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Commercial Space News

Van Hollen Vows To Continue Mikulski's Passion for Space

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Aug-2016 (Updated: 24-Aug-2016 09:55 PM)

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) vowed to continue the strong support for NASA and NOAA evidenced by Sen. Barbara Mikulski if he is elected as her successor in November.   Mikulski is retiring and Van Hollen is widely considered to be the front runner to replace her.

Overall, Van Hollen's message today at a luncheon sponsored by the Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR) was one of reassurance.  Mikulski's advocacy for NASA and NOAA, especially, but not only, earth science missions, is legendary.  Many in the space community are apprehensive about what her departure will mean for NASA and NOAA space programs and budgets.  Van Hollen is a relative unknown in space circles and today he clearly wanted to convey his enthusiasm and dedication to continue the fight.

Van Hollen currently represents a district that runs from the Washington suburbs to the border with Pennsylvania.  His views on the space program are not well known, though he said today that he meets annually with the Director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (in Greenbelt, MD) to discuss programs and budgets.  He mentioned that he had met with GSFC Director Chris Scolese this morning prior to the luncheon.  He also noted that he was on hand to watch the arrival of the New Horizons spacecraft at Pluto last summer from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (APL) in Laurel, MD.

NASA-Goddard and APL are just two of the space-related enterprises in Maryland located in or near his district.   NOAA headquarters is in Silver Spring, Lockheed Martin's corporate offices are in Bethesda, and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which operates the Hubble Space Telescope, is in Baltimore.

He shared that he majored in physics for part of his college career, inspired by his Swarthmore College roommate Neil Gershenfeld, now Director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms. Though Van Hollen decided to change majors after getting as far as quantum mechanics (ultimately getting a B.A. in philosophy, a master's in public policy with a concentration in national security, and a J.D.), he said the experience gave him a "lifelong passion and thirst for discovery and trying to answer the big questions  -- how did we get here, what is our place in the universe, what does the future hold for Mother Earth."

If he wins the November election, he vowed to be "a fierce advocate" like Mikulski for "NASA Goddard, for NOAA, for Wallops [Flight Facility], for APL, for AURA, for STScI,  and for the entire ecosystem of other organizations, businesses and jobs " that are  "vital to our nation's leadership in space and to Maryland's central place in that galaxy."  AURA is the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, which operates STScI and other astronomical observatories.

Van Hollen specifically praised the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is being built at Goddard and will be operated by STScI.  He noted that he saw the telescope this morning and its mirror "is gold-plated."  He joked that government agencies usually prefer to avoid referring to anything as gold-plated (because it conveys excess). In this case, however, a "fun fact" is that the total amount of gold on JWST is less than one-third the amount in all the Olympic gold medals won by Michael Phelps.  A Maryland native, Phelps has won 23 gold medals for swimming, including five in the recent Rio Olympics.

Van Hollen also highlighted NOAA's work on climate and said the United States must maintain leadership on understanding the impact of climate change, sharply criticizing the chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who has subpoenaed scientists "and worked hard for purely ideological reasons" to cut budgets for earth and climate science.  Congress should never "intimidate" or "stymie" scientists.  "We need to allow the integrity of the scientific process and budget process to stand on its own without political interference."

Heliophysics, satellite servicing, the Europa mission, STEM education programs, and ISS resupply missions launched from Wallops also got shout outs.  Wallops is in neighboring Virginia on the DELMARVA (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) peninsula, but Van Hollen pointed out that "most" of the people who work at Wallops live in Maryland.  That brought him to his final point -- the number of jobs in Maryland attributable to space activities and the positive effect on Maryland's economy.  He mentioned that NASA-Goddard plans to hire 200 civil servants and said that for every civil servant, there are 2 contractors, so that means an additional 400 contractors as well.  That's on top of 10,000 civil service and contractor jobs associated with Goddard already, not to mention additional thousands at APL and NOAA, and hundreds at STSci and Wallops, he said.

"Maryland is a space state and we're going to stay that way," he exclaimed.

A challenge to all of that is getting funding from Congress, of course.  Van Hollen laid out the difficulties Congress faces when it returns after Labor Day to get a FY2017 budget passed, an issue he understands well since he is the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee.  Although he opposes government shutdowns, he said he could not rule out such a possibility because many House Republicans object to the budget deal brokered last fall among outgoing House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and President Barack Obama that softened sequester limits for FY2016 and FY2017.

His hope is that Congress will pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) that will last through the November elections, then return and complete the FY2017 budget process before the end of the year so the incoming President does not have to deal with it.  The road ahead is full of "uncertainty," however.

Van Hollen's Republican opponent for Mikulski's seat is Kathy Szeliga.  Democrats have held both Maryland Senate seats since Republican Charles "Mac" Mathias retired in 1986.  Somewhat ironically, Van Hollen (a Democrat) started his career working for Mathias as a defense and foreign policy aide.

 

What's Happening in Space Policy August 22-September 2, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Aug-2016 (Updated: 21-Aug-2016 02:14 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the next TWO weeks, August 22-September 2, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.   The House and Senate will return for legislative business on September 6.

During the Weeks

It is just two weeks until Congress returns for legislative business, so this edition of What's Happening covers only those two weeks with the expectation that activity will begin ramping up again and there will be new events to list soon.

Not that the rest of August doesn't have a lot to offer. First is the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) conference coming up this week in Raleigh, NC.  It is certain to whet the appetite with concepts for the longer term future.  When they say innovative, they MEAN innovative.  "Nano Icy Moons Propellant Harvester," "Fusion-Enabled Pluto Orbiter and Lander," and "Stellar Echo Imaging of Exoplanets" are just three of the novel ideas that will be presented. The conference will be livestreamed.

