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SpaceX Drops Lawsuit Against Air Force

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Jan-2015 (Updated: 23-Jan-2015 07:11 PM)

SpaceX announced today that it reached agreement with the Air Force on a "path forward" and is dropping its lawsuit against a 2013 Air Force contract with the United Launch Alliance (ULA) for a "block-buy" of 36 launch vehicle cores for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. 

SpaceX filed suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in April 2014 arguing that the 2013 contract should not have been awarded on a sole-source basis, but opened for bid.  The company's founder and Chief Designer, Elon Musk, said at the time that ULA's prices for launching the two EELVs -- Atlas V and Delta IV -- were "four times as expensive" as a SpaceX launch and the award was "not right."  

SpaceX has been awarded a few Air Force launch contracts (such as the DSCOVR launch now scheduled for February 8), but not for the potentially more lucrative launches of national security satellites by EELV-class rockets.  It is still awaiting certification from the Air Force to be able to compete for those launches.  Air Force officials indicated last year that certification was expected by the end of 2014, but most recently said it may not come until this summer.

The company said in statement today that its agreement with the Air Force "improves the competitive landscape and achieves mission assurance for national security space launches."   The agreement calls for the Air Force to "work collaboratively" with SpaceX to complete the certification process,   The SpaceX statement also said that the Air Force "has expanded the number of competitive opportunities for launch services under the EELV program while honoring existing contractual obligations."

"Per the settlement, SpaceX will dismiss its claims relating to the EELV block buy contract pending in the United States Court of Federal Claims," the SpaceX statement concludes.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) is a strong supporter of SpaceX's efforts to win EELV contracts.  At a Senate hearing last summer, he left no doubt about his dissatisfaction with the Air Force's handling of the EELV block-buy award and its treatment of SpaceX.  He is now the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), which oversees the Air Force.

SpaceX's complaint against the ULA contract came at the same time U.S.-Russian geopolitical relationships soured because of Russia's actions in Ukraine.  It highlighted ULA's  utilization of Russian RD-180 rocket engines for the Atlas V rocket and catalyzed a debate about U.S. dependence on Russian rocket engines.  The FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) essentially prohibits DOD from entering into a new contract or renewing a current contract for purchasing Russian rocket engines for national security space launches.  The law authorizes $220 million in FY2015 for the Air Force to develop a "next generation"  rocket propulsion system by 2019.   Meanwhile, ULA and Blue Origin announced last fall that they are teaming to develop a new U.S.-produced engine for the Atlas V that is already completely funded (i.e., no government funds are required).

Russia Reorganizes Space Program Again, Ostapenko Out - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Jan-2015 (Updated: 22-Jan-2015 07:34 PM)

January 22, 2015:  This article was updated throughout with additional information and quotes.  A correction also has been made.

The Russian government announced another restructuring of its space program management yesterday (January 21).  Most recently, responsibilities were split between the Russian federal space agency, Roscosmos, headed by Oleg Ostapenko, and the United Rocket and Space Corporation (URSC, or ORKK using its Russian initials) headed by Igor Komarov.  Now the two parts will be combined and retain the name Roscosmos, but the new entity is described as a state corporation rather than an agency. Ostapenko is out.  Komarov will run the new entity and said today that he will develop a new draft federal space plan by May.

The Russian space sector has suffered an unusual string of launch failures since December 2010 resulting in several reorganizations and leadership changes in an attempt to fix the underlying problems.  The last restructuring, in October 2013, divided Roscosmos into two parts: the Roscosmos space agency and a newly created URSC.  Ostapenko was named Director of Roscosmos at that time, replacing Vladimir Popovkin, who had been tapped for the job two years earlier, replacing Anatoly Perminov.   Like Perminov, however, Popovkin was unable to end the string of launch failures and suffered the same fate.

Ostapenko was placed in charge of the space agency in October 2013, and URSC was formally created by presidential decree two months later.  Komarov's impending appointment as Director General of URSC was announced in October 2013, but he did not officially take the position until March 2014.  In between, he was a Deputy Director of Roscosmos.  Prior to October 2013 he was CEO of Russia's AvtoVAZ, which manufactures automobiles.

That bifurcated management structure has lasted barely a year however.  Russia's official news agency Itar-Tass reported on Wednesday that the two entities will recombine.  The name Roscosmos will be retained, but  it is described as a "state corporation," that will "replace the federal space agency of the same name."   Komarov won the job as CEO of the new Roscosmos.  Itar-Tass said Ostapenko will be offered an "executive position" in industry.

