SpacePolicyOnline.com Latest News
The House passed the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) a few hours ago. The bill, H.R. 4909, authorizes and recommends funding levels for national security space programs. The bill increases from nine to 18 the number of Russian RD-180 rocket engines the United Launch Alliance (ULA) can obtain for its Atlas V rockets, recommends funding for developing a U.S. alternative to the RD-180, and allows some of that money to spent on portions of a new launch system other than the engine.
On the RD-180 issue, the House bill is at odds with the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), which insists that ULA should be allowed to obtain only nine more, so that debate is certain to continue.
The House adopted an amendment offered by Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) and Mike Rogers (R-AL) that responded to objections raised by the White House in its Statement of Administration Policy (SAP). Smith is the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee (HASC). Rogers is the chairman of its Strategic Forces Subcommittee that oversees most national security space programs.
In prior NDAAs, HASC had insisted that money allocated for building a U.S. alternative to Russia's RD-180 be spent only on an engine, not on other parts of a new launch system. During committee markup in April, a Smith amendment was adopted that allowed up to 25 percent of the funds to be spent on a new launch vehicle, upper stage, strap-on motor, or related infrastructure. The White House SAP complained about the restriction, however, arguing that the committee was too focused on just one part of the launch system.
The Smith/Rogers amendment increases that percentage to 31 percent.
The SAP also disagreed with language in the bill that would have required the government to obtain intellectual property rights for any new rocket propulsion system developed with government funds.
The Smith/Rogers amendment replaces that language with a requirement that the Secretary of Defense develop a plan to protect the government's investment and assured access to space, including acquiring rights, as appropriate, for the purpose of developing alternative sources of supply and manufacture in case they are needed if, for example, the company goes out of business.
The amendment was grouped together with a number of others during floor debate into "En Bloc 8" and passed by voice vote.
The House passed the bill by a vote of 277-147, with most Democrats voting against it (142 against, 40 in favor). If the President were to veto the bill, there would be enough votes to sustain it. A two-thirds vote of both chambers is required to overturn a veto. When the House has its full complement of 435 members, that means 290 votes are needed to overturn, 13 more than voted in favor of the bill. The bill has a long way to go, however. In addition to the RD-180 issue, there are many differences with the SASC version, which is expected to be debated by the Senate next week.
Note: this story was updated with additional detail on the House vote and the Senate schedule for considering its version of the NDAA.
Andy Weir, author of the best selling book and movie The Martian, was the feature attraction himself today at a House hearing on deep space habitats. While representatives of NASA and three aerospace companies explained their habitat plans, Weir honed in on a more fundamental issue, insisting that humans are not meant to spend long durations in zero gravity and the focus should be on developing artificial gravity.
Weir is the first to stress that he is not a space expert, but "just an enthuasiast" offering his own views. Noting that astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) must spend two hours per day exercising to counteract the effects of life in microgravity, Weir argued that instead of trying to ameliorate those effects "we should concentrate on inventing artificial gravity." He acknowledged that it would be "a huge engineering challenge," but that "is what NASA is all about. I have no doubt they would rise to the occasion."
He is not envisioning the type of "huge wheel in-space construction" that may leap to mind when thinking about artificial gravity -- like the one in the iconic Chesley Bonestell painting or the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Instead, Weir described a space station with a crew compartment connected by a long tether to a counterweight with the entire structure rotating.
The idea is not new. In its 1986 report Pioneering the Space Frontier, the congressionally-chartered National Commission on Space, for example, recommended a Variable Gravity Research Facility in earth orbit. It was to be comprised of two modules connected by a tether whose length could be varied to produce different gravity levels for scientific research. The Commission's Earth-Mars transit vehicles would use the same principle and spin down to one-third g on the way to Mars so the crew was acclimated when it arrived, and back up to 1g during the trip home.
That's what Weir has in mind (though he made no mention of the Commission's report). He also made it clear at the hearing and at the Humans to Mars summit earlier in the day that he does not plan to make the trip himself.
