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Senate Joins House in Approving FY2017 Approps Bill - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-May-2017 (Updated: 05-May-2017 04:22 PM)

The Senate passed the FY2017 omnibus appropriations bill today.  President Trump is expected to sign it into law before midnight tomorrow.  Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) won praise from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) for winning the increase in NASA's budget that will boost it to $19.653 billion.  Meanwhile, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) also took credit for the increase and vowed that it is just the beginning. [UPDATE, May 5:  President Trump has signed the bill into law.]

Nelson is well known as an avid NASA supporter and is the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee that oversees the agency.  When he was a member of the House, he became the second politician to fly into space aboard the space shuttle (the first was Sen. Jake Garn, a Republican from Utah).  Schumer said today that NASA had been targeted for certain cuts, but received an increase instead thanks to Nelson: "There is no one who has done more for [NASA] than Bill Nelson."

The $19.653 billion for FY2017 is $368 million above NASA's FY2016 funding level.

Nelson offered his "profound thanks" to Schumer and the other "big four" congressional leaders (the House and Senate Majority and MInority Leaders) and the bipartisanship that made it all possible.  "America's civilian space program should not be a partisan subject" and the new head of NASA should be nonpartisan, he urged.  "The leaders of NASA should not be partisans.  As a matter of fact, they should even be more than bipartisan.  They should be nonpartisans.  And that has been the tradition of NASA, so like the Secretary of Defense, you consider the appointment a nonpartisan."

A leading contender for NASA Administrator is Rep. Jim Bridenstine, a Republican member of the House from Oklahoma, but it is not at all clear that Nelson was suggesting that he is not the right person to lead the agency.   Several Secretaries of Defense have been former members of the House or Senate and/or held high level positions in Republican or Democratic administrations.  Their stewardship of DOD was widely considered nonpartisan, however.

Nelson ended his remarks by saying that "In this time when we find ourselves far too divided in our politics, the exploration of space continues to be a powerful force that brings us together into our search as we explore the universe."

Meanwhile, Culberson spoke to a meeting of the National Academies' Space Studies Board (SSB) this afternoon.  Culberson chairs the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA and is an ardent supporter, especially of its robotic planetary exploration including a mission to explore Jupiter's moon Europa.  The appropriations bill increases the planetary science budget to $1.846 billion, significantly more than the Obama Administration requested, including $275 million for Europa.  

According to a series of tweets from Space News' Jeff Foust, he took credit for the overall NASA increase while also thanking his Senate counterpart, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL).  Culberson asserted that he plans to boost the planetary science budget above $2 billion and the total NASA budget "well north" of $20 billion.  

He also said that the earth science budget held its own despite "intense pressure" to cut it, and he would continue to "protect" it. 

Those comments echoed remarks he made earlier this year.  Culberson also reportedly told SSB members "not to worry" about President Trump's FY2018 budget request for NASA.  The request is for $19.1 billion, slightly less than the $19.285 billion NASA received for FY2016, but now quite a bit less than the FY2017 allocation.   Trump's request would eliminate NASA's Office of Education and cut the earth science budget, though much less than supporters feared.

The bill. H.R. 244. now goes to President Trump's desk for signature. Trump said recently that he thought a government shutdown would be "good" for the nation, but he was referring to FY2018 appropriations, not this bill. He is expected to sign it to keep the government operating through September 30, the end of FY2017.  What happens after that remains to be seen.

Congress Advances FY2017 Appropriations, Space Weather Legislation

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-May-2017 (Updated: 03-May-2017 11:25 PM)

Congress is making progress on passing the final FY2017 omnibus appropriations bill as well as legislation to clarify federal responsibilities for space weather research and forecasting.

Today, the House passed the appropriations bill, H.R. 244, by a vote of 309-118.   It combines 11 of the 12 regular FY2017 appropriations bills, including the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill that funds NASA and NOAA (the 12th, Military Construction/Veterans Affairs, passed last year).  The bill provides $19.65 billion for NASA and $1.979 billion for NOAA satellite acquisition.   The Senate is expected to vote on it tomorrow.  The President must sign it into law by midnight Friday to avoid a government shutdown.

President Trump tweeted yesterday that  "Our country needs a good 'shutdown' in September to fix mess."   He probably meant October, the beginning of the next fiscal year (FY2018).  Thus he is expected to sign this bill, which funds the government through the end of FY2017 on September 30. 

The government has been operating on a series of Continuing Resolutions since FY2017 began on October 1, 2016, so the government is already 7 months into the fiscal year.  Many of the members who spoke during debate on the bill today lamented the delay.

President Trump is scheduled to send his complete FY2018 budget request to Congress on May 15.  He submitted a "budget blueprint" or "skinny budget" in March, but Congress has been waiting for the details.  Congress will have between then and September 30 to craft a bill for the upcoming fiscal year.  Much can happen between now and then so it remains to be seen whether the President continues to describe a government shutdown as "good."  The current focus is getting through the rest of FY2017 and the House vote today is a step forward in that direction.

Separately, the Senate passed the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act (S. 141) yesterday.  The original bill did not clear the 114th Congress and a new version was introduced this year by Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) and a set of bipartisan co-sponsors.  It was approved by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on March 30 and passed the Senate on May 2 by unanimous consent.  The bill focuses on policy and does not authorize funding. 

A major focus is interagency coordination and cooperation.  The bill directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and its National Science and Technology Council to serve a coordinating role "to improve the nation's ability to prepare, avoid, mitigate, respond to, and recover from potentially devastating impacts of space weather events."  The principle agencies involved in research and forecasting are NOAA, NASA, DOD and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Space weather is caused by particles emitted by the Sun that can damage satellites and ground-based infrastructure like the electric grid. Key satellites that monitor the Sun for such eruptions are located at the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point about 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth.  The NASA-NOAA-Air Force Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) arrived there last year, joining two older spacecraft -- NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE), launched in 1997, and the European Space Agency's (ESA) Solar and Heliospherics Observatory (SOHO), launched in 1996.  SOHO has a special type of telescope called a coronagraph (this one is named LASCO) that provides the first indication of an eruption.  The particles then fly past ACE and DSCOVR, which collect data about intensity and polarization. 

