Commercial Space News
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of April 23-28, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
President Trump and his daughter Ivanka will make a 20-minute phone call to NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson aboard the International Space Station (ISS) tomorrow (Monday) morning at 10:00 am ET. It will be broadcast on a number of NASA media assets including NASA TV, Facebook, Ustream and YouTube. The Trumps are phoning Whitson to congratulate her on breaking the record for U.S. cumulative time in space -- 534 days (currently held by Jeff Williams). Whitson is in command of the ISS right now. This is her third trip to the ISS. She was the first woman to command ISS during her second visit in 2008 and now is the first woman to command it twice. She also has set a record for the most spacewalks by a woman (8 so far). Her duration record is for CUMULATIVE time in space, acquired over three spaceflights. Scott Kelly holds the U.S. record for CONTINUOUS time in space on a single mission (340 days).
We have no advance knowledge of what the conversation will be about, but might he provide a hint on his plans for human spaceflight? His proposed FY2018 budget for NASA's human spaceflight program is status quo. NASA Acting Chief Scientist Gale Allen said last week that the agency is expecting flat budgets, not even adjusted for inflation, for the next 5 years, so it seems unlikely that the President has any big changes in mind for the government-funded program. Since the Trump Administration supports public private partnerships for space activities, might an announcement of a COTS-like "commercial station" program be in the works to kickstart a new low Earth orbit (LEO) space station to succeed ISS? NASA has made clear the U.S. government will not be building another LEO space station and is looking to the commercial sector to build LEO facilities for which NASA could be one, but only one, user. Separately, Allen also said that NASA's study of whether to put a crew on the first SLS/Orion mission is completed and the agency is awaiting a "go forward" plan. Maybe he'll say something about that. Or perhaps it will just be a friendly phone call.
Apart from that, it's Groundhog Day in Washington. Once again Congress must pass an appropriations bill by Friday or the government will shut down. (Which is to say that agencies that get their money from the discretionary part of the budget -- DOD, NASA, NOAA etc. -- will shut down unless they are exempt for reasons of public safety or meet other criteria). The 114th Congress bumped FY2017 funding decisions over into the 115th Congress with a Continuing Resolution (CR) that expires on Friday, April 28. Under the CR, agencies are funded at their prior year (FY2016) levels. FY2017 is more than half over already, but something needs to be done about the remaining 5 months (through September 30).
When President Obama was in office, it was ultra conservative Republicans that threatened (and in one case succeeded) in shutting down the government. With Republicans now in control of the House, Senate and White House, it is largely Democrats who are making the threats. Among their issues is that Republicans want to significantly increase defense spending at the expense of non-defense programs. As an example, Trump submitted a supplemental request for FY2017 last month that would add $30 billion for defense plus another $3 billion to build the border wall with Mexico, all to be partially offset by $18 billion in cuts to non-defense programs (including $50 million from NASA's space science program and $90 million from NOAA's satellite programs). Many Democrats and some Republicans also object to the funding for the border wall. Before the two-week recess that is just ending there were indications that congressional Republicans were agreeing not to fight the border wall battle now so they can finish the FY2017 appropriations process, but the Trump White House reportedly is pushing hard for its inclusion.
It's high stakes politics once again with an uncertain outcome. Rumors are that they might pass another short term (one week) CR to provide more time to reach agreement. It is usually true that such decisions are made only when there is an ominous deadline looming, so it's not clear why adding another week would make much of a difference.
Bear in mind that this is all about FY2017, the current fiscal year. They haven't begun work on funding for FY2018, which starts on October 1. Trump sent a "budget blueprint" or "skinny budget" outlining the contours of his FY2018 spending plan last month. That's the request that indicates a status quo budget for NASA ($19.100 billion in FY2018 compared to $19.285 billion for FY2016), with some cuts to Earth science and the elimination of NASA's Office of Education among the more contentious issues. Some of NOAA's satellite programs are in for cuts, but the blueprint doesn't specify where. The detailed FY2018 budget request is expected to be sent to Congress on May 15.
Also on Capitol Hill this week, the Senate Commerce Committee's space subcommittee and the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will each hold hearings on Wednesday at exactly the same time (10:00 am ET). The Senate hearing is on the regulatory environment for commercial space and features the leaders of four prominent commercial space companies (Bigelow Aerospace, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and Made in Space). The House hearing is on advances in the search for life with representatives from NASA (Thomas Zurbuchen, head of the Science Mission Directorate), the SETI Institute (Seth Shostak) and academia (Adam Burgasser from UC San Diego and James Kasting from Pennsylvania State University).
The House hearing takes place as the astrobiology community gathers in Mesa, AZ all week for the 2017 Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon). Some sessions and two public lectures (Tuesday and Thursday nights) will be webcast. A "town hall" meeting today (Sunday) will discuss the results of the Science Definition Team report on a Europa lander. The Trump Administration's FY2018 budget blueprint specifically does not include funding for a Europa lander (only for the Jupiter orbiter/Europa flyby "Europa Clipper" mission), but discussions about a lander are continuing since it has strong support by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA. It is Congress, not the President, that decides how government money is spent. Culberson is convinced life (microbial, not intelligent) exists in Europa's subsurface ocean and is adamant that a NASA probe find it in the next decade. Today's town hall meeting will be available by WebEx/telecon. Remember that although Arizona is in the Mountain Time zone, it does not observe Daylight Saving Time, so the offset from your time zone is like Pacific Daylight Time (e.g., add three hours, not two, to get Eastern Daylight Time).
