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NASA Safety Panel Criticizes Commercial Crew Program for Lack of Openness

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jan-2015 (Updated: 28-Jan-2015 10:34 PM)

NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) released its annual report today.  Among its key points is criticism of NASA's commercial crew program for its lack of openness, preventing the panel from offering "any informed opinion" on the certification process or "sufficiency of safety."  The report's release coincides with NASA's Day of Remembrance in honor of the astronauts who died as the result of spaceflights.  The first of those accidents, the 1967 Apollo fire, led to Congress creating ASAP to advise NASA on safety.

The panel's criticism of the commercial crew program was direct and unambiguous and levied at the very beginning of the report so as not to be missed:

"Within NASA, there are outstanding examples of programs that have inculcated a culture of clear and candid communications.  Their approach to accountability, good systems engineering, and respect, both up and down the organization chart, would find strong favor with the authors of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report.

"The Commercial Crew Program (CCP) is an exception to the culture of open communications.  Regrettably, the Panel has been denied the necessary timely access to information and is therefore unable to offer any informed opinion regarding the adequacy of the certification process or the sufficiency of safety in the CCP.  The NASA Administrator has committed to making the changes necessary to resolve this situation and to ensuring that these barriers are removed going forward into 2015."

ASAP's complaint comes just two days after NASA held a press conference with its commercial crew partners, Boeing and SpaceX, to herald the progress they are making to provide services to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) by the end of 2017.

In a color-coded "traffic signal" chart later in the report, ASAP rated "risk transparency -- Insight and communications" as red, meaning an issue of "long-standing concern or an issue that has not been adequately addressed by NASA."  It is the only one of nine areas designated that way.  In describing its concerns in that area, ASAP includes not only commercial crew, but the Space Launch System and Orion programs.

"Risk communications concerning commercial crew activities by the Director of Commercial Spaceflight Development has been less than forthcoming.  Because Probabilistic Risk Assessment results provide a risk assessment of the design capability at maturity, actual risks for early operations of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion could be significantly higher than the calculated or 'advertised' risk.  Because the perception of external stakeholders is vitally important, NASA's Office of Communications must be cautious not to create or reinforce inaccurate perceptions of risk."

A second key concern of the panel is what it calls the need for "constancy of purpose" at NASA.  It reflects the panel's assessment that there is a "perceived lack of a well-defined mission for NASA's space program" and a mismatch between NASA's budget and what it is expected to do.  Reiterating what it said in prior years, ASAP finds that it is "imperative that NASA unambiguously articulate a well-defined purpose, including a path toward the execution of that mission, the technologies that need to be developed and matured, and the resources needed to accomplish that mission."

ASAP criticizes NASA's current "capabilities-based approach" which it believes is driven by budgets rather than a "purposeful, schedule-driven, goal-oriented endeavor." While acknowledging that may be a pragmatic approach that could bridge a transition between presidential administrations, ASAP believes NASA would be better served to "focus on doing fewer things and on doing them better." 

Without a clear and consistent goal, ASAP worries that schedule will become a "casualty" that could affect SLS and Orion in particular. 

The panel expressed other concerns about Orion and its use for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).   The panel assessed ARM itself as "a reasonable approach to a mission that is achievable," but worries that the lack of an airlock on Orion adds risk because the entire capsule will have to be depressurized to allow the crew to exit and collect samples of the asteroid.  That means the crew will be entirely reliant on their spacesuits.  The spacesuits used for ISS spacewalks are "unworkable" for Orion, ASAP said, and although NASA officials have indicated that they have no plans to develop new spacesuits for ARM, ASAP suggests otherwise: "design and development of new-design suits, while underway, are still preliminary and untested."   In addition, the panel notes, Orion is small and does not have much room for astronauts to move about or exercise even though the missions may last as long as three weeks:  "This long duration, crew habitability risk remains to be assessed and evaluated in order to develop an objective mission risk estimate."

ASAP also is concerned about the small number of flights planned for SLS in terms of maintaining ground crew proficiency.   SLS and Orion are part of NASA's Exploration Systems Development (ESD) program, which ASAP rates as "progressing very well." but "there is much more work to be done ... [in] defining the risks and the road to Mars.  These risks should continue to be communicated openly and transparently."

