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NASA Chooses Instruments to Determine if Europa Is Habitable -- And What is That Brown Gunk?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-May-2015 (Updated: 26-May-2015 11:55 PM)

NASA announced the winners of the science instrument selection process for its mission to study Jupiter’s moon Europa today.  NASA officials said the mission “must” determine if Europa is habitable.  Part of that is discovering the nature of the “brown gunk” on Europa’s surface.

Europa project scientist Curt Niebur said they have theories about the brown gunk, but will not know for certain until the Europa mission can provide more information.   It is thought to be residue from the liquid ocean scientists are convinced lies beneath Europa’s icy crust.  The material is thought to make its way to the surface via fractures in the ice just as lava makes its way to the surface of Earth.  If so, studying the gunk will reveal the composition of the ocean.

Observations using the Hubble Space Telescope also recently revealed plumes of material being ejected from Europa.  Little is known of these unpredictable plumes, but some of the instruments announced today will focus on characterizing them and determining their constituents, which will provide more data about what is under the crust.

One message today is that the instruments on this mission, which will make 45 flybys of Europa over a 2.5 year period, will be able to reveal Europa’s secrets without touching down on the surface.   Niebur described two of the instruments – a magnetometer and a series of three Faraday cups – as taking an MRI of Europa’s interior structure.  Using them, scientists will be able to determine the depth and saltiness of Europa’s ocean without “dipping our instruments into the ocean just as a doctor can see what’s going on inside your body using an MRI.”

The number and size of instruments that can be accommodated were determined by their total mass and power requirements.   Out of 33 proposals, nine instruments were chosen. They and their principal investigators are:

  • Plasma Instrument for Magnetic Sounding.  Dr. Joseph Westlake, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (APL)
  • Interior Characterization of Europa Using Magnetometry.  Dr. Carol Raymond, Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL)
  • Mapping Imaging Spectrometer for Europa. Dr. Diana Blaney, JPL
  • Europa Imaging System.  Dr. Elizabeth Turtle, APL
  • Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding:  Ocean to Near-Surface.  Dr. Donald Blankenship, University of Texas, Austin
  • Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System.  Dr. Philip Christensen, Arizona State University, Tempe
  • Mass Spectrometer for Planetary Exploration/Europa.  Dr. Jack (Hunter) Waite, Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), San Antonio
  • Ultraviolet Spectrograph/Europa.  Dr. Kurt Rutherford, SwRI
  • Surface Dust Mass Analyzer.  Dr. Sascha Kempf, University of Colorado, Boulder.

An additional instrument was selected for technology development:  the Space Environmental and Composition Investigation near the Europan Surface, led by Dr. Mehdi Benna at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Europa stirs fascination because of the possibility that conditions to support life might exist there.  NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green explained that Europa’s salty ocean is thought to have more than twice as much water as Earth’s oceans and “it could be a very habitable place if life indeed started on that body many billions of years ago.”  Niebur stressed, however, that the instruments cannot detect life itself.  They can find "indications" of life, but "we don't have a life detector."  In fact, he added, there is not even scientific consensus on what to measure in order to detect life with confidence.

When asked what would happen next if the Europa mission did prove there is life, Green joked “I would immediately retire.”   He went on to say that if there is life is on Europa, then it must be “everywhere” in our galaxy and the universe.  It would be an “enormous step forward” in understanding our place in the universe.

A mission to Europa was the second priority for a flagship planetary science mission in the most recent National Research Council (NRC) Decadal Survey on planetary science.   Returning samples from the surface of Mars got top billing, in part because of the high cost of a Europa mission, then estimated at more than $4 billion.   The report recommended that Europa advocates downsize the mission to make it more affordable, yielding the “Europa Clipper” concept now being used as the baseline design.  Green declined to name a firm cost estimate today, offering only that it is about $2 billion (not including launch), but NASA is not able to commit to a price-tag as this early stage.

Niebur said that NASA plans to spend $110 million over three years to advance the nine instruments selected today at which time they will reassess whether these instruments can be ready in time for launch.

