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Shelton Versus McCain on Import of SpaceX Failure

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Jul-2015 (Updated: 02-Jul-2015 04:55 PM)

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), and Gen. William Shelton (Ret.) view the June 28 SpaceX launch failure very differently.   In a McCain statement and a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Shelton, the two take opposite positions on what should be learned from the failure in terms of national security space launches and how long Russian RD-180 engines are needed by the U.S. military to have assured access to space.

The congressional push to end reliance on RD-180s began while Shelton was still on active duty and Commander of Air Force Space Command and he and McCain differed on these issues all along.  At the last congressional hearing on the topic during Shelton's tenure, in July 2014, they were fully were on display.  Apparently nothing has changed.

 
Gen. William Shelton while on active duty.  He
is now retired from the Air Force.
(Photo credit:  U.S. Air Force /Duncan Wood)

Ending reliance on RD-180s, which are used for the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket to launch national security satellites, and allowing SpaceX to compete with ULA for those launches, have become inextricably entwined.  Sunday's SpaceX launch failure adds fuel to the debate.

At the July 2014 hearing, Shelton agreed that it is time to build an American alternative to the RD-180, though he did not hide his admiration for the technical performance of the RD-180-powered Atlas V.  Atlas V has a 100 percent success rate so far.  He worried that it not be phased out before an American alternative is fully ready to replace it to ensure that ULA can be competitive with SpaceX later this decade.   McCain, however, insinuated that Shelton was favoring ULA and was against SpaceX.  He asserted that he did not like the Air Force's "block buy" contract with ULA for 36 rocket engine cores signed in 2013 and reminded everyone of the improprieties he uncovered in an aerial tanker lease deal with Boeing when "people went to jail and people got fired."  ULA is a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.


Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).  Photo credit:  McCain Senate website.

Shelton's successor as Air Force Space Command commander, Gen. John Hyten, has testified a number of times since then with essentially the same message -- yes, a new American-made engine should replace the RD-180, but make sure the new engine (and launch vehicle, if needed) is fully functional before ending use of the RD-180s.  Hyten and higher level DOD officials, including Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, are currently trying to get Congress to relax a requirement in last year's National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that RD-180 use end by 2019.

Meanwhile, SpaceX was certified at the end of May to compete with ULA for national security launches.  At the time, it had 18 consecutive Falcon 9 launch successes.   The question is how important Sunday's Falcon 9 failure is to SpaceX's ability to compete and, on a larger scale, what it might mean later this decade when Atlas V's no longer are in service because of the RD-180 ban if an alternative is not ready.  Critics argue SpaceX will become a monopoly supplier with a less reliable rocket.  ULA has been the monopoly provider of national security launches since it was formed in 2006.  It launches Atlas V and Delta IV, but Delta IV is very expensive -- ULA puts the price at $400 million per launch -- so is not cost competitive with SpaceX, the argument goes.  Thus SpaceX would win all the competitions in that time frame and become a monopoly itself..

In his Wall Street Journal op-ed on June 29, the day after the SpaceX failure, Shelton, now retired, made his points again.  Agreeing that it is "smart policy" to build a U.S. alternative to the RD-180, he argued that "an abrupt ban is not smart."   The House-passed FY2016 NDAA (H.R. 1735) provides flexibility as to how long the RD-180 may be used, as requested by the Air Force.  Shelton wants Congress to adopt that position during the conference between the House and Senate on the final version of the FY2016 NDAA.  The Senate version, written by McCain and his SASC colleagues, insists on 2019 as required by current law.

In a statement (reproduced below), McCain called Sunday's launch failure "a minor setback" that "will in no way impede the future success of SpaceX and its ability to support U.S. national security space missions."   As for those who try to "leverage" the failure to argue for more RD-180s than the nine allowed in the Senate bill, this "mishap in no way diminishes the urgency of ridding ourselves" of RD-180s.  He often states that paying Russia for the engines funds Russian President Vladimir Putin and his "cronies."   He vowed that "With Russian troops still occupying Ukraine and killing its citizens, I will continue to oppose" the House language.

The House and Senate began appointing conferees for the NDAA before Congress recessed for the July 4 holiday.  How long it will take for them to reach agreement on this and other issues is unknown.  President Obama has threatened to veto the bill for a variety of reasons.  His Statement of Administration Policy on the Senate bill (S. 1376) criticized several of the launch-related provisions including insistence on 2019 for ending use of RD-180s.

Sen. McCain's statement is not published on his website yet.  The text was provided to SpacePolicyOnline.com by his press officer, Julie Tarallo, via email and reads as follows:

I will be closely monitoring the outcome of the pending investigation into this launch failure, which comes after seven successful Falcon 9 launches to the International Space Station.
 
Any time we have a launch failure is a bad day for the United States space program. But our nation did not go to space because it was easy, but because it was hard. Space is still hard, and challenges like these serve as a reminder that space launch remains a very high-risk endeavor requiring unwavering perseverance and utmost dedication among the select few who strive to one day make it commonplace, reliable, and affordable. I am confident that the that this minor setback will in no way impede the future success of SpaceX and its ability to support U.S. national security space missions.
 