Komarov said today that "We are to submit to the government a draft federal space program and a program of development of Russian space center [sic] by May."

What the reorganization means for relationships between NASA and Roscosmos, which represents Russia in the International Space Station (ISS) partnership, or U.S. corporate deals with Russian aerospace companies is difficult to discern at this point.  Russian space expert Anatoly Zak, editor of RussianSpaceWeb.com, said via email Wednesday evening that "even long time observers inside Russia are confused."

Veteran Russian space analyst Bob Christy said via email today that he sees the formation of Roscosmos as a state corporation rather than an agency as a way to make it operate more like a business, less assured of government funding, but with greater flexibility to work with private industry to create viable new companies, including merging or separating functions "across the satellites/launchers divide."

As noted, the changes began in response to Russian launch vehicle failures, but Russia's top leadership has also complained about widespread corruption that reportedly has affected everything from the GLONASS navigation satellite system to construction of the new Vostochny launch site in Siberia.

At the Maryland Space Business Roundtable event Tuesday, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was asked about the status of U.S.-Russian space cooperation given the tense geopolitical environment caused by Russia's actions in Ukraine.  Bolden responded that he and Ostapenko had an excellent working relationship, agreeing that ISS must be kept out of the political fray.  He also emphasized the importance of personal relationships among Americans and Russians working on the ISS program to make "all this stuff work."   It appears that at his level, at least, a new set of relationships will need to be established once more. This is the fourth Roscosmos director Bolden has worked with since becoming Administrator in 2009 (Perminov, Popovkin, Ostapenko and now Komarov).  

Other Roscomos officials may also be on their way out.  Itar-Tass cited Komarov today as saying that the new Roscosmos will have a smaller staff than the combined total of the previous Roscosmos and URSC. 

Although the launch failures have gotten a lot of attention, Russia also has many successful space launches.   In 2014, there were 31 successful space launches to orbit from Russian launch sites and one failure (of a Proton in May) according to data on Bob Christy's zarya.info website. (That number does not include launches of Russian rockets from Europe's launch site in French Guiana -- one of which placed the satellites into the wrong orbit -- or the Sea Launch platform.  Also, one of the 31 "successes" placed the Ekspress AM-6 satellite into an incorrect orbit, but on-board engines are being used to raise it to its intended geostationary destination).

The successes in 2014 included launch of the new Angara 5 rocket with a test payload to geostationary orbit in December.   Angara is a new family of launch vehicles of varying capabilities. Russia also had a successful suborbital test launch of the smallest version, Angara 1, in July 2014 (not included in the 31 since it was not orbital).  Russia expects to replace its old Soviet-era rockets like Proton with different versions of Angara over the next several years.

Correction:  An earlier version of this article stated that the count of Russian launch successes in 2014 included Foton-M4 even though it was placed into an incorrect orbit, but the spacecraft was nonetheless able to complete its mission.  According to Christy, the launch vehicle operated properly, delivering the satellite into an elliptical orbit, but a communications failure prevented operation of a thruster on the spacecraft; that is why the orbit could not be circularized.  The earlier version also omitted mention of the problem with the Ekpress AM-6 satellite since the satellite is expected to be able to fulfill its mission (albeit with a shortened lifetime), but the Briz-M upper stage did underperform so should be noted as only a partial success.

NASA Gets Two Shout Outs in State of the Union Address

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Jan-2015 (Updated: 20-Jan-2015 11:44 PM)

President Obama mentioned NASA twice (and NOAA once) in his State of the Union (SOTU) address tonight.  First he talked about the Orion EFT-1 flight last year and Scott Kelly's upcoming year-long mission to the International Space Station (ISS) as steppingstones to Mars.  Later he turned to climate change and lauded NASA and NOAA scientists among those warning that humans are affecting the climate.

Part of the coveted currency of Washington politics is getting mentioned in the SOTU.  Agencies and interest groups jockey to get a single sentence in the typically hour-long speech to raise awareness of their issues. The actual value of that currency is questionable, but seems no less desirable as the years pass.  This is not the first time Obama has mentioned NASA or the space program in an SOTU address (he did so in 2011 and 2013), but his one major space policy speech was a separate event at Kennedy Space Center in April 2010.

