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First Cruz Space Hearing Inquisitive, Not Confrontational

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Feb-2015 (Updated: 25-Feb-2015 12:30 PM)

Sen. Ted Cruz’s first hearing as chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA and commercial space activities was politely inquisitive and not confrontational as some expected.  Cruz (R-TX), a leading Tea Party activist, is a relative unknown quantity on space issues.  The hearing exhibited that he is an advocate of U.S. leadership in space, ending U.S. reliance on Russia, and supporter of commercial space.

As is typical, few Senators attended yesterday’s hearing before the Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.  Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), the top Democrat (Ranking Member) on the subcommittee, and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), were there only briefly because they also serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where Secretary of State John Kerry was testifying at the same time.  (Ironically, Gardner unseated Udall’s cousin, Mark Udall, for that Colorado Senate seat in last year’s election.)

Cruz chaired the hearing for the full duration and was joined for most of it by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who was the chairman of this subcommittee in the last Congress when Democrats controlled the Senate.  Nelson is now Ranking Member of the full committee.  Cruz was the Ranking Member on the subcommittee in the last Congress, so the two have worked together on these topics in the past as well as on other committees and rarely see eye to eye.   In this case, however, Cruz’s opening statement was a pep talk about the space program full of familiar themes about the need for U.S. leadership in space and ending U.S. dependence on Russia.  Nelson noted the similarities in their views on those subjects, at least, and the two bantered about how the fact that they agreed on something could be used against them in future political campaigns.

The hearing broke little new ground, but sparked interesting dialogue.  One panel of former astronauts offered the usual hopes of human trips to Mars coupled with familiar warnings that NASA’s budget needs to grow to accomplish such a goal.  A second panel of industry and academic experts offered perspectives on commercial space, U.S. leadership, future human spaceflight destinations, and preferences in reauthorizing the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA).

The first panel was comprised of three former astronauts:  Apollo 7’s Walter Cunningham, Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin (the second man to walk on the Moon), and space shuttle astronaut Mike Massimino.   The second panel was Boeing’s John Elbon, George Washington University’s Scott Pace, and the Commercial Spaceflight Federation’s Eric Stallmer.

Cruz is a vocal climate change skeptic and concerns were widely expressed in the space community when he became chairman of this subcommittee that he would use his position to try to restrict funding for NASA’s earth science research.  Cunningham is also a climate change skeptic and his inclusion on the panel fueled expectations that the hearing would focus on that topic.  In fact, however, climate change barely arose and only in response to a question from Udall to Massimino about whether he agreed that NASA should remain a multi-mission agency including funding programs for earth observation.   Massimino discoursed about how the International Space Station is a great “perch” for viewing Earth and his belief that if NASA can help with any of the problems facing the country and the world, it should.

Except for his opening statement, Cruz kept his own views to himself and asked thought provoking questions that allowed the witnesses an opportunity to share their perspectives.

Cruz’s key messages in that statement were:  NASA needs to get back to its “core priorities” of exploring space; the United States should be the leader in space; SLS and Orion are critical to exploring space “whether it is Moon, Mars or beyond” (omitting mention of asteroids); U.S. dependence on Russia for access to ISS is “unacceptable” and it is “imperative” that we be able to get to the ISS without the Russians; the commercial crew program is “critical” to ending U.S. dependence on Russia; and the United States should be able to launch national security satellites without Russian engines.  He said he is encouraged by progress on commercial cargo and crew, but “maximum efficiency and expedition” are needed, and he will be an “enthusiastic advocate of competition and the enabling of the private sector to compete and innovate.”   He ended by saying “There is no limit to human imagination or desire for exploration …. America has always led the way in space exploration and we need to reclaim that leadership.”

Interesting tidbits from the hearing include the following:

  • Gardner, the freshman Senator from Colorado, wrote to NASA when he was 9 (in 1983) because he wanted to be an astronaut.  He brought along with him to the hearing the letter that NASA wrote in response encouraging him to study hard and so forth.  He noted that since then he has lived through the space shuttle program and, seeing it end, wondered if NASA is still capturing the imagination of today’s youth. 
  • The first panel was asked for their thoughts about the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).  Massimino said that an incremental approach to future human spaceflight is needed and, whatever it is, the key is to be consistent, keep options open, and keep momentum going.   Cunningham said that whatever we do will be expensive and unless Congress decides to increase NASA’s budget “this is just talk.”  Aldrin said “you can fly it the way it is, you can cancel it, or you can do something smart in between” and offered an alternative where a robotic probe as well as a crew would travel to an asteroid in its native orbit.  The crew, including scientists and asteroid mining and robotic experts, would spend 60 days there (as part of a one-year trip). 
  • Aldrin explained in great detail his plan for human exploration of Mars using “cyclers” (described in his written statement).  He and students at Purdue are studying some of the details and he expects the report to be completed in April.  He proposes that “most” crews remain on Mars building a permanent settlement, with only some returning to Earth.
  • Aldrin offered his view that the United States and China should cooperate in space and noted that this summer is the 40th anniversary of the Apollo Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) and just as the United States and Soviet Union found a way to cooperate on that mission during the Cold War, we should be able to find a way to work with China today.
  • There was disagreement on whether the United States should send astronauts back to the lunar surface.  Aldrin thinks other countries should do that, not the United States because we already have and we should not get “bogged down” there.  Instead the United States should focus on Mars.  Cunningham said he used to believe there was no need to return to the lunar surface, but has changed his mind and now thinks lunar surface missions are needed as an intermediate step to Mars.  When the second panel had its turn, Pace made it clear that he still believes a return to the lunar surface is needed (he was a top NASA official during the George W. Bush Administration when the Constellation program was underway).  Pace wants Congress to direct NASA to develop concepts for returning to the lunar surface with commercial partners.  He also stressed the need to align U.S. plans with international interests, and potential international partners want to land on the Moon.  However, he emphasized, international cooperation “is a means, not an end.” His overall argument is that “rules on a frontier are made by the people who show up, not the ones who stay behind” so the United States needs to be there.
  • Stallmer argued for extension of third party liability indemnification and of the “learning period” for commercial human spaceflight (where the FAA cannot impose new regulations for a certain period of time) when reauthorizing CSLA. 
  • Cruz asked about impediments to expansion of commercial space.   Stallmer cited regulatory uncertainty and that any disruption of the commercial crew schedule would be a significant setback.  Elbon and Pace both said that extending the life of ISS is important for the commercial cargo and commercial crew markets.  Pace stressed the need for a predictable environment for investment and the need to plan for what will come after ISS – “if you’re not planning today what you’re going to do next, you’re planning to go out of business.”  He foresees commercial cargo and crew expanding to serve lunar surface missions.
  • Cruz asked how quickly we could end our reliance on Russia for crew access to the ISS and the RD-180 rocket engine used on the Atlas V.  Elbon said that Boeing’s CST-100 commercial crew spacecraft is on schedule to be ready by 2017 and is paced by internal work, not dollars – “we need to apply the level of money we proposed in our contract.”   The implication is that more money would not accelerate the program.  Elbon praised the RD-180 and argued for a “thoughtful” process in shifting to a new U.S.-built engine to replace it.  Pressed by Cruz to define a thoughtful approach, Elbon said the “pipeline” of RD-180s should be kept open as long as possible rather than setting a hard date for ending the contract (as is done in the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act).  Boeing and Lockheed Martin jointly own the United Launch Alliance, which builds and launches Atlas V, and Boeing plans to use Atlas V to launch CST-100.

The written statements of the witnesses and an archived webcast are available on the committee’s website.

Op-Ed: Let's Fix the Asteroid Redirect Mission

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Feb-2015 (Updated: 23-Feb-2015 10:15 PM)
Editor's Note:  For anyone who's interested, I've written another op-ed for Aviation Week & Space Technology's IdeaXchange entitled "Let's Fix the Asteroid Redirect Mission."

Eleven Organizations Form Alliance for Space Development

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Feb-2015 (Updated: 23-Feb-2015 10:29 AM)

The Space Frontier Foundation, the National Space Society and nine other organizations are forming a new Alliance for Space Development "dedicated to influencing the goals of space development and settlement."

A press conference announcing the formation of the alliance is scheduled for Wednesday (February 25) on Capitol Hill.

A Space Frontier Foundation press release identifies the other nine organizations as:

  • the Lifeboat Foundation
  • The Mars Society
  • The Mars Foundation
  • The Space Development Steering Committee
  • The Space Tourism Society
  • Students for the Exploration and Development of Space
  • Students on Capitol Hill
  • Tea Party in Space
  • Texas Space Alliance

What's Happening in Space Policy February 23-27, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Feb-2015 (Updated: 22-Feb-2015 10:50 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of February 23-27, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

This is one of those weeks when so much is going on that it's difficult to choose just a couple of events to highlight.  Please peruse the list below to find your own favorites. 

There are seven congressional hearings of interest to the space policy community, though one suspects two are of particular note to readers of this website:  Tuesday's Senate hearing  on the U.S. human spaceflight program and commercial space competitiveness (with three former astronauts, including Buzz Aldrin), and Friday's House hearing on NASA's commercial crew program.  

But the others should be of interest, too:  Wednesday's House hearing with the NASA Inspector General (and his counterparts at the Departments of Commerce and Justice) and hearings on the FY2016 budget requests for the Department of Transportation (including the Office of Commercial Space Transportation), Air Force (where many national security space programs reside), and the Department of Commerce (home of NOAA).  Many congressional hearings are webcast (though usually not the ones held in the U.S. Capitol), so you can enjoy them live or later in archived webcasts.  We'll provide summaries of as many of them as we can.

Tuesday, February 24

Tuesday-Wednesday, February 24-25

Wednesday, February 25

Thursday, February 26

Friday, February 27

Buzz Aldrin to Headline First Senate Commerce Committee Space Hearing of 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Feb-2015 (Updated: 19-Feb-2015 06:51 PM)

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) will hold his first space-related hearing next week as chairman of the Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.  Among the six witnesses is Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin along with another Apollo veteran, Walt Cunningham, and space shuttle astronaut Mike Massimino. 

The hearing is entitled "U.S. Human Exploration Goals and Commercial Space Competitiveness."  In addition to the panel of former astronauts, a second panel includes representatives of industry and academia:   John Elbon, Vice President and General Manager, Boeing Space Exploration; Scott Pace, Director, Space Policy Institute at George Washington University; and Eric Stallmer, President, Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

In an interview with the Houston Chronicle's Eric Berger last month that Cruz posted on his office website, he said that he is "an enthusiastic advocate of competition and allowing the private sector to innovate."  He also signaled support for Orion and the Space Launch System and said he wants to refocus NASA on its "core priority of exploring space."

Cruz is an ardent advocate of cutting federal spending and is widely credited (or blamed) for the 16-day government shutdown in 2013 and delaying Senate adjournment in December 2014 due to his strong views on budgetary and other issues.  What that will mean for NASA is anyone's guess this early in deliberations.

Democrats recently announced that Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) will be the ranking member of this subcommittee.   Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who chaired the subcommittee in the last Congress when the Senate was under Democratic control, is now the ranking member of the full committee.  Sen. John Thune (R-SD) chairs the full committee.

This is the committee that will consider the President's nomination of MIT Professor Dava Newman to be NASA Deputy Administrator.   No date has been announced for a confirmation hearing.   Under usual procedures, it is also the committee that would consider a new NASA authorization bill, although the House has already passed such a  bill and it could go directly to the Senate floor for debate if desired.  The Senate never took up the House-passed NASA authorization bill last year.  This year's House bill is virtually identical to last year's although it contains funding recommendations based on FY2015 rather than FY2014 appropriations levels.   It does not make recommendations for future year funding.

The hearing is on Tuesday, February 24, 2015 at 2:00 pm ET in 253 Russell Senate Office Building.


Upgraded Antares Rocket To Fly to ISS in March 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Feb-2015 (Updated: 19-Feb-2015 06:17 PM)

OrbitalATK President and CEO David Thompson said today that the company plans the first flight of its upgraded Antares rocket on March 1, 2016 from Wallops Flight Facility, VA.  An Antares exploded at liftoff in October 2014 destroying a Cygnus capsule loaded with supplies for the International Space Station (ISS).  The upgraded Antares will use a different rocket engine.

Thompson and two other top officials of the new company held an investors teleconference this morning.   The merger of Orbital Sciences Corporation and Alliant Techsystems (ATK) closed on February 9.   Thompson and CFO Garrett Pierce are from the Orbital side of the merger; COO Blake Larson is from ATK.

Data presented by the trio this morning show that 56 percent of the company's revenue is from national security programs, 26 percent from commercial programs, and 18 percent from NASA and other civil government programs.  NASA programs were numbers two and three of the five top revenue producers last year:  NASA's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract to take cargo to the ISS (approximately $300 million) and the propulsion system for the Space Launch System (about $250 million).  In first place was small caliber ammunition for the Army ($430 million).  Fourth was medium and large caliber ammunition for the Army ($225 million) and fifth place was a tie between missile defense interceptors and tactical missiles, both at $150 million.

Public attention is focused on the merged company's recovery from the Antares failure.  Thompson was confident that OrbitalATK will be able to fulfill its contract with NASA to deliver 20 tons of cargo to the ISS by the end of 2016.  Between now and the first launch of the upgraded Antares, OrbitalATK will launch one of its Cygnus spacecraft on a competitor's rocket -- United Launch Alliance's Atlas 5.  Thompson said that launch will be ready for flight in early October, but NASA may want to wait until later that month or November, depending on other ISS activities.   That will be followed by the March 1 launch of the upgraded Antares and two more later in the year.  The Cygnus itself is an upgraded model as well that can carry more cargo than the earlier version, allowing OrbitalATK to meet the tonnage requirements with only four more launches instead of five.

Thompson said that NASA is not asking the company to fly a demonstration launch of the upgraded rocket -- the March 1 launch will have a full cargo load.  However, in January the company will conduct a test firing of the first stage on the launch pad at Wallops.

The first stage is built in Ukraine by Yuzhmash and Thompson was asked if he had any concerns considering the situation there.  Thompson replied that he needs five more Antares first stages over the next two-and-a-half years and three are complete and the other two are "almost" complete.  "We're watching closely with nearly full time presence" at Yuzhmash and "we do have a fallback plan if things really deteriorate there."   No details were provided during the teleconference and the company has not yet responded to a query from about what that plan is.

The engines used for the original version of Antares were old Russian NK-33 engines manufactured more than four decades ago and refurbished here by Aerojet Rocketdyne and redesignated AJ26.   Thompson said shortly after the October 28 launch failure that early indications were that the engines were the cause of the failure 15 seconds after launch. 

The replacement engines also are Russian, but newer RD-181s built by NPO Energomash, a subsidiary of Energia.  In a January 16, 2015 press release, Energia's President Vladimir Solntsev said the two companies had been working on the contract for three years.  According to that press release, the contract value is $1 billion for 60 engines (plus engineering services), but apparently that is a firm contract for 20 engines plus two options for 20 more engines each.  The first two engines are due to be delivered in June 2015.   The RD-181 was "developed specifically" for Antares, according to the Energia press release, based on the RD-191 engine built for Russia's new Angara rocket family.  Orbital/OrbitalATK itself has released very little information about the contract.

NASA Postpones First Two of Three Spacewalks

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Feb-2015 (Updated: 19-Feb-2015 05:06 PM)

NASA decided to postpone by one day each the first two of a set of three spacewalks from the International Space Station (ISS) planned over the next week and a half.  The first was scheduled for tomorrow, February 20, but will wait until February 21.  The second will slip from February 24 to February 25.  The third remains on track for March 1.

NASA astronauts Barry "Butch" Wilmore and Terry Virts will use the spacewalks to begin the process of outfitting ISS docking ports so they can accommodate new commercial crew vehicles when they start ferrying astronauts to the ISS in 2017.  All three involve running cables and moving equipment on the exterior of the space station.

Experts are still troubleshooting an issue with the fan pump separators on the astronauts' spacesuits, however.   NASA's ISS Operations and Integration Manager Kenny Todd revealed the problem at a press briefing yesterday.  He said a decision on the schedule for the spacewalks would be made today after a special ISS Mission Management Team (IMMT) meeting.  That meeting at Johnson Space Center (JSC) concluded about 2:30 pm Central Time (3:30 pm Eastern) with the decision to wait one more day for the first two.  

NASA would like to get all three spacewalks completed before Wilmore returns to Earth on March 12.  The third of the three is still scheduled for March 1.  All three spacewalks will begin at about 7:10 am Eastern Time, with NASA TV coverage beginning at 6:00 am ET.

Todd explained that corrosion was discovered in the fan pump separators probably due to water intrusion.  The corrosion creates mechanical binding on the bearings, preventing the fans from spinning up.  The problem was discovered on orbit first on one suit and then on another.  Those fan pump separators were replaced and returned to Earth on the recent SpaceX cargo mission to the ISS (SpX-5) giving engineers an opportunity to study them more closely.

