As NASA celebrated the end of its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program at a press conference in Washington on Wednesday, it also made another pitch for the program following in COTS’s footsteps, the Commercial Crew Program. But as NASA leadership were calling for full funding for commercial crew, a separate report by NASA’s Inspector General said it looked increasingly likely NASA would not be able to support more than one company in the next phase of the program.
“It’s now critically important to get full funding from Congress to keep us on track to begin these launches in 2017,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in opening remarks at the COTS press conference, referring to commercial crew. He said that NASA will release the request for proposals for the next phase of the program, called Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap), next week (November 19, according to a notice by NASA earlier this month.) “In many ways, the completion of COTS is simply a passing of the torch of innovation to our partners in the commercial crew program.”
NASA requested $821 million from Congress for commercial crew in its fiscal year 2014 budget proposal. However, House appropriators only offered $500 million for the program in its spending bill, while their Senate counterparts proposed $775 million. (There’s been no recent action on either bill as appropriators await the outcome of broader House-Senate budget negotiations.) In late July, shortly before announcing plans to leave NASA, then-deputy administrator Lori Garver said the Senate figure would be good enough, but pressed for full funding to stay on schedule and “keep competition as long as possible.”
“It’s obviously a very difficult budget environment for all discretionary programs,” said Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA, during Wednesday’s press conference. “We’ve said this many times: less money means we go slower than we’d like to go. It’s a pretty straightforward equation.”
An alternative would be for NASA to downselect to a single company in the CCtCap round, a move some in Congress have endorsed to keep the program on schedule with constrained funding. “Getting the systems as soon as possible and also having competition are both goals that NASA would like to maintain through this program,” McAlister said. “I can’t say one is more important than the other.” He added they would wait to see the contents of the CCtCap proposals, due in January. “Those proposals will really dictate how fast we go and how many we have.”
Shortly after the press conference ended, NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a report on the commercial crew program, identifying funding as one of several key challenges it faces. The report noted that the program has received only 38 percent of its original budget requests in fiscal years 2011 through 2013, pushing back the beginning of service to 2017. “Generally speaking, we determined that each year’s budget decrement has resulted in an additional year of schedule delay,” the report concluded. “Even if the Program receives its full budget request in future years, the cumulative difference between the Program’s initial budget requests and receipts over the life of the Program would be approximately $1.1 billion.”
The report added that continued funding shortfalls could force NASA to downselect to a single company in the upcoming CCtCap contract. “While NASA officials said they would prefer to continue to work with at least two companies until the transportation services contract, a lack of funding will likely require them to ‘down select’ to a single partner during Phase 2 of Certification [aka CCtCap], which is currently scheduled to begin in mid-2014.” The reports adds that such a downselect, while saving money in the short term, may drive up costs in the long term based on experience with other major spaceflight programs.
The OIG report includes one additional item of interest about commercial crew funding, regarding the amount being provided by the industry partners. Specific amounts of investment by the commercial crew partners—Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX—have been hard to come by; specific information has been redacted from their Space Act Agreements, and company officials have spoken only vaguely of making significant internal investments. However, according to the OIG report, the commercial crew partners have contributed “under 20 percent” of the overall development costs for the ongoing Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) effort. By comparison, the report notes that the two COTS awardees, Orbital Sciences and SpaceX, contributed “roughly 50 percent” of the total development costs of their systems.
Tuesday afternoon, NASA and Bigelow Aerospace held an event at a downtown Washington hotel to discuss the delivery to NASA of a Bigelow report on commercial lunar exploration architectures. That report, as I summarized yesterday at NewSpace Journal, calls for the use of a COTS-like model to allow NASA to partner with industry (including Bigelow) to develop capabilities to enable human spaceflight activities beyond Earth orbit, including in orbit around and on the surface of the Moon.
The report also emphasized the need for a lunar property rights regime. Companies “must known they will be able to (1) enjoy the fruits of their labor relative to activities conducted on the Moon or other celestial bodies, and (2) own the property that they have surveyed, developed, and are realistically able to utilize,” the report states. And, in a point emphasized in the report in bold, italic, and underlined type: “Without property rights, any plan to engage the private sector in long-term beyond LEO activities will ultimately fail.”
At yesterday afternoon’s event, Bigelow Aerospace founder and president Robert Bigelow indicated that the company plans to press their case for lunar property rights in the near future. “Bigelow Aerospace will be making an application to the FAA/AST [Office of Commercial Space Transportation] for a policy review pertaining to lunar property rights before the end of this year,” Bigelow said.
That policy review would take advantage of the FAA’s ability to perform a policy review of a license application, which involves interagency consultation. “I think it’s abundantly clear that, in terms of establishing lunar property rights or even making that request, that the FAA/AST is the proper gateway to begin that process,” said Mike Gold, Bigelow Aerospace’s chief counsel and head of the company’s Washington office, citing that interagency review process. “I know it sounds like a lot for one company or one request, but that is actually the way the process goes from a legal perspective.”
Bigelow Aerospace doesn’t have immediate plans for a lunar base, although it is a long-term goal for the company; it’s focused for now on developing orbital habitats and awaiting the developing of commercial crew transportation systems before launching those modules and lining up customers for them. So why press for it now? “We think that, first of all, this is not an overnight process, and that is probably the main reason why we are starting on this,” Robert Bigelow said. “We want to galvanize support where we can, and find out where the most significant support is derived from.”
“I have a more pessimistic view of the need for property rights,” he added. He cited an unnamed foreign country that has “significant ambition” in space and “significant financial resources”—a not-so-veiled reference to China. “It’s very possible that, in another dozen years, America could have quite a surprise.” Bigelow has previously stated his concerns that China could claim the Moon as its territory, although that view is not shared by those that closely follow Chinese space efforts.
On Tuesday, the Marshall Institute and the TechAmerica Space Enterprise Council hosted an event titled “Beyond Earth: Removing the Barriers to Deep Space Exploration” in Washington. (The event was broadcast on NASA TV and archived on YouTube.) NASA associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier and representatives of four major aerospace companies—Aerojet Rocketdyne, ATK, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin—gave an overview of NASA’s exploration efforts, including the status of the development of the Space Launch System launch vehicle and Orion spacecraft and the agency’s plans to use them for missions beyond Earth orbit.
In his slides opening the 90-minute event, Gerstenmaier identified six key principles for a “sustainable” NASA exploration program. The first on the list had to deal with funding: “Executable with current budget with modest increases.” “We have to recognize there’s a finite budget, and our activities have to be executable within the budget we have available to us,” he said. That issue, though, came up in the Q&A session after the panel discussion: is it realistic to expect “modest increases” in NASA’s budget—or any increases at all—in the current fiscal environment?
It was clear that the uncertainty about budgets is a topic of frustration for Gerstenmaier. “I’m continually amazed at how the Congress can figure out new ways to calculate new numbers and provide those to us,” he said. “Probably my biggest challenge is not so much the level of the budget but the uncertainty associated with the budget.” He noted that he didn’t have final fiscal year 2013 budget numbers until August, when the agency’s operating plan for the year was finally approved; the fiscal year ended September 30. “That’s a lot of uncertainty to manage through. It’s hard to tell companies how to plan for that.”
That uncertainty continues into 2014, with a continuing resolution funding the agency at 2013 levels through January 15. “We’re not sure what we’ll get for sequester, or not, and I don’t know exactly what the sequester level is,” he said. That makes it impossible to state exactly what impacts the budget will have on NASA’s exploration programs. “I learned to live and operate under continuing resolutions, and I thought I had that mastered,” he added. “Then we got sequester, and they upped the game on me.”
That desire for stability was echoed by one of the industry panelists at Tuesday’s event. “Stability with that funding over a long period of time, I think, is as important as the level of funding going forward,” said John Elbon, vice president and general manager of Boeing Space Exploration. Such stability, though, may be more of a challenge for NASA’s exploration program than any technological issue.
In an interview with ABC News and Yahoo! News earlier this week, former Speaker of the House and 2012 presidential candidate Newt Gingrich looked back briefly on what was one of the signature moments of his ill-fated campaign nearly two years ago: the speech he gave in Florida in January 2012 where he called for, among other goals, a human base on the Moon by 2020. The reaction that announcement got, he said this week, illustrated the problems with the current political system.
“I gave a serious speech in Florida on the Space Coast, outlining a very bold strategy,” he recalled. “I got savaged by two of my competitors, [Mitt] Romney and [Rick] Santorum, who deliberately distorted the speech. I got ridiculed by Saturday Night Live.” He said that only one person in the media, Greta Van Susteren of Fox News, asked the “key question” about why the reaction to Gingrich’s call was far more critical than John F. Kennedy’s famous May 1961 call to land humans on the Moon by the end of the decade. “The American optimism of 1961 said, ‘That’s cool, let’s go do it,’” he said. “The American pessimism of 2012 said, ‘That’s absurd.’”
Gingrich’s interview was tied to the release this week of his latest book, Breakout, which outlines his views on a variety of policy positions. The book includes one chapter on space, titled “Breakout in Space.” The book is less reflective of his experiences on the campaign trail than the interview, though. “When in my presidential campaign I advocated a manned base on the moon—a goal I have supported for my entire career—many in the media and in my own party howled with laughter,” he writes. “Yet building a moon base had been official government policy through most of the Bush administration and for the first two years of Obama’s presidency, until he canceled the project in 2010 following ludicrous cost overruns in the early stages.”
The chapter instead largely reiterates familiar themes in Gingrich’s space policy, including disgust with NASA’s bureaucracy and a call for prizes to spur innovation in the private sector. NASA, he writes, “was once almost synonymous with the future, but in the four decades since the moon landings, it has become one of the government’s most tragic prison guards of the past.” NASA is now a risk-averse agency, he argues, no better than any other government bureaucracy, something he says the public doesn’t understand. “[F]or some reason it’s a little harder for Americans to believe that NASA, the agency behind moon landings and the Hubble Space Telescope, is just another bureaucracy. We don’t want to believe that they often act more like IRS agents than intrepid explorers.”
Gingrich also levels blame at big aerospace companies (“gigantic bureaucracies themselves”) and Congress. “Many of the agency’s strongest supporters in Congress have NASA centers in their districts or states, and the centers themselves are astute lobbyists for a piece of the action,” he writes. “Many of NASA’s activities, therefore, are driven by politics, not by the needs or interests of the space program.”
Not everything NASA is doing is wrong, he acknowledges, citing the progress made by companies like SpaceX, supported by NASA, to develop commercial space transportation systems. “NASA deserves some credit for taking such steps towards reliance on commercial space services in recent years, and so does the Obama administration, which pushed the agency further in this direction.”
Gingrich, though, still has his eyes on prizes, as he has for the better part of two decades. In the book, he proposes setting aside ten percent of NASA’s budget for prizes. “We could reduce the size of NASA and refocus its mission on breakthroughs in science and technology rather than developing or operating basic launch vehicles and spacecraft,” he argues.
Lt. Gen. Susan Helms, a former NASA astronaut who returned to the Air Force after leaving the space agency, is expected to retire after the administration withdrew her nomination Thursday to become the next vice commander of Air Force Space Command (AFSPC). Although there had been no formal announcement, an online catalog of presidential nominations operated by the Library of Congress noted that Helms’s nomination to be AFSPC vice commander, designated PN207-113, had been withdrawn by the administration on Thursday. The Air Force Times reported Friday that Helms has applied for retirement.
The nomination, made in March, was being held by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) because of a controversial decision by Helms last year, in her current position as commander of the 14th Air Force at Vandenberg Air Force Base. to overturn the sexual assault conviction of an Air Force captain there. Helms concluded that there was not enough evidence in her opinion to approve the conviction, made by jurors in a court martial. That decision angered McCaskill, who has been pressing for reforms in how the military deals with sexual assault cases. McCaskill put a hold on Helms’s nomination and refused to lift it, effectively blocking Helms from taking her new position.
Helms, an Air Force officer since 1980, joined the NASA astronaut corps in 1990 and flew on four shuttle missions between 1993 and 2000, then spent 163 days in space as part of the International Space Station’s Expedition 2 crew in 2001. She left the NASA astronaut corps in 2002 and, unlike many other astronauts with military backgrounds, elected to return to active duty. Helms, rising through the ranks from colonel to lieutenant general upon her return to Air Force duties, served in a number of primarily space-related positions, including vice commander and commander of the 45th Space Wing in Florida and director of plans and policy at U.S. Strategic Command.
A California senator has introduced legislation to rename NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center after the late astronaut Neil Armstrong. S. 1636, introduced last week by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), would rename Dryden the “NASA Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center,” while the Western Aeronautical Test Range would become the “NASA Hugh L. Dryden Aeronautical Test Range.” News about the bill was first reported by SpacePolicyOnline.com.
The bill is identical to HR 667, a bill introduced in the House in February, where it passed on a 394-0 vote on February 25. A similar bill passed in the House in the final days of the previous Congress last December, but the Senate failed to take action on it then.
On Monday, the head of NASA’s astrophysics division warned that tight budgets could keep the agency from continuing to fund all of its ongoing astronomy missions when they come up for review early next year. A day later, the head of NASA’s planetary science division offered a similar warning regarding planetary science missions, with the possibility that some high-profile missions may lose funding and have to shut down after 2014.
Speaking at a meeting of the planetary science subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council, held via teleconference on Tuesday, NASA planetary science division director Jim Green said planetary missions that have already completed their primary missions would be subject to a senior review next year, the guidelines for which will be finalized in early 2014. A number of missions will be involved in that review, including Cassini, Curiosity, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, Opportunity, and NASA contributions to ESA’s Mars Express mission. Spacecraft that have not completed their primary missions, like Juno and New Horizons, are not included, and Green said the MESSENGER Mercury orbiter would also not likely be included in the senior review because it will be nearing the end of its mission as it runs out of fuel.
The overall budget for funding extended missions will be about the same in fiscal year 2015 as it is in 2014, at least based on the administration’s budget proposals, Green said. The challenge is that there are more missions up for review, most notably with the inclusion of Curiosity, which completes its primary mission in 2014. “This will be a very interesting competition,” Green said. “We have two very expensive flagship missions, Cassini and Curiosity, which are expensive to operate even in an extended mission phase, along with a lot of our other missions, which are doing tremendous science at a lower cost. So, this particular competition we’ll have to do very carefully.”
That upcoming senior review has already raised concerns in the planetary science community because of the perceived competition between Cassini and Curiosity. The convention wisdom in the community is that there is not enough money to afford to continue operating both Cassini and Curiosity; or, if they are both continued, fund any other ongoing missions. In a head-to-head competition, Curiosity, on Mars only since August 2012, would seem to have the advantage over Cassini, which has been orbiting Saturn since mid-2004. On the other hand, scientists note that Mars is a frequent destination for NASA missions, while there are no Saturn missions on the books after Cassini.
As NASA and the NSF’s astrophysics programs try to get back on track after a government shutdown lasting more than two weeks, those agencies are dealing with uncertain future budgets that are complicating planning for current and future programs, officials said Monday.
“Almost everything is in flux,” advised Paul Hertz, director of the astrophysics division in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, at the beginning of his presentation Monday to the Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics at the National Academies in Washington.
In the near term, Hertz said his division was dealing with the effects of the government shutdown. That included the cancellation of plans to fly high-altitude long-duration balloons carrying astronomy experiments above Antartica for the 2013-14 season because of the late start to the overall Antarctic field season caused by the shutdown. Nine flights by the SOFIA airborne observatory were also cancelled by the shutdown, while an x-ray instrument being developed by NASA for Japan’s Astro-H mission has been delayed for as much as five weeks, although Hertz said they are looking for ways to mitigate the delay. There may also be a small schedule adjustment to the James Webb Space Telescope due to the interruption of tests on the telescope’s backplane at the Marshall Space Flight Center during the shutdown, although that program in general is in good shape.
The big concern now is the state of the fiscal year 2014 budget. NASA is currently operating under a continuing resolution that funds the astrophysics program at a rate corresponding to an annualized level of $607 million, slightly below the $617 million is received post-sequester for 2013. (JWST is funded under a separate account, and is being protected from cuts because it is deemed an agency priority.) The NASA budget request called for $642 million for astrophysics in 2014. However, Hertz warned that if a second round of sequestration goes into effect in January, NASA overall would end up with $16.25 billion, and astrophysics would likely be cut to $592 million, give or take $10 million, he said. “That’s the kind of worst case one might imagine,” he said.
In that scenario, with astrophysics cut by about $50 million from the administration’s request, Hertz said he would be faced with some tough choices. “I don’t know if sequestration is going to happen, but I worry about how astrophysics will be funded, and realize $50 million in savings, this year,” he said. One area of concern is the “senior review” of ongoing astrophysics missions planned for early next year, when the agency determines if those missions are productive enough to continue funding. While two major space telescopes, Hubble and Chandra, will be insulated from the review, other missions may face termination in the senior review if sequestration does further cut the astrophysics budget. “If I get sequestration, we don’t have enough money to keep everything going,” he said.
Further exacerbating the budget challenge, he said, is the long-term uncertainty about budgets. Under current law, sequestration remains in effect for ten years, but budget requests from the administration assume that alternatives to it will be found that restore budgets. “If you told me that my budget would be 10 percent low forever, I would make decisions that had out-year savings,” Hertz said. “But if you tell me that I’m down 10 percent for one year, and then it comes back the next year, which is what the administration says… I make very different choices if it’s only a one-year cut than if it’s a forever cut.”
Hertz also revealed at the committee meeting that NASA is not implementing the controversial educational restructuring program unveiled in the administration’s 2014 budget request in April, which would have consolidated overall STEM education work in the federal government into a few agencies. “NASA will conduct E/PO [education and public outreach] in the current fiscal year, FY14,” he said. “NASA will continue doing STEM education.” The challenge, he said, is that there’s no funding for E/PO activities in the FY14 budget because of the restructuring plans; individual projects in his division will negotiate with him about how much E/PO they plan to do and the impacts on the overall project of reprogramming funding for them. How E/PO programs in general will be managed at NASA remains to be determined, he said.
The NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences is also facing funding uncertainties. In a presentation later Monday to the committee, division director James Ulvestad noted that planning back in 2010, when the astronomy decadal survey, titled “New Worlds, New Horizons,” was published, had his division’s budget at $297.8 million in FY13; the division actually got $232.5 million. “That gives an obvious reason why we can’t execute everything that was in ‘New Worlds, New Horizons,’” he said.
The situation for FY14 isn’t looking any better. The House and Senate versions of the spending bill that funds NSF offer very different numbers for the agency, with the Senate providing more than the House. Ulvestad warned that the division could face a five- to ten-percent cut in 2014, which could potentially delay the start of work on a new groundbased observatory, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). “That could, in fact, be something that we don’t learn about until the middle of the year,” he said, depending on when Congress reaches a final deal on the FY14 budget. “That’s obviously something pretty difficult to plan for.” He did note that, unlike in 2013, funding for facilities would not be protected at the expense of research grants if there are more cuts in 2014.
Current trends in his division, he said, could lead to having only funding in a year or two for individual investigators and large-scale facilities, with nothing in between. “We may have to make some tough decisions in a few months,” he said. “We’re aware of what those decisions might be, but we don’t want to be making them prematurely because we still believe that the President’s budget request is something we can execute and we would like to be able to execute it.”
With a continuing resolution in place until mid-January, work on fiscal year 2014 appropriations bills awaits efforts by budget negotiators in the House and Senate to come up with topline budget numbers that can then feed into appropriations efforts, something that may not be complete until December although appropriators are pressing for faster action. And there remains, of course, the threat of another round of sequestration, although sequestration would work differently in 2014, and not necessarily be as severe as in 2013.
That’s of little consolation to one key senator. “Sequestration will slit the throat of NASA,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) told Florida Today earlier this week. “It’ll cut the heart out of the manned space program.” Nelson, a member of the Senate’s budget committee, wants to get rid of sequestration, although he doesn’t describe his alternative approach in the article.
In another article in the Houston Chronicle (non-subscriber version here), Nelson laments the perceived descent of NASA into partisan politics, as he has in the recent past. “What is sad to me is that NASA has always been above politics,” he told the Chronicle. “Now it’s gotten to be a partisan issue and that is a sad day for the country.”
The Chronicle, in an editorial Thursday, supported Nelson’s call for moving NASA above partisan politics, claiming that “politics of a more destructive, partisan sort have indeed threatened NASA.” (One curious example it cites is “President Barack Obama’s decision to bypass Johnson Space Center as the location for one of the retired space shuttles,” although a NASA Office of Inspector General report on the shuttle selection process found “no attempt by White House officials to direct or influence Bolden’s decision making.”) It endorses a concept proposed by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), among several other House members. for multi-year appropriations, a ten-year term for a NASA administrator, and other measures that the paper believes will remove partisan influence from NASA. (Legislation enabling those changes has not advanced in the House or the Senate.)
Even if such changes were enacted, it’s not clear how they would eliminate partisan budget battles in a constrained fiscal environment like the one that exists today. Either NASA must become so important, and with universal agreement about what it should be doing, that it rises above such debates; or, it becomes so unimportant that Congress focuses its debates—and funding—on more critical programs.
After three weeks atop the US box office charts, the movie Gravity was finally dethroned last weekend, beat out by the cinematic masterpiece Bad Grandpa. (Yeah.) Still, the success of the film made it an inevitable hook for essays using the film to make space policy points of one kind or another. But, just as the film itself contained a number of technical flaws, using the movie to make policy arguments can also run into problems.
In an essay for The Huffington Post, Lauren Lyons sees a “parable” in the existence of the separate Chinese space station and Shenzhou spacecraft that one character in the movie is forced to use: “isolated, yet still there, and pushing on, whether part of the team or not.” She uses that to criticize the lack of cooperation between the US and China because of policy issues (including the ban on bilateral cooperation between NASA and its Chinese counterparts imposed by Congress) and criticism of what she calls a rhetoric of “American exceptionalism” in space, despite NASA’s various problems.
“[I]f it weren’t for international partnerships,” she concludes, “the movie would have ended a lot less optimistically.” Ironically, the type of increased partnership she seeks—greater cooperation between the US and China—would have resulted in a far less optimistic outcome for the movie. If there were lower barriers to US-China cooperation, it’s likely China would be invited to participate in the International Space Station, likely in place of a standalone station such as the one depicted in the movie—thus depriving Sandra Bullock’s character of a means home.
Lyons at least assumes that, weeks after its premiere, readers of her essay have seen the movie: “By now, you have already seen the new space thriller, Gravity (spoilers ahead),” she writes. In an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun last week, though, Douglas MacKinnon makes no such assumption. “Without giving away any of the plot, I found it amusing and very telling that later in the film, China and elements of its manned space program play a significant and positive role,” he writes.
MacKinnon uses the film to criticize the Obama Administration, whose staff, he believes, “have basically shut down our entire human spaceflight program.” He continues: “As the movie came to a close, it was repeatedly reinforced to me that President Obama had made a serious error in judgment which may very well adversely affect our nation for decades to come.” He makes no mention, though, that the decision to retire the Space Shuttle dates back to the Bush Administration in 2004, or that NASA is both funding development of commercial crew vehicles as well as the Space Launch System and Orion.
Those commercial crew vehicles that MacKinnon overlooked also don’t appear in the movie, much to the consternation of Greg Autry, in another Huffington Post essay. Director Alfonso Cuarón, he writes, “might have maintained Gravity’s sense of realism and captured relevance by flying our heroine to orbit in one of America’s new commercial spacecraft.” (How such a vehicle could have been used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, the activity taking place as the movie began, isn’t clear, but perhaps such a vehicle could explain why the ISS was uninhabited when Bullock’s character arrived, even though a Soyuz was still docked.)
“We look forward to seeing Bullock relaxing on a safe, commercial flight to a commercial Bigelow space habitat in Gravity 2,” Autry concludes. Of course, given the debris-filled state of low Earth orbit by the movie’s end, she might have to wait a long time for such a flight.