International Menu

Subscribe to Email Updates:

Enter your email address:

International Space News

Muted Response from Critics as State Department Prepares for Space Talks with China

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Aug-2015 (Updated: 03-Aug-2015 01:09 AM)

Five weeks ago, the State Department announced agreement on a U.S.-China Civil Space Dialogue that will begin in October, a short three months from now.  With all the hyperbole that usually surrounds discussions of U.S.-China space cooperation, a firestorm of outrage from critics and exuberance from advocates might have been expected, but the reaction has been almost nonexistent.

The muted response from critics is all the more surprising since the State Department’s announcement came in the midst of news that China hacked into the Office of Personnel Management’s computer system, stealing data on more than 22 million current and former government employees and their relatives.

Indeed the State Department issued a press release listing a total of 127 “outcomes” – of which the civil space dialogue is only one – from bilateral talks between the two countries held on June 22-24.  Underscoring the complexities of diplomacy, the United States is castigating China on the cybersecurity front while agreeing to engage on many other fronts.

The State Department is preparing for the first civil space dialogue meeting at the end of October in China.   Kia Henry, a State Department spokesperson, said that all discussions will comply with U.S. laws and regulations.  The State Department will chair the discussions with “support from NASA, the FAA, NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey and DoD.”  Henry said they will consider environmental and scientific satellite data exchanges and spaceflight safety issues such as satellite collision avoidance.

NASA is prohibited by law from engaging in bilateral activities with China unless authorized by Congress or 30 days advance certification is provided to Congress that such engagement poses “no risk of resulting in the transfer of technology, data, or other information with national security or economic security implications” and does not involve known violators of human rights.

Kia said that it is NASA’s responsibility to submit the required certification.

Former Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), a strong critic of China for many reasons, including human rights, was largely responsible for creating that prohibition several years ago and continuing it in subsequent appropriations act.  He chaired the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA and is now retired, but his successor, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) holds similar views and continued the prohibition in the FY2016 CJS bill that passed the House in June.

SpacePolicyOnline’s attempts over the past two weeks to obtain a reaction to the State Department's announcement from Culberson, however, were unsuccessful.

Outside of Congress, the most outspoken critics of potential U.S.-China space cooperation do not appear to have publicly commented either (SpacePolicyOnline.com’s repeated attempts to contact one of them also yielded no results.)  Eric Sterner, a Fellow at the Marshall Institute, however, offered his views in a July 27 op-ed published by Space News.  While agreeing that a dialogue could be valuable in areas such as collision avoidance, debris mitigation and science, he sees “little compelling reason for those discussions to evolve into civil space cooperation.”  He disagreed with those who argue that cooperating in space leads to better geopolitical relationships on Earth, noting that Russia’s participation in the International Space Station did not dissuade its leaders from invading Ukraine.

A leading advocate of cooperation praised the decision.  Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the Naval War College who has written books about the Chinese space program, told SpacePolicyOnline.com that the congressional ban “largely serves domestic political goals” and the State Department’s announcement seems to be a ‘recognition that in geopolitics, dialogue is always better than no dialogue.”  She added that working with China on a space science project, for example, would allow the United States “to learn more about their decision making processes” and standard operating procedures, a “not inconsequential benefit.”

A key point will come in September when the House returns from its August recess and NASA submits the 30-day advance certification.  Congress will be busy on other issues, like trying to pass a Continuing Resolution to keep the government operating, and perhaps the topics planned for this first civil space dialogue are sufficiently non-controversial that the certification will be accepted perfunctorily.   Still, for all the rancor that the issue has engendered in the past, and the timing of the announcement amid accusations of Chinese cyberattacks on U.S. government databases, the subdued reaction is remarkable.

What's Happening In Space Policy August 3-31, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Aug-2015 (Updated: 02-Aug-2015 01:01 PM)

It's summer vacation time so our list of upcoming space policy related events is rather sparse.  Therefore we are listing everything we know about for the entire month of August rather than just one week.  The Senate will be in session this week before it heads out on its summer recess; the House left town last week.  Both will return on September 8. 

