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While everyone is focusing on what a Donald Trump presidency means for the future of NASA and the rest of the space program, it is important to bear in mind that the FY2017 appropriations process is not finished yet. He may have an early shot at those decisions if Congress pushes final action into next year.
FY2017 began on October 1. Action on the FY2017 appropriations bills was not completed, so the House and Senate passed a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund agencies at their FY2016 levels through December 9. The one exception is that the CR incorporated full-year funding for activities in the Military Construction-Veterans Affairs (MilCon-VA) bill. The other 11 "regular" appropriations bills, including Defense and Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) that fund the lion's share of national security and civil (NASA, NOAA) space programs, are in various stages in the congressional process.
To keep those and other agencies operating after December 9, Congress will have to pass and President Obama will have to sign one or more new appropriations measures.
Before the elections, the betting was that Congress would pass one "omnibus" spending bill incorporating all 11 of the remaining appropriations bills or bundle them together into several smaller packages (mini-buses). While differences remain between the House and Senate on their versions of these bills, for NASA, at least, the picture was looking positive for Congress to add about $1 billion in appropriated funds above what President Obama requested. (His request included $763 million that purportedly was to come from the mandatory portion of the federal budget, which Congress ignored since NASA is funded by appropriations and the appropriations committees have no control over mandatory spending.)
Congress was able to add such a large amount in part because of a deal reached last year among the President, then-House Speaker John Boehner, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to relax spending caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act. Ultra conservative House Republicans objected to that budget deal and to the amounts being approved by the appropriations committee for FY2017 for non-defense discretionary agencies like NASA.
The results of last week's elections, which kept Republicans in control of the House and Senate and handed them the White House as well, could intensify efforts to rein in the deficit through budget cuts alone, not in tandem with tax increases proposed by Democrats. Republicans want more, not less, defense spending, so the non-defense agencies likely would bear the brunt of any reductions.
The path forward for FY2017 appropriations therefore has become more complicated. Congressional Republicans are debating whether to complete action on FY2017 appropriations before the end of the year or extend the CR into next spring. If they finish it now, and keep the committee-approved funding levels in place, any criticism of exceeding the budget caps could be aimed at the departing Obama Administration. If they push it into next year, it would give the new Trump Administration an opportunity to set its own priorities and determine whether or not to exceed the caps.
Optimism that NASA would do quite well in FY2017 now must be tempered with Yogi Berra's caution that "it ain't over till it's over."
Congress returns to work this week after a multi-week recess for the elections. The House meets for legislative business beginning on Monday. The Senate meets in pro forma session on Monday and for legislative business beginning Tuesday. Each chamber plans to meet only this week and then recess again until after Thanksgiving.
National Geographic (NatGeo) will begin airing a new mini-series, Mars, on Monday, November 14. It interweaves interviews with today's scientists and engineers, both at NASA and SpaceX, who seek to send humans to Mars, with a science fiction drama about the first humans to land there in 2033. A companion book by space journalist Leonard David provides excellent background on the challenges involved in such an undertaking.
The Washington premier of the series was held at National Geographic headquarters here tonight. Executive Producer Justin Wilkes explained that the idea originated with Elon Musk, who wanted to chronicle SpaceX's efforts to develop systems to take humans to Mars, but he and others involved in the project quickly realized there was a much bigger story to tell.
NatGeo asserts that the mini-series will "redefine storytelling" by combining "scripted drama ... with documentary sequences." Indeed, the episodes interweave today -- 2016 -- with tomorrow -- 2033, the year in which it postulates that the first humans reach the Martian surface. Of course, landing people on Mars isn't easy. Not to give away the plot, let's just say there are plenty of obstacles to overcome in the best dramatic fashion. The alternating sequences of interviews with Musk, Mars Society's Bob Zubrin, NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green and many others in the real world of today come and go more seamlessly than one might expect, though the airtime given to SpaceX is somewhat overbearing. To its credit, the series includes SpaceX launch and landing failures as well as successes, however.
