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Commercial Space News

House Draft T-HUD Appropriations Bill Denies Half of Increase to FAA Space Office - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-May-2016 (Updated: 18-May-2016 12:09 PM)

The draft FY2017 Transportation-HUD appropriations bill released by the House Appropriations Committee today provided only half of the requested increase for the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST).   The Obama Administration requested $19.8 million, a $2 million increase over current funding.  The T-HUD subcommittee draft provides half of that proposed increase -- $1 million, for a new total of $18.8 million.  Subcommittee markup is scheduled for tomorrow morning. [UPDATE: The subcommittee approved the bill.]

AST facilitates and regulates the commercial space launch industry, issuing licenses to companies for launches and reentries, licensing spaceports, and participating in accident investigations.   Its responsibilities have grown as the number of commercial space companies has blossomed over the past several years.  Also, congressional advocates like Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) want to expand its functions into other commercial space areas such as issuing "mission licenses" to companies planning to mine asteroids and becoming involved in space situational awareness.  (Bridenstine's American Space Renaissance Act proposes a $43.2 million budget for AST in FY2017.) 

Against this backdrop, AST has been endeavoring to hire more staff, but Congress has been reluctant to go along.  Last year, the President's request for AST was $18.115 million, a $1.5 million increase over AST's FY2015 level of $16.605 million.  The House Appropriations Committee held the office to its FY2015 level, although Bridenstine offered an amendment on the floor that added $250,000. (He often jokes that he may be the only member who has argued for such a meager increase for any program, but any increase must be offset by a decrease elsewhere.)  By the end of the FY2016 appropriations process, however, that amount grew to $17.8 million, still short of the request, but better than the House appropriations figure.

Bridenstine and 17 other Republicans and Democrats sent a letter to the T-HUD subcommittee chairman and ranking member in March arguing for the full $19.8 million for FY2017.  While it did not convince them to provide the full amount, they at least approved half of the proposed increase, an improvement over last year. 

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the full request.

FAA's commercial space transportation activities also receive funding through two other accounts, but the draft House bill does not provide sufficient detail to determine how they fared.  The requests are $2.953 million in FAA's Research, Engineering and Development (RE&D) account for safety-related activities and $2 million as part of a $20 million request for Air Traffic Management in the Facilities and Equipment account.  The latter is for integrating commercial space activities into the National Air Space.

House Appropriations Subcommittee Proposes Bigger FY2017 Boost for NASA - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-May-2016 (Updated: 18-May-2016 12:09 PM)

The House Appropriations Committee today released its draft FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) funding bill, which includes NASA and NOAA.  NASA would get an even bigger boost -- $19.5 billion -- than recommended by the Senate Appropriations Committee.   The draft bill does not provide much detail on NOAA, but the total recommended for the account that includes acquiring satellites is $2.218 billion, compared to the $2.282 billion requested.  The subcommittee is scheduled to mark up the bill tomorrow morning. [UPDATE:  The subcommittee approved the bill.]

NASA.  The President's request for NASA this year is very complicated, but basically it is for $18.3 billion in appropriated funds plus $763 million in other funding, for a total of $19.025 billion.  Appropriations committees only have jurisdiction over appropriations, so both the House and Senate committees consider the request to be $18.3 billion.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $19.3 billion, essentially the same as NASA's current funding level and, from its point of view, a $1 billion increase over the President's request. The House CJS subcommittee is proposing $19.5 billion.  Few details are in the bill (most are in the report that accompanies the bill, which has not been released yet), but the following funding levels are specified:

  • Science: $5.597 billion, including $260 million for the mission to Jupiter's moon Europa, which shall consist of an orbiter and lander, to be launched separately on the Space Launch System (SLS), in 2022 and 2024 respectively
  • Aeronautics: $712 million
  • Space Technology: $739.2 million
  • Exploration: $4.183 billion, including $1.35 billion for Orion, $2 billion for SLS (of which $250 million is for the Exploration/Enhanced Upper Stage), $429 million for exploration ground systems, and $404 million for exploration research and development
  • Space Operations:  $4.890 billion
  • Education: $115 million, including $18 million for EPSCoR and $40 million for Space Grant
  • Safety, Security and Mission Services: $2.835 billion
  • CECR:  $398 million
  • Inspector General:  $38.1 million

The extent to which those are increases or decreases depends on whether the comparison is to current funding, the President's request including the non-appropriated funds, or the President's request for appropriated funding only.  See's NASA budget fact sheet for more information.