The bill directs NOAA, in cooperation with ESA, to maintain operations of LASCO as long as possible and prioritize the reception of LASCO data.  NOAA is then directed to work with NASA and DOD to develop options for additional capabilities to monitor the Sun and take into consideration "commercial solutions, prize authority, academic and international partnerships, microsatellites, ground-based instruments" and opportunities to deploy instruments as secondary payloads.  NOAA is also directed, in coordination with DOD, to develop requirements and plans for follow-on space-based observations.

NOAA is already at work on the last item.  Its FY2017 budget request proposed a new "space weather follow on" program under which it would build and launch two space weather satellites, the first of which would be in place before the end of DSCOVR's design lifetime in 2022.  Only $2.5 million was requested to begin planning, but funding would ramp up quickly after that.  In the FY2017 omnibus appropriations, Congress doubled that funding to $5 million.

S. 141 also directs NASA to "seek to implement" missions identified in the most recent Decadal Survey on heliophysics from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and for the Academies to review a set of "benchmarks" for space weather metrics the bill requires to be established.  

The bill now goes to the House for consideration. Sen. Peters urged the House to act "swiftly ... so we are well prepared to predict and avoid a possible worst case scenario space weather event."

Future Polar Weather Satellites Down, Space Weather Up in NOAA's FY2017 Final Appropriations

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-May-2017 (Updated: 01-May-2017 05:06 PM)

NOAA's Polar Follow On (PFO) program to build the third and fourth Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) weather spacecraft is the only satellite program that will be cut substantially in the final FY2017 omnibus appropriations bill.   By contrast, funding for a follow-on space weather satellite is doubled compared to the request, although the request was only $2.5 million.  Congressional leaders reached agreement on a "full year" omnibus appropriations package last night.  It is expected to clear Congress and be signed into law before Friday when the Continuing Resolution (CR) currently funding the government expires.

Overall, NOAA's request for procurement, acquisition and construction of satellites was $2.063 billion and Congress is poised to approve $1.979 billion.

NOAA operates the nation's civil weather satellites.  JPSS is a new generation of polar orbiting satellites that circle Earth's poles, providing data on every part of the planet.   The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) spacecraft are placed into geostationary orbit above the equator, a location particularly useful for monitoring tropical regions where hurricanes form.  NOAA is just introducing the latest version of the GOES satellites, referred to generically as "GOES-R" although GOES-R itself is just one spacecraft and is already in orbit.  It is part of a set of four satellites, with the remaining three (-S, -T, and -U) scheduled for launch over the next decade.

NOAA defines the JPSS program itself as only the first two satellites in the series.  JPSS-1 is scheduled for launch in late September 2017 and JPSS-2 in the fall of 2022.  The next two spacecraft, JPSS-3 and JPSS-4, are funded separately in the PFO program with launch dates later in the 2020s.  Based on advice from independent review committees, NOAA is hoping to build all four spacecraft in close order to achieve economies of scale and be prepared if any of them fail prematurely or are lost in a launch accident.

The omnibus appropriations bill fully funds JPSS and GOES-R, but cuts funding for PFO by $64 million, providing $328.9 million instead of the $393 million requested. The explanatory statement accompanying the bill does not explain why PFO was cut.  The $393 million request included $10 million for an Earth Observing Nanosatellite-Microwave (EON-MW) to build a very small satellite to host a microwave sensor in case anything goes wrong with JPSS-1.  The microwave measurements are critical to weather forecasting.  Congress has not been enthusiastic about EON-MW, but agreed in the omnibus bill that NOAA could proceed with it as long as the PFO program is not negatively impacted.

NOAA uses radio occultation data to improve weather forecasts.  Measurements of temperature and water vapor in the lower atmosphere are obtained using signals from satellites like GPS that provide positioning, navigation and timing data.  It has a cooperative program with Taiwan to build and launch COSMIC satellites to provide that data and is seeking funds to build a new generation of those small satellites. Congress directed NOAA to begin a "commercial weather data pilot" program to purchase such data from commercial companies instead, however.  NOAA is proceeding with that effort, but requested funds for a new set of satellites anyway.  The omnibus bill denies the funding ($8.1 million) for the satellites, but approves an equal amount for the associated ground system.  As for the commercial weather data pilot program, it provides the requested level of $5 million.

NOAA also is responsible for operational space weather forecasting -- monitoring the Sun for ejections of particles that can impact the Earth and cause outages in the electric grid and spacecraft, for example.   NOAA is currently operating the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), located  at the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point about 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth.  DSCOVR has four instruments, two of which are dedicated to space weather.   Space weather has become of increasing concern because of the growing reliance, on Earth and in space, on technologies susceptible to temporary or permanent damage.  NOAA wants to get started on a replacement for DSCOVR.  The $2.5 million requested for FY2017 is just the beginning of an effort to acquire two satellites, the first of which would be in place by 2022, the design lifetime of DSCOVR.  In the FY2017 budget request, NOAA projected requesting a total of $368 million from FY2018-FY2021 for the satellites, sensors, and launch vehicles.

In action last year, the House Appropriations Committee approved the request, while the Senate Appropriations Committee tripled it to $7.5 million.  The final figure in the new omnibus appropriations bill, $5 million, is the compromise.  (Some Senators have been focusing on the space weather issue for several years.  Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) and six bipartisan co-sponsors reintroduced the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act earlier this year.  S. 141 was reported from the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on March 30, 2017.)

The omnibus appropriations bill combines 11 of the 12 regular FY2017 appropriations bills (the 12th, Military Construction/Veterans Affairs, was the only FY2017 appropriations bill to clear Congress last year).  The government has been operating on a series of Continuing Resolutions (CRs) at their FY2016 spending levels since October 1, 2016 when FY2017 began.  The most recent CR, passed last Friday, expires this Friday, May 5.  The goal is to get the omnibus bill signed into law before then.

The next step is for the bill, H.R. 244 as amended, to obtain a "rule" from the House Rules Committee that determines what amendments (if any) may be introduced and sets the amount of time for debate.  The committee will meet tomorrow at 3:00 pm to consider the bill.   H.R. 244 is being used as the legislative vehicle for the omnibus appropriations bill.  It originated as a bill on an unrelated topic (HIRE Vets).  It is common for Congress to use an existing, unrelated bill for an appropriations measure like this because it has already gone through part of the legislative process so can move along quickly.  The bill and explanatory statement are posted on the Rules Committee website.

