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House Approves Small Boost for FAA Space Office - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Jun-2015 (Updated: 10-Jun-2015 10:01 AM)

UPDATE, June 10, 2015:  The House passed the T-HUD bill on June 9, with this modest increase included.  The bill passed by a narrow margin, 216-210.

ORIGINAL STORY, June 4, 2015: During floor debate on the FY2016 Transportation-Housing and Urban Development (T-HUD) appropriations bill, the House adopted an amendment to add a small amount of money for the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST).

The House Appropriations Committee held AST to its FY2015 funding level of $16.605 million.  The Obama Administration is requesting an increase of $1.5 million, to $18.115 billion, to pay for additional staff needed to cope with increasing demand for launch licenses.  

The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), adds $250,000.  That is only one-sixth of what the Administration requested and a very small amount of money in Washington terms, but every dollar counts.  Reps. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) were co-sponsors.   Amendments that seek to add money must be offset by a comparable reduction elsewhere in the bill.  The amendment cuts FAA's finance and management activities by $250,000.  The amendment was adopted by voice vote yesterday (June 3).

Commercial Spaceflight Federation President Eric Stallmer praised passage of the amendment and thanked Bridenstine, Posey and Rohrabacher for their leadership and support of the commercial space industry.  "As many commercial companies begin their flight test phase, the number of applications will continue to grow, highlighting the importance of providing the necessary resources for the agency to fulfill its critical responsibilities and continue to encourage growth of the burgeoning sector."

The House began consideration of the T-HUD appropriations bill (H.R. 2577) yesterday after passing the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill (H.R. 2578) that includes NASA and NOAA.  It resumed consideration of T-HUD today, but adjourned before finishing it.  Debate will continue next week.

House Debates and Passes FY2016 Funding Bill for NASA, NOAA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Jun-2015 (Updated: 03-Jun-2015 08:07 PM)

This article is updated throughout to integrate the congressional action on June 2 and June 3.

The House of Representatives passed the FY2016 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill (H.R. 2578) on June 3, 2015 after a marathon debate.  The bill funds NASA and NOAA among other departments and agencies.  No amendments were adopted affecting the House Appropriations Committee's recommendations for NASA or for NOAA's satellite programs, though several were considered.

NASA.  No amendments were offered specifically to the NASA section of the bill.  House Appropriations CJS subcommittee chairman John Culberson (R-TX), however, engaged in colloquies with three Members to air their interests in adding money to the committee's recommendations for commercial crew and Orion.  Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), who represents Johnson Space Center, argued for more commercial crew funding.  The bill cuts $244 million from the $1.244 billion request.  Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Rep. Ed Perlmultter (D-CO) urged more funding for Orion.  Posey represents Kennedy Space Center.  Perlmutter's district is near Denver where Lockheed Martin Space Systems is headquartered.  Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for Orion.  The bill provides the same amount as requested by the Obama Administration, $1.096 billion. 

Culberson responded to them, as he had earlier in an exchange about NASA's science programs, that if more money becomes available as the appropriations process plays out, he will try to "fill the holes" in NASA's budget.  He is an avid supporter of NASA, but had a fixed amount of money to spend on the agencies under his subcommittee's purview.  House Republicans are insisting that non-defense funding stay within budget caps agreed to in the 2011 Budget Control Act  (BCA).  Under those circumstances, the fact that the bill provides the same total for NASA as the President requested, $18.529 billion, which is a $519 million increase over current spending, is no small feat.  The bill allocates the money differently than the Administration proposed, however, with a substantial increase above the request for the Space Launch System, for example, and a steep cut to the request for earth science.  (See's fact sheet on NASA's FY2016 budget request for more details on the committee's recommendations.)

Engaging in a colloquy is one mechanism for Members to engage in a dialogue to express their points of view publicly.  They are non-binding discussions.  A Babin amendment was published in the Congressional Record that would have reduced NASA's science budget by $103.7 million and added $67 million for Orion, but he chose not to offer it today, settling for the colloquy and arguing in favor of commercial crew rather than Orion.

One of the more interesting exchanges took place between Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) and Culberson.  Farr spoke in favor of a Bonamici (D-OR) amendment that would have provided an additional $21.6 million for ocean acidification research.  The Administration requested $30 million, but the committee approved only $8.4 million.  Farr wondered why funding for protecting Earth's oceans was cut while the committee added $110 million above the request for a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa.  Culberson, one of the strongest congressional supporters for a Europa mission, responded that oceans on Earth are important, but investigating Europa is even more important because of the possibility of finding life there.  The amendment was withdrawn.

