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Orbital Sciences to Use Russian RD-181 for Antares

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Dec-2014 (Updated: 17-Dec-2014 10:54 PM)

Orbital Sciences Corporation confirmed via Twitter a story published by Aviation Week & Space Technology that it has chosen a different Russian engine, RD-181, for its Antares rocket.  The last Antares launch, powered by Russian NK-33 engines (refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne and redesignated AJ26), exploded 15 seconds after liftoff on October 28.

Orbital confirmed after the launch failure that it would use a different engine for future Antares rockets, but as recently as last week, Orbital Chairman, President and CEO David Thompson declined to publicly identify the engine despite rumors that it would be Russian.

Aviation Week's Frank Morring posted a story yesterday quoting Orbital's vice president for space launch strategic development Mark Pieczynski as saying the RD-181, built by Energomash, "is about as close as you could possibly get to replacing the current twin AJ-26 engines in Antares, so it minimizes the redesign of the core."  The first set of RD-181s is expected in the summer of 2015, Morring reported, with a second set arriving in the fall.

Orbital has announced plans for recovering from the October 28 launch failure, which destroyed the Cygnus spacecraft that was carrying cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of Orbital's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.  The contract requires Orbital to deliver 20 tons of cargo to ISS by the end of 2016.  To fulfill the contract, Orbital will use another company's rocket for at least one launch of Cygnus while getting the reconfigured Antares ready for launch in 2016.  That other company is the United Launch Alliance (ULA).  Orbital is buying one ULA Atlas V launch, with an option for one more.

In tweets yesterday and today, Orbital (@OrbitalSciences) said that the RD-181 is the "only propulsion system that enables us to complete cargo commitments to @NASA under #CRS contract by end of 2016."  It also disputed reports on some media outlets that the value of its order for the engines is $1 billion.  "Total possible value (including options) of #RD181 order significantly below the $1 billion being reported by some media outlets."

One of those media outlets is Russia's Sputnik News, formerly RIA Novosti.  It reported today that the order is for 60 RD-181 engines, citing another Russian newspaper, Izvestiya.  According to that account, an official from Russia's space agency Roscosmos said there is a firm contract for 20 engines with a commitment to deliver a total of 60.  A subsequent story from Sputnik News quotes Orbital's Barron Beneski as saying the $1 billion figure is incorrect and "The full value if all the options were exercised would be significantly less." 

Congress recently passed legislation prohibiting the purchase of a different Russian engine, the RD-180, for use in ULA's Atlas V rocket.  Atlas V is used for many U.S. national security spacecraft and U.S. dependence on Russia for those engines became a significant issue after Russia's actions in Ukraine.  The final version of the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) prohibits the Secretary of Defense from awarding or renewing a contract to procure rocket engines designed or manufactured in Russia for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.  Atlas V and Delta IV are the two EELVs, so the language does not affect Antares. 

Morring quotes Orbital's Ron Grabe, executive vice president and general manager of the company's Launch Systems Group, as saying the company "coordinated with all relevant congressional staffs" and notes that the ISS program itself is dependent on cooperation with Russia.  ISS is an international partnership among the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan, and 11 European countries.  NASA has been dependent on Russia to launch crews to the ISS since the space shuttle was terminated in 2011.

GAO Warns JWST Cryocooler Poses Risk of Schedule Slip

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Dec-2014 (Updated: 15-Dec-2014 05:22 PM)

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued its third annual congressionally-required assessment of the status of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) today warning that the project's schedule is at risk particularly because of challenges developing its cyrocooler.

GAO acknowledged that JWST program officials report that the space telescope's overall schedule reserve is above its plans and standards, but pointed out that with four years until launch, NASA is only now beginning to integrate and test two of the five elements and major subsystems and this is the time period where problems are likely to be found.  Therefore "maintaining as much schedule reserve as possible ... is critical."

JWST also has "limited short-term cost reserves" to deal with potential schedule slips, GAO found.  Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems (NGAS) is the prime contractor for JWST, and GAO criticized the cost risk analyses used by NASA and NGAS because "they do not account for many new risks identified since 2011."  GAO stressed that cost risk analyses must be continually updated to ensure reliability and that is part of adhering to cost estimating best practices. 

