Commercial Space News
Here is our list of upcoming space policy related events for the week of June 16-20, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate both are in session this week.
During the Week
Inside the Beltway, perhaps the most interesting event will be Senate debate on a "minibus" appropriations bill that bundles the bill that funds NASA and NOAA (Commerce-Justice-Science or CJS), the bill that funds FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (Transportation-HUD or T-HUD), and the Agriculture bill. The Hill newspaper reports that's the plan and the Senate did begin debate on the motion to proceed to the CJS bill last week, a procedural step. Those three bills were bundled together in FY2012, too.
It's hard to remember the last time the Senate took up the CJS appropriations bill so early in the year. Typically the Senate turns to such bills after the August recess. It is amazing to see how much progress is being made on appropriations bills on both sides of Capitol Hill this year thanks to the Ryan-Murray budget agreement reached last December that set the spending limits for FY2014 and FY2015. It's never over till the fat lady sings, of course, but one kernel of optimism for those three bills, at least, is that the House already has passed two (CJS and T-HUD) and begun debate on the third (Agriculture) though it is not the Majority Leader's schedule for the coming week. Instead the House will be debating the defense appropriations bill, which was reported from committee on Friday (H.R. 4870, H. Rept. 113-473).
Outside the Beltway, the third International Space Station Research and Development Conference in Chicago should be interesting. Organized by the American Astronautical Society (AAS) in cooperation with NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the conference has a very impressive agenda. AAS sometimes offers webcasts of key sessions of its conferences; we're checking to see if they are providing webcasts this time and will add the information to our calendar item for that event if the answer is yes.
Those and the other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Monday, June 16
Monday-Friday, June 16-20
Tuesday-Thursday, June 17-19
Wednesday, June 18
Wednesday-Thursday, June 18-19
Friday, June 20
Commercial satellite imagery company DigitalGlobe announced today that it has received permission from the U.S. government to collect and sell satellite imagery with greater resolution than allowed in the past. The company has been seeking a change to the resolution restriction for quite some time.
Under the new limits, DigitalGlobe can collect and sell imagery as sharp as 0.25 meters (m) instead of 0.50 m. Until now, if the satellite could image the Earth with greater accuracy, the company had to degrade the data so it had only the allowable resolution. (Resolution is essentially the ability to "see" an object on Earth.) Beginning immediately, it may sell the imagery from its existing satellites at its "native" resolution. DigitalGlobe, after its merger with competitor GeoEye in 2013, operates a fleet of five high-resolution imaging satellites, two of which can provide better than 0.50 m resolution with their panchromatic (black and white) sensors: GeoEye-1 (0.41 m) and WorldView-2 (0.46 m).
The WorldView-3 satellite is scheduled for launch in August 2014. It will have 0.31 m resolution. Six months after it is operational, DigitalGlobe will be allowed to offer imagery with that resolution for sale to commercial customers.
DigitalGlobe CEO Jeffrey Tanber thanked Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker as well as the Departments of Defense and State and the Intelligence Community for making this "forward-leaning change to our nation's policy."
DigitalGlobe also operates Ikonos, QuickBird, WorldView-1 and GeoEye-1. Another satellite, GeoEye-2, also with 0.31 m resolution, is under construction.
The U.S. government has steadily relaxed image resolution limits for commercial imaging satellites since commercial satellite remote sensing was first envisioned in the 1980s. NOAA, which is part of the Department of Commerce, is responsible for licensing commercial remote sensing satellites under the 1992 Land Remote Sensing Policy Act, which replaced the 1984 Land-Remote Sensing Commercialization Act. The resolution limits reflect a tension between those who want to restrict availability of the very best imagery to those involved in protecting U.S. national security and those who want to make such data widely available for multiple uses and to more easily enable sharing with other countries.
SpaceX Founder and Chief Designer Elon Musk said in an interview this evening that the version of the Dragon spacecraft designed to take humans into space initially will be tested in an automated mode, but the first time it carries people, they will be NASA astronauts.
Dragon was the center of attention at a SpaceX event tonight in Washington, DC. The company unveiled this version of the spacecraft -- Dragon V2 -- on May 29 at an event in California. Now it is D.C.'s turn to see, touch, and sit in the vehicle. It will be on display through tomorrow (June 11) at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.
