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Commercial Space News

What's Happening in Space Policy March 23-27, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Mar-2015 (Updated: 21-Mar-2015 01:47 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events coming up for the week of March 23-27, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate will be in session.

During the Week

Another busy week in the space policy business is coming up.   In the NASA realm, the Senate Commerce Committee's expected approval of Dava Newman's nomination to be NASA Deputy Administrator on Wednesday surely is at the top of the list.  It is only one step in the process, and the challenge of getting anyone's nomination through the Senate these days is all too apparent, but the fact that the committee did not see a need to hold a hearing on the nomination is a good sign. 

Perhaps -- but just perhaps -- even bigger news will come from the Mission Concept Review (MCR) for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).  A NASA spokesman says the MCR is on Tuesday (it is not open to the public), but still cannot forecast whether it will result in the long awaited announcement of whether Option A or Option B won the toss for how to implement the mission.  NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot planned to reveal the decision in December, but ultimately announced that more time was needed.   NASA CFO David Radzanowski said the day the FY2016 budget request was released in February that the choice could be announced in days, at the MCR, or afterwards, he simply did not know.  Lightfoot is scheduled to speak at Thursday's USRA/Space Policy Institute symposium, which is about Near Earth Objects (NEOs) -- asteroids and comets -- and other small bodies in the solar system, an opportunity to share the results of the MCR, though it is not clear he will do so.  The symposium has a lot of other very interesting speakers, too.  Unfortunately, we're told it will not be webcast.

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee's hearing on Tuesday about the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) should be especially interesting with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's John Mather there to talk about the science JWST will be able to accomplish.  Mather, a Nobel Prize winner in Physics and JWST's Senior Project Scientist, is exceptionally good at conveying to a non-scientific audience what we do and don't know about the universe, why we need to know more, and how JWST will move us along that path.   NASA science head John Grunsfeld will also be there, along with Cristina Chaplain from GAO and Jeffrey Grant from Northrop Grumman, JWST's prime contractor.  Grunsfeld, an astrophysicist and former astronaut who repaired the Hubble Space Telescope on three shuttle missions, also excels at communicating science to non-scientists, but probably will be handling programmatic questions about whether JWST will meet its cost and schedule targets (its previous cost overruns and delays are legendary).

On the military space front, the House Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing specifically on the FY2016 budget request for national security space activities.  Several hearings have already touched on some of those issues, including last week's hearing on assured access to space, but this is focused on the entire national security space enterprise with a who's who of its leadership in the military and intelligence communities.

Lots more on tap, too, including the launch of Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko on their one-year mission to ISS. 

Here is list of all the events we are aware of as of Saturday afternoon.

Monday, March 23

Tuesday, March 24

Tuesday-Thursday, March 24-26

Wednesday, March 25

Thursday, March 26

Thursday-Friday, March 26-27

Friday, March 27

HASC Grills Company and Government Officials on Space Launch, But No Clear Solution

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Mar-2015 (Updated: 18-Mar-2015 03:09 PM)

A lengthy House subcommittee hearing with top officials from the government and private sector yesterday (March 17) left as many questions as answers on how to assure “assured access” to space for national security satellites.  Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) remarked at one point “The more I learn, the more confused I get.”  Maj. Gen. Howard “Mitch” Mitchell (Ret.) offered perhaps the sagest advice, recommending a new Space Launch Modernization Plan be developed, akin to the Moorman study of the 1990s.

Sanchez’s statement is a succinct exposition of what came out of the hearing before the Strategic Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), which featured two panels.  The first was composed of United Launch Alliance (ULA) President Tory Bruno and SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell.  The second was mostly government witnesses:  Katharina McFarland, DOD assistant secretary for acquisition; William LaPlante, Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition; Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command; and Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Howard “Mitch” Mitchell, who now works for the Aerospace Corporation, but was testifying in his personal capacity as chairman of last year’s study group on alternatives to the RD-180 engine (the “Mitchell Commission”).

The hearing, scheduled to begin at 3:30 pm ET, started 45 minutes late because the members were on the House floor casting votes.  Once it began, opening statements by members and witnesses were brief, but the question-and-answer period was extensive and the hearing lasted until 6:30 pm ET with subcommittee chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) finally drawing it to a close even though he seemed to have many more questions that he wished to pose.

