Yesterday, as part of a broader piece on budget uncertainty, we noted here that the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee had introduced continuing resolution legislation to continue funding the government at post-sequester 2013 levels through December 15, or the first two and a half months of fiscal year 2014. The bill includes juts a few adjustments to those spending levels, including a non-NASA space-related provision “allowing funding flexibility to maintain weather satellite programs, ensuring the continuation of data for weather warnings and forecasts, including forecasts of severe weather events.”
The original intent of House leadership was to bring the CR to the house floor for a vote on Thursday. However, POLITICO reported Wednesday that House leadership pulled the bill from Thursday’s schedule, meaning it won’t be taken up until at least next week. The report blamed the delay on “continued Republican divisions over how far to go to challenge President Barack Obama on healthcare reform,” and not any specific issues with the CR itself.
“How many of you know what your budget is going to be next year? Raise your hand,” said Larry James, a retired Air Force lieutenant general and the new deputy director of JPL, in introductory comments at Tuesday morning’s plenary session of the AIAA Space 2013 conference in San Diego. As you might expect, effectively no one in the audience of several hundred space professionals did.
That uncertainty about civil and military space budgets as fiscal year 2014 approaches was a recurring theme at the conference yesterday, where government and industry officials emphasized the “changing landscape” of the industry and the need for innovation. With NASA expected to at least start the fiscal year next month under a continuing resolution (CR), one that could potentially be extended for the full year (just yesterday the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee introduced a CR that runs through December 15), plus the prospects of another round of across-the-board cuts triggered by sequestration, few at the conference expressed a lot of optimism about the agency’s fiscal situation.
“There is a rumor that some plans are being drawn for a ’14 budget that’s compliant with sequestration which may be as low as $16.1 billion” for NASA, said Roger Krone, president of Boeing’s Network and Space Systems business unit, in that Tuesday morning plenary session. He didn’t offer more details about that rumor, but would be consistent with a roughly five-percent cut from NASA’s final FY13 appropriation, itself trimmed by five percent from the appropriations bill passed by Congress in March. A presentation at a NASA Advisory Council science committee meeting in late July used an estimate of $16.16 billion for a post-sequestration NASA budget in 2014.
How those cuts, or even the application of a CR, would filter down to the various programs in the agency remains to be determined. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, for example, was a beneficiary of the final operating plan released last month, seeing its budget restored to $525 million, the level approved by Congress prior to the application of sequestration. Ed Mango, manager of the program, told reporters at a briefing late Tuesday at Space 2013 that he wasn’t sure if that higher number would transfer over into 2014 if there is a CR. “If we are under a CR, we will be, unless there’s new legislation that adds to the CR, somewhere between $488 and 525 million,” he said. “A CR, and how that impacts Commercial Crew, is still to be determined.” He did add that the program is in good shape through the final weeks of fiscal year 2013 and, under some estimates, through all of 2014 as well.
“I would say the largest issue we’re facing is more of a programmatic thing, and it’s around the budget, and frankly around budget uncertainty,” said NASA’s Todd May, manager of the Space Launch System program, during a panel session on NASA’s human spaceflight programs at the conference Tuesday. Budgets are tight, he said, but that was common to past programs he’s worked on at NASA. “So far, we have met the challenge. We have done everything we can do to keep this thing on track.”
While former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver suggested upon her departure last week that SLS and Orion would likely suffer delays, May insisted SLS was remaining on schedule, even with the current budget concerns. “We just have to wait and let the appropriations process work itself out,” he said. “Every year, when all was said and done, we got what we needed to get the job done. I’m here to tell you that we’re on track for [a first launch in] ’17. We’ll see how things work out.”
Friday marked the last day on the job for NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver, who announced a month ago she was leaving the agency to take a job in the private sector. At a reception Thursday evening at NASA Headquarters, she reflected on the four-plus years in that role, NASA Watch reported, from the clashes she had with then-administrator Mike Griffin when she was part of the administration’s transition team after the 2008 election to being perceived as pushing for change at NASA for the sake of change itself. “You can’t choose the time you asked to serve,” she noted in a top-ten list of things she learned during her time in the job. “It was not easy to serve at a time when the shuttle was being shut down and large programs were being cancelled.”
Garver made bigger news, though, in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, where she said she believed the first launches of the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket and Orion spacecraft, slated for 2017 and 2021, would likely slip by a year or two each because of insufficient funding. “It’s very clear that we could have slips of a year or two,” she told the Sentinel.
That assessment, she said, comes from experience with past programs like Constellation, which fell behind schedule while being funded at levels similar to SLS and Orion today. A report by NASA’s Office of the Inspector General last month specifically warned of potential delays and cost overruns with Orion, citing the flat funding profile projected for the program versus the more traditional bell-shaped funding profile.
Officials with companies working on the programs disputed that assessment: Boeing’s SLS program manager said she is currently five months ahead of schedule. NASA itself provided a statement to the Sentinel reiterating the party line that the agency’s budget “fully funds” SLS and Orion for a 2017 inaugural launch. Garver didn’t sound convinced. “People are more optimistic than … reality,” she told the Sentinel.
“NASA still has too much on its plate,” she concluded. “We came here trying to avoid that, and I’m afraid we’re headed back in that direction.”
Late last week NASA quietly released its final operating plan for fiscal year 2013, with just a month left in the fiscal year. The plan adjusts spending on some agency programs based on the post-sequester cuts to the FY2013 appropriations bill passed by Congress in March. The breakout of spending for agency programs in the operating plan, versus what the administration originally requested for NASA for FY13 back in early 2012, is below (all amounts in millions of dollars):
|- Earth Science
|- Planetary Science
|- SLS / Ground Systems
|- Commercial Spaceflight
|- Exploration R&D
|- Space Shuttle
|- Space and Flight Support
|CROSS AGENCY SUPPORT
Every major account suffered a reduction with the exception of education, which saw a slight increase from the $100 million originally requested. Orion and SLS (including ground systems) ended up with somewhat more than what the administration first requested, although less than the pre-sequester levels in the final appropriations bill. Commercial crew, by comparison, got less than requested, but the operating plan funds the program at the same level in that appropriations bill, $525 million, negating the impact of the sequester.
In the sciences, planetary science ended up with nearly $80 million more than requested, although short of the $1.415 billion in the pre-sequester appropriations bill. However, assuming the $75 million set aside in the bill for preparatory work on a proposed Europa mission (not requested by NASA) remains in place, the budget is effectively unchanged from the request. JWST ends up with exactly the amount originally requested to keep that program on track, while other science programs are cut by 6-7 percent from the original request.
Comments by former NASA Johnson Space Center director Chris Kraft regarding NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) have attracted some attention this week. “When they actually begin to develop it, the budget is going to go haywire,” he said in an interview with the Houston Chronicle originally published Sunday (getting more attention in an expanded version published in a Chronicle blog post on Tuesday.) “Then there are the operating costs of that beast, which will eat NASA alive if they get there.” Development of the SLS, he concluded, is not “justifiable” for NASA. “It’s not justifiable from a cost point of view, and it’s not justifiable from a mission plan point of view. It just doesn’t make good sense.”
While Kraft’s opinions about SLS are blunt, they’re not new. “The SLS-based strategy is unaffordable, by definition, since the costs of developing, let alone operating, the SLS within a fixed or declining budget has crowded out funding for critical elements needed for any real deep space human exploration program,” he wrote in a Chronicle op-ed in April 2012 co-authored by another former JSC official, Tom Moser. SLS was, in particular, to a threat to JSC, they argued, since building SLS deprived JSC of its “crown jewel” of engineering development and operations work. “SLS is killing JSC. SLS is killing Texas jobs. SLS is killing our national space agenda.”
What’s more newsworthy, perhaps, is his criticism of NASA’s current direction and its management. “[NASA Administrator Charles] Bolden, let’s face it, he doesn’t know what it takes to do a major project. He doesn’t have experience with that,” Kraft said. “He keeps talking about going to Mars in the 2030s, but that’s pure, unadulterated, BS.” He’s also not a fan of NASA’s asteroid initiative, and would rather go back to the Moon. “There’s no reason why you couldn’t set up a factory on the Moon to build solar panels. You could provide enough electrical power on the Moon from solar cells, and eventually you could supply enough power for half the people on Earth with a solar cell farm on the Moon,” he claims (making no mention of the cost or economic payoff of such an initiative.)
Kraft is also not a fan of last year’s “Johnson-style” video, a parody of “Gangnam Style” produced by JSC interns. “I gave ‘em hell,” Kraft said. “I said look, ‘You just spent all of this effort to make a movie, how about spending all of that effort in making a space program go?’”
Late August is a quiet period in space policy, with Congress in recess and so many others on vacation, but there are a few items of interest:
Discover magazine published earlier this month an “exit interview” with NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver, who announced plans on August 6 to leave NASA in a month. (The interview was actually conducted prior to that announcement, so it doesn’t cover her plans for leaving.) The interview focuses on NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) plans and the pushback those plans have received from Congress. “I think there are just, right now, some things that because of the partisan nature of this Congress we are not going to be able to convince them,” she said, echoing earlier comments on the issue.
Garver also said that the redirection mission was adopted because of concerns about original plans to send astronauts to a near Earth object. “The long-pull intent was for astronauts to go to an asteroid for some hundreds-of-days mission, but the medical community is not prepared to allow astronauts to do that yet,” she said. In fact, the international exploration roadmap released last week makes virtually no mention of human missions to NEOs beyond NASA’s asteroid redirect mission.
That roadmap, curiously, has attracted a lot of media attention not in the US but instead in Canada. “Canada could be sending its first astronaut to the moon under an ambitious long-term plan being developed by a group of space agencies around the world,” reported the Canadian Press in an article about the report. The Canadian Space Agency is one of the members of the International Space Exploration Coordination Group, which prepared the report, but it did not call out specific roles for the CSA or other agencies in that document. CSA officials said they envision having a Canadian astronaut on the lunar missions envisions for the late 2020s in the report.
That idea has the endorsement of the Toronto Star in an editorial today, saying it would be “a shame if Canada failed to rise to the challenge posed by humanity’s next great leap beyond the surly bonds of Earth.” There’s no mention, though, of the near-term challenges faced by CSA in the form of constrained budgets and an uncertain long-term direction.
Meanwhile, Russian officials are reportedly contemplating an export ban on the RD-180 engine used by the Atlas V rocket. Russia Today, citing a report in Izvestia, said Russia’s Security Council was considering blocking the export of the engines, for reasons not explicitly clear in the article but possibly linked to the Atlas V’s use in launching military payloads. Any ban would not take effect until 2015, according to the report, but would still leave United Launch Alliance with few options to deal with the ban. A Russian space policy expert called the proposed ban “stupid” since it would deprive engine manufacturer NPO Energomash of its main business. Stupidity, though, is not necessarily a primarily criterion in policy decisions.
The ISECG roadmap of missions to asteroids, the Moon, and Mars. (Click to enlarge.)
On Tuesday, the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG), a group of 12 national space agencies that includes NASA, ESA, and Roscosmos, released a revised version of its Global Exploration Roadmap. The document is intended to outline a general strategy for human and robotic exploration over the next few decades, with human missions to the surface of Mars as the long-term goal.
The original version of this document, published in September 2011, offered two scenarios: an “Asteroid Next” approach that sent humans first to near Earth asteroids, then to the Moon and Mars; and a “Moon Next” alternative that sent humans first back to the surface of the Moon, then to asteroids and Mars. The new version offers a single scenario closer to the “Asteroid Next” approach, with humans first going to a captured near Earth asteroid per NASA’s plans as part of its asteroid initiative, with human lunar missions included before crewed missions to Mars in the 2030s. Also included in the mix are “extended duration crew missions” in cislunar space, such as at a Lagrange point.
