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Final FY2017 Appropriations Bill Gives NASA Big Boost

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-May-2017 (Updated: 05-May-2017 04:22 PM)

Over the weekend, congressional leaders agreed on a final FY2017 omnibus appropriations bill.  NASA would be funded at $19.653 billion, a substantial increase over the amount requested last year by President Obama and somewhat more than approved by the House and Senate appropriations committees.  The recommendations approved by the committees were never finalized by Congress last year.  In the intervening months, the committees obviously found a way to direct even more funding to the space agency.

The bill, H.R. 244 as amended, still must pass the House and Senate, but key members of both chambers clearly believe they have the votes to do so.  President Trump would then have to sign it into law.  Presumably congressional leaders have coordinated with the White House to ensure that happens even though the bill does not include elements of the supplemental request Trump sent to Congress in March, such as funding for the border wall with Mexico.  That will be debated as part of the FY2018 appropriations process.

Congress is using H.R. 244 as the legislative vehicle for the omnibus appropriations bill.  It originally was on an unrelated topic (HIRE Vets).  It is common for Congress to use an existing, unrelated bill as a vehicle for an appropriations measure like this because it has already gone through part of the legislative process so can move along quickly.

FY2017 is more than half over already.  It began on October 1, 2016.  The government has been operating under a series of Continuing Resolutions (CRs) that fund agencies at their FY2016 levels. The most recent CR, passed last Friday, expires this Friday, May 5.  This new "full year" omnibus appropriations bill is expected to pass the House as early as Wednesday, followed by Senate passage soon thereafter to complete action on the FY2017 budget before that deadline.

This is an omnibus appropriations bill that combines 11 of the 12 regular appropriations bills into one package (the 12th bill, Military Construction/Veterans Affairs, is the only one that cleared Congress last year).   The Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) portion, which funds NASA and NOAA, is Division B.

President Obama's FY2017 budget request for NASA was convoluted.  Although NASA budget materials show the request as $19.025 billion, only $18.262 billion was requested from appropriated funds -- the money over which appropriations committees have jurisdiction.  The remaining $763 million comprised $663 million that somehow was supposed to be extracted from the "mandatory" portion of the budget that funds programs like Medicare and Social Security, plus $100 million from a tax Obama wanted to impose on oil companies. The appropriations committees ignored that part of the request and dealt only with the $18.262 billion request for appropriated funds.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $19.306 billion, close to the $19.285 billion Congress provided for NASA in FY2016.   The House Appropriations Committee was more generous, approving $19.508 billion. 

The final bill adds even more, providing a total of $19.653 billion, an increase of  $1.391 billion over Obama's request for appropriated funds. 

Key elements of the funding provided for NASA include the following.  Comparisons to "the request" are to the amounts requested from appropriated funds (i.e., excluding the mythical $763 million).  An updated version of SpacePolicyOnline.com's NASA budget fact sheet will be posted soon (available from our left menu under "Our Fact Sheets and Reports").  It includes a table comparing FY2016 appropriations with the FY2017 request as it worked its way through the authorization and appropriation processes.

  • Science:  $5.765 billion (the request was $5.303 billion).
    • Earth science: $1.921 billion, including $90 million for PACE and $130.9 million for Landsat 9 (President Trump has proposed cancelling PACE in his FY2018 budget request).  The request was $1.973 billion.
    • Planetary science: $1.846 billion, including $363 million for outer planets of which $275 million is for the Europa mission.  The request was $1.391 billion. 
    • Astrophysics: $750 million, including $105 million for WFIRST, $85.2 million for SOFIA, and $98.3 million for Hubble.  The request was $696.5 million.
    • James Webb Space Telescope:  $569.4 million, the same as the request.
    • Heliophysics: $678.5 million.  The request was $673.7 million.
    • Education and Public Outreach:  $37 million to be derived equally from planetary science and astrophysics and administered by the Astrophysics Division (this amount is included in the $750 million for astrophysics, not in addition to it, according to a table in the report accompanying the bill)
  • Aeronautics:  $660 million (the request was $634.5 million).
  • Space Technology:  $686.5 million (the request was $690.6 million), including $35 million for nuclear propulsion, $30 million for small launch capabilities, $35 million for additive manufacturing, $25.718 million for optical communications, and $66.6 million for solar electric propulsion.
  • Exploration:  $4.324 billion (the request was $3.164 billion), including direction that NASA continue to develop advanced propulsion, asteroid deflection and grappling technologies associated with the Asteroid Redirect Mission but "these activities should not distract from the overarching goal of sending humans to Mars" and $75 million is designated for habitation augmentation activities.  
  • Space Operations: $4.951 billion (the request was $5.076 billion), including the full request of $1.185 billion for commercial crew and "up to" $1.028 billion for commercial cargo.  No further breakdown was provided.
  • Education:  $100 million (the request was $100.1 million), including $18 million for EPSCoR, $40 million for Space Grant, $32 million for MUREP, and $10 million for STEM Education and Accountability Projects (President Trump has proposed eliminating NASA's Office of Education in his FY2018 budget request).
  • Safety, Security and Mission Services: $2.769 billion (the request was $2.837 billion).
  • Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration (CECR): $360.7 million (the request was $419.8 million).
  • Office of Inspector General:  $37.9 million (the request was $38.1 million).

The big winners were planetary exploration and human exploration.  Many other accounts also saw increases of varying magnitude.  Space Operations was the only area of flight programs to get less than requested -- $4.951 billion instead of $5.0976 billion.  Since commercial crew and commercial cargo were funded at their requested levels, the reductions will have to come from other parts of the account such as International Space Station operations or Space and Flight Support.  The $68 million cut to Safety, Security and Mission Services and the $59 million cut to CECR could affect NASA's internal operations.  They fund day-to-day operations and construction projects at NASA's field centers around the country, for example, including cybersecurity activities.

The next step for the omnibus appropriations bill is to get a "rule" from the House Rules Committee spelling out what amendments may be offered (if any) and how much time is allowed for debate.  The committee will meet tomorrow (Tuesday) at 3:00 pm ET.   The text of the bill and explanatory statement are posted on the Rules Committee's website.  The bill will then go the House floor for debate and a vote, then to the Senate, then to the President's desk.  That is all expected to completed before Friday midnight when the existing CR expires.

