Latest News

Can Ted Cruz Really Derail NASA Climate Science Research?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Jan-2015 (Updated: 14-Jan-2015 12:04 AM)

Much is being made of Senator Ted Cruz’s ascension to chairmanship of a Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA and a few other government science and technology programs.  Cruz critics postulate Armageddon for climate science research because Cruz is a climate change skeptic.  A quick reminder about how Congress works may lend perspective in assessing how much impact his views may have.

If approved by the full committee on January 20 as expected, Cruz will chair one of six subcommittees of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee – the subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness.

In the last Congress, the Science and Space Subcommittee covered NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).  The reordering of the words "science" and "space" is new, along with the addition of "competitiveness," a topic that previously was part of a seventh subcommittee that has been abolished and its oversight areas redistributed. Contrary to some news reports today, it does NOT cover atmospheric sciences.  That is under the Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard subcommittee, which will be chaired by Marco Rubio (R-FL).  NOAA is covered by Rubio’s subcommittee.

The committee and its subcommittees are part of the authorization process in Congress.   Authorizers provide oversight, set policy and recommend funding levels.  They do not provide any money to anyone.  Only appropriations committees provide money to federal departments and agencies like NASA that are part of “discretionary” spending (as opposed to mandatory spending for programs like Social Security and Medicare).

The Senators with the most power to decide how much money NASA (and NOAA) will get and how that money is spent are Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) who are the chair and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.  Both are NASA advocates and Mikulski is particularly supportive of NASA earth science programs and NOAA’s weather satellites.  Even though she is in the minority now, she still is very powerful and it is difficult to imagine a Senate appropriations bill that includes disproportionate cuts to either of those programs.  (Not that there might not be cuts – that depends on spending caps.)

Cruz, by contrast, has authority over policy and theoretically could write a NASA authorization bill that restricts what climate science research NASA could do or even abolishes NASA’s entire earth science program.  Such a bill, however, would have to get through the full committee, the Senate, the House and be signed into law by the President before becoming law.  While one should “never say never,” the chances of that happening are extremely small.

The very first step in that process could be a challenge since the full Senate Commerce Committee is chaired by Sen. John Thune (R-SD), who is also the third ranking Republican in the Senate.  His views are much more moderate than Cruz’s.  As reported by the Washington Post in November, Thune acknowledged on Fox News that he accepts that human activity contributes to climate change.

South Dakota is home to the Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center that, among other things, manages data from the Landsat series of spacecraft.  While it is USGS in the Department of Interior that operates the EROS Center and the Landsat satellites already on orbit, NASA is the agency that designs, builds and launches new Landsat satellites.  Thus, he probably is more familiar with at least some aspects of NASA earth science programs and has constituent interests at stake.  Also, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), an ardent NASA supporter, is the top Democrat on the committee and while he is now in the minority, he is a highly respected voice on NASA issues.

Even if such a bill nonetheless made it out of committee and all the way through Congress, it is next to impossible to imagine President Obama signing it.  While Republicans control the House and Senate, they do not have veto-proof majorities.

While the ringing of alarm bells has focused mostly on Cruz’s climate change views, others are worried that his determination to cut federal spending could cast a pall on other NASA programs, too.   That is a much greater concern, but is not really related to his subcommittee chairmanship.

Cutting federal spending across the board is where Cruz has made his stand and there is little reason to expect he will change that stance.  He is blamed (or credited) for leading the effort that shut down the government for 16 days in 2013 and keeping the Senate in session longer than even his Republican colleagues wanted last month over the final FY2015 appropriations bill (though the main issue there was immigration).

Cruz might use his subcommittee chairmanship to hold hearings lambasting the Obama Administration’s support for climate science research – as the House Science, Space and Technology Committee has been doing for several years – but he does not need a subcommittee chairmanship to be a powerful force for government spending cuts that could affect NASA.

Under current law, sequestration returns in FY2016.  For those who want to anguish over the outlook for NASA funding for climate science research or anything else, that is the real issue – will Congress repeal sequestration and, if it does, will non-defense discretionary programs like NASA fare any better under whatever replaces it.

