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Rep. Donna Edwards Launches Campaign to Succeed Barbara Mikulski

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Mar-2015 (Updated: 10-Mar-2015 04:48 PM)

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) formally initiated her campaign to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski today.  In a two-minute video announcing her intentions, she gave a shout-out to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, close to her district and where she once worked as a contractor.

Mikulski revealed last week that she will not run for reelection in 2016.   Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) was the first sitting member of Congress to make clear that he will run for the seat.  Edwards is the second and it would not be surprising if others follow suit, along with many other Democrats and Republicans in state and local politics.

Edwards is probably the best known of the group to the space policy community, however.   She is the top Democrat on the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and a champion of the space program, if not always in agreement with the Obama Administration and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden.  She has made clear, for example, that she does not endorse the Asteroid Redirect Mission and only slowly warmed up to the concept of commercial crew.  At a February 27, 2015 hearing focused on the commercial crew program, she said "As I have recounted on other occasions, I used to be a skeptic of commercial crew and cargo transportation to support NASA requirements.  And while I am now supportive of the commercial space transportation industry's partnership with NASA, I remain committed to ensuring that these systems are safe."

In today's video explaining what she has done for Maryland already in the House and will do if elected to the Senate, she says "As the ranking Democrat on the space subcommittee, I passed a bipartisan investment in NASA for space programs that employ over 10,000 Marylanders and lift our sights just a little higher."  The backdrop is video of the entrance to NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and text on the screen says "NASA GODDARD: 10,000 MARYLAND JOBS."   She also notes her work in getting more Maryland schools focused on STEM education.  She was a strong critic of the Obama White House's proposal in 2013 to reorganize federally funded STEM education programs and shift most NASA-related programs to other agencies.  Congress rejected the White House proposal.

Her official bio on her House website explains that she "has enjoyed a diverse career as a nonprofit public interest  advocate and in the private sector on NASA's Spacelab project."  In campaign material from her 2008 bid for the House, she said she had been a systems engineer for Lockheed Martin working at NASA.   She has an undergraduate degree from Wake Forest University and a J.D. from the University of New Hampshire School of Law.

She represents Maryland's 4th district, which more or less surrounds Greenbelt, where Goddard is situated.  Greenbelt itself is in Rep. Steny Hoyer's (D-MD) district.  He is the one member of the House (out of eight in Maryland's delegation, seven of whom are Democrats) who has indicated he will NOT run for Mikulski's seat.  He is the House Minority Whip, second only to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in the Democratic House leadership.


China Plans New Space Laboratory in 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Mar-2015 (Updated: 09-Mar-2015 11:24 PM)

China plans to launch a second space laboratory in 2016 that will be serviced by a robotic cargo spacecraft.  The new laboratory module reportedly will be launched with a Long March 5 rocket and the cargo ship with a Long March 7.  Neither of those rockets has made its debut yet.

China launched the Tiangong-1 space laboratory, or space station, in 2011.  Three spacecraft docked with the module:  Shenzhou 8, a robotic spacecraft that tested automated rendezvous and docking, in 2011; Shenzhou 9 in 2012, carrying a three-person crew including China's first female astronaut ("taikonaut"); and Shenzhou 10 in 2013 with another three-person crew (also two men and one woman).

China's official Xinhua news service today quoted Zhou Jianping, chief engineer of China's human spaceflight program, as updating plans for China's next attempts at Earth orbit human spaceflight.  A new module, Tiangong-2, will be launched in 2016 and a robotic Tianzhou-1 spacecraft will deliver propellant, supplies, research facilities and repair equipment.  How many crews will occupy Tiangong-2 over what period of time was not revealed.  Zhou said only that selection of the astronauts was "progressing in an orderly manner."

Xinhua said Tiangong-2 will be launched with a Long March 5 rocket and the Tianzhou-1 supply ship with a Long March 7.  China said for years that the Long March 5, its largest rocket to date, would make its debut in 2014 from the new Wenchang Space Launch Center on Hainan Island, but that has not happened yet.  Long March 5 will be able to launch 25 tons into low Earth orbit, slightly more than a U.S. Delta IV (22 tons).

Long March 5, 6, and 7 are a new family of rockets being developed to use liquid oxygen/kerosene propellants, more environmentally friendly than the current generation of Long March launch vehicles.  Long March 5 is the largest, Long March 6 the smallest, and Long March 7 for mid-sized payloads.  The U.S. Department of Defense's most recent annual report on China's military and security developments, generated in April 2014, anticipated the first Long March 7 launch by the end of 2014, and that did not occur.  It said the first Long March 5 launch would be "no sooner than 2015" because of "recent manufacturing difficulties."

