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NASA's FY2017 budget request seems certain to spark the same disputes with Congress that have characterized that relationship for much of the Obama Administration. The request cuts funding for three programs Congress holds as its highest priorities -- the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion spacecraft, and a robotic mission to Jupiter's moon Europa -- and requests more money for earth science, which is controversial in Republican circles. Confusion over whether NASA is requesting $18.3 billion or $19 billion is an additional complication this year.
Congressional reaction to the budget request could hardly be described as unexpected. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) blasted the request as one that "disproportionately increases Earth Science" while it "continues to tie our astronauts' feet to the ground and makes a Mars mission all but impossible."
Smith's Democratic counterpart, committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), did not specifically defend NASA's request. In her statement, the space program was mentioned only in passing. She praised the overall request for science and technology as ensuring that the United States "can compete in a 21st Century global economy" and listed civil space activities among the investments that help "meet our greatest challenges...for decades to come."
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, did not specifically mention NASA either, but called the budget request "wildly irresponsible" and said the "only positive news coming from this budget blueprint is that it is President Obama's last." Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who is Shelby's counterpart on the NASA subcommittee and also is vice chairwoman of the full Senate Appropriations Committee, similarly did not mention NASA in her statement. instead, she focused on the budget overall, praising it as one that she looks "forward to supporting through the appropriations process."
The programs likely to cause the most consternation as the budget process proceeds are SLS and Orion, which are being designed to take humans beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), the robotic Europa mission, and earth science.
SLS is managed by Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, Shelby's home state, and he has led congressional efforts to add substantial amounts for it in prior NASA budgets. The request for FY2017 is $1.31 billion, almost $700 million less than the $2 billion Congress appropriated for FY2016. The Orion spacecraft, which will be launched by SLS to take crews beyond LEO, also is cut, though to a lesser degree -- $1.12 billion requested versus $1.27 billion appropriated in FY2016.
Meanwhile, NASA is requesting $1.185 billion for the commercial crew program. While that is slightly less than the $1.244 billion in FY2016, Congress has been lukewarm, at best, about commercial crew since it began in FY2011 and NASA has had to fight for every dollar. FY2016 is the first year that Congress appropriated the full request for the program.
Sending a probe to Europa is a passion of Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA. He is confident that NASA will find signs of life there, making this a mission of critical importance in his view. He has added substantial funds for such a mission for the past three years. In the FY2016 budget, he funded the program at $175 million (the request was $30 million), specified that it include a lander as well as an orbiter and that it be launched in 2022 using SLS. For FY2017, NASA is requesting only $49.6 million and projecting a launch in the late 2020s on an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV), not SLS. (NASA Chief Financial Officer David Radzanowski stressed today during a media telecon describing the budget request that NASA is not precluding an SLS launch, but does not have pricing details yet on which to base a cost estimate.) NASA's budget documents say that accelerating the mission from the late 2020s to 2022 "is not recommended, given potential impacts to the rest of the Science portfolio." As required, NASA provided the budget profile that would be needed to achieve a 2022 launch: $194 million in FY2017, $272 million in FY2018, $456 million in FY2019, $678 million in FY2020, and $482 million in FY2021.
Not only does the request not include the type of Europa mission Culberson has in mind, but it cuts overall funding for planetary exploration, which is very popular on Capitol Hill. The request is $1.519 million, $112 million less than the $1.631 million appropriated for FY2016.
Meanwhile, the agency is asking for another increase for its earth science program, $2.032 billion compared to the $1.921 billion appropriated for FY2016. Smith and other Republicans are particularly opposed to NASA spending on earth science. Part of the controversy is tied to the climate change debate, while another objection is that NASA should be spending its money on exploring the universe, not studying the Earth, which other agencies can do.
The debates over SLS, Orion, commercial crew and earth science are familiar ground. While it is always risky to try to estimate what Congress will do, it seems likely that the arguments over the next several months will follow a predictable path.
One additional complication this year is that NASA describes its budget request as $19 billion, but it actually is $18.3 billion for funds that are within the jurisdiction of the appropriations committees. The remainder is what NASA is calling "mandatory" funding that is outside their purview.
