Military / National Security News
This article has been corrected since its original publication. See note at end.
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House is in session. The Senate is in recess, scheduled to return next week.
During the Week
Tomorrow (Monday), the House is scheduled to vote on the bill (H.R. 3547) to extend third party liability indemnification for one year. It is the first of three bills to be considered under suspension of the rules. The House meets at 2:00 pm ET, but votes are postponed until 6:00 pm.
Also tomorrow, SpaceX may try again to launch the SES-8 communications satellite. Three attempts on Monday, November 25, and two on Thursday (Thanksgiving Day) didn't succeed for various reasons. The company has not officially announced a new launch date and time, saying only that Monday is the earliest it will go. The launch window is open from 5:41 - 7:07 pm ET if they are, indeed, ready to try again. A lot is riding on the success of this launch.
Also during the week, hopefully members of the budget conference committee will be trying to find a solution to the nation's deficit situation so the FY2014 budget, at least, can be finalized even if they cannot reach agreement on a long term solution. Whatever hope there was -- and it wasn't much -- is fading, however, as the committee's December 13 deadline nears. December 13 is also the last day the House is scheduled to be in session for this year. Since the Senate does not return until December 9, there is little time for anything to happen. The current Continuing Resolution expires on January 15, 2014, the day that another round of sequester cuts takes effect if Congress does not act to stop it. The story hasn't changed -- no one likes the sequester, but no agreement appears achievable on an alternative because Democrats want to reduce the deficit through a combination of spending cuts and tax increases while Republicans want only spending cuts.
Many House committees are holding hearings on Obamacare this week, but the House Science, Space and Technology Committee will have one on a more uplifting subject -- astrobiology -- on Wednesday.
Those and other events we know of as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Monday, December 2
Tuesday, December 3
Tuesday-Wednesday, December 3-4
Wednesday, December 4
Wednesday-Thursday, December 4-5
Thursday, December 5
Friday, December 6
CORRECTION: In an earlier version, we mistakenly listed the WSBR luncheon with Stephane Israel for December 4. Instead it was December 3. Our apologies.
The Obama White House released today the long awaited update of the National Space Transportation Policy.
The President produced a National Space Policy in 2010, just 17 months after taking office, but updates of other national space policies promulgated by previous administrations have languished. Rumors were rampant just about one year ago that this policy was about to be released. The reasons for the delay until now are unclear and may be as simple as a lack of priority and/or interest at the White House.
In any case, the updated policy is now out, along with a fact sheet, on the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy's website. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden called it a "bold vision for space" on his blog.
UPDATE 3, 8:23 pm ET: Launch went off as (re)scheduled at 8:15 pm ET.
UPDATE 2, 7:19 pm ET: They've picked up the count. Launch will be about 8:15 pm ET.
UPDATE, 7:05 pm ET: The launch has been delayed while they work an issue with one of the tracking stations in North Carolina. The station is part of the range safety system, so must be working for the launch to take place. The problem reportedly has been resolved and verification testing is underway. The launch window is open until 9:15 pm tonight. Weather is 100 percent favorable for launch. Follow us on Twitter @SpcPlcyOnline to keep up to date.
Orbital Sciences Corporation is getting ready to launch the Air Force's ORS-3 mission at 7:30 pm ET from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia, which should be viewable along the East Coast. NASA just tweeted a totally awesome photo of the rocket on the pad at sunset.
Now THAT's a photo-op!
Photo credit: NASA
The Minotaur I rocket will loft 29 satellites into orbit at once. The launch window is open from 7:30 - 9:15 pm ET. Maps showing where to look to see the launch are on Orbital's website. Weather permitting, it could be visible from northern Florida to southern Canada, and as far west as Indiana.
With the MAVEN mission safely on its way to Mars, attention can now turn to another interesting launch coming up tomorrow. This one will give people along the East Coast another chance to see an orbital launch from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on the coast of Virginia and this one will put 29 satellites into orbit at once.
