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NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD) has an opening for a public policy expert to join its policy team. Applications are due by November 24, 2014.
The posting is on the USA Jobs website and is for a GS12/13 "program planning specialist," but the position description is primarily about policy.
DO NOT CONTACT SPACEPOLICYONLINE.COM ABOUT THIS OPENING. NASA asked us to help spread the word -- that's our only involvement. We don't know any more about the job than what's in the posting. Apply through the USA JOBS website.
Here is the three paragraph section that describes the duties.
As a Program Planning Specialist, responsibilities are broad and include: strong emphases on the management of Science Mission Directorate (SMD) relations and communications with external groups; serving as policy expert to develop and maintain relationships with various stakeholders in the government, private industry, and universities to further the agency's research or technology development efforts; and serving as the organizational spokesperson at public meetings, formal and informal, on extremely technical and complex program activities.
The European Space Agency (ESA) today released new images taken by its Rosetta spacecraft of the Philae lander as it made a first landing on Comet 67P and then bounced on November 12. Also today, the German Aerospace Center, DLR, issued a concise summary of very preliminary science results from Philae. The fate of the lander, which bounced twice and landed three times, sparked interest around the world last week as its battery died and contact was lost. Philae project manager Stephan Ulamec is optimistic, however, that communications will be restored next year.
Philae is funded by a consortium led by DLR (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt) and was controlled and monitored by DLR's Lander Control Center in Cologne, Germany. The lander is part of ESA's Rosetta mission. Rosetta and Philae spent 10 years reaching Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, arriving in August 2014. The two spacecraft separated on November 12. Philae made its first landing on the comet about 7 hours later. Harpoons that were intended to hold Philae in place on the surface did not fire, however, and the lander bounced twice.
ESA still does not know where its final landing took place. Rosetta serves as a communications link between Philae and Earth in addition to conducting its own science investigations as it orbits the comet. It continues to look and listen for Philae. Rosetta will stay with the comet as it journeys into toward the Sun, studying it as the ices melt and create the classic comet's tail. It is the first spacecraft to orbit a comet and Philae is the first spacecraft to land on a comet.
Today ESA released a mosaic of images taken by the Osiris camera on Rosetta that shows Philae as it descended to the surface (minutes 15:14 to 15:23), touched down (minute 15:43), only to fly off again into space (minute 15:43 on far right). It landed again about 2 hours later, bounced again, and landed a third time about 7 minutes after that. Since the final landing site is not known, there are no images yet of those events.
Images of Philae as it landed on Comet 67P and bounced the first time. November 12, 2014. Times (hour:minute) are in GMT.
The hope is that with these images ESA and DLR at least know the direction in which the lander headed and perhaps they will be able to locate it using Rosetta's instruments. All they know now is that Philae is surrounded by rocks that block sunlight from reaching Philae's solar panels so its batteries can be recharged. After 57 hours of work, its primary battery was depleted and the lander entered hibernation. Planetary Society blogger Emily Lakdawalla was at ESA's European Space Operations Center (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany as Philae gamely executed its commands despite dwindling energy -- including an improvised lift-and-turn motion that rotated the lander's body 35 degrees in the hope of getting more sunlight on the solar panels -- and provides a compelling account of those last minutes.
Last minutes for now, that is. Ulamec is optimistic that as the comet continues its journey in toward the Sun, lighting conditions will improve, the batteries will recharge, and Philae will be able to communicate again next year. A DLR press release today says he "believes it is probable that in the spring of 2015" Philae will be heard from again.
Meanwhile, scientists are beginning to analyze data from the 57 hours of work Philae has already completed. Data was received from all 10 of the instruments on the lander. One instrument -- Multi-Purpose Sensors for Surface and Sub-Surface Science (MUPUS) -- hammered a probe into the surface, but it turned out to be a much harder surface than expected. "Although the power of the hammer was gradually increased, we were not able to go deep into the surface," said Tilman Spohn from DLR's Institute of Planetary Research. The comet "proved a tough nut to crack." Another instrument, SESAME (Surface Electrical, Seismic and Acoustic Monitoring Experiment) similarly found the comet was "not nearly as soft and fluffy as it was believed to be." Brief initial results from all 10 instruments are provided in the DLR press release. More are expected at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) next month in San Francisco.
