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Commercial Space News

On Earth Day, Asteroids and Human Trips to Mars Get the Attention

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Apr-2014 (Updated: 22-Apr-2014 08:25 PM)

Today was Earth Day 2014.  Former astronaut Ed Lu used it as an occasion to release a visualization of 26 asteroid impacts with Earth since 2000 to demonstrate that such events are not rare.  As head of the B612 Foundation, he is intent on building a space telescope with non-government funds to find where the Earth-threatening asteroids are so we can defend Earth against them.  Fellow former astronaut Tom Jones does too, but he has something more in mind -- find asteroids and use their resources to enable and/or lower the cost of sending people to Mars.  That goal, sending people to Mars, was the focus of a separate conference in Washington, DC today where NASA officials continued to make the case for an Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as a steppingstone to the Red Planet.

Lu, Jones and Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders -- the man who took the historic "Earthrise" photo as he orbited the Moon in 1968 -- spoke at an event at Seattle's Museum of Flight.  The B612 Foundation, named after the asteroid in the children's story The Little Prince, is raising funds from philanthropists and the public to build an infrared space telescope for launch in 2018 to identify the location of asteroids, especially those that threaten Earth.   Lu's message is that deflecting asteroids away from Earth is easy as long as there is enough warning time.  A little nudge from a spacecraft that impacts the asteroid is all that's needed.  "We humans can go and change this," he exclaimed,  "There is nothing stopping us from doing it."   The next great space mission, Lu said, is protecting planet Earth.

B612 released a video (try Fireflox if IE doesn't work) based on analysis by Peter Brown of the University of Western Ontario of 26 asteroid impacts with Earth since 2000.  The data are from an international network of "infrasound" sensors that monitor for tests of nuclear weapons explosions.   The video shows where the 26 impacts took place, mostly over ocean areas.  Lu explained at a pre-press conference telecom that "impact" means impact with the Earth's atmosphere, not the surface.  The point of the video is not to alarm people, but to "inspire" them to do something to fix the problem, Lu said.

Tom Jones agreed with the goals of the B612 Foundation and also promoted the concept of finding asteroids so their resources can be exploited to enable human deep space exploration, especially to Mars.  Jones is an advisor to Planetary Resources, a company that wants to mine asteroids. 

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C, NASA officials including Administrator Charlie Bolden outlined the agency's concept for sending people to the surface of Mars.  This took place at the second "Humans to Mars Summit" that kicked off with a talk by Bolden and a panel moderated by journalist Miles O'Brien featuring the head of NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate Bill Gerstenmaier and NASA Associate Administrator for Space Technology Mike Gazarik.

The NASA team continued to promote the Obama Administration's Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as a steppingstone to sending people to the surface of Mars.  Finding asteroids -- B612's focus -- is indeed part of ARM, but primarily using ground-based equipment.  The Obama Administration doubled the amount of money (from $20 million per year to $40 million per year) NASA can spend on locating asteroids because of ARM, but its plans do not include launching an infrared telescope like Sentinel.  That is why B612 is trying to raise money from philanthropists and the public to launch such a telescope.

From NASA's perspective, ARM is part of a long term strategy to send people to the surface of Mars.  Last week, Gesternmaier won kudos from the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) for articulating how ARM fits into the longer term Mars strategy.  NAC members worried, however, that he emphasized that the strategy requires a "modest" increase in NASA's budget.

He and Bolden continued to stress that today.  They did not define "modest increase," but considering that President Obama's total budget request for NASA in FY2015 is a $186 million cut from FY2014 demonstrates the challenge NASA has in adding to its available funds. 

Gerstenmaier's theme is that progress can be made, albeit slowly, to landing people on Mars if NASA gets a modest budget increase using a steppingstone approach that includes the International Space Station (ISS) and ARM to demonstrate operations further from Earth than ISS, but not so far that crews could not return home expeditiously in an emergency.  Overall, it is a matter of having a flexible, sustainable program that can adapt to changes in political leadership and that incorporates cooperation with the private sector and other countries.  When asked if that includes China. Gerstenmaier said he could not imagine that "at some point we don't work which China."  He joked that he could be "teleported off this stage to Mars" for suggesting it, however.

