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This is our list of space policy events for the week of July 4-9, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House returns to work on July 5; the Senate on July 6. [This posting was updated on July 4.]
During the Week
Monday, July 4, is a federal holiday and government offices officially are closed, but some folks at NASA surely will be on duty because the BIG EVENT for the coming week is the arrival of NASA's Juno spacecraft at Jupiter that day.
Miles O'Brien explained in a recent PBS Newshour segment what Juno will tell us about Jupiter that the Galileo spacecraft didn't (basically Galileo was looking at the cloudtops outward while Juno will look under the clouds down through Jupiter's core). NASA has held a number of pre-arrival briefings already. Another will be broadcast on NASA TV on Monday at noon ET with a mission update.
NASA TV coverage of orbit insertion begins at 10:30 pm ET and a post-arrival briefing is scheduled for 1:00 am ET July 5.
The spacecraft will fire its engine at 11:18 pm ET on July 4 for 35 minutes to enter Jupiter's orbit, ending at 11:53 pm ET. Everything is automated at this point -- either the engine will work properly or it won't. The signal travel time from Jupiter to Earth is 48 minutes. The times here are Earth-receive times accounting for the delay.
Closer to Earth, a new crew will launch to the International Space Station on Wednesday evening Eastern Daylight Time (Thursday GMT, Moscow Time, and local time at the launch site). The three crew members -- NASA's Kate Rubins, JAXA's Takuya Onishi and Roscosmos's Anatoly Ivanishin -- will be using an upgraded version of the Soyuz spacecraft, Soyuz MS-01. Since it's new, they will take the longer 2-day trajectory to the ISS to test everything out, docking early Saturday morning EDT.
Meanwhile, here on Earth, on Thursday, the Environment Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on the nation's current and next generation weather satellites. It is a bit unusual in that it blends plans for civil and military weather satellites. The witness list as of today includes two experts on NOAA's weather satellite programs -- Steve Volz, head of NOAA/NESDIS and the GAO expert who follows those civil weather satellite programs (David Powner), and two on DOD's weather satellite program -- Ralph Stoffler, Director of Weather in the office of the USAF Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and the GAO expert on military satellites (Cristina Chaplain). Subcommittee chairman Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma) serves on both this subcommittee and the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) which may explain the decision to hold a combined hearing on the weather satellite plans for both NOAA and DOD. House SS&T typically webcasts its hearings on its website and YouTube.
The events we know about as of Monday, July 4, are listed below. Check back throughout the week for additions to our Events of Interest list.
Monday-Tuesday, July 4-5 ET
Wednesday, July 6
Thursday, July 7
Saturday, July 9
Note: This article, orignally published June 30, 2016, was updated throughout on July 4, 2016.
The National Air and Space Museum in downtown Washington, DC is celebrating its 40th anniversary. As part of the commemoration, it revamped its centerpiece exhibit area and introduced a "digital wall" and associated mobile app to make it easier for visitors to find what they are looking for plus related exhibits elsewhere in the museum. The public is invited to spend the night at the museum from 9:00 pm July 1 to 10:00 am ET July 2 with special tours, demonstrations, music, a film festival and other activities. The museum will webcast all night long. C-SPAN will broadcast events earlier in the evening (6:00-9:00 pm ET) including an opening ceremony at 8:30 pm ET.
Many old favorites are still in the central Boeing Milestones of Flight exhibit -- from the Spirit of St. Louis to Mercury and Gemini capsules to the touchable Moon rock -- but they have been spit and polished and many placed in new display cases. Joining the old favorites are the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM), which has been on display for years at one end of the museum, a backup Telstar communications satellite (whose solar panels still work), the Discoverer XIII reconnaissance satellite reentry capsule (the first human-made object recovered from orbit), a large wind tunnel fan used by NASA's predecessor the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), and a variety of other artifacts that span a broad range of aviation and space history.
In all, museum Director Jack Dailey says the renovated gallery provides a "richer experience" to allow visitors to "walk away with a deeper understanding of how spaceflight and aviation have affected their lives."
Walking in the front door from Independence Avenue, the lighted model of Star Trek's U.S.S. Enterprise is the first exhibit to catch the eye. It is the model that was used in all 79 episodes of the original television series. Next to it is a collection of Sally Ride artifacts that includes her Star Trek communicator pin. Margaret Weitekamp, curator for the museum's social and cultural dimensions of spaceflight collection, said that the goal of bringing the Enterprise into the exhibit hall was to help visitors think not only about past achievements, but cultural visions of the future.