Congress has been able to be generous to NASA for the past several years because Congress and the Obama White House agreed to relax spending caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA).  The last agreement relaxed the caps through FY2017.  They return for FY2018.  Whether the Trump Administration and Congress will agree to relax them -- or repeal the law entirely -- remains to be seen.   President Trump asserted in his FY2018 budget blueprint that he had repealed the BCA for defense spending.  He cannot repeal a law; Congress must do that.  In any case, "repealing" only the limits for defense spending while keeping them for non-defense spending (like NASA) would certainly encounter strong resistance in Congress, especially from Democrats.

The point is that the largely happy outcome for NASA in FY2017 may not be a bellwether for FY2018 or future years.  NASA clearly has strong support in Congress, especially from the powerful chairmen of the House and Senate CJS subcommittees -- Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) -- but NASA is just one small part of federal spending, which is deeply affected by debates over tax reform and deficit reduction.  Anything can happen.

Correction: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the bill and explanatory statement did not provide details on funding under the Exploration account.  A table in the explanatory statement does specify the following:  Orion, $1.35 billion; SLS, $2.15 billion; Exploration Ground Systems, $429 million, and Exploration R&D, $395 million.

What's Happening in Space Policy May 1-6, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Apr-2017 (Updated: 30-Apr-2017 02:15 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of May 1-6, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

SpaceX scrubbed its launch of a National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) satellite (NROL-76) at the last minute this morning.  They will try again tomorrow (Monday) morning at 7:00 am ET at NASA Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39-A.  Today's problem was a "sensor issue" apparently in the first stage.  This is SpaceX's first launch for NRO.  The nature of the satellite is classified, of course.  SpaceX provided a webcast today, so probably will tomorrow as well.

In Washington, it is STILL Groundhog Day.  Congress did not complete action on FY2017 appropriations last week.  Instead, it passed another extension of the Continuing Resolution (CR) that has been funding the government since October 1.  This is just a one-week extension, to this Friday, May 5.  They appeared to be fairly close to agreement at the end of last week after the White House backed away from its insistence that funding be included in the FY2017 bill for the border wall with Mexico, but Democrats continue to worry about "poison pill" provisions the Republicans may be planning.  No bill has been introduced yet, so the actual text is not available for perusal.  The House plans to be in recess on Friday (and all of the following week), so they have four days to work everything out -- or pass another extension.  The President plans to send his complete FY2018 budget request to Congress on May 15 (he sent over a "blueprint" in March, but with few details), so it would be nice if they could finish FY2017 before then.

We still don't know very much about what the President's plans are for space.  In the meantime, the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) and the Space Studies Board (SSB) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are holding a symposium on Tuesday to offer their views.  In 2009, ASEB and SSB published the report America's Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs to provide advice to that new President, Barack Obama.  The study committee that wrote the report was chaired by Gen. Lester Lyles (Ret.) who went on to become chair of ASEB and now chairs the NASA Advisory Council.   He will recap the key points of his 2009 study as a lead in to Tuesday's discussion on "America's Future in Civil Space."   Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot, other NASA officials, and distinguished members of the space science, engineering and policy communities will be there.  Registration for in-person attendance has closed because all the seats are taken, but the event will be webcast. 

ASEB itself is meeting tomorrow (Monday) and, among other things, will celebrate its 50th anniversary.  Happy Birthday, ASEB!  SSB will meet Wednesday and Thursday.  SSB's committee performing the mid-term review of the planetary science Decadal Survey is meeting Thursday and Friday.   Some sessions of all of those meetings are closed, but many are open.

An interesting symposium will be held in one of the Senate meeting rooms tomorrow (Monday) morning on Ultra Low Cost Access to Space (ULCATS), a topic on which Air University recently published a report.   It features an impressive list of speakers, including Newt Gingrich and Bob Walker, representatives from Blue Origin, SpaceX, Stratolaunch, and United Launch Alliance, plus high ranking defense department officials and some of the authors of the report.  We've inquired as to whether there will be a livestream or archived audio- or video-cast and will add that information to our calendar item once we get an answer.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for others we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.

Monday, May 1

Tuesday, May 2

Tuesday-Wednesday, May 2-3

Wednesday, May 3

Wednesday-Thursday, May 3-4

Thursday-Friday, May 4-5

Friday-Saturday, May 5-6

NASA Agrees With GAO -- First SLS/Orion Mission Will Slip to 2019

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Apr-2017 (Updated: 27-Apr-2017 08:41 PM)

In response to a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released today, the head of NASA's human exploration program agreed with GAO's conclusion that Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), the first flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew capsule, will slip from late 2018 into 2019.  GAO's report warned that a delay was likely.  NASA's written response, published as an appendix, agrees and states that the agency is in the process of setting "a new target in 2019."

The GAO audit of SLS, Orion and associated Exploration Ground Systems (EGS), prepared for the chairs of the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees that fund NASA, was conducted from July 2016 to April 2017.  GAO found that although the programs were making progress, "schedule pressure is escalating as technical challenges continue to cause schedule delays" while each has little cost or schedule reserve remaining.  It called the existing launch readiness date of November 2018 "precarious."

The GAO report aligns with a recent report from NASA's Office of Inspector General that also expressed concern about cost and schedule delays.

GAO made two recommendations to NASA: as part of the FY2018 budget process, confirm whether the existing EM-1 schedule is achievable and, if not, propose a new schedule.

GAO provides drafts of its reports to whatever agency is being audited and allows the agency to respond in writing, with the response published as part of the report.  NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, Bill Gerstenmaier, replied to this report on April 12, 2017. 

Gerstenmaier said NASA agrees "that maintaining a November 2018 launch readiness date is not in the best interest of the program, and we are in the process of establishing a new target date in 2019." 

He added that some of the concerns raised by GAO "are no longer concerns, and new ones have appeared. Caution should be used in referencing the report on the specific technical issues, but the overall conclusions are valid."