The capsule can accommodate seven people. Though it seems cozy by most standards, the interior is more spacious than Russia's Soyuz spacecraft, which is currently used to transport International Space Station (ISS) crews. When asked about the cost for a Dragon capsule, Musk replied it was about $60 million, and the total cost including launch is $140 million. SpaceX has said for many years that the price to NASA for a Dragon flight is $140 million. When asked if that is the price or the cost, Musk said it was the cost. He pointed out that if NASA uses all seven seats, that calculates out to $20 million a seat, much less than what Russia charges for a seat on Soyuz (in the $60-70 million range). However, NASA is not planning to use all seven seats. The ISS was designed to accommodate only seven crew members in total -- three launched by Russia and four by the United States. Presumably NASA would use any extra volume for cargo.
Musk confirmed that Dragon can remain in orbit for many months and hence could also serve as an ISS "lifeboat." Even when the space shuttle was flying, only Russia's Soyuz spacecraft could remain on orbit for six months at a time and perform the lifeboat function, remaining attached to ISS as an escape route for the crew in case of an emergency. Musk actually said this evening that Dragon can remain on orbit indefinitely whether or not it is attached to the ISS. Soyuz's lifetime is limited by how long its fuel can withstand the cold. Russia decided long ago that six months was as long as Soyuz should stay in orbit and be expected to safely return crews to Earth.
Some of the companies competing for the commercial crew contract have indicated that initial orbital crewed flights may involve one crewperson from the company and another from NASA. Musk said tonight that SpaceX has no astronauts and the first crewed flight would be with NASA astronauts only. When asked when the first crewed flight would take place, therefore, Musk said that was NASA's call since it is the customer. He said little training is needed to fly aboard Dragon since it is entirely automated, including docking.
SpaceX's current version of Dragon, used for cargo flights to the ISS, berths with ISS rather than docks. In berthing, Dragon flies close to the ISS and then the ISS crew uses Canadarm2 to grapple Dragon and maneuver it onto a docking port. The reverse is done at the end of the mission. Berthing therefore requires a crew to be aboard. That is not a desirable situation for crewed flights, which may be sent to the ISS when it is unoccupied or if a crew is evacuating the ISS. Therefore this version of Dragon must be able to dock and undock instead, where no human intervention from the ISS side of the docking ring is required.
Unlike the cargo version of Dragon, which splashes down in the ocean, the Dragon V2 will return to land using parachutes and propulsive landing systems. The goal is to land at Cape Canaveral, FL, but Musk said initial landings may be at White Sands, NM until they are certain of the spacecraft's landing precision.
The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is continuing to work on a NASA authorization bill although its version may be for more than just one year.
The House passed a one-year NASA authorization bill (H.R. 4412) yesterday, meaning that its funding recommendations cover only FY2014, which is already in progress. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) said during floor debate that she wished the committee had been able to agree on a multi-year bill.
Last year the Senate committee approved a three-year bill on a party line vote. A Senate aide confirmed to SpacePolicyOnline.com that the committee continues to work on that bill and its multi-year time span remains an important feature.
NASA’s authorizations are under the purview of the Senate Commerce Committee and the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. Each committee approved bills last year, but intense disagreements between Republicans and Democrats over top-level funding caps – based on budget resolutions independently passed by the House and Senate using entirely different assumptions – resulted in the bills being approved on party line votes and they did not progress past the committees.
Following the Ryan-Murray budget agreement for FY2014 and FY2015 reached in December, budget tensions have eased, opening the door to greater bipartisan agreement as evidenced by the House bill.
The Senate committee similarly may be able to reach bipartisan agreement on budget matters now and the main issues will be in the policy arena. One key will be whether the goal is for a two-year bill or if the committee pushes for maintaining the three-year time horizon. A two-year bill would be for FY2014 and FY2015, the years covered by the Ryan-Murray agreement. A three-year bill would take the budget recommendations into FY2016, which is unknown territory.