The first meeting of the newly chartered NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee is Monday and Tuesday. NASA has restructured its advisory apparatus that is subject to the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA). This group used to be a subcommittee of the Science Committee of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), so any findings or recommendations had to go from the subcommittee up to the full committee up to NAC up to the NASA Administrator and then down to the Associate Administrator for Science and then, at last, down to the Astrophysics Division Director. A long route where advice could be changed or eliminated. Now the group -- and others that also used to be subcommittees -- can report directly to division directors. Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz will brief the committee tomorrow morning (9:45-11:45 am ET) and later in the meeting program officials will provide updates on the James Webb Space Telescope and the Wide Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST), among other topics. The meeting is at NASA HQ in Washington, DC and is available remotely via WebEx and telecon.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week for others we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.
Sunday, April 23
Monday, April 24
Monday-Tuesday, April 24-25
Monday-Friday, April 24-28
Tuesday, April 25
Tuesday-Thursday, April 25-27
Wednesday, April 26
Thursday, April 27
China successfully launched its Tianzhou-1 space station cargo resupply spacecraft today. If all goes according to plan, it will rendezvous and dock with the Tiangong-2 space station three times and demonstrate in-orbit refueling. With such a capability, China could maintain a space station in Earth orbit for many years like the International Space Station (ISS). [UPDATE, April 22: Tianzhou-1 successfully docked to Tiangong-2 at 12:23 am EDT (04:23 GMT] today as planned per Xinhua.]
The Soviet Union was the first country to demonstrate cargo resupply and in-orbit refueling in 1978 with the Progress spacecraft and Salyut 6 space station. Progress spacecraft are still used today to refuel the ISS station-keeping engines and take other cargo to the facility. Three other cargo spacecraft resupply ISS (Japan's HTV and the U.S. Dragon and Cygnus), but they do not refuel it.
China's human spaceflight program is proceeding at a measured pace. After four uncrewed test flights from 1999-2002, China launched its first astronaut (sometimes called a taikonaut in the West) in 2003 on Shenzhou-5. The next crewed flight, with two astronauts, flew in 2005 (Shenzhou-6) and three astronauts were launched on Shenzhou-7 in 2008. In 2011, China launched its first small space station, Tiangong-1, to which three spacecraft were sent: an uncrewed Shenzhou-8 as a test flight, then Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 in 2012 and 2013 respectively, each with three astronauts (two men and one woman). Tiangong-2 was launched in 2016 and one two-person crew (Shenzhou-11) spent 30 days onboard last fall, the longest Chinese spaceflight to date (a total of 33 days including the trip to and from Tiangong-2).
By comparison, Russian cosmonaut Valeriy Polyakov holds the record for the longest continuous spaceflight -- 438 days (14 months) in 1994-1995. Scott Kelly holds the record for the longest continuous spaceflight by a U.S. astronaut -- 340 days in 2015-2016. (On Monday, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson will break the U.S. record for cumulative time in space -- 534 days -- but that was acquired over three spaceflights, not a continuous mission. She is currently in command of the ISS. President Trump will phone her on Monday to congratulate her on her record-breaking mission.)
Chinese officials describe the launch of Tianzhou-1 as the last step of the second phase of its human spaceflight program. The first phase was the initial launches of astronauts. The second phase includes demonstration of extravehicular activity (EVA, also know as a spacewalk), which was accomplished on Shenzhou-7, and the initial space station flights. If Tianzhou-1 is successful in its refueling task, that will complete phase 2 and phase 3 -- launch and operation of a multi-modular space station for 10 years -- will be next. China plans to launch the new space station's core module in 2018 and complete construction of the three-module, 60 metric ton (MT) facility by 2022. By comparison, ISS has a mass of about 400 MT. It has been continuously occupied by international crews rotating typically on 4-6 month shifts since November 2000.
No one is aboard Tiangong-2 or Tianzhou-1; the refueling tests are all automated.
Tianzhou-1 is the heaviest spacecraft ever launched by China -- 13 MT. It can carry 6.5 MT of cargo, slightly more than Japan's HTV (Kounotori) cargo ship that resupplies ISS. HTV can transport 6 MT of cargo and is the largest of the ISS resupply ships.
The new Long March 7 rocket boosted Tianzhou-1 into orbit from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island, which became operational last year. Long March 7 is one of several new rockets China is introducing to replace its older models (Long March 2, 3 and 4). The new rockets use more environmentally friendly fuel - liquid oxygen and kerosene. The largest is the Long March 5, which can place 25 MT into low Earth orbit (LEO), slightly less than the largest U.S. rocket, Delta IV Heavy, which can lift 28 MT to LEO. Long March 5 had its first, and to date only, launch from Wenchang last year, but China has plans to use it for many missions, including launching the three 20-MT space station modules and robotic lunar and planetary exploration spacecraft. Between now and 2020, China plans to send a sample return mission to the Moon, a probe to land on the far side of the Moon, and an orbiter/lander/rover to Mars.