Next is the Telstar model, which might easily be mistaken visually for a tiny version of the Death Star from Star Wars. Instead, it is a backup to AT&T's communications satellite, Telstar 1, the first (1962) to provide live transatlantic television and a precursor of the comparatively mammoth communications satellites of today.
The main exhibit area is much more open now, with the exhibits along the sides instead of in the middle -- impeding foot traffic. Next to the LEM on the west wall are the Mercury and Gemini capsules and the Viking lander -- perhaps a testament to current efforts to bring human exploration and science closer together.
The new 16-by-12 foot digital "GO FLIGHT" touchscreen allows visitors to find what they're looking for and get hints on related exhibits that may be of interest. A mobile app allows smartphone users to access information throughout the museum.
A word to the wise, however -- there are no recharging stations for those smartphones. Weitekamp said there are plans to install them in the future, but for now, make sure your phone is fully charged.
The NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a report on Tuesday that praised NASA for some aspects of its management of the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with SpaceX, but reiterated earlier concerns about the independence of mishap investigations into these "commercial cargo" launch services. NASA concurred with most, but not all, of the OIG's recommendations.
The OIG report was prompted by the June 28, 2015 SpaceX CRS-7 (SpX-7) Falcon 9 rocket failure that was intended to send a Dragon spacecraft full of supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). Among the $118 million in cargo that was lost was an International Docking Adapter, the first of two needed for future dockings of SpaceX and Boeing commercial crew vehicles.
On the positive side, the OIG concluded that "NASA is effectively managing its commercial resupply contract with SpaceX to reduce cost and financial risk." It has "taken advantage of multiple mission pricing discounts" and negotiated "significant consideration" after the 2015 failure including reduced prices for five launches awarded thereafter (SpX-16 to SpX-20).
However, the report criticized NASA for not having "an official, coordinated, and consistent mishap investigation policy for commercial resupply launches, which could affect its ability to determine root cause of a launch failure and corrective action."
The SpaceX cargo flights are commercial and regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), not NASA. NASA purchases ISS cargo resupply services from SpaceX as well as Orbital ATK. Orbital ATK also suffered a failure -- the Orb-3 launch in October 2014. Like SpaceX, those launches are regulated by the FAA. FAA regulations determine how investigations are conducted when there is a launch failure of a commercial vehicle. Under those regulations, the respective company itself is in charge.
NASA has its own mishap investigation procedures that require an independent review, but they do not apply to these commercially procured launch services. The OIG earlier looked at the Orbital ATK failure and in Tuesday's report on SpaceX reiterated its concerns "about the independence of contractor-led mishap investigations."
SpaceX formed an Accident Investigation Team (AIT) in accordance with the FAA regulations composed of 11 SpaceX employees (one as chair) and one FAA employee. Others from the FAA, NASA, the Air Force, and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) were non-voting observers. The AIT determined that the most probable cause was a failure of a strut in the second stage. After reporting that finding to the FAA and fixing the problem, the Falcon 9 was approved to return to flight. The first launch was for a commercial communications satellite company (Orbcomm), the second launch for the NASA-NOAA Jason-3 spacecraft, the third for a different commercial communications satellite company (SES), and the fourth a resupply mission to ISS, SpX-8. All were successful.
Even though its own mishap investigation procedures do not apply, NASA is allowed under the CRS and other contracts to establish an independent review in addition to the FAA investigation. The OIG found "there were up to seven possible investigation authorities" NASA could invoke "depending on when the failure occurred and the extent of damage..." In this case, since the next Falcon 9 launch for NASA was of the Jason-3 satellite, NASA's Launch Services Program (LSP) set up a review under that contract authority. Its findings were not as determinant as SpaceX's, leaving questions about the ultimate root cause.
A key finding of the OIG report is that "[d]ue to a lack of standardization or NASA policy, the contractor and NASA investigations into the SPX-7 and Orb-3 failures had different scopes and produced varying findings and corrective actions." Orbital ATK's Orb-3 investigation "used root cause analysis" that looked not only at technical issues, but programmatic and organizational as well. NASA's LSP investigation looked only at technical issues, the OIG said.
It recommends that NASA review its various authorities to ensure a coordinated, standardized approach. NASA concurred.
How NASA determines what and how much cargo to put aboard the SpaceX flights was another concern raised by the OIG, especially the International Docking Adapters (IDAs). The second IDA is now scheduled for the SpX-9 mission later this year, but the replacement for the unit lost in 2015 (being built from spare parts) will not be launched until February 2018, according to the OIG report. If current schedules hold, it will not arrive until SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner are in service. That could spell trouble if anything goes awry with the one Adapter that will be available. In its response to the OIG report, published in an appendix, NASA asserted that it "plans to have both IDAs available prior to first ISS direct handover mission and the first planned cargo docking mission under [the] CRS 2 [commercial cargo contract].
