International Space News
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) vowed to continue the strong support for NASA and NOAA evidenced by Sen. Barbara Mikulski if he is elected as her successor in November. Mikulski is retiring and Van Hollen is widely considered to be the front runner to replace her.
Overall, Van Hollen's message today at a luncheon sponsored by the Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR) was one of reassurance. Mikulski's advocacy for NASA and NOAA, especially, but not only, earth science missions, is legendary. Many in the space community are apprehensive about what her departure will mean for NASA and NOAA space programs and budgets. Van Hollen is a relative unknown in space circles and today he clearly wanted to convey his enthusiasm and dedication to continue the fight.
Van Hollen currently represents a district that runs from the Washington suburbs to the border with Pennsylvania. His views on the space program are not well known, though he said today that he meets annually with the Director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (in Greenbelt, MD) to discuss programs and budgets. He mentioned that he had met with GSFC Director Chris Scolese this morning prior to the luncheon. He also noted that he was on hand to watch the arrival of the New Horizons spacecraft at Pluto last summer from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (APL) in Laurel, MD.
NASA-Goddard and APL are just two of the space-related enterprises in Maryland located in or near his district. NOAA headquarters is in Silver Spring, Lockheed Martin's corporate offices are in Bethesda, and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which operates the Hubble Space Telescope, is in Baltimore.
He shared that he majored in physics for part of his college career, inspired by his Swarthmore College roommate Neil Gershenfeld, now Director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms. Though Van Hollen decided to change majors after getting as far as quantum mechanics (ultimately getting a B.A. in philosophy, a master's in public policy with a concentration in national security, and a J.D.), he said the experience gave him a "lifelong passion and thirst for discovery and trying to answer the big questions -- how did we get here, what is our place in the universe, what does the future hold for Mother Earth."
If he wins the November election, he vowed to be "a fierce advocate" like Mikulski for "NASA Goddard, for NOAA, for Wallops [Flight Facility], for APL, for AURA, for STScI, and for the entire ecosystem of other organizations, businesses and jobs " that are "vital to our nation's leadership in space and to Maryland's central place in that galaxy." AURA is the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, which operates STScI and other astronomical observatories.
Van Hollen specifically praised the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is being built at Goddard and will be operated by STScI. He noted that he saw the telescope this morning and its mirror "is gold-plated." He joked that government agencies usually prefer to avoid referring to anything as gold-plated (because it conveys excess). In this case, however, a "fun fact" is that the total amount of gold on JWST is less than one-third the amount in all the Olympic gold medals won by Michael Phelps. A Maryland native, Phelps has won 23 gold medals for swimming, including five in the recent Rio Olympics.
Van Hollen also highlighted NOAA's work on climate and said the United States must maintain leadership on understanding the impact of climate change, sharply criticizing the chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who has subpoenaed scientists "and worked hard for purely ideological reasons" to cut budgets for earth and climate science. Congress should never "intimidate" or "stymie" scientists. "We need to allow the integrity of the scientific process and budget process to stand on its own without political interference."
Heliophysics, satellite servicing, the Europa mission, STEM education programs, and ISS resupply missions launched from Wallops also got shout outs. Wallops is in neighboring Virginia on the DELMARVA (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) peninsula, but Van Hollen pointed out that "most" of the people who work at Wallops live in Maryland. That brought him to his final point -- the number of jobs in Maryland attributable to space activities and the positive effect on Maryland's economy. He mentioned that NASA-Goddard plans to hire 200 civil servants and said that for every civil servant, there are 2 contractors, so that means an additional 400 contractors as well. That's on top of 10,000 civil service and contractor jobs associated with Goddard already, not to mention additional thousands at APL and NOAA, and hundreds at STSci and Wallops, he said.
"Maryland is a space state and we're going to stay that way," he exclaimed.
A challenge to all of that is getting funding from Congress, of course. Van Hollen laid out the difficulties Congress faces when it returns after Labor Day to get a FY2017 budget passed, an issue he understands well since he is the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee. Although he opposes government shutdowns, he said he could not rule out such a possibility because many House Republicans object to the budget deal brokered last fall among outgoing House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and President Barack Obama that softened sequester limits for FY2016 and FY2017.
His hope is that Congress will pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) that will last through the November elections, then return and complete the FY2017 budget process before the end of the year so the incoming President does not have to deal with it. The road ahead is full of "uncertainty," however.
Van Hollen's Republican opponent for Mikulski's seat is Kathy Szeliga. Democrats have held both Maryland Senate seats since Republican Charles "Mac" Mathias retired in 1986. Somewhat ironically, Van Hollen (a Democrat) started his career working for Mathias as a defense and foreign policy aide.
Here is our list of space policy events for the next TWO weeks, August 22-September 2, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate will return for legislative business on September 6.
During the Weeks
It is just two weeks until Congress returns for legislative business, so this edition of What's Happening covers only those two weeks with the expectation that activity will begin ramping up again and there will be new events to list soon.
Not that the rest of August doesn't have a lot to offer. First is the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) conference coming up this week in Raleigh, NC. It is certain to whet the appetite with concepts for the longer term future. When they say innovative, they MEAN innovative. "Nano Icy Moons Propellant Harvester," "Fusion-Enabled Pluto Orbiter and Lander," and "Stellar Echo Imaging of Exoplanets" are just three of the novel ideas that will be presented. The conference will be livestreamed.
