Commercial Space News
Elon Musk has made no secret of his passion to make humanity a multiplanetary species by creating a self-sustaining society on Mars as a backup plan in case Earth is destroyed in a cataclysmic event. Today he provided some of the technical details of the Earth-Mars transportation system he wants to build, which will open opportunities for entrepreneurs and others to decide what happens on Mars. He will build the space equivalent of the Union Pacific railroad, but leave it to others to fill in the details of how a society will begin and grow there.
Musk, CEO and founder of SpaceX, spoke at a special session of the 2016 International Astronautical Congress (IAC2016) being held in Guadalajara, Mexico. These annual IAC meetings bring together space engineers, scientists, lawyers, and policy makers and his much-anticipated talk was aimed at that audience. An archived webcast of the presentation and slides are posted on the SpaceX website along with an animated video demonstrating how the system would work.
He identified four key technical requirements to make the effort affordable: full reusability of the rockets, tankers, and spacecraft; refueling in orbit; propellant production on Mars; and using the right propellant (methane, since the constituents are readily available on Mars). His rockets could be used 1,000 times, the tankers 100 times, and the spacecraft 12 times. Each spacecraft could accommodate 100 passengers at first, growing to 200.
He explained in detail some of the engineering decisions made so far for the rocket, the Mars Transporter or Interplanetary Transport System. They include the use of carbon-fiber for the primary structure; the specific impulse of the Raptor rocket engines (382 seconds), one of which was just tested yesterday; and the number of engines (42 on the first stage plus 9 on the second stage). The rocket will have 3.6 times the lift-off thrust of the Saturn V rocket used for the Apollo lunar missions (which was 7.5 million pounds).
He asserted that using traditional methods like those used in the Apollo program it would cost $10 billion per person to go to Mars and he will reduce that to a price of $200,000 per person initially, dropping to half that over time. His spacecraft would transport 100-200 people at a time, with the Mars population growing to 1 million residents over 40-100 years.
He did not explain the provenance of his $10 billion per person cost other than saying it assumed an Apollo-like program. While a number of concepts for sending people to Mars have been put forward recently, including NASA's, pricetags have not been revealed and none envision sending as many as 100 people at a time. Since he expressed a cost per person, the number of people traveling can make a significant difference.
Although he showed a timeline for accomplishing the first phase of the goal, he called it "intentionally fuzzy." If everything went very well, the first humans could head to Mars in 10 years, he asserted, though at a later press conference he called that an "optimistic schedule" and an "aspiration." He estimated that it would take an investment of $10 billion to develop the rocket before it would generate cash flow, a challenging amount of money to raise in such a short time. During his speech he said that it would take a "huge pubic private partnership" (PPP) to achieve this goal. In PPPs, the government and the private sector share the costs, implying that he expected the government -- probably NASA -- to participate. In the subsequent press conference, however, he insisted that he was not counting on any NASA money.
At one point he made light of the challenge of finding the money. The first item on his funding slide is "steal underpants" (a reference to South Park). The others include the two lines of business SpaceX currently is engaged in -- launching satellites and sending cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station -- plus Kickstarter and "profit."
He spent considerable time on the technical aspects of the plan, but the fundamental point is that he believes humanity should have at least one other home to guard against potential extinction if Earth is beset by a cataclysmic event such as an asteroid strike. He has concluded that Mars is the place to establish that backup civilization. Not everyone will want to go to Mars, he acknowledges, but that is fine since the goal is not to move everyone to Mars, only to create a second home.
Once the rockets, spacecraft, tankers and propellant plants on Mars are in place, and fuel depots are positioned on one of the Martian moons or in the asteroid belt, the entire solar system would be opened for exploration, he enthused, showing slides of his rockets on Jupiter's moon Europa, Saturn's moon Enceladus, and flying over Saturn's rings.
When asked if he planned to make the trip, Musk demurred. Noting how risky it will be in the beginning, he said that he would not want to go until he had a firm succession plan in place for SpaceX because he did not want it bought by investors whose only goal was profit, not colonization of Mars. He later added that he also wants to live to see his children grow up. He even joked that "if you are prepared to die you're a candidate for going."
Apart from the grandiose plans he espoused for sending people to Mars, he also wants to send robotic spacecraft at every planetary alignment opportunity. Mars and Earth are correctly aligned every 26 months. He is already working on the first of these missions, Red Dragon, for launch in 2018. It will send one of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft to Mars and test entry-descent-and-landing (EDL) for a propulsive landing on the surface, SpaceX has a Space Act Agreement with NASA where the agency will provide tracking and communication support in return for obtaining EDL data. Musk said that SpaceX will provide reliable services to send cargo to Mars every 26 months enabling customers to send 2-3 tons of cargo there.
It was a visionary speech that appealed to many in the crowd, but despite Musk's evident passion, many question the realism of his plans. Even Musk said that his immediate goal is to create the dream of Mars in people's mind, to "make it seem possible in our lifetimes."