More broadly, the OIG recommended that NASA do a better job of quantifying and communicating the risks associated with the commercial cargo launches. NASA did not agree with that one. It asserted that its existing procedures provide adequate assessments of risk and communicate that risk to the appropriate people.
Orbital ATK successfully conducted the second of two qualification tests for the motor for solid rocket boosters (SRBs) that will be part of the NASA's Space Launch System (SLS). The 2-minute test today at the company's Promontory, Utah test site was delayed by one hour because of a computer issue, but appeared flawless when it took place at 11:05 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT). The next time the booster will be used in for the first SLS test launch in 2018 dubbed Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1).
Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, excitedly told a media teleconference an hour later that the test proved "this design is ready to fly." Expressing "100 percent confidence in this team," he cheerfully urged them to celebrate and then "get back to work" because 2018 is closer than it seems.
SLS is intended to eventually send humans to Mars. An audience questioner said he was 49 years old and asked "will I see a man on Mars?" Gerstenmaier replied "yes, but 'man' may be the wrong word. You will see a human being" on Mars, to applause from people in the room.
Today's Qualification Motor test 2 (QM-2) was designed to show how it operates in cold temperatures at about 40 degrees Farhenheit. A 2015 test demonstrated its performance in high temperatures at approximately 90 degrees F. The motor is 154 feet long and 12 feet in diameter, producing 3.6 million pounds of thrust. Although based on the SRBs for the space shuttle, they incorporate new technologies, materials and manufacturing processes. For today's test, it lay horizontally on a test stand with flames and smoke billowing out the back.
Two five-segment SRBs are needed for each SLS launch, a total of 10 segments. Charlie Precourt, a former astronaut and now Vice President and General Manager for Orbital ATK's Propulsion Systems Division said seven more are needed for the EM-1 test in 2018. He expects all of the segments to ship to Kennedy Space Center by late 2017. With the successful completion of this test, the development phase is now over and the company will transition to manufacturing. Noting that development and manufacturing are two different mindsets, he said the next challenge is to be sure "we can build this precisely each time."
Gerstenmaier exclaimed that "today was an amazing day." Asked whether this type of visible milestone is helpful as the country readies for a presidential transition, he said it was not just milestones, but demonstrating on a continuing basis that NASA and its contractors can maintain schedule and budget. But it also is important not to overreact to those pressures -- ensure the design is solid because shortcuts may be costly in the long run. The U.S. human spaceflight program, including the International Space Station, is "robust," he exuded. It will keep the United States in the lead and is a program that "any country would be lucky to have and we are really blessed that we have this program in this country. Hopefully the political environment" will recognize that.
The launch date for EM-1 is currently targeted for September 2018, but Gerstenmaier said the schedule was "trending" toward October or November. EM-1 will launch an uncrewed version of the Orion spacecraft. The first crew will be launched on EM-2. Officially, NASA has committed to launching EM-2 in 2023, but is working towards a 2021 launch date if funding permits. Congress has been adding money above the President's request for SLS and Orion for several years, including the FY2017 budget currently under consideration. The Senate began debate on its version of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill, which includes NASA, last week. It would provide $2.15 billion for SLS, compared to the President's request of $1.31 billion. The House Appropriations Committee approved $2 billion.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of June 27 - July 1, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The Senate is in session part of the week. The House is in recess for the July 4 holiday.
During the Week
The House left town early last week in disarray after Democrats staged a gun control sit-in. It already was scheduled to be off this week and will return on July 5. The Senate is taking only a short July 4th breather. It will be in session Monday-Thursday and return on July 6. On Monday it will resume consideration of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill that includes NASA and NOAA. Both chambers will meet the first two weeks of July and then take a 7-week recess for the political conventions and their usual August recess, returning on September 5-6. They don't have a lot of time to get appropriations bills completed before the fiscal year ends on September 30.
Orbital ATK will have the second and final qualification test for the solid rocket boosters for the Space Launch System on Tuesday at its Promontory, Utah test site. NASA TV will cover the 2-minute test live and a media teleconference shortly thereafter will be available on NASA's News Audio site.
