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On the same day NASA and its commercial cargo partners gave themselves a pat on the back for completing the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) development program, NASA's Inspector General issued a report warning about obstacles ahead for COTS's cousin, the commercial crew program.
During a press conference yesterday, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden presented awards to the leaders of the NASA, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation teams that successfully implemented the development of SpaceX's Falcon 9/Dragon and Orbital's Antares/Cygnus cargo space transportation systems through the COTS program. The COTS program has now ended and NASA is purchasing services from the two companies using those systems under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract. NASA's Alan Lindenmoyer and Phil McAlister, SpaceX's Gwynne Shotwell and Orbital's Frank Culbertson lauded the public-private partnership that created that success while the Aerospace Industries Association's Frank Slazer highlighted the importance of the effort to the U.S. space industrial base and utilization of the International Space Station (ISS).
As Bolden mentioned, COTS -- usually called commercial cargo -- dates back to the George W. Bush Administration and he credited the leadership of both the Bush and Obama administrations in seeing COTS through to its successful conclusion. The question is whether the commercial crew program will see similar success.
The Bush Administration's decision to terminate the space shuttle after construction of the ISS was completed meant that alternatives were needed to take cargo and crews to and from ISS. In 2006, then-NASA Administrator Mike Griffin initiated the COTS program to solve the cargo problem. The idea was that NASA would provide some, but not all, of the funding for two companies in competition to develop their own space transportation systems to deliver cargo to the ISS. NASA would serve as one market for those services with the expectation that the companies would find other markets as well. Thus the government and the private sector would be partners in developing these capabilities.
Using the same approach to develop systems to take crews to and from ISS -- "commercial crew" -- was considered at the time, but not pursued vigorously. The Bush Administration was committed to operating ISS only until 2015 or 2016, and NASA planned to use the Ares 1 rocket and Orion spacecraft it was developing under the Constellation program to fulfill those needs. When the Obama Administration canceled Constellation in 2010, it put all its eggs into the commercial crew basket. Three companies -- SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada -- are now working on commercial crew systems. NASA hopes that two of them will succeed so there is competition and redundancy in providing those services beginning in 2017.
Just as there was a lot of skepticism about commercial cargo (and to some extent there still is in terms of whether the business case will close), there are many critics of commercial crew. NASA has been unable to convince Congress to provide the level of funding the agency needs to help ensure that two companies will make it through the development phase. Some in Congress are pressuring the agency to choose just one company to support, but NASA insists that competition and redundancy are highly desirable. For FY2014, NASA is requesting $821 million. The House Appropriations Committee recommended $500 million. The Senate Appropriations Committee recommended $700 million.
The report from NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) pointed to the funding uncertainty as one of several obstacles confronting the commercial crew program. The report gives credit to the three commercial crew companies for "successfully executing their spaceflight development efforts," but concluded NASA faces four "significant challenges":
The OIG did not make any recommendations on the issue of unstable funding, but noted that for FY2011-2013, NASA received only 38 percent of its requested funding for the program, resulting in a delay from FY2015 to FY2017 of the first expected commercial crew flight. "The combination of a future flat-funded profile and lower-than-expected levels of funding over the past 3 years may delay the first crewed flight beyond 2017 and closer to 2020, the current expected end of the operational life of the ISS." The report includes the following table showing NASA's successive 5-year budget projections for the commercial crew program beginning in FY2009.
Table 3: Commercial Crew Program Budget Requests by FY (Dollars in millions)
At the COTS press briefing, Bolden said "the completion of COTS is simply a passing of the torch of innovation to our partners in the commercial crew program" and called on Congress to provide the needed funding so flights could begin in 2017.
As for the other challenges, the OIG report recommended that -
The report says that NASA and the Associate Administrator agreed with the recommendations.
On November 19, the American Astronautical Society will host a panel discussion on Capitol Hill on international cooperation in space. Representatives of NASA and four non-U.S. space agencies will share their views.
NASA has been engaged in international space cooperation since it was created in 1958. The National Aeronautics and Space Act encourages NASA to cooperate with other countries and it has been a hallmark of NASA programs throughout the decades. NASA's best known international cooperative project is undoubtedly the International Space Station (ISS) in which the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and 11 European countries cooperate. That is only one example, however. The vast majority of NASA's space and earth science missions are joint with other countries.
