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Orbital and ATK Complete Merger, Now Orbital ATK

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Feb-2015 (Updated: 09-Feb-2015 03:57 PM)

Orbital Sciences Corporation and Alliant Techsystems Inc. (ATK) completed their merger today.  The new company is named Orbital ATK.

The "merger of equals" was announced in April 2014.  The tax-free, all-stock merger became final after ATK spun off its sporting business as a separate company, Vista Outdoors.

ATK decided to proceed with the merger despite the launch failure of Orbital's Antares rocket in October 2014, although it was a factor in delaying the merger from December until now.  The Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission approved the merger in December pending the spinoff of Vista Outdoors.

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

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Feb-2015 (Updated: 09-Feb-2015 08:33 AM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of February 9-13, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week. (Updated to show new launch date for DSCOVR)

During the Week

The launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) (formerly Triana) was scrubbed on Sunday due to a problem with a radar on the Eastern Test Range needed to track the rocket.  The launch was TENTATIVELY rescheduled for Monday, BUT ON MONDAY MORNING NOAA ANNOUNCED THAT THE LAUNCH DATE WILL BE TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 10, AT 6:05 PM ET BECAUSE THE WEATHER TODAY IS UNFAVORABLE.  Wednesday at 6:03 PM ET is a backup launch opportunity.  If it doesn't go by then, DSCOVR will have to wait until February 20.

The House is poised to pass a new NASA authorization bill.  The bill has not yet been introduced, but the bipartisan leadership of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee announced agreement on Friday.  They said the bill would be introduced this coming week and not only is that still expected, but the bill is skipping over committee action entirely and going directly to the House floor for a vote on Tuesday under suspension of the rules.  From the information released by the committee so far, the bill is very similar to last year's bill, which passed the House 401-2.  It was never considered by the Senate, however, and died at the end of the 113th Congress. 

That committee also will hold the first hearing of the 114th Congress dedicated to a space topic -- weather satellites -- on Thursday.  No space-specific hearings are scheduled in the Senate, but the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) tentatively plans to vote on the nomination of Ash Carter to be Secretary of Defense on Tuesday.

Three non-legislative events of particular interest this week are: (1) on Tuesday, the monthly ISU-DC Space Cafe will feature a panel of representatives of several European countries discussing the recent ESA ministerial meeting; (2) on Wednesday, the National Research Council's Space Technology Industry, Government, University Roundtable will hold its second meeting, and (3), on Friday, GWU's Space Policy Institute will hold a symposium on U.S.-Japan Relations and Space Cooperation in the Asia Pacific Region

NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel also is meeting this week, but their public meetings are usually pretty pro forma even though they have some very interesting observations that appear in their public reports, like this year's recently released annual report.

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


Tuesday, February 10

Wednesday, February 11

Thursday, February 12

Friday, February 13

House Will Vote on New NASA Authorization Bill on Tuesday - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Feb-2015 (Updated: 09-Feb-2015 10:40 PM)

UPDATE, February 9:  The bill number was assigned today: H.R. 810.

ORIGINAL STORY,  February 8, 2015:  Skipping several steps in the usual legislative process, the House is scheduled to vote on a 2015 NASA Authorization Act on Tuesday, February 10.   Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee announced their bipartisan agreement on the bill on Friday.

Usually a bill is introduced, hearings are held, a subcommittee marks up the bill and reports it to the full committee, the full committee holds its own mark up session and reports the bill to the House.   Some bills then go through the House Rules Committee where decisions are made, for example, on what amendments will be considered and how much time is allowed for debate while the bill is on the floor.  Others are sufficiently non-controversial that they do not need a rule and are considered under "suspension of the rules" and placed on the suspension calendar.   Bills considered under suspension must be approved by at least two-thirds of the House.

This bill, which does not yet have a number, is skipping all the intermediate steps and going directly from being introduced (which has not happened yet) to a vote under suspension.  It is included in the list of legislation on the House Majority Leader's website scheduled for consideration on Tuesday.

The committee leaders announced their agreement on the bill two days ago.  From the summary that was provided, it seems very similar to last year's bill, H.R. 4412, which passed by a vote of 401-2. 

