A House hearing yesterday (February 3) underscored the dilemma facing NASA as it looks ahead to the future of its human spaceflight program while facing a presidential transition less than a year away. Committee members and witnesses agreed that NASA needs a plan with more specifics that it has offered so far, but not on what the plan should be. While most accept that the long term goal should be human trips to Mars, what the steps in between should be remains as divisive as ever.
The hearing was before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. chaired by Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX). Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) is the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee. The hearing was about NASA's human spaceflight program, but in this case there were no NASA witnesses. Instead three "outside" (non-NASA) experts shared their views: Tom Young, an aerospace industry icon who is retired from Martin Marietta/Lockheed Martin and a member of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), though he was testifying only for himself not NAC; Paul Spudis, senior scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, a fervent advocate of returning humans to Moon before going to Mars, also speaking only for himself, not LPI; and John Sommerer, retired from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab and testifying in his capacity as the former chairman of the Technical Panel of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine committee that wrote the 2014 Pathways To Exploration report.
Republican members of the subcommittee and the chairman of the full committee, Rep, Lamar Smith (R-TX) continued their attacks on the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as unnecessary and a waste of resources. Democratic members, including the ranking Democrat of the full committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), did not defend ARM, and Edwards said NASA's current Evolvable Mars Campaign strategy does not answer the question of whether an asteroid mission is a necessary element of the humans-to-Mars goal. Johnson and Edwards reiterated their strong support for NASA to produce a roadmap for the future of the human spaceflight program as required by the 2015 NASA Authorization Act that passed the House last year (no further action has been taken).
None of the witnesses offered support for ARM, either, although Young noted that NAC is enthusiastic about the development of Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP), which is part of the ARM program. NAC considers SEP to be a critical element of any effort to send humans to Mars and recommended that NASA send an SEP-powered probe all the way to Mars as a test instead of to an asteroid. NAC worries that ARM itself, as a program, will cost more than the $1.25 billion advertised by NASA officials and divert resources from the real goal of humans-to-Mars.
Sending people to Mars was widely, but not universally, accepted by committee members and witnesses as the long term goal of NASA's human spaceflight program. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) was one exception, who thinks other missions -- such as planetary defense and solving the space debris problem -- are more important and champions private sector activities. He said he believes SpaceX founder Elon Musk will get to Mars before NASA. He and other Republican members also expressed concern about the costs involved in a humans-to-Mars mission when the national debt is so high. Rohrabacher argued for an incremental program that can change directions if, for example, an asteroid threatens Earth and planetary defense becomes a higher priority, instead of a "20 year program of gigantic spending that will suck the money away from all the other projects" that NASA might initiate. He said the only affordable way to send Americans to Mars is on a one-way trip.
NASA's Evolvable Mars Campaign was criticized for lacking the specifics needed to win support, especially in a vulnerable period of time when the presidency will change hands. Many of the committee members, Republican and Democratic, stressed the need to have a baseline program and a roadmap in place before the presidential transition to avoid another disruption like what occurred when President Obama took office and cancelled the Constellation program. Edwards called NASA's Evolvable Mars Campaign a strategy, but insufficiently detailed for mission planning. It does not answer questions such as whether a return to the lunar surface or an asteroid mission is necessary to reduce risks for the longer-term Mars goal, she said.
The need for a "plan," rather than a broader strategy that lacks details, was also emphasized by the witnesses. Young calculated that if NASA's current level of funding for human spaceflight, about $9 billion in FY2016, is maintained for the next 20 years, $180 billion will be available over that period of time. He concludes that although this is a great deal of money, it is not enough to both send humans to Mars and support the International Space Station beyond 2024 and a choice must be made between them. He thinks that choice should be sending humans to Mars. He cited the 2015 study by the Planetary Society as one option for how to accomplish it, although he wants humans to land on Mars not just orbit it and he thinks it will cost more than the $180 billion.
Sommerer said that his panel estimated that it would take 20-40 years to get people on Mars and cost "half a trillion dollars." He and Young both stressed that the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft are just the beginning of the systems that are needed for a Mars mission. Sommerer noted that there are only a handful of destinations for human spaceflight today -- the Moon, asteroids and Mars -- and what is needed is agreement on the sequence of missions with a "logical feed forward" that minimizes "dead ends," is affordable, has acceptable development risks and a reasonable operational tempo. The NAS Pathways committee looked at three options, but did not recommend any of them, concluding that in the current fiscal environment there are "no good pathways to Mars."
