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House Speaker John Boehner said today that a House vote on a Continuing Resolution (CR) for the first part of FY2015 would wait until September rather than trying to do it before the House leaves for its August recess.
The House leaves at the end of next week and will return on September 8 and meet for only 10 days that month. The current fiscal year ends on September 30.
Speaking at his weekly briefing with reporters today, Boehner said the CR likely would be voted on in September and last until early December, after the mid-term elections.
CRs usually hold agencies to their previous year's spending levels. NASA received $17.646 million for FY2014. President Obama's FY2015 request was $186 million less than that, but the House-passed and Senate-committee-approved Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bills would provide a substantial increase over that request -- a total of about $17.9 billion.
Optimism that the Senate might pass the CJS and two other appropriations bills, combined together into a "minibus" bill, faded last month because of partisan politics dealing with the amendment process. The Senate has not passed any FY2015 appropriations bills yet. The House has passed seven of the 12 regular appropriations bills including CJS (which funds NASA and NOAA), Defense, and Transportation-HUD (which funds the FAA and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation).
Just as the decision to rely on the RD-180 engine was driven by “geopolitical interests,” rather than “space community necessity,” the answer of whether to continue to use the Russian engine or build a U.S. alternative will not be “in the space community’s hands,” says a member of Air Force’s RD-180 Alternative Study.
At an event yesterday hosted by the George C. Marshall Institute, Josh Hartman, CEO of Horizon Strategies Group and a member of the independent advisory panel that examined alternatives to the Russian RD-180 rocket engine, summarized the findings and recommendations of the Air Force-convened panel. Chaired by Major General Howard J. ‘Mitch’ Mitchell, USAF (ret.), the expert panel was asked to submit its report in just 30 days – rather than the original 60 days – because of congressional interest in the study, Hartman explained. While the final report is classified, SpacePolicyOnline.com posted a set of unclassified briefing charts and summarized highlights from them in May.
The panel concluded that the loss of the Russian RD-180s, on which the United States depends to power the Atlas V rocket, one of two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) that are the workhorses of national security space launches, would be “significant.” Although the United States has enough RD-180s for two years’ worth of launches, the current launch manifest would need to be prioritized, costing billions of dollars in delays and in retrofitting existing payloads to launch on other rockets.
In a scenario where the RD-180s disappeared, the United States would lose its ability to use the Atlas V. While the second EELV –Delta IV – is technically capable of launching the satellites now manifested on Atlas V, some question whether the production rate could be accelerated sufficiently to compensate. Therefore, the national security sector would need to rely on new entrants, such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, both of which have expressed an interest in providing national security space launches.
However, doing so would mean incurring a “great level of risk,” said Hartman. On the one hand it is a question of how soon new entrants would be ready to launch rockets equivalent in capability to Atlas V. The Mitchell panel found that even if new entrants were certified and ready to compete for national security launches in 2015, the first launch would not be before 2017. On the other hand, Hartman said these companies are not advertising that they would meet the full spectrum of national security launches. He added that SpaceX and Blue Origin are “not motivated by national security launches” but see these as a “stepping stone” to other activities.
The second speaker, Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University, expanded on the policy questions, opportunities and risks of what he said was a “looming crisis.” He argued that the reasons to reconsider U.S. launch options go beyond the current geopolitical situation and include longer-term issues. These include the increasing cost of the EELV program, which includes “imposed costs” that come with the U.S. government’s “way of doing business,” and the interest created by new entrants. In his remarks, Pace highlighted the need to reexamine the benefit of imposing extensive rules and restrictions on industry partners – some that have no value-added – and can sometimes hamper innovation.
To a question about the potential role of foreign partners in this effort, Hartman said that new partnerships would be considered on a “case-by-case basis.” He noted that while the Russian engine was the main issue of interest, there is ongoing foreign participation in other components of the EELV program.
Pace said that he sees more opportunities for foreign partners in civil space exploration, including launch infrastructure. For national security launches he thinks it will be commercial rather than international partners.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) praised NASA's technical progress in building the Space Launch System (SLS) in a report released today, but warned that the agency does not have enough funding to complete the rocket in time for its promised first flight in 2017.