The Humans to Mars Summit (H2M) continues through Thursday.  Many of the sessions are being webcast.

SpaceX Landing Experiment Works; NASA Slips Orb-2 Launch Date

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Apr-2014 (Updated: 21-Apr-2014 08:01 PM)

SpaceX founder and Chief Designer Elon Musk indicated in a tweet that the landing experiment on Friday's Falcon 9 launch went well.  Meanwhile, as expected, NASA slipped the launch date for Orbital Sciences Corporation's Orb-2 launch from May 6 to June 9.

SpaceX and Orbital are competitors in NASA's commercial cargo program to take cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).   Launches from each company are staggered and a delay in one can result in the delay of the other.  SpaceX's launch of its third operational mission to the ISS, SpaceX CRS-3, was delayed several times and finally launched on April 18.  NASA had indicated that if the SpaceX launch took place on April 18 that it would ask Orbital to delay its next ISS cargo  launch -- Orb-2 -- from May 6 to June 9.  NASA made that schedule adjustment today.

Friday's SpaceX CRS-3 launch of its Dragon spacecraft to ISS using the Falcon 9 rocket included a test of a controlled landing of the rocket's first stage into the ocean.  It is a step toward eventually returning Falcon 9 first stages to land so they can be reused.  The first stage of this Falcon 9 incorporated landing legs and the company tested not only deploying them, but restarting the first stage engine after it separated from the second stage and Dragon (sending them on their way to ISS).  The first stage made a controlled vertical descent to the ocean and deployed its landing legs as though it might be returning to land.  Heavy seas prevented a recovery ship from being close enough to view the event, but SpaceX obtained data from an aircraft that was tracking it.

At a post-launch press conference on Friday, Musk said that he knew the first stage's roll rate was "close to zero" as it descended, a good sign, but needed to wait for more data from the airplane before knowing how the remainder of the test went.   He later tweeted that:


No further information has been posted on SpaceX's website about the landing test, but Dragon successfully berthed to the ISS yesterday.


What's Happening in Space Policy: April 21-27, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Apr-2014 (Updated: 21-Apr-2014 05:04 PM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events for the upcoming week and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate remain in recess; they will return April 28.

During the Week

The three-day Humans to Mars Summit 2014 at George Washington University has an all-star lineup of speakers including NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Space Technology Mike Gazarik, and NASA Ames Center Director Pete Worden.   NASA put out its own press release about the event to let everyone know Bolden will "outline NASA's human exploration path to Mars" during his keynote address on Tuesday at 9:00 am ET. 

Tuesday is Earth Day.  A chance to celebrate our home planet.   NASA is sponsoring activities all week online and in various locations around the country.  The B612 Foundation chose Earth Day to release "video of data from nuclear-test-ban-organization showing multiple atomic bomb scale asteroid impacts on Earth since 2001."  Their press conference will be livestreamed from the Seattle Museum of Flight at 11:30 am Pacific (2:30 pm Eastern).

Here's a list of all the events we know about as of Sunday afternoon.

Monday-Saturday, April 21-27

Tuesday, April 22

  • Earth Day. Celebrate your home planet!  Check local news outlets for announcements of local events.
  • B612 Press Conference, Seattle Museum of Flight, Seattle, WA, 11:30 am Pacfic Time (2:30 pm ET), will be livestreamed [B612 tweeted on April 21 that this begins at 11:00 am PT, but the press release and B612's website say 11:00 am PT]   
    • B612 is also co-sponsoring an evening event at the museum, from 6:00 - 7:15 pm PT

Tuesday-Thursday, April 22-24

  • Humans to Mars Summit 2014, George Washington University, Washington, DC, will be livestreamed and broadcast on NASA TV (at least portions will be).  (The conference is in different buildings on the various days; consult the agenda for details)

Wednesday, April 23

Dragon Arrives at ISS Delivering 150 Science Experiments, Preparations Continue for Wednesday Spacewalk

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Apr-2014 (Updated: 20-Apr-2014 08:39 AM)

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft was successfully grappled by Japanese astronaut and International Space Station (ISS) commander Koichi Wakata using Canada's robotic arm, Canadarm2.  Capture was exactly on time at 7:14 am ET this morning. Installation onto a docking port is expected about 9:30 am ET.

