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Rumors are swirling today that NASA will announce the winner(s) of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) award tomorrow, Tuesday, September 16. Similar speculation abounded at the end of August, but the month came and went with no news. NASA has been saying for months that it would make the decision in late August or early September, so if tomorrow is not the day, presumably it will be soon.
Andy Pasztor at the Wall Street Journal wrote today that Boeing "appears positioned to beat out two smaller rivals for the bulk" of the award, but cautioned later in the article that NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden could made "a last-minute shift" that "could change the result..." Pasztor said the announcement could come "as early as" tomorrow.
NASA officials are precluded from saying anything about the competition while the selection process is underway, so which companies are competing is officially unknown. The agency is funding three companies -- Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX -- in the current phase of the program, called Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP), and it is widely expected that those three at least are competing for CCtCAP. CCiCAP and its predecessor phases were conducted under Space Act Agreements rather than through the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) contracting process. CCtCAP is a FAR-based award and expected to lead to restoring an American capability to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil. The United States has not been able to launch people into space since the final space shuttle flight in 2011.
NASA hopes that at least one commercial crew system will be ready to take astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) in low Earth orbit (LEO) by 2017. It must rely on Russia to transport astronauts to and from the ISS until then.
The Obama Administration decided to rely on the commercial sector -- supported by significant government funding -- to develop a new crew space transportation capability to take astronauts to and from LEO rather than NASA building a new LEO system itself. Instead, pursuant to a compromise agreement with Congress enacted in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, NASA is building a new big rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and spacecraft (Orion) to take astronauts beyond LEO.
The commercial crew program is essentially a public-private partnership where the government and industry share the development costs and the government provides a market for the resulting services. NASA successfully used this approach to develop systems to take cargo to the ISS. SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation each provide commercial cargo services to the ISS today. SpaceX is scheduled to launch its fourth operational cargo mission to the ISS, SpaceX CRS-4, this Saturday, September 20. Orbital's next cargo flight, Orb-3, is scheduled for October 14. Orbital has not been involved in the commercial crew program to date and is not expected to be one of the CCtCAP competitors.
Here is our list of space policy-related events coming up during the week of September 15-20, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
This may be the last week Congress is in session prior to the November elections if they can complete action on a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government for the initial part of FY2015, which begins on October 1. None of the 12 regular appropriations bills has cleared Congress yet, so some action must be taken to avoid a government shutdown.
The White House also is hoping Congress will authorize it to take certain military actions in Syria. Whether that authorization will be attached to the CR or not is an open question. The White House plan was to add the Syria authorization to the CR knowing that is the one piece of legislation that Congress must pass imminently, but the issue is highly controversial and could derail the CR. House Republican leaders were poised to pass a CR last week before the Syria authorization issue arose, but are now debating whether to deal with the Syria authorization and FY2015 government appropriations issues separately or in a combined bill. Stay tuned.
It is conceivable that there might be Senate action on a NASA authorization bill in the coming week. The House passed its version in June. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has a markup session scheduled for Wednesday for a long list of bills. At the moment, the NASA authorization is not on the list, but that could change. Stay tuned on this one, too.
NASA has made no further announcement about when the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) award will be made. Expectations were high that it would be announced at the end of August, but it wasn't. Another "stay tuned" situation.
One certainty is that the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft will reach Mars on Sunday, September 21. Hopefully it will enter orbit as planned. NASA will hold a pre-arrival news conference on Wednesday at 1:00 pm ET. It will provide coverage of orbital insertion as well, but that will be included in our next issue of "What's Happening."
The next cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS), SpaceX CRS-4, is also coming up this week. The launch itself is currently scheduled for early Saturday morning (2:16 am ET) and NASA plans five pre-launch events on Thursday and Friday. Launch dates are not nearly as reliable as arrival dates, however, so don't set your alarm clock yet.
This entire week, beginning today (Sunday), is National Aerospace Week. Established by the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), its goal is to recognize the contributions that the aerospace industry makes to the U.S economy and global competitiveness.
The full list of events that we know about as of Sunday afternoon is provided below.
