Here is our list of space policy events for the next TWO weeks, August 29-September 9, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate return for legislative business on September 6.
During the Weeks
We have one last relatively light week before Congress returns on September 6. The House and Senate leadership and congressional committees have not announced their schedules yet, but we should learn more as the week progresses,
Meanwhile, this week NASA has a press conference on Tuesday to introduce the three International Space Station (ISS) crew members who will launch in November (Whitson, Pesquet and Novitsky) and on Thursday NASA TV will provide live coverage of the second ISS spacewalk by Jeff Williams and Kate Rubins. Two of the panels of the ongoing National Academies Earth Science and Applications from Space (ESAS) Decadal Survey will meet Tuesday-Wednesday (Solid Earth, in Washington DC) and Thursday-Friday (Hydrology, in Irvine, CA).
Next week begins with a U.S. Federal holiday, Labor Day, on Monday. On Tuesday, Congress returns to work. As usual, it is facing the task of passing some sort of appropriations bill -- probably a Continuing Resolution (CR) -- to keep the government operating when FY2017 begins on October 1. They have four weeks to do it and it is possible that final agreement could be reached on at least one of the 12 regular appropriations bills -- Military Construction-Veterans Affairs (MilCon-VA). It has already passed the House and Senate, a conference agreement was reached, and the House approved the conference report. An attempt to bring the conference report to the Senate floor. however, failed even though the bill is the legislative vehicle being used to provide funding to deal with the Zika virus. Senate Democrats assert that it contains "poison pill" provisions Republicans know Democrats will not accept. Even if that issue gets cleared up by the end of September, there are still the other 11 regular appropriations bills. Here's a snapshot of where all 12 stand as of today.
One issue is that the House Appropriations Committee approved more funding in its bills than allowed under the budget caps, so that will have to be fixed to avoid sequestration. The Senate bills are below the caps, though, so it can probably be resolved in conference committee(s).
There is little incentive, actually, for Congress to agree to final FY2017 appropriations before the election since who occupies the Oval Office and which part(ies) control the House and Senate will make a significant difference for the fiscal road ahead. Similarly, there is little incentive for Republicans to allow their most conservative members to force a government shutdown, since that could undermine their goal of retaining control of the House and Senate. The top Democrat on the House Budget Committee and Senate candidate Chris Van Hollen said last week that he could not rule out a shutdown, however, because some Republicans strongly oppose the budget deal worked out among then House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and President Barack Obama last fall. That deal relaxed budget caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act and those Republicans want to stick by the original caps (even though, as noted, the House Appropriations Committee approved funding in excess even of the revised caps). Still, convincing the electorate to let them retain control of Congress by showing they can keep the government operating probably will outweigh those complaints. Van Hollen said he hopes Congress will pass a CR that covers the time period past the election, with final resolution before the end of the calendar year.
Appropriations will be a key issue, but not the only one. The FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is in conference already and there continues to be talk of getting a new NASA authorization bill completed this year. Plus a host of non-space related issues. September promises to be a busy month before Congress recesses again to continue campaigning in advance of the November 8 elections.
Apart from the congressional schedule, the first week of September offers two especially interesting conferences and a very important space science launch. The conferences are an aerospace workforce summit co-sponsored by AIAA and AIA to highlight issues for the next President, and a U.S.-Japan space cooperation seminar co-sponsored by the Mansfield Foundation and the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. The launch is of the robotic asteroid sample return mission OSIRIS-Rex, scheduled for September 8.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday, August 28, are shown below. Check back throughout the weeks for others we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.
Tuesday, August 30
Tuesday-Wednesday, August 30-31
Thursday, September 1
Thursday-Friday, September 1-2
Tuesday, September 6
Wednesday-Thursday, September 7-8
Thursday, September 8
Friday, September 9
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has informed the White House and Congress that the 12 appropriations bills reported from the House Appropriations Committee for FY2017 exceed budgets caps by $792 million -- $17 million in defense and $775 million in non-defense spending. If enacted, they therefore would be subject to automatic reductions (sequestration) to bring the total in line with the levels Congress and the President agreed to last fall. The companion bills reported from the Senate Appropriations Committee, however, are below the caps.
In an effort to curb deficits, the White House and Congress agreed to 10-year limits on federal spending in the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA). After a congressional "supercommittee" could not agree on how to implement the reductions, automatic cuts -- the sequester -- went into effect for FY2013. The consequences were sufficiently dire for both defense and non-defense agencies that agreements were reached to relax the limits for FY2014-2015 (the Ryan-Murray agreement) and FY2016-2017 (the Boehner-McConnell-Obama agreement). Currently, the top line for defense spending for FY2017 is $609.868 billion and for non-defense (including NASA and NOAA) is $543.597 billion.
In a required "Sequestration Update" to the President and Congress on August 19, OMB reported that the House bills surpass the modified limits for FY2017 by $17 million in defense spending and by $775 million in non-defense spending. The Senate bills are under the limits, however. They provide $167 million less for defense and $2.032 billion less for non-defense.
Only one of the 12 bills (Military Construction-Veterans Affairs) has passed both the House and Senate. Four others have passed the House (Defense, Financial Services, Interior and Environment, and Legislative Branch). One other has passed the Senate (Transportation-HUD, as part of a package with MilCon-VA, but it was not incorporated into the House-passed bill).
Congress will have to do something about appropriations before October 1 when FY2017 begins or the government will shut down. The House and Senate reconvene on September 6, giving them four weeks. They most likely will pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government funded at FY2016 levels for a period of time, although Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said earlier this week that he could not rule out a shutdown because of Republican opposition to last fall's Boehner-McConnell-Obama agreement. His hope, however, is that a CR will be enacted to cover through the November elections, with final agreement on FY2017 funding levels before the end of 2016 and the 114th Congress.
How the House and Senate resolve their differences to avoid breaching the budget caps and what effect that will have on civil or national security space programs is unknowable at this point. The caps are not broken down by agencies, only into defense and non-defense categories. It is up to Congress to decide how to allocate the funds, which involves a lot of give-and-take.
At this point, FAA's space office, NOAA's satellite programs, and NASA have fared well in the House and Senate appropriations committees. The committees have been especially generous to NASA when compared to the President's request for FY2017, although the amounts are similar to what Congress appropriated for FY2016.