Reps. Bill Foster (D-IL) and Scott Garrett (R-NJ) wanted to eliminate all funding for the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).  It was not aimed specifically at NASA, but NASA is one of the agencies that has funded EPSCoR for decades.  NASA's FY2016 request is $9 million, half of what it received in FY2015.  The House Appropriations Committee recommended $18 million, keeping it at the FY2015 level.  Culberson and Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) argued against the amendment, which was defeated by voice vote on June 2 and by recorded vote (195-232) on June 3.  

NOAA Satellite Programs.  Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) offered an amendment to restore funding for NOAA's Polar Follow On (PFO) program.  The committee zeroed the $380 million request to begin the PFO program to build the next two Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) satellites, JPSS 3 and 4.  Culberson reserved a point of order against the amendment and Bonamici conceded that she had not identified offsets for the money, and withdrew it.  Funding cannot be added unless it is offset by a commensurate cut elsewhere in the bill. (See's fact sheet on NOAA's FY2016 budget request for satellite programs for more information on the committee's recommendations.)

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) offered an amendment to allocate $9 million to fund a pilot program for commercial space-based weather data that was authorized in the Weather Research and Forecast Innovation Act that passed the House last month.  He withdrew the amendment after Culberson promised to work to add the money in conference with the Senate.

Proposed Across-the-Board Cuts.  Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) sought a one percent across-the-board cut to everything in the bill (with a few exceptions).  Culberson argued strongly against the amendment in part because of the harm it would do to NASA.  The amendment was defeated by a voice vote on June 2 and by a recorded vote (168-257) on June 3.

Another amendment to make an even greater across-the-board cut -- 2.48 percent -- was offered by Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) on June 3.  Culberson similarly argued against that amendment, saying it would cut NASA by $450 million for example.  Nonetheless it was initially approved by voice vote.  Culberson asked for a recorded vote, however, and that time it failed on a 134-290 vote.

Final Passage and Next Steps.   The bill passed the House on June 3 by a vote of 242-183. Passage came after a 12-hour marathon session that began about 2:00 pm on June 2 and lasted until 2:00 am ET on June 3, then resumed around 2:00 pm ET on June 3 and concluded 5 hours later.

After all that effort, the bill's future is not clear.  President Obama threatened to veto the bill for a variety of reasons including several objections to the committee's recommendations on NASA and NOAA that were not resolved during the amendment process.  Indeed, only 12 Democrats voted in favor of the bill.  In total, 230 Republicans and 12 Democrats voted yes, while 10 Republicans and 173 Democrats voted no.  Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA), the top Democrat on the CJS subcommittee, and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), top Democrat on the full Appropriations Commtitee, both voted no.

Culberson himself repeatedly told colleagues during the debate that he hopes that more money will be available as the appropriations process moves forward through Senate action and conference negotiations.  

FY2016 appropriations for all of the government are caught up in a dispute between President Obama and congressional Democrats on the one hand, and congressional Republicans -- who control both chambers of Congress -- on the other.  Republicans are holding non-defense spending like that in the CJS bill to budget caps agreed to in the 2011 BCA.   Officially, they are also holding spending for DOD's "base budget" to the BCA caps, but they got around the caps by adding tens of billions in an off-budget account (Overseas Contingency Operations -- OCO).   The President and congressional Democrats insist that non-defense programs should also receive more funding.  

Washington pundits think the two parties will reach an accommodation similar to the Ryan-Murray agreement that relaxed the caps for FY2014 and FY2015. Culberson's comments hint that he is hoping for such an outcome.   Until agreement is reached, however, the President has vowed to veto all appropriations bills that hold to the 2011 BCA caps or use "gimmicks" to get around them for defense spending.

A long and difficult appropriations seasons seems inevitable.

Note:  This article, originally entitled "House Debates FY2016 Funding Bill for NASA. NOAA" and published about midnight on June 2, was updated throughout on June 3 to reflect the second day of action and final passage of the bill.

