Officials at NASA’s Ames Research Center did not intentionally violate export control laws but “exercised poor judgment” in sharing ITAR-restricted information with foreign nationals at the center, NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) concluded in a report summary published Wednesday.
The investigation stemmed from complaints that foreign nationals working at Ames had access to information that should have been restricted under export control regulations. The OIG’s investigation continued after the US Attorney’s office closed its criminal investigation a year ago without filing any charges. The OIG’s investigation wrapped up earlier this month with a full report (not publicly released “because it contains information protected by the Privacy Act of 1974,” the summary notes) to the NASA administrator.
The OIG, like the earlier criminal probe, found no evidence of intentional wrongdoing by any Ames officials, but did identify some carelessness in how they treated access to ITAR-restricted information. “In sum, we did not find intentional misconduct by any Ames civil servants,” the OIG summary states, “but believe some Ames managers exercised poor judgment in their dealings with foreign nationals who worked on Center.”
The report summary adds that there was “significant disagreement between scientists and engineers at Ames and export control personnel at the Center and NASA Headquarters as to whether the work the foreign nationals were performing at Ames involved ITAR-controlled technology,” which contributed to the issue. “We concluded that these incidents resulted more from carelessness and a genuine disagreement about whether the information qualified for ITAR protection than an intentional effort to bypass ITAR restrictions.”
In a letter, NASA administrator Charles Bolden accepted the OIG’s report. “I take these findings seriously and have asked Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot to assess your findings and recommend any potential corrective actions to address the concerns raised in your report,” Bolden wrote.
The OIG report comes two weeks after the completion of an independent report on “NASA’s Foreign National Access Management,” triggered by the Ames incidents as well as the arrest of a Chinese national working at NASA Langley who was originally believed to have tried to transfer restricted information. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) claimed that report indicated a “persistent organizational culture” that failed to hold NASA employees responsible for security violations.
While the OIG report found no evidence of intentional efforts at Ames to subvert export control regulations, one key member of Congress still expressed concern about the agency’s security practices. “The casual treatment of foreign national access, ITAR, and export controls at Ames Research Center is simply another example of NASA’s negligence,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science Committee, in a statement provided by the committee. “Several such incidents and reports portray an agency struggling to manage sensitive technical information. I hope that the administration will take these reports seriously and implement the recommended changes to ensure that NASA is not leaking our nation’s prized aerospace technology.”
The Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee (SAC-D) has scheduled a hearing next week on “National Security Space Launch Programs” featuring the top executives of two key companies. The hearing, scheduled for 10 am Wednesday, March 5, will include as witnesses United Launch Alliance (ULA) CEO Michael Gass and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, along with Christina Chaplin of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and Scott Pace, director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute.
The hearing comes as there’s increased pressure on the DOD to reduce launch costs. The Air Force recently reached a deal with ULA on a “block buy” of 36 rocket cores for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehcle (EELV) program, which currently includes only ULA’s Atlas V and Delta IV rockets. The block buy promises to save billions of dollars, although some are skeptical of that accounting.
SpaceX, meanwhile, is seeking to win business from the EELV program with its Falcon 9 and upcoming Falcon Heavy rockets, which offer much lower prices than Atlas and Delta vehicles. Earlier this week, the Air Force announced that SpaceX’s inaugural Falcon 9 v1.1 launch last September will count towards its EELV certification, despite a problem with the relight of the rocket’s second stage after it released all its satellite payloads. The Air Force is still assessing the following two Falcon 9 v1.1 launches, which took place in December and January, but both of those appeared to take place without incident. Those launches, plus other reviews, will allow the Air Force to certify the Falcon 9 v1.1 for EELV-class launches.
[Update 2/26 12pm: The House Science Committee has posted the charter for the hearing, and it confirms some of the speculation that this would be a discussion of a crewed mission to fly by both Mars and Venus: “This hearing will explore the need for a roadmap of missions to guide investments in NASA's human spaceflight programs, how a manned mission to flyby the planets Mars and Venus launching in 2021 might fit into a series of missions and how the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle could contribute to that mission.”]
The House Science Committee has announced plans for a hearing at 10 am Thursday, February 27th of the full committee with an intriguing title: “Mars Flyby 2021: The First Deep Space Mission for the Orion and Space Launch System?” The only details provided so far is the list of witnesses, which includes some familiar names:
- Dr. Scott Pace, Director of the Space Policy Institute, George Washington University
- General Lester Lyles (ret.), Independent Aerospace Consultant and former Chairman of the Committee on “Rationale and Goals of the U.S. Civil Space Program” established by the National Academies
- Mr. Doug Cooke, Owner, Cooke Concepts and Solutions and former NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Mission Directorate
- Dr. Sandra Magnus, Executive Director, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics
Exactly what this mission concept is, and whether it would include a crew, are unclear. Last November, at another hearing of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, Dennis Tito pitched members on using SLS and Orion as part of a revised mission architecture for his Inspiration Mars mission concept, which would send a married couple on a Mars flyby mission. At that hearing, he said there was a backup mission architecture that could launch in late 2021; it would take 88 days longer than the 501-day mission in the 2018 plan, but would feature flybys of both Mars and Venus.
An individual familiar with Inspiration Mars’s activities said earlier this month that the organization was now focused on studying that 2021 mission opportunity. It’s unclear, though, if that is the same mission concept the House Science Committee will consider in Thursday’s hearing.
None of the four witnesses are known to be affiliated with Inspiration Mars. (Update: a reader notes that Doug Cooke is listed as a member of the “IM Advisory Board” in the Inspiration Mars architecture report released in November.)
Also, Rep. Steve Stockman (R-TX), a member of the committee, posted a note to his Facebook page about the hearing, saying that the committee would “hold a hearing on an exciting mission to send Americans to flyby both Mars and Venus in 2021.” If correct, that sounds very much like the alternative mission architecture Tito mentioned in November.mission architecture Tito mentioned in November.
When the New Mexico Legislature adjourned Thursday, supporters of Spaceport America there breathed sighs of relief. Two bills that would have altered use of a spaceport-related sales tax failed to pass before adjournment, and thus died, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported. As previously noted here, one bill would have prevented the state’s spaceport authority from using excess tax revenues to fund spaceport operations, while another would have reduced state aid to local schools by the amount of tax revenues collected for those purposes. In addition, legislators passed a capital works bill that includes $6 million to fund the next phase of work on a road that leads to the spaceport from the south.
Meanwhile, in California, nine Democratic members of the state’s Congressional delegation sent a latter Thursday to University of California president Janet Napolitano, asking her to reconsider a decision to end university funding of Lick Observatory near San Jose. Late last year, the UC system decided to phase out funding of the observatory—about $1.8 million a year—starting in 2016, with funding ending entirely in 2018, and focus instead on the much larger Keck Observatory and the planned Thirty Meter Telescope. “While we certainly understand the constraints of tight budgets, it would be short-sighted to pinch pennies by shutting down this exemplary facility,” the members, led by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, write, arguing that the 125-year-old observatory’s “time is not passed.”
When Congress completed the fiscal year 2014 omnibus spending bill last month, the report accompanying the bill included some specific language regarding NASA’s Discovery program of relatively small planetary science missions. That report directed NASA to issue an announcement of opportunity (AO) for the Discovery program’s next round “no later than May 1, 2014,” and select one or more missions by September 2015. That language was an effort by Congress to encourage NASA to increase the tempo of Discovery-class missions, a topic of concern among planetary scientists.
On Wednesday, NASA issued a synopsis of that planned Discovery solicitation, indicating that it will miss the deadline in the omnibus report by several months. Under NASA’s current plan, it will release a draft version of the AO in May and seek comments from the community. NASA will release the final AO in September, with proposals due 90 days later. NASA will award “Phase A” studies of potential missions—in effect, a selection of finalists—in May 2015, with the final selection to come by October 2016. That will be more than a year after the language in the Congressional report, and more than four years after NASA selected the previous Discovery mission, the InSight Mars lander.
The delay in releasing the AO, though, is not surprising. Shortly after the omnibus spending bill passed last month, Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary sciences division, told a meeting of the Planetary Science Subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council that the schedule in the congressional report wasn’t realistic. He said that releasing the AO so quickly “would catch everyone by surprise.” Instead, he said his office was working on a revised schedule that would release the AO before the end of the fiscal year, which the schedule released Wednesday maintains.
The synopsis contained few surprises about the content and scope of the upcoming solicitation. The missions proposed must fit within a cost cap of $450 million (in 2015 dollars), including a 25% cost reserve; launch vehicle costs, though, are not included in that cap. NASA is also willing to provide some advanced technologies for proposed missions, such as an ion propulsion system and heat shield, and may require the missions to include a laser communications system.
However, proposals cannot include the use of radioisotope power systems, since the fueling of such systems “cannot be met in time for the expected launch window” of these missions, which is no later than the end of 2021. NASA has previously offered an Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator (ASRG), a more efficient version of the radiosiotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) used on other NASA missions, and two of the three finalists for the previous Discovery round planned to use ASRGs. But InSight, the winning mission, is solar powered, and last November NASA stopped plans to procure ASRGs in a money-saving move, since there were no missions on the books to use them.
Last year’s government shutdown, which ended more than four months ago, now seems like a distant memory, particularly now that Congress has found ways to work more cooperatively on issues like the fiscal year 2014 omnibus appropriations bill and debt limit increase. But while the shutdown might now seem like a bizarre fever dream to many, it could be a lasting nightmare for one NASA mission.
NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission, a set of four identical spacecraft designed to study plasma phenomena in the Earth’s magnetosphere, has a “launch readiness date” of this October, and an “agency baseline commitment” to launch next March. However, NASA Goddard director Chris Scolese said Tuesday that the actual launch date for the mission is now uncertain, Space News reported. Work on the mission at Goddard stopped during the shutdown that lasted for more than half of October, and, as a result, the mission lost its place in the launch queue with United Launch Alliance.
Scolese said he was sure the spacecraft would not launch this year, and, in a worst-case scenario, would have to wait until 2016. However, he said it may be possible to find a launch window for MMS during 2015 if another mission planned during that time experiences delays, opening up room on ULA’s launch manifest.
That delay is more serious than what NASA reported shortly after the shutdown ended. In a briefing to the Space Studies Board in early November, Marc Allen of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate said that the shutdown had delayed MMS by about a month, but that the spacecraft were “still within the launch window” despite that delay.
However, a delay is hardly the worst thing the MMS mission has had to worry about recently. In November, one of the four spacecraft was being trucked from Goddard to the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington for testing when an environmental control unit on the truck caught fire. The spacecraft was not damaged in the fire, although the truck sustained $50,000 in damage.
In April 2007, voters in Doña Ana County, New Mexico, which includes Las Cruces, voted for a quarter-percent gross receipts tax that would be used primarily help fund construction of Spaceport America, with a portion going towards educational programs. A year later, voters in Sierra County, where the spaceport is located, approved the same tax. Now, however, both uses of the tax are under fire in the New Mexico Legislature, with bills pending to alter the use of those tax funds that must pass before the legislature adjourns on Thursday or die.
In the state Senate, Sen. Lee Cotter (R-Las Cruces) introduced SB 172, a bill that would require funds collected by the tax for the spaceport (three quarters of the tax revenue) be used solely for debt service on the bonds sold for spaceport construction or to begin paying off those bonds early. Currently, any excess if funds after interest is paid—currently about $600,000 per year—is used to support spaceport operations. The bill has made it through one Senate committee and is pending approval of another.
In an op-ed in the Las Cruces Sun-News a week ago, Cotter argued that the use of tax funds to support spaceport operations constituted a “bait and switch” for taxpayers. “Every dollar spent on daily operations extends the increase in taxes for years to come, injuring our local taxpayers,” he wrote.
Rick Holdridge, chairman of the board of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, countered in an op-ed Sunday in the same newspaper that using the funds for spaceport operations is crucial right now, as the spaceport transitions to operations. “Now is not the time to withdraw support, just when the spaceport is poised to start paying dividends,” he wrote, adding that the decision to use the tax revenue in this way has been approved by local officials several times in public meetings.
The other one quarter of the spaceport tax revenue that is earmarked to support educational programs is also under scrutiny in Santa Fe. HB 13 would count that revenue when making calculations of what state aid the districts receive; in essence, the bill would reduce the aid districts in the two counties receive by the amount of funding they get from the spaceport tax—a cut from what they’re getting now. That bill has already passed the New Mexico House and is in committee in the state Senate. That is causing concern in Las Cruces, the Sun-News reported Sunday, although the impact of the bill, even if it does pass and is signed into law by Gov. Susana Martinez, remains unclear.
Late Wednesday, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) issued a statement about a recently-completed independent study of NASA’s “Foreign National Access Management”, or FNAM, efforts, including security and export control issues, a hot issue for Wolf in recent years. And Wolf made clear he was not happy with what he saw. “Frankly, I was taken aback at the breadth and depth of security challenges identified across NASA,” he said in the statement, adding that the report “confirms not only the serious security challenges that need to be addressed, but a persistent organizational culture that fails to hold center leadership, employees and contractors accountable for security violations. This must change.”
The report itself is not publicly available, as NASA considers it “Sensitive But Unclassified,” which Wolf also criticized. “I am deeply disappointed the agency has restricted access to the report. The report should be made public as soon as possible, with any necessary redactions in the interest of national security.”
The executive summary of the report is available, though, and it doesn’t sound nearly as dire as Wolf’s statements. “NASA staff members are dedicated, knowledgeable, committed to the mission, and genuinely happy to be working for NASA,” the summary states. “NASA interviewees for this study were candid, cooperative, and eager to both offer suggestions and be involved in problem solving. Most NASA employees understood the challenge to share with, as well as to protect information from foreign nationals.”
The summary also stated that “NASA leaders have already taken a number of positive steps to correct some of the weaknesses” it its FNAM processes, which were outlined in a letter by NASA administrator Charles Bolden to the study’s chairman, former US Attorney General Richard Thornburgh. Bolden, in the letter, largely accepted the report’s recommendations and discussed how the agency will, or already was, implementing them.
As for the “persistent organizational culture” issue that Wolf raised, the closest that the publicly available document comes to addressing this are recommendations to “improve accountability” and to “guard against the tendency to revert back to prior lax habits.” The report also suggests that NASA should “decrease the competitiveness, and correspondingly, increase cooperation between Centers,” a recommendation that would have implications—and challenges—that go far beyond the issues of the report itself. (In his letter, Bolden wrote that “NASA’s culture combines the richness of diversity and appropriately healthy competition among our Centers, while fostering an overall NASA team environment.”)
NASA commissioned the report at the behest of Wolf, after he criticized the agency for “security violations at NASA’s Ames and Langley research centers.” That included the arrest of Langley researcher and Chinese national Bo Jiang last March on allegations of espionage. Jiang, though, was later found to have no sensitive or controlled documents on his computer, only “sexually explicit images,” and was deported. The incident, and the moratorium on foreign national visits to NASA centers that followed, also caused hassles for NASA when it nearly derailed a science conference at NASA Ames last fall.
A provision of the fiscal year 2014 omnibus appropriation bill approved last month requires NASA to conduct “an independent benefit-cost analysis” of its commercial crew program “that takes into consideration the total Federal investment in the commercial crew program and the expected operational life of the International Space Station.” The bill withholds $171 million of the $696 million provided for commercial crew until NASA certifies to Congress that the analysis has bee completed.
At last week’s FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington, Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA, said that study was underway, but didn’t say when he expected the study to be complete. “We are actively working that,” he said. “We hope to be able to clear that hurdle and satisfy that Congressional language and get those funds released as soon as possible.”
Last August, Reps. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Bill Posey (R-FL) introduced the Suborbital and Orbital Advancement and Regulatory Streamlining (SOARS) Act, legislation that they say would “streamline” commercial spaceflight regulations. There’s been little action on the bill, though, since its introduction, other that brief testimony about the bill that McCarthy—the House Majority Whip—gave to the House Science Committee in November.
At the FAA conference last week, Congressional staffers were noncommittal about the fate of the legislation as either a standalone bill or incorporation into something like a planned update of the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA). Tom Hammond of the House Science Committee staff noted that some of the provisions of the SOARS Act, such as allowing a vehicle that obtains a launch license to retain its experimental permit, have also been discussed for inclusion in the proposed CSLA update. Ann Zulkosky of the Senate Commerce Committee staff said she was unaware of any member of the committee interested in a Senate companion bill to the SOARS Act, with plans instead to address those issues in a CSLA update.
On Friday, Canadian Industry Minister James Moore released a new space policy document, “Canada’s Space Policy Framework,” at an event in Ottawa. The document outlined, in broad terms, Canadian space policy in the form of a set of five core principles:
- Canadian Interests First
- Positioning the Private Sector at the Forefront of Space Activities
- Progress Through Partnerships
- Excellence in Key Capabilities
- Inspiring Canadians
The document also includes some basic implementation details, although without a great degree of specifics. The policy calls on Canada to use private sector capabilities “wherever feasible” to provide space products and services, rather than develop them within government agencies. It also supports continued investments in key space technologies where Canada has traditionally excelled, such as robotics and space-based radar. It also endorses continued use of the International Space Station and maintaining the nation’s astronaut corps “so as to have Canadians aboard current and future space laboratories and research facilities.” It also calls for the creation of a Canadian Space Advisory Council, composed of representatives of “the full range of stakeholders in the public and private space domain,” to support the development of future policies and strategies.
What the framework doesn’t do, though, is offer much in the way of specifics regarding programs and funding. There’s no mention in the framework of funding for the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) or other government agencies involved in space activities. There’s also no mention of specific programs beyond the ISS and the James Webb Space Telescope; the report endorses continued a continued Canadian role in the NASA-led project.
The head of the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada endorsed the framework. “We are very pleased that the government has released the Space Policy Framework, and we applaud Minister Moore and his colleagues for recognizing the importance of Canadian innovation and industry as we continue to build on our nation’s proud heritage in space,” Jim Quick, CEO of AIAC, said in a statement.
But the leading opposition party, the New Democratic Party (NDP), used the report’s release to criticize the Conservative government for cuts in Canadian space spending. “The Conservatives have slashed the Canadian Space Agency’s budget, crippling important programs like those that help industry demonstrate that new technologies are space-ready and stimulate youth interest in space-based careers,” said NDP deputy Industry critic Anne Minh-Thu Quach in a statement.
Marc Garneau, Canada’s first astronaut and a former CSA president who is now a member of Parliament for the opposition Liberal party, was more supportive of the framework, but wondered if the government would back up its plans with sufficient funding. “I will wait to see whether the grand words of this framework are going to turn into something positive for Canada’s space program,” he told the CBC. “Fine words have to be backed up by actions and that involves money as well.”
Some more details on Canadian space plans—and funding—may come later today when the Canadian government releases its 2014 budget proposal. The CSA’s core budget had been about C$300 million (US$270 million) per year but is expected to drop to as low as C$260 million (US$235 million) by 2015.