NASA's Green and Jeff Sheehy, Senior Technical Officer in the Space Technology Mission Directorate, were among a group of panelists who addressed the audience after the screening of the first two episodes. Both spoke optimistically about the progress NASA is making with its robotic Mars program and technology developments, though when asked if 2033 is a realistic date for humans to set foot on Mars, Green hedged. Noting that President Obama's directive was to have humans in the vicinity of Mars in 2030s (in orbit, not on the surface), he suggested a landing could come in the 2040s, though technological advances could move that date forward.
Joining Wilkes, Green and Sheehy on the panel were series Director Everardo Grout, actors Ben Cotton and Jihae, and Leonard David. Cotton plays the role of mission commander Ben Sawyer. Jihae plays twins -- one (Hana Seung) is the mission's pilot while the other (Joon Seung) remains on Earth as capsule communicator at mission control. The series was filmed in Budapest and Morocco and the actors said they were met in Budapest by former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison who was a technical adviser to the series and educated them on technical issues as well as how to behave and talk like astronauts.
David is a prize-winning space journalist who recently co-authored Buzz Aldrin's "Mission to Mars" book, also published by NatGeo. His companion book for this series, "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet," is beautifully illustrated, as one would expect from NatGeo. Organized into six chapters to match the six-part series, the book covers a breadth of technical topics in layperson's language that is easy and fun to read. It is not only about the science of understanding Mars and the technology needed to send people there, but physiological and psychological challenges, concerns about planetary protection, opportunities for international collaboration, and cultural impacts. It offers a more balanced combination of blue-sky optimism and down-to-earth pragmatism than most books about sending humans to Mars.
The series will air on the National Geographic channel beginning Monday, although the first episode is viewable on its website already together with related content. The book is available through National Geographic, Amazon.com and other outlets.
The Republican Party swept the 2016 national elections, winning the White House and retaining control of the House and Senate.
Donald Trump will become the next President of the United States on January 20, 2017, with Mike Pence as his Vice President. The House and Senate will remain in Republican hands, though leadership elections will determine who is Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader. House Speaker Paul Ryan, for example, has not been an enthusiastic supporter of Trump and very conservative Republicans had earlier indicated they might mount a challenge to his speakership when the 115th Congress convenes because of policy differences.
From the perspective of the space program, the Trump campaign's few remarks suggest little change in civil space except in the area of earth science. Trump is a climate change skeptic, as are key members of Congress who oversee NASA and NOAA's budgets. Otherwise, he and his representatives have expressed support for U.S. leadership in space with a bold exploration program that includes international and commercial partners. Two space advisers, Bob Walker and Peter Navarro, wrote in a Space News op-ed that Trump would restore a National Space Council in the White House to ensure "proper coordination" among the various space sectors.
As for national security space, in a separate op-ed, Walker and Navarro asserted that Trump's priorities would be to reduce vulnerabilities, assure commands have the tools they need, reduce the cost of space access, and create new generations of satellites to deal with emerging threats.
Trump's own statements and the op-eds provide only the broadest strokes of what his presidency might do with the space program. Budgets are always key, so further clues will have to wait until he submits his first budget to Congress next year.
In Congress, Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) won the Senate seat being vacated by Barbara Mikuilski (D-MD). He is expected to follow in her footsteps as a strong supporter of NOAA and NASA (especially earth science and astrophysics programs at Goddard Space Flight Center), though as a freshman Democrat, he will lack her powerful position on the appropriations committee.
Two other Senators with key roles in the space program won reelection -- John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Richard Shelby (R-AL), chair of the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee, which funds NASA and NOAA.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of November 7-11, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in recess until November 14.
During the Week
Welcome back to Standard Time in the United States. Daylight Saving Time ended overnight. Adjust your clocks accordingly! We lost an hour of sleep in the process, but can catch up on Friday, which is a Federal Holiday (Veterans Day).
One hardly needs to say what the big news is this week. Election Day is Tuesday, November 8. Who will control the White House, the House of Representatives, and the Senate are all at stake and the results are completely up in the air. Voter turnout will be, as always, a critical factor. Get out and exercise your right - and your responsibility - to choose our nation's leaders.
For the space program, especially NASA and NOAA, which are part of the non-defense discretionary part of the budget, the congressional races may be more important than the White House. The Clinton and Trump campaigns haven't said much about their positions on civil and commercial space, but what they have said is very similar -- they want the United States to be a leader in space with a bold exploration program that incorporates international and commercial partners. One area of difference, not surprisingly, is NASA's role in earth science research. The Clinton campaign is enthusiastically supportive of NASA's earth science program and its role in understanding climate change; the Trump campaign thinks NASA should focus on space exploration while other agencies study the Earth.
Congress, however, is still battling over how to rein in the deficit. The draconian sequestration rules have been held in abeyance since FY2013 by two-year agreements negotiated in 2014 by the Republican House and Democratic Senate (the Ryan-Murray deal), which relaxed budget caps for FY2014 and FY2015, and in 2016 by outgoing House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and President Obama for FY2016 and FY2017. Sequestration is still the law of the land (the 2011 Budget Control Act -- BCA), however, and whether it is strictly followed, loosely followed, or ignored (perhaps repealed) in the future depends in large measure on what parties control which parts of the government. NASA has fared extremely well in recent years (Congress is poised to give NASA about $1 billion more than President Obama requested in appropriated funds for FY2017) in part because the BCA caps have not been rigorously enforced. The two parties have been battling for years on how to cut the deficit. Republicans want to do it entirely through spending cuts. Democrats want a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. Both parties want to protect the defense budget, though there are many differences on the details. That leaves mandatory spending programs (Social Security, Medicare, etc.) and non-defense discretionary agencies (e.g. NASA and NOAA) as the go-to places to look for whatever cuts are to be made. Generally speaking, Democrats are more protective of those activities than Republicans, hence the inclusion of tax increases in their deficit-reduction strategy to ensure they are not eviscerated in the process, but tax increases aren't very popular.
This election has been ... draining ... and many look forward to its end, but the nation's problems will still be there on November 9 or whenever the outcome is known (it may not be on November 9 after all, there are many close races). The new leaders, whoever they are, will have a lot to do. Every vote matters. GET OUT AND VOTE.
In addition to voting, there are number of interesting things to do this week. NASA has two media events, tomorrow (Monday) and Thursday, on small satellites for earth science. Tomorrow's virtual briefing (listen at www.nasa.gov/live) will discuss the agency's overall program of utilizing cubesats and microsatellites for earth science research, including technology developments, and a preview of three upcoming small satellite missions. Thursday's briefing at NASA HQ (watch on NASA TV) is specifically about one of them -- a constellation of eight small satellites to be launched next month that will gather data on the formation and intensity of tropical cyclones and hurricanes (CYGNSS).
Meanwhile, out at the National Academies' Beckman Center in Irvine, CA, the steering committee of the Earth Science and Applications from Space (ESAS) Decadal Survey will meet tomorrow through Thursday. On Wednesday, it will hold a webinar for members of the earth science community to get an update on the status of the Survey and ask questions of the co-chairs, Waleed Abdalati and Bill Gail.
In Paris, European Space Agency (ESA) Director General Jan Woerner will hold a press conference tomorrow morning about the ESA Ministerial Meeting coming up next month. It will not be webcast, unfortunately, but ESA says a video recording will be posted to the ESA website within 24 hours.
Lastly, the Atlantic Council will hold the next in its "Captains of Industry" series on Wednesday featuring representatives of four leading U.S. and European defense and aerospace companies (Airbus, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Thales USA) and the National Venture Capital Association on "Corporate-Venture Investing in Aerospace and Defense." It will be webcast.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week for others that we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.
Monday, November 7
Monday-Thursday, November 7-10
Tuesday, November 8
Tuesday-Thursday, November 8-10
Wednesday, November 9
Thursday, November 10
NASA released the December 9, 2015 letter today that Lt. Gen. Tom Stafford (Ret.) sent to Bill Gerstenmaier, who heads NASA's human spaceflight operation. The letter raises two concerns about SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket when it is used to take NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). Stafford, a former Gemini and Apollo astronaut, chairs NASA's ISS Advisory Committee and the letter was from the committee as a whole. At a meeting of the committee on Monday, Stafford said he still has not received a reply; the committee again expressed its concerns.