It recommended in the report that NASA follow best practices in cost estimating.  NASA "partially concurred" with the recommendation. NASA's comments are published as an appendix to the report and say basically that it agrees it should follow best practices and is already doing so. 

JWST is described as a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope although it operates in different wavelengths (infrared rather than visible) and will be positioned at the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point (rather than in earth orbit).   It has a sunshade to protect it from the Sun and is passively cooled by exposure to space environment.  However, one of its instruments, the Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI), requires additional cooling, which will be provided by a first-of-its-kind cryogenic system -- a cryocooler. 

GAO warned that the JWST project "continues to face major technical challenges building the cryocooler that have significantly delayed delivery of key components, have made it the driver of the project's overall schedule or the project's critical path, and required the use of a disproportionate amount of project cost reserves."  Since the program was replanned in 2011, the cryocooler has experienced 150 percent cost growth and "is contributing to the project's limited cost reserve status" for FY2015.

Past cost overruns and schedule delays in the JWST program have caused concern at NASA and in Congress.  JWST is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and has strong support from Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who currently chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.   Even her support was tested in 2010 with the announcement of additional cost growth, leading to a study headed by JPL's John Casani that concluded the problems were primarily managerial, not technical.  Consequently, NASA restructured how the program is managed and developed a new life-cycle cost estimate.  The Casani report estimated that the cost would grow from $5.1 billion to $6.5 billion and the launch date would slip from 2014 to 2015, but after further analysis, NASA concluded the development cost would be $8 billion, with launch in 2018. 

Congress capped JWST development at $8 billion.  Another $800 million is needed for operations, yielding a lifecycle cost estimate of $8.8 billion.  That is based on launch in 2018.  JWST is being launched on an Ariane rocket as part of an international cooperative agreement with ESA (meaning NASA does not pay for the launch).

JWST is one of NASA's top three priorities according to an agreement reached between the White House and Congress in 2011. The other two are the International Space Station and commercial crew, and the Space Launch System and Orion.


What's Happening In Space Policy December 15-31, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Dec-2014 (Updated: 14-Dec-2014 06:03 PM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events for the rest of 2014 as the holidays approach.  This edition covers December 15-31, 2014.   The Senate will be in session tomorrow, at least, but the expectation is that the 113th Congress will come to a close very soon.

During the Week

The Senate is scheduled to be in session tomorrow for what may be the last day of the 113th Congress, though even at this late date it is difficult to say that with any certainty.   After a tumultuous few days, the House and Senate have passed and sent to the President the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015 -- the "CRomnibus" -- which funds NASA, NOAA, DOD and most other government departments and agencies through the end of FY2015 (September 30, 2015).  Only the Department of Homeland Security is funded under another Continuing Resolution (CR), through February 27, 2015, because of the immigration debate.   We've published many stories about the debate, the angst, the uncertainty, etc. and will not reiterate it here (type "cromnibus" into our search box and you should be able to retrieve them).  Suffice it to say that it was a very nice holiday gift for NASA -- a $549 million increase above the President's request, or $363 million more than FY2014.  The question will be whether Congress will sustain that level of funding in future years.  A one-year plus-up is nice, but it's the long haul that counts.   NOAA's satellite programs also did well.  We'll publish an article summarizing the DOD space program provisions shortly.

Outside the beltway, the highlight of this week certainly will be the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco.   AGU is webcasting many of its press conferences and those related to NASA are listed below and on our calendar on the right menu.   Among them -- findings from MAVEN, Curiosity, and Rosetta are on tap for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, and a look forward at New Horizons' arrival at Pluto next year is on Thursday.

And, if all goes well, SpaceX will launch its fifth operational cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) on Friday.  Three pre-launch briefings are scheduled for Thursday.   Arrival at the ISS will be on Sunday if the launch goes on Friday.  NASA TV will cover it all.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below. wishes all of you Happy Holidays and a fantastic New Year!