Passing a bill so quickly gives the Senate plenty of time to consider its own legislation or pass this version.

House SS&T Committee Announces Bipartisan 2015 NASA Authorization Act

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 06-Feb-2015 (Updated: 06-Feb-2015 07:12 PM)

Top Republicans and Democrats on the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) committee today announced details of a new bipartisan NASA Authorization Act that will be introduced next week.  The bill avoids budget issues by authorizing funds only for FY2015, for which funding already has been appropriated.

House SS&T Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Space Subcommittee Chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) and Ranking Member Donna Edwards (D-MD), and Space Subcommittee Vice-Chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL) issued a joint press release laying out the major provisions of the legislation, which seem to parallel the bill passed the House (but not considered by the Senate) last year.   Whether the text is identical to last year's other than updating the budget figures is not clear, but Smith said "this bill was approved unanimously" by the committee and "passed in the House" in the last Congress, suggesting that it must be very close.  Last year's bill included budget figures only for FY2014, which was already in progress at the time the bill was under consideration.  They have taken the same tack for this bill.

The main theme is that NASA is a multi-mission agency involved in range of aeronautics and space research and development activities.  Key elements include the following:

  • Human Spaceflight
    • states that a human mission to Mars is the goal for NASA's human spaceflight program and calls on NASA to develop a roadmap to achieve that goal
    • continues the commitment to the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion, and reiterates the directive in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that Orion serve as a backup to commercial crew if necessary
    • supports building "at least one" commercial crew system
  • Science
    • relies on guidance from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) regarding NASA's earth and space science programs and asks for additional NAS studies on long-term goals of the Mars robotic program and an exoplanets strategy
    • emphasizes the need for a "steady cadence" of science missions, including a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa for launch by 2021
    • stresses the importance of fulfilling previous congressional direction regarding detecting, tracking, cataloging and characterizing Near Earth Objects 140 meters in diameter or more
    • asserts that if earth science responsibilities are transferred to NASA from other agencies that NASA be reimbursed for that cost
    • maintains funding to support launch of the James Webb Space Telescope by 2018
  • Aeronautics
    • authorizes a robust program including efforts to integrate unmanned aerial systems into the national airspace, development of NextGen technology for air traffic management and research on aviation safety
  • Infrastructure
    • directs NASA to develop a plan to better position the agency to have facilities and infrastructure necessary to meet future requirements
    • provides transparency provisions to ensure NASA's property and facilities are managed appropriately
  • Education
    • requires that NASA's educational and outreach activities continue to support STEM curriculum and inspire the next generation of explorers

The bill also provides greater public accountability and transparency, requires enforcement of cost estimating discipline, strengthens the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), and provides for additional tools to protect against waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement.

The phrasing that NASA is a multi-mission agency is important because some argue that NASA only should be involved in human spaceflight.   Science should be done by the National Science Foundation and other government agencies, and aeronautics research should be under the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), they argue.  This bill makes clear that NASA should continue to have a range of missions as described in the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act that created the agency.

The language about support for "at least one" commercial crew system and that Orion continue to be able to serve as a backup to commercial crew also is important.   Committee Republicans do not necessarily agree that NASA should support two commercial crew companies.  SpaceX and Boeing were selected by NASA last year, which believes that it needs two competitors to keep prices down and provide redundancy in case one of the systems has a failure.  Some in Congress think there should be only one commercial crew company and the redundant capability could be filled by Orion.

Launching a mission to Europa by 2021 is quite different from NASA's FY2016 budget plan, which foresees such a launch in the mid-2020s.

The bipartisan announcement is in contrast to the partisan wrangling at the committee's organizational meeting last month,

 

Weather Satellites First Up for Space Hearings in 114th Congress

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Feb-2015 (Updated: 06-Feb-2015 12:02 AM)

The first hearing of the 114th Congress focused specifically on space issues will be about weather satellites.  Two subcommittees of the House Science, Space and Technology (HSS&T) Committee will hold a hearing on February 12 on "Bridging the Gap:  America's Weather Satellites and Weather Forecasting."