This Wednesday, Rep. Chris Van Hollen will speak to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable. As we explained earlier, he is considered the front runner to succeed Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who is retiring at the end of the year. Should be interesting to learn his views on the space program. Considering how much government, private sector. and academic space activity there is in Maryland -- from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center to Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab to the Space Telescope Science Institute to Lockheed Martin corporate headquarters, to name just a few -- one could well anticipate that he'll be a strong supporter like Mikulski. If elected, he won't have her seniority, though, so his influence on the outcome of, say, appropriations, likely will take some time to develop.
Next week, two of the panels for the Earth Science and Applications from Space (ESAS) Decadal Survey will meet. As we explained in our last issue, this is the second ESAS Decadal Survey from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The first was issued in 2007 and they are done every 10 years (a decade, hence "decadal"), so this one is expected to be completed next year. Meetings of the other panels and two steering committee meetings now are scheduled through January 2017 as shown on our month-by-month FULL CALENDAR OF FUTURE EVENTS view (click on the link at the bottom of the Events of Interest list on our home page).
Those are the only four events we know about for the next two weeks as of Sunday morning (August 21) and are shown below. Check back throughout the weeks to see new events that we learn about later.
Tuesday-Thursday, August 23-25
Wednesday, August 24
Tuesday-Wednesday, August 30-31
Thursday-Friday, September 1-2
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (the Academies) released its mid-term review of the 2010 Decadal Survey for astronomy and astrophysics today. Among its many findings and recommendations, the study warns that recent changes to the design of the WFIRST space telescope, especially the addition of a coronagraph, pose cost risks that could threaten the balanced NASA astrophysics program recommended by the 2010 Survey. It recommends that NASA perform an independent review before proceeding into the next phase of WFIRST development to determine whether the higher costs are worth the increased scientific capability and, if not, to descope the project to ensure the balanced program is not compromised.
Decadal Surveys and Mid-Term Reviews.
The Academies conduct Decadal Surveys approximately every 10 years (a decade) to identify and prioritize the most important scientific questions facing each of NASA’s space and earth science disciplines and recommend space missions to answer those questions. The series of Decadal Surveys for astronomy and astrophysics is the oldest, dating back to 1964, and includes programs not only at NASA, but the National Science Foundation (which oversees ground-based astronomy) and, more recently, the Department of Energy (high energy physics). The other NASA-related Decadal Surveys are in earth science and applications from space, planetary science, solar and space physics (heliophysics), and biological and physical sciences in space.
The agencies and Congress rely heavily on the Decadal Surveys to determine funding priorities and endeavor to follow their recommendations, although budget constraints often intervene. The agencies tell the Decadal Survey committees at the beginning of their work how much money is expected to be available in the upcoming decade to fund new projects, but those assumptions may change during the course of the 2-year studies, never mind in the decade thereafter, and cost overruns in existing programs may reduce funding availability for those planned for the future.
In the 2005 NASA Authorization Act, Congress directed NASA to contract with the Academies for “performance assessments” mid-way through each Decadal Survey period. The most recent Survey for astronomy and astrophysics, New Worlds New Horizons (NWNH), was completed in 2010 and thus is now undergoing its mid-term review.
The mid-term review committees are not allowed to change the scientific priorities or mission recommendations in the Decadal Surveys, which are hard fought within the relevant scientific community during the course the Survey. Instead the mid-term reviews offer guidance on implementing the Surveys and on potential activities to prepare for the next Survey in that scientific discipline.
The Mid-Term Review for the 2010 Astronomy and Astrophysics Survey
Today the Academies released New Worlds New Horizons: A Midterm Assessment, the report of the NWNH mid-term review committee, which was chaired by MIT’s Jacqueline Hewitt.
WFIRST and a Balanced NASA Astrophysics Program. The Hewitt report reiterates one of the key recommendations from NWNH -- to maintain a balanced NASA astrophysics program that funds a suite of “large flagship missions, medium-scale Explorer missions and technology development, and smaller suborbital, data analysis, theory, and laboratory astrophysics programs.” The concern is that large, expensive “flagship” missions like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) can overwhelm the other components of the astrophysics program. Balance is needed to “optimize the scientific return of U.S. investments and to maintain the health of the U.S. astronomical research community.”
The Hewitt committee expressed concern that recent changes to the design of the Wide-Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST), recommended in NWNH as the first priority for a large space-based astrophysics mission to follow JWST, could grow in cost and threaten that balance. In particular, the addition of a coronagraph already has added $350 million and could increase costs further, it said. This issue was raised in a 2014 Academies study chaired by California Institute of Technology’s Fiona Harrison that looked specifically at the pros and cons of adding a coronagraph and is restated in today’s report.
The NASA astrophysics community was stung by significant cost overruns on JWST, whose price tag grew from $1 billion to $8 billion (not including operations) and wants to avoid a similar situation with WFIRST. When NWNH came out, it anticipated work on WFIRST beginning in 2013, with launch in 2020. The JWST overruns ate WFIRST’s seed corn, however, and today, in 2016, WFIRST is only in the formulation stage. Launch is not expected until 2025. It is being designed to study dark energy and dark matter and search for exoplanets.
The WFIRST concept recommended in NWNH was estimated to cost $1.6 billion. In 2012, however, the design changed dramatically when the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which builds the nation’s spy satellites, gave NASA a telescope it no longer needed for a reconnaissance satellite program that was cancelled. The NRO telescope is 2.4 meters in diameter, compared to 1.5 meters as recommended in NWNH, and has much improved infrared detectors. The new version is called WFIRST-AFTA (for Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets). More recently, a decision was made to add a coronagraph. Although the changes mean WFIRST will provide much better data, they also pose cost risks.
