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What's Happening in Space Policy October 27 - November 7, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Oct-2014 (Updated: 26-Oct-2014 11:01 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events coming up in the next TWO weeks, October 27-November 7, 2014, and any insight we can offer about them.   Congress returns on November 12.

During the Weeks

This issue covers the next TWO weeks, and certainly the most interesting event in that time period is November 4 -- election day in the United States.   More on that in our next issue, but put it on your calendar and GET OUT AND VOTE!

In the nearer term, Orbital Sciences Corporation will launch its next cargo mission, Orb-3, to the International Space Station tomorrow (October 27) from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, VA.   The launch at 6:45 pm ET may be visible along the east coast (weather permitting).  Orbital has a map showing where to look on its website.  NASA TV will provide coverage beginning at 5:45 pm ET.  A post-launch press conference is scheduled for approximately 90 minutes after launch.

The American Astronautical Society (AAS) will hold its annual Wernher von Braun symposium in Huntsville, AL from October 27-30 (the 27th is a welcome reception and the 30th is a tour of the United Launch Alliance production facility in nearby Decatur, AL).  Three "Washington Perspectives" are on the schedule:  on October 28 by Cristina Chaplain of the Government Accountability Office; and on October 29 by Dick Obermann, minority staff director of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, at 8:00 am Central Time, and by Kate Kronmiller of Orbital Sciences Corporation at noon CT.  Lots of other very interesting discussions on tap as well.  There is no indication on the agenda if any of the event will be webcast.

On November 6, Mark Sirangelo of Sierra Nevada's Space Systems Division will talk to the Washington Space Business Roundtable.  Between Sierra Nevada's lawsuit over NASA's award of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contracts to Boeing and SpaceX (and not Sierra Nevada), and the company's non-NASA plans for its Dream Chaser spacecraft, it should be particularly interesting.

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

Monday, October 27

  • Orb-3 cargo launch to ISS, Wallops Island, VA, 6:45 pm ET (NASA TV coverage begins 5:45 pm ET), post-launch press conference approximately 90 minutes after launch.

Monday-Thursday, October 27-30

Tuesday-Thursday, October 28-29

Wednesday, October 29

Monday, November 3

Monday-Tuesday, November 3-4

Tuesday, November 4

Wednesday-Thursday, November 5-6

Thursday, November 6

Elon Musk: Lipstick or a Colony on Mars?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Oct-2014 (Updated: 24-Oct-2014 11:10 PM)

In a wide-ranging “one-on-one” interview today at MIT, Elon Musk easily transitioned from technical to philosophical discussions about rockets, Mars exploration, Tesla cars, and hyperloops.  From asking rhetorically whether buying lipstick is more important than colonizing Mars, to insisting that bringing Mars resources back to Earth is unrealistic even if it was cocaine, it was an entertaining exchange.

Musk’s interview by MIT aeronautics and astronautics department head Jaime Perarie was part of the department’s three-day centennial celebration that featured lectures and panel discussions by illustrious aerospace professionals, including many astronauts and MIT professor Dava Newman, recently nominated to be NASA Deputy Administrator.

Musk’s hour-and-a-half long session was split roughly 50-50 between questions from Perarie and from audience members, many of them students.  He made many quotable comments, including the fact that SpaceX will try to land a Falcon 9 first stage on a floating platform as soon as the next flight, but at least sometime in the next 12 months, with the goal of reflying that stage as a demonstration of reusability.

Among the highlights of the space-related portions of the session are the following:

Reusability

  • SpaceX plans to land a Falcon 9 first stage on a floating platform within the next 12 months, perhaps on the next flight.   Musk said they have soft-landed the Falcon 9 first stage in the ocean twice: “it sat there for several seconds, tipped over and exploded.”  The next step is to land it on a floating platform being built in Louisiana.   SpaceX may attempt it on the next Falcon 9 launch to the International Space Station (ISS) – currently scheduled for December 9 – but Musk said there was at best a 50 percent chance of success.  Nonetheless, he added, there are 12 more Falcon 9 flights in the next 12 months and he thinks there’s an 80-90 percent chance of success over that period of time and that first stage will refly.  “We’re close” to demonstrating reusability, he said.
  • He has no plans for reusing the Falcon 9 second stage, however.  For full reusability, he is focusing on next generation vehicles using liquid methane and oxygen – his Raptor design – which will be reusable all the way to Mars.  He expects test flights of such a system in 5-6 years.