An updated version of SpacePolicyOnline.com's fact sheet on NOAA's FY2017 budget request will be posted soon.  It has a table comparing FY2016 appropriations with the request as it worked its way through Congress.  The fact sheet will be available from the left menu on our home page under "Our Fact Sheets and Reports."  A fact sheet on NOAA's FY2018 budget request is also there with as much information as is known at the moment.

Final FY2017 Appropriations Bill Gives NASA Big Boost

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-May-2017 (Updated: 05-May-2017 04:22 PM)

Over the weekend, congressional leaders agreed on a final FY2017 omnibus appropriations bill.  NASA would be funded at $19.653 billion, a substantial increase over the amount requested last year by President Obama and somewhat more than approved by the House and Senate appropriations committees.  The recommendations approved by the committees were never finalized by Congress last year.  In the intervening months, the committees obviously found a way to direct even more funding to the space agency.

The bill, H.R. 244 as amended, still must pass the House and Senate, but key members of both chambers clearly believe they have the votes to do so.  President Trump would then have to sign it into law.  Presumably congressional leaders have coordinated with the White House to ensure that happens even though the bill does not include elements of the supplemental request Trump sent to Congress in March, such as funding for the border wall with Mexico.  That will be debated as part of the FY2018 appropriations process.

Congress is using H.R. 244 as the legislative vehicle for the omnibus appropriations bill.  It originally was on an unrelated topic (HIRE Vets).  It is common for Congress to use an existing, unrelated bill as a vehicle for an appropriations measure like this because it has already gone through part of the legislative process so can move along quickly.

FY2017 is more than half over already.  It began on October 1, 2016.  The government has been operating under a series of Continuing Resolutions (CRs) that fund agencies at their FY2016 levels. The most recent CR, passed last Friday, expires this Friday, May 5.  This new "full year" omnibus appropriations bill is expected to pass the House as early as Wednesday, followed by Senate passage soon thereafter to complete action on the FY2017 budget before that deadline.

This is an omnibus appropriations bill that combines 11 of the 12 regular appropriations bills into one package (the 12th bill, Military Construction/Veterans Affairs, is the only one that cleared Congress last year).   The Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) portion, which funds NASA and NOAA, is Division B.

President Obama's FY2017 budget request for NASA was convoluted.  Although NASA budget materials show the request as $19.025 billion, only $18.262 billion was requested from appropriated funds -- the money over which appropriations committees have jurisdiction.  The remaining $763 million comprised $663 million that somehow was supposed to be extracted from the "mandatory" portion of the budget that funds programs like Medicare and Social Security, plus $100 million from a tax Obama wanted to impose on oil companies. The appropriations committees ignored that part of the request and dealt only with the $18.262 billion request for appropriated funds.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $19.306 billion, close to the $19.285 billion Congress provided for NASA in FY2016.   The House Appropriations Committee was more generous, approving $19.508 billion. 

The final bill adds even more, providing a total of $19.653 billion, an increase of  $1.391 billion over Obama's request for appropriated funds. 

Key elements of the funding provided for NASA include the following.  Comparisons to "the request" are to the amounts requested from appropriated funds (i.e., excluding the mythical $763 million).  An updated version of SpacePolicyOnline.com's NASA budget fact sheet will be posted soon (available from our left menu under "Our Fact Sheets and Reports").  It includes a table comparing FY2016 appropriations with the FY2017 request as it worked its way through the authorization and appropriation processes.

  • Science:  $5.765 billion (the request was $5.303 billion).
    • Earth science: $1.921 billion, including $90 million for PACE and $130.9 million for Landsat 9 (President Trump has proposed cancelling PACE in his FY2018 budget request).  The request was $1.973 billion.
    • Planetary science: $1.846 billion, including $363 million for outer planets of which $275 million is for the Europa mission.  The request was $1.391 billion. 
    • Astrophysics: $750 million, including $105 million for WFIRST, $85.2 million for SOFIA, and $98.3 million for Hubble.  The request was $696.5 million.
    • James Webb Space Telescope:  $569.4 million, the same as the request.
    • Heliophysics: $678.5 million.  The request was $673.7 million.
    • Education and Public Outreach:  $37 million to be derived equally from planetary science and astrophysics and administered by the Astrophysics Division (this amount is included in the $750 million for astrophysics, not in addition to it, according to a table in the report accompanying the bill)
  • Aeronautics:  $660 million (the request was $634.5 million).
  • Space Technology:  $686.5 million (the request was $690.6 million), including $35 million for nuclear propulsion, $30 million for small launch capabilities, $35 million for additive manufacturing, $25.718 million for optical communications, and $66.6 million for solar electric propulsion.
  • Exploration:  $4.324 billion (the request was $3.164 billion), including direction that NASA continue to develop advanced propulsion, asteroid deflection and grappling technologies associated with the Asteroid Redirect Mission but "these activities should not distract from the overarching goal of sending humans to Mars" and $75 million is designated for habitation augmentation activities.  
  • Space Operations: $4.951 billion (the request was $5.076 billion), including the full request of $1.185 billion for commercial crew and "up to" $1.028 billion for commercial cargo.  No further breakdown was provided.
  • Education:  $100 million (the request was $100.1 million), including $18 million for EPSCoR, $40 million for Space Grant, $32 million for MUREP, and $10 million for STEM Education and Accountability Projects (President Trump has proposed eliminating NASA's Office of Education in his FY2018 budget request).
  • Safety, Security and Mission Services: $2.769 billion (the request was $2.837 billion).
  • Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration (CECR): $360.7 million (the request was $419.8 million).
  • Office of Inspector General:  $37.9 million (the request was $38.1 million).

The big winners were planetary exploration and human exploration.  Many other accounts also saw increases of varying magnitude.  Space Operations was the only area of flight programs to get less than requested -- $4.951 billion instead of $5.0976 billion.  Since commercial crew and commercial cargo were funded at their requested levels, the reductions will have to come from other parts of the account such as International Space Station operations or Space and Flight Support.  The $68 million cut to Safety, Security and Mission Services and the $59 million cut to CECR could affect NASA's internal operations.  They fund day-to-day operations and construction projects at NASA's field centers around the country, for example, including cybersecurity activities.

