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G-7 Foreign Ministers Call for Safe, Secure, Sustainable Space Environment

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Apr-2017 (Updated: 12-Apr-2017 10:13 PM)

The foreign ministers of the G-7 countries issued a joint communique yesterday in which they recognized the importance of space activities and called for a safe, secure, sustainable and stable space environment, increased transparency, and strengthened norms of responsible behavior.  At the same time, the G-7 Nonproliferation Directors Group issued a statement on non-proliferation and disarmament that includes four paragraphs about space that goes further, urging, for example, that countries refrain from destruction of space objects -- intentionally or unintentionally.

The G-7 is an informal group of industrialized countries -- Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States -- that meets annually  Their foreign ministers met April 10-11 in Lucca, Italy in preparation for the upcoming heads-of-government summit next month.  Their 30-page joint communique following the meeting includes one paragraph about space:

Outer space activities have immense potential. We recognize the rapid development of the modern space environment and the importance of outer space activities both in the day to day lives of our citizens and for the social, economic, scientific and technological development of all states. We are committed to enhancing the long-term safety, security, sustainability, and stability of the space environment, to increasing transparency in space activities, and to strengthening norms of responsible behaviour for all outer space activities.

The G-7 Nonproliferation Directors Group went further. Their 13-page statement similarly reiterates a commitment to a safe, secure and sustainable space environment, but also calls on countries to "refrain from irresponsible intentional destruction of space objects, including by anti-satellite tests, and from any other action which brings about, directly or indirectly, damage or destruction of space objects."  They also "strongly encourage" countries to "cooperate in good faith to avoid harmful interference with outer space activities, in a manner consistent with international law" and to prevent the creation and diffusion of space debris.   The full text of the space section is as follows:


60. Outer space activities play a significant and increasing role in the social, economic, scientific and technological development of States, as well as in maintaining international peace and security. In this context, we reiterate our commitment to preserve a safe, secure, and sustainable outer space environment and the need to evolve and implement principles of responsible behavior for all outer space activities in a prompt and pragmatic manner, ensuring the peaceful exploration and use of outer space on the basis of equality and in accordance with international law.

61. We call on all States to refrain from irresponsible intentional destruction of space objects, including by anti-satellite tests, and from any other action which brings about, directly or indirectly, damage or destruction of space objects. We strongly encourage all States to take appropriate measures to cooperate in good faith to avoid harmful interference with outer space activities, in a manner consistent with international law, as well as to cooperate to prevent the creation and diffusion of long-lived orbital debris.

62. We reaffirm our commitment, and call on all States, to review and implement, to the extent practicable, the proposed transparency and confidence-building measures contained in the recommendations of the UN Group of Governmental Experts Report (A/68/189, 29 July 2013) such as information exchange on space policies and strategies, information exchange and notifications related to outer space activities in a timely manner and an effective consultation mechanism.

63. We strongly support efforts to rapidly complete clear, practicable and proven Guidelines for Long-Term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities by the UN Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (UN-COPUOS) by 2018. We encourage all Member States of the Committee to play a constructive role to this end, building on the significant results recently achieved, both during the 59th session of the UN-COPUOS and the 54th session of the Committee’s Scientific and Technical Subcommittees.

These communiques will feed into the 43rd G-7 summit to be held May 26-27 in Taormina, Italy (on the island of Sicily).  Italy is currently president of the G-7. Russia became a member of the group in 1998 and it was then known as the G-8.  Russia was suspended in 2014 after its annexation of Crimea, however, so it is now once again the G-7.

On Cosmonautics Day, Russia Laments State of Space Program

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Apr-2017 (Updated: 12-Apr-2017 06:43 AM)

On this day in 1961, the Soviet Union launched the first human being into space -- Yuri Gagarin.  It was the height of the Cold War and Soviet space achievements were outshining the United States.  Fast forward 56 years and the two former space rivals are now engaged in a successful partnership operating the International Space Station (ISS), but some Russians are lamenting the state of their space program especially when compared with U.S. advances.

Russia's official news agency Tass published a lengthy article today -- Cosmonautics Day in Russia in commemoration of Gagarin's flight.   "The recent years have been difficult" for Russia's space program "due to international sanctions against Russia and successes by the country's space rivals, notably from the United States," Tass reports.  While space program funding has been cut in Russia, "the United States successfully tested reusable rocket boosters and continued tests of delivery vehicles intended to replace Russian-made Soyuz" rockets.

SpaceX's launch of a reused rocket and plans to replace Russia's RD-180 engines for the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V rocket "demonstrate that we are entering difficult times and that the reserves of the Soviet space program are now about to be depleted," according to Alexander Zheleznyakov of the Tsiolkovsky Academy of Cosmonautics.

Indeed, the Russian space program has been plagued with failures of several of its once-reliable rockets, including Soyuz and Proton.  Russia is developing the new Angara family of rockets to replace those and other Soviet-era designs, but more than two years have passed since the first tests.  Corruption is one of the problems facing the space program overall.  Funding cutbacks are another.  Sanctions imposed by the United States and other countries because of Russia's actions in Ukraine have had a significant economic impact and the deteriorating U.S.-Russia relationship led to the decision to replace the RD-180 engines on Atlas V with American-made equivalents.

