Commercial Space News
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.”
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
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.
Sen. Ted Cruz’s first hearing as chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA and commercial space activities was politely inquisitive and not confrontational as some expected. Cruz (R-TX), a leading Tea Party activist, is a relative unknown quantity on space issues. The hearing exhibited that he is an advocate of U.S. leadership in space, ending U.S. reliance on Russia, and supporter of commercial space.
As is typical, few Senators attended yesterday’s hearing before the Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), the top Democrat (Ranking Member) on the subcommittee, and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), were there only briefly because they also serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where Secretary of State John Kerry was testifying at the same time. (Ironically, Gardner unseated Udall’s cousin, Mark Udall, for that Colorado Senate seat in last year’s election.)
Cruz chaired the hearing for the full duration and was joined for most of it by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who was the chairman of this subcommittee in the last Congress when Democrats controlled the Senate. Nelson is now Ranking Member of the full committee. Cruz was the Ranking Member on the subcommittee in the last Congress, so the two have worked together on these topics in the past as well as on other committees and rarely see eye to eye. In this case, however, Cruz’s opening statement was a pep talk about the space program full of familiar themes about the need for U.S. leadership in space and ending U.S. dependence on Russia. Nelson noted the similarities in their views on those subjects, at least, and the two bantered about how the fact that they agreed on something could be used against them in future political campaigns.
The hearing broke little new ground, but sparked interesting dialogue. One panel of former astronauts offered the usual hopes of human trips to Mars coupled with familiar warnings that NASA’s budget needs to grow to accomplish such a goal. A second panel of industry and academic experts offered perspectives on commercial space, U.S. leadership, future human spaceflight destinations, and preferences in reauthorizing the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA).
The first panel was comprised of three former astronauts: Apollo 7’s Walter Cunningham, Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin (the second man to walk on the Moon), and space shuttle astronaut Mike Massimino. The second panel was Boeing’s John Elbon, George Washington University’s Scott Pace, and the Commercial Spaceflight Federation’s Eric Stallmer.
Cruz is a vocal climate change skeptic and concerns were widely expressed in the space community when he became chairman of this subcommittee that he would use his position to try to restrict funding for NASA’s earth science research. Cunningham is also a climate change skeptic and his inclusion on the panel fueled expectations that the hearing would focus on that topic. In fact, however, climate change barely arose and only in response to a question from Udall to Massimino about whether he agreed that NASA should remain a multi-mission agency including funding programs for earth observation. Massimino discoursed about how the International Space Station is a great “perch” for viewing Earth and his belief that if NASA can help with any of the problems facing the country and the world, it should.
Except for his opening statement, Cruz kept his own views to himself and asked thought provoking questions that allowed the witnesses an opportunity to share their perspectives.
Cruz’s key messages in that statement were: NASA needs to get back to its “core priorities” of exploring space; the United States should be the leader in space; SLS and Orion are critical to exploring space “whether it is Moon, Mars or beyond” (omitting mention of asteroids); U.S. dependence on Russia for access to ISS is “unacceptable” and it is “imperative” that we be able to get to the ISS without the Russians; the commercial crew program is “critical” to ending U.S. dependence on Russia; and the United States should be able to launch national security satellites without Russian engines. He said he is encouraged by progress on commercial cargo and crew, but “maximum efficiency and expedition” are needed, and he will be an “enthusiastic advocate of competition and the enabling of the private sector to compete and innovate.” He ended by saying “There is no limit to human imagination or desire for exploration …. America has always led the way in space exploration and we need to reclaim that leadership.”
Interesting tidbits from the hearing include the following:
The written statements of the witnesses and an archived webcast are available on the committee’s website.
The Space Frontier Foundation, the National Space Society and nine other organizations are forming a new Alliance for Space Development "dedicated to influencing the goals of space development and settlement."
A press conference announcing the formation of the alliance is scheduled for Wednesday (February 25) on Capitol Hill.
A Space Frontier Foundation press release identifies the other nine organizations as:
Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of February 23-27, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
This is one of those weeks when so much is going on that it's difficult to choose just a couple of events to highlight. Please peruse the list below to find your own favorites.
There are seven congressional hearings of interest to the space policy community, though one suspects two are of particular note to readers of this website: Tuesday's Senate hearing on the U.S. human spaceflight program and commercial space competitiveness (with three former astronauts, including Buzz Aldrin), and Friday's House hearing on NASA's commercial crew program.
But the others should be of interest, too: Wednesday's House hearing with the NASA Inspector General (and his counterparts at the Departments of Commerce and Justice) and hearings on the FY2016 budget requests for the Department of Transportation (including the Office of Commercial Space Transportation), Air Force (where many national security space programs reside), and the Department of Commerce (home of NOAA). Many congressional hearings are webcast (though usually not the ones held in the U.S. Capitol), so you can enjoy them live or later in archived webcasts. We'll provide summaries of as many of them as we can.
