Author: Laura Delgado

Failed Strut Likely Cause of Falcon 9 Failure, But Investigation Continues

Failed Strut Likely Cause of Falcon 9 Failure, But Investigation Continues

SpaceX’s Elon Musk told reporters during a media teleconference that preliminary conclusions point to an upper stage strut that “broke free” as the likely cause of the Falcon 9 failure on June 28.  He did not state when the rocket would return to flight, only that it would not be before September.

Musk said that initial assessments point to the failure of a metal strut inside the rocket’s upper stage as the likely cause of the explosion that destroyed a Dragon spacecraft carrying cargo bound for the International Space Station (ISS).  It was the company’s seventh operational cargo resupply mission for NASA under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract – SpaceX CRS-7 or SpX-7.  (Musk and other SpaceX officials use “second stage” and “upper stage” synonymously when referring to the segment that failed.)

Musk explained that the steel struts are designed to hold high-pressure helium bottles inside the upper stage’s liquid oxygen tank, but that one of them snapped while the stage was accelerating. When the strut broke, the helium bottle “shot to the top of the tank at high speed,” overpressurizing the tank and likely causing the explosion.

The strut, which is provided by a supplier that Musk did not want to name to avoid unnecessary “recrimination,” failed at 2,000 lbs of thrust – five times below what it is designed to withstand. SpaceX has been able to replicate the failure, conducting tests on thousands of these struts and finding that a few others snapped at a point far below their rated force level. As a result, Musk said SpaceX will move to individual testing of each strut independent of outside certification. This, he said, will result in a cost increase, but not “of a significant amount” so that the price of the vehicle should remain unaffected.

Musk said that the failed strut was the “most probable, but not definitive outcome” of the ongoing investigation, noting that there is still work to do.  Investigators are still puzzling over telemetry data that shows a drop in helium pressure, and then a rise back to starting pressure, something he described as “quite confusing.”  Analysis is ongoing.

The investigation also revealed that if the Dragon had deployed its parachutes before falling into the ocean, the spacecraft would have survived. The software in this cargo version of Dragon (Dragon 1), Musk explained, is inert on ascent and was not programmed to release the parachute in the event of a failure.  Software in the version of Dragon under development for taking people into space (Dragon 2 or Crew Dragon) is programmed to do just that.  Musk said they would be working on software fixes to ensure that the Dragon 1 cargo spacecraft can do what it needs to survive. “We could have saved Dragon if we had the right software there,” he said.

Musk said SpaceX customers, including NASA and the U.S. Air Force, had been briefed and were very supportive, indicating “no diminished faith in SpaceX.”

He indicated that return to flight would happen no sooner than September and that who the next customer will be is not clear. While addressing the strut issue is “fairly straightforward” Musk said he wants to ensure the issue is diagnosed correctly and that flights do not resume without everyone being “on board” with the changes.  In a press release issued after the media teleconference, the company said it expects to “return to flight this fall and fly all the customers we intended to fly in 2015 by the end of the year.”

This was SpaceX’s first launch failure in seven years, and the only one for the majority of its 4,000 employees who joined the company during that time.   Musk noted that to some degree the company became “a little bit complacent,” and that this failure was an “important lesson” moving forward.

SpaceX said in its press release that the failure was “regrettable,” but the review process ultimately will “yield a safer and more reliable launch vehicle.”

Mexican Telecom Authorities Undeterred Despite MexSat-1 Loss

Mexican Telecom Authorities Undeterred Despite MexSat-1 Loss

In a press conference following the failed launch attempt of Mexico’s MexSat-1 on Saturday, leaders of Mexico’s Secretariat of Communications and Transportation (SCT) celebrated the government’s foresight in acquiring comprehensive launch insurance, allowing the government to recover 100 percent of its investment in the development and launch of the satellite.

Boeing-built MexSat-1 (Centenario) was destroyed when a Russian Proton-M rocket launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on May 16, 2015 failed at 497 seconds after launch. International Launch Services (ILS) is the provider for Proton-M launch services.

The second of a planned constellation of three satellites for fixed and mobile communications called the MexSat system, Centenario was designed to meet national security and civil communication needs, including emergency services, tele-education, and tele-medicine. The first satellite in the constellation, MexSat-3 (Bicentenario), was successfully launched in December 2012.  According to an SCT press release, the third satellite, Morelos 3, is slated for an October 22, 2015, launch from Cape Canaveral through a service provided by Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services.

