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House Appropriators Support RD-180 Replacement, Want More EELV Info - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Jun-2014 (Updated: 10-Jun-2014 12:05 PM)

UPDATE, June 10, 2014:   The committee approved the bill today with no changes to the space provisions.

ORIGINAL STORY, June 9, 2014:  The House Appropriations Committee supports adding $220 million to begin development of a U.S. liquid rocket engine to replace the Russian RD-180s currently used for the Atlas V rocket in its draft FY2015 defense bill.  The committee also directs the Air Force to provide more information about changes in the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.  

Those recommendations are included in the committee's draft bill and report on the FY2015 defense budget request, which are posted on the committee's website. The defense subcommittee approved the draft on May 30.  Full committee markup is scheduled for tomorrow (Tuesday, June 10).

U.S. dependence on Russian engines for one of the two rockets used to launch most U.S. national security satellites is getting a lot of attention as U.S.-Russian relationships remain strained due to events in Ukraine.  Lockheed Martin's decision to use Russian engines for its Atlas V rocket dates back to the 1990s and was approved by DOD initially with the requirement that the company build a co-production facility in the United States where the engines could be provided independently of Russia in case geopolitical circumstances changed.  That requirement was later waived by the government, with the company buying extra engines to stockpile instead.   Today, a Lockheed Martin-Boeing joint venture, United Launch Alliance (ULA), builds both Atlas V and Boeing's Delta IV.  ULA says it has a two-year supply of RD-180s, but it would take longer than that to develop a U.S.-built replacement creating the conundrum now being faced by the U.S. government.

The House passed the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in May, which includes $220 million to begin development of a U.S. engine to replace the RD-180.   That is an authorization bill, though, not an appropriation.  (Authorization bills set policy and recommend funding levels, but do not actually provide money.  Only appropriations bills provide money).  Winning support from House appropriators is a key step, though not the only one.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has not acted on its version of the bill so it is too early to tell if it will follow the lead of the Senate's DOD authorization committee.   The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) recommended $100 million for FY2015 rather than $220 million for this purpose when it approved its version of the NDAA in May.  Senator John McCain (R-AZ) included language in the committee-approved NDAA prohibiting the purchase of any more RD-180 engines after the current block buy contract is completed, although waivers are permitted in certain circumstances.  Even if the Senate Appropriations Committee does agree with SASC, there is quite a difference in the dollar amount between the House and Senate that would have to be negotiated.

Apart from the RD-180 issue, the House Appropriations Committee's draft bill and report highlight these other space-related recommendations:

  • Cuts the FY2015 EELV procurement request of $1.346 billion for three launches and infrastructure by $35 million.
  • Rescinds $118.7 million of FY2014 EELV funding.
  • Directs the Secretary of the Air Force to notify Congress of "each change to the EELV acquisition plan and schedule as compared to the plan and schedule" in the FY2015 budget submission "including the national security rationale for the change, the impact on the EELV block buy contract and launch manifest, the impact on the change in opportunities for competition for certified EELV launch providers, and the costs or savings associated with the change."
  • Cuts the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) and associated ground system request of $309.5 million by $10 million.
  • Provides $212.6 million for the GPS III operational ground control segment, the same as the request.
  • Adds $30 million to the $57 million requested for advance procurement of the GPS IIII space segment to allow for acquiring two satellites per year instead of one.
  • Provides the full request of $156.7 million for the Military GPS User Equipment program.
  • Provides the full request of $32.9 million for the GPS Space Modernization Initiative, but directs that $20 million be used to study "technological maturation, including the use of an alternative digital GPS payload, and risk reduction consistent with the GPS enterprise analysis of alternatives."
  • Directs the Secretary of Defense to consider upgrading existing communications terminals to accelerate the fielding of the full capability of the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS), a Navy satellite communications program.

Full committee markup is at 9:30 am ET tomorrow morning. 

Orbital Delays Orb-2 Mission Again as Engine Test Failure Investigation Continues

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Jun-2014 (Updated: 09-Jun-2014 11:45 AM)

Orbital Sciences Corporation announced today that it is again delaying the launch of Orb-2, its second operational cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS), while it continues to investigate the failure of an AJ-26 rocket engine during a test at Stennis Space Center.

Orb-2 was originally scheduled for May 6, but was initially delayed when SpaceX had to postpone one of its ISS cargo missions.   The two companies are competitors in the ISS cargo resupply business.  NASA and its international partners manage a dizzying array of missions taking crew and/or cargo to the ISS plus occasional spacewalks and a delay in any one activity can have a domino effect on the others.

