. It splashed down in the Pacific about four-and-a-half hours later after two Earth orbits. The purpose of the launch was primarily to test Orion's heat shield. Although the spacecraft is being designed to carry people, no one was aboard this version, which is only a test model that is not equipped with life support systems, for example. The first launch of an Orion carrying a crew is not expected until at least 2021.
Orion was recovered aboard the USS Anchorage, which is seen in the background of this photo of Orion floating in the Pacific at the end of its two-orbit mission. Two of the orange Crew Module Uprighting System (CMUS) airbags are shown in the photo. In one of the few glitches in the test, one CMUS underinflated and another did not inflate. They are used to turn the capsule right side up if it lands upside down in the water and fortunately were not needed. More photos are posted on NASA's Orion website.
Orion test spacecraft in Pacific Ocean off Baja California at end of EFT-1 mission, December 5, 2014. Photo credit: NASA
The EFT-1 mission was conducted by Lockheed Martin, Orion's manufacturer, which contracted for the Delta IV launch from United Launch Alliance. NASA is buying the resulting data from Lockheed Martin. NASA estimates the cost of the EFT-1 mission at $370 million, which is only for the launch and non-reusable parts of the spacecraft. It plans to use the capsule for another test flight, so its cost is not included in the estimate.
NASA is engaged in a media blitz surrounding the mission under the theme "Journey to Mars." While Orion is being designed to someday send humans to Mars, such flights are in the long term future. President Obama's National Space Policy calls for humans to orbit, not land on, Mars in the 2030s and many are skeptical that is achievable with the budgets envisioned for NASA for the indefinite future. Landing on Mars is an even more expensive and technically challenging level of effort than simply orbiting, since a spacecraft is needed that can descend through the atmosphere, land safely, support humans for many months, ascend and return to Earth. The Mars Curiosity rover -- famous for its "7 minutes of terror" during landing -- weighs only one ton, a fraction of what a spacecraft carrying humans would weigh.
President Obama did not release a statement after the EFT-1 test, but his science adviser, John Holdren, praised the mission although the statement was as much about broad Administration space policy, including its priority of developing commercial crew systems to take astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station (ISS), as Orion.
Orion originally was part of President George W. Bush's Constellation program to send astronauts back to the Moon by 2020 and to Mars thereafter. President Obama proposed cancelling the Constellation program in 2010 (as part of the FY2011 budget process), igniting a firestorm of controversy. Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress opposed cancelling Constellation and were not enthusiastic about commercial crew. In the end, Congress and the President compromised in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act where Congress agreed to the commercial crew initiative (though it has not provided the amount of funding the President wants) and to cancelling Constellation, but in return for NASA building a new large rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) to enable humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit. Orion was selected as the MPCV so is one of the few elements of the Constellation program to survive. The first destination for SLS/Orion remains controversial -- President Obama wants to send astronauts to an asteroid, but the concept has not generated much support.
Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee also praised the EFT-1 mission in separate statements. That committee's Space Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the status of Orion and SLS on Wednesday.
Here is our list of space policy-related events for the week of December 8-12, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session.
During the Week
This well could be the final week of the 113th Congress. If it can pass an appropriations bill to fund the government after December 11, when the current Continuing Resolution (CR) expires, and the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), this Congress will close up shop. The new 114th Congress, with Republicans in control of both the House and Senate, is expected to convene on January 6, 2015.
If all goes according to the plans of House and Senate leadership, this week Congress will pass a "cromnibus." That's a combination of a CR and an omnibus appropriations bill. The idea is that Congress will pass an omnibus appropriations bill combining 11 of the 12 regular appropriations bills (including Defense and Commerce-Justice-Science) to fund most government agencies through September 30, 2015. The exception is funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which includes immigration. As a protest against President Obama's immigration executive order, DHS would be funded only by a CR for a short period of time, probably through some time in January when Republicans control both the House and Senate and they have more power to engage the Obama White House. A cromnibus could be good news for DOD, NASA and NOAA, providing money for the rest of FY2015. NASA, in particular, could get a significant increase compared to President Obama's request if the end result follows what the House passed in May and the Senate Appropriations Committee approved in June.
Some Tea Party Republicans want their leaders to take a stronger stance against the President's immigration executive order, but at the moment it appears that House and Senate Republican leaders are more concerned about avoiding a government shutdown than scoring political points on immigration. They seem content to wait three weeks until they control the Senate as well as the House to fight that battle.
Also, the Senate is expected to pass the compromise version of the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which passed the House last week. It has a number of national security space provisions, including prohibiting the purchase of Russian RD-180 rocket engines after the current contract expires unless certain conditions are met.
