Subscribe to Email Updates:

Enter your email address:

Commercial Space News

Senate Appropriators Unhappy with NASA FY2016 Budget Request

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Apr-2015 (Updated: 17-Apr-2015 12:52 AM)

Hours after defending the President’s FY2016 budget request before a House subcommittee, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was in front of a Senate subcommittee with the same task – convincing skeptical lawmakers that the request reflects the right priorities for the space agency.  He also used the opportunity to once again urge Senate confirmation of Dava Newman as Deputy Administrator.

Bolden testified before the House subcommittee that authorizes NASA's activities this morning.  This afternoon’s hearing was across Capitol Hill in the Senate and before the appropriations subcommittee that funds the agency.  Authorizing committees set policy and recommend funding levels, but only appropriators have money to spend.

In this case, Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the Hill, authorizers and appropriators alike, expressed dissatisfaction with the choices made in the President’s $18.5 billion budget request for NASA.

The hearing before the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee was comparatively brief, lasting less than an hour.  The four Senators present focused almost entirely on issues affecting their constituents, but the opening statements by subcommittee chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) touched on broader issues.

Shelby said the significant increase in the request compared to FY2015 should have represented balanced funding for NASA priorities, but instead there are significant increases for commercial crew and for space technology, but reductions for science missions and exploration systems development.   His primary interest is the Space Launch System (SLS), being built in his state of Alabama, and he criticized the “20 percent cut” to SLS at a critical phase in its development.  Warning that “a lot of us are troubled” by the request, Shelby said that “requiring development programs to operate with insufficient funding is irresponsible.”  

Later in the hearing Shelby queried Bolden about the commercial crew program.  Shelby is a strong skeptic about that program.  Today he wanted to know why NASA was buying more seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for a period of time when commercial crew systems should be available.  What is worrying NASA about the progress of that program, he asked, that is causing it to buy more Russian seats?  Bolden replied that his concern is that Congress will not provide the needed funding for the program.   Congress historically has not fully funded the commercial crew program and Bolden often reminds Congress that if full funding had been provided, the commercial crew systems would be ready this year.  Instead, there is a two-year slip.  Shelby retorted that NASA wasted resources by supporting too many companies.

Shelby also wanted an update on Russia's commitment to the International Space Station (ISS) and whether it has formally notified NASA that it plans to end its participation in 2024 and remove some of its modules as reported in the press.  Bolden said no, it was quite the opposite.  He met with the new head of the Russian space agency, Igor Komarov, last month and Komarov made it clear that Russia is committed to ISS until 2024 and has no plans to remove any modules.  Bolden added that the other ISS partners had been waiting for Russia to make that commitment and he now expects that they will do so as well.  Bolden firmly said "yes" when Shelby asked if NASA can operate ISS without the Russian segments.

Mikulski was particularly distressed about cuts to Goddard Space Flight Center in her state of Maryland, but more broadly worried that the choices made in the request would undermine the bipartisan agreement on a balanced space program that has been in place for several years.  “I have very deep concerns” about the threat posed to that balanced program, she said in her opening statement, later adding that “I want to make sure our best days aren’t behind us.”

Mikulski was especially concerned about cuts to the satellite servicing development program at Goddard.  Bolden asked if he could talk to her in person later  to explain why he reduced its funding.  The private sector is already working on those technologies, he explained, and for four years he has been trying to determine who the customer for NASA's efforts would be.  "I want to make sure we are not at odds with industry" because his experience is that industry wants NASA to be its customer, not the reverse.  Mikulski also worried about an overall cut of more than $300 million for activities at Goddard, but Bolden assured her that as more programs are assigned to Goddard during the year, more money will accompany them.

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), chairman of the full Appropriations Committee, asked if Bolden thinks Congress and the Administration are working together constructively on the SLS program.  SLS will be tested at Stennis Space Center in Cochran’s state of Mississippi.  Bolden exclaimed that he did not think he has been as effective as he could be and promised to spend more time with the committee explaining what NASA is doing, adding that "I am pleading for the Senate to confirm Dr. Dava Newman as my Deputy because I need the help.”

Cochran later commented that a "robust testing infrastructure" is needed at Stennis to test new rocket engines in the future and then asked "Is there a future?"   Bolden used the opportunity to declare, in reaction to Mikulski's earlier comment, that "our best days are in front of us.  I can promise you that."

Sen. Shelley Capito (R-WV) also attended the hearing, asking questions about the future of NASA's Independent Verification and Validation (IV&V) facility in her state of West Virginia (Bolden assured her of its importance) and diversity in NASA's workforce (Bolden said he was not happy with it and is seeking ways to encourage women and minorities to remain in science and engineering leadership positions).

Several other topics were discussed.  A webcast of the hearing is available on the committee's website.

Bolden Defends ARM, Earth Science, American Preeminence at House Hearing

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Apr-2015 (Updated: 17-Apr-2015 12:54 AM)

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden spent two hours this morning defending the Obama Administration’s FY2016 budget request for the agency before a House subcommittee.  Perhaps the most contentious moment came during a debate between Bolden and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) who was arguing that America has lost its preeminence in human spaceflight.  Bolden forcefully countered that he just returned from the Space Symposium and no one there had such a low opinion of NASA and the United States:  “We are the preeminent leader in the world. Always have been, always will be.”

The exchange took place as part of Brooks’ proposition that the approximately $2 billion NASA spends on earth science should be reallocated to NASA’s other space and aeronautics programs and the earth science activities be transferred to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Bolden strongly defended the earth science component of NASA’s program as part of a balanced portfolio.

Brooks, who represents Marshall Space Flight Center, contended that more money is needed to support human exploration because, since the end of the space shuttle program, America has had to “hitch a ride” with the Russians to the International Space Station (ISS) and thus lost its preeminence.   Bolden’s rejoinder that no one at the Space Symposium would agree with that assessment did not persuade Brooks:  “When Russia is reducing the United States of America to saying if we want to go to the space station we can do it by a trampoline, that’s not the kind of preeminence I’m accustomed to, having seen the Saturn V rocket built … in the 5th congressional district of Alabama.”

Other Republican subcommittee members also argued against NASA’s earth science funding.  The discussion followed the familiar lines expressed by committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and others at least since 2013 that 13 federal agencies are involved in climate change/earth science research, while NASA uniquely is responsible for space exploration.  Therefore NASA should focus on its unique role of exploration and shift earth science to the other agencies.

The hearing on NASA's FY2016 budget request was held before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee today.  Generally speaking, members of both parties criticized the request.

The Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) was one key topic, both in terms of why Bolden is ignoring advice from the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and more broadly about where it fits into the longer term plan for human exploration of Mars.

Bolden was grilled by subcommittee chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) and committee chairman Smith on why he was ignoring NAC’s advice to (1) obtain an independent cost evaluation (ICE) of ARM prior to the Mission Concept Review (which just took place), and (2) modify it so that its primary objective is demonstration of high power solar electric propulsion rather than obtaining a sample of an asteroid, and to send the spacecraft to Mars and back rather than to an asteroid.  Bolden replied that he is not changing ARM’s objectives because he is committed to “constancy of purpose” and will do an ICE now that the Mission Concept Review is completed.  Palazzo warned that "without consensus in the scientific, exploration and international communities, not to mention the people here on Capitol Hill, I think you will be challenged" on ARM.

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) focused on the fact that NASA has not provided a roadmap for the human exploration program and how ARM fits into it.  She argued that the committee needs to know why NASA is choosing various options instead of simply being told what it is going to do without any communications.

Edwards, the top Democrat on the subcommittee, also pressed Bolden on why the budget request cuts funds for programs the Administration knows are congressional priorities, such as the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft, aeronautics, and the Europa mission. “Part of me thinks it’s a game,” she said.    Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the top Democrat on the full committee, asked why NASA was ignoring the advice of the National Research Council (NRC) in its “Pathways” report last year.  The report provided “unambiguous” advice that NASA needs more funding to achieve the goal of sending people to Mars, so “it came as a bit of a shock to me that the very next  budget request” cuts funding for SLS and Orion.  That is “directly counter” to the NRC’s advice and “Congress needs to correct that.”

Bolden insisted it was all a matter of priorities.  He repeated several times that he believes the budget request for SLS and Orion will enable the agency to meet the milestones it has promised. Regarding Europa, he said he knows the planetary science community wants to launch that spacecraft in 2022, but “it can’t be done in that time frame.” In an unrelated exchange later in the hearing, he said he thinks Europa could be launched in 2029, but it was clear he was not committing to that date.

Palazzo and Smith repeated their criticism of NASA’s decision to fund two commercial crew companies instead of one and using SLS/Orion as the redundant capability if it is needed.  The 2010 NASA authorization act requires NASA to design SLS/Orion so it can service the ISS in case the commercial crew concept did not result in viable systems.  Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH) asked if NASA could downselect to just one of the two companies and thereby accelerate when a commercial crew system would be ready.  Bolden said no, and choosing only one company could actually slow the program because that company would become a “monopoly that dictates to me what it can or can’t do.”

Many other topics were discussed (a webcast of the hearing is available on the committee’s website) that covered familiar ground.  The overall thrust was that Republicans and Democrats are unhappy with the budget request because it cuts programs that the Administration knows are congressional priorities and does not lay out a roadmap for human exploration.   Republicans also disagree with the funding for earth science because that should not be a NASA priority.

Bolden testified to the Senate Appropriations Committee's Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee on the FY2016 budget request later in the day.

SpaceX Videos of Attempted Falcon 9 Landing April 14, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Apr-2015 (Updated: 16-Apr-2015 04:49 PM)

SpaceX has been releasing videos of the April 14, 2015 attempt to land a Falcon 9 first stage on its autonomous drone ship "Just Read the Instructions" in the Atlantic Ocean.  Here are links to the three released so far; more will be added to the list if they become available.

The first video was released within about an hour of the attempted landing and shows a rather grainy photo from a chase plane.

The second video, released the next day, is a much better view from the chase plane.

The third video, released April 16, is from a camera on the drone ship itself.

Hint: if the third video looks odd, try opening the link in a different browser.  It does not display well in Firefox on this machine.

Second SpaceX Landing Attempt Fails, But Launch of Dragon is Perfect - UPDATE 2

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Apr-2015 (Updated: 15-Apr-2015 05:53 PM)

SpaceX succeeded in its primary mission today, launching a Dragon cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS).  It was not so fortunate with its secondary objective of landing the Falcon 9 first stage on an autonomous drone ship at sea, however.  This was the company's second attempt at landing on the drone ship and its second failure.  It released photos of the first stage's final moments within an hour of the attempt, video from a chase plane later in the day, and an even better video the next day (see links below).

Like the first time, the first stage did reach the drone ship, but did not survive.   SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk tweeted (@elonmusk) a few minutes after the landing attempt:  "Rocket landed on drone ship, but too hard for survival."

Later he added "looks like Falcon landed fine, but excess lateral velocity caused it to tip over" and released two photos.


SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage approaches landing spot (X) on autonomous drone ship in Atlantic Ocean (top photo)
and is destroyed (bottom photo).   April 14, 2015.  Photos courtesy of SpaceX

Later in the day, SpaceX released video of the landing taken from a chase plane.  Musk tweeted: "Looks like stiction in the biprop throttle valve, resulting in control system phase lag.  Should be easy to fix."  However, that tweet was subsequently deleted.

Most of the chatter on Twitter was positive, congratulating SpaceX since in both cases the stage did, in fact, find its way to the autonomous drone ship even if the landings were unsuccessful. SpaceX has not yet said whether the ship, whimsically named "Just Read the Instructions," sustained any damage.

The landing attempts are part of Musk's goal of building a reusable launch system that would eventually land back at the launch site for refurbishment and reuse. He has made clear that the chances of success in these early stages are anyone's guess, and he plans to keep trying on as many SpaceX launches that meet the necessary criteria as possible (in some cases landing velocities would be too high, for example).

Today's launch at 4:10:40 pm ET was to low Earth orbit, with the Dragon spacecraft now on its way to the ISS with 1,142 pounds of hardware; 1,860 pounds of science experiments; and 1,102 pounds of crew supplies.  Among the supplies is an espresso machine.

This is SpaceX's sixth operational ISS cargo mission for NASA under its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.  The contract calls for SpaceX to deliver 20 tons of cargo to the ISS through the end of 2016 with 12 launches.  The company announced earlier this year that it was awarded three more launches as part of an extension through 2017.

Dragon is scheduled to arrive at ISS on Friday morning where it will be grappled by the ISS robotic arm, Canadarm2, at about 7:00 am ET.  NASA TV will provide live coverage.  Dragon will return to Earth in about 5 weeks, loaded with more than 3,000 pounds of science, hardware, crew supplies and spacewalk tools, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

On April 15, a much better video of the landing attempt was released and posted to YouTube.

Note:  This article was updated on April 14 and 15, adding the links to the videos, Musk's tweet about the "stiction" issue and the fact that he later deleted it.

ULA Introduces Its New Vulcan Rocket That "Changes Everything"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Apr-2015 (Updated: 14-Apr-2015 11:49 AM)

In a breathless exposition of the attributes of his company’s new rocket, United Launch Alliance (ULA) President Tory Bruno promised it “changes everything” about space launch and the future use of space.

Bruno announced the rocket’s name, Vulcan, and details about it and the company's new business strategy at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, CO today.  The name was chosen by over one million participants in a ULA naming contest.  Zeus and GalaxyOne were runners-up.

Bruno laid out a four step plan.  First, ULA will introduce the new Vulcan rocket in 2019.  It basically will be an Atlas V rocket with a Centaur upper stage, but instead of a single Russian RD-180 engine, it will use two Blue Origin BE-4’s.  It will have 20 percent more lift capability than the Atlas V and be less expensive.

Second, ULA will introduce a new upper stage to replace Centaur in 2023.  The Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES) is what will change everything about utilization of space, Bruno said.

Third, ULA will introduce reusability by recovering the Vulcan’s first stage engines.  Instead of trying to recover the entire first stage – as SpaceX is doing with Falcon – ULA will separate the engines from the booster after they have completed their task of sending a payload into space.  Using a hypersonic decelerator, the engines will return Earthward where they will be scooped out of mid-air by helicopters, thereby avoiding immersion in sea water.

The fourth step introduces an era of “distributed lift” in 2024 where various elements of a space facility will be sent into orbit by Vulcan rockets separately and assembled in orbit using the ACES upper stage, which can be restarted many times and move objects from one location to another.  Bruno envisions fuel depots, water depots, and commercial human habitats and the overall commercial utilization of space benefiting from this capability.

ULA’s dramatic plans are stimulated by equally dramatic changes in the U.S. launch services market over the past year.

ULA was created in 2006 by the Air Force, Boeing and Lockheed Martin when the market for launch services was insufficient to support both companies’ rockets –  Delta IV and Atlas V, respectively – but the Air Force wanted to be able to use both of them to ensure its national security satellites could be launched whenever needed.

The ULA launches are very expensive, however, and the Atlas V uses Russian RD-180 engines.   Competition from SpaceX and the deterioration in the U.S.-Russian relationship because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine have changed the landscape.  Congress has made clear that it does not want U.S. national security satellite launches to be dependent on a foreign supplier, and they want the Air Force to embrace competition from “new entrants” like Space X.

The FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act requires the Secretary of Defense to stop using RD-180s for national security launches by 2019, although waivers are possible under certain circumstances.   Bruno reiterated today that the initial version of Vulcan will be ready by 2019, but added that it would be used for commercial launches in the beginning.  He does not anticipate launching for the Air Force until 2022-2023, after the rocket is certified.  The Air Force is asking Congress to amend the law to give it more time to transition from Atlas V with its RD-180s to the new ULA rocket.

Meanwhile, SpaceX expects to be certified to compete with ULA for national security launches this summer.

These events have spurred ULA to rethink its future and Bruno was brought in as President last August.  Today was the unveiling of ULA’s new strategy and new rocket.

ULA’s primary plan is to use two liquid oxygen (LOX)/methane BE-4 engines built by Blue Origin to replace the single RD-180 used in an Atlas V today.   The company has a backup plan with Aerojet Rocketdyne for a traditional LOX-kerosene engine (AR1) in case the BE-4 development encounters problems.  ULA will decide between the two in 12-18 months, Bruno said.

Perhaps the most visionary aspects of ULA’s plans are reusing the Vulcan first stage engines and its plans for the ACES upper stage.

After separating from the first stage, the engines would use an “advanced hypersonic decelerator heat shield” to return towards Earth where they would be snatched out of mid-air by a helicopter and returned to the ULA factory where they would ”plop” into the next booster in line for launch.  Bruno said it would result in a 90 percent reduction in booster propulsion cost.

But it is the ACES upper stage that is the “game changer.”  A ULA graphic used at today’s briefing exclaims “Orbital Capabilities Unleashing Mankind’s Potential in Space.” Bruno listed asteroid mining, building infrastructure for “real and permanent human presence,” including fuel depots, water depots, and commercial human habitats, as examples of what ACES will enable by reusing the cryogenic upper stage’s leftover liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen so it can remain in orbit for weeks, avoiding the "boil off" that limits the lifetime of cryogenic upper stages now.  The ACES Integrated Vehicle Fluids System will utilize the liquid hydrogen and oxygen to repressurize the fuel tanks, generate electrical power, and provide control thrust and attitude thrust.  ULA is working with the Rousch race car company on the advanced internal combustion engine that makes it all possible, so it is "the formula race car of space," Bruno quipped.

With that capability, “We can do anything you can imagine,” he promised.

Bruno also offered “one teaser” – ULA plans something called “FastBuy ReadyLaunch” that will “revolutionize” the way launch services are purchased.  He said the company would provide details about it this summer.

Bruno declined to say how much Vulcan or ACES will cost.   ULA is paying for the development itself, but, as he said at a recent House Armed Services Committee (HASC) hearing, he will not turn down any help the government might want to offer.  ULA will pay for it out of its profits and he acknowledged that ULA’s parent companies – Boeing and Lockheed Martin – essentially are investing in Vulcan by allowing ULA to use the profits this way.

A video of the press conference is posted on YouTube.

What's Happening in Space Policy April 12-17, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Apr-2015 (Updated: 12-Apr-2015 09:42 AM)

This busy week begins today (Sunday), so lace up your running shoes.   Here is our list of upcoming space policy related events for April 12-17, 2015.  The House and Senate return to work from their Easter break tomorrow.

During the Week

Today, April 12, is the 54th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's flight into space aboard Vostok 1, marking the beginning of the human spaceflight era.  It is also the 34th anniversary of the first space shuttle flight (though that is a coincidence, the flight was scheduled for April 10, but postponed by two days at the last minute).  Yuri's Night celebrations will be held in many locations around the globe.  There is a website where you can check to find if there's one in your area and, if not, ideas on how to start one.

Before that, though, are three pre-launch briefings associated with SpaceX's sixth operational cargo launch to the International Space Station (ISS) tomorrow, SpX-6.  The weather forecast is iffy (60 percent chance "go"), but if the launch does take place, SpaceX plans to try again to land the Falcon 9 first stage on its autonomous drone ship whimsically named "Just Read the Instructions."   Today's briefings are at 1:30, 3:30 and 5:00 pm ET.  Tomorrow's launch is at 4:33 pm ET, with a post-launch press conference about 90 minutes later.  All will be broadcast on NASA TV.   All times are subject to change, of course.

Curiously, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) chose the same time as SpaceX's launch to announce "America's Next Rocket" at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs that begins tomorrow and runs through Thursday.  Their event is at 4:00 pm Eastern (2:00 pm local time in Colorado) and will be webcast.   ULA President Tory Bruno will tell the world what name was selected via its recent naming contest and other details of the new "all American" rocket.  ULA currently launches Atlas V and Delta IV.   The debate over the Atlas V's reliance on Russia's RD-180 rocket engines has been discussed on this website for the past year (type "RD-180" in the search box above to find those articles).  This rocket is intended to end U.S. reliance on Russia and be more competitive with, among others, SpaceX.  Perhaps by choosing the same time to make this announcement as the SpaceX launch, ULA is starting the competition -- for attention, at least -- right now.

There likely will be breaking news throughout the week from the Space Symposium, but a lot will be happening elsewhere, too.   On Thursday, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will testify to the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in the morning (note that it is at 9:00 am ET, not 10:00 as usual) and to the Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee in the afternoon (2:30 pm ET) about NASA's FY2016 budget request.  The Senate hearing was postponed from March 5 when a snowstorm shut down DC.

Those and the many other events we know about as of this morning are listed below.

Sunday, April 12

Monday, April 13

Monday-Thursday, April 13-16

Monday-Friday, April 13-17

Monday, April 13 - Friday, April 24

Tuesday, April 14

Thursday, April 16

Bolden: New Roscosmos Head Committed to ISS Through 2024

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Apr-2015 (Updated: 10-Apr-2015 06:36 AM)

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) yesterday (April 9) that the new head of Russia's space agency, Igor Komarov, is committed to the International Space Station (ISS) through 2024.  NAC continues to meet today, where the key topics of discussion are NASA's "Evolvable Mars Campaign" and the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and especially whether ARM should be sent to the Mars moon Phobos instead of an asteroid.

Bolden's comments about Komarov followed a meeting between the two while Bolden was in Russia for the launch of NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and two crew mates, Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka, to ISS two weeks ago.  Kelly and Kornienko will remain aboard the ISS for one year, the first year-long crew for the ISS. 

A report in the Russian press incorrectly stated that Komarov had said he and Bolden agreed to work together to build another space station after ISS.  Bolden did not address that during the NAC meeting, but instead talked about his favorable impression of Komarov, calling him a "forward-looking, positive" individual.  Komarov became head of Roscosmos after another reorganization of the Russian space program earlier this year.

Bolden noted that Komarov has a much larger portfolio than previous Roscosmos directors.  Following the restructuring, not only is Komarov in charge of the Roscosmos space agency, but a new entity that comprises much of Russia's space industry (the United Rocket and Space Corporation) as well as medical and research institutes associated with the space program.

Komarov is committed to utilization of ISS through 2024, Bolden said, and to working with all the space station partners and expanding the number of participants looking at a long term exploration roadmap.   Bolden cautioned, however, that "that was talk, we'll see how it goes."

Komarov is the fourth head of Roscosmos since Bolden became NASA Administrator in 2009.

NAC spent much of yesterday debating the future of NASA's space program, especially the Evolvable Mars Campaign and ARM.   No decisions were made about making findings or recommendations about those activities, although there was robust debate as there has been in several of the past NAC meetings.  NAC chairman Steve Squyres gave "homework assignments" overnight to several of the members to draft language that will be debated today.   The meeting is from 9:00 am - 12:00 pm today at NASA Headquarters and is available by WebEx and telecon.  

One line of discussion late yesterday was whether NAC should recommend that NASA consider sending the ARM robotic spacecraft to Phobos rather than to an asteroid (some argue that Phobos is an asteroid captured by the gravity of Mars, but Sqyures indicated there is debate about that in the scientific community).   Check back here later to learn what they decide to do.

Hyten: No "Fair Competition" If ULA Contract Remains

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Apr-2015 (Updated: 07-Apr-2015 09:59 PM)

Gen. John Hyten, Commander of Air Force Space Command, believes that the government’s cost-plus contract with the United Launch Alliance (ULA) that covers infrastructure and engineering services must be changed if “fair competition” is to be achieved in the national security space launch market.

Testifying to a House Armed Services Committee (HASC) panel on March 25, Hyten said “I don’t think you can have fair competition with that contract in place.  There'll have to be a change.”

Government payments to ULA for launches of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) –Atlas V and Delta IV – have two components:  EELV Launch Services (ELS) and EELV Launch Capabilities (ELC).   ELS is a fixed price contract that covers hardware, while ELC is a cost-plus-incentive-fee contract that pays for infrastructure and engineering support.

Hyten said the ELC contract was created because the U.S. launch industry’s industrial base was in a “fragile” state in the mid-2000s.  The robust commercial launch market that had been forecast to develop did not do so.  At the time, Lockheed Martin and Boeing were competitors, offering the Atlas V and Delta IV, respectively, for both commercial and government launches.  Without sufficient commercial launches, the market was insufficient to support both companies against international competition.

The Air Force needed Atlas and Delta to place its satellites into orbit whenever necessary, so “we created the ELC contract as a way to make sure that even if we didn’t launch, and there were years that we launched very small numbers of satellites, there will still be a healthy industrial base,” Hyten explained.

Times have changed, however, and with the emergence of “new entrants” like SpaceX, the time has come to alter the way the government procures launches, according to Hyten.   Mr. Dyke Weatherington, the Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space, Strategic and Intelligence Systems, agreed.  He said DOD is “modifying and continuing to evolve its space launch capability to take advantage of the competitive launch environment that we see coming in the future.”

SpaceX is awaiting certification from the Air Force to be able to compete with ULA for launches of national security satellites.   After assurances that the certification would be complete by the end of last year, and a subsequent announcement by the Air Force of a delay, there appears to be agreement between the two that SpaceX will be certified by this summer.

The March 25 hearing on national security space issues was before the HASC Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, which held a hearing specifically on space launch issues a week earlier.   Hyten testified at both.  Subcommittee chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) said at the March 25 hearing that he was offering Hyten an opportunity to give his perspectives on the ELC contract because Hyten did not have a chance to do so at the previous hearing.

The March 25 hearing looked broadly at national security space issues and the witnesses were a who’s who of national security space decision-makers.  Topics spanned a broad range of issues, including protecting U.S. satellites from threats by other countries, such as China.   Doug Loverro, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, said that the United States is reacting to the threat posed by China and “making it very clear we have no desire to have a conflict extended to space,” but that the “U.S. will be prepared to defend our space assets.”

A key message repeated by many of the witnesses is that “we can no longer view space as a sanctuary.”   Loverro emphasized that other countries understand U.S. reliance on space assets and “want to take it away from us.  We won’t let them.”   Still, the United States “remains committed to assuring the peaceful use of space by all” because it is a “global good” and a “driver for economic growth, environmental monitoring, verification of treaties and enabler for everyday citizens at home and abroad.”

What's Happening in Space Policy April 6-10, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Apr-2015 (Updated: 05-Apr-2015 03:34 PM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events for the week of April 6-10, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate remain in recess for the Easter holidays; they will return on April 13.

During the Week

The week is dominated by meetings of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and three of its committees.  Perhaps of most interest to readers of this website will be the meetings of the NAC Science and NAC Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) committees, especially their joint sessions in the afternoon of April 7 and morning of April 8, and the meeting of the full NAC on Thursday and Friday.  NAC and its committees cover the entire scope of NASA's activities, but their meetings lately have focused a great deal on the future of the human spaceflight program including the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and the Evolvable Mars Campaign.

While traditionally such topics would have been relegated to the human spaceflight side of the house, a great deal of emphasis in Charlie Bolden's tenure is being placed on getting NASA's science and human exploration communities working together in common purpose, overcoming their traditional animosity towards each other.  Animosity may be too strong of a word. Or not.  It depends on who has the podium. 

One thing for sure is that the message from the presentation to the NAC Planetary Science Subcommittee (PSS) last week by the new NASA Mars exploration program director Jim Watzin is that the future robotic Mars program is being designed to "Inform and enable human mission design" as much as to answer scientific questions.  After the Mars 2020 rover, Watzin said, the next Mars mission will be an orbiter, prompting some subcommittee members to ask: "what happened to sample return?"  It will be interesting to see if that conversation continues at the NAC meetings this week.

Another interesting tidbit that came of the PSS meeting last week is that the "AGs" are no longer part of the NASA advisory process.  Those are "Assessment Groups" or "Analysis Groups" that focus on a specific topic of research interest.  One example is the Venus Exploration Analysis Group (VEXAG) that is meeting near NASA's Langely Research Center this week.   According to NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green, a change in the NAC charter last year left these AGs out of the advisory process, meaning that for these groups of scientists to meet, they must work through NASA's more laborious procedures to hold a conference with consequent potential limitations on attendance, for example.  Green said he has taken the lead for the Science Mission Directorate is working with NASA's lawyers to find out if the change was intentional or an unintended consequence and what it all means for the future of the AGs.  Planetary science is not the only NAC Science subcommittee that uses AGs, but it has the most.

Also of special interest to space policy aficionados is the book signing event on Tuesday evening at George Washington University.  John Logsdon will talk about and sign copies of his new book on President Nixon's role in U.S. space policy and programs.  Nixon, of course, was the President who oversaw the end of the lunar Apollo missions and had to decide the future of the human spaceflight program in that era.  Logsdon's book details how Nixon's decisions still shape the program today.  Logsdon is a very highly regarded authority on space policy and space history -- the "dean" of space policy -- and author of two books on President Kennedy's role in the Apollo program.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below. 

Monday-Wednesday, April 6-8

Tuesday, April 7

Tuesday-Wednesday, April 7-8

Thursday, April 9

Thursday-Friday, April 9-10

NASA Disputes Chronicle Report That NASA Is Reassessing Lunar Surface Plans

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Apr-2015 (Updated: 06-Apr-2015 01:58 PM)

NASA officials are disputing the Houston Chronicle’s April 3 story that NASA is “quietly” reassessing the need for missions to the lunar surface before traveling to Mars.  Chronicle science reporter Eric Berger wrote that “senior NASA engineers” are involved in the reassessment, but NASA officially responded that the agency continues to plan only for operations in cis-lunar space.

Berger’s article quotes NASA Associate Administrator for Human Spaceflight Bill Gerstenmaier discussing the advantages of producing fuel from lunar resources (called in-situ resource utilization or ISRU) to propel astronauts to Mars.  Berger characterizes Gerstenmaier as favoring lunar surface missions, saying he “appears to be steering the agency back toward a program that would more fully utilize the moon” as part of NASA’s "Evolvable Mars Campaign" that lays out the steps to landing humans on the Martian surface.

NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz told via email that Gerstenmaier was only responding to a question from Berger about the possibility of using lunar resources for Mars missions.  “The Evolvable Mars Campaign, which envisions using the lunar vicinity to support a human mission to the Red Planet, is in line with and designed to advance the president’s ambitious space exploration plan.  We’re making great progress on this journey to Mars.  A key element of our plan to get to the Red Planet is employing a stepping stone approach, including living, working and learning in cis-lunar space.”

Cis-lunar is the area between the Earth and the Moon or in lunar orbit.

The statement sidesteps the substance of the Chronicle article – that NASA engineers are reassessing the need for lunar surface missions, but are in a “delicate position” because returning to the lunar surface is not part of President Obama’s plan.

David Weaver (@David Weaver), NASA Associate Administrator for the Office of Communications, and Berger (@chronsciguy) engaged in a Twitter exchange about the article as well.  Weaver said there was “nothing new” about NASA’s plan to use the Moon, but it involves operations in cis-lunar space, not on the surface.  Berger replied “Respectfully disagree; ISRU idea is new and would require a substantial investment of time and money at the Moon.”  [UPDATE: Berger posted more about his story on his blog on April 6.]

The debate over the future of the human spaceflight program remains as intense as ever.  There is widespread agreement among human spaceflight enthusiasts that the long-term goal is sending people to land on Mars.  The argument is over the steps to get there.  The Obama Administration cancelled the Constellation program, initiated by President George W. Bush, to return humans to the lunar surface by 2020 and eventually send them to Mars because it was deemed unaffordable.  President Obama set the United States on a different path that does not require spending money on systems to get astronauts from lunar orbit down to the surface and back or facilities on the Moon itself.  Instead they are to travel to an asteroid as the next step to Mars.   The current plan is called the Asteroid Redirect Mission – ARM -- and involves moving part of an asteroid to cis-lunar space where astronauts will collect a sample and return it to Earth.

ARM has not garnered much support, energizing a long-standing debate over whether lunar surface missions – to mine resources to turn into fuel or to test equipment on an alien surface that is just three days from the safety of Earth before sending it to Mars, at least a 6 month (one-way) journey – are required before committing to human Mars missions.

Just one day prior to the publication of the Chronicle article, The Planetary Society announced the findings of a workshop that argue in favor of sending astronauts to orbit Mars before committing to a landing.  Details of the proposal reviewed at the workshop are not public, but at the April 2 press conference, a list of the steps was read and it includes just one mission to the lunar surface, to test the Mars lander, and does not involve utilization of lunar resources.

The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) Human Exploration and Operations Committee will meet April 7-8 in Washington, DC.  The agenda for April 8  includes an update on ARM at 1:35 pm ET and on the Evolvable Mars Campaign at 2:35 pm ET.   The meeting is open to the public up to the seating capacity of the room.  It also is available virtually via WebEx and telecon.  The full NAC meets on April 9-10.  At their last meeting, they had a very lively discussion about ARM.