The speculation was at least fun while it lasted. On Thursday, Roll Call reported that Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), one of the few senators who shows a strong interest in space, was mulling a run for governor of Florida in 2014. Nelson was reelected to the Senate in 2012 and thus would not have to give up his seat to run for governor, unless he decided to resign to focus full-time on a gubernatorial run. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), who worked closely with Nelson on space policy, opted not to resign when she ran for governor of Texas in 2010; she lost the Republican primary to incumbent Rick Perry, and decided to retire instead of run again for the Senate in 2012.
That speculation, though, didn’t last long. On Friday, Nelson told MSNBC that he had “no intention of running for governor” in 2014. “I love this job as senator, except that I am very, very frustrated” by the difficulty in building consensus on issues, he said.
Nelson’s departure from the Senate, either to campaign for office or if he was elected governor, would have created something of a policy vacuum in the Senate on space issues. Nelson serves as the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee, and is usually joined in hearings there by only the committee’s new ranking member, freshman Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who won the seat vacated by the retiring Hutchison.
Nelson also mentioned space in his latest newsletter last week, citing the new asteroid initiative in the administration’s 2014 budget request for NASA. “I announced that NASA is planning to catch an asteroid and place it in orbit around the moon,” he wrote, a reference to his statement about the initiative that came out several days before the official budget rollout. “And the program will mean jobs for Florida, and a reinvigorated space agency,” he added, without elaborating on exactly how many jobs, and where, would be enabled by this plan.
At yesterday’s House Science Committee space subcommittee hearing on the NASA budget, NASA administrator Charles Bolden was grilled on NASA’s asteroid mission plans, funding for the Space Launch System and Orion, commercial crew, and changes to NASA’s education program. He was also asked, though, about a program that has faded from view recently: the James Webb Space Telescope. Pressed by full committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) about reports of delays with instruments for the James Webb Space Telescope, Bolden commented, “That’s news to me.”
Smith was referring to a report released last week by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessing the state of various major NASA programs. “JWST is currently experiencing technical issues on the spacecraft and integrated science instrument module (ISIM) that have impacted the test schedule,” the report states. “[O]nly two instruments have been delivered for integration with ISIM and the other two instruments will be delivered at least 11 months late.”
That report raised new questions about the ability of JWST to meet its late 2018 launch date and stay within a budget of $8 billion through launch. “The project is worthwhile, and progress is being made, but it’s doubtful the current cost and schedule are realistic,” Florida Today columnist John Kelly wrote Sunday, concluding the report “hints at future delays.”
And while the issues with JWST might be news to Bolden, they’re not news for those who have been following the program. At a JWST town hall meeting at the most recent American Astronomical Society meeting, in California in January, officials noted the delays with the instruments but argued that they did not pose a risk to the program’s budget and schedule at that time. “We’ve been able to cover that with existing budget reserves and schedule reserves,” deputy program manager Eric Smith said of the instrument delays. “There is no change to the launch date and no change to the budget.”
At that same conference in January, though, a key member of the House Science Committee, vice chairman Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), expressed a lack of confidence that JWST was back on track, and said the committee would hold hearings on the status of the space telescope. So yesterday’s hearing is probably not the only time JWST will be discussed by the committee.
While much of the attention in the upcoming hearings this afternoon and tomorrow morning on NASA’s proposed fiscal year 2014 budget will be on items like the agency’s new asteroid initiative, SLS and Orion, and commercial crew, one other topic that may get some notice is the agency’s planetary science budget. Congress moved to partially restore a 20-percent cut for planetary science in NASA’s 2013 budget proposal, but that cut returns in the 2014 proposal, and there are concerns NASA may redirect funding allocated to planetary in the 2013 budget.