Also coming up this week is the 9th Eilene M. Galloway Symposium on Critical Issues in Space Law on Wednesday. This year's theme is "Non-Traditional Commercial Space Activities: Legal and Poiicy Challenges, Opportunities and Ways Forward."
That's the same day the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on the status of NASA's Orion and Space Launch System programs.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday evening are listed below.
Monday, December 8
Tuesday, December 9
Wednesday, December 10
Wednesday-Thursday, December 10-11
Thursday, December 11
Thursday-Friday, December 11-12
In contrast to all the issues that cropped up yesterday, today's launch of the Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission went off without a hitch.
The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket lifted off on time at 7:05 am Eastern Standard Time (EST) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Orion is now in its preliminary orbit. Its second stage will fire again in a little over an hour to raise the apogee (highest point) to 3,600 miles. Orion will then descend through the atmosphere and splashdown in the Pacific four hours and 23 minutes after the launch.
EFT-1 is primarily a test of Orion's heatshield. The spacecraft will be recovered and returned to its manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, to determine how well the heat shield materials withstood the heat of reentry. NASA is buying the data from Lockheed Martin.
The House passed the compromise National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY2015 today by a vote of 300-119. The Senate is expected to the pass the bill next week. It includes restrictions on the future use of Russia’s RD-180 rocket engine for the Atlas V rocket and authorizes $220 million to begin development of a U.S. alternative.
The House passed its version of the bill on May 22 and the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) approved a version on June 2. The bill never made it to the floor of the Senate for a vote, however. Instead, House and Senate members negotiated the final version (H.R. 3979) behind closed doors over the past several months.
The bill authorizes $585 billion for the Department of Defense (DOD) -- $521 billion in base spending plus $64 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations (e.g. for the war in Afghanistan).
The bill has an entire subtitle devoted to a broad range of concerns about national security space programs (Subtitle A of Title XVI), including several provisions about space launch. Among them is a restriction on the use of Russian RD-180 engines for the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) Atlas V rocket. ULA’s Atlas V and Delta IV are Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs).
Section 1608 prohibits the Secretary of Defense (SecDef) from awarding or renewing a contract under the EELV program if it carries out space launch activities using rocket engines designed or manufactured in Russia. The language does provide waiver authority if needed for national security or if launch services could not be obtained at a fair and reasonable price otherwise.
The language also exempts engines that were ordered under the block buy contract that the Air Force signed with ULA in December 2013 or under any contract signed before February 1, 2014 where the engines were fully paid for by the contractor or covered by a legally binding commitment that the contractor pay for them.
U.S. reliance on Russian rocket engines to launch many U.S. national security satellites became a significant issue this spring after Russia annexed Crimea, beginning a downward spiral in U.S.-Russian geopolitical relationships. ULA and the Air Force insist that it is "business as usual" with the Russian company that builds the engines, but they have also acknowledged that it is time for the U.S. to build its own new liquid rocket engine. ULA President Tory Bruno recently framed it as a business decision, not a geopolitical one, however.
The bill also requires the SecDef to develop a new U.S. liquid rocket engine (actually a propulsion system) by 2019. The bill authorizes $220 million in FY2015, while noting that it “is not an authorization of funds for development of a new launch vehicle.” (It is important to note that authorization bills only recommend funding levels, they do not actually provide any money. Only appropriations bills give agencies money to spend. Congress has not completed action on any of the FY2015 appropriations bills yet.)
In response to a query about its reaction to the language in the bill, ULA said by email that “any effort to cut-off the RD-180 before a new reliable engine is available would result in billions of increased costs to the U.S. taxpayer and will leave the nation with a huge gap in national security capabilities.” ULA announced a partnership with Blue Origin in September to build a U.S. alternative to the RD-180.
The bill also –
To mention just a few of the other issues addressed in the bill, it restricts spending to 50 percent of the authorized amount for several programs -- Weather Satellite Follow-on System, Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) Space Data Exploitation, hosted payload and SBIRS wide field of view testbed, and protected tactical demonstration and protected military satellite communications testbed – until certain certifications or reports are provided to Congress.
It also prohibits use of funds authorized in the bill to store one of DOD’s existing weather satellites (Defense Meteorological Satellite Program –DMSP) until DOD certifies that it plans to launch the satellite and storing it is the most cost effective approach to meeting DOD requirements. That issue pertains to the last DMSP satellite, DMSP-20, which the Air Force appears ambivalent about launching, but the storage costs are high. It has been in storage for many years already. The DMSPs were supposed to be replaced by National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). DOD has been trying to decide the future of its weather satellite program since NPOESS was cancelled in 2010. It launched DMSP-19 earlier this year, but its plans for DMSP-20 are unsettled.