The full ASAP report is posted on NASA's website.   ASAP submits it both to NASA and to Congress.  ASAP chairman Vice Admiral Joseph Dyer (retired) typically is invited to testify to Congress about the panel's findings each year.

ASAP was created by Congress in the NASA Authorization Act of 1968 (P.L. 90-67)  following the January 27, 1967 Apollo fire that killed Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee during a pre-launch ground test of what was expected to be the first Apollo mission.   Fourteen more astronauts subsequently died in two space shuttle accidents.  The January 28, 1986 space shuttle Challenger tragedy killed NASA astronauts Francis "Dick" Scobee, Mike Smith, Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka and Judy Resnik; Hughes Aircraft engineer Greg Jarvis; and New Hampshire schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.  On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during its return to Earth, killing NASA astronauts Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, and Laurel Clark, and Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.

Each year NASA holds a Day of Remembrance honoring all the astronauts who lost their lives in spaceflights.  Today is NASA's 2015 Day of Remembrance,  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, members of the Challenger families and others participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington Cemetery.  Several NASA centers held their own remembrance events.

Welsh: Sequestration Bill Is Due for AF Space Launch Infrastructure

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jan-2015 (Updated: 28-Jan-2015 05:20 PM)

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III told a Senate committee today that the bill has come due for a number of infrastructure activities that were postponed because of sequestration, including space launch infrastructure.  By law, sequestration returns in FY2016 and Welsh and the other military service chiefs warned about the impacts if the law is not changed.

Welsh began his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) by commenting that the Air Force is the smallest it has ever been, with 54 fighter squadrons, down from the 188 at the time of Operation Desert Storm in 1990, and 200,000 fewer active duty airmen than the 511,000 in place at that time.  Additional cuts will be required if sequestration -- part of the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) -- returns, making the Air Force "even smaller and less able to do the things that we're routinely expected to do," Welsh said.

"Now, I would like to say that that smaller Air Force would be more ready than it's ever been, but that's not the case," he continued.  Even though the last two years, when BCA budget caps were relaxed, have permitted improvements, there is a "broader readiness issue" involving infrastructure, including space launch infrastructure, that was "intentionally underfunded" in order to ensure individual and unit readiness instead.   "That bill is now due, but BCA caps will make it impossible to pay," Welsh warned.

More broadly, he worried about technological gaps that could develop if sequestration is not reversed.  One of those is space:  "we cannot forget that that is one of the fastest growing and closing technological gaps," Welsh said.   Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert also mentioned space capabilities as an area of concern saying that "we're slipping behind and our advantage is shrinking very fast" in "electronic attack, the ability to jam, the ability to detect seekers, radars, satellites ...." 

SASC is a friendly audience for airing such concerns.  SASC Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) referred to the "mindlessness of sequestration" and its requirement to cut $1 trillion from defense spending by 2021.  "If we in Congress don't act, sequestration will return in full in fiscal year 2016, setting our military on a far more dangerous course."   The top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), put it in a broader context saying that sequestration relief is needed at DOD "and for other critical national priorities, including public safety, infrastructure, health and education."

The BCA was enacted in 2011 when Republicans and Democrats in Congress and the Obama Administration could not reach agreement on how to fund the government in the face of political gridlock over Republican insistence that the deficit be reduced through spending cuts alone and Democratic insistence that it be achieved through a combination of spending cuts and tax increases.   A congressional "supercommittee" was created to find a solution, with the "poison pill" that if they did not, then automatic across-the-board cuts -- sequestration -- would ensue for all departments and agencies funded by congressional appropriations.  They did not reach agreement, and sequestration went into effect.  Across-the-board cuts do not allow choosing priorities -- every budget account is cut by the same percentage.  Republican and Democrats in Congress and the White House oppose sequestration and agreed to temporary relief through the Ryan-Murray agreement in December 2013, but that covered only FY2014 and FY2015.