Jason-3 Launch Delayed Due To Thruster Contamination

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Jun-2015 (Updated: 02-Jun-2015 11:28 AM)

Launch of the U.S.-European Jason-3 ocean altimetry satellite has been postponed because contamination was found in one of the spacecraft's four thrusters. Launch was scheduled for July 22.  A new launch date was not  announced.

Jason-3 is the first operational ocean altimetry mission and will be used to track global sea level rise.  NOAA and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT) are the lead agencies, with NASA and its French counterpart, CNES, as partners. 

NASA and CNES built and launched three predecessors: Topex/Poseidon, launched in 1992; Jason-1 (2001); and Jason-2 (2008), which is still operating.   NOAA and EUMETSAT were partners with NASA and CNES on Jason-2 and took over as the leads for Jason-3 as this type of observation transitioned from research to operations.

Jason-3's problem thruster has been replaced and is undergoing testing, NOAA says.  Meanwhile, the investigation into how it became contaminated continues.

Thales Alenia Space was chosen by CNES as the spacecraft contractor in 2010.  At the time, launch was anticipated in July 2013.  They also are providing the spacecraft's primary instrument, the Poseidon-3B altimeter.   The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) built Jason-3's microwave radiometer, GPS and laser ranging reflector and procured the launch, which will be from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.   JPL selected SpaceX to launch Jason-3.

Although NOAA was the lead U.S. agency for Jason-3, the Obama Administration is proposing in the FY2016 budget request that any follow-on ocean altimetry missions revert to NASA.  The Administration wants NASA to assume responsibility for all civil earth observing missions other than weather and space weather, which would remain within NOAA's budget.  

Other NOAA satellite activities were transferred to NASA last year.  Consequently the budget request for NASA's earth science program is rising.  NASA is requesting $184.8 million more for earth science in FY2016 than it received in FY2015.  NASA said earlier this year that approximately $54 million of that increase is due to programs being transferred from NOAA.   NASA's authorizing and appropriations committees are recommending significant cuts to NASA's earth science budget instead. The Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill (H.R. 2578), which funds NASA and NOAA, is set for floor debate in the House beginning today. It would cut NASA's earth science request by $250 million.

Progress M-27M Failure Caused by "Design Peculiarity"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Jun-2015 (Updated: 01-Jun-2015 02:05 PM)

Russia's space agency Roscosmos today revealed the results of its investigation into the April 28, 2015 Progress M-27M cargo ship launch failure.  A "design peculiarity" related to frequency-dynamic characteristics between the Soyuz-2.1a rocket's third stage and the Progress spacecraft was to blame, it said.

Russian experts have been trying to solve the puzzle of the launch failure for more than a month.  They know something happened at the time the rocket and spacecraft separated, but the cause was elusive.   Russia postponed the launch of a military satellite on a similar rocket, Soyuz-2.1b, and rearranged the schedule of crew and cargo launches to the International Space Station (ISS) as a result.

The robotic Progress M-27M spacecraft was loaded with three tons of supplies for the ISS when it blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on April 28.  It quickly became clear that something went awry, with the Soyuz-2.1a rocket's third stage and Progress both in orbit, but not the correct one, and Progress in a spin. The spacecraft made an uncontrolled reentry over the Pacific Ocean on May 7 Eastern Daylight Time (May 8 Moscow Time).

Roscosmos said today that that "A design peculiarity in the joint use of the spaceship and the rocket related to frequency-dynamic characteristics of the linkage between the spaceship and the rocket's third stage is the cause" of the failure.  The agency is developing a plan to ensure it does not occur again, but determined there are "no limitations" on use of the Soyuz-2.1a rocket with other payloads.

An adjusted schedule for flights to the ISS will be announced on June 9, Roscosmos said, but the soonest they will occur is July 3 for the next robotic Progress cargo flight (Progress M-28M, or Progress 60 in NASA parlance) and July 24 for the next crew launch, Soyuz TMA-17M.  Roscosmos and NASA announced in May that the schedule for ISS crew and cargo flights would be rescheduled because of the failure.  At the time, they said the Soyuz TMA-15M crew (NASA's Terry Virts, ESA's Samantha Cristoforetti, and Roscosmos's Anton Shkaplerov) would return in early June instead of May 13.   Other reports said they would return on June 11, but NASA declined to confirm that date last week.  NASA Johnson Space Center public affairs officer Dan Huot said via email that NASA was still awaiting confirmation from Russia as to the date and time of undocking and landing.