To date, at least, the ISS partnership has been spared any fallout from the changed relationship.  While April 12 is known as Cosmonautics Day and primarily celebrates Gagarin's flight, it is also the 36th anniversary of the first U.S. space shuttle flight.  The decision to terminate the shuttle program in 2011, after 30 years of service, made the United States dependent on Russia for access to the ISS.  Crews are taken to and from ISS in Soyuz spacecraft on Soyuz rockets.  Three ISS crew members just returned to Earth on April 10 and a new crew will launch on April 20.  As a sign of the times, Russia is reducing its ISS crew complement from three to two to lessen resupply requirements so fewer Progress cargo spacecraft are needed.

Nonetheless, Russia's space state corporation Roscosmos is making big plans for the near- and long-term future, including sending cosmonauts to the Moon using Angara-5 rockets and a new "Federatsiya" (Federation) spacecraft.

Whatever the future may hold, today is a day of celebration for human spaceflight enthusiasts everywhere with Yuri's night events scheduled around the world.



What's Happening in Space Policy April 10-22, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Apr-2017 (Updated: 10-Apr-2017 05:50 AM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the next TWO weeks, April 10-22, 2017, and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in recess for two weeks.

During the Weeks

At last!  We're getting a bit of a break.  With Congress in recess until April 24 and most of the big U.S. space conferences over for the first half of the year, the list of events is shorter than it's been recently.  We've decided to combine the next two weeks, taking us through April 22 -- Earth Day and the March for Science.

During this period, three crew members will return from the International Space Station (ISS) and two -- yes, just two -- will launch to the ISS.  Russia is cutting back on how many of its cosmonauts are aboard ISS to reduce requirements to resupply them using Progress cargo spacecraft.  It's a cost cutting move that presents opportunities for NASA astronauts.  First among them is Peggy Whitson who will get to remain aboard ISS for an extra three months. 

The do-si-do of ISS crews is difficult to follow sometimes, but under normal circumstances in the post-shuttle era there are six crew members aboard -- three from Russia and three from the other partners (at least one from NASA and others from ESA, JAXA, and CSA).  The limit is based on how many can get off the ISS in an emergency, which is dictated by how many Soyuz spacecraft are attached since they not only routinely take people back and forth, but serve as lifeboats while there.  Each Soyuz can accommodate three people, so with the usual two Soyuzes docked, six people are OK.   With Russia cutting its crew from three to two, that means there's an extra Soyuz seat for an emergency or a routine return to Earth.

An American (Shane Kimbrough) and two Russians (Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko) will return on April 10 in their Soyuz MS-02 spacecraft, leaving three people on board (NASA's Whitson, ESA's Thomas Pesquet and Russia's Oleg Novitskiy) along with their Soyuz MS-03 spacecraft.  On April 20, an American (Jack Fischer) and a Russian (Fyodor Yurchikhin) will launch on Soyuz MS-04, with an empty seat.  Whitson was supposed to return on Soyuz MS-03 with Pesquet and Novitsky, but now will remain and come back with Fischer and Yurchikhin.  Whitson is setting records for most cumulative time in space for an American (on April 24 she will break Jeff Williams' 534-day record) and the most spacewalks for an American woman (8).  This morning a change of command ceremony took place as the Soyuz MS-02 crew prepares to depart.  She will be the new commander.  This is her second assignment as ISS commander.  She was the first woman commander of ISS on her last trip there in 2008.  (This is her third long duration ISS mission. Her first was in 2002.)

A U.S. cargo mission to the ISS also is coming up during this period.  Orbital ATK-7 (OA-7) is launching on United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V rocket this time instead of Orbital ATK's Antares.  The launch therefore is from Cape Canaveral and has been delayed several times in recent weeks because of one technical problem or another.  It is currently scheduled for April 18, though we haven't seen a time posted by ULA or NASA yet.

Staying with the human spaceflight theme, it also is worth noting that April 12 is the 56th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin becoming the first man to orbit the Earth, and the 36th anniversary of the first U.S. space shuttle launch.  We haven't heard of any commemorative events, however,

Other events of particular note include: meetings of the Science Committee of the NASA Advisory Council (April 12-13), NOAA's Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing (ACCRES, April 12), and the National Academies committee performing a mid-term review of the Decadal Survey of physical and biological sciences in space (April 18-20); a European Conference on Space Debris (April 18-21); and a WSBR panel discussion on defense space priorities for the Trump Administration (April 20).

And on Saturday, April 22, a March for Science rally will take place. Actually, there several hundred taking place around the world according to the Earth Day Network website, which says it is the lead organizer.  Washington, D.C. will be the site of a "rally and teach-in" on the National Mall (north side of the Washington Monument, South of Constitution Ave NW, between 15th and 17th Street, NW) beginning at 9:00 am ET.  No tickets are needed, but organizers hope people will register to attend any of the rallies.  Earth Day itself has been held every year since 1970 to focus attention on the fragility of Earth's environment.  (The iconic Earthrise photo taken by the Apollo 8 crew -- the first crew to orbit the Moon - in 1968 is often cited as a catalyst for the environmental movement and Earth Day.  The Blue Marble photograph taken by the Apollo 17 crew in 1972 has been widely adopted as an emblem for Earth Day.)

