A new chapter

I wanted to pass along some personal news: I’ve taken a position starting today with SpaceNews, as a senior writer there. I’ll be writing there on a lot about what you’ve seen here and elsewhere: space policy, commercial space, and related topics. It’s a great opportunity and I look forward to working with the excellent team there.

With that good news, though, comes with a little bit of bad news: this blog will be going on indefinite hiatus. I won’t be posting new pieces here, as much of the content will be appearing on SpaceNews. The site will remain up, although comments will be turned off as primarily an anti-spam measure. I hope you’ll come over to SpaceNews, if you’re not already reading the site, for the latest coverage of the industry. Thanks!

House members seek details on SLS/Orion schedules and spending

A day after NASA announced that the first SLS may not be ready for launch until as late as November 2018, two key members of the House Science Committee asked NASA for details on both the schedule and funding levels of the SLS and Orion programs.

In a letter released by the committee Thursday morning, Reps. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Steven Palazzo (R-MS), the chairmen of the full science committee and its space subcommittee respectively, asked NASA administrator Charles Bolden for details about reports that both SLS and Orion were in danger of missing the planned December 2017 launch date for EM-1, the first SLS/Orion mission. The letter does not mention the KDP-C review that NASA announced Wednesday, but an earlier GAO report on SLS cost and schedule risks and recent comments by Orion program manager Mark Geyer that he will be “challenged” to make that December 2017 date.

In the letter, Smith and Palazzo suggest that NASA and the Obama Administration have not properly funded SLS/Orion development. “The Administration continues to submit insufficient budget requests for these vital programs,” they write. “Despite numerous statements over several years that these two national priority programs are sufficiently funded, it now appears that this may not be the case.”

Smith and Palazzo pose several questions to Bolden in the letter, including, “Will NASA be able to fly the SLS for Exploration Mission-1 in calendar year 2017?” If NASA isn’t able to, they ask what’s changed since previous testimony to the committee, including whether Bolden knew about the slip when he testified before the committee in March. (It’s worth noting that, in his prepared statement to the committee in March, Bolden said that “NASA is pressing forward with development of SLS and Orion, preparing for a first, uncrewed mission in FY 2018.” While that would include December 2017, fiscal year 2018 runs until September 30, 2018.)

“In fact,” Smith and Palazzo write, “despite NASA’s best efforts to keep these programs on track, it appears as though the Administration is starving these programs of funding and preventing important development work with the goal of pushing back schedules.” They seek responses to their questions from NASA by September 10.

With an SLS slip looming, one senator wants to keep NASA’s budget “on track”

An announcement Wednesday by NASA that the first launch of the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket could slip by nearly a year has led one key senator to suggest the program needs some budgetary help.

NASA announced Wednesday that the SLS passed its Key Decision Point C (KDP-C) review, an assessment of the program’s technical and programmatic progress. The result of the review was an estimate of the program’s development cost ($7.021 billion from February 2014 to first launch). It also provided an estimate of when SLS would be ready for its first launch: no later than November, 2018. That’s nearly a year later than the currently scheduled date of that first launch, designated EM-1, of December 2017.

In a teleconference with reporters Wednesday afternoon, NASA officials tried to emphasize that the November 2018 date was not a firm launch date, but instead the result of the 70-percent joint confidence level model used for the review. . “If we don’t do anything, we basically have a 70-percent chance of getting to that date,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, adding that he was pushing his team to have SLS ready before then. “We will be there by November of 2018, but I look to my team to do better than that.”

However, he also admitted it was unlikely the SLS would be ready in December 2017 as previously planned. “It’s probably sometime in the 2018 timeframe,” he said, “but we don’t want to get too specific now.” NASA will have a better handle on the launch date for the EM-1 mission after completing KDP-C reviews for SLS ground systems later this year and Orion early next year.

SLS had been on a roller coaster in recent months. In July, a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned of cost and schedule risks because of insufficient funding that could delay the EM-1 launch by six months. Earlier this month, though, SLS program manager Todd May said the GAO report was based on “obsolete” funding data and that the program had several months of slack on its critical path.

Part of May’s comments were based on additional funding Congress provided to SLS for the current fiscal year and House and Senate appropriations bills fiscal year 2015 that would also increase SLS funding above the administration’s request. But with the potential for a slip in the SLS program, could some members seek more funding for the program?

One senator thinks that, at the very least, the program’s current funding needs to be protected. “Technically things look good,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), in a statement provided by his office late Wednesday. “But we need to keep the budget on track so NASA can meet an earlier readiness date – which I think can be done.”

Air Force starts search for an RD-180 replacement

Although the supply of Russian-built RD-180 engines that power the first stage of the Atlas V do not appear to be in the same level of jeopardy as feared earlier this year—United Launch Alliance took delivery of two of those engines last week—the US Air Force is starting to lay the groundwork for development of a domestic replacement engine.

Last week, the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) issued a request for information (RFI) regarding development of a new booster engine. “The Air Force has relied upon foreign sources for booster propulsion systems in the past,” the RFI states, making no overt link to the latest tensions about RD-180 access. “However, consistent with the 2013 National Space Transportation Policy, we are pursuing alternative domestic capability.”

The RFI actually goes beyond the engine itself to interest in alternative launch systems in general: “The Air Force is open to a range of possible options including but not limited to: a replacement engine with similar performance characteristics to currently used engines, alternative configurations that would provide similar performance (such as a multiple engine configuration) to existing EELV-class systems, and use of alternative launch vehicles for EELV-class systems.”

The RFI features two sets of questions, one for those interested in providing new engines and one for new launch systems. The first set of questions asks how companies would replace the RD-180, including whether such an engine could be developed for multiple users. The second set of questions asks how companies would replace the capability offered by the Atlas V, while also asking if they believe a multi-user engine could be developed. Both sets of questions also ask for thoughts on how the government should acquire a new engine or launch system, including their interest in a “shared investment” approach with the government to fund development.

Responses to the RFI are due to the Air Force on September 19, with a two-day “industry day” planned at SMC on September 25-26. The next steps may depend on what direction, and funding, Congress provides the Air Force: House and Senate authorization and appropriations bills have provided differing levels of support for development of an RD-180 replacement.

House gearing up for CR to last until December

With no sign of progress on appropriations bills stalled in the Senate, the House is making plans to pass a “clean” continuing resolution that will keep the government running at least into December, a top House member said this week.

In an interview with the Capitol Hill publication Roll Call Wednesday in Philadelphia, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), chairman of the House Budget Committee, said that he expected the House to take up a CR when it reconvenes in early September that will fund the government “until Dec. 11 is what we’re thinking.” That CR will be a “clean” one in the sense that it will not include any controversial policy provisions that could spark opposition from Democrats.

“We will pass a clean [continuing resolution], and if for some reason the Democrats don’t take that, then they will clearly have shut the government down,” Ryan told Roll Call.

A CR appeared likely when Congress recessed at the end of July without any sign of progress on several key appropriations bills, including the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) one that funds NASA and NOAA, in the Senate. The House passed its CJS appropriations bill at the end of May, but debate on the Senate’s version ground to a halt on the Senate floor in mid-June over non-NASA provisions of the bill. The Senate has yet to pass any of its appropriation bills for fiscal year 2015.

Ryan’s comments were intended to respond to claims that Republicans were planning to try and insert policy provisions into a CR that could lead to another government shutdown like the one last October. Ryan, in a new book due out next week (the tour for which brought him to Philadelphia), admitted the shutdown was a “suicide mission” for House Republicans. He added that, along with a CR, the House would support a short-term reauthorization of the Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank through the end of the calendar year to allow more time to work out a long-term solution. Many conservatives have opposed any long-term reauthorization of Ex-Im, which, among other activities, has supported commercial satellite and launch sales.

As China tests ASAT, US pushes multilateral space security efforts

In a speech at a US Strategic Command symposium last week, a top State Department official made the case again for various multilateral efforts to improve space security, even as China appeared to perform another test of an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon.

Frank Rose, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance at the State Department, discussed space security efforts in an August 13 speech at the US Strategic Command Deterrence Symposium in suburban Omaha. Much of the speech was a broad overview of national space policy in the area of space security, including now-standard references to the contested and congested nature of space.

The speech, though, came just a few weeks after China conducted what many observers believe was another ASAT test. Although Chinese officials said the test was of a missile defense system, US officials believe it was an ASAT test, an assessment Rose included in his speech. “Despite China’s claims that this was not an ASAT test; let me assure you the United States has high confidence in its assessment, that the event was indeed an ASAT test,” he said.

Later in the speech, Rose made the case for multilateral agreements to preserve space security, citing the International Code of Conduct originally proposed several years ago by the EU and the UN’s Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) that crafted a set of transparency and confidence-building measures, or TCBMs, regarding space security. “The GGE report which was published in July of last year and was agreed to by China and Russia, endorsed voluntary, non-legally binding TCBMs to strengthen stability in space,” Rose said.

Rose did not mention another proposed treaty, offered by China and Russia, that deals with space security. In June, China and Russia introduced an updated version of their proposed Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT) treaty that would ban the placement of weapons in outer space. However, as Michael Listner and Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan note in an essay in The Space Review earlier this month, the updated PPWT doesn’t address many of the criticisms of the original proposal, including the fact that it doesn’t deal with ASAT weapons launched from the ground, like the direct-ascent ASATs tested by China.

Buzz Aldrin endorses candidate in Alaska Senate race

Republicans in Alaska are going to the polls today to select a candidate to run against incumbent Sen. Mark Begich (D) in the November general election. One of those candidates is hoping that a last-minute endorsement from a famous former astronaut who typically does not get involved in campaigns will help swing a few of those voters his way.

The campaign of Mark Treadwell, the state’s current lieutenant governor, announced Monday that it had won the endorsement of Buzz Aldrin. “I have known and worked with Mead for close to thirty years, dating back to his first time advising NASA, on improving our nation’s space program,” Aldrin wrote in his letter of endorsement, referring to Treadwell’s participation in NASA’s Lunar Base Working Group in the 1980s.

Aldrin’s letter mentions Treadwell’s support for a number of issues of interest to Alaskans, including “Arctic exploration” for oil and gas, as well as the state’s role in missile defense. There’s a space angle, too, as Aldrin mentions Treadwell’s role as chairman of the Aerospace States Association (an organization traditionally chaired by a state lieutenant governor) and his support for the state’s launch site at Kodiak. “I admire his work to help build and build business for the Kodiak Launch Site,” Aldrin wrote. “Most importantly, I support what he’s done to make sure that the Last Frontier contributes to the next frontier in further space exploration.”

“For his part, Aldrin said that he does not generally make endorsements,” the Treadwell campaign notes in its statement about the endorsement. However, it’s not unprecedented. In 2008, he endorsed a candidate in a Democratic primary for Florida’s 15th congressional district, although that candidate lost in the primary, who in turn lost to Bill Posey in the general election. In 2006, Aldrin campaigned for Nick Lampson in his race for the House seat formerly held by Tom DeLay; Lampson won, but lost a reelection bid two years later. Aldrin also appeared at a campaign rally for President George W. Bush late in Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign.

Treadwell is one of three major Republican candidates for the Senate nomination. Most polls showed him trailing Dan Sullivan, although the race appeared to be tightening in recent weeks.

Update 8/20 9 am: Aldrin’s endorsement didn’t help Treadwell: he finished third in the three-person race for the Republican nomination.

The curious case of a deleted Forbes.com commentary on SpaceX

SpaceX is no stranger to both strong support and harsh criticism of its activities, particularly in political circles. Last month, for example, three members of the House of Representatives asked NASA for details on an “epidemic of anomalies” they claimed the company’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft have experienced. But the company’s decision early this month to establish a commercial launch site near Brownsville, Texas, generated praise from various officials, including US Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Rep. Filemon Vela (D-TX).

One criticism of SpaceX, though, may have gone too far. On Friday, Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute and a regular contributor on defense issues for Forbes.com, published an op-ed on Forbes titled “When SpaceX Falters, Washington Looks The Other Way”. As the title suggests, he claimed that some in Washington, including NASA and the White House, were playing down those anomalies as SpaceX “struggled” to meet its commitments.

By Friday night, though, that link above went to an error message. The op-ed was no longer available on the site, although it is preserved in places like Google’s cache. Neither Thompson nor Forbes have commented on the piece’s disappearance from the website: Forbes did not respond to multiple requests for comment between Saturday and Monday through its “press inquiries” section. Dr. Thompson is still a Forbes contributor: according to his profile page he published another essay (on defense strategy, not space) on Monday.

With neither Thompson nor Forbes publicly commenting, it’s not clear what happened to the essay. However, it did make claims that are difficult to verify, or may simply be incorrect. Thompson’s piece started with a “story making the rounds in Washington’s space community” that the White House pressured the National Reconnaissance Office (the “spy agency responsible for operating reconnaissance satellites”, as Thompson described it without naming it) to move ahead with certifying SpaceX for launching its payloads. “The story goes on that SpaceX was then assigned three secret payloads on a sole-source (uncompeted) basis.”

Of course, the NRO is not leading the launch certification process, which is instead being handled by the Air Force. (The new head of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves, met with SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell earlier this month to discuss that effort, the Air Force reported yesterday.) There’s no evidence that SpaceX won, via sole source contracts, launches of three “secret payloads.” While some might argue those contracts were also assigned in secret, the Air Force is openly competing the launch of another NRO mission, NROL-79.

As to whether that “story making the rounds” is true, Thompson shrugs. “Is the story true? I don’t know — I lack the necessary clearances to find out,” he wrote in the story’s next paragraph. “But accurate or apocryphal, the story captures a little-noticed feature of how SpaceX has fared in Washington.”

Much of the rest of Thompson’s piece is less controversial, covering familiar topics: delays in SpaceX’s fulfillment of its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA and the previously-mentioned “anomalies” on Falcon 9 and Dragon missions. Even here, though, some of the details are questionable: he says SpaceX delayed a NASA CRS mission to launch two commercial satellites “for a Chinese state-controlled enterprise.” AsiaSat, the enterprise in question, is publicly-traded on the Hong Kong stock exchange and, while partially owned by a Chinese state-owned investment fund, is also partially owned by American conglomerate GE.

This is not the first time that Thompson has criticized SpaceX: in June he sought to tell the “other side of the story” of SpaceX’s dispute with the Air Force, citing a “raft of problems” with SpaceX’s launch vehicles and their limited performance. Thompson’s own critics, though, note that he is not an unbiased observer: before it was deleted, Thompson’s latest piece included the disclaimer that “Several of SpaceX’s competitors contribute to my think tank; two of them — Lockheed Martin Lockheed Martin and Sierra Nevada — are consulting clients.” (Lockheed Martin has been included in disclaimers in prior pieces, like the June essay, but SNC is a new one.)

Improving SOFIA

Although a final resolution may not come until late this year, when Congress finally approves a fiscal year 2015 appropriations bill, it appears that NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) program has survived its near-death experience. While the administration’s 2015 budget request slashed SOFIA’s funding and recommended it be placed in storage should NASA be unable to find partners to pick up the airborne observatory’s tab, both the House and Senate versions of appropriations bills that fund NASA include full or nearly full funding for SOFIA.

However, the agency believes there’s still ways to improve the operations of the observatory, which costs NASA more than $80 million in fiscal year 2014. Last month, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at NASA issued a report on SOFIA, making a number of recommendations on steps NASA could take to improve the scientific output of the observatory and streamline its operations. That includes a plan for technology upgrades to SOFIA and improving the delivery of data to researchers after their flights. The OIG report also recommended changes to the contract NASA has with the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) for SOFIA operations, including a shift from a cost-plus to a fixed-price contract after the current contract ends in 2016.

NASA accepted the recommendations of the OIG report, which Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, confirmed in a presentation to the astrophysics subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council’s Science Committee on Monday. In addition to the OIG report, he said, he also convened “senior members of our community” to look at future plans for SOFIA, including what to do should the program’s budget be reduced. Their findings, he said, resonated with the OIG report.

Hertz said the main funding from the OIG report is that NASA’s current metric for the effectiveness of SOFIA, the number of science flight hours, may not be the best one. NASA currently has a goal of 960 research hours per year with SOFIA. The OIG report said that 960-hour calculation, done in the mid-1990s, hasn’t been updated to reflect changes in flight operations, including the ability to do more more science per flight and a higher reliability of the aircraft and instruments. “[I]t appears the Program is capable of more than 960 research flight hours per year,” the report concluded, recommending that the hours requirement be balanced “with quality of science and other competing priorities – such as technology upgrades, outreach activities, and researcher funding.”

Hertz said NASA concurred, and would look at trades between flight hours and supporting instrument development. He added that SOFIA, which entered its formal operational phase earlier this summer, would be subject to a senior review alongside other astrophysics missions “at an appropriate time.”

Orion manager warns he’s “challenged” to make December 2017 launch

In two separate public appearances last week, the manager of NASA’s Orion spacecraft warned that he is “challenged” to keep Orion on track for the first Space Launch System (SLS) mission in late 2017.

Mark Geyer spoke at the Mars Society’s annual conference in Houston on Saturday, one day after SLS program manager Todd May said his program had several months of schedule slack on its critical path to Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) inaugural launch. Asked about how much slack he had on Orion towards EM-1, Geyer was more cautionary. “We’re going to be challenged to make December ’17,” he said. “By the end of this fall, we’ll be able to define that” date after working through preliminary design reviews for the program.

Geyer said the challenges were rooted in two key issues. One was the decision to incorporate a flight test, designated EFT-1, slated for launch on a Delta IV Heavy this December without adding funding to the overall program. “That did affect my ability to start EM-1 as early as I wanted to,” he said. The other was bringing the European Space Agency into the program as the supplier of the Orion service module. “They’re doing a terrific job, but they had some challenges,” he said.

“We felt it was more important to build a flight unit and fly it because we’re going to learn so much about what the risks are,” he added about the decision to do the EFT-1 mission. “To us, it was worth the potential impact on EM-1.”

Earlier last week, Geyer offered similar warnings about the Orion schedule at the AIAA Space 2014 conference in San Diego. “We’re struggling to make December 2017, and I have a lot of challenges to make that date,” Geyer told Space News. He cited potential schedule issues with ESA’s service module as a key factor in that overall schedule challenge.

Other reports have suggested a delay—perhaps as much as nine months—is already in the works for EM-1. An article last month by NASASpaceFlight.com, citing an internal NASA document, claimed the schedule for EM-1 had slipped to September 2018. However, the same document also had EM-2 moved up from 2021 to the very end of 2020: December 31.