SpacePolicyOnline.com Latest News
SpaceX is asking permission to amend its lawsuit against the Air Force for awarding a block-buy contract to the United Launch Alliance (ULA) in light of statements made in a letter from Senator John McCain (R-AZ) to the head of the defense department's acquisition office.
McCain sent a letter to Frank Kendall, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics on June 20 asking about the price the Air Force pays for Russian RD-180 engines that are used in ULA's Atlas V rocket. McCain said that he is "aware of claims that the engines have been sold by NPO Energomash to RD Amross at a much lower price than RD Amross charges ULA for them." He asked nine detailed questions about RD-Amross including pricing data between Energomash and RD Amross, between RD Amross and ULA, and between ULA and the Air Force. Energomash manufactures the RD-180 engines. RD-Amross is a joint venture between Energomash and United Technologies that supplies the engines to ULA.
In its proposed amendment to the lawsuit it filed in April, SpaceX asserts that it learned from McCain's letter that there are questions about the prices the Air Force pays for RD-180s and whether ULA met the requirement to provide certified cost and pricing information as part of its bid for the contract, which was awarded in 2013. SpaceX is suing the Air Force because it was a sole-source award, rather than allowing competition.
"Based on Senator McCain's letter, it appears that ULA failed to provide certified cost and pricing data for the RD-180 engines and/or the Air Force failed to rationally assess whether it was paying a fair and reasonable price for those engines," the SpaceX amendment states. If ULA had provided that data, the Air Force "would have been forced to confront the fact that at least one of its suppliers is fleecing the United States taxpayer."
SpaceX wants to be able to compete for national security space launches. The Air Force requires potential launch providers -- "new entrants" -- to proceed through a certification process. SpaceX is still in that process. ULA therefore insists that SpaceX was not, and is not, certified to compete for the contract that was awarded last year.
SpaceX filed the lawsuit in the U.S Court of Federal Claims. Yesterday's filing asks the Court to allow it to amend the filing even though certain deadlines have passed because it only became aware that ULA may not have fulfilled the requirement for providing certified cost and pricing data due to McCain's letter.
UPDATE, June 27, 2014, 8:25 am ET: The launch has been postponed. Some reports say the problem is a leaky valve that needs to be replaced and they will try again tomorrow (June 28). We'll post more details when they are available.
ORIGINAL STORY, June 26, 2014: Russia is getting ready for the first test launch of a new rocket family, Angara, tomorrow (June 27, 2014). The launch, from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome near the Arctic Circle, is scheduled for 15:15 Moscow Time (7:15 am Eastern Daylight Time).
This is a suborbital test launch of the smallest version of the rocket, Angara 1, carrying a simulated payload. Test launches are just that, tests, but Angara's manufacturer, Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, has a lot riding on success. A number of failures of its rockets or upper stages over the past several years have undermined confidence in the company. Three Khrunichev officials were fired and the head of the company resigned 10 months ago following a July 2013 Proton launch failure caused by improperly installed attitude control sensors. Another Proton failed on May 15, 2014 because of a failed bearing in the third stage. The rocket has not yet returned to flight.
Russia plans to field several versions of Angara, a family of rockets intended eventually to replace a number of venerable Russian rockets including Cosmos-3M, Tsyklon, Rokot, Soyuz and Proton. Russia's RIA Novosti news agency posted an English-language video on YouTube providing an overview of the program and a simulation of production and launch. Angara's first stage is fueled by liquid oxygen (LOX) and kerosene and the second stage by LOX and hydrogen, considered more environmentally friendly than other rocket fuels.
Tomorrow's launch is from Plesetsk, but many of the launches are expected to take place from a new launch site under construction in Siberia called Vostochny. Russia is building the launch site to enable it to move launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to within Russia's borders. Kazakhstan gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and began charging Russia $115 million a year to lease the site.
Anatoly Zak at RussianSpaceWeb.com maintains a website with up-to-the-minute postings about Angara that trace the program from its origins 20 years ago to preparations for tomorrow's launch of Angara-1.2PP. The 1.2 refers to this version of Angara and PP is for Pervy Polyot -- First Flight -- Zak explains. He shows versions of Angara with a payload to low Earth orbit (LEO) capability from 2 tons (Angara 1.1) to 35 tons (Angara 7), but notes that Angara 7 did not proceed past concept studies. The largest version still planned is Angara 5 with a payload capability of 25 tons to LEO, similar to the U.S. Delta IV Heavy, currently our most capable rocket.