That pretty well characterizes the hearing – leaving as many questions as answers.  One interesting aspect was the change in tone between witnesses for SpaceX (Shotwell)  and Air Force Space Command (Hyten) who, while on different panels, sang each other’s praises after a bruising year in which SpaceX sued the Air Force for awarding ULA a sole-source contract in 2013.  SpaceX dropped the suit in January after a settlement was reached.  The terms of the settlement were sealed by the judge, but whatever they are, the two parties seem determined to present a united public face now.   (Rogers asked whether SpaceX or ULA would have any objection to the subcommittee seeing the terms of the agreement. Shotwell and Bruno each said it was fine with them, but only the court could make that decision.)

Shotwell emphasized again and again that SpaceX and the Air Force are working “shoulder to shoulder” to get the Falcon 9 certified to compete for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV)-class launches.  Air Force officials publicly promised during 2014 that certification would be completed by that December, but it was delayed and now is expected by June.   For his part, Hyten lauded SpaceX and said that people who might have bet against the company meeting its goals in the past would have lost.  Although he joined other government witnesses in agreeing that Shotwell’s expectation that SpaceX’s new Falcon Heavy rocket will be ready to launch national security satellites by 2018 is optimistic, he said SpaceX has been “amazing, so I won’t say it’s impossible.”  He also downplayed a statement made by Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James at an earlier hearing where she mentioned that some of the SpaceX launches experienced anomalies.  Hyten acknowledged that SpaceX has had some problems, which are “proprietary,” but “we’ve had the same things with Atlas and Delta.”  The key is that all of the launches were “mission successes,” he stressed.

The issues debated at the hearing basically are how to end U.S. reliance on Russia’s RD-180 engines, used for ULA’s Atlas V rocket, and how to create competition in the U.S. national security space launch marketplace.  ULA has almost exclusively launched U.S. national security satellites on the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets since it was created in 2006 as a joint company owned 50-50 by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, the two companies that had been providing those launch services on Atlas and Delta respectively.  The creation of ULA was driven by market factors and government requirements.

An archived webcast is available on the committee’s website.  The central questions were:

  • Does language in Section 1608 of the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requiring DOD to build a new American-made propulsion system by 2019 to replace Russia’s RD-180 create the possibility of a “gap” in the U.S. ability to launch national security satellites in the 2018-2022 time frame because
    • ULA has decided to discontinue the medium/intermediate versions of the Delta IV around 2018 because they are too expensive to compete in the current marketplace (they are often referred to as the “single stick” version of Delta IV);
    • Atlas V would no longer be available;
    • SpaceX’s new Falcon Heavy is not likely to be ready by then; and
    • Therefore only the Delta IV Heavy would be available for national security launches and they would be prohibitively expensive
  • Does Section 1608 need to be clarified so ULA can use all of the RD-180 engines it currently plans to buy from Russia because the Air Force is interpreting the law such that only a small number would be permitted (the number is widely cited as five, but the government witnesses did not specify it in their statements).

Overall, many of the subcommittee members and all of the witnesses other than SpaceX seemed to want Congress to change Section 1608 to allow RD-180 engines to be used for the Atlas V until 2021-2022 when ULA’s Next Generation Launch System (NGLS) with an American-made engine is ready.   SpaceX’s position is that no more RD-180s are needed because its Falcon 9 and new Falcon Heavy – which it plans to launch for the first time later this year -- can provide the launch capability and redundancy needed to assure U.S. access to space after 2018.

Section 1608 requires DOD to develop an American replacement for Russia’s RD-180 engines by 2019, but it also contains a number of waivers that seem to add flexibility if an American replacement is not ready by then.  Nonetheless, the witnesses other than SpaceX clearly view 2019 as a hard cut-off date and want it extended.  Also, Air Force acquisition official LaPlante explained in his written statement that the language allows use only of RD-180s that were purchased or included in a legally binding contract prior to February 1, 2014 (when Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula) and according to the documentation DOD has available “only a small number of engines actually meet that statutory language.”   DOD wants Congress to clarify that all of the RD-180 engines intended to be purchased under ULA’s current contract can be utilized.

ULA’s Development of New Engines – BE-4 and AR1

Last fall, ULA and Blue Origin announced that they are partnering to develop the BE-4 rocket engine, which uses methane as fuel, as an RD-180 alternative.  At the hearing, Bruno said that ULA also has a “backup” plan with Aerojet Rocketdyne to develop the AR1, which uses traditional kerosene.  Bruno said the BE-4 is three years ahead of AR1 in development and ULA will choose one of the two to pursue in 2016 or 2017.  The new engine would be used for ULA’s NGLS that ultimately will replace both Atlas and Delta.  Whichever engine is chosen, the NGLS will require a significant redesign of tankage and launch pad modifications.

Bruno asserted that the engine development is “largely privately funded.”  “I do not require government funding, but there are wise investments the government can make to reduce risk and I won’t say no to help,” he said.

An interesting wrinkle in the discussion came up late in the hearing when subcommittee chairman Rogers made clear that what he wants is an American version of the RD-180, not a new engine that would require changes to the rest of the Atlas V rocket or launch pads.  LaPlante said that “we build the rocket around the engine” and Mitchell explained that “you can’t jack up the Atlas V and put in a new engine,” but Rogers said that is exactly what he wants to do.   That is not one of the options currently being pursued by ULA, however.

Launch Prices

Significant discussion occurred concerning the prices charged by SpaceX and ULA.  Shotwell explained that she does not know what ULA charges the government, but it was awarded an $11 billion contract for 28 launches (the “block buy” contract signed in 2013), which SpaceX calculates to be an average of $400 million per launch.

She said a Falcon 9 average price is $60 million for commercial customers and $80-90 million for the government, which has special requirements, and the cost to the government for a Falcon Heavy launch will be about $150-160 million.  That yields an average cost across all its vehicles of about $120 million, she said, roughly 25 percent of ULA prices.   Asked how SpaceX can offer such low prices, she replied that “I don’t know how to build a $400 million rocket” and “I don’t understand how they are as expensive as they are.”

Bruno said he did not recognize the $400 million number and the cost of an Atlas V 401 launch, equivalent to a Falcon 9, is $164 million on average and will be about $140 million in the future.   Averaged across all of the launches envisioned in the block buy, the cost is $225 million, he said, a 30 percent reduction from its prices before the block buy.  He did acknowledge separately that the cost of a Delta IV Heavy launch today is $400-600 million.

The “Gap”

DOD acquisition official McFarland’s written statement clarifies that the “gap” they are worried about is a period late in this decade “without at least two price competitive launch providers servicing medium to intermediate class missions.”

That is an important point.   It is not a gap in the U.S. ability to launch satellites, but whether there is competition for medium and intermediate class payloads.   Hyten said “gap” is not the right word, it is really about a “transition” between 2018 and 2022, but everyone else referred to it as a gap.

The gap is precipitated in part by ULA’s recent decision to discontinue the single stick version of the Delta IV, leaving the Atlas V as its only launch vehicle for that class of payload.  If Atlas V is no longer available after 2019, and SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is not ready by then, these intermediate size payloads would have to be launched by the more capable Delta IV Heavy, but the price would be prohibitive.   Bruno assured the subcommittee that he is committed to launching the Delta IV Heavy as long as the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) needs it.   If it is ULA’s only rocket, however, all of ULA’s fixed costs would have to be absorbed in those launch costs, raising the price from the current $400-600 million per launch to “upwards” of $1 billion, Bruno said.

Subcommittee chairman Rogers asked incredulously if Bruno thought the government would pay that much per launch and Bruno said no, but Mitchell – who has long experience with national security space launch – pointed out that in the 1990s, launch costs were $550 million “and we launched 41 of them.”  The suggestion was that when escalated to today’s dollars, the cost would not be much different.

Bruno told the subcommittee that he decided to terminate the Delta IV single stick as soon as its current commitments are met around 2018 because it cannot compete in the current marketplace.

Curiously, no one questioned ULA’s decision to phase it out even though that seems to be a critical driver in this debate.

The solution to the gap sought by ULA and witnesses on the government panel are to purchase enough RD-180 engines so the Atlas V can remain available until SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and ULA’s NGLS are ready in 2021-2022.  Shotwell insisted that Falcon Heavy would be ready and certified for flight by 2018, but the other witnesses considered that an optimistic timetable.

Business Case

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) asked about the business case for either ULA or SpaceX and whether the government needs to guarantee a number of launches to make their businesses viable.  DOD’s McFarland said that from what she has seen, all the launch providers are competing for the same pie.

Shotwell said that 60 percent of the SpaceX market is commercial, while Bruno said that ULA’s is “just under 20 percent” today.

Is Falcon 9 “American”?

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) grilled Shotwell on SpaceX’s assertion that Falcon is an all-American rocket.  He forced Shotwell to acknowledge that certain raw materials like aluminum and a GPS “box” are from foreign sources, but “99 percent” is American, she asserted.  Bishop challenged her by asking if she knew there is a statute in California (where SpaceX is based) that would not allow the company to advertise its product as all-American and Shotwell said she was not aware of it.

Launch Pads

Bruno said that in the interest of cost cutting, ULA will be reducing the number of launch pads it has from five to two – one on the east coast and one on the west coast.

A Potential Path Forward

Mitchell articulated what is perhaps the clearest statement on what is needed to move forward on a plan for assured access to space.  In his written statement, he said the government needs to take ownership of the issue and define the desired end-state, take action to reach that end-state, and “adequately resource” the plan.

He recommended that the government initiate an effort similar to the Space Launch Modernization Plan (the Moorman report) of the 1990s “with all the stakeholders participating to assess the risks of the current and planned activities” and make recommendations on how to mitigate them.   Quoting an unnamed “colleague and friend,” Mitchell wrote: “Currently no stakeholder has a credible plan that ‘closes.’ Each stakeholder has a different endgame solution, and each stakeholder’s current ‘non-closing’ game plan has ‘and then a miracle happens’ as the last element of their plan…and ALL the miracles are different.”

 

Nelson, Inhofe Complain AF Not Following Congressional Direction on RD-180

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Mar-2015 (Updated: 17-Mar-2015 11:49 AM)

Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and James Inhofe (R-OK) wrote to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter last week to complain that DOD is not following congressional direction to expeditiously develop a U.S. propulsion system to replace Russia's RD-180.

The letter is dated March 10 and briefly states that congressional direction in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is quite clear that DOD is to develop a new rocket propulsion system by 2019 and authorized $220 million in FY2015 to that end, and the FY2015 appropriations act includes that $220 million.  Written in the first person (it is not clear whether it is Inhofe or Nelson -- both signed it), the letter says "my observations to date leave me skeptical that DoD or the U.S. Air Force are following Congressional intent."

Both Senators are members of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC).

The letter says that the direction in the NDAA is consistent with last year's Air Force-chartered RD-180 Availability Risk Mitigation Study, which was chaired by Maj. Gen. Howard "Mitch" Mitchell (Ret.).   Mitchell is scheduled to be one of the witnesses at this afternoon's hearing across the Hill before the House Armed Services Committee on "Assuring Assured Access to Space."   Air Force Space Command Commander Gen. John Hyten is also scheduled to testify, along with DOD and Air Force acquisition officials and representatives of SpaceX and United Launch Alliance.

What's Happening in Space Policy March 16-20, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Mar-2015 (Updated: 15-Mar-2015 01:52 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events coming up during the week of March 16-20, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session.

During the Week

It's another busy week with two major conferences, lots of congressional hearings, a NAC subcommittee meeting and more.  

It is tough to choose what to highlight because it's all really good stuff, but to pick just one, the House Armed Services Committee's subcommittee hearing on Tuesday should be especially interesting.  The title is "Assuring Assured Access to Space" and witnesses include SpaceX's Gwynne Shotwell and United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Tory Bruno along with two defense department acquisition officials, commander of Air Force Space Command Gen. Hyten, and retired Maj. Gen. Mitch Mitchell who led a study of RD-180 alternatives last year.  Topics are expected to include certifying new entrants like SpaceX to launch EELV-class national security satellites currently launched exclusively by ULA and the need (or not) for a new American-made rocket engine to replace Russia's RD-180 used for ULA's Atlas 5.  SpaceX's position is that its Merlin engines for the Falcon rockets already are an American alternative so why is another one needed.  ULA, meanwhile, announced last fall that it is partnering with Blue Origin on the BE-4 engine as an American alternative.   Everything seemed on a fast track last fall with Congress insisting on no more RD-180s after 2019 (though there are exceptions),but this year's testimony by Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and ULA's most recent statements seem to be putting the brakes on.  Whether that's a dose of reality or slow-rolling the inevitable is unclear at the moment -- perhaps the hearing will shed some light.

Monday-Friday, March 16-20

Monday-Thursday, March 16-19

  • Satellite 2015, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC

Tuesday, March 17

Tuesday-Wednesday, March 17-18

Wednesday, March 18

Thursday, March 19

HASC to Focus on Assuring Assured Access to Space

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Mar-2015 (Updated: 10-Mar-2015 07:04 PM)

The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) will hold a hearing next week on "Assuring Assured Access to Space" with industry and government witnesses.   Building an American alternative to Russia's RD-180 rocket engine and certifying "new entrants" like SpaceX likely will be the key topics.

The committee's official announcement today does not list the industry witnesses, saying only that the panel is "TBA" -- to be announced.  Space News ran a story this afternoon stating that SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk and United Launch Alliance (ULA) President Tory Bruno would testify, but HASC would not confirm that to SpacePolicyOnline.com and Space News reporter Mike Gruss later tweeted (@Gruss_SN) that "Musk has only been invited to testily.  Not yet confirmed."

If the two did appear together, it undoubtedly would be a lively exchange.  Musk and Bruno's predecessor, Michael Gass, sat next to each other as witnesses at a Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing just about exactly a year ago.  The hearing took place just after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and the U.S.-Russian relationship began its downward spiral.  Musk used the opportunity to highlight U.S. dependence on Russia to supply RD-180 engines for ULA's Atlas V rocket, one of the two U.S. launch vehicles used to launch most national security satellites.  He agreed with U.S. policy that two independent launch systems are needed in order to assure U.S. access to space -- today they are ULA's Atlas V and Delta IV -- but that his Falcon rocket should replace Atlas as the second since it is not dependent on foreign sources.  Thus began a year of hearings and congressional action aimed at reducing or eliminating U.S. dependence on Russia for space launch.

Government witnesses at the March 17  hearing will represent the DOD and Air Force acquisition offices, Air Force Space Command, and the Aerospace Corporation.  A committee spokesman said early this evening that they hope to have the industry panel nailed down very soon.

The hearing is at 3:30 pm ET on March 17, 2015 in 2118 Rayburn House Office Building. 

Rep. Donna Edwards Launches Campaign to Succeed Barbara Mikulski

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Mar-2015 (Updated: 10-Mar-2015 04:48 PM)

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) formally initiated her campaign to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski today.  In a two-minute video announcing her intentions, she gave a shout-out to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, close to her district and where she once worked as a contractor.

Mikulski revealed last week that she will not run for reelection in 2016.   Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) was the first sitting member of Congress to make clear that he will run for the seat.  Edwards is the second and it would not be surprising if others follow suit, along with many other Democrats and Republicans in state and local politics.

Edwards is probably the best known of the group to the space policy community, however.   She is the top Democrat on the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and a champion of the space program, if not always in agreement with the Obama Administration and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden.  She has made clear, for example, that she does not endorse the Asteroid Redirect Mission and only slowly warmed up to the concept of commercial crew.  At a February 27, 2015 hearing focused on the commercial crew program, she said "As I have recounted on other occasions, I used to be a skeptic of commercial crew and cargo transportation to support NASA requirements.  And while I am now supportive of the commercial space transportation industry's partnership with NASA, I remain committed to ensuring that these systems are safe."

In today's video explaining what she has done for Maryland already in the House and will do if elected to the Senate, she says "As the ranking Democrat on the space subcommittee, I passed a bipartisan investment in NASA for space programs that employ over 10,000 Marylanders and lift our sights just a little higher."  The backdrop is video of the entrance to NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and text on the screen says "NASA GODDARD: 10,000 MARYLAND JOBS."   She also notes her work in getting more Maryland schools focused on STEM education.  She was a strong critic of the Obama White House's proposal in 2013 to reorganize federally funded STEM education programs and shift most NASA-related programs to other agencies.  Congress rejected the White House proposal.

Her official bio on her House website explains that she "has enjoyed a diverse career as a nonprofit public interest  advocate and in the private sector on NASA's Spacelab project."  In campaign material from her 2008 bid for the House, she said she had been a systems engineer for Lockheed Martin working at NASA.   She has an undergraduate degree from Wake Forest University and a J.D. from the University of New Hampshire School of Law.

She represents Maryland's 4th district, which more or less surrounds Greenbelt, where Goddard is situated.  Greenbelt itself is in Rep. Steny Hoyer's (D-MD) district.  He is the one member of the House (out of eight in Maryland's delegation, seven of whom are Democrats) who has indicated he will NOT run for Mikulski's seat.  He is the House Minority Whip, second only to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in the Democratic House leadership.

 

What's Happening in Space Policy March 9-13, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Mar-2015 (Updated: 08-Mar-2015 02:56 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of March 9-13, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The Senate is in session this week; the House is in recess.

During the Week

The IEEE Aerospace Conference actually began yesterday in Big Sky, Montana; it runs through March 14.   The conference website says it is being held in "a stimulating and thought provoking environment."  Indeed!  

Greenbelt, MD may not compare with Big Sky, MT in terms of breathtaking scenery, but the American Astronautical Society's (AAS's) Goddard Memorial Symposium at the Greenbelt Marriott is undoubtedly of much more interest to the space policy community.   NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will keynote the AAS meeting on Wednesday morning at 9:15 am ET, followed by a panel of top level NASA Headquarters officials including Science Mission Directorate Associate Administrator (AA) John Grunsfeld and newly appointed Space Technology Mission Directorate AA Steve Jurczyk, formerly director of NASA's Langley Research Center.  The two-day AAS meeting ends on Thursday afternoon with a panel including your intrepid SpacePolicyOnline.com editor along with Jeff Foust from Space News and Frank Morring from Aviation Week and Space Technology.

The congressional calendar is less crowded this week since the House is in recess. but Bolden will appear before the Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on Thursday at 9:30 am ET.  Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) was politely inquisitive at his first space hearing two weeks ago, which included no government witnesses.  It will be interesting to see how he and Bolden get along since the NASA Administrator represents President Obama, a man with whom Cruz has serious disagreements on other issues.  Cruz sounded liked a huge space enthusiast at the earlier hearing, with views strongly aligned with key Senators on both sides of the aisle who crafted the 2010 NASA Authorization Act and have appropriated funds since then to execute it.  That suggests that Cruz and Bolden will disagree on the amount of funding requested for SLS and Orion at least -- NASA's request once again is less than Congress wants as everyone knows.

Speaking of SLS, Orbital ATK will have a 2-minute static test fire of an SLS booster on Wednesday.  NASA TV will cover it live at 11:00 am ET (9:00 am local time in Utah).   Two pre-launch briefings (on Tuesday and Wednesday) for the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission (scheduled for launch on Thursday) and the homecoming (on Wednesday) of three International Space Station crew members also are on tap this week.

All the events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.

Saturday-Saturday, March 7-14

Tuesday, March 10

Tuesday-Thursday, March 10-12 (March 10 is an evening reception only)

Wednesday, March 11

Thursday, March 12

Bolden Reassures Appropriators on Russia; Culberson Wants Interstellar Propulsion

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Mar-2015 (Updated: 05-Mar-2015 12:30 AM)

At a House hearing today (March 4), NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was asked about contingency plans if Russia stops launching U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).  He underscored again and again the need for Congress to fully fund the commercial crew program.

The hearing before the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee covered familiar ground and produced few surprises.  Subcommittee chairman John Culberson (R-TX), an unabashed NASA supporter who just became chairman following the retirement of Frank Wolf, started the hearing by asserting that Congress will not be able to fund President Obama’s overall budget request for the nation “because it assumes a lot of tax increases that certainly aren’t going to happen,” but that the subcommittee will do all it can to support NASA.  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden defended the President’s request for his agency.

Perhaps the most interesting exchanges concerned the future of the ISS and whatever will come thereafter.  One set of issues involves U.S. dependence on Russia for launching astronauts to the ISS today, another concerns recent Russian statements that it will support ISS through 2024 and then detach its modules to form an autonomous space station, and a third is U.S. plans for what comes after ISS.

Bolden was asked what contingency plans NASA has if Russia decides not to launch U.S. astronauts to ISS because of the current geopolitical situation.  He stressed that the only plan is to fully fund the President’s $1.244 billion request for the commercial crew program.  He assured the subcommittee that he is confident Boeing and SpaceX will meet their milestones and provide operational systems by the 2017 target date.

Pressed on the point of contingency plans, Bolden reiterated that relationships between NASA and Roscosmos remain strong and Russia needs NASA to operate the ISS, but if the Russians decided they no longer were interested in space exploration, the ISS can be evacuated in an orderly manner:  “You are forcing me into this answer, and I like to give you real answers … but if the nations of the world decided that human exploration is done, we have the capability to bring all six crewmembers home. … I don’t anticipate that that day is going to come.”  He continued that he is “not worried about getting people to the space station as long as the Congress funds the President’s budget at $1.2 billion in 2016 because we will have an American capability” to do that.

Culberson continue to bore in on NASA’s contingency planning, but Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) intervened saying that Congress must “own” the current situation because it did not provide adequate funding.  As Bolden pointed out once more, if Congress had done so, commercial crew would be ready this year rather than 2017.  Culberson shot back that if the Constellation program had not been canceled, “we would have been ready to fly within 12 months.” Bolden retorted “That is not correct…whoever told you that, that is not correct.”

Russian officials announced last week that Russia will remain in the ISS partnership through 2024, but then will detach its modules to form its own space station.   The announcement was made on February 24 by the Roscosmos Science and Technology Council, chaired by Yuri Koptev, who once headed the predecessor to Roscosmos and was integral in working with then NASA Administrator Dan Goldin as Russia joined the ISS program in 1993.  Somewhat lost in U.S. media reports is that the modules they said they will detach have not yet been launched (a multipurpose laboratory module, a docking node, and a scientific power module), so they are not proposing to take away anything that is currently part of the ISS complex.  In any case, Bolden urged caution in evaluating what the Russians said because “what you hear coming out of Russia is not always what they intended to say,” but he is encouraged by the stated intention to remain with ISS through 2024.

As for what LEO facilities will come after ISS, Bolden focused on the need for the private sector to make those decisions.  He said that a NASA request for information produced disappointing results, however, because those who responded just wanted NASA to continue funding LEO infrastructure.  Bolden noted the efforts of Bigelow Aerospace as the type of effort that is required.  Bigelow launched two test modules on Russian rockets several years ago that are still in orbit. Another will be attached to the ISS this year.  (He lightheartedly noted that Robert Bigelow, the millionaire behind Bigelow Aerospace, insists that the modules are “expandable,” not “inflatable” as they often are described.)  Bolden hopes other companies will buy modules from Bigelow or build their own.

There was one surprise, at least.   Culberson closed the hearing with a clarion call for NASA to develop interstellar propulsion, not a topic that typically arises in NASA budget hearings.

At the very end, Culberson brought up the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), for which NASA is developing high power solar electric propulsion to send a robotic spacecraft to an asteroid to nudge it from its native orbit into lunar orbit so it can be visited by astronauts.  Culberson contended today that the “great value” of ARM is the development of new propulsion -- but his goal is for travel to other stars.

Explaining what he hopes will be his legacy for the space program, he listed a robust LEO capability, SLS and Orion for human exploration beyond LEO, a robotic program that follows the recommendations of the National Research Council’s Decadal Surveys, and a propulsion system that allows spacecraft to explore exoplanets.

“The fact that we are still flying rocket engines that were designed by Robert Goddard in the 1920’s is just inexcusable. ….  Let us also leave for future generations the development of the first interstellar rocket propulsion system that would carry us to Alpha Centauri and beyond… to go explore those exoplanets that are most like Earth, which appear to be much more common than we ever realized.”

What's Happening in Space Policy March 2-6, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Mar-2015 (Updated: 01-Mar-2015 02:11 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of March 2-6, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session.

During the Week

A passel of congressional hearings are on tap this week on the FY2016 budget requests for NASA, DOD, the Department of Commerce (including NOAA) and the Department of Transportation (including FAA).   Most congressional hearings are webcast on the respective committee's website.  The exceptions are hearings held in the Capitol where, unfortunately, the House Appropriations CJS subcommittee holds many of its hearings.   Its hearings this week on the Department of Commerce budget request and on NASA's budget request are a case in point.   One must be physically present in the tiny room (H-309 Capitol) to hear the discussion.  All the other hearings this week should be webcast, however.

For those already weary of Washington politics or just looking for something uplifting, tomorrow's (Monday's) briefing on Dawn's impending arrival at Ceres should be fun.  The intrepid spacecraft, which already sent back fascinating data about the asteroid Vesta, will arrive at Ceres on March 6.  The briefing is at JPL and will be webcast on JPL's Ustream channel and NASA TV.  We haven't seen an announcement about coverage on March 6 itself, but will post whatever information comes our way later this week.

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

Monday, March 2

Tuesday, March 3

Wednesday, March 4

Thursday, March 5

AF Secretary James Not Sure 2019 is Doable for RD-180 Replacement

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Feb-2015 (Updated: 25-Feb-2015 10:49 PM)

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James added a dose of reality today to projections about when an American-made rocket engine could replace Russia's RD-180s for the Atlas V rocket.  During testimony, she said that meeting the congressional mandate to have a new engine by 2019 may not be doable.  Her experts tell her it will take 6-8 years to get a new engine and another 1-2 years to integrate it into a launch vehicle.  

James spoke before the Senate Appropriations Committee's Defense Subcommittee (SAC-D) on the Air Force FY2016 budget request along with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III.  The two are scheduled to testify to the House counterpart subcommittee (HAC-D) on Friday. 

The issue really is about developing a new propulsion system, of which an engine is a part, but "engine" is commonly used as shorthand.

The deterioration in U.S.-Russian relationships beginning last year because of Russia's action in Ukraine highlighted how dependent the United States is on Russian technology to launch U.S. national security satellites.   The United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V and Delta IV rockets -- referred to as Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs ) -- launch almost all of them, and the Atlas V is powered by Russia's RD-180 engine.   The issue figured prominently in a number of hearings last year and Air Force officials, including Gen. William Shelton, then head of Air Force Space Command, rued the prospect of losing those engines.  Still, Shelton and others eventually accepted that the time had come for the United States to develop its own comparable liquid rocket engine.

The FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 113-291) and its accompanying explanatory statement direct DOD to develop a new U.S. propulsion system by 2019 "using full and open competition." The law authorizes $220 million and notes it "is not an authorization of funds for development of a new launch vehicle."  Section 608 of the law prohibits the Secretary of Defense (SecDef) from "awarding or renewing a contract for the procurement of property or services" under the EELV program if the contract involves "rocket engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation."  The only exceptions are the EELV contract awarded to ULA on December 18, 2013 or unless the SecDef certifies that the offeror can demonstrate that it fully paid for or entered into a legally binding contract for such engines prior to February 1, 2014.

The FY2015 Defense Appropriations Act (Division C of P.L. 113-235) followed suit, appropriating the same $220 million as was authorized "to accelerate rocket propulsion system development with a target demonstration date of fiscal year 2019."  It directs the Air Force, in consultation with NASA, "to develop an affordable, innovative, and competitive strategy ... that includes an assessment of the potential benefits and challenges of using public-private partnerships, innovative teaming arrangements, and small business considerations."

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) and James engaged in two exchanges about the RD-180 today.  Shelby noted that the President's FY2016 request is only for $84 million.  "It's also my understanding that developing an RD-180 replacement engine and the associated launch vehicle and launch pad can cost anywhere from $1 billion to more than $3 billion and take perhaps 7 to 10 years to develop," Shelby said.  James replied that technical experts have advised her that "It's 6 to 8 years ... for a newly designed engine and then an additional 1 to 2 years on top of that to be able to integrate the engine into the launch vehicle."  As for cost, "I've seen $2 billion," James said.

James asked that Congress clarify what it wants, because the 2019 deadline is "pretty aggressive" and "I'm not sure 2019 is doable."  She also stressed that they want "at least two" domestic engines "because we want competition of course."

Shelby also revealed that DOD's General Counsel "may" interpret the Section 608 language contrary to congressional intent resulting in a "capability gap for certain launches" and eliminating "real competition."  James explained that the General Counsel is trying to interpret several different provisions of law that may or may not have had the same intent, but said the point she wanted to stress is that "virtually everybody" agrees that the United States should be less reliant on Russia.  The question is how to accomplish that:  "We don't want to cut off our nose to spite our face."

The two also discussed certification of "new entrants." a reference to SpaceX, which has been attempting to obtain certification from the Air Force so it can compete against ULA for these types of national security launches.

ULA manufactures the Atlas V and Delta IV in Decatur, Alabama, Shelby's home state.  Shelby talked about the virtues of competition, but, without mentioning SpaceX by name, said "some of these so-called companies that are planning to compete, and we'd like for them to compete, they have had several mishaps" compared to ULA.  James replied that every developmental program has mishaps and "I'm quite sure they're going to get there from here."

ULA is jointly owned by Lockheed Martin and Boeing.  At yesterday's hearing before the Space, Science and Competitiveness subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, Boeing's John Elbon also urged a "thoughtful" approach to the transition from the RD-180 to a U.S. engine and keeping the pipeline of engines open as long as possible rather setting a hard cut-off date.

Meanwhile, ULA announced last fall that it is partnering with Blue Origin to develop the BE-4 rocket engine as an RD-180 replacement.  ULA and Blue Origin said at the time that the project is fully paid for and not in need of government funding.