NASA issues call for payloads to go on commercial lunar landers

Astrobotic Peregrine

WASHINGTON — As NASA evaluates proposals for commercially developed small lunar landers, the agency is now seeking payloads that could fly on those spacecraft despite concerns from some scientists that they don’t know if their experiments are compatible with those landers.

NASA released Oct. 18 a formal solicitation for “Lunar Surface Instrument and Technology Payloads” that seeks experiments for flight on lander missions procured by the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. NASA plans to select 8 to 12 experiments next year for launch no earlier than 2020, with an overall budget of between $24 and 36 million in the first year of the program.

In a statement, NASA said it’s looking for payloads “that advance capabilities for science, exploration, or commercial development of the moon.” That includes, according to the solicitation, work by any of the agency’s four science divisions, so-called “Strategic Knowledge Gaps” for human exploration and technologies needed for future lunar exploration.

“We are looking for ways to not only conduct lunar science but to also use the moon as a science platform to look back at the Earth, observe the sun, or view the vast universe,” said Steve Clarke, deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in the statement. “In terms of technology, we are interested in those instruments or systems that will help future missions — both human and robotic — explore the moon and feed forward to future Mars missions.”

However, NASA’s statement listed what it expects some of those first payloads to be: “On early missions, science instruments will likely gather data related to heat flow within the Moon’s interior, solar wind and atmosphere as well as dust detection.”

For this procurement, NASA is looking for experiments that are either already assembled or could be made ready for flight quickly. “We are interested in flight spares, engineering models, modified off-the-shelf payloads, student hardware or any other hardware that can credibly meet the aggressive timeline” included in the proposal, it stated. That timeline calls for delivery of payloads for flight between March 2020 and December 2021.

NASA will procure flights on those payloads through its CLPS program, which plans to make use of commercial lunar landers under development. NASA issued a request for proposals for CLPS in September, with proposals due to the agency Oct. 9.

Clarke, speaking at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in Las Cruces, New Mexico, Oct. 10, said the agency expected to make awards in the CLPS program in December. “I’m optimistic we had a healthy response to that call,” he said. “I think I know some of the players who probably proposed, but I’m hoping I’m surprised by others that I didn’t know would propose.”

One challenge for payload developers, though, is a lack of details about the payloads. The payload solicitation offers only basic “engineering accommodation capabilities” for the CLPS landers, including a payload mass of no more than 15 kilograms and a continuous power level of 8 watts.

“Specific payload accommodations may vary by lander provider, and because these lander services are still being developed, the payload accommodations are subject to change,” the solicitation noted. “These capabilities will most assuredly evolve over time, but are expected to approximately represent the initial operating capabilities of the expected lunar landers.”

Clarke, speaking at a Sept. 11 meeting of the Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board, said NASA would develop a “prioritization” of the payloads selected through this solicitation to match them up with various CLPS missions, based on those landers’ capabilities, schedules and landing sites.

Some committee members were worried, though, about a potential mismatch between landers and experiments. “It seems to me that the [request for proposals] that is going out to the lander vendors has no concept of what the instrumentation needs are,” said Mark Saunders, a member of the committee, “and the [NASA research announcement] is going out with no concept of what the capabilities of the landers are, thus you could end up with no match.”

“I do think that the work has been done to ensure that there would be matches between the lunar payload call and the lander services call,” Clarke responded, but added he didn’t know the specifics, as much of the planning work had been done before he took his current position earlier this year.

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Bridenstine confident Soyuz launches will resume “on schedule”


WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said he believes launches of crewed Soyuz spacecraft will resume “on schedule” after last week’s launch failure, avoiding the possibility of leaving the International Space Station without a crew.

In a series of clips from an Oct. 12 press conference in Moscow, posted to the administrator’s Twitter account Oct. 14, Bridenstine said he expected American astronauts to be flying again on Soyuz spacecraft soon.

“We have a really good idea what happened” during the Oct. 10 launch of the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft, which had to use its launch abort system to escape its Soyuz rocket about two minutes after liftoff. The spacecraft landed downrange from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and the two people on board, Nick Hague and Alexey Ovchinin, were uninjured.

“I fully anticipate at this point that we will fly again on a Russian Soyuz rocket,” he continued, “and I have no reason to believe at this point that it won’t be on schedule.”

Prior to the accident, the next Soyuz launch to the station was scheduled for mid-December, carrying NASA astronaut Anne McClain, Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques and Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko. Some Russian media reports have suggested that launch could be moved up to as early as late November pending the outcome of the investigation.

The station currently has three people on board, but their Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft will reach the end of its certified on-orbit lifetime of approximately 200 days in late December. If the Soyuz is not ready to return to service by then, the station partners will have to decide if the Soyuz’s time in orbit can be extended or to leave the station uncrewed temporarily for the first time in 18 years.

The incident highlighted the need for what Bridenstine called “dissimilar redundancy” in spaceflight. “In other words, if there is a hiccup in one country’s system, there is another country’s system capable of maintaining the operations until the first country is ready to go again,” he said. That redundancy is currently lacking in transporting crews to the ISS, with the Soyuz the only vehicle able to do so until commercial crew vehicles under development by Boeing and SpaceX enter service, no earlier than mid-2019.

Bridenstine praised NASA personnel and their Russian counterparts for their work in the moments after the accident. “I have so much confidence in this relationship, I have so much confidence in the NASA team,” he said.

Bridenstine had traveled to Russia not only to observe the launch but also to meet with his counterpart, Dmitry Rogozin, general director of the Russian state space corporation Roscosmos. The two had talked by telephone once before, in September, amid the continuing investigation into a hole found in the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft at the ISS in August.

At the briefing, Bridenstine emphasized his opinion that the relationship between the U.S. and Russia in space was strong despite tensions in other areas. “It is without question that our two nations have had disputes and we have areas where our interests are divergent,” he said. “It is also true that, when it comes to space and exploration and discovery and science, our two nations have always kept those activities separate from the disputes we have terrestrially.”

Bridenstine and Rogozin met in person prior to the Soyuz launch. “We reaffirmed our commitment to cooperation on the [ISS] and discussed the search for life, planetary defense, and a sustainable presence at the Moon,” Bridenstine tweeted after the meeting.

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NASA addressing problems with Hubble and Chandra space telescopes


LAS CRUCES, N.M. — As one group of engineers continues to diagnose a gyro problem that has sidelined the Hubble Space Telescope, another is dealing with a problem that has put operations of another large space observatory on hold.

In a statement Oct. 12, NASA said the Chandra X-Ray Observatory entered a safe mode on the morning of Oct. 10. That safe mode interrupts scientific observations and puts the spacecraft into a stable configuration.

NASA said the cause of the Chandra safe mode is under investigation, and could be due to a problem with one of the spacecraft’s gyroscopes. “Analysis of available data indicates the transition to safe mode was normal behavior for such an event,” the agency stated. “All systems functioned as expected and the scientific instruments are safe.”

Chandra is one of the four original “Great Observatories” developed by NASA to perform astronomy across the electromagnetic spectrum. Chandra was launched by the shuttle in 1999 for what was originally a five-year mission, later extended to 10.

NASA also provided an update Oct. 12 on the status of another of the Great Observatories, the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble has been in a safe mode since Oct. 5 when one of its gyros failed and another was not “performing at the level required for operations,” the agency said Oct. 8.

Hubble remains in its safe mode as engineers continue to analyze the problem with the gyro not performing as expected. NASA said the gyro is reporting rotation rates “orders of magnitude higher than they actually are,” although it did appear to be properly tracking the telescope’s movements.

This problem most affects Hubble when it is a “precision” mode when it’s used to measure very small movements, such as when telescope is locked onto a particular target it is observing. “The extremely high rates currently being reported exceed the upper limit of the gyro in this low mode, preventing the gyro from reporting the spacecraft’s small movements,” NASA explained.

An anomaly board is studying the problem, including ways to address the problem using ground systems. The agency didn’t give a schedule for the board to perform that work.

That analysis is important since Hubble normally operates with three gyros. The spacecraft is equipped with six, which were replaced on the final shuttle servicing mission in 2009. Three of those six have now failed, including the one that failed last week.

With one of the three remaining ones not performing as expected, Hubble can’t be operated in its usual three-gyro mode. It is possible, though, to operate the spacecraft with just a singly gyro, and NASA said it will do so if the malfunctioning gyro can’t be fixed.

Shifting to one-gyro operations will “still provide excellent science well into the 2020s,” NASA said, but acknowledged that it would operate at “slightly lower efficiency” in that mode. Some astronomers are concerned that the reduced-gyro mode could adversely affect some types of observations, like solar system objects, that require the precision of three-gyro operations.

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Op-ed | A space-based survey, not luck, must be our plan against hazardous asteroids

The NEOCam sensor (right) is the lynchpin for the proposed Near Earth Object Camera, or NEOCam, space mission (left) managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

This op-ed originally appeared in the Sept. 24, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Luck is not a plan. Yet up to now Congressional appropriators and senior NASA officials are mostly relying on luck to keep us safe from catastrophic fatalities resulting from the surprise impact of an unseen asteroid. So far, luck and the odds are on our side as evidenced by both the 1908 Siberian Tunguska impact and the 2013 Chelyabinsk airburst occurring in relatively remote areas of our planet. Alas, nonpartisan studies commissioned by the National Research Council have determined, as a scientific fact that one day our luck will run out. It could be next year or it could be next century; that is the nature of a random threat. Only by discovering and tracking the hundreds of thousands of asteroids crisscrossing Earth’s orbit can we know for sure. The opportunity to do just that is now within our grasp. We call on Congress and NASA to come together and commit to securing our future against hazardous asteroids.

Congressional authorizations have fully embraced the imperative to “know thy enemy.” The George E. Brown Survey Act of 2005 (H.R. 1022; 109th) mandates NASA to achieve by the year 2020 specific levels of search completeness for discovering, cataloging, and characterizing asteroids whose impacts could devastate major cities or even larger congressional districts. Rather than launching a full-scale search as mandated by the Survey Act, more than a decade-long game of “cosmic chicken” has ensued with NASA refusing to take sufficient action until Congress enacts a sufficient appropriation. In turn, Congress has been generous in overall NASA appropriations, but top NASA managers have not prioritized the funds needed to meet the specific goals of H.R. 1022.

As Earth waits inevitably in the crosshairs, it is time for the game of cosmic chicken to stop. Both sides must come together and commit to the mandate of H.R. 1022. Right now the timing of the FY19 budget presents a win-win-win scenario to do just that, created by a convergence of three factors: (1) A proposed asteroid survey spacecraft specifically designed to meet the mandate is ready-to-build. The competitively solicited Near-Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) mission is primed to advance after a decade of successful reviews and cost reduction studies. (2) A newly announced NASA mission launching in 2024 (the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe, or IMAP) has extra payload capacity heading to NEOCam’s operating outpost, the L1 Lagrange point inside of Earth’s orbit. (L1 is a stable orbit location where the opposite gravitational tugs of the Sun and Earth cancel out.) NEOCam and IMAP could make perfect co-manifest partners, yielding significant cost savings to the taxpayer approaching $100 million. (3) NASA’s newly proposed Planetary Defense budget line is within sight of the level needed to finally move NEOCam out of its successful Phase A validation into Phase B toward construction. Making that move requires decisions now for an on-time departure.

The funding gap determining our asteroid future currently stands at only $40 million. Raising NASA’s Planetary Defense budget line to $200 million in FY19, up from the current House number of $160 million, creates headroom for the $60 million immediately needed to propel NEOCam forward to its cost-saving 2024 launch date. The House of Representatives has taken the lead with $20 million allocated in their current budget proposal, but that amount won’t get NEOCam to the pad on time. Senate support is, of course, needed as well. Public opinion overwhelmingly favors making the investment, with more than 60 percent of respondents in a March 2018 Pew Research Center poll (2,500 Americans) saying NASA’s top priority should be to “monitor asteroids/objects that could hit Earth.” Out of all other NASA priorities listed as choices, including human space flight, only climate monitoring ranked higher. A Bloomberg poll in July (2,200 U.S. adults) delivers an identical one-two priority punch to NASA in its rankings. Even the White House agrees. The National Science and Technology Council’s June 2018 report National NearEarth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan specifically directs NASA to take the lead in achieving the plan’s top goal: “Enhance NEO detection, tracking and characterization capabilities.”


To be fair, the NASA Planetary Defense budget is supporting an array of ground-based telescope surveys scraping along toward 40 percent completeness as well as a demonstration project testing how we might deflect an asteroid. Search help may be coming from the broader astronomical community thanks to the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), which with some trade-off to its astrophysical objectives, could tune its observing cadence in support of asteroid detection, eventually reaching 75 percent. Yet, reaching the 90 percent completeness level (for objects 140 meters across and larger) mandated by law definitively requires a space-based asset such as NEOCam — a key finding delivered by a 2017 Science Definition Team comprised by asteroid experts spanning the government and private sector. With the Sun at its back and cameras looking outward toward Earth’s vicinity, NEOCam’s infrared sensors achieve 24/7 scanning that is free from day/night cycles (not to mention cloudy weather), pushing to 90 percent completeness much faster and with much greater accuracy than any ground-based system. For objects that will be discovered heading toward a close brush with Earth (even now we detect sizable objects passing closer than the moon every week), precise knowledge delivered by NEOCam for both trajectory and physical size makes all the difference in the world for friend-or-foe analysis and if necessary, disaster mitigation planning. But we have to find them first, and the sooner the better. Putting time on our side in identifying and verifying any actual future threat is the greatest asteroid defense that money can buy.

So, what are we waiting for? It is time, right now in the FY19 budget, to take luck out of the equation and replace it with definitive knowledge of what’s out there. Congress needs to fully support NEOCam’s cost-effective advance to the launch pad. NASA leadership should take advantage of Congressional support and strong public opinion and fully commit to the NEOCam mission.

Richard P. Binzel is a professor of planetary science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the inventor of the Torino Scale for characterizing the hazard of newly discovered asteroids. Donald K. Yeomans is a retired senior research scientist from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and former manager of NASA’s Near Earth Object Program Office. Timothy D. Swindle is the director of the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and chair of NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group which has issued repeated findings in support of space-based surveys for planetary defense. Each author declares no affiliation with NEOCam.

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Senate confirms Morhard as NASA deputy administrator

Morhard Senate

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — The Senate confirmed James Morhard to be NASA’s deputy administrator late Oct. 11.

In a voice vote without debate, the Senate confirmed Morhard’s nomination to be the agency’s second-in-command. The Senate Commerce Committee had favorably reported the nomination, also on a voice vote, Sept. 5.

The White House nominated Morhard, the deputy sergeant-at-arms for the Senate, in July. The nomination surprised many because Morhard had effectively no experience in the space industry. He had served as a Senate appropriations staffer and a lobbyist before becoming deputy sergeant-at-arms, responsible for the day-to-day administrative activities of the legislative body.

Morhard faced some skepticism during an Aug. 23 confirmation hearing by the commerce committee, with members asking him about his expertise and his views on controversial topics like climate change. Morhard emphasized his background overseeing Senate operations and earlier work on the appropriations committee.

“Over and over again, I’ve led organizations through difficult situations by creating an atmosphere of collaborative teamwork that turns visions and goals into realities,” he said at that hearing. “I’m able to focus, helping to lead a situation that continually tends towards disorder.”

“I believe my work at NASA, if confirmed, is empowering scientists and engineers and astronauts and technicians,” he said when asked about criticism regarding his lack of space experience, citing his oversight of Senate activities ranging from operations to security. “That part, I think, I can bring to NASA.”

Some in industry had been expecting the Senate to confirm Morhard soon, based on the lack of controversy surrounding his nomination. By contrast, Jim Bridenstine, nominated to be NASA administrator in September 2017, had to wait seven and a half months before the Senate voted along party lines to confirm him.

“I think he will be confirmed hopefully soon, now that the Senate’s plate has cleared up on all the nominations,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, in an Oct. 10 speech at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight here.

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Safety panel fears Soyuz failure could exacerbate commercial crew safety concerns

Starliner and Crew Dragon

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Members of an independent NASA safety panel said they were worried that the Oct. 11 Soyuz launch failure could make safety concerns with the agency’s commercial crew program even worse.

The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), in a previously scheduled meeting at the Johnson Space Center Oct. 11 only hours after the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft suffered a launch vehicle failure and had to make an emergency landing, said the incident only deepened concerns about the ability of Boeing and SpaceX to adhere to their schedules without jeopardizing safety.

“We have not seen the program make decisions detrimental to safety,” said Patricia Sanders, chair of ASAP, in her opening remarks. “But current projected schedules for uncrewed and crewed test flights for both providers have considerable risk and do not appear achievable.”

“The panel believes that an overconstrained schedule, driven by any real or perceived gap in astronaut transport to the International Space Station and possibly exacerbated by this morning’s events, poses a danger that sound engineering design solutions could be superseded, critical program content could be delayed or deleted, and decisions of ‘good enough to proceed’ could be made on insufficient data,” she argued.

Sanders and other ASAP members said they were skeptical that either Boeing or SpaceX could maintain its current schedules for fielding their commercial crew systems, let alone accelerate them to address a potential gap in ISS access created by the Soyuz failure.

ASAP member Don McErlean outlined several issues that SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft needs to overcome, including a lack of a final resolution on the root cause of the failure of a composite overwrapped pressure vessel (COPV) that led to the pad explosion of a Falcon 9 more than two years ago. That is linked, he added, to the use of “load-and-go” fueling of the rocket that would take place, on commercial crew missions, after astronauts have boarded the spacecraft.

“Ultimately, there has to be the acceptance and certification of a configuration which is judged by both parties to be free of the demonstrated characteristics that caused the failure in question,” he said. “This remains an open technical item that the panel believes has to be firmly resolved before we can certainly proceed to crewed launches.”

He also raised concerns about issues with the Dragon’s parachute system, citing anomalies during testing of the Crew Dragon spacecraft and unspecified problems with cargo versions of the Dragon. “Clearly, one cannot risk crew without there being a complete confidence in the parachute design,” he said.

McErlean pushed back against criticism that it was paperwork, and not technical issues, that was delaying test flights of the Crew Dragon spacecraft. That certification “paperwork,” he argued, is actually in the form of critical technical reviews by NASA of the data provided by the vehicle developers.

“While this may indeed be described as paperwork, it is not bureaucratic, it is not paperwork and, point in fact, it is the essence of the technical certification of the design by NASA, and that does have to be completed before crew flies on these systems,” he said. “It is essentially extremely important and should not be thought of as some sort of bureaucratic time delay.”

Boeing has problems of its own to overcome, ASAP member Christopher Saindon noted, including investigating a problem with the propulsion system in the CST-100 Starliner’s service module first reported in July. That issue, he said, appeared to be a “harmonic resonance across the system” that caused a “waterhammer” effect, prematurely shutting down the engine during a static-fire test. Boeing, he said, is still working to identify the root cause of that failure and the exact source of that resonance.

Saindon said that Boeing was also working on parachute issues of its own discovered during testing in New Mexico. “They’re still working to discover the exact root cause,” he said. “The test is on hold until they do that, and then they have to re-initiate the test program, and it’s not an easy test program.”

A third issue he discussed with “unexpected failures” of pyros used to separate the Starliner’s crew module from its service module prior to reentry. “They’re still working to understand why that occurred,” he said. He added that, despite the pyro problems, the overall separation system appeared to work as desired.

He, too, was skeptical Boeing could resolve its issues and complete its testing on its current schedule. “They do have a pretty significant ‘burn-down curve’ for their validation and verification,” he said, with 40 percent of that work complete. “There’s certainly some concern with maintain a good schedule profile with those considerations.”

Boeing's John Mulholland (left) and SpaceX's Benji Reed discuss their commercial crew development programs Oct. 11 at the ISPCS conference in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust
Boeing’s John Mulholland (left) and SpaceX’s Benji Reed discuss their commercial crew development programs Oct. 11 at the ISPCS conference in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

Commercial crew providers respond

During a panel session later in the day at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight here, managers of Boeing’s and SpaceX’s commercial crew programs said they were still confident that they could meet their current schedules for testing their vehicles, but would not sacrifice safety for schedule.

The latest schedule, released by NASA Oct. 4, calls for an uncrewed test flight by SpaceX in January, followed by a crewed one in June. Boeing would perform an uncrewed test flight in March and a crewed one in August. That schedule, though, represented a delay of two months for SpaceX, and a roughly similar time frame for Boeing, since the previous schedule released in August.

“You lay out a plan you believe you can achieve,” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for commercial programs at Boeing’s space exploration unit. He noted the company was 85 percent of the way through the overall test program, but added that still meant a chance of discovery of new issues during that final 15 percent. “If there’s discovery that we have, we’ll address it correctly, and fly as soon as we’re ready.”

“You put together a plan, you expect to follow it, and you do your best to get there,” said Benji Reed, director of commercial crew mission management at SpaceX. “While we’re all pushing hard to get flying, you also want to want to provide it safely.”

Both Mulholland and Reed said they were making progress addressing some of the technical issues raised by ASAP in its meeting. “We discovered an inherent design susceptibility in the launch abort engine,” Mulholland said of the service module hotfire test problem, one that he said only showed up when the entire system was tested. A “really subtle design change” should resolve the problem, he said.

Reed didn’t go into details about parachute anomalies alluded to at the ASAP meeting. “We’re constantly learning and going through that data and applying that, ensuring that the ultimate parachute system that will fly for crew, as well as for cargo missions, will be safe,” he said.

Neither Mulholland nor Reed suggested that development of their commercial crew vehicle could be accelerated much from their current schedules in response to the Soyuz MS-10 failure, adding they would not cut testing needed to ensure their vehicles’ safety.

“We look at it in terms of, ‘Could I work extra shifts or put extra people on it?’” Mulholland said. “It never crossed our mind to think what could you not do, what scope can you reduce.”

“You have to do the same work. You have to do the right work,” Reed said. “The question is whether there’s a way you can compress that schedule. You don’t look at in terms of cutting out work.”

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Europa or Enceladus? If NASA switches from SLS to Falcon Heavy, it won’t have to choose

Jupiter’s icy moon Europa (above left in a reprocessed color view made by images taken by NASA’s Galileo
spacecraft in the late 1990) is thought to have a warm ocean shrouded beneath a layer of ice. Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus (shown in cross section above right)
is also believed to have a liquid ocean between its rocky core and icy crust. Credit: NASA

A version of this opinion piece originally appeared in the Oct. 8 issue of SpaceNews as “Europa or Enceladus? Why Choose?”

Europa, a moon of Jupiter, and Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, are very similar worlds. Both distant moons are thought to have warm water oceans shrouded with a layer of ice.

The oceans of Europa and Enceladus are warmed by the tidal forces of their respective planets and may contain lifeforms that have never seen the sky. Therefore, both moons are prime targets for further exploration. Which one we should explore first?

Three main differences exist between Europa and Enceladus. The Cassini space probe, which orbited Enceladus for 13 years, flew through the geysers of water that erupt from underneath the ice layer through fissures. Cassini found evidence of complex organic molecules that could indicate life beneath the surface of Enceladus. Europa has similar geysers, but the evidence of organic molecules is far less certain. Europa is orbiting in the middle of a zone of intense radiation emanating from Jupiter.

Any space probe that spends too much time in that region would quickly find its electronics fried unless it were heavily shielded. Enceladus’ environment is relatively clear of hard radiation. Nevertheless, Europa is the current first target for NASA, with the Europa Clipper due to launch in the early 2020s and a Europa lander to follow a few years later.

Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), the chair of the House subcommittee that funds NASA, is a moving force for exploring Europa. Europa Clipper will orbit Jupiter, flying by Europa frequently, before moving out of the radiation zone. Europa Lander will follow once its predecessor maps the Jovian moon and locates some landing sites.

With the planning for the Europa Clipper and the Europa Lander in advanced stages and a powerful member of Congress supporting the twin missions, re-tasking the probes to Enceladus is likely not in the cards.

However, a way may be found to do both. The Europa Clipper and Europa Lander are envisioned to be launched to Jupiter space by NASA’s planned heavy-lift Space Launch System. The SLS will be able to lob huge payloads toward Jupiter on a direct flight path, avoiding the time-consuming gravity assist maneuvers that previous probes to the outer planets have had to use.

The problem with the Space Launch System is that it is a fully expendable rocket that could cost between $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion to launch. NASA is struggling to make the SLS more affordable to operate, but the sad fact is that using the heavy-lift rocket is a great expense for the missions to Europa. NASA does have the option of using a commercial rocket, say the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, to launch the twin missions to Europa.

The Falcon Heavy has a slightly lower lift capacity than the Space Launch System, 64 metric tons to low Earth orbit as opposed to 70 metric tons. And the SLS has a larger fairing that can accommodate a wider payload. Enhancements down the line will increase the Space Launch System’s capabilities even more.

However, the Falcon Heavy has two distinct advantages over the Space Launch System. Even in the totally expendable mode the SpaceX rocket costs just $150 million to launch. Just as important, Falcon Heavy has already flown.

Switching to the Falcon Heavy may cause some trade-offs in designing both the Europa Clipper and the Europa Lander to fit the smaller rocket. However, the cost savings could be plowed into an Enceladus orbiter. A probe could be sent to the icy moon of Saturn and orbit it for as long as necessary to ferret out its secrets.

Indeed, enough money might be left over to land on Enceladus, near one of the fissures, to attempt to ascertain what resides beneath its icy surface. Two icy moons for the price of one sounds like a pretty good deal for NASA and the planetary science community.

A recent NASA Inspector General Report that detailed the continuing cost overruns and schedule slippages experienced by the Space Launch System further makes the case for using commercial rockets to end proves to Europa and Enceladus.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled “Why Is It So Hard to Go Back To The Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.

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NASA inspector general sharply criticizes SLS core stage development

SLS core interstage

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — A report by NASA’s inspector general Oct. 10 criticized both NASA and Boeing for delays and cost overruns in the development of a key component of the Space Launch System, and warned of more delays and overruns to come.

The report by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) concluded that Boeing had done a poor job managing development of the core stage of the SLS while NASA did insufficient oversight of that contract, resulting in a doubling of the program’s costs and delays of several years.

“We found Boeing’s poor performance is the main reason for the significant cost increases and schedule delays to developing the SLS Core Stage,” the OIG report stated. “Specifically, the Project’s cost and schedule issues stem primarily from management, technical, and infrastructure issues directly related to Boeing’s performance.”

The SLS core stage is the central element of the SLS, consisting of a modified version of the space shuttle’s external tank with four RS-25 engines mounted in its base. Boeing received a contract from NASA in June 2014 valued at nearly $4.2 billion to build the first two SLS core stages.

That contract has grown to more than $6.2 billion as of the latest contract modification in January, the OIG reported. That is still insufficient to cover the completion of the two core stages, and the report concluded the total cost of the contract will grow to $8.9 billion by the time second core stage is completed in 2021.

Schedules have also slipped, noting that the first SLS flight, Exploration Mission (EM) 1, has been delayed from late 2017 to mid-2020. The OIG suggested further delays in EM-1 were likely. “In light of the Project’s development delays, we have concluded NASA will be unable to meet its EM-1 launch window currently scheduled between December 2019 and June 2020,” the report concluded.

Boeing attributed the delays to underfunding of its contract, particularly in 2015. However, the OIG found that the funding shortfall in that year was modest, and offset by increases in the following year. “According to NASA officials,” the report stated, “the schedule slippage cannot be explained by a lack of adequate funding.”

NASA, though, did not escape blame for the SLS core stage problems in the report. The OIG concluded NASA lacked sufficient visibility into the program because work on the SLS core stages is “co-mingled” into the same contract line item as its work on the Exploration Upper stage.

The agency also failed to identify problems with SLS development in its regular reviews of the contract. “NASA had rated Boeing’s performance as ‘excellent’ in three periods and ‘very good’ in three others and awarded it $323 million or 90 percent of the available award and incentive fees,” the report stated. “Given the SLS Program’s cost overages and schedule delays, we question nearly $64 million of these award fees already provided to Boeing.”

The OIG report made several recommendations to NASA to improve management and oversight of the core stage program. NASA, in its response included in the report, accepted all the recommendations except one regarding the use of “adjectival” ratings like “excellent” and “very good” by contracting officers.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said in that response that issues associated with “first-time production technical challenges” led to the cost and schedule overruns. “NASA is designing and implementing manufacturing capability to efficiently produce, test, and qualify spaceflight hardware for long-term use, to human rating standards, on a scale never achieved before,” he wrote.

John Shannon, vice president and program manager for the SLS program at Boeing, offered similar comments during a teleconference with reporters last week. The company, he said, had underestimated the amount of work needed to modify shuttle-heritage hardware for SLS.

“We thought we would be able to reuse hardware without an extensive a [qualification] as we’ve done on some it,” he said in the Oct. 3 call. “But as we got into testing and understood the environments in an SLS, it required us to go back and do additional qualification work.”

In a statement to SpaceNews, Boeing said it had already implemented changes to improve the management of the SLS core stage. “The program described in the OIG’s report does not represent the Space Launch System (SLS) program today,” the company said.

“Accordingly, we have restructured our leadership team to better align with current program challenges and we are refining our approaches and tools to ensure a successful transition from development to production,” it added. “We believe that these actions will result in a successful delivery of Core Stage 1 and establish a firm foundation that will serve the program’s long-term objectives.”

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Space agencies welcome new entrants developing satellites for tracking greenhouse gases


BREMEN, Germany — As a growing number of organizations propose satellites to monitor greenhouse gases, national space agencies who already operate such spacecraft welcome those new entrants — as long as they’re willing to share their results.

Missions to track emissions of such gases by human activities, once solely in the realm of major space agencies, are now being considered by state governments, non-profit organizations and companies, seeking to leverage advances in small satellites to fill perceived gaps in what data is already available.

One company, Montreal-based GHGSat, announced Sept. 24 it has raised $10 million in what it called a “Series A2” funding round. The funding, the company said, will expand its commercialization efforts and fund an additional satellite. The company launched one satellite in 2016 and plans to launch two more next year.

The funding, GHGSat Chief Executive Stéphane Germain said in a statement, “also secures access to some of the largest customers in the world for our services. We’re very excited for this next stage of our growth.”

The funding round for GHGSat came 10 days after California Gov. Jerry Brown announced the state would develop and launch its own satellite to track greenhouse gases. “This groundbreaking initiative will help governments, businesses and landowners pinpoint – and stop – destructive emissions with unprecedented precision, on a scale that’s never been done before,” he said in remarks at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco Sept. 14.

The satellite will be developed by San Francisco-based Planet in collaboration with the state government “and others,” Brown’s office said in a statement. Neither the governor nor the company disclosed additional details about the proposed satellite, including its cost, funding source or schedule.

That spacecraft is designed to be complementary with another privately-developed spacecraft, MethaneSAT, that the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) announced in April it planned to fly to track emissions of methane, another greenhouse gas.

“These satellite technologies are part of a new era of environmental innovation that is supercharging our ability to solve problems,” said Fred Krupp, president of the EDF, in the governor’s statement. “They won’t cut emissions by themselves, but they will make invisible pollution visible and generate the transparent, actionable, data we need to protect our health, our environment and our economies.”

So what do national space agencies like NASA, who already operate Earth science missions that monitor greenhouse gas levels, think of these new entrants?

“The key here is free and open exchange of data,” said Mike Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth science division, during a panel discussion Oct. 4 during the 69th International Astronautical Congress here. “More accurate, well-characterized measurements provide better authoritative information if they can be combined.”

He welcomes the rise of non-traditional players developing such systems, provided they were open about sharing their data and how it was calibrated. “If we have free and open exchange of data, and insight into the calibration and validation and characterization, all comers, from the commercial sector, from sub-national organizations, from NGOs, et cetera, can only help to advance the science.”

However, neither NASA nor other national space agencies are turning over the efforts to track greenhouse gases to other organizations. During the panel, Freilich highlighted the results from NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) 2 spacecraft, which monitors natural processes that regulate carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. “We are seeing the Earth breathe,” he said.

NASA is also preparing for OCO-3, a follow-on instrument made from flight spares developed for OCO-2. While the White House proposed cancelling OCO-3 in its fiscal year 2019 budget request, Freilich said the instrument is ready for launch to the International Space Station next February.

Installing OCO-3 on the ISS, which is in a 51-degree orbit rather than the sun-synchronous orbit most Earth science satellites fly in, will provide a new perspective on carbon dioxide changes. While such satellites pass over locations at the same time each day, OCO-3 will see locations at different times of day and night. “OCO-3 measurements, over time, will allow us to resolve issues of the diurnal cycle of CO2 in the atmosphere,” he said.

The Japanese space agency JAXA is preparing for the launch of the Greenhouse gases Observing Satellite 2, or GOSAT-2, which is designed to measure carbon dioxide and methane gases at far higher precision than its predecessor, GOSAT. GOSAT-2 is scheduled for launch on an H-2A rocket on Oct. 29, said Naoto Matsuura, senior chief officer of satellite applications and director of JAXA’s Earth Observation Research Center, on the panel.

Matsuura added JAXA is starting work on another satellite, GOSAT-3, in 2020. “We have started to contract for its development,” he said.

Josef Aschbacher, director of Earth observation programs at the European Space Agency, said the Sentinel-5P spacecraft launched a year ago is providing “extremely good daily measurements” of greenhouse gases. That will be followed by the Sentinel-4 and -5 missions, which will be carried on weather satellites operated by Eumetsat. He added that ESA is considering a future Sentinel mission dedicated to carbon dioxide monitoring.

Others on the panel echoed Freilich’s statement about the need for more data. “Greenhouse gas measurements are very, very difficult, and no single country can make all the necessary measurements alone,” said Harry Cikanek, director of NOAA’s Center for Satellite Applications and Research. “It takes a whole group effort.”

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Boeing plans changes to SLS upper stages

SLS EM-1 target markings

BREMEN, Germany — With NASA’s decision to continue using an interim upper stage for additional flights of the Space Launch System, Boeing is working on changes to both that stage and a more powerful upper stage.

In an Oct. 3 call with reporters, John Shannon, vice president and program manager for the Space Launch System at Boeing, said NASA has asked Boeing to look at changes to the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) to improve its performance.

Those changes were prompted by the decision NASA made earlier this year to delay the introduction of the EUS. That stage was originally planned to enter use with the second SLS mission, Exploration Mission (EM) 2. Instead, the first flight of what’s known as the Block 1B configuration of SLS has been delayed to the fourth SLS launch, likely no earlier than 2024.

“That has put a slow down on the Exploration Upper Stage work,” he said. “We were rapidly approaching the critical design review.”

NASA has asked Boeing to spend some time to try and “optimize” the EUS with the goal of increasing the amount of additional payload it can carry. Such co-manifested payloads, such as modules for NASA’s proposed lunar Gateway, would be carried on the SLS underneath the Orion spacecraft.

“We’re actively working through additional design opportunities to lighten the stage and increase its performance and take even more out to the lunar area, so that the Gateway can be built and we can get human boots back on the surface of the moon,” he said.

Shannon said later neither the company nor NASA had a specific goal for increasing the EUS’ performance. “It’s a very open-ended discussion with NASA,” he said, describing it as an opportunity created by the delay in the stage’s introduction. “We have some really sharp guys. They’re going off and coming up with some really great options for NASA to consider.” Those options include changes to the stage itself as well as orbital mechanics techniques.

While he said there was no specific goal for that performance increase, he mentioned later in the call “all the work we’re going to do to try and get one or two extra tons of co-manifest payload.” NASA has previously advertised a co-manifested payload capacity of about ten tons for the SLS Block 1B.

The decision to delay the EUS’ introduction means flying two additional SLS Block 1 missions with the original Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS). One of those missions will be for EM-2, the first crewed Orion flight, while the other is being reserved for the launch of NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft to Jupiter’s moon Europa.

Shannon said NASA is handling procurement of the additional two ICPS units from United Launch Alliance, which based it on the Delta 4 upper stage. That should be completed in the “next couple months,” he said.

The ICPS was originally not planned to be human-rated, but will undergo some changes to be used on the EM-2 mission. The biggest change is the addition of an emergency detection system similar to one used on the Centaur upper stage of the Atlas 5 on commercial crew missions. Additional sensors and instrumentation will be added to the stage both for redundancy and to give astronauts on Orion more information about the status of the stage.

During the call Shannon also addressed the schedule for development of the SLS. The core stage, for which Boeing is the prime contractor, has been on the critical path for the EM-1 launch in mid-2020. It has been running “neck-and-neck” with the Orion service module, as Mark Kirasich, NASA Orion program manager, described it a briefing earlier that day.

“That’s a good characterization of it,” Shannon said. The focus is getting the core stage completed and delivered to the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi “at the beginning of next summer.” It will spend about six months there undergoing testing, including a full-duration firing of its four RS-25 engines.

Once those tests are complete, the core stage will go to the Kennedy Space Center to be integrated with its solid rocket boosters, ICPS and Orion spacecraft for an additional six months of testing. “It looks like everything is lining up and we’re staying in sync with Orion from a schedule standpoint,” he said. “We’ll be able to support the needs of the program.”

He admitted that the program had underestimated the amount of effort that would go into developing the vehicle, which has suffered several years of delays. “We underestimated that somewhat. We thought we would be able to reuse hardware without as extensive a [qualification] as we’ve done on some it,” he said. “But as we got into testing and understood the environments in an SLS, it required us to go back and do additional qualification work.”

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NASA’s Dawn and Kepler missions near their ends

Dawn Ceres

BREMEN, Germany — Two NASA science missions, one studying the largest objects in the asteroid belt and the other searching for planets around other stars, are expected to come to an end in the coming weeks when each exhausts their remaining hydrazine fuel.

In a talk Oct. 4 during the 69th International Astronautical Congress here, Marc Rayman, chief engineer and mission director for the Dawn mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said current estimates had the spacecraft exhausting its remaining hydrazine, and thus ending the mission, in the middle of this month.

“To within our current uncertainty, there’s zero usable hydrazine remaining,” he said. “The hydrazine is projected to be depleted by mid-October.”

Rayman said mission planners are working on developing sequences for operating the spacecraft into December should their estimates of the remaining hydrazine turn out to be wrong. “But, you know what, we’re probably not wrong,” he said. “But we’re going to continue as long as we can.”

Dawn, launched in September 2007 on a mission to orbit the large asteroid Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres in the main asteroid belt, has relied on thrusters using hydrazine to orient itself since the failure of its reaction control wheels several years ago. “When the hydrazine is depleted, because that’s the sole basis for attitude control, the spacecraft will lose attitude control and the mission will end,” Rayman said.

A similar fate awaits Kepler, launched in 2009 to search for exoplanets by looking for brief, periodic dips in brightness of stars as planets cross in front, or transit, them. The failure of two of Kepler’s four reaction wheels in 2013 forced engineers to devise an alternate control mechanism using the spacecraft’s thrusters.

The spacecraft, though, is running out of hydrazine, a development long expected by mission managers. The spacecraft went into a safe mode in July when telemetry suggested the spacecraft might be running out of fuel. Kepler transmitted the data from that observing effort, known as Campaign 18, in August, then went into safe mode again until Aug. 29, when it started a new observing session, Campaign 19, despite issues with a malfunctioning thruster.

In a Sept. 28 statement, NASA said it had again put Kepler into safe mode because of problems pointing the spacecraft precisely. The spacecraft will transmit the data it collected in Campaign 19 back to Earth Oct. 10, assuming it has enough hydrazine on board to carry out that work.

“Due to uncertainties about the remaining available fuel, there is no guarantee that NASA will be able to download the science data,” NASA said in the statement. “If successful the Kepler team will attempt to start the next observing campaign with the remaining fuel.”

When Kepler does run out of fuel, it will drift in its orbit around the sun harmlessly. The situation is different for Dawn, which is in orbit around Ceres, a dwarf planet that has water ice. Rayman said planetary protection protocols require that Dawn be able to maintain its orbit, which currently brings it to within about 35 kilometers of the surface of Ceres, for at least 20 years.

That should not be a problem, he said. Simulations of the spacecraft’s orbit show a 99 percent chance it will still be in orbit after 50 years, the longest the simulations have been run. “The lifetime in orbit is likely significantly longer than that,” he said.

That 20-year requirement is not based on any expectation that the spacecraft will be sterilized from radiation exposure during that time. Instead, that 20 years is intended to provide enough time to mount another mission to the world before its surface is contaminated by the impact of the spacecraft.

“There are good arguments for revisiting such criteria,” he added, “but that’s not a topic for here.”

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NASA confirms new delays in commercial crew test flight schedule

Starliner and Crew Dragon

Updated 10 a.m. Eastern Oct. 5.

BREMEN, Germany — A day after a SpaceX executive expressed doubts that his company would be able to carry out its first commercial crew test flight before the end of the year, NASA issued an updated schedule that delayed that mission to 2019.

In an Oct. 4 statement, NASA said the revised date for the uncrewed test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft was now January 2019. The vehicle could be ready for launch in December, the agency added, but scheduled it for January “to accommodate docking opportunities at the orbiting laboratory.”

The announcement came a day after Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of build and flight reliability for SpaceX, said in a speech at the 69th International Astronautical Congress here that he had doubts that the mission, previously scheduled for November, would launch before the end of the year.

“We’re working hard to get this done this year,” he said. “The hardware might be ready, but we might still have to do some paperwork on the certification side of it. It’s going to be a close call whether we fly this year or not.”

The new schedule also rescheduled the crewed flight test, carrying NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, for June 2019. That launch was scheduled for April in the previous schedule released in August, although SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk, in a Sept. 17 presentation, said he expected the mission to fly “hopefully in the second quarter of next year.”

“Having completed a number of additional milestones including substantial training and numerous integrated mission simulations, end-to-end Dragon checkouts at the Cape, complete Falcon 9 vehicle integration review, and installation of the crew access arm at LC-39A, SpaceX is on track for launch readiness in December,” said SpaceX spokesperson Eva Behrend in a statement to SpaceNews. “We look forward to launching our first demonstration flight of Crew Dragon-one of the safest, most-advanced human spaceflight systems ever built-as part of the Commercial Crew program and working with NASA to identify the specific launch target date soon.”

NASA also revised the schedule for Boeing’s two test flights of its CST-100 Starliner. An uncrewed test flight, originally scheduled for late 2018 or early 2019, is now planned for March 2019. The crewed test flight previously scheduled for mid-2019 is now scheduled for August 2019.

That crewed test flight will carry NASA astronauts Eric Boe and Nicole Aunapu Mann along with Chris Ferguson, a Boeing test pilot and former NASA astronaut. In an Oct. 2 briefing here, Ferguson, who is also crew and mission operations director for the Starliner program at Boeing, said that earlier schedule is “exactly where we are” but deferred questions on when more precise launch dates would be released.

If the companies maintain the new schedule and successfully carry out their test flights, NASA said it expects to be ready to carry the first operational commercial crew mission in August 2019, with the second to follow in December 2019.

NASA, in its statement about the new schedule, said it would provide more frequent updates on launch schedules as the two companies inch closer to their test flights. Future updates will be released approximately monthly.

“As we get closer to launching human spacecraft from the U.S., we can be more precise in our schedules,” said Phil McAlister, director of Commercial Spaceflight Development at NASA Headquarters, in the statement. “This allows our technical teams to work efficiently toward the most up-to-date schedules, while allowing us to provide regular updates publicly on the progress of our commercial crew partners.”

He acknowledged that those updates could include additional delays. “These are new spacecraft, and the engineering teams have a lot of work to do before the systems will be ready to fly.”

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NASA plays down Soyuz investigation controversy

Soyuz undocking

BREMEN, Germany — NASA continues to downplay any concerns about the status of current or future Soyuz missions even as rumors continue in Russian media about the cause of a hole in the Soyuz docked to the station.

In an Oct. 3 statement, the second in less than three weeks from the agency on the issue, NASA responded to Russian media reports quoting Dmirty Rogozin, head of Roscosmos, who said the hole was not the cause of a manufacturing defect.

“Ruling out a manufacturing defect indicates that this is an isolated issue which does not categorically affect future production,” NASA said in the statement. It reiterated past statements that the investigation would not affect the Oct. 11 launch of the Soyuz MS-10 spaceraft carrying NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin.

Rogozin, in an Oct. 1 interview on Russian television, claimed that the hole had been made deliberately. That led to speculation, similar to rumors last month, that the hole had been made by someone on the ISS.

NASA, in its statement, argued that even if the hole was not a manufacturing defect, it did not mean it was deliberately created. “This conclusion does not necessarily mean the hole was created intentionally or with mal-intent,” the agency said. “NASA and Roscosmos are both investigating the incident to determine the cause.”

The statement also confirmed plans by Russia to carry out a spacewalk in November to study the hole from the outside. A specific date for the spacewalk has not been announced.

Dmitri Loskutov, head of the international cooperation department at Roscosmos, offered few details about the status of that ongoing investigation during a press conference at the 69th International Astronautical Congress here Oct. 1.

“The investigation of Roscosmos is ongoing,” he said. “We hope to have some additional information after the 15th of November, when we’ll have the EVA. We are closely cooperating with NASA.”

While Rogozin’s recent statements, made while NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and other agency officials are here for the IAC, appear to inflame relations between the two countries, Bridenstine has in the past downplayed any tensions between the agencies.

“We’ve been able to make sure that space has been set apart from all of these sometimes terrestrial challenges that we have with our international partners, especially in this case, Russia,” Bridenstine said of his relationship with Rogozin during a Sept. 24 interview. “It’s my intent to keep that relationship strong. It’s his intent as well.”

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First Orion service module ready for shipment to the U.S.

Orion service module

BREMEN, Germany — The first European-built service module for NASA’s Orion spacecraft is finally ready to be shipped to the United States for final preparations before a scheduled mid-2020 launch.

At a press conference during the 69th International Astronautical Congress here Oct. 3, representatives of NASA, the European Space Agency and companies involved in the program said the first European Service Module, the “powerhouse” of the Orion spacecraft, should be shipped from a nearby Airbus factory late this month.

“We’re planning to ship on the 29th of October,” said Nico Dettmann, head of ESA’s Exploration Development Group. Some final testing of the service module could delay that shipment by up to a week, he said, “but we’re very confident that we’ll ship on the 29th.”

The service module will be shipped to the Kennedy Space Center, where it will be mated to the Orion crew module already there and undergo more testing in preparation for launch on the Space Launch System. That crew module is effectively complete, said Mike Hawes, vice president and Orion program manager at Lockheed Martin, other than some work replacing avionics boxes. “The U.S. team is ready,” he said.

Development of the service module suffered extensive delays because of technical problems that at one point required Lockheed to provide some technicians to Airbus, the prime contractor for the module, to help speed things along.

“The first one always carries the character of being the first of its kind,” said Oliver Juckenhöfel, vice president of on-orbit services and exploration at Airbus. He said the company is incorporating lessons learned from the first service module for future modules, as well as design improvements and other changes to reduce its mass.

Some of those changes will need to reflect the fact that, unlike the uncrewed Exploration Mission (EM) 1 flight that the first service module was built for, future Orion missions will be crewed. “For the EM-1 mission, we had certain cases which allowed us to waive requirements because there was no crew on board,” Dettmann said. “There was a strict obligation to fix it for EM-2.”

The service module has been one of the items pacing the overall development of EM-1, along with the core stage of the SLS. “Right now we’re about neck-and-neck” with the SLS core stage in terms of what element is on the critical path to launch, said Mark Kirasich, NASA Orion program manager.

Delivery of the service module in the coming weeks, though, would keep the mission on track for a 2020 launch. “If we get the service module by November, we’re working to target a June 2020 launch date for EM-1,” said Kirasich.

Airbus has already started construction of the second and even the third service modules, Juckenhöfel said. Development of the later service modules involves a complex set of deals for ESA, including contracts with Airbus and agreements with NASA, as well as support from ESA’s member states.

David Parker, ESA’s director of human and robotic exploration, said the ESA Council gave approval in June to start procurement on the third service module. “We’re in the process of a commercial procurement at the moment with Airbus, waiting for a proposal to come in,” he said. “Long-lead items are already under contract, so that’s off and running.”

The fourth service module will be included in the package of proposals ESA’s member states will consider at the next ministerial meeting in late 2019. In the long term, Parker said ESA is considering a block buy of several more service modules beyond the fourth. By that point in the module’s development, he noted, the design should be stable, making such a deal feasible.

At the same time, Parker said ESA has “ongoing discussions” with NASA on a deal to provide those service modules. The first two service modules were provided by ESA in exchange for ISS logistics services. That future agreement, he said, could be part of a broader exploration package that will also include European contributions to the lunar Gateway.

Such an agreement could include provisions for ESA astronauts to fly on future Orion missions. “The aspiration is obviously there to get a European astronaut” on a mission, he said

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NOAA and NASA establish board to investigate GOES-17 instrument problem


BREMEN, Germany — NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Oct. 2 that they are convening a panel to investigate the cause of an instrument problem on a geostationary weather satellite launched earlier this year that impairs its functionality.

The agencies said they are establishing a mishap investigation board to probe the cause of the anomaly with the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) instrument on the GOES-17 weather satellite launched in March. The board will be chaired by David McGowan, chief engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center, with four other members from NASA’s Ames, Glenn and Johnson centers.

NOAA first announced a problem with ABI, the main instrument on GOES-17, May 23. Project officials said a cooling problem degraded the performance of the instrument’s infrared channels, preventing them from operating during parts of each orbit.

“This is a serious problem. This is the premier Earth-pointing instrument on the GOES platform,” said Stephen Volz, head of NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service, during a May briefing about the problem. “If they are not functioning fully it is a loss, a performance issue we have to address.”

In a July 24 update, NOAA said they had been able to restore some of the lost performance, but said some infrared channels were not functioning during parts of each orbit. Engineers had narrowed down the cause to a problem of some kind with loop heat pipes in the instrument that was keeping coolant from flowing through them properly.

NOAA said they had also discovered a similar problem, at a smaller scale, with the ABI instrument on GOES-16, the first of the new generation of weather satellites known as GOES-R that include this instrument. While that problem had not kept the instrument from working properly, it suggested the possibility of a systemic flaw in the ABI, which will also be flown on two future GOES-R series satellites.

In an Aug. 8 update posted on a website for the GOES-R program, NOAA said it had, for the first time, been able to get imagery from all 16 ABI channels thanks to “adjustments in operating procedures.” However, that update cautioned that seasonal variations would still result in lost data, particularly in the spring and fall. During those times, nine infrared channels will have outages of two to six hours per night, NOAA estimated.

NOAA and NASA said they convened the mishap investigation board because they determined the problem degrading the infrared bands, which varies both based on the time of day as well as season, would reduce the instrument’s availability by three percent, causing it to fall short of a key design requirement.

The mishap board is set to start its work as soon as possible, the agencies said in the announcement, but did not disclose a schedule for their work.

NOAA is planning to put GOES-17 into operation late this year at the GOES-West orbital slot at 135 degrees west. Despite the ABI problem, NOAA said in its August update, GOES-17 “will provide more and better data than currently available.”

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ISS partners show interest in station extension

International Space Station as seen from Space Shuttle Atlantis in this July 2011 photograph. Credit: NASA

BREMEN, Germany — NASA’s partners in the International Space Station are showing a growing interest in extending the station’s operations beyond 2024 regardless of NASA initiatives to end direct funding of the station around that time.

During an Oct. 1 press conference at the 69th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) here, representatives of three ISS partner agencies said they were open to extending the station’s operations to 2028 or 2030 in order to maximize the investment they’ve made in the facility as a platform for research and preparation for exploration activities beyond Earth orbit.

Jan Woerner, director general of the European Space Agency, said the issue could come up at the next triennial meeting of the ministers of ESA’s member nations, scheduled for late 2019. “At the ministerial meeting next year, the ministerial council, I will propose to go on with ISS as well as the lunar Gateway,” he said. “I believe that we will go on.”

At a separate briefing Oct. 2, Woerner emphasized the use of the station as a research platform and encouraged greater commercial activities there. “I believe we should use the ISS as long as feasible,” he said. “I always thought 2024 was the end, but now I learned it is 2028, and yesterday I learned it’s 2030. So, I will try to convince the ESA member states that ESA should be a partner in the future.” However, he noted that ESA could defer the decision on a post-2024 ISS extension until its following ministerial meeting in 2022.

Hiroshi Yamakawa, president of the Japanese space agency JAXA, also emphasized the importance of making the most of the station. “I’d like to make the most of the present ISS,” he said. “We have to maximize the output of the ISS. Whenever the deadline comes to the ISS, we would like to participate in the ISS and maximize output.”

He added, though, that there was not a pressing need for Japan to decide on an ISS extension. “JAXA is requesting budgets annually, so I think in that sense JAXA is quite flexible.”

Dmitry Loskutov, head of international relations at the Russian state space corporation Roscosmos, said Russia already expected an extension. “We anticipate the continued functioning until 2028 or 2030,” he said.

That extension, he said, would be a subject of upcoming discussions between Dmitry Rogozin, head of Roscosmos, and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine when they meet at the Baikonur Cosmodrome around the Oct. 11 launch of a Soyuz spacecraft to the station. It will also come up at a conference in Moscow in November marking the 20th anniversary of the launch of the first ISS segment, Zarya, attended by the ISS partners.

Evgeny Mikrin, general designer at RSC Energia, also endorsed an ISS extension. “I think we really should continue ISS utilization up until 2030” to maximize its utilization, he said, speaking through an interpreter during an IAC panel discussion Oct. 1. He stated that Russia still planned to launch three modules to its segment of the ISS in the coming years to expand its capabilities.

Bridenstine, at the heads-of-agencies press conference Oct. 1, alluded to legislation introduced in both the House and Senate that contain provisions to authorize an extension of the ISS until 2030. That language stems from congressional criticism to plans by NASA in its 2019 budget proposal to end direct ISS funding in 2025 as part of an initiative to enhance commercialization of low Earth orbit.

“The vision that we have for low Earth orbit in general is a vision for commercialization,” Bridenstine said, with the private sector eventually taking over operations of space stations or similar facilities in LEO and with NASA as one of potentially many customers.

“The president’s budget request was very clear that we would end direct funding for the ISS in 2025. To be clear, that doesn’t mean the ISS will be over,” he said, citing as one option an international consortium of companies taking over the station. “But it is also true that while I do support the commercialization of low Earth orbit, Congress doesn’t always agree with me and Congress doesn’t always agree with the president, so what gets put into law could be very different from what our objectives are.”

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Russian official sounds skeptical note about Gateway

IAC press conference

BREMEN, Germany — A Russian space official said Oct. 1 that while his country is interested in lunar exploration, it’s not satisfied with participating in NASA’s lunar Gateway program as currently structured.

Speaking on a panel at the 69th International Astronautical Congress here, Dmitri Loskutov, head of the international cooperation department at the Russian state space corporation Roscosmos, said he had issues with the Gateway as a NASA-led project rather than a partnership more like the International Space Station.

“For the moment, it looks like it is an American program with international participation,” he said. “How will this cooperation be managed? Will there be some sort of international administrative body? Will its principles remain those that are now valid for the International Space Station, in terms of consensus in decision-making?”

Loskutov suggested that if the Gateway was run as a NASA-led program, Russia might not be interested in being a partner.

“For the moment, all the decisions are made by NASA. It seems U.S. standards will be imposed,” he said. “For Roscosmos and the Russian Federation, limited participation is not that interesting.”

Loskutov’s comments are similar to those made by his boss, Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin, last month. Rogozin said at one meeting that “Russia simply cannot afford to take a back seat in foreign projects” like the U.S.-led Gateway, according to a report by the Russian news service Tass. A Roscosmos spokesman later clarified that Rogozin was not saying Russia would not participate in the project, at least not yet.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, interviewed at a Washington Space Business Roundtable luncheon Sept. 24, said he had not heard any criticism about the Gateway from Russia or other potential partners. “I have not heard anybody at this point, including Russia, indicate that they did not want to be part of our activities to get back to the surface of the moon,” he said.

During a panel discussion here Oct. 1, representatives of several other space agencies expressed an interest in working on the Gateway in one form or another. The exact plans for doing so, including what contributions each agency will make, have yet to be worked out.

“There’s a process we’re going through right now,” Bridenstine said at a press conference after the heads-of-agencies panel. “We’re formulating what the architecture will look like, and then we’re looking at each of the space agencies and their capabilities, and we’ll be incorporating those capabilities into the architecture.” He didn’t give a schedule for making such decisions.

Bridenstine noted one challenge for international cooperation on the Gateway is that the station is smaller than the ISS. “That means having additional partners on the Gateway is maybe more difficult than having partners on the International Space Station,” he said. “However, since it’s an open architecture, we’re going to have the ability to have partners involved in ways they maybe couldn’t have been involved on the International Space Station.”

Bridenstine said that the Gateway is intended to support human exploration of the moon by NASA and international and commercial partners, likening the facility to a reusable command and service module. That could fit in to the concept of the “Moon Village,” a broad partnership of agencies and companies supporting lunar exploration long espoused by Jan Woerner, director general of the European Space Agency.

“Everything Jan said is correct,” Bridenstine said during the panel after Woerner discussed the Moon Village concept. “You have been leading on this for a very long time, and we’re grateful for your leadership.”

Bridenstine emphasized the importance of international cooperation in NASA’s lunar exploration plans. “Historically, we’ve had that [leadership] role and we want to maintain that role,” he said. “But, I am telling you that we cannot do what we do without the support of our international partners.”

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NASA opens door to additional cooperation with China

Bridenstine and Zhang

BREMEN, Germany — The administrator of NASA and his Chinese counterpart have both expressed interest in working together despite the current constraints in U.S. law regarding bilateral cooperation.

During a panel discussion at the 69th International Astronautical Conference here Oct. 1 featuring the leaders of several space agencies, Zhang Kejian, administrator of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), said China was open to working with a wide range of international partners on projects ranging from lunar exploration to its future space station.

“CNSA is willing to join our hands with other international partners for the benefit of human civilization and progress of human society,” Zhang said, speaking through a translator.

Asked later if that included working with NASA, he said China was “very open” to working with a variety of international partners on lunar exploration. He noted he met with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine earlier in the day. “I had a very good discussion with NASA Administrator Mr. Bridenstine for bilateral cooperation in this particular area,” he said. “I think the response was very positive.”

Bridenstine, appearing on the same panel, noted that there is some cooperation with China today in areas such as aeronautics and Earth science. That cooperation takes place despite the presence of language in appropriations laws colloquially known as the Wolf Amendment, after former Rep. Frank Wolf, who first included it in spending bills several years ago. That provision prohibits bilateral cooperation between NASA and Chinese agencies without prior congressional approval.

“We do cooperate in a lot of ways, but that doesn’t mean our interests are always aligned,” he said. “Some of these decisions are going to be made above the pay grade of the NASA administrator.”

“To the extent that agencies and countries from around the world can cooperate on space, it is absolutely in our interest to do so,” he added. “I look forward to exploring more opportunities to do that.”

“I believe that the working teams of both sides can start preparation of a cooperation list,” Zhang responded. “We can dash out those that cannot be implemented now, or are above our pay grade, and then we can start cooperating on the substantial part.” That included, he added, exchange of scientific data and space situational awareness information.

At a press conference held after the panel, Bridenstine agreed that a greater sharing of data was one area of potential enhanced cooperation with China. “They’re doing some amazing scientific experiments,” he said, citing as an example China’s upcoming Chang’e-4 mission that will attempt the first landing on the far side of the moon. “We can share data and collaborate that way so that each country can learn more about science.”

He also agreed that sharing space situational awareness and space traffic management information may be another area of cooperation. “There is no issue related to space more important to for all of us to get right than that issue,” he said. “We need to preserve the space environment for generations to come. The only way we’re going to be able to do that internationally is to collaborate.”

Those initiatives, he suggested, could open the door to more ambitious joint efforts. “This could be the first confidence-building measure that is necessary to establish the kind of relationship that is necessary to go to the next step,” he said.

Bridenstine added, though, that was unlikely that the Wolf Amendment, renewed on an annual basis through new spending bills, would go away in the near future, thus creating barriers to closer cooperation. “If there comes a day when we can cooperate, that provision would simply expire and we would be able to cooperate,” he said.

And when could that happen? “That would be up to the United States Congress based on the information they’re seeing and the intelligence that they receive.”

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ESA’s leader gets extra time for his vision of European space

“Involving everyone is something that I believe is really crucial for the future of space.”
— Jan Woerner, European Space Agency director general.
Credit: ESA

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 24, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

In July, the European Space Agency announced, with surprisingly little fanfare, that it was extending the term of its current director general, Jan Woerner, by two years. Woerner’s four-year term was set to expire next July, just months before the agency’s next triennial ministerial meeting where member states decide what programs to fund and at what levels.

With that extension, Woerner has the confidence that he will be in office for that ministerial meeting, seeking approval for programs to guide ESA’s future. That future contains a number of questions, from the fate of the International Space Station and planning for a return to the moon to emerging challenges like reusable launch vehicles and growing concerns about the safety of the space environment.

Woerner spoke with SpaceNews senior staff writer Jeff Foust in late August about his extension, the agency’s activities, and its relationship with others, from the EU to NASA. A condensed version of that interview is below.

Why did you seek a two-year extension?

In ESA, the director general and the directors are elected and confirmed for four-year terms, but the ministerials are every three years. They do not fit to each other. Therefore, I said it’s better to have a three-year logic for the director general as well as for the directors. I proposed not to give me another four years but instead give me two years to the four years which I had already. Then we can see whether I can get another extension for another three years, and three years after that.

Some members said no initially because the ministerial is always changing. We had some other discussions about some issues of extension and non-extension and so on, and then in July I came back to my proposal early this year.

What do you want to achieve with this extension?

What I would like to do is build on what was done already in my period as director general and then to have some vision about what can be done in the future. If you look into what was done through my first term, we had a lot of spaceflights: six missions with astronauts from different nationalities. We had a lot of Earth observation activities. We have 26 Galileo satellites in orbit, and the development of Ariane 6 and Vega C is well underway.

The vision of the future has two main aspects. One is to enhance daily life, and we are doing this by shaping our space activities in four pillars: science and exploration, safety and security, all the applications and what you could call enabling and support. The contents of these four pillars, with Earth observation, telecommunications, navigation, all of this, should be enhancing our daily lives.

But we are trying not to forget it’s not just to enhance individual human life, but also enabling a bright future of our planet. And how do we do this? We need different activities. We need technological approaches but, more than that, we need also what I call a chain of motivation. Space has the power to fascinate people, and everyone can be fascinated by space missions. People are motivated to create something when we are doing something for the future of our planet, so it’s important that this motivation goes in the right direction.

The next ministerial is in late 2019. Is planning for it already underway?

Yes, we are already underway. In October, we have what is called an intermediate ministers’ meeting. We are discussing strategic guidelines of the programs. We are internally preparing the next ministeral by formulating proposals — and the four pillars I mentioned are part of this. In order to have a good narrative for what we are doing we created these four pillars, in which we are now developing the different proposals that could be given to the member states.

ESA Director General Jan Woerner at the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, on July 25 as an Ariane 5 lifts off in the background with four Galileo navigation satellites onboard. Credit: ESA via Twitter
ESA Director General Jan Woerner at the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, on July 25 as an Ariane 5 lifts off in the background with four Galileo navigation satellites onboard. Credit: ESA via Twitter

What is ESA’s future on the International Space Station given NASA’s plans to end direct funding of it in the mid-2020s?

The International Space Station is the one and only laboratory we have in space right now. It is fully equipped, it can deliver excellent results and we should use it as long as possible. But, of course, we are not blind. We have to also look to the future. We should look into two things. One is what ISS is providing, first of all microgravity research possibilities and therefore we have to provide the possibility for continuing that. The other thing is international collaboration. The International Space Station is really a model of how to cooperate internationally and therefore this part should be continued.

We believe that the International Space Station should be used as long as it is affordable and, of course, is technically feasible. There is, for sure, a date where we have to think about stopping those activities and go to the moon with the Moon Village, which includes the Gateway.

Have you had discussions with NASA about participating in the Gateway?

Yes, we are in discussions with NASA about what we could provide. The first thing is to deliver the Orion service module for further missions. We had some discussion with our member states and with NASA about developing and producing some parts of the Gateway.

Are there any specific parts of the Gateway that you’re interested in?

There are several. We thinking about the habitat aspect, but this is not finalized. We are also thinking about how we can prepare robotic missions from the Lunar Gateway down to the surface of the moon.

Are you planning robotic missions to the lunar surface?

We are, together with the Russians. ESA is a part of Russia’s Luna-Resurs. We are also supporting the Chinese for their missions with some operational support. We are in discussions with some of the smaller companies, providing them with some payloads to be transferred to the surface of the moon.

This goes back to the question of the Moon Village. The Moon Village is not a project. It is a multipartner open concept and that means that we are playing a role of broker: we are collecting worldwide offers to do something on the moon and we are trying to link the different offers.

How would you describe ESA’s cooperation with China? ESA astronauts have trained in China, so could they fly to China’s future space station?

So far we had some scientific experiments together with the Chinese. We have a mission planned called SMILE [Solar wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer] which is about the magnetosphere of the sun.

Regarding astronauts, we had some astronauts going for training in China. But there’s nothing decided so far. We should look into it because it would make a big difference for the future to have some cooperation with the Chinese in human spaceflight. We should not exclude the Chinese from our global cooperation in space.

What is your relationship with new NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine?

I’ve known him for several years. I met him in Colorado Springs at the Space Symposium some years ago. We had our meeting in the U.K. at the time of the Farnborough Airshow [in July]. We went through all the different programs and for me it’s clear Jim is also very much interested in continuing our cooperation on different space activities. And, of course, NASA is for us the premium partner, a reliable partner, and I believe Jim Bridenstine as the new NASA administrator will continue this partnership from his side.

ESA Director General Jan Woerner, right, with ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst at the Baikonur Cosmodrome’s launch pad before Gerst’s June 6 launch to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz. Credit: ESA–S. CORVAJA
ESA Director General Jan Woerner, right, with ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst at the Baikonur Cosmodrome’s launch pad before Gerst’s June 6 launch to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz. Credit: ESA–S. CORVAJA

ESA has been working a lot with the EU on programs like Galileo and Copernicus. As the EU takes a bigger role in space activities, how is that relationship evolving? Are you concerned that the EU will overshadow ESA in space?

The competencies and capabilities of ESA and the European Union are quite different. ESA has a very specific space-oriented goal and objective. We have the technical expertise, we have the procurement expertise, we have our infrastructure for space, our global network for space.

The European Union is a political body, so their position is quite complementary to that of ESA and therefore it makes sense to work together. It is good to work together because our competence and our capabilities for space are combined with a more politically oriented competence and possibilities of the European Union.

Do you see opportunities for expanded cooperation with the EU in the future?

Right now, the first thing is continuation for Galileo, Copernicus and EGNOS [European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service]; these are the big programs. There is some discussion about other programs. There is the question of space safety, for example, but this is still in the discussion phase right now. So we’ll see how much money the member states in the EU are ready to pay for it. The EU is our partner and customer.

How much of a complication does Britain’s exit from the EU, while remaining a member of ESA, pose for ESA’s programs and cooperation with the EU?

First of all, I still hope that Brexit will not happen. I’m an optimist and in that respect the last day is not there. For us the situation is a bit different to the EU one because the U.K. will remain a normal member state, which is good for us. Of course, in some of our programs there might be some issues where the EU is involved. I hope and I believe that if Brexit really happens, the U.K. will have some kind of agreement with the European Union with how to deal with the European space programs, like Norway and Switzerland, both member states of ESA but not members of the European Union. And that works perfectly.

You mentioned ESA’s new launch vehicle programs, the Ariane 6 and the Vega C. What do you see as the future for those programs given the increasingly competitive global launch market and a lot of activities by, for example, SpaceX and Blue Origin to develop low-cost reusable launch vehicles?

It’s a good question but it’s not easy to answer. Launch is not a mass-market. If you look to a daily product, your water bottle, you would say the bottle is produced in the millions per day. Is it defined worldwide that reusability is the cheapest method? It’s not. You can find reusable bottles, you can find recyclable bottles, and you even find bottles which are just destroyed.

It’s not clear that reusability is the one and only solution. Reusability is fine from an ecological point of view. From an economic point of view, I don’t know. We are developing in ESA technologies for reusable launchers, but personally I’m not convinced that this is the only solution. I believe we have to go into more disruptive solutions for launches in the future.

But, of course, you are right that the competition is very fierce. We are trying to develop a very efficient, reliable launcher family with Vega C, Ariane 62 and Ariane 64. Our hope is to be as competitive in the market as we were in the past with Ariane 5. Also, Ariane 5 itself was not one of the cheapest launchers, but reliability counts, too.

You talk about looking into disruptive solutions. Do you have anything specific in mind in terms of technology?

Any disruption is welcome. We are looking at winged bodies, we are looking into new propulsion systems, hybrid propulsion systems, air-breathing systems and so on. We are looking to all the different possibilities because it’s not clear what is the most promising solution for the future.

The chief executive of Arianespace, Stéphane Israël, has suggested he’d like to see Europe pursue a human spaceflight program using the Ariane 6. Is there any interest in ESA in such an effort?

The development of Ariane 6 is in contrast to Ariane 5 as it is not being developed for human spaceflight. Ariane 5 was developed originally for Hermes [a crewed spaceplane]. For Ariane 6 we are not looking to this, but I would not say never, meaning who knows what comes up in the future? Maybe one day Europe starts again to enter into human spaceflight. That’s possible.

What other priorities do you have?

Space safety is for me very important. We have orbital debris, space weather and near Earth objects endangering life on Earth. We will ask for ideas. We would like to put public money into doing something, but also a private investment to go beyond, so that means not only removal of debris and old satellites but also maybe recycling or enhancing the operation time of some spacecraft by doing maintenance. This is something we are trying to support very much with activities in space safety.

This seems like an area particularly well-suited to international cooperation.

Yes, but one should not hide behind that. Some people are saying because that is for international cooperation, we wait until the others are saying yes. This is the wrong behavior. Of course, it’s best if we do it together, but as the director general of ESA, I would propose to the member states to ESA to go ahead right now.

When do you think you’ll be able to get approval from the member states?

I don’t know. You should witness a ministerial. It is a miracle. It’s a bazaar. You start on the first day with a big bunch of proposals for different aspects and then you have to see which proposal is supported by the member states and which one is not supported, and the funding of the member states is limited. You have to withdraw one proposal in order to get the money for another proposal. What I can tell you is that I would propose something next year for the ministerial.

When your time as ESA director general ends, what do you want to be known for?

When I was presenting myself to become a director general, somebody asked me, “In 10 years’ time, what would people say about your term as director general?” I believe what I have tried to do is that I really was able to initiate a shift of paradigm, especially with regard to participation of many, because it’s very clear that two brains are better than one brain, three brains are better than two brains, four brains are better than three brains. Involving everyone is something that I believe is really crucial for the future of space.

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Cruz wants NASA to consider revenue opportunities from commercial activities

Cruz and Bridenstine

WASHINGTON — As NASA shows growing interest in commercial activities, from space station research to merchandise, one senator wants the agency to financially benefit from them.

During a hearing of the Senate space subcommittee Sept. 26, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chairman of the subcommittee, mentioned commercial research performed by major companies on the International Space Station through partnerships with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the nonprofit that operates the portion of the ISS designated a national laboratory.

Cruz, in his comments, cited specific research by Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company and pharmaceutical company Merck when asking if that work should be subsidized by taxpayers, as is the case today through access to the station and crew time by astronauts there.

“Do you believe that NASA and Congress should reexamine these agreements to ensure that the American taxpayers are receiving fair compensation for the research that is being conducted by iconic Fortune 500 companies and may result in giving these companies a competitive edge in their respective industries?” he asked the hearing’s sole witness, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

Bridenstine agreed that such relationships should be reexamined, but cautioned about deterring such customers from using the ISS. “We want those kinds of activities happening inside the United States of America,” he said. “There is no shortage right now of enthusiasm on the part of our largest peer competitor, China, to have these activities going on on their space station that they’re building.”

Another issue, he said, is whether any revenue NASA collected flying commercial payloads could be retained by the agency. “To the extent that we were to receive some kind of proceeds from those activities,” he said, “my concern would be NASA would be doing all the work, and then those proceeds could end up going to the general Treasury.”

Cruz also mentioned the growing use of the NASA logo in apparel and other merchandise, ranging from t-shirts available at department stores to far more expensive items produced by fashion designers. NASA licenses the logo but does not receive any revenue from the sales of such items.

Bridenstine said he wanted to balance the potential revenue that NASA might receive from charging for the use of the logo with the benefit it receives from the free publicity such items provide. “I don’t know what the right answer here is,” he said. “I love the fact that I see so many NASA logos on the streets.”

Cruz mentioned in particular items like a t-shirt from a fashion designer with the NASA “worm” logo that retails for $270. “If somebody’s paying $270 for a t-shirt, a chunk of that ought to go NASA and actually help fund getting to the moon and getting to Mars,” he said.

That exchange came after recent media attention to an announcement made by Bridenstine at last month’s NASA Advisory Council meeting that he planned to establish a new committee within the council to examine regulatory and policy issues. Among those topics for the committee to consider, he said, included selling commercial sponsorships for NASA missions.

“Is it possible for NASA to offset some of its costs by selling the naming rights to its spacecraft or the naming rights to its rockets?” Bridenstine said at that Aug. 29 meeting. “There is interest in that right now. The question is, is it possible?”

Asked about those plans during an interview at a Washington Space Business Roundtable luncheon Sept. 24, Bridenstine emphasized NASA’s plans to hand over operations in low Earth orbit to the private sector as the agency focuses on its plans to go to the moon and Mars. He specifically discussed allowing “non-traditional” partners to sponsor commercial crew or cargo launches to the station.

“They might be customers that we don’t think of every day. In fact, they might be customers that have nothing to do with space whatsoever, but they want to cobrand with a mission that’s going to resupply the International Space Station,” he said. “If they put a little bit of paint on a rocket and drive down our costs by $10 million, why would we not allow our commercial partners to do that?”

That extends, he said, to potential sponsorships on the ISS itself. The new committee will look into that and make proposals, Bridenstine said, adding that he has not formally recommended that such sponsorships be permitted.

“One of the reasons we might consider these kinds of activities is because it proves a market,” he said, which could make it easier for companies planning commercial space stations to close their business cases. “We’re living in a new era in spaceflight and we need to consider all the options.”

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NASA roadmap report provides few new details on human exploration plans

swoosh chart

WASHINGTON — A long-overdue exploration roadmap report released by NASA Sept. 24 offers an overview of the agency’s plans to send humans back to the moon and on to Mars, but few new details about how to carry out those plans.

The “National Space Exploration Campaign Report” was released by NASA with little fanfare, appearing on its website Sept. 24. The 21-page report was required by the NASA authorization act of 2017, which called for a “human exploration roadmap” to be delivered to Congress by Dec. 1, 2017.

That document, according to the act, would provide “an integrated set of exploration, science, and other goals and objectives” for NASA’s human spaceflight program leading to “human missions near or on the surface of Mars in the 2030s.” That includes development of capabilities in cislunar space, but no explicit mention of humans on the surface of the moon.

The report, though, primarily focuses on plans to implement Space Policy Directive 1, signed by President Trump in December 2017, which calls for NASA to “return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations.”

The National Space Exploration Campaign outlined in the report has five strategic goals, ranging from transitioning activities in low Earth orbit to the private sector to returning astronauts to the surface of the moon and demonstrating capabilities there for later missions to Mars and other destinations.

However, it offers few new details about how it will achieve those goals. The report describes development of the Gateway in cislunar space as well as a series of lunar landers, starting with payload space NASA plans to acquire on commercial landers and leading up to a larger one capable of carrying both astronauts and cargo by the late 2020s.

NASA, though, had been communicating such plans for the Gateway and lunar landers for months, including using some of the same charts included in the new report.

“We’re not really going back to the moon. We’re going forward to the moon,” said Steve Jurczyk, NASA associate administrator, during a panel discussion at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Space Forum in Orlando Sept. 19 that covered much of the same ground as the report. “We’re going to the moon to prove out the capabilities and technologies and operational concepts to eventually move on to Mars and other destinations.”

Many of the details about establishing the Gateway and developing that series of lunar landers have yet to be determined, and the roadmap report provides few specifics about how they will be developed. In a “critical decisions and milestones” section, the report states NASA will make the decision this year to develop the Gateway, including use of international and commercial partnerships and the facility’s final configuration. However, a decision on “appropriate Gateway requirements” and its final orbit in cislunar space would not come until 2019.

Beyond the release of a broad agency announcement Sept. 6 for the Gateway’s first module, the power and propulsion element, NASA hasn’t described in detail how additional modules of the Gateway will be developed, including roles for international partners.

“We’re going to be assessing capabilities from a whole host of different companies across the United States and, in fact, international partners to determine who can provide what,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said of plans for the Gateway during a Sept. 24 interview at a Washington Space Business Roundtable luncheon. “All that is in development right now, and I’m not at this juncture willing to step out and say who’s where in the process.”

The report is also silent about costs of the exploration campaign, offering no specific estimates for the Gateway, landers, or other elements of the plan. “The National Space Exploration Campaign does not assume or require significant funding increases,” the report states, one of the few mentions of funding or budgets in the report.

The report offers few specifics about the original goal specified in the authorization act language, human missions to Mars. There’s little mention of future robotic or human missions, other than initial planning for returning samples from Mars and an “eventual series of crewed Mars missions planned to start in the 2030’s and culminating in a surface landing.”

The report comes days before NASA officials are scheduled to testify before House and Senate committees at hearings that are likely to include discussion of the report and NASA’s exploration plans. Bridenstine is scheduled to testify at a Senate space subcommittee hearing Sept. 26 on “Global Space Race: Ensuring the United States Remains the Leader in Space.”

The House space subcommittee will be holding a hearing at the same time on “60 Years of NASA Leadership in Human Space Exploration: Past, Present, and Future” with Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, as well as the directors of the Johnson Space Center, Kennedy Space Center and Marshall Space Flight Center.

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Bridenstine says relationship with Roscosmos head Rogozin is positive


WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine played down any differences with his Russian counterpart as he gears up for meetings with him and other space agency leaders to discuss cooperation on NASA’s exploration plans.

In an interview during a Washington Space Business Roundtable luncheon here Sept. 24, Bridenstine said the limited interaction he has had to date with the head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, has been good as Russia investigates the cause of a hole found in the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft docked to the International Space Station Aug. 30.

“At this point we’ve had one conversation on the telephone, and it was very positive,” Bridenstine said, a reference to a Sept. 12 call that NASA and Roscosmos revealed in a joint statement the following day. That call came after “rumors that were circulating in Russian media” about the cause of the Soyuz leak, he said. He didn’t elaborate on the rumors, but some of those reports had blamed American astronauts on the station for causing the hole.

That investigation, which was originally being led by RSC Energia, is now under the direction of Roscosmos. “NASA is getting a lot of that information and participating very heavily in the investigation as well,” Bridenstine said. The results of that investigation will be released to the public “as soon as we are ready.”

That investigation won’t affect plans for the next Soyuz mission, Soyuz MS-10, scheduled for launch Oct. 11. A flight readiness review for that mission has been completed, he said. “Our rocket scientists have signed off on it as being ready to go,” he said.

Bridenstine plans to attend that launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome and meet with Rogozin. In his prior position as deputy prime minister, Rogozin was often critical of the U.S., even suggesting at the height of the crisis over Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 that the U.S. would have to rely on trampolines to access the ISS.

Bridenstine blamed that rhetoric on Rogozin’s political background, noting that he also had such a background as a former member of the House. “He comes from the Russian Duma, and I, of course, come from the U.S. Congress,” he said. “We had a good chat about that and our common backgrounds.”

“Representing constituents in a legislative body is very different from leading a space agency,” he added. “He and I both had a conversation about that. Some of his language has historically been aggressive about the United States. Some of my language has been aggressive about activities of Russia.”

That past, though, would not affect their current relationship, Bridenstine argued. “We’ve been able to make sure that space has been set apart from all of these sometimes terrestrial challenges that we have with our international partners, especially in this case, Russia,” he said. “It’s my intent to keep that relationship strong. It’s his intent as well.”

However, Rogozin has also suggested that Russia might reconsider plans to participate in NASA’s lunar Gateway under development. Speaking Sept. 22, Rogozin said, “Russia simply cannot afford to take a back seat in foreign projects,” and hinted that Russia might instead pursue its own lunar exploration plans, according to the Tass news service. A spokesman for Roscosmos later said that Rogozin’s comments didn’t mean Russia was abandoning any cooperation on the Gateway.

Bridenstine said he was not aware of any Russian doubts about being a partner on the Gateway. “The Gateway is in its formative days right now, and certainly we want all partners,” he said, including Russia. “I have not heard anybody at this point, including Russia, indicate that they did not want to be part of our activities to get back to the surface of the moon.”

NASA’s Gateway plans are likely to be a topic of discussion next week at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Germany. Bridenstine is scheduled to attend and speak on a panel there Oct. 1 with several other space agency leaders, including Rogozin, which will be followed by a press conference.

Bridenstine said he plans to emphasize language in Space Policy Directive 1 that calls for the development of both commercial and international partners to enable a sustainable return to the moon. “What I’d like to do is head out to the IAC and share with them our vision for getting back to the surface of the moon and then, where it’s appropriate, have these partnerships develop,” he said.

Asked if NASA might announce at the IAC agreements with other space agencies regarding roles for developing the Gateway, Bridenstine said, “Maybe not with the Gateway in particular, but certainly there will be other announcements.”

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Where no commercial satellite bus has gone before

Maxar's Space Systems Loral is one of several firms proposing to use a commercial satellite bus as the basis for a Power and Propulsion Element for NASA’s planned lunar Gateway. Credit: Space Systems Loral

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 10, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

If all goes as currently planned, sometime in 2022 a rocket will lift off, most likely from Cape Canaveral, carrying a payload that at first glance will look familiar. The boxy shape and folded-up solar arrays will make it resemble many of the commercial communications satellites launched from the Cape and elsewhere.

This payload, though, won’t be destined for geostationary orbit. Instead, the spacecraft will head to cislunar space. Formally known as the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE), it will be the first component of NASA’s Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, or simply Gateway, that will eventually host crews orbiting the moon.

Lockheed Martin
Lockheed Martin

The resemblance of the PPE to commercial GEO satellites is deliberate. NASA expects that companies will propose designs based on satellite buses they already build, augmented with advanced electric propulsion systems being developed by NASA. By doing so, the agency expects to get a spacecraft that will be less expensive and faster to build than a custom design, while companies get to demonstrate advanced technologies — and get a welcome bit of additional business during an extended dip in commercial satellite orders.

“We looked at what we needed for a space tug,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, during an Aug. 29 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council at the Ames Research Center in California. “We looked at that spacecraft bus and it was very similar to a communications bus on orbit that exists today.”

That led NASA to seek to leverage that capability for the PPE. “The commercial satellite industry has a lot of experience in operating those buses. They generate millions and billions of dollars of revenue each year,” he said. “They have extremely high reliability. They operate for 15 years, 20 years sometimes.”

That led NASA to decide to make use of those existing platforms rather than come up with a custom design that meets specific NASA technical requirements. “The commercial satellite industry has a demonstrated reliability. We need to make sure we don’t undo that demonstrated reliability by laying our requirements on top,” Gerstenmaier said.

The PPE, as the name suggests, is primarily designed to provide power and propulsion for the overall Gateway. The spacecraft will be required to produce 50 kilowatts of power, of which 40 kilowatts will be available for an electric propulsion system designed to maneuver the spacecraft in cislunar space, including into different orbits around the moon. It will carry 2 tons of xenon propellant for that electric propulsion system with the capability to be refueled. The spacecraft will also support communications with Earth as well as other spacecraft visiting the Gateway and, later, spacecraft operating on the lunar surface.

Northrop Grumman
Northrop Grumman

NASA expects companies to use their existing satellite capability for development of the PPE. “We are leveraging not only the NASA capability but also intend to leverage U.S. industry’s current capabilities and industry’s future plans,” said Michele Gates, director of the PPE project at NASA Headquarters, during a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee Aug. 27.

That capability, she said, will allow the spacecraft to be ready for launch in 2022 even though NASA won’t award a final contract for its development until spring 2019, a schedule some are skeptical about. “I just don’t see any way in the world that schedule will work,” argued one committee member.

The three-year schedule, Gates said, is based on industry’s experience in building commercial satellites in that time frame, and previous studies with companies on the PPE. “Our intent is to leverage existing commercial system development,” she said.

“We believe that we can use basically a commercial satellite bus, augmented with electric propulsion, to meet our needs,” Gerstenmaier added. “We don’t need a unique spacecraft design. We don’t need a unique bus.”

Drawing on commercial experience

That confidence that a commercial satellite bus could serve as the backbone for the Gateway is based on earlier work NASA has done with industry. In November, NASA awarded studies to five companies — Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Space Systems Loral (SSL) — to examine technical issues associated with the PPE design.

Those four-month studies left both NASA and industry confident that commercial designs can be adapted for use in building the PPE. “One of the things that we looked at is how do we incorporate our different product lines into the PPE. It’s very much focused on commercial components and systems,” said Tim Cichan, a space exploration architect at Lockheed Martin, during a panel discussion at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Propulsion and Energy Forum in July in Cincinnati.

Cichan said Lockheed’s studies based the PPE on its LM2100 satellite bus used for commercial satellites, but also drew on the company’s experience developing interplanetary spacecraft for NASA and the Orion spacecraft under development for transporting astronauts beyond Earth orbit. He added the company has extensive experience with electric propulsion, such as on its LM2100 bus, although not to the same scale as planned with the PPE.

“The commercial satellite industry has a demonstrated reliability. We need to make sure we don’t undo that demonstrated reliability by laying our requirements on top,” said NASA’s human spaceflight chief, Bill Gerstenmaier, shown above at the ISS mission control center in Moscow. Credit: NASA
“The commercial satellite industry has a demonstrated reliability. We need to make sure we don’t undo that demonstrated reliability by laying our requirements on top,” said NASA’s human spaceflight chief, Bill Gerstenmaier, shown above at the ISS mission control center in Moscow. Credit: NASA

Some changes to the commercial bus, though, will be required for it to operate in cislunar space, he acknowledged. “Navigation solutions are different, the radiation environment is different,” he said. “So, we want to be respectful of those differences while also maximizing the use of commercial products.”

SSL is also planning to make use of its extensive experience in commercial satellites to develop the PPE. Al Tadros, vice president for space infrastructure and civil space at SSL, mentioned that experience during the AIAA panel, but also the company’s more recent work on satellite servicing systems.

“Reliability, and the approach to reliability in the commercial industry, was one the significant topic areas” in the earlier studies, he said. “NASA, to their credit, was genuinely looking at how commercial industry addresses reliability, and how it addresses it differently from simple redundancy.”

Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems — the new name for Orbital ATK after its acquisition by Northrop Grumman closed in June — wanted to ensure that its design for the PPE made use of technologies from its commercial GEO satellites as well as its Mission Extension Vehicle, a spacecraft designed to extend the life of other GEO satellites.

“On the one hand, we’re designing for a single point solution, which is the first element of the Gateway,” said Sally Richardson, vice president and program manager for the advanced program division at Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems. “We’re also looking at how we leverage our commercial product lines. By utilizing this commercial, public-private approach, we’re looking at a more economical solution for this element of the Gateway.”

Richardson said her company’s concept is based on a version of its Mission Extension Vehicle called the Mission Transportation Vehicle. “We see the PPE opportunity as one that will bring us from the markets in LEO and GEO and enable us to expand our mission portfolio out to cislunar space and beyond,” she said.

Among the five companies that studied the PPE concepts, Sierra Nevada stands out as the only one without experience building GEO satellites. The company has built smaller LEO satellites, including the second-generation Orbcomm satellite constellation, but doesn’t have the experience of building large numbers of GEO buses like the other firms included in the earlier studies.

Sierra Nevada is instead taking advantage of its experience on NASA’s commercial cargo program, where it has a contract to develop a version of its Dream Chaser spaceplane to ferry cargo to and from the International Space Station. That system will include an additional cargo module attached to the Dream Chaser.


Kevin Clinton of Sierra Nevada said at the AIAA panel that the company is using a version of that cargo module as the bus for its PPE concept. “We had this available off the shelf. It was already designed,” he said. “Using that as part of the structure for the PPE saves us a ton of time and development.”

Procurement innovations

Besides leveraging commercial technologies, NASA both NASA and the companies want to handle the actual procurement of the PPE differently. “NASA has very intentionally and very significantly looked at doing this acquisition differently,” said Tadros.

NASA doesn’t plan to use a convention procurement process, involving a request for proposals and selection of a winning bidder who then provides the specified hardware for NASA. The agency is instead using an alternative mechanism, called a broad agency announcement (BAA), typically used for research and development efforts rather than hardware acquisition. NASA issued the final version of the BAA Sept. 6, with proposals due to the agency Nov. 15.

Strictly speaking, the BAA doesn’t acquire the PPE, at least not initially. Instead, the BAA is for a “Spaceflight Demonstration of a Power and Propulsion Element.” The company — or companies — that receive an award under this program will be responsible for developing and launching the PPE, then demonstrating its performance in cislunar space for up to a year.

At the end of that one-year demonstration period, around the time NASA anticipates launching additional components of the Gateway, the agency can then exercise an option in the BAA to acquire the PPE.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, center during a visit SpaceX’s facilities at Kennedy Space Center, established a new advisory committee that will study potential obstacles to commercial cooperation. Credit: Kim Shifflet for NASA
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, center during a visit SpaceX’s facilities at Kennedy Space Center, established a new advisory committee that will study potential obstacles to commercial cooperation. Credit: Kim Shifflet for NASA

That approach required some effort within NASA to adapt the BAA concept to this project. “The legal and contracting teams did a really good job,” Gerstenmaier said at the NASA Advisory Council meeting, calling it a “deviated” BAA with the inclusion of a few NASA-specific requirements and option to acquire the PPE after the demonstration period.

“We were able to take a very strict contracting construct, and with two simple deviations, we were able to turn that around into a product we could actually use and move forward,” he said.

At the council meeting, Gerstenmaier received praise from industry for that procurement flexibility. “It was extraordinary in terms of the attention that was being paid to private-sector feedback,” said Mike Gold, vice president at Maxar Technologies, the parent company of SSL. “It was singular in my experience.”

Future plans

Gold praised NASA in part because the PPE was not intended as a set-aside of sorts for commercial industry development. “You’d expect that out of commercial crew or cargo,” he said. “To implement that with PPE was extraordinary and I think appreciated by industry.”

But is this a trend or a one-off case? NASA is still working on its acquisition strategy for the Gateway, including determining which components will be provided by international partners, which will be built through more conventional contracting and which could be done in a more commercial manner like the PPE.

At the same time, the Gateway itself has become a larger, more complex vehicle. When NASA rolled out plans for what was then called the Deep Space Gateway in 2017, the spacecraft was minimalistic: a PPE, a habitation module, a logistics module and, maybe, an airlock. Since then, in large part due to talks with international partners, the Gateway’s design has grown to include a second habitation module and additional “utilization” modules for habitation, storage or other work.

Some in industry have suggested another opportunity to do a more commercial procurement may be for the U.S. habitation module for the Gateway. Several companies have NASA-funded studies in progress about developing habitation modules for the Gateway, including development of prototypes for ground-based testing. In some cases, companies made clear their interest in developing not just a single habitat module for the Gateway but also commercial modules for the ISS or its private-sector successors.

NASA’s leadership appears open to greater commercial partnerships. At the council meeting, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced the formation of a new committee within the council focused on regulatory and policy issues, and chaired by Gold. Its scope will include studying potential obstacles to greater cooperation with the private sector and use of commercial capabilities.

Gerstenmaier, at the council meeting, sounded hopeful that the PPE will be a model for future components. “I think the agency is starting to embrace this new way of doing business.”

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NASA planning alternative reviews of SOFIA

The SOFIA flying observatory

WASHINGTON — NASA is planning two alternative reviews of an airborne observatory amid conflicting congressional views on whether the program will be eligible for the next senior review of astrophysics missions.

Speaking at the Sept. 20 meeting of the Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee at the headquarters of the National Science Foundation, Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, said the agency is planning the alternative reviews for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) given conflicting language in House and Senate bills about if it can be included in the next senior review, scheduled for 2019.

Language in the report accompanying the House version of a fiscal year 2019 commerce, justice and science spending bill would prohibit NASA from including SOFIA in that next senior review, which examines the status of missions that have completed their primary missions to determine whether they should be continued and if there should be any changes to their operations.

“The Committee is concerned with NASA’s proposed inclusion of SOFIA in the 2019 Senior Review, given it began its prime mission in 2014 and has 15 years of prime mission lifetime remaining,” the House report states. “Accordingly, the Committee directs NASA to only undertake a Senior Review of SOFIA at the time SOFIA completes its planned mission lifetime.”

By contrast, the report accompanying the Senate’s version of the same funding bill recommends NASA include SOFIA in the next senior review. “NASA regularly reviews its missions, as part of the senior review process, to measure mission performance based on scientific merit, national needs, the technical status of the mission, and budget efficiency to help resources prioritize and ensure they are meeting their science goals,” it states. “NASA is encouraged to review SOFIA at the appropriate time to determine if this mission should have its prime mission extended.”

A final resolution of the conflicting language isn’t expected until late this year, when House and Senate appropriators hammer out a compromise version of the overall spending bill. However, the final report for the omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2018 included language prohibiting NASA from spending any money to prepare for a senior review that includes SOFIA.

“We can’t wait for that,” Hertz said of the final 2019 spending bill language. “So we are accepting the direction we received through the FY18 appropriations process and have resolved the uncertainty by giving the project direction to not prepare for a senior review, by going on with our senior review planning without having SOFIA in it, but planning appropriate reviews for SOFIA.”

The first of those reviews is scheduled for late this year and will focus on the operations and maintenance of SOFIA. Hertz noted that the bulk of SOFIA’s budget, $85.2 million for 2018, is devoted to the operations of the Boeing 747 aircraft outfitted with a 2.5-meter telescope.

“For the same amount of money, can we get more flights? Or, for the same flights, can we find a cheaper way of operating it?” Hertz said of the goal of that review.

A second review in the spring of 2019 will examine the science being done by SOFIA. “We’ll look at their progress to date and then their plans going forward for the science they plan to do,” he said. That review will offer findings to NASA “on how we can make sure that SOFIA is being as responsive as possible to the community’s priority for doing science.”

“We are going to make sure that SOFIA is delivering to the community the science capabilities that the community values,” he said.

Several other missions, though, will be eligible for the senior review. As in past senior reviews in astrophysics, the Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-Ray Observatory will be treated independently, Hertz said at the committee meeting, with a focus on science priorities rather than whether the missions should continue.

The other missions slated for inclusion in the senior review are the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, the Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) instrument on the International Space Station, the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) spacecraft, the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, the recently launched Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and NASA’s participation in the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton X-ray observatory.

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Commercial crew providers believe they now meet NASA safety requirements

Starliner and Crew Dragon

ORLANDO — Boeing and SpaceX, who have been struggling to meet safety thresholds established by NASA for commercial crew vehicles, now believe their vehicles can meet those requirements as they prepare for test flights scheduled in the next several months.

A key issue in the development of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon has been their ability to meet a “loss-of-crew” requirement — a measure of the probability of death or permanent disability of one or more people on a spacecraft during a mission — of 1 in 270. The companies have faced problems meeting that requirement, significantly more stringent than that of the space shuttle.

“The number one safety-related concern for the program is the current situation with respect to the estimate of loss of crew,” Donald McErlean, a member of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, said at a meeting of the panel last year. The U.S. Government Accountability Office has also warned in reports that the companies were having problems meeting that loss-of-crew requirement.

However, during a panel discussion at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Space Forum here Sept. 18, executives of the two companies said they now believed their vehicles met that and related safety requirements.

John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for the commercial crew program at Boeing, said the company was assessing three separate requirements, including the overall loss of crew as well as ascent and entry risks and loss of mission. “Our teams have been working that for a number of years,” he said, noting those analyses have driven changes to the vehicle design, such as increased micrometeoroid and orbital debris protection.

“Where we are now is that our analysis shows we can exceed the NASA requirements for all three of those criteria,” he said.

Benjamin Reed, director of commercial crew mission management at SpaceX, said his company was in a similar situation. “We’re looking right now to be meeting the requirements,” he said.

Kathy Lueders, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, didn’t confirm that the companies have, in fact, met those safety requirements. “We’re learning from a NASA perspective about how to understand the assessments that we’re getting from each of the contractors and how to apply it,” she said. “We at the NASA team are assessing the modeling that each of the providers has done.”

She cautioned, though, about using the loss-of-crew figure as the sole figure of merit of the safety of either vehicle. “I sometimes struggle when people say that the loss-of-crew number is the safety number,” she said. “I don’t believe that that’s true.”

Test flight preparations

Those assessments come as test flights for both companies’ vehicles are approaching. Updated schedules released by NASA in early August said that SpaceX planned to perform an uncrewed test flight in November, followed by a crewed flight in April 2019. Boeing would perform its uncrewed test flight late this year or early next year, with a crewed flight in mid-2019.

SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk, though, hinted at a slight delay in his company’s schedule during the Sept. 17 announcement of the company’s plans to fly a Japanese billionaire and a group of artists around the moon on the company’s Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) under development.

“We’re hoping to do a test flight of Dragon 2 in December, and then a crewed flight next year, hopefully in the second quarter of next year,” he said, calling commercial crew the “top priority” for the company.

Reed declined to comment on any potential slip in that schedule. “We’re working closely with NASA to find the right dates,” he said after the panel. He said during the panel that the Dragon that will fly that initial uncrewed test is in Florida for final integration work, while the first and second stages of the Falcon 9 that will launch it were being tested at the company’s McGregor, Texas, test site. Final certification reviews for that mission, he said, have been scheduled with NASA.

Mulholland said Boeing has three Starliner vehicles in various stages of development, one each for the uncrewed and crewed test flights and a third that will be used for a pad abort test that will take place early next year between the two flights. Construction of the two Atlas 5 rockets by United Launch Alliance for those test flights are also almost complete. The schedule announced in August for the Starliner test flights is unchanged, he said after the panel.

Reusing crew vehicles

The panel discussion also addressed plans by both companies to reuse their crew vehicles. That issue gained attention last month when, at an Aug. 27 meeting of the human exploration and operations committee of the NASA Advisory Council, Lueders said SpaceX would use a new vehicle for each of its crewed flights. “Right now, what they proposed was a new vehicle every time for us,” she said then.

At the AIAA panel, Reed said SpaceX still had plans to reuse its Crew Dragon vehicles, as it does now with the cargo version of the spacecraft. “Crew Dragon, just like Cargo Dragon, was designed from the beginning to be a fully reusable vehicle, and it’s certainly still our intent” to reuse them. That includes the vehicle flying the first, uncrewed demo mission, which will be quickly turned around for use on an in-flight abort test that will take place before the crewed flight test.

For the operational commercial crew missions, Reed said SpaceX plans to use new vehicles for each mission initially as it builds up a “stable” of vehicles. The company would then work with NASA on how to certify those vehicles for reuse.

That approach, he said, is similar to the cargo version of Dragon, where SpaceX initially used new vehicles for all its flights but, after discussions with NASA, won approval for reuse of vehicles, which now account for all recent Dragon cargo missions. “That was a very successful approach,” he said. “We’re following the same basic plan.”

Boeing plans to reuse its Starliner crew capsules from the beginning. Mulholland said the company has defined what inspections, tests and vehicle refurbishments will be needed for the capsule between flights, a process he said should take about four months.

That desire to reuse the capsule drove Boeing’s decision to land the spacecraft on land, at one of five selected locations in the western United States, rather than splashing down at sea. “For us, in our baseline, we need to land on land to support capsule reuse,” he said. Starliner does have the ability to splash down in an emergency, but “if we end up aborting and ditching into the ocean, then we wouldn’t reuse that capsule.”

Reed said that, given SpaceX’s experience with cargo Dragons, landing in water was not a major obstacle to reusability. “It is different, for sure,” he said of water landings. “I don’t know if it’s much more difficult, though.”

Non-NASA markets

A key foundation of the commercial crew program is that NASA would not be the only customer for these vehicles, with the companies free to use them for other customers and thus spreading out costs. Both Boeing and SpaceX said they’re optimistic about the non-NASA demand for those vehicles.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity out there,” Reed said, including commercial missions to the ISS and to other destinations in low Earth orbit that have been proposed but yet to be developed. “We see a lot of opportunity out there. We’re working on a number of interesting opportunities with various commercial partners,” he said, not identifying any specific opportunities.

Mulholland said a Boeing marketing team has been “actively engaged” with other countries and entities about potential commercial Starliner flights. However, he said the company is holding off on deals until the Starliners are flying for NASA. “I’ve been hesitant to sign anything, or for the company to sign up, until we actually go fly,” he said.

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Bridenstine and Rogozin to meet in October as Soyuz investigation continues

Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) and Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin (right) tour the VDNKh exhibition center in Moscow in April. Credit:

PARIS — NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine will meet with his Russian counterpart next month as an investigation into an air leak in a Soyuz spacecraft docked to the International Space Station continues.

In a rare joint statement by NASA and the Russian state space corporation Roscosmos Sept. 13, the agencies said that Bridenstine and Roscosmos General Director Dmitry Rogozin will meet “on or about Oct. 10” at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, linked to the next launch of a Soyuz spacecraft carrying NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexy Ovchinin.

The two spoke by teleconference for the first time Sept. 12, according to the statement, to discuss the leak in the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft discovered Aug. 30. That leak was traced to a small hole about two millimeters in diameter in the Soyuz’s orbital module. While initial speculation focused on an impact by a micrometeoroid or piece of orbital debris, Russian officials later said they believe it was caused by someone, either by accident or deliberately.

In the statement, the agencies said Rogozin informed Bridenstine of a Roscosmos-led commission to investigate the cause of the leak. “They affirmed the necessity of further close interaction between NASA and Roscosmos technical teams in identifying and eliminating the cause of the leak, as well as continuation of normal ISS operations and NASA’s ongoing support of the Roscosmos-led Soyuz investigation,” the agencies stated.

Rumors have swirled, primarily in Russia media, about who created the hole. Over the previous two weeks blame has shifted from the two Russian cosmonauts on the station to workers on the ground assembling the spacecraft and preparing it for launch to, most recently and most bizarrely, NASA astronauts on the ISS.

The statement indirectly referenced, and dismissed, those rumors. “The Administrator and the General Director noted speculations circulating in the media regarding the possible cause of the incident and agreed on deferring any preliminary conclusions and providing any explanations until the final investigation has been completed,” the agencies said. “They acknowledged the entire crew is dedicated to the safe operation of the station and all docked spacecraft to ensure mission success.”

Both Russian and American ISS crewmembers have, in recent days, also dismissed those rumors. “I can unequivocally say that the crew had nothing to do with this on orbit, without a doubt, and I think it’s actually a shame and somewhat embarrassing that anybody is wasting any time talking about something that the crew was involved in,” Drew Feustel, the NASA astronaut who is the current ISS commander, said during a video interview with ABC News Sept. 11.

“As you can see, everything is calm on board. We’re coexisting peacefully and amicably as always, experiments are being conducted in a routine mode,” said Russian cosmonaut Sergei Prokopyev in a video posted on Russian social media Sept. 10. “Our joint international expedition is operating in a calm and friendly environment.”

Plans for a meeting between Bridenstine and Rogozin were already in progress prior to the ISS air leak incident. In an Aug. 12 statement, Roscosmos announced that the two planned to meet in October at Baikonur while attending the Soyuz launch. NASA did not confirm those plans at the time.

Asked during an Aug. 10 interview with SpaceNews on C-SPAN if he had met with Rogozin, the former deputy prime minister who is the subject of sanctions by the U.S. government in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Bridenstine said he had not. “But I intend to in the near future,” he added. “We’re working on how do we maintain this relationship given those constraints. I’m very confident that we’ll be able to work it out.”

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U.S.-Canada space relations not affected by trade dispute


WASHINGTON — Both American and Canadian officials said they’re optimistic about continued strong cooperation between their nations’ space programs despite trade and other disputes.

Speaking at a Sept. 7 forum at the Wilson Center here about U.S.-Canada space relations, Scott Pace, executive secretary of the National Space Council, praised the long history of cooperation between the two countries in space activities and expected it to continue.

“We now find ourselves on the cusp of a very new era across all these areas and a promising future, and our bilateral partnership with Canada has been a strong asset in the past and is going to continue to be so in the future,” he said.

He spoke while, just a few blocks away at the offices of the United States Trade Representative, American and Canadian negotiators were discussing issues related to changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Those came after months of trade disputes between the countries.

Asked by one of the event’s moderators if space was “immune” to those trade tensions, Pace said he didn’t have the authority to address trade issues specifically. However, he argued that the growth of free trade between the two countries had its roots in security and defense cooperation during the Cold War.

“I think we’re looking at, certainly, a period of adjustment as globalization poses new challenges,” he said. “I think that space is rather special. I would never take anything off the table for other trade discussions, but I think that the importance of space, our mutual interests there, is right now undisturbed.”

Pace’s comments came after NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Canadian Space Agency President Sylvain Laporte, in keynotes at the event earlier in the day, praised the cooperation between the two agencies and said they expected it to continue.

“We had a great conversation yesterday,” said Bridenstine of a meeting with Laporte at NASA Headquarters Sept. 6. “We’re looking forward to a long and very collaborative relationship as it relates to space.”

Laporte praised NASA for developing “a very ambitious vision” for space exploration. “Once again, our American colleagues are charting a clear and robust vision for the future of space exploration that inspires others to rise to the challenge.”

Bridenstine noted that he and Laporte discussed potential Canadian cooperation in the NASA-led Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway. “We need to take advantage of some of the great capabilities that Canada has developed,” he said, such as a version of the Canadarm2 robotic arm on the International Space Station that could, for the Gateway, be used to help maintain it when astronauts are not on board.

“Hopefully, maybe one day we can have an agreement where we can have a Canadarm on Gateway,” he said. “Not only on the outside but on the inside, and have it more robust than ever before so that it can, in fact, help manage the space station when it is uncrewed.”

Another issue between the two countries in space is the future of the ISS. “We know that we need to think about our future steps beyond the International Space Station,” Laporte said, not elaborating on what those steps would be. “We consider the ISS as a key stepping stone for future exploration destinations, helping us to learn how to live and work in space.”

Pace said he appreciated the commitment of the Canadian government to support ISS operations through 2024. “Between now and then, the U.S. is looking forward to working with Canada to plan for a transition from its current model to a more commercially active low Earth orbit, with more opportunities for the private sector and continuing government research.”

“In the U.S. as well as in Canada, we consider this relationship to be a very, very good illustration of how two countries can collaborate successfully together,” Laporte said. “So despite any kind of anxiety that may have traversed over time, the past few decades, we can always look back to space and say, ‘You know what, despite some of our differences, either between us or with other nations, we’ve always found a way to cooperate and to work properly in space.’”

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Kepler resumes operations despite malfunctioning thruster

Kepler K2

WASHINGTON — NASA’s Kepler spacecraft is back in operation despite a problem with one of its thrusters and low fuel levels that may soon bring the mission to an end.

In a brief statement Sept. 5, NASA said Kepler resumed observations Aug. 29. The spacecraft was set to begin what the project calls Campaign 19, the latest in a series of observations spanning nearly three months at a time, in early August, but the spacecraft went into a “sleep mode” after transmitting data collected during the previous campaign.

Alison Hawkes, a spokesperson at NASA’s Ames Research Center, told SpaceNews Sept. 5 that engineers found no evidence of “systemic problems” on the spacecraft other than an issue with one of the spacecraft’s eight thrusters.

“One of the eight thrusters had shown unreliable performance, but the team estimated that simply removing the thruster from use during precision pointing firings could result in acceptable system performance,” Hawkes said. “As a result, the changes were made and Campaign 19 was, as it were, joined in progress.”

Kepler uses the thrusters to maintain its orientation. The spacecraft originally relied on reaction control wheels, but two of the four wheels on the spacecraft malfunctioned by mid-2013, more than four years after launch, forcing an end to the spacecraft’s primary mission.

Engineers developed an alternative pointing approach using the two remaining wheels as well as the thrusters and solar pressure on the spacecraft. This allowed the spacecraft to resume operations under an extended mission called K2, but rather than looking at the same part of the sky, as Kepler did during its prime mission, it instead looks at different regions of the sky in a series of observing campaigns.

The K2 extended mission is expected to end in the coming months when the spacecraft exhausts its remaining hydrazine fuel for its thrusters. Controllers put the spacecraft into a “no-fuel-use safe mode” in early July, prematurely ending Campaign 18 observations, after detecting what NASA called an “anomalous” drop in fuel pressure. Engineers revived Kepler in early August to transmit the Campaign 18 data before putting it back into safe mode.

Hawkes said it’s not clear if the problem with the thruster is linked to dropping fuel levels. “By eliminating the use of the thruster for precision pointing, we are protecting against it being an issue unrelated to the fuel,” she said. “If it turns out to indeed be fuel-related, it is likely that other thrusters will begin to show symptoms.”

Removing the thruster from the precision pointing operations will make the spacecraft less balanced against solar pressure, she added, but the effect that will have on the quality of the observations won’t be known until after the Campaign 19 data is returned to Earth.

The exact amount of fuel remaining on Kepler can’t be easily measured, complicating plans for future observations. “It remains unclear how much fuel remains; NASA continues to monitor the health and performance of the spacecraft,” the agency said in its statement.

Kepler, during its prime mission, searched for exoplanets by looking for periodic, minute drops in brightness caused when those plants pass in front of, or transit, the stars they orbit. Those observations led to the discovery more than 2,300 confirmed exoplanets, along with a nearly equal number of exoplanet candidates awaiting confirmation. The K2 extended mission has discovered several hundred exoplanets while also supporting other astrophysics research.

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Senate committee advances Morhard nomination

Morhard Senate

WASHINGTON — The Senate Commerce Committee voted Sept. 5 to advance the nomination of James Morhard as NASA’s next deputy administrator to the full Senate.

The committee favorably reported Morhard’s nomination on a voice vote during a brief executive session, with no members expressing opposition. The nomination now goes to the full Senate for a final confirmation vote.

Morhard, the deputy sergeant at arms for the Senate, has no space industry experience, but emphasized his managerial background during an Aug. 23 confirmation hearing before the committee. “Over and over again, I’ve led organizations through difficult situations by creating an atmosphere of collaborative teamwork that turns visions and goals into realities,” he said.

Morhard faced some critical questions from Democratic senators at that hearing, particularly on his views about climate change. Asked by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) if he felt human activity was the “dominant driver” of climate change, Morhard responded, “I can’t speak authoritatively on that, senator.”

Morhard subsequently assuaged senators about his views. “I was encouraged in the followup communications with the committee after the hearing,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member of the committee, said at the markup. “Mr. Morhard acknowledged that the climate is changing and that it is extremely likely that human activities are the dominant cause of climate change, of the warming of the Earth.”

The committee also favorably reported the nomination of Kelvin Droegemeier, a meteorology professor and vice president for research at the University of Oklahoma, to be director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. At his confirmation hearing, held concurrently with Morhard, Droegemeier didn’t address any space policy issues. While OSTP played a leading role in crafting space policy in past administrations, that responsibility is now held by the National Space Council, which includes OSTP but also many other agencies and departments.

Nelson praised Droegemeier in his remarks at the markup. “I think it’s appropriate to say that the research community is eager for this committee to have his nomination proceed quickly to the Senate,” he said.

“I hope that we can move him quickly,” responded committee chairman Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who previously noted that all the nominees considered at the markup, including Morhard, “are qualified for their positions and it would be my hope that once we act today, the full Senate can move quickly to confirm them.”

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NASA delays decision on space technology reorganization


WASHINGTON — Proposals to restructure NASA’s space technology and human spaceflight programs are on hold as the agency weighs other organizational changes.

Speaking at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council Aug. 30, Steve Jurczyk, NASA associate administrator, said he briefed Administrator Jim Bridenstine on reorganization options last month, but that Bridenstine had yet to make a final decision.

“To date, the administrator has not made a decision,” Jurczyk said. “We decided to defer a decision pending a couple other ongoing actions.”

Plans to restructure the agency’s space technology work stem from development of the fiscal year 2019 budget proposal. Jurczyk said the Office of Management and Budget, in its “passback” of the agency’s initial proposal, directed NASA to look at restructuring funding of space technology and human spaceflight, as well as its organizational structure.

The final budget proposal, released in February, eliminates space technology as one of the major accounts in the budget. Instead, the budget includes an “exploration research and technology” account, along with new “deep space exploration systems” and “LEO and spaceflight operations” that are similar to the existing exploration and space operations accounts, but with some minor changes.

The budget proposal also announced plans to consider related organizational changes that could do away with the Space Technology Mission Directorate. One option, said Jurczyk, was to create a single mission directorate focused on exploration, effectively combining space technology with the existing Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, or HEOMD. A second option would replace the existing mission directorates with two new directorates, one focused on “exploration operations” such as the space station and the other an “exploration systems and technology” directorate.

Jurczyk said the agency study later added a third option that would effectively preserve the Space Technology Mission Directorate, adding to it some advanced exploration technology development currently done in HEOMD.

The study developed various “figures of merit” for the three options, he said, but did not disclose how the three options rated. NASA also considered congressional feedback, with House appropriators accepting much of the reorganization other than keeping NASA’s Human Research Program in the exploration account rather than exploration research and technology. Senate appropriators, by contrast, did not accept the new budget account system at all, using the existing structure in its fiscal year 2019 bill.

Jurczyk said Bridenstine deferred a decision on the new structure because of two issues. One is an ongoing assessment of how HEOMD will manage its various programs, including development of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway and future lunar lander initiatives. That includes determining what efforts are run out of NASA Headquarters and which are delegated to field centers.

Lobbying is already underway by centers and members of Congress to win that work. An Aug. 28 letter by several Republican members of the Texas congressional delegation to Bridenstine asked the administrator to base a future lunar lander program at the Johnson Space Center in the state. “It’s been NASA’s main center for human spaceflight for more than half a century, and there is no better place for a program that will once again land Americans on the moon than JSC,” Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), one of the members who signed the letter, said in a statement.

A second is a study directed by OMB to examine turning some or all of NASA’s field centers into federally funded research and development centers, or FFRDCs, as part of a broader proposed reorganization of federal agencies. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, operated by Caltech for NASA, is the agency’s only current FFRDC. That study was scheduled to be delivered to OMB Aug. 31, with a briefing at OMB planned for Sept. 7, Jurczyk said.

Jurczyk said the agency decided to wait until all of those activities were done before making decisions on restructuring mission directorates. The intent, he said, is to “integrate that into a single plan for NASA of how we’re going to make changes to organizational and program structure to set us up for success.”

Jurczyk didn’t comment on the contents of the FFRDC study, but acknowledged that turning existing field centers into FFRDCs, run by an outside organization, would be difficult. “We have studied this many times over the last couple of decades,” he said. “It’s very challenging to ‘convert’ a civil service organization into a contractor or non-civil service managed organization.”

Les Lyles, chairman of the NASA Advisory Council, concurred. Lyles served on the 2004 Aldridge Commission, whose recommendations included examining turning field centers into FFRDCs as an alternative to closing some centers. That recommendation was not taken up by NASA.

“There are potential good things about it,” he said, “but it’s a huge challenge to try to make it a reality.”

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NASA to soon start 45-day campaign to revive the Opportunity Mars rover

Opportunity rover

WASHINGTON — NASA plans to soon start a 45-day effort to restore communication with the Mars rover Opportunity, a timeframe that has elicited criticism from those both within and outside the project.

In an Aug. 30 statement, NASA said it would begin a 45-day campaign of active efforts to restore communications with Opportunity once skies above the rover cleared to a sufficient level. The rover has been out of contact since early June, when a major dust storm deprived the rover of solar power.

That dust storm, which at one point encircled the planet, is fading. “The dust haze produced by the Martian global dust storm of 2018 is one of the most extensive on record, but all indications are it is finally coming to a close,” said Rich Zurek, project scientist for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been monitoring the storm. Zurek said in the statement that there had been no signs of dust storms within 3,000 kilometers of Opportunity “for some time.”

In the statement, NASA said that once the skies above Opportunity clear to a sufficient degree, it will begin a communications campaign to restore contact with the rover by sending commands to it. “Assuming that we hear back from Opportunity, we will begin the process of discerning its status and bringing it back online,” John Callas, Opportunity project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.

That effort will begin once the optical depth, a measure of the haziness of the skies, drops below 1.5. That optical depth, also known as tau, is typically around 0.5 under normal conditions. At the time contact was lost with Opportunity in early June, tau has risen to 10.8, a record high value that indicated that the sun was almost completely obscured by the dust storm.

In its statement, NASA did not publish an updated value of tau. In a mid-August update, JPL stated that tau had dropped to 2.1, then rose again to 2.5. In subsequent Opportunity mission updates, JPL said that tau was decreasing, but did not give a specific figure.

The announcement, though, attracted criticism because it limited the active part of the recovery to 45 days. “You have to be kidding me. 45 days after a Tau of 1.5. This can’t be based on any real analysis of the situation,” tweeted Mike Seibert, a former flight director and rover driver for Opportunity who is no longer at JPL. He said that JPL attempted “active listening” of Spirit, the twin of Opportunity, for 10 months in 2010 and 2011 when that rover stopped transmitting before giving up.

“I’ll be blunt: 45 days is absurdly short, and certainly arbitrary,” Scott Maxwell, another former Opportunity rover driver, said. Starting those efforts while tau was still as high as 1.5 is “not nearly as generous as our trusty, faithful, brave Opportunity deserves,” arguing that the project should wait until tau drops to around 0.7.

Those currently working on the Opportunity mission are also disappointed and surprised by the 45-day limit to listening efforts, according to project sources not authorized to speak on the record.

Callas, in the statement, argued that if Opportunity did not respond to communications attempts after that 45-day campaign, it likely meant the spacecraft had suffered a mission-ending malfunction. “If we do not hear back after 45 days, the team will be forced to conclude that the sun-blocking dust and the Martian cold have conspired to cause some type of fault from which the rover will more than likely not recover,” he said.

“The 45-day active listening period was decided based on input from across the team,” JPL spokesman DC Agle said Aug. 31. “The 45-day period, which has not started yet, is meant to span the most likely time to hear from the rover; that is, when the skies clear and there is the most amount of sunlight.”

Another factor, Agle said, is decreasing sunlight because of seasonal changes. After the 45 days, “the likelihood of hearing from the rover starts to decrease as solar insolation starts to decrease (it’s decreasing now) and temperature starts to decrease, albeit slowly.”

Should Opportunity fail to respond to active communications efforts, JPL will continue to listen for signals from the rover, but not attempt to send any commands. That effort addresses “the unlikely chance that there is a large amount of dust sitting on the solar arrays that is blocking the sun’s energy,” Callas said.

Former rover engineers like Maxwell have argued that the active listening phase should run through the end of the year, covering the portion of the Martian year where dust devils could sweep dust off the rover’s solar panels, as has happened in the past.

Agle said that listening campaign will continue at least through January 2019 to cover that potential cleaning phase, for a total of at least eight months of efforts to hear from the rover. “The most likely recovery is for Opportunity to autonomously wake up and talk to us,” he said. “That’s why we are listening all that time.”

“We will keep trying to get our Martian friend back online. We will not give up on #Oppy even after the 45 days of plan we have put in place!” tweeted Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science. “We will keep trying, and trying… In fact I told the Mars team that I want to get updates on a regular basis!”

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NASA Earth science director to retire


WASHINGTON — The longtime director of NASA’s Earth science division, who in recent years provided a steadying hand amid budget concerns while seeking to take advantage of new capabilities, will retire from the agency next February.

NASA announced Aug. 29 that Michael Freilich, who had been director of the Earth science division at NASA Headquarters since 2006, will retire next February. The agency plans to start a search for a successor in the fall in order to ensure a smooth transition.

“Words are not enough to express my deep appreciation for Mike Freilich’s dedication, creativity, and operational vision that has so positively impacted not only Earth science but also the broader NASA research community,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science, in a statement about Freilich’s retirement.

Freilich came to NASA Headquarters after a research career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Oregon State University, where he was a professor and associate dean in the university’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. He was a member of research teams for several NASA Earth science missions during that time devoted to studies of ocean surface wind velocity.

At NASA, Freilich led several major changes as the division shifted from a handful of large missions to a greater number of smaller missions. That included supporting a new “Venture Class” program of small satellite and airborne projects, as well as utilizing the International Space Station as a platform for Earth science instruments.

Other initiatives include greater use of cubesats to collect Earth science data and the purchase of Earth science data from commercial satellites. Zurbuchen announced Aug. 6 that NASA would buy data from DigitalGlobe, Planet and Spire, although an agency spokesman later said that contracts with those companies for data purchases were still being negotiated.

Freilich also had to assure the Earth science community of NASA’s continued investment in the field amid concerns that the Trump administration was planning to curtail research, particularly in climate science. The administration’s budget proposals for both fiscal years 2018 and 2019 sought to cut Earth science spending by about 10 percent and cancel several missions and instruments.

“It is significant, but I would say that it is not existential,” Freilich said of the proposed 2018 cut at a July 2017 meeting of a NASA Advisory Council committee, adding that the agency was not making any changes to programs as a result of the proposed cuts. “We are not changing anything in our plans in anticipation of a future administration budgets.” The final omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2018 restored the Earth science funding to 2017 levels, but Congress had not yet finalized a fiscal year 2019 spending bill for NASA.

“It has been a great privilege to be able to help strengthen NASA’s Earth science and applications programs and to contribute to advancing humanity’s knowledge of our home planet,” Freilich said in the statement. “But understanding our complex globe takes a dedicated, skilled and creative team of scientists and engineers. The tightknit group of NASA professionals at headquarters and the centers, along with our colleagues in industry and academia, are among the best that our agency and nation have ever assembled.”

Freilich’s departure is the latest in a series of changes in leadership in NASA’s science programs. At a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s science committee Aug. 27, Zurbuchen announced that Nicola Fox, selected earlier this year to be the new director of the heliophysics division, would formally start work the week of Sept. 4. Fox is currently the project scientist for the Parker Solar Probe mission, which launched Aug. 12.

Jim Green, who had been director of the planetary science division since 2006, was elevated to the position of NASA chief scientist in May. That division is currently led on an interim basis by Lori Glaze, a planetary scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center. Zurbuchen announced at the Aug. 27 committee meeting that NASA had formally published the job opening for a permanent successor to Green. NASA is accepting applications for the position through Sept. 21.

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New NASA advisory committee to explore enhanced commercial activities

Bridenstine NAC

WASHINGTON — NASA has tasked a new advisory committee with studying greater commercial activities at the agency, including selling naming rights for NASA missions and allowing astronauts to perform commercial work.

In a presentation at an Aug. 29 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council at the Ames Research Center in California, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced the formation of a new committee within the council that will examine regulatory and policy issues.

Bridenstine named as chairman of the committee Mike Gold, vice president of regulatory issues at Maxar Technologies. Gold is also chairman of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), an advisory group for the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

“NASA is famous for overcoming herculean technological challenges,” Gold said at the council meeting. “However, in this new era of public-private partnerships and commercial space development, conquering regulatory and policy hurdles can be just as important to the agency as any engineering challenge that NASA may face.”

The committee, he said, will work to “target and tackle barriers” to achieving the agency’s goals on a wide range of issues related to commercialization. One area of focus will be commercial activities on the International Space Station, from allowing NASA astronauts to perform commercial work there to issues associated with adding private-sector modules to the station.

“The great challenge private sector companies face is finding ways to bolster true commercial demand for human spaceflight” in low Earth orbit, Gold said. The ISS can play a “vital role” in that effort, he added, “but for this to occur, obsolete rules and regulations must be reviewed and revised.”

Both Gold and Bridenstine, though, showed openness to greater commercial activities by NASA itself. That includes studying the ability for NASA astronauts to accept “endorsements and other media opportunities” as a way of both promoting themselves and the agency.

Bridenstine noted that commercial crew vehicles will be flying private astronauts who will not have restrictions on their commercial activities. “If those astronauts are not limited in the way they are able to promote themselves, then should NASA astronauts be limited in how we promote NASA?” he said.

He also said he wanted to make NASA astronauts as popular among the general public as professional athletes so that more young people will aspire to careers at the agency. “I’d like to see, maybe one day, NASA astronauts on the cover of a cereal box, embedded into the American culture,” he said

A related issue Gold said his committee will address is potential commercial sponsorships of NASA spacecraft and launches. “Such branding will enhance the exposure of space activities in the popular culture, and will begin to validate a business case that future private sector operation will need to leverage,” he said.

“Is it possible for NASA to offset some of its costs by selling the naming rights to its spacecraft or the naming rights to its rockets?” Bridenstine said. “There is interest in that right now. The question is, is it possible?”

Selling of naming rights, he said later in the meeting, would provide more than funding for NASA. “Those private companies can then embed in their marketing campaigns NASA,” he said. “We can embed NASA into the culture and the fabric of American society and inspire generations of folks that will create those next capabilities to keep America preeminent.”

Some of those activities, Bridenstine acknowledged, may be controversial, and require changes either in agency regulations or in federal law. “You hit a lot of things in there that could be perceived as provocative,” he said after Gold outlined those and other topics, such as export control reform and application of planetary protection policies for commercial missions, that the committee plans to address. “I want to be clear that we have not made any determinations nor have we prejudged the outcome of the committee.”

The other members of Gold’s committee have not been announced yet, although Gold said its members would provide “expert, independent and creative advice” to the agency. “I believe in this. I’ve worked my entire life on these commercial activities,” he said. “It will happen. The question is whether it will happen in America. This committee will be committed to developing policies that make it easy, that will facilitate it happening here.”

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Lunar scientist and exploration advocate Paul Spudis passes away

Paul Spudis

WASHINGTON — Paul Spudis, a planetary scientist who devoted his career to both the study of the moon and initiatives to return humans there, passed away Aug. 29.

Spudis, 66, was a senior staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, having previously served there as its deputy director. He also worked for several years at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in its planetary exploration group.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine broke the news during a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) at the Ames Research Center. “He was a guy who lived his entire life really focused on why the moon is important to humanity,” he said, his voice cracking.

“I think each one of us probably has memories of Paul coming to our offices,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, at the meeting. “He was a very passionate person about the moon and really wanted the best.”

Spudis’ research career was devoted primarily to the moon. He was the deputy leader of the science team for Clementine, a joint mission of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and NASA that orbited the moon in 1994 for technology demonstration and lunar science. That mission included a bistatic radar experiment that detected evidence of water ice at the lunar poles, although some scientists suggested alternative explanations for the observations.

“We were sitting in the control center and watching the big projection screens as the first pictures came in,” Spudis said in an undated interview on the NASA website about his participation on Clementine. “I saw and recognized the crater Nansen, near the north pole of the moon and immediately felt that I’d arrived home. That simple recognition gave me a great thrill — I had always wanted to be part of a lunar mission, and for the first time I had an intimate connection to the little spacecraft orbiting the moon, 400,000 kilometers away.”

Spudis was principal investigator for the Mini-SAR instrument on India’s first lunar orbiter, Chandrayaan-1, launched in 2008, and a team member for a similar instrument, Mini-RF, flown on NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The instruments were designed to produce synthetic aperture radar images of the lunar surface and detected potential water ice deposits at the lunar poles.

Spudis was also known as a leading advocate of both robotic and human missions to the moon. He was part of the Synthesis Group, a committee in the early 1990s that developed proposals for human exploration, including a return to the moon. He later served on the Presidential Commission on the Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, informally known as the Aldridge Commission, in 2004 to examine President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration.

He advocated for using the resources of the moon to support human exploration, helping develop mission architectures that showed how water ice extracted from the lunar poles could make missions to the moon more affordable and sustainable. He backed private initiatives to explore the moon as well, serving as chief scientist of Moon Express, a company developing lunar landers initially as part of the Google Lunar X Prize competition.

“Few individuals have been as articulate, passionate, or resolute in their advocacy of lunar exploration and human spaceflight as Paul Spudis,” said Samuel Lawrence, chairman of the Lunar Exploration Advisory Committee, in a statement. “Paul articulated a clear, attainable vision regarding the immense value of going to the moon, establishing a permanent human presence on the surface, and using the resources now known to be abundant on the surface to provide the capabilities required to let us go anywhere, and do anything, we want to do in the solar system.”

Bridenstine made his announcement about the death of Spudis during a discussion of NASA’s exploration plans, including development of a Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway to support eventual human missions to the lunar surface. “Since we’re talking about the moon, and this is the NAC, I would tell you that he would be thrilled that we’re talking about it,” he said. “We need to move forward for him and all of the other people who have worked so hard to getting us where we are.”

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Bridenstine supports increased funding for NASA’s Flight Opportunities program

Space for Humanity is considering purchasing rides for participants on Blue Origin's New Shepard reusable, suborbital rocket, which has undergone multiple test flights, and may take tourists into space as early as 2018. Credit: Blue Origin

WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine signaled his support this week for increased funding for a small agency program that funds the flights of research payloads on commercial suborbital vehicles, balloons and aircraft.

The Flight Opportunities program announced Aug. 29 the selection of 15 technology payloads that will be eligible for flights on suborbital vehicles, high-altitude balloons and parabolic aircraft flights. Such vehicle offer exposure to the space environment, including up to several minutes of microgravity, at lower costs than individual spacecraft or experiments on the International Space station.

The payloads selected in the latest Flight Opportunities call range from studies of fluid mechanics in microgravity and three-dimensional printing of metallic foams to demonstration of a small reentry capsule and radiation measurements. Seven of the payloads will fly on Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle and five on Zero Gravity Corporation’s aircraft, with the other three flying on high-altitude balloons from Near Space Corporation and World View Enterprises.

The Flight Opportunities started as a NASA effort nearly a decade ago called Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research, or CRuSR, designed to take advantage of commercial suborbital vehicles under development. The program has, over time, expanded to include commercial microgravity aircraft flights and high-altitude balloons that can provided extended access to the stratosphere.

The program has been limited in part by the delayed development of many suborbital vehicles, but also by funding of no more than $15 million a year, restricting the number of payloads it can fly.

However, Bridenstine, a supporter of the Flight Opportunities program while a member of the House of Representatives, said he backs increased funding for the program. “By increasing funding for payload integration and flights, we will continue to support and advance the commercial suborbital flight market,” he said in the NASA statement announcing the latest payloads.

In a briefing with reporters webcast by NASA Aug. 28 after a visit to the Armstrong Flight Research Center, where the Flight Opportunities program is based, he elaborated on those comments. “I was a big supporter of the Flight Opportunities program before I was NASA administrator,” he said. He noted that, while in the House, he heard that costs of payload integration limited the number of experiments that could be flown.

“So we’re working right now to increase the amount of funding that’s available for payload integration,” he said. “We’re also supportive of a congressional agenda to increase the Flight Opportunities program to $20 million annually. If Congress is ready to pull that trigger, we’re ready to support it.”

Reports accompanying the House and Senate versions of spending bills for NASA in fiscal year 2019 include $20 million for the Flight Opportunities program. NASA is spending $15 million on Flight Opportunities in fiscal year 2018, according to its operating plan for the year finalized in late July.

Bridenstine, though, didn’t indicate if he supported a refocusing of the Flight Opportunities program proposed in the agency’s 2019 budget request. In the request, NASA said that starting in fiscal year 2019 “NASA will prioritize Flight Opportunities to align with NASA’s Exploration Campaign objectives,” which cover technologies needed for future missions to the moon and Mars. The program, currently part of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, would be moved to a new Exploration Research and Technology program under a proposed reorganization.

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NASA keeps open option of extended commercial crew demo flights

CST-100 Starliner in orbit

WASHINGTON — NASA is continuing to study using commercial crew test flights as space station crew rotation missions, but won’t make a final decision regarding that until next summer.

At a meeting of the human exploration and operations committee of the NASA Advisory Council Aug. 27 at NASA’s Ames Research Center, agency officials said they were keeping the option open of using the crewed test flights of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon to maintain a U.S. presence on the International Space Station, while expressing confidence either or both vehicles will be certified for crew rotation missions by the end of next year.

“If we can bring commercial crew online this year and next year, then we have sufficient margin to overlap with the Soyuz capability,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations.

NASA’s access to Soyuz seats runs out in January 2020, a few months later than previously planned after NASA and the other ISS partners agreed to stretch out the schedule of Soyuz flights. SpaceX is currently scheduled to perform a crewed flight test in April 2019, followed by Boeing in mid-2019, according to updated schedules announced by NASA in early August.

Those dates have slipped significantly from original plans, raising concerns that the vehicles may not be certified — a milestone that takes place after a successful crewed fight test — until after access to Soyuz seats runs out. NASA announced earlier this year a modification of its contract with Boeing to study turning that flight test into a long-duration mission that could stay at the ISS for up to six months, carrying three astronauts rather than the previously planned two.

When NASA announced assignments for the initial commercial crew flights Aug. 3, it placed three people on the Boeing crewed demonstration flight: NASA astronauts Eric Boe and Nicole Mann and Boeing test pilot Chris Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut. That assignment of three people, versus two for the SpaceX crewed flight test, appeared to protect the option of using the Boeing flight as a longer duration mission.

Kathy Lueders, NASA commercial crew program manager, said later at the committee meeting that the crew for that mission, including Ferguson, had started training on ISS systems to prepare for the possibility his mission there would be extended. However, she said no decision would be made on it until next summer.

“We’re working with station and we’ll see the progress on where the crewed flight tests are, and then we have the flexibility to be able to make that a longer duration mission if we need to,” she said.

She added that NASA will continue to fly three people on that mission even if it remains a short-duration test flight. That prompted discussion among committee members, who questioned whether the benefit of a third crewmember was worth the risk. “What’s the justification for adding the human risk of a third person on that flight?” one committee member asked. “You don’t need three crewmembers for a short flight.”

Lueders noted that the vehicle would carry four people on later post-certification missions, and that both Boeing and SpaceX worked to address the risks of a crewed flight test by performing uncrewed flight tests first. “The government’s original concept, or minimal requirements, were for our first mission to be a crewed flight test,” she said. “Both providers are flying uncrewed flight tests to mitigate that activity.”

Gerstenmaier said that NASA was also considering a similar contract modification with SpaceX for using its crewed test flight as a long-duration ISS mission. “There’s potentially a contract change also with SpaceX,” he said, but didn’t state if that would involve adding a third person to that mission, after crews had already been assigned.

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Kepler spacecraft back in safe mode as fuel runs low

Kepler K2

WASHINGTON — NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, which went into a safe mode in July amid concerns the exoplanet observatory was running out of propellant, has again gone into safe mode as astronomers fear its mission may be nearing an end.

In a brief statement Aug. 24, NASA said the spacecraft went into a fuel-conserving “sleep mode” after transmitting the data it collected from its previous observing campaign earlier in the month. The observing campaign was interrupted by the safe mode triggered by the low-fuel warning July 2.

“It is unclear how much fuel is still on board,” the agency said in its statement. “NASA is looking into the health of the spacecraft and determining a full range of options and next steps.”

Officials were optimistic that Kepler would be able to start its next round of observations, known as Campaign 19, in early August despite the low fuel warnings. “Campaign 19 will begin as planned on Aug. 6,” said Gary Blackwood, manager of NASA’s exoplanet exploration program, during a July 29 meeting of the agency’s Exoplanet Exploration Program Analysis Group.

However, NASA did not start Campaign 19 on Aug. 6. Instead, in an Aug. 9 statement the mission said the data from the previous session, Campaign 18, had been successfully transmitted back to Earth. “We are monitoring the spacecraft very closely and will provide more information when its status has been fully assessed,” the project stated in a website post.

NASA launched Kepler in March 2009 on a mission to search for planets around other stars by detecting minute, periodic dips in brightness of those stars as planets pass in front of, or transit, those stars. In Kepler’s primary mission, lasting until May 2013, the spacecraft looked at a single area of the sky, enabling the discovery of ultimately thousands of exoplanets.

The failure of two of the spacecraft’s four reaction control wheels, used to accurately point the spacecraft, forced NASA to end that primary mission. Engineers developed an alternative technique to point the spacecraft, using the two remaining wheels, solar pressure and the spacecraft’s thrusters. That approach allowed Kepler to look at different parts of the sky for about 80 days at a time in a series of observing campaigns that continued until July.

Kepler has been operating under that extended mission, known as K2, since 2014. Although the spacecraft remains in good health, the limiting factor on its life has been its supply of hydrazine fuel. When Kepler exhausts its remaining fuel, it will no longer be able to accurately point, effectively ending the mission.

Accurately measuring the amount of remaining hydrazine on the spacecraft is challenging, so project officials have been anticipating the mission’s end for several months, not sure exactly when the spacecraft would run out of fuel.

Because Kepler, in a heliocentric orbit trailing the Earth, doesn’t pose a reentry and collision hazard, the spacecraft can continue to operate until it completely exhausts its fuel. “We can leave it in whatever state we want so we hadn’t given it a lot of thought,” Charlie Sobeck, system engineer for Kepler, said in a NASA podcast earlier this year about planning for Kepler’s end of mission. “Now that we are here most of our thought is going in to, ‘How do we get the most final science off the spacecraft and down into the hands of scientists before it goes in to that final resting spot?’”

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Pence recaps space policy in JSC speech


WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence used a speech Aug. 23 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center to reiterate the nation’s space exploration policy without breaking new ground.

In a speech at the center after a tour of some of its astronaut training and other facilities, Pence largely offered an overview of the Trump administration’s space policy activities, from the reestablishment of the National Space Council to Space Policy Directive 1, which calls on NASA to return humans to the moon and ultimately go to Mars.

“While our sights are once again set on our lunar neighbor, we’re not content just leaving behind footprints, or to leave it all,” Pence said. “The time has come, we really believe, for the United States of America to take what we have learned over these so many decades, put your ingenuity and creativity to work, and establish a permanent presence around and on the moon.”

Pence offered few specifics about how that would be done, emphasizing the development of vehicles like the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, as well as the Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway in cislunar space.

One new detail he offered was a claim that the first astronaut crew would board the Gateway by 2024. “We’re only a few short years away from launching the Gateway’s first building blocks into space, turning science fiction into science fact,” he said. “Our administration is working tirelessly to put an American crew aboard the Lunar Orbital Platform before the end of 2024.”

NASA’s current plans call for the launch of the Gateway’s first element, a power and propulsion module, on a commercial launch vehicle in 2022. Subsequent modules would be delivered as “co-manifested payloads” on SLS Block 1B launches of crewed Orion spacecraft, which would allow astronauts to make at least short-term stays at the Gateway on those missions while the facility is still being assembled.

Pence contrasted the current administration’s space policy with that of previous administrations. “Some say America doesn’t need to go back to the moon, that we need to focus on issues closer to home,” he said. “Truthfully, that kind of thinking led people in the past to even cancel the Constellation program. That would have put people back on the moon by 2020.” He did not note that, as chairman of the fiscally conservative Republican Study Committee in the House in the mid-2000s, he issued proposals for spending cuts that included “NASA’S New Moon/Mars Initiative,” also known as Constellation.

Pence also discussed other space policy aspects not related to NASA in his speech, including a space traffic management policy signed in June as well as the administration’s proposal to establish a Space Force as a separate military branch. “As we speak, the Department of Defense is moving forward with initial steps to strengthen American security in space,” he said. “The United States Department of Space Force will be a reality by 2020.” That, he acknowledged, will require approval by Congress.

Pence was introduced by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who praised the administration’s attention to space policy. “I want to be clear about how good we have it with this administration and how good they are to NASA,” he said.

Both Bridenstine and Pence acknowledged Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, who attended the event. “John has been a long-time friend and mentor of mine, and I’ll tell you, he loves everything that we do here at NASA,” Bridenstine said. Prior to his visit to JSC, Pence attended a fundraiser for Culberson, who is facing a strong reelection challenge.

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Morhard emphasizes managerial expertise at Senate confirmation hearing for NASA post

Morhard Senate

WASHINGTON — The administration’s nominee to be NASA deputy administrator told senators Aug. 23 that his managerial experience makes him qualified to be the second-in-command of the space agency despite a lack of technical expertise.

At a confirmation hearing by the Senate Commerce Committee, James Morhard, the deputy sergeant at arms for the Senate, emphasized his experience running the day-to-day operations of the Senate complex, as well as past work as an appropriations staffer, as qualifications for being the space agency’s deputy administrator.

“Over and over again, I’ve led organizations through difficult situations by creating an atmosphere of collaborative teamwork that turns visions and goals into realities,” he said in his opening statement. “I’m able to focus, helping to lead a situation that continually tends towards disorder.”

The White House nominated Morhard last month after NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine publicly advocated for a space professional for the deputy administrator post. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) brought up Bridenstine’s comments later in the hearing. “What do you say to critics who have indicated you meet none of those qualifications?” he asked Morhard.

Morhard returned to his managerial experience. “I believe my work at NASA, if confirmed, is empowering scientists and engineers and astronauts and technicians,” he said. “I’m helping to run an organization right now that’s the largest on Capitol Hill. The processes of an organization, whether it’s working in operations or the safety and security side, the legal side of it, the [human relations] side of it, the budget discipline that’s needed, the schedule discipline, all those things are critical. That part, I think, I can bring to NASA.”

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member of the Commerce Committee and a critic of Bridenstine’s lack of space experience when he was nominated last September to be NASA administrator, asked Morhard about potential conflicts with Bridenstine. “In the past at NASA, there have been times when the administrator and the deputy were not on the same page,” Nelson said. “What do you see as the role of the deputy when it comes to supporting the administrator?”

“The administrator is my boss and gives the vision and the voice of NASA,” Morhard responded. “I will help him run the organization.”

Nelson, in his opening statement, asked Morhard to lean on the agency’s existing expertise on space issues. “If confirmed, I would certainly urge upon you to seek out the counsel of career NASA professionals,” he said, specifically citing Bob Cabana, the director of the Kennedy Space Center, and Bill Gerstenmaier, the NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), ranking member of the committee’s space subcommittee, pressed Morhard for his views on climate change. “Do you agree with the overwhelming scientific evidence that human activity is the dominant driver in the warming of the planet?” he asked.

“Senator, I believe that the climate’s changing and that man has a significant impact on it,” Morhard responded.

“Do you agree that it’s the dominant driver of climate change?” Markey asked.

“I can’t speak authoritatively on that, senator,” Morhard said.

Morhard didn’t break new policy ground on other issues. Asked by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chairman of the space subcommittee, about his views on the future of the International Space Station, Morhard reiterated the administration’s desire to transition to commercial providers.

“We have got to have the continuity of human spaceflight. It’s critical to our future that that does not get interrupted,” he said. “We have got to find a viable transition plan that’s attractive to this committee, because it’s not going to go anywhere unless you all agree to it, but also attractive to private industry.” Cruz has previously expressed opposition to plans to end federal funding of the ISS in 2025.

Morhard also endorsed what’s known as the “Wolf amendment,” after former Rep. Frank Wolf, that restricts bilateral cooperation between NASA and Chinese counterparts without prior congressional authorization. “I worked with Congressman Wolf” on that amendment, he said in response to a question from Cruz. “I’m familiar with the Wolf amendment and I think it’s very appropriate.”

No senators came out in opposition to Morhard’s nomination, and he even received an endorsement from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who formally introduced Morhard at the hearing. “Jim is completely qualified and uniquely prepared to serve as second-in-command at an agency as crucial as NASA,” McConnell said. “Jim is a passionate public servant who possesses precisely the unique combination of skills this position requires.”

Morhard also had the support of Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the committee. Morhard’s experience, Thune said, “will undoubtedly serve NASA well, and I look forward to supporting his nomination.” After the hearing, the committee announced it would vote on Morhard’s nomination, along with several other nominations and bills, during a markup session scheduled for Aug. 29. If approved then, the nomination would go on to the full Senate.

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NASA to study use of commercial partnerships for space communications services

TDRS-M is the third and final spacecraft in a series built by Boeing for NASA. The spacecraft provide S-, Ka- and Ku-band communications services for the International Space Station, Hubble Space Telescope, and other spacecraft in Earth orbit. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — NASA plans to seek proposals soon for studies on the use of public private partnerships to develop the next generation of space communications services.

In an Aug. 16 synopsis posted on the Federal Business Opportunities website, NASA said it planned to issue a request for proposals in early September for “trade studies and conceptual system designs and descriptions” of future radiofrequency and optical communications systems that could be carried out through partnerships, rather than traditional government procurements.

“These new capabilities may help foster the growth of the commercial satellite communications relay services market (from low Earth orbit to the Moon and beyond) and provide benefits to future NASA missions in alignment with NASA envisioned Next Generation Architecture,” the agency said in the synopsis.

The study will be carried out as part of NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program. Originally developed to support studies of habitation modules for use on future deep space missions, NASA has added other efforts to that program, ranging from in situ resource utilization to trash compaction and processing.

Among the topics expected to be included in that NextSTEP call for proposals are “the architecture and service concepts” for such communications services, as well as specific issues regarding providing those services through a public private partnership. The synopsis specifically mentions the study of hosting NASA optical communications technology on commercial spacecraft.

Prior to the release of this synopsis, NASA had been studying a next-generation communications system that would ultimately replace the current generation of Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TRDS) spacecraft in Earth orbit, as well as support missions beyond Earth orbit. That included the possibility of partnerships with the private sector.

“Past networks have been expensive to operate and maintain because they were designed to only serve government customers, which has limited their ability to leverage commercial partnerships,” the agency said in its fiscal year 2019 budget proposal released in February. “The next generation project will engage with commercial industry through mechanisms such as services contracts, hosted payloads, and other public-private-partnerships to allow multiple commercial entities to partner with the Government in order to significantly reduce and eventually eliminate reliance on NASA or NASA contractor run ground systems.”

In a paper presented last year by several NASA officials at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, the agency said working with both commercial and international partners would be among the elements of its next-generation architecture.

“Using open, commercial, and international standards will enable the use of commercial services by specifying required performance and interfaces without specifying provider-specific capabilities,” the paper stated. “Commercial entities will compete based on price, quality, timeliness, support and other factors that maintain a competitive environment.”

That desire to work with the commercial sector, along with harnessing new technologies like optical communications, was a reason cited by NASA a year ago for not exercising an option for an additional TDRS satellite under a contract NASA awarded to Boeing in 2007. The last satellite built under that contract, TDRS-M, launched in August 2017.

“NASA’s optimum goal is to push the technology to enable the commercial sector such that these services can be provided by commercial providers, and NASA will not need in the future to build these kinds of capabilities,” said Badri Younes, deputy associate administrator for Space Communications and Navigation at NASA Headquarters, during a briefing prior to the TDRS-M launch last year.

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NASA approves “load-and-go” fueling for SpaceX commercial crew launches

Crew Dragon docking

WASHINGTON — NASA announced Aug. 17 that it will allow SpaceX to use a fueling approach for its commercial crew missions that attracted prior scrutiny, pending a final series of tests.

In a statement published late Aug. 17, the agency said that it was allowing SpaceX to move ahead with plans to use what’s colloquially known as “load-and-go,” where the Falcon 9 launch vehicle is filled with liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants after astronauts board the Crew Dragon spacecraft on top of the rocket.

“To make this decision, our teams conducted an extensive review of the SpaceX ground operations, launch vehicle design, escape systems and operational history,” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, said in the statement. “Safety for our personnel was the driver for this analysis, and the team’s assessment was that this plan presents the least risk.”

SpaceX uses load-and-go for its satellite and cargo Dragon missions currently, starting the fueling process just 35 minutes before liftoff. The company has adopted that approach because it uses “supercooled” propellants that are denser, improving the vehicle’s performance.

That approach, though, attracted scrutiny after the September 2016 explosion of a Falcon 9 on the pad at Cape Canaveral during preparations for a static-fire test prior to the planned launch of the Amos-6 spacecraft. That accident, which destroyed the launch vehicle and satellite, was blamed on the failure of a composite overwrapped pressure vessel in an upper stage propellant tank.

Thomas Stafford, the former astronaut who chairs NASA’s International Space Station Advisory Committee, criticized plans to use load-and-go for crewed missions shortly after that accident. He noted that it was contrary to past NASA human spaceflight programs, where the launch vehicle was fueled first.

Stafford had questioned the approach prior to the pad explosion. “There is a unanimous, and strong, feeling by the committee that scheduling the crew to be on board the Dragon spacecraft prior to loading oxidizer into the rocket is contrary to booster safety criteria that has been in place for over 50 years, both in this country and internationally,” he wrote in a December 2015 letter. That letter got renewed attention after the accident, when Stafford said at an October 2016 meeting of the committee that he had yet to receive a response.

NASA noted at the time that it was the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) that was the primary advisor for commercial crew safety, and Stafford’s committee no longer pursued the issue. ASAP, at a May 2018 meeting, concluded after reviewing engineering reports by NASA that load-and-go was a “viable” approach for commercial crew missions.

“It appears that, if all the appropriate steps are taken and it addresses the potential hazards, the risk of launching crew in the load-and-go configuration could be acceptable,” said Patricia Saunders, chair of the panel, during ASAP’s May 17 meeting.

Those comments came a week after SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said he was not worried about NASA rejecting SpaceX’s load-and-go approach. “I think that issue has been somewhat overblown,” he said, noting that SpaceX could, if needed, fuel the Falcon 9 before boarding astronauts. “But I don’t think it’s going to be necessary, any more than passengers on an aircraft need to wait until the aircraft is full of fuel before boarding.”

NASA noted in its statement, though, that formal certification of load-and-go is pending “additional verification and demonstration activities.” That will include five “crew loading demonstrations” to test the crew loading procedures. Those tests will be carried out prior to the first crewed flight of the vehicle, a demonstration mission carrying two NASA astronauts currently scheduled for April 2019.

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NASA deputy administrator nominee seeks focus on managerial and acquisition issues


WASHINGTON — The space industry outsider nominated to become NASA deputy administrator said he would focus on acquisition reform and adapting NASA to a “new role” with commercial partners if confirmed by the Senate.

The Senate Commerce Committee announced Aug. 16 that it will take up the nomination of James Morhard to be the second-in-command of NASA during an Aug. 23 hearing. It also released a questionnaire completed by Morhard providing his biographical background and explanations about his qualifications for and interest in the position.

Morhard, a former staffer on the Senate Appropriations Committee who is currently Deputy Sergeant at Arms for the Senate, emphasized his management experience in those positions, rather than any experience with the space industry, when answering questions about his qualifications for being deputy administrator, noting that position is responsible for management of NASA operations and programs.

“Our nation has long held that NASA embodies the qualities of a visionary agency whose successes are driven through integrity, hard work, country above self, sacrifice, perseverance, resilience, and team work,” he wrote. “My life’s successes have resulted from having these practical traits, having a vision, and engagement of a committed team.”

In his current position, Morhard has been responsible for the day-to-day management of Senate operations. “The creation and execution of a strong financial management system has allowed for timely decision-making and more effective operations that keep the Senate functioning at acceptable risk levels in all conceivable circumstances,” he wrote.

His time on the Senate Appropriations committee, including as staff director and, previously, clerk for what is now the commerce, justice, and science subcommittee, involved close collaboration with both houses of Congress as well as the White House. “These efforts required a complete command of the federal budget and legislative processes,” he wrote.

Asked about the agency’s top three challenges, he first emphasized the need for a “clear, compelling, and executable direction” for the agency’s human spaceflight program. “Without clarity and continuity in this core NASA competency, all others [sic] activities will suffer and languish,” he wrote. He didn’t explicitly state if he thought the agency’s current plans, outlined under Space Policy Directive (SPD) 1 signed by President Trump last December, met those criteria.

He also called for a “new role in relation to emerging commercial and non-governmental space activities” at NASA. “In the future, NASA must learn to strategically partner with private sector entities to provide guidance, leadership, strategic investments and technical expertise in support of national goals.” That aligns with SPD-1, which calls for NASA to lead “an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners.”

His third priority involved acquisition reform. “NASA must recognize that our national space acquisition process is outdated and inefficient. Many of these programs cost too much, take too long and underperform,” he wrote.

“If confirmed, we will work to address the national space acquisition process, to radically reduce cost, improve schedules and safety, exceed perform expectations and bring NASA’s culture back to the ‘cutting edge,’” he added. He didn’t go into specifics, but said that those reforms would adhere to Federal Acquisition Regulations.

The questionnaire’s statements represent the first public comments by Morhard since the White House announced its intent to nominate him July 12, formally submitting the nomination five days later. Most of the space community has been slow to react to the nomination, unlike that of the better-known — and, at the time, polarizing — Jim Bridenstine for NASA administrator last September.

His background, described in his questionnaire, made clear he has had little direct interaction with NASA during his professional career. When he was clerk of the commerce, justice, state, judiciary and related agencies subcommittee, its jurisdiction did not include NASA, unlike the current commerce, justice and science subcommittee. He did note that it included the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which operates polar and geostationary orbiting weather satellites.

In some cases, he appeared to stretch the relevance of his experience. Noting his time as clerk of the military construction appropriations subcommittee, he wrote, “Facilities management, planning and design, environmental compliance, and condemnation of real property as authorized by law are all challenges that NASA may also be required to address.”

Asked why he wants to be deputy administrator, he cited a desire to take on new challenges, such as bringing in commercial and international partners to carry out the agency’s exploration plans. “We must continue to be the protector of the ‘priority domain’ of space while leading the way for new and free space lanes of commerce,” he wrote. “These challenges are why I wish to serve in this position.”

The Aug. 23 confirmation hearing will also include Kelvin Droegemeier, nominated by the White House Aug. 1 to be director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). That position has, in past administrations, helped coordinate civil space policy, a role now largely handled by the National Space Council.

Droegemeier, a meteorology professor and vice president for research at the University of Oklahoma, said nothing directly about space policy in his 108-page questionnaire, which included a lengthy list of scientific publications and his curriculum vitae. Asked to identify the key challenges as head of OSTP, he mentioned the importance of the U.S. remaining a global leader in science, keeping the “research and education enterprise” in science and technology robust and efficient, and developing a “comprehensive approach” for improving education and the workforce.

“Directing OSTP would be an extraordinary privilege and an opportunity for me to give back to a Nation which has given me so much,” he wrote.

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NASA says RS-25 engine test a success despite ending early

RS-25 test August 2018

WASHINGTON — NASA says an Aug. 14 test of an engine for the Space Launch System was a success despite an unspecified “facility issue” that caused the test to end early.

The test of the RS-25 engine on the A-1 stand at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi was the first in a new series of static-fire tests of the shuttle-era engine that will be used in the core stage of the SLS. The engine, a developmental unit designated No. 0525, tested a flight controller unit that will be used on flight models of the engine as well as new manufacturing techniques intended to reduce the cost of future engines.

NASA Stennis announced prior to the test that the test would run for eight minutes and 20 seconds. However, in a tweet after the test, Stennis said the test ended after five minutes and 19 seconds.

An Aug. 15 statement from Stennis about the test made no mention of the planned or actual duration of the test. “All test objectives were met during the hot fire,” the center’s statement noted.

Stennis spokesperson Valerie Buckingham confirmed Aug. 15 that the test was cut short. “The test ended early due to a facility issue, but all test objectives were met,” she said in an emailed response to a SpaceNews inquiry. She later said she didn’t know the details about the problem, other than it did not damage the engine itself.

Aerojet Rocketdyne, which manufactures the RS-25, also said the test ended early because of a facility problem, but deferred questions on the issue to NASA Stennis. The company said in a statement that the engine performed as expected.

Among the objectives of the test was to test a new manufacturing approach called hot isostatic pressing for the engine’s main combustion chamber that the company says “saves considerable time and money” over conventional techniques. “Initial test data indicates the chamber performed flawlessly during the 319-second test,” Aerojet Rocketdyne said.

That technique is being evaluated for use on future versions of the RS-25. The first four SLS missions will use existing engines, originally manufactured for the space shuttle and updated for SLS. Later SLS launches will require new RS-25 engines.

“As we develop a new generation of RS-25 engines, ensuring they continue to remain reliable while reducing costs is a major focus at Aerojet Rocketdyne,” said Eileen Drake, chief executive and president of the company. “That’s why we’re working hard to drive down costs on the RS-25 by incorporating the most modern and efficient manufacturing techniques.”

NASA is planning eight more tests using the same developmental RS-25 engine that will go through early 2019. Later in 2019, another test stand at Stennis will host a “green run” static-fire test of the first SLS core stage, where its four RS-25 engines will fire simultaneously.

Among those attending the test was NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, making his first visit to Stennis since becoming administrator. The visit was part of a series of appearances at NASA facilities in the region that included the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans Aug. 13 and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, Aug. 15.

In a webcast of the launch, Bridenstine didn’t appear to be aware that the test had been cut short. “I’ve seen a lot of launches as a member of Congress before and now as NASA administrator, but the rockets always leave,” he said. “In this particular case, the rocket stayed, and it stayed for 500 seconds of just a heart-pounding thrust.”

He reiterated the importance of the SLS in carrying out human missions to the moon and beyond despite the vehicle’s years of delays. “This is our opportunity to follow through on the president’s Space Policy Directive 1, which says that we’re going to the moon,” he said, saying the SLS fits into a “sustainable” architecture where “we want every piece of this architecture to ultimately be reusable.” The SLS is currently an expendable vehicle, including the original shuttle-era RS-25 engines that were designed for reuse.

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Committee praises NASA’s planetary science program but raises some concerns

Europa lander

WASHINGTON — NASA has done a good job implementing the recommendations of its latest planetary science decadal survey despite past budget problems, but needs to improve some programs, a recent report concluded.

The midterm assessment of the 2011 planetary science decadal survey, prepared by a National Academies committee and published Aug. 7, found that NASA was able to make progress on both flagship and smaller missions recommended by the survey even with funding cuts in the early years of the decade.

“The committee concluded that despite significant cuts to the Planetary Science Division’s budget early in this decade, NASA has made impressive progress at meeting the decadal survey’s goals,” the committee noted in its final report, a reference to a nearly 20 percent cut in planetary science funding in 2013 to less than $1.3 billion. Its budget has subsequently risen significantly, to $2.2 billion in 2018.

The progress includes work on two flagship-class missions prioritized in the report, a Mars rover mission to cache samples for later return to Earth and a spacecraft to orbit Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. Those concepts have become the Mars 2020 and Europa Clipper missions, respectively, after undergoing redesigns to reduce their projected budgets from the decadal report.

The committee, though, did note concerns about the potential cost of Europa Clipper, a multi-billion-dollar mission. “NASA should continue to closely monitor the cost and schedule associated with the Europa Clipper to ensure that it remains executable” without affecting other missions, the committee recommended. “If the [lifecycle cost] exceeds this range, NASA should de-scope the mission.”

The committee was more skeptical about a third flagship-class mission in the early stages of development, a Europa lander mission. The mission has enjoyed funding well above any administration requests largely due to the advocacy of Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and is the most prominent congressional supporter of the mission.

A Europa lander, the committee noted, was not prioritized in the latest decadal survey, which called it a “far term” mission that did not receive a detailed cost and technical assessment at the time. “The midterm committee, although it lacks an official cost estimate, believes the mission cost to be in the multiple billions of dollars range,” it concluded.

“Given its cost and its potential impact on the rest of the planetary science program, the committee concluded that the mission should be vetted within the decadal survey process,” the report stated.

The committee also raised concerns about the future of Mars exploration. NASA’s only Mars exploration under development is Mars 2020, although the agency has started studies of a so-called “lean” sample return architecture announced last August. That would require two more missions, one to collect the cached samples and launch them into Mars orbit, and another to collect the sample canister in Mars orbit and return it to Earth.

The committee concluded NASA should continue to study that Mars sample return architecture, but argued that with no other missions on the books, the sample return missions could be vulnerable to failures of existing Mars orbits that serve as communications relays. No other Mars science missions are under development as well.

“There is a risk that ongoing and soon-to-be landed assets on Mars will be left without telecommunications support because of the aging orbiters. The system is fragile and aging,” the committee stated. “There is currently no vision for a program beyond sample return, either for scientific investigation or to prepare for future human exploration.”

The committee recommended that NASA create a Mars Exploration Program (MEP) “architecture, strategic plan, management structure, partnerships (including commercial partnerships), and budget that address the science goals for Mars exploration” outlined in the decadal survey. “This approach of managing the MEP as a program, rather than just as a series of missions, enables science optimization at the architectural level.”

Another recommendation of the committee was to increase the cadence of the Discovery and New Frontiers programs of low- and medium-cost competitively selected planetary science missions. Budget cuts earlier in the decade affected the pace of competitions in both programs, and NASA has struggled to catch up even with increased funding in recent years.

The committee concluded that, to meet the mission cadence recommended in the decadal survey, NASA select three missions in upcoming competitions expected to take place in 2019 and 2021. NASA selected two missions, Lucy and Psyche, in its previous Discovery competition that concluded in January 2017.

The report also offered advice for the next decadal survey in the planetary sciences, which will likely begin by mid-2020 for publication in the spring of 2022. That survey will need to take into account both new science objectives, particularly in astrobiology, as well as new technologies and capabilities, such as smallsats.

The committee in particular recommended that NASA sponsor 8 to 10 concept studies of missions for potential consideration in the next decadal survey. That includes revisiting a previous study of an “ice giants” mission to Uranus and/or Neptune, citing different scientific objectives in a 2017 study versus those outlined in the decadal survey as well as concerns that “the scientific payload proposed in the study carries significant risk of failing to make the measurements” outlined in the decadal.

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SN Military.Space | Space Force a political football • The next big thing in space missile defense • How to make satellites ‘defendable’

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The next big thing in missile defense: sensors on satellites in lower orbits

SN Military.Space Sandra Erwin

The Pentagon’s panel of four-star generals known as the Joint Oversight Requirements Council will be briefed this fall on potential solutions to a major national security vulnerability: hypersonic weapons that fly into space at supersonic speeds and descend back down to Earth directly on top of targets. Current sensors could track some portions of the flight but more coverage is needed for the midcourse.

SENSE OF URGENCY China has been testing hypersonic glide vehicles successfully, and is advancing the technology at an alarming pace, warned Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin. The hypersonic threat brings a “new urgency” that the United States has not seen since the Cold War. A defensive shield would require global coverage and the cost of doing that with ground radars would be prohibitive so this has to be done in space, Griffin said.

“Our response has to be a proliferated space sensor layer, possibly based off commercial space developments.”
Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency is reviewing proposed concepts for a space-based sensor layer from nine companies: Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, General Atomics, Maxar, Draper Labs, Leidos, Millennium Space and Boeing. Industry sources said the studies will include options such as constellations in low and medium orbits.

THE NEXT STEP Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, who chairs the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, has asked MDA to come back with an “assessment of the sensor requirements.” What will the sensors have to be able to see? How large should the constellation of sensors be? How would sensors in space connect to command and control systems?

“Those are big hard requirements,” Selva told SpaceNews last week at a Mitchell Institute breakfast. “We asked for a systems engineering assessment for how they will link all that together.” The JROC expects to see a more concrete plan this fall.

During a roundtable with reporters last week, Griffin cautioned that the traditional approach to developing “exquisite” military satellites is not going to work. The Pentagon already has a network of early warning heat-detecting satellites in geostationary earth orbit that can see missile launches. The new layer of sensors will be aimed at low-flying hypersonic glide vehicles. What’s needed: “persistent, timely global, low-latency surveillance to track and provide fire control for hypersonic threats.”

If the solution is in space, Selva suggested, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if a commercial constellation of satellites actually had some capacity? If that’s true why would we build our own?”

SCARY SCENARIO How do you stop a bullet flying at least seven times the speed of sound and that can also maneuver? Selva asked. “If you think ballistic missile defense is easy …” A frightening prospect: a hypersonic weapon made by repurposing a ballistic missile booster. “What you have to do is depress the trajectory of the booster enough that you can make the object on its nose cone go faster than Mach 7,” Selva said. “How you achieve that? With extra energy, which means the object goes faster for a very long time.” A ballistic missile would fly on a predictable trajectory; hypersonic missiles don’t. “If you have developed a maneuvering object, it can maneuver at your pleasure,” he said.

‘END GAME REALLY HARD’ The MDA review will have to address this problem. “When you depress the trajectory of the booster you actually take it out of the view of many of the conventional sensors we have deployed today,” Selva said. An object traveling at hypervelocity speeds over the Hudson Bay, he said, can be aimed at anywhere in the continental United States. “It has that much energy and that much residual maneuver capacity. The end game defense is really hard.”

The key questions are how do you track the booster, the object, and figure out a way to kill it? Selva said. “That’s the task that MDA has right now.”


Once again President Donald Trump took the opportunity to remind military leaders on Monday that the Space Force is one of his top priorities. During an event at Fort Drum, New York, where he signed the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, Trump pointed out that Vice President Mike Pence just last week “outlined my administration’s plan to create a sixth branch of the United States military, called the United States Space Force”

Pence was in attendance, along with Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford. Trump turned to Dunford and said: “Got to get it, Joe. Got to get it, Joe. Right, Joe? Right?”

HOW WE GOT HERE According to an unnamed White House official who spoke with Axios, Trump in early 2018 became more fixated on space and floated the Space Force as an off-the-cuff idea. Staff didn’t take it seriously at first, and Defense Secretary James Mattis was not a fan, “but Trump kept insisting on it.” And he told Pence to get it done.

Mattis now insists he no longer opposes the creation of a new military branch. “I was not going against setting up a Space Force,” he told reporters traveling with him this week to Latin America. “What I was against was rushing to do that before we define those problems. We’ve had a year, over a year in defining.”

The House has taken the lead on Capitol Hill, with House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers and the top Democrat, Rep. Jim Cooper, at the forefront.

Bill Ostrove, space industry analyst at Forecast International, said the issue of standing up a Space Force ultimately pits the White House and the House against the Pentagon bureaucracy and the Senate. With Mattis becoming more vocal in his support of the president’s idea, the rest of the Pentagon may have to fall in line. Very little has been said by the Air Force, which faces massive disruption, both in the near term — with the reorganization that Congress directed in the FY19 NDAA — and over the coming years as factions battle over funding and specifics of what a Space Force might look like.

One looming question from a legislative perspective is the timeline. Completing everything in time for the FY20 NDAA could be difficult in the current political environment. But this is much closer to becoming a reality than it was only a year ago.

DEMOCRATS NOT ON BOARD The ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee Sen. Jack Reed said he would oppose any legislation to create a Space Force. “I think we have to reorganize our space forces because our threats are now in multiple dimensions. But I think creating a separate service with all of the infrastructure and the bureaucracy is not the way to go,” he said on Fox News Sunday. HASC top Democrat Rep. Adam Smith, who last year voted for a space corps, said he was appalled by the politicization of an important national security issue.


Among the orbital weapons that China is reportedly developing are “space stalkers” — satellites sent to space to trail targets. They may cause interference issues, or bump the target satellite to take it out of service.

In the face of such threats in space, the United States would respond with countermeasures and technologies to make U.S. spacecraft less vulnerable. That is where propulsion comes in.

One of the concepts the Pentagon is studying is the deployment of large constellations of microsatellites to do the missions now conducted by a few very large satellites. How do you make that constellation more resilient to attacks? “You have to build in redundancy. But to achieve that you have to ensure close coordination of the small satellites. The way to do that is propulsion,” explains Simon Halpern, CEO of Phase Four, a startup based in El Segundo, California, and a former systems engineer at Ball Aerospace and Northrop Grumman.

“A spacecraft with no capability to do active maneuvering will not be as effective as one with some active maneuvering,” Halpern told me. “There’s a lack of understanding of how far along small-satellite propulsion systems have come. This isn’t PowerPoint. We have flight hardware.”

Phase Four developed an advanced plasma propulsion system for cubesats that can be scaled up for larger spacecraft. It uses radio frequency waves, rather than electrodes, to generate plasma. Halpern says he has received funding from NASA and from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

“If you want to fly 10 or 100 satellites in a given formation, you need affordable propulsion systems, reliable for military standards and mass produceable.”
Simon Halpern, CEO Phase Four

The military needs more proof this works, however. “We are starting the conversation,” says Halpern. The commercial market has a higher tolerance for risk for newer technologies. “We want to support the warfighter but we want to ensure the technology is thoroughly tested.”


Jim Bridenstine, administrator of NASA and a former congressman, said he fully supports the proposal to create a Space Force. Although NASA is a civilian agency, it has “hundreds of billions of dollars worth of assets in orbit, plus we have our astronauts in orbit, and we are dependent on space being safe and accessible, and that’s important for the science we do, the discovery and exploration,” he said in an interview on C-SPAN Newsmakers with my SpaceNews colleague Caleb Henry. You can watch the video here.

Bridenstine noted that the full House last year passed a bill that would have created a Space Corps with 344 votes “which is a very big bipartisan vote.”

He said the security of space also is critical to the commercial industry and the broader civilian economy.

“At the end of the day, the technologies we are developing at NASA, we want to commercialize. The space economy represents $350 billion annually, The president has made a determination that it needs to be protected.”
Jim Bridenstine, NASA Administrator

The Air Force is now doing the national security space mission, but “there have been arguments made that we don’t want the space domain to compete with the air domain given how important it is to the American way of life. It’s because of how it’s becoming more contested every day.”

Also last week I talked with Wisconsin Public Radio about the Space Force debate. You can replay the interview here.


I will be moderating a panel discussion at Global MilSatCom in London Nov. 6-8 examining what the 2018 NDAA means for satcom. Panelists include:

• Deanna Ryals, Chief, International Programs Division, Military Satellite Communications Systems (MILSATCOM) Directorate, Space and Missiles System Center (SMC), Air Force Space Command, U.S. Air Force
• Clare Grason, Division Chief, Satellite Communications, Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA)
• Andrea Loper, Acquisition Program Manager, Air Force Research Laboratory Space Vehicles Directorate, U.S. Air Force



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NASA launches Parker Solar Probe mission to study the sun up close

Delta 4 Heavy PSP launch

GENOA, Nev. — A NASA mission to travel closer to the sun than any previous spacecraft is on its way after a successful launch from Cape Canaveral Aug. 12.

The United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy carrying NASA’s Parker Solar Probe mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 3:31 a.m. Eastern. Controllers scrubbed a launch attempt the previous day because of technical issues late in the countdown. The spacecraft separated from its kick stage 43 minutes after launch.

The 700-kilogram spacecraft required not only a Delta 4 Heavy but also a Star 48BV kick stage from Northrop Grumman in order to counteract the Earth’s rotational speed around the sun, allowing it to fall closer to the sun. The spacecraft will also perform a series of Venus flybys, starting in early October, to bring it closer to the sun.

Parker Solar Probe will perform its first close approach to the sun in November, coming within about 24.8 million kilometers. Future flybys will bring it even closer, eventually coming as close as 6.1 million kilometers, far closer than any previous spacecraft. During those later close approaches, the spacecraft will be traveling at up to 695,000 kilometers per hour.

Those close approaches are needed for Parker’s instruments to study the solar wind and the corona. By taking measurements from within the corona, scientists hope to better understand how it is heated to temperatures of millions of degrees. The up-close observations may reveal new information about solar eruptions and the solar wind.

“We know the magnetic field is the real key. We know this is why we’re making this daring mission,” said Nicola Fox of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, project science for the mission, during a pre-launch briefing Aug. 9. “We’re going to go into the transition from where the magnetic field is dominant to where that coronal material dominates the magnetic field.”

Development of Parker Solar Probe — previously known as Solar Probe Plus — dates back a decade, but the idea of sending a spacecraft close to the sun is far older. Concepts for missions to travel to the sun date back to the late 1950s, around the time that University of Chicago physicist Eugene Parker, for whom the mission is named, first proposed the solar wind.

Parker visits PSP
Eugene Parker (center), the namesake of the Parker Solar Probe, visits the Delta 4 Heavy launching the spacecraft along with NASA Associate Administrator for Science Thomas Zurbuchen (left) and United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

“For the science community, and some of the engineering community, it’s really been 60 years,” said Andy Driesman, project manager for the mission, during the pre-launch briefing. “You can trace back papers and read engineering reports from the ’60s and ’70s about this mission, about different concepts, different ways to get this environment.”

What made the mission feasible was a set of technologies, including a heat shield that protects the spacecraft during its close approach to the sun as well as an active cooling system for the solar panels. The spacecraft also needed to be small enough that it could be launched on the desired trajectory.

“Certainly, finding the right materials” was key, said Fox. “It isn’t just a case of surviving the incredible heat when we’re close to the sun. We come out around Venus and it’s cold there, which means these materials have to withstand heating and cooling, very extreme changes in temperatures.”

Parker Solar Probe has a primary mission of 24 orbits around the sun through the middle of 2025. Driesman, though, said he was optimistic that the spacecraft could operate far longer. “As long as we have propellant on board, we’re going to continue to take science data,” he said.

The mission will ultimately end when the spacecraft runs out of attitude control propellant. “It will lose attitude control and those sensitive bits of the spacecraft, which we worked so hard to protect, will eventually transition to the sun,” he said. “The way I like to think about it is that, hopefully in a long, long period of time, 10 to 20 years, there’s going to be a carbon disk floating around the sun in its orbit. That carbon disk will be around until the end of the solar system.”

Original Link

NASA funds commercial technology development and market studies

Blue Moon

LOGAN, Utah — NASA announced more than 20 contracts valued at $55 million Aug. 8 intended to develop commercial technologies for space exploration as well as study future markets for commercial activities in low Earth orbit.

In one set of awards, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate announced 10 awards to six companies as part of the agency’s “Tipping Point” initiative to support development of technologies on the verge of being ready for commercial applications. The total value of the contracts is $44 million, pending finalization of the contracts.

A major area of emphasis in the awards involved lunar lander systems. Blue Origin won two contracts with a total value of $13 million, one to develop cryogenic propulsion systems for a lunar lander and another to develop advanced sensors for landing on the lunar surface. Both technologies will be tested on the company’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle.

Astrobotic, a company developing commercial lunar landers, won a $10 million award to develop a technology called Terrain Relative Navigation to be used for accurate landings on the moon or other planetary bodies. Frontier Aerospace, which is providing the engines used on Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander, won a separate $1.9 million contract to demonstrate its main engine on Peregrine’s first flight in 2020.

United Launch Alliance won three contracts, valued at $13.9 million, for launch vehicle technologies. Two of the awards, for testing of an integrated vehicle fluids flight demonstration and cryogenic propellant management, are key for the company’s Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage that will be developed for later versions of its Vulcan launch vehicle. A third will test a mid-air retrieval system that will be combined with a NASA inflatable decelerator project.

Space Systems Loral won two $2 million contracts for testing of in-space electric propulsion technologies, including one to transfer xenon from one spacecraft to another as part of satellite servicing efforts. Paragon Space Development Corporation received a $1.6 million award to develop a technology called Cryogenic Encapsulating Launch Shroud and Insulated Upper Stage (CELSIUS) intended to insulate and protect cryogenic upper stages in space.

The technologies all fall into three “strategic thrust areas,” said Jim Reuter, NASA associate administrator of space technology, in an Aug. 8 call with reporters. They include expanding utilization of space, enabling safe and efficient transportation into and through space, and increasing access to planetary surfaces.

NASA selected the 10 awards from about 90 submissions based in part if NASA deemed them to be at a “tipping point” in its development. “For this solicitation, a technology is considered at a tipping point if an investment in a demonstration of its capabilities will result in a significant advancement of the technology’s maturation” as well as a “high likelihood” of being incorporated in a future commercial space product or service, he said.

That technology, he said, has applications for NASA’s exploration missions as well. “NASA is going back to the moon and on to Mars in a measured, sustainable way,” he said. “It is American innovation that will lead the way.”

The awards are structured as public-private partnerships, with the companies required to contribute at least 25 percent of the total cost of each project. “They often do much more than that,” Reuter said.

In a separate announcement Aug. 8, NASA awarded contracts with a total value of $11 million to 13 companies to study the future of commercial human spaceflight in low Earth orbit. The contracts, worth up to $1 million each, cover studies to be completed by December.

The studies, announced earlier this year, will both assess the broad prospects for commercial human activities in LEO as well as specific concepts for companies interested in either commercializing the International Space Station or developing private space stations. Those studies will support NASA’s planning for a potential end of federal funding of the ISS, as the administration proposed in its fiscal year 2019 budget request.

“We’re excited to receive this input from the commercial market and aerospace experts to help shape a future thriving space economy in which companies contract with each other to conduct research and activities in low Earth orbit,” said Sam Scimemi, director of the ISS division at NASA Headquarters, in an agency statement.

The study contracts went to a mix of commercial spaceflight, other aerospace, and consulting companies: Axiom Space, Bigelow Aerospace, Blue Origin, Boeing, Deloitte, KBRwyle, Lockheed Martin, McKinsey and Company, NanoRacks, Northrop Grumman, Sierra Nevada, Space Adventures and Space Systems Loral.

While Axiom was one of the companies that received a contract, its chief executive, Michael Suffredini, was skeptical of the importance for them in an interview in June. Suffredini, former ISS program manager at NASA, said the agency should, at the very least, solicit proposals for commercial use of one of the ports on the ISS in parallel with the studies, rather than waiting to receive and review the studies.

“If there’s an urgency in the government at all to allow ISS to retire gracefully, we need to pick up the pace on the port award,” he said, noting that NASA issued a request for information from potential port users in 2016, but didn’t go through with a competition as expected at the time.

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Government agencies welcome small rockets with contracts, awards and reduced red tape

Rocket Lab's Electron small-satellite launcher didn’t make orbit in its May 2017 debut but a second launch in January orbited cubesats for Planet and Spire. Credit: Rocket Lab

To prepare for a new generation of small rockets promising dedicated rides to orbit for small satellites, NASA, the U.S. Air Force, the National Reconnaissance Office and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are setting aside money and trimming oversight.

“Everybody wants a small launch because it’s nice to have your own ride,” Randall Riddle, Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center engineer for the Launch Enterprise Small Launch and Targets Division, said at the 2018 Small Payload Rideshare Symposium last month at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

“In the past, the cost differential has been on the order of 10 times as much to get a small launch as it was to be a small rider on a big launch. Now, it’s more like two times or three times. That’s a much different calculus when you are deciding if you can afford a dedicated launch,” Riddle said June 13.

To date, the vast majority of small satellites have piggybacked on large rockets. In recent years, however, dozens of companies around the world have announced plans to offer dedicated rides for spacecraft as small as cubesats, although most of the new rockets promise rides for 200- to 500-kilogram payloads, said Warren Frick, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems program manager for advanced projects and a leader of the Small Payload Rideshare Association’s launch services technical committee.

Only six rockets currently flying offer dedicated rides for payloads of 1,000 kilograms or less. They are China’s Kaitouzhe-2, Kuaizhou-1A and Long March 11 rockets, Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus and Minotaur 1, and Rocket Lab’s Electron, which reached orbit for the first time in January. Many more firms plan to begin commercial operations in the next few years, including Virgin Orbit, Vector Launch, Firefly Aerospace and Stratolaunch.

Government officials are eager to see what the new entrants offer in terms of launch prices and quick access to orbit.

Independence day

“Small satellites trying to hitch rides are beholden to the primary mission,” said Air Force Lt. Col. A. J. Ashby, materiel leader in the NRO’s Office of Space Launch acquisition division. “These small rockets provide an excellent opportunity to be the master of your own ship, to go when and where and how you want to go.”

That’s important for NASA researchers eager to make observations from a particular orbit, said Mary Faller, NASA senior mission manager for the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Services Program. NASA researchers also are eager to conduct scientific research with constellations of cubesats launched on small rockets. “They can take higher risks because if they lose one, they have this whole constellation to fill in the gap,” she added.

The Air Force, DARPA and NRO officials said at the Rideshare Symposium that the new rockets have national security implications, as well.

“Today we build billion-dollar spacecraft over the course of five or six or eight or 10 years,” said Todd Master, program adviser in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. “I think you will see a shift given advances in microelectronics communications that allows you to make better use of disaggregated spacecraft or even spacecraft going up individually and combining into something larger on orbit.”

LEO liberation

With the new small rockets, military agencies could consider “a massive proliferation of satellites in low Earth orbit,” Master said. “That is one approach to resilience we are very interested in. Being able to do that on a timescale relevant to military need is something we don’t have today.”

Plus, the small rockets will make the U.S. launch infrastructure more durable, said Steve Nixon, vice president for strategic development at Stratolaunch, a firm backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen that plans to launch rockets from the world’s largest aircraft. Although the issue does not get much attention, “our existing launch infrastructure is fixed with two main sites on the East and West Coast,” Nixon said.

Stratolaunch and some of the other new launch providers will offer U.S. agencies alternative routes to orbit if an adversary disrupts operations at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base and Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, he added.

To spur development and production of the new rockets, government agencies are awarding contracts, offering prizes, and streamlining the acquisition bureaucracy.

“Mission assurance monster”

Through Venture Class Launch Services, NASA awarded contracts in 2015 to send cubesats into orbit with Rocket Lab, Virgin Galactic and Firefly Space Systems, a firm that declared bankruptcy in 2016 and re-emerged from bankruptcy in 2017 as Firefly Aerospace. NASA modified requirements and government oversight for those contracts.

“We don’t demand a bunch of meetings,” Faller said. “We are willing to provide advice and suggestions but [the companies] don’t have to follow them.”

NRO is streamlining its rocket procurement processes. “The NRO Office of Space Launch is no longer a monolithic mission assurance monster,” Ashby said. “We don’t want to make it hard to do business with us.”

Instead of “baking in all kinds of hard requirements,” the NRO Office of Space Launch will modify requirements based on the risk tolerance of the mission, Ashby said.

NRO expects to have funding for two Minotaur-class launches every year. “Normally when we build a budget for a launch vehicle, we have to defend it with regard to a particular mission assigned to it,” Ashby said. “A big paradigm shift is we are able to protect that budget without having to assign missions to it.”

SMC expects additional funding as well. “As soon as we have a fiscal year 2019 budget, we’ll have a new budget line for dedicated small launches,” Riddle said. “We are looking forward to that.”

SMC has “a little over half a dozen space launch efforts now, including several new Other Transaction Authority agreements with some of the new small launch providers,” Riddle said. “We’ll be stepping out to buy about another half dozen in this upcoming 12 months.”

Defense and intelligence agencies use Other Transaction Authority agreements for prototype projects. Unlike standard procurement awards, they are not subject to the lengthy Federal Acquisition Regulations.

DARPA, meanwhile, is accepting applications for its launch challenge, a competition in 2019 the agency hopes will foster the growth of the small launch industry. Companies competing for a $10 million grand prize will have “days to weeks” notice to send small satellites to orbit, without any prior knowledge of the payloads, orbit or launch site, Master said.

This article originally appeared in the July 30, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Original Link

NASA assigns astronauts to first commercial crew missions

Commercial crew astros

BALTIMORE — NASA announced Aug. 3 the assignment of eight agency astronauts, a mix of veterans and rookies, as well as one company astronaut to fly on the first set of commercial crew missions by Boeing and SpaceX.

In a ceremony at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, NASA announced who would fly on the crewed test flights planned for next year of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, as well as the first post-certification, or operational, missions by each vehicle.

“For the first time since 2011, we are on the brink of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at the event attended by several members of Congress and other NASA and industry officials.

The SpaceX crewed test flight, currently scheduled for April 2019, will be flown by NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley. Each astronaut flew on two shuttle missions, including Hurley on the final shuttle flight, STS-135, in 2011. They were two of the four astronauts selected by NASA in July 2015 to be trained to fly commercial crew missions.

The Boeing crewed test flight, planned for mid-2019, will carry three people, including former NASA astronaut Chris Ferguson, commander of STS-135 and, for the last several years, a Boeing employee working on the Starliner program. He will be joined by Eric Boe, who flew on two shuttle missions and was another astronaut selected for commercial crew training in 2015, and Nicole Aunapu Mann, a member of the astronaut class of 2013 who will be making her first flight.

NASA officials didn’t state why a three-person crew would be flying on the Starliner test flight, but the agency announced an agreement earlier this year with Boeing to study turning that crewed test flight into an operational mission in the event of further commercial crew delays. That would include adding a third astronaut to the mission and extending its stay on the station from two weeks to up to six months.

The first Starliner post-certification mission, yet to be formally scheduled, will fly NASA astronauts Josh Cassada and Sunita Williams. Cassada is a rookie astronaut selected in 2013, while Williams, the fourth astronaut selected for commercial crew training, has spent 322 days in space on two long-duration station missions. The first Crew Dragon post-certification mission will be flown by Victor Glover, another rookie astronaut selected in 2013, and Mike Hopkins, who spent 166 days on one station mission.

Both Crew Dragon and Starliner are designed to carry four astronauts. In a statement, the agency said that additional crew members for those first post-certification missions “will be assigned by NASA’s international partners at a later date.” That will include Canada, Europe and Japan, who have traditionally relied on NASA for ISS transportation. It may also include Russia, as NASA officials have discussed in the past flying Russian cosmonauts on commercial crew vehicles, possibly in exchange for seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

The crew assignments came a day after NASA issued new schedules for the uncrewed and crewed test flights, pushing back the flights by several months from earlier schedules. However, at the announcement companies sounded more confident in those revised schedules.

“Predicting launch dates can make a liar out of every one of us,” acknowledged Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX. “We had our quarterly [review] this week, and for the first time in years, it felt real. It’s real. It’s right here.”

After announcing the crews, Bridenstine engaged in a largely lighthearted question-and-answer session with the selected astronauts, who expressed their delight in being selected and anticipation in flying on these next-generation vehicles.

“It is absolutely like flying the iPhone,” said Behnken in response to a question from Bridenstine. “I look forward, sir, to getting you down there at some point out in Hawthorne [SpaceX’s California headquarters] and maybe you can sit next to us in the cockpit and go through flying the iPhone to dock to space station.”

“So, just to be clear, Bob, I’ve already done that, and I nailed it,” responded Bridenstine, a former naval aviator.

“I think I probably did it better,” Behnken said.

Original Link

NASA confirms delays in Boeing and SpaceX commercial crew flights

Starliner and Crew Dragon

WASHINGTON — NASA released an updated schedule of commercial crew test flights Aug. 2 that confirms Boeing’s revised plans as well as delays for SpaceX’s two demonstration missions.

The agency released the revised schedule with little fanfare ahead of a planned Aug. 3 announcement at the Johnson Space Center of the astronauts that will fly the two companies’ crewed demonstration missions, as well as on the first post-certification, or operational, missions by each company.

Under the new schedule, SpaceX will fly an uncrewed demonstration mission in November 2018, three months later than the previous schedule released by NASA early this year. The crewed demonstration flight, with two astronauts on board, will follow in April 2019, four months later than previously announced.

The revised schedule also confirmed dates provided by Boeing in a call with selected media Aug. 1. That schedule calls for an uncrewed test flight in late 2018 or early 2019, followed by a crewed test flight in mid-2019.

Boeing said it revised its schedule in part because of a problem during a static-fire test of the abort engines for its CST-100 Starliner vehicle in June, when several valves failed to close properly at the end of a 1.5-second test. The company said it has identified the root cause of that incident and will make both operational and technical changes to ensure the valves close properly in the future.

Boeing has also rearranged its test program, pushing back a pad abort test that was scheduled for this summer, before both the uncrewed and crewed test flights, to spring 2019, after the uncrewed flight. That modification is intended to “optimize the program flow,” said John Mulholland, Boeing vice president and commercial crew program manager, noting that the abort system is not needed for the uncrewed flight test.

SpaceX carried out a pad abort test of its Crew Dragon vehicle in May 2015. The spacecraft that will fly the uncrewed flight test arrived in Florida last month after completing thermal vacuum and acoustics tests at NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Ohio.

The NASA statement did not disclose reasons for either company’s delays, and SpaceX did not respond to questions about its revised schedule.

The revised schedule is not surprising given that the space community had widely expected delays of at least several months by both companies. A July 11 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office noted that NASA’s internal projections offered a “zero percent chance” the companies would be certified for routine ISS missions in early 2019, as official schedules at the time expected.

NASA estimates have predicted even greater delays than what the agency formally announced Aug. 2. In its report, the GAO said NASA’s projected “average” certification date for Boeing was December 2019, and January 2020 for SpaceX, with the potential for both companies to slip well into 2020.

Additional delays would jeopardize NASA’s ability to access the ISS, as its access to seats on Soyuz flights runs out by early 2020. “If NASA does not develop options for ensuring access to the ISS in the event of further Commercial Crew delays, it will not be able to ensure that the U.S. policy goal and objective for the ISS will be met,” the report argued.

Among the options being considered by NASA is to use the crewed flight test as a crew rotation flight by adding a third astronaut to the mission and extending its stay from two weeks to as long as six months. NASA and Boeing announced earlier this year they were studying it, but Mulholland said Aug. 1 no decision would be made about using the test flight in that fashion until next year.

“The mission profile will be determined by NASA,” he said of the crewed test flight. “The decision on the mission timeline will be determined by NASA most probably some time in 2019.”

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