Commercial Space News
NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) released its annual report today. Among its key points is criticism of NASA's commercial crew program for its lack of openness, preventing the panel from offering "any informed opinion" on the certification process or "sufficiency of safety." The report's release coincides with NASA's Day of Remembrance in honor of the astronauts who died as the result of spaceflights. The first of those accidents, the 1967 Apollo fire, led to Congress creating ASAP to advise NASA on safety.
The panel's criticism of the commercial crew program was direct and unambiguous and levied at the very beginning of the report so as not to be missed:
"Within NASA, there are outstanding examples of programs that have inculcated a culture of clear and candid communications. Their approach to accountability, good systems engineering, and respect, both up and down the organization chart, would find strong favor with the authors of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report.
"The Commercial Crew Program (CCP) is an exception to the culture of open communications. Regrettably, the Panel has been denied the necessary timely access to information and is therefore unable to offer any informed opinion regarding the adequacy of the certification process or the sufficiency of safety in the CCP. The NASA Administrator has committed to making the changes necessary to resolve this situation and to ensuring that these barriers are removed going forward into 2015."
ASAP's complaint comes just two days after NASA held a press conference with its commercial crew partners, Boeing and SpaceX, to herald the progress they are making to provide services to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) by the end of 2017.
In a color-coded "traffic signal" chart later in the report, ASAP rated "risk transparency -- Insight and communications" as red, meaning an issue of "long-standing concern or an issue that has not been adequately addressed by NASA." It is the only one of nine areas designated that way. In describing its concerns in that area, ASAP includes not only commercial crew, but the Space Launch System and Orion programs.
"Risk communications concerning commercial crew activities by the Director of Commercial Spaceflight Development has been less than forthcoming. Because Probabilistic Risk Assessment results provide a risk assessment of the design capability at maturity, actual risks for early operations of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion could be significantly higher than the calculated or 'advertised' risk. Because the perception of external stakeholders is vitally important, NASA's Office of Communications must be cautious not to create or reinforce inaccurate perceptions of risk."
A second key concern of the panel is what it calls the need for "constancy of purpose" at NASA. It reflects the panel's assessment that there is a "perceived lack of a well-defined mission for NASA's space program" and a mismatch between NASA's budget and what it is expected to do. Reiterating what it said in prior years, ASAP finds that it is "imperative that NASA unambiguously articulate a well-defined purpose, including a path toward the execution of that mission, the technologies that need to be developed and matured, and the resources needed to accomplish that mission."
ASAP criticizes NASA's current "capabilities-based approach" which it believes is driven by budgets rather than a "purposeful, schedule-driven, goal-oriented endeavor." While acknowledging that may be a pragmatic approach that could bridge a transition between presidential administrations, ASAP believes NASA would be better served to "focus on doing fewer things and on doing them better."
Without a clear and consistent goal, ASAP worries that schedule will become a "casualty" that could affect SLS and Orion in particular.
The panel expressed other concerns about Orion and its use for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The panel assessed ARM itself as "a reasonable approach to a mission that is achievable," but worries that the lack of an airlock on Orion adds risk because the entire capsule will have to be depressurized to allow the crew to exit and collect samples of the asteroid. That means the crew will be entirely reliant on their spacesuits. The spacesuits used for ISS spacewalks are "unworkable" for Orion, ASAP said, and although NASA officials have indicated that they have no plans to develop new spacesuits for ARM, ASAP suggests otherwise: "design and development of new-design suits, while underway, are still preliminary and untested." In addition, the panel notes, Orion is small and does not have much room for astronauts to move about or exercise even though the missions may last as long as three weeks: "This long duration, crew habitability risk remains to be assessed and evaluated in order to develop an objective mission risk estimate."
ASAP also is concerned about the small number of flights planned for SLS in terms of maintaining ground crew proficiency. SLS and Orion are part of NASA's Exploration Systems Development (ESD) program, which ASAP rates as "progressing very well." but "there is much more work to be done ... [in] defining the risks and the road to Mars. These risks should continue to be communicated openly and transparently."
The full ASAP report is posted on NASA's website. ASAP submits it both to NASA and to Congress. ASAP chairman Vice Admiral Joseph Dyer (retired) typically is invited to testify to Congress about the panel's findings each year.
