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Russia Launches Latest ISS Crew While Downscaling Its Long Term Plan-UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Mar-2016 (Updated: 22-Mar-2016 06:20 PM)

Two Russians and an American destined for the International Space Station (ISS) launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome aboard Russia's Soyuz TMA-20M spacecraft at 5:26:38 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) today.  Docking is scheduled at 11:11 pm EDT tonight, about 6 hours after launch.   While the launch marks another success for Russia's human spaceflight program, it comes amid reports that the Russian government just approved a 10-year plan that scales back its long term ambitions. [UPDATE:  Soyuz TMA-20M successfully docked with ISS at 11:09 pm EDT on March 18.]

The three crew members are Roscosmos's Oleg Skriprochka and Alexey Ovchinin and NASA's Jeff Williams.   They will join three crew members already aboard:  NASA's Tim Kopra, the European Space Agency's Tim Peake (U.K.), and Roscosmos's Yuri Malenchenko.

This is the third long duration mission to the ISS for Williams, who will set a new U.S. record for cumulative time in space -- 534 days -- at the end of this 6-month stay.  NASA's Scott Kelly, who just returned from 340 days aboard ISS, will retain the U.S. record for continuous time in space.

Today's launch comes just a month before Russia celebrates the 55th anniversary of the launch of the first man into space. Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space on April 12, 1961, making one orbit of the Earth. 

Over the intervening decades, the Soviet/Russian human spaceflight program has focused on activities in low Earth orbit (LEO).   They never were able to send cosmonauts to the Moon, but launched seven operational space stations beginning with Salyut 1 in 1971.  Only one crew (Soyuz 11) successfully occupied that space station (another, Soyuz 10, was unable to enter the station after docking) and the three men tragically died during reentry.  The Soyuz 11 accident and the failure of the next two Soviet space stations (Kosmos 557 and Salyut 2) before they could be occupied set back the Soviet human space flight program.

But in 1974, successful space station and crew launches resumed with Salyut 3, followed by Salyut 4, Salyut 5, Salyut 6, Salyut 7, and Mir.  Mir was a modular space station.  The first module was launched in 1986 and five additional major modules were added over the next decade.  Mir was continuously occupied for about 10 of the years it was on orbit, with four cosmonauts staying aboard the facility for one year or more.   During the 1990s, Mir exemplified the new era of U.S.-Russian space cooperation following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Seven Americans conducted long duration missions aboard Mir and nine space shuttle missions docked with it.

During that era Russia also joined the United States, Canada, Japan, and Europe in the ISS program and Russian cosmonauts have continued to fly aboard space stations to this day.  Russia's Soyuz spacecraft is the only vehicle capable of taking astronauts to and from the ISS and they also serve as "lifeboats" in the case the crew must evacuate in an emergency.

Despite that impressive past, the future is cloudy.  Russia has agreed with the U.S. proposal to extend ISS operations until "at least" 2024, but Russian space officials, like their counterparts elsewhere, aspire to human spaceflight beyond LEO.  In recent months, some Russian officials were boldly talking about a program to send cosmonauts to the Moon, but the economic effects of the drop in oil prices and sanctions by the United States and other countries following Russia's actions in Ukraine are taking their toll. 

In late December, Russian news reports indicated that a proposal made in April by the head of Roscosmos for spending 2 trillion rubles through 2025 had been revised downward to 1.4 trillion rubes.  The Moscow Times reported yesterday that the Russian government approved the 1.4 trillion rubles, which it said converts to $20.5 billion.  That is government funding for the Federal Space Program 2016-2025 and may not reflect additional sums that may be available, such as revenue from launching foreign satellites or launching astronauts for NASA, but it is a modest amount -- about $2 billion a year -- compared to NASA's $19 billion per year.   (The Moscow Times said yesterday that the request had been 3.4 trillion rubles, but the provenance of that number is not clear.) 

Details of what is included in the Federal Space Program 2016-2025 are not yet available, but at that level of resources, bold new programs seem unlikely.

The Russian government just converted its space agency, Roscosmos, into a state corporation in the latest attempt to fix endemic problems that have resulted in a series of launch failures of several different rockets and delays in building a new launch site at Vostochny. 

As the 55th anniversary of the Gagarin launch approaches, other than its stated support for continuation of ISS through 2024, the future of the Russian human spaceflight program can only be said to be uncertain.

Bridenstine Urges Appropriators to Increase Budget for FAA Space Office

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Mar-2016 (Updated: 18-Mar-2016 12:03 AM)

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) and 17 other members of Congress sent a letter to House appropriators today urging them to support President Obama's requested increase in funding for the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST).   The President is seeking a $2 million increase in FY2017, from $17.8 million to $19.8 million.

