Saturday, August 29, 2015

Retro Saturday: One Fantastic Ride

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: wdtvlive42 YouTube channel.

This week's Retro Saturday is a fifteen-minute 1991 NASA documentary by the space propulsion technology division of the Lewis Research Center (now Glenn Research Center) titled, One Fantastic Ride.

The film is an overview of various propulsion systems foreseen in the upcoming decades, although much of it is happy-clappy wishful thinking. At this time, the International Space Station was still Space Station Freedom. The documentary assures us that Lewis will develop very economical and affordable thrusters to keep Freedom in orbit. We're also told that uncrewed Shuttle-like cargo ships will service Freedom.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Blue Man Group

Former NASA astronauts talk about suborbital flight on the Blue Origin New Shepard. Video source: Blue Origin YouTube channel.

Florida Today reports that Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos will be in Cape Canaveral September 15 for a “significant announcement regarding the commercial launch industry.”

This is believed to be confirmation of the August 20 Florida Today report that state agency Space Florida had received authorization from its Board of Directors to close a deal with Blue Origin for lease of Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The deal reportedly would finally provide a tenant for Exploration Park. Space Florida held a groundbreaking ceremony at the site on June 25, 2010. Land was cleared, roads were paved and utilities buried. Since then, the site has been dormant. The property is on Kennedy Space Center land, publicly accessible from Space Commerce Road.

Read my May 15, 2014 blog article on Exploration Park with photos.

The Exploration Park groundbreaking on June 25, 2010. Video source: Space Florida Media Channel.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Retro Saturday: Racing for the Moon

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: Dan Beaumont Space Museum YouTube channel.

CBS News had Walter Cronkite.

NBC News had Roy Neal and Jay Barbree.

ABC News had Jules Bergman.

This week's Retro Saturday is a 1988 ABC News documentary, Racing for the Moon: America's Glory Days in Space. It's a compilation of network film and video coverage of historic space events up through the end of the Apollo program. The one-hour documentary begins on October 4, 1982, with ABC News coverage of the 25th anniversary of the Sputnik 1 launch.

It's filled with fascinating historical nuggets, all the way back to Senator Lyndon B. Johnson commenting on Sputnik and President Dwight D. Eisenhower's nationwide address in response to the Soviet launch.

It's interesting that ABC News implied with its title that “America's Glory Days” were in the 1960s. At the time this aired, the Space Shuttle program was grounded due to the STS-51L Challenger accident on January 28, 1986. The next flight would not be until September 1988. I wonder if the title was meant to imply that NASA's best days were behind it.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Tick Tock

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Click the arrow to watch the WKMG-TV Channel 6 Orlando coverage of the SLS mobile launcher media event.

Kennedy Space Center held a media event August 19 to promote the latest step in its remodelling of the former Ares Mobile Launcher into a platform for the Space Launch System.

The first SLS launch is designated Exploration Mission 1, or EM-1. Currently scheduled for late 2018, EM-1 will be an uncrewed test flight to demonstrate not only the rocket but also send the Orion crew capsule on a three-week mission in an orbit beyond the Moon. To fly that orbit, Orion will use a service module built by the European Space Agency.

SLS won't go anywhere without the Orion. Orion won't go anywhere without the ESA service module.

When Congress imposed the SLS on NASA in the agency's 2010 authorization act, it mandated the first test flight had to be by the end of 2016. Both NASA and an independent audit warned that deadline was not feasible, but Congress ignored them.

A year ago, on August 27, NASA announced that SLS had slipped another year to November 2018. Technically speaking, the agency has “a 70% confidence level” that the booster will be ready by that date.

The print edition of the August 20, 2015 Florida Today reported that the SLS mobile launcher is scheduled to roll into the Vehicle Assembly Building for testing in January 2017.

Reporter James Dean concluded, “The agency has not committed to when Orion, which has major systems provided by the European Space Agency, should be ready to fly.”

On March 5, I wrote that NASA Administrator Charles Bolden testified in a Congressional hearing that Orion would slip to “sometime after 2018.”

The second flight for us will come in sometime after 2018, to be precise. And the reason that I say “sometime after 2018” is we will tell this Congress much more precisely sometime this summer when we finish with the next milestone on Orion itself ...

