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NASA Science Head John Grunsfeld is Retiring

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Apr-2016 (Updated: 05-Apr-2016 04:57 PM)

John Grunsfeld, NASA's Associate Administrator (AA) for the Science Mission Directorate (SMD), is retiring from the agency on April 30.  In a NASA press release he joked that he is going where he has rarely gone before -- home.   A five time space shuttle astronaut, he is often heralded as "the Hubble Repairman" for his three visits to the Hubble Space Telescope to repair and replace instruments.

SMD Deputy Associate Administrator Geoff Yoder will serve as Acting AA until a new appointment is made.

Grunsfeld has held his current job since January 2012.  A physicist by training, he joined the astronaut corps in 1992 and flew on space shuttle missions in 1995, 1997, 1999, 2002 and 2009.  He accumulated 58 days in space over all of those missions including 58 hours and 30 minutes of spacewalk time.  The shuttle flights in 1999, 2002 and 2009 were all to service Hubble.


John Grunsfeld.  Photo Credit: NASA

From 2003-2004, he served at NASA Headquarters as Chief Scientist under NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, a difficult period of time following the space shuttle Columbia tragedy.  In the wake of Columbia, O'Keefe decided to not send a space shuttle crew on a planned fifth and final servicing mission to Hubble.  He proposed using robotic spacecraft instead.  O'Keefe's decision was very controversial and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) insisted on a review by the National Research Council of the state of in-space robotic servicing.  That report was skeptical that technologies were sufficiently advanced to execute such complex activities.   NASA Administrator Michael Griffin subsequently reversed O'Keefe's decision and the fifth servicing mission was flown in 2009 (STS-125).  Grunsfeld had returned to the astronaut corps after his stint at Headquarters and was a member of the STS-125 crew. 

Grunsfeld retired from NASA after STS-125 and became Deputy Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, MD that manages Hubble.  He returned to NASA Headquarters as AA for Science in 2012 at an another challenging moment when NASA's expectations of robust science budgets hit the turbulence caused by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and sequestration.  He has led NASA's science projects through the twists and turns of Continuing Resolutions (CRs) and unexpected budget boosts by Congress, especially for a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa, since then.

As an individual whose career embraces both space science and human spaceflight, he has been in a unique position to encourage both communities to work together in the cause of space exploration instead of their traditional chilly relationship.

What's Happening in Space Policy April 4-8, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Apr-2016 (Updated: 03-Apr-2016 04:24 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of April 4-8, 2016.  The Senate is in session this week.  The House remains in recess; it will return April 12.

During the Week

If you haven't registered already, you'll miss one of the most interesting events coming up this week -- a space weather symposium hosted by the State Department and the Secure World Foundation (SWF).   It's at the State Department, so everyone had to register by last Wednesday to get on the list to attend.   Space weather is a hot topic these days with many forums for discussion, but this one seems especially interesting because it includes an international panel with experts from the UK, Europe and international organizations.  Moderated by SWF's Laura Delgado López, it has representatives from the UK Met Office, the European Space Agency, the World Meteorological Organization, the UN Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, and NATO.  It will be preceded by a panel of U.S. experts from NASA, NOAA, the Air Force, and the Department of Homeland Security, moderated by Bill Murtaugh from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.  If you can't make it in person, the event will be recorded and posted on the Web later.  C-SPAN also may cover it live.

SWF has another timely symposium on Friday.  That one is on the policy and practical implications of spectrum protection.  With everyone's insatiable appetite for wireless broadband connectivity, other users of the electromagnetic spectrum -- like military, civil, and commercial satellites -- are under increasing pressure to surrender spectrum assigned to them.   James Miller from NASA, Scott Pace from the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University, Jennifer Warren from Lockheed Martin and Christopher Hegarty from CNS Engineering & Spectrum will explain it all.   Lunch will be served, so please RSVP by Wednesday so they know how much food to order.