The next step for the omnibus appropriations bill is to get a "rule" from the House Rules Committee spelling out what amendments may be offered (if any) and how much time is allowed for debate.  The committee will meet tomorrow (Tuesday) at 3:00 pm ET.   The text of the bill and explanatory statement are posted on the Rules Committee's website.  The bill will then go the House floor for debate and a vote, then to the Senate, then to the President's desk.  That is all expected to completed before Friday midnight when the existing CR expires.

Congress has been able to be generous to NASA for the past several years because Congress and the Obama White House agreed to relax spending caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA).  The last agreement relaxed the caps through FY2017.  They return for FY2018.  Whether the Trump Administration and Congress will agree to relax them -- or repeal the law entirely -- remains to be seen.   President Trump asserted in his FY2018 budget blueprint that he had repealed the BCA for defense spending.  He cannot repeal a law; Congress must do that.  In any case, "repealing" only the limits for defense spending while keeping them for non-defense spending (like NASA) would certainly encounter strong resistance in Congress, especially from Democrats.

The point is that the largely happy outcome for NASA in FY2017 may not be a bellwether for FY2018 or future years.  NASA clearly has strong support in Congress, especially from the powerful chairmen of the House and Senate CJS subcommittees -- Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) -- but NASA is just one small part of federal spending, which is deeply affected by debates over tax reform and deficit reduction.  Anything can happen.

Correction: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the bill and explanatory statement did not provide details on funding under the Exploration account.  A table in the explanatory statement does specify the following:  Orion, $1.35 billion; SLS, $2.15 billion; Exploration Ground Systems, $429 million, and Exploration R&D, $395 million.

What's Happening in Space Policy May 1-6, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Apr-2017 (Updated: 30-Apr-2017 02:15 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of May 1-6, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

SpaceX scrubbed its launch of a National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) satellite (NROL-76) at the last minute this morning.  They will try again tomorrow (Monday) morning at 7:00 am ET at NASA Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39-A.  Today's problem was a "sensor issue" apparently in the first stage.  This is SpaceX's first launch for NRO.  The nature of the satellite is classified, of course.  SpaceX provided a webcast today, so probably will tomorrow as well.

In Washington, it is STILL Groundhog Day.  Congress did not complete action on FY2017 appropriations last week.  Instead, it passed another extension of the Continuing Resolution (CR) that has been funding the government since October 1.  This is just a one-week extension, to this Friday, May 5.  They appeared to be fairly close to agreement at the end of last week after the White House backed away from its insistence that funding be included in the FY2017 bill for the border wall with Mexico, but Democrats continue to worry about "poison pill" provisions the Republicans may be planning.  No bill has been introduced yet, so the actual text is not available for perusal.  The House plans to be in recess on Friday (and all of the following week), so they have four days to work everything out -- or pass another extension.  The President plans to send his complete FY2018 budget request to Congress on May 15 (he sent over a "blueprint" in March, but with few details), so it would be nice if they could finish FY2017 before then.

We still don't know very much about what the President's plans are for space.  In the meantime, the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) and the Space Studies Board (SSB) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are holding a symposium on Tuesday to offer their views.  In 2009, ASEB and SSB published the report America's Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs to provide advice to that new President, Barack Obama.  The study committee that wrote the report was chaired by Gen. Lester Lyles (Ret.) who went on to become chair of ASEB and now chairs the NASA Advisory Council.   He will recap the key points of his 2009 study as a lead in to Tuesday's discussion on "America's Future in Civil Space."   Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot, other NASA officials, and distinguished members of the space science, engineering and policy communities will be there.  Registration for in-person attendance has closed because all the seats are taken, but the event will be webcast. 

ASEB itself is meeting tomorrow (Monday) and, among other things, will celebrate its 50th anniversary.  Happy Birthday, ASEB!  SSB will meet Wednesday and Thursday.  SSB's committee performing the mid-term review of the planetary science Decadal Survey is meeting Thursday and Friday.   Some sessions of all of those meetings are closed, but many are open.

An interesting symposium will be held in one of the Senate meeting rooms tomorrow (Monday) morning on Ultra Low Cost Access to Space (ULCATS), a topic on which Air University recently published a report.   It features an impressive list of speakers, including Newt Gingrich and Bob Walker, representatives from Blue Origin, SpaceX, Stratolaunch, and United Launch Alliance, plus high ranking defense department officials and some of the authors of the report.  We've inquired as to whether there will be a livestream or archived audio- or video-cast and will add that information to our calendar item once we get an answer.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for others we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.

Monday, May 1

Tuesday, May 2

Tuesday-Wednesday, May 2-3

Wednesday, May 3

Wednesday-Thursday, May 3-4

Thursday-Friday, May 4-5

Friday-Saturday, May 5-6

NASA Agrees With GAO -- First SLS/Orion Mission Will Slip to 2019

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Apr-2017 (Updated: 27-Apr-2017 08:41 PM)

In response to a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released today, the head of NASA's human exploration program agreed with GAO's conclusion that Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), the first flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew capsule, will slip from late 2018 into 2019.  GAO's report warned that a delay was likely.  NASA's written response, published as an appendix, agrees and states that the agency is in the process of setting "a new target in 2019."

The GAO audit of SLS, Orion and associated Exploration Ground Systems (EGS), prepared for the chairs of the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees that fund NASA, was conducted from July 2016 to April 2017.  GAO found that although the programs were making progress, "schedule pressure is escalating as technical challenges continue to cause schedule delays" while each has little cost or schedule reserve remaining.  It called the existing launch readiness date of November 2018 "precarious."

The GAO report aligns with a recent report from NASA's Office of Inspector General that also expressed concern about cost and schedule delays.

GAO made two recommendations to NASA: as part of the FY2018 budget process, confirm whether the existing EM-1 schedule is achievable and, if not, propose a new schedule.

GAO provides drafts of its reports to whatever agency is being audited and allows the agency to respond in writing, with the response published as part of the report.  NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, Bill Gerstenmaier, replied to this report on April 12, 2017. 

Gerstenmaier said NASA agrees "that maintaining a November 2018 launch readiness date is not in the best interest of the program, and we are in the process of establishing a new target date in 2019." 

He added that some of the concerns raised by GAO "are no longer concerns, and new ones have appeared. Caution should be used in referencing the report on the specific technical issues, but the overall conclusions are valid."

He concurred with GAO's two recommendations and said that NASA would complete its analysis of a new launch readiness date by September 30, 2017.  He noted that NASA is assessing the EM-1 schedule with regard to the potential for putting crew on EM-1 (rather than waiting for EM-2 as has been planned until now); impacts of recent tornado damage to the Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans, LA where the SLS core stage is being developed; and the FY2018 budget process.

Congress directed NASA to develop SLS and a "mutli-purpose crew vehicle" (MPCV) in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.  

President Obama had just cancelled the George W. Bush administration's Constellation program to return humans to the lunar surface by 2020 and someday go to Mars.  Obama proposed investing in "game-changing" propulsion technologies for 5 years before deciding on what new launch vehicle to build for future human exploration.  Under Bush, NASA had been developing the Ares I and Ares V rockets and the Orion crew spacecraft.  Obama's focus was on extending the International Space Station (ISS) from 2015 to 2020, but he adopted Bush's decision to terminate the space shuttle as soon as ISS construction was completed and therefore called for creating public-private partnerships to develop commercial systems to take crews back and forth.  The "commercial crew" idea built on the "commercial cargo" program initiated in the Bush Administration that saw development of the SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon and Orbital ATK Antares/Cygnus systems in use today.  (SpaceX and Boeing are currently working on commercial crew systems, but those schedules also have been delayed.)

Congress, however, had passed two laws, the 2005 and 2008 NASA authorization acts, on a bipartisan basis endorsing the Constellation program.  Congressional Republicans and Democrats alike were furious at Obama's decision to cancel Constellation with no replacement program that would, for example, absorb workers laid off from the space shuttle.   Obama quickly decided to give a speech a Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010 where he announced a new human spaceflight destination -- an asteroid by 2025 -- as a steppingstone to Mars, but also nixed plans to send Americans back to the lunar surface.  The asteroid mission evolved into the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), with activities in lunar orbit, but no landings on the surface.  Obama set a goal of putting astronauts in orbit around Mars in the 2030s, but with regard to humans landing on Mars, said only that he expected it within his lifetime.

After months of fractious debate between the White House and Congress, agreement was reached on the 2010 NASA authorization act.  It took a middle ground, allowing Obama to proceed with the commercial crew initiative for ISS, but also directing NASA to build SLS and an MPCV for sending humans beyond low Earth orbit. 

Hence began the SLS program, with the expected first launch, EM-1, with an uncrewed Orion spacecraft in 2017.  The first launch with a crew, EM-2, was expected in August 2021.

By 2015, those dates had slipped to late 2018 for EM-1 and April 2023 for EM-2.  SLS supporters in Congress, including Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee that funds NASA, pushed to keep the EM-2 launch date in 2021.  SLS is managed by Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL.  Congress added money to the amounts requested by the Obama Administration for the past several years to keep SLS on schedule.  NASA officials continually assert that although 2023 is the EM-2 date to which they are officially committed, August 2021 is an "internal" planning date.

Today's GAO report does not address the EM-2 schedule, but if EM-1 slips to 2019, it seems unlikely that EM-2 could take place as early as 2021.  Among other things, EM-2 will use a different upper stage that is taller than the one for EM-1 and thus requires changes to ground facilities.  Gerstenmaier said in February that it will take 33 months to make those changes.

Meanwhile, the Trump Administration wants to terminate ARM, but asked NASA to determine the feasibility of putting a crew on EM-1 instead of waiting for EM-2 as has been planned all along.  Acting NASA Chief Scientist Gale Allen said last week that the EM-1 crew feasibility study is completed and the agency is awaiting a "go forward plan."

In short, the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program continues to be uncertain, despite President Trump's assertion last week that he wants Americans to get to Mars sooner than currently planned.

 

Space Station Spacesuits Suffer After Shuttle Shutdown

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Apr-2017 (Updated: 26-Apr-2017 07:04 PM)

NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report today assessing NASA's management of its existing spacesuits and development of new models.  It expressed concern about Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuits used on the International Space Station (ISS) for extravehicular activity (EVAs, or spacewalks, which cannot be returned to Earth easily for maintenance following termination of the space shuttle program.  As for new spacesuits, NASA Headquarters was criticized for continuing one contract for 5 years after Johnson Space Center recommended its termination.  Overall, the OIG is concerned whether NASA will have the spacesuits it needs in the next decade.

For the space shuttle program, 18 EMUs were produced.  Eleven are still available, but their design assumed they would be returned to Earth with every space shuttle mission and routinely serviced.   After the shuttle was terminated in 2011, however, the only way to bring them back is on SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, the only space station cargo vehicle designed to survive reentry.  (Russia's Soyuz spacecraft, which ferries crews, also survives reentry, but there is no extra room for empty spacesuits needing repair.)

Since the ISS was first occupied in 2000, NASA has allowed the required ground maintenance interval to grow from one year to six years or 25 spacewalks, whichever comes first.


Snip from page 15 NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) report IG-17-018, NASA's Management and Development of Spacesuits, April 2017.

The age and condition of the U.S. spacesuits hit the headlines in 2013 when European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Luca Parmitano almost drowned when water collected inside his helmet during a spacewalk (EVA 23) due to a blocked filter.  The OIG report revealed that was one of 19 "significant incidents" with spacesuits in the space station era (2000 to today), five of which involved water.  A total of 156 U.S. spacewalks were conducted during that period of time.  All five of the space-station-era water events occurred since 2010.  Parmitano's EVA 23 and two others (EVA 22, also in 2013, and EVA 35 in 2016) involved water intrusion into the helmet.  The others were condensation/fog.


Snip from page 11 NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) report IG-17-018, NASA's Management and Development of Spacesuits, April 2017.

Of the 18 original spacesuits, five were destroyed during missions (two on Challenger, two on Columbia, and one on the SpaceX CRS-7 failure) and one during ground testing in 1980.  Another was a ground certification unit only.  That leaves 11 -- four on the ISS and the rest on Earth "in various stages of refurbishment and maintenance."

With the cadence of EVAs NASA is planning for the next several years, plus the possibility of unplanned EVAs that might be required, the OIG report concludes that NASA "will be challenged to continue to support the EVA needs of the ISS with the current fleet of EMUs through 2024 -- a challenge that will escalate significantly if Station operations are extended to 2028."

