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Commercial Space News

Senate Adopts Ex-Im Bank Extension, But Fate Still Uncertain

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Jul-2015 (Updated: 27-Jul-2015 11:28 PM)

The Senate tonight adopted an amendment to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank as part of a Highway Trust Fund reauthorization bill.  House Republican leaders stated earlier today, however, that they will not bring the Senate bill to the floor for a vote.

The amendment, offered by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on behalf of Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), has been the source of bitter contention with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and other conservatives who consider the bank to be "corporate welfare." The bank assists in the financing of U.S. exports, including aerospace products, and advocates insist that without it American exports will suffer and jobs will be lost.  The Aerospace Industries Association and the Satellite Industry Association are among its supporters.

The bank's authority to operate ended on June 30 when a previous reauthorization attempt failed.  The bank can continue current operations, but cannot take on new projects until and unless it is reauthorized.

The Kirk amendment would extend its authorization for four years.  Yesterday the Senate voted 67-26 to allow the amendment to be offered.   Tonight the vote was 64-29 to adopt it. The Senate has yet to vote on the underlying bill.  Even assuming that it passes, its fate is far from certain.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) vowed today that the House will not take up the Senate bill.  The House and Senate disagree not only on the Ex-Im Bank issue, but on the underlying highway bill that allows disbursement of funds from the Highway Trust Fund for highways, highway safety, and public transportation projects.  The Highway Trust Fund's authorization expires on Friday, July 31.  The House is scheduled to begin its August recess on Friday, so some type of agreement will have to be made - perhaps a short term extension.  The House already passed a 5 month extension of the highway bill -- without an Ex-Im Bank provision -- and McCarthy wants the Senate to pass that bill, not the version now before the Senate.

What happens next is anyone's guess.

Senate Agrees to Consider Amendment to Reauthorize Ex-Im Bank

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Jul-2015 (Updated: 26-Jul-2015 07:06 PM)

The Senate took a small, but important, step towards potentially reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank during a rare Sunday session today.  The action does not reauthorize the bank, but sets up a vote on an amendment to do just that later in the week, perhaps as early as tomorrow (Monday).

The Export-Import Bank, created in 1934, assists in the financing of U.S. exports, including aerospace products such as communications satellites.  The Aerospace Industries Association and the Satellite Industry Association are among those trying to convince Congress to reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank.   Its authority to operate expired on June 30 when previous efforts at reauthorization failed.  The bank may continue existing operations for now, but cannot take on new projects.

The issue is divisive within both the Republican and Democratic parties.  Advocates argue that without the bank, exports of American goods will suffer and jobs will be lost.   Opponents insist that it is corporate welfare.  Boeing and General Electric are frequent targets of those critics because they reportedly received two-thirds of the bank's loan commitments between 2007 and 2013, but advocates, including President Obama, counter that smaller companies also benefit, including those that are suppliers to the big companies.

To expedite action, the Senate voted today to allow Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) to offer an amendment to an unrelated highway bill later this week.  The highway bill is "must pass" legislation because without it funds from the Highway Trust Fund cannot be disbursed to pay for highways, highway safety, and public transportation projects. That bill also is controversial.  It is far from certain that even if the Senate does pass the highway bill, with the Ex-Im bank reauthorization included, that the House will agree with either of those actions.  The House is scheduled to begin its month-long August recess on Friday, with last votes expected no later than 3:00 pm ET on Thursday.

That gives the Senate only a few days to pass its bill and try to reach a compromise with the House in order to send legislation to the President' before the Highway Trust Fund authorization expires on July 31.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is a strident opponent of the bank and on Friday publicly accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) of lying to him and other Senate Republicans about the issue in a blistering statement on the Senate floor (which is available on YouTube).  Such intra-party disputes are not typically aired in front of the C-SPAN cameras.

The procedural vote today to allow Kirk to offer the amendment was 67-26 (60 votes were needed).  Cruz and 25 other Republicans voted against it.  

That does not signal what the fate of the amendment itself will be when it is finally debated, however.   Some of those who voted to allow the amendment to be offered may nonetheless oppose the amendment itself.   At the moment, the Kirk amendment is on the schedule for tomorrow (Monday, July 27), along with several other amendments.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has a useful report explaining the Ex-Im Bank controversy.

