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Commercial Space News

Ex-Im Bank Fades Softly Into the Night, For Now At Least

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Jun-2015 (Updated: 01-Jul-2015 12:13 AM)

The authorization for the Export-Import Bank, which gives out loans to U.S. companies trying to do business overseas, ends today.  Red flags were waived last fall when its authorization was about to expire and Congress reauthorized it at the last moment.  Not so this time, and its authorization ends at midnight tonight (June 30) with little fanfare.

Congress left town last week without reauthorizing the bank, which was created in 1934.  The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) issued a press release in the middle of the day today pointing out that it is a long term supporter of the bank because of its impact on aerospace jobs.

New AIA President and CEO David Melcher said Congress "missed an opportunity" to support jobs at American companies.  "Despite the Export-Import Bank of the United States having the support of broad bipartisan majorities" in the House and the Senate, he said, "a small minority has prevented a vote reauthorizing this vital export financing tool for U.S. exporters."  "Thousands of businesses" big and small benefit "directly and indirectly" from Ex-Im bank loan guarantees, AIA said, and a "failure to restore the bank will strike a blow" at American companies.

The last time the bank's existence was threatened in the fall of 2014, AIA, the Satellite Industry Association (SIA), and several other space-related organizations sent a letter to Congress saying that during FY2013 "Ex-Im Bank enabled more than $37 billion in export sales from thousands of U.S. companies," and failure to reauthorize it "would force U.S. exporters to forfeit opportunity in the face of other nations' aggressive trade finance programs."  

Congress responded favorably that time, reauthorizing the bank until today, but efforts to defend the bank this time seemed much more subdued.

The bank may continue existing operations for now, but cannot take on new projects.

Critics complain that the bank is "corporate welfare" for big business, according to a National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast today.  Boeing and General Electric are targets of those critics because they received two-thirds of the bank's loan commitments between 2007 and 2013, The Hill reported, adding that President Obama held a conference call defending the bank because it "helps small and medium-sized businesses -- and by the way, big companies like Boeing and G.E. have a whole lot of small and medium-sized businesses who are suppliers of theirs."

Supporters of the bank are relying on the Senate to vote on reauthorizing the bank when it returns from the July 4 recess; the House's position is less certain.  National Journal says that while reauthorizing the bank has clear majorities in the House and Senate, it is not clear if Republican House leaders have agreed to allow a vote.

AIA argues that the Ex-Im Bank has helped U.S. companies compete for foreign sales of "U.S. civilian aircraft, launch services and commercial satellites" and "helps level the playing field for America's aerospace manufacturers."

For its part, the Ex-Im Bank states on its website tonight that "Due to a lapse in EXIM Bank's authority, as of July 1, 2015, the Bank is unable to process applications or engage in new business or other prohibited activities."

Range Safety Destruct Signal Was Sent To Falcon 9, But Too Late

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Jun-2015 (Updated: 29-Jun-2015 09:21 PM)

SpaceX officials confirmed today that although a range safety destruct signal was sent to the Falcon 9 rocket yesterday, it was 70 seconds too late. The "mishap" had already occurred and the signal played no role in the loss of the vehicle. 

Until this statement from SpaceX, it was not clear if the rocket malfunctioned, veered off course, and was destroyed by the Range Safety Officer, or if the rocket exploded on its own.  Rockets are equipped with Flight Termination Systems that can be activated by sending an abort signal in order to protect public safety.

The Falcon 9 rocket exploded 139 seconds after launch yesterday (June 28).  The launch, at 10:21 am ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, part of the Air Force's Eastern Test Range, came after a flawless countdown with excellent weather conditions.   It was sending a robotic Dragon spacecraft loaded with about two tons of supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).  The mission was the seventh operational flight under SpaceX's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA -- CRS-7 or SpX-7.

No one was aboard this flight.  SpaceX is designing a crew version of Dragon for NASA's commercial crew program, but that is not in service yet.  An emergency abort system is integrated into the crew version of Dragon.  It would allow the crew capsule to detach from its rocket at any point on the trip up to orbit and carry the crew away to a safe landing.

Two more SpaceX ISS cargo flights were planned this year, in September and December.   The schedule for those and all other launches of the Falcon 9 are on hold until this failure is understood. 