The House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill provides $19.508 billion for NASA and the Senate committee approved $19.306 billion. Congress appropriated $19.285 billion for FY2016, but for FY2017 the President requested $18.262 billion in appropriated funds -- a $1 billion cut. (As explained in SpacePolicyOnline.com's fact sheet on NASA's FY2017 budget request, NASA displays its request as $19.025 billion because it includes $763 million in non-appropriated funding from mandatory accounts and a tax on oil companies. NASA has never received money from the mandatory part of the federal budget, which pays for programs like Social Security and Medicare, and how the White House imagined that it would this year is a mystery. The tax on oil companies was part of a White House "clean transportation" initiative that never materialized. The inclusion of the $763 million is widely viewed as an attempt to obscure the fact that the President's request was a significant cut for NASA.)
Congress's ability to provide so much more than the request is largely because the budget caps were relaxed and NASA has powerful champions on the House and Senate Appropriations committees.
As a new President takes office and a new Congress convenes next year, decisions will need to be made on whether to change or eliminate the sequester rules. They are set in law and will go back into full effect with the FY2018 budget, the first that will be submitted by the incoming President.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) vowed to continue the strong support for NASA and NOAA evidenced by Sen. Barbara Mikulski if he is elected as her successor in November. Mikulski is retiring and Van Hollen is widely considered to be the front runner to replace her.
Overall, Van Hollen's message today at a luncheon sponsored by the Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR) was one of reassurance. Mikulski's advocacy for NASA and NOAA, especially, but not only, earth science missions, is legendary. Many in the space community are apprehensive about what her departure will mean for NASA and NOAA space programs and budgets. Van Hollen is a relative unknown in space circles and today he clearly wanted to convey his enthusiasm and dedication to continue the fight.
Van Hollen currently represents a district that runs from the Washington suburbs to the border with Pennsylvania. His views on the space program are not well known, though he said today that he meets annually with the Director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (in Greenbelt, MD) to discuss programs and budgets. He mentioned that he had met with GSFC Director Chris Scolese this morning prior to the luncheon. He also noted that he was on hand to watch the arrival of the New Horizons spacecraft at Pluto last summer from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (APL) in Laurel, MD.
NASA-Goddard and APL are just two of the space-related enterprises in Maryland located in or near his district. NOAA headquarters is in Silver Spring, Lockheed Martin's corporate offices are in Bethesda, and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which operates the Hubble Space Telescope, is in Baltimore.
He shared that he majored in physics for part of his college career, inspired by his Swarthmore College roommate Neil Gershenfeld, now Director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms. Though Van Hollen decided to change majors after getting as far as quantum mechanics (ultimately getting a B.A. in philosophy, a master's in public policy with a concentration in national security, and a J.D.), he said the experience gave him a "lifelong passion and thirst for discovery and trying to answer the big questions -- how did we get here, what is our place in the universe, what does the future hold for Mother Earth."
If he wins the November election, he vowed to be "a fierce advocate" like Mikulski for "NASA Goddard, for NOAA, for Wallops [Flight Facility], for APL, for AURA, for STScI, and for the entire ecosystem of other organizations, businesses and jobs " that are "vital to our nation's leadership in space and to Maryland's central place in that galaxy." AURA is the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, which operates STScI and other astronomical observatories.
Van Hollen specifically praised the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is being built at Goddard and will be operated by STScI. He noted that he saw the telescope this morning and its mirror "is gold-plated." He joked that government agencies usually prefer to avoid referring to anything as gold-plated (because it conveys excess). In this case, however, a "fun fact" is that the total amount of gold on JWST is less than one-third the amount in all the Olympic gold medals won by Michael Phelps. A Maryland native, Phelps has won 23 gold medals for swimming, including five in the recent Rio Olympics.
Van Hollen also highlighted NOAA's work on climate and said the United States must maintain leadership on understanding the impact of climate change, sharply criticizing the chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who has subpoenaed scientists "and worked hard for purely ideological reasons" to cut budgets for earth and climate science. Congress should never "intimidate" or "stymie" scientists. "We need to allow the integrity of the scientific process and budget process to stand on its own without political interference."
Heliophysics, satellite servicing, the Europa mission, STEM education programs, and ISS resupply missions launched from Wallops also got shout outs. Wallops is in neighboring Virginia on the DELMARVA (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) peninsula, but Van Hollen pointed out that "most" of the people who work at Wallops live in Maryland. That brought him to his final point -- the number of jobs in Maryland attributable to space activities and the positive effect on Maryland's economy. He mentioned that NASA-Goddard plans to hire 200 civil servants and said that for every civil servant, there are 2 contractors, so that means an additional 400 contractors as well. That's on top of 10,000 civil service and contractor jobs associated with Goddard already, not to mention additional thousands at APL and NOAA, and hundreds at STSci and Wallops, he said.
"Maryland is a space state and we're going to stay that way," he exclaimed.
A challenge to all of that is getting funding from Congress, of course. Van Hollen laid out the difficulties Congress faces when it returns after Labor Day to get a FY2017 budget passed, an issue he understands well since he is the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee. Although he opposes government shutdowns, he said he could not rule out such a possibility because many House Republicans object to the budget deal brokered last fall among outgoing House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and President Barack Obama that softened sequester limits for FY2016 and FY2017.
His hope is that Congress will pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) that will last through the November elections, then return and complete the FY2017 budget process before the end of the year so the incoming President does not have to deal with it. The road ahead is full of "uncertainty," however.
Van Hollen's Republican opponent for Mikulski's seat is Kathy Szeliga. Democrats have held both Maryland Senate seats since Republican Charles "Mac" Mathias retired in 1986. Somewhat ironically, Van Hollen (a Democrat) started his career working for Mathias as a defense and foreign policy aide.
Here is our list of space policy events for the next TWO weeks, August 22-September 2, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate will return for legislative business on September 6.
During the Weeks
It is just two weeks until Congress returns for legislative business, so this edition of What's Happening covers only those two weeks with the expectation that activity will begin ramping up again and there will be new events to list soon.
