Parabolic Arc Space Tourism ... and Much More Wed, 29 Mar 2017 14:33:00 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Sneak Peek at New Shepard Crew Capsule Wed, 29 Mar 2017 14:32:58 +0000
New Shepard capsule interior (Credit: Blue Origin)

Our New Shepard flight test program is focused on demonstrating the performance and robustness of the system. In parallel, we’ve been designing the capsule interior with an eye toward precision engineering, safety, and comfort. Here’s a sneak peek.

New Shepard crew capsule (Credit: Blue Origin)
New Shepard crew capsule (Credit: Blue Origin)
New Shepard (Credit: Blue Origin)

If you happen to be attending the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs April 3-6, come see this for yourself. The high-fidelity capsule mockup will be on display alongside the New Shepard reusable booster that flew to space and returned five times.

Jeff Bezos

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NASA as a Prop & Governance by Photo Op Wed, 29 Mar 2017 11:11:09 +0000
Ivanka Trump (Credit: Michael Vadon)

On Tuesday, first daughter Ivanka Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos paid a visit to that shrine to American flight, the National Air & Space Museum, to urge girls to pursue careers in STEM.

The White House was probably hoping the event would distract attention away from the funding cuts that Ivanka’s father, Donald, has proposed in federal science and education funding. And, perhaps it did for some who are uniformed about the budget.

For others, the sight of Ivanka introducing a screening of Hidden Figures, a film about African American women who helped launch the first Americans into space, as her father is trying to zero out NASA’s education office was a bit too much to take.

In her introduction to the film, Ivanka Trump said that her father’s administration “has expanded NASA’s space exploration mission” though did not, unsurprisingly, mention that he actually proposed decreasing NASA funding and eliminating the education office.

The Trump-DeVos event drew some sharp criticism from Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who said in a statement:

“Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Ivanka Trump are feigning an interest in STEM careers with a photo op at the National Air and Space Museum while eliminating all funding for NASA’s education programs. This takes chutzpah to a new level. If this administration was genuinely interested in promoting STEM programs, it would walk the walk, not just talk the talk. The next generation of astronauts, scientists, engineers and mathematicians need support, not budget cuts eliminating the very programs being promoted.”

There was also no mention of the 13.5 percent in cuts Trump has proposed to the Education Department, which include the reduction or elimination of grants for teacher training, after-school programs and aid to ­low-income and first-generation college students.

Science and education are integral to our future as a nation. Trump can’t make America great by slashing his way to prosperity. A great and prosperous nation need to invest heavily in these areas if it wants to remain so.

Governing by photo op eventually catches up to you. Especially when you’re projecting images at odds with reality.

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NASA Precise Landing Technologies Tested on Masten Rocket Wed, 29 Mar 2017 09:44:37 +0000

Video Caption: NASA is flight testing next-generation lander navigation technology through the CoOperative Blending of Autonomous Landing Technologies (COBALT) project. The technology provides a spacecraft with knowledge during entry, descent and landing that enables it to precisely navigate and softly land close to surface locations that have been previously too risky to target with current capabilities. The technologies will enable future exploration destinations on Mars, the moon, Europa, and other planets and moons.

The two primary navigation components within COBALT include the Langley Research Center’s Navigation Doppler Lidar, which provides ultra-precise velocity and line-of-sight range measurements, and Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Lander Vision System, which provides navigation estimates relative to an existing surface map. The integrated system is being flight tested onboard a Masten Space Systems suborbital rocket vehicle called Xodiac. The COBALT project is led by the Johnson Space Center, with funding provided through the Game Changing Development, Flight Opportunities program, and Advanced Exploration Systems programs.

COBALT free flight tests, or untethered, on the rocket coming soon.

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A New Market Emerges Wed, 29 Mar 2017 07:58:59 +0000
SpaceX Crew Dragon Weldment Structure (Credit: SpaceX)

By Steven Siceloff,
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida

NASA recently marked a decade since it began a new era in commercial spaceflight development for low-Earth orbit transportation. The space agency inked agreements in 2006 to develop rockets and spacecraft capable of carrying cargo such as experiments and supplies to and from the International Space Station.

The first development agreements for elements of commercial crew spacecraft followed the initial commercial cargo agreements by about three years. Soon after that, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program was created to shepherd human-rating requirements into existence and certify designs of spacecraft, launch pads and ground systems.