There will be those that will seek to leverage this incident to argue for deepening America’s dependence on Russian rocket engines for national security space launches. This mishap in no way diminishes the urgency of ridding ourselves of the Russian RD-180 rocket engine. The Department of Defense will continue to have two launch providers until at least 2018, if not later. If that competitive environment were placed at risk in the coming years, I am confident the Congress could revisit this issue in order to mitigate any national security impacts.
 
With Russian troops still occupying Ukraine and killing its citizens, I will continue to oppose language currently in the House defense authorization bill, which guarantees that $300 million of taxpayer money will go to Vladimir Putin, his cronies, and the Russian military industrial base.
 

Editor's Note:  The statement refers to seven successful Falcon 9 flights to the ISS, a count that must include the C2+ demonstration flight in 2012 plus the six operational cargo missions prior to Sunday's attempt.

What's Happening in Space Policy June 29-July 3, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jun-2015 (Updated: 28-Jun-2015 10:27 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of June 29-July 3, 2015.  Congress is in recess this week for the July 4 holiday.

During the Week

Today's SpaceX launch failure of its CRS-7 mission to the International Space Station (ISS) is likely to continue to resonate this week, especially as NASA awaits Friday's return-to-flight of Russia's Progress cargo spacecraft.   Although the ISS has a lot of redundancy for cargo resupply, the failure of three of the four existing systems within eight months is certainly something that could not be anticipated.   Orbital ATK is still recovering from the October 2014 Antares/Cygnus launch failure.  Russia hopes its diagnosis is correct that the April Soyuz/Progress failure was the result of a one-time "design peculiarity" and the system will work this time, just two months after the failure.  How long it will take for SpaceX to recover from today's failure is an unknown, though SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell confidently predicted it would be less than a year.  In any case, the space commuity will be on pins and needles for the 12:55 am ET launch of Progress M-28M on July 3.

Apart from that high drama, NASA's Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) is meeting Monday-Wednesday.   On Tuesday, it will hold a special one-hour panel on progress in finding, tracking and characterizing Near Earth Objects (NEOs) -- asteroids and comets -- and planning for planetary defense.  The SBAG sessions and the panel will be webcast.   Tuesday actually is "Asteroid Day" with events around the globe.  Two are "premier events" in London and San Francisco and some may have their own webcasts.

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

Monday-Wednesday, June 29-July 1

Tuesday, June 30

Tuesday-Wednesday, June 30-July 1

Friday, July 3

U.S., China Agree to Bilateral Civil Space Cooperation Dialogue

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Jun-2015 (Updated: 26-Jun-2015 06:21 PM)

During recent meetings with Chinese officials, Secretary of State John Kerry agreed to establish a "U.S.-China Civil Space Cooperation Dialogue."  A State Department spokesman says the first meeting will be held before the end of October, but could not provide any other details.

The lengthy list of "outcomes" from the seventh round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) held in Washington, DC June 22-24, 2015, includes a section on cooperation in science, technology and agriculture.   Under that heading, the two countries agreed as follows:

"101. Space: The United States and China decided to establish regular bilateral government-to-government consultations on civil space cooperation. The first U.S.-China Civil Space Cooperation Dialogue is to take place in China before the end of October Separate from the Civil Space Cooperation Dialogue, the two sides also decided to have exchanges on space security matters under the framework of the U.S.-China Security Dialogue before the next meeting of the Security Dialogue."

NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) have been prohibited by law from dealing with China on space cooperation on a bilateral basis for several years.  The prohibition was originally inserted in the appropriations bills that fund NASA by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), who chaired the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee before retiring last year.  The final law that he put in place (P.L. 113-235, the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015), which is in effect today, states that no funds may be spent by NASA or OSTP to "develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement, or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company unless such activities are specifically authorized by law after the date of enactment of this Act."

The new House CJS chairman, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), agrees with Wolf's position and the prohibition is continued in the House-passed version of the FY2016 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill (H.R. 2578).

The agreement signed by Kerry reflects State Department activities with China, which are not prohibited by law.  The State Department has a Bureau of Oceans and International and Scientific Affairs -- often referred to as Oceans, Environment and Science (OES) -- that oversees international civil space cooperation and presumably will be the official host of these meetings.  If and how NASA will be involved apparently is yet to be determined.

The agreement also says (section 102) that the two countries will continue bilateral consultations on satellite collision avoidance and the long-term sustainability of space as part of the new U.S.-China Civil Space Cooperation Dialogue.

Elsewhere in the list (section 31), the State Department says that the two countries decided to "enhance communication and coordination in the multilateral frameworks of the region, such as the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum."  As part of those activities, they will undertake joint projects in three areas, one of which is space security (the others are oil spill response and earthquake emergency response).

Also, section 106 reports that the two countries "enhanced cooperation and exchange in space weather monitoring programs, forecasts and services."

