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Civil News

A Whole New Way of Looking at Jupiter

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-May-2017 (Updated: 26-May-2017 12:11 AM)

NASA released photographs of Jupiter today taken by its Juno spacecraft that show the planet in an entirely new light.  Juno is the first spacecraft to fly around the planet's polar axis and the view from there could not be more different than the familiar image of Jupiter with its red spot that fills textbooks everywhere.

Yes, this is Jupiter.

Jupiter's south pole as seen from NASA's Juno spacecraft at an altitude of 32,000 miles (52,000 kilometers).  Credits:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/SWRI/MSSS/Betsy Asher Hall/Gervasio Robles

The image was taken by the Junocam camera.  Juno was launched in 2011 and arrived at Jupiter on July 4, 2016.  A problem with its engine is preventing mission managers from moving Juno from its initial 53-day highly elliptical orbit into a planned closer 14-day orbit, but it is obtaining amazing data and images nonetheless.

During a media teleconference today, Juno mission scientists from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Planetary Science Institute, and NASA Headquarters described the startling data collected so far.  

"Every 53 days, we go screaming by Jupiter, get doused by a fire hose of Jovian science, and there is always something new," said principal investigator Scott Bolton from SwRI in San Antonio, TX.  "We knew, going in, that Jupiter would throw us some curves" but now "we are finding Jupiter can throw the heat, as well as knuckleballs and sliders."

The images of the poles show they are covered in "Earth-sized swirling storms that are densely clustered and rubbing together," but that is all that is known so far.  Bolton said the two poles do not look like each other, either.

The spacecraft has made five science passes to date and is revealing much about the gaseous planet, the largest in the solar system.  Although other spacecraft have flown by or orbited Jupiter, Juno is the first in an orbit that allows studies of its polar regions.

Artist's concept of Juno, with its three solar panels, orbiting Jupiter's poles.  Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI

Other Juno data are surprising scientists about the planet's magnetic field and thermal radiation.  More images from today's teleconference and a link to press release are posted on NASA's website.


No Good News for FAA Space Office in FY2018 Request

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-May-2017 (Updated: 25-May-2017 02:41 AM)

After successfully fighting to get a budget boost in FY2017, the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) is back to the drawing board in the Trump Administration's FY2018 request.  The office won a $2 million increase to $19.8 million in FY2017, but the FY2018 request is back down to $17.9 billion. The FAA's budget request also includes funding for a space traffic management pilot project.

Advocates for AST have insisted for years that more resources -- money and people -- are needed for the office to keep pace with the growth in the commercial space launch sector.  AST regulates, facilitates and promotes that industry.

Mike Gold chairs AST's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), whose members are representatives of commercial space companies.  Gold told in an interview today that one issue on which all of COMSTAC's members agree is that AST needs more funding.  He noted that it is rare when companies actually ask that more money be allocated to their government regulators, but inadequate resources could "lead to needless delays, create regulatory bottlenecks and stifle innovation."

Mike Gold, Chairman, COMSTAC. Photo credit:  FAA website.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) is another strong supporter of AST, which is part of the Department of Transportation and funded in the Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) appropriations bill.  He testified before the T-HUD subcommittee on March 9 advocating for a $23 million budget for AST in FY2018.  His argument is that space transportation is part of the nation's infrastructure, launching satellites like GPS that are essential to everyday life, and AST needs adequate resources to execute its duties.

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), an industry group of more than 70 companies and organizations, also is urging Congress to fund the office at $23 million. In a March 29, 2017 letter to the chair and ranking member of the Senate T-HUD appropriations subcommittee, the CSF especially cited the need for AST to update outdated regulations.  "It is essential that AST not simply apply additional funds to existing licensing approaches, but in fact actually reengineer those approaches to reduce unnecessary burdens to AST as well as industry."  The funding increase should be used "to fix AST's obsolete regulations, and not simply grow its status quo workforce, nor pursue newer missions with a lower priority than the core licensing function."

The letter and Bridenstine's testimony were prepared before the Trump Administration's budget request for AST was publicly known.  The $23 million would be a $3.2 million increase from the FY2017 level, substantial in and of itself.  Now that the request is only for $17.9 million, winning congressional support to raise it to $23 million will be no mean feat.  Getting it back to its FY2017 level of $19.8 million might be more achievable.  Bridenstine and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) led the fight last year to get the $19.8 million. Kilmer is a member of the House Appropriations Committee; his Seattle-area district is home to companies like Blue Origin and Planetary Resources.  One factor is whether Bridenstine will remain a member of the House and in a position to fight for AST.  He is a candidate to become NASA Administrator.