NASA has been funding development of new spacesuits for the past decade, though not for use on ISS.   Plans to send crews beyond LEO, where ISS is located, for the first time since the Apollo missions means new spacesuits are needed for exploration of that environment.  The OIG calculates that since 2007 NASA has spent almost $200 million on three such efforts:  the Constellation Space Suit System (CSSS) for the Bush-era Constellation program ($135.6 million), the Advanced Space Suit Project managed by NASA's Advanced Exploration Systems office ($51.6 million), and the Orion Crew Survival System or OCSS ($12 million).  OCSS is being designed for launch, entry and abort, not spacewalks.

"Despite this investment, the Agency remains years away from having a flight-ready spacesuit capable of replacing the EMU or suitable for EVA use on future exploration missions."  Given the current schedule "there is significant risk a next-generation prototype will not be sufficiently mature in time for testing on the ISS" prior to 2024. 

The United States and the other ISS partners -- Russia, Japan, Canada and 11 European countries working through ESA -- have agreed to operate ISS until then, although some NASA and other U.S. officials express hope that it could be extended at least until 2028, 30 years after the first modules were launched.

The OIG was especially critical of a NASA Headquarters (HQ) decision to continue funding the CSSS contract after 2011 when Johnson Space Center (JSC) recommended it be terminated following cancellation of the Constellation program.  NASA HQ continued to fund it for 5 more years rather than redirecting that money, $80.8 million over that time period, to the Advanced Space Suit Project. That project has struggled in recent years both in terms of getting funding and determining its scope.

As for development of the OCSS Orion survival spacesuit, the OIG worries that there is little schedule margin if NASA accelerates Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2) to 2021.  EM-2 is currently on the books as the first Orion mission to carry a crew.  (NASA is studying whether to put a crew on the first mission, EM-1, but no decision has been made.)  Officially EM-2 is scheduled for 2023, but NASA is trying to move that date up to August 2021.   Right now, the OCSS will not be ready until March 2021, just 5 months earlier.

The report made three recommendations to NASA: develop and implement a formal plan for design, production and testing of next-generation EVA spacesuits; conduct a trade study of the cost of maintaining the existing space station EMU spacesuits versus developing a new version; and apply lessons learned from operating existing spacesuits to the design of the next-generation models. 

NASA management concurred with those recommendations, but disagreed with the OIG's assessment of the value that was returned from the CSSS contract arguing that they got their money's worth.  The OIG did not relent, ending the report by restating that the extra 5 years of funding "did not serve the best interests of the Agency's spacesuit development efforts."

Trump Wants to Get To Mars Sooner Rather than Later

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Apr-2017 (Updated: 24-Apr-2017 08:57 PM)

During a telephone call with NASA astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) today, President Donald Trump stressed the goal of getting kids interested in STEM education, but he also made clear that he wants to accelerate efforts to get humans to Mars.  While he initially joked about doing it in his first term or "at worst" in his second, he brought it up again later in a seemingly more serious manner and said that he thought it would be done sooner than the 2030s.

Last month, Trump signed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 into law.  It has extensive language about the United States leading an effort to get humans to Mars, including a study of a "Mars 2033" mission to be launched that year.  It does not specify whether that mission would be to orbit or land on Mars.

Today, he asked NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson what the timeline was.  She replied that the goal is to send humans to Mars in the 2030s, adding that it is expensive and time consuming.  Trump replied -- with a smile on his face and off-screen onlookers chuckling --  that "we want to try and do it during my first term or, at worst, during my second, so we'll have to speed that up."  During a more serious moment later on, he remarked that "I think we'll do it a lot sooner than anyone is thinking."

Trump phoned Whitson and fellow ISS astronaut Jack Fischer to congratulate Whitson on breaking the record for longest U.S. cumulative time in space. Whitson is part-way through her third long-duration mission to ISS and currently is in command of the facility.  She was the first woman to command ISS during her second mission in 2008 and is the first woman to command it twice.  Today she broke the 534-day U.S. cumulative time in space record held by Jeff Williams.  Fischer just arrived on ISS last Thursday along with Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin.   ESA's Thomas Pesquet rounds out the current ISS crew.  He arrived with Whitson last November. 


NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer aboard the International Space Station while talking with President Donald Trump, April 24, 2017.  Screengrab from NASA TV.

Russia's Gennady Padalka holds the world record for cumulative time in space -- 879 days.   Scott Kelly holds the U.S. record for CONTINUOUS time in space on a single mission -- 340 days.  Russia's Valeriy Polyakov holds the world record for continuous time in space -- 438 days.

President Trump was joined by his daughter Ivanka and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins who recently returned from her own ISS mission where she sequenced DNA in space for the first time.


NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, President Donald Trump, daughter Ivanka Trump, in Oval Office talking to NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer on ISS, April 24, 2017.  Screengrab from NASA TV.

Ivanka Trump pointed out that her father recently signed into law the Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators Researchers and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act to encourage woman and girls to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.  Rubins and Whitson both explained how they became interested in science and space.

Although much of the roughly 20-minute phone call was about STEM education, the President's FY2018 budget blueprint calls for eliminating NASA's Office of Education.  The disconnect between today's message and the reality of his budget request was not explained.

Similarly, the President's obvious interest in accelerating efforts to send people to Mars is not reflected in his FY2018 budget request.  Trump's FY2018 budget blueprint calls for funding the Space Launch System rocket and the Orion crew spacecraft at their current levels, not to mention a habitat and other needed systems.  The NASA Office of Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have both expressed skepticism that those programs can maintain their current schedules.

Whitson also noted that human Mars exploration will require international participation.  Fischer elaborated on that theme, remarking that he launched into space from Kazakhstan with a Russian colleague, arrived at the ISS and immediately set down to work installing experiments in Japan's Kibo module.  The next day he said he watched ESA/French astronaut Pesquet drive Canada's Canadarm2 to grab the Cygnus spacecraft, built in Virginia, to dock with ISS.  "The International Space Station is by far the best example of international cooperation of what we can do when we work together."

In terms of the technology needed to get people to Mars, Whitson pointed out that water is a "precious resource" in space and, to that end, ISS astronauts recycle their urine to make it drinkable and "it's not as bad as it sounds."  Trump affably replied that he was "glad to hear that," but "better you than me."

Whitson spoke confidently about humans going to Mars in the 2030s and encouraged students who might be listening that they will "have a part" in sending people to Mars if they study STEM fields because it will happen soon. 

President Trump's phone call to the ISS today was his first.  He joins a long list of Presidents making phone calls to astronauts in space.  According to a NASA History Office website, President Ronald Reagan made the most (11), President Obama was next (6), followed by George H.W. Bush (5, one of which was when he was Vice President), Clinton (4 - including the first shuttle-Mir flight), George W. Bush (2 - including the return-to-flight mission after Columbia), Richard Nixon (2 - to the Apollo 11 and Skylab 1 crews), and Gerald Ford (1 - during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project).  

Video of the telephone call is posted on NASA's YouTube channel.

What's Happening in Space Policy April 23-28, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Apr-2017 (Updated: 23-Apr-2017 12:17 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of April 23-28, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

President Trump and his daughter Ivanka will make a 20-minute phone call to NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson aboard the International Space Station (ISS) tomorrow (Monday) morning at 10:00 am ET.  It will be broadcast on a number of NASA media assets including NASA TV, Facebook, Ustream and YouTube. The Trumps are phoning Whitson to congratulate her on breaking the record for U.S. cumulative time in space -- 534 days (currently held by Jeff Williams).  Whitson is in command of the ISS right now. This is her third trip to the ISS. She was the first woman to command ISS during her second visit in 2008 and now is the first woman to command it twice. She also has set a record for the most spacewalks by a woman (8 so far).  Her duration record is for CUMULATIVE time in space, acquired over three spaceflights.  Scott Kelly holds the U.S. record for CONTINUOUS time in space on a single mission (340 days).

We have no advance knowledge of what the conversation will be about, but might he provide a hint on his plans for human spaceflight?  His proposed FY2018 budget for NASA's human spaceflight program is status quo.  NASA Acting Chief Scientist Gale Allen said last week that the agency is expecting flat budgets, not even adjusted for inflation, for the next 5 years, so it seems unlikely that the President has any big changes in mind for the government-funded program.  Since the Trump Administration supports public private partnerships for space activities, might an announcement of a COTS-like "commercial station" program be in the works to kickstart a new low Earth orbit (LEO) space station to succeed ISS?  NASA has made clear the U.S. government will not be building another LEO space station and is looking to the commercial sector to build LEO facilities for which NASA could be one, but only one, user.  Separately, Allen also said that NASA's study of whether to put a crew on the first SLS/Orion mission is completed and the agency is awaiting a "go forward" plan.  Maybe he'll say something about that.  Or perhaps it will just be a friendly phone call.

Apart from that, it's Groundhog Day in Washington.  Once again Congress must pass an appropriations bill by Friday or the government will shut down. (Which is to say that agencies that get their money from the discretionary part of the budget -- DOD, NASA, NOAA etc. -- will shut down unless they are exempt for reasons of public safety or meet other criteria). The 114th Congress bumped FY2017 funding decisions over into the 115th Congress with a Continuing Resolution (CR) that expires on Friday, April 28.  Under the CR, agencies are funded at their prior year (FY2016) levels.  FY2017 is more than half over already, but something needs to be done about the remaining 5 months (through September 30).

When President Obama was in office, it was ultra conservative Republicans that threatened (and in one case succeeded) in shutting down the government.  With Republicans now in control of the House, Senate and White House, it is largely Democrats who are making the threats.  Among their issues is that Republicans want to significantly increase defense spending at the expense of non-defense programs.  As an example, Trump submitted a supplemental request for FY2017 last month that would add $30 billion for defense plus another $3 billion to build the border wall with Mexico, all to be partially offset by $18 billion in cuts to non-defense programs (including $50 million from NASA's space science program and $90 million from NOAA's satellite programs).   Many Democrats and some Republicans also object to the funding for the border wall.  Before the two-week recess that is just ending there were indications that congressional Republicans were agreeing not to fight the border wall battle now so they can finish the FY2017 appropriations process, but the Trump White House reportedly is pushing hard for its inclusion.

It's high stakes politics once again with an uncertain outcome.  Rumors are that they might pass another short term (one week) CR to provide more time to reach agreement.  It is usually true that such decisions are made only when there is an ominous deadline looming, so it's not clear why adding another week would make much of a difference.

Bear in mind that this is all about FY2017, the current fiscal year.  They haven't begun work on funding for FY2018, which starts on October 1.  Trump sent a "budget blueprint" or "skinny budget" outlining the contours of his FY2018 spending plan last month.  That's the request that indicates a status quo budget for NASA ($19.100 billion in FY2018 compared to $19.285 billion for FY2016), with some cuts to Earth science and the elimination of NASA's Office of Education among the more contentious issues.  Some of NOAA's satellite programs are in for cuts, but the blueprint doesn't specify where. The detailed FY2018 budget request is expected to be sent to Congress on May 15.

Also on Capitol Hill this week, the Senate Commerce Committee's space subcommittee and the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will each hold hearings on Wednesday at exactly the same time (10:00 am ET).  The Senate hearing is on the regulatory environment for commercial space and features the leaders of four prominent commercial space companies (Bigelow Aerospace, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and Made in Space).  The House hearing is on advances in the search for life with representatives from NASA (Thomas Zurbuchen, head of the Science Mission Directorate), the SETI Institute (Seth Shostak) and academia (Adam Burgasser from UC San Diego and James Kasting from Pennsylvania State University).

The House hearing takes place as the astrobiology community gathers in Mesa, AZ all week for the 2017 Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon).  Some sessions and two public lectures (Tuesday and Thursday nights) will be webcast.  A "town hall" meeting today (Sunday) will discuss the results of the Science Definition Team report on a Europa lander. The Trump Administration's FY2018 budget blueprint specifically does not include funding for a Europa lander (only for the Jupiter orbiter/Europa flyby "Europa Clipper" mission), but discussions about a lander are continuing since it has strong support by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA.  It is Congress, not the President, that decides how government money is spent.  Culberson is convinced life (microbial, not intelligent) exists in Europa's subsurface ocean and is adamant that a NASA probe find it in the next decade.  Today's town hall meeting will be available by WebEx/telecon.  Remember that although Arizona is in the Mountain Time zone, it does not observe Daylight Saving Time, so the offset from your time zone is like Pacific Daylight Time (e.g., add three hours, not two, to get Eastern Daylight Time).

The first meeting of the newly chartered NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee is Monday and Tuesday.  NASA has restructured its advisory apparatus that is subject to the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA).  This group used to be a subcommittee of the Science Committee of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), so any findings or recommendations had to go from the subcommittee up to the full committee up to NAC up to the NASA Administrator and then down to the Associate Administrator for Science and then, at last, down to the Astrophysics Division Director.  A long route where advice could be changed or eliminated.  Now the group -- and others that also used to be subcommittees -- can report directly to division directors.  Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz will brief the committee tomorrow morning (9:45-11:45 am ET) and later in the meeting program officials will provide updates on the James Webb Space Telescope and the Wide Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST), among other topics. The meeting is at NASA HQ in Washington, DC and is available remotely via WebEx and telecon.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for others we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.

Sunday, April 23

Monday, April 24

Monday-Tuesday, April 24-25

Monday-Friday, April 24-28

Tuesday, April 25

Tuesday-Thursday, April 25-27

  • Space 2.0, Crowne Plaza San Jose-Silicon Valley, Milpitas, CA
  • AIAA Defense Forum (SECRET/US ONLY), JHU Applied Physics Lab, Laurel, MD

Wednesday, April 26

Thursday, April 27

China Takes Another Step Towards Permanent Space Station - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Apr-2017 (Updated: 22-Apr-2017 01:19 PM)

China successfully launched its Tianzhou-1 space station cargo resupply spacecraft today.  If all goes according to plan, it will rendezvous and dock with the Tiangong-2 space station three times and demonstrate in-orbit refueling.  With such a capability, China could maintain a space station in Earth orbit for many years like the International Space Station (ISS). [UPDATE, April 22:  Tianzhou-1 successfully docked to Tiangong-2 at 12:23 am EDT (04:23 GMT] today as planned per Xinhua.]

The Soviet Union was the first country to demonstrate cargo resupply and in-orbit refueling in 1978 with the Progress spacecraft and Salyut 6 space station. Progress spacecraft are still used today to refuel the ISS station-keeping engines and take other cargo to the facility.  Three other cargo spacecraft resupply ISS (Japan's HTV and the U.S. Dragon and Cygnus), but they do not refuel it.

China's human spaceflight program is proceeding at a measured pace.  After four uncrewed test flights from 1999-2002, China launched its first astronaut (sometimes called a taikonaut in the West) in 2003 on Shenzhou-5.  The next crewed flight, with two astronauts, flew in 2005 (Shenzhou-6) and three astronauts were launched on Shenzhou-7 in 2008. In 2011, China launched its first small space station, Tiangong-1, to which three spacecraft were sent:  an uncrewed Shenzhou-8 as a test flight, then Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 in 2012 and 2013 respectively, each with three astronauts (two men and one woman).  Tiangong-2 was launched in 2016 and one two-person crew (Shenzhou-11) spent 30 days onboard last fall, the longest Chinese spaceflight to date (a total of 33 days including the trip to and from Tiangong-2). 

By comparison, Russian cosmonaut Valeriy Polyakov holds the record for the longest continuous spaceflight -- 438 days (14 months) in 1994-1995.  Scott Kelly holds the record for the longest continuous spaceflight by a U.S. astronaut -- 340 days in 2015-2016.  (On Monday, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson will break the U.S. record for cumulative time in space -- 534 days -- but that was acquired over three spaceflights, not a continuous mission.  She is currently in command of the ISS. President Trump will phone her on Monday to congratulate her on her record-breaking mission.)

Chinese officials describe the launch of Tianzhou-1 as the last step of the second phase of its human spaceflight program. The first phase was the initial launches of astronauts.  The second phase includes demonstration of extravehicular activity (EVA, also know as a spacewalk), which was accomplished on Shenzhou-7, and the initial space station flights.  If Tianzhou-1 is successful in its refueling task, that will complete phase 2 and phase 3 -- launch and operation of a multi-modular space station for 10 years -- will be next.  China plans to launch the new space station's core module in 2018 and complete construction of the three-module, 60 metric ton (MT) facility by 2022.   By comparison, ISS has a mass of about 400 MT.  It has been continuously occupied by international crews rotating typically on 4-6 month shifts since November 2000.

No one is aboard Tiangong-2 or Tianzhou-1; the refueling tests are all automated.


Launch of Tianzhou-1 space station cargo resupply spacecraft on Long March 7 from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, China, April 20, 2017.  Photo credit:  CGTN.com

Tianzhou-1 is the heaviest spacecraft ever launched by China -- 13 MT.  It can carry 6.5 MT of cargo, slightly more than Japan's HTV (Kounotori) cargo ship that resupplies ISS.  HTV can transport 6 MT of cargo and is the largest of the ISS resupply ships.

The new Long March 7 rocket boosted Tianzhou-1 into orbit from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island, which became operational last year.  Long March 7 is one of several new rockets China is introducing to replace its older models (Long March 2, 3 and 4).  The new rockets use more environmentally friendly fuel - liquid oxygen and kerosene.  The largest is the Long March 5, which can place 25 MT into low Earth orbit (LEO), slightly less than the largest U.S. rocket, Delta IV Heavy, which can lift 28 MT to LEO.   Long March 5 had its first, and to date only, launch from Wenchang last year, but China has plans to use it for many missions, including launching the three 20-MT space station modules and robotic lunar and planetary exploration spacecraft.  Between now and 2020, China plans to send a sample return mission to the Moon, a probe to land on the far side of the Moon, and an orbiter/lander/rover to Mars.

The ISS partners -- the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency -- have agreed to continue operating ISS until at least 2024.  NASA officials often speak of extending it to 2028, 30 years after the first modules were launched, but there is no agreement on that timeline.  China has picked up on the 2024 date and routinely points out that with the ISS "set to retire" in 2024, it will have the only space station in Earth orbit thereafter. 

NASA is hoping that the U.S. private sector will pick up the gauntlet and build their own space stations to follow-on from ISS that NASA and other customers could use instead of the government building future Earth orbiting facilities.  Section 303 of the recently enacted NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 requires NASA to submit a report to Congress by December 1, 2017 and biennially thereafter until 2023 to show how to transition from the current NASA-reliant regime to one where NASA is only one of many customers of a non-governmental LEO human space flight enterprise.  The goal is for NASA itself to focus on sending astronauts beyond LEO to the distance of the Moon and Mars.

Events of Interest

Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »
 

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