The sequester will return in FY2016 unless Congress again changes the law. That may depend on the outcome of the November elections. Currently the House is controlled by Republicans and the Senate by Democrats. The House is expected to remain in Republican hands, but the Senate is up in the air. If Republicans also gain control of the Senate, the Republican Party may fight for deeper government spending cuts and the sequester may be upheld.
No timetable for Senate action is set, but the ball is in their court.
UPDATE, June 10, 2014: This article was updated with the names of the two members who voted against the bill and a link to the Congressional Record page where the full roster of votes is available.
ORIGINAL STORY, June 9, 2014: The House passed the 2014 NASA Authorization Act, H.R. 4412, today under a legislative procedure called suspension of the rules. No amendments are allowed under that procedure, which is used for bills expected to be non-controversial. The bill passed by a vote of 401-2.
The chairmen and ranking members of the full House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee and its Space Subcommittee were the main speakers: Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS), and Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD). The only other speakers were committee members Randy Weber (R-TX) and Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR).
Bipartisanship was the order of the day, although all three Democrats noted how far the two sides had come since last year when sharp political divisions on an earlier version of the bill resulted in tense party-line votes in committee. Much of the rancor was because Republicans were working under strict budget limits adopted by the House for FY2014 while Democrats rejected those limits. In December, the Ryan-Murray budget agreement for FY2014 and FY2015 eased those limits, which has enabled significantly greater cooperation between the two parties on many issues this year, including authorization and appropriations legislation.
Much of today’s discussion focused on the need for the long-term human spaceflight plan required by the bill – a Human Exploration Roadmap. That provision is strongly supported by both Republicans and Democrats. The report released last week by the National Research Council on the future of the human exploration program was repeatedly cited as the type of plan they are hoping to get from NASA.
Not surprisingly, Republicans continued their criticism of President Obama’s cancellation of the Constellation program and the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) he proposed to replace it. However, Democrats did not come to the defense of ARM and just as enthusiastically supported the need for a new roadmap.
Palazzo said the human spaceflight program has been “adrift” since Constellation ended and the country “can’t keep changing our program of record every time there’s a new President.” The bill does not require that NASA reinstate lunar surface missions to its human exploration plan, but Palazzo noted that the NRC report pointed to the “significant contributions” such missions could provide for the longer term goal of human landings on Mars.
Republicans and Democrats agreed it was “not a perfect bill,” but they supported it because there was broad agreement on so many topics. Palazzo said he would continue to raise concerns about certain issues, however, including “distractions” like ARM and the need for adequate funding for the Space Launch System (SLS).
The funding recommendations in the bill are only for FY2014, which is already underway so are not very important. Edwards said she would have preferred a multi-year authorization, but this bill is “foundational” and provides important policy guidance.
The two "nay" votes were cast by Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) and Mark Sanford (R-SC). Thirty members did not vote. A full roster of the votes is printed in the Congressional Record.
The final version of the bill as reported from committee is available on the Library of Congress THOMAS website, but not the accompanying report. (The report number is there, H. Rept. 113-470, but it does not link to anything yet.)
The next step is Senate action. Like the House SS&T committee, last year the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee approved a bill on a party line vote. There has been no committee action this year.
UPDATE, June 10, 2014: The committee approved the bill today with no changes to the space provisions.
ORIGINAL STORY, June 9, 2014: The House Appropriations Committee supports adding $220 million to begin development of a U.S. liquid rocket engine to replace the Russian RD-180s currently used for the Atlas V rocket in its draft FY2015 defense bill. The committee also directs the Air Force to provide more information about changes in the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.
Those recommendations are included in the committee's draft bill and report on the FY2015 defense budget request, which are posted on the committee's website. The defense subcommittee approved the draft on May 30. Full committee markup is scheduled for tomorrow (Tuesday, June 10).
U.S. dependence on Russian engines for one of the two rockets used to launch most U.S. national security satellites is getting a lot of attention as U.S.-Russian relationships remain strained due to events in Ukraine. Lockheed Martin's decision to use Russian engines for its Atlas V rocket dates back to the 1990s and was approved by DOD initially with the requirement that the company build a co-production facility in the United States where the engines could be provided independently of Russia in case geopolitical circumstances changed. That requirement was later waived by the government, with the company buying extra engines to stockpile instead. Today, a Lockheed Martin-Boeing joint venture, United Launch Alliance (ULA), builds both Atlas V and Boeing's Delta IV. ULA says it has a two-year supply of RD-180s, but it would take longer than that to develop a U.S.-built replacement creating the conundrum now being faced by the U.S. government.
The House passed the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in May, which includes $220 million to begin development of a U.S. engine to replace the RD-180. That is an authorization bill, though, not an appropriation. (Authorization bills set policy and recommend funding levels, but do not actually provide money. Only appropriations bills provide money). Winning support from House appropriators is a key step, though not the only one.
The Senate Appropriations Committee has not acted on its version of the bill so it is too early to tell if it will follow the lead of the Senate's DOD authorization committee. The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) recommended $100 million for FY2015 rather than $220 million for this purpose when it approved its version of the NDAA in May. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) included language in the committee-approved NDAA prohibiting the purchase of any more RD-180 engines after the current block buy contract is completed, although waivers are permitted in certain circumstances. Even if the Senate Appropriations Committee does agree with SASC, there is quite a difference in the dollar amount between the House and Senate that would have to be negotiated.
Apart from the RD-180 issue, the House Appropriations Committee's draft bill and report highlight these other space-related recommendations:
Full committee markup is at 9:30 am ET tomorrow morning.
Orbital Sciences Corporation announced today that it is again delaying the launch of Orb-2, its second operational cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS), while it continues to investigate the failure of an AJ-26 rocket engine during a test at Stennis Space Center.
Orb-2 was originally scheduled for May 6, but was initially delayed when SpaceX had to postpone one of its ISS cargo missions. The two companies are competitors in the ISS cargo resupply business. NASA and its international partners manage a dizzying array of missions taking crew and/or cargo to the ISS plus occasional spacewalks and a delay in any one activity can have a domino effect on the others.
Orbital was working towards a June 10 launch date when the engine test failed on May 22. It postponed the launch to no earlier than (NET) June 17 and now it is NET July 1. Orbital's announcement stressed that July 1 is just a planning date, not an official launch date.
AJ-26 engines are Russian NK-33 engines built more than four decades ago. They are imported to the United States and refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne and redesignated AJ-26. The engine that failed on May 22 is intended to be used in a launch next year and was undergoing a routine acceptance test after refurbishment.
The engines are used to power Orbital's Antares rocket, which sends the Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the ISS. These launches takes place from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on the coast of Virginia.
The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) gets its full FY2015 request of $16.605 million in the Senate Appropriations Committee's version of the FY2015 Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) appropriations bill. By comparison, the House committee approved a small cut.
The report (S. Rept. 113-182) on the Senate bill (S. 2438) was approved yesterday (June 5) and released today. The bill itself has not yet been posted by the Government Printing Office (GPO).
AST is responsible for facilitating and regulating the commercial space launch industry. For the current fiscal year (FY2014), the office received $16.011 million.
The FY2015 request is $16.605 million, but the House Appropriations Committee reduced it to $16.000 million when it approved its version of the T-HUD bill in May. The House committee's report (H. Rept. 113-464) did not explain why it reduced the budget and, in fact, cited the importance of the commercial launch industry to the country; asserted its commitment to ensuring a viable, healthy and competitive industry; and noted AST's heavy workload. It told the FAA to "meet the modest funding reduction in this account through savings from non-safety related activities." The House committee also stated that it supports using heavy lift launch vehicles, including the Space Launch System, for commercial launches to low Earth orbit (LEO) and beyond. It urges AST to "leverage" its licensing authority to "encourage private sector investment in systems by ensuring that commercial activities can be conducted on a non-interference basis."
The House is scheduled to begin consideration of the T-HUD bill, H.R. 4745, on Monday (June 9). The Senate has not announced when it will take up the bill, but Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) said at yesterday's markup that the Senate leadership has agreed to bring some appropriations bills to the Senate floor for debate during the week of June 16.
Senate Appropriators Increase NASA Budget, Save SOFIA, Transfer Two Programs from NOAA to NASA - UPDATE
UPDATE, June 6, 2014: The final version of the report is now posted on GPO's website, but not the bill. See link in last paragraph.