Thinking back over the history of when being singled out in the SOTU resulted in a significant policy change for NASA, the only one that comes to mind is President Ronald Reagan's 1984 address where he directed NASA to build a space station "within a decade" and invite other countries to join. That eventually became the ISS program, though it took two-and-a-half decades instead of one.   In 1986, Reagan called for development of an "Orient Express" -- a single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) vehicle that could not only put payloads into orbit but be used as a commercial hypersonic plane to take passengers from Washington to Tokyo in two hours.  The resulting National Aero-Space Plane (NASP) program did not succeed.  (John F. Kennedy's May 1961 speech to Congress that began the Apollo program was not a State of the Union address, but a separate speech on Urgent National Needs.)

Nonetheless, NASA undoubtedly is delighted to get two mentions tonight.   First was human spaceflight.  Obama does not identify the Orion spacecraft or the EFT-1 mission by name, but refers to a spaceflight "last month" as part of a program to send people to Mars that can only mean that flight.  He also introduced astronaut Scott Kelly, who was sitting in First Lady Michelle Obama's box.  Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will begin a year-long mission aboard ISS in March.   Here is the text of that portion of the speech as published on the White House website

"I want Americans to win the race for the kinds of discoveries that unleash new jobs – converting sunlight into liquid fuel; creating revolutionary prosthetics, so that a veteran who gave his arms for his country can play catch with his kid; pushing out into the Solar System not just to visit, but to stay.  Last month, we launched a new spacecraft as part of a re-energized space program that will send American astronauts to Mars.  In two months, to prepare us for those missions, Scott Kelly will begin a year-long stay in space.  Good luck, Captain – and make sure to Instagram it."

 

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly (in blue flight suit) at January 20, 2015 State of the Union address.  Photo tweeted by NASA
(@nasahqphoto).
First lady Michelle Obama is in front at the far left in grey dress; Dr. Jill Biden is third from left in green dress.

Later the President spoke about climate change and mentioned both NASA and NOAA.

"2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record.  Now, one year doesn’t make a trend, but this does – 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century.

"I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act.  Well, I’m not a scientist, either.  But you know what – I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities.  The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe.  The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security.  We should act like it."

Whether his words will lead to action in the form of more funding for Mars missions or climate change science should become evident on February 2 when his FY2016 budget request is submitted to Congress.

No mention was made of NASA, the space program or climate change in the much briefer Republican response to the SOTU by Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA).

 

GAO Releases Text of Its Denial of Sierra Nevada's CCtCAP Protest

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Jan-2015 (Updated: 20-Jan-2015 06:11 PM)

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) today released the text of its decision denying Sierra Nevada Corporation's (SNC's) protest of NASA's decision to award the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) awards to SpaceX and Boeing.  The public release of the redacted document follows NASA's release of its Source Selection Statement late last Friday.

GAO denied SNC's protest on January 5, but the text of its decision had to be reviewed and some information redacted because it was subject to a GAO Protective Order.  The public version released today is 21 pages long and has a fair number of [DELETED] notations including detailed price information for all three bidders although the total price bid by each is presented:  Boeing, $3,099,016,464; SpaceX, $1,753,698,691; and SNC, $2,552,271,681.

Price was not the only factor in NASA's decision, as evidenced by NASA's Source Selection Statement, signed by Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations.  The other two were Mission Suitability and Past Performance.  Price was more important than Mission Suitability, which was more important than Past Performance.   The combination of Mission Suitability and Past Performance was approximately equal to Price.  NASA determined that SpaceX "had the best price and also Very Good mission suitability and a High level of confidence in past performance."  Boeing "is the strongest of all three proposals in both Mission Suitability and Past Performance" even though it is higher in price.  SNC "has a strong management approach" and its "performance on other very relevant work has been very good," but Gerstenmaier said he agreed with the Source Evaluation Board's "evaluation that SNC has the lowest rating for the technical subfactor" and SNC's design is "at the lowest level of maturity."

GAO agreed with NASA's determinations.  It denied SNC's four protests --

  • that NASA improperly elevated the importance of a solicitation goal to a de facto requirement;
  • that NASA's determination that the awardee's fixed price was realistic;
  • of NASA's technical evaluation; and
  • of NASA's past performance evaluation.

CCtCAP is the final phase of NASA's efforts to facilitate commercial development of crew space transportation systems to service the International Space Station (ISS) through what are essentially public-private partnerships.  NASA supported all three companies in the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) phase, but had to choose only two of the three to proceed to this phase, which is intended to result in systems capable of entering service by the end of 2017. 

