Commercial Space News
The House and Senate headed out of town for the summer today, leaving a great deal of work unfinished. In particular, none of the 12 appropriations bills that fund the government have cleared Congress yet. They will have four weeks to do something about appropriations when they return after Labor Day.
The extra long (seven week) recess is because of the Republican and Democratic presidential conventions that will be held in the next two weeks. The Republican convention begins in Cleveland on Monday and runs through Thursday (July 18-21). The Democratic convention in Philadelphia is the following Monday-Thursday (July 25-28).
The conventions will be followed by the traditional congressional August recess, which, in election years like this, is used mostly for campaigning.
The appropriations bill score sheet looks good in terms of committee action. All 12 have been reported from the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. Floor action is another matter.
The House has passed five of the 12 FY2017 appropriations bills: Defense, Financial Services, Military Construction/Veterans Affairs (Milcon/VA), Legislative Branch, and Interior/Environment. A sixth bill, Energy-Water, was defeated over inclusion of a gay rights/gender identity amendment to which many Republicans objected.
The Senate passed the Energy/Water bill, and a single bill that combined Milcon/VA, Transportation-HUD, and funding to deal with the Zika virus.
The two chambers came close to final passage of a compromise Milcon/VA bill that included the Zika funding (but not the Transportation-HUD bill). The conference report passed the House, but did not survive a cloture vote in the Senate, so is stalled.
Attempts to bring the defense appropriations bill to the Senate floor for debate also failed cloture votes.
The Commerce-Justice-Science bill, which includes NASA and NOAA, did reach the Senate floor, but was derailed by the gun control debate (as its name conveys, the bill also includes funding for the Department of Justice). The House version has not gone to the floor yet.
Both chambers return on September 6 and will be in session the rest of that month. Fiscal Year 2017 begins on October 1, so something -- likely a Continuing Resolution (CR) -- will need to be passed by then.
This outcome is not unexpected. Congress's difficulties in passing appropriations bills is all too well known. The only question is how long the CR will last. Almost certainly past the November 8 elections. Depending on which party wins the White House, the House, and the Senate, final appropriations could be completed by the end of the calendar year, or pushed into 2017 when the new Congress convenes and the new President takes office.
One bill that has made progress is the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The House and Senate have each passed their versions and formally agreed to go to conference to work out the differences. Authorization bills set policy and recommend funding levels, but do not provide any money. Only appropriations bills do that, but the NDAA is influential in the decisions made by the appropriations committees. Conference negotiations on the NDAA are expected to take place at the staff level during the recess.
There has been no action on a new NASA authorization bill this year, although Republican and Democratic Senators at yesterday's Senate Commerce Committee hearing on NASA and American leadership in space expressed enthusiasm for passing a bill before the end of the year. The House passed a FY2015 (yes, 2015, not 2016) bill last year that could be a vehicle for Senate action, or a completely new bill could be introduced. Although time is getting short, if there is agreement on both sides of the aisle and both sides of Capitol Hill, a bill can pass quickly. The goal is to provide stability to NASA programs during the presidential transition. A major area of disagreement between Republicans and Democrats is NASA spending on earth science research. Republicans on both sides of Capitol Hill argue that it should not be a priority for NASA because other agencies can fund it while NASA focuses on space exploration. The White House and congressional Democrats argue that earth science research is an essential NASA activity and a critical element of a balanced portfolio of programs.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Energy-Water bill passed the House. That information was based on Congress's own congress.gov website that has a table showing the status of appropriations bills. That table indicates there was a vote, but not that the vote failed. This article has been corrected to state that the bill was defeated.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of July 11-16, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
The Washington space policy community is still reeling from the news of Molly Macauley's murder Friday night while walking her dogs near her home in Baltimore. Molly was one of the most respected and admired members of our relatively small group of space policy analysts and practitioners and was well-known to just about everyone in it. No word yet on funeral arrangements. We'll certainly post any information we get. Molly was Vice President of Research and a Senior Fellow at Resources for the Future, a Washington-based think tank, which has posted a lovely tribute to her.
Meanwhile, the work of the space policy community must go on. This is the last week Congress is scheduled to meet until after Labor Day, so there's a lot they should be getting done. Whether they do or not remains to be seen with everyone focused on tragic deaths elsewhere in the country. Senate leaders tried to bring up the defense appropriations bill last week, but Democrats blocked it. They're going to try again tomorrow. On Friday, the House approved a motion to go to conference on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), so that's a step in that direction anyway, but authorization bills don't provide any money. Only appropriations bills do that. There's no indication when the Senate will resume consideration of the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations bill, which includes NASA and NOAA, and it is not on the House calendar either. The House and Senate will have four weeks after they return on September 6 to get some sort of appropriations passed to keep the government operating after FY2016 ends on September 30.