AST also receives a small amount of money from the Research, Engineering and Development (RE&D) portion of the FAA budget for commercial space transportation safety.  The FY2018 request is $1.796 million, a slight reduction from FY2017.  That money funds its Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation and other R&D activities related to the safe and efficient integration of commercial space transportation into the National Airspace System (NAS).

Integrating commercial space transportation into the NAS is also funded in another part of the FAA's budget -- Facilities & Equipment (F&E) for the Air Traffic Organization (ATO), a different part of the FAA responsible for air traffic control. 

The FAA must clear the airspace around space launches and reentries and is requesting an increase in the F&E FY2018 budget from $2 million to $4.5 million to acquire a Space Data Integrator (SDI) tool that will enable the FAA to safely reduce the amount of airspace that must be closed, respond to unusual scenarios, and release airspace as a mission progresses.

According to the FAA's budget documentation, some of that money also will be used to initiate a pilot program "related to Space Traffic Management" (STM) that will enable FAA to "move toward the goal of monitoring space traffic and reducing the risk of space traffic incidents" and "enable the FAA to monitor space traffic services and their impact to aviation, consistent with the FAA's public safety mission."  The budget document describes the pilot program as funding acquisition of a high performance computing system composed of commercial and governmentally-developed analytical software.  "An initial space situational awareness system comprised of 4 analytical stations with the capability to store and utilize a dynamic orbital object database of roughly 500,000 individual objects will be developed."

STM is an extension of space situational awareness (SSA) -- knowing where space objects are and where they are going in order to avoid collisions.  The Air Force's Joint Space Operations Center (JSPoC) is currently responsible for SSA and computing "conjunction analyses" to warn of potential collisions.  It notifies not only U.S. military users, but commercial and foreign entities (CFEs) as well. 

The Air Force wants the FAA to take over SSA responsibilities for CFEs so JSPoC can focus on military requirements.  Bridenstine and AST Associate Administrator George Nield have been advocating for AST to take on the non-military SSA role for more than a year.  STM implies that an agency has the authority to require a satellite owner to take action to avoid a collision instead of only advising the owner that a collision is possible.  No agency has that authority today, but they view AST as moving into that role over time. 

The pilot program appears to be part of ATO's budget request, however, not AST's.  ATO seems interested in getting involved.  An ATO representative gave a presentation to a Space Traffic Management conference in November 2016 explaining its Commercial Space Integration Team (CSIT) and laying out an "ATO Commercial Space Roadmap."  The budget request does not clarify the respective roles of AST and ATO in this regard.

NOAA's Polar Follow On Bears Brunt of Weather Satellite Cutbacks

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-May-2017 (Updated: 24-May-2017 12:08 AM)

NOAA's FY2018 budget request shows a sharp decline in spending for its satellite programs.  Some of that is due to planned reductions as development programs ramp down, but the Polar Follow On program would suffer a significant cut and plans for new space weather satellites would not materialize. 

NOAA operates the nation's civil geostationary and polar-orbiting weather satellites.  For years, it has been developing a new generation of Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) through the GOES-R program, a set of four satellites (GOES-R, -S, -T and -U).   GOES-R itself was launched last year and redesignated GOES-16, but the series is still referred to as GOES-R.  The budget for that program declines steeply from $753 million appropriated in FY2017 to $519 million requested for FY2018, but it is a planned reduction that was projected in last year's budget.

NOAA is also building a new generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites - the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).  That program is also ramping down as launch of JPSS-1 nears.  It is scheduled for September 2017.  The FY2018 request for JPSS is $776 million, compared to $787 million appropriated for FY2017. 

The JPSS program funds only the first two satellites in the series, however.  The next two spacecraft, JPSS-3 and -4, are called the Polar Follow On (PFO) program. The FY2018 request is for only $180 million, a sharp drop from the $329 million it received for FY2017 and the $586 million that was projected for this program last year.  Projections for the next four years now are shown only as "TBD."

