Space Law News
This week's space policy related events begin today (Sunday) with many more coming up for the week of April 26-May 2, 2015. The House and Senate are in session.
During the Week
It's another busy week in the space policy business that begins today and runs all the way through Saturday.
Tonight (Sunday), the CBS 60 Minutes program will air a segment on Air Force Space Command and threats posed to U.S. satellites. In a preview on the CBS website, Gen. Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, is asked if we will defend our satellites by force if necessary and he replies "That's why we have a military. I'm not NASA."
Hyten will have a different kind of appearance later in the week (Wednesday) when he and Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James testify to the Senate Armed Services Committee's Strategic Forces subcommittee about the FY2016 budget request for military space programs. They will be joined by GAO's Cristina Chaplain. That same day the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) will be marking up its version of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), including recommendations on the military space program that were adopted by the HASC Strategic Forces subcommittee last week. Full committee markup is typically a lengthy affair with many amendments debated. Check back here for a recap of any related to the space program.
Speaking of NASA, Dava Newman's nomination to be NASA Deputy Administrator is scheduled for debate and (hopefully) passage by the Senate on Monday beginning at 5:00 pm ET. The agreement between the parties is for 30 minutes of debate divided equally, so if all time is used, the vote would be at 5:30 pm ET. Later in the week (Thursday) and across the Hill, the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) committee will markup a new NASA authorization bill. This one (no bill number yet) covers 2016 and 2017. The House already passed a bill for 2015, so together they would provide a three-year authorization for the agency. The Senate has not acted on a new NASA authorization bill, but indications are that they plan to do so, although the timing is not clear. NASA's most recent authorization act covered only through FY2013.
Meanwhile, the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation will learn how its FY2016 budget request fares in the House Appropriations subcommittee that provides its funding. The Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) subcommittee markup is on Wednesday morning.
Many more events are on tap, including one that is just plain fun. If you're in the Washington, DC area on Saturday, you and your family can enjoy Space Day at the National Air and Space Museum downtown. This year it commemorates 50 years of spacewalks. Astronauts will be on hand to give talks and there are kid-friendly activities planned.
All the events we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below.
Sunday, April 26
Monday, April 27
Monday-Friday, April 27 - May 1
Tuesday-Thursday, April 28-30
Wednesday, April 29
Thursday, April 30
Thursday-Saturday, April 30 - May 2
Friday, May 1
Saturday, May 2
HASC Subcommittee Proposes Changes to RD-180 Restrictions Among Multiple Other Space Issues - UPDATE
UPDATE: The subcommittee approved the draft on April 23 with a few amendments. The only one related to space was offered by Rep. Lamborn (R-CO) as part of an en-bloc package. It would specifically prohibit DOD from relying on China or Russia for space-based weather data.
The Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) will mark up its portion of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) tomorrow. A draft of the subcommittee's bill and report, which covers most DOD space programs including national security space launch, was released today. Among its provisions, the draft favorably disposes of Air Force and United Launch Alliance (ULA) concerns about provisions in last year's NDAA restricting use of Russia's RD-180 rocket engines.
Last year's law told DOD that it could not use RD-180s for national security space launches after 2019, although waivers were permitted under certain circumstances. Those waivers were not sufficient for the Air Force and ULA, however, and they have been lobbying for more flexibility because they do not think a U.S. alternative to the RD-180 will be ready by 2019. The RD-180 powers ULA's Atlas V rocket, one of the two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) that launch most national security satellites. ULA's Delta IV is the other. SpaceX is diligently trying to be certified to compete against ULA for those launches.
At a subcommittee hearing last month, ULA and the Air Force laid out their concerns and the subcommittee clearly heard them. In the draft text, expected to be approved at subcommittee level tomorrow and by the full committee next week, even more flexibility would be provided by allowing the Secretary of Defense (SecDef) simply to invoke "national security interests" as a reason for waiving the current law's provisions and certifying those interests to the relevant congressional committees.