What's Happening in Space Policy January 12-16, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Jan-2015 (Updated: 11-Jan-2015 05:32 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of January 12-16, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

The week starts off with the berthing of the SpaceX CRS-5 (SpX-5) Dragon spacecraft with the International Space Station at about 6:00 am ET Monday morning.  It may seem anticlimatic compared with Saturday's SpX-5 launch -- or rather the attempted landing of the Falcon 9 first stage on an autonomous drone ship.   While that didn't go as planned, as a test it certainly was a success as a step towards reusability.

Congressional committee activities for the 114th Congress get off to a start this week.  Many House committees, including the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), are holding their organizational meetings to adopt rules, lay out majority and minority agendas, and complete administrative tasks.   Rep. MacThornberry (R-TX) takes over the HASC gavel this Congress from Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-CA), who retired.   Over in the Senate, SASC is holding an actual hearing with a single witness -- Henry Kissinger -- expounding on global challenges and U.S. national security.  Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) will chair SASC in this Congress.   Space topics do not usually arise in hearings like these on broad, top level national security issues, but U.S. dependence on Russia for rocket engines, the overall state of national security space assets, or perceived threats posed by China's space activities might come up depending on where the conversation goes.

Down at Stennis Space Center, MS, the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and two of its committees -- Science  and Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) -- will meet this week.  A joint session Monday afternoon between the Science and HEO committees might be particularly interesting.  Then, on Tuesday morning HEO Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier will provide the HEO committee with an update on HEO activities overall and Michele Gates and Lindley Johnson will present an update on the Asteroid Redirect Mission.  Later in the day, Alan Lindenmoyer will offer NAC-HEO "lessons learned" from the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.  The meetings are available virtually via WebEx and telecon (click on the links to those meetings below or on the right menu for instructions).

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

Monday, January 12

Monday-Tuesday, January 12-13

Tuesday, January 13

Wednesday-Thursday, January 14-15

Thursday, January 15

Friday, January 16

SpaceX CRS-5 Launch Successful; Landing "Close But No Cigar" - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Jan-2015 (Updated: 17-Jan-2015 04:52 PM)

SpaceX founder and Chief Designer Elon Musk reported early this morning (January 10) that the landing of his Falcon 9 first stage on a drone ship did not go as planned:  "Close, but no cigar."  However, the main objective of the launch today was sending a Dragon cargo resupply spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) and that part of the mission is proceeding flawlessly.

Liftoff of this fifth SpaceX operational cargo resupply mission, SpaceX CRS-5 or SpX-5, was on time at 4:47 am EST this morning from Cape Canaveral, FL.  The countdown proceeded without a hitch this time, unlike the previous launch attempt on Tuesday when launch was scrubbed with just over one minute to go because of a malfunctioning second stage thrust vector control actuator. SpaceX replaced that actuator for today's launch.

The first and second stages of the Falcon 9 rocket performed as planned, placing Dragon into the correct orbit for it to reach the ISS on Monday at about 6:00 am EST.  It carries 5,108 pounds of food, water, clothing, experiments and equipment for the six-person crew living aboard the space station.

Delivering cargo for NASA is the main job, but interest in the launch was especially high because of SpaceX's test of landing the Falcon 9 first stage on a platform in the ocean -- an "autonomous drone ship."  The company already successfully conducted two "landings" on water, but the stage, of course, tipped over into the water at the end.   Today's test was to have a survivable landing. The tests are related to Musk's goal of developing a reusable rocket.  The only reusable launch vehicle successfully developed and flown to date was the U.S. space shuttle.  The shuttle's airplane-like orbiters, which included the system's three main engines, and its solid rocket boosters were all reusable.  The shuttle program was terminated in 2011 after 30 years of flights.

Today, one of the nine Falcon 9 first stage engines reignited for the "boost back" stage of the flight and it reached the ship, but "landed hard" as Musk tweeted (@elonmusk) in the first of several messages throughout the morning:

"Rocket made it to drone ship, but landed hard. Close, but no cigar this time.  Bodes well for the future, tho."

"Ship itself is fine.  Some of the support equipment on the deck will need to be replaced ...."

"Didn't get good landing/impact video.  Pitch dark and foggy. Will piece it together from telemetry and ... actual pieces."

"Grid fins worked extremely well from hypersonic velocity to subsonic, but ran out of hydraulic fuel right before landing."

"Upcoming flight already has 50% more hydraulic fluid, so should have plenty of margin for landing attempt next month."

"Am super proud of my team for making huge strides towards reusability on this mission,  You guys rock!"