Up at the International Space Station (ISS), Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Oleg Skripochka will test out a new manual docking system for Russia's Progress cargo spacecraft on Friday (VERY early Eastern Daylight Time). Progress MS-01 (Progress 62 in NASA parlance) is currently docked to the Pirs module. It will undock and then be redocked using the manual system, a backup in case the automated Kurs system doesn't work properly. The Progress MS series is the latest version of that cargo spacecraft, in use since 1978, and Russia is also getting ready to launch the first Soyuz MS, the latest variant of that spacecraft. The first Soyuz was launched in 1967. The Soyuz MS-01 launch is now scheduled for July 6 EDT (July 7 local time at the launch site) after a delay reportedly related to its new Kurs system. The Kurs system for Progress MS and Soyuz MS is the same and the NASA press release said the test would verify software and a new signal converter for the manual docking system "in the unlikely event the 'Kurs' automated rendezvous in either craft encounters a problem." Progress MS-01 will undock for a final time on July 2 and reenter (burning up on the way down -- SpaceX's Dragon is the only ISS cargo spacecraft designed to survive reentry).
NASA's Juno spacecraft is getting closer and closer to Jupiter, with orbital insertion next Monday (July 4). There will be three briefings that day, but two pre-arrival briefings will be held this Thursday at JPL. They will be webcast.
Thursday also is Asteroid Day, "a global awareness campaign" with events around the world to learn about asteroids "and what we can do to protect our planet ..." It is an independent effort founded by Britain's Brian May (the Queen guitarist and astrophysicist), B612's Danica Remy and Rusty Schweickert, and film director Grigorij Richters and with support from the European Space Agency (ESA). Thursday is June 30, the anniversary of the 1908 Tunguska (Russia) event, the most destructive meteor airburst of modern times.
To close out the week, the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC is celebrating its 40th anniversary and has invited the public to a family friendly "All Night at the Museum" from 9:00 pm Friday to 10:00 am Saturday with special guests stopping by, all night films and lots of other fun activities. The official re-opening of the renovated Boeing Milestones of Flight gallery is at 8:30 pm ET. That and other Friday evening activities will be covered by C-SPAN.
Those and other events we know about as of Saturday afternoon are shown below. Check back throughout the week for additional events we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.
Tuesday, June 28
Tuesday-Wednesday, June 28-29
Tuesday-Thursday, June 28-30
Wednesday, June 29
Thursday, June 30
Friday, July 1
Friday-Saturday, July 1-2
China successfully conducted the first launch of its new mid-sized Long March 7 rocket from the new Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island today (June 25). One of the payloads is a scale model of a new crew spacecraft which is expected to return to Earth tomorrow. [UPDATE: it landed at 07:41 GMT on June 26.] This is the beginning of a busy period for China that includes the launch of a new small space station and a crew later this year, plus the inaugural launch of its largest rocket, Long March 5.
The Long March 7 lifted off from Wenchang at 12:00 GMT June 25 (8:00 am Eastern Daylight Time; 8:00 pm local time at the launch site).
Wenchang is China's fourth space launch site. Located on Hainan Island, it has the advantages of being closest to the equator, which is beneficial for satellites travelling to geostationary orbit, and debris from the launch falls into the ocean instead of on land. The other three sites are inland: Jiuquan in the Gobi Desert; Xichang, near Chengdu; and Taiyuan, south of Beijing. China plans to use Wenchang for launches of the Long March 7 and the new Long March 5, expected to makes its debut this year, too.
Long March 7 is a mid-sized rocket (13.5 metric tons to LEO), while Long March 5 will be China's most capable rocket ever at 25 metric tons to LEO. (The largest U.S. rocket is the Delta IV, which can place 28.4 metric tons into LEO.) Among China's plans are launches of a new small space station, Tiangong-2, later this year, and a larger space station in the future (announced dates vary from 2020 to 2023). Long March 7 is envisioned for launches of space station cargo resupply missions.
China had inaugural launches of two new rockets last year, both at the smaller end of the capability scale (Long March 6 and Long March 11) from existing launch sites. The newer Long March rockets use more environmentally friendly fuel and are intended eventually to replace the older models (Long March 2, 3 and 4).
China's official news agency, Xinhua, reported June 25 that the Tiangong-2 launch is scheduled for September and a two-person crew will be launched to it in November (other Chinese reports say October) on the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft. In April 2017, a new cargo spacecraft, Tianzhou-1, will be sent there as well. Tiangong-2 and Tianzhou-1 both apparently will be launched from Wenchang, while crews will continue to be launched from Jiuquan, although Chinese reports are inconsistent on the launch vehicle and launch site for Tiangong-2.