The federal budget is divided into mandatory and discretionary spending. As those words imply, mandatory spending must be spent because of laws already in force that set out requirements for the funds to be paid, such as Social Security or Medicare payments to people eligible for benefits. Mandatory spending also includes interest that must be paid on the national debt, for example. Discretionary spending is the money that Congress debates each year through the appropriations process for agencies ranging from the Department of Defense to the National Institutes of Health to NASA. As Radzanowski explained today, mandatory spending consumes approximately three-quarters of the federal budget, with discretionary spending making up the other quarter.
As NASA's budget documents show, the $19.025 billion NASA budget request is composed of $18.262 billion from discretionary spending and $763 million in mandatory spending. The $763 million is part of $4 billion the Obama Administration hopes to obtain from the mandatory side of the ledger to fund R&D across the government that is outside the budget caps the President and Congress agreed to last October. A White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) fact sheet released today says "$4 billion of the overall $152 billion investment in R&D [in FY2017] is new mandatory funding" that ensures adequate R&D investments.
Apparently the idea is to cut mandatory spending and redirect some of it to R&D. OMB's FY2017 budget book states that it includes "117 cuts, consolidations, and savings proposals, which are projected to save over $14 billion in 2017." That is comprised of $5.9 billion in savings under the discretionary part of the budget and $8.2 billion in savings in mandatory spending. Some of those savings would be directed to other purposes as detailed in Table S-9 of the OMB document. Included is $664 million for NASA that would be spent ("outlayed") over three years ($325 million in FY2017, $283 million in FY2018, and $56 million in FY2019). In addition, President Obama is proposing a 10-year "21st Century Clean Transportation System" funded by a fee to be paid by oil companies. NASA's aeronautics program would receive part of those funds -- $100 million in FY2017 -- to develop a low carbon emission aircraft according to OSTP Director John Holdren at his own budget briefing today.
The $664 million to be obtained from cuts to mandatory spending and redirected to NASA, plus the $100 million for NASA's aeronautics program from the 21st Century Clean Transportation System, are what comprise the $763 million in "mandatory" spending that NASA includes in its $19 billion request (the $1 million difference is a rounding error) according to knowledgable sources.
How realistic it is that any of that $763 million will ever actually exist, not to mention the process by which Congress would allocate it to NASA if it did, are open questions. From a practical standpoint, at least as far as SpacePolicyOnline.com has been able to determine today, congressional appropriators are being asked to fund NASA at $18.3 billion and the rest of it is hypothetical. Indeed, Table S-11, "Funding Levels for Appropriated ('Discretionary') Programs by Agency," in OMB's budget book shows the President's request for NASA as $18.3 billion.
It may not matter, though. The Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Budget Committees made it clear last week that they consider the President's budget request irrelevant. Coupled with the Obama Administration's decision to continue the same NASA budget battles as prior years, the situation suggests that Congress will forge its own path. It substantially increased funding for NASA above the President's request in FY2015 and FY2016 and NASA advocates undoubtedly are hoping that the same will hold true for FY2017 regardless of whether one considers the request to be $18.3 billion or $19 billion.
Update: The sentence about the $18.3 billion in OMB's Table S-11 and the link to the OMB budget book in the next to last paragraph was added for clarity.
The President's FY2017 budget request for NOAA's satellite programs holds no surprises. instead, there is steady funding for the GOES-R and JPSS next generation weather satellite programs and the next two satellites in the JPSS series.
NOAA's National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) operates the nation's civil weather satellites in geostationary and polar orbits. After many years of development, launch of the first of the next block of Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES), GOES-R, is scheduled for October of this year (a six month slip from its previous launch date of March 2016, which was revealed in December 2015). It is one of four satellites procured under the "GOES-R" program (the others are -S, -T, and -U, all of which will be assigned numbers once they are in orbit) for which NOAA is requesting $753 million in FY2017. This is a reduction from FY2016 since the program has passed its peak development phase.