Tuesday, February 24
Tuesday-Wednesday, February 24-25
Wednesday, February 25
Thursday, February 26
Friday, February 27
Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) will hold his first space-related hearing next week as chairman of the Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Among the six witnesses is Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin along with another Apollo veteran, Walt Cunningham, and space shuttle astronaut Mike Massimino.
The hearing is entitled "U.S. Human Exploration Goals and Commercial Space Competitiveness." In addition to the panel of former astronauts, a second panel includes representatives of industry and academia: John Elbon, Vice President and General Manager, Boeing Space Exploration; Scott Pace, Director, Space Policy Institute at George Washington University; and Eric Stallmer, President, Commercial Spaceflight Federation.
In an interview with the Houston Chronicle's Eric Berger last month that Cruz posted on his office website, he said that he is "an enthusiastic advocate of competition and allowing the private sector to innovate." He also signaled support for Orion and the Space Launch System and said he wants to refocus NASA on its "core priority of exploring space."
Cruz is an ardent advocate of cutting federal spending and is widely credited (or blamed) for the 16-day government shutdown in 2013 and delaying Senate adjournment in December 2014 due to his strong views on budgetary and other issues. What that will mean for NASA is anyone's guess this early in deliberations.
Democrats recently announced that Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) will be the ranking member of this subcommittee. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who chaired the subcommittee in the last Congress when the Senate was under Democratic control, is now the ranking member of the full committee. Sen. John Thune (R-SD) chairs the full committee.
This is the committee that will consider the President's nomination of MIT Professor Dava Newman to be NASA Deputy Administrator. No date has been announced for a confirmation hearing. Under usual procedures, it is also the committee that would consider a new NASA authorization bill, although the House has already passed such a bill and it could go directly to the Senate floor for debate if desired. The Senate never took up the House-passed NASA authorization bill last year. This year's House bill is virtually identical to last year's although it contains funding recommendations based on FY2015 rather than FY2014 appropriations levels. It does not make recommendations for future year funding.
The hearing is on Tuesday, February 24, 2015 at 2:00 pm ET in 253 Russell Senate Office Building.
OrbitalATK President and CEO David Thompson said today that the company plans the first flight of its upgraded Antares rocket on March 1, 2016 from Wallops Flight Facility, VA. An Antares exploded at liftoff in October 2014 destroying a Cygnus capsule loaded with supplies for the International Space Station (ISS). The upgraded Antares will use a different rocket engine.
Thompson and two other top officials of the new company held an investors teleconference this morning. The merger of Orbital Sciences Corporation and Alliant Techsystems (ATK) closed on February 9. Thompson and CFO Garrett Pierce are from the Orbital side of the merger; COO Blake Larson is from ATK.
Data presented by the trio this morning show that 56 percent of the company's revenue is from national security programs, 26 percent from commercial programs, and 18 percent from NASA and other civil government programs. NASA programs were numbers two and three of the five top revenue producers last year: NASA's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract to take cargo to the ISS (approximately $300 million) and the propulsion system for the Space Launch System (about $250 million). In first place was small caliber ammunition for the Army ($430 million). Fourth was medium and large caliber ammunition for the Army ($225 million) and fifth place was a tie between missile defense interceptors and tactical missiles, both at $150 million.
Public attention is focused on the merged company's recovery from the Antares failure. Thompson was confident that OrbitalATK will be able to fulfill its contract with NASA to deliver 20 tons of cargo to the ISS by the end of 2016. Between now and the first launch of the upgraded Antares, OrbitalATK will launch one of its Cygnus spacecraft on a competitor's rocket -- United Launch Alliance's Atlas 5. Thompson said that launch will be ready for flight in early October, but NASA may want to wait until later that month or November, depending on other ISS activities. That will be followed by the March 1 launch of the upgraded Antares and two more later in the year. The Cygnus itself is an upgraded model as well that can carry more cargo than the earlier version, allowing OrbitalATK to meet the tonnage requirements with only four more launches instead of five.
Thompson said that NASA is not asking the company to fly a demonstration launch of the upgraded rocket -- the March 1 launch will have a full cargo load. However, in January the company will conduct a test firing of the first stage on the launch pad at Wallops.
The first stage is built in Ukraine by Yuzhmash and Thompson was asked if he had any concerns considering the situation there. Thompson replied that he needs five more Antares first stages over the next two-and-a-half years and three are complete and the other two are "almost" complete. "We're watching closely with nearly full time presence" at Yuzhmash and "we do have a fallback plan if things really deteriorate there." No details were provided during the teleconference and the company has not yet responded to a query from SpacePolicyOnline.com about what that plan is.