On January 16,  Musk tweeted video taken by a camera on the done ship of the first stage crashing into it.   The video does not appear to be posted on SpaceX's website, but other sites, such as, have done so.

Note:  This article was updated shortly after noon EST on January 10 (the day of launch) with more of Musk's tweets and deleting the reference to a NASA press conference that had been scheduled for 6:30 am, but subsequently cancelled.  It also was updated on January 17 with the link to the video of the crash landing on the drone ship.

SpaceX CRS-5 Still on for Early Saturday Morning

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Jan-2015 (Updated: 09-Jan-2015 10:13 PM)

As of 10:00 pm Eastern Standard Time (EST) tonight, January 9, SpaceX's fifth operational cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) is still on schedule for launch at 4:47 am EST tomorrow morning.

The launch of Space X CRS-5, or SpX-5,  has been delayed several times since its original December 9, 2014 launch date.   Most recently it was scrubbed just over one minute before launch on January 6 because of a malfunctioning thrust vector control actuator in a second stage engine.  SpaceX reportedly has replaced that actuator and is on track for tomorrow morning's launch.  The weather forecast is 80 percent favorable.

NASA TV coverage of the launch begins at 3:30 am EST.

Virgin Galactic Determined to Persevere and Succeed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Jan-2015 (Updated: 09-Jan-2015 09:45 PM)

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides made clear today that the company remains committed to its goal of opening space for all both with suborbital flights of passengers and launches of small satellites.

The company, owned by Richard Branson, is still recovering from a fatal SpaceShipTwo spaceplane test flight accident on October 31, 2014 that killed one of the two pilots.  Co-pilot Michael Alsbury died. Pilot Peter Siebold survived.  The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has not completed its investigation, but determined that Alsbury prematurely moved a lever to initiate a "feathering system" designed to slow the spaceplane during its descent.  It should have been moved when the spaceplane was at Mach 1.4, but he moved it at Mach 1.02 during ascent.  Deployment of the feathering system was supposed to require a second lever to be moved by the pilot and that did not take place.  Why it deployed nonetheless is still under scrutiny.  The deployment of the feathering system at the wrong time apparently created aerodynamic forces that ripped the spaceplane apart.

Whitesides said that Virgin Galactic (VG) will "recover, we'll learn the hard lessons from the accident, and return to flight."  In fact, he said test flights will resume in 2015 and commercial flights will begin in 2016. 

VG was planning to build five SpaceShipTwo vehicles.  The one lost in the October accident was the only completed vehicle, but a second was already in manufacturing.  Today, Whitesides said structural fabrication is over 90 percent complete as well as two-thirds of the systems.  "Weight on wheels is now in sight," he told the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) SciTech2015 conference in Kissimmee, FL, adding that the vehicle will accommodate any changes identified by the NTSB to enhance safety.

Society has become "risk intolerant," Whitesides observed, which has both positive and negative consequences.  Injuries may be reduced by people wearing bike helmets, but taking "smart risks" is essential to progress.  He said he has spent a great deal of time since the accident explaining the nature of test flights to the public and press and concedes that VG could have done a better job of managing expectations.  There is no simple answer to when a vehicle is ready to fly, he stressed.

As for launching small satellites (smallsats), VG is developing LauncherOne, an air-launched vehicle.  Whitesides was optimistic about the market for such satellites, especially constellations of low Earth orbit (LEO) smallsats that will need continual replenishment.   The first flight test of LauncherOne is expected in 2016.

Branson "has redoubled his commitment" to VG, Whitesides asserted.  "A second spaceship is close at hand and we are hard at work on LauncherOne. We will persevere and ultimately succeed," he vowed.

Correction:  An earlier version of this article identified Whitesides as President of VG.  He is currently its CEO.





Senate Commerce Names Subcommittee Chairs: Ted Cruz for NASA, Marco Rubio for NOAA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Jan-2015 (Updated: 08-Jan-2015 09:55 PM)

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee today announced who will chair its subcommittees in the 114th Congress.   Ted Cruz (R-TX) will chair the subcommittee that oversees NASA, while Marco Rubio (R-FL) will chair the one with jurisdiction over NOAA.

The Senate is now in Republican hands, so all committee and subcommittee chairs are Republican and ranking members are Democrats (though there are two Independents, who usually vote with Democrats, who might also hold committee leadership positions).   The full Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is chaired by Sen. John Thune (R-SD), who announced the six subcommittee chairs today.  The two of most interest to the space policy community are the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, which includes NOAA, and the Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness, which includes NASA and added "competitiveness" to its title this year.