Similarly, the first two Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) spacecraft are past their peak development years. The request for FY2017 is $787 million, down from $809 million last year. The first JPSS is scheduled for launch in the second quarter of FY2017 (which is the first quarter of calendar year 2017), with the second expected at the end of FY2021.
NOAA is gearing up to procure the next two JPSS spacecraft for launches in FY2026 and FY2031 under the Polar Follow On (PFO) program. It had to fight for PFO funding last year, but in the end Congress provided the full $370 million. The request for FY2017 is $393 million.
NOAA also operates the DSCOVR space weather satellite and is requesting funds to plan for the next space weather satellite. Last year Congress gave it only half of the $2.5 million request. NOAA is back this year with another $2.5 million request.
Congress is keenly interested in whether NOAA can procure some of the satellite data needed for its numerical weather models from commercial sources. NOAA is reticent because it is not certain whether the commercial data are accurate, verifiable and reliable. To kick things off, Congress added $3 million to the NESDIS budget in FY2016 for a pilot program to purchase, evaluate, and calibrate such data on a competitive basis. For FY2017, NOAA has named this "Competitive/Adaptive Data Exploitation" and is requesting $5 million.
President Obama's FY2017 budget request includes $19.8 million for the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) as well as funding elsewhere within the FAA for commercial space transportation-related activities.
The $19.8 million request for AST is a $2 million increase over FY2016 appropriations. FAA is a part of the Department of Transportation (DOT) and DOT's budget summary says the increased funding would support "launch and reentry integration as well as an increased demand in license and permit determinations, certifications, and other authorizations required by this growing industry."
Separately, $3 million is requested in FAA's Research, Engineering and Development (RE&D) account for commercial space transportation safety to "investigate improvements for the safe integration of commercial space operations into the [National Air Space]." The goal is to reduce disruption to air traffic during launches and reentries.
Eric Stallmer, President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, praised the requests for AST and commercial space transportation safety, as well as the portion of NASA's budget request that supports commercial space. "I commend the Administration for a budget that provides robust funding for NASA and FAA AST," he said, adding that it builds on FY2016 funding and the Commercial Space Transportation Competitiveness Act that was signed into law in November.
FAA's Facilities and Equipment (F&E) request includes a line item related to commercial space activities as well. "Air Traffic Management (ATM) -- including Commercial Space" is requested at $20 million, up from $13.7 million in FY2016. Budget documents released today do not provide sufficient details as to how much of that is related to commercial space.
FAA AST requested a $1.5 million increase in FY2016, but Congress provided $1.2 million more instead, raising it to the $17.8 million level. The FY2016 RE&D request was $3 million, as it is this year, and Congress approved $2 million instead.
AST regulates and facilitates commercial space launch and reentry activities. With the growth in such activities in recent years accompanied by the need for AST to support accident investigations when commercial space companies are involved and interest in expanding the office's responsibilities to include authorizing and supervising new commercial space endeavors, the office's resources have been stretched.
President Obama submitted his FY2017 budget request, the last of his administration, to Congress today. NASA characterizes its request as $19 billion, although the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) document outlining the total request for the government shows NASA as requesting $18.3 billion. The difference reflects the Administration's strategy to separate the request for NASA into "mandatory" and "discretionary" funding in order to conform to agreed-upon budget caps. The $18.3 billion fits within those caps, while the $19 billion does not, but is what NASA says is the minimum amount it needs to continue with the plans funded in FY2016.
[Editor's Note: we published another article later in the day explaining more about the distinction between the $18.3 billion and $19 billion.]
This strategy is reminiscent of the FY2015 budget request where the Obama Administration requested funding for a "base" budget augmented by funds in an "Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative" (OGSI). Congress ignored the OGSI in its deliberations.
OMB's budget documents, released at 11:00 am ET today, add to the confusion. First, the "mandatory" spending apparently refers to the optional money while "discretionary" is equivalent to the "base" budget. Table S-11 shows NASA's "discretionary" request as $18.3 billion, while Table S-9 has $325 million as the additional "mandatory" amount for FY2017. That would total $18.625 billion, but page 28 of OMB's The Budget of the U.S. Government: FY2017 clearly states that $19 billion is requested for NASA of which $763 million (not $325 million) is "mandatory." Additional budget information will be released as the day progresses that hopefully will clarify what OMB means.