Boeing’s CST-100 Structural Test Article ready for shipment from C3PF to Boeing’s facility in Huntington Beach, California. (Credit: Boeing)

The aerospace companies NASA partnered with during the commercial crew and cargo development phases have infused expertise and innovation into the marketplace. These capabilities have set a foundation of new space-related industries with specialties in everything from engines and life support systems to complete spacecraft designs.

“With cargo, we wanted the capability to cost-effectively deliver research experiments, hardware and supplies to the space station. With crew, we needed continued U.S. human access to low-Earth orbit,” said Phil McAlister, director of NASA’s Commercial Spaceflight Development Division. “But another one of the rationales was to stimulate new markets. Seeing that emerge has been really gratifying.”

Today, Boeing and SpaceX are deep into final testing and manufacturing of independent spacecraft and launch systems that will carry astronauts to the International Space Station. Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner will fly into space on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. SpaceX is building the Crew Dragon spacecraft to launch on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket. Both spacecraft are designed to take up to four astronauts on NASA missions, a number that will give the station a full-time crew of seven, ensuring maximum research time aboard the orbiting laboratory.

Dream Chaser test vehicle prepares to ship. (Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation)

Through a combination of funded and unfunded space act agreements, NASA continues to provide its expertise to help advance the burgeoning commercial human space transportation industry.

Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada Corporation, partners with NASA since 2010, continue to develop and refine their respective crew spacecraft and launch systems. Under these agreements, NASA provides expertise and insight into their spaceflight designs. The benefits to NASA include a more diverse market of competition and capability.

Blue Origin and NASA worked together on the testing of the company’s BE-3 thrust chamber, Space Vehicle spacecraft and subsystems of the New Shepard rocket. The BE-3 has powered several flights of a prototype New Shepard rocket designed to loft its spacecraft on suborbital missions. Later rockets are designed to be more powerful to launch satellites and its Space Vehicle spacecraft into orbit.

Blue Origin’s BE-3 rocket engine ramps up to full power operations of 110,000 lbf thrust. (Credit: Blue Origin)

For Sierra Nevada Corporation, NASA provides assistance as the company refines its Dream Chaser spacecraft for future human spaceflight missions. SNC currently is developing its Dream Chaser Cargo System to fulfill a NASA contract to carry supplies to the space station and return them to Earth beginning in 2019. The winged spacecraft is designed to launch inside a payload fairing on an Atlas V rocket and at the end of the mission will glide back to Earth and land on a runway.

“We have a massive wealth of knowledge about human spaceflight, some of it gained with great sacrifice, so we set out to create a framework that could leverage that experience while allowing the companies to be innovative in developing their systems,” McAlister said. “Then we built in a way to give industry the incentives to produce reliable and cost effective vehicles that could be used by private citizens as well as government astronauts.”

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Orbital ATK Donates SRBs for Space Shuttle Endeavour Exhibit Wed, 29 Mar 2017 05:16:41 +0000
Endeavour and the shuttle carrier aircraft over Houston (Credit: NASA)

DULLES, Virg., 28 March 2017  (Orbital ATK PR) – Orbital ATK (NYSE: OA), a global leader in aerospace and defense technologies, and NASA have donated a set of flight-worthy solid rocket boosters from the Space Shuttle Program to the California Science Center to display with a full-up exhibit of the Endeavour orbiter and external tank.

“We take great pride in our 30-plus years of participation in the Space Shuttle Program,” said Charlie Precourt, Vice President and General Manager of Orbital ATK’s Propulsion Systems Division. “We’re pleased and honored that we can contribute hardware to this amazing exhibit at the California Science Center.”

The California Science Center Foundation’s goal for this exhibit is to preserve and display the only existing full stack of genuine solid rocket boosters, orbiter, and external tank for Endeavour’s ultimate display in a vertical position in the future Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center.

After NASA awarded the last existing flight worthy external tank (ET-94) to the Science Center Foundation in 2015, it became evident it would be critical to have a flight-worthy set of solid rocket boosters, not only for authenticity but also for seismic structural safety. Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center Project Director Dennis Jenkins made the request to Orbital ATK.

The booster cases that Orbital ATK is giving to the California Science Center have flown on 74 space shuttle flights and have been part of 32 ground tests. One case is new.