Cruz was the top Republican on the Science and Space subcommittee last year, so his ascension to chair is not unexpected.   He did not play a prominent public role in NASA matters in the last Congress, and is known mostly for his advocacy of reduced government spending overall and opposition to almost anything that the Obama Administration supports.  Bill Nelson (D-FL) chaired the subcommittee in the previous Congress, when it was controlled by Democrats, and is an ardent NASA supporter, having flown on the space shuttle in 1986 when he was a Member of the House of Representatives.  Nelson is now the top Democrat on the full Senate Commerce Committee.

Like Cruz, Rubio was the top Republican on the Oceans/Atmosphere subcommittee in the last Congress and now becomes chair.   All of NOAA's activities are within the jurisdiction of the subcommittee and historically it has focused more on fisheries and coastal issues than on space.

SpaceX CRS-5 Slips Another Day to January 10

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Jan-2015 (Updated: 07-Jan-2015 04:35 PM)

The launch of SpaceX's fifth operational cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) has been delayed another day, to January 10, 2015.  The launch time for SpaceX CRS-5, or SpX-5, that day is 4:47 am EST.  NASA TV coverage will begin at 3:30 am EST.

The launch was scrubbed on Tuesday, January 6, just over one minute before launch.  The problem was with a thrust vector control actuator in a second stage engine.  That was the latest is a series of schedule changes for this mission, whose original launch date was December 9. 

If launch does not take place on Saturday, the next opportunity is Tuesday, January 13, at 3:36 am EST. 

The launch is generating a lot of interest because SpaceX plans to return the Falcon 9 first stage to an "autonomous drone ship" as a further step in its goal to develop a reusable rocket.   SpaceX officials stress, however, that the primary objective of this mission is delivering cargo to the ISS.   SpaceX is one of two companies that provide "commercial cargo" services to NASA. The other, Orbital Sciences Corporation, is currently recovering from the loss of its Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft in an October launch failure and it is not clear when its next launch will take place.  Thus, NASA is quite anxious to get this SpaceX mission launched to deliver 5,108 pounds of food, water, clothing, research experiments and equipment.

The delay could also affect other SpaceX launches.  The launch of the NOAA-NASA-Air Force Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) was already delayed by an earlier slip to this SpX-5 launch.

SpaceX CRS-5 Launch Scrubbed for Today - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 06-Jan-2015 (Updated: 06-Jan-2015 01:21 PM)

SpaceX scrubbed its launch of its fifth operational cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) this morning 81 seconds before launch. The countdown had been proceeding smoothly, but, according to NASA, was scrubbed when a thrust vector control actuator on the second stage did not perform as expected.

The mission, Space-X CRS-5 or SpX-5, is carrying 5,108 pounds of food, water, clothing, research experiments, and  equipment for the ISS crew. 

The next launch opportunity is on Friday, January 9, at 5:09 am Eastern Standard Time (EST) and NASA TV coverage will begin at 4:00 am EST if SpaceX determines it is ready for launch that day.

A planned post-launch briefing was cancelled.  NASA said to check for updates.

Interest in this launch is especially high because SpaceX plans to land the Falcon 9 first stage on an autonomous drone ship as the next step in its plans to make the first stage reusable.

Note:  this article was updated several times as new information became available.

Sierra Nevada to Continue Dream Chaser Despite CCtCAP Protest Loss

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Jan-2015 (Updated: 05-Jan-2015 06:36 PM)

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) said today that it will continue developing and testing its Dream Chaser spacecraft even though it lost its protest of NASA's Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) awards to Boeing and SpaceX. 

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) ruled in NASA's favor today, denying SNC's protest that NASA did not evaluate its bid in accordance with the criteria specified in the request for proposals.  The company said GAO's decision was "not what SNC expected" and is "evaluating" that decision.

GAO did not release the details of its decision, only a summary in a press release.  The complete text of the decision is under protective order and must be redacted before being made public.

NASA has been supporting all three companies in the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) phase of the commercial crew program, a public-private partnership whose goal is to develop U.S. crew space transportation systems to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).  NASA has been dependent on Russia to provide crew transportation services since the space shuttle was terminated in 2011 and is eager to restore an independent capability through this program. 