NOAA Satellite Programs.  NOAA encompasses a broad set of mission areas, of which environmental satellites is but one.  Its budget is divided into Operations, Research and Facilities (ORF) and Procurement, Acquisition and Construction (PAC).  A large percentage of the PAC account is for satellites.   The draft bill provides $2.230 billion for NOAA's PAC account, of which $2.218 billion is new appropriations (the rest is unobligated spending from prior years).  The total PAC request was $2.282 billion, of which $2.063 billion  is for NOAA's satellite programs. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $2.029 billion.  See's NOAA budget fact sheet for more details.  

The only satellite-specific language in the draft House bill concerns funding requested for the COSMIC-2 constellation of radio occultation satellites.  NOAA is requesting funds to procure a new set of these satellites, but Congress is interested in NOAA acquiring data from commercial satellites to fulfill this requirement.  The draft bill states that no funds may be obligated until 15 days after the NOAA Administrator submits a report whose details are described in the committee's report on the bill.  Congress created a commercial weather data pilot program in last year's appropriations bill and NOAA submitted an implementation plan in April that states it will use radio occultation data for that pilot program.  Such satellites use signals from the Global Positioning System (GPS) and similar systems fielded by other countries for radio occultation to make measurements of temperature and water vapor in the lower atmosphere. When combined with data from polar orbiting weather satellites, better forecasts are enabled.

Obama Administration Threatens to Veto House NDAA - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-May-2016 (Updated: 17-May-2016 08:40 AM)

The Obama Administration issued its Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) on the House version of the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) today.  The bill, H.R. 4909, is before the House Rules Committee at the moment and, subject to a rule being granted, will reach the House floor for debate this week.  The SAP states that the President's advisers will recommend that he veto the bill if changes are not made.  Such threats have become common and last year the President followed through, although a compromise was ultimately reached.

The main obstacle to last year's NDAA was funding.  The President vetoed the first FY2016 NDAA that cleared Congress, but after a top-level budget agreement was reached in October, a revised version was passed and it received the President's signature,

Funding is also one of the major issues this time, although the 17-page SAP has a very long list of complaints.  The funding issue this year is because the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) decided to redirect $18 billion from the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account -- which pays for operations in Afghanistan, for example -- into activities that are supposed to be part of DOD's base budget, not the special OCO funds that do not count against the budget caps.  That way HASC can spend more money for defense without exceeding the caps, but it means that the OCO account has only enough money to pay for American troops fighting overseas until April 2017, not through the end of FY2017.  Whoever becomes President in January will have to immediately request a supplemental appropriations bill to keep the troops funded.  "By gambling with warfighting funds, the bill risks the safety of our men and women fighting to keep America safe, undercuts stable planning and efficient use of taxpayer dollars, dispirits troops and their families, baffles our allies, and emboldens out enemies," the SAP asserts.

From a space policy standpoint, the SAP also criticizes HASC's actions regarding the Russian RD-180 rocket engine issue. HASC adopted the position held by the Administration and the United Launch Alliance (ULA) that 18 more RD-180s are needed to keep ULA's Atlas V rockets available through the early 2020s, but retains some restrictions on how the money can be spent.  Although the language in this bill is more flexible than in the last two NDAAs, the Administration still objects.  The debate is over whether the money Congress is providing to develop a U.S. alternative to the RD-180 may be spent only on a new engine, or on other parts of a new launch system.  Previous NDAAs forbid using the money for anything other than the engine.  This bill has a modified version of that prohibition that allows up to 25 percent of the research and development funds to be spent on a new launch vehicle, upper stage, strap-on motor and related infrastructure.  The amendment containing that language was offered by Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), the top Democrat on HASC, and adopted by voice vote at the very end of the 16-hour markup on April 27-28.

The SAP has this to say about it:

Rocket Propulsion System Development Program: The Administration appreciates the amended language to section 1608 of the FY 2015 NDAA to authorize up to 18 RD-180 engines, ensuring a necessary and cost-effective bridge to American-made launch services. However, the Administration strongly objects to section 1601, which would place restrictions on the funds to eliminate the Nation's use of these engines for national security space launches. The Committee's approach overemphasizes one component of a launch vehicle and, in doing so, risks the successful and timely fielding of new domestic launch systems. The Administration is committed to developing new American-made propulsion systems as part of these new launch vehicles, but this should be done in accordance with well-accepted systems engineering principles and not arbitrary funding allocations.