Dragon was launched on Friday afternoon on SpaceX's third operational cargo mission to the ISS -- SpaceX CRS-3.  The robotic spacecraft is delivering 3,500 pounds of supplies and equipment, including 150 scientific experiments.  It will remain berthed to the ISS until May 18 and then return to Earth and splash down in the Pacific Ocean.  It is the only one of the five cargo spacecraft that service ISS that is designed to survive reentry, a benefit especially to scientists who want to study the results of their experiments in ground-based laboratories.  Russia's Progress, Europe's ATV, Japan's HTV and Orbital Sciences Corp's Cygnus are not equipped with heat shields to protect them from reentry forces and burn up as they descend through the atmosphere.  They are used to dispose of trash -- another important task.

Among the SpaceX CRS-3  cargo are a new spacesuit and repair parts for three spacesuits already aboard the ISS.   A malfunctioning spacesuit put European astronaut Luca Parmitano in grave peril last summer when his helmet filled with water from the spacesuit's cooling system.  NASA later determined that a filter was clogged by silica particles that were in the water.  They have replaced the filters and flushed the water systems in the suits.   Parmitano's suit was used for a "contingency" spacewalk in December and will be used again for another contingency spacewalk this Wednesday.  

Contingency spacewalks, as compared to "planned" spacewalks, are performed when an unexpected problem develops requiring a spacewalk to repair something.  NASA has not cleared the spacesuits for planned spacewalks yet as they continue to investigate the source of the silica particles.  ISS program manager Mike Suffredini said at an April 18 press conference that they are learning a lot about water chemistry and have become more "adept" at how to keep the water clean, but have not yet done their final failure analysis.  However, they feel they have reduced the risk to an acceptable level for contingency spacewalks.

Wednesday's spacewalk by NASA astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Steve Swanson will replace a broken computer -- a Multiplexer-DeMultiplexer (MDM) -- on the space station's exterior.

Musk: Dragon Had Thruster Problem, But OK Now; Waiting for Data from Landing Leg Test

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Apr-2014 (Updated: 18-Apr-2014 07:06 PM)

SpaceX Founder and Chief Designer Elon Musk said at a CRS-3 post-launch press conference today that the Dragon spacecraft had a problem with its Draco thrusters, but everything appears OK now.  Meanwhile, he is waiting for more data from the test of landing legs on the Falcon 9 first stage that took place over the ocean.  A heavy sea state dampened hopes that the stage itself would be recovered.

Speaking about two hours after the successful launch of this third SpaceX operational cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS), Musk expressed happiness that the launch went as planned and did not seem worried about the thruster problem.  He said that an isolation valve that leads to the thruster pods did not respond so a backup valve was used instead.  Dragon has 18 Draco thrusters that are used to maneuver the spacecraft from its initial orbit to the ISS.  They are distributed across four pods: two pods hold four thrusters and two hold five thrusters.  An anomaly with the Draco thrusters caused a problem during the CRS-2 mission last year.  Musk was asked if today's problem was related to last year's and he said it was too early to tell.

As for the test of landing legs on the Falcon 9 first stage, Musk said he had seen data from the rocket stage's descent down to Mach 1.1 and it looked good.  SpaceX planned to get data via aircraft and ship observations, but high seas prevented the ship from getting close to the stage as it reached the water.   Musk was not optimistic that the stage could be recovered and brought back for inspection because of the rough seas.  The data telemetered to the aircraft from the rocket stage, however, showed that it had a zero roll rate, which Musk considered a success in and of itself.   He remains hopeful that a stage can be recovered sometime this year and reflown next year.   He wants to make the Falcon 9 reusable.  Eventually the rocket stages would descend and return to a landing pad rather than being recovered at sea.