Later on Friday afternoon, SpaceX will attempt its first cargo launch to the International Space Station (ISS) since the SpaceX CRS-7 (SpX-7) failure in June 2015.   The Falcon 9 has launched three times since then, all successfully, but this is the first one with a Dragon cargo spacecraft chock full of supplies and equipment for the ISS crew. Among Dragon's cargo is a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) that will ride in Dragon's unpressurized "trunk." Later it will be moved to an ISS docking port using Canadarm 2 where it will be expanded and used for tests over the next 2 years. (Mr. Bigelow insists it is "expandable" rather than "inflatable" even though it builds on NASA's work on inflatables when it was developing the TransHab habitation module for ISS.  TransHab was cancelled by NASA, but Bigelow Aerospace picked it up for further development and has launched two test versions, Genesis I and Genesis II, already as free-flyers.)  Launch is at 4:43 pm ET and will be broadcast on NASA TV (and presumably on spacex.com).  SpaceX almost always tries to land the Falcon 9 first stage, but it has not yet posted a press kit for this launch, so we can't definitively say that's in the plan this time (but it's a good bet).

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.   Check back throughout the week to see other events we learn about as the week unfolds and add to our Events of Interest list.

Monday, April 4

Tuesday, April 5

Thursday, April 7

Friday, April 8

Atlas V Anomaly Traced to Fuel System

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Mar-2016 (Updated: 31-Mar-2016 11:38 PM)

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) has determined that the first stage of its Atlas V rocket shut down prematurely on March 22 because of a problem in the first stage fuel system.   The rocket's Centaur upper stage compensated for the first stage anomaly and placed Orbital ATK's OA-6 Cygnus cargo spacecraft in the correct orbit, but ULA needs to determine what happened before conducting the next Atlas V launch.

In a statement today, ULA said that a review team "has been successful in isolating the anomaly to the first stage fuel system and it associated components."   The team will "thoroughly assess all flight and operational data to determine root cause and identify appropriate corrective actions prior to future flights."

The next Atlas V launch was scheduled for May 5, but ULA has already postponed it until at least May 12 while it investigates the anomaly.  That rocket will place the Navy's fifth Mobile User Objective System (MUOS-5) communications satellite into orbit.

During the OA-6 launch, the Atlav V first stage shut down 6 seconds early.   The Centaur upper stage fired approximately 60 seconds longer than planned to compensate for the under performance and placed Cygnus into the proper orbit for its later rendezvous and berthing to the International Space Station, where it is today.    Thus, the launch was a "mission success."   It was the 62nd Atlas V launch and the first to experience any problems.   Atlas Vs are powered by Russian RD-180 engines.

Orbital ATK was launching Cygnus on an Atlas V because it is still recovering from the launch failure of its Antares rocket in October 2014 that destroyed an earlier Cygnus spacecraft.  It purchased two Atlas V launches from ULA so it could fulfill its contractual commitments to NASA to send 20 tons of cargo to the ISS by the end of 2016.  This was the second of the two, although Orbital ATK says that future Cygnus spacecraft also could be launched on Atlas Vs depending on NASA's needs.

Antares also uses Russian rocket engines.  The original version that failed in 2014 used NK-33 engines built four decades ago and refurbished in the United States by Aerojet Rocketdyne and redesignated AJ-26.  Orbital ATK is "re-engining" Antares, replacing the NK-33/AJ-26 engines with new Russian RD-181s.  A hot fire test of the first RD-181 powered Antares is expected in May, with Antares launching the next Cygnus in June or July, according to comments by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council this morning.

International Cooperation in Space and Earth Science Highlighted During Space Science Week

Marcia S. Smith and Marc S. Allen
Posted: 31-Mar-2016 (Updated: 31-Mar-2016 07:52 PM)

Editor's Note:  We welcome Marc S. Allen as a contributor to SpacePolicyOnline.com.   Marc recently formed his own consulting company, Odonata Research, after a career at NASA's Science Mission Directorate, at the National Research Council's Space Studies Board (SSB), in the private sector, and as an astronomer.

Marc attended the SSB's session on Tuesday (March 29), part of its annual Space Science Week, that included a panel on international programs and cooperation in space and earth sciences.   Panelists were from NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and the German space agency DLR.  The discussion ranged from the status of JAXA's Hitomi (Astro-H) satellite to ESA's space and earth science strategy to Germany's plans especially in earth remote sensing to China's upcoming space science projects, which include the SMILE joint mission with ESA.  His notes from the panel discussion are posted on SpacePolicyOnline.com.

GAO Wary of NASA Changes to Independent Program Assessment

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Mar-2016 (Updated: 30-Mar-2016 11:13 PM)

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) says it will keep an eye on how NASA implements its recent decision to dissolve its Independent Program Assessment Office (IPAO) whose task was to provide independent assessments for major NASA programs to improve cost and schedule performance.  NASA terminated IPAO in December 2015 and distributed its responsibilities among other NASA organizations.  GAO cautions that the reorganization could impact project oversight.

In an annual congressionally-required report released today, GAO reviewed major NASA projects that have a life cycle cost of more than $250 million.  The 18 projects in this year's report include five in formulation and 13 in implementation across NASA's four science disciplines (earth science, planetary science, heliophysics, and astrophysics), human spaceflight (SLS, Orion, and associated ground systems; the robotic portion of the Asteroid Redirect Mission; and commercial crew), and the space network ground segment.

GAO generally praised NASA for improving cost and schedule performance over the past 5 years.  However, it noted that cost and schedule growth usually occurs as projects enter system assembly, integration and test and nine projects will be in that phase in 2016, including the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft, the projects with the highest development costs.

At the same time, NASA has decided to eliminate IPAO and its umbrella organization, the Office of Evaluation.  IPAO's charter stated that it "ensures the objectivity, quality, integrity and consistency of the independent review process required" by internal NASA management policies, working collaboratively with the Mission Directorates, NASA Centers and other NASA offices and organizations "while maintaining the integrity and independence of the review process...."  Its goal was "to ensure the highest probability of mission success."

NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot issued a memo on October 26, 2015 announcing that IPAO and the Office of Evaluation were being dissolved.  Its Cost Analysis Division was transferred to the Office of the Chief Financial Officer while its other responsibilities were distributed to the Mission Directorates and NASA Centers.  Lightfoot stated in the memo that the decision was not intended to eliminate independent assessment, but to clarify the accountability of Mission Directorates and Centers.  "Note that the realization of this independent assessment realignment depends on trust among the NASA leadership and a shared perspective on accountability," he said.

NASA Associate Administrator for Communications David Weaver told SpacePolicyOnline.com via email today that in order "to consolidate similar functions and share best practices for programmatic analysis, part of the office was put under the Office of the Chief Financial Officer (OFCO). In combination with mission directorates, they will be part of Independent Review Teams to assess individual projects and programs. Other employees were either reassigned to OFCO as part of the new alignment or were provided positions at the field centers in which they previously resided."

IPAO's former director, James Ortiz, has been assigned for one year to work with Lightfoot to oversee the transition, GAO reported.

Mark Saunders, who was Director of the IPAO from August 2005 to December 2008, said in an email interview today that "dissolving the IPAO is unfortunate" because it provided the NASA Administrator an "independent review of NASA's most important programs and projects for close to 20 years and its termination eliminates that direct insight."  Operating at a level above those responsible for executing programs, it could "ensure they aren't grading their own homework," he stressed, and had the "processes and tools to ensure the competence and independence" of the reviews.

