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SpaceX CRS-7 Failure -- Update

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jun-2015 (Updated: 28-Jun-2015 12:23 PM)

SpaceX and NASA are continuing to investigate this morning's failure of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket.  It was launching a robotic Dragon cargo spacecraft full of supplies for the International Space Station (ISS) crew.  The rocket failed 2:19 minutes after launch.

NASA TV and SpaceX provided live coverage of the launch of SpaceX's seventh Commercial Resupply Services mission, CRS-7 (or SpX-7). A SpaceX video showing the failure is posted on YouTube.  The failure is at 23:44 into the video.  NASA also has a video beginning with the launch itself.  The explosion is at 2:32.

SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk confirmed the failure through a series of tweets (@elonmusk).

 

NASA is planning a "contingency press conference" no earlier than 12:30 pm ET today that will broadcast by NASA TV.  Check back here for more information as it becomes available.

Breaking News: SpaceX CRS-7 Launch to ISS Fails

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jun-2015 (Updated: 28-Jun-2015 12:00 PM)

SpaceX's seventh operational cargo launch to the International Space Station (ISS) ended with an explosion of the Falcon 9 rocket 2:19 minutes into flight today.   Anomaly teams are being assembled.  NASA plans a "contingency press conference" no earlier than 12:30 pm ET.  The exact timing is dependent on when the right people are available to participate and what information has been gleaned.

The countdown for the SpaceX CRS-7 (or SpX-7) mission proceeded perfectly to launch at 10:21 am ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), FL.  SpaceX and NASA each provided live webcasts of the launch. Suddenly, as operation of the first stage was nearing its end, the vehicle exploded.  The SpaceX webcast went silent, but NASA continued to report on the event.  "Range confirms we've had a non-nominal flight," NASA's announcer reported, referring to personnel in charge of the Eastern Test Range of which CCAFS is part.  After many minutes, SpaceX's announcer returned to the air and confirmed "an anomaly during first stage flight," then ended the webcast.  SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk sent this tweet:

NASA continued with its webcast and reported that experts were reviewing the timeline of the failure to correlate data from the vehicle with data from the Range Safety Officer (RSO) to determine what happened when.   Rockets have Flight Termination Systems that an RSO engages if a rocket goes off course.  It was not clear in the first minutes whether the rocket exploded on its own or whether it deviated from its course and was destroyed by the RSO.

Check back here for more information as it becomes available.

The implications are significant.  Not only is this the third ISS cargo resupply system to fail in the past 8 months (first Orbital's Antares in October 2014, then Russia's Progress M-27M in April, now this), but this is the same rocket that SpaceX plans to use for the crew version of its Dragon spacecraft that is one of two competitors chosen by NASA for the final phase of the commercial crew program (Boeing is the other).  That version of Dragon does have an embedded abort system so a crew can escape from the rocket anytime on the ride up to orbit, so a Falcon 9 failure would not necessarily jeopardize a crew, however.

In addition, SpaceX just finally won certification by the Air Force to launch national security satellites using the Falcon 9 based in part on its record of consecutive launch successes (18 before today).  Its battle to win certification, coupled with the contentious debate over how quickly a U.S. alternative to Russia's RD-180 rocket engines used by one of its competitors, United Launch Alliance (ULA), for the Atlas V rocket, has put the company in the spotlight, pitting entrepreneurial "new space" against established systems like ULA's.  ULA President Tory Bruno tweeted his condolences:

As the saying goes, launching rockets is hard.   Launch failures are not common, but neither are they entirely surprising. This one is especially significant because of the implications for resupplying the ISS crew after the failures of the other two systems, SpaceX's role in NASA's commercial crew program and NASA's hope to have those systems ready by 2017, and the effort the company expended to obtain certification to launch national security satellites.  Congressional critics of the commercial crew program and SpaceX in particular may be emboldened by the failure, although NASA and its supporters may use it to underscore their argument that two commercial crew systems, not just one, are needed precisely for such a situation so there is redundancy.