China launched its first space station, Tiangong-1, in 2011. Two crews visited it in 2012 and 2013. It ceased operating in March 2016; China has not indicated whether its reentry will be controlled or uncontrolled. It is a very small space station, just 8.5 metric tons. By comparison, the world's first space station, the Soviet Union's Salyut 1, launched in 1971, had a mass of 18.5 metric tons. The first U.S. space station, Skylab, launched in 1973, has a mass of 77 metric tons. Today's International Space Station has a mass of about 400 metric tons and has been permanently occupied by crews rotating on 4-6 month schedules since 2000.
China plans a 60 metric ton space station in the future. Dates vary from 2020-2023. China has launched a total of five crews into space since 2003. SpacePolicyOnline.com has a fact sheet listing all of China's human spaceflight launches, including tests that began in 1999.
This launch placed a scale model of a new crew spacecraft in orbit. It made 13 orbits of the Earth and landed near Jiuquan at 07:41 GMT on June 26 (3:41 pm local time; 3:41 am EDT). Jonathan McDowell of Jonathan's Space Report tweeted (@planet4589) that the name of the payload is "Subscale Multipurpose Return Capsule."
ChinaSpaceflight tweeted a photo of the capsule before launch.
China has not announced when the new crew spacecraft itself will be introduced.
The Long March 7 launch also is carrying four small spacecraft. McDowell identifies them as Aolong 1, Aoxiang Zhixing, Tiange feixingqi 1 and 2. They are attached to the Long March 7's third stage, YZ-1A, which has another experiment, In-Orbit Refueling Experiment Device, attached to it, McDowell reports.
Note: This article was updated on June 27 with the landing time for the subscale crew capsule and information that Chinese news sources conflict about the launch vehicle and site for Tiangong-2. Some sources state that it will be from Wenchang, but a June 25 Xinhua story states that it will be launched from Jiuquan on a Long March 2F, which makes sense since it is similar to Tiangong-1, which was launched that way. Chinese sources are also inconsistent as to whether Shenzhou-11 will be launched in October or November.
NASA is denying all travel for NASA employees and contractors to the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) conference to be held in Istanbul, Turkey beginning just five weeks from now. The reason: security. COSPAR President Lennard Fisk worries not only about the impact on COSPAR, but the messages NASA is sending about its commitment to leadership in space science and its resolve to not let terrorism be rewarded by changing what we do.
In a June 21 memo, Al Condes, NASA Associate Administrator for International and Interagency Relations, advised NASA employees and contractors, including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), that "the Administrator has determined that the Agency will not sponsor or process travel for the 2016 COSPAR conference." Condes added that "As Administrator Bolden has consistently stated, the safety of our NASA family is paramount."
The COSPAR meeting runs from July 30-August 7. The Condes memo acknowledges that "a significant number" of employees and contractors "have made tentative plans" to attend.
Indeed, international travel typically is booked many months in advance, often with non-refundable airline tickets. The biennial COSPAR conference is the premier event in the space science community where the world's top space scientists meet to share research results and discuss plans for new missions. It also provides a forum for broader space issues. This year's conference includes a panel on human exploration of the Moon and Mars, for example, at which NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman is (or was) scheduled to speak about NASA's Journey to Mars.
The Condes memo provides a link to a State Department advisory for travel to Turkey that warns U.S citizens of increased threats from terrorist groups throughout Turkey and especially advises against travel to southeastern Turkey. Istanbul is in northwestern Turkey.
The State Department advisory about Turkey is one of 43 alerts and warnings for countries around the globe. Among them are all of Europe and Israel. Administrator Bolden just returned from a trip that included France and Israel.
COSPAR President Len Fisk worries about the impact of NASA's decision not only for this COSPAR conference, but the next one, which is scheduled to be held at JPL in 2018 and for which planning will be done in Istanbul. More broadly, he wonders about NASA's commitment to global leadership in space science when a decision like this means that NASA's space scientists will be excluded from the discussions. On an even broader level, he questions what it means in terms of the U.S. response to terrorism and whether we should "reward" terrorism by changing what we do in our daily lives.
In a statement provided to SpacePolicyOnline.com, Fisk expressed his deep concerns.
NASA has cancelled all travel of NASA civil servants and contractors to the COSPAR-2016 meeting to be held in Istanbul on 30 July - 7 August.
And by doing so it demonstrated that it has no intention of exerting
strategic leadership in the world, and that terrorism
should be rewarded. The leaders of all the major space programs will
gather in Istanbul to discuss among other topics, the future of human
space exploration, but NASA will be absent. The major scientists of the
world will gather in Istanbul, to share the results
of their research, to plan future projects, to promote international
cooperation in space science, but NASA civil servants and NASA sponsored
contractors will be absent. And for what reason: a misguided assumption
that Istanbul is more dangerous than Paris,
or Brussels, or Orlando, Florida, or for that matter Israel and Jordan
where NASA Administrator Charles Bolden recently visited. Terrorism is
rewarded if it causes us to cease to pursue that which is important, or
for that matter our daily lives.