Orbital was working towards a June 10 launch date when the engine test failed on May 22.   It postponed the launch to no earlier than (NET) June 17 and now it is NET July 1.   Orbital's announcement stressed that July 1 is just a planning date, not an official launch date.

AJ-26 engines are Russian NK-33 engines built more than four decades ago.  They are imported to the United States and refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne and redesignated AJ-26.   The engine that failed on May 22 is intended to be used in a launch next year and was undergoing a routine acceptance test after refurbishment.  

The engines are used to power Orbital's Antares rocket, which sends the Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the ISS.  These launches takes place from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on the coast of Virginia. 

What's Happening in Space Policy June 9-13, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Jun-2014 (Updated: 08-Jun-2014 09:01 PM)

Here is our list of upcoming space policy related events for the week of June 9-13, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session.

During the Week

Tomorrow (Monday) the House is scheduled to take up the 2014 NASA Authorization Act (H.R. 4412), which was reported (H. Rept. 113- 470) from the House Science, Space and Technology Committee on Friday according to the Library of Congress THOMAS website, but there was no press release and the report is not posted on THOMAS or the committee's website yet.  It is one of several bills listed for action on the "suspension calendar" where a simple two-thirds aye vote is needed for passage.  Bills considered under suspension of the rules typically are non-controversial and hence expected to win approval easily.  The House SS&T Committee approved the bill on a bipartisan basis on April 29.  The funding recommendations are only for FY2014, which is already underway so really are not that important.  It's the policy aspects of the bill that are meaningful.

Also tomorrow, the House is scheduled to begin consideration of the FY2015 Transportation-HUD appropriations bill that includes the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST).  The House Appropriations Committee recommended a small cut to the office's FY2015 budget request - from $16.605 million to $16.000 million, but the accompanying report also has some interesting language about the use of NASA's Space Launch System for commercial purposes and directing AST to "leverage" its licensing authority to "encourage private sector investment in systems by ensuring that commercial activities can be conducted on a non-interference basis."

Those are just two events coming up this week.  The following is the list of what we know about as of Sunday evening.

Monday, June 9

Tuesday, June 10

Wednesday, June 11




FAA Space Office Fares Better in Senate Appropriations Bill for FY2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 06-Jun-2014 (Updated: 06-Jun-2014 05:03 PM)

The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) gets its full FY2015 request of $16.605 million in the Senate Appropriations Committee's version of the FY2015 Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) appropriations bill.   By comparison, the House committee approved a small cut.

The report (S. Rept. 113-182) on the Senate bill (S. 2438) was approved yesterday (June 5) and released today.  The bill itself has not yet been posted by the Government Printing Office (GPO).

AST is responsible for facilitating and regulating the commercial space launch industry.   For the current fiscal year (FY2014), the office received $16.011 million.

The FY2015 request is $16.605 million, but the House Appropriations Committee reduced it to $16.000 million when it approved its version of the T-HUD bill in May.   The House committee's report (H. Rept. 113-464) did not explain why it reduced the budget and, in fact, cited the importance of the commercial launch industry to the country; asserted its commitment to ensuring a viable, healthy and competitive industry; and noted AST's heavy workload.  It told the FAA to "meet the modest funding reduction in this account through savings from non-safety related activities."   The House committee also stated that it supports using heavy lift launch vehicles, including the Space Launch System, for commercial launches to low Earth orbit (LEO) and beyond.  It urges AST to "leverage" its licensing authority to "encourage private sector investment in systems by ensuring that commercial activities can be conducted on a non-interference basis."

The House is scheduled to begin consideration of the T-HUD bill, H.R. 4745, on Monday (June 9).  The Senate has not announced when it will take up the bill, but Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) said at yesterday's markup that the Senate leadership has agreed to bring some appropriations bills to the Senate floor for debate during the week of June 16.

NOAA's Satellites Have Mixed Fate in Senate Appropriations Bill - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Jun-2014 (Updated: 06-Jun-2014 04:29 PM)

UPDATE, June 6, 2014:  The final version of the report is now posted on GPO's website, but not the bill.  See link in last paragraph.