SNC has vowed to continue with its vehicle, Dream Chaser, despite losing the protest.  Dream Chaser is a winged vehicle that resembles a small space shuttle.  The Boeing CST-100 and SpaceX Dragon vehicles are capsules reminiscent of an Apollo spacecraft.   SpaceX is already launching an uncrewed version of Dragon as a cargo carrying spacecraft.  SpaceX's most recent "commercial cargo" launch to the ISS was on January 10.  That Dragon spacecraft is still attached to the ISS and expected to return to Earth in February.

Bolden: Keep Moving the Ball Forward, Don't Get Discouraged

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Jan-2015 (Updated: 20-Jan-2015 04:28 PM)

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden conveyed optimism today in a speech to the space business community in Maryland, urging them to not get discouraged and to “move the ball forward.”  Without promising that President Obama would mention space in tonight’s State of the Union address, Bolden offered suggestions on what the President could say if he chose to.

Bolden avoided specifics in his first major public speech of the year.  The President’s FY2016 budget request will not be released until February, so he could not talk about what the President has in mind for the agency other than commenting that he expects it to reflect a “vote of confidence” that the agency is on the right track.  “If you want to know what the future holds in our field, I think ‘more of the same’ is not too hard of a prediction to make.”

The key is “we’re moving the ball forward … bit by bit,” he said early in the speech to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR) in Greenbelt, MD, a theme he repeated to the end.

The “absolute worst thing” would be “to interrupt that progress and go back to the beginning” he said, acknowledging “we did it in this Administration, almost, we didn’t quite go back and reset, there was an attempt made to do that, and we chose not to do that” but instead we “took the work that had been done prior to this Administration .. and adopted and adapted some of it so we are where we are today.”

Stressing that he was not suggesting President Obama would say anything about space exploration in tonight’s State of the Union address, Bolden said the President could say “for the first time in human history we may be going inside the 20-years-to-Mars.”   Sending humans to Mars still is “without a doubt” at least 20 years away, he clarified, but “we’re about to slip under that 20-year threshold.”

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly will sit with First Lady Michelle Obama during tonight’s speech.  Kelly is about to embark on a year-long mission to the International Space Station (ISS) to learn more about human adaptation to living in space in preparation for eventual human trips to Mars.

Other nations are counting on the United States to continue to lead in space exploration, Bolden said, and when he meets with other ISS partners about what they want to do next, they say “we’re going where you go.”  They have an expectation “that we know what the heck we’re doing,” and “we’ve got to be able to deliver on that promise.”

“We’re on a journey to Mars,” he proclaimed, adding that he realizes that people in the audience have heard that for so long they may not be as convinced as he is, but “I mean that…..I’m dedicated to that.”

“You’re moving the ball forward,” he told the audience.  “Do not get discouraged.  Do not let people tell you what you’re doing is not of great value to this nation…. Hang in there. … We’re gonna get there.”

What's Happening in Space Policy January 19-23, 2015 - UPDATE 2

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Jan-2015 (Updated: 20-Jan-2015 08:58 AM)

UPDATE, January 20:  New House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Chairman Mac Thornberry will lay out his agenda for the 114th Congress at 10:00 am ET this morning (Monday) to the American Enterprise Institute. It will be webcast.

UPDATE, January 19:  The White House announced today that astronaut Scott Kelly will be one of the many guests sitting with First Lady Michelle Obama during Tuesday's State of the Union address.  Whether or not the President will mention Kelly and his upcoming year-long mission to the ISS or anything else about the space program is unclear, but it raises that possibility.

January18, 2015: Here is our list of space policy related events coming up for the week of January 19-23, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate will be in session for part of the week (Monday is a holiday -- Martin Luther King Jr. Day) and on Tuesday will meet in joint session to hear President Obama's State of the Union Address.

During the Week

The list of events this week is somewhat short, but they are important events that will set the stage for what transpires in months to come.

