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.

NASA: funding of some extended planetary missions depends on additional funding

Full funding of all of NASA’s current planetary science missions is dependent on receiving money above what’s in the baseline request for the agency in fiscal year 2015, a NASA official said Monday.

Speaking at the “NASA Night” town hall meeting at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in suburban Houston, Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, attempted to explain what was, to many in the room, a puzzling aspect of the detailed FY2015 budget proposal: no funding for the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Opportunity and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) programs in 2015 or beyond. Some had worried that NASA was making a decision on the future of those programs even before a planned “senior review” of those and other extended missions that will take place this spring.

That, said Green, was not the intent of the budget, but instead reflects the fact that funding for extended missions is split between the baseline budget proposal and the additional $885 million requested as part of the administration’s Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative (OGSI); $35 million of that OGSI funding would be used for planetary science mission extended funding. “The President provides a budget for which all our operating missions are covered,” he said. “They’re covered in the two parts of the budget.”

Specifically, he said, LRO and Opportunity would be covered by that $35 million in OGSI funding. “I had an opportunity to grab $35 million for extended mission funding, and balance a budget, create a budget that we can basically execute on and not have any of our balls dropped,” Green said. “When you add LRO and Opportunity, that’s about $35 million.” (Although, according to the FY13 actual expenditures included in NASA’s FY15 budget request, LRO, at $8.1 million, and MER, at $13.2 million, fall well short of $35 million.)

The administration’s overall OGSI proposal has not gotten a warm reception on Capitol Hill, particularly in the House. Green said, though, that funding for LRO and Opportunity was not specifically tied to OGSI: they could still have their extended missions funded if NASA receives only its baseline budget, depending on how well they do in the senior review. “If LRO is on top, or Opportunity is on top, they will be funded,” he said, referring to the ranking of missions that will come out of the senior review. “We’ll reprogram as necessary to be able cover these missions.”

“I’d love to have the community not worry so much about where the money is and how much they’re going to get,” Green said later, “because they need to write a proposal to get it.”

Green also discussed planning for a Europa mission. Earlier this month, NASA associate administrator for science John Grunsfeld said NASA would issue in the near future a request for information (RFI) for Europa mission concepts that cost $1 billion or less, or about half of the estimated cost of Europa Clipper, a proposal under current study by NASA. At LPSC, Green said the RFI was coming soon, but did not provide a date. “That’s a phase space that perhaps we haven’t significantly looked at, and we owe it to ourselves to be able to determine if there are any viable missions at a billion dollars or less,” he said.

However, Green sounded a little skeptical that a Europa mission that was scientifically worthwhile could be done that inexpensively. “We owe it to the administration to do that last check,” he said of the RFI, citing advances in technology. “Maybe, just maybe, there’s a way to do the preponderance of the planetary decadal science objectives for less than a billion dollars. That’s important to check, and after we see what the responses are and evaluate those, we will then chart a course to execute the program accordingly.”

Green emphasized that any mission to Europa has to be able to do a “preponderance” of the science goals laid out in the 2012 decadal report. NASA will continue to refine the Europa Clipper concept in the meantime, he said, as well as prepare the release of an announcement of opportunity for risk reduction work on instruments, which will not go out until after the RFI responses are evaluated.

Nelson argues for commercial crew, Brooks and Shelby seek more money for SLS

As relations between the United States and Russia continue to be strained by the crisis in Crimea, Congress is being briefed on its potential implications for space activities, a key member of Congress said late Monday.

“NASA officials have been briefing some members of Congress over the last few days on U.S. plans and options should relations between the two nations deteriorate,” states a press release issued by the office of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), chairman of the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee. The release didn’t specify what those “plans and options” are.

Nelson used the release to argue for “properly” funding NASA’s commercial crew program. “We’ve got to properly fund and support commercial space flight so we can keep our space program alive and well, no matter happens with Russia,” Nelson said in the statement. Nelson’s office said the senator is a “proponent of additional funding” for the program beyond the $696 million it received in fiscal year 2014; the FY2015 budget requests $848 million for the program. The release stated at Nelson will meet with Kennedy Space Center director Bob Cabana Tuesday afternoon “to get the latest updates.”

