Commercial Space News
SpaceX will try again to launch its third operational cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) on Friday. The launch window opens at 3:25 pm ET, but the weather forecast is poor. Meanwhile, the ISS spacewalk needed to fix a broken computer on the exterior of the space station is now planned for Wednesday, April 23.
The SpaceX CRS-3 launch was scrubbed on Monday because a helium valve in the stage separation pneumatic system in the Falcon 9 first stage was not holding the correct pressure, the company said in a statement today. It added that the launch could have gone ahead and relied on a backup check valve, but "SpaceX policy is not to launch with any known anomalies."
The weather was great on Monday, but much has changed since then and the forecast for Friday is only 40 percent favorable. NASA TV will cover the launch beginning at 2:15 pm ET and SpaceX will webcast it beginning at 2:45 pm ET. If all goes as planned, the Dragon spacecraft with its load of cargo will arrive at the ISS Sunday morning, April 20, and be grappled by Canadarm2 at about 7:14 am ET. NASA TV will cover the events beginning at 5:45 am ET.
One of the more interesting aspects of this launch is that SpaceX will test landing legs for the Falcon 9 first stage as a step towards eventually making the vehicle reusable. This test will take place over the ocean so the vehicle will fall into the water, but only after SpaceX collects the data it needs to determine if the landing legs performed as expected. A SpaceX official stressed that it is an experiment and the company is only 30-40 percent confident it will work.
If the weather or anything else interferes on Friday, SpaceX plans to try again on Saturday at 3:02 pm ET.
Meanwhile, NASA continues preparations for a "contingency" spacewalk (as opposed to a regularly scheduled spacewalk) to replace a malfunctioning computer called a Multiplexer-DeMultiplexer (MDM) on the outside of the space station. NASA determined over the weekend that Dragon could be berthed to the ISS despite the malfunction; the primary MDM is working fine. The MDMs control some of the robotic systems aboard ISS. NASA astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Steve Swanson will perform the spacewalk on Wednesday, April 23, under the current plan. NASA space station program manager Mike Suffredini described this as one of the easier tasks and the spacewalk is scheduled for only 2.5 hours.
If the SpaceX launch is scrubbed on Friday, however, NASA will move the spacewalk up to Sunday, April 20.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) gave NASA credit today for improved cost and schedule performance in its major acquisition programs. Nevertheless, it cited several programs that need continued monitoring. GAO reviews NASA's major acquisition programs every year as requested by Congress.
GAO said that the portfolio of NASA projects it reviewed "saw cost and schedule growth that remains low compared to GAO's first review." Not that every project is doing well, though.
In all, GAO reviewed 19 programs spanning robotic and human spaceflight in its 104 page report. It did not make any recommendations, but cited several programs that require continued monitoring. One is the Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite-2, ICESAT-2. GAO said the cost of the satellite's single instrument -- Advanced Topographical Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS) -- being developed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center will grow by at least 15 percent and the spacecraft will miss its 2017 launch date. GAO said that NASA traced the problem to immature systems engineering analysis and consequently replaced the project management team and added more expertise.
Among GAO's other top worries are the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion programs.
Other programs that bear watching include:
GAO also provided a snapshot of the status of the three commercial crew competitors -- Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX. According to the report,
Overall, it reports that commercial crew program officials cite the following challenges: concern that the program will not be fully funded, reducing competition and thereby increasing costs of commercially available transportation capabilities; complications such as development of the system to allow the commercial vehicles to dock with the International Space Station, which could impact schedule; and "closing a risk related to Federal Aviation Administration licensing issues."
The other programs reviewed by GAO for this report are:
Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren is scheduled to discuss the Obama Administration's vision for NASA with the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) tomorrow (April 16, 2014). NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and the head of NASA's human spaceflight program, Bill Gerstenmaier, will also address NAC. The meeting comes three weeks after a tense exchange between Bolden and House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) over whether NAC Chairman Steve Squyres agrees with NASA's contention that the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) is a step towards someday sending people to Mars.
The Obama Administration is continuing its efforts to convince Congress and the space community in general that ARM should be the next step for the U.S. human spaceflight program. It has generated little enthusiasm since it was announced almost exactly one year ago when President Obama submitted his FY2014 budget request to Congress. ARM is an iteration of President Obama's declaration almost exactly three years earlier, on April 15, 2010, that he was directing NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid as the next step in human spaceflight after he cancelled the Bush-era Constellation program to return humans to the lunar surface.
NASA is still developing the mission concept for ARM. Gerstenmaier briefed NAC's Committee on Human Exploration and Operations yesterday on competing concepts for how to carry out the mission. The two options are to try to redirect a small asteroid into a lunar orbit or to go to a larger asteroid and pluck a large sample (e.g. a boulder) from its surface and move that into lunar orbit. Once in lunar orbit, astronauts would visit it. Gerstenmaier focused on the value of using cis-lunar space (between the Earth and the Moon) and lunar orbit as a "proving ground" for human missions beyond low Earth orbit. He also stressed that although ARM has been characterized as a "one-off" mission, in fact it is part of an integrated plan to get humans to Mars.
There is little disagreement that the long term goal for the U.S. human spaceflight program -- in partnership with other countries and the commercial sector -- should be landing people on Mars (though it is not unanimous). For decades, the debate has been over whether or not returning to the lunar surface is a prerequisite. Intermediate destinations, like asteroids, were rarely discussed until a committee created by President Obama shortly after taking office in 2009 posited a "flexible path" approach as an alternative that included asteroids and Lagrange points. The committee, chaired by Norm Augustine, did not make recommendations, but laid out "Moon First," "Mars First" and "Flexible Path" options.
Holdren is Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which is largely blamed or credited, depending on one's point of view, for choosing Flexible Path and cancelling the Constellation program. He has testified to Congress about ARM enthusiastically, but does not appear to have won many converts. In one sign of good news for the Administration, however, the 2014 NASA Authorization Act approved by the House SS&T's Space Subcommittee last week would not prohibit spending money on ARM. That is an improvement over last year's version of the bill, which would have done so. That bill was never reported from committee.
Holdren's appearance before NAC tomorrow may be an effort to win over those members of the space community, especially NAC chairman Steve Squyres, at least, about the value of ARM as part of a plan to send people to Mars.
Squyres testified to the House Space Subcommittee last year that he does not consider ARM as necessary to achieve that goal. At another hearing three weeks ago on NASA's FY2015 budget request, full committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) challenged Bolden on that point. Smith quoted Squyres as testifying that "I see no obvious connection between [ARM] and any of the technologies or capabilities that are required for Martian exploration." Smith is pushing the Mars 2021 Flyby mission as the next step in human spaceflight instead.
In a tense exchange, Smith reminded Bolden about Squyres's testimony and Bolden replied that if Squyres were asked today, he would not hold the same position. Smith retorted: "I don't doubt you could put political pressure on him." Bolden responded: "I put no pressure, I can't put pressure, on Steve Squyres." Smith insisted Squyres's testimony stands "unless you have other information." Bolden said: "I have other information, which is talking to [him] weekly. Steve Squyres counseled me 'don't make this seem like you're going to save the planet. Show us, the NASA Advisory Council, how this is relevant to getting people to Mars.' We've subsequently done that." Smith said Squyres's testimony stands until he hears differently from Squyres.
Smith continued his criticism in an April 3 press release after Bolden made comments to two National Research Council panels that Mars Flyby 2021, Smith's preference, is not a steppingstone to landing people on Mars.
As for convincing Squyres and the rest of NAC, Bolden, Holdren and Gerstenmaier will be there to make the case for ARM in person and in public tomorrow morning. The meeting is at NASA Headquarters and is available remotely via WebEx and telecom. The detailed agenda, as of today, is posted on the NAC website. Bolden is scheduled for 9:10 am ET, Holdren for 10:00 am ET, and Gerstenmaier for 11:00 am ET.
At 3:39 pm EDT, SpaceX's launch director stated that the planned 4:58 pm launch of CRS-3, the company's third operational cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS), was scrubbed for the day. The next launch opportunity is Friday, but the weather forecast is iffy that day.
As many people tuned in to NASA TV at 3:45 pm EDT to listen to live launch coverage, the NASA announcer said that launch had just been scrubbed and replayed the SpaceX announcement from minutes earlier. The speaker identifies himself as the LD -- launch director -- and says "We have encountered an issue that will result in our scrubbing today's 4/14 launch attempt."
SpaceX soon posted a message on its website stating that the problem is a helium leak on the Falcon 9's first stage.
NASA and SpaceX earlier had stated that if the launch did not go today, the next opportunity is Friday, but an Air Force weather officer at a pre-launch briefing yesterday said the weather was only 40 percent favorable on Friday.
SpaceX says on its website that it will fix the helium leak by then, but acknowledges the poor forecast.
The launch window on Friday, April 18, opens at 3:25 pm ET.
NASA International Space Station (ISS) Program Manager Mike Suffredini said the agency will go ahead with the launch of SpaceX's CRS-3 cargo mission tomorrow, April 14, despite a malfunctioning computer aboard ISS. A spacewalk is now planned for April 22 to repair that unit.
The launch of a Dragon spacecraft aboard a Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled for 4:58 pm ET Monday and the weather is 80 percent favorable for the launch. If anything should delay it, the next opportunity will be on Friday, April 18, when the weather outlook is worse.
Suffredini declared at a noon press conference that the launch is "good to go" after mission managers concluded that appropriate positioning of the ISS solar arrays would protect ISS operations in case of another MDM failure. MDM is a Multiplexer/Demuliplexer - a computer that controls some of the robotic functions aboard the ISS. The primary MDM is working fine; it is the backup that is not responding to commands. Suffredini said they did not know why and will replace it with a new unit during a spacewalk now planned for April 22.
Among the cargo being taken to the ISS is a new spacesuit and replacement parts for the spacesuits already on board. A clogged filter in one of the onboard spacesuits imperiled European astronaut Luca Parmitano during a spacewalk last summer when his helmet filled with water from the spacesuit's cooling system. NASA ultimately traced the problem to silica contamination from filters in the spacesuit that are designed to clean and scrub the water loops. New filters are included in the spacesuit components being taken to ISS aboard Dragon.
SpaceX Vice President of Mission Assurance Hans Koenigsmann said at the same press conference that SpaceX is only 30-40 percent confident that its test of landing legs for the Falcon 9 rocket's first stage will work. SpaceX is working on making the Falcon 9 reusable and is experimenting with landing legs that someday could allow the first stage to return to a landing pad. The test on this flight is not that ambitious and will take place over the ocean. Stressing that it is experimental, Koenigsmann said that the first stage will descend vertically and deploy the four 25-foot high legs over the water before eventually falling over into the water. The first stage is heavily instrumented and cameras aboard a recovery ship will try to take video. He said the test happens quickly and will be over by the time the rocket's second stage reaches orbit.
When asked for NASA's reaction to SpaceX's reusability test, Suffredini said NASA supports commercial space and is happy to help as long as the primary mission is not affected. NASA determined this test would not impact Dragon's mission to ISS.
UPDATE: NASA will air a press conference on NASA TV at noon EDT on Sunday, April 13, with an update on the mission's status.
NASA reported late last night (EDT) that a backup computer on the exterior of the International Space Station (ISS) is malfunctioning. If the problem cannot be overcome by Monday, SpaceX's CRS-3 cargo flight to the ISS could be delayed.
NASA posted on its website that the computer, called a Multiplexer-Demultiplexer (MDM), is not responding to commands. MDMs control some of the systems associated with robotic systems like Canadarm2, which is needed to grapple SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft and move it a docking port. Canadarm2 itself is fine and the primary MDM also is fine. Only the backup MDM is affected.
If NASA cannot get it to work, a spacewalk will be needed to replace it, NASA said. That would mean a delay in the SpaceX launch of its third operational cargo mission to ISS, CRS-3.
The launch was originally scheduled for March 16, but was delayed because of a fire at an Air Force radar tracking site at Cape Canaveral that also delayed a national security space launch.
In the meantime, NASA and SpaceX continue to work toward an on-time launch of SpaceX CRS-3 at 4:58 pm EDT on Monday. If the launch proceeds as planned, SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft would arrive at the ISS early Wednesday morning EDT.
Check back here for updates as they become available.
The Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee (SS&T) this morning approved a revised version of a new NASA authorization bill, H.R. 4412. The text adopted today contains significant differences from what was posted on the committee's website yesterday. Among the changes for NASA's human spaceflight program: this version does not prohibit spending on development of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and a requirement is added for an independent analysis of the Mars 2021 flyby mission championed by House SS&T committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX).
The version adopted today is called an "amendment in the nature of a substitute" or a "manager's amendment" that replaces the previous text. Subcommittee Chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) and ranking member Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) lauded each other for their ability to reach "true bipartisan agreement" on the text, but both agreed that more work needs to be done to "strengthen" the bill before it takes the next step -- markup before the full committee. No date was announced for full committee markup. (Not sure what a "markup" is? See our fact sheet: What's a Markup? -- Answer's to That and Other Legislative Mysteries.)
Two sections Palazzo specifically mentioned as in need of more work concern Space Act Agreements and Advanced Booster Competition. Edwards noted that she wants a bill that covers more years; the funding recommendations in this bill are only for one year (FY2014, already underway). She also wants more discussion about NASA's education and Earth science activities "and a range of other topics."
The tone of the markup today was completely different from last year, which took place amid intense partisan discord throughout Capitol Hill. At that time Palazzo and Edwards had completely different bills. Edwards' bill was rejected on a party-line vote and Palazzo's bill was approved on a party-line vote. The bill never moved out of committee, however. Instead, the process is starting anew this year and bipartisanship is the watchword. Only one dissenting voice was heard at the subcommittee markup today, that of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who objects to the bill's focus on the goal of landing humans on Mars. The bill was approved by voice vote, and it did not appear that any "nays" were spoken, so his objections apparently were not sufficient to cause him to vote against the bill.
In their remarks, Palazzo and Edwards highlighted the human spaceflight sections of the bill which require NASA to submit to Congress an "exploration roadmap" that clearly states that the goal of the human spaceflight program is landing people on Mars and outlining the steps to achieve that goal. Palazzo said the bill "makes absolutely clear that NASA's goal for the human space flight program should be to send humans to Mars. It is also the Committee's intent to be clear that proposals that cannot be proven essential to a Mars mission be removed from this portfolio."
That probably is a reference to ARM, which committee Republicans opposed as recently as yesterday's version of this bill. However, the revised version approved today omits the section that would have prohibited NASA from spending money on developing ARM. Instead it requires NASA to submit more details about the mission. Whether or not ARM is essential to sending people to Mars is a matter of opinion. NASA asserts that ARM is essential to that goal because it will take place in cis-lunar space (between the Earth and Moon), a "proving ground" that is close enough to Earth for astronauts to return in an emergency.
Edwards agreed that Mars is the goal, but her take on the legislation is that it gives NASA the responsibility for "deciding the pathway forward" to get there. The common denominator is that both Palazzo and Edwards want the exploration roadmap that will define specific capabilities and technologies needed to land people on Mars. NASA is required to submit the plan within 180 days of when the bill become law.
Rohrabacher disagreed with the goal of landing humans on Mars, at least as it is envisioned in the bill. He objected to tying the U.S. government space program so closely to such a goal. He said the odds are that resources will be wasted: "When you try to cross a bridge too far, someone will get soaked" and it will be "the U.S. taxpayer."
Other differences from yesterday's version include the following:
Palazzo says in his statement that the bill seeks to limit U.S. dependence on Russia and "allows NASA to better focus its efforts on once more launching American astronauts on American rockers from American soil." He also said it makes clear that SLS and Orion "are top priorities for Congress and the American people" as is the James Webb Space Telescope.
In a combative hearing today (April 8, 2014) before the House appropriations subcommittee that funds his agency, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden displayed anger and exasperation, but stayed on message – NASA needs full funding for the commercial crew program this year.
In a break with tradition, the annual hearing before the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on NASA’s budget request was not solely focused on the budget. The first hour of today’s three-and-a-half hour hearing was devoted to a report by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) on security at NASA and its field centers. CJS subcommittee chairman Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) essentially told NASA to commission the study last year because of his concerns about the access that foreign nationals, especially Chinese, have to NASA facilities.
The NAPA committee was chaired by former Attorney General and former Pennsylvania Governor Richard Thornburgh. It issued 27 recommendations and, as Thornburgh testified today, NASA agrees with and is implementing all of them. Nevertheless, Wolf and other subcommittee members used the opportunity to criticize NASA, especially its decision to categorize the report as “Sensitive but Unclassified” (SBU) so that it cannot be made public. Only a short summary is in the public domain.
Subcommittee member John Culberson (R-TX), rumored to be in line to take over chairmanship of the subcommittee after Wolf retires at the end of the year, charged that NASA gave it an SBU classification because it was “embarrassing.”
When it was Bolden’s turn to testify, he denied that characterization. He insisted the report revealed potential vulnerabilities at NASA that he did not want made public. Wolf called the SBU classification a “blunt instrument” and wondered why NASA could not have redacted potentially damaging information and released the rest of the report. It was a bruising exchange and Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) made it a point to elaborate on Bolden’s decades of public service as a military pilot, astronaut, and U.S. Marine Corps Major General to make it clear that Bolden is committed to protecting the nation’s security.
The next two-and-a-half hours were no less confrontational, however. Many, many topics were covered, but by far the most contentious was debate over NASA’s commercial crew program. Bolden is laser focused on convincing Congress to fund the full $848 million request for commercial crew this year. The debate has special significance now because of the tense geopolitical relationship between the United States and Russia. While the International Space Station (ISS) is not affected by last week’s Administration policy decision to limit U.S.-Russian interactions – the ISS is specifically exempted – NASA is using the situation to drive home the need for American systems to take American astronauts to and from the ISS so NASA is not dependent on Russia.
Bolden stated his understanding of how much money Congress has approved for commercial crew in the past several years compared to the request. Wolf had different numbers and challenged Bolden’s account. The two threw down the gauntlet to each other to meet, with their staffs, to sort out whose numbers are correct, but the exchange became quite personal.
Wolf accused Bolden of misleading people about Congress’s support for commercial crew. At that point – after the hour of listening to criticism of how NASA handles foreign access to its centers and now hearing Wolf accuse him of misleading people – Bolden clearly had had enough. “I’m tired of having my integrity impugned,” he exclaimed. Though the discussion briefly moved on to another topic, Bolden was still smarting. After answering an unrelated question about the James Webb Space Telescope he said “If someone’s going to call me a liar, I take that personally.”
Wolf replied that no one had called Bolden a liar. After a few more minutes of unrelated discussion, Bolden apologized for losing his temper. [UPDATE: At a hearing the next day with Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, Wolf also swore her in while assuring her that his decision to do so had nothing to do with her or her Department. Instead he referenced this hearing, saying that "maybe everything wasn't as accurate as was said... I think it's important that there be integrity when people come up; they just tell ... the truth. .... I'm going to send members information so you can see what I'm talking about and that's why we swear people in...."]
Throughout it all, however, Bolden kept his eye on the ball – insisting on the need for full funding of the request for commercial crew to reduce U.S. dependence on Russia.
Some of the other substantive topics of discussion included the following.
It was a rancorous hearing, but Culberson insisted to Bolden that “you’ve got no better group of friends up here than this subcommittee.” That may well be true – NASA is quite popular on Capitol Hill – but it was not all that obvious today.
Note: This article was updated with Wolf's comments at the hearing with Department of Commerce Secretary Pritzker on April 9, 2014.
A copy of the 2014 NASA authorization bill, H.R. 4412, that will be marked up by the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee tomorrow is posted on the committee's website. From a policy perspective, there seem to be only minor changes from the version approved by the committee last year, but a major sticking point -- funding levels -- seems to be resolved.
Last year's bill was approved by the committee on a party line vote (11-9) on July 10, 2013. The most contentious issue was the funding level in the bill -- $16.865 billion for FY2014 compared to the $18.1 billion recommended in a Democratic alternative introduced by Rep. Donna Edwards. NASA's earth science program was particularly targeted for cuts -- about one-third of its request. The committee's recommendations by budget line item are summarized in our fact sheet on NASA's FY2014 budget request.
Funding recommendations are not likely to be an issue In the new bill. It recommends funding for only one year, FY2014, which is already in progress and the funding levels are identical to appropriated amounts. The only difference is that the authorization bill specifies how much of the funding in the Space Operations account is for the International Space Station (ISS) program -- $2.984 billion. The Consolidated Appropriations Act that includes NASA's FY2014 funding did not break down how the $3.778 billion for Space Operations should be allocated.
This is not a comprehensive analysis, but a quick glance reveals only minor differences from a policy perspective.
Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) vowed today that she will “work her earrings off” for NASA. As for President Obama’s “spartan” FY2015 NASA budget request, she said “it was well intentioned, but I consider it advisory” and will try to get the agency at least as much as it got for FY2014.
Speaking to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable, Mikulski exuded enthusiasm for NASA, as well as NOAA, the civilian space program overall, and innovation and discovery generally. Maryland is home to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, NOAA headquarters, other government science agencies like the National Institutes of Health, and many aerospace businesses, large and small.
She made clear that her interests in science and technology are broad and she wants to promote “an innovation budget, a discovery budget, in space science, in life science, in energy science and in green science, I want America to lead the way.”
As for NASA, she noted that the President’s request for FY2015 is less than the FY2014 appropriations and advised the audience: “don’t panic, help and hope is on the way.” “My goal for NASA is to make sure we’re at least at the 2014 level and if we can find more money I will take you above that.” The President is requesting $17.461 billion for FY2015, $186 million less than the FY2014 appropriation of $17.647 billion.
She singled out a few programs for special mention – including the James Webb Space Telescope, satellite servicing, extension of International Space Station operations to 2024, and launches of cargo missions to ISS from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia just over the border with Maryland – but her passion was boundless.
She had two strong messages – one for the space community and one for Congress.
The space community needs to “tell the story about what great work you do” so the public will be the ones saying these are the agencies that need to be funded. From advances in mammography to creating an astronomy book in Braille so blind children can learn about the universe, she extolled the virtues of investing in NASA for down-to-Earth benefits.
Regarding Congress, she repeated that the key is to “change the tone to change the tide.” She wants civility restored to the process, with negotiations taking place “between each other and not in the press." She cited the work she and her Republican ranking member, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), did with their House counterparts in December and January in reaching agreement on the FY2014 Consolidated Appropriations bill as an example of success.
That bill was signed into law on January 17, 2014, three and a half months into the fiscal year. She has an “ambitious” goal to do better for FY2015 – to complete all 12 regular appropriations bills before FY2015 begins on October 1. She added that 1996 is the last time the appropriations process was completed on schedule. For this year: “No lame duck session,” she exclaimed.
She ended by telling the audience of government, industry, academic, and non-profit aerospace professionals that “I am so proud of you.”