The Hewitt committee issued two findings praising the increased scientific capabilities, but also restated the concerns in the Harrison report and made a third finding warning that associated cost growth “could distort the NASA program balance.” It provides a table showing the cost already has grown from NASA’s initial estimate of $1.8 billion (slightly higher than what was estimated by the NWNH committee due to inflation) to $2.8 billion in FY2015 dollars for a 2025 launch.
WFIRST is currently in Phase A (formulation). Before moving into Phase B (preliminary design and technology completion), the project must pass a Key Decision Point-B (KDP-B) review. The Hewitt committee recommends that before KDP-B, NASA commission “an independent technical, management, and cost assessment … including a qualitative assessment of the incremental cost of the coronagraph. If the mission cost estimate exceeds the point at which executing the mission would compromise the scientific priorities and the balanced astrophysics program” recommended in the NWNH, “then NASA should descope the mission to restore” those priorities “by reducing mission cost.”
Explorer Program. A particular concern is NASA’s support for the Explorer program, which “has a distinguished history of high scientific impact through the deployment of relatively low-cost missions that can respond to opportunities on a short timescale.” NWNH recommended increasing the number of Explorer missions, but NASA has not been able to implement that recommendation. It currently plans four Explorers, each with an associated “mission of opportunity,” during the decade covered by NWNH. The Hewitt committee worries that cost growth in NASA’s large astrophysics programs could threaten even that constrained plan and wants NASA to avoid any more cuts.
Gravitational Waves and X-Ray Astronomy – LISA and IXO. The Hewitt committee also addressed other missions that were considered by NWNH, but were ranked lower in priority, including the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) to study gravitational waves and an International X-Ray Observatory (IXO). NWNH envisioned pursuing both in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA).
Gravitational waves were recently detected using the ground-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), which the Hewitt committee said buttressed the case for a space-based observatory that can “explore the source-rich millihertz band that is inaccessible from the ground….” It explained that NWNH expected the space-based LISA to be built through an equal NASA-ESA partnership, beginning with ESA launching a technology demonstration mission, LISA Pathfinder. ESA launched it last year and the mission is proceeding well. NASA, however, faced with the JWST cost overruns and the third-level ranking for LISA in NWNH, terminated its own technology development efforts. ESA is now planning a mission, eLISA (e is for "evolved"), with only minor NASA involvement. ESA describes it as a joint effort of eight European countries "supported by our colleagues in the US."
The Hewitt committee noted that NWNH called for a mid-decade assessment of whether to proceed with LISA based on the LISA Pathfinder results and recommends that NASA restore support for gravitational wave research so the U.S. community can “be a strong technical and scientific partner” in eLISA. It “believes that NASA and ESA together should rethink their strategy” for LISA.
IXO was the fourth priority of NWNH, also envisioned as a NASA-ESA partnership. NWNH recommended that NASA invest in technology development so that if ESA decided to build an x-ray telescope, NASA would be prepared to contribute to it. ESA has, indeed, decided to build the Athena x-ray telescope. Athena’s scope is narrower than IXO, but “enables a compelling subset of the science envisioned for IXO…” according to today's report. The Hewitt committee recommends that NASA proceed with its current plan to participate in Athena “with primary contributions directed toward enhancing the scientific capabilities of the mission.”
Dark Energy and ESA's Euclid. The Hewitt committee also weighed in on NASA’s participation in ESA’s Euclid mission to understand dark energy. U.S. plans for a spacecraft to study dark energy went through substantial turmoil just prior to and during the NWNH study. Eventually, dark energy was included as one of the objectives of WFIRST and NASA also decided, with advice from an Academies committee in 2014, to contribute $20 million of hardware (infrared detectors) to ESA’s Euclid dark energy mission. The 2014 Academies committee, chaired by Princeton's David Spergel (who now also is chair of the Academies' Space Studies Board), also said that if the amount for hardware was to exceed $30 million it should be subject to an independent community review. The Spergel report also acknowledged that about $20 million ($2 million per year for 10 years) was needed to support U.S. scientists involved in the mission, yielding a total of $50 million for NASA support of Euclid.
That cost now has risen to $150-200 million according to the Hewitt committee and while most of the funds will be used to support U.S. science teams and archive activities, it nevertheless is well in excess of what the Spergel committee had in mind. Thus, it recommends that NASA treat any support of Euclid beyond the existing commitments to ESA as lower priority than support of the Explorer program, gravitational wave technology development, or x-ray technology development.
In an emailed statement to SpacePolicyOnline.com today, NASA said it appreciates the efforts of the Hewitt committee and its recognition of the progress NASA has made in meeting what was recommended in NWNH, but will wait to review the new recommendations before making any decisions about the future course of the programs.
“NASA appreciates the hard work that the Mid Term Review Committee did to produce this report. We are pleased that the Committee recognizes the progress that NASA has made in advancing the priorities of the Decadal Survey in a fiscally constrained environment. The Committee appropriately recognized that NASA has succeeded in maintaining a balanced program, while making substantial progress toward scientific investigations of all scales and over a broad range of astrophysics. The Committee has made a number of thoughtful recommendations, and NASA will review them before making any decisions about changing the planned program.”
Here is our list of space policy events for the next THREE weeks, August 15 - September 2, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate return for legislative business on September 6.