This Wednesday, Rep. Chris Van Hollen will speak to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable.  As we explained earlier, he is considered the front runner to succeed Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who is retiring at the end of the year.   Should be interesting to learn his views on the space program.  Considering how much government, private sector. and academic space activity there is in Maryland -- from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center to Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab to the Space Telescope Science Institute to Lockheed Martin corporate headquarters, to name just a few -- one could well anticipate that he'll be a strong supporter like Mikulski.  If elected, he won't have her seniority, though, so his influence on the outcome of, say, appropriations, likely will take some time to develop.

Next week, two of the panels for the Earth Science and Applications from Space (ESAS) Decadal Survey will meet.  As we explained in our last issue, this is the second ESAS Decadal Survey from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.  The first was issued in 2007 and they are done every 10 years (a decade, hence "decadal"), so this one is expected to be completed next year.  Meetings of the other panels and two steering committee meetings now are scheduled through January 2017 as shown on our month-by-month FULL CALENDAR OF FUTURE EVENTS view (click on the link at the bottom of the Events of Interest list on our home page).

Those are the only four events we know about for the next two weeks as of Sunday morning (August 21) and are shown below.  Check back throughout the weeks to see new events that we learn about later.

Tuesday-Thursday, August 23-25

Wednesday, August 24

Tuesday-Wednesday, August 30-31

Thursday-Friday, September 1-2

What's Happening in Space Policy August 15 - September 2, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Aug-2016 (Updated: 14-Aug-2016 12:41 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the next THREE weeks, August 15 - September 2, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate return for legislative business on September 6.

During the Weeks

As described in our July 31 and August 7 editions, there's quite a bit going on this month even though it should be vacation time.  In addition to the events mentioned in those earlier issues -- including the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, AL (August 16-18), the NIAC symposium in Raleigh, NC (August 23-26), and the Maryland Space Business Roundtable luncheon in Greenbelt, MD with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (August 24) -- there has been one addition and one deletion over the past week for that time period.  This edition also adds the week of August 29-September 2.

The deletion is the return-to-flight launch of Orbital ATK's Antares rocket that was scheduled for August 22.   It has been postponed until the second half of September (date to be determined). The company said the delay was due to "a variety of interrelated factors" including continued processing, integration and testing of the re-engined rocket and the busy schedule aboard the International Space Station.

The addition is a NASA media briefing on August 17 to discuss the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission that is scheduled for launch on September 8.   OSIRIS-REx is the entirely robotic science mission that will obtain a sample of asteroid Bennu and return it to Earth in 2023 for scientific studies, not the Asteroid Redirect Mission that uses a robotic spacecraft to move part of an asteroid to lunar orbit where astronauts will obtain a sample and return it to Earth in the mid-2020s as part of NASA's effort to send people to Mars.  For the curious, OSIRIS-REx's full name is the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer.

The week added in this version of "What's Happening" includes meetings of two panels of the ongoing Earth Science and Applications from Space (ESAS) Decadal Survey conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.  This is the second ESAS Decadal Survey by the Academies.  The first was released in 2007.  Decadal Surveys are conducted every 10 years (hence "Decadal") for each of NASA's space and earth science disciplines (other agencies may be involved, too), so this one is due to be completed next year.  It has a steering committee and five panels on specific aspects of the topic. The two that are meeting within this period of time are solid earth (August 30-31) in Washington, DC, and hydrology (September 1-2) in Irvine CA.  The ESAS steering committee is co-chaired by Waleed Abdalati, University of Colorado-Boulder, and Bill Gail, Global Weather Corporation.  Again for the curious, the full name of the solid earth panel is Earth Surface and Interior: Dynamics and Hazards panel, which is co-chaired by Douglas Burbank, UC Santa Barbara and David Sandwell, Scripps Institution of Oceanography.  Hydrology is formally the Global Hydrological Cycles and Water Resources Panel and is co- chaired by Ana Barros, Duke University, and Jeff Dozier, UC Santa Barbara. 

The full list of upcoming events for the next three weeks is shown below.  Keep checking back to see additions that we learn about later and add to our Events of List interest (or those that get postponed).

Monday, August 15

Tuesday-Wednesday, August 16-17

Tuesday-Thursday, August 16-18

Wednesday, August 17

Thursday, August 18

Friday, August 19

Tuesday-Thursday, August 23-25

Wednesday, August 24

Tuesday-Wednesday, August 30-31

Thursday-Friday, September 1-2

Orbital ATK's Antares Return to Flight Postponed to September

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Aug-2016 (Updated: 10-Aug-2016 03:26 PM)

Orbital ATK announced today that the return to flight of its Antares rocket is being postponed again.  Scheduled for August 22, it now will take place in the second half of September.  The exact date has not been set.   It will be the first flight of Antares since an October 2014 failure.

Antares was developed under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to launch cargo missions to the International Space Station (ISS) using the Cygnus spacecraft.  Antares/Cygnus competes with SpaceX's Falcon 9/Dragon and, more recently, with Sierra Nevada Corporation's Atlas V/Dream Chaser system for NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts.

It was originally designed to use Russian NK-33 engines built four decades ago, refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne and designated AJ26. Two test flights, one of which took cargo to the ISS as a demonstration mission, and two operational missions to ISS were successfully conducted in 2013 and 2014.  At the time, the company was Orbital Sciences Corporation and the two operational missions were designated Orb-1 and Orb-2.

The launch of Orb-3 on October 28, 2014 ended in failure 15 seconds after liftoff. Orbital Sciences, which merged with ATK in February 2015 to become Orbital ATK, decided to replace the NK-33/AJ26 engines with new Russian RD-181s.  The process is taking longer than expected.  The return to flight of the re-engined Antares was supposed to take place this past spring, but the date has slipped several times since then.

The delay announced today was due to "a variety of interrelated factors," the company said.   They include Orbital ATK's continued processing, inspection and testing of the Antares rocket and NASA's scheduling of activities aboard the ISS.  Cygnus is one of four cargo vehicles that resupply the ISS.  Russia's Progress, SpaceX's Dragon, and Japan's HTV are the others; Japan just announced its own delay of the next HTV launch that was scheduled for October because of a spacecraft problem.  The ISS crew also is preparing for spacewalks in August and September, and a Soyuz crew rotation flight is coming up in September as well.  All of these activities must be coordinated.

While waiting for Antares to resume flights, Orbital ATK purchased two launches for its Cygnus spacecraft on United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets to ensure that it could meet its contractual requirements to deliver cargo for NASA.   Those launches took place in December 2015 and March 2016 and were designated Orbital ATK-4 (OA-4) and OA-6.   The Antares flight will launch OA-5 which, as its designation indicates, was supposed to take place in between the two ULA launches.

Orbital ATK made the announcement this morning at the same time as its preliminary second quarter (2Q) 2016 financial results.  The company revealed that it was delaying filing its official 2Q results and would be restating financial results going back several quarters because of recently discovered financial misstatements associated with an Army ammunition contract signed in 2012.  The issue is unrelated to Orbital ATK's space business, but the company's stock fell on the news.

 

Asteroid Redirect Mission at Critical Juncture

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Aug-2016 (Updated: 10-Aug-2016 12:23 PM)

Three weeks after NASA completed a key milestone review of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), the agency still has not officially announced the results.  A NASA official indicated at a NASA Advisory Council (NAC) meeting that the review revealed cost growth, forcing a reexamination of its objectives versus the cost.  An Obama Administration initiative, it is at a critical juncture as the House Appropriations Committee denied funding earlier this year and President Obama’s term in office comes to an end in just 5 months.

NASA conducted its Key Decision Point-B, or KDP-B, review of the robotic portion of the ARM project on July 15.  At a meeting of NAC’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee (NAC/HEO) on July 25, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, said the review showed that costs are growing and the agency must evaluate whether to accept the increase or reduce the program’s scope to stay within the cost cap set by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden.

NAC sent recommendations to Bolden in July 2014 and January 2015 expressing concern about this exact possibility – that costs would grow and choices would need to be made about the program’s content.  The 2014 recommendation was for NASA to conduct an independent cost and technical assessment of ARM.  The 2015 recommendation was for NASA to preserve two key objectives if the program needed to be descoped: development of high power Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) and the ability to maneuver in a low gravity environment in deep space.  It went further in April 2015, issuing a finding (but not a recommendation) that instead of demonstrating SEP technology through the ARM program, it be used to send a spacecraft on a round trip journey to Mars, which it considered a more exciting prospect.

ARM’s Origin, Evolution and Controversy

ARM was initiated by President Obama in 2010 in the wake of his cancellation of the Bush Administration’s Constellation program to return humans to the Moon by 2020 and someday go to Mars.  Instead, the President wanted to spend $6 billion over 5 years on the “commercial crew” program, putting the private sector in charge of developing systems to take crews back and forth to the International Space Station with the government providing much of the funding, but private sector companies also putting some of their own capital into the effort.   He also wanted to invest in “game changing” propulsion technologies over 5 years, after which a decision would be made on the next destination for the U.S. human spaceflight program.

Turning crew space transportation over to the private sector was a major paradigm shift for the nation’s human spaceflight program and cancelling Constellation was a blow to those who saw it as the future of that program and a way to keep the space workforce employed as the space shuttle program ended.

Rather than making a major policy pronouncement, the Obama Administration simply included the changes in its FY2011 budget request to Congress on February 1, 2010.   No substitute human spaceflight vision was offered other than extending the International Space Station for 5 more years (to 2020) and servicing it with the proposed commercial crew systems (a similar program for cargo already was underway, initiated by the Bush Administration).

Congress was surprised and backlash from Republicans and Democrats alike was intense, forcing the President into making a speech at Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010 where he outlined a replacement destination and timetable.  He directed NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 as a steppingstone to orbiting Mars in the 2030s and landing there sometime within his lifetime.  He eschewed the idea of returning astronauts to the Moon, saying “We’ve been there before…There’s a lot more of space to explore.”

Dismissing the need for U.S. astronauts to return to the Moon and directing NASA to send them to an asteroid instead was not well received.   The commercial crew concept also was controversial.   By the end of the year, Congress passed – and the President signed – a compromise 2010 NASA Authorization Act under which NASA would build a new big rocket (the Space Launch System) and crew spacecraft (Orion) to enable humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit as Congress wanted, and the President was not prohibited from proceeding with commercial crew and ARM.  Friction has remained between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue on the relative priorities for those programs ever since, however.

Sending astronauts to an asteroid requires crew spacecraft that can support human life for many months, though, posing technical and budget challenges.  A 2012 study by the Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS), associated with the California Institute of Technology and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, suggested that instead of sending astronauts to an asteroid, a robotic spacecraft could be used to move an asteroid into lunar orbit where astronauts could visit it more readily.  The idea was adopted by NASA and modified yet again into its current form where, instead of moving an entire asteroid, a robotic spacecraft will pluck a boulder from an asteroid’s surface and move just the boulder into lunar orbit.

ARM versus OSIRIS-REx

NASA describes ARM as consisting of two portions:  the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) – sending the robotic probe to the asteroid, plucking the boulder from its surface, and moving the boulder to lunar orbit; and the Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission (ARCM) – sending astronauts to study it there and return samples to Earth.

Bolden has insisted since the beginning that ARRM will cost no more than $1.25 billion excluding launch and operations.  No cost estimate has been made public for ARCM.

Because ARRM is a robotic asteroid mission, it can be easily confused with a completely unrelated mission scheduled for launch next month, OSIRIS-REx. That robotic spacecraft also will go to an asteroid, grab a sample, and return it to Earth.  OSIRIS-REx is a science mission designed to advance scientific understanding of asteroids.