ASAP was created by Congress in the NASA Authorization Act of 1968 (P.L. 90-67) following the January 27, 1967 Apollo fire that killed Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee during a pre-launch ground test of what was expected to be the first Apollo mission. Fourteen more astronauts subsequently died in two space shuttle accidents. The January 28, 1986 space shuttle Challenger tragedy killed NASA astronauts Francis "Dick" Scobee, Mike Smith, Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka and Judy Resnik; Hughes Aircraft engineer Greg Jarvis; and New Hampshire schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe. On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during its return to Earth, killing NASA astronauts Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, and Laurel Clark, and Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.
Each year NASA holds a Day of Remembrance honoring all the astronauts who lost their lives in spaceflights. Today is NASA's 2015 Day of Remembrance, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, members of the Challenger families and others participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington Cemetery. Several NASA centers held their own remembrance events.
The House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee held its organizational meeting for the 114th Congress this morning. The typically routine meeting held at the beginning of each new Congress had a strong partisan flavor to it this year, however. The committee's top Democrat, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), issued a sharply worded news release detailing changes Republicans made to committee rules on party-line votes, calling it the "single greatest attack" on the rights of the minority party in the history of the committee.
Johnson is the "ranking minority member" of the committee, meaning the highest ranking member of the party that is not in power. In the 114th Congress, Republicans are the Majority Party and Democrats are the Minority Party in both the House and Senate.
Historically, the House SS&T committee and many other congressional committees have trumpeted the fact that they work in a bipartisan manner, but party-line votes undermine such claims.
In fact, in his opening statement, committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) heralded the fact that in the last Congress the committee approved 20 bills (of which six became law), 18 of them on a bipartisan basis, and said he hoped "we can build on this bipartisan success and do more in this Congress."
Despite that sanguine note, Republicans then voted down all the Democratic amendments to modify the proposed rules (on one of the eight votes today, one Democrat voted with the Republicans). Smith said in a statement after the meeting that what the committee adopted "preserves the legitimate rights of the Minority." He said during the meeting that the goal was to eliminate duplication and align the committee's rules with those of the House (which also have been amended in this Congress).
Johnson, who has served on the committee for 23 years under both Democratic and Republican leadership, clearly disagrees. She listed the following changes that she believes diminishes the Minority's rights:
Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) contrasted this committee's stance with that of another committee on which she serves, House Transportation and Infrastructure, where the entire organizational meeting, including adoption of rules, took "five minutes" rather than beginning "a new Congress and a new year fighting about the rules."
A webcast of the contentious meeting is on the committee's website.
The rules may seem arcane (read our "What's a Markup" fact sheet to learn what some of them mean), but they give the Majority power to hold hearings, subpoena witnesses and documents, and to more easily pass legislation out of committee and to the floor of the House on a partisan basis. Of all the changes, giving the chairman unilateral authority to issue subpoenas could have the greatest impact. In the last Congress, only the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (Rep. Darrell Issa, R-CA) had such power. House SS&T is one of several committees planning to give their chairs such authority in this Congress. Smith said repeatedly that the authority is necessary because of the Obama Administration's "dilatory tactics in responding to letters from this committee" and its "lack of transparency."
How that will play out in the space policy arena remains to be seen, but the sharp differences between the parties on NASA were evident in 2013 when, under the previous rules, the committee approved on party-line votes a new NASA authorization bill that would have prohibited NASA from proceeding with the Asteroid Redirect Mission, dramatically cut funding for NASA overall and especially for Earth Sciences, and established the position of NASA Administrator as an appointed 6-year term. That bill was never voted on by the House and a bipartisan version was crafted the next year after budget caps were raised, promoting greater agreement. That bill did pass the House, but was not considered by the Senate and died at the end of the last Congress, so this Congress will be starting over again. Smith did say today that he hopes a new NASA authorization bill can clear the committee in a bipartisan manner as it did last year.
The number of committee members from each party is roughly proportional to the ratio of Republicans to Democrats in the full House. For the 114th Congress, Republicans have 22 slots on the House SS&T committee and the Democrats have 17.
