White House and Congress mark the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11

On Tuesday, the White House hosted a private event with the two surviving members of the Apollo 11 crew, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, along with Neil Armstrong’s widow, Carol, and NASA administrator Charles Bolden. The White House has traditionally hosted the Apollo 11 crew on five-year anniversaries like this; previously, President Obama met with the crew on the 40th anniversary in 2009.

Few details about the meeting itself were disclosed. In a blog post, the White House discussed the Apollo 11 mission as well as NASA’s future plans, ranging from commercial crew to the Space Launch System and long-term plans to send humans to Mars. In a separate statement, President Obama said he used the meeting with the Apollo 11 crew “to thank them for serving as advocates, role models, and educators who’ve inspired generations of Americans – myself included – to dream bigger and reach higher.”

The meeting was not without some controversy, though. At a press briefing later Tuesday, reporters complained that the president’s meeting with the Apollo 11 crew was private, with no media allowed to observe. CBS’s Major Garrett told press secretary Josh Earnest that he planned “to lodge a formal complaint about the Apollo 11 event” on behalf of the White House Correspondents Association because of that lack of access.

Other reporters at the press conference used the anniversary to quiz Earnest about US-Russian relations in space, including comments by former NASA administrator Mike Griffin that the US is in a “hostage situation” with the Russians since they control crew access to the International Space Station. Earnest said little about that, other than the Us continues to cooperate with Russia in space and other arenas despite the Ukraine crisis.

At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science Committee, penned an op-ed about space exploration for The Hill earlier this week. “There are also those who ridicule space exploration. Waste of time. Little green men. Not a priority,” he writes. “We should not let them discourage us.”

Smith did get some criticism of the administration’s space policy into the piece, rueing the cancellation of the Constellation program and complaining about “costly distractions” to the space program, including what he perceived to be an overemphasis on Earth science at NASA. “The Obama administration continues to advocate increasing climate change funding at NASA at the expense of other priorities such as space exploration. There are 18 federal agencies that fund climate change research, but only one does space exploration.”

Smith’s Democratic counterpart, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), also issued a statement about the 45th anniversary with Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking member of the space subcommittee. “NASA is critical to our nation and its economic strength, and there is no more fitting way to honor Apollo 11 than to resume our commitment to human exploration of deep space that we proved possible 45 years ago,” Edwards said in the statement. “Our bipartisan NASA Authorization Act of 2014 gets us started, and I look forward to continuing the mission.”

“Such an endeavor [of human space exploration] will inspire our young people, spur technological innovation, and strengthen our geopolitical standing,” said Johnson. “I urge my colleagues in Congress and in the Administration to make that program a reality.”

Planetary science review to be released soon

The long-awaited—apprehensively, in some quarters—senior review of NASA planetary science missions is effectively complete and will be publicly released in the next week or two, a NASA official said Monday.

“The planetary senior review, from a scientific report standpoint, has just been completed,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, in a presentation at the NASA Exploration Science Forum on Monday at NASA’s Ames Research Center. NASA is now drafting “letters of direction” to the various missions covered by the review, he said.

Green said that, because of the high level of interest in the planetary science senior review both in the scientific community and the media, NASA will wait until those letters are complete before releasing the report and NASA’s response. “I anticipate within the next week or two that that will be accomplished,” he said.

That interest stems from earlier concerns that constrained budgets could force NASA to make difficult decisions about canceling some ongoing missions, such as Cassini, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004. Those concerns have eased somewhat in recent months, particularly involving Cassini. Some of Green’s charts earlier in the presentation mentioned Cassini’s plans to orbit closer to Saturn, known as “proximal orbits,” assuming the mission continues. “Cassini’s proximal orbits is part of that senior review,” Green said, “although I did show it on my chart, didn’t I?”

Green’s comments came as NASA appeared to resuscitate an astronomy mission threatened with cancellation in another senior review. The NASA astrophysics senior review, released in May, recommended terminating the Spitzer Space Telescope unless there was a way to reduce its costs to fit within constrained budgets. On Monday, NASA announced that Spitzer would remain in operation for the next two years.

“It has been announced to be approved for an extended mission for the next two years,” Green said at the forum, as he encouraged planetary scientists to make greater use of Spitzer and other space telescopes that are part of the astrophysics division.

No quick end for 2015 appropriations process

For a time this spring, it appeared that Congress would make quick work of fiscal year 2015 spending bills. The House, for example, passed its version of a Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) appropriations bill, which funds NASA, NOAA, and NSF among other agencies, in late May. Meanwhile, debate on the Senate version of the bill started in mid-June before it got bogged down over other issues. It appeared that Congress might be able to pass the bills before the fiscal year started on October 1. It seemed too good to be true.

Because, as it turns out, it was too good to be true. With signs that the overall appropriations process is stalling, National Journal reports that House Republicans are planning a continuing resolution (CR) that would funding the government through perhaps election day. THe House is considering voting on the CR next week, before the August recess, an unusually early step that signals there’s little hope of getting appropriations bills passed before October 1.

Senators debate RD-180 replacement, EELV competition

A hearing several days ago held jointly by subcommittees of the Senate Commerce Committee and Senate Armed Services Committee on space access issues covered two of the key issues facing that topic in recent months: developing a domestic replacement for the RD-180 and competition for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) missions. However, members showed little consensus on how to deal with either issue.

“It’s time for us to rise to the occasion and fix this situation,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) during a line of questioning about use on the Russian-built RD-180 engine and proposals to develop an American replacement. “That’s just not acceptable,” he said of the current reliance on the RD-180.

During the hearing, Defense Department witnesses, including Air Force Space Commander head Gen. William Shelton and Alan F. Estevez, principal under secretary of defense for acquisition, reiterated previous estimates of the time and cost of building an RD-180 replacement: five to eight years, and one to two billion dollars. That timeline, at least, didn’t make Sessions happy. “Well, that’s not acceptable,” Sessions said when Estevez gave the schedule estimate. “Why don’t we get busy and get this done and not drag it out?”

Other senators, though, were less impatient. “This strikes me as a low-risk, high-consequence kind of situation,” said Sen. Angus King (I-ME) of the possibility of Russia cutting off RD-180 exports.

“There’s no indication that we’d be cut off today,” Estevez responded. “There’s a good rationale for why we would move down the path to develop our own engine. However, while we’re doing that, use of the RD-180 engine is a cost-effective and proven way to launch our national security payloads.”

“It is also fairly clear that Roscosmos certainly doesn’t want to give up that income stream, and it looks like that, from their standpoint, they clearly want to continue to supply the RD-180,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) said. In general, though, committee members appeared to support the idea of funding the start of development work on an RD-180 replacement, although there’s no consensus on how much to spend in fiscal year 2015: proposals have ranged from $25 million in a Senate defense appropriations bill approved by the appropriations committee last week to $220 million in the House defense appropriations and authorization bills.

Senators also used the hearing to discuss competition in the EELV program, including the “block buy” contract awarded to United Launch Alliance and SpaceX’s protest of that award. That block buy, said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), “may have made economic sense during the global environment at that time, and resulted in meaningful savings to the American taxpayer, $4.4 billion. Although well-intentioned, the unintended consequences of relying on a foreign supplier for critical national security equipment is now striking apparent.”

Cruz stopped short of calling for the block buy contract to be altered or cancelled, although later in the hearing he asked Shelton how long it would take to certify SpaceX’s Falcon 9 if the Air Force moved at “maximum speed.” Shelton noted that if everything goes “extremely well” that SpaceX will be certified by late this year, although the Falcon 9 v1.1 cannot handle launches that would be assigned to seven of ten existing Atlas V configurations. Shelton also said that the Air Force will spend between $60 and 100 million on that certification process.

SpaceX’s dispute with the Air Force provided fireworks late in the hearing, when Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who left after opening statements and returned near the end of the two-hour hearing, fired off a line of questions to Shelton. He brought up a comment Shelton made in May about the SpaceX suit: “Generally, the person you want do business with, you don’t sue them.”

“Do you stand by that statement?” McCain asked. When Shelton said he did, McCain then asked about a ULA suit against the Air Force about recovering costs. “If some company or corporation thinks they are not being fairly treated, you don’t think they should be able to sue? I mean, that’s not our system of government, Gen. Shelton. I don’t really get your statement except that it shows real bias against the ability of any company or corporation in America to do what they think is best for their company or corporation.”

McCain appeared to liken the EELV block buy contract to the Air Force tanker contract scandal of the early 2000s. “People went to jail. People were fired,” he recalled of that controversy. “I don’t like this deal,” he said of the block buy EELV contract, complaining that only a handful of launches would be available for competition.

At Future Space, members of Congress discuss future of space legislation

On Thursday, the Future Space Leaders Foundation held Future Space 2014, a conference oriented primarily to students and young professionals to discuss “cross-cutting issues” in space. The event included talks by four members of House, who discussed a range of issues about civil, commercial, and military space policy.

Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), chairman of the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee, said he still expected Congress to pass an update to the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA) this year, even though such legislation has yet to be introduced. “It is my hope, before this Congress is finished, that we will be able to get some updates to the CSLA passed,” he said, without discussing what those changes would be.

Palazzo added that he also expected the Senate to pass a version of the NASA authorization bill that the House approved on a 401-2 vote on June 9. The Senate has yet to take up that bill, or introduce its own, but Palazzo said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking member of the space subcommittee, has been talking to members of the Senate about their plans. He was more doubtful, though, about the ASTEROIDS Act introduced by Reps. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Derek Kilmer (D-WA) last week. “We have a limited amount of legislative days this year,” he said. “Our committee is reviewing it as we speak.”

In a separate speech later in the morning, Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, expressed support for funding a domestic replacement for the Russian-built RD-180 engine used on the first stage of the Atlas V. “There’s a strong possibility that the Congress will finalize support for a domestically-built alternative later this year,” he said. “I hope it happens sooner, rather than later.”

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), who followed Langevin, discussed the need for limiting the liability that private space ventures face. He cited his own experience with the Rocket Racing League, which flew rocket-powered aircraft several years ago but lost funding when a rocket “completely unaffiliated with us blew up.”

“If we truly want to this industry to advance into the future, we’ve got to make sure we’re doing the right things to limit liability so those of us who are willing to take risks have the opportunity to that,” he said. Asked after his speech what specific measure he had in mind, he said that Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the incoming House Majority Leader, was making “great strides” on this topic. “As it relates to this issue, since it’s his district and he’s got the lead on this, I’m going to to turn to him for his guidance and his leadership,” Bridenstine said. (McCarthy’s district includes the Mojave Air and Space Port, home to a number of commercial space companies, including Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace.)

Closing out the event was Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), who touched on commercial and military space activities, particularly those in his state. Like Rep. Langevin, Heinrich appeared to endorse development of an RD-180 engine. “It’s clear that over-reliance on assets like the RD-180 for national security launches is something that we need to look at very seriously,” he said in a luncheon speech. “Some argue that it would take years to build a comparable engine here in the United States, and they talk about the cost of building those assets. But I think these arguments only prolong inaction and, frankly, delay a course of action” towards self-reliance.

Heinrich also mentioned a topic he’s championed in military space, Operationally Responsive Space (ORS), which seeks to develop capabilities to rapidly build and launch satellites to support military forces in times of crisis. He has successfully fought efforts by the Air Force to close the ORS Office, based in New Mexico. “I’m very pleased that the Air Force has now agreed in recent years that this program is going to move forward,” he said. “I like to say that ORS is disruptive, and disruptive in the best sense of the word… It creates new possibilities for us.”

NASA, members of Congress make case for Europa mission

As NASA released a call for proposals for instruments that could fly on a future robotic mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, some key members of Congress expressed support Tuesday for flying such a mission sooner rather than later.

“This is a wonderful crowd,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science Committee, at the beginning of an event titled “The Lure of Europa” organized by The Planetary Society that drew a standing room only crowd to the committee’s hearing room on Capitol Hill. (Many in attendance were interns, perhaps attracted by one of the events speakers, Bill Nye.) “I just wish others could see the interest that you all manifest by being here.”

Whether it was indeed Europa that lured the audience, or just a chance to take a selfie with Nye, the audience heard a case for exploring the icy Jovian moon from members of Congress and NASA representatives, one based primarily on the potential of Europa to host life. “We’re confident that Europa is the next logical place to go” after Mars in the search for life in the solar system, said NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan, one of the event’s speakers.

Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), arguably the biggest supporter for Europa exploration in Congress, was even more confident than Stofan that Europa harbored life. In comments during the event, he noted that NASA had held a press event the day before talking about searching for signs of life on exoplanets outside our solar system. “We don’t need to wait to go find life in another solar system. It’s right here in our own backyard,” he said. “The oceans of Europa will literally be seething with life. It’s just irrefutable. It’s so logical, it’s so self evident.”

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), whose district includes NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), also expressed interest in sending a mission to Europa, even if he didn’t share Culberson’s certitude about life there. “Now, after years of struggle against shortsighted budget cuts by the administration that affect not only Europa, but a host of other NASA missions as well, it looks as if the dream is becoming a reality,” he said of a Europa mission. “Chairman [Frank] Wolf and Ranking Member [Chaka] Fattah played key roles in fighting the administration on Europa and they deserve all of our gratitude.” That’s a reference to the leadership of the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, where Culberson and Schiff also serve.

Schiff and others were pleased by NASA’s announcement earlier in the day that it was releasing an announcement of opportunity (AO) for instruments that could fly on a future Europa mission. NASA has reserved $25 million that will go for initial “Phase A” studies of up to 20 instrument concepts that the agency will select by next April.

What isn’t clear, though, is what mission those instruments might eventually hitch a ride on. NASA has been studying concepts for a Europa orbiter mission as well as a “Clipper” that would perform multiple flybys of Europa, but has made no decision yet on what concept to pursue, or when it would fly. The cost of either of those missions would be in the ballpark of $2 billion.

Earlier this year, though, NASA issued a request for information about concepts for Europa missions that would cost no more than $1 billion. After Tuesday’s event, NASA associate administrator for science John Grunsfeld, who attended the event but was not a panelist, said a number of submissions have been forwarded to the Aerospace Corporation to perform an independent cost and technical assessment to see if any could, in fact, be done for the stated price. NASA is also looking at the science that the billion-dollar mission concepts claim to do, and compare those capabilities with what the Clipper mission and other concepts can do.

Grunsfeld outlined a hypothetical scenario where a billion-dollar mission could achieve only one major scientific objective while a Clipper-like mission could do four, albeit at about twice the price. “But if you look in your wallet and you only have a billion dollars, then you have to ask, ‘Can I afford to wait or should I go now?’” he said.

Members of Congress like Culberson and Schiff, though, want to ensure that NASA has enough to do a flagship-class Europa mission. “We included language in this [appropriations] bill, and I’m proud to have been one of the drivers of that, to ensure that we have the money for the Europa flagship mission,” Culberson said, adding he also inserted the report language specifying that the Space Launch System (SLS) be the baseline launch vehicle for it.

Nye, in his role as as CEO of The Planetary Society, also made a pitch to have NASA’s planetary science program funded at $1.5 billion per year, higher than the administration’s request. “What keep the the United States economically in the game, in my view, is innovation. So if you want to have innovation and keep the United States competitive, we need, or we can very easily, invest in space,” he said. “And right now, the most bang for your buck—the most effective space dollar—is planetary science.”

House members press NASA for information on “epidemic of anomalies” with SpaceX missions

Three members of Congress from Alabama and Colorado have asked NASA to provide information on what they receive to be an “epidemic of anomalies” on missions performed by SpaceX.

“Recent news reports have shown that an epidemic of anomalies have occurred during SpaceX launches or launch attempts,” write Reps. Mo Brooks (R-AL), Mike Coffman (R-CO), and Cory Gardner (R-CO) in a July 15 letter to NASA administrator Charles Bolden. Those anomalies cited in the letter include issues with both SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft, ranging from “multiple” helium leaks to seawater intrusions into the Dragon spacecraft after splashdown.

The congressmen are seeking information from NASA about those incidents because of the role the agency has played in support the development of Falcon 9 and Dragon, and as a customer of the cargo transportation services they provide. “In the interest of full disclosure and accountability to the American taxpayer, we request that NASA publicly release all anomalies and mishap information, un-redacted, so that Congress can gain a better understanding of what has occurred and ensure full transparency,” they write. They also ask for information “on the various aspects of risk and reliability with these programs” and the agency’s “understanding of the specific technical issues, failures and resulting consequences for ISS.”

The members’ argument for providing this information is NASA’s support for the development of Falcon 9 and Dragon. “Again, because the vehicles in question were funded by American taxpayer dollars, there should be no issue in making this report publicly available,” they write. However, development of Falcon 9 and Dragon was supported, but not exclusively funded, by NASA through the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, using Space Act Agreements versus conventional contracts. SpaceX supplemented the NASA funding with its own; SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said on a number of occasions that the company used no NASA funding for development of the Falcon 9.

SpaceX does have a contract with NASA for ISS resupply, but that contract is for cargo services: that is, NASA is buying transport of cargo to and from the station, and not the launch vehicle and spacecraft itself, and thus the agency may not have the technical insight that the congressmen expect. In addition, providing “un-redacted” technical information publicly, even if it is available to NASA, could run afoul of export control restrictions.

The timing of the letter coincides with a hearing this morning by subcommittees of the Senate Commerce Committee and Senate Armed Services Committee on space access. The Armed Services’ strategic forces subcommittee is chaired by Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO), who is running for reelection this fall; Rep. Gardner is the Republican challenger to Udall.

In their letter, the congressmen say they support competition for EELV launches, but worry that “the process may be weakened due to recent attacks on the Air Force regarding oversight and the need to certify providers launching national security payloads. We strongly support the Air Force certification process and object to any effort to bypass it or loosen its standards.”

The congressmen issued their letter the same day as the Air Force confirmed that it had certified as successful the second and third Falcon 9 v1.1 launches, a major milestone towards the overall certification of the launch vehicle for EELV payloads. “I applaud SpaceX on achieving the three flights,” said Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves, commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, in the statement. “With this significant part of the agreed-to path in certifying the Falcon 9 v1.1 launch system complete, we look forward to working with SpaceX to complete the remaining certification activities and providing SpaceX with the opportunity to compete for EELV missions.”

DOD official defends EELV block buy, endorses launch competition

While the Senate gears up for a joint hearing Wednesday on space access, some members of the House Armed Services Committee used a July 10 hearing on Defense Department acquisitions issues to grill a top Pentagon official on the topic of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV)

“We don’t seem to be as encouraging of competition in this area as I would think we should be,” said Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), ranking member of the full committee, referring to the EELV program and the “block buy” contract the Air Force awarded United Launch Alliance (ULA). “It seems to be an incumbent bias there that is robbing us, in some instances, of innovation from new companies and new technologies.”

Frank Kendall, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, told Smith that he supported competition, and arranged the block buy to set aside a number of launches, originally 14, that would be competed. “Since then, because of a combination of budget changes, and increased lifetime of some of our satellites, some of those launches have slipped,” he acknowledged. “We still plan to compete them, we’re just going to compete them later than we originally intended.” He also noted that one of those 14 did move into the ULA block buy “to fulfill our side of the contract.”

Kendall also said that the Defense Department has been “aggressive” into bringing SpaceX into the EELV program through the ongoing certification process. (A day after the hearing, SpaceX announced that its first three Falcon 9 v1.1 launches had been certified as successful by the Air Force, although the service is not expected to complete the overall certification process until late this year or early next year.) He also reiterated previous guidance that would allow companies like SpaceX to compete “if they’re on the path to certification.”

Smith suggested, though, that the block buy contract locked out SpaceX from competing for Air Force launch contracts. “‘Locked them out’ is not really the intent,” Kendall responded. “The intent is to do launches with ULA than only ULA can do.”

Later in the hearing, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) asked Kendall about competition, focusing on why the Air Force could not use launch providers other than “UAL” (as Johnson frequently called United Launch Alliance) when NASA and commercial companies can. Kendall reiterated his support for competition. Kendall noted that security and reliability were the key reasons that the DOD, for now, used only ULA for its launches.

Kendall also emphasized again his support for competition in launch services. “We are going to be, very soon, releasing an RFP for our first competitive bids for launch,” he said. “That’s an FY15 acquisition.”

Legislation seeks to promote use of asteroid resources

A bill introduced Thursday by two members of the House Science Committee seeks to promote commercial asteroid ventures, including securing property rights for resources extracted from asteroids by American companies.

The American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities in Deep Space (ASTEROIDS) Act of 2014, HR 5063, was introduced Thursday by Reps. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Derek Kilmer (D-WA), members of the House Science Committee. The relatively short bill (about four and a half pages in the copy provided by Posey’s office late Thursday, since the bill is not yet posted on Congress.gov) would direct the president, through the FAA and other agencies, to “facilitate the commercial exploration and utilization of asteroid resources to meet national needs,” “discourage government barriers” to asteroid resources ventures, and promote the right of American companies involved in those activities to both explore and utilize asteroids as well as transfer and sell them.

Perhaps most importantly, the bill provides property rights to resources extracted by those companies: “Any resources obtained in outer space from an asteroid are the property of the entity that obtained such resources, which shall be entitled to all property rights thereto, consistent with applicable provisions of Federal law.” The bill does not extend those property rights beyond the resources a company extracted, such as a claim of property on the asteroid, or of an asteroid itself. The bill also provides for freedom from harmful interference, noting that “any assertion of superior right to execute specific commercial asteroid resource utilization activities in outer space shall prevail if it is found to be first in time,” at least among companies subject to US law.

“Asteroids are excellent potential sources of highly valuable resources and minerals,” said Posey in a press release announcing the bill. “Our legislation will help promote private exploration and protect commercial rights as these endeavors move forward.”

“We may be many years away from successfully mining an asteroid, but the research to turn this from science fiction into reality is being done today,” said Kilmer in the same release. “Businesses in Washington state and elsewhere are investing in this opportunity, but in order to grow and create more jobs they need greater certainty.” That’s a reference to Planetary Resources, a company headquartered in the Seattle area (although not in Kilmer’s district) that has long-term plans to mine asteroids.

Getting the bill passed, though, is no certain feat. Besides drumming up support for the bill in both the House and the Senate, the bill’s advocates have to deal with a tight legislative schedule the rest of this year: the House is scheduled to be in session for only ten weeks for the rest of the calendar year.

NASA CFO’s Energy Department nomination withdrawn

The White House has withdrawn the nomination of NASA’s current chief financial officer (CFO) to a position at the Energy Department. In a press release Wednesday, The White House said it was withdrawing Beth Robinson’s nomination to be Under Secretary of Energy, nearly a year after first announcing the nomination.

No reason was given for the withdrawal, but her nomination faced opposition from one senator because of her tenure as NASA’s CFO. Last October, Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) announced he had placed a hold on her nomination because of concerns he had about withholding of funding for some key NASA projects, like the Space Launch System (parts of which are being built at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans) to comply with the agency’s interpretation of termination liability requirements. In his letter to Robinson, which he released last October when he announced the hold, he also sought information on alleged use of personal email accounts by NASA officials to conduct agency business.