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Future of NASA's Human Spaceflight Program Dominates NAC Meeting

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Jul-2014 (Updated: 01-Aug-2014 06:07 PM)

Updated August 1, 2014:  This article was updated with links to two other SpacePolicyOnline.com stories that appeared in subsequent days on related meetings.  See end.

July 30, 2014:  The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) met this afternoon (July 30) for the first part of a two-day meeting.  The members have not yet finalized any findings or recommendations, but it is clear there is a broad range of issues on their minds.  A clear consensus on what, if any, actionable recommendations to make to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden had not emerged by the end of the day.  That’s tomorrow’s task.

The following is a quick roundup of what happened today.  We’ll have more on this meeting and on a separate meeting today of NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) in coming days (see links below).  A common topic in the two groups was NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which generated controversy in both venues.

This list highlights only the issues at NAC, which is meeting at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA.  Several of the NAC committees met earlier in the week and the discussion tomorrow will include findings and recommendations from those interactions as well as the debate today among the full NAC, which consists of the committee chairs, six at-large members, and chairman Steve Squyres.  NASA Administrator Bolden was at the meeting for most of the afternoon.

NASA’s Future Human Spaceflight Program  

Not surprisingly, this topic dominated the meeting.   At the last NAC meeting, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier rolled out a new NASA roadmap that explains the connections between ARM and the long term goal of sending humans to Mars by the 2030s.  NAC members expressed concern at the time that while the plan itself sounded reasonable, it was not executable because of its cost -- Gerstenmaier himself said that it required an increase in the human spaceflight budget above the rate of inflation.

NAC asked for a more detailed briefing at its next meeting – today – which was presented by Gerstenmaier’s deputy, Greg Williams (Gerstenmaier was in Kourou for the ATV-5 launch yesterday).

At the top level, the response today was the same – that NASA is developing a plan that is not executable.  Some members said they want to know what NASA can do with the money it can reasonably expect, while others wanted a realistic assessment of what it will actually cost to achieve the goal of getting people to Mars by the 2030s.  Tom Young said he felt that “we are collectively perpetrating a fraud” by pretending the program is executable.  He said he worries that the country will spend $160 billion on human spaceflight over the next 20 years and be only “negligibly closer” to landing humans on Mars.  However, when Squyres suggested that NAC make a recommendation that NASA publicly state what activities it would have to terminate in order to achieve the goal of humans on Mars by the 2030s absent a bigger budget, most NAC members demurred.

There also was strong debate about ARM itself.  One criticism is that President Obama’s directive in 2010 was for NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid, not to bring an asteroid to the astronauts.  Some NAC members insisted that the original goal was preferable – to visit an asteroid is its native orbit – if the real goal is to serve as a steppingstone to Mars.  Young said that when he first heard about ARM, he thought it was a joke and that it “dumbs down NASA.” “NASA is better than this,” he declared.

Another criticism is that NASA does a poor job of explaining why it is pursuing ARM.  Williams used a chart with several bullets, one of which pointed to ARM’s role in demonstrating techniques that could be used to defend Earth from potentially hazardous asteroids -- planetary defense.  During questioning about those bullets, Bolden quickly chimed in to say that planetary defense is NOT a goal of ARM.   It is a goal of the Asteroid Grand Challenge, which NASA is funding at $7 million in FY2014, he said, but not of ARM. He acknowledged that because NASA is doing both ARM and the Grand Challenge, there is a lot of confusion.  "We need to get that confusion out of it.  We are not saving the planet," he exclaimed.  However, many other NASA officials, including Williams, include planetary defense in the list of rationales for ARM.  Scott Hubbard insisted that NASA needs to have a single bullet explaining why ARM is needed, not a list of them, in any case.

There did seem to be agreement that NASA should conduct an independent cost estimate of ARM before making a decision on which of two options it will choose for the mission (Option A is capturing an entire small asteroid; Option B is going to a larger asteroid and plucking a boulder from its surface).  NASA does not plan to have an independent estimate until after the choice is made.

Space Launch System (SLS) Launch Rate 

Squyres has been a leader in stressing that launching SLS at a rate of one every 2-3 years is very risky because launch teams cannot maintain proficiency at such a low launch rate.  He raised the issue again today and many NAC members agreed it not only adds risk, but cost.  Bill Ballhaus, a past President of the Aerospace Corporation, which oversees Air Force launches of the Atlas V and Delta IV, said that for those two launch vehicles, a rate of four per year is needed to maintain expertise.   Discussion on this issue will continue tomorrow.

