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China Debuts New Long March 6 Rocket, Long March 5 Readied for Tests

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Sep-2015 (Updated: 20-Sep-2015 04:19 PM)

China's Long March 6 rocket debuted last night Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) with a launch from the Taiyuan Space Launch Center south of Beijing carrying 20 microsatellites.  The Long March 6, or Chang Zheng-6 (CZ-6), is designed for small payloads of up to one ton to low Earth orbit.  China also reported that the much larger Long March 5 is being readied for tests.

Like Russia's Angara family, which is intended eventually to replace the majority of Russia's Soviet-era rockets still in use today, China is developing a new generation of rockets with varying capabilities to replace its older fleet.  The new rockets retain the Long March designation:  Long March 5, Long March 6, and Long March 7.    The heavy-lift Long March 5 and medium-lift Long March 7 will fly from a new Chinese launch site on Hainan Island, the Wenchang Space Launch Center. 

China's most recent 5-year space plan, issued in 2011, said the Long March 5 would be able to launch 25 tons to low Earth orbit or 14 tons to geostationary transfer orbit; Long March 6, a "high-speed response launch vehicle," would launch no less than 1 ton to sun-synchronous orbit at 700 kilometers; and Long March 7 would launch 5.5 tons to that orbit.

This launch, of the Long March 6, occurred this morning at 7:01 am China Standard Time (Saturday evening, 7:01 pm EDT) and was delayed a day because of a technical problem.   China's official news agency Xinhua heralded the new rocket as China's first of use "fuel free of toxicity and pollution" -- liquid oxygen and kerosene.  It said the rocket primarily will be used for launching microsatellites and the 20 satellites on this launch were for "space tests."  No other details were provided.  The Long March 6 is roughly in the same class as some versions of the U.S. Minotaur, Russia's Rockot and Europe's Vega.

China has said for several years that it plans to launch a robotic lunar sample return mission, Chang'e-5, using the heavy-lift Long March 5.   Xinhua also said today that a Long March 5 was just shipped to Wenchang for a rehearsal of such a launch and the launch itself is planned "around 2017."  It will be preceded by a test launch of the Long March 5 in 2016, Xinhua added.  

The most recent U.S. Department of Defense report on China's military capabilities said construction of the Wenchang launch center was completed in 2014 and the first launches are expected "no later than 2016." 


What's Happening in Space Policy September 21-25, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Sep-2015 (Updated: 20-Sep-2015 11:49 AM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of September 21-25, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The Senate is in session this week except for Wednesday (Yom Kippur), while the House is in session only on Thursday and Friday.

During the Week

The visit to Washington, DC by Pope Francis Tuesday-Thursday takes the spotlight this week, not because he is expected to say anything about space policy, but because just about everyone's attention is focused on that instead of other things (like funding the federal government after September 30 -- the clock's ticking! -- not to mention finalizing the FY2016 NDAA or the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act).  If you haven't heard, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has advised federal agencies to let their employees work from home to avoid the traffic meltdown that's expected as roads are closed throughout town and Metro is overwhelmed.

Intrepid souls who are willing to venture out anyway have interesting events they can attend, however.  On Tuesday, the Secure World Foundation and the Alliance for Space Development will hold a panel discussion on "Commercial Space Stations in LEO: Preparing for the Future."  It's from 12:30-2:00 pm ET and should be over before the Pope's plane lands at 4:00 pm ET, so you might be able to get in and out without too much trouble (but check local traffic information sources to find out when the roads you need to use will close and the status of Metro).  NAC's Ad Hoc STEM Task Force meets that day at NASA Headquarters (9:30-3:30) and there's an interesting talk at the National Museum of American History at 4:00 on the history of agricultural use of Landsat data during the Cold War era (tea and cookies at 3:30).  Travel might be a bit tricky by the time those are over - bring your patience!  On Thursday, the National Academies Space Technology Industry, Government, University Roundtable (STIGUR) meets all day at the Keck Center on 5th Street, NW.  The Pope will be addressing a joint session of Congress Thursday morning and leaves for New York later in the day, so hopefully the traffic tie-ups will be closer to the Hill and not the Keck Center, but give yourself plenty of time if you plan to attend.

On Monday, before he arrives, the Washington Space Business Roundtable is holding a luncheon panel on the Export-Import Bank situation, which could be quite interesting.  Congress has not reauthorized the bank so it no longer can help finance U.S. aerospace exports.  It's a prickly political issue that could have significant consequences for companies like Boeing, one of the largest users of the bank.  Jeff Trauberman will be on the panel to talk about Boeing's point of view, along with Ted McFarland from Orbital ATK and other industry representatives.

If you're lucky enough to be in South Korea rather than Washington, DC, the annual Asia Pacific Satellite Conference and Exhibition is taking place in Seoul on Tuesday-Thursday.

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

Monday, September 21

Tuesday, September 22

Tuesday-Thursday, September 22-24

Thursday, September 24


NASA IG: NASA Missed Opportunity to Save Up to $84 Million After Antares Failure

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Sep-2015 (Updated: 17-Sep-2015 11:51 PM)

NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) reported today that NASA missed the opportunity to save up to $84 million on its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with Orbital ATK following the October 2014 Antares failure.  The agency will not pay more than the fixed price CRS contract's value of $1.9 billion, but it could have reduced its costs under the terms of that contract.  The OIG also found Orbital ATK's return to flight plan may be difficult to execute, citing the lack of a test flight of the revamped Antares rocket as one challenge.

Antares exploded 15 seconds after liftoff on October 28, 2014, dooming a Cygnus capsule full of supplies for the International Space Station (ISS).  It was the third of a planned eight Orbital Sciences Corporation launches under its CRS contract  -- Orb-3.  Orbital Sciences merged with ATK earlier this year and is now Orbital ATK. 

The original CRS contract requires Orbital ATK to deliver 20 tons of cargo to the ISS by the end of 2016 for $1.9 billion. The company plans to fulfill that commitment by combining the remaining cargo into four rather than five more launches using a larger version of Cygnus.  Two will launch on United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets.  The other two are expected to use a new version of Antares that uses Russian RD-181 engines instead of the older Russian NK33/AJ26 engines that caused the failure.

Orbital ATK officials had laid out plans for returning Antares to flight in March 2016, preceded by a Cygnus launch on an ULA Atlas V on December 3, 2015.   Two weeks ago, however, Frank Culbertson, President of Orbital ATK's Space Systems Division, said that the March 2016 launch will use another ULA Atlas V instead.  Antares will return to flight in the "spring," he indicated, with two or three more launches that year.  (NASA awarded Orbital ATK additional launches under an extension of the CRS contract.)

The OIG report found that the return-to-flight plan may be difficult to execute on schedule.  Among its concerns is that Orbital ATK does not plan a test launch with the new RD-181 engines and NASA has not conducted detailed technical assessments of the new system.

The CRS contract is fixed price and NASA will not pay more, but the OIG report says that it could have reduced its costs by up to $84 million in two ways.  First, NASA "did not invoke a contract provision allowing for an adjustment to the mission pricing worth as much as $21 million, but instead received other nonmonetary considerations with an assessed value of $2 million."   The report says NASA explained that invoking the provision might have led to a reopening of pricing negotiations and ultimately lead to higher costs.  The OIG replied that negotiations were already underway because of schedule delays, and NASA should have at least tried.

Second, when Orbital ATK decided to combine the remaining tonnage into four instead of five flights, it "did not use the per-kilogram pricing in the original contract and instead divided the price for the cancelled eighth mission by its contractual upmass requirement to arrive at a revised price-per-kilogram."  Consequently, NASA is spending $65 million more than if the original pricing plan was used, according to the OIG.  In exchange, Orbital ATK offered NASA several "considerations," such as flying 600 kilograms (kg) of cargo at no cost to NASA. The OIG questioned the value of those services, however.  For example, 400 kg of that amount was flown on an Antares demonstration flight in 2013 and "we question whether this is something NASA would have been required to pay." 

The OIG also criticized NASA's practice of paying for launches "far in advance of actual flight."  Orbital ATK has "received almost $1.6 billion of the more than $2 billion contract value after flying only 2 successful missions of the 10 currently planned."

Antares is launched from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, VA.  MARS is owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia and operated by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority (VCSFA).  Under its agreement with NASA, VCSFA was required to obtain insurance to cover liability and damage to NASA facilities, insure its own facilities, and waive all claims against the Government for damages that might arise.  "However, although NASA officials stated that VCSFA intended to self-insure ... it is not clear from correspondence between VCSFA and NASA that this issue was understood or agreed upon by both parties."  NASA ended up paying $5 million of the $15 million costs to repair the site.  (Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe announced on August 12, 2015 that a new arrangement has been reached among the Commonwealth, Orbital ATK and VSCFA regarding insurance and repair costs.)

The OIG report also criticized the independence of Orbital ATK's investigation of the accident.  This was a commercial launch licensed by the FAA, and while it meets the FAA's requirements, it "lacks the level of independence required of NASA Mishap Investigation Boards."

The OIG made a total of seven recommendations.  NASA agreed with all but one -- that NASA establish procedures to ensure that insurance policies adhere to agreements and provide adequate financial liability and damage coverage.  In his response, printed in the report, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier said those procedures are already in place and were followed by Orbital and VCSFA, because VCSFA self insured for its own property during launch operations rather than purchasing insurance, which was a business decision.  "NASA was not required to contribute funds to the recovery effort at the site, but rather made an appropriate programmatic and policy-based decision to do so," Gerstenmaier wrote.

NASA concurred with an OIG recommendation (number 4) to ensure the agency takes advantage of opportunities to save money, but the OIG said that it did not find NASA's comments to be responsive.   The agency's "comments do not suggest it intends to do anything differently in the future to ensure it receives the best value."

Space Mentioned in Presidential Primary Debate, But the Past Not the Future

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Sep-2015 (Updated: 17-Sep-2015 01:43 AM)

Space program aficionados wishing that the Presidential candidates would spend more time talking about their space policies did not get their wish at last night's Republican primary debate, but two of the speakers did mention the space program -- references to the past, not the future.

In a discussion about foreign policy, Dr. Ben Carson said that after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, he advised former President George W. Bush, a friend, to emulate President John F. Kennedy when the Russians were ahead of the United States in the space race -- "use the bully pulpit to galvanize everybody, business, industry, academia behind a national goal to put a man on the moon and bring him back safely."   Carson wanted Bush to declare that the United States would become energy independent to persuade moderate Arab countries to turn over Osama bin Laden rather than go to war in Afghanistan.  Carson is a retired neurosurgeon who is polling second (behind Donald Trump) among likely Republican voters. 

Kennedy's Moon goal was also used as a positive example by former Gov. Mike Huckabee during a debate about whether vaccinations cause autism.  Huckabee expanded the discussion to other medical issues -- finding cures for cancer, heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer's because they are so costly.  "John Kennedy said 'we'll go to the Moon in a decade and bring a man back" and we did it. I grew up in the '50s. I remember the polio vaccine. We saved billions of dollars since that time because we haven't had to treat polio. Why doesn't this country focus on cures rather than treatment?"  Huckabee is about sixth (or lower) in the polls.

There was no hint as to whether they or any of the other candidates would support another Apollo-like program to achieve space goals.

This was the second of the Republican presidential primary debates and was held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA.  Carson and Huckabee were among the 11 contenders in the main debate at 8:00 pm ET.   Four lower-polling candidates had a debate two hours earlier.

First Crew Flight of Orion Likely to Slip Two Years to 2023

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Sep-2015 (Updated: 17-Sep-2015 12:56 AM)

NASA revealed the outcome of its Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C) review of the Orion spacecraft program today.  NASA uses that critical milestone as the point at which the agency makes a commitment to the cost and schedule for major programs.  Although officials said they have internal planning schedules to get it done sooner, NASA is willing to commit to the first crew launch of Orion in April 2023, an almost two year slip from the date previously advertised.  As for the cost estimate, the agency committed only to spending $6.77 billion between October 2015 through the first crew launch.  It does not include the billions already spent and whatever the program will cost beyond the first crew launch.

The Orion program began in 2006 as part of the Constellation program to return humans to the Moon by 2020 initiated under the George W. Bush Administration.  President Obama cancelled Constellation in his FY2011 budget request.  After tense debate with Congress, the 2010 NASA Authorization Act directed NASA to build a new big rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and a "Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle" (MPCV) to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit for the first time since the Apollo program.  NASA chose Orion to serve as the MPCV.  Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor.

NASA already completed the KDP-C step for SLS. It resulted in a one-year slip for when that rocket will be available for its first flight from 2017 to 2018.  That launch, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), will carry an uncrewed version of Orion.  The first crewed launch, EM-2, was expected in August 2021 and that remains an internal goal, but NASA will only commit to April 2023 as the baseline plan against which progress will be measured by Congress and others.

NASA launched an uncrewed test version of Orion on the Exploration Flight Test (EFT-1) mission last December.  It made two orbits of Earth before splashing down in the Pacific as a test of heat shield material.  NASA did not commit to a launch date for EM-1 today, saying it would be set after the critical design review (another key milestone) is completed for the ground systems associated with the system.  Lightfoot said, however, that at the moment there is no reason to expect that it will change from the current plan for launch in the fall of 2018.

NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot and NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier explained the status of the Orion program and the KDP-C results during a media teleconference today (September 16).  NASA is using a 70 percent "Joint Confidence Level" (JCL), meaning there is a 70 percent chance of meeting the promised cost and schedule.   In the past, NASA often used a lower confidence level resulting in many cost overruns and schedule slips and 70 percent is the agency's new "best practice."  Last year, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee that NASA would not use the 70 percent JCL for SLS, but the agency clearly changed its mind.

The $6.77 billion cost estimate for October 2015 through EM-2 does not include funding spent since 2006 when the program began.  Lightfoot said today the prior costs of Orion are $4.7 billion. The plans after EM-2 are still notional.  Gerstenmaier stressed that the goal is to build a "producible, affordable" system that hopefully can be launched once a year.

One factor in estimating the cost and schedule is how much money the agency expects to get each year to fund the program.  Lightfoot and Gerstenmaier said the KDP-C results are consistent with the President's budget projections.   Republicans and Democrats in Congress were extremely unhappy with Obama's decision to cancel Constellation and insisted on initiating SLS and Orion as a replacement.  Key members of Congress argue each year that the Obama Administration is favoring other NASA priorities, such as the commercial crew program, instead of SLS and Orion and usually adds money above the President's request.

The SLS slip was met with dismay in Congress and the Orion slip is engendering a similar response.   Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, railed against the Obama Administration today:  "Once again, the Obama Administration is choosing to delay deep space exploration priorities....While this administration has consistently cut funding for these programs and delayed their development, Congress has consistently restored funding as part of our commitment to maintaining American leadership in space."

Congress is still debating NASA's FY2016 funding bill. The House-passed Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill includes $1.850 billion for SLS, $494 million above the President's request of $1.356 billion, and $1.096 billion for Orion, the same as the request, but also created a new category of "program integration" for which $53 million was provided.  The Senate Appropriations Committee recommended $1.9 billion for SLS and $1.2 billion for Orion.  (For more on House and Senate action on NASA's budget request, see our NASA Budget fact sheet.)

Blue Origin to Build, Test, Launch from Cape Canaveral

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Sep-2015 (Updated: 15-Sep-2015 07:35 PM)

Blue Origin has selected Florida as the location for its manufacturing, engine testing and launch facilities for a new orbital rocket. The company will use Launch Complex 36 (LC-36) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) as its base of operations for the reusable rocket whose first launch will take place by the end of this decade.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos was joined by nine federal, state and local political, government and business dignitaries to make the announcement this morning on a stage set up for the event at LC-36.  Bezos said that very spot would become a vehicle processing facility, with an engine test stand for the BE-4 engine 4,000 feet in one direction, and a new launch pad 36 2,000 feet in the other direction.

Space Florida President Frank DiBello (at podium), Florida Governor Rick Scott (first seat on left), Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos (next to Scott)
and other dignitaries at September 15, 2015 ceremony announcing Blue Origin's choice of Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex-36 (LC-36)
as manufacturing, engine testing and launch site for new orbital Blue Origin rocket. The event took place at LC-36.  Screenshot from NASA TV.

LC-36 was used for 145 launches over 43 years, but the last one took place in 2005.  The "pad has stood silent for more than 10 years -- too long.  We can't wait to fix that," Bezos exclaimed.

Red circle marks LC-36 on this map from the Air Force Space & Missile Museum website.

Florida Governor Rick Scott (R), Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), and Florida House Speaker Steve Crisafulli (R-Brevard County) were among the politicians on stage.  All three had gathered at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, adjacent to CCAFS, just 11 days ago to announce Boeing's opening of a processing facility for its CST-100 Starliner commercial crew capsule. 

The Boeing and Blue Origin announcements mean jobs for Florida's Space Coast, which took a beating after the space shuttle and Constellation programs were terminated. Bezos himself was not specific about the economic implications of his decision, but Scott said Blue Origin is investing $200 million locally and creating 330 jobs.

Bezos did not reveal many details about the new rocket, promising more information next year.  Among the missing information is the rocket's name and what it will launch, although the assumption is that space tourism is one market.   Blue Origin is already building the smaller New Shepard rocket for suborbital human spaceflight.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos shows illustration of new orbital rocket that will launch from Launch Complex 36
at Cape Canaveral, FL.  Screenshot from September 15, 2015 event broadcast on NASA TV.

Today, Bezos said only that it will have a fully reusable booster stage, will launch and land vertically, and use the company's BE-3 and BE-4 engines.  The BE-4 will be the first commercial rocket engine to use liquefied natural gas (methane) and liquid oxygen (LOX) as propellant.  United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Blue Origin are partnering to use the BE-4 for ULA's new Vulcan rocket, a deal they confirmed last week amid media reports that Aerojet Rocketdyne wants to purchase ULA and use its AR1 engine instead.  The AR1 is a conventionally-powered LOX/kerosene engine.

Co-locating the manufacturing, engine testing and launch facilities "eases the challenge of processing and transporting really big rockets," Bezos explained.  Because acceptance testing of the BE-4 engine will take place there, "you will hear us before you see us," he added, and launches will begin "later this decade."

Nelson left the event after he spoke, explaining that he had to catch a plane to Washington to, among other things, continue working to get the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act finalized.  He was hopeful it would clear Congress "in the next few weeks."   The House and Senate have each passed versions of the bill, but they are different so a compromise is needed.   One similarity, Nelson said, is that both would streamline the permitting process for commercial companies that want to use Air Force installations like Cape Canaveral.

SecAF James Outlines "Operational Agility" and "Should Schedule" Initiatives

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Sep-2015 (Updated: 15-Sep-2015 04:37 PM)

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James laid out a new Future Operating Concept today that will be further illuminated in a document to be released later this week.  Its precept is multi-domain “operational agility” integrating cyber, space and air operations.  She also outlined a "should schedule" initiative to speed up acquisitions.

Speaking at the Air Force Association’s annual Air and Space Conference, James offered a future operational agility scenario that, she conceded, sounded like science fiction.

In this hypothetical situation, an earthquake strikes a large city in a remote part of the world.  Within hours, air-launched small satellites are deployed from “the back of an Air Force mobility transport” that provide global communications connectivity and imagery to first responders.  The imagery identifies a usable airport that allows flights to deliver needed supplies and a plethora of small UAVs, controlled through a satellite network, to provide wireless Internet and “cutting edge sensors” for rescue crews.  Meanwhile, back in San Antonio, TX, a “cell of violent extremists” intent on attacking rescue crews is identified by Air Force ISR and cyber teams who then task armed UAVs to “target this leadership cell and, boom, it’s all over for the bad guys.”

She said this is how the Air Force needs to work in the future – a Future Operating Concept – to be detailed in a publication to be released later this week.

Such a plan will take money to execute, of course, and she was quite blunt in her assessment of the current budget situation on Capitol Hill.   “I want to once again take this opportunity to call on Congress to permanently lift sequestration.  We have to send sequestration to the bone yard once and for all.”

She was equally forceful about the prospect that Congress will not pass the FY2016 budget by the end of this month and DOD will be funded through a Continuing Resolution (CR) instead.  Whether the CR will be for a few weeks, a few months, or even the full year is completely up in the air.

James said a long-term CR would be even worse than sequestration.  “It would provide even less money than sequestration, it would not allow us to have any new starts, it would affect every part of our Air Force.”  It would interfere with modernization efforts and “once again hit readiness.”

The Air Force needs to do its part as well to “make every dollar count,” especially in speeding up the acquisition process.  She outlined a “should schedule” analog to the existing “should cost” approach.  Under “should cost,” an independent cost estimate (ICE) is required at key points of a program and program offices and industry are challenged to beat the ICE to drive costs down.   Savings are then directed back into programs.

“Should schedule” would do the same with delivery times, incentivizing industry to accelerate successfully the engineering, manufacturing and development (EMD) phase.   She listed three pilot programs that will be used as experiments: the Enhanced GPS/INS Modernization program, the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System, and the MS-177 electro-optical sensor.  “An accelerated EMD plan would need to survive a detailed scrub by independent engineers,” she stressed.

The title of her talk was Reinventing the Aerospace Nation, which she defined as “the community of air minded people around the globe who engage in and with and through air, space and cyberspace to create ultimately a better world for all of us.”  She encouraged conference attendees to “discard existing paradigms” and “cultivate innovation and creativity.”

What's Happening in Space Policy September 14-18, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Sep-2015 (Updated: 14-Sep-2015 08:34 AM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of September 14-18, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

As of today (Sunday), no space-related hearings have been announced for the coming week (although Rep. Honda is hosting a morning reception and exhibit on Earth and geoscience research on Thursday)  Whether any progress will be made on a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government beginning October 1 or reaching a compromise on either the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act or the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act is anyone's guess.  Stay tuned.

Off the Hill, there are a number of interesting events, starting tomorrow morning (Monday) with a press event at the National Press Club to mark the half-way point for Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko's "year in space."  Kelly will participate from the International Space Station (ISS) via videolink.   His twin brother, former astronaut Mark Kelly, will be at the Press Club in person along with astronaut Terry Virts who recently returned from ISS.  NASA TV will cover one hour of it, from 9:00-10:00 am ET.

Also on tap this week is the Air Force Association's Air & Space Conference at the Gaylord National Resort and Conference Center in National Harbor, MD, just outside Washington, DC.  Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James is scheduled to speak tomorrow (Monday) from 10:30-10:55 am ET on "Reinventing the Aerospace Nation."  She tweeted last week that it would be webcast.  Gen. John Hyten will speak on Tuesday at 2:25 pm ET on "Preserving our Space and Cyberspace Capabilities."  Secretary of Defense Ash Carter will speak on Wednesday at 9:55 am ET.  Two commercial guys -- Brett Alexander from Blue Origin and Antonio Elias from Orbital ATK -- are on the agenda for Wednesday at 11:00 am ET speaking about "Space in the Commercial Sector."  Not clear if those will be webcast.   We'll add links on our calendar when and if they are made available.

Speaking of Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos is going to make a "significant announcement" at a media event at Cape Canaveral on Tuesday morning, but everything is hush hush other than the fact that the event will take place beginning at 9:45 am ET.   We're told a decision has not been made on whether it will be webcast.  If we get a link, we'll add it to our calendar entry for the event.

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

Monday, September 14

Monday-Wednesday, September 14-16

  • Air Force Association Air & Space Conference, National Harbor, MD (outside Washington DC).  Among the speakers are--
    • Monday, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, 10:30 am ET
    • Tuesday, Air Force Space Command Commander Gen. John Hyten, 2:25 pm ET
    • Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, 9:55 am ET
    • Wednesday, Blue Origin's Brett Alexander and Orbital ATK's Antonio Elias, 11:00 am ET

Monday-Friday, September 14-18

Tuesday, September 15

Tuesday-Friday, September 15-18

Wednesday-Thursday, September 16-17

Thursday, September 17

Friday, September 18

Editor's note:  This article was updated Sunday afternoon to add the Earth and geoscience research briefing on Thursday and the Google+ Hangout on Friday, and on Monday morning adding Secretary of Defense Ash Carter's talk at AFA on Wednesday.

Record Breaking Cosmonaut Padalka Returns Home Tonight EDT - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Sep-2015 (Updated: 11-Sep-2015 08:56 PM)

UPDATE, September 11, 2015, 8:55 pm EDT:  Soyuz TMA-16M landed on time at 8:51:36 pm EDT (6:51:36 am local time September 12 at the landing site in Kazakhstan.)

ORIGINAL STORY, September 11, 2015, 10:43 am EDT: Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka will return to Earth tonight Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) after completing more than five months aboard the International Space Station (ISS).  Added to four previous spaceflights, he sets a new record of 879 cumulative days in space, surpassing the record held by his compatriot Sergei Kirkalev.  Padalka and two short-duration ISS crew members are scheduled to land on the steppes of Kazakhstan at 8:51 pm EDT (which will be 6:51 am tomorrow, September 12, local time at the landing site).

Padalka launched on Soyuz TMA-16M last March along with NASA's Scott Kelly and Russia's Mikhail Kornienko.  Those two are remaining aboard ISS for a year-long mission, but the Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft has only a 6-month lifetime, so it must return to Earth and Padalka is its commander.   Accompanying him on the return leg are European Space Agency astronaut Andreas Mogensen (from Denmark) and Kazakh cosmonaut Aidyn Aimbetov.  Mogensen and Aimbetov arrived just seven days ago on Soyuz TMA-18M.  That spacecraft replaces TMA-16M as a new ferry/lifeboat and its commander, Sergei Volkov, replaces Padalka.  

Nine people have been aboard ISS since the Soyuz TMA-18M crew arrived.  The ISS will return to its usual crew complement of six when Padalka, Mogensen and Aimbetov undock at 5:29 pm EDT.  The remaining six are Kelly, Kornienko, Volkov and the three men who arrived on Soyuz TMA-17M in July (NASA's Kjell Lindgren, Japan's Kimiya Yui and Russia's Oleg Kononenko).

Padalka's first spaceflight, Soyuz TM-28, was to Russia's Mir space station from August 1998 to February 1999 for a total of 199 days (durations listed here are rounded to the nearest day).  

He then made four trips to ISS:

  • Soyuz TMA-4, April-October 2004, 188 days
  • Soyuz TMA-14, March-October 2009, 199 days
  • Soyuz TMA-04M, May-September 2012, 125 days
  • Soyuz TMA-16M, March-September 2015, 168 days (once he lands)

Padalka's record is for the most amount of time spent in space, but it was accumulated over all those missions.  The record for total consecutive days in space is still held by Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov who spent 438 days aboard the Mir space station in 1994-1995.  Polyakov previously had spent 241 days aboard Mir on a flight in 1988-1989.

Long duration spaceflights like Polyakov's are of special interest for studies of how humans react physiologically and psychologically to spaceflight conditions over the time periods anticipated for flights to destinations like Mars.   Polyakov is one of only four people -- all Russians -- who have spent at least one year in space at one time.  Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov spent 365 days together on Mir in 1987-1988.  Sergei Avdeyev spent 380 days on Mir in 1998-1999.  In all cases, other crews came and went during that time.

Scott Kelly will become the first American to spend a year in space.  He and Kornienko are approaching the half way mark of their year-in-space mission.  That point will be reached on September 15.  On Monday, September 14, the National Press Club in Washington, DC will host a press conference with Kelly via videolink from the ISS and his twin brother, former astronaut Mark Kelly, and Terry Virts, who recently returned from the ISS, in person.  The Kelly brothers are identical twins and are participating in twin studies related to Scott Kelly's long duration spaceflight.

NASA TV will cover today's undocking and landing of Soyuz TMA-16M and a portion of Monday's press conference.

ULA and Blue Origin Move Forward with BE-4 Plan

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Sep-2015 (Updated: 10-Sep-2015 08:40 PM)

United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Blue Origin announced an agreement today for expanding production of Blue Origin's BE-4 engine that ULA wants to use for its new Vulcan rocket.  The announcement takes place against the backdrop of reports that another rocket engine company, Aerojet Rocketdyne, is trying to buy ULA, which would, at best, complicate the ULA/Blue Origin plan.

ULA and Blue Origin, founded by's Jeff Bezos, revealed amid much fanfare last fall that they were teaming on ULA's new Vulcan rocket that is intended to eventually replace the two rockets ULA currently uses, Atlas V and Delta IV.  Congress is insisting that use of Russian RD-180 engines that currently power the Atlas V be discontinued by 2019 for national security launches, the mainstay of ULA's launch business.   Blue Origin's BE-4 (Blue Engine 4) is viewed by ULA as the most mature domestically made engine that could replace the RD-180s.  Today's announcement said that BE-4 "offers the fastest path" to a domestic replacement for RD-180s and will "achieve qualification flight in 2017 to support the first Vulcan flight in 2019."

ULA and the Air Force are trying to convince Congress to provide more flexibility on the 2019 RD-180 cutoff date since a first flight in 2019 is not the same as having a launch vehicle full certified for launching expensive national security payloads.  The House is sympathetic to that argument in its version of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), but the Senate Armed Services Committee is holding fast to 2019.  The two sides are currently trying to reach agreement on a compromise version of the NDAA.

BE-4 uses an innovative design based on liquid oxygen (LOX) and methane as propellant rather than traditional LOX/kerosene.  ULA President Tory Bruno champions Blue Origin's engine, but also said earlier this year that the company is keeping Aerojet Rocketdyne's (AJR) new AR1 LOX/kerosene engine in mind as a backup.  Two days ago the Wall Street Journal reported that AJR is bidding to purchase ULA for about $2 billion.  If that deal were to go through -- a big if -- it clearly would imperil the use of BE-4 for Vulcan.

Today's ULA/Blue Origin announcement suggests that those two companies are continuing on course nonetheless.  Bezos said the new agreement is "an important step toward building BE-4s at the production rate needed" for Vulcan.

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