President Obama is expected to submit his FY2016 budget request on Monday (February 2), the formal kick-off of the FY2016 budget debate.  The BCA was enacted when the House was controlled by Republicans and the Senate by Democrats.   Now both chambers are under the control of Republicans, but whatever they pass still must be signed into law by a Democratic President, so the outcome of the debate is still very much up in the air.  Whether either side has moderated its views on the amount of deficit reduction required or how to achieve it will become known in the coming months.

House SS&T Committee Starts Off 114th Congress on Partisan Footing

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Jan-2015 (Updated: 27-Jan-2015 06:34 PM)

The House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee held its organizational meeting for the 114th Congress this morning.  The typically routine meeting held at the beginning of each new Congress had a strong partisan flavor to it this year, however.   The committee's top Democrat, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), issued a sharply worded news release detailing changes Republicans made to committee rules on party-line votes, calling it the "single greatest attack" on the rights of the minority party in the history of the committee.

Johnson is the "ranking minority member" of the committee, meaning the highest ranking member of the party that is not in power.  In the 114th Congress, Republicans are the Majority Party and Democrats are the Minority Party in both the House and Senate.

Historically, the House SS&T committee and many other congressional committees have trumpeted the fact that they work in a bipartisan manner, but party-line votes undermine such claims.

In fact, in his opening statement, committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) heralded the fact that in the last Congress the committee approved 20 bills (of which six became law), 18 of them on a bipartisan basis, and said he hoped "we can build on this bipartisan success and do more in this Congress."

Despite that sanguine note, Republicans then voted down all the Democratic amendments to modify the proposed rules (on one of the eight votes today, one Democrat voted with the Republicans).  Smith said in a statement after the meeting that what the committee adopted "preserves the legitimate rights of the Minority."  He said during the meeting that the goal was to eliminate duplication and align the committee's rules with those of the House (which also have been amended in this Congress). 

Johnson, who has served on the committee for 23 years under both Democratic and Republican leadership, clearly disagrees.  She listed the following changes that she believes diminishes the Minority's rights: 

  • shortened notice requirements for markups and allowing the Majority to waive notice requirements entirely;
  • eliminating review periods for Members to review legislative reports prior to filing;
  • requiring more Members to support a request for a recorded vote;
  • allowing the Majority to hold a hearing without a single Minority member present;
  • providing the committee chair with unilateral subpoena authority;
  • eliminating requirements for consultation with the Minority; and
  • the Committee receiving blanket deposition authority in House Rules "for the first time in the half century history of the committee."

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) contrasted this committee's stance with that of another committee on which she serves, House Transportation and Infrastructure, where the entire organizational meeting, including adoption of rules, took "five minutes" rather than beginning "a new Congress and a new year fighting about the rules."

A webcast of the contentious meeting is on the committee's website.

The rules may seem arcane (read our "What's a Markup" fact sheet to learn what some of them mean), but they give the Majority power to hold hearings, subpoena witnesses and documents, and to more easily pass legislation out of committee and to the floor of the House on a partisan basis.  Of all the changes, giving the chairman unilateral authority to issue subpoenas could have the greatest impact.  In the last Congress, only the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (Rep. Darrell Issa, R-CA) had such power.  House SS&T is one of several committees planning to give their chairs such authority in this Congress.  Smith said repeatedly that the authority is necessary because of the Obama Administration's "dilatory tactics in responding to letters from this committee" and its "lack of transparency."

How that will play out in the space policy arena remains to be seen, but the sharp differences between the parties on NASA were evident in 2013 when, under the previous rules, the committee approved on party-line votes a new NASA authorization bill that would have prohibited NASA from proceeding with the Asteroid Redirect Mission, dramatically cut funding for NASA overall and especially for Earth Sciences, and established the position of NASA Administrator as an appointed 6-year term.   That bill was never voted on by the House and a bipartisan version was crafted the next year after budget caps were raised, promoting greater agreement.  That bill did pass the House, but was not considered by the Senate and died at the end of the last Congress, so this Congress will be starting over again.  Smith did say today that he hopes a new NASA authorization bill can clear the committee in a bipartisan manner as it did last year.

The number of committee members from each party is roughly proportional to the ratio of Republicans to Democrats in the full House.  For the 114th Congress, Republicans have 22 slots on the House SS&T committee and the Democrats have 17. 

The Republicans announced their membership, including all their subcommittee assignments today.   Democrats are still awaiting appointment of four of their 17 full committee members by the House Democratic leadership and have not announced subcommittee assignments.  The 13 Democrats currently assigned to the full committee are Johnson, Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Daniel Lipinski (D-IL), Donna Edwards (D-MD), Frederica Wilson (D-FL), Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), Eric Swalwell (D-CA), Alan Grayson (D-FL), Ami Bera (D-CA), Elizabeth Esty (D-CT), Marc Veasey (D-TX), Katherine Clark (D-MA), and Don Beyer (D-VA).

The Space Subcommittee, which oversees NASA and the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, will have nine Republicans and six Democrats.  Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS) will continue to chair the subcommittee.  The Subcommittee on Environment, which oversees NOAA's weather forecasting activities, will also have nine Republicans and six Democrats and Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) will serve as chairman.  The Subcommittee on Oversight, which has broad jurisdiction, including NOAA's Satellite Modernization activities, was very active in the last Congress under the chairmanship of Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), who lost his Republican primary last year.  This year the subcommittee will have six Republicans and four Democrats and be chaired by another Georgian, Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-GA).

The committee also adopted its oversight plan for the 114th Congress today.  With regard to NASA, NOAA satellite programs, and the FAA's commercial space activities, the language is virtually identical to the 113th Congress plan.  The only notable difference is that oversight of NASA's earth science program is now under the Space Subcommittee's purview; last time it was listed with the Environment Subcommittee.

What's Happening in Space Policy January 26-30, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Jan-2015 (Updated: 25-Jan-2015 02:42 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of January 26-30, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

On the off chance you haven't been watching the weather forecasts, the week starts off with a major winter storm for the Northeast, so if you're headed in this direction for meetings, be prepared for delays.  The Washington, DC area is not expected to get much snow (a few inches) but it may as well be the two feet they're forecasting for New England when it comes to impact. This area just does not do well in snow.

Tomorrow in warmer climes -- Houston -- NASA and its Commercial Crew Transportation Program (CCtCAP) partners, Boeing and SpaceX, will hold a news briefing at Johnson Space Center to provide an update on their progress in developing crew transportation systems to service the International Space Station (ISS) by 2017.  The 11:00 am Central Time (12:00 noon Eastern) briefing will be broadcast on NASA TV. 

Or head to Cocoa Beach, FL for the three-day (Tuesday-Thursday) NASA Advanced Innovative Concepts (NIAC) 2015 symposium.  If you can't make it in person, it will be webcast.  

Back here in DC, on Tuesday, when it may still feel like the Arctic, the Secure World Foundation will hold a really interesting seminar on "Space and the Arctic: Why Space Capabilities are Important for Sustainable Arctic Development" from 12:00-2:00 pm ET.  Please RSVP in advance if you plan to attend.

An hour before that, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee will hold its 114th Congress organizational meeting, postponed from last week.  The House Appropriations Committee holds its organizational meeting on Wednesday.  The House and Senate Armed Services Committees (HASC and SASC) have interesting hearings on broad topics this week.  It is not clear whether national security space issues will come up at all, but they may, and the hearings seem interesting nonetheless.   One SASC hearing  is on the impact of sequestration on national security with the military service chiefs (the sequester comes back into effect in FY2016 unless the law is changed) and the other is on global challenges with three former Secretaries of State (Kissinger, Shultz and Albright).  The HASC hearing is on how to improve DOD's ability to respond to technological change.

If you're interested in a career in space policy and in the D.C. area on Tuesday, don't miss the panel discussion on that topic Tuesday evening at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute.  Five young professionals who are climbing that ladder of success right now will be there to offer their perspectives and advice.

We also want to note that this week begins the anniversaries of the three fatal spaceflight accidents:  Apollo 1 (or Apollo 204) on January 27, 1967; Challenger, January 28, 1986; and Columbia, February 1, 2003.   NASA usually holds a remembrance event around this time, but we have not heard when/where/what it will be this year.

