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Virginia's Senators Tout Money Added In Cromnibus for Wallops Launch Pad Repairs

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Dec-2014 (Updated: 12-Dec-2014 02:40 PM)

Virginia's two Senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, issued a press release yesterday touting $20 million included in the  FY2015 "cromnibus" spending bill that just cleared the House.  The money is to help pay for damages to a launch pad at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility caused by the October 28 Antares rocket failure.  Wallops is on the coast of Virginia.

Warner and Kaine, both Democrats, thanked fellow Democrat and Maryland neighbor Barbara Mikulski for being a "supporter and advocate of NASA and the Wallops facility."  Mikulski chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares is launched from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops.  Orbital is headquartered in Dulles, Virginia, just outside Washington, DC.  MARS is owned by the State of Virginia and state officials reportedly were unhappy to discover what their financial responsibility is for repairing MARS under these circumstances.

The Senators' press statement said the money would "support repairs following a launch failure on October 28 that caused significant damage to the [MARS] launch pad."  It added that the Senators would release a complete list of "Virginia priorities" included in the spending package after the bill clears Congress.  (They also issued a press release listing what they achieved for Virginia in the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act, also expected to clear Congress imminently.  None are space-related.)

The House passed the bill -- the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015, colloquially called the "cromnibius" because it is a combination of a Continuing Resolution (CR) and an omnibus appropriations bill -- last night.  The Senate is expected to pass it today or tomorrow.  It includes $18.010 billion for NASA, an increase of $549 million above the President's request.  It is not obvious where in the bill the $20 million is added, but presumably somewhere in that increase.

Antares exploded 15 seconds after launch on a mission to deliver cargo to the International Space Station under a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.   Orbital and SpaceX both developed cargo space transportation systems through a public-private partnership often called "commercial cargo."   Skeptics of the "commercial" nature of the effort are watching how Orbital and the government recover from the failure to see who ends up paying for what.  Orbital has announced its own recovery plan, which includes buying at least one launch from United Launch Alliance, and insists that it does not expect "any material adverse financial impacts in 2015 or future years" because of the failure.

House Narrowly Passes FY2015 Funding Bill and Two-Day CR

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Dec-2014 (Updated: 11-Dec-2014 11:33 PM)

The House approved the FY2015 "cromnibus" spending package tonight by a vote of 219-206.  The Senate still must act on the measure so the House also passed another Continuing Resolution (CR) to extend government funding for two more days, through midnight Saturday.  The Senate quickly passed the two-day CR, averting a government shutdown tonight.

The cromnibus is a mix of a CR and an omnibus appropriations bill.  A CR provides funding for a short period of time at the previous year's level.  An omnibus consolidates several regular full-year appropriations bills into a single legislative package.  This bill combines full year appropriations for departments and agencies in 11 of the 12 regular appropriations bills (including NASA, NOAA and DOD) with a short term CR for the 12th (the Department of Homeland Security-DHS).  Funding DHS only through February 27, 2015, is intended to signal Republican dissatisfaction with President Obama's executive order on immigration.  Immigration is part of DHS.

The battle over the cromnibus was intense and at times its passage seemed in jeopardy.  The final vote was 219-206.   Voting in favor were 162 Republicans and 57 Democrats.  Voting against were 67 Republicans and 139 Democrats.  Five members from each party did not vote.

The rancor was over provisions agreed to by House and Senate negotiators endeavoring to reach a compromise.  The end result clearly does not please everyone.  Conservative Republicans reportedly want a stronger reaction against the President's immigration executive order, liberal Democrats and some Republicans object to a provision weakening the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, and liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans object to changes to the campaign finance law. 

The White House supported passage, but House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said the House was being "blackmailed" into voting for it.

The battle now moves to the Senate.  With passage of the new two-day CR, it has until midnight Saturday to act.

The bill contains a significant budget boost for NASA -- an increase of $549 million above the President's request for a total of $18.010 billion.  NOAA's satellite programs also fare well.

House SS&T Members Question Obama Commitment to SLS/Orion, Absence of NASA CFO

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Dec-2014 (Updated: 11-Dec-2014 10:30 PM)

A hearing before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee on the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft yesterday covered familiar ground, especially Republican criticism that the Obama Administration does not sufficiently support those programs.  Perhaps the most interesting elements were the minimal discussion of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and the absence of NASA’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO), David Radzanowski, who was asked to testify. 

Radzanowski was included on the witness list prior to the hearing as “(invited)”.  As the hearing began, Subcommittee Chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) noted that Radzanowski was not there “despite numerous invitations and attempts to secure his attendance” to explain NASA’s budget development process and guidance.  Palazzo said NASA’s other witness, Bill Gerstenmaier, “may not be the appropriate person to explain many of the policies and practices being advanced by the CFO’s office.”

Saying they understood the CFO has a busy schedule, Palazzo reported that the committee told NASA it was willing to accept a substitute, but “unfortunately, NASA prohibited any other CFO representative from appearing today.”  He argued that the CFO is a Senate-confirmed position, which requires that individual to appear before the relevant congressional authorization committees and “I look forward to Mr. Radzanowski’s appearance before this committee in the near future.”

NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs told via email today, however, that “Unfortunately, we knew [he] would be out of town at the time of the proposed hearing.  The agency determined that he was best suited to address any questions and did offer an alternative date for his availability, which was declined.”

Consequently, the only two witnesses were Gerstenmaier, who is NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, and Cristina Chaplain, director, acquisition and sourcing management, Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Republicans and Democrats paid tribute to Gerstenmaier personally and to the NASA/Lockheed Martin/United Launch Alliance team that successfully flew the Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission last week.  GAO’s Chaplain, sitting next to Gerstenmaier at the witness table, also congratulated NASA on the flight.

Apart from that, the hearing was a familiar litany of complaints by Republicans against the Obama Administration for what they perceive to be its lack of support for SLS and Orion. Indeed, Congress – with both Republican and Democratic backing – added money above the President’s request for these programs in the FY2015 omnibus appropriations bill now working its way through Congress as it did in prior years.

The exception was Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) who told Gerstenmaier that SLS was “a rotten decision on the part of this committee.  It’s not your fault. You’re good soldiers [but] we have given you an undoable task.”  Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) retorted that “I’m glad that didn’t stop Apollo.”

The two Democratic members who attended -- Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) -- offered support for the Administration’s long-term goal of sending humans to Mars, but were silent about its near-term goal, ARM, that involves redirecting an asteroid into lunar orbit to be visited by astronauts.

The hearing focused on SLS and Orion and where they can take the U.S. human spaceflight program, but discussion of ARM was negligible.  In 2010, President Obama directed NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid as the next step in human spaceflight.  When asked early in the hearing what the first destination is for SLS and Orion, Gerstenmaier talked about cis-lunar space without mentioning ARM, however.  Only after being asked directly by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) toward the end of the hearing about the international community’s reaction to ARM did Gerstenmaier defend it as part of the path to Mars.

Bridenstine referenced the National Research Council (NRC) report on the future of the human spaceflight program – the “pathways” report – as saying ARM is not in alignment with the international community and could result in spending money on “dead-end technologies.”   Gerstenmaier said they were not dead-end.  He offered that NASA did not have an opportunity to brief the NRC committee on how the technical capabilities needed for ARM could translate into delivering cargo to Mars, for example.  ARM envisions using a robotic spacecraft powered by solar electric propulsion to nudge an asteroid from its native orbit into an orbit around the Moon, where it could be studied by astronauts.  Technologies needed to redirect the asteroid conceivably could be used to send cargo to Mars.  “We ran out of time towards the end” of the NRC committee’s deliberations, Gerstenmaier said, so its members did not see how NASA envisioned the pieces coming together.

Bridenstine mentioned the NRC report a number of times, noting that it cost $3.2 million.  It seemed less a complaint about the cost than an admonition that Congress should pay attention to what it recommended considering the investment.

Palazzo seemed particularly interested in discovering when NASA realized that SLS might need an additional $400 million to meet its schedule.   GAO reported on the potential shortfall earlier this year.  Gerstenmaier said that because Congress appropriated more money than the President requested and NASA has slipped the launch date, the “risk will be retired,” explaining that the program carries technical risk, schedule risk, and budget risk.

Gerstenmaier stressed that what the SLS and Orion programs really need is budget certainty, with agreement between the Administration and Congress on how much the programs will get each year.  “One thing that could be very helpful to us is getting stability and understanding what the budget is,” he told Edwards, adding later that he is managing the program “in this kind of interesting environment where we get different funding levels.”

He also conveyed that it is not only budget issues that will determine the pace at which humans explore Mars.   It is also a matter of becoming “proficient at these skills” to take the steps needed to reach Mars.

Last month, NASA released its Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C) analysis for SLS in which it committed to an SLS readiness date of November 2018, almost a year later than the original December 2017 deadline.  At the time, though, NASA said it was keeping December 2017 as an internal goal.  At this hearing, however, Gerstenmaier said the agency has moved beyond that date and now estimates June 2018 for the first launch of SLS with an uncrewed Orion.  More money cannot move up the date, he said.

Chaplain, in fact, intimated that Orion may not be ready by then:   “At this time, it does not look like they could make 2017 and 2018 is a challenge in and of itself.”  She said there is a funding risk for Orion “that is considerably high.”  GAO thinks an integrated schedule for SLS, Orion and associated ground systems is needed, with all achieving readiness at the same time.

Gerstenmaier disagreed.  He argued that they do not have to be ready simultaneously and, in fact, there is an advantage to SLS being ready before Orion.  Emphasizing that typically a rocket is ready before a payload arrives at the launch site, he insisted that “SLS coming first, having the ground systems ready in Florida, and then Orion showing up at the third place is perfectly fine.”  Trying to synch all three “puts another burden” on the program and can result in inefficiency.

Overall, the hearing broke little new ground, but afforded an opportunity for subcommittee members, albeit with strong political overtones, to applaud the success of Orion EFT-1 and the possibilities it represents.

SpaceX's Fifth Cargo Mission to ISS Slips Three Days

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Dec-2014 (Updated: 11-Dec-2014 03:57 PM)

SpaceX and NASA announced today that the launch of the fifth operational SpaceX cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS), SpaceX CRS-5 (SpX-5), has been delayed from December 16 to December 19.

NASA said the three-day slip will allow SpaceX "to take extra time to ensure they do everything possible on the ground to prepare for a successful launch," adding that the Falcon rocket and Dragon spacecraft are in "good health."  Launch will be at 1:20 pm EST.  NASA TV coverage begins at 12:15 pm EST.

That means complementary shifts in the schedule of briefings associated with the launch and berthing to ISS.   The three pre-launch news conferences will shift to December 18 (at 12:00 noon, 1:30 pm and 3:00 pm EST)) and grapple and berthing will take place on December 21.   See our calendar for more details.

SpaceX launches cargo to the ISS under a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.  Twelve Space-X CRS flights delivering 20 tons of cargo to the ISS are scheduled through the end of 2016. 

Orbital Sciences Corporation is the other company that provides CRS services to NASA.  The most recent launch of its Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft failed on October 28.  Orbital is purchasing launch services from the United Launch Alliance and upgrading Antares and Cygnus to allow the company to meet its own contractual commitment of delivering 20 tons of cargo to the ISS by the end of 2016, which it now expects to accomplish in seven rather than eight launches.