Later in the hearing, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) argued for adopting the goal of sending humans to Mars by 2033 -- he displayed a bumper sticker with that date on it. He asked if that could be achieved if $200-300 billion -- a percent of the federal budget -- was allocated over that period of time. Sommerer replied, yes, if you have a plan -- "if you give them the date and the money and help with the discipline [to make difficult choices], the answer is yes. If any of those three things is missing, the answer is almost certainly no."
Despite the consensus that a specific plan is needed, there was no agreement on what the plan should be. Although Perlmutter wants to focus on Mars, Spudis insists that returning to the surface of the Moon first is essential, for example. The decades-long debate over Moon versus Mars remains unresolved. Even if there might be agreement on Mars, there is debate over whether to land on the surface, as Young advocates, or put humans in orbit first as outlined in the Planetary Society report. That makes crafting a detailed plan, especially in the few months before a new President is elected, a daunting challenge. Without it, though, as committee members and witnesses expressed yesterday, there is concern that the current elements of the program -- SLS and Orion -- could end up on the chopping block.
Young wryly commented that "We have a graveyard today ... that has headstones of human spaceflight programs that consumed a lot of resources and ended up with no basic product. I don't think we need any more headstones in that cemetery. What we really need [are] monuments to accomplishment."
The head of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) and a key Member of Congress are making the case for expanding AST's regulatory responsibilities to include much more than commercial launches and reentries. Both spoke at the first day of AST's annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference, which continues today (Wednesday). The Commercial Spaceflight Federation is webcasting the event.
Over the past year, interest has grown in both the government and commercial space sectors over what agency should have the responsibility for ensuring U.S. compliance with Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that requires governments to "authorize and continually supervise" the activities of their non-government entities, such as companies. U.S. companies have been operating in space since the 1960s, primarily commercial communications and remote sensing satellites, but the potential expansion of commercial activities to other realms, such as asteroid mining or habitats on the lunar surface, is raising the visibility of the issue of who in the U.S. government is responsible for that task.
The recently enacted Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to recommend approaches for oversight of commercial activities in space. The law was enacted on November 25, 2015 and the report is due 120 days thereafter.
FAA Associate Administrator for AST George Nield wants his office to be given that responsibility. He said that his office could issue a "mission license" for in-space operations not already regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) or NOAA. FCC licenses the use of the radio spectrum by commercial companies. NOAA licenses commercial remote sensing satellites.
Another growing issue is who should be responsible for determining if satellites are going to collide with each other or with space debris and warn affected parties. This is often referred to as Space Traffic Management. Today, DOD's Joint Space Operations Center (JSPoC) performs the calculations -- "conjunction analyses" -- and alerts appropriate parties, but some argue that JSPoC should focus on DOD's requirement to protect U.S. national security satellites, not those of the civil or commercial sectors.
Nield said the FAA should take on that responsibility as well; "We think it makes sense for the FAA to take on this role, and we believe that there is consensus in the interagency community that we are the right ones to do it, but we need to make the decision soon and get on with it." He also advocated for the FAA to process safety-related space situational awareness data and release it "to any entity, consistent with national security interests and public safety obligations." The FAA and DOD are in agreement that this is feasible, he added, though his office needs additional resources to do it.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), a member of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee, agrees. Speaking at the conference yesterday, he stressed that DOD must focus on the threats posed to national security satellites rather than spending its time determining whether the International Space Station (ISS) is "going to hit a screw." DOD must be relieved of the "burden" of performing conjunction analyses for the civil and commercial sectors, he said, and the FAA is the proper agency to take on that task. He added that DOD does not want to relinquish JSPoC, but instead to use it for what it is intended -- national security. He also agreed that FAA/AST needs more money if it takes on additional tasks. He noted that he tried to add $1 million for FAA/AST in the House-passed version of the FY2016 Transportation-HUD appropriations act, but only $250,000 was approved.
Bridenstine also raised the issue of who should be responsible for ensuring compliance with Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty, calling it a "challenge we have to own up to and ultimately solve. It won't be easy and won't happen overnight." He stopped short of recommending FAA/AST as the answer, but said government regulation of commercial space activities overall must be consistent and simplified.
The conference continues today, with Rep. Brian Babin, chairman of the House SS&T Space Subcommittee, scheduled to speak at 8:30 am ET, followed by NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman.