NOAA's budget documentation says the agency will "initiate a re-plan" for PFO and "work to improve its constellation strategy considering all the polar satellite assets to ensure polar weather satellite continuity while seeking cost efficiencies, managing and balancing systems technical risks and leveraging partnerships."

NOAA also is responsible for providing operational space weather data on solar activity that can affect space and ground systems.  It operates the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) and began planning for new satellites to replace it.  The FY2017 budget request called for initiating a new Space Weather Follow-on program of two satellites, the first of which would be launched before DSCOVR exceeds its design lifetime.  The budget request was $2.5 million and Congress doubled that to $5 million.  The projection was for the Space Weather Follow-on to get $53.7 million in FY2018 and ramp up thereafter.  Instead, the FY2018 request is only $500,000.  The Senate just passed the bipartisan Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act (S. 141) to improve space weather forecasting, although it focuses on agency roles and responsibilities, not funding.

The budget request supports NOAA's commercial weather data pilot program, though only at $3 million compared to the $5 million appropriated for FY2017.  It also supports ground systems for radio occultation data (COSMIC-2), but not new satellites.

NASA Holding Its Own, But FY2018 Request Portrays Murky Future

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-May-2017 (Updated: 23-May-2017 11:19 PM)

President Trump's complete FY2018 budget request was sent to Congress today.  It confirms that NASA's budget for the next five years is projected to be flat at $19.062 billion, with no adjustment for inflation. That will complicate efforts to move forward on efforts to send people to Mars.  The request also would terminate a fifth earth science mission -- Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI).  Although NASA fared well compared to many non-defense agencies, it certainly will face challenges.

Last month, NASA Acting Chief Scientist Gale Allen said that with a flat budget, NASA would lose $3.4 billion in buying power over that period of time (FY2018-2022).

President Trump may have been joking when he told Peggy Whitson that he wanted to get people to Mars while he was in office, but his budget request does not even support the Deep Space Gateway that has become the centerpiece of NASA's human spaceflight planning now that the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) is being terminated.  While it is still conceptual, NASA officials describe it as a lunar orbiting facility that could support lunar surface operations by international and commercial partners (NASA still has no plans to return astronauts to the lunar surface itself) and be the embarkation point for astronauts heading to Mars on Deep Space Transports.

During a media briefing today, Acting NASA Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Andrew Hunter said that while the term Deep Space Gateway has been "used externally," it does not appear in the budget request.  Proceeding with the concept is "somewhat inhibited" by the flat, non-inflation adjusted budgets projected for the future, he said, while expressing hope that the Trump Administration and Congress can be convinced to support it later. 

The budget requests for the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft are slightly less than what Congress appropriated for FY2017: $1.938 billion requested for SLS compared with $2.150 billion appropriated in FY2017, and $1.186 billion requested for Orion compared with $1.350 billion appropriated in FY2017. That certainly is not the level of support needed to accelerate human missions to Mars or even to get there in 2033 as proposed in the NASA Transition Authorization Act that Trump signed into law in March.  Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot said today that the budget supports plans to send humans to orbit Mars "in the 2030s."

One surprise in the request today is termination of a fifth earth science mission.  The budget blueprint released in March called for terminating four -- PACE, CLARREO-Pathfinder, OCO-3, and the earth-facing instruments on DSCOVR. The complete budget also calls for canceling the Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI) being built by Harris Corporation for NOAA's JPSS-2 spacecraft.  RBI is a scanning radiometer that would continue measurements of Earth's reflected sunlight and emitted radiation currently obtained by CERES instruments.  It is being terminated because of cost growth and technical challenges.

The budget request confirms that NASA's Office of Education would be eliminated. The request includes $37 million for Education, but that covers only close out costs for grants and salaries, for example.  Hunter said that no funding is included for the Space Grant, EPSCoR or MUREP programs. All are very popular in Congress.  He even conceded that NASA expects Congress to add back money for some of those activities and has not yet determined how they would be managed absent the Office of Education.

Lightfoot summed it all up by saying "The hard choices are still there.  We can't do everything, but we certainly can do a lot."  He characterized the message from the Trump Administration as "keep going."

The budget request is just that -- a request.  Presidents propose budgets, but under the Constitution only Congress decides how much money to spend and on what.  Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, made that point today.  He said his committee would thoroughly analyze Trump's overall budget request for the government and hold hearings: "Only then can Congress put forward our own plan...."

More information about the NASA budget request is in's NASA FY2018 budget fact sheet.

NASA Planning Afternoon of Events for FY2018 Budget Request Rollout

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-May-2017 (Updated: 23-May-2017 12:27 AM)

President Trump will submit his complete FY2018 budget request to Congress tomorrow (Tuesday) and NASA is planning an afternoon-long series of events to highlight what they are doing now and what the budget request proposes for the future.

Although a number of media outlets have stories tonight based on leaked portions of the request, nothing is official until it is released by the Government Publishing Office (GPO).  GPO will post it on its website at 11:00 am ET.   NASA will post its own budget material on its budget website at 12:00 noon ET.

At 12:30 pm ET, Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot will give a State of NASA presentation to employees that will be broadcast on NASA TV. At 5:00 pm ET, Acting Chief Financial Officer Andrew Hunter will brief the media via telecon.  The audio will be livestreamed.

In between, each of the nine NASA field centers plus the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will give Facebook Live virtual tours of selected activities at 20 minute intervals.  The schedule and links to the Facebook pages are in a NASA press release.  First is Glenn Research Center at 1:30 pm ET; last is JPL at 4:30 pm ET.

What we know about the budget request for NASA so far is based on the budget blueprint or "skinny budget" submitted in March and an Excel spreadsheet leaked to a Washington think tank, the Third Way, and posted on its website.  As we reported yesterday, here are the top-line numbers for NASA's budget accounts (in the order they appear in the spreadsheet, which is different from how NASA usually displays them):

  • Space Operations - $4,740.8 million;
  • Science - $5,711.8 million;
  • Safety, Security and Mission Services - $2,830.2 million;
  • Exploration - $3,934.1 million;
  • Aeronautics - $624 million;
  • Education - $37.3 million;
  • Construction and Environmental Compliance - $496.1 million;
  • Space Technology - $678.6 million.

That adds up to $19,052.9 million, which would round to the $19.1 billion advertised in the budget blueprint. Although it represents a reduction of less than 1 percent from NASA's FY2016 funding, which was in effect at the time that was submitted to Congress in March, it is significantly less than what Congress ultimately appropriated for FY2017: $19.65 billion.

It certainly does not support President Trump's exhortation to accelerate plans for sending people to Mars -- at least as a NASA program.  The money for the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion spacecraft, and associated Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) comprises the "Exploration Systems Development" portion of the "Exploration" account.  Congress provided $4,324 million for Exploration in FY2017 of which $3,929 million is for SLS/Orion/EGS.  The Trump budget request for the entire account barely matches that.  The account also funds Exploration Research and Development, for which Congress appropriated $395 million in FY2017.

For FY2017, Congress provided more money in each of the NASA programmatic accounts than what the Administration is requesting for FY2018.  The only two accounts that would get increases in the Trump request compared to FY2017 congressional appropriations are for agency operations: Safety, Security and Mission Services and Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration. (See our FY2017 NASA budget fact sheet for details).

Overall, the Trump budget request provides significant increases for defense spending and compensating cuts to non-defense programs.  All in all, NASA fared pretty well.  According to reports tonight, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) would be cut approximately 20 percent, for example.

Presidential budget requests are just that -- requests.  Under the Constitution, only Congress has the power of the purse, deciding how much money the government may spend and on what.  Even though Republicans now control the House, Senate, and White House, this promises to be yet another difficult debate.

ISS Astronauts Ready for Unplanned Spacewalk

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-May-2017 (Updated: 23-May-2017 12:27 AM)

Two NASA astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) are preparing for an unplanned spacewalk tomorrow (Tuesday) to replace a failed data relay unit that was installed just two months ago.  Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer will begin their spacewalk about 8:00 am ET.

This will be Whitson's 10th spacewalk, tying her with Michael Lopez-Alegria as the NASA astronaut with the most spacewalks, also called extravehicular activity (EVA).   The EVA is supposed to last for about 2.5 hours.  Depending on the precise duration of the EVA, she would become second or third in terms of how many hours NASA astronauts have spent on spacewalks.  Lopez-Alegria currently holds that record at 67 hours 40 minutes.  Russia's Anatoly Solveyev holds the world record of 82 hours 22 minutes on a total of 16 EVAs throughout his career.

Whitson will be joined by NASA astronaut Jack Fischer on his second spacewalk.  NASA TV coverage will begin at 6:30 am ET.

The failure of the multiplexer-demultiplexer (MDM) box on Saturday was completely unexpected.  The ISS has two redundant MDM units and this one was just replaced on a March 30 spacewalk conducted by Whitson and NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough.   The data relay box control ISS radiators, solar arrays, cooling loops and other hardware.  The other MDM is working perfectly.  A software problem is thought to be the problem.   Whitson, who is in command of the ISS, prepared and tested a spare MDM box on Sunday.

On the March 30 EVA, Whitson set a new EVA duration record for a woman, surpassing NASA astronaut Sunita Williams' record of 50 hours and 40 minutes.  Whitson extended her record on a May 12 EVA with Fischer.  She now has 57 hours 35 minutes of time on spacewalks. 

NASA astronauts Jack Fischer (left) and Peggy Whitson (right) preparing for May 12, 2017 spacewalk from the International Space Station.  Photo credit: NASA

What's Happening in Space Policy May 22-27, 2017 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-May-2017 (Updated: 22-May-2017 06:34 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of May 22-27, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week. [Updated with more information about Tuesday's contingency ISS spacewalk].

During the Week

The BIG EVENT this week is release of President Trump's complete FY2018 budget request, which will formally kick off debate thereon more than three months late.  Presidents are supposed to submit their annual budget requests to Congress by the first Monday in February, though the first year of a new President's term is almost always an exception.  Trump sent a "budget blueprint" or "skinny budget" with the broad outlines of his proposal in March. (NASA and NOAA fared pretty well all things considered and defense spending overall would get a big boost.)  Without the details, though, the appropriations committees couldn't get started on hearings and deliberations.  

That will change on Tuesday when the complete budget is expected to be submitted.  Remember -- only Congress has the power of the purse. The President PROPOSES a budget, but only Congress decides how much money will be spent and on what. They are supposed to conclude their budget work by September 30 so the new budget is in place by the beginning of the next fiscal year on October 1, but that rarely happens.  For this year (FY2017), they finally got the budget done on May 5, seven months late.  Considering that this budget request isn't even being submitted until May 23, the chances of bills passing by September 30 are virtually non-existent.  Not to mention that quite a few Republicans and Democrats said the Trump budget was "dead on arrival" because of its substantial cuts to agencies like the State Department, National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  It'll be another long budget debate complete with shutdown threats -- which already have been issued not only by Democrats, but the President himself who tweeted on May 2 that the country needs a "good 'shutdown' in September."  Hang onto your hats.

A Washington think tank, the Third Way, got a leaked copy of an Excel spreadsheet with the budget request numbers for budget accounts throughout the government and posted it on its website.  There's still not enough detail to know what the Administration has in mind for DOD or NOAA space activities, but the budget account breakdown for NASA is there. In the order presented in that spreadsheet (which is different from how NASA usually lists it):  

  • Space Operations - $4,740.8 million;
  • Science -  $5,711.8 million;
  • Safety, Security and Mission Services - $2,830.2 million;
  • Exploration - $3,934.1 million;
  • Aeronautics - $624 million;
  • Education - $37.3 million;
  • Construction and Environmental Compliance - $496.1 million;
  • Space Technology - $678.6 million.

That adds up to $19,052.9 million, which would round to the $19.1 billion advertised in the budget blueprint.  It's significantly lower than the $19.65 billion Congress appropriated for FY2017.  The Administration proposed eliminating NASA's Office of Education so it will be interesting to see what the $37.3 million is for. That's roughly how much money is in the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) budget for its education-related activities, so perhaps it is being moved into the Education budget account instead of Science.  We should know on Tuesday.   DOD and NASA usually hold public budget briefings the day the budget is submitted, but we haven't seen any announcements of those briefings yet. We'll post any information we get.

The House Appropriations Committee will hold a hearing on the FY2018 request for the Department of Commerce on Thursday,  It will cover all of the department's activities, of which NOAA is only one part.  Might be interesting, though.

The Senate Commerce space subcommittee will hold a non-budget related hearing on Tuesday.  It will hear testimony from two panels of witnesses on the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and whether it needs to be modified to reflect all that has changed in the intervening 50 years.  Witnesses include space lawyers and representatives of companies affected by the treaty's provisions.

On Thursday, the annual International Space Development Conference (ISDC) gets underway in St. Louis.   On Friday, NASA will have a briefing on what's going up to the International Space Station (ISS) on the next SpaceX cargo mission, SpX-11. The launch itself is scheduled for June 1.

One of the two mulitplexer-demultiplexer (MDM) data relay boxes on the ISS failed yesterday.  The crew is fine, but NASA wants to replace it sooner rather than later.  It announced today (Sunday) that a contingency spacewalk will take place no earlier than Tuesday.   A final decision on when and which astronauts will conduct the spacewalk is expected later today.  Peggy Whitson, currently in command of the ISS, surely will be one of the two. It would be her 10th spacewalk.  The question is whether her partner will be NASA's Jack Fischer or ESA's Thomas Pesquet.  We'll post more information when it becomes available. [UPDATE:  Whitson and Fischer will conduct the spacewalk on Tuesday, May 23, beginning about 8:00 am ET.  NASA TV coverage begins 6:30 am ET.]

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for others we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.

Tuesday, May 23

Tuesday-Wednesday, May 23-24

Tuesday-Thursday, May 23-25

Thursday, May 25

Thursday-Monday, May 25-29

Friday, May 26

Correction: The Space Diplomacy event on Thursday is in 2043 Rayburn, not 2062 as we originally posted.

GAO Gives NASA Mixed Results for Management of Major Projects

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-May-2017 (Updated: 16-May-2017 11:20 PM)

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) gave NASA mixed results in its annual review of the agency's major projects.  Although cost and schedule performance for most of NASA's portfolio continues to improve, two projects -- InSight and an update of the space communications network -- have significant cost or schedule growth.  Eight others, including the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew spacecraft, are entering the phase of their development cycle where problems are most likely to occur.  GAO warned that cost increases or schedule delays for SLS/Orion could have "substantial repercussions" for NASA's entire portfolio. NASA announced a delay of the first SLS/Orion launch just last week.

Today's report is GAO's ninth assessment of NASA's major projects since Congress directed it to conduct these reviews in a 2009 appropriations bill.  GAO gave NASA a nod for maintaining recent improvements in maturing technologies for its projects to the level recommended by GAO best practices and for improved design stability.  It also pointed to improved project management tools to manage acquisition risk, but cautioned that resource constraints have prevented NASA from implementing a best practice for monitoring contractor performance that GAO recommended in 2012.  It also continues to monitor the effect of NASA's 2015 decision to eliminate its independent program assessment office

For this year's report, GAO identified 22 NASA "major projects" on which the agency will spend a total of more than $6 billion in FY2017 and $59 billion over their lifecycles.  The report discusses 21 of them.  It excludes OSIRIS-REx since it has been launched already.   Sixteen of the 21 are in the implementation phase; the others are in formulation.  (A project transitions from formulation to implementation at the Key Decision Point-C or KDP-C milestone.)   Four of the 21 are assessed for the first time in this report:  Landsat 9; Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE); Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI); and Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).   Two of the projects assessed in the report have been recommended for termination by the Trump Administration:  PACE and the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM, part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission).

NASA won praise for overall management of its projects:  "The overall cost and schedule performance of NASA's portfolio of major projects continues to improve--a trend that began in 2013."  For the portfolio of 16 projects in the implementation phase, cost growth declined to 15.6 percent from 17.3 percent last year.  Average launch delay declined to 7 months from 8 months. 

However, the InSight Mars mission and the Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment (SGSS) project are concerns. The launch of InSight was delayed two years because of a technical problem with one of its instruments.  Costs for SGSS are rising "due to continued problems with contractor performance."  Two others also are worrying:  ICESat-2, whose cost and schedule are under review because technical issues with its only instrument, the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS); and the commercial crew program, whose contractors (SpaceX and Boeing) have notified NASA that development and certification will slip from 2017 to 2018.

Also, GAO noted that eight projects are at the point where most rebaselines occur -- between critical design review and systems integration review.  They include SLS, Orion, and their associated Exploration Ground Systems (EGS), the three components of NASA's deep space human exploration program.

GAO warned that since SLS, Orion, and EGS represent more than half of the money in NASA's development portfolio, "a cost increase or delay could have substantial repercussions not only for these programs, but for NASA's entire portfolio." 