Niebur was asked about any commonality between these instrument selections and what will be carried on the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (JUICE).  He replied that the two missions are complementary, but have different objectives.  JUICE will study Jupiter's moons Ganymede and Callista, and make only two flybys of Europa.  NASA’s mission focuses only on Europa and will make 45 flybys.

Green dodged a question about when the mission will be launched.  The answer involves politics as much as science and engineering.  NASA and Congress both use the NRC Decadal Surveys as their “bibles” on what science missions have the top priority.  Consequently, NASA is focusing on Mars and Europa was not in its budget plans.   Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, is an ardent Europa supporter, however, and has led efforts to add money to NASA’s budget to get the mission initiated and launched sooner rather than later.  Congress added $75 million in FY2013 (none was requested), $80 million in FY2014 (none was requested) and $85 million in FY2015 ($15 million was requested, yielding a total of $100 million).  The House Appropriations Committee’s recently approved FY2016 NASA budget recommendation is to add $110 million in FY2016 to the $30 million requested (for a total of $140 million) with a directive to launch the mission in 2022 using the Space Launch System (SLS).  NASA insists it does not have the funding in its “outyear” projections to meet that schedule. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden typically says the mission will launch in the mid-2020s.

House appropriators also designated $25 million of the $625 million allocated for NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate (a reduction from the $725 million requested) to be spent on icy satellites surface technology and test beds. Green said today that NASA is performing "elementary" studies of landed missions, but NASA first wants the global view of Europa that this flyby mission will provide.  NASA's Galileo mission sent back "tantalizing" glimpses of Europa's surface, but not in the detail needed to execute a landing.

From a space policy standpoint, the Europa mission could go down in history as the first NASA space science flagship mission funded primarily by annual congressional direction rather than based on administration requests and long term planning.   NASA officials repeatedly say they cannot plan a program based on a hope that each year Congress will add funding for it, but at the moment they are in that position.

If Europa is to be funded by Congress adding money each year, and it is a zero-sum game where NASA’s total budget does not rise to accommodate the unrequested funding, the question is what other NASA activities will be cut to afford it.  In the FY2016 House Appropriations bill, NASA’s earth science program bears the brunt of cuts to afford Europa and other congressional priorities.  Whether the Senate will follow suit is a significant question.  Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), the top Democrat on the full Senate Appropriations Committee as well as the subcommittee that funds NASA, is an avid earth science supporter.   She may be less willing to cut earth science to pay for a Europa mission.  Whether the two chambers can reach agreement to increase the total amount of money available to NASA instead – eliminating the zero-sum aspects of the equation – involves complicated high stakes budget politics that will play out over the next several months.

Air Force Certifies SpaceX for National Security Launches

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-May-2015 (Updated: 26-May-2015 07:19 PM)

The Air Force certified SpaceX to launch national security satellites today.   The long-anticipated certification makes the company eligible to compete against the United Launch Alliance (ULA), which has held a virtual monopoly on launching the nation's most critical military and intelligence satellites since 2006.

SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk thanked the Air Force for its confidence in the company, while Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James called it a "very important milestone for the Air Force and the Department of Defense."

Although SpaceX already was awarded two Air Force contracts, for the launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) earlier this year and an upcoming launch of  a Space Test Program satellite, those were not part of the coveted "EELV-class" launches performed by ULA.   ULA builds and launches the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, so-called Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs).   Atlas V and Delta IV were sold separately by their respective manufacturers, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, until 2006 when a dwindling market threatened both.  ULA was the solution.  Jointly owned by the two companies and with a guaranteed level of financial support from the government, it has an impeccable record of launches. 

The launches are quite expensive, however, and with the emergence of SpaceX, questions began to arise as to whether competition might drive the prices down.  Russia's invasion of Crimea last year added another twist.  Russian RD-180 engines power the Atlas V and many in Congress argued that the launch of U.S. national security satellites should not be dependent on a foreign country, especially Russia.   The 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requires the Air Force to stop using RD-180s by 2019 (although waivers are allowed under certain circumstance).   Debate continues to swirl around that requirement, but a transformation in the launch services industry has begun. 

The announcement today does not guarantee a sea-change in the launch services market, but opens that opportunity for SpaceX and potentially other launch service providers.  Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, Commander of Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) and Air Force Program Executive Officer for Space said the certification process "provides a path" for them to "demonstrate the capability to design, produce, qualify, and deliver a new launch system" that provides the mission assurance necessary for national security payloads.

The Air Force repeatedly stated last year that SpaceX's certification would be complete by December 2014.  For reasons that remain unclear, it took another 5 months, but is finally done.

What's Happening in Space Policy May 25-June 5, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-May-2015 (Updated: 24-May-2015 06:20 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the new TWO weeks, May 25-June 5, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  Congress is in recess this week for the Memorial Day holiday.  The Senate returns on Sunday, May 31; the House on Monday, June 1.

During the Weeks

At last, a relatively quiet week after all the recent busy-ness.  Monday (May 25) is the observance of Memorial Day and federal government offices are closed.  Congress is in recess for the week despite a fractious Senate session that lasted until the wee hours on Saturday over a non-space related topic -- extension of government surveillance authorities under the Patriot Act -- that came to no resolution.  Those authorities expire at midnight May 31, so the Senate will return for a rare Sunday session on May 31 to try and find a way forward.  The House returns on Monday, June 1. The Senate already has declined to take up a House-passed measure addressing the topic so it looks like the authorities will indeed expire.  It's a matter of what bill (if any) the Senate can pass, what the House is willing to accept as a compromise, and how long the process takes.

But that debate is outside the scope of this space policy website.  Suffice it to say that the congressional schedule for when they return is difficult to predict.

NASA has two interesting events this week, though.  First is the announcement of the science instruments for the Europa mission.  NASA had not planned to execute a Europa mission just now, but Congress feels otherwise.  It added money for it the past two years (and appears likely to do so again this year), which led the White House to give NASA permission to include mission formulation in the FY2016 budget request. NASA is moving forward with choosing the science payload.   It will be announced on Tuesday (May 26) at 2:00 pm ET.   The next day, NASA TV will air coverage of the ISS crew moving a module (using Canadarm2) from one docking port to another as the ISS is reconfigured to enable the commercial crew vehicles to dock there beginning in 2017.

The schedule for the first week of June is still filling up, but the list below shows what we know about today (Sunday, May 25).

Tuesday, May 26

Tuesday-Wednesday, May 26-27

Wednesday, May 27

Monday, June 1

Tuesday, June 2

Thursday, June 4

House Passes Commercial Space Bill

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-May-2015 (Updated: 21-May-2015 08:07 PM)

The House passed the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act, H.R. 2262, today after a two-hour debate.  An amendment by Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) to replace the language in H.R. 2262 with that in a related Senate bill approved by the Senate Commerce Committee yesterday, S. 1297, was rejected.

The floor debate on the SPACE Act, which is sponsored by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), reflected the same deep divisions between Republicans and Democrats that were evident in the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee markup last week.  House SS&T Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Space Subcommittee Chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) are original co-sponsors of the legislation.

The committee marked up H.R 2262 and three other commercial space bills that were rolled together into the version of H.R. 2262 that was debated on the floor and passed today.  The other three were H.R. 1508 (property rights to materials mined on asteroids), H.R. 2261 (commercial remote sensing), and H.R. 2263 (renaming and expanding the duties of the Office of Space Commercialization in the Department of Commerce). 

As introduced, H.R. 2262 was a broadly-based update of the Commercial Space Launch Act and had only Republican sponsors.  It was approved by the committee on a party-line vote.  H.R. 1508, which was sponsored by a Republican and a Democrat (who does not serve on this committee), also passed on a party-line vote.  The other two bills were less controversial and were approved by voice vote.

Democratic complaints about the bills in general are both procedural and substantive.  House SS&T Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Space Subcommittee Ranking Member Edwards complained in committee and on the floor today that insufficient hearings were held on these topics and no subcommittee markups were held that might have informed the debate and led to better bills.  On the substantive side, they believe that the legislation gives industry everything it wants with scant attention, for example, to the safety of individuals who might fly on commercial human space vehicles.   They also object to the property rights provision for companies that want to mine asteroids, arguing that more consideration is needed of the implications for U.S. responsibilities under the Outer Space Treaty.

While Republicans proudly displayed letters from several commercial space companies and organizations that support the bill, Johnson did not find that surprising, protesting during the markup that the bill "came straight from industry."

Johnson and Edwards appealed to that industry to support the Edwards substitute amendment.  They argued that while the Senate bill is not perfect, it is sufficient and since it has bipartisan support, that is the bill the Senate will pass and the chance that the two chambers would iron out their differences in a conference committee are slim. Consequently, no bill would become law.  Johnson said in an op-ed in Space News yesterday that "I hope the members of the commercial space industry will recognize the golden, but fleeting, opportunity they have been given" and support the Edwards amendment.   Edwards echoed that today, saying her amendment offered "a golden opportunity to move past partisan posturing" and actually get a bill passed and signed into law.

During the debate, Jim Muncy (@JamesMuncy), a lobbyist for the commercial space industry, tweeted in response to @SpcPlcyOnline tweets summarizing Edwards' arguments, that "Rep Edwards is unfortunately mistaken.  Industry appreciates the Senate's work on S1297 and the House's work on HR2262" and "Industry prefers for the process to continue, presumably to a conference."

The Edwards amendment was defeated 173-236 on largely party lines.  For Democrats, 170 voted in favor of the amendment and three against.  For Republicans, three voted in favor and 233 against.

Six other relatively minor amendments were adopted during floor debate by voice vote.  The texts of all the amendments that were "made in order" for the floor debate are on the House Rules Committee's website.

The bill, as amended, passed the House with more Democratic support.  The vote was 284-133, with 48 Democrats voting in favor and 130 Democrats against, and 236 Republicans voting in favor and three against.

House SS&T Democrats issued a press release after the vote asserting that the bill takes an "unbalanced approach" and is "heavily skewed towards industry's desires." 

House SS&T Republicans issued a press release praising passage of the bill and the bipartisan support in the final vote.  Committee chairman Smith said the bill "will encourage the private sector to launch rockets, take risks, and shoot for the heavens."

The Senate bill approved by the Senate Commerce Committee covers some of the same topics as the House bill, but especially with the infusion of the other three House bills into H.R. 2262, the two pieces of legislation are quite different.  One major difference is the length of the "learning period" for commercial human spaceflight during which the FAA is prohibited from issuing new regulations.  The current prohibition ends on September 30, 2015.  The Senate bill extends it to 2020.  The House bill extends it to 2025.  Advocates of the more lengthy extension (some of whom want the prohibition to be permanent) argue that new regulations could stifle this new industry and experience is needed to inform any new regulations.  Those who want a shorter extension insist that the FAA must be able to step in to ensure safety as the industry evolves.

Commercial Space Legislation Clears Senate Committee, Set for Vote in House Tomorrow - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-May-2015 (Updated: 21-May-2015 06:53 PM)

Bipartisan legislation affecting commercial space activities cleared the Senate Commerce Committee this morning.  The House is scheduled to debate its own commercial space bill on the floor tomorrow, May 21, but although it addresses many of the same topics, it is quite different from the Senate bill and does not have bipartisan support.  [Click here to learn what the House did.]

The Senate bill, S. 1297, the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, is sponsored by Republican Senators Ted Cruz (TX), Marco Rubio (FL), and Cory Gardner (CO), and Democratic Senators Bill Nelson (FL) and Gary Peters (MI).   It was adopted by voice vote, along with a Wicker (R-MS) amendment that adds another topic -- as assessment of existing private and government infrastructure -- to be included in a report required in Section 6.  The bill covers a broad range of issues affecting commercial space launch activities and commits the United States to utilization of the International Space Station (ISS) at least through 2024 as proposed by the Obama Administration last year.

The House bill, H.R. 2262, the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act, rolls together four bills approved by the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee last week.  H.R. 2262 as introduced covered some, but not all, of the issues in S. 1297, but with different recommendations.  With the addition of the three other bills -- H.R. 1508 (regarding asteroid mining), H.R. 2261 (commercial remote sensing) and H.R. 2263 (changing the name and duties of the Office of Space Commercialization in the Department of Commerce) -- the House and Senate bills are more different still.

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), the top Democrat on the House SS&T's Space Subcommittee, prefers S. 1297.  She plans to offer S. 1297 as an "amendment in the nature of a substitute" to H.R. 2262 when it is debated on the floor of the House tomorrow.  The House Rules Committee approved her amendment and six others as part of the rule governing floor debate tomorrow.  That permits it to be brought up if she wishes to do so.  (The rule and the list of amendments that were "made in order" are on the Rules Committee's website.)

The Obama Administration issued a Statement of Administration Policy on H.R. 2262 yesterday and said that although it does not object to its passage, it has "serious concerns" with some of its provisions.

One of the differences is the length of time that the FAA is prohibited from issuing new regulations governing commercial human spaceflight.  Current law, originally passed in 2004, creates a "learning period" where future regulations that advocates fear could stymie the development of this new industry are prohibited while the industry gains experience to inform whatever regulations might be needed.  Alternatively, voluntary industry standards could be developed to obviate the need for government regulations.  The learning period expires on September 20, 2015.   The Senate bill would extend it until 2020.  The House bill would extend it to 2025.  The Administration wants it to be less than the 10-year extension in the House bill, but does not specify the length of time.

Another difference is language in the House bill to grant property rights to U.S. companies that mine resources on asteroids.   The Senate bill does not address this topic.  The Administration says that it supports efforts to facilitate innovative new space activities by U.S. companies, and recognizes the bill's sponsors tried to ensure the bill is consistent with U.S. international obligations, but is concerned whether U.S. companies could move forward with such plans "absent additional authority to ensure continuing supervision of these initiatives by the U.S. Government as required by the Outer Space Treaty."

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits the national appropriation of the Moon or other celestial bodies.  It also requires governments to authorize and continually supervise the space activities of their non-governmental entities.  Supporters of the asteroid language in H.R. 2262 (originally in H.R. 1508) argue that the companies would not be claiming ownership of any celestial body, only of the resources extracted from them.

The Administration said that it looks forward to working with Congress as the legislation works it way through the legislative process.

House Appropriators Set to Cut NASA Earth Science, NOAA Weather Sat Follow On - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-May-2015 (Updated: 20-May-2015 02:52 PM)

UPDATE, May 20, 2015, 2:45 pm ET:  The committee approved the bill today on a voice vote without adopting any amendments related to NASA or to NOAA satellite activities.

ORIGINAL STORY, May 20, 2015, 4:30 am ET.  The House Appropriations Committee will mark up the FY2016 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill today.  In the process, it plans to cut NASA's earth science program by 13 percent and zero NOAA's proposal for the next set of its polar weather satellites.  The future of NOAA weather satellites is of great interest to Congress.  Also today, the Senate Commerce Committee will mark up a bill that could significantly change how NOAA acquires future satellites.  The House passed a related bill yesterday.  In addition, a House subcommittee will hold a hearing today on commercial weather data.

For NASA, the draft House FY2016 CJS appropriations bill recommends the same total as requested by President Obama -- $18.529 billion -- but it is apportioned quite differently among NASA's activities.  Funding increases above the request for planetary science, astrophysics, aeronautics, exploration and education are paid for primarily by earth science, space technology, and NASA's internal operations such as safety, security and mission assurance.   A fact sheet provides more information.