The meetings that we do know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.

Monday, January 26

Tuesday, January 27

Tuesday-Thursday, January 27-29

Wednesday, January 28

Wednesday-Thursday, January 28-29

Thursday, January 29

What's Happening in Space Policy January 19-23, 2015 - UPDATE 2

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Jan-2015 (Updated: 20-Jan-2015 08:58 AM)

UPDATE, January 20:  New House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Chairman Mac Thornberry will lay out his agenda for the 114th Congress at 10:00 am ET this morning (Monday) to the American Enterprise Institute. It will be webcast.

UPDATE, January 19:  The White House announced today that astronaut Scott Kelly will be one of the many guests sitting with First Lady Michelle Obama during Tuesday's State of the Union address.  Whether or not the President will mention Kelly and his upcoming year-long mission to the ISS or anything else about the space program is unclear, but it raises that possibility.

January18, 2015: Here is our list of space policy related events coming up for the week of January 19-23, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate will be in session for part of the week (Monday is a holiday -- Martin Luther King Jr. Day) and on Tuesday will meet in joint session to hear President Obama's State of the Union Address.

During the Week

The list of events this week is somewhat short, but they are important events that will set the stage for what transpires in months to come.

The two committees that set policy for NASA will hold their organizational meetings this week:  the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee on Tuesday and the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee on Wednesday.   Committee and subcommittee members are usually formalized at these meetings and the chairs and ranking members often use the opportunity to lay out their priorities for the year.  The Senate committee will now be run by Republicans instead of Democrats since Republicans won control of the Senate in last year's elections.  Sen. John Thune (R-SD) will be chairman and Sen. BIll Nelson (D-FL) is the ranking member.   In space policy circles. a lot of attention is being paid to the selection of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to chair the Space, Science and Competitiveness subcommittee and what that may mean especially for NASA's earth science program.   Cruz told the Houston Chronicle his overall priorities for oversight of the U.S. civil space program, starting with reauthorization of the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA) and returning NASA to its "core priority of exploring space."

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS) will retain their leadership positions on the full House SS&T committee and its Space Subcommittee respectively.  Smith said last year that CSLA will be one of his top priorities in this Congress.  A prohibition on the FAA enacting new regulations on commercial human spaceflight expires this year, so that is certain to be a topic for debate.  How the October 2014 Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo crash will affect the outcome is an open question.

On Tuesday, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will speak to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR).  While he won't be able to talk about the President's upcoming budget request for FY2016, which will not be released until February 2, he should be able to explain how the agency will spend the extra half billion dollars Congress provided for the current fiscal year above the President's request, and provide updates on ongoing programs.   He and members of his NASA Advisory Council (NAC) had frank exchanges about the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) last week and perhaps he will try once more to convince the space community that moving an asteroid -- or part of an asteroid -- from one place in the solar system to another is critical to achieving the long term goal of sending humans to Mars.   That is the part of the mission NAC members question.   NASA says it will announce in "mid-January" its choice of whether to move an entire small asteroid (Option A) or pluck a boulder off of a larger asteroid (Option B) and move just that part.  It is mid-January already.  Perhaps Bolden will make the announcement at the MSBR meeting, though we have not heard any rumors to that effect.  The decision was supposed to have been announced last month, but was delayed at the last moment.

Also on Tuesday, President Obama will present his annual State of the Union Address.  There is no indication that the space program will be mentioned, but it should be interesting nonetheless to see what the President has in mind as he faces his last two years in office with a Congress controlled entirely by Republicans.  During his first two years, Democrats controlled both chambers.  Democrats lost the House in 2010 and he faced a split Congress for the next four years.  Now they have lost the Senate as well and Republicans made significant gains in the House.   Expectations are low that Washington gridlock will come to an end.  Senate Democrats may be as effective in the minority as the Republicans were for four years and the President wields the veto pen.

Tuesday, January 20

Wednesday, January 21

Cruz Lays Out Space Agenda, First Up is CSLA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Jan-2015 (Updated: 14-Jan-2015 07:34 PM)

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) laid out his agenda on space issues today, issuing the transcript of an interview with the Houston Chronicle's Eric Berger as a press release.  Cruz is set to chair the Senate Commerce Committee's Space, Science and Competitiveness subcommittee, which oversees NASA.

One of his subcommittee's first priorities will be reauthorization of the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA), he said.  He expressed support for SpaceX's "substantial investments" in Texas, which has a rocket development and testing facility in McGregor and is building a launch site near Brownsville.  "I am an enthusiastic advocate of competition and allowing the private sector to innovate," he told Berger.

He also signaled support for the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion, which he labeled "critical to our medium- and long-term ability to explore space, whether it's the Moon, Mars or beyond."  As for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), he was noncommittal:  "The [ARM] mission has at times seemed to have had a changing and shifting focus."  He said he wants to hold hearings "to help NASA articulate and formulate its priorities for space exploration, whether to an asteroid, the moon, Mars or beyond."

A number of articles have been published in recent days expressing concern about the fate of science, especially climate change science, under his stewardship.  He is a climate change skeptic.  He is chairing an authorization subcommittee, which has an important policy role, but it would be difficult for him to get a law enacted to curtail that research.

Berger did not ask him about that, but in response to a question about whether he was interested in space while growing up, Cruz criticized the Obama Administration for losing sight of NASA's "core mission" and vowed to refocus NASA on "its core priority of exploring space."  "We need to get back to the hard sciences, to manned space exploration and to the innovation that has been integral to the mission of NASA.  We should not be allowing NASA to have its resources diverted to extraneous political agendas and apart from exploring space."

What he means by that is not entirely clear.  Some speculate he was referring to climate change science, while others thought it might mean science overall or perhaps a reference to geopolitical competition.  Cruz made clear that he does not like the United States being reliant on Russia for launches to the International Space Station (ISS) and complained that the Obama Administration has provided "insufficient" responses to his questions about the consequences if Russia "shut off the Soyuz." He also said he did not  want U.S. dependence on RD-180 engines.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told the NASA Advisory Council today that he has met Cruz once and he was "cordial," but Bolden does not know if Cruz will be as active on NASA issues as was Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL).  Nelson chaired the subcommittee in the last Congress when Democrats controlled the Senate.  Bolden and Nelson are close friends.  Nelson flew on the space shuttle in 1986 (STS-61C) when he was a Congressman and Bolden was the pilot of that mission.  Nelson is widely credited with getting Bolden the job as NASA Administrator.  He is now the top Democrat on the full Senate Commerce Committee.

What's Happening in Space Policy January 12-16, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Jan-2015 (Updated: 11-Jan-2015 05:32 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of January 12-16, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

The week starts off with the berthing of the SpaceX CRS-5 (SpX-5) Dragon spacecraft with the International Space Station at about 6:00 am ET Monday morning.  It may seem anticlimatic compared with Saturday's SpX-5 launch -- or rather the attempted landing of the Falcon 9 first stage on an autonomous drone ship.   While that didn't go as planned, as a test it certainly was a success as a step towards reusability.

Congressional committee activities for the 114th Congress get off to a start this week.  Many House committees, including the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), are holding their organizational meetings to adopt rules, lay out majority and minority agendas, and complete administrative tasks.   Rep. MacThornberry (R-TX) takes over the HASC gavel this Congress from Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-CA), who retired.   Over in the Senate, SASC is holding an actual hearing with a single witness -- Henry Kissinger -- expounding on global challenges and U.S. national security.  Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) will chair SASC in this Congress.   Space topics do not usually arise in hearings like these on broad, top level national security issues, but U.S. dependence on Russia for rocket engines, the overall state of national security space assets, or perceived threats posed by China's space activities might come up depending on where the conversation goes.

Down at Stennis Space Center, MS, the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and two of its committees -- Science  and Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) -- will meet this week.  A joint session Monday afternoon between the Science and HEO committees might be particularly interesting.  Then, on Tuesday morning HEO Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier will provide the HEO committee with an update on HEO activities overall and Michele Gates and Lindley Johnson will present an update on the Asteroid Redirect Mission.  Later in the day, Alan Lindenmoyer will offer NAC-HEO "lessons learned" from the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.  The meetings are available virtually via WebEx and telecon (click on the links to those meetings below or on the right menu for instructions).

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

Monday, January 12

Monday-Tuesday, January 12-13

Tuesday, January 13

Wednesday-Thursday, January 14-15

Thursday, January 15

Friday, January 16

Senate Commerce Names Subcommittee Chairs: Ted Cruz for NASA, Marco Rubio for NOAA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Jan-2015 (Updated: 08-Jan-2015 09:55 PM)

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee today announced who will chair its subcommittees in the 114th Congress.   Ted Cruz (R-TX) will chair the subcommittee that oversees NASA, while Marco Rubio (R-FL) will chair the one with jurisdiction over NOAA.

The Senate is now in Republican hands, so all committee and subcommittee chairs are Republican and ranking members are Democrats (though there are two Independents, who usually vote with Democrats, who might also hold committee leadership positions).   The full Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is chaired by Sen. John Thune (R-SD), who announced the six subcommittee chairs today.  The two of most interest to the space policy community are the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, which includes NOAA, and the Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness, which includes NASA and added "competitiveness" to its title this year.

Cruz was the top Republican on the Science and Space subcommittee last year, so his ascension to chair is not unexpected.   He did not play a prominent public role in NASA matters in the last Congress, and is known mostly for his advocacy of reduced government spending overall and opposition to almost anything that the Obama Administration supports.  Bill Nelson (D-FL) chaired the subcommittee in the previous Congress, when it was controlled by Democrats, and is an ardent NASA supporter, having flown on the space shuttle in 1986 when he was a Member of the House of Representatives.  Nelson is now the top Democrat on the full Senate Commerce Committee.

Like Cruz, Rubio was the top Republican on the Oceans/Atmosphere subcommittee in the last Congress and now becomes chair.   All of NOAA's activities are within the jurisdiction of the subcommittee and historically it has focused more on fisheries and coastal issues than on space.

GAO Decision on Sierra Nevada Bid Protest Expected Monday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Jan-2015 (Updated: 04-Jan-2015 06:21 PM)

The Government Accountability Office's (GAO's) decision on Sierra Nevada Corporation's (SNC's) protest of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contract awards to Boeing and SpaceX is expected tomorrow, January 5, 2015.

GAO has 100 days from the date the protest was filed to make its ruling.  That time period expires tomorrow.

SNC filed the protest on September 26, 2014 noting in a press release that it was the first time the company had taken such action in its 51-year history.   It said there were "serious questions and inconsistencies in the source selection process."   Among them was the fact that NASA would spend "up to $900 million more ... for a space program equivalent to what SNC proposed" even though price was the primary evaluation criteria in the CCtCAP solicitation.

Aviation Week reported in October that an internal document signed by Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, concluded that SNC's design had "the lowest level of maturity" and "more schedule uncertainty" than its competitors and "the longest  schedule for completing certification."  The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on December 23, 2014 that part of SNC's protest is based on those comments because schedule was not one of the main criteria in the solicitation.  SNC is asserting that Gerstenmaier "overstepped his authority by unilaterally changing the scoring criteria" according to the WSJ.

The protest was filed 10 days after NASA awarded a total of $6.8 billion to Boeing and SpaceX --  $4.2 billion to Boeing and $2.6 billion to SpaceX -- to develop commercial crew transportation systems to service the International Space Station (ISS).  NASA has been supporting all three companies in the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) phase of the program and was expected to be able to support only two in the CCtCAP phase.  

Pursuant to regulations governing contract protests, NASA issued a stop- work order to Boeing and SpaceX once SNC filed the protest, but reversed course and lifted the stop-work order a few days later on the grounds that it was acting within its statutory authority to avoid significant adverse consequences.  SNC filed suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to have the stop-work order reinstated, but the court ruled in NASA's favor.

If GAO decides SNC's protest has merit, NASA may have to go through the solicitation process all over again with consequent potential delays in the availability of commercial crew systems.  NASA is hoping that at least one of the systems will be available by the end of 2017, two years later than its original plan because Congress did not provide all of the requested funding for the program.   Some members of Congress continue to question why, for example, NASA is funding two companies instead of one.

NASA has been dependent on Russia to take crews to and from the ISS since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011 and must continue to rely on Russia until a new U.S. system is available.  By law, the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft must be designed to service the ISS as a backup in case the commercial crew program fails, but the first crewed launch of Orion is not scheduled until 2021.

What's Happening in Space Policy January 1-9, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Dec-2014 (Updated: 31-Dec-2014 02:43 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events coming up for the first week-and-a-half of the New Year and any insight we can offer about them.   The 114th Congress convenes at noon on Tuesday, January 6.

During the Weeks

The New Year gets off with a bang in 2015 with three major conferences, a SpaceX launch that could demonstrate the Falcon 9 first stage returning to land on a barge, the beginning of a new Congress, and meetings of three NASA advisory groups.

The three conferences are:

Special sessions (e.g. Town Halls, lectures, plenaries) will be held at each. The conference organizers have varying policies on webcasting, so check at the links provided to determine if these events can be viewed remotely.

SpaceX's fifth operational cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS), SpaceX CRS-5 or SpX-5, was postponed from December 19 to January 6 because a Falcon 9 static fire test did not go as planned.  Launch on January 6 is at 6:18 am EST.  While SpaceX cargo resupply missions to the ISS have become somewhat routine, SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk has been using them -- with NASA's concurrence -- to test the reusability of the Falcon 9 first stage.  On two missions already, the first stage has returned vertically to "land" on the ocean -- tipping over into the water, of course, at the end.   On this flight, SpaceX will attempt to land it on a specially designed barge as the next step towards reusability.

Later that day,  back in Washington, the 114th Congress will convene with the House and Senate both in Republican hands.   Will that mean less gridlock?   Post-election vibes suggest that in the Senate, at least, liberal Democrats may take pages from the playbook used by Tea Party Republicans to demonstrate that the minority party wields power, too, so there are no sure bets.

NASA's advisory bodies -- or "analysis groups" (AGs) in some cases -- also get off to a fast start.  Two of the AGs are first up:  the ExoPlanet Exploration Analysis Group (ExoPAG) this weekend (January 3-4) and Small Bodies Analysis Group (SBAG) on January 6-7.  AGs are not officially allowed to give advice to NASA because they are not chartered under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA).  Only FACA-chartered bodies are supposed to give "advice," but non-FACA groups can provide input that seems a lot like advice.  ExoPAG provides input to the NASA Advisory Council's (NAC's) Astrophysics Subcommittee and SBAG provides input to NAC's Planetary Science Subcommittee.  Both of those subcommittees report to NAC's Science Committee.  Another NAC Science subcommittee, Heliophysics, meets on Friday, January 9. 

These and other meetings scheduled for January 1-9, 2015 are listed below.

Saturday-Sunday, January 3-4

Sunday-Thursday, January 4-8

Monday-Friday, January 5-9

  • American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) SciTech 2015, Kissimmee, FL

Monday, January 5

  • SpaceX CRS-5 (SpX-5) pre-launch briefings, NASA Kennedy Space Center, FL (watch on NASA TV)
    • 12:00 noon EST, Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS) Earth science instrument
    • 1:30 pm EST, science briefing
    • 4:00 pm EST, mission status briefing

Tuesday, January 6

  • SpaceX CRS-5 launch, Cape Canaveral, FL, 6:18 am EST (watch on NASA TV beginning at 5:00 am EST); post-launch briefing approximately 90 minutes after launch
  • 114th Congress convenes, noon EST, The Capitol, Washington, DC

Tuesday-Wednesday, January 6-7

Thursday, January 8

  • SpaceX CRS-5 arrives at ISS.  NASA TV coverage of grapple begins at 4:30 am EST (grapple is approx. 6:00 am EST) and of berthing at 8:15 am EST.

Thursday-Friday, January 8-9

Friday, January 9