What's Happening in Space Policy June 21-28, 2015 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Jun-2015 (Updated: 24-Jun-2015 06:56 PM)

UPDATE:  Friday's House SS&T hearing on astrobiology has been postponed.  Friday's HASC subcommittee hearing on RD-180 is now at 9:00 am rather than 10:30 am ET.

Here is our list of space policy events for the week (and a bit) of June 21-28, 2015.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

It's a busy week, starting today (Sunday) with the GEOINT 2015 conference, ending next Sunday with the 7th operational SpaceX cargo launch (SpX-7) to the International Space Station, and lots of stuff in between including one congressional hearing on astrobiology and (yet) another on the RD-180 issue.

Astrobiology -- the search for life elsewhere in the solar system and beyond -- is much in the news lately with ongoing research at Mars with orbiters and rovers, an upcoming  mission to Jupiter's moon Europa in the 2020s, and the exoplanet discoveries from the Kepler space telescope.  NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan will talk to the Space Policy and History Forum about this topic tomorrow (Monday) at 4:00 pm ET at the National Air and Space Museum.  Seating is limited and in a part of the museum not open to the public, so pre-registration is required.  If you can't make it tomorrow, Stofan was part of a really excellent NASA panel discussion in April on "Water in the Universe" and the search for habitable worlds.   That's a good primer for Friday's House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing on astrobiology, where she will testify along with three other experts including Cornell's Jonathan Lunine.

The astrobiology hearing hopefully will be over in time to switch at 10:30 am ET to the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Strategic Forces Subcommittee hearing on the RD-180 issue.   One almost would think there is nothing left to say considering all the hearings already held, but the witness list is quite impressive, with three government and six industry witnesses. The hearing also has its focus on "investing in industry" to end reliance on the Russian engine that powers the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V rocket.   In addition to the "usual suspects" like Air Force Space Command's Gen. John Hyten and ULA'sTory Bruno, former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin will be there in his role as deputy chair of the RD-180 Availability Risk Mitigation Study (the Mitchell report).  Griffin now is President of Shafer Corporation that is part of a consortium including Dynetics and Aerojet Rocketdyne that wants to obtain the production rights to ULA's Atlas V rocket and apparently replace the Atlas V's RD-180 engine with Aerojet Rocketdyne's AR1.  That is a new twist.   Aerojet Rocketdyne's Julie Van Kleeck will be there too, along with Orbital ATK's Frank Culbertson and SpaceX's Jeff Thornburg (one imagines Elon Musk and Gwynne Shotwell are a little busy preparing for Sunday's SpX-7 launch).   Blue Origin will also be at the table with its President Rob Meyerson.  Its deal with ULA on the BE-4 engine has put it on the front page of the debate over how quickly America can move beyond the RD-180.  The other two government witnesses are DOD's assistant secretary for acquisition, Katrina McFarland, and Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, Commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center.  Should be good.

Many other interesting events are on tap.  The list below shows everything we know about as of Sunday (June 21) afternoon.

Sunday-Wednesday, June 21-24

Monday, June 22

Monday-Tuesday, June 22-23

Monday-Wednesday, June 22-24

Tuesday, June 23

Tuesday-Thursday, June 23-25

Thursday, June 25

Friday, June 26

Saturday, June 27

Sunday, June 28

Senate Passes FY2016 Defense Authorization, But Blocked on Defense Appropriations

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Jun-2015 (Updated: 19-Jun-2015 12:36 AM)

The Senate passed the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) today despite the threat of a Presidential veto.  Shortly thereafter, however, the Senate Republican leadership was blocked in an attempt to bring up the FY2016 defense appropriations bill as Democrats fulfilled their pledge to block all appropriations bills until Republicans agree to negotiate a new budget deal to replace the sequester.  The White House issued a veto threat against the appropriations bill, too.

Authorization.  Some top Senate Democrats earlier said they would block passage of the NDAA (S. 1376/H.R. 1735) because of the debate over budget caps, but Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) chairman John McCain (R-AZ) argued that although the NDAA recommends funding levels, it does not actually provide any funding. The policy provisions at the heart of the legislation are so important that the bill needed to pass, he argued.  His reasoning apparently persuaded a number of Democrats.  The bill passed by a healthy margin (71-25) despite the veto threat from the White House. (Not sure of the difference between an authorization and an appropriation?  See SpacePolicyOnline.com's "What's a Markup" fact sheet.)

The House has already passed its version of the NDAA.  The next step is coming up with a compromise between the House and Senate versions.  One important space-related issue on which the two sides of the Capitol disagree is the pace at which an American-made alternative to Russia's RD-180 rocket engine must be in service.

The RD-180 issue has been debated extensively in Congress and elsewhere over the past year and a half as reported in these pages.  Essentially, the Russian-built RD-180s are used for the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V rocket, one of two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) used to launch national security satellites for DOD and the intelligence community.  The other is the Delta IV.  Russia's annexation of Crimea and the resulting chill in U.S.-Russian relations galvanized Congress to require DOD and the Air Force to stop purchasing RD-180s and develop an American alternative instead.  The FY2015 NDAA set 2019 as the last year when RD-180s can be used for national security launches (there is no prohibition against using them for civil or commercial launches, although the number of engines that may be purchased is restricted). 