Last last week, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) issued a press release expressing concern about NASA’s funding for planetary science. “There have been reports that the FY 2013 NASA Operating Plan will slash funding from the Planetary Science programs,” the release stated, referring to the operating plan that NASA must deliver to Congress by May 10 outlining any reprogramming of funds it is seeking from the levels in the 2013 appropriations bill. The release included a letter signed by Schiff as well as Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) and Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) outlining specific issues with the FY13 spending bill. “While we fully understand that the funding levels enumerated in the bill and report are subject to change to reflect the across the board and sequester cuts, we expect that the balance among programs will remain consistent with the structure directed by Congress,” they write.
Meanwhile, the FY14 budget seeks $1.22 billion for planetary science in 2014, about the same as what NASA requested in 2013 and down fromthe $1.5 billion in 2012. In recent days The Planetary Society has been trying to drum up public support for increasing planetary funding, directing people to an online form calling for its funding to be restored (at least to 2012 levels.) “In difficult economic times, The Planetary Society recommends that Congress prioritize the effective and productive Planetary Science Division within NASA and fund it at $1.5 billion per year,” the organization stated in testimony it is submitting to Congress this week on the NASA budget proposal.
Several hearings this week by House and Senate committees will examine NASA’s 2014 budget request and its overall space exploration plans. The hearings start this afternoon with one on “Challenges and Opportunities for Human Space Exploration” by the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee. Scheduled to testify are NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations Bill Gerstenmaier, former astronaut Tom Stafford, and Steve Cook of Dynetics.
The House Science Committee’s space subcommittee will hold a hearing Wednesday afternoon on NASA’s fiscal year 2014 budget request. NASA administrator Charles Bolden is the sole witness.
Last, and perhaps most important, is a hearing by the Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee on the NASA FY14 budget proposal, scheduled for 9:30 am Thursday. Bolden will testify at that hearing, along with NASA inspector general Paul Martin. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who chairs the full appropriations committee along with the CJS subcommittee, said last week she would support the administration’s new asteroid initiative included in the budget request, but raised concerns about the level of funding for Orion included in the proposal.
Sunday afternoon Orbital Sciences Corporation successfully launched its Antares rocket on its inaugural flight, a test mission carrying a demonstration payload and several smallsats. Company officials said the launch, one of the final milestones in the company’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) award from NASA, went well, paying the way for a launch this summer of a Cygnus cargo spacecraft on Antares to the International Space Station.
Within a half-hour of liftoff, the White House released a statement from Office of Science and Technology Policy director John Holdren. “The growing potential of America’s commercial space industry and NASA’s use of public-private partnerships are central to President Obama’s strategy to ensure U.S. leadership in space exploration while pushing the bounds of scientific discovery and innovation in the 21st century,” Holdren said in the brief statement. “With NASA focusing on the challenging and exciting task of sending humans deeper into space than ever before, private companies will be crucial in taking the baton for American cargo and crew launches into low-Earth orbit.”
Two Democratic members of the House Science Committee also marked the successful flight in a press release (not yet posted on their website.) “Having a safe, reliable, and cost effective cargo resupply capability is critical to the full and productive utilization of the ISS,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking member of the full committee, in her congratulatory statement. “This new era of launch activities will aid economic growth in the Delmarva region. In the months and years ahead, continued teamwork will be critical to the completion of Orbital’s first demonstration flight to the ISS and subsequent operational flights in performance of its Commercial Resupply Services contract (CRS) with NASA,” said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking member of the committee’s space subcommittee.
And Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), an avid supporter of Wallops Flight Facility, where the launch took place, also congratulated the launch in a stream of tweets Sunday evening:
When the administration released its fiscal year 2014 budget proposal last week, Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Science Committee, expressed some skepticism about NASA’s new asteroid initiative contained in it, including plans to redirect a small near Earth object to lunar orbit to be visited by astronauts. “Seemingly out of the blue, this mission has never been evaluated or recommended by the scientific community and has not received the scrutiny that a normal program would undergo,” he said in a statement.
In a hearing on the overall White House R&D budget request earlier this week, Smith again raised questions regarding whether an asteroid mission made sense. “Beyond low Earth orbit of the station, where are the next destinations for our astronauts to explore?” Smith asked in his opening statement. “Is an asteroid the next destination, as the President suggested three years ago? Or is the Earth’s Moon a more compelling place for American astronauts to return, rather than finding an asteroid to pull into the Moon’s orbit?”
