International Menu

Subscribe to Email Updates:

Enter your email address:

International Space News

GAO Warns about SLS, EGS and Orion Cost and Schedule Concerns

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Jul-2016 (Updated: 28-Jul-2016 02:22 AM)

In a pair of new reports, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warns about the costs and schedules for NASA's Space Launch System (SLS), Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) and Orion spacecraft, the three components of its Exploration Systems Development program.  SLS and EGS cost and schedule reserves are low enough to imperil the November 2018 commitment date for the SLS first launch, GAO concludes in one report.   In the other, it asserts that cost and schedule estimates for Orion failed to meet more than half of the "best practices" for creating such estimates, making them unreliable. 

In the first report, NASA Human Space Exploration: Opportunity Nears to Reassess Launch Vehicle and Ground Systems Cost and Schedule, GAO looked at two components of the program:  SLS and EGS.  The latter are the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center needed to support SLS and Orion. The congressional watchdog agency is primarily concerned with cost and schedule reserves to deal with known and unknown risks as the programs move forward. 

The SLS program "has not positioned itself well to provide accurate assessments of core stage progress--including forecasting impending schedule delays, cost overruns, and anticipated costs at completion--because at the time of our review it did not anticipate having the baseline to support full reporting on the core stage contract until summer 2016--some 4.5 years after NASA awarded the contract."

As for EGS, constrained cost and schedule reserves threaten the November 2018 launch readiness goal and a scheduled integrated design review (IDR) will "have limited discussion of cost and schedule."  GAO recommended that NASA "reevaluate cost and schedule reserves" as part of the IDR.  The GAO report was released July 27, but apparently was written earlier since it refers to the IDR, scheduled for June 2016, as planned for the future.

A separate "build-to-synchronization" review of how all three elements of the program -- SLS, Orion and EGS --will come together for the first launch, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), is planned for the summer of 2016 and GAO wants NASA to use that as an opportunity to realistically assess whether November 2018 is achievable.  "NASA does not have to meet a specific schedule window for its launch date as it often does with planetary missions. As a result, NASA is in the position of being able to make an informed decision about what is a realistic launch readiness date." 

The second report, Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle: Action Needed to Improve Visibility into Cost, Schedule, and Capacity to Resolve Technical Challenges, concludes that NASA's cost and schedule estimates for the Orion program are "not reliable based on best practices for producing high quality estimates."  

"GAO found that the Orion cost estimate met or substantially met 7 of 20 best practices and its schedule estimate met or substantially met 1 of 8 best practices.  For example, the cost estimate lacked necessary support and the schedule estimate did not include the level of detail required for high quality estimates."

EM-1 will launch an uncrewed version of Orion.  The first Orion with a crew is scheduled for EM-2.  NASA provided cost and schedule estimates for Orion following its Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C) review last year, a milestone at which the agency commits to a baseline cost and schedule against which the program will be measured by Congress and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).  KDP-C reviews use a Joint Confidence Level (JCL) process to set the cost and schedule with a 70 percent confidence level meaning there is a 70 percent chance that it will come in on that cost and schedule and a 30 percent chance that it will not.

Following the KDP-C review, NASA committed to launching EM-2 in April 2023, a 20-month slip from its original plan, with a cost estimate of $11.3 billion.  It was the JCL used for the KDP-C review that GAO found did not meet many of the best practices needed for reliable estimates.

Although NASA committed to launching EM-2 in 2023, the agency continues to work towards an internal deadline of August 2021, the original date, with a cost estimate of $10.8 billion.  GAO reports that cost and schedule estimate has only a 40 percent confidence level and NASA is focused on it despite NASA's own policy "that funding for program internal goals ... in no case [be] less than the equivalent of a 50 percent confidence level."   In addition, NASA is requesting funding at the level to meet the April 2023 date and relying "on Congress to appropriate more funds than requested to stay on its internal Orion schedule" which may be "unrealistic."

GAO cites a number of challenges facing the Orion program, including late delivery of the spacecraft's Service Module for EM-1 (the uncrewed test flight), which is being provided by the European Space Agency (ESA), and notes that formal agreement has not yet been reached with ESA on the Service Module for EM-2.  ESA is providing the EM-1 Service Module not under contract to NASA, but as part of a barter arrangement involving the NASA-ESA partnership in the International Space Station program.  The EM-2 Service Module is an option under the barter arrangement, but formal agreement is not expected until December 2016. Orion program officials are tracking the EM-2 service module "as one of the largest cost risks facing the program," potentially $200 million, GAO asserts.

Other risks in the Orion program are the use of Orbital Maneuvering System engines from the space shuttle program that need to be re-qualified since the Orion operating environment is quite different from the shuttle's; heatshield design; software development and testing; a "bow wave" of deferred work; and potential cost overruns by Orion's prime contractor, Lockheed Martin. GAO states the prime contractor is "falling behind schedule, and work is costing more than originally estimated."  GAO concluded that Orion "faces a potential cost overrun of between $258 million and $707 million through the end of the current contract in December 2020," although Orion program officials told GAO there are sufficient reserves to cover that cost growth.  GAO warns, however, that some of those reserves may be needed to cover cost growth from other risks.

