Commercial Space News
A House hearing yesterday (February 3) underscored the dilemma facing NASA as it looks ahead to the future of its human spaceflight program while facing a presidential transition less than a year away. Committee members and witnesses agreed that NASA needs a plan with more specifics that it has offered so far, but not on what the plan should be. While most accept that the long term goal should be human trips to Mars, what the steps in between should be remains as divisive as ever.
The hearing was before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. chaired by Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX). Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) is the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee. The hearing was about NASA's human spaceflight program, but in this case there were no NASA witnesses. Instead three "outside" (non-NASA) experts shared their views: Tom Young, an aerospace industry icon who is retired from Martin Marietta/Lockheed Martin and a member of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), though he was testifying only for himself not NAC; Paul Spudis, senior scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, a fervent advocate of returning humans to Moon before going to Mars, also speaking only for himself, not LPI; and John Sommerer, retired from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab and testifying in his capacity as the former chairman of the Technical Panel of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine committee that wrote the 2014 Pathways To Exploration report.
Republican members of the subcommittee and the chairman of the full committee, Rep, Lamar Smith (R-TX) continued their attacks on the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as unnecessary and a waste of resources. Democratic members, including the ranking Democrat of the full committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), did not defend ARM, and Edwards said NASA's current Evolvable Mars Campaign strategy does not answer the question of whether an asteroid mission is a necessary element of the humans-to-Mars goal. Johnson and Edwards reiterated their strong support for NASA to produce a roadmap for the future of the human spaceflight program as required by the 2015 NASA Authorization Act that passed the House last year (no further action has been taken).
None of the witnesses offered support for ARM, either, although Young noted that NAC is enthusiastic about the development of Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP), which is part of the ARM program. NAC considers SEP to be a critical element of any effort to send humans to Mars and recommended that NASA send an SEP-powered probe all the way to Mars as a test instead of to an asteroid. NAC worries that ARM itself, as a program, will cost more than the $1.25 billion advertised by NASA officials and divert resources from the real goal of humans-to-Mars.
Sending people to Mars was widely, but not universally, accepted by committee members and witnesses as the long term goal of NASA's human spaceflight program. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) was one exception, who thinks other missions -- such as planetary defense and solving the space debris problem -- are more important and champions private sector activities. He said he believes SpaceX founder Elon Musk will get to Mars before NASA. He and other Republican members also expressed concern about the costs involved in a humans-to-Mars mission when the national debt is so high. Rohrabacher argued for an incremental program that can change directions if, for example, an asteroid threatens Earth and planetary defense becomes a higher priority, instead of a "20 year program of gigantic spending that will suck the money away from all the other projects" that NASA might initiate. He said the only affordable way to send Americans to Mars is on a one-way trip.
NASA's Evolvable Mars Campaign was criticized for lacking the specifics needed to win support, especially in a vulnerable period of time when the presidency will change hands. Many of the committee members, Republican and Democratic, stressed the need to have a baseline program and a roadmap in place before the presidential transition to avoid another disruption like what occurred when President Obama took office and cancelled the Constellation program. Edwards called NASA's Evolvable Mars Campaign a strategy, but insufficiently detailed for mission planning. It does not answer questions such as whether a return to the lunar surface or an asteroid mission is necessary to reduce risks for the longer-term Mars goal, she said.
The need for a "plan," rather than a broader strategy that lacks details, was also emphasized by the witnesses. Young calculated that if NASA's current level of funding for human spaceflight, about $9 billion in FY2016, is maintained for the next 20 years, $180 billion will be available over that period of time. He concludes that although this is a great deal of money, it is not enough to both send humans to Mars and support the International Space Station beyond 2024 and a choice must be made between them. He thinks that choice should be sending humans to Mars. He cited the 2015 study by the Planetary Society as one option for how to accomplish it, although he wants humans to land on Mars not just orbit it and he thinks it will cost more than the $180 billion.
Sommerer said that his panel estimated that it would take 20-40 years to get people on Mars and cost "half a trillion dollars." He and Young both stressed that the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft are just the beginning of the systems that are needed for a Mars mission. Sommerer noted that there are only a handful of destinations for human spaceflight today -- the Moon, asteroids and Mars -- and what is needed is agreement on the sequence of missions with a "logical feed forward" that minimizes "dead ends," is affordable, has acceptable development risks and a reasonable operational tempo. The NAS Pathways committee looked at three options, but did not recommend any of them, concluding that in the current fiscal environment there are "no good pathways to Mars."