Propulsive Landing

  • The penalty for propulsive landing is low, he said.  One can use less mass if a parachute or water landing is employed, but that negatively impacts reusability.   The key is propulsive landing with precision.   That is needed to land on the Moon or Mars, too.
  • In a more humorous moment, he commented that in science fiction aliens land on Earth propulsively, not by splashing down in the ocean or with parachutes.  “Would be weird to see them landing in the ocean,” he remarked with a smile.

Why SpaceX?

  • Asked if it was true that he created SpaceX because he, himself, wants to fly in space, Musk said no, if that was all he wanted he could buy a ticket on Russia’s Soyuz as others have done.  He said that before he started SpaceX he wanted to send a small greenhouse to Mars to get people excited about sending people to Mars in an effort to increase NASA’s budget.  But he concluded what was really needed was better rockets so it was not a matter of sending people to Mars once and never doing it again.  His goal is to advance rocket technology to send many people to Mars so a self-sustaining colony can be established.

Why Colonize Mars?

  • People focus on the problems here on Earth, he said, but some small amount of money – less than one percent of our resources -- should be spent on establishing colonies on Mars and making humanity a multi-planet species.   It’s a matter of priorities, he continued.  It is less important than health care, for example, but more important than cosmetics.  “I’m in favor of cosmetics … but lipstick or a colony on Mars?” he asked with a grin, followed by laughter from the audience.

International Cooperation or Competition?

  • Asked if colonies on Mars will be international or American, Musk said he hopes there will be many colonies on Mars.   He favors competition, not cooperation.  If governments all must work “in lockstep” as they do with the International Space Station, he said, “things do not go fast.”  Instead, he favors “positive” competition like in the Olympics where people compete “hard” but the net result is good.

Space Resources Will be Used in Space Not on Earth

  • Musk made clear that he thinks that space resources will be used in space, not brought back to Earth.  “Even if you had crack cocaine in pre-packaged pallets” on Mars, it would not make sense to bring it back to Earth, he said.

One Way Trips to Mars

  • Musk humorously asked if that meant “one way and you die” or “one way and you’re resupplied,” but more seriously commented that spaceships are expensive and they must be returned to Earth regardless of whether the people want to come back.
  • As for MarsOne’s concept of using SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rockets, Musk said that if they want to buy them, he will sell them, but he doesn’t think they have the money for even one and, in any case, the Dragon, with an interior volume of an SUV, is not large enough to accommodate people for such long trips.  He recommends waiting for next generation technology.

NASA

  • “I’m a huge fan of NASA,” Musk said.  He is impressed with what the agency is doing in human spaceflight today considering all the constraints it must work under.  If NASA continues to expand on its support of competitive commercial space, that will have the most positive impact on the future of space development, in his view.
  • Asked what would happen to his plans if NASA reached Mars using its Space Launch System (SLS) before SpaceX gets there, Musk said that would be great, but as far as he knows, he is the only one trying to develop systems to send lots of people to Mars to establish a colony there.  He is focused on developing better rocket technology.   It would be “cool” to send one mission to Mars, but what will change humanity is sending large numbers of people.  “I don’t see anyone” out there other than SpaceX trying to do that; “not to say we’ll be successful, but I don’t see anyone else trying.”

Other topics included space elevators (he’s skeptical, but happy to be proved wrong), artificial intelligence (which he referred to as “summoning a demon”), hyperloop systems (he offered technical advice to a student who tried to build one as a senior project), and his Tesla cars.  The entire session is available on MIT’s website.

Google Executive Alan Eustace Breaks Baumgartner's Parachute Record

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Oct-2014 (Updated: 24-Oct-2014 06:22 PM)

Google executive Alan Eustace set a new skydiving altitude record today, beating a record set just two years ago by Felix Baumgartner.  Without the capsule or the publicity associated with Baumgartner's dive, Eustace ascended to 135,890 feet according to the New York Times.

Baumgartner set his altitude record of 127,852 feet in October 2012 amid great fanfare sponsored by Red Bull.  He rode inside a capsule up to the release altitude, transmitting live audio and video until he stepped out of the capsule for his parachute descent to Earth.

Like Baumgarnter, Eustace wore a specially designed "spacesuit" for his trip into the stratosphere.  Eustace's suit, developed by a team led by Paragon Space Development Corporation, is dubbed "StratEx" for Stratosphere Explorer.  Protected only by the suit, Eustace "dangled" under the balloon for the two-hour ascent, then released himself and returned to land in just 15 minutes, breaking the sound barrier as he travelled up to 822 miles per hour according to the New York Times account.  He landed 70 miles from his origination point near Roswell, NM.