The SAP also rejects a provision that requires the Government to obtain rights and technical data about any new rocket propulsion system.

The Administration also strongly objects to the direction in section 1601 requiring the acquisition of Government purpose rights and technical data for any new rocket propulsion system. Complying with this direction is not feasible as it would likely require re-negotiation of the current development contracts, thereby delaying the delivery of the new domestic capabilities beyond 2019. Pursuing such robust data rights would also undermine the very nature of the public-private partnerships, require significantly more Government funding, and risk further industry investment and participation. The Administration's public-private partnerships are successfully leveraging willing private investment to develop commercially viable launch vehicles, and this has already saved taxpayers nearly $200 million, while maintaining access to the data that the Government needs. These partnerships could save taxpayers more than $500 million through 2019 and deliver valuable capabilities for the Nation and benefits to our economy faster than the Committee's approach. 

The House Rules Committee met this evening to begin discussion about the rule that will govern floor debate on the bill.  The meeting continues tomorrow (Tuesday) afternoon where the committee will decide which of the 372 amendments that have been submitted will be allowed on the floor for debate.  The rule dictates how much time each side (pro and con) will have to debate the bill in its entirety and each of the permitted amendments and sets other conditions, such as waiving points of order.

The expectation is that the committee will approve a rule tomorrow and floor debate will begin on Wednesday.  [UPDATE; Word as of this morning (Tuesday) is that debate will begin later today.] Several of the submitted amendments deal with the RD-180/U.S. replacement issues.

The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) has approved its version of the bill and took a very different approach to RD-180s, so the debate is certain to continue no matter what happens in this bill.

The SAP also raises objections to two other space-related provisions in the bill.

As currently written, the bill requires DOD to initiate concept definition, design, research, development and engineering evaluation and testing for a space-based intercept and defeat missile defense layer and space test bed.  The SAP says the Administration appreciates congressional support for its missile defense program, but there is "no requirement for a space-based intercept and there are concerns about the technical feasibility and long-term affordability of interceptors in space."

The bill would also transfer from the Air Force to the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) responsibility for some space-based environmental monitoring missions.  The committee states in its report on the bill that it is concerned about the Air Force's lack of planning, coordination, and execution of activities to meet space-based environmental monitoring requirements.  It notes that the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) originated in NRO and was later transferred to the Air Force and wants the same arrangement now "in which the NRO develops the program and then transfers it back to the Air Force after it is in operation."  The SAP states that the entire DOD weather enterprise should be managed "as an integrated mission" and not split up.

What's Happening in Space Policy May 16-22, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-May-2016 (Updated: 16-May-2016 07:31 AM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of May 16-22, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them (yes, the 22nd, not the 20th, since ISDC 2016 runs through next Sunday).  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

It's another one of those busy, busy, weeks for space policy aficionados not just in Washington, DC, but in many other places around the world.

On Capitol Hill, House floor debate on the defense authorization bill begins mid-week. The FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), H.R. 4909, was approved by the House Armed Services Committee on April 28.  One of the big space-related items was, of course, the RD-180 issue.  HASC went along with the Air Force/United Launch Alliance (ULA) position that ULA needs 18 additional RD-180s to ensure Atlas V rockets are available through the early 2020s, instead of 9 engines to keep it available through 2019 as preferred by its Senate counterpart, SASC.  (SASC marked up its version of the NDAA last week and stuck to its guns about only 9 more.)  Another part of the debate is whether the money Congress is providing for developing a U.S. alternative to the RD-180 may be spent only on the engine or on other elements of an entirely new space launch system.  HASC had insisted in previous NDAAs that it be spent only on the engine, but, this year, an amendment was adopted at committee level allowing the funds to be spent on a launch vehicle, upper stage, strap-on motor or related infrastructure.  HASC's action on the NDAA is just one step in the defense authorization process.  Next, the House Rules Committee will meet Monday and Tuesday to craft the rule that will govern the floor debate.  It will decide, for example, which of the 372 submitted amendments may be offered on the floor.   Several concern the RD-180/U.S. replacement issues.  All of the submitted amendments are posted on the Rules Committee's website.

DOD appropriations also will be tackled this week. The full House Appropriations Committee will mark up the FY2017 defense bill on Tuesday morning (subcommittee markup was completed on May 11).  Two other FY2017 appropriations measures also will be considered this week, but at subcommittee level.  On Wednesday, the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee will mark up the CJS bill, which includes NASA and NOAA, at 10:00 am ET and the Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) subcommittee will mark up the T-HUD bill, which includes FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, at 11:30 am ET.