Correction: The original version of this story reported that the launch time was 18:15 Moscow Time (10:15 am ET) based on information published on RussianSpaceWeb.com, but the intended launch time in fact was 15:15 Moscow Time (7:15 am ET), which was corrected by RussianSpaceWeb.com after the original story went to press.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden is among the dignitaries who will be on hand to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the American Astronautical Society (AAS) on July 16, 2014. JPL Director Charles Elachi will also be there to present the AAS Lifetime Achievement Award to Ed Stone, former JPL Director and project scientist for the Voyager probes.
Voyager 1 and 2 continue to return data from the outer edges of the solar system almost 40 years after they were launched. Their primary mission was returning data as they flew past the outer planets -- Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus -- but they have continued a mission of discovery since then. Voyager 1 recently became the first spacecraft to enter interstellar space.
Bolden will join former astronaut and AIAA Executive Director Sandy Magnus, AAS Board member Laura Delgado López of the Secure World Foundation, and Trevor Waddell of the Aerospace Industries Association in a panel discussion about the future of the space program after a showing of the film "I Want to be an Astronaut," which aims to encourage STEM education. NASA Associate Administrator for Science Mission Directorate and former astronaut John Grunsfeld will moderate the panel.
The event will be held from 6:00-9:00 pm ET at the National Academy of Sciences building, 2101 Constitution Avenue, NW, Washington, DC. A reception follows in the NAS building's Great Hall. Coincidentally, July 16 is also the 45th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11.
The event is free, but RSVP by July 11 is REQUIRED to email@example.com.
The new National Research Council (NRC) report on the future of human space exploration received a warm reception today at a House committee hearing, but partisan tensions among committee members were evident even if they were not directly aimed at NASA.
The NRC study is fairly well aligned with the views of many members of Congress in terms of the long term goal for human exploration (landing people on Mars), a lack of enthusiasm for President Obama’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), and the need for the United States to be the global leader in human space exploration with significant international partnerships.
That long term goal has broad support, including from the Obama Administration. The seemingly endless debate is about the steps for getting there. In the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, Congress directed NASA to contract with the NRC for this study to get closer to resolving those steps. Today’s hearing before the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee was the first opportunity for Congress to hear the results of the study formally.
The NRC report advocates a stepping-stone approach to achieving the “horizon goal” of humans on Mars. It assessed three potential “pathways,” but did not choose among them. Instead it focused on where each of the pathways needed new technologies and whether those technologies were “dead ends” or would build upon each other to achieve the goal.
House SS&T committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) is a strong proponent of the Mars Flyby 2021 concept, which is at odds with NRC’s approach. Smith did not mention that concept either in his opening statement or during questions to the witnesses today. The concept envisions launching a small crew on a one-and-a-half-year journey to flyby (not orbit or land on) Mars in 2021 on the first crewed flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft. Critics argue it is too risky and has little reward since it is a one-time event, not part of a procession of missions that ultimately leads to humans on the surface of Mars.
Smith and other Republicans used the hearing to once again criticize the Obama Administration’s ARM as, at best, a diversion from the Mars goal. They also complained that NASA spends too much on climate research and not enough on human exploration. NASA’s annual earth science budget is about $1.8 billion. The budget for SLS and Orion is approximately $4 billion a year. If funding for the International Space Station – critical to achieving the goal of sending humans to Mars according to NASA – is added, the total for NASA’s human spaceflight program is on the order of $7 billion a year.
Smith lambasted the Administration for requesting a FY2015 budget for NASA that is $1.8 billion less than its budget during the last year of the George W. Bush Administration, saying that demonstrates that NASA is not an Administration priority. The budget request is $17.5 billion.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the top Democrat on the committee, said that she found Smith’s comments “almost comical” considering the “struggle” the committee had last year over NASA’s authorization bill. At that time, on a party-line vote, Republicans approved a $16.9 billion budget for NASA, while Democrats were fighting for $18.1 billion. That bill was replaced this year by one (H.R. 4412) that represents bipartisan agreement on policy issues, but bypasses funding issues by authorizing funds only for FY2014, which is already underway.