ORIGINAL STORY, June 5, 2014:  The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the FY2015 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill today including NOAA's satellite programs.  Although the committee provided full funding for NOAA's weather satellite programs, three other satellite programs were either transferred to NASA or zeroed. obtained a copy of the committee's report on the bill

The crux of the committee's actions is to ensure that NOAA focuses on its weather satellite responsibilities, especially mitigating against the possibility of a gap in coverage from its polar-orbiting system.   NOAA operates two complementary weather satellite systems, one in polar orbit that can view the entire globe and the other in geostationary orbit above the equator that focuses on tropical regions where hurricanes form.  A fact sheet explains these and NOAA's other satellite programs, the Obama Administration's FY2015 request and congressional action on the request.

The Senate committee fully supports NOAA's new Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) series, as well as a constellation of satellites (COSMIC-2) that can increase the accuracy of weather forecasts, but not NOAA's other three satellite programs, or at least not with NOAA in charge.

SIDAR.  The Solar Irradiance, Data and Rescue (SIDAR) satellite is NOAA's latest attempt at winning approval for a spacecraft to take three instruments -- the Total Solar Irradiance Sensor (TSIS), the Advanced Data Collection System (A-DCS), and the Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking (SARSAT) instrument -- into orbit that will not fit on JPSS.  JPSS has a long history and originally involved a much larger satellite -- National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) -- that could accommodate many more instruments.   NPOESS was terminated and replaced by the smaller JPSS, leaving these instruments without a spacecraft to host them.  Last year NOAA requested approval for a "Polar Free Flyer," but Congress zeroed the request and told NOAA to come up with a new strategy.  SIDAR is that new strategy, but is not faring any better.  The House also zeroed SIDAR in its version of the CJS bill.  The Senate committee told NOAA to work with NASA on determining how TSIS could be better supported by NASA's Science Mission Directorate.  It did not offer advice about the future of A-DCS or SARSAT.

DSCOVR.  The Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) is another program with a long history, dating back to the Clinton Administration where it began as an initiative of Vice President Al Gore and assigned to NASA.   It evolved into a spacecraft focused on providing space weather data and, after being put into storage during the George W. Bush Administration, was resurrected by the Obama Administration as a NOAA-NASA-Air Force program, with NOAA in charge.   The Senate committee would return responsibility for developing the satellite to NASA and shift related funding from NOAA to NASA.  The amount of funding in FY2015 would be the same as the request, $21.1 million, but in NASA's budget rather than NOAA's.

Jason-3.   Like DSCOVR, the Senate committee would shift Jason-3, an ocean altimetry mission, and its associated funding from NOAA to NASA in line with the goal of keeping NOAA focused on weather satellites.  NASA and its French counterpart, CNES, built the first two in this series.   The measurements are now considered operational rather than research, which is why Jason-3 has been managed by NOAA so far (in cooperation with its European counterpart, EUMETSAT, and CNES).   The Senate committee would provide essentially the same level of funding for Jason-3 as the request ($25.6 million), but in NASA's budget rather than NOAA's.

Update, June 6:  The final version of the report (S. Rept. 113-181) is now posted on the GPO website and is accessible from the committee's website.  The bill (S. 2437) is not posted yet.

Senate Appropriators Increase NASA Budget, Save SOFIA, Transfer Two Programs from NOAA to NASA - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Jun-2014 (Updated: 06-Jun-2014 04:17 PM)

UPDATE, June 6, 2014:   The final version of the report is now posted on GPO's website, but not the bill.  See link in last paragraph.

ORIGINAL STORY, June 5, 2014: The Senate Appropriations Committee approved its FY2015 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill today.  The bill would increase NASA’s FY2015 budget by $439 million to $17.9 billion.  While that figure is very similar to what the House approved, it would be allocated within NASA quite differently in some cases.   Among the differences, the Senate committee would transfer two programs – Jason-3 and DSCOVR – to NASA from NOAA and increase NASA’s earth science budget accordingly. obtained a copy of the committee’s report on the CJS bill and we’ve updated our fact sheet on NASA’s FY2015 budget request with the Senate committee’s recommendations.

President Obama requested $17.461 billion for NASA in FY2015, a figure rejected by both Senate and House appropriators.   The House approved an increase of $435 million, to $17.896 billion.  The Senate committee recommends an even $17.900 billion.  Here are some of the major changes.