Sunday-Saturday, September 14-20
Monday, September 15
Monday-Wednesday, September 15-17
Tuesday, September 16
Tuesday-Wednesday, September 16-17
Wednesday, September 17
Wednesday-Friday, September 17-19
Thursday, September 18
Thursday-Friday, September 18-19
Saturday, September 20
NASA announced today that the launch of SpaceX's next cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) has been delayed one day to September 20, 2014. A one-day delay is minor, but at a recent meeting of the U.S.-Russian joint commission that oversees ISS safety and readiness issues, concern was expressed about delays in U.S. resupply missions.
NASA said the "adjustment" in the SpaceX CRS-4 launch date was made to accommodate preparations of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and "was coordinated with the station's partners and managers." This is the fourth operational SpaceX cargo flight to the ISS (SpaceX CRS-4). Launch is currently scheduled for 2:16 am ET on September 20 from Cape Canaveral, FL, and NASA has several pre- and post-launch briefings planned. If the launch does, in fact, take place on September 20, berthing to the ISS will be on September 22.
In a June 20, 2014 letter to the heads of NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, obtained by SpacePolicyOnline.com, the ISS Joint Commission (JC) expressed mild concern about schedule delays for U.S. "visiting vehicles" -- SpaceX's Dragon and Orbital Sciences Corporation's Cygnus. Dragon and Cygnus deliver supplies to ISS.
"While the ISS program has done a good job of managing the manifest to ensure no resupply issues, the JC observed that there continues to be schedule delays with the U.S. visiting vehicles. Although this has not presented any problems to date, it should be monitored as the U.S. commercial resupply program matures," it said.
The JC is co-chaired by Lt. Gen. Tom Stafford (ret.), who chairs NASA's ISS Advisory Committee, and Alexander Milkovskiy, head of the Roscosmos Advisory Expert Council. It met most recently in Korolev, Russia (outside Moscow) from June 16-20, 2014. its task is to advise the NASA Administrator and Roscosmos Director on the safety and operational readiness of ISS. Milkovskiy is Director General of Russia's TsNIIMash, the Central Research Institute of Machine Building. Stafford is a legendary Apollo-era astronaut who flew on Gemini and Apollo missions and commanded the U.S. portion of the joint U.S.-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) mission in 1975.
SpaceX's last launch to ISS in April was delayed several times due to technical and weather problems. The technical issues included a helium leak discovered about one hour before a planned launch on April 14. Orbital's subsequent cargo mission, Orb-2, was delayed initially because of the SpaceX problems, and then because of a test failure of an engine similar to the one used for the Orb-2 launch.
ISS resupply is also provided by Russia (Progress), Europe (ATV) and Japan (HTV), but the letter mentioned only the U.S. vehicles as a matter of concern. Europe's final ATV mission, ATV-5, is currently docked to the ISS.
David P. Radzanowski was confirmed by the Senate as NASA's Chief Financial Office (CFO) today (September 11). He succeeds Elizabeth "Beth" Robinson.
The confirmation was 10 months in coming, not bad in the current political climate. President Obama originally submitted the nomination on November 21, 2013. Nominations expire at the end of each year and the President resubmitted it in January.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who chairs the Commerce Committee's Science and Space Subcommittee, made a brief statement on the floor this afternoon thanking the Senate for its approval. He used the occasion to highlight progress on the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft and work aboard the International Space Station, as well as mentioning "all kinds of science" underway at the agency.
Radzanowski, often called "Radz," has been serving as Chief of Staff to NASA Administrator Bolden. Prior to that, he was Deputy Associate Administrator for Program Integration for the Space Operations Mission Directorate.
Prior to joining NASA in 2006, Radzanowski was Branch Chief for Science and Space at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Before that, he was a space policy analyst at the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the non-partisan research and analysis arm of the U.S. Congress. He holds a B.S. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an M.S. from Carnegie Mellon University.
Space law expert Joanne Gabrynowicz warned a House subcommittee yesterday (September 10) that a proposed bill to grant property rights to materials mined from asteroids could face legal and political challenges if passed in its current form.
Gabrynowicz, a Director of the International Institute of Space Law (IISL) and Professor Emerita of the University of Mississippi’s National Center for Remote Sensing, Air and Space Law, testified to the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.
The title of the hearing suggested that the main topic would be issues posed by the ASTEROIDS Act (H.R. 5063) introduced by Reps. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Derek Kilmer (D-WA). The other four witnesses were space scientists, however, and the hearing was more about the status of NASA’s planetary science program than legal issues of property rights in space.