The first question Smith posed to the hearing’s sole witness, presidential science advisor John Holdren, was about that mission, citing last December’s report by a National Research Council committee that found little enthusiasm for an asteroid mission within or outside NASA. “It seems to me that most of the scientific community woud prefer some form of a return mission to the Moon. Why wouldn’t we follow their advice?” Smith asked Holdren.
“I think the situation has changed in a number of important respects since the National Research Council report which you quote,” Holdren responded. What’s changed, he said, is that NASA has developed “an extraordinarily ingenious and cost-effective new approach to that mission” by bringing an asteroid close to Earth. “Now we’re seeing a lot of enthusiasm for it.”
Smith wasn’t convinced, though, claiming that the mission hadn’t appeared in previous studies by the scientific community (although studies like the planetary science decadal reports typically don’t examine human missions, which are funded outside of NASA’s science program.) “It is a new mission, maybe we need to wait and see how it is received by the scientific community,” he said. “It just seems to me to be a little bit of an afterthought.”
Smith’s skepticism about NASA’s current direction in human spaceflight carried over to an op-ed he wrote in Thursday’s issue of the Houston Chronicle. “[O]ther nations are again accelerating investments in space, while our own human space program is without a clear mission,” he argued. “If China lands a man on Mars before the U.S., it would be devastating to our standing in the global community.” (China has no announced plans for a human Mars mission, and only vague plans at best for human missions to the Moon some time in the 2020s.)
Smith said, though, that NASA will not “defy budget gravity and somehow get an increase when everyone else is getting cut” and, therefore, needs to spend its existing budget more effectively. “President Obama should work with Congress to provide a vision for the agency. In order to succeed, NASA needs continuity of vision and consistency in its budget.”
NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver made a surprise appearance yesterday morning at the opening session of the Planetary Defense Conference 2013 in Flagstaff, Arizona (she said she had planned to attend months ago, but her appearance was only formalized relatively late and not included in the agenda for the session.) She provided an overview of NASA’s FY14 budget proposal in general, with a particular focus on the agency’s new asteroid initiative, something of particular interest to attendees.
Afterwards, Garver was asked what role new private ventures with an interest in asteroids, like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, would have with the initiative. “That’s a really important aspect of this,” she said. “When Planetary Resources was founded a few months ago, and following on that Deep Space Industries, I could not have been happier” because it demonstrated there was interest in asteroids beyond NASA. (Planetary Resources actually formally announced its plans almost a year ago; Deep Space Industries followed in January.) She added that NASA’s planned additional $20-million investment in asteroid detection efforts was not intended to be competitive with the B612 Foundation’s Sentinel mission.
Garver said NASA would hold a workshop in the “June timeframe” to look how to best leverage the NASA investment and that the agency was open to tools like data buys and prizes to get information on identifying asteroids that could be potential targets of the proposed NASA mission. “We believe there are a lot of innovative ways, just like we are doing in other aspects of NASA” to support agency goals, she said.
Her comments came just a few days after one of the principals of one asteroid resource company expressed hope that NASA would partner with industry. “We’re looking forward to a partnership with NASA. There’s a lot the private sector can bring to this game,” Rick Tumlinson, chairman of the board of Deep Space Industries, said at the Space Access ’13 conference in Phoenix on April 11. “A correctly structured program to bring an asteroid into lunar orbit may be based on the COTS model, where we had a cooperative venture leading to a pay-for-services model. It might work very well in this case.”
NASA’s commercial crew program and the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion programs have been sources of heated debate on Capitol Hill that last couple of years. But, as both efforts make progress, could the tensions that often pit the two programs against one another be easing? Not necessarily, based on comments from a couple members of Congress this week.
Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) expressed to the Huntsville Times this week his disappointment with the administration’s fiscal year 2014 budget request, citing NASA in particular. The funding requested for SLS, $1.385 billion, is below the FY12 budget’s nearly $1.5 billion (although it is similar to what the program will end up with in FY13, once final rescission and sequestration cuts are applied and any operations plans changes are implemented.) He also complained that NASA’s proposed asteroid retreival mission “does not commit to using SLS to get there and has no clear time frame or cost estimate,” the Times reported. (NASA has, in fact, suggested sending astronauts to the captured asteroid in cislunar space in 2021 on EM-2, the first crewed SLS/Orion mission, although specific mission architectures and cost estimates are still under development.)
And what about commercial crew? Aderholt told the Times that, given his perception that SLS was not being adequately funded, the administration’s request for $821 million for commercial crew “is not defensible.”
Late Friday, the House Science Committee’s Democratic Caucus issued a press release from Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking member of the committee’s space subcommittee, marking the 32nd anniversary of the first Space Shuttle launch. (The press release doesn’t show up on the caucus’s web site as of Saturday morning.) After recounting the shuttle’s history, she turned her attention to the future, in particular calling for an acceleration of SLS and Orion:
Under current plans, the first crewed flight of Orion/SLS is scheduled for no earlier than 2021—a ten year hiatus in NASA human spaceflight capability. That’s a long time, and I hope that Congress and the Administration can work together to help NASA accelerate the achievement of that capability.
There’s no mention in her statement about how to fund an acceleration of those capabilities, and also no mention of commercial crew, which could return orbital human spaceflight capabilities to NASA (albeit on vehicles owned and perhaps operated by American companies) in 2017, under NASA’s current schedules.
While a proposed asteroid retrieval mission got the bulk of the attention in NASA’s 2014 budget proposal, another mission also got an outsized share of attention compared to its budget. A number of media reports played up the inclusion in the budget of funding for the Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR. This spacecraft’s long, tortured history dates back to the late 1990s, when the spacecraft was officially known as Triana and was primarily designed to return full-disk images of the Earth from the Earth-Sun L-1 point. Since NASA started the mission at the behest of then Vice President Al Gore, the spacecraft earned the unofficial, but widely used, moniker “Goresat.” Congressional opposition to the program, based on concerns about its scientific utility, put the spacecraft into storage for years.
DSCOVR, though, was back in the headlines this week. “President Barack Obama is proposing dusting off and finally launching an old environmental satellite championed by Al Gore but shelved a dozen years by his 2000 rival George W. Bush,” the AP reported. Although the article notes money has been spent on the spacecraft in the last several years to refurbish its instruments, the article was widely interpreted to mean that this program was a new start (if reviving a satellite built over a decade ago can be considered a “new start.”) That got reinterpreted by some outlets differently: Engadget said the US Air Force was planning to spend $35 million for DSCOVR, for example.
The problem is that DSCOVR is not new to the fiscal year 2014 budget. Back in its FY12 budget, NOAA requested $47.3 million to begin refurbishment of DSCOVR with a primary mission of providing solar storm warnings. The program ended up with $29.8 million in FY12, and in FY13 NOAA requested almost $22.9 million to continue preparing DSCOVR for launch. And NOAA’s FY14 budget proposal, released this week, requests $23.675 million for DSCOVR.
The Air Force is a partner in DSCOVR, providing launch services. The Air Force’s 2012 budget request included funding for launch services, receiving $134.5 million, according to a NASA presentation on the mission last year. That was enough to fully fund the launch: “The FY12 budget purchases a launch vehicle for NOAA’s DSCOVR climate observing satellite–no need for additional funds in FY13,” Gen. William Shelton, head of Air Force Space Command, said in a speech almost one year ago. In December, the Air Force awarded the DSCOVR launch contract to SpaceX, one of the first EELV-class missions SpaceX won from the military.
What is new, though, is that there is a line item for DSCOVR in the NASA FY14 budget request. It is a modest one: $9.9 million in 2014 to finish integration of two Earth sciences instruments on the spacecraft, with projections of $1.7 million each in FY15 and 16. However, the resurrection of Goresat has been going on for a couple of years now.