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The House Appropriations Committee released the new Continuing Resolution (CR) tonight that will keep the government operating after Friday, when the existing CR expires. The new CR will fund the government through April 28, 2017. Generally activities are funded at their current (FY2016) levels, but there are a number of exceptions, including for NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion exploration programs and NOAA's Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). Congress must pass and the President must sign the bill before midnight Friday.
Congressional Republicans decided to punt on FY2017 appropriations after the elections gave them control not only of Congress, but the White House as well. By delaying action, the new Trump Administration will have a say in funding for FY2017 as well as FY2018 and beyond.
CRs typically fund activities at their existing levels, but exceptions can be made for ongoing or new programs. In this case, among the new activities are additional funding for the military to fight foreign wars ("Overseas Contingency Operations"), natural disaster relief, funds for communities affected by contaminated drinking water, and funding for the 21st Century CURES Act (medical research and associated activities).
Fourteen ongoing programs were singled out for special treatment ranging from the Ohio Class Submarine Replacement program to the continuation of FAA air travel operations and safety activities to health care benefits for miners.
Included in the 14 is NASA's deep space human exploration program -- SLS, Orion, and associated ground systems. A committee press release says the action was taken "to avoid delays that would increase long-term costs." The bill states that funds for NASA's exploration account "may be apportioned up to the rate of operations necessary to maintain the planned launch capability schedules" for SLS, Exploration Ground Systems, and Orion. The first SLS/Orion launch -- without a crew -- is currently scheduled for no later than November 2018.
Another exception is NOAA's JPSS. That was made to ensure "the continuation of data for weather warnings, including forecasts of extreme weather events." The bill allows that funds for JPSS "may be apportioned up to the rate for operations necessary to maintain the planned launch schedules" for JPSS. Until recently, the launch of JPSS-1 was expected in March 2017, but NOAA's website now states that it will be in the 4th quarter of FY2017.
The House is using the Senate amendment to H.R. 2028, the FY2016 (yes, FY2016) Energy and Water Appropriations Act, as the legislative vehicle for this CR -- formally the Further Continuing and Security Assistance Appropriations Act.
House Appropriations Committee chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY), who has long (and fruitlessly) advocated for a return to "regular order" where each of the 12 regular appropriations bills is passed individually in time for the beginning of each new fiscal year, called the new CR "a band aid, but a critical one" that will give the next Congress time to complete the annual appropriations process. This is his last year as chairman of the committee because of a 6-year term limit applied to such positions. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) will chair the committee in the next Congress. Rogers reportedly is hoping to be appointed chairman of the Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.
The House Rules Committee will meet tomorrow afternoon at 3:00 pm ET to write the rule for consideration of this bill on the House floor. It could be brought to the floor for a vote anytime thereafter. It then must pass the Senate and be signed into law by President Obama.
Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) President David Melcher laid out his organization's priorities for next year at a luncheon today. Among his top 10 priorities are clearing the way for aerospace and defense exports, resolving the quorum issue at the Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank, and repealing the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) and its sequester provisions.
Lt. Gen. Melcher (Ret.) took the reins of AIA after a 32-year career in the Army and 7 years in industry. After leaving the Army in 2008, he joined ITT Corporation and became the first chief executive of Excelis after it was spun off from ITT in 2011. He remained there through its acquisition by Harris Corporation in May 2015. A month later he became President and CEO of AIA, succeeding Marion Blakey, who is now head of Rolls Royce North America.
Melcher said that he met with Donald Trump during the campaign to discuss AIA's position papers on key issues for the next President (as well as with senior advisers to the Clinton campaign). He said the President-elect "listened carefully to our views on the need to beef up investments in defense capabilities and to spur high tech innovation." Melcher praised Trump's pick of Gen. James Mattis (Ret.) as his nominee for Secretary of Defense: "I count General Mattis as a friend and I think he's an outstanding choice."
The bulk of Melcher's comments were directed toward the aerospace and defense industries broadly, rather than specific agencies or programs. Exports were a major theme.