Last week, Russian officials announced the reasons for the failure of a different rocket, Proton-M, that occurred two weeks after the Soyuz-2.1a/Progress M-27M anomaly.  In that case, a Mexican communications satellite was lost.  Experts determined that, too, was caused by a design defect dating back at least until 1988.

The Soyuz-2.1a and Proton-M failures are the latest in a string of Russian launch mishaps that have tarnished the once-solid reputation of Soviet/Russian rockets and caused several reorganizations of Russia's aerospace sector, both government and industry, and the firing of several officials.  The current head of Roscosmos, Igor Komarov, is the fourth person to hold that position since Charlie Bolden became NASA Administrator in 2009.  Komarov was head of Russia's United Rocket and Space Corpoeration (URCC, or ORKK using its Russian initials).

In January, Russia announced that Komarov would replace Oleg Ostapenko as head of Roscosmos, and URCC and Roscosmos would be combined under Komarov's leadership as a state corporation.  Ostapenko had taken over Roscosmos in October 2013, replacing Vladimir Popovkin, who was in the job for just two years after succeeding Anatoly Perminov.  Each change in command followed one or more launch failures.  Officials in the space industry also were replaced amid charges of corruption. Roscosmos itself now has come under accusations of misusing funds.


What's Happening in Space Policy June 1-5, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-May-2015 (Updated: 31-May-2015 03:32 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of June 1-5, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session (the Senate returns to work today, actually, in a rare Sunday meeting to figure out what to do about the Patriot Act).

During the Week

The House is scheduled to consider two FY2016 appropriations bills this week:  Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS), which funds NASA and NOAA; and Transportation-HUD, which funds the FAA, including its Office of Commercial Space Transportation.  Both bills will be up before the House Rules Committee tomorrow afternoon at 5:00 pm ET where decisions will be made on what (if any) amendments may be offered, how much time is allowed for debate, etc.  House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's floor schedule indicates the House will take up CJS first on Tuesday or thereafter.

In other appropriations action, the House Appropriations Committee will markup the FY2016 defense bill on Tuesday morning. Subcommittee markup last week was closed and the committee has not yet posted the draft bill or report.

A number of events off the Hill also are scheduled.  To highlight just one, a panel discussion on Wednesday sponsored by the Center for American Progress is intriguing because of its unusual line up of speakers.  The topic is "Human Space Exploration: Looking Back 50 Years, Getting Ready for the Next 50" and the description talks about the technical, physical and psychological challenges of sending humans to Mars.  With three major conferences already held on that topic in D.C. this year, it is hard to imagine what else there is to say, but the Center has come up with a unique set of panelists:

  • Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James,
  • renowned MIT space scientist Maria Zuber, and
  • the head of a company known more in recent years in civil space circles for its robotic missions (e.g. James Webb Space Telescope) than human spaceflight, Northrop Grumman Chairman, President and CEO Wes Bush.

Fascinating and brilliant individuals all, but not people one would expect to expound on the history of the human spaceflight program or the challenges of sending astronauts to Mars.  Still, Zuber knows a lot about the Moon (she was PI for GRAIL and on the LRO team) and is Vice President for Research at MIT, which gives her a broad portfolio.  Grumman (before its merger with Northrop) had a critical role in the Apollo program building the Lunar Module and for several years was the integration contractor for what was then called Space Station Freedom.  Rudy deLeon, a Senior Fellow at the Center, is another panelist.  He is a former Deputy Secretary of Defense, former Boeing executive, former undersecretary of the Air Force, and former HASC staff director (his government career has a lot of overlap with James's).  His bio indicates he currently focuses on national security interests and U.S.-China relations, all of which should add another interesting dimension to the discussion. It will be nice to hear some fresh viewpoints on this topic.  Especially the Air Force's.  The event will be webcast on the Center's website.

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

Monday, June 1

Tuesday, June 2

Wednesday, June 3

Thursday, June 4

Proton-M Failure Due to Same Design Flaw that Doomed 1988 Mission

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-May-2015 (Updated: 30-May-2015 12:44 AM)

Russian authorities investigating the May 16, 2015 Proton-M rocket failure have determined that the root cause was a design flaw in the turbopump for the third stage steering engine and concluded it was the same root cause of a prior crash in 1988.

