International Space News
NASA declined today (August 18) to confirm rumors that it will announce the winner(s) of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contract by the end of the month, but anticipation is mounting. Whenever it happens, it will be a major step forward for the commercial crew program and achieving the oft-stated goal of restoring America’s ability to launch American astronauts into space on American rockets from American soil.
A NASA spokesman replied to an email query this morning by saying only that NASA still expects to make an announcement in the late-August, early-September time frame, as it has been saying for months.
NASA officials are not allowed to discuss the selection process before announcing the award(s), even to say who submitted bids. Expectations are that at least the three companies being funded under the current phase of the program – Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) – did so.
Those three are SpaceX with its Dragon V2 spacecraft, Boeing with the CST-100, and Sierra Nevada with Dream Chaser. Dragon V2 would be launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Boeing and Sierra Nevada have been planning to use Atlas V rockets provided by the United Launch Alliance (ULA).
One goal of the commercial crew program is to end America’s dependence on Russia for crew access to the International Space Station (ISS) and all of the spacecraft are American-built. The Falcon 9 rocket is American-built. The Atlas V rocket, however, while manufactured in Alabama, is powered by Russian RD-180 engines, so whether it is “American” is a matter of opinion. In addition, the future availability of RD-180s -- and therefore of the Atlas V -- is now in question. The Obama Administration announced in January that it plans to keep the ISS operating until at least 2024 so whatever commercial crew services the companies plan to offer would need to extend to that time period. Department of Defense (DOD) officials acknowledged at a Senate hearing last month that it is time to build a U.S. alternative to the RD-180 because of the changed U.S.-Russia geopolitical environment. The Air Force hopes the RD-180 engines currently on order will be delivered, enabling routine Atlas V launches for several years, but that would not last through 2024. Boeing and Sierra Nevada thus would need an alternative. One possibility is ULA's Delta IV, which uses Aerojet Rocketdyne’s American-built RS-68 engine. The Delta IV is more expensive than Atlas V, though, which could change the cost assumptions of those bids.
How many companies will win is largely dependent on how much money NASA has to pay them. Although they are termed “commercial” efforts, in fact they rely on the government to pay a share of the development costs and to be a market for the services. For the current CCiCAP phase, NASA funded “2 ½” companies – two companies (SpaceX and Boeing) at the full amount they requested and one (Sierra Nevada) at half the amount.
NASA insists that it wants to be able to select at least two companies to continue into this final CCtCAP phase so that in the future it will have two competitors providing services to keep prices down. Congress has never provided NASA with the full amount of funding requested for the program, however. Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate repeatedly make clear that their priority is for NASA itself to build the big, new Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), not the commercial crew program to take them only to LEO and the ISS.
Some influential members of Congress appear to be warming up to commercial crew, perhaps because of the success of the commercial cargo program and the desire to end reliance on Russia. Through the Bush Administration’s commercial cargo initiative, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation developed new rockets (Falcon 9 and Antares) and spacecraft (Dragon and Cygnus) to take cargo to the ISS. NASA now purchases commercial cargo services from those two companies.
The Obama Administration decided to use the same approach, essentially a public-private partnership, to develop systems to take crews to and from the ISS after adopting the Bush Administration’s plan to terminate the space shuttle program once ISS construction was completed. The last space shuttle flight – and the last time America could launch humans into space – was in 2011. NASA has been purchasing crew transportation services from Russia since then at a cost of about $450 million a year.
Based on the FY2015 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill that passed the House and the version agreed to by the Senate Appropriations Committee, Congress plans to provide more for commercial crew than in the past, even if not the full request of $848 million. The House approved $785 million, while the Senate Appropriations Committee agreed to $805 million. Whether either amount is enough for NASA to make more than one CCtCAP award is a question that will be answered only when the announcement is made.
