Subscribe to Email Updates:

Enter your email address:

Commercial Space News

Senate Appropriators Approve $19.3 Billion for NASA for FY2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Apr-2016 (Updated: 22-Apr-2016 08:42 AM)

The Senate Appropriations Committee today approved $19.306 billion for NASA in FY2017, a $21 million increase over its FY2016 level of $19.285 billion, in its Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill. The Space Launch System (SLS) and its Enhanced Upper Stage (EUS), the Orion spacecraft, commercial crew, and most of the space and earth science portfolio (except for planetary science) fared well.  Aeronautics. space technology, and most of space operations held their own.

Describing the Senate committee's action is a challenge this year.  Typically, comparisons are made between what the Administration requests and what Congress approves.  For FY2017, however, the Administration used a unique approach where part of the money requested ($18.262 billion) is from appropriated funds in the discretionary portion of the federal budget -- the part of the federal budget that has always funded NASA; another portion ($663 million) is from mandatory spending, which funds entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security; and the remainder ($100 million) is from a tax the Administration proposed to levy on oil companies for a clean transportation initiative.

NASA displays its budget request as the combination of the three -- $19.025 billion -- and breaks down the request for individual accounts like science, aeronautics, and space technology accordingly.  The $100 million from the oil company tax was designated entirely for aeronautics, for example, so NASA's budget chart shows the aeronautics request as $790.4 million, a sharp increase from the $640 million appropriated for the current year.

Congress summarily rejected the Administration's notion of taxing the oil companies, however, and appropriations committees have no authority over mandatory spending.  From the Senate Appropriations Committee's standpoint, therefore, the request was $18.262 billion.  Throughout its report, the committee compares what it approved to that figure, not to the $19.025 billion that NASA displays.  It therefore is very important to exercise care when reading the committee's report because it may say that it provided more or less than "the request," but that may not be obvious looking at NASA's budget presentation.

The following discussion compares the Senate committee's actions as shown in its report (S. Rept. 114-239 to accompany S. 2837) to current spending instead of to the request because of the ambiguity.

SLS does very well.  It is being built in Alabama, the home state of Sen. Richard Shelby, who chairs the CJS subcommittee.  The committee approved $2.150 billion, an increase of $150 million over FY2016.  Of that amount, $300 million is designated for EUS.   Alternately called the Exploration Upper Stage or Enhanced Upper Stage, it is needed for SLS flights that will launch crews aboard the Orion spacecraft.  The first SLS mission, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), will be a test of an unoccupied Orion and the EUS is not needed for that.  The second mission, EM-2, will carry a crew, but NASA has been planning  to use an interim upper stage (Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage) for that mission and then build the EUS for EM-3 and beyond.   EUS advocates argue that spending money to human-rate the interim stage for one mission is wasteful.  They want to get EUS ready for EM-2 and so far Congress has agreed.  The Senate committee also added a small amount of money ($30 million) for Orion compared to current spending, a total of $1.3 billion.

The commercial crew program, for years the source of strong debate between the Administration and Congress, seems to have turned a page.  The committee approved $1,184.8 million, slightly less than current spending, but in this case it is a planned reduction since the program has passed its peak funding phase.

The science budget overall is $194 million less than current spending.  Funding for the James Webb Space Telescope is lower than FY2016 ($569.4 million versus $620.0 million), but, like commercial crew, it is a planned reduction.  Earth science is slightly higher than current funding ($1,984 million compared to $1,921 million in FY2016) and includes $130 million for Landsat 9, with launch in 2020.  Planetary science suffers the biggest reduction in this account -- a $275 million cut from $1,631 million currently to $1,356 million.   The committee expresses support for the mission to Jupiter's moon Europa that is a favorite of House CJS subcommittee chairman Rep. John Culberson, but does not specify how much funding is provided.  It is widely expected that the House Appropriations Committee will include significant Europa funding and the two committees will reach agreement in conference.

Space technology is level-funded at $686.5 million (compared to FY2016) and the committee specifies that $130 million of that is for the RESTORE-L satellite servicing technology development program that was shifted into space technology from space operations last year.  Aeronautics would receive $601 million, $39 million less than FY2016.

A fact sheet provides additional information and tables explaining more of the committee's actions.

Bipartisan Senate Bill Clarifies Space Weather Responsibilities, Promotes Research - UPDATE 2

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Apr-2016 (Updated: 29-Apr-2016 05:35 PM)

Three Senators introduced legislation yesterday to clarify federal agency responsibilities for space weather research and forecasting.  Senators Gary Peters (D-MI), Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced S. 2817, which allocates specific roles to NOAA, DOD, NASA, NSF and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  NOAA, for example, is directed to "immediately begin planning" to ensure there is no gap in solar observations.  The bill focuses on policy and does not authorize any funding. [UPDATE:  The Senate Commerce committee announced this afternoon that it will mark up the bill on Wednesday, April 27.] [UPDATE 2: The bill was ordered favorably reported from committee.]