The two parties have been locked in bruising debates on this committee in the past several weeks over reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act, the Department of Energy’s research and development programs, and what Republicans call the Environmental Protection Agency’s “secret science” regulatory process. This year’s agreement on H.R. 4412, which passed the House earlier this month, was a bright spot in committee bipartisanship.
Today, committee Democrats did not defend the President’s ARM project and while they did not directly criticize it, their disenchantment was clear. Johnson said she hopes the NRC report is “a first step in achieving a revitalized, focused exploration program for America” and called the NRC report a “wake-up call” that “we are not going to have a human space exploration program worthy of a great nation if we continue down the current path.”
The only witnesses were the co-chairs of the NRC study: Jonathan Lunine, a renowned space scientist at Cornell University, and Mitch Daniels, President of Purdue University and former Republican governor of Indiana.
Daniels and Lunine were frank in explaining the rationale for sending people to Mars at all and the challenges that lie ahead, both technical and political.
Lunine pointed out that there are many “myths that surround both public opinion and proven benefits” from human space exploration. The NRC study found that the public pays little attention to it and was not enamored of the Apollo program while it was underway. Today Apollo is “viewed as a source of inspiration and great pride by many if not most Americans,” Lunine said, but that was not true at the time. Instead, “it has been political leadership that determines” if new ventures are pursued and the public supports it retrospectively. Daniels remarked that if there was some “secret sauce to ignite public excitement” it would have been applied long ago.
He and Lunine repeatedly stressed the need for a “steadfast commitment” and a “disciplined, sustained approach” if Americans ever are to land on Mars, and that includes increasing the budget for human space exploration on the order of 2-3 percent above inflation. Committee members pressed the witnesses for precise cost estimates, but they demurred. Daniels, who was Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) from 2001-2003, said the NRC committee did not want to “commit the sin of false precision” and instead provided only a range of costs – hundreds of billions of dollars over decades. He commented that the human spaceflight budget is in the “tenths of a percent of the federal budget” and increases would be no more than “rounding errors.”
The NRC concluded that current law that prohibits NASA from bilateral cooperation with China is not in the nation’s best interest. The issue of NASA-China cooperation is a hot button issue that could have been a heated point of contention today, but it was not. Some committee members raised it, but the witnesses generally deflected the questions and the members chose not to press them on it. Daniels said that the NRC committee was asking only that everyone remain open to such cooperation and pointed out that geopolitical relationships change over time and sending people to Mars is a multi-decade endeavor. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), a staunch critic of the Chinese government and supporter of the current law, even joked that considering how much money the United States borrows from China “if we don’t make them our partner we’re going to borrow it from them anyway.”
One criticism of the NRC report has been that it did not incorporate the potential importance of commercial partnerships, but Daniels parried that was not accurate. He said the committee met with leaders of the commercial space community and there are “a lot of possibilities there.”
Johnson summed up the situation by saying that “As Members of Congress, the ball is now is our court, and we have choices to make. We can choose to continue to argue about which President or who in Congress is to blame for the current state of our human space exploration program, but I earnestly hope that we won’t. We are where we are, and we can’t change the past. Our focus needs to be on how we proceed from this point forward.”
UPDATE: This story was updated on June 26, 2014 reflecting denials from a Sea Launch official and the head of the Ukrainian Space Agency.
Geopolitical tensions between the United States and Russia could mean a hiatus in launches of the Sea Launch consortium until relationships improve according to a report in the Russian media. Sea Launch today is primarily a Russian company, but Boeing is still involved and the home port is Long Beach, CA.
