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Record Breaking Cosmonaut Padalka Returns Home Tonight EDT - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Sep-2015 (Updated: 11-Sep-2015 08:56 PM)

UPDATE, September 11, 2015, 8:55 pm EDT:  Soyuz TMA-16M landed on time at 8:51:36 pm EDT (6:51:36 am local time September 12 at the landing site in Kazakhstan.)

ORIGINAL STORY, September 11, 2015, 10:43 am EDT: Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka will return to Earth tonight Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) after completing more than five months aboard the International Space Station (ISS).  Added to four previous spaceflights, he sets a new record of 879 cumulative days in space, surpassing the record held by his compatriot Sergei Kirkalev.  Padalka and two short-duration ISS crew members are scheduled to land on the steppes of Kazakhstan at 8:51 pm EDT (which will be 6:51 am tomorrow, September 12, local time at the landing site).

Padalka launched on Soyuz TMA-16M last March along with NASA's Scott Kelly and Russia's Mikhail Kornienko.  Those two are remaining aboard ISS for a year-long mission, but the Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft has only a 6-month lifetime, so it must return to Earth and Padalka is its commander.   Accompanying him on the return leg are European Space Agency astronaut Andreas Mogensen (from Denmark) and Kazakh cosmonaut Aidyn Aimbetov.  Mogensen and Aimbetov arrived just seven days ago on Soyuz TMA-18M.  That spacecraft replaces TMA-16M as a new ferry/lifeboat and its commander, Sergei Volkov, replaces Padalka.  

Nine people have been aboard ISS since the Soyuz TMA-18M crew arrived.  The ISS will return to its usual crew complement of six when Padalka, Mogensen and Aimbetov undock at 5:29 pm EDT.  The remaining six are Kelly, Kornienko, Volkov and the three men who arrived on Soyuz TMA-17M in July (NASA's Kjell Lindgren, Japan's Kimiya Yui and Russia's Oleg Kononenko).

Padalka's first spaceflight, Soyuz TM-28, was to Russia's Mir space station from August 1998 to February 1999 for a total of 199 days (durations listed here are rounded to the nearest day).  

He then made four trips to ISS:

  • Soyuz TMA-4, April-October 2004, 188 days
  • Soyuz TMA-14, March-October 2009, 199 days
  • Soyuz TMA-04M, May-September 2012, 125 days
  • Soyuz TMA-16M, March-September 2015, 168 days (once he lands)

Padalka's record is for the most amount of time spent in space, but it was accumulated over all those missions.  The record for total consecutive days in space is still held by Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov who spent 438 days aboard the Mir space station in 1994-1995.  Polyakov previously had spent 241 days aboard Mir on a flight in 1988-1989.

Long duration spaceflights like Polyakov's are of special interest for studies of how humans react physiologically and psychologically to spaceflight conditions over the time periods anticipated for flights to destinations like Mars.   Polyakov is one of only four people -- all Russians -- who have spent at least one year in space at one time.  Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov spent 365 days together on Mir in 1987-1988.  Sergei Avdeyev spent 380 days on Mir in 1998-1999.  In all cases, other crews came and went during that time.

Scott Kelly will become the first American to spend a year in space.  He and Kornienko are approaching the half way mark of their year-in-space mission.  That point will be reached on September 15.  On Monday, September 14, the National Press Club in Washington, DC will host a press conference with Kelly via videolink from the ISS and his twin brother, former astronaut Mark Kelly, and Terry Virts, who recently returned from the ISS, in person.  The Kelly brothers are identical twins and are participating in twin studies related to Scott Kelly's long duration spaceflight.

NASA TV will cover today's undocking and landing of Soyuz TMA-16M and a portion of Monday's press conference.

ULA and Blue Origin Move Forward with BE-4 Plan

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Sep-2015 (Updated: 10-Sep-2015 08:40 PM)

United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Blue Origin announced an agreement today for expanding production of Blue Origin's BE-4 engine that ULA wants to use for its new Vulcan rocket.  The announcement takes place against the backdrop of reports that another rocket engine company, Aerojet Rocketdyne, is trying to buy ULA, which would, at best, complicate the ULA/Blue Origin plan.

