Monday, February 29, 2016

Going Up, Part 10

Click an image to view it at a higher resolution. All images in this article are copyright © 2016 Stephen C. Smith. Use elsewhere is permitted if credit is given to

It's been a while, but on February 28 I headed out to shoot more photos of the latest SpaceX upgrades to Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A.

Since our last visit, the gray steel erector has been painted white. It's in the horizontal hangar at the base of the ramp, so it couldn't be seen during this trip.

The yellow crane over the flame duct was folded down for the weekend, as strong winds blew through the area. The crane was erect today.

Here are links to the images from last 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)

Going Up, Part 7 (August 9)

Going Up, Part 8 (October 16)

Going Up, Part 9 (November 8)

Friday, February 26, 2016

What Constitution?

Click the arrow to watch the February 25, 2016 House Science Committee hearing on the Space Leadership Preservation Act of 2015.

In February 2010, the Obama administration rocked Capitol Hill's space-industrial complex when its Fiscal Year 2011 NASA budget proposed cancelling the failed Constellation program to replace it with the commercial crew program.

Members of Congress howled in outrage, particularly those who represented states and districts with Constellation contracts. One example is the February 25, 2010 House Science Committee hearing. For more than two hours, members of both parties bashed NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden with falsehoods, claiming the private sector couldn't be trusted. Some alleged that the administration was surrendering space to Russia, China, or some other perceived enemy.

Hysterical rhetoric aside, their anger was all about losing what they thought were guaranteed government jobs in their districts. Typical of the comments was this paranoid statement by Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX) whose district included employees of Houston's Johnson Space Center:

I've got a couple concerns and questions I'd like to ask you. One of them is, sort of the process with which this decision was made. Because, if you read some media reports, and hear some things in the community, it seemed to be made by a very small cabal, for lack of a better term, of people here in Washington, D.C. I know for a fact that no one at the Johnson Space Center was consulted about the decision to terminate the Constellation. I particularly want to make sure that you were involved in that decision. So I ask you ... I mean, this is the largest cut in the President's budget. Did you hear directly from the President on this? And again, this is important, I gotta go back home and explain to my constituents who — and many of them, in their cases, lose their jobs.

The administration had on its side a series of bad audits Constellation received from the General Accountability Office. The last audit issued in August 2009 concluded that Constellation lacked “a sound business case” citing unsolved technical problems, funding shortfalls and bureaucratic inefficiencies.

When Congress finally passed NASA's Fiscal Year 2011 budget, they agreed to cancel Constellation, but replaced it with another pork project they named the Space Launch System. Critics dubbed it the “Senate Launch System” because it was crafted by Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) to protect NASA contractor jobs in their states. When Nelson and Hutchison unveiled the rocket design in September 2011, politicians from both parties and both houses lined up at the microphone to take credit for the jobs they'd protected in their districts.

No one said much about what it was to do.

In any case, the space-industrial complex was shocked that someone finally challenged their perceived entitlement to government pork.

Six members of Congress in September 2012 introduced legislation that attempted to seize control of NASA from the executive branch. Under the Space Leadership Act, NASA would be run by a panel comprised mainly of Congressional appointees. The bill was co-sponsored by, among others, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) and Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL). Both have NASA space centers in or near their districts.

As I wrote in that blog article, Article II, Section I of the U.S. Constitution vests "executive power" in "a President of the United States of America." Article I, Section I vests "legislative powers" in a "Congress of the United States." It seems unconstitutional to me for the legislative branch to try to give itself an executive power.

The bill went nowhere, possibly because it was unconstitutional, possibly because the rest of Congress saw it for what it was.

The co-sponsors tried once more. The bill was reintroduced in February 2013, this time titled the “Space Leadership Preservation Act of 2013.” Once again, the agency's budget would be taken away from the Administrator, and determined by a board comprised primarily of Congressional appointees.

That bill died too.

Now Culberson and Posey are trying for a third time, this time with H.R. 2093, the Space Leadership Preservation Act of 2015.

Once again, they would create a board comprised primarily of Congressional appointees. The board would be required to submit to “the President, the Committee on Appropriations of the House of Representatives, the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology of the House of Representatives, the Committee on Appropriations of the Senate, and the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate, a proposed budget for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for the next fiscal year.” The board would also provide the President with a short list of nominees for NASA Administrator and Deputy Administrator, from which the President would have no choice but to select appointees.

Not allowing a President to select his or her appointees in itself makes the bill unconstitutional, in my opinion.

As for the budget proposal, in an attempt to make this constitutional the bill would make the board's budget advisory, which brings into question why the board exists in the first place.

With a new presidential administration less than a year away, in my opinion these legislators are afraid that the new President will try to cancel Space Launch System.

None of the candidates in either major party have said much about the government program. Hillary Clinton's space advisor during her 2008 campaign was Lori Garver, who later joined the Obama campaign and was appointed NASA Deputy Administrator in 2009. Garver left NASA in 2013, and since then has been one of the most vocal critics of Space Launch System. Clinton herself often talks about her childhood dream of being an astronaut.

Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has said he's generally supportive of NASA but doesn't offer specifics.

Donald Trump, currently the Republican with the most delegates, twice has said he would end NASA to use the money for transportation infrastructure. In November, Trump told a ten-year old boy he would end NASA to fill potholes.

Ted Cruz (R-TX) currently chairs the Senate space subcommittee. Although he has supported commercial space more than most of his colleagues, he also defends SLS and opposes NASA spending on earth science and climate change research.

Marco Rubio (R-FL) has Kennedy Space Center in his state. Because he's not a member of the Senate space authorization or appropriations committees, he's not in a position to significantly influence NASA legislation. Like most politicians, he'll say nice things about NASA but has little specific legislation to prove it.

This bill, like its predecessors, will die in the House for lack of support.

But it shows just how far certain members of Congress will go to protect their pork, such as ignoring the Constitution.

UPDATE March 1, 2016 — Space policy analyst John Logsdon was interviewed February 26 by Radio Sputnik about statements made at this hearing by former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin and general topics of U.S. space policy.

Click the arrow to listen to the 7½ minute interview. Audio source: Radio Sputnik.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Gold Rush

A Planet Labs video promoting their agricultural monitoring service using their RapidEye satellite constellation. Video source: Planet Labs YouTube channel.

The Tauri Group has issued a report — partially funded by NASA — which finds that venture capital in commercial space has increased dramatically in the last few years.

Start-Up Space: Rising Investment in Commercial Space Ventures reports that about $4 billion in venture capital was invested in “NewSpace” during the years 2011-2015. In the five years before, the total was $2.1 billion.

Last year was the most successful NewSpace year on record. According to the report:

The year 2015 was a record-setting year for space ventures with investment and debt financing of $2.7 billion.

  • 2015 was the largest investment year (excluding debt financing) of in the 15-year study period with investment of $2.3 billion.
  • More venture capital ($1.8 billion) was invested in space in 2015 than in the prior 15 years, combined.
  • More than 50 venture capital firms invested in space deals in 2015, the most in any year.

The report notes that SpaceX became the first NewSpace “unicorn” company, defined as a company with a valuation of $1 billion or more. “ Planet Labs could be the next unicorn in the space industry,” according to the report.

According to the Planet Labs web site, the company was founded in 2010 by ex-NASA scientists. “Planet Labs is driven by a mission to image the entire Earth every day, and provide universal access to that data.”

We started as a small team of physicists, aerospace and mechanical engineers in a garage, using the cubesat form-factor to inform the first designs of our Dove satellite. Just two years after our first satellite entered space, Planet now operates the largest constellation of Earth-imaging satellites...ever.

Our satellites are collecting a radical new data set with endless, real-world applications. Whether you’re measuring agricultural yields, monitoring natural resources, or aiding first responders after natural disasters, our data is here to lend businesses and humanitarian organizations a helping hand. Planet believes timely, global imagery will empower informed, deliberate and meaningful stewardship of our planet.

A “flock” of Planet Labs Dove satellites deployed July 13, 2015 from the International Space Station. Video source: Planet Labs YouTube channel.

Planet Labs deployed fourteen small satellites last July. According to the Planet Labs web site:

Fourteen Doves were deployed from the International Space Station the week of July 13, 2015 — we call these Doves “Flock 1e”. They were deployed two-by-two from the Kibo Experiment Module arm of the International Space Station by a Nanoracks deployer. We’ve contacted all fourteen satellites and they’re all happy and healthy. This week we’re wrapping up our commissioning activities and getting some exciting new images down from our latest and greatest flock of Doves.

The Tauri Group's executive summary quotes one NewSpace investor:

You can now make money with space investment, which wasn’t largely a true statement before.

The report was partially funded by a NASA research grant. According to Page 6 of the report:

The Tauri Group conducted this study to characterize those in the investment community who are pursuing space opportunities, and to understand the motivations of these investors. This report will inform NASA and the public about activity in this emerging space ecosystem, and assist government and industry leaders in decision-making as new space firms and capabilities create new options and alternatives. In addition, the report will be a resource for commercial space ventures that seek investors. The report and the project on which Start-Up Space is based were funded in part through a research grant from the Emerging Space Office located at NASA Ames Research Center in support of the Office of the Chief Technologist at NASA Headquarters.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Lipstick on a Pig

Click to watch the January 27, 2016 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on ULA use of Russian RD-180 engines.

The Huntsville Times published February 3 a guest column by Alabama Republican state senator Arthur Orr that weaves one of the more fantastical whoppers spewed in recent months by an elected official.

Senator Orr wrote:

With the growing threat of ISIS and other terrorist groups around the world who want to do us harm, it is important now more than ever that our leaders prioritize keeping us safe. Alabama plays a key role in that goal by being the home to where our nation's most secure, reliable, and advanced rockets are built. In Decatur, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) builds the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets which launch our nation's military, NASA, and commercial satellites into space. The ULA plant employs or directly contracts with close to 1,000 Alabamians across north Alabama.

Fortunately for Alabama and our national security, Senator Richard Shelby recently put a stop to a provision pushed by a powerful western Senator at the behest of one of President Obama's top donors, Elon Musk, who owns SpaceX, a ULA competitor. The provision prematurely restricted the military use, but not NASA or commercial use, of the foreign made RD-180 engine used on ULA rockets.

After the Cold War when relations were different between the U.S. and Russia, ULA and other aerospace companies were encouraged by the U.S. government to buy the Russian made RD-180 engine to keep them out of the hands of unfriendly nations like Iran. Because of recent Russian aggressions, ULA desires to use only American made engines and is developing with its partners an American engine to launch its rockets. This process is well underway but will take several years.

In the meantime, powerful friends of Elon Musk in the Senate attempted to destroy Alabama jobs for the far inferior SpaceX rocket with its mixed launch record (ULA has over 100 and counting successful, consecutive launches). No serious effort was made to ban any other Russian products such as oil or metals — just the engines that propel our Alabama-made rockets. And because the Elon Musk rocket would only take care of just over half of our military needs, a huge gap in our nation's defenses would have been created for a period of years.

Musk would have been successful if Senator Richard Shelby hadn't stood up for our nation and Alabama jobs. Because of his efforts, nearly a thousand good-paying jobs and the families they represent are safe. Though it can seem like "inside baseball" politics at times, having someone like Shelby who wields a big stick in Washington is important to the people of Alabama.

We all agree that we should reduce dependence on Russia and make our own engines here in the U.S. But it is unfathomable that anyone would support the reckless position of ending the use of the RD-180 before we have an American engine developed. I am grateful that Senator Shelby is standing up and fighting for the jobs in our state and the security of our nation.


That's a lot of fibs for one guest column.

Let's begin with the false claim that Elon Musk is “one of President Obama's top donors.”

Federal campaign contributions are easily researched at, a database of donations to presidential and congressional candidates by individuals, corporations and political action committees.

A search of Elon Musk campaign contributions from 2007 through 2015 shows these donations to candidate Obama:

  • 7/25/2007 $2,300
  • 4/15/2011 $2,500

That's it.

Mr. Musk donated to many other people, including 2008 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. She received $2,300 on 2/19/2008 for the 2008 election. Ms. Clinton received $2,300 and $2,700 contributions this year.

We can find lots of donations to Republicans, including Republican political action committees. Let's look at the Republican PACs:

  • 4/7/2004 National Republican Congressional Committee $5,000
  • 5/15/2005 National Republican Congressional Committee $25,000
  • 3/24/2006 National Republican Congressional Committee $25,000
  • 2/27/2007 National Republican Congressional Committee $25,000
  • 3/17/2008 National Republican Congressional Committee $28,500
  • 3/28/2009 National Republican Congressional Committee $10,000
  • 6/8/2010 Future Leaders PAC $1,000
  • 8/24/2011 Future Leaders PAC $1,000
  • 6/4/2013 National Republican Congressional Committee $32,400
  • 6/7/2013 Longhorn PAC $2,500
  • 8/28/2013 Reclaim America PAC $4,800
  • 9/29/2014 National Republican Congressional Committee $22,400

Senator Orr claims that Musk is one of Obama's top donors. No evidence exists to support that claim. Sure, it's possible that Musk is laundering his donations through third-party PACs. But where's the evidence? Orr provides none. The evidence is persuasive that Musk donates to campaigns and PACs for both parties, as do many business people.

So who is the “powerful western Senator” secretly conspiring with Elon Musk and President Obama?

Orr doesn't say.

But the context certainly suggests Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who in the reality-based world ran against Obama for President in 2008.

Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), the individual with the butt cheeks to whom Mr. Orr has firmly attached his lips, drew the ire of Senator McCain last December. Shelby snuck into the Fiscal Year 2016 budget a provision to delete McCain's restrictions on further purchases by United Launch Alliance of Russian RD-180 engines for launching military payloads. reports that Shelby received $172,544 in the 2011-2016 period from ULA's parent companies, Boeing and Lockheed Martin. ULA is based in Decatur, Alabama, within Mr. Orr's district. Boeing gave $98,044 and Lockheed Martin $74,500.

Shelby is a four-time winner of the Porker of the Month award from Citizens Against Government Waste, due to the frequent intimate connection between his corporate contributors and the legislation he supports benefitting them.

Perhaps what triggered Mr. Orr's fibfest was the January 27, 2016 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing chaired by Senator McCain. The video of that hearing is at the top of this column. McCain opened the hearing with comments in which he specifically called out United Launch Alliance and “the parochial motivations of” Senator Shelby for what McCain views as undermining U.S. national security.

For the record, shows no contributions by Mr. Musk to Senator McCain, either as an individual or by the SpaceX corporation. Senator Shelby has received no donations from Mr. Musk either, which may be the true motivation for Mr. Orr's baseless smear.

Regardless of partisan stripes, I find lying corrupt politicians to be offensive.

If you wish to tell State Senator Orr what you think of him, you can find him on Twitter at @SenatorAOrr. You can also contact him through his web site at

UPDATE February 18, 2016 — A reader kindly pointed out that SpaceX is listed as a donor to the McCain Institute. According to the listing, the contribution was less than $25,000.

Let's recall that the ban was enacted by Congress after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014 and threatened Ukraine. Russian Defense Minister Dmitri Rogozin threatened to cut off ULA access to the RD-180. The National Defense Authorization Act of 2015, which became law in December 2014, enacted the ban.

Friday, February 12, 2016

How to Win the Future

President Barack Obama speaks at Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010. Image source: NASA.

It will be another year before the end of the Barack Obama presidency, when we amateur pundits start writing about his administration not as a current event but as history.

So it's premature to draw conclusions about the administration's effects on NASA and U.S. space policy. I suspect I'll be writing that column in about eleven months.

The White House released its proposed Fiscal Year 2017 NASA budget on February 9, which of course immediately drew condemnation from Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the driver of the clown car that is the House Committee on Science, Space & Technology.

Any president's budget proposal is Dead on Arrival at Capitol Hill. The 1921 Budget and Accounting Act requires the president to submit a budget proposal to Congress by the first Monday in February. (This deadline is often missed.) Congress is under no obligation to implement any program proposed in the president's budget. Chairs of key committees will exploit their position of power to funnel money to pet programs and punish members of opposition parties, including the president.

President Obama took office in January 2009 left with a government space program on a collision course with reality.

The Constellation program was years behind schedule and billions over budget. Constellation's Ares I booster was to launch the Orion capsule to low Earth orbit to service the International Space Station, but the earliest launch wasn't going to be until at least 2017. Constellation was to be funded by shutting down the ISS in Fiscal Year 2016, meaning Orion had nowhere to go. Congress had passed legislation in its 2005 and 2008 NASA authorization acts prohibiting any action to shut down ISS, but nonetheless NASA's budget plans called for the end of ISS in 2016 — just five years after its completion, and in abrogation of its agreements with international partners.

The Space Shuttle program was about to end. President George W. Bush on January 14, 2004 proposed its cancellation after the Columbia accident, and Congress agreed. The Shuttle was to be used only to complete ISS construction, and then retired. The Bush plan included a four-year hiatus from 2011 to 2015 before Orion would fly with people from Kennedy Space Center.

KSC's workforce, both civilian and contract, relied solely on one government program to keep everyone employed. The Space Coast economy was facing massive layoffs, similar to what happened after the end of the Apollo lunar spaceflight program in the 1970s. Asked at a January 28, 2004 Senate Science Committee what would happen to the lost Shuttle jobs, then-NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe replied, “We'll have to work out those challenges at that time.”

We'll return to this story sometime after January 20, 2017.

But let's fast-forward to present day.

Popular Science published an interview with President Obama titled, “How to Win the Future.” One question in the article deals with NASA and the U.S. space program, which the Obama administration has opened to the private sector. Here is the question posed by Popular Science editor in chief Cliff Ransom, and the President's reply.

PS: You’ve also advocated the development of a private space industry to work alongside and complement government efforts. What is your vision for space exploration and commercialization? Who does what?

BO: I’ve laid out a vision for space exploration where our astronauts travel out into the solar system not just to visit, but to stay. To build a sustainable human presence in space, we’ll need a thriving private-sector space economy. I see the expanding space industry as an addition to, not a replacement for, the extraordinary work of NASA. With industry taking over tasks like ferrying cargo and crew to the International Space Station, NASA can focus even more intensely on the most challenging exploration missions, like landing astronauts on Mars or learning more about Earth and the rest of our solar system.

As we set our sights toward other planets, we can also create good jobs here on this one. American companies have begun to reclaim the lucrative market for launching commercial satellites. That’s just one example of the way that a growing space economy can help American workers succeed.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Net Congestion

A Virgin Galactic LauncherOne promotional film. Video source: Video Galactic YouTube channel.

Florida Today reported on February 4 that a Space Florida proposal code-named “Project Sabal” is actually a company called OneWeb that intends to build a space Internet.

OneWeb is a joint venture funded by Virgin Group and Qualcomm, among other investors. Over 600 satellites would be deployed around the globe to create the “OneWeb Constellation.” Members of the Board of Directors include Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson, Qualcomm Executive Chairman Paul Jacobs, and Airbus Group CEO Thomas Enders, among others.

According to the OneWeb web site, the constellation would be comprised of “micro satellites” that will “ logically interlock with each other to create a coverage footprint over the entire planet.” The Florida Today article states that each satellite would weigh about 330 pounds.

OneWeb announced in June 2015 that it had contracted with Arianespace to launch up to 21 missions on the Russian Soyuz. OneWeb also announced an agreement with Virgin Galactic for 39 satellite launches on Virgin's proposed LauncherOne, a booster mounted on a 747 aircraft.

OneWeb also announced that day that Airbus Defence and Space had partnered with OneWeb to build the satellites. OneWeb founder Greg Wyler said the constellation would be operational by 2019.

A June 2015 statement by OneWeb founder/CEO Greg Wyler. Video source: Airbus Defence and Space YouTube channel.

The company has been looking for a location to build the satellites. According to a February 3 Wall Street Journal article, OneWeb had narrowed down its site to Florida, but did not disclose where.

The Florida Today report, if accurate, places the manufacturing site here in the Space Coast.

That would imply that many of the deployments might launch from Kennedy Space Center.

In October 2015, NASA announced contract awards to three companies under a new program called Venture Class Launch Services. The idea is to provide small satellite launch companies contracts for demonstration missions to prove their viability.

One of the companies was Virgin Galactic, which received $4.7 million for a LauncherOne demonstration flight reportedly at the Mojave Air & Space Port. If the satellites are manufactured here, then it would make sense to launch them from here as well.

In 2014, Kennedy Space Center remodeled the Launch Control Center's Firing Room 4 to support commercial launch users. A new Pad 39C could be used by Venture Class vertical launch companies, with the former Space Shuttle runway available for horizontal launch companies such as Virgin Galactic. In June 2015, Space Florida signed an agreement to manage the KSC runway, hoping to attract horizontal launch companies.

In January 2015, SpaceX announced its own intentions to build a space Internet, with funding from Google and Fidelity. The SpaceX constellation would feature about 4,000 satellites, according to media reports.

A June 2015 OneWeb Constellation promotional film. Video source: Airbus Defence and Space YouTube channel.