Latest News

Next Atlas V Launch Now Delayed Indefinitely

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Apr-2016 (Updated: 09-Apr-2016 06:41 PM)

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) said very late yesterday that the launch of the next Atlas V rocket is now delayed indefinitely.  ULA is investigating what went wrong on the launch of Orbital ATK's OA-6 Cygnus spacecraft on March 22.

Orbital ATK's OA-6 cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) was successful thanks to the Atlas V's Centaur upper stage, which was able to compensate for the under performance of the first stage.  The first stage's RD-180 engine shut down 6 seconds early.  The Centaur fired about one minute longer than planned to make up the difference in thrust needed to place Cygnus in the proper position for its ultimate rendezvous with ISS. 

This was the first problem for the Atlas V in 62 launches.

ULA soon announced that it was delaying the next Atlas V launch -- of a military communications satellite, MUOS-5 -- for one week, from May 5 to May 12, while it investigated what happened.  On March 31, the company said it had traced the anomaly to the first stage fuel system.

Late yesterday, ULA said in an emailed statement that the launch postponement is "indefinite:" 

Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. (April 8, 2016) -- The Atlas V MUOS-5 launch is delayed and indefinite on the Eastern Range due to ongoing evaluation of the first stage  anomaly experienced during the OA-6 mission. ULA successfully delivered the OA-6 Cygnus spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) on March 22. The MUOS-5 spacecraft and launch vehicle are secure at their processing facilities. 

Somewhat ironically, ULA's announcement came shortly after a signature success by its competitor, SpaceX, which not only launched its own cargo mission to ISS, but landed the Falcon 9 first stage on a drone ship at sea.

Great Day for SpaceX -- Successful Launch, Successful Drone Ship Landing

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Apr-2016 (Updated: 08-Apr-2016 06:43 PM)

SpaceX accomplished not only a successful launch today, but its first successful landing of the Falcon 9 first stage on an autonomous drone ship out at sea.  Although the company had successfully returned a first stage to a landing site at Cape Canaveral, FL in December 2015, its prior attempts to land on a drone ship encountered one problem after another.  Almost eclipsed by the excitement of the landing was the primary objective of the launch -- placing a Dragon spacecraft in orbit to deliver equipment and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).  Dragon should arrive there on Sunday.

SpaceX believes that the cost of launching anything into space can be sharply reduced by reusing the rockets.  Not everyone is convinced.  NASA's space shuttle was mostly reusable, but its costs remained very high because refurbishing the rocket stages and engines for the next launch was very expensive and the number of launches per year was small, so costs could not be amortized over a large base.

SpaceX and other companies, like Blue Origin, which just flew the same New Shepard rocket for the third time, still believe in reusability, though.

Falcon 9 rockets are used to place spacecraft into orbit from Cape Canaveral, FL or Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.  SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk is testing landing the first stage either on land or an "autonomous spaceport drone ship" (ASDS) at sea.  After a series of initial tests to "land" on the ocean itself to determine if the landing legs would deploy and the engine would fire correctly, SpaceX was ready to try its first landing on an ASDS in January 2015.  

The company has two ASDS's, whimsically named "Of Course I Still Love You" and "Just Read the Instructions."   They are "drone ships," not barges, because they have engines.  Barges do not.  They can operate with no one aboard, autonomously, which is important when landing a rocket on deck.

On SpaceX's first attempt to land on an ASDS in January 2015, the fuel was exhausted too soon.   On the second attempt in April 2015, the landing was too hard.  The third time, in January 2016, it landed, but one of the four landing legs broke.  On the fourth attempt, in March 2016, again there was insufficient fuel, which SpaceX anticipated and it took efforts to dampen expectations in advance.

In December 2015, however, the company did land successfully at a pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the first time it was attempted.  That was a launch of 11 Orbcomm OG-2 satellites to low Earth orbit. 

Today, everything went very smoothly and SpaceX now has two successful landings under their belt -- one on land, one at sea.

SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage after landing on ASDS Of Course I Still Love You, April 8, 2016. Screenshot from live coverage.

Meanwhile, Dragon successfully reached orbit and is on its way to the ISS with about 7,000 pounds of supplies, equipment and scientific experiments.  It will arrive there on Sunday, April 10, and remain until May 11.  SpaceX's U.S. competitor for launching cargo to the ISS is Orbital ATK's Cygnus.  For the first time, a Dragon and a Cygnus will be attached to the ISS at the same time.  Cygnus arrived there two weeks ago (and a Russian Progress cargo ship docked last week).

Among the cargo on this Dragon mission is the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which will be attached to the ISS for two years to conduct tests of this innovative approach to building space habitat modules.

Dragon is the only ISS spacecraft that not only take cargo to the space station, but return it to Earth.  It lands in the Pacific using parachutes.  NASA uses it to return the results of scientific experiments and failed equipment that it wants to analyze.

SpaceX Ready to Launch Bigelow BEAM Module to ISS for NASA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Apr-2016 (Updated: 07-Apr-2016 08:04 PM)

SpaceX's eighth operational commercial cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS), SpaceX CRS-8 (or SpX-8), is on track for launch tomorrow at 4:43 pm ET from Cape Canaveral, FL.  The weather is 90 percent favorable.  Among the 7,000 pounds of supplies, equipment and experiments in its Dragon capsule is the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) developed by Bigelow Aerospace in partnership with NASA. 

SpaceX will attempt to land the Falcon 9 first stage on one of its autonomous drone ships out at sea.  It has attempted such landings four times so far without success.  Its one successful return was back at Cape Canaveral on land.   SpaceX Vice President Hans Koenigsman explained today that the decision on whether to land at sea or on terra firma depends on the trajectory needed for a particular mission and an ocean landing is needed in this case.  Eventually, the company hopes to be able to return one-third to one-half of its rockets to land as part of its goal to have reusable rockets.  Only one reusable rocket system has been successfully developed to date -- NASA's space shuttle.

The Dragon spacecraft being launched tomorrow is packed with a range of scientific experiments to be conducted on ISS, including those to study muscle atrophy and bone loss, seek insight into interactions of particle flows at the nanoscale level, and use protein crystal growth to help design new drugs.   ISS Deputy Chief Scientist Kirt Costello said 4,300 pounds of the cargo is for "utilization" of the ISS, of which 3,100 pounds is the BEAM module.  Koenigsman added that BEAM is packed into a structure inside the unpressurized Dragon trunk and all together weighs 6,000-7,000 pounds.

Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM).   Image credit: Bigelow Aerospace.

BEAM is an expandable module that millionaire hotel magnate Robert Bigelow hopes will someday be used for space stations in low Earth orbit and habitats on the Moon or other locations in space.  NASA was developing an expandable module called Transhab in the 1990s that was to be used as a habitation module on ISS, but it was cancelled due to budget issues.  Bigelow picked up the program and continued its development, launching two test modules, Genesis I and II, using Russian rockets in 2006 and 2007 respectively.  He was a participant in one of the two NASA press conferences today about the SpX-8 mission.

Such technology is often referred to an "inflatable" rather than "expandable."   NASA's Jason Crusan explained the distinction today using balloons and tents as examples.  Balloons inflate when air is introduced, but when the air is removed, collapse.  They have no structure.  Expandables are like tents, which are compact for transportation, but once assembled retain their structure even if windows are opened or people enter or leave.

BEAM is 5.7 feet long and 7.5 feet in diameter when packed; 12 feet long and 10.5 feet in diameter when expanded, with 565 cubic feet of interior volume.  It is made of a soft fabric (Bigelow Aerospace declines to say exactly what) rather than metal like the other ISS modules and therefore can be launched in a compact form.  Mass and volume constrain what can be launched with a given rocket, so expandable modules could be an important evolution for crewed spacecraft.

This is the first time a crew will be able to interact with such a module.  The primary goals are basic, such as learning exactly how it expands.  The robotic Canadarm2 will move BEAM from the Dragon's trunk to a port on the ISS Tranquility module.  (Interestingly, Tranquillity is the name for "Node 3," which at one time was to be the connection point between the rest of the ISS and Transhab.)  BEAM then will be slowly expanded to see what happens.  Crusan explained that NASA has done a lot of modeling, but models are just models.  There is no substitute for experience.  Bigelow said BEAM was packaged a year ago and they are not entirely certain of its behavior, while ISS program manager Kirk Shireman asserted that "the devil's in the details" and that is the "beauty" of this test  flight, to learn what will happen in expanding and using it.  

NASA plans to keep BEAM attached to ISS for two years, with crews entering it occasionally to emplace instruments to monitor temperature, radiation and other parameters.  Otherwise it is empty.  When asked today if the crew could use it more often -- perhaps to get away from the noise in the ISS (caused by air circulation fans in particular) -- Crusan said there are no restrictions, but since air exchange with the ISS is involved, it is not entirely quiet.  

Bigelow's interest in expandable modules is from a business standpoint.  In the near-term, he hopes to launch two of his larger, self-sufficient B330 modules in 2020.  Docked together they could function as a small space station.   BEAM has no life support or other environmental systems -- it relies on ISS for that -- while the B330s can operate independently.  He hopes to attract foreign companies and nations that do not have their own space stations, but want to do research in space or just have their own astronauts for national prestige reasons.  

As for BEAM itself, Bigelow said two companies and two countries have expressed interest in using it for commercial activities and "maybe" NASA will grant permission. 

NASA plans to keep BEAM attached to ISS for two years.  Then it will be detached and burn up on reentry.   NASA is, however, trying to facilitate a transition to commercial space stations in low Earth orbit after use of the ISS ends.  U.S. policy is to support ISS through 2024, though NASA officials often talk about 2028 -- when the first ISS modules will be 30 years old -- as a potential end point, though recently they stress that they do not want to set a firm date, but to ascertain when the work of ISS is done.   Bigelow modules are one possibility for future commercial space stations to succeed ISS where NASA may be one customer, but not the developer, owner or operator.

All of this depends on a successful SpX-8 launch.   The weather forecast for the 4:43 pm ET launch tomorrow is excellent, with only a 10 percent chance of a weather violation due to winds.  NASA and SpaceX will both provide live coverage.  If all goes according to plan, Dragon will arrive at the ISS on Sunday and remain there until May 11.   It is the first time that SpaceX's Dragon and Orbital ATK's Cygnus will be docked at the ISS simultaneously.  

Dragon is designed to survive reentry and land in the ocean, so will bring back the results of scientific experiments and failed equipment NASA wants to analyze.  

This is the first launch of Dragon to the ISS since a failed attempt on June 28, 2015.  In that case, the Falcon 9's second stage failed and there was speculation that the Dragon spacecraft might have been able to survive a fall even from that altitude if its parachutes had deployed, but the software was not programmed to activate the parachutes during launch.  That has changed, Koenigsman said, and Dragon could land softly in the water in a similar situation this time, saving the cargo.  Shireman added that Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval was needed since it regulates commercial launches and reentries, and two of three phases had been approved, while a third "further downrange" is still being worked.  He added that the logistical issue of getting out to the Dragon to retrieve it remains, but NASA welcomes the possibility.

NASA Science Head John Grunsfeld is Retiring

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Apr-2016 (Updated: 05-Apr-2016 04:57 PM)

John Grunsfeld, NASA's Associate Administrator (AA) for the Science Mission Directorate (SMD), is retiring from the agency on April 30.  In a NASA press release he joked that he is going where he has rarely gone before -- home.   A five time space shuttle astronaut, he is often heralded as "the Hubble Repairman" for his three visits to the Hubble Space Telescope to repair and replace instruments.

SMD Deputy Associate Administrator Geoff Yoder will serve as Acting AA until a new appointment is made.

Grunsfeld has held his current job since January 2012.  A physicist by training, he joined the astronaut corps in 1992 and flew on space shuttle missions in 1995, 1997, 1999, 2002 and 2009.  He accumulated 58 days in space over all of those missions including 58 hours and 30 minutes of spacewalk time.  The shuttle flights in 1999, 2002 and 2009 were all to service Hubble.

John Grunsfeld.  Photo Credit: NASA

From 2003-2004, he served at NASA Headquarters as Chief Scientist under NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, a difficult period of time following the space shuttle Columbia tragedy.  In the wake of Columbia, O'Keefe decided to not send a space shuttle crew on a planned fifth and final servicing mission to Hubble.  He proposed using robotic spacecraft instead.  O'Keefe's decision was very controversial and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) insisted on a review by the National Research Council of the state of in-space robotic servicing.  That report was skeptical that technologies were sufficiently advanced to execute such complex activities.   NASA Administrator Michael Griffin subsequently reversed O'Keefe's decision and the fifth servicing mission was flown in 2009 (STS-125).  Grunsfeld had returned to the astronaut corps after his stint at Headquarters and was a member of the STS-125 crew. 

Grunsfeld retired from NASA after STS-125 and became Deputy Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, MD that manages Hubble.  He returned to NASA Headquarters as AA for Science in 2012 at an another challenging moment when NASA's expectations of robust science budgets hit the turbulence caused by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and sequestration.  He has led NASA's science projects through the twists and turns of Continuing Resolutions (CRs) and unexpected budget boosts by Congress, especially for a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa, since then.

As an individual whose career embraces both space science and human spaceflight, he has been in a unique position to encourage both communities to work together in the cause of space exploration instead of their traditional chilly relationship.

What's Happening in Space Policy April 4-8, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Apr-2016 (Updated: 03-Apr-2016 04:24 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of April 4-8, 2016.  The Senate is in session this week.  The House remains in recess; it will return April 12.

During the Week

If you haven't registered already, you'll miss one of the most interesting events coming up this week -- a space weather symposium hosted by the State Department and the Secure World Foundation (SWF).   It's at the State Department, so everyone had to register by last Wednesday to get on the list to attend.   Space weather is a hot topic these days with many forums for discussion, but this one seems especially interesting because it includes an international panel with experts from the UK, Europe and international organizations.  Moderated by SWF's Laura Delgado López, it has representatives from the UK Met Office, the European Space Agency, the World Meteorological Organization, the UN Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, and NATO.  It will be preceded by a panel of U.S. experts from NASA, NOAA, the Air Force, and the Department of Homeland Security, moderated by Bill Murtaugh from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.  If you can't make it in person, the event will be recorded and posted on the Web later.  C-SPAN also may cover it live.

SWF has another timely symposium on Friday.  That one is on the policy and practical implications of spectrum protection.  With everyone's insatiable appetite for wireless broadband connectivity, other users of the electromagnetic spectrum -- like military, civil, and commercial satellites -- are under increasing pressure to surrender spectrum assigned to them.   James Miller from NASA, Scott Pace from the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University, Jennifer Warren from Lockheed Martin and Christopher Hegarty from CNS Engineering & Spectrum will explain it all.   Lunch will be served, so please RSVP by Wednesday so they know how much food to order.

Later on Friday afternoon, SpaceX will attempt its first cargo launch to the International Space Station (ISS) since the SpaceX CRS-7 (SpX-7) failure in June 2015.   The Falcon 9 has launched three times since then, all successfully, but this is the first one with a Dragon cargo spacecraft chock full of supplies and equipment for the ISS crew. Among Dragon's cargo is a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) that will ride in Dragon's unpressurized "trunk." Later it will be moved to an ISS docking port using Canadarm 2 where it will be expanded and used for tests over the next 2 years. (Mr. Bigelow insists it is "expandable" rather than "inflatable" even though it builds on NASA's work on inflatables when it was developing the TransHab habitation module for ISS.  TransHab was cancelled by NASA, but Bigelow Aerospace picked it up for further development and has launched two test versions, Genesis I and Genesis II, already as free-flyers.)  Launch is at 4:43 pm ET and will be broadcast on NASA TV (and presumably on  SpaceX almost always tries to land the Falcon 9 first stage, but it has not yet posted a press kit for this launch, so we can't definitively say that's in the plan this time (but it's a good bet).

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.   Check back throughout the week to see other events we learn about as the week unfolds and add to our Events of Interest list.

Monday, April 4

Tuesday, April 5

Thursday, April 7

Friday, April 8

Atlas V Anomaly Traced to Fuel System

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Mar-2016 (Updated: 31-Mar-2016 11:38 PM)

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) has determined that the first stage of its Atlas V rocket shut down prematurely on March 22 because of a problem in the first stage fuel system.   The rocket's Centaur upper stage compensated for the first stage anomaly and placed Orbital ATK's OA-6 Cygnus cargo spacecraft in the correct orbit, but ULA needs to determine what happened before conducting the next Atlas V launch.

In a statement today, ULA said that a review team "has been successful in isolating the anomaly to the first stage fuel system and it associated components."   The team will "thoroughly assess all flight and operational data to determine root cause and identify appropriate corrective actions prior to future flights."

The next Atlas V launch was scheduled for May 5, but ULA has already postponed it until at least May 12 while it investigates the anomaly.  That rocket will place the Navy's fifth Mobile User Objective System (MUOS-5) communications satellite into orbit.

During the OA-6 launch, the Atlav V first stage shut down 6 seconds early.   The Centaur upper stage fired approximately 60 seconds longer than planned to compensate for the under performance and placed Cygnus into the proper orbit for its later rendezvous and berthing to the International Space Station, where it is today.    Thus, the launch was a "mission success."   It was the 62nd Atlas V launch and the first to experience any problems.   Atlas Vs are powered by Russian RD-180 engines.

Orbital ATK was launching Cygnus on an Atlas V because it is still recovering from the launch failure of its Antares rocket in October 2014 that destroyed an earlier Cygnus spacecraft.  It purchased two Atlas V launches from ULA so it could fulfill its contractual commitments to NASA to send 20 tons of cargo to the ISS by the end of 2016.  This was the second of the two, although Orbital ATK says that future Cygnus spacecraft also could be launched on Atlas Vs depending on NASA's needs.

Antares also uses Russian rocket engines.  The original version that failed in 2014 used NK-33 engines built four decades ago and refurbished in the United States by Aerojet Rocketdyne and redesignated AJ-26.  Orbital ATK is "re-engining" Antares, replacing the NK-33/AJ-26 engines with new Russian RD-181s.  A hot fire test of the first RD-181 powered Antares is expected in May, with Antares launching the next Cygnus in June or July, according to comments by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council this morning.

International Cooperation in Space and Earth Science Highlighted During Space Science Week

Marcia S. Smith and Marc S. Allen
Posted: 31-Mar-2016 (Updated: 31-Mar-2016 07:52 PM)

Editor's Note:  We welcome Marc S. Allen as a contributor to   Marc recently formed his own consulting company, Odonata Research, after a career at NASA's Science Mission Directorate, at the National Research Council's Space Studies Board (SSB), in the private sector, and as an astronomer.

Marc attended the SSB's session on Tuesday (March 29), part of its annual Space Science Week, that included a panel on international programs and cooperation in space and earth sciences.   Panelists were from NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and the German space agency DLR.  The discussion ranged from the status of JAXA's Hitomi (Astro-H) satellite to ESA's space and earth science strategy to Germany's plans especially in earth remote sensing to China's upcoming space science projects, which include the SMILE joint mission with ESA.  His notes from the panel discussion are posted on

GAO Wary of NASA Changes to Independent Program Assessment

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Mar-2016 (Updated: 30-Mar-2016 11:13 PM)

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) says it will keep an eye on how NASA implements its recent decision to dissolve its Independent Program Assessment Office (IPAO) whose task was to provide independent assessments for major NASA programs to improve cost and schedule performance.  NASA terminated IPAO in December 2015 and distributed its responsibilities among other NASA organizations.  GAO cautions that the reorganization could impact project oversight.

In an annual congressionally-required report released today, GAO reviewed major NASA projects that have a life cycle cost of more than $250 million.  The 18 projects in this year's report include five in formulation and 13 in implementation across NASA's four science disciplines (earth science, planetary science, heliophysics, and astrophysics), human spaceflight (SLS, Orion, and associated ground systems; the robotic portion of the Asteroid Redirect Mission; and commercial crew), and the space network ground segment.

GAO generally praised NASA for improving cost and schedule performance over the past 5 years.  However, it noted that cost and schedule growth usually occurs as projects enter system assembly, integration and test and nine projects will be in that phase in 2016, including the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft, the projects with the highest development costs.

At the same time, NASA has decided to eliminate IPAO and its umbrella organization, the Office of Evaluation.  IPAO's charter stated that it "ensures the objectivity, quality, integrity and consistency of the independent review process required" by internal NASA management policies, working collaboratively with the Mission Directorates, NASA Centers and other NASA offices and organizations "while maintaining the integrity and independence of the review process...."  Its goal was "to ensure the highest probability of mission success."

NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot issued a memo on October 26, 2015 announcing that IPAO and the Office of Evaluation were being dissolved.  Its Cost Analysis Division was transferred to the Office of the Chief Financial Officer while its other responsibilities were distributed to the Mission Directorates and NASA Centers.  Lightfoot stated in the memo that the decision was not intended to eliminate independent assessment, but to clarify the accountability of Mission Directorates and Centers.  "Note that the realization of this independent assessment realignment depends on trust among the NASA leadership and a shared perspective on accountability," he said.

NASA Associate Administrator for Communications David Weaver told via email today that in order "to consolidate similar functions and share best practices for programmatic analysis, part of the office was put under the Office of the Chief Financial Officer (OFCO). In combination with mission directorates, they will be part of Independent Review Teams to assess individual projects and programs. Other employees were either reassigned to OFCO as part of the new alignment or were provided positions at the field centers in which they previously resided."

IPAO's former director, James Ortiz, has been assigned for one year to work with Lightfoot to oversee the transition, GAO reported.

Mark Saunders, who was Director of the IPAO from August 2005 to December 2008, said in an email interview today that "dissolving the IPAO is unfortunate" because it provided the NASA Administrator an "independent review of NASA's most important programs and projects for close to 20 years and its termination eliminates that direct insight."  Operating at a level above those responsible for executing programs, it could "ensure they aren't grading their own homework," he stressed, and had the "processes and tools to ensure the competence and independence" of the reviews.

GAO is wary of the change.  "The first potential impact is on the independence of the assessments themselves," GAO cautioned.  IPAO facilitated the identification and approval of the chair of each project's Standing Review Board (SRB), which oversees project management.  IPAO staff also participated in SRBs to ensure projects complied with NASA requirements.  Now, Mission Directorates, in coordination with NASA Centers, will select the SRB chair with approval by the Associate Administrator (the position currently held by Lightfoot).  SRBs will still conduct their assessments independently, GAO said, but "the overall responsibilities for those assessments are being transferred to the directorates who directly oversee the projects being assessed." 

GAO also warned that the "robustness of the reviews could vary by center" because "policy implementation can differ when NASA devolves responsibility to the center level," citing previous cases where that occurred.

GAO said it will "continue to monitor the potential impacts" of the reorganization as it unfolds.

NASA IG: SLS/Orion Ground Systems Software Development Needs Independent Review

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Mar-2016 (Updated: 30-Mar-2016 06:23 AM)

NASA's Spaceport Command and Control System (SCCS) -- the software component  of the Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) program for the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) -- is over budget, behind schedule, and may not work according to a new report from NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG). NASA's approach to developing this software was chosen 10 years ago and may no longer be valid, but the agency refuses to change course, reflecting a cultural legacy of "over-optimism and over-promising."  The OIG recommended that NASA commission an independent assessment of the SCCS effort and NASA agreed, but will wait until all the software for the first SLS/Orion launch (Exploration Mission-1 or EM-1) is successfully delivered.  The OIG concurred with that decision.

The SCCS software will "control pumps, motors,  valves, power supplies and other ground equipment; record and retrieve data from systems before and during launch; and monitor the health and status of spacecraft as they prepare for and launch," according to the report.   All of that requires a lot of computer code and NASA decided to use multiple existing commercial software products and "glue" them together with 2.5 million lines of "glue-ware" that NASA itself is developing.  The OIG notes that reengineering the Hubble Space Telescope command and control system required just one-fifth of that amount of glue-ware code.

The effort has turned out to be more daunting than NASA expected, with cost growth of 77 percent (to $207.4 million) and a schedule slip of 14 months (to September 2017).  The OIG notes that both Orbital ATK and SpaceX use commercial software for their missions to the International Space Station (ISS) and thinks NASA should revisit its decision, made 10 years ago, to "glue" together a variety of products from multiple vendors.  The report cites two prior efforts by NASA to develop software on this scale -- the Core Electronics System for space shuttle operations and its successor, the Checkout and Launch Control System -- that "failed to meet their objectives and were substantially scaled back or cancelled prior to completion" despite the expenditure of more than $500 million.

The OIG's overall concern is that ultimately the SCCS will not work as expected.  GSDO managers have had to reduce or eliminate capabilities in order to "balance technical capabilities against schedule and cost," creating concerns that too much has been lost.  Despite efforts to reinstate some of those capabilities, the OIG found that the software that will be used for EM-1 will not have all its planned capabilities, including the ability to "automatically detect the root cause of specific failures."  Furthermore, as of the end of FY2015, version 4.0 was "3,320 hours 'out of the budget box' -- meaning there is more estimated work than time and staff available to perform it," raising concerns that further reductions to content and functionality may result.

The report concluded that much has changed over the past 10 years in the commercial software market and NASA's decision to "glue" together code from multiple vendors with software developed by NASA itself no long may be the best approach.   GSDO managers reportedly expressed concern about schedule delays that might result from changing the approach now, but the OIG concluded that the "reluctance to change course reflects a cultural legacy at NASA of over-optimism and over-promising what the Agency can achieve in a specific timeframe."   OIG concluded that while "altering course at this point would be ambitious," continuing challenges in developing SCCS warrants a reassessment.

NASA noted in response to the OIG that a 2013 review by the Aerospace Corporation found the SCCS Standard Based Architecture to be "generally sound," and the OIG agreed, but added that Aerospace also recommended an annual independent assessment of the cost and schedule and none has taken place since then.

Therefore, the OIG recommended that NASA commission an independent assessment to take place in parallel with the ongoing development effort, but NASA responded that it would wait until after all the software for EM-1 was successfully delivered.   The OIG said that is "responsive" to its findings and its recommendation is "resolved and will be closed upon completion and verification of the proposed corrective action."

What's Happening in Space Policy March 28-April 1, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Mar-2016 (Updated: 27-Mar-2016 01:27 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of March 28-April 1, 2016.  The House and Senate are in recess this week.

During the Week

Congress may be in recess, but there's still plenty going on in the world of space policy.

The Space Studies Board (SSB) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine holds its annual Space Science Week Tuesday through Thursday.  The "week" brings together the five SSB standing committees, some of which are joint with other boards:  astrobiology and planetary science, astronomy and astrophysics, biological and physical science in space, earth science and applications from space, and solar and space physics.   The committees meet in plenary session on Tuesday afternoon.  A free public lecture will take place on Wednesday featuring Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission to Pluto.  The lecture begins at 6:45 pm ET and will be webcast.  All of the activities are at the National Academy of Sciences building on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C.

The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) meets at NASA headquarters in Washington on Thursday and Friday (its Technology, Innovation and Engineering Committee meets on Tuesday, too).  The NAC agenda has not been posted yet, but these meetings typically are an excellent way to get updated on many of NASA's programs and the budget and policy issues surrounding them.  The meeting is available via WebEx and telecon for those who cannot attend in person.

Activities aboard the International Space Station (ISS) continue at a blistering pace.  Orbital ATK's Cygnus just arrived yesterday, NASA will hold a teleconference tomorrow (Monday) to discuss the science experiments that will be aboard SpaceX's Dragon cargo mission to ISS next week (April 8), and on Thursday Russia will launch its next Progress cargo craft (arriving at ISS on April 2).  All three systems suffered failures in the October 2014-July 2015 period and NASA and its partners are still catching up on supplies, although there have been a number of cargo missions since then. 

The first of two upcoming space weather seminars will be held on Thursday afternoon in Washington.  This one is sponsored by the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) and the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.  Its focus is the "emerging opportunities for science and practical applications" and includes Tammy Dickinson from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Dan Baker from the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), and Lou Lanzerotti from the New Jersey Institute of Technology among its very distinguished speaker lineup.  The other seminar is next Monday (April 4) at the State Department and is sponsored by the State Department and the Secure World Foundation (more on that in next week's edition).

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week to learn about additional events that come to our attention and get added to our Events of Interest list.

Monday, March 28

Tuesday, March 29

Tuesday-Thursday, March 29 - 31

Wednesday, March 30

Thursday, March 31

Thursday-Friday, March 31- April 1

Events of Interest


Subscribe to Email Updates:

Enter your email address: