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Buzz Aldrin and Greg Autry: It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to run NASA

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Buzz Aldrin and Greg Autry: It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to run NASA
U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine

President Trump called for “unlocking the mysteries of space” in his inaugural address and then envisioned “American footprints on distant worlds” in his speech before a Joint Session of Congress. Addressing a crowd at the Kennedy Space Center this summer, Vice President Pence confidently stated that “our nation will return to the Moon, and we will put American boots on the face of Mars.” Such an audacious agenda will require inspired engineering, committed financial support and bold leadership of the kind that Administrator James Webb supplied to NASA during the glory days of Gemini and Apollo.

Finding another Webb was no easy task. The president considered several excellent candidates, some of whom we personally admire, but in the spirit of Webb’s leadership, U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine is the president’s nominee for NASA administrator. Rumors of Mr. Bridenstine’s appointment have been swirling in the space community since the spring and during that time, the two of us have come to know him and his record. The more we learned, the happier we’ve become. We have found that Rep. Bridenstine possesses a remarkable understanding of the science, technology, economics and the policies that surround NASA. He is highly qualified to lead the world’s finest scientific and exploratory organization.

Anyone who doubts that should look closely at Mr. Bridenstine’s web page for his American Space Renaissance Act (H.R. 4945) at http://spacerenaissanceact.com/. The ASRA offers a clear and workable plan to ensure that the benefits of space technology and resources continue to support exploration, science, American national security and economic development. As a space explorer and an academic we both applaud this integrated approach. Criticisms of Mr. Bridenstine’s nomination have centered around three themes, each of which are easily refuted.

He’s a leader, not a politician

Firstly, it has been suggested that a “politician” shouldn’t run NASA. We share a healthy skepticism of politicians and the suggestion of a congressman as administrator initially gave us pause. However, his record revealed that Jim Bridenstine is far from being a character out of House of Cards. He served with distinction as a Naval aviator in Afghanistan and Iraq. He continued to serve his country in the Naval Reserve and then the Air National Guard.  He had no political career before launching a surprisingly successful 2012 campaign against an incumbent Republican in Oklahoma’s first district. Personally, we can tell you Mr. Bridenstine is an American patriot and a man of integrity who shares our passion for a vibrant NASA.

We’d remind those insisting that only a scientist or astronaut could run a space agency that James Webb was a lawyer by training and spent his entire career in the bowels of governmental bureaucracies. Apollo succeeded, because Webb understood people and practiced effective management.

Jim Bridenstine has a triple major from Rice University that should serve him well in leading NASA: psychology, economics and business. He also holds an MBA from Cornell, an educational tool that former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin applied well when defining the successful Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Griffin’s business school approach to plugging the launch gap NASA faced after the retirement of the space shuttle lead to two new commercial rockets supplying the International Space Station and launched a revived American commercial launch sector. Jim Bridenstine’s innovative thinking promises to extend that record of success.

He’s an Earth sciences advocate, not a climate change denier

Secondly, there has been a great deal of froth over Mr. Bridenstine’s position on climate change. He has always been a strong advocate of Earth sciences, commercial remote imaging, as well as robust weather and climate-data collection. He notes that, “My constituents get killed in tornadoes.” Mr. Bridenstine has clearly stated that he believes the climate is changing, that human activities are a contributing factor and that we have a national interest in understanding its causes and outcomes. He has supported several programs to collect additional climate data including championing the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act and support for efforts to launch satellites aimed at measuring atmospheric gasses via occultation (interference) of GPS signals. He also supported the requirement that climate trends be investigated as part of the 2018 Defense Authorization Act. His interests should be great news for firms like California-based imaging firm Planet and small launch startups like Virgin Orbit.

He’s a peacemaker in the space wars

Finally, some advocates of traditional space programs may be concerned about Jim’s intentions toward NASA’s contracting model. We are happy to see that Bridenstine offers a uniquely balanced approach. He rejects the either/or battles over policy and funding that have plagued our space program for the last generation and kept us from going as far as we could. These battles have pitted human spaceflight against robotic missions, astrophysics against Earth science and positioned traditional exploration programs against emerging entrepreneurial endeavors. The American public celebrates  our space agency’s success in all these realms and deserves a NASA Administrator who shares their joy.

Jim Bridenstine is deeply interested in innovative engineering and business techniques that can help NASA do more with the public’s money. He is committed to continuing the SLS/Orion program and in integrating it into longer-term transportation systems. He also understands that while we must recapture the glory of Apollo we cannot afford another series of disposable missions. He supports public-private partnerships to develop economically sustainable solutions that will support scientific research and commercial development for generations to come. Specifically, we have spoken to Jim Bridenstine about permanent transportation systems to both the Moon and Mars. He understands that such a service, based on the Aldrin Cycler model, would change the economics of space exploration and resource exploitation.

We heartedly support the president’s nomination of Mr. Bridenstine as the next NASA administrator wish him Godspeed during the Senate confirmation process. We encourage you to join us in uniting the space community and our nation behind this nominee so NASA can return to its job of boldly exploring the final frontier.

Buzz Aldrin is an engineer, former U.S. Air Force pilot, former NASA astronaut, lunar explorer and advocate for Mars exploration.

Greg Autry studies space entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California and is a former White House liaison to NASA.

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Mattis sees need for new space programs

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Mattis sees need for new space programs
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis delivers a keynote Sept. 20 at the Air Force Association's Air Space Cyber conference in National Harbor, Maryland. Credit: DoD video

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said he’s open to funding new  space programs if Congress delivers on the military spending hike the White House has sought.

“In space, we need new starts in order to take advantage of what industry can deliver if we are willing to invest there,” Mattis said Sept. 20 during a keynote speech at the annual Air Force Association Air Space Cyber conference here.

Space is becoming a more dangerous military region, Mattis noted.

“In outer space,” he said, “we used to consider it a sanctuary.”

But now, he said, adversaries are challenging the U.S. in that domain as they are in others. “It is contested.”

One particular area that relies heavily on space-related systems is national nuclear deterrence and Mattis spoke of the need to maintain the robust capability. “We have to make sure that the war that can never be won is never fought.”

He pointed out it has taken only a decade for space, as well as cyber, to emerge as major warfighting domains. The U.S. military, he said, must move at a faster pace to keep up.

“If we fail to adapt at the speed of relevance, our forces will lose,” he said.

While securing enough money for that effort is important, he said, the problem in developing new space or other programs is more than a matter of funding. He implored Air Force officers and officials not to be hampered by “imaginary legal restrictions” in dealing with industry on developing more lethal ways of waging war.

When he first took over as defense secretary, he said, he set up a meeting with industry officials, only to be told he could not do that because he would be violating ethical rules.

Mattis said he told the lawyers, “These are Americans, too. The last time I checked they’re on our side.”

While federal procurement rules are set up to ensure all bidders have equal access to formal contract requirements, Mattis said it is fine for military officers and officials to discuss capability needs, potential technologies and other issues.

“You can talk to industry without violating ethical rules,” he said. “It’s important we open the lines of communication.”

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Engine test latest step for Stratolaunch’s giant aircraft

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Engine test latest step for Stratolaunch’s giant aircraft
stratolaunch test

WASHINGTON — Stratolaunch announced Sept. 19 that the company has achieved another milestone in the development of a unique giant aircraft that will serve as a launch platform.

The company said that it successfully tested at its Mojave, California, facility the six Pratt & Whitney PW4056 turbofan jet engines that will power the aircraft. Each engine is capable of producing 56,750 pounds-force of thrust.

The engines came from two Boeing 747 jetliners that Stratolaunch acquired as part of the development of the one-of-its-kind plane. The engines, the company said in a statement, were put through a series of tests, including one where the engines were started one at a time and allowed to idle. “In these initial tests, each of the six engines operated as expected,” the company said.

Stratolaunch has tested other aircraft systems as well, including control surfaces and electric, pneumatic and fire detection systems, the company said.

“Over the next few months, we will continue to test the aircraft’s engines at higher power levels and varying configurations, culminating to the start of taxi tests,” the company stated, not giving a more specific schedule for the flight test program.

The company rolled the aircraft out of its hangar for the first time in May. The twin-fuselage airplane, made of carbon composite materials, has a wingspan of more than 117 meters, making it the largest in the world by that metric. The plane weighs 226,800 kilograms empty, and 50 percent more when fully fueled. It can accommodate payloads weighing nearly 250,000 kilograms, attached to the wing segment between the twin fuselages.

Despite the plane’s giant size, Stratolaunch plans to initially use the aircraft as a platform for Orbital ATK’s Pegasus XL rocket, which is currently launched from a much smaller L-1011 airplane. The Stratolaunch plane will ultimately have the ability to carry three Pegasus rockets that could be launched one at a time on a single flight. An initial launch, the company said in May, could take place as early as 2019.

A recent deal could combine two of Stratolaunch’s partners. Scaled Composites, who developed the aircraft for Stratolaunch, is owned by Northrop Grumman, which announced Sept. 18 a deal to acquire Orbital ATK for $9.2 billion.

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New ICBM gets boost after Mattis’ endorsement

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New ICBM gets boost after Mattis’ endorsement
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis  (left) visits with Gen. John E. Hyten, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, during a visit to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska last week.   Credit: DoD/U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The unexpected escalation of North Korea’s atomic weapons program and Russia’s nuclear posturing are providing fresh momentum to U.S. efforts to develop a new intercontinental ballistic missile.

Early doubts about the future of the next-generation ICBM, known as the ground-based strategic deterrent (GBSD), are giving way to a growing confidence that the Pentagon is fully behind the program, military officials said Sept. 18 at the Air Force Association’s Air Space Cyber conference.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in the past had raised questions about the need to develop a new ICBM to replace the 50-year-old Minuteman, but now firmly supports it. “Secretary Mattis said he did not see a future triad without the ICBM,” asserted Maj. Gen. Anthony Cotton, commander of the 20th Air Force at Global Strike Command. Mattis gave the GBSD a ringing endorsement last week during a visit to Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, the only U.S. base to host two legs of the nuclear triad — strategic bombers and ICBMs.

There are still obstacles ahead for the projected $80 billion GBSD program. The Pentagon is expected to more clearly articulate the rationale for this capability in a forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review.

The Air Force took a major step forward in August when it selected Boeing and Northrop Grumman to begin work on GBSD. Each received a $349 million award for the so-called “technology maturation and risk reduction” phase of the project. The contractors over the next three years will map out their concepts for how to build, deploy and maintain a fleet of more than 600 missiles.

Global Strike Commander Gen. Robin Rand said “real problems” caused by North Korea’s provocations and concerns about deterring Russia are helping build the case for GBSD.  “Everyone is well aware of the challenges,” he said. “Part of deterrence is credibility. And the triad is about projecting credibility.”

A lot can still go wrong with GBSD, however, experts have cautioned. The Air Force has not designed a new ICBM in decades, and the Pentagon’s track record with big-ticket procurements of complex systems has been spotty.

The GBSD contracts awarded to Northrop Grumman and Boeing are only a “prelude to the real program,” former Air Force procurement chief William LaPlante said Sept. 6 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“These contracts are only for risk reduction. That’s not real development,” said LaPlante, who is now vice president of Mitre Corp.

“Milestone B is when you get serious. That is the key decision,” he said. It will be years before GBSD reaches Milestone B, when it would begin development and engineering work.

“Up until then you can reverse or stop,” said LaPlante. “And we often do” when the Pentagon realizes the program is either too expensive or technologically immature to move forward.

If and when GBSD makes it to development, “That’s the hard phase,” said LaPlante. “It’s when you’re surprised.” That phase usually takes five to seven years.

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Minotaur 4’s canceled commercial cubesat rideshares could spark policy changes

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Minotaur 4’s canceled commercial cubesat rideshares could spark policy changes
Minotaur IV graphic

WASHINGTON — Following a decision to pull eight Spire commercial cubesats from an Orbital ATK Minotaur 4 launch from Cape Canaveral Aug. 26 carrying a military payload, the U.S. Air Force says it and other government agencies are crafting clear procedures on how to handle such future rideshare agreements.

“The Air Force is working with DoD (Defense Department) policy staff and other U.S. government interagency stakeholders to ensure there is clear guidance for other potential commercial rideshare opportunities should they arise,” Capt. Christine Guthrie said in response to SpaceNews queries about the decision to remove the Spire cubesats from the launch.

There were 11 cubesats originally manifested on the Minotaur 4 carrying the Air Force’s 113-kilogram Operationally Responsive Space (ORS)-5 satellite, known as SensorSat, Air Force officials say.

“Three were ultimately flown for two government agencies,” Guthrie said. The remaining cubesats, the Air Force said, belonged to San Francisco-based Spire Global.

The removed cubesats were eight Lemur 2 satellites, used generally for global ship tracking and weather monitoring.

“Minotaur 4 was going to drop off in a very low inclination orbit that simply isn’t available to us anywhere else,” Spire Launch Director Jenny Barna said. “Rideshare launches are almost exclusively going to sun-synchronous orbits. That differentiation would have directly benefited our customers in terms of improved global coverage.”

“While we believe launching the Spire cubesats on the ORS-5 launch mission is legal and compliant with law and policy,” Col. Shahnaz Punjani, director of the Operationally Responsive Space Office, said, other agencies raised policy issues about the commercial cubesat rideshare payload on a military launch.

“Questions from our interagency partners about the intent of the National Space Transportation Policy regarding commercial rideshares could not be resolved in time to support our launch date,” Guthrie said. “The Air Force’s overarching interest was launching the ORS-5 satellite in a timely manner” to meet the service’s operational need.

The conflict with space transportation policy is the long-standing restriction on the use of excess ballistic missile assets for launch vehicles to U.S. government-sponsored payloads. The Minotaur 4 uses motors from decommissioned Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The “interagency partner” that appeared to raise objections was the Federal Aviation Administration, which issued the launch license for the mission. “The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did not approve Orbital ATK’s request for a license modification to include commercial cubesats on the upcoming ORS-5 launch mission,” Guthrie said. “As a result, Orbital ATK decided not to include commercial cubesats on the launch.”

Asked if the FAA placed any conditions or restrictions on the ORS-5 mission launched on the Minotaur 4, agency spokesman Hank Price said the FAA issued Orbital ATK a license Feb. 10 to launch government payloads on the Minotaur 4 from Cape Canaveral. The launch license contains any and all conditions on the license, Price said, and the FAA does not comment on the “existence or status of launch license applications or modifications until the FAA makes a final decision regarding those requests.”

Industry sources believe the FAA never formally rejected a proposed license modification for the cubesats because it did not go through the official process, but it was informally clear that the agency would have rejected such a modification had it been formally submitted.

Spire officials are trying to figure out why there was any issue at all about commercial cubesats on this launch.

“If Spire chose this launch in the place of another commercial offering, I would understand the industry’s concern about fair competition,” Barna said. “But no existing U.S. launch company or new entrant was offering a similar launch.  The fundamental intent of the policy is to keep competition fair, and competition just wasn’t a factor here.”

Air Force officials acknowledge U.S. policy needs to be clarified on this point, which is why they are working with other government agencies on developing guidelines in the aftermath of the Minotaur 4 launch.

For now, that concern regarding competition is causing problems for launching cubesats for companies like Spire.

“Access to U.S. launches is already an issue for commercial cubesats flying as secondaries. Outside of [International Space Station] resupply missions, there has never been a launch in the U.S. that accommodated commercial cubesats as rideshare,” Barna said. “ORS-5 would have been the first.”

The launch industry is unpredictable now, she noted, and Spire has to be prepared to find other launch vehicles when something like the Minotaur 4 scenario crops up.  “We’re always eyeing backup opportunities and working with our launch partners in case things like this happen. All satellites have been re-manifested and should launch within the next few months.”

“I believe we’ve lost five launches in two years,” Barna said of the company’s overall efforts to launch its cubesat constellation. “We’ve been bumped to other launches just as many times because of failures or delays, or just because the primary customer asked. If you haven’t consciously built an entire infrastructure around the flexibility to move launches, absorb delays and cancellations, and even adapt to geopolitical and regulatory challenges, then you just aren’t prepared to launch a satellite constellation.”

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