The Humans to Mars (H2M) 2016 summit, sponsored by Explore Mars, will take place at George Washington University Tuesday-Thursday and will be webcast.  Among the speakers is Andy Weir, author of The Martian.  Not only will he speak there on Wednesday morning, but that afternoon he is scheduled to testify to the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee at a hearing on Deep Space Habitats.  NASA no doubt wishes it had the habitats of Weir's fictional characters, both on the surface of Mars and the nifty Earth-Mars transit vehicle, complete with centrifuge.  Perhaps he will set an aspirational mood for the subcommittee members and the other witnesses, who hail from NASA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Orbital ATK.  The hearing also will be webcast.

Many interesting conferences (in addition to H2M) will take place this week around the globe:  GEOINT 2016 in Orlando, FL;  ISDC 2016 in San Juan, Puerto Rico; the European Lunar Symposium in Amsterdam, the Netherlands; Astro2016 in Ottawa, Canada; and SpaceOps 2016 in Daejeon, Korea.

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

Sunday-Wednesday, May 15-18

  • GEOINT 2016, Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center, Orlando, FL

Monday-Tuesday, May 16-17

Monday-Friday, May 16-20

Tuesday, May 17

Tuesday-Thursday, May 17-19

Wednesday, May 18

Wednesday-Thursday, May 18-19

Wednesday-Sunday, May 18-22

SASC Sticks to Its Guns on RD-180 Rocket Engines

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-May-2016 (Updated: 12-May-2016 11:45 PM)

The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) approved its version of the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) today.  Continuing a two-year dispute over how many Russian RD-180 rockets engines may be obtained for United Launch Alliance (ULA) Altas V rockets, the committee insisted on keeping the number at nine instead of raising it to 18 as recommended by its House counterpart.  The SASC bill would also repeal language in the FY2016 appropriations bill that lifted the limit set in last year's NDAA.

The fundamental issue is how quickly a U.S. alternative to the Russian engine can be developed and tested sufficiently to assure that U.S. national security satellites can be launched as needed -- called assured access to space. The RD-180 engine was chosen for the Atlas V rocket in the 1990s when U.S.-Russian relationships were good.  Since Russia's annexation of Crimea two years ago and its subsequent actions in Ukraine, broad agreement has arisen among Congress, the White House and the Air Force that the United States should not be reliant on Russian rocket engines to place critical national security satellites into orbit.  SASC Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) is a leading voice on this issue and often asserts that U.S. dollars should not go to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his "cronies."

SASC and other congressional committees disagree, however, on the timing for the transition from RD-180-powered Atlas V rockets to a new rocket with U.S.-built engines.  At the moment, the argument is over whether ULA should be allowed to obtain nine more, or 18 more, than the number already under contract.   Currently the Air Force states that it needs 18 more to ensure the Atlas V is available until the early 2020s when a new launch system -- an engine plus the rest of the launch vehicle -- has been tested and certified.  McCain and his supporters argue it can be done by 2019 and only nine more engines are needed.  (Last year, the Air Force and ULA said 14 were needed, but now it is 18.)

Another element of the debate is a drive to encourage competition in the national security space launch market.  ULA has been virtually a monopoly provider of national security launch services since it was created as a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture in 2006.  Last year, SpaceX was certified by the Air Force to compete with ULA. Generally, ULA supporters want to obtain enough RD-180s to keep ULA's Atlas V available for as long as possible to compete with SpaceX's Falcon rockets, while SpaceX supporters want to end the use of Atlas V and its Russian engines quickly with the expectation that SpaceX Falcon rockets coupled with ULA's larger Delta IV launch vehicles can satisfy national security space launch requirements.

U.S. national space transportation policy requires that at least two independent launch systems be available for national security launches.  If one suffers a failure, access to space is assured by the other.  For more than a decade, those two have been Atlas V and Delta IV, both ULA rockets.  SpaceX argues that now the two can be its Falcon plus ULA's Delta IV.  ULA and its supporters insist, however, that the Delta IV is prohibitively expensive compared to Atlas V and the best choice for the taxpayers is to keep Atlas V available until the early 2020s when ULA's new Vulcan rocket -- with a U.S. engine -- will be able to compete with SpaceX on price.