Budget constraints in the United States and other space-faring countries make international cooperation almost essential for any space activity of any size. Although it is generally accepted that international cooperation increases the cost of any particular project because of the increased coordination required, the portion that each country pays is less than if it attempted the project alone.
The discussion, Celebrating International Cooperation in Space and Looking to the Future, is from 11:30-1:30 pm ET in 2325 Rayburn House Office Building. Brown bag lunches will be provided, so it's important to RSVP. The panel will be moderated by Susan Irwin, President of the U.S. office of Euroconsult; RSVPs should be sent to email@example.com no later than tomorrow, November 13.
NASA released another breathtaking image of Saturn taken by the Cassini spacecraft today. In this one, Mars, Earth and Venus can be seen in the background, though all are mere points of distant light.
Cassini has been exploring Saturn and its moons since 2004 and has sent back amazing images and data ever since. Today's is really special, though.
We cannot do the image justice on this website and highly recommend that you visit JPL's website for higher resolution images. The one below is labeled to show where Mars, Earth (and our moon, which is not separately identifiable) and Venus are located.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI
UPDATE, November 11, 2013, 9:15 pm EST: ISRO reports that the supplementary burn was successful and the spacecraft's apogee is now 118,642 km.
ORIGINAL STORY, November 11, 2013, 3:23 pm EST: India's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) suffered a slight setback yesterday when the fourth of six planned engine burns did not go as planned. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) will conduct a supplemental burn around 6:30 pm this afternoon Eastern Standard Time (EST).
MOM, also called Mangalyaan, was launched into Earth orbit on November 5, 2013. A series of six orbit raising maneuvers were planned to raise the spacecraft's apogee (highest point in its orbit) before sending it on its way to Mars on December 1. The first three engine burns took place without incident, but the fourth yesterday failed to impart the needed velocity to increase the apogee from 71,623 kilometers (km) to the desired 100,000 km. Instead, its apogee now is only 78,276 km.
ISRO plans a supplemental engine firing at 6:30 pm EST today (05:00 tomorrow, November 12, Indian Standard Time, which is 10 hours and 30 minutes ahead of EST) to compensate.
ISRO explained that the failure took place during a test in which two redundant coils in the liquid engine were activated simultaneously and somehow disrupted the flow of fuel. Smaller attitude control thrusters were automatically activated when the spacecraft detected insufficient thrust, but they were not sufficient. The BBC reports, however, that an unidentified expert it contacted found that explanation puzzling.
This is India's first attempt to send a probe to Mars. As every country that has made the journey knows, it can be a perilous trip.
Three International Space Station (ISS) crew members returned to Earth tonight in their Soyuz TMA-09M spacecraft. Six colleagues remain aboard the orbiting laboratory.
NASA's Karen Nyberg, Russia's Fyodor Yurchikhin and the European Space Agency's (ESA's) Luca Parmitano landed on the steppes of Kazakhstan at 9:49 pm Eastern Standard Time (8:49 am Monday, November 11, local time at the landing site), completing a 166 day mission. Perhaps the most memorable moment of the mission was Parmitano's spacesuit filling with water while he was on a spacewalk on July 16. He later gave chilling details of the incident in a blog post. NASA is still trying to determine exactly what went wrong.
Among the cargo the crew returned to Earth tonight was the Olympic torch, which is making its way to the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. The torch was delivered to the ISS on Thursday by the Soyuz TMA-11M crew. The two Russian members of the Soyuz TMA-10M crew took it on a spacewalk yesterday, and the Soyuz TMA-09 crew brought it home today. Yurchikhin was the first crewmember removed from the Soyuz (as Soyuz commander he sits in the center seat, the first to be extracted). The Olympic torch was also removed quickly by recovery personnel and handed to Yurchikhin for photo opps like this one.
Photo credit: NASA
Having three three-person crews aboard the ISS at once is unusual, and with the departure of the Soyuz TMA-09M crew, ISS is now back to its normal complement of six: NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins and Rick Mastracchio; Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, Sergey Ryazanskiy, and Mikhail Tyurin; and Japan's Koichi Wakata. Wakata will become the first Japanese to command the ISS later in his mission. This is Wakata's fourth space mission -- three space shuttle missions plus a long duration tour on ISS in 2009.
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. Once again we are defining the "week" to last through next Sunday since there are MAVEN-related activities that day before our next edition of this series is out. The House and Senate are in session beginning Tuesday (Monday is a federal holiday--Veterans Day).
