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What's Happening in Space Policy November 24-December 5, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Nov-2014 (Updated: 23-Nov-2014 01:45 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the next TWO weeks, November 24-December 5, 2014.   Congress is in recess this coming week for the Thanksgiving holiday and will return on December 1.

During the Weeks

The United States celebrates Thanksgiving this week (on Thursday), so after the launch and docking of three International Space Station ISS) crew members today (Sunday), there is nothing on the docket until the first week of December in terms of space policy. 

However, on November 29 (November 30 in Japan), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will launch its second asteroid sample return mission, Hayabusa2, which should be of great interest.  JAXA will provide live TV coverage of the launch and spacecraft separation.

The first week of December is chock full of events.  To pick just two to highlight, ESA's ministerial meeting on December 2 will decide the future of European launch systems and participation in the ISS program through 2020, and NASA's December 4 launch of a test version of the Orion spacecraft  (EFT-1) on a 4.5 hour flight is a step forward for the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program.  Not everyone may agree on the next destination for the U.S. human spaceflight program -- President Obama's Asteroid Redirect Mission still has not captured much enthusiasm -- but Orion is likely to be the NASA spacecraft to take astronauts wherever it is they will go beyond low Earth orbit.

Under the current schedule, Congress will meet during the first two weeks of December and then bring the 113th Congress to a close, with the 114th Congress convening on January 3, 2015.   What's going to happen in those two weeks is, as always, completely unclear, and the two weeks could stretch through the holidays and even into the first two days of January if need be (which happened in 2012-2013 with the "fiscal cliff" showdown for those who remember).

The FY2015 Continuing Resolution (CR) now funding the government expires at midnight on December 11.  Under the best of circumstances (in terms of fiscal solvency and the ability of agencies to know how much money they have for FY2015), Congress will pass an omnibus appropriations bill before then combining all 12 regular appropriations bills and fund the government through the end of FY2015 (September 30, 2015).   Republican angst over President Obama's immigration executive order (EO) is a complication, however.  Some Republicans insist that Congress not appropriate funds that could be used to implement the EO, but the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Hal Rogers (R-KY), publicly explained that the immigration office that will implement the EO is funded by fees, not appropriations, so it is "impossible" (in his words) to do that.  Republicans could devise a surgical approach to defunding some part of the government to demonstrate their displeasure or hold up the entire bill or something in between.  The key is that not only must a bill get enough votes to pass Congress -- the Senate remains in Democratic hands until January --  but the President must be willing to sign it, which would seem unlikely if it defunds something he deems of critical importance. 

It's anybody's guess as to what will happen.  Our best guess, for what it's worth, is that Congress will pass a short term CR to carry the government through to mid- or late-January when the Republicans will be in control of both chambers rather than risk a government shutdown over the holidays because either Congress can't pass a bill or it passes a bill the President won't sign.   But we will keep our fingers crossed that an omnibus bill funding the government through September 30, 2015 is still a possibility.

Meanwhile, here is a list of all the events we know about for the next two weeks as of Sunday morning, November 23.

Sunday, November 23 (November 24 local time at the launch site in Kazakhstan)

Saturday, November 29 (November 30 local time at the launch site in Japan)

Monday, December 1

Monday-Wednesday, December 1-3

Tuesday, December 2

Tuesday-Wednesday, December 2-3

Thursday, December 4

Friday, December 5

 

Culberson Named New House Appropriations CJS Chair

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Nov-2014 (Updated: 20-Nov-2014 05:28 PM)

The House Appropriations Committee announced today that Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) will succeed Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) as chair of the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee in the 114th Congress.  Wolf is retiring.

Culberson said in a press statement that it is a "real privilege" to succeed Wolf and it will be "a source of great joy for me to help lift up NASA and the NSF to ensure that America will always lead the world in space exploration and scientific discoveries."

