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Commercial Space News

What's Happening in Space Policy June 27-July 1, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Jun-2016 (Updated: 25-Jun-2016 08:29 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of June 27 - July 1, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The Senate is in session part of the week. The House is in recess for the July 4 holiday.

During the Week

The House left town early last week in disarray after Democrats staged a gun control sit-in. It already was scheduled to be off this week and will return on July 5.  The Senate is taking only a short July 4th breather.  It will be in session Monday-Thursday and return on July 6. On Monday it will resume consideration of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill that includes NASA and NOAA.  Both chambers will meet the first two weeks of July and then take a 7-week recess for the political conventions and their usual August recess, returning on September 5-6.  They don't have a lot of time to get appropriations bills completed before the fiscal year ends on September 30.

Orbital ATK will have the second and final qualification test for the solid rocket boosters for the Space Launch System on Tuesday at its Promontory, Utah test site.  NASA TV will cover the 2-minute test live and a media teleconference shortly thereafter will be available on NASA's News Audio site.

Up at the International Space Station (ISS), Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Oleg Skripochka will test out a new manual docking system for Russia's Progress cargo spacecraft on Friday (VERY early Eastern Daylight Time).  Progress MS-01 (Progress 62 in NASA parlance) is currently docked to the Pirs module.  It will undock and then be redocked using the manual system, a backup in case the automated Kurs system doesn't work properly.  The Progress MS series is the latest version of that cargo spacecraft, in use since 1978, and Russia is also getting ready to launch the first Soyuz MS, the latest variant of that spacecraft.  The first Soyuz was launched in 1967. The Soyuz MS-01 launch is now scheduled for July 6 EDT (July 7 local time at the launch site) after a delay reportedly related to its new Kurs system.  The Kurs system for Progress MS and Soyuz MS is the same and the NASA press release said the test would verify software and a new signal converter for the manual docking system "in the unlikely event the 'Kurs' automated rendezvous in either craft encounters a problem."   Progress MS-01 will undock for a final time on July 2 and reenter (burning up on the way down -- SpaceX's Dragon is the only ISS cargo spacecraft designed to survive reentry).

NASA's Juno spacecraft is getting closer and closer to Jupiter, with orbital insertion next Monday (July 4).  There will be three briefings that day, but two pre-arrival briefings will be held this Thursday at JPL.  They will be webcast.

Thursday also is Asteroid Day, "a global awareness campaign" with events around the world to learn about asteroids "and what we can do to protect our planet ..."   It is an independent effort founded by Britain's Brian May (the Queen guitarist and astrophysicist), B612's Danica Remy and Rusty Schweickert, and film director Grigorij Richters and with support from the European Space Agency (ESA).  Thursday is June 30, the anniversary of the 1908 Tunguska (Russia) event, the most destructive meteor airburst of modern times.

To close out the week, the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC is celebrating its 40th anniversary and has invited the public to a family friendly "All Night at the Museum" from 9:00 pm Friday to 10:00 am Saturday with special guests stopping by, all night films and lots of other fun activities.  The official re-opening of the renovated Boeing Milestones of Flight gallery is at 8:30 pm ET.  That and other Friday evening activities will be covered by C-SPAN.

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

Tuesday, June 28

Tuesday-Wednesday, June 28-29

Tuesday-Thursday, June 28-30

Wednesday, June 29

Thursday, June 30

Friday, July 1

Friday-Saturday, July 1-2

  • All Night at the Museum, National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC (family friendly event to spend the night there in celebration of its 40th anniversary), 9:00 pm - 10:00 am ET

House T&I Committee Dips Toe Back Into Commercial Space Launch Issues

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Jun-2016 (Updated: 24-Jun-2016 10:45 AM)

For the first time in 7 years, the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee held a hearing on commercial space transportation issues on Wednesday.  Several Members were in attendance, some of whom acknowledged constituent interests in these issues, but there was no special focus other than getting an update from government and industry experts.

Congress assigned the Department of Transportation (DOT) the dual roles of both facilitating and regulating the commercial space launch industry in the 1984  Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA), which has been amended several times, most recently in 2004.  All the legislation originated in the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee (and its predecessors), not T&I.  The SS&T website clearly states that it has jurisdiction over “commercial space activities relating to the Department of Transportation…”

For the first 10 years, commercial space launch activities were handled in the Office of the Secretary of Transportation, but in 1995 it was delegated to the FAA (part of DOT).  FAA thereupon created the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST).

FAA/AST is under the jurisdiction of House SS&T, but the House T&I committee oversees the FAA itself and some of the issues involve other parts of the FAA.  For example, for FY2017, in addition to the $19.8 million request for AST, FAA is requesting $2.953 million for commercial space transportation safety-related activities as part of the Research, Engineering and Development (RE&D) budget and $2 million for integrating commercial space launches into the National Air Space in the Facilities and Equipment (F&E) budget.   Thus, T&I does have an oversight interest.

Subcommittee chairman Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) noted that the FAA Tech Center in his district is involved in space debris modeling and subcommittee ranking member Rick Larsen (D-WA) is from the Seattle area where a number of traditional and entrepreneurial space companies are headquartered or have facilities.  Larsen even noted that the NewSpace2016 conference was underway in Seattle as the hearing was taking place.  He and full committee ranking member Peter DeFazio (D-OR) seemed to have the keenest interest in these issues and Larsen said he hoped the subcommittee would have another hearing early in the next Congress.

The five witnesses were: George Nield, FAA/AST Associate Administrator; Gerald Dillingham, Government Accountability Office (GAO); Mike Gold, chairman of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC); Michael Lopez-Alegria, COMSTAC Vice Chair; and Taber MacCallum, World View Enterprises.

The hearing covered a potpourri of issues.

FAA’s Dual Role to Facilitate and Regulate.  DeFazio made it clear that he has long been skeptical that one agency can successfully facilitate and regulate an industry at the same time, an issue that has been debated since the 1984 CSLA was enacted.   He argued that the Department of Commerce should be in charge of facilitating and promoting the industry, while FAA regulates it.  Nield explained that having a dual role does not mean that one company is favored over another or that public safety is compromised.  He pointed out that commercial space launch companies have a perfect record so far in terms of public safety, with no deaths or injuries to the general public.

DeFazio, however, pressed Nield on the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB’s) finding in the 2014 Scaled Composites/Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo accident that FAA/AST did not allow its staff to ask questions of Scaled if they were not directly related to public safety in order to “reduce the burden” on Scaled.  While no member of the public has died as a result of commercial space launches, DeFazio insisted, someone did die in that case.   Nield replied that FAA/AST’s responsibility is public safety.  DeFazio then asked Dillingham for GAO’s view and Dillingham said that GAO has expressed concern in the past about the dual role and further study is needed.

Article VI and Mission Authorizations.   Gold pleaded – literally – with the subcommittee to resolve the problem with U.S. compliance with Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty, which requires governments to authorize and continually supervise the space activities of non-government entities, like companies.  Gold currently works for SSL, which is developing satellite servicing technologies, and previously worked for Bigelow Aerospace, which wants to build habitats in orbit, on the Moon and elsewhere.   No U.S. government agency has been assigned responsibility for authorizing or supervising such activities, leaving them in regulatory limbo.   A recent report from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy recommended that DOT be assigned that role and issue “mission authorizations” for companies wanting to engage in those and other new types of commercial space activities such as asteroid mining.  Gold exclaimed “I come to you today begging you for a resolution” so the United States can be a global leader in these emerging industries.  He asked the subcommittee to deal with the issue “with alacrity” and direct the FAA/AST to update its regulations to include mission authorizations.

Regulating Commercial Human Spaceflight Passenger Safety.  Current law prohibits the FAA from promulgating new regulations for the safety of passengers (“spaceflight participants”) on commercial human spaceflights until 2023 -- often referred to as a "moratorium" on regulations or a "learning period" for industry.   Until then, companies are required only to provide for “informed consent” where customers are told the risks and they make their own decisions on whether to fly.   This is a controversial issue with some arguing that commercial human spaceflight is akin to scuba diving or skydiving where the government does not get involved, while others find it more comparable to commercial airline travel where there is considerable government regulation.

MacCallum wants the informed consent regime made permanent so companies like his – which will be offering stratospheric balloon trips -- are assured of the regulatory regime under which they will have to operate.   He recommended that a parallel “extended license” regime be created where passenger safety would be regulated by the FAA, but it would be required only for companies offering services that fall under common carrier definitions – routine flights from one point on Earth to another.   Other commercial space companies could voluntarily choose to get an extended license if they thought it would give them a competitive advantage because customers might feel safer flying with an operator who had such a license.

Larsen asked if the FAA could do that now and MacCallum said he believed so, but Nield said the law currently restricts the FAA to only working with industry on developing voluntary standards, not developing any new regulations.  Lopez-Alegria, who previously was President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), spoke in favor of voluntary industry standards instead of government regulations.  CSF is working with its member companies, although he explained how difficult it is to get a group of very disparate companies with very different vehicle designs to work on the issue, although he believes the discussions are going in the right direction.

Calculating Maximum Probable Loss for Third Party Indemnification.   Dillingham pointed out that FAA/AST has not responded effectively to GAO recommendations dating back to 2012 to update the methodology it uses to calculate how much insurance commercial space launch companies must purchase to cover third-party (general public) claims in case of a launch accident.  It is important because the government could be liable for a greater amount of losses if the FAA does not require companies to purchase a proper amount.

He stressed that this is becoming increasingly important as more spaceports are being licensed around the country, including inland sites like one in Midland, Texas.   A three-tiered system was established in 1988 where companies must purchase insurance up to $500 million, the government then is liable (subject to appropriations) for claims between that floor and an inflation-adjusted ceiling (currently $3.06 billion), and the company is liable for any amounts above that.   The “up to $500 million” is what is at issue.   The FAA calculates the Maximum Probable Loss (MPL) for each launch and the company must buy that much insurance, which may be significantly less than $500 million.   If the MPL is calculated to be $100 million, for example, the government’s liability would be from $100 million to $3.06 billion, not $500 million to $3.06 billion.   Dillingham said the methodology is “dated by a few decades” and although Congress required FAA to review and update it and submit a report by April 2016, no report has been submitted.

Rep.  John Duncan (R-TN), asked why the government indemnifies the industry at all now that the industry is mature.  Nield replied that the industry believes it is essential in order to compete with other countries that do provide such indemnification. Dillingham agreed saying that while the United States has a $3.06 billion cap on what the government will pay, in Russia, for example, there is no cap.  The government will pay any amount above what insurance covers.

Funding for FAA/AST.   Gold passionately argued for more funding for FAA/AST warning that “it’s only a matter of time until safety suffers” because the office is underfunded.  “COMSTAC at every meeting has endorsed the need for more funding.  When have you seen companies asking for more funding for their regulators before?”   He worries that both the safety and competitiveness of the U.S. industry is at stake.   The Obama Administration is requesting $19.8 million this year, a $2 million increase over its current funding.  The Senate has passed the Transportation-HUD appropriations bill with that level and the House Appropriations Committee ultimately recommended that level after an amendment was adopted during markup.   Dillingham said GAO also was concerned about whether FAA/AST could fulfill all its tasks, at one point finding that it was not performing 10 percent of required safety inspections.  He said GAO recommended that FAA provide more detail in its budget request to justify additional funds and the FY2017 request does that.

ULA's Atlas V Ready to Launch MUOS-5 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Jun-2016 (Updated: 24-Jun-2016 02:18 PM)

UPDATE, June 24, 2016:  The launch was successfully conducted at 10:30 am ET today.

ORIGINAL STORY, June 22, 2016: The United Launch Alliance (ULA) is getting ready to launch an Atlas V rocket on Friday, the first since an anomaly occurred on a March 22 launch that placed the Orbital ATK OA-6 Cygnus cargo spacecraft into orbit.  Friday's launch of a military communications satellite, MUOS-5, originally was planned for May 5, but was delayed while ULA and its suppliers diagnosed and fixed the problem.

During the March 22 launch, the Atlas V first stage engine shut down 6 seconds early.  Fortunately, the Centaur second stage was able to compensate for the under-performance of the first stage.  It fired 60 seconds longer than planned, placing the OA-6 Cygnus spacecraft into the proper orbit and allowing it to successfully dock with the International Space Station (ISS) and deliver supplies.  Cygnus just completed its mission today and reentered Earth's atmosphere.  It is not designed to survive reentry.  (Cygnus departed from the ISS on June 14 and then was used for the SAFFIRE-1 experiment where a fire was intentionally started inside the capsule to study how fire evolves in microgravity.  Later, several small "cubesats" were ejected into orbit before Cygnus itself made its final maneuver into a destructive reentry.)

Atlas V is powered by Russia's usually highly reliable RD-180 engine.  ULA quickly traced the problem to the RD-180's fuel system and in late April specified that it was the RD-180's Mixture Ratio Control Valve.  In a June 15 statement, ULA went further in explaining what happened:  "at approximately T+222 seconds, an unexpected shift in fuel pressure differential across the RD-180 Mixture Ratio Control Valve (MRCV) and a reduction in fuel flow to the combustion chamber caused an oxidizer-rich mixture of propellants and a reduction in first stage performance. The imbalanced propellant consumption rate resulted in depletion of the first stage oxidizer with significant fuel remaining at booster engine shutdown. The engine supplier has implemented a minor change to the MRCV assembly to ensure the anomaly does not occur on future flights."

ULA's Atlas V is used for a broad range of military and civilian space launches and the company insists that it will launch all of its 2016 scheduled missions by the end of the year.  That includes NASA's asteroid sample return mission OSIRIS-REx, scheduled for September.  Use of the RD-180 engine for national security launches is currently the topic of intense congressional debate and the U.S. goal is to build a U.S. alternative to it.

Friday's launch of the Navy's fifth Multiple User Objective System (MUOS-5) communications satellite from Cape Canaveral, FL is scheduled for 10:30 am EDT.  The window is open until 11:15 am EDT.  The weather forecast is 80 percent favorable.  ULA typically webcasts its launches.

Atlantic Council Experts Argue for New "Proactive Prevention" National Security Space Strategy

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Jun-2016 (Updated: 21-Jun-2016 11:27 PM)

In a report for the Atlantic Council, Theresa Hitchens and Joan Johnson-Freese argue that the incoming administration needs to relook at U.S. national security space strategy.   Instead of relying on alliterative slogans whose meanings are unclear, a goal-oriented strategy – “proactive prevention” -- is needed to ensure that space remains usable for future generations and conflict in space is avoided.

Hitchens is a senior research scholar at the Center for International Security Studies at the University of Maryland and former director of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR).  Johnson-Freese is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College and an expert on China’s space program.  The two discussed the paper at an Atlantic Council event on June 17, where Johnson-Freese stressed that the viewpoints are her own, not those of DOD or the Navy.

During the early years of the Obama Administration, two catch phrases became popular:  that space is “congested, contested and competitive”(the three Cs) and that the United States must maintain the ability to “deter, defend, and, if necessary, defeat” (the three Ds) efforts to attack U.S. or allied space assets.

While both have coexisted in U.S. space policy throughout the Obama Administration, the early focus was on the three Cs and the need to develop international agreements on how to ensure that space is “sustainable” for use in the future and not ruined, for example, by the growth of space debris.

A Chinese antisatellite (ASAT) test against one of its own satellites that created more than 3,000 pieces of debris in 2007 and a collision between an active U.S. Iridium communications satellite and a defunct Russian Kosmos satellite in 2009 added considerably to the population of debris in low Earth orbit.  Those events catalyzed U.S. efforts to create Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs) through the United Nations.   In parallel, the European Union drafted a Code of Conduct (CoC) to define what constitutes good behavior in space so that countries could understand what constitutes bad behavior in the eyes of the international space community.  The idea was that peer pressure would encourage countries to behave well and not recklessly add to the space debris problem, for example.

Hitchens and Johnson-Freese argue that all that changed in 2013 when China tested an ASAT weapon that reached geostationary orbit (GEO).   Until then, all ASAT tests – by the United States, Soviet Union/Russia, and China – threatened only satellites in lower orbits.   While those are very important, Hitchens argues that the most critical national security satellites are those in GEO, which until then was thought to be a “sanctuary” where satellites were safe from attack. The 2013 Chinese test changed the threat perception and hardened U.S. attitudes.  Attention shifted to the three Ds (deter, defend, defeat).  At about the same time, Europe’s Code of Conduct effort essentially fell apart.

Today, Johnson-Freese and Hitchens argue that the United States needs to reassess what its goals are in space and how to achieve them rather than using the “bumper stickers” of the three Cs and three Ds or “scaring people” with recent rhetoric about the need to increase spending for space security by $5 billion and last year’s 60 Minutes segment with Gen. John Hyten and Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James discussing “The Battle Above.”

They describe their paper as a starting point for discussion that begins with the premise that the goal is to avoid conflict in space since the United States is heavily dependent on satellites not only for national security purposes, but for everyday life.  In fact, they argue that civil government agencies like NASA and NOAA as well as industry must be involved in generating a new national security space strategy – a “holistic” approach – since they are also deeply involved in space activities.

Hitchens and Johnson-Freese propose a “proactive prevention” strategy “aimed squarely at preventing a space conflict, while also preparing to win one if need be.”  Their paper is published on the Atlantic Council website.

What's Happening in Space Policy June 20-25, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Jun-2016 (Updated: 19-Jun-2016 04:31 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of June 20-25, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

The Senate is scheduled to continue debate on the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill this week, which funds NASA and NOAA   It got off to a rocky start last week when a Democratic filibuster over gun control in the wake of the Orlando tragedy held up action for about a day (as its name implies, the bill also funds the Department of Justice), but agreement was reached to allow votes on gun control amendments and debate on the bill resumed.  The House schedule for the coming week still was not posted as of Sunday afternoon.  The House meets only in pro forma session tomorrow, then will meet for legislative business Tuesday-Friday before taking off a week plus a bit for the July 4 holiday.

On Wednesday, the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee will hold a rare hearing on commercial space transportation.  The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) is under the jurisdiction of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, but T&I has jurisdiction over the rest of the FAA and some commercial space transportation-related activities are handled by other parts of the FAA.  For FY2017, for example, in addition to the $19.8 million for AST, FAA is requesting $2.0 million as part of a $20 million request for Air Traffic Management (ATM) in the Facilities and Equipment (F&E) account and $2.953 million for commercial space transportation safety in the Research, Engineering and Development (RE&D) account.  The ATM funding is for integrating commercial launches into the National Air Space, a growing issue with the rise in the number of orbital and suborbital launches -- and in the case of the Dragon spacecraft, landings -- that require aircraft to avoid certain areas.  FAA/AST head George Nield, COMSTAC's Mike Gold and Michael Lopez-Alegria, GAO's Gerald Dillingham, and Taber MacCallum from World View Enterprises are the witnesses.  World View Enterprises plans high altitude (stratospheric) balloon flights for tourists and counts Alan Stern and Mark Kelly as members of its executive team.

Speaking of launches, NASA Wallops Flight Facility Director Bill Wrobel will speak to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable on Tuesday.  Wallops is getting ready for the return to flight of Orbital ATK's Antares rocket, although that has been delayed to August.

Still speaking of launches, China reportedly is getting ready for the first launch of yet another new rocket from a brand new launch site, possibly on Saturday.  China had inaugural launches of two new rockets last year, both at the smaller end of the capability scale (Long March 6 and Long March 11) from existing launch sites.  The upcoming launch is the first from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island.  China has not officially announced a launch date, but there are rumors it will be on June 25 (which might be June 24 Eastern Daylight Time depending on the launch time).  China has big plans for Wenchang, which will also be the home of the new Long March 5 rocket, expected to achieve its first launch later this year.  Long March 7 is a mid-sized rocket (13.5 metric tons to LEO), while Long March 5 will be China's most capable rocket ever at 25 metric tons to LEO.   (The largest U.S. rocket is the Delta IV, which can place 28.4 metric tons into LEO.)  The newer Long March rockets use more environmentally friendly fuel and are intended eventually to replace the older models (Long March 2, 3 and 4).

Also on Saturday, Politicon 2016 will be starting in Pasadena, CA.  The Planetary Society (TPS) has a panel discussion scheduled for 2:00 pm Pacific Daylight Time on "How We Get to Mars."   A June 16 tweet from TPS's Director of Advocacy Casey Dreier identifies the panelists as TPS CEO Bill Nye, former Hill staffer Bill Adkins (now President of Adkins Strategies, LLC), and former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver (now General Manager of the Air Line Pilots Association).

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

Tuesday, June 21

Tuesday-Thursday, June 21-23

Wednesday, June 22

Saturday, June 25

Blue Origin to Livestream Sunday's New Shepard Test Launch - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Jun-2016 (Updated: 19-Jun-2016 01:32 PM)

UPDATE, June 19, 2016:   The test was successfully conducted.

ORIGINAL STORY, June 17, 2016: Blue Origin will conduct another test  launch of its reusable New Shepard rocket on Sunday, June 19, 2016.  The often secretive company, owned and headed by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, not only announced this test in advance, but will livestream it on the Internet.

The test was originally scheduled for today (June 17), but was delayed because of a technical issue.  It is now scheduled for 10:15 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) on Sunday; the webcast will be available on Blue Origin's website beginning at 9:45 am EDT.

New Shepard is designed to take passengers on suborbital spaceflights and not only return them to Earth, but the rocket as well.  The passengers will ride inside a capsule that is ejected from the rocket during its descent and lands using parachutes.  The purpose of this test is to determine if the capsule could land successfully if one of its three parachute strings fails. No one will be aboard this flight.

Bezos emphasized in a tweet that this one-chute-out test is a demonstration flight and "anything can happen."

This is the fourth flight of the same New Shepard rocket.  Blue Origin's test launch facilities are in West Texas.

Antares Return to Flight Pushed Back to August

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Jun-2016 (Updated: 17-Jun-2016 09:14 PM)

The return to flight of Orbital ATK's Antares rocket will be sometime in August rather than July 6.  The company is still analyzing data from its May 31 hot fire test and the timing of the launch also depends on other activities on the International Space Station (ISS).

The July 6 date has always been tentative, but in an emailed statement to SpacePolicyOnline.com today, Orbital ATK confirmed the slip to August.

"We are continuing to prepare for the upcoming launch of the Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft for the OA-5 cargo logistics mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. Our Antares team recently completed a successful stage test and is wrapping up the test data analysis. 

"Final trajectory shaping work is also currently underway, which is likely to result in an updated launch schedule in the August timeframe.  A final decision on the mission schedule, which takes into account the space station traffic schedule and cargo requirements, will be made in conjunction with NASA in the next several weeks. Also, our Cygnus spacecraft for the OA-6 mission successfully undocked from the space station and hosted the Spacecraft Fire Experiment-I (Saffire). The team is now performing the final OA-6 mission milestones."

The delay was first reported by Space News.

Orbital ATK uses Antares to launch Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the ISS.  An October 2014 attempt failed 15 seconds after launch because of a problem with its AJ26 engine, a version of a Russian NK-33 engine built in the 1970s and refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne.  The company decided to replace the AJ26/NK-33 engines with new Russian RD-181s.   Two RD-181s are needed for each launch instead of one AJ26/NK-33. 

A hot fire test of the re-engined Antares with two RD-181s took place on May 31 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops Island, VA, the launch site for Antares.

While awaiting the Antares return to flight, Orbital ATK has launched two Cygnus cargo craft to ISS using United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets.  Those were the Orbital ATK (OA)-4 and OA-6 missions.  OA-6 just departed from the ISS and will reenter Earth's atmosphere on July 22.  The Antares return-to-flight mission is OA-5.  The sequence is out of order because OA-5 was intended to take place between OA-4 and OA-6, but Antares was delayed and the decision was made to keep the mission designations with their launch vehicles (OA-4 and -6 on ULA's Atlas V; OA-5 on Orbital ATK's Antares).

House Passes FY2017 Defense Appropriations Bill Cutting EELV Funds

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Jun-2016 (Updated: 16-Jun-2016 07:15 PM)

The House passed the FY2017 Defense Appropriations Bill ( H.R. 5293) today by a vote of 282-138. No space-related amendments were adopted so those provisions remain as they were in the House Appropriations Committee's version of the bill.  The Obama Administration threatened to veto the bill as reported from committee in part because it cuts funding for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.

The House bill addresses several national security space issues -- from SBIRS to AEHF to weather satellites -- but steers clear of the fractious RD-180 rocket engine controversy in terms of how long they may be used and how many may be purchased (a battle which may finally be over).  However, it does require that in future competitions, the award is to be made to the provider that offers the best value -- not necessarily the best price -- to the government.  The United Launch Alliance (ULA) argues that it cannot compete with SpaceX on price, but its 100 percent mission success rate is a valuable factor that should count in its bids. (Mission success means that the satellite was placed into the intended orbit, even if problems may have occurred during the launch.)

A separate controversy has arisen this year, however, over how many EELVs the Air Force may buy in FY2017.  The request was for $1.501 billion to buy five EELVs, but the House committee decided two were "early to need."

The report accompanying the House bill did not offer a further explanation, but the Senate Appropriations Committee also denied funds for two of the EELVs and made clear why -- exasperation over delays in the new Operational Control Segment (OCX) needed for the newest version of GPS satellites, GPS III.  The Senate committee also recommended dramatic changes in the OCX program, but in terms of launches, it concluded there is no point in launching GPS III satellites if the ground system is not ready. The two launches for which funding was denied are for GPS III satellites.

In its report (S. Rept. 114-263), the Senate Appropriations Committee disagreed with the Air Force's plan to launch six GPS III satellites before 2019 because of the OCX delays. OCX is "needed to launch, checkout, and ultimately integrate and operate the GPS III satellites with the legacy GPS architecture" and "will not be ready for many years. ... The committee sees no justification for launching so many satellites without a system in place to operate them."

As for OCX itself, the Senate committee recommended termination of OCX Blocks 1-2 (a reduction of $259.8 million) and add $30 million for "operational M-code risk mitigation for OCS," a net reduction of $229.8 million.  OCS is the Operational Control System, the existing ground system for GPS satellites.

The first GPS satellite was launched in 1978 and the system was declared operational in 1993.  GPS signals are ubiquitous around the globe for positioning, navigation and timing (PNT).  A constellation of 24 GPS satellites is needed for global three-dimensional (latitude, longitude, altitude) coverage and the satellites have been upgraded several times over the years, moving through block changes with various designations.  The Air Force currently has 31 operational satellites that use several versions of the GPS II series.  The newest version is GPS IIF and the last of those satellites was launched in February.  GPS III satellites were supposed to begin launching in 2014, but the date has slipped repeatedly.  The first currently is scheduled for May 2017.  Lockheed Martin is building the first eight GPS III satellites and that effort also has been beset by delays.

Because of the delays in OCX, the Air Force is working on an interim solution so that the various GPS II satellites and the new GPS III version can work as an integrated system.  The Senate committee concluded, however, that the interim solution will not enable all of the capabilities of all the versions, especially the Military code (M-code), "a key warfighting need."  It said the OCX program "remains in jeopardy," with a current cost estimate of $2.3 billion, 160 percent above its original estimate of $886 million.  Although DOD put forward a plan with another 2-year delay, "the contractor and the Air Force believed that a more than 4-year additional delay was likely necessary."

Consequently, the Senate committee wants the Air Force and the contractor, Raytheon, to ensure the interim solution -- enhancing OCS -- works and added $30 million to enable M-Code broadcast capabilities.   It wants OCX Block 0 completed, but called for terminating funding for OCX Blocks 1 and 2.

The House bill fully funds OCX and no comment about it was made in the committee's report.  The schedule for Senate consideration of its version of the defense appropriations bill has not been announced.

The Obama Administration's Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) on the House bill said it would eliminate three, not two, EELV launch service procurements as the committee intended, and introduce cost and schedule risk for national security satellites. 

Senate Reaches Agreement on Russian RD-180 Engines

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Jun-2016 (Updated: 14-Jun-2016 10:44 PM)

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) brokered an agreement among Senators who have been at sharp odds over how to transition U.S. rocket launches away from reliance on Russian RD-180 engines to a new American-made engine.  The Nelson amendment passed the Senate this morning by voice vote as part of the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  The NDAA itself then passed the Senate by a vote of 85-13.

In brief, the compromise sets December 31, 2022 as the end date for awarding contracts to the United Launch Alliance (ULA) for Atlas V launches of national security satellites that would use RD-180 engines.  It also limits to 18 the number of RD-180s that can be used between the date that the FY2017 NDAA is signed into law (enacted) and that end date.

Sen. Nelson's office provided SpacePolicyOnline.com with a copy of the amendment as passed.

The amendment that passed originated as one written by Nelson and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), that was then modified by one from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).  McCain chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) and has been the strongest voice for limiting the number of RD-180s to half that approved by this compromise and for a 2019 cut-off date.

The issue has pitted McCain and SASC against Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) of the Senate Appropriations Committee, creating a schism between the Senate committees that authorize DOD activities (SASC) and pay for them (Appropriations).

Durbin praised Nelson for being the "bridge over troubled waters" who was able to find a compromise between the starkly different positions.  

The Nelson amendment also settles a related issue.  The version of the FY2017 NDAA that emerged from SASC (S. 2943, S. Rept. 114- 255) would have prevented the Air Force from awarding launch contracts to bidders that use rocket engines from Russia, basically making ULA's Atlas V ineligible for future contracts.  The defense appropriations bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee (S. 3000, S. Rept. 114-263) conversely said that awards could be made to any certified provider regardless of the rocket engine's country of origin. The compromise states that contracts may be awarded to any certified launch service provider, but Russian engines may be used only for launches in the phase 1(a) and phase 2 Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) procurements.  Phase 2 runs through 2022.  (The Government Accountability Office has a useful report that explains the EELV procurement strategy and its different phases.)

The amendment does not specify RD-180s, but instead bounds the use of Russian rocket engines generally for national security launches.  ULA is currently the only company that offers national security launch services using rockets powered by Russian engines, but the language would apply to any company offering such services.  Orbital ATK, for example, uses Russian RD-181 engines for its Antares rocket, which launches cargo spacecraft for NASA to the International Space Station.  If it were to bid for EELV launches, it presumably would be subject to these limits.

Also, although the cut-off date of December 31, 2022 is for awarding contracts, the limit on the number of engines -- 18 -- refers to how many may be "used" between the date the law is enacted and that date.

The House passed its version of the NDAA last month.  It permits 18 engines and allows any certified provider to win launch contracts.  The two chambers must reach agreement on the NDAA overall, but while there are still some differences on this issue, it appears to be close to resolution.

Note:  This article has been updated and clarified to say that December 31, 2022 is the date through which contracts may be awarded regardless of the rocket engine's country of origin, rather than the date by which they must be used.

What's Happening in Space Policy June 13-18, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Jun-2016 (Updated: 12-Jun-2016 05:53 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of June 13-18, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

The Senate will resume consideration of the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on Monday, with the hope that it can be completed quickly.  The Senate agreed to close debate on the bill on Friday and complete all debate by 11:00 am ET on Tuesday.  It then will vote on germane amendments and passage of the bill.   Debate over a Nelson-Gardner amendment regarding Russian RD-180 engines took up a good part of Friday, but no vote was taken.  They want to set December 31, 2022 as the end date for using RD-180s, whereas Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain insists on 2019, which was set in law by a previous NDAA.  The Nelson-Gardner amendment also does not mention how many engines may be procured, while McCain insists on only nine more.  The RD-180 debate has been covered extensively by SpacePolicyOnline.com already and will not be repeated here.

Senate leadership wants to finish NDAA and move on to the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill, which funds NASA and NOAA among other agencies.

The House plans to take up the FY2017 Defense Appropriations bill this week.  The House Rules Committee will meet on Tuesday to decide which amendments may be offered.  Assuming they agree, the bill will move to floor debate promptly.  The House has passed two of the 12 regular appropriations bills so far (Military Construction-VA and Legislative Branch), while a third (Energy-Water) was defeated.  The Senate has passed three (Energy-Water, and a single bill that combined MilCon-VA and Transportation-HUD). 

The Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee will hold a hearing on Wednesday afternoon on "Human Spaceflight Ethics and Obligations: Options for Monitoring, Diagnosing and Treating Former Astronauts."   This issue of lifetime health care for astronauts has been percolating for years.  It concerns what ethical obligations the government has to provide medical care to astronauts once they leave the corps as well as the useful medical information NASA could gain from following them as the years pass.  The issue was raised as long ago as 2001 in the Safe Passage report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM, now the National Academy of Medicine).  A 2014 IOM report raised the same issues as did an October 2015 report from the NASA Inspector General. The 2005 NASA authorization act directed NASA to consider the need for establishing a lifetime health care program for NASA astronauts.  NASA determined that it needs specific legislative authority to do so and has proposed legislation since then, but it has not been enacted.  The House-passed 2015 NASA authorization act (H.R. 810) directs NASA to respond to the IOM recommendations, but the Senate has not acted on that bill.  Wednesday's hearing will bring attention to the issue (and there are those who believe that a NASA authorization bill could still get passed by the end of the year).  Scott Kelly, who just returned from a U.S. record-setting 340-day stay aboard the International Space Station (ISS), Michael Lopez-Alegria, who previously held the record for the longest continuous U.S. human spaceflight and is now President of the Association of Space Explorers, and Chris Cassidy, head of the astronaut office at Johnson Space Center, are among the witnesses.  The list also includes Secretary of Labor Tom Perez; the chairman of the 2014 IOM study, Jeffrey Kahn; and NASA Chief Medical Officer Richard Williams.  The House SS&T committee typically webcasts its hearings.

On a totally different subject, Joan Johnson-Freese and Theresa Hitchens will discuss a paper they recently co-authored for the Scowcroft Center at the Atlantic Council on Toward a New National Security Space Strategy on Friday.  Johnson-Freese is a professor at the Naval War College and author of several books on national security space and China's space program.  Hitchens is currently a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland after serving as head of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR).  Mike Gruss from Space News will also participate in the discussion.  (We've inquired as to whether it will be webcast.  If we find out, we'll post the information on our Events of Interest list.)

It will be busy up in space this week, too.   On Tuesday, Orbital ATK's Cygnus spacecraft will depart from the ISS.  Five hours later, a fire will erupt inside the spacecraft as part of an experiment called SAFFIRE to observe how fires evolve in microgravity.   The robotic spacecraft is not designed to survive reentry, so it is a good candidate for such research.   Miles O'Brien had an excellent segment about the experiment on the PBS NewsHour last week.   

Then on Saturday, three crew members (NASA's Tim Kopra, ESA's Tim Peake, and Roscosmos' Yuri Malenchenko) will return home.  NASA TV provides live coverage as usual.  Landing is at 5:12 am Eastern Daylight Time.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week to see what's been added to our Events of Interest list.

Sunday-Friday, June 12-17

Monday, June 13

Tuesday, June 14

Wednesday, June 15

Thursday, June 16

Friday, June 17

Saturday, June 18