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Civil News

Rumors Start about a Continuing Resolution as Congressional Clock Ticks Down

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Jul-2014 (Updated: 22-Jul-2014 09:59 PM)

Rumors are circulating that Congress may try to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government funded after September 30 before they leave for their August recess. Nothing has been decided yet, however. 

The House is moving through the 12 regular FY2015 appropriations bills at a fairly fast clip, but none of them has passed the Senate.  Hopes that three of the bills could be bundled together as a "minibus" and passed by the Senate died last month over a disagreement about the rules for considering amendments during floor debate.  The three bills include two that fund space activities: Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS), of which NASA and NOAA are part, and Transportation-HUD bill, which funds the FAA and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation.  The third bill is the Agriculture appropriations.

Congress will be in session this week and next.  Then it will recess for the month of August.  When they return, the House is scheduled to be in session for only 10 days in September and the first two days of October before recessing to campaign for the November elections.   The Senate website does not show how many days it plans to be in session once it returns. 

FY2014 ends on September 30.  If funding bills -- individually or as a CR -- are not passed by then, the government would have to shut down the unfunded activities.  Last year, most of the government was shut down for 16 days.  Ninety-eight percent of NASA workers were furloughed.

The shutdown, led by Tea Party Republicans, was over Obamacare and government-wide funding levels.  At the time, many Washington pundits argued that the Tea Party lost a lot of support because of the shutdown, but a year later that is not so clear.  The Hill reports today that passing a CR before the August recess "could be a way to squelch any talk of a shutdown before it begins."

 

President Obama Meets with Apollo 11 Crew

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Jul-2014 (Updated: 22-Jul-2014 09:30 PM)

President Obama met with the two surviving Apollo 11 astronauts and the widow of the third today in the Oval Office.  In a statement, he praised NASA for building on their legacy and preparing for the next "giant leap in human exploration."

As part of the celebration of the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11's trip to the Moon, Obama met with Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin and Command Module Pilot Mike Collins, and Carol Armstrong, widow of Commander Neil Armstrong.  The meeting was memorialized in a photo posted on NASA's website (without a photo credit).

President Obama meets with Apollo 11's Mike Collins and Buzz Aldrin (facing the camera) and NASA Administrator
Charlie Bolden and Carol Armstrong, widow of Neil Armstrong (with their backs to the camera).  July 22, 2014

Obama's brief statement contained no new policy guidance.  He hit upon the familiar civil space themes of his administration -- NASA's role in inspiring others, including himself, to "dream bigger and reach higher," and NASA's new partnerships with the commercial sector. NASA is  building on the legacy of Apollo 11 and its crew by preparing for the next steps in exploration "including the first visits of men and women to deep space, to an asteroid, and someday to the surface of Mars," he said, all in partnership with the commercial sector.

Apollo 11 was launched on July 16, 1969.  Armstrong and Adrin became the first humans to set foot on the Moon on July 20.  They returned home, splashing down in the Pacific, on July 24.

What's Happening in Space Policy July 20-25, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Jul-2014 (Updated: 21-Jul-2014 11:41 AM)

This week's list of upcoming space policy events starts with tonight -- Sunday, July 20, the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon.  At 10:39 pm EDT, NASA TV will replay footage of the historic moment of hatch opening and other events.  More commemorative Apollo 11 45th anniversary events are planned throughout the week, as listed below.

During the Week

Apollo 11 45th anniversary:   Commemorative events continue tomorrow (Monday) when the Operations and Checkout  building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) will be renamed in honor of Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, who passed away in 2012.  His Apollo 11 crewmates, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins, will participate in the ceremony, along with Armstrong's backup for the mission, Jim Lovell.   The event begins at 10:15 am EDT.  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and KSC Director Bob Cabana -- both former astronauts -- also will be there, along with a live video hookup with the two NASA astronauts who are aboard the International Space Station (ISS) right now, Steve Swanson and Reid Wiseman.  