Igor Komarov, head of Russia's Roscosmos space agency, said today that the Proton-M third stage failed on May 16 because of excessive vibration in the turbopump.  The failure destroyed Mexico's MexSat-1 communications satellite.

Alexander Medvedev, head of the Khrunichev Center, which manufactures Proton, revealed that it was the same problem that caused a 1988 Proton failure.  That crash previously was attributed to a manufacturing defect that led to the destruction of a fuel line in the third stage. 

The solution is to replace the turbopump shafts and mounting structures, including the use of new materials.  Komarov said it was not a costly fix.

Human error was initially suspected in the May 2015 crash, and although the specific cause turned out to be a design flaw, the investigation also identified quality management and manufacturing process inconsistencies.  Komarov said there would be "disciplinary and administrative measures" taken in that regard.

Anatoly Zak, editor of, explained that sensors to monitor vibration loads on the turbopump were added after a Proton-M failure precisely one year before this one.  In that case, a Russian Ekpress-AM4R satellite was destroyed.  Investigators determined at the time that the problem was a failed bearing. The sensors were then added to provide additional in-flight data, which made it easier to determine the cause of this crash.

The announcement in TASS likened the 2015 failure only to the one in 1988, but Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin said on May 18 there were three Proton failures that were "exact replicas," including Ekpress-AM4R in the list.   Zak reports that "under certain border-line conditions, the shaft of the turbopump tends to fail, even though, it has actually happened in just three launches of more than 400 Proton missions since 1965."

Russia has been experiencing an unusual number of launch failures of various rockets since December 2010 and other Proton crashes had other causes, so the Russian aerospace sector still has work to do to restore confidence in their capabilities.  Russian officials still have not determined, for example, the cause of an April 28 Soyuz-2.1a launch failure that doomed the Progress M-27M cargo mission to the International Space Station.  TASS reports that the launch of a military satellite on a Soyuz-2.1b rocket is being postponed until the Progress M-27M accident is solved.

Orbital ATK's New Antares on Track for March 2016 Launch

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-May-2015 (Updated: 28-May-2015 03:07 PM)

Orbital ATK President David Thompson said today that the new version of its Antares rocket is on track for a first launch in March 2016.  The new version will use Russian RD-181 engines, two of which are undergoing acceptance testing right now.

An Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket intended to deliver a Cygnus cargo spacecraft full of supplies for the International Space Station (ISS) exploded 15 seconds after liftoff on October 28, 2014.  The explosion damaged the launch facilities at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA.  It was the company’s third operational launch for NASA under the commercial cargo program.

Orbital Sciences Corporation merged with ATK in February 2015 and is now called Orbital ATK.  Thompson remains as President and CEO of the merged company and spoke today on a regularly scheduled investors conference call.

That version of Antares used different Russian engines, NK-33s, which were manufactured more than 40 years ago.  They were imported into the United States, refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne, and redesignated AJ-26. The engines were immediately suspected of causing the failure, but the results of the investigation into precisely what went wrong have not been released.   Reports in the trade press indicate that Orbital ATK and Aerojet Rocketdyne disagree on the root cause.  While both reportedly agree that worn turbopump bearings were to blame, the question is why they were worn.  Aerojet Rocketdyne believes debris in the fuel was sucked into the engine from the first stage fuel tanks, which are manufactured by Ukraine’s Yuzhmash.

In any case, Orbital ATK decided to accelerate plans to change to a new first-stage engine and selected RD-181s built by Russia’s Energomash.  It is a variant of the RD-191 engine Russia developed for its new Angara family of rockets.  Two RD-181s are needed for each Antares launch.  Thompson said seven certification test firings were conducted between late March and early May and the first two flight engines are now undergoing acceptance testing with delivery expected in July.

He added that repairs to the launch complex will be completed in September, all of which means system testing can take place late this year and into January 2016.  First launch of the re-engined Antares is scheduled for March 2016, with one month of schedule margin.

Under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services-1 (CRS-1) contract, the company is required to deliver 20 tons of cargo to the ISS by the end of 2016.  Thompson announced soon after the failure that at least one United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket will be used to send a Cygnus to the ISS later this year, with an option of one more in case there are delays in upgrading Antares, in order to meet that commitment.   NASA recently extended that contract for one more Orbital ATK launch (and three more SpaceX launches) in 2017.   Orbital ATK is vying for a follow-on NASA contract, Commercial Resupply Services-2 (CRS-2), for missions after 2017.  Thompson said today it is his understanding that four companies, including Orbital ATK, are competing for the contract.  Selection is expected in September.  (The bids are proprietary, but SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada are widely thought to be among the competitors.)