  • Astrophysics:  SOFIA and WFIRST. Like the House, the Senate committee rejected the Obama Administration’s plan to mothball the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).  The 747-based observatory is a joint project between NASA and its German counterpart, DLR.  The Administration proposed cancelling it because NASA could not afford its 80 percent share of the roughly $100 million/year operating costs.   It requested only $12 million for FY2015 as part of a close-out plan, with no funding projected for future years.   The House disapproved that plan and provided $70 million.  The Senate committee also disapproves and provides $87 million.  SOFIA’s FY2014 funding was $84 million.  Like last year, the Senate committee also added money for work on the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), identified by the National Research Council’s astrophysics Decadal Survey as the top priority for the next large space observatory after the James Webb Space Telescope.  The committee provides $56 million.
  • Planetary Exploration:  Europa.  FY2015 is the first year that NASA is requesting funds -- $15 million -- for planning a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa.  Congress was way ahead of NASA on this one, adding money in FY2013 ($75 million, which became $69 million after adjusting for rescissions and the sequester) and FY2014 ($80 million).   The Senate committee does not increase funding for Europa (the House added $85 million), but expressed its support and directed NASA to design the mission to use the Space Launch System (SLS) as its launch vehicle.
  • Earth Science.  The Senate committee substantially increased NASA’s earth science budget, in part because it transferred two programs to NASA from NOAA: Jason-3, an ocean altimetry mission, and DSCOVR, a space weather mission.  Both are cooperative programs that involve NOAA, NASA and other domestic and international agencies.  They both have long histories, but NOAA has been managing the programs most recently.  The Senate committee would put NASA in charge and adds money to NASA’s budget resulting in a total of $25.6 million for Jason-3 and $24.8 million for DSCOVR.  (NOAA requested $25.656 million for Jason-3 and $21.1 million for DSCOVR.)  The Senate committee also eschews NASA’s efforts at finding innovative methods for providing continuity of Landsat data.  It directs NASA to proceed with a new Landsat mission for launch no later than 2020 and a cost of no more than $650 million (including launch) that would “maximize the utilization of non-recurring engineering efforts from Landsat 8.”
  • SLS and Orion.  The Senate committee substantially increases funding for SLS:  $1.70 billion compared to the request of $1.38 billion.   The House provided $1.60 billion.  The Senate committee also increases funding for Orion:  $1.200 billion compared to the $1.053 billion request.  The House provided $1.140 billion.   The Senate committee directs NASA to establish a “reliable and realistic” Joint Confidence Level (JCL) for both programs to ensure that the programs do not “incur a higher risk profile than other major missions.”  If the JCL is less than NASA’s standard 70 percent, NASA must justify and document the reasons and nevertheless provide the committee with a funding profile needed to achieve a 70 percent JCL.  (A JCL is an estimate of the probability that a program will meet its budget and cost targets.  The higher the probability, the more money needed in the early stages of the program.)
  • Commercial Crew.  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden made winning congressional approval of the full $848 million request for commercial crew a top priority to ensure that NASA can support two competitors in the next phase of the program rather than only one.  The Senate committee recommends $805 million (the House approved $785 million).  While not the full request, either the Senate or House figure is more than Congress has approved in the past.  The Senate committee has extensive language on the use of Space Act Agreements versus Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR)-based contracts and requires NASA to provide certain information to allow increased transparency.
  • Space Technology.  The Senate committee cuts the request for Space Technology substantially from $705.5 million to $580.0 million although some of that reflects a transfer of funds for satellite servicing from the Space Technology account to Space Operations (the report does not specify how much).  The report language does not explain the rationale for the cut, but says the priority should be Cross-Cutting Space Technology.

At the markup today, committee chairwoman Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) said that she was working with Senate leadership to bring several appropriations bills to the floor for consideration during the week of June 16.  Her committee marked up this CJS bill as well as the Transportation-HUD bill today, so they presumably will be part of that package.

Update, June 6:  The final version of the report, S. Rept. 113-181, is now posted on GPO's website and accessible via the committee's site.  The bill is not posted there yet.

Key Congressional Space Leaders Applaud NRC Human Spaceflight Report

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Jun-2014 (Updated: 05-Jun-2014 01:27 AM)

Key members of Congress who oversee NASA are responding favorably to the National Research Council's (NRC) new report on the future of the human spaceflight program.

Congress directed NASA to contract with the NRC to conduct the study in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.  The language included in that law requiring the study is attributed to Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) and then-Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) who has since retired.

Senator Nelson released a statement saying that the report is an "affirmation that a mission to Mars is a go," but "as the report points out, we'll have to give NASA sufficient resources to get this done."  Nelson, who flew on the space shuttle in 1986 when he was a Congressman, is a strong supporter of NASA's human spaceflight program.