The Commercial Spaceflight Federation indicated that it will webcast today's sessions as well.
Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of February 1-5, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
A conference on commercial space transportation and a House hearing on NASA's human exploration proposals are just two highlights of the coming week.
The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation's (AST's) 19th annual conference is in Washington, DC on Tuesday and Wednesday. Neither the conference's website nor the agenda indicate that any of the sessions will be webcast, which is a shame because they look really interesting. If we learn that remote access will, in fact, be available, we'll add that information to the entry in our Events of Interest list. [UPDATE: FAA/AST confirms that there will NOT be a webcast. UPDATE 2 -- AS WE JUST LEARNED NOW THAT WE'RE HERE AT THE CONFERENCE, THE COMMERCIAL SPACEFLIGHT FEDERATION IS WEBCASTING THE EVENT.] There are keynotes and panels featuring top leaders from the Administration (e.g. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman), Congress (Rep. Brian Babin, R-TX, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-TX, and a panel of congressional staff), and industry (Sierra Nevada Corporate VP for Space Systems Mark Sirangelo and SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell). For those who are advocating for an expansion of AST's jurisdiction beyond launch and reentry of satellites, one of the panels will discuss European Space Agency (ESA) Director General Jan Woerner's Lunar Village (or Moon Village) concept. AST's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) recently recommended that AST "engage directly" with ESA to foster the participation of U.S.-based commercial entities in planning and creation of such a village. Woerner spoke to COMSTAC during a telecon meeting last month and will participate in this conference via livestream.
Wednesday's hearing before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee also should be interesting. The topic is NASA's human exploration proposals, but in this case there are no NASA witnesses. Instead, three "outside" witnesses will present their views. Aerospace industry icon Tom Young is one of them. He has testified many times, perhaps most memorably answering "never" to a question about when humans would get to Mars under NASA's current budget. He is a member of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), which has been deliberating for at least two years over NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and NASA's planning for sending humans to Mars. Young will be speaking only for himself, but NAC has not been enthusiastic about ARM for many reasons, one of which is skepticism that it will cost only $1.25 billion as NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden insists. NAC members also criticize NASA's Evolvable Mars Campaign because it lacks specifics. The other two witnesses are Paul Spudis, a fervent advocate of returning humans to the lunar surface before going to Mars, and John Sommerer, who chaired the Technical Panel of the 2014 "Pathways" report from the National Academies that also endorsed returning astronauts to the lunar surface and raised questions about the value of ARM to the long term goal of human Mars exploration.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below. Check back throughout the week to see any new meetings we learn about and post to our Events of Interest list.
Monday-Tuesday, February 1-2
Tuesday, February 2
Tuesday-Wednesday, February 2-3
Wednesday, February 3
Today is NASA's annual Day of Remembrance in honor of the astronauts who lost their lives in performance of their duties. The day honors all of them -- particularly the crews of the first Apollo mission, the space shuttle Challenger, and the space shuttle Columbia -- but since this is the 30th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, it was the focus of this year's commemorations. Of the many speeches and missives, two stand out for their positive messages about why these individuals took the risks they did and what it should mean to each of us.
On January 27, 1967, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died when a fire erupted in the 100 percent oxygen atmosphere of their Apollo spacecraft during a pre-launch test at Kennedy Space Center, FL. They would have been the first crew to launch into space aboard an Apollo spacecraft and hence many refer to this as Apollo 1. Since it did not leave the ground, however, others call it Apollo 204 or Apollo-Saturn 204, the designation of the spacecraft/launch vehicle combination.
On January 28, 1986, five NASA astronauts (Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judy Resnik, and Ron McNair), a payload specialist from Hughes Aircraft (Greg Jarvis) and a New Hampshire schoolteacher flying as a Teacher in Space (Christa McAuliffe) died when an "O-ring" in one of the two space shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters failed due to very cold weather at the launch site. The shuttle exploded 73 seconds after launch.
Space Shuttle Challenger crew: from left - front row Mike Smith, Dick Scobee, Ron McNair; back row, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, Judy Resnik. Photo credit: NASA
On February 1, 2003, six NASA astronauts (Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, and Laurel Clark) and an Israeli Air Force pilot flying as a payload specialist (Ilan Ramon) died during their return from a 16-day science mission aboard space shuttle Columbia when superheated gases (plasma) that surround the shuttle during reentry through the Earth's atmosphere entered a hole in the wing created during liftoff by foam falling from the External Tank. The wing deformed and aerodynamic forces tore the shuttle apart.