The two committees that set policy for NASA will hold their organizational meetings this week:  the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee on Tuesday and the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee on Wednesday.   Committee and subcommittee members are usually formalized at these meetings and the chairs and ranking members often use the opportunity to lay out their priorities for the year.  The Senate committee will now be run by Republicans instead of Democrats since Republicans won control of the Senate in last year's elections.  Sen. John Thune (R-SD) will be chairman and Sen. BIll Nelson (D-FL) is the ranking member.   In space policy circles. a lot of attention is being paid to the selection of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to chair the Space, Science and Competitiveness subcommittee and what that may mean especially for NASA's earth science program.   Cruz told the Houston Chronicle his overall priorities for oversight of the U.S. civil space program, starting with reauthorization of the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA) and returning NASA to its "core priority of exploring space."

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS) will retain their leadership positions on the full House SS&T committee and its Space Subcommittee respectively.  Smith said last year that CSLA will be one of his top priorities in this Congress.  A prohibition on the FAA enacting new regulations on commercial human spaceflight expires this year, so that is certain to be a topic for debate.  How the October 2014 Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo crash will affect the outcome is an open question.

On Tuesday, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will speak to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR).  While he won't be able to talk about the President's upcoming budget request for FY2016, which will not be released until February 2, he should be able to explain how the agency will spend the extra half billion dollars Congress provided for the current fiscal year above the President's request, and provide updates on ongoing programs.   He and members of his NASA Advisory Council (NAC) had frank exchanges about the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) last week and perhaps he will try once more to convince the space community that moving an asteroid -- or part of an asteroid -- from one place in the solar system to another is critical to achieving the long term goal of sending humans to Mars.   That is the part of the mission NAC members question.   NASA says it will announce in "mid-January" its choice of whether to move an entire small asteroid (Option A) or pluck a boulder off of a larger asteroid (Option B) and move just that part.  It is mid-January already.  Perhaps Bolden will make the announcement at the MSBR meeting, though we have not heard any rumors to that effect.  The decision was supposed to have been announced last month, but was delayed at the last moment.

Also on Tuesday, President Obama will present his annual State of the Union Address.  There is no indication that the space program will be mentioned, but it should be interesting nonetheless to see what the President has in mind as he faces his last two years in office with a Congress controlled entirely by Republicans.  During his first two years, Democrats controlled both chambers.  Democrats lost the House in 2010 and he faced a split Congress for the next four years.  Now they have lost the Senate as well and Republicans made significant gains in the House.   Expectations are low that Washington gridlock will come to an end.  Senate Democrats may be as effective in the minority as the Republicans were for four years and the President wields the veto pen.

Tuesday, January 20

Wednesday, January 21

Beagle Found on Mars, SpaceX Crash Video, and Other Highlights from Today

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Jan-2015 (Updated: 16-Jan-2015 11:33 PM)

Today has been a busy day, with many interesting announcements from around the globe ranging from locating Europe's Beagle-2 lander on Mars to SpaceX's release of video of its Falcon 9 first stage crashing into instead of landing on an autonomous drone ship to NASA's release of its source selection statements for the CCtCAP awards to Boeing and SpaceX and several more.

Here are brief summaries with links to more information:

  • Beagle-2 Located on Mars.  Just over 11 years after it was lost, the United Kingdom's (UK's) Beagle-2 Mars lander has been found.  The lander was attached to the European Space Agency's (ESA's) Mars Express orbiter, which reached Mars in 2003 and continues to operate successfully.  The fate of Beagle-2 has been a mystery, though.   It separated from Mars Express six days before the orbiter arrived at Mars in December 2003 and was not heard from after its scheduled touchdown.    Analysis of imagery from a high resolution camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) now has located Beagle-2 and the imagery shows that it did reach the surface and partially deployed.  ESA issued a press release.  The project was led by Prof. Colin Pillinger from the UK's Open University, who passed away in May 2014.  The BBC has several videos from individuals associated the mission reacting to the news and stills of the imagery showing where it landed.
  • SpaceX Crash Video.   SpaceX founder and Chief Designer Elon Musk (@elonmusk) tweeted a video today taken by cameras aboard the company's autonomous drone ship on which a Falcon 9 first stage was supposed to land last week.  The first stage was part of a Falcon 9 rocket that successfully lofted SpaceX's fifth operational cargo mission (SpaceX CRS-5 or SpX-5) to the International Space Station on January 10.  The goal was to land the first stage on the drone ship as part of SpaceX's goal to develop a reusable rocket, but instead of landing, it crashed into the ship.  Musk revealed the outcome that day, but the video was released only today.  It's a spectacular crash, but many people tweeted their support today for Musk to keep trying including competitor United Launch Alliance President Tory Bruno, who said in a tweet (@torybruno) "Good luck next time.  I still have people from DCX.  Let me know if we can help."  The video does not seem to be posted on SpaceX's website, but it is posted elsewhere, including SpaceFlightNow.com.  Musk blamed the crash on insufficient hydraulic fluid in the "grid fins" designed to add stability.  SpaceX plans to try again on the DSCOVR launch, now scheduled for January 31. Musk said SpaceX already had increased by 50% the amount of hydraulic fluid for that flight.
  • The Air Force announced that the launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) has been delayed by two days to January 31.
  • ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain held his annual press breakfast meeting this morning to lay out ESA's plans for the coming year.  A video of the event is on ESA's website.
  • Russian news reports said that opera singer Sarah Brightman delayed her training for an upcoming flight to the International Space Station by a week.  At first, the reports said she had a cold, but later said that it was because her mother was ill.
  • Late this afternoon NASA released its source selection statements for the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) awards to Boeing and SpaceX. Sierra Nevada protested the awards, but the Government Accountability Office (GAO) denied the protest.