SpaceX recently successfully resupplied the 6-member ISS crew and the Russians plan to launch another Progress cargo ship next week (July 3) after concluding the April failure was due to a "design peculiarity."  Japan also sends cargo to the ISS using its HTV spacecraft.  An HTV is scheduled for launch in August. Orbital ATK is planning to launch its Cygnus cargo spacecraft to ISS using an ULA Atlas V by the end of 2015 (Antares will not be ready for return-to-flight until at least the first quarter of 2016).  So while there are several cargo resupply systems, it is because crew requires a lot of supplies including spare parts.  These spacecraft also send up science experiments for the crew to perform.  Importantly, this mission also was carrying the first of two International Docking Adapters that must be installed onto the space station in order for the commercial crew spacecraft to dock.

Additional SpaceX cargo resupply launches were scheduled for 2015.  How long they will be delayed will depend on what went wrong and what is needed to fix the problem.

Will Third Time Be the Charm for SpaceX? - Update

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Jun-2015 (Updated: 28-Jun-2015 12:41 PM)

UPDATE, June 28, 2015:   The Falcon 9 rocket failed 2:19 minutes after launch.  SpaceX and NASA are investigating.

ORIGINAL STORY, June 27, 2015.  SpaceX will make a third try to land a Falcon 9 first stage on an "autonomous drone ship" minutes after the rocket lifts off tomorrow morning on a cargo run to the International Space Station (ISS).   The company tried this in January and in April, coming close to success both times.  Could tomorrow (Sunday, June 28)  be the charm?

SpaceX has successfully fulfilled the main purpose of the flights each time, delivering cargo to the ISS using Dragon spacecraft launched by Falcon 9 rockets.  Tomorrow's launch is SpaceX's seventh operational resupply mission under its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA -- SpaceX CRS-7 or SpX-7.

SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk has longer term plans, however, that include making the Falcon 9's first stage reusable. Eventually he wants them to land back at the launch site, but the initial tests involved ocean "landings" (the stages tipped over once they reached sea level) and he has now moved into a phase of landing them on unoccupied ships that many people call barges.   SpaceX points out that barges have no engines, while these do, so they are called "drone ships."

SpaceX has two of them that Musk whimsically named "Just Read the Instructions" and "Of Course, I Still Love You."  The first two tests uses the first ship; tomorrow's will use the second.

On the first try in January, the hydraulic system ran out of fluid just before reaching the ship.   In April, the first stage reached the drone ship, but did not remain vertical.  It fell over and exploded.

SpaceX will try again tomorrow.   The launch is at 10:21 am ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.   NASA and SpaceX will provide live video of the launch.   SpaceX usually does not provide live video of the landing, but in April released video and other information fairly quickly usually via Musk's Twitter account @elonmusk.

Editor's note:  This story was revised to clarify the reason for the January landing failure. 

U.S., China Agree to Bilateral Civil Space Cooperation Dialogue

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Jun-2015 (Updated: 26-Jun-2015 06:21 PM)

During recent meetings with Chinese officials, Secretary of State John Kerry agreed to establish a "U.S.-China Civil Space Cooperation Dialogue."  A State Department spokesman says the first meeting will be held before the end of October, but could not provide any other details.

The lengthy list of "outcomes" from the seventh round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) held in Washington, DC June 22-24, 2015, includes a section on cooperation in science, technology and agriculture.   Under that heading, the two countries agreed as follows:

"101. Space: The United States and China decided to establish regular bilateral government-to-government consultations on civil space cooperation. The first U.S.-China Civil Space Cooperation Dialogue is to take place in China before the end of October Separate from the Civil Space Cooperation Dialogue, the two sides also decided to have exchanges on space security matters under the framework of the U.S.-China Security Dialogue before the next meeting of the Security Dialogue."

NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) have been prohibited by law from dealing with China on space cooperation on a bilateral basis for several years.  The prohibition was originally inserted in the appropriations bills that fund NASA by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), who chaired the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee before retiring last year.  The final law that he put in place (P.L. 113-235, the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015), which is in effect today, states that no funds may be spent by NASA or OSTP to "develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement, or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company unless such activities are specifically authorized by law after the date of enactment of this Act."

The new House CJS chairman, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), agrees with Wolf's position and the prohibition is continued in the House-passed version of the FY2016 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill (H.R. 2578).

The agreement signed by Kerry reflects State Department activities with China, which are not prohibited by law.  The State Department has a Bureau of Oceans and International and Scientific Affairs -- often referred to as Oceans, Environment and Science (OES) -- that oversees international civil space cooperation and presumably will be the official host of these meetings.  If and how NASA will be involved apparently is yet to be determined.

The agreement also says (section 102) that the two countries will continue bilateral consultations on satellite collision avoidance and the long-term sustainability of space as part of the new U.S.-China Civil Space Cooperation Dialogue.

Elsewhere in the list (section 31), the State Department says that the two countries decided to "enhance communication and coordination in the multilateral frameworks of the region, such as the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum."  As part of those activities, they will undertake joint projects in three areas, one of which is space security (the others are oil spill response and earthquake emergency response).

Also, section 106 reports that the two countries "enhanced cooperation and exchange in space weather monitoring programs, forecasts and services."

NASA Scientists Want Input on Where Humans Should Land on Mars

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Jun-2015 (Updated: 25-Jun-2015 08:22 PM)

The Director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, Jim Green, announced today that NASA will hold a workshop in October where planetary scientists, technologists and human spaceflight experts can propose landing sites for the first human mission to Mars.

The October workshop is an "open call" to propose sites that not only are of high scientific interest, but also have the natural resources to support human expeditions. 

Whenever NASA has a mission that will land on the Red Planet, it holds workshops for scientists to identify, propose and defend their choices for the best spots to set down. In one sense, this is no different from those held for prior landing missions, but the additional criteria of being able to support human exploration adds special interest.

NASA is promoting a "Journey to Mars" theme these days, tying together its human spaceflight and robotic planetary exploration efforts.  The two have long been at odds with each other, but NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has made uniting the human and robotic spaceflight Mars communities a key focus of his tenure.

The workshop's goal is identifying "exploration zones" where "humans could land, live and work" on Mars.   Green explained in a hastily-called media teleconference this afternoon that NASA's current plan is that a human mission will land in one place, the crew will live in another location, and will be able to explore an area of 100 kilometers.  Contaminants from landing engines prevent the crew from establishing its living quarters at the same place they land, he indicated.  In addition, the landing area needs to be relatively hazard-free while sites close to aquifers and of scientific interest may be elsewhere.

Green's message is that proposals for landing sites are needed immediately -- even though a human landing is not anticipated until the 2030s -- because NASA has spacecraft orbiting and on the surface of Mars now that have limited lifetimes, but are needed to provide ground truth and obtain any additional data that are required.

Some planetary scientists insist that returning samples of Mars to Earth for analysis is a necessary prerequisite before anyone lands there so that surface characteristics are well understood in advance.  The top priority of the most recent National Research Council Decadal Survey for a planetary science flagship mission is Mars sample return.  NASA was forced to scuttle a plan for sending a series of spacecraft to accomplish that goal for budgetary reasons.  The upcoming Mars 2020 rover, which is using leftover hardware from the Curiosity rover currently on Mars, replaces the first of that set of missions.  It is being designed to store ("cache") samples that would be returned to Earth by future spacecraft, but no plan is in place for how or when those samples will come back.

Bolden repeatedly states that, for the first time, the goal of landing people on Mars is within a 20-year window.  With the clock ticking, is it a race between the scientists who want a robotic sample return mission and the human spaceflight advocates who are intent on full steam ahead? 

Green delicately replied to a question about that today.  Insisting that the Science Mission Directorate and the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate are not in a race, he said that a critical component of a human Mars mission is developing an ascent vehicle to lift the crew from the surface onto their homeward journey.  Testing that with a smaller robotic sample return mission is a key ingredient, he said. adding that if the samples cached by Mars 2020 are determined to have great value, they definitely will be returned to Earth before a human landing mission.

For his part, Bolden has said publicly that he does not agree that a robotic sample return mission is a requirement before sending humans.  It  was not necessary to return a sample of the Moon before the Apollo astronauts landed, he believes, and it is not required for Mars. 

The workshop will be held October 27-30, 2015 at the Lunar and Planetary Institute near Houston (and the Johnson Space Center).

What's Happening in Space Policy June 21-28, 2015 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Jun-2015 (Updated: 24-Jun-2015 06:56 PM)

UPDATE:  Friday's House SS&T hearing on astrobiology has been postponed.  Friday's HASC subcommittee hearing on RD-180 is now at 9:00 am rather than 10:30 am ET.

Here is our list of space policy events for the week (and a bit) of June 21-28, 2015.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

It's a busy week, starting today (Sunday) with the GEOINT 2015 conference, ending next Sunday with the 7th operational SpaceX cargo launch (SpX-7) to the International Space Station, and lots of stuff in between including one congressional hearing on astrobiology and (yet) another on the RD-180 issue.