Many poignant remarks were made today, but two stand out for their positive messages.
Barbara Morgan was Christa McAuliffe's backup and went through the entire training regimen with her prior to the Challenger launch. After the accident, Morgan returned to her career as an elementary school teacher in Idaho, but later was selected by NASA as one of three "Educator Astronauts" and flew on a space shuttle mission (STS-118) in 2007. Morgan spoke today at a ceremony hosted by the Astronauts Memorial Foundation near Kennedy Space Center. After recounting what she learned from each of the Challenger crew members individually, she spoke of what she learned from them as a team and from their families:
"Courage is contagious. Courage is shared. Courage is much more than bravery and boldness because courage lives in the heart. Once you weigh the risk and once you decide that to explore and to discover are worth the risk, then you can dream, you can plan, and you can build. And then you train, and you train, and you train, and you train. So that when the crew launches, they launch ready, with happy hearts, thankful for the opportunity to represent America, happy to represent history and all of humankind as humankind reaches for the stars."
After the accident, the astronauts' families created the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, which has more than 40 learning centers across the country. The Challenger Center posted a letter today written by Judy Resnik's 13 year old niece, Jenna Resnik. Although she never knew her aunt, she writes, many in her family say that she is very much like her. Jenna Resnik extols people not to focus on the accident and the deaths of her aunt and the other crew members, but to "be positive and focus on the triumph and the memories that are being created every day because of this crew's legacy." She remarks that when she thinks of her aunt and the other Challenger crew members, she focuses on the fact that they "died doing what they absolutely loved most, and that's more than many people can say."
Her message to everyone is: "Go do what you want to do. Be who you want to be. Create a life for yourself that you will love with all of your heart, and never lose hope or hesitate to step outside of your comfort zone, because, in the end, the outcome, whatever it may be, is rewarding and leaves you with a good feeling in your heart. ... The sky's the limit people!..."
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of January 25-29, 2016. The House and Senate are scheduled to be in session, but with the blizzard that's coming, all events in the DC area should be considered tentative. [UPDATE JANUARY 24: The House has decided not to meet this week because of the aftereffects of the blizzard. So far, the Senate's schedule is unchanged. The immediate Washington DC area got between 17 and 30 inches of snow and roads remain impassable in many places. Also, Federal Government offices in the DC area will be closed on Monday. UPDATE JANUARY 25: The January 26 SASC defense acquisition hearing has been postponed. Federal Government offices in the DC area will be closed on Tuesday, too.]
During the Week
The first flakes of the Blizzard of 2016, also known as Snowmageddon II, Snowzilla, or Jonas (that's what The Weather Channel calls it), are falling. The forecast is so grim that we worry whether the electricity will be on this weekend, so decided to post this today (Friday). The Washington DC area does not do well with snow and even if it did, this storm is expected to break records in snowfall totals (18-30 inches is forecast for right here) and winds (30-40 miles per hour in this area, higher elsewhere), so any city would have a problem keeping up with it. If you have plans to travel to the DC area, or the mid-Atlantic generally, check to be sure your meeting or whatever is still taking place before you start your trip. [UPDATED JANUARY 25: The House will not meet this week. The SASC hearing on defense acquisition on Tuesday has been postponed (not the RD-180 hearing on Wednesday, at least not yet). Federal government offices in the DC area are closed Monday and Tuesday.]
Among the highlights of events that are SCHEDULED as of this moment is NASA's annual remembrance of the astronauts who lost their lives in the 1967 Apollo fire and 1986 space shuttle Challenger and 2003 Columbia tragedies. This year is the 30th anniversary of the January 28, 1986 Challenger accident that killed NASA astronauts Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Judy Resnik, Ellison Onizuka and Ron McNair; Hughes Aircraft payload specialist Greg Jarvis; and Teacher in Space Christa McAuliffe. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and other NASA officials will take part in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery on January 28 (Thursday), followed by activities at other NASA centers throughout the day. NASA TV will televise a wreath-laying ceremony at the Space Mirror Memorial at Kennedy Space Center's Visitor Center at 10:00 am ET.
On a completely different note, the debate over United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) use of Russian RD-180 rocket engines and efforts to build a U.S. alternative to them resumes on Wednesday with a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC). SASC Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) is livid that Senate appropriators pulled the rug out from under his feet, essentially allowing the use of an indeterminate number of RD-180s instead of capping the number at nine as required by the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) reportedly at the urging of the Air Force and ULA. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and DOD Under Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall will be at the witness table to explain their position. The argument is not over the need to end reliance on Russian engines for national security launches or to build a U.S. alternative, but the timing. ULA and the Air Force do not think a new U.S.-built engine will be ready for service by 2019; McCain thinks that is a reasonable goal. McCain also is an advocate for SpaceX and other "new entrants" who could compete against ULA and bring launch costs down.
Note that there is a more general hearing on defense acquisition the day before. [UPDATE: THIS HEARING HAS BEEN POSTPONED] At that one, the service chiefs will testify about the role they play in the acquisition process. Impossible to know if anything will come up about space, but it wouldn't be surprising. SASC's House counterpart, HASC, held its own defense acquisition hearing on January 7. HASC Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) used it as a opportunity to slam DOD on the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP). DOD bought 20 DMSP weather satellites almost two decades ago. The first 19 have been launched, but the fate of the last one, DMSP-20, is in limbo. In 2014, DOD said it no longer was needed, but changed its mind last year. Congress reacted skeptically and required DOD to certify whether it is needed or not. Meanwhile, millions of dollars have been spent keeping it in storage. Rogers used $518 million as the total amount of money spent on that one satellite and said a lot of aggravation could have been saved if 18 years ago the Air Force and Congress "put a half billion dollars in a parking lot in a pile and just burned it." He said now the satellite will be trashed and "I presume ... be made into razor blades." We'll see if the SASC hearing has any of its own fireworks.
Those and other events that are scheduled for next week are listed below. Check back throughout the week for additional events that we learn about and add to our Events of Interest list. And to all of our readers in the mid-Atlantic area about to endure this storm, pay heed to the experts on how to stay safe.
Tuesday, January 26
Wednesday, January 27
Wednesday-Friday, January 27-29
Thursday, January 28
Thursday-Friday, January 28-29
Friday, January 29
The distinction between climate and weather is on stark display right now as NASA and NOAA scientists announce that Earth experienced the warmest year on record in 2015 while at the same time the mid-Atlantic region is bracing for a blizzard.
Weather is local, climate is global. Weather is short-term, climate is long-term. A single local weather event, like a blizzard in Washington, DC, is not an indicator of what is happening to the planet on a global scale.
NASA and NOAA announced yesterday that 2015 was Earth's warmest year since record keeping began in 1880. NASA reported that the average surface temperature has risen 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, "a change largely driven by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere."
Climate change is hotly debated in political circles, primarily over whether it is human activity or natural causes at work. Exactly one year ago, the Senate voted 98-1 in favor of a statement that "climate change is real and not a hoax." The one vote against was cast by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS). However, the Senate then rejected by a vote of 50-49 a statement that "climate change is real and human activity significantly contributes to climate change." The key point of dispute was the word "significantly."
NASA and NOAA get caught up in that debate because they collect and analyze climate data from instruments in space, in the air, on the land and sea. Republicans in the House and Senate criticize NASA's investment in earth science research ($1.9 billion in FY2016) arguing that such research should be done by other government agencies, like NOAA, while NASA focuses on space exploration. However, some then criticize NOAA when it seeks funding for climate sensors to fly on its satellites because they want NOAA to focus on weather, not climate.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), a powerful member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is a strong supporter of NASA's earth science activities, many of which are led by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, MD. She also supports NOAA, which has its campus in Silver Spring, MD and its satellite operations center in Suitland, MD, though cost growth on NOAA's satellites has resulted in some sharp rebukes by the Senator. She is a key figure in maintaining funding for NASA's earth science program, in particular, and her pending retirement at the end of this year could complicate the agency's efforts to sustain those activities.
The announcement yesterday was made by Gavin Schmidt, Director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), and Thomas Karl, Director of NOAA's Centers for Environmental Information. GISS is located in New York City, but is managed by GSFC. Karl's center is in Asheville, NC. They said 15 of the 16 warmest years on record have been since 2001. The other was in 1998.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan, both former astronauts, said in a joint statement that the "direction of the long-term trend is as clear as a rocket headed for space: it is going up." Praising the collaboration between their two agencies, Bolden and Sullivan called the announcement "a key data point that should make policy makers stand up and take notice -- now is the time to act on climate."
NASA and NOAA work extensively with other countries as well in collecting and sharing environmental data. At a meeting of the steering committee for the Earth Science and Applications from Space (ESAS) Decadal Survey at the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine yesterday, Steve Volz. head of NOAA's satellite office, presented a slide showing all the countries involved in space-based earth observation (including space weather) that share data with each other.
Meanwhile, as for the blizzard, the Washington DC area is bracing for a historic storm. One airline (American) has already cancelled flights for Friday afternoon and Saturday. The Washington area's public transit system will shut down at 5:00 pm ET Friday for Metrobus and 11:00 pm ET for Metrorail and not reopen until "at least" Monday. If you are planning to come to DC this weekend or early next week, be sure to check that you can get in and out and your meeting or other event is still taking place. The blizzard warning lasts through Sunday at 6:00 am ET and if the snow accumulates as much as forecast -- 18 to 24 inches -- it is very likely everything will be closed on Monday, too (and perhaps after that).
NASA is investigating how water got into astronaut Tim Kopra's spacesuit during a spacewalk on Friday. The spacewalk was terminated early after Kopra reported that a small bubble of water was floating in his helmet and an absorbent pad behind his head was wet.
The incident is reminiscent of a more serious water incursion when European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Luca Parmitano was performing a spacewalk in July 2013. NASA at first assumed the water Parmitano reported in his helmet came from his drink bag, but the quantity continued to increase and eventually covered his ears, eyes and mouth as he worked his way back to the safety of the airlock. He remained calm throughout the ordeal, but wrote about it afterward saying that he felt "like a goldfish in a fishbowl."
NASA later determined that the water was from the spacesuit's cooling system that regulates the astronaut's temperature when on a spacewalk -- or extravehicular activity (EVA). The temperature changes dramatically as the International Space Station (ISS) circles the Earth every 90 minutes, moving from blistering sunlight to frigid cold. NASA determined that a clogged filter in a fan separator unit allowed the cooling water to make its way into the spacesuit itself -- something thought to be impossible until then. A Mishap Investigation Board identified five organizational root causes, apart from technical problems, that contributed to that life threatening incident.
As a contingency, the astronauts now place a Helmet Absorption Pad (HAP) -- similar to a diaper -- in the back of their helmets to absorb any water that might get in. They also have a type of snorkel that would allow them to breathe even if water covered their nose and mouth. Without gravity, water attaches itself through surface tension and there is no way to get rid of it without wiping it off, which is impossible to do when inside a spacesuit.
Parmitano's spacewalk partner that day was NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, who is now head of the astronaut office at Johnson Space Center. On Friday, Cassidy quickly directed that the spacewalk be terminated after Kopra reported on the size of the bubble and the fact that the water was cold. That indicated the water was not from the drink bag, but the cooling system in the backpack.
Cassidy said the size of the bubble (a half-inch wide and 2-3 inches long) and the fact that the HAP was "squishy" were troubling, but "for me the big hook" was the temperature of the water: "as soon as you can tell it is cold water .... that's coming from a source in your backpack and that's a significant concern for us."
The two astronauts directly made their way back to the airlock. NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who was inside the ISS during the EVA, helped Kopra get out of his spacesuit and tried to capture any loose water bubbles and put the HAP into a bag for later analysis to help engineers determine the leak rate. Cassidy said there should be no water in the HAP at all unless an astronaut is perspiring profusely.
Kopra and ESA astronaut Tim Peake were performing the spacewalk to replace a failure voltage regulator -- a Sequential Shunt Unit or SSU -- and that was accomplished successfully. They were beginning to do some additional tasks when the spacewalk was terminated. The total duration was 4 hours 43 minutes.
CBS News space correspondent BIll Harwood tweeted that the suit Kopra was wearing on Friday is the same one that Parmitano wore in July 2013, but that the fan separator unit thought to be at fault was replaced and the spacesuit cleaned and inspected. It was used without incident on a spacewalk in December.
NASA made no official announcement about the problem, but said in its space station blog that "[t]eams will continue to look over data collected during the spacewalk and discuss forward plans in the days to come." A link to an audio recording of Cassidy's comments are in that blog post.
SpaceX successfully launched the Jason-3 ocean altimetry satellite on a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA today. The company made another attempt to land the rocket's first stage on an autonomous drone ship out at sea, but that failed like previous attempts. Its one landing success was last month, on land.
Getting Jason-3 into the correct orbit was the primary objective of the launch and that appeared to go flawlessly. The launch pad was enshrouded by fog, but that was not a launch constraint and liftoff was on time at 1:42 pm ET (10:42 am local time at the launch site). The first and second stages of the Falcon 9 performed nominally and the spacecraft separated and its solar panels deployed as planned.
Jason-3 is a joint project among NOAA and NASA on the U.S. side, and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (Eumetsat) and the French space agency, CNES, on the European side. It is the fourth in a series of experimental and now operational spacecraft to measure the height of the ocean's surface that began with Topex-Poseidon (1992), followed by Jason-1 (2001) and Jason-2 (2008). The launch of Jason-3 was delayed several times, making today's success that much more of a relief to scientists who rely on this type of data.
SpaceX's attempt to land the first stage on its Just Read the Instructions autonomous spaceport drone ship (often incorrectly referred to as a barge) was a secondary objective, but of at least as much interest to space enthusiasts. The company's successful landing last month on terra firma at Cape Canaveral, FL generated a lot of media attention. Its two previous attempts to land on drone ships failed in January and April 2015. As Musk explained in a series of tweets today, landing on a ship at sea is more difficult than on land, but the fundamental failure today appears to be related to one of the four landing legs not locking into place. SpaceX later released a video of the landing on Instagram.
The landings are related to Musk's goal of developing reusable rockets that he anticipates will lead to lower launch costs. The economics of reusable launch vehicles is very controversial, with NASA's space shuttle used as an example of why reusability may not yield such results. The costs of refurbishing the space shuttle after each use were so high and the number of launches per year so low that launch costs never came down. The space shuttle was a very complex vehicle, however, and its relevance to a simpler rocket like the Falcon 9 is unclear.
Note: This article, published on January 17, was updated on January 18 with the link to the video of the landing.
Here is our list of space policy related events for January 17-22, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The Senate is in session part of the week; the House is in recess.
During the Week
Tomorrow (Monday) is a Federal holiday -- Martin Luther King's birthday -- and federal offices will be closed. The House is taking the entire week off, but the Senate will be in session beginning Tuesday.
The big news for this week has already happened: today's successful launch of the NOAA-Eumetsat-NASA-CNES Jason-3 ocean altimetry spacecraft. Despite the fog, the launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA went off on time at 1:42 pm Eastern Time (10:42 am local time at the launch site) and as of this moment, the satellite is in the correct orbit and the solar arrays have deployed. The Falcon 9 launch was flawless, but SpaceX's attempt to land the first stage on one of its autonomous drone ships about 200 miles off the California coast failed. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted that one of the landing legs did not lock into place so the rocket tipped over when landing on the drone ship.
The successful launch of Jason-3 will provide a nice backdrop for Wednesday's NASA-NOAA media telecon on weather and climate, although the telecon's focus is what happened last year. The telecon will be broadcast on NASA's News Audio website at 11:00 am ET. An hour later, NOAA's Chief Scientist, Rick Spinrad, will have a chance to tout the success at a Maryland Space Business Roundtable luncheon.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below. Check back throughout the week to see any additional events we learn about later and post on our Events of Interest list.
Sunday-Wednesday, January 17-20
Wednesday, January 20
Thursday, January 21
NASA announced the winners of the second round of Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) awards today (Thursday, January 14). All three companies still in the running for these CRS2 awards -- Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX -- came up winners.
At a press conference at NASA's Johnson Space Center, International Space Station (ISS) Program Director Sam Scimemi announced that each company won a minimum of six launches each, though no orders have been made for any of them yet. The launches will take place between 2019 and 2024.
SpaceX and Orbital ATK are the two incumbents. They won the first round of CRS awards and have been launching cargo missions to the ISS since 2012 and 2013 respectively. SpaceX launches its Dragon cargo spacecraft on its Falcon 9 rockets. Orbital ATK developed the Antares rocket to launch its Cygnus cargo spacecraft. Both suffered launch failures: Orbital (before its merger with ATK) in October 2014 and SpaceX in June 2015.
Orbital ATK returned the Cygnus spacecraft to service in December 2015, but using United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V rocket rather than Antares. Flights using Antares are expected to resume in May. SpaceX's Falcon 9 returned to flight in December sending seven ORBCOMM OG-2 communications satellites into low Earth orbit. Two more Falcon 9 launches -- including one on Sunday of the Jason-3 satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA -- are planned before the company attempts the next cargo launch to ISS (SpaceX CRS-8 or SpX-8). That was scheduled for February, but rumors are that it will take place in March instead.
For this second round of CRS awards, three more companies joined the competition: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada. Lockheed Martin and Boeing were dropped from the competition last year. That left the two incumbents plus Sierra Nevada. All three won awards today.
The three companies offer different solutions for ISS cargo services. Orbital ATK and SpaceX use capsules reminiscent of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. Orbital ATK's Cygnus can be used only to take cargo to the ISS and to dispose of trash when it departs the ISS and burns up during reentry. SpaceX's Dragon can take cargo to the ISS as well as return it to Earth since it is designed to survive reentry and land in the ocean. Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser is a very different design. It resembles a very small version of the space shuttle. Like Dragon, it can take cargo to and from ISS and it lands on a runway as did the space shuttle.
NASA now has a range of options available depending on its needs -- pressurized or unpressurized one-way or two-way cargo. ISS Program Manager Kirk Shireman said today that it is too early to say how many of each version will be needed when, but the minimum number of flights guaranteed to each company through 2024 is six.
A total of four U.S. commercial cargo missions to the ISS are needed each year. Those are in addition to cargo missions flown by Russia's Progress and Japan's HTV spacecraft. Shireman declined to reveal the value of the contracts awarded today. He said only that the total amount available is $14 billion through 2024, but the current awards fall well short of that. Orbital ATK said in a statement that the value of the six missions it was awarded today is $1.2-$1.5 billion.
SpaceX uses its own Falcon 9 for the Dragon missions. Sierra Nevada will launch Dream Chaser on United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets. Both SpaceX and Sierra Nevada will launch from Cape Canaveral, FL.
Orbital ATK's Antares launches from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, VA. The third operational launch, Orb-3, failed. To ensure that it met its requirement to launch 20 tons of cargo to ISS by the end of 2016, it contracted with ULA to launch two Cygnus capsules using ULA's Atlas V while Antares is being outfitted with new engines. The first ULA launch of a Cygnus capsule took place in December and another is planned in March. Those launches are from Cape Canaveral. Orbital ATK plans to resume Cygnus launches using the upgraded Antares from Wallops in May. Its CRS2 proposal offered both variants -- launches on Atlas V from Cape Canaveral or on Antares from Wallops.
NASA officials said today that this round of CRS awards reflects lessons learned from the first round. Among the changes is insurance requirements for the companies to cover damage to government property during launch, reentry, or in proximity to or docking with the ISS.
Today's announcement came months later than expected. Originally the CRS2 awards were to be announced in June 2015. That slipped to September and then November. At that time, NASA gave January 30 as the expected award date, so in that sense, today's announcement could be considered "early."
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, and Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), chairman of its Space Subcommittee, commended the awards. They said that the recently enacted Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act demonstrated Congress's support of the commercial space industry.
NASA's efforts to facilitate the development of new cargo and crew systems to service the ISS through Public-Private Partnerships began under the George W. Bush Administration. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin initiated the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) or "commercial cargo" program in 2006 wherein both the government and the private sector invested in the development of the systems with the agreement that NASA would purchase a certain amount of services. Using the same type of arrangement to develop systems capable of taking astronauts -- "commercial crew" -- to and from ISS was envisioned at that time, but was kick-started by the Obama Administration and made a centerpiece of NASA's strategy for maintaining the ISS once the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.
Today, SpaceX has contracts for both commercial cargo and commercial crew, with the first commercial crew launch expected around 2017. It builds its own spacecraft (Dragon and Crew Dragon) and rockets (Falcon 9).
Orbital ATK and Sierra Nevada have contracts for commercial cargo. Orbital ATK can launch its Cygnus spacecraft either on its own Antares rockets or ULA's Atlas V. Sierra Nevada will launch Dream Chaser on ULA Atlas V rockets.
Boeing is the other company that has a commercial crew contract. Its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft will launch on ULA's Atlas V. The first launch is expected around 2017.
Although Lockheed Martin does not have any of the commercial cargo or commercial crew contracts, it is building the Orion spacecraft under a traditional government contract with NASA to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) to the vicinity of the Moon and someday to Mars beginning in the early 2020s.