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What's Happening in Space Policy March 30-April 3, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Mar-2015 (Updated: 29-Mar-2015 06:53 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events coming up in the next week and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in recess for the next two weeks -- their annual Easter Recess.

During the Week

The lack of congressional activities makes more time for all the other interesting events coming up, including the National Research Council's Space Science Week -- there's an excellent public lecture associated with it on Wednesday evening, meetings of several NASA Advisory Council (NAC) subcommittees, and a very interesting meeting of the FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC).

To start things off, Roger Launius and Nathan Bridges will hold another of their Space Policy and History Forums tomorrow afternoon at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) on the Mall.  The forum meets quarterly and does a great job of introducing new people, topics and ideas to the space policy and history community.  Tomorrow is no exception.  Teasel Muir-Harmony of the Center for the History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics will talk about "Astronaut Ambassadors: The Apollo 11 Diplomatic Tour and the Role of Spaceflight in Public Diplomacy."  Her research focuses on the use of the U.S. space program in public diplomacy during the Cold War.  The meeting is at 4:00 pm ET.  Be sure to RSVP to Roger in advance to get on the list that allows access to the museum's office area.

The NAC Planetary Science Subcommittee and the Heliophysics Subcommittee will each meet tomorrow and Tuesday at NASA Headquarters.  NAC's Ad Hoc Task Force on STEM Education meets there on Friday afternoon.  NASA's Applied Sciences Advisory Committee, which is not part of NAC, also is meeting on Monday, virtually we think.

The NRC's Space Science Week, organized by the Space Studies Board (SSB), brings together its five standing committees in individual and plenary sessions.  The meetings will take place Tuesday-Thursday, but some are closed, including all day Thursday.  All are at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) building on Constitution Avenue, not at the Keck Center on 5th Street.  Beginning last year, the SSB instituted the practice of holding a public lecture in connection with Space Science Week for the general public as well as the space science community.  This year, Jason Kalirai of the Space Telescope Science Institute will talk about "Our Place in the Universe: As Seen Through Past, Present and Future Telescopes."  That's on Wednesday at 6:30 pm ET at the NAS building.

If you are more attuned to commercial space than space science or history, you're in luck, too.  COMSTAC meets on Wednesday and opens at breakneck speed with talks by three of the most influential government policymakers in the commercial spaceflight arena:  FAA's own George Nield (8:05-8:20 am ET), NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden (8:20 - 8:45 am), and Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations CJS subcommittee (8:45-9:15 am).  The agenda (current as of yesterday) is available from our calendar.

And for those of you still hankering for more ideas on how the future of human spaceflight should unfold, the Planetary Society is holding a "Humans Orbiting Mars" workshop at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs on Tuesday and Wednesday.   Participation is by invitation only (so it is not in our list), but they will hold a press conference on Thursday at 11:00 pm ET to share their results.

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

Monday, March 30

Monday-Tuesday, March 30-31

Tuesday-Thursday, March 31-April 2

Wednesday, April 1

  • FAA COMSTAC, NTSB Conference Center, 429 L'Enfant Plaza, SW, Washington, DC, 8:00 am - 5:00 pm ET
  • Space Science Week Public Lecture, National Academy of Sciences Building, 2101 Constitution Ave, NW, Washington, DC, 6:30 pm ET

Thursday, April 2

Friday, April 3

Kelly and Kornienko Begin One-Year ISS Mission

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Mar-2015 (Updated: 28-Mar-2015 03:19 PM)

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko are spending their first full day aboard the International Space Station (ISS) today, the beginning of a one-year mission to study the long term effects of spaceflight on humans in preparation for longer trips to Mars.  Kelly is the first American to attempt a one-year mission.  Kornienko will be the fifth Russian to achieve that distinction.

The two lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan along with crewmate Gennady Padalka at 3:42:57 pm EDT yesterday (March 27) and docked with the ISS about six hours later at 9:33 pm EDT.   The hatches between their Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft and the ISS opened at 11:33 pm EDT and they were greeted by the three current ISS crew members:  NASA's Terry Virts, the European Space Agency's (ESA's) Samantha Cristoforetti, and Russia's Anton Shkaplerov.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko.  Photo Credit:  NASA

The ISS typically is occupied by six crew members who come and go in threes because the Soyuz spacecraft -- the only vehicle now available to take crews to and from ISS -- holds three people.  Crews rotate on roughly six month schedules.  For short periods of time, when one crew returns to Earth and their replacements are awaiting launch, only three are there.

This routine ballet of rotating crews will continue for the next year, but Kelly and Kornienko will remain on board through two shifts, while others come and go.  Since the retirement of the U.S. space shuttle, all the Soyuz seats have been required for crew members from the ISS partners -- the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and 11 European countries through ESA.   Since Kelly and Kornienko will not need two of the seats on the next rotation, Russia is able to resume sending "spaceflight participants" (or "tourists") to ISS.  A Soyuz launch scheduled for September 2015 (Soyuz TMA-18M) is slated to include singer Sarah Brightman.

Michael Lopez-Alegria holds the U.S. record for the longest single mission in space:  215 days (he spent a total of 258 days in space over the course of four spaceflights).  Kelly will break that record on October 29.

Four Russians have spent a year or more in space on a single mission.  Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov were the first, jointly spending 366 days aboard Russia's Mir space station in 1987-1988.  Next was Valery Polyakhov who spent 438 days aboard Mir from 1994-1995, the current record. Interestingly, he made a previous long-duration flight to Mir when Titov and Manarov were aboard.  A physician, he monitored their health during the last months of their record-breaking mission and then remained aboard after they returned to Earth, a total of 240 days.   In 1998-1999, Sergei Avdeyev spent 380 days aboard Mir.  In all those cases, as with Kelly and Kornienko, other cosmonauts came and went on routine crew rotations so there was a constant turnover of personnel.

Polyakhov may hold the record for longest consecutive mission, but even with his two long duration flights (240 days and 438 days), he does not have the longest cumulative time in space.  Sergei Krikalev accumulated 803 days of spaceflight over six missions.  Gennady Padalka, a member of the crew that launched yesterday, is on his fifth space mission and will break Krikalev's record on June 28.

The Kelly-Kornienko mission is billed as "one year" in space, but it actually is scheduled to last 342 days, not quite a year.  They are expected to return on March 3, 2016.   The purpose of extending mission duration to one year or more is to understand how humans react physically and psychologically to spaceflight conditions since sending humans to Mars is a long term goal for NASA and others.  Kelly has an identical twin, Mark Kelly, a former astronaut himself.  A "twins study" composed of 10 separate investigations will be conducted of the two men.

What's Happening in Space Policy March 23-27, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Mar-2015 (Updated: 21-Mar-2015 01:47 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events coming up for the week of March 23-27, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate will be in session.

During the Week

Another busy week in the space policy business is coming up.   In the NASA realm, the Senate Commerce Committee's expected approval of Dava Newman's nomination to be NASA Deputy Administrator on Wednesday surely is at the top of the list.  It is only one step in the process, and the challenge of getting anyone's nomination through the Senate these days is all too apparent, but the fact that the committee did not see a need to hold a hearing on the nomination is a good sign. 

Perhaps -- but just perhaps -- even bigger news will come from the Mission Concept Review (MCR) for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).  A NASA spokesman says the MCR is on Tuesday (it is not open to the public), but still cannot forecast whether it will result in the long awaited announcement of whether Option A or Option B won the toss for how to implement the mission.  NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot planned to reveal the decision in December, but ultimately announced that more time was needed.   NASA CFO David Radzanowski said the day the FY2016 budget request was released in February that the choice could be announced in days, at the MCR, or afterwards, he simply did not know.  Lightfoot is scheduled to speak at Thursday's USRA/Space Policy Institute symposium, which is about Near Earth Objects (NEOs) -- asteroids and comets -- and other small bodies in the solar system, an opportunity to share the results of the MCR, though it is not clear he will do so.  The symposium has a lot of other very interesting speakers, too.  Unfortunately, we're told it will not be webcast.