Weir also answered a question from subcommittee chairman Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) about how to deal with the negative effects of radiation for crews traveling in deep space. He remarked that NASA recently increased the permitted lifetime radiation dosage for its crews, so part of the problem was solved "by a simple policy decision." He also offered that someone had calculated the radiation risk for his fictional characters and concluded that the person most affected would have had just a 4 percent greater mortality risk. (That character was the mission commander, not Mark Watney, the character stranded on Mars, because he was partially protected by the Martian atmosphere. The commander was young and female and therefore at greater risk.)
The hearing was before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee. Subcommittee member Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who is not a humans-to-Mars enthusiast, pointedly asked Weir why money would not be better spent on protecting Earth from asteroids or cleaning up space debris than sending people to Mars. Weir said that money is already being spent on protecting humans from asteroids by tracking them and that there are no Earth-threatening asteroids for at least the next 50 years. As for space debris, Earth orbit is a very large area and it would like trying to clean up all the "gum wrappers in the Pacific Ocean" and is not viable. Instead, the focus should be on preventing the creation of future space debris. Rohrabacher was not convinced.
Weir's presence overshadowed the main purpose the hearing, which was to receive testimony from NASA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Orbital ATK about their plans for building space habitats for deep space exploration. NASA, Boeing and Orbital ATK are focused on habitats in cis-lunar space, while Lockheed Martin yesterday announced a "vision" for a Mars Base Camp in orbit around Mars in 2028.
In the FY2016 appropriations bill, Congress directed NASA to spend $55 million this year on habitats and to build a prototype by 2018. Jason Crusan, NASA's Director for Advanced Exploration Systems, explained that the agency is funding habitat studies by Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK and Bigelow Aerospace through its NASA Space Technology for Space Exploration (NextSTEP) Broad Area Announcement.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) challenged Crusan about whether the agency is following congressional direction. He said NASA's FY2016 operating plan shows that only $25 million is being spent on NextSTEP. Crusan responded that NASA is spending more than $70 million this year on habitats. The rest of the money is being spent on developing systems that would go inside the modules. As for having a prototype ready by 2018, Crusan explained that the agency is on track to accomplish that, but it will be a ground demonstrator designed for "form, fit and function" tests, not a space module.
House SS&T full committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Bridenstine both used the hearing to criticize the Obama Administration's Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). As he has many times previously, Smith called ARM "unjustified" and a "distraction" with no relevance to human exploration of the solar system. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently estimated the cost of the robotic portion of the ARM mission (not including launch) at $1.72 billion, money that Smith said would be better spent on habitats and propulsion technologies.
Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) asked Crusan if Smith was correct that ARM is unjustified. Crusan answered that ARM is needed for developing, testing and operating high power Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP), which will be needed for Mars missions. Bridenstine pressed Crusan on that answer later in the hearing, however. Crusan responded that ARM is an "opportunity" to test SEP, leading Bridenstine to stress that it is an "just an opportunity," not "necessary."
Boeing's John Elbon and Orbital ATK's Frank Culberston both advocated for habitats in lunar orbit as the next step for humans into deep space. Lockheed Martin's Wanda Sigur, however, outlined the company's new Mars Base Camp concept. The timeline shown on the company's website has little time for activities in cislunar space. It does envision assembling the base camp -- comprised of two Orion spacecraft, a habitat, a laboratory module, and solar panels and other systems -- in lunar orbit beginning in 2021, but the goal is to send it to Mars orbit for arrival in 2028. Sigur's message was "Mars is closer than you think. We're ready to accelerate the journey."
Editor's Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I was Executive Director of the 1985-1986 National Commission on Space, which was chaired by former NASA Administrator Tom Paine.
Lockheed Martin will announce today a proposal to send six people to Mars in 2028 using two of the company's Orion capsules. They would not try to land on Mars, but remain in Mars orbit living in a "Mars Base Camp" habitat and laboratory modules. Company officials are scheduled to speak at the Humans to Mars (H2M) summit in Washington, DC, today as well as at a congressional hearing this afternoon.
An article published yesterday afternoon in Popular Science outlined the concept, quoting former astronaut Tony Antonelli, now Lockheed Martin's Chief Technologist for Exploration Systems. Antonelli is scheduled to speak at H2M at 4:00 pm ET this afternoon. Wanda Sigur, the company's Vice President and General Manager for Civil Space, is on an H2M panel this morning and will testify to the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee at 2:00 pm ET this afternoon at a hearing on deep space habitats.