There are three congressional hearings about space this week. First is a House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee hearing on "Astronomy, Astrophysics and Astrobiology" with witnesses talking about programs at NASA and the National Science Foundation. That begins at 10:00 am ET on Tuesday. An hour later (which means the two will overlap), the House Small Business Committee holds a hearing on the role of small business and NASA. It's the first time we can think of that that committee has held a space hearing. Witnesses are from Explore Mars (Beverly, MA), Emergent Space Technologies (Greenbelt, MD), Craig Technologies (Cape Canaveral, FL) and Honeybee Technologies (Brooklyn, NY).
On Wednesday, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) will chair only his third space hearing since becoming chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee's Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee at the beginning of 2015. He's been busy running for President and reportedly will speak at the Republican Convention next week, but on Wednesday he will focus on "NASA At a Crossroads: Reasserting American Leadership in Space Exploration." Witnesses are Bill Gerstenmaier from NASA; Mary Lynne Dittmar from the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration; Mike Gold from SSL (formerly Space Systems Loral); Mark Sirangelo from Sierra Nevada Corporation; and Dan Dumbacher, formerly NASA, now at Purdue. We published summaries of Cruz's previous two space hearings: February 25, 2015 on U.S. Human Space Exploration Goals and Commercial Space Competitiveness and March 13, 2015 on NASA's FY2016 budget request.
The American Astronautical Society, CASIS and NASA will hold the 5th International Space Station R&D conference in San Diego Tuesday-Thursday, with a special pre-conference session tomorrow afternoon on utilization of Japan's Kibo module. The conference itself will be webcast -- lots of really interesting speakers each day, including a conversation with Mark and Scott Kelly and CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta on the Twins Study from Scott Kelly's 340-day stay aboard ISS. Remember that all times in the agenda are in Pacific Daylight Time (Eastern Daylight Time - 3).
Two interesting national security space seminars also are on the docket this week. The Hudson Institute holds a meeting on Space and the Right to Self Defense on Wednesday afternoon to discuss a report it just published on that topic. The study director, Hudson Institute Fellow Rebeccah Heinrichs, will moderate a discussion with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) and former Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl. Thursday morning, the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute will hold a breakfast meeting featuring Elbridge Colby of the Center for a New American Security on U.S. defense and deterrence strategy for space.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week for additions to our Events of Interest list.
Monday-Thursday, July 11-15
Monday-Sunday, July 11-17
Tuesday, July 12
Tuesday, July 12 - Tuesday, July 19
Wednesday, July 13
Thursday, July 14
Saturday, July 16
Two top Republicans on the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee sent letters to Obama Administration officials today seeking answers to a series of questions about U.S. policy on the use of Indian launch vehicles. India's Antrix corporation wants to offer launches to U.S. satellite operators, but there is concern that as a government entity, it would have an unfair advantage over U.S. commercial launch companies.
Several small U.S. satellites have been launched on Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles (PSLVs) in the last several months. Four Spire Global Lemur-2 cubesats were launched in September 2015 and 12 Planet (formerly PlanetLabs) satellites on June 22, 2016. PlanetIQ signed an agreement with Antrix in December 2015 to launch two of its 10-kilogram satellites on a PSLV in the fourth quarter of this year.
The FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) has been discussing the matter since last fall. In October 2015, Samuel duPont from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), briefed COMSTAC on the issue. The committee's International Space Policy Working Group (ISPWG) held teleconferences on the topic on December 10, 2015 and January 27, 2016. According to an ISPWG outbrief at COMSTAC's April 2016 meeting, the discussions led to two findings and a recommendation. The findings were that India's launch service pricing structure could not be confirmed as market-based and thus could "distort" competition and undermine U.S. policies and negatively impact the U.S. space industrial base. It recommended that the U.S. government "maintain the current cautious approach in granting U.S. commercial satellite operators access to India's state-owned and controlled launch providers."
Eric Stallmer, President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) industry association, told the SS&T Space Subcommittee in April that CSF opposes any effort "to facilitate a government-subsidized foreign launch company ... to compete with U.S. companies." However, CSF also does not want to disadvantage U.S. satellite manufacturers and operators whose launch needs cannot be met by U.S. launch services companies, so if no U.S. launch vehicles are available, launching on Indian rockets should be approved on a case-by-case basis, he asserted.
Today's letters from House SS&T Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Space Subcommittee Chairman Brian Babin (R-TX) seek to clarify exactly what U.S. policy is regarding launching U.S. satellites on Indian rockets. The four letters are addressed to Secretary of State John Kerry, Department of Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy John Holdren.