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee's hearing on Tuesday about the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) should be especially interesting with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's John Mather there to talk about the science JWST will be able to accomplish.  Mather, a Nobel Prize winner in Physics and JWST's Senior Project Scientist, is exceptionally good at conveying to a non-scientific audience what we do and don't know about the universe, why we need to know more, and how JWST will move us along that path.   NASA science head John Grunsfeld will also be there, along with Cristina Chaplain from GAO and Jeffrey Grant from Northrop Grumman, JWST's prime contractor.  Grunsfeld, an astrophysicist and former astronaut who repaired the Hubble Space Telescope on three shuttle missions, also excels at communicating science to non-scientists, but probably will be handling programmatic questions about whether JWST will meet its cost and schedule targets (its previous cost overruns and delays are legendary).

On the military space front, the House Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing specifically on the FY2016 budget request for national security space activities.  Several hearings have already touched on some of those issues, including last week's hearing on assured access to space, but this is focused on the entire national security space enterprise with a who's who of its leadership in the military and intelligence communities.

Lots more on tap, too, including the launch of Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko on their one-year mission to ISS. 

Here is list of all the events we are aware of as of Saturday afternoon.

Monday, March 23

Tuesday, March 24

Tuesday-Thursday, March 24-26

Wednesday, March 25

Thursday, March 26

Thursday-Friday, March 26-27

Friday, March 27

HASC Grills Company and Government Officials on Space Launch, But No Clear Solution

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Mar-2015 (Updated: 18-Mar-2015 03:09 PM)

A lengthy House subcommittee hearing with top officials from the government and private sector yesterday (March 17) left as many questions as answers on how to assure “assured access” to space for national security satellites.  Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) remarked at one point “The more I learn, the more confused I get.”  Maj. Gen. Howard “Mitch” Mitchell (Ret.) offered perhaps the sagest advice, recommending a new Space Launch Modernization Plan be developed, akin to the Moorman study of the 1990s.

Sanchez’s statement is a succinct exposition of what came out of the hearing before the Strategic Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), which featured two panels.  The first was composed of United Launch Alliance (ULA) President Tory Bruno and SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell.  The second was mostly government witnesses:  Katharina McFarland, DOD assistant secretary for acquisition; William LaPlante, Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition; Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command; and Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Howard “Mitch” Mitchell, who now works for the Aerospace Corporation, but was testifying in his personal capacity as chairman of last year’s study group on alternatives to the RD-180 engine (the “Mitchell Commission”).

The hearing, scheduled to begin at 3:30 pm ET, started 45 minutes late because the members were on the House floor casting votes.  Once it began, opening statements by members and witnesses were brief, but the question-and-answer period was extensive and the hearing lasted until 6:30 pm ET with subcommittee chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) finally drawing it to a close even though he seemed to have many more questions that he wished to pose.

That pretty well characterizes the hearing – leaving as many questions as answers.  One interesting aspect was the change in tone between witnesses for SpaceX (Shotwell)  and Air Force Space Command (Hyten) who, while on different panels, sang each other’s praises after a bruising year in which SpaceX sued the Air Force for awarding ULA a sole-source contract in 2013.  SpaceX dropped the suit in January after a settlement was reached.  The terms of the settlement were sealed by the judge, but whatever they are, the two parties seem determined to present a united public face now.   (Rogers asked whether SpaceX or ULA would have any objection to the subcommittee seeing the terms of the agreement. Shotwell and Bruno each said it was fine with them, but only the court could make that decision.)

Shotwell emphasized again and again that SpaceX and the Air Force are working “shoulder to shoulder” to get the Falcon 9 certified to compete for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV)-class launches.  Air Force officials publicly promised during 2014 that certification would be completed by that December, but it was delayed and now is expected by June.   For his part, Hyten lauded SpaceX and said that people who might have bet against the company meeting its goals in the past would have lost.  Although he joined other government witnesses in agreeing that Shotwell’s expectation that SpaceX’s new Falcon Heavy rocket will be ready to launch national security satellites by 2018 is optimistic, he said SpaceX has been “amazing, so I won’t say it’s impossible.”  He also downplayed a statement made by Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James at an earlier hearing where she mentioned that some of the SpaceX launches experienced anomalies.  Hyten acknowledged that SpaceX has had some problems, which are “proprietary,” but “we’ve had the same things with Atlas and Delta.”  The key is that all of the launches were “mission successes,” he stressed.

The issues debated at the hearing basically are how to end U.S. reliance on Russia’s RD-180 engines, used for ULA’s Atlas V rocket, and how to create competition in the U.S. national security space launch marketplace.  ULA has almost exclusively launched U.S. national security satellites on the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets since it was created in 2006 as a joint company owned 50-50 by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, the two companies that had been providing those launch services on Atlas and Delta respectively.  The creation of ULA was driven by market factors and government requirements.

An archived webcast is available on the committee’s website.  The central questions were:

  • Does language in Section 1608 of the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requiring DOD to build a new American-made propulsion system by 2019 to replace Russia’s RD-180 create the possibility of a “gap” in the U.S. ability to launch national security satellites in the 2018-2022 time frame because
    • ULA has decided to discontinue the medium/intermediate versions of the Delta IV around 2018 because they are too expensive to compete in the current marketplace (they are often referred to as the “single stick” version of Delta IV);
    • Atlas V would no longer be available;
    • SpaceX’s new Falcon Heavy is not likely to be ready by then; and
    • Therefore only the Delta IV Heavy would be available for national security launches and they would be prohibitively expensive
  • Does Section 1608 need to be clarified so ULA can use all of the RD-180 engines it currently plans to buy from Russia because the Air Force is interpreting the law such that only a small number would be permitted (the number is widely cited as five, but the government witnesses did not specify it in their statements).

Overall, many of the subcommittee members and all of the witnesses other than SpaceX seemed to want Congress to change Section 1608 to allow RD-180 engines to be used for the Atlas V until 2021-2022 when ULA’s Next Generation Launch System (NGLS) with an American-made engine is ready.   SpaceX’s position is that no more RD-180s are needed because its Falcon 9 and new Falcon Heavy – which it plans to launch for the first time later this year -- can provide the launch capability and redundancy needed to assure U.S. access to space after 2018.

Section 1608 requires DOD to develop an American replacement for Russia’s RD-180 engines by 2019, but it also contains a number of waivers that seem to add flexibility if an American replacement is not ready by then.  Nonetheless, the witnesses other than SpaceX clearly view 2019 as a hard cut-off date and want it extended.  Also, Air Force acquisition official LaPlante explained in his written statement that the language allows use only of RD-180s that were purchased or included in a legally binding contract prior to February 1, 2014 (when Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula) and according to the documentation DOD has available “only a small number of engines actually meet that statutory language.”   DOD wants Congress to clarify that all of the RD-180 engines intended to be purchased under ULA’s current contract can be utilized.

ULA’s Development of New Engines – BE-4 and AR1

Last fall, ULA and Blue Origin announced that they are partnering to develop the BE-4 rocket engine, which uses methane as fuel, as an RD-180 alternative.  At the hearing, Bruno said that ULA also has a “backup” plan with Aerojet Rocketdyne to develop the AR1, which uses traditional kerosene.  Bruno said the BE-4 is three years ahead of AR1 in development and ULA will choose one of the two to pursue in 2016 or 2017.  The new engine would be used for ULA’s NGLS that ultimately will replace both Atlas and Delta.  Whichever engine is chosen, the NGLS will require a significant redesign of tankage and launch pad modifications.

Bruno asserted that the engine development is “largely privately funded.”  “I do not require government funding, but there are wise investments the government can make to reduce risk and I won’t say no to help,” he said.

An interesting wrinkle in the discussion came up late in the hearing when subcommittee chairman Rogers made clear that what he wants is an American version of the RD-180, not a new engine that would require changes to the rest of the Atlas V rocket or launch pads.  LaPlante said that “we build the rocket around the engine” and Mitchell explained that “you can’t jack up the Atlas V and put in a new engine,” but Rogers said that is exactly what he wants to do.   That is not one of the options currently being pursued by ULA, however.

Launch Prices

Significant discussion occurred concerning the prices charged by SpaceX and ULA.  Shotwell explained that she does not know what ULA charges the government, but it was awarded an $11 billion contract for 28 launches (the “block buy” contract signed in 2013), which SpaceX calculates to be an average of $400 million per launch.

She said a Falcon 9 average price is $60 million for commercial customers and $80-90 million for the government, which has special requirements, and the cost to the government for a Falcon Heavy launch will be about $150-160 million.  That yields an average cost across all its vehicles of about $120 million, she said, roughly 25 percent of ULA prices.   Asked how SpaceX can offer such low prices, she replied that “I don’t know how to build a $400 million rocket” and “I don’t understand how they are as expensive as they are.”

