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Commercial Space News

What's Happening in Space Policy November 24-December 5, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Nov-2014 (Updated: 23-Nov-2014 01:45 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the next TWO weeks, November 24-December 5, 2014.   Congress is in recess this coming week for the Thanksgiving holiday and will return on December 1.

During the Weeks

The United States celebrates Thanksgiving this week (on Thursday), so after the launch and docking of three International Space Station ISS) crew members today (Sunday), there is nothing on the docket until the first week of December in terms of space policy. 

However, on November 29 (November 30 in Japan), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will launch its second asteroid sample return mission, Hayabusa2, which should be of great interest.  JAXA will provide live TV coverage of the launch and spacecraft separation.

The first week of December is chock full of events.  To pick just two to highlight, ESA's ministerial meeting on December 2 will decide the future of European launch systems and participation in the ISS program through 2020, and NASA's December 4 launch of a test version of the Orion spacecraft  (EFT-1) on a 4.5 hour flight is a step forward for the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program.  Not everyone may agree on the next destination for the U.S. human spaceflight program -- President Obama's Asteroid Redirect Mission still has not captured much enthusiasm -- but Orion is likely to be the NASA spacecraft to take astronauts wherever it is they will go beyond low Earth orbit.

Under the current schedule, Congress will meet during the first two weeks of December and then bring the 113th Congress to a close, with the 114th Congress convening on January 3, 2015.   What's going to happen in those two weeks is, as always, completely unclear, and the two weeks could stretch through the holidays and even into the first two days of January if need be (which happened in 2012-2013 with the "fiscal cliff" showdown for those who remember).

The FY2015 Continuing Resolution (CR) now funding the government expires at midnight on December 11.  Under the best of circumstances (in terms of fiscal solvency and the ability of agencies to know how much money they have for FY2015), Congress will pass an omnibus appropriations bill before then combining all 12 regular appropriations bills and fund the government through the end of FY2015 (September 30, 2015).   Republican angst over President Obama's immigration executive order (EO) is a complication, however.  Some Republicans insist that Congress not appropriate funds that could be used to implement the EO, but the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Hal Rogers (R-KY), publicly explained that the immigration office that will implement the EO is funded by fees, not appropriations, so it is "impossible" (in his words) to do that.  Republicans could devise a surgical approach to defunding some part of the government to demonstrate their displeasure or hold up the entire bill or something in between.  The key is that not only must a bill get enough votes to pass Congress -- the Senate remains in Democratic hands until January --  but the President must be willing to sign it, which would seem unlikely if it defunds something he deems of critical importance. 

It's anybody's guess as to what will happen.  Our best guess, for what it's worth, is that Congress will pass a short term CR to carry the government through to mid- or late-January when the Republicans will be in control of both chambers rather than risk a government shutdown over the holidays because either Congress can't pass a bill or it passes a bill the President won't sign.   But we will keep our fingers crossed that an omnibus bill funding the government through September 30, 2015 is still a possibility.

Meanwhile, here is a list of all the events we know about for the next two weeks as of Sunday morning, November 23.

Sunday, November 23 (November 24 local time at the launch site in Kazakhstan)

Saturday, November 29 (November 30 local time at the launch site in Japan)

Monday, December 1

Monday-Wednesday, December 1-3

Tuesday, December 2

Tuesday-Wednesday, December 2-3

Thursday, December 4

Friday, December 5


Get Your Cube Quest Challenge Entries Ready!

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Nov-2014 (Updated: 22-Nov-2014 08:46 AM)

Registration for NASA's Cube Quest (CQ) Challenge opens on December 2, 2014.  Prizes are offered for putting a cubesat into stable lunar orbit or for communicating the most amount of data in certain time frames or for the longest period of time or from the greatest distance in cis-lunar or trans-lunar space.

The CQ Challenge is part of NASA's Centennial Challenges program and has a total prize purse of $5 million.

Prizes will be awarded for:

  • putting a cubesat into a stable lunar orbit
  • communicating the largest amount of data from the lunar distance in
    • a 30 minute time frame and
    • in a 28 day time frame
  • communicating the largest amount of data from 4 million kilometers from Earth
    • in a 30 minute time frame and
    • in a 28 day time frame
  • for being the last cubesat communicating and
  • for communicating from the furthest distance from Earth

The opening of registration for this challenge is announced in the November 24, 2014 Federal Register (distributed electronically on November 22), which directs interested individuals to a website that, as of the time of publication of this article (8:30 am November 22), is not working [].  Presumably it will be working by the time registration opens on December 2.  Until then, the main website for the Centennial Challenges program may be helpful, though this particular competition does not seem to be posted there yet, either.

The competition ends one year after the "NASA-provided launch opportunity is launched for the challenge."

ATK Continues To Support Merger with Orbital Sciences

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Nov-2014 (Updated: 19-Nov-2014 05:51 PM)

In an investors call this afternoon, ATK confirmed that its Board of Directors continues to support its merger with Orbital Sciences Corporation despite the October 28 Antares launch failure.  The shareholder vote has been postponed to January 27, 2015, but the ATK Board recommends that the merger go forward.

ATK has concluded that risks associated with Orbital's recovery plan are "manageable," and successful execution is "likely." 

"ATK Board of Directors continues to support the merits of the transaction and recommends shareholders vote to approve issuance of ATK shares to Orbital shareholders in connection with the merger," the company said in its presentation.

The two companies announced a "merger of equals" in April, but the explosion of Orbital's Antares rocket on October 28 at Wallops Island, VA is a complicating event. Antares was launching a Cygnus spacecraft filled with cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of Orbital's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA. 

Just one week after the accident, Orbital revealed its recovery plan to fulfill that contract, which requires Orbital to launch 20 tons of cargo to the ISS by the end of 2016.  To do that, Orbital will consolidate the remaining tonnage of cargo into four rather than five more launches, made possible by already planned upgrades to Cygnus and Antares.  The upgraded Cygnus was already scheduled to be introduced on the next launch, and Orbital will accelerate bringing a new version of Antares on line with a different rocket engine.  Until that new rocket is ready, expected in 2016, Orbital will use other companies' rockets to launch Cygnus.  Those details are still pending.

What new engine will be used for Antares is a matter of considerable speculation.  Neither Orbital nor ATK has said what it is.  Antares has been using AJ26 engines, which are Russian NK-33 engines built more than 40 years ago, purchased and refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne.   During an investors call on November 5, Orbital Chairman, President and CEO David Thompson referred to ongoing technical and supply problems with the AJ26. 

Though there was no hard news today during the ATK investors call about what new engine has been selected, the presentation did note Orbital's plan to "accelerate the introduction of a new Antares propulsion system upgrade in 2016" before summarizing its assessment of Orbital's plan as being reasonable.  The company did add, however, that it would continue to "work closely with Orbital to monitor progress on the recovery and go-forward plan."

What's Happening in Space Policy November 17-21, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Nov-2014 (Updated: 16-Nov-2014 02:43 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events in the coming week, November 17-21, 2014, and any insights we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session.

During the Week

Congress is in session this week, but anything they are working on regarding space policy and funding is taking place behind the scenes.  One set of negotiations is over a compromise version of a FY2015 omnibus appropriations bill that is expected to combine all 12 regular appropriations bill into one and fund the government through the rest of FY2015 (September 30, 2015).   Word has it the bill will be publicly released the week of December 8, just in time to get it passed - hopefully - by midnight December 11 when the current Continuing Resolution (CR) expires. 

It's not a sure bet, though. House Appropriations Committee chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) warned this past week that if President Obama issues an Executive Order on immigration (i.e., takes action without waiting for Congress to act) before a deal is done on appropriations, there will be an "explosion."   He's worried appropriations will get caught in the crossfire.  If a new appropriations bill is not enacted by December 11, the government will shut down like it did in October 2013.  Some Tea Party Republicans consider government shutdowns a useful tactic and might try to cause another one in reaction to any Presidential action on immigration.  Even absent that, some have been arguing in favor of passing just another CR to fund the government for the first few weeks of the New Year when Republicans will control both the House and Senate and have more power to decide funding matters.  (We talked about the road ahead for appropriations in an earlier article.)

Negotiations also are underway on a FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  It is the only annual authorization bill that Congress routinely passes, even if that happens at the very last minute.  The House passed its version in May, and the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) approved a version in June, but it has not gone to the Senate floor for debate yet.  They will probably skip that step and just bring the compromise to the floor.  Congress hasn't missed passing an NDAA for more than 50 years no matter how high the political tensions.  Senate John McCain (R-AZ), who likely will chair SASC in the next Congress, included a provision in the SASC-version of the bill prohibiting DOD from contracting with space launch services providers that use Russian suppliers -- aimed at the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) use of Russian RD-180 engines for the Atlas V.   ULA President Tory Bruno said last week that congressional staffers now understand the "very harmful" unintended consequences of that language and are revising it as part of the NDAA negotiations.

Like appropriations, the NDAA probably won't become public for a while yet.   Congress will be in recess next week for Thanksgiving, then return for two more weeks to finish what they can for the 113th Congress.  

Off the Hill, three NASA Advisory Council committees or subcommittees will meet this week in person or virtually (Planetary Protection on Monday and Tuesday, Institutional on Wednesday and Thursday, and Planetary Science on Friday).   The NSF-NASA-DOE Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee meets at NSF on Monday and Tuesday.   Alan Ladwig and Courtney Stadd's ISU-DC Space Café discussion is on Tuesday evening (rescheduled from last Tuesday, which was Veterans Day and HBO's Concert for Valor essentially took over DC).   And the Secure World Foundation and American Astronautical Society will host a briefing on space weather on the Senate side of the Capitol Visitor Center at lunchtime on Thursday.

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

Monday-Tuesday, November 17-18

Tuesday, November 18

Tuesday-Thursday, November 18-20

Tuesday-Friday, November 18-21

Wednesday-Thursday, November 19-20

Thursday, November 20

Friday, November 21

ULA's Tory Bruno Vows To Transform Company

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 14-Nov-2014 (Updated: 14-Nov-2014 03:28 PM)

Alluding to what he described as a moment of exciting change for the commercial launch industry, the newly appointed head of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) discussed how his company, the primary U.S. national security launch provider, will adapt to remain on top.

At an event Thursday hosted by the Atlantic Council, Salvatore “Tory” T. Bruno, ULA president and CEO, described his sense of “irrational optimism” at the future of the commercial launch industry. Widespread accessibility will be the key feature of a new environment, he explained, one where government and new commercial customers will need access to space to accomplish “missions we couldn’t conceive of in the past.”

ULA, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture established in 2006 with a record of 89 successful launches, is banking on experience to remain ahead in an industry facing new competition and possible constraints from foreign policy pressures.  Last April, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) filed a complaint against the U.S. Air Force for awarding an $11 billion block buy contract to ULA for five years’ worth of launches on its Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV). ULA has stated this block buy saved the government $4 billion, cutting launch prices in half. SpaceX has argued it can offer the same service for much less and is vying to compete for national space security launch contracts.

Although not referring to SpaceX directly, Bruno cited ULA’s “perfect record of mission success,” and “great heritage” as the benefit of doing business with the company.  But the country is demanding new things, he said, and “I am going to transform this company.” Bruno vowed to “cash in” the company’s decades of experience, reorganize to make it more agile, and establish new business models to adapt to the new environment. These changes will lead to improvements in how ULA interacts with its customers, both governmental and commercial, shorter launch cycles, and launch costs cut in half again.

Among the changes already under way, in September ULA announced a partnership with Blue Origin for the development of an alternative to the Russian-built RD-180 engine which ULA uses on its Atlas V vehicle.  In light of deteriorating diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia, for the past several months policymakers and industry leaders have been debating alternatives to reduce U.S. reliance on Russia for putting critical national security assets in orbit.

ULA intends to phase out the RD-180 over time and transition to an “American solution” to launching satellites using Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine.  Bruno said that transition is coming “very soon,” but ULA will continue buying RD-180s under its existing contract with RD-AMROSS and is accelerating their delivery.  ULA wants to have eight rather than five delivered next year, he acknowledged.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ), expected to chair the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) in the next Congress, included language in the Senate version of the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (S. 2410, sec. 1623) prohibiting DOD from contracting for space launch services from companies using Russian suppliers.  Asked about his reaction to the language, Bruno replied that, as originally drafted, the language would have been “very harmful” to ULA in ways “the drafters did not intend” and is being revised as part of negotiations over the final version of the bill.

When asked by a reporter for Russia’s news agency, Itar-TASS, why the RD-180s were being phased out and deliveries accelerated, Bruno made no reference to the tense geopolitical circumstances, however.   Instead, he framed it strictly as a business decision.  Praising the RD-180 as a “great” engine that is very reliable with “terrific performance,” he nonetheless said it was time to move past the technologies of the 1970s and 1980s and build a lighter engine with improved thrust.  As for moving up the delivery timetable, he said that was in response to anticipated market demand for more Atlas V launches.

The Atlantic Council has posted the webcast of the event on its website.

SS2 Pilot Siebold Unaware Critical Lever Moved Prematurely

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Nov-2014 (Updated: 12-Nov-2014 08:57 PM)

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued an update on its investigation into the October 31 SpaceShipTwo (SS2) accident that claimed the life of co-pilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injured pilot Peter Siebold.   Siebold's injuries prevented the NTSB from interviewing him until last Friday and the update includes a brief summary of what he told them.

SS2 was a spaceplane developed by Scaled Composites for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic enterprise to take anyone who could afford the $250,000 ticket price on a suborbital trip to space.  The October 31 mission was a test flight from the Mojave Air and Space Port, CA, in preparation for commercial operations that were to begin early in 2015.  The two pilots were Scaled employees.

The spaceplane is carried aloft by a large aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, which drops the spaceplane at about 45,000 feet altitude.  The spaceplane then fires a rocket engine to ascend to at least 100 kilometers, an internationally recognized (but not legally defined) boundary between air and space, and after about six minutes in weightlessness, returns to land on Earth.

The NTSB previously determined based on video from the SS2 cockpit and other data that Alsbury prematurely moved a lever to initiate a "feathering system" designed to slow the spaceplane during its descent.  The lever should have been moved only when the spaceplane reached Mach 1.4, but Alsbury moved it from locked to unlocked at Mach 1.02 during ascent.  A second step, where the pilot would move another lever, ostensibly was required to actually activate the feathering system.  That second step never took place, but the feathering system deployed itself, changing the position of tail booms on the vehicle.  NTSB investigators stress that they have reached no conclusions about the accident and only are stating facts, but there is widespread supposition that with the feathering system activated at the wrong time, aerodynamic forces tore the spaceplane apart. 

The two men fell from a very high altitude (which has not been revealed, but SS2 was released at about 45,000 feet and fired its rocket engine for about 11 seconds, so they were quite high).  They were wearing parachutes, but no pressure suits.   The vehicle did not have ejection seats.  Alsbury was found dead in his seat on the ground.

Siebold survived, which many consider a miracle.  According to today's NTSB update, Siebold told them he was "extracted from the vehicle as the result of the break-up sequence and unbuckled from his seat at some point before the parachute deployed automatically."   He told the NTSB that he was not aware that the feathering system had been unlocked by Alsbury.

The NTSB said it has completed its on-site investigation work at Mojave. The SS2 wreckage has been recovered and is in secure storage.  Analysis of the data will continue at the NTSB's Washington, DC laboratory.   NTSB acting chairman Christopher Hart said earlier that the complete investigation could take 12 months.  

House and Senate Return to Work Today To Finish 113th Congress, Prepare for Next Year

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Nov-2014 (Updated: 12-Nov-2014 05:22 PM)

The House and Senate return to work today to finish out the 113th Congress and get ready for the 114th, which begins in January.   The congressional landscape will change significantly then, with Republicans taking control of the Senate in addition to the House.  Generally, space activities have bi-partisan support in both chambers.  Where that has broken down in the past is over budgets and that could be a defining issue in the 114th Congress.

But first, over the next several weeks Congress needs to complete work on FY2015 appropriations.  There remains a question as to whether the appropriations will cover the rest of the fiscal year – through September 30, 2015 – or only a few months, but something must be done by December 11 to keep the government open.  On that day, the Continuing Resolution (CR) currently funding the government expires.

The prevailing wisdom is that Congress will pass an omnibus FY2015 appropriations bill combining all 12 regular appropriations bills and fund the government through the rest of FY2015.  Some Tea Party Republicans, however, want a short term bill to carry the government only through the first few weeks of the New Year when Republicans are in control of both chambers.

The House has passed seven of the 12 regular appropriations bills, and although the Senate has not passed any, the Senate Appropriations Committee completed work on eight. The two that fund most space activities are Defense (national security space programs) and Commerce-Justice-Science (NASA and NOAA).  A third, Transportation-HUD, funds activities at the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

The House has passed and the Senate Appropriations Committee has approved all three of those bills increasing the likelihood that final action on them can be completed by year’s end if prevailing wisdom holds true.

Congress also has not yet completed action on new authorization bills for NASA or DOD. Like appropriations, the House has passed bills for both, but the Senate has not passed either.   Congress has an unblemished record for more than 50 years of passing annual DOD authorization bills, formally called a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  Pundits are predicting that one will pass this year, too, probably by using the House-passed bill as the basis for a behind-the-scenes compromise and sending it to the Senate floor for a vote, skipping the step of passing a Senate version first.

As for NASA, it is always possible that similar negotiations could also result in a bill clearing Congress this year, but the NASA bill is not considered as crucial as the NDAA. With little time on the legislative calendar, the imminent change in party control, and the departure of key Senate Democratic staffer Ann Zulkosky, getting the NASA bill done could be problematical.

The Senate also is expected to try and approve at least some of President Obama’s nominations, particularly those for judicial positions.  Whether Dava Newman’s nomination to be NASA Deputy Administrator can get through in such a short time will depend on many factors, such as whether she has a Senate champion willing to push for it or if any opposition has developed.   Expectations were that it would not be considered until next year and that is probably a good bet.

What will happen in the 114th Congress is anyone’s guess.  There’s a presidential election coming up in 2016 and each party will use the next two years to convince the electorate to choose a President from their side of the aisle (President Obama cannot run for another term, so there will be no incumbent).  Not to mention that all of the House and one-third of the Senate will once again be up for election.  How all of that plays out in congressional politics is to be determined.  There is much talk at the moment of the two parties working together because the electorate is weary of Washington gridlock, but such talk is typical right after an election.   Rarely does it actually lead to compromise.  With some Republicans vowing to repeal the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) and fight the President on issues from immigration to the Keystone Pipeline, it is difficult to be optimistic.

All the committee and subcommittee chairmanships will change in the Senate, since the Republicans are taking control.  Even though Republicans retained control in the House, 11 committee chairmanships are up for grabs because of term limits or retirements.  There is a lot of speculation about who will be in charge of what, which is important, but in terms of the fate of government-funded space programs, a more important factor is whether deficit cutting returns as the dominant issue in Congress.

Republicans and Democrats have been fighting for the past six years over how to reduce the deficit.  The Republicans want only funding cuts, while Democrats want a combination of funding cuts and tax increases.   The result of the deadlock over this issue was sequestration – across-the-board funding cuts for federal agencies that are part of the “discretionary spending” portion of the budget that Congress directly allocates (as opposed to mandatory spending for programs like Medicare and Social Security).

Both parties oppose sequestration, but could not reach a compromise on any other solution.   In December 2013, a temporary truce was negotiated by the chairs of the House and Senate Budget Committees, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), where sequestration limits were lifted, but only for FY2014 and FY2015.  Consequently, budget fights were not as intense for FY2015 and NASA, for example, would get a significant boost if it gets what is allocated in its House-passed and Senate Appropriations Committee-approved appropriations bill.

That could be a short-term win, though. Unless Congress changes the law, sequestration is back for FY2016 and beyond. Republicans do not like sequestration any more than Democrats, and now that they will control both chambers, they could try to repeal sequestration and replace it with cuts to mandatory spending.  They can only go so far, though, without alienating their own voters or prompting a presidential veto.  Discretionary programs like NASA and NOAA could once again be in the budget bulls eye and while DOD as a whole may fare better, it is far from clear if that would extend to its space programs.

A lot of what happens in the 114th Congress may depend on whether "establishment" Republicans, including Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), can work with their Tea Party colleagues or if there will be intra-party fights.  Also, in the Senate, the Democrats could adopt the tactics McConnell has used so effectively as Minority Leader in preventing action on most legislation.   The Senate will have 53 Republicans, 44 Democrats, and 2 Independents who caucus with the Democrats, essentially a 53 - 46 split (one race, Louisiana, is still undetermined). That is basically the inverse of the situation today.  Just as Senate Republicans stymied action under Democratic control, so could Democrats do the same now that they will be in the minority.

What's Happening in Space Policy November 9-15, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Nov-2014 (Updated: 09-Nov-2014 07:39 AM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events for the week of November 9-15, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them.  Congress returns to work on Wednesday, November 12.

During the Week

From a policy perspective, certainly the biggest event this week is the return of Congress after a long break leading up to last week's mid-term elections.  As everyone knows, Republicans won control of the Senate and House Republicans added many seats to their side of the aisle.   Some races remain undetermined so there is not yet a final count of how many R's and D's there will be in the 114th Congress that convenes in January, but in the Senate there will be at least 52 Republicans, 44 Democrats, and 2 Independents (both currently caucus with Democrats and one has said he will continue to do so in the next Congress).  The Senate race in Alaska has not been called yet, and there will be a run-off for the Louisiana Senate seat next month.  In the House, there will be at least 244 Republicans and 184 Democrats.  The other races have not been called yet.  As many observers are pointing out, it has been 80 years since the Democrats have had so few seats in the House.  We'll have more on how the changes in Congress could impact space programs in an article later this week.

That's next year, though.  On Wednesday, it is the 113th Congress that reconvenes and it still has work to do.   The one must-pass piece of legislation is the FY2015 appropriations.  The government is currently operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) that expires on December 11, so Congress has until then to pass another CR or the 12 regular appropriations bills probably packaged together into a single omnibus bill or series of "mini-buses."  It is possible that some Republicans may try to delay passage of final appropriations bills until next year when they are in control of both chambers and therefore will agree only to a short-term CR to carry the government over into the New Year, but the betting at the moment seems to be that the matter will be settled by the end of this year.  That could change, of course. 

There also are big events in space activities coming up.  Tonight (Sunday) three International Space Station (ISS) crew members return to Earth in their Soyuz TMA-13M spacecraft:  NASA's Reid Wiseman, Europe's Alexander Gerst and Russia's Max Suraev.  NASA TV will cover undocking (7:30 pm EST) and landing in Kazakhstan (10:58 pm EST).  

Then on Wednesday, November 12, ESA's Philae lander will land on Comet 67P/Churymov-Gerasimenko, the first spacecraft to achieve such a feat.  ESA's Rosetta spacecraft, with Philae aboard, arrived at the comet in August after a 10 year journey.  Lots of media events in Europe are scheduled for the days before, of, and after the landing.  Confirmation that Philae successfully landed is expected about 11:00 am EST on Wednesday.  NASA TV will cover that part of the mission from 9:00 - 11:30 am EST.

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

Sunday, November 9

Tuesday, November 11

Wednesday, November 12

Friday, November 14

Saturday, November 15


Orion's December Test Flight "Truly a Commercial Endeavor"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 06-Nov-2014 (Updated: 07-Nov-2014 07:57 AM)

A test flight of the Orion spacecraft under development to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit is on track for launch on December 4.  The Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) is “truly a commercial endeavor” a NASA official pointed out at a briefing today (November 6) that also included representatives of Lockheed Martin and United Launch Alliance (ULA).

The test version of the spacecraft will make two orbits of the Earth primarily to test heat shield technologies, though a number of other in-flight and recovery operations will be tested as well.

NASA’s Orion program manager, Mark Geyer, said the test will cost $370 million for the ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket and hardware (such as the Service Module) that will not be used again.  The cost does not include the Orion capsule since it will be reused.  When asked what the cost would be if the capsule was included, Geyer replied that NASA is still formulating the total cost of the Orion program and even when it is released (after the Key Decision Point-C or KDP-C review), the cost of this one capsule will not separately identified.  This capsule is part of the design, development, test and engineering (DDT&E) effort to get Orion to the first crewed flight, Geyer explained, and a “fraction of the total” cost to get to that point.

Launch is scheduled for 7:05 am ET on December 4 from Launch Complex 37 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL (adjacent to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center).   It will land about 4.5 hours later in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California.  The launch window is 2 hours and 40 minutes, driven by the need for good lighting conditions during liftoff to obtain imagery of a number of separation events during ascent as well as at the end of the mission for recovery operations in the Pacific.  December 5 and 6 are backup days.

NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development Bill Hill stressed that EFT-1 is “truly a commercial endeavor.”  NASA contracted with Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin for the resulting data only.  Lockheed Martin is in charge of the mission, which is licensed by the FAA.  ULA has the launch license, and Lockheed Martin has the reentry license.

When asked who has the go/no-go responsibilities, since it is a commercial, not NASA, mission, NASA’s Geyer laid out the structure.   For the launch, ULA makes the go/no-go decision.  Once Orion is in orbit, NASA’s Orion flight director Mike Sarafin is in charge. There are flight rules and procedures and if something goes outside those rules, the issue would be taken to the Mission Management Team (MMT).  The MMT is chaired by Lockheed Martin Mission Director Brian Austin, but NASA is a member of the MMT and discussions would be held, a consensus reached, and the decision forwarded to Sarafin for implementation.

In its two orbits of the Earth, the Orion test capsule will reach an apogee of 3,600 miles, 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS), and reenter Earth’s atmosphere at 20,000 miles per hour.  No humans have ventured beyond the ISS orbit since the final Apollo mission to the Moon in 1972.   When asked how Orion compares with Apollo in terms of heat shield requirements, Geyer said the biggest difference is that Orion is much larger than Apollo – built for four people instead of three.  The Orion heat shield is 5 meters (16.4 feet) in diameter compared to 3.7 meters (12.1 feet) for Apollo, he explained, adding that Orion’s heat shield also is made of different materials since some of the Apollo materials were carcinogenic.

This Orion test capsule is not outfitted to carry people.  The next Orion flight (Exploration Mission-1 or EM-1), on the first Space Launch System (SLS) test in 2017, also will not carry a crew.  The first crewed Orion is scheduled for 2021 on EM-2.  Hill said NASA hopes to fly one Orion per year after EM-2 if budgets permit with the goal of sequentially buying down risk to enable human trips to Mars.  One of those flights will be the Asteroid Redirect Mission, though he was not specific about which one.   Orion can support four people for 21 days.  For longer flights, a habitation module will be needed and a funding wedge needs to be created to develop that hardware, Hill said.

A major theme echoed by the speakers on today’s panel was that spaceflight is “hard” as last week’s Antares and SpaceShipTwo accidents demonstrated.   Hill stressed, however, that there is no commonality between any of the systems involved in those accidents and the EFT-1 mission.

Correction:  An earlier version of this article said that Orion's apogee would be 3,600 kilometers, but it is 3,600 miles.

Orbital To Accelerate Antares Upgrade, Use Other Rockets to Meet NASA Commitments - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Nov-2014 (Updated: 05-Nov-2014 10:03 AM)

Update:  This article is updated throughout following Orbital's investors teleconference this morning.

Orbital Sciences Corporation announced this morning (November 5) its plan for meeting its contractual commitments to NASA for delivering cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) in the wake of the Antares failure last week.  It will accelerate upgrading the Antares rocket to use a different engine and launch "one or two" cargo missions using other unspecified launch vehicles.  Using the new rockets, the Cygnus cargo spacecraft will be able to carry more each time and Orbital can meet its commitment with four rather than five more launches.

Orbital made the announcement in a press release and an investors teleconference with its Chairman, President and CEO David Thompson.  He said that there will be no cost increase to NASA under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract, modest or no near-term delays to the delivery of ISS cargo, and no expected material financial impacts to Orbital in 2015, although the magnitude and timing of quarterly changes depends on the specifics of the plan it chooses, or in 2016 and beyond.

Thompson said initial indications are that a turbopump-related failure in one of the two AJ26 main engines is the likely cause of the October 28 Antares failure that destroyed a Cygnus loaded with 5,050 pounds of supplies for the ISS.  Orbital has a $1.9 billion contract from NASA to deliver 20 tons of cargo to the ISS through 2016.  Eight operational cargo launches were planned to meet that commitment.  The October 28 mission was the third in the series, Orb-3, so five more were expected.  The launches are from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, VA.

Suspicion immediately centered on the AJ26 main engines not only because the failure happened so soon (about 15 seconds) after the rocket left the launch pad, but because they are refurbished Russian engines built four decades ago.  Although they had successfully completed intensive testing prior to being certified for launch, in an investors call last week Thompson referred to ongoing technical and supply problems.  Today he said use of the AJ26 "likely" would be discontinued "unless and until" they can be shown to be reliable.

Orbital had been planning to switch to a different engine, but has not announced what the replacement will be.  Thompson again declined to identify the engine this morning.  When asked what criteria he was looking for in a new engine compared to the AJ26, he said reliability, followed by a balance of increased performance and reasonable cost.  The upgraded Antares was to be introduced in 2017, but that timeline will be accelerated to 2016.

To fulfill the rest of Orbital's commitment to launch a total of 20 tons to the ISS by the end of 2016, Thompson said the company will conduct "one or two" Cygnus launches using launch vehicles from other providers in 2015 and perhaps early 2016, and then the upgraded Antares for the remaining launches in 2016.  The amount of mass Cygnus can launch was, in part, dictated by the capability of the Antares rocket.  Using the third-party rockets, the upgraded Antares and an "enhanced Cygnus" that already was planned to replace the original version, future Cygnus spacecraft will be able to carry more mass each time, about 3,300 kilograms instead of 2,600-2,700 kilograms, he said.  Thus the cargo requirements can be met with just four instead of five more launches.

He did not name what other launch vehicles the company is considering while waiting for the upgraded Antares to debut.  He said only that they were talking to two U.S. and one European launch service providers.   When asked specifically if he was considering launching Cygnus in the lower position on a European Ariane rocket, which can carry two payloads at a time, Thompson said no because the other payload most likely would be destined for a different orbit.  In the dual-payload configuration, Ariane typically takes communications satellites to geostationary orbit above the equator.  Cygnus would be headed to the ISS at 51.6 degrees inclination.

Thompson indicated that the cost savings of launching only four times instead of five would partially offset losses that the company might incur because of the failure that are not covered by insurance.  Thompson said "in key respects this plan follows the same upgrade path we were previously pursuing" and now "we will be able to make faster progress due to our ability to redirect both manpower and hardware from the original Antares configuration" to this one.

The company said today that repairs to the launch pad at Wallops will be undertaken quickly and launch operations with the upgraded Antares will resume in 2016.

A recording of the investors teleconference is posted on Orbital's website.