On Thursday, July 24, the anniversary of Apollo 11's return from the Moon, the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee will have a live video hookup with Swanson and Wiseman at 11:00 am EDT followed by an event that showcases ISS research and features a panel discussion with three leaders in the ISS research field (12:00-2:00 pm EDT).  Then, at 3:00 pm PACIFIC time (6:00 pm Eastern), NASA will hold a panel discussion at Comic-Con International in San Diego.  That features Apollo 11's Buzz Aldrin, Jim Green, the head of NASA's planetary science division, JPL's Bobak Ferdowsi, best known as the "Mohawk guy" from the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, and astronaut Mike Fincke.  A media availability with the panel members follows the discussion.

Other Events:   On Wednesday, the Marshall Institute will hold a panel discussion on the national security launch industrial base.  Josh Hartman, who was one of the members of the "Mitchell panel" that recently reviewed options for dealing with the possibility that the supply of Russia's RD-180 rocket engines for the Atlas V rocket could be disrupted, will talk about "issues and opportunities," along with Scott Pace of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute.  That's from 9:00-10:30 am EDT at the Army Navy Club in Washington, DC. 

NASA's Ames Research Center in California is the venue for the "Exploration Science Forum" from July 21-23, and NewSpace 2014, the annual conference of the Space Frontier Foundation, begins on July 24 in San Jose, CA.

Lots of other events are on tap, as listed below based on what we know as of Sunday afternoon, July 20.

Sunday, July 20

Monday, July 21

Monday-Wednesday, July 21-23

Tuesday, July 22

Wednesday, July 23

Wednesday-Thursday, July 23-24

Thursday, July 24

Thursday-Saturday, July 24-26

NRC Finds Too Much Hype About In-Space 3-D Printing

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Jul-2014 (Updated: 18-Jul-2014 03:54 PM)

The National Research Council (NRC) released a report today that makes no bones about its skepticism regarding the utility of 3-D printing in space at the present time, saying claims in the popular press are “exaggerated” and it is no “magic solution.”

Formally called “additive manufacturing,” this technology allows three-dimensional (3-D) parts to be built directly from computer files.  It has been in use terrestrially since the 1980s and is becoming more wide-spread. Using it in space presents unique challenges, however.  The vacuum, lack of gravity and intense thermal fluctuations are obstacles that must be overcome; they are important not only in completing the manufacturing process, but in the integrity of the final product, according to the NRC.

Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert D. Latiff  (Ret.), who chaired the NRC committee, and his colleagues found that while 3-D printing “is a fairly mature technology for components that can be manufactured on the ground, its application in space is not feasible today, except for very limited and experimental purposes.”

“Many of the claims made in the popular press about this technology have been exaggerated,” Latiff said in a press release.  Even in the longer term, it will be “one more tool in the toolbox” and “not a magic solution.”

That is not to say that the committee rejected the idea of in-space 3-D printing entirely.  Indeed, the report begins by saying it has “the potential to positively affect human spaceflight operations by enabling the in-orbit manufacturing of replacement parts and tools,” thereby reducing logistics requirements for the International Space Station (ISS) and human trips beyond low Earth orbit.  However, the “specific benefits and potential scope … remain undetermined, and there has been a substantial degree of exaggeration, even hype, about its capabilities in the short term.”

As for the longer term, “[w]hat can be accomplished in the far future depends on many factors, including decisions made today by NASA and the Air Force.” The study was sponsored by those two entities and offering them advice is the focus of the NRC report.

Many of the recommendations involve the two working together in this field.  Indeed, the report’s first recommendation is that NASA and the Air Force jointly “research, identify, develop and gain consensus on standard qualification and certification methodologies for different applications,” and bring in other government agencies and industry as well.  The committee also recommends a joint cost-benefit analysis of 3-D printing for building smaller, more reliable satellite systems or their key components.