ULA and Blue Origin, founded by's Jeff Bezos, revealed amid much fanfare last fall that they were teaming on ULA's new Vulcan rocket that is intended to eventually replace the two rockets ULA currently uses, Atlas V and Delta IV.  Congress is insisting that use of Russian RD-180 engines that currently power the Atlas V be discontinued by 2019 for national security launches, the mainstay of ULA's launch business.   Blue Origin's BE-4 (Blue Engine 4) is viewed by ULA as the most mature domestically made engine that could replace the RD-180s.  Today's announcement said that BE-4 "offers the fastest path" to a domestic replacement for RD-180s and will "achieve qualification flight in 2017 to support the first Vulcan flight in 2019."

ULA and the Air Force are trying to convince Congress to provide more flexibility on the 2019 RD-180 cutoff date since a first flight in 2019 is not the same as having a launch vehicle full certified for launching expensive national security payloads.  The House is sympathetic to that argument in its version of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), but the Senate Armed Services Committee is holding fast to 2019.  The two sides are currently trying to reach agreement on a compromise version of the NDAA.

BE-4 uses an innovative design based on liquid oxygen (LOX) and methane as propellant rather than traditional LOX/kerosene.  ULA President Tory Bruno champions Blue Origin's engine, but also said earlier this year that the company is keeping Aerojet Rocketdyne's (AJR) new AR1 LOX/kerosene engine in mind as a backup.  Two days ago the Wall Street Journal reported that AJR is bidding to purchase ULA for about $2 billion.  If that deal were to go through -- a big if -- it clearly would imperil the use of BE-4 for Vulcan.

Today's ULA/Blue Origin announcement suggests that those two companies are continuing on course nonetheless.  Bezos said the new agreement is "an important step toward building BE-4s at the production rate needed" for Vulcan.

JAXA, UN Offer Cubesat Opportunities to Developing Nations from ISS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Sep-2015 (Updated: 10-Sep-2015 07:54 PM)

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) are offering opportunities for developing countries to deploy a cubesat from Japan's Kibo module aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The initiative is called KiboCUBE.

Japan's Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), Hakubun Shimomura, said KiboCUBE would open "new opportunities in space environment utilization ... benefiting more countries from the unique platform of Kibo."

JAXA developed the Small Satellite Orbital Deployer to release satellites from Kibo.  Cubesats are small satellites composed of one or more 10 x 10 x 10 centimeter cubes ("U") packed with electronics and other systems.  They can range in size from 1U to 21U, but 3U and 6U are the most common.

Unlike the U.S., European, and Russian ISS modules that have only interior laboratory facilities, JAXA's Kibo has a "back porch" that is exposed to space and its own robotic arm. The cubesats are launched to ISS on resupply missions, placed onto the back porch through an airlock, and released using Kibo's robotic arm. 

This new JAXA-UNOOSA initiative is designed to encourage and facilitate the use of cubesats by educational and research institutions in developing nations.  The first Announcement of Opportunity is posted on the UNOOSA website.  Applications are due by March 31, 2016.  One 1U cubesat will be selected under each AO.  JAXA will pay the costs for launching the cubesat to the ISS and deploying it from Kibo.  The applicant bears the costs of designing, building and operating the cubesat.  The heads of research institutes, universities and other public organizations in Member Countries of the United Nations that do not have their own means to launch satellites into space are eligible to apply.

JAXA astronaut Kimiya Yui is the most recent Japanese astronaut to live aboard the ISS.  He arrived there in July on Soyuz TMA-17M and is scheduled to return to Earth in December.  JAXA astronaut Takao Doi was aboard the STS-123 space shuttle mission that delivered Kibo to orbit.  He is now a United Nations Expert on Space Applications,

WSJ: Aerojet Rocketdyne Wants to Buy ULA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Sep-2015 (Updated: 09-Sep-2015 11:54 PM)

Rocket engine maker Aerojet Rocketdyne (AJR) wants to buy United Launch Alliance (ULA) for approximately $2 billion according to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ).  No deal has been made yet, but the companies are in "advanced talks" according to the newspaper.

Neither company has made any official announcement so far.  ULA is a 50-50 joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing that builds and launches the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets primarily for national security satellites.   Aerojet merged with its main domestic rival, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, in 2012.  AJR provides the RS-68 engines that power the Common Booster Core for ULA's Delta IV rocket, the solid rocket motors for Atlas V, and the RL10 engines for the upper stages used for those rockets.

The emergence of new competitors in U.S. rockets and rocket engines, including SpaceX and Blue Origin, coupled with concerns about using Russian RD-180 engines for the national security launches on the Atlas V and reduced demand for national security launches overall is changing the dynamics of the U.S. space launch business. 

ULA has been essentially a monopoly provider of launches for the national security sector since it was created in 2006, but with Air Force certification of SpaceX for certain classes of national security launches, it now has a competitor.  Meanwhile, its Atlas V rocket is under attack because it uses Russian rocket engines and current law requires that use of RD-180s for national security launches end by 2019, although ULA and the Air Force are trying to extend that deadline. 

ULA has announced major changes over the past year, including a decision to discontinue the medium-size version of the Delta IV and initiating development of the Vulcan rocket and ACES upper stage that would ultimately replace Atlas V and the larger Delta IV Heavy.  Vulcan would be an Atlas V, but using Blue Origin's innovative methane-based BE-4 engines instead of Russian RD-180s.  ULA later said a new AJR engine, AR1, using traditional LOX/kerosene propellant, was a backup alternative.

A consortium of companies including AJR recently tried to obtain production rights to the Atlas V apparently with the goal of substituting the AR1 for the RD-180s, but was rebuffed and the Air Force confirmed that ULA held those rights, not the government.

The prospect of AJR buying ULA is a new twist that could have interesting ramifications both in terms of consolidation in the U.S. launch industry and the ability of new entrants to compete against it, especially in the engine development market.

The WSJ article said an announcement could come "as early as next week."  Any planned merger would be subject to government review.

ULA is headquartered in Centennial, CO and produces the Atlas V and Delta IV in Decatur, AL.   AJR is based in Sacramento, CA.

GAO Lambasts Air Force, Chides DOD, Over GPS OCX Ground Segment Acquisition

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Sep-2015 (Updated: 09-Sep-2015 09:50 PM)

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) lambasted the Air Force today for poor acquisition decisions on the Global Positioning System's (GPS's) future Operational Control System (OCX).  The Air Force has "consistently overstated progress" on OCX and "needs $1.1 billion and four years more than planned."  GAO recommended that DOD take four OCX-related actions centered on an independent review and chided DOD for brushing them off, warning that without "swift and thoughtful action," the OCX problems will continue.

The Air Force operates the GPS system, which was designed, built and paid for by DOD, but is used ubiquitously around the globe by military and civilian users for positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) purposes.   GPS consists of the space segment (a constellation of 24 operational satellites, plus spares), the ground segment (a ground-based Operational Control System -- OCS -- at Schriever Air Force Base, CO, with a backup at Vandenberg AFB, CA) and the user equipment segment (military and civilian receivers).

The Air Force is modernizing all three segments.  GAO has reported previously on the latest series of satellites, GPS III.   Today's report is about the ground segment as well as the military GPS user equipment (MGUE) portion of the user segment.

The Air Force began work on a modernized ground control system, OCX, to replace the current OCS, in 2007.  OCX is needed to obtain the full functionality of GPS III.  Raytheon was awarded an $886 million development contract for OCX blocks 1 and 2 in 2010, with an option for blocks 3 and 4 in the future.  Total OCX operations costs including the Raytheon contract, prior technology development and other annual costs were estimated at $3.5 billion.  Blocks 1 and 2 were to be delivered in August 2015 and March 2016 respectively.

The $886 million estimate and the program's schedule have "more than doubled" since 2010, GAO reported. The cost increased "by approximately $1.1 billion to $1.98 billion" because the Air Force "did not follow key acquisition practices."  For example, it did not conduct a Milestone B review before awarding the development contract to ensure resources and requirements were matched, and did not complete a preliminary design review before beginning development to confirm the preliminary design was ready to "proceed into detailed design with acceptable risk."  Furthermore, "key requirements, especially for cybersecurity, were not well understood by the Air Force and contractor" when the contract was awarded. 