The draft also clarifies that the prohibition on buying RD-180s applies to engines ordered pursuant to the December 18, 2013 contract between ULA and the Air Force regardless of whether payment was made prior to February 1, 2014. Last year's law exempted engines ordered under that contract, but DOD lawyers were interpreting the law to mean that payment had to have been made by February 1, 2014, as opposed to the engines being options under that contract.
The draft also would change section 1604 of last year's law that authorizes $220 million to build a U.S. alternative to the RD-180 engine, but specifically not to develop a new launch vehicle. The draft language clarifies that it is permissible to use the funds for "the necessary interfaces" to a launch vehicle. It also adds language requiring the SecDef to use a "streamlined acquisition approach, including tailored documentation and review processes."
In addition, the draft addresses the "EELV Launch Capabilities" (ELC) contract that the Air Force has with ULA that covers infrastructure and engineering services. The Air Force pays ULA for launches under two contracts: the cost-plus-incentive-fee ELC contract and a fixed-price EELV Launch Services (ELS) contract that covers hardware. Critics call the approximately $1 billion per year ELC a subsidy, but ULA and the Air Force defend it as a mechanism adopted when ULA was created in 2006 to assure that the Air Force could launch its satellites whenever needed. Air Force and ULA officials concede, however, that times have changed and ELC will not be repeated in future contracts. The draft report language would, indeed, make that reality, although the language is quite generous saying that the ELC contract must be discontinued by the latter of the dates when obligations under the current contract are met (the contract is through 2017) or December 31, 2020, and the SecDef can waive the provision entirely for national security reasons.
The draft contains other language that could be construed as supporting either ULA or SpaceX. For example, it calls for a 10-year acquisition strategy for the EELV program that requires competition, but also ensures that any contract takes into account "the effect of all Federal contracts entered into and any assistance provided" to the competitors. SpaceX argues that the ELC contract is a subsidy to ULA, but others points out that SpaceX has benefited from its Space Act Agreements and contracts with NASA for development of the Falcon 9 rocket under the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs and those should be taken into account, too.
The draft addresses a range of other national security space issues as well, including the following:
Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of April 20-25, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
NASA and the astrophysics community celebrate the 25th anniversary of the iconic Hubble Space Telescope this week. There are a number of events at the Space Telescope Science Institute near Baltimore, which operates Hubble, and in Washington, DC to highlight the breathtaking images and science from Hubble that have captivated the scientific community and the public for two-and-a-half decades -- with more to come. Some of the events are by invitation only, but NASA TV will broadcast three (see below) on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The Saturday event at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport is an open family day.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the House Armed Services Committee's subcommittees will mark up their respective portions of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) this week. The Strategic Forces subcommittee, which handles most DOD space programs, holds its markup at noon on Thursday. Many subcommittee markups have been rather pro forma in recent years, with agreements worked out ahead of time or deferred for debate at the full committee markup (scheduled for next week). The text of the bill, H.R. 1735, is posted on congress.gov, but it says very little about space programs. Most of those details are included in the report to accompany the bill. The draft report is not public yet.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below.
Monday-Friday, April 20-24
Tuesday-Wednesday, April 21-22
Wednesday, April 22
Wednesday-Thursday, April 22-23
Thursday, April 23
Friday, April 24
Saturday, April 25
This busy week begins today (Sunday), so lace up your running shoes. Here is our list of upcoming space policy related events for April 12-17, 2015. The House and Senate return to work from their Easter break tomorrow.
During the Week
Today, April 12, is the 54th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's flight into space aboard Vostok 1, marking the beginning of the human spaceflight era. It is also the 34th anniversary of the first space shuttle flight (though that is a coincidence, the flight was scheduled for April 10, but postponed by two days at the last minute). Yuri's Night celebrations will be held in many locations around the globe. There is a website where you can check to find if there's one in your area and, if not, ideas on how to start one.
Before that, though, are three pre-launch briefings associated with SpaceX's sixth operational cargo launch to the International Space Station (ISS) tomorrow, SpX-6. The weather forecast is iffy (60 percent chance "go"), but if the launch does take place, SpaceX plans to try again to land the Falcon 9 first stage on its autonomous drone ship whimsically named "Just Read the Instructions." Today's briefings are at 1:30, 3:30 and 5:00 pm ET. Tomorrow's launch is at 4:33 pm ET, with a post-launch press conference about 90 minutes later. All will be broadcast on NASA TV. All times are subject to change, of course.