NTSB Ready To Vote on Final Report on SpaceShipTwo Crash

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Jul-2015 (Updated: 26-Jul-2015 06:15 PM)

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will meet in public session on Tuesday, July 28, to deliberate and vote on its report on the probable cause of the October 31, 2014 SpaceShipTwo (SS2) crash.   The meeting begins at 9:30 am ET and will be webcast on the NTSB website.

The NTSB ordinarily has five members, but there is one vacancy at the moment.  The Tuesday meeting is an opportunity for all four members to hear from the NTSB staff at the same time about their findings, conclusions and recommendations.   The Board members have had access to factual reports and draft staff reports already, but this is the formal unveiling and opportunity for debate.  The Board will vote to adopt or modify the staff's draft.  The Board can make changes to the recommendations, although an NTSB spokesman told SpacePolicyOnline. com on Friday that typically they add or suggest rewordings to staff-developed recommendations rather than making wholesale changes.

The NTSB does not hold public meetings for all of its hundreds of investigations every year, but only for those of significant public interest.  NTSB chairman Christopher Hart, who was acting chairman at the time of the SS2 crash, pointed out that this is the first spaceflight accident it has investigated.  He was on-site at Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, CA, where the crash occurred for the initial phase of the investigation and provided the public briefings.


NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart
Photo credit:  NTSB website

The factual documents produced by the staff will be made public on Tuesday at 9:00 am ET, half an hour before the meeting.  They will be posted on the NTSB website.  Parties to NTSB investigations have access to NTSB's factual documents during the investigation, but are not allowed to speak about them until the NTSB adopts its report.  The parties may submit their own documents responding to the NTSB's findings both before and after the NTSB adopts the final report that are also made part of the public record, but the parties do not address the Board at the public meeting.  In this case, the parties include the FAA, Scaled Composites, and Virgin Galactic.

This is the final action by the Board, although it is possible for a party to file a petition for reconsideration if new, relevant information becomes available that has the potential to change the probable cause.

The technical cause of the crash was evident almost immediately.  SS2 co-pilot Michael Alsbury, who died in the crash, prematurely moved one of two levers that activate a feathering system intended to slow the spaceplane during descent.   Why he did so and why the feathering system deployed even though the second lever was not activated are among the subjects of the investigation.

SS2 was built by Scaled Composites for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, which plans to send tourists on suborbital space flights using these spaceplanes.  The company planned to build five of them.  The one destroyed on October 31 was the first and only operational spaceplane.  A second spaceplane was already under construction and that is continuing although the date for a test flight is uncertain.  Virgin Galactic President George Whitesides said in January that the company will "recover, we'll learn the hard lessons from the accident, and return to flight."   The company is also developing a version of its system, LauncherOne, that will be used to launch small satellites instead of people.

What's Happening in Space Policy July 26-31, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Jul-2015 (Updated: 26-Jul-2015 11:43 AM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of July 26-31, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  Congress is in session this week.

During the Week

The House is scheduled to begin its annual August recess on Friday (no votes are scheduled after Thursday at 3:00 pm ET), so this is the last week for Congress to deal with any "must pass" legislation for programs expiring at the end of July.  To that end, the Senate is beginning its week today, Sunday, in a continuing attempt to pass a bill to reauthorize expenditures from the Highway Trust Fund for highway, highway safety, and public transportation programs that otherwise will expire on July 31.  While the highway bill per se is not a space-related issue, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has agreed to allow an amendment to be offered to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank.  Last month, Congress failed to reauthorize the bank and its charter expired.  The bank is still operating, but cannot take on new projects. The bank offers loan guarantees for customers wanting to buy products -- like communications satellites -- from U.S. manufacturers and the Aerospace Industries Association and Satellite Industry Association are among its supporters.  Critics claim it is corporate welfare. The issue splits both parties and has the Senate in turmoil.  Even if a bill does pass the Senate, there is no guarantee the House will go along. The Senate is scheduled to be in session during the first week of August, but if the House recesses as planned, it would not be able to pass a compromise until it returns in September, so the Senate would have to agree to something the House already passed, perhaps a short-term extension for the highway funds and/or the Ex-Im Bank.  What will happen is very much up in the air.

With such disarray, the likelihood of other legislation passing is diminished, but it is always possible that relatively non-controversial bills could get through.  One possibility is the Senate Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, S. 1297, which was formally reported from the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday (S. Rept. 114-88).  Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is the main sponsor of the bill, however, and his verbal attack on McConnell on the Senate floor on Friday because of the Ex-Im bank issue (available on YouTube) might weigh against it getting a spot on the calendar, which McConnell controls.  It really is anyone's guess, though.

This is "NAC week" at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA.   Many of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) committees will meet early in the week, with the full NAC meeting Wednesday afternoon through Friday morning.   The committee and Council meetings are available by WebEx and telephone for anyone who wants to listen in.  Bear in mind that times listed on the agendas are in local time at the meeting venue -- Pacific Daylight Time in this case.

On Tuesday, trying to tune into those meetings will compete with three interesting events in Washington, DC:  the National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB's) public meeting to finalize its report on the October 2014 SpaceShipTwo crash beginning at 9:30 am ET; a House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee hearing at 10:00 am ET on planetary exploration -- including testimony from the Principal Investigators for the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres (Alan Stern and Christopher Russell, respectively); and a NOAA briefing at 1:00 pm ET on 10 Years Since Hurricane Katrina featuring NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan and the heads of NOAA's four line offices, including Steve Volz, who is in charge of NOAA's satellite programs.  All three events are available by webcast or WebEx.

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

Monday-Tuesday, July 27-28

Monday-Wednesday, July 27-29

Monday-Friday, July 27-31

Tuesday, July 28

Tuesday-Wednesday, July 28-29

Wednesday-Friday, July 29-31

Ted Cruz and Star Trek

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Jul-2015 (Updated: 24-Jul-2015 12:40 AM)

While not the same type of space policy pronouncements made by other presidential contenders, Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) expounded on his views of the fictional Captains James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard in an interview with the New York Times published on Thursday.

As a Senator, Cruz has made clear that he believes NASA should focus on space exploration, not earth science and that he is an advocate for commercial space.   He chairs the Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which sets policy and authorizes funding for NASA. 

Turns out he is also a Star Trek fan with strong views on whether Kirk or Picard is the better character.

In an interview with Ana Marie Cox, Cruz called Kirk "working class" and a "passionate fighter for justice" as compared to Picard, an "aristocrat" and "cerebral philosopher."  He prefers Kirk, adding that he thinks Kirk would be a Republican and Picard a Democrat.

The rather odd exchange did not add much to the knowledge base of what Cruz would do with the space program if he becomes President, but it was fun.

Two other presidential candidates, Jeb Bush (R) and Hillary Clinton (D) have expressed their enthusiastic support for NASA.  Bush was governor of Florida, home of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center, for eight years.  Clinton wanted to be an astronaut when she was 14.

GAO Denies Ball's JPSS Bid Protest, Orbital ATK Resumes Work

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Jul-2015 (Updated: 21-Jul-2015 06:39 PM)

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) denied a bid protest by Ball Aerospace against NASA's award of a contract to Orbital ATK to build spacecraft for NOAA's Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).  Details of GAO's ruling have not been released, but the decision to deny Ball's protest was issued on July 16.

Ralph White, GAO's Managing Associate General Counsel for Procurement Law told SpacePolicyOnline.com that the decision is covered by a protective order and GAO is waiting for the parties to "promptly" identify any information that cannot be publicly released.  Once they have received those replies, a redacted version of the decision will be released to the public.

In an emailed statement, White explained that Ball argued that Orbital ATK's "lower-priced, but lower-rated proposal" should not have won because it "violated the terms of the solicitation" and the proposal evaluation "was unreasonable."  GAO found "no basis to sustain the protest," however.  He also said that the delivery order to Orbital ATK is valued at $470 million "while Ball's price for the spacecraft was significantly higher."