ARM advocates point out that the amount of asteroid material that can be returned using OSIRIS-REx is small compared to what the astronauts will be able to collect from the boulder.  Critics argue that asteroid sample return missions can be accomplished by robotic spacecraft alone and do not require astronauts.

ARM Funding

There is no specific line item in NASA’s budget for ARM.  Instead funding is spread across the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD), the Science Mission Directorate (SMD), and the Office of the Chief Technologist (OCT).

NASA has been careful to differentiate between “direct” work that is unique to ARM and “leveraged” work the agency would pursue even if ARM did not exist.  STMD’s development of high power SEP is considered enabling to many missions in Earth orbit and beyond, not just ARM, for example sending cargo to Mars as part of human expeditions there. SMD’s efforts to locate and track asteroids similarly were underway before ARM.  In NASA parlance, ARM is leveraging the investments in SEP and asteroid tracking and they would continue even if ARM did not.

Table 4 in SpacePolicyOnline.com’s fact sheet on NASA’s FY2017 budget request shows the funding requested for ARM since FY2014 based on data from NASA.   It does not, however, show how much NASA actually spent in any of those years.  As discussed below, finding money within the agency’s budget for ARM has been a challenge and resulted in a one-year delay already.

For FY2017, the requested funding for ARM is $217 million, of which direct funding associated uniquely with ARM is $67.8 million in HEOMD and approximately $1 million in OCT. 

ARM has earned little support over the years outside of NASA and the White House and Congress has been particularly skeptical.  It has not denied funding yet, but the House Appropriations Committee proposed that step earlier this year in its version of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill.   It provided no funding for “NASA to continue planning efforts to conduct either robotic or crewed missions to an asteroid,” language that apparently is aimed at the $67.8 million in HEOMD and perhaps the $1 million in OCT.

The bill has not been voted on by the House and there is no similar provision in the Senate version (which reached the Senate floor in June, but was derailed by the gun control debate), so it is not yet law, but is an expression of non-support by a key congressional committee.

ARM, the Science Community, and NAC

ARM is part of NASA’s human spaceflight program to demonstrate technologies, especially high power SEP, and other capabilities needed to send people to Mars.  It has other objectives, such as demonstrating the ability to alter the course of an asteroid headed towards Earth – referred to as planetary defense – but the science community makes clear that it is not a science mission.

Asteroids, comets and other small celestial objects not orbiting planets are categorized as “small bodies.”  Scientists who study small bodies in the solar system gather as part of NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) to debate issues and express their views. They were not consulted prior to the decision to create ARM and have been among its strongest critics arguing that if the goal is to understand asteroids, there are better methods to do so.

SBAG provides input to NAC through NAC’s Science Committee.   NASA officials including Michele Gates, ARM program director, and Lindley Johnson, program executive for the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (which includes the Near Earth Object Observations program) in the Science Mission Directorate, subsequently have worked assiduously with SBAG to solicit their input and win their acquiescence.

SBAG finally approved a finding at its June 2016 meeting expressing approval of two aspects of ARM – a plan to create opportunities for hosted payloads on the robotic spacecraft that will focus on science objectives and a competitively selected science investigation team. The text of its finding, as posted on the SBAG website, is as follows:

"Asteroid Redirect Mission
"SBAG supports and appreciates the continued engagement of the small bodies community by the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), through mechanisms such as the recent Formulation Assessment and Support Team (FAST). SBAG supports the plan as presented by the ARM team to create opportunities for hosted payloads on the ARM spacecraft and to have a competitively selected Investigation Team, both of which would maximize the science return of the mission."

Debate over ARM was intense at meetings of the full NAC resulting in the 2014 and 2015 recommendations and April 2015 finding described earlier.  The recommendations are posted on NAC's website.  The July 2014 recommendation states:

"Recommendation: The Council recommends that NASA should conduct an independent cost and technical assessment of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). NASA should state clearly in advance what the cost and technical criteria are for implementing the mission. These criteria should include affordability within currently projected budgets. The independent assessment should be performed before the downselect between Options A and B. The possible outcomes of this process are: fly Option A, fly Option B, or (if the projected cost is unacceptable) fly neither."

The January 2015 recommendation reads as follows:

"The Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) has two objectives that are particularly important contributors to Humans to Mars (H2M): Large scale solar electric propulsion (SEP) and maneuvering in a low gravity environment in deep space. As work on ARM goes forward and · costing is completed, focus on a mission architecture that will preserve these two key H2M objectives if the redirection of an asteroid must be descoped."

NAC provides advice to, and its members are appointed by, the NASA Administrator.  Under the NAC terms of reference, the Administrator responds to recommendations, but not findings.  The responses also are posted on the NAC website.  His response to the 2014 recommendation was that an independent cost and technical review would be conducted, but only after the decision between Options A and B was made.   The response to the 2015 recommendation was that NASA had no plans to descope the mission at that time.  The text of the April 2015 finding was published in a SpacePolicyOnline.com article.

Cornell space scientist Steve Squyres chaired NAC during the most energetic debates over ARM, but he stepped down in April 2016.  Two other members with strong views on the subject, Tom Young and Scott Hubbard, also no longer are on NAC.  Former astronaut Ken Bowersox now is the interim chair.  Bowersox had been chairing the NAC/HEO committee, currently led by Wayne Hale.  During the July 2016 NAC meeting, Hale suggested that the prior NAC recommendations on ARM be reconsidered to reflect changes in the past year, such as SBAG’s expression of support for some aspects of the program.

KDP-B Review

It was against this backdrop – a spark of support from SBAG and a changing of the guard at NAC, but opposition from a key congressional committee and the imminent end of the Obama Administration – that NASA conducted its KDP-B review.

KDPs are part of NASA’s project management tools to make decisions on whether to proceed with or change programs at various points along their developmental paths.  To move into Phase B (preliminary design and technology completion), a program must successfully pass the KDP-B review.

HEOMD Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier told NAC/HEO on July 25 that ARM’s cost has grown, in part because of a one-year delay announced earlier this year.   “We had trouble getting the money together for this thing,” he said, and the slip was due to internal budget decisions, not technical problems.  ARM is “competing with all the other” development programs in the HEOMD portfolio, which include the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion crew spacecraft, commercial crew, and a habitation module for sending humans to Mars.

The “intent is to live within the effective cap,” but the “effective” cap may be larger than $1.25 billion if it is adjusted for inflation and the one-year delay.  The question, he said, is “can we legitimately stay within the cap and remove content such that we stay within the cost cap, or are we better off asking for an exception.”  He projected that when a formal memo about the KDP-B results is released – which he anticipated in early August -- it would show a range of budgets, adding that is not unusual for a KDP-B review.

Gerstenmaier strongly defended ARM as a critical element of the Journey to Mars not only at the NAC meetings, but at a July hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee.  At the hearing, he also pleaded that Congress not be overly prescriptive in telling NASA how to accomplish its missions, but to allow the technical experts to make those decisions.

The Months Ahead

Congress may not complete action on the FY2017 funding bills for some months, so whether the House Appropriations Committee’s recommendation stands or is altered in conference may not be known for some time.  Senators at the hearing indicated a strong desire to pass a new NASA authorization bill this year.  Time is getting short, but that could be another avenue for Congress to express its views on ARM.

In the meantime, NASA – like other government agencies -- is preparing to brief the transition teams for the Clinton and Trump campaigns.  The future of the human spaceflight program surely will be a key issue.

Thus the results of the KDP-B review are of special import.   NASA did not respond to SpacePolicyOnline.com's most recent request today (August 8) asking when the results would be made public.

What's Happening in Space Policy August 8-26, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Aug-2016 (Updated: 07-Aug-2016 10:46 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the next THREE weeks, August 8-26, 2016, and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in recess until September 6.

During the Weeks

It may be the dog days of August, but after a one-week respite, there's a lot happening, starting with the Small Satellite Conference in Utah.  It actually began yesterday with a 2-day pre-conference workshop that is being livestreamed.  It's not clear from the meeting's website whether the Monday-Thursday sessions also will be available that way.  Lots of creative ideas will be discussed, no doubt, at this, its 30th anniversary. Jeff Foust (@jeff_foust) from Space News is on site tweeting if there's no livestream or you don't have time to listen in.

Last week we laid out all the meetings through August 19 that we knew about at the time.  They are all still posted on our Events of Interest list and in the summary below.  In this section, we will focus on August 22-26, a week that wasn't included last time.

At the top of the list is the scheduled return to flight of Orbital ATK's Antares rocket on August 22 from Wallops Island, VA.  It's a daytime launch (5:59 pm ET) so won't be as visible from surrounding areas as the night launches, but still could be viewable from the D.C. area (depending on the weather).  Orbital ATK often posts maps of where to look and we will add links to them to our calendar entry when they're available.  As anyone who follows space launches knows, plans can always change for technical or weather reasons.  We'll update our calendar entry with any news we get.  (Orbital ATK will discuss its 2Q 2016 financial results this Wednesday; more information may be provided at that time.) This is the first flight of the re-engined Antares (now using new Russian RD-181s instead of refurbished Russian NK-33/AJ26s) following the October 28, 2014 failure.  Orbital ATK has launched two Cygnus cargo spacecraft on United Launch Alliance Atlas V rockets in the meantime.  They were designated OA-4 and OA-6; this one is OA-5 and, as one may guess, was originally intended to launch in between those two, but was delayed.

If the Small Satellite Conference piques your curiosity with all those new ideas, another place to hear fresh views is the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) symposium.  It will be held August 23-25 in Raleigh, NC and will be livestreamed.

On August 24, the Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR) is hosting a luncheon with Rep. Chris Van Hollen that may be particularly interesting. He is widely expected to succeed Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who is retiring at the end of this year.  Van Hollen won the Democratic primary (against Rep. Donna Edwards) earlier this year.  He faces Republican Kathy Szeliga in November, but Democrats have held both Maryland Senate seats since 1986 and therefore is expected to win.  His views on the space program are not well known, so this will give the space community an opportunity to hear directly from him.  Mikulski is one of NASA's biggest supporters in Congress, especially for earth science and other programs executed at Goddard Space Flight Center, so the extent to which her successor shares those views is important.   Whatever his views, though, he'll be a freshman in a system that thrives on seniority and it will take some time before he can attain Mikulski's influence, especially on the all-important Senate Appropriations Committee. She chaired the committee when Democrats controlled the Senate and is now the top Democrat there.  (For those interested in such matters, usually the highest ranking committee or subcommittee member of the party that is not in power is referred to as the "ranking member."  On Senate Appropriations, though, it has become common to designate that person as the "vice chairman" or "vice chairwoman" in a nod to bipartisanship, so Mikulski is currently vice chairwoman of the committee.)

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday (August 7) morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the weeks for events that we learn about later and add to the Events of Interest list.

Saturday-Thursday, August 6-11

Monday-Tuesday, August 8-9

Tuesday, August 9

Wednesday, August 10

Thursday-Friday, August 11-12

Monday, August 15

Tuesday-Wednesday, August 16-17

Tuesday-Thursday, August 16-18

Thursday, August 18

Friday, August 19

Monday, August 22

Tuesday-Thursday, August 23-25

Wednesday, August 24

 

Note:  This article was updated to add the August 19 spacewalk and the preview press conference on August 15.  It was later corrected with the name of Van Hollen's Republican opponent, who is Kathy Szeliga, not Katie McGinty.

Moon Express Receives USG Approval for Lunar Lander

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Aug-2016 (Updated: 03-Aug-2016 09:18 AM)

Moon Express announced today that it has received approval from the U.S. Government (USG) to land its small spacecraft on the Moon, the first time the government has authorized a private sector company to conduct operations on another celestial body.  Moon Express plans to launch its MX-1 lander by the end of 2017.

In an interview yesterday, Moon Express co-founder and CEO Bob Richards praised the willingness of the several government agencies involved to find a path to approving his company's application.   Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty requires governments to authorize and continually supervise the activities of their non-governmental entities, like companies.    The Department of Transportation regulates launch and reentry through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA),  the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates the use of radio frequencies for satellites, and the Department of Commerce regulates commercial remote sensing satellites through NOAA, but no agency has yet been appointed to oversee other private sector activities in space.

The issue was addressed in last year's Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness  Act by requiring the White House to propose a solution.  The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy submitted its recommendation in April that the Department of Transportation be designated as the agency to grant "mission authorizations" to companies that want to send spacecraft to other places in the solar system, but no further action has been taken to date.

Moon Express wants to launch its spacecraft by December 2017, however, and could not wait for the matter to be resolved through the Washington political process.   It has raised $30 million of the $55 million it requires, Richards said, but needed certainty that the spacecraft would be allowed to be launched in order to raise the remaining $25 million.  It therefore decided to use the FAA's existing authority to conduct payload reviews as part of its launch licensing process and make voluntary disclosures to other government agencies, such as the State Department, in order to obtain the necessary approval.

Richards said the FAA approved the spacecraft for launch in a July 20, 2016 letter following consultations with other government agencies.

He added that the license is only for this launch and does not set a precedent for other launches either by Moon Express or other companies.   MX-1 is a lander and will not be involved in extracting or utilizing lunar resources, although the company has long term plans for such activities.

Moon Express plans to launch the spacecraft on Rocket Lab's Electron launch vehicle, which is still in development and has not yet conducted any test flights.  Richards said the spacecraft's payload review is separate from the launch license review Rocket Lab will go through and remains valid even if plans change and Moon Express decides to use a different rocket.

Rocket Lab plans to launch Electron from a launch site in New Zealand, but has agreed to obtain launch licenses through the U.S. regulatory system, Richards said.

Moon Express is one of the competitors in the $30 million Google Lunar X-Prize, whose rules currently require that contestants launch their spacecraft by the end of 2017.  Richards said that the Google Lunar X-Prize is not the only reason the company wants to send spacecraft to the Moon.  The company has a long term plan to utilize lunar resources.  Its website calls the Moon "the eighth continent" and co-founder and Chairman Naveen Jain said in a press release that "in 15 years the Moon will be an important part of the Earth's economy and potentially second home.  Imagine that."

Moon Express submitted its application to the FAA on April 8, 2016, although it had engaged in discussions with various government agencies for several months prior to "socialize" the idea of using the FAA's payload review process, augmented by voluntary disclosures to other agencies, as the regulatory mechanism for obtaining approval.  Richards estimated it took a total of about 7 months.

Advocates of designating a single agency like DOT to be responsible for mission authorizations argue that it will be easier for companies to obtain such approvals by having a single point of entry into the government system -- "one stop shopping."   DOT presumably would delegate the responsibility to the FAA and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), which would then interface with the rest of the government on the company's behalf.  AST has the dual roles of both regulating and facilitating  commercial space launch and reentry services.  This would expand that responsibility to commercial in-space activities, not just getting to and from space.

The Moon Express press release says this is the first time a commercial company has been authorized to operate beyond Earth's orbit.  While that may be a useful colloquial description to distinguish between traditional operations in the low Earth orbit - geostationary orbit envelope, the Moon is itself, of course, in Earth orbit.  So this is still an earth orbital activity, just at a much greater distance and involves landing on the Moon, a new realm for the private sector.

Moon Express is one of three companies selected by NASA for its Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (Lunar CATALYST) program that involves no-exchange-of-funds agreements that allow companies to have access to NASA technical expertise and facilities.  The other two are Astrobotic and Masten Space Systems.

Of the 29 teams that originally entered the Google Lunar X-Prize competition, 16 remain, but three are top contenders for potentially winning the $30 million prize, two American (Moon Express and Astrobotic) and one Israeli (SpaceIL).

They are not the only private sector companies interested in activities on the Moon or elsewhere in the solar system.  For example, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries want to mine asteroids and SpaceX plans to send a robotic spacecraft, Red Dragon, to Mars in 2018 as a first step in expansive plans to send humans there.

What's Happening in Space Policy August 1-19, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Jul-2016 (Updated: 31-Jul-2016 12:39 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the next THREE weeks, August 1-19, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.   The House and Senate are in recess until September 6.

During the Weeks

Whew!  The conventions are over.  Congress is in recess.  It's vacation time!  For one week, at least.

There is nothing on our space policy events calendar for this week, though we are keeping an eye on NASA to see if they issue an announcement about the results of the July 15 Key Decision Point-B (KDP-B) review of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).   NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier said at a NASA Advisory Council meeting last week that the decision memorandum would be out this week or next. He said that cost growth in the program was forcing NASA to decide whether to accept the increased cost estimate or reduce program content to keep it at the originally promised $1.25 billion level.

Apart from that, one has to look all the way to Saturday for the next event of interest -- the annual Small Satellite Conference at Utah State University.  This is USU's 30th conference on a topic that is all the rage today, but three decades ago was of only modest interest.  It is aptly entitled "Pioneering an Industry."