During the press conference Gerardo Ruiz Esparza, Secretary of Communications and Transportation, emphasized that the key benefit of having these satellites is not being in the space age, but having the satellite services. For the country to expand in this high-technology area, Mexico will need to learn to live with its inherent risks, he added. SCT’s foresight in fully covering the satellite through private insurance means there is “no loss” for the government of the republic. Ruiz Esparza added that with the upcoming launch of the Morelos 3 satellite, the services that Centenario would have provided are “practically guaranteed.”

Mexico invested an estimated $400 million in Centenario, $90 million of which covered the launch service. Ruiz Esparza was asked to name the amount spent in insurance coverage, a figure he said he did not have on hand and would hesitate to share given the ongoing investigation. In response to a question about the selection of ILS as a launch provider despite the recent issues with the Proton rockets, Ruiz Esparza explained that the service was contracted in February 2012 and that rescinding on that contract would have led to a significant penalty of around $60 million.

A video of the press conference (in Spanish) is available on YouTube.

Editor’s note: English translations provided by Laura Delgado.

DSCOVR Ready at Last for January 2015 Launch – UPDATE

DSCOVR Ready at Last for January 2015 Launch – UPDATE

UPDATE, December 29, 2014:  NOAA announced today that the launch has been postponed to no earlier than January 29, 2015.

ORIGINAL STORY, December 18, 2014:  At a press conference this morning, officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA celebrated the upcoming launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR).  A spacecraft built in the 1990s and then put into storage for almost a decade, DSCOVR was reinvented to meet both space weather and earth science observational needs.

Originally called Triana, DSCOVR is slated for a January 23, 2015 launch on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.  NOAA’s Doug Whiteley, deputy director at the Office of Systems Development at NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service, said today that NOAA is in close contact with the Air Force and has not been told that the January 23 launch will be impacted by today’s postponement of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch to the International Space Station.  Whiteley added that NOAA would be monitoring the situation and “will see how it plays out in coming weeks.”

Whiteley said DSCOVR has had “quite a journey” already.  It was conceived by then-Vice President Al Gore in the mid-1990s, but was later beset by political opposition because of Gore’s involvement and sat in storage during the George W. Bush Administration.  It was resurrected by the Obama Administration.

Today, DSCOVR is a tri-agency partnership among NOAA, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force (USAF).  NOAA is in charge of the program and paid for refurbishing the spacecraft and its space weather instruments. The work was performed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and NASA paid for refurbishing two earth science instruments it originally built.  USAF is providing the launch service with SpaceX.  NOAA will operate DSCOVR.

Whiteley said the total cost of DSCOVR from all the partners over all the years — including  storage, refurbishment, and launch – is $340 million.

After launch, DSCOVR will undergo testing during the 110 days it takes to reach its destination – the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point about one million miles from Earth.  DSCOVR is the nation’s first operational space weather satellite and will continue observations currently taken by NASA’s scientific research satellite Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE), launched in 1997.  Despite “performing admirably,” as Whiteley said today, ACE is considerably past its design lifetime and officials are anxious to get DSCOVR in place to ensure continuity of observations before ACE fails. Once DSCOVR is operational, ACE will likely be relegated to a “back up status.”

NOAA officials stressed the importance of maintaining monitoring and forecasting capabilities for space weather, which Whiteley said threatens “every major infrastructure system.”  Douglas Biesecker, DSCOVR program scientist at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), described the “wide-ranging impacts” of space weather to national infrastructure including aviation and the national power grid.  A recent seminar by the Secure World Foundation and the American Astronautical Society spelled out why monitoring space weather is critical.

SWPC is the official source for space weather watches, warnings and alerts and provides free information services and products to over 40,000 customers. DSCOVR will allow SWPC to issue an hour’s warning before solar storms reach Earth. Data from the system, along with a new forecast model, will also allow SWPC to forecast regional geomagnetic storms for the first time.