GAO Warns on Schedule Risks for NOAA's Polar and GEO Weather Satellites

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Jan-2015 (Updated: 15-Jan-2015 10:55 PM)

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a pair of reports today on NOAA's two new weather satellite programs -- the polar orbiting JPSS and the geostationary GOES-R series -- warning that schedule challenges could result in data gaps for both types of systems.

For several years NOAA itself has been warning about the possibility of data gaps because of budget constraints and programmatic issues.  A number of reviews have been carried out by GAO and an independent review team headed by industry icon Tom Young.

NOAA launched the last of its current generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites, NOAA-19, in 2009.  That series was supposed to be replaced by the NOAA-DOD-NASA National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), but that program was terminated in 2010 after years of schedule slips and cost overruns.  The Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) is NOAA's successor to NPOESS to meet civil weather satellite requirements, but encountered its own delays and cost growth since that time.  Currently, the first JPSS is expected to be launched in 2017.  Concerned about a data gap between NOAA-19 and JPSS-1, NOAA is using a NASA technology development satellite, Suomi-NPP, as a bridge between the two systems and hoping Suomi-NPP, launched in 2011, continues to function until JPSS-1 is operational.

Today's GAO report on JPSS found that "recent cost growth on key components likely is unsustainable and risks remain that could increase the potential for near-term satellite data gaps."  It warns that "a gap in satellite data may occur earlier and last longer than NOAA anticipates."  Almost 40 alternatives have been identified for mitigating any gap, GAO reports, but NOAA's contingency plan has "shortfalls" that GAO wants addressed.  It made five recommendations and said the agency agreed with them.

As for geostationary satellites, NOAA plans to launch the first of the new GOES-R series in March 2016.  NOAA keeps three Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) in orbit -- two operational (GOES-East and GOES-West) and one on-orbit spare.  The satellites have letter designations while in development and numbers after launch.  GOES-13, -14 and -15 are now in orbit.  They are third-generation satellites that will be replaced by the fourth-generation GOES-R series (-R, -S, -T and -U). 

GAO reported today that the GOES-R program "continues to face challenges in the areas of schedule, cost, and functionality" with "delays in major milestones and cost overruns on key components."  The concern in this case is that a gap may develop in the availability of the on-orbit spare.  NOAA faces "a potential gap of more than a year during which an on-orbit backup satellite would not be available" so if one of the operational satellites failed, a gap in data could occur.  NOAA has, in fact, experienced problems with GOES-13 and GOES-14 (the spare) has been activated to replace it, though ultimately GOES-13 was brought back into service each time.

GAO wants NOAA to "address shorfalls in its defect management approach, reduce the number of open high priority defects, and add information to its satellite contingency plan."  As with the JPSS report, GAO said that NOAA concurred with the recommendations.

For more information on NOAA's satellite programs and how they fared in the FY2015 budget process, see our fact sheet.

False Alarm Sends USOS ISS Crewmembers to Russian Segment

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Jan-2015 (Updated: 14-Jan-2015 08:35 PM)

What turned out to be a malfunctioning data relay caused the three International Space Station (ISS) crew members who spend most of their time in the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) to evacuate into the Russian segment while ground controllers determined just what was going on.  Initially it appeared there had been an ammonia leak.

ISS program manager Mike Suffredini explained at an 11:00 am EST briefing that at 4:00 am EST (3:00 am Central) systems indicated that four measurements were "off scale."   An alarm indicated that water was building up in one of two coolant loops (Loop B) used to transfer heat out of the interior of the space station.  The water carries heat away, through a heat exchanger, to an ammonia loop on the exterior of the station.  The system is designed to prevent ammonia from getting into the interior of the facility, but there are failure scenarios that could cause such an incursion.  One sign is that the water level rises in one of the loops.

Consequently NASA astronauts Barry "Butch" Wilmore and Terry Virts and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Samantha Cristoforreti were ordered to don protective masks and move into the Russian segment.  

Suffredini said that initial checks indicated there was no ammonia leak and the crew members were allowed to return to the USOS, but shortly after that an air pressure spike was detected, another "cue" there could be an ammonia leak.  The crew was sent back to the Russian segment.

Ground control teams troubleshot the issue and after several hours determined that a "transient error message" in a multiplexer-demultiplexer (MDM) computer relay system had, by chance, sent erroneous data that mimicked an ammonia leak. Ground controllers recycled the MDM and the false readings disappeared.  The crew returned to the USOS at 3:05 pm EST, still wearing protective masks, to sample the atmosphere.  No ammonia was detected.

Suffredini said that the research being conducted by the astronauts would have to be replanned because of the "impromptu" day off, but did not expect any major impacts.  

The ISS is a modular facility with part composed of modules and equipment built by Russia (the Russian Orbital Segment-ROS) and the other part by the United States, Japan, Europe and Canada (the USOS segment).  A hatch separates the two segments so in circumstances like this, one can serve as a safe haven if there is a problem in the other.  The Russian segment uses a different type of cooling system and was not affected by this problem.

Cruz Lays Out Space Agenda, First Up is CSLA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Jan-2015 (Updated: 14-Jan-2015 07:34 PM)

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) laid out his agenda on space issues today, issuing the transcript of an interview with the Houston Chronicle's Eric Berger as a press release.  Cruz is set to chair the Senate Commerce Committee's Space, Science and Competitiveness subcommittee, which oversees NASA.

One of his subcommittee's first priorities will be reauthorization of the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA), he said.  He expressed support for SpaceX's "substantial investments" in Texas, which has a rocket development and testing facility in McGregor and is building a launch site near Brownsville.  "I am an enthusiastic advocate of competition and allowing the private sector to innovate," he told Berger.

He also signaled support for the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion, which he labeled "critical to our medium- and long-term ability to explore space, whether it's the Moon, Mars or beyond."  As for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), he was noncommittal:  "The [ARM] mission has at times seemed to have had a changing and shifting focus."  He said he wants to hold hearings "to help NASA articulate and formulate its priorities for space exploration, whether to an asteroid, the moon, Mars or beyond."

A number of articles have been published in recent days expressing concern about the fate of science, especially climate change science, under his stewardship.  He is a climate change skeptic.  He is chairing an authorization subcommittee, which has an important policy role, but it would be difficult for him to get a law enacted to curtail that research.

Berger did not ask him about that, but in response to a question about whether he was interested in space while growing up, Cruz criticized the Obama Administration for losing sight of NASA's "core mission" and vowed to refocus NASA on "its core priority of exploring space."  "We need to get back to the hard sciences, to manned space exploration and to the innovation that has been integral to the mission of NASA.  We should not be allowing NASA to have its resources diverted to extraneous political agendas and apart from exploring space."

What he means by that is not entirely clear.  Some speculate he was referring to climate change science, while others thought it might mean science overall or perhaps a reference to geopolitical competition.  Cruz made clear that he does not like the United States being reliant on Russia for launches to the International Space Station (ISS) and complained that the Obama Administration has provided "insufficient" responses to his questions about the consequences if Russia "shut off the Soyuz." He also said he did not  want U.S. dependence on RD-180 engines.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told the NASA Advisory Council today that he has met Cruz once and he was "cordial," but Bolden does not know if Cruz will be as active on NASA issues as was Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL).  Nelson chaired the subcommittee in the last Congress when Democrats controlled the Senate.  Bolden and Nelson are close friends.  Nelson flew on the space shuttle in 1986 (STS-61C) when he was a Congressman and Bolden was the pilot of that mission.  Nelson is widely credited with getting Bolden the job as NASA Administrator.  He is now the top Democrat on the full Senate Commerce Committee.

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