Bridenstine is a strong advocate for AST both in its current role facilitating and regulating the commercial space launch and reentry business and, over time, for expanding its role to space traffic management and issuing "mission licenses" for private sector activities in space such as asteroid mining.

For now, Bridenstine argues that AST needs more resources to cope with growing demand for launch and reentry licenses and other activities in licensing commercial launch sites and spaceports.   The Obama Administration requested a $1.5 million increase for AST in FY2016 and ultimately it received $1.2 billion of that increase, for a total FY2016 budget of $17.8 million.  It was a hard fought battle, however, especially in the House.  FAA is funded as part of the Transportation-Housing and Urban Development (T-HUD) appropriations bill.   Last year, T-HUD appropriators did not approve any of the $1.5 million increase.  Bridenstine tells the story of how he tried to add money for AST during House floor debate on that bill by offering an amendment to add just $250,000, joking that it is difficult to imagine anyone asking for such a small amount, but any increase must be offset by a reduction elsewhere.

He clearly is hoping to avoid a similar situation this year by convincing the T-HUD subcommittee to include adequate funding in the bill it sends to the House so an amendment will not be necessary.  In the letter to the subcommittee's chairman and ranking member, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) and Rep. David Price (D-NC), Bridenstine and 17 other Republicans and Democrats said "FAA/AST does not have the resources to efficiently or effectively carry out its duties currently, and will only be further tried as commercial space activity expands."  They urge the subcommittee to fully fund AST at the $19.8 million requested level.

McCain Calls for DOD Investigation into Statements by ULA Executive

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Mar-2016 (Updated: 17-Mar-2016 11:29 PM)

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) today called for DOD to investigate statements made by a senior United Launch Alliance (ULA) official that were reported in the media.  ULA President Tory Bruno disavowed the remarks by ULA Engineering Vice President Brett Tobey, who has since resigned.

McCain spoke at the opening of a hearing before his Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) today where Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and two other top DOD officials testified.  McCain did not refer to Tobey by name, but said the "disturbing statements ... raise troubling questions about the nature of the relationship" between DOD and ULA.  "This committee treats with the utmost seriousness any implication that the department showed favoritism to a major defense contractor or that efforts have been made to silence members of Congress."

The controversy stems from an account on Reddit and a story in Space News reporting on statements made by Tobey on March 15 to an audience at the University of Colorado-Boulder.   Both sites have links to a recording of the remarks.    His comments about ULA's competition with SpaceX, the competition between Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne in building engines for ULA's new Vulcan rocket following political pressure to discontinue use of Russian RD-180 engines for the existing Atlas V, and other topics were quite frank.

Bruno distanced the company from Tobey's comments soon after they became public.

McCain told Carter that "I expect you will make a full investigation into these statements and take action where appropriate."  The topic did not arise again during the hearing, which was broadly on the U.S. defense posture and the impact of the budget caps in the 2011 Budget Control Act.   Space was mentioned only in the context of three areas where more investment is needed; cyber and electronic warfare were the other two.

House Authorizers Join Pro-NASA Chorus on Hill

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Mar-2016 (Updated: 17-Mar-2016 08:50 PM)

Republicans and Democrats on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee set aside their sharp partisan differences on other issues today and vowed to ensure that NASA receives the funding it needs to execute the programs Congress funded generously for FY2016.  While the hearing before the Space Subcommittee was not free of partisan barbs, overall it was used to praise NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and champion NASA's space and aeronautics programs.

The President's FY2017 request for NASA's appropriated funding is $18.262 billion, about a $1 billion cut from the $19.285 billion Congress appropriated for FY2016.  It is displayed in NASA budget documents as a $19.025 billion request because it assumes $664 million will be moved from the "mandatory" side of the nation's budget ledger into the "discretionary" account where NASA is funded, plus $100 million from a tax President Obama wants to levy on oil companies for a 21st Century Clean Transportation System initiative.

Space subcommittee chairman Brian Babin (R-TX) tried to explain to Bolden the consequences of attempting to use money from mandatory spending -- the part of the budget that pays for Social Security, Medicare, and interest on the national debt, for example -- but Bolden pleaded that he is not a "budgeteer" and the difference between mandatory and discretionary spending is beyond his grasp.   What matters to him, he said, is that the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) assured him that the request for NASA is $19.025 billion.   He added that if he had realized how generous Congress was going to be in FY2016 -- the appropriation was $756 million above the President's request -- he would have asked for more in his negotiations with OMB.