Launching the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) on Ariane 

At the very end of the meeting, Tom Young and Bill Ballhaus raised an issue about whether NASA has an adequate mission assurance role for the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) on Europe’s Ariane rocket.   Since NASA and Europe agreed to launch JWST on Ariane on a cooperative basis (there is no exchange of funds), the JWST schedule has slipped from 2013 to 2018 and its cost has exploded to $8 billion.  Ballhaus pointed out that the Air Force has strict mission assurance criteria to ensure its satellites get into orbit safely and they are less expensive than that.  While Arianespace undoubtedly has its own criteria, he said, considering JWST’s cost, he asked whether NASA should consider renegotiating the agreement so it has a greater mission assurance role.  Others agreed that much has changed with JWST since the agreement was signed.  The group will ask for a briefing on this topic at its next meeting.

Related Stories:

The second day of the NAC meeting was summarized in:   NAC Wants Independent Cost and Technical Estimate of ARM Before Downselect (SpacePolicyOnline.com, July 31, 2014)
The SBAG meeting was summarized in: Asteroid Expert Richard Binzel: ARM is "Emperor With No Clothes" (SpacePolicyOnline.com, August 1, 2014)

 

Europe's Final ATV Launches to ISS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Jul-2014 (Updated: 29-Jul-2014 09:56 PM)

The European Space Agency's (ESA's) fifth and last Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) lifted off from Kourou, French Guiana tonight (July 29) on time at 7:47 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).  The ATV program will come to a close about 6 months from now when ATV-5 undocks from the International Space Station (ISS) and burns up during reenty.

ATV delivers dry cargo as well as air, water and propellant.  ATV-5 is carrying about 8 metric tons of supplies and equipment, including a record 2,695 kilograms of dry cargo.  Among the science experiments is an Electromagnetic Levitator for studying metals suspended in weightlessness as they are heated to 1600 degrees Celsius and then allowed to cool.

Assuming all goes well, docking is scheduled for August 12 at 9:43 am EDT.  During the two week period between launch and docking, ATV-5 will test new rendezvous sensors that could be used on future European spacecraft.

ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst is aboard the ISS and expected to be the first one to open the spacecraft on orbit.  ATV-5 will remain attached to the ISS for about 6 months.  A less glamorous but decidedly important task for ATV and other ISS cargo spacecraft that are not designed to survive reentry is as trash receptacles.  ATV-5 one will be filled with trash over the months it is part of ISS.  It and the trash will burn up as it descends through the dense layers of the atmosphere. 

Each of the five ATV's has been named after persons of distinction. ATV-5 is named after Georges Lemaitre (1894-1966), a Belgian priest and physicist widely credited as the father (or one of the fathers) of the "Big Bang" theory of the origin of the universe.

Under the original agreement among the space station partners, Europe was to provide nine ATVs.   ESA decided to end the series after just five and is now cooperating with NASA on building the service module for the first two Orion spacecraft.  The Orion service module will be based on the ATV service module.  ESA is building two Orion service modules on a no-exchange-of-funds basis as part of ISS barter arrangements to pay for common operating costs for the facility.

ESA lauds the Orion agreement as the first time NASA has allowed it to be "in the critical path" on a human spaceflight program, providing essential (rather than nice-to-have) components.  The first two Orions are expected to be launched in 2017 (without a crew) and 2021 (with a crew).  Eventually Orion spacecraft are intended to take crews beyond low Earth orbit.  There is no agreement on who will built the service modules for any of the other Orions.

The ISS will continue to be supplied by two U.S. commercial cargo spacecraft (Orbital Sciences Corporation's Cygnus and SpaceX's Dragon), Russia's Progress, and Japan's HTV.

Hartman: U.S. and Russian Crews to Fly Both Soyuz and U.S. Commercial Vehicles

Len Ly
Posted: 29-Jul-2014 (Updated: 29-Jul-2014 02:16 PM)

NASA intends to use future U.S. commercial crew vehicles to carry not only its astronauts, but also those of its Russian partner, to the International Space Station (ISS), said Dan Hartman, deputy space station program manager, at a NASA Advisory Council (NAC) meeting on Monday (July 28).

Different international vehicles routinely transport crew and cargo to and from the ISS, a laboratory circling some 250 miles above Earth. Currently, the U.S. commercially provided Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Cygnus and SpaceX’s Dragon, Russia’s Progress, Japan’s H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) and Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) provide cargo resupply to the space station.  ATV-5, scheduled to lift off today from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, is the last of its kind.

