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Commercial Space News

What's Happening in Space Policy January 30 - February 3, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Jan-2017 (Updated: 29-Jan-2017 09:59 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of January 30 - February 3, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

Tuesday is NASA's official Day of Remembrance, honoring the crews of Apollo 1, space shuttle Challenger, space shuttle Columbia and other astronauts who lost their lives in connection with spaceflight.  Some events have already taken place, including two at Kennedy Space Center last week to specially honor the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire that killed Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee on January 27, 1967.  Nineteen years and a day later, on January 28, 1986, Challenger's 7-person crew died 73 seconds after launch when an O-ring on a solid rocket booster failed.  Seventeen years and four days after that, on February 1, 2003, Columbia's 7-person crew died during their descent to Earth after a 16-day mission when superheated gases entered a hole in Columbia's wing punctured by a piece of foam that fell from the shuttle's External Tank during launch.  NASA has a special Day of Remembrance webpage honoring all of them.  Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot will lay a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery on Tuesday and other events will take place at various NASA centers around the country.

In Congress this week, a new version of the NASA Transition Authorization Act is being readied for potential consideration by the Senate.  The Senate passed a 2016 bill in the closing days of the 114th Congress, unfortunately after the House already had completed its legislative business so the bill did not clear Congress.   Members and staff have kept working on it and a 2017 version with some modifications is being circulated.  According to a draft we've seen, there are three especially interesting changes.  One clarifies that the primary consideration for the acquisition strategy for the commercial crew program is to carry U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) "safely, reliably, and affordably."  Another directs NASA to report to Congress on how the Orion spacecraft can fulfill the provision in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that it be able to serve as a backup to commercial crew, including with use of a launch vehicle other than the Space Launch System.  The third is a finding that NASA has not demonstrated to Congress that the cost of the Asteroid Redirect Mission is commensurate with its benefits, a stronger statement than what was in the 2016 bill.  Discussions are still ongoing, apparently, about potential language regarding best practices for using Space Act Agreements.  The course of legislation is rarely smooth, so there's no guarantee the bill will be introduced and considered this week, but we hear that's the plan.

Also on the Senate side, a vote is scheduled for Tuesday at 12:20 pm ET on the nomination of Elaine Chao to be Secretary of Transportation.  A vote on Wilbur Ross's nomination to be Secretary of Commerce has not been formally scheduled, but is expected this week.

Subject to a rule being granted, the House will take up a completely different piece of legislation this week.  A still unnumbered House Joint Resolution (H. J. Res.) would disapprove of a final rule issued by DOD, NASA and the General Services Administration (GSA) on August 25, 2016 that went into effect on October 25, 2016 to implement Executive Order 13673 regarding Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces.  The resolution is posted on the House Rules Committee's website and states that Congress disapproves of 81 Fed. Reg. 58562 to improve contractor compliance with labor laws.  The House Rules Committee will take it up on Tuesday.  Assuming the rule is granted, the House is scheduled to vote on it on Thursday.

Off the Hill, the American Physical Society is holding its "April Meeting" in January.  It began yesterday and runs through January 31.  Of particular note is a presentation by the Russian Ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, on Tuesday.  He will talk about "Science and Technology Cooperation as an Effective Bridge for Strengthening Relations Between Russia and the US."   The conference is not focused on space and Kislyak's talk may be quite broad about S&T cooperation, but it would be surprising if the ISS doesn't get mentioned.

Way, way, way off the Hill -- in Vienna, Austria -- the Science and Technology Subcommittee of the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) holds its annual two-week meeting beginning tomorrow. 

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for others we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.

Monday, January 30

Monday-Tuesday, January 30-31 (actually began on January 28)

Monday, January 30 - Friday, February 10

Tuesday, January 31

  • NASA Day of Remembrance, wreath-laying at Arlington National Cemetery, 11:00 am ET, events also at other locations and times

Thursday, February 2

Friday, February 3

Former NOAA Administrator, Astronaut Sullivan to Write Book on Satellite Servicing

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Jan-2017 (Updated: 26-Jan-2017 06:16 PM)

Former NOAA Administrator and NASA astronaut Kathy Sullivan has been selected by the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum (NASM) as the 2017 Charles A. Lindbergh Chair of Aerospace History.   She will spend her one year in that position writing a book about satellite servicing as a philosophy and practice.  As a space shuttle astronaut, she not only was the first American woman to conduct a spacewalk, but was on the shuttle mission that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope, the poster child of satellite servicing.

