Subscribe to Email Updates:

Enter your email address:

Military / National Security News

What's Happening in Space Policy June 8-12, 2015-UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Jun-2015 (Updated: 09-Jun-2015 04:15 PM)

UPDATE:  The Planetary Society's telepresser on Wednesday re LightSail has been added.

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of June 8-12, 2015 and any insight we can provide about them.  The House and Senate are in session.

During the Week

The House and Senate will start off the week by continuing debate on the FY2016 Transportation-Housing and Urban Development (T-HUD) appropriations bill and the FY2016 National Defense Authorization  Act (NDAA) respectively.  Last week, an amendment was adopted by the House to the T-HUD bill adding a small amount of money for FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation ($250,000, compared to the $1.5 million increase requested by the Administration and rejected by the Appropriations Committee). 

The Senate Appropriations Committee will markup the FY2016 bills for Defense and for Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS, including NASA and NOAA).   Subcommittee markup for Defense is on Tuesday, subcommittee markup for CJS is on Wednesday, and the full committee will markup both of those plus one more on Thursday.

One may wonder what the point is of moving the appropriations bills and the NDAA (which passed the House in May) through the committee process considering that the President has vowed to veto all of them because of the larger dispute over budget caps. Congressional Republicans are using what many call a "gimmick" to add money for defense in an off-budget account to which budget limits  -- "caps" -- agreed to in the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) do not apply while leaving non-defense spending subject to the caps.   Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) indicated last week that he and his fellow Democrats will not allow any of the appropriations bills to reach the Senate floor for debate until Republicans are willing to negotiate a solution. There is a widespread expectation that eventually Republicans and Democrats will reach a compromise similar to the one engineered in 2013 by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray (the Ryan-Murray agreement) to provide more flexibility.   Of course, back then Democrats controlled the Senate and Republicans had the House, while today both chambers have Republican majorities so the politics are quite different now.  Time will tell how it all turns out, but it looks like it will be a long appropriations season.

On Thursday, three International Space Station (ISS) crew members will return to Earth, just about a month later than originally planned.  NASA's Terry Virts, ESA's Samantha Cristoforetti, and Roscosmos's Anton Shkaplerov will undock from the ISS at 6:20 am ET and land in Kazakhstan at 9:43 am ET.  NASA TV will provide coverage.  Their return was delayed while Russia investigated the April 28 Progress M-27M failure.  Russian experts have concluded it was caused by a "design peculiarity"related to frequency-dynamic characteristics between the robotic Progress spacecraft and its Soyuz- 2.1a rocket.   In a bit of a surprise, Russia launched a Soyuz-2.1a rocket carrying a military satellite on Friday, perhaps as a demonstration that they are confident the problem will not recur.  The same day, Russia and NASA confirmed that the ISS crew will return on June 11.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.

Monday-Wednesday, June 8-10

Tuesday, June 9

Tuesday-Thursday, June 9-11

Wednesday, June 10

Wednesday, June 10 - Friday, June 19

Thursday, June 11

Thursday-Friday, June 11-12

What's Happening in Space Policy June 1-5, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-May-2015 (Updated: 31-May-2015 03:32 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of June 1-5, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session (the Senate returns to work today, actually, in a rare Sunday meeting to figure out what to do about the Patriot Act).

During the Week

The House is scheduled to consider two FY2016 appropriations bills this week:  Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS), which funds NASA and NOAA; and Transportation-HUD, which funds the FAA, including its Office of Commercial Space Transportation.  Both bills will be up before the House Rules Committee tomorrow afternoon at 5:00 pm ET where decisions will be made on what (if any) amendments may be offered, how much time is allowed for debate, etc.  House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's floor schedule indicates the House will take up CJS first on Tuesday or thereafter.

In other appropriations action, the House Appropriations Committee will markup the FY2016 defense bill on Tuesday morning. Subcommittee markup last week was closed and the committee has not yet posted the draft bill or report.