At the moment, however, SpaceX is attempting to get its only existing rocket, Falcon 9, back in service. It is still trying to determine why a Falcon 9 burst into flames on the launch pad during a routine pre-launch test on September 1 destroying the rocket and the Amos-6 communications satellite that was aboard. SpaceX said last Friday that they know what happened -- a large breach in a helium tank in the second stage liquid oxygen tank-- but not why. Musk was asked today whether he should be at IAC2016 talking about Mars instead of focusing on getting Falcon 9 back to flight. He replied that fixing Falcon 9 is his absolute top priority and his team is working on it, but a small amount of effort is being spent on these longer term plans. Musk had announced months ago that he would lay out his Mars transportation plans at IAC2016.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of September 26-30, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
It's quite a week coming up!
For the country: the first of the three presidential debates is tomorrow (Monday) and Congress hopefully will pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government operating after Friday when fiscal year 2016 ends. The House and Senate are still working on the details of their separate versions of the CR, but they have five days left. Typically they leave appropriations deals to the last minute with the expectation that a hard deadline makes people more willing to compromise. The alternative is a government shutdown, which is not an appealing prospect in an election year. Word is the CR will keep the government open through December 9, by which time Congress must pass either another CR or, better yet, the actual FY2017 appropriations measures. Typically Congress combines all 12 regular appropriations bills into a single "omnibus" measure, but House Speaker Paul Ryan reportedly would prefer several smaller "minibuses" dealing with two or three of them at a time. The exception may be the Military Construction-Veterans Affairs bill, which the House wants to include in the CR this week. We'll see if the Senate is willing to go along with that.
For the space policy community: the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) will be held in Guadalajara, Mexico. IAC is the BIG international conference that combines annual meetings of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), and the International Institute of Space Law (IISL). IAC will webcast all the plenary sessions. The one that has generated the most buzz is on Tuesday when Elon Musk will lay out his plans for making humanity a multiplanet species. It's at 1:30 pm local time in Guadalajara, which is on Central Daylight Time. So that's 2:30 pm Eastern.
Two congressional hearings of note are also scheduled for this week, both on Tuesday (most congressional hearings are webcast on the respective committee's website). In the morning, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee's Space Subcommittee asks "Are We Losing the Space Race to China?" and four witnesses will give their answers: Dennis Shea, chairman of the U.S-China Economic and Security Review Commission; Mark Stokes from the Project 2049 Institute; Dean Cheng from the Heritage Foundation; and Jim Lewis from CSIS.
That afternoon, the House Armed Services Committee's Strategic Forces Subcommittee will hear from three eminent experts on the topic of "National Security Space: 21st Century Challenges, 20th Century Organization." The witnesses are John Hamre, former Deputy Secretary of Defense; Adm. James Ellis, Jr. (Ret.), former commander of U.S. Strategic Command; and Marty Faga, former Director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and former President and CEO of the MITRE Corporation. The great advantage of being "former," of course, is that one can speak freely. Should be especially interesting.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below. Check back throughout the week for others that we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.
Monday, September 26
Monday-Friday, September 26-30
Tuesday, September 27
Tuesday-Wednesday, September 27-28
Wednesday-Friday, September 28-30
Thursday, September 29
Thursday-Friday, September 29-30
Correction: An earlier edition of this article listed the Beckman Center in Irvine, CA as the location of the National Academies Workshop Planning Committee meeting on September 27-28. It will be held in Washington, DC, not at Beckman. The workshop itself, scheduled for December 5-6, will be held at Beckman.
SpaceX is still studying 3,000 channels of engineering data to determine the root cause of the September 1 on-pad fire that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and the Amos-6 communications satellite. A preliminary review has determined it was a breach of a second stage helium system, but why it happened still is unknown. The company nevertheless said it anticipates returning to flight as early as November.
The "anomaly" took place during a routine pre-launch test two days prior to when the launch was scheduled.
In a statement on its website, the company says a "large breach in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank took place. All plausible causes are being tracked in an extensive fault tree and carefully investigated."
The only Falcon 9 launch failure to date, on June 28, 2015, was also caused by a problem in the second stage. In that case, SpaceX was launching its seventh Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission, CRS-7, for NASA to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard its Dragon spacecraft. Dragon and the cargo were destroyed.
Although that failure and the September 1 anomaly involved the second stage, SpaceX says that "we have exonerated any connection with last year's CRS-7 mishap."
The Amos-6 satellite that was lost is a commercial satellite owned by Israel's Spacecom, so this was a commercial launch for a commercial customer. The FAA regulates commercial space launches like this one and under its rules the launch service provider, not the government, is in charge of the investigation. However, the launch service provider, SpaceX in this case, may invite whoever it wants to participate in the investigation.
SpaceX said the Accident Investigation Team includes SpaceX, the FAA, NASA, the U.S. Air Force, and industry experts. NASA and the Air Force are SpaceX customers, and Space X leases launch pads from both agencies.
This anomaly took place at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's (CCAFS) Launch Complex 40 (LC-40). SpaceX says that "substantial areas of the pad systems were affected," but others were not, including the Falcon Support Building and a new liquid oxygen tank farm.
CCAFS is adjacent to NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and SpaceX also leases NASA/KSC's Launch Complex-39A for launches of both Falcon 9 and the larger Falcon Heavy. SpaceX had planned the first test flight of Falcon Heavy from LC-39A this year. The statement did not indicate whether plans to resume flights in November assumed use of LC-40 or LC-39A.
SpaceX also leases an Air Force pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA for launches to polar orbits and is building its own launch site near Brownsville, TX.