Those and other activities 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, April 10

Wednesday, April 12

Wednesday-Thursday, April 12-13

Friday, April 14

  • Space Capabilities (Mitchell Institute), Capitol Hill Club, Washington, DC, 8:00 am ET (pre-registration required)

Tuesday, April 18

Tuesday-Thursday, April 18-20

Tuesday-Friday, April 18-21

Thursday, April 20

Thursday-Friday, April 20-21

Friday, April 21

Saturday, April 22

Hyten: Our Job is to Ensure No War in Space, But ...

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 06-Apr-2017 (Updated: 07-Apr-2017 06:38 AM)

General John Hyten (USAF), Commander of U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), said today that "our job is to make sure war does not extend into space" if possible.  At the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, he repeatedly invoked the Command's motto "Peace is Our Profession," but added there is an implied "dot dot dot" at the end of that phrase for those who want "to go in another direction."

Hyten assumed his current post after serving as Commander of Air Force Space Command so is completely versed in national security space matters.  He testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) on Tuesday, the same day that Acting Air Force Secretary Lisa Disbrow and Air Force Chief of David David Goldfein announced organizational changes to "reflect the reality that space is a joint warfighting domain" as Disbrow phrased it.

At USSTRATCOM, Hyten is responsible for all U.S. strategic forces, including nuclear command and control.  At the hearing and today, Hyten stressed that his first priority is strategic deterrence, but that a 21st Century approach to deterrence is needed that moves beyond the focus on nuclear weapons to incorporate space and cyberspace.  "If deterrence fails," however, "we will be prepared to deliver a decisive response."

For that, space systems are essential -- from early warning to communications to weapons delivery. Thus it is critical to know what is going on in space -- space situational awareness (SSA) -- which requires an integrated approach encompassing allies and the commercial sector.

The Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) at Vandenberg Air Force Base includes personnel from all the U.S. military services plus Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Canada, Hyten explained, adding that a new Multinational Space Collaboration (MSC) program is underway to bring in other close allies, starting with Germany.  Another U.S. organization was created to merge the military JSpOC with the intelligence community.  Originally called the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center (JICSpOC), Hyten announced at the hearing and today that it was just renamed the National Space Defense Center to better convey its purpose -- to facilitate decision making "if we ever see a threat scenario" in space.

The commercial space sector also must be involved in SSA, he continued.  Companies working with JSpOC today, however, "come on their own dime" and because there is no contractual relationship, it is difficult to share information. "I asked the Senate for help" with that, Hyten said, but did not provide details on what remedy he requested. It was not discussed during the open hearing on Tuesday, but he also met with SASC during a closed session on Wednesday.

"There is no such thing as war in space.  There is just war," Hyten stressed.  The goal is to prevent conflict from moving into space, but if it does, the United States and its allies need to deal with it. 

Hyten's speech today was livestreamed on USSTRATCOM's Facebook page.

Air Force Restructures Space Responsibilities, JICSpOC Gets New Name

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Apr-2017 (Updated: 05-Apr-2017 12:47 AM)

Acting Secretary of the Air Force (SecAF) Lisa Disbrow announced a number of changes to the Air Force "space enterprise" today, starting with creation of a new position of deputy chief of staff for space.  Also today, U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) Commander Gen. John Hyten told a Senate committee about a name change for the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center (JICSpOC) and discussed the need for a 21st Century deterrence strategy that includes space.

In a statement, Disbrow said the Air Force changes "reflect the reality that space is a joint warfighting domain." Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein added that the new deputy chief of staff position will be a three-star (Lieutenant General) position and known as "A-11." That person will serve as the space advocate within Air Force Headquarters and be "instrumental in fostering ... the cultural change and capabilities evolution required to operate in an increasingly contested space domain."

Four other changes are in the works.  The Air Force is reforming its space acquisition program approval process and will consider alternative acquisition approaches.  That includes expansion of the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) organization "to rapidly field systems, as well as procure existing commercial capabilities."  Air Force Space Command has developed a Space Warfighting Construct (SWC) to "evolve the space architecture to be more flexible, survivable and resilient."  Lastly, the Air Force, in conjunction with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the other services, will "embed space professionals at every stage of decision making."

Disbrow stressed that the Air Force "seeks to deter conflict in space, but should deterrence fail, we will counter any attempt to deny freedom of action in this vital warfighting domain."  She has been serving as acting SecAF since January 20 when the Trump Administration began.   Former Rep. Heather Wilson has been nominated to serve as the new SecAf. Her confirmation hearing was held last week, but she has not been confirmed yet.

The Air Force is responsible for many national security space programs and the SecAf was named as the Principal DOD Space Advisor (PDSA) in the Obama Administration.  Still, finding an effective organizational model to develop strategy for and execute space activities in the national security sector -- DOD and the Intelligence Community (IC) -- apparently remains elusive.

The Disbrow announcement came hours after Hyten testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) in open session.  The hearing was quite broad and space activities were not a major focus. Hyten and several Senators referred to a classified hearing scheduled for tomorrow where they will be discussed in more detail.

Hyten announced yet another change.  The Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center (JICSpOC) is being renamed the National Space Defense Center to better convey its purpose.   Established in September 2015, JICSpOC is intended to facilitate information sharing across the national security space enterprise including the military and the IC.