Space weather -- the result of particles emitted by the Sun interacting with Earth's atmosphere and potentially damaging satellites and ground-based infrastructure like the electric grid -- is of growing concern.   A 2008 report from the National Research Council raised awareness of the societal and economic impacts of space weather.  NASA has studied solar and space physics, the underlying science behind space weather, for decades as has the European Space Agency (ESA).  Satellites positioned at the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point now give warnings of solar eruptions.  NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) in Boulder, CO issues forecasts and alerts when damaging events are expected.

NASA's veteran Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) and ESA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) were joined by the NOAA-NASA-Air Force Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) last year.  ACE was launched in 1997 and SOHO in 1995.  NASA provided three of SOHO's 12 instruments and operates the spacecraft.  SOHO has a type of telescope called a coronagraph that provides the first indication of an eruption on the Sun.  The particles then fly past ACE and DSCOVR, which collect data about intensity and polarization that in turn allow SWPC to make its forecasts.

Last year in its FY2016 budget request, the White House proposed that NASA be responsible for all non-military satellite earth observations, with NOAA responsible only for weather satellites, including space weather.  NOAA requested $2.5 million to begin planning for the next space weather satellite.  Congress agreed with the assignment of responsibilities, but approved only half the funding.  The FY2017 request is also $2.5 million.

In October 2015, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued a National Space Weather Strategy and National Space Weather Action Plan.  They set six strategic goals to reduce the nation's vulnerability to space weather.

Some of the OSTP goals, such as establishing benchmarks for space weather events, are contained in the new legislation. the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act.   The bill would clarify the roles and responsibilities of federal agencies for understanding, predicting and forecasting space weather:

  • NOAA and DOD would provide operational space weather forecasts;
  • NASA and NSF would conduct basic heliophysics research, develop next generation technologies, and transfer findings, data and models to operational forecasters;
  • NOAA would immediately begin planning for back-up solar observations to prevent a single point of failure in the current satellite fleet (SOHO's age is of particular concern);
  • the four agencies would begin planning for next-generation observations and science missions;
  • the agencies would develop space weather benchmarks to characterize the nature, frequency, and intensity of expected space weather events; and
  • the Department of Homeland Security would assess the vulnerability of critical infrastructure to space weather events.

The bill has other provisions to foster greater interagency cooperation, multidisciplinary research, and partnerships with international, commercial and academic organizations.   It also directs NASA to "seek to implement" missions identified in the most recent NRC Decadal Survey for Solar and Space Physics.

Dan Baker, Director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado-Boulder, chaired that Decadal Survey and praised the legislation in a press release issued by the Senators:  "I believe this legislation will be instrumental in helping the nation achieve the kind of operational space weather system that we've long needed."   The CEO and Executive Director of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), Christine McEntee, also supports the bill, saying AGU applauds "the bill's intent to further scientifically informed action towards disaster preparation, mitigation, response, and recovery."

The bill was referred to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which announced on April 21 that it will mark up the bill on April 27 at 10:00 am ET (along with several other bills and pending nominations).   All three sponsors of the legislation are members of the committee and of its Space, Science, and Competitiveness Subcommittee.  Peters is the ranking member (top Democrat) on that subcommittee.

Update:  This article was updated at 2:20 pm ET on April 21 to reflect the Senate Commerce Committee's announcement that it will mark up the bill next week.

Senate Subcommittee Approves $19.3 Billion for NASA, Outlook in House Also Positive

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Apr-2016 (Updated: 19-Apr-2016 08:30 PM)

The Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $19.3 billion for NASA today.  That is only a first step in the appropriations process, but a sign that Congress wants to maintain NASA at its current funding level.   The chairman of the House CJS subcommittee also offered encouraging words today.

NASA's FY2017 budget request is $18.262 billion in appropriated funds and $763 million that would be moved from the mandatory portion of the federal budget (that funds programs like Social Security and Medicare) into the discretionary category and allocated to NASA, for a total of $19.025 billion.  Such an approach has never been used before and appropriations committees have no control over mandatory spending.  Congress has sharply criticized the Administration for using such a "gimmick," but expressed support for NASA at its current (FY2016) funding level of $19.285 billion.

Senate Appropriations CJS subcommittee chair Richard Shelby (R-AL) reasserted his objection to the gimmick, but announced that NASA would receive $19.3 billion for FY2017 under his subcommittee's recommendation.  Subcommittee vice-chair Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) later said that the recommended level for FY2017 is $21 million above FY2016, which still rounds to $19.3 billion.  