Not that the rest of August doesn't have a lot to offer. First is the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) conference coming up this week in Raleigh, NC. It is certain to whet the appetite with concepts for the longer term future. When they say innovative, they MEAN innovative. "Nano Icy Moons Propellant Harvester," "Fusion-Enabled Pluto Orbiter and Lander," and "Stellar Echo Imaging of Exoplanets" are just three of the novel ideas that will be presented. The conference will be livestreamed.
This Wednesday, Rep. Chris Van Hollen will speak to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable. As we explained earlier, he is considered the front runner to succeed Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who is retiring at the end of the year. Should be interesting to learn his views on the space program. Considering how much government, private sector. and academic space activity there is in Maryland -- from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center to Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab to the Space Telescope Science Institute to Lockheed Martin corporate headquarters, to name just a few -- one could well anticipate that he'll be a strong supporter like Mikulski. If elected, he won't have her seniority, though, so his influence on the outcome of, say, appropriations, likely will take some time to develop.
Next week, two of the panels for the Earth Science and Applications from Space (ESAS) Decadal Survey will meet. As we explained in our last issue, this is the second ESAS Decadal Survey from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The first was issued in 2007 and they are done every 10 years (a decade, hence "decadal"), so this one is expected to be completed next year. Meetings of the other panels and two steering committee meetings now are scheduled through January 2017 as shown on our month-by-month FULL CALENDAR OF FUTURE EVENTS view (click on the link at the bottom of the Events of Interest list on our home page).
Those are the only four events we know about for the next two weeks as of Sunday morning (August 21) and are shown below. Check back throughout the weeks to see new events that we learn about later.
Tuesday-Thursday, August 23-25
Wednesday, August 24
Tuesday-Wednesday, August 30-31
Thursday-Friday, September 1-2
Michele Gates, NASA’s Program Director for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), said today that the cost for the robotic portion of the mission has grown from $1.25 billion to $1.4 billion primarily due to a one-year delay announced earlier this year. The cost growth was announced yesterday, a month after the program passed a milestone called Key Decision Point-B (KDP-B).
ARM was initiated by the Obama Administration as the next step in NASA’s human spaceflight program, a steppingstone to eventually sending humans to Mars. ARM is composed of two elements: the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) to send a robotic spacecraft to an asteroid to pluck a boulder from its surface and move it to lunar orbit; and the Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission (ARCM) to send astronauts to visit the boulder, collect samples and return them to Earth.
The KDP-B review was of the ARRM portion and was completed on July 15. NASA announced the top-level results yesterday. Gates spoke with SpacePolicyOnline.com about the program today.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has insisted that ARRM would cost no more than $1.25 billion, an issue of concern to NASA Advisory Council (NAC) members worried that money spent on ARM might reduce funds available for other aspects of NASA’s “Journey to Mars” or other NASA priorities.
Bill Gerstenmaier, head of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD), told NAC in July that the KDP-B review had revealed cost growth and the agency was deciding whether to descope the mission to stay within the cap or accept the cost growth.
Gates said today that no descope options were exercised. Instead, the decision was to proceed with ARRM and “move” the cost cap to $1.4 billion. She said one cost estimate by the JPL-led project and two independent probabilistic assessments by its Standing Review Board (chaired by Janet Petro, Deputy Director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center) and a separate team factored into the decision. She also explained that at this stage of a program, there is less emphasis on precision than will be expected at the next milestone, KDP-C, while adding that the $1.4 billion has a 70 percent confidence level.
Launch of ARRM was originally expected in 2020, with ARCM in 2025 to meet President Obama’s directive that NASA send astronauts to an asteroid by that date. ARRM now will be launched in December 2021 in order to meet up with asteroid 2008 EV5, with ARCM taking place in 2026.
A final decision on what asteroid will be the target for ARRM will not be made until a year before launch, but EV5 is being used as a reference point and remains accessible if the mission is launched in December 2021 instead of 2020, Gates said.
NASA’s cost estimate for ARRM excludes launch and operations. In a March 2016 report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) review of NASA’s major programs showed a cost of $1.72 billion. Gates explained that the $1.72 billion includes the launch vehicle cost, set at approximately $500 million as a placeholder since NASA has not determined which of three launch vehicles will be used (Delta IV Heavy, Falcon Heavy, or the Space Launch System).
ARRM is managed by JPL, which awarded study contracts to four companies for concepts for the spacecraft earlier this year. Those contracts are completed and a Request for Proposals (RFP) has not yet been issued for the spacecraft itself. Gates therefore demurred on questions about how much of the $1.4 billion is for the spacecraft, whether it will be a fixed price or cost-plus contract, and when the RFP will be released.
The four companies that won the concept contracts and are eligible to respond to the RFP when it is issued are Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Orbital ATK, and SSL (formerly Space Systems Loral, now a subsidiary of Canada’s MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates -- MDA).
ARRM requires a spacecraft that uses high power Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) and accommodates a capture mechanism to grab the boulder. NASA is developing both of those technologies.
Meanwhile, NASA will release a Broad Agency Announcement in September for partner-provided payloads that could be carried on ARRM and for membership in a multidisciplinary industry-academia-government-international investigation team to provide technical expertise to ARRM and ARCM.
It can be difficult to follow this acronym-rich project. ARRM and ARCM are the two components of ARM, which in turn is part of NASA’s “Asteroid Initiative.” The $1.4 billion estimate is only for ARRM and, as noted, excludes launch and operations.
None of those should be confused with the robotic OSIRIS-REx mission scheduled for launch on September 8, 2016. That is a science mission that will use only a robotic spacecraft to return a sample of the asteroid Bennu to Earth. It is unrelated to ARRM/ARCM/ARM/Asteroid Initiative (all of which are associated with NASA's human spaceflight program).
Gerstenmaier characterized ARM as an “excellent” way to demonstrate the skills needed for NASA’s Journey to Mars at a recent Senate hearing. In today’s interview, Gates called it “important and enabling.”
The next administration will have to decide if the costs are worth the benefits. Although NASA has decided they are, the House Appropriations Committee disagrees. It denied funding for the program in its report on the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill, which funds NASA. The bill has not passed the House yet, however, and there is no similar language in the Senate version, so NASA is not currently prohibited from spending money on the project.
For NASA, the next milestone decision is KDP-C where the agency formally commits to a cost and schedule for a program. Gates said that is currently scheduled for March 2018.
