International Space News
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) praised NASA's technical progress in building the Space Launch System (SLS) in a report released today, but warned that the agency does not have enough funding to complete the rocket in time for its promised first flight in 2017.
GAO pointed out that most NASA programs are required to have a funding and schedule profile that affords at least a 70 percent chance of success -- a "joint confidence level" or JCL -- and SLS does not have that. The program may be $400 million short of what it needs in order to be ready for the first test launch in 2017 at a 70 percent confidence level, GAO concluded using analysis by the SLS program itself.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden conceded in a Senate hearing earlier this year that NASA is not using the 70 percent confidence level for SLS. In a colloquy with Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), SLS's strongest supporter in the Senate (it is being built in Alabama), Bolden said: "You can't fund enough to get SLS to a 70 percent JCL and I don't want you to do that, I'm not asking for that, that would be unrealistic." He told Shelby he had enough money to be ready to launch in 2017, but also hedged by saying "in fiscal year 2018." Only the first three months of FY2018 are in calendar year 2017 (October-December). Bolden said that he is comfortable with not meeting a 70 percent JCL because SLS relies on mature technology.
SLS is being developed pursuant to the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, a bipartisan agreement between Republicans and Democrats in Congress on the one hand, and the Obama Administration on the other. SLS and its Orion spacecraft are intended to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit (LEO). The 2017 version of SLS will be able to place 70 metric tons into LEO. Two enhanced versions are planned for the future capable of 105 tons and 130 tons. In some respects SLS/Orion replaces the Bush-era Constellation program; in others it is much the same -- developing a big rocket and a spacecraft to take people to Mars someday.
NASA plans to spend $12 billion on SLS and associated ground systems through the 2017 launch, GAO said, and "potentially billions more" for the future variants.
The first test flight is supposed to take place in 2017. The next flight would not be until 2021. That would be the first to carry a crew aboard an Orion spacecraft. Noting that NASA has not developed plans for SLS beyond that flight, GAO concluded that presents opportunities "to improve long term affordability through competition" to build other elements of the system, such as an improved upper stage.
In today's report, GAO recommends that NASA "develop an executable business case for SLS that matches resources to requirements, and provide to the Congress an assessment of the SLS elements that could be competitively procured for future SLS variants before finalizing acquisition plans for those variants." It adds that "NASA concurred" with the recommendations.
Rumors are circulating that Congress may try to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government funded after September 30 before they leave for their August recess. Nothing has been decided yet, however.
The House is moving through the 12 regular FY2015 appropriations bills at a fairly fast clip, but none of them has passed the Senate. Hopes that three of the bills could be bundled together as a "minibus" and passed by the Senate died last month over a disagreement about the rules for considering amendments during floor debate. The three bills include two that fund space activities: Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS), of which NASA and NOAA are part, and Transportation-HUD bill, which funds the FAA and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation. The third bill is the Agriculture appropriations.
Congress will be in session this week and next. Then it will recess for the month of August. When they return, the House is scheduled to be in session for only 10 days in September and the first two days of October before recessing to campaign for the November elections. The Senate website does not show how many days it plans to be in session once it returns.
FY2014 ends on September 30. If funding bills -- individually or as a CR -- are not passed by then, the government would have to shut down the unfunded activities. Last year, most of the government was shut down for 16 days. Ninety-eight percent of NASA workers were furloughed.
The shutdown, led by Tea Party Republicans, was over Obamacare and government-wide funding levels. At the time, many Washington pundits argued that the Tea Party lost a lot of support because of the shutdown, but a year later that is not so clear. The Hill reports today that passing a CR before the August recess "could be a way to squelch any talk of a shutdown before it begins."
As America celebrates the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing of astronauts on the Moon, China is providing an update on its robotic Yutu rover that arrived on the lunar surface last December. Yutu suffered a malfunction that prevents it from moving across the lunar surface, but it is still transmitting back to Earth. Its designers now speculate that it was damaged by collisions with rocks. Meanwhile, the Chang'e-5 robotic lunar sample return mission apparently has been delayed until 2020.