Tiangong-1 and -2 are steps toward a 60-ton space station the China currently says it will launch in 2022.   It reportedly will be composed of three 20-ton modules.

What's Happening in Space Policy March 9-13, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Mar-2015 (Updated: 08-Mar-2015 02:56 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of March 9-13, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The Senate is in session this week; the House is in recess.

During the Week

The IEEE Aerospace Conference actually began yesterday in Big Sky, Montana; it runs through March 14.   The conference website says it is being held in "a stimulating and thought provoking environment."  Indeed!  

Greenbelt, MD may not compare with Big Sky, MT in terms of breathtaking scenery, but the American Astronautical Society's (AAS's) Goddard Memorial Symposium at the Greenbelt Marriott is undoubtedly of much more interest to the space policy community.   NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will keynote the AAS meeting on Wednesday morning at 9:15 am ET, followed by a panel of top level NASA Headquarters officials including Science Mission Directorate Associate Administrator (AA) John Grunsfeld and newly appointed Space Technology Mission Directorate AA Steve Jurczyk, formerly director of NASA's Langley Research Center.  The two-day AAS meeting ends on Thursday afternoon with a panel including your intrepid editor along with Jeff Foust from Space News and Frank Morring from Aviation Week and Space Technology.

The congressional calendar is less crowded this week since the House is in recess. but Bolden will appear before the Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on Thursday at 9:30 am ET.  Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) was politely inquisitive at his first space hearing two weeks ago, which included no government witnesses.  It will be interesting to see how he and Bolden get along since the NASA Administrator represents President Obama, a man with whom Cruz has serious disagreements on other issues.  Cruz sounded liked a huge space enthusiast at the earlier hearing, with views strongly aligned with key Senators on both sides of the aisle who crafted the 2010 NASA Authorization Act and have appropriated funds since then to execute it.  That suggests that Cruz and Bolden will disagree on the amount of funding requested for SLS and Orion at least -- NASA's request once again is less than Congress wants as everyone knows.

Speaking of SLS, Orbital ATK will have a 2-minute static test fire of an SLS booster on Wednesday.  NASA TV will cover it live at 11:00 am ET (9:00 am local time in Utah).   Two pre-launch briefings (on Tuesday and Wednesday) for the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission (scheduled for launch on Thursday) and the homecoming (on Wednesday) of three International Space Station crew members also are on tap this week.

All the events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.

Saturday-Saturday, March 7-14

Tuesday, March 10

Tuesday-Thursday, March 10-12 (March 10 is an evening reception only)

Wednesday, March 11

Thursday, March 12

Bolden Reassures Appropriators on Russia; Culberson Wants Interstellar Propulsion

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Mar-2015 (Updated: 05-Mar-2015 12:30 AM)

At a House hearing today (March 4), NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was asked about contingency plans if Russia stops launching U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).  He underscored again and again the need for Congress to fully fund the commercial crew program.

The hearing before the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee covered familiar ground and produced few surprises.  Subcommittee chairman John Culberson (R-TX), an unabashed NASA supporter who just became chairman following the retirement of Frank Wolf, started the hearing by asserting that Congress will not be able to fund President Obama’s overall budget request for the nation “because it assumes a lot of tax increases that certainly aren’t going to happen,” but that the subcommittee will do all it can to support NASA.  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden defended the President’s request for his agency.

Perhaps the most interesting exchanges concerned the future of the ISS and whatever will come thereafter.  One set of issues involves U.S. dependence on Russia for launching astronauts to the ISS today, another concerns recent Russian statements that it will support ISS through 2024 and then detach its modules to form an autonomous space station, and a third is U.S. plans for what comes after ISS.

Bolden was asked what contingency plans NASA has if Russia decides not to launch U.S. astronauts to ISS because of the current geopolitical situation.  He stressed that the only plan is to fully fund the President’s $1.244 billion request for the commercial crew program.  He assured the subcommittee that he is confident Boeing and SpaceX will meet their milestones and provide operational systems by the 2017 target date.

