NASA’s Uncertain Path Back to the Moon

Astronauts explore a crater at the lunar south pole. (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Nothing illustrates the changes wrought by the Trump Administration’s decision to move up the deadline for returning astronauts to the moon from 2028 to 2024 than a pair of contracts NASA awarded for the Lunar Gateway that will serve as a staging point for the landing.

In May, Maxar won a competitively awarded $375 million contract to build the Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element (PPE). NASA released a source selection statement that detailed how officials evaluated the five bids they received and why Maxar’s proposal was superior to the others.


Trump, Pence Demand Space Spectacular During Election Year as SLS Schedule Slides Further

SLS liquid hydrogen tank (Credit: NASA/Tyler Martin)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

If you’ve been puzzling over exactly why NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine suddenly floated the idea of flying the first Orion space capsule to the moon next year without the Space Launch System (SLS), The Washington Post has a couple of answers today:

  • SLS is much further behind schedule than anyone knew; and,
  • 2020 is a presidential election year.


Opposition to Bridenstine’s Plan to Fly Orion Mission on Commercial Boosters

Orion spacecraft (Credit: NASA)

There has been some push back to the proposal by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine to launch an uncrewed Orion spacecraft on a flight test around the moon next year using a pair of commercial boosters instead of the Space Launch System (SLS).

“While I agree that the delay in the SLS launch schedule is unacceptable, I firmly believe that SLS should launch the Orion,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.)  in a statement to SpaceNews.

NASA has recently stated that it is reevaluating weather it can launch SLS with Orion during the first half of 2020. The schedule for this launch and subsequent flights with crews has been slipping for years.

The Coalition for Deep Space Exploration issued a statement opposing the change.

This morning at a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, NASA Administrator Bridenstine mentioned that NASA is investigating an alternate approach to flying an Orion crew vehicle and European Service Module (SM) to the Moon by June of 2020. This approach would continue the development of the Space Launch System (SLS), enabling a full testing regime for this critical national asset, and bring SLS and Orion together for the following mission.  

No launch vehicle other than the SLS can enable the launch of a fully-outfitted Orion, including the SM, to the Moon. As a result, the Administrator noted that this approach would require at least two launches of heavy-lift vehicles. It could also include in-orbit assembly of a launch vehicle with an upper stage, which would then be used to direct Orion and the SM to the Moon. The analysis to determine whether this approach is feasible is still ongoing. The integration challenges are significant. It is also clear that this approach would require additional funding, since the idea is to undertake both this mission and to continue development of the SLS apace.

The assessment of options such as these are the hallmark of both NASA and the aerospace industry that supports it. Distributed across all 50 states in civil, commercial and military space, the aerospace and defense industry is crucial to U.S. competitiveness across the globe and to American leadership in science, security, entrepreneurship and human exploration of space. The Coalition for Deep Space Exploration and its member companies strongly support forward-leaning efforts to speed human return to the Moon. We welcome the opportunity to join NASA in the flights of Orion, SLS and the Exploration Ground Systems that support these journeys, and the rapid expansion of science, commerce and human exploration at the Moon and beyond.

United Launch Alliance (ULA), whose Delta IV Heavy booster launched the first Orion capsule on an Earth orbit mission in 2014, also issued a statement.

ULA recognizes the unparalleled capabilities of NASA’s Space Launch System for enabling efficient architectures in Cislunar and Mars exploration. We are proud to work collaboratively with The Boeing Company to develop the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) for the first flight of the SLS.

If asked, we can provide a description of the capabilities of our launch vehicles for meeting NASA’s needs, but acknowledge that these do not match the super heavy lift performance and mission capabilities provided by SLS for the Exploration Missions proposed by NASA.

Shelby Takes Over Leadership of Senate Appropriations Committee

Sen. Richard Shelby

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Senate Appropriations Committee PR) – U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) today received the approval of his Republican colleagues to serve as the chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations for the remainder of the 115th Congress. Shelby previously served as vice chairman for the 113th Congress.

Today the Senate Republican Conference ratified the selection of Senator Richard Shelby to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee following the resignation of former U.S. Senator Thad Cochran. After a vote by members of the Appropriations Committee, the Conference approved Shelby’s election as chairman. The full Senate is expected to formally affirm the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman and new roster in an organizing resolution this evening.


Senate Banking Committee Rejects Trump’s Nominee to Head Ex-Im Bank

Donald Trump’s practice of nominating people to run agencies they oppose (Rick Perry), have no discernible expertise in (Perry again), or have no understanding of what they actually do (ditto) finally seems to have hit a brick wall.

The Senate Banking Committee rejected the White House’s nomination of former New Jersey Congressman Scott Garrett to chair the Export-Import Bank, which helps U.S. companies finance sales of products to foreign buyers. The bank has been used by aviation, space and satellite companies such as Boeing and SpaceX.


House Appropriations Committee Sets NASA Spending at $19.5 Billion

 NASA astronaut Suni Williams exits a test version of the Orion spacecraft in the agency’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston. The testing is helping NASA identify the best ways to efficiently get astronauts out of the spacecraft after deep space missions. (Credit: NASA)
NASA astronaut Suni Williams exits a test version of the Orion spacecraft in the agency’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston. The testing is helping NASA identify the best ways to efficiently get astronauts out of the spacecraft after deep space missions. (Credit: NASA)

The House Appropriations Committee is marking up a FY 2017 spending bill today that would boost NASA’s spending by $215 million to $19.5 billion dollars. The amount is roughly $500 million more than the $19 billion requested by the Obama Administration.

Appropriators have zeroed out money for NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), instead instructing the space agency to focus on lumar missions applicable to sending astronauts to Mars.


Senate Armed Services Committee Limits ULA Engines

John McCain
John McCain

The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) approved the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) yesterday that limits United Launch Alliance (ULA) to purchasing nine Russian-made RD-180 engines for use in the first stage of the company’s Atlas V booster to launch national security payloads.

The move sets up a showdown with the House Armed Services Committee, which earlier put the number of engines ULA could purchase at 18. ULA and the U.S. Air Force support the higher number, saying the engines are needed to meet military launch needs.


Welcome to Shelbyville: Ex-Im Bank Hobbled as Nomination Remains Bottled Up

Sen. Richard Shelby
Sen. Richard Shelby

The Export Import Bank remains hobbled as Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) refuses to consider President Barack Obama’s nomination of J. Mark McWatters nomination to fill an open seat on the bank’s board.

Until the position is filled, the bank cannot provide financing for U.S. export deals worth more than $10 million. This has left Boeing, SpaceX, satellite manufacturers and other companies that have used the bank in the lurch.

The bank’s authorization lapsed last summer, causing it to temporarily shut down. Congress reauthorized it late last year, but McWatter’s nomination has remained in limbo since the president made it in January.


Sen. Shelby on NASA’s Proposed Budget: I Hate It!

Sen. Richard Shelby
Sen. Richard Shelby

Chairman Richard Shelby Opening Statement
Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies

Hearing to Review the Budget Request and Budget Justification for the
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
March 10, 2016

(As prepared for delivery)

Welcome to the Commerce, Justice, Science Subcommittee hearing on the President’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget request for NASA.

I want to welcome Administrator Charlie Bolden, who will testify before the Subcommittee this morning.


McCain Blows Gasket Over Spending Bill’s Lifting of RD-180 Engine Restrictions

RD-180 test firing. (Credit: NASA)
RD-180 test firing. (Credit: NASA)

An angry Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) delivered a blistering speech on Wednesday blasting two of his colleagues and United Launch Alliance (ULA) over a provision in the omnibus spending bill that would lift restrictions on the use of Russian-built RD-180 engines to launch defense payloads.

“This is outrageous. And it is shameful,” McCain said in prepared remarks. “And it is the height of hypocrisy, especially for my colleagues who claim to care about the plight of Ukraine and the need to punish Russia for its aggression. How can our government tell European governments that they need to hold the line on maintaining sanctions on Russia, which is far harder for them to do than us, when we are gutting our own policy in this way? How can we tell our French allies, in particular, that they should not sell Vladimir Putin amphibious assault ships, as we have, and then turn around and try to buy rocket engines from Putin’s cronies? Again, this is the height of hypocrisy.”


Senate: Because Commercial Crew Could Slip, We’re Slashing the Budget Request

Sen. Richard Shelby
Sen. Richard Shelby

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program must drive Richard Shelby absolutely crazy. It just has to. There’s no other way to explain the utterly nonsensical reasoning being used to justify the Senate Appropriation Committee’s decision to slash NASA’s budget request for the program by more than 27 percent.

The Obama Administration came to Congress requesting $1.244 billion for FY 2016 to keep Boeing and SpaceX on track to begin commercial human spaceflights to the International Space Station by 2017. Anything less, NASA insisted, would result in further delays and more reliance upon Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.

The House came through with $1 billion in its funding measure. When the proposal came up before Shelby’s Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee in the Senate, appropriators cut the amount even further to $900 million. That amount ended up in the measure approved by the full Senate Appropriations Committee.


Space Access Society Update

Space Access Update #136 7/27/14
Copyright 2014 by Space Access Society

In this Issue:

– Bill Gaubatz
– Experienced Engineering Teams And US Space Launch Development Policy
– SLS Sole-Sourcing
– 2014 Space Politics: Halftime Report

  • Senate Appropriations Impasse, Other Legislation
  • Commercial Crew & Cargo at Crossroads
  • Defense Launch & Propulsion Politics

– Supporting Space Access


Nelson Battles Shelby Over Commercial Crew Accounting Requirements

Florida Senator Bill Nelson
Florida Senator Bill Nelson

UPDATE:  Space News reports that partisan squabbling has postponed a showdown over the commercial crew requirements:

The Senate was poised to begin voting June 19 on a so-called minibus spending package that combined the House-passed 2015 Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations bill (H.R. 4660) with the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Agriculture spending bills. But a fight over how amendments would be handled prompted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to indefinitely postpone floor action on the $126 billion spending package. 

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) is battling to remove strict federal accounting standards that could significantly raise the cost of NASA’s commercial crew program:

Nelson, the chairman of the Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee, said NASA’s commercial crew program to fly astronauts to and from the international space station aboard commercially designed spacecraft needs “the right mix of oversight and innovation” to start ferrying crews by NASA’s target date of late 2017.

The senior senator from Florida was alluding to a directive Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, personally fought to include in a report appended to a spending bill now awaiting debate on the Senate floor, and which would if signed into law require NASA to either comply with section 15.403-4 of the Federal Acquisition Regulations, or risk a legal mandate to do so….

NASA insists that waiving certain parts of the Federal Acquisition Regulations, which the agency may legally do in certain situations, is vital to getting a commercially designed system safely up and running.

Read the full story.

A Closer Look at NASA’s FY 2015 Budget Prospects

Capitol BuildingAfter years of flat and declining budgets, it looks like NASA will get a funding boost this year from an unexpected source — Congress.

The FY 2015 budget measures coming out of the Senate and House actually boost the President’s proposed $17.46 billion spending plan by about $400 million. The Senate would spend an even $17.9 billion, while the House spending plan is just slight under that level at $17.896 billion.