International Space News
UPDATE, May 24: Links to the proposed rules as published in the Federal Register have been added.
ORIGINAL STORY, May 23: The Satellite Industry Association (SIA) announced the news this afternoon that the Obama Administration has released the draft rules for easing export controls on satellites. It is another step in a process likely to last for many more months as the Administration implements export control changes agreed to in the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
The satellite industry has been trying for more than a decade to move commercial satellites off the State Department's strict Munitions List and its International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and over to the dual-use Commerce Control List at the Department of Commerce.
SIA provided links to the draft regulations issued by the Department of State and the Department of Commerce. Those websites state that the draft rules will be published in tomorrow's Federal Register (May 24), the official method by which the government publicizes regulatory proceedings.
Comments are due 45 days after publication in the Federal Register (July 8, 2013).
Only one of four witnesses at a congressional hearing Tuesday expressed enthusiasm for the Obama Administration’s new Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM). No consensus emerged on an alternative, but ARM clearly faces an uphill battle. Meanwhile, NASA Advisory Council Chair Steve Squyres expressed deep concern about the low expected launch rate of the Space Launch System (SLS) and implored Congress not to “pile more objectives onto NASA” unless it is prepared to provide adequate funding.
The May 21 hearing before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee featured four witnesses with different perspectives on the next steps in human spaceflight, even as they and the subcommittee members all seemed to agree on the eventual destination – Mars.
The debate is over the intermediate steps to get there.
Lou Friedman, Executive Director Emeritus of the Planetary Society and co-chair of the Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) report that proposed what morphed into ARM was the only advocate for that mission. ARM is included in NASA’s FY2014 budget request and envisions sending a robotic spacecraft to capture an asteroid, redirect it into lunar orbit, and send astronauts there to study it. Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute continued his quest for a human return to the surface of the Moon. Cornell’s Steve Squyres, principal investigator for the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity and chair of the NASA Advisory Council, agreed with two parts of the ARM proposal – searching for Near Earth Asteroids and sending astronauts to cis-lunar space (between the Earth and the Moon) – but eschewed the idea of capturing an asteroid and bringing it into lunar orbit for a visit by astronauts. Doug Cooke, a NASA veteran who retired in 2011 after heading NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate and is now a consultant, rued the lack of analysis and planning prior to announcing ARM and argued for development of a human exploration strategy that logically lays out the steps to Mars.
Subcommittee members on both sides of the aisle clearly are not convinced that ARM is the answer. Subcommittee chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) said he is “not convinced this mission is the right way to go and that it may actually prove a detour for a Mars mission.” Ranking member Donna Edwards (D-MD) avoided outright opposition to ARM, but stressed that she needs to understand how it, as opposed to alternatives like returning to the Moon, would contribute to the goal of sending humans to the surface of Mars.
Friedman made his case in favor of ARM primarily on the basis that it is a mission that can be done soon and exciting missions with near-term results are needed to keep the public interested in human spaceflight. Spudis disagreed. He thinks the point is to demonstrate there is value for the money spent and “an extensible, reusable system, a spacefaring system that allows us to do all the things we want to do at various spots in space” is the ticket. He would start with a return to the lunar surface and utilizing the resources there. “What we really seek is public support, not necessarily excitement,” he argued. Squyres insisted that what is needed to win public support is an “unwavering focus on Mars as the destination,” citing the thousands of people who witnessed the landing of the Curiosity rover at 2:00 am in Times Square as evidence of enthusiasm for exploring Mars.
NASA explains ARM as part of a strategy to unite its human spaceflight, space technology and science activities in a common undertaking. NASA Science Mission Directorate head John Grunsfeld stated flatly at the recent Humans to Mars Summit that ARM is not a science-driven mission, however. Friedman acknowledged that sentiment at the hearing, and emphasized that it is a human spaceflight mission, but there will be benefits in the areas of searching for Near Earth Asteroids and learning about asteroids for planetary protection purposes as well as for companies that want to mine them.
Cooke’s main point was that the United State needs a logical strategy for human exploration. Although steps are underway that support the long term goal of sending humans to Mars – such as development of SLS and Orion and robotic probes like Curiosity – an overarching “strategy does not exist today.” He listed several questions that need to be answered as part of creating that strategy, such as what geopolitical goals the United States wants to achieve, what is our long term vision for human space exploration, and how to collaborate with international partners. He said ARM does not have a “recognizable connection” to a long term strategy, does not appear to be based on consultation with stakeholders or international partners, and “appears to be a very complex mission with the potential for growing more complex and more costly.”