Biesecker emphasized that space weather “happens all the time.” In fact, Biesecker talked about a small solar storm on its way to Earth today. While the power industry – a major customer of SWPC information products – will “fairly likely” need to respond to this event, the risk of impact is low. Because SWPC customers are able to receive warnings and take action to minimize disruptions, “impacts are never really felt,” said Biesecker. Without the warnings, however, users would notice as systems begin to fail.

While DSCOVR’s primary goal is its space weather mission, it also carries two earth science instruments. Originally built for the Triana mission, the instruments will take “innovative measurements from a novel perspective,” said Richard Eckman, DSCOVR program scientist at NASA. NASA scientists will combine DSCOVR measurements, including those of ozone, cloud height, and aerosol distribution, with observations from earth science satellites in low earth orbit. The hope is the combination of data will lead to improved earth science products, such as more accurate measurements of Earth’s global daytime radiation budget.

The big issue right now is when DSCOVR will launch. The Falcon 9 CRS-5 mission for NASA that was scheduled for tomorrow now will take place no earlier than January 6.  Whether that means a similar slip to the DSCOVR launch date is something NOAA is watching closely.  DSCOVR has an “instantaneous” launch window – whatever day and time the launch is set, it either goes or it does not, there is no “window.”  If a problem develops close to launch, DSCOVR can be on the launch pad for up to three days at a time, but then would have to go through a “recycle” that could take several days.

The key is that DSCOVR is closer to launch than it has been in over a decade.

ULA's Tory Bruno Vows To Transform Company

ULA's Tory Bruno Vows To Transform Company

Alluding to what he described as a moment of exciting change for the commercial launch industry, the newly appointed head of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) discussed how his company, the primary U.S. national security launch provider, will adapt to remain on top.

At an event Thursday hosted by the Atlantic Council, Salvatore “Tory” T. Bruno, ULA president and CEO, described his sense of “irrational optimism” at the future of the commercial launch industry. Widespread accessibility will be the key feature of a new environment, he explained, one where government and new commercial customers will need access to space to accomplish “missions we couldn’t conceive of in the past.”

ULA, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture established in 2006 with a record of 89 successful launches, is banking on experience to remain ahead in an industry facing new competition and possible constraints from foreign policy pressures.  Last April, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) filed a complaint against the U.S. Air Force for awarding an $11 billion block buy contract to ULA for five years’ worth of launches on its Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV). ULA has stated this block buy saved the government $4 billion, cutting launch prices in half. SpaceX has argued it can offer the same service for much less and is vying to compete for national space security launch contracts.

Although not referring to SpaceX directly, Bruno cited ULA’s “perfect record of mission success,” and “great heritage” as the benefit of doing business with the company.  But the country is demanding new things, he said, and “I am going to transform this company.” Bruno vowed to “cash in” the company’s decades of experience, reorganize to make it more agile, and establish new business models to adapt to the new environment. These changes will lead to improvements in how ULA interacts with its customers, both governmental and commercial, shorter launch cycles, and launch costs cut in half again.

Among the changes already under way, in September ULA announced a partnership with Blue Origin for the development of an alternative to the Russian-built RD-180 engine which ULA uses on its Atlas V vehicle.  In light of deteriorating diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia, for the past several months policymakers and industry leaders have been debating alternatives to reduce U.S. reliance on Russia for putting critical national security assets in orbit.

ULA intends to phase out the RD-180 over time and transition to an “American solution” to launching satellites using Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine.  Bruno said that transition is coming “very soon,” but ULA will continue buying RD-180s under its existing contract with RD-AMROSS and is accelerating their delivery.  ULA wants to have eight rather than five delivered next year, he acknowledged.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ), expected to chair the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) in the next Congress, included language in the Senate version of the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (S. 2410, sec. 1623) prohibiting DOD from contracting for space launch services from companies using Russian suppliers.  Asked about his reaction to the language, Bruno replied that, as originally drafted, the language would have been “very harmful” to ULA in ways “the drafters did not intend” and is being revised as part of negotiations over the final version of the bill.

When asked by a reporter for Russia’s news agency, Itar-TASS, why the RD-180s were being phased out and deliveries accelerated, Bruno made no reference to the tense geopolitical circumstances, however.   Instead, he framed it strictly as a business decision.  Praising the RD-180 as a “great” engine that is very reliable with “terrific performance,” he nonetheless said it was time to move past the technologies of the 1970s and 1980s and build a lighter engine with improved thrust.  As for moving up the delivery timetable, he said that was in response to anticipated market demand for more Atlas V launches.