Regardless of what the President requested, the Senate and House appropriations subcommittees that fund NASA, and this subcommittee, have all vowed to ensure that NASA gets the money it needs to proceed with the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion spacecraft, a robust planetary science program, and the other priorities Congress delineated for FY2016.   This committee is an authorizing committee that provides policy guidance and recommends funding levels, but actual funding is provided by appropriations committees.  (Its Senate counterpart, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, has not yet held a hearing on this budget request.)

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the top Democrat on the full committee, and Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), the top Democrat on the subcommittee, both expressed concern about NASA's insistence that although it has committed to launching the first crewed mission of the Orion spacecraft, Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2), in 2023, it has an internal date of 2021 it is striving to meet using extra funding that Congress provided.  NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) warned against such tactics in its most recent annual report.  It concludes that a 2021 launch date is unrealistic at the budget levels NASA projects and worries about the potential impact on safety if personnel feel pressure to meet the earlier schedule.  Bolden assured the subcommittee that safety is his first concern and he regularly interacts with ASAP.

Bolden is a former astronaut and a former member of ASAP.

For her part, Johnson assured Bolden that no matter who becomes the next President, Congress supports SLS (and Orion and commercial crew) so it is not necessary to make overly optimistic commitments now in order to get as much done as possible before the change in administrations.  Edwards asked Babin to hold a hearing specifically on the safety issue.

A partisan issue that did not escape the otherwise friendly spirit of the hearing today is NASA's earth science program.  Full committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) complained that the request for earth science is more than the amount requested for astrophysics, the James Webb Space Telescope and heliophysics combined.   He and other Republicans insist that other government agencies should be funding earth science research while NASA focuses on human and robotic exploration of space.  Babin repeated assertions from earlier years that the funding for earth science is "disproportionate."  

Congress has made clear in its appropriations bills that its priorities are SLS, Orion, and a robotic mission to Jupiter's moon Europa.  Republicans and Democrats today criticized the President's FY2017 budget requests for SLS and Orion, which are significant reductions from FY2016 levels.  Smith repeated what he has said at other hearings that the Obama Administration "continues to tie our astronauts' feet to the ground."  He also called the Administration's Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM)  "uninspiring" and noted that NASA recently pushed out the date for launching the crewed portion of that mission until after the next President's second term. 

NASA revealed earlier this month that it does not plan to launch the robotic part of ARM until 2021 and the crewed segment until 2026.

As for Europa, House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee chairman John Culberson (R-TX) is its leading advocate in Congress and has added significant amounts of money to NASA's budget in the past three appropriations bills to force NASA to proceed with such a mission immediately even though NASA did not have it in its plans. Smith noted that the FY2017 request for Europa is a 90 percent reduction from the FY2016 funding level, which he called "incredibly disappointing." 

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), who represents the district that includes NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), pressed NASA on which part of NASA is in charge of the Europa mission.  The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) operated for NASA under a contract with the California Institute of Technology (CalTech), is the acknowledged leader of the program.   Brooks challenged that, however, insisting that FFRDCs -- which are contractors, not government entities -- are precluded from serving as program managers.   Bolden replied that he would check on the law regarding FFRDCs, but noted that JPL has been the program lead on many NASA planetary science missions. 

MSFC advocates in Congress have successfully drawn NASA headquarters into assigning the program lead role on some science missions (including the Hubble Space Telescope) to MSFC, but preliminary work on Europa's mission design has been done at JPL.

Meanwhile, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), continued his quest to get NASA to agree to send people to Mars in 2033.  He has a bumper sticker that says "2033 -- We Can Do This" with a picture of Mars in the corner.   He and Smith authored an op-ed in the Denver Post last week advocating for the mission, which would take place during a planetary alignment where a round trip would require 18 months instead of 2-3 years.  Bolden praised the op-ed and Perlmutter's "we can do it" bumper sticker.  The public does not hear often enough what we can do, Bolden said, only what we cannot.  "To have a Member of Congress who has a bumper sticker that says 'we can do this.' ... The American public doesn't see that enough. ...  What young people ... see and hear all the time is 'we can't do this, we are not a great nation.' ... That's just bunk. We're the greatest nation in the world...." 

Bolden has said at each of his budget hearings before Congress this year that it is "likely" his last since a new President will take office before the next budget is submitted.  The NASA Administrator is a political position and usually, though not always, the Administrator departs when the President's term ends.  Today, Republicans and Democrats both praised Bolden's service to the nation as a Marine and as NASA Administrator.  Bolden rose to the rank of Major General in the Marine Corps before retiring.  He has served as NASA Administrator since 2009.

Culberson Promises NASA Resources It Needs Despite Tough Budget Year

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Mar-2016 (Updated: 16-Mar-2016 10:45 PM)

The chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), said he is baffled by why the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) did not request adequate funding for NASA in FY2017 and vowed to give the agency the "resources that you need" even though it will "a tough budget year."  During a very friendly hearing today, the biggest surprise was Culberson's suggestion that NASA's Ames Research Center be converted into a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). 

The President is requesting an appropriation of $18.262 billion for FY2017, a cut of about $1 billion from the $19.285 billion Congress appropriated for FY2016.  NASA's budget documents show a request of $19.025 billion because it includes $763 million from other sources: $664 million the White House wants to shift from mandatory spending (the budget category that includes Social Security and Medicare, for example) plus $100 million from a tax the President is proposing to levy on oil companies for a 21st Century Clean Transportation System initiative.  Congress has already rejected both ideas.   Even if that money were available, the President's request is a $260 million cut from FY2016.

Culberson and ranking Democrat Mike Honda (D-CA) both expressed dissatisfaction with the request at a hearing before the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee.  Culberson said it was "baffling" that OMB did not request the level of funding NASA "deserves" considering how much the nation supports NASA.  He vowed that "this subcommittee will make sure that you get the resources that you need. Again, this is going to be a tough budget year and we will be right there behind you, sir, every step of the way."  Honda joked that he loved it when the chairman talks about getting NASA more money -- "sounds just like a great Democrat."  More seriously, he said NASA is not a partisan issue, but a national priority as demonstrated by the level of funding NASA received from Congress last year:  "This is a time to be investing in NASA, not selling it short."

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden defended the request and insisted that it is $19.025 billion, not $18.262 billion.  He said he is not disappointed by it and, indeed, "helped craft it."  He also expressed appreciation for the subcommittee's "strong and consistent support."

Two key topics at the hearing were the Space Launch System (SLS) and a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa. 

Culberson is passionate about the Europa mission.  In addition to allocating $175 million for the mission (the request was $30 million) in FY2016, he included language requiring NASA to build a lander as well as an orbiter and to launch them in 2022 using SLS.  He also directed NASA to create an "Oceans Worlds" program for exploring solar system bodies that have oceans, which include not only Europa, but Saturn's moons Enceladus and Titan.   Culberson held a hearing specifically about the Ocean Worlds program on March 3 where JPL Director Charles Elachi and Cornell space scientist Jonathan Lunine testified.  Elachi noted that Mars may have had an ocean in the past, too.

The directive to build a lander as well as an orbiter is controversial because of the additional costs that would be incurred and the technical challenges involved.   Today Bolden cautioned that the best approach would be to follow the traditional pattern for NASA's planetary exploration pursuits by first sending an orbiter to obtain detailed information and then a lander.  He estimated that it would take 2 years to map Europa's surface sufficiently to determine the best landing site.  Another concern is launching an orbiter-lander combination on a single launch vehicle such as SLS since that would risk both spacecraft.   Launching the two separately could solve both problems -- sending the orbiter first and the lander later.   Bolden said the decision on how to proceed would be made at the time of the mission's Preliminary Design Review (PDR) in 2018, but "my strong recommendation is that we separate them to optimize the chances of being successful with both." 

As for SLS itself, subcommittee members sought assurances that the first and second SLS launches, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) and EM-2, will take place on time.  EM-1 will launch an Orion spacecraft, but no crew will be aboard.  EM-2 will be the first SLS/Orion launch to carry astronauts. 

Congress routinely adds money for SLS above the President's request.  For FY2016, NASA requested $1.4 billion and Congress provided $2 billion.  For FY2017, NASA  is requesting $1.3 billion.

NASA has committed to launching EM-1 in 2018 and EM-2 in 2023, but Bolden repeatedly says that NASA is working towards a 2021 launch for EM-2 using the additional money Congress provides.   Today he stressed that NASA is looking not just at those two launches, but at all the launches needed over the next decade for the "Proving Ground" phase of deep space human exploration in cis-lunar space.  NASA plans several SLS/Orion launches to the vicinity of the Moon to test systems and human adaptation to long duration flight further from Earth than the relative safety of low Earth orbit.   Bolden said that any money Congress provides above the request would be spent on buying down risk and buying long lead items for the program as a whole, not just EM-1 and EM-2, but it could lead to an EM-2 launch date earlier than 2023.