Sen. John Thune (R-SD) sent a letter to NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan yesterday demanding answers to a series of questions about NOAA's two weather satellite programs, GOES and JPSS. The questions stem from reports by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Department of Commerce's Office of Inspector General (OIG) over the past several years concerning NOAA's management of the programs, especially what NOAA is doing to avoid gaps in weather satellite coverage. Thune chairs the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which oversees the Department of Commerce, of which NOAA is part.
The heavily footnoted 7-page letter refers to multiple reviews of NOAA's weather satellite programs by GAO and the Commerce OIG that raise questions about NOAA's management of the complementary geostationary and polar orbiting weather satellite programs. NOAA is getting ready to launch the first of the newest generation of Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES), GOES-R, and the first of the new Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) satellites. JPSS-1 and -2 will replace NOAA's existing Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellites (POES) and a NASA technology demonstration environmental satellite, Suomi-NPP, that NOAA seconded into use as an operational weather satellite to avoid a gap in polar orbit weather satellite observations.
The first of the GOES-R series is currently scheduled for launch in November 2016 and the first JPSS satellite in March 2017. Those dates have repeatedly slipped. The four-satellite GOES-R series will cost $10.9 billion. The cost estimate for the two-satellite JPSS program is $11.3 billion, which includes about $4 billion in sunk costs in the predecessor NOAA-DOD-NASA National Polar-orbiting Operatonal Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program that was terminated in 2010. NOAA is planning two more JPSS satellites in a separate Polar Follow On (PFO) program for launch in the mid-late 2020s. More information on GOES-R, JPSS, and PFO is available in SpacePolicyOnline.com's fact sheet on NOAA"s FY2017 budget request.
NOAA is responsible for defining requirements, funding, managing and operating GOES and JPSS, but uses NASA as its acquisition agent. NASA contracts for and oversees the construction of the satellites and purchases launch services using funds transferred from NOAA.
Cost increases and schedule delays have characterized NOAA's weather satellite programs for many years, hence the abundance of GAO and OIG reviews. NOAA itself commissioned an Independent Review Team (IRT) led by retired aerospace industry executive Tom Young that was strongly critical of how the programs were managed. A number of congressional hearings have been held, most recently on July 7 before a House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) subcommittee.
NPOESS was initiated in 1996 as an effort to merge NOAA's civil and DOD's military weather satellite requirements into a single program. It was terminated by the Obama Administration in 2010 essentially because the agencies could not work together effectively, resulting in repeated cost overruns and schedule delays. JPSS is NOAA's replacement for the civil aspects of NPOESS. DOD continues to struggle with how to meet its own weather satellite needs, which are outside the purview of Thune's committee.
Thune's 11 questions focus on how NOAA makes decisions about what satellites to build and when to launch them in order to ensure there is no gap in coverage. He notes that NOAA builds multiple satellites using the same design -- clones -- which "should provide consistency and dependability and control costs," but NOAA's track record "does not inspire confidence." He explains that "[i]n order to boost taxpayer confidence, greater cost and schedule transparency is essential."
Decisions on when to launch the new satellites depend in part on NOAA's estimates of the lifetime of existing satellites and several of Thune's questions focus on how NOAA makes those calculations. GAO's David Powner was highly critical of NOAA's lifetime estimating practices at the July 7 House hearing. Those estimates are displayed in NOAA "flyout charts" that show timelines for launch, on-orbit storage and operational use of its satellites that can signal if there will be gaps in coverage. At the hearing, Powner said NOAA's most recent flyout charts are "just another instance where NOAA's charts and satellite life spans have been misleading to the Congress." GAO repeatedly warns about potential gaps in weather satellite coverage. NOAA issued such warnings when it was fighting for JPSS funding earlier this decade, but in recent years has downplayed the risks.
Thune asks how those lifetimes are determined and what NOAA is doing to "improve its communications of individual changes to longevity assessments to lawmakers and other stakeholders?" Several questions seek clarification on the risk of gaps and whether NOAA has responded to recommendations from the GAO and OIG reports. He also wants to know what actions NOAA is taking to resolve security vulnerabilities.
He asks Sullivan for a "prompt and thorough response" no later than August 29, 2016 and a staff briefing by September 9. However, he also "regrettably" notes that NOAA "has been less than fully responsive to oversight requests from Congress" in the past, citing criticism from the Senate Appropriations Committee in its report on NOAA's FY2017 budget request (S. Rept. 114-239). That report says NOAA "often fails to respond in a timely manner to inquiries from Congress. Letters from members have often gone unanswered and repeated requests for drafting assistance have been ignored. Congress plays an important role in the oversight of NOAA, and the Committee directs the agency to be responsive to congressional inquiries."
NOAA is funded as part of the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill, which also funds NASA. The Senate bill was brought to the floor for debate in June, but its consideration was derailed by the gun control debate (as its name implies, the bill also funds the Department of Justice).
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (the Academies) released its mid-term review of the 2010 Decadal Survey for astronomy and astrophysics today. Among its many findings and recommendations, the study warns that recent changes to the design of the WFIRST space telescope, especially the addition of a coronagraph, pose cost risks that could threaten the balanced NASA astrophysics program recommended by the 2010 Survey. It recommends that NASA perform an independent review before proceeding into the next phase of WFIRST development to determine whether the higher costs are worth the increased scientific capability and, if not, to descope the project to ensure the balanced program is not compromised.
Decadal Surveys and Mid-Term Reviews.
The Academies conduct Decadal Surveys approximately every 10 years (a decade) to identify and prioritize the most important scientific questions facing each of NASA’s space and earth science disciplines and recommend space missions to answer those questions. The series of Decadal Surveys for astronomy and astrophysics is the oldest, dating back to 1964, and includes programs not only at NASA, but the National Science Foundation (which oversees ground-based astronomy) and, more recently, the Department of Energy (high energy physics). The other NASA-related Decadal Surveys are in earth science and applications from space, planetary science, solar and space physics (heliophysics), and biological and physical sciences in space.
The agencies and Congress rely heavily on the Decadal Surveys to determine funding priorities and endeavor to follow their recommendations, although budget constraints often intervene. The agencies tell the Decadal Survey committees at the beginning of their work how much money is expected to be available in the upcoming decade to fund new projects, but those assumptions may change during the course of the 2-year studies, never mind in the decade thereafter, and cost overruns in existing programs may reduce funding availability for those planned for the future.