Not everyone in Congress has bought into commercial crew, however. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) is a determined advocate of SLS, which is being built in his state of Alabama, and a commercial crew skeptic. The top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee and its CJS subcommittee, he included language in the committee-approved version of NASA’s FY2015 appropriations bill that would require CCtCAP winners to abide by accounting requirements associated with cost-plus rather than fixed-price contracts. Opponents call it a “poison pill” because complying could cost a small company like SpaceX a lot of money because it does not have a cadre of personnel in place to handle the paperwork, unlike big companies like Boeing. Boeing and SpaceX are considered the two top contenders based on the CCiCAP awards.
That appropriations bill has not passed the Senate, but was briefly debated on the Senate floor in June. At the time, the White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy opposing the Shelby provision because the requirements are “unsuitable for a firm, fixed-price acquisition” and could increase cost and delay schedule.
Selecting the winner(s) of the CCtCAP awards before that appropriations bill or a Continuing Resolution that might include similar language passes Congress could be one motivation for NASA making its decision sooner rather than later.
The CCtCAP award(s) will bring the United States one step closer to once again launching people into space. When the Obama Administration initially proposed the commercial crew program in the FY2011 budget request, it anticipated systems would be ready by 2015, resulting in a four-year gap between the end of the shuttle and the availability of a replacement. That date has slipped to 2017, however, because it did not get the requisite funding. Some of the companies have indicated they could be ready sooner if more money was available, but NASA is planning on 2017. Until then, Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft is the only way for ISS crew members to travel back and forth.
UPDATE: We've added the Ancient Earth, Ancient Aliens event on August 20, which we just found out about..
Here is our list of space policy-related events for the next TWO weeks, August 18-29, 2014, and any insight we can offer about them. Congress returns on September 8.
During the Weeks
At last, things have quieted down for these last two weeks of August. Perhaps what is most interesting is what's NOT on the calendar -- two U.S. spacewalks from the ISS that were supposed to take place in addition to the Russian spacewalk tomorrow. NASA is still recovering from the alarming failure last summer when water filled Luca Parmitano's spacesuit helmet while he was out on a spacewalk. NASA determined that a blocked filter caused the problem and replaced the filters on the spacesuits and added other safety features, but still has not approved routine U.S. spacewalks. Only contingency spacewalks required to address specific issues are allowed. Two were scheduled for August 21 and August 29, but NASA postponed them because of concerns about the spacesuit batteries. The next SpaceX cargo resupply flight on September 19 will deliver replacements and the spacewalks will be rescheduled. NASA officials reportedly met last week to review whether to resume routine spacewalks, but the agency has not issued any press statements to that effect yet.
The Russians have their own spacesuits, Orlan, and are not affected by the concerns about the U.S. suits. Oleg Artemyev and Alexander Skvortsov will perform a 6.5 hour spacewalk -- or extravehicular activity (EVA) -- to retrieve two experiments on the exterior of the ISS and install two new ones, and deploy a nanosatellite. NASA TV coverage begins at 9:30 am ET.
That and other events during the next two weeks that we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below.
Monday, August 18
Tuesday, August 19
Wednesday, August 20
Monday-Wednesday, August 25-27
State Department official Frank Rose pressed the case yesterday that the Chinese conducted another antisatellite (ASAT) test on July 23. This is only the second time the U.S. Government has accused China of conducting an ASAT test -- other analysts insist there have been others -- and Rose's comments reemphasized a statement released by the State Department on July 25 perhaps to raise the visibility of the U.S. government's concern.
The July 25 statement from the State Department asserted that China conducted a non-destructive ASAT test on July 23 and called on China to "refrain from destabilizing actions." China announced it was a missile intercept test.
Rose said yesterday at U.S. Strategic Command's Deterrence Symposium that "Despite China's claims that this was not an ASAT test; let me assure you the United States has high confidence in its assessment, that the event was indeed an ASAT test." Russia also has ASAT weapons, he continued, citing congressional testimony by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Rose, who is Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, said ASAT systems are "both destabilizing and threaten the long-term security and sustainability of the outer space environment."