The Atlantic Council has posted the webcast of the event on its website.

RD-180 Decision Will Not Be Made By Space Community Says Member of Mitchell Panel

RD-180 Decision Will Not Be Made By Space Community Says Member of Mitchell Panel

Just as the decision to rely on the RD-180 engine was driven by “geopolitical interests,” rather than “space community necessity,” the answer of whether to continue to use the Russian engine or build a U.S. alternative will not be “in the space community’s hands,” says a member of Air Force’s RD-180 Alternative Study. 

At an event yesterday hosted by the George C. Marshall Institute, Josh Hartman, CEO of Horizon Strategies Group and a member of the independent advisory panel that examined alternatives to the Russian RD-180 rocket engine, summarized the findings and recommendations of the Air Force-convened panel. Chaired by Major General Howard J. ‘Mitch’ Mitchell, USAF (ret.), the expert panel was asked to submit its report in just 30 days – rather than the original 60 days – because of congressional interest in the study, Hartman explained. While the final report is classified, posted a set of unclassified briefing charts and summarized highlights from them in May.

The panel concluded that the loss of the Russian RD-180s, on which the United States depends to power the Atlas V rocket, one of two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) that are the workhorses of national security space launches, would be “significant.” Although the United States has enough RD-180s for two years’ worth of launches, the current launch manifest would need to be prioritized, costing billions of dollars in delays and in retrofitting existing payloads to launch on other rockets.

In a scenario where the RD-180s disappeared, the United States would lose its ability to use the Atlas V. While the second EELV –Delta IV – is technically capable of launching the satellites now manifested on Atlas V, some question whether the production rate could be accelerated sufficiently to compensate.  Therefore, the national security sector would need to rely on new entrants, such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, both of which have expressed an interest in providing national security space launches.

However, doing so would mean incurring a “great level of risk,” said Hartman.  On the one hand it is a question of how soon new entrants would be ready to launch rockets equivalent in capability to Atlas V. The Mitchell panel found that even if new entrants were certified and ready to compete for national security launches in 2015, the first launch would not be before 2017. On the other hand, Hartman said these companies are not advertising that they would meet the full spectrum of national security launches. He added that SpaceX and Blue Origin are “not motivated by national security launches” but see these as a “stepping stone” to other activities.

The second speaker, Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University, expanded on the policy questions, opportunities and risks of what he said was a “looming crisis.” He argued that the reasons to reconsider U.S. launch options go beyond the current geopolitical situation and include longer-term issues. These include the increasing cost of the EELV program, which includes “imposed costs” that come with the U.S. government’s “way of doing business,” and the interest created by new entrants.  In his remarks, Pace highlighted the need to reexamine the benefit of imposing extensive rules and restrictions on industry partners – some that have no value-added – and can sometimes hamper innovation.

To a question about the potential role of foreign partners in this effort, Hartman said that new partnerships would be considered on a “case-by-case basis.” He noted that while the Russian engine was the main issue of interest, there is ongoing foreign participation in other components of the EELV program.

Pace said that he sees more opportunities for foreign partners in civil space exploration, including launch infrastructure.   For national security launches he thinks it will be commercial rather than international partners.

Hidden Benefits of NRO ""Spy"" Technology Revealed in Hill Briefing

Hidden Benefits of NRO ""Spy"" Technology Revealed in Hill Briefing

While “spying” is getting bad press lately, society has derived multiple benefits from intelligence-gathering technology developed by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), said speakers at a Friday briefing on Capitol Hill.

The event, hosted by the Space Foundation, featured Dr. Robert McDonald and Dr. James Outzen from the Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance within the NRO. McDonald and Outzen described the political context leading to the establishment of the agency in 1961 and gave examples of how approaches and technology developed by the agency have seeped out of the intelligence-gathering world and into daily life.

Outzen identified three events – the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the first Soviet nuclear test in 1949, and the movement of the North Korean army into South Korea in 1950 — as driving the shift in mindset that the United States “could not afford” to be surprised by the activities of its adversaries.  It was formalized during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, who said at the time “no more Pearl Harbors.”

McDonald and Outzen grouped the NRO’s contributions to society into four areas: organizational, intelligence-related, technological and data-related. The organization of the NRO itself was “unique” and “innovative,” and so were the agency’s early leaders, they explained.  Of note is Edwin Land who, in addition to creating the Polaroid instant camera, is credited with a phrase that characterized the goal of reconnaissance: “see it all, see it well, and see it now.”

Alluding to the NRO’s long history of success in answering intelligence questions – many of which could not be disclosed at the briefing – Outzen offered a couple of examples from the Cold War. The Soviets, said Outzen, were carrying out a “fabulous deception” about the extent of their offensive capabilities. Intelligence gathered by U-2 aircraft and later by the CORONA program, the first U.S. photo reconnaissance satellites, helped defray fears of “the missile gap” and inform U.S. decisions about how best to use resources during the Cold War. Outzen explained that intelligence gathered by NRO satellites has also contributed in areas as diverse as treaty verification and assessments during humanitarian and environmental crises, such as hurricanes Rita and Katrina in the United States.

By enabling the “massive collection of information,” McDonald reiterated that aerospace technologies have been “very critical” in answering intelligence questions. He explained the dramatic mechanical and technological improvements as early reconnaissance satellite programs evolved, as well as the development of the first military meteorological satellite to improve the efficiency of imaging satellites in cloudy and nighttime conditions.  He and Outzen also pointed to advancements in photography – such as the development of digital photography —  as well as systems engineering and other improvements that supported reliable launch capability, as key contributions from NRO activities. McDonald commented on the “staggering” number of NRO launches in the height of the Cold War, with one or two successful launches almost every month.

The final area of contributions the speakers commented on was data. Thinking about intelligence questions as data problems – dependent on the ability to gather the right data at a fast rate – helped drive innovations in data acquisition, integration, and processing. While much of these data remain classified, some of the long-term records are helping answer questions in other fields. In response to a question about the role of historical data in environmental research, McDonald noted that imagery collected by the CORONA satellites has been declassified and is available through the National Archives and the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS’s) Earth Resources Observation Systems (EROS) Data Center. He said that because these records allow researchers to examine conditions before NASA’s land remote sensing satellites began launching in 1972, they have been “invaluable” in environmental studies.

Lessons learned from NRO’s history and activities are captured in the National Reconnaissance Journal produced by the Center.  Three issues have been published, in 2005, 2009 and 2012.

No One-Size-Fits-All Solution to Reducing Cost of National Security Space Capabilities, Say Panelists

No One-Size-Fits-All Solution to Reducing Cost of National Security Space Capabilities, Say Panelists

At a briefing this morning focused on a recently released Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) report, representatives from the national security space community emphasized that many new processes out there hold promise to reduce costly space programs, but that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

The new report, Easing the Burden: Reducing the Cost of National Security Space Capabilities, contains findings and recommendations that resulted from a two-day Cost Reduction workshop with industry and government officials organized by AIA in May 2013.

Panelists at today’s event described some of the findings of the report and provided examples of the programs and practices their organizations are exploring to reduce the cost of national security space capabilities in all phases of implementation. Jeff Trauberman, Vice President, Space, Intelligence & Missile Defense at Boeing, for instance, said that Boeing’s adoption of commercial practices in the development of three satellites of the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) communications system had resulted in $150 million in savings.

The panelists emphasized that changes in contracting, acquisition and management practices deliver the greatest cost savings, without necessarily incurring additional risk from the technological or engineering perspective. Alternative architectures, however, are also being explored. As David Barnhart of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) explained, the Phoenix Program he manages is addressing this very question by developing a myriad of technologies that would enable satellite capture, autonomous rendezvous and assembly in-orbit, as well as the ability to augment capabilities as requirements evolve.

Panelists said that practices being considered for their cost-saving benefits – such as disaggregation, block buys and hosted payloads – hold promise, but that none will be appropriate for all missions or requirements. In a version of the phrase that was repeated throughout the event, AIA’s Vice President of Space Systems Frank Slazer said that there is “not a one-size-fits-all solution.”

Considering the challenges to the broad adoption of some of the cost-saving practices discussed, panelists mentioned the need for increased acquisition stability. “We’re very narrowly near-term focused,” said Keith Robertson of the National Reconnaissance Office. Speakers commented how disagreement over requirements – even at the Congressional level – in addition to funding instability can be detrimental to a program, eventually driving up cost.

This need for stability also goes back to the health of the industrial base. As Slazer noted, actions that help the industrial base also help national security. This includes a concern for education and the ability of industry to attract a younger generation of professionals. “We need to return to the fifties” on the nation’s ability to generate a pool of talent to support the industrial base, said Rick Skinner, Director, Business and Advanced Systems Development, Northrop Grumman Aerospace.

NASA Asserts Its New Strategic Plan Provides "Clear, Unified, and Long-Term Direction"

NASA Asserts Its New Strategic Plan Provides "Clear, Unified, and Long-Term Direction"

According to NASA, its new strategic plan, released last week, provides the agency with a “clear, unified, and long-term direction” for all its activities. NASA’s previous strategic plan was criticized in a 2012 National Research Council (NRC) report requested by Congress that found a lack of “national consensus” on the agency’s strategic goals and objectives.

Government agencies are required to prepare strategic plans every four years in the year after a presidential election by the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act.  The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) sets detailed requirements for the plans.  NASA was given an extra year to produce its last version as the Obama Administration debated the agency’s future, so it was released in 2011 rather than 2010.

The document states NASA’s vision and mission and explains the agency’s core values, goals and priorities.

In this new version, NASA’s Vision is articulated as:

“We reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind.”

NASA’s Mission is:

“Drive advances in science, technology, aeronautics, and space exploration to enhance knowledge, education, innovation, economic vitality, and stewardship of Earth.”

A comparison of the 2014 and 2011 strategic plans reveals few dramatic changes. Safety, integrity, teamwork and excellence remain the agency’s core values. The plan also reiterates sending humans to Mars as the agency’s long-term goal. The addition of the words “space” and “aeronautics” to the mission statement is a significant change, however, and appears to respond to criticism of the 2011 version by the NRC committee.

The 2014 plan identifies NASA’s proposed asteroid initiative, which includes the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) to redirect an asteroid into the Earth-Moon system for human exploration, as a step towards a human exploration of Mars.

Lack of widespread national and international support for an asteroid mission as the next step in human spaceflight, first proposed by President Obama in April 2010, was one of the findings of the 2012 NRC study that was written in response to concerns of Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA).  He chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and included language in NASA’s FY2012 funding bill requesting a study of NASA’s strategic direction with a specific look at NASA’s Strategic Plan.

The resulting NRC report, NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus, concluded that “there is no national consensus on strategic goals and objectives for NASA.” The committee recommended that the Administration take the lead in forging a new consensus, establishing a new strategic plan to achieve it, and taking steps to address a crippling mismatch between the agency’s budget and its portfolio of programs, facilities and staff.

The NRC committee found the vision and mission statements in the 2011 strategic plan were too generic and did not convey how NASA uniquely contributes to national goals, adding to the “confusion about NASA’s overall strategic direction.”  In particular, it criticized the omission of the words “space” and aeronautics” from those statements since they delineate NASA’s responsibilities.

The new strategic plan responds to that critique by adding “space” and “aeronautics” to the mission statement. Previously it read “Drive advances in science, technology, and exploration to enhance knowledge, education, innovation, economic vitality, and stewardship of Earth.” The new vision statement does not include those words, but is more succinct than the 2011 version, which was phrased “To reach for new heights and reveal the unknown, so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.”

The new strategic plan does highlight changes in the strategy development process. It emphasizes consultation with both internal and external stakeholders, “including Congress,” and describes actions the NASA Administrator has taken “to formulate a robust Agency strategy for implementation of the external guidance.”

In a letter introducing the 2014 strategic plan, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden states that “NASA’s vision of the future is clear.” Nevertheless, as recent congressional hearings have demonstrated, there is a persistent lack of consensus over next steps for NASA’s human spaceflight program and the state of affairs with respect to the agency’s future direction for human spaceflight, at least, is largely unchanged.

Note: Editor Marcia Smith was a member of the NRC Strategic Directions committee.

Many Benefits from International Cooperation, But Not Cost Savings, Says Panel

Many Benefits from International Cooperation, But Not Cost Savings, Says Panel

At a panel discussion yesterday, representatives from four major space agencies highlighted the many benefits of international space cooperation, even while noting that working with foreign partners is neither easy nor does it lead to cost savings.

The event was organized by the American Astronautical Society (AAS) and featured representatives of NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).  All are partners in the International Space Station (along with Russia).  ISS was cited as the most successful example of international cooperation to date.

Space cooperation, however, dates back much further. Kent Bress, director of the Aeronautics and Cross-Agency Support Division of the NASA Office of International and Interagency Relations (OIIR), traced NASA’s efforts back to the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 that created the agency.  International collaboration is “written in our legal DNA,” he said.  Today, over 50 years later, NASA has more than 600 active international agreements.

NASA has been pursuing space cooperation “essentially the same way” for all those decades, explained Bress. The fundamental guidelines, which include no exchange of funds or technology transfer among the partners, have remained virtually unchanged. “We are not in the business of teaching our partners how to operate in space,” said Bress about the “meet at the interface” principle NASA uses.

One of NASA’s longest-standing partners is Europe. Micheline Tabache, head of the Washington office of the 20-member ESA, said that the United States is ESA’s “main partner and has been since day one.” ESA does not pursue cooperation for its own sake, explained Tabache. According to her presentation “ESA seeks cooperation to pursue its programs, not for the sake of a general policy objective.” Concrete benefits to international partnerships include securing participation in large programs and the exchange of data and information.  For example, since ESA does not have a human spaceflight program, its cooperation with NASA has allowed them to launch astronauts into space. “Cooperation does not make things cheaper, I’m afraid, but it does make things happen,” Tabache added.  She also quoted ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain as saying that “It’s not easy to cooperate, but it’s more difficult to succeed alone.”

Bill Mackey, counselor of US-Canada space affairs at the Canadian Space Agency, also highlighted mutual benefit as a fundamental component of successful partnerships. “We can’t do it all alone,” he said.  Canada has benefited from five decades of “mutually-beneficial” cooperation with NASA and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “By international cooperation we enrich the team,” he said.

This has also been Japan’s experience. According to Masahiko Sato, director of the Washington office of JAXA, “it is not an overstatement that Japanese space activities have evolved mainly through US-Japanese space cooperation.” That cooperation dates back to 1969 when both countries signed a space cooperation agreement, and has continued through the decades with cooperation on the space shuttle, ISS and many space and Earth science programs, as well as aeronautics. Sato noted that since the 1990s, JAXA has expanded its cooperative activities and currently has 201 agreements in effect with 44 nations.

With respect to the future of human spaceflight, several panelists referred to the roadmap recently released by the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG).  That report suggests that there is disagreement between the United States, which plans to send astronauts to an asteroid as the next step beyond low Earth orbit, and the other ISECG members who want to focus on the Moon.  Tabache urged that people not get “stuck on the destination.” What is important, she said, is that everyone agrees that it will be an international endeavor:  “We’re going somewhere [and] we’re going together.” Navigating international partnerships is “not going to be easy, but it’s going to happen,” she said.  Bress commented that it is “not about destination, but a common point of reference.”  Mackey noted that Canada currently chairs ISECG, but the Canadian government is reviewing its space policy so CSA is in a “wait and see” mode.

As for the key factors needed for successful international cooperation, Bress cited the ability to communicate effectively across cultures. ESA’s Tabache agreed, but added “trust is vital.”   Sato emphasized that a “strong commitment is important,” while Mackey stressed that one lesson that has been learned is that international space partnerships “don’t save money, but they work.”

Witnesses, House Committee Members Disagree on State of Weather and Environmental Satellites

Witnesses, House Committee Members Disagree on State of Weather and Environmental Satellites

During Thursday’s joint House Science subcommittee hearing, the agencies in charge of developing and operating U.S national weather and climate satellites insisted that a projected gap in weather coverage is not certain and that the necessary steps to address that eventuality are being taken. Others disagreed. 

The hearing to examine dysfunction in management of weather and climate satellites was held by the Subcommittees on Environment and on Oversight of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology (HSS&T). It began with Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Paul Broun (R-GA), chastising both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA for failing to submit their testimonies on time. This followed remarks expressed in his opening statement where he asked witnesses to answer questions “in a concise, straightforward, and accurate manner” and not to “sidestep” them “through the use of bureaucratic doublespeak.”

His statements expressing frustration at being told by NOAA and NASA “that ‘all is well’ when we all know that is not the case,” set the tone for the rest of the discussion, which was followed by visible disagreements between both agency representatives and the witness from the federal agencies’ watchdog, the Government Accountability Office (GAO).  

GAO’s Director of Information Technology Management Issues, David Powner, summarized the findings of two reports GAO released this week on the polar orbiting weather satellite system, JPSS, and the next-generation geostationary weather satellite system, GOES-R. These are the latest in a long line of GAO studies calling attention to ongoing management and schedule challenges of the nation’s weather satellite programs. Just last February, GAO added concern over weather satellite data gaps to its high risk list.

With respect to JPSS, GAO found that “solid progress” had been made, but Powner spoke of the projected data gap as a certainty. Assuming that the current satellite, Suomi NPP, lasts for five years, that JPSS-1 is launched on time in March 2017 and that on-orbit check out takes a year, there will be a 17-month data gap between late 2016 and late 2018, he said.   But that’s the best case scenario, Powner explained.  A number of vulnerabilities identified in the report leads GAO to question NASA and NOAA’s 70 percent confidence assessment that the March 2017 launch date for JPSS-1 will actually be met, suggesting that the data gap could be much longer.

GOES-R, in turn, continues facing milestone delays, scheduling and other challenges, GAO found.  Powner referenced recent statements by NOAA officials that the launch would be delayed from October 2015 to the quarter ending March 2016.  This decision, though seemingly insignificant, extends to nearly two years the time that NOAA will be without an on-orbit backup satellite. An additional launch slip, he said, and a gap in satellite coverage will occur.

NASA and NOAA, however, disagreed with this bleak assessment.

Mary Kicza, NOAA Assistant Administrator of Satellite and Information Services, began her remarks saying she was “proud to report that JPSS and GOES-R continue to meet key milestones.” She noted that “while the title of this hearing would lead one to believe otherwise, management and oversight of these programs is functional.” She listed several successes, including reaching over 99 percent data availability with Suomi NPP.

When asked to put a number on the likelihood of a data gap, both Kicza and Marcus Watkins, director of the Joint Agency Satellite Division at NASA, said they estimated it to be 5 out of 10. “Our gap situation has improved,” said Kizca, who said that JPSS-1 was on schedule and that development of JPSS-2 has been accelerated. She also listed a number of risk mitigating practices, including close management of Suomi NPP. Noting that “infant mortality issues” have not been seen on the satellite, she suggested that NOAA might be able to reduce the on-orbit checkout period of JPSS-1 to less than a year.

“I am not aware of the gap situation improving,” said Powner, however, and urged against downplaying the likelihood of a gap.  Representative Chris Stewart (R-UT), ranking member of the Subcommittee on Environment, said he was “troubled” by the differences in opinion.

Another hot topic of discussion involved the specific mitigation strategies that NOAA would implement in the event of a data gap.  Several members expressed serious concerns over a NOAA-sponsored study that, as reported by Space News, concluded that Chinese weather data could be the “silver bullet” to help fill this gap.

Kicza explained that a “host of options” are being examined and pursued by the agency to address potential gaps and that the use of Chinese data would be a “whole of government decision” that would involve the national security community to address definite security concerns.

Several members, particularly Stewart, pressed NOAA to consider commercial data buys from potential commercial partners that he said “have so far been rebuffed by NOAA.” Ranking Member of the Oversight Subcommittee, Dan Maffei (D-NY) noted that weather forecasting is already a public-private endeavor, but suggested it might be useful for GAO to pursue a study on opportunities for furthering public private collaboration in this area.

Powner agreed that NOAA has come up with an extensive list of options to address potential gaps, “but let’s be clear,” he said, “none of these options can replace JPSS’ polar satellite observations…these options can minimize the gap but do not eliminate the damage to forecasts from the gap.”

The charter for the hearing, opening statements by committee members, prepared statements by witnesses and an archived webcast can be found on the committee’s Republican and Democratic websites.