[A spokesperson for Sen. Nelson emailed Tuesday to clarify that the senator is not seeking to take money from other NASA programs to fund commercial crew, but to increase overall NASA spending to accommodate both commercial crew and SLS/Orion.]

However, commercial crew doesn’t have similar statements of support from other members of Congress. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) told the Huntsville Times that while commercial crew is one way to get American astronauts to orbit, the Space Launch System (SLS) “is more important for long-term access and national security,” according to the report.

Brooks was upset with the FY15 budget proposal’s request of $1.38 billion for SLS. “I would like to see SLS receive a minimum of $1.6 billion for vehicle development in FY 2015,” he told the Times. “Anything less than $1.6 billion delays SLS availability.”

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) has similar views, telling the Times that he feels commercial crew is properly funded despite the growing concerns about access to the ISS should relations with Russia deteriorate. “Vice Chairman Shelby will continue to fight for SLS because it’s the only viable option for America to maintain its leadership role in human space flight,” said a statement provided to the newspaper, referring to Shelby’s position as the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Hagel: Defense Department plans “review” of dependence on RD-180

The Defense Department will perform some kind of review of the dependence of the US on the Russian-manufactured RD-180 engine, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told a House committee on Thursday.

Late in a hearing by the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on the Defense Department’s proposed fiscal year 2015 budget, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) asked Hagel about that dependence in light of what he called the “Ukrainian situation.” “Does it demonstrate it’s time for us to move ahead promptly more with a Air Force/NASA funding to develop additional capabilities for making power rocket engines here in the US?” Aderholt’s northern Alabama district is near both NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville and United Launch Alliance’s manufacturing facilites in Decatur.

“You’re obviously referring to the relationship with the Russians on the rocket motors,” Hagel responded, although neither he nor Aderholt mentioned the RD-180 engine by name. “Well, I think this is going to engage us in a review of that issue. I don’t think there’s any question about that.”

“Do you feel that this is something that is rising to the forefront now with this Ukrainian situation?” Aderholt asked. “Yes, as I just said, I think there’s no question, sure,” Hagel responded. Hagel did not offer further details about what that review would entail.

Hagel’s comments, though, indicate a stronger degree of concern than previously about the availability of the RD-180 engine, which powers the Atlas V first stage. Last week, United Launch Alliance CEO Michael Gass testified to Senate defense appropriators that there was more than two years’ worth of RD-180s in storage to support Atlas V launches should the supply of those engines be interrupted, and that his company had the capability to manufacture RD-180 engines domestically. “We are not at any risk for supporting our national needs,” Gass said at the hearing.

Earlier this week, Air Force undersecretary Eric Fanning confirmed Gass’s comments, saying there was a stockpile of RD-180 engines that would last into 2016. He added that the US was looking at ways to “ensure a varied supply of the engines,” according to Reuters, including domestic productions. Earlier proposals to manufacture the RD-180 domestically were long ago set aside in favor of stockpiling engines, given the time and expense required to establish a domestic production line.

A European wildcard for EELV competition

The debate on competition for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) class US government launches has focused on SpaceX’s challenge to incumbent United Launch Alliance (ULA). However, this week an executive with a European company expressed his desire to compete for such launches as well.

Speaking at the Satellite 2014 conference in Washington on Tuesday, Arianespace chairman and CEO Stéphane Israël said he believed his company’s Ariane 5 rocket could be competitive for US government launches. “At Arianespace, we are fully ready to compete on the institutional market in the US,” he said. “We are quite sure we would be in a position to offer the best solution for the customer,” adding they would be willing to look at how they could “Americanize” the rocket to be able to compete for government payloads.

Israël emphasized that point in a tweet after the panel session Tuesday:

Such an “Americanization” of the Ariane 5 would likely be needed to comply with national space transportation policy. The latest such policy, released in November, included language from previous policies stating that US government payloads “shall be launched on vehicles manufactured in the United States” unless an exception is granted by the National Security Advisor and the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. In comments after the Satellite 2014 panel, Israël didn’t offer many details about how an Americanized Ariane 5 would be developed, but likened it to proposals by Airbus to compete for an Air Force tanker aircraft contract by assembling the aircraft in the United States (a contract Airbus lost to Boeing.)

Arianespace officials had recently also noted that they believed that Ariane 5 launches of Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) spacecraft offered a more cost-effective approach for delivering cargo to the International Space Station than SpaceX does under its current Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA. “We would be happy to take over their contract and lower the price per kilogram for delivering cargo to the ISS,” Arianespace’s Clay Mowry told Aviation Week. However, there are no current plans to build additional ATVs after the fifth and final ATV spacecraft launches to the ISS later this year.

Crimea crisis becomes new argument for commercial crew funding

While the Crimea crisis has been on the back burner for the last several days, the threat it has to worsen US-Russia relations has become an argument used by some to support funding for NASA’s commercial crew program to eliminate US reliance on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for transporting crews to and from the International Space Station.

“Congress faces a choice between making an essential and overdue investment in regaining U.S. access to space, or keeping Putin in the pilot’s seat — and paying through the nose cone for it,” argued the Orlando Sentinel in an editorial Wednesday. The paper claimed that Congress had not made restoring US human space launch capabilities a priority, based on cuts it made to previous years’ budget requests for the commercial crew program, and warned that additional cuts would jeopardize the current 2017 launch date. “This shouldn’t be a tough call, especially now,” the editorial concluded. “It’s time for lawmakers to open the throttle on the U.S. commercial space program.”

In an op-ed in The Huffington Post, former astronaut Clayton Anderson expresses skepticism about claims by NASA officials, including administrator Charles Bolden, that US-Russian space relations are unaffected by the current crisis. “While 14 years of apolitical U.S./Russian operations in space is noteworthy and calming, NASA can only speculate that ‘everything’s OK,’” he writes. “On one thing we can agree: The situation clearly illustrates the need for speeding up the ability of U.S. commercial companies to ferry our astronauts to and from the ISS.” Elsewhere in the essay, though, Anderson said “it’s going to be a while” before those companies will be ready for transporting crews to the ISS.

In comments Wednesday during a panel about “new space actors” at the Satellite 2014 conference in Washington, Richard DalBello of the Office of Science and Technology Policy did not make an explicit link between the current crisis and commercial crew, but did put in a pitch for fully funding the program in the 2015 budget. “On the issue of private innovation support for commercial space enterprise, we’ve seen clear bipartisan support for a long number of years,” he said. “I think what we need Congress to do this year is to fully fund the commercial crew program. Let’s get American astronauts flying back to the space station on American launch vehicles.”

Space lobbying today in Washington and Tallahassee

Two organizations will be meeting with national and state legislators today in separate events to convince them of the importance of key space issues. In Washington, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) will be holding its annual Congressional Visits Day, as members meet with congressional staff members and others to raise “awareness of the long-term value that science, engineering, and technology bring to America.”

AIAA has issued its list of key issues for this year’s event, which include several items related to space policy. AIAA calls for “ensuring a robust U.S. human spaceflight program” that includes “stable long-term funding” for the Space Launch System, Orion, and other systems needed for human missions, with the long-term goal of a human mission to Mars in the early 2030s. AIAA also calls on Congress and the White House to “state clear priorities for linking NASA Human Spaceflight activity to national goals related to foreign relations, economic growth, education, and technological achievement.” AIAA also seeks to raise awareness about the threat posed by orbital debris, including methods to track and catalog items as small as 1 centimeter (current systems cannot reliably track objects smaller than 10 centimeters) and to work on the technical and legal issues of removing space debris.

While AIAA members are working on Capitol Hill, representatives of Florida’s space industry will be meeting with state legislators in Tallahassee for “Florida Space Day.” Their agenda includes support for a $10-million budget for state space agency Space Florida and $1.5 million for space industry tourism marketing, as well as more general support for a commercial launch site proposed north of the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and commercialization of excess KSC assets, including the Shuttle Landing Facility there, which Space Florida seeks to operate. The event will have a little space star power: former astronaut and KSC director Robert Crippen “will be making scheduled appearances throughout the event,” according to a press release.