Sullivan resigned as Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Administrator of NOAA on January 20 at the end of the Obama Administration.  An oceanographer by training, she has a long career in aerospace including her years as a NASA astronaut (1978-1993), president and CEO of the interactive science center COSI Columbus (Ohio), Director of Ohio State's Battelle Center for Mathematics and Science Education, and an earlier stint at NOAA as chief scientist.  

Kathy Sullivan.   Photo Credit:  NOAA

The Lindbergh Chair of Aerospace History is a competitive one-year fellowship for senior scholars who are writing or plan to write books in aerospace history.  According to the NASM press release, Sullivan's book on satellite servicing will discuss its "philosophy and practice, with attention to the creation of design features, tools, procedures, training, tests and evaluation."

Sullivan flew on three space shuttle missions:  STS 41-G in 1984 when she became the first American woman to make a spacewalk, just months after Svetlana Savitskaya became the first woman ever to do it; STS-31 in 1990 that deployed Hubble; and STS-45 in 1992, the first Spacelab mission devoted to studying planet Earth.

Hubble is renowned today for its spectacular images of the universe and groundbreaking science.  It was the first space telescope designed to be serviced by astronauts, which turned out to be a really good thing because its mirror was deformed.  Astronauts on the first servicing mission essentially fitted the telescope with a special pair of glasses that made it see properly.  Over the course of four more servicing missions, the instruments and major components, including the solar arrays, were replaced.  Launched almost 27 years ago, it is still returning valuable data because of its ability to be serviced.

Its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), however, is not designed to be serviced and debate continues about whether it should have been and whether future space telescopes should be.  NASA has been working on developing robotic satellite servicing technology through the RESTORE-L program at Goddard Space Flight Center for more than a decade and recently elevated those efforts from an "office" to a "division."   NASA efforts are aimed at servicing satellites in low Earth orbit.  The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has its own Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) technology development program.   Orbital ATK and Space Systems Loral also are working on satellite servicing technologies.

The idea has many skeptics in terms of whether it could ever become a commercially viable enterprise and others question whether the government is competing with the private sector in developing the technologies, so there is much for Sullivan's book to elucidate.

Ross Promises Support for NOAA Weather and Climate Research, Sharing Data With Public - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Jan-2017 (Updated: 27-Feb-2017 07:35 PM)

Secretary of Commerce-designate Wilbur Ross has assured Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) that he supports weather and climate research, monitoring and reporting at the Department of Commerce, of which NOAA is a part, and providing that data to the public. Nelson is the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which approved Ross's nomination today. [UPDATE, February 27, 2017:  Ross was confirmed by the Senate today by a vote of 72-27.]

Nelson wrote to Ross on January 19 asking for a "clear commitment" to supporting climate research and monitoring programs at the Department if Ross is confirmed.  Nelson added that "I fully expect that you will safeguard the department's scientists from political interference, intimidation and censorship."

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL).  Photo credit:  Nelson website.

Ross replied on January 23 in the affirmative.  Asking to set aside questions of why sea levels and ocean temperatures are changing and instead focus for now on addressing the impacts of those changes, Ross said the Department "should continue to research, monitor and report weather and climate information.... [I]f confirmed, one of my first orders of business will be to begin meeting with NOAA scientists to become fully briefed on what they are seeing with respect to weather and climate information and how the Department can ensure that the National Weather Service continues to make advances to improve the timeliness and accuracy of weather forecasting." 

Wilbur Ross at his Senate Commerce Committee Confirmation Hearing, January 18, 2017.  Screengrab from committee webcast.

Referencing his testimony at his confirmation hearing last week, Ross continued: "I believe science should be left to scientists."   He also said he wanted to provide the public "with as much factual and accurate data as we have available.  It is public tax dollars that support the Department's scientific research, and barring some national security concern, I see no valid reason to keep peer reviewed research from the public.  To be clear, by peer review I mean scientific review and not a political filter."

Ross's comments come against a backdrop of growing concern in the scientific community that the Trump Administration is trying to prevent the public release of scientific data from federal agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service since the inauguration. The Associated Press (AP) reported on what it called the White House "communications clampdown" in the executive branch.  The AP quoted a Trump transition official, Doug Ericksen, at EPA as saying it is temporary while they are "trying to get a handle on everything," but there is concern about what it portends.   AP went on to quote Jeff Ruch from the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility as saying that what the Trump Administration is doing goes beyond prior presidential transitions and "We're watching the dark cloud of Mordor extend over federal service," in reference to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

At its annual meeting in Seattle today, the American Meteorological Society (AMS) reaffirmed its official statement on Freedom of Scientific Expression.  "Already the new Administration is restraining communications from government agencies related to the weather, water, and climate community.  In several instances in recent years, government agencies and elected officials of both major political parties have attempted to obstruct or inhibit the work of scientists," AMS said in a press release, which prompted the Society to adopt its statement originally in 2012 and readopt it today without modification.