The committee released a broad summary of the subcommittee's recommendations, but not details.  Those typically are provided after full committee markup, which is scheduled for Thursday morning.  According to the summary --

  • the Space Launch System (SLS), which is being built in Shelby's home state of Alabama, will receive $2.15 billion, which is $150 million more than in FY2016 and $920 million above the request.   Included in that total is $300 million for the Enhanced (or Exploration) Upper Stage (EUS);
  • Orion will receive $1.3 billion, $30 million more than FY2016 and $247 million more than the request;
  • Science will receive $5.4 billion, $194 million less than FY2016, but $247 million more than the request;
  • Commercial crew will receive $1.18 billion, the same as the request; and
  • Space Technology will receive $687 million, the same as FY2016 and $4.1 million less than the request.

Mikulski said yesterday that she expects the bill to go to the Senate floor for consideration in the next 2-3 weeks, though whether it will pass or not remains to be seen.  The Senate has not passed any of the 12 individual appropriations bills in several years.  Typically, when the new fiscal year begins on October 1, the government ends up being funded by one or more Continuing Resolutions (CRs) that keep agencies at their previous year's funding level, followed by an "omnibus" or "consolidated" appropriations that combines all 12 appropriations bills and funds agencies for the entire fiscal year (a "full year" appropriations).

Shelby's House counterpart, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), clearly expects that to play out this year as well.   He was scheduled to speak to a Space Transportation Association (STA) luncheon today, but stopped by only long enough to apologize profusely that the House Appropriations Committee was marking up other legislation at the same time and his presence was required there.  In his brief visit, he said he expects the government to be funded by a CR initially, but is optimistic that a full year appropriations will pass in due course and NASA will do well.  He said he expected the Senate markup to be higher in some areas and lower in others than what his House committee will recommend, but it will be worked out in conference: "Senator Shelby is as committed to NASA as I am. ... NASA's number will be one that we are all going to be excited and proud of" and includes funding for the robotic mission to Europa that he champions.

STA was prepared for the possibility that Culberson might not be able to stay long and had arranged in advance for the head of NASA's science programs, John Grunsfeld, to give a presentation instead.  Grunsfeld is retiring from NASA at the end of the month and STA used today's event as an opportunity to present him with its Leadership Award while Culberson was present.

Grunsfeld focused on the search for life in the universe, noting that the search for life is different from the search for intelligent life -- whether in the universe or, jokingly, inside the Beltway (a highway that surrounds Washington, DC).   After describing NASA efforts to find other Earth-like planets using the Kepler Space Telescope and larger potential telescopes, he was asked about his views on the recently announced Breakthrough Initiative by Yuri Millner and Stephen Hawking to send tiny spacecraft to Alpha Centauri.   In short, he thinks "it's cool."

He also said that he considers SLS "transformative" for space science because it can launch much larger spacecraft -- in mass and volume - including space telescopes and planetary exploration spacecraft and dramatically shorten the time to reach destinations compared to today's rockets.

What's Happening in Space Policy April 18-22, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Apr-2016 (Updated: 17-Apr-2016 01:47 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of April 18-22, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

As expected, Congress did not meet the April 15 deadline to pass a FY2017 budget and there is no indication that it will succeed in doing so any time soon.  Nonetheless, the appropriations process must proceed.  This week, the Senate Appropriations Committee will markup the bills that fund the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (Transportation-HUD) and NASA and NOAA (Commerce-Justice-Science).  Subcommittee markups are on Tuesday; full committee on Thursday.  That's just a first step -- there's a long way to go -- but will give an indication of how the Senate, at least, is looking at funding those programs.

One of NASA's most stalwart supporters in the Senate, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), is retiring this year.  Tomorrow (Monday) she will give her annual speech to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable, which may offer a preview of what to expect at the CJS markup.  Mikulski is a very powerful advocate for NASA because of her seniority on the appropriations committee (she chaired the full committee and the CJS subcommittee when Democrats controlled the Senate and is the top Democrat on both panels now).  It will be interesting to see if any senior Democratic appropriator steps up to the plate for NASA next year.  CJS also appropriates money to NOAA and Mikulski supports NOAA, too,  but she is more publicly critical of NOAA's management of the weather satellite programs.

The House Armed Services Committee will begin marking up the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) this week.  (Not sure of the difference between an authorization and an appropriation?  Or, for that matter, what a markup is?  Read our "What's a Markup?" fact sheet.)   Subcommittee markups are on Wednesday and Thursday.  The Strategic Forces subcommittee oversees most defense space issues.  Its markup is on Thursday at noon.  Full committee markup is next week.

On Tuesday, the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on small satellites and the commercial space launch industry.  Witnesses are Elliott Pulham of the Space Foundation, Eric Stallmer of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, and Jason Andrews from Spaceflight Industries, a Seattle-based company that matches customers who need to put small payloads into orbit with launch service providers and offers associated services (like payload integration).