AIA is seeking a resolution to the stalemate over the Export-Import Bank. AIA was one of the leaders in getting Congress to reauthorize the bank, but has been unable to convince the Senate to confirm new members of its Board. The Bank should have five Board members and three are required as a quorum to approve loans of more than $10 million. There are only two Board members now. Senators who oppose the Bank are blocking new nominees, hamstringing what it can do.
He also called on the government to ease barriers to exports of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) created by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). He asserts that the United States could lose its leadership "in a potential $80 billion market."
A "21st Century Commercial Space Competitiveness Strategy" that encourages "commercial space export opportunities" that will "ensure we have a healthy space industrial base" is also needed, he said.
Getting rid of the 2011 BCA and its spending caps is another priority. "BCA has set a spending level far below what's required to secure our nation and our allies.... Let's fund our military based on clear eyed assessments of where power and presence are necessary, and not tie this to arbitrary limits."
Melcher laid out four "megatrends" identified by senior representatives of AIA member companies -- a veritable who's who of the U.S. aerospace industry ranging from Aerojet Rocketdyne to Virgin Galactic (but with notable exceptions like SpaceX and Blue Origin). These megatrends are "strong headwinds that affect policy making in Washington" and need attention: the state of deficit politics, smart regulations, U.S. leadership in a global economy, and transition to a digital global economy.
The United States needs to "make a conscious decision to invest in national security, civil space, aeronautics and 21st century air transportation systems" if it wants to be innovative, job-creating, and inspirational.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of December 5-9, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
This is make or break time for Congress to pass an appropriations bill or bills to keep the government operating past Friday. The existing Continuing Resolution (CR), which funds agencies at their current (FY2016) levels, expires at midnight December 9. The House has no votes scheduled for Friday, so it apparently expects to complete action earlier in the week. The Senate schedule has not been announced.
The election put Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress and the White House so congressional leaders have decided to wait until the Trump Administration is in place to make final FY2017 appropriations decisions. However, some key Republicans are insisting that Congress pass a full-year appropriations bill for DOD to match the funding levels recommended in the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). That bill just passed the House on Friday and is expected to pass the Senate early this coming week. Congress can pass a full-year FY2017 appropriations bill for DOD and an extension of the CR for other agencies or any other combination it chooses, but it must do something by Friday or some parts of the government will have to close down. The existing CR provided full-year funding for activities in the Military Construction-Veterans Affairs (MilCon-VA) bill, so perhaps Congress will do the same for defense. It really is up in the air at this moment. All the other agencies, including NASA and NOAA, likely will end up with another CR. There is some debate as to whether to extend it through either March or April, with the later date advocated by the Senate which expects to be busy holding hearings and votes on Trump cabinet nominees in the early months of next year.
Congress might also pass a new authorization bill for NASA this week. The 2016 NASA Transition Authorization Act was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee in September and negotiations are ongoing with the House on a final bill. The latest rumors are that it could reach the Senate floor for consideration early this week, but it still would have to pass the House and time is getting short. Nonetheless, it is quite common for Congress to pass a flurry of legislation in its closing days. Congresses last for 2 years and at the end all pending legislation is dead. The next Congress must begin again, with its new set of Members, so there is an advantage to completing work before the 114th Congress ends and the 115th begins.
One bill that made it through the Senate last week and might be voted on in the House this week -- although it is not on the schedule yet -- is the Weather Forecasting and Research Innovation Act. The version that passed the Senate is a compromise with the House and incorporates provisions of H.R. 1561, which passed the House in 2015, S. 1331, which cleared the Senate Commerce Committee in 2015, and two other bills (S. 1573 and H.R. 34). Among many other things, it reforms NOAA's satellite procurement efforts.
The House is scheduled to consider the Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Commemorative Coin Act (H.R. 2726, as amended) tomorrow under suspension of the rules. The Apollo 1 Memorial Act is not on the list as of today, but the schedule notes that additional bills will be added to the suspension calendar (which is used for relatively non-controversial bills that are expected to easily win two-thirds of the votes and therefore get expedited consideration).