During the Week
The list of events this week is so long and chock full of interesting activities that it's tough to choose just one or two to highlight.
Our top picks include Tuesday's "Beyond Earth: Removing Barriers to Deep Space Exploration" panel of officials from NASA and its major contractors, coupled with Friday's "Space Exploration: How and Why?" with a panel of former NASA and "New Space" folks. The Friday panel includes former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver (now General Manager of the Air Line Pilots Association), former NASA Comptroller and former NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Steve Isakowtiz (now President of Virgin Galactic), another former NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Laurie Leshin (now Dean of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), and former astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria (now President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation). Should be interesting to compare the different perspectives. Both panels are being held in Washington, DC. Tuesday's is at the Newseum; Friday's at the National Press Club. Click on the links below for more details.
Another interesting event is Wednesday evening's Earth from Space at the U.S. Naval Memorial in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the American Astronautical Society. Former astronaut Piers Sellers, now at Goddard Space Flight Center, will introduce a condensed version of NOVA's film Earth from Space. After the film, Sellers and other experts in earth observation from space will participate in a panel discussion. Unlike many evening business events in D.C., this time the reception is AFTER the film and panel discussion. The film starts at 6:00 pm ET and doors open at 5:30 so you can be in your seats on time!
The National Research Council is kicking off a NASA-sponsored study this week on "A Framework for Analyzing the Needs for Continuity of NASA-Sustained Remote Sensing Observations of the Earth from Space." That's quite a mouthful so we just call it "Continuity of Remote Sensing from Space." On Tuesday afternoon, agency reps (NASA, NOAA, USGS) and possibly Peter Collohan from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (listed as "invited") will tell the committee what they want the study to focus on.
Also on the space-based earth observation front, former astronaut Kathy Sullivan's nomination to be Administrator of NOAA is rescheduled for action before the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday. It had been scheduled for October 3, but was postponed because of the government shutdown. Sullivan is currently acting NOAA Administrator.
Lots and lots of other interesting events on tap, though. Pick YOUR favorites!
Monday-Friday, November 11-15
Tuesday, November 12
Tuesday-Wednesday, November 12-13
Tuesday-Thursday, November 12-14
Wednesday, November 13
Wednesday-Thursday, November 13-14
Thursday, November 14
Friday, November 15
Sunday, November 17
Two Russian cosmonauts took part in the Olympic torch relay today as the torch makes its way to Sochi, Russia for the Winter Olympics. The cosmonauts, Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy, were on a spacewalk outside the International Space Station (ISS) at the time.
The torch was delivered to the ISS on Thursday by the Soyuz TMA-11M crew and will return to Earth with the Soyuz TMA-09M crew tomorrow (Sunday, November 10, Eastern Standard Time; Monday, November 11, local time at the landing site in Kazakhstan). Kotov and Ryazanskiy, along with NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins, comprise the Soyuz TMA-10M crew. All three three-person crews are aboard ISS right now, the first time in several years that nine people have been on the ISS at the same time. A typical ISS crew complement is six, but that usually dips to three during crew rotations as one crew returns to Earth and a week or more passes until a replacement crew is launched.
That rhythm was disrupted for this crew rotation so the Olympic torch could have its day in space and return to Earth to continue its journey in a timely manner. A video of the spacewalking handover is posted on YouTube and a still picture is below.
Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy's spacesuited hand can be seen in the foregound as he transfers the Olympic torch to his spacewalking colleague, Oleg Kotov, outside the International Space Station on November 9, 2013. The view is from Ryazanskiy's helmet camera. Image credit: NASA TV
The Winter Olympics begin on February 7, 2014. According to tradition, the torch relay begins in Olympia, Greece for all Olympic games. After crossing Greece, the torch is taken to the host country and then relayed over a large part of that country, in this case Russia. According to the Sochi Olympics website, the relay will take 123 days and be carried by 14,000 torchbearers. All nine ISS crewmembers presumably count as torchbearers since they took turns passing the torch through all parts of the ISS -- unlit, of course.
Russian cosmonaut Fyordor Yurchikhin is the Russian member of the Soyuz TMA-09M crew that is returning the torch to Earth tomorrow and will hand it over to the next torchbearer.
President Obama has nominated Joe Hezir to be the next Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of the Department of Energy, replacing Steve Isakowitz who left in 2011 to join Virgin Galactic. Hezir is a member of the National Research Council's (NRC's) Space Studies Board (SSB).