The ISS partners -- the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency -- have agreed to continue operating ISS until at least 2024. NASA officials often speak of extending it to 2028, 30 years after the first modules were launched, but there is no agreement on that timeline. China has picked up on the 2024 date and routinely points out that with the ISS "set to retire" in 2024, it will have the only space station in Earth orbit thereafter.
NASA is hoping that the U.S. private sector will pick up the gauntlet and build their own space stations to follow-on from ISS that NASA and other customers could use instead of the government building future Earth orbiting facilities. Section 303 of the recently enacted NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 requires NASA to submit a report to Congress by December 1, 2017 and biennially thereafter until 2023 to show how to transition from the current NASA-reliant regime to one where NASA is only one of many customers of a non-governmental LEO human space flight enterprise. The goal is for NASA itself to focus on sending astronauts beyond LEO to the distance of the Moon and Mars.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of April 17-22, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in recess this week.
During the Week
Topic A this week is the International Space Station (ISS) and not just logistics, but the microgravity science research being conducted there.
Logistically, the next cargo launch is on Tuesday -- Orbital ATK's OA-7 mission -- and two new crew members will launch and dock on Thursday on Soyuz MS-04. Pre-launch briefings are scheduled for tomorrow (Monday). The OA-7 launch is on Tuesday at 11:11 am ET from Cape Canaveral on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket. The launch has a 30 minute window and the weather is 90 percent favorable as of today.
This will be the first-ever launch to be broadcast with a 360-degree view according to NASA. Coverage on NASA's regular TV outlets begins at 10:00 am ET. The 360-degree view begins on NASA's YouTube channel 10 minutes before launch. NASA, Orbital ATK and ULA are all working together on the 360-degree view, so the two companies' websites may also carry it. A post-launch press conference is scheduled for 2:00 pm ET. Two days later, Soyuz MS-04 will take NASA's Jack Fischer and Roscosmos's Fyodor Yurchikhin to ISS. As we explained last week, Russia is reducing its ISS crew complement from three to two, so there's an empty seat on this launch, which will be filled by Peggy Whitson on the return.
A key point of having ISS in the first place is to perform scientific research in microgravity. In Washington, DC, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine will hold a day-long public symposium on Wednesday where scientists will discuss that research. The next day (Thursday), a panel discussion will take place on Capitol Hill to highlight some of it.
The Academies symposium is in conjunction with a meeting of a committee that is performing a mid-term review of the 2011 Decadal Survey on life and physical sciences research in space to evaluate how NASA is implementing those recommendations. Decadal Surveys cover 10 years (a decade, hence "decadal"). Congress requires NASA to contract with the Academies for Decadal Surveys in each of the science disciplines as well as for mid-term reviews of each study half way though the relevant decade. The mid-term review committee cannot change the priorities in the original report, but assesses how things are going. The mid-term review committee is meeting Tuesday-Thursday, but most of Tuesday and all of Thursday are in closed session. Wednesday's public colloquium will be webcast. The Academies requests that everyone pre-register whether planning to attend in person or watch the webcast.
On Thursday morning, the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research (ASGSR), the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) and Rep. Brian Babin (chair of the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee) will hold a panel discussion on Capitol Hill with four scientists who will discuss their own ISS research on water engineering, the movement of fluids, tissue healing, and plant research. The event is free, but pre-registration is required.
On another topic, Saturday, April 22, is Earth Day and "March for Science" rallies will take place around the globe. One will be on the National Mall in Washington, DC (near the Washington Monument). Organizers are requesting that people who plan to attend let them know through the RSVP link on their website, where you can also find the locations of other rallies that might be closer to you if you can't get to DC.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below. Check for others we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.
Monday, April 17
Tuesday, April 18
Tuesday-Thursday, April 18-20
Tuesday-Friday, April 18-21
Wednesday, April 19
Thursday, April 20
Thursday-Friday, April 20-21
Friday, April 21
Saturday, April 22
Here is our list of space policy events for the next TWO weeks, April 10-22, 2017, and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in recess for two weeks.
During the Weeks
At last! We're getting a bit of a break. With Congress in recess until April 24 and most of the big U.S. space conferences over for the first half of the year, the list of events is shorter than it's been recently. We've decided to combine the next two weeks, taking us through April 22 -- Earth Day and the March for Science.
During this period, three crew members will return from the International Space Station (ISS) and two -- yes, just two -- will launch to the ISS. Russia is cutting back on how many of its cosmonauts are aboard ISS to reduce requirements to resupply them using Progress cargo spacecraft. It's a cost cutting move that presents opportunities for NASA astronauts. First among them is Peggy Whitson who will get to remain aboard ISS for an extra three months.
The do-si-do of ISS crews is difficult to follow sometimes, but under normal circumstances in the post-shuttle era there are six crew members aboard -- three from Russia and three from the other partners (at least one from NASA and others from ESA, JAXA, and CSA). The limit is based on how many can get off the ISS in an emergency, which is dictated by how many Soyuz spacecraft are attached since they not only routinely take people back and forth, but serve as lifeboats while there. Each Soyuz can accommodate three people, so with the usual two Soyuzes docked, six people are OK. With Russia cutting its crew from three to two, that means there's an extra Soyuz seat for an emergency or a routine return to Earth.