Here is our list of space policy events in the coming week, November 17-21, 2014, and any insights we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session.
During the Week
Congress is in session this week, but anything they are working on regarding space policy and funding is taking place behind the scenes. One set of negotiations is over a compromise version of a FY2015 omnibus appropriations bill that is expected to combine all 12 regular appropriations bill into one and fund the government through the rest of FY2015 (September 30, 2015). Word has it the bill will be publicly released the week of December 8, just in time to get it passed - hopefully - by midnight December 11 when the current Continuing Resolution (CR) expires.
It's not a sure bet, though. House Appropriations Committee chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) warned this past week that if President Obama issues an Executive Order on immigration (i.e., takes action without waiting for Congress to act) before a deal is done on appropriations, there will be an "explosion." He's worried appropriations will get caught in the crossfire. If a new appropriations bill is not enacted by December 11, the government will shut down like it did in October 2013. Some Tea Party Republicans consider government shutdowns a useful tactic and might try to cause another one in reaction to any Presidential action on immigration. Even absent that, some have been arguing in favor of passing just another CR to fund the government for the first few weeks of the New Year when Republicans will control both the House and Senate and have more power to decide funding matters. (We talked about the road ahead for appropriations in an earlier article.)
Negotiations also are underway on a FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). It is the only annual authorization bill that Congress routinely passes, even if that happens at the very last minute. The House passed its version in May, and the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) approved a version in June, but it has not gone to the Senate floor for debate yet. They will probably skip that step and just bring the compromise to the floor. Congress hasn't missed passing an NDAA for more than 50 years no matter how high the political tensions. Senate John McCain (R-AZ), who likely will chair SASC in the next Congress, included a provision in the SASC-version of the bill prohibiting DOD from contracting with space launch services providers that use Russian suppliers -- aimed at the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) use of Russian RD-180 engines for the Atlas V. ULA President Tory Bruno said last week that congressional staffers now understand the "very harmful" unintended consequences of that language and are revising it as part of the NDAA negotiations.
Like appropriations, the NDAA probably won't become public for a while yet. Congress will be in recess next week for Thanksgiving, then return for two more weeks to finish what they can for the 113th Congress.
Off the Hill, three NASA Advisory Council committees or subcommittees will meet this week in person or virtually (Planetary Protection on Monday and Tuesday, Institutional on Wednesday and Thursday, and Planetary Science on Friday). The NSF-NASA-DOE Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee meets at NSF on Monday and Tuesday. Alan Ladwig and Courtney Stadd's ISU-DC Space Café discussion is on Tuesday evening (rescheduled from last Tuesday, which was Veterans Day and HBO's Concert for Valor essentially took over DC). And the Secure World Foundation and American Astronautical Society will host a briefing on space weather on the Senate side of the Capitol Visitor Center at lunchtime on Thursday.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Monday-Tuesday, November 17-18
Tuesday, November 18
Tuesday-Thursday, November 18-20
Tuesday-Friday, November 18-21
Wednesday-Thursday, November 19-20
Thursday, November 20
Friday, November 21
Echoing what reports from expert groups have been saying for many years, NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) yesterday warned that the biggest challenge facing NASA is getting the budgets needed to accomplish the programs and tasks the agency has been assigned.
The report goes into detail about seven "top management and performance challenges," but the overall theme is the sustainability of NASA's programs amid budget uncertainty.
"NASA's ability to sustain its ambitious exploration, science, and aeronautics programs will be driven in large measure by whether the Agency is able to adequately fund such high profile initiatives as its commercial cargo and crew programs, the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion capsule, James Webb Space Telescope, Mars 2020 Rover, and the personnel and infrastructure associated with these and other missions."
