Commercial Space News
Many pundits label last year as the "do nothing Congress." At the very end, the House and Senate did at least reach agreement on a two-year budget resolution and the FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), but a lot did not get done. Here is a quick synopsis of the civil, commercial and national security space issues facing Congress in the second session of the 113th Congress as it returns to work this week. The Senate meets tomorrow (Monday), and the House on Tuesday.
Third Party Liability for Commercial Launch Services. Perhaps the first space-related issue they will tackle is extending third party liability indemnification for commercial launch services providers. The House and Senate committees with jurisdiction -- the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee and the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee -- agree that the FAA's authority to indemnify commercial launch services companies for certain amounts of liability for third party claims in case of a launch failure should be extended again. They disagree on the length of time for the extension. Democrats on the House SS&T Committee want to limit the extension to one year so additional hearings can be held on the need for indemnification. The Senate committee and House SS&T Republicans want three years. Industry would prefer a longer extension, preferably making the authority permanent.
The House passed a one year extension (H.R. 3547) on December 2. The Senate passed the House bill on December 12, but with an amendment extending it for three years. That meant the bill had to go back to the House. By then, however, the House had completed its legislative business for the year and the clock ran out. The indemnification authority expired on December 31. This is an important matter for U.S. launch services providers, however, and it would not be surprising to see an extension passed early this year as a stand-alone bill or as part of the anticipated Omnibus Appropriations Act.
FY2014 Appropriations. Speaking of an Omnibus Appropriations Act, the mood in Washington is relatively upbeat that a bill to fund the government for the rest of FY2014 can pass before the existing Continuing Resolution (CR) expires on January 15. The Bipartisan Budget Act (H. J. Res. 59) that cleared Congress in December set the limits of how much money Congress can appropriate for FY2014, but the actual task of appropriating those funds is the province of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. They have been working diligently over the holidays crafting the 12 regular appropriations bills within the limits set by the budget act.
Three of those 12 bills are of particular interest from a space policy standpoint: Defense (H.R.. 2387/S. 1429); Commerce-Justice-Science, which includes NASA and NOAA (H.R. 2787/S. 1329); and Transportation-HUD, which includes the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (H.R. 2610/S. 1243). The expectation is that all 12 bills will be bundled together into a single Omnibus Appropriations bill for consideration by the House and Senate.
The total amount for defense and non-defense discretionary spending in FY2014 was set at $1.012 trillion, a figure half way between what the House and Senate each had earlier approved. That does not necessarily mean that the amount for any particular agency like DOD, NASA or NOAA will be half way between what the House and Senate Appropriations Committee separately approved, however. (For NASA, the House Appropriations Committee approved $16.6 billion; the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $18.0 billion.) Also, the budget act did not replace the sequester, but did provide $63 billion in relief from the effects of the sequester split equally between defense and non-defense spending over two years. All in all, the most dire predictions may be avoided and the budget outlook is brighter for federal departments and agencies than it was just a few weeks ago, but that hardly means a return to business-as-usual. Budgets will continue to be constrained across the board and Tea Party Republicans appear determined to continue fighting for deeper cuts.
NASA Authorization. DOD may have gotten its authorization bill (H.R. 3304) at the eleventh hour, but not NASA. NASA's most recent authorization act became law in 2010 and covered the years FY2011-2013. The policy provisions remain law indefinitely, but the funding authorizations have expired. The House SS&T committee and the Senate Commerce committee each worked on separate versions of a new NASA authorization bill last year, but they are quite different from each other and neither was actually reported from committee. Each committee marked up its bill and they were "ordered reported," but they still have not actually been reported. (Typically, though not always, a bill is reported from committee before going to the floor of the House or Senate for consideration.)
The two major differences are funding levels and the status of the Obama Administration's Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The House bill (H.R. 2687) authorizes $16.9 billion, while the Senate bill (S. 1317) authorizes $18.1 billion. The House bill prohibits spending any funds on ARM; the Senate bill is silent on ARM. Both bills cleared their committees on party line votes, which is unusual for NASA, traditionally a bipartisan topic.
Intelligence Authorization. Like NASA, the FY2014 authorization bill for the Intelligence Community did not clear Congress. It was reported from the House and Senate Intelligence Committees (H.R. 3381/S. 1681) in November, but no further action was taken. The Senate bill "encourages" the relevant government decision-makers to allow commercial satellite imagery providers to sell imagery with better resolution than what is allowed today (0.25 meter instead of 0.5 meter). A statement in the unclassified report accompanying the House version of the bill (H. Rept. 113-277) says that it "continues to remove barriers to competition in space" and "advances technologies to enhance U.S. satellite capabilities," but no further details are provided.
Termination Liability for Certain NASA Programs. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) introduced one part of the House committee's NASA authorization bill as a separate bill in the hope of moving at least that part to the floor for a vote. Referred to as the "termination liability" bill (H.R. 3625), one portion would change how NASA manages funding for termination liability for contracts for the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion spacecraft, International Space Station (ISS), and James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Perhaps more significantly, however, it would require congressional approval before any of those programs could be terminated, which some view as an encroachment on presidential prerogatives. Congress has the power of the purse under the Constitution and strictly speaking can always countermand a presidential decision to either initiate or terminate a program that requires funding, but this bill explicitly requires congressional approval to terminater these particular programs. The bill passed the House SS&T committee on a bipartisan vote in December after the top Democrat on the Space Subcommittee, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), convinced committee Republicans to add JWST to the list of protected programs. Like the NASA authorization bill, H.R. 3625 was ordered reported, but not formally reported. There is no Senate counterpart at this time.
Weather Forecasting Improvement Act. The House SS&T Committee approved the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act (H.R. 2413) in December, but, like the others, has not been formally reported. The bill does not focus on weather satellites, but does clarify that existing law does not prevent the government from buying commercial weather data or placing weather satellite sensors on co-hosted government or private sector satellites. There is no Senate counterpart to this bill yet, either.
Other Legislation. A number of other space-related bills were introduced last year, but whether they will see any action this year is somewhere between unlikely and possible. They include a bill to study an alternative to RD-180 rocket engines (S. 1679), the Suborbital and Orbital Advancement and Regulatory Streamlining (SOARS) Act (H.R 3038), and a bill to rename NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center after Neil Armstrong (H.R. 667 passed the House, but there has been no action on its Senate counterpart, S. 1636).
Nominations. The Senate had a major show-down over nominations this year. Democrats weary of Republicans preventing nominations from coming to the floor under existing Senate rules changed the rules so that only 51 votes instead of 60 votes are needed to bring a nomination to a vote. Republicans are furious and responded by slowing action on the Senate floor during the chamber's last days in 2013. How it will affect Senate business in 2014 remains to be seen.
In the meantime, although Deborah Lee James was finally confirmed as Secretary of the Air Force on December 13, other important space-related nominations did not reach the floor during the first session. Consequently they must be resubmitted by the President under Senate Rule XXXI paragraph 6. They include:
All of these nominations were returned to the President on January 3, 2014 (the end of the first session).
The first operational launch of Orbital Sciences Corporation's Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) is being delayed for one or two days because of forecasted frigid temperatures at the Wallops Flight Facility on the coast of Virginia.
Originally scheduled for December 2013, the launch initially was delayed so ISS astronauts could focus on repairing a malfunctioning coolant loop. With that problem fixed, a new launch date of January 7 was set, but very cold weather at Wallops Island, VA led Orbital and NASA to decide to wait for better weather. Orbital says that a launch on January 8 between 1:32-1:37 pm ET is possible, but it is more likely the launch will be on January 9 between 1:10 - 1:15 pm ET. In either case, berthing to the ISS would take place on Sunday, January 12.
This is Orbital's first operational cargo mission to the ISS. The company successfully completed a demonstration mission in September 2013.
Two people viewed in the space policy community as epitomizing the differences between the Democratic and Republican views on NASA -- Lori Garver and Scott Pace -- were joined by Joel Achenbach and Mike Gold on today's Diane Rehm show on National Public Radio to talk about the present and future of the space program. Their views, along with listeners who called in with questions and Rehm herself, are quite interesting.
Garver was Deputy Administrator of NASA for four years of the Obama Administration under current NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. She left the agency in September 2013 to become General Manager of the Air Line Pilots Association and has not hesitated to remain in the forefront of the debate over the space program from her new position outside of government. Pace was one of the top NASA officials under former Administrator Mike Griffin during the George W. Bush Administration and one of the architects of the Constellation program to return humans to the Moon by 2020, a program cancelled by Obama. Both have held many positions in the space policy community over the decades. Pace is currently Director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute.
Achenbach is a science reporter for the Washington Post who occasionally writes about NASA, most recently last week in an article entitled "To Go Boldly (and on budget)." Gold is director of Washington operations and business growth for Bigelow Aerospace, which is building inflatable modules for use in space -- one will be attached to the International Space Station next year as a test and Bigelow wants to put them on the lunar surface, too.
The Diane Rehm show is one of NPR's most popular programs and is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. It is broadcast by WAMU here in Washington, DC.
Garver made clear that she opposes the Space Launch System and the Mars 2020 mission, which is essentially a repeat of the current Mars Curiosity mission, because she believes NASA should do new and innovative things, not build rockets based on 1970s technology or redo science missions. Pace stressed the value of international cooperation in space and argued that returning humans to the Moon is the type of mission that would attract international partners.
The program is worth a listen. Here are some of the key discussion points.
UPDATE 3, January 6, 2014: SpaceX's launch of Thaicom-6 is now scheduled for today, January 6, at 5:06 pm ET. Orbital's Orb-1 launch is now scheduled for Wednesday, January 8 at 1:32 pm ET and the associated pre-launch briefings are now on Tuesday (January 7) instead of today. They still are at 2:00 pm ET (science) and 3:00 pm ET (mission status). (India's GSLV launch did go off on as planned on January 5.)
UPDATE 2, January 3, 2014: The Orb-1 Antares/Cygnus mission to the ISS has been delayed from January 7 to January 8 or 9 because of weather. Orbital Sciences Corp. says January 9 is the more likely day -- launch window 1:10-1:15 pm ET. (But January 8 is a possibility -- launch window 1:32-1:37 pm ET).
UPDATE, January 2, 2014: Multiple sources report that the SpaceX launch scheduled for January 3 has been postponed to no-earlier-than January 6.
ORIGINAL STORY, January 1, 2014: Happy New Year everyone! Hopefully you've been having a nice few days of rest because, for space policy aficionados, the New Year gets off to a quick start with three interesting launches and Congress returning for the second session of the 113th Congress all within the first seven days -- and that's just the beginning.
During the Week
OK, so we're defining "week" loosely this time to mean the first 10 days of 2014. We don't cover all the launches that take place each year since not all have space policy implications. There are three coming up that are of special interest though: SpaceX's launch of Thaicom-6 on January 3, India's return-to-flight of its Geosynchronous Space Launch Vehicle (GSLV) on January 5, and the rescheduled first operational launch of Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares/Cygnus system to resupply the International Space Station on January 7.
Admittedly the SpaceX launch is less exciting than its successful SES-8 launch last month, the company's first launch to geostationary transfer orbit, but getting another rocket ready to repeat that success just a month later is a sign of maturity for the entrepreneurial launch firm so deserves a mention here. It's interesting to note that we couldn't find anything about the upcoming launch on SpaceX's website other than a mention on its 2013 launch manifest when the launch originally was scheduled to take place. NASASpaceflight.com, however, reports the launch window on January 3 as 5:50 - 7:17 pm ET from Cape Canaveral, FL.
Two days later, on January 5, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) will try to launch the return-to-flight-mission of its GSLV, the first flight since two failures in 2010. This is India's most capable launch vehicle, with a cryogenic upper stage. The return-to-flight was supposed to occur last August, but was scrubbed an hour before launch because of a second stage leak. The payload is India's GSAT-14 communications satellite.
Two days after that, on January 7, Orbital Sciences Corporation is scheduled to launch its Antares rocket with the Cygnus cargo spacecraft to take supplies to the ISS. The launch was delayed from last month because of a coolant loop problem on the ISS that necessitated a couple of spacewalks to resolve and NASA needed to focus on that instead. This is Orbital's first operational cargo launch to the ISS, designated Orb-1.
Separately, the United States is hosting an International Space Exploration Forum (ISEF) concomitantly with an International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) symposium and "Heads of Agencies" summit on Wednesday and Thursday in Washington, DC to discuss the future of space exploration and international cooperation in space.
Just outside Washington, the American Astronomical Society (AAS) is holding its annual winter meeting all week with major announcements of scientific discoveries from ground- and space-based instruments expected.
Meanwhile, the second session of the 113th Congress will commence. The Senate convenes on January 6 and the House on January 7. They have a lot of work to do!
Friday, January 3
Sunday, January 5
Sunday-Thursday, Janary 5-9
Monday, January 6
Tuesday, January 7
Wednesday-Thursday, January 8-9
Thursday, January 9
Thursday-Friday, January 9-10
Mars One, the Dutch non-for-profit foundation advocating one way trips to Mars for people who want to settle the Red Planet, announced today that it chose 1,058 candidates to proceed to round 2 of its selection and training process.
Mars One said in September that it had "received interest" from 202,586 people to make one-way trips to Mars, four people at a time beginning in 2023. That statement left open the question of how many of those who expressed interest actually applied, a process that involved paying a fee. However, today's press release said that the 1,058 candidates chosen for the next step were drawn "from an applicant pool of over 200,000." Applicants were asked to pay "a small administration fee that varies across nations according to their per capita GDP" to make the program "equally accessible" for everyone and to reduce "the number of insincere entries." Mars One did not announce how much revenue it earned from the applications. The foundation says it plans opportunities for people to apply "regularly" in future years.
Mars One plans to finance its effort through crowdsourcing (through Indiegogo), exclusive partnerships, selling broadcasting rights, "involvement with high net worth individuals," and "revenues from intellectual property." The next steps in the selection process were not announced today because Mars One said it is still in negotiations with media companies for the rights to televise the process.
Earlier this month, Mars One, Lockheed Martin and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) held a press conference in Washington, D.C. to announce the first step in Mars One's plans -- a robotic lander/orbiter combination to be launched in 2018. The orbiter would be a communications satellite built by SSTL, while the lander would be provided by Lockheed Martin based on the Mars Phoenix spacecraft it built for NASA, which landed on Mars in 2007. The Mars One lander will carry a camera providing continuous video (though the communications satellite), a robotic arm to scoop up Martian material, an experiment to produce liquid water from that material, and a test of a thin film solar panel to provide power.
The Mars One contracts with Lockheed Martin and SSTL are for mission concept studies only at this point. Mars One co-founder and CEO Bas Lansdorp declined to say how much the robotic mission would cost, saying that is part of the mission concept studies. He did say, however, that the study contract with Lockheed Martin is for $250,000 and the SSTL contract is for 60,000 Euros (about $83,000).
Mars One's effort should not be confused with a completely separate and quite different proposal to send people to Mars called Inspiration Mars. The latter effort is led by Dennis Tito, an American multimillionaire best known in space circles as the person who paid Russia a reported $20 million to fly to the International Space Station as the first ISS "tourist." Tito wants to send a man and a woman, preferably married, on a round-trip flight to Mars in 2018, but they will not land. The closest they will come is 100 kilometers above the surface as they fly past on a "boomerang" trajectory that returns them to Earth.
One similarity between Mars One and Inspiration Mars is that both have evoked a lot of skepticism not only because of the expected cost and ambitious schedule, but the risk. NASA has not determined how to protect astronauts from the harmful radiation environment in space for long duration missions, never mind how to support people living on the surface of another planetary body. NASA's own current plan is to send people to orbit -- not land on -- Mars in the 2030s, with a human landing at an indefinite time thereafter.
Bansdorp and Tito both are focused on 2018 -- Bansdorp for the robotic mission, Tito for his crewed mission -- because it is an excellent opportunity to launch to Mars from an energy standpoint. Earth and Mars are properly aligned in their orbits around the Sun every 26 months to allow such journeys, but some of those opportunities are better than others. January 2018 is one of the best. An equivalent opportunity will not be available for 15 years after that. Bansdorp wants to launch his first four-person crew in 2023, which is not a good energy opportunity. He has not said what launch vehicle he plans to use.
Tito's plan to launch only two people at the best energy opportunity requires a very big rocket. He determined that the only launch vehicle capable of launching the requisite mass that might be available in 2018 is NASA's Space Launch System (SLS), but it will not be ready under NASA's current schedule. SLS's first flight -- without a crew -- is currently scheduled for 2017 and the first flight with a crew is not until 2021. Tito told a House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing in November that, after initial studies, he now believes this primarily should be a NASA mission. He estimates it will cost $1 billion and wants NASA to provide 70 percent of that. NASA replied that it is "unable to commit to sharing expenses" with Inspiration Mars, but "we remain open to further collaboration."
For its part, Mars One stresses that it is not a government program and is not looking for government money.
President Obama signed the FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) into law yesterday, sustaining a record that spans more than 50 years of enacting this annual law despite the ups and downs of Washington politics.
The law provides a total of $607 billion for defense: $527 billion as the base budget plus $80 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) such as the war in Afghanistan.
Among the provisions related to national security space activities in the bill as passed by Congress and explained in a joint explanatory statement from the House and Senate Armed Services Committees are the following ("sec." refers to section numbers in the bill):
Congress did not agree to a House-passed provision that would have required an analysis of alternatives to the Precision Tracking Space System (PTSS), which was terminated.
President Obama did not mention any of the space-related provisions in his signing statement, which focuses on provisions regarding Guantanamo.
Happy Holidays! Except for the hard working astronauts aboard the International Space Station, and the need for Congress to officially adjourn for the year, everyone can take a well deserved break for the rest of 2013.
The astronauts completed the first of two or three spacewalks to fix a coolant loop problem yesterday. A second is scheduled for Christmas Eve day (7:10 am ET) and a third could be scheduled if needed. The second was delayed by a day so the astronauts can get a backup spacesuit ready for Rick Mastracchio to wear because something went awry with the one he wore yesterday. Details are pending.
The House and Senate have completed their legislative work for the year, but both chambers are scheduled to meet in "pro forma" sessions this coming week, the House tomorrow and the Senate on Tuesday. The Senate meeting will take place only if the House has not approved an adjournment resolution by then. Chances are that's what the House will do tomorrow, so the Senate session is tentative.
Things will get hopping very quickly in the New Year with the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society on January 5-10, NASA's Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) on January 8-9, the International Space Exploration Forum with ministers of more than 30 space-faring countries on January 9, and the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) Heads of Agencies Summit on Exploration on January 9-10. All of those meetings will take place in the Washington, D.C. area.
Oh, and Congress is expected to return to work that week, too; the Senate on January 6 and the House on January 7.
So enjoy the holiday break -- it's busy, busy, busy after that.
The final version of the FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that just cleared Congress includes language prohibiting the President from allowing Russia to put GLONASS monitor stations on U.S. soil without the approval of the Secretary of Defense (SecDef) and Director of National Intelligence (DNI).
The State Department has been considering a Russian request to place monitor stations within the United States for Russia's GLONASS navigation satellite system, its equivalent of the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS). The stations would increase the accuracy of GLONASS. GLONASS and GPS are elements of a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) and U.S. objectives with regard to GNSS are to ensure compatibility, achieve interoperability, and promote fair competition in the marketplace.
No agreement has been struck to allow GLONASS stations in the United States, but the possibility raised concerns in the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community that became public in an article in the New York Times last month.
The language in the NDAA (sec. 1602(b)) prohibits the President from authorizing or permitting "the construction of a global navigation satellite system ground monitoring station directly or indirectly controlled by a foreign government" on U.S. territory unless the SecDef and DNI "jointly certify" to Congress that any such ground station "will not possess the capability or potential to be for the purpose of gathering intelligence in the United States or improving any foreign weapon system." The SecDef and DNI may jointly grant a waiver to that requirement if certain conditions are met, however. The section includes a 5-year sunset clause so will be in effect for only 5 years from the date the President signs the bill into law.
The National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing Advisory Board advises the government on issues concerning GPS and GNSS. It was briefed on Russia's proposal at its May 7-8, 2013 meeting and expressed no concerns according to the meeting's minutes. It received another briefing at its December 3-4, 2013 meeting. The minutes of that meeting are not available yet, but the presentation by Ken Hodgkins, Director of the State Department's Office of Space and Advanced Technology, points out that "no final decisions have been made" and Russia's proposal has "evolved" based on discussions that have taken place already.
The FY2014 NDAA cleared its final congressional hurdle on Thursday, passing the Senate by a vote of 84-15. The President is expected to sign it.
The Houston Chronicle's science writer, Eric Berger, published the text of his interview with Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) in his blog today. Culberson is viewed as the likely successor to Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) as chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA assuming Republicans retain control of the House in next year's elections. Wolf is retiring.
Culberson is already a member of the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee and he and Wolf work closely together and share similar views. Highlights from Berger's interview, which can and should be read in its entirety on Berger's SciGuy blog or as an article in today's newspaper, include the following (his full answers provide more context than these brief excerpts):
Culberson represents a district that includes Houston, home of NASA's Johnson Space Center, and he notes in the interview that he is "absolutely devoted to all of NASA and all its missions," but believes that robotic planetary exploration does not get sufficient attention in Congress.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) wrote to Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper today asking five questions about the implications for U.S. leadership in space and U.S. national security of China's recent accomplishments in space, including landing a rover on the Moon last weekend.
Wolf chairs the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee that funds NASA and NOAA, among other departments and agencies. Rogers chairs the House Armed Services Committee's Subcommittee on Strategic Forces with oversight of many U.S. national security space programs as well as ballistic missiles, strategic weapons and other programs.
The letter cites not only the landing of China's Chang'e-3 spacecraft and its Yutu rover on the Moon, but the number of Chinese space launches in 2012 as indications that the United States could lose its leadership position in space. China conducted 19 launches in 2012 compared with 13 in the United States according to the letter.
Rogers and Wolf assert that they "are among those who have grown concerned that while the People's Republic of China commits significant resources and sense of national purpose to its space program, the United States is at risk of losing its space leadership." Noting that China does not distinguish between civil and military space programs, the two influential Congressmen ask Clapper to respond to five questions that "will inform fiscal year 2015 legislation our two subcommittees may consider." The questions are:
Wolf is the main sponsor of legislative language that prohibits NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) from engaging in any activities related to civil space cooperation with China unless certain conditions are met. Thus, the fourth question seems rather odd, since there is no U.S.-China civil space cooperation today, or it may refer to lasting impacts from the 1990s when U.S. commercial satellites could be launched by Chinese rockets (which could also be one thrust of the third question).
Opponents of U.S. space cooperation with China cite that era as a time when China benefitted substantially from technical interactions with U.S. commercial satellite manufacturers that enabled them to improve the performance of their launch vehicles significantly. A congressional investigation (the Cox Committee) found that the U.S. companies violated export regulations in their dealings with China. Consequently, law and regulations were changed so that no U.S. satellites or satellite components can be exported to China. The export regulations are again being revised right now, but satellite exports to China will still be prohibited.
Wolf, who announced this week that he will retire at the end of next year, wrote a separate letter to President Obama today asking him to hold a White House conference early in 2014 to develop a mission concept for a U.S.-led international return to the Moon. China's lunar rover was also cited in that letter as a rationale for a return to the Moon to assure U.S. leadership in space.