SLS, ground systems are ready now for a, we have a launch readiness date of late 2018, so that's in place. We don't have a launch readiness date yet for Orion.

A NASA inspector general audit released later that month also suggested that Orion would not meet the November 2018 deadline.

So here we are on August 21, 2015, and we've yet to hear a word about Orion's schedule.

An August 12 NASA press release stated that the agency had begun its Critical Design Review (CDR) of Orion. The CDR “is targeted for completion in late October.”

So instead of summer as Administrator Bolden had suggested, now we may have to wait until the fall for the inevitable announcement of yet another delay.

No rush.

As for the ESA service module, Spaceflight Now reported August 3 that a NASA executive stated, “The European service module will probably be the pacing item to get through launch.”

An August 18 blog article by The Planetary Society quoted the same executive:

At KSC, Orion faces 18 months of integration and testing before it is ready to fly. Hill said the November 2018 SLS launch deadline is still feasible, but he hopes to get the ESA portion of the work finished sooner rather than later. “We’re working with them and trying to pull the schedule to the left,” he said.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Blue Panther

The first Blue Origin New Shepard test flight on April 29, 2015. Video source: Blue Origin YouTube channel.

Florida Today reports that the Board of Directors for state agency Space Florida has given its approval to complete negotiations with “Project Panther,” which the newspaper believes to be Blue Origin.

Page 51 of the Board's meeting package has the reference to the request for Board approval:

As the board may recall from our last meeting, Project Panther is competitively evaluating locations throughout the country and has expressed interest in securing long-term land and facility use agreements at the Cape Canaveral Spaceport Complex for a number of properties. In conjunction with the project effort, the customer has expanded efforts to include a manufacturing facility. Space Florida is currently in the process of negotiating a Manufacturing and Launch Site Project Term Sheet, related leases and the respective securing of funding associated with the project. The funding source documents include not only traditional lending for facilities and equipment, but funding from the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and the North Brevard Economic Development Zone (NBEDZ). The current plan is for this project to be funded using Space Florida’s conduit debt structure. At this time, Space Florida is requesting board approval for management to complete negotiations and enter a Term Sheet that is intended to serve as the basis for the transaction structure for the project which will be memorialized in mutually binding transaction documents to be entered by the parties. In conjunction with entering the term sheet, Space Florida is requesting board approval to complete negotiations and enter long-term lease agreements with Panther for real and tangible personal property to be located at the Cape Canaveral Spaceport Complex, and to enter funding agreements with FDOT, NBEDZ and to secure funding by pledging the leases in a conduit debt structure.

According to Florida Today reporter James Dean, the deal envisions Blue Origin flying orbital missions from Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. LC-36 is best known for Atlas-Centaur launches from 1962 through 2005. The service towers were demolished in 2007. Space Florida leased LC-36 in 2008, and since then has sought an anchor tenant. According to the Space Florida web site, the facility has 136 acres, supporting “small and medium lift of up to 1.5 million pounds thrust to launch payloads into low-Earth orbit and beyond.”

ULA CEO Tory Bruno (left) and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos announce a partnership in September 2014. Image source: Space News.

In 2013, Blue Origin submitted a bid for Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A, but SpaceX won the lease. Blue Origin filed an appeal and lost; the appeal was backed by United Launch Alliance, a SpaceX rival. ULA and Blue Origin announced a partnership in September 2014 to build a replacement engine for ULA's Atlas V rocket.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

One Year Later

Click the arrow to watch the Tory Bruno interview. Video source: UnitedLaunchAlliance YouTube channel.

One year ago, on August 12, 2014, United Launch Alliance announced that Tory Bruno had been appointed President and Chief Executive Officer.

Although it was never explicitly stated, Bruno's actions in the last year suggest he was charged with changing the ULA culture.

United Launch Alliance was created as a legal monopoly in 2006. Its parent companies, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, claimed they could no longer remain in the launch business as competitors due to lack of demand from the government. To assure that the Department of Defense, and to a lesser extent NASA, would have an uncrewed launch option other than the Space Shuttle, the Federal Trade Commission reluctantly approved the creation of ULA.

As with any monopoly, prices went up in the name of “mission assurance.” ULA's two launch vehicles, the Atlas V and Delta IV, have a virtually perfect record.

Commercial satellite companies, meanwhile, took their business overseas to places like Arianespace and Khrunichev. The last non-government customer to launch from the Cape with ULA was in 2009.

The emergence of SpaceX with a competitive business model returned the commercial launch industry to the Cape. NASA awarded SpaceX commercial cargo and crew contracts, and in May the U.S. Air Force certified SpaceX for military payloads.

Congress passed a law in December 2014 mandating ULA phase out use of Russian RD-180 engines on the Atlas V for military payloads, so it became clear to ULA management that the culture had to change if the company was to survive.

In his first year, Mr. Bruno has often stated that he intends to make ULA competitive with other launch companies. In April, ULA announced a new launch vehicle named Vulcan which will be partially reusable. ULA even held an Internet-based contest to name the rocket; Vulcan became the popular choice after the death of Leonard Nimoy.

One year after his ascension, ULA posted the above interview with Mr. Bruno on its web site. He discusses the challenges in changing the corporate culture, to make it more competitive and less secretive.

Two competitors, Orbital ATK and SpaceX, have suffered launch failures in the last year, giving ULA the high ground when it comes to mission assurance. But ULA launches cost by some estimates roughly three times more than SpaceX. How much “assurance” are customers willing to buy down by flying with ULA? For the government, it's just tax dollars, but with commercial satellite companies they have to pay for insurance — or choose not to insure, absorbing the risk.

If not for SpaceX, most likely ULA would still be a government monopoly, commercial customers would still be launching overseas, and jobs wouldn't be returning to the Cape. In an odd way, one could argue with Mr. Bruno owes his job to Elon Musk.

What a little competition can do.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Retro Saturday: Ticket Through the Sound Barrier

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: wdtvlive42 YouTube channel.

The first “A” in NASA stands for Aeronautics.

The agency was created in October 1958 by merging Defense Department civilian space programs with the existing National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Created in 1915, NACA was seen by the Eisenhower administration and Congress as a template for how to upgrade U.S. space technology in response to the Soviet Sputnik launches.

This week's Retro Saturday is a 1966 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Science Reporter documentary titled, “Ticket Through the Sound Barrier.” It foresaw commonplace supersonic civilian aviation within the next decade.

Commercial supersonic transport ended when the British-French Concorde was retired in 2003. The sonic boom caused by an SST passing through the sound barrier led to laws restricting its use over land. According to a 2014 Air & Space magazine article, “Overland supersonic flight is banned in the United States and Europe, and if that can't be changed, a supersonic commercial airplane is an economic non-starter.”

Although the documentary is labelled “NASA Presents,” Science Reporter was a series produced by MIT in collaboration with the location public television station WGBH Boston.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Bang for the Buck

Rep. Lamar Smith. Image source: Huffington Post.

Space News reported August 13 that House Science Committee chair Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) sent a letter August 4 to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden accusing the agency of giving preferential treatment to commercial cargo delivery company SpaceX.

Reporter Dan Leone wrote:

In an Aug. 4 letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) asked why the space agency formed an independent review team to investigate the Oct. 28 failure of Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket during a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission, but did not do the same following the June 28 failure of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on a similar mission.

“The discrepancy between the approaches taken by NASA in response to these two similar events raises questions about not only the equity and fairness of NASA’s process for initiating independent accident investigations, but also the fidelity of the investigations themselves,” Smith wrote.

According to the letter, NASA’s CRS contracts with Orbital ATK and SpaceX give the agency discretion to independently investigate mishaps during commercial cargo launches, even though NASA does not have any statutory imperative to do so. CRS launches are licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration, making most accident investigations the responsibility of the launch provider.

Reuters reported the letter on August 6. Neither news source published the letter online. Reporter Andrea Shalal wrote that the letter “was seen by Reuters.”

Space News published an August 12 response from a NASA spokeswoman:

“Under the authority of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which licensed the launch, and per FAA regulations, SpaceX is leading its mishap investigation, as Orbital ATK is leading the investigation into its October 2014 mishap, both with FAA oversight. NASA is participating in both efforts and is confident both companies will understand the specifics of their respective mishaps, learn from them, and correct the issues so they can return to flight.”

As chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Rep. Smith is a favorite recipient of campaign contributions from aerospace companies.

According to, Smith's 2014 election campaign received these contributions from SpaceX rivals:

  • Lockheed Martin $20,000
  • Boeing $16,000
  • Orbital Sciences $13,500
  • Alliant Techsystems (ATK) $9,998
  • Sierra Nevada Corp. $5,000

Orbital and ATK merged in February, becoming Orbital ATK. Combining their two companies' 2014 contributions, that comes to about $23,500 donated by the SpaceX rival with a current cargo contract.

The database reports that SpaceX gave Rep. Smith $11,000 — $2,500 from individuals, and $8,500 from its political action committee.

The Wall Street Journal reported August 12 that NASA had delayed “the timetable for picking companies to ship supplies and experiments into orbit under the agency’s commercial cargo resupply program, a decision some industry officials previously said was scheduled for August or September.”

A Lockheed Martin Jupiter/Exoliner promotional video. LockMart donated $20,000 to Rep. Smith's 2014 re-election campaign. Video source: LockheedMartinVideos YouTube channel.

The incumbents, SpaceX and Orbital ATK, presumably submitted bids. Boeing has proposed a cargo version of its CST-100 commercial crew capsule. Lockheed Martin has proposed the Jupiter, described as a “reusable space servicing vehicle.”

Sierra Nevada Corp. has long touted its Dream Chaser spaceplane as a versatile robotic craft for transporting crew or cargo. In April 2014, SNC announced a deal to land in Houston at Ellington Field's new spaceport. In June 2015, SNC announced a deal to study landings at Huntsville, near NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

So I'm left wondering if Rep. Smith's letter was an attempt to influence NASA's selection of the next commercial cargo contractors.

The House of Representatives is in recess for the month of August. It will be interesting to see if Rep. Smith calls an investigative hearing when he returns from vacation to further his accusations in an attempt to pressure NASA into selecting a vendor other than SpaceX.

UPDATE August 26, 2015NASA has released a five-page response to Rep. Smith from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden politely explaining that the congressman's accusations are baseless.

Bolden wrote that on August 3, the day before Smith sent his letter, the Chairman of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel had informed the policy director of Smith's committee that the charges were baseless. But that didn't stop Smith from sending his letter the next day.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Next Step for Bigelow

An artist's concept of two Bigelow B330 habitats in orbit around the Moon. Image source: Bigelow Aerospace.

Bigelow Aerospace issued an announcement July 31 that it had contracted with NASA “to develop ambitious human spaceflight missions that leverage its innovative B330 space habitat.”

NASA has executed a contract with Bigelow Aerospace for the company to develop ambitious human spaceflight missions that leverage its innovative B330 space habitat. The contract was executed under the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (“NextSTEP”) Broad Agency Announcement issued by NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems program.

Via its NextSTEP contract, Bigelow Aerospace will demonstrate to NASA how B330 habitats can be used to support safe, affordable, and robust human spaceflight missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. As the name indicates, the B330 will provide 330 cubic meters of internal volume and each habitat can support a crew of up to six. Bigelow expandable habitats provide much greater volume than metallic structures, as well as enhanced protection against radiation and physical debris. Moreover, Bigelow habitats are lighter and take up substantially less rocket fairing space, and are far more affordable than traditional, rigid modules. These advantages make the B330 the ideal habitat to implement NASA’s beyond low Earth orbit (“LEO”) plans and will support the utilization of transportation systems such as the SLS and Orion. Additionally, the B330s, which will initially be deployed and tested in LEO, will be used as private sector space stations that will conduct a wide variety of commercial activities.

“We’re eager to work with NASA to show how B330s can support historic human spaceflight missions to the Moon and other destinations in cislunar space while still staying within the bounds of the Agency’s existing budget,” said Bigelow Aerospace’s President and founder, Robert T. Bigelow. “NASA originally conceived of expandable habitats decades ago to perform beyond LEO missions, and we at Bigelow Aerospace look forward to finally bringing that vision to fruition.”

NASA issued the NextSTEP request for proposals in October 2014. According to that press release:

NASA intends to engage partners to help develop and build a set of sustainable, evolvable, multi-use space capabilities that will enable human pioneers to go to deep space destinations. Developing capabilities in three key areas — advanced propulsion, habitation, and small satellites deployed from the Space Launch System — is critical to enabling the next step for human spaceflight. This work will use the proving ground of space around the moon to develop technologies and advance knowledge to expand human exploration into the solar system.

In May 2015, NASA announced it had selected twelve companies for NextSTEP partnerships. Five of the companies were selected to develop habitat projects.

Habitation is another major requirement necessary for human exploration to deeper destinations in space. The Orion capsule is the first component of human exploration beyond low Earth orbit and will have a capability of sustaining a crew of 4 for 21 days in deep space and returning them safely to Earth. After Orion, the next step for human spaceflight is the development of capabilities to connect to the Orion capsule and to initially sustain a crew of four for up to 60 days in cis-lunar space. These initial capabilities will be accomplished with the development of an Exploration Augmentation Module (EAM). The module will serve as a foundational component of a future in-space habitation capability and may include multiple elements as the architecture is further refined. NextSTEP partners will provide concept studies, technology investigation and concepts of operations to help define the architecture or subsystems of an EAM design or capabilities in the areas of habitation or operations and environment.

A Bigelow BEAM mockup. Image source: NASA TechPort.

Inside the Bigelow BEAM. Image source: NASA TechPort.

The next SpaceX cargo Dragon delivery to the International Space Station will deliver a prototype habitat called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). A NASA TechPort data sheet for the BEAM Project lists eleven critical technology objectives for BEAM:

  1. Launch of a packed inflatable structure in a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) launch vehicle
  2. Safe deployment (inflation) on ISS
  3. Passive air exchange with ISS and an environment inside the BEAM supporting periodic, temporary ingress by the ISS crew
  4. Measure deployment loads during inflation of the BEAM on ISS
  5. Determine radiation protection capability of an inflatable structure in low Earth orbit and demonstrate the performance of advanced active radiation sensors on ISS
  6. Long-term structural performance of inflatable shell after exposure to atomic oxygen, vacuum, radiation and thermal cycling
  7. Demonstrate performance of structural health monitoring systems
  8. Measure long-term leak performance of inflatable bladder and bladder joints after launch and deployment cycle
  9. Develop structural and mechanical system requirements for a human-rated inflatable module in external orbital environment and successfully verify those requirements
  10. Develop crew restraints and mobility aids for Intravehicular Activity (IVA) inside an inflatable module
  11. Develop and implement "housekeeping" procedures for internal surfaces of an inflatable module

The report states, “BEAM will demonstrate jettisoning of a large inflatable structure from ISS at end of mission or during a contingency depressurization. Typically, ISS payloads are disposed with the returning cargo vehicle at the end of the payload mission. BEAM will provide the first demonstration of robotic jettison of a large 3K lbs (1380 kg) structure from ISS.”

Click the arrow to watch a Bigelow Aerospace promotional film. Video source: Bigelow Aerospace YouTube channel.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Going Up: Part 7

Click an image to view it at a higher resolution. All images in this article are copyright © 2015 Stephen C. Smith. Use elsewhere is permitted if credit is given to

It's been six weeks since my last trip to photograph the renovations at Pad 39A.

SpaceX has added doors to both ends of its horizontal integration hangar. The SpaceX logo now adorns the newly repainted water tank. Work continues above and inside the flame duct.

Below are the latest images, but here are the links to the images from earlier this year:

Going Up, Part 1 (January 31)

Going Up, Part 2 (February 24)

Going Up, Part 3 (March 29)

Going Up, Part 4 (April 27)

Going Up, Part 5 (May 26)

Going Up, Part 6 (June 27)

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Retro Saturday: Lassie in "Space Traveler"

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: Collie Lover YouTube channel.

If you're of a certain vintage, the Lassie TV series was an iconic part of your childhood.

Each week, the Rough Collie improbably saved small boys, Forest Service rangers, and pretty much anyone else who crossed her path from mortal peril. How she obtained this superpower was never revealed, although “she” was always played by a “he.”

For some reason, her barks could be understood by humans, which became a running pop culture joke, variations on, “What's that, girl?! Timmy fell down a well?!”

Lassie ran from 1954 to 1973, the golden years of the Space Age, so it's only natural that she would one day stumble across a wayward missile.

This week's Retro Saturday is the episode “Space Traveler,” which first aired Sunday night January 10, 1960 on CBS. Timmy and his sullen friend find the nose cone from a missile test. Hilarity ensues.

For nitpickers, the nose cone was from a U.S. Army missile launched from an unnamed location. It had reached an apogee of 1,400 miles before falling back to near the Martin farm. In 1959, when this was filmed, the Army for the most part was phasing out of the space business. On July 1, 1960, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, including Wernher von Braun and his Redstone Arsenal staff, were transferred to NASA.

Much of the episode was filmed at Vasquez Rocks, used as a filming location in many movies and TV shows. It's most famous for the Star Trek episode “The Arena,” which featured Captain James T. Kirk in hand-to-hand combat with the lizard Gorn alien.

Timmy and Lassie at Vasquez Rocks in 1959. Image source:

Filmed in 1966, Captain Kirk faces off against the Gorn at Vasquez Rocks. Image source:

How the Martin family's verdant farm could be right in the middle of an arid desert remains unexplained.

But watching Timmy running around the same rocks where, seven years later, Kirk would fight the Gorn brought to mind this wisecrack:

“What's that, girl?! Timmy got eaten by a Gorn?!”

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Г-н Путин: Спасибо, Конгресс!

Expedition 44/45 crew members at a July 8 Star City press conference. Left to right: Kjell Lindgren of NASA, Oleg Kononenko of Roscosmos, and Kimiya Yui of JAXA. Image source: NASA.

(The headline is Russian for ... Mr. Putin: Thank you, Congress!)

The Russian spaceflight industry will remain quite healthy, thank you, for the next few years thanks to the members of the U.S. Congress.

NASA issued a press release August 5 announcing that the commercial crew budget cuts by Congress have forced the agency to extend reliance on the Russian space agency Roscosmos through 2019.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden sent a letter to Congress Wednesday informing members that, due to their continued reductions in the president’s funding requests for the agency’s Commercial Crew Program over the past several years, NASA was forced to extend its existing contract with the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) to transport American astronauts to the International Space Station. This contract modification is valued at about $490 million.

The full text of the letter is available online and was delivered to the leadership of the congressional committees that oversee NASA.

Here are the opening paragraphs from that letter:

Since the decision to retire the Space Shuttle in 2004, NASA has been committed to developing a follow-on, low-Earth orbit transportation system and limiting our reliance on others to transport U.S. crew to the International Space Station (ISS). In 2010, I presented to Congress a plan to partner with American industry to return launches to the United States by 2015 if provided the requested level of funding. Unfortunately, for five years now, the Congress, while incrementally increasing annual funding, has not adequately funded the Commercial Crew Program to return human spaceflight launches to American soil this year, as planned. This has resulted in continued sole reliance on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft as our crew transport vehicle for American and international partner crews to the ISS.

I am writing to inform you that NASA, once again, has modified its current contract with the Russian government to meet America’s requirements for crew transportation services. Under this contract modification, the cost of these services to the U.S. taxpayers will be approximately $490 million. I am asking that we put past disagreements behind us and focus our collective efforts on support for American industry — the Boeing Corporation and SpaceX — to complete construction and certification of their crew vehicles so that we can begin launching our crews from the Space Coast of Florida in 2017.

Having watched Congressional space hearings for years, I can only conclude that the real reason Congress slashes commercial crew is that the members of the space authorization and appropriations committees see NewSpace programs as a threat to pork in their districts and states.

Unlike past years, where these cuts have been bipartisan, for the Fiscal Year 2016 budget the blame lies squarely with the Republican Party, which controls both houses of Congress.

The House of Representatives voted June 3 to cut commercial crew by $240 million, or about 20%, from President Obama's request.

Space News reported that Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), whose Houston district is near Johnson Space Center, “said that he would work to increase funding for commercial crew as well as the Orion spacecraft” but failed to offer an amendment on the House floor to do so. Culberson chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that controls NASA funding.

On the Senate side, the appropriations committee voted June 11 to whack the FY16 commercial crew budget by 25%. The cut came from the space subcommittee chair, Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), a three-time winner of the “Porker of the Month” award from Citizens Against Government Waste for his zealous protection of government-funded jobs in Alabama. A proposal by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) to restore the 25% cut was defeated along party lines, 14-16.

As I wrote on June 11, many members of these committees pit commercial crew in a zero-sum battle against the Space Launch System. SLS was created by Congress in 2010 primarily to protect jobs in the districts and states of NASA-related committee members. The program is at least two years behind schedule despite all the money Congress has thrown at it.

A NASA-funded study issued July 20 suggested that a program based on the partnership model established with commercial cargo and crew could do a Moon mission for about 10% of what it might cost with SLS. The report most likely will be ignored by Congress, because it proposes a path that doesn't protect jobs in key congressional districts and states.

In September 2012, Roscomos General Director Vladimir Popovkin predicted that if Russia didn't privatize as NASA planned, “We will become uncompetitive in the next three or four years if we don’t take urgent measures.” What Mr. Popovkin didn't take into account was that the U.S. Congress would choose instead to prefer Roscosmos as the American crew launch agency over NASA. Popovkin was replaced in October 2013, and died eight months later.

I'm skeptical that Administrator Bolden's letter will help much. These people are well aware of what they're doing. They don't care. Their electorate won't hold them accountable for sending jobs to Russia, so long as the jobs in their districts and states are protected. Politicians like Culberson and Shelby are in “safe” districts with comfortable Republican majorities. They're not going anywhere.

The only hope is that the cuts might be restored when the House and Senate versions of the bills go to conference, but that may not be until the end of 2015 or early 2016. Going into the 2014 election year, the Republicans shut down the federal government for three weeks in October 2013 trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Going into the 2016 election year, some observers predict the GOP might try it again, possibly over Planned Parenthood.

Vladimir Putin and the Russian oligarchy, meanwhile, can rest assured that NASA will remain a Roscosmos customer for years to come. Federal law prohibits foreigners from donating to federal campaigns. Putin and his cronies got off cheap.

UPDATE August 7, 2015Houston Chronicle space reporter Eric Berger posted this blog article blasting Congress for choosing to fund Roscosmos instead of NASA.

Traditionally Senate budget writers have raided the commercial crew budget to add more money to the budget for the Space Launch System. This is NASA’s large rocket, under development, that the space agency says is essential to landing humans on Mars one day.

It may be, but that day is not now, or even in the next two decades.

The Space Launch System, or SLS, is not slated to make its maiden test flight until the second half of 2018. However, the limiting factor for that test flight is not the rocket itself, which I am told is being developed relatively close to on time, and on budget. Rather the uncertainty for the 2018 launch date is due to the Orion spacecraft, which will fly on top of the rocket. More specifically, it’s the service module for Orion, being developed by the European Space Agency.

Nonetheless the Senate budget writers would like to shower the SLS with money. While NASA only requested $1.36 billion, the Senate budget provides $1.9 billion for next year. That is more than half a billion dollars than NASA says it needs for the rocket. And why would it need any extra money, anyway, if the rocket can’t fly until Orion is ready?

There’s a pretty simple answer for that: The chairman of the Senate’s NASA budget writing committee is Richard Shelby, a senior senator from Alabama. Marshall Space Flight Center, in his state, is responsible for designing and building SLS.

Glad to see Mr. Berger get on board, but his opinion column fails to note the blood on the hands of Houston-area Congressman John Culberson (R-TX), who as I wrote upstream whacked 20% out of the Fiscal Year 2016 commercial crew budget then failed to follow through on his promise to restore the funding on the House floor.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Retro Saturday: NASA Space Electronics Division

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: wdtvlive42 YouTube channel.

Bad mustaches apparently were still a fashion statement in the early 1990s, or maybe it's just that engineers are always behind the fashion times.

Anyway, this week's Retro Saturday takes us back to the NASA Lewis Research Center in 1991 to visit the Space Electronics Division. Research for Today and Tomorrow focuses primarily the technology for communications satellites to come in upcoming decades.

The center's origins trace back to NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. It was founded in 1942 as the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory, then renamed in 1948 as the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory after the NACA's Director of Aeronautical Research, George W. Lewis, who passed away that year.

When NASA was created in 1958, Lewis was absorbed into the new agency and renamed the Lewis Flight Research Center. It kept that name until March 1999, when it was named after astronaut John Glenn.