This launch was delayed several times for various reasons and the chances of launch today were low because of poor weather.  SpaceX's competitor for NASA commercial cargo launches, Orbital Sciences Corp., has been working toward a May 6 launch of its Cygnus spacecraft on its second operational cargo mission to the ISS, dubbed Orb-2.   NASA indicated several days ago that if SpaceX CRS-3 launched today, it would delay Orb-2 until June 9.   NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier said today that he would ask Orbital to continue planning for a May 6 launch until Dragon is successfully berthed to ISS on Sunday.   If that goes as planned, he will release the Orbital team and reschedule the launch for June.

Gerstenmaier said that NASA was planning to have a P-3 aircraft observe the descent of the Falcon 9 first stage today, too, but icing conditions prevented the aircraft from flying.  NASA wants data on the first stage's supersonic thruster firings during descent because it is applicable to Mars entry-descent-and-landing.

SpaceX's Hans Koenigsmann, Vice President for Mission Assurance, said that the company will attempt another landing leg test over the ocean on the next flight.  He also confirmed that the first flight of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket will take place from Kennedy Space Center, FL next year rather than from Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB), CA.  SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell made the comment on Monday as she signed an agreement with NASA for a 20-year lease of Launch Complex 39A, the same Launch Complex once used for the space shuttle and Apollo flights to the Moon.

Shotwell's statement on Monday was a surprise.  In 2011, the company announced it had broken ground on a new launch pad for Falcon Heavy at VAFB.  SpaceX has not yet flown a Falcon Heavy, which is being designed to take 53 metric tons (117,000 pounds) to low Earth orbit.  The company advertises it as  "the world's most powerful rocket" that will be able to take twice as much mass into orbit as the Delta IV -- currently the largest U.S. rocket -- for one-third the cost.

SpaceX Gets a Break from Mother Nature, CRS-3 Lifts Off

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Apr-2014 (Updated: 18-Apr-2014 04:25 PM)

Despite a gloomy forecast, the weather held for launch of SpaceX's third operational cargo mission (CRS-3) to the International Space Station this afternoon.   The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off on time and its Dragon cargo spacecraft is in orbit. 

The launch was delayed several times, most recently on Monday when it was scrubbed shortly before launch because of a technical problem.

A post-launch press conference is scheduled for 5:00 pm ET today that will be carried on NASA TV.    There is much interest in how SpaceX's test of landing legs on the Falcon 9 first stage went; hopefully they will have news at the press conference.   SpaceX eventually wants to return the first stage to land and reuse it, but today's test was over the ocean.

NASA may also announce a new launch date for the next cargo mission to the ISS.  This will be the second operational launch of Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares/Cygnus system -- Orb-2.  The current launch date is May 6, but because this SpaceX launch was delayed several times, NASA said earlier that they may ask Orbital to wait until June 9 to launch that mission.   Orbital launches these flights from Wallops Flight Facility, VA.

Dragon will arrive at the ISS on Sunday morning, April 20, and be grappled using Canadarm2 at about 7:14 am ET.  It will be berthed to an ISS docking port around 9:30 am ET.  NASA TV will cover the events live beginning at 5:45 am ET.

With the successful launch today and assuming a successful berthing on Sunday, NASA plans to conduct a spacewalk on Wednesday, April 23, to fix a broken computer on the exterior of the ISS.  NASA astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Steve Swanson will begin the spacewalk at 8:55 am ET.  NASA TV coverage of the spacewalk will begin at 8:00 am ET.



NAC: NASA Connects the Dots on Future Human Spaceflight Plan, But Is It Affordable?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Apr-2014 (Updated: 18-Apr-2014 04:49 AM)

The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) gave NASA kudos for better articulating its plans for the future of the human space flight program, but is not convinced the program is affordable.  They chose not to issue any findings or recommendations on that topic at the two-day meeting that ended yesterday and will continue their deliberations in July.

Budget realities were a prevalent theme throughout the two day meeting.  Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren spoke with the Council on Wednesday and portrayed President Obama as a strong supporter of NASA “tempered only by the painful realities of these budgetary times.”  “I’ve often said NASA is 20 pounds of mission in a 10 pound budget,” he added, and offered no cause for optimism that NASA’s budget situation will change anytime soon.  Noting that some people have petitioned the White House to double NASA’s budget, he replied that instead “we have to double or triple what we can do ... with every dollar.”

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden joined Holdren at the table and both spoke on a broad range of NASA issues, but the human spaceflight program was the elephant in the room.   Tom Young, one of six new members of NAC, confronted the issue head on, telling the two that they were communicating that the United States has a sound human spaceflight strategy, but some think it is more of a “passion and a dream than a strategy” because strategies need adequate resources to be executed.

Bolden replied that there has never been a time when a strategy has been properly resourced and trying to develop budgets for programs that have 30 year time horizons, like sending people to Mars, is especially challenging.   While acknowledging that “we don’t have what really would be a valid strategy that the common man would accept,” he stressed that NASA is “working on a plan that at least identifies the milestones to get there.”

NAC Chairman Steve Squyres asked Holdren directly about the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).  He wanted to know whether ARM satisfies President Obama’s 2010 directive that NASA send astronauts to an asteroid or whether the agency is expected to still do that after ARM (where the asteroid will be brought to the astronauts).    Holdren replied that the President’s 2010 directive was “laid out with very broad brushstrokes” and ARM is “consistent” with it.  The overall goal is to make technological and operational advances relevant to protecting Earth from asteroids as well as potentially exploiting them commercially and to establish U.S. presence near and beyond the Moon as a steppingstone to Mars.  “Exactly how that gets done is still evolving,” he said.  He praised ARM as an “incredibly valuable” mission because it serves so many purposes using technology already under development in the current budget.

NASA human spaceflight chief Bill Gerstenmaier next took the podium and set the context for ARM within NASA’s long term human spaceflight plan.   His key message is that NASA has an incremental, step-by-step strategy to send people to Mars, but budget constraints will limit the pace of the program and committing to a specific time for when people will land on Mars should be avoided.

The first step beyond low Earth orbit is cis-lunar space (between the Earth and the Moon) and lunar orbit.  That is where the Space Launch System (SLS) will send Orion on its first crewed missions beginning in 2021 whether or not an asteroid is there, he said.   NASA is looking at several candidate asteroids for ARM and the 2024-2025 time frame appears more likely for when an asteroid (or a piece of one), redirected from its native orbit by a robotic probe launched probably in 2019, would arrive in lunar orbit.  The key, Gerstenmaier emphasized, is to test spacecraft systems and human adaptation to spaceflight in cis-lunar space as a step towards Mars whether or not an asteroid is there.   As for landing humans on Mars, he does not think that is likely by the 2030s under current budget projections.

NASA Administrator Bolden often talks about landing people on Mars in the 2030s as NASA’s goal although President Obama’s space policy calls only for putting humans into orbit around Mars by that time.  Developing landing systems to get from orbit to the Martian surface will be extremely challenging and expensive as exemplified by the Mars Curiosity rover’s “Seven Minutes of Terror” landing sequence.  Curiosity is much smaller than the mass needed to land humans on the planet.

Many NAC members praised Gerstenmaier’s articulation of the long term plan, but were struck by the first of his six “strategic principles” for implementing the program:  “Executable with current budget with modest increases.”

Gerstenmaier explained that he cannot make progress towards these goals if his budget grows only at one percent per year as currently forecast.  While he has not defined how much “modest” is, he said it would be “disingenuous” for him to say he could accomplish the plan without an increase.   His message was that with a modest budget increase, progress could be made, albeit on an incremental basis and at a slower pace than many would prefer.

Wanda Austin, another of NAC’s six new members, questioned why, then, he was presenting a program he knows is not affordable since the chances of increased funding are so slim.   She and two other NAC members (Charlie Kennel and Les Lyles) served on the 2009 Augustine committee that reviewed NASA’s human spaceflight program at that time and concluded NASA’s budget would have to be increased by $3 billion a year to accomplish a human spaceflight program “worthy of a great nation.”

That increase never materialized and now, five years later, it seems as though NASA is back on an unaffordable path.

Austin’s views were widely shared by other NAC members.  Yesterday, the Council considered a draft finding from its Human Exploration and Operations Committee that would have endorsed NASA’s human spaceflight strategy as presented at this meeting.  The Council decided it could not adopt such a finding without adding a cautionary statement that it does not reflect budgetary reality.  Rather than attempting to modify it on the spot, they decided to table the finding and make this topic a major focus of their next meeting in July.

SpaceX CRS-3 Cleared for Friday Launch, Spacewalk on Wednesday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Apr-2014 (Updated: 16-Apr-2014 06:46 PM)

SpaceX will try again to launch its third operational cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) on Friday.  The launch window opens at 3:25 pm ET, but the weather forecast is poor.  Meanwhile, the ISS spacewalk needed to fix a broken computer on the exterior of the space station is now planned for Wednesday, April 23.

The SpaceX CRS-3 launch was scrubbed on Monday because a helium valve in the stage separation pneumatic system in the Falcon 9 first stage was not holding the correct pressure, the company said in a statement today.  It added that the launch could have gone ahead and relied on a backup check valve, but "SpaceX policy is not to launch with any known anomalies."

The weather was great on Monday, but much has changed since then and the forecast for Friday is only 40 percent favorable.   NASA TV will cover the launch beginning at 2:15 pm ET and SpaceX will webcast it beginning at 2:45 pm ET.   If all goes as planned, the Dragon spacecraft with its load of cargo will arrive at the ISS Sunday morning, April 20, and be grappled by Canadarm2 at about 7:14 am ET.  NASA TV will cover the events beginning at 5:45 am ET.

One of the more interesting aspects of this launch is that SpaceX will test landing legs for the Falcon 9 first stage as a step towards eventually making the vehicle reusable.  This test will take place over the ocean so the vehicle will fall into the water, but only after SpaceX collects the data it needs to determine if the landing legs performed as expected.  A SpaceX official stressed that it is an experiment and the company is only 30-40 percent confident it will work.

If the weather or anything else interferes on Friday, SpaceX plans to try again on Saturday at 3:02 pm ET.

Meanwhile, NASA continues preparations for a "contingency" spacewalk (as opposed to a regularly scheduled spacewalk) to replace a malfunctioning computer called a Multiplexer-DeMultiplexer (MDM) on the outside of the space station.   NASA determined over the weekend that Dragon could be berthed to the ISS despite the malfunction; the primary MDM is working fine.  The MDMs control some of the robotic systems aboard ISS.   NASA astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Steve Swanson will perform the spacewalk on Wednesday, April 23, under the current plan.  NASA space station program manager Mike Suffredini described this as one of the easier tasks and the spacewalk is scheduled for only 2.5 hours.

If the SpaceX launch is scrubbed on Friday, however, NASA will move the spacewalk up to Sunday, April 20.

GAO Credits NASA For Improved Acquisition Performance, but Worries About SLS and Orion

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Apr-2014 (Updated: 15-Apr-2014 06:14 PM)

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) gave NASA credit today for improved cost and schedule performance in its major acquisition programs.  Nevertheless, it cited several programs that need continued monitoring.   GAO reviews NASA's major acquisition programs every year as requested by Congress.

GAO said that the portfolio of NASA projects it reviewed "saw cost and schedule growth that remains low compared to GAO's first review."  Not that every project is doing well, though.  

In all, GAO reviewed 19 programs spanning robotic and human spaceflight in its 104 page report.   It did not make any recommendations, but cited several programs that require continued monitoring.  One is the Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite-2, ICESAT-2.  GAO said the cost of the satellite's single instrument -- Advanced Topographical Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS) -- being developed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center will grow by at least 15 percent and the spacecraft will miss its 2017 launch date.  GAO said that NASA traced the problem to immature systems engineering analysis and consequently replaced the project management team and added more expertise.