The Air Force is trying to convince Congress to give it a few more years to make the transition, arguing that it needs more time to develop, test and certify a new launch system (of which an engine is part).  It wants an extension to 2022.  The House-passed FY2016 NDAA provides that flexibility, but the Senate bill insists on 2019.

The RD-180 and launch competition issues have become entwined.  ULA has been a monopoly provider of launch services to the Air Force and intelligence community since it was created in 2006, but now a competitor, SpaceX, has emerged.   DOD, the Air Force and ULA assert that they embrace the drive for competition, but want to make certain SpaceX does not itself become a monopoly provider in the 2019-2022 time frame when Atlas V's no longer can be launched (because RD-180s are prohibited), but a ULA alternative is not ready.  These issues not only split the House and Senate authorizing committees, but the Senate authorizing and appropriations committees.  McCain's Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) is the one holding DOD's feet to the fire on 2019, while the other three are siding with DOD.

Appropriations.  Shortly after Senate passage of the NDAA today (June 18), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) tried to bring up the defense appropriations bill (S. 1558/H.R. 2685), which was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee last week.  He needed 60 votes to allow the bill to be debated, but it fell short 50-45. 

Senate Democrats have vowed to prevent any of the appropriations bills from being debated until Republicans agree to negotiate a new budget deal to replace the spending caps set in the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA).  They and the White House are particularly incensed that Republicans are using a "gimmick" to add tens of billions of dollars to defense spending by adding it to an off-budget account (Overseas Contingency Operations -- OCO) to which the caps do not apply, while leaving non-defense spending subject to the BCA caps and a sequester if they are not met. That top level disagreement is shaping congressional action on funding bills this year and some Democrats are warning that a government shutdown is possible if Republicans refuse to negotiate a new agreement.

Even if Congress did pass appropriations bills, the White House has said it will veto them. The main reason is the overarching debate about the budget caps and the OCO gimmick, but specific issues also are mentioned.

In its Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) on the Senate defense appropriations bill, issued today, the White House called out three space-related issues as being of particular concern:  the addition of $143.6 million for building a U.S. alternative to the RD-180; the rescission of $125 million from FY2015 funds for an EELV launch, which is related to the RD-180 issue; and the elimination of funding to launch the last Defense Meteorological Satellite Program weather satellite (DSMP-20),

As explained in the committee's report, Sec. 8045 rescinds the $125 million because of the requirement in Sec. 1608 of  the FY2015 NDAA that use of RD-180s cease in 2019.  The money was provided, the report says, to double the number of competitive launch opportunities in FY2015.  However, the committee agrees with the Air Force and ULA that a new U.S. launch system to replace the Atlas V will not be ready by 2019, and, since ULA's Delta IV is not cost competitive, only SpaceX could win launch contracts.  That means no competition, "nullifying the intent" of the addition. 

The committee goes on to say that it is not recommending fewer competitive opportunities in FY2016 because "true competition" may still be possible if Congress modifies the Sec. 1608 requirement as requested by DOD and "enable a responsible transition" away from the RD-180 "as soon as possible."  As noted above, the appropriations committee's position is at odds with the just-passed Senate FY2016 NDAA, which maintains the 2019 requirement.  Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) tried to remove Sec. 8045 during markup of the appropriations bill last week, but he withdrew his amendment when it became clear it would not pass.  Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), chairman of the full committee and its defense subcommittee; Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), the top Democrat on the defense subcommittee; and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), argued stridently against the Graham amendment.  (ULA manufactures its rockets in Decatur, AL.)

Meanwhile, to "ensure expeditious development" of a U.S. alternative to the RD-180, the committee added $143.6 million for rocket engine development above the $84.4 million requested.

The Obama Administration agrees with the committee's position on modifying the 2019 requirement, but not with the rescission of $125 million from FY2015 EELV procurement or the addition of $143.6 million in FY2016 for rocket engine development.  Regarding the latter, It argues that the committee's "engine-centric approach ... would not preserve the Nation's assured access to space" because an engine is only one of many critical components of a launch system and developing a propulsion system independent of the rest of the system risks "hundreds of millions of dollars without ensuring the availability of operational launch systems."  (The White House's threat to veto the Senate version of the NDAA also included concerns about space launch issues, objecting to four sections of that bill.)

As for DMSP-20, the Air Force changed its mind this year about the need for this last of the 1990s-era DMSP series.  The tortuous history of DOD weather satellites and the failure of the DOD-NOAA-NASA National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program need not be repeated here. DOD is still trying to determine its future path for weather satellites needed to support military operations.  Congress seems exasperated, especially with the high costs of storing and launching the DMSPs. The appropriations committee report says that the Air Force is proposing to launch DMSP-20 in FY2018 or FY2019 at a cost of between $410-$455 million in addition to the $500 million already spent.  It notes that the Air Force previously said DMSP-20 was not needed.  It not only denied the $89.3 million requested for FY2016, but rescinded $50 million of the FY2015 funding and directed the Air Force to bring the program to an "orderly close" with the remaining FY2015 funds.

