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Orbital ATK revealed today that it has purchased a second Atlas V rocket to launch a Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS). The company already planned to use Atlas V for a December launch and now will use a second in 2016 along with two or three launches of its revamped Antares rocket. An October 2014 Antares failure was the first of three failed cargo launches to ISS in less than a year that disrupted cargo deliveries, although NASA insists that U.S. ISS operations are unaffected.
The company plans to use an Atlas V to launch Cygnus in December 2015, the first Cygnus launch under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA since the October 2014 failure. Today's press release said only "early December," but NASA officials have publicly stated that the launch is scheduled for December 3. Orbital ATK refers to it as the "OA-4" mission. Two successful Antares/Cygnus CRS cargo missions were flown by Orbital Sciences Corporation (Orb-1 and Orb-2) before its merger with ATK earlier this year. The third in the series, Orb-3, was the failure.
In 2016, Orbital ATK will carry out "at least three more CRS missions: two (or possibly three) will be launched by Antares rockets ... and one more will be launched aboard Atlas V," according to Orbital ATK Space Systems President Frank Culbertson.
The Antares return-to-flight mission is expected in the first quarter of 2016 from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility at Wallops Island, VA. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe said last week that repairs to the MARS facility, which is owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia and operated by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, are almost complete. Virginia Space, Orbital ATK and NASA are equally sharing the $15 million cost of the repairs. McAuliffe said that a new arrangement has been negotiated with Orbital ATK regarding repair costs and insurance coverage for future missions.
The October 2014 Antares failure was caused by one of the Russian NK33 rocket engines (refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne and redesignated AJ26) and Orbital ATK is replacing them with a different Russian engine, RD-181. Two engines are needed for each Antares rocket and Orbital ATK President and CEO David Thompson said during an investor teleconference last week that the engines were delivered in June and are being integrated into the Antares airframe now. The retrofitted Antares will roll out to the pad in January for a "hot fire" engine test, Thompson added, although today's announcement said it could take place late this year or in January. No announcement was made about exactly when the launch is planned, but March has been mentioned elsewhere.
Under the original CRS contract, Orbital ATK and its competitor, SpaceX, are each required to deliver 20 tons of cargo to the ISS by the end of 2016. NASA awarded extensions to both companies' contracts to cover launches in 2017. Thompson said last week that Orbital ATK was awarded two of them. Orbital ATK has upgraded the Cygnus capsule so it can carry more mass so it anticipates that it can meet its contractual requirements using fewer launches than previously planned.
NASA and its ISS partners are recovering from a spate of cargo launch failures: the October 28, 2014 Antares failure, a Russian Progress M-27M failure on April 28, 2015, and a SpaceX CRS-7 failure on June 28, 2015. The Russians have since successfully launched another Progress. A date for SpaceX Falcon 9 launches to resume has not been announced.
The next cargo mission to the ISS will be Japan's HTV5, which is scheduled for August 16, 2015. Europe no longer launches its ATV cargo vehicle, so Japan's HTV, Russia's Progress, and the two U.S. capsules -- Orbital ATK's Cygnus and SpaceX's Dragon -- are the four vehicles used to deliver cargo at the present time.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) said today that in this changing launch services environment, the Air Force needs to take it slow in planning competitive launch services procurements before committing to something without adequate knowledge.
The GAO looked at the Air Force's plan to acquire future launch services under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. Since 2006, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) has been a monopoly in providing EELV launches using the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, but with the certification of SpaceX to offer EELV launch services in the future, a competitive environment has reemerged.
GAO explains that the Air Force currently acquires launch services from ULA under a cost-reimbursement, rather than fixed price, contract. The cost-reimbursement contract requires ULA to give the Air Force cost and performance data that the Air Force can use to monitor contractor performance and identify risks that can affect schedule and cost. In the new competitive environment, however, the Air Force plans to move to firm fixed price (FFP) contracts where that data will not be available. That creates a good news, bad news situation where the price for launches may be less with FFP contracts, but the Air Force will have "significantly less insight into program costs and performance." GAO also worries that FFP contracts will not give the Air Force the flexibility it needs to change launch schedules, noting that "satellite delays have historically been an issue..."
Added to that, the future of the competitive launch services industry is uncertain and "the ability of the domestic industry to sustain two or more providers in the long-term, while desirable, is unclear."
The recommendation, therefore, is to move slowly and not make commitments to future acquisition rounds until the Air Force has gained experience with the first one, now underway. The Air Force should "use an incremental approach to the next acquisition strategy until data is available to make an informed decision."
In a letter included as an appendix to the GAO report, DOD concurred: "The Air Force is implementing a phased approach to its EELV efforts, to include awarding launch services on a case by case basis."
GAO did the study in response to a congressional requirement in the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act.
With the relatively lazy days of summer upon us, the August weekly editions of "What's Happening" will cover multiple weeks. The Senate has joined the House in recessing through Labor Day. They return September 8.
During the Month
Some notable events have come to our attention since last week's edition. John Sloan from the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) is the featured guest at the ISU-DC Space Cafe this Tuesday, August 11. His topic is AST's international outreach, interesting in and of itself, but questions about AST's progress in responding to the NTSB's report on the SpaceShipTwo accident may also come up (though the answer may simply be that we all have to wait for the official response, which is due 90 days from when the report was received).
Another event that may be especially interesting is Thursday night's debate between Bas Lansdorp, President of Mars One, and two MIT graduate students (Sydney Do and Andrew Owens) who did a technical feasibility analysis of the plan that concluded it would have a "bleak outcome" as we wrote last fall. The debate is part of the Mars Society's annual convention, which will be held at Catholic University in Washington, DC from August 13-16. The Lansdorp/MIT debate is August 13 from 8:00-9:30 pm ET and is open to the public.
Coming up a week from Sunday is Japan's launch of HTV5, the next cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS). We don't list routine cargo missions to ISS unless there is something non-routine going on and considering the recent failures of ISS cargo missions, HTV5 definitely qualifies. NASA officials told the NASA Advisory Council at the end of July that some ISS supplies will be down to a 45-day margin by the time HTV5 launches on August 16. NASA likes to maintain a 6-month margin. The situation will be much improved once HTV5 arrives. Launch is at 9:01 am Eastern Daylight Time (10:01 pm local time at the launch site in Tanegashima, Japan).
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning, August 9, are listed below.
Saturday - Thursday, August 8-13
Monday, August 10
Tuesday, August 11
Thursday-Sunday, August 13-16
Sunday, August 16
Monday-Wednesday, August 24-26
Tuesday, August 25
Friday, August 28
Monday-Wednesday, August 31-September 2
NASA notified Congress by letter today that it has signed a contract with Russia for additional seats on Soyuz spacecraft to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). The letter blamed congressional underfunding of the commercial crew program for the necessity to continue reliance on Russia. The agency also announced a new ISS program manager, Kirk Shireman, who will succeed Mike Suffredini.
Saying that the new contract with Russia costs $490 million, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden stressed, as he has in many other forums, that U.S. crew transportation systems could have been in place this year if Congress had provided the requested funding and urged full funding this year. In the letter, he writes: "I am asking that we put past disagreements behind us and focus our collective efforts on support for American industry -- Boeing and SpaceX -- to complete construction and certification of their crew vehicles" so launches can begin in 2017.
NASA is requesting $1.244 billion for commercial crew in FY2016. The House approved $1.000 billion in its version of the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill that passed in June. The Senate Appropriations Committee recommended $900 million in its version of the bill, which has not been debated by the full Senate yet. (See our fact sheet on NASA's FY2016 budget request for more information.)
President Obama announced the commercial crew program as part of the FY2011 budget request in February 2010. Each year, Congress has approved less than the request because of competing budget priorities, skepticism that the commercial crew program will succeed technically and/or financially, and disagreement over how many companies NASA needed to support during the various phases of development. The request versus congressional funding so far are:
NASA pays Russia for "seats" on Soyuz spacecraft, a term that encompasses other services such as training, and includes launch, landing, and emergency escape ("lifeboat") capabilities while in orbit. This contract is for 6 more seats on flights in 2018. That yields a price per seat of about $81 million, up from $76 million for 2017. One of Bolden's complaints is that the money should be going to American companies, not Russian. NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier said in congressional testimony in February that the average price per seat for U.S. commercial crew systems will be $56 million.
Boeing and SpaceX were selected for the final phase of NASA's commercial crew program last year. The Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contracts cover completion of development and initial flights of Boeing's CST-100 capsule aboard Atlas V rockets and SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule aboard Falcon 9 rockets. The impact of the June 28 Falcon 9 failure while launching a robotic cargo version of Dragon to ISS is not yet known. SpaceX has not announced when the next Falcon 9 launch will take place or what it will carry. Falcon 9 is used today not only for cargo missions to the ISS for NASA, but launches of commercial satellites for a number of customers.
Meanwhile, Mike Suffredini, who has managed the ISS program for the past 10 years, is retiring from NASA to take a position in the private sector. NASA announced today that he will be succeeded by Kirk Shireman, who is currently Deputy Director of Johnson Space Center. Suffredini has been ISS program manager since 2005 and saw the ISS through recovery from the 2003 Columbia space shuttle tragedy, completion of construction in 2011 (the same year the space shuttle program ended), and the first years of full operational capability. Shireman was Suffredini's deputy for eight of those years (2006-2013).
UPDATE, August 7, 2015: No space policy questions arose at the debate.
ORIGINAL STORY, August 5, 2015: The 10 Republican presidential candidates who will debate each other in prime time on Thursday were selected by Fox News on Tuesday based on an average of five national polls. Among them are former Florida governor Jeb Bush who recently said he is "a space guy," and Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), both of whom made statements yesterday in support of Senate passage of a commercial space bill. While space activities rarely rise to the fore in presidential primary debates, it did happen in 2012. Perhaps it will this time, too.
Cruz is the sponsor of S. 1297, the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which passed the Senate yesterday (August 4). Rubio of one of four cosponsors.
Following Senate passage, Cruz invoked the memory of President Ronald Reagan, saying the bill carried forward "President Reagan's torch" by continuing to support commercial space. The original Commercial Space Launch Act was enacted during Reagan's presidency. In addition to provisions dealing directly with commercial space launch issues, the bill also extends the U.S. commitment to operating the International Space Station to 2024. Reagan initiated the space station program in his 1984 State of the Union Address. Cruz also tied the bill to his home state interests, saying that it demonstrates Texas has a "major stake in space exploration" and Johnson Space Center employees "will continue to play a vital role in the future" of human spaceflight. Cruz has also made clear his support for space exploration during Senate hearings, arguing that exploration of space, not studying the earth, should be NASA's priority.
One provision of S. 1297 extends through 2020 the "learning period" during which the FAA cannot issue additional commercial human spaceflight regulations. Sometimes called a "moratorium," it is set to expire on September 30, 2015. The idea is that the commercial human spaceflight industry needs time to gain experience before decisions are made on what, if any, more regulation is needed.
It may be that provision Rubio was referring to in his statement that "we need to eliminate unnecessary regulations that cost too much and make it harder for American innovators to create jobs." He added that the reforms in the bill will "make it easier for our innovators to return Americans to suborbital space" and "help the American space industry continue pushing further into space than ever before." Like Cruz and other Senators who commented on the bill, he tied it to home state interests calling it "an important win for Florida's space exploration community."
For his part, Bush championed an increase in NASA funding during an interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader in Manchester, NH, enthusing that "I'm a space guy."
People were allowed to send in questions to Fox News that they want the candidates to answer. At least one is about space policy. Michael Listner, founder and principal of Space Law & Policy Solutions in New Hampshire, tweeted today that he submitted one.
Whether or not it or any other space policy question gets asked is problematical, of course. The two-hour debate has 10 candidates and three co-moderators. How many questions can be reasonably asked and answered in that time span with so many participants will be interesting to watch. The debate airs on Fox News Channel and is being conducted in partnership with Facebook. It is being held in Cleveland, Ohio.
The 10 candidates who made the cut to be in the prime time debate at 9:00 pm EDT are (in order of their standing in the polls yesterday from highest to lowest):
Seven other Republican presidential candidates who ranked lower in the polls will appear in a separate one-hour debate at 5:00 pm EDT. They are:
During the 2012 Republican presidential primaries, candidate Newt Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House, laid out bold goals for the space program, and he and Mitt Romney responded to questions about the space program in one of the televised debates.
The Senate passed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, S. 1297, today (August 4) by unanimous consent. The broadly cast bill not only deals with several issues directly related to commercial space launch, but also extends operation of the International Space Station (ISS) to 2024.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who chairs the Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, was approved by the committee on May 20 and formally reported from committee on July 22. Cosponsors include Republican Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Democrats Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI).
Cruz said the bill carries forward "President Reagan's torch" by making a commitment to continued support of the commercial space sector. The original Commercial Space Launch Act was enacted in 1984 during Reagan's presidency. It also extends the U.S. commitment to ISS operations through 2024. President Reagan initiated the space station program in his 1984 State of the Union Address. Cruz also tied the legislation to Texas interests, noting that it "recognizes that Texas has a major stake in space exploration" and the ISS commitment signifies that Johnson Space Center employees "will continue to play a vital role in the future" of human spaceflight.
Nelson, the top Democrat on the full committee, said the bill will "help clear the way for the commercial space companies to grow and thrive on Florida's Space Coast and across the nation" and help "with our push to explore Mars."
In addition to the extension of ISS to 2024, the bill --
The House passed a related bill, the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act, H.R. 2262, on May 21. There are many differences between the House and Senate bills, and the House bill passed against strong Democratic objections, but there also are similarities providing a basis for conference discussions.
President Obama decided last year that the United States would continue operations of ISS to 2024, but current law says only that it will operate "at least through 2020." That does not preclude operations beyond 2020, but some argue that the later date should also be stated in law. Canada and Russia have agreed with the proposal to continue operations through 2024; Japan and Europe have not done so yet.
Five weeks ago, the State Department announced agreement on a U.S.-China Civil Space Dialogue that will begin in October, a short three months from now. With all the hyperbole that usually surrounds discussions of U.S.-China space cooperation, a firestorm of outrage from critics and exuberance from advocates might have been expected, but the reaction has been almost nonexistent.
The muted response from critics is all the more surprising since the State Department’s announcement came in the midst of news that China hacked into the Office of Personnel Management’s computer system, stealing data on more than 22 million current and former government employees and their relatives.
Indeed the State Department issued a press release listing a total of 127 “outcomes” – of which the civil space dialogue is only one – from bilateral talks between the two countries held on June 22-24. Underscoring the complexities of diplomacy, the United States is castigating China on the cybersecurity front while agreeing to engage on many other fronts.
The State Department is preparing for the first civil space dialogue meeting at the end of October in China. Kia Henry, a State Department spokesperson, said that all discussions will comply with U.S. laws and regulations. The State Department will chair the discussions with “support from NASA, the FAA, NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey and DoD.” Henry said they will consider environmental and scientific satellite data exchanges and spaceflight safety issues such as satellite collision avoidance.
NASA is prohibited by law from engaging in bilateral activities with China unless authorized by Congress or 30 days advance certification is provided to Congress that such engagement poses “no risk of resulting in the transfer of technology, data, or other information with national security or economic security implications” and does not involve known violators of human rights.
Kia said that it is NASA’s responsibility to submit the required certification.
Former Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), a strong critic of China for many reasons, including human rights, was largely responsible for creating that prohibition several years ago and continuing it in subsequent appropriations act. He chaired the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA and is now retired, but his successor, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) holds similar views and continued the prohibition in the FY2016 CJS bill that passed the House in June.
SpacePolicyOnline’s attempts over the past two weeks to obtain a reaction to the State Department's announcement from Culberson, however, were unsuccessful.
Outside of Congress, the most outspoken critics of potential U.S.-China space cooperation do not appear to have publicly commented either (SpacePolicyOnline.com’s repeated attempts to contact one of them also yielded no results.) Eric Sterner, a Fellow at the Marshall Institute, however, offered his views in a July 27 op-ed published by Space News. While agreeing that a dialogue could be valuable in areas such as collision avoidance, debris mitigation and science, he sees “little compelling reason for those discussions to evolve into civil space cooperation.” He disagreed with those who argue that cooperating in space leads to better geopolitical relationships on Earth, noting that Russia’s participation in the International Space Station did not dissuade its leaders from invading Ukraine.