Russia’s Soyuz, however, remains the world’s sole operational crew vehicle, on which NASA must continue to rely until U.S. commercial alternatives are ready.

“We’re going to stay mixed” though, Hartman said at a meeting of NAC’s Committee on Human Exploration and Operations at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia.  NASA’s plan is for some NASA astronauts to continue launching on the Soyuz from Kazakhstan and some Russian cosmonauts to be launched from the United States by private companies, he explained. The idea is to barter: “It would be just a seat for a seat.”

Soyuz spacecraft not only transport crews to and from ISS, but serve as “lifeboats,” always docked to the ISS as an emergency evacuation route if needed.  The number of crew aboard the ISS is, in part, limited by how many Soyuz seats are available for evacuation.  Each Soyuz can accommodate a three-person crew.  If two Soyuz are attached, six people can be in residence.  Soyuz spacecraft can remain attached to the ISS for as long as six months, setting up what is now the routine 4-6 month crew rotation schedule. SpaceX, at least, is designing its Dragon V2 so that it could serve as a lifeboat as well. Other commercial crew competitors may have similar plans.

Hartman’s point was that in an emergency, it might not make sense to have all the Russians leave on one spacecraft and the Americans and others on a separate spacecraft because a mixture of experience may be needed to conduct operations.  “When you have these rescue vehicles on orbit and you have to leave the station…it doesn’t make much sense for three Russians to leave and expect the four Americans onboard to operate the Russian segment [of the ISS] and vice versa, right?” Hartman said.

NASA plans to award at least one contract under the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) phase of the commercial crew program in August or September 2014.  NASA officials are prohibited from providing any details of the bids that have been submitted, including which companies made the bids.   NASA is funding three companies in the current phase of the program, CCiCap (Commercial Crew Integrated Capability) – Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX.   Under CCtCap, at least one crewed flight test to the space station is required before certification is granted.  NASA hopes that at least one U.S. commercial crew vehicle will be ready to transport astronauts to the ISS by late 2017.

President Obama has proposed extending ISS operations until at least 2024.  The governments of NASA’s space station partners—Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan—have not formally accepted yet.

“I don’t think we need that answer from them for another year or so,” Hartman said. Other NASA officials have said they do not expect answers from the partners for several years and today’s strained U.S.-Russian geopolitical relationship complicates future planning on many fronts.

Presently, three Russians, one European and two Americans are living and working aboard the space station.

U.S. Readies More Sanctions, Accuses Russia of INF Treaty Violation

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jul-2014 (Updated: 29-Jul-2014 12:16 AM)

The United States and its major European allies announced on Monday they are finalizing more sanctions against Russia in the wake of the downing of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine on July 17.  The United States also reportedly formally accused Russia of violating a treaty prohibiting development of new medium range cruise missiles.  The extent to which these developments might impact U.S.–Russian space relationships is unclear.

Sanctions imposed by the Obama Administration over the past several months following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula have largely skirted civil space cooperation.  The United States relies on Russia for transporting American astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) and Russian rocket engines are used to power two U.S. launch vehicles – Atlas 5 with its Russian RD-180 engines, and Antares and its Russian AJ-26 (NK-33) engines.

Although NASA, along with other government agencies, was directed to limit cooperation with Russia, the ISS was specifically exempted and other NASA programs were given waivers.  Three Russian cosmonauts, two American astronauts and one German astronaut are currently living together aboard the ISS, which is jointly operated by the United States and Russia.

The shoot-down of the commercial Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) airliner as it transited Ukrainian airspace at 33,000 feet on July 17, 2014, and Russia’s refusal to accept responsibility despite Western insistence that Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine used a Russian BUK surface-to-air missile system in that horrific tragedy, pushed the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy to announce today (July 28) they will impose new sanctions imminently.  Specifics were not released.  The New York Times said Europe will finalize its sanctions package tomorrow (Tuesday), with the United States following suit thereafter.

The White House released a read-out of a telecom among the leaders of the five countries discussing several global hot spots including Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq and Libya.  On this topic, it said only that all agreed on the need for “coordinated sanctions measures on Russia for its continued transfer of arms, equipment, and fighters into eastern Ukraine, including since the crash, and to press Russia to end its efforts to destabilize the country…”

At the same time, also according to the New York Times, President Obama formally notified Russian President Vladimir Putin that the United States has concluded Russia violated the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by testing a ground-launched cruise missile with a range of 500-5,500 kilometers.  Multiple sources reported the news this evening, with most citing the New York Times as breaking the story.  President Obama’s letter to Putin is not yet posted on the White House Web site.

Check back here as more details of these actions are made public.

Memorial Service for Former NASA Official Terry Finn on August 10, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jul-2014 (Updated: 28-Jul-2014 07:19 PM)

Terence "Terry" Finn, who spent a good part of his career at NASA Headquarters, passed away suddenly on June 27, 2014.  A memorial service will be held on August 10 in Chestertown, MD.

Finn, 71, was very well known in Washington space-policy circles during the early years of the space shuttle and space station programs.  He began his career on Capitol Hill in 1966 working for then-Senator Joseph D. Tydings (D-MD) before moving on to committee assignments in both the House and Senate.  He then moved to NASA and served in several capacities, including Director of Policy and Plans for the Office of Space Flight, Director of Legislative Affairs, and was a charter member of the Space Station Task Force.  He was an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).

After retiring from NASA, he and his wife, Joyce Purcell, moved to Chestertown, MD where he became active in community affairs and taught a course in political science at Washington College.  Finn had a Ph.D. in Political Science from Georgetown University.

He is survived by his wife of 19 years, Joyce, and two sons from his earlier marriage to Lesley Cohn (who lost her battle with cancer about 20 years ago).  A more complete obituary was published by the Washington Post.

The family asks that in lieu of flowers, gifts may be made to The Foundation for Kent County Public Library, P.O. Box 24, Chestertown, MD, 21620, or the Humane Society of Kent County, 10720 Augustine Herman Highway, Chestertown, MD, 21620.

The memorial service on August 10 will be at 11:00 am ET at Washington College, Gibson Center for the Arts, Decker Theater, Chestertown, MD.  There will a reception immediately following the service.

What's Happening in Space Policy July 28-August 1, 2014 - UPDATED

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Jul-2014 (Updated: 27-Jul-2014 05:31 PM)

Here is our list of upcoming events for the week of July 28-August 1, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate will be in session this week.

During the Week

The House and Senate do not currently have any space policy-related hearings or actions on their public agendas during this last week of legislative work before their August recess.  The "August" recess actually extends until September 8, so it's a full five weeks.   Despite early rumors last week that they would take up a FY2015 Continuing Resolution (CR) before the break, House Speaker John Boehner made it absolutely clear on Thursday that he would not bring a CR to the House floor until they return in September.  He said the CR would last until early December.  

The memories of last year's 16-day government shutdown have not faded and a lot of people are hoping the same scenario does not play out again.  Many politicians are saying they don't want a shutdown, but whether they will feel the same way after five weeks with their constituents is the big question.  Analysts of last year's shutdown argue that one factor that fueled it was constituent angst -- primarily over Obamacare -- directed at their representatives during the August break. (A lot of people blame Congress for not working hard enough and point to the number of days they are in session in Washington.   It is important to remember that most of the time they are not in Washington, they are still working, just back in their districts.  The August "recess" doesn't mean they are on vacation for five weeks.  Indeed, in this election year, they will be interacting with the people whose votes they need and listening carefully to their concerns.)

In any case, for space policy aficionados, most of the action will be in Cleveland, OH with the AIAA's Propulsion and Energy 2014 Conference, or Hampton, VA at NASA's Langely Research Center where the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and its committees are meeting.  All of the NAC meetings are available via WebEx and telecom.  Instructions are provided in the individual entries on our calendar. 

In Washington, NASA's Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) meets Tuesday-Thursday (available via WebEx/telecom).  Also on Thursday, American University (AU) and Explore Mars Inc. are holding an interesting panel discussion at AU on "Is It Time To Search for Life on Mars?"  Thought we were already searching for life on Mars?   Go to the panel and find out why they titled their event as they did.  They've got a great lineup of speakers -- and a reception afterwards.  It appears as though it will be webcast (there's a Ustream link on the event's website).

Here's the list of events we know about as of Sunday afternoon.

Monday-Tuesday, July 28-29, 2014

Monday-Wednesday, July 28-30, 2014

Tuesday, July 29

Tuesday-Wednesday, July 29-30   

Tuesday-Thursday, July 29-31

Wednesday-Thursday, July 30-31

Thursday, July 31

 

Correction:  An earlier version of this article had incorrect dates for the meeting of the NAC Human Exploration and Operations Committee.  The correct dates are July 28-29 (not July 29-30).