SASC insists that a new U.S. engine can be ready by 2019 and only nine more RD-180s are needed until that time. That is the number set by the FY2015 and FY2016 NDAAs.  However, the Senate Appropriations Committee undermined that authorization language in the FY2016 appropriations bill, essentially removing all limits.  (Not sure of the difference between an authorization and an appropriation?  See our "What's a Markup?" fact sheet.)

Today, SASC insisted on nine engines only and called for repeal of the appropriations language.  A committee summary of its action allocates three paragraphs to the issue:

"Providing Assured Access to Space and Ending Reliance on Russia

"Despite the efforts of the committee, United States assured access to space continues to rely on Russian rocket engines, the purchase of which provide financial benefit to aides and advisors to Vladimir Putin – including individuals sanctioned by the United States – and subsidizes the Russian military-industrial base. This is unacceptable at a time when Russia continues to occupy Crimea, destabilize Ukraine, menace our NATO allies, send weapons to Iran, violate the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and bomb U.S.-backed forces in Syria fighting the Assad regime.

"That is why the NDAA repeals a provision from last year’s omnibus appropriations bill that furthered dependence on Russia and requires that assured access to space be achieved without the use of rocket engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation. In testimony before the committee, the Secretary of Defense, the Director of National Intelligence, and the Secretary of the Air Force each confirmed to the committee that the United States can meet its assured access to space requirements without the use of Russian rocket engines. Once the nine Russian rocket engines allowed by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 and Fiscal Year 2016 are expended, the Defense Department would be authorized to utilize only those launch vehicles that do not require rocket engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation.

"According to the Department of Defense Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) and a study commissioned by the Air Force, the continued use of Russian rocket engines will not provide the cost competitive launch environment the Air Force was hoping would materialize. Given the urgency of eliminating reliance on Russian engines, the NDAA would allow for up to half of the funds made available for the development of a replacement launch vehicle or launch propulsion system to be made available for offsetting any potential increase in launch costs as a result of prohibitions on Russian rocket engines. With $1.2 billion budgeted from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2021 for the launch replacement effort and $453 million already appropriated in fiscal year 2015 and fiscal year 2016, there is more than sufficient funding available and budgeted for a replacement propulsion system or launch vehicle and to offset any additional costs required in meeting our assured access to space requirements without the use of Russian rocket engines."

The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) marked up its version of the FY2017 NDAA in April and agreed to the ULA/Air Force position of 18 more.  The House is expected to take up the bill next week.

Mike Gold Moves from Bigelow to SSL

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-May-2016 (Updated: 09-May-2016 11:09 PM)

Mike Gold, the Washington voice of Bigelow Aerospace for more than a decade, has joined SSL (formerly Space Systems Loral) as its Vice President of Washington Operations.

Gold is well known in Washington space policy circles as chairman of the FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), dogged reformer of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), and indefatigable supporter of the Boston Red Sox.

During his time with Bigelow, the company signed an agreement with NASA to attach a test version of Bigelow's expandable habitat to the International Space Station (ISS).  The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) was delivered to ISS aboard the SpaceX CRS-8 mission last month and is currently attached to an ISS docking port.  The process of expanding it to full size is expected to begin later this month.  Bigelow and SpaceX also announced plans in 2012 to send people to Bigelow space stations in low Earth orbit (LEO) aboard SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, an effort aimed at the international market. 

The international aspect of space is one with which Gold is especially identified because of his role in ITAR reform, which came to fruition in 2014 with changes that make it easier to export communications satellites by moving them from the State Department's Munitions List to the Department of Commerce's Commerce Control List.

SSL is one of the world's major manufacturers of communications satellites.  Once owned by Loral (and before that by Ford Aerospace), it was bought by Canada's MacDonald Dettwiler & Associates (MDA) in 2012.  It also builds other types of satellites and is one of four companies selected by JPL for study contracts for the design of the robotic spacecraft for NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission. SSL also is working with JPL on a potential Discovery mission to study the asteroid Psyche and with DARPA on on-orbit satellite assembly.

SSL is based in Palo Alto, CA.  SSL President John Celli said in a press statement that Gold "brings a wealth of experience with both civil and defense organizations and will strengthen our ability to make a contribution to government programs."

Gold has a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and a bachelor's degree in political science from Brandeis University.

