NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket remains on track for a first launch in December 2017 despite warnings in a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) about cost and schedule problems, the program’s manager said Friday.
Speaking at the 17th Annual International Mars Society Convention in Houston, SLS program manager Todd May said the program was at or ahead of schedule as it works through a series of critical design reviews (CDRs) for the SLS and its major systems. “We said four years ago we’d be at critical design review on the core [stage] this November. I’m glad to report that we actually completed that last month,” he said, a statement that generated an impromptu round of applause from the couple hundred attendees of the session. The CDR on the booster stages was completed just this week, he said, and the CDR for the full SLS is on track for the spring of 2015.
“Things are going pretty well. As far as the critical path, we’ve still got three to five months of slack” on the date the core stage is due to be delivered to the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi for testing, he said. “We’re just clicking off milestones.”
That rosy assessment stands in contrast to a report issued last month by the GAO that warned of cost and schedule risks to the program. “The SLS program office calculated the risk associated with insufficient funding through 2017 as having a 90 percent likelihood of occurrence,” the report stated, “furthermore, it indicated the insufficient budget could push the planned December 2017 launch date out 6 months and add some $400 million to the overall cost of SLS development.”
Asked about the GAO report, May suggested that conclusion was based on information that was now out of date. “They saw some things a couple of years ago. Some of the data is now obsolete,” he said. Specifically, he said the funding SLS received in fiscal year 2014, and what it expects to get in 2015 when the appropriations process is completed, is above the original request. In 2014, the administration requested $1.385 billion for SLS, but received $1.6 billion. In 2015, the administration requested $1.38 billion, but House and Senate version of appropriations bills offer $1.6 and 1.7 billion, respectively, for SLS.
That additional funding, May said, has mitigated the risk identified in the GAO report, provided that level of support continues. “If you don’t receive the appropriated levels, you could see challenges,” he said.
As for schedule risks, May said Monte Carlo risk models widely used in such analyses aren’t always accurate. “To me, they don’t change a basic program management tenet, which is to hurry every chance you get,” he said. That approach, he said, has worked for planetary exploration missions that have to launch within narrow windows. “They don’t pay attention to those things. They hurry every chance they get. So far, that’s paying off for us.”
On Monday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry confirmed what had neen widely speculated for weeks, if not months: SpaceX would establish a commercial launch site on the Gulf of Mexico near Brownsville, Texas. The state is providing about $15 million in funds to support spaceport development, although the release notes that construction will involve “$85 million in capital investment,” presumably from SpaceX.
The announcement was the culmination of several years of efforts by local and state officials, including Perry, to lure SpaceX to establish the launch site there. The letter noted state officials first talked with SpaceX in the spring of 2011, and Perry had since met with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and “provided letters of support” as SpaceX worked through launch site regulatory efforts with the FAA.
“Texas has been on the forefront of our nation’s space exploration efforts for decades, so it is fitting that SpaceX has chosen our state as they expand the frontiers of commercial space flight,” Perry said in the release.
The decision is a defeat for Florida, who had hoped to keep SpaceX’s commercial launches by developing a commercial launch site at a site named Shiloh just north of the Kennedy Space Center. An environmental assessment of the site is underway, although many local residents expressed opposition to the site at public hearings early this year.
A day after Perry’s announcement, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) tried to put a positive spin on the situation. “I think you’re going to see a lot of commercial activity that is going to be there and on the Kennedy Space Center,” Nelson told Florida Today in an interview in the senator’s Orlando office. “So I think we have a robust future.”
Nelson also raised questions about the viability of the Texas site, noting that launches from there will have to pass through a narrow keyhole downrange, between Florida and Cuba, restricting the range of orbits those launches can meet. (Dogleg maneuvers can enable additional orbits, although at a cost in terms of performance.) “How many launches will be financially viable for them to do that from there?” he said. “I think that’s a story still to be told.”
