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What's Happening in Space Policy March 30-April 3, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Mar-2015 (Updated: 29-Mar-2015 06:53 PM)

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

  • FAA COMSTAC, NTSB Conference Center, 429 L'Enfant Plaza, SW, Washington, DC, 8:00 am - 5:00 pm ET
  • Space Science Week Public Lecture, National Academy of Sciences Building, 2101 Constitution Ave, NW, Washington, DC, 6:30 pm ET

Thursday, April 2

Friday, April 3

What's Happening in Space Policy March 23-27, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Mar-2015 (Updated: 21-Mar-2015 01:47 PM)

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

HASC Grills Company and Government Officials on Space Launch, But No Clear Solution

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Mar-2015 (Updated: 18-Mar-2015 03:09 PM)

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:

  • Does language in Section 1608 of the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requiring DOD to build a new American-made propulsion system by 2019 to replace Russia’s RD-180 create the possibility of a “gap” in the U.S. ability to launch national security satellites in the 2018-2022 time frame because
    • ULA has decided to discontinue the medium/intermediate versions of the Delta IV around 2018 because they are too expensive to compete in the current marketplace (they are often referred to as the “single stick” version of Delta IV);
    • Atlas V would no longer be available;
    • SpaceX’s new Falcon Heavy is not likely to be ready by then; and
    • Therefore only the Delta IV Heavy would be available for national security launches and they would be prohibitively expensive
  • Does Section 1608 need to be clarified so ULA can use all of the RD-180 engines it currently plans to buy from Russia because the Air Force is interpreting the law such that only a small number would be permitted (the number is widely cited as five, but the government witnesses did not specify it in their statements).

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.

Launch Prices

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.

The “Gap”

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.

Business Case

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.

Launch Pads

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.”

 

What's Happening in Space Policy March 16-20, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Mar-2015 (Updated: 15-Mar-2015 01:52 PM)

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

  • Satellite 2015, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC

Tuesday, March 17

Tuesday-Wednesday, March 17-18

Wednesday, March 18

Thursday, March 19

What's Happening in Space Policy March 9-13, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Mar-2015 (Updated: 08-Mar-2015 02:56 PM)

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

Mikulski Announces Retirement

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Mar-2015 (Updated: 02-Mar-2015 06:19 PM)

Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) announced today that this will be her last term in the Senate.   One of NASA and NOAA's strongest supporters, her departure in 2016 will mark the end of an era.

Mikulski is currently the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee and on its Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA and NOAA.  In the last Congress, when Democrats controlled the Senate, she chaired both the full committee and the subcommittee, the first woman to hold the Appropriations gavel at the full committee level on either side of Capitol Hill.

There is little doubt that her strong support of the civil space program is founded on the location of major space companies and government agencies in her home state of Maryland.   NOAA headquarters is in Silver Spring, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center is in Greenbelt, and Lockheed Martin is headquartered in Bethesda to name a few.   NASA's Wallops Flight Facility is in neighboring Virginia on the DelMarVa (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) peninsula, but many of its workers live in Maryland and Wallops is managed by Goddard Space Flight Center.  Mikulski herself jokes that when someone comes to her asking for funding she asks three questions: "What does this do for the Nation?," "What does this do for Maryland?," and "What did you say again this does for Maryland"?

Her support is not unconditional, however.  She has been one of NOAA's harshest critics over the years on its management of weather satellite programs after the NPOESS overruns that led to its cancellation and early indications that the successor JPSS program was headed in the same direction.  Just last week she sternly told Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker at a hearing on the FY2016 NOAA budget request that she would be closely watching the Department's management of JPSS and the Polar Follow On program NOAA is requesting this year.  She also called NASA to task for the skyrocketing overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) several years ago and demanded an independent review (the Casani report), which led to a development cost cap of $8 billion set by law.  The agreement seems to have sealed her support and last year she enthusiastically told an audience at Goddard Space Flight Center (where JWST is managed) that "I saved you from the Tea Party."

This is her fifth term in the Senate, which followed a decade in the House of Representatives representing Baltimore, MD.  She was the first Democratic woman Senator elected to the Senate in her own right and one of only two women in the Senate when she took office there in 1987.  Today, there are 20.  She is the longest serving woman in the U.S. Congress.   In announcing her retirement among her constituents in East Baltimore today, she said she had thought long and hard about how she wanted to spend the next two years "fighting to keep my job or fighting for your job,"  "raising money or raising hell to meet your day-to-day needs,"  "focusing on my election or the next generation."  She said she chose "to give you 120 percent of my time with all of my energy focused on you and your future."

Although her passion is serving her constituents, she also seems to be genuinely interested in NASA's science programs in particular.  For the past several years she has been paired with Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) on the CJS subcommittee, an advocate of human spaceflight, giving NASA a strong foundation of support across its portfolio on that crucially important panel.   Her departure two years from now will leave quite a void,

What's Happening in Space Policy March 2-6, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Mar-2015 (Updated: 01-Mar-2015 02:11 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of March 2-6, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session.

During the Week

A passel of congressional hearings are on tap this week on the FY2016 budget requests for NASA, DOD, the Department of Commerce (including NOAA) and the Department of Transportation (including FAA).   Most congressional hearings are webcast on the respective committee's website.  The exceptions are hearings held in the Capitol where, unfortunately, the House Appropriations CJS subcommittee holds many of its hearings.   Its hearings this week on the Department of Commerce budget request and on NASA's budget request are a case in point.   One must be physically present in the tiny room (H-309 Capitol) to hear the discussion.  All the other hearings this week should be webcast, however.

For those already weary of Washington politics or just looking for something uplifting, tomorrow's (Monday's) briefing on Dawn's impending arrival at Ceres should be fun.  The intrepid spacecraft, which already sent back fascinating data about the asteroid Vesta, will arrive at Ceres on March 6.  The briefing is at JPL and will be webcast on JPL's Ustream channel and NASA TV.  We haven't seen an announcement about coverage on March 6 itself, but will post whatever information comes our way later this week.

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

Monday, March 2

Tuesday, March 3

Wednesday, March 4

Thursday, March 5

AF Secretary James Not Sure 2019 is Doable for RD-180 Replacement

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Feb-2015 (Updated: 25-Feb-2015 10:49 PM)

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James added a dose of reality today to projections about when an American-made rocket engine could replace Russia's RD-180s for the Atlas V rocket.  During testimony, she said that meeting the congressional mandate to have a new engine by 2019 may not be doable.  Her experts tell her it will take 6-8 years to get a new engine and another 1-2 years to integrate it into a launch vehicle.  

James spoke before the Senate Appropriations Committee's Defense Subcommittee (SAC-D) on the Air Force FY2016 budget request along with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III.  The two are scheduled to testify to the House counterpart subcommittee (HAC-D) on Friday. 

The issue really is about developing a new propulsion system, of which an engine is a part, but "engine" is commonly used as shorthand.

The deterioration in U.S.-Russian relationships beginning last year because of Russia's action in Ukraine highlighted how dependent the United States is on Russian technology to launch U.S. national security satellites.   The United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V and Delta IV rockets -- referred to as Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs ) -- launch almost all of them, and the Atlas V is powered by Russia's RD-180 engine.   The issue figured prominently in a number of hearings last year and Air Force officials, including Gen. William Shelton, then head of Air Force Space Command, rued the prospect of losing those engines.  Still, Shelton and others eventually accepted that the time had come for the United States to develop its own comparable liquid rocket engine.

The FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 113-291) and its accompanying explanatory statement direct DOD to develop a new U.S. propulsion system by 2019 "using full and open competition." The law authorizes $220 million and notes it "is not an authorization of funds for development of a new launch vehicle."  Section 608 of the law prohibits the Secretary of Defense (SecDef) from "awarding or renewing a contract for the procurement of property or services" under the EELV program if the contract involves "rocket engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation."  The only exceptions are the EELV contract awarded to ULA on December 18, 2013 or unless the SecDef certifies that the offeror can demonstrate that it fully paid for or entered into a legally binding contract for such engines prior to February 1, 2014.

The FY2015 Defense Appropriations Act (Division C of P.L. 113-235) followed suit, appropriating the same $220 million as was authorized "to accelerate rocket propulsion system development with a target demonstration date of fiscal year 2019."  It directs the Air Force, in consultation with NASA, "to develop an affordable, innovative, and competitive strategy ... that includes an assessment of the potential benefits and challenges of using public-private partnerships, innovative teaming arrangements, and small business considerations."

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) and James engaged in two exchanges about the RD-180 today.  Shelby noted that the President's FY2016 request is only for $84 million.  "It's also my understanding that developing an RD-180 replacement engine and the associated launch vehicle and launch pad can cost anywhere from $1 billion to more than $3 billion and take perhaps 7 to 10 years to develop," Shelby said.  James replied that technical experts have advised her that "It's 6 to 8 years ... for a newly designed engine and then an additional 1 to 2 years on top of that to be able to integrate the engine into the launch vehicle."  As for cost, "I've seen $2 billion," James said.

James asked that Congress clarify what it wants, because the 2019 deadline is "pretty aggressive" and "I'm not sure 2019 is doable."  She also stressed that they want "at least two" domestic engines "because we want competition of course."

Shelby also revealed that DOD's General Counsel "may" interpret the Section 608 language contrary to congressional intent resulting in a "capability gap for certain launches" and eliminating "real competition."  James explained that the General Counsel is trying to interpret several different provisions of law that may or may not have had the same intent, but said the point she wanted to stress is that "virtually everybody" agrees that the United States should be less reliant on Russia.  The question is how to accomplish that:  "We don't want to cut off our nose to spite our face."

The two also discussed certification of "new entrants." a reference to SpaceX, which has been attempting to obtain certification from the Air Force so it can compete against ULA for these types of national security launches.

ULA manufactures the Atlas V and Delta IV in Decatur, Alabama, Shelby's home state.  Shelby talked about the virtues of competition, but, without mentioning SpaceX by name, said "some of these so-called companies that are planning to compete, and we'd like for them to compete, they have had several mishaps" compared to ULA.  James replied that every developmental program has mishaps and "I'm quite sure they're going to get there from here."

ULA is jointly owned by Lockheed Martin and Boeing.  At yesterday's hearing before the Space, Science and Competitiveness subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, Boeing's John Elbon also urged a "thoughtful" approach to the transition from the RD-180 to a U.S. engine and keeping the pipeline of engines open as long as possible rather setting a hard cut-off date.

Meanwhile, ULA announced last fall that it is partnering with Blue Origin to develop the BE-4 rocket engine as an RD-180 replacement.  ULA and Blue Origin said at the time that the project is fully paid for and not in need of government funding.

First Cruz Space Hearing Inquisitive, Not Confrontational

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Feb-2015 (Updated: 25-Feb-2015 12:30 PM)

Sen. Ted Cruz’s first hearing as chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA and commercial space activities was politely inquisitive and not confrontational as some expected.  Cruz (R-TX), a leading Tea Party activist, is a relative unknown quantity on space issues.  The hearing exhibited that he is an advocate of U.S. leadership in space, ending U.S. reliance on Russia, and supporter of commercial space.

As is typical, few Senators attended yesterday’s hearing before the Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.  Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), the top Democrat (Ranking Member) on the subcommittee, and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), were there only briefly because they also serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where Secretary of State John Kerry was testifying at the same time.  (Ironically, Gardner unseated Udall’s cousin, Mark Udall, for that Colorado Senate seat in last year’s election.)

Cruz chaired the hearing for the full duration and was joined for most of it by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who was the chairman of this subcommittee in the last Congress when Democrats controlled the Senate.  Nelson is now Ranking Member of the full committee.  Cruz was the Ranking Member on the subcommittee in the last Congress, so the two have worked together on these topics in the past as well as on other committees and rarely see eye to eye.   In this case, however, Cruz’s opening statement was a pep talk about the space program full of familiar themes about the need for U.S. leadership in space and ending U.S. dependence on Russia.  Nelson noted the similarities in their views on those subjects, at least, and the two bantered about how the fact that they agreed on something could be used against them in future political campaigns.

The hearing broke little new ground, but sparked interesting dialogue.  One panel of former astronauts offered the usual hopes of human trips to Mars coupled with familiar warnings that NASA’s budget needs to grow to accomplish such a goal.  A second panel of industry and academic experts offered perspectives on commercial space, U.S. leadership, future human spaceflight destinations, and preferences in reauthorizing the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA).

The first panel was comprised of three former astronauts:  Apollo 7’s Walter Cunningham, Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin (the second man to walk on the Moon), and space shuttle astronaut Mike Massimino.   The second panel was Boeing’s John Elbon, George Washington University’s Scott Pace, and the Commercial Spaceflight Federation’s Eric Stallmer.

Cruz is a vocal climate change skeptic and concerns were widely expressed in the space community when he became chairman of this subcommittee that he would use his position to try to restrict funding for NASA’s earth science research.  Cunningham is also a climate change skeptic and his inclusion on the panel fueled expectations that the hearing would focus on that topic.  In fact, however, climate change barely arose and only in response to a question from Udall to Massimino about whether he agreed that NASA should remain a multi-mission agency including funding programs for earth observation.   Massimino discoursed about how the International Space Station is a great “perch” for viewing Earth and his belief that if NASA can help with any of the problems facing the country and the world, it should.

Except for his opening statement, Cruz kept his own views to himself and asked thought provoking questions that allowed the witnesses an opportunity to share their perspectives.

Cruz’s key messages in that statement were:  NASA needs to get back to its “core priorities” of exploring space; the United States should be the leader in space; SLS and Orion are critical to exploring space “whether it is Moon, Mars or beyond” (omitting mention of asteroids); U.S. dependence on Russia for access to ISS is “unacceptable” and it is “imperative” that we be able to get to the ISS without the Russians; the commercial crew program is “critical” to ending U.S. dependence on Russia; and the United States should be able to launch national security satellites without Russian engines.  He said he is encouraged by progress on commercial cargo and crew, but “maximum efficiency and expedition” are needed, and he will be an “enthusiastic advocate of competition and the enabling of the private sector to compete and innovate.”   He ended by saying “There is no limit to human imagination or desire for exploration …. America has always led the way in space exploration and we need to reclaim that leadership.”

Interesting tidbits from the hearing include the following:

  • Gardner, the freshman Senator from Colorado, wrote to NASA when he was 9 (in 1983) because he wanted to be an astronaut.  He brought along with him to the hearing the letter that NASA wrote in response encouraging him to study hard and so forth.  He noted that since then he has lived through the space shuttle program and, seeing it end, wondered if NASA is still capturing the imagination of today’s youth. 
  • The first panel was asked for their thoughts about the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).  Massimino said that an incremental approach to future human spaceflight is needed and, whatever it is, the key is to be consistent, keep options open, and keep momentum going.   Cunningham said that whatever we do will be expensive and unless Congress decides to increase NASA’s budget “this is just talk.”  Aldrin said “you can fly it the way it is, you can cancel it, or you can do something smart in between” and offered an alternative where a robotic probe as well as a crew would travel to an asteroid in its native orbit.  The crew, including scientists and asteroid mining and robotic experts, would spend 60 days there (as part of a one-year trip). 
  • Aldrin explained in great detail his plan for human exploration of Mars using “cyclers” (described in his written statement).  He and students at Purdue are studying some of the details and he expects the report to be completed in April.  He proposes that “most” crews remain on Mars building a permanent settlement, with only some returning to Earth.
  • Aldrin offered his view that the United States and China should cooperate in space and noted that this summer is the 40th anniversary of the Apollo Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) and just as the United States and Soviet Union found a way to cooperate on that mission during the Cold War, we should be able to find a way to work with China today.
  • There was disagreement on whether the United States should send astronauts back to the lunar surface.  Aldrin thinks other countries should do that, not the United States because we already have and we should not get “bogged down” there.  Instead the United States should focus on Mars.  Cunningham said he used to believe there was no need to return to the lunar surface, but has changed his mind and now thinks lunar surface missions are needed as an intermediate step to Mars.  When the second panel had its turn, Pace made it clear that he still believes a return to the lunar surface is needed (he was a top NASA official during the George W. Bush Administration when the Constellation program was underway).  Pace wants Congress to direct NASA to develop concepts for returning to the lunar surface with commercial partners.  He also stressed the need to align U.S. plans with international interests, and potential international partners want to land on the Moon.  However, he emphasized, international cooperation “is a means, not an end.” His overall argument is that “rules on a frontier are made by the people who show up, not the ones who stay behind” so the United States needs to be there.
  • Stallmer argued for extension of third party liability indemnification and of the “learning period” for commercial human spaceflight (where the FAA cannot impose new regulations for a certain period of time) when reauthorizing CSLA. 
  • Cruz asked about impediments to expansion of commercial space.   Stallmer cited regulatory uncertainty and that any disruption of the commercial crew schedule would be a significant setback.  Elbon and Pace both said that extending the life of ISS is important for the commercial cargo and commercial crew markets.  Pace stressed the need for a predictable environment for investment and the need to plan for what will come after ISS – “if you’re not planning today what you’re going to do next, you’re planning to go out of business.”  He foresees commercial cargo and crew expanding to serve lunar surface missions.
  • Cruz asked how quickly we could end our reliance on Russia for crew access to the ISS and the RD-180 rocket engine used on the Atlas V.  Elbon said that Boeing’s CST-100 commercial crew spacecraft is on schedule to be ready by 2017 and is paced by internal work, not dollars – “we need to apply the level of money we proposed in our contract.”   The implication is that more money would not accelerate the program.  Elbon praised the RD-180 and argued for a “thoughtful” process in shifting to a new U.S.-built engine to replace it.  Pressed by Cruz to define a thoughtful approach, Elbon said the “pipeline” of RD-180s should be kept open as long as possible rather than setting a hard date for ending the contract (as is done in the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act).  Boeing and Lockheed Martin jointly own the United Launch Alliance, which builds and launches Atlas V, and Boeing plans to use Atlas V to launch CST-100.

The written statements of the witnesses and an archived webcast are available on the committee’s website.

What's Happening in Space Policy February 23-27, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Feb-2015 (Updated: 22-Feb-2015 10:50 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of February 23-27, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

This is one of those weeks when so much is going on that it's difficult to choose just a couple of events to highlight.  Please peruse the list below to find your own favorites. 

There are seven congressional hearings of interest to the space policy community, though one suspects two are of particular note to readers of this website:  Tuesday's Senate hearing  on the U.S. human spaceflight program and commercial space competitiveness (with three former astronauts, including Buzz Aldrin), and Friday's House hearing on NASA's commercial crew program.  

But the others should be of interest, too:  Wednesday's House hearing with the NASA Inspector General (and his counterparts at the Departments of Commerce and Justice) and hearings on the FY2016 budget requests for the Department of Transportation (including the Office of Commercial Space Transportation), Air Force (where many national security space programs reside), and the Department of Commerce (home of NOAA).  Many congressional hearings are webcast (though usually not the ones held in the U.S. Capitol), so you can enjoy them live or later in archived webcasts.  We'll provide summaries of as many of them as we can.

Tuesday, February 24

Tuesday-Wednesday, February 24-25

Wednesday, February 25

Thursday, February 26

Friday, February 27