Curiously, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) chose the same time as SpaceX's launch to announce "America's Next Rocket" at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs that begins tomorrow and runs through Thursday. Their event is at 4:00 pm Eastern (2:00 pm local time in Colorado) and will be webcast. ULA President Tory Bruno will tell the world what name was selected via its recent naming contest and other details of the new "all American" rocket. ULA currently launches Atlas V and Delta IV. The debate over the Atlas V's reliance on Russia's RD-180 rocket engines has been discussed on this website for the past year (type "RD-180" in the search box above to find those articles). This rocket is intended to end U.S. reliance on Russia and be more competitive with, among others, SpaceX. Perhaps by choosing the same time to make this announcement as the SpaceX launch, ULA is starting the competition -- for attention, at least -- right now.
There likely will be breaking news throughout the week from the Space Symposium, but a lot will be happening elsewhere, too. On Thursday, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will testify to the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in the morning (note that it is at 9:00 am ET, not 10:00 as usual) and to the Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee in the afternoon (2:30 pm ET) about NASA's FY2016 budget request. The Senate hearing was postponed from March 5 when a snowstorm shut down DC.
Those and the many other events we know about as of this morning are listed below.
Sunday, April 12
Monday, April 13
Monday-Thursday, April 13-16
Monday-Friday, April 13-17
Monday, April 13 - Friday, April 24
Tuesday, April 14
Thursday, April 16
Here is our list of space policy-related events for the week of April 6-10, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate remain in recess for the Easter holidays; they will return on April 13.
During the Week
The week is dominated by meetings of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and three of its committees. Perhaps of most interest to readers of this website will be the meetings of the NAC Science and NAC Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) committees, especially their joint sessions in the afternoon of April 7 and morning of April 8, and the meeting of the full NAC on Thursday and Friday. NAC and its committees cover the entire scope of NASA's activities, but their meetings lately have focused a great deal on the future of the human spaceflight program including the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and the Evolvable Mars Campaign.
While traditionally such topics would have been relegated to the human spaceflight side of the house, a great deal of emphasis in Charlie Bolden's tenure is being placed on getting NASA's science and human exploration communities working together in common purpose, overcoming their traditional animosity towards each other. Animosity may be too strong of a word. Or not. It depends on who has the podium.
One thing for sure is that the message from the presentation to the NAC Planetary Science Subcommittee (PSS) last week by the new NASA Mars exploration program director Jim Watzin is that the future robotic Mars program is being designed to "Inform and enable human mission design" as much as to answer scientific questions. After the Mars 2020 rover, Watzin said, the next Mars mission will be an orbiter, prompting some subcommittee members to ask: "what happened to sample return?" It will be interesting to see if that conversation continues at the NAC meetings this week.
Another interesting tidbit that came of the PSS meeting last week is that the "AGs" are no longer part of the NASA advisory process. Those are "Assessment Groups" or "Analysis Groups" that focus on a specific topic of research interest. One example is the Venus Exploration Analysis Group (VEXAG) that is meeting near NASA's Langely Research Center this week. According to NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green, a change in the NAC charter last year left these AGs out of the advisory process, meaning that for these groups of scientists to meet, they must work through NASA's more laborious procedures to hold a conference with consequent potential limitations on attendance, for example. Green said he has taken the lead for the Science Mission Directorate is working with NASA's lawyers to find out if the change was intentional or an unintended consequence and what it all means for the future of the AGs. Planetary science is not the only NAC Science subcommittee that uses AGs, but it has the most.