Noting that NASA began FY2015 without a full-year appropriation (NASA is operating under a Continuing Resolution through at least December 11), the OIG report also pointed out that projections for NASA's future funding are flat. "Accordingly, we believe the principal challenge facing NASA leaders in FY2015 will be to effectively manage the Agency's varied programs in an uncertain budget environment."
Having said that, the report identified seven "top challenges," a number of which have been the subject of earlier OIG studies:
The 41-page report goes into some detail under each of those topics based primarily on previous OIG audits.
Some of the key takeaways include the following:
UPDATED throughout on November 15, 2014 (originally published November 14)
Despite the odds, the European Space Agency (ESA) was able to restore contact with its Philae lander on the surface of Comet 67P Friday evening (November 14, Eastern Standard Time). Not only were they able to retrieve data obtained previously, but new commands were sent, new data acquired, and they succeeded in rotating the lander so more sunlight will fall on one of the solar panels. That gives hope that contact could be restored again as the comet moves closer to the Sun.
Philae (pronounced fee-LAY) spent 10 years travelling to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko aboard its Rosetta mothership. The two spacecraft separated on November 12 and Philae landed on the surface of the comet, the first time such a feat has been achieved. But two systems that were intended to ensure that the lander stayed put in the very low gravity environment did not work and Philae bounced twice, landing three times. Unfortunately, the final landing spot is surrounded by rocks, preventing sunlight from recharging the lander's batteries.
Philae has two batteries and one of them was sufficiently charged to complete the probe's primary scientific goals, but the hope was that it, plus a secondary battery, could be recharged to allow an extended mission lasting months rather than days. Earlier on Friday, prospects seemed grim that even one more communications session could take place.
Philae landed for the first time at 10:34 am EST on November 12. It bounced and remained aloft for almost two hours, bounced again and then landed 7 minutes later. From then until approximately 7:30 pm EST Friday, its 10 scientific instruments collected a great amount of data, including drilling into the comet. Scientists are still analyzing the data collected during the 57 hours it operated.
But with battery levels falling precipitously, at 7:28 pm EST, ESA's operations center tweeted (@esaoperations) that the lander had switched to standby mode due to low power: "All instruments off. Comm link still active." A few minutes later "Lander now sending only housekeeping data at very low rate. All instruments off. Comm link alive." Soon thereafter: "our lander's asleep. Good night." ESA reports that the last contact was at 00:36 GMT November 15 (7:36 pm EST November 14).
Project manager Stephan Ulamec said "we are happy. We can even watch it falling asleep, which is a little bit sad but it can give us data that we want to have," according to a tweet from The Planetary Society's Emily Lakdawalla (@elakdawalla) who has been reporting from the European Space Operations Center (ESOC) in Germany throughout the lander's mission.
Scientists are ecstatic at all the data the lander was able to acquire in that short time, and from Rosetta, which continues to orbit the comet and will collect and send back data until it runs out of fuel in 2016. Rosetta project scientist Matt Taylor said yesterday that some results will be presented at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) next month.
Cameras on Rosetta continue to try to locate Philae. ESA does not know where it is. The first touchdown was exactly where it was supposed to land, but where the bounces took it is unknown. (ESA released a set of images from Rosetta's NavCam taken of the original landing spot over a period of 3 minutes and 34 seconds as Philae approached the surface and then after it bounced, apparently leaving a dark spot of disturbed dust behind.)
Rosetta serves as a relay between Philae and Earth, so communications are only possible when Rosetta is in the correct position to serve that function. A communications opportunity opened at 10:00 UTC (5:00 am EST) on November 15, but Philae did not respond. Rosetta is now being moved into a different orbit around the comet to continue its own science program, but will continue listening -- and looking -- for Philae.
Comet 67P is on its way in towards the Sun and Rosetta will be able to study it as it becomes active with its ices melting from the Sun's heat creating the familiar comet's tail.
Scientists have some hope that they may hear again from Philae if the solar panel becomes more illuminated as the comet travels inward. During the session last night, commands were sent such that Philae lifted its body 4 centimeters and turned 35 degrees in the hope its solar panels would get more sunlight to recharge the batteries. Between now and whenever that happens, Philae will hibernate.
Whatever happens in the future, ESA has achieved several firsts that will go into the space exploration record books, including the first spacecraft to orbit a comet, the first spacecraft to land on a comet, and the first spacecraft to drill into the surface of a comet.
UPDATE, November 14, 5:33 pm EST: The European Space Operations Center (ESOC) just tweeted (@esaoperations) that it has reacquired Philae. The first contact was brief, but the signal was then reacquired and communications now are "stable" and "telemetry and science data are flowing." We'll post another update later this evening.
The European Space Agency's (ESA's) Philae lander is on the surface of Comet 67P and its science instruments are working, but its ability to function and communicate with Earth could be quickly coming to an end -- perhaps today. Philae landed in a place surrounded by rocks that are blocking sunlight from reaching its solar panels to recharge the batteries. ESA scientists hope they can reestablish communications at least one more time, but will not know until about 6:00 pm Eastern Standard Time (23:00 GMT, midnight CET) today.
Philae (pronounced fee-LAY) has been traveling in space for 10 years aboard its mothership Rosetta. They reached Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which is currently about 510 million kilometers (315 million miles) from Earth, in August. The two separated on Wednesday (November 12) and Philae landed on the comet while Rosetta remains in orbit.
Both spacecraft are equipped with many scientific instruments and Rosetta also serves as a communications relay between Philae and Earth. Whenever Rosetta moves below the horizon at the comet, communications between Philae and its Earth-based operators cease. Thus there are only certain windows of opportunity when Earth and Philae can talk to each other and instructions uploaded or data downloaded.
The next communications pass will be at about 9:00 pm UTC tonight, Philae project manager Stephan Ulamec said during a Google Hangout update this morning. Times are approximate and he added that the passes have been occurring about one hour later than expected. Adding in the 28 minutes 20 seconds needed for a signal to travel from the comet to Earth, it will be "about midnight" when they know if contact was restored. (At that point, he apparently was referring to midnight local time in Germany, which is Central European Time. UTC is one hour earlier; EST is 6 hours earlier, making it about 6:00 pm EST.)
Comets have almost no gravity so Philae was equipped with harpoons that were supposed to fire into the comet's surface to hold it in place. Philae also has a small engine that was supposed to provide a downward force as it reached the surface. Finally, the three landing legs had ice screws to help hold it in place. Operators knew the engine was not working even before Philae separated from Rosetta, but decided to proceed anyway confident of the other systems. Unfortunately, the harpoons did not fire when Philae first touched down on the comet at 10:34 am EST on November 12. It bounced about a kilometer (about half a mile) high and floated above the comet for almost two hours before landing for a second time, bouncing again, and then landing for a third and final time about seven minutes later.
Where it landed still is not known. Cameras aboard Rosetta are searching for it, but so far without success. Philae is quite small -- about one meter (three feet) on each side -- and it landed somewhere amidst rocks. Not only do the rocks complicate finding it from orbit, but they are preventing sunlight from recharging Philae's batteries.
Valentina Lommatsch from the German space agency's (DLR's) lander control center clarified that all three of Philae's legs are touching the surface despite earlier reports that one was sticking up in the air. The problem is that we are "really unlucky" to be "in a corner surrounded by rocks."
Philae's primary battery had 64 hours of life when it landed, enough to complete its primary scientific mission. The hope was for an extended mission of many months, however, allowing many more investigations using Philae's 10 scientific instruments, but those chances are looking slim.
Ulamec said that even regaining contact with the spacecraft tonight "is not secure, maybe the battery will be empty before we get contact again." Of the three solar panels on Philae, one is getting a low level of illumination for about 1 hour 20 minutes each "day" and the others about 20 minutes each, versus the 6-7 hours planned.
Last night when they uploaded commands to Philae, they calculated that it had about 100 watt-hours left and 80 were needed to execute those instructions (to activate scientific experiments), Lommatsch explained. Unfortunately one of the last commands, which would have put it into low power mode to extend the battery life, did not reach the lander and "it will be really, really close" as to whether communications can be restored, she cautioned. Later she said the lander needs 5.1 watts to boot. Before a battery can be recharged, its temperature must be raised to 0 degrees Celsius and that requires 50-60 watt hours per day. Then there still must be enough daylight left to actually recharge it. "Looks a bit bad, but we can always hope," Lommatsch said.
ESA experts are assessing what they might be able to do with Philae if communications are restored to increase the chances of recharging, perhaps by moving the lander -- either rotating it using its flywheel, or trying to get it to essentially hop out of its current location to a better spot. If nothing else, there is a chance -- although it sounded rather small -- that communications could be reestablished as the comet moves closer to the Sun and illumination increases.
Ulamec was asked why ESA did not use a nuclear power source for the lander. Some spacecraft, like NASA's Mars Curiosity rover, use Radioisotope Thermal Generators (RTGs) to power the spacecraft and its instruments. RTGs use heat produced by the decay of plutonium-238. Ulamec replied that launching nuclear power sources carries safety and political implications and, in any case, Europe does not have that technology.
Despite everything, the Philae scientists, engineers and operators appear delighted with what they have been able to accomplish already, even if there is no more. Rosetta project scientist Matt Taylor said that a great deal of science data has been obtained from Philae and Rosetta and will be presented at the upcoming fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU 2014) next month in San Francisco, CA.
Flight director Andrea Accomazzo urged everyone to focus on what has been done, not what could have been done. "This is already fantastic," he enthused, while adding that he really wants to know exactly where Philae is and to hear from it tonight.
Alluding to what he described as a moment of exciting change for the commercial launch industry, the newly appointed head of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) discussed how his company, the primary U.S. national security launch provider, will adapt to remain on top.
At an event Thursday hosted by the Atlantic Council, Salvatore “Tory” T. Bruno, ULA president and CEO, described his sense of “irrational optimism” at the future of the commercial launch industry. Widespread accessibility will be the key feature of a new environment, he explained, one where government and new commercial customers will need access to space to accomplish “missions we couldn’t conceive of in the past.”
ULA, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture established in 2006 with a record of 89 successful launches, is banking on experience to remain ahead in an industry facing new competition and possible constraints from foreign policy pressures. Last April, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) filed a complaint against the U.S. Air Force for awarding an $11 billion block buy contract to ULA for five years’ worth of launches on its Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV). ULA has stated this block buy saved the government $4 billion, cutting launch prices in half. SpaceX has argued it can offer the same service for much less and is vying to compete for national space security launch contracts.
Although not referring to SpaceX directly, Bruno cited ULA’s “perfect record of mission success,” and “great heritage” as the benefit of doing business with the company. But the country is demanding new things, he said, and “I am going to transform this company.” Bruno vowed to “cash in” the company’s decades of experience, reorganize to make it more agile, and establish new business models to adapt to the new environment. These changes will lead to improvements in how ULA interacts with its customers, both governmental and commercial, shorter launch cycles, and launch costs cut in half again.
Among the changes already under way, in September ULA announced a partnership with Blue Origin for the development of an alternative to the Russian-built RD-180 engine which ULA uses on its Atlas V vehicle. In light of deteriorating diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia, for the past several months policymakers and industry leaders have been debating alternatives to reduce U.S. reliance on Russia for putting critical national security assets in orbit.