NASA was expected to choose only two of the three to continue into the CCtCAP phase.  Price was listed as the top criterion and SNC's price was much lower than Boeing's.  According to GAO's summary, Boeing's price was $3.01 billion, SNC's was $2.55 billion, and SpaceX's was $1.75 billion.  NASA awarded more than that to Boeing and SpaceX.  Boeing received $4.2 billion and SpaceX received $2.6 billion.  NASA explains that its award is the Total Potential Contract Value, which includes special studies and the maximum number of post-certification missions -- six.  GAO's figures are for the Evaluated Price as defined in the CCtCAP request for proposals, which has a guarantee of only two missions.

SNC said today that "we maintain our belief that the Dream Chaser spacecraft is technically very capable, reliable and was qualified to win based on NASA's high ratings of the space system."   Dream Chaser is a lifting body -- a winged vehicle -- that resembles a space shuttle orbiter and would be launched on an Atlas V rocket.   It is based on a design NASA developed decades ago for the HL-20 program. 

At the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Toronto shortly after SNC challenged NASA's choice of Boeing and SpaceX in September, SNC made clear that it intended to proceed with Dream Chaser regardless of whether it won the protest or not.  Today's announcement was in a similar vein.  "SNC firmly believes that the Dream Chaser will play a central role in shaping the future of space transportation with its unique capabilities which address a wide spectrum of needs," it said, adding that it responded to NASA's request for proposals for a second round of commercial cargo resupply services awards.   SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation currently provide commercial cargo services to NASA under contracts that expire in 2016.

NASA also issued a statement in response to the GAO ruling, saying simply that it is pleased it can move forward with the commercial crew program so America can end its reliance on Russia for ISS crew transportation.

Chinese Lunar Spacecraft Gets New Mission - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Jan-2015 (Updated: 13-Jan-2015 08:05 AM)

UPDATE:  January 13, 2015:  This article was updated to reflect the arrival of the service module in lunar orbit.

The service module for China's lunar sample return test mission last year now has a new mission -- returning to lunar orbit for further tests.

China launched the spacecraft -- variously referred to in the West as the CE-5 Test Flight Device, Chang'e Lunar Sample Container Test Flight, or Chang'e-5T1 -- on an eight day mission on October 23, 2014 Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).  The main purpose was to test technologies for reentering Earth's atmosphere from lunar distance in preparation for China's planned Chang'e-5 lunar sample return mission.   The capsule separated from its service module and successfully landed in China on October 31 EDT (November 1 local time in China).

The service module, however, remained in space.  Initially China redirected it to the L2 Earth-Moon Lagrange point.  "It was the first time for a Chinese spacecraft to reach the L2 point, and the service module completed three circles around the point" according to Zhao Wenbo as quoted by China's Xinhua news service.  Zhao is identified as vice director of the lunar probe and space project center of China's State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND).

On January 5, 2015, China announced that it was on its way back to lunar orbit.   It arrived there on January 11 and placed into an initial orbit 5,300 x 200 kilometers with a period of 8 hours.  After two more braking maneuvers, on January 13 it reached its final 127-minute orbit at approximately 200 x 200 kilometers.

No details were provided about what experiments are being conducted by the service module, only that it is related to "more tests" for the Chang'e-5 mission.

Chang'e-1 (2007) and Chang'e-2 (2010) were lunar orbiters and Chang'e-2 was later redirected to encounter asteroid Toutatis, which it did in 2012.  Chang'e-3 was a lander that delivered the Yutu rover to the lunar surface in December 2013.  A mechanical fault prevented the rover from fulfilling its primary objectives, but it returned data for many months and instruments on Chang'e-3 itself reportedly are still working.

This fourth Chinese lunar mission does not carry the Chang'e-4 designation for unknown reasons.  Although China has talked about Chang'e-4 in the past as a backup to Chang'e-3, it is not clear today what that mission entails or when it will be launched. This mission does not appear to have an official Chinese designation, instead simply being described in news reports as a test related to Chang'e-5.  Chinese accounts focus on Chang'e-5, the lunar sample return mission that is scheduled for launch in 2017 on China's new Long March 5 rocket from the new Wenchang Space Launch Center on Hainan Island.

Chang'e is China's mythological goddess of the Moon.

Events of Interest

Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »


Subscribe to Email Updates:

Enter your email address: