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NASA To Study Adding Crew to first SLS/Orion Mission While GAO Worries About Challenges of Flying Without a Crew
Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot today announced that he has requested an internal NASA study of the feasibility of placing a crew on the first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) and its Orion spacecraft. Until now, the "program of record" has called for an uncrewed flight first to test the rocket and spacecraft systems, followed 2-4 years later with the first launch with a crew. Also today, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its biennial report on "high risk" government programs wherein it expressed concerns about challenges ahead for that first SLS flight under the current plan of launching it without anyone aboard.
NASA is building SLS to fulfill the goal of sending humans to Mars. The first version will be able to loft 70 metric tons (MT) into low Earth orbit. Future versions will be able to lift 105 MT and 130 MT, more than the Saturn V rocket that sent astronauts to the Moon. Boeing is the SLS prime contractor. The spacecraft that will carry crews to cis-lunar space and beyond, Orion, is being built by Lockheed Martin. A test model was launched by a Delta IV rocket in 2014 and made two orbits of Earth before splashing down in the Pacific.
The existing plan is to conduct the first launch of SLS in late 2018 (although there are indications that will slip to 2019) carrying an empty Orion. It is designated Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1). The next flight of SLS with an Orion, EM-2, is formally scheduled for 2023 although NASA is working to accelerate that launch to 2021. That would be the first SLS/Orion to carry a crew.
In a memo to employees today, Lightfoot referenced President Trump's inaugural address where the President said the country will "unlock the mysteries of space." Lightfoot then stated "Accordingly it is imperative to the mission of this agency that we are successful in safely and effectively executing both the SLS and Orion programs." In that connection, he continued, "I have asked [NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations] Bill Gerstenmaier to initiate a study to assess the feasibility of adding a crew to Exploration Mission-1.... I know the challenges associated with such a proposition ... [but] want to hear about the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight..." The announcement was made in conjunction with the SLS/Orion "suppliers conference" taking place in Washington, D.C. right now.
Lockheed Martin spokesperson Allison Miller said in a statement that "Lockheed Martin will support NASA on a study to determine the feasibility of flying a crew on Exploration Mission-1. We’ll look at accelerating remaining crew system designs, as well as potential technical and schedule challenges and how to mitigate them." Boeing spokesperson Kelly Kaplan said: "The possibility of NASA accelerating the timeline to put humans into the vicinity of the moon and onto Mars is exciting. Safety of the crew is most important, so of course there will be many factors we will consider as we assess the feasibility of adding crew to EM-1. We applaud NASA's bold path forward in this transition time and we're proud to be a part of the journey to Mars."
Every two years, GAO publishes a report on high-risk programs across the government. NASA's human spaceflight program has been on the list for many years, including SLS and Orion and their associated Exploration Ground Systems (EGS). This year's report cites "unreliable cost estimating, overly ambitious internal deadlines, limited reserves, and operating for extended periods of time without definitized contracts" as issues that "have increased the likelihood that it will incur overruns and schedule delays, particularly when coupled with the broad array of technical risks that are inherent in any human spaceflight development."
Speaking directly to the EM-1 mission as currently planned -- without a crew -- GAO says SLS, Orion and EGS "will need to resolve a multitude of technical and design challenges, complete fabrication and testing, and be delivered to the Kennedy Space Center where they will be integrated with each other and prepared for launch. ... If delays materialize during individual systems integration and testing, they could cause a cascading effect of cross-program problems."
Only three countries have launched people into space -- the United States, Russia/Soviet Union, and China. The United States is the only one that has ever launched a crew on the first flight of a new launch system -- the first launch of the space shuttle (STS-1) in 1981. Gerstenmaier addressed the risks in new human spaceflight systems at a conference last week. He noted that before STS-1, models indicated that the risk of losing the crew was between 1 in 500 and 1 and 5,000. At the end of the program in 2011, after 30 years of experience that involved two fatal shuttle flights (Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003), Gerstenmaier said NASA concluded that the actual risk of losing the crew on that flight was 1 in 12.
Note: This article was updated with the quote from Boeing.
Update, February 15: At press time this morning, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee's website listed Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) as the ranking member of its space subcommittee. However, later this morning committee Democrats issued a press release with an updated list of its members showing that Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) is the ranking member of that subcommittee. Our table has been updated accordingly. Peters remains as a member of the subcommittee.
Original Story, February 15, 2017. House Democrats have announced their full committee and subcommittee members of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee, filling out the rosters for the congressional committees that oversee the nation's space programs for the 115th Congress. Memberships on the other space-related committees were announced earlier.
Oversight and funding of the U.S. space program involves a number of committees. The list below is only of those with the most direct responsibilities and is not meant to be comprehensive. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee have jurisdiction over all government agency operations, for example, but they rarely deal with space issues. Similarly, the committees that oversee the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in the Department of the Interior (which operates the Landsat satellites) or the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in the Department of Commerce that assign spectrum to commercial and government users respectively do not often focus on space issues.
The following table, therefore, is limited to the authorization and appropriations committees for NASA, NOAA, DOD, the Intelligence Community (IC), and the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is part of the Department of Transportation. It shows the top Republicans and Democrats ("ranking members") at the full committee and subcommittee level. Complete rosters of committee and subcommittee members are on each committee's website.
State Abbreviations: AL (Alabama), AZ (Arizona), CA (California), FL (Florida), IL (Illinois), IN (Indiana), MA (Massachusetts), MS (Mississippi), NC (North Carolina), NH (New Hampshire), NJ (New Jersey), NY (New York), OR (Oregon), RI (Rhode Island), SD (South Dakota), TN (Tennessee), TX (Texas), VA (Virginia), VT (Vermont), WA (Washington)
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of February 13-18, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
The House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee will hold the year's first congressional hearing on NASA this week. Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) said that it was intended to provide a "panoramic" view of NASA's past, present and future to acquaint new committee members with the agency. No current NASA employees are on the witness list, but all four worked at the agency at one time: Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, who along with Gene Cernan were the last two men on the Moon (he also was a U.S. Senator from 1977-1983); famed Gemini and Apollo astronaut Tom Stafford, who currently chairs NASA's International Space Station Advisory Committee; Ellen Stofan, who just stepped down after three years as NASA's Chief Scientist; and Tom Young, whose storied career includes serving as mission director for the Viking program, director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, and industry executive with Martin Marietta and Lockheed Martin (after Martin Marietta and Lockheed merged to form the current company). Schmitt was the only scientist to walk on the Moon. He is a geologist, as is Stofan. Should be really interesting. No shrinking violets on that panel! That's on Thursday at 10:00 am ET. The committee webcasts its hearings on its website and YouTube channel.
Earlier in the week. the D.C. alumni chapter of the International Space University is holding another of its "Space Cafes." These monthly informal get togethers always feature really interesting speakers and this time is no exception -- there will be four of them, in fact, all from Europe. Jean-Luc Bald from the European Union's Washington office; Micheline Tabache, the Washington representative of the European Space Agency (ESA); and Norbert Paluch and Juergen Drescher, the Washington reps for the French and German space agencies respectively. Remember that the venue for the ISU-DC Space Cafes has changed to The Brixton at 901 U Street, NW. The Space Cafes usually are on Tuesdays, but this one is Monday (tomorrow).
The date has slipped a couple of times already, but the current plan is for SpaceX to launch its first cargo mission to the ISS since the September 1, 2016 on-pad explosion on Saturday at 10:01 am ET. This is SpaceX's 10th operational Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission for NASA -- SpaceX CRS-10 or SpX-10. It will mark SpaceX's first launch from NASA's Launch Complex 39A, which SpaceX is leasing from NASA. Previous SpaceX East Coast launches have been from the pad SpaceX leases from the Air Force at the adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. That is Launch Complex-40, which was damaged in the September 1 incident. SpaceX plans to use LC-39A for launches of both its current Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy (FH) still in development. The company expected that the first launch from LC-39A would be the maiden flight of the FH last November. That didn't work out, but the launch pad was close to being ready so is available for this flight. SpaceX is confident it has fixed the problem that caused the September 1 explosion and the Falcon 9 returned to flight status with an Iridium launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA last month. No new date for the FH's maiden flight has been announced.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week for others we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.
Monday, February 13
Tuesday, February 14
Wednesday-Friday, February 15-17
Wednesday-Saturday, February 15-18
Thursday, February 16
Thursday-Friday, February 16-17
Thursday-Saturday, February 16-18
Saturday, February 18
The House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee will hold its first NASA hearing of the 115th Congress on February 16. Two former astronauts (one of whom also is a former U.S. Senator), a former NASA chief scientist, and a former NASA center director and industry executive will discuss NASA's past, present, and future.
Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) announced last week that the first space hearing this year would be a "panoramic view" of NASA in order to acquaint the many new members of the committee with NASA's activities.
The list of witnesses includes Apollo 17 astronaut and former U.S. Senator Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, the only scientist (geology) to have walked on the Moon, and legendary Gemini and Apollo astronaut Lt. Gen. Tom Stafford (Ret.), who currently chairs NASA's International Space Station (ISS) Advisory Committee.
Schmitt and Gene Cernan, who passed away on January 16, were the last two men to walk on the Moon during the 1972 Apollo 17 mission. He represented New Mexico in the Senate from 1977-1983. He is a long time advocate of mining Helium-3 on the Moon and using it to fuel fusion reactors on Earth. He chaired the NASA Advisory Council when Mike Griffin was NASA Administrator (2005-2009). Stafford flew on two Gemini missions (VI and IX) and the Apollo 10 mission that orbited the Moon in preparation for the Apollo 11 lunar landing. He also commanded the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) where a U.S. Apollo and a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft docked together in space for the first time. It was an amazing political feat in the Cold War era that presaged the ongoing long-term U.S.-Russian cooperation in building and operating the ISS along with Europe, Japan, and Canada.
Schmitt is not the only scientist on the witness list. Ellen Stofan, who stepped down as NASA's Chief Scientist just two months ago, is also on the panel. A geologist, she was an associate member of the radar team for the Cassini mission to Saturn, chief scientist for NASA's New Millennium program, and deputy project scientist for the Magellan mission to Venus. She was NASA's Chief Scientist from August 2013-December 2016.
The fourth witness is Tom Young, who was mission director for NASA's Viking Mars missions before becoming Director of Goddard Space Flight Center. After leaving NASA, he joined Martin Marietta, which merged with Lockheed in 1995 to form Lockheed Martin. He was President and COO of Martin Marietta before the merger and Executive Vice President of Lockheed Martin afterwards. For the past two decades, he has chaired many review boards and investigation teams to determine why failures occurred or programs went off course, most recently Independent Review Teams for NOAA's weather satellite programs. He was a member of the NASA Advisory Council under Charlie Bolden's leadership.
No current NASA employees are on the list. The hearing is at 10:00 am ET in 2318 Rayburn House Office, Washington, DC. The committee typically webcasts its hearings.
The 20th FAA Commercial Space Transportation conference in Washington, DC ended today. Among the many interesting keynotes and panel discussions were presentations by Reps. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) and Brian Babin (R-TX) and the head of NASA's human spaceflight program Bill Gerstenmaier.
Babin chairs the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. Bridenstine is a member of that subcommittee as well as the Strategic Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, which oversees many national security space programs. Gerstenmaier is NASA's Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations (HEO), which oversees the International Space Station (ISS) and its associated commercial cargo and commercial crew programs, as well as development of the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion crew spacecraft, and other systems needed to send humans beyond low Earth orbit.
The conference was organized by the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) for the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST).
CSF Chairman Alan Stern opened the conference yesterday with an announcement that surprised many in the audience. Pointedly telling reporters in the room that he wanted them to hear him clearly, he said CSF was announcing that it supports SLS. "Exploration of space for all purposes, including commercial spaceflight, is our interest and to that end the CSF is announcing that we see many potential benefits" in NASA's SLS program. "There are bright futures across the spectrum in commercial space and the SLS can be a resource that ... makes our future .. even brighter."
The statement is somewhat surprising because there is a tension between those who support government development of new launch vehicles and those who think that should be left to private sector companies with the expectation they can do it more quickly and cost effectively. Since CSF represents many of the companies developing and marketing space launch services, its support for a government-developed system was far from assured.
Here are snapshots from the remarks by Bridenstine, Babin, and Gerstenmaier.
Bridenstine's prepared remarks closely tracked those he made last year at this conference and in other venues. Today he listed four actions that are needed to effectively leverage the commercial space industry:
With regard to the last point, he advocates that AST be assigned responsibility for regulating non-traditional commercial space activities like asteroid mining or placing habitats on the Moon in order to comply with U.S. obligations under the Outer Space Treaty. He is developing legislation that would create an "enhanced payload review process" building on AST's existing payload review process to authorize and continually supervise private sector activities in space. Currently AST regulates only launch and reentry, not what takes place in space. "We must ensure there is no question as to the statutory and regulatory mechanisms the United States government can utilize to affirmatively approve" non-traditional space activities.
His views on regulation of non-traditional space activities contrast with those advocated by Babin (discussed below). Bridenstine said in response to a question that he and Babin are good friends and although they have not reached agreement on how to harmonize their disparate approaches, he is optimistic they will.
Bridenstine is a leading candidate to become NASA Administrator. Although he is best known for his leadership in Congress on space issues at DOD, FAA and NOAA, his American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA) from last year addressed NASA issues, too. Today he declined to answer a question about whether he might become Administrator, but did express his strong support for NASA's SLS and Orion programs. He is identified with the commercial space sector and some SLS/Orion advocates worry that commercial space supporters may try to undermine SLS/Orion by arguing that the commercial sector can provide requisite capabilities quicker and cheaper. Bridenstine clearly stated today that SLS and Orion have his full support, however. He also said he is "100 percent" in favor of sending humans to Mars and reiterated his enthusiasm for a return to the Moon.
ASRA was never intended to pass as a stand-alone bill, but rather to serve as a repository for provisions that could be incorporated into other legislation. Ten of its provisions were included in the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act. Bridenstine said today that he plans to introduce an updated version of ASRA and welcomes input.
Bridenstine also was asked about a letter he recently sent, along with two other Members of Congress, questioning whether DARPA's Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program conforms with National Space Policy wherein the government is not supposed to compete with the private sector and is supposed to make government technologies available to commercial companies on an equitable basis. The letter states that DARPA's plan to award a $200 million contract to a single company, which would retain the satellite and the intellectual property, violates the policy and would distort the market. DARPA was about to award that contract to Space Systems/Loral, but Orbital ATK filed suit against DARPA yesterday to stop it. Orbital ATK is developing geosynchronous satellite servicing technologies itself. Bridenstine said today that RSGS is critical for national security and while there are some technologies that only DARPA can develop, such as completely autonomous mechanical servicing, others can be provided commercially, such as maneuvering capabilities. DARPA demonstrating technologies is one thing, but commercializing them is another, he argued, and that is why he wrote the letter.
Babin's speech also closely paralleled what he said last year. He and Bridenstine disagree on how to regulate new non-traditional space activities to ensure the United States complies with its international treaty obligations. While Bridenstine wants to create an enhanced payload review process administered by AST to provide regulatory certainty to companies, Babin does not accept that regulations are needed at all. He asserts that companies should not have to obtain government permission to conduct any space activity. Instead, the burden should be on the government to demonstrate that it has a requirement to intrude. He wants a regime where private sector activities are "presumed authorized" and the government can place restrictions on those activities only if it cannot address its concerns by any other means.
Babin also disagrees on the idea of AST taking responsibility for providing SSA to non-military users. He argues that there are other options -- other government agencies or a public private partnership -- that need to be explored first. As he said last year, he plans to hold hearings on these topics this year.
Gerstenmaier focused his remarks on risk -- specifically the risks inherent in human spaceflight. His office oversees the development of commercial crew systems by SpaceX and Boeing that will take crews to and from ISS beginning next year, as well as the Orion spacecraft that will take astronauts to cis-lunar space and eventually to Mars.
One metric for characterizing risk in this context is the probability of a failure that would kill the crew -- Loss of Crew (LOC). Gerstenmaier's message is that there will always be "unknown unknowns" in any system, no matter how many times it flies, and thus there will always be some level of risk The more the system flies, the more experience is gained, and the more engineers learn about what might fail. He noted that when the first space shuttle flew in 1981, models calculated the LOC at 1 in 500 to 1 in 5000. After accumulating data on all 135 shuttle flights -- two of which, Challenger and Columbia, ended with the deaths of their crews -- NASA concluded that the actual risk for that first flight was 1 in 12. At the end of the program, after those 135 flights, the risk overall was put at 1 in 90.
The LOC for the commercial crew program was set at 1 in 275, but he stressed that too much importance is assigned to that figure. He argued that LOC numbers are useful for comparing different designs, for example, but not in determining absolute risk. "Do not judge a spacecraft by its LOC number," he urged. The challenge is to not become complacent as systems start flying because there is always more to learn. "Stay hungry, stay curious, stay humble" and do not be afraid to discover new problems, discuss them, understand them, and solve them.
The public and other stakeholders need to understand and acknowledge these risks, he said, so NASA needs to learn how to effectively communicate with them as these new systems are about to come on line.
Note: Gerstenmaier said the LOC metric is 1 in 275 for commercial crew, but it actually is 1 in 270.
Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and NOAA, praised NASA's earth science program today. Many earth scientists are worried about what the Trump Administration's plans are for the program based on an op-ed written by two Trump space advisers during the presidential campaign. It proposed moving NASA's programs to other agencies. Culberson sounded the opposite note, however, suggesting that NASA assume responsibility for NOAA's satellite programs. Culberson is one of NASA's most ardent supporters on Capitol Hill, calling the agency a "strategic national asset" that will assure America remains great for centuries to come.
Culberson spoke to the Space Transportation Association (STA) on Capitol Hill today, enthusiastically supporting NASA overall, especially robotic missions to Jupiter's moon Europa and the Space Launch System (SLS).
Sending an orbiter plus a lander and a probe to descend through crevasses in Europa's ice-covered surface into the postulated ocean below is Culberson's passion. He is determined to find life elsewhere in the solar system and is convinced it will be on Europa. He has added money to NASA's budget for several years to execute Europa missions and included language in law directing NASA to do so. He pointed out today that it is illegal for NASA not to fly a Europa mission. He believes that finding extraterrestrial life will be a "pivot point" in human history that will enable "all of us to take NASA funding to the next level" and allow the agency to achieve even more.
He wants NASA to launch the Europa spacecraft and missions to study other "ocean worlds" in the solar system using SLS. He considers the rocket essential to NASA needs more broadly and wants it included in whatever infrastructure bill the Trump Administration sends to Congress. Just as President Eisenhower is remembered for creating the interstate highway system, Trump could go down in history for creating an interplanetary highway system, he suggested.
The solar system is not the limit, though. Culberson is a strong advocate for developing new propulsion systems to send spacecraft to nearby stars. His subcommittee's report on the FY2017 CJS appropriations bill calls on NASA to submit an "interstellar propulsion technology assessment report" with a conceptual roadmap to send a probe to Alpha Centauri in 2069, the 100th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, at 10 percent the speed of light (0.1 c). Today he said that Aerojet Rocketdyne told him it was possible to build a system that could achieve 0.3 c, although a company representative in the room suggested that was a misunderstanding.
In the nearer term, NASA is developing high power solar electric propulsion as part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). Asked about prospects for ARM under the Trump Administration, Culberson said he did not know, but argued that some aspects of it, like propulsion development and gaining experience in human space operations, are essential for future NASA activities. "We need to think big, long term," he continued. "If we could lay out a 100-year plan for NASA, you've essentially laid out a 500-year plan for NASA, and if you could figure out a 500-year plan for NASA you would have in a real way laid the foundation for a 1,000 year plan. What a privilege that is."
He likes to look far into the future and considers NASA a strategic national asset that is "essential to preserve American leadership, to assure America not only is great, but stays great, and preserves that in the 21st, 22nd, 23rd, and 24th centuries and beyond."
For now, however, just getting appropriations bills enacted into law is a challenge. Culberson lamented the fact that the 12 regular FY2017 appropriations bills are not completed. NASA and all other government agencies are currently funded at their FY2016 levels by a Continuing Resolution (CR) through April 28, 2017. He said the final version of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill is ready to be passed, though he could not share any of its details. He called on Senate Republicans to change Senate rules to prevent appropriations bills from being filibustered, meaning it would take only 51 instead of 60 votes for them to pass. The filibuster is a core Senate rule that allows a single Senator to prevent a bill from moving forward, one of the major differences between the how the House and Senate operate. Democrats changed the rule for presidential nominations when they last controlled the Senate out of frustration that President Obama's nominations could not be confirmed due to entrenched Republican opposition, but it remains in effect for other Senate legislation. Culberson wants appropriations bills to be treated the same as presidential nominations since they are the only bills that must pass Congress in order to keep the government operating.
Currently, though, 60 votes are needed and with Republicans holding only a slim majority (effectively a 52-48 split), he was not optimistic about quick passage of the FY2017 bills or future bills. CRs do not allow Congress to control agency programs to the same extent as the 12 regular bills.
Appropriations bills determine how much money agencies may spend and dictate how the money can be spent. Culberson became chairman of the subcommittee after Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) retired and the two hold similar views about China. Wolf originated language that prohibits NASA from spending appropriated funds to interact with China on space programs except under narrowly defined circumstances.
Culberson said today that Wolf was right. Remarking that America can do a lot better than spending just 0.4 percent of the federal budget on NASA, Culberson added that "China is not waiting on us. They are stealing us blind. The Chinese government is stealing every piece of technology they can and using what they've stolen from our program to very aggressively go after natural resources on the Moon and asteroids." Space is the "high ground of the 21st Century" and the Chinese "are going to use it in ways that we're not going to like."
Culberson spoke at length about NASA's space science programs and the value of the Decadal Surveys produced by the National Academies in identifying future missions. He did not mention NASA's earth science program during his prepared remarks, however. The second earth science Decadal Survey is currently underway. Many earth scientists are worried about what the Trump Administration may do with NASA's program because two Trump space advisors, Bob Walker and Peter Navarro, recommended in a Space News op-ed during the presidential campaign that NASA's activities be transferred to other agencies so NASA can focus on space exploration. It was not a new idea. Republican members of NASA's House and Senate authorization committees have advocated such a move for the past several years, but it has not been implemented. In the absence of any newer information about the Trump Administration's plans for NASA, the Walker-Navarro op-ed provides the only inkling of what may be in store.
In response to a question today, however, Culberson sounded the opposite point of view. He praised NASA's earth science program and suggested that NASA take responsibility for NOAA's satellite systems. "NASA's earth science continues to do great work. We have to have the facts. ... The role of NASA's earth science division should be to provide us good data free of any political filter or agenda. ... Work that's done there is essential. Quite frankly one thing I've been interested in pursuing is why we don't move satellite operations at NOAA over to NASA so NASA can handle all our earth observation and weather satellites because NASA does frankly a very good job with these things and NOAA's had problems... "
Here's our list of space policy events for the week of February 6-10, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session part of the week.
During the Week
The big event this week is the FAA's annual Commercial Space Transportation conference in Washington, DC on Tuesday afternoon and all day Wednesday. This year it is being organized by the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) and held at the Ronald Reagan Building. As usual it has top notch keynote speakers and panel sessions. One keynote many will be watching is Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), who is speaking at 12:30 pm ET on Wednesday. He is widely rumored to be seeking the NASA Administrator job and, in any case, is a prominent congressional advocate for commercial space, especially broadening the role of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation. The agenda says nothing about webcasting. If we learn anything about a webcast, we'll add the link to our calendar item for this event. [UPDATE: A CSF spokeswoman says there will NOT be a webcast this year.]
The Senate will continue to consider nominations, some more contentious than others. No date seems to be set for confirming Wilbur Ross for Secretary of Commerce, but he was easily approved by the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. A Senate vote could come at any time.
Over on the House side, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will hold its 115th Congress organizational meeting on Tuesday at 10:00 ET according to National Journal's Daybook, although it is not posted on the committee's website (as of Sunday morning, at least). The committee is holding its first hearing of the year (on EPA) at 11:00 that morning, so an organizational meeting in advance makes sense. The Republican committee leadership identified its key priorities for this Congress and announced subcommittee leadership and membership positions last week. "Constancy of Purpose Within NASA" is the fifth of the committee's top five priorities. Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) will continue to chair the Space Subcommittee and Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) takes over as chair of the Environment Subcommittee (which oversees NOAA's satellite programs).
On a completely different topic, the Washington Space Business Roundtable (WSBR) will have a panel discussion on Spectrum Traffic Jams on Friday. The battle for spectrum -- especially freeing spectrum for use by the commercial sector by taking it away from government users, and satellite versus terrestrial needs -- wages on. Al Wissman from NOAA, Victoria Samson from the Secure World Foundation, and Valerie Green from Ligado join Caleb Henry of Space News for the lunchtime discussion. Note that the meeting is at the City Club of Washington (555 13th Street, NW), not the University Club where WSBR often holds its luncheon meetings.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week for others we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.
Monday-Friday (February 6-10) (second week of meeting)
Tuesday, February 7
Tuesday-Wednesday, February 7-8
Tuesday-Thursday, February 7-9
Wednesday, February 8
Friday, February 10
Note: This article has been updated.
The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported today that a draft study from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reveals problems with the turbine blades on SpaceX rockets that could impact safety and therefore the schedule for commercial crew launches. A GAO spokesman told SpacePolicyOnline.com that he could not confirm the contents of the report because it is only in draft form.
WSJ's Andy Pasztor cites unnamed "government and industry officials familiar with the details of the report" as the sources of the story that GAO found "persistent cracking" of turbine blades in SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket engines. Pasztor goes on to say that NASA "has warned SpaceX that such cracks pose an unacceptable risk for manned flights."
SpaceX did not respond to a request from SpacePolicyOnline.com for comment on the WSJ story by press time. Pasztor quotes an unnamed SpaceX spokesman as saying that the company is modifying its design to avoid the cracks.
GAO Public Affairs Managing Director Chuck Young could confirm to SpacePolicyOnline.com only that GAO has work underway in response to language in the House Appropriations Committee's report to accompany the FY2016 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill (H.R. 2578). He said he could not comment on the contents of a draft report and GAO had not provided copies to reporters. The final report is expected to be released by the end of the month.
GAO is the investigative arm of Congress. It typically allows the agency it is reviewing to comment on drafts and incorporates the comments into its final report as appropriate. It also publishes the text of the agency's response as an appendix.
SpaceX and Boeing were selected by NASA in 2014 to complete development of crew space transportation systems to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) through public-private partnerships. The concept is that the government and the companies both fund the development costs for systems that will be owned and operated by the companies, while the government guarantees to purchase a certain number of launches from them. NASA does this already for robotic cargo spaceflights that resupply the ISS -- commercial cargo. SpaceX and Orbital ATK currently provide commercial cargo services for NASA and Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) will join them in the future.
NASA initiated the companion commercial crew program in FY2011 with the expectation that the systems would be operational by 2015. That date slipped to 2017 at least in part because Congress provided less funding than requested in the program's early years. That eventually changed, however, and Congress provided full or almost full funding for FY2015 and FY2016. The FY2017 budget has not been approved yet. NASA is operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) at its FY2016 level, which in the case of commercial crew is actually more than the request for FY2017.
While NASA's share of the funding may not be an issue now, the date for both SpaceX and Boeing commercial crew flights already has slipped to 2018 and few would be surprised if flights are further delayed.
In its most recent annual report, NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) concluded that "there is still much left to do from a technical perspective" for both companies' systems -- SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner. While it found that there is "no evidence that needed safety considerations are being sacrificed merely to maintain schedule" and praised NASA's "excellent certification process," it cited challenges facing each company. SpaceX turbine blades were not among the issues addressed in the ASAP report. For SpaceX, it focused on the company's "load and go" procedure under which SpaceX plans to fuel the Falcon 9 rocket just prior to launch when the crew is already aboard.
That has never been done in the U.S. human spaceflight program before for safety reasons. The on-pad explosion of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on September 1, 2016 while it was being fueled for a pre-launch test accentuated those concerns. Its payload, an Israeli commercial communications satellite (AMOS-6), was destroyed in the accident. SpaceX noted at the time that if a crew had been aboard, the Crew Dragon's emergency abort system would have carried the capsule away from the pad and the crew would have been safe. Nevertheless, NASA's International Space Station Advisory Committee expressed alarm about SpaceX's plan in November 2016. ASAP's January 2017 report echoed those concerns and "strongly" encouraged NASA "to scrutinize" SpaceX's plan and ensure that any additional risks are worth the gains.
NASA is and will remain dependent on Russia to take astronauts to and from ISS and provide "lifeboat" services for the crews while they are aboard the ISS until the commercial crew systems are operational. NASA has not been able to launch people into space since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.
The House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee laid out its top five priorities for the 115th Congress today. Fifth on the list is "constancy of purpose within NASA."
Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) said in a press release that an "active two years lay ahead" for the committee and identified the following priorities:
Although not on that list, at a Space Transportation Association (STA) event on Monday Smith stressed the need to pass NASA authorization acts for 2017 as well as for 2018. A 2017 authorization act is in the final stages of drafting and may be taken up by the Senate soon. Smith also said that the first NASA hearing will take place in mid-February. It will be aimed at acquainting the committee's new members with NASA's past, present, and future activities.
Today's press release said that the committee will "continue to ensure" that NASA "pursues a balanced portfolio of programs reinvigorated with bold exploration objectives. Building upon the progress made towards the development of the Space Launch System, Orion, and the commercial crew and cargo programs, the committee will ensure NASA stays the course and leads the world in not only space exploration, but also space science."
No mention is made of earth science. Smith and other congressional Republicans have argued for several years that agencies other than NASA should be responsible for earth science research so NASA can focus on space exploration. Advocates for NASA's earth science program point out that NASA is the only agency that launches earth science research satellites, which are critical for understanding the Earth and its environment. The debate over NASA's almost $2 billion per year earth science program is expected to be a major source of contention between Republicans and Democrats this year.