What is clear is that this roadmap is not intended to establish long-term or permanent presences on asteroids or the Moon, at least by government agencies. The near Earth asteroid aspect of the roadmap includes only two crewed missions to such bodies, at least one to the asteroid NASA seeks to redirect into lunar orbit. (Unlike the 2011 roadmap, the new edition makes no mention of any deep space human missions to near Earth asteroids.) Those crewed missions would come some time in the mid-2020s, after the EM-2 SLS/Orion test mission and perhaps even one of the extended duration crewed missions in cislunar space.
The roadmap sees human missions to the surface of the Moon some time in the late 2020s (about 60 years after Apollo 11), using lunar orbit or a Lagrange point as a staging post for such missions. But those human missons peter out in the early 2030s, and the report makes it clear there is no place n the strategy for an extended human presence on the Moon, at least led by national agencies. “[T]he mission scenario defines a lunar campaign with an ‘exit strategy’ consistent with moving forward with Mars mission readiness,” it states. “However, participating agencies recognize that the fundamental capabilities are available to suport additional missions in the event that lunar science or other exploration activities are identified.”
The expectation of the strategy is that commercial entities will take over activities in some of these areas as the agencies press on to Mars: the roadmap includes roles for commercial or government platforms in low Earth orbit to replace the International Space Station, and “potential commercial opportunities” in both cislunar space and the surface of the Moon (but not, oddly enough, near Earth asteroids, given that companies have recently expressed an interest in prospecting and mining such objects.) The roadmap treats these places less as interesting destinations in their own right than as places to gain experience for human missions to Mars.
The Washington Post published an interview yesterday with NASA administrator Charles Bolden, primarily discussing leadership issues Bolden has faced in his four years at the top of the agency. Towards the end, though, the Post asks Bolden about NASA’s plans to direct an asteroid, in particular asking if that plan meets the goal established by President Obama in his 2010 Kennedy Space Center speech of sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025. The answer is worth excerpting in full:
Does the asteroid redirect mission, in which you send an astronaut to one that’s in lunar orbit, fulfill President Obama’s goal of going to an asteroid in 2025?
My answer is going to be flaky. The first segment we’ve got to do. We’ve got to identify and characterize many more asteroids than we have done so far. That’s essential for the protection of the planet. That’s critical.
The second segment, which is the redirect mission—it’s a robotic mission, it doesn’t involve humans at all—that’s really necessary for us to develop the technologies that we need to advance exploration. Is it absolutely necessary before you send humans to Mars to do that? No, but it sure would be nice to have all that risk brought down because you’ve done it with the asteroid redirect mission. If that’s successful and then we can get humans to an asteroid in lunar orbit, that more than fulfills my understanding of the president’s direction.
And this is subtle. I have this discussion with my science friends all the time and those who are purist. The president said by 2025 we should send humans to an asteroid. What he meant was, you should send humans to somewhere between Mars and Saturn, because that’s where the dominant asteroids in the asteroid belt are. But no, he didn’t say that. He said: humans to an asteroid.
There are a lot of different ways to do that. There are probably thousands of ways to do it. I think we have come up with the most practical way, given our budgetary constraints today. We’re bringing the asteroid to us.
And so whether I put an astronaut on an asteroid that’s in lunar orbit or put an astronaut on an asteroid that’s still in orbit around the sun between Mars and Jupiter, I don’t care. What’s important is: Have them there.
Bolden’s claim that President Obama meant “you should send humans to somewhere between Mars and Saturn, because that’s where the dominant asteroids in the asteroid belt are” is sure to raise more than a few eyebrows. It’s unlikely the president meant, or many interpreted him as meaning, that humans should go to the main belt (between Mars and Jupiter, not Saturn), a mission that would rival a Mars mission in its length and level of risk. Instead, the assumption was that NASA would send humans to a near Earth asteroid, a mission that could be accomplished on round trips of a year or less, depending on the specific mission.
In any case, Bolden argues that sending humans to an asteroid redirected into lunar orbit satisfies the goal in the president’s 2010 speech of humans to an asteroid, and helps buy down the risk for future humans Mars missions given current budget constraints. But even that is not universally accepted (perhaps a hint to the discussions he says he has “with my science friends… and those who are purist.”) For example, earlier this year, speaking at a meeting of the National Academies committee on human spaceflight, Steve Squyres noted that the president’s 2010 speech called for sending humans “beyond the Moon” to an asteroid in deep space, something that a mission to a very small asteroid redirected into lunar orbit would not appear to strictly satisfy.
A flat funding profile for the indefinite future increases the risk that NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) spacecraft will fall behind schedule, and will also delay the development of follow-on systems needed for missions to the surfaces of other worlds, according to a report released Thursday by NASA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG).
“The incremental development approach NASA has adopted for the MPCV puts the Program at risk for increased cost and schedule delays,” concluded the OIG report. That incremental approach, it stated, is necessary since Orion does not have the traditional bell-shaped funding profile, but is instead projected to receive a constant $1 billion per year through 2018, according to the administration’s fiscal year 2014 budget proposal.
Under this incremental approach, the report states, managers “allocate available funding to the most critical systems needed to meet the next development milestone.” The OIG concludes warns that this could lead to schedule and cost problems down the road, including some tests that have already been delayed, such as a test of Orion’s abort system that has been delayed four years to 2018. The program also have to overcome some technical problems, including the capsule being above its target weight and cracks in its heat shield.
Even if Orion overcomes those problems, the OIG report warns that there may be little for the spacecraft to do beyond orbital missions until the late 2020s because budgets don’t allow the development of additional exploration hardware. ” Under the current budget environment, it appears that obtaining significant funding to begin development of any such additional exploration hardware will be difficult and such development is unlikely to begin until sometime into the 2020s,” the report concludes. “Given the amount of time and money necessary to develop this hardware, it is unlikely that NASA would be able to conduct surface exploration missions until the late 2020’s at the earliest.”
Just before Congress adjourned earlier this month for summer recess, two members of Congress introduced a bill that they argue will help streamline commercial spaceflight regulations. Congressmen Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Bill Posey (R-FL) introduced HR 3038, the Suborbital and Orbital Advancement and Regulatory Streamlining (SOARS) Act.
“I have seen firsthand how the talented people of East Kern County have grown this industry through technological advancement, and this legislation will help ensure they are not hindered in creating jobs here locally,” said McCarthy, the House Majority Whip whose district includes the Mojave Air and Space Port, in a press release announcing the bill. “Our bill is a big step in streamlining FAA regulations and establishes demonstration projects for space companies supporting launch activities to safely move forward,” added Posey in the same statement.
One element of the bill would allow an experimental permit for a suborbital vehicle to remain valid even after a launch license is issued for that particular vehicle design. Under current law, the permit becomes invalid when a license for the vehicle is issued. That prevents one copy of a vehicle to perform test flights under a permit if another vehicle of the same design is operating under a license.
Another element of the bill would require the FAA to create a “demonstration project” for using experimental aircraft for “the direct and indirect support of commercial space launch and reentry activities.” The FAA would bring into this project no fewer than eight companies, with one at each currently licensed commercial spaceport. (The bill would allow the FAA to redistribute that allocation of companies if there are spaceports looking for more companies and others with none, a likely event as some spaceports are focused on vertical launch.) The demonstration period would run for two years, and the FAA would have the ability to extend it after that for two years at a time.
What would these companies would do with experimental aircraft? The “indirect support” is defined as training, testing, and other preparations for pilots, spaceflight participants, and payloads. The “direct support” element, though, could allow aircraft to support air launches of commercial vehicles—like Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo, the air-launch platform for SpaceShipTwo—under an experimental aircraft designation, rather than as a certified aircraft.