What's Happening in Space Policy May 9-13, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-May-2016 (Updated: 10-May-2016 06:26 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of May 9-13, 2016.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

It's another busy week for space policy aficionados -- especially Tuesday.  So many excellent events on top of each other, one either needs a large staff (alas, we don't) or a clone (none of those either).  Three of the events that day certainly or probably will deal with launch vehicles.  First is CSIS's event on State of Defense Acquisition where Frank Kendall may have something to say about RD-180 rocket engines and public private partnerships to build a U.S. replacement. Then Orbital ATK's Dave Thompson will speak at WSBR and questions about Antares might well arise.  At the same time, the Space Transportation Association is hosting a lunch roundtable discussion to provide an update on NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft with the NASA program managers for those programs and their associated Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) program.

For those less interested in rockets, during that same time NASA will have a telecon announcing new discoveries from its exoplanet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope, and the Secure World Foundation (SWF) is holding a seminar on challenges and opportunities for new space actors.  SWF's speaker lineup includes representatives of both familiar (PlanetLabs) and less familiar (Observer Research Foundation and Astroscale) organizations.   Observer Research Foundation is a think tank in India; Astroscale is a Singapore-based startup developing satellites to remove space debris.  SWF usually records its seminars and posts the audio on its website soon thereafter.

That's just Tuesday.  Meanwhile, up on Capitol Hill, all this week the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) will mark up the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  Unlike HASC (which marked up its version already), most of the SASC subcommittee markups are closed, as is full committee markup, so there will be no public information about the debates that go on to produce the final result.   Across the Hill, the Defense Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee will mark up the FY2017 DOD appropriations bill late Wednesday afternoon.  It is open. Many of the committee's markups are webcast, although there is no indication whether this one will be or not. [UPDATE: Although the committee's website does not indicate that the markup is closed, the official notice of the meeting does, so apparently it is closed after all.)

The Heritage Foundation is having what sounds like an interesting discussion on Wednesday about the national security implications of rapid access to space.  It's only for one hour, which seems a short amount time to pack in all the interesting speakers they have, including Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), Eric Stallmer from the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, Everett Dolman from the Air University, and Dean Cheng, Heritage's in-house expert on the Chinese space program.  It will be webcast.

And just for fun, JPL's Bob Pappalardo will speak at a public lecture on the Europa mission at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) on Thursday evening.  He is the Europa mission project scientist and was deeply involved in reformulating the original proposal into the more affordable version often referred to as Europa Clipper.  The lecture is part of a series offered by NASM for ages 11 and up and will be webcast.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below.  Check back throughout the week for additional events announced later and added to our Events of Interest list.

Monday-Friday, May 9-13

Tuesday, May 10

Wednesday, May 11

Thursday, May 12


Bridenstine Drafting Legislation to Implement CSLCA Asteroid Mining Provision

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-May-2016 (Updated: 07-May-2016 11:34 PM)

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), one of the main architects of the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA), is drafting legislation to implement the policies prescribed in that law, especially those regarding property rights to resources mined from asteroids by U.S. companies.

Bridenstine's legislative aide, Christopher Ingraham, discussed the implementation effort during a May 5 seminar held by the Secure World Foundation and the Alliance for Space Development on "Asteroids, Mining, and Policy: Practical Consideration of Space Resource Rights."  Ingraham and Jim Dunstan, founder of the Mobius Legal Group, both said that the concept of asteroid mining no longer faces a "giggle factor," but Ingraham said it does still face uncertainty despite the passage of CSLCA.  The question now is how to implement the law.

CSLCA required the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to submit a report to Congress assessing new types of commercial space activities and recommending an approach for how the U.S. Government should authorize and continually supervise them to comply with Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST).  OSTP submitted the report last month recommending that the Department of Transportation be assigned that role.  The report included draft legislative language to that end.

Ingraham called the OSTP report a "good first step," but more work is needed on the specifics of the process for granting launch licenses for these new types of activities.  Bridenstine and others in Congress are drafting legislation that Ingraham hopes will pass before the end of this Congress.  The goal is "to provide the maximum certainty [for companies and their investors] with the minimum regulatory burden."  An early version of the language is in Bridenstine's American Space Renaissance Act, but it is still under development, he said.

The number of legislative days left in the 114th Congress is dwindling, however.  Both the House and Senate will be in recess from mid-July through early September for the Republican and Democratic conventions and the traditional August break, and in October and early November while most members campaign for re-election.  They are likely to return after the elections and be in session for part of December, but that schedule will not be clear until the elections are over.  Trying to get legislation like this passed in such a time-constrained environment will be a challenge.

When asked why the process could not be accelerated by starting with an Executive Order signed by the President followed by legislation later on -- which is how the Department of Transportation was initially assigned responsibility for licensing commercial space launches (a Reagan Executive Order in 1983, legislation in 1984) -- Ingraham replied that legislation provides more certainty because Executive Orders can be "easily overturned."

Dunstan, a space law expert who has been involved in these issues for many years, said he was "not a big fan" of Executive Orders and the "further you get away from a clear statutory regime, the more you open yourself up to arguments at the international level that you are not complying with Article VI."

Indeed, the panelists acknowledged that CSLCA has not been universally embraced by other countries. Ken Hodgkins, Director of Space and Advanced Technology at the State Department, summarized the reaction of the members of the U.N. Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) at a recent meeting of its Legal Subcommittee.  Russia, in particular, criticized the law as a unilateral action by the United States that violates Article II of the OST.  Article II states that "Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means."   

Other space-faring countries said little other than U.S. law should be consistent with the OST and more international discussion is needed, Hodgkins reported.  He wondered how the debate might be different if it was about governments rather than commercial entities utilizing the resources.  Proposals exist for establishing facilities on the Moon, ESA's Moon Village, for example, which might require utilizing lunar resources to maintain a presence there.  Hodgkins posed the question of why it would not be permissible for companies if it is for governments.  He speculated that some of countries may be watching to see how this debate plays out to inform their own decisions.  He added that he does not think other countries want to prohibit their companies from mining space resources themselves or working with U.S. companies engaged in such activities.

Indeed, Luxembourg is already working with Deep Space Industries (DSI), one of the U.S. companies that plans to mine asteroids.  The same day as the seminar, DSI and Luxembourg announced a partnership to build the Prospector-X 3U cubesat to test technologies for asteroid mining.

Another U.S. company, Planetary Resources Inc., which bills itself as "the asteroid mining company," deployed its first technology satellite from the International Space Station last year and plans two more this year, leading up to an asteroid rendezvous mission in 2020.  The company's Vice President for Global Engagement, Peter Marquez, was the fourth member of the panel.  He stressed the need for the "lightest regulatory touch" in the United States and to get other countries to follow suit.  He said industry is encouraged by what Luxembourg, as well as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), are doing in the space resource mining area.  As for the discord at COPUOUS, Marquez quipped that the United States could show a slide saying "puppies are cute" and a series of objections would ensue.  (Marquez was the director of space policy at the White House National Security Council for the last half of the George W. Bush Administration and the first two years of the Obama Administration.)

Nonetheless, the legal implications of the asteroid mining provisions of CSLCA are likely to be a source of contention for many years to come, both domestically and internationally.  Dunstan argued, in fact, that while debate today starts with compliance with Article II of the OST, he believes Article I is most relevant.

Article I states in part that "Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind..." 

Dunstan insists that Article I, being the first article, prevails over Article II and that owning space resources is permissible. He contends that the United States and Russia each "own" lunar samples returned by U.S. Apollo crews and Soviet Luna robotic spacecraft, so there is precedent.  

Two other articles of the Outer Space Treaty are also part of this debate:  Article VI, which requires governments to authorize and continually supervise the actions of non-government entities, and Article IX, which requires that countries avoid "potentially harmful interference" with each other.

The legal debate is likely to continue for some time both within the space law community and at COPUOS.  Hodgkins said that the United States agreed to add an agenda item for next year's meeting of the COPUOUS Legal Subcommittee to discuss "potential legal models for activities in exploration, exploitation and utilization of space resources."  He stressed that the United States did not agree to any negotiations, just a general exchange of views. 

U.S. domestic law can set a standard, Hodgkins said, and he wants to ensure there is no gap in U.S. law that other countries could use to complain that the United States is not complying with the treaty. 

That, then, is the task for Congress as it develops implementing legislation. When it will be able to pass such legislation is anyone's guess.

Orbital ATK Readies Antares for July 2016 Return to Flight

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-May-2016 (Updated: 05-May-2016 05:02 PM)

Orbital ATK President David Thompson said today that the new version of the Antares rocket will be rolled out to a launch pad at Wallops Island, VA next week in preparation for a hot fire test later this month and a return-to-flight launch in early July.   It will be the first flight of Antares since an October 28, 2014 failure.

A specific date was not provided. Thompson said only that it will be "just after" July 4.  If all goes well, a second launch is expected in the November time frame.   All of these launches are for NASA's commercial cargo program, taking Cygnus spacecraft loaded with supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). The launches take place from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, VA.   MARS is owned by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, part of the Commonwealth of Virginia's Department of Transportation.