“As for the non-motor parts of the booster, we sourced a set of flight-worthy aft skirts and frustums from NASA surplus and a set of forward skirts that were used for tests for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) Program that are currently in Utah at Orbital ATK,” said Jenkins. “Orbital ATK and NASA are providing most of the smaller parts, like booster separation motors, from surplus.”

Construction on the space shuttle exhibit is expected to begin in the summer of 2017.

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Camden Welcomes Vector Space Systems to County Tue, 28 Mar 2017 23:43:04 +0000 WOODBINE, Ga., March 28, 2017 (Spaceport Camden PR) — The Camden County Board of Commissioners and County Administrator Steve Howard welcomed Vector to the future site of Spaceport Camden to conduct an initial set of ground operations on its full-scale Mechanical Engineering Unit (MEU) of the Vector-R rocket and the associated Transporter-Erector-Launcher (TEL). The visit was an opportunity to showcase the Vector-R launch system and concept of operations (CONOPS) to key members of the spaceport community, stimulate discussions regarding future launch operations and familiarize Vector personnel with Spaceport Camden.

Camden County is excited to work with Vector. Started by industry veterans from SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, McDonnell Douglas and Sea Launch, Vector is a disruptive company that connects space startups and innovators with affordable and reliable launch services. Vector’s family of small sat launch vehicles – Vector R (Rapid) and the Vector H (Heavy) – enable platforms and vehicles to access space at a price never before possible.

“Vector is an ideal partner for Spaceport Camden,” said County Administrator and Spaceport Camden Project Lead, Steve Howard. “The small satellite market is already a $2.2 billion sector of the space economy and expected to grow to $5.3 billion over the next 5 years. Vector is a leader in this emerging market and we hope Camden County will be the home of not only Vector, but dozens of small satellite manufacturers, technology support providers, and sub-component suppliers.”

Concurrent with his company’s visit to Camden County, Jim Cantrell, CEO of Vector sent a letter to Governor Nathan Deal commending the Georgia General Assembly for final passage of HB 1 and “[Georgia’s] proactive approach to space friendly regulations.” Demonstrating the importance of HB 1 to the space industry, Cantrell also told Deal that Vector would like to work with his staff to be present at the ceremony when HB 1 is formally signed into law.

About Spaceport Camden:

Our Vision is to develop a successful world class spaceport through a public-private partnership that establishes Camden County as the Commercial Space Center of the United States. Our Mission is to create the premier spaceport strategically positioned to provide economic diversity with a competitive advantage for the space sector, Camden County, the State of Georgia and the United States of America. For more information, please view our website at

About Vector:

Founded by the original SpaceX founding team, Vector is a disruptive company that connects space startups and innovators with affordable and reliable launch services, enabling platforms and vehicles to access space at a price never before possible. For more information, visit

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SpaceX Completes Static Fire Ahead of Thursday Launch Tue, 28 Mar 2017 14:04:47 +0000

Static fire test complete. Targeting Thursday, March 30 for Falcon 9 launch of SES-10.

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) March 27, 2017

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Trump Memorandum on Office of American Innovation Tue, 28 Mar 2017 10:32:37 +0000
Credit: Matt Wade

Presidential Memorandum on The White House Office of American Innovation

SUBJECT:   The White House Office of American Innovation

America has long led the world in innovation and technological advancement.  American ingenuity has launched industries, created jobs, and improved quality of life at home and abroad.  To ensure that America remains the global innovation leader, I hereby direct the Senior Advisor to the President to head an office in the White House dedicated to American innovation.  This office will bring together the best ideas from Government, the private sector, and other thought leaders to ensure that America is ready to solve today’s most intractable problems, and is positioned to meet tomorrow’s challenges and opportunities.  The office will focus on implementing policies and scaling proven private-sector models to spur job creation and innovation.

To implement this directive, I further direct as follows:

Section 1.  Establishment.  The White House Office of American Innovation (OAI) is hereby established within the White House Office.  The OAI shall consist of the following:  The Senior Advisor to the President, the Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff, the Senior Advisor to the President for Policy, the Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, the Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, the Assistant to the President for Strategic Initiatives, the Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental and Technology Initiatives, the Senior Counselor to the President for Economic Initiatives, the Assistant to the President for Strategic Communications, the Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff to the Vice President, and the Assistant to the President and Staff Secretary.  In carrying out the mission set forth in section 2 of this memorandum, the OAI shall consult with the Director of the Office of Management and Budget and the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Sec. 2.  Mission.  The OAI will make recommendations to the President on policies and plans that improve Government operations and services, improve the quality of life for Americans now and in the future, and spur job creation.