Also of special interest to space policy aficionados is the book signing event on Tuesday evening at George Washington University. John Logsdon will talk about and sign copies of his new book on President Nixon's role in U.S. space policy and programs. Nixon, of course, was the President who oversaw the end of the lunar Apollo missions and had to decide the future of the human spaceflight program in that era. Logsdon's book details how Nixon's decisions still shape the program today. Logsdon is a very highly regarded authority on space policy and space history -- the "dean" of space policy -- and author of two books on President Kennedy's role in the Apollo program.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Monday-Wednesday, April 6-8
Tuesday, April 7
Tuesday-Wednesday, April 7-8
Thursday, April 9
Thursday-Friday, April 9-10
Here is our list of space policy related events coming up in the next week and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in recess for the next two weeks -- their annual Easter Recess.
During the Week
The lack of congressional activities makes more time for all the other interesting events coming up, including the National Research Council's Space Science Week -- there's an excellent public lecture associated with it on Wednesday evening, meetings of several NASA Advisory Council (NAC) subcommittees, and a very interesting meeting of the FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC).
To start things off, Roger Launius and Nathan Bridges will hold another of their Space Policy and History Forums tomorrow afternoon at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) on the Mall. The forum meets quarterly and does a great job of introducing new people, topics and ideas to the space policy and history community. Tomorrow is no exception. Teasel Muir-Harmony of the Center for the History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics will talk about "Astronaut Ambassadors: The Apollo 11 Diplomatic Tour and the Role of Spaceflight in Public Diplomacy." Her research focuses on the use of the U.S. space program in public diplomacy during the Cold War. The meeting is at 4:00 pm ET. Be sure to RSVP to Roger in advance to get on the list that allows access to the museum's office area.
The NAC Planetary Science Subcommittee and the Heliophysics Subcommittee will each meet tomorrow and Tuesday at NASA Headquarters. NAC's Ad Hoc Task Force on STEM Education meets there on Friday afternoon. NASA's Applied Sciences Advisory Committee, which is not part of NAC, also is meeting on Monday, virtually we think.
The NRC's Space Science Week, organized by the Space Studies Board (SSB), brings together its five standing committees in individual and plenary sessions. The meetings will take place Tuesday-Thursday, but some are closed, including all day Thursday. All are at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) building on Constitution Avenue, not at the Keck Center on 5th Street. Beginning last year, the SSB instituted the practice of holding a public lecture in connection with Space Science Week for the general public as well as the space science community. This year, Jason Kalirai of the Space Telescope Science Institute will talk about "Our Place in the Universe: As Seen Through Past, Present and Future Telescopes." That's on Wednesday at 6:30 pm ET at the NAS building.
If you are more attuned to commercial space than space science or history, you're in luck, too. COMSTAC meets on Wednesday and opens at breakneck speed with talks by three of the most influential government policymakers in the commercial spaceflight arena: FAA's own George Nield (8:05-8:20 am ET), NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden (8:20 - 8:45 am), and Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations CJS subcommittee (8:45-9:15 am). The agenda (current as of yesterday) is available from our calendar.
And for those of you still hankering for more ideas on how the future of human spaceflight should unfold, the Planetary Society is holding a "Humans Orbiting Mars" workshop at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs on Tuesday and Wednesday. Participation is by invitation only (so it is not in our list), but they will hold a press conference on Thursday at 11:00 pm ET to share their results.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Monday, March 30
Monday-Tuesday, March 30-31
Tuesday-Thursday, March 31-April 2
Wednesday, April 1
Thursday, April 2
Friday, April 3
Here is our list of space policy related events coming up for the week of March 23-27, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate will be in session.
During the Week
Another busy week in the space policy business is coming up. In the NASA realm, the Senate Commerce Committee's expected approval of Dava Newman's nomination to be NASA Deputy Administrator on Wednesday surely is at the top of the list. It is only one step in the process, and the challenge of getting anyone's nomination through the Senate these days is all too apparent, but the fact that the committee did not see a need to hold a hearing on the nomination is a good sign.
Perhaps -- but just perhaps -- even bigger news will come from the Mission Concept Review (MCR) for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). A NASA spokesman says the MCR is on Tuesday (it is not open to the public), but still cannot forecast whether it will result in the long awaited announcement of whether Option A or Option B won the toss for how to implement the mission. NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot planned to reveal the decision in December, but ultimately announced that more time was needed. NASA CFO David Radzanowski said the day the FY2016 budget request was released in February that the choice could be announced in days, at the MCR, or afterwards, he simply did not know. Lightfoot is scheduled to speak at Thursday's USRA/Space Policy Institute symposium, which is about Near Earth Objects (NEOs) -- asteroids and comets -- and other small bodies in the solar system, an opportunity to share the results of the MCR, though it is not clear he will do so. The symposium has a lot of other very interesting speakers, too. Unfortunately, we're told it will not be webcast.
The House Science, Space and Technology Committee's hearing on Tuesday about the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) should be especially interesting with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's John Mather there to talk about the science JWST will be able to accomplish. Mather, a Nobel Prize winner in Physics and JWST's Senior Project Scientist, is exceptionally good at conveying to a non-scientific audience what we do and don't know about the universe, why we need to know more, and how JWST will move us along that path. NASA science head John Grunsfeld will also be there, along with Cristina Chaplain from GAO and Jeffrey Grant from Northrop Grumman, JWST's prime contractor. Grunsfeld, an astrophysicist and former astronaut who repaired the Hubble Space Telescope on three shuttle missions, also excels at communicating science to non-scientists, but probably will be handling programmatic questions about whether JWST will meet its cost and schedule targets (its previous cost overruns and delays are legendary).
On the military space front, the House Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing specifically on the FY2016 budget request for national security space activities. Several hearings have already touched on some of those issues, including last week's hearing on assured access to space, but this is focused on the entire national security space enterprise with a who's who of its leadership in the military and intelligence communities.
Lots more on tap, too, including the launch of Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko on their one-year mission to ISS.
Here is list of all the events we are aware of as of Saturday afternoon.
Monday, March 23
Tuesday, March 24
Tuesday-Thursday, March 24-26
Wednesday, March 25
Thursday, March 26
Thursday-Friday, March 26-27
Friday, March 27
A lengthy House subcommittee hearing with top officials from the government and private sector yesterday (March 17) left as many questions as answers on how to assure “assured access” to space for national security satellites. Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) remarked at one point “The more I learn, the more confused I get.” Maj. Gen. Howard “Mitch” Mitchell (Ret.) offered perhaps the sagest advice, recommending a new Space Launch Modernization Plan be developed, akin to the Moorman study of the 1990s.
Sanchez’s statement is a succinct exposition of what came out of the hearing before the Strategic Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), which featured two panels. The first was composed of United Launch Alliance (ULA) President Tory Bruno and SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell. The second was mostly government witnesses: Katharina McFarland, DOD assistant secretary for acquisition; William LaPlante, Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition; Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command; and Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Howard “Mitch” Mitchell, who now works for the Aerospace Corporation, but was testifying in his personal capacity as chairman of last year’s study group on alternatives to the RD-180 engine (the “Mitchell Commission”).
The hearing, scheduled to begin at 3:30 pm ET, started 45 minutes late because the members were on the House floor casting votes. Once it began, opening statements by members and witnesses were brief, but the question-and-answer period was extensive and the hearing lasted until 6:30 pm ET with subcommittee chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) finally drawing it to a close even though he seemed to have many more questions that he wished to pose.
That pretty well characterizes the hearing – leaving as many questions as answers. One interesting aspect was the change in tone between witnesses for SpaceX (Shotwell) and Air Force Space Command (Hyten) who, while on different panels, sang each other’s praises after a bruising year in which SpaceX sued the Air Force for awarding ULA a sole-source contract in 2013. SpaceX dropped the suit in January after a settlement was reached. The terms of the settlement were sealed by the judge, but whatever they are, the two parties seem determined to present a united public face now. (Rogers asked whether SpaceX or ULA would have any objection to the subcommittee seeing the terms of the agreement. Shotwell and Bruno each said it was fine with them, but only the court could make that decision.)
Shotwell emphasized again and again that SpaceX and the Air Force are working “shoulder to shoulder” to get the Falcon 9 certified to compete for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV)-class launches. Air Force officials publicly promised during 2014 that certification would be completed by that December, but it was delayed and now is expected by June. For his part, Hyten lauded SpaceX and said that people who might have bet against the company meeting its goals in the past would have lost. Although he joined other government witnesses in agreeing that Shotwell’s expectation that SpaceX’s new Falcon Heavy rocket will be ready to launch national security satellites by 2018 is optimistic, he said SpaceX has been “amazing, so I won’t say it’s impossible.” He also downplayed a statement made by Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James at an earlier hearing where she mentioned that some of the SpaceX launches experienced anomalies. Hyten acknowledged that SpaceX has had some problems, which are “proprietary,” but “we’ve had the same things with Atlas and Delta.” The key is that all of the launches were “mission successes,” he stressed.
The issues debated at the hearing basically are how to end U.S. reliance on Russia’s RD-180 engines, used for ULA’s Atlas V rocket, and how to create competition in the U.S. national security space launch marketplace. ULA has almost exclusively launched U.S. national security satellites on the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets since it was created in 2006 as a joint company owned 50-50 by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, the two companies that had been providing those launch services on Atlas and Delta respectively. The creation of ULA was driven by market factors and government requirements.
An archived webcast is available on the committee’s website. The central questions were:
Overall, many of the subcommittee members and all of the witnesses other than SpaceX seemed to want Congress to change Section 1608 to allow RD-180 engines to be used for the Atlas V until 2021-2022 when ULA’s Next Generation Launch System (NGLS) with an American-made engine is ready. SpaceX’s position is that no more RD-180s are needed because its Falcon 9 and new Falcon Heavy – which it plans to launch for the first time later this year -- can provide the launch capability and redundancy needed to assure U.S. access to space after 2018.
Section 1608 requires DOD to develop an American replacement for Russia’s RD-180 engines by 2019, but it also contains a number of waivers that seem to add flexibility if an American replacement is not ready by then. Nonetheless, the witnesses other than SpaceX clearly view 2019 as a hard cut-off date and want it extended. Also, Air Force acquisition official LaPlante explained in his written statement that the language allows use only of RD-180s that were purchased or included in a legally binding contract prior to February 1, 2014 (when Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula) and according to the documentation DOD has available “only a small number of engines actually meet that statutory language.” DOD wants Congress to clarify that all of the RD-180 engines intended to be purchased under ULA’s current contract can be utilized.
ULA’s Development of New Engines – BE-4 and AR1
Last fall, ULA and Blue Origin announced that they are partnering to develop the BE-4 rocket engine, which uses methane as fuel, as an RD-180 alternative. At the hearing, Bruno said that ULA also has a “backup” plan with Aerojet Rocketdyne to develop the AR1, which uses traditional kerosene. Bruno said the BE-4 is three years ahead of AR1 in development and ULA will choose one of the two to pursue in 2016 or 2017. The new engine would be used for ULA’s NGLS that ultimately will replace both Atlas and Delta. Whichever engine is chosen, the NGLS will require a significant redesign of tankage and launch pad modifications.
Bruno asserted that the engine development is “largely privately funded.” “I do not require government funding, but there are wise investments the government can make to reduce risk and I won’t say no to help,” he said.
An interesting wrinkle in the discussion came up late in the hearing when subcommittee chairman Rogers made clear that what he wants is an American version of the RD-180, not a new engine that would require changes to the rest of the Atlas V rocket or launch pads. LaPlante said that “we build the rocket around the engine” and Mitchell explained that “you can’t jack up the Atlas V and put in a new engine,” but Rogers said that is exactly what he wants to do. That is not one of the options currently being pursued by ULA, however.
Significant discussion occurred concerning the prices charged by SpaceX and ULA. Shotwell explained that she does not know what ULA charges the government, but it was awarded an $11 billion contract for 28 launches (the “block buy” contract signed in 2013), which SpaceX calculates to be an average of $400 million per launch.