Rose's remarks then returned to the familiar themes that space is congested and contested and in need of voluntary, non-legally binding Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs) such as those to which China and Russia agreed last year through the United Nations (U.N.) Group of Governmental Experts (GGE). He also cited the "important multilateral initiative" being pursued through development of an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities as well as efforts within the U.N. Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.
The key point was his public, official insistence that China conducted another ASAT test. There is no disagreement that China conducted an ASAT test in 2007, destroying one of its own satellites and earning international condemnation because of the resulting cloud of orbital debris that will imperil satellites in low Earth orbit indefinitely. China conducted "missile intercept" tests in 2010 and 2013 that some Western analysts also assert were ASAT tests, but the U.S. Government has not publicly placed them in that category. This is only the second time that the U.S. Government has accused China of an ASAT test. Rose allowed that this was a "non-destructive" test even though the rest of his comments stressed the grave consequences of debris-generating ASAT systems.
The United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced today (August 12) that Lockheed Martin's Tory Bruno is replacing Michael Gass as its President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO), effective immediately. Gass has been President and CEO since ULA was created in 2006. ULA said the two men would work "collaboratively to ensure a smooth transition."
ULA is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing that builds and launches the Delta and Atlas rockets. Gass has an extensive career in the launch vehicle business, but that business is changing with the entrance of SpaceX's Falcon 9 into the marketplace and deteriorating geopolitical relationships between the United States and Russia that pose challenges for ULA's acquisition of the Russian RD-180 rocket engines that power the Atlas V. The announcement said that he is retiring.
Bruno comes to his new job from serving as vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin Strategic and Missile Defense Systems. Both men won praise from Lockheed Martin and Boeing executives in today's press release. Lockheed Martin's Rick Ambrose pointed out that "Mike's track record speaks for itself: 86 successful launches in a row." As for Bruno, Ambrose called him "an ideal leader to take the reins of ULA" who will "apply his proven track record of driving customer focus, innovation and affordability to shape ULA's future." Boeing's Craig Cooning expressed gratitude for Gass's leadership and said Bruno is "well-qualified to ensure ULA keeps pace with changing customer needs and launch industry dynamics."
ULA recently initiated a marketing campaign focusing on ULA's reliability and experience in launching satellites, especially for national security purposes. It is getting ready to launch a commercial satellite, Worldview-3, tomorrow and conducted two successful launches -- AFSPC-4 and a GPS navigation satellite -- in one week in late July-early August.
But SpaceX is nipping at its heels, accusing the Air Force of illegally awarding a sole-source contract to ULA last year. The case is pending before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. Pressure is building to allow "new entrants" like SpaceX to compete for government launches to reduce launch costs.
Editor's note: The ULA press release states that Bruno was most recently "vice president and general manager" of Lockheed Martin Strategic and Missile Defense Systems. However, his LinkedIn profile states that he is President of that part of the company.
The Space Data Association (SDA) has reached a data sharing agreement with U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) to enhance space situational awareness. SDA's members include several of the world's major commercial satellite operators who share certain data with each other to avoid in-orbit collisions. USSTRATCOM is the first non-satellite operator to sign an agreement with the group.
SDA was founded by three of the largest commercial communications satellite operators -- Intelsat, Inmarsat and SES -- after the 2009 collision between an operating Iridium communications satellite (Iridium 33) and a defunct Russian military communications satellite (Cosmos 2251). The collision added to the population of space debris in low Earth orbit, which had increased significantly two years earlier following a Chinese antisatellite (ASAT) test that created about 3,000 pieces of debris.
The Chinese ASAT test and the Iridium-Cosmos collision raised the profile of the problems posed by space debris and the need for countries and companies to work together to ensure that Earth orbit will remain usable in the future. Space Situational Awareness (SSA) refers to the goal of knowing where everything is in Earth orbit and where it's going. (Some definitions add the goal of knowing what each satellite is doing). It is one element of President Obama's 2010 National Space Policy.
SDA created a mechanism for its members to share data on the locations of their satellites and any plans to reposition them that avoids revealing sensitive information yet contributes to SSA and the broader goal of "space sustainability." For several years it has been seeking agreement with the Department of Defense to access data from the Joint Space Operations Center (JSPoC), which tracks objects in Earth orbit for the U.S. government, predicts when they will decay from orbit, and conducts "conjunction analyses" to determine if a collision is likely. JSPoC is part of the Joint Functional Component Command for Space (JFCC Space) under USSTRATCOM. It is currently tracking more than 17,000 objects in Earth orbit of which approximately 4,000 are functioning payloads or satellites, 2,000 are rocket bodies, and 11,000 are debris/inactive satellites according to its space-track.org website.
In addition to concern about physical collisions between space objects, there is growing concern about electromagnetic interference (EMI) and radiofrequency interference (RFI), particularly intentional jamming of satellite frequencies by countries that object to certain programming or otherwise choose to interfere with the transmissions.
SDA called the agreement a "critical milestone" that allows the two organizations to formally collaborate on SSA issues including EMI and RFI. The agreement creates "a framework to exchange data," SDA President Ron Busch said in an August 8 press release, and is an acknowledgment by USSTRATCOM that "collaboration can enhance" SSA.
The Secure World Foundation (SWF) is a champion of SSA and space sustainability. Brian Weeden, SWF's technical advisor and a former Air Force officer who worked at JSPoC, said via email that "This agreement could be a major step forward, but as always the devil is in the details and right now we don't have many details."
SDA announced the agreement in a press release; USSTRATCOM does not appear to have made a public announcement.
China plans to launch a robotic spacecraft soon that will test technologies needed to return a lunar sample to Earth. It did not announce the name of the spacecraft, but said it would be launched by the end of this year.
China laid out its robotic lunar exploration program several years ago. All the spacecraft are named after Chang'e, China's mythological goddess of the Moon. Three already have been launched: Chang'e-1 (2007) and Chang'e-2 (2010) were orbiters; Chang'e-3 (2013) is a lander/rover combination (the rover, Yutu, did not function as planned).
The next in that series, Chang'e-4, originally was described as a backup for Chang'e-3, but China now says it will verify technologies for the Chang'e-5 robotic sample return mission. Chang'e-4 presumably is still planned for launch in 2015, though little is said about it in recent Chinese accounts. As recently as March 2014, China was saying Chang'e-5, the robotic sample return mission, would launch in 2017, but in August China's official Xinhua news service said it would launch "around 2020." It will use China's new Long March 5 rocket. The rocket and its launch site on Hainan Island are both still in development.
Yesterday, Xinhua revealed plans to launch a "recoverable lunar orbiter" by the end of this year that will test capabilities to return a spacecraft to Earth in preparation for Chang'e-5. This spacecraft, which apparently will not carry the Chang'e designation, arrived at China's Xichang launch site on Sunday (Beijng time). Xinhua said it is a "test model" that will test technologies "vital" to Chang'e-5's success.
Bob Christy at zarya.info calls it an engineering test for components of a sample return mission, including a prototype reentry vehicle, and a "full command and control 'dress rehearsal' for Chang'e 5 in 2017 including setting up the Earthbound trajectory, conducting mid-course corrections, tracking, re-entry and vehicle recovery." He anticipates launch in early November, perhaps November 1.
Here is our list of space policy-related events for August 11-15, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them. Congress will return on September 8.