ULA intends to phase out the RD-180 over time and transition to an “American solution” to launching satellites using Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine. Bruno said that transition is coming “very soon,” but ULA will continue buying RD-180s under its existing contract with RD-AMROSS and is accelerating their delivery. ULA wants to have eight rather than five delivered next year, he acknowledged.
Senator John McCain (R-AZ), expected to chair the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) in the next Congress, included language in the Senate version of the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (S. 2410, sec. 1623) prohibiting DOD from contracting for space launch services from companies using Russian suppliers. Asked about his reaction to the language, Bruno replied that, as originally drafted, the language would have been “very harmful” to ULA in ways “the drafters did not intend” and is being revised as part of negotiations over the final version of the bill.
When asked by a reporter for Russia’s news agency, Itar-TASS, why the RD-180s were being phased out and deliveries accelerated, Bruno made no reference to the tense geopolitical circumstances, however. Instead, he framed it strictly as a business decision. Praising the RD-180 as a “great” engine that is very reliable with “terrific performance,” he nonetheless said it was time to move past the technologies of the 1970s and 1980s and build a lighter engine with improved thrust. As for moving up the delivery timetable, he said that was in response to anticipated market demand for more Atlas V launches.
The Atlantic Council has posted the webcast of the event on its website.
The European Space Agency's (ESA's) Philae lander bounced twice -- landing three times -- when it reached the surface of Comet 67P yesterday, but is working fine and returning images and other scientific data. Philae separated from its Rosetta mother spacecraft yesterday and reached the comet's surface at 10:34 am EST (November 12), the first spacecraft to land on a comet.
Philae (pronounced fee-LAY) communicates with Earth through Rosetta, which is orbiting Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Radio communications with Philae initially were intermittent yesterday and then ended as Rosetta moved below the horizon. Scientists waited many hours until Rosetta was once again in position to serve as a relay. Right on schedule, communications were reestablished at 06:01 UTC (01:01 am EST) today. That communications session lasted until 09:58 UTC.
ESA released photographs of the surface of the comet from the ÇIVA (pronounced SHE-va) instrument on Philae. ÇIVA is a set of six identical micro-cameras that can take panoramic pictures of the surface. One of the six images (below) shows Philae's foot on the surface of the comet.
Comet 67P imaged by Philae lander (lander's foot clearly visible).
Comets have almost no gravity, so Philae was equipped with harpoons that were supposed to fire down into the surface of the comet to hold the lander in place. The harpoons did not fire, however, so Philae bounced. Yesterday, Philae project manager Stephan Ulamec said "maybe today we didn't just land once, we even landed twice."
Now they know there were two bounces, with three landings.
As Ulamec explained today, the first contact with the surface was at 15:34 UTC (10:34 am EST) precisely where Philae was intended to land. However, it bounced off the surface and remained aloft for almost two hours. Ulamec said they think it bounced about 1 kilometer high and moved 1 kilometer in distance, touching down a second time at 17:25 UTC (12:25 EST). It then bounced again and was aloft for 7 minutes, landing for the third time at 17:32 UTC (12:32 EST). They do not know exactly where the lander is now. ESA is using the OSIRIS camera on Rosetta to search the surface for Philae. The cameras on Philae shows that it is very close to a cliff, which may complicate finding it.
The lander is in good shape. The only wrinkle concerns how long it can function. Philae has primary and secondary batteries. It is operating off of the primary battery now, but it will soon run out of power unless it and the secondary battery can be recharged from its solar cells. Because it landed near a cliff, however, the solar cells are receiving much less sunlight than expected -- only 1.5 hours of 6-7 hours -- during this first period of time. The Philae team is looking at options, such as trying to reposition it so the solar cells get more sunlight, but is moving cautiously lest the lander's position be further disturbed.