Vote Expected to Be Close in House Tomorrow on FY2015 CRomnibus

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Dec-2014 (Updated: 10-Dec-2014 11:18 PM)

The House is expected to vote tomorrow (Thursday) on the FY2015 appropriations bill dubbed the "CRomnibus."  It combines an omnibus appropriations providing full-year funding for agencies covered by 11 of the 12 regular appropriations bills (including NASA, NOAA and DOD) and a Continuing Resolution (CR) for the 12th (the Department of Homeland Security).  The vote is expected to be close because of dissatisfaction on both sides of the aisle with policy provisions ("riders") that were added during negotiations.  Congress must pass this bill or some other funding measure before midnight tomorrow to avoid a government shutdown.

Objections to the CRomnibus reportedly range from conservative Republicans who feel it does not send a strong enough message to the President protesting his executive order on immigration to liberal Democrats and some Republicans who object to changes in the Dodd-Frank financial services regulations to liberal Democrats who object to changes in campaign finance laws.  (The Department of Homeland Security includes immigration.  The proposal to provide it only with a CR and not a full-year appropriation like everyone else is to signal Republican ire at the Obama immigration executive order, but some Republicans want to go further.)

Although appropriations bills are not supposed to include policy provisions, only funding, they often do.  That is especially true at the end of a Congress where members are trying one last time to get favored legislation passed and the only bill likely to clear Congress and be signed by the President is an appropriations bill.  

It is still possible that no agreement on funding will be reached and the government will shut down at midnight tomorrow, but that still is considered very unlikely.  If the CRomnibus does not pass the House tomorrow, House Speaker John Boehner reportedly plans to bring a three-month CR for the entire government to the floor for a vote, pushing funding decisions over into the Republican-controlled 114th Congress.  If the CRomnibus does pass the House, a very short term CR may be needed to give the Senate time to act, but that presumably would be only for a couple of days.

None of the concerns appear to be directed at provisions regarding NASA, NOAA or DOD.

We'll provide updates as they are available.

NASA Gets Big Increase in FY2015 Omnibus, NOAA Satellites Do OK

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Dec-2014 (Updated: 09-Dec-2014 11:54 PM)

House and Senate appropriators introduced the long-awaited compromise version of the FY2015 appropriations bill late today.  If approved as expected, NASA will get a significant increase compared to the President's request, and NOAA satellite programs will fare well overall, with GOES-R and JPSS fully funded.

As expected, the bill combines 11 of the 12 regular appropriations bills, funding all of those departments and agencies for the rest of FY2015 (through September 30, 2015).  The 12th bill, for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), is funded only temporarily, through February 27, 2015, as a protest against President Obama's executive order on immigration.   This combination of a Continuing Resolution (CR) for DHS and an omnibus for the rest of the government is sometimes referred to as a "cromnibus."  It is designated as "Senate amendment to H.R. 83."   NASA and NOAA are part of Division B, the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) portion.

The total for NASA in the compromise accord is $18.010 billion, a $549 million increase over the request of $17.461 billion.  Despite the significant increase, some programs were cut, including:. 

  • Space Technology, which gets $596 million instead of $706 million.
  • commercial crew, which will receive $805 million instead of $848 million.  Senate language that would have required adherence to certain regulations regarding cost and pricing data is not included, but the compromise requires technical and financial quarterly reports to Congress for each awardee.
  • Space Operations (including the International Space Station), which gets $3.828 billion instead of $3.905 billion

 But many others get increases.  Among the big winners are --

  • planetary science, receiving $1.438 billion instead of $1.280 billion, including not less than $100 million for a Europa mission
  • astrophysics, $684 million instead of $607 million, including $70 million for SOFIA
  • aeronautics, $651 million instead of $551 million
  • Orion, $1.194 billion instead of $1.053 billion
  • SLS, $1.700 billion instead of $1.380 billion

More information is in our fact sheet on NASA's FY2015 budget request.