Sec. 3.  Responsibilities.  The OAI shall launch initiatives with a focus on innovation, coordinate implementation of any resulting plans, and create reports for the President setting forth policy recommendations.  In carrying out these activities and producing these reports, the OAI shall gather information, ideas, and experiences from other parts of Government, from the private sector, and from other thought leaders and experts outside of the Federal Government.


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Trump Sets Up Innovation Office Headed by….Wait for It…. Tue, 28 Mar 2017 09:20:42 +0000
Jared Kushner (Credit: Lori Berkowitz)

The Washington Post reports President Donald Trump has set up a new office at the White House focused on innovation, and you’ll never believe who he selected to run it.

The White House Office of American Innovation, to be led by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, will operate as its own nimble power center within the West Wing and will report directly to Trump. Viewed internally as a SWAT team of strategic consultants, the office will be staffed by former business executives and is designed to infuse fresh thinking into Washington, float above the daily political grind and create a lasting legacy for a president still searching for signature achievements….

In a White House riven at times by disorder and competing factions, the innovation office represents an expansion of Kushner’s already far-reaching influence. The 36-year-old former real estate and media executive will continue to wear many hats, driving foreign and domestic policy as well as decisions on presidential personnel. He also is a shadow diplomat, serving as Trump’s lead adviser on relations with China, Mexico, Canada and the Middle East….

Kushner is positioning the new office as “an offensive team” — an aggressive, nonideological ideas factory capable of attracting top talent from both inside and outside of government, and serving as a conduit with the business, philanthropic and academic communities.

“We should have excellence in government,” Kushner said Sunday in an interview in his West Wing office. “The government should be run like a great American company. Our hope is that we can achieve successes and efficiencies for our customers, who are the citizens.”

The innovation office has a particular focus on technology and data, and it is working with such titans as Apple chief executive Tim Cook, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Salesforce chief executive Marc Benioff and Tesla founder and chief executive Elon Musk. The group has already hosted sessions with more than 100 such leaders and government officials.

Read the full story.

Editor’s Note: Improving the government’s technical capabilities is not a bad idea. However, government is not a business. It can’t be run as a business. And certainly not as a family business, which is the way Trump appears to be running things with Kushner and Ivanka Trump having key positions in the White House.

Meanwhile, Trump’s budget would take a sledge hammer to basic government scientific research, including devastating climate change work. Trump has yet to name a science adviser. I think we’re heading for a very dark period for science in this country.

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Invention May Give Spacecraft Improved Damage Report Tue, 28 Mar 2017 07:34:58 +0000
Prototypes of the damage detection system in development at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center shows the pieces designed to pinpoint impacts on spacecraft. (Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis)

By Steven Siceloff,
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida

There are few ways for astronauts to know exactly when the outside of their spacecraft has been damaged, but that may change in the future with an invention that acts like a sensory skin to pick up signs of damage in real-time. The invention uses a series of several technologies to create circuits printed on thin layers and that can be embedded in a spacecraft’s structure, scientists behind the invention said.

If successfully incorporated, the innovation could also be applied to a host of satellites, aircraft and even habitats on other worlds.

Micrometeoroids and orbital debris pose threats to spacecraft as they travel at speeds of 17,500 mph in low-Earth orbit, and 24,000+ mph for trips to the moon and deep space. As space shuttle windows revealed, something as small as a paint chip moving at that velocity can punch through several layers of glass.

Under development at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Flexible Damage Detection System technology has been pursued as a possible solution to NASA’s problem of figuring out in real-time where a spacecraft is damaged and how seriously.

Martha Williams of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center leads the team that is developing the Flexible Damage Detection System. (Credits: NASA/Frank Michaux)

If something pierces a spacecraft’s hull – or the first layer or two – there are very limited ways for astronauts aboard a spacecraft to know there might be damage. An impact that goes all the way through and causes a leak would set off alarms, but otherwise the current methods to detect damage require either a camera inspection or a spacewalking astronaut. Nor is there a precise way to pinpoint exactly in real-time where the damage occurred if not visible to the eye or camera so astronauts can assess it.

“I kind of look at it like a sensory skin,” said Martha Williams, the scientist leading the development team. “It’s a sensory system that tells us where we are damaged and the level of intensity.”