In the 2005 NASA Authorization Act, Congress directed NASA to contract with the Academies for “performance assessments” mid-way through each Decadal Survey period. The most recent Survey for astronomy and astrophysics, New Worlds New Horizons (NWNH), was completed in 2010 and thus is now undergoing its mid-term review.
The mid-term review committees are not allowed to change the scientific priorities or mission recommendations in the Decadal Surveys, which are hard fought within the relevant scientific community during the course the Survey. Instead the mid-term reviews offer guidance on implementing the Surveys and on potential activities to prepare for the next Survey in that scientific discipline.
The Mid-Term Review for the 2010 Astronomy and Astrophysics Survey
Today the Academies released New Worlds New Horizons: A Midterm Assessment, the report of the NWNH mid-term review committee, which was chaired by MIT’s Jacqueline Hewitt.
WFIRST and a Balanced NASA Astrophysics Program. The Hewitt report reiterates one of the key recommendations from NWNH -- to maintain a balanced NASA astrophysics program that funds a suite of “large flagship missions, medium-scale Explorer missions and technology development, and smaller suborbital, data analysis, theory, and laboratory astrophysics programs.” The concern is that large, expensive “flagship” missions like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) can overwhelm the other components of the astrophysics program. Balance is needed to “optimize the scientific return of U.S. investments and to maintain the health of the U.S. astronomical research community.”
The Hewitt committee expressed concern that recent changes to the design of the Wide-Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST), recommended in NWNH as the first priority for a large space-based astrophysics mission to follow JWST, could grow in cost and threaten that balance. In particular, the addition of a coronagraph already has added $350 million and could increase costs further, it said. This issue was raised in a 2014 Academies study chaired by California Institute of Technology’s Fiona Harrison that looked specifically at the pros and cons of adding a coronagraph and is restated in today’s report.
The NASA astrophysics community was stung by significant cost overruns on JWST, whose price tag grew from $1 billion to $8 billion (not including operations) and wants to avoid a similar situation with WFIRST. When NWNH came out, it anticipated work on WFIRST beginning in 2013, with launch in 2020. The JWST overruns ate WFIRST’s seed corn, however, and today, in 2016, WFIRST is only in the formulation stage. Launch is not expected until 2025. It is being designed to study dark energy and dark matter and search for exoplanets.
The WFIRST concept recommended in NWNH was estimated to cost $1.6 billion. In 2012, however, the design changed dramatically when the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which builds the nation’s spy satellites, gave NASA a telescope it no longer needed for a reconnaissance satellite program that was cancelled. The NRO telescope is 2.4 meters in diameter, compared to 1.5 meters as recommended in NWNH, and has much improved infrared detectors. The new version is called WFIRST-AFTA (for Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets). More recently, a decision was made to add a coronagraph. Although the changes mean WFIRST will provide much better data, they also pose cost risks.
The Hewitt committee issued two findings praising the increased scientific capabilities, but also restated the concerns in the Harrison report and made a third finding warning that associated cost growth “could distort the NASA program balance.” It provides a table showing the cost already has grown from NASA’s initial estimate of $1.8 billion (slightly higher than what was estimated by the NWNH committee due to inflation) to $2.8 billion in FY2015 dollars for a 2025 launch.
WFIRST is currently in Phase A (formulation). Before moving into Phase B (preliminary design and technology completion), the project must pass a Key Decision Point-B (KDP-B) review. The Hewitt committee recommends that before KDP-B, NASA commission “an independent technical, management, and cost assessment … including a qualitative assessment of the incremental cost of the coronagraph. If the mission cost estimate exceeds the point at which executing the mission would compromise the scientific priorities and the balanced astrophysics program” recommended in the NWNH, “then NASA should descope the mission to restore” those priorities “by reducing mission cost.”
Explorer Program. A particular concern is NASA’s support for the Explorer program, which “has a distinguished history of high scientific impact through the deployment of relatively low-cost missions that can respond to opportunities on a short timescale.” NWNH recommended increasing the number of Explorer missions, but NASA has not been able to implement that recommendation. It currently plans four Explorers, each with an associated “mission of opportunity,” during the decade covered by NWNH. The Hewitt committee worries that cost growth in NASA’s large astrophysics programs could threaten even that constrained plan and wants NASA to avoid any more cuts.
Gravitational Waves and X-Ray Astronomy – LISA and IXO. The Hewitt committee also addressed other missions that were considered by NWNH, but were ranked lower in priority, including the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) to study gravitational waves and an International X-Ray Observatory (IXO). NWNH envisioned pursuing both in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA).
Gravitational waves were recently detected using the ground-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), which the Hewitt committee said buttressed the case for a space-based observatory that can “explore the source-rich millihertz band that is inaccessible from the ground….” It explained that NWNH expected the space-based LISA to be built through an equal NASA-ESA partnership, beginning with ESA launching a technology demonstration mission, LISA Pathfinder. ESA launched it last year and the mission is proceeding well. NASA, however, faced with the JWST cost overruns and the third-level ranking for LISA in NWNH, terminated its own technology development efforts. ESA is now planning a mission, eLISA (e is for "evolved"), with only minor NASA involvement. ESA describes it as a joint effort of eight European countries "supported by our colleagues in the US."
The Hewitt committee noted that NWNH called for a mid-decade assessment of whether to proceed with LISA based on the LISA Pathfinder results and recommends that NASA restore support for gravitational wave research so the U.S. community can “be a strong technical and scientific partner” in eLISA. It “believes that NASA and ESA together should rethink their strategy” for LISA.
IXO was the fourth priority of NWNH, also envisioned as a NASA-ESA partnership. NWNH recommended that NASA invest in technology development so that if ESA decided to build an x-ray telescope, NASA would be prepared to contribute to it. ESA has, indeed, decided to build the Athena x-ray telescope. Athena’s scope is narrower than IXO, but “enables a compelling subset of the science envisioned for IXO…” according to today's report. The Hewitt committee recommends that NASA proceed with its current plan to participate in Athena “with primary contributions directed toward enhancing the scientific capabilities of the mission.”