Across Capitol Hill, House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) used the report's release as another opportunity to lambast the Obama Administration's plan, especially the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).   The NRC report found that ARM has failed to win support in Congress or the scientific community.   Smith concurs with that sentiment, calling it a "mission without a realistic budget, without a destination, and without a certain launch date."  The House SS&T committee approved a new NASA authorization act (H.R. 4412) in April that would require NASA to develop a Human Exploration Roadmap.    Smith's statement said that "Congress should provide NASA with guidance and funding priorities that reflect our current budget reality while allowing them to develop an inspirational human spaceflight mission."  Smith supports the Mars Flyby 2021 concept that would send astronauts to flyby (not orbit or land on) Mars in 2021 after receiving a gravity assist from Venus.  The NRC report did not assess that mission.

House SS&T Democrats also issued a statement.  Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the top Democrat on the full committee, called the NRC report a "wake up call" to Congress and the Administration: "Their report is clear -- we are not going to have a human space exploration program worthy of this great nation if we continue down the current path of failing to provide the resources needed to make real progress and failing to embrace a clear goal and a pathway to achieving that goal."  She commended the authors of the report and said she looks forward to working with "colleagues in Congress and the Administration to establish a sustainable and vital human space exploration program."    Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), the top Democrat on the Space Subcommittee, said she was "heartened" by the report and that she would take on as a challenge the report's finding that the public is "inattentive to space exploration."   Johnson and Edwards, like Smith, applauded the language in the committee's bill requiring the Human Exploration Roadmap.  Edwards said she is convinced the next generation of Americans "only needs a spark to ignite the flood of innovation that accompanies the pursuit of a major goal.  The inspiration of a clear pathway for human space exploration will provide that spark."

In many years, all those statements about providing NASA with the needed funding might ring hollow.  This year, though, the House already has passed the appropriations bill that funds NASA with a substantial increase ($435 million) above what the President requested.  The Senate Appropriations Committee is poised to approve a similar increase in its companion bill later today (it was marked up at subcommittee level on Tuesday).  No agency can bank on getting more money than requested year after year, but for this year, at least, Congress seems to be backing up its policy pronouncements with actual money.  That being said, all of the members issuing press releases so far sit on authorization, not appropriation committees.  (Not sure of the difference between an authorization and an appropriation?  See's "What's a Markup?" fact sheet.)  It will be interesting to see if Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) or Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), chair and vice-chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, reference the NRC report during the markup, which begins at 10:00 am ET.

NRC Endorses Return to Lunar Surface, Cooperation with China, No More Business As Usual

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Jun-2014 (Updated: 05-Jun-2014 12:04 AM)

The National Research Council (NRC) released its report on the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program today.  Just over 18 months in the making, its 285 pages contain a multitude of findings and recommendations difficult to distill in a few paragraphs.  The bottom line is that sending people to Mars is the “horizon goal” not just for the United States but its likely international partners. It will take decades and hundreds of billions of dollars to get there, so if people aren’t willing to make that commitment, the report cautions, don’t start down that road.

The report, Pathways to Exploration—Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration, responds to a charge from Congress in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act to examine the rationales that underpin human exploration, articulate its “value proposition” – what the public believes it gets out of human spaceflight versus what they put into it monetarily, and evaluate options – “pathways” – for moving beyond low Earth orbit (LEO).

Congress required NASA to contract with the NRC for the study in FY2012, rather than when the bill was signed into law in 2010.   Consequently, the study did not start until late in FY2012 and the committee’s first meeting was in December 2012.  The committee was co-chaired by Cornell space scientist Jonathan Lunine and Purdue University President (and former Indiana Governor) Mitch Daniels.

To pick just three of its key findings and recommendations, the report supports --

  • a return to the lunar surface as part of any program to take humans to Mars for a multitude of reasons, including aligning U.S. near-term goals with those of potential international and commercial partners,
  • bringing China into the U.S. “sphere of international partnerships,”  and
  • increasing NASA’s human spaceflight budget at more than the rate of inflation over many years if sending humans to Mars is, in fact, to be achieved.

The study is candid about many of the issues it tackles.  For example, the committee is the first to admit that it breaks no new ground on the question of rationales for supporting human spaceflight.  “All of the arguments the committee heard ... have been used in various forms and combinations to justify the program for many years.”   The committee divided those rationales into “pragmatic” and “aspirational,” but the bottom line is that “No single rationale alone seems to justify the value of pursuing human spaceflight.”