The hearing is before HSS&T's Subcommittee on Environment and the Subcommittee on Oversight and features witnesses from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), NOAA and NASA.  One of the NOAA witnesses, Alexander McDonald, is also the President of the American Meteorological Society (AMS).

NOAA's satellite programs are under the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS) and its new associate administrator, Steve Volz, is one of the witnesses (he is Mary Kicza's successor).  The NOAA/NESDIS budget request is $2.38 billion, of which $2.189 billion is for procurement, acquisition and construction of satellites.   It is virtually all for "weather" satellites if one includes space weather in the definition.  The Obama Administration is proposing that responsibility for all civil earth observation satellites other than weather (including space weather) be shifted to NASA, such as ocean altimetry and the Total Solar and Spectral Irradiance Sensor (TSIS).  That likely will be one of the topics explored at the hearing.

Funding is ramping down for the first two Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) spacecraft and the four spacecraft in the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) series, but they still consume most of the budget request:  $808.9 million and $871.8 million respectively.  This year's request includes a new line item for the next two JPSS satellites, JPSS-3 and -4, under the designation "Polar Follow On."  That request is $370 million.  NOAA is also requesting $2.5 million to begin planning for another space weather satellite.   The Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), scheduled for launch on Sunday (February 8), has a design life that ends in FY2019, NOAA says, so it needs to begin looking at a follow-on.

The hearing is at 10:00 am ET in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building.

NOAA Keeps Weather and Space Weather Satellites Under FY2016 Budget Proposal

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Feb-2015 (Updated: 04-Feb-2015 01:29 AM)

NOAA will focus on weather and space weather satellites in the future if the Administration's FY2016 budget proposal is adopted, shifting other satellite responsibilities to NASA.  NOAA's FY2016 request also includes a new Polar Follow On program to acquire two more Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) satellites in addition to the two already under development.

The $2.38 billion request for NOAA's National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS) includes funding for Operations, Research and Facilities (ORF) and Procurement, Acquisition, and Construction (PAC).   The PAC account funds development of JPSS, the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R series and other satellite programs familiar to readers of this website.  The PAC request is $2.189 billion.

The request for GOES-R is $871.8 million, a decrease from last year largely due to development ramping down.  JPSS would be funded at $809 million, also a reduction from last year for the same reason.  NOAA is also requesting $370 million to initiate the Polar Follow On (PFO) program to build two more JPSS satellites, JPSS-3 and -4, and $10 million for an "Earth Observing Nanosatellite-Microwave (EON-MW) miniature microwave sounder" that approximates the functions of an instrument on JPSS-1 (the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder) in case something goes awry with it. 

Funding ramps down for the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) space weather satellite and the Jason-3 ocean altimetry mission, both of which will be launched soon.  The request continues funding for COSMIC-2, a radio occultation mission.

NOAA also is requesting $2.5 million for a "Space Weather Follow On"  to analyze options for and initiate development of a new space weather satellite.

NOAA has been trying to find a way to accommodate three instruments that were intended to be launched on the since-canceled NPOESS platforms:  the Total Solar and Spectral Irradiance Sensor (TSIS), the Advanced Data Collection System (A-DCS), and the Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking (SARSAT) instruments.   NOAA called this SIDAR in last year's budget request, but Congress cut funding for it.   For FY2016, agreement was reached for TSIS to be transferred to NASA.   The request for A-DCS and SARSAT under the SIDAR account for FY2016 is just $500,000, with no funds projected for future years (it simply says TBD) even though the budget documents say they will be launched in FY2019.

The Obama Administration is proposing that NASA assume responsibility for some activities, like TSIS and future ocean altimetry missions in the Jason series, that currently are under NOAA's purview. NASA and NOAA FY2016 budget documents use the same phrasing to describe the new framework: "NOAA will be responsible only for satellite missions that contribute directly to" its "ability to issue weather and space weather forecasts and warnings to protect life and property."  NASA's budget documents go a bit further to clarify that "Geostationary and polar-orbiting weather satellites, radio occultation satellites, and space weather satellites remain within the NOAA budget."