The primary purpose is to launch an Air Force Space Test Program satellite (STPSat3) as part of the Pentagon's Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) program. STPSat3 is a technology demonstration mission. The ORS program is intended to demonstrate the ability to build and launch satellites to meet specific needs in less time than traditional satellites. This is third in the series and the overall mission is designated ORS-3.
Weather permitting, the launch at 7:30 pm Eastern Standard Time (EST) should be visible along a wide swath of the East Coast from northern Florida to southern Canada and as far west as Indiana. Orbital Sciences Corporation has posted several maps on its website showing the areas where it will be visible if the weather cooperates.
Source: Orbital Sciences Corporation website
Orbital provides the Minotaur rockets, which use refurbished Minuteman II motors for the first and second stages. Several versions of Minotaur are available. The one being launched tomorrow is a Minotaur I, which has two additional commercially-provided motors. Minotaur I is a relatively small space launch vehicle that can put just 580 kilograms (about 1,300 pounds) into low Earth orbit, but in an era of tiny "cubesats," it can launch quite a few at a time. Tomorrow's launch will take 28 cubesats into space along with STPSat3. A standard cubesat is 10 x 10 x 10 centimeters (designated as 1U for 1 unit), and several can be grouped together to provide more volume. 1U, 2U and 3U cubesats are common.
Bob Christy at zarya.info has a list of them. Some are military, some are from NASA, some are from universities (many built through NASA's ELaNa program), and one is from the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, reportedly the first cubesat built by high school students. Orbital partnered with the high school to build the satellite and describes it as a phonetic voice synthesizer that can convert text to voice and transmit the voice back to Earth over amateur radio frequencies.
The launch window is open from 7:30 - 9:15 pm EST (though some of the NASA webpages say 9:30 instead of 9:15). Wallops will provide launch coverage beginning at 6:30 pm EST via Ustream. Launch opportunities are available through November 26 if needed.
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House and Senate are in session.
During the Week
NASA's launch of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission on Monday at 1:28 pm ET should start the week off on a high note. Weather permitting, that is. The forecast is for a 60 percent chance of favorable conditions. The odds get worse on Tuesday and all fingers are crossed that the Atlas V will lift off sometime during the 2-hour launch window tomorrow (until 3:28 pm ET) and MAVEN will start the 10-month journey to Mars on time. NASA TV begins launch coverage at 11:00 am ET. A post-launch press conference is scheduled for approximately 2.5 hours after launch.
Also on Monday, the Senate is scheduled to try to begin debate on its version of the FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The bill, S. 1197, was approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) on June 14.
The American Astronautical Society is hosting a panel discussion on international cooperation in space featuring officials from NASA and the Japanese, Canadian and European space agencies. The meeting is on Tuesday in 2325 Rayburn from 11:30 am - 1:30 pm.
The next day and just down the hall in 2318 Rayburn, the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on commercial space, with witnesses from the Satellite Industry Association and the Mojave Air and Space Port, but the appearances of House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Dennis Tito, often called the first space tourist and now the man behind the Inspiration Mars concept of sending two people on a slingshot trajectory to Mars in 2018, are likely to draw the most attention. McCarthy's district includes Mojave.
Also on Wednesday, NASA is set to resume the Asteroid Initiative workshop that was interrupted on September 30 because of the government shut-down. It is scheduled for Wednesday-Friday back at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.
Here's the full list of events we know about as of Sunday afternoon, November 17.
Monday, November 18
Monday-Wednesday, November 18-20
Monday-Friday, November 18-22
Tuesday, November 19
Tuesday-Wednesday, November 19-20
Tuesday-Thursday, November 19-21
Wednesday, November 20
Wednesday-Friday, November 20-22
The New York Times (NYT) carries an interesting story today about an ongoing debate within U.S. policy circles about whether to allow Russia to install monitor stations for its GLONASS navigation satellite system on U.S. soil to improve its accuracy. The debate pits the State Department, which reportedly wants to say yes, against the U.S. defense and intelligence communities, which object to the idea. A government advisory board on U.S. and foreign navigation satellite systems was briefed on this topic in May and no questions appear to have been raised.