The committee and one of its two supporting panels included experts on public opinion polling who reviewed past public opinion polls and conducted one of their own on attitudes towards human spaceflight.  Their conclusion is that although the public likes human spaceflight and NASA, it is not very interested and does not support more funding.  “Americans have continued to fly into space not so much because the public strongly wants it to be so, but because the counterfactual – space exploration dominated by the vehicles and astronauts of other nations – seems unthinkable after 50 years of U.S. leadership in space.”

The report identifies Mars as the long term “horizon goal” for human spaceflight and lists three potential pathways to get there.  Although the committee emphasizes that it was not asked to, and did not, choose among those pathways, it unambiguously conveys that returning to the lunar surface should be part of the plan:

"While this report’s recommendation for adoption of a pathways approach is made without prejudice as to which particular pathway might be followed, it was, nevertheless,  clear ... that a return to extended surface operations on the Moon would make significant contributions to a strategy ultimately aimed at landing people on Mars and ... is also likely to provide a broad array of opportunities for international and commercial cooperation."

Among the benefits of reinstating lunar surface operations, the committee noted, is that it would align U.S. near-term goals with those of potential international partners who are focusing their own plans on lunar missions.

The committee was frank in addressing the hot button issue of whether China should be part of any international partnership, concluding that existing law that prohibits NASA from talking with China is not in the best interests of the United States:

"It is ... evident that given the rapid development of China’s capabilities in space, it is in the best interests of the United States to be open to its inclusion in future international partnerships.  In particular, current federal law preventing NASA from participating in bilateral activities with the Chinese serves only to hinder U.S. ability to bring China into its sphere of international partnerships and reduces substantially the potential international capability that might be pooled to reach Mars."

The committee is not sanguine about NASA’s current “program of record” for building the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft and using them for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) within a projected flat budget: “The current program ... cannot provide the flight frequency required to maintain competence and safety, does not possess the ‘stepping-stone’ architecture that allows the public to see the connection between the horizon goal and near-term accomplishments, and may discourage international partners.”   It is even more blunt about ARM saying it “has failed to engender substantial enthusiasm either in the Congress or the scientific community.”

Costs for sending people to Mars using any of the committee’s pathways are not spelled out in detail.  Instead, costs are dealt with by offering order of magnitude comparisons that result in a range roughly of $300-600 billion over several decades.   The report does say that a program costing $400 billion would allow humans to land on Mars around 2060.  To land on Mars prior to 2050, a technically feasible pathway costing no more than $220 billion would need to be developed.  “Barring unforeseen significant budget increases, significant increases in operational efficiency, or technological game changers, progress towards deep space destinations will be measured on time scales of decades.  Policy goals that state shorter time horizons cannot change this reality.” (emphasis in original)

The report offers pathway principles and decision rules for implementing them, although the decision rules seem difficult to implement.  The NRC only recently began providing decision rules to NASA in its Decadal Surveys for space science programs on what to do with recommended priorities if there is more or less funding than expected. Developing decision rules for a human spaceflight program is harder since it is less a matter of choosing one scientific objective over another than moving out in a series of steps that build upon one another.

Other takeaways include the following: 

  • The International Space Station (ISS) presents a conundrum.  It is needed to conduct research on human adaption to long duration spaceflight as a prerequisite to Mars exploration, but its high operating costs reduce the funding available for those very missions.
  • Investments in technology need to begin immediately.  The top three are:  Mars entry, descent and landing; in-space propulsion and power; and radiation safety. 

The official time frame for the study was out to the year 2030, but to achieve the goal of landing on Mars, the committee pushed the time envelope out to the middle of the decade.  In a tantalizing twist, the report acknowledges that in the course of those decades scientific and technological advances could change everything:

"Breakthroughs ... could serve to solve many of the large obstacles.... In particular, the line between the human and the robotic may be blurred more profoundly than simple linear extrapolations predict.  In such an eventuality, exploration of the ‘last frontier’ of space might well occur in a more rapid and far-reaching way than is envisioned in this report; indeed, whether it would still be accurately described as ‘human exploration’ is unknowable."

Perhaps the most prominent message is that business as usual will not get us to Mars.   Budgets have to grow and Washington politics surrounding the human spaceflight program must change.  Any pathway that is chosen will fail if it is not appropriately funded or “without a sustained commitment on the part of those who govern the nation—a commitment that does not change direction with succeeding electoral cycles.  Those branches of government responsible for NASA’s funding and guidance are therefore critical enablers of the nation’s investment and achievements in human spaceflight.”