Fisk is the Thomas M. Donohue Distinguished University Professor of Space Science at the University of Michigan and a former NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science and Applications. He is a past chairman of the Space Studies Board at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
Mexico is among the 43 State Department alerts and warnings, less for terrorism than drug-related crimes. The 2016 International Astronautical Congress (IAC) will be held in Guadalajara, Mexico the last week of September. NASA employees and contractors would be well advised to take note of NASA's action in case it makes a similar decision with regard to that meeting.
For the first time in 7 years, the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee held a hearing on commercial space transportation issues on Wednesday. Several Members were in attendance, some of whom acknowledged constituent interests in these issues, but there was no special focus other than getting an update from government and industry experts.
Congress assigned the Department of Transportation (DOT) the dual roles of both facilitating and regulating the commercial space launch industry in the 1984 Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA), which has been amended several times, most recently in 2004. All the legislation originated in the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee (and its predecessors), not T&I. The SS&T website clearly states that it has jurisdiction over “commercial space activities relating to the Department of Transportation…”
For the first 10 years, commercial space launch activities were handled in the Office of the Secretary of Transportation, but in 1995 it was delegated to the FAA (part of DOT). FAA thereupon created the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST).
FAA/AST is under the jurisdiction of House SS&T, but the House T&I committee oversees the FAA itself and some of the issues involve other parts of the FAA. For example, for FY2017, in addition to the $19.8 million request for AST, FAA is requesting $2.953 million for commercial space transportation safety-related activities as part of the Research, Engineering and Development (RE&D) budget and $2 million for integrating commercial space launches into the National Air Space in the Facilities and Equipment (F&E) budget. Thus, T&I does have an oversight interest.
Subcommittee chairman Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) noted that the FAA Tech Center in his district is involved in space debris modeling and subcommittee ranking member Rick Larsen (D-WA) is from the Seattle area where a number of traditional and entrepreneurial space companies are headquartered or have facilities. Larsen even noted that the NewSpace2016 conference was underway in Seattle as the hearing was taking place. He and full committee ranking member Peter DeFazio (D-OR) seemed to have the keenest interest in these issues and Larsen said he hoped the subcommittee would have another hearing early in the next Congress.
The five witnesses were: George Nield, FAA/AST Associate Administrator; Gerald Dillingham, Government Accountability Office (GAO); Mike Gold, chairman of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC); Michael Lopez-Alegria, COMSTAC Vice Chair; and Taber MacCallum, World View Enterprises.
The hearing covered a potpourri of issues.
FAA’s Dual Role to Facilitate and Regulate. DeFazio made it clear that he has long been skeptical that one agency can successfully facilitate and regulate an industry at the same time, an issue that has been debated since the 1984 CSLA was enacted. He argued that the Department of Commerce should be in charge of facilitating and promoting the industry, while FAA regulates it. Nield explained that having a dual role does not mean that one company is favored over another or that public safety is compromised. He pointed out that commercial space launch companies have a perfect record so far in terms of public safety, with no deaths or injuries to the general public.
DeFazio, however, pressed Nield on the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB’s) finding in the 2014 Scaled Composites/Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo accident that FAA/AST did not allow its staff to ask questions of Scaled if they were not directly related to public safety in order to “reduce the burden” on Scaled. While no member of the public has died as a result of commercial space launches, DeFazio insisted, someone did die in that case. Nield replied that FAA/AST’s responsibility is public safety. DeFazio then asked Dillingham for GAO’s view and Dillingham said that GAO has expressed concern in the past about the dual role and further study is needed.
Article VI and Mission Authorizations. Gold pleaded – literally – with the subcommittee to resolve the problem with U.S. compliance with Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty, which requires governments to authorize and continually supervise the space activities of non-government entities, like companies. Gold currently works for SSL, which is developing satellite servicing technologies, and previously worked for Bigelow Aerospace, which wants to build habitats in orbit, on the Moon and elsewhere. No U.S. government agency has been assigned responsibility for authorizing or supervising such activities, leaving them in regulatory limbo. A recent report from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy recommended that DOT be assigned that role and issue “mission authorizations” for companies wanting to engage in those and other new types of commercial space activities such as asteroid mining. Gold exclaimed “I come to you today begging you for a resolution” so the United States can be a global leader in these emerging industries. He asked the subcommittee to deal with the issue “with alacrity” and direct the FAA/AST to update its regulations to include mission authorizations.