Culberson's district includes Houston, home to NASA's Johnson Space Center.  He is a member of the CJS subcommittee now and an ardent advocate for robotic planetary exploration, particularly a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa.  Culberson and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA, whose district includes the Jet Propulsion Lab) are the key proponents for adding money for a Europa mission to NASA's budget even though the agency did not have plans to pursue such a mission at the current time.

The most recent National Research Council (NRC) planetary science Decadal Survey identified Europa as the second priority for a flagship-class mission (behind returning a sample of Mars to Earth), but Congress added $75 million in FY2013 (about $69 million after required reductions due to across-the-board cuts that year) and $80 million in FY2014 for NASA to conduct studies and begin preliminary work on a Europa mission.  In response, the Obama Administration requested $15 million for Europa in its FY2015 budget request, but it was a one-time request (there is nothing in the projected budget for the next four years).  Congress is still working on the FY2015 appropriations bills, but the House added $85 million in the version of the CJS bill it passed in May.  The Senate Appropriations Committee did not add money for the mission, but expressed support and directed NASA to design it to be launched on the Space Launch System.  At the time of the Decadal Survey, the mission was estimated to cost $4.7 billion.  JPL subsequently developed a downscaled concept -- Europa Clipper -- with an approximately $2 billion pricetag.

Note:  This article was updated on November 20 at 5:20 pm ET with the quote from Culberson reacting to being named chairman.

Rep. John Culberson (R-TX).  Photo Credit:  Rep. Culberson's website.

Speculation that Culberson would succeed Wolf has been rampant for the past year.  In an interview with the Houston Chronicle's Eric Berger in December 2013, Culberson laid out his views on NASA:

  • Regarding NASA's proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission:  "It's not gonna happen."
  • On whether NASA instead should focus on returning humans to Moon:  "Yes.  Absolutely." 
  • On whether he agrees with Wolf on not allowing U.S.-China space cooperation:  "Yes."
  • On planetary science and a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa:  "...I'm particularly energized about the planetary science program... I'm certain that there's life elsewhere in the universe. And I'm also certain that the first place we will discover life on another world is Europa."

Wolf remains chair of the subcommittee until the end of the 113th Congress.  Culberson will take over in the 114th Congress, which convenes on January 3, 2015.

The CJS subcommittee funds NASA, NSF, the Department of Commerce (including NOAA), the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the Department of Justice, and a number of smaller "related agencies."

What's Happening in Space Policy November 17-21, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Nov-2014 (Updated: 16-Nov-2014 02:43 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events in the coming week, November 17-21, 2014, and any insights we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session.

During the Week

Congress is in session this week, but anything they are working on regarding space policy and funding is taking place behind the scenes.  One set of negotiations is over a compromise version of a FY2015 omnibus appropriations bill that is expected to combine all 12 regular appropriations bill into one and fund the government through the rest of FY2015 (September 30, 2015).   Word has it the bill will be publicly released the week of December 8, just in time to get it passed - hopefully - by midnight December 11 when the current Continuing Resolution (CR) expires. 

It's not a sure bet, though. House Appropriations Committee chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) warned this past week that if President Obama issues an Executive Order on immigration (i.e., takes action without waiting for Congress to act) before a deal is done on appropriations, there will be an "explosion."   He's worried appropriations will get caught in the crossfire.  If a new appropriations bill is not enacted by December 11, the government will shut down like it did in October 2013.  Some Tea Party Republicans consider government shutdowns a useful tactic and might try to cause another one in reaction to any Presidential action on immigration.  Even absent that, some have been arguing in favor of passing just another CR to fund the government for the first few weeks of the New Year when Republicans will control both the House and Senate and have more power to decide funding matters.  (We talked about the road ahead for appropriations in an earlier article.)