The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee and the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee each held markups today of space-related legislation. The Senate committee approved the 2016 NASA Transition Authorization Act and the INSPIRE Women Act. The House committee approved the TREAT Astronauts Act. Congress is only scheduled to be in session for a few more weeks in 2016, but if all parties are sufficiently motivated to reach compromise, there is more than enough time to get the bills to the President's desk before the end of the 114th Congress.
Senate 2016 NASA Transition Authorization Act, S. 3346
Several amendments were adopted to the version of the Senate NASA authorization bill that was introduced last week, S. 3346. The bill has many wide-ranging provisions, but the main thrust is to provide stability to NASA's human spaceflight program as a presidential transition nears.
The goal is to avoid the type of disruption that happened when President Obama took office and cancelled the George W. Bush-administration's Constellation program. The goal of that program was to return humans to the surface of the Moon by 2020 and someday send them to Mars. After bitter negotiations, Congress passed and the President signed the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that set NASA on its current course of developing the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew spacecraft to send humans to orbit Mars in the 2030s and land sometime thereafter. The current effort rejects the Bush Administration's directive to return humans to the lunar surface (though NASA officials make clear they hope international and/or commercial partners might do so) and instead directs NASA to engage in the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as a steppingstone to Mars.
The bill officially establishes in law that human exploration of Mars, including potential human habitation on the surface of Mars, is a NASA objective. It lauds the progress made by the SLS and Orion programs and requires NASA to submit a critical decision plan and strategic framework laying out the details of how it will achieve the goal of landing humans on Mars. The Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, an industry advocacy group, praised the bill, especially provisions expressing the sense of Congress that the first uncrewed SLS/Orion mission -- Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) -- should take place in 2018 and the first crew mission, EM-2, in 2021.
The bill is decidedly less enthusiastic about ARM. ARM has two components -- the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) that will send a robotic probe to pluck a boulder from the surface of an asteroid and move it to lunar orbit, and the Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission (ARCM) where astronauts will visit the boulder and collect samples to return to Earth. The bill questions the value of ARRM compared to its costs and requires NASA to submit a report on alternatives for demonstrating the technologies needed for the Mars goal. However, it does not require that the program be terminated.
The bill authorizes $19.508 billion for NASA for FY2017. It does not address funding beyond that one year, which begins October 1. The total is the same as approved by the House Appropriations Committee in its version of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill, which has not been considered by the House yet. It is $202 million more than the Senate Appropriations Committee approved. The money is allocated to NASA's budget accounts in line with the Senate Appropriations CJS bill except that the extra $202 million is added to the Exploration account, which pays for SLS and Orion.
During the markup today, Senator Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) noted that the bill authorizes less for science and education than they received in FY2016. Senator Bill Nelson (D-Florida), the top Democrat on the committee and one of the bill's sponsors, replied that the House Appropriations Committee's CJS bill provides more for science and suggested Markey convey his concerns to his former House colleagues apparently in the hope that the appropriations bill would be more generous. Authorization bills do not provide money at all, they just recommend funding levels. Only appropriations bills actually give money to agencies like NASA.
The Planetary Society issued a statement praising the bill, especially the requirements for more details on the plans for getting humans to Mars, but it also "urged" NASA's authorizing committees to work closely with appropriators "to ensure that funding for NASA's leading science programs is sufficient to fully carry out the priorities" determined through the National Academies Decadal Survey process.
The bill is bipartisan. It was introduced by three Republicans and three Democrats and most of the amendments also had bipartisan sponsorship. The amendments mostly make refinements to existing language, but Senator Cory Gardner (R-Colorado) sponsored one that adds a new section directing NASA essentially to embrace satellite servicing for science and human exploration missions.
The Gardner amendment requires the NASA Administrator to identify "orbital assets" in both of those mission directorates that could "benefit from satellite-servicing related technologies" and "evaluate opportunities for the private sector to perform such services or advance technical capabilities by leveraging the technologies and techniques developed by NASA programs and other industry programs."
NASA is pursuing the RESTORE-L program, which is focused on demonstrating satellite servicing of a government satellite -- Landsat 7 -- in low Earth orbit (LEO). The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has its own program for servicing satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) -- Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS). Meanwhile, two companies are pursuing their own satellite servicing systems -- Orbital ATK and SSL (formerly Space Systems Loral). In an emailed statement to SpacePolicyOnline.com, Mike Gold, SSL Vice President for Washington Operations, thanked the committee for including the provision. He called satellite servicing "a critical capability not only for NASA but for commercial activities and national security interests," adding that "leveraging the commercial satellite servicing capabilities that will result" from programs like RESTORE-L and RSGS "represents a commonsense approach to maintain America's space leadership" and create jobs.
One portion of the bill, entitled the "Scott Kelly Human Spaceflight and Exploration Act," includes a section on "Medical Monitoring and Research Relating to Human Space Flight." It authorizes NASA to provide medical monitoring, diagnosis and treatment of current U.S. government astronauts and former U.S. government astronauts and payload specialists for psychological and medical conditions associated with their spaceflights. The House committee held a hearing on this topic in June and marked up a bill specifically on this issue today, which is discussed below.
House/Senate INSPIRE Women Act, H.R 4755
The Senate committee also approved the Inspiring Next Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act, H.R. 4755, without amendment. The bill already has passed the House. It requires the NASA Administrator to take steps to encourage women to study STEM education fields. No money is authorized.
House TREAT Astronauts Act, H.R. 6076
The House committee approved the To Research, Evaluate, Assess and Treat (TREAT) Astronauts Act, H.R. 6076, which was introduced yesterday. The committee held a hearing in June on the topic of lifetime medical care for astronauts. Not all former astronauts are guaranteed medical care after they leave government service and NASA also wants to be able to monitor astronauts over their lifetimes to determine any long term psychological and medical effects of spaceflight.
Committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) explained that the bill covers any gaps for former astronauts who are not covered by either the military's TRICARE program or the civilian Federal Employees Claims Act. Space Subcommittee chairman Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), who represents the district that includes NASA's Johnson Space Center where many former astronauts live, called it a "common sense, fiscally responsible" bill to ensure former astronauts receive support for medical issues associated with their spaceflights.
This House bill and the provision in the Senate NASA authorization bill are tightly written as to who is covered, though the definitions are somewhat different. Also, the Senate language is a "sense of Congress" provision that NASA "may" provide such medical services, while the House bill is directive, stating that the Administrator "shall" do it and goes into much more detail.
Aerojet Rocketdyne's Jim Simpson made the case for the new AR1 rocket engine yesterday explaining that its conservative design and low cost will meet mission assurance and affordability objectives desired by potential customers, It is on schedule to be ready for certification by 2019 at a cost of $824 million -- $536 million from the government plus $288 million from the company and its industry partners.
Simpson, Aerojet Rocketdyne's Senior Vice President for Strategy and Business Development, spoke to a media roundtable yesterday that was held in conjunction with the Air Force Association's Air, Space, Cyber Conference. Joining him was Steve Cook, Vice President for Corporate Development at Dynetics, a partner in the AR1 program.
The impetus for developing the AR1 is eliminating U.S. dependence on Russia's RD-180 engines that power the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket. Atlas V is the workhorse for launching national security satellites and is also used for NASA and commercial spacecraft.
ULA agrees on the need to replace the RD-180, although there has been a long debate in Congress over the timing for doing so. Originally Congress mandated that a new U.S.-built engine be ready by 2019 and prohibited ULA from acquiring RD-180s for use beyond that time. Agreement was recently reached, however, allowing the company to purchase RD-180s through 2022.
Nevertheless, 2019 remains the goal for developing a new engine to allow time for it to be tested and certified as part of a launch system that would be ready by the time RD-180-powered Atlas Vs are no longer available.
ULA plans to replace the Atlas V system with an entirely new rocket, Vulcan, by then. It announced a partnership two years ago with Blue Origin to use its BE- 4 engine, which is now in development and also intended to be ready by 2019. BE-4 uses an innovative propellant -- liquid oxygen (LOX) and liquefied natural gas (methane) – instead of LOX/kerosene.
Aerojet Rocketdyne came forward with the AR1 as an alternative to BE-4. ULA currently plans to choose between BE-4 and AR1 next spring.
Simpson acknowledged that BE-4 is the baseline engine for Vulcan, but he and Cook highlighted what they see as AR1’s advantages starting with the fact that it uses traditional LOX/kerosene and staged combustion and therefore has less risk than BE-4. They pointed to the engine’s conservative design and Aerojet Rocketdyne’s long track record in rocket engine design, development and production as offering the mission assurance vital to national security satellites in particular. Simpson added that Atlas Vs fitted with AR1s can use existing Atlas V launch pads, reducing costs as well.
Creating a low cost engine is part of the company’s plan, with a goal of $20-25 million for a pair of AR1s. The use of additive manufacturing (3D printing) is one route to lower cost. A 40,000-pound-thrust 3-D printed pre-burner was tested this week, Simpson said, and other components are under consideration, though specifics were not offered. He said the new incremental-build approach to development will further lower costs. Each element is built and tested and the system evolves gradually, instead of the test-fail-fix approach where full scale engines are built for testing.
If ULA retires Atlas V as planned and chooses BE-4 for Vulcan, AR1 still could be used for other customers, Cook stressed. Among them is NASA, which is currently working on the first two versions of the Space Launch System (SLS) that will be able to launch 70 metric tons (MT) and 105 MT respectively. A 130-MT version is planned for some time in the 2020s and AR1 could be used for that configuration, replacing the solid rocket strap-ons in the current design.
Cook managed the Ares rocket program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center before joining Dynetics in 2009. Ares was part of the Constellation program, which was cancelled the next year and subsequently replaced by SLS.
Cook explained that NASA and the Air Force each put $21 million into the development of advanced liquid boosters beginning in 2012 and although the effort – Advanced Booster Engineering Demonstration and/or Risk Reduction (ABEDRR) -- was not directly related to AR1, it contributed to risk reduction for liquid propellant engines broadly.
Simpson said the Air Force has committed to spending $115 million for the first phase of AR1 development and a total of $536 million overall. Aerojet Rocketdyne and its partners have already committed $77 million to date with a total of $288 million assuming the project goes forward. He added that if the funding profile changes, so could the cost and schedule.
The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee will markup a new NASA authorization bill on Wednesday that focuses on the desire to avoid disruption to NASA's human spaceflight program during the upcoming presidential transition. It is one of several bills the committee will deal with that day, including the INSPIRE Women Act that passed the House earlier this year. It is designed to encourage women to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
The 2016 NASA Transition Authorization Act, S. 3346, is co-sponsored by three Republicans and three Democrats: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Sen. Gary Peters (D-Michigan), the chair and ranking member of the Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness; Florida's two Senators, Bill Nelson (D), who is the ranking member of the full committee, and Marco Rubio (R); Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi); and Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico). Udall and Rubio both are subcommittee members; Wicker is on the full committee.
The 73-page bill incorporates changes to a draft that was circulated earlier, but the main themes remain the same. Among the provisions are the following (quotes are from the committee's press release or the bill itself):
The bill authorizes $19.508 billion for NASA in FY2017, the same amount approved by the House Appropriations Committee in its version of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill. That bill has not been considered by the House yet. The amount is $202 million more than the Senate Appropriations Committee approved. The authorization bill allocates the difference to NASA's exploration account (which funds SLS and Orion). Otherwise, the authorized amounts are the same as in the Senate Appropriations committee-approved bill. The Senate bill was brought to the floor for debate in June, but was derailed by the gun control debate.
Authorization bills set policy and recommend funding levels; they do not actually provide any money. Only appropriations bills provide money to agencies like NASA.
The House passed a NASA authorization bill in 2015 (H.R. 810) that can serve as a basis for compromise if both chambers want to pass a bill this year, even though time is short. Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chair of the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, has called on the Senate to pass a bill several times, most recently last week.
The other space-related bill scheduled for markup on Wednesday is the Inspiring Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers, and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act, H.R. 4755. The House passed the bill in March. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Virginia). There were no hearings or markups of the bill; it was introduced and went directly to the floor. No funding is included in the bill. It simply directs NASA to take steps to encourage women to study STEM fields and submit a plan on how NASA can facilitate and support current and retired astronauts, scientists, engineers and innovators to engage with K-12 female STEM students.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of September 19-25, 2016 (through next Sunday) and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
On Friday, Resources for the Future (RFF) will hold a memorial service for Molly Macauley at the Metropolitan Club in Washington, D.C., from 3:30-5:30 pm ET. All of Molly's friends and colleagues are welcome to attend, but RFF would appreciate an RSVP so they know how many people to expect. Please RSVP to email@example.com. Molly, a renowned space economist and integral part of the space policy community for three decades, spent almost all of her career at RFF before her tragic death on July 8.
It will be a busy week before that.
The Senate plans to bring a Continuing Resolution (CR) to the floor tomorrow (Monday) for a cloture vote. If it gets 60 votes, the Senate can proceed to debate, and, hopefully, pass it. Word is that it will keep the government funded through December 9. The bill reportedly has controversial policy provisions ("poison pills") that could delay its approval, but rumors are that once it passes, the Senate will adjourn until after the elections instead of remaining in session through the end of the month. That would put the House in the position of either agreeing to the Senate bill or allowing the government to shut down on October 1, which would not play well in the upcoming elections. A budget deal was crafted last fall by then-House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and President Obama that set the spending limit for FY2017. The draft CR reportedly sticks to that agreement, but very conservative House Republicans disapproved of the deal and are not happy at the prospect of passing a CR that adheres to it (because it spends too much on non-defense programs), so there is indeed a chance that a government shutdown could occur. We think it is only a very small chance in an election year, but as we've said many times, trying to predict what Congress will do is risky.
The Air Force Association is holding its Air, Space, Cyber conference at National Harbor, MD (outside Washington, DC) Monday-Wednesday. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James kicks it off tomorrow morning. There is no indication on the conference's website as to which sessions might be livestreamed, but James tweeted an invitation yesterday for everyone to listen to her talk, so presumably hers will be, at least. Hopefully AFA will make iivestreaming information available soon. [UPDATE: the link to watch James, from 10:20-11:15 am ET, is http://www.afa.org/airspacecyber/streaming. Two other sessions Monday afternoon also will be livestreamed as noted at that site. The list of livestreamed sessions for the rest of the conference are not posted yet.]
While that's underway, on Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a nomination hearing for Gen. John Hyten to become Commander of U.S. Strategic Command. He currently is Commander of Air Force Space Command. He seems to be well liked and respected on the Hill, so apart from the usual Senate challenges on getting any nomination approved (usually for reasons completely unrelated to the nominee), it should go smoothly.
On the civil space side, it's Mars, Mars, Mars this week. Explore Mars holds a seminar on Capitol Hill on Tuesday morning on "Humans to Mars: Why, How, and When." On Wednesday afternoon, Lou Friedman, former executive director of the Planetary Society, will discuss his new book "Human Spaceflight From Mars to the Stars" at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. From Thursday-Sunday, the Mars Society holds its annual conference at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
The Senate Commerce Committee will markup its "NASA Transition Authorization Act" on Wednesday that, among other things, seeks to protect NASA's human spaceflight program -- which is aimed at sending humans to Mars in the 2030s -- from any major changes as the result of the upcoming presidential transition. Congress directed NASA to build a new, big rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and a crew spacecraft to go with it (Orion) in the last NASA authorization act that became law (in 2010). It has diligently ensured that the Obama Administration (through NASA) implements those programs, often providing more funding than the President requested. They want to make sure a new President doesn't disrupt that effort the way President Obama did when he came into office and cancelled President Bush's Constellation program. The NASA authorization bill is one of several bills the committee will markup that day, including the STEM education-related INSPIRE Women bill that the House passed earlier this year.
SLS is managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and its Director, Todd May, will address the Space Transportation Association on Capitol Hill on Thursday. Also speaking to STA on Thursday is the President of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Naoki Okumura.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week for other events we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.
Monday-Wednesday, September 19-21
Tuesday, September 20
Tuesday-Friday, September 20-23
Wednesday, September 21
Wednesday-Thursday, September 21-22
Wednesday-Friday, September 21-23
Thursday, September 22
Thursday-Saturday, September 22-24
Thursday-Sunday, September 22-25
Friday, September 23
NOAA made its first two awards today under the Commercial Weather Data Pilot program created by Congress last year. The winners are Spire Global and GeoOptics, both of which will provide radio occultation data to NOAA for evaluation to determine whether commercial data can be incorporated into NOAA’s numerical weather models.
Congress provided $3 million to NOAA in the FY2016 Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations act (Division B of the FY2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act) for the pilot program. It required NOAA to enter into at least one pilot project through an open competitive process to purchase, evaluate and calibrate commercial weather data and to submit a report on how it would implement the project. NOAA publicly released that report in April.
The idea originated in the House-passed Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act (H.R. 1561) sponsored by Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK). Bridenstine chairs the Environment Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee and also serves on the House Armed Services Committee. He led efforts to include a provision in the pending FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act for DOD to create a similar program.
Under the contracts, the two companies will provide GNSS radio occultation data to NOAA by April 30, 2017 to demonstrate data quality and potential value to NOAA’s weather forecasts and warnings. NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) will assess the data through the end of FY2017 and issue a report in early FY2018. The contract award amounts were $370,000 for Spire and $695,000 for GeoOptics.
GNSS refers to Global Navigation Satellite Systems, of which the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) is probably the best known and most widely used.
NOAA already uses GPS radio occultation (GPO-RO) data in its forecasts. The data are acquired by the six-satellite COSMIC constellation, a joint program with Taiwan. NOAA is requesting funds for a COSMIC-2 follow-on.
RO data are acquired by very small satellites (microsatellites or nanosatellites) that use signals from GPS or other GNSS systems to make measurements of temperature and water vapor throughout the lower parts of the atmosphere. When combined with data from polar-orbiting weather satellites, better weather forecasts are enabled.
Thousands of RO measurements per day are useful and COSMIC provides 2,000-3,000. COSMIC-2 will provide about 10,000, but commercial sources can increase the total to 50,000-100,000, the upper limit in terms of when costs would outweigh benefits according to NESDIS Assistant Administrator Steve Volz.
NOAA called the contract awards a “win-win” because both NOAA and the companies will “gain a trial run of the NOAA evaluation process, a necessary first step to considering sustained operational use of new commercial weather data.”
The cautious phrasing underscores that this is a pilot program only. NOAA officials express concern about whether the commercial data are accurate, reliable and verifiable. The pilot project will allow NOAA to assess those characteristics. NOAA also worries about whether the commercial data can be made available globally in conformance with its obligations to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) since companies typically restrict sharing of their data. That issue is still being debated.
Bridenstine and House SS&T Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) praised the awards in a joint statement today. Smith said he hoped these were just the first of many such contracts and thanked the two companies for their “leadership, ingenuity, and entrepreneurial spirit.” Bridenstine noted that the awards show “there is great potential for the government to leverage this new industry.”
GeoOptics CEO Conrad Lautenbacher, a former NOAA Administrator, said his company looks forward to demonstrating that commercial data “can enable the unmatched efficiencies of the private sector to help NOAA accomplish its vital mission to protect and inform the public.”
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) used a teleconference meeting of the FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) today to explain why he believes legislation is indeed necessary to ensure that the U.S. government complies with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty in authorizing and continually supervising U.S. companies engaged in non-traditional commercial space activities. His draft legislation was the topic of the teleconference, a timely discussion coming just one day after Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) expressed a very different point of view.
The COMSTAC meeting was announced weeks ago with the single purpose of discussing Bridenstine's draft legislation. COMSTAC advises the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST). Its members represent many of the companies involved in both traditional and non-traditional space businesses. Mike Gold, Vice President of Washington Operations for SSL (formerly Space System Loral), chairs the committee, which reports to FAA/AST Associate Administrator George Nield.
The purpose of the telecon was to allow government experts -- from Bridenstine's office and executive branch agencies -- to explain to COMSTAC's industry members what the draft legislation would do and why, and get their input.
Bridenstine, Nield and Gold have been in the forefront of an ongoing debate over how to create a U.S. regulatory system that facilitates new space ventures like private space stations or asteroid mining while complying with U.S. obligations under the Outer Space Treaty (OST). Article VI of the OST requires governments to authorize and continually supervise the activities of their non-governmental entities, like companies.
Until recently, private sector space activities fell under existing regulatory authorities established by law: FAA (launch and reentry), the Federal Communications Committee (spectrum use), or NOAA (commercial remote sensing). No agency has yet been designated, however, to regulate new commercial space ventures to put space stations in Earth orbit, send spacecraft to the Moon, Mars and asteroids, perform on-orbit satellite servicing, or a host of other non-traditional space businesses. Many of those companies argue that potential investors want to know what the regulatory environment will be before putting their money on the table. They want the government to make decisions now.
Moon Express, which plans to launch a lunar lander next year, recently received government approval using the interagency payload review process currently implemented by FAA/AST, but it took 7 months and is only for that one launch. It did not set a precedent for future such endeavors by Moon Express or other companies.
Bridenstine has been a leader in Congress in drafting legislation to address these issues and advocates for the FAA to be assigned the role of issuing "mission authorizations" for non-traditional space activities. He personally participated in the telecon today along with Christopher Ingraham, his staffer working on these issues. Bridenstine explained that his top concern is that a U.S. company will proceed with a plan to put a spacecraft on the Moon or conduct on-orbit servicing or some other new type of activity only to have a "near-peer" country like Russia or China complain at the last minute that the United States is violating the OST. That would put the United States "in a difficult position," he argues. Therefore he sees the need for "airtight" legislation that sets up a process by which the government authorizes and supervises these private companies. Once a company has gone through the process, the United States can unequivocally demonstrate to the international community that it has, in fact, complied with the treaty.
The Obama Administration has been open to working with these new companies, but he wonders if that will remain true over the long term future. He insisted that Congress "needs to exert its authority and power so that whatever administration comes next or is in place 50 years from now, the process exists" and is not subject to a new administration's "whims." He also worried that without a legislative solution, it could become a matter of "executive branch regulation by default." That opens the possibility of some agency saying no, with no recourse for the private sector.
Others participating in the telecon brought up another concern -- that an agency other than FAA, with less experience in a broad range of commercial space businesses, might decide that it wants to regulate these new commercial space activities and "fill the void." Several mentioned that the FCC apparently is indicating such an interest. Ingraham said that he has heard over the past few months that FCC wants to regulate on-orbit servicing and space traffic management, for example.
The State Department and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) have been closely involved in these issues. OSTP's Ben Roberts stressed that the Obama Administration's interest is not to add regulations or burden companies, "but to make it easy for us to say yes." Section 108 of the last year's Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA) required OSTP to submit a report on how to deal with these issues and recommend a solution. It sent the report to Congress earlier this year along with draft legislation to implement it. It proposed that the FAA's parent, the Department of Transportation (presumably delegating it to FAA), be assigned the role of issuing mission authorizations for these new types of commercial endeavors using an "enhanced" payload review process. Roberts said today that OSTP is not wedded to that proposal, however. "We're not tied to a particular solution," but need a mechanism that allows the government to authorize such activities "clearly and crisply," he said.
It is the State Department that must explain to other countries how the United States is fulfilling its treaty obligations and thus has a keen interest in these issues. Brian Israel of State's Office of Oceans, International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, said one problem State has today is that under the interagency process for payload reviews it can only can say "yes" or "no," not "yes, but." Although it may agree with what an applicant wants to do, it cannot set conditions, approving the application as long as a company takes certain actions. For example, the State Department could say yes to the Moon Express application because it is launching a technology demonstration mission with limited capabilities and the company proactively agreed to abide by international planetary protection requirements, but that might hold true for a future application, he said.
A number of the COMSTAC members expressed reservations about various provisions in Bridenstine's draft bill, however. Bridenstine assured them that additional input is welcomed. He also acknowledged that there is little time left in this session of Congress to get such legislation passed and he may wait until the next session to introduce it.
Others see a need for more immediate action. In an interview after the telecon, Gold told SpacePolicyOnline.com that "there are no three words more pernicious to commercial space operators than 'continuing government supervision' and we need to take rapid action to lock in a benign light-touch regulatory approach" as exemplified in the Bridenstine draft bill. Gold, who worked for Bigelow Aerospace until recently, is a veteran of the years-long effort to get relief for commercial communications satellite companies from stringent International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) put in place at the turn of the century. He sees many parallels between the ITAR debate and this discussion.
Laura Montgomery, a former FAA attorney now in private practice, challenged this entire approach to these issues, however. She is not a member of COMSTAC, but the public is allowed to participate in these meetings. She argued that the treaty creates obligations for the government, not the private sector.
Her comments were along the same lines as those of Rep. Babin at a Commercial Spaceflight Federation breakfast yesterday. Babin argued that the OSTP proposal places the burden on companies to demonstrate their consistency with U.S. obligations, foreign policy and national security when it should be the other way around. He thinks there should be a presumption that the private sector activities are authorized and the government should only become involved if it has met certain conditions.
COMSTAC plans to continue the discussion about Bridenstine's draft legislation at its October meeting. Gold said that Observations, Findings and Recommendations (OFRs) might be adopted at that time to provide COMSTAC's formal views to FAA/AST.
UPDATE, September 15: The Senate Commerce Committee will markup the Senate version of a FY2017 NASA authorization bill on September 21 at 10:00 am ET.
Original Story, September 13, 2016: Rumors have been circulating for months that NASA's authorization committees will try to get a new NASA authorization bill enacted before the 114th Congress gavels to a close at the end of the year. Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) yesterday again exhorted the Senate to act on a NASA authorization bill the House passed last year and a Senate draft bill -- different from that one -- is circulating, but time is getting short. One goal is to provide stability to NASA during the presidential transition and passage of legislation would give Congress a chance to get its policy choices formally on the table.