A leading advocate of cooperation praised the decision. Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the Naval War College who has written books about the Chinese space program, told SpacePolicyOnline.com that the congressional ban “largely serves domestic political goals” and the State Department’s announcement seems to be a ‘recognition that in geopolitics, dialogue is always better than no dialogue.” She added that working with China on a space science project, for example, would allow the United States “to learn more about their decision making processes” and standard operating procedures, a “not inconsequential benefit.”
A key point will come in September when the House returns from its August recess and NASA submits the 30-day advance certification. Congress will be busy on other issues, like trying to pass a Continuing Resolution to keep the government operating, and perhaps the topics planned for this first civil space dialogue are sufficiently non-controversial that the certification will be accepted perfunctorily. Still, for all the rancor that the issue has engendered in the past, and the timing of the announcement amid accusations of Chinese cyberattacks on U.S. government databases, the subdued reaction is remarkable.
It's summer vacation time so our list of upcoming space policy related events is rather sparse. Therefore we are listing everything we know about for the entire month of August rather than just one week. The Senate will be in session this week before it heads out on its summer recess; the House left town last week. Both will return on September 8.
During the Month
The Senate still has one more week to go before it recesses for its summer break. It plans to focus on efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, which is not a space policy issue per se, but there is worry that it could derail the Continuing Resolution (CR) that Congress will need to pass before October 1 to keep the government operating. There is no expectation that any of the 12 regular appropriations bills will clear Congress by then, so either a CR must be enacted or there will be a government shutdown. You can check your favorite news sources to get up to date on the Planned Parenthood controversy, but the bottom line for the space program is that Republicans have seized on the issue to prevent any government funds from going to the non-profit organization. Democrats have said they will try to block any such effort and the White House said the President would veto any legislation to defund it. If the CR includes such language, and the President vetoes it ... well, that means no funding for DOD, NASA, or NOAA either. It's a high stakes game and impossible to guess the outcome.
Apart from that, there is an outside chance the Senate could pass S. 1297, the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. It was reported from the Senate Commerce Committee on July 22. The bill is thought to be non-controversial, but its lead sponsor is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) who recently took to the floor of the Senate in front of the C-SPAN cameras to castigate the Senate Majority Leader, calling him a liar. The Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), controls what bills are brought up so he might not be inclined to bring up one sponsored by Cruz, but then again, it is always difficult to predict what will happen in Congress. (Even fellow Republicans felt Cruz went too far, especially since there's a Senate rule that one Senator will not impugn the integrity of another Senator on the Senate floor. They showed their displeasure this week, denying Cruz a routine request for a "sufficient second" for a roll call vote on a procedural matter. Some also disputed Cruz's account of what McConnell had said. These sorts of intra-party disputes are usually kept private.)
For those who are curious, by the way, the House and Senate may meet in "pro forma" sessions during August (or anytime), but no legislative activity takes place at those times. The idea is to prevent the President from making "recess appointments," which he is allowed to do when Congress is in recess for more than three days. So the House and Senate schedule pro forma sessions where only one Member or Senator must walk into the chamber and gavel it into and out of session so it is not legally in recess for an extended period.
Not on our list of events because space policy is unlikely to arise as an issue, but perhaps of interest anyway, is Thursday's Fox News Republican presidential debate. If you've lost count, there are 17 Republicans running for President. Those that rank in the top 10 based on an average of 5 national polls on Tuesday (Fox has not said which national polls it will use) will be on stage together at 9:00 pm ET. The others will have a separate opportunity earlier in the evening (5:00 pm ET). Check your local TV listings for what channel it will be on in your area.
The rest of month is relatively quiet. The events we know about as of Sunday (August 2) morning are listed below.
Monday-Tuesday, August 3-4
Wednesday-Thursday, August 5-6
Thursday, August 6
Sunday, August 16
Monday-Wednesday, August 24-26
Tuesday, August 25
Friday, August 28
Monday-Wednesday, August 31-September 2
UPDATE, July 30, 3:50 pm EDT: This afternoon the Senate passed the House's short-term (three-month) extension of the highway bill, that has no Export-Import Bank reauthorization, sending it to the President for signature. The Senate also passed its own long-term highway bill, that includes the Ex-Im Bank reauthorization adopted by amendment earlier this week; it will be waiting for House action when the House returns in September.
ORIGINAL POST, July 30, 8:19 am EDT: The House began its summer recess last night without passing legislation to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, leaving it in limbo at least until September. Instead it passed a short-term extension to the highway bill without an Ex-Im Bank provision and sent it to the Senate before turning out the lights. The House will meet in pro forma sessions, but no legislative business is scheduled until September 8.
The Bank's charter, originally enacted in 1934, must be periodically renewed. It expired on June 30 when a previous reauthorization attempt failed. The issue splits the Republican and Democratic parties with some members of each insisting that the bank is essential to U.S. exports and therefore to U.S. jobs, while others assert it is corporate welfare for a few big companies. Boeing is often mentioned in the latter regard. Advocates claim that small and medium size businesses also benefit not only because of their own projects, but because many are suppliers to the big companies.
The Bank helps provide financing for U.S. exports, including communications satellites, for example. The Aerospace Industries Associate and the Satellite Industry Association are among its supporters.
Reauthorization of the Bank is the source of bitter contention in the Senate, but earlier this week that chamber did agree to a multi-year extension of the bank as an amendment to a must-pass highway bill. There is no substantive connection between the highway bill and the Ex-Im Bank reauthorization, but attaching one to the other was part of a strategy to get both passed before the summer recess began. Senate supporters of the Ex-Im Bank hoped that enough House members would be willing to accept reauthorization of the Bank in order to keep money flowing from the Highway Trust Fund for highway, highway safety, and public transportation projects. The Highway Trust Fund's authorization expires tomorrow (July 31).
The House Republican leadership rejected that strategy, however, and instead passed a separate short-term extension of the Highway Trust Fund authorization (until October 29) without any reference to the Ex-Im Bank. That bill is now pending before the Senate, which is likely to pass it since they do not want highway funding to end and the House has gone home for five weeks so nothing else can pass both chambers until September.
During an appearance at The Economic Club of Washington, D.C.. yesterday, Boeing chairman, W. James McNerney, Jr said that the Boeing is "actively" considering moving some of its operations overseas so it can take advantage of other countries' equivalents of the Ex-Im Bank. Explaining that the whole point of the Bank is to level the playing field with foreign competitors, McNerney said If there will be no U.S. Ex-Im Bank, "we are actively considering now moving key pieces of our company to other countries and we never would have considered it before this craziness on Ex-Im."
He called it "the triumph of ideology over any description of private business." Boeing is the biggest beneficiary by dollars, he agreed, but not by transactions: "There are more deals for small and medium size companies than big companies," adding that "70 percent of the value added of our airplanes are made up by small companies ... who would never have a chance to export without us." The congressional situation is a "sign of dysfunctionality" when two-thirds of the House and of the Senate support reauthorization, but legislation cannot pass because of the "extremes" of the two parties.
Eight of the 10 recommendations adopted by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) yesterday about the SpaceShipTwo (SS2) crash were directed at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST). An FAA spokesman said today the FAA will respond within the next three months. The other two were for the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) and its President, Eric Stallmer, said CSF would carry them out promptly.
FAA spokesman Hank Price told SpacePolicyOnline.com that the FAA “takes all NTSB recommendations seriously and we will review and respond to them within 90 days as required.”
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the fatal SS2 accident on October 31, 2014 was that the spaceplane’s builder, Scaled Composites, did not take into account the possibility that a single human error could cause a catastrophic accident and mitigate against it. That failure "set the stage" for co-pilot Michael Alsbury to unlock a feathering system meant to slow the craft during descent at the wrong time. The spaceplane was torn apart by aerodynamic forces. Alsbury died. Pilot Peter Siebold was injured, but survived.
Scaled is owned by Northrop Grumman. Scaled President Kevin Mickey said in a statement after the NTSB ruling that safety “has always been a critical component” of its culture, its pilots are “experienced and well trained,” and “we have already made changes in the wake of the accident to further enhance safety.”
Alsbury and Siebold both worked for Scaled and Scaled designed, built and operated the SS2 spaceplane that was destroyed in the accident. It was under contract to Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic (VG), which plans to build as many as five of them to take people on suborbital trips to space. VG is itself now building the second spaceplane. In a “party submission” to the NTSB, VG listed remedial steps it has taken. They include adding an automatic mechanical inhibit to prevent a pilot from incorrectly unlocking or locking the feathering system during safety-critical phases of flight. VG has total responsibility for the second spaceplane, but Mickey said Scaled and VG continue to have a relationship and an agreement for parts and services.
As for AST, the NTSB questioned several aspects of its regulatory actions in granting an experimental license to Scaled and overseeing compliance. By law, AST has a dual role in regulating and facilitating commercial space launch services and reentries. Its regulatory authority is to protect the public, property and the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States.
When Congress created AST in the 1984 Commercial Space Launch Act, the intent was for a light regulatory hand that would not stifle a nascent industry by creating unnecessary, burdensome regulations. The Act has been amended and updated several times over the intervening decades. That objective has remained the same.
In this case, however, the NTSB found AST’s evaluation of Scaled’s application for an experimental permit was “deficient.” The NTSB focused on waivers AST granted in 2013 and 2014, that were not requested by Scaled, after it determined that the hazard analysis Scaled submitted did not meet the software and human error requirements of AST’s regulations. NTSB said AST issued the waivers after concluding public health and safety would not be jeopardized and that Scaled had necessary mitigations in place, but did so “without understanding whether the mitigations would adequately protect against a single human error with catastrophic consequences [or] ... were sufficient to ensure public safety.” In addition, “Scaled did not request the waiver, participate in the waiver evaluation process, or have an opportunity to comment on the waiver before it was issued (except to identify proprietary information that should not be disclosed).”
NTSB also reported that some of AST’s technical staff complained that “their questions that did not directly relate to public safety were filtered by FAA/AST management to reduce the burden on Scaled.” AST’s responsibility is public safety, but the NTSB found that the “dividing line” between questions related to public safety and those to meet mission objectives is “not always apparent.”
Among the eight NTSB recommendations to the FAA is for AST to develop clearer policies, practices and procedures that allow direct communications between its staff and applicants; clearer guidance on evaluating permits, waivers and licenses; and better define the line between information needed to ensure public safety and that needed for mission success.
The NTSB also made two recommendations to the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), an industry association working to make commercial human spaceflight a reality. Those recommendations are to help industry ensure better emergency response procedures and to work with the FAA to develop and issue human factors guidance that commercial space operators can use throughout design and operation of a crewed vehicle. In a statement, CSF President Eric Stallmer pledged support to carry out those recommendations promptly.
AST is a relatively small office within the FAA, and while there is no hint in the NTSB report that budget or staffing shortages were a factor, the FAA has been trying to increase AST’s level of resources. The FY2016 budget request for AST is $18.114 million, a $1.5 million increase over its FY2015 level. Congress has not been enthusiastic about granting all of that increase, however.
AST is funded as part of the Transportation-HUD appropriations bill. The House approved only a $250,000 increase and the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended an $820,000 increase.
Mike Gold of Bigelow Aerospace chairs the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) that provides independent advice to AST. Gold said in an interview that perhaps one silver lining is that the SS2 accident and investigation may stimulate a discussion about the appropriate level of resources that AST requires.
In addition to its regular duties, AST has been involved in investigations of three accidents in the past 8 months: Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares failure on October 28, 2014 (Orb-3); the SS2 accident three days later; and the SpaceX Falcon 9 failure (CRS-7) on June 28, 2015. All were licensed by AST. While AST does not take the lead in the investigations, its staff participates. As Gold said, launching into space is hard and accidents are going to happen – “AST needs more resources to deal with these issues.”
CSF’s Stallmer also vowed to continue working with Congress to ensure that AST has the resources it needs “to fully address the safety findings and recommendations in the [NTSB] report.”
Events of Interest