The sensory system comprises several systems from low-voltage electric to circuits printed on Kapton thermal insulation film to unique software that tracks the damage.

“There are a lot of technology systems that we leveraged for this,” said fellow inventor Tracy Gibson, a scientist with Vencore.

A big part of the work also includes making the manufacturing methods more efficient so the technology can more easily transfer to commercial companies for potential use, Williams said.

Engineers work with a damage detection system prototype in a laboratory at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Credits: NASA/Frank Michaux)

Right now for development and demonstration on the ground, the largest square of sensory panel is 6-by-6 inches and it’s connected to wiring and a computer that monitors the system. Scientists and engineers envision tiling the squares together like a quilt to make a complete sensor network. They could be foldable and could be used in an inflatable or expandable spacecraft in the future.

Depending on the approach, a spacecraft could have a detection layer wrapping it completely, or just covering a certain area over a particularly critical system.

“It’s tailorable, so it can be designed to the specifications of the end user,” Gibson said Gibson.  “You can tailor it to detect small damages or to pick up large damages and depth of damage.”

The damage detector could also be applied to the outside of a habitat on the lunar or Martian surface to calculate damage from small impacts. On Earth, the system could perhaps also be applied to the outside of airplanes to tell pilots when their airframe has been impacted and may be compromised.

In fact, one of the sensor’s early tests saw it demonstrated on the outside of a habitat module prototype for a mission simulation that took place in Flagstaff, Arizona. Depending on funding, the team hopes to perform more tests and build new prototypes that continue to advance the concept closer to a system that can be flight tested and then applied to future spacecraft designs.

“We want to bring solutions to NASA’s problems,” Williams said. “We like to solve problems, I don’t think we can even stop inventing, it’s how we think. It’s who we are.”

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SpaceX to Refly Falcon 9 First Stage on Thursday Mon, 27 Mar 2017 17:05:34 +0000
Falcon 9 first stage after landing on drone ship (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX looks to make history on Thursday by re-flying a Falcon 9 first stage for the first time.

Elon Musk’s company is targeting a 6 p.m. EDT liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The booster is carrying the SES-10 communications satellite.

The refurbished first stage was used to launch a Dragon supply ship to the International Space Station last April. The stage landed on a drone ship off shore.

A brief static fire of the first stage’s 9 Merlin 1-D engines is scheduled for today.

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French Guiana Paralyzed By Strikes, Unrest Mon, 27 Mar 2017 16:42:59 +0000
Soyuz rocket launch from French Guiana. (Credit: ESA)

French Guiana faced a general strike on Monday as unrest spread in the overseas department that hosts Europe’s only orbital launch site. An Ariane 5 launch scheduled for last week remains on indefinite hold as French officials attempt to address deep-seating problems there.

As tensions mounted, Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced plans to send a high-level ministerial mission before week’s end aimed at signing a pact addressing anger over high crime, the cost of living and the quality of health care and other social services. Protests have already blocked roads to neighbouring Brazil and Suriname, and shuttered many businesses and schools….

French Guiana senator Antoine Karam said on BFM-TV that the population has been ignored despite grave problems, such as 50 per cent unemployment among young people and 30 per cent of the population lacking drinking water and electricity in their homes.

“We’re not treated in the same way as the mainland French,” he said, despite French Guiana being the site of Europe’s Ariane rocket launches — and the window for French technology.

“Today, that window has been broken,” Karam said.

Read the full story.

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This Week on The Space Show Mon, 27 Mar 2017 16:32:52 +0000
This week on The Space Show with Dr. David Livington:

SPECIAL TIME: 1. Monday, March 27, 2017: 9:30-11 AM PDT (12:30-2:00 PM EDT, 11:30 AM-1 PM CDT): We welcome BACK DR. M.V. “COYOTE” SMITH, COL, USAF (RET)to discuss his proposal for an American US Space Corps.

2. Tuesday, March 28, 2017: 7-8:30 PM PDT, 10-11:30 PM EDT, 9-10:30 PM CDT: We welcome back JAY WITTNER with KIRBY IKIN & DALE SKRAN in honor of the NSS anniversary.

3. Friday, March 31, 2016: 9:30-11AM PDT; (12:30-2 PM EDT; 11:30 AM – 1 PM CDT): We welcome back DR. ANITA SENGUPTA of JPL for updates with the Cold Atom Lab.