Sea Launch uses Ukrainian Zenit-3SL rockets with a Russian upper stage to place satellites into geostationary orbit above the equator. Launches take place from a platform, Odyssey, that is a converted mobile ocean oil rig. Odyssey and its Sea Launch Commander command ship travel from Long Beach to the equator for the launch. The first launch was in 1999, but the company suffered several total or partial failures, including a spectacular failure at liftoff in 2007, and filed for bankruptcy in 2009. Originally, the company was owned 40 percent by Boeing, 25 percent by Russia's Energiya RSC, 20 percent by Norway's Kvaerner (which converted the oil rig) and 15 percent by Ukraine's Yuzhmash and Yuzhnoye. It emerged from bankruptcy in 2010 with 95 percent ownership by Energiya and the Zenit-3SL return to flight in September 2011. Another failure occurred in February 2013, but Sea Launch returned to flight again on May 26, 2014 with the successful launch of EUTELSAT 3B.
The question is what the future holds for this multinational enterprise. Russia's RIA Novosti reported on June 24 that there are questions about whether the Zenit rockets can be built in Ukraine under current circumstances. It quoted an unnamed source in the space industry as suggesting that a decision may be made soon to mothball the platform: "He [the industry source] said if Russia, the United States and Ukraine fail to stabilize their relations, a decision may be made soon to mothball the Sea Launch until at least 2016." RIA Novosti continues that the source added that it would not mean additional launches could not take place, but that it would take longer to get the launch complex ready.
The Sea Launch website does not provide a launch manifest showing upcoming launches so it is not easy to discern whether a hiatus through 2016 would have much impact on the company's business. Spaceflightnow.com has a list of upcoming world-wide launches through March 2015; none are by Sea Launch. The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation's most recent launch forecast volume (from May 2013) includes launches through all of 2015; none in 2015 are Sea Launch, although three are to-be-determined. RIA Novosti said only that four Sea Launch Zenits are in various stages of construction at Yuzhnoye.
Peter Stier, deputy head of sales and marketing at Sea Launch, subsequently denied to the Moscow Times that the company is currently planning to mothball Odyssey or Sea Launch Commander, although is it "exploring contingency plans" in case such a step is needed. The head of the Ukrainian Space Agency, Yuri Alexeyev, told Interfax that the supply of Zenit rockets for Sea Launch is not in jeopardy.
The head of NASA’s human exploration program, Bill Gerstenmaier, had good words to say today about the new National Research Council (NRC) report on the future of human space exploration. Until today, the only public NASA reaction was a brief press release the day the report was released.
Gerstenmaier briefed the Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) committee of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) at NASA Headquarters. At the end of his presentation, he was asked about the NRC report – “Pathways to Exploration: Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration.”
“I think there are a lot of good things in the report that are noteworthy,” he said, adding that “there may be some actionable items” in the report that the committee might want to take back to NAC. He also said that it would be interesting to see how the report is received by Congress at the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing on Wednesday.
Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD), and his team have been diligently endeavoring to articulate how the Obama Administration’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) fits into a long term goal of sending humans to Mars. ARM has received little support in Congress or the space community broadly.
In a number of presentations this year, he has laid out NASA’s view of the steps to Mars, including ARM, and makes a point of distinguishing between “exploration” and “pioneering.” Exploration is an out-and-back paradigm while pioneering implies going to stay. He believes NASA should focus on pioneering.
Earlier in the day, Jason Crusan, HEOMD’s Director of Advanced Exploration Systems, followed that theme in providing an update on NASA’s strategy for sending humans to Mars, now referred to as the “Evolvable Mars Campaign” or EMC. Instead of Apollo-style trips, Crusan articulated a plan that builds up capabilities that enable regular trips to Mars, with staging areas in lunar orbit, at the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos, or other “low delta-V” locations where fuel requirements are minimized. The staging areas would be used to “aggregate” Mars “mission vehicle stacks” that would make the trip to and from Mars. Some elements of the stacks – like the crew module -- will make a direct return to Earth while others will return to the staging areas for refurbishment.
The key message was that it will be an evolutionary effort with one step building upon the next. The initial step is ongoing work on the International Space Station, the next step is ARM, and NASA is continuing to do trade studies on what comes next.
Whether ARM should be pursued or not is one area where NASA and the NRC disagree. The NRC concluded that it “has failed to engender substantial enthusiasm either in Congress or the scientific community.” Still, the two do agree on a number of issues: that Mars is the long term goal for human space exploration, that international and commercial partnerships are essential to achieving that goal, and that the U.S. Government will have to increase NASA’s human exploration budget above the rate of inflation if the goal is to be realized.
NASA has found six valid candidates so far in its ongoing hunt to find an asteroid to use for its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) agency officials announced on Thursday. They also announced the award of 18 system concept study contracts valued at a total of $4.9 million.
The progress update comes roughly one year after the Obama Administration announced plans for ARM, a modification of President Obama’s 2010 directive to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 as the next step in human space exploration. Instead of sending astronauts to an asteroid, the ARM concept would bring the asteroid to the astronauts.
NASA divides ARM into three phases: identifying an appropriate asteroid; using a robotic spacecraft to capture the asteroid and nudge it into orbit around the Moon; and sending astronauts aboard an Orion spacecraft to collect and bring back samples of the asteroid.
“We don’t plan to, nor do we want to, stop looking for targets,” said Michele Gates, ARM program director, at Thursday’s press conference that featured panelists in Washington and others from around the globe joining in virtually. “We actually wouldn’t need to make a final selection of a target until one year before launch.”
Under current plans, the ARM robotic spacecraft is scheduled for launch in 2019. Two mission concepts are being considered. “Option A” would capture an entire asteroid less than 32 feet (10 meters) in diameter whereas “Option B” would collect a boulder less than 32 feet in diameter off of a large asteroid. The agency will choose which option to move forward with likely in mid-December, Gates said.
More than 11,000 near-Earth objects have been discovered and approximately 100 are being found monthly, said Paul Chodas, program scientist at NASA’s Near Earth Object Program. “Discovery is not enough,” he added. “We also have to consider characterization—that is learning about the physical properties of the asteroids.”
The asteroid candidates are being categorized as “potential” or “valid”. Potentials are “the ones that look good roughly and have roughly the right size,” Chodas said, whereas valids are those for which detailed information such as mass and boulders on the surface already have been derived and are “within the capability of the asteroid retrieval vehicle to bring back.”
The list so far is nine potentials for Option A, three of which are valids; and thousands of potentials, but only three valids, for Option B, Chodas said.
The panelists focused on asteroid 2011 MD, a valid candidate for Option A. “What you need to have is the kind of asteroid orbit that is very similar to Earth’s orbit and 2011 MD is one of those type of asteroids,” said David Tholen, astronomer at the University of Hawaii.
Infrared data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope reveal it is approximately 20 feet (6 meters) in diameter "perhaps resembling ... a rubble pile" with a "remarkably low density" according to a NASA press release.
The asteroid could fit in a home garage or might actually float in a swimming pool, Michael Mommert, a post-doctoral researcher at Northern Arizona University, said at the press conference.
“This is pretty unexpected because traditionally people thought that small asteroids like 2011 MD are just single pieces of rock or single boulders floating in space,” Mommert continued. The findings from Spitzer were published Thursday in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The opportunity to capture 2011 MD would be in 2024, but more observations are needed to find out what the asteroid really looks like. Other candidates include asteroid 2008 HU4, which will pass close enough to Earth in 2016 for better observations of its size, shape and rotation rate, and Bennu, which will get close up shots by NASA’s Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission in 2018. OSIRIS-REx is a robotic asteroid sample return mission.
At Thursday’s press conference the agency also announced 18 winners of contracts for system concept studies to further refine ARM. Approximately $4.9 million total will be awarded to fund the six-month studies, which will begin in July. The awards are in five areas: asteroid capture system, rendezvous sensors, adapting commercial spacecraft for the Asteroid Redirect Vehicle, partnerships for secondary payloads, and potential partnerships to enhance U.S. exploration activities in cis-lunar space in conjunction with the crewed mission.
NASA describes ARM as part of a pathway toward attaining the goal of eventually sending humans to Mars in the 2030s. The mission is very controversial and has won little support outside of the Obama Administration. The recently released National Research Council (NRC) report on the future of human space exploration was the latest to cast doubt on its utility as a step toward human exploration of Mars. The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on the NRC study on Wednesday (June 25).
Thursday’s press conference kicked off a two-day public virtual workshop series that celebrated the one-year anniversary of the White House’s Asteroid Grand Challenge to engage the public in the ARM effort.
Here is our list of space policy events coming up in the next week, June 23-27, 2014, and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session.
During the Week
The House has S. 1681, the Senate-passed version of the 2014 Intelligence Authorization Act, on the suspension calendar for this week. The Senate Intelligence Committee confidently predicted that the House would accept its version of the bill and that is looking likely. Bills considered under suspension of the rules typically are non-controversial and the sponsors expect to achieve a two-thirds aye vote easily. The Senate bill differs in many ways from the House version. For example, it is only for FY2014 while the House-passed bill was for FY2014 and FY2015. If the Senate bill is enacted, it gives Congress another opportunity to weigh in on intelligence issues legislatively in FY2015, which begins October 1. The Senate bill also requires Senate confirmation of the Director and Inspector General of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which designs, builds and operates the nation's signals and imagery reconnaissance satellites (the bill also requires Senate confirmation of the Director and Inspector General of the National Security Agency). No other space-related bills are on the House agenda as of today (Sunday) and the Senate has only consideration of various nominations on its public schedule. The fate of the appropriations bills that include NASA, NOAA, and the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation remains in limbo in the Senate.
The House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee will hold a hearing on the National Research Council's (NRC's) new report on the future of human space exploration on Wednesday. The co-chairs of the NRC committee, Mitch Daniels and Jonathan Lunine, will testify. So far the report has gotten positive responses from Congress via press releases, but this hearing is an opportunity for Members to get their viewpoints on the record and ask questions that highlight their areas of interest. The NRC committee's lack of enthusiasm for the Asteroid Redirect Mission, support for human missions back to the lunar surface, and identification of humans on Mars as the "horizon goal" are all in line with the views of most Members of the House SS&T Committee. One point on which there may be disagreement is the NRC committee's endorsement of space cooperation with China, which Congress has prohibited by law.
Those and other space policy-related events for the upcoming week that we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Monday, June 23
Monday-Tuesday, June 23-24
Tuesday, June 24
Wednesday, June 25
Thursday, June 26
The House passed the FY2015 defense appropriations bill today (June 20) with the $220 million added to begin building a replacement for Russia's RD-180 rocket engines intact. Also today, the Obama Administration imposed sanctions against seven Ukrainians and, along with Europe, is readying other sanctions aimed at specific Russian economic sectors including defense.
The availability of RD-180 engines for the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V rocket has come into question since the deterioration of relationships with Russia because of its actions in Ukraine. The House now has passed both a FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, H.R. 4435) and a companion FY2015 defense appropriations bill (H.R. 4870) that provide $220 million for the Air Force to begin a program to develop a U.S. liquid rocket engine to replace the RD-180. The White House disapproves of the additional funding, arguing that it is premature to commit that much money while options on how best to obtain a new U.S. engine are still being evaluated, but there seems to be agreement that a new U.S engine is needed to end America's reliance on Russia. The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) also wants a U.S.-built engine and recommended $100 million in its version of the FY2015 NDAA (S. 2410). SASC also adopted a McCain amendment that prohibits the purchase of additional RD-180 engines after the current contract expires.
U.S. national space policy requires that the government support two families of launch vehicles to ensure access to space, especially for national security satellites, in case one experiences a long hiatus because of a failure. The Atlas V is one of the two (Delta IV is the other). NASA and NOAA also use Atlas V and two of the three competitors for NASA's commercial crew program (Boeing and Sierra Nevada) plan to launch their spacecraft using the Atlas V.
ULA insists that it is "business as usual" with Energomash, the Russian company that manufactures the RD-180s. The question is whether the evolving situation in Ukraine and potential sanctions against Russia's defense sector could disrupt that relationship. ULA President Michael Gass said on Wednesday that the company is positioning itself to be able to respond to any eventuality.
Major media outlets including the New York Times report that a "senior administration official" briefed them today that the United States and Europe are readying tougher sanctions targeted against Russia's finance, energy and defense sectors because of continued Russian involvement in Ukraine. According to the reports, the administration is accusing Russia of covertly arming Ukrainian separatists and redeploying "significant' Russian troops along the Ukrainian border despite a cease-fire declared by Ukraine today and ongoing negotiations between Moscow and Kiev on a peace plan. The U.S. Treasury Department today imposed sanctions against seven Ukrainians who are viewed as separatist leaders.