Dark Energy and ESA's Euclid. The Hewitt committee also weighed in on NASA’s participation in ESA’s Euclid mission to understand dark energy. U.S. plans for a spacecraft to study dark energy went through substantial turmoil just prior to and during the NWNH study. Eventually, dark energy was included as one of the objectives of WFIRST and NASA also decided, with advice from an Academies committee in 2014, to contribute $20 million of hardware (infrared detectors) to ESA’s Euclid dark energy mission. The 2014 Academies committee, chaired by Princeton's David Spergel (who now also is chair of the Academies' Space Studies Board), also said that if the amount for hardware was to exceed $30 million it should be subject to an independent community review. The Spergel report also acknowledged that about $20 million ($2 million per year for 10 years) was needed to support U.S. scientists involved in the mission, yielding a total of $50 million for NASA support of Euclid.
That cost now has risen to $150-200 million according to the Hewitt committee and while most of the funds will be used to support U.S. science teams and archive activities, it nevertheless is well in excess of what the Spergel committee had in mind. Thus, it recommends that NASA treat any support of Euclid beyond the existing commitments to ESA as lower priority than support of the Explorer program, gravitational wave technology development, or x-ray technology development.
In an emailed statement to SpacePolicyOnline.com today, NASA said it appreciates the efforts of the Hewitt committee and its recognition of the progress NASA has made in meeting what was recommended in NWNH, but will wait to review the new recommendations before making any decisions about the future course of the programs.
“NASA appreciates the hard work that the Mid Term Review Committee did to produce this report. We are pleased that the Committee recognizes the progress that NASA has made in advancing the priorities of the Decadal Survey in a fiscally constrained environment. The Committee appropriately recognized that NASA has succeeded in maintaining a balanced program, while making substantial progress toward scientific investigations of all scales and over a broad range of astrophysics. The Committee has made a number of thoughtful recommendations, and NASA will review them before making any decisions about changing the planned program.”
Here is our list of space policy events for the next THREE weeks, August 15 - September 2, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate return for legislative business on September 6.
During the Weeks
As described in our July 31 and August 7 editions, there's quite a bit going on this month even though it should be vacation time. In addition to the events mentioned in those earlier issues -- including the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, AL (August 16-18), the NIAC symposium in Raleigh, NC (August 23-26), and the Maryland Space Business Roundtable luncheon in Greenbelt, MD with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (August 24) -- there has been one addition and one deletion over the past week for that time period. This edition also adds the week of August 29-September 2.
The deletion is the return-to-flight launch of Orbital ATK's Antares rocket that was scheduled for August 22. It has been postponed until the second half of September (date to be determined). The company said the delay was due to "a variety of interrelated factors" including continued processing, integration and testing of the re-engined rocket and the busy schedule aboard the International Space Station.
The addition is a NASA media briefing on August 17 to discuss the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission that is scheduled for launch on September 8. OSIRIS-REx is the entirely robotic science mission that will obtain a sample of asteroid Bennu and return it to Earth in 2023 for scientific studies, not the Asteroid Redirect Mission that uses a robotic spacecraft to move part of an asteroid to lunar orbit where astronauts will obtain a sample and return it to Earth in the mid-2020s as part of NASA's effort to send people to Mars. For the curious, OSIRIS-REx's full name is the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer.
The week added in this version of "What's Happening" includes meetings of two panels of the ongoing Earth Science and Applications from Space (ESAS) Decadal Survey conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. This is the second ESAS Decadal Survey by the Academies. The first was released in 2007. Decadal Surveys are conducted every 10 years (hence "Decadal") for each of NASA's space and earth science disciplines (other agencies may be involved, too), so this one is due to be completed next year. It has a steering committee and five panels on specific aspects of the topic. The two that are meeting within this period of time are solid earth (August 30-31) in Washington, DC, and hydrology (September 1-2) in Irvine CA. The ESAS steering committee is co-chaired by Waleed Abdalati, University of Colorado-Boulder, and Bill Gail, Global Weather Corporation. Again for the curious, the full name of the solid earth panel is Earth Surface and Interior: Dynamics and Hazards panel, which is co-chaired by Douglas Burbank, UC Santa Barbara and David Sandwell, Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Hydrology is formally the Global Hydrological Cycles and Water Resources Panel and is co- chaired by Ana Barros, Duke University, and Jeff Dozier, UC Santa Barbara.
The full list of upcoming events for the next three weeks is shown below. Keep checking back to see additions that we learn about later and add to our Events of List interest (or those that get postponed).
Monday, August 15
Tuesday-Wednesday, August 16-17
Tuesday-Thursday, August 16-18
Wednesday, August 17
Thursday, August 18
Friday, August 19
Tuesday-Thursday, August 23-25
Wednesday, August 24
Tuesday-Wednesday, August 30-31
Thursday-Friday, September 1-2
Orbital ATK announced today that the return to flight of its Antares rocket is being postponed again. Scheduled for August 22, it now will take place in the second half of September. The exact date has not been set. It will be the first flight of Antares since an October 2014 failure.
Antares was developed under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to launch cargo missions to the International Space Station (ISS) using the Cygnus spacecraft. Antares/Cygnus competes with SpaceX's Falcon 9/Dragon and, more recently, with Sierra Nevada Corporation's Atlas V/Dream Chaser system for NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts.
It was originally designed to use Russian NK-33 engines built four decades ago, refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne and designated AJ26. Two test flights, one of which took cargo to the ISS as a demonstration mission, and two operational missions to ISS were successfully conducted in 2013 and 2014. At the time, the company was Orbital Sciences Corporation and the two operational missions were designated Orb-1 and Orb-2.
The launch of Orb-3 on October 28, 2014 ended in failure 15 seconds after liftoff. Orbital Sciences, which merged with ATK in February 2015 to become Orbital ATK, decided to replace the NK-33/AJ26 engines with new Russian RD-181s. The process is taking longer than expected. The return to flight of the re-engined Antares was supposed to take place this past spring, but the date has slipped several times since then.
The delay announced today was due to "a variety of interrelated factors," the company said. They include Orbital ATK's continued processing, inspection and testing of the Antares rocket and NASA's scheduling of activities aboard the ISS. Cygnus is one of four cargo vehicles that resupply the ISS. Russia's Progress, SpaceX's Dragon, and Japan's HTV are the others; Japan just announced its own delay of the next HTV launch that was scheduled for October because of a spacecraft problem. The ISS crew also is preparing for spacewalks in August and September, and a Soyuz crew rotation flight is coming up in September as well. All of these activities must be coordinated.