Pressed on the point of contingency plans, Bolden reiterated that relationships between NASA and Roscosmos remain strong and Russia needs NASA to operate the ISS, but if the Russians decided they no longer were interested in space exploration, the ISS can be evacuated in an orderly manner:  “You are forcing me into this answer, and I like to give you real answers … but if the nations of the world decided that human exploration is done, we have the capability to bring all six crewmembers home. … I don’t anticipate that that day is going to come.”  He continued that he is “not worried about getting people to the space station as long as the Congress funds the President’s budget at $1.2 billion in 2016 because we will have an American capability” to do that.

Culberson continue to bore in on NASA’s contingency planning, but Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) intervened saying that Congress must “own” the current situation because it did not provide adequate funding.  As Bolden pointed out once more, if Congress had done so, commercial crew would be ready this year rather than 2017.  Culberson shot back that if the Constellation program had not been canceled, “we would have been ready to fly within 12 months.” Bolden retorted “That is not correct…whoever told you that, that is not correct.”

Russian officials announced last week that Russia will remain in the ISS partnership through 2024, but then will detach its modules to form its own space station.   The announcement was made on February 24 by the Roscosmos Science and Technology Council, chaired by Yuri Koptev, who once headed the predecessor to Roscosmos and was integral in working with then NASA Administrator Dan Goldin as Russia joined the ISS program in 1993.  Somewhat lost in U.S. media reports is that the modules they said they will detach have not yet been launched (a multipurpose laboratory module, a docking node, and a scientific power module), so they are not proposing to take away anything that is currently part of the ISS complex.  In any case, Bolden urged caution in evaluating what the Russians said because “what you hear coming out of Russia is not always what they intended to say,” but he is encouraged by the stated intention to remain with ISS through 2024.

As for what LEO facilities will come after ISS, Bolden focused on the need for the private sector to make those decisions.  He said that a NASA request for information produced disappointing results, however, because those who responded just wanted NASA to continue funding LEO infrastructure.  Bolden noted the efforts of Bigelow Aerospace as the type of effort that is required.  Bigelow launched two test modules on Russian rockets several years ago that are still in orbit. Another will be attached to the ISS this year.  (He lightheartedly noted that Robert Bigelow, the millionaire behind Bigelow Aerospace, insists that the modules are “expandable,” not “inflatable” as they often are described.)  Bolden hopes other companies will buy modules from Bigelow or build their own.

There was one surprise, at least.   Culberson closed the hearing with a clarion call for NASA to develop interstellar propulsion, not a topic that typically arises in NASA budget hearings.

At the very end, Culberson brought up the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), for which NASA is developing high power solar electric propulsion to send a robotic spacecraft to an asteroid to nudge it from its native orbit into lunar orbit so it can be visited by astronauts.  Culberson contended today that the “great value” of ARM is the development of new propulsion -- but his goal is for travel to other stars.

Explaining what he hopes will be his legacy for the space program, he listed a robust LEO capability, SLS and Orion for human exploration beyond LEO, a robotic program that follows the recommendations of the National Research Council’s Decadal Surveys, and a propulsion system that allows spacecraft to explore exoplanets.

“The fact that we are still flying rocket engines that were designed by Robert Goddard in the 1920’s is just inexcusable. ….  Let us also leave for future generations the development of the first interstellar rocket propulsion system that would carry us to Alpha Centauri and beyond… to go explore those exoplanets that are most like Earth, which appear to be much more common than we ever realized.”

Congress Will Not Convene Tomorrow Because of Impending Snowstorm, Hearings Postponed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Mar-2015 (Updated: 04-Mar-2015 07:12 PM)

The House and Senate have decided not to meet tomorrow, March 5, because of an impending major winter storm forecast to affect Washington, DC.  All hearings scheduled for tomorrow are likely to be postponed.  The two related to space activities definitely will not take place.

The Senate Appropriations CJS subcommittee hearing on NASA's FY2016 budget request and the Senate Armed Services Committee's posture hearing on the Army and the Air Force were postponed.  No new dates were announced.

Snow is supposed to begin overnight and be at its worst during the day tomorrow.  Accumulation forecasts vary, but for the immediate DC area, the range is 4-10 inches.  Even 4 inches here is major transportation nightmare.

Mikulski Announces Retirement

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Mar-2015 (Updated: 02-Mar-2015 06:19 PM)

Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) announced today that this will be her last term in the Senate.   One of NASA and NOAA's strongest supporters, her departure in 2016 will mark the end of an era.

Mikulski is currently the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee and on its Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA and NOAA.  In the last Congress, when Democrats controlled the Senate, she chaired both the full committee and the subcommittee, the first woman to hold the Appropriations gavel at the full committee level on either side of Capitol Hill.

