NASA suspends non-ISS cooperation with Russia

In a decision that is more symbolic than substantive, NASA confirmed late Wednesday that it is suspending cooperation with the Russian government, with the very large exception of operations of the International Space Station (ISS).

“Given Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, NASA is suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation,” NASA announced in a one-paragraph statement that was issued, oddly enough, through the agency’s Google+ account, rather than posted to the agency’s website. “NASA and Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station.”

The statement came several hours after a NASA internal memo leaked out announcing the halt in non-ISS cooperation. “This suspension includes NASA travel to Russia and visits by Russian Government representatives to NASA facilities, bilateral meetings, email, and teleconferences or videoconferences,” wrote Michael F. O’Brien, associate administrator for international and interagency relations, in the memo. While that statement said NASA was suspending “the majority of its ongoing engagements,” the O’Brien memo stated that “all NASA contacts with Russian Government representatives are suspended, unless the activity has been specifically excepted,” with ISS operations the only stated exception in the memo.

That decision, though, may be less severe than it sounds, since there’s little cooperation between NASA and Russian government agencies outside of the ISS partnership. Neither the memo nor the statement enumerated the specific programs affected by the decision. There are Russian instruments on a few NASA spacecraft, including the Curiosity Mars rover (DAN) and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LEND). An undated document on the US Embassy in Moscow’s website, apparently from some time between 2006 and 2008, lists several other minor areas of NASA-Russia cooperation in earth sciences, many of which may no longer be active. (Update: also potentially affected by the ban is US cooperation on ExoMars, the former ESA-NASA Mars program that, after NASA dropped out, became an ESA-Russian program, although with NASA still involved at a much lower level; and a joint NASA-Russian science definition team for Russia’s Venera-D Venus mission.)

Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin did not sound impressed by the suspension of non-ISS cooperation between NASA and Russia. “Yet, apart from over the ISS we didn’t cooperate with NASA anyway,” he said in a tweet early Thursday.

A more serious move involving space-related efforts between the US and Russia quietly took place late last week, when the State Department announced that it “has placed a hold on the issuance of licenses that would authorize the export of defense articles and defense services to Russia,” according to a brief statement on the website of the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls. Since satellites and related components are, for the time being, still on the US Munitions List, this move would block the export of such items to Russia, including commercial communications satellites to be launched from Russian facilities.

Fears of loss of access to the ISS fade despite ongoing crisis

A month ago, as the crisis over the Crimea ramped up, many people worried about the ramifications of Russia’s actions on operations of the International Space Station (ISS), particularly since NASA and the other partners rely on Russia for transporting crews to and from the outpost. However, those concerns have started to fade, in part because Russia followed through with a launch to the station last week that brought a NASA astronaut and two Russian counterparts to the station, and because the crisis overall has not escalated.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden, who has insisted from the beginning of the crisis that ISS cooperation has not been adversely affected by it, reiterated those beliefs Thursday at a hearing of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee on NASA’s 2015 budget proposal. “I am not aware of any threat” of Russia refusing to transport NASA astronauts to the station, he said in response to a question by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the full committee. “I am comfortable because we talk to the Russians every day, to Roscosmos,” the Russian space agency. “We’re confident that they are just as interested and just as intent on maintaining that partnership as we are.”

That believe is supported by Michael McFaul, who stepped down in February as US ambassador to Russia to return to academia. “I think U.S.-Russia space cooperation would be one of the last areas of cooperation to be interrupted,” he told NBC News in a recent interview. “This cooperation has continued for decades through many ups and downs in US-Russian relations. It is also profitable for Russia.”

Congressional skepticism of NASA’s asteroid plans remains

Nearly a year ago, NASA announced its plans to redirect an asteroid into lunar orbit to be visited by astronauts, a concept originally called the Asteroid Retrieval Mission and now known as the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). In the months that followed, the proposed mission received a chilly reception on Capitol Hill, particularly in the House. A NASA authorization bill approved by the House Science Committee last summer would have forbid NASA from spending any funds on the ARM and required it to submit budget, technical and other details about the mission.

This past week, NASA held an “Asteroid Initiative Opportunities Forum” to discuss the agency’s overall asteroid initiative, the current status of ARM planning, and details about a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) it released earlier this month seeking proposals in five key technical areas associated with the ARM. That work is supporting a Mission Concept Review planned for early 2015 that will make key decisions about the mission architecture. NASA associate administrator Robert Lightfoot said at the forum that he was confident that this review would create a mission with a cost about half, or even less, than the $2.6-billion estimated cost of a similar asteroid redirect mission in the final report of a study two years ago by the Keck Institute for Space Studies at Caltech.

However, those details aren’t enough to satisfy some members of Congress, who remain skeptical of the overall ARM concept. “The White House’s proposed Asteroid Retrieval Mission is a mission without a budget, without a destination, and without a launch date,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science Committee, in his opening statement Wednesday in a hearing on the administration’s overall budget proposal for science agencies. Smith said he preferred a “certain, near-term, realizable goal” for human spaceflight, in particular the Mars 2021 mission flyby concept proposed by Inspiration Mars.

Later, in the question-and-answer session with Office of Science and Technology Policy direct John Holdren, Smith brought up again NASA’s asteroid plans, citing the late 2012 report by the National Academies that concluded there was little support for NASA’s plans for sending humans to a near Earth asteroid by 2025 (a report completed before NASA announced the ARM concept), as well as criticism of the ARM itself by the NASA Advisory Council last year. “The asteroid mission has been reformulated and better explained” since the National Academies report, Holdren argued, “and now has strong buy-in.”

Smith cut Holdren off. “They still don’t have a budget, they still don’t have an asteroid, and they still don’t have a launch date. That doesn’t sound to me like a very serious program.”

At the hearing the next day about the NASA budget, Smith again brought up the ARM, raising doubts about its relevance to long-term space exploration and asking if NASA was formally studying the Mars 2021 flyby mission concept. Bolden said NASA was reviewing the Inspiration Mars mission concept report, but not doing anything more formal.

Smith also mentioned comments made at a hearing last May by the committee’s space subcommittee, where NASA Advisory Council chairman Steve Squyres questioned the relevance of the ARM towards supporting NASA’s long-term Mars exploration plans. “I think if you talked to Steve Squyres today, because of where we are, the maturity—” Bolden started to respond.

“I don’t doubt you could put political pressure on him,” Smith interjected, something that Bolden denied. “As far as I’m concerned, his testimony before the committee stands,” Smith concluded.

Earlier this month, it appeared that one previous congressional critic of the ARM had undergone a change of heart. Speaking at the Maryland Space Business Roundtable on March 18, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking member of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, said that after hearing Bolden give a “riveting” description of the ARM concept to students, she texted him, saying she was “mesmerized” by that description was now a supporter of it, Space News reported.

However, at Thursday’s hearing on NASA’s budget, she walked back some of those comments. “While I paid the NASA administrator a compliment for his passionate and lucid explanation of the Asteroid Redirect Mission to a group of students recently,” she said in her opening remarks, “I continue to have questions about this potential mission and how it would contribute relative to other potential missions to enable the goal of sending humans to the surface of Mars.”

Bolden and House committee clash over NASA priorities

In a hearing about NASA’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal by the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee on Thursday, many key members expressed concern about agency priorities, including funding levels for the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket and Orion spacecraft, while NASA administrator Charles Bolden argued that NASA’s commercial crew effort was its top priority.

“Congress has made clear that the Space Launch System (SLS) is a top priority of the Human Exploration program, yet for the third year in a row the administration has reduced the budget for this vital asset. The President’s budget seeks a reduction of $219 million for launch vehicle development,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the full House Science Committee, in a statement issued after the hearing. Those comments echoed what he and other key committee members said in their opening statements regarding SLS and Orion funding.

“Commercial crew is the critical need for this nation right now,” Bolden said in response to a question from the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), about the lower level of funding for SLS in the FY15 request versus the FY14 appropriations. “I don’t need a Space Launch System and Orion if I can’t get my crews to low Earth orbit.”

“Basically, you’re saying that you’re reducing the SLS/Orion budget in this to fund commercial crew,” Palazzo responded. “There’s a $219 million cut.”

Palazzo also pressed Bolden on the schedule for commercial crew, arguing that NASA has stayed on schedule for introducing commercial crew services by 2017 in the last couple of years despite the program not being fully funded; thus, he asked, why did the problem need full funding now to stay on schedule? Bolden noted that the commercial crew program originally had a goal of 2015 for beginning such flights. “We would now find ourselves months away from launching Americans from American soil, and I would not have to worry about paying the Russians another $450 million,” had the program been fully funded from the outset, he argued. “If we don’t get what the President requested, I can’t guarantee 2017, I can’t guarantee competition, and we will continue to pay the Russians.”

Bolden also clearly laid the blame for those delays on Congress. “This committee, this Congress, chose to rely on the Russians because they chose not to accept the President’s recommendation and request for full funding for commercial crew. You can’t have it both ways.”

The subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), asked Bolden how confident he was that commercial providers could meet that 2017 schedule if the program does receive the requested $848 million in 2015. “It is high,” he responded. “My confidence level for making 2017 with robust competition is not as high.”

Later in the hearing, subcommittee vice chairman Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) took issue with Bolden’s comments. “I must admit, I am somewhat astonished by your testimony that shifts responsibility from this administration to Congress for America’s current inability to launch astronauts into space,” he said. Brooks blamed the Obama Administration for canceling the Constellation program, retiring the Space Shuttle, and other issues, including increasing funding for welfare programs “that put a higher priority on buying election votes, no matter the loss of funding for NASA.”

Bolden doubled down on his support for commercial crew. “If the Congress chooses not to fund commercial crew, this nation has no plan” for getting astronauts to the ISS if Russia cuts off access to the station, something he emphasized he didn’t think would happen.

During a later exchange with Brooks, Bolden said that without the ISS, he would recommend that SLS and Orion be cancelled. “I will go to the President and recommend that we terminate SLS and Orion because without the International Space Station, I have no vehicle to do the medical tests, the technology development, and we’re fooling everybody if we think we can go to deep space if the International Space Station is not there,” he said. “I don’t want anybody to think that I need an SLS or Orion if I don’t have the International Space Station.”

Bolden uses Soyuz launch to press for commercial crew funding

Despite the current tensions between the United States and Russia, the two countries continued their cooperation in space late Tuesday with the launch of a Soyuz spacecraft carrying two Russian cosmonauts and one American astronaut to the International Space Station. (Their arrival, planned for Tuesday night, has been delayed because of a technical glitch with the spacecraft, but the Soyuz is still expected to safely arrive at the ISS Thursday evening.) “It is important to note that NASA continues to cooperate successfully with Russia on International Space Station (ISS) activities,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden noted in a blog post yesterday shortly before the launch.

Bolden, though, used the launch to make the case once again for full funding of the agency’s commercial crew program in its fiscal year 2015 budget proposal, arguing that was a better use of funds than continuing to pay the Russians about $70 million per Soyuz seat. “Budgets are about choices,” he wrote, echoing language from the rollout of the budget earlier this month. “The choice moving forward is between fully funding the President’s request to bring space launches back to American soil or continuing to send millions to the Russians. It’s that simple.”

Bolden was also subtly critical of past decisions by Congress to fund commercial crew at lower levels than requested. “President Obama has requested in NASA’s budget more than $800 million each of the past 5 years to incentivize the American aerospace industry to build the spacecraft needed to launch our astronauts from American soil. Had this plan been fully funded, we would have returned American human spaceflight launches – and the jobs they support – back to the United States next year. With the reduced level of funding approved by Congress, we’re now looking at launching from U.S. soil in 2017.”

In its Aerospace Day proclamation, Colorado legislators demand accelerated space program

The letter from House members calling on the White House for a “vision and timeline” for space exploration looks positively mild compared to what they’re asking for in Colorado. In a resolution passed by the Colorado Legislature designating Monday as “Colorado Aerospace Day,” members criticized the federal government for ceding the lead in human spaceflight. “At the dawn of the space age, there were two nations that could put people into space — the United States and the Soviet Union,” the resolution states. “Today there are still two nations that can put people into space, but the United States is no longer one of them.”

In the resolution, which also commends the Colorado Space Business Roundtable for forming a chapter of Citizens for Space Exploration, legislators call on the federal government to accelerate human spaceflight development efforts, including “regaining the ability of the United States to deliver persons and cargo to space by 2015.” The resolution doesn’t specify how to do that, but does go on to call on NASA to commit to “sending persons to destinations such as the moon, Lagrange points, asteroids, and Mars within this decade or as soon as technologically possible.” NASA’s current plans call for the first crewed flight of its Orion spacecraft, launched on a Space Launch System rocket, in 2021 on a mission in cislunar space, which would presumably not meet the “this decade” goal of the resolution.

Bipartisan House letter calls for “vision and timeline” for space exploration

A letter to President Obama signed by 30 members of the House of Representatives calls on the White House to provide more details, and support, for human space exploration. The letter, dated March 21 and released Monday, expresses concern about “shifting priorities for NASA and the resulting mixed signals this sends relative to the United States’ dedication and commitment to its leadership role in human deep spaceflight exploration,” adding that leadership is threatened by “the expansion of human spaceflight programs in countries such as China and Russia over the past decade.”

“We urge you to chart and clearly state a vision and timeline for the nation in deep space exploration,” the letter requests of the President. The letter stops short, though, of calling for a specific direction, such as a human return to the Moon or acceleration of NASA’s existing long-term plans to send humans to Mars by the mid-2030s. Instead, the letter focuses on the technological and educational benefits of investment in space exploration. “We look forward to working with the Administration to strengthen human spaceflight exploration in our budget commitment,” the letter concludes. “Working together, we can chart a course for space exploration worthy of our great nation.”

The letter is signed by 30 members of the House, 14 Republicans and 16 Democrats, with Reps. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), chairman of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, and Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking member of that subcommittee, as the lead signers. Other signatories to the letter include Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the full House Science Committee. Notably absent, though, are the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), chairman emeritus Ralph Hall (R-TX), and vice-chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). The chairman and ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee subcommittee that funds NASA, Reps. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Chaka Fattah (D-PA), are also absent from the letter.

Interestingly, the press release jointly issued by Palazzo and Edwards emphasizes support for the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion programs at NASA, although neither are mentioned by name in the body of the letter. (A reader notes that they are mentioned in the subject of the letter: “Re: NASA Space Launch System and Orion”.) The letter, they state, is “in support of NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion as part of prioritizing human space exploration within NASA’s budgets,” although there’s only a reference in the letter’s opening sentence to support for “a safe, focused and expeditious return of American astronauts to deep space exploration on an American rocket launched from American soil.” Palazzo, in his statement in the joint press release, says he will do “everything in my power to restore that focus to NASA’s budgets as we revisit these matters in the NASA Authorization Act later this year.”

Pentagon confirms study into reliance on RD-180 engine underway

As the Obama Administration levied new sanctions on Russia Thursday for that nation’s actions in the ongoing Ukraine crisis, a Pentagon spokesman confirmed that the Air Force was studying its reliance on the Russian-manufactured RD-180 rocket engine used by the Atlas V.

At a news briefing Thursday, Defense Department spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said that, as Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel indicated at a House hearing last week, the Air Force was looking into its reliance on the RD-180.

“The secretary directed the Air Force to perform an additional review to ensure that we completely understand all the implications, including supply interruptions of using foreign components for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program,” Kirby said, saying later that he wasn’t sure if this new study was already underway before last week’s hearing before the House Appropriations Committee or was triggered by it. He did note that was not aware of any threats by Russia to cut off supplies of the engine.

Another Pentagon spokesperson told Bloomberg News Thursday that “in light of the current situation, we have directed the Air Force perform an additional review to ensure we completely understand the implications, including supply interruptions, of using foreign components.”

At a hearing last Friday by the House Armed Services Committee on the Air Force’s fiscal year 2015 budget request, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) asked Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James about the reliance of the Air Force on the Russian-manufactured engine. James stressed there had been a long-running and good relationship with Russia regarding supplies of the engine, and that there was a two-year supply of RD-180 engines stockpiled in the US, but that a study was warranted. “It is something we have to keep our eyes on, and I do want to review it,” she said.

While many are concerned with the potential loss of access to the RD-180 engine should the situation worsen, one pundit is not that concerned. “If Putin does threaten our rocket shipments, we can dip into the two-year store that has been stockpiled for just such an occasion,” writes Josh Gelernter in National Review on Friday, adding that SpaceX can pick up the slack with its Falcon rockets. Gelernter, in his essay, seeks to use the crisis to reinvigorate American space efforts, arguing that the money currently being paid to Russia for Soyuz seats to and from the International Space Station be used to accelerate development of domestic crew vehicles, even if that means temporarily losing access to the station. “If push comes to shove, though, the cost of two years without an American on the ISS is much less than the cost of an unfettered Russia recapturing Eastern Europe.”

Mixed messages on the future of ORS

The Defense Department’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) program has been on thin ice for some time: the Air Force has in the past attempted to kill funding for the ORS Office, arguing that the experience the office has built up developing low-cost, responsive space systems can be utilized by other Air Force organizations. And that’s the case again this year, as the Air Force’s fiscal year 2015 budget request (p. 283 of the PDF document) includes no funding for the ORS Office in 2015 or beyond.

However, Congress has pushed back again efforts to shutter the ORS Office, including language in Defense Department authorization bills to keep the office open and providing at least a token amount of funding for its operations: $10 million for fiscal year 2014. One senator now says there’s a new spacecraft mission coming for the office.

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) told the Albuquerque Journal in an article published Wednesday that that Air Force officials told him that they have identified a payload for the ORS-2 mission, one that will support space situational awareness. The article doesn’t provide any additional details other than ORS-2 will cost $60 million and take 30 months to build, with an additional $20 million for launch. In the Air Force budget documents, there’s no mention of ORS-2 beyond the delivery of the bus for that mission, although there is an ORS-5 mission slated to be developed through the end of fiscal year 2016 that features “a space situational awareness payload to meet a USSTRATCOM [US Strategic Command] validated urgent need, address rapidly evolving threats, and serve as a pathfinder in this vital mission area.” The budget documents state that both ORS-2 and ORS-5 are covered by fiscal year 2013 and 2014 funds.

Heinrich is particularly interested in the ORS Office since it’s based at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque. Last fall, he briefly placed a hold on the nomination of Deborah Lee James to be the next Secretary of the Air Force, seeking answers to questions about the future of the ORS Office. He lifted the hold after Air Force officials told him they would keep the ORS Office open through fiscal year 2014 and determine a mission and payload for ORS-2. “I appreciate the Air Force’s cooperation and reconsideration, and I look forward to continue our work together to ensure the ORS program remains intact,” Heinrich said in an October 1 statement announcing he lifted the hold on James, who was later confirmed.

Nelson plays down risks to US-Russia space relations

Echoing previous comments by agency officials, a key US senator said Tuesday he doesn’t believe that the current crisis involving Ukraine will jeopardize US-Russian relations in space.

“I think you will not see a hitch in the American and the Russian space program that we share with a lot of other nations as well,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) told reporters Tuesday at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida Today reported. Despite Russian efforts to annex Crimea from Ukraine, “I think it’s pretty clear that the cooperation in space will continue,” he said.

Those comments come a day after his office issued a press release stating that NASA officials had been “briefing some members of Congress over the last few days on U.S. plans and options should relations between the two nations deteriorate.” In the same release, though, Nelson indicated he didn’t believe the current crisis would “interfere with important scientific work being done aboard the space station,” while also arguing that it called for a “strong” US space program, including development of commercial crew transportation systems.

Nelson’s comments on US-Russian space relations echo those by NASA officials, who have, since early March, indicated a lack of concern that the crisis would adversely affect ISS operations. “I know the events in Ukraine have been a concern for many people, but things are very harmonious in the program,” said ISS director Sam Scimemi during a panel session on space station research held by the Space Transportation Association on Capitol Hill March 14.