NASA's budget request for earth sciences would increase substantially in FY2016 partially as a result of its new responsibilities.   NASA spokesman Allard Buetel said via email today that of the $174.8 million increase requested for earth science for FY2016, approximately $54 million is due to the transfer of NOAA activities to NASA.  He identified TSIS-1 and -2, RBI, OMPS-L and AFO as the programs moving over to NASA.  RBI is the Radiation Budget Instrument; OMPS-L is the Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite-Limb Profiler; and AFO is Altimetry Follow On, future ocean altimetry missions.

NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce and the Obama Administration is again proposing to reorganize several Executive Branch agencies, including the Department, to create a new department that would "focus on business and economic growth."  Under the proposal, NOAA would be transferred to the Department of the Interior.  The proposal has not received much support in the past.

 

President Requests $18.5 Billion for NASA, How Will Congress React?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Feb-2015 (Updated: 04-Feb-2015 09:44 AM)

President Obama submitted his FY2016 budget request to Congress today.  It includes $18.5 billion for NASA, a 2.9 percent increase over the FY2015 appropriated level, which itself was a half-billion increase over the President's request for FY2015.  In less than 12 months, NASA's budget fortunes have improved considerably though, predictably, not enough to satisfy everyone.  Also not surprisingly, the President's request has not been welcomed with open arms by everyone in Congress, though statements today focused more on the overall request, not specifically that for NASA.

Those who see the glass as half empty point to the fact that the President decided to ignore the budget caps put in place by the 2011 Budget Control Act, and requested a 6 percent increase for research and development spending across the federal government.  They see the 2.9 percent increase for NASA as too small.  On the other hand are those who see the glass half full, a decided improvement over what the President requested last year ($17.460 billion) and what the White House projected last year would be the request for FY2016 ($17.635 billion).

SpacePolicyOnline.com has a free fact sheet summarizing NASA's FY2016 budget request and identifying four of the top issues likely to arise as Congress considers it.  In brief, they are:

  • Earth Science.  The request of $1.947 billion is a $174.8 million increase over FY2016.  Some of that -- though NASA officials could not say today how much -- is because the Administration is proposing that some NOAA satellite activities be transferred to NASA.  One is the Total and Spectral Solar Irradiance Sensor (TSIS-1).  NASA also is requesting funds for a "multi-decadal sustainable land imaging program" that includes money to build the next Landsat satellite (Landsat 9) for launch in 2023; a separate free-flyer for an infrared sensor for launch in 2019; and funds for technology development and system innovations to reduce the costs of Landsat 10 and beyond.  Such an increase for earth science may encounter opposition from Members who are climate change skeptics and see little need for government programs in this area, or who think that NOAA should not shift its responsibilities to NASA.
  • Planetary Science.   The request of $1.361 billion is a decrease of $76.6 million from the FY2015 appropriated level and includes only $30 million for a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa.  Planetary science is very popular on Capitol Hill and any decrease is likely to be met with opposition.  The new chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), is an ardent supporter of planetary exploration and Europa in particular.   He has led efforts to add money to NASA's budget for Europa.  Congress provided $100 million for FY2015, an increase of $85 million above NASA's request.
  • Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).  NASA continues to struggle to convince the space community and Congress of the value of ARM.  The NASA Advisory Council is asking pointed questions about the cost of ARM and its relevance to NASA's long-term goal of sending humans to Mars.  NASA has missed self-imposed deadlines for choosing between two options for implementing ARM:  Option A (move a small asteroid to lunar orbit) or Option B (pluck a boulder from a large asteroid and move that to lunar orbit).  NASA Chief Financial Officer David Radzanowski revealed today that the Mission Concept Review (MCR) for ARM has been delayed by at least a month, from the end of February to the end of March, and he does not know when the Option A versus B decision will be made.  It could be made days from now, at the MCR, or afterwards he said, he simply does not know.  The FY2016 budget request includes $220 million for the "Asteroid Initiative" of which ARM is part, though Radzanowski stresses that most of that money is "leveraged," meaning that NASA would spend it anyway, even if there was no ARM.   Our FY2016 NASA Budget Request fact sheet includes a table showing where the ARM money is in the NASA budget, which is difficult to track because ARM is not a program with its own line item in the budget; the money is spread across three of NASA's four mission directorates.  
  • Space Launch System/Orion/Commercial Crew.   Once again, NASA is requesting less for SLS/Orion than Congress appropriated, and more for commercial crew than has been requested in the past.   NASA and Congress have had a tense relationship over these programs since a compromise was reached in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act wherein Congress would fund both the commercial crew program proposed by the Obama Administration to build commercial systems to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station in low Earth orbit (LEO), as well as a new NASA-developed crew transportation system -- SLS and Orion -- to take crews beyond LEO that Congress preferred.  Congress insists that the Obama Administration favors commercial crew over SLS/Orion and routinely adds money for SLS/Orion and cuts funding for commercial crew.  This year's request for commercial crew is $1.244 billion, a substantial increase over the $805 million appropriated for FY2015.   NASA explains that full funding is needed to pay for the milestones its two contractors, SpaceX and Boeing, are expected to meet through the end of FY2016 and if Congress does not provide the funds, the fixed-price contracts will have to be renegotiated.  In that event, NASA says, it cannot promise that the systems will be available by the end of 2017 as currently planned.