Negotiations also are underway on a FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  It is the only annual authorization bill that Congress routinely passes, even if that happens at the very last minute.  The House passed its version in May, and the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) approved a version in June, but it has not gone to the Senate floor for debate yet.  They will probably skip that step and just bring the compromise to the floor.  Congress hasn't missed passing an NDAA for more than 50 years no matter how high the political tensions.  Senate John McCain (R-AZ), who likely will chair SASC in the next Congress, included a provision in the SASC-version of the bill prohibiting DOD from contracting with space launch services providers that use Russian suppliers -- aimed at the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) use of Russian RD-180 engines for the Atlas V.   ULA President Tory Bruno said last week that congressional staffers now understand the "very harmful" unintended consequences of that language and are revising it as part of the NDAA negotiations.

Like appropriations, the NDAA probably won't become public for a while yet.   Congress will be in recess next week for Thanksgiving, then return for two more weeks to finish what they can for the 113th Congress.  

Off the Hill, three NASA Advisory Council committees or subcommittees will meet this week in person or virtually (Planetary Protection on Monday and Tuesday, Institutional on Wednesday and Thursday, and Planetary Science on Friday).   The NSF-NASA-DOE Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee meets at NSF on Monday and Tuesday.   Alan Ladwig and Courtney Stadd's ISU-DC Space Café discussion is on Tuesday evening (rescheduled from last Tuesday, which was Veterans Day and HBO's Concert for Valor essentially took over DC).   And the Secure World Foundation and American Astronautical Society will host a briefing on space weather on the Senate side of the Capitol Visitor Center at lunchtime on Thursday.

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

Monday-Tuesday, November 17-18

Tuesday, November 18

Tuesday-Thursday, November 18-20

Tuesday-Friday, November 18-21

Wednesday-Thursday, November 19-20

Thursday, November 20

Friday, November 21

House and Senate Return to Work Today To Finish 113th Congress, Prepare for Next Year

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Nov-2014 (Updated: 12-Nov-2014 05:22 PM)

The House and Senate return to work today to finish out the 113th Congress and get ready for the 114th, which begins in January.   The congressional landscape will change significantly then, with Republicans taking control of the Senate in addition to the House.  Generally, space activities have bi-partisan support in both chambers.  Where that has broken down in the past is over budgets and that could be a defining issue in the 114th Congress.

But first, over the next several weeks Congress needs to complete work on FY2015 appropriations.  There remains a question as to whether the appropriations will cover the rest of the fiscal year – through September 30, 2015 – or only a few months, but something must be done by December 11 to keep the government open.  On that day, the Continuing Resolution (CR) currently funding the government expires.

The prevailing wisdom is that Congress will pass an omnibus FY2015 appropriations bill combining all 12 regular appropriations bills and fund the government through the rest of FY2015.  Some Tea Party Republicans, however, want a short term bill to carry the government only through the first few weeks of the New Year when Republicans are in control of both chambers.

The House has passed seven of the 12 regular appropriations bills, and although the Senate has not passed any, the Senate Appropriations Committee completed work on eight. The two that fund most space activities are Defense (national security space programs) and Commerce-Justice-Science (NASA and NOAA).  A third, Transportation-HUD, funds activities at the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

The House has passed and the Senate Appropriations Committee has approved all three of those bills increasing the likelihood that final action on them can be completed by year’s end if prevailing wisdom holds true.

Congress also has not yet completed action on new authorization bills for NASA or DOD. Like appropriations, the House has passed bills for both, but the Senate has not passed either.   Congress has an unblemished record for more than 50 years of passing annual DOD authorization bills, formally called a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  Pundits are predicting that one will pass this year, too, probably by using the House-passed bill as the basis for a behind-the-scenes compromise and sending it to the Senate floor for a vote, skipping the step of passing a Senate version first.

As for NASA, it is always possible that similar negotiations could also result in a bill clearing Congress this year, but the NASA bill is not considered as crucial as the NDAA. With little time on the legislative calendar, the imminent change in party control, and the departure of key Senate Democratic staffer Ann Zulkosky, getting the NASA bill done could be problematical.