The 57-year old Eustace chose to conduct his jump in secrecy and even declined support from his employer so it would not become a marketing effort according to the NYTimes story.  He is Google's Senior Vice President, Knowledge.

Alan Eustace.  Photo Credit:  Google Website

 

China Launches Lunar Sample Return Test - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Oct-2014 (Updated: 30-Oct-2014 03:19 PM)

UPDATE:  This article is updated throughout. 

China's Xinhua news service confirmed that a spacecraft to test technologies for returning a lunar sample to Earth was launched this afternoon, October 23 Eastern Daylight Time (Friday, October 24, local time in China).

Xinhua tweeted (@XHNews) at approximately 2:00 pm EDT: "#BREAKING  China launches an experimental return spacecraft that will orbit the moon and return to Earth."

Approximately one hour later, Xinhua issued another tweet that the spacecraft had entered the expected orbit and provided a photo of the launch.

Launch of lunar sample return test spacecraft as precursor to Chang'e-5, October 24, 2014 local time in China (October 23 Eastern Daylight Time).
Photo credit:  Xinhua

Chinese English language news sources have reported on the upcoming launch for quite some time, but provided few details.  Unofficial Chinese space program analysts and the amateur radio community have provided more information.  An amateur radio payload, 4M-LXS, built by LuxSpace, is included on the spacecraft.  AMSAT-UK reports that the first telemetry from the JT65B beacon on the satellite was received in Brazil at 19:18 GMT (3:18 pm EDT).  It is encouraging radio amateurs to receive and report on the signals.

The launch took place from China's Xichang Satellite Launch Center using a Long March 3C rocket.  Jonathan McDowell of Jonathan's Space Report tweeted (@planet4589) late on Thursday EDT that the launch had taken place at 18:00 GMT (2:00 pm October 23 EDT, or 2:00 am October 24 Beijing time) into a 209 x 413000 kilometer circumlunar trajectory.

This mission is a precursor to the Chang'e-5 spacecraft scheduled for launch in 2017.  This precursor mission is expected to last 196 hours and return to land on Earth.  Xinhua revealed shortly after launch that the intended landing site is in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

China has not provided an official designation for the mission.  Even the news items issued by Xinhua in the hours after the launch do not refer to the spacecraft by name, saying only that it is a precursor to Chang'e-5.   Some analysts of the Chinese space program refer to it as Chang'e-5-T1, but the origin of that designation is unclear.  McDowell reports that the name is "Chang'e wu hao feixing shiyan qi" or CE-5 Flight Test Device.

Note:  an updated link to Jonathan McDowell's report with the name of the mission has been added.

October 27 Confirmed as Orb-3 Launch Date

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Oct-2014 (Updated: 22-Oct-2014 06:56 PM)

NASA and Orbital Sciences Corporation have confirmed the October 27, 2014 launch date for Orbital's Orb-3 cargo mission to the International Space Station  (ISS).  The launch date was dependent on whether a tracking station on Bermuda withstood Hurricane Gonzalo.   Inspectors have determined it will be ready for the launch next week.

This is Orbital's third operational cargo mission to the ISS under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.  Orbital launches its Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on the coast of Virginia. The Bermuda tracking station is required for such launches.

Launch is scheduled for 6:45 pm Eastern Daylight Time on October 27.

Orbital announced that it has named this Cygnus spacecraft after the late Deke Slayton.  Slayton was one of first seven astronauts selected for America's human spaceflight program in 1959 -- the Mercury 7 -- but an irregular heartbeat kept him grounded until he was cleared to fly the very last Apollo mission --  the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. After leaving NASA, he became one of the early commercial space launch entrepreneurs, heading a company named Space Services that developed the Conestoga 1 rocket, which in 1982 because the first privately funded rocket to reach space.

Top House Committee Republicans Press NASA for Answers on SLS, Orion, CCtCAP

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Oct-2014 (Updated: 22-Oct-2014 03:15 PM)

The chairmen of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) committee and its Space Subcommittee sent a letter to NASA yesterday (October 21) asking the agency to respond to previous inquiries from the committee regarding the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion, the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contracts and other matters to which NASA has not yet replied.

In yesterday's letter, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Steve Palazzo (R-MS) repeated their requests for updated information on NASA's plans for launching SLS and Orion.  Their original letter on August 27 stemmed from NASA's announcement that day that it was committing to a November 2018 launch readiness date for SLS, almost a year longer than expected.  That letter requested a response by September 10, 2014, but the committee said it still has not received answers to its questions.

As for CCtCAP, yesterday's letter notes that Space Subcommittee staff "reached out" to NASA the day the CCtCAP decision was announced, requesting a briefing and the source selection statement.  The letter explains that the committee understood it could not have such a briefing until after NASA briefed the offerors, but those briefings are now completed.  Although Sierra Nevada Corporation is protesting the awards to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the committee's letter notes that the statute governing the bid protest process does not authorize "the withholding of any document or information from Congress or an executive agency."  In addition, the committee states that NASA is proceeding with the contracts despite the protest and details of the source selection document were released to the press.  "We assume the Administration will submit a budget proposal to Congress in the next few months that will include funding for the CCtCAP program," the letter continues, and Congress's "ability to evaluate this budget request may be challenged by NASA's uncooperative position."

The letter also presses NASA to provide previously requested data on NASA's treatment of potential termination liability obligations across the agency.

This letter asks for a NASA response by October 28, 2014.

China Readies Lunar Sample Return Test Flight With Amateur Radio Passenger

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Oct-2014 (Updated: 22-Oct-2014 11:16 AM)

China will launch a robotic spacecraft to fly around the Moon and return to Earth as early as tomorrow as a test related to its goal of returning a lunar sample later in the decade.  China's Xinhua news service reports today that the launch will take place between Friday and Sunday.  The spacecraft will carry an amateur radio payload and AMSAT-UK says the launch is scheduled for tomorrow, Thursday, October 23, at 18:00 GMT, which is 2:00 am Friday, October 24, local time in China.  (Or 2:00 pm Thursday Eastern Daylight Time).

China has indicated for quite some time that it plans to launch this test mission, but has provided few details, including its name.  Most of the public information comes from the amateur radio community, especially the AMSAT-UK website.  The 14-kilogram battery-powered amateur radio payload is built by LuxSpace, a Luxembourg company that is part of OHB.  The payload, 4M-LXS, honors the late Manfred Luchs, OHB's founder, where "4M" refers to Manfred Memorial Moon Mission.  AMSAT-UK reports that the entire mission is expected to last 196 hours.  

The spacecraft was delivered to the Xichang launch site in August.  The planned landing site has not been specified.   Xinhua said today only that the mission involves "entering, exiting, and re-entering the Earth's atmosphere and landing on the Earth" and demonstrating the spacecraft can be slowed "so it can land safely at a predetermined location."  China has not attempted atmospheric reentry as such speeds before.

China's lunar probes to date have been named Chang'e after China's mythological goddess of the Moon.  Chang'e-1 (2007) and Chang'e-2 (2010) were lunar orbiters (and Chang'e-2 was later redirected to fly past the asteroid Toutatis, which it did successfully in 2012).  Chang'e-3 landed on the Moon last year and delivered the Yutu (Jade Rabbit) rover, which was only a partial success.  

Since China has not officially announced the name of this upcoming test mission, it is referred to variously by observers of the Chinese space program.  Perhaps "Chang'e-5 precursor" is the best designation for now.  Chang'e-5 itself is scheduled for launch in 2017 from China's new Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island.  (Chang'e-4 was originally described as a back-up for Chang'e-3, but more recent Chinese media reports have said it would be adapted to verify technologies for Chang'e-5.  An August 2014 CCTV report said Chang'e-4 would be launched in 2015, however, so apparently that is not the name of this upcoming test mission.)

Court Declines SNC's Motion to Overrule NASA on CCtCAP Authorization to Proceed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Oct-2014 (Updated: 21-Oct-2014 05:29 PM)

The U.S. Court of Federal Claims issued a verbal decision today declining to overrule NASA on its decision to allow SpaceX and Boeing to proceed in executing the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contracts.  Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) is suing the government over NASA's October 9 decision to rescind a previously issued stop-work order while SNC's protest of the contract awards is under consideration by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

In a terse statement, Judge Marilyn Blank Horn said:

"On October 21, 2014, the court held a hearing in the above captioned protest.  Given the urgency to resolve the override issue, the court provided the parties with a verbal decision declining to overrule the override."