During the Month

The Senate still has one more week to go before it recesses for its summer break.  It plans to focus on efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, which is not a space policy issue per se, but there is worry that it could derail the Continuing Resolution (CR) that Congress will need to pass before October 1 to  keep the government operating.  There is no expectation that any of the 12 regular appropriations bills will clear Congress by then, so either a CR must be enacted or there will be a government shutdown.  You can check your favorite news sources to get up to date on the Planned Parenthood controversy, but the bottom line for the space program is that Republicans have seized on the issue to prevent any government funds from going to the non-profit organization.  Democrats have said they will try to block any such effort and the White House said the President would veto any legislation to defund it.  If the CR includes such language, and the President vetoes it ... well, that means no funding for DOD, NASA, or NOAA either.  It's a high stakes game and impossible to guess the outcome.

Apart from that, there is an outside chance the Senate could pass S. 1297, the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act.  It was reported from the Senate Commerce Committee on July 22. The bill is thought to be non-controversial, but its lead sponsor is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) who recently took to the floor of the Senate in front of the C-SPAN cameras to castigate the Senate Majority Leader, calling him a liar.  The Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), controls what bills are brought up so he might not be inclined to bring up one sponsored by Cruz, but then again, it is always difficult to predict what will happen in Congress. (Even fellow Republicans felt Cruz went too far, especially since there's a Senate rule that one Senator will not impugn the integrity of another Senator on the Senate floor.  They showed their displeasure this week, denying Cruz a routine request for a "sufficient second" for a roll call vote on a procedural matter.  Some also disputed Cruz's account of what McConnell had said. These sorts of intra-party disputes are usually kept private.)

For those who are curious, by the way, the House and Senate may meet in "pro forma" sessions during August (or anytime), but no legislative activity takes place at those times.  The idea is to prevent the President from making "recess appointments," which he is allowed to do when Congress is in recess for more than three days.  So the House and Senate schedule pro forma sessions where only one Member or Senator must walk into the chamber and gavel it into and out of session so it is not legally in recess for an extended period.

Not on our list of events because space policy is unlikely to arise as an issue, but perhaps of interest anyway, is Thursday's Fox News Republican presidential debate.  If you've lost count, there are 17 Republicans running for President.  Those that rank in the top 10 based on an average of 5 national polls on Tuesday (Fox has not said which national polls it will use) will be on stage together at 9:00 pm ET.  The others will have a separate opportunity earlier in the evening (5:00 pm ET). Check your local TV listings for what channel it will be on in your area.

The rest of month is relatively quiet.  The events we know about as of Sunday (August 2) morning are listed below.

Monday-Tuesday, August 3-4

Wednesday-Thursday, August 5-6

Thursday, August 6

Sunday, August 16

Monday-Wednesday, August 24-26

Tuesday, August 25

Friday, August 28

Monday-Wednesday, August 31-September 2

  • Space 2015 (AIAA), Pasadena Convention Center, Pasadena, CA

Export-Import Bank Will Have to Wait - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Jul-2015 (Updated: 30-Jul-2015 03:56 PM)

UPDATE, July 30, 3:50 pm EDT:  This afternoon the Senate passed the House's short-term (three-month) extension of the highway bill, that has no Export-Import Bank reauthorization, sending it to the President for signature.  The Senate also passed its own long-term highway bill, that includes the Ex-Im Bank reauthorization adopted by amendment earlier this week; it will be waiting for House action when the House returns in September.

ORIGINAL POST, July 30, 8:19 am EDT:  The House began its summer recess last night without passing legislation to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, leaving it in limbo at least until September.  Instead it passed a short-term extension to the highway bill without an Ex-Im Bank provision and sent it to the Senate before turning out the lights.  The House will meet in pro forma sessions, but no legislative business is scheduled until September 8.

The Bank's charter, originally enacted in 1934, must be periodically renewed.  It expired on June 30 when a previous reauthorization attempt failed.  The issue splits the Republican and Democratic parties with some members of each insisting that the bank is essential to U.S. exports and therefore to U.S. jobs, while others assert it is corporate welfare for a few big companies.  Boeing is often mentioned in the latter regard.  Advocates claim that small and medium size businesses also benefit not only because of their own projects, but because many are suppliers to the big companies.

The Bank helps provide financing for U.S. exports, including communications satellites, for example.  The Aerospace Industries Associate and the Satellite Industry Association are among its supporters.  

Reauthorization of the Bank is the source of bitter contention in the Senate, but earlier this week that chamber did agree to a multi-year extension of the bank as an amendment to a must-pass highway bill.  There is no substantive connection between the highway bill and the Ex-Im Bank reauthorization, but attaching one to the other was part of a strategy to get both passed before the summer recess began.  Senate supporters of the Ex-Im Bank hoped that enough House members would be willing to accept reauthorization of the Bank in order to keep money flowing from the Highway Trust Fund for highway, highway safety, and public transportation projects.  The Highway Trust Fund's authorization expires tomorrow (July 31).

The House Republican leadership rejected that strategy, however, and instead passed a separate short-term extension of the Highway Trust Fund authorization (until October 29) without any reference to the Ex-Im Bank.  That bill is now pending before the Senate, which is likely to pass it since they do not want highway funding to end and the House has gone home for five weeks so nothing else can pass both chambers until September.

During an appearance at The Economic Club of Washington, D.C.. yesterday,  Boeing chairman, W. James McNerney, Jr said that the Boeing is "actively" considering moving some of its operations overseas so it can take advantage of other countries' equivalents of the Ex-Im Bank.  Explaining that the whole point of the Bank is to level the playing field with foreign competitors, McNerney said If there will be no U.S. Ex-Im Bank, "we are actively considering now moving key pieces of our company to other countries and we never would have considered it before this craziness on Ex-Im."   

He called it "the triumph of ideology over any description of private business."   Boeing is the biggest beneficiary by dollars, he agreed, but not by transactions:  "There are more deals for small and medium size companies than big companies," adding that "70 percent of the value added of our airplanes are made up by small companies ... who would never have a chance to export without us."  The congressional situation is a "sign of dysfunctionality" when two-thirds of the House and of the Senate support reauthorization, but legislation cannot pass because of the "extremes" of the two parties.

Senate Adopts Ex-Im Bank Extension, But Fate Still Uncertain - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Jul-2015 (Updated: 28-Jul-2015 08:16 AM)

UPDATE, July 28, 2015, 8:10 am EDT:  The Aerospace Industries Association issued a press release praising the Senate action and urging the House to follow suit.

ORIGINAL POST, July 27, 2015, 11:28 pm EDT:  The Senate tonight adopted an amendment to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank as part of a Highway Trust Fund reauthorization bill.  House Republican leaders stated earlier today, however, that they will not bring the Senate bill to the floor for a vote.

The amendment, offered by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on behalf of Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), has been the source of bitter contention with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and other conservatives who consider the bank to be "corporate welfare." The bank assists in the financing of U.S. exports, including aerospace products, and advocates insist that without it American exports will suffer and jobs will be lost.  The Aerospace Industries Association and the Satellite Industry Association are among its supporters.

The bank's authority to operate ended on June 30 when a previous reauthorization attempt failed.  The bank can continue current operations, but cannot take on new projects until and unless it is reauthorized.

The Kirk amendment would extend its authorization for four years.  Yesterday the Senate voted 67-26 to allow the amendment to be offered.   Tonight the vote was 64-29 to adopt it. The Senate has yet to vote on the underlying bill.  Even assuming that it passes, its fate is far from certain.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) vowed today that the House will not take up the Senate bill.  The House and Senate disagree not only on the Ex-Im Bank issue, but on the underlying highway bill that allows disbursement of funds from the Highway Trust Fund for highways, highway safety, and public transportation projects.  The Highway Trust Fund's authorization expires on Friday, July 31.  The House is scheduled to begin its August recess on Friday, so some type of agreement will have to be made - perhaps a short term extension.  The House already passed a 5 month extension of the highway bill -- without an Ex-Im Bank provision -- and McCarthy wants the Senate to pass that bill, not the version now before the Senate.

What happens next is anyone's guess.

 

Senate Agrees to Consider Amendment to Reauthorize Ex-Im Bank

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Jul-2015 (Updated: 26-Jul-2015 07:06 PM)

The Senate took a small, but important, step towards potentially reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank during a rare Sunday session today.  The action does not reauthorize the bank, but sets up a vote on an amendment to do just that later in the week, perhaps as early as tomorrow (Monday).

The Export-Import Bank, created in 1934, assists in the financing of U.S. exports, including aerospace products such as communications satellites.  The Aerospace Industries Association and the Satellite Industry Association are among those trying to convince Congress to reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank.   Its authority to operate expired on June 30 when previous efforts at reauthorization failed.  The bank may continue existing operations for now, but cannot take on new projects.

The issue is divisive within both the Republican and Democratic parties.  Advocates argue that without the bank, exports of American goods will suffer and jobs will be lost.   Opponents insist that it is corporate welfare.  Boeing and General Electric are frequent targets of those critics because they reportedly received two-thirds of the bank's loan commitments between 2007 and 2013, but advocates, including President Obama, counter that smaller companies also benefit, including those that are suppliers to the big companies.

To expedite action, the Senate voted today to allow Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) to offer an amendment to an unrelated highway bill later this week.  The highway bill is "must pass" legislation because without it funds from the Highway Trust Fund cannot be disbursed to pay for highways, highway safety, and public transportation projects. That bill also is controversial.  It is far from certain that even if the Senate does pass the highway bill, with the Ex-Im bank reauthorization included, that the House will agree with either of those actions.  The House is scheduled to begin its month-long August recess on Friday, with last votes expected no later than 3:00 pm ET on Thursday.

That gives the Senate only a few days to pass its bill and try to reach a compromise with the House in order to send legislation to the President' before the Highway Trust Fund authorization expires on July 31.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is a strident opponent of the bank and on Friday publicly accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) of lying to him and other Senate Republicans about the issue in a blistering statement on the Senate floor (which is available on YouTube).  Such intra-party disputes are not typically aired in front of the C-SPAN cameras.

The procedural vote today to allow Kirk to offer the amendment was 67-26 (60 votes were needed).  Cruz and 25 other Republicans voted against it.  

That does not signal what the fate of the amendment itself will be when it is finally debated, however.   Some of those who voted to allow the amendment to be offered may nonetheless oppose the amendment itself.   At the moment, the Kirk amendment is on the schedule for tomorrow (Monday, July 27), along with several other amendments.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has a useful report explaining the Ex-Im Bank controversy.

NTSB Ready To Vote on Final Report on SpaceShipTwo Crash

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Jul-2015 (Updated: 26-Jul-2015 06:15 PM)

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will meet in public session on Tuesday, July 28, to deliberate and vote on its report on the probable cause of the October 31, 2014 SpaceShipTwo (SS2) crash.   The meeting begins at 9:30 am ET and will be webcast on the NTSB website.

The NTSB ordinarily has five members, but there is one vacancy at the moment.  The Tuesday meeting is an opportunity for all four members to hear from the NTSB staff at the same time about their findings, conclusions and recommendations.   The Board members have had access to factual reports and draft staff reports already, but this is the formal unveiling and opportunity for debate.  The Board will vote to adopt or modify the staff's draft.  The Board can make changes to the recommendations, although an NTSB spokesman told SpacePolicyOnline. com on Friday that typically they add or suggest rewordings to staff-developed recommendations rather than making wholesale changes.

The NTSB does not hold public meetings for all of its hundreds of investigations every year, but only for those of significant public interest.  NTSB chairman Christopher Hart, who was acting chairman at the time of the SS2 crash, pointed out that this is the first spaceflight accident it has investigated.  He was on-site at Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, CA, where the crash occurred for the initial phase of the investigation and provided the public briefings.


NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart
Photo credit:  NTSB website

The factual documents produced by the staff will be made public on Tuesday at 9:00 am ET, half an hour before the meeting.  They will be posted on the NTSB website.  Parties to NTSB investigations have access to NTSB's factual documents during the investigation, but are not allowed to speak about them until the NTSB adopts its report.  The parties may submit their own documents responding to the NTSB's findings both before and after the NTSB adopts the final report that are also made part of the public record, but the parties do not address the Board at the public meeting.  In this case, the parties include the FAA, Scaled Composites, and Virgin Galactic.

This is the final action by the Board, although it is possible for a party to file a petition for reconsideration if new, relevant information becomes available that has the potential to change the probable cause.

The technical cause of the crash was evident almost immediately.  SS2 co-pilot Michael Alsbury, who died in the crash, prematurely moved one of two levers that activate a feathering system intended to slow the spaceplane during descent.   Why he did so and why the feathering system deployed even though the second lever was not activated are among the subjects of the investigation.

SS2 was built by Scaled Composites for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, which plans to send tourists on suborbital space flights using these spaceplanes.  The company planned to build five of them.  The one destroyed on October 31 was the first and only operational spaceplane.  A second spaceplane was already under construction and that is continuing although the date for a test flight is uncertain.  Virgin Galactic President George Whitesides said in January that the company will "recover, we'll learn the hard lessons from the accident, and return to flight."   The company is also developing a version of its system, LauncherOne, that will be used to launch small satellites instead of people.

What's Happening in Space Policy July 26-31, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Jul-2015 (Updated: 26-Jul-2015 11:43 AM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of July 26-31, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  Congress is in session this week.

During the Week

The House is scheduled to begin its annual August recess on Friday (no votes are scheduled after Thursday at 3:00 pm ET), so this is the last week for Congress to deal with any "must pass" legislation for programs expiring at the end of July.  To that end, the Senate is beginning its week today, Sunday, in a continuing attempt to pass a bill to reauthorize expenditures from the Highway Trust Fund for highway, highway safety, and public transportation programs that otherwise will expire on July 31.  While the highway bill per se is not a space-related issue, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has agreed to allow an amendment to be offered to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank.  Last month, Congress failed to reauthorize the bank and its charter expired.  The bank is still operating, but cannot take on new projects. The bank offers loan guarantees for customers wanting to buy products -- like communications satellites -- from U.S. manufacturers and the Aerospace Industries Association and Satellite Industry Association are among its supporters.  Critics claim it is corporate welfare. The issue splits both parties and has the Senate in turmoil.  Even if a bill does pass the Senate, there is no guarantee the House will go along. The Senate is scheduled to be in session during the first week of August, but if the House recesses as planned, it would not be able to pass a compromise until it returns in September, so the Senate would have to agree to something the House already passed, perhaps a short-term extension for the highway funds and/or the Ex-Im Bank.  What will happen is very much up in the air.

With such disarray, the likelihood of other legislation passing is diminished, but it is always possible that relatively non-controversial bills could get through.  One possibility is the Senate Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, S. 1297, which was formally reported from the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday (S. Rept. 114-88).  Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is the main sponsor of the bill, however, and his verbal attack on McConnell on the Senate floor on Friday because of the Ex-Im bank issue (available on YouTube) might weigh against it getting a spot on the calendar, which McConnell controls.  It really is anyone's guess, though.

This is "NAC week" at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA.   Many of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) committees will meet early in the week, with the full NAC meeting Wednesday afternoon through Friday morning.   The committee and Council meetings are available by WebEx and telephone for anyone who wants to listen in.  Bear in mind that times listed on the agendas are in local time at the meeting venue -- Pacific Daylight Time in this case.

On Tuesday, trying to tune into those meetings will compete with three interesting events in Washington, DC:  the National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB's) public meeting to finalize its report on the October 2014 SpaceShipTwo crash beginning at 9:30 am ET; a House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee hearing at 10:00 am ET on planetary exploration -- including testimony from the Principal Investigators for the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres (Alan Stern and Christopher Russell, respectively); and a NOAA briefing at 1:00 pm ET on 10 Years Since Hurricane Katrina featuring NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan and the heads of NOAA's four line offices, including Steve Volz, who is in charge of NOAA's satellite programs.  All three events are available by webcast or WebEx.

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

Monday-Tuesday, July 27-28

Monday-Wednesday, July 27-29

Monday-Friday, July 27-31

Tuesday, July 28

Tuesday-Wednesday, July 28-29

Wednesday-Friday, July 29-31

Soyuz TMA-17M Scheduled to Dock On Time Despite Stuck Solar Panel-UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Jul-2015 (Updated: 23-Jul-2015 02:37 PM)

UPDATE, July 23:   Later reports said the solar array deployed just before docking, not at docking.

UPDATE, July 22, 2015 11:01 pm EDT:  Soyuz TMA-17M docked with the ISS as scheduled.  The port solar array did not deploy during the trip to ISS, but did upon docking.

ORIGINAL STORY, July 22, 2015, 6:50 pm EDT: Three new crew members for the International Space Station (ISS) lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 5:02 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) today, July 22, 2015 (which was 3:02 am July 23 local time at the launch site). Once in orbit, one of the two solar panels on the Soyuz TMA-17M spacecraft did not deploy, but NASA says that will not affect the scheduled docking with the ISS at 10:46 pm EDT tonight.

NASA calls this mission Soyuz 43S because it is the 43rd Soyuz launched to the ISS.  In a statement that was posted on its ISS website at about 6:30 pm EDT, NASA said "The Soyuz 43S vehicle has achieved a stable orbit ... and all antennas have deployed.  However, the port solar array ... has not deployed."  It added that the starboard array deployed as expected.  With no explanation, however, by 6:45 pm EDT NASA had edited that statement to delete any reference to the solar arrays, saying only that the antennas had deployed.

Assuming all goes as planned, the three Soyuz TMA-17M crew -- Kjell Lindgren (U.S.), Kimiya Yui (Japan), and Oleg Kononeko (Russia) -- will join Scott Kelly (U.S.), Mikhail Kornienko (Russia), and Gennady Padalka (Russia) who are already on the ISS.  Kelly, Kornienko and Padalka arrived in late March and have been the only three aboard since June 11 when the Soyuz TMA-15M crew returned to Earth.  Kelly and Kornienko are embarked on a one-year mission during which time they will see several crew changes; Padalka will return to Earth in September. Typical ISS crews remain for 4-6 month shifts.  Kelly and Kornienko are staying for a year to enable studies of longer duration missions on human physiology and psychology in preparation for eventual trips to Mars.

The landing of the TMA-15M crew, and the launch of the TMA-17M crew, were each delayed by the failure of the Russian Progress M-27M cargo ship in April.   Russian engineers ultimately decided the Progress M-27M failure was due to a "design peculiarity."   The next in the series, Progress M-28M, was successfully launched on July 3.  The robotic Progress cargo spacecraft and crewed Soyuz spacecraft use different versions of the Soyuz rocket, but the successful Progress M-28M launch helped restore confidence in the Russian systems.

The United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and 11 European countries (through the European Space Agency) are partners in the ISS program.  The ISS has been permanently occupied since November 2000 by international crews on rotating shifts.

Check back here later for updates.

 

What's Happening in Space Policy July 20-24, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Jul-2015 (Updated: 19-Jul-2015 12:47 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of July 20-24, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  Congress is in session this week.

During the Week

SpaceX will hold a telecon with media representatives tomorrow (Monday) at noon Pacific Time (3:00 pm ET) to discuss preliminary findings from its investigation of the June 28, 2015 SpaceX CRS-7 launch failure.  The emailed announcement says it is for media only and will last 30 minutes, which does not allow much time for Q&A, but undoubtedly will be of great interest.

Meanwhile, NASA and Rocosmos are getting ready to launch Soyuz TMA-17M with three new crew members to the International Space Station (ISS) on Wednesday Eastern Daylight Time (where it already will be Thursday local time at the launch site in Kazakhstan).  NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, JAXA astronaut Kimiya Yui, and Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko will join three colleagues (NASA's Scott Kelly and Roscosmos' Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka) already on board, restoring the crew complement to its usual six.  The TMA-17M launch was delayed following the Progress M-27M launch failure in April. 

NASA said on Friday that it would have another press briefing on the results from the New Horizons flyby of Pluto this coming Friday, but the time and other details have not been announced yet.

Those and other events coming up this week that we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below.

Monday, July 20

Tuesday, July 21

Tuesday-Wednesday, July 21-22

Tuesday-Thursday, July 21-23

Wednesday, July 22

Thursday, July 23

Friday, July 24

  •  NASA Briefing on Results from New Horizons Pluto flyby (tentative, details TBD)

ISS Operations OK Despite Cargo Losses, But What's the Future?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Jul-2015 (Updated: 11-Jul-2015 10:24 PM)

Despite the failure of three cargo missions to the International Space Station (ISS) over the past 8 months, operations aboard the orbiting laboratory are fine, NASA and Boeing officials told Congress on Friday. The question is what the future will be for ISS and, perhaps more importantly, for low Earth orbit (LEO) research opportunities after ISS ends.

Those questions were addressed -- if not definitively answered -- at a June 10, 2015 hearing before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.  Witnesses with NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier; Boeing Vice President and General Manager for Space Exploration John Elbon; NASA Inspector General (IG) Paul Martin; Government Accountability Office (GAO) expert Shelby Oakley; and Penn State physiologist and kinesiologist James Pawelczyk, who flew as a payload specialist on the 1998 Neurolab space shuttle mission.  (Boeing was the prime contractor for the ISS and continues to provide sustaining engineering for the U.S. segment.)

Current Status of ISS.   Gerstenmaier and Elbon repeatedly said ISS today is fine despite the losses of three cargo ships over the past 8 months: Orbital Sciences Corporation's (now Orbital ATK) Orb-3 in October 2014; Russia's Progress M-27M in April 2015, and SpaceX's CRS-7 (SpX-7) in June 2015.

That is not to say nothing of value was lost.   Gerstenamier estimates that NASA lost $110 million worth of cargo on the SpX-7 mission alone.  NASA bears that cost, just as the researchers who lost their experiments are not reimbursed. Gerstenmaier said NASA is now looking at buying insurance for its cargo.

Of most concern is the International Docking Adapter (IDA) that was on SpX-7.  Two IDAs are needed for the two upcoming commercial crew vehicles -- SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 -- to dock with the ISS.  The second is already awaiting launch, but a third will have to be built to replace the one lost on SpX-7.  Some parts are available and the schedule can be met, but there will be a "dollar loss" to the ISS program, Gerstenmaier said.

He added some research experiments were lost twice -- first on Orb-3 and then again on SpX-7 after they were quickly reconstituted for reflight.  And the Progress M-27M failure delayed the launch of three ISS crew members (now scheduled for July 22 Eastern Daylight Time), reducing the amount of research that the ISS crew can conduct.

In essence, basic operations of ISS were not affected by the three cargo spacecraft losses, but  "the research impacts"  cannot be recovered.

Responsibility for Cargo Losses and Accident Investigations.  The role NASA is playing in the investigations of the Orb-3 and SpX-7 failures was a repeated theme during the hearing.  Gerstenmaier and NASA IG Martin reminded the committee that they were commercial launches licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the investigations take place under FAA's regulations.  That means that the respective companies take the lead.  Gerstenmaier stressed, however, that NASA as well as the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are fully engaged in those investigations and NASA can do its own independent review if necessary.   He believes both Orbital ATK and SpaceX are being completely transparent in their investigations, however.

Gerstenmaier said the three accidents over such a short period of time was unexpected, but "the tragedy will be if we don't learn from these events."  It is a "painful" learning process, but one better learned on cargo than crewed missions, he added.

Russia as a Partner.  Gerstenmaier reassured the subcommittee that Russia is a strong and reliable partner on ISS despite tensions between the U.S. and Russian governments here on Earth.  The day before this hearing, the President's nominee to be the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford (USMC), told a Senate committee that Russia is the "greatest threat" to the United States.   Gerstenmaier, however, said that the cooperation on ISS "transcends" those differences.  "The challenge of human spaceflight ... transcends ... the toughness of the outside world."  He characterized the technical relationship between the two countries with regard to operating ISS as "extremely strong and extremely transparent in spite of governmental tensions" and the two are working together "extremely effectively."  The two countries are "mutually dependent" in terms of ISS operations and interact on a daily basis.

Research on the ISS.    Pawelczyk stressed the need for more crew hours dedicated to research.  Crew time is the biggest constraint on research and "we need that seventh crew member."  NASA plans to increase the current six-person ISS crew to seven once the U.S. commercial crew systems are operational.

Most importantly, to learn what is needed to successfully send humans to Mars, biological research on the ISS must expand to cover the entire mammalian life cycle and incorporate the effects of the partial gravity humans will experience on Mars, Pawelczyk urged.  For that, the centrifuge capability on the ISS must be "improved."   The space station originally was intended to include a module with a 2.4 meter centrifuge capable of experimenting with humans in varying levels of gravity ("g"), not just the microgravity of a space station in LEO, but the centrifuge module was cancelled due to budget constraints.  The Moon has 1/6 g and Mars has 1/3 g.  How humans might respond to those partial gravity levels rather than microgravity is an open question.  

Pawelczyk also cautioned that as ISS ages, more time may be needed for maintenance, further reducing the amount of time available for research.  GAO's Oakley made a related  point.   She said NASA's top priorities for the ISS are safety and crew transportation, maintenance, and research, in that order.  If costs increase for the first two, she warned, that could mean less money for research.

Pawelczyk praised NASA for its turn around in the past 5 years in supporting the biological and physical scientists who want to do research in space, calling it a "transformation" that is "nothing less than remarkable."  NASA is listening to the advice from the National Research Council's Decadal Survey that recommended priorities for physical and biological research in space, he said, and a new generation of researchers is emerging.

Extending ISS to 2024 Or Beyond.  Several subcommittee members said that Congress has not yet authorized operation of ISS beyond 2020, citing the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, implying that it could not continue beyond that without further congressional action.  The 2010 Act (P.L. 111-267), however, authorizes operation of ISS "through at least 2020" so does not establish a formal end date. Absent further congressional action, presumably it could continue.  At the moment,  S. 1297, the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, approved by the Senate Commerce Committee in May, would extend ISS through "at least 2024."  The House-passed 2015 NASA Authorization Act (for which there is no Senate counterpart yet) asks for a report from NASA on the costs for extending ISS to 2024 or 2030.  That provision also is in the version of the 2016-2017 NASA Authorization Act adopted by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in April. 

Elbon said that Boeing's analysis shows that ISS will be structurally sound at least until 2028, but the key is finding researchers to use it and providing adequate funding.

Gerstenmaier was asked how many of the ISS partners have committed to extending ISS operations to 2024 as proposed last year by President Obama.  Only Canada, he replied.  He is optimistic that Russia will agree by the end of this year.  Japan may approve late this year or early next year, and the European Space Agency (ESA) perhaps in 2017, he forecast.

NASA IG Martin said that several reports by his office have looked at extending ISS to 2024 and while NASA says there are no major obstacles, his office disagrees.  In particular, it found NASA's cost estimate of $3-4 billion per year for ISS operations "optimistic."  Martin said ISS costs have increased approximately 8 percent per year on average, but was 26 percent between FY2011 and FY2013. 

GAO's Oakley agreed.  She said GAO has not seen any formal costs estimates from NASA for operations beyond 2020. 

What's Next?  ISS has a finite lifetime.  There is no disagreement on that, only on whether it will stop in 2020, 2024, 2028 or later, and what, if anything, comes next.  

NASA's plans are focused on moving out into cis-lunar space and eventually to Mars, not on building more research facilities in LEO.   Gerstenmaier said NASA is "looking to see if we can leave low Earth orbit to commercial companies,"  emphasizing that a facility on the order of the ISS may not be necessary. Small spacecraft like a SpaceX Dragon or Orbital ATK Cygnus outfitted for research could be sufficient.  SpaceX is working on a DragonLab version of the Dragon spacecraft, for example.  NASA wants to use ISS to "let the private sector understand the benefits" of research in microgravity and determine if there is a market there.