GLONASS is the Russian equivalent to the U.S. GPS system. The use of GPS is pervasive not only in the United States, but around the world and other countries are building their own systems. GPS and GLONASS are formally called positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) satellites. When fully operational, each system consists of a constellation of 24 satellites that provide three-dimensional (latitude, longitude, altitude) data anywhere on Earth as well as very precise timing signals. The term Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) is used to refer to these systems generically. In addition to the U.S. GPS and Russia's GLONASS, two other GNSS systems are under development -- China's Beidou and Europe's Galileo. Japan and India are developing regional systems (QZSS and IRNSS, respectively).
The gist of the debate reported by the NYT is that the accuracy of GNSS systems depends on reference stations around the globe that detect even slight changes in each satellite's orbit so data can be corrected and measurements kept extremely accurate. Russia wants to emplace some of these reference, or monitor, stations on U.S. territory. The NYT story says the State Department wants to permit Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, to build monitor stations here to "help mend the Obama administration's relationship with the government of President Vladimir V. Putin, now at a nadir" after Russia gave asylum to Edward Snowden. The story continues that the CIA and the Defense Department "are waging a campaign" to stop it for fear it will give Russia "a foothold on American territory that would sharpen the accuracy of Moscow's satellite-steered weapons" and "give the Russians an opening to snoop on the United States within its borders." It quotes the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee's Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), as wondering "why the United States would be interested in enabling a GPS competitor, like Russian Glonass [sic], when the world's reliance on GPS is a clear advantage to the United States on multiple levels."
The NYT says Russian and American negotiators last met on April 25.
A SpacePolicyOnline.com review of the minutes of the most recent (May 7-8, 2013) meeting of the National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing Advisory Board, which provides independent advice to the government about GPS/GNSS issues, found many discussions of GLONASS in a variety of contexts. Among them was a briefing by Dave Turner, Deputy Director of the State Department's Office of Space and Advanced Technology. One of his slides clearly states that U.S. objectives in working with other countries' systems is to "ensure compatibility," "achieve interoperability," and "promote fair competition in the global marketplace." Those objectives will be pursued through "bilateral and multilateral cooperation." According to the minutes, he told the Board that discussions with Russia on those topics "began in 1996 and currently involve the potential of hosting of GLONASS ground monitoring and laser tracking stations on U.S. territory." The minutes, which appear to be quite detailed, indicate no questions from or comments by Board members on that point.
The Board is chaired by James Schlesinger, who has held many high-level government jobs including Secretary of Defense and Director of the CIA and is now chairman of the MITRE Corporation. The Board's Vice Chair is Stanford's Brad Parkinson, who is considered the "father" of GPS. Its next meeting is scheduled for December 4-5, 2013 in Washington, DC.
An Independent Review Team (IRT) chaired by Tom Young today issued an urgent call to build a "gap-filler" for NOAA's polar orbiting weather satellite program and make the system robust. The IRT is keeping an eye on NOAA's new weather satellite programs: the polar-orbiting Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R series.
Last year, the IRT issued a withering report that called the Department of Commerce's (DOC's) oversight of the weather satellite programs "dysfunctional." DOC is NOAA's parent. In its updated report released today (dated November 8), the IRT said that those problems have been largely resolved and, overall, gave NOAA and DOC good grades on implementing its 23 recommendations from 2012. The IRT assessed 20 as "green" or "yellow" meaning that the issue had received a positive response or that it received a positive response but continued action is required.
Two of the three labeled red -- meaning "inadequate response" -- concern a potential gap in polar orbiting weather data because the JPSS system is not "robust." The third item with a red flag is understanding and communicating why programs cost so much.