The basic idea is for NASA to send six astronauts in two Orion capsules to Mars in 2028. A larger habitat, laboratories and solar panels would be launched separately and assembled in space -- the Mars Base Camp. All would be launched using NASA's Space Launch System (SLS). The astronauts would remain in orbit around Mars, teleoperating robotic spacecraft on the surface and conducting observations of the planet.
The idea of sending astronauts to orbit Mars before attempting to land on the surface is not new. It was most recently championed last year by The Planetary Society based on a study conducted by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). It proposed an orbital mission in 2033, which has literally become a bumper sticker for one member of the House SS&T Committee -- Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), who holds it up at many committee hearings on space exploration. Whether he holds it up at today's hearing or has a new one touting 2028 remains to be seen.
Remaining in orbit is much easier than landing, but some question the value of going all the way to Mars and not landing. While Apollo astronauts orbited the Moon before landing, Mars is much further away -- a 6-month one-way journey. However, landing on Mars is a difficult task as illustrated by the "Seven Minutes of Terror" for the 1-ton Curiosity lander that arrived in 2012. NASA officials often point out that much larger spacecraft will be needed for humans and they have yet to solve issues associated with landing 10-20 ton vehicles.
For those in a hurry to get humans to Mars, an orbital mission could be more achievable, although accomplishing such a feat just 12 years from now would be quite a challenge technically and financially. NASA is currently planning to spend the decade of the 2020s using Orion spacecraft to develop experience in the "proving ground" of cis-lunar space (between the Earth and the Moon) leading up to a one-year "shakedown criuise" in lunar orbit in 2029. The idea is to test equipment and human adaption to long durations in space further from Earth than the International Space Station (ISS) before attempting the Mars journey. ISS is in low Earth orbit and astronauts can return to Earth quickly in an emergency. That would not be true from cis-lunar space and certainly not from Mars.
The House Appropriations Committee approved the FY2017 defense appropriations bill today. It generally steers clear of the RD-180 controversy that is so prevalent in the other defense committees, approving the $296.6 million requested for building an alternative U.S. engine, offering no comment on how many RD-180s should be procured while that new engine is developed. However, it does dip into the topic of awarding launches on a competitive basis and reduces from five to three the number of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) that may be procured in FY2017. The committee expresses concern about planning for future satellite systems, including weather satellites, and provides funding for a commercial weather pilot project.
Strictly speaking, appropriations committees provide funding while authorizing committees set policy and recommend funding levels. The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) is the defense authorization committee in the House. Its bill, the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act, is currently being debated on the House floor. (Not sure of the difference between an authorization and an appropriation? See SpacePolicyOnline.com's "What's a Markup?" fact sheet.)
The House Appropriations Committee's views on national security space issues include the following:
The draft FY2017 Transportation-HUD appropriations bill released by the House Appropriations Committee today provided only half of the requested increase for the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST). The Obama Administration requested $19.8 million, a $2 million increase over current funding. The T-HUD subcommittee draft provides half of that proposed increase -- $1 million, for a new total of $18.8 million. Subcommittee markup is scheduled for tomorrow morning. [UPDATE: The subcommittee approved the bill.]
AST facilitates and regulates the commercial space launch industry, issuing licenses to companies for launches and reentries, licensing spaceports, and participating in accident investigations. Its responsibilities have grown as the number of commercial space companies has blossomed over the past several years. Also, congressional advocates like Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) want to expand its functions into other commercial space areas such as issuing "mission licenses" to companies planning to mine asteroids and becoming involved in space situational awareness. (Bridenstine's American Space Renaissance Act proposes a $43.2 million budget for AST in FY2017.)
Against this backdrop, AST has been endeavoring to hire more staff, but Congress has been reluctant to go along. Last year, the President's request for AST was $18.115 million, a $1.5 million increase over AST's FY2015 level of $16.605 million. The House Appropriations Committee held the office to its FY2015 level, although Bridenstine offered an amendment on the floor that added $250,000. (He often jokes that he may be the only member who has argued for such a meager increase for any program, but any increase must be offset by a decrease elsewhere.) By the end of the FY2016 appropriations process, however, that amount grew to $17.8 million, still short of the request, but better than the House appropriations figure.
Bridenstine and 17 other Republicans and Democrats sent a letter to the T-HUD subcommittee chairman and ranking member in March arguing for the full $19.8 million for FY2017. While it did not convince them to provide the full amount, they at least approved half of the proposed increase, an improvement over last year.
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the full request.
FAA's commercial space transportation activities also receive funding through two other accounts, but the draft House bill does not provide sufficient detail to determine how they fared. The requests are $2.953 million in FAA's Research, Engineering and Development (RE&D) account for safety-related activities and $2 million as part of a $20 million request for Air Traffic Management in the Facilities and Equipment account. The latter is for integrating commercial space activities into the National Air Space.
The House Appropriations Committee today released its draft FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) funding bill, which includes NASA and NOAA. NASA would get an even bigger boost -- $19.5 billion -- than recommended by the Senate Appropriations Committee. The draft bill does not provide much detail on NOAA, but the total recommended for the account that includes acquiring satellites is $2.218 billion, compared to the $2.282 billion requested. The subcommittee is scheduled to mark up the bill tomorrow morning. [UPDATE: The subcommittee approved the bill.]
NASA. The President's request for NASA this year is very complicated, but basically it is for $18.3 billion in appropriated funds plus $763 million in other funding, for a total of $19.025 billion. Appropriations committees only have jurisdiction over appropriations, so both the House and Senate committees consider the request to be $18.3 billion.
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $19.3 billion, essentially the same as NASA's current funding level and, from its point of view, a $1 billion increase over the President's request. The House CJS subcommittee is proposing $19.5 billion. Few details are in the bill (most are in the report that accompanies the bill, which has not been released yet), but the following funding levels are specified:
The extent to which those are increases or decreases depends on whether the comparison is to current funding, the President's request including the non-appropriated funds, or the President's request for appropriated funding only. See SpacePolicyOnline.com's NASA budget fact sheet for more information.
NOAA Satellite Programs. NOAA encompasses a broad set of mission areas, of which environmental satellites is but one. Its budget is divided into Operations, Research and Facilities (ORF) and Procurement, Acquisition and Construction (PAC). A large percentage of the PAC account is for satellites. The draft bill provides $2.230 billion for NOAA's PAC account, of which $2.218 billion is new appropriations (the rest is unobligated spending from prior years). The total PAC request was $2.282 billion, of which $2.063 billion is for NOAA's satellite programs. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $2.029 billion. See SpacePolicyOnline.com's NOAA budget fact sheet for more details.
The only satellite-specific language in the draft House bill concerns funding requested for the COSMIC-2 constellation of radio occultation satellites. NOAA is requesting funds to procure a new set of these satellites, but Congress is interested in NOAA acquiring data from commercial satellites to fulfill this requirement. The draft bill states that no funds may be obligated until 15 days after the NOAA Administrator submits a report whose details are described in the committee's report on the bill. Congress created a commercial weather data pilot program in last year's appropriations bill and NOAA submitted an implementation plan in April that states it will use radio occultation data for that pilot program. Such satellites use signals from the Global Positioning System (GPS) and similar systems fielded by other countries for radio occultation to make measurements of temperature and water vapor in the lower atmosphere. When combined with data from polar orbiting weather satellites, better forecasts are enabled.
The Obama Administration issued its Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) on the House version of the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) today. The bill, H.R. 4909, is before the House Rules Committee at the moment and, subject to a rule being granted, will reach the House floor for debate this week. The SAP states that the President's advisers will recommend that he veto the bill if changes are not made. Such threats have become common and last year the President followed through, although a compromise was ultimately reached.
The main obstacle to last year's NDAA was funding. The President vetoed the first FY2016 NDAA that cleared Congress, but after a top-level budget agreement was reached in October, a revised version was passed and it received the President's signature,
Funding is also one of the major issues this time, although the 17-page SAP has a very long list of complaints. The funding issue this year is because the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) decided to redirect $18 billion from the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account -- which pays for operations in Afghanistan, for example -- into activities that are supposed to be part of DOD's base budget, not the special OCO funds that do not count against the budget caps. That way HASC can spend more money for defense without exceeding the caps, but it means that the OCO account has only enough money to pay for American troops fighting overseas until April 2017, not through the end of FY2017. Whoever becomes President in January will have to immediately request a supplemental appropriations bill to keep the troops funded. "By gambling with warfighting funds, the bill risks the safety of our men and women fighting to keep America safe, undercuts stable planning and efficient use of taxpayer dollars, dispirits troops and their families, baffles our allies, and emboldens out enemies," the SAP asserts.
