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NASA Selects Four Astronauts to Fly Commercial Crew Missions

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Jul-2015 (Updated: 09-Jul-2015 07:46 PM)

NASA announced today the names of four astronauts it has selected to be the first to fly on the commercial crew systems under development by Boeing and SpaceX.   The three men and one woman all are spaceflight veterans.  NASA hopes Boeing's CST-100 and SpaceX's crew version of Dragon ("Crew Dragon") will be ready to send astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) by 2017.

The four NASA astronauts are:

  • Robert Behnken, who flew on two space shuttle missions:  STS-123 in 2008 and STS-130 in 2010.  He has a total of 29 days in space, including 37 hours on six spacewalks.
  • Eric Boe flew on STS-126 in 2008 and STS-133 in 2011.  He has more than 28 days in space.
  • Douglas Hurley flew on STS-127 in 2009 and STS-135 (the final shuttle mission) in 2011.  He has more than 28 days in space.
  • Sunita Williams, a veteran of two long-duration ISS missions (December 2006-June 2007 and July-November 2012) totaling 322 days in space.  On her second mission, she was the commander of the ISS.  She holds the record for total cumulative spacewalk time for a woman -- 50 hours 40 minutes -- over seven spacewalks.

They will train to fly on both commercial spacecraft, which are being developed under a public private partnership (PPP) between the companies and the government.  Boeing and SpaceX were selected for the final phase of the program, Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP), last fall.   Their contracts with NASA require them to fly at least one crewed flight test with at least one NASA astronaut to the ISS to verify that the system can launch, maneuver in orbit, and dock to the ISS.  To meet that requirement, the companies must provide the requisite training for the crews.

SpaceX founder, CEO and lead designer Elon Musk said last summer that SpaceX does not plan to have any astronauts of its own and only astronauts selected by NASA will fly to the ISS on Crew Dragon. (NASA is responsible for getting not only its own astronauts, but those of the non-Russian ISS partners -- Japan, Canada and Europe -- to and from the ISS under the Intergovernmental Agreement that governs the program.)  Boeing's John Elbon, vice president and general manager for space exploration, said in April that Boeing plans to fly one NASA astronaut and one Boeing test pilot on its test flight.

NASA continues to try to convince Congress to provide full funding for the commercial crew program so American companies can launch American astronauts on American systems from American soil by 2017.  The United States has not been able to launch anyone into space since it terminated the space shuttle program in 2011.  It pays Russia to launch crews to the ISS and bring them home.  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden repeatedly says that if Congress had fully funded the program in the past, the systems would be flying this year instead of 2017.

NASA is requesting $1.244 billion for commercial crew in the FY2016 budget now before Congress.  The House approved $1.000 billion and the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended $900 million, so they clearly are not yet convinced.  While there is broad agreement that the United States should be able to launch its own astronauts and should spend its money supporting the U.S., not Russian, economy, many in Congress remain skeptical that the market for sending people into space is sufficiently substantial to keep two companies in business without significant ongoing government support.  The idea is that the government should be a customer, but not the only customer, of these systems.  Some also argue that NASA should fund only one company, not two, but NASA insists that it needs competition to keep prices down and redundancy in case one of the systems suffers a major failure.

The failure of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket on June 28 may buttress NASA's redundancy argument.  How SpaceX recovers from the accident, and whether the government is expected to pay any of the recovery costs, may factor into the skeptics' argument.   The Falcon 9 was launching a cargo mission to the ISS that day -- no people were aboard -- when the rocket failed 139 seconds after launch.   SpaceX is still trying to determine what went wrong.

The SpaceX and Boeing capsules will allow NASA to send four people to the ISS at a time.  Added to three that can travel to the ISS on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft, the typical ISS crew complement could increase from six to seven. NASA emphasizes that the extra crew person can devote his or her time to research rather than maintenance tasks that currently occupy a large part of the crew's time.   Research is the raison d'être of the ISS, so additional crew time for research is considered very valuable.

A three-day conference in Boston this week organized by the American Astronautical Society (AAS) in cooperation with NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) focused on ISS research -- results from experiments already conducted and what's coming up in the future.  