She said a Falcon 9 average price is $60 million for commercial customers and $80-90 million for the government, which has special requirements, and the cost to the government for a Falcon Heavy launch will be about $150-160 million. That yields an average cost across all its vehicles of about $120 million, she said, roughly 25 percent of ULA prices. Asked how SpaceX can offer such low prices, she replied that “I don’t know how to build a $400 million rocket” and “I don’t understand how they are as expensive as they are.”
Bruno said he did not recognize the $400 million number and the cost of an Atlas V 401 launch, equivalent to a Falcon 9, is $164 million on average and will be about $140 million in the future. Averaged across all of the launches envisioned in the block buy, the cost is $225 million, he said, a 30 percent reduction from its prices before the block buy. He did acknowledge separately that the cost of a Delta IV Heavy launch today is $400-600 million.
DOD acquisition official McFarland’s written statement clarifies that the “gap” they are worried about is a period late in this decade “without at least two price competitive launch providers servicing medium to intermediate class missions.”
That is an important point. It is not a gap in the U.S. ability to launch satellites, but whether there is competition for medium and intermediate class payloads. Hyten said “gap” is not the right word, it is really about a “transition” between 2018 and 2022, but everyone else referred to it as a gap.
The gap is precipitated in part by ULA’s recent decision to discontinue the single stick version of the Delta IV, leaving the Atlas V as its only launch vehicle for that class of payload. If Atlas V is no longer available after 2019, and SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is not ready by then, these intermediate size payloads would have to be launched by the more capable Delta IV Heavy, but the price would be prohibitive. Bruno assured the subcommittee that he is committed to launching the Delta IV Heavy as long as the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) needs it. If it is ULA’s only rocket, however, all of ULA’s fixed costs would have to be absorbed in those launch costs, raising the price from the current $400-600 million per launch to “upwards” of $1 billion, Bruno said.
Subcommittee chairman Rogers asked incredulously if Bruno thought the government would pay that much per launch and Bruno said no, but Mitchell – who has long experience with national security space launch – pointed out that in the 1990s, launch costs were $550 million “and we launched 41 of them.” The suggestion was that when escalated to today’s dollars, the cost would not be much different.
Bruno told the subcommittee that he decided to terminate the Delta IV single stick as soon as its current commitments are met around 2018 because it cannot compete in the current marketplace.
Curiously, no one questioned ULA’s decision to phase it out even though that seems to be a critical driver in this debate.
The solution to the gap sought by ULA and witnesses on the government panel are to purchase enough RD-180 engines so the Atlas V can remain available until SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and ULA’s NGLS are ready in 2021-2022. Shotwell insisted that Falcon Heavy would be ready and certified for flight by 2018, but the other witnesses considered that an optimistic timetable.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) asked about the business case for either ULA or SpaceX and whether the government needs to guarantee a number of launches to make their businesses viable. DOD’s McFarland said that from what she has seen, all the launch providers are competing for the same pie.
Shotwell said that 60 percent of the SpaceX market is commercial, while Bruno said that ULA’s is “just under 20 percent” today.
Is Falcon 9 “American”?
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) grilled Shotwell on SpaceX’s assertion that Falcon is an all-American rocket. He forced Shotwell to acknowledge that certain raw materials like aluminum and a GPS “box” are from foreign sources, but “99 percent” is American, she asserted. Bishop challenged her by asking if she knew there is a statute in California (where SpaceX is based) that would not allow the company to advertise its product as all-American and Shotwell said she was not aware of it.
Bruno said that in the interest of cost cutting, ULA will be reducing the number of launch pads it has from five to two – one on the east coast and one on the west coast.
A Potential Path Forward
Mitchell articulated what is perhaps the clearest statement on what is needed to move forward on a plan for assured access to space. In his written statement, he said the government needs to take ownership of the issue and define the desired end-state, take action to reach that end-state, and “adequately resource” the plan.
He recommended that the government initiate an effort similar to the Space Launch Modernization Plan (the Moorman report) of the 1990s “with all the stakeholders participating to assess the risks of the current and planned activities” and make recommendations on how to mitigate them. Quoting an unnamed “colleague and friend,” Mitchell wrote: “Currently no stakeholder has a credible plan that ‘closes.’ Each stakeholder has a different endgame solution, and each stakeholder’s current ‘non-closing’ game plan has ‘and then a miracle happens’ as the last element of their plan…and ALL the miracles are different.”
Here is our list of space policy related events coming up during the week of March 16-20, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session.
During the Week
It's another busy week with two major conferences, lots of congressional hearings, a NAC subcommittee meeting and more.
It is tough to choose what to highlight because it's all really good stuff, but to pick just one, the House Armed Services Committee's subcommittee hearing on Tuesday should be especially interesting. The title is "Assuring Assured Access to Space" and witnesses include SpaceX's Gwynne Shotwell and United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Tory Bruno along with two defense department acquisition officials, commander of Air Force Space Command Gen. Hyten, and retired Maj. Gen. Mitch Mitchell who led a study of RD-180 alternatives last year. Topics are expected to include certifying new entrants like SpaceX to launch EELV-class national security satellites currently launched exclusively by ULA and the need (or not) for a new American-made rocket engine to replace Russia's RD-180 used for ULA's Atlas 5. SpaceX's position is that its Merlin engines for the Falcon rockets already are an American alternative so why is another one needed. ULA, meanwhile, announced last fall that it is partnering with Blue Origin on the BE-4 engine as an American alternative. Everything seemed on a fast track last fall with Congress insisting on no more RD-180s after 2019 (though there are exceptions),but this year's testimony by Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and ULA's most recent statements seem to be putting the brakes on. Whether that's a dose of reality or slow-rolling the inevitable is unclear at the moment -- perhaps the hearing will shed some light.
Monday-Friday, March 16-20
Monday-Thursday, March 16-19
Tuesday, March 17
Tuesday-Wednesday, March 17-18
Wednesday, March 18
Thursday, March 19
Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of March 9-13, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The Senate is in session this week; the House is in recess.
During the Week
The IEEE Aerospace Conference actually began yesterday in Big Sky, Montana; it runs through March 14. The conference website says it is being held in "a stimulating and thought provoking environment." Indeed!
Greenbelt, MD may not compare with Big Sky, MT in terms of breathtaking scenery, but the American Astronautical Society's (AAS's) Goddard Memorial Symposium at the Greenbelt Marriott is undoubtedly of much more interest to the space policy community. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will keynote the AAS meeting on Wednesday morning at 9:15 am ET, followed by a panel of top level NASA Headquarters officials including Science Mission Directorate Associate Administrator (AA) John Grunsfeld and newly appointed Space Technology Mission Directorate AA Steve Jurczyk, formerly director of NASA's Langley Research Center. The two-day AAS meeting ends on Thursday afternoon with a panel including your intrepid SpacePolicyOnline.com editor along with Jeff Foust from Space News and Frank Morring from Aviation Week and Space Technology.
The congressional calendar is less crowded this week since the House is in recess. but Bolden will appear before the Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on Thursday at 9:30 am ET. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) was politely inquisitive at his first space hearing two weeks ago, which included no government witnesses. It will be interesting to see how he and Bolden get along since the NASA Administrator represents President Obama, a man with whom Cruz has serious disagreements on other issues. Cruz sounded liked a huge space enthusiast at the earlier hearing, with views strongly aligned with key Senators on both sides of the aisle who crafted the 2010 NASA Authorization Act and have appropriated funds since then to execute it. That suggests that Cruz and Bolden will disagree on the amount of funding requested for SLS and Orion at least -- NASA's request once again is less than Congress wants as everyone knows.
Speaking of SLS, Orbital ATK will have a 2-minute static test fire of an SLS booster on Wednesday. NASA TV will cover it live at 11:00 am ET (9:00 am local time in Utah). Two pre-launch briefings (on Tuesday and Wednesday) for the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission (scheduled for launch on Thursday) and the homecoming (on Wednesday) of three International Space Station crew members also are on tap this week.
All the events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Saturday-Saturday, March 7-14
Tuesday, March 10
Tuesday-Thursday, March 10-12 (March 10 is an evening reception only)
Wednesday, March 11
Thursday, March 12