The House passed a FY2015 NASA authorization bill by voice vote in February 2015. Although the funding recommendation were only for that fiscal year, which is long past, the policy provisions were adopted on a bipartisan basis. Some have been overtaken by events, but Babin, who spoke at a Commercial Spaceflight Federation breakfast meeting yesterday morning, called it a "perfectly good bill" and urged the Senate to pass it or "quickly work with the House to negotiate a compromise." He noted that the House and Senate versions of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill, which includes NASA, are in a "mature" stage and their funding levels could be "reconciled" into a new authorization bill.
Authorization bills set policy and recommend funding levels, but only appropriations bills actually provide money to agencies like NASA.
The last NASA authorization act was enacted in 2010. Its policy provisions remain in force, but the funding recommendations were only for three years, FY2011-FY2013.
Babin chairs the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee's Space Subcommittee. The committee approved a more recent bill for FY2016 and FY2017 (H.R. 2039), but on a strictly party-line basis because, among other things, it recommended deep cuts to NASA's earth science program that Democrats strongly opposed. No further action has occurred on that bill.
The FY2015 bill, H.R. 810 (itself is an update of a FY2014 bill that passed the House, but not the Senate), avoided highly charged partisan issues. The 128-page bill covers a lot of ground.
A 49-page staff draft of a Senate authorization bill for FY2017 is circulating that is more narrowly focused, but at a top level has similar themes. One key point on which the bills agree is that human exploration is a core NASA mission. Both bills support continued use of the International Space Station (ISS) and sending humans to Mars and other locations in deep space. Both want more details from NASA on how that will be accomplished. H.R. 810 requires NASA to develop and provide to Congress a "Human Exploration Roadmap" detailing capabilities and technologies needed. The draft Senate bill calls for a "strategic framework" and a "critical decision plan." Both require that the role of international and commercial partners be included.
One focus of the draft Senate bill not included in H.R. 810 is stability at NASA during the presidential transition. It includes a "sense of Congress" section that "the United States, in collaboration with its international and commercial partners, should sustain and build upon our national space commitments and investments across Administrations with a continuity of purpose..." As discussed at a recent hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation subcommittee that oversees NASA, there is bipartisan concern that NASA's programs could be disrupted again as they were when President Obama took office and cancelled the Constellation program begun under his predecessor, George W. Bush.
It should be noted that passage of a new NASA authorization bill may not provide any such assurance, however. Congress passed two NASA authorization laws supporting Bush's Vision for Space Exploration and its Constellation program to return humans to the lunar surface by 2020 and then go on to Mars. One passed in 2005 when Republicans controlled Congress, the other in 2008 when Democrats were in control. The pair of laws signaled not only bipartisan congressional consensus, but agreement between the White House and Congress on the path forward for human exploration, a long sought goal of human spaceflight advocates who had seen earlier presidential initiatives fail to win congressional support.
The existence of those laws did not, however, deter President Obama from cancelling Constellation after a review by a blue ribbon panel concluded that NASA's budget would have to ramp up to $3 billion more per year to implement it. Similarly, a new President could decide that the current program, with the goal of putting astronauts in orbit around Mars in the 2030s, is unaffordable.
Another place where H.R. 810 and the draft Senate bill agree is skepticism about the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as one of the elements of that plan to get to Mars. At the time H.R. 810 was written it was called the Asteroid Retrieval Mission and the bill requires a report explaining the need for and cost of the program. The draft Senate bill points out that the cost for ARM has risen and the NASA Advisory Council has raised concerns, and the program is competing for resources with other aspects of the human exploration program. It does not call for the program to be terminated, but offers a sense of Congress statement that alternatives should be considered for demonstrating the technologies needed for the humans-to-Mars mission and requires a report from NASA on those alternatives.
NASA's earth science program remains contentious in Congress, with many House and Senate Republicans arguing that NASA should focus on space exploration, not studying Earth, which other agencies could do. Democrats insist that earth science research from space is a key aspect of NASA's science program and no other agency launches earth science research satellites. NOAA is responsible for operational weather satellites and until recently was planning to launch some climate research sensors, but the White House decided to transfer those to NASA. H.R. 810, written in 2015, apparently foresaw such a turn of events and stated that if NASA is given additional responsibilities in earth science, the White House needed to provide it with additional money. The draft Senate bill is silent on earth science policy.
As for funding, the figures in H.R. 810 are no longer relevant. The draft Senate authorization bill would authorize $19.508 billion, the same total that is in the House Appropriations Committee's version of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $19.306 billion, which is $202 million less. The draft Senate authorization bill allocates that $202 million to the Exploration account. NASA's other accounts are funded at the same level as in the Senate Appropriations Committee's bill.
Congress is scheduled to be in session for the rest of this month before adjourning until after the November elections, although there are indications that the Senate may leave earlier than that if it can pass a FY2017 Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government funded for the first part of FY2017. If it does, that would compress the time for reaching agreement on a NASA authorization bill. H.R. 810 and the draft Senate bill are similar enough to provide a basis for compromise, but different enough to prevent one. It is a matter of how motivated the involved parties are to pass a bill prior to this next presidential transition.