NOAA's satellite programs also fare well.  The two premier programs -- GOES-R and JPSS -- are fully funded.   The Senate had proposed transferring two other programs, DSCOVR and Jason-3, to NASA, but that was not adopted and both programs are funded in NOAA's budget at or close to their requested levels.  COSMIC-2 received its full request of $6.8 million.

The House-passed CJS bill and the version approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee both zeroed NOAA's $15 million request for the Solar Irradiance, Data and Rescue (SIDAR) program that pulls together plans for launching three instruments -- Total Solar Irradiance Sensor (TSIS), Advanced Data Collection System (A-DCS), and Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking (SARSAT).  SIDAR fared better in the compromise omnibus bill, getting half its requested funding, $7.3 million.  Report language accompanying the bill says it is to support hosting TSIS-1 on the International Space Station (ISS) and maintaining international partnerships on A-DCS and SARSAT.  It notes that hosting TSIS-1 on ISS was not part of the President's FY2015 budget request and asks for a report on those plans.

More information is in our fact sheet on NOAA's FY2015 budget request.

NASA, NOAA and most of the rest of the government are currently funded by a CR that expires at midnight on Thursday, December 11.   Because negotiations on this compromise bill took longer than planned, and ordinarily there is a three-day waiting period in the House for members to read a bill and other procedural steps in the Senate, Congress may not complete action on it before that deadline.   A very short-term CR may be passed to cover a couple of days while Congress completes work on this bill.

Orbital to Buy At Least One Launch for Cygnus from ULA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Dec-2014 (Updated: 09-Dec-2014 05:36 PM)

Orbital Sciences Corporation gave more details today about its plans to fulfill its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA to send cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) in the wake of its October Antares rocket failure.

Antares exploded 15 seconds after liftoff on October 28, 2014, destroying its Cygnus cargo spacecraft filled with cargo destined for the ISS.   It was Orbital's third operational cargo flight to the ISS.  An investigation is ongoing, but Orbital Chairman, President and CEO David Thompson indicated last month that the AJ26 rocket engines are the likely culprit.  Orbital was already in the process of deciding to switch to a different rocket engine, but still has not announced which one it has selected.  The AJ26 is a Russian NK-33 engine built in the 1970s and imported to the United States and refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Thompson said last month that his company would purchase launch services from another company to take Cygnus spacecraft to the ISS and still meet its contractual commitment to deliver 20 tons of cargo by the end of 2016.   An upgraded version of Cygnus capable of handling more tonnage already was in development and Orbital will combine the cargo that was to be launched on five more missions into just four.

Today, Orbital announced that the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V rocket is its choice for at least one Cygnus mission in the fourth quarter of 2015, with an option for a second in 2016 if needed.  Between the greater lift capability of the Atlas V compared to Antares, and the more commodious Cygnus, the mass to ISS will increase by 35 percent.

Meanwhile, the company is proceeding with its plans to replace the AJ26 engines with something new, though the announcement today still did not identify what it is.  Three launches of the upgraded Antares are planned in 2016.  The upgraded Antares with the new Cygnus will increase the mass to ISS by 20 percent over the original Antares and Cygnus.

Antares is launched from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, VA.  The October 28 explosion damaged the pad and surrounding structures, though not as badly as many feared.  Orbital said today that repairs will be completed and the pad recertified by the end of 2015.

Orbital, which is in the middle of a merger with ATK, said in its statement today that its revised approach to meeting the CRS contract commitments "is not expected to create any material adverse financial impacts in 2015 or future years..." 

The CRS contract is for services provided to NASA using spacecraft and launch vehicles developed under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, colloquially known as "commercial cargo."  COTS was a public-private partnership where both the government and the private sector invested in developing these new capabilities with a goal of reduced costs to the government compared to a traditional contracting mechanism.  Skeptics are closely watching how Orbital and NASA cope with the Antares accident and whether the federal government must shoulder any of the costs.