Among the committee’s recommendations for NASA alone is that the agency sponsor a workshop to bring together experts in the field and improve communications internally and externally since input from multiple disciplines is required.  It should also create an agency-wide technology roadmap and quickly identify experiments that it can develop and test aboard the ISS while that facility is still available.  Under current plans, ISS will operate until 2024, just 10 more years.

The Air Force should also develop a roadmap, conduct a systems-analytic study of the operational utility of spacecraft and their components produced with 3-D printing, and “make every effort” to cooperate with NASA on technology development.  That includes conducting its own research on the ISS, jointly sharing the costs and the results with NASA.

Both agencies should consider increased investments in education and training of materials scientists with this expertise and spacecraft designers and engineers with deep knowledge of the use and development of 3-D printing, the committee recommended.

Latiff is a materials scientist himself and spent part of his military career at the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).  Later he was vice president, chief engineer, and technology officer for SAIC’s space and geospatial intelligence unit.  He is a former chair of the NRC’s National Materials and Manufacturing Board (of which he is still a member) and of the NRC’s Air Force Studies Board.  A full roster of committee members is provided in the report, which can be downloaded for free from the website of the National Academies Press.

New Obama Sanctions Seem to Skirt Space Activities, But Future is Unknowable

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Jul-2014 (Updated: 17-Jul-2014 10:13 PM)

It is impossible to know how the Malaysian airliner crash in Ukraine today (July 17) will affect U.S.-Russian relationships, but yesterday the Obama Administration imposed new sanctions on certain Russian economic sectors because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine up to that point.  One Russian company that was sanctioned, NPO Mashinstroyennia, has a renowned history in Soviet space activities, but apparently is not involved in many space activities currently.

U.S.-Russian relationships have been on edge since Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula earlier this year.  The Obama Administration has invoked a number of sanctions against Russian individuals and entities.   Some NASA activities have been impacted, but the most high profile – such as the International Space Station (ISS) – were exempted.  The deteriorating relationship has focused attention on U.S. dependence on Russia for taking astronauts to and from the ISS, for the RD-180 engines for United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket, and the for NK-33/AJ-26 engines for Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares rocket, however.

Yesterday, the Obama Administration issued new sanctions.  Among the Russian entities on the list is NPO MASHINOSTROYENIA – “NPO Mash” – an important player in Soviet space activities.  Founded by Vladimir Chelomi, it developed the Almaz series of military space stations launched in the 1970s ( Salyut 2, 3 and 5 --  though Salyut 2 was a failure).  It was not able to compete effectively with its rival, Energia, in space activities, but survives because of other lines of business.

Currently its primary business is cruise missiles according to Anatoly Zak, an expert on Soviet and Russian space activities and editor of RussianSpaceWeb.com.  In an email, Zak said that NPO Mash is not involved in any of the three major cooperative space activities with the United States – the RD-180 or NK-33/AJ-26 rocket engines or the ISS.

Until now it appears that all of the U.S.-imposed sanctions based on the Ukraine situation have barely impacted U.S.-Russian space relationships. Three Russians, two Americans and one German are currently aboard the ISS.

What will happen in the wake of events today – where Ukrainian and some U.S. sources assert that a Russian surface-to-air missile operated by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine shot down Malaysia’s commercial airline flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur – is unknowable.

Many commentators today are theorizing that there was no intention to destroy a commercial airliner and cite two previous incidents where military errors led to the loss of innocent lives on commercial airlines.  In 1983, the Soviet Union shot down Korean Air Lines (KAL) 007, from New York to Seoul, because it said the airplane encroached on restricted airspace.   In 1988, a U.S. Aegis cruiser destroyed Iran Air 655, a commercial flight from Tehran to Dubai, mistaking it for an attacking military jet.  The death toll for KAL007 was 269; from Iran Air 655 was 290; and from today’s MH17 was 295.