More information on these issues in available in our fact sheet.

House Science Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) said he was disappointed the NASA request does not adequately support programs to take us to "destinations like Mars" and includes "costly distractions, such as climate funding better suited for other agencies, and an asteroid retrieval mission that the space community does not support."

House SS&T Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) did not mention NASA in her statement about the budget, but said she is pleased with the 6 percent increase in funding for R&D across the government.

Senator John Thune, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, also did not mention NASA or other agencies.  Instead, he criticized the President's request overall as clinging to the "same old failed top-down economic policies of spending increases and tax hikes..."

On the appropriations side, Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee, and Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, each rejected the request out of hand. Neither mentioned NASA or any other agency, but reacted to the budget proposal overall.  Shelby called it "unserious" and called for a balanced budget.  Rogers called on Congress to "reject this irresponsible budget plan."   The Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Committee, Nita Lowey (D-NY), praised many aspects of the request, but the only scientific area she mentioned was biomedical research.  

Clarification.  Sen. Shelby chairs the Senate Appropriations CJS subcommittee, not the full committee as earlier wording in this article suggested.

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

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Feb-2015 (Updated: 01-Feb-2015 05:18 PM)

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

During the Week

This is budget week in Washington.  The President will submit his FY2016 budget request to Congress tomorrow (Monday), kicking off debate over how much the government should spend and on what in the "discretionary spending" portion of the federal budget.  FY2016 begins on October 1, 2015.   Discretionary spending is generally broken into two parts -- defense and non-defense.   NASA and NOAA are part of non-defense discretionary spending.  Although by law the sequester goes back into effect in FY2016, a senior administration official told reporters last week that the President's budget request will not adhere to the spending caps set by the law.  The President apparently believes that the deeply unpopular sequester rules will be waived again (as they were for FY2014 and FY2015) or repealed or replaced entirely.  

Most departments and agencies hold budget briefings the day the budget is released, as does the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).  Typically the budget is posted on the Office of Management and Budget's website in mid-morning, followed by the individual briefings.  Traditionally the NASA Administrator holds a budget briefing in Washington, but this year Administrator Bolden will be at Kennedy Space Center and instead will "address the progress made and the exciting work ahead on the agency's exploration initiative that secures America's leadership in space."  That talk will be broadcast on NASA TV, especially to all the NASA field centers, which are holding "State of NASA" events for the public that include tours, briefings, and listening to Bolden.  For all the budget-watchers and policy wonks, explaining the budget request will be left to NASA Chief Financial Officer (CFO) David Radzanowski, who succeeded Beth Robinson as CFO last year.   He will hold a telecon with the media at 4:00 pm ET that will be broadcast on NASA's News Audio website.

Another big event this week will be the confirmation hearing for Ash Carter to be the new Secretary of Defense.  That hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled for Wednesday at 9:30 am ET.

Also on Wednesday, as well as Thursday, is the annual Commercial Space Transportation conference sponsored by the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation.  It will be held at the National Housing Conference Center in Washington, DC, the same locale as the last several years.

