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Commercial Space News

Key Senate NASA Staffer Moving on to Lockheed Martin

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Oct-2014 (Updated: 20-Oct-2014 11:39 PM)

Ann Zulkosky, the top Senate Democratic staffer dealing with NASA issues on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, is leaving to join Lockheed Martin.

Zulkosky is a member of the Democratic professional staff of the committee, which is chaired by Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV).  Rockefeller is retiring at the end of this Congress and committee staff changes are common when the chairperson retires.  Zulkosky has been handling a variety of science issues, but is best known in space policy circles for her work on NASA issues with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), who chairs the committee's Science and Space Subcommittee.

Zulkosky and her Republican staff counterpart, Jeff Bingham, working with Nelson and the committee's top Republican at the time, Senator Kay Bailey Hutichison (R-TX), are largely credited with writing the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, a hard fought compromise between the Obama Administration and congressional Democrats and Republicans.  Bingham retired last year.

The 2010 law included funding recommendations only through FY2013, which has expired, but the policy provisions remain in force.  Key policy provisions allowed the Obama Administration to proceed with the commercial crew program to develop crew transportation systems to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS), while insisting that NASA also develop a new spacecraft (Orion) and rocket (the Space Launch System) to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit.

The House passed a new NASA authorization bill in June.  Senate action is expected next, but that may be more difficult to achieve with Zulkosky's departure.

In an email this evening, Zulkosky confirmed that she is headed to Lockheed Martin as Director of NASA Programs, succeeding Mike Hawes.  Hawes was recently tapped to replace Cleon Lacefield as the company's vice president and program manager for Orion.

What's Happening in Space Policy October 20-24, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Oct-2014 (Updated: 19-Oct-2014 04:42 PM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events in the coming week, October 20-24, 2014, and any insights we can offer about them.  Congress returns on November 12.

During the Week

The U.S. Court of Federal Claims has scheduled a second hearing on Sierra Nevada Corporation's (SNC's) lawsuit against the government vis a vis the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contracts for Tuesday at 2:30 pm ET (it's not listed on our calendar because we don't list court dates for lawsuits since they are rarely open to the public).  The first hearing was on Friday, where the court allowed SpaceX and Boeing to intervene in the case.  The court is also considering SNC's request to keep most of the filings under seal because some of the material may be proprietary and some is protected under SNC's protest to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).  SNC is protesting NASA's award of the CCtCAP contracts to Boeing and SpaceX.  Ordinarily, under the Competition in Contracting Act (CICA), work would stop under those contracts until GAO rules on SNC's protest (it has until January 5, 2015).  NASA did issue a stop-work order, but later rescinded it based on its statutory authority to avoid significant adverse consequences.  SNC is challenging the legality of that rescission.  Check back with SpacePolicyOnline.com to learn about what happens on Tuesday.

There are many other interesting events on tap during the week as well.   On Monday, the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (which administers the UN Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space), the Mexican Space Agency and another Mexican organization, CICESE, will hold a symposium on Making Space Technology Accessible and Affordable.  The opening ceremony and a press conference -- including the head of the Mexican Space Agency, Javier Mendieta -- will be webcast. 

The third of three International Space Station (ISS) spacewalks in as many weeks is scheduled for Wednesday.  This time it is two Russians, Max Suraev and Alexander Samokutyaev, who will step outside.   NASA TV will cover it beginning at 9:00 am ET.

Two very interesting luncheons are being held in the Washington, DC area on Thursday, unfortunately at exactly the same time.  The Washington Space Business Roundtable is hosting a panel of experts on the future of satellite communications in support of DOD at the University Club is downtown DC, while the National Capital Section of the American Institute of Aeronautics is hearing from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Chris Scolese across the river in Arlington, VA.   Not to mention that there's an all-day symposium in DC that day on space and satellite regulatory issues.  Busy day!

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

Monday, October 20

Wednesday, October 22

Wednesday-Sunday, October 22-26

Thursday, October 23

SNC v NASA: Boeing and SpaceX Alllowed to Intervene, Next Hearing Date Set

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Oct-2014 (Updated: 17-Oct-2014 11:07 PM)

At today's hearing before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, Boeing and SpaceX were granted their requests to intervene in Sierra Nevada Corporation's (SNC's) lawsuit to force NASA to reinstate a stop-work order on the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contracts. 

SNC filed suit on Wednesday asking the court to declare "illegal and void" NASA's October 9 decision to override provisions of the Competition in Contracting Act (CICA) so that work could proceed under the CCtCAP contracts despite SNC's protest of the award.   Today was the first hearing in the case.

Boeing, SpaceX and SNC are all being funded under the current phase of NASA's commercial crew program -- the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) phase.  On September 16, NASA selected Boeing and SpaceX to continue into the next phase, CCtCAP.  Sierra Nevada filed a protest against that decision with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on September 26.   NASA issued a stop-work order to Boeing and SpaceX on the CCtCAP contracts because of the protest, but rescinded it on October 9 arguing that it was acting under its statutory authority to avoid serious adverse consequences. 

That prompted SNC to file this lawsuit against the U.S. Government on the basis that NASA had not demonstrated that it could not wait until GAO issued its ruling on SNC's protest.  GAO has until January 5, 2015 to make its determination.

Today, Judge Marian Blank Horn granted motions from Boeing and SpaceX to "intervene" in the case and ordered that they file their submissions by Monday, October 20, at noon.  The next hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, October 21, at 2:30 pm ET.

The commercial crew program is essentially a public-private partnership where the government and the private sector are sharing the costs of developing new crew space transportation systems to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) with NASA serving as a market for the resulting services.  CCtCAP is the final phase of the development program, leading, NASA hopes, to operational systems by the end of 2017.  Until commercial crew systems are operational, NASA must rely on Russia to take crews to and from ISS because the space shuttle was terminated in 2011.

Sierra Nevada Files Suit to Reinstate Stop-Work Order on CCtCAP

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Oct-2014 (Updated: 16-Oct-2014 04:04 PM)

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims yesterday asking the court essentially to overturn NASA's decision to allow work to proceed under the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contracts.  SNC is protesting NASA's award of those contracts to Boeing and SpaceX and ordinarily work would stop until the protest was resolved.  NASA initially told the companies to stop work, but rescinded that order about a week later, triggering SNC's lawsuit.  A hearing on SNC's suit is scheduled for tomorrow morning (Friday, October 17).

Sierra Nevada, Boeing and SpaceX are all being funded under the current phase of NASA's commercial crew program -- Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP).   Those three companies, at least, bid for the CCtCAP phase which will lead to operational commercial crew systems to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station.   NASA selected Boeing and SpaceX for CCtCAP on September 16.

On September 26, SNC filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) because it found "serious questions and inconsistencies in the source selection process."  GAO has 100 days (until January 5, 2015) to rule on the protest.

NASA issued a stop-work order to Boeing and SpaceX because of the protest.  The stop-work order affects only the CCtCAP contracts, not work under the CCiCAP agreements. 

However, on October 9, NASA rescinded the stop-work order, overriding provisions of the Competition in Contracting Act (CICA) on the basis that it was acting within statutory authority to avoid significant adverse consequences.

In filing its lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, SNC asserts that NASA's override decision was "illegal and void" because the government failed to establish that "performance of the contract is in the best interest of the United States" or "urgent and compelling circumstance that significantly affect the interests of the United States will not permit waiting" for the GAO decision.  SNC calls NASA's override decision "arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion and ... contrary to law, all in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act...."

SNC asks the court to declare NASA's override "illegal and void" or alternatively to "preliminarily enjoin the Defendant from further implementing" the override -- in other words, to reinstate the stop-work order -- until the court issues a final judgment on the matter.

Because SNC's filing to the court relies on material subject to a GAO protective order (because of its bid protest to GAO) and on other material that may contain proprietary information, SNC further requests the court to keep the primary documents it filed with the court (memorandum and appendix) under seal.   For now, at least, only a few of SNC's documents are available to the public through the court's PACER electronic system: Plaintiff's Motion for Leave to File Documents Under Seal and Motion for a Protective Order, Motion for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief, and Plaintiff's Applications for a Temporary Restraining Order to Prevent Unlawful Override of CICA Stay.

The court has scheduled a hearing on the case, Sierra Nevada Corporation v United States, before Judge Marian Blank Horn for 10:00 am ET tomorrow, October 17.

Hurricane Gonzalo Delays Orb-3 Cargo Launch to ISS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Oct-2014 (Updated: 15-Oct-2014 06:38 PM)

NASA and Orbital Sciences Corporation decided today to delay the launch of Orbital's third operational cargo mission (Orb-3) to the International Space Station (ISS) until at least October 27 because Hurricane Gonzalo is bearing down on Bermuda.  One of the tracking sites used for Orbital's launches from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility is located in Bermuda.

The announcement on Orbital's website stresses that the October 27 date is tentative since the impact of the storm on Bermuda's infrastructure will not be known until the storm passes.

As of 5:00 pm ET today (October 15), Gonzalo is a Category Three hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 125 miles per hour and higher gusts.  Bermuda is expected to feel the brunt of it on Friday with a "dangerous storm surge" accompanied by "large and destructive waves" according to the National Hurricane Center.

The mobile tracking station is located on Cooper's Island, Bermuda. 

NASA/Wallops Bermuda Tracking Site.  Photo Credit:   NASA/Wallops.

Orbital launches its commercial cargo missions to the ISS from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on the coast of Virginia.  NASA and Bermuda signed an agreement in March 2012 to place a tracking site there to support such launches.  NASA/Wallops Deputy Range Director Steven Kremer said at the time that "[o]wning, deploying and controlling our own assets means control over scheduling ... and higher confidence in promising range availability to our customers...."  The tracking station provides telemetry, radar and command and control services.

Originally scheduled for October 14, the Orb-3 launch was delayed to October 20 and then October 24 primarily because of the busy schedule of activities aboard the ISS, including three spacewalks this month (the second was completed today) and the arrival and departure of other cargo spacecraft including Russia's Progress and SpaceX's Dragon.

If the launch takes place on October 27, the launch time is 6:44 pm ET and Orbital's Cygnus spacecraft will arrive at the ISS on November 2, Orbital said today.

Air Force X-37B Due to Land Tuesday, SWF Wants More Transparency About Its Missions

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Oct-2014 (Updated: 15-Oct-2014 05:28 PM)

NOTE:  As of 5:00 pm EDT October 15, the Air Force has not made any announcement that the X-37B landed.  The original announcement that it was returning to Earth said the exact landing date and time were dependent on technical and weather considerations.  Unofficial observers monitoring FAA's NOTAMs (Notices to Airmen) and using amateur observations of its orbit can offer possible landing times, but they are subject to uncertainty. Reuters reporter Irene Klotz (@Free_Space) tweeted today that the landing "now looks like no earlier than Thursday, FAA pilot advisory indicates."  Bob Christy at zarya.info calculates there is a landing opportunity that day (tomorrow) about 16:25 GMT (12:25 EDT).  This article has been updated to reflect the delay from the anticipated landing date of October 14.

UPDATED, October 15, 2014:  The Air Force announced on Friday (October 10) that its secretive X-37B spaceplane, in orbit for almost two years, will soon return to Earth and land at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.  At the recent International Astronautical Congress (IAC2014) in Toronto, Victoria Samson of the Secure World Foundation encouraged the U.S. government to be more open about what the X-37 is doing as part of the Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs) the United States is advocating to help ensure space sustainability.

Officially called the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), the vehicle resembles a very small space shuttle.   The Air Force launches the robotic spacecraft for lengthy on-orbit classified missions.  This flight is the longest to date.  Launched on December 11, 2012, its mission duration will be more than 667 days.  There are at least two OTVs.  The first, OTV-1, made a 224 day flight in 2010.  The second, OTV-2, made a 469 day flight from March 2011 to June 2012.  The OTVs are reusable and this is the second flight for OTV-1.

Photo of X-37B OTV-1.  Photo credit: Boeing (via Spaceflightnow.com)

The Air Force statement said the exact time of the landing "will depend on technical and weather considerations."  Initial indications were that landing was targeted for October 14, but that day passed with no announcement from the Air Force.  Unofficial observers are estimating potential landing times based on the FAA's NOTAMs (Notices to Airmen) and amateur observations of the X-37's orbit, but they are subject to uncertainty.  Check back here for updated information when it is available.

The classified nature of the missions prompts much speculation about what they are doing.   In an era when the United States and other countries are advocating for establishing TCBMs to help ensure space sustainability, some question why the missions are kept secret.   In an October 1 session at IAC2014 on "Assuring a Safe, Secure and Sustainable Space Environment for Space Activities," the Secure World Foundation's (SWF's) Samson cited the X-37B's secrecy as at odds with TCBMs.  TCBMs are norms of behavior that "nations that mean no harm" should follow, she said, including a willingness to share information about technical capabilities in order to avoid misperceptions.  She remarked that the U.S. "refusal to explain what the X-37B is [doing] has led a lot of people to assume the worst, and probably wrongfully so." 

A 2010 SWF analysis concluded it "has near zero feasibility as an orbital weapons system for attacking targets on the ground" and has "limited capability for orbital inspection, repair and retrieval," although speculation often centers on exactly such missions.  SWF concluded its most likely purpose is "flight testing new reusable space launch vehicle (SLV) technologies ... and on-orbit testing of new sensor technologies and satellite hardware primarily for space-based remote sensing."

The OTVs are launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, adjacent to NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC). NASA and the Air Force announced last week that the Air Force will use two of KSC's Orbiter Processing Facilities (OPFs) to process the X-37B in the future.  To date the OTVs have landed across the country at Vandenberg, but the NASA-Air Force announcement also said that tests were conducted to demonstrate the X-37B could land at KSC's Shuttle Landing Facility.   The landing facility and the OPFs are left over from NASA's space shuttle program, which was terminated in 2011.

The X-37, built by Boeing, initially was a NASA test vehicle designed to lead to an Orbital Space Plane that could serve as a Crew Return Vehicle to bring International Space Station astronauts back to Earth in an emergency and, eventually, as a taxi to take them to the ISS as well.  NASA terminated that program in 2004 after President George W. Bush reoriented the human spaceflight program toward returning astronauts to the Moon instead of ISS utilization.  The X-37 program then was transferred to the Department of Defense.

What's Happening In Space Policy October 13-17, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Oct-2014 (Updated: 12-Oct-2014 01:34 PM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events for the week of October 13-17, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them.  Congress is in recess until November 12.

During the Week

The event likely to attract the most attention this week is the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS).  The speaker line-up is an intriguing array of "traditional space" and "new space" luminaries, although the description of Bill Gerstenmaier's talk may say it best:  "Never before have the titles of 'old space' and 'new space' been as trivial as they are today." 

Just to illustrate the breadth of speakers (sorry we can't list everyone -- the program is here), in addition to Gerstenmaier (NASA's Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations), speakers include Clay Mowry (Arianespace), George Sowers (United Launch Alliance), George Whitesides (Virgin Galactic), Stuart Will (Mojave Air and Space Port), Barry Matsumori (SpaceX), Brett Alexander (Blue Origin), Doug Loverro (DOD Deputy Assistant Secretary for Space Policy), John Shannon (Boeing), Mark Sirangelo (Sierra Nevada Space Systems), Doug Young (Northrop Grumman) and Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM). 

Most unfortunately, if you can't be there in person, you're out of luck.  The conference's media contact says none of the sessions will be webcast live, though "a few of the keynotes" may be posted online in a month or two.

That and other events we know about as of this afternoon (Sunday) are listed below.

Tuesday, October 14

Wednesday, October 15

  • ISS Spacewalk (2 NASA astronauts), begins approximately 8:10 am ET (NASA TV coverage begins at 7:00 am ET)

Wednesday-Thursday, October 15-16

Wednesday-Friday, October 15-17

Friday-Tuesday, October 17-21

Shana Dale Joins FAA Commercial Space Office as Deputy AA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Oct-2014 (Updated: 12-Oct-2014 01:51 PM)

Shana Dale will become Deputy Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (AST) at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as of November 3, 2014.   She succeeds George Zamka who left AST this summer to join Bigelow Aerospace.

Dale has served in a number of positions on Capitol Hill and in the George W. Bush Administration.  She is perhaps best known in space policy circles as the first woman to serve as Deputy Administrator of NASA from 2005-2009 while Mike Griffin was Administrator.

Shana Dale.  Photo Credit:  NASA

She joined NASA after serving in several positions, including Chief of Staff, at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.  Before and after her Executive Branch assignments she worked on Capitol Hill serving as Staff Director for the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee of the House Science Committee (now the House Science, Space and Technology Committee) in the late 1990s and more recently as principal policy advisor to that committee from 2012-2013 while Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX) was chairman.   In between leaving NASA in 2009 and returning to the House committee in 2012 she was Sector Leader for Science, Engineering and Technologies Services at Dell, Inc. 

Dale is a lawyer by training, with a J.D. from California Western School of Law and a B.S. in Business Administration from the University of Tulsa.

Steltzner: Mars Curiosity's Fabeled SkyCrane was a "Manuever," Not a "Thing"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Oct-2014 (Updated: 10-Oct-2014 07:34 PM)

Adam Steltzner, who headed the Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) team for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and its rover, Curiosity, corrected a widespread misperception about the mission's SkyCrane during a lecture at the National Academy of Sciences last week.  It is not a "thing," but a "maneuver," he explained as he recounted the challenges of designing an EDL system for such a heavy lander and the lessons learned from the experience.

Steltzner was selected as the winner of the first Yvonne C. Brill Lectureship in Aerospace Engineering sponsored by the National Academy of Engineering and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).   This inaugural Brill Lecture was held on September 30, 2014.  A video of the event, which also includes tributes to Brill, a distinguished aerospace engineer who passed away last year, is available on the University of Maryland's website.

Steltzner, an aerospace engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA, provided a lot of detail of the design and testing of the EDL system for the 900 kilogram (2,000 pound) rover that recently completed its second Earth year (first Mars year) exploring the Red Planet.  The process of getting from the top of the Mars atmosphere to the surface was nicknamed early on as the Seven Minutes of Terror with an animation (narrated by Steltzner and colleagues) vividly showing just how much had to go right for the rover to safely settle at the bottom of Mars' Gale Crater.

The term SkyCrane seemed to accurately describe the rocket-propelled device slowly lowering the rover, hanging from tethers, to the surface before it flies away out of sight to avoid landing on top of its precious cargo.  That is not the SkyCrane however.  It "is a maneuver, not a thing," Steltzner emphasized, which was originally called "direct placement" before someone came up with the catchier nomenclature.  It is the "act" of lowering the rover to the surface and then flying away rather than the hardware employed to accomplish that feat.  He added that the SkyCrane was judged to be the "least unacceptable solution" to the question of how to land the heavy rover.

Steltzner shared lessons learned and some of the cost-saving measures JPL used such as basing the descent engine on the type used for the 1970s-era Viking Mars probes instead of starting from scratch.   As luck would have it, JPL's Carl Guernsey had kept one of the Viking engines under his desk for all those years and it was used for testing for the MSL project.   NASA has landed other rovers on Mars since Viking, but they were much smaller and could use simpler landing technologies (e.g. airbags).

The lecture is full of entertaining engineering stories, such as how the first signal JPL received of the spacecraft's condition as it "kissed" the Martian atmosphere on the way down was that it had entered at a bad angle with "catastrophic" results.  Steltzner and his team held their breaths until more signals arrived moments later showing a nominal entry into the atmosphere.  They later determined the error message was the result of a bad sensor.

The Brill Lectureship is a biennial award administered by AIAA, which will release a call for nominations for the next award at the appropriate time.

The September 30 event included several tributes to Brill from colleagues, family and friends.   Steve Battel, who served on the National Research Council's Space Studies Board with Brill, offered highlights of Brill's 60-year engineering career, including her invention of a hydrazine thruster when she worked for RCA (once one of the major U.S. satellite manufacturers) that revolutionized station-keeping for geostationary satellites and is still used today.  She received many honors for that invention, including the 2010 National Medal of Technology and Innovation presented by President Obama in 2011. 

Colleague Jill Tietjen recalled Brill's role as mentor to many women engineers and determination to ensure that women were recognized for their achievements.   Brill's son, Matt, charmingly described growing up with parents who inspired their two sons and daughter to become scientists or engineers themselves.  All did, though Matt revealed that his brother, Joe, originally an electrical engineer, decided to get an MBA and go into the financial services business after a Mars mission he worked on (Mars Observer) failed just before it was to enter Mars orbit in 1993.  The engineering tradition is now moving into a third generation -- Matt's daughter is studying engineering in college now.  Yvonne Brill was 88 when she died in March 2013.  She and her husband, Bill, a chemist, were married for 59 years until Bill's death in 2010.

The creation of the Lectureship and organization of the September 30 event was led by Elaine Oran, a close friend of Brill's who spent most of her career at the Naval Research Laboratory and recently moved to the University of Maryland, and is herself the winner of many awards.

NASA Rescinds CCtCAP Stop-Work Order, Boeing and SpaceX May Proceed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Oct-2014 (Updated: 09-Oct-2014 05:09 PM)

NASA today rescinded its directive to Boeing and SpaceX to stop work on the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contracts because of the protest filed by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC).   The agency said it was acting under its statutory authority to avoid significant adverse consequences.

In a posting to its commercial crew website, NASA said a failure to provide commercial crew services for the ISS as soon as possible could pose a risk to ISS crews, jeopardize continued ISS operations, delay increasing the size of the ISS crew from 6 to 7 (the additional crew member's time would be primarily devoted to scientific research that is the fundamental rationale for building the ISS), and could result in the United States failing to meet its international commitments.

"These considerations compelled NASA to use its statutory authority to avoid significant adverse consequences where contract performance remained suspended," NASA said.

NASA awarded the CCtCAP contracts on September 16, but SNC filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on September 26.  GAO has 100 days to rule on the protest, which could have delayed worked until January 2015.