Senators Debate Adding Funds To Accelerate Space Programs

Law360, New York (July 16, 2014, 5:33 PM EDT) — Senate Armed Services and Commerce committee members expressed frustration about the U.S.’s continued reliance on Russian rockets for NASA and Air Force space launches Wednesday and debated adding more funds to expedite efforts to build a new generation of American-made launch vehicles.

The Commerce space subcommittee’s chairman, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., noted that the day’s hearing took place on the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch that sent the first astronauts to the moon, and emphasized space exploration’s importance to research, commerce and national security. Senators questioned witnesses from the Air Force and NASA, and other government and private sector experts, about challenges raised by reliance on Russian rockets and the slow pace of U.S. entrants into the market for Air Force launch contracts.

Gen. William L. Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, said that the recent reliance on the Atlas V rocket, which uses Russia’s RD-180 engine as a key component, made sense in the near term, saying that the rocket is “probably the most advanced rocket engine in the world” and has proven both cost-effective and reliable.

“If you look at the Atlas V performance, there’s nothing to complain about,” Shelton said. “But in my opinion it’s time to move on from reliance on that foreign engine.”

Russia’s role in American space programs has become a topic of debate thanks to rising tensions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the U.S. sanctions that followed. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who heads Russia’s defense industry, has floated the possibility of restricting U.S. access to its engines, and reportedly suggested that the U.S. “use a trampoline” to send astronauts to the International Space Station.

Those remarks have played into the debate over both NASA’s civilian spaceflight programs and the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, which sends military satellites into space. Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, which is jockeying for the chance to compete with the Air Force’s EELV contractor, United Launch Alliance, has positioned its U.S.-made Falcon rockets as an alternative to the Russian rockets used by ULA.

If tensions worsen and Russia carries out the threat to cut off RD-180 rocket sales, the move would significantly disrupt the Air Force’s national security launches, Shelton said. But both he and RAND Corp. senior engineer Yool Kim said that that is unlikely, because the Russian space industry relies on money from U.S. space launches. And even if Russia stops selling the rockets, the U.S. could use its stockpile of 15 Atlas V rockets to continue with the most significant space launches for at least two years, although it would have to give up some lower-priority launches to make that work, Kim said.

When asked about the ability of SpaceX to pick up the slack, Shelton pointed out that the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, used to deliver NASA cargo to the ISS, cannot handle heavier and more sensitive launches, and its Falcon Heavy rocket, which is in the same class as the Atlas V, is not as close to certification for space launches. Under current plans, the Falcon 9 rocket will be certified for Air Force launches by December, Shelton said.

Many senators seemed eager to speed the development and certification of U.S. rockets and space vehicles, asking whether additional funding could accelerate that process. But witnesses said that federal procurements and development of new technology can’t always and shouldn’t always be rushed.

“Part of the issue we’re dealing with is we’re in the middle of a procurement, so we have a procurement right now that we’ll make a selection on later this year,” NASA Associate Administrator Robert M. Lightfoot said. “Having not seen the proposals, I can’t tell you what the acceleration options are, but we’re in 2014 already. When you order a rocket, you typically order them three years in advance, so that’s where we are.”

SpaceX, which has sued the Air Force for entering into a five-year deal with ULA while it was gearing up for launch certification, was a frequent topic of senators’ questions. Senators questioned the Air Force’s claimed $4.4 billion in cost savings for its recent five-year contract, as well as an earlier comment from Shelton that seemed to criticize SpaceX for taking the Air Force to court. Other asked why SpaceX’s rockets were good enough to deliver cargo to the ISS for NASA but not good enough to take military satellites into space.

Lightfoot said that the cargo deliveries were relatively low-priority and low-risk, so NASA accepted some additional risk in starting those deliveries and speeding SpaceX’s certification for future delivery of more sensitive cargo, including high-tech research equipment and, eventually, NASA astronauts. In the process, NASA took SpaceX through very rigorous testing of its ability to navigate in space and safely dock with the ISS, which are less applicable to the Air Force’s launch needs.

Senators also criticized the Air Force for sharply reducing the number of near-future EELV launches that it planned to open up for competition, from 14 to seven in the Air Force’s 2015 budget proposal. Shelton replied that the Air Force, trying to save money, cut five launches of GPS satellites, which are available to competition because they don’t require a rocket as heavy as the Atlas V, because it realized that its GPS networks didn’t require as much maintenance as it had thought. The heavier launches, reserved to ULA, were generally preserved, but one was canceled, which required the Air Force to give them one of the lighter launches from the formerly competitive pool to keep the terms of the five-year contract, Shelton said.

“We didn’t need to procure the GPS launches on the schedule that we thought we needed, so we stretched those launches out. That resulted in the loss of five of the seven launches that we had set aside for competition,” Shelton said. “It really wasn’t an anti-competitive thing.”

While lawmakers were frustrated by the pace of getting new rockets into production, the deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition, Alan Estevez, said that developing new technology isn’t always as easy as “throwing money at the problem.”

“Without sounding glib, it is rocket science,” Estevez said.

Read the original article on Law360 (subscription).

NASA Commercial Space Program Needs Clarity: Report

By Dietrich Knauth

Law360, New York (July 1, 2011, 5:07 PM EDT) — In its efforts to promote commercial space flight, NASA must develop clear safety and performance requirements while taking care to avoid potential conflicts of interest, according to a Thursday report by the agency’s inspector general.
NASA Inspector General Paul K. Martin said that the agency has made significant progress in working with commercial partners, awarding more than $300 million in contracts through its commercial crew development program, but still needed to finalize regulations, develop a procurement strategy and coordinate safety standards with the Federal Aviation Administration.

In the wake of the space shuttle program, which will be retired after the July 8 launch of the shuttle Atlantis, NASA is simultaneously working on building a next-generation government spacecraft and kick-starting a commercial space industry.

NASA has never launched a manned mission on a commercially-developed vehicle and the transition will be challenging, the report said. Getting it right will be critical because the U.S. will rely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to access low Earth orbit and the International Space Station until it develops an alternative.

“NASA faces an imperative to nurture development of a U.S. commercial transportation service to re-establish the nation’s ability to access low Earth orbit and the space station as soon as possible,” the report said.

NASA’s shuttle successor was scheduled for completion by 2016, but NASA recently indicated that the target may be overly optimistic, the report said, making commercial partnerships even more pressing.

In its commercial crew development program, NASA is focusing on promoting innovation and development, and is not dictating specific system concepts or mandating compliance with NASA requirements, according to the report, leading to a risk that companies will develop space vehicles that are ultimately unsuitable for NASA missions.

To mitigate that risk, NASA is considering an approach that would proactively identify significant design differences that could prevent a partner from obtaining NASA certification in future acquisitions. However, that strategy carries a risk of its own because companies without commercial crew development program contracts could complain that the advice represents an unfair competitive advantage, the report said.

Failure to mitigate the apparent conflicts of interest could lead to bid protests, which would delay and jeopardize NASA’s commercial crew program, according to the report.

In its commercial space transport acquisition strategy, which will be submitted to Congress later this summer, NASA will likely announce its reliance on competitive procurements or fixed-price contracts to keep costs down.

But fixed-price contracts could be risky, too, as they would require NASA to commit large sums of money while relevant regulations may be subject to change, according to the report.

“Some of NASA’s potential commercial crew partners are building spacecraft for the first time and design and development are under way without fully defined and finalized requirements,” the IG said. “In this type of environment, there is a risk that during the period of contract performance NASA’s requirements may change so significantly that contractors can successfully argue that the agency is changing the contract’s scope, in which case NASA could be required to pay the contractor to make necessary modifications.”

In 2010, the year after the start of the commercial crew development initiative, NASA awarded $50 million to companies working on space transport projects. The agency announced in April that it was ramping up the program, awarding $269.3 million to accelerate the availability commercial space capabilities.

Because of uncertain progress in developing both commercial and U.S. spacecraft, the report recommended that NASA consider extending its purchase of seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft as a contingency plan.

Although NASA has arranged with Russia to continue missions via the Soyuz until 2016, the length of time needed to procure additional seats means that NASA will have to make a decision in 2013, about three years before commercial systems are expected to be ready, the report said.

Published by Law360