Key points stressed by Gabrynowicz were that --
Posey countered that if the United States does not act quickly, other countries, such as Russia and China, will take the lead and may not give the issues “thoughtful consideration.”
In response to questions from Rep. Kilmer, two of the planetary scientists on the witness panel – Jim Bell, a professor at Arizona State University and President of The Planetary Society and Mark Sykes, CEO and Director of the Planetary Science Institute – conveyed their views that asteroid mining is not likely for many years (Bell said decades) and its cost-effectiveness still must be determined.
Posey took issue with the time scale, saying at least one company is ready to do it now. He cited a letter from Planetary Resources, Inc. that was entered into the record of the hearing, but is not yet posted on the committee’s website or the company’s.
Bell and Sykes said that water is the most likely substance to be mined since it is needed to support human space exploration. The two disagreed on the ease of reaching asteroids of interest in the mining context, with Sykes enthusiastically explaining the abundance of asteroids and their closeness to Earth, but Bell cautioning that those with water might be further away, perhaps in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Sykes stressed the need for a survey to locate and characterize more asteroids. (Congress has played a critical role in directing NASA to conduct surveys to find asteroids and comets – collectively called Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) – that could threaten Earth. NASA is currently under congressional direction to detect, track, catalogue and characterize 90 percent of NEOs equal to or greater than 140 meters in diameter by 2020. NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group recently issued a finding that the agency has no plan to achieve that goal and a space-based NEO survey telescope is needed.)
NASA’s Planetary Science Program
Much of the hearing focused on the state of NASA’s planetary science program. The discussion covered familiar ground, with NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green and other witnesses reviewing NASA’s ongoing and planned missions followed by complaints from non-NASA witnesses and subcommittee members about recent cutbacks in the planetary science budget and some Republican subcommittee members adding their objections over how much NASA spends on earth science instead.
Philip Christensen, Regents Professor at Arizona State University (ASU) and co-chair of the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science, stressed three themes:
Bell pointed out that while the planetary science program seems healthy today, that is only because of investments made in the last decade and the pace will not be maintained at today’s funding level.
Since FY2013, NASA has been requesting about $1.3 billion per year for planetary science compared to $1.5 billion in the past.
Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), who represents the district that includes Marshall Space Flight Center where the Space Launch System (SLS) is being built, asked Green about the potential of using SLS for robotic planetary science missions. SLS’s primary purpose is for sending humans beyond low Earth orbit, but SLS advocates are seeking other uses for the Saturn V-class rocket. Congress has been adding money to NASA’s budget to send a probe to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, and using SLS for that mission is an oft discussed possibility. Green replied that SLS could provide a “great capability” for missions to the outer planets and “could fit well” with the Europa mission. He explained that SLS could reduce trip times to the outer planets by half.
Rohrabacher, a critic of SLS, countered that he did not find that a compelling justification for SLS considering its cost of about $1 billion per year while planetary science funding is being cut.
The availability of plutonium-238 (Pu-238) needed to power spacecraft that cannot rely on solar power because they travel too far from the Sun or land on planetary bodies with day/night cycles was another topic discussed. Green assured the subcommittee that NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE) are working well together on reestablishing Pu-238 production and there is a sufficient supply for the next mission that will require it – the Mars 2020 mission. It is not so much an issue of Pu-238 itself, he said, but the ability to produce the pellets that are needed.
Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM)
Subcommittee chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) stressed at the outset of the hearing that planetary science efforts to find and characterize asteroids should not be confused with the Obama Administration’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). He does not support the latter.
The White House announced the ARM program last year. The concept is to send a robotic probe to an asteroid and use it to change the asteroid’s orbit, redirect it into lunar orbit where it would be visited by astronauts who would return a sample to Earth. ARM has gained little support in Congress or the space community. Asteroids are “small bodies” in planetary science parlance, and NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) recently issued a finding that ARM’s “benefits for advancing the knowledge of asteroids and furthering planetary defense strategies are limited and not compelling.”
Sykes called ARM a “poorly conceived and designed” mission that does not advance human exploration, science, planetary defense, or In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) of asteroids. He said NASA’s $1.25 billion cost estimate for ARM “strains credulity” considering that the robotic OSIRIS-REx mission, which will be launched in 2016 to return a small sample of an asteroid to Earth, cost $1.05 billion itself. Rohrabacher thanked Sykes for his frank assessment.