During the Week
Lots going on this week, even though it's August and everyone should be on vacation or getting the kids ready to go back to school (smile)! Tough to say what's of greatest interest. The Comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) workshop is definitely on the list. (Siding Spring is the name of the observatory in Australia where the comet was discovered.)Thanks to the organizers for arranging for it to be livestreamed so anyone can tune in. The comet will fly within 130,000 kilometers of the Martian surface on October 19 and spacecraft in orbit around or on the surface of Mars should be able to get a close look and the workshop is to discuss those opportunities. Not TOO close of course! There's a bit of concern that systems on orbiting spacecraft could potentially be damaged by the comet's dust. NASA's Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter are in orbit already along with ESA's Mars Express. NASA's newest Mars probe, MAVEN, will arrive just before the comet, as will India's Mars Orbiting Mission (MOM). NASA already has been adjusting the orbits of its spacecraft so they will be on the opposite side of Mars during the 20 minute period when the dust is expected to be most intense.
Michael Lopez-Alegria's talk at the ISU-DC Space Café on Tuesday evening also should be good. A former astronaut, he has been President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) for the past two years and is about to move on to new horizons. His insights comparing the commercial and government space sectors and dealing with the White House and Congress should be thought provoking.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Monday, August 11
Monday-Tuesday, August 11-12
Monday-Thursday, August 11-14
Tuesday, August 12
Wednesday-Thursday, August 13-14
NASA is postponing two U.S. spacewalks planned for August 21 and August 29 because of concerns about fuses in the batteries used in the U.S. spacesuits. A Russian spacewalk remains on track for August 18.
New Long Life Batteries for the U.S. spacesuits are to be delivered to the International Space Station (ISS) on the next SpaceX Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission -- SpaceX CRS-4 -- in September. NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman said in an interview broadcast on NASA TV that although he is "a little sad" the spacewalks were postponed, it is OK because "when I go out the door I want [the spacesuit] to be in a good clean configuration." Wiseman also will replace a fan pump separator in one of the U.S. spacesuits next week. A malfunctioning fan pump separator caused a dramatic end to a July 16, 2013 spacewalk when ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano's helmet filled with water.
Wiseman and NASA astronaut Steve Swanson were scheduled to conduct the August 21 spacewalk. Their tasks are to replace a failed Sequential Shunt in order to recover full power-generating capacity on the ISS and to reposition TV external camera equipment. Wiseman and ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst were on tap for the August 29 spacewalk to transfer a failed pump module from a temporary to a permanent stowage location and to install a "Mobile Transporter Relay Assembly that will add capability to the 'keep alive' power to the Mobile Servicing System when the Mobile Transporter is moving between worksites." NASA said that postponing the spacewalks will not affect day-to-day ISS operations.
Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev will proceed with their own spacewalk, using Russia's Orlan spacesuits, on August 18. They will deploy a nanosatellite, install two experiment packages and retrieve two others. NASA TV will provide coverage of that spacewalk beginning at 10:00 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).
NASA’s International Sun/Earth Explorer-3 (ISEE-3) will return to the Earth’s vicinity tomorrow (Sunday, August 10), after more than 30 years of zipping through space. The ISEE-3 Reboot Project and its partner Google launched a new website yesterday to explain the mission and its future as a “citizen science” project. They and NASA will hold a Google+ Hangout on Sunday to discuss ISEE-3’s new lease on life.
ISEE-3 will loop around the Moon at 2:16 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) on Sunday before continuing its orbit around the Sun. The Google+ hangout featuring NASA, Google and ISEE-3 Reboot Project representatives begins at 1:30 pm EDT.
As graphically illustrated on the new website, ISEE-3 has followed a complicated orbital trajectory since its launch in 1978. Originally part of a trio of spacecraft (ISEE-1, -2, and -3) designed to study interactions between Earth and the solar wind, ISEE-3 was initially placed into a position between the Earth and the Sun to alert its two earth-orbiting companions that a solar event occurred. ISEE-3’s location was the L-1 Sun-Earth Lagrange point where the gravitational forces of the Earth and Sun are in balance. It was the first spacecraft to be placed into that Sun-Earth L1 location, which since has been used for many spacecraft that study solar-terrestrial interactions.