GAO recommended that NASA update its JCL analysis using best practices and perform an analysis of the cost of deferred work.  In written comments included in the report, NASA responded that it regularly reviews Orion performance metrics and an updated JCL analysis is not warranted, but agreed to look at the cost of deferred work.

Senators Want Continuity for NASA's Exploration Program

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Jul-2016 (Updated: 25-Jul-2016 12:02 AM)

A recent Senate committee hearing focused on how to ensure that the human spaceflight program avoids another dramatic change when a new President takes office next year as it did in 2009. While most of the hearing dealt with maintaining the status quo amid political change, one witness, Mike Gold of SSL, looked more to the future and the need for a synergistic relationship between government and private sector space activities.

The hearing before the Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on July 13 was chaired by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).  This was only the third space hearing he had called since becoming subcommittee chairman last year.  SpacePolicyOnline.com summarized his February 24, 2015 hearing on human spaceflight and commercial space and his March 12, 2015 hearing on NASA's FY2016 budget request.

Joining him were the top Democrat on the subcommittee, Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), the top Democrat on the full committee Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and subcommittee member Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), who introduced Gold, a Montana native.

Peters and Nelson explicitly said they want to pass a new NASA authorization bill before the end of the Congress, and Cruz inferred it by saying that the subcommittee wants to provide NASA with security and stability and he would work with Peters to achieve that.  Nelson made clear that he wants to extend the lifetime of the International Space Station (ISS) to the end of the decade, instead of the current U.S. commitment of 2024.

The last NASA authorization bill was passed in 2010.  Its policy provisions remain in force, but its funding recommendations covered only through FY2013.  The House passed a bipartisan 2015 NASA authorization bill by voice vote in February 2015, but the Senate has not taken it up or introduced an alternative.  (A 2016-2017 NASA authorization act was approved by the House Science, Space, and Technology committee on a party-line vote last year; no further action has occurred.)

One known area of disagreement between Republicans and Democrats is NASA’s earth science program.  Democrats strongly support it while Republicans argue that NASA should focus on exploration and other agencies should be responsible for studying Earth. Time is running short for passing anything other than appropriations bills, but if all parties on both sides of Capitol Hill can reach agreement, it is certainly possible to get a bill passed by the end of the year.

The goal of passing a bill that codifies congressional intent on the future of the human spaceflight program is to try and avoid the disruption that occurred when President Obama cancelled the George W. Bush Administration's Constellation program to return humans to the Moon by 2020 and then go on to Mars.  Cruz wanted to know what lessons were learned from the cancellation of Constellation and the consequences if the current Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion programs were similarly cancelled.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, emphasized that the situation today is quite different because so much progress has been made on SLS and Orion, which are only two years away from their first launch.  Cancelling them would have the same "dire" effect as terminating Constellation.  "There's a passion that sits below us and when you cancel a program ... for seemingly a trivial reason, that is very devastating to our workforce and that can have huge implications to this nation, to our culture, to our psyche, and to our world leadership.”

Constellation was cancelled for complex political and budgetary reasons that few in the space policy community would characterize as trivial, but he may have been expressing his perception of the workforce’s viewpoint.  In any case, he said he hopes the situation is not repeated.

Mary Lynne Dittmar, Executive Director of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, cautioned against the negative consequences of cancelling programs for companies, especially small businesses.  A lack of “constancy of purpose” could “kill small companies,” many of which are members of the Coalition, she said.  Purdue University Professor Dan Dumbacher, a former NASA deputy associate administrator for exploration, similarly called for “continuity of purpose and execution” in order to “avoid loss of momentum.”

Mark Sirangleo, Vice President, Space Systems Group at Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) praised the public-private partnership (PPP) model that NASA is using for the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs.   Although SNC did not win one of the two commercial crew contracts (SpaceX and Boeing were the winners), its Dream Chaser spacecraft did recently win one of three CRS2 commercial cargo contracts (along with SpaceX and Orbital ATK).

Gold, who spent a decade as head of Washington operations for Bigelow Aerospace before moving to SSL earlier this year, went further in his enthusiasm for the PPP model and using it to transform low Earth orbit (LEO).  “The future of LEO remains squarely on the shoulders of the private sector,” he argued, since the government is unlikely to build a replacement for the ISS.   The challenge is to create private sector demand.  He believes the solution is in-orbit satellite manufacturing and satellite servicing.  The geostationary communications satellites industry is worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year, he said, so NASA and the private sector should “follow the money.”  “The primitive days of building a satellite, launching it, and throwing away a piece of hardware worth hundreds of millions of dollars simply because it ran out of fuel is coming to an end.”

When asked if the private sector should be in charge of developing new rockets like SLS instead of the government, he argued that it is not an either-or situation.  There is synergy between the two and SLS is a case in point, opening up “all kinds of opportunities for the private sector” in cis-lunar space, for example.

In the shorter term, keeping SLS and Orion on track during the presidential transition was a major theme for the subcommittee and other witnesses. Gerstenmaier pleaded that Congress avoid “overly specifying requirements” and allow technical experts to determine how best to achieve the goal of moving human presence into the solar system.  Dumbacher quipped that there are two problems to overcome – gravity and red tape – and gravity can be solved.

Gerstenmaier strongly defended the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as an “excellent” way to demonstrate and learn the skills needed to send crews to Mars.