On Thursday, the American Astronomical Society (AAS) will hold its 2nd annual "State of the Universe" briefing on Capitol Hill to highlight new discoveries about the universe in the past year.

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

Monday, February 2

Monday, February 2 - Friday, February 13

Wednesday, February 4

Wednesday-Thursday, February 4-5

Thursday, February 5

Rogozin Enlists Russian Citizens to Monitor Work at Vostochny

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Jan-2015 (Updated: 30-Jan-2015 11:54 AM)

Irritated by continuing delays in construction of Russia's new Vostochny launch site, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said today that he will use webcams to allow "people's monitoring" of construction there by the citizenry at large.   The new launch site is intended to replace much of Russia's use of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, but its construction has dragged on for many years.

Rogozin oversees Russia's space sector and he and other high level Russian officials. including President Vladimir Putin, have visited the site in Russia's Far East many times and routinely complain about the delays in construction.  Rogozin just completed another visit and said today that "the state of affairs ... leaves much to be desired." 

Acknowledging that the weather in that region of the country is "hard," he said that is all the more reason for the work to be well organized.

He plans to increase supervision not only by himself, but by the people of the country, using webcams.  Concerned about continuing delays last year, he had webcams installed that allow him to monitor progress using his office computer.  He now plans to expand that opportunity to the citizenry at large. "This is people's construction project and I want the webcams that we installed at the mail facilities to be connected not only to my Moscow office computer, but also to the websites of Roscosmos and [Military-Industrial Commission] Collegium. ... this will be a kind of 'people's monitoring' over the construction progress," Rogozin said.

Russia's plans to build a new launch site in the Russian Far East date back to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which left one of its main launch sites, Baikonur, in a different country - Kazakhstan, previously a Soviet republic.  Russia has been leasing Baikonur from Kazakhstan since then, but wants a new site within Russian borders to fully or partially replace its launch activities there.  In the mid-1990s, the decision was made to convert a former strategic missile site, Svobodny 18, in the Amur region near the city of Blagoveshensk, into a space launch site. 

Work at Svobodny proceeded slowly and although a few space launches were conducted there using Start-1 and Rokot, Putin discontinued the project in 2007.  The idea of a new launch site in that region was soon resurrected, however, and within a few months plans for a launch site, Vostochny, nearby were announced.  Construction of launch pads capable of supporting Soyuz-2 and the new Angara launch vehicle family has been a slow process.  Rogozin and Putin have made a number of trips to the site, each time complaining about the lack of progress.  Last fall, Putin pledged 50 billion rubles ($1.2 billion) to accelerate construction, but judging by Rogozin's comments today, the situation remains unsatisfactory.

A 2012 Roscosmos video (in English) features Putin explaining the importance of the new site, which is described as the centerpiece of a future new "science city."  At the time the video was made, the goal was for the first launch to take place in 2015 and for human spaceflight launches to begin in 2016.  Today, the goal apparently still is for a first launch this year, but human spaceflights have slipped to 2018.

NASA Safety Panel Criticizes Commercial Crew Program for Lack of Openness

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jan-2015 (Updated: 28-Jan-2015 10:34 PM)

NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) released its annual report today.  Among its key points is criticism of NASA's commercial crew program for its lack of openness, preventing the panel from offering "any informed opinion" on the certification process or "sufficiency of safety."  The report's release coincides with NASA's Day of Remembrance in honor of the astronauts who died as the result of spaceflights.  The first of those accidents, the 1967 Apollo fire, led to Congress creating ASAP to advise NASA on safety.

The panel's criticism of the commercial crew program was direct and unambiguous and levied at the very beginning of the report so as not to be missed:

"Within NASA, there are outstanding examples of programs that have inculcated a culture of clear and candid communications.  Their approach to accountability, good systems engineering, and respect, both up and down the organization chart, would find strong favor with the authors of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report.

"The Commercial Crew Program (CCP) is an exception to the culture of open communications.  Regrettably, the Panel has been denied the necessary timely access to information and is therefore unable to offer any informed opinion regarding the adequacy of the certification process or the sufficiency of safety in the CCP.  The NASA Administrator has committed to making the changes necessary to resolve this situation and to ensuring that these barriers are removed going forward into 2015."

ASAP's complaint comes just two days after NASA held a press conference with its commercial crew partners, Boeing and SpaceX, to herald the progress they are making to provide services to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) by the end of 2017.

In a color-coded "traffic signal" chart later in the report, ASAP rated "risk transparency -- Insight and communications" as red, meaning an issue of "long-standing concern or an issue that has not been adequately addressed by NASA."  It is the only one of nine areas designated that way.  In describing its concerns in that area, ASAP includes not only commercial crew, but the Space Launch System and Orion programs.

"Risk communications concerning commercial crew activities by the Director of Commercial Spaceflight Development has been less than forthcoming.  Because Probabilistic Risk Assessment results provide a risk assessment of the design capability at maturity, actual risks for early operations of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion could be significantly higher than the calculated or 'advertised' risk.  Because the perception of external stakeholders is vitally important, NASA's Office of Communications must be cautious not to create or reinforce inaccurate perceptions of risk."

A second key concern of the panel is what it calls the need for "constancy of purpose" at NASA.  It reflects the panel's assessment that there is a "perceived lack of a well-defined mission for NASA's space program" and a mismatch between NASA's budget and what it is expected to do.  Reiterating what it said in prior years, ASAP finds that it is "imperative that NASA unambiguously articulate a well-defined purpose, including a path toward the execution of that mission, the technologies that need to be developed and matured, and the resources needed to accomplish that mission."

ASAP criticizes NASA's current "capabilities-based approach" which it believes is driven by budgets rather than a "purposeful, schedule-driven, goal-oriented endeavor." While acknowledging that may be a pragmatic approach that could bridge a transition between presidential administrations, ASAP believes NASA would be better served to "focus on doing fewer things and on doing them better." 

Without a clear and consistent goal, ASAP worries that schedule will become a "casualty" that could affect SLS and Orion in particular. 

The panel expressed other concerns about Orion and its use for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).   The panel assessed ARM itself as "a reasonable approach to a mission that is achievable," but worries that the lack of an airlock on Orion adds risk because the entire capsule will have to be depressurized to allow the crew to exit and collect samples of the asteroid.  That means the crew will be entirely reliant on their spacesuits.  The spacesuits used for ISS spacewalks are "unworkable" for Orion, ASAP said, and although NASA officials have indicated that they have no plans to develop new spacesuits for ARM, ASAP suggests otherwise: "design and development of new-design suits, while underway, are still preliminary and untested."   In addition, the panel notes, Orion is small and does not have much room for astronauts to move about or exercise even though the missions may last as long as three weeks:  "This long duration, crew habitability risk remains to be assessed and evaluated in order to develop an objective mission risk estimate."

ASAP also is concerned about the small number of flights planned for SLS in terms of maintaining ground crew proficiency.   SLS and Orion are part of NASA's Exploration Systems Development (ESD) program, which ASAP rates as "progressing very well." but "there is much more work to be done ... [in] defining the risks and the road to Mars.  These risks should continue to be communicated openly and transparently."

The full ASAP report is posted on NASA's website.   ASAP submits it both to NASA and to Congress.  ASAP chairman Vice Admiral Joseph Dyer (retired) typically is invited to testify to Congress about the panel's findings each year.

ASAP was created by Congress in the NASA Authorization Act of 1968 (P.L. 90-67)  following the January 27, 1967 Apollo fire that killed Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee during a pre-launch ground test of what was expected to be the first Apollo mission.   Fourteen more astronauts subsequently died in two space shuttle accidents.  The January 28, 1986 space shuttle Challenger tragedy killed NASA astronauts Francis "Dick" Scobee, Mike Smith, Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka and Judy Resnik; Hughes Aircraft engineer Greg Jarvis; and New Hampshire schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.  On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during its return to Earth, killing NASA astronauts Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, and Laurel Clark, and Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.

Each year NASA holds a Day of Remembrance honoring all the astronauts who lost their lives in spaceflights.  Today is NASA's 2015 Day of Remembrance,  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, members of the Challenger families and others participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington Cemetery.  Several NASA centers held their own remembrance events.

Events of Interest

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