While many are focused on the impact to the ISS program or SpaceX's efforts to compete for national security launches, SpaceX has many other customers who will be affected.  Among them is NOAA.  The launch of the Jason-3 ocean altimetry satellite had been scheduled for August 8 after several delays.  A NOAA spokesman confirmed today that the failure has affected the Jason-3 launch and NOAA is working with its partners to determine the next steps.   NOAA and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT) are the lead agencies for Jason-3, partnered with NASA and its French counterpart, CNES, who were responsible for Jason-1 and Jason-2, as well as the original satellite in the series, Topex-Poseidon.  The NOAA spokesman added that Jason-2, launched in 2008, continues to function nominally.

Financial analyst Chris Quilty of Raymond James & Associates said today that he is betting on a 4-6 month delay "which shouldn't be tremendously impactful" to the companies whose satellites are on SpaceX's manifest.  Quilty is Senior Vice President, Equity Research, and closely follows the space business. He added that if the delay is longer than that, it "could have a material impact on 2016/2017 revenues." 

At a press conference yesterday, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said she could not provide a timeframe for when Falcon 9 will return to flight, but confidently predicted it will be less than a year.  She said then, and the company reiterated today, that it is in an extraordinary position to identify the problem and fix it because it owns the majority of the launch vehicle and its components, which streamlines the investigation.  SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk tweeted that they still do not know what happened even after several thousand engineering hours of review.

 

SpaceX vowed today that it would examine every available piece of data to identify the root cause, fix it, and return to flight.

House Plans ISS Hearing for July 10 Amid Reactions to SpaceX Launch Failure

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jun-2015 (Updated: 28-Jun-2015 11:36 PM)

In a statement on the SpaceX launch failure today, the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee announced that it will hold a hearing on the status of the International Space Station (ISS) on July 10.   The statement, from the chairs of the full committee and its space subcommittee, was one of several expressing disappointment about the failure but determination to learn what went wrong and continue to support the ISS.

The failure of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket 139 seconds after launch this morning (Sunday, June 28) marked the third failure in eight months of the systems that resupply the ISS with food, water, science experiments, spare parts and other equipment needed to sustain the station and its crew.  Usually six people inhabit the ISS although only three are there now because they are in the middle of a crew rotation. It was SpaceX's seventh operational cargo mission to the ISS under its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA -- CRS-7 or SpX-7.  The first six were successful.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, several members of Congress, and the Commercial Spaceflight Federation issued statements today.

Bolden said that although NASA was disappointed, the ISS crew is safe and has sufficient supplies for several months.  "SpaceX has demonstrated extraordinary capabilities in its first six cargo resupply flights to the station, and we know they can replicate that success."  Spaceflight "is an incredible challenge, but we learn from each success and each setback....Today's launch attempt will not deter us from our ambitious human spaceflight program."  Bolden is a former astronaut who piloted or commanded four space shuttle missions.

"Disappointed" was a common term expressed today, including by House SS&T Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) who added that he wants to ensure the safe and timely supply of ISS.  New space subcommittee chairman Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), who represents the district that includes Johnson Space Center, said he was eager to learn what went wrong and determine "how it can be fixed to strengthen and advance our commercial cargo program."  Their press release announced the July 10 hearing.

Their Democratic counterparts, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the ranking Democrat on the full committee, and Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking Democrat on the space subcommittee, also issued statements.  Johnson said she was grateful no one was hurt and is confident SpaceX and NASA will take appropriate corrective actions.  Edwards also said she was thankful no one was hurt and the failure "shows us once again that space is difficult."  She stressed that she will continue to press members of the House Appropriations Committee to fully fund the Obama Administration's requests for transporting cargo and crew to the ISS.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, tweeted the following:

 

As a Congressman, Nelson flew as part of the crew of the space shuttle mission STS-61C in January 1986 (Bolden was the pilot of that mission).  The next shuttle launch, 10 days after he landed, was the Challenger tragedy.  His flight used the orbiter Columbia, which was lost in the space shuttle program's second tragedy in 2003.

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), which promotes the development of commercial human spaceflight, praised the "amazing success of a track record that a commercial launch provider like SpaceX has and continues to enjoy" although failures like today's "remind us that there is still work to be done."