From a space policy standpoint, the SAP also criticizes HASC's actions regarding the Russian RD-180 rocket engine issue. HASC adopted the position held by the Administration and the United Launch Alliance (ULA) that 18 more RD-180s are needed to keep ULA's Atlas V rockets available through the early 2020s, but retains some restrictions on how the money can be spent. Although the language in this bill is more flexible than in the last two NDAAs, the Administration still objects. The debate is over whether the money Congress is providing to develop a U.S. alternative to the RD-180 may be spent only on a new engine, or on other parts of a new launch system. Previous NDAAs forbid using the money for anything other than the engine. This bill has a modified version of that prohibition that allows up to 25 percent of the research and development funds to be spent on a new launch vehicle, upper stage, strap-on motor and related infrastructure. The amendment containing that language was offered by Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), the top Democrat on HASC, and adopted by voice vote at the very end of the 16-hour markup on April 27-28.
The SAP has this to say about it:
Rocket Propulsion System Development Program: The Administration appreciates the amended language to section 1608 of the FY 2015 NDAA to authorize up to 18 RD-180 engines, ensuring a necessary and cost-effective bridge to American-made launch services. However, the Administration strongly objects to section 1601, which would place restrictions on the funds to eliminate the Nation's use of these engines for national security space launches. The Committee's approach overemphasizes one component of a launch vehicle and, in doing so, risks the successful and timely fielding of new domestic launch systems. The Administration is committed to developing new American-made propulsion systems as part of these new launch vehicles, but this should be done in accordance with well-accepted systems engineering principles and not arbitrary funding allocations.
The SAP also rejects a provision that requires the Government to obtain rights and technical data about any new rocket propulsion system.
The Administration also strongly objects to the direction in section 1601 requiring the acquisition of Government purpose rights and technical data for any new rocket propulsion system. Complying with this direction is not feasible as it would likely require re-negotiation of the current development contracts, thereby delaying the delivery of the new domestic capabilities beyond 2019. Pursuing such robust data rights would also undermine the very nature of the public-private partnerships, require significantly more Government funding, and risk further industry investment and participation. The Administration's public-private partnerships are successfully leveraging willing private investment to develop commercially viable launch vehicles, and this has already saved taxpayers nearly $200 million, while maintaining access to the data that the Government needs. These partnerships could save taxpayers more than $500 million through 2019 and deliver valuable capabilities for the Nation and benefits to our economy faster than the Committee's approach.
The House Rules Committee met this evening to begin discussion about the rule that will govern floor debate on the bill. The meeting continues tomorrow (Tuesday) afternoon where the committee will decide which of the 372 amendments that have been submitted will be allowed on the floor for debate. The rule dictates how much time each side (pro and con) will have to debate the bill in its entirety and each of the permitted amendments and sets other conditions, such as waiving points of order.
The expectation is that the committee will approve a rule tomorrow and floor debate will begin on Wednesday. [UPDATE; Word as of this morning (Tuesday) is that debate will begin later today.] Several of the submitted amendments deal with the RD-180/U.S. replacement issues.
The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) has approved its version of the bill and took a very different approach to RD-180s, so the debate is certain to continue no matter what happens in this bill.
The SAP also raises objections to two other space-related provisions in the bill.
As currently written, the bill requires DOD to initiate concept definition, design, research, development and engineering evaluation and testing for a space-based intercept and defeat missile defense layer and space test bed. The SAP says the Administration appreciates congressional support for its missile defense program, but there is "no requirement for a space-based intercept and there are concerns about the technical feasibility and long-term affordability of interceptors in space."