While waiting for Antares to resume flights, Orbital ATK purchased two launches for its Cygnus spacecraft on United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets to ensure that it could meet its contractual requirements to deliver cargo for NASA. Those launches took place in December 2015 and March 2016 and were designated Orbital ATK-4 (OA-4) and OA-6. The Antares flight will launch OA-5 which, as its designation indicates, was supposed to take place in between the two ULA launches.
Orbital ATK made the announcement this morning at the same time as its preliminary second quarter (2Q) 2016 financial results. The company revealed that it was delaying filing its official 2Q results and would be restating financial results going back several quarters because of recently discovered financial misstatements associated with an Army ammunition contract signed in 2012. The issue is unrelated to Orbital ATK's space business, but the company's stock fell on the news.
Three weeks after NASA completed a key milestone review of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), the agency still has not officially announced the results. A NASA official indicated at a NASA Advisory Council (NAC) meeting that the review revealed cost growth, forcing a reexamination of its objectives versus the cost. An Obama Administration initiative, it is at a critical juncture as the House Appropriations Committee denied funding earlier this year and President Obama’s term in office comes to an end in just 5 months.
NASA conducted its Key Decision Point-B, or KDP-B, review of the robotic portion of the ARM project on July 15. At a meeting of NAC’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee (NAC/HEO) on July 25, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, said the review showed that costs are growing and the agency must evaluate whether to accept the increase or reduce the program’s scope to stay within the cost cap set by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden.
NAC sent recommendations to Bolden in July 2014 and January 2015 expressing concern about this exact possibility – that costs would grow and choices would need to be made about the program’s content. The 2014 recommendation was for NASA to conduct an independent cost and technical assessment of ARM. The 2015 recommendation was for NASA to preserve two key objectives if the program needed to be descoped: development of high power Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) and the ability to maneuver in a low gravity environment in deep space. It went further in April 2015, issuing a finding (but not a recommendation) that instead of demonstrating SEP technology through the ARM program, it be used to send a spacecraft on a round trip journey to Mars, which it considered a more exciting prospect.
ARM’s Origin, Evolution and Controversy
ARM was initiated by President Obama in 2010 in the wake of his cancellation of the Bush Administration’s Constellation program to return humans to the Moon by 2020 and someday go to Mars. Instead, the President wanted to spend $6 billion over 5 years on the “commercial crew” program, putting the private sector in charge of developing systems to take crews back and forth to the International Space Station with the government providing much of the funding, but private sector companies also putting some of their own capital into the effort. He also wanted to invest in “game changing” propulsion technologies over 5 years, after which a decision would be made on the next destination for the U.S. human spaceflight program.
Turning crew space transportation over to the private sector was a major paradigm shift for the nation’s human spaceflight program and cancelling Constellation was a blow to those who saw it as the future of that program and a way to keep the space workforce employed as the space shuttle program ended.
Rather than making a major policy pronouncement, the Obama Administration simply included the changes in its FY2011 budget request to Congress on February 1, 2010. No substitute human spaceflight vision was offered other than extending the International Space Station for 5 more years (to 2020) and servicing it with the proposed commercial crew systems (a similar program for cargo already was underway, initiated by the Bush Administration).
Congress was surprised and backlash from Republicans and Democrats alike was intense, forcing the President into making a speech at Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010 where he outlined a replacement destination and timetable. He directed NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 as a steppingstone to orbiting Mars in the 2030s and landing there sometime within his lifetime. He eschewed the idea of returning astronauts to the Moon, saying “We’ve been there before…There’s a lot more of space to explore.”
Dismissing the need for U.S. astronauts to return to the Moon and directing NASA to send them to an asteroid instead was not well received. The commercial crew concept also was controversial. By the end of the year, Congress passed – and the President signed – a compromise 2010 NASA Authorization Act under which NASA would build a new big rocket (the Space Launch System) and crew spacecraft (Orion) to enable humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit as Congress wanted, and the President was not prohibited from proceeding with commercial crew and ARM. Friction has remained between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue on the relative priorities for those programs ever since, however.
Sending astronauts to an asteroid requires crew spacecraft that can support human life for many months, though, posing technical and budget challenges. A 2012 study by the Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS), associated with the California Institute of Technology and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, suggested that instead of sending astronauts to an asteroid, a robotic spacecraft could be used to move an asteroid into lunar orbit where astronauts could visit it more readily. The idea was adopted by NASA and modified yet again into its current form where, instead of moving an entire asteroid, a robotic spacecraft will pluck a boulder from an asteroid’s surface and move just the boulder into lunar orbit.
ARM versus OSIRIS-REx
NASA describes ARM as consisting of two portions: the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) – sending the robotic probe to the asteroid, plucking the boulder from its surface, and moving the boulder to lunar orbit; and the Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission (ARCM) – sending astronauts to study it there and return samples to Earth.
Bolden has insisted since the beginning that ARRM will cost no more than $1.25 billion excluding launch and operations. No cost estimate has been made public for ARCM.
Because ARRM is a robotic asteroid mission, it can be easily confused with a completely unrelated mission scheduled for launch next month, OSIRIS-REx. That robotic spacecraft also will go to an asteroid, grab a sample, and return it to Earth. OSIRIS-REx is a science mission designed to advance scientific understanding of asteroids.
ARM advocates point out that the amount of asteroid material that can be returned using OSIRIS-REx is small compared to what the astronauts will be able to collect from the boulder. Critics argue that asteroid sample return missions can be accomplished by robotic spacecraft alone and do not require astronauts.
There is no specific line item in NASA’s budget for ARM. Instead funding is spread across the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD), the Science Mission Directorate (SMD), and the Office of the Chief Technologist (OCT).
NASA has been careful to differentiate between “direct” work that is unique to ARM and “leveraged” work the agency would pursue even if ARM did not exist. STMD’s development of high power SEP is considered enabling to many missions in Earth orbit and beyond, not just ARM, for example sending cargo to Mars as part of human expeditions there. SMD’s efforts to locate and track asteroids similarly were underway before ARM. In NASA parlance, ARM is leveraging the investments in SEP and asteroid tracking and they would continue even if ARM did not.