At first glance, planetary scientists who study asteroids might seem to be obvious supporters of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) plans. It would, after all, redirect a small near Earth asteroid (NEA) into lunar orbit, where astronauts would visit it and return perhaps many kilograms of samples. In fact, though, many planetary scientists have expressed skepticism, or even outright opposition, to ARM, worried that the mission might turn into a boondoggle that, if cancelled, could hurt other asteroid projects.
Those arguments were front in center last week at a meeting of the Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG), a NASA-chartered advisory group, in Washington. The middle day of the three-day meeting, Wednesday, was devoted to discussion about ARM, with NASA officials and other scientists among those speaking. And it featured some of the strongest criticism yet of the ARM by the scientific community.
“I think ARM is a stunt,” said Richard Binzel, a professor of planetary sciences at MIT, in a presentation at the SBAG meeting devoted to criticism of the proposed mission. “A stunt kind of gets handed to you at the top, and there’s nothing underneath to support it.” That’s in contrast, he argued, to the process for selecting science missions, which are supported by rigorous science and compelling questions that only a space mission can answer.
Binzel urged scientists to “just say no” to ARM. “I think that ARM is a one-and-done stunt, and if we get behind this in any way, it’s going to irreparably damage small body exploration.”
While he was opposed to ARM, Binzel was not opposed to human exploration of NEAs. Instead, he advocated human missions to NEAs in “native” (that is, not redirected) orbits. That means building up capabilities in cislunar space while performing surveys to identify NEA targets that would be not much more difficult to reach for later human missions than an asteroid captured into lunar orbit. Such a mission, he said, “is on the true path to Mars.”
Binzel brought up his criticism of ARM at the SBAG meeting because the group may be asked to officially weigh in on the proposed mission. The NASA authorization bill passed by the House in June, HR 4412, includes a provision requiring a “complete assessment” by SBAG “of how the proposed mission is in the strategic interests of the United States in space exploration.” The Senate, which has not been nearly as critical of ARM as the House, has yet to introduce its version of an authorization bill.
Other attendees of the meeting also expressed reservations about ARM and the agency’s overall Asteroid Initiative during presentations by NASA officials earlier in the day. “It just seems like this logical disconnect to me,” said SBAG chair Nancy Chabot of the Applied Physics Lab, trying to reconcile NASA’s stated interest in searching for hazardous NEAs with the relatively limited funding it’s allocating for such searches as part of the initiative. “I guess there’s just a lot of us in the community who are confused by the overall strategy of the agency.”
Some at the meeting worried that a potential cancellation of ARM by a future administration could adversely affect asteroid science in general. “There are groups of people who believe that ARM is associated with the current White House” and could be cancelled by the next, said Tom Statler of the University of Maryland and Ohio University. “If it so happens that ARM gets pushed aside because it was the product of the previous administration, there is a risk that the rest of asteroid science could be collateral damage simply because, in the minds of most people, ARM equals asteroid stuff.”
Others struggled to see the connection between ARM and human exploration of Mars. “What the agency has not articulated is how we’re magically go from cislunar space missions of about a month in duration to anything greater,” said Brent Barbee of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “If this is all you’re going to do in the mid-2020s,” he said of ARM, “then it’s not very credible to talk about humans on Mars in the early to mid 2030s.”
“If we were to start this from a clean sheet and do it in a logical manner, I think every one involved with this would do it differently than how it’s being done right now,” acknowledged NASA’s Lindley Johnson. ARM, he said, did allow NASA to double funding for NASA’s Near Earth Object search program, from $20 to $40 million. “We do the best we can with what we’ve got.”
The SBAG meeting ended without any formal findings or questions about ARM, although Chabot said those are being developed by the group’s steering committee. Some worried that a lack of consensus could result in findings that could make SBAG appear neutral on the issue, which Chabot, as chair of SBAG, acknowledged as the meeting drew to a close on Thursday. “A lot of people do not feel neutral about this,” she said.
The criticism of ARM by SBAG meeting attendees, as well as comments made at a separate meeting of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) held at the same time, as reported by SpacePolicyOnline.com, caught the attention of the chairman of the House Science Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). “The NASA Advisory Council warns that NASA ‘runs the risk of squandering precious national resources’ if they move forward with ARM,” Smith said in a statement released by the committee on Friday. “For months, the Obama administration has downplayed such criticism. I appreciate the good work of NASA’s technical advisors and encourage the Obama administration to take their recommendations seriously.”
While NASA administrator Charles Bolden expressed skepticism earlier this week that a NASA authorization bill would make it through Congress this year, a leading member of the House Science Committee said in a recent interview she is more optimistic about the bill’s prospects, but less so about two other pieces of space-related legislation.
“I feel confident that the Senate is going to move forward on its authorization,” said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking member of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, in an interview after her luncheon speech at the NewSpace 2014 conference in San Jose, California, on July 26. “I do hope that it’s one of those things that can be done by the end of this year.”
She said she expected the Senate’s version would, in many respects, “mirror the House authorization,” which would aid the conference needed to reconcile the likely differences between the House and Senate versions. One difference Edwards expected is that the Senate is interested in doing a multi-year authorization, while the House bill only covers the current fiscal year. “The Senate is looking at a multiple-year authorization which, I believe, we would be able to convince our colleagues in the House to support it,” she said. “I’ve long supported a multi-year authorization, so that’s not a problem for me.”
She was less optimistic about the prospects for passing an update to the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, although not because of any provisions in the legislation (yet to be introduced) to do that. “I think we could use another hearing or so, and I’ve expressed that to Mr. [Steven] Palazzo,” she said, referring to the chairman of the space subcommittee. “I just don’t know, frankly, if we have enough days yet to be able to do it. So it’s not because the two of us don’t want it.”
As previously noted here, she was skeptical about the chances of the ASTEROIDS Act, the bill introduced by Reps. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Derek Kilmer (D-WA), members of the House Science Committee, in early July that would grant property rights to resources extracted form asteroids. “We haven’t had any hearings on that,” she said. “I just think it’s bad policy to move policy forward when you haven’t done the investigation work it takes to do that. I’ve shared that with both Mr. Posey and Mr. Kilmer.”
On the issue of relations with Russia and their effect on space cooperation, Edwards said previous concerns had eased. “What I’ve learned since then is that there’s been actually quite a separation between going on at a political level versus what’s going on on a day-to-day basis in terms of our space operations and I think that’s a good thing,” she said. “I do feel more more confident, frankly, than I did a couple of months ago that the political devolution has not turned into a space devolution.”
She added, though, that she didn’t necessarily object to investing in development of an RD-180 replacement. “I haven’t come to a conclusion about that. I never think it’s particularly harmful for the United States to make certain that it has the independence of its own operations and capacity.”
She also expressed interest in enhancing cooperation with China in space, while recognizing there are obstacles to doing so. “China is less of a partner, and I think that needs to change,” she said. “It would be better to have them in fold in our civil development than not.”
“There are some issues with the Chinese that we have to get resolved, like the theft of intellectual property” before such cooperation would be possible. And when could that happen? “Not this Congress.”
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said Wednesday he is not optimistic that Congress will pass a NASA authorization bill this year, and expects to start the 2015 fiscal year on a continuing resolution (CR).
Bolden, speaking at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) at the Langley Research Center in Virginia, said he was more optimistic about the prospects of an authorization bill last month, when the House passed its version of the legislation on a 401-2 vote. “That was not lost on me,” he said of the margin of passage. “My naïveté caused me to believe that, boy, things are going to change.”
However, the Senate has yet to take up the House bill or even introduce its own version. “They have talked off and on about an authorization bill, but we don’t see any serious movement there right now,” he said, adding that Congress was about to go on its summer recess and not return until early September. “I am not optimistic that we will get an authorization bill until 2015.”
On the appropriations side, Bolden said that that the increase in funding offered in the House bill over the administration’s request “was a very pleasant surprise for all of us.” He added that he was “disappointed” the bill didn’t fully fund commercial crew, offering $785 million versus the requested $848 million, “but we’ll take it.” He added he was also concerned about cuts in the bill in the request for Space Technology.
The Senate’s version of the appropriations bill provides similar funding levels, but has stalled out on the Senate floor because of unrelated issues. “There’s a strong possibility that the federal government could be funded through a continuing resolution for a period of time during fiscal year 2015,” he said. (Reports suggest that a CR would fund the government at least past the November elections.)
That’s a setback after the progress made though last month indicated a chance the appropriations would become law before the fiscal year begins on October 1. “Once again, we’ve snatched defeat from the jaws of victory,” Bolden said. “Everybody was really excited and looking forward to a really healthy budget.”
Bolden also offered a bit of news about the ongoing review of proposals submitted to the next round of the commercial crew program, Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap). “Our progress on commercial crew source selection deliberations has been evidently better than we anticipated,” he said. He said that those awards would come “much sooner than later this year,” but was not more specific. NASA officials have generally said over the last few months that the CCtCap contract or contracts would be announced in August or September.
A bill introduced in the House earlier this month that establishes property rights for resources taken from asteroids is not perfect, but a step in the right direction towards a broader resolution of property rights in outer space, a conference panel argued last week.
The American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities in Deep Space (ASTEROIDS) Act of 2014, introduced in the House earlier this month by Reps. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Derek Kilmer (D-WA), would establish that resources obtained from asteroids are the property of the company or other entity that extracted them. It would also provide “freedom from harmful interference” for those entities subject to US law engaged in asteroid mining.
“They designed it not to cause too many explosions or conflicts or problems,” said Jim Muncy, a co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, during a panel session on space property rights at the organization’s NewSpace 2014 conference Friday in San Jose, California. The bill was crafted, he said, to ensure it remained in the jurisdiction of the House Science Committee. He added that the bill’s sponsors also discussed the bill with State Department officials “to find out whether or not it would be a big problem for current US international obligations and policy.” That’s one reason, he said, that the bill only covers asteroids and not the Moon or other solar system bodies.
The idea of establishing property rights for extracted resources is not considered particularly controversial. Panelists noted that samples returned from the Moon by the Apollo missions, and Soviet Luna robotic missions, are considered the property of those nations. “We know that from the precedent of the Moon rocks,” said Berin Szoka, president of think tank TechFreedom, noting that some of those samples have been gifted and then resold. “There are some space lawyers who will quibble and will claim that that doesn’t mean those can actually owned in a way that they can be on Earth, but I don’t think that’s a correct view.”
The legislation isn’t perfect, though. Szoka called the introduced bill “the first draft of what I hope will ultimately get passed.” One flaw: “the one very obvious definition that’s missing is the definition of ‘asteroid.’ And by not defining that, it leaves that ambiguous.”
There’s also the question of what it means to extract resources. Sagi Kfir, corporate counsel for asteroid mining company Deep Space Industries, suggested that it might be possible to claim entire asteroids. “Asteroid are movable; they are not land property,” he said. “Asteroids, in and of themselves, are personal property” in much the same way as resources extracted, or moved, from them.
“I agree that asteroids are movable, and that asteroids are, in that sense, essentially in practice no different from a rock that you might remove from the surface, and we should essentially treat them the same way,” said Szoka.
Another issue is with the non-interference language in the bill: what does it mean to harmfully interfere with another entity’s operations on an asteroid? Kfir notes the bill’s language refers to the “exploration and use” of asteroid resources, which he suggested could allow someone to claim priority to an asteroid by simply observing it with a telescope, thus “exploring” it. “There are some gaping holes to a very thin legislation,” he said. “But it’s critical that’s fleshed out in terms of what’s ‘first in time’ and what’s the zone of this non-interference.”
The near-term prospects of resolving those issues with the bill and advancing it are unclear. Earlier this month, Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), chairman of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, said his subcommittee was reviewing the bill, but didn’t immediately commit to holding a hearing on or marking up the bill. “We have a limited amount of legislative days this year,” he noted. (Congress goes on recess at the end of this week and does not return until after Labor Day.)
The subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), said at the conference she wants hearings about the bill before she would support move forward on the bill. “I’m always opposed to us moving forward on legislation without doing any hearings, any kind of fact-finding,” she said in an interview after her luncheon speech at the conference Saturday. She said she had not heard from NASA or from companies affected by the bill yet. “I just think it’s bad policy to move policy forward when you haven’t done the investigative work that it takes to do that.”
In a pair of orders issued Thursday, a federal court judge pushed SpaceX and the US Air Force to resolve the ongoing lawsuit over the EELV block buy contract through mediation rather than in the courtroom.
In the first order, Judge Susan Braden directed the Air Force and SpaceX to take the first steps towards mediation. By August 8, The Air Force must provide to SpaceX a list of missions it plans to perform using the vehicles acquired in the block buy contract “together with sufficient technical information to allow Plaintiff to determine whether and when it can perform those missions.”
SpaceX, by September 10, will submit a list of issues that it will seek to resolve through mediation as well as other issues involved with mediation, including a proposed mediator and schedule for the mediation process. The Air Force must respond by October 14. “To facilitate the good faith efforts of the Government and Plaintiff to undertake these initial steps in a mediation process, all parties are ordered to decline to comment in the press about the substance or assignments set forth herein,” the order states.
In a second order, largely dealing with the “administrative record” of the case, Judge Braden threw out a motion by United Launch Alliance (ULA), the “defendent-intervenor” in the case, to dismiss the SpaceX suit. That decision, though, was not based on the merits of ULA’s arguments in its motion, but because the court concluded ULA had no standing to request a dismissal. “The Defendant-Intervenor has no basis to challenge Plaintiff’s standing in this case, as all relevant evidence is within the custody and control of the Plaintiff and/or Government.”
The decision was considered a victory for SpaceX in many media reports, although it may be more accurate to consider it not a defeat. The court has not thrown out the SpaceX suit, although it hasn’t ruled on the Air Force’s motion to dismiss. (The fact that Judge Braden is setting up a mediation process suggests she will not rule on that motion while mediation is ongoing.) SpaceX has hinted in the past that it would be open to some kind of settlement in its suit, but has been vague on what it would accept.
In contrast to NASA and industry claims that work on the Space Launch System (SLS) is on track, a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released Wednesday warned that tight schedules and budgets could delay the first launch of that heavy-lift rocket.
The report, requested by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), warned that the flat budget profile for development of SLS may be insufficient to keep the program on track for a first launch in December 2017. “The SLS program office calculated the risk associated with insufficient funding through 2017 as having a 90 percent likelihood of occurrence,” the report stated. “[F]urthermore, it indicated the insufficient budget could push the planned December 2017 launch date out 6 months and add some $400 million to the overall cost of SLS development.”
The development of the core stage, which is driving the overall SLS schedule, is compressed and much of its schedule reserve may already be spoken for, the GAO report found. “The SLS program is tracking threats to the core stage schedule that could take up as much as 70 percent of the 7 months of reserve,” it stated. “While these challenges are not overly complex from a technical viewpoint, resolving such threats to the schedule is critical because the element is in early development phases and still has several significant milestones and developmental activities ahead.”
That assessment contrasts with what NASA and industry have said about the status of SLS work, painting at time a rosy picture of progress on development of the rocket. In a discussion in May at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Ginger Barnes, vice president and program manager for SLS at Boeing, said the company was heading into the critical design review for the SLS core stage five months ahead of schedule.
The GAO report also addressed some other issues with the SLS, including the fact that its long-term missions, beyond the EM-2 mission in 2021 that will be the first to carry a crew, remain unclear. That uncertainty affects plans to develop upgrades to the SLS to incerase its payload capacity to 105 and eventually 130 metric tons. The GAO was also critical of plans not to compete a higher-performance upper stage for SLS, saying NASA’s rationale that Boeing won a competitive Constellation contract in 2007 didn’t reflect changes in the industry since then, including work by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences.
The GAO report cautioned that if the SLS suffered cost and schedule overruns, other NASA programs could be at risk if NASA decided to pay for SLS by taking money from them. “Although cost and schedule growth can occur on any project, increases associated with NASA’s most costly and complex missions— such as SLS, which makes up about 9 percent of NASA’s annual budget—can have dramatic effects on the availability of funding for NASA’s portfolio of major projects.”
NASA, in a response, suggested it would not seek additional funding or delay SLS in order to meet the desired 70-percent confidence level in the program’s cost and schedule estimates. “[D]elaying the SLS development schedule or diverting funding from other priorities to satisfy a schedule confidence level could jeopardize these goals and result in an increase in costs to the taxpayer,” Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, wrote in a response to the GAO included in the report. “Plans are in place to adjust schedule and minimize costs within the agency commitment if either funding levels decrease or technical problems arise.”
On Tuesday, the White House hosted a private event with the two surviving members of the Apollo 11 crew, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, along with Neil Armstrong’s widow, Carol, and NASA administrator Charles Bolden. The White House has traditionally hosted the Apollo 11 crew on five-year anniversaries like this; previously, President Obama met with the crew on the 40th anniversary in 2009.
Few details about the meeting itself were disclosed. In a blog post, the White House discussed the Apollo 11 mission as well as NASA’s future plans, ranging from commercial crew to the Space Launch System and long-term plans to send humans to Mars. In a separate statement, President Obama said he used the meeting with the Apollo 11 crew “to thank them for serving as advocates, role models, and educators who’ve inspired generations of Americans – myself included – to dream bigger and reach higher.”
The meeting was not without some controversy, though. At a press briefing later Tuesday, reporters complained that the president’s meeting with the Apollo 11 crew was private, with no media allowed to observe. CBS’s Major Garrett told press secretary Josh Earnest that he planned “to lodge a formal complaint about the Apollo 11 event” on behalf of the White House Correspondents Association because of that lack of access.
Other reporters at the press conference used the anniversary to quiz Earnest about US-Russian relations in space, including comments by former NASA administrator Mike Griffin that the US is in a “hostage situation” with the Russians since they control crew access to the International Space Station. Earnest said little about that, other than the Us continues to cooperate with Russia in space and other arenas despite the Ukraine crisis.
At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science Committee, penned an op-ed about space exploration for The Hill earlier this week. “There are also those who ridicule space exploration. Waste of time. Little green men. Not a priority,” he writes. “We should not let them discourage us.”
Smith did get some criticism of the administration’s space policy into the piece, rueing the cancellation of the Constellation program and complaining about “costly distractions” to the space program, including what he perceived to be an overemphasis on Earth science at NASA. “The Obama administration continues to advocate increasing climate change funding at NASA at the expense of other priorities such as space exploration. There are 18 federal agencies that fund climate change research, but only one does space exploration.”
Smith’s Democratic counterpart, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), also issued a statement about the 45th anniversary with Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking member of the space subcommittee. “NASA is critical to our nation and its economic strength, and there is no more fitting way to honor Apollo 11 than to resume our commitment to human exploration of deep space that we proved possible 45 years ago,” Edwards said in the statement. “Our bipartisan NASA Authorization Act of 2014 gets us started, and I look forward to continuing the mission.”
“Such an endeavor [of human space exploration] will inspire our young people, spur technological innovation, and strengthen our geopolitical standing,” said Johnson. “I urge my colleagues in Congress and in the Administration to make that program a reality.”