NASA has consistently said for the past several years that it hopes commercial crew will be operational by 2017, but at the AAS conference on Tuesday, NASA ISS Program Manager Mike Suffredini said NASA looks forward to adding a fourth crew member to the ISS complement in 2018, not 2017, suggesting a delay. 

The ISS partners -- the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency -- are currently planning to operate the ISS through 2020, though NASA is trying to convince them to extend it to 2024.  How many NASA astronauts will have a chance to fly to ISS on the commercial crew vehicles is an open question.

New Horizons Probe Closes in on Pluto Showing Stunning Image

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Jul-2015 (Updated: 09-Jul-2015 12:27 AM)

NASA's New Horizons probe is just five days and a few hours away from its closest approach to Pluto after a nine-and-a-half year journey.  Once counted as the ninth planet in the solar system, Pluto was redesignated a "dwarf planet" by the International Astronautical Union (IAU) in 2006, months after New Horizons was launched, a decision that remains controversial in the planetary science community and with the public.

Principal Investigator Alan Stern often jokes that New Horizons is a mission characterized by delayed gratification because of the long journey to Pluto and the 9-hour two-way travel time for radio signals to get to and from the spacecraft.  It will make its closest approach to Pluto at 7:49:47 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) on July 14, but mission control at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (APL) in Laurel, MD will not get the confirming signal that the close approach took place until 9:02 pm EDT.  The spacecraft is designed to focus its resources on obtaining science data during the encounter rather than transmitting it back to Earth and only engineering data will be transmitted the day of the encounter, Stern said on Monday.

A glitch over the weekend generated concern about the spacecraft's health, but mission controllers quickly realized what went wrong and remedied it.  Essentially the main computer became overloaded and crashed trying to do too many things at once -- burning data to flash memory at the same time it was compressing data.  As programmed to do when such an anomaly occurs, the probe switched to a backup computer, which sent a signal to Earth that humans needed to intervene.  They did, reset the computer, and although a small amount of data collection did not take place, Stern described the loss as inconsequential.

The close approach is on July 14, but the 9-day "flyby sequence" already has begun and runs through July 16.  Science data from the close approach will be sent back to Earth beginning July 15 Stern explained.  The probe will pass Pluto at a distance of 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) above its surface.  Pluto and New Horizons are approximately 3 billion miles (4.9 billion kilometers) from Earth.  New Horizons was launched on January 19, 2006.

Plenty of data has been returned already, however, throughout the journey and especially during the past months as the probe nears the dwarf planet.  Pluto has five moons, the largest of which is Charon.  This image, courtesy of APL, was taken on July 7 by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on New Horizons and shows both bodies.


 New Horizons image of Pluto and Charon.  Photo Credit:  Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab New Horizons website.

NASA has a number of media briefings scheduled in the upcoming days, many of which will be broadcast on NASA TV.  There are daily live mission updates at 11:30 am EDT July 9-12 and then the following:

  • Monday, July 13:  Media briefing, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm EDT
  • Tuesday, July 14 -- day of closest encounter: 
    • Arrival at Pluto countdown, 7:30 - 8:00 am EDT
    • Media briefing, 8:00 - 9:00 am EDT
    • NASA TV Program "Phone Home" broadcast from mission control at APL, 8:30 - 9:15 pm EDT (signal should be received at 9:02 pm EDT)
    • Mission Briefing, 9:30 - 10:00 pm EDT
  • Wednesday, July 15: Media Briefing "Seeing Pluto in a New Light," 3:00-4:00 pm EDT

All times are subject to change.  NASA and APL will post updates on their websites.

SpaceX Still Looking for Theory to Fit Data in CRS-7 Falcon 9 Failure

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Jul-2015 (Updated: 07-Jul-2015 01:39 PM)

SpaceX is still trying to find a theory that fits the data transmitted back to Earth on June 28 as its Falcon 9 rocket failed 139 seconds after launch.   It hopes to have preliminary findings by the end of this week as it works to establish an extremely detailed timeline of events.

SpaceX founder, CEO and lead designer Elon Musk spoke at the 4th International Space Station R&D conference in Boston this morning.  The conference is organized by the American Astronautical Society (AAS) in cooperation with NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS).  It continues through Thursday.  He participated as part of an on-stage  "conversation" with NASA ISS Program Manager Mike Suffredini

Musk's message this morning repeated what the company said last week -- there was an overpressure event in the upper stage (or second stage) liquid oxygen tank, but apart from that, the data do not fit any known theories of what could have happened.