ORIGINAL STORY, June 5, 2014: The Senate Appropriations Committee approved its FY2015 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill today. The bill would increase NASA’s FY2015 budget by $439 million to $17.9 billion. While that figure is very similar to what the House approved, it would be allocated within NASA quite differently in some cases. Among the differences, the Senate committee would transfer two programs – Jason-3 and DSCOVR – to NASA from NOAA and increase NASA’s earth science budget accordingly.
President Obama requested $17.461 billion for NASA in FY2015, a figure rejected by both Senate and House appropriators. The House approved an increase of $435 million, to $17.896 billion. The Senate committee recommends an even $17.900 billion. Here are some of the major changes.
At the markup today, committee chairwoman Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) said that she was working with Senate leadership to bring several appropriations bills to the floor for consideration during the week of June 16. Her committee marked up this CJS bill as well as the Transportation-HUD bill today, so they presumably will be part of that package.
Update, June 6: The final version of the report, S. Rept. 113-181, is now posted on GPO's website and accessible via the committee's site. The bill is not posted there yet.
Key members of Congress who oversee NASA are responding favorably to the National Research Council's (NRC) new report on the future of the human spaceflight program.
Congress directed NASA to contract with the NRC to conduct the study in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. The language included in that law requiring the study is attributed to Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) and then-Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) who has since retired.
Senator Nelson released a statement saying that the report is an "affirmation that a mission to Mars is a go," but "as the report points out, we'll have to give NASA sufficient resources to get this done." Nelson, who flew on the space shuttle in 1986 when he was a Congressman, is a strong supporter of NASA's human spaceflight program.
Across Capitol Hill, House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) used the report's release as another opportunity to lambast the Obama Administration's plan, especially the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The NRC report found that ARM has failed to win support in Congress or the scientific community. Smith concurs with that sentiment, calling it a "mission without a realistic budget, without a destination, and without a certain launch date." The House SS&T committee approved a new NASA authorization act (H.R. 4412) in April that would require NASA to develop a Human Exploration Roadmap. Smith's statement said that "Congress should provide NASA with guidance and funding priorities that reflect our current budget reality while allowing them to develop an inspirational human spaceflight mission." Smith supports the Mars Flyby 2021 concept that would send astronauts to flyby (not orbit or land on) Mars in 2021 after receiving a gravity assist from Venus. The NRC report did not assess that mission.
House SS&T Democrats also issued a statement. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the top Democrat on the full committee, called the NRC report a "wake up call" to Congress and the Administration: "Their report is clear -- we are not going to have a human space exploration program worthy of this great nation if we continue down the current path of failing to provide the resources needed to make real progress and failing to embrace a clear goal and a pathway to achieving that goal." She commended the authors of the report and said she looks forward to working with "colleagues in Congress and the Administration to establish a sustainable and vital human space exploration program." Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), the top Democrat on the Space Subcommittee, said she was "heartened" by the report and that she would take on as a challenge the report's finding that the public is "inattentive to space exploration." Johnson and Edwards, like Smith, applauded the language in the committee's bill requiring the Human Exploration Roadmap. Edwards said she is convinced the next generation of Americans "only needs a spark to ignite the flood of innovation that accompanies the pursuit of a major goal. The inspiration of a clear pathway for human space exploration will provide that spark."
In many years, all those statements about providing NASA with the needed funding might ring hollow. This year, though, the House already has passed the appropriations bill that funds NASA with a substantial increase ($435 million) above what the President requested. The Senate Appropriations Committee is poised to approve a similar increase in its companion bill later today (it was marked up at subcommittee level on Tuesday). No agency can bank on getting more money than requested year after year, but for this year, at least, Congress seems to be backing up its policy pronouncements with actual money. That being said, all of the members issuing press releases so far sit on authorization, not appropriation committees. (Not sure of the difference between an authorization and an appropriation? See SpacePolicyOnline.com's "What's a Markup?" fact sheet.) It will be interesting to see if Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) or Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), chair and vice-chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, reference the NRC report during the markup, which begins at 10:00 am ET.