Also of special interest during this time period is a presentation by the European Union's (EU's) Jean-Luc Bald, First Secretary for Space for the EU's delegation to the United States.  He will speak at an International Space University-DC alumni chapter "space cafe" on August 9.  (Note the new location for these ISU-DC space cafes -- Brixton, 901 U Street, NW -- instead of The Science Club on 19th Street, which closed in March.)  Inquiring minds want to know what if any aerospace-related impact will result from the United Kingdom's decision to leave the EU, including future UK participation in EU space programs (Galileo and Copernicus).  Should be an interesting conversation.

Personally we're feeling a little overdosed with NASA advisory committee meetings after last week, but for those who can't get enough, the NAC Heliophysics Committee meets August 8-9 at NASA HQ in Washington and the Outer Planets Assessment Group will get together in Flagstaff August 11-12.  The heliophysics meeting will be available remotely through WebEx/telecom; the OPAG website doesn't say one way or the other.  Also on the planetary science side of things, the National Academies study committee that's reviewing NASA's Planetary Science Division's new Research & Analysis (R&A) structure holds its second meeting on August 16-18.  It will be at the Keck Center in Washington, DC.

On a completely different front, the annual Space & Missile Defense Conference in Huntsville is coming up August 16-18.  There is a resurgence of interest (in Congress, at least) in using space-based weapons platforms as part of a layered ballistic missile defense (BMD) system.  Last year's National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 114-92, Sec. 1685)) required the Director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) to begin concept definition of a "space-based ballistic missile intercept layer" providing a "boost-phase layer for missile defense" or "additional defensive options against direct ascent anti-satellite weapons, hypersonic glide vehicles, and maneuvering reentry vehicles."  The House and Senate Armed Services Committees (HASC and SASC) doubled down on that in this year's bill (H.R. 4909/S. 2943). The House version, for example, requires the MDA Director to begin planning "for concept definition, design, research, development, engineering evaluation and test of a space-based ballistic missile intercept and defeat layer" and "for the research, development, test and evaluation activities with respect to a space test bed for a missile interceptor capability."   The idea of space-based BMD weapons platforms was studied extensively during the Reagan Administration's "Star Wars" era, but cost and technical feasibility issues moved them to the back burner. The Obama Administration is not persuaded that much has changed.  It issued a veto threat against H.R. 4909 and that provision was cited as one of the reasons.  In any case, the Huntsville conference could be particularly interesting this year.  MDA Director VADM James Syring will speak on Wednesday morning (August 17).   There's no indication if it will be livestreamed.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning, July 31, are shown below.   Check back throughout the weeks for other events we learn about later and add to the Events of Interest list.

Saturday-Thursday, August 6-11

Monday-Tuesday, August 8-9

Tuesday, August 9

Thursday-Friday, August 11-12

Tuesday-Wednesday, August 16-17

Tuesday-Thursday, August 16-18

Thursday, August 18

 

Senators Want Continuity for NASA's Exploration Program

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Jul-2016 (Updated: 09-Aug-2016 10:36 AM)

A recent Senate committee hearing focused on how to ensure that the human spaceflight program avoids another dramatic change when a new President takes office next year as it did in 2009. While most of the hearing dealt with maintaining the status quo amid political change, one witness, Mike Gold of SSL, looked more to the future and the need for a synergistic relationship between government and private sector space activities.

The hearing before the Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on July 13 was chaired by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).  This was only the third space hearing he had called since becoming subcommittee chairman last year.  SpacePolicyOnline.com summarized his February 24, 2015 hearing on human spaceflight and commercial space and his March 12, 2015 hearing on NASA's FY2016 budget request.

Joining him were the top Democrat on the subcommittee, Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), the top Democrat on the full committee Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and subcommittee member Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), who introduced Gold, a Montana native.

Peters and Nelson explicitly said they want to pass a new NASA authorization bill before the end of the Congress, and Cruz inferred it by saying that the subcommittee wants to provide NASA with security and stability and he would work with Peters to achieve that.  Nelson made clear that he wants to extend the lifetime of the International Space Station (ISS) to the end of the decade, instead of the current U.S. commitment of 2024.

The last NASA authorization bill was passed in 2010.  Its policy provisions remain in force, but its funding recommendations covered only through FY2013.  The House passed a bipartisan 2015 NASA authorization bill by voice vote in February 2015, but the Senate has not taken it up or introduced an alternative.  (A 2016-2017 NASA authorization act was approved by the House Science, Space, and Technology committee on a party-line vote last year; no further action has occurred.)

One known area of disagreement between Republicans and Democrats is NASA’s earth science program.  Democrats strongly support it while Republicans argue that NASA should focus on exploration and other agencies should be responsible for studying Earth. Time is running short for passing anything other than appropriations bills, but if all parties on both sides of Capitol Hill can reach agreement, it is certainly possible to get a bill passed by the end of the year.

The goal of passing a bill that codifies congressional intent on the future of the human spaceflight program is to try and avoid the disruption that occurred when President Obama cancelled the George W. Bush Administration's Constellation program to return humans to the Moon by 2020 and then go on to Mars.  Cruz wanted to know what lessons were learned from the cancellation of Constellation and the consequences if the current Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion programs were similarly cancelled.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, emphasized that the situation today is quite different because so much progress has been made on SLS and Orion, which are only two years away from their first launch.  Cancelling them would have the same "dire" effect as terminating Constellation.  "There's a passion that sits below us and when you cancel a program ... for seemingly a trivial reason, that is very devastating to our workforce and that can have huge implications to this nation, to our culture, to our psyche, and to our world leadership.”

Constellation was cancelled for complex political and budgetary reasons that few in the space policy community would characterize as trivial, but he may have been expressing his perception of the workforce’s viewpoint.  In any case, he said he hopes the situation is not repeated.

Mary Lynne Dittmar, Executive Director of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, cautioned against the negative consequences of cancelling programs for companies, especially small businesses.  A lack of “constancy of purpose” could “kill small companies,” many of which are members of the Coalition, she said.  Purdue University Professor Dan Dumbacher, a former NASA deputy associate administrator for exploration, similarly called for “continuity of purpose and execution” in order to “avoid loss of momentum.”

Mark Sirangleo, Vice President, Space Systems Group at Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) praised the public-private partnership (PPP) model that NASA is using for the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs.   Although SNC did not win one of the two commercial crew contracts (SpaceX and Boeing were the winners), its Dream Chaser spacecraft did recently win one of three CRS2 commercial cargo contracts (along with SpaceX and Orbital ATK).

Gold, who spent a decade as head of Washington operations for Bigelow Aerospace before moving to SSL earlier this year, went further in his enthusiasm for the PPP model and using it to transform low Earth orbit (LEO).  “The future of LEO remains squarely on the shoulders of the private sector,” he argued, since the government is unlikely to build a replacement for the ISS.   The challenge is to create private sector demand.  He believes the solution is in-orbit satellite manufacturing and satellite servicing.  The geostationary communications satellite industry is worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year, he said, so NASA and the private sector should “follow the money.”  “The primitive days of building a satellite, launching it, and throwing away a piece of hardware worth hundreds of millions of dollars simply because it ran out of fuel is coming to an end.”

When asked if the private sector should be in charge of developing new rockets like SLS instead of the government, he argued that it is not an either-or situation.  There is synergy between the two and SLS is a case in point, opening up “all kinds of opportunities for the private sector” in cis-lunar space, for example.

In the shorter term, keeping SLS and Orion on track during the presidential transition was a major theme for the subcommittee and other witnesses. Gerstenmaier pleaded that Congress avoid “overly specifying requirements” and allow technical experts to determine how best to achieve the goal of moving human presence into the solar system.  Dumbacher quipped that there are two problems to overcome – gravity and red tape – and gravity can be solved.

Gerstenmaier strongly defended the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as an “excellent” way to demonstrate and learn the skills needed to send crews to Mars.

As the hearing concluded, Nelson asked Gerstenmaier what lessons were learned from the Orbital ATK and SpaceX commercial cargo failures in 2014 and 2015 respectively.  Gerstenmaier responded that he learned how quickly the private sector can react and find solutions. Orbital ATK found an alternative launch service provider (United Launch Alliance) to continue launching its Cygnus cargo spacecraft while it solved the problem with the Antares rocket. SpaceX diagnosed the problem with its Falcon 9 rocket and was in a test facility to verify it within two days.  That was “faster than I could have ever done.. …It would have been half a year” to get the contracts and test sequence in place. “I think what we really learned is that the private sector, if we give them the right incentives and we have the contracting structures set up, they can deliver the capabilities that we, at NASA, need in a very effective manner.”

What's Happening in Space Policy July 25-29, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Jul-2016 (Updated: 24-Jul-2016 02:08 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of July 25-29, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in recess until September 6.

During the Week

Nationally, the big event this week is the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.  Not much is expected in the realm of space policy, although former astronaut Mark Kelly will speak on Wednesday.  He will appear with his wife, former Rep. Gabby Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt in 2011.  They have become leaders in the gun control movement and that is expected to be the focus of their presentation, not the space program (but one never knows).   None of the congressional Democrats with leading roles in space policy are on the speakers list as of today (Sunday), although Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) will be there.  He represents the district that includes the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena and is known as a strong supporter of JPL programs, but he no longer serves on the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA.  He moved over to the Intelligence Committee and his comments are more likely to focus on those issues.  The latest version (July 21) of the 51-page Democratic party platform has one paragraph about NASA that expresses pride in what it has accomplished and promises to "strengthen support for NASA and work in partnership with the international scientific community to launch new missions into space."   We didn't see anything about either commercial or national security space activities in the document.

Within the space policy community, the focus this week will be meetings of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and its committees all week.  The meetings are at the Ohio Aerospace Center in Cleveland, but will be available by WebEx and telecon for those who cannot attend in person.  This will be the first NAC meeting since Steve Squyres stepped down as chair.  Former astronaut Ken Bowersox has been appointed the interim chair.  He had been chairing the NAC Human Exploration and Operations (NAC/HEO) Committee and Wayne Hale has been appointed to fill that position.

The NAC/HEO committee meets tomorrow and Tuesday.  Michele Gates, program director for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) is on the schedule for 2:30 pm ET tomorrow (Monday) to give an update on ARM, which just went through one of its milestone reviews -- Key Decision Point-B or KDP-B -- on July 15 to determine whether the project is ready to move into Phase B.  [A description of KDPs and project phases is in the NASA Procedural Requirements (NPR) 7120 document for those keenly interested in NASA program management.]  NASA has not made any announcement about what transpired at the KDP-B review.  We were told nothing would be out until this coming week, so hopefully Gates will provide that information. 

The other NAC committees/task groups meet Monday-Wednesday in advance of the full NAC meeting Thursday and Friday.  Always interesting to listen to if you have the time.

AIAA's Propulsion and Energy Conference is also on tap this week in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Great line-up of sessions and speakers.   Winner for cleverest title in our view is "Launch Vehicle Reusability:  Holy Grail, Chasing Our Tail, or Somewhere in Between?"  The conference will be livestreamed.  Remember that Utah is in the Mountain Daylight Time (MDT) zone, which is two hours behind Eastern Daylight Time (i.e. 9:00 am MDT is 11:00 am EDT).

Those events and others we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for additions to the Events of Interest that we learn about later.   For convenience, we're grouping all the NAC meetings together rather than listing them day-by-day.  They are listed separately in our Events of Interest list.

NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and its subgroups, Monday-Friday, July 25-29, all at Ohio Aerospace Institute, Cleveland, Ohio and available by WebEx/telecon

Other Events

Monday-Tuesday, July 25-26

Monday-Wednesday, July 25-27

Monday-Thursday, July 25-28

Tuesday, July 26

Tuesday-Friday, July 26-29