"Override" refers to NASA overriding a provision of the Competition in Contracting Act (CICA) under which work on a contract ordinarily would cease while a protest of the contract award is pending.   NASA initially issued a stop-work order to Boeing and SpaceX in compliance with CICA after SNC filed its protest with GAO.   On October 9, however, it rescinded that order, overriding the CICA requirement, on the basis that its statutory authority allowed it to avoid serious adverse consequences.

SNC's suit before this court is that NASA did not demonstrate those serious adverse consequences in overriding the CICA requirements and the override was "illegal and void."

GAO has until January 5, 2015 to rule on SNC's underlying protest of the contract awards.  At the time it filed the protest, SNC said it found "serious questions and inconsistencies in the source selection process."

Boeing, SpaceX and SNC are all being funded under the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) phase of the commercial crew program.  On September 16,  NASA selected Boeing and SpaceX to continue on to the next phase, CCtCAP, under which each company is expected to complete work on new commercial crew space transportation systems to take NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station by the end of 2017.  Both designs are capsules: Boeing's CST-100 and SpaceX's Dragon V2.  SNC's design is a winged vehicle, Dream Chaser, that resembles a small space shuttle.

Key Senate NASA Staffer Moving on to Lockheed Martin

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Oct-2014 (Updated: 20-Oct-2014 11:39 PM)

Ann Zulkosky, the top Senate Democratic staffer dealing with NASA issues on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, is leaving to join Lockheed Martin.

Zulkosky is a member of the Democratic professional staff of the committee, which is chaired by Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV).  Rockefeller is retiring at the end of this Congress and committee staff changes are common when the chairperson retires.  Zulkosky has been handling a variety of science issues, but is best known in space policy circles for her work on NASA issues with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), who chairs the committee's Science and Space Subcommittee.

Zulkosky and her Republican staff counterpart, Jeff Bingham, working with Nelson and the committee's top Republican at the time, Senator Kay Bailey Hutichison (R-TX), are largely credited with writing the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, a hard fought compromise between the Obama Administration and congressional Democrats and Republicans.  Bingham retired last year.

The 2010 law included funding recommendations only through FY2013, which has expired, but the policy provisions remain in force.  Key policy provisions allowed the Obama Administration to proceed with the commercial crew program to develop crew transportation systems to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS), while insisting that NASA also develop a new spacecraft (Orion) and rocket (the Space Launch System) to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit.

The House passed a new NASA authorization bill in June.  Senate action is expected next, but that may be more difficult to achieve with Zulkosky's departure.

In an email this evening, Zulkosky confirmed that she is headed to Lockheed Martin as Director of NASA Programs, succeeding Mike Hawes.  Hawes was recently tapped to replace Cleon Lacefield as the company's vice president and program manager for Orion.

China's New Wenchang Space Launch Site Ready for Action

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Oct-2014 (Updated: 21-Oct-2014 10:03 AM)

Construction of China's new launch site on Hainan Island is complete according to a report in the Chinese media.  The Wenchang Satellite Launch Center is the country's fourth space launch site and the first that is not inland.  It also is the furthest south, improving China's ability to launch satellites into geostationary orbit.

China currently launches satellites from Jiuquan in the Gobi desert (human space missions, lunar spacecraft, mid-high inclination orbit satellites), Xichang in Sichuan province (primarily geostationary satellites), and Taiyuan, just south of Beijing (polar-orbiting satellites). 

Wenchang is on the northeast coast of Hainan Island and only 19 degrees north of the equator (currently Xichang is the furthest south, at 28 degrees north).  China plans to use it for its new Long March 5 rocket, still under development, that will be able to launch about 25 metric tons to low Earth orbit, in the same class as the U.S. Delta IV.

China Daily says Wenchang and Long March 5 will be used to launch spacecraft not only into Earth orbit, but to lunar and interplanetary destinations.  The first launch from Wenchang is expected next year.

Among the science missions planned for Long March 5 from Wenchang is a lunar sample return mission, Chang'e-5, planned for 2017.   An engineering test for that mission reportedly is scheduled for launch this week.   (Chang'e-3 was launched last year and deposited the Yutu rover on the Moon.  Chang'e-1 and Chang'e-2 were lunar orbiters.  Chang'e is China's mythological goddess of the Moon.)

Note:  The original version of this article referred to the engineering test for Chang'e-5 that may be launched this week as Chang'e-4 and provided other information.  However, the name is reported differently in various sources (Bob Christy's zarya.info site calls it "Chang'e Lunar Sample Container Test Flight").  The name and other details of that mission are incidental to this article, which is about the Wenchang launch site, so we have simply omitted it in this update.

Events of Interest   

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