Later in the hearing, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) argued for adopting the goal of sending humans to Mars by 2033 -- he displayed a bumper sticker with that date on it. He asked if that could be achieved if $200-300 billion -- a percent of the federal budget -- was allocated over that period of time. Sommerer replied, yes, if you have a plan -- "if you give them the date and the money and help with the discipline [to make difficult choices], the answer is yes. If any of those three things is missing, the answer is almost certainly no."
Despite the consensus that a specific plan is needed, there was no agreement on what the plan should be. Although Perlmutter wants to focus on Mars, Spudis insists that returning to the surface of the Moon first is essential, for example. The decades-long debate over Moon versus Mars remains unresolved. Even if there might be agreement on Mars, there is debate over whether to land on the surface, as Young advocates, or put humans in orbit first as outlined in the Planetary Society report. That makes crafting a detailed plan, especially in the few months before a new President is elected, a daunting challenge. Without it, though, as committee members and witnesses expressed yesterday, there is concern that the current elements of the program -- SLS and Orion -- could end up on the chopping block.
Young wryly commented that "We have a graveyard today ... that has headstones of human spaceflight programs that consumed a lot of resources and ended up with no basic product. I don't think we need any more headstones in that cemetery. What we really need [are] monuments to accomplishment."
The head of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) and a key Member of Congress are making the case for expanding AST's regulatory responsibilities to include much more than commercial launches and reentries. Both spoke at the first day of AST's annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference, which continues today (Wednesday). The Commercial Spaceflight Federation is webcasting the event.
Over the past year, interest has grown in both the government and commercial space sectors over what agency should have the responsibility for ensuring U.S. compliance with Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that requires governments to "authorize and continually supervise" the activities of their non-government entities, such as companies. U.S. companies have been operating in space since the 1960s, primarily commercial communications and remote sensing satellites, but the potential expansion of commercial activities to other realms, such as asteroid mining or habitats on the lunar surface, is raising the visibility of the issue of who in the U.S. government is responsible for that task.
The recently enacted Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to recommend approaches for oversight of commercial activities in space. The law was enacted on November 25, 2015 and the report is due 120 days thereafter.
FAA Associate Administrator for AST George Nield wants his office to be given that responsibility. He said that his office could issue a "mission license" for in-space operations not already regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) or NOAA. FCC licenses the use of the radio spectrum by commercial companies. NOAA licenses commercial remote sensing satellites.
Another growing issue is who should be responsible for determining if satellites are going to collide with each other or with space debris and warn affected parties. This is often referred to as Space Traffic Management. Today, DOD's Joint Space Operations Center (JSPoC) performs the calculations -- "conjunction analyses" -- and alerts appropriate parties, but some argue that JSPoC should focus on DOD's requirement to protect U.S. national security satellites, not those of the civil or commercial sectors.
Nield said the FAA should take on that responsibility as well; "We think it makes sense for the FAA to take on this role, and we believe that there is consensus in the interagency community that we are the right ones to do it, but we need to make the decision soon and get on with it." He also advocated for the FAA to process safety-related space situational awareness data and release it "to any entity, consistent with national security interests and public safety obligations." The FAA and DOD are in agreement that this is feasible, he added, though his office needs additional resources to do it.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), a member of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee, agrees. Speaking at the conference yesterday, he stressed that DOD must focus on the threats posed to national security satellites rather than spending its time determining whether the International Space Station (ISS) is "going to hit a screw." DOD must be relieved of the "burden" of performing conjunction analyses for the civil and commercial sectors, he said, and the FAA is the proper agency to take on that task. He added that DOD does not want to relinquish JSPoC, but instead to use it for what it is intended -- national security. He also agreed that FAA/AST needs more money if it takes on additional tasks. He noted that he tried to add $1 million for FAA/AST in the House-passed version of the FY2016 Transportation-HUD appropriations act, but only $250,000 was approved.
