The space subcommittee of the House Science Committee is holding a hearing at 2 pm EDT today on “Next Steps in Human Exploration to Mars and Beyond”. The focus of the hearing, based on the hearing charter, will be whether NASA’s plans to redirect a near Earth asteroid into lunar orbit, to be then visited by astronauts, is a better stepping stone to human Mars missions than human lunar missions currently not in NASA’s plans. “Is the proposed Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM), a lunar landing mission, or another mission better as a precursor for an eventual human mission to Mars?” the hearing charter asks. “What things could we learn and capabilities would we develop from a Moon landing that we could not learn from the proposed Asteroid Retrieval Mission?”
Among the witnesses at the hearing are Lou Friedman, the executive director emeritus of The Planetary Society and co-lead on a 2012 asteroid retrieval mission study by Caltech’s Keck Institute for Space Studies that served as a blueprint of sorts for NASA’s own mission plans, as well as Paul Spudis, a planetary scientist and long-time proponent of human missions to the Moon. Also testifying are Steve Squyres, a Cornell University planetary scientist and current chair of the NASA Advisory Council; and former NASA associate administrator for exploration Doug Cooke.
Last week, Friedman’s own Planetary Society offered “conditional” support for the asteroid retrieval mission concept, while seeking additional details. The organization said it saw the mission as worthwhile if “a technologically-achievable, scientifically-valuable mission emerges in the coming months, and if appropriate levels of new long-term funding are provided to implement it.”
One Mars mission advocate who is not testifying today but holds strong views on the utility of an asteroid retrieval mission is Robert Zubrin. In a Space News op-ed this week, he leaves no doubt about where he stands on the mission, starting with his title: “NASA’s Asteroid Absurdity”. He claims that “the entire purpose of the initiative is to find a way to shirk the challenge of human interplanetary flight,” finding little scientific, technical, or other utility in the mission. “It thus represents an enormous waste of time and money that could prevent NASA’s human spaceflight program from achieving anything worthwhile for decades. Congress must not accept this.” We may get a clue today how much some key members of Congress are willing to accept this asteroid mission on the basis of supporting human missions to Mars.
Speaking at the meeting Wednesday of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) in Washington, NASA administrator Charles Bolden made another pitch—this time to a rather sympathetic audience—for the agency’s commercial crew program.
“If NASA had received the president’s requested funding for this program then,” Bolden said, referring to the rollout of the program three years ago, “we would not have been forced to recently sign a new contract with the Russians for Soyuz transportation.” Those earlier cuts, he said, have pushed back commercial crew to 2017, “and even this delayed availability is in question if Congress does not fully support the president’s 2014 request for our commercial crew program.”
“Further delays in our commercial crew program and the impact on our human spaceflight program are unacceptable,” he said. “That’s why we need the full $821 million the president has requested in next year’s budget to keep us on track for our 2017 deadline.”
The commercial crew program has frequently been seen as being in conflict with the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket and Orion spacecraft for limited funding, particularly in the eyes of some members of Congress who think NASA is favoring commercial crew in favor of SLS and Orion. “The either-or debate exists one place that I know of, and that’s in the Congress,” he said. “And it is a a false debate that is built on my inability to convince critical members of Congress” that both commercial crew and SLS/Orion are essential aspects of NASA’s long-term plans. “The argument that it’s either heavy lift or commercial crew is a fallacious one.”
After Bolden completed his talk and left, COMSTAC heard a different take on commercial crew from Capitol Hill. “I think there’s been some frustration on the Hill at how the commercial crew program over the last few years has unfolded,” said Tom Culligan, legislative director for Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA. “There wasn’t a clear vision and path and strategy laid out from day one, with buy-in from the Hill and with the stakeholders in the community, about how we were going to proceed on this program.”
That frustration, Culligan suggested, is because NASA hasn’t moved fast enough to select a company to develop a crew transportation system. “I think the decision early on to try and spread resources for crew to low Earth orbit to as many people as possible maybe wasn’t the best decision,” he said. “The Congress did not buy off on a program to provide development subsidies to a large number of entities out there. They bought off on a program to get American astronauts to low Earth orbit and Station as quickly as possible and as affordably as possible. And I think there was a disconnect there, maybe, between what people at NASA’s priorities were and Congress’s understanding of priorities were.”
“I don’t think today you find people on Capitol Hill who say we shouldn’t have this program, the way you did a few years ago,” he continued, but that there was “bipartisan concern” about how it’s being run. “I think you’ve got some people who are upset, maybe, at how the program was run, particularly the first couple of years. But now we’re all in it, we need to resolve it, we need to have that ability as quickly as possible.”
As for Bolden’s call for funding commercial crew at the requested level in 2014, Culligan did not sound optimistic. “Say, overnight, there was 100-percent consensus that we wanted to fund this at the President’s level. I’m not sure the resources are there. I don’t know where you find $300 million and change in this environment,” he said, referring to the approximate difference between the program’s 2013 funding ($525 million before rescission and sequestration) and the $821 million requested for 2014. At the same time, though, he said, Congress would not be happy with any delays beyond 2017 in bringing commercial crew into service. “NASA is going to have find a way to make it work with the allocation that we have and what we’re able to devote to it.”
Later today the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on “Partnerships to Advance the Business of Space”. The hearing’s lineup of witnesses include some key people who have been involved in supporting commercial spaceflight in one manner or another, including former shuttle program manager Wayne Hale, former FAA associate administrator of commercial space transportation Patti Grace Smith, Commercial Spaceflight Federation president Michael Lopez-Alegria, and Purdue university professor Steven Collicott, who has been an advocate of using commercial suborbital vehicles for research. The 10 am EDT hearing will be webcast.
On Tuesday, the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee will look to Mars, with a hearing titled “Next Steps in Human Exploration to Mars and Beyond”. No witnesses have yet been announced for this hearing.
Late last year, when Congress passed a defense authorization bill with export control reform language included, advocates of such reform noted that this legislative provision was not the end of their efforts. The language in the bill simply returned to the President the authority to move satellites and related components off the US Munitions List (USML), with exceptions barring export to China and several other countries. It was still up to the Obama Administration to act on that authority.
It appears that the administration is about to do so. In a public meeting of the Export Control Working Group of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) in Washington on Tuesday, Kevin Wolf, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Export Administration, said the administration was about to publish a draft of revised Category XV of the USML, which covers satellites and related components, accompanied by updated sections of the Commerce Control List (CCL), the less-onerous export control list administered by the Commerce Department. The drafts would reflect the proposed move of many items that are currently on the USML to the CCL.
Wolf said the draft USML and CCL sections would appear in the Federal Register either later this week or next week, “as soon as there’s space in the Federal Register,” he said. “The content was agreed to a while back.” The revised Category XV, he indicated, would be similar to what the appeared in the “Section 1248″ report on the national security implications of space export control reform published in April 2012.
The publication of the draft USML and CCL sections will start the clock on a 45-day public comment period. Wolf said they welcomed comments on the proposed lists to identify any unintended consequences of moving items from the USML to the CCL. The administration will then take several weeks to review the comments and incorporate them into a final draft, which would then reviewed by Congress in what are known as “38(f)” notifications.
“If everything works completely smoothly,” Wolf said, “November or December is probably the earliest when a final rule would be ready.”
It’s unlikely that Congress would have major objections to the plan, said David Fite, senior professional staff member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, adding that he was only speaking for himself. “I don’t expect, really, any more Congressional problems with this. We’ve seen this before, the intention is clear, the concerns are taken care of,” he said at the COMSTAC meeting.
The one exception, Fite said, is that some members might object to specific technologies listed in the 38(f) notifications that the administration wants to move from the USML to the CCL. “There are members, some very powerful members, who are still concerned about this action,” he said. “And if there is a perception that something of a national security application that has been added to this list to be taken off, there could be some problems.”
Despite that concern, the working group meeting had something of a valedictory tone. “I would like to pause for a moment and have you reflect on the extraordinary accomplishments and developments that have taken place since we met last,” said Patricia Cooper, president of the Satellite Industry Association and chair of the working group committee, referring to the group’s last meeting in October, before passage of the reform language in the defense bill.
With the implementation of export control reform making its way through the administration, there is little in the way of new business for space export control reform. Fite said that he was unaware of any interest in Congress on tackling additional issues regarding space-related export reform, such as allowing exports of some space items to China. The COMSTAC working group, in fact, supported a proposal at the meeting to change its name to the “international” working group to allow it to expand its focus to related issues beyond export control.
On Thursday, the space and research subcommittees of the House Science Committee held a joint hearing on “Exoplanet Discoveries: Have We Found Other Earths?”. Exoplanet research, as you might imagine, is not particularly controversial, and seems far removed from big issues facing NASA today on Capitol Hill. Yet, during the brief (less than one hour) hearing, some members found ways to bring up those key topics for discussion.
That started with the very first question of the hearing, by space subcommittee chairman Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS) to NASA associate administrator for science John Grunsfeld. Palazzo noted that scientists believe a telescope larger than the James Webb Space Telescope is needed to detect “biosignatures” from Earth-like exoplanets, and that such telescopes would require a heavy-lift launch vehicle like the Space Launch Systems (SLS). “How does the development of the SLS enable future exoplanet discoveries?” he asked Grunsfeld, who answered that SLS has both the capacity and the large payload fairing needed to accommodate future large telescopes. “We’re looking very favorably on the development of SLS,” Grunsfeld said.
Palazzo also brought up another issue with NASA’s fiscal year 2014 budget proposal, the cuts to the agency’s education budget as part of a government-wide restructuring of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. “Are there any anticipated changes to the education and public outreach strategy” for NASA’s exoplanet program, he asked.
“The critical component in the inspiration of out next generation of explorers, scientists, engineers, and, even more important, to have an very broad, educated populace in the scientific method and basic science, is to do exciting things that produce exciting scientific results,” Grunsfeld responded. “And on that scale, we’re changing nothing.” The specific details of the STEM education plan are still under development, he said.
Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), the ranking member of the space subcommittee, followed Palazzo by asking Grunsfeld about sequestration’s effect on exoplanet research both now and, potentially, into FY14. “There’s no question the budget environment has caused us to have to make some tough choices,” he responded. He said that while NASA selected a new exoplanet mission, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), last month, “we’ve had to slow the start of that mission by about six months” because of limited budgets.
“If we continue into a sequestered environment” in 2014, he warned, “then we’re going to have to look at perhaps turning off an operating observatory or cutting back further on the development of new missions.” That would include slowing down studies of using two space telescope optics systems that the NRO transferred last year to NASA.
The last member to speak at the hearing, full committee vice chairman Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), returned to the topic of the first question: the SLS. “Do you know what the budget for the SLS launch system is?” he asked Grunsfeld. Before Grunsfeld could answer, Rohrabacher continued. “We don’t know, so you don’t know, either, frankly; that was a leading question. And if that money was going to be taken out of your budget to develop the SLS launch system, rather than go with launch systems that we’ve already got, would you be supportive of that?”
“No,” Grunsfeld responded.
“Right,” said Rohrabacher. “I just wanted to make sure these were on the record because there’s a lot of people pushing for the SLS launch system when we don’t even know what the budget is, we don’t know where the money’s coming from, and it’s really possible that if we do that, we’ll just defund all of the things the SLS is going to carry, meaning your projects.”
Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin has no shortage of opinions of what the US should be doing in space, and how. In a speech Wednesday at the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, he emphasized his belief that NASA should be focused on sending people to Mars—to stay—and shouldn’t be distracted by other options, including NASA’s new plan to redirect an asteroid into cislunar space.
“Mars is our next ultimate destination,” Aldrin said in his speech. “We need global cooperation in order to make this happen,” he added, but said that NASA should take a leadership role, particularly in the development of human space transportation systems. “The US needs to begin the homesteading and settlement of Mars. It’s within reach, technically and budgetarily. Even in a period of fiscal challenges, the US needs to consider this program with long-term planning.”
Aldrin went into considerable technical detail about his concepts of Mars exploration, including the “cycler” spacecraft concept he has refined over the years. He also described his “Unified Space Vision”, a detailed architecture of missions leading up to Mars he has also developed over the last several years.
Aldrin’s Mars architecture includes trips to comets and near Earth asteroids as stepping stones to Mars. However, he indicated he didn’t like NASA’s new asteroid initiative, which calls for redirecting a small near Earth asteroid into lunar orbit to be visited by astronauts. “Bringing an asteroid back to Earth? What does that have to do with exploration?” he asked, rhetorically. “Not very much, in my way of thinking.” He said he interpreted the original asteroid mission goal—a visit to a near Earth asteroid by 2025, as laid out by President Obama in 2010—as “a good stopping point” in an extension outward of NASA’s human spaceflight program. “Now it’s turned into a whole planetary defense exercise at the cost of extending our exploration capabilities.”
Aldrin was also critical of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift launch vehicle, without mentioning it by name. Noting at Inspiration Mars, the non-profit venture established by Dennis Tito that announced plans earlier this year for a human Mars flyby mission in 2018, has shown an interest in using the SLS, Aldrin warned that this mission should not “justify a launch vehicle designed by Marshall Space Flight Center to have, according to law, heritage components,” he said. “To me, that means old stuff. That means things people are working on now, so we don’t have to develop new things. And because of that wondrous career for those people working on heritage components, they’re going to vote for the senator that managed to bring that up.”
While Aldrin advocates human missions to, and settlement of, Mars, he’s not expecting the current administration to make that the goal for NASA. Instead, he’s looking ahead to 2020, around the time of the 50th anniversaries of the Apollo lunar landings; that would also, he noted, be when the president elected in 2016 to succeed President Obama would presumably be running for reelection. He wants that president “to make a commitment, within the next two decades, to begin American-led permanence on Mars,” he said. If that president doesn’t make such a commitment, “it would be a wonderful opportunity for that person trying to unseat the incumbent by saying, ‘I’m going to make that commitment early in my term.’”
The 83-year old Aldrin, who spoke seated at a table on stage and didn’t take questions after his talk, got a standing ovation from conference attendees. They also lined up in the lobby of George Washington University’s Listner Auditorium immediately after Aldrin’s talk to get copies of his latest book, Mission to Mars, signed by him. That left the auditorium relatively empty for the conference session going on at the same time as the book signing. The topic of that panel session: public engagement.
In a keynote address Monday at the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, NASA administrator Charles Bolden made the case that, if NASA is to achieve the president’s goal of sending humans to at least the vicinity of Mars by the 2030s, it has to follow the approach NASA is currently using, including development of both commercial crew vehicles and the Space Launch System (SLS), and without making a stop along the way at the Moon.
As he has done in several other recent appearances, Bolden made an argument for fully funding NASA’s Commercial Crew Program in fiscal year 2014: $821 million in the administration’s budget proposal. “That is critical. That is the critical first step” for the future of NASA’s human spaceflight program, he said. Getting past that “initial hurdle of getting full funding for commercial crew” will eventually free up funding for use in technology development for later human missions beyond orbit, once the commercial providers enter service, he added later.
Bolden also argued that development of SLS was essential to NASA’s exploration plans, provided it was a phased approach that started, as NASA currently plans, with a vehicle that can place 70 metric tons into low Earth orbit, followed by later versions that will eventually be capable of putting up to 130 metric tons into LEO. He warned against any effort to start immediately with a 130-ton version of SLS. “What happens if we are forced to go right to a 130-metric-ton vehicle is that we are perilously along the way to what happened with Constellation, where we have a very robust launch vehicle and no money, no assets, to develop the other systems that allow us to explore,” he said.
Bolden, though, rejected the idea that the SLS could be replaced with alternative architectures that use smaller launch vehicles and orbiting propellant depots. “The number of launches required to support a human mission to Mars begins to make it very difficult and decreases the probability of success of those missions” if EELV-class rockets are used instead, he said. If NASA waited on the development of alternative rockets and propellant depots, “we won’t get to an asteroid in 2021 and we definitely won’t get to Mars in the 2030s, in my estimation.”
Bolden also discussed NASA’s plans for an asteroid retrieval mission, which he argued was essential in developing technologies needed for later human Mars missions. “Every single moment of our time and every single dollar of our assets must be dedicated to developing those technologies that allow us to go beyond low Earth orbit,” he said. “The President and Congress—most in Congress—have decided that we should be the leaders in going places that humans have never been before, and thus we decided on an asteroid strategy.”
“Moon, asteroid, Mars, are not either/ors. Humans will again return to the lunar surface. There is no question in my mind,” he said. However, with limited resources available, NASA can’t afford to go back to the Moon now, and Bolden said that any attempt to redirect NASA’s human spaceflight plans back there would keep NASA from achieving its Mars goals. “If we starting straying from our path and going to an alternative plan, where we decide we’re going to go back to the Moon and spend a little time developing the technologies and the systems we need, we’re doomed. We will not get to Mars in the 2030s, if ever, to be quite honest.”
In a speech Thursday at a Capitol Hill luncheon organized by the Space Transportation Association (STA), NASA administrator Charles Bolden largely reiterated the agency’s support for commercial crew development and NASA’s new asteroid initiative, while defending cuts in the agency’s planetary sciences program and the reorganization of its education efforts.
As in testimony last week and a blog post earlier this week, Bolden made the argument that NASA’s commercial crew program needed to be fully funded in fiscal year 2014 to keep the program on track for beginning flights in 2017. “We’re running out of wiggle room” to keep that 2017 date, he said. “You’ve got to pay if you want something, and if the nation wants to have a commercial capability, an American capability, to get cargo and crew to low Earth orbit, you have to pay for it.” The extension of the agreement with Roscosmos for additional Soyuz flights to the ISS in 2017 was “something I did not want to do” because the price went up.
That commercial crew capability is a key element of supporting the International Space Station. Bolden repeated previous comments that, technically, operations of the ISS can be extended beyond 2020 to as late as 2028; however, the key issues will be whether the US and other partners can afford extending the station’s life into the 2020s, and if there’s sufficient utility from ISS research to do so. If the ISS life isn’t extended beyond 2020, he said, it may be difficult for companies to find a business case for commercial crew. “That’s the argument I hear from all of you,” he said, referring to the members of the audience from the space industry.
Bolden also discussed NASA’s asteroid initiative, whose centerpiece is a robotic mission to redirect a small near Earth asteroid into lunar orbit, to be visited by a crewed Orion spacecraft as early as 2021. Although the feasibility of that mission is still under study, he was optimistic it could take place by 2021. “It is intended that when we launch Orion in 2021, its destination will be the stable orbit point around the Moon where the asteroid is either on its way or is already there,” he said. “The likelihood [the asteroid will be there] is increasing every day” as NASA works to identify candidate asteroids for the mission.
Bolden also defended the use of a crewed Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) mission, launched on the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, for that rendezvous with a captured asteroid. Other architectures using commercially-developed vehicles have been suggested, he said, but he concluded they weren’t currently viable. “The only way we can do that is with SLS and MPCV,” he said. “We are on a timetable.”
Bolden also used the asteroid initiative to defend the agency from cuts to NASA’s planetary sciences program in the FY14 budget proposal. “The FY14 request is actually up from where we were,” he said. (The FY14 request for planetary is $1.22 billion, down from the $1.5 billion the program got in FY12; figures for FY13 have yet to be finalized.) The decision to develop a Mars rover for launch in 2020, as well as asteroid work funded by the new initiative, means “we think we’re up in the planetary science program” compared to a year ago, he said.
He acknowledged, though, that planetary science was cut in part to cover cost increases with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). “Somebody had to pay for James Webb, and it’s my fault,” he said. “I’m the guy who came into office thinking that James Webb was okay. And let me tell you what: the first review I did, I was devastated because I found it was not okay.” The program is now in much better shape, he said, but “if I screw it, you can fire me.”
Bolden also defended cuts in NASA’s education budget that are tied to a broader restructuring of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs across the federal government. “It is not slashed or gutted or anything,” he said of the education budget (at $94 million in the FY14 budget proposal versus $136 million in FY12.) The restructuring is designed to make programs more efficient, while also making NASA-unique capabilities, like communications sessions with the ISS, available to a far broader scope of users than possible today, citing as one example 4-H clubs supported by the Department of Agriculture. “It’s trying to make sure we get the best programs out there from the federal government agencies, and where there’s duplication we get rid of it. We are not decimating anyone’s programs.”
As he did in his Senate testimony last week, Bolden warned that if budget sequestration continued into fiscal year 2014, it would be difficult for NASA to maintain its current slate of programs as its topline budget would fall to as low as $16.1 billion. “We can’t do SLS, MPCV, JWST, International Space Station, science, all this stuff” at that funding level, he said. “And that’s going to be bad news for somebody, and it’s probably going to be bad news for me because I’m the one who’s going to have to say, ‘Guys, here’s what we’re not doing.’”
He added a bit of advice to Congress: “You make it incredibly challenging when you tell us to do something and you don’t fund it.”
On Tuesday, NASA announced it had extended a deal with the Russian space agency Roscosmos to provide crew transportation services to and from the International Space Station. The deal covers bringing six astronauts up to the ISS in 2016 and rescue and return services through 2017. The price: $424 million, or about $70 million per seat, up from the $63 million per seat in the previous agreement. (The press release indicates the agreement includes some services that were previously covered under a separate contract, complicating an apples-to-apples comparison.)
The contract extension as hardly a surprise, but NASA leadership used it as an opportunity to make the case for fully funding the agency’s commercial crew program so that additional extensions of the Soyuz deal aren’t needed. “Further delays in our Commercial Crew Program and its impact on our human spaceflight program are unacceptable. That’s why we need the full $821 million the President has requested in next year’s budget to keep us on track to meet our 2017 deadline and bring these launches back to the United States,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in a separate blog post yesterday.
Bolden made similar arguments last week in testimony to Congress. “This is a year of decision” for commercial crew, Bolden said last Thursday at a hearing on the NASA budget proposal by the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee. “If we do not get $822 million in the 2014 budget as requested by the President, it will be my unfortunate duty to advise the Congress and the President that we probably will not make 2017 for the availability of an American capability to get our astronauts to space, and I will have to tell you that I’m going to have to come back and ask for authorization to once again pay the Russians to take our crews to space.” (The discrepancy between the $822 million above and the $821 million in yesterday’s blog post likely stems from the fact the budget specifically requests an amount between the two: $821.4 million.)
At that hearing, though, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), ranking member of both the CJS subcommittee and full appropriations committee, was critical of the funding sought for commercial crew, which he feared was coming at the expense of the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket. “This budget focuses, I believe, too heavily on maintaining the fiction of privately-funded commercial launch vehicles, which diverts, I think, critical resources from NASA’s goal of developing human spaceflight capabilities with the SLS,” he said in his opening statement. He said that the companies that have received funded Space Act Agreements were not as accountable as they should be regarding the progress they’ve made or in revealing how much of their own money they have invested in these efforts. “This sounds like a great arrangement for the companies, but I don’t believe it’s a great arrangement for the taxpayer.”