Details of the potential sanctions against Russia's economic sectors have not been made public. President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Russian President Putin earlier this month that he risked tougher sanctions if Russia did not withdraw Russian troops from the Ukrainian border and end its support for Ukrainian separatists. Although Russia initially withdrew some of it troops, they reportedly now are redeploying.
Optimism about completing congressional action on at least some FY2015 appropriations bills earlier than usual hit a wall today (June 19) when the Senate postponed action on a set of three appropriations bills, including those that fund NASA, NOAA and the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. Substantive issues underlie the disagreement, but they are unrelated to the space program and are being manifested in procedural moves.
Since last week, the Senate has been debating the Motion to Proceed to consideration of H.R. 4660, the House-passed FY2015 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill. The Senate plans to replace the language passed by the House with an “amendment in the nature of a substitute” – amendment 3244 – incorporating the texts of three appropriations bills that cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee – the CJS bill (which includes NASA and NOAA), the Transportation-HUD bill (which includes the FAA), and the Agriculture bill. The combined bill is referred to as a “minibus,” a somewhat joking reference to a smaller version of an “omnibus” appropriations bill that typically groups all 12 regular appropriations bills together.
The issue is how the Senate will deal with amendments to the minibus. The two parties have been at loggerheads for years over what amendments are allowed to be offered during floor debate and whether the amendments can be adopted by majority vote (51 of the 100 votes in the Senate) or if a 60-vote margin is required.
The current breakdown of the Senate is 53 Democrats, two Independents who usually vote with Democrats, and 45 Republicans. An amendment sponsored by Republicans needs to attract just six Democratic votes to win under the majority rule, but 15 if the 60-vote rule is in effect. Conversely, an amendment sponsored by Democrats can pass with support only from other Democrats under majority rule, but requires five Republicans to join them under the 60-vote rule.
Logically, that would mean Democrats would want decisions based on majority vote on the assumption they can get the vast majority of their own party members to vote in favor of Democratic amendments, while Republicans would favor a 60-vote threshold to force Democrats to find at least five Republicans to join them. Indeed, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has argued for the 60-vote threshold in the past.
Today, however, he and other Republicans were insisting that amendments to the minibus be able to pass with only 51 votes while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) was arguing for the 60-vote threshold.
Divining the intricacies of Senate politics is a treacherous undertaking best left to those with that expertise rather than space policy. However, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, took to the floor today to say that the real issue is that Republicans want to offer amendments that would repeal the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. Indeed, in its Statement of Administration (SAP) policy on the bill, the White House warned against attempts to “advance ideological riders, which the President has made clear are unacceptable.”
The bottom line is that action on the minibus is stalled until the two parties can reach agreement on how to proceed. A timeline for such an agreement is impossible to forecast.
Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), the top Republican on the committee, have been striving to restore “regular order” to the appropriations process. Mikulski said on the floor that she was “sad” with what happened today because it will delay funding for many critical programs and hopes that the appropriations process “does not die today.”
Meanwhile, Senators have been making statements about the bill on the Senate floor while the Motion to Proceed has been under consideration. A NASA issue of particular interest is language inserted in the CJS bill by Shelby, who also is the top Republican on the CJS subcommittee, requiring commercial crew contractors to abide by accounting practices usually required for cost-plus government contracts rather than firm fixed-price contracts. Opponents refer to it as a “poison pill” that will add cost to the program and is particularly disadvantageous to small companies (like SpaceX) that do not have large cadres of personnel experienced in conforming to such regulations. Advocates insist that it adds transparency and will help avoid cost overruns.
Yesterday (June 18), Shelby, a long-standing critic of the commercial crew program, defended the language on the Senate floor saying its intent was “not to up-end a fixed-price contract: rather the goal is to make certain that the price NASA has agreed to pay for vehicle development matches actual development expenditures. NASA and its contractors have a history of cost overruns and schedule delays ... [and] I believe we cannot find ourselves at the eleventh hour with an overburdened program that requires a bailout to succeed.” For his part, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee that authorizes NASA’s activities and supports commercial crew, said he wants to work with Mikulski and Shelby as the bill is conferenced with the House “to make sure that we have the right mix of oversight and innovation in how NASA contracts for this competition.”
Events of Interest