The Republicans announced their membership, including all their subcommittee assignments today. Democrats are still awaiting appointment of four of their 17 full committee members by the House Democratic leadership and have not announced subcommittee assignments. The 13 Democrats currently assigned to the full committee are Johnson, Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Daniel Lipinski (D-IL), Donna Edwards (D-MD), Frederica Wilson (D-FL), Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), Eric Swalwell (D-CA), Alan Grayson (D-FL), Ami Bera (D-CA), Elizabeth Esty (D-CT), Marc Veasey (D-TX), Katherine Clark (D-MA), and Don Beyer (D-VA).
The Space Subcommittee, which oversees NASA and the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, will have nine Republicans and six Democrats. Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS) will continue to chair the subcommittee. The Subcommittee on Environment, which oversees NOAA's weather forecasting activities, will also have nine Republicans and six Democrats and Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) will serve as chairman. The Subcommittee on Oversight, which has broad jurisdiction, including NOAA's Satellite Modernization activities, was very active in the last Congress under the chairmanship of Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), who lost his Republican primary last year. This year the subcommittee will have six Republicans and four Democrats and be chaired by another Georgian, Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-GA).
The committee also adopted its oversight plan for the 114th Congress today. With regard to NASA, NOAA satellite programs, and the FAA's commercial space activities, the language is virtually identical to the 113th Congress plan. The only notable difference is that oversight of NASA's earth science program is now under the Space Subcommittee's purview; last time it was listed with the Environment Subcommittee.
NASA held a press conference today with its Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) partners Boeing and SpaceX today to highlight progress on developing U.S. systems to take astronauts to space. Both companies said they will be ready by the end of 2017, but CBS News adds that NASA still plans to use one seat on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for the duration of the space station program and for Russians to fly on the U.S. systems.
Launching American astronauts on American vehicles from American soil has been a NASA goal since the Obama Administration terminated the space shuttle program in 2011. NASA currently pays Russia approximately $75 million per seat to launch U.S. astronauts (and those from its Canadian, European and Japanese ISS partners) on Soyuz spacecraft. Russia is the only ISS partner capable of launching humans into space today.
Last September, NASA picked Boeing and SpaceX to continue to the final phase of developing new U.S. crew space transportation systems in a public private partnership where both the government and the company invest capital in the new systems. NASA not only pays part of the development cost, but is a guaranteed market for a certain number of flights.
Boeing’s John Elbon and SpaceX’s Gwynne Shotwell briefly laid out their companies’ plans for meeting the 2017 goal today. Elbon said that Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft will have its first uncrewed orbital test to the ISS in April 2017, with a crewed test in July 2017 and operational services beginning in December 2017. Shotwell said SpaceX’s test flight of the crew version of its Dragon spacecraft would be late in 2016 and the first operational mission in early 2017. Dragon is already used for uncrewed cargo missions to the ISS – one is docked there right now.
NASA’s commercial crew program manager, Kathy Lueders, suggested there is some flexibility about the timing, saying that NASA needs the services in the “late 2017, 2018 time frame.” NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden also was careful in his wording about the date, saying that he is looking to the companies to deliver as promised by the end 2017 and “if we can make that date, I’m a happy camper.” Lueders also said that Boeing would be the first to fly crews to the ISS, even though Elbon's timeline was later than Shotwell's.
NASA funding is critical to the CCtCAP program and Congress has taken several years to warm up to the idea, initially providing roughly half of the money the Administration requested. NASA originally hoped commercial crew systems would be ready by 2015, but Bolden often cites congressional underfunding of the program as the reason the date slipped to 2017.
Today, however, Bolden was optimistic that Congress would provide the full amount that the President will request in his FY2016 budget proposal. The President is expected to submit his FY2016 budget request to Congress on February 2. Agencies like NASA are not allowed to discuss what is in the budget request until it is released. For FY2015, the President requested $848 million and Congress appropriated $805 million, the closest Congress has come to appropriating what the Administration wanted for this program.
Lueders said that by the end of the program, NASA will have spent about $5 billion on development and the average cost per seat will be $58 million. She said that figure is not traceable back to the contracts, however. It is a “derived” value based on the mission costs over five years for crew and cargo (CST-100 and Dragon can carry both). She said it is not NASA’s intent to have an exact price, but only to indicate that U.S. industry has “stepped up to provide cost effective solutions to flying crews” to ISS.
Bolden emphasized today his desire to end U.S. dependence on Russia, saying he hopes to never have to write a check to Russia’s Roscosmos after 2017. That does not mean, however, that American astronauts no longer will fly on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. CBS News space correspondent Bill Harwood reported today on a January 15 interview with ISS Program Manager Mike Suffredini who said that NASA plans to use one seat on Soyuz for the duration of the ISS program and Russians would fly on the U.S. commercial vehicles. “We’re assuming two Russian seats a year and we’re assuming two Russians will fly in our seats per year … And it’ll just be a quid pro quo, we won’t ask for compensation,” Suffredini told Harwood.
Bolden also said at the press conference today that he thinks the Russians will be “perfectly happy” with the advent of the U.S. commercial systems because they provide redundancy in crew access to the ISS and the “intent is to fly mixed crews.”
Bolden’s theme throughout the press conference was that NASA needs to focus on space exploration, specifically going to Mars, and that will require participation of international and commercial partners. Turning transportation to and from low Earth orbit (LEO) over to the commercial sector frees NASA to focus on deep space exploration. After the ISS has fulfilled its purpose around 2024, it will be taken apart and deorbited, he said, and future LEO infrastructure will be provided by commercial companies: the “world of LEO belongs to industry, it doesn’t belong to the government, it doesn’t belong to NASA at all.”
Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of January 26-30, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
On the off chance you haven't been watching the weather forecasts, the week starts off with a major winter storm for the Northeast, so if you're headed in this direction for meetings, be prepared for delays. The Washington, DC area is not expected to get much snow (a few inches) but it may as well be the two feet they're forecasting for New England when it comes to impact. This area just does not do well in snow.
Tomorrow in warmer climes -- Houston -- NASA and its Commercial Crew Transportation Program (CCtCAP) partners, Boeing and SpaceX, will hold a news briefing at Johnson Space Center to provide an update on their progress in developing crew transportation systems to service the International Space Station (ISS) by 2017. The 11:00 am Central Time (12:00 noon Eastern) briefing will be broadcast on NASA TV.
Or head to Cocoa Beach, FL for the three-day (Tuesday-Thursday) NASA Advanced Innovative Concepts (NIAC) 2015 symposium. If you can't make it in person, it will be webcast.
Back here in DC, on Tuesday, when it may still feel like the Arctic, the Secure World Foundation will hold a really interesting seminar on "Space and the Arctic: Why Space Capabilities are Important for Sustainable Arctic Development" from 12:00-2:00 pm ET. Please RSVP in advance if you plan to attend.
An hour before that, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee will hold its 114th Congress organizational meeting, postponed from last week. The House Appropriations Committee holds its organizational meeting on Wednesday. The House and Senate Armed Services Committees (HASC and SASC) have interesting hearings on broad topics this week. It is not clear whether national security space issues will come up at all, but they may, and the hearings seem interesting nonetheless. One SASC hearing is on the impact of sequestration on national security with the military service chiefs (the sequester comes back into effect in FY2016 unless the law is changed) and the other is on global challenges with three former Secretaries of State (Kissinger, Shultz and Albright). The HASC hearing is on how to improve DOD's ability to respond to technological change.
If you're interested in a career in space policy and in the D.C. area on Tuesday, don't miss the panel discussion on that topic Tuesday evening at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. Five young professionals who are climbing that ladder of success right now will be there to offer their perspectives and advice.
We also want to note that this week begins the anniversaries of the three fatal spaceflight accidents: Apollo 1 (or Apollo 204) on January 27, 1967; Challenger, January 28, 1986; and Columbia, February 1, 2003. NASA usually holds a remembrance event around this time, but we have not heard when/where/what it will be this year.
The meetings that we do know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Monday, January 26
Tuesday, January 27
Tuesday-Thursday, January 27-29
Wednesday, January 28
Wednesday-Thursday, January 28-29
Thursday, January 29
SpaceX announced today that it reached agreement with the Air Force on a "path forward" and is dropping its lawsuit against a 2013 Air Force contract with the United Launch Alliance (ULA) for a "block-buy" of 36 launch vehicle cores for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.
SpaceX filed suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in April 2014 arguing that the 2013 contract should not have been awarded on a sole-source basis, but opened for bid. The company's founder and Chief Designer, Elon Musk, said at the time that ULA's prices for launching the two EELVs -- Atlas V and Delta IV -- were "four times as expensive" as a SpaceX launch and the award was "not right."
SpaceX has been awarded a few Air Force launch contracts (such as the DSCOVR launch now scheduled for February 8), but not for the potentially more lucrative launches of national security satellites by EELV-class rockets. It is still awaiting certification from the Air Force to be able to compete for those launches. Air Force officials indicated last year that certification was expected by the end of 2014, but most recently said it may not come until this summer.
The company said in statement today that its agreement with the Air Force "improves the competitive landscape and achieves mission assurance for national security space launches." The agreement calls for the Air Force to "work collaboratively" with SpaceX to complete the certification process, The SpaceX statement also said that the Air Force "has expanded the number of competitive opportunities for launch services under the EELV program while honoring existing contractual obligations."
"Per the settlement, SpaceX will dismiss its claims relating to the EELV block buy contract pending in the United States Court of Federal Claims," the SpaceX statement concludes.
Senator John McCain (R-AZ) is a strong supporter of SpaceX's efforts to win EELV contracts. At a Senate hearing last summer, he left no doubt about his dissatisfaction with the Air Force's handling of the EELV block-buy award and its treatment of SpaceX. He is now the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), which oversees the Air Force.
SpaceX's complaint against the ULA contract came at the same time U.S.-Russian geopolitical relationships soured because of Russia's actions in Ukraine. It highlighted ULA's utilization of Russian RD-180 rocket engines for the Atlas V rocket and catalyzed a debate about U.S. dependence on Russian rocket engines. The FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) essentially prohibits DOD from entering into a new contract or renewing a current contract for purchasing Russian rocket engines for national security space launches. The law authorizes $220 million in FY2015 for the Air Force to develop a "next generation" rocket propulsion system by 2019. Meanwhile, ULA and Blue Origin announced last fall that they are teaming to develop a new U.S.-produced engine for the Atlas V that is already completely funded (i.e., no government funds are required).
President Obama mentioned NASA twice (and NOAA once) in his State of the Union (SOTU) address tonight. First he talked about the Orion EFT-1 flight last year and Scott Kelly's upcoming year-long mission to the International Space Station (ISS) as steppingstones to Mars. Later he turned to climate change and lauded NASA and NOAA scientists among those warning that humans are affecting the climate.
Part of the coveted currency of Washington politics is getting mentioned in the SOTU. Agencies and interest groups jockey to get a single sentence in the typically hour-long speech to raise awareness of their issues. The actual value of that currency is questionable, but seems no less desirable as the years pass. This is not the first time Obama has mentioned NASA or the space program in an SOTU address (he did so in 2011 and 2013), but his one major space policy speech was a separate event at Kennedy Space Center in April 2010.
Thinking back over the history of when being singled out in the SOTU resulted in a significant policy change for NASA, the only one that comes to mind is President Ronald Reagan's 1984 address where he directed NASA to build a space station "within a decade" and invite other countries to join. That eventually became the ISS program, though it took two-and-a-half decades instead of one. In 1986, Reagan called for development of an "Orient Express" -- a single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) vehicle that could not only put payloads into orbit but be used as a commercial hypersonic plane to take passengers from Washington to Tokyo in two hours. The resulting National Aero-Space Plane (NASP) program did not succeed. (John F. Kennedy's May 1961 speech to Congress that began the Apollo program was not a State of the Union address, but a separate speech on Urgent National Needs.)
Nonetheless, NASA undoubtedly is delighted to get two mentions tonight. First was human spaceflight. Obama does not identify the Orion spacecraft or the EFT-1 mission by name, but refers to a spaceflight "last month" as part of a program to send people to Mars that can only mean that flight. He also introduced astronaut Scott Kelly, who was sitting in First Lady Michelle Obama's box. Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will begin a year-long mission aboard ISS in March. Here is the text of that portion of the speech as published on the White House website.
"I want Americans to win the race for the kinds of discoveries that unleash new jobs – converting sunlight into liquid fuel; creating revolutionary prosthetics, so that a veteran who gave his arms for his country can play catch with his kid; pushing out into the Solar System not just to visit, but to stay. Last month, we launched a new spacecraft as part of a re-energized space program that will send American astronauts to Mars. In two months, to prepare us for those missions, Scott Kelly will begin a year-long stay in space. Good luck, Captain – and make sure to Instagram it."
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly (in blue flight suit) at January 20, 2015 State of the Union address. Photo tweeted by NASA
Later the President spoke about climate change and mentioned both NASA and NOAA.