The 140-kilogram, six-wheeled Yutu rover is part of the Chang'e-3 mission, which landed on December 14, 2013. Chang'e-3 is a stationary lander that delivered Yutu to the lunar surface. The two are named after Chang'e, China's mythological goddess of the Moon, and her pet rabbit, Yutu (Jade Rabbit).
Yutu rolled off Chang'e-3 on December 15, 2013 and began its trek across the lunar surface. The Moon has a 28-day cycle during which 14 days are in sunlight ("day") and 14 days are darkness ("night"). Yutu's primary power source is its solar panels and therefore was designed to operate during the "day" and hibernate at "night," refolding its instruments and other key equipment into an internal compartment where a small radioisotope heating unit provides enough warmth to protect them from the bitter cold (minus 180 degrees Celsius) of the lunar night. The plan was for Yutu to survive three day-night cycles, roving across the lunar surface during the day to collect geological and resource information from a variety of sites.
The process worked the first time, but then "a mechanical malfunction" occurred and the rover could no longer move. Official Chinese sources provided little information about the cause, but acknowledged in March that the equipment failed to return to its folded, protected state as the second night period commenced.
China's official news agency, Xinhua, reports today (July 21), however, that Yutu's deputy chief designer, Zhang Yuhua, said that rover may have been damaged by colliding with rocks. She said the terrain at the landing site was quite different than expected -- "almost like a gravel field."
Yutu remains motionless just 20 meters from its landing point. It is still transmitting back to Earth, however, after seven lunar cycles, four more than planned, On that level, at least, the mission is a success even though it cannot rove. Previously, Chinese sources said that roving was a critical aspect of the scientific mission because Yutu was intended to investigate different sites on the Moon. Today, however, Yutu's chief designer, Wu Weiren, is quoted by Xinhua as saying that "fortunately, the rover has completed its designated scientific and engineering tasks."
Chang'e-3 is part of China's second phase of robotic lunar exploration. The first phase involved the launch of two lunar orbiters Chang'e-1 and Chang'e-2, in 2007 and 2010, respectively. Phase 2 is Chang'e-3 and its twin, Chang'e-4, both lander/rovers. At last report, Chang'e-4 was intended to be launched in 2015, although that schedule could change if the design needs modification.
The third phase is a robotic lunar sample return mission with Chang'e-5. Chinese officials said as recently as March that Chang'e-5 would be launched in 2017, but today's Xinhua states that it will launch "around 2020."
Chang'e-5 will use China's new Long March 5 rocket, a "heavy lift" launch vehicle still in development that will be roughly equivalent to the U.S. Delta IV Heavy. China is building a new launch site for the Long March 5, Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, on Hainan Island. Whether the delay in launching Chang'e-5 is due to the spacecraft, launch vehicle or launch site is unclear. The U.S. Department of Defense's most recent annual report on China's military and security developments says that the first Long March 5 launch has been delayed to 2015 (from 2014) because of manufacturing difficulties.
This week's list of upcoming space policy events starts with tonight -- Sunday, July 20, the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. At 10:39 pm EDT, NASA TV will replay footage of the historic moment of hatch opening and other events. More commemorative Apollo 11 45th anniversary events are planned throughout the week, as listed below.
During the Week
Apollo 11 45th anniversary: Commemorative events continue tomorrow (Monday) when the Operations and Checkout building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) will be renamed in honor of Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, who passed away in 2012. His Apollo 11 crewmates, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins, will participate in the ceremony, along with Armstrong's backup for the mission, Jim Lovell. The event begins at 10:15 am EDT. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and KSC Director Bob Cabana -- both former astronauts -- also will be there, along with a live video hookup with the two NASA astronauts who are aboard the International Space Station (ISS) right now, Steve Swanson and Reid Wiseman.
On Thursday, July 24, the anniversary of Apollo 11's return from the Moon, the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee will have a live video hookup with Swanson and Wiseman at 11:00 am EDT followed by an event that showcases ISS research and features a panel discussion with three leaders in the ISS research field (12:00-2:00 pm EDT). Then, at 3:00 pm PACIFIC time (6:00 pm Eastern), NASA will hold a panel discussion at Comic-Con International in San Diego. That features Apollo 11's Buzz Aldrin, Jim Green, the head of NASA's planetary science division, JPL's Bobak Ferdowsi, best known as the "Mohawk guy" from the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, and astronaut Mike Fincke. A media availability with the panel members follows the discussion.