The bill would also transfer from the Air Force to the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) responsibility for some space-based environmental monitoring missions. The committee states in its report on the bill that it is concerned about the Air Force's lack of planning, coordination, and execution of activities to meet space-based environmental monitoring requirements. It notes that the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) originated in NRO and was later transferred to the Air Force and wants the same arrangement now "in which the NRO develops the program and then transfers it back to the Air Force after it is in operation." The SAP states that the entire DOD weather enterprise should be managed "as an integrated mission" and not split up.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of May 16-22, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them (yes, the 22nd, not the 20th, since ISDC 2016 runs through next Sunday). The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
It's another one of those busy, busy, weeks for space policy aficionados not just in Washington, DC, but in many other places around the world.
On Capitol Hill, House floor debate on the defense authorization bill begins mid-week. The FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), H.R. 4909, was approved by the House Armed Services Committee on April 28. One of the big space-related items was, of course, the RD-180 issue. HASC went along with the Air Force/United Launch Alliance (ULA) position that ULA needs 18 additional RD-180s to ensure Atlas V rockets are available through the early 2020s, instead of 9 engines to keep it available through 2019 as preferred by its Senate counterpart, SASC. (SASC marked up its version of the NDAA last week and stuck to its guns about only 9 more.) Another part of the debate is whether the money Congress is providing for developing a U.S. alternative to the RD-180 may be spent only on the engine or on other elements of an entirely new space launch system. HASC had insisted in previous NDAAs that it be spent only on the engine, but, this year, an amendment was adopted at committee level allowing the funds to be spent on a launch vehicle, upper stage, strap-on motor or related infrastructure. HASC's action on the NDAA is just one step in the defense authorization process. Next, the House Rules Committee will meet Monday and Tuesday to craft the rule that will govern the floor debate. It will decide, for example, which of the 372 submitted amendments may be offered on the floor. Several concern the RD-180/U.S. replacement issues. All of the submitted amendments are posted on the Rules Committee's website.
DOD appropriations also will be tackled this week. The full House Appropriations Committee will mark up the FY2017 defense bill on Tuesday morning (subcommittee markup was completed on May 11). Two other FY2017 appropriations measures also will be considered this week, but at subcommittee level. On Wednesday, the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee will mark up the CJS bill, which includes NASA and NOAA, at 10:00 am ET and the Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) subcommittee will mark up the T-HUD bill, which includes FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, at 11:30 am ET.
The Humans to Mars (H2M) 2016 summit, sponsored by Explore Mars, will take place at George Washington University Tuesday-Thursday and will be webcast. Among the speakers is Andy Weir, author of The Martian. Not only will he speak there on Wednesday morning, but that afternoon he is scheduled to testify to the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee at a hearing on Deep Space Habitats. NASA no doubt wishes it had the habitats of Weir's fictional characters, both on the surface of Mars and the nifty Earth-Mars transit vehicle, complete with centrifuge. Perhaps he will set an aspirational mood for the subcommittee members and the other witnesses, who hail from NASA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Orbital ATK. The hearing also will be webcast.
Many interesting conferences (in addition to H2M) will take place this week around the globe: GEOINT 2016 in Orlando, FL; ISDC 2016 in San Juan, Puerto Rico; the European Lunar Symposium in Amsterdam, the Netherlands; Astro2016 in Ottawa, Canada; and SpaceOps 2016 in Daejeon, Korea.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week for additions to our Events of Interest list that are announced later.
Sunday-Wednesday, May 15-18
Monday-Tuesday, May 16-17
Monday-Friday, May 16-20
Tuesday, May 17
Tuesday-Thursday, May 17-19
Wednesday, May 18
Wednesday-Thursday, May 18-19
Wednesday-Sunday, May 18-22
The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) approved its version of the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) today. Continuing a two-year dispute over how many Russian RD-180 rockets engines may be obtained for United Launch Alliance (ULA) Altas V rockets, the committee insisted on keeping the number at nine instead of raising it to 18 as recommended by its House counterpart. The SASC bill would also repeal language in the FY2016 appropriations bill that lifted the limit set in last year's NDAA.
The fundamental issue is how quickly a U.S. alternative to the Russian engine can be developed and tested sufficiently to assure that U.S. national security satellites can be launched as needed -- called assured access to space. The RD-180 engine was chosen for the Atlas V rocket in the 1990s when U.S.-Russian relationships were good. Since Russia's annexation of Crimea two years ago and its subsequent actions in Ukraine, broad agreement has arisen among Congress, the White House and the Air Force that the United States should not be reliant on Russian rocket engines to place critical national security satellites into orbit. SASC Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) is a leading voice on this issue and often asserts that U.S. dollars should not go to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his "cronies."
