Today’s Tidbits: November 27, 2017

Today’s Tidbits: November 27, 2017

Here are our tidbits for November 27, 2017: analyzing the demise of XCOR; and the fate of DMSP-20.  Be sure to check our website for feature stories and follow us on Twitter for more news and live tweeting of events.

The Demise of XCOR

Artist’s rendering of an XCOR Lynx spaceplane. Credit: XCOR website.

Mark Harris, writing for Air and Space Magazine, has an interesting analysis of what went wrong at XCOR, an entrepreneurial space tourism company that just declared bankruptcy. []

The company, initially led by Jeff Greason, planned to build the two-seater Lynx spaceplane to make suborbital spaceflights, taking off from and landing back on runways.  The problems were — as they often seem to be — financial, technical and managerial.

Harris tells the story of the company’s rise and fall, with Greason ousted as CEO by the company’s board in 2015.  The new CEO, John (Jay) Gibson, departed after two years to join the Trump Administration (he was confirmed by the Senate as DOD’s Deputy Chief Management Officer on November 7).  Gibson left shortly after learning that the Air Force was zeroing funding for a propulsion project XCOR was working on with United Launch Alliance — XCOR’s last source of funding.  Gibson had already laid off many of the employees and his successor, Michael Blum, had to lay off the rest.  On November 8, 2017, the company filed for bankruptcy.

Fledgling space entrepreneurs may find some useful lessons in the tale.

The Fate of DMSP-20 and the Future of Arctic Sea Ice Measurements

NOAA’s civil weather satellites get a lot of attention. Less is paid to DOD’s parallel Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP), but a recent article by Andrew Freedman at Mashable may change that []. He focuses on the loss of Arctic sea ice data because the DMSP program will end earlier than expected in part because of a congressional decision to dismantle the last satellite in the series, DMSP-20, instead of launching it.  It’s an interesting article and he spends a lot of time discussing how DMSP-20’s demise came to pass, but his narrative misses much of the complexity of the DMSP debate.

Artist’s illustration of a DMSP satellite. Credit: Air Force Space Command website.

For context, in the 1990s, DOD purchased a block buy of DMSP satellites, the idea being that buying them in bulk would save money in the long run and they could be launched as needed.  As the years passed, in-orbit DMSP satellites lasted longer than expected and the others sat in storage — costing tens of millions of dollars a year — for a very long period of time.  DMSP-20 was in storage for 18 years.

The ultimate fate of DMSP-20 began in 1994 when the Clinton-Gore Administration directed DOD and NOAA to merge their historically separate military and civil weather satellite systems. That effort, the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program, was cancelled in 2010 after years of cost overruns and schedule delays. DOD and NOAA were directed to resume separate systems.  NOAA’s is the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), the first one of which was launched nine days ago.

Post-NPOESS, DOD has been struggling to determine its “space-based environmental monitoring” (SBEM) needs.  Its own support for launching DMSP-20 has waxed and waned.

Although Freedman’s article focuses on Congress’s FY2016 decision to scrap DMSP-20, a year earlier it was Congress pressing the Air Force to go ahead with the launch while the Air Force was ambivalent.  In deliberations over the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the House Armed Services Committee (H. Rept. 113-446) directed DOD to launch DMSP-20.  The Senate Armed Services Committee’s (SASC’s) report (S. Rept. 113-176) explained that the Air Force was requesting money to keep the satellite in storage, but terminating the funding needed to buy a launch vehicle to put it into space. SASC said the storage cost was $87 million for FY2015 and about the same for each year thereafter.  It ended by saying “The committee is concerned that the Air Force would request significant funding to keep a satellite that they have no intent of launching into space.”

The Air Force’s hesitance about the need for DMSP-20 stemmed from a requirements review and Analysis of Alternatives (AOA) that took place in the 2012-2014 time frame.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reviewed the AOA report and its report provides an excellent summary of what DOD determined its SBEM priorities to be and how to meet them. []

A lot happened during this period, however.  DMSP-19, launched in 2014 and expected to last at least 5 years, failed in 2016. About the same time, DOD learned the AOA incorrectly assumed that Europe would continue providing data DOD needs.  Among GAO’s criticisms of the AOA is that DOD did not know about Europe’s plans because it did not adequately coordinate with NOAA, which interfaces with Europe on such matters.

By the time the FY2016 NDAA debate rolled around, the Air Force decided that it did want to launch DMSP-20, but it was too late.  Freedman blames Rep. Mike Rogers for the decision to dismantle DMSP-20 and certainly he did play a role.  He chairs HASC’s subcommittee that oversees military space programs. Rogers said in a February 2016 op-ed for Space News, however, that he thought the satellite should have been launched [], but by then Congress had lost confidence in the Air Force’s ability to manage the program.  He blames the Air Force for throwing away a “perfectly good satellite.”

Freedman does make an interesting point about DMSP’s Arctic sea ice-tracking capabilities that will be lost when the remaining DMSPs cease functioning. He postulates that it will be 2023 before DOD has another satellite that can provide that capability, but it is not clear DOD will launch such sensors in the future.  As shown in the GAO report, DOD’s AOA apparently concluded that its sea ice characterization requirements can be met by data provided by Japan “with operational work-arounds.”

Excerpt from GAO report GAO-16-252R, DOD Weather Satellite Alternatives, showing how DOD set its space-based environmental monitoring requirements. Sea ice characterization is number 9. This summary of DOD’s Analysis of Alternatives shows that DOD plans to use Japanese data to fulfill that capability.

NASA also tracks Arctic sea ice, but its capabilities are different.  ICESat (Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite) measured ice sheet mass from 2003-2009 and a successor satellite, ICESat-2, is scheduled for launch next year.  In the meantime, NASA is flying “IceBridge” aircraft to collect measurements, but only for a few months of each year.  NASA spokesman Steve Cole explains that IceBridge and ICESat-2 only look at the ice in thin strips not the “wall-to-wall coverage” provided by DMSP data.  “DMSP satellites get … total sea ice coverage every day,” while the NASA data “is more sampling conditions/thickness than providing comprehensive coverage.”

Meanwhile, the DOD weather satellite saga continues.  GAO put the effort on its “High-Risk” list this year, a designation GAO uses to identify “government operations with greater vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement or the need for transformation to address economy, efficiency, or effectiveness challenges.”

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