During a telecon today, Young, IRT member Berrien Moore III, and Mary Kicza, NOAA Assistant Administrator for Satellite and Information Services, focused on the potential gap in acquiring weather data from NOAA's polar orbiting weather satellites as JPSS comes on line, and what the IRT sees as a lack of robustness in the JPSS program. Young is a retired industry executive and former Director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center who is often called upon to lead reviews of space programs that go awry. Moore is Vice President of Weather and Climate Programs at the University of Oklahoma and Director of the National Weather Center located there.
Over the past several years, NOAA officials and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have offered various assessments of the likelihood that a gap may develop in providing polar-orbiting weather data before JPSS-1 is operational. At a recent hearing, when asked what the likelihood was on a scale of 1-10, GAO's David Powner said 10. Kicza said 5, however, a surprise considering previous NOAA statements indicating a much higher possibility. Kicza explained that the situation had improved now that the NASA/NOAA Suomi-NPP (S-NPP) satellite is operational and took less time than expected to commission.
At today's briefing, Kizca, Young and Moore avoided using numbers entirely and focused less on the time period between now and the launch of JPSS-1 in 2017 and more on the period after that. Young said that whatever the number may be, it is too high. The IRT's judgment, Young said, is that "there is an unacceptably high probability of a gap" and is "a circumstance that, given the criticality of the data, that the United States should not agree to ... put itself in."
Right now, there are several polar-orbiting satellites of various ages providing weather data. Young said there are three NOAA satellites that are 12, 8 and 4.5 years old respectively plus S-NPP, launched in 2011. He added NASA's 11-year-old Aqua satellite as important to weather forecasting, which all together yields a set of satellites that is "reasonably robust." The IRT also found that the GOES system, including the GOES-R series that will begin to launch in 2016, is in good shape.
By contrast, the JPSS system is "fragile" and must be made robust lilke its predecessors and GOES, the IRT concluded. Only two JPSS satellites are planned and the second is not scheduled for launch until 2022. That is a long period of time especially if JPSS-1 is lost in a launch failure or fails prematurely on-orbit.
The IRT wants a gap-filler satellite that would carry the two most critically needed instruments -- the Advanced Technology Microwave Sensor (ATMS) and the Cross-track Infrared Sounder (CrIS). It calls for NOAA to contract immediately to buy a minimum of three of each of those sensors from the current developers, with the first units available by 2017. They could be placed aboard a comparatively small spacecraft that could be built in just 2-3 years, the report says, adding: "Ideally, a gap filler would be available to launch before S-NPP reached the end of its mission life and would cover a potential gap from a JPSS-1 launch or early spacecraft failure."
A gap filler is just a "band aid," Young said, arguing that a longer term solution is needed to make the system robust. Specifically, the IRT wants the next three JPSS satellites, JPSS-2, JPSS-3 and JPSS-4, to be put under contract together as "an integrated program." Buying them one-at-a-time as currently planned is "inefficient, expensive and not consistent with a robust program," according to the report. The IRT defines a "robust" system as one where it takes "two failures to have a gap."
Getting a gap-filler underway and changing the JPSS procurement strategy to multiple satellites are both "urgent," Young said today, adding that the IRT understands there are many steps that must be taken, but "we are saying it's urgent and all elements of the decision process should treat it as urgent." Moore said that the gap-filler is "not a very challenging spacecraft to build. We just need to get the two instruments under contract and ... put them on a free-flyer."
On the same day NASA and its commercial cargo partners gave themselves a pat on the back for completing the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) development program, NASA's Inspector General issued a report warning about obstacles ahead for COTS's cousin, the commercial crew program.
During a press conference yesterday, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden presented awards to the leaders of the NASA, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation teams that successfully implemented the development of SpaceX's Falcon 9/Dragon and Orbital's Antares/Cygnus cargo space transportation systems through the COTS program. The COTS program has now ended and NASA is purchasing services from the two companies using those systems under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract. NASA's Alan Lindenmoyer and Phil McAlister, SpaceX's Gwynne Shotwell and Orbital's Frank Culbertson lauded the public-private partnership that created that success while the Aerospace Industries Association's Frank Slazer highlighted the importance of the effort to the U.S. space industrial base and utilization of the International Space Station (ISS).
As Bolden mentioned, COTS -- usually called commercial cargo -- dates back to the George W. Bush Administration and he credited the leadership of both the Bush and Obama administrations in seeing COTS through to its successful conclusion. The question is whether the commercial crew program will see similar success.
The Bush Administration's decision to terminate the space shuttle after construction of the ISS was completed meant that alternatives were needed to take cargo and crews to and from ISS. In 2006, then-NASA Administrator Mike Griffin initiated the COTS program to solve the cargo problem. The idea was that NASA would provide some, but not all, of the funding for two companies in competition to develop their own space transportation systems to deliver cargo to the ISS. NASA would serve as one market for those services with the expectation that the companies would find other markets as well. Thus the government and the private sector would be partners in developing these capabilities.
Using the same approach to develop systems to take crews to and from ISS -- "commercial crew" -- was considered at the time, but not pursued vigorously. The Bush Administration was committed to operating ISS only until 2015 or 2016, and NASA planned to use the Ares 1 rocket and Orion spacecraft it was developing under the Constellation program to fulfill those needs. When the Obama Administration canceled Constellation in 2010, it put all its eggs into the commercial crew basket. Three companies -- SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada -- are now working on commercial crew systems. NASA hopes that two of them will succeed so there is competition and redundancy in providing those services beginning in 2017.
Just as there was a lot of skepticism about commercial cargo (and to some extent there still is in terms of whether the business case will close), there are many critics of commercial crew. NASA has been unable to convince Congress to provide the level of funding the agency needs to help ensure that two companies will make it through the development phase. Some in Congress are pressuring the agency to choose just one company to support, but NASA insists that competition and redundancy are highly desirable. For FY2014, NASA is requesting $821 million. The House Appropriations Committee recommended $500 million. The Senate Appropriations Committee recommended $700 million.
The report from NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) pointed to the funding uncertainty as one of several obstacles confronting the commercial crew program. The report gives credit to the three commercial crew companies for "successfully executing their spaceflight development efforts," but concluded NASA faces four "significant challenges":
The OIG did not make any recommendations on the issue of unstable funding, but noted that for FY2011-2013, NASA received only 38 percent of its requested funding for the program, resulting in a delay from FY2015 to FY2017 of the first expected commercial crew flight. "The combination of a future flat-funded profile and lower-than-expected levels of funding over the past 3 years may delay the first crewed flight beyond 2017 and closer to 2020, the current expected end of the operational life of the ISS." The report includes the following table showing NASA's successive 5-year budget projections for the commercial crew program beginning in FY2009.
Table 3: Commercial Crew Program Budget Requests by FY (Dollars in millions)
At the COTS press briefing, Bolden said "the completion of COTS is simply a passing of the torch of innovation to our partners in the commercial crew program" and called on Congress to provide the needed funding so flights could begin in 2017.
As for the other challenges, the OIG report recommended that -
The report says that NASA and the Associate Administrator agreed with the recommendations.
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. Once again we are defining the "week" to last through next Sunday since there are MAVEN-related activities that day before our next edition of this series is out. The House and Senate are in session beginning Tuesday (Monday is a federal holiday--Veterans Day).
During the Week
The list of events this week is so long and chock full of interesting activities that it's tough to choose just one or two to highlight.
Our top picks include Tuesday's "Beyond Earth: Removing Barriers to Deep Space Exploration" panel of officials from NASA and its major contractors, coupled with Friday's "Space Exploration: How and Why?" with a panel of former NASA and "New Space" folks. The Friday panel includes former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver (now General Manager of the Air Line Pilots Association), former NASA Comptroller and former NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Steve Isakowtiz (now President of Virgin Galactic), another former NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Laurie Leshin (now Dean of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), and former astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria (now President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation). Should be interesting to compare the different perspectives. Both panels are being held in Washington, DC. Tuesday's is at the Newseum; Friday's at the National Press Club. Click on the links below for more details.