Not everyone was enthusiastic about SLS.  Honda asked Bolden to respond to a statement by former Johnson Space Center (JSC) Director Chris Kraft that SLS operating costs would "eat NASA alive" and it will not be reliable at the expected launch rate of only once per year.  Kraft wondered why existing launch vehicles could not be used to launch spacecraft segments that could be assembled on orbit.  Bolden, a former astronaut based at JSC, emotionally referred to Kraft as a role model, mentor and "incredible human being," but argued that times have changed since Kraft was in charge.   "I have a team around me that he didn't have, a very mature leadership team" compared to the relative youth of those at NASA when Kraft was there.

Congress also added money last year for NASA to build a large Exploration (or Enhanced) Upper Stage (EUS) for SLS to ensure it is ready in time for EM-2.   EUS will be needed for the SLS/Orion missions after EM-2 and must be human-rated since all those missions will carry crews.  NASA is currently building a less-capable Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) for EM-1.  Since there is no crew on EM-1, ICPS does not need to be human-rated for that flight, but would be if it is also used for EM-2.  EUS advocates argue that it is more cost effective to accelerate EUS development so it is ready for EM-2 than to human-rate ICPS for just the EM-2 mission.  Bolden assured the subcommittee that NASA is spending the FY2016 EUS funding as directed, but the agency is not requesting any EUS funds for FY2017.  Rep. David Jolly (R-FL) asked if FY2017 funding is required for EUS to be ready for EM-2.   Bolden replied that he is optimistic that NASA can get it ready in time if the agency stays within the President's FY2017 request, but said he would provide a more thorough answer for the record.

Another topic that arose was NASA's adherence to restrictions on activities with China. This subcommittee originated the language that prohibits NASA from interacting with China unless it certifies to Congress in advance that the interactions will not result in technology transfer or involve individuals directly involved in violating human rights.  Culberson has promised to vigorously enforce that provision, which is section 531 of the current (FY2016) appropriations law.  Bolden assured him that NASA investigates every Chinese official NASA plans to meet with using a third-party tool, Visual Compliance, that searches a number of databases.  Bolden added that he plans to meet with FBI Director James Comey to ensure these procedures are effective in meeting the Section 531 requirements.  (The FBI is also under the jurisdiction of this subcommittee.)

Separately, Culberson raised the prospect of turning NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA into a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) potentially operated by a university such as nearby Stanford.   It would follow the model of JPL, an FFRDC operated for NASA by the California Institute of Technology (CalTech).  JPL therefore is a contractor, not a government entity, which gives it more flexibility in personnel and other matters.  NASA's other nine centers around the country are part of the government and there have been suggestions over the years to turn them all into FFRDCs, but there are advantages and disadvantages and it is not clear that the FFRDC model would offer any cost savings, for example. 

Today, Bolden eschewed the idea of turning Ames into an FFDRC.  He cited studies by the National Academies and a review he himself was on of the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Lawrence Livermore Lab.  DOE has many FFRDCs and Bolden said that review showed that each DOE lab is an "entity unto its own."  By contrast, as NASA Administrator, he sets the direction for NASA as a whole and the NASA centers follow his lead so "we're all going in that direction."   "I would be leery" of NASA having more than one FFRDC, he said, praising the work that Ames does now as a government facility.

Honda was clearly surprised by Culberson's suggestion.  His congressional district includes a portion of Ames.   It is an interesting question, he said, but "came out of right field for me," and needs further discussion.

Correction:  An earlier version of this article stated that Rep. Honda's district is next door to Ames.  In fact, a portion of Ames is in his district.  The remainder is in Rep. Anna Eshoo's district.

ESA's ExoMars TGO Soars Toward Mars with Help from Russia Instead of NASA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Mar-2016 (Updated: 14-Mar-2016 09:28 PM)

The European Space Agency's (ESA's) ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) spacecraft soared into space today atop a Russian Proton rocket.  Russia replaced the United States as ESA's partner in the ExoMars program after the Obama Administration cut NASA's planetary science budget in 2012.

ESA's ExoMars program involves two spacecraft -- the TGO mission launched today and a rover currently scheduled for launch in 2018.

TGO is a Mars orbiter that will study rare gases in the Mars atmosphere, especially methane, which on Earth indicates geological or biological processes.  It will also image features on the Martian surface that may be related to trace-gas sources, such as volcanoes, and can detect buried water-ice deposits that may be of interest for future landing missions.

Attached to the orbiter is the Schiaparelli Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) demonstrator. The two will travel to Mars together over the next 7 months.  Schiaparelli will detach from TGO three days before Mars arrival.  While TGO enters Mars orbit, Schiaparelli will enter the Mars atmosphere and land on the surface to demonstrate technologies needed for the second phase of the ExoMars program -- the 2018 rover.