A number of events off the Hill also are scheduled.  To highlight just one, a panel discussion on Wednesday sponsored by the Center for American Progress is intriguing because of its unusual line up of speakers.  The topic is "Human Space Exploration: Looking Back 50 Years, Getting Ready for the Next 50" and the description talks about the technical, physical and psychological challenges of sending humans to Mars.  With three major conferences already held on that topic in D.C. this year, it is hard to imagine what else there is to say, but the Center has come up with a unique set of panelists:

  • Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James,
  • renowned MIT space scientist Maria Zuber, and
  • the head of a company known more in recent years in civil space circles for its robotic missions (e.g. James Webb Space Telescope) than human spaceflight, Northrop Grumman Chairman, President and CEO Wes Bush.

Fascinating and brilliant individuals all, but not people one would expect to expound on the history of the human spaceflight program or the challenges of sending astronauts to Mars.  Still, Zuber knows a lot about the Moon (she was PI for GRAIL and on the LRO team) and is Vice President for Research at MIT, which gives her a broad portfolio.  Grumman (before its merger with Northrop) had a critical role in the Apollo program building the Lunar Module and for several years was the integration contractor for what was then called Space Station Freedom.  Rudy deLeon, a Senior Fellow at the Center, is another panelist.  He is a former Deputy Secretary of Defense, former Boeing executive, former undersecretary of the Air Force, and former HASC staff director (his government career has a lot of overlap with James's).  His bio indicates he currently focuses on national security interests and U.S.-China relations, all of which should add another interesting dimension to the discussion. It will be nice to hear some fresh viewpoints on this topic.  Especially the Air Force's.  The event will be webcast on the Center's website.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.

Monday, June 1

Tuesday, June 2

Wednesday, June 3

Thursday, June 4

Orbital ATK's New Antares on Track for March 2016 Launch

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-May-2015 (Updated: 28-May-2015 03:07 PM)

Orbital ATK President David Thompson said today that the new version of its Antares rocket is on track for a first launch in March 2016.  The new version will use Russian RD-181 engines, two of which are undergoing acceptance testing right now.

An Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket intended to deliver a Cygnus cargo spacecraft full of supplies for the International Space Station (ISS) exploded 15 seconds after liftoff on October 28, 2014.  The explosion damaged the launch facilities at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA.  It was the company’s third operational launch for NASA under the commercial cargo program.

Orbital Sciences Corporation merged with ATK in February 2015 and is now called Orbital ATK.  Thompson remains as President and CEO of the merged company and spoke today on a regularly scheduled investors conference call.

That version of Antares used different Russian engines, NK-33s, which were manufactured more than 40 years ago.  They were imported into the United States, refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne, and redesignated AJ-26. The engines were immediately suspected of causing the failure, but the results of the investigation into precisely what went wrong have not been released.   Reports in the trade press indicate that Orbital ATK and Aerojet Rocketdyne disagree on the root cause.  While both reportedly agree that worn turbopump bearings were to blame, the question is why they were worn.  Aerojet Rocketdyne believes debris in the fuel was sucked into the engine from the first stage fuel tanks, which are manufactured by Ukraine’s Yuzhmash.

In any case, Orbital ATK decided to accelerate plans to change to a new first-stage engine and selected RD-181s built by Russia’s Energomash.  It is a variant of the RD-191 engine Russia developed for its new Angara family of rockets.  Two RD-181s are needed for each Antares launch.  Thompson said seven certification test firings were conducted between late March and early May and the first two flight engines are now undergoing acceptance testing with delivery expected in July.

He added that repairs to the launch complex will be completed in September, all of which means system testing can take place late this year and into January 2016.  First launch of the re-engined Antares is scheduled for March 2016, with one month of schedule margin.

Under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services-1 (CRS-1) contract, the company is required to deliver 20 tons of cargo to the ISS by the end of 2016.  Thompson announced soon after the failure that at least one United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket will be used to send a Cygnus to the ISS later this year, with an option of one more in case there are delays in upgrading Antares, in order to meet that commitment.   NASA recently extended that contract for one more Orbital ATK launch (and three more SpaceX launches) in 2017.   Orbital ATK is vying for a follow-on NASA contract, Commercial Resupply Services-2 (CRS-2), for missions after 2017.  Thompson said today it is his understanding that four companies, including Orbital ATK, are competing for the contract.  Selection is expected in September.  (The bids are proprietary, but SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada are widely thought to be among the competitors.)

Orbital ATK chose a Russian engine despite the ongoing debate over the use of Russian RD-180 engines for the Atlas V rocket.   Congressional direction that the Department of Defense cease using Russian manufactured engines by 2019 applies only to launches of national security satellites, not to NASA or commercial launches, so does not affect Orbital ATK’s launches of cargo spacecraft to the ISS for NASA.

In other news, Thompson was optimistic that Congress will not make the dramatic cuts to NASA’s earth science program recommended in authorization or appropriations bills now pending in the House.  Orbital ATK builds satellites as well as launch vehicles, including earth science satellites.  He said he was “cautiously optimistic” that by the time Congress is done with the FY2016 budget process, NASA will receive funding at about the level requested by the President with balanced allocations between exploration and science, including earth science.

The President’s request for FY2016 is $18.5 billion. The authorization and appropriations bills recommend the same level, but allocate it differently, with substantial cuts to earth science and other activities in order to pay for programs that are higher congressional priorities (such as a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa and the Space Launch System).

Air Force Certifies SpaceX for National Security Launches

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-May-2015 (Updated: 26-May-2015 07:19 PM)

The Air Force certified SpaceX to launch national security satellites today.   The long-anticipated certification makes the company eligible to compete against the United Launch Alliance (ULA), which has held a virtual monopoly on launching the nation's most critical military and intelligence satellites since 2006.

SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk thanked the Air Force for its confidence in the company, while Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James called it a "very important milestone for the Air Force and the Department of Defense."

Although SpaceX already was awarded two Air Force contracts, for the launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) earlier this year and an upcoming launch of  a Space Test Program satellite, those were not part of the coveted "EELV-class" launches performed by ULA.   ULA builds and launches the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, so-called Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs).   Atlas V and Delta IV were sold separately by their respective manufacturers, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, until 2006 when a dwindling market threatened both.  ULA was the solution.  Jointly owned by the two companies and with a guaranteed level of financial support from the government, it has an impeccable record of launches. 

The launches are quite expensive, however, and with the emergence of SpaceX, questions began to arise as to whether competition might drive the prices down.  Russia's invasion of Crimea last year added another twist.  Russian RD-180 engines power the Atlas V and many in Congress argued that the launch of U.S. national security satellites should not be dependent on a foreign country, especially Russia.   The 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requires the Air Force to stop using RD-180s by 2019 (although waivers are allowed under certain circumstance).   Debate continues to swirl around that requirement, but a transformation in the launch services industry has begun. 

The announcement today does not guarantee a sea-change in the launch services market, but opens that opportunity for SpaceX and potentially other launch service providers.  Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, Commander of Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) and Air Force Program Executive Officer for Space said the certification process "provides a path" for them to "demonstrate the capability to design, produce, qualify, and deliver a new launch system" that provides the mission assurance necessary for national security payloads.

The Air Force repeatedly stated last year that SpaceX's certification would be complete by December 2014.  For reasons that remain unclear, it took another 5 months, but is finally done.

What's Happening in Space Policy May 25-June 5, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-May-2015 (Updated: 24-May-2015 06:20 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the new TWO weeks, May 25-June 5, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  Congress is in recess this week for the Memorial Day holiday.  The Senate returns on Sunday, May 31; the House on Monday, June 1.

During the Weeks

At last, a relatively quiet week after all the recent busy-ness.  Monday (May 25) is the observance of Memorial Day and federal government offices are closed.  Congress is in recess for the week despite a fractious Senate session that lasted until the wee hours on Saturday over a non-space related topic -- extension of government surveillance authorities under the Patriot Act -- that came to no resolution.  Those authorities expire at midnight May 31, so the Senate will return for a rare Sunday session on May 31 to try and find a way forward.  The House returns on Monday, June 1. The Senate already has declined to take up a House-passed measure addressing the topic so it looks like the authorities will indeed expire.  It's a matter of what bill (if any) the Senate can pass, what the House is willing to accept as a compromise, and how long the process takes.

But that debate is outside the scope of this space policy website.  Suffice it to say that the congressional schedule for when they return is difficult to predict.

NASA has two interesting events this week, though.  First is the announcement of the science instruments for the Europa mission.  NASA had not planned to execute a Europa mission just now, but Congress feels otherwise.  It added money for it the past two years (and appears likely to do so again this year), which led the White House to give NASA permission to include mission formulation in the FY2016 budget request. NASA is moving forward with choosing the science payload.   It will be announced on Tuesday (May 26) at 2:00 pm ET.   The next day, NASA TV will air coverage of the ISS crew moving a module (using Canadarm2) from one docking port to another as the ISS is reconfigured to enable the commercial crew vehicles to dock there beginning in 2017.

The schedule for the first week of June is still filling up, but the list below shows what we know about today (Sunday, May 25).

Tuesday, May 26

Tuesday-Wednesday, May 26-27

Wednesday, May 27

Monday, June 1

Tuesday, June 2

Thursday, June 4

X-37B Ready For Its Fourth Flight - UPDATE 2

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-May-2015 (Updated: 20-May-2015 11:23 AM)

UPDATE, May 20, 2015, 11:15 am ET:   The X-37B and its accompanying payloads lifted off on time at 11:05 am ET.

UPDATE, May 20, 2015, 4:45 am ET:   ULA has announced refined launch times.  There are two windows today:  11:05-11:15 am ET and 12:42-12:52 pm ET.  ULA will webcast the launch.  Coverage begins at 10:45 am ET.

ORIGINAL STORY, May 19, 2015: The Air Force is getting ready to launch the reusable X-37B spaceplane into orbit tomorrow, May 20.  There are at least two X-37B Orbital Test Vehicles (OTVs) and it is not clear which is being launched, part of the mystery surrounding these ultra-classified space missions.

The Boeing-built X-37B looks like a small space shuttle orbiter and, indeed, has its origins at NASA.  Originally designed as an Orbital Space Plane to bring crews home from the International Space Station (ISS) in an emergency, NASA cancelled the program in 2004 after President George W. Bush reoriented the human spaceflight program towards returning astronauts to the Moon rather than ISS utilization.  The program then was transferred to DOD.  It does not carry a crew.

Photo of X-37B.  Photo credit Boeing (via

DOD will not say specifically what the X-37B does while it is in orbit.  Generally, it is described as a vehicle to test technologies.  Each of the three missions to date also seem focused on determining how long it can function on orbit, which each mission's duration exceeding the previous record.   The first X-37B mission, OTV-1, was a 224-day flight in 2010.  The second, OTV-2, was a 469-day flight from March 2011 to June 2012.  The third flight, using the same vehicle from OTV-1, made a 675-day mission from December 2012 to October 2014.  The Air Force has not announced which vehicle will be used for this mission.

Launch of AFSPC5, as the mission is known, aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), FL, is scheduled for May 20 between 11:05 am - 2:45 pm ET.  The weather forecast is 60 percent favorable.

How long the X-37B will remain in orbit is not publicly known, but apparently it will be at least 200 days.  NASA is conducting materials science tests on the mission and announced that its Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS) will expose almost 100 materials samples to space condition for "more than 200 days."

The Air Force also has revealed that it will be testing a modified Hall thruster for the Air Force Research Laboratory.  Hall thrusters are a type of electric propulsion used on many satellites for in-orbit operations.  This test is related to improvements the Air Force wants for its Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) communications satellites.

This flight is getting more pre-launch publicity than usual because it is carrying several unclassified payloads.  In addition to METIS and the Hall thruster test, a National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) "Ultra Lightweight Technology and Research Auxiliary Satellite" (ULTRASat) pallet of 10 CubeSats from five organizations will ride-share on the launch.  Nine of the CubeSats are sponsored by NRO and one by NASA.  The CubeSats are housed in eight Poly-Pico Orbital Deployers (P-PODS).

The NRO-sponsored CubeSats include three from the U.S. Naval Academy, three from California Polytechnic Institute (which built the structure for the P-PODs), two from the Aerospace Corporation, and one from the Near Space Launch and Air Force Research Laboratory.  The NASA-sponsored CubeSat is for The Planetary Society (TPS) to test its LightSail concept for solar sailing.  There will be no sailing on this mission -- that's expected next year.  Right now, TPS is just testing the sail deployment sequence.

Typically the Air Force says nothing about X-37B missions after launch until shortly before landing. The three previous missions landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.  This one could land there or at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) adjacent to CCAFS.  In 2014, NASA and the Air Force signed an agreement for the Air Force to use two of KSC's Orbiter Processing Facilities, once used for the space shuttle, and said that tests were conducted to demonstrate it could land at KSC's shuttle landing facility. 

What's Happening in Space Policy May 18-24, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-May-2015 (Updated: 17-May-2015 06:08 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of May 18-24, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

The House and Senate will be rushing this week to complete a lot of legislative business before the Memorial Day recess.  The House, in committee and on the floor, will continue work on FY2016 appropriations bills against Democratic objections and a Presidential veto threat because Republicans used a gimmick to add money to the defense budget above the Budget Control Act (BCA) spending caps, but will not add a dime for non-defense spending.  Democrats want to do away with the BCA caps and the associated sequester threat entirely, but the Republicans are doing it only for defense.  Their tactic is to add money to the "Overseas Contingency Operations" (OCO) account that does not count against the caps and change the rules so the money can be spent for routine defense purposes rather than only for executing the war in Afghanistan, for example.  The end result is expected to be another long, drawn out budget process as Democrats and Republican fiscal conservatives (who also object to the OCO tactic, but want to keep the caps) battle in Congress and the President readies his veto pen.

For now, however, the House Appropriations Committee continues marking up FY2016 appropriations bills and sending them to the floor for the whole House to consider.   This week the full committee will mark up the Commerce-Justice-Science bill that includes NASA and NOAA (subcommittee markup was last week), while the defense subcommittee marks up the defense bill.  Both markups are on Wednesday morning; the defense markup is closed.

The House itself will take up two space-related bills that have been approved by the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee. The Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act (H.R. 1561) has bipartisan support and will be brought up under suspension of the rules on Tuesday.  That means it is expected to easily garner aye votes from at least two-thirds of the Members. The Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship Act (SPACE) Act, H.R. 2262 is quite the opposite.   Approved in committee on a strictly party-line basis, it will be considered on the House floor under regular order.  That means it will go first to the House Rules Committee to determine what (if any) amendments will be allowed. The Rules Committee meets on Tuesday afternoon and floor debate is scheduled for Thursday.

The Senate will be busy, too.   On Wednesday, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee will mark up the Commercial Space Launch Act (S. 1297) and the Seasonal Forecasting Improvement Act (S. 1331).   S. 1297 and H.R. 2262 have similar goals -- to update the existing Commercial Space Launch Act -- but different approaches, and the Senate bill has bipartisan support.  S. 1331 and H. R. 1561 also have similar goals, but different approaches.  One goal is improving how NOAA acquires satellites and encouraging NOAA to use more commercial weather satellite data. 

Congress has a lot of interest in commercial weather data these days. The House SS&T Environment Subcommittee will hold a hearing specifically on that topic on Wednesday morning.   Ah yes, Wednesday morning.  It will take three of you to cover everything or skilled multitasking to watch the webcasts (just about all congressional hearings and markups are webcast on the respective committee's website, except for closed meetings to discuss classified matters, of course).  The House hearing is at 10:00, the CJS bill markup up at 10:30, and the Senate markup also is at 10:30.  (The defense appropriations markup is at 9:30 that day, but is closed.)

Not everything happens in Washington, of course.   The National Space Society's annual International Space Development Conference  (ISDC 2015) will take place in Toronto, Canada, from May 20-24 with a great program of speakers.

Those and other events that we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.

Tuesday, May 19

Wednesday, May 20

Wednesday - Sunday, May 20-24

Thursday, May 21

SASC Completes Markup: Digs in on Replacing RD-180, Not Convinced About DMSP-20

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-May-2015 (Updated: 14-May-2015 08:45 PM)

The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) completed markup of its version of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) today.   Most of the subcommittee markups, including that of the Strategic Forces subcommittee, and full committee markup were closed, so the release of a committee fact sheet and a press conference by chairman John McCain (R-AZ) today provide the first public view of what it contains.  Space programs, especially launch vehicles, warranted considerable attention.

McCain and others on the committee, including Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), have been leaders in Congress to move the Air Force away from using Russia's RD-180 rocket engines.  RD-180s power the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V rocket.  McCain also has been a crucial supporter of SpaceX's determination to compete against ULA for launching national security satellites.  SASC led efforts in last year's NDAA to set a deadline of 2019 for using RD-180s, which the Air Force is seeking to modify so it has more time to build a new American engine, integrate it into a launch vehicle, test and certify it for launching national security satellites.

The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) went along with the Air Force request in its version of the FY2016 NDAA, which is being debated by the House right now.  SASC did not follow suit.   Instead, it "revalidates" Section 1608 of last year's NDAA, which sets the deadline, although waivers are allowed under certain circumstances.  The SASC bill "limits the use of Russian rocket engines, allowing for as few as zero but as many as nine," according to the press release.  The bill has other provisions aimed at ending U.S. reliance on Russian engines as soon as possible.

McCain said at the press conference, as he has in other venues, that he does not want American dollars going to "cronies" of Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Today he said Putin is "dismembering a country as we speak," referring to Ukraine.  (His comments are at the very end of the press conference).  He also called the issue of the rocket engines and ULA a "classic example of the military-industrial complex" and said that SpaceX has said it can have a replacement for RD-180s by 2017, a probable reference to SpaceX's plans for its Falcon Heavy rocket, which is expected to make its first flight this year, but it would take some time for it to be certified to launch national security satellites (which are very expensive and critically necessary so launch failures are not easily tolerated).

SASC also expressed caution about DOD's plans to launch the last of its legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites. The Air Force decided last year that it did not need DMSP-20, but changed its mind this year and now wants to launch it.  At an April 29 hearing, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Commander of Air Force Space Command Gen. John Hyten said several factors led to their revised decision even though it will cost "millions of dollars": the Europeans have decided not to replace a geostationary weather satellite DOD has been using to support its operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East, it will give the Air Force more time to decide on the future of its weather satellite program, it will provide an additional competitive space launch opportunity, and people within the national security community who deal with weather issues on a day to day basis "very, very much want to see that satellite launched."

SASC was not convinced.   The bill prohibits the use of funds for the DMSP program or for launch of DMSP-20 until the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that "non-material or lower cost solutions are insufficient."

On other matters, SASC  --

  • approves $20 million for the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) office, "an increase of $13.5 million to match the previous year funding level"
  • requires the President to establish an interagency process to develop a policy to deter adversaries in space
  • requires the Secretary of Defense to designate an individual to be the Principal Space Control Advisor
  • establishes a council to "review and be responsible for" DOD's positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) enterprise (GPS is a PNT system)
  • requires a plan for consolidating acquisition of commercial communication satellite services
  • requires an analysis of alternatives for replacing the Wideband Global Satellite System

SASC Worries About GPS III, DOD Weather Satellites, Space Security

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-May-2015 (Updated: 11-May-2015 07:45 PM)

As members of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) get ready to mark up their version of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), replacing Russia’s RD-180 rocket engine is only one topic on their minds.  Cost overruns and schedule delays on the next generation of GPS satellites, access to weather satellite data to support DOD needs, and ensuring U.S. satellites can operate in a potentially hostile environment also are concerns.

These issues were debated at a SASC Strategic Forces subcommittee hearing on April 29.   Although RD-180 dominated the discussion, it was not the only topic.

GPS III.  Cristina Chaplain, director of acquisition and sourcing management for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified that the first of the new generation of GPS positioning, navigation and timing satellites, GPS III, is over two years behind schedule because of technical and manufacturing problems.   Launch of the first satellite has slipped 28 months, from April 2014 to August 2016.

The associated ground system, OCX, which promises anti-jamming capabilities, is four years late because of many issues including a “struggle to incorporate information assurance requirements…system engineering shortcomings, and management and oversight issues.”   Chaplain told committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) that although the Air Force has “put a lot of corrective actions in place,” GAO remains concerned about management, oversight and contractor capabilities.

McCain said the program is $471 million, or 11 percent, over budget and demanded to know who was being held responsible.  Secretary of the Air Force (SecAF) Deborah Lee James replied the contractor had lost $160 million in fees and “we’re assessing other individuals to see if there’s other levels of accountability.”

DOD Weather Satellites.  DOD is closing in on a strategy for its weather satellite program after several years of analyzing alternatives following the 2010 cancellation of the DOD-NOAA-NASA National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS).  DOD had two of its legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites in storage at the time so was not in a rush to make a decision.  One of those two, DMSP-19, was launched last year.

The Air Force initially decided that it did not need the other, DMSP-20, but has changed its mind.  Hyten said the FY2016 request includes funds to continue storing and eventually launch it.   One key factor is that DOD has been relying on data from a European geostationary weather satellite, Meteosat 7, for coverage of the Indian Ocean region to support operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East.  That satellite is at the end of its life and the European meteorological satellite organization, EUMETSAT, is not replacing it.  SecAF James told the subcommittee that the Europeans said last year they would replace it, but “reversed themselves,” leaving the Air Force in a quandary.  Eumetsat denies that it changed course and never planned to replace that satellite.

In any case, Hyten and James said that DMSP-20 now is needed to avoid gaps in coverage even though it will cost “hundreds of millions of dollars.”   One alternative – relying on data from Chinese or Russian satellites that cover that region – is unacceptable to Congress and to DOD.

Other factors in DMSP-20’s favor were that it would give DOD more time to make a final decision about its path forward on weather satellites, offer an additional competitive launch opportunity (implying that SpaceX could compete for this launch), and “indeed, the NGA and our own Air Force weather teams very, very much want to see that satellite launched,” James explained.

As for the next generation of DOD weather satellites, Hyten said that James had just approved using Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) principles for its Weather System Follow-on program.  ORS was created to meet tactical needs with small, inexpensive satellites that can be built and launched quickly.  Congress has been strongly supportive of ORS in the past, but will have to approve the decision to use it for the weather satellite program.

Space Security.  Three days before the hearing, CBS’s 60 Minutes program aired a segment featuring Hyten and James discussing the vulnerability of U.S. satellites to potential hostile action by countries like China and Russia.

Subcommittee chairman Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) opened the hearing by referencing the program and quoting several other DOD officials who have commented publicly on this issue.  He also noted that Hyten recently briefed the committee “on a number of troubling developments regarding our adversary’s desire to threaten U.S. space capabilities” and went on to say that “Russia and China have militarized space, there is no doubt about it.” Subcommittee Ranking Member Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) called the 60 Minutes segment a “wake-up call” for the nation.

The discussion during the open part of the hearing was very general, but the committee later moved into a closed session where classified information could be discussed.  In open session, James said that the Air Force has “directed, redirected or increased” planned funding for the next five years to provide $5 billion in classified and unclassified programs for “improving our space security at the enterprise level” and “incorporating security requirements in all of our space capabilities going forward.” Hyten said we must “be prepared to defend ourselves” including increasing mission assurance “by emphasizing resilience, reconstitution and defensive operations across many of our future programs.”

In other venues, the funding has been described as augmenting DOD capabilities to protect U.S. satellites, to deter and defend against hostile attacks, and, if necessary, defeat them.  Doug Loverro, Deputy Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, said at a March 25 House Armed Services Committee (HASC) hearing that the United States remains “absolutely committed to assuring the peaceful use of space for all” but “we can no longer view space as a sanctuary” and the additional funds “will make clear to all that attacks in space are not only strategically ill advised but militarily ineffective.”

SASC Markup Begins Tomorrow

SASC's Strategic Forces subcommittee will markup its portion of the NDAA tomorrow and the full committee will deal with it over the following three days.  Those meetings are closed.  Meanwhile, across Capitol Hill, the House Armed Services Committee completed its markup on April 30 and the House is scheduled to debate the bill beginning this Wednesday.

Four House Commercial Space Bills Span Wide Range of Topics

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-May-2015 (Updated: 08-May-2015 11:59 PM)

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will mark up four bills on May 13, 2015 dealing with a broad range of commercial space activities.  Three of the bills have yet to be introduced, but obtained copies.  In total, they span everything from regulating commercial human spaceflight to third party indemnification to property rights for mining asteroids to expanding the role of NOAA's Office of Space Commercialization.

The committee announced the markup and the titles of the bills late this afternoon.  Only one has a bill number because the others are yet to be introduced. The bills are:

  • H. R. ___, the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship Act of 2015 (the SPACE Act)
  • H.R. 1508, the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015
  • H.R. ____, the Commercial Remote Sensing Act of 2015 and
  • H.R. ____, the Office of Space Commerce Act

According to the copies obtained by, the four bills have the following goals:

  • The SPACE Act will be introduced by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who represents a district including Edwards Air Force Base and the Mojave Air and Space Port, along with House SS&T chairman Rep, Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Space Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS). The broadly-based bill is aimed at updating the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA).  Among its provisions the bill would:
    • extend the so-called "learning period" during which the FAA is prohibited from issuing new regulations for commercial human spaceflight until 2023. That restriction currently expires on September 30 of this year.  It also allows industry to develop voluntary industry standards and requires a report from the Secretary of Transportation in 2021 on industry's progress in that regard and an independent assessment of the readiness of industry and government to transition to a framework that "may include regulations."
    • extend the government's ability to indemnify commercial space launch companies from certain amounts of third party losses through 2023 (the current authority expires in December 2016).
    • require updating the methodology to establish the maximum probable loss used by the FAA to establish requirements for companies to obtain third party liability insurance.
    • add and define "government astronaut" as a type of personnel that may be aboard a commercial human spaceflight mission.
    • require a study by an independent contractor of frameworks for space traffic management.
    • make a "sense of Congress" statement that launch facilities developed, owned or operated by States should take proper measures to "secure their investments and the safety of third parties from potential damages...."   That language probably is in response to the damage caused by the failure of Orbital's Antares rocket at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) facility at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in October 2014.  The MARS facility is owned by the State of Virginia rather than the Federal Government and although Orbital had purchased required insurance under its FAA license (and other insurance for company purposes), Virginia did not buy insurance to cover its potential losses.  Virginia's two Senators led efforts to add $20 million to the FY2015 appropriations bill that funds NASA to cover those losses, but the Obama Administration is reluctant to release those funds.
  • H.R. 1508 was introduced by Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) on March 19, 2015 and establishes a legal framework to govern property rights for U.S. companies involved the exploration and utilization of asteroids.  The committee held a hearing on similar legislation last year.
  • The Commercial Remote Sensing Act of 2015 will be sponsored by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) to require annual reports from the Secretary of Commerce on its activities related to issuing licenses to commercial remote sensing companies, and a separate report on statutory changes that may be needed to protect national security, protect the U.S. industrial base, and reflect the current state of the art of remote sensing technologies.
  • The Office of Space Commerce Act will be sponsored by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) to rename the Department of Commerce's Office of Space Commercialization as the Office of Space Commerce and amend its responsibilities, especially increasing its role in positioning, navigation and timing satellites (i.e. GPS).

The markup is at 2:00 pm ET on May 13, 2015.