The engines used for the original version of Antares were old Russian NK-33 engines manufactured more than four decades ago and refurbished here by Aerojet Rocketdyne and redesignated AJ26. Thompson said shortly after the October 28 launch failure that early indications were that the engines were the cause of the failure 15 seconds after launch.
The replacement engines also are Russian, but newer RD-181s built by NPO Energomash, a subsidiary of Energia. In a January 16, 2015 press release, Energia's President Vladimir Solntsev said the two companies had been working on the contract for three years. According to that press release, the contract value is $1 billion for 60 engines (plus engineering services), but apparently that is a firm contract for 20 engines plus two options for 20 more engines each. The first two engines are due to be delivered in June 2015. The RD-181 was "developed specifically" for Antares, according to the Energia press release, based on the RD-191 engine built for Russia's new Angara rocket family. Orbital/OrbitalATK itself has released very little information about the contract.
UPDATE, February 18: Friday's WSBR luncheon has been postponed.
Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of February 16-20, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. Congress is in recess this week in observance of Presidents' Day (which commemorates Abraham Lincoln's birthday on February 12 and George Washington's on February 22).
During the Week
Members of Congress will be working in their State or District offices this week instead of Washington, D.C., hearing directly from their constituents about whatever is on their minds.
Lots of non-congressional events are on tap, though, including what could be a very interesting investors conference call with the leadership of the brand new OrbitalATK on Thursday. This is the first such call for the merged company, which melds Orbital Sciences Corporation and Alliant TechSystems' (ATK's) aerospace business (it spun off its sporting division as part of the merger). Only financial folks get to ask questions, but anyone can listen and the company is actually making this available via webcast. Orbital's David Thompson is President and CEO of the merged company, and Garrett Pierce is CFO, the same positions they held at Orbital. Blake Larson, who headed ATK's Aerospace Group, is COO of the merged company.
The Director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Chris Scolese, will speak to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR) on Tuesday.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Editor's Note: Some of you may have heard about the Pioneering Space National Summit scheduled for Thursday and Friday. That event is by invitation only, so we do not list it. On a personal note, I wish them luck. I've been involved in too many of these exercises over the decades and declined their kind invitation to participate in yet another one. Perhaps this will be the one that makes a difference, but I admit to being skeptical.
Tuesday, February 17
Wednesday, February 18
Thursday, February 19
Thursday-Friday, February 19-20
Friday, February 20
The head of NOAA’s satellite division downplayed the chances of a gap in coverage by polar orbiting weather satellites at a House committee hearing on Thursday. The Government Accountability Office (GAO), which has been warning of potential gaps, asked that they put it in writing. Meanwhile, committee members made clear they want a different paradigm for the future with a greater focus on buying commercial weather data.
Potential Weather Satellite Coverage Gaps
For the past several years of hard fought budget battles, NOAA itself was the one raising red flags about the possibility that older weather satellites would wear out before new ones are launched, routinely issuing dire warnings to Congress about what would happen if there was a gap in coverage. The strategy worked and Congress began providing all the funding NOAA requested. Now the crisis seems to have passed from NOAA’s perspective, but GAO remains skeptical based on the information NOAA has made public to date.
At Thursday’s hearing before two subcommittees of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee on mitigating potential gaps in weather satellite coverage, the new head of NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS), Steve Volz, had quite a different message. Volz recently succeeded Mary Kicza as head of NESDIS after a long career primarily at NASA.
NOAA operates two weather satellite systems: one in polar orbit and the other in geostationary orbit. Concerns about gaps in coverage currently center on the polar orbiting system although NOAA's management of both systems has been the subject of intense scrutiny in recent years.
The overall concern is that the Suomi-NPP satellite launched in 2011 will cease functioning before the first of the new Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) satellites is launched and operational (which requires a multi-month checkout period). The issue is two-fold: how long S-NPP will last and when JPSS-1 will launch.
S-NPP was designed and developed by NASA as a test satellite (part of the since-cancelled DOD-NOAA-NASA National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System – NPOESS), not an operational satellite. Although public sources cite a 5-year design lifetime, NASA initially forecast a 3-5 year lifetime, as GAO’s David Powner reminded the subcommittees at the hearing. In addition there are concerns that shortcuts were taken with some of the instruments (notably VIIRS) and that the spacecraft was not designed with the same resiliency against space debris as the JPSS satellites.
S-NPP will reach its 5-year design lifetime in October 2016, but Volz expressed confidence that it will continue functioning “past 2020.” He also is optimistic that JPSS-1 will stick to its current schedule for launch in March 2017. GAO’s Powner, who has tracked NOAA's weather satellite programs for many years, was not convinced. Regarding S-NPP, Powner said “there was a NASA assessment that it would last 3-5 years, there is supposed to be a gap assessment from 2014 that hasn’t been released yet, the budget still says one year, so if it’s 2020 let’s put it in writing.” Volz indicated later in the hearing that he would do so. As for JPSS-1, Powner pointed to recent delays in several of the JPSS-1 instruments, especially the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder (ATMS) “which keeps slipping,” as a threat against the March 2017 launch schedule.
The topic of the hearing was how to mitigate against potential gaps whatever their cause, and while Volz was optimistic about S-NPP’s lifetime and JPSS-1’s schedule, he pointed out there are many failure scenarios and the key is to be ready for any of them. “It’s not that we’re trying to project the failure of any individual asset, but if an asset fails at a particular time, what is the impact on the overall constellation. … One thing can take out a satellite, or a … launch failure can take out a satellite, what is our response to that and how do we mitigate the impact… It doesn’t mean we expect it, but we have to prepare for it.”
As for mitigation strategies, dozens have been identified and GAO wants to see them prioritized: “NOAA officials stated that further prioritization among mitigation activities was not warranted because the activities were fully funded and were not dependent on the completion of other activities. We disagree. … [U]nless NOAA assesses the activities that have the most promise and accelerates those activities, it may not be sufficiently prepared to mitigate near-term data gaps.”
The JPSS program experienced cost growth in the 2011-2013 time frame causing congressional consternation. NOAA reduced the cost by removing some program elements and modifying the operational time frame, reducing the program cost from $12.9 billion to $11.3 billion. That estimate covers how much NOAA spent on the NPOESS program before it was cancelled and the cost of building and operating the first two JPSS satellites, JPSS-1 and JPSS-2. (NOAA plans to build at least two more JPSS satellites, but they have a separate program name – Polar Follow On – and budget line.) JPSS-2 is scheduled for launch in 2021 with an operational lifetime through 2028, but in the $11.3 billion cost estimate, operations are included only through 2025. Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) asked if that was a “gimmick to hide the true cost of the program.” Volz, who has been at NOAA for only three months, said he would look into it.
While a potential gap in polar orbit weather data was the main focus of the hearing, concerns about the GOES geostationary system also were noted by Powner and Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-GA), chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee. The first of NOAA’s new GOES-R satellite series is scheduled for launch in March 2016, followed by a six-month checkout period that will make it operational around September 2016. NOAA’s policy is to have two operational and one backup GOES satellite in orbit at any given time, but it plans to retire one of its older operational satellites (GOES-13) in April and use the backup satellite (GOES-14) instead. Those will be the only two GOES satellites operational until GOES-R is launched and checked out “which means 17 months without a spare,” Loudermilk said. GAO’s Powner stressed the importance of maintaining the March 2016 launch date for GOES-R and of NOAA having a mitigation plan at hand.
A New Paradigm for the Future: Commercial Data Buys
Several members advocated incorporating purchases of commercial weather data into the next generation weather satellite architecture. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), chairman of the Environment Subcommittee, said the government must “look outside the box” and cited several companies – PlanetIQ, Spire, GeoOptics, Tempus Global Data and HySpecIQ – planning to deliver GPS radio occultation or hyperspectral atmospheric data that could augment weather forecasts.
Volz spoke positively about using commercial data as long as NOAA is confident it is accurate, reliable, and can be validated. It already purchases some commercial data, including lightning data and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellite data. He noted that NASA works in concert with other countries in developing global numerical weather prediction models and the data must be readily transferable to and usable by all those countries. He said NOAA plans a workshop at the end of April with interested companies to discuss steps toward creating an effective working relationship.
Bridenstine asked if any of the $380 million requested in NOAA’s FY2016 budget for JPSS-3 and JPSS-4 (the Polar Follow On program) could go to a pilot program for buying commercial data instead of buying a new satellite. (NOAA is requesting $370 million for the Polar Follow On - PFO. It also is requesting $10 million for an Earth Observing Nanosatellite-Microwave miniature microwave sounder that is sometimes added to the PFO request, yielding $380 million.) He supports JPSS and GOES, but wants to “move to a day where we have a different kind of space-based architecture that is resilient, that is disaggregated….where we [take] advantage of commercial technologies” and get NOAA focused on doing “what the private sector cannot do.”
Volz said that what is needed is “backbone government supplied solutions complemented by other alternative approaches” and as those capabilities get stronger, they are “likely to become more prevalent.” However, he added, thought must be given to the risks if the commercial approach does not succeed. He also noted that “80 plus percent” of the $380 million is going directly to the private sector companies building the spacecraft and instruments.
The hearing was held before the Subcommittee on Environment and Subcommittee on Oversight of the House SS&T committee. A webcast of the hearing and written statements by the witnesses and chairs and ranking members of the subcommittees are available on the committee’s Republican and Democratic websites.