Calling the failure a "huge blow to SpaceX," he emphasized that "whatever happened is totally not simple or straightforward."   A "super detailed timeline" at the millisecond level is being generated to determine precisely what happened.  They are comparing video taken during the launch with data that was received.  The timeline must account for each millisecond between when a sensor took a reading, the data got encoded to a data packet, the packet was transmitted to the ground, and received on the ground.  Because the data do not fit any known theories so far, they are also considering whether there might be data measurement errors.

Suffredini asked whether there were any hints yet, but Musk declined to answer because there was media in the room and he did not want to say anything that "turns out to be a misunderstanding of the situation."

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket failed while attempting to send a Dragon capsule full of supplies and equipment to the International Space Station (ISS) under its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.  This was the seventh mission in that series -- CRS-7 or SpX-7.   It was the third failure of cargo missions to the ISS over 8 months:  an Orbital Sciences Corporation (now Orbital ATK) Antares launch of a Cygnus capsule on October 28, 2014; the Russian Soyuz launch of the Progress M-27M spacecraft on April 28, 2015; and this Falcon 9 launch of a Dragon capsule on June 28.

The conference is for the community that conducts research aboard the ISS and Suffredini reassured them that the ISS itself is healthy and still open for business.  However, he acknowledged that the failure has a "big impact to us," and while the ISS program "always assumed we'd lose one or two" cargo flights, "never in my wildest dreams" did he think three would fail in such a short period of time.

Nonetheless, one must play the hand that is dealt, he continued, and the program is resilient.  The Russians now have launched the next in the Progress series, Progress M-28M, which successfully docked with the ISS on Sunday.  Japan's HTV cargo vehicle is being readied for launch on August 16.  Suffredini said NASA did make changes to the supplies that HTV will deliver because of the CRS-7 failure, but the research component is relatively unchanged.  Orbital ATK plans to launch a Cygnus spacecraft on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in December while updating its Antares rocket with a different engine.

Suffredini conveyed optimism and enthusiasm for the potential of the ISS for research that will benefit people on Earth, calling it the "next dot com" that is worthy of the challenges it presents.

In a panel discussion following the Suffredini-Musk conversation, Bill Gerstenmaier,  NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, similarly praised the potential of ISS, but also stressed a theme he often expresses these days -- that ISS has a finite lifetime and the key question is how to prepare for the next step since he does not anticipate that the U.S. government, at least, will build another ISS.

Musk: Preliminary Conclusion Expected by End of Week

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Jul-2015 (Updated: 05-Jul-2015 11:00 PM)

SpaceX founder, CEO and lead designer Elon Musk said tonight that he expects preliminary conclusions about the cause of the June 28 Falcon 9 failure by the end of the week.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket failed 139 seconds into flight last Sunday, carrying a Dragon spacecraft full of supplies for the International Space Station (ISS).  It was the company's seventh operational Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission under contract to NASA -- SpaceX CRS-7 or SpX-7.  The first six, and an initial demonstration flight, were all successful.

Musk tweeted this evening that he expects preliminary conclusions by the end of the week.

The failure came after 18 consecutive Falcon 9 mission successes. 

That would be about two weeks to determine the cause and inform customers and the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), which facilitates and regulates the commercial space launch industry.  Sunday's launch was authorized pursuant to FAA's regulations.  Under those provisions, the company leads the failure investigation with oversight by FAA. 

SpaceX has a long list of government and commercial customers who are awaiting word on the launch schedule impact of the failure.

SpaceX finally won certification from the Air Force in May to compete for national security launches after a lengthy process.  How this failure will affect its competitiveness with the United Launch Alliance (ULA), which has been the monopoly provider of those services since 2006, or SpaceX's ongoing effort to develop a crew version of its Dragon capsule as part of NASA's commercial crew program, is yet to be seen.  It may depend in large measure on how long it takes to rectify the problem and restore confidence in the Falcon 9 rocket.

Pluto Mission to Resume Normal Operations on July 7

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Jul-2015 (Updated: 05-Jul-2015 10:28 PM)

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft that is just days away from its closest approach to Pluto is expected to resume normal operations on July 7 after an anomaly yesterday.  The spacecraft has been enroute to Pluto since January 2006 and will get its best view of the dwarf planet as it flies past on July 14.

NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green said in a statement posted on the New Horizons website this evening (Eastern Daylight Time--EDT) that "we're on the verge of returning to normal operations and going for the gold."

Mission managers announced yesterday (July 4) that the probe had stopped communicating with Earth at 1:34 pm EDT and although communications were restored at 3:15 pm EDT, it was with the probe's backup computer.   Under those circumstances systems data could be transmitted back to Earth to help diagnose the problem, but planned science observations could not be undertaken. 

The spacecraft is 3 billion miles (4.9 billion kilometers) from Earth and it takes 9 hours for radio signals to make the two-way trip.

Tonight's statement provided few details, saying that it was not a hardware or software error, but a "hard to detect timing flaw in the spacecraft command sequence that occurred during an operation to prepare" for the July 14 flyby.  No similar events are planned for the remainder of the journey to Pluto.

The lost science observations during this period are not considered significant by the mission's principal investigator, Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI).  He said the loss of the data will not "change an A-plus even into an A."


What's Happening in Space Policy July 6-10, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Jul-2015 (Updated: 05-Jul-2015 12:04 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of July 6-10, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week (starting on Tuesday).

During the Week

NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto went into safe mode yesterday, just 10 days away from its closest encounter with Pluto after a nearly 10 year journey.  Keeping up to date on efforts to remedy that situation and on SpaceX's progress in determining the cause of its Falcon 9 failure on June 28 certainly will be key topics to follow this week.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 was taking supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) crew and the good news is that a Russian Progress cargo spacecraft safely docked very early this morning Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).  Still, ensuring effective operations on ISS to achieve the scientific research that is its raison d'être is a hot topic that will be addressed at a major conference in Boston and on Capitol Hill this week.

From Tuesday-Thursday, the American Astronautical Society (AAS) will hold its fourth annual conference on ISS R&D in collaboration with NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS).  This year's conference is in Boston. (A pre-conference user workshop featuring NASA astronaut Cady Coleman and an opening reception will be held tomorrow). 

The  morning sessions each day will be webcast.   Of the conference's many sessions, those likely of most interest to the policy community that will be webcast are the following:

  • Tuesday --
    • Mike Suffredini, NASA ISS Program Manager  (8:15-8:30 am ET)
    • Elon Musk, SpaceX founder, CEO and Lead Designer (8:30 - 9:30 am ET)
    • Panel with Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA AA for Human Exploration and Operations; Mark Sirangelo, Sierra Nevada Space Systems Corporate Vice President; Rob Ferl, University of Florida Director of Interdisciplinary Center for Biotechnology Research; and Mary Lynne Dittmar, CASIS Senior Policy Advisor, moderator  (9:45 - 11:00 am ET)
  • Wednesday --
    • Panel with Jeff Bingham, former Senate staffer; Sam Scimemi, NASA ISS Program Director; John Shannon, Boeing ISS Program Manager; Frank Culbertson, Orbital ATK Space Systems Group President; Jeff Manber, NanoRacks Managing Director; and Janice Hess, Teledyne Brown Engineering Segment, President, Engineered Systems (9:30-11:00 am ET)
  • Thursday --
    • Panel with Dava Newman, NASA Deputy Administrator; Ellen Stofan, NASA Chief Scientist; David Miller, NASA Chief Technologist; and Mary Lynne Dittmar, CASIS Senior Policy Advisor, moderator (8:15-9:45 am ET)

On Friday, action shifts to Washington where the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee will hold a hearing at 9:00 am ET on "International Space Station:  Addressing Operational Challenges."  Witnesses include Gerstenmaier, Boeing's John Elbon, NASA Inspector General Paul Martin, and GAO's Shelby Oakley.

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

Tuesday-Thursday, July 7-9  (with pre-conference activities on Monday, July 6)

Friday, July 10



Russian Cargo Ship Arrives at ISS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Jul-2015 (Updated: 05-Jul-2015 03:49 AM)

Russia's Progress M-28M robotic cargo spacecraft docked with the International Space Station at 3:11 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) this morning (July 5), a little over two days after it was launched early Friday morning EDT.

The cargo vehicle, called Progress 60 or 60P by NASA, is delivering 1,940 pounds of propellant, 106 pounds of water, 106 pounds of oxygen, and 3,133 pounds of food, parts, supplies and experimental hardware.

NASA calls it 60P because it is the 60th Progress mission launched to support ISS, an indication of how often these spacecraft take supplies to the ISS crew.  They are so routine that they often get little notice, but the previous Russian flight, Progress M-27M, failed.  Two U.S. cargo spacecraft also failed over the past eight months:  Orbital Sciences Corporation's (now Orbital ATK) Orb-3 mission on October 28, 2014 and SpaceX's CRS-7 last Sunday (June 28). 

Although there were four successful cargo flights over that 8-month span (two Russian, two SpaceX) and NASA said the crew has plenty of supplies through October, the failure of three of the four ISS cargo systems in such a short period of time was worrying.  

The fourth system is Japan's HTV and the fifth in that series, HTV-5, is scheduled for launch next month.

The successful docking gives everyone a sigh of relief.   One of the crew exclaimed that it was like "Christmas in July."

SpaceX is still trying to determine what went wrong 139 seconds into the launch of its seventh operational Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-7) mission to ISS on June 28.  Orbital ATK found that a problem with the NK33/AJ26 engine of its Antares rocket caused the Orb-3 failure last October and is switching to a completely different engine (RD-181).  While waiting for the re-engined Antares to enter service in the first quarter of 2016, it will launch its next Cygnus cargo craft on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket later this year.

NASA Establishes Anomaly Board to Diagnose Problem on Pluto Mission

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Jul-2015 (Updated: 04-Jul-2015 11:55 PM)

After nearly 10 years in space and just 10 days away from its closest approach to Pluto, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft experienced an anomaly today (July 4).   NASA has already established a board to determine what went wrong and how to fix it in such a short period of time.

New Horizons was launched on January 19, 2006 for its long journey to Pluto, once the ninth planet in the solar system and later redesignated as a "dwarf planet."   Its change of status did not diminish interest in learning more about it and its five moons.

In the past several months, New Horizons has been able to obtain data "Better Than Hubble" as it closes in on Pluto.  While the Hubble Space Telescope can see a lot from its perch in earth orbit, New Horizons now is able to see Pluto much more clearly.   Closest approach will be on July 14.

That is if it is functioning properly, of course.  This evening (Eastern Daylight Time) NASA announced the spacecraft "experienced an anomaly this afternoon" and went into safe mode.  Mission control at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, MD lost contact at 1:54 pm EDT, but regained it after the spacecraft automatically switched to a backup computer as it is programmed to do.  Contact was reestablished at 3:15 pm EDT and the spacecraft is transmitting data NASA hopes will enable mission scientists and engineers to determine what went wrong, fix it, and get the mission back to its original flight plan.

The spacecraft is 3 billion miles (4.9 billion kilometers) from Earth, which at the speed of light means that it takes 9 hours for a round-trip communications session. NASA says "full recovery is expected to take from one to several days" during which time the spacecraft will not be able to collect science data.

Russian Progress Cargo Craft Safely Enroute to ISS - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Jul-2015 (Updated: 05-Jul-2015 03:51 AM)

UPDATE, JULY 5, 2015:   Progress M-28M successfully docked with the ISS this morning.

ORIGINAL STORY, JULY 3, 2015: Russia's Progress M-28M robotic cargo spacecraft lifted off on time at 12:55:48 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) this morning (July 3) and is successfully on its way to the International Space Station (ISS).  The successful launch is good news, though with two cargo launch failures in the past 8 months, many are waiting for docking on Sunday before breathing a sign of relief.

The last Progress launch, Progress M-27M on April 28, failed due to a "design peculiarity" that affected third stage separation between the Soyuz rocket and the Progress spacecraft.  The spacecraft reached orbit, but the wrong orbit, and was spinning. It reentered over the Pacific Ocean on May 7.

That was just over two months ago, so this is a quick return-to-flight.  The Russians used a different version of the Soyuz rocket today, a Soyuz-U instead of a Soyuz 2.1a. 