Bruno said he did not recognize the $400 million number and the cost of an Atlas V 401 launch, equivalent to a Falcon 9, is $164 million on average and will be about $140 million in the future.   Averaged across all of the launches envisioned in the block buy, the cost is $225 million, he said, a 30 percent reduction from its prices before the block buy.  He did acknowledge separately that the cost of a Delta IV Heavy launch today is $400-600 million.

The “Gap”

DOD acquisition official McFarland’s written statement clarifies that the “gap” they are worried about is a period late in this decade “without at least two price competitive launch providers servicing medium to intermediate class missions.”

That is an important point.   It is not a gap in the U.S. ability to launch satellites, but whether there is competition for medium and intermediate class payloads.   Hyten said “gap” is not the right word, it is really about a “transition” between 2018 and 2022, but everyone else referred to it as a gap.

The gap is precipitated in part by ULA’s recent decision to discontinue the single stick version of the Delta IV, leaving the Atlas V as its only launch vehicle for that class of payload.  If Atlas V is no longer available after 2019, and SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is not ready by then, these intermediate size payloads would have to be launched by the more capable Delta IV Heavy, but the price would be prohibitive.   Bruno assured the subcommittee that he is committed to launching the Delta IV Heavy as long as the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) needs it.   If it is ULA’s only rocket, however, all of ULA’s fixed costs would have to be absorbed in those launch costs, raising the price from the current $400-600 million per launch to “upwards” of $1 billion, Bruno said.

Subcommittee chairman Rogers asked incredulously if Bruno thought the government would pay that much per launch and Bruno said no, but Mitchell – who has long experience with national security space launch – pointed out that in the 1990s, launch costs were $550 million “and we launched 41 of them.”  The suggestion was that when escalated to today’s dollars, the cost would not be much different.

Bruno told the subcommittee that he decided to terminate the Delta IV single stick as soon as its current commitments are met around 2018 because it cannot compete in the current marketplace.

Curiously, no one questioned ULA’s decision to phase it out even though that seems to be a critical driver in this debate.

The solution to the gap sought by ULA and witnesses on the government panel are to purchase enough RD-180 engines so the Atlas V can remain available until SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and ULA’s NGLS are ready in 2021-2022.  Shotwell insisted that Falcon Heavy would be ready and certified for flight by 2018, but the other witnesses considered that an optimistic timetable.

Business Case

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) asked about the business case for either ULA or SpaceX and whether the government needs to guarantee a number of launches to make their businesses viable.  DOD’s McFarland said that from what she has seen, all the launch providers are competing for the same pie.

Shotwell said that 60 percent of the SpaceX market is commercial, while Bruno said that ULA’s is “just under 20 percent” today.

Is Falcon 9 “American”?

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) grilled Shotwell on SpaceX’s assertion that Falcon is an all-American rocket.  He forced Shotwell to acknowledge that certain raw materials like aluminum and a GPS “box” are from foreign sources, but “99 percent” is American, she asserted.  Bishop challenged her by asking if she knew there is a statute in California (where SpaceX is based) that would not allow the company to advertise its product as all-American and Shotwell said she was not aware of it.

Launch Pads

Bruno said that in the interest of cost cutting, ULA will be reducing the number of launch pads it has from five to two – one on the east coast and one on the west coast.

A Potential Path Forward

Mitchell articulated what is perhaps the clearest statement on what is needed to move forward on a plan for assured access to space.  In his written statement, he said the government needs to take ownership of the issue and define the desired end-state, take action to reach that end-state, and “adequately resource” the plan.

He recommended that the government initiate an effort similar to the Space Launch Modernization Plan (the Moorman report) of the 1990s “with all the stakeholders participating to assess the risks of the current and planned activities” and make recommendations on how to mitigate them.   Quoting an unnamed “colleague and friend,” Mitchell wrote: “Currently no stakeholder has a credible plan that ‘closes.’ Each stakeholder has a different endgame solution, and each stakeholder’s current ‘non-closing’ game plan has ‘and then a miracle happens’ as the last element of their plan…and ALL the miracles are different.”