Smith announced Republican subcommittee assignments yesterday. Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), who represents the Texas district that includes Johnson Space Center, will continue to chair the Space Subcommittee with Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) as vice-chairman. Brooks' district includes Marshall Space Flight Center. Twelve other Republicans will serve on the Space Subcommittee, most from districts with government and/or commercial space interests: Dana Rohrabacher (CA), Frank Lucas (OK), Bill Posey (FL), Jim Bridenstine (OK), Stephen Knight (CA), Barbara Comstock (VA), Ralph Lee Abraham (LA), Daniel Webster (FL), Jim Banks (IN), Andy Biggs (AZ), Neal Dunn (FL), and Clay Higgins (LA).
Biggs will chair the Environment Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over NOAA's satellite programs. He replaces Bridenstine, who chaired it in the 114th Congress. Banks will serve as vice chair. The eight other Republicans on this subcommittee are: Rohrabacher, Posey, Brooks, Randy Weber (TX), Babin, Gary Palmer (AL), Barry Loudermilk (GA), and Higgins.
The other three subcommittees -- Energy, Oversight, and Research and Technology -- have little or no direct involvement in space issues.
Democrats have not yet announced their full committee or subcommittee members.
Smith also made staffing announcements yesterday. Among them: Jennifer Young Brown will continue as the committee's chief of staff; Tom Hammond will continue as staff director of the Space Subcommittee; and Joseph Brazauskas will serve as staff director of the Environment Subcommittee.
NASA observed its annual Day of Remembrance today with a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. Each year about this time, NASA honors astronauts who died in connection with spaceflights, particularly the Apollo 1, space shuttle Challenger and space shuttle Columbia crews who died on January 27, 1967, January 28, 1986, and February 1, 2003 respectively.
NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, other NASA officials, and the astronauts' families and friends participated in today's ceremony.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire and two events were held at Kennedy Space Center last week as a special tribute to the crew. They died when fire broke out in their Apollo spacecraft during a ground test on January 27, 1967 prior to a scheduled February 21 launch. Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died of asphyxiation. The Apollo capsule was filled with 100 percent oxygen at 16.7 pounds per square inch (psi) pressure. The cause of the fire is thought to have been a spark from an electrical wire although the investigation could not conclusively identify the ignition source. The capsule had been designed for the hatch to swing inward. With the pressure inside the capsule greater than that outside, it was impossible for the crew to open it quickly and with fire spreading explosively in 100 percent oxygen, there was little time. Many changes were made to the design of the Apollo capsule and to test procedures afterwards.
Nineteen years and one day later, on January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff when a rubber "O-ring" in one of its Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB) failed because of unusually cold temperatures. The mission was designated STS-51L. A Presidential Commission chaired by former Secretary of State William Rogers found that the O-ring failure was the technical cause of the tragedy, but flawed decision-making was a contributing cause: "The decision to launch the Challenger was flawed. Those who made that decision were unaware of the recent history of problems concerning the O-rings and the joint and were unaware of the initial written recommendation of the contractor advising against the launch at temperatures below 53 degrees Fahrenheit and the continuing opposition of the engineers at Thiokol after the management reversed its position. They did not have a clear understanding of Rockwell's concern that it was not safe to launch because of ice on the pad. If the decisionmakers had known all of the facts, it is highly unlikely that they would have decided to launch 51-L on January 28, 1986."
The astronauts who died in the Challenger tragedy were:
Almost exactly 14 years after Challenger, on February 1, 2003, the crew of the space shuttle Columbia was killed during their return to Earth after a 16-day science mission designated STS-107. Columbia disintegrated when the superheated gases encountered during reentry into Earth's atmosphere entered one of its wings through a hole punctured by a piece of foam that fell from the shuttle's External Tank during launch. The extreme heat - a normal part of reentry - caused the wing to fail structurally, creating aerodynamic forces that led to the disintegration of the orbiter. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), chaired by Adm. Harold Gehman (Ret.), concluded that the tragedy was caused by both technical and organizational failures. Changes were made and the space shuttle returned to flight in 2005, but foam continued to fall from the External Tank during subsequent launches. Safety was one of the factors in the George W. Bush Administration's decision to terminate the shuttle program once construction of the International Space Station was completed. The Obama Administration adopted the Bush Administration's position and the shuttle program ended in July 2011.
The astronauts who died in the Columbia tragedy were:
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