Other Events: On Wednesday, the Marshall Institute will hold a panel discussion on the national security launch industrial base. Josh Hartman, who was one of the members of the "Mitchell panel" that recently reviewed options for dealing with the possibility that the supply of Russia's RD-180 rocket engines for the Atlas V rocket could be disrupted, will talk about "issues and opportunities," along with Scott Pace of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. That's from 9:00-10:30 am EDT at the Army Navy Club in Washington, DC.
NASA's Ames Research Center in California is the venue for the "Exploration Science Forum" from July 21-23, and NewSpace 2014, the annual conference of the Space Frontier Foundation, begins on July 24 in San Jose, CA.
Lots of other events are on tap, as listed below based on what we know as of Sunday afternoon, July 20.
Sunday, July 20
Monday, July 21
Monday-Wednesday, July 21-23
Tuesday, July 22
Wednesday, July 23
Wednesday-Thursday, July 23-24
Thursday, July 24
Thursday-Saturday, July 24-26
It is impossible to know how the Malaysian airliner crash in Ukraine today (July 17) will affect U.S.-Russian relationships, but yesterday the Obama Administration imposed new sanctions on certain Russian economic sectors because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine up to that point. One Russian company that was sanctioned, NPO Mashinstroyennia, has a renowned history in Soviet space activities, but apparently is not involved in many space activities currently.
U.S.-Russian relationships have been on edge since Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula earlier this year. The Obama Administration has invoked a number of sanctions against Russian individuals and entities. Some NASA activities have been impacted, but the most high profile – such as the International Space Station (ISS) – were exempted. The deteriorating relationship has focused attention on U.S. dependence on Russia for taking astronauts to and from the ISS, for the RD-180 engines for United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket, and the for NK-33/AJ-26 engines for Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares rocket, however.
Yesterday, the Obama Administration issued new sanctions. Among the Russian entities on the list is NPO MASHINOSTROYENIA – “NPO Mash” – an important player in Soviet space activities. Founded by Vladimir Chelomi, it developed the Almaz series of military space stations launched in the 1970s ( Salyut 2, 3 and 5 -- though Salyut 2 was a failure). It was not able to compete effectively with its rival, Energia, in space activities, but survives because of other lines of business.
Currently its primary business is cruise missiles according to Anatoly Zak, an expert on Soviet and Russian space activities and editor of RussianSpaceWeb.com. In an email, Zak said that NPO Mash is not involved in any of the three major cooperative space activities with the United States – the RD-180 or NK-33/AJ-26 rocket engines or the ISS.
Until now it appears that all of the U.S.-imposed sanctions based on the Ukraine situation have barely impacted U.S.-Russian space relationships. Three Russians, two Americans and one German are currently aboard the ISS.
What will happen in the wake of events today – where Ukrainian and some U.S. sources assert that a Russian surface-to-air missile operated by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine shot down Malaysia’s commercial airline flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur – is unknowable.
Many commentators today are theorizing that there was no intention to destroy a commercial airliner and cite two previous incidents where military errors led to the loss of innocent lives on commercial airlines. In 1983, the Soviet Union shot down Korean Air Lines (KAL) 007, from New York to Seoul, because it said the airplane encroached on restricted airspace. In 1988, a U.S. Aegis cruiser destroyed Iran Air 655, a commercial flight from Tehran to Dubai, mistaking it for an attacking military jet. The death toll for KAL007 was 269; from Iran Air 655 was 290; and from today’s MH17 was 295.
On a day when the Obama Administration increased sanctions against Russia for its actions in Ukraine, two Senate committees held a joint hearing that looked at how to cope with the possibility that Russia’s RD-180 rocket engines might no longer be available to power the U.S. Atlas V rocket. Atlas V is one of two workhorse rockets used to launch the nation’s national security satellites.