Squyres similarly finds no connection between ARM and Mars exploration, adding that he does not see the need for landing on any surface – the Moon, an asteroid or one of the moons of Mars – as preparation for landing on Mars. He believes the capabilities needed to go to Mars can be demonstrated in cis-lunar space and, given the performance capabilities of SLS and Orion, it is the “only significant destination beyond low Earth orbit that can be reached for the foreseeable future." He said that although there was no consensus among the witnesses as to all the steps to Mars, he believed they did agree that cis-lunar space should be next.
His emphatic message to the subcommittee was that Congress should not specify any other destination or timetable unless it is prepared to give NASA the needed funding. NASA is “being asked to do too much with too little” and the situation is “chronic, severe and getting worse,” he asserted. “I beg of you not to pile more objectives on NASA because they can’t even afford what they’re doing now.”
Another concern Squyres stressed is the low flight rate for the Space Launch System (SLS). “I’m deeply worried,” he told Edwards, because no other human spaceflight system has had such a low anticipated launch rate. The first SLS launch is expected in 2017, the second in 2021, and then once every two years thereafter. SLS and the Orion spacecraft need to be adequately funded “to be proven out on a pace that really supports … a safe pathway” to cis-lunar space, Squyres insisted. Cooke agreed. The flight rate is driven “totally” by funding, he said, and “they definitely need more funding … starting with inflation.” NASA’s budget is currently projected to be flat, with no adjustment for inflation, which erodes buying power as the years pass.
Former NASA space shuttle program manager Wayne Hale told the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science and Space Thursday that it is difficult for his generation to change its “mental model” of the NASA-funded Apollo program as the way for humans to explore space. The reality today, he stressed, is that the government and the commercial sector must team together and leverage each other’s capabilities because taxpayers are only willing to spend half-a-percent of the federal budget on NASA, not the 3-4 percent in the Apollo era.
Hale, currently the Director of Human Spaceflight for Special Aerospace Services, was responding to a question from Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) at a May 16 hearing on advancing partnerships in the business of space. As the hearing came to a close, Nelson wanted to know why it is so hard to get people to understand that commercial space activities will “collaborate, supplement, enhance” NASA’s program to send humans beyond low Earth orbit (LEO).
Patti Grace Smith, former FAA Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (AST) and now a consultant, agreed that people still associate space activities with NASA and not the private sector even though commercial space launches date back to the 1980s. “Where we sit is what we know,” she said, and because NASA holds the reputation as “the premier space agency,” it has been challenging to get people to accept that commercial space can succeed. That perception is changing, she added, with NASA’s new partnerships with the commercial sector and the successful flight of SpaceShipOne in 2004.
Whether the slowly changing paradigm will help win support for NASA’s FY2014 request of $831 million for the commercial crew program, however, is an open question as Nelson made clear. He said that he and Ranking Member Ted Cruz (R-TX) will be working on a new NASA authorization act this year and “in the past, it sure has been difficult to get people to recognize” the value and necessity of the commercial and government space sectors partnering together in human space exploration.
Many in Congress are determined to restore a U.S. capability for launching people into space by 2017, but have not provided NASA with the requested funds for its approach to achieving that goal – the commercial crew program. The $831 million request is more than $300 million above what Congress provided for FY2013. Finding that extra money will not be easy, especially since policy issues such as how many companies to support have not been settled and some influential Members remain highly skeptical of commercial crew overall. The alternative would be using the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, but that system is oversized (and thus expensive) for ferrying crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS).
More generally, Hale connected the dots between today’s commercial crew and cargo efforts to support the ISS and the longer term future of human space exploration. ISS itself is crucial for testing technologies needed for long duration spaceflight and ISS needs commercial cargo and commercial crew, he said. For missions to the Moon and Mars, the key will be logistics, he continued, quoting Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf as saying “armchair generals study tactics, real generals study logistics.” Lowering the cost of getting mass into LEO will be crucial to supplying logistics for long duration flights beyond LEO. “Getting mass to [LEO] is halfway to anywhere in the universe. And if we can supply equipment, fuel, even crews cheaply to [LEO] that has got to be a vital link in ensuring that whatever deep space” missions are mounted will be successful. “Low cost transportation enables all of that. That’s what we’re all about in the commercial space enterprises.”
Commercial Spaceflight Federation President Michael Lopez-Alegria was asked about the size of the market for suborbital and orbital commercial human space flight, or space tourism as it often is called. He cited a 2012 report by The Tauri Group that the suborbital market could be $600 million over the next decade, but said there is no equivalent study of the orbital market. He is convinced a sizeable market will develop, but could not say when: “It’s hard to predict markets that don’t exist yet, but … all I can say, like the famous movie quote … ‘build it and they will come.’”
Lopez-Alegria, a former astronaut who made four trips to space, including commanding the ISS, argued strongly in favor of the commercial crew program as well as extending ISS operations to 2028. Currently the United States and its ISS partners (Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada) have agreed to operate it only until 2020, though NASA believes it technically could remain operational through 2028, 30 years after the first module was launched.
Purdue University’s Steven Collicott testified about the research opportunities enabled by commercial suborbital vehicles, noting that Purdue has a down payment on a spot on a Virgin Galactic flight. The university does not plan to fly a person, but “200 pounds of automated payload to advance high-tech Indiana industry.” He also is building payloads to fly on suborbital systems offered by Armadillo, Blue Origin, Masten, and XCOR, as well as a high altitude balloon company, Near Space. He believes these types of flight opportunities will encourage students to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).
Smith also argued for extending the FAA's authority to indemnify commercial space launch services companies against certain amounts of losses if there is an accident for at least 10 years, and for keeping AST within the FAA for the time being.
Prepared statements of the witnesses and a webcast of the hearing are on the committee's website.
All of the gerbils and half the mice reportedly did not survive their spaceflight aboard Russia's Bion-M1 capsule, which returned to Earth last night after a month in space..
Anatoly Zak at RussianSpaceWeb.com cites Russia's Interfax news agency as reporting that all eight Mongolian gerbils died because of an equipment failure. Half of the 45 mice also did not survive, though no reason was given. The 15 geckos (lizards) as well as the snails and containers of microorganisms and plants apparently are OK, however.
NASA is participating with Russia in this mission by providing animal enclosure units and performing research with the rodents (mice and gerbils).
The following space policy events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
Among the highlights of the coming week are congressional hearings on NASA and NOAA and House Armed Services Committee (HASC) subcommittee markups of the FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act.
A House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) subcommittee will hold a hearing on Tuesday on Next Steps in Human Exploration of Space that seems focused on the new asteroid retrieval mission proposed in NASA's FY2014 budget request.
Another House SS&T subcommittee will hold a hearing on Thursday on how to restore U.S. leadership in weather forecasting, a NOAA responsibility, though it is hard to tell how much of that will focus on weather satellites rather than computer models. Later that morning the Senate Commerce committee will hold its nomination hearing for Penny Pritzker to be the new Secretary of Commerce. The Department of Commerce is NOAA's parent agency and it also is one of the two cabinet level departments responsible for export controls (State Department is the other), so is a critical participant in implementing the export control reforms required under last year's National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Rumors were rampant that the draft regulations for reforming satellite export controls would be published in the Federal Register last week, but that did not happen; perhaps they will be issued this week. That is just one step in the lengthy regulatory process that many hope will result in commercial satellites no longer being subject to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) under the State Department's Munitions List.
All of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) subcommittees will markup their respective portions of the FY2014 NDAA this week. The Strategic Forces subcommittee, which is responsible for most military space programs, will hold its markup on Wednesday. Full committee markup is scheduled for June 5. (The Senate Armed Services Committee markups are scheduled for June 11-12.)
Monday, May 20
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Thursday-Monday, May 23-27
A Russian spacecraft carrying a menagerie of animals that have been in orbit for a month is scheduled to land tonight, Saturday, May 18, Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).
The Bion-1M capsule was launched on April 19, the first of a new generation of Bion spacecraft. NASA and Russia's space agency collaborated on many of the earlier Bion flights, which ended in 1996 after U.S. animal rights groups protested the use of monkeys for such experiments. One of the two monkeys on the 1996 flight died after it returned to Earth.
This flight carries no monkeys, but mice, gerbils, geckos, snails, and containers with various microorganisms and plants. The flight has been dubbed an "orbital Noah's Ark" or a "space zoo" because of the variety of animals aboard. NASA is a partner in the fight, providing Animal Enclosure Units and participating in rodent research.
Landing is expected at 10:12 pm EDT (which will be May 19, 7:12 am Moscow Time, or May 19, 03:12 GMT) 82 kilometers north of Orenburg according to Anatoly Zak at RussianSpaceWeb.com and Bob Christy at zarya.info. Both have posted the ground track for the reentry.
If you believe China's account, it launched a geophysical sounding rocket yesterday. If you believe Bill Gertz, it was an antisatellite (ASAT) test.
China's official news agency, Xinhua, reported that it launched a sounding rocket at 9:00 pm (Beijing Time) Monday with a scientific payload to study energetic particles and magnetic fields. The launch was from the Xichang space launch site near Chengdu.
Bill Gertz, senior editor at the Washington Free Beacon and a columnist for the Washington Times, however, reports that it was an ASAT test disguised as a space exploration rocket. He describes it as "the first test of a new ground-launched anti-satellite missile" whose existence, he says, was first reported by the Free Beacon in October.
Some U.S. experts on China's space program expected an ASAT test in January that did not materialize. Greg Kulacki of the Union of Concerned Scientists argued that the United States should try to convince China not to conduct the test. China's successful 2007 ASAT test against one of its own weather satellites created over 3,000 pieces of space debris that earned it international condemnation. That launch also was from Xichang, but used a different rocket.
Gertz quoted a Pentagon spokesperson as saying only that they do not comment on intelligence matters. Reporters did not ask questions about it at the daily State Department briefings yesterday or today.
The Pentagon released its most recent congressionally-required annual assessment of military and security developments involving China last week -- often called the "China military power" report. The topic of ASATs was not raised during a press conference with David Helvey, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia, and the report itself says little new about China's space or counter-space activities.
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
Perhaps the most intriguing event this week is Thursday's House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee's Oversight Subcommittee hearing on "Espionage Threats at Federal Laboratories: Balancing Scientific Cooperation While Protecting Critical Information." No NASA witnesses are on the list, but it would be surprising if the agency is not a subject of discussion.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) made headlines earlier this year with allegations that a Chinese national, Bo Jiang, was stealing secrets from NASA's Langely Research Center. Jiang was arrested, but later exonerated of a felony charge of lying to federal investigators. Wolf has raised concerns for some time about alleged improprieties regarding ITAR-controlled information at NASA's Ames Research Center. Wolf chairs the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and works closely with House SS&T Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) on this issue. They jointly sent a letter to the FBI and to the Department of Justice Inspector General about their concerns about NASA-Ames this spring (links to the letters are on Rep. Wolf's website). Witnesses on Thursday are Chuck Vest, President of the National Academy of Engineering (and President Emeritus of MIT); Larry Wortzel, chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (and former Asian Studies Center director at the Heritage Foundation); Michelle Van Cleave, Senior Research Fellow at George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute (she was the National Counterintelligence Executive in the George W. Bush Administration and once was a staffer on the House SS&T Committee); and David Major of the Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies (a retired FBI agent, his company trains people in counterintelligence and related topics). Should be interesting!
Monday, May 13
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Two International Space Station (ISS) crew members successfully replaced a coolant pump in the ISS electrical system today, but there was no sign of the leak that led to this unprecedented ISS spacewalk.
Tom Marshburn and Chris Cassidy completed their tasks about an hour ahead of schedule today, finishing the spacewalk in 5.5 hours. One objective of the spacewalk, successfully executed, was replacing an ammonia pump used to cool a solar array channel that provides electricity for the ISS. There are eight channels, one for each solar array. ISS crew members noticed "snowflakes" emanating from one of them on Thursday, signalling an ammonia leak. That channel had shown signs of leaks in the past, origin unknown, but this time the amount was much greater.
NASA decided to conduct an emergency spacewalk not because the leak posed a threat to the space station or the astronauts, but because they hoped to spot the source of the leak while ammonia was still being released. That part of the assignment was unrealized. When Marshburn and Cassidy arrived at the site, there was no sign of an ammonia leak. They replaced the pump because it was one obvious source of the problem, and when the new pump was activated, no leak was observed. That might be a cause for celebration, but NASA officials stressed at a post-spacewalk news conference that it will be many weeks before they feel they are certain the new pump resolves the issue.
"We are happy. We are very happy," said ISS Deputy Program Manager Joel Montalbano about the overall success of the spacewalk. This is the first time in the "increment" ISS missions that a spacewalk has been planned and executed in such a short period of time. The desire to view the leak as it was occurring, and the experience of Marshburn and Cassidy -- who conducted two spacewalks together on a 2009 space shuttle mission, including working in this area of the ISS -- drove the decision to move quickly. Marshburn will be returning to Earth on Monday after almost 5 months on the space station, so today was a unique opportunity.
In a spacewalk characterized as unprecedented for the International Space Station (ISS), two U.S. astronauts will venture outside their home in space Saturday morning to see if they can find and fix a vexing ammonia leak in the ISS electrical power system.
Tom Marshburn has been preparing for his return to Earth on Monday after nearly 5 months in space. NASA officials stressed today that there is no change to the plan for Marshburn and two other ISS crewmembers to come home on Monday, but first he gets another chance to do a spacewalk.
Marshburn and Chris Cassidy, who is part of a different set of ISS crewmembers that is remaining onboard the station, have already done two spacewalks together (on STS-127 in 2009) and worked in the area where they need to go tomorrow. Their experience helped NASA officials decide that it was OK to go ahead with this spacewalk with less than 48 hours notice. NASA chief flight director Norm Knight said that performing a spacewalk with so little advance planning is "precedent setting" for ISS missions (called "increments"), though perhaps not for space shuttle flights.
ISS crewmembers observed "snowflakes" coming off one of the ISS solar array trusses yesterday that was quickly determined to be an ammonia leak in one of the eight power channels that provide electricity. There is one power channel for each solar array. Ammonia is used as a coolant.
This leak is in the vicinity of a previous leak that NASA was never able to identify so it is not known if something happened to increase that leak or if this is something unrelated. ISS program manager Mike Suffredini stressed the difficulty of finding leaks, which may come from very tiny holes, perhaps caused by a Micrometeoroid Orbital Debris (MMOD) hit. Or the leak may be from a seal in the pump. They simply don't know. Marshburn and Cassidy will do a visual inspection and replace the pump.
The decision to do a spacewalk quickly was driven largely by the desire to observe the leak when a lot of ammonia is being released precisely so that the source can be identified. The ammonia in the system is expected to be depleted in a day or so.
The opportunity to discover the source of the leak coupled with the experience of these two ISS crew members were major factors in the decision to go ahead with the spacewalk tomorrow, Suffredini said. It is not a matter of an emergency situation aboard the station. The crew is in no danger from the leak and the ISS can operate with minimal impact using the other seven channels. If the astronauts cannot identify the source of the leak and replacing the pump does not remedy the situation, the ISS can continue operating almost normally at least in the short term. For the long term, operating with only seven instead of eight electrical channels could reduce the amount of research that can be conducted. This is "not critical from a safety standpoint," Suffredini said, but "if we have to live with this channel down for a long period of time" it will have an impact on research. The main purpose of the ISS is to serve as a scientific research laboratory for experiments that need to be conducted in microgravity.
Marshburn and Cassidy are scheduled to open the hatch to exit the ISS at 8:15 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) tomorrow morning (7:15 am Central Daylight Time). During the 6 hour 15 minute spacewalk, they will inspect the area of the leak and replace the pump. They then will inspect each other's spacesuits for signs of ammonia contamination since NASA knows there is a lot of leaked ammonia in the area. A 30-45 minute "bake out" period will ensue as a precaution to allow any unnoticed ammonia to evaporate. They will then reenter the airlock and pressurize it to 5 pounds per square inch (psi) where another test will be conducted to ensure they are not bringing any ammonia into the station before full repressurization.
Marshburn, Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko and Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield remain on schedule to return to Earth on Monday, May 13, in their Soyuz TMA-07M spacecraft. Undocking is scheduled for 7:08 pm EDT, with landing at 10:31 pm EDT (8:31 am May 14 local time at the landing site in Kazakhstan). They were launched on December 19, 2012.
NASA TV will cover tomorrow's spacewalk beginning at 7:00 am EDT (6:00 am CDT). It also will cover the landing on Monday, as detailed in NASA's press release.