What's Happening in Space Policy June 29-July 3, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jun-2015 (Updated: 28-Jun-2015 10:27 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of June 29-July 3, 2015.  Congress is in recess this week for the July 4 holiday.

During the Week

Today's SpaceX launch failure of its CRS-7 mission to the International Space Station (ISS) is likely to continue to resonate this week, especially as NASA awaits Friday's return-to-flight of Russia's Progress cargo spacecraft.   Although the ISS has a lot of redundancy for cargo resupply, the failure of three of the four existing systems within eight months is certainly something that could not be anticipated.   Orbital ATK is still recovering from the October 2014 Antares/Cygnus launch failure.  Russia hopes its diagnosis is correct that the April Soyuz/Progress failure was the result of a one-time "design peculiarity" and the system will work this time, just two months after the failure.  How long it will take for SpaceX to recover from today's failure is an unknown, though SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell confidently predicted it would be less than a year.  In any case, the space commuity will be on pins and needles for the 12:55 am ET launch of Progress M-28M on July 3.

Apart from that high drama, NASA's Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) is meeting Monday-Wednesday.   On Tuesday, it will hold a special one-hour panel on progress in finding, tracking and characterizing Near Earth Objects (NEOs) -- asteroids and comets -- and planning for planetary defense.  The SBAG sessions and the panel will be webcast.   Tuesday actually is "Asteroid Day" with events around the globe.  Two are "premier events" in London and San Francisco and some may have their own webcasts.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday evening are listed below.

Monday-Wednesday, June 29-July 1

Tuesday, June 30

Tuesday-Wednesday, June 30-July 1

Friday, July 3

Pressurization Event in Second Stage Likely Cause of SpaceX CRS-7 Failure

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jun-2015 (Updated: 28-Jun-2015 06:53 PM)

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said during a press conference this afternoon that early data indicate that the cause of the Falcon 9 launch failure today was due to pressurization issues in the second stage.  Some confusion remains as to whether the rocket exploded on its own or because of a destruct signal sent by the Range Safety Officer, but Shotwell said she did not believe it was due to a destruct signal. 

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket exploded 139 seconds (2:19 minutes) into flight this morning (Sunday, June 28) following a 10:21 am ET launch.   NASA posted a video of the launch and failure on YouTube.  Shotwell said data showed "some pressurization indications in the second stage" that the company will be "tracking down and following up on."  She could not provide any other details at this early stage of the investigation other than saying they do not suspect the first stage.

The Falcon 9 was carrying a Dragon capsule with two tons of supplies for the International Space Station (ISS) under SpaceX's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.  This was the seventh operational mission -- SpaceX CRS-7 or SpX-7.

The cargo included food and other crew supplies, science experiments, a new extravehicular spacesuit to replace one aboard ISS that has partially failed, and the first of two International Docking Adapters (IDAs).  The IDAs are needed for the crew version of Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 spacecraft to dock with the ISS.  Both were selected for the final phase of NASA's commercial crew program.  NASA has been hoping that both systems will be available by 2017, although today's failure certainly will impact SpaceX's launch plans.  The crew version of Dragon is equipped with a launch abort system that allows the crew capsule to separate from the rocket at any time during the ride to orbit and carry the astronauts away to a safe landing.  That was not the version of Dragon on this launch, but the capsule did appear to survive for at least a short time after the explosion.

This was a commercial launch authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which facilitates and regulates commercial space launch services.  Pam Underwood, Deputy Division Manager of the Operations Integration Division of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, said during the press conference that the incident has been categorized as a "mishap."  Under those regulations, the company takes charge of the investigation, while FAA oversees it.   This is the same process used for the failure of Orbital Sciences Corporation's (now Orbital ATK) Antares rocket in October 2014 on its third operational cargo mission to the ISS (Orb-3).

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, and Mike Suffredini, ISS Program Manager at NASA, also participated in the post-failure press conference at Kennedy Space Center.

Gerstenmaier, Suffredini and Shotwell conveyed a similar theme -- launching rockets is hard, sometimes they fail, and the key is learning from whatever went wrong and moving on.

Gerstenmaier and Suffredini also made clear they do not want to underplay this "big loss" that is "a blow to us," but they wanted to focus on the fact that the ISS crew is safe and well provisioned.  SpaceX recently completed its sixth operational mission to the ISS, taking up many supplies and returning to Earth much of the scientific experiments and other hardware NASA wanted back on Earth.  

Russia suffered its own failure of a cargo mission to the ISS, Progress M-27M, in April.  It is set to try again on Friday, July 3.  When asked if NASA wants to add any items to that spacecraft at the last minute to compensate for anything lost today, Suffredini said no, that the crew has everything it needs.  NASA tries to "protect" against such failures by having extra supplies aboard and the crew will be fine through October even if no additional supplies are delivered.  He noted that other cargo vehicles are on track to deliver cargo to the ISS in the near future:  Progress M-28M on July 3 and Japan's HTV in August.   Orbital ATK is also planning for the next launch of its Cygnus cargo ship before the end of 2015 using the United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket.  Its own Antares rocket is expected to return to flight in the first quarter of 2016.

The NASA representatives said they do not expect any change to the launch of the next ISS crew in July because of this failure.  Usually there are six people aboard the ISS, but currently there are only three -- NASA's Scott Kelly and Russia's Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka -- because they are in the middle of a crew changeover.   Three crew members just returned to Earth.  Their replacements -- NASA's Kjell Lindgren, Japan's Kimiya Yui, and Russia's Oleg Kononenko -- are scheduled for launch on July 22.   Gerstenmaier stressed that the Flight Readiness Review still needs to be held for that launch and NASA wants to fully understand the Progress M-27M failure to make sure a similar problem could not happen on a crew launch (both use Soyuz rockets, although they are different versions), but the SpaceX failure today should not be a factor.  Russia concluded the Progress M-27M failure was due to a "design peculiarity," but Gerstenmaier's comments implied that NASA is not yet fully satisfied with that answer.

Asked about whether this might hamper NASA's efforts to convince Congress to provide full funding for the commercial crew program, Gerstenmaier stressed the need for the full $1.244 billion requested for FY2016.  The House approved $1.000 billion and the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended $900 million.  Both are above the current level of funding ($805 million), but less than the request.   Gerstenmaier said the money is needed to do the technical work necessary to move forward, pointing to the three failures over the past eight months in the commercial cargo program (Orb-3, Progress M-27M, and today's CRS-7) as examples of what can go wrong.  There is no commonality across the failures, he said, except that "it's space and it's difficult" to fly.

Some members of Congress have suggested that only one company is needed or that if two are needed as NASA insists, they be funded in a "leader-follower" mode where one company proceeds more quickly than the other to spread out the costs. Gerstenmaier remained steadfast that two systems are needed to provide redundancy, and there is no way to predict which company might be ready sooner than the other.

Shotwell was optimistic about how long it will take to identify and fix the problem.  While reluctant to provide a time frame at this early stage, she said she expects it will be "a number of months" but less than a year.  She declined to say how much the launch cost, saying that SpaceX does not discuss costs in public.  

SpaceX CRS-7 Failure -- Update

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jun-2015 (Updated: 28-Jun-2015 12:23 PM)

SpaceX and NASA are continuing to investigate this morning's failure of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket.  It was launching a robotic Dragon cargo spacecraft full of supplies for the International Space Station (ISS) crew.  The rocket failed 2:19 minutes after launch.

NASA TV and SpaceX provided live coverage of the launch of SpaceX's seventh Commercial Resupply Services mission, CRS-7 (or SpX-7). A SpaceX video showing the failure is posted on YouTube.  The failure is at 23:44 into the video.  NASA also has a video beginning with the launch itself.  The explosion is at 2:32.

SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk confirmed the failure through a series of tweets (@elonmusk).

 

NASA is planning a "contingency press conference" no earlier than 12:30 pm ET today that will broadcast by NASA TV.  Check back here for more information as it becomes available.

Breaking News: SpaceX CRS-7 Launch to ISS Fails

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jun-2015 (Updated: 28-Jun-2015 12:00 PM)

SpaceX's seventh operational cargo launch to the International Space Station (ISS) ended with an explosion of the Falcon 9 rocket 2:19 minutes into flight today.   Anomaly teams are being assembled.  NASA plans a "contingency press conference" no earlier than 12:30 pm ET.  The exact timing is dependent on when the right people are available to participate and what information has been gleaned.

The countdown for the SpaceX CRS-7 (or SpX-7) mission proceeded perfectly to launch at 10:21 am ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), FL.  SpaceX and NASA each provided live webcasts of the launch. Suddenly, as operation of the first stage was nearing its end, the vehicle exploded.  The SpaceX webcast went silent, but NASA continued to report on the event.  "Range confirms we've had a non-nominal flight," NASA's announcer reported, referring to personnel in charge of the Eastern Test Range of which CCAFS is part.  After many minutes, SpaceX's announcer returned to the air and confirmed "an anomaly during first stage flight," then ended the webcast.  SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk sent this tweet:

NASA continued with its webcast and reported that experts were reviewing the timeline of the failure to correlate data from the vehicle with data from the Range Safety Officer (RSO) to determine what happened when.   Rockets have Flight Termination Systems that an RSO engages if a rocket goes off course.  It was not clear in the first minutes whether the rocket exploded on its own or whether it deviated from its course and was destroyed by the RSO.

Check back here for more information as it becomes available.

The implications are significant.  Not only is this the third ISS cargo resupply system to fail in the past 8 months (first Orbital's Antares in October 2014, then Russia's Progress M-27M in April, now this), but this is the same rocket that SpaceX plans to use for the crew version of its Dragon spacecraft that is one of two competitors chosen by NASA for the final phase of the commercial crew program (Boeing is the other).  That version of Dragon does have an embedded abort system so a crew can escape from the rocket anytime on the ride up to orbit, so a Falcon 9 failure would not necessarily jeopardize a crew, however.

In addition, SpaceX just finally won certification by the Air Force to launch national security satellites using the Falcon 9 based in part on its record of consecutive launch successes (18 before today).  Its battle to win certification, coupled with the contentious debate over how quickly a U.S. alternative to Russia's RD-180 rocket engines used by one of its competitors, United Launch Alliance (ULA), for the Atlas V rocket, has put the company in the spotlight, pitting entrepreneurial "new space" against established systems like ULA's.  ULA President Tory Bruno tweeted his condolences:

As the saying goes, launching rockets is hard.   Launch failures are not common, but neither are they entirely surprising. This one is especially significant because of the implications for resupplying the ISS crew after the failures of the other two systems, SpaceX's role in NASA's commercial crew program and NASA's hope to have those systems ready by 2017, and the effort the company expended to obtain certification to launch national security satellites.  Congressional critics of the commercial crew program and SpaceX in particular may be emboldened by the failure, although NASA and its supporters may use it to underscore their argument that two commercial crew systems, not just one, are needed precisely for such a situation so there is redundancy.

SpaceX recently successfully resupplied the 6-member ISS crew and the Russians plan to launch another Progress cargo ship next week (July 3) after concluding the April failure was due to a "design peculiarity."  Japan also sends cargo to the ISS using its HTV spacecraft.  An HTV is scheduled for launch in August. Orbital ATK is planning to launch its Cygnus cargo spacecraft to ISS using an ULA Atlas V by the end of 2015 (Antares will not be ready for return-to-flight until at least the first quarter of 2016).  So while there are several cargo resupply systems, it is because crew requires a lot of supplies including spare parts.  These spacecraft also send up science experiments for the crew to perform.  Importantly, this mission also was carrying the first of two International Docking Adapters that must be installed onto the space station in order for the commercial crew spacecraft to dock.

Additional SpaceX cargo resupply launches were scheduled for 2015.  How long they will be delayed will depend on what went wrong and what is needed to fix the problem.

Will Third Time Be the Charm for SpaceX? - Update

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Jun-2015 (Updated: 28-Jun-2015 12:41 PM)

UPDATE, June 28, 2015:   The Falcon 9 rocket failed 2:19 minutes after launch.  SpaceX and NASA are investigating.

ORIGINAL STORY, June 27, 2015.  SpaceX will make a third try to land a Falcon 9 first stage on an "autonomous drone ship" minutes after the rocket lifts off tomorrow morning on a cargo run to the International Space Station (ISS).   The company tried this in January and in April, coming close to success both times.  Could tomorrow (Sunday, June 28)  be the charm?

SpaceX has successfully fulfilled the main purpose of the flights each time, delivering cargo to the ISS using Dragon spacecraft launched by Falcon 9 rockets.  Tomorrow's launch is SpaceX's seventh operational resupply mission under its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA -- SpaceX CRS-7 or SpX-7.

SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk has longer term plans, however, that include making the Falcon 9's first stage reusable. Eventually he wants them to land back at the launch site, but the initial tests involved ocean "landings" (the stages tipped over once they reached sea level) and he has now moved into a phase of landing them on unoccupied ships that many people call barges.   SpaceX points out that barges have no engines, while these do, so they are called "drone ships."

SpaceX has two of them that Musk whimsically named "Just Read the Instructions" and "Of Course, I Still Love You."  The first two tests uses the first ship; tomorrow's will use the second.

On the first try in January, the hydraulic system ran out of fluid just before reaching the ship.   In April, the first stage reached the drone ship, but did not remain vertical.  It fell over and exploded.

SpaceX will try again tomorrow.   The launch is at 10:21 am ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.   NASA and SpaceX will provide live video of the launch.   SpaceX usually does not provide live video of the landing, but in April released video and other information fairly quickly usually via Musk's Twitter account @elonmusk.

Editor's note:  This story was revised to clarify the reason for the January landing failure. 

What's Happening in Space Policy June 21-28, 2015 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Jun-2015 (Updated: 24-Jun-2015 06:56 PM)

UPDATE:  Friday's House SS&T hearing on astrobiology has been postponed.  Friday's HASC subcommittee hearing on RD-180 is now at 9:00 am rather than 10:30 am ET.

Here is our list of space policy events for the week (and a bit) of June 21-28, 2015.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

It's a busy week, starting today (Sunday) with the GEOINT 2015 conference, ending next Sunday with the 7th operational SpaceX cargo launch (SpX-7) to the International Space Station, and lots of stuff in between including one congressional hearing on astrobiology and (yet) another on the RD-180 issue.

Astrobiology -- the search for life elsewhere in the solar system and beyond -- is much in the news lately with ongoing research at Mars with orbiters and rovers, an upcoming  mission to Jupiter's moon Europa in the 2020s, and the exoplanet discoveries from the Kepler space telescope.  NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan will talk to the Space Policy and History Forum about this topic tomorrow (Monday) at 4:00 pm ET at the National Air and Space Museum.  Seating is limited and in a part of the museum not open to the public, so pre-registration is required.  If you can't make it tomorrow, Stofan was part of a really excellent NASA panel discussion in April on "Water in the Universe" and the search for habitable worlds.   That's a good primer for Friday's House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing on astrobiology, where she will testify along with three other experts including Cornell's Jonathan Lunine.

The astrobiology hearing hopefully will be over in time to switch at 10:30 am ET to the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Strategic Forces Subcommittee hearing on the RD-180 issue.   One almost would think there is nothing left to say considering all the hearings already held, but the witness list is quite impressive, with three government and six industry witnesses. The hearing also has its focus on "investing in industry" to end reliance on the Russian engine that powers the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V rocket.   In addition to the "usual suspects" like Air Force Space Command's Gen. John Hyten and ULA'sTory Bruno, former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin will be there in his role as deputy chair of the RD-180 Availability Risk Mitigation Study (the Mitchell report).  Griffin now is President of Shafer Corporation that is part of a consortium including Dynetics and Aerojet Rocketdyne that wants to obtain the production rights to ULA's Atlas V rocket and apparently replace the Atlas V's RD-180 engine with Aerojet Rocketdyne's AR1.  That is a new twist.   Aerojet Rocketdyne's Julie Van Kleeck will be there too, along with Orbital ATK's Frank Culbertson and SpaceX's Jeff Thornburg (one imagines Elon Musk and Gwynne Shotwell are a little busy preparing for Sunday's SpX-7 launch).   Blue Origin will also be at the table with its President Rob Meyerson.  Its deal with ULA on the BE-4 engine has put it on the front page of the debate over how quickly America can move beyond the RD-180.  The other two government witnesses are DOD's assistant secretary for acquisition, Katrina McFarland, and Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, Commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center.  Should be good.