 

U.S. Accuses China of Conducting Another ASAT Test

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Jul-2014 (Updated: 25-Jul-2014 06:50 PM)

The State Department today accused China of conducting another antisatellite (ASAT) test on Wednesday.   China said that it had conducted a missile intercept test.   The distinction between the two operations can be difficult to draw and there continues to be dispute in western circles as to how many ASAT tests China has already conducted.

Everyone agrees that in 2007 China destroyed one of its own satellites with an ASAT weapon.  The test was condemned internationally because of the vast debris cloud it created in low Earth orbit -- about 3,000 pieces (the exact number changes as some pieces reenter and new pieces are created by collisions within the debris cloud) -- that threatens all satellites operating in that realm.

There also is agreement that China conducted tests in 2010 and 2013, but whether they were missile intercept or ASAT tests is a matter of debate in western circles.  While some western analysts consider them ASAT tests, the U.S. government has not officially characterized them that way.

Therefore, this is only the second time the United States government has directly accused China of conducting an ASAT test and it called on China to "refrain from destabilizing actions ... that threaten the long-term security and sustainability of the outer space environment, on which all nations depend."

The full statement from the State Department issued today (July 25, 2014 EDT) reads as follows:

"The United States has concluded that on July 23, the People’s Republic of China conducted a non-destructive test of a missile designed to destroy satellites.  A previous destructive test of this system in 2007 created thousands of pieces of debris, which continue to present an on-going danger to the space systems of all nations, including China.  We call on China to refrain from destabilizing actions – such as the continued development and testing of destructive anti-satellite systems – that threaten the long term security and sustainability of the outer space environment, on which all nations depend.  The United States continuously looks to ensure its space systems are safe and resilient against emerging space threats."

In answer to an emailed query from SpacePolicyOnline.com, Grant Schneider of the State Department's Bureau of Arms Control and Verification and Compliance, replied "We have high confidence in our assessment.  We refer to you to Chinese authorities for further information on this anti-satellite test."

China's Xinhua news agency on Thursday said only that it had conducted a successful land-based missile intercept test on July 23 that "achieved its preset goal."

In an emailed exchange this afternoon, Brian Weeden, technical adviser to the Secure World Foundation, noted that China's announcement called it a successful missile intercept test while the State Department referred to it as a "non-destructive test."  Weeden observed that China did not mention a designated target for Wednesday's test, unlike the 2010 and 2013 tests where it said the target was launched on a ballistic missile.  "There was no mention of that this time," he said, and "My guess is that this test didn't have a designated target."

The United States and the Soviet Union developed ASAT systems early in the Space Age.  The fate of the Soviet system is unclear, but it has not been tested since 1982. The United States ended its dedicated ASAT programs by the 1990s. In 2008, however, the United States destroyed one of its own spy satellites (USA-193) using a missile launched from an Aegis cruiser because, it asserted, the satellite was out of control and carried hazardous fuel that posed significant risk to populated areas if it made an uncontrolled reentry.  The operation demonstrated an inherent U.S. capability to conduct such operations even though there is no official ASAT program.

House Committee Members and ISS Astronauts Reflect on Apollo 11, Look to Future

Len Ly
Posted: 24-Jul-2014 (Updated: 24-Jul-2014 11:09 PM)

Members of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee and U.S. astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) via live downlink with the committee today (July 24) reflected on this week’s 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 human moon landing and the importance of continuing the nation’s leadership in space.

Committee members asked NASA astronauts Steve Swanson and Reid Wiseman about, among other topics, the challenges of space debris, the space station’s contributions to society, and the possibility of encountering life on other planets one day (to which Swanson answered “it will happen”).

The ISS is routinely occupied by a six-person crew and is a testbed for future human deep space missions, such as to Mars.  Three Russians and one European currently live and work with Swanson and Wiseman on the laboratory flying 250 miles or so above Earth.

“Space inspires future generations to dream big and work hard,” committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) said.  Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) added that she welcomed President Obama’s proposal to extend ISS to at least 2024 and hopes there will be a committee hearing to comprehensively examine the space station’s contributions to human space exploration and basic and applied research.

Following the roughly 20-minute call with the ISS astronauts, the committee offered a showcase of hardware and technologies being tested on the ISS, as well as a panel discussion explaining the ISS research from representatives of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) and NASA.

