Commercial Space News
Russia’s actions in Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula may have chilled geopolitical relationships, but so far there is no apparent impact on space activities.
U.S. dependence on Russia for crew transportation to and from the International Space Station (ISS) as well as ISS “lifeboat” services is well known in the space community (if not by the general public). Less well known is that two U.S. launch vehicles – Atlas V and Antares – rely on Russian rocket engines. United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V is used primarily for national security satellites, but also some NASA and commercial spacecraft and two of NASA’s commercial crew competitors plan to use it. Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares is used to launch cargo to the ISS.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was asked about any impacts on ISS operations yesterday in connection with the release of the FY2015 budget request. He stressed that everything is “normal” with regard to ISS operations. The ISS crew currently consists of three Russians, two Americans and one Japanese. Two of the Russians and one American are due to return to Earth in a few days (March 10 EDT) and a new crew – also two Russians and an American – will launch at the end of the month.
A number of international crises have occurred during the past 13 years of ISS operations, Bolden said yesterday, citing the 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia, another former USSR republic, as an example. “People in [the ISS] program are focused on how to make the world better,” Bolden insisted, and indicated there has been no impact on the ISS program because of current tensions.
The United States has been dependent on Russia for taking crews to and from the ISS since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011. NASA’s commercial crew program is designed to facilitate the development of new U.S. crew space transportation systems by the private sector, but none is expected to be operational before 2017. The ISS has been dependent on the Russians for lifeboats to escape the ISS in an emergency since the beginning of the program. Some of the commercial crew vehicles might be able to replace that capability. Under current schedules, however, there is no way to keep crews aboard the ISS without Russia until at least 2017. (Russia also needs the United States to keep the ISS operating, since the U.S. segment provides electrical power, for example, to the Russian segment.)
Michael Gass, President and CEO of United Launch Alliance, reassured Congress at a hearing this morning that launches of the Atlas V rocket also will not be affected. Gass and competitor Elon Musk, CEO and Chief Designer of SpaceX, appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Defense Subcommittee (SAC-D) today to discuss DOD’s procurement of launch services. SpaceX is trying to break into the DOD market, which is dominated by ULA with its Delta IV and Atlas V rockets that are used to launch virtually all U.S. national security space satellites (as well as a few NASA and commercial missions).
The Atlas V’s RD-180 engines are Russian. Subcommittee chairman Dick Durbin’s (D-IL) first question was directed at Gass on this topic Noting that there is talk of sanctions, Durbin asked Gass for his assessment of the reliability of the supply of engines under these circumstances. Gass replied that ULA has a two-year stockpile of engines and the blueprints for making more themselves if needed. He added that ULA has produced specific parts from those blueprints to demonstrate that they can, if needed, build that exact engine. He also noted that the Delta IV could be used.
“We are not at any risk” for supporting the nation’s launch needs, Gass insisted, adding that “We have always kept our ability” to not be “leveraged in case of any kind of supply interruption.”
Musk, conversely, used ULA’s reliance on Russian and other foreign parts as a rationale for arguing that the Atlas V be discontinued. He agreed with U.S. space policy, which requires two families of launch vehicles to meet national needs, but said they should be ULA’s Delta and his Falcon. Musk may have been sincere, but some might view his proposal as disingenuous since his two competitors for NASA’s commercial crew program – Boeing and Sierra Nevada – both plan to use Atlas V to launch their spacecraft (CST-100 and Dream Chaser, respectively). If it were phased out, that would leave SpaceX as the only option.
Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares rocket also uses Russian engines – NK-33’s, which are refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne and redesignated AJ-26. Antares is currently used only for launching cargo missions to the ISS under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract, although the company is seeking additional customers. Each Antares uses two NK-33/AJ-26 engines. Press reports indicate Aerojet acquired 36 of them, so there apparently is a substantial inventory, but Space News recently reported that Orbital is looking at two or three alternatives – all Russian – for future supplies. A spokesman for Orbital said the company was "watching the situation carefully" and the number of engines is sufficient to meet its entire CRS contract with NASA. The first stage core of the Antares is made in Ukraine and he said there are three in the United States right now which will take the company through early to mid 2015. Two more are scheduled for delivery in the second half of this year and "so far, so good" with their suppliers in Ukraine.
Note: This story was updated with the information from Orbital's spokesman.
UPDATE, March 3, 2014, 9:30 pm ET: NASA has decided to hold its FY2015 budget briefing as a telecom rather than an event at Goddard Space Flight Center tomorrow (Tuesday) because of the weather. It will be streamed on NASA's news audio website. Still at 2:00 pm ET.
UPDATE, MARCH 3, 2014: Federal government offices in the Washington, DC area are, indeed, closed today, Monday, March 3. However, the Space Studies Board's (SSB's) Space Science Week will go on according to a tweet from the SSB (@SSB_ASEB). A limited number of WebEx connections are available to LISTEN to the plenary session this afternoon. See the meeting agenda (link below) for instructions.
ORIGINAL STORY, MARCH 2, 2014: The following space policy events may be of interest in the week ahead, but be forewarned that Washington D.C. is forecast to get a MAJOR winter storm beginning tonight (Sunday) and lasting throughout the day Monday. If the forecast holds, the government is very likely to be closed tomorrow with disruptions to government and non-government activities alike. Be sure to check with the host organization before heading out to any Washington-area meetings on Monday and perhaps even Tuesday. The House and Senate are scheduled to be in session, but no space-related hearings are scheduled Monday.
During the Week
This is it! Budget week. It's a month late, but President Obama is scheduled to submit his FY2015 budget request to Congress on Tuesday. Many agencies, including NASA, as well as the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) typically hold press briefings the day the budget is released to explain the key issues they foresee. NASA's is scheduled at 2:00 pm ET Tuesday. Curiously, it will be held at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center instead of NASA Headquarters. It will be broadcast on NASA TV. Some NASA center directors are holding their own briefings later in the afternoon.
The submittal of the budget kicks off budget season in Washington and all the congressional hearings that go with it. Hearings on the Pentagon's budget begin this week including a posture hearing on U.S. Strategic Command.
Apart from the budget, this week has other notable events, including the National Research Council's Space Studies Board's (SSB's) Space Science Week. Over three days (Monday-Wednesday), the SSB's four standing committees -- Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics, Committee on Solar and Space Physics, Committee on Earth Science and Applications from Space, and Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science -- will meet separately as well as in a particularly interesting plenary session tomorrow (Monday) afternoon. For the first time, a public lecture on Tuesday night is also planned. The meetings are at the National Academy of Sciences building on Constitution Avenue (NOT the Keck Center on 5th Street). The plenary session on Monday includes a panel discussion with representatives from NASA and its counterparts in Japan, Europe and China. Hopefully that event will be able to take place despite the ice and snow -- be sure to check the SSB's website for up to date information. A limited number of listen-only WebEx connections will be available for this session and for Sara Seager's public lecture on Tuesday night. Instructions for how to listen in are on the agenda, which is posted on the SSB's website.
Also of great interest, the American Astronautical Society (AAS) will hold its annual Goddard Memorial Symposium Tuesday-Thursday at the Greenbelt Marriott in Greenbelt, MD near Goddard Space Flight Center (Tuesday is an evening reception; sessions are Wed-Thurs). This perfectly-timed meeting includes talks by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and the four NASA Mission Directorate Associate Administrators -- Bill Gerstenmaier (Human Exploration and Operations), John Grunsfeld (Science), Jaiwon Shin (Aeronautics) and Mike Gazarik (Space Technology) -- who should be able to shed more light on NASA's FY2015 budget request as well as the status of ongoing activities. Lots of other interesting speakers are scheduled for the two days as well.
And last, but certainly not least, the annual "space prom" will be held Friday night -- the National Space Club's Goddard Dinner at the Washington Hilton (as usual).
Here's the complete list of events that we know about as of Sunday morning. As we said, for events scheduled in Washington, DC on Monday and Tuesday, check with the organization to see if they are still on track. This storm is supposed to be whopper -- lots of ice overnight and then 8-12 inches of snow on top of it falling throughout the day.
Sunday-Saturday, March 2-8
Monday-Wednesday, March 3-5
Tuesday, March 4
Tuesday-Thursday, March 4-6
Wednesday, March 5
Thursday, March 6
Friday, March 7
A House hearing today (February 27) on the concept of sending two people on a flyby mission to Mars – via Venus – in 2021 continued the persistent debate over the future of the human spaceflight program. While there is a general consensus that landing humans on Mars is the long term goal, the steps between now and then remain a matter of controversy.
The House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee’s hearing was entitled “Mars Flyby 2021: The First Deep Space Mission for the Orion and Space Launch System?” Its focus was a variation of Dennis Tito’s Inspiration Mars (IM) proposal, announced exactly one year ago today, to send two people on a 501-day flyby mission to Mars in 2018.
Tito is a multimillionaire who paid Russia about $20 million to fly to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2001 as the first ISS “space tourist.” His proposal in February 2013 was for a mission that would be privately funded. By November 2013, he said it should be primarily (70 percent) funded by NASA. Also, while initially he left open what launch vehicle would be used, by November he conceded that NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) was the only viable choice in that time frame.
The latest iteration of this concept, discussed at the hearing today, has two more differences from the original version. First, it now apparently would be entirely funded by the government, and, second, it would launch in 2021 instead of 2018. Launch windows to go directly to Mars occur every 26 months and there is no such window in 2021. Instead, the revised concept calls for the crew to first flyby Venus to get a gravity assist from that planet and then go on to Mars.
Doug Cooke, a former NASA official whose last position at the agency was head of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, showed a video demonstrating the trajectory of the year-and-a-half long mission. It begins with launch in November 2021, Venus flyby in April 2022, Mars flyby in October 2022, and return to Earth in June 2023. He and other witnesses referred to this “unique” alignment of Earth, Venus and Mars as the reason for pushing for a 2021 launch.
Some committee members were skeptical about mounting such a mission just seven years from now. Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) noted that the first crewed launch of SLS is not scheduled until 2021 and “I doubt that Mars will ultimately be considered to be an appropriate first ‘shakedown’ flight.”
None of the witnesses was willing to say how much the mission would cost. When asked directly, Cooke said that the committee needed to ask NASA that question. This is not a NASA mission, however, and, as Johnson also pointed out, no one from NASA was invited to testify.
NASA, of course, is focused on meeting President Obama’s goal of sending astronauts to an asteroid as the next step in human spaceflight – the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The President has said that sending people to orbit Mars in the 2030s, and someday to land there, are long term goals, but not the next step. The ARM mission has won little support from Republicans or Democrats in Congress and this hearing was another indication that the Administration has a lot of work to do to win them over.
Generally, the hearing was very friendly. Apart from Johnson’s skepticism, the only strong dissenting voice came from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). Noting that he had been a supporter of Tito’s initial proposal for a privately funded mission, he called this new version a “foolhardy” use of limited taxpayer dollars.
Cooke, now a consultant, was joined at the witness table by Scott Pace of George Washington University, Sandy Magnus, a former astronaut who now is Executive Director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), and Gen. Les Lyles (Ret.), a consultant who chairs the National Research Council’s Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board and has served on or chaired a number of studies on the future of human spaceflight.
All the witnesses appeared to support the 2021 Mars flyby concept, though some were more reserved than others. They also all emphasized the need for a long term strategy and appropriate resources, but Magnus, in particular, stressed those points. “The Mars flyby can only be discussed in the context of a larger strategy,” she said, and “any plan ... is doomed to failure without the resources to support it.”
Pace, another former NASA official who was deeply involved in developing the Bush-era Constellation program to return humans to the Moon by 2020, and Cooke, who worked on Constellation as well as its Obama-era replacement, each acknowledged that they advocate a human return to the Moon, but see the Mars flyby as a bridge to that goal. Pace went so far as to argue that it “is a faster and more efficient way of returning to the Moon.” Cooke said supporting the Mars flyby mission is “not contradictory” because of the unique planetary alignment available in 2021.
Pace said that NASA is not planning a human return to the Moon now because it cannot afford to build a lunar lander, yet this flyby mission also requires additional hardware not currently in NASA’s budget plans. Pace and Cooke mentioned several required elements including a more capable SLS upper stage, a habitation module with advanced life support systems, and a more effective heat shield for the Orion spacecraft. It is not clear how anyone envisions NASA affording those elements for the Mars flyby mission when it cannot afford the lunar lander. The hearing provided no insight into costs or budgets, however.
In the end, all the witnesses agreed that the Mars flyby mission is achievable if the country has the will and commitment to pursue it. The question is whether it does. Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) emphasized that his main goal was to “do no harm” and not fall back into the practice of start-and-stop programs.
Though Tito was not cited at the hearing as the originator of this revised version of his IM plan, he did issue a statement after the hearing saying he was “very encouraged” by the discussion and explaining that it had become clear that 2021 was more "practical and beneficial" than 2018.
The opening statements of the Republican and Democratic committee leaders, the prepared statements of the four witnesses, and a webcast of the hearing are on the committee’s Republican and Democratic websites.
The Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee (SAC-D) will hear from both entrepreneurial and traditional space launch companies next week at a hearing on national security space launch programs.
Elon Musk will represent his entrepreneurial company, SpaceX, which has been striving for years to break into the market for DOD space launches, a market now dominated by the United Launch Alliance (ULA), which launches the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets. ULA will be represented by its President and CEO Michael Gass.
Cristina Chaplain from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and Scott Pace from George Washington University will also testify.
Congress has essentially forced the Air Force to open up its launch market to "new entrants" like SpaceX, although any company must meet certification criteria before it is allowed to compete. SpaceX is currently going through the certification process, which requires them to achieve three successful launches of any particular launch vehicle configuration.
The first of those three for SpaceX took place last September. The failure of that rocket's second stage to reignite has been a source of contention as to whether it met the criteria or not. The Air Force announced just today that it will count as a successful mission for the purposes of its certification criteria. SpaceX has had two more successful launches since then -- of the SES-8 satellite on December 3, 2013 and of Thaicom-6 on January 6, 2014. The Air Force is still assessing their applicability towards meeting the certification criteria.
The hearing is on Wednesday, March 5, at 10:00 am EST in 192 Dirksen Senate Office Building. The hearing will be webcast at the committee's website.
NASA may have gotten the White House’s blessing to keep the International Space Station (ISS) operating until at least 2024, but it won’t last forever. Speaking to a NASA Advisory Council (NAC) subcommittee today, Bill Gerstenmaier expressed hope that private sector space stations will materialize for the longer term future.
Gerstenmaier, head of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate, spoke to the Research Subcommittee of the NAC HEO Committee this morning. The bulk of his remarks dealt with how best to make use of ISS for research during its lifetime, but he also pointed to the need for the commercial sector to build “mini space stations” as places for future research.
While praising the White House decision to keep ISS operating through 2024 because it gives researchers certainty that they will have time to conduct experiments, he also said “I don’t think there’ll be another government-sponsored space station.” He believes the ISS will be fine through 2028, but he pointed to the desirability of companies flying single-purpose space stations thereafter and the government could buy services or research time from them instead.
In the meantime, ISS facilities are being well utilized today according to Sam Scimemi, Director of ISS at NASA Headquarters, who also briefed the subcommittee. Almost 84 percent of the science racks in the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) are occupied with experiments right now, he said, along with 76 percent of EXPRESS racks. He noted that utilization of available research sites on the exterior of the ISS is only 50 percent and his office is working on filling the rest of the sites.
The availability of transportation systems to take experiments up to the ISS (upmass) and back to Earth (downmass) is OK for now, he added, but demand is expected to exceed capacity beginning in 2015.
One research limitation is the availability of crew time, he continued, and NASA is talking to Russia about making Russian crew members available to conduct some of the research. Scimemi said they were negotiating a barter arrangement for 5 hours per week of Russian crew time. The ISS is split into the USOS segment (which includes hardware from the United States, Europe, Japan and Canada) and the Russian segment (Russian modules and systems). A typical ISS 6-person crew is composed of three Russians and three from the United States and its western partners. NASA is looking forward to increasing the crew size to seven (three Russians, four from the western partners) once commercial crew capabilities are available.
NASA is also looking at other upgrades to the ISS now that it has permission to extend operations through 2024. They include upgrades to video and data systems, new freezers, high throughput facilities for materials science and cell science, and additional Earth-pointing and Sun/space pointing platforms, Scimemi told the subcommittee.
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House and Senate both are in session.
During the Week
It's another comparatively slow week as everyone eagerly awaits the release of the FY2015 budget request a week from now (March 4). In the meantime, perhaps the most interesting event this week is the House Science, Space and Technology Committee's hearing on "Mars Flyby 2021: The First Deep Space Mission for the Orion and Space Launch System?" on Thursday. As far as we know, there is no launch opportunity to Mars in 2021 -- they occur only every 26 months and there's one in 2020 and another in 2022, so we will see what someone has in mind for 2021. There is an interesting group of very knowledgable witnesses.
That and other events we know of at the moment are listed below.
Monday, February 24
Tuesday, February 25
Wednesday, February 26
Thursday, February 27
Google Lunar X PRIZE (GLXP) selected five teams as finalists for Milestone Prizes worth a total of $6 million today in the effort's quest to incentivize privately funded teams to send a robotic rover to the surface of the Moon by the end of 2015. The winner of the overall competition will receive a grand prize of $20 million.
The Milestone Prizes are an optional part of the competition and provide funding to competitors to demonstrate hardware and software that will overcome technical risks associated with their missions. If a winner of a Milestone Prize wins the overall competition, the money is subtracted from the $20 million. The same is true for a second place finish, which wins $5 million. Teams that do not win first or second place keep the money.
The goal of the competition is to land a rover on the Moon that then travels at least 500 meters and transmits high definition video and imagery to Earth. The deadline for achieving the goal is December 31, 2015. Bonus Prizes totaling $4 million can be won if the rover survives the lunar night, travels more than 5 kilometers, detects water, or makes a precision landing near an Apollo lunar landing site or other place of interest.
Eighteen teams remain in the race, which began in 2007.