4. Sunday, April 2, 2017: 12-1:30 PM DST (3-4:30 PM EDT, 2-3:30 PM CDT): I am at the Space Foundation Symposium. Please see the website newsletter for suggested Golden Oldie programs you can play.

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GAO Report: FAA Launch Insurance Update Remains Work in Progress Mon, 27 Mar 2017 10:25:23 +0000
Members of the 45th Space Wing’s Incident Management Team responded to an explosion Sept. 1, 2016, on Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. (Credit: 45th Space Wing)

The FAA’s effort to update insurance requirements for space launches remains a work in progress that could expose the federal government to excess financial risk, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Under the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, Congress required the FAA to update the requirements for insurance that private launch providers must purchase for damages to third parties and federal property.  The requirements had not been updated since 1988.

The U.S. government has a three tier system for launch insurance. Launch providers are required to carry insurance for a maximum of $500 million for third-party damages and $100 million for damages to federal government property and personnel.

The U.S. government covers third-party claims in excess of the $500 million tier 1 limit up to approximately $3.1 billion, subject to the appropriation of funds by Congress. The launch company is responsible for losses above $3.1 billion.

 The GOA report says the FAA hired two contractors to review insurance requirements. They reached the following conclusions:
  • the estimates for property damage might be too low in some cases and too high in others;
  • the estimates for the number of deaths and serious injuries have likely been too high; and,
  • the estimate for the average cost of a casualty — fixed at $3 million since 1988 — is likely too low.
Last year, the FAA implemented new methods for estimating property damage and the number of casualties. “Both of these revisions have tended to reduce insurance requirements,” the GAO report states.
“In addition, FAA assigned one of its two contractors examining elements of the methodology to study potential improvements in estimating average casualty losses, but that contractor found significant limitations in each alternative approach that it reviewed,” the report states. “Because FAA has not yet addressed the identified weakness in the cost-of-casualty amount used in its calculation, the federal government may be exposed to excess risk.”
GAO  reports the FAA has identified potential steps to address the problem, but the agency has prioritized other work, such as reviewing launch license applications.
“Further, because the weakness in the cost-of-casualty amount indicates that the amount is likely too low, the current calculation may not account for damages to third parties and federal property and personnel that can reasonably be expected from a launch accident, as required by FAA regulations,” the report states.
“By leaving this weakness unaddressed, FAA’s insurance requirements may not account for damages that can be reasonably expected, and may expose the government to more liability risk than intended under the risk-sharing arrangement,” according to the report.

The report’s summary is reproduced below.

Commercial Space Launch Insurance:
Weakness in FAA’s Insurance Calculation May Expose
the Federal Government to Excess Risk

Government Accountability Office
Report to Congressional Committees
[Full Report]
March 2017

Why GAO Did This Study

To assist in the development of the commercial space launch industry, the federal government shares liability risks for losses from damages to third parties or federal property. This risk-sharing arrangement requires space launch companies to have a specific amount of insurance for damages to third parties and federal property. The federal government is potentially liable for third-party claims above that amount, up to an estimated $3.1 billion in 2017, subject to appropriations.

The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act enacted in 2015 required the Department of Transportation—of which FAA is a part—to study the methodology used to determine launch companies’ insurance requirements. The law also contains a provision for GAO to evaluate the study’s conclusions and any planned revisions.

This report discusses the extent to which FAA has revised its methodology for calculating insurance requirements to address previously cited weaknesses and the potential effect of any changes on financial liabilities for the government. GAO reviewed documents from FAA and its contractors on alternative methods for calculating insurance requirements, interviewed FAA officials and a contractor involved in designing alternative methods, and reviewed GAO’s prior work and relevant laws.

What GAO Found

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has revised its method for calculating insurance requirements to address some known weaknesses. FAA is the part of the Department of Transportation that determines the amount of insurance that commercial space launch companies must purchase to cover damages from accidents that harm third parties—that is, the uninvolved public—or federal property and personnel, unless companies otherwise demonstrate sufficient financial resources to cover the same calculated damages. The amount of insurance required is based on FAA’s calculation of the maximum loss that can be reasonably expected. FAA contractors found the following:

  • FAA’s estimates of the number of casualties (serious injuries and deaths) that could result from a launch accident have likely been too high, and have been based on an unrealistic scenario;
  • FAA’s estimates of losses due to property damage may be too high in some cases, and too low in others;
  • FAA’s estimate of the average cost of a casualty—referred to as the cost-of-casualty amount—is based on outdated information and is likely too low. The amount has been fixed at $3 million since 1988.