Smith and Babin seek basic information about what the policy says, when it was promulgated, and the impact of India's entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) on that policy. Each official is asked to respond by July 20, 2016.
India finally joined the MTCR less than two weeks ago on June 27. The MTCR seeks to control the spread of ballistic missile technology. Established in 1987 by the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Italy and Japan, it now has 35 members, including Russia (but not China). It is not a treaty and imposes no legal obligations, but is an "informal political understanding" according to its website.
U.S. efforts to convince Russia to join the MTCR after the collapse of the Soviet Union figured prominently in the relationship the two countries have today in the space arena. It was one of the motivations in the Clinton-Gore Administration's decisions to invite Russia to join the International Space Station (ISS) partnership and to allow U.S. satellites to be launched on Russian rockets. In return, Russia had to join the MTCR and renegotiate a deal to sell cryogenic rocket engines and associated technological know-how to India. The United States did not object to selling the engines themselves, but to the technological know-how. Russia renegotiated the contract and said that it lost $400 million as a result. The United States agreed to pay Russia $400 million towards its participation in the ISS.
This is our list of space policy events for the week of July 4-9, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House returns to work on July 5; the Senate on July 6. [This posting was updated on July 4.]
During the Week
Monday, July 4, is a federal holiday and government offices officially are closed, but some folks at NASA surely will be on duty because the BIG EVENT for the coming week is the arrival of NASA's Juno spacecraft at Jupiter that day.
Miles O'Brien explained in a recent PBS Newshour segment what Juno will tell us about Jupiter that the Galileo spacecraft didn't (basically Galileo was looking at the cloudtops outward while Juno will look under the clouds down through Jupiter's core). NASA has held a number of pre-arrival briefings already. Another will be broadcast on NASA TV on Monday at noon ET with a mission update.
NASA TV coverage of orbit insertion begins at 10:30 pm ET and a post-arrival briefing is scheduled for 1:00 am ET July 5.
The spacecraft will fire its engine at 11:18 pm ET on July 4 for 35 minutes to enter Jupiter's orbit, ending at 11:53 pm ET. Everything is automated at this point -- either the engine will work properly or it won't. The signal travel time from Jupiter to Earth is 48 minutes. The times here are Earth-receive times accounting for the delay.
Closer to Earth, a new crew will launch to the International Space Station on Wednesday evening Eastern Daylight Time (Thursday GMT, Moscow Time, and local time at the launch site). The three crew members -- NASA's Kate Rubins, JAXA's Takuya Onishi and Roscosmos's Anatoly Ivanishin -- will be using an upgraded version of the Soyuz spacecraft, Soyuz MS-01. Since it's new, they will take the longer 2-day trajectory to the ISS to test everything out, docking early Saturday morning EDT.
Meanwhile, here on Earth, on Thursday, the Environment Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on the nation's current and next generation weather satellites. It is a bit unusual in that it blends plans for civil and military weather satellites. The witness list as of today includes two experts on NOAA's weather satellite programs -- Steve Volz, head of NOAA/NESDIS and the GAO expert who follows those civil weather satellite programs (David Powner), and two on DOD's weather satellite program -- Ralph Stoffler, Director of Weather in the office of the USAF Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and the GAO expert on military satellites (Cristina Chaplain). Subcommittee chairman Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma) serves on both this subcommittee and the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) which may explain the decision to hold a combined hearing on the weather satellite plans for both NOAA and DOD. House SS&T typically webcasts its hearings on its website and YouTube.
The events we know about as of Monday, July 4, are listed below. Check back throughout the week for additions to our Events of Interest list.
Monday-Tuesday, July 4-5 ET
Wednesday, July 6
Thursday, July 7
Saturday, July 9
Note: This article, orignally published June 30, 2016, was updated throughout on July 4, 2016.
The NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a report on Tuesday that praised NASA for some aspects of its management of the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with SpaceX, but reiterated earlier concerns about the independence of mishap investigations into these "commercial cargo" launch services. NASA concurred with most, but not all, of the OIG's recommendations.
The OIG report was prompted by the June 28, 2015 SpaceX CRS-7 (SpX-7) Falcon 9 rocket failure that was intended to send a Dragon spacecraft full of supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). Among the $118 million in cargo that was lost was an International Docking Adapter, the first of two needed for future dockings of SpaceX and Boeing commercial crew vehicles.
On the positive side, the OIG concluded that "NASA is effectively managing its commercial resupply contract with SpaceX to reduce cost and financial risk." It has "taken advantage of multiple mission pricing discounts" and negotiated "significant consideration" after the 2015 failure including reduced prices for five launches awarded thereafter (SpX-16 to SpX-20).
However, the report criticized NASA for not having "an official, coordinated, and consistent mishap investigation policy for commercial resupply launches, which could affect its ability to determine root cause of a launch failure and corrective action."
The SpaceX cargo flights are commercial and regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), not NASA. NASA purchases ISS cargo resupply services from SpaceX as well as Orbital ATK. Orbital ATK also suffered a failure -- the Orb-3 launch in October 2014. Like SpaceX, those launches are regulated by the FAA. FAA regulations determine how investigations are conducted when there is a launch failure of a commercial vehicle. Under those regulations, the respective company itself is in charge.
NASA has its own mishap investigation procedures that require an independent review, but they do not apply to these commercially procured launch services. The OIG earlier looked at the Orbital ATK failure and in Tuesday's report on SpaceX reiterated its concerns "about the independence of contractor-led mishap investigations."
SpaceX formed an Accident Investigation Team (AIT) in accordance with the FAA regulations composed of 11 SpaceX employees (one as chair) and one FAA employee. Others from the FAA, NASA, the Air Force, and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) were non-voting observers. The AIT determined that the most probable cause was a failure of a strut in the second stage. After reporting that finding to the FAA and fixing the problem, the Falcon 9 was approved to return to flight. The first launch was for a commercial communications satellite company (Orbcomm), the second launch for the NASA-NOAA Jason-3 spacecraft, the third for a different commercial communications satellite company (SES), and the fourth a resupply mission to ISS, SpX-8. All were successful.
Even though its own mishap investigation procedures do not apply, NASA is allowed under the CRS and other contracts to establish an independent review in addition to the FAA investigation. The OIG found "there were up to seven possible investigation authorities" NASA could invoke "depending on when the failure occurred and the extent of damage..." In this case, since the next Falcon 9 launch for NASA was of the Jason-3 satellite, NASA's Launch Services Program (LSP) set up a review under that contract authority. Its findings were not as determinant as SpaceX's, leaving questions about the ultimate root cause.
A key finding of the OIG report is that "[d]ue to a lack of standardization or NASA policy, the contractor and NASA investigations into the SPX-7 and Orb-3 failures had different scopes and produced varying findings and corrective actions." Orbital ATK's Orb-3 investigation "used root cause analysis" that looked not only at technical issues, but programmatic and organizational as well. NASA's LSP investigation looked only at technical issues, the OIG said.
It recommends that NASA review its various authorities to ensure a coordinated, standardized approach. NASA concurred.
How NASA determines what and how much cargo to put aboard the SpaceX flights was another concern raised by the OIG, especially the International Docking Adapters (IDAs). The second IDA is now scheduled for the SpX-9 mission later this year, but the replacement for the unit lost in 2015 (being built from spare parts) will not be launched until February 2018, according to the OIG report. If current schedules hold, it will not arrive until SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner are in service. That could spell trouble if anything goes awry with the one Adapter that will be available. In its response to the OIG report, published in an appendix, NASA asserted that it "plans to have both IDAs available prior to first ISS direct handover mission and the first planned cargo docking mission under [the] CRS 2 [commercial cargo contract].
More broadly, the OIG recommended that NASA do a better job of quantifying and communicating the risks associated with the commercial cargo launches. NASA did not agree with that one. It asserted that its existing procedures provide adequate assessments of risk and communicate that risk to the appropriate people.
Orbital ATK successfully conducted the second of two qualification tests for the motor for solid rocket boosters (SRBs) that will be part of the NASA's Space Launch System (SLS). The 2-minute test today at the company's Promontory, Utah test site was delayed by one hour because of a computer issue, but appeared flawless when it took place at 11:05 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT). The next time the booster will be used in for the first SLS test launch in 2018 dubbed Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1).
Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, excitedly told a media teleconference an hour later that the test proved "this design is ready to fly." Expressing "100 percent confidence in this team," he cheerfully urged them to celebrate and then "get back to work" because 2018 is closer than it seems.
SLS is intended to eventually send humans to Mars. An audience questioner said he was 49 years old and asked "will I see a man on Mars?" Gerstenmaier replied "yes, but 'man' may be the wrong word. You will see a human being" on Mars, to applause from people in the room.
Today's Qualification Motor test 2 (QM-2) was designed to show how it operates in cold temperatures at about 40 degrees Farhenheit. A 2015 test demonstrated its performance in high temperatures at approximately 90 degrees F. The motor is 154 feet long and 12 feet in diameter, producing 3.6 million pounds of thrust. Although based on the SRBs for the space shuttle, they incorporate new technologies, materials and manufacturing processes. For today's test, it lay horizontally on a test stand with flames and smoke billowing out the back.