Orbital's Antares Sends Orb-2 Cargo Mission to ISS

Len Ly
Posted: 13-Jul-2014 (Updated: 13-Jul-2014 10:12 PM)

WALLOPS ISLAND, Va.—Like a giant flame against a mostly clear sky, an Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket carrying the company’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft blasted off today (July 13) en route to the International Space Station (ISS).

Cygnus is in orbit and all systems are operating nominally, said Frank Culbertson, Orbital’s executive vice president, at a post-launch press conference at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility shortly after the launch.  The cargo resupply mission, dubbed “Orb-2,” is the second of eight that Orbital has planned through 2016 under a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA worth $1.9 billion.  NASA’s other commercial cargo resupply provider is SpaceX.

Cygnus is scheduled to arrive at ISS on Wednesday (July 16) where it will be grappled by astronauts using the Canadarm2 robotic arm at approximately 6:39 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (EDT). The capsule will deliver approximately 3,300 pounds of cargo, of which about half is food and the remainder includes hardware, experiments, other supplies and more than 30 cubesats.

NASA was happy the launch finally took place because things were “getting to be where it was a little tense” with supplies aboard the ISS said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, at the post-launch briefing.  He stressed that establishing a regular cadence of resupply flights is very important.  But “things went really smooth” today he said of the on-time 12:52 p.m. EDT liftoff from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops.

 “An enhanced version of Cygnus will begin flying next year,” Culbertson added, and eventually Cygnus will be able carry 700 kilograms more than the current version.  Europe’s last Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) is being readied for launch.  In future years, other cargo systems, such as Cygnus, will have to compensate for the absence of the ATV.   Japan’s HTV also delivers cargo to the ISS.  Gerstenmaier said four more are planned and NASA is in talks with Japan about whether there will be more after that.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden made an unannounced appearance at the Wallops Visitor Center prior to the launch to talk with students and other visitors about the agency’s ongoing efforts to engage with the public and encourage kids to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields.

Orb-1 was launched in January 2014.  Orb-2 was originally scheduled for May, but slipped several times.  An initial postponement was due to a delay in the launch of SpaceX’s third cargo resupply mission to the ISS. A fire during a test of an Antares AJ-26 rocket engine at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in May caused Orb-2’s launch date to slip several more times to July. Then weather issues delayed the launch from July 11 until today.  

This Cygnus will remain attached to the ISS until August 15.  The next in the series, Orb-3, is tentatively scheduled for launch in October 2014.

What's Happening in Space Policy July 13-18, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Jul-2014 (Updated: 14-Jul-2014 09:49 AM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events for the upcoming week, July 13-18, 2014, and any insight we can offer about them.   The House and Senate will be in session.

During the Week

Hopefully this week will get off to a roaring start -- literally -- with the launch of Orbital Sciences Corporation's Orb-2 cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS).  Delayed a number of times, as of mid-afternoon today (Saturday) Orbital's Antares rocket is scheduled to lift off from Wallops Island, VA at 12:52 pm ET tomorrow (Sunday, July 13) sending the Cygnus spacecraft to the ISS.  If the launch does, in fact, take place tomorrow, Cygnus should arrive at the ISS on Wednesday.  Follow us on Twitter @SpcPlcyOnline for up to date information on the launch.

The Senate Appropriations Committee will markup the FY2015 defense appropriations bill this week (subcommittee markup is on Tuesday, full committee on Thursday).  One of the more interesting space policy-related issues will be whether it allocates any funding for the Air Force to begin a program to develop an alternative to Russia's RD-180 rocket engines.  The House version of the bill adds $220 million to do so even though the White House opposes the addition because it is "premature."   The Senate Armed Services Committee recommended $100 million in FY2015 in its version of the National Defense Authorization Act, but that bill has not passed the Senate yet.

U.S. dependence on Russian rocket engines is among the topics to be explored at a joint hearing on Wednesday before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  The hearing on Options for Assuring Domestic Access to Space features witnesses from DOD, NASA, GAO and RAND, as well as the chair (retired AF Maj. Gen. Howard Mitchell) of a recent Air Force review of alternatives to the RD-180 and the very recently retired head of NASA's Space Launch System and Orion programs (Dan Dumbacher).  It's somewhat interesting that NASA will be represented by Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot instead of Administrator Charlie Bolden, who would be closer in rank to the other agency witnesses:  Gen. William Shelton, Commander of Air Force Space Command, and Alan Estevez, Principle Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.  Lightfoot, however, is a former director of NASA's rocket-building Marshall Space Flight Center so knows rockets inside and out.

Lots of other interesting events coming up this week.  The full list of events that we know of as of Saturday afternoon is shown below.

Sunday, July 13

Monday, July 14

Tuesday, July 15

Wednesday, July 16

Thursday, July 17

Thursday-Friday, July 17-18

SpaceX One Step Closer to AF EELV Contracts & Gets FAA OK for Texas Launch Site

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Jul-2014 (Updated: 11-Jul-2014 10:50 PM)

SpaceX announced today (July 11) that the Air Force has certified that the company's Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket has successfully completed three flights.  That is one of the steps required before SpaceX can be awarded contracts from the Air Force for launches within the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.  Separately, on Wednesday it received approval from the FAA to conduct launches from a new launch site it plans to build in Texas.

The Air Force decision comes at a time when the SpaceX-Air Force relationship is rather strained.  The company is suing the Air Force because it awarded a block-buy contract to United Launch Alliance (ULA) last year for 36 EELV cores on a sole-source basis rather than allowing SpaceX to compete.  The Air Force and the Justice Department filed a motion last week asking the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to dismiss the suit.

Today's brief announcement by SpaceX is carefully worded to say that the Air Force certified that the Falcon 9 system successfully completed three flights, not that the company has been certified to win EELV contracts.   While asserting that it is "already qualified to compete for EELV missions," SpaceX said today it "must also be certified by the Air Force before any contract can be awarded..."   The statement concludes by saying that it expects to satisfy the remaining requirements by the end of this year.

SpaceX and the Air Force signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) in June 2013 that details the requirements SpaceX must meet to win contracts for EELV-class launches of national security satellites.  They include an evaluation of the Falcon 9's flight history, vehicle design, reliability, process maturity, safety systems, manufacturing and operations, systems engineering, risk management, and launch facilities.  Achieving three successful flights of a common configuration of the Falcon 9 is part of that evaluation.

In February 2014, the Air Force certified the first successful flight under the CRADA.  That launch, of a Canadian science satellite and five smaller satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base, took place on September 29, 2013 and was the first of the Falcon 9 v1.1.  The other two flights, on December 3, 2013 and January 6, 2014, now also have been certified as successful.  Both of those were from Cape Canaveral and launched commercial communications satellites for SES and Thailand, respectively.

Separately, on July 9 the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved SpaceX's plans to conduct launches from a new launch site the company plans to build south of Brownsville, TX.  The Record of Decision provides FAA's final environmental determination and approval to support issuing launch licenses and/or experimental permits to launch the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy (still in development) "and a variety of reusable suborbital vehicles" from 68.9 acres adjacent to the village of Boca Chica.  The location is in Cameron County, TX, and is approximately 3 miles north of the U.S./Mexico border.  The approval is for up to 12 "commercial launch operations" per year.

Meanwhile, SpaceX is getting ready for another attempt to launch six Orbcomm second generation (OG2) communications satellites on Monday, July 14.  That launch has been delayed several times for a variety of technical or weather-related reasons.

Posey, Kilmer Introduce ASTEROIDS Act To Grant Property Rights to Asteroid Resources - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Jul-2014 (Updated: 17-Jul-2014 10:29 AM)

Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) introduced the American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities in Deep Space (ASTEROIDS) Act today that they say will establish and protect property rights for commercial exploration and exploitation of asteroids.

Two U.S. companies prominently promoting the potential of asteroid mining are Planetary Resources, headquartered in Redmond, WA, and Deep Space Industries in Houston, TX.

In a statement, Posey and Kilmer said that while it may be many years before asteroids actually are mined for their resources, the research is underway now and companies need greater certainty about property rights to what they are mining.  Nickel, iron, cobalt and platinum-group minerals (platinum, osmium, iridium, ruthenium, rhodium and palladium) are specifically cited as potential minerals that might be mined on asteroids.  They say that their bill will --

  • Clarify that resources mined from an asteroid are the property of the entity that obtained them
  • Ensure U.S. companies can conduct their operation without harmful interference
  • Direct the President to facilitate commercial development of asteroid resources

The major issue is whether such property rights in space are legal under international law.  The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to which the United States and 102 other countries are signatories, prohibits claims of national sovereignty in outer space, including on the Moon and other celestial bodies, which includes asteroids.   The treaty also states that governments bear responsibility for the actions by both government and non-government entities -- such as private companies -- to ensure that they abide by the treaty's provisions. 

Scholars in space law have long argued over whether the treaty prohibits exploitation of resources entirely.  In 2004, the Board of Directors of the International Institute of Space Law (IISL) issued a statement that "prohibition of national appropriation also precludes the application of any national legislation on a territorial basis to validate a 'private claim'" and it is the "duty" of governments to "implement the terms of the treaty within their national legal systems."   The IISL statement was spurred by a company that purports to sell deeds to parcels on the Moon, but has broader applicability.  The IISL issued a further statement in 2009 to clarify its position that "any purported attempt to claim ownership of any part of outer space ... or authorization of such claims by national legislation, is forbidden.... Since there is no territorial jurisdiction in outer space or on celestial bodies, there can be no private ownership of parts thereof...."  It calls for a "specific legal regime" to be "elaborated through the United Nations, on the basis of present international space law."

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty is one of five space treaties negotiated through the United Nations.  The United States is signatory to four of the five.  A synopsis of all five treaties can be found under the "space law" tab on SpacePolicyOnline.com's home page.

A spokesman for Posey's office said that the bill repeatedly states that it should be implemented "consistent with international obligations" and does not confer ownership rights to asteroids.  It only "allows those companies that mine the asteroid to keep what they bring back."  The bill affects only U.S. companies engaged in such activities.

Tanja Masson-Zwaan, Deputy Director of the International Institute of Air & Space Law at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, agrees that existing treaties do not seem to prohibit ownership of extracted resources, but adds that exploitation of space resources must comply with general space law principles.

Michael Listner, founder and principal at Space Law and Policy Solutions in New Hampshire, says that the bill is "crafted with international law in mind," but the underlying caveat that property rights will be granted in accordance with international obligations could be a "showstopper."  He also points out that the European Space Agency (ESA) is "planning on granting resource rights as well" and asks how claims under this legislation would be reconciled with competing foreign claims.

Marco Ferrazzani, ESA Legal Counsel, said in a July 17 email to SpacePolicyOnline.com that "the European Space Agency is working towards exploration opportunities carried out in international cooperation and in full respect of international space law, with provides for the principle of non-appropriation."

UPDATE:  This article was updated on July 17, 2014 to add the quote from ESA's Marco Ferrazzani.

NASA IG: Scientists Like SOFIA, But Changes Needed to Keep it That Way

Len Ly
Posted: 10-Jul-2014 (Updated: 10-Jul-2014 01:25 PM)

Despite its problematic development history, NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) remains capable of contributing to—and is regarded favorably in large part by—the science community, according to a report from NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released Wednesday (July 9).

“However, we understand that the SOFIA Program is competing for limited resources and policymakers will have to decide whether other NASA projects are a higher scientific and budgetary priority,” the 48-page report said.

The airborne observatory—a modified Boeing 747SP plane equipped with an approximately 9-foot diameter telescope—studies the universe in infrared wavelengths. That region of the electromagnetic spectrum is emitted by stars and planets and its trail, though invisible to human eyes, can be analyzed to help scientists better understand how the celestial bodies formed, the chemistry of interstellar material, and the environments around supermassive black holes.

NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center (AFRC, formerly Dryden) and Ames Research Center in California manage SOFIA. The observatory, based at AFRC, can be flown to almost anywhere in the world, exceed a 40,000-foot altitude and return immediately.  The capabilities complement ground- and space-based telescopes by allowing SOFIA to avoid water vapor in the lower atmosphere that can interfere with infrared observations and enable researchers to continuously test new instruments.

NASA began formulating plans for SOFIA in 1991 in partnership with its German counterpart, DLR.  In February of this year, the observatory became fully operational after more than 17 years in development—13 years longer than originally planned, with a development cost of $1.1 billion—more than 300 percent over the original estimate, the OIG report highlighted.  That figure does not include annual operating costs.

SOFIA’s “$3 billion life-cycle cost estimate, which includes a planned 20-year operational life and annual operating costs of approximately $80 million” makes it “the second most expensive operating mission for NASA’s Astrophysics Division after the Hubble Space Telescope.”

The program’s future is currently being debated between Congress and the Obama Administration.

For FY2015, President Obama is asking Congress for $12.3 million for the program.  The program typically is funded at about $80 million per year to cover NASA’s 80 percent share of the operating costs; DLR pays the other 20 percent.

The Obama Administration’s proposal is to mothball SOFIA because of its high operating costs and, in its opinion, lower priority than other NASA astrophysics programs.  The requested funding is to terminate the program in a manner that would allow the observatory to be reactivated in the future if more money is available. NASA has permission to seek other partners to defray some of the operating costs.  NASA, however, has not identified additional partners and DLR has declined to increase its commitment, the OIG report said.  It also found that NASA program officials viewed the proposed $12.3 million as “insufficient even to shut down the program.”

Congress, conversely, is pushing to keep the program alive.

A new NASA authorization bill —which provides policy guidelines and funding recommendations—has yet to pass both chambers. The version passed by the House last month (H.R. 4412) contains language forbidding the agency from using any funds in the current FY2014 to shut down SOFIA. The Senate is working on its version of the bill.

Congress is also working on the FY2015 appropriations bill for NASA, which is part of the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill.  The House version, H.R. 4660, passed in May.  The Senate Appropriations Committee has reported its version (S. 2437), which is awaiting floor action.  The House version allocates $70 million for SOFIA, compared to its FY2014 appropriated level of $86.4 million.  The Senate bill includes $87 million.  Both specifically reject the Administration’s proposal to mothball SOFIA.

The OIG investigation noted the uncertainty about the program’s future and potential ramifications, including “possible reactivation, how to retain key staff, and whether to move forward with planned research and maintenance activities.”

The report identified seven issues for NASA to consider that could affect scientific demand for SOFIA and the observatory’s long-term performance:

  • More Frequent Infusion of New Technology
  • Lack of a Formal Outreach Plan to Engage Science Community
  • Insufficient Funding to Complete Research Projects
  • Lack of Timely Data
  • No Formal Rescheduling Process for Cancelled Observations
  • Research Flight Hour Requirement May Not Provide Most Efficient Use of the Observatory
  • Periodic Assessments Needed to Assess Cost Efficiency of SOFIA’s Science

NASA should also consider alternatives to the cost-plus-fixed-fee contract with the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) in Maryland when it expires in 2016, the OIG said: “Proceeding into the operational phase with an organizational structure and contract type that does not provide management with the proper tools … may not be the most effective and cost efficient option.”

The agency has concurred with the recommendations and proposed corrective actions, the report said.