Philae is designed to be able to survive long periods in hibernation and the lighting conditions will change as the comet moves through the solar system. Ulamec said it is possible that even if the lander loses power, it could reawaken months from now if more sunlight is available, but he was not willing to even guess at the possibility that would happen. Rosetta will continue to orbit the comet until August-September 2016 when it will run out of fuel.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued an update on its investigation into the October 31 SpaceShipTwo (SS2) accident that claimed the life of co-pilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injured pilot Peter Siebold. Siebold's injuries prevented the NTSB from interviewing him until last Friday and the update includes a brief summary of what he told them.
SS2 was a spaceplane developed by Scaled Composites for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic enterprise to take anyone who could afford the $250,000 ticket price on a suborbital trip to space. The October 31 mission was a test flight from the Mojave Air and Space Port, CA, in preparation for commercial operations that were to begin early in 2015. The two pilots were Scaled employees.
The spaceplane is carried aloft by a large aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, which drops the spaceplane at about 45,000 feet altitude. The spaceplane then fires a rocket engine to ascend to at least 100 kilometers, an internationally recognized (but not legally defined) boundary between air and space, and after about six minutes in weightlessness, returns to land on Earth.
The NTSB previously determined based on video from the SS2 cockpit and other data that Alsbury prematurely moved a lever to initiate a "feathering system" designed to slow the spaceplane during its descent. The lever should have been moved only when the spaceplane reached Mach 1.4, but Alsbury moved it from locked to unlocked at Mach 1.02 during ascent. A second step, where the pilot would move another lever, ostensibly was required to actually activate the feathering system. That second step never took place, but the feathering system deployed itself, changing the position of tail booms on the vehicle. NTSB investigators stress that they have reached no conclusions about the accident and only are stating facts, but there is widespread supposition that with the feathering system activated at the wrong time, aerodynamic forces tore the spaceplane apart.
The two men fell from a very high altitude (which has not been revealed, but SS2 was released at about 45,000 feet and fired its rocket engine for about 11 seconds, so they were quite high). They were wearing parachutes, but no pressure suits. The vehicle did not have ejection seats. Alsbury was found dead in his seat on the ground.
Siebold survived, which many consider a miracle. According to today's NTSB update, Siebold told them he was "extracted from the vehicle as the result of the break-up sequence and unbuckled from his seat at some point before the parachute deployed automatically." He told the NTSB that he was not aware that the feathering system had been unlocked by Alsbury.
The NTSB said it has completed its on-site investigation work at Mojave. The SS2 wreckage has been recovered and is in secure storage. Analysis of the data will continue at the NTSB's Washington, DC laboratory. NTSB acting chairman Christopher Hart said earlier that the complete investigation could take 12 months.
The House and Senate return to work today to finish out the 113th Congress and get ready for the 114th, which begins in January. The congressional landscape will change significantly then, with Republicans taking control of the Senate in addition to the House. Generally, space activities have bi-partisan support in both chambers. Where that has broken down in the past is over budgets and that could be a defining issue in the 114th Congress.
But first, over the next several weeks Congress needs to complete work on FY2015 appropriations. There remains a question as to whether the appropriations will cover the rest of the fiscal year – through September 30, 2015 – or only a few months, but something must be done by December 11 to keep the government open. On that day, the Continuing Resolution (CR) currently funding the government expires.
The prevailing wisdom is that Congress will pass an omnibus FY2015 appropriations bill combining all 12 regular appropriations bills and fund the government through the rest of FY2015. Some Tea Party Republicans, however, want a short term bill to carry the government only through the first few weeks of the New Year when Republicans are in control of both chambers.
The House has passed seven of the 12 regular appropriations bills, and although the Senate has not passed any, the Senate Appropriations Committee completed work on eight. The two that fund most space activities are Defense (national security space programs) and Commerce-Justice-Science (NASA and NOAA). A third, Transportation-HUD, funds activities at the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.
The House has passed and the Senate Appropriations Committee has approved all three of those bills increasing the likelihood that final action on them can be completed by year’s end if prevailing wisdom holds true.