Table 4 in SpacePolicyOnline.com’s fact sheet on NASA’s FY2017 budget request shows the funding requested for ARM since FY2014 based on data from NASA. It does not, however, show how much NASA actually spent in any of those years. As discussed below, finding money within the agency’s budget for ARM has been a challenge and resulted in a one-year delay already.
For FY2017, the requested funding for ARM is $217 million, of which direct funding associated uniquely with ARM is $67.8 million in HEOMD and approximately $1 million in OCT.
ARM has earned little support over the years outside of NASA and the White House and Congress has been particularly skeptical. It has not denied funding yet, but the House Appropriations Committee proposed that step earlier this year in its version of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill. It provided no funding for “NASA to continue planning efforts to conduct either robotic or crewed missions to an asteroid,” language that apparently is aimed at the $67.8 million in HEOMD and perhaps the $1 million in OCT.
The bill has not been voted on by the House and there is no similar provision in the Senate version (which reached the Senate floor in June, but was derailed by the gun control debate), so it is not yet law, but is an expression of non-support by a key congressional committee.
ARM, the Science Community, and NAC
ARM is part of NASA’s human spaceflight program to demonstrate technologies, especially high power SEP, and other capabilities needed to send people to Mars. It has other objectives, such as demonstrating the ability to alter the course of an asteroid headed towards Earth – referred to as planetary defense – but the science community makes clear that it is not a science mission.
Asteroids, comets and other small celestial objects not orbiting planets are categorized as “small bodies.” Scientists who study small bodies in the solar system gather as part of NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) to debate issues and express their views. They were not consulted prior to the decision to create ARM and have been among its strongest critics arguing that if the goal is to understand asteroids, there are better methods to do so.
SBAG provides input to NAC through NAC’s Science Committee. NASA officials including Michele Gates, ARM program director, and Lindley Johnson, program executive for the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (which includes the Near Earth Object Observations program) in the Science Mission Directorate, subsequently have worked assiduously with SBAG to solicit their input and win their acquiescence.
SBAG finally approved a finding at its June 2016 meeting expressing approval of two aspects of ARM – a plan to create opportunities for hosted payloads on the robotic spacecraft that will focus on science objectives and a competitively selected science investigation team. The text of its finding, as posted on the SBAG website, is as follows:
"Asteroid Redirect Mission
Debate over ARM was intense at meetings of the full NAC resulting in the 2014 and 2015 recommendations and April 2015 finding described earlier. The recommendations are posted on NAC's website. The July 2014 recommendation states:
"Recommendation: The Council recommends that NASA should conduct an independent cost and technical assessment of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). NASA should state clearly in advance what the cost and technical criteria are for implementing the mission. These criteria should include affordability within currently projected budgets. The independent assessment should be performed before the downselect between Options A and B. The possible outcomes of this process are: fly Option A, fly Option B, or (if the projected cost is unacceptable) fly neither."
The January 2015 recommendation reads as follows:
"The Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) has two objectives that are particularly important contributors to Humans to Mars (H2M): Large scale solar electric propulsion (SEP) and maneuvering in a low gravity environment in deep space. As work on ARM goes forward and · costing is completed, focus on a mission architecture that will preserve these two key H2M objectives if the redirection of an asteroid must be descoped."
NAC provides advice to, and its members are appointed by, the NASA Administrator. Under the NAC terms of reference, the Administrator responds to recommendations, but not findings. The responses also are posted on the NAC website. His response to the 2014 recommendation was that an independent cost and technical review would be conducted, but only after the decision between Options A and B was made. The response to the 2015 recommendation was that NASA had no plans to descope the mission at that time. The text of the April 2015 finding was published in a SpacePolicyOnline.com article.
Cornell space scientist Steve Squyres chaired NAC during the most energetic debates over ARM, but he stepped down in April 2016. Two other members with strong views on the subject, Tom Young and Scott Hubbard, also no longer are on NAC. Former astronaut Ken Bowersox now is the interim chair. Bowersox had been chairing the NAC/HEO committee, currently led by Wayne Hale. During the July 2016 NAC meeting, Hale suggested that the prior NAC recommendations on ARM be reconsidered to reflect changes in the past year, such as SBAG’s expression of support for some aspects of the program.
It was against this backdrop – a spark of support from SBAG and a changing of the guard at NAC, but opposition from a key congressional committee and the imminent end of the Obama Administration – that NASA conducted its KDP-B review.
KDPs are part of NASA’s project management tools to make decisions on whether to proceed with or change programs at various points along their developmental paths. To move into Phase B (preliminary design and technology completion), a program must successfully pass the KDP-B review.
HEOMD Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier told NAC/HEO on July 25 that ARM’s cost has grown, in part because of a one-year delay announced earlier this year. “We had trouble getting the money together for this thing,” he said, and the slip was due to internal budget decisions, not technical problems. ARM is “competing with all the other” development programs in the HEOMD portfolio, which include the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion crew spacecraft, commercial crew, and a habitation module for sending humans to Mars.
The “intent is to live within the effective cap,” but the “effective” cap may be larger than $1.25 billion if it is adjusted for inflation and the one-year delay. The question, he said, is “can we legitimately stay within the cap and remove content such that we stay within the cost cap, or are we better off asking for an exception.” He projected that when a formal memo about the KDP-B results is released – which he anticipated in early August -- it would show a range of budgets, adding that is not unusual for a KDP-B review.
Gerstenmaier strongly defended ARM as a critical element of the Journey to Mars not only at the NAC meetings, but at a July hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee. At the hearing, he also pleaded that Congress not be overly prescriptive in telling NASA how to accomplish its missions, but to allow the technical experts to make those decisions.
The Months Ahead
Congress may not complete action on the FY2017 funding bills for some months, so whether the House Appropriations Committee’s recommendation stands or is altered in conference may not be known for some time. Senators at the hearing indicated a strong desire to pass a new NASA authorization bill this year. Time is getting short, but that could be another avenue for Congress to express its views on ARM.
In the meantime, NASA – like other government agencies -- is preparing to brief the transition teams for the Clinton and Trump campaigns. The future of the human spaceflight program surely will be a key issue.
Thus the results of the KDP-B review are of special import. NASA did not respond to SpacePolicyOnline.com's most recent request today (August 8) asking when the results would be made public.