During the Weeks
As described in our July 31 and August 7 editions, there's quite a bit going on this month even though it should be vacation time. In addition to the events mentioned in those earlier issues -- including the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, AL (August 16-18), the NIAC symposium in Raleigh, NC (August 23-26), and the Maryland Space Business Roundtable luncheon in Greenbelt, MD with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (August 24) -- there has been one addition and one deletion over the past week for that time period. This edition also adds the week of August 29-September 2.
The deletion is the return-to-flight launch of Orbital ATK's Antares rocket that was scheduled for August 22. It has been postponed until the second half of September (date to be determined). The company said the delay was due to "a variety of interrelated factors" including continued processing, integration and testing of the re-engined rocket and the busy schedule aboard the International Space Station.
The addition is a NASA media briefing on August 17 to discuss the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission that is scheduled for launch on September 8. OSIRIS-REx is the entirely robotic science mission that will obtain a sample of asteroid Bennu and return it to Earth in 2023 for scientific studies, not the Asteroid Redirect Mission that uses a robotic spacecraft to move part of an asteroid to lunar orbit where astronauts will obtain a sample and return it to Earth in the mid-2020s as part of NASA's effort to send people to Mars. For the curious, OSIRIS-REx's full name is the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer.
The week added in this version of "What's Happening" includes meetings of two panels of the ongoing Earth Science and Applications from Space (ESAS) Decadal Survey conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. This is the second ESAS Decadal Survey by the Academies. The first was released in 2007. Decadal Surveys are conducted every 10 years (hence "Decadal") for each of NASA's space and earth science disciplines (other agencies may be involved, too), so this one is due to be completed next year. It has a steering committee and five panels on specific aspects of the topic. The two that are meeting within this period of time are solid earth (August 30-31) in Washington, DC, and hydrology (September 1-2) in Irvine CA. The ESAS steering committee is co-chaired by Waleed Abdalati, University of Colorado-Boulder, and Bill Gail, Global Weather Corporation. Again for the curious, the full name of the solid earth panel is Earth Surface and Interior: Dynamics and Hazards panel, which is co-chaired by Douglas Burbank, UC Santa Barbara and David Sandwell, Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Hydrology is formally the Global Hydrological Cycles and Water Resources Panel and is co- chaired by Ana Barros, Duke University, and Jeff Dozier, UC Santa Barbara.
The full list of upcoming events for the next three weeks is shown below. Keep checking back to see additions that we learn about later and add to our Events of List interest (or those that get postponed).
Monday, August 15
Tuesday-Wednesday, August 16-17
Tuesday-Thursday, August 16-18
Wednesday, August 17
Thursday, August 18
Friday, August 19
Tuesday-Thursday, August 23-25
Wednesday, August 24
Tuesday-Wednesday, August 30-31
Thursday-Friday, September 1-2
Here is our list of space policy events for the next THREE weeks, August 8-26, 2016, and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in recess until September 6.
During the Weeks
It may be the dog days of August, but after a one-week respite, there's a lot happening, starting with the Small Satellite Conference in Utah. It actually began yesterday with a 2-day pre-conference workshop that is being livestreamed. It's not clear from the meeting's website whether the Monday-Thursday sessions also will be available that way. Lots of creative ideas will be discussed, no doubt, at this, its 30th anniversary. Jeff Foust (@jeff_foust) from Space News is on site tweeting if there's no livestream or you don't have time to listen in.
Last week we laid out all the meetings through August 19 that we knew about at the time. They are all still posted on our Events of Interest list and in the summary below. In this section, we will focus on August 22-26, a week that wasn't included last time.
At the top of the list is the scheduled return to flight of Orbital ATK's Antares rocket on August 22 from Wallops Island, VA. It's a daytime launch (5:59 pm ET) so won't be as visible from surrounding areas as the night launches, but still could be viewable from the D.C. area (depending on the weather). Orbital ATK often posts maps of where to look and we will add links to them to our calendar entry when they're available. As anyone who follows space launches knows, plans can always change for technical or weather reasons. We'll update our calendar entry with any news we get. (Orbital ATK will discuss its 2Q 2016 financial results this Wednesday; more information may be provided at that time.) This is the first flight of the re-engined Antares (now using new Russian RD-181s instead of refurbished Russian NK-33/AJ26s) following the October 28, 2014 failure. Orbital ATK has launched two Cygnus cargo spacecraft on United Launch Alliance Atlas V rockets in the meantime. They were designated OA-4 and OA-6; this one is OA-5 and, as one may guess, was originally intended to launch in between those two, but was delayed.
If the Small Satellite Conference piques your curiosity with all those new ideas, another place to hear fresh views is the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) symposium. It will be held August 23-25 in Raleigh, NC and will be livestreamed.
On August 24, the Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR) is hosting a luncheon with Rep. Chris Van Hollen that may be particularly interesting. He is widely expected to succeed Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who is retiring at the end of this year. Van Hollen won the Democratic primary (against Rep. Donna Edwards) earlier this year. He faces Republican Kathy Szeliga in November, but Democrats have held both Maryland Senate seats since 1986 and therefore is expected to win. His views on the space program are not well known, so this will give the space community an opportunity to hear directly from him. Mikulski is one of NASA's biggest supporters in Congress, especially for earth science and other programs executed at Goddard Space Flight Center, so the extent to which her successor shares those views is important. Whatever his views, though, he'll be a freshman in a system that thrives on seniority and it will take some time before he can attain Mikulski's influence, especially on the all-important Senate Appropriations Committee. She chaired the committee when Democrats controlled the Senate and is now the top Democrat there. (For those interested in such matters, usually the highest ranking committee or subcommittee member of the party that is not in power is referred to as the "ranking member." On Senate Appropriations, though, it has become common to designate that person as the "vice chairman" or "vice chairwoman" in a nod to bipartisanship, so Mikulski is currently vice chairwoman of the committee.)
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday (August 7) morning are shown below. Check back throughout the weeks for events that we learn about later and add to the Events of Interest list.
Saturday-Thursday, August 6-11
Monday-Tuesday, August 8-9
Tuesday, August 9
Wednesday, August 10
Thursday-Friday, August 11-12
Monday, August 15
Tuesday-Wednesday, August 16-17
Tuesday-Thursday, August 16-18
Thursday, August 18
Friday, August 19
Monday, August 22
Tuesday-Thursday, August 23-25
Wednesday, August 24
Note: This article was updated to add the August 19 spacewalk and the preview press conference on August 15. It was later corrected with the name of Van Hollen's Republican opponent, who is Kathy Szeliga, not Katie McGinty.
Here is our list of space policy events for the next THREE weeks, August 1-19, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in recess until September 6.
During the Weeks
Whew! The conventions are over. Congress is in recess. It's vacation time! For one week, at least.
There is nothing on our space policy events calendar for this week, though we are keeping an eye on NASA to see if they issue an announcement about the results of the July 15 Key Decision Point-B (KDP-B) review of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier said at a NASA Advisory Council meeting last week that the decision memorandum would be out this week or next. He said that cost growth in the program was forcing NASA to decide whether to accept the increased cost estimate or reduce program content to keep it at the originally promised $1.25 billion level.
Apart from that, one has to look all the way to Saturday for the next event of interest -- the annual Small Satellite Conference at Utah State University. This is USU's 30th conference on a topic that is all the rage today, but three decades ago was of only modest interest. It is aptly entitled "Pioneering an Industry."
Also of special interest during this time period is a presentation by the European Union's (EU's) Jean-Luc Bald, First Secretary for Space for the EU's delegation to the United States. He will speak at an International Space University-DC alumni chapter "space cafe" on August 9. (Note the new location for these ISU-DC space cafes -- Brixton, 901 U Street, NW -- instead of The Science Club on 19th Street, which closed in March.) Inquiring minds want to know what if any aerospace-related impact will result from the United Kingdom's decision to leave the EU, including future UK participation in EU space programs (Galileo and Copernicus). Should be an interesting conversation.
Personally we're feeling a little overdosed with NASA advisory committee meetings after last week, but for those who can't get enough, the NAC Heliophysics Committee meets August 8-9 at NASA HQ in Washington and the Outer Planets Assessment Group will get together in Flagstaff August 11-12. The heliophysics meeting will be available remotely through WebEx/telecom; the OPAG website doesn't say one way or the other. Also on the planetary science side of things, the National Academies study committee that's reviewing NASA's Planetary Science Division's new Research & Analysis (R&A) structure holds its second meeting on August 16-18. It will be at the Keck Center in Washington, DC.
On a completely different front, the annual Space & Missile Defense Conference in Huntsville is coming up August 16-18. There is a resurgence of interest (in Congress, at least) in using space-based weapons platforms as part of a layered ballistic missile defense (BMD) system. Last year's National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 114-92, Sec. 1685)) required the Director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) to begin concept definition of a "space-based ballistic missile intercept layer" providing a "boost-phase layer for missile defense" or "additional defensive options against direct ascent anti-satellite weapons, hypersonic glide vehicles, and maneuvering reentry vehicles." The House and Senate Armed Services Committees (HASC and SASC) doubled down on that in this year's bill (H.R. 4909/S. 2943). The House version, for example, requires the MDA Director to begin planning "for concept definition, design, research, development, engineering evaluation and test of a space-based ballistic missile intercept and defeat layer" and "for the research, development, test and evaluation activities with respect to a space test bed for a missile interceptor capability." The idea of space-based BMD weapons platforms was studied extensively during the Reagan Administration's "Star Wars" era, but cost and technical feasibility issues moved them to the back burner. The Obama Administration is not persuaded that much has changed. It issued a veto threat against H.R. 4909 and that provision was cited as one of the reasons. In any case, the Huntsville conference could be particularly interesting this year. MDA Director VADM James Syring will speak on Wednesday morning (August 17). There's no indication if it will be livestreamed.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning, July 31, are shown below. Check back throughout the weeks for other events we learn about later and add to the Events of Interest list.
Saturday-Thursday, August 6-11
Monday-Tuesday, August 8-9
Tuesday, August 9
Thursday-Friday, August 11-12
Tuesday-Wednesday, August 16-17
Tuesday-Thursday, August 16-18
Thursday, August 18
In a pair of new reports, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warns about the costs and schedules for NASA's Space Launch System (SLS), Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) and Orion spacecraft, the three components of its Exploration Systems Development program. SLS and EGS cost and schedule reserves are low enough to imperil the November 2018 commitment date for the SLS first launch, GAO concludes in one report. In the other, it asserts that cost and schedule estimates for Orion failed to meet more than half of the "best practices" for creating such estimates, making them unreliable.
In the first report, NASA Human Space Exploration: Opportunity Nears to Reassess Launch Vehicle and Ground Systems Cost and Schedule, GAO looked at two components of the program: SLS and EGS. The latter are the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center needed to support SLS and Orion. The congressional watchdog agency is primarily concerned with cost and schedule reserves to deal with known and unknown risks as the programs move forward.
The SLS program "has not positioned itself well to provide accurate assessments of core stage progress--including forecasting impending schedule delays, cost overruns, and anticipated costs at completion--because at the time of our review it did not anticipate having the baseline to support full reporting on the core stage contract until summer 2016--some 4.5 years after NASA awarded the contract."
As for EGS, constrained cost and schedule reserves threaten the November 2018 launch readiness goal and a scheduled integrated design review (IDR) will "have limited discussion of cost and schedule." GAO recommended that NASA "reevaluate cost and schedule reserves" as part of the IDR. The GAO report was released July 27, but apparently was written earlier since it refers to the IDR, scheduled for June 2016, as planned for the future.
A separate "build-to-synchronization" review of how all three elements of the program -- SLS, Orion and EGS --will come together for the first launch, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), is planned for the summer of 2016 and GAO wants NASA to use that as an opportunity to realistically assess whether November 2018 is achievable. "NASA does not have to meet a specific schedule window for its launch date as it often does with planetary missions. As a result, NASA is in the position of being able to make an informed decision about what is a realistic launch readiness date."
The second report, Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle: Action Needed to Improve Visibility into Cost, Schedule, and Capacity to Resolve Technical Challenges, concludes that NASA's cost and schedule estimates for the Orion program are "not reliable based on best practices for producing high quality estimates."
"GAO found that the Orion cost estimate met or substantially met 7 of 20 best practices and its schedule estimate met or substantially met 1 of 8 best practices. For example, the cost estimate lacked necessary support and the schedule estimate did not include the level of detail required for high quality estimates."
EM-1 will launch an uncrewed version of Orion. The first Orion with a crew is scheduled for EM-2. NASA provided cost and schedule estimates for Orion following its Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C) review last year, a milestone at which the agency commits to a baseline cost and schedule against which the program will be measured by Congress and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). KDP-C reviews use a Joint Confidence Level (JCL) process to set the cost and schedule with a 70 percent confidence level meaning there is a 70 percent chance that it will come in on that cost and schedule and a 30 percent chance that it will not.
Following the KDP-C review, NASA committed to launching EM-2 in April 2023, a 20-month slip from its original plan, with a cost estimate of $11.3 billion. It was the JCL used for the KDP-C review that GAO found did not meet many of the best practices needed for reliable estimates.
Although NASA committed to launching EM-2 in 2023, the agency continues to work towards an internal deadline of August 2021, the original date, with a cost estimate of $10.8 billion. GAO reports that cost and schedule estimate has only a 40 percent confidence level and NASA is focused on it despite NASA's own policy "that funding for program internal goals ... in no case [be] less than the equivalent of a 50 percent confidence level." In addition, NASA is requesting funding at the level to meet the April 2023 date and relying "on Congress to appropriate more funds than requested to stay on its internal Orion schedule" which may be "unrealistic."
GAO cites a number of challenges facing the Orion program, including late delivery of the spacecraft's Service Module for EM-1 (the uncrewed test flight), which is being provided by the European Space Agency (ESA), and notes that formal agreement has not yet been reached with ESA on the Service Module for EM-2. ESA is providing the EM-1 Service Module not under contract to NASA, but as part of a barter arrangement involving the NASA-ESA partnership in the International Space Station program. The EM-2 Service Module is an option under the barter arrangement, but formal agreement is not expected until December 2016. Orion program officials are tracking the EM-2 service module "as one of the largest cost risks facing the program," potentially $200 million, GAO asserts.
Other risks in the Orion program are the use of Orbital Maneuvering System engines from the space shuttle program that need to be re-qualified since the Orion operating environment is quite different from the shuttle's; heatshield design; software development and testing; a "bow wave" of deferred work; and potential cost overruns by Orion's prime contractor, Lockheed Martin. GAO states the prime contractor is "falling behind schedule, and work is costing more than originally estimated." GAO concluded that Orion "faces a potential cost overrun of between $258 million and $707 million through the end of the current contract in December 2020," although Orion program officials told GAO there are sufficient reserves to cover that cost growth. GAO warns, however, that some of those reserves may be needed to cover cost growth from other risks.
GAO recommended that NASA update its JCL analysis using best practices and perform an analysis of the cost of deferred work. In written comments included in the report, NASA responded that it regularly reviews Orion performance metrics and an updated JCL analysis is not warranted, but agreed to look at the cost of deferred work.
A recent Senate committee hearing focused on how to ensure that the human spaceflight program avoids another dramatic change when a new President takes office next year as it did in 2009. While most of the hearing dealt with maintaining the status quo amid political change, one witness, Mike Gold of SSL, looked more to the future and the need for a synergistic relationship between government and private sector space activities.
The hearing before the Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on July 13 was chaired by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). This was only the third space hearing he had called since becoming subcommittee chairman last year. SpacePolicyOnline.com summarized his February 24, 2015 hearing on human spaceflight and commercial space and his March 12, 2015 hearing on NASA's FY2016 budget request.
Joining him were the top Democrat on the subcommittee, Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), the top Democrat on the full committee Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and subcommittee member Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), who introduced Gold, a Montana native.
Peters and Nelson explicitly said they want to pass a new NASA authorization bill before the end of the Congress, and Cruz inferred it by saying that the subcommittee wants to provide NASA with security and stability and he would work with Peters to achieve that. Nelson made clear that he wants to extend the lifetime of the International Space Station (ISS) to the end of the decade, instead of the current U.S. commitment of 2024.
The last NASA authorization bill was passed in 2010. Its policy provisions remain in force, but its funding recommendations covered only through FY2013. The House passed a bipartisan 2015 NASA authorization bill by voice vote in February 2015, but the Senate has not taken it up or introduced an alternative. (A 2016-2017 NASA authorization act was approved by the House Science, Space, and Technology committee on a party-line vote last year; no further action has occurred.)
One known area of disagreement between Republicans and Democrats is NASA’s earth science program. Democrats strongly support it while Republicans argue that NASA should focus on exploration and other agencies should be responsible for studying Earth. Time is running short for passing anything other than appropriations bills, but if all parties on both sides of Capitol Hill can reach agreement, it is certainly possible to get a bill passed by the end of the year.
The goal of passing a bill that codifies congressional intent on the future of the human spaceflight program is to try and avoid the disruption that occurred when President Obama cancelled the George W. Bush Administration's Constellation program to return humans to the Moon by 2020 and then go on to Mars. Cruz wanted to know what lessons were learned from the cancellation of Constellation and the consequences if the current Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion programs were similarly cancelled.
Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, emphasized that the situation today is quite different because so much progress has been made on SLS and Orion, which are only two years away from their first launch. Cancelling them would have the same "dire" effect as terminating Constellation. "There's a passion that sits below us and when you cancel a program ... for seemingly a trivial reason, that is very devastating to our workforce and that can have huge implications to this nation, to our culture, to our psyche, and to our world leadership.”
Constellation was cancelled for complex political and budgetary reasons that few in the space policy community would characterize as trivial, but he may have been expressing his perception of the workforce’s viewpoint. In any case, he said he hopes the situation is not repeated.
Mary Lynne Dittmar, Executive Director of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, cautioned against the negative consequences of cancelling programs for companies, especially small businesses. A lack of “constancy of purpose” could “kill small companies,” many of which are members of the Coalition, she said. Purdue University Professor Dan Dumbacher, a former NASA deputy associate administrator for exploration, similarly called for “continuity of purpose and execution” in order to “avoid loss of momentum.”
Mark Sirangleo, Vice President, Space Systems Group at Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) praised the public-private partnership (PPP) model that NASA is using for the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs. Although SNC did not win one of the two commercial crew contracts (SpaceX and Boeing were the winners), its Dream Chaser spacecraft did recently win one of three CRS2 commercial cargo contracts (along with SpaceX and Orbital ATK).
Gold, who spent a decade as head of Washington operations for Bigelow Aerospace before moving to SSL earlier this year, went further in his enthusiasm for the PPP model and using it to transform low Earth orbit (LEO). “The future of LEO remains squarely on the shoulders of the private sector,” he argued, since the government is unlikely to build a replacement for the ISS. The challenge is to create private sector demand. He believes the solution is in-orbit satellite manufacturing and satellite servicing. The geostationary communications satellite industry is worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year, he said, so NASA and the private sector should “follow the money.” “The primitive days of building a satellite, launching it, and throwing away a piece of hardware worth hundreds of millions of dollars simply because it ran out of fuel is coming to an end.”
When asked if the private sector should be in charge of developing new rockets like SLS instead of the government, he argued that it is not an either-or situation. There is synergy between the two and SLS is a case in point, opening up “all kinds of opportunities for the private sector” in cis-lunar space, for example.
In the shorter term, keeping SLS and Orion on track during the presidential transition was a major theme for the subcommittee and other witnesses. Gerstenmaier pleaded that Congress avoid “overly specifying requirements” and allow technical experts to determine how best to achieve the goal of moving human presence into the solar system. Dumbacher quipped that there are two problems to overcome – gravity and red tape – and gravity can be solved.
Gerstenmaier strongly defended the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as an “excellent” way to demonstrate and learn the skills needed to send crews to Mars.
As the hearing concluded, Nelson asked Gerstenmaier what lessons were learned from the Orbital ATK and SpaceX commercial cargo failures in 2014 and 2015 respectively. Gerstenmaier responded that he learned how quickly the private sector can react and find solutions. Orbital ATK found an alternative launch service provider (United Launch Alliance) to continue launching its Cygnus cargo spacecraft while it solved the problem with the Antares rocket. SpaceX diagnosed the problem with its Falcon 9 rocket and was in a test facility to verify it within two days. That was “faster than I could have ever done.. …It would have been half a year” to get the contracts and test sequence in place. “I think what we really learned is that the private sector, if we give them the right incentives and we have the contracting structures set up, they can deliver the capabilities that we, at NASA, need in a very effective manner.”
Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of July 25-29, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in recess until September 6.
During the Week
Nationally, the big event this week is the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Not much is expected in the realm of space policy, although former astronaut Mark Kelly will speak on Wednesday. He will appear with his wife, former Rep. Gabby Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt in 2011. They have become leaders in the gun control movement and that is expected to be the focus of their presentation, not the space program (but one never knows). None of the congressional Democrats with leading roles in space policy are on the speakers list as of today (Sunday), although Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) will be there. He represents the district that includes the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena and is known as a strong supporter of JPL programs, but he no longer serves on the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA. He moved over to the Intelligence Committee and his comments are more likely to focus on those issues. The latest version (July 21) of the 51-page Democratic party platform has one paragraph about NASA that expresses pride in what it has accomplished and promises to "strengthen support for NASA and work in partnership with the international scientific community to launch new missions into space." We didn't see anything about either commercial or national security space activities in the document.
Within the space policy community, the focus this week will be meetings of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and its committees all week. The meetings are at the Ohio Aerospace Center in Cleveland, but will be available by WebEx and telecon for those who cannot attend in person. This will be the first NAC meeting since Steve Squyres stepped down as chair. Former astronaut Ken Bowersox has been appointed the interim chair. He had been chairing the NAC Human Exploration and Operations (NAC/HEO) Committee and Wayne Hale has been appointed to fill that position.