ESA originally was teamed with NASA on a program to send a series of probes to Mars, beginning with ExoMars and continuing into the early 2020s, with the goal of returning samples of Mars to Earth.  NASA and ESA signed a cooperative agreement in 2009 stating their intent to cooperate, but it was not a firm commitment and in 2012 the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) decided that the United States could not commit to a long term series of technically challenging, expensive "flagship" Mars missions.  NASA was forced to withdraw from its agreement with ESA.  The decision was part of the FY2013 budget process, which included the threat of sequestration. Congressional outcry led NASA to restore money for Mars exploration and creation of the Mars 2020 mission using leftover hardware from the Mars Curiosity rover. NASA later chose another Mars mission, InSight, to launch this year as part of its Discovery program, but that launch has been postponed to 2018 because of problems with one of the scientific instruments.

Meanwhile, ESA found a new partner -- Russia's Roscosmos -- for ExoMars.  Russia launched ESA's first Mars orbiter, Mars Express, in 2003.  That launch, like the one today, went flawlessly.  Mars Express continues to operate in Mars orbit, along with three U.S. orbiters (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey and MAVEN) and India's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM).   In addition to their primary missions of studying the Martian surface, MRO, Odyssey and MAVEN serve as communications relays between Earth and NASA's Opportunity and Curiosity rovers on the Martian surface.   Schiaparelli will also need a communications relay as will NASA's Mars 2020 and future Mars landers and rover.

ExoMars TGO is carrying two U.S. Electra radios to provide data relay, the one portion of the ESA-NASA ExoMars TGO cooperation that survived.  (NASA also is still involved in ESA's 2018 rover mission, although not to the extent originally envisioned.  It will provide a mass spectrometer and electronic components for the Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer-MOMA.)

ExoMars TGO lifted off from the Baikour Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 5:31 am Eastern Daylight Time (09:31 GMT) on a Proton rocket with a Briz-M upper stage.  After four firings of the Briz-M over 10 hours, ExoMars TGO was enroute to Mars with all systems operating nominally.

Artist's impression of ESA's ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter with Schiaparelli Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator (on right).  Image credit:  ESA/ATG Medialab

Russia has had limited success with its own robotic Mars exploration program.  Its last Mars probe, Phobos-Grunt, never left Earth orbit and reentered in January 2012, two months after launch. A previous probe, Mars-96, suffered a similar fate.  Other Soviet/Russian Mars probes launched since the 1960s failed partially or completely.  None of its attempts to land on the surface of Mars were successful.  The Proton rocket or its upper stages also have suffered a series of failures in recent years.

Today, however, offered only good news.  The Proton rocket and Briz-M upper stage performed exactly as planned.   ESA Director General Jan Woerner said "I am grateful to our Russian partner, who have given this mission the best possible start today. Now we will explore Mars together."  Igor Komarov, General Director of the Roscosmos State Space Corporation added that "Only the process of collaboration produces the best technical solutions for great research results. Roscosmos and ESA are confident of the mission's success."

ExoMars TGO will reach Mars in October 2016.  Schiaparelli will detach from TGO on October 16 at a distance of 900,000 kilometers from the planet, and land on Mars on October 19, the same day TGO enters orbit.  Parachutes and thrusters will slow Schiaparelli to a speed of a few meters per second.  The module's "crumple-zone" construction will absorb the impact with the surface.  The entire EDL sequence takes 6 minutes.

ESA's Schiaparelli Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) demonstrator sequence.   Credit:  ESA.

This will be ESA's second attempt to land on Mars. The Mars Express orbiter also carried a landing demonstrator -- the United Kingdom's Beagle 2.   It separated from Mars Express, but no signals were obtained after the expected landing.   Beagle 2's fate remained a mystery until January 2015 when NASA's MRO spotted it on the Martian surface.  Apparently the solar panels did not unfurl properly and the radio antenna was blocked, preventing communications.

What's Happening in Space Policy March 14-18, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Mar-2016 (Updated: 13-Mar-2016 06:33 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of March 14-18, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

Welcome to Daylight Savings Time in the United States.  Not all countries offset their clocks for summer time and those that do may not make the change at the same time as us, so be sure to check your time zone calculator if you are, for example, planning to watch a launch taking place in another country.  Like one or both of the two interesting launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

ESA's ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) is scheduled for liftoff tomorrow (Monday) morning.  The global time standard is Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) and the launch is at 09:31 GMT.   Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) is GMT-4, which makes it 5:31 am EDT.  ExoMars TGO is an orbiter, but includes an Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) demonstrator named Schiaparelli in preparation for the second part of the ExoMars program -- a lander scheduled for launch in 2018.  ESA's first attempt to land on Mars was in 2003.  Its Mars Express orbiter carried a small British lander named Beagle 2.  It separated from Mars Express as planned, but did not transmit after landing (NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spotted it on the Mars surface in January 2015).  Mars Express itself successfully entered Mars orbit and continues to operate today.  It will be joined by ExoMars TGO in October 2016 if the launch goes as planned tomorrow.  ESA will webcast the launch beginning at 4:30 am EDT.