 

Nelson, Inhofe Complain AF Not Following Congressional Direction on RD-180

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Mar-2015 (Updated: 17-Mar-2015 11:49 AM)

Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and James Inhofe (R-OK) wrote to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter last week to complain that DOD is not following congressional direction to expeditiously develop a U.S. propulsion system to replace Russia's RD-180.

The letter is dated March 10 and briefly states that congressional direction in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is quite clear that DOD is to develop a new rocket propulsion system by 2019 and authorized $220 million in FY2015 to that end, and the FY2015 appropriations act includes that $220 million.  Written in the first person (it is not clear whether it is Inhofe or Nelson -- both signed it), the letter says "my observations to date leave me skeptical that DoD or the U.S. Air Force are following Congressional intent."

Both Senators are members of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC).

The letter says that the direction in the NDAA is consistent with last year's Air Force-chartered RD-180 Availability Risk Mitigation Study, which was chaired by Maj. Gen. Howard "Mitch" Mitchell (Ret.).   Mitchell is scheduled to be one of the witnesses at this afternoon's hearing across the Hill before the House Armed Services Committee on "Assuring Assured Access to Space."   Air Force Space Command Commander Gen. John Hyten is also scheduled to testify, along with DOD and Air Force acquisition officials and representatives of SpaceX and United Launch Alliance.

What's Happening in Space Policy March 16-20, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Mar-2015 (Updated: 15-Mar-2015 01:52 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events coming up during the week of March 16-20, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session.

During the Week

It's another busy week with two major conferences, lots of congressional hearings, a NAC subcommittee meeting and more.  

It is tough to choose what to highlight because it's all really good stuff, but to pick just one, the House Armed Services Committee's subcommittee hearing on Tuesday should be especially interesting.  The title is "Assuring Assured Access to Space" and witnesses include SpaceX's Gwynne Shotwell and United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Tory Bruno along with two defense department acquisition officials, commander of Air Force Space Command Gen. Hyten, and retired Maj. Gen. Mitch Mitchell who led a study of RD-180 alternatives last year.  Topics are expected to include certifying new entrants like SpaceX to launch EELV-class national security satellites currently launched exclusively by ULA and the need (or not) for a new American-made rocket engine to replace Russia's RD-180 used for ULA's Atlas 5.  SpaceX's position is that its Merlin engines for the Falcon rockets already are an American alternative so why is another one needed.  ULA, meanwhile, announced last fall that it is partnering with Blue Origin on the BE-4 engine as an American alternative.   Everything seemed on a fast track last fall with Congress insisting on no more RD-180s after 2019 (though there are exceptions),but this year's testimony by Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and ULA's most recent statements seem to be putting the brakes on.  Whether that's a dose of reality or slow-rolling the inevitable is unclear at the moment -- perhaps the hearing will shed some light.

Monday-Friday, March 16-20

Monday-Thursday, March 16-19

  • Satellite 2015, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC

Tuesday, March 17

Tuesday-Wednesday, March 17-18

Wednesday, March 18

Thursday, March 19

Unexpected Drama Accompanies Safe Landing of Three ISS Crew

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Mar-2015 (Updated: 12-Mar-2015 12:01 AM)

Three International Space Station (ISS) crew members returned safely to Earth tonight after an unexpected communications dropout during the deorbit burn added a bit of drama to their landing.

NASA astronaut Barry "Butch" Wilmore and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova landed in the steppes of Kazakhstan around 10:07 pm ET.  The exact landing time of their Soyuz TMA-14M was not confirmed at press time.  Poor visibility at the landing site due to fog and low clouds prevented visual confirmation of the landing by TV viewers.  Tense moments passed before the screen at Russia's mission control finally displayed the comforting words -- ЕСТЬ ПОСАДКА-- the spacecraft landed.

The reason for the communications dropout one-and-a-half minutes into a four-minute-41-second deorbit burn is unexplained for now.   CBS News space reporter Bill Harwood tweeted (@cbs_spacenews): "TMA14M: Comm dropouts during Soyuz entries are not unusual, but they usually don't happen so early or last so long."

Telemetry received at a  ground station in Egypt confirmed that the Soyuz modules separately correctly, but it was not until Soyuz commander Samokutyaev was finally heard saying that everything was fine onboard that a sigh of relief could be uttered.

Though it happened decades ago, veteran space analysts still remember the 1971 Soyuz 11 flight where communications were lost during reentry and many assumed it was a radio failure, but in fact the three Soviet cosmonauts had perished during reentry.   Recovery forces opened the Soyuz hatch expecting to find Georgy Dobrovolskiy, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev eagerly awaiting them, but instead found them dead.  They had asphyxiated when a valve between their descent module and the orbital module -- which separate during reentry -- malfunctioned, allowing the spacecraft atmosphere to vent into space.  The three were not wearing spacesuits, a practice the Soviets had discontinued because they had confidence in their systems and the small interior of the Soyuz was difficult for three spacesuited crew members.  Following this tragedy, the Soviets returned to the practice of requiring spacesuits during launch and reentry, which limited them to two-person crews until a slightly more commodious version of Soyuz, Soyuz T, was introduced in 1980.  Soyuz 11 was the first spacecraft to dock successfully with a space station, Salyut 1.  The three men were in space for 24 days, a record at that time.

Fortunately, tonight's anomaly, whatever it was, did not have any effect on the crew's safety.  The three ISS crew members were extracted from their Soyuz spacecraft by Russian recovery forces and soon sat smiling and waving in special chairs on the frozen steppes awaiting medical checkups.  The two Russians were expected to return to Star City, outside of Moscow, while Wilmore boarded an airplane back to Johnson Space Center, TX.  The three spent 167 days in space on this mission.

 

From left to right, Soyuz TMA-14M crew members Elena Serova, Alexander Samokutyaev, and Barry "Butch" Wilmore, after landing in Kazakhstan,
March 11, 2015 ET.  Photo credit:  NASA TV.

 

 

HASC to Focus on Assuring Assured Access to Space

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Mar-2015 (Updated: 10-Mar-2015 07:04 PM)

The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) will hold a hearing next week on "Assuring Assured Access to Space" with industry and government witnesses.   Building an American alternative to Russia's RD-180 rocket engine and certifying "new entrants" like SpaceX likely will be the key topics.

The committee's official announcement today does not list the industry witnesses, saying only that the panel is "TBA" -- to be announced.  Space News ran a story this afternoon stating that SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk and United Launch Alliance (ULA) President Tory Bruno would testify, but HASC would not confirm that to SpacePolicyOnline.com and Space News reporter Mike Gruss later tweeted (@Gruss_SN) that "Musk has only been invited to testily.  Not yet confirmed."

If the two did appear together, it undoubtedly would be a lively exchange.  Musk and Bruno's predecessor, Michael Gass, sat next to each other as witnesses at a Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing just about exactly a year ago.  The hearing took place just after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and the U.S.-Russian relationship began its downward spiral.  Musk used the opportunity to highlight U.S. dependence on Russia to supply RD-180 engines for ULA's Atlas V rocket, one of the two U.S. launch vehicles used to launch most national security satellites.  He agreed with U.S. policy that two independent launch systems are needed in order to assure U.S. access to space -- today they are ULA's Atlas V and Delta IV -- but that his Falcon rocket should replace Atlas as the second since it is not dependent on foreign sources.  Thus began a year of hearings and congressional action aimed at reducing or eliminating U.S. dependence on Russia for space launch.

Government witnesses at the March 17  hearing will represent the DOD and Air Force acquisition offices, Air Force Space Command, and the Aerospace Corporation.  A committee spokesman said early this evening that they hope to have the industry panel nailed down very soon.

The hearing is at 3:30 pm ET on March 17, 2015 in 2118 Rayburn House Office Building. 

China Plans New Space Laboratory in 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Mar-2015 (Updated: 09-Mar-2015 11:24 PM)

China plans to launch a second space laboratory in 2016 that will be serviced by a robotic cargo spacecraft.  The new laboratory module reportedly will be launched with a Long March 5 rocket and the cargo ship with a Long March 7.  Neither of those rockets has made its debut yet.