A webcast of the discussion with the ISS astronauts, including opening statements by Smith and Johnson, is on the committee’s website.

Boehner: Vote on CR Will Wait Till September

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Jul-2014 (Updated: 24-Jul-2014 08:40 PM)

House Speaker John Boehner said today that a House vote on a Continuing Resolution (CR) for the first part of FY2015 would wait until September rather than trying to do it before the House leaves for its August recess.

The House leaves at the end of next week and will return on September 8 and meet for only 10 days that month.  The current fiscal year ends on September 30.

Speaking at his weekly briefing with reporters today, Boehner said the CR likely would be voted on in September and last until early December, after the mid-term elections.

CRs usually hold agencies to their previous year's spending levels.  NASA received $17.646 million for FY2014.  President Obama's FY2015 request was $186 million less than that, but the House-passed and Senate-committee-approved Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bills would provide a substantial increase over that request -- a total of about $17.9 billion.

Optimism that the Senate might pass the CJS and two other appropriations bills, combined together into a "minibus" bill, faded last month because of partisan politics dealing with the amendment process.   The Senate has not passed any FY2015 appropriations bills yet.  The House has passed seven of the 12 regular appropriations bills including CJS (which funds NASA and NOAA), Defense, and Transportation-HUD (which funds the FAA and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation).

RD-180 Decision Will Not Be Made By Space Community Says Member of Mitchell Panel

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 24-Jul-2014 (Updated: 24-Jul-2014 02:14 PM)

Just as the decision to rely on the RD-180 engine was driven by “geopolitical interests,” rather than “space community necessity,” the answer of whether to continue to use the Russian engine or build a U.S. alternative will not be “in the space community’s hands,” says a member of Air Force’s RD-180 Alternative Study. 

At an event yesterday hosted by the George C. Marshall Institute, Josh Hartman, CEO of Horizon Strategies Group and a member of the independent advisory panel that examined alternatives to the Russian RD-180 rocket engine, summarized the findings and recommendations of the Air Force-convened panel. Chaired by Major General Howard J. ‘Mitch’ Mitchell, USAF (ret.), the expert panel was asked to submit its report in just 30 days – rather than the original 60 days – because of congressional interest in the study, Hartman explained. While the final report is classified, SpacePolicyOnline.com posted a set of unclassified briefing charts and summarized highlights from them in May.

The panel concluded that the loss of the Russian RD-180s, on which the United States depends to power the Atlas V rocket, one of two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) that are the workhorses of national security space launches, would be “significant.” Although the United States has enough RD-180s for two years’ worth of launches, the current launch manifest would need to be prioritized, costing billions of dollars in delays and in retrofitting existing payloads to launch on other rockets.

In a scenario where the RD-180s disappeared, the United States would lose its ability to use the Atlas V. While the second EELV –Delta IV – is technically capable of launching the satellites now manifested on Atlas V, some question whether the production rate could be accelerated sufficiently to compensate.  Therefore, the national security sector would need to rely on new entrants, such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, both of which have expressed an interest in providing national security space launches.

However, doing so would mean incurring a “great level of risk,” said Hartman.  On the one hand it is a question of how soon new entrants would be ready to launch rockets equivalent in capability to Atlas V. The Mitchell panel found that even if new entrants were certified and ready to compete for national security launches in 2015, the first launch would not be before 2017. On the other hand, Hartman said these companies are not advertising that they would meet the full spectrum of national security launches. He added that SpaceX and Blue Origin are “not motivated by national security launches” but see these as a “stepping stone” to other activities.

The second speaker, Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University, expanded on the policy questions, opportunities and risks of what he said was a “looming crisis.” He argued that the reasons to reconsider U.S. launch options go beyond the current geopolitical situation and include longer-term issues. These include the increasing cost of the EELV program, which includes “imposed costs” that come with the U.S. government’s “way of doing business,” and the interest created by new entrants.  In his remarks, Pace highlighted the need to reexamine the benefit of imposing extensive rules and restrictions on industry partners – some that have no value-added – and can sometimes hamper innovation.

To a question about the potential role of foreign partners in this effort, Hartman said that new partnerships would be considered on a “case-by-case basis.” He noted that while the Russian engine was the main issue of interest, there is ongoing foreign participation in other components of the EELV program.

Pace said that he sees more opportunities for foreign partners in civil space exploration, including launch infrastructure.   For national security launches he thinks it will be commercial rather than international partners.

Events of Interest    

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


 

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