The Administration's SAP says it strongly objects to the committee's position because by 2017 only one of the DMSP satellites now in orbit will still be within its design life.  DOD is concerned about a potential gap in polar orbiting weather satellite data that could lead to "reduced accuracy in weather prediction models and degraded efficiency of surveillance and reconnaissance platforms."  (The White House's threat to veto the Senate version of the NDAA also included objections to that committee's DMSP provisions, which limited the availability of funds until certain prerequisites are met, which the White House termed "onerous.")

The space issues are only a small part of the list of Administration objections to the appropriations bill.  While they are all important to reaching agreement on a final FY2016 appropriations measure, the fundamental issue of budget caps and balancing defense versus non-defense spending portends a lengthy and fractious appropriations season this year.

Europa Mission Moves into Formulation -- Might ESA Provide a Lander?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Jun-2015 (Updated: 17-Jun-2015 11:57 PM)

A mission to send a spacecraft to explore Jupiter's moon Europa that owes its existence to an alliance between a few planetary scientists and Washington politicians moved from concept review to formulation today, the first step in the development phase.  NASA continues to say it will be launched "in the 2020s" while its political patrons are intent on 2022.

NASA Science Mission Directorate head John Grunsfeld announced that "Today we are taking an exciting step from concept to mission, in our quest to find signs of life beyond Earth." 

On May 26, NASA announced the instruments that will be included on the spacecraft.  The goal is to determine if the moon is habitable -- not whether life exists there, but whether the conditions that would allow life to develop exist.  Europa project scientist Curt Neibur said at the time that "we don't have a life detector" and there is not even a scientific consensus on what to measure in order to detect life confidently.

A mission to Europa was the second priority for a flagship planetary science mission in the most recent National Research Council (NRC) Decadal Survey on planetary science.   Returning samples from the surface of Mars got top billing, in part because of the high cost of a Europa mission, then estimated at $4.7 billion.   The report recommended that Europa advocates downsize the mission to make it more affordable, yielding the “Europa Clipper” concept now being used as the baseline design. That design involves a spacecraft that will orbit Jupiter and make 45 flybys of Europa over two-and-a-half years. 

Some Europa enthusiasts want to send a lander as well as an orbiter. 

The European Space Agency (ESA) built the Huygens spacecraft that traveled with the U.S. Cassini mission to Saturn and landed on its moon Titan.  ESA also built the Philae spacecraft that traveled with ESA's Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churuymov-Gerasimenko and landed on the comet last November.  Philae just awakened from 7 months of hibernation and resumed communicating with Earth via Rosetta, which remains in orbit around the comet. 

Following on those successes, the idea of ESA providing a Europa lander as part of this mission has been getting some attention. During a press conference Monday at the Paris Air Show, outgoing ESA Director General (DG) Jean-Jacques Dordain and incoming DG Johann-Dietrich Woerner were asked about that possibility.  Dordain laughingly replied that he already told NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden that he would never let the United States land on Europa without Europe.  More seriously, he and Woerner said it was something that would have to be discussed.  ESA is already building its own orbiting mission to Jupiter's moons -- the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) -- that will focus on two different moons, Ganymede and Callisto, and make only two flybys of Europa.

For now, however, the Europa Clipper orbiter is the NASA reference design and that is what moved into formulation today.

NASA had not planned on building a Europa mission now.  The Decadal Survey's top priority was a series of missions to Mars that would eventually lead to returning a sample of Mars to Earth.  That "campaign," which was conceived as a joint NASA-ESA effort, fell victim to budget constraints.  NASA instead is building a single spacecraft, Mars 2020, using hardware left over from the Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity mission.  Obtaining funding for another expensive planetary science mission did not appear possible.

Two influential members of Congress have other ideas, however.   Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) and Adam Schiff (D-CA) used their positions on the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee to add funding for a Europa mission in FY2013 ($75 million; none was requested), FY2014 ($80 million; none was requested), and FY2015 ($100 million, compared to the $15 million requested).  Culberson now chairs that subcommittee and the House-passed version of the FY2016 CJS appropriations bill provides $140 million for Europa, an increase of $110 million above the request of $30 million. Schiff no longer is on the House Appropriations Committee, but the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is in his district and he remains a strong supporter.  Culberson's interest appears to be personal rather than constituent-based and he is an ardent advocate of the mission.  He repeatedly asserts that he is confident life will be discovered on Europa and he wants to be part of making that possible.

The Senate Appropriations Committee did not add any funding for Europa in approving its version of the FY2016 CJS bill, but both sides of Capitol Hill agree that the spacecraft should be launched using NASA's new big rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), which is now in development.  The House-passed bill specifies that the launch should take place in 2022.

NASA officials warn that they cannot efficiently proceed with a mission that is funded by annual congressional earmarks hoping each year that the money will be provided instead of through the regular budget planning process that requires Administration support.   The Obama Administration did request $30 million for Europa mission formulation in FY2016, however, and that is the step that began today even though the FY2016 appropriations process is far from complete.

Europa stirs fascination because observations from an earlier NASA mission to Jupiter, Galileo, indicated that a liquid ocean lies beneath Europa's icy crust.  Other observations using the Hubble Space Telescope have more recently revealed plumes of material being ejected from Europa. One goal of the Europa mission is to study the material in the plumes as it flies close to the moon.  Instruments on the spacecraft will be able to analyze the material and determine what lies beneath the crust.  Niebur stressed at the May 26 briefing that the flyby mission would be able to reveal Europa's secrets without touching the surface "just as a doctor can see what's going on inside your body using an MRI."

Senate Appropriators Favor Earth Science, Exploration; Cut Space Technology, Commercial Crew

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Jun-2015 (Updated: 19-Jun-2015 09:02 AM)

The Senate Appropriations Committee publicly released its report today on the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill that it marked up last week.  Some of the winners and losers were clear already, but the report illustrates less obvious changes resulting, in part, from the committee shifting programs from one account to another.

One example is NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD).   NASA's request was $725 million.  The Senate committee cut that to $600 million, but it also shifted the Restore-L satellite servicing project from the Space Operations account into Space Technology and specified $150 million for that program alone.  So in addition to cutting the total for space technology activities, a substantial amount is earmarked for a specific project that was not part of that request.

During the April 16, 2015 CJS subcommittee hearing on NASA's budget request, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) pointedly asked NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden why the request for the satellite servicing technology program at Goddard Space Flight Center (in Maryland) was so low -- $65 million compared to the $130 million it received in FY2015.  Bolden asked to speak to her about it privately, while adding that he could not determine who would be the customers for NASA satellite servicing technology since the private sector is already working on those technologies.  Apparently he was not convincing.  The committee allocated $150 million, $20 million more than FY2015, and shifted it from International Space Station (ISS) Research in the Space Operations account into Space Technology.  It further directed NASA not to include any carry-over funds from prior years in the $150 million allocation.   The report states refueling Landsat 7 or another U.S. government satellite is a pathfinder mission and although pathfinder technologies were demonstrated on ISS, it is now time to have a "full-scale stand-alone demonstration which will benefit multiple NASA mission directorates and, therefore, is more appropriately funded within Space Technology" although the program is to be co-managed by STMD and the Science Mission Directorate.

NASA's Earth science program, which was cut deeply in the House-passed version of the CJS bill, fared very well in the Senate version.  The $1.947 billion request was cut only by $16 million and NASA is directed to accelerate development of the next Landsat satellite, Landsat 9, so that it is ready by 2020 instead of 2023.  The committee denied funding for a Landsat-related free-flying thermal infrared instrument, TIR-FF, NASA wants to build  to ensure there is no gap in providing that type of data, presumably because if Landsat 9 is ready by 2020, the risk of such a gap is minimized.  (For a comparison of the House-passed and Senate committee-approved funding levels, see SpacePolicyOnline.com's fact sheet on NASA's FY2016 budget request.)

The Senate committee did not specify additional funds for a planetary mission to Europa, and, in fact, cut the planetary science budget by $40 million.  The House increased planetary science substantially, including adding $110 million to the $30 million requested for Europa.  One place the two do agree is that the Europa mission should be designed to utilize the Space Launch System.

The Senate committee shifted the commercial crew program from Exploration to Space Operations, which makes apples-to-oranges comparisons of the request and committee-approved levels for those accounts more difficult than may appear at first glance.   While Exploration appears to get a deep cut, in fact the SLS program gets a $543.5 million increase compared to the request, of which $100 million is for the Exploration Upper Stage, and Orion gets a $104 million boost compared to the request.  The total for Exploration is less because commercial crew is shifted to Space Operations, where it is cut to $900 million from the $1.244 billion request.   Commercial crew is tasked with developing systems to take crews to and from ISS and the committee said it wanted to consolidate all ISS funding in a single account.

Overall, the Senate committee recommends a $239.6 million cut to NASA's budget request of $18,529.1 million, approving $18,289.5 million.  To obtain that net reduction, the committee favored science programs, exploration, and education, while reducing aeronautics, space technology, and NASA's internal accounts.  Space Operations is an amalgam that is difficult to analyze at the level of detail provided in the committee's report.  Commercial crew was shifted into Space Operations, but satellite servicing was moved out, so looking only at the total on paper -- $4,756.4 million compared to the $3,957.3 million request -- does not tell the whole story.

During markup, Mikulski offered an amendment to add $300 million for commercial crew, $46 million for the WFIRST space telescope, $50 million for the Mars 2020 program,  $54 million for space technology, and $50 million for Orion, but it was rejected on party lines.  Senate Democrats continue to insist that the budget caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) need to be revised for non-defense spending before they will allow any appropriations bills to be debated on the Senate floor.  So far the Republicans do not seem interested in negotiating a new budget deal.  They are interested in adding money for defense and are accomplishing that by adding it in an off-budget account (Overseas Contingency Operations).  Congressional Democrats and the President call it a gimmick and the President has vowed to veto any appropriations bills that conform with the BCA caps.

