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Commercial Space News

Senators Want Continuity for NASA's Exploration Program

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Jul-2016 (Updated: 25-Jul-2016 12:02 AM)

A recent Senate committee hearing focused on how to ensure that the human spaceflight program avoids another dramatic change when a new President takes office next year as it did in 2009. While most of the hearing dealt with maintaining the status quo amid political change, one witness, Mike Gold of SSL, looked more to the future and the need for a synergistic relationship between government and private sector space activities.

The hearing before the Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on July 13 was chaired by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).  This was only the third space hearing he had called since becoming subcommittee chairman last year.  SpacePolicyOnline.com summarized his February 24, 2015 hearing on human spaceflight and commercial space and his March 12, 2015 hearing on NASA's FY2016 budget request.

Joining him were the top Democrat on the subcommittee, Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), the top Democrat on the full committee Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and subcommittee member Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), who introduced Gold, a Montana native.

Peters and Nelson explicitly said they want to pass a new NASA authorization bill before the end of the Congress, and Cruz inferred it by saying that the subcommittee wants to provide NASA with security and stability and he would work with Peters to achieve that.  Nelson made clear that he wants to extend the lifetime of the International Space Station (ISS) to the end of the decade, instead of the current U.S. commitment of 2024.

The last NASA authorization bill was passed in 2010.  Its policy provisions remain in force, but its funding recommendations covered only through FY2013.  The House passed a bipartisan 2015 NASA authorization bill by voice vote in February 2015, but the Senate has not taken it up or introduced an alternative.  (A 2016-2017 NASA authorization act was approved by the House Science, Space, and Technology committee on a party-line vote last year; no further action has occurred.)

One known area of disagreement between Republicans and Democrats is NASA’s earth science program.  Democrats strongly support it while Republicans argue that NASA should focus on exploration and other agencies should be responsible for studying Earth. Time is running short for passing anything other than appropriations bills, but if all parties on both sides of Capitol Hill can reach agreement, it is certainly possible to get a bill passed by the end of the year.

The goal of passing a bill that codifies congressional intent on the future of the human spaceflight program is to try and avoid the disruption that occurred when President Obama cancelled the George W. Bush Administration's Constellation program to return humans to the Moon by 2020 and then go on to Mars.  Cruz wanted to know what lessons were learned from the cancellation of Constellation and the consequences if the current Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion programs were similarly cancelled.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, emphasized that the situation today is quite different because so much progress has been made on SLS and Orion, which are only two years away from their first launch.  Cancelling them would have the same "dire" effect as terminating Constellation.  "There's a passion that sits below us and when you cancel a program ... for seemingly a trivial reason, that is very devastating to our workforce and that can have huge implications to this nation, to our culture, to our psyche, and to our world leadership.”

Constellation was cancelled for complex political and budgetary reasons that few in the space policy community would characterize as trivial, but he may have been expressing his perception of the workforce’s viewpoint.  In any case, he said he hopes the situation is not repeated.

Mary Lynne Dittmar, Executive Director of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, cautioned against the negative consequences of cancelling programs for companies, especially small businesses.  A lack of “constancy of purpose” could “kill small companies,” many of which are members of the Coalition, she said.  Purdue University Professor Dan Dumbacher, a former NASA deputy associate administrator for exploration, similarly called for “continuity of purpose and execution” in order to “avoid loss of momentum.”

Mark Sirangleo, Vice President, Space Systems Group at Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) praised the public-private partnership (PPP) model that NASA is using for the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs.   Although SNC did not win one of the two commercial crew contracts (SpaceX and Boeing were the winners), its Dream Chaser spacecraft did recently win one of three CRS2 commercial cargo contracts (along with SpaceX and Orbital ATK).

Gold, who spent a decade as head of Washington operations for Bigelow Aerospace before moving to SSL earlier this year, went further in his enthusiasm for the PPP model and using it to transform low Earth orbit (LEO).  “The future of LEO remains squarely on the shoulders of the private sector,” he argued, since the government is unlikely to build a replacement for the ISS.   The challenge is to create private sector demand.  He believes the solution is in-orbit satellite manufacturing and satellite servicing.  The geostationary communications satellites industry is worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year, he said, so NASA and the private sector should “follow the money.”  “The primitive days of building a satellite, launching it, and throwing away a piece of hardware worth hundreds of millions of dollars simply because it ran out of fuel is coming to an end.”

When asked if the private sector should be in charge of developing new rockets like SLS instead of the government, he argued that it is not an either-or situation.  There is synergy between the two and SLS is a case in point, opening up “all kinds of opportunities for the private sector” in cis-lunar space, for example.

In the shorter term, keeping SLS and Orion on track during the presidential transition was a major theme for the subcommittee and other witnesses. Gerstenmaier pleaded that Congress avoid “overly specifying requirements” and allow technical experts to determine how best to achieve the goal of moving human presence into the solar system.  Dumbacher quipped that there are two problems to overcome – gravity and red tape – and gravity can be solved.

Gerstenmaier strongly defended the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as an “excellent” way to demonstrate and learn the skills needed to send crews to Mars.

As the hearing concluded, Nelson asked Gerstenmaier what lessons were learned from the Orbital ATK and SpaceX commercial cargo failures in 2014 and 2015 respectively.  Gerstenmaier responded that he learned how quickly the private sector can react and find solutions. Orbital ATK found an alternative launch service provider (United Launch Alliance) to continue launching its Cygnus cargo spacecraft while it solved the problem with the Antares rocket. SpaceX diagnosed the problem with its Falcon 9 rocket and was in a test facility to verify it within two days.  That was “faster than I could have ever done.. …It would have been half a year” to get the contracts and test sequence in place. “I think what we really learned is that the private sector, if we give them the right incentives and we have the contracting structures set up, they can deliver the capabilities that we, at NASA, need in a very effective manner.”

What's Happening in Space Policy July 25-29, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Jul-2016 (Updated: 24-Jul-2016 02:08 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of July 25-29, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in recess until September 6.

During the Week

Nationally, the big event this week is the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.  Not much is expected in the realm of space policy, although former astronaut Mark Kelly will speak on Wednesday.  He will appear with his wife, former Rep. Gabby Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt in 2011.  They have become leaders in the gun control movement and that is expected to be the focus of their presentation, not the space program (but one never knows).   None of the congressional Democrats with leading roles in space policy are on the speakers list as of today (Sunday), although Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) will be there.  He represents the district that includes the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena and is known as a strong supporter of JPL programs, but he no longer serves on the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA.  He moved over to the Intelligence Committee and his comments are more likely to focus on those issues.  The latest version (July 21) of the 51-page Democratic party platform has one paragraph about NASA that expresses pride in what it has accomplished and promises to "strengthen support for NASA and work in partnership with the international scientific community to launch new missions into space."   We didn't see anything about either commercial or national security space activities in the document.

Within the space policy community, the focus this week will be meetings of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and its committees all week.  The meetings are at the Ohio Aerospace Center in Cleveland, but will be available by WebEx and telecon for those who cannot attend in person.  This will be the first NAC meeting since Steve Squyres stepped down as chair.  Former astronaut Ken Bowersox has been appointed the interim chair.  He had been chairing the NAC Human Exploration and Operations (NAC/HEO) Committee and Wayne Hale has been appointed to fill that position.

The NAC/HEO committee meets tomorrow and Tuesday.  Michele Gates, program director for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) is on the schedule for 2:30 pm ET tomorrow (Monday) to give an update on ARM, which just went through one of its milestone reviews -- Key Decision Point-B or KDP-B -- on July 15 to determine whether the project is ready to move into Phase B.  [A description of KDPs and project phases is in the NASA Procedural Requirements (NPR) 7120 document for those keenly interested in NASA program management.]  NASA has not made any announcement about what transpired at the KDP-B review.  We were told nothing would be out until this coming week, so hopefully Gates will provide that information. 

The other NAC committees/task groups meet Monday-Wednesday in advance of the full NAC meeting Thursday and Friday.  Always interesting to listen to if you have the time.

AIAA's Propulsion and Energy Conference is also on tap this week in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Great line-up of sessions and speakers.   Winner for cleverest title in our view is "Launch Vehicle Reusability:  Holy Grail, Chasing Our Tail, or Somewhere in Between?"  The conference will be livestreamed.  Remember that Utah is in the Mountain Daylight Time (MDT) zone, which is two hours behind Eastern Daylight Time (i.e. 9:00 am MDT is 11:00 am EDT).

Those events and others we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for additions to the Events of Interest that we learn about later.   For convenience, we're grouping all the NAC meetings together rather than listing them day-by-day.  They are listed separately in our Events of Interest list.

NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and its subgroups, Monday-Friday, July 25-29, all at Ohio Aerospace Institute, Cleveland, Ohio and available by WebEx/telecon

Other Events

Monday-Tuesday, July 25-26

Monday-Wednesday, July 25-27

Monday-Thursday, July 25-28

Tuesday, July 26

Tuesday-Friday, July 26-29

SpaceX Launches CRS-9 Cargo Mission to ISS, Lands First Stage at CCAFS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Jul-2016 (Updated: 18-Jul-2016 02:01 AM)

SpaceX launched its Commercial Resupply Services-9 (CRS-9) cargo mission to the International Space Station at 12:45 am ET this morning on schedule from launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), FL.  The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket then returned to a successful landing back at a different CCAFS pad about 9 minutes later.  It was the second successful SpaceX landing at CCAFS.

SpaceX CRS-9, or SpX-9, is delivering a Dragon spacecraft with 4,976 pounds (2,257 kilograms) of scientific experiments, supplies and equipment to the ISS. Dragon is scheduled to arrive at ISS on Wednesday morning.

Among the items aboard is an International Docking Adapter (IDA) that will be installed on an ISS port to enable dockings of SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicles in the future. The cargo version of Dragon and Orbital ATK's Cygnus cargo spacecraft berth, rather than dock, with the ISS.  Berthing requires the ISS crew to grapple the spacecraft with the robotic Canadarm2 and install them onto ISS ports. The crew capsules need to be able to dock using their own propulsion and other systems without interaction from the ISS crew. The IDAs help enable that.

This is IDA-2.  IDA-1 was destroyed on the SpX-7 failure in June 2015.   A replacement, IDA-3, is being built and is tentatively scheduled for launch on the SpX-14 mission.

The IDA weighs 1,030 pounds (467 kg).  The other cargo is 2,050 pounds (930 kg) of science experiments, 816 pounds (370 kg) of crew supplies, 617 pounds (280 kg) of vehicle hardware, 280 pounds (127 kg) of spacewalk equipment, 2.2 pounds (1 kg) of computer resources, and 119 pounds (54 lg) of Russian hardware.

After propelling Dragon and the Falcon 9's second stage part of the way to orbit, the first stage turned around, fired boostback, entry, and landing burns, and successfully touched down back at CCAFS about 9 minutes after liftoff.

SpX-9 Falcon 9 first stage moments before touchdown at Landing Zone 1, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.
Snip from SpaceX live coverage, July 18, 2016 ET.

This was only the second landing on land for SpaceX.   Other first stages have landed on drone ships at sea.  During a briefing on July 16, SpaceX's Hans Koenigsmann said that it is easier to land on terra firma because the pad is larger and is not moving.  On the other hand, returning back to the Florida coast requires more fuel.  These landings are secondary objectives -- the primary purpose is launching something into orbit -- and use whatever fuel remains.  Clearly there was enough today.  SpaceX wants to reuse the first stages to reduce launch costs.  Several of the stages have been recovered so far.  Koenigsmann said the one from the SpX-8 mission will be the first to refly, probably this fall, although the company has not finalized arrangements with a customer for that launch.

Dragon will  remain at the ISS until August 29.  It then will return to Earth, landing in the Pacific Ocean.  It is the only one of the four ISS cargo spacecraft (Orbital ATK's Cygnus, Russia's Progress, and Japan's HTV are the others) that can survive reentry.  In this case, it will return more than 3,300 pounds (1,500 kg) of science experiments and hardware.

What's Happening in Space Policy July 17-22, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Jul-2016 (Updated: 17-Jul-2016 02:23 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of July 17-22, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in recess until September 6.

During the Week

The week starts off with a bang -- of rocket engines firing -- to launch the SpaceX CRS-9 cargo mission to the International Space Station at 12:45 am Monday.   Today (Sunday), NASA will hold a briefing on what's aboard the cargo ship at 3:00 pm ET and coverage of the launch begins at 11:30 pm ET.   Watch both on NASA TV.

SpaceX plans to land the Falcon 9 first stage back on a pad at Cape Canaveral a few miles from the launch site. That feat has been done only once before. The other landings were on drone ships out at sea.  The landing burn begins 7 minutes 38 seconds after liftoff (following boostback and entry burns), with landing shortly thereafter.

The bang of a gavel will occur later in the day as the Republicans kick off their presidential convention in Cleveland.  The GOP has released its list of speakers, but it is just a list, not an agenda showing when each will speak.  Perhaps of special interest to readers of this website is that former NASA space shuttle commander Eileen Collins is one of the speakers.   If we learn the day and time, we will post it on our Events of Interest list.

Back-to-back conferences at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California this week will bring together experts interested in the scientific, robotic and human exploration of Phobos and Deimos, the two moons of Mars (Monday-Tuesday), and then a broader group looking at human exploration of those celestial bodies as well as the Moon, Mars, and near-earth asteroids (Wednesday-Friday).  Neither conference website mentions whether webcasts will be available, but such information often is made available only at the last minute.

The 40th anniversary of the landing of NASA's Viking 1 spacecraft on Mars is on Wednesday, July 20.  NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia will celebrate with a history panel on July 19 and a day-long symposium on July 20.  NASA TV will broadcast some of the sessions.

July 20 is also the 47th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. The Space Transportation Association (STA) and the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration will hold a meeting that afternoon where Orbital ATK's Charlie Precourt (a former astronaut) will talk about progress in developing the Space Launch System (SLS).  Orbital ATK is building the solid rocket boosters for SLS and recently completed a successful test firing.

The National Academies' Space Technology Industry, Government, University Roundtable (STIGUR) will meet at the National Academy of Sciences building on Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC on Thursday.   The agenda is not posted yet.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for additions to our Events of Interest list.

Sunday, July 17

Sunday-Monday, July 17-18

  • Launch of SpX-9, Cape Canaveral, FL, 12:45 am ET (NASA TV coverage begins 11:30 pm ET July 17)

Monday-Tuesday

Monday-Thursday, July 18-21

Tuesday-Wednesday, July 19-20

Wednesday, July 20

Wednesday-Thursday, July 20-21

Wednesday-Friday, July 20-22

Thursday, July 21

Congress Departs for the Summer With Much Work Undone

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Jul-2016 (Updated: 15-Jul-2016 12:14 AM)

The House and Senate headed out of town for the summer today, leaving a great deal of work unfinished.  In particular, none of the 12 appropriations bills that fund the government have cleared Congress yet.  They will have four weeks to do something about appropriations when they return after Labor Day.

The extra long (seven week) recess is because of the Republican and Democratic presidential conventions that will be held in the next two weeks.  The Republican convention begins in Cleveland on Monday and runs through Thursday (July 18-21).  The Democratic convention in Philadelphia is the following Monday-Thursday (July 25-28). 

The conventions will be followed by the traditional congressional August recess, which, in election years like this, is used mostly for campaigning.

The appropriations bill score sheet looks good in terms of committee action.  All 12 have been reported from the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.  Floor action is another matter. 

The House has passed six of the 12 FY2017 appropriations bills:  Defense, Energy/Water, Financial Services, Military Construction/Veterans Affairs (Milcon/VA), Legislative Branch, and Interior/Environment.

The Senate passed the Energy/Water bill, and a single bill that combined Milcon/VA, Transportation-HUD, and funding to deal with the Zika virus. 

The two chambers came close to final passage of a compromise Milcon/VA bill that included the Zika funding (but not the Transportation-HUD bill).  The conference report passed the House, but did not survive a cloture vote in the Senate, so is stalled.

Attempts to bring the defense appropriations bill to the Senate floor for debate also failed cloture votes.

The Commerce-Justice-Science bill, which includes NASA and NOAA, did reach the Senate floor, but was derailed by the gun control debate (as its name conveys, the bill also includes funding for the Department of Justice).  The House version has not gone to the floor yet.

Both chambers return on September 6 and will be in session the rest of that month.  Fiscal Year 2017 begins on October 1, so something -- likely a Continuing Resolution (CR) -- will need to be passed by then. 

This outcome is not unexpected.  Congress's difficulties in passing appropriations bills is all too well known.  The only question is how long the CR will last.  Almost certainly past the November 8 elections.  Depending on which party wins the White House, the House, and the Senate, final appropriations could be completed by the end of the calendar year, or pushed into 2017 when the new Congress convenes and the new President takes office.

One bill that has made progress is the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  The House and Senate have each passed their versions and formally agreed to go to conference to work out the differences.  Authorization bills set policy and recommend funding levels, but do not provide any money. Only appropriations bills do that, but the NDAA is influential in the decisions made by the appropriations committees.  Conference negotiations on the NDAA are expected to take place at the staff level during the recess.

There has been no action on a new NASA authorization bill this year, although Republican and Democratic Senators at yesterday's Senate Commerce Committee hearing on NASA and American leadership in space expressed enthusiasm for passing a bill before the end of the year.  The House passed a FY2015 (yes, 2015, not 2016) bill last year that could be a vehicle for Senate action, or a completely new bill could be introduced.  Although time is getting short, if there is agreement on both sides of the aisle and both sides of Capitol Hill, a bill can pass quickly.  The goal is to provide stability to NASA programs during the presidential transition.  A major area of disagreement between Republicans and Democrats is NASA spending on earth science research.  Republicans on both sides of Capitol Hill argue that it should not be a priority for NASA because other agencies can fund it while NASA focuses on space exploration.  The White House and congressional Democrats argue that earth science research is an essential NASA activity and a critical element of a balanced portfolio of programs.

What's Happening in Space Policy July 11-16, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Jul-2016 (Updated: 10-Jul-2016 04:49 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of July 11-16, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

The Washington space policy community is still reeling from the news of Molly Macauley's murder Friday night while walking her dogs near her home in Baltimore.  Molly was one of the most respected and admired members of our relatively small group of space policy analysts and practitioners and was well-known to just about everyone in it.  No word yet on funeral arrangements.  We'll certainly post any information we get.  Molly was Vice President of Research and a Senior Fellow at Resources for the Future, a Washington-based think tank, which has posted a lovely tribute to her.

Meanwhile, the work of the space policy community must go on. This is the last week Congress is scheduled to meet until after Labor Day, so there's a lot they should be getting done.  Whether they do or not remains to be seen with everyone focused on tragic deaths elsewhere in the country.  Senate leaders tried to bring up the defense appropriations bill last week, but Democrats blocked it.  They're going to try again tomorrow.  On Friday, the House approved a motion to go to conference on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), so that's a step in that direction anyway, but authorization bills don't provide any money.  Only appropriations bills do that.  There's no indication when the Senate will resume consideration of the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations bill, which includes NASA and NOAA, and it is not on the House calendar either.  The House and Senate will have four weeks after they return on September 6 to get some sort of appropriations passed to keep the government operating after FY2016 ends on September 30.

There are three congressional hearings about space this week.   First is a House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee hearing on "Astronomy, Astrophysics and Astrobiology" with witnesses talking about programs at NASA and the National Science Foundation. That begins at 10:00 am ET on Tuesday.  An hour later (which means the two will overlap), the House Small Business Committee holds a hearing on the role of small business and NASA.  It's the first time we can think of that that committee has held a space hearing.  Witnesses are from Explore Mars (Beverly, MA), Emergent Space Technologies (Greenbelt, MD), Craig Technologies (Cape Canaveral, FL) and Honeybee Technologies (Brooklyn, NY).

On Wednesday, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) will chair only his third space hearing since becoming chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee's Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee at the beginning of 2015.   He's been busy running for President and reportedly will speak at the Republican Convention next week, but on Wednesday he will focus on "NASA At a Crossroads: Reasserting American Leadership in Space Exploration."  Witnesses are Bill Gerstenmaier from NASA; Mary Lynne Dittmar from the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration; Mike Gold from SSL (formerly Space Systems Loral); Mark Sirangelo from Sierra Nevada Corporation; and Dan Dumbacher, formerly NASA, now at Purdue.  We published summaries of Cruz's previous two space hearings: February 25, 2015 on U.S. Human Space Exploration Goals and Commercial Space Competitiveness and  March 13, 2015 on NASA's FY2016 budget request.

The American Astronautical Society, CASIS and NASA will hold the 5th International Space Station R&D conference in San Diego Tuesday-Thursday, with a special pre-conference session tomorrow afternoon on utilization of Japan's Kibo module.  The conference itself will be webcast -- lots of really interesting speakers each day, including a conversation with Mark and Scott Kelly and CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta on the Twins Study from Scott Kelly's 340-day stay aboard ISS.  Remember that all times in the agenda are in Pacific Daylight Time (Eastern Daylight Time - 3).

Two interesting national security space seminars also are on the docket this week. The Hudson Institute holds a meeting on Space and the Right to Self Defense on Wednesday afternoon to discuss a report it just published on that topic. The study director, Hudson Institute Fellow Rebeccah Heinrichs, will moderate a discussion with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) and former Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl.   Thursday morning, the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute will hold a breakfast meeting featuring Elbridge Colby of the Center for a New American Security on U.S. defense and deterrence strategy for space.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for additions to our Events of Interest list.

Monday-Thursday, July 11-15 

  • 5th International Space Station R&D Conference (AAS/NASA/CASIS), San Diego, CA (webcast)  [Monday is a pre-conference day; the conference itself is Tuesday-Thursday.  It is not clear if the pre-conference activities on Monday also will be webcast]

Monday-Sunday, July 11-17

Tuesday, July 12

Tuesday, July 12 - Tuesday, July 19

Wednesday, July 13

Thursday, July 14

  • Future Space 2016 (Future Space Leaders Foundation), 106 Dirksen (7:30 am - 12:00 pm ET) followed by luncheon at Reserve Officer Association building across the street (12:30-1:30 pm ET)
  • U.S. Defense and Deterrence Strategy for Space (AFA Mitchell Institute), Air Force Association, 1501 Lee Highway, Arlington, VA, 8:00 am ET

Saturday, July 16

House Committee Questions U.S. Policy On Use of Indian Launch Vehicles

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 06-Jul-2016 (Updated: 06-Jul-2016 09:08 PM)

Two top Republicans on the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee sent letters to Obama Administration officials today seeking answers to a series of questions about U.S. policy on the use of Indian launch vehicles.  India's Antrix corporation wants to offer launches to U.S. satellite operators, but there is concern that as a government entity, it would have an unfair advantage over U.S. commercial launch companies.

Several small U.S. satellites have been launched on Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles (PSLVs) in the last several months.  Four Spire Global Lemur-2 cubesats were launched in September 2015 and 12 Planet (formerly PlanetLabs) satellites on June 22, 2016.  PlanetIQ signed an agreement with Antrix in December 2015 to launch two of its 10-kilogram satellites on a PSLV in the fourth quarter of this year.

The FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) has been discussing the matter since last fall.   In October 2015, Samuel duPont from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), briefed COMSTAC on the issue. The committee's International Space Policy Working Group (ISPWG) held teleconferences on the topic on December 10, 2015 and January 27, 2016.   According to an ISPWG outbrief at COMSTAC's April 2016 meeting, the discussions led to two findings and a recommendation.  The findings were that India's launch service pricing structure could not be confirmed as market-based and thus could "distort" competition and undermine U.S. policies and negatively impact the U.S. space industrial base.  It recommended that the U.S. government "maintain the current cautious approach in granting U.S. commercial satellite operators access to India's state-owned and controlled launch providers."

Eric Stallmer, President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) industry association, told the SS&T Space Subcommittee in April that CSF opposes any effort "to facilitate a government-subsidized foreign launch company ... to compete with U.S. companies."  However, CSF also does not want to disadvantage U.S. satellite manufacturers and operators whose launch needs cannot be met by U.S. launch services companies, so if no U.S. launch vehicles are available, launching on Indian rockets should be approved on a case-by-case basis, he asserted.

Today's letters from House SS&T Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Space Subcommittee Chairman Brian Babin (R-TX) seek to clarify exactly what U.S. policy is regarding launching U.S. satellites on Indian rockets.  The four letters are addressed to Secretary of State John Kerry, Department of Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy John Holdren. 

Smith and Babin seek basic information about what the policy says, when it was promulgated, and the impact of India's entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) on that policy.  Each official is asked to respond by July 20, 2016. 

India finally joined the MTCR less than two weeks ago on June 27.  The MTCR seeks to control the spread of ballistic missile technology.  Established in 1987 by the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Italy and Japan, it now has 35 members, including Russia (but not China).  It is not a treaty and imposes no legal obligations, but is an "informal political understanding" according to its website.

U.S. efforts to convince Russia to join the MTCR after the collapse of the Soviet Union figured prominently in the relationship the two countries have today in the space arena.  It was one of the motivations in the Clinton-Gore Administration's decisions to invite Russia to join the International Space Station (ISS) partnership and to allow U.S. satellites to be launched on Russian rockets.  In return, Russia had to join the MTCR and renegotiate a deal to sell cryogenic rocket engines and associated technological know-how to India. The United States did not object to selling the engines themselves, but to the technological know-how.  Russia renegotiated the contract and said that it lost $400 million as a result.  The United States agreed to pay Russia $400 million towards its participation in the ISS.

What's Happening in Space Policy July 4-9, 2016 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Jun-2016 (Updated: 04-Jul-2016 10:41 PM)

This is our list of space policy events for the week of July 4-9, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House returns to work on July 5; the Senate on July 6.  [This posting was updated on July 4.]

During the Week

Monday, July 4, is a federal holiday and government offices officially are closed, but some folks at NASA surely will be on duty because the BIG EVENT for the coming week is the arrival of NASA's Juno spacecraft at Jupiter that day.

Miles O'Brien explained in a recent PBS Newshour segment what Juno will tell us about Jupiter that the Galileo spacecraft didn't (basically Galileo was looking at the cloudtops outward while Juno will look under the clouds down through Jupiter's core).  NASA has held a number of pre-arrival briefings already. Another will be broadcast on NASA TV on Monday at noon ET with a mission update. 

NASA TV coverage of orbit insertion begins at 10:30 pm ET and a post-arrival briefing is scheduled for 1:00 am ET July 5. 

The spacecraft will fire its engine at 11:18 pm ET on July 4 for 35 minutes to enter Jupiter's orbit, ending at 11:53 pm ET.  Everything is automated at this point -- either the engine will work properly or it won't.  The signal travel time from Jupiter to Earth is 48 minutes.  The times here are Earth-receive times accounting for the delay.

Closer to Earth, a new crew will launch to the International Space Station on Wednesday evening Eastern Daylight Time (Thursday GMT, Moscow Time, and local time at the launch site).  The three crew members -- NASA's Kate Rubins, JAXA's Takuya Onishi and Roscosmos's Anatoly Ivanishin -- will be using an upgraded version of the Soyuz spacecraft, Soyuz MS-01.   Since it's new, they will take the longer 2-day trajectory to the ISS to test everything out, docking early Saturday morning EDT.

Meanwhile, here on Earth, on Thursday, the Environment Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on the nation's current and next generation weather satellites.  It is a bit unusual in that it blends plans for civil and military weather satellites.  The witness list as of today includes two experts on NOAA's weather satellite programs -- Steve Volz, head of NOAA/NESDIS and the GAO expert who follows those civil weather satellite programs (David Powner), and two on DOD's weather satellite program -- Ralph Stoffler, Director of Weather in the office of the USAF Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and the GAO expert on military satellites (Cristina Chaplain).  Subcommittee chairman Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma) serves on both this subcommittee and the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) which may explain the decision to hold a combined hearing on the weather satellite plans for both NOAA and DOD.  House SS&T typically webcasts its hearings on its website and YouTube.

The events we know about as of Monday, July 4, are listed below.  Check back throughout the week for additions to our Events of Interest list.

Monday-Tuesday, July 4-5 ET

  • Arrival of the Juno spacecraft at Jupiter (watch on NASA TV)
    • July 4, 12:00 pm ET, pre-orbit insertion briefing
    • July 4, 10:30 pm ET, orbit insertion and NASA commentary
    • July 5, 1:00 am ET, post-orbit insertion briefing

Wednesday, July 6

Thursday, July 7

Saturday, July 9

Note:  This article, orignally published June 30, 2016, was updated throughout on July 4, 2016.

NASA IG Wants Better Mishap Investigation Policy for Commercial Cargo Launches

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Jun-2016 (Updated: 29-Jun-2016 08:50 PM)

The NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a report on Tuesday that praised NASA for some aspects of its management of the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with SpaceX, but reiterated earlier concerns about the independence of mishap investigations into these "commercial cargo" launch services.  NASA concurred with most, but not all, of the OIG's recommendations.

The OIG report was prompted by the June 28, 2015 SpaceX CRS-7 (SpX-7) Falcon 9 rocket failure that was intended to send a Dragon spacecraft full of supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).  Among the $118 million in cargo that was lost was an International Docking Adapter, the first of two needed for future dockings of SpaceX and Boeing commercial crew vehicles. 

On the positive side, the OIG concluded that "NASA is effectively managing its commercial resupply contract with SpaceX to reduce cost and financial risk."   It has "taken advantage of multiple mission pricing discounts" and negotiated "significant consideration" after the 2015 failure including reduced prices for five launches awarded thereafter (SpX-16 to SpX-20).

However, the report criticized NASA for not having "an official, coordinated, and consistent mishap investigation policy for commercial resupply launches, which could affect its ability to determine root cause of a launch failure and corrective action."

The SpaceX cargo flights are commercial and regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), not NASA.  NASA purchases ISS cargo resupply services from SpaceX as well as Orbital ATK.  Orbital ATK also suffered a failure -- the Orb-3 launch in October 2014.   Like SpaceX, those launches are regulated by the FAA.   FAA regulations determine how investigations are conducted when there is a launch failure of a commercial vehicle.   Under those regulations, the respective company itself is in charge.

NASA has its own mishap investigation procedures that require an independent review, but they do not apply to these commercially procured launch services.  The OIG earlier looked at the Orbital ATK failure and in Tuesday's report on SpaceX reiterated its concerns "about the independence of contractor-led mishap investigations."

SpaceX formed an Accident Investigation Team (AIT) in accordance with the FAA regulations composed of 11 SpaceX employees (one as chair) and one FAA employee.  Others from the FAA, NASA, the Air Force, and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) were non-voting observers.  The AIT determined that the most probable cause was a failure of a strut in the second stage.  After reporting that finding to the FAA and fixing the problem, the Falcon 9 was approved to return to flight.  The first launch was for a commercial communications satellite company (Orbcomm), the second launch for the NASA-NOAA Jason-3 spacecraft, the third for a different commercial communications satellite company (SES), and the fourth a resupply mission to ISS, SpX-8.  All were successful.

Even though its own mishap investigation procedures do not apply, NASA is allowed under the CRS and other contracts to establish an independent review in addition to the FAA investigation. The OIG found "there were up to seven possible investigation authorities" NASA could invoke "depending on when the failure occurred and the extent of damage..."  In this case, since the next Falcon 9 launch for NASA was of the Jason-3 satellite, NASA's Launch Services Program (LSP) set up a review under that contract authority.  Its findings were not as determinant as SpaceX's, leaving questions about the ultimate root cause.

A key finding of the OIG report is that "[d]ue to a lack of standardization or NASA policy, the contractor and NASA investigations into the SPX-7 and Orb-3 failures had different scopes and produced varying findings and corrective actions."  Orbital ATK's Orb-3 investigation "used root cause analysis" that looked not only at technical issues, but programmatic and organizational as well.  NASA's LSP investigation looked only at technical issues, the OIG said.

It recommends that NASA review its various authorities to ensure a coordinated, standardized approach.  NASA concurred.

How NASA determines what and how much cargo to put aboard the SpaceX flights was another concern raised by the OIG, especially the International Docking Adapters (IDAs). The second IDA is now scheduled for the SpX-9 mission later this year, but the replacement for the unit lost in 2015 (being built from spare parts) will not be launched until February 2018, according to the OIG report.  If current schedules hold, it will not arrive until SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner are in service.  That could spell trouble if anything goes awry with the one Adapter that will be available.  In its response to the OIG report, published in an appendix, NASA asserted that it "plans to have both IDAs available prior to first ISS direct handover mission and the first planned cargo docking mission under [the] CRS 2 [commercial cargo contract].

More broadly, the OIG recommended that NASA do a better job of quantifying and communicating the risks associated with the commercial cargo launches.   NASA did not agree with that one.  It asserted that its existing procedures provide adequate assessments of risk and communicate that risk to the appropriate people.

Successful Orbital ATK SLS Booster Test Paves Way for EM-1 in 2018

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jun-2016 (Updated: 28-Jun-2016 10:29 PM)

Orbital ATK successfully conducted the second of two qualification tests for the motor for solid rocket boosters (SRBs) that will be part of the NASA's Space Launch System (SLS).  The 2-minute test today at the company's Promontory, Utah test site was delayed by one hour because of a computer issue, but appeared flawless when it took place at 11:05 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).  The next time the booster will be used in for the first SLS test launch in 2018 dubbed Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1).

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, excitedly told a media teleconference an hour later that the test proved "this design is ready to fly."  Expressing "100 percent confidence in this team," he cheerfully urged them to celebrate and then "get back to work" because 2018 is closer than it seems.

SLS is intended to eventually send humans to Mars.  An audience questioner said he was 49 years old and asked "will I see a man on Mars?"   Gerstenmaier replied "yes, but 'man' may be the wrong word.  You will see a human being" on Mars, to applause from people in the room.

Today's Qualification Motor test 2 (QM-2) was designed to show how it operates in cold temperatures at about 40 degrees Farhenheit.  A 2015 test demonstrated its performance in high temperatures at approximately 90 degrees F.  The motor is 154 feet long and 12 feet in diameter, producing 3.6 million pounds of thrust. Although based on the SRBs for the space shuttle, they incorporate new technologies, materials and manufacturing processes.   For today's test, it lay horizontally on a test stand with flames and smoke billowing out the back.


Orbital ATK QM-2 solid rocket motor test, Promontory, Utah, June 28, 2016.  Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

Two five-segment SRBs are needed for each SLS launch, a total of 10 segments.  Charlie Precourt, a former astronaut and now Vice President and General Manager for Orbital ATK's Propulsion Systems Division said seven more are needed for the EM-1 test in 2018.  He expects all of the segments to ship to Kennedy Space Center by late 2017.  With the successful completion of this test, the development phase is now over and the company will transition to manufacturing.  Noting that development and manufacturing are two different mindsets, he said the next challenge is to be sure "we can build this precisely each time."

Gerstenmaier exclaimed that "today was an amazing day."  Asked whether this type of visible milestone is helpful as the country readies for a presidential transition, he said it was not just milestones, but demonstrating on a continuing basis that NASA and its contractors can maintain schedule and budget.  But it also is important not to overreact to those pressures -- ensure the design is solid because shortcuts may be costly in the long run. The U.S. human spaceflight program, including the International Space Station, is "robust," he exuded.  It will keep the United States in the lead and is a program that "any country would be lucky to have and we are really blessed that we have this program in this country. Hopefully the political environment" will recognize that.

The launch date for EM-1 is currently targeted for September 2018, but Gerstenmaier said the schedule was "trending" toward October or November.  EM-1 will launch an uncrewed version of the Orion spacecraft.  The first crew will be launched on EM-2.  Officially, NASA has committed to launching EM-2 in 2023, but is working towards a 2021 launch date if funding permits.  Congress has been adding money above the President's request for SLS and Orion for several years, including the FY2017 budget currently under consideration.  The Senate began debate on its version of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill, which includes NASA, last week.  It would provide $2.15 billion for SLS, compared to the President's request of $1.31 billion.  The House Appropriations Committee approved $2 billion.