Ross's nomination to be Secretary of Commerce was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee this morning by voice vote, along with that for Elaine Chao to be Secretary of Transportation.  There was no dissent.  The committee also approved the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act (S. 141) as amended, and the Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act (H.R. 321), and 16 other bills.

Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Bill Makes a Comeback

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Jan-2017 (Updated: 15-Jan-2017 03:48 PM)

The House passed a new iteration of the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act on January 9.  H.R. 353 is the latest version of legislation that passed the Senate in the closing days of the 114th Congress, but did not clear the House.  The bill's focus is not on satellites, but several provisions would affect NOAA's satellite activities.

The legislation dates back to 2013 and went through many changes before passing the Senate on December 1, 2016 as H.R. 1561.  That was thought to be a compromise between the House and Senate, combining elements of the version of H.R. 1561 that passed the House on May 19, 2015; S. 1331, the Seasonal Weather Forecasting Act, approved by the Senate Commerce Committee on May 20, 2015; S. 1573, Weather Alerts for a Ready Nation Act, reported from the Senate Commerce Committee on October 19, 2015; and H.R. 34, the Tsunami Warning, Education and Research Act, which passed the House on January 7, 2015 and the Senate (amended) on October 6, 2015.  (Note that H.R. 34 became the legislative vehicle for the 21st Century Cures Act, which recently became law, but does not contain any of the tsunami language.)

Although Senate passage seemed to bode well for the legislation, it turned out that not everyone agreed with the compromise.  House Republicans from Georgia objected to a water resources provision that earlier had been added by Florida Senator Bill Nelson (D) even though Georgia's two Senators had agreed to the bill by unanimous consent.  The Washington Post reported that House leadership removed the language and tried to pass the bill by unanimous consent, but the Senate indicated it would not accept the bill if amended in that manner. The controversial language calls for a study of water resources of the Chattahoochee River, a major water source for Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

Thus, the bill died at the end of the 114th Congress.  It now has been reintroduced as H.R. 353, without the water resources provision.  The question remains as to whether the Senate will agree to this version.   (The new bill also omits the tsunami provisions, which were reintroduced separately as H.R. 312.)

Satellite-related provisions of H.R. 353 require NOAA to do the following:

  • develop and maintain a prioritized list of observation data requirements necessary to ensure weather forecasting capabilities to protect life and property to the maximum extent practicable and utilize Observing System Simulation Experiments (OSSEs), Observing System Experiments, Analyses of Alternatives and other assessment tools to continually evaluate observing systems, data and information needed to meet those requirements and identify potential gaps and options to address gaps;
  • undertake OSSEs to quantitatively assess the relative value and benefits of observing capabilities and systems and determine the potential impact of proposed space-based, suborbital, and in situ observing systems on analyses and forecasts;
  • conduct OSSEs prior to the acquisition of government-owned or -leased operational observing systems, including polar orbiting and geostationary satellites with a lifecycle cost of more than $500 million and prior to the purchase of any major new commercially provided data with a lifecycle cost of more than $500 million;
  • complete an OSSE to assess the value of data from Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) Radio Occultation (RO) within 30 days of enactment of this law;
  • complete an OSSE to assess the value of data from a geostationary hyperspectral sounder global constellation within 120 days of enactment;
  • after completing the OSSEs, make public an assessment of private and public weather data sourcing options, including their availability, affordabilty, and cost-effectiveness;
  • complete and operationalize the COSMIC-1 and COSMIC-2 satellite constellations (joint programs with Taiwan for obtaining GNSS-RO measurements)
  • enter into an agreement with the National Academy of Sciences or another appropriate organization before September 30, 2018 to study future satellite needs;
  • submit a strategy to enable the procurement of quality commercial weather data within 180 days of enactment;
  • publish data and metadata standards and specifications for space-based commercial weather data within 30 days of enactment and enter into at least one pilot contract  within 90 days of enactment, and within 3 years of the contract date, submit a report to Congress on the results;
  • publish data and metadata standards and specifications for geostationary hyperspectral data as soon and possible;
  • if the results of the commercial weather data pilots are successful, obtain commercial weather data from private sector providers where appropriate, cost-effective and feasible, and as early as possible in the acquisition process for future government meteorological satellites, consider whether commercial capabilities could meet those needs; and
  • continue to meet international meteorological agreements, including practices set forth through World Meteorological Organization Resolution 40

The bill authorizes $6 million per year for FY2017-2020 for the commercial weather data pilot program. 

The FY2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act provided $3 million for NOAA to initiate a commercial weather data pilot program and it is progressing already, with two contracts awarded in September 2016.  NOAA requested $5 million for FY2017; Congress has not completed action on FY2017 appropriations bills. 

H.R. 353 is an authorization bill that officially authorizes the activity and recommends future year funding.   (Not sure of the difference between an authorization and an appropriation?  See our "What's a Markup?" Fact Sheet.)

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), vice chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee, and has 5 Republican and 1 Democratic co-sponsors. Among the co-sponsors are Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), who has chaired the House SS&T's Environment Subcommittee for several years, and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), who has been the top Democrat on that subcommittee. Both spoke in favor of the bill during debate on the House floor, as did House SS&T chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) submitted a statement.  The bill passed the House by voice vote.

What's Happening in Space Policy January 16-20, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Jan-2017 (Updated: 15-Jan-2017 12:05 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of January 16-20, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.   The Senate will be in session most of the week; the House will be in session only on Friday.

During the Week

The workweek begins on Monday with a federal holiday (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day) and ends on Friday with the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States.  Friday is not a federal holiday, but government offices and many businesses in the Washington, DC area will be closed.  Word of warning if you're coming to DC for any reason this week: the security folks are going to start closing roads on WEDNESDAY in preparation for Friday's inaugural activities.  Federal workers in DC are being encouraged by the Office of Personnel Management to telework Wednesday and Thursday because it's going to be very difficult to get around town those days, never mind Friday or Saturday (when protests will continue, including the Women's March on Washington). 

Trump will be sworn in at noon on Friday (January 20) and at that point President Obama's political appointees lose their jobs unless they've been specifically asked to stay on.  At NASA, Administrator Charlie Bolden and Deputy Administrator Dava Newman are leaving, and Robert Lightfoot, the top NASA civil servant, will become Acting Administrator.   (Lightfoot will be speaking at the Maryland Space Business Roundtable in Greenbelt, MD on Tuesday.)   Another Obama political appointee, Chief Financial Officer David Radzanowski, has been ask to stay for a while, however.  We're trying to get information from NOAA on who will be in charge there at 12:01 pm ET. 

No announcements have been made by the Trump transition team as to who they plan to put in place permanently at NASA or NOAA, although there are widespread rumors that Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) is a top candidate for NASA Administrator.  He has been very active legislatively in DOD, NOAA, and FAA space issues (he chairs the Environment Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and is a member of the House Armed Services Committee), but not much with NASA.  He is an advocate of creating a legal and regulatory environment that facilitates the emergence of new commercial space activities, expanding the role of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation to include non-military space situational awareness and authorizing in-space activities (not just launch and reentry), and promoting public private partnerships.  He spearheaded the creation of the commercial weather data pilot programs at NOAA and DOD, but stresses they are in addition to, not instead of, the government's own weather satellites.  His is not the only name circulating as potential Administrator, and he also has been mentioned as a candidate for Secretary of the Air Force, however, so this is not a sure bet.  Stay tuned.

At DOD, Secretary of Defense (SecDef) Ash Carter and Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James (and presumably the other service secretaries) are leaving.  Trump has announced plans to nominate Gen. James Mattis (USMC, Ret.), 66, as SecDef and the Senate Armed Services Committee has already held his nomination hearing.  Space activities did not come up during the open hearing.  The committee gave him a set of written questions in advance and four were about space, but were not very newsworthy (they are posted on the committee's website).  The Senate and House passed legislation last week allowing him to serve as SecDef even though he retired only 3 years ago and the law requires a 7-year separation.  President Obama is expected to sign the bill, clearing the way for Mattis to be confirmed as soon as Trump takes office.  Literally.  Confirmation votes are expected in the Senate Friday afternoon. 

The Senate will continue confirmation hearings this week.  Among them are the hearing for Wilbur Ross Jr. to be Secretary of Commerce.  The 79-year old billionaire is an investor, company turn-around specialist, and former banker.  What views he may hold on NOAA or its satellite activities are unknown.  Last week, the Senate Commerce Committee held the nomination hearing for Elaine Chao, 63, to be Secretary of Transportation and it was clear she was not yet up to speed on that department's space-related responsibilities.   Which is hardly surprising in either case.  Both Commerce and Transportation have very broad portfolios. Space is a minor part of what they do.

By the end of the week, Mattis, Ross and Chao are likely to be confirmed by the Senate for their new positions. Though some of Trump's nominee-designates are controversial, these three do not seem to be among them.  Chao has experience in leading federal agencies already, having served as Deputy Secretary of Transportation under President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of Labor under President George W. Bush.  Mattis has a long and distinguished military career and was most recently Commander of U.S. Central Command, so clearly has strong leadership skills, but has not run a federal agency.  Rumors are that Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work is being asked to stay for a few months to ease the transition.  Ross has led businesses, but has no prior government experience (which is not uncommon for Cabinet-level positions).  It is interesting to note that outgoing Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker recommended in her "exit memo" that the Commerce Department be "streamlined" into a "Department of Business" as President Obama proposed in 2012, with NOAA and other parts of Commerce transferred elsewhere (NOAA would have gone to the Department of the Interior).  With his business focus, one wonders if Ross might advocate for the same thing.

Frank Kendall, the outgoing Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, will give his final speech in that position on Tuesday at CSIS where he will talk about (and sign) his new book "Getting Defense Acquisition Right."  Will be interesting to hear what he says about acquisition of space systems, which is expected to be a major topic in Congress this year.  The event will be webcast.

On Wednesday, NASA and NOAA will release the latest annual data on global temperatures and discuss the most important climate trends of 2016.  That will be done via a media teleconference call.  Anyone may listen and see the associated graphics on the NASA Live website (formerly NASA News Audio).

European Space Agency (ESA) Director General Jan Woerner will hold his annual press breakfast at ESA HQ in Paris on Wednesday morning.  It's a bit early in the United States (3:00-5:00 am Eastern), but ESA often posts the webcast for later viewing on its website.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for ones we hear about later and add to our Events of Interest list.

Monday, January 16

  • U.S. Federal Holiday (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day)

Tuesday, January 17

Wednesday, January 18

Wednesday-Friday, January 18-20

Friday, January 20

SpaceX Successfully Returns to Flight with Iridium NEXT Launch

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Jan-2017 (Updated: 14-Jan-2017 05:59 PM)

SpaceX successfully returned its Falcon 9 rocket to flight status today, launching 10 Iridium NEXT communications satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.   It also landed the Falcon 9 first stage on one of its autonomous spaceport drone ships (ASDS) off the California coast, the first such landing for a West Coast launch.  All 10 satellites were successfully placed into their orbits about one hour after launch.

SpaceX has been recovering from a September 1, 2016 incident at its Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), FL launch pad that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and the AMOS-6 communications satellite.  That was not a launch failure.  Instead it occurred two days before the scheduled launch during fueling of the rocket for a routine pre-launch static fire test.

SpaceX’s investigation did not identify a single definitive cause, but the company concluded that one of the three composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) inside the rocket’s second stage liquid oxygen (LOX) tank failed.  The COPVs contain helium.  The failure occurred due to “accumulation of super chilled LOX or SOX [solid oxygen] in buckles under the overwrap.”  In the short term, the solution is to use warmer helium and helium loading operations used successfully in the past.

This is the first of seven SpaceX launches for Iridium, which operates a constellation of 66 operational satellites that provide mobile voice and data communications. The 10 Iridium NEXT satellites launched today are the first of 70 that will replace the original constellation. The satellites are in 6 planes of 11 satellites each, all in high inclination orbits that dictate launches from Vandenberg rather than Cape Canaveral so the rocket’s flight path avoids populated areas.

The satellites are launched 10 at a time because that is the maximum capacity of the Falcon 9 rocket according to a tweet from Iridium CEO Matt Desch (@IridiumBoss), who added that they have “an elaborate plan to insert some sats and drift others to get 11 into each plane.”

The new satellites are more powerful, have higher data speeds, and offer new services like the ability to track aircraft around the world in real time, a service that will be provided by Aireon.

SpaceX also successfully landed the Falcon 9’s first stage on one its ASDS ships.   The one used today is named Just Read the Instructions.  (The other is Of Course I Still Love You.)  The company has recovered several first stages from East Coast launches, but this is only the second time it has tried a landing with a West Coast launch.  The first attempt failed when one of the four landing legs did not lock into position.

SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage from Iridium NEXT launch lands on drone ship Just Read the Instructions off the California coast, January 14, 2017.  Screengrab from SpaceX webcast.

There was no such problem today and a camera aboard the first stage showed its descent and touchdown right on the “X” on the drone ship.   SpaceX is recovering its first stages with the goal of reusing them and thereby reducing launch costs.

The Falcon 9 was launched from Vandenberg's Space Launch Complex 4E (SLC-4E) today, a launch pad it leases from the Air Force.  It also leases SLC-40 at CCAFS, which was badly damaged by the September 1 incident, as well as NASA's Launch Complex 39-A at Kennedy Space Center, which is adjacent to CCAFS.  SpaceX plans to build its own launch site near Brownsville, TX.

Note:  This article was updated once the satellites were successfully deployed.

Chao Punts on Whether Commercial Space Should be Restored to DOT Secretary's Office

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Jan-2017 (Updated: 12-Jan-2017 10:29 PM)

During her confirmation hearing yesterday, Secretary of Transportation-designate Elaine Chao punted on a question from Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) about whether the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) should be restored to the Secretary's office instead of being subordinate to the FAA.

President-elect Trump has announced his intention to nominate Chao to be Secretary of Transportation. Her confirmation hearing was held before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee yesterday.  Chao was Deputy Secretary of Transportation during part of the George H.W. Bush Administration and Secretary of Labor under President George W. Bush.   She also was Deputy Administrator of DOT's Maritime Administration and chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission.  Among her other career achievements, she was President and CEO of United Way of America and Director of the Peace Corps.  Most recently she has been a Distinguished Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.  She is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who introduced her at the hearing along with fellow Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.

The preponderance of questions were on other aspects of DOT's broad responsibilities, such as privatization of air traffic control, drones, the Maritime Administration, freight delivery by railroads, commuter rail, highway safety, and infrastructure investments for airports, highways, and railways.

Cruz was the only Senator who asked about DOT's space-related activities.  He chairs the Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee.  During the last Congress, he was one of the Senate leaders in passing the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA). 

At the hearing, he stated that CSLCA "directs the department to look at moving the Office of Commercial Space Transportation back under the secretary" and asked if she would support such a move to create "an environment where commercial space launch can thrive".  He noted that it was part of the Secretary's office when she was Deputy Secretary in the early 1990s.

Chao clearly was unprepared for the question, though that seemed to be true throughout the hearing.  In this case, she thanked Cruz for bringing the matter to her attention and said she looked forward "to getting briefed on the current status of this issue."  He replied that he looked forward to working with her on the issue.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) reminded Cruz that he had been an author of the original commercial space launch legislation in the 1980s (when he was a member of the House), but did not ask Chao any questions about her plans for commercial space.

President Ronald Reagan assigned DOT responsibility for facilitating and regulating the commercial space launch industry in 1983 through an Executive Order. Congress followed with the 1984 Commercial Space Launch Act, which has been amended several times since.  Initially, the Office of Commercial Space Transportation was part of the Secretary's office, but was transferred to the FAA in November 1995.  Commercial space launch advocates have argued for many years that it should be restored to the Secretary's office to get the visibility and resources it needs.

Those resource requirements could grow substantially if AST's role is expanded along the lines of recent discussions.  Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), for example, is a champion for making AST responsible for providing Space Situational Awareness data and conjunction analyses to non-military entities, and regulating in-space activities such as asteroid mining in addition to its current roles in regulating launch and reentry.

Bridenstine just began his third term in Congress, but is widely rumored to be the Trump transition team's top choice for NASA Administrator.  No such announcement has been made yet.

Satellite Export Controls Get Another Update, JWST No Longer Under ITAR

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Jan-2017 (Updated: 11-Jan-2017 11:38 PM)

The Departments of Commerce and State announced more changes to the regulations that govern satellite exports yesterday. The new rules affect a range of activities from commercial remote sensing satellites to human spacecraft to the James Webb Space Telescope and become effective on January 15, 2017.

After more than a decade of battling stringent export controls that many in the satellite industry claimed hampered U.S. efforts to compete on the global stage, a substantial victory was won in 2014 when many commercial satellite items were moved from the State Department's U.S. Munitions List (USML) and its International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) to the Department of Commerce's Commerce Control List (CCL) of dual-use technologies governed by the Export Administration Regulations (EAR).

Still, there were remaining matters to be settled, several of which were addressed in yesterday's announcement.  A summary published by NOAA's Office of Space Commerce includes the following:

  • increases the aperture thresholds for control of remote sensing satellites and components;
  • eliminates controls based on whether a spacecraft supports human habitation, but such spacecraft may be controlled by other criteria;
  • redefines several controls based on technical capabilities rather than end use of the spacecraft;
  • removes and replaces confusing criteria concerning integrated propulsion and attitude control;
  • adds thresholds for controls on electric propulsion systems; and
  • clarifies various ambiguities.

A quick glance at the new rules as published in the Federal Register (the Office of Space Commerce website has links) provides additional details:

  • The aperture limits for commercial electro-optical remote sensing satellites will be raised from 0.35m to 0.50m, which is still short of the 1.1m requested by some of the commenters; and
  • ITAR controls on electric propulsion systems are for those that provide greater than 300 milli-Newtons of thrust and a specific impulse greater than 1,500 sec, or operate at an input power of more than 15kW.

Another interesting decision is that NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is being moved to the CCL.  "A determination was made ... that this specific telescope ... did not warrant being subject to the ITAR."   The change includes parts, components, accessories and attachments that are specially designed for use in or for JWST.   JWST is NASA's next major space telescope.  In many ways it is a follow-on to the Hubble Space Telescope and is scheduled for launch on a European Ariane rocket in 2018.

Texas Remains Powerful Space Influence as House Appropriations, Senate Commerce Announce Subcommittee Chairs

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Jan-2017 (Updated: 11-Jan-2017 12:16 AM)

The House Appropriations Committee announced the members who will chair its 12 subcommittees today.   At the same time, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee announced the Republican members and chairs of its six subcommittees.  There is no change for NASA and NOAA, but the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee will get a new chairwoman -- Kay Granger of Texas.  She joins fellow Texans in chairing key space-related committees and subcommittees.

Appropriations committees determine how much money federal departments and agencies get and how they must spend it.  The House and Senate Appropriations Committees each have 12 subcommittees that oversee all of the government's "discretionary spending" -- the funding Congress debates each year, as compared with "mandatory" spending such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and interest on the national debt, which is set by other means.

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) is the new House Appropriations Committee chairman, replacing Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) who hit a 6-year term limit imposed by House rules and had to relinquish the job.  Rogers had indicated interest in chairing the defense appropriations subcommittee, which oversees about half of all discretionary spending, but that went to Rep. Kay Granger of Texas instead.  She is beginning her 11th term in Congress.  Frelinghuysen chaired the defense subcommittee in the last Congress and Granger was his vice-chairwoman.  She represents a district that includes Fort Worth and is a champion of Lockheed Martin's F-35 program.  F-35s are assembled at a plant in Fort Worth.  President-elect Donald Trump has been critical of the F-35's cost.  Granger's views on national security space programs is unclear.  (Rogers will chair the State-Foreign Operations subcommittee.)

Rep. John Culberson, also of Texas, will continue to chair the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that oversees NASA and NOAA, as well as the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). He is a planetary science enthusiast, particularly of a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa because he believes life will be discovered there.  In a November 30, 2016 interview with Science, he expressed skepticism about the value of OSTP or a revived National Space Council, and support for earth science research, though he was coy about whether that should be a NASA responsibility.

The Senate Commerce Committee is an authorization committee that oversees NASA and NOAA.  Authorization committees set policy and recommend funding levels, but do not have any money to spend.  Only appropriators have money, but they are supposed to be guided by the recommendations of authorization committees, which are expected to have more detailed knowledge of an agency's activities.

NASA is overseen by the Science, Space and Competitiveness Subcommittee, which will continue to be chaired by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.  Cruz was busy running for President in the last Congress and held few hearings on space, but in those that he did, he expressed support for space exploration -- with earth science to be reassigned to other agencies -- and commercial space.   Other Republican members of the subcommittee are from Utah (Mike Lee), Colorado (Cory Gardner), Kansas (Jerry Moran), Alaska (Dan Sullivan), Wisconsin (Ron Johnson), and West Virginia (Shelley Moore Capito). 

NOAA is the responsibility of the subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard.  It will be chaired by Dan Sullivan of Alaska. Other members are from Wisconsin (Ron Johnson), Mississippi (Roger Wicker), Oklahoma (Jim Inhofe), Colorado (Cory Gardner), Utah (Mike Lee), and Indiana (Todd Young). 

In the House, Rep. Lamar Smith, another Texan, will continue to chair the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.  It oversees NASA, NOAA, the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, and NOAA and its Office of Space Commerce. The top Democrat on the committee, Eddie Bernie Johnson, also is from Texas, as is the Republican chairman of the Space Subcommittee, Brian Babin. 

Updated with clarification that Rep. Rogers will chair the House Appropriations State-Foreign Ops subcommittee.  Also, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida will continue to chair the Transportation-HUD subcommittee, which funds the FAA and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation, and Rep. Ken Calvert of California will continue to chair the Interior-Environment subcommittee, which funds the U.S. Geological Survey (which operates the Landsat satellites).

What's Happening in Space Policy January 8-14, 2017 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Jan-2017 (Updated: 09-Jan-2017 09:52 AM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of January 8-14, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate will be in session.

During the Week

The BIG space event this week will be the return to flight of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket.   Recently postponed from tomorrow (Monday) to Saturday, it will place 10 Iridium NEXT communications satellites into orbit.  The FAA approved the launch license on Friday, but Monday's launch slipped to Saturday because of inclement weather forecast at the launch site -- Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.   SpaceX is recovering from a September 1, 2016 incident that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and the AMOS-6 communications satellite during preparations for a static fire test two days before the scheduled launch. The static fire test for this launch was successfully accomplished on Thursday.

Here in Washington, the Senate will begin confirmation hearings for individuals President-elect Trump plans to nominate for Cabinet-level positions once he is President (on January 20).  Three have space responsibilities:  Secretary of Defense nominee-designate Gen. James Mattis (Ret.), Secretary of Commerce nominee-designate Wilbur J. Ross, Jr., and Secretary of Transportation nominee-designate Elaine Chao.  NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce.  The FAA and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation are part of the Department of Transportation (DOT).   Senate Democrats are objecting to some of the hearings because the non-partisan Office of Government Ethics has not had time to vet all of the nominees-designate for conflicts of interest yet.  Accusations are flying back and forth between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, all of which may be fascinating politically, but not really relevant to the space program, so we will leave it at that.  The Chao hearing is on Wednesday; the Mattis and Ross hearings are on Thursday.

Elsewhere in the country, AIAA will hold its annual SciTech forum, including the Aerospace Sciences meeting, in Grapevine, TX.  The AIAA website does not indicate which, if any, sessions will be livestreamed, but AIAA does webcast plenary and other special sessions at some of its conferences.  If we learn about a link to watch, we will add it to our calendar entry for this event.  There certainly are a lot of very interesting sessions on the agenda. UPDATE:  AIAA is livestreaming here.

The Earth Science Subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council's (NAC's) Science Committee will meet at Kennedy Space Center, FL on Tuesday and Wednesday.  Many earth scientists are nervous about the future of NASA's earth science program in a Trump Administration.  That's because former Congressman Bob Walker, who was a space adviser to Trump during the campaign and continues to play an advisory role on the transition team, believes NASA's "earth-centric" programs should be transferred to other government agencies so NASA can focus on exploration. It is a view shared by key congressional Republicans who oversee NASA.  With Republicans in charge of the House, Senate and White House, and the retirement of Sen. Barbara Mikulski who effectively defended NASA's program, the likelihood has increased.  It would be surprising if the NAC subcommittee has any better inkling of what the incoming Trump Administration plans to do, but anyone can listen in to the meeting to find out.  NASA Earth Science Division Director Mike Freilich is on the agenda Tuesday morning.  (Note that the remote participation option is audio only.)

NASA's Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) also meets this week. That one is in Arizona from Wednesday-Friday.  Presumably they will be cheering NASA's announcement last week of the selection of two asteroid missions (Psyche and Lucy) as the next two Discovery missions, while ruing the non-selection of a third -- NEOCam (though it will get another year of funding).  They also may discuss last week's release of the White House's National NEO Preparedness Strategy.  The White House said a companion "action plan" would soon follow.  Perhaps there will be some news on that.  The meeting will be available remotely through Adobe Connect.  Note that all times on the agenda are in Mountain Standard Time. NASA Planetary Division Director Jim Green will speak on Wednesday at 9:10 am Mountain Time (11:10 am Eastern).  Michele Gates and Dan Mazanek will provide an update on the Asteroid Redirect Mission at 4:10 pm MT (6:10 pm Eastern) on Wednesday.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for additional events we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.

Sunday-Thursday, January 8-12

Monday-Friday, January 9-13

Tuesday-Wednesday, January 10-11

Wednesday, January 11

Wednesday-Friday, January 11-13

Thursday, January 12

Friday, January 13

Saturday, January 14