Many other interesting events are on tap.  The list below shows everything we know about as of Sunday (June 21) afternoon.

Sunday-Wednesday, June 21-24

Monday, June 22

Monday-Tuesday, June 22-23

Monday-Wednesday, June 22-24

Tuesday, June 23

Tuesday-Thursday, June 23-25

Thursday, June 25

Friday, June 26

Saturday, June 27

Sunday, June 28

Senate Passes FY2016 Defense Authorization, But Blocked on Defense Appropriations

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Jun-2015 (Updated: 19-Jun-2015 12:36 AM)

The Senate passed the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) today despite the threat of a Presidential veto.  Shortly thereafter, however, the Senate Republican leadership was blocked in an attempt to bring up the FY2016 defense appropriations bill as Democrats fulfilled their pledge to block all appropriations bills until Republicans agree to negotiate a new budget deal to replace the sequester.  The White House issued a veto threat against the appropriations bill, too.

Authorization.  Some top Senate Democrats earlier said they would block passage of the NDAA (S. 1376/H.R. 1735) because of the debate over budget caps, but Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) chairman John McCain (R-AZ) argued that although the NDAA recommends funding levels, it does not actually provide any funding. The policy provisions at the heart of the legislation are so important that the bill needed to pass, he argued.  His reasoning apparently persuaded a number of Democrats.  The bill passed by a healthy margin (71-25) despite the veto threat from the White House. (Not sure of the difference between an authorization and an appropriation?  See SpacePolicyOnline.com's "What's a Markup" fact sheet.)

The House has already passed its version of the NDAA.  The next step is coming up with a compromise between the House and Senate versions.  One important space-related issue on which the two sides of the Capitol disagree is the pace at which an American-made alternative to Russia's RD-180 rocket engine must be in service.

The RD-180 issue has been debated extensively in Congress and elsewhere over the past year and a half as reported in these pages.  Essentially, the Russian-built RD-180s are used for the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V rocket, one of two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) used to launch national security satellites for DOD and the intelligence community.  The other is the Delta IV.  Russia's annexation of Crimea and the resulting chill in U.S.-Russian relations galvanized Congress to require DOD and the Air Force to stop purchasing RD-180s and develop an American alternative instead.  The FY2015 NDAA set 2019 as the last year when RD-180s can be used for national security launches (there is no prohibition against using them for civil or commercial launches, although the number of engines that may be purchased is restricted). 

The Air Force is trying to convince Congress to give it a few more years to make the transition, arguing that it needs more time to develop, test and certify a new launch system (of which an engine is part).  It wants an extension to 2022.  The House-passed FY2016 NDAA provides that flexibility, but the Senate bill insists on 2019.

The RD-180 and launch competition issues have become entwined.  ULA has been a monopoly provider of launch services to the Air Force and intelligence community since it was created in 2006, but now a competitor, SpaceX, has emerged.   DOD, the Air Force and ULA assert that they embrace the drive for competition, but want to make certain SpaceX does not itself become a monopoly provider in the 2019-2022 time frame when Atlas V's no longer can be launched (because RD-180s are prohibited), but a ULA alternative is not ready.  These issues not only split the House and Senate authorizing committees, but the Senate authorizing and appropriations committees.  McCain's Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) is the one holding DOD's feet to the fire on 2019, while the other three are siding with DOD.

Appropriations.  Shortly after Senate passage of the NDAA today (June 18), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) tried to bring up the defense appropriations bill (S. 1558/H.R. 2685), which was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee last week.  He needed 60 votes to allow the bill to be debated, but it fell short 50-45. 

Senate Democrats have vowed to prevent any of the appropriations bills from being debated until Republicans agree to negotiate a new budget deal to replace the spending caps set in the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA).  They and the White House are particularly incensed that Republicans are using a "gimmick" to add tens of billions of dollars to defense spending by adding it to an off-budget account (Overseas Contingency Operations -- OCO) to which the caps do not apply, while leaving non-defense spending subject to the BCA caps and a sequester if they are not met. That top level disagreement is shaping congressional action on funding bills this year and some Democrats are warning that a government shutdown is possible if Republicans refuse to negotiate a new agreement.