Congress also has not yet completed action on new authorization bills for NASA or DOD. Like appropriations, the House has passed bills for both, but the Senate has not passed either. Congress has an unblemished record for more than 50 years of passing annual DOD authorization bills, formally called a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Pundits are predicting that one will pass this year, too, probably by using the House-passed bill as the basis for a behind-the-scenes compromise and sending it to the Senate floor for a vote, skipping the step of passing a Senate version first.
As for NASA, it is always possible that similar negotiations could also result in a bill clearing Congress this year, but the NASA bill is not considered as crucial as the NDAA. With little time on the legislative calendar, the imminent change in party control, and the departure of key Senate Democratic staffer Ann Zulkosky, getting the NASA bill done could be problematical.
The Senate also is expected to try and approve at least some of President Obama’s nominations, particularly those for judicial positions. Whether Dava Newman’s nomination to be NASA Deputy Administrator can get through in such a short time will depend on many factors, such as whether she has a Senate champion willing to push for it or if any opposition has developed. Expectations were that it would not be considered until next year and that is probably a good bet.
What will happen in the 114th Congress is anyone’s guess. There’s a presidential election coming up in 2016 and each party will use the next two years to convince the electorate to choose a President from their side of the aisle (President Obama cannot run for another term, so there will be no incumbent). Not to mention that all of the House and one-third of the Senate will once again be up for election. How all of that plays out in congressional politics is to be determined. There is much talk at the moment of the two parties working together because the electorate is weary of Washington gridlock, but such talk is typical right after an election. Rarely does it actually lead to compromise. With some Republicans vowing to repeal the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) and fight the President on issues from immigration to the Keystone Pipeline, it is difficult to be optimistic.
All the committee and subcommittee chairmanships will change in the Senate, since the Republicans are taking control. Even though Republicans retained control in the House, 11 committee chairmanships are up for grabs because of term limits or retirements. There is a lot of speculation about who will be in charge of what, which is important, but in terms of the fate of government-funded space programs, a more important factor is whether deficit cutting returns as the dominant issue in Congress.
Republicans and Democrats have been fighting for the past six years over how to reduce the deficit. The Republicans want only funding cuts, while Democrats want a combination of funding cuts and tax increases. The result of the deadlock over this issue was sequestration – across-the-board funding cuts for federal agencies that are part of the “discretionary spending” portion of the budget that Congress directly allocates (as opposed to mandatory spending for programs like Medicare and Social Security).
Both parties oppose sequestration, but could not reach a compromise on any other solution. In December 2013, a temporary truce was negotiated by the chairs of the House and Senate Budget Committees, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), where sequestration limits were lifted, but only for FY2014 and FY2015. Consequently, budget fights were not as intense for FY2015 and NASA, for example, would get a significant boost if it gets what is allocated in its House-passed and Senate Appropriations Committee-approved appropriations bill.
That could be a short-term win, though. Unless Congress changes the law, sequestration is back for FY2016 and beyond. Republicans do not like sequestration any more than Democrats, and now that they will control both chambers, they could try to repeal sequestration and replace it with cuts to mandatory spending. They can only go so far, though, without alienating their own voters or prompting a presidential veto. Discretionary programs like NASA and NOAA could once again be in the budget bulls eye and while DOD as a whole may fare better, it is far from clear if that would extend to its space programs.
A lot of what happens in the 114th Congress may depend on whether "establishment" Republicans, including Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), can work with their Tea Party colleagues or if there will be intra-party fights. Also, in the Senate, the Democrats could adopt the tactics McConnell has used so effectively as Minority Leader in preventing action on most legislation. The Senate will have 53 Republicans, 44 Democrats, and 2 Independents who caucus with the Democrats, essentially a 53 - 46 split (one race, Louisiana, is still undetermined). That is basically the inverse of the situation today. Just as Senate Republicans stymied action under Democratic control, so could Democrats do the same now that they will be in the minority.
Events of Interest