The NAC/HEO committee meets tomorrow and Tuesday. Michele Gates, program director for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) is on the schedule for 2:30 pm ET tomorrow (Monday) to give an update on ARM, which just went through one of its milestone reviews -- Key Decision Point-B or KDP-B -- on July 15 to determine whether the project is ready to move into Phase B. [A description of KDPs and project phases is in the NASA Procedural Requirements (NPR) 7120 document for those keenly interested in NASA program management.] NASA has not made any announcement about what transpired at the KDP-B review. We were told nothing would be out until this coming week, so hopefully Gates will provide that information.
The other NAC committees/task groups meet Monday-Wednesday in advance of the full NAC meeting Thursday and Friday. Always interesting to listen to if you have the time.
AIAA's Propulsion and Energy Conference is also on tap this week in Salt Lake City, Utah. Great line-up of sessions and speakers. Winner for cleverest title in our view is "Launch Vehicle Reusability: Holy Grail, Chasing Our Tail, or Somewhere in Between?" The conference will be livestreamed. Remember that Utah is in the Mountain Daylight Time (MDT) zone, which is two hours behind Eastern Daylight Time (i.e. 9:00 am MDT is 11:00 am EDT).
Those events and others we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week for additions to the Events of Interest that we learn about later. For convenience, we're grouping all the NAC meetings together rather than listing them day-by-day. They are listed separately in our Events of Interest list.
NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and its subgroups, Monday-Friday, July 25-29, all at Ohio Aerospace Institute, Cleveland, Ohio and available by WebEx/telecon
Monday-Tuesday, July 25-26
Monday-Wednesday, July 25-27
Monday-Thursday, July 25-28
Tuesday, July 26
Tuesday-Friday, July 26-29
The international Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) has cancelled its biennial conference for this year, which was scheduled to take place in Istanbul, Turkey from July 30-August 7. COSPAR President Lennard Fisk called it a "difficult and sad decision," but the wise course of action following this weekend's attempted coup.
COSPAR was created in 1958 as part of the International Council for Science (formerly the International Council of Scientific Unions). It holds a "scientific assembly" every two years that brings together the world's top space scientists who share and discuss their recent discoveries and future plans. The 2014 COSPAR meeting was in Russia (Moscow) and the 2018 COSPAR meeting will be in the United States (Pasadena). The Space Studies Board (SSB) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine is the U.S. national committee to COSPAR.
Fisk is the first American to serve as COSPAR President. A Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan, he is a former SSB chairman and former NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science and Applications.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden decided on June 21 to cancel all NASA-sponsored travel to the Istanbul conference because of security concerns based on a travel advisory from the State Department that restricted official travel to "mission critical" tasks. At the time, similar advisories (alerts and warnings) were in effect for a significant number of other countries, and focused on concerns about the southeastern portion of Turkey. Istanbul is in the northwest. Under the circumstances at that time, Fisk expressed concern that NASA's action was sending the wrong messages about responding to terrorism and the importance of space science.
The situation has changed dramatically since then. On June 28, terrorists attacked the Istanbul airport. On July 15, an attempted coup occurred. Following the coup attempt, U.S. airlines now are prohibited from flying to or from the Istanbul and Ankara airports, and all airlines, regardless of country of registry, are prohibited from flying into the United States from Turkey either directly or via a third country.
In a statement on the COSPAR website, Fisk cited the coup attempt as the final straw in COSPAR's decision to cancel. "This is a difficult and sad decision, taken in consultation with the Executive Director of the COSPAR Secretariat and in consideration of the advice spontaneously expressed by several Bureau and Council members as well as COSPAR officers and Main Scientific event Organizers. It also reflects the sense of responsibilities of the President, Bureau and Secretariat of COSPAR."
He stressed that COSPAR had been trying to maintain the conference to reflect "our common intent to resist terrorism and our willingness to respect the efforts of the local organizer. But now, that is no longer possible. ... [I]t was our duty to try and maintain the Istanbul Assembly, notwithstanding the risks related to terrorism that can strike anywhere, as sadly demonstrated on 14 July in Nice (France), but also in the last few weeks in Orlando (USA), Dhaka (Bangladesh), Baghdad (Iraq), and other places. What happened on 15 July in Turkey is of a different nature" and makes the decision to cancel "the only wise one available."
The next COSPAR scientific assembly is scheduled for July 14-22, 2018 in Pasadena, CA, the home of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which manages many of NASA's space and earth science missions.
The State Department also has a travel advisory in effect for Mexico, including the state of Jalisco where Guadalajara -- the site of the September International Astronautical Conference (IAC) -- is located. When asked today whether NASA has any plans or expectations that travel will be prohibited to the IAC, NASA Associate Administrator for Communications David Weaver replied by email that "NASA fully intends to support this conference, but will continue to coordinate our presence in Mexico with the Department of State."
Updated to include the information that the State Department's advisory about Turkey in effect at the time of Administrator Bolden's decision, issued March 29, limited official travel to "mission critical" travel. It is interesting to note, however, that on June 27 (the day before the attack at the Istanbul airport), the State Department replaced its March 29 advisory with one that did not include the mission critical language and continued to focus on threats in southeastern Turkey. The latest advisory, following the coup attempt, referencing the airline restrictions, was issued July 16 and also omits the mission critical language.
Updated to add David Weaver's comments about the September IAC.