There is little doubt that her strong support of the civil space program is founded on the location of major space companies and government agencies in her home state of Maryland.   NOAA headquarters is in Silver Spring, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center is in Greenbelt, and Lockheed Martin is headquartered in Bethesda to name a few.   NASA's Wallops Flight Facility is in neighboring Virginia on the DelMarVa (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) peninsula, but many of its workers live in Maryland and Wallops is managed by Goddard Space Flight Center.  Mikulski herself jokes that when someone comes to her asking for funding she asks three questions: "What does this do for the Nation?," "What does this do for Maryland?," and "What did you say again this does for Maryland"?

Her support is not unconditional, however.  She has been one of NOAA's harshest critics over the years on its management of weather satellite programs after the NPOESS overruns that led to its cancellation and early indications that the successor JPSS program was headed in the same direction.  Just last week she sternly told Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker at a hearing on the FY2016 NOAA budget request that she would be closely watching the Department's management of JPSS and the Polar Follow On program NOAA is requesting this year.  She also called NASA to task for the skyrocketing overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) several years ago and demanded an independent review (the Casani report), which led to a development cost cap of $8 billion set by law.  The agreement seems to have sealed her support and last year she enthusiastically told an audience at Goddard Space Flight Center (where JWST is managed) that "I saved you from the Tea Party."

This is her fifth term in the Senate, which followed a decade in the House of Representatives representing Baltimore, MD.  She was the first Democratic woman Senator elected to the Senate in her own right and one of only two women in the Senate when she took office there in 1987.  Today, there are 20.  She is the longest serving woman in the U.S. Congress.   In announcing her retirement among her constituents in East Baltimore today, she said she had thought long and hard about how she wanted to spend the next two years "fighting to keep my job or fighting for your job,"  "raising money or raising hell to meet your day-to-day needs,"  "focusing on my election or the next generation."  She said she chose "to give you 120 percent of my time with all of my energy focused on you and your future."

Although her passion is serving her constituents, she also seems to be genuinely interested in NASA's science programs in particular.  For the past several years she has been paired with Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) on the CJS subcommittee, an advocate of human spaceflight, giving NASA a strong foundation of support across its portfolio on that crucially important panel.   Her departure two years from now will leave quite a void,

What's Happening in Space Policy March 2-6, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Mar-2015 (Updated: 01-Mar-2015 02:11 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of March 2-6, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session.

During the Week

A passel of congressional hearings are on tap this week on the FY2016 budget requests for NASA, DOD, the Department of Commerce (including NOAA) and the Department of Transportation (including FAA).   Most congressional hearings are webcast on the respective committee's website.  The exceptions are hearings held in the Capitol where, unfortunately, the House Appropriations CJS subcommittee holds many of its hearings.   Its hearings this week on the Department of Commerce budget request and on NASA's budget request are a case in point.   One must be physically present in the tiny room (H-309 Capitol) to hear the discussion.  All the other hearings this week should be webcast, however.

For those already weary of Washington politics or just looking for something uplifting, tomorrow's (Monday's) briefing on Dawn's impending arrival at Ceres should be fun.  The intrepid spacecraft, which already sent back fascinating data about the asteroid Vesta, will arrive at Ceres on March 6.  The briefing is at JPL and will be webcast on JPL's Ustream channel and NASA TV.  We haven't seen an announcement about coverage on March 6 itself, but will post whatever information comes our way later this week.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.

Monday, March 2

Tuesday, March 3

Wednesday, March 4

Thursday, March 5

NASA Approves Sunday's Spacewalk-Water in Helmet "Feature" of Spacesuit

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Feb-2015 (Updated: 27-Feb-2015 05:36 PM)

NASA International Space Station (ISS) program managers decided today that Wednesday's "water in the helmet" episode is not an impediment to proceeding with another spacewalk on Sunday.   The ISS Mission Management Team (IMMT) gave approval for the spacewalk to proceed this morning.

NASA astronauts Terry Virts and Barry "Butch" Wilmore are conducting a trio of spacewalks to get docking ports ready to accept commercial crew spacecraft when they begin flying in 2017.   The first two on February 21 and February 25 went fine, but after Virts reentered the airlock on February 25 and it began repressurizing, he noticed water inside his helmet.

Virts was wearing spacesuit 3005 and NASA immediately explained that the same suit had a similar problem after a December 2013 spacewalk.  NASA is very sensitive to water incursion after a very serious incident in July 2013 when ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano's helmet filled with water during a spacewalk while he was still outside the ISS.

This time was entirely different, according to NASA officials.  The lead EVA spacewalk officer, Alex Kanelakos, said on NASA's Space Station Live program after the IMMT decision that it was only a small amount of water, 15 milliliters (ml), and it has happened seven times previously with this spacesuit.  He explained that a small amount of "carryover water" can develop inside the helmet during repressurization.  NASA considers up to 57 ml to be permissable.  Kanelakos did not say exactly how much water filled Parmitano's helmet in July 2013, but indicated it was many times more.

Because this has happened with suit 3005 several times, Kanelakos said that although NASA does not "expect" it to happen, it is a "known feature" of that suit.

NASA posted an explanation later in the day saying the suit "has a history of what is called 'sublimator water carryover', a small amount of residual water in the sublimator cooling component that can condense once the environment around the suit is repressurized following its exposure to vacuum during a spacewalk...."

Why Virts and his ISS crewmates were surprised and concerned about the water is unclear if it is a known feature and has happened seven times in the past with this suit.

In any case, the spacewalk was given the go-ahead to proceed on Sunday, March 1, beginning at about 7:10 am ET.  NASA TV coverage will begin at 6:00 am ET.  The spacewalk is expected to last 6 hours 45 minutes.

AF Secretary James Not Sure 2019 is Doable for RD-180 Replacement

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Feb-2015 (Updated: 25-Feb-2015 10:49 PM)

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James added a dose of reality today to projections about when an American-made rocket engine could replace Russia's RD-180s for the Atlas V rocket.  During testimony, she said that meeting the congressional mandate to have a new engine by 2019 may not be doable.  Her experts tell her it will take 6-8 years to get a new engine and another 1-2 years to integrate it into a launch vehicle.  

James spoke before the Senate Appropriations Committee's Defense Subcommittee (SAC-D) on the Air Force FY2016 budget request along with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III.  The two are scheduled to testify to the House counterpart subcommittee (HAC-D) on Friday. 

The issue really is about developing a new propulsion system, of which an engine is a part, but "engine" is commonly used as shorthand.

The deterioration in U.S.-Russian relationships beginning last year because of Russia's action in Ukraine highlighted how dependent the United States is on Russian technology to launch U.S. national security satellites.   The United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V and Delta IV rockets -- referred to as Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs ) -- launch almost all of them, and the Atlas V is powered by Russia's RD-180 engine.   The issue figured prominently in a number of hearings last year and Air Force officials, including Gen. William Shelton, then head of Air Force Space Command, rued the prospect of losing those engines.  Still, Shelton and others eventually accepted that the time had come for the United States to develop its own comparable liquid rocket engine.

The FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 113-291) and its accompanying explanatory statement direct DOD to develop a new U.S. propulsion system by 2019 "using full and open competition." The law authorizes $220 million and notes it "is not an authorization of funds for development of a new launch vehicle."  Section 608 of the law prohibits the Secretary of Defense (SecDef) from "awarding or renewing a contract for the procurement of property or services" under the EELV program if the contract involves "rocket engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation."  The only exceptions are the EELV contract awarded to ULA on December 18, 2013 or unless the SecDef certifies that the offeror can demonstrate that it fully paid for or entered into a legally binding contract for such engines prior to February 1, 2014.

The FY2015 Defense Appropriations Act (Division C of P.L. 113-235) followed suit, appropriating the same $220 million as was authorized "to accelerate rocket propulsion system development with a target demonstration date of fiscal year 2019."  It directs the Air Force, in consultation with NASA, "to develop an affordable, innovative, and competitive strategy ... that includes an assessment of the potential benefits and challenges of using public-private partnerships, innovative teaming arrangements, and small business considerations."

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) and James engaged in two exchanges about the RD-180 today.  Shelby noted that the President's FY2016 request is only for $84 million.  "It's also my understanding that developing an RD-180 replacement engine and the associated launch vehicle and launch pad can cost anywhere from $1 billion to more than $3 billion and take perhaps 7 to 10 years to develop," Shelby said.  James replied that technical experts have advised her that "It's 6 to 8 years ... for a newly designed engine and then an additional 1 to 2 years on top of that to be able to integrate the engine into the launch vehicle."  As for cost, "I've seen $2 billion," James said.

James asked that Congress clarify what it wants, because the 2019 deadline is "pretty aggressive" and "I'm not sure 2019 is doable."  She also stressed that they want "at least two" domestic engines "because we want competition of course."

Shelby also revealed that DOD's General Counsel "may" interpret the Section 608 language contrary to congressional intent resulting in a "capability gap for certain launches" and eliminating "real competition."  James explained that the General Counsel is trying to interpret several different provisions of law that may or may not have had the same intent, but said the point she wanted to stress is that "virtually everybody" agrees that the United States should be less reliant on Russia.  The question is how to accomplish that:  "We don't want to cut off our nose to spite our face."

The two also discussed certification of "new entrants." a reference to SpaceX, which has been attempting to obtain certification from the Air Force so it can compete against ULA for these types of national security launches.

ULA manufactures the Atlas V and Delta IV in Decatur, Alabama, Shelby's home state.  Shelby talked about the virtues of competition, but, without mentioning SpaceX by name, said "some of these so-called companies that are planning to compete, and we'd like for them to compete, they have had several mishaps" compared to ULA.  James replied that every developmental program has mishaps and "I'm quite sure they're going to get there from here."

ULA is jointly owned by Lockheed Martin and Boeing.  At yesterday's hearing before the Space, Science and Competitiveness subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, Boeing's John Elbon also urged a "thoughtful" approach to the transition from the RD-180 to a U.S. engine and keeping the pipeline of engines open as long as possible rather setting a hard cut-off date.

Meanwhile, ULA announced last fall that it is partnering with Blue Origin to develop the BE-4 rocket engine as an RD-180 replacement.  ULA and Blue Origin said at the time that the project is fully paid for and not in need of government funding.

NASA Investigating Another "Water in the Helmet" Incident At End of ISS Spacewalk

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Feb-2015 (Updated: 25-Feb-2015 03:50 PM)

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Terry Virts performed a successful 6 hour 43 minute spacewalk from the International Space Station (ISS) today, but after they were back inside the airlock, during repressurization, Virts noticed water inside his helmet.  It was a small amount compared to a major incident in July 2013, but NASA is now investigating what went wrong and whether another spacewalk planned for Sunday can go forward.

What little is known at this moment is that Virts noticed the water while he was face down in the airlock during repressurization.  In zero gravity, being face up or down should not matter.  He immediately reported it and ISS crewmate Samantha Cristoforetti (from the European Space Agency -- ESA) began to help him remove the helmet.  That requires a number of steps and the process was not rushed since there was no emergency.  At one point ground controllers asked Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, who was assisting Cristoforetti, to point a camera directly at Virts' helmet so they could see what he was experiencing.  The blob of water was clearly visible adhering to the interior of his visor.

No problems were reported during the spacewalk itself.  It occurred only once Virts and Wilmore were back inside the airlock and it was repressurized to 5 pounds per square inch (psi).  Repressurization pauses at that point for a suit check before continuing to full repressurization to 14.7 psi.

At the request of ground controllers, once the helmet was removed, Cristoforetti touched the water to determine its temperature as part of troubleshooting steps.  She reported that it was cold.  She also reported that the Helmet Absorption Pad (HAP) at the back of the helmet was damp, but not saturated.  Virts later added that the water was not from his drink bag, which was fine, and that the water had a chemical taste.

NASA's TV commentator reported that this suit, 3005, had a similar problem after a December 2013 spacewalk and that it occurred at exactly the same point -- when repressurization reached 5 psi.

The December 2013 spacewalk was necessitated by the failure of a key ISS component (a coolant loop) and performed on a contingency basis because of an earlier and much more serious event in July 2013.  At that time, ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano's helmet filled with water while he was outside the ISS performing the spacewalk. The cause ultimately was determined to be a clogged filter that allowed water from the suit's cooling system to enter the helmet.  Parmitano later wrote a compelling account of the experience.  NASA has been even more careful about ensuring the spacesuits are functioning properly since then and implemented a number of changes -- including installing HAPs to soak up any water that does enter a helmet.  That apparently was at least partially successful today.

NASA will now investigate this incident.  NASA said this afternoon that a decision on whether to proceed with Sunday's spacewalk will be made at an already scheduled management meeting on Friday.  

Today's spacewalk is the second of a trio that Wilmore and Virts are performing to ready ISS docking ports to be able to accommodate U.S. commercial crew spacecraft.  The first was successfully conducted on February 21.  NASA hopes to complete all three before March 12 when Wilmore will return to Earth as part of a routine crew rotation.  Two of the three spacewalks were delayed by a day as NASA worked an earlier issue with the suits' fan pump separators.

Events of Interest

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