FAA implemented a new method for estimating the number of casualties in April 2016 that uses computer software to simulate a range of possible launch accidents that are intended to be more realistic than FAA’s previous scenarios. FAA has also reduced the factor it uses to estimate losses due to property damage, based on tests of a new process for estimating such losses that showed the previous factor was too high. Both of these revisions have tended to reduce insurance requirements. In addition, FAA assigned one of its two contractors examining elements of the methodology to study potential improvements in estimating average casualty losses, but that contractor found significant limitations in each alternative approach that it reviewed.

Because FAA has not yet addressed the identified weakness in the cost-of-casualty amount used in its calculation, the federal government may be exposed to excess risk. FAA has identified potential steps to update the information the cost-of-casualty amount is based on, including seeking public input on whether and how to revise the amount, but the agency does not have a complete plan for updating the cost-of-casualty amount. Federal internal control standards require that agency management respond to risks related to achieving the entity’s objectives, define how to achieve objectives, and set time frames for achieving them.

FAA has not responded to the risk identified in using outdated data as the basis of the cost-of-casualty amount because FAA has prioritized other work, such as reviewing launch license applications, ahead of this issue. Further, because the weakness in the cost-of-casualty amount indicates that the amount is likely too low, the current calculation may not account for damages to third parties and federal property and personnel that can reasonably be expected from a launch accident, as required by FAA regulations. By leaving this weakness unaddressed, FAA’s insurance requirements may not account for damages that can be reasonably expected, and may expose the government to more liability risk than intended under the risk-sharing arrangement.

What GAO Recommends

FAA should prioritize planning for addressing the identified weakness in the cost-of-casualty amount and update the amount based on current information. The agency did not comment on this recommendation.

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Tom Stafford Wins NSS Space Pioneer Award Mon, 27 Mar 2017 08:45:39 +0000
Tom Stafford (Credit: NASA)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — Lieutenant General Thomas P. Stafford, USAF, Ret, is the winner of the National Space Society’s 2017 Space Pioneer Award in the Historic Space Achievement category. This award covers his service in the Gemini, Apollo and Apollo-Soyuz programs. In particular, the flight of Gemini 9A on June 3, 1966, was 51 years ago.

The National Space Society invites the public to join them in presenting the Pioneer Award to General Stafford on Saturday, May 27, 2017 at the 36th NSS International Space Development Conference® ( The conference will be held in St Louis, Missouri, at the Union Station Hotel, running from May 25-29, 2017.

About Astronaut and Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Stafford

Thomas P. StaffordThomas Stafford graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1952 but quickly became a US Air Force Officer. He graduated from the Experimental Test Pilot School in 1959, and then held leadership roles in the Air Force, including being a flight test instructor and creator of flight test manuals. Then in 1962, he was selected for the second group of U.S. Astronauts. Three years later he flew on Gemini 6, which performed the world’s first space rendezvous. Then he flew on Gemini 9A, which is memorable for the “Angry Alligator” appearance of the launch shroud on the Agena’s docking adapter. The failure of the release system prevented the docking which was a major flight objective. He also flew on Apollo 10 on May 18, 1969, the second flight to reach the Moon, paving the way for Apollo 11. His last flight was as U.S. Commander for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project on July 15, 1975. His leadership has continued after his retirement from the Astronaut Corp in 1975, as he served on the Space Policy Advisory Council 1990-91, and continues to serve as the Chairman of the NASA International Space Station Advisory Committee.

About the Space Pioneer Award

NSS Space Pioneer AwardThe Space Pioneer Award consists of a silvery pewter Moon globe cast by the Baker Art Foundry in Placerville, California, from a sculpture originally created by Don Davis, the well-known space and astronomical artist. The globe, as shown at right, which represents multiple space mission destinations and goals, sits freely on a brass support with a wooden base and brass plaque, which are created by the greatly respected Michael Hall’s Studio Foundry of Driftwood, TX. NSS has several different categories under which the award is presented each year, starting in 1988. Some of the recent winners of Space Pioneer Awards include Elon Musk, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bigelow, Apollo Astronaut Russell L. Schweickart, Dr. Michael Griffin, and the Rosetta Mission Team.

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