So it will be a very busy week just with congressional activity, but there are many other interesting events, too. For brevity's sake, we will mention only one -- Wednesday's Eilene M. Galloway Symposium on Critical Issues in Space Law in Washington, DC. This is the 11th Galloway symposium and they just keep getting better every year. It's free, but seating is limited so pre-registration is REQUIRED. Bob Walker, a former congressman who was a space policy adviser to the Trump campaign and presumably is still advising the transition effort (though not officially part of the "landing party" at NASA), and Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), are both on the agenda, plus panels on topical space law issues and a luncheon speech on the "Next 50 Years of the Outer Space Treaty," which turns 50 next year.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week for additions that we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.
Monday-Tuesday, December 5-6
Tuesday, December 6
Tuesday-Wednesday, December 6-7
Wednesday, December 7
Wednesday-Thursday, December 7-8
Wednesday-Friday, December 7-9
Friday, December 9
Next month, the United States will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the loss of the Apollo 1 crew when fire erupted in their Apollo capsule during a pre-launch test. More than a dozen House members led by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) want to pass legislation before Congress adjourns to establish a memorial to the crew at Arlington National Cemetery. Memorials already exist for the space shuttle Challenger and Columbia crews who perished in 1986 and 2003, but not for Apollo 1. The Apollo 1 Memorial Act would fix that.
In a "dear colleague" letter yesterday, Johnson, the top Democrat on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, and Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), chair of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, urged colleagues to join in co-sponsoring the bill, H.R. 6147. It currently has 14 (11 Democrats, 3 Republicans) co-sponsors.
On January 27, 1967, the United States suffered its first space tragedy when Lt. Col. Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Lt. Col. Ed White, and Roger Chaffee died of asphyxiation after fire broke out in their Apollo Command Module during a test prior to a planned February 21 launch. The capsule was filled with 100 percent oxygen at 16.7 pounds per square inch (psi) pressure. The cause of the fire is thought to have been a spark from an electrical wire although the investigation could not conclusively identify the ignition source. The capsule had been designed for the hatch to swing inward. With the pressure inside the capsule greater than that outside, it was impossible for the crew to open it quickly and with fire spreading explosively in 100 percent oxygen, there was little time. Many changes were made to the design of the Apollo capsule and to test procedures afterwards.
The mission was designated Apollo 204 or Apollo-Saturn 204 (AS-204), but since Grissom, White and Chaffee would have been the first Apollo crew, it was redesignated Apollo 1 in their honor.
All three men were posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. Grissom and Chaffee are buried at Arlington Cemetery; White is buried at West Point Cemetery.
H.R. 6147 directs the Secretary of the Army to construct a memorial marker to the Apollo 1 crew at an "appropriate place" in the cemetery and allocates $500,000 of money appropriated to the Army for operations and maintenance in FY2017 for that purpose. It also allows the Administrator of NASA to accept donations for the memorial and transfer the money to the Army. The Army oversees Arlington Cemetery.
Time is running short for the 114th Congress to pass any legislation, but Johnson and Miller hope it can be accomplished nonetheless, saying "it is surprising that we do not have a memorial at Arlington Cemetery to honor the lives of the crew of Apollo 1 as was done for the Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia crews. H.R. 6147 ... would redress that unfortunate omission."
Russia's Progress MS-04 robotic cargo spacecraft, which was headed to the International Space Station (ISS), failed to reach orbit today. An anomaly occurred during the burn of the rocket's third stage. An investigation is underway. Russia launches approximately four Progress missions to ISS every year in addition to cargo delivered by U.S. and Japanese spacecraft. The next cargo mission, Japan's HTV6, is scheduled for launch next week.
Progress MS-04 launched on time at 9:51 am EST (8:51 pm local time at the launch site in Kazakhstan) on a Soyuz-U rocket. NASA refers to this as Progress 65.
Russia's space state corporation Roscosmos said a contingency occurred 382 seconds later at an altitude of 190 kilometers. At that point, the Soyuz rocket's third stage should still have been firing.
Roscosmos said a state commission is beginning an investigation into what went wrong.
NASA notified astronaut Shane Kimbrough aboard the ISS about the failure, saying that there were indications of "third stage sep occurring a few minutes early and we haven't had any communications with Progress at all." "Third stage sep" refers to separation between the rocket's third stage and the spacecraft. NASA posted the audio of its communication with Kimbrough on its ISS blog.
The spacecraft was loaded with 2.6 tons of food, scientific equipment, spare parts, oxygen, water, and propellant to refill tanks for the engines on ISS that periodically raise the space station's orbit to compensate for atmospheric drag. NASA said in a press release that U.S. supplies on board were spare parts for the environmental control and life support system, research hardware, crew supplies and clothing, "all of which are replaceable" and not critical for the U.S. Operating Segment (USOS).
Progress MS is the latest variant of Russia's venerable robotic spacecraft that has been used to deliver food, fuel and other supplies to space station crews since the 1970s. Its first use was in 1978 delivering fuel to the Soviet Union's Salyut 6 space station, the first space station to have two docking ports, thereby enabling such resupply missions and extended duration spaceflights. It has been through several upgrades over the decades (Progress, Progress M, Progress M_M and now Progress MS). The first flight of this variant, Progress MS-01, took place just about a year ago on December 21, 2015. (NASA refers to Progress missions sequentially based on when they began supplying ISS. Hence they call today's mission Progress 65 because it is the 65th Progress mission to the ISS.)
The Soyuz-U rocket also has been in use for a long time -- since 1973. Russia is phasing it out and the newer Soyuz-2 is intended to replace it for these missions. However, a Soyuz-2.1a launch of a Progress spacecraft (Progress M-27M) failed in April 2015. Russia's investigation concluded it was due to a "design peculiarity in the joint use of the spaceship and the rocket related to frequency-dynamic characteristics of the linkage between the spaceship and the rocket's third stage." In that case, the spacecraft reached orbit (along with the third stage), but was out of control and in the wrong orbit. It soon reentered.
Jonathan McDowell of Jonathan's Space Report tweeted today about the ironic difference in the Progress M-27M and Progress MS-04 failures:
Anatoly Zak, editor of RussianSpaceWeb.com, tweeted that residents of the Tuva Region reported an explosion and shaking at the time of the anomaly.
Roscosmos said most of the fragments burned up in the atmosphere, while Russia's official news agency, TASS, reported that debris may have fallen 60-80 kilometers west of Kyzyl, the capital of the Tuva Republic. The area, in southern Siberia, is rugged and mountainous according to Russian media reports.
The chairmen of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee and its Space Subcommittee want NASA to provide documentation to underpin recent agency statements implying that its scientific advisors now support the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The controversial Obama Administration project has received little support, including from the scientists who study asteroids. A November NASA update to an ARM website suggests they have changed their minds, however.
In 2010, President Obama canceled the Bush Administration's Constellation program to return humans to the surface of the Moon and someday send them to Mars. He stated that we had already been to the Moon's surface and there was no need to go back. Instead, he directed NASA to focus on sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 as a step towards putting humans in orbit around Mars in the 2030s. Over time, that evolved into ARM, where a robotic spacecraft will be sent to an asteroid, pluck a boulder from its surface, and move the boulder to lunar orbit. Once there, astronauts will visit it and collect a sample for return to Earth.
ARM has two components: the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) -- the robotic spacecraft that will collect and relocate the boulder, and the Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission (ARCM) -- sending astronauts to obtain a sample. NASA initially estimated the cost of ARRM at $1.25 billion. No cost estimate has been provided for ARCM. NASA argues that ARRM and ARCM will demonstrate technologies needed to achieve the long term goal of sending humans to Mars such as high power solar electric propulsion (SEP) and cites other potential benefits such as ARRM demonstrating a "gravity tractor" technique to change an asteroid's trajectory.
Scientists who study asteroids and other small bodies in the solar system provide input to NASA through the agency's Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG). They were not consulted prior to announcement of the mission by the White House. Later, NASA officials responsible for executing ARM engaged with SBAG to explain the mission and obtain input on how best to design it to further scientific goals as well as meet human spaceflight objectives.
On November 16, NASA posted an update to one of its ARM websites announcing release of a report from an SBAG Special Action Team (SAT) that NASA said "confirms scientific benefits" of the mission. (The posting looks like a press release, but was not formally issued as a NASA news release.) The posting said the SAT compared ARM requirements to internationally developed Strategic Knowledge Gaps (SKGs) for human missions into deep space and science objectives identified in the National Academies' most recent Decadal Survey for planetary science. The SAT concluded that ARM could close 18 small body SKGs and address 15 questions that support specific objectives in the Decadal Survey, although some of that is "contingent upon additional instruments or payloads on the robotic segment of ARM or additional crew time than is currently baselined for the crew segment of ARM." The posting indisputably conveys the impression that SBAG, or at least the members of the SAT are warming up to ARM after years of skepticism.
Today, House SS&T Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Space Subcommittee chairman Brian Babin (R-TX) called on NASA to provide the committee with documents to help it "better understand the genesis and intent" of the SAT report and the "press release."
In a letter to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, Smith and Babin requested all documents associated with the SAT report and the press release that underpin the implication that the agency's scientific advisors now support ARM.
"Contrary to the assertions made in the press release, numerous advisory bodies have questioned the merits of the President's ARM mission. The NASA Advisory Council, the Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG), and the National Research Council have all raised concerns with the mission," Smith and Babin said. They argue that as the Trump Administration takes office "it would benefit from clear guidance from both NASA and its advisory bodies." The 6-page letter (plus an attachment) details comments from those advisory groups since 2013 expressing reservations about the mission.
ARM passed its Key Decision Point B (KDP-B) review this summer, allowing it to enter the preliminary design and technology completion phase. ARM Program Director Michele Gates revealed at the time that the cost for ARRM had grown from $1.25 billion to $1.4 billion, excluding launch and operations costs. She said NASA uses $500 million as a placeholder for the launch cost, which would raise the total to $1.9 billion without operations. That is the estimate only at this point in the program. NASA does not confirm a mission's schedule or cost until it passes the next milestone, KDP-C.
One concern is that the costs for ARRM and ARCM will grow to such an extent that they will interfere with other science or human exploration missions. While there is strong support for the development of high power solar electric propulsion, which has many applications, critics argue that it can be developed even if ARM is terminated. Many scientists contend that if the goal is to understand asteroids, collecting samples for return to Earth does not require astronauts as demonstrated by Japanese and NASA robotic missions that are already doing that. Human spaceflight advocates worry that the roughly $2 billion for ARRM could be better spent on other aspects of advancing NASA's Journey to Mars, such as building habitats.
For those and other reasons, ARM has garnered little support either in Congress or the space community.
Still, Congress has not prohibited NASA from spending money on it, at least as of now. The House Appropriations Committee's FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill, which includes NASA, would prohibit NASA from spending any money for planning robotic or crewed missions to asteroids, but the bill has not passed the House yet. Its Senate counterpart is silent with regard to ARM. A draft version of a FY2017 NASA authorization bill also does not require that ARM be terminated. Instead, NASA would have to submit an analysis of alternatives on how to demonstrate technologies needed for human missions to Mars.
Senate and House negotiators reportedly are close to agreement on a final version of a FY2017 NASA authorization act. Senate floor action on a draft compromise bill could come as early as tomorrow.
NASA's most recent authorization law was enacted in 2010 -- the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. It provided funding recommendations only through FY2013, but the policy provisions remain in force. NASA's authorization committees in the House and Senate have been working on a new bill for several years to update policy and provide authorization direction, but without success. Last year the House passed a FY2015 NASA authorization bill, H.R. 810,(which was very similar to a bill in passed for FY2014), but the Senate did not take it up. A House bill for FY2016-2017 (H.R. 2039) never reached the floor after clearing the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on a party line vote. Significant cuts to NASA's earth science program were a major partisan sticking point.
The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved a FY2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act (S. 3346) in September. It avoided the issue of NASA's earth science activities by not mentioning them. It also recommended authorization funding levels only for FY2017, which is already underway, using a combination of figures approved separately by the House and Senate appropriations committees.
A draft of a revised version of the bill reportedly reflecting compromise with the House is now circulating and rumors are that the Senate may take it up as early as tomorrow. SpacePolicyOnline.com obtained a copy of the new draft. A quick glance suggests that it is similar to what cleared the Senate committee, while incorporating elements of H.R, 810 and H.R. 2039 plus new provisions. These are a few highlights of the 114-page draft.
The new draft bill does not call for terminating the Asteroid Redirect Mission, but, incidentally, House SS&T Chairman Smith and Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), who chairs its space subcommittee, sent a letter to NASA today requesting all documents associated with a report and press release the agency issued two weeks ago concluding that the project now has the support of the scientific advisory community.
As in the Senate committee-approved bill, NASA's earth science activities are not specifically mentioned.
The draft bill contains many "sense of Congress" statements and '"findings" that are not legally binding, but express congressional views. Among them are support for several specific space science missions (James Webb Space Telescope, Wide-field Infrared Space Telescope, a mission to Europa, and Mars 2020), satellite servicing as a "vital capability," small satellite missions, and a robust aeronautics research program.
The Trump transition team named the first member of its "landing party" for NASA today -- Chris Shank. Shank was part of the leadership team at NASA while Mike Griffin was Administrator and is currently on the staff of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee. Mark Albrecht, who had been rumored as a candidate for the NASA landing party, instead has been assigned to DOD's transition team.
Transition teams or "landing parties" typically are named for each federal department and agency by incoming presidential administrations to do an initial review of an agency's portfolio and identify pressing issues that the new administration will have to address quickly.
Shank is an experienced space policy professional. From 2001-2005, he served on what was then the House Science Committee staff specializing in human spaceflight and Earth science issues. After joining NASA as a special assistant to Griffin in 2005, he was appointed NASA's chief of strategic communications in 2008. He left NASA in January 2009 at the end of the Bush Administration and worked first at the Applied Physics Lab and later Honeywell Aerospace. He returned to Capitol Hill in 2011 as Deputy Chief of Staff to Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who is now chairman of House SS&T, and in 2013 was appointed policy and coalitions director for the full committee.
He has a master's degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado and a bachelor's in mathematics from the University of Notre Dame. Before his first stint on the committee, he served in the Air Force for 11 years, working at the Pentagon, National Reconnaissance Office and Air Force Space Command.
Landing teams usually have several members, so additional appointments are expected. Transition teams exist only until the inauguration, but it is not uncommon for many of their members to join the respective agency's staff thereafter.
Albrecht is another veteran member of the space policy community. He was Executive Director of the White House National Space Council during the George H.W. Bush Administration and later was President of Lockheed Martin's International Launch Services (ILS), which at the time (1999-2006) marketed launch services on Lockheed Martin's Atlas and Russia's Proton rockets. He currently is Chairman of the Board of U.S. Space LLC. Prior to his tenure in the George H.W. Bush White House, he was a legislative assistant for national security affairs for then-Senator Pete Wilson (R-CA). He has bachelor's and master's degrees from UCLA and a doctorate in public policy analysis from the Rand Graduate School. Albrecht wrote a book, Falling Back to Earth, about his experiences on the National Space Council and at ILS, including relationships with Russia.
He was appointed to the DOD transition team, which already has quite a few members. Albrecht appears to be the only one so far with a space background, although another member, Trae Stephens, is a principal at Founders Fund which has investments in SpaceX according to Space News.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of November 28 - December 2, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
The House and Senate return to work this week. They must pass an appropriations measure by December 9 to keep the government operating and there is a strong desire to complete action on the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), but apart from that, it appears that the plan is to wait until next year to deal with most issues. Appropriations likely will be handled by extending the existing Continuing Resolution (CR) through March 31 and agreement on the NDAA seemed close just before Thanksgiving. The 114th Congress could adjourn "sine die" ("without a day" for recovening, meaning it is the end of the session) as soon as those are passed. A slim chance remains for getting the NASA Transition Authorization Act passed, but time is running out.
The Presidential election is over -- sort of. Officially it is not final until after the Electoral College votes on December 19 and Congress certifies that vote on January 6, 2017 (CRS has a very useful report about the Electoral College for those who are interested). At the moment, Donald Trump is expected to win the Electoral College decisively with at least 290 votes (270 are needed to win) versus 232 for Hillary Clinton. Clinton has decisively won the popular vote by more than 2 million (64,637,503 for Clinton versus 62,409,389 for Trump according to Cook Political Report ). Under the Constitution, it is the Electoral College vote that determines the winner. The race in Michigan still has not been called for either candidate, but its 16 electoral votes are not enough to change the outcome.
Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein has demanded a recount in Wisconsin and plans to ask for recounts in Pennsylvania and Michigan. Stein says she is doing it to ensure the "integrity" of the election process and it "is not intended to help Hillary Clinton." Indeed, few (if any) expect the outcome of the election to change, including Clinton herself. Her spokesman made that clear, saying they are "fully aware" that the vote margin in the closest of the states (Michigan) is much larger than any margin ever overcome in a recount. Any recounts must be completed before the Electoral College meets.
The Trump transition team continues its work, announcing a number of White House appointments and three Cabinet nominees (Attorney General, Secretary of Education and Ambassador to the U.N.). While there are strong rumors about who will be nominated for Secretary of Defense (national security space programs) and Secretary of Commerce (NOAA satellite programs), Trump has not made any official pronouncements. Nothing has been said about NASA so far.
The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) meets in public session on Wednesday in Palmdale, CA, near NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Facility (available by WebEx/telecon). The agenda has not been posted yet, so there is no way to know what they plan to discuss, but any news about a "landing team" being assigned to NASA and the impact of operating under a FY2017 CR for 6 months instead of just 3 months are possible topics. This is the last NAC meeting under the Obama Administration and, presumably, Charlie Bolden's tenure as Administrator. The NASA Administrator appoints the members of NAC, so its composition could change before the next meeting.
The Ministerial Council of the European Space Agency (ESA) will meet in Switzerland on December 1-2. The ministers responsible for space activities in each of ESA's 22 member countries get together every 2-3 years to make policy and funding decisions. ESA says this meeting will "further the vision of a United Space in Europe in the era of Space 4.0." A press conference is scheduled for the end of the meeting on December 2 at approximately 13:00 CET (7:00 am ET). One of the topics they will consider is whether to provide an increase of approximately 400 million Euros to complete the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars program. The first two ExoMars spacecraft -- the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli lander -- were launched together in March and arrived at Mars last month. TGO successfully entered orbit, but Schiaparelli crashed. Schiaparelli was a technology demonstrator for a Russian lander and ESA rover scheduled for launch in 2020 (delayed from 2018). Costs for the 2020 mission have grown, necessitating a decision by the Council on whether to proceed. ESA's portion of the total program cost was estimated in 2008 at 1.3 billion Euros. ExoMars originally was an ESA-NASA program, but the Obama Administration declined to fund the U.S. portion, so ESA turned to Russia instead.
Mars is but one planet in our beautiful solar system. NASA's Venus Exploration Analysis Group (VEXAG) meets Tuesday-Thursday at NASA Headquarters to discuss future exploration of that planet. The meeting will be available remotely via WebEx and telecon.
And then there's Earth itself! The American Astronautical Society and the American Meteorological Society will hold an event to highlight Space-Based Environmental Intelligence on Thursday evening at the Naval Heritage Center in Washington, DC. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) is the speaker. He chairs the Environment Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and crafted provisions in law to create commercial weather data pilot programs at NOAA and DOD (NOAA's is underway; the DOD provision is in the FY2017 NDAA).
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week for others we learn of later and add to our Events of Interest list.
Tuesday-Thursday, November 29-December 1
Wednesday, November 30
Thursday, December 1
Thursday-Friday, December 1-2
The European Space Agency (ESA) said today that erroneous data from an Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) doomed its Schiaparelli Mars lander last month. The bad data convinced onboard systems that the spacecraft had already landed when it actually was still 3.7 kilometers (km) above the surface. The spacecraft made a free fall the rest of way, hitting the surface at a high velocity. Schiaparelli is part of ESA's ExoMars program and traveled to Mars with the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) spacecraft, which successfully entered orbit.
TGO and Schiaparelli were launched together in March. TGO will study trace gases, like methane, in the Martian atmosphere that may reveal whether life ever existed there. Schiaparelli and TGO are the first two of four spacecraft that comprise ESA's ExoMars program, which it is conducting cooperatively with Russia's Roscosmos state space corporation. Initially ExoMars was an ESA-NASA program, but the Obama Administration declined to fund NASA's portion and ESA turned to Russia instead.
The other two spacecraft -- a Russian lander and an ESA rover -- are scheduled for launch in 2020 (delayed from 2018). Schiaparelli was designed to test entry, descent and landing (EDL) technologies in preparation for the lander/rover mission.
TGO and Schiaparelli separated from each other on October 16, three days before Mars arrival. TGO went on to successfully achieve orbit on October 19 while Schiaparelli aimed for the surface. Contact was lost during descent. Using imagery from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft, the crash site was located just two days later and high resolution images were available a week after that. The imagery shows the parachute, front and back sections of the heatshield, and scattered debris from the lander itself.
Using data Schiaparelli transmitted to TGO as well as from an Earth-based Indian radio telescope that was tracking it, ESA said today that atmospheric entry and braking occurred as expected. The parachute deployed as planned at an altitude of 12 km and the heatshield was jettisoned at 7.8 km.
As Schiaparelli descended under the parachute, something went wrong. The "radar Doppler altimeter functioned correctly and the measurements were included in the guidance, navigation and control system. However, saturation -- maximum measurement -- of the Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) had occurred shortly after the parachute deployment. The IMU measures the rotation rate of the vehicle. Its output was generally as predicted except for this event, which persisted for about one second -- longer than would be expected. When merged into the navigation system, the erroneous information generated an altitude estimate that was negative -- that is, below ground level."
Consequently, the parachute released. the landing thrusters fired briefly and on-ground systems were activated "as if Schiaparelli had already landed. In reality, the vehicle was still at an altitude of 3.7 km." ESA earlier estimated that Schiaparelli was traveling at more than 300 km/hour when it hit the surface and probably exploded since its fuel tanks were still fairly full.
David Parker, ESA's Director of Human Spaceflight and Robotic Exploration, emphasized that this is a preliminary conclusion. An external independent review board is currently being established "as requested by ESA's Director General, under the chairmanship of ESA's Inspector General,"' Parker continued. Its report is expected in early 2017.
ESA officials stress that the whole point of launching Schiaparelli was to test EDL technologies and they are pleased that the early phases went as planned even if the ending did not.
Only the United States has successfully landed spacecraft on Mars. Seven of eight attempts since 1976 have succeeded: Viking 1, Viking 2, Mars Pathfinder + Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix and Curiosity. Only the 1999 Mars Polar Lander (MPL) failed. One of the four landers sent to Mars by the Soviet Union in the 1970s sent back data after landing, but for less than 20 seconds so is not considered a success. The United Kingdom sent the Beagle 2 lander to Mars along with ESA's Mars Express in 2003, but it landed in a semi-deployed manner and was unable to communicate.
Interestingly, MPL failed for somewhat similar reasons as Schiaparelli. The MPL failure review board concluded that vibrations in MPL's landing legs when they were deployed as it approached the surface were incorrectly interpreted by onboard software as an indication that the spacecraft had landed. In fact, it was still about 40 meters above the surface and could not survive the impact.
Events of Interest