Astrobiology -- the search for life elsewhere in the solar system and beyond -- is much in the news lately with ongoing research at Mars with orbiters and rovers, an upcoming  mission to Jupiter's moon Europa in the 2020s, and the exoplanet discoveries from the Kepler space telescope.  NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan will talk to the Space Policy and History Forum about this topic tomorrow (Monday) at 4:00 pm ET at the National Air and Space Museum.  Seating is limited and in a part of the museum not open to the public, so pre-registration is required.  If you can't make it tomorrow, Stofan was part of a really excellent NASA panel discussion in April on "Water in the Universe" and the search for habitable worlds.   That's a good primer for Friday's House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing on astrobiology, where she will testify along with three other experts including Cornell's Jonathan Lunine.

The astrobiology hearing hopefully will be over in time to switch at 10:30 am ET to the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Strategic Forces Subcommittee hearing on the RD-180 issue.   One almost would think there is nothing left to say considering all the hearings already held, but the witness list is quite impressive, with three government and six industry witnesses. The hearing also has its focus on "investing in industry" to end reliance on the Russian engine that powers the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V rocket.   In addition to the "usual suspects" like Air Force Space Command's Gen. John Hyten and ULA'sTory Bruno, former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin will be there in his role as deputy chair of the RD-180 Availability Risk Mitigation Study (the Mitchell report).  Griffin now is President of Shafer Corporation that is part of a consortium including Dynetics and Aerojet Rocketdyne that wants to obtain the production rights to ULA's Atlas V rocket and apparently replace the Atlas V's RD-180 engine with Aerojet Rocketdyne's AR1.  That is a new twist.   Aerojet Rocketdyne's Julie Van Kleeck will be there too, along with Orbital ATK's Frank Culbertson and SpaceX's Jeff Thornburg (one imagines Elon Musk and Gwynne Shotwell are a little busy preparing for Sunday's SpX-7 launch).   Blue Origin will also be at the table with its President Rob Meyerson.  Its deal with ULA on the BE-4 engine has put it on the front page of the debate over how quickly America can move beyond the RD-180.  The other two government witnesses are DOD's assistant secretary for acquisition, Katrina McFarland, and Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, Commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center.  Should be good.

Many other interesting events are on tap.  The list below shows everything we know about as of Sunday (June 21) afternoon.

Sunday-Wednesday, June 21-24

Monday, June 22

Monday-Tuesday, June 22-23

Monday-Wednesday, June 22-24

Tuesday, June 23

Tuesday-Thursday, June 23-25

Thursday, June 25

Friday, June 26

Saturday, June 27

Sunday, June 28

Senate Passes FY2016 Defense Authorization, But Blocked on Defense Appropriations

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Jun-2015 (Updated: 19-Jun-2015 12:36 AM)

The Senate passed the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) today despite the threat of a Presidential veto.  Shortly thereafter, however, the Senate Republican leadership was blocked in an attempt to bring up the FY2016 defense appropriations bill as Democrats fulfilled their pledge to block all appropriations bills until Republicans agree to negotiate a new budget deal to replace the sequester.  The White House issued a veto threat against the appropriations bill, too.

Authorization.  Some top Senate Democrats earlier said they would block passage of the NDAA (S. 1376/H.R. 1735) because of the debate over budget caps, but Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) chairman John McCain (R-AZ) argued that although the NDAA recommends funding levels, it does not actually provide any funding. The policy provisions at the heart of the legislation are so important that the bill needed to pass, he argued.  His reasoning apparently persuaded a number of Democrats.  The bill passed by a healthy margin (71-25) despite the veto threat from the White House. (Not sure of the difference between an authorization and an appropriation?  See SpacePolicyOnline.com's "What's a Markup" fact sheet.)

The House has already passed its version of the NDAA.  The next step is coming up with a compromise between the House and Senate versions.  One important space-related issue on which the two sides of the Capitol disagree is the pace at which an American-made alternative to Russia's RD-180 rocket engine must be in service.

The RD-180 issue has been debated extensively in Congress and elsewhere over the past year and a half as reported in these pages.  Essentially, the Russian-built RD-180s are used for the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V rocket, one of two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) used to launch national security satellites for DOD and the intelligence community.  The other is the Delta IV.  Russia's annexation of Crimea and the resulting chill in U.S.-Russian relations galvanized Congress to require DOD and the Air Force to stop purchasing RD-180s and develop an American alternative instead.  The FY2015 NDAA set 2019 as the last year when RD-180s can be used for national security launches (there is no prohibition against using them for civil or commercial launches, although the number of engines that may be purchased is restricted). 

The Air Force is trying to convince Congress to give it a few more years to make the transition, arguing that it needs more time to develop, test and certify a new launch system (of which an engine is part).  It wants an extension to 2022.  The House-passed FY2016 NDAA provides that flexibility, but the Senate bill insists on 2019.

The RD-180 and launch competition issues have become entwined.  ULA has been a monopoly provider of launch services to the Air Force and intelligence community since it was created in 2006, but now a competitor, SpaceX, has emerged.   DOD, the Air Force and ULA assert that they embrace the drive for competition, but want to make certain SpaceX does not itself become a monopoly provider in the 2019-2022 time frame when Atlas V's no longer can be launched (because RD-180s are prohibited), but a ULA alternative is not ready.  These issues not only split the House and Senate authorizing committees, but the Senate authorizing and appropriations committees.  McCain's Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) is the one holding DOD's feet to the fire on 2019, while the other three are siding with DOD.

Appropriations.  Shortly after Senate passage of the NDAA today (June 18), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) tried to bring up the defense appropriations bill (S. 1558/H.R. 2685), which was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee last week.  He needed 60 votes to allow the bill to be debated, but it fell short 50-45. 

Senate Democrats have vowed to prevent any of the appropriations bills from being debated until Republicans agree to negotiate a new budget deal to replace the spending caps set in the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA).  They and the White House are particularly incensed that Republicans are using a "gimmick" to add tens of billions of dollars to defense spending by adding it to an off-budget account (Overseas Contingency Operations -- OCO) to which the caps do not apply, while leaving non-defense spending subject to the BCA caps and a sequester if they are not met. That top level disagreement is shaping congressional action on funding bills this year and some Democrats are warning that a government shutdown is possible if Republicans refuse to negotiate a new agreement.

Even if Congress did pass appropriations bills, the White House has said it will veto them. The main reason is the overarching debate about the budget caps and the OCO gimmick, but specific issues also are mentioned.

In its Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) on the Senate defense appropriations bill, issued today, the White House called out three space-related issues as being of particular concern:  the addition of $143.6 million for building a U.S. alternative to the RD-180; the rescission of $125 million from FY2015 funds for an EELV launch, which is related to the RD-180 issue; and the elimination of funding to launch the last Defense Meteorological Satellite Program weather satellite (DSMP-20),

As explained in the committee's report, Sec. 8045 rescinds the $125 million because of the requirement in Sec. 1608 of  the FY2015 NDAA that use of RD-180s cease in 2019.  The money was provided, the report says, to double the number of competitive launch opportunities in FY2015.  However, the committee agrees with the Air Force and ULA that a new U.S. launch system to replace the Atlas V will not be ready by 2019, and, since ULA's Delta IV is not cost competitive, only SpaceX could win launch contracts.  That means no competition, "nullifying the intent" of the addition. 

The committee goes on to say that it is not recommending fewer competitive opportunities in FY2016 because "true competition" may still be possible if Congress modifies the Sec. 1608 requirement as requested by DOD and "enable a responsible transition" away from the RD-180 "as soon as possible."  As noted above, the appropriations committee's position is at odds with the just-passed Senate FY2016 NDAA, which maintains the 2019 requirement.  Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) tried to remove Sec. 8045 during markup of the appropriations bill last week, but he withdrew his amendment when it became clear it would not pass.  Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), chairman of the full committee and its defense subcommittee; Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), the top Democrat on the defense subcommittee; and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), argued stridently against the Graham amendment.  (ULA manufactures its rockets in Decatur, AL.)

Meanwhile, to "ensure expeditious development" of a U.S. alternative to the RD-180, the committee added $143.6 million for rocket engine development above the $84.4 million requested.

The Obama Administration agrees with the committee's position on modifying the 2019 requirement, but not with the rescission of $125 million from FY2015 EELV procurement or the addition of $143.6 million in FY2016 for rocket engine development.  Regarding the latter, It argues that the committee's "engine-centric approach ... would not preserve the Nation's assured access to space" because an engine is only one of many critical components of a launch system and developing a propulsion system independent of the rest of the system risks "hundreds of millions of dollars without ensuring the availability of operational launch systems."  (The White House's threat to veto the Senate version of the NDAA also included concerns about space launch issues, objecting to four sections of that bill.)

As for DMSP-20, the Air Force changed its mind this year about the need for this last of the 1990s-era DMSP series.  The tortuous history of DOD weather satellites and the failure of the DOD-NOAA-NASA National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program need not be repeated here. DOD is still trying to determine its future path for weather satellites needed to support military operations.  Congress seems exasperated, especially with the high costs of storing and launching the DMSPs. The appropriations committee report says that the Air Force is proposing to launch DMSP-20 in FY2018 or FY2019 at a cost of between $410-$455 million in addition to the $500 million already spent.  It notes that the Air Force previously said DMSP-20 was not needed.  It not only denied the $89.3 million requested for FY2016, but rescinded $50 million of the FY2015 funding and directed the Air Force to bring the program to an "orderly close" with the remaining FY2015 funds.

The Administration's SAP says it strongly objects to the committee's position because by 2017 only one of the DMSP satellites now in orbit will still be within its design life.  DOD is concerned about a potential gap in polar orbiting weather satellite data that could lead to "reduced accuracy in weather prediction models and degraded efficiency of surveillance and reconnaissance platforms."  (The White House's threat to veto the Senate version of the NDAA also included objections to that committee's DMSP provisions, which limited the availability of funds until certain prerequisites are met, which the White House termed "onerous.")

The space issues are only a small part of the list of Administration objections to the appropriations bill.  While they are all important to reaching agreement on a final FY2016 appropriations measure, the fundamental issue of budget caps and balancing defense versus non-defense spending portends a lengthy and fractious appropriations season this year.

DLR Selects Pascale Ehrenfreund As Its New Leader

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Jun-2015 (Updated: 18-Jun-2015 09:23 AM)

The German Research Center (DLR) announced today that Pascale Ehrenfreund will replace Johann-Dietrich Wörner as Chair of its Executive Board.  Wörner is about to become Director General of the European Space Agency (ESA).

An astrobiologist, Ehrenfreund is well known in U.S. space policy circles.  Since 2008, she has served as a Research Professor of Space Policy and International Affairs at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute.  She will be the first woman to head DLR.  Mathias Maching, State Secretary at the German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy and chair of the DLR Senate, which selected Ehrenfreund, said he was "particularly pleased that ... a woman will head the largest German engineering research facility for the first time."

DLR has broad responsibilities in aeronautics, space, energy, transport and security, but is best known to readers of this website as the entity that plans and implements Germany's space program.  Germany has many space projects that are conducted nationally or internationally.  It is one of the top three (along with France and Italy) contributors to ESA.  Among Germany's perhaps best known space projects are the Spacelab scientific research module that was carried in the space shuttle's cargo bay, the Columbus module that is attached to the International Space Station, the airplane-based Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), and the Philae spacecraft that landed on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Dr. Pascale Ehrenfreund.  Photo credit:  DLR

Born in Vienna, Austria, Ehrenfreund received a masters degree in molecular biology from the University of Vienna, a doctorate in astrophysics from the University Paris VII/University Vienna, a habilitation in astrochemistry from the University of Vienna, and a master's degree in management and leadership from Webster University in Leiden, the Netherlands.

Europa Mission Moves into Formulation -- Might ESA Provide a Lander?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Jun-2015 (Updated: 17-Jun-2015 11:57 PM)

A mission to send a spacecraft to explore Jupiter's moon Europa that owes its existence to an alliance between a few planetary scientists and Washington politicians moved from concept review to formulation today, the first step in the development phase.  NASA continues to say it will be launched "in the 2020s" while its political patrons are intent on 2022.

NASA Science Mission Directorate head John Grunsfeld announced that "Today we are taking an exciting step from concept to mission, in our quest to find signs of life beyond Earth." 

On May 26, NASA announced the instruments that will be included on the spacecraft.  The goal is to determine if the moon is habitable -- not whether life exists there, but whether the conditions that would allow life to develop exist.  Europa project scientist Curt Neibur said at the time that "we don't have a life detector" and there is not even a scientific consensus on what to measure in order to detect life confidently.

A mission to Europa was the second priority for a flagship planetary science mission in the most recent National Research Council (NRC) Decadal Survey on planetary science.   Returning samples from the surface of Mars got top billing, in part because of the high cost of a Europa mission, then estimated at $4.7 billion.   The report recommended that Europa advocates downsize the mission to make it more affordable, yielding the “Europa Clipper” concept now being used as the baseline design. That design involves a spacecraft that will orbit Jupiter and make 45 flybys of Europa over two-and-a-half years. 

Some Europa enthusiasts want to send a lander as well as an orbiter. 

The European Space Agency (ESA) built the Huygens spacecraft that traveled with the U.S. Cassini mission to Saturn and landed on its moon Titan.  ESA also built the Philae spacecraft that traveled with ESA's Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churuymov-Gerasimenko and landed on the comet last November.  Philae just awakened from 7 months of hibernation and resumed communicating with Earth via Rosetta, which remains in orbit around the comet. 

Following on those successes, the idea of ESA providing a Europa lander as part of this mission has been getting some attention. During a press conference Monday at the Paris Air Show, outgoing ESA Director General (DG) Jean-Jacques Dordain and incoming DG Johann-Dietrich Woerner were asked about that possibility.  Dordain laughingly replied that he already told NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden that he would never let the United States land on Europa without Europe.  More seriously, he and Woerner said it was something that would have to be discussed.  ESA is already building its own orbiting mission to Jupiter's moons -- the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) -- that will focus on two different moons, Ganymede and Callisto, and make only two flybys of Europa.

For now, however, the Europa Clipper orbiter is the NASA reference design and that is what moved into formulation today.

NASA had not planned on building a Europa mission now.  The Decadal Survey's top priority was a series of missions to Mars that would eventually lead to returning a sample of Mars to Earth.  That "campaign," which was conceived as a joint NASA-ESA effort, fell victim to budget constraints.  NASA instead is building a single spacecraft, Mars 2020, using hardware left over from the Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity mission.  Obtaining funding for another expensive planetary science mission did not appear possible.

Two influential members of Congress have other ideas, however.   Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) and Adam Schiff (D-CA) used their positions on the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee to add funding for a Europa mission in FY2013 ($75 million; none was requested), FY2014 ($80 million; none was requested), and FY2015 ($100 million, compared to the $15 million requested).  Culberson now chairs that subcommittee and the House-passed version of the FY2016 CJS appropriations bill provides $140 million for Europa, an increase of $110 million above the request of $30 million. Schiff no longer is on the House Appropriations Committee, but the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is in his district and he remains a strong supporter.  Culberson's interest appears to be personal rather than constituent-based and he is an ardent advocate of the mission.  He repeatedly asserts that he is confident life will be discovered on Europa and he wants to be part of making that possible.

The Senate Appropriations Committee did not add any funding for Europa in approving its version of the FY2016 CJS bill, but both sides of Capitol Hill agree that the spacecraft should be launched using NASA's new big rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), which is now in development.  The House-passed bill specifies that the launch should take place in 2022.

NASA officials warn that they cannot efficiently proceed with a mission that is funded by annual congressional earmarks hoping each year that the money will be provided instead of through the regular budget planning process that requires Administration support.   The Obama Administration did request $30 million for Europa mission formulation in FY2016, however, and that is the step that began today even though the FY2016 appropriations process is far from complete.

Europa stirs fascination because observations from an earlier NASA mission to Jupiter, Galileo, indicated that a liquid ocean lies beneath Europa's icy crust.  Other observations using the Hubble Space Telescope have more recently revealed plumes of material being ejected from Europa. One goal of the Europa mission is to study the material in the plumes as it flies close to the moon.  Instruments on the spacecraft will be able to analyze the material and determine what lies beneath the crust.  Niebur stressed at the May 26 briefing that the flyby mission would be able to reveal Europa's secrets without touching the surface "just as a doctor can see what's going on inside your body using an MRI."

Senate Appropriators Favor Earth Science, Exploration; Cut Space Technology, Commercial Crew

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Jun-2015 (Updated: 19-Jun-2015 09:02 AM)

The Senate Appropriations Committee publicly released its report today on the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill that it marked up last week.  Some of the winners and losers were clear already, but the report illustrates less obvious changes resulting, in part, from the committee shifting programs from one account to another.

One example is NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD).   NASA's request was $725 million.  The Senate committee cut that to $600 million, but it also shifted the Restore-L satellite servicing project from the Space Operations account into Space Technology and specified $150 million for that program alone.  So in addition to cutting the total for space technology activities, a substantial amount is earmarked for a specific project that was not part of that request.

During the April 16, 2015 CJS subcommittee hearing on NASA's budget request, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) pointedly asked NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden why the request for the satellite servicing technology program at Goddard Space Flight Center (in Maryland) was so low -- $65 million compared to the $130 million it received in FY2015.  Bolden asked to speak to her about it privately, while adding that he could not determine who would be the customers for NASA satellite servicing technology since the private sector is already working on those technologies.  Apparently he was not convincing.  The committee allocated $150 million, $20 million more than FY2015, and shifted it from International Space Station (ISS) Research in the Space Operations account into Space Technology.  It further directed NASA not to include any carry-over funds from prior years in the $150 million allocation.   The report states refueling Landsat 7 or another U.S. government satellite is a pathfinder mission and although pathfinder technologies were demonstrated on ISS, it is now time to have a "full-scale stand-alone demonstration which will benefit multiple NASA mission directorates and, therefore, is more appropriately funded within Space Technology" although the program is to be co-managed by STMD and the Science Mission Directorate.

NASA's Earth science program, which was cut deeply in the House-passed version of the CJS bill, fared very well in the Senate version.  The $1.947 billion request was cut only by $16 million and NASA is directed to accelerate development of the next Landsat satellite, Landsat 9, so that it is ready by 2020 instead of 2023.  The committee denied funding for a Landsat-related free-flying thermal infrared instrument, TIR-FF, NASA wants to build  to ensure there is no gap in providing that type of data, presumably because if Landsat 9 is ready by 2020, the risk of such a gap is minimized.  (For a comparison of the House-passed and Senate committee-approved funding levels, see SpacePolicyOnline.com's fact sheet on NASA's FY2016 budget request.)

The Senate committee did not specify additional funds for a planetary mission to Europa, and, in fact, cut the planetary science budget by $40 million.  The House increased planetary science substantially, including adding $110 million to the $30 million requested for Europa.  One place the two do agree is that the Europa mission should be designed to utilize the Space Launch System.

The Senate committee shifted the commercial crew program from Exploration to Space Operations, which makes apples-to-oranges comparisons of the request and committee-approved levels for those accounts more difficult than may appear at first glance.   While Exploration appears to get a deep cut, in fact the SLS program gets a $543.5 million increase compared to the request, of which $100 million is for the Exploration Upper Stage, and Orion gets a $104 million boost compared to the request.  The total for Exploration is less because commercial crew is shifted to Space Operations, where it is cut to $900 million from the $1.244 billion request.   Commercial crew is tasked with developing systems to take crews to and from ISS and the committee said it wanted to consolidate all ISS funding in a single account.

Overall, the Senate committee recommends a $239.6 million cut to NASA's budget request of $18,529.1 million, approving $18,289.5 million.  To obtain that net reduction, the committee favored science programs, exploration, and education, while reducing aeronautics, space technology, and NASA's internal accounts.  Space Operations is an amalgam that is difficult to analyze at the level of detail provided in the committee's report.  Commercial crew was shifted into Space Operations, but satellite servicing was moved out, so looking only at the total on paper -- $4,756.4 million compared to the $3,957.3 million request -- does not tell the whole story.

During markup, Mikulski offered an amendment to add $300 million for commercial crew, $46 million for the WFIRST space telescope, $50 million for the Mars 2020 program,  $54 million for space technology, and $50 million for Orion, but it was rejected on party lines.  Senate Democrats continue to insist that the budget caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) need to be revised for non-defense spending before they will allow any appropriations bills to be debated on the Senate floor.  So far the Republicans do not seem interested in negotiating a new budget deal.  They are interested in adding money for defense and are accomplishing that by adding it in an off-budget account (Overseas Contingency Operations).  Congressional Democrats and the President call it a gimmick and the President has vowed to veto any appropriations bills that conform with the BCA caps.

Note:  The figures for NASA's total budget request, total recommended by this committee, and the amount of the cut have been clarified.

 

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