The Progress M-27M failure was the middle of three failed cargo flights to the ISS over 8 months.  First was the October 28, 2014 failure of Orbital Sciences Corporation's (now Orbital ATK) Orb-3 launch (Antares/Cygnus), then Progress M-27M (Soyuz/Progress), and most recently the SpaceX CRS-7 failure (Falcon 9/Dragon) on Sunday, June 28.  

There were four successful cargo missions in between -- Progress M-25M on October 29, 2014; SpaceX CRS-5 on January 10, 2015; Progress M-26M on February 17, 2015; and SpaceX CRS-6 on April 14 -- but the cadence of missions demonstrates the need for constant resupply of the crew.  Another cargo mission, Japan's HTV-5, is scheduled for August 16 EDT.

Progress M-28M is taking about 3 tons of supplies to the crew, including fuel needed to periodically boost the ISS orbit, oxygen, water, food and other items.  The spacecraft reached orbit and deployed its solar panels and navigation antenna about 9 minutes after liftoff.  It is on a 34-orbit rendezvous trajectory with docking set for 3:13 am EDT on Sunday morning, July 5.  NASA TV coverage of docking will begin at 2:30 am EDT.  NASA refers to this as Progress 60 or 60P because it is the 60th Progress launched to the ISS.  Progress has been in use since 1977, supporting the Soviet/Russian space stations Salyut 6, Salyut 7 and Mir before ISS.

Three men are aboard the ISS right now:  NASA's Scott Kelly and Russia's Gennady Padalka and Mikhail Kornienko.  Usually there are six people on board, but they are in the middle of a crew changeover, waiting for three colleagues to arrive later this month.

There are several Soyuz rocket variants and the one used for launching crews is the Soyuz FG.   The next crew launch, Soyuz TMA-17M, is scheduled for 5:02 pm July 22 EDT, although NASA apparently wants more details about the Progress M-27M failure before signing off.  NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, Bill Gerstenmaier, indicated on Sunday at a press conference following the SpaceX failure that NASA wants to "fully understand" the April 28 Progress incident and for the Flight Readiness Review to take place before committing to the TMA-17M launch date.  The crew includes Kjell Lindgren from NASA, Kimiya Yui from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and Oleg Kononenko from Roscosmos.

The successful launch this morning is one step towards restoring confidence in the Russian systems.   Russia is the only ISS partner capable of launching people to the space station.  The United States has not been able to launch crews since it discontinued the space shuttle program in 2011.  It hopes to have two commercial crew systems in place by 2017 -- the crew version of SpaceX's Dragon and Boeing's CST-100.  How Sunday's failure of the cargo version of Dragon will affect SpaceX's commercial crew schedule will not be known until it determines and fixes the problem.


Shelton Versus McCain on Import of SpaceX Failure

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Jul-2015 (Updated: 02-Jul-2015 04:55 PM)

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), and Gen. William Shelton (Ret.) view the June 28 SpaceX launch failure very differently.   In a McCain statement and a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Shelton, the two take opposite positions on what should be learned from the failure in terms of national security space launches and how long Russian RD-180 engines are needed by the U.S. military to have assured access to space.

The congressional push to end reliance on RD-180s began while Shelton was still on active duty and Commander of Air Force Space Command and he and McCain differed on these issues all along.  At the last congressional hearing on the topic during Shelton's tenure, in July 2014, they were fully were on display.  Apparently nothing has changed.

Gen. William Shelton while on active duty.  He
is now retired from the Air Force.
(Photo credit:  U.S. Air Force /Duncan Wood)

Ending reliance on RD-180s, which are used for the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket to launch national security satellites, and allowing SpaceX to compete with ULA for those launches, have become inextricably entwined.  Sunday's SpaceX launch failure adds fuel to the debate.

At the July 2014 hearing, Shelton agreed that it is time to build an American alternative to the RD-180, though he did not hide his admiration for the technical performance of the RD-180-powered Atlas V.  Atlas V has a 100 percent success rate so far.  He worried that it not be phased out before an American alternative is fully ready to replace it to ensure that ULA can be competitive with SpaceX later this decade.   McCain, however, insinuated that Shelton was favoring ULA and was against SpaceX.  He asserted that he did not like the Air Force's "block buy" contract with ULA for 36 rocket engine cores signed in 2013 and reminded everyone of the improprieties he uncovered in an aerial tanker lease deal with Boeing when "people went to jail and people got fired."  ULA is a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).  Photo credit:  McCain Senate website.

