Former astronaut set to retire from Air Force after nomination blocked in Senate

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by the Library of Congress noted that Helms’s nomination to be AFSPC vice commander, designated PN207-113, had been withdrawn by the administration on Thursday.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.

Senate bill would rename Dryden after Neil Armstrong

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.

Planetary missions also have to worry about a senior review

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.

Shutdown and potential sequester mean “everything is in flux” in NASA and NSF astrophysics programs

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.”

Another plea to get the politics out of space

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.

The space policy attraction of Gravity

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.

The future of human spaceflight in 126 characters (or less)

Back in the summer, the National Academies’ Committee on Human Spaceflight issued a call for white papers, soliciting opinions on the future of human spaceflight in the US, including the implications to the country if NASA ended its human spaceflight program. In last week’s issue of The Space Review, I examined some of the nearly 200 papers they received in response. The submissions featured a mix of papers by companies and organizations as well as from the public, with some familiar themes of general support of government human spaceflight, a goal of humans to Mars, and concerns about competition from China.

For those who might have thought a four-page paper to be a bit much (although some submissions weighed in at under a page), the committee is offering an alternative. Starting at 12:01 am Tuesday morning Eastern time, and continuing for 27 hours (through midnight Pacific time Tuesday night), the committee will be collecting inputs via Twitter. “What are your best ideas for creating a NASA human spaceflight program that is sustainable over the next several decades?” the committee is asking for responses on, requesting people use the hashtag #HumansinSpace. Those ideas will have to fit into just 126 characters or less: besides Twitter’s 140-character limit, the required hashtag itself takes up 14 characters.

As with the white papers, the committee notes the tweets will not be used as some kind of opinion poll because of the self-selected nature of the inputs. “However, the input is intended to help ensure that the committee hears about important issues from interested parties,” the committee states on the website about the Twitter initiative. So long as you can get those issues squeezed down to 126 characters or less.

Launch indemnification extension déjà vu

It’s starting to become an annual occurrence: around this time of year, people in the commercial launch industry start to wonder when—or even if—Congress wil extend the existing third-party commercial launch indemnification regime. That system requires commercial launch operators in the US to demonstrate financial responsibility, usually in the form of insurance, up to a “maximum probable loss”, or MPL, to uninvolved parties as calculated by the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) when licensing that launch. Losses above the MPL level would then be indemnified by the government up to an extremely high level (about $2.8 billion in 2013 dollars.) The indemnification regime needs to be periodically renewed by Congress; it last did so at the very end of the last Congress in January, but by only one year.

The problem for the industry is that, so far, Congress has taken almost no action on another extension. While there were hopes early this year that Congress would take up possibly a long-term extension as part of a broader reauthorization of FAA/AST, such a reauthorization has gone nowhere. The NASA authorization bill approved by the House Science Committee this summer does include a five-year extension, but that bill has not been taken up by the full House, and the Senate is strongly opposed to the overall bill. The Senate’s version of a NASA authorization bill includes a three-year extension, but it, too, has yet to be taken up by the full chamber.

“In the partisan environment we’re in, I don’t think it’s at the top of anyone’s agenda,” said Chris Kunstadter, Senior Vice President Aerospace Insurance at XL Group, during a panel session at last week’s International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) in Las Cruces, New Mexico. “It’s clearly important for fostering the US space industry. It’s crucial.” He described the last-minute, short-term extensions of the regime, as was the case at the end of last year, as “frustrating,” and noted that the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee, or COMSTAC, has long advocated for a long-term, or even permanent, extension of the indemnification system.

Kunstadter said he expects the indemnification system to be extended, but warned “there may be some issues that cause it not to be extended right away” in the current political environment. If there is a delay in an extension, he said, there is sufficient capacity in the insurance market to allow companies to purchase larger amounts of third-party coverage in lieu of government indemnification (which has never been invoked since the regime was established in the late 1980s.) “In the unlikely event that it is not extended, there will be insurance available up to a very high limit,” he said. “We hope it gets extended, it’s very important to the industry, but if it isn’t, I believe the insurance community, the insurance market, can absorb some of that.”

Vitter puts hold on Energy Dept. nominee, citing NASA issues

Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) announced late Monday that he had placed a hold on the nomination of Beth Robinson to become undersecretary at the Department of Energy, citing issues he has with her tenure as NASA’s chief financial officer, in particular work at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

“Under the Obama administration, NASA has been stalling on a job creating project at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans for no apparent reason,” Vitter said in the statement. “Ms. Robinson needs to answer questions about why they’ve delayed the project, and other questions about NASA’s operations before she leaves her job overseeing their finances.”

Vitter’s specific concern is that NASA is withholding $125 million in funds for SLS work to cover contract termination liability costs. “How do you explain that withholding these funds appears to be using of termination liability as a tool to slow progress of SLS?” Vitter asked in his letter to Robinson, included in the release.

Vitter is also concerned that NASA is delaying work on the SLS and Orion programs (both of which make some use of Michoud, although much of their development takes place elsewhere) and disproportionately cutting funding for those programs as it allocates budget cuts required under sequestration. “Are you intentionally trying to kill SLS and Orion? Why are you implementing sequestration in this biased manner?” he asks, requesting various operating plans submitted by NASA to Congress for fiscal year 2013. In the final operating plan approved by Congress in August, SLS and Orion got a combined $2.88 billion, down less than four percent from the $2.98 billion requested for them in the administration’s original FY13 budget request and 5.5 percent from the pre-sequester and pre-rescission amount of $3.05 billion in the final appropriations bill.

Vitter also asked Robinson a series of questions about whether she or NASA officials used non-government email, citing the use of personal email accounts by EPA officials to discuss official business. The letter offers no evidence of similar practices by NASA officials beyond a statement by Vitter that “employees at NASA have expressed concern to me that some of its senior leadership have also carried multiple communications devices and used personal emails to conduct government business.”

A post-shutdown roundup

With the end of the government shutdown, things are starting to return to normal (at least in the pre-shutdown sense of “normal”) for NASA and the rest of the federal government. The agency has resumed regular operations under a continuing resolution (CR) passed Wednesday by Congress that keeps the government funded until January 15, 2014, at fiscal year 2013 levels. The CR, HR 2775, doesn’t contain any special policy provisions for NASA, but does allow NOAA to spend its funds at a rate “necessary to maintain the planned launch schedules for the Joint Polar Satellite System and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite system.” That language is identical to what was in the original CR, H.J.Res.59, introduced in the House last month before getting wrapped up in a debate over the Affordable Care Act.

The end of the shutdown has also affected another policy issue that arose during it, the decision by NASA officials to block Chinese scientists from attending the Kepler Science Conference at NASA Ames Research Center. The Chinese news agency Xinhua reports that those scientists who were originally blocked from attending have received a letter from NASA that the original decision was overturned and that their “paperwork is being reviewed for clearance.” The end of the shutdown also allows the conference itself to proceed on schedule, starting November 4, conference organizers said Thursday.

And with the shutdown over, people can now pay attention to other space policy issues. In an op-ed in the Washington Times last week, Joshua Jacobs of the relatively new Conservative Future Project blamed NASA’s current problems primarily on Congress, in particular the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket. “Imagine what could be done if resources being thrown into the furnace for the Space Launch System was repurposed for technology incubation, commercial projects, or heaven forbid, actual missions,” he writes. Jacobs, though, is critical of the Obama Administration as well for canceling the Constellation Program, saying the program was “fiercely lauded in the scientific and space community”—but also suffered from budget issues.

In another essay on the website PolicyMic last week, Christopher Blakeley says NASA’s decision to shelve the J-2X engine—planned for the upper stage of the SLS but not needed for its initial missions—after tests of it are completed next year is another sign of a flawed space program. Like Jacobs, he believes NASA should partner more with the private sector. “Space exploration can no longer be a contest to see who’s got the biggest rocket,” he writes. “Looking at the private space travel through companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic instead of creating rockets that can’t take us anywhere is a great place to start.”