Senate pass NASA bill for extra funding – shuttle extension goals

The US Senate has passed the new NASA Authorization Bill by unanimous consent Thursday evening, a move that could result in a major boost to NASA.

The Bill proposes a $2.6 billion increase in next year’s NASA budget, directs the Agency to cease shuttle retirement activities until April 30, 2009 – pending the extension assessment study’s results, to fully evaluate STS-134’s AMS mission, while adding $1 billion to Constellation’s Ares and Orion development.

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NASA Bill Information:

The amendments to the H.R. 6063 have now become the body of the Bill, and is scheduled for consideration on Friday under what is called the ‘Suspension Calendar’ – which ensures the Bill does not have to lay over for a day, or be referred to Committee.

As a result, the Bill can be taken up immediately, with a motion to accept the Senate amendment to the previously-passed House Bill H.R. 6063 – of which this version is a complete substitution of the original language that was negotiated with the House back in July.

Thus this Bill – which calls for $20.21B, $2.6B above the President’s request of $17.6B, for Fiscal Year 2009 – represents a consensus bill, and can be quickly handled in the House and sent on to the President for signature.

Ultimately, NASA’s budget will not change from it’s current allocation until it is appropriated and signed/passed by the President.

Once the next president takes office after the November elections, he will be submitting a new ‘supplemental budget request’ for the government. This Bill will be used as a formal statement of a consensus of the Congress as to what NASA should be provided in the way of a budget.

The extensive Bill covers numerous elements of NASA’s work both in space and on planet Earth, and contains many points of interest in relation to key subject facing the Agency at the end of the decade – namely the gap in US manned launch capability during the transition between shuttle and Orion.

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Shuttle Extension Notes:

As reported by this site, shuttle managers are conducting a major study into the possibility that two orbiters in the fleet can safely fly past 2010, carrying out two to three missions to the International Space Station (ISS), in tandem with the continued development of Ares/Orion.

‘Shuttle extension impact study inputs were due last Friday; has been extended to September 26,’ noted the latest status of the assessment on L2, which has been slightly delayed via the shutdown to the Johnson Space Center (JSC), during Hurricane Ike ‘Will send white paper to (NASA) HQ on October 7.’

However, the Bill’s text gives a fascinating insight into the political interest of ensuring the US does not give up its domestic manned access without a full evaluation of the options.

This is covered in ‘Sec. 611. Space Shuttle flight requirements,’ which opens with directions to the Agency to consider baselining the two CLF (Contingency Logistic Flight) missions – STS-131 and STS-133 into the manifest, which is expected.

It also directs NASA to ‘take all necessary steps’ to add STS-134’s delivery of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) to the Station.

However, it contains a caveat for the NASA Administrator to cancel the flight within one year of its launch, if it is determined that it will cost significantly more than the existing cost estimate, or that it would create an unacceptable safety risk.

In such an event, Congress would then have to reauthorize the flight, or the President would have to certify that it is in the national interest to fly the mission.

On the shuttle extension study, the Bill directs NASA to terminate or suspend (until April 30, 2009) any activities that would preclude flying the Shuttle after FY 2010.

This is a major move that will have wide-ranging impacts on facilities such as the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF), who are already laying off skill set engineers, and preparing to clear External Tank machinery from the factory floor, to make way for Constellation manufacturing. This process is due to start within weeks.

The Bill also directs NASA to provide a report – no later than 90 days after enactment – on the budgetary and programmatic impacts of terminating or suspending these activities, and no later than 120 days after enactment on the impacts of a potential Shuttle extension.

This report will address the options of both a short-term (1-2 year) and longer-term (3-6 year) extension of Shuttle operations, and will address several key factors pertaining to extending the fleet’s operational lifetime past 2010.

They include: fixed and marginal costs as well as options for cost sharing with the Constellation program. A safety assessment of continuing the Shuttle, the underlying assumptions, and a comparison of the associated risks of alternative vehicles including Soyuz and Constellation.

Also listed are a description of the actions and costs of maintaining or improving Shuttle safety..

..The impacts on facilities, workforce, resources, cost, and schedule of the Constellation program. Assumptions regarding workforce, infrastructure, etc. used in deriving the cost and schedule estimates. How management, processes, and workforce assignments can be streamlined for maximum efficiency…

..The impact of Shuttle extension on the need for Soyuz for ISS crew rescue services. The potential for enhancing the ISS and its research capability that would result from extending Shuttle operations, and the associated costs.

One key factor surrounding the extension of the shuttle manifest relates to the ISS lifeboat requirement, which was aided this week by the passing of an extension to the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA) waiver through to July 1, 2016. This clears the way for use of the Russian Soyuz capabilities.

(For COTS related ISS crew rescue possibilities – scroll down to the ‘COTS’ section of the article.)

Should the retirement of the shuttle remain as 2010, Sec. 613 in the Bill covers the ‘Space Shuttle transition’ through retirement, directing NASA to provide a plan, no later than 90 days after enactment, for the disposition of the Space Shuttle orbiters and hardware after the retirement of the Shuttle fleet.

The plan must also describe how museums and educational institutions can acquire Shuttle hardware, and states NASA is prohibited from disposing of Shuttle hardware before the plan is submitted to Congress.

NASA is also directed to establish a ‘Space Shuttle Transition Liaison Office’ within the Office of Human Capital Management to assist local communities affected by the termination of the Shuttle program.

International Space Station/National Laboratory:

Sec. 601 of the Bill references the plan to support operation and utilization of the ISS beyond fiscal year 2015, including directions to NASA to take all necessary steps to ensure that the ISS can be utilized through at least 2020 and to take no steps that would preclude its operation after 2015.

The Bill also directs NASA to provide a plan to Congress – no later than nine months after enactment – that details the operation and utilization of the ISS beyond FY 2015 for at least five years.

The plan shall provide: a list of critical hardware needed, known or anticipated maintenance actions, and annual upmass and downmass requirements and potential vehicles to be used

This report should also include a Research Management Plan for the ISS, which includes a process for selecting and prioritizing research activities and identifies the organization to be responsible for managing US research on the ISS – and the budget required to support that management institution, in consultation with other agencies, industry and academia.

The report will also establish a process for access to the ISS’ role as a US ‘National laboratory’ and identify the transportation requirements needed to support users of the National Lab and a plan for how those needs can be met.

It should also assess the equipment needed to support research on the ISS and provide a budget plan that reflects this anticipated research use of the ISS between FY 2010 and 2020.

The Bill also directs NASA to establish an ‘International Space Station National Laboratory Advisory Committee’ no later than one year after enactment. This provision also details the membership and duties of the committee which will oversee the requirements.

Constellation/Exploration:

Interestingly, the exploration element to the bill references the overall NASA strategy, as opposed to specifics on Ares and Orion.

While the Bill would allow for an extra billion dollars to be feed into NASA’s Constellation budget – which in turn would relieve some of the pressure on the schedule for the first manned launches of Orion – the focus of the Bill is wide-ranging, citing items from international cooperation, to the exploration of Mars.

The Bill’s ‘Exploration Initiative’ opens with Sec. 401’s ‘Sense of Congress’ – which notes the President should invite America’s friends and allies to participate in a long-term exploration initiative under the leadership of the United States.

This exploration initiative – it states – is to expand human and robotic presence into the solar system, including the Moon, near Earth asteroids, Lagrangian points and eventually Mars and its moons.

Sec. 402’s ‘Reaffirmation of exploration policy’ notes Congress’ wish to reaffirms its support for: The broad goals of space exploration, including the eventual return to the Moon and other destinations in the solar system, including activity related to Mars exploration.

This Mars element is expanded on via Sec 403’s ‘Stepping stone’ approach to exploration, dismissing the ‘Mars First’ movement by directing NASA to ensure its lunar exploration program considers how its activities can support future exploration beyond the Moon.

This includes the Lunar outpost, with the Bill directing that any lunar outpost NASA develops should be capable of remote or autonomous operation for extended periods (i.e. it doesn’t have to be constantly crewed in order to be maintained).

It also directs that the US portion of the first human-tended lunar outpost be named after Neil Armstrong.

Mars gains an additional reference in Sec. 503, under ‘Mars exploration’, which notes Congress reaffirms its support for Martian exploration and for the long-term goal of human exploration of Mars. And where practical, NASA should pursue the goal of launches at every Mars launch opportunity leading to an eventual robotic sample return.

The Bill also provides ‘a sense of Congress’ that commercial services should be used to support the lunar outpost to the maximum extent practicable.

Sec. 406’s Exploration risk mitigation plan directs NASA to prepare a plan that identifies and prioritizes the human and technical risks that need to be addressed to carry out exploration beyond low Earth orbit, the plan to address those risks and the role of the International Space Station (ISS) in risk mitigation.

NASA is directed to submit a report to Congress on this plan no later than one year after enactment.

Also on the Bill, and based on hardware requirements, Sec. 407’s ‘Exploration crew rescue’ directs NASA to enter into discussion with representatives of other spacefaring nations for the purpose of agreeing on a common docking system standard.

Public outreach – a long-time problem for NASA – also gains a mention via Sec. 408’s ‘Participatory exploration’ – which directs NASA to develop a plan to enable the dissemination of information to help the public to better experience missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

This plan will identify opportunities to utilize multi-media technologies such as high-definition video and 3-D images, and shall also identify how NASA Centers can enter into agreements to share data and images from its mission electronically and through the Internet.

The only references made to Orion by name within the 95 page Bill notes ‘all prudent steps should thus be taken to bring the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle to full operational capability as soon as possible and to ensure the effective development of a United States heavy lift launch capability for missions beyond low Earth orbit.

‘$1,000,000,000 shall be available to be used to accelerate the initial operating capability of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and the Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle, to remain available until expended.’

COTS:

NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) effort also gains large mentions in the Bill, prefaced by a ‘Sense of Congress’ that a healthy and robust commercial sector can make significant contributions to NASA’s exploration programs, and that while some activities are inherently governmental, others could potentially be carried out by the commercial sector in the future.

The Bill further encourages NASA to make use of the commercial sector and entrepreneurial space companies – of which Orbital Sciences and SpaceX currently head the pack of commercial companies that are working with NASA.

Sec. 902’s ‘Commercial crew initiative’ notes NASA should stimulate commercial use of space and maximize the utility and productivity of the ISS, and appears to reference ‘COTS D Minus (D-)‘ which is a back-up plan of utilizing a COTS partner to provide a manned vehicle for ISS evacuation capability, in the event of a lack of Soyuz capability.

The language of the Bill directs NASA to make use of US commercially provided ‘ISS crew transfer and rescue services’ to the maximum extent practicable if those services have demonstrated the ability to meet NASA safety requirements, and directs NASA to facilitate the transfer of NASA-developed technologies to potential commercial crew transfer and rescue providers.

However, the Bill also notes that should a commercial provider demonstrates the capability to provide ISS crew transfer and rescue services, NASA shall enter into a contract with that provider through CY 2016, with the option to extend the contract through CY 2020. It is not clear if such a contract would be sanctioned in relation to a shuttle extension.

Also boosting COTS’ role, the Bill directs NASA to limit, to the maximum extent practicable, the use of Orion, to missions beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), once commercial alternatives for LEO service are available.

In cold hard cash, the Bill would authorizes $100M for COTS-D programs, with the intent that this not come from Orion, Ares, or ISS cargo delivery funds, should it be enacted.

From a hardware standpoint, it also directs NASA to make ISS compatible docking adapters available to commercial crew providers selected to service the ISS.

Additional points of interest:

Below is a list of other points of interest contained within the Bill:

Sec. 206. Reauthorization of Glory Mission – specifically reauthorizes the Glory mission which will examine how aerosols and solar energy affect the Earth’s climate.

Glory’s budget and schedule problems have tripped the statutory requirement that Congress either reauthorize it or it be cancelled. This also directs NASA to submit a baseline report to Congress detailing the factors contributing to its cost growth.

Sec. 207. Plan for disposition of Deep Space Climate Observatory – this directs NASA to develop a plan for utilizing the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) or its parts. DSCOVR is an Earth Sciences satellite promoted by then Vice President Al Gore and it was previously known as Triana.

This program was cancelled after the Clinton Administration left office and the satellite has been in storage since then. This specific section directs NASA to consult with other agencies and institutions in developing the plan and has them submit it to Congress no later than 180 days after enactment.

Sec. 505. Suborbital research activities – ‘Sense of Congress’ element of the Bill that relates to suborbital flight activities including sounding rockets, aircraft, high-altitude balloons, and suborbital reusable launch vehicles are important particularly as training opportunities for the next generation of scientists and engineers.

It adds a ‘Sense of Congress’ that funding for suborbital research activities should be considered part of NASA’s contribution to competitive and educational enhancement and should represent increased funding as contemplated in the America COMPETES Act.

Also directs NASA to enter into an agreement with the National Academies to conduct a review of suborbital mission capabilities.

Sec. 506. Restoration of radioisotope thermoelectric generator material production – which directs OSTP to develop a plan for restarting and sustaining the domestic production of radioisotope thermoelectric generator material for deep space and other space science missions.

Sec. 509. Outer planets exploration – ‘Sense of Congress’ element on the importance of studying the outer planets and that NASA should move forward with plans for a mission to Europa-Jupiter or Titan-Saturn as soon as practicable.

Sec. 621. Launch services strategy – directs NASA to develop a strategy for providing domestic commercial launch services for small and medium-sized missions. Directs NASA to provide a report to Congress on this, no later than 90 days after enactment. The report shall provide:

The results of the Request for Information on small to medium-sized launch services that was released in April of 2008. An analysis of possible alternatives to maintain small and medium-sized lift capabilities, including the use of DoD’s EELV. Recommended alternatives and a 5-year budget plan. A contingency plan in the event the recommended alternatives are not available.

Sec. 801. Reaffirmation of policy on Near Earth Objects – a ‘Sense of Congress’ that near-Earth object (NEO) programs are beneficial for science and exploration activities, and Near-Earth objects (asteroids and comets) pose a serious threat to humankind.

Specifically listed in the Bill: Several near-Earth objects have only been discovered within days of their closest approach to Earth. An asteroid or comet collision with Earth would cause one of the most costly natural disasters possible.

Basic info is needed, the Bill points to, for technical and policy decision making. Resources and systems must be in place well before a collision threat becomes known.

This is elaborated in Sec. 803’s ‘Requests for Information’ on issuing requests for information on a low-cost space mission designed to attach a tracking device on the Apophis asteroid, and a medium-sized mission with the purpose of detecting NEOs that are 140m in diameter and larger. The Bill also references a ‘deflection campaign’ as a mitigation approach.

Updates on the progress of this Bill will be provided when further information is available.

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