Two five-segment SRBs are needed for each SLS launch, a total of 10 segments. Charlie Precourt, a former astronaut and now Vice President and General Manager for Orbital ATK's Propulsion Systems Division said seven more are needed for the EM-1 test in 2018. He expects all of the segments to ship to Kennedy Space Center by late 2017. With the successful completion of this test, the development phase is now over and the company will transition to manufacturing. Noting that development and manufacturing are two different mindsets, he said the next challenge is to be sure "we can build this precisely each time."
Gerstenmaier exclaimed that "today was an amazing day." Asked whether this type of visible milestone is helpful as the country readies for a presidential transition, he said it was not just milestones, but demonstrating on a continuing basis that NASA and its contractors can maintain schedule and budget. But it also is important not to overreact to those pressures -- ensure the design is solid because shortcuts may be costly in the long run. The U.S. human spaceflight program, including the International Space Station, is "robust," he exuded. It will keep the United States in the lead and is a program that "any country would be lucky to have and we are really blessed that we have this program in this country. Hopefully the political environment" will recognize that.
The launch date for EM-1 is currently targeted for September 2018, but Gerstenmaier said the schedule was "trending" toward October or November. EM-1 will launch an uncrewed version of the Orion spacecraft. The first crew will be launched on EM-2. Officially, NASA has committed to launching EM-2 in 2023, but is working towards a 2021 launch date if funding permits. Congress has been adding money above the President's request for SLS and Orion for several years, including the FY2017 budget currently under consideration. The Senate began debate on its version of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill, which includes NASA, last week. It would provide $2.15 billion for SLS, compared to the President's request of $1.31 billion. The House Appropriations Committee approved $2 billion.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of June 27 - July 1, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The Senate is in session part of the week. The House is in recess for the July 4 holiday.
During the Week
The House left town early last week in disarray after Democrats staged a gun control sit-in. It already was scheduled to be off this week and will return on July 5. The Senate is taking only a short July 4th breather. It will be in session Monday-Thursday and return on July 6. On Monday it will resume consideration of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill that includes NASA and NOAA. Both chambers will meet the first two weeks of July and then take a 7-week recess for the political conventions and their usual August recess, returning on September 5-6. They don't have a lot of time to get appropriations bills completed before the fiscal year ends on September 30.
Orbital ATK will have the second and final qualification test for the solid rocket boosters for the Space Launch System on Tuesday at its Promontory, Utah test site. NASA TV will cover the 2-minute test live and a media teleconference shortly thereafter will be available on NASA's News Audio site.
Up at the International Space Station (ISS), Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Oleg Skripochka will test out a new manual docking system for Russia's Progress cargo spacecraft on Friday (VERY early Eastern Daylight Time). Progress MS-01 (Progress 62 in NASA parlance) is currently docked to the Pirs module. It will undock and then be redocked using the manual system, a backup in case the automated Kurs system doesn't work properly. The Progress MS series is the latest version of that cargo spacecraft, in use since 1978, and Russia is also getting ready to launch the first Soyuz MS, the latest variant of that spacecraft. The first Soyuz was launched in 1967. The Soyuz MS-01 launch is now scheduled for July 6 EDT (July 7 local time at the launch site) after a delay reportedly related to its new Kurs system. The Kurs system for Progress MS and Soyuz MS is the same and the NASA press release said the test would verify software and a new signal converter for the manual docking system "in the unlikely event the 'Kurs' automated rendezvous in either craft encounters a problem." Progress MS-01 will undock for a final time on July 2 and reenter (burning up on the way down -- SpaceX's Dragon is the only ISS cargo spacecraft designed to survive reentry).
NASA's Juno spacecraft is getting closer and closer to Jupiter, with orbital insertion next Monday (July 4). There will be three briefings that day, but two pre-arrival briefings will be held this Thursday at JPL. They will be webcast.
Thursday also is Asteroid Day, "a global awareness campaign" with events around the world to learn about asteroids "and what we can do to protect our planet ..." It is an independent effort founded by Britain's Brian May (the Queen guitarist and astrophysicist), B612's Danica Remy and Rusty Schweickert, and film director Grigorij Richters and with support from the European Space Agency (ESA). Thursday is June 30, the anniversary of the 1908 Tunguska (Russia) event, the most destructive meteor airburst of modern times.
To close out the week, the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC is celebrating its 40th anniversary and has invited the public to a family friendly "All Night at the Museum" from 9:00 pm Friday to 10:00 am Saturday with special guests stopping by, all night films and lots of other fun activities. The official re-opening of the renovated Boeing Milestones of Flight gallery is at 8:30 pm ET. That and other Friday evening activities will be covered by C-SPAN.
Those and other events we know about as of Saturday afternoon are shown below. Check back throughout the week for additional events we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.
Tuesday, June 28
Tuesday-Wednesday, June 28-29
Tuesday-Thursday, June 28-30
Wednesday, June 29
Thursday, June 30
Friday, July 1
Friday-Saturday, July 1-2
For the first time in 7 years, the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee held a hearing on commercial space transportation issues on Wednesday. Several Members were in attendance, some of whom acknowledged constituent interests in these issues, but there was no special focus other than getting an update from government and industry experts.
Congress assigned the Department of Transportation (DOT) the dual roles of both facilitating and regulating the commercial space launch industry in the 1984 Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA), which has been amended several times, most recently in 2004. All the legislation originated in the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee (and its predecessors), not T&I. The SS&T website clearly states that it has jurisdiction over “commercial space activities relating to the Department of Transportation…”
For the first 10 years, commercial space launch activities were handled in the Office of the Secretary of Transportation, but in 1995 it was delegated to the FAA (part of DOT). FAA thereupon created the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST).
FAA/AST is under the jurisdiction of House SS&T, but the House T&I committee oversees the FAA itself and some of the issues involve other parts of the FAA. For example, for FY2017, in addition to the $19.8 million request for AST, FAA is requesting $2.953 million for commercial space transportation safety-related activities as part of the Research, Engineering and Development (RE&D) budget and $2 million for integrating commercial space launches into the National Air Space in the Facilities and Equipment (F&E) budget. Thus, T&I does have an oversight interest.
Subcommittee chairman Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) noted that the FAA Tech Center in his district is involved in space debris modeling and subcommittee ranking member Rick Larsen (D-WA) is from the Seattle area where a number of traditional and entrepreneurial space companies are headquartered or have facilities. Larsen even noted that the NewSpace2016 conference was underway in Seattle as the hearing was taking place. He and full committee ranking member Peter DeFazio (D-OR) seemed to have the keenest interest in these issues and Larsen said he hoped the subcommittee would have another hearing early in the next Congress.
The five witnesses were: George Nield, FAA/AST Associate Administrator; Gerald Dillingham, Government Accountability Office (GAO); Mike Gold, chairman of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC); Michael Lopez-Alegria, COMSTAC Vice Chair; and Taber MacCallum, World View Enterprises.
The hearing covered a potpourri of issues.
FAA’s Dual Role to Facilitate and Regulate. DeFazio made it clear that he has long been skeptical that one agency can successfully facilitate and regulate an industry at the same time, an issue that has been debated since the 1984 CSLA was enacted. He argued that the Department of Commerce should be in charge of facilitating and promoting the industry, while FAA regulates it. Nield explained that having a dual role does not mean that one company is favored over another or that public safety is compromised. He pointed out that commercial space launch companies have a perfect record so far in terms of public safety, with no deaths or injuries to the general public.
DeFazio, however, pressed Nield on the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB’s) finding in the 2014 Scaled Composites/Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo accident that FAA/AST did not allow its staff to ask questions of Scaled if they were not directly related to public safety in order to “reduce the burden” on Scaled. While no member of the public has died as a result of commercial space launches, DeFazio insisted, someone did die in that case. Nield replied that FAA/AST’s responsibility is public safety. DeFazio then asked Dillingham for GAO’s view and Dillingham said that GAO has expressed concern in the past about the dual role and further study is needed.
Article VI and Mission Authorizations. Gold pleaded – literally – with the subcommittee to resolve the problem with U.S. compliance with Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty, which requires governments to authorize and continually supervise the space activities of non-government entities, like companies. Gold currently works for SSL, which is developing satellite servicing technologies, and previously worked for Bigelow Aerospace, which wants to build habitats in orbit, on the Moon and elsewhere. No U.S. government agency has been assigned responsibility for authorizing or supervising such activities, leaving them in regulatory limbo. A recent report from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy recommended that DOT be assigned that role and issue “mission authorizations” for companies wanting to engage in those and other new types of commercial space activities such as asteroid mining. Gold exclaimed “I come to you today begging you for a resolution” so the United States can be a global leader in these emerging industries. He asked the subcommittee to deal with the issue “with alacrity” and direct the FAA/AST to update its regulations to include mission authorizations.
Regulating Commercial Human Spaceflight Passenger Safety. Current law prohibits the FAA from promulgating new regulations for the safety of passengers (“spaceflight participants”) on commercial human spaceflights until 2023 -- often referred to as a "moratorium" on regulations or a "learning period" for industry. Until then, companies are required only to provide for “informed consent” where customers are told the risks and they make their own decisions on whether to fly. This is a controversial issue with some arguing that commercial human spaceflight is akin to scuba diving or skydiving where the government does not get involved, while others find it more comparable to commercial airline travel where there is considerable government regulation.
MacCallum wants the informed consent regime made permanent so companies like his – which will be offering stratospheric balloon trips -- are assured of the regulatory regime under which they will have to operate. He recommended that a parallel “extended license” regime be created where passenger safety would be regulated by the FAA, but it would be required only for companies offering services that fall under common carrier definitions – routine flights from one point on Earth to another. Other commercial space companies could voluntarily choose to get an extended license if they thought it would give them a competitive advantage because customers might feel safer flying with an operator who had such a license.
Larsen asked if the FAA could do that now and MacCallum said he believed so, but Nield said the law currently restricts the FAA to only working with industry on developing voluntary standards, not developing any new regulations. Lopez-Alegria, who previously was President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), spoke in favor of voluntary industry standards instead of government regulations. CSF is working with its member companies, although he explained how difficult it is to get a group of very disparate companies with very different vehicle designs to work on the issue, although he believes the discussions are going in the right direction.
Calculating Maximum Probable Loss for Third Party Indemnification. Dillingham pointed out that FAA/AST has not responded effectively to GAO recommendations dating back to 2012 to update the methodology it uses to calculate how much insurance commercial space launch companies must purchase to cover third-party (general public) claims in case of a launch accident. It is important because the government could be liable for a greater amount of losses if the FAA does not require companies to purchase a proper amount.
He stressed that this is becoming increasingly important as more spaceports are being licensed around the country, including inland sites like one in Midland, Texas. A three-tiered system was established in 1988 where companies must purchase insurance up to $500 million, the government then is liable (subject to appropriations) for claims between that floor and an inflation-adjusted ceiling (currently $3.06 billion), and the company is liable for any amounts above that. The “up to $500 million” is what is at issue. The FAA calculates the Maximum Probable Loss (MPL) for each launch and the company must buy that much insurance, which may be significantly less than $500 million. If the MPL is calculated to be $100 million, for example, the government’s liability would be from $100 million to $3.06 billion, not $500 million to $3.06 billion. Dillingham said the methodology is “dated by a few decades” and although Congress required FAA to review and update it and submit a report by April 2016, no report has been submitted.
Rep. John Duncan (R-TN), asked why the government indemnifies the industry at all now that the industry is mature. Nield replied that the industry believes it is essential in order to compete with other countries that do provide such indemnification. Dillingham agreed saying that while the United States has a $3.06 billion cap on what the government will pay, in Russia, for example, there is no cap. The government will pay any amount above what insurance covers.
Funding for FAA/AST. Gold passionately argued for more funding for FAA/AST warning that “it’s only a matter of time until safety suffers” because the office is underfunded. “COMSTAC at every meeting has endorsed the need for more funding. When have you seen companies asking for more funding for their regulators before?” He worries that both the safety and competitiveness of the U.S. industry is at stake. The Obama Administration is requesting $19.8 million this year, a $2 million increase over its current funding. The Senate has passed the Transportation-HUD appropriations bill with that level and the House Appropriations Committee ultimately recommended that level after an amendment was adopted during markup. Dillingham said GAO also was concerned about whether FAA/AST could fulfill all its tasks, at one point finding that it was not performing 10 percent of required safety inspections. He said GAO recommended that FAA provide more detail in its budget request to justify additional funds and the FY2017 request does that.
UPDATE, June 24, 2016: The launch was successfully conducted at 10:30 am ET today.
ORIGINAL STORY, June 22, 2016: The United Launch Alliance (ULA) is getting ready to launch an Atlas V rocket on Friday, the first since an anomaly occurred on a March 22 launch that placed the Orbital ATK OA-6 Cygnus cargo spacecraft into orbit. Friday's launch of a military communications satellite, MUOS-5, originally was planned for May 5, but was delayed while ULA and its suppliers diagnosed and fixed the problem.
During the March 22 launch, the Atlas V first stage engine shut down 6 seconds early. Fortunately, the Centaur second stage was able to compensate for the under-performance of the first stage. It fired 60 seconds longer than planned, placing the OA-6 Cygnus spacecraft into the proper orbit and allowing it to successfully dock with the International Space Station (ISS) and deliver supplies. Cygnus just completed its mission today and reentered Earth's atmosphere. It is not designed to survive reentry. (Cygnus departed from the ISS on June 14 and then was used for the SAFFIRE-1 experiment where a fire was intentionally started inside the capsule to study how fire evolves in microgravity. Later, several small "cubesats" were ejected into orbit before Cygnus itself made its final maneuver into a destructive reentry.)
Atlas V is powered by Russia's usually highly reliable RD-180 engine. ULA quickly traced the problem to the RD-180's fuel system and in late April specified that it was the RD-180's Mixture Ratio Control Valve. In a June 15 statement, ULA went further in explaining what happened: "at approximately T+222 seconds, an unexpected shift in fuel pressure differential across the RD-180 Mixture Ratio Control Valve (MRCV) and a reduction in fuel flow to the combustion chamber caused an oxidizer-rich mixture of propellants and a reduction in first stage performance. The imbalanced propellant consumption rate resulted in depletion of the first stage oxidizer with significant fuel remaining at booster engine shutdown. The engine supplier has implemented a minor change to the MRCV assembly to ensure the anomaly does not occur on future flights."
ULA's Atlas V is used for a broad range of military and civilian space launches and the company insists that it will launch all of its 2016 scheduled missions by the end of the year. That includes NASA's asteroid sample return mission OSIRIS-REx, scheduled for September. Use of the RD-180 engine for national security launches is currently the topic of intense congressional debate and the U.S. goal is to build a U.S. alternative to it.
Friday's launch of the Navy's fifth Multiple User Objective System (MUOS-5) communications satellite from Cape Canaveral, FL is scheduled for 10:30 am EDT. The window is open until 11:15 am EDT. The weather forecast is 80 percent favorable. ULA typically webcasts its launches.
In a report for the Atlantic Council, Theresa Hitchens and Joan Johnson-Freese argue that the incoming administration needs to relook at U.S. national security space strategy. Instead of relying on alliterative slogans whose meanings are unclear, a goal-oriented strategy – “proactive prevention” -- is needed to ensure that space remains usable for future generations and conflict in space is avoided.
Hitchens is a senior research scholar at the Center for International Security Studies at the University of Maryland and former director of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR). Johnson-Freese is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College and an expert on China’s space program. The two discussed the paper at an Atlantic Council event on June 17, where Johnson-Freese stressed that the viewpoints are her own, not those of DOD or the Navy.
During the early years of the Obama Administration, two catch phrases became popular: that space is “congested, contested and competitive”(the three Cs) and that the United States must maintain the ability to “deter, defend, and, if necessary, defeat” (the three Ds) efforts to attack U.S. or allied space assets.
While both have coexisted in U.S. space policy throughout the Obama Administration, the early focus was on the three Cs and the need to develop international agreements on how to ensure that space is “sustainable” for use in the future and not ruined, for example, by the growth of space debris.
A Chinese antisatellite (ASAT) test against one of its own satellites that created more than 3,000 pieces of debris in 2007 and a collision between an active U.S. Iridium communications satellite and a defunct Russian Kosmos satellite in 2009 added considerably to the population of debris in low Earth orbit. Those events catalyzed U.S. efforts to create Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs) through the United Nations. In parallel, the European Union drafted a Code of Conduct (CoC) to define what constitutes good behavior in space so that countries could understand what constitutes bad behavior in the eyes of the international space community. The idea was that peer pressure would encourage countries to behave well and not recklessly add to the space debris problem, for example.
Hitchens and Johnson-Freese argue that all that changed in 2013 when China tested an ASAT weapon that reached geostationary orbit (GEO). Until then, all ASAT tests – by the United States, Soviet Union/Russia, and China – threatened only satellites in lower orbits. While those are very important, Hitchens argues that the most critical national security satellites are those in GEO, which until then was thought to be a “sanctuary” where satellites were safe from attack. The 2013 Chinese test changed the threat perception and hardened U.S. attitudes. Attention shifted to the three Ds (deter, defend, defeat). At about the same time, Europe’s Code of Conduct effort essentially fell apart.
Today, Johnson-Freese and Hitchens argue that the United States needs to reassess what its goals are in space and how to achieve them rather than using the “bumper stickers” of the three Cs and three Ds or “scaring people” with recent rhetoric about the need to increase spending for space security by $5 billion and last year’s 60 Minutes segment with Gen. John Hyten and Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James discussing “The Battle Above.”
They describe their paper as a starting point for discussion that begins with the premise that the goal is to avoid conflict in space since the United States is heavily dependent on satellites not only for national security purposes, but for everyday life. In fact, they argue that civil government agencies like NASA and NOAA as well as industry must be involved in generating a new national security space strategy – a “holistic” approach – since they are also deeply involved in space activities.
Hitchens and Johnson-Freese propose a “proactive prevention” strategy “aimed squarely at preventing a space conflict, while also preparing to win one if need be.” Their paper is published on the Atlantic Council website.