GAO pointed out that most NASA programs are required to have a funding and schedule profile that affords at least a 70 percent chance of success -- a "joint confidence level" or JCL -- and SLS does not have that. The program may be $400 million short of what it needs in order to be ready for the first test launch in 2017 at a 70 percent confidence level, GAO concluded using analysis by the SLS program itself.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden conceded in a Senate hearing earlier this year that NASA is not using the 70 percent confidence level for SLS. In a colloquy with Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), SLS's strongest supporter in the Senate (it is being built in Alabama), Bolden said: "You can't fund enough to get SLS to a 70 percent JCL and I don't want you to do that, I'm not asking for that, that would be unrealistic." He told Shelby he had enough money to be ready to launch in 2017, but also hedged by saying "in fiscal year 2018." Only the first three months of FY2018 are in calendar year 2017 (October-December). Bolden said that he is comfortable with not meeting a 70 percent JCL because SLS relies on mature technology.
SLS is being developed pursuant to the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, a bipartisan agreement between Republicans and Democrats in Congress on the one hand, and the Obama Administration on the other. SLS and its Orion spacecraft are intended to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit (LEO). The 2017 version of SLS will be able to place 70 metric tons into LEO. Two enhanced versions are planned for the future capable of 105 tons and 130 tons. In some respects SLS/Orion replaces the Bush-era Constellation program; in others it is much the same -- developing a big rocket and a spacecraft to take people to Mars someday.
NASA plans to spend $12 billion on SLS and associated ground systems through the 2017 launch, GAO said, and "potentially billions more" for the future variants.
The first test flight is supposed to take place in 2017. The next flight would not be until 2021. That would be the first to carry a crew aboard an Orion spacecraft. Noting that NASA has not developed plans for SLS beyond that flight, GAO concluded that presents opportunities "to improve long term affordability through competition" to build other elements of the system, such as an improved upper stage.
In today's report, GAO recommends that NASA "develop an executable business case for SLS that matches resources to requirements, and provide to the Congress an assessment of the SLS elements that could be competitively procured for future SLS variants before finalizing acquisition plans for those variants." It adds that "NASA concurred" with the recommendations.
Rumors are circulating that Congress may try to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government funded after September 30 before they leave for their August recess. Nothing has been decided yet, however.
The House is moving through the 12 regular FY2015 appropriations bills at a fairly fast clip, but none of them has passed the Senate. Hopes that three of the bills could be bundled together as a "minibus" and passed by the Senate died last month over a disagreement about the rules for considering amendments during floor debate. The three bills include two that fund space activities: Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS), of which NASA and NOAA are part, and Transportation-HUD bill, which funds the FAA and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation. The third bill is the Agriculture appropriations.
Congress will be in session this week and next. Then it will recess for the month of August. When they return, the House is scheduled to be in session for only 10 days in September and the first two days of October before recessing to campaign for the November elections. The Senate website does not show how many days it plans to be in session once it returns.
FY2014 ends on September 30. If funding bills -- individually or as a CR -- are not passed by then, the government would have to shut down the unfunded activities. Last year, most of the government was shut down for 16 days. Ninety-eight percent of NASA workers were furloughed.
The shutdown, led by Tea Party Republicans, was over Obamacare and government-wide funding levels. At the time, many Washington pundits argued that the Tea Party lost a lot of support because of the shutdown, but a year later that is not so clear. The Hill reports today that passing a CR before the August recess "could be a way to squelch any talk of a shutdown before it begins."
UPDATE: This article was updated to reflect a complaint by the White House Correspondents Association that press coverage of the meeting was limited to only a few photographers.
President Obama met with the two surviving Apollo 11 astronauts and the widow of the third today (July 22) in the Oval Office. In a statement, he praised NASA for building on their legacy and preparing for the next "giant leap in human exploration."
As part of the celebration of the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11's trip to the Moon, Obama met with Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin and Command Module Pilot Mike Collins, and Carol Armstrong, widow of Commander Neil Armstrong. The meeting was memorialized in a photo posted on NASA's website (without a photo credit).
President Obama meets with Apollo 11's Mike Collins and Buzz Aldrin (facing the camera) and NASA Administrator
Obama's brief statement contained no new policy guidance. He hit upon the familiar civil space themes of his administration -- NASA's role in inspiring others, including himself, to "dream bigger and reach higher," and NASA's new partnerships with the commercial sector. NASA is building on the legacy of Apollo 11 and its crew by preparing for the next steps in exploration "including the first visits of men and women to deep space, to an asteroid, and someday to the surface of Mars," he said, all in partnership with the commercial sector.
Apollo 11 was launched on July 16, 1969. Armstrong and Adrin became the first humans to set foot on the Moon on July 20. They returned home, splashing down in the Pacific, on July 24.
Later in the day at the daily White House press briefing, CBS correspondent Major Garrett told White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest that the White House Correspondents Association was lodging a formal complaint that reporters were not allowed at the event. Earnest attributed it to the President's schedule, which provoked ABC News correspondent Jon Karl to probe further. Karl asked if the President did not want journalists to meet with the astronauts because Neil Armstrong, before he passed away, was highly critical of the President's decision to cancel the Constellation program. Earnest replied "absolutely not" and the astronauts had been invited to honor their contributions.. The President was proud they accepted the invitation, and is President is proud of his policy which will "take our space program to the next level," he added. Politico reported on the controversy and posted a video clip of relevant portions of the press briefing.
As America celebrates the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing of astronauts on the Moon, China is providing an update on its robotic Yutu rover that arrived on the lunar surface last December. Yutu suffered a malfunction that prevents it from moving across the lunar surface, but it is still transmitting back to Earth. Its designers now speculate that it was damaged by collisions with rocks. Meanwhile, the Chang'e-5 robotic lunar sample return mission apparently has been delayed until 2020.
The 140-kilogram, six-wheeled Yutu rover is part of the Chang'e-3 mission, which landed on December 14, 2013. Chang'e-3 is a stationary lander that delivered Yutu to the lunar surface. The two are named after Chang'e, China's mythological goddess of the Moon, and her pet rabbit, Yutu (Jade Rabbit).
Yutu rolled off Chang'e-3 on December 15, 2013 and began its trek across the lunar surface. The Moon has a 28-day cycle during which 14 days are in sunlight ("day") and 14 days are darkness ("night"). Yutu's primary power source is its solar panels and therefore was designed to operate during the "day" and hibernate at "night," refolding its instruments and other key equipment into an internal compartment where a small radioisotope heating unit provides enough warmth to protect them from the bitter cold (minus 180 degrees Celsius) of the lunar night. The plan was for Yutu to survive three day-night cycles, roving across the lunar surface during the day to collect geological and resource information from a variety of sites.
The process worked the first time, but then "a mechanical malfunction" occurred and the rover could no longer move. Official Chinese sources provided little information about the cause, but acknowledged in March that the equipment failed to return to its folded, protected state as the second night period commenced.
China's official news agency, Xinhua, reports today (July 21), however, that Yutu's deputy chief designer, Zhang Yuhua, said that rover may have been damaged by colliding with rocks. She said the terrain at the landing site was quite different than expected -- "almost like a gravel field."
Yutu remains motionless just 20 meters from its landing point. It is still transmitting back to Earth, however, after seven lunar cycles, four more than planned, On that level, at least, the mission is a success even though it cannot rove. Previously, Chinese sources said that roving was a critical aspect of the scientific mission because Yutu was intended to investigate different sites on the Moon. Today, however, Yutu's chief designer, Wu Weiren, is quoted by Xinhua as saying that "fortunately, the rover has completed its designated scientific and engineering tasks."
Chang'e-3 is part of China's second phase of robotic lunar exploration. The first phase involved the launch of two lunar orbiters Chang'e-1 and Chang'e-2, in 2007 and 2010, respectively. Phase 2 is Chang'e-3 and its twin, Chang'e-4, both lander/rovers. At last report, Chang'e-4 was intended to be launched in 2015, although that schedule could change if the design needs modification.
The third phase is a robotic lunar sample return mission with Chang'e-5. Chinese officials said as recently as March that Chang'e-5 would be launched in 2017, but today's Xinhua states that it will launch "around 2020."
Chang'e-5 will use China's new Long March 5 rocket, a "heavy lift" launch vehicle still in development that will be roughly equivalent to the U.S. Delta IV Heavy. China is building a new launch site for the Long March 5, Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, on Hainan Island. Whether the delay in launching Chang'e-5 is due to the spacecraft, launch vehicle or launch site is unclear. The U.S. Department of Defense's most recent annual report on China's military and security developments says that the first Long March 5 launch has been delayed to 2015 (from 2014) because of manufacturing difficulties.
This week's list of upcoming space policy events starts with tonight -- Sunday, July 20, the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. At 10:39 pm EDT, NASA TV will replay footage of the historic moment of hatch opening and other events. More commemorative Apollo 11 45th anniversary events are planned throughout the week, as listed below.
During the Week
Apollo 11 45th anniversary: Commemorative events continue tomorrow (Monday) when the Operations and Checkout building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) will be renamed in honor of Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, who passed away in 2012. His Apollo 11 crewmates, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins, will participate in the ceremony, along with Armstrong's backup for the mission, Jim Lovell. The event begins at 10:15 am EDT. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and KSC Director Bob Cabana -- both former astronauts -- also will be there, along with a live video hookup with the two NASA astronauts who are aboard the International Space Station (ISS) right now, Steve Swanson and Reid Wiseman.
On Thursday, July 24, the anniversary of Apollo 11's return from the Moon, the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee will have a live video hookup with Swanson and Wiseman at 11:00 am EDT followed by an event that showcases ISS research and features a panel discussion with three leaders in the ISS research field (12:00-2:00 pm EDT). Then, at 3:00 pm PACIFIC time (6:00 pm Eastern), NASA will hold a panel discussion at Comic-Con International in San Diego. That features Apollo 11's Buzz Aldrin, Jim Green, the head of NASA's planetary science division, JPL's Bobak Ferdowsi, best known as the "Mohawk guy" from the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, and astronaut Mike Fincke. A media availability with the panel members follows the discussion.
Other Events: On Wednesday, the Marshall Institute will hold a panel discussion on the national security launch industrial base. Josh Hartman, who was one of the members of the "Mitchell panel" that recently reviewed options for dealing with the possibility that the supply of Russia's RD-180 rocket engines for the Atlas V rocket could be disrupted, will talk about "issues and opportunities," along with Scott Pace of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. That's from 9:00-10:30 am EDT at the Army Navy Club in Washington, DC.
NASA's Ames Research Center in California is the venue for the "Exploration Science Forum" from July 21-23, and NewSpace 2014, the annual conference of the Space Frontier Foundation, begins on July 24 in San Jose, CA.
Lots of other events are on tap, as listed below based on what we know as of Sunday afternoon, July 20.
Sunday, July 20
Monday, July 21
Monday-Wednesday, July 21-23
Tuesday, July 22
Wednesday, July 23
Wednesday-Thursday, July 23-24
Thursday, July 24
Thursday-Saturday, July 24-26
The National Research Council (NRC) released a report today that makes no bones about its skepticism regarding the utility of 3-D printing in space at the present time, saying claims in the popular press are “exaggerated” and it is no “magic solution.”
Formally called “additive manufacturing,” this technology allows three-dimensional (3-D) parts to be built directly from computer files. It has been in use terrestrially since the 1980s and is becoming more wide-spread. Using it in space presents unique challenges, however. The vacuum, lack of gravity and intense thermal fluctuations are obstacles that must be overcome; they are important not only in completing the manufacturing process, but in the integrity of the final product, according to the NRC.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert D. Latiff (Ret.), who chaired the NRC committee, and his colleagues found that while 3-D printing “is a fairly mature technology for components that can be manufactured on the ground, its application in space is not feasible today, except for very limited and experimental purposes.”
“Many of the claims made in the popular press about this technology have been exaggerated,” Latiff said in a press release. Even in the longer term, it will be “one more tool in the toolbox” and “not a magic solution.”
That is not to say that the committee rejected the idea of in-space 3-D printing entirely. Indeed, the report begins by saying it has “the potential to positively affect human spaceflight operations by enabling the in-orbit manufacturing of replacement parts and tools,” thereby reducing logistics requirements for the International Space Station (ISS) and human trips beyond low Earth orbit. However, the “specific benefits and potential scope … remain undetermined, and there has been a substantial degree of exaggeration, even hype, about its capabilities in the short term.”
As for the longer term, “[w]hat can be accomplished in the far future depends on many factors, including decisions made today by NASA and the Air Force.” The study was sponsored by those two entities and offering them advice is the focus of the NRC report.
Many of the recommendations involve the two working together in this field. Indeed, the report’s first recommendation is that NASA and the Air Force jointly “research, identify, develop and gain consensus on standard qualification and certification methodologies for different applications,” and bring in other government agencies and industry as well. The committee also recommends a joint cost-benefit analysis of 3-D printing for building smaller, more reliable satellite systems or their key components.
Among the committee’s recommendations for NASA alone is that the agency sponsor a workshop to bring together experts in the field and improve communications internally and externally since input from multiple disciplines is required. It should also create an agency-wide technology roadmap and quickly identify experiments that it can develop and test aboard the ISS while that facility is still available. Under current plans, ISS will operate until 2024, just 10 more years.
The Air Force should also develop a roadmap, conduct a systems-analytic study of the operational utility of spacecraft and their components produced with 3-D printing, and “make every effort” to cooperate with NASA on technology development. That includes conducting its own research on the ISS, jointly sharing the costs and the results with NASA.
Both agencies should consider increased investments in education and training of materials scientists with this expertise and spacecraft designers and engineers with deep knowledge of the use and development of 3-D printing, the committee recommended.
Latiff is a materials scientist himself and spent part of his military career at the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Later he was vice president, chief engineer, and technology officer for SAIC’s space and geospatial intelligence unit. He is a former chair of the NRC’s National Materials and Manufacturing Board (of which he is still a member) and of the NRC’s Air Force Studies Board. A full roster of committee members is provided in the report, which can be downloaded for free from the website of the National Academies Press.
It is impossible to know how the Malaysian airliner crash in Ukraine today (July 17) will affect U.S.-Russian relationships, but yesterday the Obama Administration imposed new sanctions on certain Russian economic sectors because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine up to that point. One Russian company that was sanctioned, NPO Mashinstroyennia, has a renowned history in Soviet space activities, but apparently is not involved in many space activities currently.
U.S.-Russian relationships have been on edge since Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula earlier this year. The Obama Administration has invoked a number of sanctions against Russian individuals and entities. Some NASA activities have been impacted, but the most high profile – such as the International Space Station (ISS) – were exempted. The deteriorating relationship has focused attention on U.S. dependence on Russia for taking astronauts to and from the ISS, for the RD-180 engines for United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket, and the for NK-33/AJ-26 engines for Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares rocket, however.
Yesterday, the Obama Administration issued new sanctions. Among the Russian entities on the list is NPO MASHINOSTROYENIA – “NPO Mash” – an important player in Soviet space activities. Founded by Vladimir Chelomi, it developed the Almaz series of military space stations launched in the 1970s ( Salyut 2, 3 and 5 -- though Salyut 2 was a failure). It was not able to compete effectively with its rival, Energia, in space activities, but survives because of other lines of business.
Currently its primary business is cruise missiles according to Anatoly Zak, an expert on Soviet and Russian space activities and editor of RussianSpaceWeb.com. In an email, Zak said that NPO Mash is not involved in any of the three major cooperative space activities with the United States – the RD-180 or NK-33/AJ-26 rocket engines or the ISS.
Until now it appears that all of the U.S.-imposed sanctions based on the Ukraine situation have barely impacted U.S.-Russian space relationships. Three Russians, two Americans and one German are currently aboard the ISS.
What will happen in the wake of events today – where Ukrainian and some U.S. sources assert that a Russian surface-to-air missile operated by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine shot down Malaysia’s commercial airline flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur – is unknowable.
Many commentators today are theorizing that there was no intention to destroy a commercial airliner and cite two previous incidents where military errors led to the loss of innocent lives on commercial airlines. In 1983, the Soviet Union shot down Korean Air Lines (KAL) 007, from New York to Seoul, because it said the airplane encroached on restricted airspace. In 1988, a U.S. Aegis cruiser destroyed Iran Air 655, a commercial flight from Tehran to Dubai, mistaking it for an attacking military jet. The death toll for KAL007 was 269; from Iran Air 655 was 290; and from today’s MH17 was 295.
On a day when the Obama Administration increased sanctions against Russia for its actions in Ukraine, two Senate committees held a joint hearing that looked at how to cope with the possibility that Russia’s RD-180 rocket engines might no longer be available to power the U.S. Atlas V rocket. Atlas V is one of two workhorse rockets used to launch the nation’s national security satellites.
The hearing also addressed how to ensure that new companies – “new entrants” – like SpaceX can compete to launch national security satellites rather than using only the United Launch Alliance (ULA). The Air Force awarded a sole-source contract to ULA last year for 36 rocket cores for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. SpaceX later filed suit because it was not allowed to compete. The Justice Department and the Air Force subsequently filed a motion to dismiss the suit. Action is pending before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The joint hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) was co-chaired by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) from the Commerce committee and Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) from SASC.
The hearing took place this morning (July 16), before the White House announced that it was imposing additional sanctions on Russia. The deterioration in U.S.-Russian relationships since Russia took control of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula this spring already resulted in U.S.-imposed sanctions. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees Russia’s aerospace sector, is among the individuals sanctioned. The additional sanctions announced today reportedly include some targeted at Russia’s defense sector, but details are not yet available on whether any are associated with the space program.
In response to the sanctions and other issues, Rogozin made remarks suggesting that Russia might prohibit use of RD-180s for U.S. national security launches. The United States is also dependent on Russia for Soyuz spacecraft to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) and Rogozin tweeted that NASA should use a trampoline instead.
Coupled with the strained U.S.-Russian relationship overall, Congress and the Obama Administration are reconsidering U.S. dependence on a foreign supplier for rocket engines needed to place U.S. national security satellites into orbit. Today’s hearing focused primarily on that topic, but also on the question of how to ensure that companies like SpaceX can compete with ULA.
The hearing covered a lot of ground and only key points are summarized here, separated into the two broad issues that were addressed: what to do about replacing the RD-180 and Air Force certification of SpaceX. The expertise of the seven witnesses spanned a wide range, but none was from the companies that would build a new rocket engine or launch vehicle. They were:
Senators and witnesses recounted the many factors in the 1990s that led to the decision to use RD-180s for Atlas V:
Nelson pointed out that it was also U.S. policy at the time to develop a domestic rocket engine, but that effort disappeared. A co-production facility also was supposed to be built in the United States so RD-180s would be produced here, as well as in Russia, but that never happened either.
The Atlas V with its RD-180 engines has a perfect track record. Shelton acknowledged that it is now time for the United States to develop its own engine, but almost seemed regretful. He spoke of “dire” consequences if the supply of RD-180s is cut off before a new American engine is available -- launch delays of 12-20 months for many national security satellites and as much as 48 months for the heaviest ones, at a cost of $1.5 billion. He argued that the best outcome would be for the United States to keep buying RD-180s until a domestic engine is ready.
If geopolitical relationships worsen or Rogozin follows through on his threat to prohibit use of RD-180s for national security launches, there are no good short term options. Mitchell stressed that his panel concluded that shifting satellites from Atlas V to Delta IV and using new entrants like SpaceX cannot replace the Atlas V capability until 2017 or beyond. ULA has 15 RD-180s in storage according to Shelton, so if no more deliveries are made, decisions would have to be made on how to prioritize their use (the Atlas V is also used for NASA and NOAA launches).