The hearing also addressed how to ensure that new companies – “new entrants” – like SpaceX can compete to launch national security satellites rather than using only the United Launch Alliance (ULA). The Air Force awarded a sole-source contract to ULA last year for 36 rocket cores for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. SpaceX later filed suit because it was not allowed to compete. The Justice Department and the Air Force subsequently filed a motion to dismiss the suit. Action is pending before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The joint hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) was co-chaired by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) from the Commerce committee and Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) from SASC.
The hearing took place this morning (July 16), before the White House announced that it was imposing additional sanctions on Russia. The deterioration in U.S.-Russian relationships since Russia took control of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula this spring already resulted in U.S.-imposed sanctions. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees Russia’s aerospace sector, is among the individuals sanctioned. The additional sanctions announced today reportedly include some targeted at Russia’s defense sector, but details are not yet available on whether any are associated with the space program.
In response to the sanctions and other issues, Rogozin made remarks suggesting that Russia might prohibit use of RD-180s for U.S. national security launches. The United States is also dependent on Russia for Soyuz spacecraft to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) and Rogozin tweeted that NASA should use a trampoline instead.
Coupled with the strained U.S.-Russian relationship overall, Congress and the Obama Administration are reconsidering U.S. dependence on a foreign supplier for rocket engines needed to place U.S. national security satellites into orbit. Today’s hearing focused primarily on that topic, but also on the question of how to ensure that companies like SpaceX can compete with ULA.
The hearing covered a lot of ground and only key points are summarized here, separated into the two broad issues that were addressed: what to do about replacing the RD-180 and Air Force certification of SpaceX. The expertise of the seven witnesses spanned a wide range, but none was from the companies that would build a new rocket engine or launch vehicle. They were:
Senators and witnesses recounted the many factors in the 1990s that led to the decision to use RD-180s for Atlas V:
Nelson pointed out that it was also U.S. policy at the time to develop a domestic rocket engine, but that effort disappeared. A co-production facility also was supposed to be built in the United States so RD-180s would be produced here, as well as in Russia, but that never happened either.
The Atlas V with its RD-180 engines has a perfect track record. Shelton acknowledged that it is now time for the United States to develop its own engine, but almost seemed regretful. He spoke of “dire” consequences if the supply of RD-180s is cut off before a new American engine is available -- launch delays of 12-20 months for many national security satellites and as much as 48 months for the heaviest ones, at a cost of $1.5 billion. He argued that the best outcome would be for the United States to keep buying RD-180s until a domestic engine is ready.
If geopolitical relationships worsen or Rogozin follows through on his threat to prohibit use of RD-180s for national security launches, there are no good short term options. Mitchell stressed that his panel concluded that shifting satellites from Atlas V to Delta IV and using new entrants like SpaceX cannot replace the Atlas V capability until 2017 or beyond. ULA has 15 RD-180s in storage according to Shelton, so if no more deliveries are made, decisions would have to be made on how to prioritize their use (the Atlas V is also used for NASA and NOAA launches).
Estevez and Shelton were asked several times how long it would take to develop a new U.S. engine and how much it would cost. While they said 5-8 years and $1-2 billion, the main point was that the Executive Branch is still looking at options and until decisions are made on the path forward, no reliable estimates can be provided. The only agreement within the Administration is that it is time to move away from foreign dependence. Some of the Senators expressed exasperation that it would take so long to build a domestic engine.
Chaplain, who has spent many years at GAO reviewing national security space programs, many of which have encountered large cost overruns, commented that her experience cautions against believing any of the numbers used today. She also stressed that they reflect only the cost for the engine, not for a new launch vehicle to use it or related ground facilities.
That latter point was emphasized repeatedly by Dumbacher. He warned the Senators that they need to look at the issue from a systems perspective. “You can’t swap out one engine for another” in a rocket, he said. A new launch vehicle will be needed as well as associated ground infrastructure.
While the hearing had a sense of urgency about it, Shelton also stressed that nothing has actually changed in the U.S. relationship with the Russian RD-180 supplier (Energomash). It is “business as usual” with the Russians, he said.