Hezir has extensive experience in the energy sector and is currently Executive Director of the Future of Solar Energy Study at MIT. His expertise also covers the space program, however, including more than a decade at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that included serving as Deputy Associate Director for Energy and Science from 1986-1992. He is a co-founder and managing partner of the EOP Group, a Washington-based consulting company specializing in government regulatory strategic development and budget policy.
Hezir served as one of the members of the NRC's Committee on NASA's Strategic Direction. The committee's report, NASA's Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus, was issued in December 2012. He was appointed to the SSB in July 2012. Hezir has served on a number of other NRC committees and boards, as well as the NASA Advisory Council.
Hezir has a B.S. in chemical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University and an M.S. from the Heinz School of Public Policy there.
If confirmed, he will follow a trail of other space-savvy former OMB insiders to DOE. He is replacing Steve Isakowitz, who was the Branch Chief for Science and Space at OMB before joining NASA as its Comptroller in 2002 and later was NASA's Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration. He left NASA in 2007 to become DOE's CFO, a position he left in 2011 to join Virgin Galactic. NASA's current CFO, Elizabeth ("Beth") Robinson, came to NASA in 2009 from OMB and is awaiting confirmation as Under Secretary of DOE. Senator David Vitter (R-LA) has placed a hold against Robinson's nomination, however.
The nomination of Air Force Lt. Gen. Susan Helms to be Vice Commander of Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) has been withdrawn and she plans to retire from the Air Force. Helms is a career Air Force officer and former NASA astronaut.
Helms is currently Commander, 14th Air Force (Air Force-Strategic Space), Air Force Space Command, and Commander, Joint Functional Component Command for Space, U.S. Strategic Command. She was nominated to be AFSPC Vice Commander on March 20, 2013, but quickly came under fire from Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) who put a hold on the nomination.
McCaskill and many other Senators are outraged at the number of sexual assaults in the military. McCaskill is a former felony prosecutor of sexual crimes and is particularly concerned about military commanders who overturn jury guilty verdicts in sexual assault cases. Helms did just that in February 2012, overturning the conviction of an Air Force Captain.
After meeting with Helms to discuss the situation, McCaskill made a statement in June praising Helms' "distinguished military service" over more than 30 years, but said she continued to have "deep concerns" about Helm's decision and would continue to block her nomination. McCaskill said Helms made the decision "against the advice of her staff judge advocate," and with that action "... Helms sent a damaging message to survivors of sexual assault who are seeking justice in the military justice system....only to have that justice ripped away with the stroke of a pen by an individual who was never in the courtroom for the trial and who never heard the testimony." McCaskill is vigorously championing legislation that would prevent military commanders from overturning jury verdicts in such cases and require civilian review instead. DOD strongly opposes that effort.
Helms was the first U.S. military woman in space and made four space shuttle flights in addition to spending five months aboard the International Space Station (ISS). She was part of the second ISS crew in 2001. She left NASA in 2002 and resumed her Air Force duties, rising to the rank of Lieutenant General in 2011. Her nomination this March was for assignment as Vice Commander of AFSPC.
The White House has not yet posted its withdrawal of the nomination, but the Senate's nomination website states that the Senate received a message of withdrawal from the President yesterday. The Air Force Times reports this afternoon that Helms has filed for retirement.
Helms overturned the conviction of AF Captain Matthew Herrera because she could not be satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that prosecutors had met the burden of proof, but Herrera was "punished administratively and kicked out of the Air Force in December," according to the Air Force Times report.
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduced a bill last week to rename NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center (DFRC) after Neil Armstrong. The House passed a similar bill in February, but there has been no action in the Senate so far.
The bill, S. 1636, was introduced October 31, 2013 and referred to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. It is identical to H.R. 667, introduced by House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and passed by the House on February 25. That bill in turn is identical to a bill (H.R. 6612) that passed the House on December 31, 2012, but time ran out on the 112th Congress without any Senate action.
The bills honor Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon, who died in August 2012. DFRC, at Edwards Air Force Base, CA, is currently named after Hugh Dryden, Director of NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), and NASA's first deputy administrator. Both bills would also rename NASA's Western Aeronautical Test Range (WATF) after Dryden.
In a statement introducing the bill, Feinstein said renaming the DFRC after Armstrong was "fitting" because it is located at the "base where his career literally took off," and changing the name of WATF would be a "tribute to Dr. Dryden's enduring legacy."
Events of Interest