GAO found that Raytheon experienced "significant software challenges" from the beginning, but the Air Force "consistently presented optimistic assessments" to those overseeing the acquisition process.  As development problems continued, Air Force progress reports "continued to be overly optimistic" even as development was "paused" to fix "root causes."   GAO's assessment is that "OCX issues appear to be persistent and systemic, raising doubts whether all root causes have been adequately identified, let alone addressed, and whether realistic cost and schedule estimates have been developed."

Independent reviews by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and audits by the Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA) found ongoing problems and "undisciplined processes" such as with peer review at Raytheon.  Despite efforts by the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (USD AT&L) to gain better insight in recent years, GAO concluded that "there is little reason to believe that OCX systemic problems have been adequately addressed."  The DCMA forecast in June 2015 that the OCX cost would increase to $2.15 billion, and the Air Force's current schedule estimate that Block 1 will be delivered in July 2019 is "still optimistic by at least a year" compared to an independent review conducted in October 2014.

The story on the military user equipment, MGUE, is much the same.  It is "unlikely" that "sufficient knowledge about MGUE design and performance" will be ready in time to make "informed procurement decisions" beginning in FY2018, the report said.

The good news, though, is that the current GPS satellites are lasting much longer than expected.  The current GPS constellation consists mostly of GPS IIR and IIR-M satellites that are lasting as long as 20 years, GAO said, and even newer GPS IIF satellites are now being launched.   Development of the newest GPS III version encountered its own problems.  The expected launch of the first GPS III has slipped from 2014 to 2017.  In 2010, GAO warned that delays in launching GPS III satellites could result in the on-orbit constellation dropping below the 24 satellite threshold needed for a fully operational system.  The extended lifetimes of the GPS IIR and IIR-M satellites mitigate the impact of delays in GPS III and OCX for now at least.  GAO warns, however, that further delays in OCX could reinstate that concern.  As for the M-code for MGUE, GAO estimates that its full deployment "is more than a decade away."

GAO considers OCX to be the pacing item for GPS modernization.  Its recommendation in this report is for the Secretary of Defense to take five actions, four related to OCX and one for MGUE, as follows:

  • convene an independent task force to conduct a thorough review of OCX;
  • develop high confidence OCX cost and schedule estimates;
  • direct the Air Force to retain experts from the independent task force as a management advisory team;
  • establish a mechanism for ensuring knowledge gained from the OCX assessment is used to determine whether further programmatic changes are needed to strengthen oversight; and
  • incorporate a Critical Design Review (CDR) in the MGUE development effort to allow the military services to fully assess the maturity of the MGUE design before committing test and procurement resources.

GAO provides draft copies of its reports to whatever agency is being reviewed, which then has an opportunity to respond. GAO publishes the response as part of the report.  In this case, DOD concurred with the four OCX-related actions by saying the independent reviews it already conducted fulfilled that intent. GAO pushed back on that, saying those comments "provide little confidence" that the problems will be fixed since the earlier reviews were "non-binding and advisory in nature."

"If business continues as usual without swift and thoughtful action, OCX will likely continue on its path of demonstrating poor cost and schedule outcomes," GAO warned.  "We continue to stand by our recommendations calling for a fresh review -- this time an in-depth and comprehensive critical review of the program -- to identify the true root causes of OCX development difficulties and to ensure the Air Force implements the corrective actions."

As for the MGUE action, DOD partially concurred, agreeing a CDR is desirable, but noting the potential impact on schedule.  GAO stressed, however, that skipping "best practice" steps like that "generally results in an inability to deliver promised cost and schedule outcomes."

What's Happening in Space Policy September 7-11, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 06-Sep-2015 (Updated: 21-Sep-2015 09:08 PM)

We're back to "regular order" this week with our list of upcoming space policy related events only for one week (September 7-11, 2015).  The House and Senate return to work from their summer recess on Tuesday.

During the Week

Monday is a federal holiday (Labor Day), so Congress resumes legislative action on Tuesday, September 8.  It has quite a long to-do list for the month, including funding the federal government before Fiscal Year 2016 begins on October 1.  As pressing as that issue is, the first order of business is the Iran nuclear deal.  Pope Francis will visit Washington, D.C. September 22-24 and speak to a joint session of Congress on September 24 and that also will consume a lot of congressional attention.  

A deal on the budget, therefore, is not likely until the end of the month -- if then.  The expectation is that a Continuing Resolution (CR) will be passed to cover the first few weeks of FY2016 since none of the 12 regular appropriations bills have cleared Congress.  The House has passed six, including those that fund DOD, NASA, NOAA and the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation.  The Senate has not passed any yet.

No legislative action on the budget is anticipated this week.  Instead, more voices likely will be raised warning of a possible government shutdown.  The leaders of the House and Senate have repeatedly vowed not to let that happen again.   Most view the 16-day shutdown in 2013 as a costly mistake both financially and politically.  Today some things are different -- Republicans control both the House and Senate (the Senate was in Democratic hands in 2013).  But some are the same -- the Tea Party wing of the Republican party has a politically volatile topic on which it wants to make a point.  Last time it was Obamacare, this time it is Planned Parenthood.   Another thing that is different is that this is presidential primary season and one of the contenders, Sen. Ted Cruz, was the leader of the 2013 shutdown.  He seems to believe it was a good thing, not the travesty others in his own party and elsewhere portray.  A shutdown could play in his favor in the primary among those who share his views. 

When Congress went into recess, it seemed that the debt limit also would have to be raised soon, adding to the complexity of getting a budget deal.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently calculated, however, that the Treasury Department can get by with the "extraordinary measures" it's been using since the debt limit was reached in March and now has until mid-November or early December to continue paying bills by not investing in government retirement accounts.  (If you're a government employee and wonder what exactly is going on with your retirement accounts in this regard, Government Executive has a good summary.  Treasury has done this before; the money eventually gets restored.)

Final action on the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, versions of which have passed the House and Senate, is possible at any time. The current prohibition on FAA issuing new regulations for commercial human spaceflight during a "learning period" expires on September 30 and both bills would extend it (the Senate bill until 2020; the House until 2025), so there is some motivation to get that done, though it will be a challenge with everything else on Congress's plate.  As for a new NASA authorization bill?  The House has passed two bills (one for FY2015, which is ending, and one for FY2016 and FY2017), but there has been no action in the Senate.  The Senate Commerce Committee issued a report on August 11 listing the legislation it plans to focus on for the rest of the year and a NASA authorization was not included.  Congress-watchers know, however, that anything can happen at any time.

Perhaps the most notable events this week off the Hill are an interview with the current nine crew members aboard the International Space Station (ISS) on Tuesday morning Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) and the return to Earth of three of them on Friday EDT (Saturday local time at the landing site in Kazakhstan).  This is the first time since November 2013 that nine people have been on ISS at the same time.

Those events and others we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.  Check back to look at our calendar on the right menu of our home page for additions as the week goes on.

Monday, September 7

  • U.S. Federal Government holiday (Labor Day)

Tuesday, September 8

Tuesday-Thursday, September 8-10

Wednesday-Friday, September 9-11

Thursday, September 10

Friday, September 11


Editor's Note: the original version of this article said the House bill extends the learning period to 2023, but it is 2025.  As introduced, it was 2023, but it was amended during committee markup to 2025. 

Boeing Chooses Starliner as New Name for CST-100

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Sep-2015 (Updated: 05-Sep-2015 06:00 PM)

Boeing's Chris Ferguson unveiled the new name for Boeing's CST-100 commercial crew capsule today during a ceremony inaugurating the company's Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), FL.  The new name: CST-100 Starliner.

Ferguson is Boeing's deputy manager of commercial crew operations and a former NASA astronaut who commanded the final space shuttle flight, STS-135, in 2011.  In revealing the name, he said the company wanted something that "gave a nod to the next generation of space and next 100 years of flight for Boeing."  Boeing celebrates its centennial next year.  Ferguson did not mention it, but Boeing's most recent airplane, the 787, is the Dreamliner.  Reaching back to the late 1930s, the Boeing 307 Stratoliner was the first commercial airplane with a pressurized cabin.

Notional illustration of Boeing CST-100 Starliner in orbit.  Clip from Boeing video
at Sept. 4, 2015 ceremony opening Boeing's Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility
at Kennedy Space Center, FL.

Boeing is using the former Orbiter Processing Facility-3 (OPF-3) at KSC to process CST-100 Starliner.  OPF-3 was built for the space shuttle program, along with two others that also are now used by Boeing for the Department of Defense's X-37B spaceplane program.

Boeing and SpaceX were selected by NASA last fall for the final phase of the commercial crew program, Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP).   Boeing's contract value is $4.2 billion and SpaceX's is $2.6 billion.  For each company, the contract covers one demonstration flight, a guarantee of two operational flights, and possibly four more operational flights.  The commercial crew program is a public private partnership wherein both the government (NASA) and the companies share the development costs and the government agrees to purchase a certain amount of services.   How much each side is putting into development is not public, but estimates are that NASA is paying 80-90 percent of the development costs.   The overall goal is to restore America's capability to launch people into space, which it lost when the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.  All U.S. astronauts launched into space since that time have flown on Russian spacecraft.

Originally, NASA hoped commercial crew vehicles would be ready to fly in 2015, but that slipped to 2017.  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden often states that congressional underfunding caused the slip and warns that additional delays could result if Congress does not provide the full $1.244 billion requested for FY2016.   Congress has never provided the full amount of funding NASA requested for commercial crew, although it came close for the current fiscal year (FY2015), appropriating $805 million compared to the $848 million requested.

Congress is still debating the FY2016 budget for all agencies, including NASA.   So far, it is not poised to fully fund commercial crew.  The House approved $1.0 billion and the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended $900 million (the Senate has not voted on the bill yet).  

At the ceremony today, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) expressed optimism that the commercial crew program will get "the funding that it needs so that we can get our American astronauts flying on American vehicles."   Nelson is the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee that oversees NASA.   He flew on the space shuttle in 1986 when he was a Congressman.  Bolden was the pilot of that mission.

Bolden did not press the case for full funding today, instead focusing on the future not only of commercial crew and human spaceflight, but of KSC.  He praised KSC director Bob Cabana, another former astronaut, for transforming KSC into a multi-user spaceport after the end of the space shuttle program imperiled its future.  "Make no mistake, the road to space still blazes through Kennedy," Bolden exclaimed.

Cabana himself expressed thanks to the State of Florida and commercial partners like Boeing and SpaceX for working with them to ensure KSC's future.  "You can't have progress, you can't get better without change," he said.

Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) and Florida House Speaker Steve Crisafulli (R), who represents the district where KSC is located, were among the dignitaries who spoke at the event, along with the top leadership of Boeing and its space units:  President and CEO Dennis Muilenburg; Vice President and General Manager, Space Exploration, John Elbon, and Vice President and Program Manager, Commercial Programs, John Mulholland.

NASA ordered its first commercial crew rotation flight from Boeing in May, although whether Boeing or SpaceX will fly the very first such flight has not been decided yet.  Boeing will launch CST-100 Starliner on United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets.  ULA is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.   SpaceX will launch its Crew Dragon on Falcon 9 rockets.  A Falcon 9 rocket failed on June 28.  It was intended to take a cargo version of the Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station as part of NASA's commercial cargo program.   SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said earlier this week that it will be a "couple of months" yet before the rocket returns to flight.

Correction:  An earlier version of this article inadvertently used Spaceliner instead of Starliner in some cases.  The correct name is Starliner.

Two Senators Seek GAO Review of NASA Commercial Cargo Contracts

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Sep-2015 (Updated: 02-Sep-2015 09:32 PM)

Senators Cory Gardner (R-CO) and David Vitter (R-LA) are asking the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to undertake a "full review" of NASA's commercial cargo contracts.  Both contractors, Orbital ATK and SpaceX, are recovering from launch failures that affected resupply of the International Space Station (ISS).

The request for a GAO review is the latest in congressional expressions of concern about NASA's commercial cargo program.

Gardner and Vitter sent their letter to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, the head of GAO, yesterday (September 1).  They ask eight questions centering on the cost and operational impact on the ISS program of the two commercial cargo launch failures and "the demonstrated, statistical reliability of contracted commercial launch systems to provide subsequent launch services at reasonable and expected reliability levels."