On Friday, three new crew members will launch to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard Soyuz TMA-20M.  NASA's Jeff Williams and Roscosmos's Oleg Skripockha and Alexey Ovchinin will launch at 5:26 pm EDT and dock with ISS at 11:12 pm EDT.   Launch and docking will be broadcast on NASA TV.   The crew is scheduled to stay until September.  This is the third ISS visit for Williams who will set a new U.S. record for CUMULATIVE time in space if all goes as planned.  (Scott Kelly has the record now and he will retain the U.S. record for CONTINUOUS time in space.)

In between the wee hours of Monday morning and Friday night, there's a lot going on.   Various congressional committees will hold hearings on the FY2017 budget requests for NASA, NOAA and national security space programs, there's a Senate committee markup of the FAA reauthorization bill, and much more.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will testify to two House committees this week about the FY2017 budget request.   First is the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.   Second is the Space Subcommittee of the House, Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee on Thursday.   The Senate CJS hearing was last week, which leaves only the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee as a potential hearing venue.   The subcommittee that oversees NASA is chaired by Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, who is a little busy right now, so when or if that hearing will take place is unclear. 

Separately, the full Senate Commerce committee will mark up its version of the FAA reauthorization bill (S. 2658) on Wednesday.  Among its many provisions are one requiring a GAO report on the existing system of FAA-licensed spaceports and another requiring a rulemaking to implement an amendment added by the bill regarding navigable airspace analysis for commercial space launch site runways.  The text of the bill is posted on the committee's website.

NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan will have a chance to explain NOAA's FY2017 budget request to the House SS&T Environment Subcommittee on Wednesday afternoon. Subcommittee chairman Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) is particularly interested in NOAA purchasing commercial weather data, so that may be one theme at the hearing.

On the national security space front, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) will hold its annual hearing on national security space programs on Tuesday afternoon.  SASC held its hearing last week, but it was closed.  This one will be open -- initially at least.  HASC will hold a broader hearing on the budget requests for the military departments (e.g. Air Force) on Wednesday and SASC's annual DOD posture hearing is on Thursday.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for additional events we learn about as the week progresses and are added to our Events of Interest list.

Monday, March 14

Tuesday, March 15

Tuesday-Wednesday, March 15-16

Wednesday, March 16

Wednesday-Thursday, March 16-17

Thursday, March 17

Friday, March 18


Mikulski's Last NASA Budget Hearing

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Mar-2016 (Updated: 11-Mar-2016 07:25 AM)

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland), one of NASA's staunchest supporters, participated in her last NASA budget hearing yesterday.  She is retiring this year.  Her recounting of how she came to know and admire NASA as a Maryland politician was perhaps the most interesting aspect of the otherwise perfunctory hearing.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) chairs the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, which held the hearing.  He made a forceful opening statement, chastising the Obama Administration for the budget gimmicks used in its FY2017 budget request and how the request really is for $18.26 billion, not $19.025 billion.  Shelby pointedly complained about cuts to the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion, and planetary science programs.   NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden replied with a general answer explaining why, from his point of view, the request is $19.025 billion, but did not address any specific program.   Shelby let it go at that. He then asked about NASA's view on how many Russian RD-180 engines are needed and Bolden replied that he is in "lock step" with Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James.  She and Shelby insist that flexibility is needed in how many engines the United Launch Alliance should be allowed to acquire, while Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) wants to sharply limit the number.

Mikulski asked about the status of two of her favorite programs -- the James Webb Space Telescope and satellite servicing -- to which Bolden replied that all is well. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi), chairman of the full appropriations committee, asked no questions, but praised Bolden for his service.  Sens. Shelley Capito (R-West Virginia) and John Boozman (R-Arkansas) asked narrow constituent-oriented questions.   The hearing was over in about 45 minutes.

Mikulski's reminiscences were interesting, though.   Mikulski was elected to the Senate in 1986 after serving in the House of Representatives for 5 terms representing Baltimore.  At that time, NASA was included in an appropriations subcommittee that oversaw the Departments of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) -- the "VA-HUD" subcommittee.  A former social worker, she wanted to be assigned to VA-HUD because of those issues and thus had to learn about NASA.  She acknowledged that she knew very little about NASA at that point in time and thanked former Senators Jake Garn and John Glenn for tutoring her.  Garn chaired the VA-HUD subcommittee at the time and was the first politician to fly on the space shuttle (STS-51D in 1985).  Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962.