Another interesting event is Wednesday evening's Earth from Space at the U.S. Naval Memorial in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the American Astronautical Society. Former astronaut Piers Sellers, now at Goddard Space Flight Center, will introduce a condensed version of NOVA's film Earth from Space. After the film, Sellers and other experts in earth observation from space will participate in a panel discussion. Unlike many evening business events in D.C., this time the reception is AFTER the film and panel discussion. The film starts at 6:00 pm ET and doors open at 5:30 so you can be in your seats on time!
The National Research Council is kicking off a NASA-sponsored study this week on "A Framework for Analyzing the Needs for Continuity of NASA-Sustained Remote Sensing Observations of the Earth from Space." That's quite a mouthful so we just call it "Continuity of Remote Sensing from Space." On Tuesday afternoon, agency reps (NASA, NOAA, USGS) and possibly Peter Collohan from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (listed as "invited") will tell the committee what they want the study to focus on.
Also on the space-based earth observation front, former astronaut Kathy Sullivan's nomination to be Administrator of NOAA is rescheduled for action before the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday. It had been scheduled for October 3, but was postponed because of the government shutdown. Sullivan is currently acting NOAA Administrator.
Lots and lots of other interesting events on tap, though. Pick YOUR favorites!
Monday-Friday, November 11-15
Tuesday, November 12
Tuesday-Wednesday, November 12-13
Tuesday-Thursday, November 12-14
Wednesday, November 13
Wednesday-Thursday, November 13-14
Thursday, November 14
Friday, November 15
Sunday, November 17
The nomination of Air Force Lt. Gen. Susan Helms to be Vice Commander of Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) has been withdrawn and she plans to retire from the Air Force. Helms is a career Air Force officer and former NASA astronaut.
Helms is currently Commander, 14th Air Force (Air Force-Strategic Space), Air Force Space Command, and Commander, Joint Functional Component Command for Space, U.S. Strategic Command. She was nominated to be AFSPC Vice Commander on March 20, 2013, but quickly came under fire from Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) who put a hold on the nomination.
McCaskill and many other Senators are outraged at the number of sexual assaults in the military. McCaskill is a former felony prosecutor of sexual crimes and is particularly concerned about military commanders who overturn jury guilty verdicts in sexual assault cases. Helms did just that in February 2012, overturning the conviction of an Air Force Captain.
After meeting with Helms to discuss the situation, McCaskill made a statement in June praising Helms' "distinguished military service" over more than 30 years, but said she continued to have "deep concerns" about Helm's decision and would continue to block her nomination. McCaskill said Helms made the decision "against the advice of her staff judge advocate," and with that action "... Helms sent a damaging message to survivors of sexual assault who are seeking justice in the military justice system....only to have that justice ripped away with the stroke of a pen by an individual who was never in the courtroom for the trial and who never heard the testimony." McCaskill is vigorously championing legislation that would prevent military commanders from overturning jury verdicts in such cases and require civilian review instead. DOD strongly opposes that effort.
Helms was the first U.S. military woman in space and made four space shuttle flights in addition to spending five months aboard the International Space Station (ISS). She was part of the second ISS crew in 2001. She left NASA in 2002 and resumed her Air Force duties, rising to the rank of Lieutenant General in 2011. Her nomination this March was for assignment as Vice Commander of AFSPC.
The White House has not yet posted its withdrawal of the nomination, but the Senate's nomination website states that the Senate received a message of withdrawal from the President yesterday. The Air Force Times reports this afternoon that Helms has filed for retirement.
Helms overturned the conviction of AF Captain Matthew Herrera because she could not be satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that prosecutors had met the burden of proof, but Herrera was "punished administratively and kicked out of the Air Force in December," according to the Air Force Times report.