JPSS is NOAA's new polar-orbiting weather satellite system, designed for the civil sector after the NOAA-DOD-NASA National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program was cancelled due to years of schedule delays and cost overruns.   JPSS is a NOAA program, but NASA is the satellite procurement agent for NOAA and thus the JPSS contract is controlled by NASA.

To accelerate the availability of JPSS-1, NASA awarded a sole source contract to Ball Aerospace to build another spacecraft similar to that used for NASA's Suomi-NPP, which is now in orbit. JPSS-1 is scheduled for launch in 2017.

This contract is for JPSS-2, with options for JPSS-3 and JPSS-4.   Congress is providing full funding for JPSS-1 and JPSS-2, but is less enthusiastic about funding JPSS-3 and JPSS-4, which is called the Polar Follow On (PFO) in NOAA's FY2016 budget request.  NOAA is requesting $380 million for PFO in FY2016.  The House zeroed the request in its version of the FY2016 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill.  The Senate Appropriations Committee recommended $135 million.

JPSS-2, however, is in fine shape budgetarily.  NOAA wants to launch it no later than the fourth quarter of FY2021.   NASA awarded the contract to Orbital ATK on March 24, 2015, but work was suspended on April 8 after Ball filed its protest.   NASA spokesman Stephen Cole said that NASA notified Orbital ATK on July 17 that the suspension was lifted and directed the company to resume work.

The contract is valued at $253 million for JPSS-2 and $217 million for JPSS-3 and JPSS-4 options.  Orbital ATK will design and fabricate the spacecraft, integrate government-furnished instruments, conduct satellite-level testing and support in-orbit check-out and mission operations, the company said when the contract was awarded in March.  The spacecraft is based on the LEOStar-3 platform used for several NASA satellites, including Fermi, Swift, Landsat-8, and ICESAT-2, as well as commercial imaging and defense satellites.

Orbital ATK Space Systems Group Director of Communications Vicki Cox said today that the company is resuming work pursuant to NASA's direction and looks forward to providing "critical weather forecasting data for the next several decades."

Ball Aerospace Media Relations Manager Roz Brown said via email that while the company is "obviously disappointed" with the result, it appreciates the GAO review process.  She added that the company has the option of asking for reconsideration after reviewing the public version of the decision, but "we have no present intention to ask" for it.  She also said that the company hopes to have the public version in a week to 10 days.

For more on NOAA's satellite programs, see our fact sheet "NOAA's FY2016 Budget Request for Satellites."

Failed Strut Likely Cause of Falcon 9 Failure, But Investigation Continues

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 21-Jul-2015 (Updated: 21-Jul-2015 12:49 AM)

SpaceX’s Elon Musk told reporters during a media teleconference that preliminary conclusions point to an upper stage strut that “broke free” as the likely cause of the Falcon 9 failure on June 28.  He did not state when the rocket would return to flight, only that it would not be before September.

Musk said that initial assessments point to the failure of a metal strut inside the rocket’s upper stage as the likely cause of the explosion that destroyed a Dragon spacecraft carrying cargo bound for the International Space Station (ISS).  It was the company’s seventh operational cargo resupply mission for NASA under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract – SpaceX CRS-7 or SpX-7.  (Musk and other SpaceX officials use "second stage" and "upper stage" synonymously when referring to the segment that failed.)

Musk explained that the steel struts are designed to hold high-pressure helium bottles inside the upper stage’s liquid oxygen tank, but that one of them snapped while the stage was accelerating. When the strut broke, the helium bottle “shot to the top of the tank at high speed,” overpressurizing the tank and likely causing the explosion.

The strut, which is provided by a supplier that Musk did not want to name to avoid unnecessary “recrimination,” failed at 2,000 lbs of thrust - five times below what it is designed to withstand. SpaceX has been able to replicate the failure, conducting tests on thousands of these struts and finding that a few others snapped at a point far below their rated force level. As a result, Musk said SpaceX will move to individual testing of each strut independent of outside certification. This, he said, will result in a cost increase, but not “of a significant amount” so that the price of the vehicle should remain unaffected.

Musk said that the failed strut was the “most probable, but not definitive outcome” of the ongoing investigation, noting that there is still work to do.  Investigators are still puzzling over telemetry data that shows a drop in helium pressure, and then a rise back to starting pressure, something he described as “quite confusing.”  Analysis is ongoing.

The investigation also revealed that if the Dragon had deployed its parachutes before falling into the ocean, the spacecraft would have survived. The software in this cargo version of Dragon (Dragon 1), Musk explained, is inert on ascent and was not programmed to release the parachute in the event of a failure.  Software in the version of Dragon under development for taking people into space (Dragon 2 or Crew Dragon) is programmed to do just that.  Musk said they would be working on software fixes to ensure that the Dragon 1 cargo spacecraft can do what it needs to survive. “We could have saved Dragon if we had the right software there,” he said.

Musk said SpaceX customers, including NASA and the U.S. Air Force, had been briefed and were very supportive, indicating “no diminished faith in SpaceX.”

He indicated that return to flight would happen no sooner than September and that who the next customer will be is not clear. While addressing the strut issue is “fairly straightforward” Musk said he wants to ensure the issue is diagnosed correctly and that flights do not resume without everyone being “on board” with the changes.  In a press release issued after the media teleconference, the company said it expects to "return to flight this fall and fly all the customers we intended to fly in 2015 by the end of the year."

This was SpaceX’s first launch failure in seven years, and the only one for the majority of its 4,000 employees who joined the company during that time.   Musk noted that to some degree the company became “a little bit complacent,” and that this failure was an “important lesson” moving forward.

SpaceX said in its press release that the failure was "regrettable," but the review process ultimately will "yield a safer and more reliable launch vehicle."

What's Happening in Space Policy July 20-24, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Jul-2015 (Updated: 19-Jul-2015 12:47 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of July 20-24, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  Congress is in session this week.

During the Week

SpaceX will hold a telecon with media representatives tomorrow (Monday) at noon Pacific Time (3:00 pm ET) to discuss preliminary findings from its investigation of the June 28, 2015 SpaceX CRS-7 launch failure.  The emailed announcement says it is for media only and will last 30 minutes, which does not allow much time for Q&A, but undoubtedly will be of great interest.

Meanwhile, NASA and Rocosmos are getting ready to launch Soyuz TMA-17M with three new crew members to the International Space Station (ISS) on Wednesday Eastern Daylight Time (where it already will be Thursday local time at the launch site in Kazakhstan).  NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, JAXA astronaut Kimiya Yui, and Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko will join three colleagues (NASA's Scott Kelly and Roscosmos' Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka) already on board, restoring the crew complement to its usual six.  The TMA-17M launch was delayed following the Progress M-27M launch failure in April. 

NASA said on Friday that it would have another press briefing on the results from the New Horizons flyby of Pluto this coming Friday, but the time and other details have not been announced yet.

Those and other events coming up this week that we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below.

Monday, July 20

Tuesday, July 21

Tuesday-Wednesday, July 21-22

Tuesday-Thursday, July 21-23

Wednesday, July 22

Thursday, July 23

Friday, July 24

  •  NASA Briefing on Results from New Horizons Pluto flyby (tentative, details TBD)

Hillary Clinton: "I Really, Really Do Support the Space Program"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Jul-2015 (Updated: 17-Jul-2015 02:34 AM)

Hillary Clinton became the second of the 2016 presidential candidates to offer strong support for the space program.  Speaking at a town hall meeting in Dover, NH, today she explained not only why she supports investing in space exploration, including the need to track asteroids, but repeated the story of her desire to become an astronaut when she was a teenager.

Clinton responded to a question about her views on the space program -- which began with a shout out from the questioner for the New Horizons mission to Pluto -- by saying "I really, really do support the space program."

She recounted the story.of how she wrote to NASA when she was about 14 asking what she needed to do to become an astronaut.  NASA replied that they did not accept applications from.girls.  After lauding the fact that that changed as demonstrated by Sally Ride and other woman astronauts, Clinton said she clearly would not have qualified anyway and has not lost any sleep over it.

She continued to talk for several minutes about the need for the government to invest in the space program along with other science and technology activities for many reasons, including economic benefits and discovery.   She also mentioned security and in that vein noted in particular the need to track asteroids. 

"I think [the space program] is a good investment, so on my list of things that I want our country to invest in, in terms of research and innovation and .... basic science, exploring space, exploring our oceans, exploring our genome.  We're at the brink of all kinds of new information.  Let's not back off now!"

The questioner had asked if the time has come for space activities to be done by corporations instead of the government.  Clinton said she has nothing against partnering with corporations, but "they are more in the applied science arena,  not in the discovery and research arena that I think only the government can support."

The town hall meeting was broadcast by C-SPAN.

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush expressed his support for the space program last week.

ISS Operations OK Despite Cargo Losses, But What's the Future?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Jul-2015 (Updated: 11-Jul-2015 10:24 PM)

Despite the failure of three cargo missions to the International Space Station (ISS) over the past 8 months, operations aboard the orbiting laboratory are fine, NASA and Boeing officials told Congress on Friday. The question is what the future will be for ISS and, perhaps more importantly, for low Earth orbit (LEO) research opportunities after ISS ends.

Those questions were addressed -- if not definitively answered -- at a June 10, 2015 hearing before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.  Witnesses with NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier; Boeing Vice President and General Manager for Space Exploration John Elbon; NASA Inspector General (IG) Paul Martin; Government Accountability Office (GAO) expert Shelby Oakley; and Penn State physiologist and kinesiologist James Pawelczyk, who flew as a payload specialist on the 1998 Neurolab space shuttle mission.  (Boeing was the prime contractor for the ISS and continues to provide sustaining engineering for the U.S. segment.)

Current Status of ISS.   Gerstenmaier and Elbon repeatedly said ISS today is fine despite the losses of three cargo ships over the past 8 months: Orbital Sciences Corporation's (now Orbital ATK) Orb-3 in October 2014; Russia's Progress M-27M in April 2015, and SpaceX's CRS-7 (SpX-7) in June 2015.

That is not to say nothing of value was lost.   Gerstenamier estimates that NASA lost $110 million worth of cargo on the SpX-7 mission alone.  NASA bears that cost, just as the researchers who lost their experiments are not reimbursed. Gerstenmaier said NASA is now looking at buying insurance for its cargo.

Of most concern is the International Docking Adapter (IDA) that was on SpX-7.  Two IDAs are needed for the two upcoming commercial crew vehicles -- SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 -- to dock with the ISS.  The second is already awaiting launch, but a third will have to be built to replace the one lost on SpX-7.  Some parts are available and the schedule can be met, but there will be a "dollar loss" to the ISS program, Gerstenmaier said.

He added some research experiments were lost twice -- first on Orb-3 and then again on SpX-7 after they were quickly reconstituted for reflight.  And the Progress M-27M failure delayed the launch of three ISS crew members (now scheduled for July 22 Eastern Daylight Time), reducing the amount of research that the ISS crew can conduct.

In essence, basic operations of ISS were not affected by the three cargo spacecraft losses, but  "the research impacts"  cannot be recovered.

Responsibility for Cargo Losses and Accident Investigations.  The role NASA is playing in the investigations of the Orb-3 and SpX-7 failures was a repeated theme during the hearing.  Gerstenmaier and NASA IG Martin reminded the committee that they were commercial launches licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the investigations take place under FAA's regulations.  That means that the respective companies take the lead.  Gerstenmaier stressed, however, that NASA as well as the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are fully engaged in those investigations and NASA can do its own independent review if necessary.   He believes both Orbital ATK and SpaceX are being completely transparent in their investigations, however.

Gerstenmaier said the three accidents over such a short period of time was unexpected, but "the tragedy will be if we don't learn from these events."  It is a "painful" learning process, but one better learned on cargo than crewed missions, he added.

Russia as a Partner.  Gerstenmaier reassured the subcommittee that Russia is a strong and reliable partner on ISS despite tensions between the U.S. and Russian governments here on Earth.  The day before this hearing, the President's nominee to be the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford (USMC), told a Senate committee that Russia is the "greatest threat" to the United States.   Gerstenmaier, however, said that the cooperation on ISS "transcends" those differences.  "The challenge of human spaceflight ... transcends ... the toughness of the outside world."  He characterized the technical relationship between the two countries with regard to operating ISS as "extremely strong and extremely transparent in spite of governmental tensions" and the two are working together "extremely effectively."  The two countries are "mutually dependent" in terms of ISS operations and interact on a daily basis.

Research on the ISS.    Pawelczyk stressed the need for more crew hours dedicated to research.  Crew time is the biggest constraint on research and "we need that seventh crew member."  NASA plans to increase the current six-person ISS crew to seven once the U.S. commercial crew systems are operational.

Most importantly, to learn what is needed to successfully send humans to Mars, biological research on the ISS must expand to cover the entire mammalian life cycle and incorporate the effects of the partial gravity humans will experience on Mars, Pawelczyk urged.  For that, the centrifuge capability on the ISS must be "improved."   The space station originally was intended to include a module with a 2.4 meter centrifuge capable of experimenting with humans in varying levels of gravity ("g"), not just the microgravity of a space station in LEO, but the centrifuge module was cancelled due to budget constraints.  The Moon has 1/6 g and Mars has 1/3 g.  How humans might respond to those partial gravity levels rather than microgravity is an open question.  

Pawelczyk also cautioned that as ISS ages, more time may be needed for maintenance, further reducing the amount of time available for research.  GAO's Oakley made a related  point.   She said NASA's top priorities for the ISS are safety and crew transportation, maintenance, and research, in that order.  If costs increase for the first two, she warned, that could mean less money for research.

Pawelczyk praised NASA for its turn around in the past 5 years in supporting the biological and physical scientists who want to do research in space, calling it a "transformation" that is "nothing less than remarkable."  NASA is listening to the advice from the National Research Council's Decadal Survey that recommended priorities for physical and biological research in space, he said, and a new generation of researchers is emerging.

Extending ISS to 2024 Or Beyond.  Several subcommittee members said that Congress has not yet authorized operation of ISS beyond 2020, citing the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, implying that it could not continue beyond that without further congressional action.  The 2010 Act (P.L. 111-267), however, authorizes operation of ISS "through at least 2020" so does not establish a formal end date. Absent further congressional action, presumably it could continue.  At the moment,  S. 1297, the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, approved by the Senate Commerce Committee in May, would extend ISS through "at least 2024."  The House-passed 2015 NASA Authorization Act (for which there is no Senate counterpart yet) asks for a report from NASA on the costs for extending ISS to 2024 or 2030.  That provision also is in the version of the 2016-2017 NASA Authorization Act adopted by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in April. 

Elbon said that Boeing's analysis shows that ISS will be structurally sound at least until 2028, but the key is finding researchers to use it and providing adequate funding.

Gerstenmaier was asked how many of the ISS partners have committed to extending ISS operations to 2024 as proposed last year by President Obama.  Only Canada, he replied.  He is optimistic that Russia will agree by the end of this year.  Japan may approve late this year or early next year, and the European Space Agency (ESA) perhaps in 2017, he forecast.

NASA IG Martin said that several reports by his office have looked at extending ISS to 2024 and while NASA says there are no major obstacles, his office disagrees.  In particular, it found NASA's cost estimate of $3-4 billion per year for ISS operations "optimistic."  Martin said ISS costs have increased approximately 8 percent per year on average, but was 26 percent between FY2011 and FY2013. 

GAO's Oakley agreed.  She said GAO has not seen any formal costs estimates from NASA for operations beyond 2020. 

What's Next?  ISS has a finite lifetime.  There is no disagreement on that, only on whether it will stop in 2020, 2024, 2028 or later, and what, if anything, comes next.  

NASA's plans are focused on moving out into cis-lunar space and eventually to Mars, not on building more research facilities in LEO.   Gerstenmaier said NASA is "looking to see if we can leave low Earth orbit to commercial companies,"  emphasizing that a facility on the order of the ISS may not be necessary. Small spacecraft like a SpaceX Dragon or Orbital ATK Cygnus outfitted for research could be sufficient.  SpaceX is working on a DragonLab version of the Dragon spacecraft, for example.  NASA wants to use ISS to "let the private sector understand the benefits" of research in microgravity and determine if there is a market there.