The bill also requires –
The text of the bill and the joint explanatory statement are posted on the websites of the House Armed Services Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Editor's Note: H.R. 3979 initially was a bill regarding volunteer firefighters and emergency responders that passed the House and Senate earlier this year. It then became a bill on emergency unemployment compensation. The text of the compromise version of the NDAA was inserted into that bill (replacing what was there), a procedure referred to as using it as a "legislative vehicle" for passing something else. The goal is to speed legislative action by amending a bill that has already passed both chambers. It is not uncommon.
The House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee's Space Subcommittee has scheduled a hearing next week on the status of NASA's Orion and Space Launch System (SLS) programs.
The hearing will be on December 10, 2014 at 10:00 am in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building. Witnesses are:
The full title of the hearing is "An Update on the Space Launch System and Orion: Monitoring the Development of the Nation's Deep Space Exploration Capabilities."
SLS and Orion are congressional favorites and there has been significant tension between Congress and the White House -- and therefore NASA -- on whether the Obama Administration is giving them the priority Congress intended when it passed the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. The Obama Administration wants to focus on the commercial crew program to facilitate the development of new crew space transportation capabilities by the private sector to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
With all the intense NASA publicity associated with the Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) launch, it is difficult to imagine that NASA is anything but supportive of Orion, but ultimately the question is about how NASA's money is allocated. In a constrained budget environment, does the money go to SLS/Orion or commercial crew? Congress thinks the Obama Administration is favoring commercial crew even though the Administration knows SLS/Orion is their priority.
The versions of the FY2015 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill that passed the House in May and was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee in June leave no doubt that SLS/Orion has priority over commercial crew in Congress. Whether the Obama Administration's human spaceflight priorities will be the focus of this hearing or if it is just an update on where SLS and Orion stand is not clear from the committee's announcement. Having the NASA CFO at a programmatic hearing is a little unusual, however, and the announcement indicates that he has not yet agreed to participate (or that NASA or the White House has not yet agreed to allow him to participate).
Launch of the EFT-1 mission, scheduled for today, was scrubbed due to weather and technical issues and has been rescheduled for tomorrow. Even if there is another delay, presumably it will be completed prior to the hearing.
The Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission today agreed to the merger of ATK and Orbital Sciences Corporation. The companies expect to complete the transaction in February 2015.
ATK and Orbital announced a "merger of equals" in April 2014. At the time, they expected the deal to close this month, but a variety of factors -- including the launch failure of Orbital's Antares rocket in October -- delayed it slightly. Last month ATK signaled that it wanted to proceed, but the shareholder vote has been postponed until January 27, 2015.
In a joint press release, the two companies said they were informed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that the FTC and the Justice Department have terminated the waiting period under the Hart-Scott-Rodino antitrust act effective today.
They expect the merger to close immediately after ATK spins off its sporting goods business, which will become a new, separate company, Vista Outdoor Inc. That is expected in February "subject to the satisfaction of remaining closing conditions" including shareholder approval.
This article is updated throughout following a post-scrub press conference at Kennedy Space Center.
NASA's attempt to launch the Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission this morning (December 4) was scrubbed due to weather and technical issues. NASA, Lockheed Martin and the United Launch Alliance (ULA) plan to try again tomorrow, although they are still looking at weather and technical issues. If the launch proceeds tomorrow, the launch window is the same (7:05 - 9:44 am EST). The weather forecast has deteriorated and now is only 40 percent favorable.
Today's 2 hour 37 minute launch window opened at 7:05 am EST. Launch was initially delayed for a few minutes because a boat entered restricted waters off Cape Canaveral. Then two launch attempts were scrubbed because automated sensors detected wind gusts exceeding the 21 knot limit for northerly winds and halted the countdown. Then technical issues arose with the fill and drain valves for the Delta IV Heavy's three core boosters (the three orange cylindrical tanks in the photo below).
United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle for NASA's Orion EFT-1 mission. Photo credit: ULA
Each of the three core boosters is fueled by liquid hydrogen (LH2) and liquid oxygen (LOX). There are LH2 and LOX fill and drain valves for each booster - a total of six. Although initial reports indicated that two of the LOX valves did not close and later that it was LH2 valves causing the problems, ULA's Dan Collins said at the post-scrub press conference that all the LOX valves operated perfectly; only the LH2 valves were problematical. Troubleshooting efforts did not solve the problem before the launch window closed, and ULA continues to assess the issue.
Collins, who is ULA's Chief Operating Officer, said he is confident the valves will be ready for tomorrow, however. He said ULA encountered this in a previous Delta IV Heavy launch and believes it is related to the valves getting too cold during long countdowns. LH2 is -423 degrees F (-253 degrees C).
The launch is being conducted by Lockheed Martin and ULA, not NASA (which is buying the resulting data from Lockheed Martin). While ULA was assessing weather and valves, Lockheed Martin was looking at how many times it could cycle the Orion spacecraft on and off and still conserve enough battery power for the rest of the mission. Orion uses external power until a certain point in the countdown (T-9 minutes) when it switches to internal power and begins drawing on its battery resources. That happened this morning each time the countdown passed that mark. Lockheed Martin Orion program manager Mike Hawes added that there are additional issues regarding how much data can be stored, so there are a finite number of times the countdown can be stopped and started from the Orion perspective.
As of the time of the post-scrub press conference at noon EST, the plan is to try again tomorrow, December 5. However, Collins explained that the Delta IV can launch two of any three days in a row because of fueling constraints. If they try again tomorrow and there is another scrub, they would not be able to try on Saturday. Sunday would be the earliest date to reschedule. Right now they only have permission to use the Eastern Test Range (of which Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is part) today, tomorrow and Saturday. They will continue to assess the technical issues with the Delta IV, the Orion recycle issues, and the weather outlook before they fuel the vehicle in case they decide to wait until Saturday.
The weather forecast for tomorrow has deteriorated to only 40 percent favorable (it had been 60 percent). On Saturday it is 70 percent favorable. The concern about wind speed and direction is because the wind can push the Delta IV -- as massive as it is -- once it lifts off and it could hit into surrounding structures near the launch pad.
When it does launch, the EFT-1 mission will last just 4.5 hours as Orion makes two orbits of the Earth and then reenters through the atmosphere at high speed to test its heat shield, splashing down in the Pacific off the coast of Baja California.
The chance that the launch of the Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission will take place tomorrow morning is slightly better than reported yesterday. Air Force weather officer Kathy Winters announced today that the chances of violating weather constraints are only 30 percent rather than 40 percent as previously forecast. That means a 70 percent chance that the weather will be OK for the 7:05 am Eastern Standard Time (EST) launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.
As anyone who follows space launches knows, weather is only one factor that determines if a launch will take place as scheduled, but at least from that standpoint, the situation is looking relatively good. There is a 2 hour 40 minute launch window, which also provides flexibility. Still, Winters pointed out that there is an easterly flow pattern that could cause coastal showers or gusty winds that leave a 30 percent chance of a weather-related scrub.
The launch is on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta-IV Heavy rocket. Orion is being developed to someday carry astronauts beyond low Earth orbit, but no one will be aboard this flight, or the next one in 2017 or 2018, which will be launched on the first flight of the new Space Launch System (SLS) NASA is developing. The first flight with a crew, using SLS, is not anticipated until 2021.
The NASA-Lockheed Martin EFT-1 mission will only last about 4.5 hours before the Orion capsule splashes down in the Pacific Ocean where it will be recovered. The weather at the recovery site also looks good for tomorrow.
EFT-1 is primarily testing heat shield materials. It has been four decades since the United States sent a spacecraft intended to carry people as far from Earth as Orion will go -- 3,600 miles -- and it will reenter at a much higher velocity than spacecraft that go back and forth to the International Space Station.
NASA is holding a dizzying array of traditional and social media events to build interest in EFT-1 using the theme Journey to Mars. While Orion is indeed intended to support human trips to Mars someday, that someday is far in the future. President Obama's 2010 National Space Policy calls for humans to orbit -- but not land on -- Mars in the 2030s and a recent National Research Council report concluded that unless NASA gets a significant budget increase, it will not happen until long after that. Orion is just one piece of hardware needed for a mission to Mars and NASA would need money to build a habitation module for the crew to live in for the long trip, for example, and a landing system if the goal is to land on Mars.
Nonetheless, the launch tomorrow is a first step. NASA TV will provide live coverage beginning at 4:30 am EST and lasting until splashdown. NASA said today that it hopes to be able to show real-time images of the capsule returning to Earth under its parachutes, but will not provide live coverage of recovery operations.
Orion looks like the Apollo capsule and will splashdown in the Pacific under three parachutes as Apollo did. In response to a question as to whether NASA has been consulting with people who worked on the Apollo program regarding the EFT-1 launch and recovery (the answer was yes), Orion lead flight director Mike Sarafin revealed that iconic Apollo flight director Gene Kranz will be a VIP guest in mission control at Johnson Space Center, TX during the EFT-1 mission. Kranz is best known for leading the effort to return the Apollo 13 crew safely to Earth after their spacecraft experienced an explosion while enroute to the Moon. He is associated with the phrase "Failure is Not an Option," even though he never spoke those words during the Apollo 13 emergency. They were spoken by his character in the movie Apollo 13 and he also chose it as the title of his autobiography.
Events of Interest