SpaceX currently launches cargo to the ISS using robotic Dragon spacecraft launched by Falcon 9 rockets. The company is developing a version of Dragon that can accommodate people -- Crew Dragon -- that also will be launched by Falcon 9. It is one of two companies (the other is Boeing) chosen by NASA to develop "commercial crew" vehicles to ferry astronauts to and from ISS under public private partnership arrangements. Falcon 9 is also used for commercial satellites. On September 1, 2016, while fueling a Falcon 9 for a routine pre-launch test two days before a planned launch of the Amos-6 commercial communications satellite, a fire began near the rocket's second stage, quickly engulfing the rocket and satellite, both of which were destroyed in the ensuing explosion. SpaceX is still trying to identify the root cause of the failure, but the incident raised concerns about crew safety when the rocket is used for astronauts. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted after the incident that Dragon would have been fine because it has an abort system that would have carried it away from the exploding rocket.
The Stafford letter was written 8 months before that incident after the committee was briefed by NASA commercial crew program manager Kathy Lueders about SpaceX's plan to fuel the rocket after the crew was strapped into their seats. It raises two issues. First is SpaceX's proposal to fuel the rocket after the crew is aboard because it uses supercooled oxygen that must be loaded just 30 minutes before launch. The Stafford committee letter said:
"There is a unanimous, and strong, feeling by the committee that scheduling the crew to be on board the Dragon spacecraft prior to loading oxidizer into the rocket is contrary to booster safety criteria that has been in place for over 50 years, both in this country and internationally. Historically, neither the crew nor any other personnel have ever been allowed in or near the booster during fueling. Only after the booster is fully fueled and stabilized are the few essential people allowed near it."
Indeed, after the September 1 incident, SpaceX said that no one was injured because "per standard operating procedures, all personnel were clear of the pad."
The second issue raised by the Stafford letter, and which was also discussed at the Monday committee meeting, is that the Falcon 9 design does not include a recirculation pump. "We are concerned that there may be insufficient precooling of the tank and plumbing with the current planned oxidizer fill scenario, and without recirculation there may be stratification of oxidizer temperature that will cause a variation in the input conditions to the oxidizer pump."
SpaceX said last week that although it has not determined the root cause of the September 1 incident, they believe it is related to helium loading conditions that are "mainly affected by the temperature and pressure of the helium being loaded" into helium tanks inside the Falcon 9's second stage liquid oxygen (LOX) tank.
At Monday's meeting, committee member Joe Cuzzapoli asked Stafford whether the committee had ever received a response to the December 2015 letter. Cuzzapoli has decades of experience designing and building rockets dating back to Apollo-Saturn and the space shuttle. Stafford said no, but that he had phoned Gerstenmaier in August to ask about it and was told the committee would receive another briefing in two months. As it turned out, that conversation took place just days before the September 1 incident.
SpacePolicyOnline.com requested a copy of the letter immediately after the committee's meeting on Monday. Today, NASA notified us that it has posted the letter on the agency's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) electronic library website.
In the interim, NASA provided a statement that it continues to evaluate SpaceX's plans and has a "rigorous review process" to ensure commercial crew vehicles meet safety and technical requirements.
Stafford said at Monday's meeting that he hopes the committee will receive a briefing on this matter at its December meeting in Houston.
China conducted the first launch of its new Long March 5 rocket today. At 25 metric tons (MT) to low Earth orbit (LEO), it has twice the capability of the largest existing Chinese rocket and is only slightly smaller than the largest U.S. rocket, Delta IV. It opens many possibilities for China, which has identified large space stations and probes to the Moon and Mars among its nearer-term uses.
China announced on October 28 that the launch would take place in early November, but its English-language news services, Xinhua and CCTV, typically used by the Chinese government to herald headline-grabbing space events, provided virtually no new information in the interim. Even a CCTV segment just hours before the launch (November 3, 12:46 Beijing Time; 12:46 am EDT) did not mention the launch date or time, again saying only it would be in November.
Web- and Twitter-based sources who closely follow the Chinese space program kept the public apprised of the launch status, including Andrew Jones (@AJ_FI), who writes for gbtimes.com (@gbtimescom); Chris Bergin at NASASpaceflight.com (@nasaspaceflight); and two who do not identify themselves -- @cosmicpenguin and China Spaceflight @cnspaceflight (in Chinese). About 1 minute before launch, CCTV finally began live coverage, which continued until the payload separated from the second stage.
Liftoff from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island was initially expected at 6:00 am ET (10:00 GMT; 18:00 local time at the launch site) based on Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) issued by the Chinese government to warn pilots to avoid the airspace. Launch was briefly delayed twice due to technical issues, but ultimately came at 8:43 am ET (12:43 GMT; 20:43 local time). [Editor's note: several accounts have appeared about the causes of the delays based on Chinese sources. SpacePolicyOnline.com cannot confirm them, but here are links to three for those who are interested. The first is an account apparently from one of the launch crew translated into English by @cosmicpenguin and posted to NASASpaceFlight.com. The second (text) and third (audio) are in Chinese - we used Google Translate for the text copy -- and posted to Twitter by @cnspaceflight. The gist is that the first delay was due to indications of a liquid oxygen leak and the second was related to a chill-down problem with the first stage engines. Editor's note 2: China's CCTV has now posted a YouTube video about the "nail-biting countdown."]
The payload is the Shijian-17 experimental satellite that is on its way to geostationary orbit. Long March 5 delivered it to an elliptical geostationary transfer orbit. The spacecraft's on-board propulsion will take it the rest of the way (as is typical with such launches).
Until now, the most capable Chinese rockets have been the older Long March 3B (12 MT to LEO) and the brand new Long March 7 (13.5 MT to LEO), which made its first flight in June.
Delta IV Heavy is the most capable U.S. rocket in use today. It can deliver 28.4 MT to LEO. Long March 5 and Delta IV Heavy, though large by today's standards, are modest compared to the U.S. Saturn V developed for the Apollo program (118 MT to LEO) or the Space Launch System currently being developed by NASA in three versions (70 MT, 105 MT and 130 MT). In addition, two U.S. private companies are developing or planning new heavy lift rockets: SpaceX's Falcon Heavy, 54 MT to LEO, which is close to its first flight; and Blue Origin's New Glenn, 70 MT to LEO, still in the planning phase.
Among the payloads China has announced for Long March 5 are space station modules that will be docked together in orbit to form a 60 MT space station by 2022 and robotic exploration missions. Those include a sample return mission to the Moon (Chang'e 5) next year and an orbiter/lander/rover to Mars in 2020.
Exclaiming "this is our Sputnik moment," Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) told an audience of lunar scientists and entrepreneurs tonight that the Moon is the pathway to American preeminence in space. He also addressed comments made several weeks ago by his colleague, Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), that seemed to contradict his approach to government oversight of commercial space activities, saying that the two views are closer than they appear.
Bridenstine, a former Navy pilot elected to Congress in 2012 who has term-limited himself to three terms (he is in his second term now), has become a leading advocate in Congress for passing laws that create a stable legal and regulatory environment for new types of commercial space activities. A member of both the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and the House Armed Services Committee, he has a broad outlook on U.S.civil, commercial and national security space issues. He introduced the American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA) earlier this year as a compendium of legislative provisions that can be incorporated into various pieces of legislation, including authorization and appropriations bills. Commercial space is one of the themes in ASRA.
He spoke at a meeting of NASA's Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) being held at the Universities Space Research Association's headquarters in Columbia, MD. The three-day meeting, which concludes tomorrow, has sessions ranging from deeply scientific to highly commercial.
Bridenstine took the theme of lunar science and resource utilization and ran with it. His closing sentences summed it up: "This is our Sputnik moment. America must forever be the preeminent spacefaring nation and the Moon is our path to being so."
The discovery of water ice at the lunar poles by DOD's Clementine mission, which originated with DOD's Brilliant Pebbles concept as part of the Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative, should have "transformed" the U.S. space program, he asserted, because of the significance of finding water there. He foresees a cis-lunar industry based on servicing and maintaining Earth-orbiting satellites that includes refueling those satellites using liquid oxygen and hydrogen produced from the Moon's water ice. If existing satellites can be refueled and otherwise maintained, fewer new spacecraft can be launched, reducing costs and the space debris population. He views the government's role as risk reduction to "empower" commercial companies to establish such industries.
Creating a U.S. legal framework to encourage investment in such businesses is key, he stressed. Bridenstine is a leading advocate of expanding the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation's (AST's) regulatory authority to include "enhanced payload reviews" for new types of commercial space activities to ensure they comply with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. He has worked closely with industry, especially through FAA/AST's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), to advance that idea.
COMSTAC adopted an OFR (Observations, Findings, and Recommendations) at its meeting last week recommending that the government take "expeditious action to enable a safe, predictable, and conducive environment for the growth of commercial space operations and activities..."
Babin expressed an opposite point of view in September, insisting that no legislation is needed. Instead, he argued, the private sector should be able to do whatever it wishes in space and the burden should be on the government to demonstrate why government intervention is needed, not on the private sector to follow regulations.
Though the two philosophies seem at odds, Bridenstine said tonight that, in fact, they are not as far apart as they may seem. Both he and Babin want minimal regulation and a free market in space for a broad range of commercial activities.
Bridenstine, however, strongly believes that legislation is needed. The Department of State already has said it does not have the tools to say "yes" to new commercial activities to ensure U.S. compliance with the Outer Space Treaty, he said. That means there is a risk that a U.S. company could proceed with an activity only to have the State Department stop it at the last minute because of a protest by another country. Such a risk could dampen investor confidence. Also, Congress should be involved in setting the legal regime, rather than the Executive Branch alone, so that it can endure through successive administrations.
A "rock solid ... airtight" regime is needed so "that when you get your authorization, you know, not with absolute certainty, but you're pretty darn certain, that you're going to be able to launch." That means Congress passing a law that includes an enhanced payload review process that provides "maximum regulatory certainty with the minimum regulatory burden" implemented by FAA/AST. "Enhanced space situational awareness [SSA] and reporting" also is needed. The Air Force does not have the necessary resources to provide SSA for non-DOD entities and is not a regulatory agency, so FAA/AST should take on that responsibility as well, he said, repeating comments he has made in the past.
Bridenstine's remarks tonight went further, branching out into threats posed by China, a country that understands "the geopolitical value of space operations." The possibility that the "highly valuable platinum group of metals are much more available on the moon from astroblemes than they are on earth" could explain China's interest in the Moon, he said. "Such a discovery with cis-lunar transportation capabilities ... could profoundly alter the economic and geopolitical balance of power on Earth."
To "enable freedom of action, the United States must have cis-lunar situational awareness, a cis-lunar presence, and eventually must be able to enforce the law through cis-lunar power projection. Cis-lunar development will either take the form of American values with the rule of law and private property rights, or it will take the form of totalitarian state control. The United States can decide who leads."
Lt. Gen. Tom Stafford (Ret.) and other members of NASA's International Space Station (ISS) Advisory Committee are worried about a proposal by SpaceX to fuel its Falcon 9 rocket while crews are aboard when it conducts commercial crew launches. The committee was made aware of the SpaceX proposal last year and wrote a letter to the head of NASA's human exploration program, Bill Gerstenmaier, expressing concern, but has not received a reply. The September 1 incident in which a SpaceX vehicle caught fire and exploded during fueling has accentuated the committee's concerns.
Stafford is a very highly respected former astronaut who flew on Gemini and Apollo missions, including commanding the U.S. portion of the U.S.-Soviet 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP). He chairs the ISS Advisory Committee, which is chartered to assess all ISS aspects related to safety and operational readiness, utilization and exploration. The committee also meets as a joint commission with its counterparts on the Roscosmos state space corporation's Advisory Expert Council.
At the end of its public meeting at NASA on Monday, committee member Joe Cuzzupoli raised the Space X issue. He asked Stafford if the committee had received a response from Gerstenmaier, especially considering the fire and explosion that destroyed a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and the Amos-6 satellite during a routine pre-launch on-pad test on September 1. Cuzzupoli has many decades of industry experience in designing and building rockets dating back to the Apollo-Saturn and space shuttle programs.
Stafford noted that the committee first learned of the SpaceX proposal at a briefing last December by Kathy Lueders, NASA's program manager for the commercial crew program. Lueders told the committee that SpaceX wants crews strapped into their seats before the Falcon 9 rocket is loaded with superdensified chilled oxygen, which would happen just 30 minutes before launch. Stafford said committee members were "unanimous" in opposition because no one should ever be near the pad when fueling takes place, which is true internationally. On December 9, he wrote a letter to Gerstenmaier, NASA's Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, expressing those concerns.
The committee was briefed again by Lueders in February 2016 and "she said she would get back to us," Stafford continued. She had not done so by August, however, so he called Gerstenmaier who promised the committee another briefing within two months.
That call was just days before the September 1 incident, he said. NASA has not provided the committee with any further information, but Stafford said he expects a briefing at the committee's next meeting in December in Houston, asserting that "our letter hit the nail on the head that this is a hazardous operation."
SpaceX is still trying to determine the root cause of the fire, but believes it is associated with helium loading conditions in one of three composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) in the second stage liquid oxygen tank. SpaceX noted that no one was injured: "Per standard operating procedure, all personnel were clear of the pad."
Falcon 9 is used for launches of commercial satellites like the Amos-6 communications satellite that was destroyed on September 1, as well as commercial cargo launches of its robotic Dragon spacecraft for NASA to support ISS. It is developing a version of Dragon to take astronauts to and from ISS called Crew Dragon. It has an integrated abort system that would propel the crew capsule away from the rocket in an emergency. It can operate at any point during launch and ascent, including on the pad. SpaceX conducted a pad abort test of the system last year.
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said via Twitter (@elonmusk) the day of the incident that if a Dragon had been on top of the rocket, it "would have been fine."
SpacePolicyOnline.com asked NASA for a copy of the letter Stafford sent to Gersternmaier immediately after Monday's meeting, but has not received a reply. Separately, however, NASA sent the following statement via email:
"Spacecraft and launch vehicles designed for the Commercial Crew Program must meet NASA's safety and technical requirements before the agency will certify them to fly crew. The agency has a rigorous review process, which the program is working through with each commercial crew partner.
"Consistent with that review process, NASA is continuing its evaluation of the SpaceX concept for fueling the Falcon 9 for commercial crew launches. The results of the company's mishap investigation will be incorporated into NASA's evaluation."
Editor's Note: NASA released the letter on November 4.
NASA issued a Request for Information (RFI) today soliciting concepts for small payloads to fly on commercial robotic missions that will land on the lunar surface in the 2017-2020 time frame. One of the companies offering transportation for such payloads, Moon Express, in turn said it would provide $500,000 for each of three payloads selected by NASA that would fly on its first three missions, a total of $1.5 million.
The announcements were made in conjunction with the first day of the annual Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) meeting, which provides input to NASA. The meeting is being held at the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) headquarters in Columbia, MD today through November 3.
The NASA RFI was issued by the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD), not the Science Mission Directorate that traditionally supports robotic exploration of the solar system. This is not the first time that NASA's human exploration office has funded robotic lunar missions, but comes at a time when NASA is not planning to send humans to the surface of the Moon only to orbits around it (cislunar space). President Obama cancelled U.S. plans to return humans to the lunar surface in 2010 when he terminated the Constellation program. NASA human spaceflight officials have indicated in recent years, however, that they agree there is value in learning how to live and work on the lunar surface and utilize lunar resources as part of the longer term goal of sending humans to Mars. They hope international and/or commercial partners will undertake that part of the journey.
International and commercial partners are indeed discussing it. The European Space Agency (ESA) is advocating for a "lunar village" or "moon village." ESA Director General Jan Woerner and his colleagues, including Bernard Foing who spoke at the LEAG meeting this morning, stress that they do not mean a collection of houses and businesses like a village on Earth, but a group of countries and other entities working together on the lunar surface to answer scientific questions and solve problems to enable future human exploration of the solar system.
At the same time, the private sector is taking steps towards commercial missions to the Moon. Moon Express is the furthest along of the teams competing in the $40 million Google Lunar X-Prize to land a spacecraft on the Moon, travel at least 500 meters, and send images and data back to Earth. Sixteen teams remain in the competition, but three are widely considered the primary contenders: two U.S. companies, Moon Express and Astrobotic, plus Israel's SpaceIL. Moon Express is the only one with a verified launch contract and permission from the U.S. government to conduct the mission. Both U.S. companies stress that winning the X-prize is only one motivation and they have business plans for activities separate from that competition. Other companies also have lunar plans, some of which will be discussed at tomorrow's LEAG meeting.