Estevez also cautioned that DOD wants to build a new engine in the most affordable way. A new rocket engine is a priority, he said, but there are other priorities as well.
At the end of the hearing, Nelson remarked that “We are only in this position today” because of Rogozin’s “sarcastic comments,” but they brought the issue of U.S. dependence on a foreign supplier “to a head.” The bottom line, Nelson stressed, is that the United States needs assured access to space.
Competition and Space X Certification
The United States has been dependent on Russia for RD-180 rocket engines for more than a decade, but that fact gained prominence only this spring after Russia’s actions in Crimea and a Senate hearing in March where SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk raised it as a reason that his SpaceX Falcon should be allowed to compete against ULA for national security space launches.
U.S. national policy is that the government support two rocket families to launch national security satellites in case one suffers a failure that shuts it down for a lengthy period. Today those are ULA’s Atlas V and Delta IV. Musk suggested it should be Delta IV and his Falcon rocket, since Atlas V is reliant on Russian engines while his is not.
A central piece of the debate is the Air Force's block-buy sole-source award to ULA over which SpaceX filed its lawsuit. The issue has exploded over the past several months, with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) supporting SpaceX's position. At the hearing today, McCain sharply questioned Shelton, insinuating that Shelton is on ULA’s side and against SpaceX. He has become dogged in his determination to scrutinize the block-buy deal.
The Air Force contends that by buying so many rocket cores together, it saved $4.4 billion compared to its current approach of buying services one-at-a-time. McCain contended that it was not a matter of cost savings, but cost avoidance. He asked Chaplain, who has led many GAO studies investigating DOD’s acquisition of space launch services, to comment on that point. She replied that it was a savings in the price at the start of DOD-ULA negotiations versus where the contract ended up. She stressed that the Air Force followed GAO recommendations to obtain better cost and price data from ULA which put them in a better position to negotiate.
For his part, McCain reminded the panel about his investigation into what he believed were improprieties in DOD’s award of an aerial tanker lease to Boeing: “People went to jail and people got fired.” His message was clear. He is not convinced DOD’s sole-source contract to ULA was proper. “I don’t like this deal,” he declared.
The Air Force is in the process of certifying SpaceX to be able to win Air Force launch contracts. SpaceX currently launches cargo missions to the International Space Station (ISS) as well as for commercial customers. One oft-asked question is why SpaceX must go through an Air Force certification process when NASA entrusts its launches to the company.
NASA’s Lightfoot explained that the agency has different categories of missions – A, B, C and D – in decreasing order of their criticality. SpaceX is only allowed to launch Class D missions today – those of least criticality. NASA is currently determining whether to allow SpaceX to launch a higher priority mission (Jason-3, an ocean altimetry satellite).
Shelton said that, if all goes well, SpaceX will be certified by the end of the year. The Air Force will have spent $60-100 million on the SpaceX certification effort, he added. Shelton pointed out, however, that SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is technically unable to launch many national security missions. Atlas V has 10 configurations, he said, and SpaceX cannot launch seven of them. Thus accelerating SpaceX certification is not a solution to the RD-180 problem.
With the success of the Angara-1.2PP suborbital test launch under its belt, Russia now is preparing for a test of a much more powerful version -- Angara 5 – at the end of this year.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees Russia’s space sector, tweeted from several locations in the days immediately after the July 9 Angara-1.2PP test heralding plans to launch Angara 5 in December as he toured rocket manufacturing and related facilities in Russia.
Today (July 14 Eastern Daylight Time), a top official of Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, provided more details. The agency’s First Deputy Head Alexander Ivanov also revealed that the rocket is being shipped to the Plesetsk Cosmodrome tonight (July 14-15 Moscow Time) from its manufacturer, Khruinchev State Research and Production Space Center, near Moscow.
Angara is a family of launch vehicles in development since the collapse of the Soviet Union and intended eventually to replace many of the Soviet-era rockets now in use. Three versions are in development capable of launching approximately 4 tons (Angara 1), 15 tons (Angara 3) and 25 tons (Angara 5) to low Earth orbit (LEO). Russian officials say an 80-ton and 160-ton version of Angara may be built.
Angara 5 is roughly equivalent to the U.S. Delta IV Heavy, currently the most capable U.S. launch vehicle. The larger versions under consideration would be in the same class as the Space Launch System (SLS) that NASA is now developing.
The successful Angara-1.2PP test was of the smallest version of Angara and a brief 21-minute suborbital flight. Angara 5’s test, by contrast, will be to geostationary orbit (GEO), 35,800 kilometers above the equator. Like Angara-1.2PP, it will be launched from Plesetsk. Russian launches to GEO usually take place from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which, at roughly 50 degrees North latitude, is considerably further south than Plesetsk (63 degrees North) and therefore more advantageous for getting to GEO.
Russia is trying to ease its dependence on Baikonur, however, and plans are to launch Angara only from Plesetsk and the new Vostochny Cosmodrome still under construction in Russia’s Far East. Baikonur is in Kazakhstan, which charges Russia $115 million a year to lease the facilities there. Russia wants to avoid those charges as well as launch its satellites from within its own borders.
Ivanvov told Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency that the purpose of the December launch “is to test the whole route all the way up to the geostationary orbit.” The rocket will carry a dummy payload. The plan is for Angara 5 to replace Russia’s workhorse Proton rocket, which has been in use since 1965 and has suffered a number of failures in recent years.
WALLOPS ISLAND, Va.—Like a giant flame against a mostly clear sky, an Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket carrying the company’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft blasted off today (July 13) en route to the International Space Station (ISS).
Cygnus is in orbit and all systems are operating nominally, said Frank Culbertson, Orbital’s executive vice president, at a post-launch press conference at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility shortly after the launch. The cargo resupply mission, dubbed “Orb-2,” is the second of eight that Orbital has planned through 2016 under a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA worth $1.9 billion. NASA’s other commercial cargo resupply provider is SpaceX.
Cygnus is scheduled to arrive at ISS on Wednesday (July 16) where it will be grappled by astronauts using the Canadarm2 robotic arm at approximately 6:39 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (EDT). The capsule will deliver approximately 3,300 pounds of cargo, of which about half is food and the remainder includes hardware, experiments, other supplies and more than 30 cubesats.
NASA was happy the launch finally took place because things were “getting to be where it was a little tense” with supplies aboard the ISS said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, at the post-launch briefing. He stressed that establishing a regular cadence of resupply flights is very important. But “things went really smooth” today he said of the on-time 12:52 p.m. EDT liftoff from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops.
“An enhanced version of Cygnus will begin flying next year,” Culbertson added, and eventually Cygnus will be able carry 700 kilograms more than the current version. Europe’s last Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) is being readied for launch. In future years, other cargo systems, such as Cygnus, will have to compensate for the absence of the ATV. Japan’s HTV also delivers cargo to the ISS. Gerstenmaier said four more are planned and NASA is in talks with Japan about whether there will be more after that.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden made an unannounced appearance at the Wallops Visitor Center prior to the launch to talk with students and other visitors about the agency’s ongoing efforts to engage with the public and encourage kids to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields.
Orb-1 was launched in January 2014. Orb-2 was originally scheduled for May, but slipped several times. An initial postponement was due to a delay in the launch of SpaceX’s third cargo resupply mission to the ISS. A fire during a test of an Antares AJ-26 rocket engine at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in May caused Orb-2’s launch date to slip several more times to July. Then weather issues delayed the launch from July 11 until today.
This Cygnus will remain attached to the ISS until August 15. The next in the series, Orb-3, is tentatively scheduled for launch in October 2014.
Here is our list of space policy-related events for the upcoming week, July 13-18, 2014, and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate will be in session.
During the Week
Hopefully this week will get off to a roaring start -- literally -- with the launch of Orbital Sciences Corporation's Orb-2 cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Delayed a number of times, as of mid-afternoon today (Saturday) Orbital's Antares rocket is scheduled to lift off from Wallops Island, VA at 12:52 pm ET tomorrow (Sunday, July 13) sending the Cygnus spacecraft to the ISS. If the launch does, in fact, take place tomorrow, Cygnus should arrive at the ISS on Wednesday. Follow us on Twitter @SpcPlcyOnline for up to date information on the launch.
The Senate Appropriations Committee will markup the FY2015 defense appropriations bill this week (subcommittee markup is on Tuesday, full committee on Thursday). One of the more interesting space policy-related issues will be whether it allocates any funding for the Air Force to begin a program to develop an alternative to Russia's RD-180 rocket engines. The House version of the bill adds $220 million to do so even though the White House opposes the addition because it is "premature." The Senate Armed Services Committee recommended $100 million in FY2015 in its version of the National Defense Authorization Act, but that bill has not passed the Senate yet.
U.S. dependence on Russian rocket engines is among the topics to be explored at a joint hearing on Wednesday before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The hearing on Options for Assuring Domestic Access to Space features witnesses from DOD, NASA, GAO and RAND, as well as the chair (retired AF Maj. Gen. Howard Mitchell) of a recent Air Force review of alternatives to the RD-180 and the very recently retired head of NASA's Space Launch System and Orion programs (Dan Dumbacher). It's somewhat interesting that NASA will be represented by Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot instead of Administrator Charlie Bolden, who would be closer in rank to the other agency witnesses: Gen. William Shelton, Commander of Air Force Space Command, and Alan Estevez, Principle Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. Lightfoot, however, is a former director of NASA's rocket-building Marshall Space Flight Center so knows rockets inside and out.
Lots of other interesting events coming up this week. The full list of events that we know of as of Saturday afternoon is shown below.
Sunday, July 13
Monday, July 14
Tuesday, July 15
Wednesday, July 16
Thursday, July 17
Thursday-Friday, July 17-18
SpaceX announced today (July 11) that the Air Force has certified that the company's Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket has successfully completed three flights. That is one of the steps required before SpaceX can be awarded contracts from the Air Force for launches within the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. Separately, on Wednesday it received approval from the FAA to conduct launches from a new launch site it plans to build in Texas.
The Air Force decision comes at a time when the SpaceX-Air Force relationship is rather strained. The company is suing the Air Force because it awarded a block-buy contract to United Launch Alliance (ULA) last year for 36 EELV cores on a sole-source basis rather than allowing SpaceX to compete. The Air Force and the Justice Department filed a motion last week asking the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to dismiss the suit.
Today's brief announcement by SpaceX is carefully worded to say that the Air Force certified that the Falcon 9 system successfully completed three flights, not that the company has been certified to win EELV contracts. While asserting that it is "already qualified to compete for EELV missions," SpaceX said today it "must also be certified by the Air Force before any contract can be awarded..." The statement concludes by saying that it expects to satisfy the remaining requirements by the end of this year.
SpaceX and the Air Force signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) in June 2013 that details the requirements SpaceX must meet to win contracts for EELV-class launches of national security satellites. They include an evaluation of the Falcon 9's flight history, vehicle design, reliability, process maturity, safety systems, manufacturing and operations, systems engineering, risk management, and launch facilities. Achieving three successful flights of a common configuration of the Falcon 9 is part of that evaluation.
In February 2014, the Air Force certified the first successful flight under the CRADA. That launch, of a Canadian science satellite and five smaller satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base, took place on September 29, 2013 and was the first of the Falcon 9 v1.1. The other two flights, on December 3, 2013 and January 6, 2014, now also have been certified as successful. Both of those were from Cape Canaveral and launched commercial communications satellites for SES and Thailand, respectively.
Separately, on July 9 the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved SpaceX's plans to conduct launches from a new launch site the company plans to build south of Brownsville, TX. The Record of Decision provides FAA's final environmental determination and approval to support issuing launch licenses and/or experimental permits to launch the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy (still in development) "and a variety of reusable suborbital vehicles" from 68.9 acres adjacent to the village of Boca Chica. The location is in Cameron County, TX, and is approximately 3 miles north of the U.S./Mexico border. The approval is for up to 12 "commercial launch operations" per year.
Meanwhile, SpaceX is getting ready for another attempt to launch six Orbcomm second generation (OG2) communications satellites on Monday, July 14. That launch has been delayed several times for a variety of technical or weather-related reasons.