The five teams announced today were selected by an independent panel of nine judges who made awards in three categories: Landing System Milestone Prize ($1 million per team), Mobility System Milestone Prize ($500,000 per team), and Imaging Subsystem Milestone Prize ($250,000 per team).
The five teams and the categor(ies) in which they won are:
The teams were required to submit details on the technical risks they face and how they plan to solve them. To win the prizes announced today, they must accomplish those plans in accordance with milestones provided in their submissions. Teams are expected to meet all the milestones by September 30, 2014.
Governments are not allowed to participate directly in the Google Lunar X PRIZE, nor are nationals and residents of certain countries restricted by U.S. export laws or sanctions (including Burma/Myanmar, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria).
As the name implies, the Prize is sponsored by Google and administered through the X PRIZE Foundation.
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House and Senate are in recess this week: Monday is a federal holiday -- Presidents' Day -- commemorating the birthdays of Presidents Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and George Washington (Feb. 22).
During the Week
It's a quiet week from a space policy perspective, but the departure of Orbital Sciences Corporation's Cygnus spacecraft from the International Space Station (ISS) early Tuesday morning Eastern Standard Time (EST) and the launch of an Air Force GPS satellite from Cape Canaveral on Thursday should be of interest more generally. Cygnus will be unberthed on Tuesday, ending the Orb-1 mission, Orbital's first operational Commercial Resupply Services mission for NASA. The spacecraft is being loaded with trash and will burn up on reentry Wednesday. The launch of the 5th GPS Block IIF satellite (GPSIIF5) aboard an Atlas V is scheduled for Thursday at 8:40 pm EST with a 19 minute launch window. Weather is 80% go at the moment.
While not directly space-related, CSIS is having a meeting on Tuesday morning about National Security and Economic Issues in Spectrum Allocation that also could prove interesting. Government (DOD, FCC, NTIA) and industry (AT&T, T-Mobile) will discuss the thorny issues of how to allocate spectrum to satisfy the insatiable demand for this limited natural resource.
Here's a list of the events we know about as of Sunday afternoon.
Tuesday, February 18
Wednesday, February 19
Thursday, February 20
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) says that he was "taken aback" at security challenges identified at NASA by an independent report commissioned by NASA at Wolf's request. The report was led by former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh under the auspices of the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA).
Eleven months ago, Wolf blasted NASA for what he termed a "management culture that turns a blind eye, or in some cases may outright encourage, violations of security regulations." He laid out seven steps he wanted NASA to follow to rectify the situation and recommended that NASA ask an independent entity like NAPA to conduct a study chaired by someone like Thornburgh. Wolf chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA. The agency followed that direction.
Wolf's statement yesterday was in response to the resulting report, which has not been made public. He said: "Frankly, I was taken aback at the breadth and depth of security challenges identified across NASA and I am deeply disappointed the agency has restricted access to the report. The report should be made public as soon as possible, with any necessary redactions in the interest of national security, because it confirms not only the serious security challenges that need to be addressed, but a persistent organizational culture that fails to hold center leadership, employees and contractors accountable for security violations. This must change."
Wolf has expressed deep concern over the past several years about NASA's Langley Research Center and Ames Research Center, in particular, with regard to allowing foreign nationals -- especially Chinese -- to have access to their facilities.
In conjunction with French President Francois Hollande's visit to Washington, the White House issued two facts sheets heralding U.S.-French cooperation on a range of security and science and technology issues, including space.
The fact sheet on U.S-France Security Cooperation summarized cooperation in operations and planning, exercise and training programs, exchange personnel, space, cybersecurity, acquisition, nuclear security, and countering nuclear terrorism. It points to an agreement between the French Ministry of Defense and U.S. Strategic Command on space situational awareness signed on January 21 as an example of how the two countries are working together to enhance spaceflight safety and reduce the risk of collisions. It also notes that the two countries are working on "bilateral and multilateral transparency and confidence building measures to encourage responsible actions in, and the peaceful use of, space."
In the civil space arena, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and Jean-Yves Le Gall, head of the French space agency CNES, signed an agreement on Monday (February 10) regarding cooperation on NASA's 2016 Mars mission, InSight. CNES is providing (along with several other European countries) the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument for that mission. A separate White House fact sheet on U.S-French Cooperation on Science and Technology notes that agreement as well as another agreement still being negotiated on solar activity and space weather. Cooperative earth science missions also warranted a mention.
Le Gall was on the guest list for the White House state dinner on Tuesday night, though Bolden was not. Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, was invited, however, which may have provided an opportunity for interesting discussions about "traditional space" versus "NewSpace", since Le Gall previously was President of Arianespace, Europe's launch services provider.