Indeed, NASA announced days ago that the first launch of SLS and Orion -- Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), which will not have a crew -- will be delayed from November 2018 to sometime in 2019.  NASA is still determining when the launch will take place. 

In addition to an overview of NASA's management of its major projects portfolio, GAO provides a two-page summary of each of the 21 projects assessed in the report

  • Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission
  • Commercial Crew Program
  • Europa Clipper
  • Exploration Ground Systems
  • Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-on (GRACE FO)
  • Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2)
  • Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight)
  • Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON)
  • James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)
  • Landsat 9
  • Mars 2020
  • NASA ISRO -- Synthetic Aperture Radar
  • Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle
  • Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE)
  • Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI)
  • Solar Probe Plus (SPP)
  • Space Launch System (SLS)
  • Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment (SGSS)
  • Surface Water and Topography (SWOT)
  • Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS)
  • Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST)

Cardin Vows to Continue Mikulski's Advocacy for NASA, NOAA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-May-2017 (Updated: 15-May-2017 11:12 PM)

Acknowledging that he has big shoes to fill, Maryland's new senior Senator Ben Cardin  (D-MD) vowed to continue the space advocacy exhibited by his retired colleague Sen. Barbara Mikulski.   She was legendary in her influential support for NASA and NOAA activities in Maryland.  With her retirement, many worry that support for NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, MD and NOAA's headquarters and other facilities in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC may wane.  Cardin made it clear that would not be the case.

Cardin was elected to the Senate in 2006 after two decades in the House.  With Mikulski's retirement, he becomes the state's senior Senator and leader of Maryland's 10-member congressional delegation.  Chris Van Hollen, also a Democrat, was elected to fill Mikulski's seat and he is now the junior Senator.  The other members (seven Democrats and one Republican) represent Maryland's eight congressional districts.

Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD).  Photo credit:  Sen. Cardin's Senate website.

In his debut at the Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR) today, Cardin sounded themes that would have been familiar to Mikulski.  He highlighted the number of jobs in Maryland due to space activities, saying that "if you're a Senator from Maryland, you better pay attention to space.  I get it."  He listed his priorities for NASA, all of which have a home at GSFC:  Landsat 9; the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) earth science program; the Hubble, James Webb, and WFIRST space telescopes; the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) for planetary defense; and the RESTORE-L satellite servicing technology development program. He also expressed support for NOAA's weather and space weather satellite programs and NASA's heliophysics research satellite Solar Probe Plus. 

Cardin does not serve on any of the Senate committees that deal with space activities, but he is the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and noted several times the importance of many of these programs to national security.

It was evident that he is still getting up to speed on space issues, but he became more impassioned as his remarks turned to related topics - climate change science, privatization, and restoring "regular order" to Congress to enable passage of timely, bipartisan government funding bills. 

He is concerned about cuts proposed by the Trump Administration to basic science across the government, not only to programs at NASA like PACE, but also to the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency.  He said he was at the March for Science in April and stressed the need for Congress to get input from scientists to make good science policy.  His voice rising, he excoriated the politicization of climate change science asking why is it controversial when it is so important not only for the environment, not only for public health, but for national security and jobs.  "For some reason this has become a wedge political issue in American politics. ... Why would we want to deny you [scientists] the tools you need?"

Public private partnerships (PPPs) were another topic on which he has strong feelings.  He supports PPPs, but worries they lack public accountability.   "We need to have public private partnerships, but ...  I want to make sure we have governmental oversight and accountability. When you privatize you lose that. ... Government needs to maintain its role. We're going to fight to do that."

As for the budget, Cardin noted that Congress was able to work together on a bipartisan basis to finalize the FY2017 funding bill and argued that should be the model for future budget bills -- except they should be done on time. Congress needs to return to "regular order" where bills go through the traditional process of hearings and markups and members "work together and not allow any extreme group in the Congress to control what happens."  

"The worst results for the space program in Maryland" and for the nation overall would be if no budget passed and a government shutdown ensued, or a sequester went into effect, or there was a default on the debt, or the government had to operate on Continuing Resolutions.  A coordinated strategy is needed, he said, and he vowed to lead the Maryland congressional delegation to get a budget passed and advance the space program.  Although he does not serve on the committees that oversee NASA or NOAA, Van Hollen is a member of the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds both those agencies and Reps. Andy Harris and Dutch Ruppersberger are on the House Appropriations Committee (though not on its CJS subcommittee).