The Senate also is expected to try and approve at least some of President Obama’s nominations, particularly those for judicial positions.  Whether Dava Newman’s nomination to be NASA Deputy Administrator can get through in such a short time will depend on many factors, such as whether she has a Senate champion willing to push for it or if any opposition has developed.   Expectations were that it would not be considered until next year and that is probably a good bet.

What will happen in the 114th Congress is anyone’s guess.  There’s a presidential election coming up in 2016 and each party will use the next two years to convince the electorate to choose a President from their side of the aisle (President Obama cannot run for another term, so there will be no incumbent).  Not to mention that all of the House and one-third of the Senate will once again be up for election.  How all of that plays out in congressional politics is to be determined.  There is much talk at the moment of the two parties working together because the electorate is weary of Washington gridlock, but such talk is typical right after an election.   Rarely does it actually lead to compromise.  With some Republicans vowing to repeal the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) and fight the President on issues from immigration to the Keystone Pipeline, it is difficult to be optimistic.

All the committee and subcommittee chairmanships will change in the Senate, since the Republicans are taking control.  Even though Republicans retained control in the House, 11 committee chairmanships are up for grabs because of term limits or retirements.  There is a lot of speculation about who will be in charge of what, which is important, but in terms of the fate of government-funded space programs, a more important factor is whether deficit cutting returns as the dominant issue in Congress.

Republicans and Democrats have been fighting for the past six years over how to reduce the deficit.  The Republicans want only funding cuts, while Democrats want a combination of funding cuts and tax increases.   The result of the deadlock over this issue was sequestration – across-the-board funding cuts for federal agencies that are part of the “discretionary spending” portion of the budget that Congress directly allocates (as opposed to mandatory spending for programs like Medicare and Social Security).

Both parties oppose sequestration, but could not reach a compromise on any other solution.   In December 2013, a temporary truce was negotiated by the chairs of the House and Senate Budget Committees, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), where sequestration limits were lifted, but only for FY2014 and FY2015.  Consequently, budget fights were not as intense for FY2015 and NASA, for example, would get a significant boost if it gets what is allocated in its House-passed and Senate Appropriations Committee-approved appropriations bill.

That could be a short-term win, though. Unless Congress changes the law, sequestration is back for FY2016 and beyond. Republicans do not like sequestration any more than Democrats, and now that they will control both chambers, they could try to repeal sequestration and replace it with cuts to mandatory spending.  They can only go so far, though, without alienating their own voters or prompting a presidential veto.  Discretionary programs like NASA and NOAA could once again be in the budget bulls eye and while DOD as a whole may fare better, it is far from clear if that would extend to its space programs.

A lot of what happens in the 114th Congress may depend on whether "establishment" Republicans, including Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), can work with their Tea Party colleagues or if there will be intra-party fights.  Also, in the Senate, the Democrats could adopt the tactics McConnell has used so effectively as Minority Leader in preventing action on most legislation.   The Senate will have 53 Republicans, 44 Democrats, and 2 Independents who caucus with the Democrats, essentially a 53 - 46 split (one race, Louisiana, is still undetermined). That is basically the inverse of the situation today.  Just as Senate Republicans stymied action under Democratic control, so could Democrats do the same now that they will be in the minority.

What's Happening in Space Policy November 9-15, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Nov-2014 (Updated: 09-Nov-2014 07:39 AM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events for the week of November 9-15, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them.  Congress returns to work on Wednesday, November 12.

During the Week

From a policy perspective, certainly the biggest event this week is the return of Congress after a long break leading up to last week's mid-term elections.  As everyone knows, Republicans won control of the Senate and House Republicans added many seats to their side of the aisle.   Some races remain undetermined so there is not yet a final count of how many R's and D's there will be in the 114th Congress that convenes in January, but in the Senate there will be at least 52 Republicans, 44 Democrats, and 2 Independents (both currently caucus with Democrats and one has said he will continue to do so in the next Congress).  The Senate race in Alaska has not been called yet, and there will be a run-off for the Louisiana Senate seat next month.  In the House, there will be at least 244 Republicans and 184 Democrats.  The other races have not been called yet.  As many observers are pointing out, it has been 80 years since the Democrats have had so few seats in the House.  We'll have more on how the changes in Congress could impact space programs in an article later this week.