He concurred with GAO's two recommendations and said that NASA would complete its analysis of a new launch readiness date by September 30, 2017.  He noted that NASA is assessing the EM-1 schedule with regard to the potential for putting crew on EM-1 (rather than waiting for EM-2 as has been planned until now); impacts of recent tornado damage to the Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans, LA where the SLS core stage is being developed; and the FY2018 budget process.

Congress directed NASA to develop SLS and a "mutli-purpose crew vehicle" (MPCV) in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.  

President Obama had just cancelled the George W. Bush administration's Constellation program to return humans to the lunar surface by 2020 and someday go to Mars.  Obama proposed investing in "game-changing" propulsion technologies for 5 years before deciding on what new launch vehicle to build for future human exploration.  Under Bush, NASA had been developing the Ares I and Ares V rockets and the Orion crew spacecraft.  Obama's focus was on extending the International Space Station (ISS) from 2015 to 2020, but he adopted Bush's decision to terminate the space shuttle as soon as ISS construction was completed and therefore called for creating public-private partnerships to develop commercial systems to take crews back and forth.  The "commercial crew" idea built on the "commercial cargo" program initiated in the Bush Administration that saw development of the SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon and Orbital ATK Antares/Cygnus systems in use today.  (SpaceX and Boeing are currently working on commercial crew systems, but those schedules also have been delayed.)

Congress, however, had passed two laws, the 2005 and 2008 NASA authorization acts, on a bipartisan basis endorsing the Constellation program.  Congressional Republicans and Democrats alike were furious at Obama's decision to cancel Constellation with no replacement program that would, for example, absorb workers laid off from the space shuttle.   Obama quickly decided to give a speech a Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010 where he announced a new human spaceflight destination -- an asteroid by 2025 -- as a steppingstone to Mars, but also nixed plans to send Americans back to the lunar surface.  The asteroid mission evolved into the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), with activities in lunar orbit, but no landings on the surface.  Obama set a goal of putting astronauts in orbit around Mars in the 2030s, but with regard to humans landing on Mars, said only that he expected it within his lifetime.

After months of fractious debate between the White House and Congress, agreement was reached on the 2010 NASA authorization act.  It took a middle ground, allowing Obama to proceed with the commercial crew initiative for ISS, but also directing NASA to build SLS and an MPCV for sending humans beyond low Earth orbit. 

Hence began the SLS program, with the expected first launch, EM-1, with an uncrewed Orion spacecraft in 2017.  The first launch with a crew, EM-2, was expected in August 2021.

By 2015, those dates had slipped to late 2018 for EM-1 and April 2023 for EM-2.  SLS supporters in Congress, including Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee that funds NASA, pushed to keep the EM-2 launch date in 2021.  SLS is managed by Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL.  Congress added money to the amounts requested by the Obama Administration for the past several years to keep SLS on schedule.  NASA officials continually assert that although 2023 is the EM-2 date to which they are officially committed, August 2021 is an "internal" planning date.

Today's GAO report does not address the EM-2 schedule, but if EM-1 slips to 2019, it seems unlikely that EM-2 could take place as early as 2021.  Among other things, EM-2 will use a different upper stage that is taller than the one for EM-1 and thus requires changes to ground facilities.  Gerstenmaier said in February that it will take 33 months to make those changes.

Meanwhile, the Trump Administration wants to terminate ARM, but asked NASA to determine the feasibility of putting a crew on EM-1 instead of waiting for EM-2 as has been planned all along.  Acting NASA Chief Scientist Gale Allen said last week that the EM-1 crew feasibility study is completed and the agency is awaiting a "go forward plan."

In short, the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program continues to be uncertain, despite President Trump's assertion last week that he wants Americans to get to Mars sooner than currently planned.

 

Space Station Spacesuits Suffer After Shuttle Shutdown

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Apr-2017 (Updated: 26-Apr-2017 07:04 PM)

NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report today assessing NASA's management of its existing spacesuits and development of new models.  It expressed concern about Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuits used on the International Space Station (ISS) for extravehicular activity (EVAs, or spacewalks, which cannot be returned to Earth easily for maintenance following termination of the space shuttle program.  As for new spacesuits, NASA Headquarters was criticized for continuing one contract for 5 years after Johnson Space Center recommended its termination.  Overall, the OIG is concerned whether NASA will have the spacesuits it needs in the next decade.

For the space shuttle program, 18 EMUs were produced.  Eleven are still available, but their design assumed they would be returned to Earth with every space shuttle mission and routinely serviced.   After the shuttle was terminated in 2011, however, the only way to bring them back is on SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, the only space station cargo vehicle designed to survive reentry.  (Russia's Soyuz spacecraft, which ferries crews, also survives reentry, but there is no extra room for empty spacesuits needing repair.)

Since the ISS was first occupied in 2000, NASA has allowed the required ground maintenance interval to grow from one year to six years or 25 spacewalks, whichever comes first.


Snip from page 15 NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) report IG-17-018, NASA's Management and Development of Spacesuits, April 2017.

The age and condition of the U.S. spacesuits hit the headlines in 2013 when European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Luca Parmitano almost drowned when water collected inside his helmet during a spacewalk (EVA 23) due to a blocked filter.  The OIG report revealed that was one of 19 "significant incidents" with spacesuits in the space station era (2000 to today), five of which involved water.  A total of 156 U.S. spacewalks were conducted during that period of time.  All five of the space-station-era water events occurred since 2010.  Parmitano's EVA 23 and two others (EVA 22, also in 2013, and EVA 35 in 2016) involved water intrusion into the helmet.  The others were condensation/fog.


Snip from page 11 NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) report IG-17-018, NASA's Management and Development of Spacesuits, April 2017.

Of the 18 original spacesuits, five were destroyed during missions (two on Challenger, two on Columbia, and one on the SpaceX CRS-7 failure) and one during ground testing in 1980.  Another was a ground certification unit only.  That leaves 11 -- four on the ISS and the rest on Earth "in various stages of refurbishment and maintenance."

With the cadence of EVAs NASA is planning for the next several years, plus the possibility of unplanned EVAs that might be required, the OIG report concludes that NASA "will be challenged to continue to support the EVA needs of the ISS with the current fleet of EMUs through 2024 -- a challenge that will escalate significantly if Station operations are extended to 2028."

NASA has been funding development of new spacesuits for the past decade, though not for use on ISS.   Plans to send crews beyond LEO, where ISS is located, for the first time since the Apollo missions means new spacesuits are needed for exploration of that environment.  The OIG calculates that since 2007 NASA has spent almost $200 million on three such efforts:  the Constellation Space Suit System (CSSS) for the Bush-era Constellation program ($135.6 million), the Advanced Space Suit Project managed by NASA's Advanced Exploration Systems office ($51.6 million), and the Orion Crew Survival System or OCSS ($12 million).  OCSS is being designed for launch, entry and abort, not spacewalks.

"Despite this investment, the Agency remains years away from having a flight-ready spacesuit capable of replacing the EMU or suitable for EVA use on future exploration missions."  Given the current schedule "there is significant risk a next-generation prototype will not be sufficiently mature in time for testing on the ISS" prior to 2024. 

The United States and the other ISS partners -- Russia, Japan, Canada and 11 European countries working through ESA -- have agreed to operate ISS until then, although some NASA and other U.S. officials express hope that it could be extended at least until 2028, 30 years after the first modules were launched.

The OIG was especially critical of a NASA Headquarters (HQ) decision to continue funding the CSSS contract after 2011 when Johnson Space Center (JSC) recommended it be terminated following cancellation of the Constellation program.  NASA HQ continued to fund it for 5 more years rather than redirecting that money, $80.8 million over that time period, to the Advanced Space Suit Project. That project has struggled in recent years both in terms of getting funding and determining its scope.

As for development of the OCSS Orion survival spacesuit, the OIG worries that there is little schedule margin if NASA accelerates Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2) to 2021.  EM-2 is currently on the books as the first Orion mission to carry a crew.  (NASA is studying whether to put a crew on the first mission, EM-1, but no decision has been made.)  Officially EM-2 is scheduled for 2023, but NASA is trying to move that date up to August 2021.   Right now, the OCSS will not be ready until March 2021, just 5 months earlier.

The report made three recommendations to NASA: develop and implement a formal plan for design, production and testing of next-generation EVA spacesuits; conduct a trade study of the cost of maintaining the existing space station EMU spacesuits versus developing a new version; and apply lessons learned from operating existing spacesuits to the design of the next-generation models. 

NASA management concurred with those recommendations, but disagreed with the OIG's assessment of the value that was returned from the CSSS contract arguing that they got their money's worth.  The OIG did not relent, ending the report by restating that the extra 5 years of funding "did not serve the best interests of the Agency's spacesuit development efforts."

Trump Wants to Get To Mars Sooner Rather than Later

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Apr-2017 (Updated: 24-Apr-2017 08:57 PM)

During a telephone call with NASA astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) today, President Donald Trump stressed the goal of getting kids interested in STEM education, but he also made clear that he wants to accelerate efforts to get humans to Mars.  While he initially joked about doing it in his first term or "at worst" in his second, he brought it up again later in a seemingly more serious manner and said that he thought it would be done sooner than the 2030s.

Last month, Trump signed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 into law.  It has extensive language about the United States leading an effort to get humans to Mars, including a study of a "Mars 2033" mission to be launched that year.  It does not specify whether that mission would be to orbit or land on Mars.

Today, he asked NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson what the timeline was.  She replied that the goal is to send humans to Mars in the 2030s, adding that it is expensive and time consuming.  Trump replied -- with a smile on his face and off-screen onlookers chuckling --  that "we want to try and do it during my first term or, at worst, during my second, so we'll have to speed that up."  During a more serious moment later on, he remarked that "I think we'll do it a lot sooner than anyone is thinking."

Trump phoned Whitson and fellow ISS astronaut Jack Fischer to congratulate Whitson on breaking the record for longest U.S. cumulative time in space. Whitson is part-way through her third long-duration mission to ISS and currently is in command of the facility.  She was the first woman to command ISS during her second mission in 2008 and is the first woman to command it twice.  Today she broke the 534-day U.S. cumulative time in space record held by Jeff Williams.  Fischer just arrived on ISS last Thursday along with Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin.   ESA's Thomas Pesquet rounds out the current ISS crew.  He arrived with Whitson last November. 


NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer aboard the International Space Station while talking with President Donald Trump, April 24, 2017.  Screengrab from NASA TV.

Russia's Gennady Padalka holds the world record for cumulative time in space -- 879 days.   Scott Kelly holds the U.S. record for CONTINUOUS time in space on a single mission -- 340 days.  Russia's Valeriy Polyakov holds the world record for continuous time in space -- 438 days.

President Trump was joined by his daughter Ivanka and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins who recently returned from her own ISS mission where she sequenced DNA in space for the first time.


NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, President Donald Trump, daughter Ivanka Trump, in Oval Office talking to NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer on ISS, April 24, 2017.  Screengrab from NASA TV.

Ivanka Trump pointed out that her father recently signed into law the Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators Researchers and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act to encourage woman and girls to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.  Rubins and Whitson both explained how they became interested in science and space.

Although much of the roughly 20-minute phone call was about STEM education, the President's FY2018 budget blueprint calls for eliminating NASA's Office of Education.  The disconnect between today's message and the reality of his budget request was not explained.

Similarly, the President's obvious interest in accelerating efforts to send people to Mars is not reflected in his FY2018 budget request.  Trump's FY2018 budget blueprint calls for funding the Space Launch System rocket and the Orion crew spacecraft at their current levels, not to mention a habitat and other needed systems.  The NASA Office of Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have both expressed skepticism that those programs can maintain their current schedules.

Whitson also noted that human Mars exploration will require international participation.  Fischer elaborated on that theme, remarking that he launched into space from Kazakhstan with a Russian colleague, arrived at the ISS and immediately set down to work installing experiments in Japan's Kibo module.  The next day he said he watched ESA/French astronaut Pesquet drive Canada's Canadarm2 to grab the Cygnus spacecraft, built in Virginia, to dock with ISS.  "The International Space Station is by far the best example of international cooperation of what we can do when we work together."

In terms of the technology needed to get people to Mars, Whitson pointed out that water is a "precious resource" in space and, to that end, ISS astronauts recycle their urine to make it drinkable and "it's not as bad as it sounds."  Trump affably replied that he was "glad to hear that," but "better you than me."

Whitson spoke confidently about humans going to Mars in the 2030s and encouraged students who might be listening that they will "have a part" in sending people to Mars if they study STEM fields because it will happen soon. 

President Trump's phone call to the ISS today was his first.  He joins a long list of Presidents making phone calls to astronauts in space.  According to a NASA History Office website, President Ronald Reagan made the most (11), President Obama was next (6), followed by George H.W. Bush (5, one of which was when he was Vice President), Clinton (4 - including the first shuttle-Mir flight), George W. Bush (2 - including the return-to-flight mission after Columbia), Richard Nixon (2 - to the Apollo 11 and Skylab 1 crews), and Gerald Ford (1 - during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project).  

Video of the telephone call is posted on NASA's YouTube channel.

What's Happening in Space Policy April 23-28, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Apr-2017 (Updated: 23-Apr-2017 12:17 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of April 23-28, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

President Trump and his daughter Ivanka will make a 20-minute phone call to NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson aboard the International Space Station (ISS) tomorrow (Monday) morning at 10:00 am ET.  It will be broadcast on a number of NASA media assets including NASA TV, Facebook, Ustream and YouTube. The Trumps are phoning Whitson to congratulate her on breaking the record for U.S. cumulative time in space -- 534 days (currently held by Jeff Williams).  Whitson is in command of the ISS right now. This is her third trip to the ISS. She was the first woman to command ISS during her second visit in 2008 and now is the first woman to command it twice. She also has set a record for the most spacewalks by a woman (8 so far).  Her duration record is for CUMULATIVE time in space, acquired over three spaceflights.  Scott Kelly holds the U.S. record for CONTINUOUS time in space on a single mission (340 days).

We have no advance knowledge of what the conversation will be about, but might he provide a hint on his plans for human spaceflight?  His proposed FY2018 budget for NASA's human spaceflight program is status quo.  NASA Acting Chief Scientist Gale Allen said last week that the agency is expecting flat budgets, not even adjusted for inflation, for the next 5 years, so it seems unlikely that the President has any big changes in mind for the government-funded program.  Since the Trump Administration supports public private partnerships for space activities, might an announcement of a COTS-like "commercial station" program be in the works to kickstart a new low Earth orbit (LEO) space station to succeed ISS?  NASA has made clear the U.S. government will not be building another LEO space station and is looking to the commercial sector to build LEO facilities for which NASA could be one, but only one, user.  Separately, Allen also said that NASA's study of whether to put a crew on the first SLS/Orion mission is completed and the agency is awaiting a "go forward" plan.  Maybe he'll say something about that.  Or perhaps it will just be a friendly phone call.

Apart from that, it's Groundhog Day in Washington.  Once again Congress must pass an appropriations bill by Friday or the government will shut down. (Which is to say that agencies that get their money from the discretionary part of the budget -- DOD, NASA, NOAA etc. -- will shut down unless they are exempt for reasons of public safety or meet other criteria). The 114th Congress bumped FY2017 funding decisions over into the 115th Congress with a Continuing Resolution (CR) that expires on Friday, April 28.  Under the CR, agencies are funded at their prior year (FY2016) levels.  FY2017 is more than half over already, but something needs to be done about the remaining 5 months (through September 30).

When President Obama was in office, it was ultra conservative Republicans that threatened (and in one case succeeded) in shutting down the government.  With Republicans now in control of the House, Senate and White House, it is largely Democrats who are making the threats.  Among their issues is that Republicans want to significantly increase defense spending at the expense of non-defense programs.  As an example, Trump submitted a supplemental request for FY2017 last month that would add $30 billion for defense plus another $3 billion to build the border wall with Mexico, all to be partially offset by $18 billion in cuts to non-defense programs (including $50 million from NASA's space science program and $90 million from NOAA's satellite programs).   Many Democrats and some Republicans also object to the funding for the border wall.  Before the two-week recess that is just ending there were indications that congressional Republicans were agreeing not to fight the border wall battle now so they can finish the FY2017 appropriations process, but the Trump White House reportedly is pushing hard for its inclusion.

It's high stakes politics once again with an uncertain outcome.  Rumors are that they might pass another short term (one week) CR to provide more time to reach agreement.  It is usually true that such decisions are made only when there is an ominous deadline looming, so it's not clear why adding another week would make much of a difference.

Bear in mind that this is all about FY2017, the current fiscal year.  They haven't begun work on funding for FY2018, which starts on October 1.  Trump sent a "budget blueprint" or "skinny budget" outlining the contours of his FY2018 spending plan last month.  That's the request that indicates a status quo budget for NASA ($19.100 billion in FY2018 compared to $19.285 billion for FY2016), with some cuts to Earth science and the elimination of NASA's Office of Education among the more contentious issues.  Some of NOAA's satellite programs are in for cuts, but the blueprint doesn't specify where. The detailed FY2018 budget request is expected to be sent to Congress on May 15.

Also on Capitol Hill this week, the Senate Commerce Committee's space subcommittee and the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will each hold hearings on Wednesday at exactly the same time (10:00 am ET).  The Senate hearing is on the regulatory environment for commercial space and features the leaders of four prominent commercial space companies (Bigelow Aerospace, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and Made in Space).  The House hearing is on advances in the search for life with representatives from NASA (Thomas Zurbuchen, head of the Science Mission Directorate), the SETI Institute (Seth Shostak) and academia (Adam Burgasser from UC San Diego and James Kasting from Pennsylvania State University).

The House hearing takes place as the astrobiology community gathers in Mesa, AZ all week for the 2017 Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon).  Some sessions and two public lectures (Tuesday and Thursday nights) will be webcast.  A "town hall" meeting today (Sunday) will discuss the results of the Science Definition Team report on a Europa lander. The Trump Administration's FY2018 budget blueprint specifically does not include funding for a Europa lander (only for the Jupiter orbiter/Europa flyby "Europa Clipper" mission), but discussions about a lander are continuing since it has strong support by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA.  It is Congress, not the President, that decides how government money is spent.  Culberson is convinced life (microbial, not intelligent) exists in Europa's subsurface ocean and is adamant that a NASA probe find it in the next decade.  Today's town hall meeting will be available by WebEx/telecon.  Remember that although Arizona is in the Mountain Time zone, it does not observe Daylight Saving Time, so the offset from your time zone is like Pacific Daylight Time (e.g., add three hours, not two, to get Eastern Daylight Time).

The first meeting of the newly chartered NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee is Monday and Tuesday.  NASA has restructured its advisory apparatus that is subject to the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA).  This group used to be a subcommittee of the Science Committee of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), so any findings or recommendations had to go from the subcommittee up to the full committee up to NAC up to the NASA Administrator and then down to the Associate Administrator for Science and then, at last, down to the Astrophysics Division Director.  A long route where advice could be changed or eliminated.  Now the group -- and others that also used to be subcommittees -- can report directly to division directors.  Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz will brief the committee tomorrow morning (9:45-11:45 am ET) and later in the meeting program officials will provide updates on the James Webb Space Telescope and the Wide Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST), among other topics. The meeting is at NASA HQ in Washington, DC and is available remotely via WebEx and telecon.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for others we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.

Sunday, April 23

Monday, April 24

Monday-Tuesday, April 24-25

Monday-Friday, April 24-28

Tuesday, April 25

Tuesday-Thursday, April 25-27

  • Space 2.0, Crowne Plaza San Jose-Silicon Valley, Milpitas, CA
  • AIAA Defense Forum (SECRET/US ONLY), JHU Applied Physics Lab, Laurel, MD

Wednesday, April 26

Thursday, April 27

China Takes Another Step Towards Permanent Space Station - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Apr-2017 (Updated: 22-Apr-2017 01:19 PM)

China successfully launched its Tianzhou-1 space station cargo resupply spacecraft today.  If all goes according to plan, it will rendezvous and dock with the Tiangong-2 space station three times and demonstrate in-orbit refueling.  With such a capability, China could maintain a space station in Earth orbit for many years like the International Space Station (ISS). [UPDATE, April 22:  Tianzhou-1 successfully docked to Tiangong-2 at 12:23 am EDT (04:23 GMT] today as planned per Xinhua.]

The Soviet Union was the first country to demonstrate cargo resupply and in-orbit refueling in 1978 with the Progress spacecraft and Salyut 6 space station. Progress spacecraft are still used today to refuel the ISS station-keeping engines and take other cargo to the facility.  Three other cargo spacecraft resupply ISS (Japan's HTV and the U.S. Dragon and Cygnus), but they do not refuel it.

China's human spaceflight program is proceeding at a measured pace.  After four uncrewed test flights from 1999-2002, China launched its first astronaut (sometimes called a taikonaut in the West) in 2003 on Shenzhou-5.  The next crewed flight, with two astronauts, flew in 2005 (Shenzhou-6) and three astronauts were launched on Shenzhou-7 in 2008. In 2011, China launched its first small space station, Tiangong-1, to which three spacecraft were sent:  an uncrewed Shenzhou-8 as a test flight, then Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 in 2012 and 2013 respectively, each with three astronauts (two men and one woman).  Tiangong-2 was launched in 2016 and one two-person crew (Shenzhou-11) spent 30 days onboard last fall, the longest Chinese spaceflight to date (a total of 33 days including the trip to and from Tiangong-2). 

By comparison, Russian cosmonaut Valeriy Polyakov holds the record for the longest continuous spaceflight -- 438 days (14 months) in 1994-1995.  Scott Kelly holds the record for the longest continuous spaceflight by a U.S. astronaut -- 340 days in 2015-2016.  (On Monday, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson will break the U.S. record for cumulative time in space -- 534 days -- but that was acquired over three spaceflights, not a continuous mission.  She is currently in command of the ISS. President Trump will phone her on Monday to congratulate her on her record-breaking mission.)

Chinese officials describe the launch of Tianzhou-1 as the last step of the second phase of its human spaceflight program. The first phase was the initial launches of astronauts.  The second phase includes demonstration of extravehicular activity (EVA, also know as a spacewalk), which was accomplished on Shenzhou-7, and the initial space station flights.  If Tianzhou-1 is successful in its refueling task, that will complete phase 2 and phase 3 -- launch and operation of a multi-modular space station for 10 years -- will be next.  China plans to launch the new space station's core module in 2018 and complete construction of the three-module, 60 metric ton (MT) facility by 2022.   By comparison, ISS has a mass of about 400 MT.  It has been continuously occupied by international crews rotating typically on 4-6 month shifts since November 2000.

No one is aboard Tiangong-2 or Tianzhou-1; the refueling tests are all automated.


Launch of Tianzhou-1 space station cargo resupply spacecraft on Long March 7 from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, China, April 20, 2017.  Photo credit:  CGTN.com

Tianzhou-1 is the heaviest spacecraft ever launched by China -- 13 MT.  It can carry 6.5 MT of cargo, slightly more than Japan's HTV (Kounotori) cargo ship that resupplies ISS.  HTV can transport 6 MT of cargo and is the largest of the ISS resupply ships.

The new Long March 7 rocket boosted Tianzhou-1 into orbit from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island, which became operational last year.  Long March 7 is one of several new rockets China is introducing to replace its older models (Long March 2, 3 and 4).  The new rockets use more environmentally friendly fuel - liquid oxygen and kerosene.  The largest is the Long March 5, which can place 25 MT into low Earth orbit (LEO), slightly less than the largest U.S. rocket, Delta IV Heavy, which can lift 28 MT to LEO.   Long March 5 had its first, and to date only, launch from Wenchang last year, but China has plans to use it for many missions, including launching the three 20-MT space station modules and robotic lunar and planetary exploration spacecraft.  Between now and 2020, China plans to send a sample return mission to the Moon, a probe to land on the far side of the Moon, and an orbiter/lander/rover to Mars.

The ISS partners -- the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency -- have agreed to continue operating ISS until at least 2024.  NASA officials often speak of extending it to 2028, 30 years after the first modules were launched, but there is no agreement on that timeline.  China has picked up on the 2024 date and routinely points out that with the ISS "set to retire" in 2024, it will have the only space station in Earth orbit thereafter. 

NASA is hoping that the U.S. private sector will pick up the gauntlet and build their own space stations to follow-on from ISS that NASA and other customers could use instead of the government building future Earth orbiting facilities.  Section 303 of the recently enacted NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 requires NASA to submit a report to Congress by December 1, 2017 and biennially thereafter until 2023 to show how to transition from the current NASA-reliant regime to one where NASA is only one of many customers of a non-governmental LEO human space flight enterprise.  The goal is for NASA itself to focus on sending astronauts beyond LEO to the distance of the Moon and Mars.

NASA's Study of Adding Crew to EM-1 is Completed, Awaiting Response

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Apr-2017 (Updated: 19-Apr-2017 10:02 PM)

NASA Acting Chief Scientist Gale Allen said today that the agency's feasibility study of adding a crew to the first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion has been completed and briefed to agency and White House officials.  The report is not public, she added, and the agency is now waiting for a "go forward" plan.   She also said that NASA is expecting a flat budget for the next 5 years, not even including adjustments for inflation, which will reduce its buying power by $3.4 billion over that time period.

Allen spoke to a colloquium of microgravity scientists meeting in conjunction with a National Academies committee that is assessing NASA's implementation of a 2012 Decadal Survey on life and physical sciences in space. Although the International Space Station (ISS) was built largely to serve as a research laboratory, funding for that research has been constrained because of the costs of building and operating the facility.

Her message was that the budget outlook is not promising in terms of any increase for research funding.  Thus it is imperative that the microgravity science community make a "compelling" case as to why proposed research is essential.  Decisions also will be needed as to where the research must be conducted.  How much must be done on ISS, for example, versus cis-lunar space where NASA is planning to build a Deep Space Gateway.  The Gateway will have "minimal" research capabilities, Allen said, but some research must be done there instead of ISS.  One example is galactic cosmic radiation (GCR) studies.  The ISS, in low Earth orbit (LEO), is protected from GCR by Earth's magnetosphere, but astronauts going to the Moon or Mars will be fully exposed so the research is critical.

Allen laid out NASA's near-term plans for human exploration beyond LEO and mentioned in passing that the study of the concept of adding a crew to the first SLS flight -- Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) -- is completed and was briefed to Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot and "the White House."  NASA is now "waiting for a go-forward plan."

EM-1 has been designed from the beginning as a test flight carrying an uncrewed Orion spacecraft.   The first flight with a crew, EM-2, is officially scheduled for 2023, but NASA is hoping to accelerate that to 2021.  In addition to assessing the risk to the crew of launching on the first flight of a new rocket, the Orion spacecraft to be used for EM-1 does not have life support systems. A decision to launch a crew earlier would require a schedule delay and more funding in the near-term to outfit Orion with the necessary systems.   EM-1 and EM-2 also will use two different upper stages.  The more capable upper stage for EM-2 (the Exploration Upper Stage) is taller and requires modifications to ground facilities at the launch site.

The sudden decision to assess the feasibility of putting a crew on EM-1 was announced in February, shortly after President Trump took office.  NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier said at a later media briefing that there was no "preconceived decision" and he wanted to "let the data drive us to an answer." 

The United States is the only country to ever launch a crew on the first flight of a new launch vehicle -- the space shuttle.  All other U.S. crewed launch systems as well as those of the Soviet Union/Russia and China have been tested without a crew first.   An exception was made for the first shuttle mission, STS-1 in April 1981, because it required humans to land the vehicle.  Gerstenmaier said in February, before the EM-1 crew feasibility study was announced, that prior to STS-1 NASA calculated the risk of losing the crew on that first flight was 1 in 500 to 1 in 1000.   After 30 years of experience and the loss of the 1986 Challenger and 2003 Columbia missions and their crews, NASA recalculated the actual Loss of Crew risk for STS-1 was 1 in 12.

 

 

NASA IG: Journey to Mars Cost $26 Billion Through FY2016, Future Costs Unclear

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Apr-2017 (Updated: 19-Apr-2017 08:34 PM)

NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) reports that NASA spent $26 billion from FY2006-2016 on programs to send humans beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) -- what was called the Journey to Mars during the Obama Administration.  In an April 13 report, the OIG expressed reservations about future cost estimates and technical challenges facing the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion crew spacecraft, and associated Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) that are "likely to delay their launch."

It can be difficult to follow how much NASA is spending on its program to send humans beyond LEO. Humans have not traveled beyond LEO, where the International Space Station is located, since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972 -- the last time astronauts set foot on the lunar surface. 

The current effort, sometimes called "deep space human exploration," began in FY2006 as the Constellation program under President George W. Bush.  His goal was returning humans to the lunar surface by 2020.  That program involved building the Ares I and Ares V rockets, the Orion crew spacecraft, and the Altair lunar lander.  The Obama Administration cancelled Constellation and replaced it with the Journey to Mars (J2M) to put humans in orbit around Mars in the 2030s without any missions to the lunar surface.  Ares I and Ares V were cancelled and the SLS program began in their stead.  Altair never got started.  The Orion crew spacecraft survived the transition from Constellation to J2M.  J2M included the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) in cis-lunar space as a steppingstone to Mars.  The Trump Administration has proposed terminating ARM. NASA now talks about building a Deep Space Gateway in cis-lunar space and a Deep Space Transport to take astronauts from there to orbit Mars in the 2030s.  Landing people on the Moon or Mars are not in NASA's current plan, although officials express optimism that international or commercial partners might send astronauts to the lunar surface via its Deep Space Gateway, and the long-term goal remains eventually landing people on Mars.  

Cost estimates vary depending on how many years and which of those programs to reach what destination are included. The OIG report is focused on J2M as it existed at the end of  the Obama Administration, but includes money spent on Orion during the Bush Administration since it continues.

NASA's internal procedures require the agency to commit to a cost estimate and launch schedule for each of its flight programs at their Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C) milestones.  Congress uses those estimates as the baseline against which cost overruns and schedule delays are measured.  NASA is required to take certain steps if those overruns or delays exceed specified thresholds.

NASA made separate KDP-C estimates for SLS, Orion and GSDO, but only through initial launches.  The commitments for SLS and GSDO are through the first launch, Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), in late 2018.  For Orion, it is through the first launch with a crew, EM-2. The official commitment is for EM-2 to take place in 2023, although NASA hopes to accelerate it to 2021.   in August 2014, NASA announced  its cost estimate for SLS through EM-1, including formulation and development, as $9.695 billion.  In September 2015, it released its KDP-C estimate for Orion, $6.77 billion, but that covered only FY2015 through EM-2, not the money spent from FY2006-FY2014. The estimate for GSDO was $2.8 billion through EM-1.

NASA announced in February that it is examining the pros and cons of launching a crew on EM-1 instead of waiting until EM-2, but no decision has been reached yet.  The concept was not addressed in the OIG report. 

A major point of this OIG report, in fact, is that NASA's plans beyond EM-1 are unclear.  They were unclear before the change in administrations and are less clear now with the Trump Administration in office and, for example, proposing the termination of ARM.   "In light of the enormous costs and challenges and the critical decisions that will need to be made in the next several years," the OIG says it prepared the report to provide "policy makers with a better sense of the significant technical, financial and political challenges" that lie ahead.

The OIG calculates a total of $26 billion spent on the humans-beyond-LEO program through FY2016 as follows: 

  • $15.6 billion from FY2012-FY2016 for SLS, Orion, GSDO and Exploration Systems Development integration activities for EM-1 and EM-2;
  • $5.7 billion from FY2006-FY2011 on Orion (initiated as part of the Bush Administration's Constellation program);
  • $1.8 billion in FY2011 to transition from Constellation to J2M; and
  • $2.8 billion from FY2012-2016 on technology development related to human and robotic spaceflight associated with the program.

For SLS, Orion and GSDO alone, the OIG estimates that NASA will spend $23 billion through the end of FY2018.  It points out that its own earlier studies and those from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) express concerns about NASA's ability to meet the current schedule of EM-1 no later than November 2018 and EM-2 as early as 2021. 

In particular, it notes that NASA has not developed an integrated cost estimate for EM-2.  Further, the reserves included in the estimate for EM-1 are "much lower than the 10 to 30 percent" recommended by Marshall Space Flight Center, where SLS is managed. That means less flexibility in dealing with unanticipated problems.  Added to budget uncertainties resulting from congressional delays in enacting annual appropriations bills, which hamper NASA's ability to make "informed and timely" funding allocation decisions, the OIG concludes that delays are "likely."

The OIG made six recommendations, including that NASA develop an integrated SLS/Orion/GSDO schedule for EM-2 and "establish more rigorous cost and schedule estimates for SLS and associated GSDO infrastructure for EM-2."   NASA was provided with a draft of the report and concurred or partially concurred with all the recommendations and proposed corrective actions.  OIG was satisfied with NASA's response except for the recommendation about establishing more rigorous cost and schedule estimates for SLS and GSDO for EM-2.

NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier's response to the OIG report is published therein (Appendix I).  He stated that he did not see what decisions would be informed by providing a cost estimate for a specific flight, that NASA was developing a program and not a series of missions, and the phasing of funds from congressional appropriations is the driver in cost estimate variability. 

The OIG disagreed.  "In our judgment, a detailed EM-2 cost estimate would allow Agency officials and external stakeholders to better understand the mission's progress and the full costs involved.  Therefore, this recommendation is unresolved pending further discussions with Agency officials."

NASA's Inspector General (IG), like those in most federal agencies, is appointed by the President pursuant to the Inspectors General Act of 1978.  Paul Martin has been the NASA IG since 2009.  Previously he was the Deputy IG at the Department of Justice.

The 71-page report is a treasure trove of facts, figures and explanations of NASA's humans-beyond-LEO effort and challenges going forward.

China Readies First Space Station Cargo Mission - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Apr-2017 (Updated: 19-Apr-2017 06:12 PM)

China is getting ready to launch its first cargo spacecraft, Tianzhou-1, to its Tiangong-2 space station later this week.  China's Xinhua news services says the launch will take place between April 20 and 24.  This is a test of robotic in-orbit refueling.  No one is aboard the space station or the cargo spacecraft. [UPDATE: China has announced the launch will take place on April 20 at 7:41 pm local time (7:41 am Eastern Daylight Time.]

Tiangong-2 was launched last year and occupied by a two-man crew for 30 days.  It has been empty since then.  China's first space station, Tiangong-1, was launched in 2011 and occupied by two three-person crews (two men and one woman each) in 2012 and 2013 for 13 days and 15 days respectively.  The Tiangong space stations are quite small - 8.6 metric tons (MT).  China is planning to build a three-module 60-MT space station by 2022.  Tianzhou spacecraft would be used to deliver fuel and cargo to it.

Tianzhou-1, which is larger (13 MT) than Tiangong, will be launched from China's new Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island using the new Long March 7 mid-sized rocket.  The first Long March 7 was launched last year.


Tianzhou-1 space station cargo spacecraft atop its Long March 7 rocket being transferred from the assembly building to the launch pad at Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, Hainan Island, China, April 17, 2017.  Photo credit:  Xinhua

Tianzhou-1 will dock with Tiangong-2 three times to test in-orbit liquid propellant refueling.  The Soviet Union demonstrated the first robotic refueling of a space station in 1978 when Progress 1 refueled Salyut 6.  Russia still uses Progress spacecraft today to refuel the International Space Station's (ISS's) station-keeping engines as well as to take supplies to ISS.

Tianzhou-1 can carry 6.5 MT of cargo according to China Global Television News (CGTN).  The current version of Russia's Progress can deliver about 2.5 MT of cargo.  Three other spacecraft resupply ISS -- SpaceX's Dragon, Orbital ATK's Cygnus (one of which will be launched tomorrow), and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA's) HTV or Kounotori.    HTV is the largest of those, capable of delivering approximately 6 MT of cargo.

Events of Interest

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