Bridenstine also raised the issue of who should be responsible for ensuring compliance with Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty, calling it a "challenge we have to own up to and ultimately solve. It won't be easy and won't happen overnight." He stopped short of recommending FAA/AST as the answer, but said government regulation of commercial space activities overall must be consistent and simplified.
The conference continues today, with Rep. Brian Babin, chairman of the House SS&T Space Subcommittee, scheduled to speak at 8:30 am ET, followed by NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman.
The Commercial Spaceflight Federation indicated that it will webcast today's sessions as well.
Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of February 1-5, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
A conference on commercial space transportation and a House hearing on NASA's human exploration proposals are just two highlights of the coming week.
The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation's (AST's) 19th annual conference is in Washington, DC on Tuesday and Wednesday. Neither the conference's website nor the agenda indicate that any of the sessions will be webcast, which is a shame because they look really interesting. If we learn that remote access will, in fact, be available, we'll add that information to the entry in our Events of Interest list. [UPDATE: FAA/AST confirms that there will NOT be a webcast. UPDATE 2 -- AS WE JUST LEARNED NOW THAT WE'RE HERE AT THE CONFERENCE, THE COMMERCIAL SPACEFLIGHT FEDERATION IS WEBCASTING THE EVENT.] There are keynotes and panels featuring top leaders from the Administration (e.g. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman), Congress (Rep. Brian Babin, R-TX, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-TX, and a panel of congressional staff), and industry (Sierra Nevada Corporate VP for Space Systems Mark Sirangelo and SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell). For those who are advocating for an expansion of AST's jurisdiction beyond launch and reentry of satellites, one of the panels will discuss European Space Agency (ESA) Director General Jan Woerner's Lunar Village (or Moon Village) concept. AST's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) recently recommended that AST "engage directly" with ESA to foster the participation of U.S.-based commercial entities in planning and creation of such a village. Woerner spoke to COMSTAC during a telecon meeting last month and will participate in this conference via livestream.
Wednesday's hearing before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee also should be interesting. The topic is NASA's human exploration proposals, but in this case there are no NASA witnesses. Instead, three "outside" witnesses will present their views. Aerospace industry icon Tom Young is one of them. He has testified many times, perhaps most memorably answering "never" to a question about when humans would get to Mars under NASA's current budget. He is a member of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), which has been deliberating for at least two years over NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and NASA's planning for sending humans to Mars. Young will be speaking only for himself, but NAC has not been enthusiastic about ARM for many reasons, one of which is skepticism that it will cost only $1.25 billion as NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden insists. NAC members also criticize NASA's Evolvable Mars Campaign because it lacks specifics. The other two witnesses are Paul Spudis, a fervent advocate of returning humans to the lunar surface before going to Mars, and John Sommerer, who chaired the Technical Panel of the 2014 "Pathways" report from the National Academies that also endorsed returning astronauts to the lunar surface and raised questions about the value of ARM to the long term goal of human Mars exploration.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below. Check back throughout the week to see any new meetings we learn about and post to our Events of Interest list.
Monday-Tuesday, February 1-2
Tuesday, February 2
Tuesday-Wednesday, February 2-3
Wednesday, February 3
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) are introducing legislation to repeal a provision in the FY2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act that undermines a section of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that limits the number of Russian RD-180 engines that can be obtained by the United Launch Alliance (ULA) for its Atlas V rockets. The appropriations law, enacted after the NDAA, essentially allows an unlimited number to be procured. McCain announced his new legislation in conjunction with a Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing on the topic today.
Since Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula two years ago, McCain has led efforts to end U.S. reliance on Russian RD-180 engines used in rockets that launch national security satellites. He argues that Russia's actions in Ukraine and elsewhere are inimicable to U.S. interests and the money ULA pays for the engines goes to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his "cronies." As chairman of SASC, he included language in the FY2015 and FY2016 NDAAs that limits the number of RD-180s ULA may obtain and directs DOD to fund the development of a U.S. alternative. McCain also is a champion of SpaceX and its drive to compete with ULA for Air Force contracts to launch national security satellites. The Air Force certified SpaceX's Falcon 9 to launch its satellites last year.
Little new was added to the debate at this morning's hearing. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall repeated their oft-stated position that they agree on the need to end reliance on Russian engines and to build a new U.S. engine by McCain's target date of 2019. They argue, however, that an engine is only part of a launch system and it will take at least two more years, to 2021, to integrate a new engine into a new launch vehicle, test it and certify it to launch national security satellites. McCain and other members of the committee insisted that the transition to a new rocket with an American engine must happen sooner.
The distinction between an engine and a complete launch system was reiterated by James and Kendall throughout the hearing. They are seeking relief from language in the FY2016 NDAA (Sec 606) that restricts them to spending funds on developing new rocket engines only and not entire new launch vehicles. James and Kendall said if they can only use the money for a new engine to replace the RD-180, just one company will benefit, ULA, which would get a new engine for its Atlas V. If instead they could use the money to invest in a public private partnership to develop a new, modern launch system to replace the Atlas V, greater benefits would accrue.
According to James, Congress has authorized and appropriated over $400 million for a new engine: $41 million that was reprogrammed in FY2014, $220 million in FY2015, and $227 million in FY2016. Of that, $176 million has been obligated to date, she added.
One point on which McCain and the witnesses agreed was unhappiness that ULA chose not to bid on the first launch where SpaceX could compete. Competition for that launch, of a GPS 3 navigation satellite, opened last fall, but ULA asserted that it could not enter a bid because of the limitation on how many RD-180 engines it may obtain under the FY2015 NDAA in effect at that time and for other reasons.
McCain repeatedly expressed exasperation at ULA's decision not to bid. James said the Air Force was "surprised and disappointed" and Kendall said "we are all upset." James said she has asked her legal team to review the Air Force contract with ULA to see what can be done possibly "including early termination" of the EELV Launch Capability (ELC) contract that pays for infrastructure and other ULA costs. That funding is separate from the money paid for individual launches.
McCain repeatedly referred to the ELC funding -- approximately $800 million per year -- as money the government pays ULA "to do nothing" or "to just stay in business." Kendall explained that the ELC contract was designed to cover fixed and variable costs associated with launch infrastructure and meant to ensure stability in a sole source environment. ULA has been virtually a monopoly provider of national security launch services since it was formed in 2006 as a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. While Kendall defended the ELC as a good business deal under those circumstances and "not a subsidy," he agreed it is the only DOD contract of its kind, is being phased out, and a model that will not be used in the future. What DOD wants to do now is to provide "at least two launch service providers" with some of the capital to develop, test and certify new launch systems through public private partnerships. A draft request for proposals (RFP) will be released this spring, he said, and a final RFP by the end of the year with awards expected in FY2017.
One new piece of information that surfaced today was the cost of an RD-180 engine. Kendall pegged it at $30 million. The fundamental dispute is whether ULA should be able to obtain nine more, or 14 more, RD-180 engines than the five they already have under contract as part of a 2013 block buy awarded by the Air Force. That is a difference of five engines, or $150 million, money McCain argues would go to Putin and associates including three he said have been sanctioned by the United States - Igor Komarov, Sergey Chemezov and Dmitry Rogozin. Rogozin is the Russian Deputy Prime Minister who oversees the aerospace sector. Komarov is the head of Roscosmos, which recently transitioned from a government space agency into a state corporation. McCain identified them as members of the Board ot RD-AMROSS, the intermediary between the Russian company that manufactures RD-180s. Energomash, and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, which imports them for use in the Atlas V.
The Air Force and ULA want 14 more; McCain wants to limit it to nine. The FY2016 NDAA states that only nine may be obtained, but Senate appropriators, led by Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) included a provision in the DOD portion of the FY2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act that removes that limit. ULA builds its rockets in Alabama; Boeing is headquartered in Illinois. McCain verbally attacked both Senators during a floor speech after the appropriations bill language became public.
Just before this morning's hearing, McCain revealed that he and House Majority Leader McCarthy will introduce legislation imminently to repeal the provision in the appropriations law. In a statement, McCain said the provision was "airdopped" into the appropriations bill "in secret, with no debate" after the nine-engine limitation in the NDAA was "debated for months and passed by the Senate not once, but twice."
Blue Origin relaunched and relanded the same New Shepard rocket that the company used to demonstrate that feat last November. The rocket reached an altitude of 101.7 kilometers (333,582 feet) before returning to Earth, jettisoning its unoccupied crew capsule along the way. The capsule landed separately under parachutes.
The New Shepard suborbital rocket launches and lands vertically. Blue Origin, owned by Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos, posted video and other images of the flight on its website.
Blue Origin, along with SpaceX, is trying to develop reusable rockets in the belief that reusability will lower launch costs. The theory is controversial because it is dependent on factors such as the cost involved in refurbishing a rocket to fly again and the number of launches across which the costs can be amortized. Space aficionados can debate what vehicle deserves the honor of being known as the first reusable rocket -- the X-15, DC-X and SpaceShipOne are candidates -- but NASA's space shuttle was the only operational reusable launch vehicle (its External Tanks were not reused, but the airplane-like orbiters and solid rocket boosters were). The space shuttle did not result in lower launch costs, however..
Nevertheless, the technical feat of launching and landing a rocket is noteworthy. Blue Origin and SpaceX are competing for headlines in that regard. SpaceX successfully landed the first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral, FL in December, although three attempts to land on an autonomous drone ship at sea have failed, most recently last Sunday. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk points out that landing the first stage of a rocket sending a satellite into orbit is much more challenging than a suborbital excursion like that experienced in the New Shepard tests.
Bezos and Musk have similar goals -- expanding opportunities for humans to fly into space by making spaceflight affordable. Bezos said in a statement today that Blue Origin's vision is for "millions of people living and working in space." Musk's long term goal is sending large numbers of humans to Mars.
In addition to the New Shepard rocket, Blue Origin is developing new rocket engines that use a new type of rocket fuel -- liquefied natural gas (methane). United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Blue Origin have teamed together on developing ULA's new Vulcan rocket using Blue Origin's BE-4 rocket engine. Bezos also said today that full-engine testing of the BE-4 will begin this year.
ULA President Tory Bruno tweeted his congratulations to Bezos on today's launch and landing:
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of January 25-29, 2016. The House and Senate are scheduled to be in session, but with the blizzard that's coming, all events in the DC area should be considered tentative. [UPDATE JANUARY 24: The House has decided not to meet this week because of the aftereffects of the blizzard. So far, the Senate's schedule is unchanged. The immediate Washington DC area got between 17 and 30 inches of snow and roads remain impassable in many places. Also, Federal Government offices in the DC area will be closed on Monday. UPDATE JANUARY 25: The January 26 SASC defense acquisition hearing has been postponed. Federal Government offices in the DC area will be closed on Tuesday, too.]
During the Week
The first flakes of the Blizzard of 2016, also known as Snowmageddon II, Snowzilla, or Jonas (that's what The Weather Channel calls it), are falling. The forecast is so grim that we worry whether the electricity will be on this weekend, so decided to post this today (Friday). The Washington DC area does not do well with snow and even if it did, this storm is expected to break records in snowfall totals (18-30 inches is forecast for right here) and winds (30-40 miles per hour in this area, higher elsewhere), so any city would have a problem keeping up with it. If you have plans to travel to the DC area, or the mid-Atlantic generally, check to be sure your meeting or whatever is still taking place before you start your trip. [UPDATED JANUARY 25: The House will not meet this week. The SASC hearing on defense acquisition on Tuesday has been postponed (not the RD-180 hearing on Wednesday, at least not yet). Federal government offices in the DC area are closed Monday and Tuesday.]
Among the highlights of events that are SCHEDULED as of this moment is NASA's annual remembrance of the astronauts who lost their lives in the 1967 Apollo fire and 1986 space shuttle Challenger and 2003 Columbia tragedies. This year is the 30th anniversary of the January 28, 1986 Challenger accident that killed NASA astronauts Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Judy Resnik, Ellison Onizuka and Ron McNair; Hughes Aircraft payload specialist Greg Jarvis; and Teacher in Space Christa McAuliffe. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and other NASA officials will take part in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery on January 28 (Thursday), followed by activities at other NASA centers throughout the day. NASA TV will televise a wreath-laying ceremony at the Space Mirror Memorial at Kennedy Space Center's Visitor Center at 10:00 am ET.
On a completely different note, the debate over United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) use of Russian RD-180 rocket engines and efforts to build a U.S. alternative to them resumes on Wednesday with a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC). SASC Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) is livid that Senate appropriators pulled the rug out from under his feet, essentially allowing the use of an indeterminate number of RD-180s instead of capping the number at nine as required by the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) reportedly at the urging of the Air Force and ULA. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and DOD Under Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall will be at the witness table to explain their position. The argument is not over the need to end reliance on Russian engines for national security launches or to build a U.S. alternative, but the timing. ULA and the Air Force do not think a new U.S.-built engine will be ready for service by 2019; McCain thinks that is a reasonable goal. McCain also is an advocate for SpaceX and other "new entrants" who could compete against ULA and bring launch costs down.
Note that there is a more general hearing on defense acquisition the day before. [UPDATE: THIS HEARING HAS BEEN POSTPONED] At that one, the service chiefs will testify about the role they play in the acquisition process. Impossible to know if anything will come up about space, but it wouldn't be surprising. SASC's House counterpart, HASC, held its own defense acquisition hearing on January 7. HASC Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) used it as a opportunity to slam DOD on the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP). DOD bought 20 DMSP weather satellites almost two decades ago. The first 19 have been launched, but the fate of the last one, DMSP-20, is in limbo. In 2014, DOD said it no longer was needed, but changed its mind last year. Congress reacted skeptically and required DOD to certify whether it is needed or not. Meanwhile, millions of dollars have been spent keeping it in storage. Rogers used $518 million as the total amount of money spent on that one satellite and said a lot of aggravation could have been saved if 18 years ago the Air Force and Congress "put a half billion dollars in a parking lot in a pile and just burned it." He said now the satellite will be trashed and "I presume ... be made into razor blades." We'll see if the SASC hearing has any of its own fireworks.
Those and other events that are scheduled for next week are listed below. Check back throughout the week for additional events that we learn about and add to our Events of Interest list. And to all of our readers in the mid-Atlantic area about to endure this storm, pay heed to the experts on how to stay safe.
Tuesday, January 26
Wednesday, January 27
Wednesday-Friday, January 27-29
Thursday, January 28
Thursday-Friday, January 28-29
Friday, January 29
SpaceX successfully launched the Jason-3 ocean altimetry satellite on a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA today. The company made another attempt to land the rocket's first stage on an autonomous drone ship out at sea, but that failed like previous attempts. Its one landing success was last month, on land.
Getting Jason-3 into the correct orbit was the primary objective of the launch and that appeared to go flawlessly. The launch pad was enshrouded by fog, but that was not a launch constraint and liftoff was on time at 1:42 pm ET (10:42 am local time at the launch site). The first and second stages of the Falcon 9 performed nominally and the spacecraft separated and its solar panels deployed as planned.
Jason-3 is a joint project among NOAA and NASA on the U.S. side, and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (Eumetsat) and the French space agency, CNES, on the European side. It is the fourth in a series of experimental and now operational spacecraft to measure the height of the ocean's surface that began with Topex-Poseidon (1992), followed by Jason-1 (2001) and Jason-2 (2008). The launch of Jason-3 was delayed several times, making today's success that much more of a relief to scientists who rely on this type of data.
SpaceX's attempt to land the first stage on its Just Read the Instructions autonomous spaceport drone ship (often incorrectly referred to as a barge) was a secondary objective, but of at least as much interest to space enthusiasts. The company's successful landing last month on terra firma at Cape Canaveral, FL generated a lot of media attention. Its two previous attempts to land on drone ships failed in January and April 2015. As Musk explained in a series of tweets today, landing on a ship at sea is more difficult than on land, but the fundamental failure today appears to be related to one of the four landing legs not locking into place. SpaceX later released a video of the landing on Instagram.
The landings are related to Musk's goal of developing reusable rockets that he anticipates will lead to lower launch costs. The economics of reusable launch vehicles is very controversial, with NASA's space shuttle used as an example of why reusability may not yield such results. The costs of refurbishing the space shuttle after each use were so high and the number of launches per year so low that launch costs never came down. The space shuttle was a very complex vehicle, however, and its relevance to a simpler rocket like the Falcon 9 is unclear.
Note: This article, published on January 17, was updated on January 18 with the link to the video of the landing.
Here is our list of space policy related events for January 17-22, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The Senate is in session part of the week; the House is in recess.
During the Week
Tomorrow (Monday) is a Federal holiday -- Martin Luther King's birthday -- and federal offices will be closed. The House is taking the entire week off, but the Senate will be in session beginning Tuesday.
The big news for this week has already happened: today's successful launch of the NOAA-Eumetsat-NASA-CNES Jason-3 ocean altimetry spacecraft. Despite the fog, the launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA went off on time at 1:42 pm Eastern Time (10:42 am local time at the launch site) and as of this moment, the satellite is in the correct orbit and the solar arrays have deployed. The Falcon 9 launch was flawless, but SpaceX's attempt to land the first stage on one of its autonomous drone ships about 200 miles off the California coast failed. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted that one of the landing legs did not lock into place so the rocket tipped over when landing on the drone ship.
The successful launch of Jason-3 will provide a nice backdrop for Wednesday's NASA-NOAA media telecon on weather and climate, although the telecon's focus is what happened last year. The telecon will be broadcast on NASA's News Audio website at 11:00 am ET. An hour later, NOAA's Chief Scientist, Rick Spinrad, will have a chance to tout the success at a Maryland Space Business Roundtable luncheon.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below. Check back throughout the week to see any additional events we learn about later and post on our Events of Interest list.
Sunday-Wednesday, January 17-20
Wednesday, January 20
Thursday, January 21
NASA announced the winners of the second round of Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) awards today (Thursday, January 14). All three companies still in the running for these CRS2 awards -- Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX -- came up winners.
At a press conference at NASA's Johnson Space Center, International Space Station (ISS) Program Director Sam Scimemi announced that each company won a minimum of six launches each, though no orders have been made for any of them yet. The launches will take place between 2019 and 2024.
SpaceX and Orbital ATK are the two incumbents. They won the first round of CRS awards and have been launching cargo missions to the ISS since 2012 and 2013 respectively. SpaceX launches its Dragon cargo spacecraft on its Falcon 9 rockets. Orbital ATK developed the Antares rocket to launch its Cygnus cargo spacecraft. Both suffered launch failures: Orbital (before its merger with ATK) in October 2014 and SpaceX in June 2015.
Orbital ATK returned the Cygnus spacecraft to service in December 2015, but using United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V rocket rather than Antares. Flights using Antares are expected to resume in May. SpaceX's Falcon 9 returned to flight in December sending seven ORBCOMM OG-2 communications satellites into low Earth orbit. Two more Falcon 9 launches -- including one on Sunday of the Jason-3 satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA -- are planned before the company attempts the next cargo launch to ISS (SpaceX CRS-8 or SpX-8). That was scheduled for February, but rumors are that it will take place in March instead.
For this second round of CRS awards, three more companies joined the competition: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada. Lockheed Martin and Boeing were dropped from the competition last year. That left the two incumbents plus Sierra Nevada. All three won awards today.
The three companies offer different solutions for ISS cargo services. Orbital ATK and SpaceX use capsules reminiscent of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. Orbital ATK's Cygnus can be used only to take cargo to the ISS and to dispose of trash when it departs the ISS and burns up during reentry. SpaceX's Dragon can take cargo to the ISS as well as return it to Earth since it is designed to survive reentry and land in the ocean. Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser is a very different design. It resembles a very small version of the space shuttle. Like Dragon, it can take cargo to and from ISS and it lands on a runway as did the space shuttle.
NASA now has a range of options available depending on its needs -- pressurized or unpressurized one-way or two-way cargo. ISS Program Manager Kirk Shireman said today that it is too early to say how many of each version will be needed when, but the minimum number of flights guaranteed to each company through 2024 is six.
A total of four U.S. commercial cargo missions to the ISS are needed each year. Those are in addition to cargo missions flown by Russia's Progress and Japan's HTV spacecraft. Shireman declined to reveal the value of the contracts awarded today. He said only that the total amount available is $14 billion through 2024, but the current awards fall well short of that. Orbital ATK said in a statement that the value of the six missions it was awarded today is $1.2-$1.5 billion.
SpaceX uses its own Falcon 9 for the Dragon missions. Sierra Nevada will launch Dream Chaser on United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets. Both SpaceX and Sierra Nevada will launch from Cape Canaveral, FL.
Orbital ATK's Antares launches from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, VA. The third operational launch, Orb-3, failed. To ensure that it met its requirement to launch 20 tons of cargo to ISS by the end of 2016, it contracted with ULA to launch two Cygnus capsules using ULA's Atlas V while Antares is being outfitted with new engines. The first ULA launch of a Cygnus capsule took place in December and another is planned in March. Those launches are from Cape Canaveral. Orbital ATK plans to resume Cygnus launches using the upgraded Antares from Wallops in May. Its CRS2 proposal offered both variants -- launches on Atlas V from Cape Canaveral or on Antares from Wallops.
NASA officials said today that this round of CRS awards reflects lessons learned from the first round. Among the changes is insurance requirements for the companies to cover damage to government property during launch, reentry, or in proximity to or docking with the ISS.
Today's announcement came months later than expected. Originally the CRS2 awards were to be announced in June 2015. That slipped to September and then November. At that time, NASA gave January 30 as the expected award date, so in that sense, today's announcement could be considered "early."
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, and Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), chairman of its Space Subcommittee, commended the awards. They said that the recently enacted Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act demonstrated Congress's support of the commercial space industry.
NASA's efforts to facilitate the development of new cargo and crew systems to service the ISS through Public-Private Partnerships began under the George W. Bush Administration. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin initiated the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) or "commercial cargo" program in 2006 wherein both the government and the private sector invested in the development of the systems with the agreement that NASA would purchase a certain amount of services. Using the same type of arrangement to develop systems capable of taking astronauts -- "commercial crew" -- to and from ISS was envisioned at that time, but was kick-started by the Obama Administration and made a centerpiece of NASA's strategy for maintaining the ISS once the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.
Today, SpaceX has contracts for both commercial cargo and commercial crew, with the first commercial crew launch expected around 2017. It builds its own spacecraft (Dragon and Crew Dragon) and rockets (Falcon 9).
Orbital ATK and Sierra Nevada have contracts for commercial cargo. Orbital ATK can launch its Cygnus spacecraft either on its own Antares rockets or ULA's Atlas V. Sierra Nevada will launch Dream Chaser on ULA Atlas V rockets.
Boeing is the other company that has a commercial crew contract. Its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft will launch on ULA's Atlas V. The first launch is expected around 2017.
Although Lockheed Martin does not have any of the commercial cargo or commercial crew contracts, it is building the Orion spacecraft under a traditional government contract with NASA to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) to the vicinity of the Moon and someday to Mars beginning in the early 2020s.
The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) has awarded Orbital ATK and SpaceX a total of $80 million in "Other Transaction Agreements" (OTAs) for work connected to its efforts to develop a U.S. alternative to Russia's RD-180 rocket engines.
SMC characterized the awards of $46.9 million to Orbital ATK and $33.6 million to SpaceX as "initial government contributions" for Rocket Propulsion System (RPS) prototypes. The OTAs are similar to NASA's Space Act Agreements and are part of the move towards public private partnerships for developing new space hardware. SMC says that it is still negotiating with other offerors and all of the awards are part of a portfolio of planned investments "in industry's RPS solutions." Companies could submit proposals for addressing a range of requirements for the national security space sector from developing a new RPS to modifying an existing RPS to addressing high risk items for an RPS or subcomponents, or testing of qualifying a new or existing RPS.
The award to Orbital ATK is for development of the Common Booster Segment main stage, the Graphite Epoxy Motor 63XL strap-on booster, and an extendable nozzle for Blue Origin's BE-3U/EN upper stage engine. SpaceX's award is for development and testing of its Raptor upper stage.
The national security sector currently relies on the United Launch Alliance's Delta IV and Atlas V Evolved Expandable Launch Vehicles (EELVs). The Atlas V is powered by Russia's RD-180 engines and the strained U.S.-Russian relationship following Russia's annexation of Crimea and other actions in Ukraine galvanized political pressure to end that reliance on Russia. The Air Force and ULA agree on the need to build a U.S. alternative, but disagree with those, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who want to set 2019 as a firm date for ending use of the RD-180.
Orbital ATK said in a statement that the $47 million award has options valued up to $133 million and "the company will also contribute additional development funds." The SMC announcement stated that for all of these awards "at least one third" of the total cost would be paid by "parties to the transactions other than the federal government."