Even if Congress did pass appropriations bills, the White House has said it will veto them. The main reason is the overarching debate about the budget caps and the OCO gimmick, but specific issues also are mentioned.

In its Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) on the Senate defense appropriations bill, issued today, the White House called out three space-related issues as being of particular concern:  the addition of $143.6 million for building a U.S. alternative to the RD-180; the rescission of $125 million from FY2015 funds for an EELV launch, which is related to the RD-180 issue; and the elimination of funding to launch the last Defense Meteorological Satellite Program weather satellite (DSMP-20),

As explained in the committee's report, Sec. 8045 rescinds the $125 million because of the requirement in Sec. 1608 of  the FY2015 NDAA that use of RD-180s cease in 2019.  The money was provided, the report says, to double the number of competitive launch opportunities in FY2015.  However, the committee agrees with the Air Force and ULA that a new U.S. launch system to replace the Atlas V will not be ready by 2019, and, since ULA's Delta IV is not cost competitive, only SpaceX could win launch contracts.  That means no competition, "nullifying the intent" of the addition. 

The committee goes on to say that it is not recommending fewer competitive opportunities in FY2016 because "true competition" may still be possible if Congress modifies the Sec. 1608 requirement as requested by DOD and "enable a responsible transition" away from the RD-180 "as soon as possible."  As noted above, the appropriations committee's position is at odds with the just-passed Senate FY2016 NDAA, which maintains the 2019 requirement.  Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) tried to remove Sec. 8045 during markup of the appropriations bill last week, but he withdrew his amendment when it became clear it would not pass.  Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), chairman of the full committee and its defense subcommittee; Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), the top Democrat on the defense subcommittee; and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), argued stridently against the Graham amendment.  (ULA manufactures its rockets in Decatur, AL.)

Meanwhile, to "ensure expeditious development" of a U.S. alternative to the RD-180, the committee added $143.6 million for rocket engine development above the $84.4 million requested.

The Obama Administration agrees with the committee's position on modifying the 2019 requirement, but not with the rescission of $125 million from FY2015 EELV procurement or the addition of $143.6 million in FY2016 for rocket engine development.  Regarding the latter, It argues that the committee's "engine-centric approach ... would not preserve the Nation's assured access to space" because an engine is only one of many critical components of a launch system and developing a propulsion system independent of the rest of the system risks "hundreds of millions of dollars without ensuring the availability of operational launch systems."  (The White House's threat to veto the Senate version of the NDAA also included concerns about space launch issues, objecting to four sections of that bill.)

As for DMSP-20, the Air Force changed its mind this year about the need for this last of the 1990s-era DMSP series.  The tortuous history of DOD weather satellites and the failure of the DOD-NOAA-NASA National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program need not be repeated here. DOD is still trying to determine its future path for weather satellites needed to support military operations.  Congress seems exasperated, especially with the high costs of storing and launching the DMSPs. The appropriations committee report says that the Air Force is proposing to launch DMSP-20 in FY2018 or FY2019 at a cost of between $410-$455 million in addition to the $500 million already spent.  It notes that the Air Force previously said DMSP-20 was not needed.  It not only denied the $89.3 million requested for FY2016, but rescinded $50 million of the FY2015 funding and directed the Air Force to bring the program to an "orderly close" with the remaining FY2015 funds.

The Administration's SAP says it strongly objects to the committee's position because by 2017 only one of the DMSP satellites now in orbit will still be within its design life.  DOD is concerned about a potential gap in polar orbiting weather satellite data that could lead to "reduced accuracy in weather prediction models and degraded efficiency of surveillance and reconnaissance platforms."  (The White House's threat to veto the Senate version of the NDAA also included objections to that committee's DMSP provisions, which limited the availability of funds until certain prerequisites are met, which the White House termed "onerous.")

The space issues are only a small part of the list of Administration objections to the appropriations bill.  While they are all important to reaching agreement on a final FY2016 appropriations measure, the fundamental issue of budget caps and balancing defense versus non-defense spending portends a lengthy and fractious appropriations season this year.