An American (Shane Kimbrough) and two Russians (Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko) will return on April 10 in their Soyuz MS-02 spacecraft, leaving
three people on board (NASA's Whitson, ESA's Thomas Pesquet and Russia's Oleg Novitskiy) along with their Soyuz MS-03 spacecraft. On April 20,
an American (Jack Fischer) and a Russian (Fyodor Yurchikhin) will launch on Soyuz MS-04, with an empty seat. Whitson was supposed to return on
Soyuz MS-03 with Pesquet and Novitsky, but now will remain and come back with Fischer and Yurchikhin. Whitson is setting records for most cumulative
time in space for an American (on April 24 she will break Jeff Williams' 534-day record) and the most spacewalks for an American woman (8). This
morning a change of command ceremony took place as the Soyuz MS-02 crew prepares to depart. She will be the new commander. This is her
second assignment as ISS commander. She was the first woman commander of ISS on her last trip there in 2008. (This is her third long duration
ISS mission. Her first was in 2002.)
A U.S. cargo mission to the ISS also is coming up during this period. Orbital ATK-7 (OA-7) is launching on United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V rocket this time instead of Orbital ATK's Antares. The launch therefore is from Cape Canaveral and has been delayed several times in recent weeks because of one technical problem or another. It is currently scheduled for April 18, though we haven't seen a time posted by ULA or NASA yet.
Staying with the human spaceflight theme, it also is worth noting that April 12 is the 56th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin becoming the first man to orbit
the Earth, and the 36th anniversary of the first U.S. space shuttle launch. We haven't heard of any commemorative events, however,
Other events of particular note include: meetings of the Science Committee of the NASA Advisory Council (April 12-13), NOAA's Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing (ACCRES, April 12), and the National Academies committee performing a mid-term review of the Decadal Survey of physical and biological sciences in space (April 18-20); a European Conference on Space Debris (April 18-21); and a WSBR panel discussion on defense space priorities for the Trump Administration (April 20).
And on Saturday, April 22, a March for Science rally will take place. Actually, there several hundred taking place around the world according to the Earth
Day Network website, which says it is the lead organizer. Washington, D.C. will be the site of a "rally and teach-in" on the National Mall (north
side of the Washington Monument, South of Constitution Ave NW, between 15th and 17th Street, NW) beginning at 9:00 am ET. No tickets are needed,
but organizers hope people will register to attend any of the rallies. Earth
Day itself has been held every year since 1970 to focus attention on the fragility of Earth's environment. (The iconic Earthrise photo taken by the Apollo 8 crew -- the first crew to orbit the Moon - in 1968 is often cited as a catalyst for the environmental
movement and Earth Day. The Blue Marble photograph taken by the Apollo 17 crew in 1972 has been widely adopted as an emblem for Earth Day.)
Those and other activities we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week for others we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.
Monday, April 10
Wednesday, April 12
Wednesday-Thursday, April 12-13
Friday, April 14
Tuesday, April 18
Tuesday-Thursday, April 18-20
Tuesday-Friday, April 18-21
Thursday, April 20
Thursday-Friday, April 20-21
Friday, April 21
Saturday, April 22
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of April 3-7, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week (then will be in recess for the subsequent two weeks).
During the Week
THE BIG SPACE EVENT this week is, of course, the Space Foundation's annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. Between all the conference sessions and side events, the entire breadth of space activities -- domestic and international -- is covered. There is far too much going on to summarize in this brief article, and the majority of activities require people to be on site, but one event that has been announced by the United Launch Alliance will be webcast and might pique some interest. On Tuesday at 10:30 am Mountain Time (12:30 pm Eastern), ULA will have a panel discussion on its "vision of a self-sustained space economy within the confines of CisLunar space." ULA CEO Tory Bruno will be there along with representatives of AIAA, Made in Space, Offworld, and the Air Force Academy. Other companies are likely to make big announcements at the Space Symposium, too, so stay tuned throughout the week!
Also in the western part of the United States and also on Tuesday, NASA/Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) will hold a press conference on the beginning of the end for the much-loved Cassini spacecraft that has been studying Saturn, its rings and its moons since 2004. Cassini is running out of fuel and to ensure that it does not crash into and contaminate any of those moons -- especially Titan or Enceladus where some scientists believe the conditions for life exist -- JPL is commanding Cassini to "crash" into Saturn itself instead. Saturn is a gaseous planet so "crash" isn't the right word, but atmospheric forces should destroy it. To get as much science as possible, Cassini will make 20 deep dives into the Saturnian atmosphere over the next several months collecting data on the unexplored gap between the planet and its rings. The first is scheduled for April 26; the last on September 15. The press conference will be webcast.
Meanwhile, back here in Washington, the House is scheduled to take up the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act (H.R. 353) again, this time to approve amendments added by the Senate before it passed that chamber last week. The bill was largely written in the 114th Congress and the House made quick work of reintroducing it in the 115th Congress and passing it on January 9. This latest iteration omits a controversial watershed study that held up passage last year and makes a few changes to the House-passed version. The provisions regarding NOAA's weather satellite programs remain the same. The bill currently is on the House suspension calendar for Tuesday. Bills on that calendar are expected to pass easily.
Behind the scenes, work will continue to determine the path forward for FY2017 appropriations. The Continuing Resolution (CR) keeping the government open at the moment expires on April 28. Since the House and Senate will be on spring break for the middle two weeks of the month, they have this week and the last week in April to decide what they're going to do. Although there is a Republican president in the White House now instead of a Democrat, budget politics have not changed very much -- it's just that now it is some Democrats threatening a shutdown instead of Republicans. The arguments are the same -- Republicans want to increase defense spending. Period. Democrats insist that if defense will get more, then non-defense also should get more and definitely should not be cut the way the Trump Administration has proposed for FY2018.
The battle right now, however, is over the rest of FY2017, which began on October 1, 2016 so is half over already. The appropriations committees had pretty much decided what to do with FY2017, but President Trump has submitted a FY2017 supplemental request for an additional $30 billion in defense spending and $3 billion for Homeland Security that would be partially offset by $18 billion in cuts to non-defense programs. Since only 5 months will remain in FY2017 at the end of April, those cuts would have a dramatic impact since they would have to be absorbed in such a short period of time. Bottom line? It's a familiar quandary. Will they pass another CR through the end of the year or an omnibus bill that combines 11 of the 12 regular appropriations bills? (One, and only one, FY2017 appropriations bill passed already -- Military Construction/Veterans Administration. It was incorporated into the first CR passed last fall.) Or will they pass nothing and much of the government will come to a halt? With the level of discord within the Republican Party not to mention between Republicans and Democrats, we're not making any prognostications.
Funding the government through CRs is harshly criticized by everyone, which may come as a surprise considering how often it is done (because they can't reach agreement on anything else). The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) wants to emphasize just how bad another CR would be for DOD and is holding a hearing specifically on that topic Wednesday morning: "Damage to the Military from a Continuing Resolution." Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Miley, Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert Neller, and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson are the witnesses. A high-powered panel to be sure.
The House passed a revised FY2017 defense appropriations bill in March, actually, and it is conceivable that bill alone could pass with the other 10 wrapped into an omnibus or extended by a CR. Congress has a number of options to work with, the key is getting sufficient votes to pass one of them. At the moment, the Senate still needs 60 votes to pass an appropriations bill (meaning at least 8 Democrat/Independent aye votes). In the House, the Freedom Caucus objects to the total level of government spending, so the House Republican leadership may well need Democratic votes to get anything passed. Which has been true for some time. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week for any we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list. [For those of you wondering what's happening with the postponed OA-7 launch we mentioned last week, a NASA official said at a NASA Advisory Council meeting that it will not launch before mid-April. A specific launch date and associated dates for pre-launch briefings have not been announced.]
Monday-Thursday, April 3-6
Monday-Friday, April 3-7
Tuesday, April 4
Wednesday, April 5
Thursday, April 6
SpaceX successfully launched the SES-10 communications satellite today with a reused Falcon 9 first stage. The first stage then was recovered for a second time, safely landing on a drone ship at sea. SpaceX CEO and Lead Designer Elon Musk said his goal is for first stages to be used 10 times with no changes other than replacing the fuel, or 100 times with a moderate amount of hardware refurbishment. Also, for the first time SpaceX recovered the payload fairing that protects the spacecraft during the launch.
During a post-launch press conference, Musk and Martin Halliwell, SES Chief Technology Officer, called the launch historic.
Lifting off on time at 6:27 pm ET from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A), the Falcon 9 first and second stages safely delivered SES-10 into a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO). Onboard systems will take it the rest of the way to its final destination in geostationary orbit above the equator.
The rocket's first stage originally was used to launch a commercial cargo mission for NASA to the International Space Station on April 8, 2016. It landed on one of SpaceX's two autonomous drone ships, Of Course I Still Love You, and was returned to the company and readied for a second launch. During the press conference, Musk said his goal is to make these stages ready for reuse within 24 hours and use them 10 times, replacing only the fuel. If they undergo a moderate amount of hardware refurbishment, they could be used 100 times, he said.
As has become common practice for SpaceX, after the first stage finished sending the second stage and the satellite on their way to orbit, it returned and landed -- for a second time -- on the same drone ship as in 2016.
For the first time, SpaceX also recovered the payload fairing, the conical shaped structure on top of the rocket that surrounds and protects the spacecraft during launch. The fairing separates from the spacecraft in two sections during the launch sequence -- in this case, 3 minutes and 49 seconds after launch -- and usually falls into the ocean and breaks into pieces. SpaceX outfitted these two fairing sections with parachutes so they could be recovered, which apparently will become standard practice.
The second stage (or upper stage) is not recovered. In the past, Musk has said that is not in SpaceX's plans. Today, however, he said he might give it try: "What's the worst that could happen? It blows up? It would anyway."
Halliwell praised SpaceX's engineering expertise that made it all possible. "The proof is in the pudding and we got it."
Falcon 9 is SpaceX's only rocket at the moment, but it is developing a much more capable rocket, the Falcon Heavy. The "9" in Falcon 9 refers to its nine engines. Falcon Heavy will have 27 engines, all firing simultaneously. Musk joked that they thought about calling it Falcon 27, but the name sounded "too scary." Falcon Heavy uses three boosters (each with nine engines) strapped together. For the first launch, two of the three will be reused Falcon 9 first stages, he said.
Falcon Heavy will be launched from LC-39A. SpaceX's other East Coast launch pad, Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) adjacent to KSC, is still being repaired following last September's explosion that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and its Amos-6 communications satellite during fueling for a routine pre-launch static fire test. The first Falcon Heavy launch will be "risky," Musk conceded, and he does not want to launch it from LC-39A until SLC-40 is repaired just in case something goes awry. He does not want to be in a position where both of his East Coast launch pads are inoperable. He also stressed that the company needs to catch up on launches since many have been delayed because of the September explosion and subsequent efforts to diagnose and fix what went wrong. Getting those customers launched is the first priority and Falcon Heavy is second, he stressed.
Nonetheless, Musk said the current plan is to launch the first Falcon Heavy this summer. The launch date has been postponed a number of times already, however, and few would be surprised if further delays were encountered.
Musk's long term plan is to send a million people to Mars and for that, he insists, reusable rockets are essential to keep costs down. He said lightheartedly today that the goal is to get people on Mars "before we're dead and the company is dead."
Musk said reusability has the potential to reduce costs 100-fold. How much prices will be reduced is an open question, however. For the Falcon 9, Musk said that reflown -- or "flight proven" -- boosters would have a "meaningful" discounted price eventually, but for now the company needs to pay off the development costs. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said last year that customers could save 10 percent by agreeing to use a flight proven Falcon 9 first stage. The price for the SES-10 launch is not publicly known.
SES, one of the three largest communications satellite operators in the world, is a long-standing SpaceX supporter and was its first commercial customer with the launch of SES-8 in 2013. Halliwell said that the media and others keep suggesting that SES is taking a "huge chance" by being first but he disagrees. He said SES works closely with SpaceX and has transparency, a depth of relationship, and access to engineering specifics that "allows us to have confidence." SES has three more launches on SpaceX Falcon 9s this year and is considering using flight proven boosters on two of them.
Musk said it has taken 15 years to get to this point and today was a "huge day, my mind is blown." Halliwell added that after SES-8 he predicted "the industry would be shaking in its boots and I think it is shaking now, I really do."
The Trump Administration has said very little about its plans for NASA's human spaceflight program other than terminating the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), but NASA continues to shape its architecture for sending people to Mars in the 2030s. The status of that planning was presented to a NASA Advisory Council (NAC) committee today.
Bill Gerstenmaier and Jim Free of NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) spoke to NAC's Human Exploration and Operations committee this morning. Two of Gerstenmaier's slides summarized current plans for launches of the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion, and associated systems -- including a lunar "gateway" -- from 2018 to 2030 and beyond. All would culminate in a human mission to orbit Mars in 2033.
One interesting feature is that the first two Exploration Mission launches, EM-1 and EM-2, are separated on the slide by the launch of the Europa Clipper mission. That is notionally expected in 2022. The schedule fits with NASA's official plan to launch EM-1 in 2018 and its commitment date to launch EM-2 in 2023, but the agency is working toward an internal deadline of 2021 for the EM-2 launch and Congress is providing additional funding to achieve it. The slide suggests that NASA does not want to go too far in promising the earlier launch date. The slide also shows EM-1 as a 25-60 day mission to a Distant Lunar Retrograde Orbit, not a crewed mission, which NASA is currently studying.
Another feature is the lunar "gateway" NASA recently has begun discussing. Free emphasized today that the gateway would not be another International Space Station (ISS) in lunar orbit. It would be smaller and human-tended, not permanently inhabited -- a location from which to stage missions to Mars and possibly to the lunar surface.
"Robust international partnerships" and "commercial capabilities" are essential ingredients of the plan, he added.
The humans-to-Mars mission in 2033 could involve a Venus flyby, they said. It would be an "out and back" mission, but the crew would remain in Mars orbit for a period of time. That differentiates it from the Inspiration Mars mission proposed by Dennis Tito several years ago. In that scenario, two people would have made a slingshot flyby of Mars, not enter orbit. Tito's original idea was for a privately funded mission that would launch in 2018, but within a year Tito decided that it would need to be a public-private partnership with NASA shouldering 70 percent of the cost. The conceptual launch date slipped to 2021 when Mars and the Earth were not as well aligned and the spacecraft would have needed a gravity assist from Venus. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) was a strong supporter of the idea. Little has been heard about it recently, but this NASA concept is sure to prompt comparisons.
NASA describes the path to Mars in terms of phases and the Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission (ARCM) at one time was to signal the end of Phase 1 when experience was gained in cis-lunar space (the Earth-Moon region). President Trump has proposed terminating the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), however, and NASA is reconfiguring its plans accordingly. ARM comprises ARCM and the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM). ARRM was to launch first and robotically relocate a boulder from the surface of an asteroid into lunar orbit where ARCM astronauts would visit it to obtain a sample for return to Earth. The mission had few supporters in Congress and the proposal to terminate it is not likely to generate much opposition.
However, ARM involved the development of high power solar electric propulsion (SEP) and that part of the program is expected to continue. The "40 kw Power/Prop bus" shown on the slides reflects that effort. High power SEP is useful for many types of missions in Earth orbit and deep space. Michele Gates, ARM program director, is on the NAC/HEO committee's schedule tomorrow (Wednesday) to give a briefing on in-space power and propulsion.
Concern has been expressed over the low launch rate for SLS for fear that launch teams will lose their proficiency. A launch rate of, at most, one per year has been projected. Today, however, Free said that the latest plan is for one crewed SLS/Orion launch per year beginning in 2023 plus one cargo SLS launch per year beginning in 2027, which would increase the cadence to two per year in support of the human spaceflight program. Some SLS supporters believe that additional uses of SLS will materialize, such as for science missions, that could further increase the launch rate, although the cost per launch is not yet known.
The key to all of this is how much support the Trump Administration will provide for such activities. The President's budget blueprint is for a status quo NASA human spaceflight program. Funding for SLS/Orion would remain essentially at its current level. During a signing ceremony last week for the NASA Transition Authorization Act, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, told the President that just as President Eisenhower is remembered for creating the interstate highway system, he (Trump) would be remembered for creating an interplanetary highway system. Trump's response was "Well that sounds exciting. First we want to fix our highways. We have to fix our highways."
A successful static fire test of a SpaceX Falcon 9 today sets the stage for the company's first launch of a reused Falcon 9 on Thursday. The payload is the SES-10 communications satellite. The Falcon 9's first stage previously launched a cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA in April 2016. SpaceX refers to it as a "flight proven" rocket.
SES-10 will be launched from Kennedy Space Center's (KSC) Launch Complex 39A, which SpaceX leases from NASA. The company continues to make repairs to Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), which is adjacent to KSC. SpaceX leases that pad from the Air Force. It was the site of an on-pad explosion last September during preparations for a static fire test of that Falcon 9, which was destroyed along with its payload, the Amos-6 communications satellite. During a static fire test, a rocket's engines are fired for a short duration while hold-down clamps keep the rocket attached to the pad. Such tests are routine.
The launch is scheduled for 6:00 pm ET on Thursday, March 30. The launch window is open through 8:30 pm ET. The weather forecast is 70 percent "go."
Advocates of reusable launch vehicles argue that they will significantly lower launch costs compared to expendable launch vehicles where the hardware is not recovered. That promise was not achieved with the only reusable launch vehicle to reach operational status so far -- NASA's space shuttle. Refurbishing each shuttle orbiter and their space shuttle main engines (SSMEs) plus the solid rocket boosters required a "standing army" of NASA and contractor employees that kept costs high. (NASA will use the 16 remaining SSMEs -- or RS-25s -- for the first flights of its new Space Launch System, but will not reuse them.)
All other orbital rockets in use today are expendable. SpaceX and other companies, however, remain convinced that the economics of reusability will prove out. Blue Origin has conducted several tests of its reusable suborbital rocket New Shepard and Virgin Galactic's suborbital SpaceShipTwo also is reusable.
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said last year that customers willing to launch on flight proven Falcon 9 first stages would receive a 10 percent discount, but the price SES paid for this launch is not publicly available. SES has been a strong supporter of SpaceX for many years and was its first commercial customer.
Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket. The second stage is expendable.
SpaceX recovers the Falcon 9 first stages by firing their engines to descend back to Earth after they have separated from the second stage (which carries the payload the rest of the way into orbit). The first stages land either on an autonomous drone ship at sea or on a pad at CCAFS, depending on their trajectory and how much fuel remains.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of March 27-31, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate will be in session.
During the Week
Before we get started on what's coming up, in case you missed it, yesterday President Trump used his Weekly Address to talk about NASA. He signed the NASA Transition Authorization Act into law earlier in the week and the roughly 5 minute video continues the theme of expressing his admiration for NASA while sharing no information on his plans for the agency. Apollo, Hubble and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) are featured. JWST is, in fact, the only future program mentioned even though the President says "the future belongs to us." He is speaking generically at that point, though, not about the space program specifically. Nothing about the International Station Station even though there's footage from the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. A space shuttle launch is shown, but nothing about SLS or any other launch vehicles. The only science other than astrophysics that makes it into the video requires the viewer to be sufficiently in-the-know to recognize the JPL jubilation at Curiosity's successful landing on Mars. Still, Presidents don't often talk about the space program in their Weekly Addresses or anywhere else, so it's worth a look. This was done the day after the Republican Obamacare repeal effort failed, so perhaps he was looking for some good news to convey. He says at the end that "if Americans can achieve these things, there is no problem we cannot solve."
Onward. This coming week is another space policy extravaganza. Starting with national security space, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) will hold a hearing on the nomination of former Rep. Heather Wilson to be Secretary of the Air Force. Trump announced her nomination back in January, but it has taken this long for all the paperwork to get to the committee. None of the service secretaries are in place right now. The nominees for Secretary of the Army and Secretary of the Navy withdrew because they could not disentangle themselves from their business interests. Wilson's hearing is Thursday morning.
On the other side of Capitol Hill, a HASC subcommittee will hold a joint hearing with a House Homeland Security subcommittee on "Threats to Space Assets and Implications for Homeland Security," certainly an interesting topic. Witnesses are the former commandant of the Coast Guard (Adm. Thad Allen), the former deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Joseph Nimmich), and the former commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command (Gen. William Shelton). That's on Wednesday afternoon. Allen is on the GPS Advisory Board, so that surely will be one of the topics. GPS -- where would we all be without it?
On the civil space side, this is Space Science Week at the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. All five of the standing committees that deal with space meet individually and jointly Tuesday-Thursday and there is a public lecture on Wednesday evening. At the public lecture, JPL's Kevin Hand will talk about the Search for Life in Oceans Beyond Earth. The lecture and the other Space Science Week events will take place at the National Academy of Sciences building on Constitution Avenue (not at the Keck Center on 5th Street).
Space law is on the docket this week, too. The Legal Subcommittee of the U.N. Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space begins its annual two-week meeting in Vienna, Austria. The first day features a space law symposium sponsored by the International Institute of Space Law (IISL) and the European Centre for Space Law (ECSL). Closer to home, Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) is holding an afternoon symposium on Thursday to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Henry Hetrzfeld (GWU), Steve Mirmina (NASA), Pamela Meredith (American Univ.), Ray Bender (independent arbitrator and mediator), Courtney Bailey (NASA) and Pete Hays (DOD PDSA staff) are the speakers. SAIS doesn't often weigh in on space law or space policy issues. Space law does seem to be in vogue these days, spurred by the anniversary and the innovative ideas commercial companies are espousing for space exploration and utilization and associated legal issues.
The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) meets, more briefly than usual, on Thursday afternoon and Friday morning. Two of its committees meet earlier in the week, including Human Exploration and Operations (HEO). NAC advises the NASA Administrator and a new Administrator has not yet been nominated. Robert Lightfoot is Acting Administrator. Gen. Lester Lyles (USAF, Ret.) is the new Chair of NAC, succeeding Ken Bowersox, who served as Acting Chair after Steve Squyres stepped down last April. Bowersox remains on NAC and resumes his position as chair of the HEO committee. Lyles was an ex officio member of NAC for many years because he chaired the National Academies Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB). He completed his two terms as ASEB chair last year and now will continue advising NASA in this new capacity. Public sessions of the NAC meetings are useful for catching up on NASA programs and the issues NASA managers are facing. Anyone can listen in by telecon and watch via WebEx.
We'll stop there because this is getting so long, but there are MANY other really interesting meetings on tap this week.
All the events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week for others we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list. In particular we are awaiting word on when the OA-7 cargo mission to the International Space Station will launch. The launch, on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V from Cape Canaveral, has been delayed three times due to technical problems with one thing or another. When a new launch date is announced, we'll post it.
Monday, March 27
Monday, March 27 - Friday, April 7
Tuesday, March 28
Tuesday-Wednesday, March 28-29
Tuesday-Thursday, March 28-30
Wednesday, March 29
Wednesday-Friday, March 29-31
Thursday, March 30
Thursday-Friday, March 30-31
President Donald Trump signed the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act into law today. During an Oval Office signing ceremony, Vice President Mike Pence said that Trump will soon reactivate a White House National Space Council and has asked him to lead it.
The signing ceremony included about a dozen members of Congress who worked on the bill (S. 442) as well as NASA officials, including Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot and astronauts. Among the members were Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX), Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Representatives John Culberson (R-TX), Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Lamar Smith (R-TX), Brian Babin (R-TX), Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), Bill Posey (R-FL), Steven Palazzo (R-MS), and Mo Brooks (R-AL).
NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, chief of the astronaut office, presented the President with an astronaut flight jacket.
In his formal statement, Trump summarized key provisions of the legislation, particularly praising the jobs it will create and its reaffirmation of support for NASA's "core missions" -- "human space exploration, space science, and technology." He did not mention earth science. Later he said the United States would remain a leader in aviation.
He invited others to speak after he signed it and Culberson remarked that just as President Eisenhower is remembered as the President who created the interstate highway system, he (Trump) would be remembered as creating the interplanetary highway system.
Trump replied: "Well that sounds exciting. First we want to fix our highways. We have to fix our highways."
That is reminiscent of what he said during the campaign. When asked about his views on space, he said he loves what NASA represents, but "we need to fix the potholes first."
Thus, his comments today did not shed much light on what he plans to do with NASA. His budget blueprint suggests the status quo, at least for now. He may be waiting for input from a White House National Space Council that Vice President Pence today said would be established soon.
At the end of the ceremony, Pence said that "in very short order the President will be taking action to relaunch the National Space Council. He's asked me to chair that as Vice Presidents have done in the past and we're going to be bringing together the best and the brightest in NASA and also in the private sector. We have elected a builder for President and as he said America once again needs to start building and leading to the stars."
This is the first NASA authorization bill since 2010. It sets policy and recommends funding levels for FY2017, which is already underway. It does not provide any funding to NASA, however; only appropriations bills do that. Congress is still considering the FY2017 appropriations bills. NASA and other government agencies are funded right now by a Continuing Resolution basically at their FY2016 levels until April 28. Congress must pass some other appropriations measure(s) by then to keep the government operating.
A National Aeronautics and Space Council was created in the 1958 NASA Act, but President Richard Nixon abolished it in 1973. Congress reestablished a National Space Council (without the aeronautics component) in the FY1989 NASA Authorization Act and President George H.W. Bush implemented it by Executive Order in 1989. It was chaired by Vice President Dan Quayle. The National Space Council (usually abbreviated NSpC to distinguish its initials from the National Security Council) still exists in law, but has not been funded or staffed since the end of that Administration. Space policy has been overseen in the White House by the National Security Council (national security) and Office of Science and Technology Policy (civil and commercial) since then.