News from the 31st Space Symposium

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The 31st Space Symposium took place April 13-16 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. SpaceNews covered all four jam-packed days of the premier civil, military, commercial and newspace conference.

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Thursday’s Top Stories

U.S., France Expand Space Data-sharing Agreement

U.S. France SSA agreement
From left, U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Clinton Crosier, French Air Force Brig. Gen. Jean-Daniel Testé and Douglas Loverro, deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for space policy. Credit: SpaceNews/Tom Kimmell

U.S. Strategic Command and the French Ministry of Defense have expanded their Space Situational Awareness (SSA) data-sharing agreement to include classified information, the countries announced April 16 at the 31st Space Symposium here.

The United States and France were already sharing unclassified SSA data under an agreement signed in January 2014. That agreement allowed Stratcom to provide data from the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, directly to the French military upon request. Previously, such requests had to be approved at higher levels of the U.S. government.

This new agreement will allow the countries to share “advanced SSA” data and classified data when appropriate.

In all, the U.S. government has signed nearly 50 unclassified data-sharing agreements with other governments and private-sector entities, Defense Department officials have said.

“We are pleased to expand our space partnership with France, one of our oldest and closest allies. These agreements are mutually beneficial, enabling greater spaceflight safety, increasing our national security and that of our allies and enhancing our 24/7 global operations,” U.S. Navy Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of U.S. Strategic Command said in a statement.— Mike Gruss


U.S. Air Force Shifts Gears on Future GPS Procurement Strategy

U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, speaking at a 31st Space Symposium breakfast. Credit: Tom Kimmell
U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski. Credit: Tom Kimmell

The U.S. Air Force plans to award multiple contracts worth up to $6 million this year for companies to demonstrate their ability to build the next batch of GPS 3 positioning, navigation and timing satellites.

The anticipated value of the contracts is a small fraction of the $100 million  to $200 million figure the service touted for the effort less than a year ago.

In an interview here at the 31st Space Symposium, Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, said the lower dollar amount reflects a change in the service’s strategy for acquiring the next batch of GPS satellites. The strategy, in a nutshell, would shift up-front development costs from the government to industry, which would recover its investment by amortizing it across a large block buy of satellites, she said. — Mike Gruss


Would-be Small Sat Launcher: Don’t Count Out LEO Constellations

Firefly's Alpha rocket
Firefly’s Alpha rocket. Credit: Firefly Space Systems

Technology advances since the space-telecom bust of the 1990s make it unfair to compare low-orbit communications constellations proposed by OneWeb and SpaceX to those that either evaporated from the drawing board or got bullied into bankruptcy by terrestrial competitors before the turn of the century, the chief technology officer of an aspiring launch services company said here April 15.

“Please don’t compare this go-round of [low Earth orbit] constellations with what happened with Iridium and all that,” Shey Sabripour, chief technology officer of Austin, Texas-based Firefly Space Systems said during a panel discussion at the 31st Space Symposium here. “The technologies available today are far different than what was available in the 1990s.” — Dan Leone


General: Russian, Chinese Launches Demonstrate Growing Space Threat

Gen. Jay Raymond
Gen. Jay Raymond. Credit: Tom Kimmell

Russia has launched two satellites in the last year, including one “a few weeks ago,” that are viewed as suspicious and potentially threatening, a senior U.S. Air Force officer said.

These launches, coupled with China’s launch in July of what U.S. military officials said was an antisatellite missile, are hard indicators that the threat to U.S. satellites is only increasing, said Lt. Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, commander of Air Force Space Command’s 14th Air Force and of Strategic Command’s Joint Functional Component Command for Space.

Speaking at a luncheon here Wednesday, Raymond said the growing threats revalidate several national imperatives including enhancing U.S. space domain awareness, more closely integrating U.S. military and intelligence space operations, and strengthening space-related ties with U.S. allies and commercial space operators. — Warren Ferster

 


Wednesday’s Top Stories

Space Investors Willing To Forgo Near-term Returns for Long-Term Payoffs

Scott Nolan, a partner in venture capital firm Founders Fund, speaks during a space finance panel at the 31st Space Symposium. Credit: Tom Kimmell
Founders Fund partner Scott Nolan (above left) Credit: Tom Kimmell

As the flow of private investment into entrepreneurial space companies grows, some investors say they are willing to accept long waits for a return on their investment in companies that have the potential to change entire industries.

Scott Nolan, a partner in San Francisco-based venture capital firm Founders Fund, said during Wednesday’s space finance panel that he received a skeptical reaction when the firm invested in SpaceX several years ago, given the company has no plans to perform an initial public offering of stock or otherwise allow investors to recoup their investment.

“When we first invested in SpaceX, people thought it was a crazy investment,” he recalled. “But, at a high level, we don’t focus too much on how quickly we will get returns.” — Jeff Foust

 


Boeing To Unveil Crew, Spacesuits For CST-100 Test Flight This Summer

Boeing, which is building the CST-100 capsule to carry astronauts to the ISS, hopes to announce the two-person crew that will on the capsule's 2017 test flight. Credit: Boeing
Boeing is building the CST-100 capsule to carry astronauts to the ISS. Credit: Boeing

Boeing plans to announce this summer the crew that will be on a test flight of the company’s CST-100 crew vehicle in 2017, as well as reveal the pressure suits the crew will wear.

John Elbon, vice president and general manager for space exploration at Boeing, said in an interview here April 15 that the company hoped to announce this summer the two-person crew that will fly on that test flight, planned for the middle of 2017. One crewmember will be a Boeing test pilot, and the other a NASA astronaut.

Elbon also said Boeing will also unveil later this summer the pressure suits the crew will wear on the vehicle. Those suits are being developed by David Clark Co. of Worcester, Massachusetts, a firm that also developed the pressure suit worn by astronauts on space shuttle missions. — Jeff Foust


SpaceX Sends Air Force an Outline for Falcon Heavy Certification

SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell speaks on a launch panel at the 31st Space Symposium. Credit: Tom Kimmell
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell during Tuesday’s  launch panel. Credit: Tom Kimmell

SpaceX says it sent the U.S. Air Force an updated letter of intent April 14 outlining a certification process for its Falcon Heavy rocket to launch national security satellites.

SpaceX hopes to have its Falcon Heavy rocket certified by 2017, Gwynne Shotwell, the company’s president and chief operating officer, told SpaceNews in an  interview.

In its letter, SpaceX detailed a certification process that would include three successful flights of the rocket, including two consecutive successful flights, Shotwell said. — Mike Gruss

 


Established Companies Feeling ‘Déjà Vu’ on Mega-constellations

Mike Hamel photo
Mike Hamel, Lockheed Martin vice president and general manager of commercial space. Credit: Tom Kimmell

Major satellite builders and operators gathered here for the 31st Space Symposium invoked the specter of the 1990s space-telecom bust when asked about potentially disruptive low Earth orbit (LEO) constellations planned by upstarts OneWeb and SpaceX.

“Many of us who have lived through the decade of the ’90s do have a certain sense of déjà vu all over again,” Mike Hamel, vice president and general manager of commercial space at Lockheed Martin, said April 14 during the symposium’s “Commercial Satellite Mega-Panel” discussion.

Hamel was alluding to the large low-orbiting satellite constellations conceived in the 1990s that either never got off the ground or whose companies went bankrupt shortly after the satellites launched. — Dan Leone


Flashback: Obama Pledges 2025 Mission to Asteroid

President Obama speaking at Kennedy Space Center in April 2013. Credit: NASA
President Obama at Kennedy Space Center on April  15, 2013.

Exactly five years ago today, toward the tail end of 26th National Space Symposium, U.S. President Barack Obama visited Kennedy Space Center to challenge NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025.

Late last month, NASA formally announced its intention to launch a robotic craft in December 2020 to grab a boulder off the surface of an asteroid and return it to lunar orbit by late 2025. Astronauts would then fly there aboard an SLS-launched Orion capsule.

Just last week, the NASA Advisory Council called on  NASA to drop the Asteroid Redirect Mission and instead make a  round-trip flight to Mars using solar electric propulsion. The suggestion was couched as a finding, not a recommendation, so NASA is not obliged to make a formal response. — Brian Berger


Tuesday’s Top Stories

Q&A with NGA Director Robert Cardillo

Robert Cardillo
NGA Director Robert Cardillo. Credit: Tom Kimmell

The U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and its legacy agencies grew up on a trickle of government furnished, classified imagery from a small number of highly capable satellites.

Today, the NGA is witnessing a largely commercially driven explosion in satellite imagery sources that promises to turn that trickle into a torrent. The question now is how best to take advantage.

The NGA has long been an anchor customer for relatively high-resolution commercial imagery provided by DigitalGlobe. But the agency’s service-level contract with DigitalGlobe, which has a multibillion-dollar value over 10 years, is not necessarily the right model for dealing with the likes of Skybox Imaging and Planet Labs, venture capital funded companies that are deploying constellations of tens or even hundreds of small imaging satellites.

Robert Cardillo, a 30-year veteran of the satellite imagery business who took the reins of the NGA last year, is embracing this brave new world, even if he remains unsure of its implications for the agency. — Mike Gruss

 


Bolden Not Concerned About ARM Criticism

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during Tuesday's space agency leaders panel. Credit: Thomas Kimmell
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during Tuesday’s space agency leaders panel. Credit: Thomas Kimmell

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said April 14 he is not concerned with recent criticism of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) by the agency’s own advisory group.

The NASA Advisory Council, at an April 10 meeting in Washington, unanimously approved a finding that concluded that NASA should not carry out its current plans for ARM. Those plans involve landing a spacecraft on a near Earth asteroid, grabbing a boulder several meters across, and returning that boulder to orbit around the moon in order to be visited by astronauts on an Orion spacecraft.

The council instead suggested that NASA develop one of the key ARM technologies, solar electric propulsion, and use it to power a spacecraft on a round-trip flight to Mars. Other reasons for flying ARM, including asteroid science and planetary defense, “do not have value commensurate with their probable cost.”

Bolden, in a brief interview after a panel session of space agency leaders here, said he had not received the formal text of the council’s finding, but did not anticipate NASA making a formal response to it. “It’s just a finding, so there’s no need for a response,” he said, as opposed to a recommendation that would require one.

Asked if he was concerned about this latest criticism of ARM, two years after NASA first announced plans to carry out the mission, Bolden offered a succinct response: “Not really.” — Jeff Foust


Falcon Makes Hard Landing after Launching Dragon to ISS

SpaceX CRS6 launch
April 14 SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of a cargo resupply mission to the ISS. Credit: SpaceX video capture

After a one-day delay due to weather, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched a Dragon cargo spacecraft on a mission to deliver cargo to the International Space Station, but the rocket’s first stage failed to survive a hard landing on a ship.

The Falcon 9 lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 4:10 pm EDT. Weather, which postponed a launch attempt the previous day, was not a factor for Tuesday’s launch, and the Falcon’s second stage delivered the Dragon spacecraft into orbit ten minutes after liftoff.

Much of the attention about the launch was focused, though, on SpaceX’s plans to attempt to land the first stage on the company’s “autonomous spaceport drone ship” in the Atlantic Ocean, part of the company’s efforts to make the first stage reusable.

That effort was only partially successful. “Rocket landed on droneship, but too hard for survival,” SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk tweeted about 20 minutes after launch. The company did not immediately release other details about the landing attempt. — Jeff Foust and Mike Gruss


Rocket Lab Unveils Battery-Powered, 3D-Printed Rocket Engine

Rocket Lab Chief Executive Peter Beck
Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

A U.S.-New Zealand company developing a small satellite launch vehicle said April 14 that it has completed development of the rocket’s main engine, one that makes use of advanced technologies to reduce costs.

Rocket Lab Ltd. said at a press conference during the 31 Space Symposium here that it has wrapped up work on the Rutherford engine that will power its Electron small launch vehicle, designed to launch once per week for less than $5 million per flight.

“If we’re serious about commercializing space and making a big difference in space,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said, “we need to reduce the launch cost and increase the launch frequency.” — Jeff Foust

 


Here’s what’s on tap for Tuesday (all times in Colorado Springs local time)

9:00-10:15 a.m. | A dozen of the world’s space agency heads, including NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, European Space Agency Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain and the head of the United Arab Emirates’ nine-month-old space agency — participate in the Space Symposium’s annual panel discussion.   International Center: Main Stage.

10:30-11:00 a.m. | National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Director Robert Cardillo delivers Tuesday’s opening keynote address. Here’s Cardillo’s interview with SpaceNews military space reporter Mike GrussInternational Center: Main Stage.

11:00-12:00 p.m. | SpaceNews Editor Warren Ferster moderates the launch industry panel. Panelists include ULA CEO Tory Bruno, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, Arianespace, Inc. President Clay Mowry, Blue Origin President Robert Myerson, Orbital ATK’s Ron Grabe and Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Julie Van Kleeck. International Center: Main Stage.

2:10 p.m. (4:10 p.m. EDT) | SpaceX is hoping for better weather as it tries again today to launch Falcon 9/Dragon on a cargo mission to the international space station. SpaceX also will attempt to land the Falcon’s first stage on a ship in the Atlantic. As of this morning, the chance of acceptable weather had improved to 60 percent.

 


Monday’s Top Stories

ULA’s Vulcan Rocket To be Rolled out in Stages

ULA CEO Tory Bruno unveils the company's proposed Vulcan rocket during an April 13 press conference at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. Credit: Tom Kimmell for Space Foundation.
ULA CEO Tory Bruno Credit: Tom Kimmell for Space Foundation.

United Launch Alliance unveiled an incremental approach to replace its workhorse Atlas 5 rocket, an ambitious path forward that ultimately would include a new second stage and, later, reusable first-stage engines that would be captured midair by helicopter after each mission.

The plan would provide a competitive alternative to SpaceX’s low-cost Falcon 9 rocket but entails risk for ULA as it funds a significant development program for as many as nine years as its competition gains momentum.

The first step in the developing the newly named Vulcan rocket is developing a new first stage featuring the methane-fueled BE-4 engine by Blue Origin of Kent, Washington. ULA is also working with Aerojet Rocketdyne on the AR-1 engine, in case the BE-4 runs into delays.  — Mike Gruss


Weather Scrubs SpaceX Launch, Booster Recovery Attempt

An incoming storm forced SpaceX to postpone the launch of a Falcon 9 rocket April 13 carrying a Dragon cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station, a mission that also features another landing attempt of the rocket’s first stage.

Controllers halted the countdown for the launch a little more than three minutes before the scheduled 4:33 pm EDT launch time at Cape Canaveral, Florida, when approaching storm clouds violated range safety requirements. With an instantaneous launch window, the hold in the countdown scrubbed the launch for the day.

The next launch attempt is currently scheduled for April 14 at 4:10 pm EDT. Weather forecasts call for a 50-percent chance of acceptable weather at launch. — Jeff Foust


ULA’s Next Rocket To Be Named Vulcan

ULA_Vulcan_graphic United Launch Alliance’s next rocket will be named Vulcan. The name was selected from an online vote that ULA said  received more than a million ballots.

“As the company currently responsible for more than 70 percent of the nation’s space launches, it is only fitting that America got to name the country’s rocket of the future,” Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and chief executive, said April 13 during a press conference coinciding with the start of the 31st Space Symposium. — Mike Gruss


Here’s what’s on tap for Monday:

Last year's Cyber symposium was classified, too.
Last year’s Cyber symposium was classified, too.

1. Monday’s main event is an all-day cybersecurity conference, but it is only open to U.S. citizens with TopSecret/Sensitive Compartmented Information security clearances. So no media coverage, obviously.

2. United Launch Alliance, however, is holding a press conference  at 4 pm EDT (2 p.m. MDT)  in the Broadmoor Hall media center to discuss its next-generation launch system, including its new name.

The online vote on the vehicle’s name — Eagle, Freedom, Galaxy One, Vulcan and Zeus were the finalists — collected more than one million ballots, according to ULA. SpaceNews military space reporter Mike Gruss  (@Gruss_SN) will be covering the event.

3. While ULA’s press conference is still in progress, SpaceX is scheduled to launch a Falcon 9 at 4:33 pm EDT, sending a Dragon cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station while also attempting to land the first stage on a ship downrange from Cape Canaveral, Florida. SpaceX vice president Hans Koenigsmann said Sunday he estimated a 75-80-percent chance of a successful landing.

SpaceNews senior staff writer Jeff Foust (@jeff_foust) will be watching — and tweeting — the launch and landing attempt from Colorado Springs.