Obama "Proud" of Orion EFT-1, Praises Chief Engineer Julie Kramer White

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Dec-2014 (Updated: 09-Dec-2014 03:43 PM)

In a talk to senior government leaders today, President Obama praised the work of Orion chief engineer Julie Kramer White and joked that he might hitch a ride to Mars himself one day.  He also said he was "proud" to see the Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) succeed in its mission last week.

Obama gave three examples of outstanding work by government employees:  a State Department employee helping with the Ebola outbreak in Africa, a Transportation Department employee involved in getting Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles safely onto a ship, and Kramer.

"Although everybody here is doing remarkable work, let’s face it, usually what we do isn’t rocket science -- unless it is.  (Laughter.)  So Julie Kramer White is helping America launch a new era of space exploration.  Julie is NASA’s chief engineer for Orion, the new spacecraft that could carry humans farther into space than we’ve ever seen before.  (Applause.)  I’m sure you were all as proud as I was to see Orion’s first successful flight test last Friday.  America was already the first nation to land a rover on Mars; when an American is the first human to set foot there, we’ll have Julie and her team to thank.  And at that point, I’ll be out of the presidency and I might hitch a ride.  (Laughter.)  So thank you, Julie, for your great work.  (Applause.)"

The President himself had not publicly commented on the EFT-1 mission until now, although his science adviser, John Holdren, released a short statement the day it flew.

Agreement on Final FY2015 Appropriations Hits Snag

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Dec-2014 (Updated: 09-Dec-2014 10:38 AM)

Efforts by congressional leaders to pass a new FY2015 appropriations bill by midnight Thursday to avoid a government shutdown hit a snag last night.  Although it is certainly possible still to complete action by Thursday, it would require agreement not only on outstanding policy issues, but skipping over some procedural steps.

The government is currently operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) that expires at midnight on Thursday, December 11.  Congress needs to pass some type of appropriations bill -- another CR or full-year appropriations or a combination of both -- before then or there will be another shutdown as there was last year.   (It is common to refer to a "government shutdown" although some parts of government do continue operating, including programs and services funded by fees rather than appropriations and those involving safety of life and property.)

A new FY2015 appropriations bill combining funding for departments and agencies covered by 11 of the 12 regular appropriations bills through the end of the fiscal year (September 30, 2015) and the 12th for a shorter period of time was expected to be introduced by midnight last night (Monday).   The one bill that would not be funded through the end of the fiscal year is for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which includes immigration.   As a signal of Republican disapproval of President Obama's executive order on immigration, DHS would be funded by a CR until January when Republicans will control both the House and Senate and will have more power to shape the congressional response to the President's executive order.  This combination is sometimes referred to as a "cromnibus" -- a mix of a CR and an omnibus spending measure. 

Ordinarily, bills must be made publicly available to Members of the House at least three days prior to a vote and since the vote is needed Thursday, the three day clock is already ticking.

However, disagreements over reauthorizing the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA) and modifying financial regulations under the Dodd-Frank law are still being worked according to media reports.  In addition, some Republicans are opposed to funding any agencies to the end of the fiscal year.  They want a short term CR for everyone until they control both the House and Senate.

No information has been made public about how any of those departments and agencies have fared in negotiations to date.  NASA would receive a significant increase compared to the President's request if the final bill resembles what passed the House and was approved the Senate Appropriations Committee this year.  NOAA satellite programs also generally fared well.  

The goal has been for this 113th Congress to adjourn on Thursday, but an extension is quite possible.  At least four scenarios could play out:

  • The cromnibus could be introduced today and pass the House on Thursday without the standard three-day waiting period, and Democrats and Republicans in the Senate could reach agreement to waive certain procedural steps, pass it, and get the bill on the President's desk for signature before midnight on Thursday.
  • The cromnibus could be introduced today and a very short-term (from a day to a week) CR could be passed to give everyone time to read whatever bill emerges from the ongoing negotiations, with the expectation that it will pass on Friday or early next week.
  • A short-term (till January) CR could pass to leave the decisions to the new Republican-controlled Congress, which is scheduled to convene on January 6.
  • No bill could pass and there could be another government shutdown.

Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have made clear that they do not want another shutdown, so that seems the least likely outcome.

Photos Show Orion After Splashdown

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Dec-2014 (Updated: 08-Dec-2014 04:35 AM)

NASA has released photos of its Orion capsule floating in the Pacific at the end of its Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission on Friday.  The capsule was recovered by a NASA-U.S. Navy team and will be on display for the media today (Monday, December 8) at Naval Base San Diego.

Orion was successfully launched on Friday, December 5, from Cape Canaveral, FL on a Delta IV rocket, after a one-day delay.  It splashed down in the Pacific about four-and-a-half hours later after two Earth orbits.  The purpose of the launch was primarily to test Orion's heat shield.  Although the spacecraft is being designed to carry people, no one was aboard this version, which is only a test model that is not equipped with life support systems, for example.  The first launch of an Orion carrying a crew is not expected until at least 2021.

Orion was recovered aboard the USS Anchorage, which is seen in the background of this photo of Orion floating in the Pacific at the end of its two-orbit mission. Two of the orange Crew Module Uprighting System (CMUS) airbags are shown in the photo.  In one of the few glitches in the test, one CMUS underinflated and another did not inflate.  They are used to turn the capsule right side up if it lands upside down in the water and fortunately were not needed.   More photos are posted on NASA's Orion website.


Orion test spacecraft in Pacific Ocean off Baja California at end of EFT-1 mission, December 5, 2014.  Photo credit:  NASA

The EFT-1 mission was conducted by Lockheed Martin, Orion's manufacturer, which contracted for the Delta IV launch from United Launch Alliance.  NASA is buying the resulting data from Lockheed Martin.  NASA estimates the cost of the EFT-1 mission at $370 million, which is only for the launch and non-reusable parts of the spacecraft.  It plans to use the capsule for another test flight, so its cost is not included in the estimate.

NASA is engaged in a media blitz surrounding the mission under the theme "Journey to Mars."   While Orion is being designed to someday send humans to Mars, such flights are in the long term future.   President Obama's National Space Policy calls for humans to orbit, not land on, Mars in the 2030s and many are skeptical that is achievable with the budgets envisioned for NASA for the indefinite future.  Landing on Mars is an even more expensive and technically challenging level of effort than simply orbiting, since a spacecraft is needed that can descend through the atmosphere, land safely, support humans for many months, ascend and return to Earth.  The Mars Curiosity rover -- famous for its "7 minutes of terror" during landing -- weighs only one ton, a fraction of what a spacecraft carrying humans would weigh.

President Obama did not release a statement after the EFT-1 test, but his science adviser, John Holdren, praised the mission although the statement was as much about broad Administration space policy, including its priority of developing commercial crew systems to take astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station (ISS), as Orion. 

Orion originally was part of President George W. Bush's Constellation program to send astronauts back to the Moon by 2020 and to Mars thereafter.  President Obama proposed cancelling the Constellation program in 2010 (as part of the FY2011 budget process), igniting a firestorm of controversy.  Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress opposed cancelling Constellation and were not enthusiastic about commercial crew.  In the end, Congress and the President compromised in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act where Congress agreed to the commercial crew initiative (though it has not provided the amount of funding the President wants) and to cancelling Constellation, but in return for NASA building a new large rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) to enable humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit.  Orion was selected as the MPCV so is one of the few elements of the Constellation program to survive.  The first destination for SLS/Orion remains controversial -- President Obama wants to send astronauts to an asteroid, but the concept has not generated much support.

Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee also praised the EFT-1 mission in separate statements.  That committee's Space Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the status of Orion and SLS on Wednesday.


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