Regulating Commercial Human Spaceflight Passenger Safety. Current law prohibits the FAA from promulgating new regulations for the safety of passengers (“spaceflight participants”) on commercial human spaceflights until 2023 -- often referred to as a "moratorium" on regulations or a "learning period" for industry. Until then, companies are required only to provide for “informed consent” where customers are told the risks and they make their own decisions on whether to fly. This is a controversial issue with some arguing that commercial human spaceflight is akin to scuba diving or skydiving where the government does not get involved, while others find it more comparable to commercial airline travel where there is considerable government regulation.
MacCallum wants the informed consent regime made permanent so companies like his – which will be offering stratospheric balloon trips -- are assured of the regulatory regime under which they will have to operate. He recommended that a parallel “extended license” regime be created where passenger safety would be regulated by the FAA, but it would be required only for companies offering services that fall under common carrier definitions – routine flights from one point on Earth to another. Other commercial space companies could voluntarily choose to get an extended license if they thought it would give them a competitive advantage because customers might feel safer flying with an operator who had such a license.
Larsen asked if the FAA could do that now and MacCallum said he believed so, but Nield said the law currently restricts the FAA to only working with industry on developing voluntary standards, not developing any new regulations. Lopez-Alegria, who previously was President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), spoke in favor of voluntary industry standards instead of government regulations. CSF is working with its member companies, although he explained how difficult it is to get a group of very disparate companies with very different vehicle designs to work on the issue, although he believes the discussions are going in the right direction.
Calculating Maximum Probable Loss for Third Party Indemnification. Dillingham pointed out that FAA/AST has not responded effectively to GAO recommendations dating back to 2012 to update the methodology it uses to calculate how much insurance commercial space launch companies must purchase to cover third-party (general public) claims in case of a launch accident. It is important because the government could be liable for a greater amount of losses if the FAA does not require companies to purchase a proper amount.
He stressed that this is becoming increasingly important as more spaceports are being licensed around the country, including inland sites like one in Midland, Texas. A three-tiered system was established in 1988 where companies must purchase insurance up to $500 million, the government then is liable (subject to appropriations) for claims between that floor and an inflation-adjusted ceiling (currently $3.06 billion), and the company is liable for any amounts above that. The “up to $500 million” is what is at issue. The FAA calculates the Maximum Probable Loss (MPL) for each launch and the company must buy that much insurance, which may be significantly less than $500 million. If the MPL is calculated to be $100 million, for example, the government’s liability would be from $100 million to $3.06 billion, not $500 million to $3.06 billion. Dillingham said the methodology is “dated by a few decades” and although Congress required FAA to review and update it and submit a report by April 2016, no report has been submitted.
Rep. John Duncan (R-TN), asked why the government indemnifies the industry at all now that the industry is mature. Nield replied that the industry believes it is essential in order to compete with other countries that do provide such indemnification. Dillingham agreed saying that while the United States has a $3.06 billion cap on what the government will pay, in Russia, for example, there is no cap. The government will pay any amount above what insurance covers.
Funding for FAA/AST. Gold passionately argued for more funding for FAA/AST warning that “it’s only a matter of time until safety suffers” because the office is underfunded. “COMSTAC at every meeting has endorsed the need for more funding. When have you seen companies asking for more funding for their regulators before?” He worries that both the safety and competitiveness of the U.S. industry is at stake. The Obama Administration is requesting $19.8 million this year, a $2 million increase over its current funding. The Senate has passed the Transportation-HUD appropriations bill with that level and the House Appropriations Committee ultimately recommended that level after an amendment was adopted during markup. Dillingham said GAO also was concerned about whether FAA/AST could fulfill all its tasks, at one point finding that it was not performing 10 percent of required safety inspections. He said GAO recommended that FAA provide more detail in its budget request to justify additional funds and the FY2017 request does that.
China confirmed today that it will conduct its first launch from the new Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island on Saturday. It will be the first launch of a new version of a Long March rocket -- Long March 7. Aboard will be a test scale model of a new crew spacecraft and several small satellites. [UPDATE, July 24: As of 8:00 pm ET, China still had not announced a launch time. UNOFFICIAL rumors circulating on the Internet suggest June 25, 11:30-12:00 GMT, which would be 6:30-7:00 am ET, but they are only rumors.]