Orbital ATK's Antares rocket exploded 15 seconds after liftoff on October 28, 2014.   SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket failed 139 seconds after liftoff on June 28, 2015.  Both were carrying cargo spacecraft, Cygnus and Dragon, respectively, loaded with supplies, equipment and scientific experiments for the ISS.  Neither rocket has returned to flight yet. 

Orbital ATK will use two Atlas V rockets to loft Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the ISS in December 2015 and March 2016 while its Antares rocket fleet is being outfitted with new engines. Orbital ATK contracted for the Atlas V launches from Colorado-based United Launch Alliance (ULA), a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

SpaceX's plans for return to flight are not firm.

The Orbital ATK and Space X cargo launches to ISS are under NASA's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.   NASA issued a solicitation for the next round of commercial cargo launches, CRS-2, in September 2014.  A decision was expected in June, but that slipped to September and now to November.  In addition to the incumbents, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Sierra Nevada are reported to be among the bidders.

The Senators said that the fact there are no operational U.S. commercial cargo providers at the moment "shows the immediate and urgent need for appropriate oversight and corrective action prior to restarting operations."  However, while they see the need for an independent review, "we also believe that the current missions and pending contracts should continue to proceed uninterrupted."  The reference to pending contracts presumably means CRS-2.  No deadline is requested for GAO to complete its review other than asking for a "prompt" response.

Four cargo spacecraft can resupply the ISS.  In addition to the two U.S. systems, Russia's Progress and Japan's HTV take cargo to the crews.  (The European Space Agency no longer launches its ATV cargo spacecraft.) 

Russia had its own failure with the Progress M-27M mission on April 28, 2015, but Progress M-28M was successfully launched in July.   Japan's HTV5 mission enjoyed a flawless launch on August 19 and is now attached to the ISS along with Progress M-28M.

Antares RTF Now in "Spring" 2016, Two Cygnus Launches on Atlas V First

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Sep-2015 (Updated: 02-Sep-2015 08:25 PM)

Orbital ATK's Frank Culbertson said today that return-to-flight of the Antares rocket now will be in "spring" 2016.  Earlier indications were that it would be in March.  Instead, a second launch of the company's Cygnus cargo spacecraft on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket now is planned in March.

Culbertson, President of Orbital ATK's Space Systems Group, revealed the new plans at AIAA's Space 2015 conference in Pasadena, CA.

The company's Antares rocket exploded 15 seconds after liftoff from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on the coast of Virginia on October 28, 2014.   The official report on the cause of the accident has not been released, but it is known that the problem affected the rocket's Russian-built NK-33 engines.  The NK-33's are refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne and redesignated AJ26.   Orbital ATK is replacing them with a different Russian engine, the RD-181.   The "re-engined" Antares will be able to lift more mass than the original version as well as using newer technology.  The NK-33s date back more than 40 years.

Under a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA, Orbital ATK is committed to delivering 20 tons of cargo to the ISS by the end of 2016.   The company also upgraded the Cygnus spacecraft to carry more cargo so it will take fewer missions to meet that 20 ton requirement.  To ensure that it also meets the deadline, Orbital ATK contracted for two Cygnus launches on ULA's Atlas V while the Antares is being retrofitted.

Orbital ATK announced the plans to buy at least one ULA launch with an option for a second in December 2014.   Last month, it said it had, indeed, purchased a second Atlas V launch, but did not say when the second launch would take place.   Today was the first indication that both ULA launches would occur before Antares returns to service.

NASA officials have publicly identified December 3 as the date for the first Cygnus launch on an Atlas V for some time and Culbertson confirmed that today.  He then added that the second Atlas V launch would be in March, followed by a return to flight of Antares in "the spring" and a total of two or three -- "I'm hoping three" -- Cygnus launches on Antares in 2016.

Orbital ATK is one of two U.S. companies that send cargo to the ISS under NASA's CRS contract.  SpaceX is the other and it suffered its own launch failure on June 28, 2015.  SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell told the AIAA conference on Monday that it would be "a couple months" yet before the Falcon 9 returned to flight.

Some members of Congress have expressed concern about how the accidents are being investigated and more broadly how NASA contracts for commercial cargo services for the ISS.  House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) asked NASA why it created an Independent Review Team following the Orbital launch failure, but not SpaceX's and whether that implied SpaceX was getting preferential treatment.  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden replied last week that NASA's role in both investigations actually is quite similar.