In any case, NASA's budget fact sheet, which is posted on NASA's budget website, shows the request as $19 billion with a notation that it includes mandatory and discretionary funding without designating how much is in which category.
Since NASA's budget fact sheet uses the $19 billion, SpacePolicyOnline.com will follow suit for this discussion, although it remains unclear as to whether Congress will see it that way. It may not matter since Republicans in the House and Senate already have made clear that they have no plans to consider the President's request. In fact, breaking with tradition, the chairs of the House and Senate Budget Committees decided not to invite the OMB Director to testify to their committees to explain the request. In terms of NASA, for the past two years Congress has added substantial funds to the President's request anyway. In the long run, it may not matter very much what is in the request, although budget discussions usually compare the President's request with congressional action and that will be complicated this year.
From NASA's standpoint, the request is $19 billion, divided as follows (listed in the order in which these programs were identified in the FY2016 budget, which is different from how they are listed in the NASA fact sheet). More details will be available at 1:30 pm ET when NASA releases its full budget justification.
The United Nations Security Council "strongly condemned" North Korea's satellite launch, which it views as a ballistic missile test that violates two existing UN resolutions. It vowed to expeditiously adopt a new resolution that responds both to the satellite launch and North Korea's recent nuclear test.
The satellite launch took place Saturday evening, February 6, Eastern Standard Time, which was Sunday, February 7, at 00:30 GMT or 9:00 am local time in North Korea (officially the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea or DPRK). The Kwongmyongsong-4 remote sensing satellite was placed into a polar orbit from North Korea's Sohae launch site.
Venezuela currently holds the presidency of the Security Council. Venezuela's U.N. permanent representative Rafael Dario Ramierz Carreño said that during an emergency meeting yesterday (Sunday), Security Council members "underscored that this launch, as well as any other DPRK launch that uses ballistic missile technology, even if characterized as a satellite launch or space launch vehicle, contributes to the DPRK's development of nuclear weapon delivery systems and is a serious violation of Security Council resolutions."
The Security Council adopted Resolution 1718 in 2006 and Resolution 1874 in 2009 to try to deter North Korea's development of ballistic missile technology. The United States also signed an agreement with North Korea on February 29, 2012 agreeing to provide food assistance in return for North Korea participating in negotiations to denuclearize the Korean peninsula and meeting its international obligations, including refraining from conducting launches that use ballistic missile technology. North Korea attempted to launch a satellite six weeks later, but it failed, the third failure in three attempts. Its first successful launch took place later that year on December 12, 2012.
This launch appears to be a success as well.
Ramirez said the Security Council would "develop significant measures" in a new resolution in response to this launch and North Korea's January 6, 2016 nuclear test, which took place "in grave violation of the DPRK's international obligations."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry denounced the satellite launch shortly after it took place both through Twitter and a State Department press statement. The February 6 EST press statement called the launch a "flagrant violation of UN Security Council Resolutions." "We reaffirm our ironclad commitment to the defense of our allies, including the Republic of Korea and Japan" and will "work with our partners and the UN Security Council on significant measures to hold the D.P.R.K. to account," Kerry said.
NASA’s Bill Gerstenmaier said on Wednesday (February 3) that the key to successful commercialization of low Earth orbit (LEO) is for the space industry to become more innovative and nimble.
Commercial satellite systems like Iridium that were intended to provide voice and data services to underserved parts of the globe lost out to undersea fiber optic cables and terrestrial cell phone towers because the aerospace industry moved too slowly, he argued. “We have to be extremely nimble. … We as an industry were so slow in doing that we got whacked by a terrestrial market that could turn and deliver faster.”
The same threat hangs over potential use of the near-zero gravity environment available in LEO for applications in areas such as pharmaceuticals. Electrophoresis was once envisioned as a promising area for space commercialization because without gravity much purer substances can be produced. However, back on Earth, genetic engineering advances made it possible to do almost as good a job. “We could create a 99% pure insulin on orbit, [but] they could create a 98% pure insulin through genetic engineering. That won because they could turn to the market faster and be responsive.”
Gerstenmaier, the head of human exploration and operations at NASA, reiterated two points that he and other NASA officials have been stressing in recent months. First, it is the commercial sector’s responsibility, not NASA’s, to find the demand for future LEO space stations. Second, future LEO space stations are not likely to resemble the International Space Station (ISS), but be smaller facilities with narrower purposes and they could build on existing or planned spacecraft.
For example, spacecraft that deliver cargo to the ISS can continue to perform additional missions once they depart, he suggested. Russia’s Progress cargo spacecraft are already used in that manner, sometimes remaining in orbit for days or weeks after undocking from ISS to perform remote sensing or other tasks. Similarly, U.S. commercial cargo and crew vehicles -- Cygnus, Dragon, Dream Chaser, and CST-100 Starliner -- could do that or perhaps two such spacecraft could be docked together to serve as a mini-space station.
Decisions on what is needed should be based on what the commercial market requires. “Don’t assume what we need. ... listen to the demand” and be creative in meeting it, he urged.
The panel discussion at the second day of the FAA's Commercial Space Launch conference, moderated by Michael Lopez-Alegria, focused broadly on commercialization of LEO. George Washington University professor Henry Hertzfeld reviewed the “waves” of interest and investment in LEO space commercialization since the 1980s that fell victim to the space shuttle Challenger accident and the “technology bust” at the turn of the century. “We’re in a new wave” now, he said, “let’s hope it continues.” “We’ve been riding these waves and, even if they stagnate, every new one has been larger and bigger and I think that will continue into the future.”
Tauri Group Managing Partner Carissa Christensen explained that investment, supply and demand are the three critical elements of a LEO economy. She delineated the types of investors interested in commercial space – “advocacy” or “affinity” investors with personal enthusiasm; “strategic” investors with a related business looking for associated or aligned benefits like improvement of an existing product; and “financial” investors looking for return on their investment. The supply and demand of commercial LEO activities contemplated today vary widely. Overall, the challenges of this emerging economy are more business than technical, she concluded.
John Elbon, Vice President and General Manager for Space Exploration at Boeing, discussed some of those business challenges. Boeing was the prime contractor for building ISS and supports it today through an engineering services contract. It is also building one of the two commercial crew vehicles (CST-100 Starliner) that will begin taking crews back and forth in another year.
To illustrate what it would take to have a commercial space station, he postulated building a comparatively simple station, more akin to Skylab than ISS. He theorized that it might cost about the same as Starliner ($2.5 billion) to which operations costs would have to be added. He put the annual cost of operating ISS at $4 billion a year ($2.7 billion from NASA plus $1.3 billion from the other partners). Imagining those costs could be cut in half, he used $5 billion as the amount Boeing would have to invest. “If I took that to the Boeing board and said I want to invest $5 billion in building this station, they would look at me…” and want to know where the return on that investment would come from. They would want a minimum of a 15 percent return, which would be $750 million, plus annual operating costs of perhaps $2 billion a year, meaning revenue of $2-3 billion per year would be needed, he continued. He listed a number of experiments being conducted on ISS today that have promise, but not enough without more R&D investment than is likely to come from the corporate world. The possibilities need to be pulled together to “create a revenue stream that’s single digit billions as a minimum to close a business case that would allow us to then put a capability like this in orbit.” He added that tax credits could make a significant difference.
Gerstenmaier also used the opportunity to argue in favor of extending ISS beyond 2024. The Obama Administration proposed extending ISS operations from 2020 to 2024 in 2014. Congress agreed and codified it in the November 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. Most of the other ISS partners -- Russia, Canada and Japan -- have agreed, but the European Space Agency (ESA) is still considering the matter.
Getting agreement on operating ISS beyond 2024 may be challenging. As Elbon said, it costs $4 billion a year to operate ISS. How long the ISS partners are willing to invest that level of resources in ISS is questionable. For example, aerospace industry expert Tom Young said at a congressional hearing that was taking place at the same time as the panel discussion that he does not think NASA can afford to both operate ISS and move forward with human exploration beyond LEO.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of February 7-12, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
North Korea's satellite launch last evening (February 6) Eastern Standard Time (today, February 7, local time in North Korea) certainly will be the international space-related story of the week. The United Nations Security Council will meet in emergency session today to discuss whether additional sanctions should be levied. The launch violates two U.N. Security Council resolutions -- Resolution 1718 adopted in 2006 and Resolution 1874 adopted in 2009 -- designed to discourage North Korea from developing ballistic missiles.
Meanwhile back in D.C., President Obama will submit the final budget request of his Administration to Congress on Tuesday. The document will be released by the Government Publishing Office (GPO) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) at 11:00 am EST and should be posted on their websites at that time. DOD, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and NASA are all holding budget briefings during the day. NASA is using the entire day to showcase its activities at all of its centers around the country. Called "State of NASA'" day, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will deliver a State of NASA speech at 1:30 pm EST that will be carried on NASA TV (it is separate from the NASA budget briefing at 5:00 pm EST with NASA Chief Financial Officer Dave Radzanowski).
The release of the budget kicks off congressional hearings on the President's request. From a space policy perspective, first up is the Air Force. SecAF Deborah Lee James and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III will appear before the defense subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.
The House Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on Wednesday as well, but it is not budget related. Instead, it will discuss "Understanding and Deterring Russia." There is no way to know in advance whether any of the government or commercial space arrangements we have with Russia or DOD's space protection efforts will come up (the witnesses are not from the space community), but it is quite possible. A growing number of U.S. officials cite Russia as the current biggest threat to the United States and its allies both on Earth and in space.
It is shaping up to be an intense week, so it's good that on Thursday evening there's something a little more fun to do (other than watching the next Democratic presidential primary debate). NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green will speak at an AIAA-Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) event at the British Embassy in Washington on the science fiction and science fact in the movie The Martian.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below. Check back throughout the week for additions to our Events of Interest list as we learn about others.
Tuesday, February 9
Wednesday, February 10
Wednesday-Thursday, February 10-11
Thursday, February 11
North Korea launched a satellite this evening (February 6) Eastern Standard Time (EST). It had notified the United Nations of its upcoming launch.
The launch, aboard an Unha-3 rocket, took place at 00:30 GMT February 7 (09:00 local time at North Korea's Sohae Space Center), within the date range specified by North Korea in its most recent notification to the United Nations. North Korea says the satellite, Kwongmyongsong-4, is for remote sensing of the Earth.
The North Korean Central News Agency reported that the satellite was in a 494.4 x 500 kilometer polar orbit inclined at 97.4 degrees.
U.S. Strategic Command stated that the launch was at 6:29 pm Central Standard Time and "at no time was the missile a threat to North America."
North Korean satellite launches are widely viewed as ballistic missile tests and such launches violate two U.N. Security Council resolutions designed to dissuade them. Secretary of State John Kerry tweeted (@JohnKerry) than the United States condemns the launch.
The last North Korean satellite launch was in 2012.
A House hearing yesterday (February 3) underscored the dilemma facing NASA as it looks ahead to the future of its human spaceflight program while facing a presidential transition less than a year away. Committee members and witnesses agreed that NASA needs a plan with more specifics that it has offered so far, but not on what the plan should be. While most accept that the long term goal should be human trips to Mars, what the steps in between should be remains as divisive as ever.
The hearing was before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. chaired by Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX). Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) is the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee. The hearing was about NASA's human spaceflight program, but in this case there were no NASA witnesses. Instead three "outside" (non-NASA) experts shared their views: Tom Young, an aerospace industry icon who is retired from Martin Marietta/Lockheed Martin and a member of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), though he was testifying only for himself not NAC; Paul Spudis, senior scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, a fervent advocate of returning humans to Moon before going to Mars, also speaking only for himself, not LPI; and John Sommerer, retired from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab and testifying in his capacity as the former chairman of the Technical Panel of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine committee that wrote the 2014 Pathways To Exploration report.
Republican members of the subcommittee and the chairman of the full committee, Rep, Lamar Smith (R-TX) continued their attacks on the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as unnecessary and a waste of resources. Democratic members, including the ranking Democrat of the full committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), did not defend ARM, and Edwards said NASA's current Evolvable Mars Campaign strategy does not answer the question of whether an asteroid mission is a necessary element of the humans-to-Mars goal. Johnson and Edwards reiterated their strong support for NASA to produce a roadmap for the future of the human spaceflight program as required by the 2015 NASA Authorization Act that passed the House last year (no further action has been taken).
None of the witnesses offered support for ARM, either, although Young noted that NAC is enthusiastic about the development of Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP), which is part of the ARM program. NAC considers SEP to be a critical element of any effort to send humans to Mars and recommended that NASA send an SEP-powered probe all the way to Mars as a test instead of to an asteroid. NAC worries that ARM itself, as a program, will cost more than the $1.25 billion advertised by NASA officials and divert resources from the real goal of humans-to-Mars.
Sending people to Mars was widely, but not universally, accepted by committee members and witnesses as the long term goal of NASA's human spaceflight program. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) was one exception, who thinks other missions -- such as planetary defense and solving the space debris problem -- are more important and champions private sector activities. He said he believes SpaceX founder Elon Musk will get to Mars before NASA. He and other Republican members also expressed concern about the costs involved in a humans-to-Mars mission when the national debt is so high. Rohrabacher argued for an incremental program that can change directions if, for example, an asteroid threatens Earth and planetary defense becomes a higher priority, instead of a "20 year program of gigantic spending that will suck the money away from all the other projects" that NASA might initiate. He said the only affordable way to send Americans to Mars is on a one-way trip.
NASA's Evolvable Mars Campaign was criticized for lacking the specifics needed to win support, especially in a vulnerable period of time when the presidency will change hands. Many of the committee members, Republican and Democratic, stressed the need to have a baseline program and a roadmap in place before the presidential transition to avoid another disruption like what occurred when President Obama took office and cancelled the Constellation program. Edwards called NASA's Evolvable Mars Campaign a strategy, but insufficiently detailed for mission planning. It does not answer questions such as whether a return to the lunar surface or an asteroid mission is necessary to reduce risks for the longer-term Mars goal, she said.
The need for a "plan," rather than a broader strategy that lacks details, was also emphasized by the witnesses. Young calculated that if NASA's current level of funding for human spaceflight, about $9 billion in FY2016, is maintained for the next 20 years, $180 billion will be available over that period of time. He concludes that although this is a great deal of money, it is not enough to both send humans to Mars and support the International Space Station beyond 2024 and a choice must be made between them. He thinks that choice should be sending humans to Mars. He cited the 2015 study by the Planetary Society as one option for how to accomplish it, although he wants humans to land on Mars not just orbit it and he thinks it will cost more than the $180 billion.
Sommerer said that his panel estimated that it would take 20-40 years to get people on Mars and cost "half a trillion dollars." He and Young both stressed that the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft are just the beginning of the systems that are needed for a Mars mission. Sommerer noted that there are only a handful of destinations for human spaceflight today -- the Moon, asteroids and Mars -- and what is needed is agreement on the sequence of missions with a "logical feed forward" that minimizes "dead ends," is affordable, has acceptable development risks and a reasonable operational tempo. The NAS Pathways committee looked at three options, but did not recommend any of them, concluding that in the current fiscal environment there are "no good pathways to Mars."
Later in the hearing, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) argued for adopting the goal of sending humans to Mars by 2033 -- he displayed a bumper sticker with that date on it. He asked if that could be achieved if $200-300 billion -- a percent of the federal budget -- was allocated over that period of time. Sommerer replied, yes, if you have a plan -- "if you give them the date and the money and help with the discipline [to make difficult choices], the answer is yes. If any of those three things is missing, the answer is almost certainly no."
Despite the consensus that a specific plan is needed, there was no agreement on what the plan should be. Although Perlmutter wants to focus on Mars, Spudis insists that returning to the surface of the Moon first is essential, for example. The decades-long debate over Moon versus Mars remains unresolved. Even if there might be agreement on Mars, there is debate over whether to land on the surface, as Young advocates, or put humans in orbit first as outlined in the Planetary Society report. That makes crafting a detailed plan, especially in the few months before a new President is elected, a daunting challenge. Without it, though, as committee members and witnesses expressed yesterday, there is concern that the current elements of the program -- SLS and Orion -- could end up on the chopping block.
Young wryly commented that "We have a graveyard today ... that has headstones of human spaceflight programs that consumed a lot of resources and ended up with no basic product. I don't think we need any more headstones in that cemetery. What we really need [are] monuments to accomplishment."
The head of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) and a key Member of Congress are making the case for expanding AST's regulatory responsibilities to include much more than commercial launches and reentries. Both spoke at the first day of AST's annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference, which continues today (Wednesday). The Commercial Spaceflight Federation is webcasting the event.
Over the past year, interest has grown in both the government and commercial space sectors over what agency should have the responsibility for ensuring U.S. compliance with Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that requires governments to "authorize and continually supervise" the activities of their non-government entities, such as companies. U.S. companies have been operating in space since the 1960s, primarily commercial communications and remote sensing satellites, but the potential expansion of commercial activities to other realms, such as asteroid mining or habitats on the lunar surface, is raising the visibility of the issue of who in the U.S. government is responsible for that task.
The recently enacted Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to recommend approaches for oversight of commercial activities in space. The law was enacted on November 25, 2015 and the report is due 120 days thereafter.
FAA Associate Administrator for AST George Nield wants his office to be given that responsibility. He said that his office could issue a "mission license" for in-space operations not already regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) or NOAA. FCC licenses the use of the radio spectrum by commercial companies. NOAA licenses commercial remote sensing satellites.
Another growing issue is who should be responsible for determining if satellites are going to collide with each other or with space debris and warn affected parties. This is often referred to as Space Traffic Management. Today, DOD's Joint Space Operations Center (JSPoC) performs the calculations -- "conjunction analyses" -- and alerts appropriate parties, but some argue that JSPoC should focus on DOD's requirement to protect U.S. national security satellites, not those of the civil or commercial sectors.
Nield said the FAA should take on that responsibility as well; "We think it makes sense for the FAA to take on this role, and we believe that there is consensus in the interagency community that we are the right ones to do it, but we need to make the decision soon and get on with it." He also advocated for the FAA to process safety-related space situational awareness data and release it "to any entity, consistent with national security interests and public safety obligations." The FAA and DOD are in agreement that this is feasible, he added, though his office needs additional resources to do it.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), a member of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee, agrees. Speaking at the conference yesterday, he stressed that DOD must focus on the threats posed to national security satellites rather than spending its time determining whether the International Space Station (ISS) is "going to hit a screw." DOD must be relieved of the "burden" of performing conjunction analyses for the civil and commercial sectors, he said, and the FAA is the proper agency to take on that task. He added that DOD does not want to relinquish JSPoC, but instead to use it for what it is intended -- national security. He also agreed that FAA/AST needs more money if it takes on additional tasks. He noted that he tried to add $1 million for FAA/AST in the House-passed version of the FY2016 Transportation-HUD appropriations act, but only $250,000 was approved.
Bridenstine also raised the issue of who should be responsible for ensuring compliance with Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty, calling it a "challenge we have to own up to and ultimately solve. It won't be easy and won't happen overnight." He stopped short of recommending FAA/AST as the answer, but said government regulation of commercial space activities overall must be consistent and simplified.
The conference continues today, with Rep. Brian Babin, chairman of the House SS&T Space Subcommittee, scheduled to speak at 8:30 am ET, followed by NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman.
The Commercial Spaceflight Federation indicated that it will webcast today's sessions as well.
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