While waiting for Antares to be fixed, Orbital ATK launched two Cygnus spacecraft on United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets from Cape Canaveral, FL.

The October 2014 failure occurred when the company was Orbital Sciences Corporation.  The mission was called "Orb-3," the third of that company's operational launches to ISS.  Orbital Sciences merged with ATK in February 2015, forming Orbital ATK (OA) and its cargo launches now carry "OA" designations.   OA-4 was launched in December 2015 and OA-6 in March 2016 on Atlas V rockets.  The July launch will be OA-5. (The numbers are out of order because Orbital ATK was expecting Antares to be ready earlier this year and be next after the Atlas V-launched OA-4.  Antares slipped, however, so the second Atlas V launch was next.  The company kept the mission designations as they were -- OA-5 on Antares and OA-6 on Atlas V.)

The original version of Antares used Russian NK-33 engines built four decades ago and refurbished by Aerojet and redesignated AJ26.  Aerojet ultimately agreed to pay Orbital ATK $50 million to settle a dispute as to what precisely happened, the details of which are proprietary.

Orbital ATK replaced the AJ26 engines with new Russian RD-181 engines and it is that "re-engined" configuration that will be tested this month.

Antares is used to fulfill Orbital ATK's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA to take cargo to the ISS.  The initial CRS award was for eight flights taking 20 tons of cargo to ISS through the end of 2016.  That contract has been extended to cover missions through 2018 and a CRS2 contract was awarded earlier this year giving Orbital ATK additional flights in the 2019-2024 time period.

SpaceX also won cargo flights under the original CRS and CRS2 contracts.  Sierra Nevada was added as a third supplier in the CRS2 round.

Thompson announced the Antares return-to-flight schedule during an investors conference call this morning on Orbital ATK's first quarter 2016 financial results.  He also said that NASA has awarded the company a fourth extension flight under the original CRS contract for a launch in 2018.  He added that the NASA business provides a "solid foundation" for the Antares program through the mid-2020s and he is optimistic that other customers will come forward once the rocket is operational again.

Trump Praises NASA, But Dodges Funding Questions in Aerospace America Q&A

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-May-2016 (Updated: 03-May-2016 10:33 PM)

Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump thinks NASA is one of the most important government agencies and wants it to stretch the envelope of space exploration, but is not willing to commit to any funding level.   He responded to questions posed by Aerospace America and published in its May issue.

Trump's win in the Indiana primary tonight, and Sen. Ted Cruz's subsequent withdrawal from the race, make it ever more likely that he will be the Republican nominee for President.  He has said little publicly about the space program so far.  His answers to Aerospace America provide the best clues to his thoughts on NASA's future under a Trump presidency.

Aerospace America is the monthly magazine of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).  It recently sent questions about space and aviation to the five remaining presidential candidates.  Trump and Bernie Sanders were the only two to answer the questions.  John Kasich's campaign sent an essay written by former Congressman Bob Walker, now a lobbyist who is advising the Kasich campaign.  No response was received by the magazine's press time from Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz.

In brief, Trump said that NASA "has been one of the most important agencies in the United States government for most of my lifetime" and he wants it to remain that way.  But in response to a question about whether the United States is spending the proper amount of money on NASA, he demurred:  "I am not sure that is the right question.  What we spend on NASA should be appropriate for what we are asking them to do. ... Our first priority is to restore a strong economic base to this country. Then, we can have a discussion about spending."  He similarly deflected a question about whether sending humans to Mars should continue to be a goal.  He strongly supported government-private sector partnerships in space.

His answers to Aerospace America's questions align with comments he made during a campaign stop in Manchester, NH in November.  There he offered what has become perhaps his most memorable remark about space exploration, that it is important, "but we have to fix our potholes."

Sanders also won in Indiana tonight, but the outcome of the Democratic primary contest between him and Clinton remains up in the air, although most pundits anticipate that Clinton ultimately will be the Democratic nominee.  In his answers to Aerospace America, Sanders was enthusiastic about NASA, particularly for the technological advances stemming from investments in the space program. Like Trump, he deflected the question about spending for NASA because it is a "zero sum game" where allocating money for one program means taking it from another.  He supports private sector space activities, but cautioned that they raise safety and national security issues and went on at some length about the importance of government R&D spending generally, not just for space.

Although Clinton did not respond to Aerospace America, she has made it clear in other venues that she is a space enthusiast.