That's next year, though.  On Wednesday, it is the 113th Congress that reconvenes and it still has work to do.   The one must-pass piece of legislation is the FY2015 appropriations.  The government is currently operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) that expires on December 11, so Congress has until then to pass another CR or the 12 regular appropriations bills probably packaged together into a single omnibus bill or series of "mini-buses."  It is possible that some Republicans may try to delay passage of final appropriations bills until next year when they are in control of both chambers and therefore will agree only to a short-term CR to carry the government over into the New Year, but the betting at the moment seems to be that the matter will be settled by the end of this year.  That could change, of course. 

There also are big events in space activities coming up.  Tonight (Sunday) three International Space Station (ISS) crew members return to Earth in their Soyuz TMA-13M spacecraft:  NASA's Reid Wiseman, Europe's Alexander Gerst and Russia's Max Suraev.  NASA TV will cover undocking (7:30 pm EST) and landing in Kazakhstan (10:58 pm EST).  

Then on Wednesday, November 12, ESA's Philae lander will land on Comet 67P/Churymov-Gerasimenko, the first spacecraft to achieve such a feat.  ESA's Rosetta spacecraft, with Philae aboard, arrived at the comet in August after a 10 year journey.  Lots of media events in Europe are scheduled for the days before, of, and after the landing.  Confirmation that Philae successfully landed is expected about 11:00 am EST on Wednesday.  NASA TV will cover that part of the mission from 9:00 - 11:30 am EST.

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

Sunday, November 9

Tuesday, November 11

Wednesday, November 12

Friday, November 14

Saturday, November 15

 

Republicans Seize Control of Senate, Add to House Majority

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Nov-2014 (Updated: 05-Nov-2014 06:51 AM)

The results of some congressional races are still not final, but as of 6:00 am ET November 5, it is clear that Republicans will control the Senate in the 114th Congress and added to their majority in the House.

With Senate races in three states (Alaska, Louisiana, and Virginia) still not over, Republicans have at least 52 seats in the Senate, one more than needed to control the chamber.  Democrats have 43 and there are 2 Independents.  In the House, Republicans will have at least 242 seats, a gain of 13, and there will be at least 174 Democrats.  Results from the remaining districts are pending.

For space policy and programs, the biggest impact likely will be in funding.  Republicans have been pressing for cutbacks in government spending to reduce the deficit, while Democrats have argued for a combination of spending cuts and tax increases.   Republicans oppose tax increases. 

Congress returns to work next Tuesday (November 12).  Little legislation is likely to be passed in the lame duck session knowing that party control of the Senate will change in January.  

The one must-pass piece of legislation is FY2015 appropriations.  FY2015 began on October 1 and the government is operating under a Continuing Resolution that expires on December 11. 

Whether a bill will pass to cover the rest of FY2015 (through September 30, 2015) or only for a few weeks or months to provide funding through the beginning of the next Congress when Republicans will have more power to shape its contents is an open question.  NASA was poised to receive a significant increase over the President's request for FY2015 in bills that passed the House and cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee on a bipartisan basis, so it is possible that the increase will survive, but if reducing the deficit becomes the driving force, it could be endangered.   NOAA's satellite programs similarly fared reasonably well in FY2015 budget action so far.  A major issue in the DOD space policy and budget realm is whether to add money to begin development of a U.S. rocket engine to replace Russia's RD-180, used for the Atlas V, which is a very complex issue and it is difficult to assess how much that will be affected by the Republican gains.

 

What's Happening in Space Policy November 2-8, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Nov-2014 (Updated: 02-Nov-2014 05:45 PM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events for the week of November 2 - 8, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them.   Congress returns on November 12.

During the Week

News can be expected throughout the week on the October 28 Antares launch failure and the October 31 SpaceShipTwo (SS2) accident.  Orbital Sciences Corporation is leading the Antares investigation and has been posting regular updates on its website.   The National Transportation Safety Board (NSTB) is leading the SS2 investigation, where one of the two pilots died and the other is hospitalized.   NTSB held two briefings yesterday (at 9:00 am and 8:00 pm Pacific Time), and a third is scheduled for tonight (Sunday) at 8:00 pm PT (11:00 pm ET).  We will post information on any briefings that we learn about during the week on the calendar.

On the national scene, the biggest news in the coming week will be, of course, Tuesday's mid-term elections.  Republicans are expected to retain control of the House and could win control of the Senate as well, although some races are very close, legal challenges may by filed against some state voter registration laws or processes, and there is a chance there could be as many as four Independents in the Senate (there are two now), which could sway the balance of power depending on which party they choose to caucus with (the two incumbent Independents caucus with the Democrats).  All of that makes prognostication especially difficult and could mean that the issue of which party controls the Senate may not be settled on Tuesday.

The most important thing is for EVERY ELIGIBLE VOTER TO GET OUT AND VOTE!  YOUR VOTE DOES MAKE A DIFFERENCE.

Lots of other interesting events are on tap, too.  Certainly the most intriguing one is a panel discussion sponsored by the American Chemical Society and American University on Thursday on "The First and Final Frontiers: The Overlapping Technology Policies of Farming and Space Exploration."   The Washington Space Business Roundtable's luncheon later that day also should be particularly interesting.  Mark Sirangelo of Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) is the speaker.  Between SNC's lawsuit against the government over the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contract awards and this past week's commercial space setbacks (though they did not involve SNC), Sirangelo's take on the present and future of commercial space should be thought provoking.   It's a busy day.  The ACS/AU event is from 10:00-11:00 am ET, NASA is having a briefing at KSC (watch on NASA TV) at 11:00 on the planned December launch of the Orion capsule on its Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), and the WSBR luncheon starts at 11:30.

On Saturday, NASA, in partnership with the University of Arizona, will hold the first of two "citizen forums" on the Asteroid Initiative.  This first one is in Phoenix.  The second, on November 15, is in Boston.  People had to apply to participate in person and that process is closed; those chosen are being paid $100.  Anyone else can participate online (no stipend), but must register. 

Sunday, November 2

Monday, November 3

Monday-Tuesday, November 3-4

Tuesday, November 4

  • ELECTION DAY -- DON'T FORGET TO VOTE

Wednesday-Thursday, November 5-6

Thursday, November 6

Saturday, November 8

 

Antares Failure: Damage Not Too Bad, Identifying Likely Cause Days Not Weeks Away

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Oct-2014 (Updated: 30-Oct-2014 09:18 PM)

Orbital Sciences Corporation said today that an initial survey of the Antares launch pad and surrounding areas at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, VA shows that the damage is not as bad as initially feared.  Also today, Orbital's President said it should be days, not weeks, before investigators can identify a "handful" of likely causes though finding the root cause will take longer.

Orbital's Antares rocket with a Cygnus spacecraft full of more than 5,000 pounds of experiments, equipment and supplies for the International Space Station (ISS) failed seconds after liftoff from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops last night.   No one was injured.

David Thompson, Orbital's Chairman, President, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and one of the company's founders, held a telephone conference call with investors and financial analysts to discuss the failure this afternoon.  The company's stock was down almost 17 percent.  Orbital is in the midst of a merger with ATK.  When asked if he was considering a delay in the shareholder vote with regard to the merger, Thompson said it is too early to tell.

"Too early to tell" was an oft-repeated theme throughout the teleconference as Thompson and Orbital Vice Chairman and Chief Financial Officer Garrett Pierce provided what information they could about the failure and attempts to ascertain its cause.  Thompson said he thought it would take only days, not weeks, to narrow the list of potential causes to a few, although it would take longer to determine the root cause. Based on past experience, he anticipates that the next Antares launch, currently scheduled for April, will be delayed.  "I think a reasonable best-case estimate would bound that at three months but it could certainly be considerably longer than that depending on what we find in the review. I would hope it would be not more than a year," he said.

Although Thompson cautioned that first impressions are not always the correct ones in accidents like this, there is a widespread assumption that the rocket's first stage engines were at least part of the cause considering how early in the launch the failure occurred.   Antares is powered by two NK33 engines built by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and imported to the United States for refurbishment by Aerojet and redesignated AJ26.  Orbital has been considering replacing the AJ26s with a different engine in about two years because they "have presented us with some serious technical and supply challenges in the past," he said, adding that the accident may accelerate those plans:  "I certainly think we can shorten that interval, but at this point I don't know by how much."  The company has not revealed what alternative engine it has selected.

Thompson said the launch complex "was spared from any major damage" and the Antares assembly building and Cygnus spacecraft processing facilities "were not affected ... in any way."  The company issued a press statement later in the day reaffirming that based on an aerial survey and an on-site preliminary visit, serious damage was avoided, but the full extent of repairs or how long they will take will not be known until a more detailed inspection is conducted.  

NASA posted an aerial view of the damaged area on its website.  NASA Wallops Director Bill Wrobel expressed confidence that "we will rebound stronger than ever."  NASA said there was damage at the MARS facility to the transporter erector launcher and lightning suppression rods.  A sounding rocket launcher adjacent to the pad and buildings nearest the pad suffered the greatest damage, NASA said, and support buildings have broken windows and imploded doors.  Environmental damage appears to be contained within the southern third of Wallops Island.  No hazardous substances were detected in air samples at the Wallops mainland area, the Highway 175 causeway, or nearby Chincoteague Island.  The Coast Guard and Virginia Marine Resources Commission have not observed any obvious signs of water pollution.  Anyone who finds debris is warned not to touch it and to call 757-824-1295.

Aerial view of damaged Antares launch site at Wallops Flight Facility, VA, October 29, 2014.  Photo Credit: NASA/Terry Zaperach

Thompson and Pierce said insurance would cover the cost of launch site repairs to its facilities as well as the loss of near-term receivables that the company would have collected if the launch had been a success.  The company still plans to submit a bid for NASA's follow-on Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) 2 contract.  Yesterday's launch was part of the original CRS contract under which Orbital was awarded a $1.9 billion contract to deliver 20 tons of cargo to the ISS by 2016.

An Accident Investigation Board (AIB) led by Orbital and including NASA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will determine the cause of the accident and recommend corrective actions.  Orbital's Dave Steffy, Senior Vice President and Chief Engineer of the Advanced Programs Group, is chairing the AIB.

The loss of the spacecraft is not expected to affect ISS operations.  None of the cargo on this third operational Orbital mission to the ISS, Orb-3, was critical and a Russian Progress cargo spacecraft docked with the ISS this morning on a regularly scheduled flight bringing fuel, water, air, oxygen, food and other supplies.

Note:  the membership of the AIB has been corrected.  An earlier version of this article listed MARS as a member, but although its representatives are involved in assessing damage to the launch site, it is not listed as having a member of the board in Orbital's October 29 press release.  Also, our original article did not mention that the FAA is providing oversight of the investigation process.

What's Happening in Space Policy October 27 - November 7, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Oct-2014 (Updated: 26-Oct-2014 11:01 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events coming up in the next TWO weeks, October 27-November 7, 2014, and any insight we can offer about them.   Congress returns on November 12.