"2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record. Now, one year doesn’t make a trend, but this does – 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century.
Whether his words will lead to action in the form of more funding for Mars missions or climate change science should become evident on February 2 when his FY2016 budget request is submitted to Congress.
No mention was made of NASA, the space program or climate change in the much briefer Republican response to the SOTU by Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA).
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) today released the text of its decision denying Sierra Nevada Corporation's (SNC's) protest of NASA's decision to award the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) awards to SpaceX and Boeing. The public release of the redacted document follows NASA's release of its Source Selection Statement late last Friday.
GAO denied SNC's protest on January 5, but the text of its decision had to be reviewed and some information redacted because it was subject to a GAO Protective Order. The public version released today is 21 pages long and has a fair number of [DELETED] notations including detailed price information for all three bidders although the total price bid by each is presented: Boeing, $3,099,016,464; SpaceX, $1,753,698,691; and SNC, $2,552,271,681.
Price was not the only factor in NASA's decision, as evidenced by NASA's Source Selection Statement, signed by Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations. The other two were Mission Suitability and Past Performance. Price was more important than Mission Suitability, which was more important than Past Performance. The combination of Mission Suitability and Past Performance was approximately equal to Price. NASA determined that SpaceX "had the best price and also Very Good mission suitability and a High level of confidence in past performance." Boeing "is the strongest of all three proposals in both Mission Suitability and Past Performance" even though it is higher in price. SNC "has a strong management approach" and its "performance on other very relevant work has been very good," but Gerstenmaier said he agreed with the Source Evaluation Board's "evaluation that SNC has the lowest rating for the technical subfactor" and SNC's design is "at the lowest level of maturity."
GAO agreed with NASA's determinations. It denied SNC's four protests --
CCtCAP is the final phase of NASA's efforts to facilitate commercial development of crew space transportation systems to service the International Space Station (ISS) through what are essentially public-private partnerships. NASA supported all three companies in the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) phase, but had to choose only two of the three to proceed to this phase, which is intended to result in systems capable of entering service by the end of 2017.
SNC has vowed to continue with its vehicle, Dream Chaser, despite losing the protest. Dream Chaser is a winged vehicle that resembles a small space shuttle. The Boeing CST-100 and SpaceX Dragon vehicles are capsules reminiscent of an Apollo spacecraft. SpaceX is already launching an uncrewed version of Dragon as a cargo carrying spacecraft. SpaceX's most recent "commercial cargo" launch to the ISS was on January 10. That Dragon spacecraft is still attached to the ISS and expected to return to Earth in February.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden conveyed optimism today in a speech to the space business community in Maryland, urging them to not get discouraged and to “move the ball forward.” Without promising that President Obama would mention space in tonight’s State of the Union address, Bolden offered suggestions on what the President could say if he chose to.
Bolden avoided specifics in his first major public speech of the year. The President’s FY2016 budget request will not be released until February, so he could not talk about what the President has in mind for the agency other than commenting that he expects it to reflect a “vote of confidence” that the agency is on the right track. “If you want to know what the future holds in our field, I think ‘more of the same’ is not too hard of a prediction to make.”
The key is “we’re moving the ball forward … bit by bit,” he said early in the speech to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR) in Greenbelt, MD, a theme he repeated to the end.
The “absolute worst thing” would be “to interrupt that progress and go back to the beginning” he said, acknowledging “we did it in this Administration, almost, we didn’t quite go back and reset, there was an attempt made to do that, and we chose not to do that” but instead we “took the work that had been done prior to this Administration .. and adopted and adapted some of it so we are where we are today.”
Stressing that he was not suggesting President Obama would say anything about space exploration in tonight’s State of the Union address, Bolden said the President could say “for the first time in human history we may be going inside the 20-years-to-Mars.” Sending humans to Mars still is “without a doubt” at least 20 years away, he clarified, but “we’re about to slip under that 20-year threshold.”
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly will sit with First Lady Michelle Obama during tonight’s speech. Kelly is about to embark on a year-long mission to the International Space Station (ISS) to learn more about human adaptation to living in space in preparation for eventual human trips to Mars.
Other nations are counting on the United States to continue to lead in space exploration, Bolden said, and when he meets with other ISS partners about what they want to do next, they say “we’re going where you go.” They have an expectation “that we know what the heck we’re doing,” and “we’ve got to be able to deliver on that promise.”
“We’re on a journey to Mars,” he proclaimed, adding that he realizes that people in the audience have heard that for so long they may not be as convinced as he is, but “I mean that…..I’m dedicated to that.”
“You’re moving the ball forward,” he told the audience. “Do not get discouraged. Do not let people tell you what you’re doing is not of great value to this nation…. Hang in there. … We’re gonna get there.”
UPDATE, January 20: New House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Chairman Mac Thornberry will lay out his agenda for the 114th Congress at 10:00 am ET this morning (Monday) to the American Enterprise Institute. It will be webcast.
UPDATE, January 19: The White House announced today that astronaut Scott Kelly will be one of the many guests sitting with First Lady Michelle Obama during Tuesday's State of the Union address. Whether or not the President will mention Kelly and his upcoming year-long mission to the ISS or anything else about the space program is unclear, but it raises that possibility.
January18, 2015: Here is our list of space policy related events coming up for the week of January 19-23, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate will be in session for part of the week (Monday is a holiday -- Martin Luther King Jr. Day) and on Tuesday will meet in joint session to hear President Obama's State of the Union Address.
During the Week
The list of events this week is somewhat short, but they are important events that will set the stage for what transpires in months to come.
The two committees that set policy for NASA will hold their organizational meetings this week: the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee on Tuesday and the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee on Wednesday. Committee and subcommittee members are usually formalized at these meetings and the chairs and ranking members often use the opportunity to lay out their priorities for the year. The Senate committee will now be run by Republicans instead of Democrats since Republicans won control of the Senate in last year's elections. Sen. John Thune (R-SD) will be chairman and Sen. BIll Nelson (D-FL) is the ranking member. In space policy circles. a lot of attention is being paid to the selection of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to chair the Space, Science and Competitiveness subcommittee and what that may mean especially for NASA's earth science program. Cruz told the Houston Chronicle his overall priorities for oversight of the U.S. civil space program, starting with reauthorization of the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA) and returning NASA to its "core priority of exploring space."
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS) will retain their leadership positions on the full House SS&T committee and its Space Subcommittee respectively. Smith said last year that CSLA will be one of his top priorities in this Congress. A prohibition on the FAA enacting new regulations on commercial human spaceflight expires this year, so that is certain to be a topic for debate. How the October 2014 Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo crash will affect the outcome is an open question.
On Tuesday, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will speak to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR). While he won't be able to talk about the President's upcoming budget request for FY2016, which will not be released until February 2, he should be able to explain how the agency will spend the extra half billion dollars Congress provided for the current fiscal year above the President's request, and provide updates on ongoing programs. He and members of his NASA Advisory Council (NAC) had frank exchanges about the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) last week and perhaps he will try once more to convince the space community that moving an asteroid -- or part of an asteroid -- from one place in the solar system to another is critical to achieving the long term goal of sending humans to Mars. That is the part of the mission NAC members question. NASA says it will announce in "mid-January" its choice of whether to move an entire small asteroid (Option A) or pluck a boulder off of a larger asteroid (Option B) and move just that part. It is mid-January already. Perhaps Bolden will make the announcement at the MSBR meeting, though we have not heard any rumors to that effect. The decision was supposed to have been announced last month, but was delayed at the last moment.
Also on Tuesday, President Obama will present his annual State of the Union Address. There is no indication that the space program will be mentioned, but it should be interesting nonetheless to see what the President has in mind as he faces his last two years in office with a Congress controlled entirely by Republicans. During his first two years, Democrats controlled both chambers. Democrats lost the House in 2010 and he faced a split Congress for the next four years. Now they have lost the Senate as well and Republicans made significant gains in the House. Expectations are low that Washington gridlock will come to an end. Senate Democrats may be as effective in the minority as the Republicans were for four years and the President wields the veto pen.
Tuesday, January 20
Wednesday, January 21
Today has been a busy day, with many interesting announcements from around the globe ranging from locating Europe's Beagle-2 lander on Mars to SpaceX's release of video of its Falcon 9 first stage crashing into instead of landing on an autonomous drone ship to NASA's release of its source selection statements for the CCtCAP awards to Boeing and SpaceX and several more.
Here are brief summaries with links to more information: