Today’s Tidbits: July 18, 2018

Today’s Tidbits: July 18, 2018

Here are’s tidbits for July 18, 2018:  Blue Origin notches another successful test; Pence reportedly to make announcement at KSC in August; House SS&T schedules JWST hearings; Girl Scouts creates new space science badge.  Be sure to check our website for feature stories and follow us on Twitter (@SpcPlcyOnline) for more news and live tweeting of events.

Blue Origin Notches Another Successful Test

Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin conducted another test flight of its reusable New Shepard suborbital rocket today.  The purpose was to test the crew capsule abort motor in the vacuum of space.

New Shepard is designed to take “tourists” into space on suborbital trips just above the imaginary line that separates air and space.  There is no legal definition of where air ends and space begins, but the international aviation record-keeping body FAI designates it as 100 kilometers (62 miles) and that has become the de facto standard.  The crew capsule today reached 119 kilometers according to the webcast of the launch.

The crew capsule can accommodate six people.  The test today demonstrated that if something goes wrong during ascent, the crew capsule can  break away from the rocket and safely land on its own.  Blue has conducted three tests of the abort motor now. This is the first where the abort motor fired in the vacuum of space.  The company has said it hopes to take the first humans for a ride later this year, with commercial flights thereafter.  The price is TBD.

Today’s flight, M9, again carried Mannequin Skywalker, a lifelike dummy, and several experimental payloads.  The company posted a list of the payloads on its website.  []

Statistics from Blue Orign’s New Shepard test flight July 18, 2018. Screengrab from Blue Origin webcast. Launch time is Central Daylight Time (local time at the launch site in Texas).

Pence Reportedly to Make Announcement at KSC in August

The Orlando Weekly reports that Vice President Mike Pence will visit Kennedy Space Center on August 3 and make a “big space update” with new dates for the commercial crew test flights. []

Pence chairs the White House National Space Council.  The Space Council did not immediately respond to’s request for confirmation.

Source: NASA Commercial Crew Program Office website, July 18, 2018.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program office’s website lists dates for when the uncrewed and crewed test flights for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon are supposed to take place — all before the end of this year. NASA has been hinting for months that those dates will slip.

The test flights are steps towards NASA’s certification of the systems for operational flights.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has been warning that certification of the vehicles is not likely before the end of 2019 or early 2020.  That could be particularly problematical since NASA’s access to crew transportation on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft currently expires at the end of 2019.

House SS&T Schedules JWST hearings

The House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee has scheduled two hearings on successive days about the recently announced breaches of cost and schedule commitments from NASA for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).  JWST is the successor to the popular Hubble Space Telescope that was launched in 1990 and is still operating.

Artist’s illustration of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

Following an independent review chaired by Tom Young, a veteran of NASA and industry who often chairs reviews of space programs that go awry, NASA announced on June 27 that JWST will breach the $8 billion development cost cap set by Congress by 10 percent and the launch will be delayed to no earlier than March 2021. That is a 29-month slip from the October 2018 date set after the last independent review in 2010, which followed earlier cost overruns and schedule delays.  Since September 2017, the date has slipped to 2019, then 2020, and now 2021.  The new cost estimate is $8.8 billion for development with a life-cycle cost (including operations) of $9.7 billion.  That does not include launch, which is being provided by the European Space Agency at no cost to NASA as part of a cooperative agreement.

“Avoidable errors” by prime contractor Northrop Grumman were cited by NASA and the independent review board as the main reason for the delay and cost overrun.

Pursuant to the 2005 NASA authorization act, the JWST program now must be reauthorized by  Congress. House SS&T committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) said immediately after NASA revealed the breach that he would hold a hearing with NASA, Northrop Grumman and Young.   Interestingly, instead of having all of them on the same panel, the committee will hold one hearing with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Young on July 25 and a separate hearing the next day with Northrop Grumman Chairman and CEO Wes Bush and Young.

Meanwhile Northrop Grumman announced that Bush will step down as CEO on January 1, 2019 and as chairman on July 1, 2019.  His successor as CEO will be Kathy Warden, currently the company’s President and  COO.  It will be Bush testifying for the company, but he will not be the one in charge to implement whatever assurances are offered that the problems will be fixed.

It is virtually certain that Congress will reauthorize JWST considering the time and money spent  on it already.  Many in the astrophysics community worry about the consequences for future large space telescopes like the Wide-field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), however.  It is supposed to be the successor to JWST, but the Trump Administration has proposed cancelling it.

Girl Scouts Creates a Space Science Badge

Girl Scouts of America  has announced 30 new badges for girls ages 5-18.  One of them is for “space science” and is for girls in grades K-5.   It is funded by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate and led by the SETI Institute. []

Girls will be able to “channel their inner NASA scientist as they learn about objects in space and how astronomers conduct investigations.”

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