Thus began her interest in NASA, which grew over the years.  She stressed that during her time on the subcommittee -- which she chaired when Democrats controlled the Senate (she also chaired the full committee in the last Congress) -- the key was the "B" word:  bipartisanship and a balanced NASA budget.

This was her last NASA budget hearing and Bolden noted this is probably his last hearing before this subcommittee as well.  He does not expect to remain in his position after the end of the Obama Administration.  Bolden still has at least two more budget hearings before other committees, though, both of which are coming up next week.  He is scheduled to testify to the House CJS subcommittee on Tuesday and to the House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Space on Thursday.

AAS Panel Explores How to Reach Consensus on Future Human Spaceflight

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Mar-2016 (Updated: 17-Mar-2016 05:55 PM)

Editor's Note:  The American Astronautical Society's Goddard Memorial Symposium included a panel discussion on "Evolution of a Space Policy: How to Achieve Consensus."   It was an interesting discussion that ordinarily would be summarized here, but since I was a member of the panel, such a summary, written by me, seems inappropriate.  An archived webcast is available, however.  [UPDATE March 17:  the link to the webcast has changed.  The new link is provided below.]

Aviation Week and Space Technology reporter Frank Morring moderated the panel, which was composed of:

  • Lori Garver, who served as NASA Deputy Administrator during the first term of the Obama Administration (now General Manager of the Air Line Pilots Association);
  • Chris Shank, who was a top NASA official during the George W. Bush Administration (now on the staff of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee);
  • Sandy Magnus, AIAA Executive Director and former astronaut;
  • Mary Lynne Dittmar, Executive Director of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, who was a member of the National Research Council (NRC) committee that wrote the "Pathways" report; and
  • Marcia Smith, Editor, (that's me!), former Director of the NRC's Space Studies Board and Aeronautics and Space Engineerig Board and former Congressional Research Service space policy specialist

Garver headed the Obama transition team for NASA before becoming Deputy Administrator and was closely involved in the policy decisions that led to cancellation of the Constellation program begun by the Bush Administration.  The interchanges between Garver and Shank during this panel discussion, which took place just months before the next presidential transition will occur, are of particular interest.

The webcast is posted on a Ustream channel for NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) since GSFC livestreamed the entire AAS symposium.   Separate webcasts are there for various portions of the symposium, all of which are labeled "NASA GSFC Science and Exploration."   Former ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden spoke on the first morning and those webcasts may also be of particular interest.

GAO: "DOD Is At A Crossroads for Space"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Mar-2016 (Updated: 10-Mar-2016 06:49 AM)

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) said yesterday that "DOD is at a crossroads for space" and faces several major challenges as it tries to change its approach to space acquisitions.

In a statement for the record associated with a closed hearing held by the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, GAO's Cristina Chaplain enumerated significant cost increases and schedule delays in several DOD space programs.  The list includes:

  • Advanced EHF Communications satellite system (cost growth, 116 percent; first launch more than 3.5 years late)
  • Space Based Infrared System High (SBIRS) missile warning system (cost growth,almost 300 percent; first launch delayed 9 years); and
  • Global Positioning System ground system (cost growth, more than double; 6-year delay - "some DOD officials say even that is an optimistic timeline").

More broadly, however, Chaplain reported that "Right now, DOD is at a crossroads for space.  Fiscal constraints and increasing threats -- both environmental and adversarial -- to space systems have led DOD to consider alternatives for acquiring and launching space-based capabilities."  Those alternatives include disaggregation, hosted payloads, and procuring some capabilities, such as bandwidth and ground control, as services instead of developing and deploying them as government-owned systems, she said.

GAO did not make any recommendations, but highlighted three broad challenges the department faces in acquiring space systems:

  • Although DOD is conducting analyses of alternatives to support decisions about the future of space programs, there are gaps in cost and other data needed to weigh the pros and cons of changes to space systems;
  • Most changes being considered will impact ground systems and user equipment, but these systems continue to be troubled by management and development issues; and
  • Leadership for space acquisitions is still fragmented, which will likely hamper the implementation of new acquisition approaches.

Chaplain gave DOD credit for improvements in cost estimating practices, development testing, and oversight and leadership (such as the addition of the Defense Space Council), but considering all the ongoing problems, particularly with the GPS program, "it is clear that more needs to be done to improve the management of space acquisitions."   She noted that DOD recently designated the Secretary of the Air Force to serve as the Principal DOD Space Advisor, but said it is too early to tell how effective that position will be in meeting the challenges.

Events of Interest


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