The NRC report is frank, if not bleak, about the challenges of maintaining support over the long term.  It may be worth noting, however, that long term human spaceflight programs are not impossible.  The International Space Station program is 30 years old this year – it began with President Reagan’s State of the Union address in 1984.   That’s 15 congresses and five presidential administrations, from Reagan to Obama, and it will continue for another 10 years if NASA gets its way. The space shuttle program began in 1972 and ended just shy of 40 years later in 2011, over seven presidential administrations (Nixon to Obama).  Both programs suffered substantial cost overruns and schedule slips that have been largely forgotten with the passage of time.

Sending humans to Mars is another multi-decade proposition, but shuttle and ISS prove that it is possible to maintain financial and political support in the United States, at least, over a long period of time.   The NRC is the latest in a long series of reports over many decades intended to galvanize support for the next bold leap in human spaceflight.  Perhaps this will be the one that succeeds.

The report is available on the NRC's website.  An NRC video interview with the two co-chairs is available on YouTube.  NASA's brief preliminary response was issued as a press release.

Senate Appropriations Subcommittee Wants $17.9 Billion for NASA in FY2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Jun-2014 (Updated: 03-Jun-2014 03:45 PM)

Two Senate Appropriations subcommittees marked up the FY2015 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) and Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) appropriations bills today.  The CJS bill includes NASA and NOAA.  T-HUD includes the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST).   Many of the details are not yet available, but for NASA, the subcommittee recommended $17.9 billion, very close to what the House approved last week and a significant increase from the President's request.

Both markups were quick, as usual.  Major debates typically are deferred to full committee markup, which is scheduled for both bills on Thursday.

The T-HUD subcommittee completed its work first.  The top-level information released by the committee today does not show what was recommended for AST.  The request is $16.605 million and the House Appropriations Committee recommended a reduction to $16.000 million.

The CJS subcommittee is chaired by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and the top Republican is Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL).  The two also lead the full committee.  In her opening statement, Mikulski said she was "deeply disappointed" in President Obama's FY2015 request for NASA of $17.461 billion, about $250 million less than the agency received for FY2014.  She said the subcommittee was recommending $17.9 billion, $439 million more than the request and $254 million more than FY2014.  Based on those figures, her subcommittee is recommending exactly $17.9 billion, a tad more than the $17.896 billion approved by the House.  (For more details of the request and House action, see's fact sheet on the  FY2015 NASA budget request.)

The committee's press release provides few details about the composition of that $17.9 billion, but Mikulski and Shelby's opening statements offered these details (note that figures like "$3 billion" or "5.2 billion" might reflect rounding):

  • International Space Station, $3 billion ($3.051 billion was requested; the House approved $3.040 billion)
  • Commercial crew, $805 million ($848 million was requested; the House approved $785 million)
  • Science, $5.2 billion ($4.972 billion was requested; the House approved $5.193 billion)
  • Space Launch System (SLS), $1.7 billion ($1.38 billion was requested; the House approved $1.60 billion)

Mikulski also said the bill contained strong support for NASA's aeronautics program and NOAA's weather satellite programs, but did not mention how much.  (For details on NOAA's request for satellite programs and House action on it, see's fact sheet on NOAA's FY2015 request for satellites.)

Shelby noted that the bill includes language to ensure "greater accountability and budgetary transparency" in the commercial crew program and future commercial cargo missions.  He is a long standing skeptic of those programs and said the language would help ensure that taxpayers get the best value for their dollar.

Other language in the bill, he said, would require that NASA follow its own Joint Confidence Level (JCL) policies in requesting future funding for SLS.  Generally, the JCL requires that NASA fund its programs at a 70 percent confidence level that the schedule and cost estimate will be met.  Before the JCL was implemented, NASA used a lower confidence level and many of its programs encountered cost overruns and schedule delays. Using a higher confidence level increases the chance of meeting budget and schedule, but it also means that more money must be provided in the early years of a program.  That can be a problem in budget-constrained circumstances.   NASA's JCL policy is codified in NPD 1000.5 and actually offers the relevant NASA "decision authority" quite a bit of flexibility with regard to the 70 percent.

Shelby queried NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden about what confidence level would be used for SLS at a May 1 hearing and Bolden made clear that it would not be 70 percent.  "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," Bolden said.  He added that he was "comfortable" with using a lower confidence level for SLS because he considers it a mature system since major components like the engines are from past programs, such as the space shuttle, where they flew successfully. 

Shelby and Bolden also had an exchange about the launch date for the first SLS mission.   NASA had been saying it would be in 2017, but at the hearing Bolden hinted at a schedule slip by saying the launch would be in FY2018 (October 1, 2017-September 30, 2018).  While the first three months of FY2017 also are in calendar year 2017, the other nine are in calendar year 2018.   In his opening statement today, Shelby said the increase for SLS from the request of $1.38 billion to $1.7 billion is to keep it on track for launch in 2017.   The House approved $1.6 billion for SLS in its version of the bill.  SLS is being built at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Shelby's home state of Alabama.

Overall, the CJS bill would provide $51.2 billion for the departments and agencies within its jurisdiction, the same as the House bill.  That amount is $1 billion more than President Obama's request, but about $400 million less than FY2014.

What's Happening in Space Policy June 2-6, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Jun-2014 (Updated: 01-Jun-2014 06:30 PM)

Here is our list of upcoming space policy related events for the week of June 2-6, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them.  The Senate is in session this week; the House is in recess.

During the Week

The Senate Appropriations Committee will markup its version of the FY2015 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill this week.  Subcommittee markup is on Tuesday and full committee markup is on Thursday.   The House passed its version after two long days of debate last week, though little of it was about NASA or NOAA satellite programs, and only two minor amendments were adopted that affect NASA.  Overall the House bill would give NASA $435 million more than President Obama requested for FY2015, a significant increase especially in these budget constrained times.   We'll see what the Senate has in mind this week.  NOAA's satellite programs fare pretty well in the House-passed bill, although it denies funding for the new SIDAR program -- a free-flyer that would take three instruments (TSIS, A-DCS, SARSAT) into orbit that cannot fit on the JPSS spacecraft.  Last year this was called the Polar Free Flyer and Congress zeroed funding for it and told NOAA to come up with a new plan.  SIDAR is that plan.

The Senate Appropriations Committee also will begin action on the FY2015 Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) appropriations bill this week.  The T-HUD subcommittee will markup the bill on Tuesday morning and full committee markup is on Thursday (along with the CJS bill).  The T-HUD bill funds the Federal Aviation Administration and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST).  The House Appropriations Committee recommended a cut in AST funding in its version of the bill, from $16.605 million to $16.000 million.

Also of particular note this week is Wednesday's release of the National Research Council's (NRC's) report on the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program.  The report was requested by Congress in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, but Congress directed NASA to contract with the NRC for the study in FY2012, not at the time the bill became law in 2010.   Consequently, the study did not begin until late in FY2012 and the first meeting was in December 2012.   The report is entitled:  Pathways to Exploration:  Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration.  The NRC committee was co-chaired by Cornell space scientist Jonathan Lunine and Purdue University President (and former Indiana Governor) Mitch Daniels.

This week's meeting of the National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) Advisory Board might also be interesting.   PNT is the official term for what GPS does.  GPS is one of several space-based PNT systems around the world that collectively are referred to as Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS).  On Tuesday, the State Department's Ken Hodgkins is slated to give an update on U.S. GNSS International Engagement that hopefully will shed some light on Russian Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin's recent threat to turn off 11 GPS stations located in Russia on June 1 (today) unless the United States allows GLONASS stations in the United States.  Russia's ITAR-TASS news service reported today that Russia has, in fact, changed the status of those 11 stations though it is difficult to discern exactly what has changed.   As far as we've been able to determine so far, the 11 GPS stations in Russia have nothing to do with the operation of the GPS system but are so-called "differential" stations that improve the accuracy of a received GPS signal in a local area.  In this case they are being used by Russian scientists.  Brad Parkinson, the "father" of GPS, gave an interesting interview to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) on May 14 explaining what those stations do -- or don't do.  They are not related to GPS operations at all.  The only impact of turning them off is on the scientific research.   By comparison, the GLONASS monitoring stations Russia wants to put on U.S. soil would improve the accuracy of the GLONASS system itself, so it seems to be an apples to oranges comparison.  The issue of putting the GLONASS stations here became very controversial last fall and the FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act prohibits placing the GLONASS monitoring stations here unless approved by the Director of National Intelligence and the Secretary of Defense.

Those and the other space policy-related events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.

Monday, June 2

Monday-Wednesday, June 2-4

Tuesday, June 3

Tuesday-Wednesday, June 3-4

Wednesday, June 4

Thursday, June 5

Events of Interest   

Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »


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