Note:  The figures for NASA's total budget request, total recommended by this committee, and the amount of the cut have been clarified.

 

What's Happening in Space Policy June 15-19, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Jun-2015 (Updated: 14-Jun-2015 04:17 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of June 15-19, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

The Senate resumes consideration of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  Floor debate began on June 3 and progress has been slow due to internal Senate politics. Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) chairman Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said late last week that the bill has become "unstuck" now so he is hoping for quick resolution.

The Senate Republican leadership also wants to take up the FY2016 Defense Appropriations Act this week.  We'll see how that goes.  Democrats have vowed to prevent any funding bills from reaching the floor until Republicans agree to negotiate over the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) funding caps.  So far the Republicans don't seem interested.

One space issue has split Senate appropriators and authorizers.  In the NDAA, McCain is holding DOD's feet to the fire to discontinue using Russian RD-180 engines by 2019.  He spoke on the Senate floor on Thursday about the need to stop sending money to Russian President Putin and his cronies.  At the same time that day, however, the Senate appropriations committee was approving a bill that would relax that requirement.  McCain's friend and ally (and Presidential candidate) Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) offered an amendment to strike the language in the bill offering that flexibility, but strong bipartisan opposition led him to withdraw it.

The House already has passed its versions of the NDAA and defense appropriations act.  This week it will take up the FY2016 Intelligence Authorization Act, H.R. 2596.   Most of that is classified, but the House Intelligence Committee said that it "invests in the resiliency of our national security space architecture."   It is set for consideration by the House Rules Committee tomorrow, with floor debate on Tuesday.

The biennial Paris Air Show is being held this week at Le Bourget (outside Paris) which usually creates a lot of news, so stay tuned.   And the annual Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon) will be held in Chicago all week.  NASA and university scientists will hold a panel discussion on Tuesday afternoon that will be broadcast on NASA TV.

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

Sunday-Friday, June 14-19 (continued from last week)

Monday-Friday, June 15-19

Monday-Sunday, June 15-21

Tuesday, June 16

Wednesday, June 17

RD-180 Pits Senate Appropriators Against Authorizers

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Jun-2015 (Updated: 12-Jun-2015 09:10 AM)

The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) may want to hold DOD's feet to the fire to stop using Russian RD-180 engines by 2019, but the Senate Appropriations Committee (SAC) isn't so sure.   Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) objected to a provision in SAC's defense appropriations bill, which was marked up today, that would provide more flexibility as to when use of the RD-180s must end, but his amendment to delete the language won little support and he withdrew it.

SASC chairman Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has been a leader in motivating DOD and the United Launch Alliance (ULA) to replace the Russian rocket engines for ULA's Atlas V rocket with an American alternative.  McCain and others who share his point of view do not want American dollars going to Russian President Vladimir Putin or his "cronies."   They want an American-built engine to replace the RD-180 by 2019, a requirement included in the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), although waivers are possible for national security reasons.

The Air Force and ULA are seeking to change that language to allow use of the RD-180s into the early 2020s.  They insist that although they might be able to develop a new engine by 2019, it will be 2021 or 2022 before the engine is integrated into a new rocket, tested, and certified for launching expensive, critical national security satellites.  The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) agreed and softened the requirement in its version of the FY2016 NDAA. 

McCain and other SASC members, however, expressed their displeasure with the Air Force's slow pace during a May 2015 hearing and did not provide any relief in the Senate version of the FY2016 NDAA, which is now being debated on the Senate floor (McCain spoke on the RD-180 issue today).  The Air Force wants to be able to procure 14 more RD-180s, while SASC wants to limit that number to nine. 

The Senate Appropriations Committee does not agree with SASC.   Although the text of the bill is not yet publicly available, Graham offered an amendment today to delete section 8045 that apparently allows greater flexibility in how many RD-180s may be purchased.  Democrats and Republicans both objected to the amendment.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) insisted that sufficient time is needed for an alternative U.S. engine to be developed so that the Air Force does not "jump from one monopoly to another." He cited a letter from Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper endorsing the Air Force's position that more time is needed.

ULA has been a monopoly provider of launches for the national security sector since it was created in 2006 as a Lockheed Martin-Boeing joint venture when the launch market could not sustain two competitors.  ULA offers the Altas V, Delta IV Medium, and Delta IV Heavy rockets.   It recently decided to discontinue the Delta IV Medium, leaving it with only Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy.  The Atlas V is powered by RD-180s and Delta IV Heavy, at $400 million per launch, is not cost competitive.  

Last month, the Air Force finally certified SpaceX to compete for national security launches.  ULA supporters therefore argue that if ULA is not allowed to launch Atlas V after 2019 because it cannot obtain more RD-180s, and the Delta IV is not competitive, SpaceX with its Falcon rockets will become a de facto monopoly provider.  Since the goal is to lower costs through competition, the argument goes, SpaceX should not be allowed to replace ULA as a monopoly provider and therefpre Atlas V launches are needed until ULA can offer a new rocket using a new American engine (or other competitors emerge).