Hyten is a former commander of Air Force Space Command, but in his current role as head of USSTRATCOM has much broader responsibilities encompassing all U.S. strategic forces including nuclear command and control, space operations, global strike, global missile defense, and global command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR).  At the hearing, Hyten expressed frustration on a number of issues across the command, especially acquisition and the need for a 21st Century deterrence strategy.

"Deterrence is going to be expensive, but war will always be more expensive," he argued.  Current U.S. deterrence strategy is stuck in the past when the focus was nuclear weapons.  It needs to evolve to include space and cyber threats as well.  "The context has to be the fact that we're actually not deterring cyber, we're not deterring space, we're deterring an adversary who wants to operate and do damage in those domains. That's what we have to deter."

When asked by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) about recent Russian efforts to develop antisatellite (ASAT) weapons, Hyten responded that while Russia may be developing such capabilities, the nearer-term threat is from China.  In response, the United States must "have the ability to defend" against those threats and "build an offensive capability to challenge" theirs.  Hyten told Cruz they could discuss it more in the classified hearing on Wednesday.

Cruz specifically asked about the vulnerability of GPS positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) satellites.  Hyten listed the large number of military systems that have become dependent on GPS, from aircraft to artillery.   Six years ago, he said, the Air Force did a "day without space" exercise and took away GPS and communications satellite (SATCOM) capabilities from aviators.  "And it was not good."  Since then, training has changed to teach how to operate in an GPS- and SATCOM-denied environment.  "Maybe we were spoiled" because space was once considered a safe environment, but "we can't assume that any more."  The military needs to look at precision navigation and timing "as a mission and build resilience into that architecture as well as defending GPS on orbit."

Cassini About To Begin Grand Finale Dives into Saturn's Atmosphere

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Apr-2017 (Updated: 04-Apr-2017 07:18 PM)

NASA's Cassini spacecraft is about to begin its "Grand Finale" that will bring an end to its 20 years in space, 13 of which have been spent exploring Saturn, its rings and its moons.  It is running out of fuel and to avoid any possible contamination of those moons -- some of which may have environments that could support life -- the spacecraft is being commanded to enter Saturn's atmosphere where it will be destroyed.  The last drops of fuel will be used to make 22 dives through the unexplored gap between the planet and its rings to extract some last morsels of scientific data.  The first is on April 26; the last on September 15.

Launched on October 15, 1997, Cassini arrived at Saturn in 2004.   Seventeen nations and three space agencies participated in the mission.  Perhaps the best known international contribution is the European Space Agency's (ESA's) Huygens probe that separated from Cassini and landed on the moon Titan in 2005, the first spacecraft to land on a surface in the outer solar system.  Huygens sent back amazing data about Titan and its methane lakes.  Cassini itself revealed that another moon, Enceladus, has a salty ocean under its icy crust.  As Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker explained at a press conference today, cracks in the surface allow geysers of water vapor and organics to spew out.  Cassini flew through one of the plumes in 2015 obtaining tantalizing scientific data.  (Jupiter's moon Europa is similar.  NASA's Europa Clipper mission is under development to investigate it in the 2020s.)

Jim Green, NASA's planetary science division director, added that the agency is soliciting ideas for future missions to "ocean worlds" like Titan and Enceldaus.  Such a mission would be one of NASA's "New Frontiers" series of planetary science missions.  The Announcement of Opportunity (AO) opened on December 12, 2016.  Green enthused that Titan, Earth-like in some ways with liquid on the surface and a "water cycle" but with methane instead, and extremely cold temperatures, could harbor an entirely different form of life, so-called "weird life," based on something other than DNA.  If so, it could hint at other types of life on planets outside our solar system (exoplanets).  

A 2007 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, The Limits of Organic Life in Planetary Systems, explores the concepts of "weird life."  One of the report's authors, Steve Benner, summarized it in lay terms at an Academies workshop in 2010 on sharing the adventure of space science with the public and the "grand questions" yet to be answered.

Saturn and some of its rings are visible from Earth, but it was NASA's Voyager 1 and 2 flyby missions in the early 1980s that provided the first close-up pictures of the planet and the extent of the ring system.  The rings are made of dust and ice particles that could damage Cassini and its instruments.   The 22 dives between the top of Saturn's atmosphere and the lowest ring pose a risk to the spacecraft, but mission managers decided that since the spacecraft would have to be destroyed in any case, they would use it to obtain every last piece of scientific data possible. 

Cassini project manager Earl Maize said today that models suggest the spacecraft has a 98.8 percent chance of surviving the first 21 dives.  It is intended to enter the atmosphere on the 22nd dive on September 15 and be destroyed by atmospheric forces.  Saturn is a gaseous planet so it will not "crash."  Maize offered an ethereal description -- Cassini will "become part of the planet itself."

Cassini will make one last flyby of Titan to get a gravity assist to put it into the correct position to pass through the gap between the planet and its rings.  Joan Stupak, a Cassini guidance and navigation engineer, demonstrated NASA's interactive "Eyes" website where anyone can "fly along" with Cassini and other NASA spacecraft. She showed the trajectories she and her team have devised for the dives and Titan's influence on them.  The first dive is on April 26.

Illustration of Cassini's "Grand Finale" orbits of Saturn.   Credit:  NASA JPL-CalTech

Maize pointed out that everyone involved in the project has mixed emotions as the end is in sight -- excitement about new discoveries that will be made from the 22 dives, pride in a successful mission that for some has consumed their entire careers, and a sense of loss.  "Humankind has been at Saturn for 13 years. ... We're connected. ... That's going to go away and there's no substitute for some time to come."  Spilker has worked on the project since it began three decades ago, starting when her daughter was in kindergarten until now when her daughter has a daughter herself.  It will be "hard to say goodbye to this plucky, capable" spacecraft and the family of scientists, engineers, technicians and others involved in the mission.  Stupak noted that Cassini received its first funding in 1989, the year she was born, so they are the same age and it has been an "incredible privilege" to work on the mission for the past four years.

Cassini cost $3.27 billion including launch, of which $2.6 billion was paid by the United States and $660 million by European partners.  These "flagship" missions are NASA's most expensive and are sometimes criticized for their high cost.  Supporters argue that they are robustly designed to obtain cutting edge science.  Maize said today Cassini validates the flagship model, demonstrating time and again that it was "ready for anything" and able to obtain unexpected scientific results.  Flagships are "expensive, but the payoff is well worth it."

Cassini's cost was controversial in the early 1990s, however.  Originally, it was paired with the Comet Rendezvous Asteroid Flyby (CRAF) mission.  NASA believed that by using the same spacecraft design (the Mariner Mark II "bus"), two spacecraft, CRAF and Cassini, could be built for $1.6 billion.  Congress was skeptical and set $1.6 billion as a cost cap, insisting that if the total grew beyond that point, one would have to be cancelled.  That is, indeed, what happened.  Cassini was the survivor.  

What's Happening in Space Policy April 3-7, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Apr-2017 (Updated: 02-Apr-2017 02:21 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of April 3-7, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week (then will be in recess for the subsequent two weeks).

During the Week

THE BIG SPACE EVENT this week is, of course, the Space Foundation's annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.  Between all the conference sessions and side events, the entire breadth of space activities -- domestic and international -- is covered.  There is far too much going on to summarize in this brief article, and the majority of activities require people to be on site, but one event that has been announced by the United Launch Alliance will be webcast and might pique some interest.  On Tuesday at 10:30 am Mountain Time (12:30 pm Eastern), ULA will have a panel discussion on its "vision of a self-sustained space economy within the confines of CisLunar space."  ULA CEO Tory Bruno will be there along with representatives of AIAA, Made in Space, Offworld, and the Air Force Academy.   Other companies are likely to make big announcements at the Space Symposium, too, so stay tuned throughout the week!

Also in the western part of the United States and also on Tuesday, NASA/Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) will hold a press conference on the beginning of the end for the much-loved Cassini spacecraft that has been studying Saturn, its rings and its moons since 2004.  Cassini is running out of fuel and to ensure that it does not crash into and contaminate any of those moons -- especially Titan or Enceladus where some scientists believe the conditions for life exist -- JPL is commanding Cassini to "crash" into Saturn itself instead.  Saturn is a gaseous planet so "crash" isn't the right word, but atmospheric forces should destroy it.  To get as much science as possible, Cassini will make 20 deep dives into the Saturnian atmosphere over the next several months collecting data on the unexplored gap between the planet and its rings.  The first is scheduled for April 26; the last on September 15.  The press conference will be webcast.

Meanwhile, back here in Washington, the House is scheduled to take up the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act (H.R. 353) again, this time to approve amendments added by the Senate before it passed that chamber last week.  The bill was largely written in the 114th Congress and the House made quick work of reintroducing it in the 115th Congress and passing it on January 9.  This latest iteration omits a controversial watershed study that held up passage last year and makes a few changes to the House-passed version. The provisions regarding NOAA's weather satellite programs remain the same. The bill currently is on the House suspension calendar for Tuesday.  Bills on that calendar are expected to pass easily.

Behind the scenes, work will continue to determine the path forward for FY2017 appropriations.  The Continuing Resolution (CR) keeping the government open at the moment expires on April 28.  Since the House and Senate will be on spring break for the middle two weeks of the month, they have this week and the last week in April to decide what they're going to do.  Although there is a Republican president in the White House now instead of a Democrat, budget politics have not changed very much -- it's just that now it is some Democrats threatening a shutdown instead of Republicans.  The arguments are the same -- Republicans want to increase defense spending.  Period.  Democrats insist that if defense will get more, then non-defense also should get more and definitely should not be cut the way the Trump Administration has proposed for FY2018.  

The battle right now, however, is over the rest of FY2017, which began on October 1, 2016 so is half over already.  The appropriations committees had pretty much decided what to do with FY2017, but President Trump has submitted a FY2017 supplemental request for an additional $30 billion in defense spending and $3 billion for Homeland Security that would be partially offset by $18 billion in cuts to non-defense programs.  Since only 5 months will remain in FY2017 at the end of April, those cuts would have a dramatic impact since they would have to be absorbed in such a short period of time.  Bottom line?  It's a familiar quandary.  Will they pass another CR through the end of the year or an omnibus bill that combines 11 of the 12 regular appropriations bills?  (One, and only one, FY2017 appropriations bill passed already -- Military Construction/Veterans Administration.  It was incorporated into the first CR passed last fall.)  Or will they pass nothing and much of the government will come to a halt?  With the level of discord within the Republican Party not to mention between Republicans and Democrats, we're not making any prognostications.

Funding the government through CRs is harshly criticized by everyone, which may come as a surprise considering how often it is done (because they can't reach agreement on anything else).   The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) wants to emphasize just how bad another CR would be for DOD and is holding a hearing specifically on that topic Wednesday morning: "Damage to the Military from a Continuing Resolution."  Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Miley, Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert Neller, and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson are the witnesses.  A high-powered panel to be sure. 

The House passed a revised FY2017 defense appropriations bill in March, actually, and it is conceivable that bill alone could pass with the other 10 wrapped into an omnibus or extended by a CR.  Congress has a number of options to work with, the key is getting sufficient votes to pass one of them.  At the moment, the Senate still needs 60 votes to pass an appropriations bill (meaning at least 8 Democrat/Independent aye votes).  In the House, the Freedom Caucus objects to the total level of government spending, so the House Republican leadership may well need Democratic votes to get anything passed.  Which has been true for some time. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for any we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.   [For those of you wondering what's happening with the postponed OA-7 launch we mentioned last week, a NASA official said at a NASA Advisory Council meeting that it will not launch before mid-April.  A specific launch date and associated dates for pre-launch briefings have not been announced.]

Monday-Thursday, April 3-6

Monday-Friday, April 3-7

Tuesday, April 4

Wednesday, April 5

Thursday, April 6


SpaceX Launches, Lands Reused First Stage, Recovers Payload Fairing

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Mar-2017 (Updated: 30-Mar-2017 11:34 PM)

SpaceX successfully launched the SES-10 communications satellite today with a reused Falcon 9 first stage.  The first stage then was recovered for a second time, safely landing on a drone ship at sea.  SpaceX CEO and Lead Designer Elon Musk said his goal is for first stages to be used 10 times with no changes other than replacing the fuel, or 100 times with a moderate amount of hardware refurbishment.  Also, for the first time SpaceX recovered the payload fairing that protects the spacecraft during the launch.

During a post-launch press conference, Musk and Martin Halliwell, SES Chief Technology Officer, called the launch historic. 

Lifting off on time at 6:27 pm ET from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A), the Falcon 9 first and second stages safely delivered SES-10 into a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).  Onboard systems will take it the rest of the way to its final destination in geostationary orbit above the equator.

Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 with reused first stage from Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39A, March 30, 2017.  Photo credit:  SpaceX.

The rocket's first stage originally was used to launch a commercial cargo mission for NASA to the International Space Station on April 8, 2016. It landed on one of SpaceX's two autonomous drone ships, Of Course I Still Love You, and was returned to the company and readied for a second launch.   During the press conference, Musk said his goal is to make these stages ready for reuse within 24 hours and use them 10 times, replacing only the fuel. If they undergo a moderate amount of hardware refurbishment, they could be used 100 times, he said.

As has become common practice for SpaceX, after the first stage finished sending the second stage and the satellite on their way to orbit, it returned and landed -- for a second time -- on the same drone ship as in 2016.

Falcon 9 first stage after landing on drone ship Of Course I Still Love You for the second time, March 30, 2017.  This is the first reuse of a Falcon 9 first stage; this one landed on the same drone ship on April 8, 2016 after sending a cargo mission to the International Space Station for NASA.  Photo credit:  Screengrab from SpaceX webcast.

For the first time, SpaceX also recovered the payload fairing, the conical shaped structure on top of the rocket that surrounds and protects the spacecraft during launch.  The fairing separates from the spacecraft in two sections during the launch sequence -- in this case, 3 minutes and 49 seconds after launch -- and usually falls into the ocean and breaks into pieces. SpaceX outfitted these two fairing sections with parachutes so they could be recovered, which apparently will become standard practice.

The second stage (or upper stage) is not recovered. In the past, Musk has said that is not in SpaceX's plans.  Today, however, he said he might give it try: "What's the worst that could happen?  It blows up?  It would anyway."

Halliwell praised SpaceX's engineering expertise that made it all possible.  "The proof is in the pudding and we got it."

Falcon 9 is SpaceX's only rocket at the moment, but it is developing a much more capable rocket, the Falcon Heavy.  The "9" in Falcon 9 refers to its nine engines.  Falcon Heavy will have 27 engines, all firing simultaneously.  Musk joked that they thought about calling it Falcon 27, but the name sounded "too scary."  Falcon Heavy uses three boosters (each with nine engines) strapped together.  For the first launch, two of the three will be reused Falcon 9 first stages, he said.

Falcon Heavy will be launched from LC-39A.  SpaceX's other East Coast launch pad, Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) adjacent to KSC, is still being repaired following last September's explosion that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and its Amos-6 communications satellite during fueling for a routine pre-launch static fire test.  The first Falcon Heavy launch will be "risky," Musk conceded, and he does not want to launch it from LC-39A until SLC-40 is repaired just in case something goes awry.   He does not want to be in a position where both of his East Coast launch pads are inoperable.  He also stressed that the company needs to catch up on launches since many have been delayed because of the September explosion and subsequent efforts to diagnose and fix what went wrong.  Getting those customers launched is the first priority and Falcon Heavy is second, he stressed.

Nonetheless, Musk said the current plan is to launch the first Falcon Heavy this summer.  The launch date has been postponed a number of times already, however, and few would be surprised if further delays were encountered.

Musk's long term plan is to send a million people to Mars and for that, he insists, reusable rockets are essential to keep costs down.  He said lightheartedly today that the goal is to get people on Mars "before we're dead and the company is dead." 

Musk said reusability has the potential to reduce costs 100-fold.  How much prices will be reduced is an open question, however.  For the Falcon 9, Musk said that reflown -- or "flight proven" -- boosters would have a "meaningful" discounted price eventually, but for now the company needs to pay off the development costs.   SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said last year that customers could save 10 percent by agreeing to use a flight proven Falcon 9 first stage.  The price for the SES-10 launch is not publicly known.

SES, one of the three largest communications satellite operators in the world, is a long-standing SpaceX supporter and was its first commercial customer with the launch of SES-8 in 2013.  Halliwell said that the media and others keep suggesting that SES is taking a "huge chance" by being first but he disagrees.  He said SES works closely with SpaceX and has transparency, a depth of relationship, and access to engineering specifics that "allows us to have confidence."  SES has three more launches on SpaceX Falcon 9s this year and is considering using flight proven boosters on two of them.

Musk said it has taken 15 years to get to this point and today was a "huge day, my mind is blown."   Halliwell added that after SES-8 he predicted "the industry would be shaking in its boots and I think it is shaking now, I really do."

FY2018 Budget May Be Topic A, but FY2017 Still not Settled

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Mar-2017 (Updated: 30-Mar-2017 01:00 PM)

President Trump's release of his FY2018 budget blueprint may be the budget topic of the day, but it is important to remember that FY2017 funding is not yet settled.  NASA, NOAA, DOD and other federal agencies are funded under a Continuing Resolution (CR) that expires on April 28.  Before then, Congress must pass new appropriations to keep the government operating.  Along with proposing his FY2018 budget, Trump requested $33 billion in FY2017 supplemental funding for DOD and the Department of Homeland Security that assumes $18 billion in cuts for non-defense programs, including at NASA and NOAA.

FY2017 is almost half over.  It began on October 1, 2016.   Only one of the 12 regular FY2017 appropriations measures has cleared Congress (Military Construction-VA, which is contained within the first CR that Congress passed in September 2016), but the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have pretty much completed work on the others and a revised FY2017 defense appropriations bill passed the House on March 8.  Trying to make changes at this late date will be quite a challenge.  Politico quoted senior appropriators as calling the FY2017 cuts unlikely.

Nonetheless, the proposal is now before Congress.  The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) submitted a list of where the White House wants to make the reductions.  The American Institute of Physics reports that $3 billion would come from research and development accounts.

Among the proposed cuts are $50 million from NASA's science program and $90 million from NOAA's weather satellite programs.

For NASA, the OMB proposal says the reductions would be distributed across the science program, "including cuts to unused reserves and missions that are cancelled in the 2018 budget,  It is possible missions would be delayed and/or grants reduced."   The President's FY2018 NASA budget request proposes terminating four NASA earth science programs: PACE, CLARREO Pathfinder, Earth-facing instruments on DSCOVR, and OCO-3.

At NOAA, the $90 million in cuts "reflects the planned ramp down of JPSS and GOES weather satellites, and the ramp-up of the PFO program.  This level also delays the EON contingency mission which is not funded in the Congressional marks. This estimate also includes NOAA"s Office of Satellite and Produce Operations."  The budgets for JPSS and GOES do, in fact, begin ramping down in FY2017 so the fact that they continue to be funded at their FY2016 levels in the CR means there is excess money in those accounts.

PFO is the Polar Follow On program -- the third and fourth JPSS polar orbiting weather satellites. The Trump FY2018 budget request already plans to reduce PFO funding.  It says annual savings will be achieved  "by better reflecting the actual risk of a gap in polar satellite coverage."  The amount is not specified.  For FY2017, the PFO request was $383 million, or $393 million if the EON-MW nanosatellite is included. (Sometimes NOAA lists EON-MW separately and sometimes as part of the PFO budget).  EON-MW is the Earth Observing Nanosatellite-Microwave.  As its name implies, it is a tiny satellite that would carry a microwave sounder to ensure that data is available if difficulties arise with the JPSS satellites.   Congress denied the $10 million requested for EON-MW in FY2016.  The same amount was requested for FY2017.  In action so far, the Senate Appropriations Committee denied it while the House Appropriations Committee approved $370 million for PFO and said it included money for EON-MW, but not how much.

The CR expires in four weeks, but the path forward remains murky.  Many appropriators reportedly are hoping to combine the remaining 11 regular appropriations bills into an omnibus bill that would provide "full year" appropriations to each department and agency.   It may be, however, that the CR will simply be extended through the rest of FY2017, keeping agencies at their FY2016 spending levels unless exceptions are made.  Congress has much less control over funding for specific government programs and projects in a CR, but sometimes a CR is the only way to reach agreement.  

As has become typical, there also is talk about a government shutdown, although this time it is the Democrats threatening such action instead of the Republicans.   Many Democrats oppose the increases in defense spending in the FY2017 supplemental and FY2018 budget requests while domestic programs would suffer significant cuts.  Meanwhile, some conservative Republicans object to the overall level of spending for FY2017, which exceeds budget caps set in the 2011 Budget Control Act.  They may oppose the FY2017 bills for that reason.  The failure of the House Republican leadership last week to win over the majority of the conservative Freedom Caucus members for a vote to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) could foreshadow troubled times ahead on other issues, including appropriations.

Note:  This article was corrected to indicate that the FY2017 MilCon/VA appropriations bill cleared Congress as part of the first FY2017 CR passed in September.


NASA Continues Journey to Mars Planning

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Mar-2017 (Updated: 29-Mar-2017 12:15 AM)

The Trump Administration has said very little about its plans for NASA's human spaceflight program other than terminating the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), but NASA continues to shape its architecture for sending people to Mars in the 2030s.  The status of that planning was presented to a NASA Advisory Council (NAC) committee today.

Bill Gerstenmaier and Jim Free of NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) spoke to NAC's Human Exploration and Operations committee this morning.  Two of Gerstenmaier's slides summarized current plans for launches of the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion, and associated systems -- including a lunar "gateway" -- from 2018 to 2030 and beyond.  All would culminate in a human mission to orbit Mars in 2033.

Screengrab from NASA presentation to NASA Advisory Council HEO Committee March 28, 2017. 

Screengrab from NASA presentation to NASA Advisory Council HEO Committee March 28, 2017. 

One interesting feature is that the first two Exploration Mission launches, EM-1 and EM-2, are separated on the slide by the launch of the Europa Clipper mission. That is notionally expected in 2022.  The schedule fits with NASA's official plan to launch EM-1 in 2018 and its commitment date to launch EM-2 in 2023, but the agency is working toward an internal deadline of 2021 for the EM-2 launch and Congress is providing additional funding to achieve it.  The slide suggests that NASA does not want to go too far in promising the earlier launch date.   The slide also shows EM-1 as a 25-60 day mission to a Distant Lunar Retrograde Orbit, not a crewed mission, which NASA is currently studying.

Another feature is the lunar "gateway" NASA recently has begun discussing.  Free emphasized today that the gateway would not be another International Space Station (ISS) in lunar orbit.  It would be smaller and human-tended, not permanently inhabited -- a location from which to stage missions to Mars and possibly to the lunar surface.

"Robust international partnerships" and "commercial capabilities" are essential ingredients of the plan, he added.

The humans-to-Mars mission in 2033 could involve a Venus flyby, they said.  It would be an "out and back" mission, but the crew would remain in Mars orbit for a period of time. That differentiates it from the Inspiration Mars mission proposed by Dennis Tito several years ago.  In that scenario, two people would have made a slingshot flyby of Mars, not enter orbit.  Tito's original idea was for a privately funded mission that would launch in 2018, but within a year Tito decided that it would need to be a public-private partnership with NASA shouldering 70 percent of the cost.  The conceptual launch date slipped to 2021 when Mars and the Earth were not as well aligned and the spacecraft would have needed a gravity assist from Venus.  House Science, Space, and Technology Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) was a strong supporter of the idea.  Little has been heard about it recently, but this NASA concept is sure to prompt comparisons.

NASA describes the path to Mars in terms of phases and the Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission (ARCM) at one time was to signal the end of Phase 1 when experience was gained in cis-lunar space (the Earth-Moon region).  President Trump has proposed terminating the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), however, and NASA is reconfiguring its plans accordingly.   ARM comprises ARCM and the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM).  ARRM was to launch first and robotically relocate a boulder from the surface of an asteroid into lunar orbit where ARCM astronauts would visit it to obtain a sample for return to Earth.  The mission had few supporters in Congress and the proposal to terminate it is not likely to generate much opposition.

However, ARM involved the development of high power solar electric propulsion (SEP) and that part of the program is expected to continue.  The "40 kw Power/Prop bus" shown on the slides reflects that effort.  High power SEP is useful for many types of missions in Earth orbit and deep space. Michele Gates, ARM program director, is on the NAC/HEO committee's schedule tomorrow (Wednesday) to give a briefing on in-space power and propulsion.

Concern has been expressed over the low launch rate for SLS for fear that launch teams will lose their proficiency.  A launch rate of, at most, one per year has been projected.  Today, however, Free said that the latest plan is for one crewed SLS/Orion launch per year beginning in 2023 plus one cargo SLS launch per year beginning in 2027, which would increase the cadence to two per year in support of the human spaceflight program. Some SLS supporters believe that additional uses of SLS will materialize, such as for science missions, that could further increase the launch rate, although the cost per launch is not yet known.

The key to all of this is how much support the Trump Administration will provide for such activities.  The President's budget blueprint is for a status quo NASA human spaceflight program.  Funding for SLS/Orion would remain essentially at its current level.  During a signing ceremony last week for the NASA Transition Authorization Act, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, told the President that just as President Eisenhower is remembered for creating the interstate highway system, he (Trump) would be remembered for creating an interplanetary highway system.  Trump's response was "Well that sounds exciting. First we want to fix our highways.  We have to fix our highways."

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