NASA is having one of its "Destination Station" events here in Washington on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, but we haven't heard much about it other than a media advisory from Johnson Space Center.  It reveals that the non-profit organization that manages research aboard the U.S. segment of the International Space Station (ISS), the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), is having an "industry day" on Thursday.  Oddly, we could find no mention of it on the CASIS website so we don't have any details other than what is in the media advisory.  The most recent "event" on the CASIS website was for something that took place in February.  Perhaps CASIS will update its website soon. NASA's Destination Station website could use an update as well.  We confess that we were not aware that NASA had a Destination Station series of events until now.  Apparently they have been held in various places across the country since 2011.  NASA has a dedicated website for it that features a list of "where we've been, where we're going," but it ends in July 2015.  According to the website, Destination Station is an ISS "national awareness campaign."  It would be hard to find anyone who disagrees that more effort is needed to make the nation aware of ISS.  The Internet is a great way to do that, but out-of-date content doesn't help the cause.

Friday is Earth Day 2016.  Go out and do something nice for our planet!

Monday, April 18

Tuesday April 19

Wednesday-Thursday, April 20-21

Thursday, April 21

Friday, April 22



NOAA Moves Forward on Commercial Weather Data Pilot - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Apr-2016 (Updated: 15-Apr-2016 04:49 PM)

NOAA is moving forward in implementing a congressional directive to conduct a pilot project to purchase commercial weather data and assess the viability of incorporating it into NOAA’s numerical weather models.  NOAA has concerns about the accuracy, verifiability and reliability of commercial data.  The pilot project is intended to answer some of those questions.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) led the effort to include the provision in the FY2016 appropriations act.  Congress allocated $3 million for the pilot project in FY2016 and NOAA is requesting $5 million in FY2017.  In a report submitted to Congress in March, but made public only this week, NOAA says it is still working through the details of how to spend that money, but estimates one-third will be spent on purchasing data and two-thirds on NOAA’s evaluation of the data’s utility.

“Commercial Weather Data Pilot Program: Report to Congress” is posted on the website of NOAA’s Office of Space Commerce along with the agency's January 2016 Commercial Space Policy.

A spokesperson for Bridenstine's office told that the Congressman is glad to see the report has been released and that NOAA continues to take steps to begin incorporating innovative commercial data sources into its weather forecasts.  He will continue to track NOAA's progress and, as chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee's Environment Subcommittee, carry out oversight to ensure the timelines laid out in the report are met.

In an interview on April 14, Steve Volz, NOAA’s Assistant Administrator for Satellite and Information Services, National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Services (NESDIS), told that he hopes several vendors, perhaps two to four, will respond to a Request for Proposals (RFPs) to be issued in the next quarter.   He prefers to use the money to obtain data from more vendors than to get more data from one vendor.  He thinks it will take through the end of FY2017 to complete the pilot project.

NOAA has chosen radio occultation (RO) data as the focus of the pilot project.  Such data are currently obtained by a constellation of COSMIC satellites built by NOAA in cooperation with the Air Force and Taiwan.  Sensors on the satellites use Global Positioning System (GPS) signals to make measurements of temperature and water vapor throughout the lower parts of the atmosphere.  When combined with measurements from polar-orbiting weather satellites, better weather forecasts are enabled.

Thousands of measurements per day are useful and COSMIC currently provides about 2,000-3,000.   NOAA and Taiwan are building a follow-on system, COSMIC-2, that will increase that number to about 10,000.  Commercial sources could increase that to 50,000-100,000, which Volz says is an upper limit in terms of when costs would outweigh benefits.  From an operational standpoint, such data have a useful lifetime of only about a day, Volz added, although they can be useful for research thereafter.

The goal of using commercial sources is not just to reduce costs to the government, but to increase the resiliency of weather satellite systems.   Bridenstine frequently expresses concerns about the vulnerability of the "Battlestar Gallactica” spacecraft in service today, arguing in favor of a disaggregated approach of  using many smaller satellites, which reduces the risk of a single launch or satellite failure and complicates potential enemy targeting.

One NOAA concern about using commercial data is that companies typically restrict a customer's use of data so they can sell it to multiple clients.  The United States, however, makes weather satellite data available globally on a free and open basis in compliance with World Meteorological Organization Resolution 40 (WMO 40).  Volz calls it an "underlying tenet of how we do business."  Many other countries also do so and "we use more than we give," he asserted and pointed to Europe's recent agreement to make all data from its Copernicus system available.

At a March 16 hearing before his House SS&T Environment Subcommittee, Bridenstine questioned whether WMO 40 really requires that all data be provided on that basis, however.  He asked NOAA to determine precisely what commercial data could remain proprietary while stressing that he supports U.S. compliance with WMO 40.  His goal is to ensure “we’re not destroying a market that would not otherwise exist” by providing more data for free than necessary.

The witness at the hearing was NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan.  She said she had just returned from meeting with the WMO Secretary General in Geneva, Switzerland, but had not engaged in detailed discussions with him on this topic.  Overall, Sullivan is “intrigued” watching the space sector evolve and finds the prospect of commercial weather data “promising, but still quite nascent.”

In addition to releasing the report to Congress this week, NOAA published a draft Commercial Space Activities Assessment Process last week.  It is open for comment until May 9.  Links to the draft and instructions on how to comment are on the Office of Space Commerce website.

Bridenstine is proposing a parallel commercial weather data pilot for the Department of Defense.  The provision is in his just-introduced American Space Renaissance Act, but he has indicated that he will attempt to also include it in the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) will markup that bill at the end of this month.  Bridenstine serves on both the House SS&T Committee, which oversees NOAA, and HASC.

Update:  This article was updated on April 15, 2016 to incorporate Congressman Bridenstine's reaction to NOAA's report.

Bridenstine Releases American Space Renaissance Act, Welcomes Comment

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Apr-2016 (Updated: 13-Apr-2016 08:05 AM)

As promised, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) released a final draft of his American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA) at the Space Symposium today.  It will be officially introduced in the House of Representatives on Thursday.   Bridenstine created a website devoted exclusively to the legislation and welcomes input. 

Bridenstine said earlier this year that he does not expect the bill to pass en toto.  Instead, he sees it as a repository of plug-and-play provisions that could be inserted into other pieces of legislation, including this year's National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  Bridenstine serves on both the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, which authorizes NASA and NOAA activities, and the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), which oversees defense programs.

The bill would "permanently secure the United States of America as the preeminent spacefaring nation."

Bridenstine created a website where interested persons can read the bill and a section-by-section analysis, provide input, and sign up for updates.  It is a broad bill encompassing military, civil and commercial space activities.  According to the website, the bill's objectives are to:

  • Project military strength and protect our space based capabilities
  • Provide certainty to encourage commercial space innovation, and
  • Promote stability, accountability, and mission clarity at NASA

Drafting legislation typically takes place behind the scenes, with stakeholders lobbying to get favored provisions in and troublesome provisions out. Bridenstine has welcomed input from everywhere, however, posting an initial draft on his website in March and creating a link for input to this current version on the ASRA website.  In a sense, the bill is a potpourri of provisions that align with Bridenstine's view of the world, which champions a strong defense and promotes commercial activities.

A few (yes, just a few) of the provisions in the 110-page bill would --

National Security Space

  • require the President to develop doctrine for responding to deliberately hostile acts against U.S. government, commercial and allied/partner space assets;
  • codify the roles and responsibilities of the Principal Defense Space Advisor (a position that already exists and is filled by the Secretary of the Air Force, but could be eliminated by a future administration if not codified in law);
  • require the Secretary of Defense (SecDef) to leverage hosted payloads to the maximum extent practicable;
  • require a number of actions regarding the space- and ground-based components of military satellite communications systems;
  • require the President to establish a National Executive Committee on Weather similar to the National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing Executive Committee;
  • require SecDef to develop and certify standards to facilitate the use of commercial weather data;
  • authorize $10 million for a commercial weather data pilot program (Bridenstine created one for NOAA already);
  • prohibit reliance on foreign partners for cloud characterization, theater weather imagery and space-based weather data;
  • after December 31, 2022, instruct DOD to consider bids from launch providers utilizing domestically-built engines as costing 25 percent less than the list cost of the bid for the purpose of the competitive bidding process;
  • require DOD to establish a venture-class launch services program and authorize $27 million to award not less than four contracts (NASA has a venture-class program for very small satellites already);
  • authorize $4 million to conduct studies on allied launch service providers to serve as backup to launch national security missions;
  • require the Secretary of the Air Force to commercialize Air Force Satellite Control Network operations by January 2018

 Civil Space

  • amend the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act to align NASA's mission with a doctrine of pioneering space;
  • direct NASA to be the first to arrive at space destinations, expand access, and put in place infrastructure to facilitate utilization and development;
  • establish a 5-year term for the NASA Administrator;
  • establish a 21-person NASA Leadership and Advising Commission whose members are chosen by Congress to provide a list of candidates for Administrator and provide Congress with an analysis of NASA's annual budget submission and recommend changes;
  • require all NASA appropriations to be multi-year or no-year;
  • establish a $250 million revolving fund to supplement NASA programs suffering development challenges and support infrastructure upgrades;
  • direct the NASA Inspector General to recommend a mechanism for the automatic removal of the Administrator based on program delays or lack of adherence to long term plans;
  • beginning October 1, 2019, require NASA to determine the maximum probable loss associated with commercially-provided launches, and to require launch service providers to obtain certain levels of insurance;
  • establish landing on Mars as NASA's primary human spaceflight priority;
  • express a sense of Congress that the United States should maintain a continuous presence in low Earth orbit and utilize commercial operations for that purpose;
  • by the end of 2018, require NASA to enter into at least one competitively bid agreement to test the viability of a commercially built habitat;
  • effective January 1, 2023, instruct NASA to consider bids from launch providers utilizing domestically-built engines as costing 25 percent less than the list cost of the bid for the purposes of the competitive bid process

Commercial Space

  • establish the position of Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Commercial Space Transportation and designate this person as the Associate Administrator of FAA/AST;
  • authorize appropriations for FAA/AST for 2017-2021, rising from $43.2 million in FY2017 to $99 million in FY2021 (the FY2016 level is $17.8 million);
  • establish an Office of Spaceports within FAA/AST;
  • establish a Space Awareness Advisory Committee to advise on space situational awareness (SSA);
  • direct the Secretary of Transportation to utilize private sector SSA capabilities to the extent practicable;
  • define Space Traffic Management (STM) and direct that a lead government agency for STM be designated, and regulations to prevent collisions in Earth orbit be promulgated, by September 30, 2020;
  • require the Secretary of State to seek bi-lateral and multi-lateral agreements with spacefaring nations to standardize regulations and work through interagency and multilateral processes to develop a unified, global space traffic management architecture;
  • direct the NOAA Administrator to promulgate rules on the treatment of weather data from commercial space-based systems to ensure the United States releases only the minimum amount of proprietary data to remain in compliance with World Meteorological Organization Resolution 40 (WMO 40);
  • require NASA to submit a report on how to leverage industry capabilities for Earth science missions;
  • require the Secretary of Commerce to review the feasibility and benefits of rearranging space-related activities within the Department;
  • make changes to how commercial remote sensing licenses are handled;
  • authorize appropriations for 2017-2021 for commercial weather data buys by NOAA, rising from $15 million in FY2017 to $130 million in FY2021 (NOAA has $3 million in FY2016 to evaluate the feasibility of using commercial data in numerical weather models);
  • express a sense of Congress that the Secretary of Transportation has authorities to determine compliance with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty;
  • establish a loan guarantee program within the Department of Commerce to support a domestic space industrial base for national security;
  • permit the Secretary of Transportation to allow experimental aircraft to be used for commercial compensation for spaceflight training

Editor's Note:  The section-by-section portion of the website is NOT user-friendly.  Here's a hint:  be sure to use the sliding scale at the bottom of the webpage to make the font large enough to read, not the more obvious + sign to which we are all so accustomed.   And be forewarned -- there are a lot of ads.

Bigelow Wants Bigger B330 Module, XBASE, Attached to ISS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Apr-2016 (Updated: 11-Apr-2016 11:44 PM)

Just days after his experimental Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) successfully reached the International Space Station (ISS), Robert Bigelow is calling on NASA to attach a full-sized B330 module to ISS in the next few years.   During a press conference with United Launch Alliance (ULA) President Tory Bruno, Bigelow said that ULA's Atlas V rocket is the only one that can launch the B330.  The two companies announced a partnership agreement today.

Bigelow is the President and founder of Bigelow Aerospace, which picked up efforts to build expandable modules after NASA cancelled its 1990s-era TransHab program.   It launched two experimental free-flyers on Russian rockets in 2006 (Genesis I) and 2007 (Genesis II).   On Friday, the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft carried the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) to the ISS and it arrived on Sunday.  Once BEAM is installed onto an ISS docking port and slowly expanded, it will be used for tests over two years.  Then it will be detached and burn up in the atmosphere.

It is a precursor to the full-size B330 module that Bigelow is hoping will become a standard for habitats in Earth orbit and beyond. He asserted today that two B330s will be built and ready for launch by 2020. The "330" refers to the module's usable volume -- 330 cubic meters. 

An oft-used Bigelow Aerospace illustration shows two B330s docked together, but that is only one configuration.  Bigelow's marketing approach today was clearly aimed at convincing NASA to become the anchor tenant on a B330 attached to ISS.  In that configuration, he calls it XBASE -- Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement.

Today's press conference announced a partnership between ULA and Bigelow for launching B330 modules, but Bruno and Bigelow clarified that it is meeting of the minds, not a formal contract.  Bigelow called it a "work in process" and Bruno said they are "collaborating together with resources and talent and technology," not money. "We don't talk about dollars in investment.  We'll see as time goes by what this fully encompasses."  ULA's contribution now is reserving a slot on its manifest for a B330 launch.

The two companies share a vision of multiple modules in low Earth orbit and beyond, with Bigelow building the modules and ULA launching them.   Bruno said he was excited for ULA to become the "transportation highway" to the destinations Bigelow creates and, with its new ACES upper stage, potentially shuttling between them.

Still, when asked who would pay for the Atlas V launch ULA is reserving for the B330, there was no clear answer.  Bruno said ULA would be pleased to work with NASA if it turns out that NASA is the primary customer, "but there are other opportunities."   Bigelow demurred entirely, saying it is too early to get into details.  He reiterated what he said in a pre-launch press conference last week in advance of the Dragon launch that he already has customers who want to use the experimental BEAM module and hopes NASA will grant permission for them to do so.   In his view, the next step is for a B330 to be attached to ISS, which he said would increase the volume of the ISS by 30 percent.  He acknowledged that he needs permission from NASA, which will have to coordinate with the other ISS partners, with a "gauntlet of challenges" to navigate.

In response to a question, Bigelow insisted that the first two B330s are capable of independent flight, with their own propulsion systems, avionics and life support systems.  (By comparison, the experimental BEAM is completely reliant on ISS.)  When further asked why he wants to deal with all the challenges involved in working with NASA, he said it is in NASA's best interests.  By adding a B330 to ISS, NASA could have "seamless" operations to whatever comes after ISS.  The B330 could extend the ISS lifetime or be detached and dock with another module, for example.

Queried about the overall goal of the ULA/Bigelow Aerospace partnership, Bigelow, the millionaire head of Embassy Suites hotels, laughed and said "other than make a lot of money?"   He envisions space tourists, or "amateur astronauts," as one source of revenue, along with naming opportunities and becoming a "Hudson's Bay Company" for customers that explore and utilize space.

Speaking more expansively, Bigelow characterized the decade of 2011-2021 as phase one and 2021-2031 as phase two of a "new space era" where space is accessible to a much larger number of nations, companies and individuals than today.   Bruno enthused that it would herald the "democratization" of space where "many people, ordinary people ... will go to space because there are jobs in space, because they can go to space to have a better life."

What's Happening in Space Policy April 11-15, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Apr-2016 (Updated: 10-Apr-2016 10:38 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of April 11-15, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.   The House and Senate both are in session this week.

During the Week

The Appropriations Committees on both sides of Capitol Hill will begin marking up the FY2017 appropriations bills this week and adopting the "302(b)" allocations that dictate how much money each of the 12 subcommittees can spend.  Usually that step comes after the House and Senate have passed Budget Resolutions to set the overall amount of money Congress can spend in a given year, but no Budget Resolutions have passed yet and it is not clear that any will.  Congress has ways around the Budget Resolution process (this wouldn't be the first year that Congress could not pass one) and since the budget deal worked out last fall between Congress and the White House covers FY2017, the total spending figures exist already.  Tea Party Republicans do not like them, though, and want a new deal to reduce spending for non-defense programs, which is complicating House action on a Budget Resolution.  Time is marching on, however, and the appropriations committees need to act so they are going to get the markups underway.   Those scheduled for this week do NOT include Commerce-Justice-Science (which includes NASA and NOAA) or the main Defense Appropriations bill, although both will mark up the Military Construction-Veterans Affairs bill.  (The other bills scheduled for markup at subcommittee or full committee level this week are Energy-Water in both the House and Senate, and the Agriculture bill in the House.)

TOTALLY unrelated to space policy, but perhaps of interest to our readers who are U2 fans, Bono is scheduled to testify to the Senate Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on State-Foreign Operations on Tuesday at 2:00 pm ET.   The topic is "causes and consequences of violent extremism and the role of foreign assistance."

Most of the space policy action this week will be in Colorado Springs, CO at the Space Foundation's Space Symposium.  There are many interesting sessions at the conference itself, including the Space Agencies Leaders panel Tuesday morning and Rep. Jim Bridenstine's talk just afterwards where he will release his draft American Space Renaissance Act.  Side events also will be of interest, starting tomorrow (Monday) afternoon when Bigelow Aerospace and United Launch Alliance will announce a new partnership at 4:00 pm Mountain Time (6:00 pm Eastern).  That press conference will be webcast.  (There is no indication that any sessions of the conference itself will be webcast.)

If you can't get to Colorado, ASCE is having an interesting conference in Orlando this week on engineering in extreme environments, including space.  A pre-conference 8-hour short course on "Space Mining and Planetary Surface Construction" kicks that conference off tomorrow.

And, of course, Tuesday, April 12, is the 55th anniversary of the launch of the first man in space -- the Soviet Union's Yuri Gagarin.  "Yuri's Night" events are scheduled around the world to celebrate his April 12, 1961 historic achievement of orbiting the Earth one time.  (Alan Shepard was the first American to reach space, which he did three weeks later on May 5, 1961, but his was a suborbital, not orbital, flight.  The first American to orbit Earth was John Glenn on February 20, 1962.)

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

Monday, April 11

Monday-Thursday, April 11-14

Monday-Friday, April 11-15

Tuesday, April 12

  • Yuri's Night, various times, various locations around the globe

Wednesday, April 13

Next Atlas V Launch Now Delayed Indefinitely

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Apr-2016 (Updated: 09-Apr-2016 06:41 PM)

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) said very late yesterday that the launch of the next Atlas V rocket is now delayed indefinitely.  ULA is investigating what went wrong on the launch of Orbital ATK's OA-6 Cygnus spacecraft on March 22.

Orbital ATK's OA-6 cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) was successful thanks to the Atlas V's Centaur upper stage, which was able to compensate for the under performance of the first stage.  The first stage's RD-180 engine shut down 6 seconds early.  The Centaur fired about one minute longer than planned to make up the difference in thrust needed to place Cygnus in the proper position for its ultimate rendezvous with ISS. 

This was the first problem for the Atlas V in 62 launches.

ULA soon announced that it was delaying the next Atlas V launch -- of a military communications satellite, MUOS-5 -- for one week, from May 5 to May 12, while it investigated what happened.  On March 31, the company said it had traced the anomaly to the first stage fuel system.

Late yesterday, ULA said in an emailed statement that the launch postponement is "indefinite:" 

Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. (April 8, 2016) -- The Atlas V MUOS-5 launch is delayed and indefinite on the Eastern Range due to ongoing evaluation of the first stage  anomaly experienced during the OA-6 mission. ULA successfully delivered the OA-6 Cygnus spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) on March 22. The MUOS-5 spacecraft and launch vehicle are secure at their processing facilities. 

Somewhat ironically, ULA's announcement came shortly after a signature success by its competitor, SpaceX, which not only launched its own cargo mission to ISS, but landed the Falcon 9 first stage on a drone ship at sea.

Great Day for SpaceX -- Successful Launch, Successful Drone Ship Landing

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Apr-2016 (Updated: 08-Apr-2016 06:43 PM)

SpaceX accomplished not only a successful launch today, but its first successful landing of the Falcon 9 first stage on an autonomous drone ship out at sea.  Although the company had successfully returned a first stage to a landing site at Cape Canaveral, FL in December 2015, its prior attempts to land on a drone ship encountered one problem after another.  Almost eclipsed by the excitement of the landing was the primary objective of the launch -- placing a Dragon spacecraft in orbit to deliver equipment and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).  Dragon should arrive there on Sunday.

SpaceX believes that the cost of launching anything into space can be sharply reduced by reusing the rockets.  Not everyone is convinced.  NASA's space shuttle was mostly reusable, but its costs remained very high because refurbishing the rocket stages and engines for the next launch was very expensive and the number of launches per year was small, so costs could not be amortized over a large base.

SpaceX and other companies, like Blue Origin, which just flew the same New Shepard rocket for the third time, still believe in reusability, though.

Falcon 9 rockets are used to place spacecraft into orbit from Cape Canaveral, FL or Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.  SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk is testing landing the first stage either on land or an "autonomous spaceport drone ship" (ASDS) at sea.  After a series of initial tests to "land" on the ocean itself to determine if the landing legs would deploy and the engine would fire correctly, SpaceX was ready to try its first landing on an ASDS in January 2015.  

The company has two ASDS's, whimsically named "Of Course I Still Love You" and "Just Read the Instructions."   They are "drone ships," not barges, because they have engines.  Barges do not.  They can operate with no one aboard, autonomously, which is important when landing a rocket on deck.

On SpaceX's first attempt to land on an ASDS in January 2015, the fuel was exhausted too soon.   On the second attempt in April 2015, the landing was too hard.  The third time, in January 2016, it landed, but one of the four landing legs broke.  On the fourth attempt, in March 2016, again there was insufficient fuel, which SpaceX anticipated and it took efforts to dampen expectations in advance.

In December 2015, however, the company did land successfully at a pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the first time it was attempted.  That was a launch of 11 Orbcomm OG-2 satellites to low Earth orbit. 

Today, everything went very smoothly and SpaceX now has two successful landings under their belt -- one on land, one at sea.

SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage after landing on ASDS Of Course I Still Love You, April 8, 2016. Screenshot from live coverage.

Meanwhile, Dragon successfully reached orbit and is on its way to the ISS with about 7,000 pounds of supplies, equipment and scientific experiments.  It will arrive there on Sunday, April 10, and remain until May 11.  SpaceX's U.S. competitor for launching cargo to the ISS is Orbital ATK's Cygnus.  For the first time, a Dragon and a Cygnus will be attached to the ISS at the same time.  Cygnus arrived there two weeks ago (and a Russian Progress cargo ship docked last week).

Among the cargo on this Dragon mission is the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which will be attached to the ISS for two years to conduct tests of this innovative approach to building space habitat modules.

Dragon is the only ISS spacecraft that not only take cargo to the space station, but return it to Earth.  It lands in the Pacific using parachutes.  NASA uses it to return the results of scientific experiments and failed equipment that it wants to analyze.