Among GAO's other top worries are the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion programs.

  • Space Launch System:   "Based on current budget estimates, program officials have expressed concern that the first launch in 2017 could be delayed." GAO says that the program will reach Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C) this month (April 2014) and at that point NASA will establish cost, schedule and performance baselines for the initial (70- ton) version of the launch vehicle.  GAO highlights funding risks associated with the flat budget profile under which NASA plans to spend $6.8 billion between FY2014 and 2018, and calls the schedule "aggressive."   It also worries that two years after the program was established, "many of the SLS program contracts remain undefinitized."
  • Orion:  "The mass of the spacecraft remains a top program risk."  GAO says the spacecraft being designed to take humans beyond low Earth orbit aboard the SLS could be as much as 2,800 pounds overweight at launch for the first exploration mission (EM-1) in 2017.  The maximum lift-off mass for that mission is 73,500 pounds, GAO states.  The report also notes that the contract under which Lockheed Martin is developing Orion is valued at $11.6 billion through 2020.

Other programs that bear watching include:

  • James Webb Space Telescope:  "GAO's analysis of three subsystem schedules determined that the reliability of the project's integrated master schedule ... is questionable."   Today's report notes that GAO made the same conclusion last year.
  • Magnetosphere Multiscale (MMS) project:  "The project is tracking risks that cost reserves may be inadequate and that the project may overrun its cost baseline" due at least in part to a launch postponement from October 2014 to March 2015 caused by the October 2013 government shutdown.  GAO said the launch delay will cost about $39 million, thereby exceeding the cost estimate by $26 million.
  • Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA):  GAO makes no comment on the wisdom of mothballing SOFIA as proposed in the President's FY2015 budget request, but notes that project officials said that the "planned FY2015 budget is insufficient to prepare the observatory for storage."

GAO also provided a snapshot of the status of the three commercial crew competitors -- Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX.  According to the report,

  • Boeing has completed 17 of 20 (85 percent) milestones of which 6 were delayed from initially targeted dates;
  • Sierra Nevada has completed 8 of 13 (62 percent) milestones of which 1 was delayed; and
  • SpaceX has completed 13 of 17 (76 percent) milestones, of which 1 was delayed.

Overall, it reports that commercial crew program officials cite the following challenges: concern that the program will not be fully funded, reducing competition and thereby increasing costs of commercially available transportation capabilities; complications such as development of the system to allow the commercial vehicles to dock with the International Space Station, which could impact schedule; and "closing a risk related to Federal Aviation Administration licensing issues."

The other programs reviewed by GAO for this report are:

  • Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) earth observation mission, which was just launched
  • Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow On (GRACE FO), an Earth-orbiting mission to study the Earth's gravity field, scheduled for launch in 2017
  • Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSIGHT), a Mars mission scheduled for launch in 2016
  • Lunar Atmosphere Dust and Experiment Explorer (LADEE), which was launched last year and is just about to end its brief mission to the Moon
  • Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN), launched last fall and due to arrive at Mars this summer
  • Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) earth observation mission, scheduled for launch this July
  • Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx), an asteroid sample return mission scheduled for launch in 2016
  • Soil Moisture Active and Passive (SMAP) earth observation mission, scheduled for launch later this year
  • Solar Probe Plus heliophysics mission scheduled for launch in 2018
  • Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment
  • Surface Water and Topography (SWOT) earth observation mission, scheduled for launch in 2020
  • Tracking and Data Satellite Replenishment (the most recent, TDRS-L, was launched in January)

Holdren to Discuss Administration's Vision for NASA with NAC on April 16

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Apr-2014 (Updated: 15-Apr-2014 01:57 PM)

Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren is scheduled to discuss the Obama Administration's vision for NASA with the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) tomorrow (April 16, 2014).  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and the head of NASA's human spaceflight program, Bill Gerstenmaier, will also address NAC.  The meeting comes three weeks after a tense exchange between Bolden and House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) over whether NAC Chairman Steve Squyres agrees with NASA's contention that the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) is a step towards someday sending people to Mars.

The Obama Administration is continuing its efforts to convince Congress and the space community in general that ARM should be the next step for the U.S. human spaceflight program.  It has generated little enthusiasm since it was announced almost exactly one year ago when President Obama submitted his FY2014 budget request to Congress.   ARM is an iteration of President Obama's declaration almost exactly three years earlier, on April 15, 2010, that he was directing NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid as the next step in human spaceflight after he cancelled the Bush-era Constellation program to return humans to the lunar surface.

NASA is still developing the mission concept for ARM.  Gerstenmaier briefed NAC's Committee on Human Exploration and Operations yesterday on competing concepts for how to carry out the mission. The two options are to try to redirect a small asteroid into a lunar orbit or to go to a larger asteroid and pluck a large sample (e.g. a boulder) from its surface and move that into lunar orbit.  Once in lunar orbit, astronauts would visit it.  Gerstenmaier focused on the value of using cis-lunar space (between the Earth and the Moon) and lunar orbit as a "proving ground" for human missions beyond low Earth orbit.  He also stressed that although ARM has been characterized as a "one-off" mission, in fact it is part of an integrated plan to get humans to Mars. 

There is little disagreement that the long term goal for the U.S. human spaceflight program -- in partnership with other countries and the commercial sector -- should be landing people on Mars (though it is not unanimous).   For decades, the debate has been over whether or not returning to the lunar surface is a prerequisite.  Intermediate destinations, like asteroids, were rarely discussed until a committee created by President Obama shortly after taking office in 2009 posited a "flexible path" approach as an alternative that included asteroids and Lagrange points.  The committee, chaired by Norm Augustine, did not make recommendations, but laid out "Moon First," "Mars First" and "Flexible Path" options.

Holdren is Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which is largely blamed or credited, depending on one's point of view, for choosing Flexible Path and cancelling the Constellation program.    He has testified to Congress about ARM enthusiastically, but does not appear to have won many converts.  In one sign of good news for the Administration, however, the 2014 NASA Authorization Act approved by the  House SS&T's Space Subcommittee last week would not prohibit spending money on ARM.  That is an improvement over last year's version of the bill, which would have done so.  That bill was never reported from committee.

Holdren's appearance before NAC tomorrow may be an effort to win over those members of the space community, especially NAC chairman Steve Squyres, at least, about the value of ARM as part of a plan to send people to Mars.

Squyres testified to the House Space Subcommittee last year that he does not consider ARM as necessary to achieve that goal.    At another hearing three weeks ago on NASA's FY2015 budget request, full committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) challenged Bolden on that point.  Smith quoted Squyres as testifying that "I see no obvious connection between [ARM] and any of the technologies or capabilities that are required for Martian exploration."   Smith is pushing the Mars 2021 Flyby mission as the next step in human spaceflight instead.

In a tense exchange, Smith reminded Bolden about Squyres's testimony and Bolden replied that if Squyres were asked today, he would not hold the same position.  Smith retorted: "I don't doubt you could put political pressure on him."  Bolden responded:  "I put no pressure, I can't put pressure, on Steve Squyres."  Smith insisted Squyres's testimony stands "unless you have other information."  Bolden said:  "I have other information, which is talking to [him] weekly.  Steve Squyres counseled me  'don't make this seem like you're going to save the planet.  Show us, the NASA Advisory Council, how this is relevant to getting people to Mars.'  We've subsequently done that."   Smith said Squyres's testimony stands until he hears differently from Squyres.

Smith continued his criticism in an April 3 press release after Bolden made comments to two National Research Council panels that Mars Flyby 2021, Smith's preference, is not a steppingstone to landing people on Mars.

As for convincing Squyres and the rest of NAC, Bolden, Holdren and Gerstenmaier will be there to make the case for ARM in person and in public tomorrow morning.  The meeting is at NASA Headquarters and is available remotely via WebEx and telecom.  The detailed agenda, as of today, is posted on the NAC website.  Bolden is scheduled for 9:10 am ET, Holdren for 10:00 am ET, and Gerstenmaier for 11:00 am ET.