The debate pits two groups against each other.  Both agree on the need to end U.S. reliance on Russian rocket engines and reduce launch costs through competition.  The debate is over the timing.

One group is anxious to end reliance on Russia as soon as possible because of its annexation of Crimea last year and its continued action in Ukraine.  Some also are SpaceX advocates intent on lowering government costs for launching satellites through competition with ULA.  On the other side are ULA supporters who want to give the company time to develop and test an alternative engine and remain in the space launch business as well as those sympathetic to Air Force arguments that it needs more time to learn how to interact with the private sector in this new era of public-private partnerships.

SASC is in the first camp, while SAC appears to be in the other, though some SAC members clearly are in tune with the desire to end reliance on Russia sooner rather than later.  Durbin pointed out today that the provision in the appropriations bill, which provides $143.6 million to develop a new U.S. engine, calls it the "Competitive Rocket  Innovation Modernization Engine Assembly" or CRIMEA.  "The acronym tells the story," Durbin said.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), chairman of the CJS subcommittee, and Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), chairman of SAC, both spoke against the Graham amendment, stressing that the bill provides money to develop a new engine and the Air Force and ULA need sufficient time to succeed. 

Graham insisted that the authorizing committee (SASC) already had this debate and decided that the current 2019 deadline was achievable.  We are "not enhancing competition" by allowing ULA to use more than nine RD-180s, "we're enhancing the reliance on a Russian engine that we need to get away from," Graham insisted and a "date certain" is needed to "break this dependency."  Realizing the lack of support for his amendment, however, he withdrew it and said he would continue to work with Shelby on the issue.

Strictly speaking, authorizing committees set policy while the appropriations committee sets funding levels, so this could be an interesting case of jurisdictional and parliamentary dispute depending on the exact wording of the provision in the appropriations bill.

The committee approved its version of the FY2016 defense appropriations bill, but it is not clear when it will be debated on the Senate floor.  Senate Democrats have vowed to work to prevent any appropriations measures from being debated until Republicans agree to negotiate over revising or revoking the spending caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act.

The House passed its version of the defense appropriations bill (H.R. 2685) this afternoon.

What's Happening in Space Policy June 8-12, 2015-UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Jun-2015 (Updated: 09-Jun-2015 04:15 PM)

UPDATE:  The Planetary Society's telepresser on Wednesday re LightSail has been added.

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of June 8-12, 2015 and any insight we can provide about them.  The House and Senate are in session.

During the Week

The House and Senate will start off the week by continuing debate on the FY2016 Transportation-Housing and Urban Development (T-HUD) appropriations bill and the FY2016 National Defense Authorization  Act (NDAA) respectively.  Last week, an amendment was adopted by the House to the T-HUD bill adding a small amount of money for FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation ($250,000, compared to the $1.5 million increase requested by the Administration and rejected by the Appropriations Committee). 

The Senate Appropriations Committee will markup the FY2016 bills for Defense and for Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS, including NASA and NOAA).   Subcommittee markup for Defense is on Tuesday, subcommittee markup for CJS is on Wednesday, and the full committee will markup both of those plus one more on Thursday.

One may wonder what the point is of moving the appropriations bills and the NDAA (which passed the House in May) through the committee process considering that the President has vowed to veto all of them because of the larger dispute over budget caps. Congressional Republicans are using what many call a "gimmick" to add money for defense in an off-budget account to which budget limits  -- "caps" -- agreed to in the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) do not apply while leaving non-defense spending subject to the caps.   Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) indicated last week that he and his fellow Democrats will not allow any of the appropriations bills to reach the Senate floor for debate until Republicans are willing to negotiate a solution. There is a widespread expectation that eventually Republicans and Democrats will reach a compromise similar to the one engineered in 2013 by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray (the Ryan-Murray agreement) to provide more flexibility.   Of course, back then Democrats controlled the Senate and Republicans had the House, while today both chambers have Republican majorities so the politics are quite different now.  Time will tell how it all turns out, but it looks like it will be a long appropriations season.

On Thursday, three International Space Station (ISS) crew members will return to Earth, just about a month later than originally planned.  NASA's Terry Virts, ESA's Samantha Cristoforetti, and Roscosmos's Anton Shkaplerov will undock from the ISS at 6:20 am ET and land in Kazakhstan at 9:43 am ET.  NASA TV will provide coverage.  Their return was delayed while Russia investigated the April 28 Progress M-27M failure.  Russian experts have concluded it was caused by a "design peculiarity"related to frequency-dynamic characteristics between the robotic Progress spacecraft and its Soyuz- 2.1a rocket.   In a bit of a surprise, Russia launched a Soyuz-2.1a rocket carrying a military satellite on Friday, perhaps as a demonstration that they are confident the problem will not recur.  The same day, Russia and NASA confirmed that the ISS crew will return on June 11.

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

Monday-Wednesday, June 8-10

Tuesday, June 9

Tuesday-Thursday, June 9-11

Wednesday, June 10

Wednesday, June 10 - Friday, June 19

Thursday, June 11

Thursday-Friday, June 11-12