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Commercial Space News

IAC2014 Day Three: Stratolaunch and Sierra Nevada Courting on Dream Chaser

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Oct-2014 (Updated: 02-Oct-2014 12:50 AM)

One of the highlights at today’s (October 1) International Astronautical Congress (IAC2014) was a presentation by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) and Vulcan Inc., Paul Allen’s investment group that is funding the development of Stratolaunch.  The two companies are discussing a potential partnership wherein Stratolaunch would be used to launch a 75 percent version of Dream Chaser into low Earth orbit (LEO).

Vulcan oversees Paul Allen’s financial interests, ranging from the Seattle Seahawks to real estate to philanthropy to Allen’s “pet thing” – space exploration, according to Chuck Beames, who briefed an IAC2014 crowd along with SNC’s Mark Sirangleo.  Beames heads Vulcan Aerospace, a Vulcan division, and is Executive Director of Stratolaunch.  He joined Vulcan earlier this year after serving as principal director, space and intelligence, to the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics and overseeing the acquisition restructuring of the Global Positioning System (GPS).

Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, is perhaps best known in the space business as the financial backer of  Scaled Composite’s SpaceShipOne design, which won the Ansari X-Prize in 2004.  One of Allen’s current projects is Stratolaunch, an aircraft that would serve as a launch platform for a three-stage rocket, Thunderbolt, to send people or cargo into suborbital or orbital spaceflight.  As Beames described it, Stratolaunch, with a 385 foot wingspan, can launch 13,500 pounds into low Earth orbit (LEO).  The plane is expected to have its first flight in 2016 with a demonstration space launch in 2018.

A Stratolaunch-Dream Chaser system envisions using Stratolaunch to launch a 75 percent version of Dream Chaser into space with cargo or two-three crew.  It could launch and return to the launch site within 24 hours in a “responsive space” mode.  It could take off from anywhere in the world and deliver cargo or people to any inclination orbit and, with its cross-range capability, land anywhere there is a runway that can handle a 747 or A320 aircraft.

SNC has a strong presence here at IAC2014, with company officials, including Sirangleo, stressing the company's 26-year history in the space business and Dream Chaser's origin as a NASA design for returning crews from the International Space Station (ISS).  NASA's program, HL-20, was cancelled and SNC picked it up.  SNC is one of the three companies supported by NASA in the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) phase of the commercial crew program, but recently lost out to Boeing and SpaceX on the final phase, Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP).  SNC is protesting that decision.

Beames said taking crews or cargo to the ISS is only one possibility and that as a former "Air Force guy" he is “excited” about the military possibilities of such a capability.  In a later interview, he offered the example of launching smaller versions of GPS to reconstitute the GPS constellation on an as-needed basis. 

Beames stressed that no final decision has been made on the partnership and the next step is to "mature the architecture." 


Commercial Space Dominates IAC2014 Day Two

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Sep-2014 (Updated: 01-Oct-2014 12:06 AM)

Day 2 of the 2014 International Astronautical Congress (IAC2014) kicked off with a plenary session on commercial space followed by a technical session on the same topic.  Both played to packed houses, a change from the past where commercial space sessions were often among the most lightly attended.   Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) was particularly in the limelight, with technical papers and press events highlighting Dream Chaser’s versatility and a range of partnerships including a new “Global Project” to globalize Dream Chaser’s business base.

SNC is protesting its loss of NASA’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contracts and NASA and SNC officials are fervently avoiding answering any questions about CCtCAP.  (NASA officials would not even answer a generic question about whether the 2-6 operational flights in the contracts assume that International Space Station operations will be extended to 2024.)

However, SNC is also participating in the current Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) phase.  Following SNC’s Global Project press conference, John Olson, SNC Vice President of Space Systems, said that the company is “marching forward” to meet its two remaining CCiCAP milestones and Dream Chaser’s first launch (without a crew) aboard an Atlas V remains on schedule for November 2016.   However, the company is awaiting “further dialogue and discourse” with NASA to see if the agency has additional guidance it wants to provide on CCiCAP.

Global Project is an “opportunity to change the world,” enthused SNC’s Cassie Lee by offering Dream Chaser as a “turnkey” system to countries around the world for crewed or uncrewed customized flights.   Dream Chaser is “launch vehicle agnostic” she stressed and while the company has been working with Atlas V for many years, it can be launched from other rockets and land in other places in the world.   She provided no details on cost – it is “not a price per seat or price per pound” she said – or what other launch vehicles are capable of launching it, but Olson explained later that it could be launched by Delta IV, Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy in the United States, or by SNC’s European or Japanese partners using Ariane V (ES or ME), possibly Ariane 6, or H-IIB.   Dream Chaser can also land in other countries, Lee said, and is easy to return to a launch site via flatbed truck or cargo aircraft since Dream Chaser is only 30 feet long and the wings and rudder are removable.

Later in the day SNC announced another new initiative with Stratolaunch that involves a “scaled version” of Dream Chaser integrated with a Stratolaunch air launch system.  More details will be announced here at IAC2014 tomorrow.

Meanwhile, although visa problems prevented China and Russia from participating in yesterday’s Heads of Agencies panels, there is some representation from both countries here.   China’s space agency has a substantial presence in the exhibit hall (by contrast, NASA does not have an exhibit there at all) and at least one Russian, Alexander Derechin, presented his paper on Russia’s space tourism activities. He noted that Sarah Brightman will begin training for her mission next year.  When asked if any wealthy Russians are on the list of future space tourists, he said he had approached four individuals, but there were no takers yet.

The IAC is a dizzying array of parallel sessions throughout each day on technical, policy and legal space issues.  Many papers with Russian and Chinese authors are listed in the program and it is not possible to be in every session to keep score of who actually came to Toronto, but it can be said that Russia and China were not completely excluded from the conference.

Among today’s other tidbits are the following:

  • Frank Culbertson of Orbital Sciences Corporation talked about the ability of Orbital’s Cygnus spacecraft, now used for cargo flights to the ISS, to accommodate four people for 60 days when berthed to Lockheed Martin’s Orion spacecraft, and the possibility of Cygnus serving as a “destination” for Orion in cis-lunar space.  He also said, in response to a question, that the financial investment in Cygnus was two-thirds Orbital and one-third government.
  • SNC and Lockheed Martin gave a joint presentation about how exploration and commercial crew are “natural partners” and how the two companies are teaming together.
  • The session on Humans to Mars (the only other Standing Room Only event we encountered) included a paper from MIT on its simulation of a one-way Mars trip based on the Mars One concept that concluded “crew fatality” after 68 days due to suffocation from low levels of oxygen.
  • SpaceX said that the 20 “moustronauts” delivered to ISS on SpaceX CRS-4 are alive and well.


IAC2014 Day One: Camraderie, But Where Were Russia and China?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Sep-2014 (Updated: 29-Sep-2014 07:02 PM)

The 2014 International Astronautical Congress (IAC2014) kicked off in Toronto, Canada today (September 29).  The highlight was a panel of space agency heads from around the world, but the biggest space policy news was the absence of representatives from China and Russia.

The printed program included Xu Dazhe, Administrator of the China National Space Administration, and Denis Lyskov, Deputy Head of Russia’s Roscosmos (representing Roscosmos Head Oleg Ostapenko) as participants in a “Heads of Agencies” panel discussion this afternoon.   Instead, the panel included representatives only of the U.S., European, Japanese, Canadian, Indian and Mexican space agencies.

When asked how the panel could discuss international cooperation when two of the major space nations were missing, moderator Berndt Feuerbacher, a past president of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), emphasized that it was not what organizers had planned.   Both countries were unable to attend because of visa problems, he indicated.  During a later press conference, Walter Natynczyk, President of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), said he had no details on the nature of the visa problems.   He only learned about it 48 hours in advance, he added, and was not provided with any details from Canada’s foreign ministry, which handles such matters.

IAF is one of the three organizations that sponsors the annual IAC, which also includes the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) and the International Institute of Space Law (IISL).  The IAF, IAA and IISL presidents jointly proclaimed the beginning of IAC2014 after a two-hour opening ceremony that included three Canadian government astronauts and Cirque du Soleil performers.  Cirque du Soleil is a Canadian company whose founder, Guy Laliberté, is Canada’s first “spaceflight participant” or space tourist.  He flew to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2009 and is jokingly referred to as the “first clown in space” for wearing a clown’s nose during portions of the mission.  He appeared in a pre-recorded interview.  Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield, now retired, who rose to fame due to his social media outreach and rendition of David Bowie’s Space Oddity while aboard the ISS, rallied the troops at the end of the morning event.

During a press conference following the afternoon “Heads of Agencies” panel session, reporters attempted to elicit information from NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden on Sierra Nevada’s protest of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contract and whether the protest could affect work by Boeing and SpaceX, the two companies selected for the contract.  Bolden answered firmly that he was not allowed to comment while the protest is underway.

A few news tidbits did emerge from the panel discussion and press conference.   Noaki Okumura, President of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), said in response to a question that the Japanese government will not decide until 2016 whether to agree with NASA’s proposal to extend the life of the ISS to 2024.   CSA’s Natynczyk said the Canadian government has agreed to funding through 2020.  CSA’s focus now is to maximize life sciences research on ISS and will examine the value proposition of that research before asking the government for an extension.   Jean-Jacques Dordain, Director General of the European Space Agency (ESA), said that ESA is still deciding on NASA’s previous request to extend operations to 2020, a topic that will be on the agenda of ESA’s December 2014 ministerial meeting.  Only once that decision is formally made by ESA’s member states will it consider the new request.

Also on the agenda of ESA’s December ministerial meeting is what new launcher ESA should build.  Dordain stressed that, in his opinion, ESA needs a family of launchers, but exactly what ESA will do is a decision to be made by the member states, not by him.  When asked whether the decisions on extending ISS and on a new launcher might conflict, with the ministers choosing one or the other, Dordain said no, they are not in competition with each other.    It is not an a la carte menu, he joked, but “cheese AND dessert.”

Dordain indicated that ESA cooperation with Russia has not been impacted by sanctions imposed on Russia by European countries because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.  Bolden added that ISS demonstrates that countries can cooperate together in space even when geopolitical tensions on Earth flare.

Bolden was asked about recent comments by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin that Russia is planning to spend $8 billion on ISS through 2025 and whether that is a signal that Russia is, in fact, committed to extending ISS.  Bolden replied that 2025 is the end of their budget cycle and a budget request for that cycle has been submitted to Russia’s Duma.  That is all.   “You shouldn’t read too much into it,” he cautioned.

K. Radhakrishnan, Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), was awarded the IAF’s prestigious Allan D. Emil Award at the opening ceremony this morning, and received accolades during the panel session for ISRO’s successful Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), which entered orbit around Mars last week.  Four of MOM’s five scientific instruments already have been switched on, he said, and images are being returned from MOM’s camera.  Radhakrishnan spoke of the broad array of space activities ISRO is planning for the remainder of the decade, including space science, but India’s main focus continues to be space applications including navigation and communications.

Francisco Javier Mendieta Jimenéz, Director General of the recently established Mexican Space Agency, spoke enthusiastically about Mexico’s plans in space, which will focus in the near term on earth observation for disaster management.  Stressing that Mexico is an emerging economy, he explained that three crucial elements of the Mexican space program will be technology transfer, training, and capacity building.   Mexico will host the 2016 IAC.

What's Happening in Space Policy September 29-October 10, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Sep-2014 (Updated: 28-Sep-2014 05:26 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the next TWO weeks and any insight we can offer about them.   Congress returns on November 12.

During the Week

We are here in Toronto to cover the annual International Astronautical Congress, the joint meetings of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), and International Institute of Space Law (IISL).  As always, it promises to be fascinating ... and overwhelming.  So many sessions, so little time.  It'll be quite a challenge to choose the "best" sessions to cover, but we'll do what we can.

If you're not here and are back in Washington, DC, be sure not to miss Adam Steltzner's lecture at the National Academy of Sciences on Tuesday afternoon.  He is the winner of the first Yvonne C. Brilll Lectureship in Aerospace Engineering.  The lecture was created by AIAA and the National Academy of Engineering in honor of Brill, a distinguished aerospace engineer who passed way last year.

Lots more going on.  Our list of what we know about as of Sunday afternoon follows. 

Monday, September 29

Monday-Friday, September 29-October 3

Tuesday, September 30

Saturday-Friday, October 4-10, 2014

Tuesday, October 7

Tuesday-Thursday, October 7-9

Tuesday-Friday, October 7-10

Thursday, October 9


Sierra Nevada Protests NASA's CCtCAP Awards

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Sep-2014 (Updated: 26-Sep-2014 07:36 PM)

This story has been updated throughout.

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) has filed a protest over NASA's award of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contracts to Boeing and SpaceX last week.  Noting that this is the first time it has filed a legal challenge to a government contract award in its 51-year history, the company said in this case there are "serious questions and inconsistencies in the source selection process."

In a press release issued late this afternoon, SNC said that with the awards to Boeing and SpaceX, the government "would spend up to $900 million more ... for a space program equivalent to what SNC proposed."   NASA's CCtCAP solicitation "prioritized price as the primary evaluation criteria ... setting it equal to the combined value of the other two primary evaluation criteria: mission suitability and past performance" and its Dream Chaser was the "second lowest priced proposal," SNC continues.   Asserting that its design provides "a wider range of capabilities and value including preserving the heritage of the space shuttle program," it believes that a  "thorough review of the award decision" is needed.

NASA has been supporting Sierra Nevada, Boeing and SpaceX under the current phase of the commercial crew program, called Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP).   Last week's CCtCAP decision is intended to begin the final phase of the program whose goal is to develop a U.S. capability to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) beginning around 2017.   NASA has not been able to launch people into space since the space shuttle was terminated in 2011 and currently pays Russia for such services.   The commercial crew program is a public-private partnership where the government and the private sector share the development costs and the government provides a market for the resulting services.

NASA was not expected to be able to support all three of its current partners into the CCtCAP phase.  The agency has not revealed how many bids there were, but obviously there were at least those three.  NASA awarded a total of $6.8 billion for CCtCAP:  $4.2 billion to Boeing and $2.6 billion to SpaceX.

Sierra Nevada's design is the only winged vehicle.  The Boeing and SpaceX designs both are capsules.

The possibility that SNC might file a protest was first reported by Frank Morring at Aviation Week & Space Technology yesterday.  Today was the deadline for filing a protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO).   James Dean at Florida Today seemed to be first on Twitter (@flatoday_jdean) to break the story today, about 3 hours ago, that the protest had in fact been filed.

Note:  this story was updated about 10 minutes after it was originally published when Sierra Nevada issued its press release.

Sierra Nevada CCtCAP Loss Means Layoffs, But Dream Chaser Will Continue

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Sep-2014 (Updated: 25-Sep-2014 10:53 AM)

Sierra Nevada Corporation's (SNC's) Space Systems division laid off about 10 percent of its Dream Chaser workforce after losing NASA's Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contract last week, but is not abandoning the program.

The Denver Post reported yesterday that Mark Sirangelo, Corporate Vice President of SNC Space Systems, confirmed that 90 employees were laid off from the Dream Chaser program, representing about 9.4 percent of its workforce.  The newspaper added that Sirangelo said the Dream Chaser program "will continue and Space Systems intends to bid on upcoming NASA contracts."  SNC Space Systems is based in Louisville, CO, just outside Denver.

NASA announced on September 16 that Boeing and SpaceX were the two winners of CCtCAP contracts.  The agency declines to say what other companies bid for the contract until it has debriefed those who lost, but it was widely expected that Sierra Nevada was one of them.  It is already a partner with NASA on the commercial crew program as one of three companies (along with Boeing and SpaceX) funded in the current phase -- Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP).

In May, NASA and Sierra Nevada agreed to extend their existing CCiCAP agreement to March 2015, so the company will continue to be a NASA partner until then.  The CCiCAP awards were made in 2012.  At that time, NASA chose "2 1/2" companies to support:  Boeing and SpaceX were the "2" that received the full amount they requested, while Sierra Nevada was the "1/2," receiving half its request.  

The commercial crew program is a public-private partnership with the goal of developing a U.S. capability to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).  The United States has not been able to launch people into space since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.  NASA and the private sector share the development costs and NASA guarantees a market, albeit limited, for the resulting services.  

How many companies NASA should support has been a matter of much debate.  NASA insists that it wants at least two competitors to keep prices down in the long term, while Congress has been reluctant to provide the funded needed to support more than one company during the development process.  The decision to fund 2 1/2 companies during the CCiCAP phase was the result of an agreement between NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and the chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA).  NASA's choice of two companies for the CCtCAP phase reflects its position but is, of course, subject to congressional approval.

What's Happening in Space Policy September 21-October 3, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Sep-2014 (Updated: 21-Sep-2014 02:04 PM)

Here is our list of events for the next TWO weeks, September 21-October 3, 2014, starting with MAVEN's arrival at Mars tonight (Sunday).   Congress is in recess until November 12.

During the Weeks

Mars will get two new visitors this week.  NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission is due to enter orbit around Mars tonight, September 21, at 9:37 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).   Signal travel time between Mars and Earth means that NASA won't know certain that everything went smoothly until 9:50 pm EDT.   NASA TV coverage begins at 9:30 pm EDT.  

On Tuesday evening (Wednesday morning local time in India), India's first mission to Mars, Mars Orbiting Mission (MOM), will join MAVEN and three other U.S. and European spacecraft orbiting Mars.   MOM is scheduled to fire its engine to enter orbit at 07:17 Indian Standard Time on Wednesday (9:47 pm Tuesday EDT).  The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has not announced its plans for live coverage. Check the ISRO website for up to date information.

Back here in Earth orbit, SpaceX's CRS-4 cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS), with its cargo of mice, fruit flies, spacesuit batteries, a 3D printer and many other supplies and scientific experiments, will arrive at the ISS on Tuesday morning at 7:04 am ET.  Two days later three new ISS crew members will launch to and dock with the ISS on Soyuz TMA-14M.

Meanwhile, here on terra firma, there are many interesting events on the schedule.  John Logsdon will provide an update on his research for his upcoming book Richard Nixon and the American Space Program at 4:00 pm EDT on Monday at the National Air and Space Museum.  The event is free, but you MUST register in advance in order to access the museum's office area.  Later on Monday (8:00 pm EDT), the Secure World Foundation and The Space Show will host a webinar on Satellites and Disaster Management.  The NASA Advisory Council's heliophysics subcommittee meets on Tuesday and Wednesday at NASA Headquarters, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Frank Rose will talk to the AIAA National Capital Section in Arlington, VA on Thursday.

Quite a full week, as many in the space community also get ready to head to Toronto for the annual International Astronautical Congress (IAC) next week.  It officially runs from September 29-October 3, but there are a number of associated meetings in the days preceding the conference beginning on September 25.

For those not traveling to Toronto, there are two very interesting events in the Washington, DC area that week.  On Monday, September 29, Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) will talk to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable in Greenbelt, MD.

On Tuesday afternoon (September 30), the inaugural Yvonne C. Brill Lectureship in Aerospace Engineering will be presented at the National Academy of Sciences building in Washington (the one on the Mall, not on 5th Street).  This first Brill Lectureship, created in honor of the distinguished aerospace engineer Yvonne Brill, was awarded to Adam Steltzner of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Steltzer led the entry, descent and landing team for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover.  Steltzer's lecture will be on "Engineering and the Mars Entry Descent and Landing (EDL) System."

Here is the list of the events we know about as of Sunday afternoon, September 21, for the two-week period through October 3, 2014.

Sunday, September 21

Monday, September 22

Tuesday, September 23

Tuesday-Wednesday, September 23-24

Thursday, September 25

Thursday-Sunday, September 25-28

Monday-Friday, September 29-October 3

Monday, September 29

Tuesday, September 30

Texas Launch Site Groundbreaking Caps Busy Week for SpaceX

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Sep-2014 (Updated: 21-Sep-2014 02:08 AM)

SpaceX will break ground for its new launch site near Brownsville, TX on Monday, September 22, 2014.  It will cap quite a busy week-long period for the entrepreneurial space launch company that started with winning a CCtCAP award from NASA and, hopefully, launching a cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) this weekend.

On Tuesday, NASA awarded SpaceX one of two Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contracts (Boeing got the other).  The $2.6 billion contract is for SpaceX to complete development of its Dragon V2 spacecraft for taking astronauts to and from the ISS, fly a demonstration mission, and up to six missions thereafter.  NASA’s goal is to have SpaceX and/or Boeing commercial crew vehicles operational by 2017.  Boeing received a $4.2 billion award.

Right now, SpaceX is waiting for the weather to cooperate at Cape Canaveral, FL for the launch of its fourth operational “commercial cargo” to the ISS, Commercial Resupply Services (CRS)-4.  The SpaceX CRS-4 cargo mission was supposed to launch early this morning, but was postponed to early tomorrow morning (September 21, 1:52 am ET) because of bad weather.  The forecast is only 40 percent favorable for launch tomorrow morning.   If it is delayed again, the next opportunity is on September 23.

Both the commercial crew and commercial cargo programs are essentially public-private partnerships where NASA and the private sector each provide funding for development (instead of the government providing all of the funds), with the government serving as a market for the resulting services.  SpaceX competes with Orbital Sciences Corporation for the commercial cargo launches.  Its competition for commercial crew will be Boeing and perhaps other companies that are willing to proceed without government funds in the hope that the market for taking people to and from space is larger than just NASA.

Meanwhile on September 22, SpaceX will break ground near Boca Chica Beach, TX, close to Brownsville, for an orbital launch facility which it hopes will be completed by 2016.  The FAA approved SpaceX’s application to conduct launches from the site in July.  The license allows up to 12 commercial launch operations per year of the Falcon 9 and prospective SpaceX rockets including Falcon Heavy and “a variety of reusable suborbital vehicles.” The launch site is on 68.9 acres of land just three miles north of the U.S./Mexico border.   Space launches from there can travel out over the Gulf of Mexico, avoiding overflight of land during the early stages of launch just like the other U.S. orbital sites in Virginia (Wallops Island), Florida (Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and NASA's adjacent Kennedy Space Center), California (Vandenberg Air Force Base) and Alaska (Kodiak).  By having its own launch site, SpaceX will have more flexibility in launch dates by not having to coordinate with other users.  SpaceX currently launches from Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg.  It will continue to use those facilities when necessary and its commercial crew flights will launch from Pad 39A at KSC, which SpaceX is leasing from NASA.

Note:  SpaceX CRS-4 was successfully launched at 1:52 am EDT, September 21, 2014.

SpaceX, NASA, Mice Ready for Early Morning Launch, But Is Mother Nature? - UPDATE2

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Sep-2014 (Updated: 21-Sep-2014 02:03 AM)

UPDATE 2: September 21, 2014.  SpaceX CRS-4 was successfully launched at 1:52 am EDT today.

UPDATE:  September 20, 2014.   The launch was scrubbed due to weather just after 1:30 pm EDT.  It had deteriorated to only 10 percent favorable.  The next opportunity is 1:52 am Sunday, September 21, when the weather is only 40 percent favorable for launch.  If it does not go then, September 23 is the next chance.

ORIGINAL STORY, September 19, 2014: NASA and SpaceX are getting ready for the launch of the SpaceX CRS-4 cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) at 2:14 am Eastern Daylight Time Saturday morning, about 8 hours from now, but the forecast is for just a 50 percent chance of favorable weather.  If the launch is postponed to Sunday, the weather chances improve to 70 percent.

This is SpaceX's fourth operational cargo mission to the ISS and the first to carry mammals -- 20 mice.  The mice, jokingly referred to as "moustronauts," are in their own enclosure with a dedicated life support system. 

The "Rodent Research-1" experiment is joint between NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), an organization established by NASA to facilitate non-NASA use of ISS.  Ten of the mice are for NASA and 10 are for CASIS.  The main objective of this flight is to validate the hardware for subsequent rodent flights.   The mice will be transferred by the ISS crew to an ISS EXPRESS rack inside the ISS after SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft docks.  According to a NASA fact sheet, the mice will be euthanized after about 30 days while still on the ISS, frozen, and returned to Earth for study on a subsequent SpaceX flight.  Future rodent missions will be for increasingly longer durations to study the effects of spaceflight on mammals.

These are not the first rodents in space or the first on the ISS.  NASA flew rats and mice on 27 space shuttle missions, but the advantage of the ISS is that the experiments can run for a longer period of time.  Mice already have been on ISS as part of a 90-day Italian scientific experiment according to Ruth Globus from NASA's Ames Research Center who spoke at a NASA press conference yesterday.  Russia also has launched a number of robotic biosatellite missions carrying rodents.

The mice are part of a total of 2.5 tons of supplies, experiments and technology demonstrations being delivered by Dragon.   Among the rest of the cargo is NASA's RapidScat, the first of two earth science instruments due to be attached to the exterior of the ISS this year.  It will monitor ocean surface wind speed and direction.  The other, Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS), is scheduled for the next SpaceX cargo flight.

Dragon is also delivering new batteries for the U.S. spacesuits aboard the ISS.  Two U.S. spacewalks planned in August were postponed until the new batteries could be delivered.   Another set of batteries will be delivered by the next ISS crew, scheduled for launch on September 25.  The spacewalks are now scheduled for October.

If the SpaceX CRS-4 launch is delayed beyond Sunday, the next opportunity will be on September 23.  After that, the mission will have to wait until after the September 25 ISS crew launch, probably until September 28.

NASA TV will provide live coverage of the SpaceX CRS-4 launch beginning at 1:00 am EDT.



Senate Passes FY2015 CR

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Sep-2014 (Updated: 18-Sep-2014 07:20 PM)

The Senate just passed the FY2015 Continuing Resolution (CR), funding the government through December 11, 2014 and avoiding a government shutdown.

The House and Senate are still in session at this hour (September 18, 7:00 pm EDT), but are expected to adjourn later today and not return until after the November elections.

The vote on the CR, which also includes a limited authorization for President Obama to take military actions related to defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), was 78-22.  The bill passed the House yesterday and now goes to the President, who is expected to sign it.

The CR funds the government at its FY2014 level of $1.012 trillion.  Government agencies including NASA, NOAA and DOD are funded at their FY2014 levels minus a 0.0544 percent across-the-board reduction to pay for new activities included in the bill that are primarily related to national security, veterans affairs, customs and immigration, and responding to the Ebola crisis.  Two space-related provisions allow funding flexibility for weather satellite programs and extend the authorization for the Export-Import Bank until June 30, 2015.