Wenchang will be China's fourth space launch site. The other three are inland: Jiuquan in the Gobi Desert, Xichang near Chengdu, and Taiyuan near Beijing. It offers several advantages in that it is closer to the equator, a benefit for satellites headed to geostationary orbit (GEO), and rocket debris will fall in the water instead of on land. It is a tropical climate, however, with unpredictable weather. Although the launch is planned for Saturday, it could occur as late as Wednesday depending on the weather.
The main payload for this mission is a test scale model of a new crew spacecraft that is expected to be recovered. China has launched humans into space five times since 2003 on Shenzhou spacecraft. The two most recent crews, in 2012 and 2013, visited China's first space station, Tiangong-1. Launched in 2011, it ceased operating in March 2016 after 1,630 days in orbit.
China has big plans for Wenchang, which will also be the home of the new Long March 5 rocket, expected to achieve its first launch later this year. Long March 7 is a mid-sized rocket (13.5 metric tons to LEO), while Long March 5 will be China's most capable rocket ever at 25 metric tons to LEO. (The largest U.S. rocket is the Delta IV, which can place 28.4 metric tons into LEO.) Among China's plans are launches of a new small space station, Tiangong-2, later this year, and a larger space station in the future (announced dates vary from 2020 to 2023). Long March 7 is envisioned for launches of space station resupply missions.
This is the first Chinese launch that will have public viewing areas. The South China Morning Post said that eight viewing sites can accommodate 25,000 people.
The launch time has not been released. The launch may be shown live on China's CCTV television outlet (available via the Internet). Beijing Time is 12 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time (EDT), so the launch could occur on June 24 EDT.
China had inaugural launches of two new rockets last year, both at the smaller end of the capability scale (Long March 6 and Long March 11) from existing launch sites. The newer Long March rockets use more environmentally friendly fuel and are intended eventually to replace the older models (Long March 2, 3 and 4).
Note: this article was updated on June 24 with the (lack of) information about the launch time. Payload information was clarified that it is a scale model of the new crew spacecraft and updated to indicate that it is intended to be recovered.
UPDATE, June 24, 2016: The launch was successfully conducted at 10:30 am ET today.
ORIGINAL STORY, June 22, 2016: The United Launch Alliance (ULA) is getting ready to launch an Atlas V rocket on Friday, the first since an anomaly occurred on a March 22 launch that placed the Orbital ATK OA-6 Cygnus cargo spacecraft into orbit. Friday's launch of a military communications satellite, MUOS-5, originally was planned for May 5, but was delayed while ULA and its suppliers diagnosed and fixed the problem.
During the March 22 launch, the Atlas V first stage engine shut down 6 seconds early. Fortunately, the Centaur second stage was able to compensate for the under-performance of the first stage. It fired 60 seconds longer than planned, placing the OA-6 Cygnus spacecraft into the proper orbit and allowing it to successfully dock with the International Space Station (ISS) and deliver supplies. Cygnus just completed its mission today and reentered Earth's atmosphere. It is not designed to survive reentry. (Cygnus departed from the ISS on June 14 and then was used for the SAFFIRE-1 experiment where a fire was intentionally started inside the capsule to study how fire evolves in microgravity. Later, several small "cubesats" were ejected into orbit before Cygnus itself made its final maneuver into a destructive reentry.)
Atlas V is powered by Russia's usually highly reliable RD-180 engine. ULA quickly traced the problem to the RD-180's fuel system and in late April specified that it was the RD-180's Mixture Ratio Control Valve. In a June 15 statement, ULA went further in explaining what happened: "at approximately T+222 seconds, an unexpected shift in fuel pressure differential across the RD-180 Mixture Ratio Control Valve (MRCV) and a reduction in fuel flow to the combustion chamber caused an oxidizer-rich mixture of propellants and a reduction in first stage performance. The imbalanced propellant consumption rate resulted in depletion of the first stage oxidizer with significant fuel remaining at booster engine shutdown. The engine supplier has implemented a minor change to the MRCV assembly to ensure the anomaly does not occur on future flights."
ULA's Atlas V is used for a broad range of military and civilian space launches and the company insists that it will launch all of its 2016 scheduled missions by the end of the year. That includes NASA's asteroid sample return mission OSIRIS-REx, scheduled for September. Use of the RD-180 engine for national security launches is currently the topic of intense congressional debate and the U.S. goal is to build a U.S. alternative to it.
Friday's launch of the Navy's fifth Multiple User Objective System (MUOS-5) communications satellite from Cape Canaveral, FL is scheduled for 10:30 am EDT. The window is open until 11:15 am EDT. The weather forecast is 80 percent favorable. ULA typically webcasts its launches.
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