As noted, although NASA itself is not planning to send humans to the surface of the Moon, working with LEAG it identified Strategic Knowledge Gaps (SKGs) for lunar human exploration in three areas: understanding the lunar resource potential, understanding the lunar environment and its affect on human life, and understanding how to work and live on the lunar surface. The RFI released today is aimed at addressing those and other NASA strategic objectives "as cost-effectively as possible" by procuring "payloads and related commercial payload delivery services to the Moon." The RFI does not guarantee that any payloads will be chosen -- everything is subject to the availability of funds -- but solicits ideas from U.S. industry, universities, non-profit organizations, NASA centers including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and other U.S. government agencies. Responses are due by December 9, 2016.
For its part, Moon Express issued a press release promising up to $500,000 for each of three NASA-selected payloads that would fly on its first three "commercial lunar missions of opportunity" beginning next year. Moon Express calls it the Lunar Scout program. Moon Express founder and CEO Bob Richards said the company's "goal is to collapse the cost of access to the Moon and to enable a new era of lunar exploration and development for students, scientists, and commercial interests." Moon Express is already a partner in NASA's Lunar CATALYST program designed to spur development of commercial cargo transportation capabilities to the Moon. Richards said Lunar Scout is intended to be a pathfinder for new public private partnerships beyond Lunar CATALYST.
Moon Express is building small lunar landers that will be launched by Rocket Lab USA's Electron rockets from New Zealand. It has a contract for three Electron launches beginning in 2017. Electron has not yet achieved its first launch although construction of the launch site on New Zealand's Mahia Peninsula was completed in September 2016. The deadline for launching a mission to win the Google Lunar X-Prize is the end of 2017.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of October 31-November 5, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. Congress is in recess until November 14.
During the Week
As usual, there is a full plate of interesting space policy events coming up this week.
To highlight just two, NASA's Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) will meet in Columbia, MD at the headquarters of the Universities Space Research Association (USRA). It will spend part of the first day (Tuesday) discussing ESA Director General Jan Woerner's concept for a Moon Village (or Lunar Village). Wednesday features an evening reception where Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) will provide an update on his American Space Renaissance Act and policies needed to ensure free enterprise can occur on the Moon and in cislunar space. Bridenstine is a leading voice in Congress for determining what is needed to enable the United States government to fulfill its obligations under the Outer Space Treaty in a manner that facilitates new types of private sector activities in Earth orbit and beyond. We've inquired as to whether any of the meeting will be webcast and will add that information to our calendar entry if/when we get an answer. [UPDATE: It will be available by WebEx. See our calendar entry for details.]
On Friday and Saturday, the New Worlds Institute will hold the New Worlds 2016 Conference and Space Settlement Symposium at the Renaissance Austin Hotel at the Arboretum in North Austin, TX. It features a star-studded line-up of speakers separately making "the case for" the Moon, for Mars, and for free-space, plus sessions on space elevators, space solar power, protecting the planets, who owns space, and a broad range of other topics. Co-chaired by Mary Lynne Dittmar (Coalition for Deep Space Exploration), Pete Worden (Breakthrough Prize) and Phil Metzger (founder of Kennedy Space Center Swamp Works), speakers include Bob Richards (Moon Express), Bob Zubrin (Mars Society), Bill Gerstenmaier (NASA), Margaret Race (SETI Institute), John Lewis (University of Arizona), and Rick Tumlinson (New Worlds Institute). The website does not indicate whether any of it will be webcast. We've inquired and will post the information on our calendar if/when we find out. [UPDATE: we've been informed that it will NOT be webcast, although a few videos may be posted later.]
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week for others we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.
Monday, October 31
Monday-Tuesday, October 31 - November 1
Tuesday, November 1
Tuesday-Thursday, November 1-3
Wednesday, November 2
Wednesday-Thursday, November 2-3
Wednesday-Friday, November 2-4
Thursday-Saturday, November 3-5
Friday-Saturday, November 4-5
Events of Interest