Commercial Space News
UPDATE, December 18, 10:25 am EST: A link to the statement NASA finally put out is added, along with information on the status of the pre-launch briefings.
SpaceX confirmed to SpacePolicyOnline this morning that its fifth operational cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) will be postponed from tomorrow (December 19) to no earlier than January 6, 2015.
SpaceX spokesman John Taylor said via email that the delay is due to an "abundance of caution" following a static fire test yesterday that did not achieve all of its objectives. "While the recent static fire test accomplished nearly all of our goals, the test did not run the full duration. The data suggests that we could push forward without a second attempt, but out of an abundance of caution, we are opting to execute a second static fire test prior to launch."
The next launch opportunity is not until January 6 because of the time it will take to conduct the second test, limited launch opportunities during the holiday period, and a beta angle cutout period when the Sun's angle to the ISS prevents certain on-orbit activities like berthing Dragon, he added. The beta angle cutout period is December 28-January 7.
If the launch takes place on January 6, Dragon would arrive at the ISS on January 8, after the cutout period ends. January 7 is a backup launch date.
The likelihood of a delay was first reported by Chris Bergin of NASASpaceflight.com yesterday via Twitter, but not confirmed by SpaceX (or NASA) until this morning.
SpaceX has a full launch manifest, including the January 23 launch of the NOAA-NASA-Air Force Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) on January 23. What impact the SpX-5 slip may have on other launches is unclear at the moment. NOAA will hold a media teleconference this morning at 11:00 am EST where more information about the DSCOVR launch may be made available.
NASA finally issued a statement at about 10:15 am EST confirming the postponement and clarifying that three pre-launch briefings scheduled for today will be rescheduled for January 5. If the launch takes place on January 6, the launch time is 6:18 am Eastern Standard Time (EST).
Orbital Sciences Corporation confirmed via Twitter a story published by Aviation Week & Space Technology that it has chosen a different Russian engine, RD-181, for its Antares rocket. The last Antares launch, powered by Russian NK-33 engines (refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne and redesignated AJ26), exploded 15 seconds after liftoff on October 28.
Orbital confirmed after the launch failure that it would use a different engine for future Antares rockets, but as recently as last week, Orbital Chairman, President and CEO David Thompson declined to publicly identify the engine despite rumors that it would be Russian.
Aviation Week's Frank Morring posted a story yesterday quoting Orbital's vice president for space launch strategic development Mark Pieczynski as saying the RD-181, built by Energomash, "is about as close as you could possibly get to replacing the current twin AJ-26 engines in Antares, so it minimizes the redesign of the core." The first set of RD-181s is expected in the summer of 2015, Morring reported, with a second set arriving in the fall.
Orbital has announced plans for recovering from the October 28 launch failure, which destroyed the Cygnus spacecraft that was carrying cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of Orbital's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA. The contract requires Orbital to deliver 20 tons of cargo to ISS by the end of 2016. To fulfill the contract, Orbital will use another company's rocket for at least one launch of Cygnus while getting the reconfigured Antares ready for launch in 2016. That other company is the United Launch Alliance (ULA). Orbital is buying one ULA Atlas V launch, with an option for one more.
In tweets yesterday and today, Orbital (@OrbitalSciences) said that the RD-181 is the "only propulsion system that enables us to complete cargo commitments to @NASA under #CRS contract by end of 2016." It also disputed reports on some media outlets that the value of its order for the engines is $1 billion. "Total possible value (including options) of #RD181 order significantly below the $1 billion being reported by some media outlets."
One of those media outlets is Russia's Sputnik News, formerly RIA Novosti. It reported today that the order is for 60 RD-181 engines, citing another Russian newspaper, Izvestiya. According to that account, an official from Russia's space agency Roscosmos said there is a firm contract for 20 engines with a commitment to deliver a total of 60. A subsequent story from Sputnik News quotes Orbital's Barron Beneski as saying the $1 billion figure is incorrect and "The full value if all the options were exercised would be significantly less."
Congress recently passed legislation prohibiting the purchase of a different Russian engine, the RD-180, for use in ULA's Atlas V rocket. Atlas V is used for many U.S. national security spacecraft and U.S. dependence on Russia for those engines became a significant issue after Russia's actions in Ukraine. The final version of the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) prohibits the Secretary of Defense from awarding or renewing a contract to procure rocket engines designed or manufactured in Russia for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. Atlas V and Delta IV are the two EELVs, so the language does not affect Antares.
Morring quotes Orbital's Ron Grabe, executive vice president and general manager of the company's Launch Systems Group, as saying the company "coordinated with all relevant congressional staffs" and notes that the ISS program itself is dependent on cooperation with Russia. ISS is an international partnership among the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan, and 11 European countries. NASA has been dependent on Russia to launch crews to the ISS since the space shuttle was terminated in 2011.
Virgin Galactic announced today that Richard DalBello will join the company as Vice President of Business Development and Government Relations. DalBello is currently assistant director for aeronautics and space at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).
This is DalBello's second stint at OSTP, having served there during the Clinton Administration. He moved to the private sector thereafter and just prior to rejoining OSTP last year, he was Vice President for Government Affairs at Intelsat General.
In the Virgin Galactic press release, DalBello says that he is "excited to be joining one of the true leaders of the commercial space era."
Virgin Galactic is currently recovering from the SpaceShipTwo (SS2) crash on October 31, 2014. The air-launched spacecraft was destroyed and one of the two pilots died. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is still investigating the accident.
SS2 is intended to take people on suborbital flights, but the company also is building a two-stage launch vehicle, LauncherOne, for placing small satellites in orbit. DalBello will be in charge of business development for LauncherOne and for managing Virgin Galactic's interactions with the government.
DalBello's career includes a mix of government and private sector positions. In addition to his four years at OSTP during the Clinton Administration, previous government jobs include working at the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, for NASA as director of commercial communications where he was responsible for private sector experiments on the Advanced Communications Technology Satellite (ACTS), and for the Department of Commerce as Director of the Office of Space Commercialization. He also worked on the staff of the 1985-1986 National Commission on Space. In the private sector, he was Vice President of Government Affairs for Intelsat General, president of the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association, president of the Satellite Industry Association, general counsel of Spotcast Communications Inc., and Vice President for Government Affairs, North America for ICO Global Communications.
Here is our list of space policy-related events for the rest of 2014 as the holidays approach. This edition covers December 15-31, 2014. The Senate will be in session tomorrow, at least, but the expectation is that the 113th Congress will come to a close very soon.
During the Week
The Senate is scheduled to be in session tomorrow for what may be the last day of the 113th Congress, though even at this late date it is difficult to say that with any certainty. After a tumultuous few days, the House and Senate have passed and sent to the President the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015 -- the "CRomnibus" -- which funds NASA, NOAA, DOD and most other government departments and agencies through the end of FY2015 (September 30, 2015). Only the Department of Homeland Security is funded under another Continuing Resolution (CR), through February 27, 2015, because of the immigration debate. We've published many stories about the debate, the angst, the uncertainty, etc. and will not reiterate it here (type "cromnibus" into our search box and you should be able to retrieve them). Suffice it to say that it was a very nice holiday gift for NASA -- a $549 million increase above the President's request, or $363 million more than FY2014. The question will be whether Congress will sustain that level of funding in future years. A one-year plus-up is nice, but it's the long haul that counts. NOAA's satellite programs also did well. We'll publish an article summarizing the DOD space program provisions shortly.
Outside the beltway, the highlight of this week certainly will be the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco. AGU is webcasting many of its press conferences and those related to NASA are listed below and on our calendar on the right menu. Among them -- findings from MAVEN, Curiosity, and Rosetta are on tap for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, and a look forward at New Horizons' arrival at Pluto next year is on Thursday.
And, if all goes well, SpaceX will launch its fifth operational cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) on Friday. Three pre-launch briefings are scheduled for Thursday. Arrival at the ISS will be on Sunday if the launch goes on Friday. NASA TV will cover it all.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
SpacePolicyOnline.com wishes all of you Happy Holidays and a fantastic New Year!
Monday-Friday, December 15-19
Monday, December 15
Tuesday, December 16
Wednesday, December 17
Thursday, December 18
Friday, December 19
Sunday, December 21
Update: Links to the text of the bill and joint explanatory statements for CJS (NASA and NOAA) and Defense have been added.
The Senate just passed the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015, colloquially called the "cromnibus." It funds NASA, NOAA, DOD and most other government departments and agencies -- except the Department of Homeland Security -- through the end of the fiscal year (September 30, 2015).
Demonstrating once again that it is always darkest before the dawn, the 56-40 vote came after a 24-hour period when it looked like the Senate was in for a long debate about the bill. Senate Democratic and Republican leaders had hoped to spend the weekend at home and come back and vote on the bill Monday, but Tea Party Republicans led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT) objected late last night and consequently the Senate was in session today.
Throughout much of the day, many worried that the Senate could not even pass a new Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government operating until Wednesday (otherwise funding would have expired tonight). That CR finally passed this afternoon, but it was unclear when a vote on the cromnibus would take place.
Cruz and Lee did force a vote on the constitutionality of President Obama's immigration executive order "though it was badly defeated by bipartisan opposition, 22-74" according to Politico. Politico goes on to point out that the Cruz-Lee delay opened an opportunity for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to bring a number of President Obama's long-delayed nominations to the floor for a vote and now "there's little Republicans can do to stop him."
From the standpoint of funding the government, at least, it was good news. The cromnibus -- a combination of a CR to fund the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through February 27, 2015 and the rest of the government through the end of the fiscal year -- includes a significant increase for NASA and strong support for NOAA's satellite programs. DHS is funded only by a shorter-term CR as a signal of Republican disapproval of the President's immigration executive order. Immigration is part of DHS's portfolio.
The text of the bill was written as a Senate amendment to a House-passed bill on an unrelated topic (H.R. 83). The joint explanatory statement (formerly a conference report) is separated into "divisions" for each of the regular appropriations bills. Division B is Commerce-Justice-Science (including NASA and NOAA); Division C is Defense.
This afternoon the Senate agreed to the second short-term Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government open through Wednesday, December 17, after a morning of high stakes drama where the words "government shutdown" were once again heard. If this second CR did not pass, government funding would have expired at midnight.
The Senate is trying to complete work on FY2015 funding and a few other measures before bringing the 113th Congress to a close. One way or another, this Congress will end and the new 114th Congress -- with Republicans in control of both the House and Senate -- will convene in early January.
The FY2015 funding bill, called a "cromnibus" because it combines a CR (through February 27, 2015) for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and a full-year (through September 30, 2015) omnibus appropriations for the rest of the government is very controversial because of policy provisions ("riders") that were added by House and Senate negotiators in order to reach a compromise. The bill narrowly passed the House on Thursday and is now struggling to win the support of enough Senators to secure passage there.
Tea Party Republicans Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) are seen as the leaders in opposing the cromnibus because it does not send a strong enough message to the President about Republican dissatisfaction with the President's executive order on immigration. Cruz is viewed as the architect of last year's 16-day government shutdown, which many establishment Republicans opposed and have vowed to prevent from occurring again. Several were quoted today questioning the Cruz-Lee strategy today. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R), Utah's senior senator, told reporters "I don't see any end game that can be won, other than irritating people." Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) said it was "not in keeping with our Republican commitment to return to normal order and to show the people of this country that we can govern responsibly."
Tea Party Republicans are not the only ones unhappy with the cromnibus. Liberal Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) are equally unhappy with a provision that changes the Dodd-Frank financial regulations and members of both parties object to modifications to the campaign finance law.
Virginia's two Senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, issued a press release yesterday touting $20 million included in the FY2015 "cromnibus" spending bill that just cleared the House. The money is to help pay for damages to a launch pad at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility caused by the October 28 Antares rocket failure. Wallops is on the coast of Virginia.
Warner and Kaine, both Democrats, thanked fellow Democrat and Maryland neighbor Barbara Mikulski for being a "supporter and advocate of NASA and the Wallops facility." Mikulski chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares is launched from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops. Orbital is headquartered in Dulles, Virginia, just outside Washington, DC. MARS is owned by the State of Virginia and state officials reportedly were unhappy to discover what their financial responsibility is for repairing MARS under these circumstances.
The Senators' press statement said the money would "support repairs following a launch failure on October 28 that caused significant damage to the [MARS] launch pad." It added that the Senators would release a complete list of "Virginia priorities" included in the spending package after the bill clears Congress. (They also issued a press release listing what they achieved for Virginia in the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act, also expected to clear Congress imminently. None are space-related.)
The House passed the bill -- the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015, colloquially called the "cromnibius" because it is a combination of a Continuing Resolution (CR) and an omnibus appropriations bill -- last night. The Senate is expected to pass it today or tomorrow. It includes $18.010 billion for NASA, an increase of $549 million above the President's request. It is not obvious where in the bill the $20 million is added, but presumably somewhere in that increase.
Antares exploded 15 seconds after launch on a mission to deliver cargo to the International Space Station under a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA. Orbital and SpaceX both developed cargo space transportation systems through a public-private partnership often called "commercial cargo." Skeptics of the "commercial" nature of the effort are watching how Orbital and the government recover from the failure to see who ends up paying for what. Orbital has announced its own recovery plan, which includes buying at least one launch from United Launch Alliance, and insists that it does not expect "any material adverse financial impacts in 2015 or future years" because of the failure.
The House approved the FY2015 "cromnibus" spending package tonight by a vote of 219-206. The Senate still must act on the measure so the House also passed another Continuing Resolution (CR) to extend government funding for two more days, through midnight Saturday. The Senate quickly passed the two-day CR, averting a government shutdown tonight.
The cromnibus is a mix of a CR and an omnibus appropriations bill. A CR provides funding for a short period of time at the previous year's level. An omnibus consolidates several regular full-year appropriations bills into a single legislative package. This bill combines full year appropriations for departments and agencies in 11 of the 12 regular appropriations bills (including NASA, NOAA and DOD) with a short term CR for the 12th (the Department of Homeland Security-DHS). Funding DHS only through February 27, 2015, is intended to signal Republican dissatisfaction with President Obama's executive order on immigration. Immigration is part of DHS.
The battle over the cromnibus was intense and at times its passage seemed in jeopardy. The final vote was 219-206. Voting in favor were 162 Republicans and 57 Democrats. Voting against were 67 Republicans and 139 Democrats. Five members from each party did not vote.
The rancor was over provisions agreed to by House and Senate negotiators endeavoring to reach a compromise. The end result clearly does not please everyone. Conservative Republicans reportedly want a stronger reaction against the President's immigration executive order, liberal Democrats and some Republicans object to a provision weakening the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, and liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans object to changes to the campaign finance law.
The White House supported passage, but House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said the House was being "blackmailed" into voting for it.
The battle now moves to the Senate. With passage of the new two-day CR, it has until midnight Saturday to act.
The bill contains a significant budget boost for NASA -- an increase of $549 million above the President's request for a total of $18.010 billion. NOAA's satellite programs also fare well.
SpaceX and NASA announced today that the launch of the fifth operational SpaceX cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS), SpaceX CRS-5 (SpX-5), has been delayed from December 16 to December 19.
NASA said the three-day slip will allow SpaceX "to take extra time to ensure they do everything possible on the ground to prepare for a successful launch," adding that the Falcon rocket and Dragon spacecraft are in "good health." Launch will be at 1:20 pm EST. NASA TV coverage begins at 12:15 pm EST.
That means complementary shifts in the schedule of briefings associated with the launch and berthing to ISS. The three pre-launch news conferences will shift to December 18 (at 12:00 noon, 1:30 pm and 3:00 pm EST)) and grapple and berthing will take place on December 21. See our calendar for more details.
SpaceX launches cargo to the ISS under a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA. Twelve Space-X CRS flights delivering 20 tons of cargo to the ISS are scheduled through the end of 2016.
Orbital Sciences Corporation is the other company that provides CRS services to NASA. The most recent launch of its Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft failed on October 28. Orbital is purchasing launch services from the United Launch Alliance and upgrading Antares and Cygnus to allow the company to meet its own contractual commitment of delivering 20 tons of cargo to the ISS by the end of 2016, which it now expects to accomplish in seven rather than eight launches.
The House is expected to vote tomorrow (Thursday) on the FY2015 appropriations bill dubbed the "CRomnibus." It combines an omnibus appropriations providing full-year funding for agencies covered by 11 of the 12 regular appropriations bills (including NASA, NOAA and DOD) and a Continuing Resolution (CR) for the 12th (the Department of Homeland Security). The vote is expected to be close because of dissatisfaction on both sides of the aisle with policy provisions ("riders") that were added during negotiations. Congress must pass this bill or some other funding measure before midnight tomorrow to avoid a government shutdown.
Objections to the CRomnibus reportedly range from conservative Republicans who feel it does not send a strong enough message to the President protesting his executive order on immigration to liberal Democrats and some Republicans who object to changes in the Dodd-Frank financial services regulations to liberal Democrats who object to changes in campaign finance laws. (The Department of Homeland Security includes immigration. The proposal to provide it only with a CR and not a full-year appropriation like everyone else is to signal Republican ire at the Obama immigration executive order, but some Republicans want to go further.)
Although appropriations bills are not supposed to include policy provisions, only funding, they often do. That is especially true at the end of a Congress where members are trying one last time to get favored legislation passed and the only bill likely to clear Congress and be signed by the President is an appropriations bill.
It is still possible that no agreement on funding will be reached and the government will shut down at midnight tomorrow, but that still is considered very unlikely. If the CRomnibus does not pass the House tomorrow, House Speaker John Boehner reportedly plans to bring a three-month CR for the entire government to the floor for a vote, pushing funding decisions over into the Republican-controlled 114th Congress. If the CRomnibus does pass the House, a very short term CR may be needed to give the Senate time to act, but that presumably would be only for a couple of days.
None of the concerns appear to be directed at provisions regarding NASA, NOAA or DOD.
We'll provide updates as they are available.