Yesterday, Senators Cory Gardner (R-CO) and David Vitter (R-LA) asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to undertake a "full review" of NASA's "contracted launch services and capsules."

Orbital ATK and SpaceX are the only CRS contractors now, but NASA opened a CRS-2 procurement in September 2014.  Expectations were that it would announce the winners in June.  That slipped to September and now to November.   In addition to the incumbents, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Sierra Nevada are reported to be among the bidders. 

Boeing and SpaceX won NASA's commercial crew contracts last fall and Boeing seems to be betting on a win in the CRS-2 contract as well.   On Friday, it will hold an opening ceremony for its "Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility" at Kennedy Space Center, FL.

Soyuz TMA-18M Launch to Briefly Increase ISS Crew to Nine - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Sep-2015 (Updated: 02-Sep-2015 12:54 AM)

UPDATE, September 2, 2015, 12:50 am EDT:  Soyuz TMA-18M launched successfully on time at 12:37 am EDT.   Docking is scheduled for September 4 at 3:42 am EDT.

ORIGINAL STORY, September 1, 2015, 5:52 pm EDT:  Soyuz TMA-18M is scheduled to launch in a few hours from the Baikonur Cosmodrome with three new crew members for the International Space Station (ISS).  The three men -- from Russia, Denmark (under the auspices of the European Space Agency), and Kazakhstan -- will join six already aboard, increasing the crew complement to nine for about one week.  Launch is just after midnight (12:37 am) Eastern Daylight Time.

This mission is a bit of an anomaly in recent years where two of the three crew will remain on board the ISS for just one week instead of several months.   ESA's Andreas Mogensen and Kazakhstan's Aidyn Aimbetov will return to Earth on September 11 EDT (September 12 local time at the landing site) along with Russia's Gennady Padalka, who has been on ISS since March.  Padalka launched with NASA's Scott Kelly and Russia's Mikhail Kornienko on Soyuz TMA-16M.  Those two are staying aboard for a one-year mission, but the Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft can only remain on orbit for six months so it and Padalka -- along with Mogensen and Aimbetov -- will come back to Earth. Russia's Sergei Volkov will command Soyuz TMA-18M and replace Padalka.

Soyuz TMA-18M crew, from left:  Aidyn Aimbetov (Kazakhstan), Sergei Volkov (Russia),
Andreas Mogensen (ESA/Denmark). Photo credit:  NASA

Mogensen and Aimbetov's time aboard ISS will be even shorter than expected because Soyuz TMA-18M will use the two-day rendezvous trajectory to get there instead of the new six-hour direct ascent route introduced for crew launches on Soyuz TMA-08M in March 2013.  The two-day trip is necessary because the ISS orbit was raised recently to avoid a piece of space junk, changing the orbital dynamics involved in getting there.  The new orbit also caused a one day slip in the launch date (from September 1). 

Soyuz TMA-18M now will arrive on September 4, giving Mogensen and Aimbetov just seven and a half days on ISS.  It may be just as well since the ISS will be a bit crowded with nine people -- the first time since November 2013 that so many have been there at one time.  On the other hand, ESA said that it means significant replanning of Mogensen's research activities and some experiments will have to be left for other astronauts to complete in the future.

Aimbetov was a last minute addition to the crew after singer Sarah Brightman withdrew from the mission.  A military pilot, he was selected as a Kazakh cosmonaut in 2002 and trained at Star City.  He became a Russian citizen along the way, but is flying as a Kazakh, not Russian, crew member.  He was assigned to the flight in June and Kazakh officials say they are paying $20 million, so he apparently is filling Brightman's "space tourist" slot, although he has been through the full training regimen.  He will be the third Kazakh cosmonaut (after Toktar Aubakirov and Talgat Musabayev), not counting Soviet cosmonauts from Kazakhstan when it was part of the Soviet Union.

NASA TV coverage of the launch begins at 11:45 pm EDT tonight (September 1). 

Docking on September 4  is scheduled for 3:42 am EDT;  NASA TV coverage begins at 3:00 am EDT.

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