Orbital ATK chose a Russian engine despite the ongoing debate over the use of Russian RD-180 engines for the Atlas V rocket.   Congressional direction that the Department of Defense cease using Russian manufactured engines by 2019 applies only to launches of national security satellites, not to NASA or commercial launches, so does not affect Orbital ATK’s launches of cargo spacecraft to the ISS for NASA.

In other news, Thompson was optimistic that Congress will not make the dramatic cuts to NASA’s earth science program recommended in authorization or appropriations bills now pending in the House.  Orbital ATK builds satellites as well as launch vehicles, including earth science satellites.  He said he was “cautiously optimistic” that by the time Congress is done with the FY2016 budget process, NASA will receive funding at about the level requested by the President with balanced allocations between exploration and science, including earth science.

The President’s request for FY2016 is $18.5 billion. The authorization and appropriations bills recommend the same level, but allocate it differently, with substantial cuts to earth science and other activities in order to pay for programs that are higher congressional priorities (such as a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa and the Space Launch System).

NASA Orders First Commercial Crew Rotation Flight from Boeing

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-May-2015 (Updated: 27-May-2015 07:55 PM)

NASA announced today that it has ordered its first commercial International Space Station (ISS) crew rotation mission from Boeing.   Boeing is building the CST-100 capsule under NASA's Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contract with the first operational flight to the ISS expected in 2017.

SpaceX is also building a commercial crew vehicle under CCtCAP -- the Dragon V2. NASA said it plans to order its first SpaceX crew rotation mission later this year.  Which company will actually fly the first operational mission to the ISS will be decided sometime in the future.

NASA awarded $4.2 billion to Boeing and $2.6 billion to SpaceX under CCtCAP last fall.  CST-100 will be launched on United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets, while SpaceX will launch Dragon on its own Falcon 9 launch vehicles.  

CCtCAP is a fixed price contract under which the companies are paid for meeting milestones that include certification of the vehicles by NASA.  The order for the first crew rotation missions are taking place before certification because it takes 2-3 years to manufacture the spacecraft.  Final approval for flight will not be made until each company has met the milestones.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden stresses at every opportunity, and NASA emphasized again in today's announcement, that full funding of the President's $1.244 billion request for the commercial crew program is vital if the flights are to begin in 2017.  Bolden often says that congressional underfunding of the commercial crew program in the past delayed the program by two years.  The longer it takes, the longer the United States must rely on Russia to take U.S. astronauts to and from the ISS.  The United States has not had the ability to launch people into space since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.

Congress was slow to warm up to the idea of commercial crew and even though key members are just as anxious as NASA to end reliance on Russia, disagreement continues over whether NASA needs to support two companies or if only one is needed.  That is one reason Congress has provided less funding than requested.   The House Appropriations Committee recommended reducing the FY2016 request by $244 million, for a total of $1.0 billion in FY2016, in its markup of the Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill last week.

Russians Understand Proton-M Failure, But Not Progress M-27M

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-May-2015 (Updated: 27-May-2015 06:05 PM)

The Russian State Commission investigating the May 16, 2015 Proton-M failure will make its report to the government on Friday, May 29.  Although the results are not official yet, human error in the manufacturing process is suspected.  Meanwhile, experts are still trying to determine what caused the April 28 Soyuz-2.1a failure that doomed the Progress M-27M cargo spacecraft.

What is known publicly so far about the Proton-M failure is that the third stage failed 497 seconds into the flight.  The third stage, the Briz-M upper stage and Mexico's MexSat-1 communications satellite fell to Earth over Russia's Baikal region.  All of the pieces apparently burned up during the fall from 161 kilometers altitude.  Russian authorities reported that after searching the area, no debris was located.

TASS reports today that the State Commission established to discover the cause of the accident will submit its detailed findings to the Russian government on May 29.  Quoting an unnamed source in the Russian space industry. "This is, undoubtedly, a human error. The fault occurred in the manufacturing process." 

Mexico contracted for the launch to geostationary orbit through International Launch Services (ILS), which markets Proton launch services globally.  While Mexican officials were philosophical about the loss, which was 100 percent insured, the next ILS customer in line, Inmarsat, clearly was not pleased.

Proton-M is also used to launch Russia's own geostationary communications satellites.  Russia's Communications Minister, Nikolai Nikiforov, said today that those launches will be delayed 2-3 months, "but this is not critical."

That was the latest in a string of Russian launch failures since December 2010 and came less than two weeks after the Progress M-27M accident.  Loaded with three tons of supplies for the International Space Station (ISS) crew,  something went wrong when the robotic cargo spacecraft separated from its Soyuz-2.1a rocket.  Progress M-27M was placed into an incorrect orbit and reentered over the Pacific Ocean on May 7.  

The cause for that failure remains unclear a month later, even whether it was the rocket, the spacecraft, or an interaction between the two.  TASS quoted an unnamed Russian industry source today as saying that "more than 50 deviations from the design documentation were found during the manufacture of the rocket and spacecraft" because necessary materials or components were not available, for example.  "This does not mean that non-compliance ... may lead to an accident.  This suggests uncoordinated cooperation and the existence of a large number of duplicating components."

Russian experts are anxious to solve the riddle since ISS operations rely on four or five Progress cargo flights per year in addition to cargo deliveries by American and Japanese spacecraft.  A different version of the Soyuz rocket is used to launch crews, but changes to the schedule for both crew and cargo flights to ISS already have been made.

NASA refers to Progress M-27M as Progress 59 (59P) because it is the 59th Progress to resupply ISS.  At the moment, Russia plans to launch the next in series, Progress M-28M/60P in July, about a month earlier than originally planned in order to get supplies to the ISS crew, but all dates are tentative until the cause of the failure is understood and corrected.

NASA Chooses Instruments to Determine if Europa Is Habitable -- And What is That Brown Gunk?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-May-2015 (Updated: 17-Jun-2015 10:47 PM)

NASA announced the winners of the science instrument selection process for its mission to study Jupiter’s moon Europa today (May 26, 2015).  NASA officials said the mission “must” determine if Europa is habitable.  Part of that is discovering the nature of the “brown gunk” on Europa’s surface.

Europa project scientist Curt Niebur said they have theories about the brown gunk, but will not know for certain until the Europa mission can provide more information.   It is thought to be residue from the liquid ocean scientists are convinced lies beneath Europa’s icy crust.  The material is thought to make its way to the surface via fractures in the ice just as lava makes its way to the surface of Earth.  If so, studying the gunk will reveal the composition of the ocean.

Observations using the Hubble Space Telescope also recently revealed plumes of material being ejected from Europa.  Little is known of these unpredictable plumes, but some of the instruments announced today will focus on characterizing them and determining their constituents, which will provide more data about what is under the crust.

One message today is that the instruments on this mission, which will make 45 flybys of Europa over a 2.5 year period, will be able to reveal Europa’s secrets without touching down on the surface.   Niebur described two of the instruments – a magnetometer and a series of three Faraday cups – as taking an MRI of Europa’s interior structure.  Using them, scientists will be able to determine the depth and saltiness of Europa’s ocean without “dipping our instruments into the ocean just as a doctor can see what’s going on inside your body using an MRI.”

The number and size of instruments that can be accommodated were determined by their total mass and power requirements.   Out of 33 proposals, nine instruments were chosen. They and their principal investigators are:

  • Plasma Instrument for Magnetic Sounding.  Dr. Joseph Westlake, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (APL)
  • Interior Characterization of Europa Using Magnetometry.  Dr. Carol Raymond, Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL)
  • Mapping Imaging Spectrometer for Europa. Dr. Diana Blaney, JPL
  • Europa Imaging System.  Dr. Elizabeth Turtle, APL
  • Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding:  Ocean to Near-Surface.  Dr. Donald Blankenship, University of Texas, Austin
  • Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System.  Dr. Philip Christensen, Arizona State University, Tempe
  • Mass Spectrometer for Planetary Exploration/Europa.  Dr. Jack (Hunter) Waite, Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), San Antonio
  • Ultraviolet Spectrograph/Europa.  Dr. Kurt Retherford, SwRI
  • Surface Dust Mass Analyzer.  Dr. Sascha Kempf, University of Colorado, Boulder.

An additional instrument was selected for technology development:  the Space Environmental and Composition Investigation near the Europan Surface, led by Dr. Mehdi Benna at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Europa stirs fascination because of the possibility that conditions to support life might exist there.  NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green explained that Europa’s salty ocean is thought to have more than twice as much water as Earth’s oceans and “it could be a very habitable place if life indeed started on that body many billions of years ago.”  Niebur stressed, however, that the instruments cannot detect life itself.  They can find "indications" of life, but "we don't have a life detector."  In fact, he added, there is not even scientific consensus on what to measure in order to detect life with confidence.

When asked what would happen next if the Europa mission did prove there is life, Green joked “I would immediately retire.”   He went on to say that if there is life is on Europa, then it must be “everywhere” in our galaxy and the universe.  It would be an “enormous step forward” in understanding our place in the universe.

A mission to Europa was the second priority for a flagship planetary science mission in the most recent National Research Council (NRC) Decadal Survey on planetary science.   Returning samples from the surface of Mars got top billing, in part because of the high cost of a Europa mission, then estimated at more than $4 billion.   The report recommended that Europa advocates downsize the mission to make it more affordable, yielding the “Europa Clipper” concept now being used as the baseline design.  Green declined to name a firm cost estimate today, offering only that it is about $2 billion (not including launch), but NASA is not able to commit to a price-tag as this early stage.

Niebur said that NASA plans to spend $110 million over three years to advance the nine instruments selected today at which time they will reassess whether these instruments can be ready in time for launch.

Niebur was asked about any commonality between these instrument selections and what will be carried on the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (JUICE).  He replied that the two missions are complementary, but have different objectives.  JUICE will study Jupiter's moons Ganymede and Callisto, and make only two flybys of Europa.  NASA’s mission focuses only on Europa and will make 45 flybys.

Green dodged a question about when the mission will be launched.  The answer involves politics as much as science and engineering.  NASA and Congress both use the NRC Decadal Surveys as their “bibles” on what science missions have the top priority.  Consequently, NASA is focusing on Mars and Europa was not in its budget plans.   Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, is an ardent Europa supporter, however, and has led efforts to add money to NASA’s budget to get the mission initiated and launched sooner rather than later.  Congress added $75 million in FY2013 (none was requested), $80 million in FY2014 (none was requested) and $85 million in FY2015 ($15 million was requested, yielding a total of $100 million).  The House Appropriations Committee’s recently approved FY2016 NASA budget recommendation is to add $110 million in FY2016 to the $30 million requested (for a total of $140 million) with a directive to launch the mission in 2022 using the Space Launch System (SLS).  NASA insists it does not have the funding in its “outyear” projections to meet that schedule. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden typically says the mission will launch in the mid-2020s.

House appropriators also designated $25 million of the $625 million allocated for NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate (a reduction from the $725 million requested) to be spent on icy satellites surface technology and test beds. Green said today that NASA is performing "elementary" studies of landed missions, but NASA first wants the global view of Europa that this flyby mission will provide.  NASA's Galileo mission sent back "tantalizing" glimpses of Europa's surface, but not in the detail needed to execute a landing.

From a space policy standpoint, the Europa mission could go down in history as the first NASA space science flagship mission funded primarily by annual congressional direction rather than based on administration requests and long term planning.   NASA officials repeatedly say they cannot plan a program based on a hope that each year Congress will add funding for it, but at the moment they are in that position.

If Europa is to be funded by Congress adding money each year, and it is a zero-sum game where NASA’s total budget does not rise to accommodate the unrequested funding, the question is what other NASA activities will be cut to afford it.  In the FY2016 House Appropriations bill, NASA’s earth science program bears the brunt of cuts to afford Europa and other congressional priorities.  Whether the Senate will follow suit is a significant question.  Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), the top Democrat on the full Senate Appropriations Committee as well as the subcommittee that funds NASA, is an avid earth science supporter.   She may be less willing to cut earth science to pay for a Europa mission.  Whether the two chambers can reach agreement to increase the total amount of money available to NASA instead – eliminating the zero-sum aspects of the equation – involves complicated high stakes budget politics that will play out over the next several months.

Correction:  An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the Ultraviolet Spectrograph/Europa PI.  He is Kurt Retherford, not Rutherford.

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