Monday-Friday, December 15-19

Monday, December 15

  • AGU Press Conferences on NASA Topics (webcast)
    • 9:00 am PST (12:00 noon EST), Early Results from MAVEN
    • 10:30 am PST (1:30 pm EST), X-rays and Gamma Rays in Thunderstorms
    • 1:30 pm PST (4:30 pm EST), Greenland's Melt Dynamics

Tuesday, December 16

Wednesday, December 17

  • AGU Press Conferences on NASA Topics (webcast)
    • 8:00 am PST (11:00 am EST), Rosetta Comet Science Results
    • 11:30 am PST (2:30 pm EST), Arctic Heating:  15 Years of Sea Ice Loss -- and Absorbed Solar Radiation Gains
    • 2:30 pm PST (5:30 pm EST), After the Pulse Flow: Greening the Colorado River Delta

Thursday, December 18

Friday, December 19

Sunday, December 21

  • SpX-5 Arrival at ISS (if launched on Friday), grapple approximately 6:00 am EST (NASA TV coverage begins 4:15 am EST)

House Narrowly Passes FY2015 Funding Bill and Two-Day CR

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Dec-2014 (Updated: 11-Dec-2014 11:33 PM)

The House approved the FY2015 "cromnibus" spending package tonight by a vote of 219-206.  The Senate still must act on the measure so the House also passed another Continuing Resolution (CR) to extend government funding for two more days, through midnight Saturday.  The Senate quickly passed the two-day CR, averting a government shutdown tonight.

The cromnibus is a mix of a CR and an omnibus appropriations bill.  A CR provides funding for a short period of time at the previous year's level.  An omnibus consolidates several regular full-year appropriations bills into a single legislative package.  This bill combines full year appropriations for departments and agencies in 11 of the 12 regular appropriations bills (including NASA, NOAA and DOD) with a short term CR for the 12th (the Department of Homeland Security-DHS).  Funding DHS only through February 27, 2015, is intended to signal Republican dissatisfaction with President Obama's executive order on immigration.  Immigration is part of DHS.

The battle over the cromnibus was intense and at times its passage seemed in jeopardy.  The final vote was 219-206.   Voting in favor were 162 Republicans and 57 Democrats.  Voting against were 67 Republicans and 139 Democrats.  Five members from each party did not vote.

The rancor was over provisions agreed to by House and Senate negotiators endeavoring to reach a compromise.  The end result clearly does not please everyone.  Conservative Republicans reportedly want a stronger reaction against the President's immigration executive order, liberal Democrats and some Republicans object to a provision weakening the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, and liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans object to changes to the campaign finance law. 

The White House supported passage, but House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said the House was being "blackmailed" into voting for it.

The battle now moves to the Senate.  With passage of the new two-day CR, it has until midnight Saturday to act.

The bill contains a significant budget boost for NASA -- an increase of $549 million above the President's request for a total of $18.010 billion.  NOAA's satellite programs also fare well.

House SS&T Members Question Obama Commitment to SLS/Orion, Absence of NASA CFO

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Dec-2014 (Updated: 11-Dec-2014 10:30 PM)

A hearing before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee on the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft yesterday covered familiar ground, especially Republican criticism that the Obama Administration does not sufficiently support those programs.  Perhaps the most interesting elements were the minimal discussion of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and the absence of NASA’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO), David Radzanowski, who was asked to testify. 

Radzanowski was included on the witness list prior to the hearing as “(invited)”.  As the hearing began, Subcommittee Chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) noted that Radzanowski was not there “despite numerous invitations and attempts to secure his attendance” to explain NASA’s budget development process and guidance.  Palazzo said NASA’s other witness, Bill Gerstenmaier, “may not be the appropriate person to explain many of the policies and practices being advanced by the CFO’s office.”

Saying they understood the CFO has a busy schedule, Palazzo reported that the committee told NASA it was willing to accept a substitute, but “unfortunately, NASA prohibited any other CFO representative from appearing today.”  He argued that the CFO is a Senate-confirmed position, which requires that individual to appear before the relevant congressional authorization committees and “I look forward to Mr. Radzanowski’s appearance before this committee in the near future.”

NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs told via email today, however, that “Unfortunately, we knew [he] would be out of town at the time of the proposed hearing.  The agency determined that he was best suited to address any questions and did offer an alternative date for his availability, which was declined.”

Consequently, the only two witnesses were Gerstenmaier, who is NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, and Cristina Chaplain, director, acquisition and sourcing management, Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Republicans and Democrats paid tribute to Gerstenmaier personally and to the NASA/Lockheed Martin/United Launch Alliance team that successfully flew the Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission last week.  GAO’s Chaplain, sitting next to Gerstenmaier at the witness table, also congratulated NASA on the flight.

Apart from that, the hearing was a familiar litany of complaints by Republicans against the Obama Administration for what they perceive to be its lack of support for SLS and Orion. Indeed, Congress – with both Republican and Democratic backing – added money above the President’s request for these programs in the FY2015 omnibus appropriations bill now working its way through Congress as it did in prior years.

The exception was Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) who told Gerstenmaier that SLS was “a rotten decision on the part of this committee.  It’s not your fault. You’re good soldiers [but] we have given you an undoable task.”  Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) retorted that “I’m glad that didn’t stop Apollo.”

The two Democratic members who attended -- Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) -- offered support for the Administration’s long-term goal of sending humans to Mars, but were silent about its near-term goal, ARM, that involves redirecting an asteroid into lunar orbit to be visited by astronauts.

The hearing focused on SLS and Orion and where they can take the U.S. human spaceflight program, but discussion of ARM was negligible.  In 2010, President Obama directed NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid as the next step in human spaceflight.  When asked early in the hearing what the first destination is for SLS and Orion, Gerstenmaier talked about cis-lunar space without mentioning ARM, however.  Only after being asked directly by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) toward the end of the hearing about the international community’s reaction to ARM did Gerstenmaier defend it as part of the path to Mars.

Bridenstine referenced the National Research Council (NRC) report on the future of the human spaceflight program – the “pathways” report – as saying ARM is not in alignment with the international community and could result in spending money on “dead-end technologies.”   Gerstenmaier said they were not dead-end.  He offered that NASA did not have an opportunity to brief the NRC committee on how the technical capabilities needed for ARM could translate into delivering cargo to Mars, for example.  ARM envisions using a robotic spacecraft powered by solar electric propulsion to nudge an asteroid from its native orbit into an orbit around the Moon, where it could be studied by astronauts.  Technologies needed to redirect the asteroid conceivably could be used to send cargo to Mars.  “We ran out of time towards the end” of the NRC committee’s deliberations, Gerstenmaier said, so its members did not see how NASA envisioned the pieces coming together.

Bridenstine mentioned the NRC report a number of times, noting that it cost $3.2 million.  It seemed less a complaint about the cost than an admonition that Congress should pay attention to what it recommended considering the investment.

Palazzo seemed particularly interested in discovering when NASA realized that SLS might need an additional $400 million to meet its schedule.   GAO reported on the potential shortfall earlier this year.  Gerstenmaier said that because Congress appropriated more money than the President requested and NASA has slipped the launch date, the “risk will be retired,” explaining that the program carries technical risk, schedule risk, and budget risk.

Gerstenmaier stressed that what the SLS and Orion programs really need is budget certainty, with agreement between the Administration and Congress on how much the programs will get each year.  “One thing that could be very helpful to us is getting stability and understanding what the budget is,” he told Edwards, adding later that he is managing the program “in this kind of interesting environment where we get different funding levels.”

He also conveyed that it is not only budget issues that will determine the pace at which humans explore Mars.   It is also a matter of becoming “proficient at these skills” to take the steps needed to reach Mars.

Last month, NASA released its Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C) analysis for SLS in which it committed to an SLS readiness date of November 2018, almost a year later than the original December 2017 deadline.  At the time, though, NASA said it was keeping December 2017 as an internal goal.  At this hearing, however, Gerstenmaier said the agency has moved beyond that date and now estimates June 2018 for the first launch of SLS with an uncrewed Orion.  More money cannot move up the date, he said.

Chaplain, in fact, intimated that Orion may not be ready by then:   “At this time, it does not look like they could make 2017 and 2018 is a challenge in and of itself.”  She said there is a funding risk for Orion “that is considerably high.”  GAO thinks an integrated schedule for SLS, Orion and associated ground systems is needed, with all achieving readiness at the same time.

Gerstenmaier disagreed.  He argued that they do not have to be ready simultaneously and, in fact, there is an advantage to SLS being ready before Orion.  Emphasizing that typically a rocket is ready before a payload arrives at the launch site, he insisted that “SLS coming first, having the ground systems ready in Florida, and then Orion showing up at the third place is perfectly fine.”  Trying to synch all three “puts another burden” on the program and can result in inefficiency.

Overall, the hearing broke little new ground, but afforded an opportunity for subcommittee members, albeit with strong political overtones, to applaud the success of Orion EFT-1 and the possibilities it represents.

Vote Expected to Be Close in House Tomorrow on FY2015 CRomnibus

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Dec-2014 (Updated: 10-Dec-2014 11:18 PM)

The House is expected to vote tomorrow (Thursday) on the FY2015 appropriations bill dubbed the "CRomnibus."  It combines an omnibus appropriations providing full-year funding for agencies covered by 11 of the 12 regular appropriations bills (including NASA, NOAA and DOD) and a Continuing Resolution (CR) for the 12th (the Department of Homeland Security).  The vote is expected to be close because of dissatisfaction on both sides of the aisle with policy provisions ("riders") that were added during negotiations.  Congress must pass this bill or some other funding measure before midnight tomorrow to avoid a government shutdown.

Objections to the CRomnibus reportedly range from conservative Republicans who feel it does not send a strong enough message to the President protesting his executive order on immigration to liberal Democrats and some Republicans who object to changes in the Dodd-Frank financial services regulations to liberal Democrats who object to changes in campaign finance laws.  (The Department of Homeland Security includes immigration.  The proposal to provide it only with a CR and not a full-year appropriation like everyone else is to signal Republican ire at the Obama immigration executive order, but some Republicans want to go further.)

Although appropriations bills are not supposed to include policy provisions, only funding, they often do.  That is especially true at the end of a Congress where members are trying one last time to get favored legislation passed and the only bill likely to clear Congress and be signed by the President is an appropriations bill.  

It is still possible that no agreement on funding will be reached and the government will shut down at midnight tomorrow, but that still is considered very unlikely.  If the CRomnibus does not pass the House tomorrow, House Speaker John Boehner reportedly plans to bring a three-month CR for the entire government to the floor for a vote, pushing funding decisions over into the Republican-controlled 114th Congress.  If the CRomnibus does pass the House, a very short term CR may be needed to give the Senate time to act, but that presumably would be only for a couple of days.

None of the concerns appear to be directed at provisions regarding NASA, NOAA or DOD.

We'll provide updates as they are available.

NASA Gets Big Increase in FY2015 Omnibus, NOAA Satellites Do OK

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Dec-2014 (Updated: 09-Dec-2014 11:54 PM)

House and Senate appropriators introduced the long-awaited compromise version of the FY2015 appropriations bill late today.  If approved as expected, NASA will get a significant increase compared to the President's request, and NOAA satellite programs will fare well overall, with GOES-R and JPSS fully funded.

As expected, the bill combines 11 of the 12 regular appropriations bills, funding all of those departments and agencies for the rest of FY2015 (through September 30, 2015).  The 12th bill, for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), is funded only temporarily, through February 27, 2015, as a protest against President Obama's executive order on immigration.   This combination of a Continuing Resolution (CR) for DHS and an omnibus for the rest of the government is sometimes referred to as a "cromnibus."  It is designated as "Senate amendment to H.R. 83."   NASA and NOAA are part of Division B, the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) portion.

The total for NASA in the compromise accord is $18.010 billion, a $549 million increase over the request of $17.461 billion.  Despite the significant increase, some programs were cut, including:. 

  • Space Technology, which gets $596 million instead of $706 million.
  • commercial crew, which will receive $805 million instead of $848 million.  Senate language that would have required adherence to certain regulations regarding cost and pricing data is not included, but the compromise requires technical and financial quarterly reports to Congress for each awardee.
  • Space Operations (including the International Space Station), which gets $3.828 billion instead of $3.905 billion

 But many others get increases.  Among the big winners are --

  • planetary science, receiving $1.438 billion instead of $1.280 billion, including not less than $100 million for a Europa mission
  • astrophysics, $684 million instead of $607 million, including $70 million for SOFIA
  • aeronautics, $651 million instead of $551 million
  • Orion, $1.194 billion instead of $1.053 billion
  • SLS, $1.700 billion instead of $1.380 billion

More information is in our fact sheet on NASA's FY2015 budget request.

NOAA's satellite programs also fare well.  The two premier programs -- GOES-R and JPSS -- are fully funded.   The Senate had proposed transferring two other programs, DSCOVR and Jason-3, to NASA, but that was not adopted and both programs are funded in NOAA's budget at or close to their requested levels.  COSMIC-2 received its full request of $6.8 million.

The House-passed CJS bill and the version approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee both zeroed NOAA's $15 million request for the Solar Irradiance, Data and Rescue (SIDAR) program that pulls together plans for launching three instruments -- Total Solar Irradiance Sensor (TSIS), Advanced Data Collection System (A-DCS), and Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking (SARSAT).  SIDAR fared better in the compromise omnibus bill, getting half its requested funding, $7.3 million.  Report language accompanying the bill says it is to support hosting TSIS-1 on the International Space Station (ISS) and maintaining international partnerships on A-DCS and SARSAT.  It notes that hosting TSIS-1 on ISS was not part of the President's FY2015 budget request and asks for a report on those plans.

More information is in our fact sheet on NOAA's FY2015 budget request.

NASA, NOAA and most of the rest of the government are currently funded by a CR that expires at midnight on Thursday, December 11.   Because negotiations on this compromise bill took longer than planned, and ordinarily there is a three-day waiting period in the House for members to read a bill and other procedural steps in the Senate, Congress may not complete action on it before that deadline.   A very short-term CR may be passed to cover a couple of days while Congress completes work on this bill.

What's Happening in Space Policy December 8-12, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Dec-2014 (Updated: 07-Dec-2014 08:52 PM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events for the week of December 8-12, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session.

During the Week

This well could be the final week of the 113th Congress.  If it can pass an appropriations bill to fund the government after December 11, when the current Continuing Resolution (CR) expires, and the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), this Congress will close up shop.  The new 114th Congress, with Republicans in control of both the House and Senate, is expected to convene on January 6, 2015.

If all goes according to the plans of House and Senate leadership, this week Congress will pass a "cromnibus." That's a combination of a CR and an omnibus appropriations bill.  The idea is that Congress will pass an omnibus appropriations bill combining 11 of the 12 regular appropriations bills (including Defense and Commerce-Justice-Science) to fund most government agencies through September 30, 2015.   The exception is funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which includes immigration.   As a protest against President Obama's immigration executive order, DHS would be funded only by a CR for a short period of time, probably through some time in January when Republicans control both the House and Senate and they have more power to engage the Obama White House.  A cromnibus could be good news for DOD, NASA and NOAA, providing money for the rest of FY2015.  NASA, in particular, could get a significant increase compared to President Obama's request if the end result follows what the House passed in May and the Senate Appropriations Committee approved in June.

Some Tea Party Republicans want their leaders to take a stronger stance against the President's immigration executive order, but at the moment it appears that House and Senate Republican leaders are more concerned about avoiding a government shutdown than scoring political points on immigration.  They seem content to wait three weeks until they control the Senate as well as the House to fight that battle.

Also, the Senate is expected to pass the compromise version of the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which passed the House last week.  It has a number of national security space provisions, including prohibiting the purchase of Russian RD-180 rocket engines after the current contract expires unless certain conditions are met.

Also coming up this week is the 9th Eilene M. Galloway Symposium on Critical Issues in Space Law on Wednesday.  This year's theme is "Non-Traditional Commercial Space Activities: Legal and Poiicy Challenges, Opportunities and Ways Forward."   

That's the same day the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on the status of NASA's Orion and Space Launch System programs.

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

Monday, December 8

Tuesday, December 9

Wednesday, December 10

Wednesday-Thursday, December 10-11

Thursday, December 11

Thursday-Friday, December 11-12

House Passes Final FY2015 NDAA, Including RD-180 Cutoff, Money for New Engine

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Dec-2014 (Updated: 04-Dec-2014 09:25 PM)

The House passed the compromise National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY2015 today by a vote of 300-119.  The Senate is expected to the pass the bill next week.  It includes restrictions on the future use of Russia’s RD-180 rocket engine for the Atlas V rocket and authorizes $220 million to begin development of a U.S. alternative.

The House passed its version of the bill on May 22 and the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) approved a version on June 2.  The bill never made it to the floor of the Senate for a vote, however.  Instead, House and Senate members negotiated the final version (H.R. 3979) behind closed doors over the past several months.

The bill authorizes $585 billion for the Department of Defense (DOD) -- $521 billion in base spending plus $64 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations (e.g. for the war in Afghanistan).

The bill has an entire subtitle devoted to a broad range of concerns about national security space programs (Subtitle A of Title XVI), including several provisions about space launch. Among them is a restriction on the use of Russian RD-180 engines for the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) Atlas V rocket.  ULA’s Atlas V and Delta IV are Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs).

Section 1608 prohibits the Secretary of Defense (SecDef) from awarding or renewing a contract under the EELV program if it carries out space launch activities using rocket engines designed or manufactured in Russia.  The language does provide waiver authority if needed for national security or if launch services could not be obtained at a fair and reasonable price otherwise.

The language also exempts engines that were ordered under the block buy contract that the Air Force signed with ULA in December 2013 or under any contract signed before February 1, 2014 where the engines were fully paid for by the contractor or covered by a legally binding commitment that the contractor pay for them.

U.S. reliance on Russian rocket engines to launch many U.S. national security satellites became a significant issue this spring after Russia annexed Crimea, beginning a downward spiral in U.S.-Russian geopolitical relationships.  ULA and the Air Force insist that it is "business as usual" with the Russian company that builds the engines, but they have also acknowledged that it is time for the U.S. to build its own new liquid rocket engine.  ULA President Tory Bruno recently framed it as a business decision, not a geopolitical one, however.

The bill also requires the SecDef to develop a new U.S. liquid rocket engine (actually a propulsion system) by 2019.  The bill authorizes $220 million in FY2015, while noting that it “is not an authorization of funds for development of a new launch vehicle.”  (It is important to note that authorization bills only recommend funding levels, they do not actually provide any money.  Only appropriations bills give agencies money to spend.  Congress has not completed action on any of the FY2015 appropriations bills yet.)

In response to a query about its reaction to the language in the bill, ULA said by email that “any effort to cut-off the RD-180 before a new reliable engine is available would result in billions of increased costs to the U.S. taxpayer and will leave the nation with a huge gap in national security capabilities.”   ULA announced a partnership with Blue Origin in September to build a U.S. alternative to the RD-180.

The bill also –

  • Requires the Secretary of the Air Force (SecAF) to notify Congress of any change in the EELV acquisition plan and schedule.
  • Requires the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to report to Congress by June 1, 2015 on the advisability of the SecDef requiring new entrants (like SpaceX) to “establish or maintain business systems that comply” with DOD’s “data requirements and cost accounting standards … including certified cost or price date.”
  • Directs the SecAF to use competitive procedures in awarding the contract for the 5th Operationally Responsive Space launch and ensure DOD’s competitive space launch opportunity policies are followed.
  • Increases by one in FY2015 and another one in FY2015-2017, the number of rocket cores for which space launch providers certified under the EELV program may submit proposals.

To mention just a few of the other issues addressed in the bill, it restricts spending to 50 percent of the authorized amount for several programs -- Weather Satellite Follow-on System, Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) Space Data Exploitation, hosted payload and SBIRS wide field of view testbed, and protected tactical demonstration and protected military satellite communications testbed – until certain certifications or reports are provided to Congress.

It also prohibits use of funds authorized in the bill to store one of DOD’s existing weather satellites (Defense Meteorological Satellite Program –DMSP) until DOD certifies that it plans to launch the satellite and storing it is the most cost effective approach to meeting DOD requirements.  That issue pertains to the last DMSP satellite, DMSP-20, which the Air Force appears ambivalent about launching, but the storage costs are high.  It has been in storage for many years already.  The DMSPs were supposed to be replaced by National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS).  DOD has been trying to decide the future of its weather satellite program since NPOESS was cancelled in 2010.  It launched DMSP-19 earlier this year, but its plans for DMSP-20 are unsettled.

The bill also requires –

  • the SecDef to request a study by the Defense Science Board of the effectiveness of the ground and space sensor system architecture for space situational awareness.
  • the SecAF to brief Congress on requirements and investments needed to modernize DOD space launch facilities.
  • the SecDef to report to Congress assessing the ability of the United States to deter and defeat any adversary’s act of aggression in outer space.
  • the SecDef to report to Congress on whether its satellite communications organizational structure is efficient and effective and assess the merits of designating the Commander of Air Force Space Command’s Missile Systems Center as the single acquisition agent for wideband satellite communications.

The text of the bill and the joint explanatory statement are posted on the websites of the House Armed Services Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Editor's Note:  H.R. 3979 initially was a bill regarding volunteer firefighters and emergency responders that passed the House and Senate earlier this year.  It then became a bill on emergency unemployment compensation.  The text of the compromise version of the NDAA was inserted into that bill (replacing what was there), a procedure referred to as using it as a "legislative vehicle" for passing something else.  The goal is to speed legislative action by amending a bill that has already passed both chambers.  It is not uncommon.

ESA Approves Ariane 6, Vega-C

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Dec-2014 (Updated: 03-Dec-2014 03:56 PM)

The Council of Ministers of the European Space Agency (ESA) approved development of a new Ariane 6 rocket yesterday.  As ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain stressed, Ariane 6 is not just a new rocket, but a new governance model where industry accepts more of the risk.  The ministers will have an opportunity at their next meeting in 2016 to relook at the program and decide if any changes are needed.

ESA is an international organization with 20 member countries (Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom) and one cooperating country (Canada).

The Council of Ministers, comprised of the top officials responsible for their country’s participation in ESA, meets every two or three years to determine what programs to pursue and how much money each member will contribute.  ESA has “mandatory” programs to which all members must contribute (e.g. space science), while other programs are “optional” and countries participate only if they wish to (e.g. space transportation and the International Space Station).

Under its optional programs, ESA pays for the development of launch vehicles, while the French-based company Arianespace provides launch services using them.   Arianespace’s current launch fleet consists of Ariane 5 for large payloads, the Russian-built Soyuz for medium payloads, and the European Vega for small payloads.

Ariane 5 is very reliable, but Europe has been debating for years what changes are needed to ensure Ariane and other European rockets can meet future market demands, especially lower prices spurred by competition from SpaceX.

Germany preferred an evolution of Ariane 5 (Ariane 5 ME) while France advocated a new Ariane 6 “family” of launchers with two versions:  one for large payloads and one for medium payloads.  Just prior to the ministerial meeting, Germany agreed to support the Ariane 6 proposal.  Meanwhile, the ministers also agreed to develop an upgraded version of Vega.  Ariane 6 and the new Vega-C will share the same first stage and thus all of Europe’s launch vehicles will “have the same DNA,” Dordain explained at a press conference after the meeting.   That should reduce costs through simplified manufacturing and launch operations.

A key aspect of the Ariane 6 decision is that industry will take on some of the financial risk instead of it resting with the governments.   Earlier this year, the two primary companies that manufacture Ariane, Airbus and Safran, announced they would form a joint venture, Airbus Safran Launchers, to participate in Ariane 6.

The resolution adopted by the ESA Ministers states that ‘the Joint Venture will bear all commercial market risks during exploitation without support from Member States” while ESA provides a guaranteed “institutional” market of five launches per year.  Those launches would be for ESA itself, its member governments, the European Union (EU), and Europe’s meteorological agency, EUMETSAT.   The joint venture will be responsible for finding any additional customers.   It will also have the design authority for Ariane 6, rather than ESA.

In a press release today, Airbus and Safran said they welcomed ESA’s approval of Ariane 6, but added that their decision to create the Joint Venture  (JV) “naturally assumes an in-principle agreement for the transfer to the JV of shares in Arianespace held by” the French space agency, CNES.  A decision on that issue has not yet been made. CNES owns 34.68 percent of Arianespace.  The remainder is owned in varying amounts by 20 European entities, including Safran and Airbus (Astrium is part of Airbus). 

Dordain said he foresees no difficulty in delivering five institutional launches per year. The EU, for example, is launching a navigation satellite system, Galileo, similar to the U.S GPS system, that requires 24 operational satellites (plus in-orbit spares), which should guarantee a continuing demand for launch services.

Dordain said that at yesterday's meeting ministers committed €4 billion for the development of Ariane 6 and Vega-C, which is enough to pay for their development through first launch (Vega-C in 2018, Ariane 6 in 2020).  He added, however, that they will have an opportunity to relook at the program at the next ministerial council in 2016:  “Participating states … will decide to continue Ariane 6 on the same track or to change it once again, but we have commitments to take Ariane 6 to its maiden flight. …. We will be able to sign contracts until the end of the development phase.”

At today's exchange rate, 1 Euro is $1.23, so the  €4 billion commitment for Ariane 6 and Vega-C is approximately $5 billion.