SASC and other congressional committees disagree, however, on the timing for the transition from RD-180-powered Atlas V rockets to a new rocket with U.S.-built engines. At the moment, the argument is over whether ULA should be allowed to obtain nine more, or 18 more, than the number already under contract. Currently the Air Force states that it needs 18 more to ensure the Atlas V is available until the early 2020s when a new launch system -- an engine plus the rest of the launch vehicle -- has been tested and certified. McCain and his supporters argue it can be done by 2019 and only nine more engines are needed. (Last year, the Air Force and ULA said 14 were needed, but now it is 18.)
Another element of the debate is a drive to encourage competition in the national security space launch market. ULA has been virtually a monopoly provider of national security launch services since it was created as a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture in 2006. Last year, SpaceX was certified by the Air Force to compete with ULA. Generally, ULA supporters want to obtain enough RD-180s to keep ULA's Atlas V available for as long as possible to compete with SpaceX's Falcon rockets, while SpaceX supporters want to end the use of Atlas V and its Russian engines quickly with the expectation that SpaceX Falcon rockets coupled with ULA's larger Delta IV launch vehicles can satisfy national security space launch requirements.
U.S. national space transportation policy requires that at least two independent launch systems be available for national security launches. If one suffers a failure, access to space is assured by the other. For more than a decade, those two have been Atlas V and Delta IV, both ULA rockets. SpaceX argues that now the two can be its Falcon plus ULA's Delta IV. ULA and its supporters insist, however, that the Delta IV is prohibitively expensive compared to Atlas V and the best choice for the taxpayers is to keep Atlas V available until the early 2020s when ULA's new Vulcan rocket -- with a U.S. engine -- will be able to compete with SpaceX on price.
SASC insists that a new U.S. engine can be ready by 2019 and only nine more RD-180s are needed until that time. That is the number set by the FY2015 and FY2016 NDAAs. However, the Senate Appropriations Committee undermined that authorization language in the FY2016 appropriations bill, essentially removing all limits. (Not sure of the difference between an authorization and an appropriation? See our "What's a Markup?" fact sheet.)
Today, SASC insisted on nine engines only and called for repeal of the appropriations language. A committee summary of its action allocates three paragraphs to the issue:
"Providing Assured Access to Space and Ending Reliance on Russia
"Despite the efforts of the committee, United States assured access to space continues to rely on Russian rocket engines, the purchase of which provide financial benefit to aides and advisors to Vladimir Putin – including individuals sanctioned by the United States – and subsidizes the Russian military-industrial base. This is unacceptable at a time when Russia continues to occupy Crimea, destabilize Ukraine, menace our NATO allies, send weapons to Iran, violate the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and bomb U.S.-backed forces in Syria fighting the Assad regime.
"That is why the NDAA repeals a provision from last year’s omnibus appropriations bill that furthered dependence on Russia and requires that assured access to space be achieved without the use of rocket engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation. In testimony before the committee, the Secretary of Defense, the Director of National Intelligence, and the Secretary of the Air Force each confirmed to the committee that the United States can meet its assured access to space requirements without the use of Russian rocket engines. Once the nine Russian rocket engines allowed by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 and Fiscal Year 2016 are expended, the Defense Department would be authorized to utilize only those launch vehicles that do not require rocket engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation.
"According to the Department of Defense Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) and a study commissioned by the Air Force, the continued use of Russian rocket engines will not provide the cost competitive launch environment the Air Force was hoping would materialize. Given the urgency of eliminating reliance on Russian engines, the NDAA would allow for up to half of the funds made available for the development of a replacement launch vehicle or launch propulsion system to be made available for offsetting any potential increase in launch costs as a result of prohibitions on Russian rocket engines. With $1.2 billion budgeted from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2021 for the launch replacement effort and $453 million already appropriated in fiscal year 2015 and fiscal year 2016, there is more than sufficient funding available and budgeted for a replacement propulsion system or launch vehicle and to offset any additional costs required in meeting our assured access to space requirements without the use of Russian rocket engines."
The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) marked up its version of the FY2017 NDAA in April and agreed to the ULA/Air Force position of 18 more. The House is expected to take up the bill next week.
The NASA program managers for the three components of the Space Launch System (SLS)/Orion program, the centerpiece of the agency's plan for future human space exploration, painted an optimistic outlook today for the first SLS/Orion launch without a crew in 2018 and the first with a crew in 2021.
As directed by Congress in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, NASA is building SLS, a rocket bigger than the Apollo-era Saturn V; Orion, a crewed spacecraft to go with it; and associated ground systems at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) through the Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) program. The program managers for each of those three components -- John Honeycutt, Mark Kirasich, and Mike Bolger, respectively -- provided an update to the Space Transportation Association (STA) at an event on Capitol Hill today.
NASA has committed to the first SLS/Orion launch -- Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) -- in November 2018. That launch will not carry any people, but will test the rocket and spacecraft out to lunar orbit. NASA has no plans to return astronauts to the surface of the Moon, but expects to spend the decade of the 2020s testing hardware, software, and human beings in "cis-lunar" space before committing to sending them to Mars in the 2030s. The second flight, EM-2, will be the first to carry a crew. NASA committed to launching that mission in 2023, but says it is working towards an internal date of 2021.
Orion program manager Kirasich is confident Orion will be ready for EM-1 in the fall of 2018 and for EM-2 in 2021. The Orion spacecraft for EM-1 is already at KSC and will be outfitted with a variety of systems over the next 18 months. Orion EM-1's service module is being provided by the European Space Agency (ESA) and a structural test article is half way through tests at NASA Glenn Research Center's Plum Brook facility in Ohio.
ESA agreed to provide at least one Service Module as part of a barter arrangement it has with NASA over common operating costs for the International Space Station (ISS).
SLS is also making good progress according to Honeycutt: "This is becoming real." Manufacturing and testing of the core stage are well underway at Marshall Space Flight Center in Hunstville, AL and at the Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans, LA as well as qualification tests for the Solid Rocket Boosters. Progress is also being made on the Interim Cyrogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) needed to send Orion around the Moon.
NASA intends to use the ICPS on EM-1, but there is disagreement about what happens next. A more capable Exploration (or Enhanced) Upper Stage (EUS) is needed for missions beyond EM-2. NASA's FY2017 budget request assumes that ICPS will be used for both EM-1 and EM-2, with EUS following thereafter. However, EUS advocates argue that there is no point in human-rating ICPS for one crewed mission and NASA should get EUS ready in time for EM-2. Congress is persuaded by those arguments and directed NASA to build EUS now. Despite the fact that the NASA budget request pending before Congress assumes ICPS for EM-2, Honeycutt assuredly spoke of using EUS on EM-2.
The ground systems to support SLS and Orion get less attention, but as Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) said "no ground systems, no launches." Posey opened the event today and remained for the presentations. He represents KSC. NASA owns only two launch pads, 39A and 39B, both at KSC. It has leased 39A to SpaceX and is transforming 39B into a "multi-user" launch pad that can accommodate a variety of launch vehicles, including SLS. NASA plans only one SLS launch per year, so the pad would be available for other launches the rest of the time.
SLS ground systems include the launch pad, mobile transporter, and other facilities at KSC, as well as recovery operations for the Orion spacecraft after it splashes down in the Pacific Ocean, which were tested in the December 2014 EFT-1 flight. GSDO program manager Bolger said the mood at KSC was "electric" during that two-orbit mission, which took place three years after the final space shuttle flight, instilling optimism about the future of U.S. human spaceflight. "The Journey to Mars begins here" at KSC, he enthused.
Honeycutt said he hopes SLS will launch more often than once per year and cited science missions, like the Europa project, that could utilize the rocket, which will be available in several different configurations launching 70, 105 or 130 metric tons. He also noted that 800 contractors in 43 states are working on SLS. He said that his biggest worry is annual funding. All the speakers expressed appreciation to Congress for providing robust funding for these programs.
Congress has added substantial sums above the President's request for these programs over the past several years and seems poised to do so again this year.
Events of Interest