During the Weeks

This issue covers the next TWO weeks, and certainly the most interesting event in that time period is November 4 -- election day in the United States.   More on that in our next issue, but put it on your calendar and GET OUT AND VOTE!

In the nearer term, Orbital Sciences Corporation will launch its next cargo mission, Orb-3, to the International Space Station tomorrow (October 27) from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, VA.   The launch at 6:45 pm ET may be visible along the east coast (weather permitting).  Orbital has a map showing where to look on its website.  NASA TV will provide coverage beginning at 5:45 pm ET.  A post-launch press conference is scheduled for approximately 90 minutes after launch.

The American Astronautical Society (AAS) will hold its annual Wernher von Braun symposium in Huntsville, AL from October 27-30 (the 27th is a welcome reception and the 30th is a tour of the United Launch Alliance production facility in nearby Decatur, AL).  Three "Washington Perspectives" are on the schedule:  on October 28 by Cristina Chaplain of the Government Accountability Office; and on October 29 by Dick Obermann, minority staff director of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, at 8:00 am Central Time, and by Kate Kronmiller of Orbital Sciences Corporation at noon CT.  Lots of other very interesting discussions on tap as well.  There is no indication on the agenda if any of the event will be webcast.

On November 6, Mark Sirangelo of Sierra Nevada's Space Systems Division will talk to the Washington Space Business Roundtable.  Between Sierra Nevada's lawsuit over NASA's award of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contracts to Boeing and SpaceX (and not Sierra Nevada), and the company's non-NASA plans for its Dream Chaser spacecraft, it should be particularly interesting.

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

Monday, October 27

  • Orb-3 cargo launch to ISS, Wallops Island, VA, 6:45 pm ET (NASA TV coverage begins 5:45 pm ET), post-launch press conference approximately 90 minutes after launch.

Monday-Thursday, October 27-30

Tuesday-Thursday, October 28-29

Wednesday, October 29

Monday, November 3

Monday-Tuesday, November 3-4

Tuesday, November 4

Wednesday-Thursday, November 5-6

Thursday, November 6

Court Declines SNC's Motion to Overrule NASA on CCtCAP Authorization to Proceed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Oct-2014 (Updated: 21-Oct-2014 05:29 PM)

The U.S. Court of Federal Claims issued a verbal decision today declining to overrule NASA on its decision to allow SpaceX and Boeing to proceed in executing the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contracts.  Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) is suing the government over NASA's October 9 decision to rescind a previously issued stop-work order while SNC's protest of the contract awards is under consideration by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

In a terse statement, Judge Marilyn Blank Horn said:

"On October 21, 2014, the court held a hearing in the above captioned protest.  Given the urgency to resolve the override issue, the court provided the parties with a verbal decision declining to overrule the override."

"Override" refers to NASA overriding a provision of the Competition in Contracting Act (CICA) under which work on a contract ordinarily would cease while a protest of the contract award is pending.   NASA initially issued a stop-work order to Boeing and SpaceX in compliance with CICA after SNC filed its protest with GAO.   On October 9, however, it rescinded that order, overriding the CICA requirement, on the basis that its statutory authority allowed it to avoid serious adverse consequences.

SNC's suit before this court is that NASA did not demonstrate those serious adverse consequences in overriding the CICA requirements and the override was "illegal and void."

GAO has until January 5, 2015 to rule on SNC's underlying protest of the contract awards.  At the time it filed the protest, SNC said it found "serious questions and inconsistencies in the source selection process."

Boeing, SpaceX and SNC are all being funded under the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) phase of the commercial crew program.  On September 16,  NASA selected Boeing and SpaceX to continue on to the next phase, CCtCAP, under which each company is expected to complete work on new commercial crew space transportation systems to take NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station by the end of 2017.  Both designs are capsules: Boeing's CST-100 and SpaceX's Dragon V2.  SNC's design is a winged vehicle, Dream Chaser, that resembles a small space shuttle.