GAO is wary of the change.  "The first potential impact is on the independence of the assessments themselves," GAO cautioned.  IPAO facilitated the identification and approval of the chair of each project's Standing Review Board (SRB), which oversees project management.  IPAO staff also participated in SRBs to ensure projects complied with NASA requirements.  Now, Mission Directorates, in coordination with NASA Centers, will select the SRB chair with approval by the Associate Administrator (the position currently held by Lightfoot).  SRBs will still conduct their assessments independently, GAO said, but "the overall responsibilities for those assessments are being transferred to the directorates who directly oversee the projects being assessed." 

GAO also warned that the "robustness of the reviews could vary by center" because "policy implementation can differ when NASA devolves responsibility to the center level," citing previous cases where that occurred.

GAO said it will "continue to monitor the potential impacts" of the reorganization as it unfolds.

NASA IG: SLS/Orion Ground Systems Software Development Needs Independent Review

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Mar-2016 (Updated: 30-Mar-2016 06:23 AM)

NASA's Spaceport Command and Control System (SCCS) -- the software component  of the Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) program for the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) -- is over budget, behind schedule, and may not work according to a new report from NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG). NASA's approach to developing this software was chosen 10 years ago and may no longer be valid, but the agency refuses to change course, reflecting a cultural legacy of "over-optimism and over-promising."  The OIG recommended that NASA commission an independent assessment of the SCCS effort and NASA agreed, but will wait until all the software for the first SLS/Orion launch (Exploration Mission-1 or EM-1) is successfully delivered.  The OIG concurred with that decision.

The SCCS software will "control pumps, motors,  valves, power supplies and other ground equipment; record and retrieve data from systems before and during launch; and monitor the health and status of spacecraft as they prepare for and launch," according to the report.   All of that requires a lot of computer code and NASA decided to use multiple existing commercial software products and "glue" them together with 2.5 million lines of "glue-ware" that NASA itself is developing.  The OIG notes that reengineering the Hubble Space Telescope command and control system required just one-fifth of that amount of glue-ware code.

The effort has turned out to be more daunting than NASA expected, with cost growth of 77 percent (to $207.4 million) and a schedule slip of 14 months (to September 2017).  The OIG notes that both Orbital ATK and SpaceX use commercial software for their missions to the International Space Station (ISS) and thinks NASA should revisit its decision, made 10 years ago, to "glue" together a variety of products from multiple vendors.  The report cites two prior efforts by NASA to develop software on this scale -- the Core Electronics System for space shuttle operations and its successor, the Checkout and Launch Control System -- that "failed to meet their objectives and were substantially scaled back or cancelled prior to completion" despite the expenditure of more than $500 million.

The OIG's overall concern is that ultimately the SCCS will not work as expected.  GSDO managers have had to reduce or eliminate capabilities in order to "balance technical capabilities against schedule and cost," creating concerns that too much has been lost.  Despite efforts to reinstate some of those capabilities, the OIG found that the software that will be used for EM-1 will not have all its planned capabilities, including the ability to "automatically detect the root cause of specific failures."  Furthermore, as of the end of FY2015, version 4.0 was "3,320 hours 'out of the budget box' -- meaning there is more estimated work than time and staff available to perform it," raising concerns that further reductions to content and functionality may result.

The report concluded that much has changed over the past 10 years in the commercial software market and NASA's decision to "glue" together code from multiple vendors with software developed by NASA itself no long may be the best approach.   GSDO managers reportedly expressed concern about schedule delays that might result from changing the approach now, but the OIG concluded that the "reluctance to change course reflects a cultural legacy at NASA of over-optimism and over-promising what the Agency can achieve in a specific timeframe."   OIG concluded that while "altering course at this point would be ambitious," continuing challenges in developing SCCS warrants a reassessment.

NASA noted in response to the OIG that a 2013 review by the Aerospace Corporation found the SCCS Standard Based Architecture to be "generally sound," and the OIG agreed, but added that Aerospace also recommended an annual independent assessment of the cost and schedule and none has taken place since then.

Therefore, the OIG recommended that NASA commission an independent assessment to take place in parallel with the ongoing development effort, but NASA responded that it would wait until after all the software for EM-1 was successfully delivered.   The OIG said that is "responsive" to its findings and its recommendation is "resolved and will be closed upon completion and verification of the proposed corrective action."

What's Happening in Space Policy March 28-April 1, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Mar-2016 (Updated: 27-Mar-2016 01:27 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of March 28-April 1, 2016.  The House and Senate are in recess this week.

During the Week

Congress may be in recess, but there's still plenty going on in the world of space policy.

The Space Studies Board (SSB) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine holds its annual Space Science Week Tuesday through Thursday.  The "week" brings together the five SSB standing committees, some of which are joint with other boards:  astrobiology and planetary science, astronomy and astrophysics, biological and physical science in space, earth science and applications from space, and solar and space physics.   The committees meet in plenary session on Tuesday afternoon.  A free public lecture will take place on Wednesday featuring Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission to Pluto.  The lecture begins at 6:45 pm ET and will be webcast.  All of the activities are at the National Academy of Sciences building on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C.

The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) meets at NASA headquarters in Washington on Thursday and Friday (its Technology, Innovation and Engineering Committee meets on Tuesday, too).  The NAC agenda has not been posted yet, but these meetings typically are an excellent way to get updated on many of NASA's programs and the budget and policy issues surrounding them.  The meeting is available via WebEx and telecon for those who cannot attend in person.

Activities aboard the International Space Station (ISS) continue at a blistering pace.  Orbital ATK's Cygnus just arrived yesterday, NASA will hold a teleconference tomorrow (Monday) to discuss the science experiments that will be aboard SpaceX's Dragon cargo mission to ISS next week (April 8), and on Thursday Russia will launch its next Progress cargo craft (arriving at ISS on April 2).  All three systems suffered failures in the October 2014-July 2015 period and NASA and its partners are still catching up on supplies, although there have been a number of cargo missions since then. 

The first of two upcoming space weather seminars will be held on Thursday afternoon in Washington.  This one is sponsored by the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) and the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.  Its focus is the "emerging opportunities for science and practical applications" and includes Tammy Dickinson from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Dan Baker from the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), and Lou Lanzerotti from the New Jersey Institute of Technology among its very distinguished speaker lineup.  The other seminar is next Monday (April 4) at the State Department and is sponsored by the State Department and the Secure World Foundation (more on that in next week's edition).

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week to learn about additional events that come to our attention and get added to our Events of Interest list.

Monday, March 28

Tuesday, March 29

Tuesday-Thursday, March 29 - 31

Wednesday, March 30

Thursday, March 31

Thursday-Friday, March 31- April 1

ULA Delays Next Launch Due to Anomaly During OA-6 Mission

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Mar-2016 (Updated: 25-Mar-2016 02:25 PM)

United Launch Alliance (ULA) today announced a delay in the launch of its next satellite, the Navy's MUOS-5 mobile communications satellite, because of an anomaly in the Atlas V rocket's first stage during the March 22 launch of Orbital ATK's OA-6 mission to the International Space Station (ISS). 

During the OA-6 launch, the first stage shut down six seconds early according to ULA spokesperson Lyn Chassange.  The Centaur upper stage compensated by firing approximately 60 seconds longer than planned and successfully placed the OA-6 cargo spacecraft into the correct orbit.  Thus, the launch is a "mission success" even though the first stage underperformed.

ULA needs to investigate what happened, however.  Thus it is delaying the MUOS-5 launch until at least May 12 to "allow additional time to review the data and to confirm readiness."  The original launch date was May 5.

Atlas V has a 100% mission success record so far in 62 launches.  The first stage is powered by Russian RD-180 engines, currently the focus of protracted debate in Congress over how many ULA can obtain.   ULA, the Air Force and Congress agree on the need to replace RD-180s with an American-made alternative so the United States is not reliant on a foreign supplier, especially one with which the United States now has a tense relationship.  The dispute is over the timing.  Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) want to end use of RD-180s in 2019; the Air Force and ULA want flexibility and other Senators, including Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Dick Durbin (D-IL), agree.

MUOS-5 is part of the Navy's Mobile User Objective System of communications satellites and ground terminals to allow voice, video and mission data to be transmitted over a secure high-speed Internet Protocol-based system. 

DOD Inspector General Initiates Investigation Into Air Force Awards to ULA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Mar-2016 (Updated: 23-Mar-2016 12:45 PM)

The Inspector General's office of the Department of Defense (DOD) has notified DOD officials that it is opening an investigation into whether contracts were awarded to the United Launch Alliance (ULA) in accordance with DOD and federal regulations.  The investigation was requested by Secretary of Defense (SecDef) Ashton Carter following remarks by then-ULA Vice President for Engineering Brett Tobey that were recorded and posted online.  Tobey has since resigned.

The recording of the March 15, 2016 seminar where Tobey spoke is currently posted on soundcloud.  Tobey made many comments about competition in the launch vehicle development and launch services businesses.  One that may have prompted the investigation is an assertion that ULA's decision not to bid on the first competitive Air Force launch contract (for a GPS launch) after SpaceX became eligible to compete irritated the Air Force because "they had bent over backwards to lean the fill to our advantage" (at the 17:11 mark on the recording).  That is only one of a number of controversial statements he made, however.

ULA President Tory Bruno disavowed Tobey's comments soon after they became public on March 16 and Tobey resigned shortly thereafter.

At a March 17 hearing, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), called on DOD to investigate Tobey's "disturbing statements" that "raise troubling questions about the nature of the relationship" between DOD and ULA.  SecDef Carter was one of the witnesses at that hearing.  McCain is strong supporter of competition in the national security space launch market.  

Yesterday (March 22), DOD Deputy Inspector General for Policy and Oversight Randolph Stone sent a memo to the Secretary of the Air Force and the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics informing them of the investigation into "assertions made by United Launch Alliance's (ULA) former Vice-President of Engineering relating to competition for national security space launch and whether contracts to ULA were awarded in accordance with DoD and Federal regulations."  The memo, which is posted on the DOD IG's website, said the investigation would involve site visits, interviews and documentation review with DOD and ULA personnel.

Cargo, Cargo Everywhere -- Cygnus Launch First of Three in Next Two Weeks - UPDATE 2

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Mar-2016 (Updated: 25-Mar-2016 02:29 PM)

Orbital ATK will launch its next cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) tonight aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, FL.  It is just one of three cargo ships heading to ISS in the very near future – a Russian Progress will launch next week and then a SpaceX Dragon the week after that. [UPDATE, MARCH 22, 11:35 pm EDT:  The launch took place at 11:05 pm EDT as planned.  All went well and Cygnus is now in orbit.  Arrival at ISS expected Saturday morning EDT.] [UPDATE MARCH 25, 2:25 pm EDT:  The Atlas V first stage underperformed during the launch.  ULA is investigating.]

The abundance of supplies enroute to the six-member crew reflects both the ongoing needs to supply the outpost – an important consideration when planning for trips further from Earth – and the need to catch up after failures grounded each of the systems in 2014 and 2015.

The Cygnus flight tonight (March 22 Eastern Daylight Time; March 23 GMT) is the second Orbital ATK Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission since its Antares rocket exploded 15 seconds after launch in October 2014.    Antares is being “re-engined” with different Russian rocket engines (RD-181s) and is expected to return to flight this summer from its launch site at Wallops Island, VA.  That launch was before Orbital Sciences Corporation merged with ATK and was designated Orb-3 -- Orbital's third operational cargo flight to the ISS. 

In the meantime, Orbital ATK arranged to launch two Cygnus spacecraft on ULA’s Atlas V, which launches to the ISS from Cape Canaveral.  The first was in December 2015 and designated OA-4 (for Orbital ATK-4).  The second is tonight.

Orbital ATK Space Systems Group President Frank Culbertson said yesterday that although the original agreement with ULA was for only these two flights, it may use additional Atlas V rockets in the future depending on NASA’s needs.   NASA recently awarded a second round of CRS contracts and Culbertson said that Orbital ATK offered both Antares- and Atlas V-launched missions.  “It’s really up to NASA in terms of what types of missions they order in the future under the new contract….  We’ve offered both … and it depends on what they need …. We’re prepared to do both.”

The Atlas V capabilities offer more flexibility, for example a 30-minute launch window instead of an instantaneous launch window.  

Tonight’s window to launch OA-6 (Orbital ATK-6, skipping over OA-5, which will be the return-to-flight mission for Antares) opens at 11:05 pm EDT.  Bill Harwood of CBS News tweeted the precise launch time options (all in EDT).

NASA TV coverage of the launch begins at 10:00 pm EDT.  ULA will also have a live webcast.

Orbital ATK names its Cygnus spacecraft after prominent individuals in the space industry who have passed away.  This one is named the S.S. Rick Husband after the commander of the 2003 space shuttle Columbia mission.  He and six others perished during reentry.   Husband also was the pilot of the first space shuttle to dock with the  ISS in 1999 (STS-96) during its earliest stage of construction.

This is an enhanced version of the Cygnus spacecraft and is carrying 7,900 pounds (3,600 kilograms) of supplies, equipment, and scientific experiments to the six-person ISS crew.  Three of those six crew members just arrived four days ago aboard Soyuz TMA-20M.

The pace of operations at the ISS is rather intense right now, starting with the Soyuz TMA-20M launch and arrival on March 18; this OA-6 launch tonight, with arrival at ISS on March 26; launch of Russia's Progress MS-02 on March 31 with docking on April 2; and launch of SpaceX's CRS-8 (SpX-8) Dragon mission on April 8 and arrival on April 10.  (All dates are EDT.) 

The SpX-8 launch is the first SpaceX mission to ISS since its SpX-7 mission ended in failure in June 2015 because of a second-stage problem on the Falcon 9 rocket.  SpaceX has successfully launched three Falcon 9's since then, but this will be the first to ISS.

Russia also suffered a launch failure of one of its Progress resupply missions in April 2015.   Three Progresses have been successfully launched to ISS since then and a new version of the spacecraft, Progress MS, was introduced on the most recent launch in December 2015.  The launch on March 31 is the second (Progress MS-02) of this version of the venerable space station cargo resupply spacecraft that has been in use since 1978 initially for Soviet/Russian space stations and now for ISS. 

Orbital ATK's OA-6 Cygnus is expected to remain at the ISS for 55 days, meaning that it will still be there when SpX-8 arrives.  This will be the first time both U.S. space station cargo companies will have their vehicles berthed to ISS at the same time.  ISS Operations Integration Manager Kenny Todd noted yesterday that it will be very important that the ISS crew pays attention to what is loaded into which vehicle at the end of their missions:  "We'll have to get creative in terms of making sure that we don't put the wrong things in the wrong vehicles when they get ready to leave... because we're going to be moving a lot of cargo through hatches."

Dragon is designed to return to Earth and land in the Pacific Ocean, bringing back scientific experiments and other high-value cargo.  By contrast, like all the other cargo ships that supply the ISS, Cygnus burns up on reentry and therefore is filled with trash - a less glamorous, but equally indispensable task.

In this case, not only will Cygnus be burning up on the outside, but on the inside as well.  Scientists will use it to test how fire behaves in microgravity.  The Spacecraft Fire Experiment-1 (SAFFIRE-1) will intentionally start a fire in Cygnus after it leaves the ISS. Instruments inside Cygnus will measure flame growth, oxygen use, and other characteristics.

Events of Interest


 

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