Shelton's successor as Air Force Space Command commander, Gen. John Hyten, has testified a number of times since then with essentially the same message -- yes, a new American-made engine should replace the RD-180, but make sure the new engine (and launch vehicle, if needed) is fully functional before ending use of the RD-180s.  Hyten and higher level DOD officials, including Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, are currently trying to get Congress to relax a requirement in last year's National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that RD-180 use end by 2019.

Meanwhile, SpaceX was certified at the end of May to compete with ULA for national security launches.  At the time, it had 18 consecutive Falcon 9 launch successes.   The question is how important Sunday's Falcon 9 failure is to SpaceX's ability to compete and, on a larger scale, what it might mean later this decade when Atlas V's no longer are in service because of the RD-180 ban if an alternative is not ready.  Critics argue SpaceX will become a monopoly supplier with a less reliable rocket.  ULA has been the monopoly provider of national security launches since it was formed in 2006.  It launches Atlas V and Delta IV, but Delta IV is very expensive -- ULA puts the price at $400 million per launch -- so is not cost competitive with SpaceX, the argument goes.  Thus SpaceX would win all the competitions in that time frame and become a monopoly itself..

In his Wall Street Journal op-ed on June 29, the day after the SpaceX failure, Shelton, now retired, made his points again.  Agreeing that it is "smart policy" to build a U.S. alternative to the RD-180, he argued that "an abrupt ban is not smart."   The House-passed FY2016 NDAA (H.R. 1735) provides flexibility as to how long the RD-180 may be used, as requested by the Air Force.  Shelton wants Congress to adopt that position during the conference between the House and Senate on the final version of the FY2016 NDAA.  The Senate version, written by McCain and his SASC colleagues, insists on 2019 as required by current law.

In a statement (reproduced below), McCain called Sunday's launch failure "a minor setback" that "will in no way impede the future success of SpaceX and its ability to support U.S. national security space missions."   As for those who try to "leverage" the failure to argue for more RD-180s than the nine allowed in the Senate bill, this "mishap in no way diminishes the urgency of ridding ourselves" of RD-180s.  He often states that paying Russia for the engines funds Russian President Vladimir Putin and his "cronies."   He vowed that "With Russian troops still occupying Ukraine and killing its citizens, I will continue to oppose" the House language.

The House and Senate began appointing conferees for the NDAA before Congress recessed for the July 4 holiday.  How long it will take for them to reach agreement on this and other issues is unknown.  President Obama has threatened to veto the bill for a variety of reasons.  His Statement of Administration Policy on the Senate bill (S. 1376) criticized several of the launch-related provisions including insistence on 2019 for ending use of RD-180s.

Sen. McCain's statement is not published on his website yet.  The text was provided to by his press officer, Julie Tarallo, via email and reads as follows:

I will be closely monitoring the outcome of the pending investigation into this launch failure, which comes after seven successful Falcon 9 launches to the International Space Station.
Any time we have a launch failure is a bad day for the United States space program. But our nation did not go to space because it was easy, but because it was hard. Space is still hard, and challenges like these serve as a reminder that space launch remains a very high-risk endeavor requiring unwavering perseverance and utmost dedication among the select few who strive to one day make it commonplace, reliable, and affordable. I am confident that the that this minor setback will in no way impede the future success of SpaceX and its ability to support U.S. national security space missions.
There will be those that will seek to leverage this incident to argue for deepening America’s dependence on Russian rocket engines for national security space launches. This mishap in no way diminishes the urgency of ridding ourselves of the Russian RD-180 rocket engine. The Department of Defense will continue to have two launch providers until at least 2018, if not later. If that competitive environment were placed at risk in the coming years, I am confident the Congress could revisit this issue in order to mitigate any national security impacts.
With Russian troops still occupying Ukraine and killing its citizens, I will continue to oppose language currently in the House defense authorization bill, which guarantees that $300 million of taxpayer money will go to Vladimir Putin, his cronies, and the Russian military industrial base.

Editor's Note:  The statement refers to seven successful Falcon 9 flights to the ISS, a count that must include the C2+ demonstration flight in 2012 plus the six operational cargo missions prior to Sunday's attempt.

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