Estevez and Shelton were asked several times how long it would take to develop a new U.S. engine and how much it would cost. While they said 5-8 years and $1-2 billion, the main point was that the Executive Branch is still looking at options and until decisions are made on the path forward, no reliable estimates can be provided. The only agreement within the Administration is that it is time to move away from foreign dependence. Some of the Senators expressed exasperation that it would take so long to build a domestic engine.
Chaplain, who has spent many years at GAO reviewing national security space programs, many of which have encountered large cost overruns, commented that her experience cautions against believing any of the numbers used today. She also stressed that they reflect only the cost for the engine, not for a new launch vehicle to use it or related ground facilities.
That latter point was emphasized repeatedly by Dumbacher. He warned the Senators that they need to look at the issue from a systems perspective. “You can’t swap out one engine for another” in a rocket, he said. A new launch vehicle will be needed as well as associated ground infrastructure.
While the hearing had a sense of urgency about it, Shelton also stressed that nothing has actually changed in the U.S. relationship with the Russian RD-180 supplier (Energomash). It is “business as usual” with the Russians, he said.
Estevez also cautioned that DOD wants to build a new engine in the most affordable way. A new rocket engine is a priority, he said, but there are other priorities as well.
At the end of the hearing, Nelson remarked that “We are only in this position today” because of Rogozin’s “sarcastic comments,” but they brought the issue of U.S. dependence on a foreign supplier “to a head.” The bottom line, Nelson stressed, is that the United States needs assured access to space.
Competition and Space X Certification
The United States has been dependent on Russia for RD-180 rocket engines for more than a decade, but that fact gained prominence only this spring after Russia’s actions in Crimea and a Senate hearing in March where SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk raised it as a reason that his SpaceX Falcon should be allowed to compete against ULA for national security space launches.
U.S. national policy is that the government support two rocket families to launch national security satellites in case one suffers a failure that shuts it down for a lengthy period. Today those are ULA’s Atlas V and Delta IV. Musk suggested it should be Delta IV and his Falcon rocket, since Atlas V is reliant on Russian engines while his is not.
A central piece of the debate is the Air Force's block-buy sole-source award to ULA over which SpaceX filed its lawsuit. The issue has exploded over the past several months, with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) supporting SpaceX's position. At the hearing today, McCain sharply questioned Shelton, insinuating that Shelton is on ULA’s side and against SpaceX. He has become dogged in his determination to scrutinize the block-buy deal.
The Air Force contends that by buying so many rocket cores together, it saved $4.4 billion compared to its current approach of buying services one-at-a-time. McCain contended that it was not a matter of cost savings, but cost avoidance. He asked Chaplain, who has led many GAO studies investigating DOD’s acquisition of space launch services, to comment on that point. She replied that it was a savings in the price at the start of DOD-ULA negotiations versus where the contract ended up. She stressed that the Air Force followed GAO recommendations to obtain better cost and price data from ULA which put them in a better position to negotiate.
For his part, McCain reminded the panel about his investigation into what he believed were improprieties in DOD’s award of an aerial tanker lease to Boeing: “People went to jail and people got fired.” His message was clear. He is not convinced DOD’s sole-source contract to ULA was proper. “I don’t like this deal,” he declared.
The Air Force is in the process of certifying SpaceX to be able to win Air Force launch contracts. SpaceX currently launches cargo missions to the International Space Station (ISS) as well as for commercial customers. One oft-asked question is why SpaceX must go through an Air Force certification process when NASA entrusts its launches to the company.
NASA’s Lightfoot explained that the agency has different categories of missions – A, B, C and D – in decreasing order of their criticality. SpaceX is only allowed to launch Class D missions today – those of least criticality. NASA is currently determining whether to allow SpaceX to launch a higher priority mission (Jason-3, an ocean altimetry satellite).
Shelton said that, if all goes well, SpaceX will be certified by the end of the year. The Air Force will have spent $60-100 million on the SpaceX certification effort, he added. Shelton pointed out, however, that SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is technically unable to launch many national security missions. Atlas V has 10 configurations, he said, and SpaceX cannot launch seven of them. Thus accelerating SpaceX certification is not a solution to the RD-180 problem.
Events of Interest