As the hearing concluded, Nelson asked Gerstenmaier what lessons were learned from the Orbital ATK and SpaceX commercial cargo failures in 2014 and 2015 respectively.  Gerstenmaier responded that he learned how quickly the private sector can react and find solutions. Orbital ATK found an alternative launch service provider (United Launch Alliance) to continue launching its Cygnus cargo spacecraft while it solved the problem with the Antares rocket. SpaceX diagnosed the problem with its Falcon 9 rocket and was in a test facility to verify it within two days.  That was “faster than I could have ever done.. …It would have been half a year” to get the contracts and test sequence in place. “I think what we really learned is that the private sector, if we give them the right incentives and we have the contracting structures set up, they can deliver the capabilities that we, at NASA, need in a very effective manner.”

What's Happening in Space Policy July 25-29, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Jul-2016 (Updated: 24-Jul-2016 02:08 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of July 25-29, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in recess until September 6.

During the Week

Nationally, the big event this week is the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.  Not much is expected in the realm of space policy, although former astronaut Mark Kelly will speak on Wednesday.  He will appear with his wife, former Rep. Gabby Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt in 2011.  They have become leaders in the gun control movement and that is expected to be the focus of their presentation, not the space program (but one never knows).   None of the congressional Democrats with leading roles in space policy are on the speakers list as of today (Sunday), although Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) will be there.  He represents the district that includes the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena and is known as a strong supporter of JPL programs, but he no longer serves on the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA.  He moved over to the Intelligence Committee and his comments are more likely to focus on those issues.  The latest version (July 21) of the 51-page Democratic party platform has one paragraph about NASA that expresses pride in what it has accomplished and promises to "strengthen support for NASA and work in partnership with the international scientific community to launch new missions into space."   We didn't see anything about either commercial or national security space activities in the document.

Within the space policy community, the focus this week will be meetings of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and its committees all week.  The meetings are at the Ohio Aerospace Center in Cleveland, but will be available by WebEx and telecon for those who cannot attend in person.  This will be the first NAC meeting since Steve Squyres stepped down as chair.  Former astronaut Ken Bowersox has been appointed the interim chair.  He had been chairing the NAC Human Exploration and Operations (NAC/HEO) Committee and Wayne Hale has been appointed to fill that position.

The NAC/HEO committee meets tomorrow and Tuesday.  Michele Gates, program director for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) is on the schedule for 2:30 pm ET tomorrow (Monday) to give an update on ARM, which just went through one of its milestone reviews -- Key Decision Point-B or KDP-B -- on July 15 to determine whether the project is ready to move into Phase B.  [A description of KDPs and project phases is in the NASA Procedural Requirements (NPR) 7120 document for those keenly interested in NASA program management.]  NASA has not made any announcement about what transpired at the KDP-B review.  We were told nothing would be out until this coming week, so hopefully Gates will provide that information. 

The other NAC committees/task groups meet Monday-Wednesday in advance of the full NAC meeting Thursday and Friday.  Always interesting to listen to if you have the time.

AIAA's Propulsion and Energy Conference is also on tap this week in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Great line-up of sessions and speakers.   Winner for cleverest title in our view is "Launch Vehicle Reusability:  Holy Grail, Chasing Our Tail, or Somewhere in Between?"  The conference will be livestreamed.  Remember that Utah is in the Mountain Daylight Time (MDT) zone, which is two hours behind Eastern Daylight Time (i.e. 9:00 am MDT is 11:00 am EDT).

Those events and others we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for additions to the Events of Interest that we learn about later.   For convenience, we're grouping all the NAC meetings together rather than listing them day-by-day.  They are listed separately in our Events of Interest list.

NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and its subgroups, Monday-Friday, July 25-29, all at Ohio Aerospace Institute, Cleveland, Ohio and available by WebEx/telecon

Other Events

Monday-Tuesday, July 25-26

Monday-Wednesday, July 25-27

Monday-Thursday, July 25-28

Tuesday, July 26

Tuesday-Friday, July 26-29

COSPAR Cancels Istanbul Conference As Security Concerns Escalate - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Jul-2016 (Updated: 18-Jul-2016 11:26 PM)

The international Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) has cancelled its biennial conference for this year, which was scheduled to take place in Istanbul, Turkey from July 30-August 7.   COSPAR President Lennard Fisk called it a "difficult and sad decision," but the wise course of action following this weekend's attempted coup.

COSPAR was created in 1958 as part of the International Council for Science (formerly the International Council of Scientific Unions).  It  holds a "scientific assembly" every two years that brings together the world's top space scientists who share and discuss their recent discoveries and future plans.  The 2014 COSPAR meeting was in Russia (Moscow) and the 2018 COSPAR meeting will be in the United States (Pasadena).   The Space Studies Board (SSB) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine is the U.S. national committee to COSPAR. 

Fisk is the first American to serve as COSPAR President.  A Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan, he is a former SSB chairman and former NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science and Applications.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden decided on June 21 to cancel all NASA-sponsored travel to the Istanbul conference because of security concerns based on a travel advisory from the State Department that restricted official travel to "mission critical" tasks.  At the time, similar advisories (alerts and warnings) were in effect for a significant number of other countries, and focused on concerns about the southeastern portion of Turkey.  Istanbul is in the northwest.  Under the circumstances at that time, Fisk expressed concern that NASA's action was sending the wrong messages about responding to terrorism and the importance of space science.

The situation has changed dramatically since then.  On June 28, terrorists attacked the Istanbul airport.  On July 15, an attempted coup occurred.  Following the coup attempt, U.S. airlines now are prohibited from flying to or from the Istanbul and Ankara airports, and all airlines, regardless of country of registry, are prohibited from flying into the United States from Turkey either directly or via a third country.

In a statement on the COSPAR website, Fisk cited the coup attempt as the final straw in COSPAR's decision to cancel.  "This is a difficult and sad decision, taken in consultation with the Executive Director of the COSPAR Secretariat and in consideration of the advice spontaneously expressed by several Bureau and Council members as well as COSPAR officers and Main Scientific event Organizers. It also reflects the sense of responsibilities of the President, Bureau and Secretariat of COSPAR."

He stressed that COSPAR had been trying to maintain the conference to reflect "our common intent to resist terrorism and our willingness to respect the efforts of the local organizer. But now, that is no longer possible. ... [I]t was our duty to try and maintain the Istanbul Assembly, notwithstanding the risks related to terrorism that can strike anywhere, as sadly demonstrated on 14 July in Nice (France), but also in the last few weeks in Orlando (USA), Dhaka (Bangladesh), Baghdad (Iraq), and other places.  What happened on 15 July in Turkey is of a different nature" and makes the decision to cancel "the only wise one available."

The next COSPAR scientific assembly is scheduled for July 14-22, 2018 in Pasadena, CA, the home of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which manages many of NASA's space and earth science missions.

The State Department also has a travel advisory in effect for Mexico, including the state of Jalisco where Guadalajara -- the site of the September International Astronautical Conference (IAC) -- is located.  When asked today whether NASA has any plans or expectations that travel will be prohibited to the IAC, NASA Associate Administrator for Communications David Weaver replied by email that "NASA fully intends to support this conference, but will continue to coordinate our presence in Mexico with the Department of State."  

Updated to include the information that the State Department's advisory about Turkey in effect at the time of Administrator Bolden's decision, issued March 29, limited official travel to "mission critical" travel.   It is interesting to note, however, that on June 27 (the day before the attack at the Istanbul airport), the State Department replaced its March 29 advisory with one that did not include the mission critical language and continued to focus on threats in southeastern Turkey.  The latest advisory, following the coup attempt, referencing the airline restrictions, was issued July 16 and also omits the mission critical language.

Updated to add David Weaver's comments about the September IAC.

What's Happening in Space Policy July 17-22, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Jul-2016 (Updated: 17-Jul-2016 02:23 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of July 17-22, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in recess until September 6.

During the Week

The week starts off with a bang -- of rocket engines firing -- to launch the SpaceX CRS-9 cargo mission to the International Space Station at 12:45 am Monday.   Today (Sunday), NASA will hold a briefing on what's aboard the cargo ship at 3:00 pm ET and coverage of the launch begins at 11:30 pm ET.   Watch both on NASA TV.

SpaceX plans to land the Falcon 9 first stage back on a pad at Cape Canaveral a few miles from the launch site. That feat has been done only once before. The other landings were on drone ships out at sea.  The landing burn begins 7 minutes 38 seconds after liftoff (following boostback and entry burns), with landing shortly thereafter.

The bang of a gavel will occur later in the day as the Republicans kick off their presidential convention in Cleveland.  The GOP has released its list of speakers, but it is just a list, not an agenda showing when each will speak.  Perhaps of special interest to readers of this website is that former NASA space shuttle commander Eileen Collins is one of the speakers.   If we learn the day and time, we will post it on our Events of Interest list.

Back-to-back conferences at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California this week will bring together experts interested in the scientific, robotic and human exploration of Phobos and Deimos, the two moons of Mars (Monday-Tuesday), and then a broader group looking at human exploration of those celestial bodies as well as the Moon, Mars, and near-earth asteroids (Wednesday-Friday).  Neither conference website mentions whether webcasts will be available, but such information often is made available only at the last minute.

The 40th anniversary of the landing of NASA's Viking 1 spacecraft on Mars is on Wednesday, July 20.  NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia will celebrate with a history panel on July 19 and a day-long symposium on July 20.  NASA TV will broadcast some of the sessions.

July 20 is also the 47th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. The Space Transportation Association (STA) and the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration will hold a meeting that afternoon where Orbital ATK's Charlie Precourt (a former astronaut) will talk about progress in developing the Space Launch System (SLS).  Orbital ATK is building the solid rocket boosters for SLS and recently completed a successful test firing.

The National Academies' Space Technology Industry, Government, University Roundtable (STIGUR) will meet at the National Academy of Sciences building on Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC on Thursday.   The agenda is not posted yet.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for additions to our Events of Interest list.

Sunday, July 17

Sunday-Monday, July 17-18

  • Launch of SpX-9, Cape Canaveral, FL, 12:45 am ET (NASA TV coverage begins 11:30 pm ET July 17)

Monday-Tuesday

Monday-Thursday, July 18-21

Tuesday-Wednesday, July 19-20

Wednesday, July 20

Wednesday-Thursday, July 20-21

Wednesday-Friday, July 20-22

Thursday, July 21

Congress Departs for the Summer With Much Work Undone

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Jul-2016 (Updated: 15-Jul-2016 12:14 AM)

The House and Senate headed out of town for the summer today, leaving a great deal of work unfinished.  In particular, none of the 12 appropriations bills that fund the government have cleared Congress yet.  They will have four weeks to do something about appropriations when they return after Labor Day.

The extra long (seven week) recess is because of the Republican and Democratic presidential conventions that will be held in the next two weeks.  The Republican convention begins in Cleveland on Monday and runs through Thursday (July 18-21).  The Democratic convention in Philadelphia is the following Monday-Thursday (July 25-28). 

The conventions will be followed by the traditional congressional August recess, which, in election years like this, is used mostly for campaigning.

The appropriations bill score sheet looks good in terms of committee action.  All 12 have been reported from the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.  Floor action is another matter. 

The House has passed six of the 12 FY2017 appropriations bills:  Defense, Energy/Water, Financial Services, Military Construction/Veterans Affairs (Milcon/VA), Legislative Branch, and Interior/Environment.

The Senate passed the Energy/Water bill, and a single bill that combined Milcon/VA, Transportation-HUD, and funding to deal with the Zika virus. 

The two chambers came close to final passage of a compromise Milcon/VA bill that included the Zika funding (but not the Transportation-HUD bill).  The conference report passed the House, but did not survive a cloture vote in the Senate, so is stalled.

Attempts to bring the defense appropriations bill to the Senate floor for debate also failed cloture votes.

The Commerce-Justice-Science bill, which includes NASA and NOAA, did reach the Senate floor, but was derailed by the gun control debate (as its name conveys, the bill also includes funding for the Department of Justice).  The House version has not gone to the floor yet.

Both chambers return on September 6 and will be in session the rest of that month.  Fiscal Year 2017 begins on October 1, so something -- likely a Continuing Resolution (CR) -- will need to be passed by then. 

This outcome is not unexpected.  Congress's difficulties in passing appropriations bills is all too well known.  The only question is how long the CR will last.  Almost certainly past the November 8 elections.  Depending on which party wins the White House, the House, and the Senate, final appropriations could be completed by the end of the calendar year, or pushed into 2017 when the new Congress convenes and the new President takes office.

One bill that has made progress is the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  The House and Senate have each passed their versions and formally agreed to go to conference to work out the differences.  Authorization bills set policy and recommend funding levels, but do not provide any money. Only appropriations bills do that, but the NDAA is influential in the decisions made by the appropriations committees.  Conference negotiations on the NDAA are expected to take place at the staff level during the recess.

There has been no action on a new NASA authorization bill this year, although Republican and Democratic Senators at yesterday's Senate Commerce Committee hearing on NASA and American leadership in space expressed enthusiasm for passing a bill before the end of the year.  The House passed a FY2015 (yes, 2015, not 2016) bill last year that could be a vehicle for Senate action, or a completely new bill could be introduced.  Although time is getting short, if there is agreement on both sides of the aisle and both sides of Capitol Hill, a bill can pass quickly.  The goal is to provide stability to NASA programs during the presidential transition.  A major area of disagreement between Republicans and Democrats is NASA spending on earth science research.  Republicans on both sides of Capitol Hill argue that it should not be a priority for NASA because other agencies can fund it while NASA focuses on space exploration.  The White House and congressional Democrats argue that earth science research is an essential NASA activity and a critical element of a balanced portfolio of programs.

NASA Studying Four Potential Large Astrophysics Missions For Next Decade

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Jul-2016 (Updated: 13-Jul-2016 12:04 AM)

NASA is initiating mission concept studies for a new generation of large space-based astrophysics observatories that could be considered during the next astrophysics Decadal Survey by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.  NASA astrophysics division director Paul Hertz outlined the concepts during a hearing before two House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) subcommittees today.

Decadal Surveys are conducted by expert committees organized by the Academies approximately every 10 years (a decade) to identify the most important scientific questions to be answered in the next 10 years and missions to obtain those answers.   They are done for each of NASA's space and earth science disciplines and in some cases for other agencies as well.   The astrophysics Decadal Surveys makes recommendations for NASA as well as the National Science Foundation (NSF), which manages ground-based astronomy programs, and the Department of Energy's high energy astrophysics programs.

Congress and the government agencies rely heavily on Decadal Surveys because they represent a consensus of the relevant scientific community. The first Decadal Survey was conducted in 1964 for the field of astronomy and astrophysics.  Surveys for planetary science, solar and space physics (heliophysics), earth science and applications from space, and biological and physical sciences in space began more recently.  Congress mandated in the 2005 NASA authorization act that the Academies also conduct mid-term assessments half-way through each respective decade to report on how the agencies are implementing the recommendations. The most recent astrophysics Survey -- New Worlds, New Horizons --  was issued in 2010 and its associated mid-term review is expected to be released soon.

Today's hearing before the Space Subcommittee (which oversees NASA) and the Research and Technology Subcommittee (which has oversight of NSF) was focused broadly on astronomy, astrophysics and astrobiology, but much of the discussion was about NASA and NSF implementation of the 2010 Survey and plans for the next one.

Hertz told the subcommittees that NASA is looking at four potential large missions to follow the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2018, and the Wide-Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST) now in formulation in response to the 2010 Survey.  He described the four concepts and the types of discoveries they could enable as follows:

  • the X-ray Surveyor that "might discover the first generation of supermassive black holes in the infant universe, unravel the structure of the cosmic web and determine its impact of the evolution of galaxies, and determine the influence of dark matter on the evolution of the universe";
  • the Far-Infrared Surveyor that "might find bio-signatures in the atmosphere of exoplanets..., map the beginnings of chemistry, and explain the origins of dust and the molecules that form the cradle of life";
  • the Large Ultraviolet, Optical, and Infrared surveyor (LUVOIR) that "could be designed with a very large mirror that could capture the first starlight in the early universe, map the distribution of nearby dark matter with unprecedented resolution, detect water worlds and biomarkers on distant Earth-like planets, and image icy plumes from the moons of giant planets in our solar system"; and
  • the Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission (HabEx) that "could search for signs of habitability in the atmospheres of exoplanets."

Exoplanets are planets orbiting other stars.  NASA's Kepler Space Telescope has identified over 5,000 exoplanet candidates so far.

Decadal Survey committees typically seek input from the scientific community at large for new mission concepts and Hertz made clear that these are only NASA's concepts.  Others may well emerge during the Survey process.  Also, those are candidates for large missions only. NASA intends to retain a balanced portfolio of small, medium, and large missions. 

Congress established the interagency Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee (AAAC) to coordinate activities across NSF, NASA and DOE in the 2002 NSF Authorization Act.   Angela Olinto, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago's Fermi Institute, currently chairs AAAC and also was a witness at today's hearing.  She praised the Decadal Survey process as the best way to prioritize missions based on cost and the availability of technology.  She noted that her own project came in fourth in the last Survey and therefore did not make the cut, but she still believes Surveys are "the right process."

Christine Jones, President of the American Astronomical Society and a Senior Astrophysicist with the Smithsonian Astrophysics Observatory, similarly praised the community-driven Decadal Survey process and other mechanisms to obtain input from the broad astrophysics community.  She noted that the four mission concepts described by Hertz originated in NASA's three astrophysics Program Analysis Groups (PAGs), which also are community-driven.

NSF's Director of the Division on Astronomical Sciences, Jim Ulvestad, said that NSF also follows the Decadal Surveys closely.  It is currently building the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) in response to the 2010 Survey.  Implementing Survey recommendations can be a challenge because Survey committees must make assumptions about how much money will be available to execute the missions they recommend, but actual budgets may not match expectations.  He said Surveys should be "aspirational" and "reach for the stars," but not present a laundry list of missions that cannot be implemented.

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) asked about international cooperation and Hertz replied that 80 percent of NASA's astrophysics missions are international partnerships.   All four of the mission concept studies assume international collaboration and NASA is talking with the European Space Agency about participating in its ATHENA X-ray observatory and a possible future space-based gravitational wave detector.

NSF operates the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, which NASA uses to characterize and track asteroids as part of its Near Earth Object Observation program. The fate of Arecibo has been uncertain for many years and NSF is again considering whether to continue funding it. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who advocates for programs to defend Earth from potentially hazardous asteroids, asked whether NSF was about to "mothball" Arecibo.  Ulvestad said no decisions have been made yet and stressed that, with regard to asteroids, Arecibo is used only to characterize and track known asteroids, not to find new ones that might threaten Earth.  LSST is a survey telescope with a wide field of view that will be able to locate asteroids, he added, but Rohrabacher insisted that until LSST is operational, Arecibo is needed.

Olinto's main message was that rising costs to operate astrophysics facilities coupled with constrained budgets is reducing the number of grants that can be approved.  She said the number of successful grant applications has fallen from 30 percent to 20 percent.  That reduces the number of graduate students that can be funded, affecting the next generation of astronomers and astrophysicists.

The importance of contributions to astronomy through observations by amateur astronomers was highlighted by several committee members and witnesses.  AAS's Jones said that 250,000 college students enroll in introductory astronomy courses, 10 percent of the student population, an indication of the broad interest in understanding the universe.

Shelley Wright, a member of the advisory committee for the Breakthrough Listen project talked about public engagement in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). She said enthusiasm for SETI has increased dramatically, but resources are scare.  While most SETI searches have been in the radio wavelengths, optical and infrared lasers might be better suited for the task.  House SS&T committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) lamented that NASA does not fund SETI searches.   

NASA has not funded SETI searches since the early 1980s when Senator William Proxmire (D-WI), who chaired the appropriations subcommittee that funded NASA at the time, prohibited it because he considered it a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) asked about potential use of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft for future space-based astrophysics missions.  He postulated that Orion crews might be able to service JWST, for example, as shuttle crews did for the Hubble Space Telescope.   Hertz and Olinto acknowledged that SLS could enable launching much larger (in mass and size) space telescopes, but Olinto was not persuaded that astronauts could service JWST or other telescopes so far from Earth.  Hubble is in Earth orbit and was comparatively easy to access with the shuttle.  JWST will be at the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange point.  She suggested that robotic servicing was a more likely option, but the real key is to ensure that it is working properly before launch so servicing is not required.

 

What's Happening in Space Policy July 11-16, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Jul-2016 (Updated: 10-Jul-2016 04:49 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of July 11-16, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

The Washington space policy community is still reeling from the news of Molly Macauley's murder Friday night while walking her dogs near her home in Baltimore.  Molly was one of the most respected and admired members of our relatively small group of space policy analysts and practitioners and was well-known to just about everyone in it.  No word yet on funeral arrangements.  We'll certainly post any information we get.  Molly was Vice President of Research and a Senior Fellow at Resources for the Future, a Washington-based think tank, which has posted a lovely tribute to her.

Meanwhile, the work of the space policy community must go on. This is the last week Congress is scheduled to meet until after Labor Day, so there's a lot they should be getting done.  Whether they do or not remains to be seen with everyone focused on tragic deaths elsewhere in the country.  Senate leaders tried to bring up the defense appropriations bill last week, but Democrats blocked it.  They're going to try again tomorrow.  On Friday, the House approved a motion to go to conference on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), so that's a step in that direction anyway, but authorization bills don't provide any money.  Only appropriations bills do that.  There's no indication when the Senate will resume consideration of the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations bill, which includes NASA and NOAA, and it is not on the House calendar either.  The House and Senate will have four weeks after they return on September 6 to get some sort of appropriations passed to keep the government operating after FY2016 ends on September 30.

There are three congressional hearings about space this week.   First is a House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee hearing on "Astronomy, Astrophysics and Astrobiology" with witnesses talking about programs at NASA and the National Science Foundation. That begins at 10:00 am ET on Tuesday.  An hour later (which means the two will overlap), the House Small Business Committee holds a hearing on the role of small business and NASA.  It's the first time we can think of that that committee has held a space hearing.  Witnesses are from Explore Mars (Beverly, MA), Emergent Space Technologies (Greenbelt, MD), Craig Technologies (Cape Canaveral, FL) and Honeybee Technologies (Brooklyn, NY).

On Wednesday, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) will chair only his third space hearing since becoming chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee's Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee at the beginning of 2015.   He's been busy running for President and reportedly will speak at the Republican Convention next week, but on Wednesday he will focus on "NASA At a Crossroads: Reasserting American Leadership in Space Exploration."  Witnesses are Bill Gerstenmaier from NASA; Mary Lynne Dittmar from the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration; Mike Gold from SSL (formerly Space Systems Loral); Mark Sirangelo from Sierra Nevada Corporation; and Dan Dumbacher, formerly NASA, now at Purdue.  We published summaries of Cruz's previous two space hearings: February 25, 2015 on U.S. Human Space Exploration Goals and Commercial Space Competitiveness and  March 13, 2015 on NASA's FY2016 budget request.

The American Astronautical Society, CASIS and NASA will hold the 5th International Space Station R&D conference in San Diego Tuesday-Thursday, with a special pre-conference session tomorrow afternoon on utilization of Japan's Kibo module.  The conference itself will be webcast -- lots of really interesting speakers each day, including a conversation with Mark and Scott Kelly and CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta on the Twins Study from Scott Kelly's 340-day stay aboard ISS.  Remember that all times in the agenda are in Pacific Daylight Time (Eastern Daylight Time - 3).

Two interesting national security space seminars also are on the docket this week. The Hudson Institute holds a meeting on Space and the Right to Self Defense on Wednesday afternoon to discuss a report it just published on that topic. The study director, Hudson Institute Fellow Rebeccah Heinrichs, will moderate a discussion with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) and former Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl.   Thursday morning, the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute will hold a breakfast meeting featuring Elbridge Colby of the Center for a New American Security on U.S. defense and deterrence strategy for space.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for additions to our Events of Interest list.

Monday-Thursday, July 11-15 

  • 5th International Space Station R&D Conference (AAS/NASA/CASIS), San Diego, CA (webcast)  [Monday is a pre-conference day; the conference itself is Tuesday-Thursday.  It is not clear if the pre-conference activities on Monday also will be webcast]

Monday-Sunday, July 11-17

Tuesday, July 12

Tuesday, July 12 - Tuesday, July 19

Wednesday, July 13

Thursday, July 14

  • Future Space 2016 (Future Space Leaders Foundation), 106 Dirksen (7:30 am - 12:00 pm ET) followed by luncheon at Reserve Officer Association building across the street (12:30-1:30 pm ET)
  • U.S. Defense and Deterrence Strategy for Space (AFA Mitchell Institute), Air Force Association, 1501 Lee Highway, Arlington, VA, 8:00 am ET

Saturday, July 16

Russia Launches New Version of Soyuz Spacecraft with Three ISS Crew - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 06-Jul-2016 (Updated: 09-Jul-2016 12:14 AM)

UPDATE, JULY 9, 2016, 12:15 AM EDT.  Docking was successful at 12:06 am EDT.

ORIGINAL STORY, JULY 6, 2016, 10:47 PM EDT:  Russia successfully launched a new version of its Soyuz spacecraft, Soyuz MS-01, at 9:36 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) tonight from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan (7:36 am July 7 local time at the launch site).  Aboard are three new crew members for the International Space Station (ISS) -- an American, a Japanese and a Russian.

Soyuz MS-01 is delivering NASA's Kate Rubins, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA's) Takuya Onishi, and Russia's Roscosmos space state corporation's Anatoly Ivanishin to the ISS.  Because it is a new version of the spacecraft, the crew is taking the longer 34-orbit route to the ISS so the new systems can be tested out.  Docking is scheduled for 12:12 am Saturday morning.


Soyuz MS-01 on launch pad at Baikonur Cosmodrome just before liftoff on July 6, 2016 EDT.  Screenshot from NASA TV.

The first Soyuz spacecraft was launched in 1967.  It has been upgraded many times over the decades.  Although the outer shell remains basically the same, the interior and its systems have changed with advances in technology.  The most recent version was Soyuz TMA-M.  The last of that type, Soyuz TMA-20M, is currently docked to the ISS ready to return its three-man crew to Earth in September:  NASA's Jeff Williams and Roscosmos's Oleg Skripochka and Alexey Ovchinin.

Soyuz MS incorporates a number of changes: upgraded fully redundant thrusters, improved shielding against micrometeoroid orbital debris (MMOD), improved solar arrays yielding increased electrical power, redundant electrical motors for the docking probe, upgraded Kurs docking system with a phased array antenna that does not need to be retracted, improved satellite navigation system, improved communications through Russia's Luch satellites, and a new digital video transmitter and encoder to provide engineering video of the spacecraft's approach to ISS for docking.

Rubins, Onishi and Ivanishin will remain aboard the ISS for four months, returning in October.


NASA's Kate Rubins, Rocosmos's Anatoly Ivanishin, JAXA's Takuya Onishi at the Cosmonaut Hotel, Baikonur, Kazkahstan, June 30, 2016.  Credit: NASA/Alexander Vysotsky.

Rubins and Onishi are making their first spaceflights.  Rubins is a cancer biologist; Onishi is a former 767 airline pilot.  Ivanishin is a fighter pilot; this is his second spaceflight.

House Committee Questions U.S. Policy On Use of Indian Launch Vehicles

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 06-Jul-2016 (Updated: 06-Jul-2016 09:08 PM)

Two top Republicans on the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee sent letters to Obama Administration officials today seeking answers to a series of questions about U.S. policy on the use of Indian launch vehicles.  India's Antrix corporation wants to offer launches to U.S. satellite operators, but there is concern that as a government entity, it would have an unfair advantage over U.S. commercial launch companies.

Several small U.S. satellites have been launched on Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles (PSLVs) in the last several months.  Four Spire Global Lemur-2 cubesats were launched in September 2015 and 12 Planet (formerly PlanetLabs) satellites on June 22, 2016.  PlanetIQ signed an agreement with Antrix in December 2015 to launch two of its 10-kilogram satellites on a PSLV in the fourth quarter of this year.

The FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) has been discussing the matter since last fall.   In October 2015, Samuel duPont from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), briefed COMSTAC on the issue. The committee's International Space Policy Working Group (ISPWG) held teleconferences on the topic on December 10, 2015 and January 27, 2016.   According to an ISPWG outbrief at COMSTAC's April 2016 meeting, the discussions led to two findings and a recommendation.  The findings were that India's launch service pricing structure could not be confirmed as market-based and thus could "distort" competition and undermine U.S. policies and negatively impact the U.S. space industrial base.  It recommended that the U.S. government "maintain the current cautious approach in granting U.S. commercial satellite operators access to India's state-owned and controlled launch providers."

Eric Stallmer, President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) industry association, told the SS&T Space Subcommittee in April that CSF opposes any effort "to facilitate a government-subsidized foreign launch company ... to compete with U.S. companies."  However, CSF also does not want to disadvantage U.S. satellite manufacturers and operators whose launch needs cannot be met by U.S. launch services companies, so if no U.S. launch vehicles are available, launching on Indian rockets should be approved on a case-by-case basis, he asserted.

Today's letters from House SS&T Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Space Subcommittee Chairman Brian Babin (R-TX) seek to clarify exactly what U.S. policy is regarding launching U.S. satellites on Indian rockets.  The four letters are addressed to Secretary of State John Kerry, Department of Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy John Holdren. 

Smith and Babin seek basic information about what the policy says, when it was promulgated, and the impact of India's entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) on that policy.  Each official is asked to respond by July 20, 2016. 

India finally joined the MTCR less than two weeks ago on June 27.  The MTCR seeks to control the spread of ballistic missile technology.  Established in 1987 by the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Italy and Japan, it now has 35 members, including Russia (but not China).  It is not a treaty and imposes no legal obligations, but is an "informal political understanding" according to its website.

U.S. efforts to convince Russia to join the MTCR after the collapse of the Soviet Union figured prominently in the relationship the two countries have today in the space arena.  It was one of the motivations in the Clinton-Gore Administration's decisions to invite Russia to join the International Space Station (ISS) partnership and to allow U.S. satellites to be launched on Russian rockets.  In return, Russia had to join the MTCR and renegotiate a deal to sell cryogenic rocket engines and associated technological know-how to India. The United States did not object to selling the engines themselves, but to the technological know-how.  Russia renegotiated the contract and said that it lost $400 million as a result.  The United States agreed to pay Russia $400 million towards its participation in the ISS.