China launched the Tiangong-1 space laboratory, or space station, in 2011.  Three spacecraft docked with the module:  Shenzhou 8, a robotic spacecraft that tested automated rendezvous and docking, in 2011; Shenzhou 9 in 2012, carrying a three-person crew including China's first female astronaut ("taikonaut"); and Shenzhou 10 in 2013 with another three-person crew (also two men and one woman).

China's official Xinhua news service today quoted Zhou Jianping, chief engineer of China's human spaceflight program, as updating plans for China's next attempts at Earth orbit human spaceflight.  A new module, Tiangong-2, will be launched in 2016 and a robotic Tianzhou-1 spacecraft will deliver propellant, supplies, research facilities and repair equipment.  How many crews will occupy Tiangong-2 over what period of time was not revealed.  Zhou said only that selection of the astronauts was "progressing in an orderly manner."

Xinhua said Tiangong-2 will be launched with a Long March 5 rocket and the Tianzhou-1 supply ship with a Long March 7.  China said for years that the Long March 5, its largest rocket to date, would make its debut in 2014 from the new Wenchang Space Launch Center on Hainan Island, but that has not happened yet.  Long March 5 will be able to launch 25 tons into low Earth orbit, slightly more than a U.S. Delta IV (22 tons).

Long March 5, 6, and 7 are a new family of rockets being developed to use liquid oxygen/kerosene propellants, more environmentally friendly than the current generation of Long March launch vehicles.  Long March 5 is the largest, Long March 6 the smallest, and Long March 7 for mid-sized payloads.  The U.S. Department of Defense's most recent annual report on China's military and security developments, generated in April 2014, anticipated the first Long March 7 launch by the end of 2014, and that did not occur.  It said the first Long March 5 launch would be "no sooner than 2015" because of "recent manufacturing difficulties."

Tiangong-1 and -2 are steps toward a 60-ton space station the China currently says it will launch in 2022.   It reportedly will be composed of three 20-ton modules.

What's Happening in Space Policy March 9-13, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Mar-2015 (Updated: 08-Mar-2015 02:56 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of March 9-13, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The Senate is in session this week; the House is in recess.

During the Week

The IEEE Aerospace Conference actually began yesterday in Big Sky, Montana; it runs through March 14.   The conference website says it is being held in "a stimulating and thought provoking environment."  Indeed!  

Greenbelt, MD may not compare with Big Sky, MT in terms of breathtaking scenery, but the American Astronautical Society's (AAS's) Goddard Memorial Symposium at the Greenbelt Marriott is undoubtedly of much more interest to the space policy community.   NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will keynote the AAS meeting on Wednesday morning at 9:15 am ET, followed by a panel of top level NASA Headquarters officials including Science Mission Directorate Associate Administrator (AA) John Grunsfeld and newly appointed Space Technology Mission Directorate AA Steve Jurczyk, formerly director of NASA's Langley Research Center.  The two-day AAS meeting ends on Thursday afternoon with a panel including your intrepid SpacePolicyOnline.com editor along with Jeff Foust from Space News and Frank Morring from Aviation Week and Space Technology.

The congressional calendar is less crowded this week since the House is in recess. but Bolden will appear before the Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on Thursday at 9:30 am ET.  Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) was politely inquisitive at his first space hearing two weeks ago, which included no government witnesses.  It will be interesting to see how he and Bolden get along since the NASA Administrator represents President Obama, a man with whom Cruz has serious disagreements on other issues.  Cruz sounded liked a huge space enthusiast at the earlier hearing, with views strongly aligned with key Senators on both sides of the aisle who crafted the 2010 NASA Authorization Act and have appropriated funds since then to execute it.  That suggests that Cruz and Bolden will disagree on the amount of funding requested for SLS and Orion at least -- NASA's request once again is less than Congress wants as everyone knows.

Speaking of SLS, Orbital ATK will have a 2-minute static test fire of an SLS booster on Wednesday.  NASA TV will cover it live at 11:00 am ET (9:00 am local time in Utah).   Two pre-launch briefings (on Tuesday and Wednesday) for the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission (scheduled for launch on Thursday) and the homecoming (on Wednesday) of three International Space Station crew members also are on tap this week.

All the events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.

Saturday-Saturday, March 7-14

Tuesday, March 10

Tuesday-Thursday, March 10-12 (March 10 is an evening reception only)

Wednesday, March 11

Thursday, March 12