(ARM is a much more complicated mission that involves not only sending a robotic spacecraft to an asteroid, but developing the technologies to move the asteroid into a different orbit and then sending astronauts to obtain a sample. NASA does use $1.25 billion as its current, informal cost estimate for ARM, but it does not include costs for activities NASA was pursuing anyway, such as the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft needed for the astronaut portion of the mission, or launch costs for the robotic portion of the mission. A formal cost estimate will not be made until the program is further along.)
The House leadership has decided to postpone a vote on the FY2015 Continuing Resolution (CR) while deciding how to handle a White House request to add authorization for the President to provide arms to Syrian rebels.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) introduced the CR yesterday and a vote was planned for tomorrow. However, President Obama now wants Congress to include language authorizing his plan to arm Syrian rebels as part of a strategy to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The President will speak to the nation tonight at 9:00 pm about that strategy.
Officially, appropriations bills are only supposed to provide funding, not authorizations. Some members of the House reportedly are objecting to including the Syria authority on that basis, but others point out the CR already contains two authorization measures (reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank and an Internet tax matter) so adding another should not be a problem. It is theoretically possible to pass the Syria authorization as a separate bill, but with Congress anxious to complete legislative business in the next two weeks, and the CR the only "must pass" bill on its docket, the White House and its congressional supporters want everything included in one bill to ensure swift action.
House Republican leaders reportedly will wait until after tonight's speech to decide how to proceed. If the House does not include the language in its version of the CR, the Senate could add it and send the bill back to the House, but with every exchange, the possibility grows of other issues arising and setting back agreement. As noted yesterday, Senator Ted Cruz wants to add language to block executive action on immigration, so the fate of the CR remains up in the air.
Congress must pass an appropriations bill to fund all or part of FY2015 by midnight on September 30 or there will be another government shutdown like last year. As introduced, the CR would fund the government at its current level through December 11, 2014.
Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, introduced a stop-gap Continuing Resolution (CR) today (September 9) to fund the government through December 11, 2014. The bill could be voted on in the House as early as Thursday.
The CR (H. J. Res. 124) generally continues funding for the government at current levels and does not include "highly controversial provisions" according to the committee's press release. Rogers called it a "temporary, imperfect measure" and said what is really needed is passage of the 12 regular appropriations bills. The House has passed seven of them, but none has passed the Senate.
The bill keeps total government spending at its current level of $1.012 trillion, but some changes are made within that total to fund new activities. Most are related to national security, veterans affairs, customs and immigration, and responding to the Ebola crisis. The amounts appropriated in the FY2014 appropriations bills (including for NASA, NOAA and DOD) are reduced by 0.0554 percent presumably to pay for those new activities.
Two space-related provisions would allow funding flexibility for weather satellite programs and extension of the authorization for the Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank through June 30, 2015. Despite the press release's assertion that the CR does not contain highly controversial provisions, reauthorization of the Ex-Im Bank is a topic of strong debate. The bank helps finance U.S. exports of manufactured goods and services. From a space policy standpoint, organizations like the Aerospace Industries Association argue that Ex-Im bank financing is critical to support exports of satellites, for example, and reauthorization is needed. Opponents argue that it distorts the free market by the government picking winners and losers. The bank's current authorization expires on September 30.
The House and Senate are both hoping to complete must-pass legislative business by the end of next week or shortly thereafter so members can return to the campaign trail. That does not necessarily mean smooth sailing for the CR. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), for one, has said that he wants to include language to block President Obama from taking action on immigration using executive action. Cruz is widely criticized or praised, depending on one's point of view, for last year's 16-day government shutdown. Whether he would attempt that again in an election year is an open question. He has been quoted in recent days as saying he does not want another shutdown, but that was before his comments today that "we should use any and all means necessary to prevent the president from illegally granting amnesty."
Here is our list of space policy-related events on tap for the week of September 8-12, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them. Congress returns to work on Monday.
During the Week
Congress returns from its summer break this week. Between now and the end of the fiscal year (FY) on September 30, the House is scheduled to be in session for eight days and the Senate for ten. That is certainly enough time for them to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government operating when FY2015 begins on October 1 if agreement can be reached. Republican leaders on both sides of Capitol Hill insist that they do not want another government shutdown like last year, so that bodes well, but one never knows until a bill is passed and signed into law. House Speaker Boehner has said he plans to pass a bill to fund the government through early December -- past the November election. "Possible" consideration of a CR is on the House schedule this week.
The Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology (SST) Committee will hold a hearing on Wednesday on the ASTEROIDS Act introduced by Reps. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Derek Kilmer (D-WA). The bill would grant property rights to materials mined from asteroids by U.S. companies (though not property rights to the asteroid itself). Four scientists and one expert on space law will testify. The issue of property rights in space has been debated vigorously for decades on a theoretical basis, with opinions strongly held on what is or is not allowed under the terms of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to which the United States and 101 other countries are party. The legislation and this hearing provide an opportunity to address the issue from a more focused perspective.
The first meeting of the National Research Council's new Space Technology Industry, Government, University Roundtable (STIGUR) is on Thursday. Note that it is at the NAS building on Constitution Avenue, not the Keck Center on 5th Street. Chaired by Lockheed Martin Chief Technology Officer Ray Johnson, STIGUR is a forum for dialogue about NASA's space technology efforts.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below.
Monday, September 8
Monday-Friday, September 8-12
Tuesday, September 9
Tuesday-Friday, September 9-12
Wednesday, September 10
Thursday, September 11
Friday, September 12
Women in Aerospace (WIA) announced the winners of its six annual awards that honor achievements by women in the aerospace field today (September 4). Among the winners is Carolyn Huntoon, a trailblazer for women at NASA and the first woman to serve as Director of the Johnson Space Center (1994-1996).
Huntoon is being awarded WIA's Lifetime Achievement Award for her "sustained and exemplary leadership at NASA, the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Department of Energy, her exceptional scientific contributions towards understanding the effects of spaceflight on the human body, and her dedication and mentorship of astronauts and aerospace professionals." Huntoon has a Ph.D. in physiology from Baylor College of Medicine and was deeply involved in studying how humans react to weightlessness from the earliest days of human spaceflight, including cooperation with her Soviet space medicine counterparts beginning in the early 1970s. She is quoted frequently in Lynn Sherr's biography of Sally Ride as an influential voice in the selection of the first group of astronauts that included women (Ride and five others) and mentor to them afterwards.
The other five WIA award winners are:
Also, the WIA Foundation awarded three scholarships to --
WIA's annual awards dinner is on October 29, 2014 at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Arlington, VA. Contact WIA for more information.
The Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will hold a hearing next week on the ASTEROIDS Act, which was introduced in July by Rep. Bill Posey (R- FL) and Derek Kilmer (D-WA).
The goal of the legislation is to establish and protect property rights for commercial exploration and exploitation of asteroids. Two U.S. companies promoting such activities are Planetary Resources, headquartered in Kilmer's Redmond, WA district, and Deep Space Industries of Houston, TX. Posey's district includes Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
Five witnesses have been announced for the hearing, four of whom are scientists and one is a space lawyer. The scientists are:
The fifth witness is Joanne Gabrynowicz, an internationally recognized space lawyer who for many years before her retirement headed the National Center for Remote Sensing, Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi and was editor of the Journal of Space Law. She is currently a member of the NASA Advisory Council's Planetary Protection Subcommittee that advises the agency on matters concerning the prevention of forward or back contamination of solar system bodies.
The concept of mining asteroids involves many scientific, technical and economic considerations, but property rights is a particularly thorny issue. Under the 1967 U.N. Outer Space Treaty, there is no national sovereignty in space so no country can "own" an asteroid. Pursuant to the treaty, governments are responsible for the actions of their non-governmental entities, such as a company, sparking debate over whether a company can own an asteroid or any part of it. Without ownership rights to minerals mined from asteroids, it is unlikely that companies would pursue asteroid mining even if such an activity could prove to be otherwise feasible.
The ASTEROIDS Act would apply only to U.S. companies and seeks to ensure that materials mined from an asteroid by a U.S. company are the property of that company. It would not confer ownership of the asteroid itself.
The hearing is at 10:00 am ET on September 10, 2014 in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building.
Update: The words "research and" were added to the description of the Planetary Science Institute to better convey its mission.
Events of Interest