Cardin pointed out the considerable differences between what is in the FY2017 budget and what the Trump Administration proposed for FY2018 in its budget blueprint or "skinny budget" in March.  With or without a coordinated strategy, therefore, it seems quite unlikely that Congress will be able to complete work on the FY2018 budget before October 1 when the fiscal year begins.  The Trump Administration has not even submitted the detailed budget yet.  The latest rumor is that will happen on May 23.

What's Happening in Space Policy May 15-19, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-May-2017 (Updated: 15-May-2017 10:36 AM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of May 15-19, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

The D.C. space community looked forward every year to Sen. Barbara Mikulski's (D-MD) annual speech to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR) to get her take on the congressional landscape for civil space.   She retired at the end of last year, making Sen. Ben Cardin the senior Senator from Maryland and he will take her spot this year.  His talk is tomorrow (Monday) at Martin's Crosswinds in Greenbelt, MD.  [Curiously, the MSBR website today does not show this event, but it seems to have reverted to a 2015 schedule instead of 2017.  MSBR assures us the luncheon is on.]

Cardin was elected to the Senate in 2006 after two decades in the House, but left space program issues to Mikulski so probably is not well known to readers of this website.  He does not serve on any of the Senate committees responsible for NASA or NOAA, so this will be the first opportunity for many to hear his views.  Mikulski's successor, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, won assignment to the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee on which Mikulski served for so many years (sometimes as chair), but as a freshman will not have as much power as she did.  Cardin has 10 years of seniority in the Senate overall, so could be more influential even though he does not sit on the space committees. 

Senator Ben Cardin (D-Maryland).  Photo Credit:  Senator Cardin's Senate website.

On Tuesday, a seminar entitled "On the Launchpad: Return to Deep Space" will be held at the Newseum in Washington, DC from 1:00-5:00 pm ET and will be webcast.  For those planning to watch the webcast, note that the session itself is only from 1:30-4:00 pm ET. The rest of the time is for registration at the beginning and a reception afterwards.  It has an interesting lineup of speakers.  Among them are NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot; Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), chair of the Senate Commerce space subcommittee; former NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan; Bob Zubrin of the Mars Society; Chris Carberry of Explore Mars; Mary Lynne Dittmar of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration; and former astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria.

Heather Wilson was confirmed as Secretary of the Air Force last week and this week she gets her first turn at the witness table in that position.  On Wednesday, she will testify along with the top Air Force space leadership (Gen. David Goldfein, Gen. John Raymond, and Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves)  and Cristina Chaplain of the Government Accountability Office.  The hearing, "Military Space Organization, Policy and Programs," is before the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC).  SASC usually webcasts its hearings on its website.   

The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) hasn't posted its hearing schedule yet, but the National Journal's Daybook reports that HASC will have a national security space hearing itself on Friday.  The witness list isn't available yet, but the title is "FY2018 Priorities and Posture of the National Security Space Enterprise."  We'll add more information to our calendar entry when it is available.

Meanwhile, everyone is waiting for President Trump to submit his full FY2018 budget request to Congress.  He sent up a budget blueprint or "skinny budget" in March, but the details were missing (this is common in a new President's first year).  There were rumors a couple of weeks ago that it would be submitted on May 15, but more recent rumors are that it will be May 22.  FY2018 begins on October 1, so everyone needs to get rolling on that.  If you thought reaching agreement on FY2017 was tough, that was child's play compared to FY2018 when, by law, the budget caps established by the 2011 Budget Control Act are back in force.  Some congressional Republicans and Democrats declared the March budget request dead on arrival due to its huge cuts to agencies like the State Department, National Institutes of Health, and Environmental Protection Agency, all while sharply increasing military spending.  All things considered, NASA did pretty well in the budget blueprint.  NOAA's two main weather satellite programs (JPSS and GOES-R) also are OK, but cuts apparently are in store for NOAA's other satellite activities.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for others we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.

Monday, May 15

Monday-Tuesday, May 15-16

Monday-Friday, May 15-19

Tuesday, May 16

Wednesday, May 17

Friday, May 19


Note:  This article was updated to reflect the confirmation from MSBR that the Cardin luncheon is, indeed, on for tomorrow, and to add the IAA Planetary Defense conference in Tokyo.