He stressed that this is not the same problem that led to the "water in the helmet" episode in 2013.  That was caused by a filter being clogged by particles in the water that allowed the water to enter European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Luca Parmitano's helmet.  "That is not an issue here," he emphasized.   "Fan pump separators can fail for a variety of reasons" and crews "train for that," he said.  Nevertheless, NASA wants to be as certain as possible that there will be no problems at all during the spacewalks.  Todd said the decision on when to conduct the spacewalks will be "data driven" and they will take place only when "we have high confidence" the suits will work properly.

Johnson-Freese: Why Wolf is Wrong About U.S.-China Space Cooperation

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Feb-2015 (Updated: 18-Feb-2015 06:54 PM)

Joan Johnson-Freese explained to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission today why former Rep. Frank Wolf was wrong to effectively ban all U.S.-China bilateral space cooperation.  Wolf retired at the end of the last Congress, but his successor as chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA holds similar views.

Johnson-Freese is a professor at the Naval War College and author of "The Chinese Space Program:  A Mystery Within a Maze" and "Heavenly Ambitions: America's Quest to Dominate Space."   She was one of the witnesses at today's hearing on China's space and counterspace programs.

Wolf included language in several Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bills that prohibits NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) from engaging in any bilateral activities with China on civil space cooperation unless specifically authorized by Congress or unless NASA or OSTP certifies to Congress 14 days in advance that the activity would not result in the transfer of any technology, data, or other information with national security or economic implications.   His indefatigable opposition to cooperating with China was based largely on its human rights abuses and efforts to obtain U.S. technology.  He was one of the strongest, but certainly not only, congressional critic of China, always stressing that he loved the Chinese people, but not the Chinese government.

Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) is Wolf's successor as chairman of the CJS subcommittee.  In December 2013 when rumors swirled that he would replace Wolf, he was interviewed by a reporter for the Houston Chronicle and when asked whether he agreed with Wolf about China replied: "Yes.  We need to keep them out of our space program, and we need to keep NASA out of China. They are not our friends." 

It remains to be seen whether he will include the same language in this year's CJS bill, but Johnson-Freese spelled out why she thinks it is the wrong approach.

She provides a comprehensive rebuttal to Wolf's reasoning, but in essence her contention is that "the United States must use all tools of national power" to achieve its space-related goals as stated in U.S. National Space Policy, National Security Strategy, and National Security Space Strategy.  Wolf's restrictions on space cooperation simply constrain U.S. options, she argues:  "Limiting U.S. options has never been in U.S. national interest and isn't on this issue either."    She disagrees with Wolf's assumption that the United States has nothing to gain from working with China:  "On the contrary, the United States could learn about how they work -- their decision-making processes, institutional policies and standard operating procedures.  This is valuable information in accurately deciphering the intended use of dual-use space technology, long a weakness and so a vulnerability in U.S. analysis."

For some issues, there really is no choice, she continues.  China must be involved in international efforts towards Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs) and space sustainability, especially with regard to space debris, a topic given urgency by China's 2007 antisatellite (ASAT) test that created more than 3,000 pieces of debris in low Earth orbit.   She notes that since that test and the resulting international condemnation,  "China has done nothing further in space that can be considered irresponsible or outside the norms set the United States."

Not that China has refrained from tests related to negating other countries' satellites, however.  She and other witnesses detailed China's recent activities in that regard.   Kevin Pollpeter of the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation and Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation joined her at the witness table.  They reported on "missile defense tests" in 2010, 2013 and 2014 that are widely considered in the West to be de facto ASAT tests, along with a  2013 "high altitude science mission" and co-orbital satellite tests in 2010 and 2013, as potentially related to ASAT development.  These tests were non-destructive, however, and did not generate space debris.

Former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Missouri), who co-chaired today's hearing, said that the Commission will publish a report by Pollpeter's institute on China's counterspace activities "in the coming days."   The Commission was created by Congress in 2000 and submits an annual report on national security implications of the U.S.-China trade and economic relationship.

What's Happening in Space Policy February 16-20, 2015 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Feb-2015 (Updated: 18-Feb-2015 12:39 PM)

UPDATE, February 18:  Friday's WSBR luncheon has been postponed.

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of February 16-20, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.   Congress is in recess this week in observance of Presidents' Day (which commemorates Abraham Lincoln's birthday on February 12 and George Washington's on February 22).

During the Week

Members of Congress will be working in their State or District offices this week instead of Washington, D.C., hearing directly from their constituents about whatever is on their minds. 

Lots of non-congressional events are on tap, though, including what could be a very interesting investors conference call with the leadership of the brand new OrbitalATK on Thursday.   This is the first such call for the merged company, which melds Orbital Sciences Corporation and Alliant TechSystems' (ATK's) aerospace business (it spun off its sporting division as part of the merger). Only financial folks get to ask questions, but anyone can listen and the company is actually making this available via webcast.  Orbital's David Thompson is President and CEO of the merged company, and Garrett Pierce is CFO, the same positions they held at Orbital.  Blake Larson, who headed ATK's Aerospace Group, is COO of the merged company.

The Director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Chris Scolese, will speak to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR) on Tuesday.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.

Editor's Note:  Some of you may have heard about the Pioneering Space National Summit scheduled for Thursday and Friday.  That event is by invitation only, so we do not list it.   On a personal note, I wish them luck.  I've been involved in too many of these exercises over the decades and declined their kind invitation to participate in yet another one.   Perhaps this will be the one that makes a difference, but I admit to being skeptical.

Tuesday, February 17

Wednesday, February 18

Thursday, February 19

Thursday-Friday, February 19-20

Friday, February 20

NOAA Downplays Weather Satellite Gap, House Committee Wants Commercial Data Buys

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Feb-2015 (Updated: 15-Feb-2015 04:56 PM)

The head of NOAA’s satellite division downplayed the chances of a gap in coverage by polar orbiting weather satellites at a House committee hearing on Thursday.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO), which has been warning of potential gaps, asked that they put it in writing.  Meanwhile, committee members made clear they want a different paradigm for the future with a greater focus on buying commercial weather data.

Potential Weather Satellite Coverage Gaps

For the past several years of hard fought budget battles, NOAA itself was the one raising red flags about the possibility that older weather satellites would wear out before new ones are launched, routinely issuing dire warnings to Congress about what would happen if there was a gap in coverage.  The strategy worked and Congress began providing all the funding NOAA requested.  Now the crisis seems to have passed from NOAA’s perspective, but GAO remains skeptical based on the information NOAA has made public to date.

At Thursday’s hearing before two subcommittees of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee on mitigating potential gaps in weather satellite coverage, the new head of NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS), Steve Volz, had quite a different message.   Volz recently succeeded Mary Kicza as head of NESDIS after a long career primarily at NASA.

NOAA operates two weather satellite systems:  one in polar orbit and the other in geostationary orbit.   Concerns about gaps in coverage currently center on the polar orbiting system although NOAA's management of both systems has been the subject of intense scrutiny in recent years.

The overall concern is that the Suomi-NPP satellite launched in 2011 will cease functioning before the first of the new Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) satellites is launched and operational (which requires a multi-month checkout period).  The issue is two-fold:  how long S-NPP will last and when JPSS-1 will launch.

S-NPP was designed and developed by NASA as a test satellite (part of the since-cancelled DOD-NOAA-NASA National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System – NPOESS), not an operational satellite.  Although public sources cite a 5-year design lifetime, NASA initially forecast a 3-5 year lifetime, as GAO’s David Powner reminded the subcommittees at the hearing.  In addition there are concerns that shortcuts were taken with some of the instruments (notably VIIRS) and that the spacecraft was not designed with the same resiliency against space debris as the JPSS satellites.

S-NPP will reach its 5-year design lifetime in October 2016, but Volz expressed confidence that it will continue functioning “past 2020.”  He also is optimistic that JPSS-1 will stick to its current schedule for launch in March 2017.  GAO’s Powner, who has tracked NOAA's weather satellite programs for many years, was not convinced.  Regarding S-NPP, Powner said “there was a NASA assessment that it would last 3-5 years, there is supposed to be a gap assessment from 2014 that hasn’t been released yet, the budget still says one year, so if it’s 2020 let’s put it in writing.”   Volz indicated later in the hearing that he would do so.  As for JPSS-1, Powner pointed to recent delays in several of the JPSS-1 instruments, especially the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder (ATMS) “which keeps slipping,” as a threat against the March 2017 launch schedule.

The topic of the hearing was how to mitigate against potential gaps whatever their cause, and while Volz was optimistic about S-NPP’s lifetime and JPSS-1’s schedule, he pointed out there are many failure scenarios and the key is to be ready for any of them.  “It’s not that we’re trying to project the failure of any individual asset, but if an asset fails at a particular time, what is the impact on the overall constellation. … One thing can take out a satellite, or a … launch failure can take out a satellite, what is our response to that and how do we mitigate the impact…   It doesn’t mean we expect it, but we have to prepare for it.”

As for mitigation strategies, dozens have been identified and GAO wants to see them prioritized: “NOAA officials stated that further prioritization among mitigation activities was not warranted because the activities were fully funded and were not dependent on the completion of other activities.  We disagree.  … [U]nless NOAA assesses the activities that have the most promise and accelerates those activities, it may not be sufficiently prepared to mitigate near-term data gaps.”

The JPSS program experienced cost growth in the 2011-2013 time frame causing congressional consternation.   NOAA reduced the cost by removing some program elements and modifying the operational time frame, reducing the program cost from $12.9 billion to $11.3 billion.  That estimate covers how much NOAA spent on the NPOESS program before it was cancelled and the cost of building and operating the first two JPSS satellites, JPSS-1 and JPSS-2. (NOAA plans to build at least two more JPSS satellites, but they have a separate program name – Polar Follow On – and budget line.)   JPSS-2 is scheduled for launch in 2021 with an operational lifetime through 2028, but in the $11.3 billion cost estimate, operations are included only through 2025.  Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) asked if that was a “gimmick to hide the true cost of the program.”   Volz, who has been at NOAA for only three months, said he would look into it.

While a potential gap in polar orbit weather data was the main focus of the hearing, concerns about the GOES geostationary system also were noted by Powner and Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-GA), chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee.   The first of NOAA’s new GOES-R satellite series is scheduled for launch in March 2016, followed by a six-month checkout period that will make it operational around September 2016.  NOAA’s policy is to have two operational and one backup GOES satellite in orbit at any given time, but it plans to retire one of its older operational satellites (GOES-13) in April and use the backup satellite (GOES-14) instead.   Those will be the only two GOES satellites operational until GOES-R is launched and checked out “which means 17 months without a spare,” Loudermilk said.  GAO’s Powner stressed the importance of maintaining the March 2016 launch date for GOES-R and of NOAA having a mitigation plan at hand.

A New Paradigm for the Future: Commercial Data Buys

Several members advocated incorporating purchases of commercial weather data into the next generation weather satellite architecture.  Rep.  Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), chairman of the Environment Subcommittee, said the government must “look outside the box” and cited several companies – PlanetIQ, Spire,  GeoOptics, Tempus Global Data and HySpecIQ – planning to deliver GPS radio occultation or hyperspectral atmospheric data that could augment weather forecasts.

Volz spoke positively about using commercial data as long as NOAA is confident it is accurate, reliable, and can be validated.  It already purchases some commercial data, including lightning data and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellite data.   He noted that NASA works in concert with other countries in developing global numerical weather prediction models and the data must be readily transferable to and usable by all those countries.   He said NOAA plans a workshop at the end of April with interested companies to discuss steps toward creating an effective working relationship.

Bridenstine asked if any of the $380 million requested in NOAA’s FY2016 budget for JPSS-3 and JPSS-4 (the Polar Follow On program) could go to a pilot program for buying commercial data instead of buying a new satellite.  (NOAA is requesting $370 million for the Polar Follow On - PFO.  It also is requesting $10 million for an Earth Observing Nanosatellite-Microwave miniature microwave sounder that is sometimes added to the PFO request, yielding $380 million.)  He supports JPSS and GOES, but wants to “move to a day where we have a different kind of space-based architecture that is resilient, that is disaggregated….where we [take] advantage of commercial technologies” and get NOAA focused on doing “what the private sector cannot do.”

Volz said that what is needed is “backbone government supplied solutions complemented by other alternative approaches” and as those capabilities get stronger, they are “likely to become more prevalent.”   However, he added, thought must be given to the risks if the commercial approach does not succeed.  He also noted that “80 plus percent” of the $380 million is going directly to the private sector companies building the spacecraft and instruments.

The hearing was held before the Subcommittee on Environment and Subcommittee on Oversight of the House SS&T committee.  A webcast of the hearing and written statements by the witnesses and chairs and ranking members of the subcommittees are available on the committee’s Republican and Democratic websites.


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