The first reinvention of ISEE-3’s mission occurred in the early 1980s when a small group of scientists and engineers decided that it should be redirected from Sun-Earth L1 to intercept Comet Giacobini-Zinner. At the time, the United States had decided it could not afford to build a spacecraft to visit legendary Halley’s Comet as it approached the Sun in 1986 although the Soviet Union, Europe and Japan all were sending probes.
The group, including Bob Farquhar who has written a book that includes the history of the fractious decision-making process involved, did not want the United States to be left out of those early days of comet research and identified Giacobini-Zinner as a target that ISEE-3 could reach before the other probes reached Halley’s Comet. Indeed, in September 1985, ISEE-3, redesignated the International Cometary Explorer (ICE), flew through the tail of Giacobini-Zinner, winning the title of the first spacecraft to encounter a comet.
Since then, the spacecraft has been travelling through space on its predetermined orbit that, thanks to the laws of physics, brings it back to Earth’s vicinity on August 10, 2014. Working with Farquhar and others, Keith Cowing of NASAWatch and Dennis Wingo of Skycorp created the ISEE-3 Reboot Project as a “citizen science” effort, raising about $160,000 through a crowdsourcing campaign to build the equipment needed to communicate with the aged spacecraft. The goal was to reestablish communications and, if all went well, redirect the spacecraft onto a trajectory to begin a new scientific mission.
The group successfully reestablished communications with ISEE-3 and obtained NASA permission to command the spacecraft, but its propulsion system is not functioning. Physics will keep the spacecraft on its current trajectory and it will return to Earth’s vicinity again in about 15 years.
Meanwhile, though, with communications restored, it can send back data from whatever scientific instruments are still functioning. Receivers on Earth will be able to pick up the data for about the next year before ISEE-3 once again moves out of range. The ISEE-3 Reboot Project team’s goal now, in partnership with Google, is to make the data accessible to anyone interested in analyzing it, continuing ISEE-3’s new life as a citizen science project.
Khrunichev State Research and Space Production Center has a new President today (August 7) as Russia continues to reform its space sector in the wake of a series of rocket failures and corruption allegations over the past several years. Andre Kalinovsky is replacing Alexander Seliverstov, who took over the company less than two years ago.
Seliverstov has been reassigned to the United Rocket and Space Corporation (URSC), created last year to consolidate and reform the space industry. Igor Komarov, CEO of URSC, said in a press statement (translated via Google) that "Khrunichev is in a difficult situation ... To address systemic problem, [we] need new people" and Kalinovsky will "I think, be able to ensure efficient operation and restructuring of the company." (An abbreviated version of the press release is posted on Khrunichev's English-language website, but does not include the comments from Komarov.) Kalinovsky comes to Khrunichev from Sukhoi Civil Aircraft where he was named President in January 2013.
Khrunichev builds many of Russia's launch vehicles, including Proton and its Briz-M upper stage, both of which have suffered a number of failures since December 2010. The most recent Proton failure in May 2014 was apparently due to a failed bearing in the Proton's third stage. The Proton has not yet returned to flight. On a brighter note, Khrunichev's new Angara rocket had a successful suborbital test flight last month.
The change at Khrunichev follows a similar decision last week to replace the head of RSC Energia, the largest and probably best known Russian space company (among its many products are space station modules and Soyuz spacecraft). On August 1, RSC Energia announced that, after electing URSC's Komarov as the new chairman of its Board of Directors, the Board "decided to suspend the powers of Vitaly Lopota, President, General Designer of RSC Energia." Vladimir Solntsev was named acting President. Solntsev has been Executive Director of Energomash, an Energia subsidiary that manufactures the RD-180 rocket engines used by United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket. In the announcement, Komarov praised Lopota's seven years of service as head of RSC Energia and revealed that Lopota will become URSC's Vice President for Technological Development.