The cut to earth science compared to the request is one of the more dramatic changes.  The committee recommends $1.689 billion, $258 million (about 13 percent) less than the $1.947 billion request.  It is $83 million less than the current funding level of $1.772 billion, and much of the requested increase for FY2016 is due to the Obama Administration's decision to transfer some of NOAA's satellite activities to NASA and Congress's earlier decision not to allow the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to assume responsibility for future Landsat satellites, leaving that in NASA's job jar as well.  (USGS only operates the Landsat satellites after they are in orbit.  NASA pays for development and launch.)

The recommended funding in the appropriations bill is actually better than what was approved by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee in its 2016-2017 NASA authorization bill last month, which recommended as much as a 38 percent reduction compared to the request under its "constrained" funding scenario.  Coupled with statements by the chairman of the Senate subcommittee that authorizes NASA activities, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), at a March hearing, earth science advocates have known they have their work cut out for them in convincing a Republican-led Congress to fully fund those activities.  

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has been strongly defending the earth science program and explaining the relevance of that data to U.S. taxpayers and the global community at large (including victims of the earthquakes in Nepal) in congressional testimony and speeches.  Somewhat surprisingly, though, in a blog post about the CJS bill yesterday, Bolden waits until the sixth paragraph (of eight) to make the arguments in favor of earth science.  Most of the post is about cuts to Space Technology (a $100 million reduction from the $725 million request) and commercial crew (a $244 million reduction from the $1.244 billion request) that he sees as imperiling the Journey to Mars, even though the committee proposes a substantial increase ($1.850 billion compared to the $1.357 billion request) for development of the Space Launch System (SLS) also needed to send humans to Mars.

Similarly, a letter from White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Shaun Donovan to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) and ranking member Nita Lowey (D-NY) about the CJS bill references the cuts to earth science as only one of many concerns about the bill (on page 3 of the 4-page letter).

The appropriations committee also plans to eliminate NOAA's proposed Polar Follow On (PFO) program for the next set of polar-orbiting weather satellites.  The committee fully funds the request for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), as well as the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R series, but does not even mention the $380 million request for PFO.   It is absent from the text of the report and the table summarizing funding for that part of NOAA.  A fact sheet provides more information on NOAA's FY2016 budget request and PFO, through which NOAA would acquire the next two JPSS satellites (JPSS-3 and -4).

Donovan's letter calls that cut "shortsighted" and warns that it "heightens the risk" of a gap in weather satellite coverage in the future and "will ultimately cost taxpayers more."

Congress has an intense interest in the future of NOAA's weather satellite programs and both the House and Senate committees that oversee those programs are pushing NOAA to use more data from commercial satellites.   Yesterday the House passed the Weather Research and Forecast Innovation Act (H.R. 1561) by voice vote that includes a pilot program to encourage companies to launch instruments into space that can provide data for weather forecast numerical models.  Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) said during committee markup of the bill that he hopes to change the "business model" for acquiring new weather satellites.  Instead of "huge, monolithic" satellites like JPSS and GOES-R, he wants many, smaller satellites provided by commercial companies.  He believes that will create a more resilient system.  The bill has strong bipartisan support.

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee is scheduled to markup a related bill today (at exactly the same time as the House Appropriations CJS markup).  S. 1331, which also has bipartisan support, sets stiff requirements for NOAA's procurement of future satellites.

Also today, the House, Science, Space, and Technology Committee's Environment Subcommittee will hold a hearing on commercial weather data, with witnesses including Scott Pace of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute, Bill Gail of the Global Weather Corporation, Tom Bogdan of UCAR, Nicole Robinson of the Hosted Payload Alliance, and Scott Sternberg of Vaisala, Inc.

The hearing is at 10:00 am ET in 2318 Rayburn.  The House Appropriations Committee markup of the CJS bill is at 10:30 am ET in 2359 Rayburn.  The Senate Commerce Committee markup is at 10:30 am ET in 253 Russell.  Most committee hearings and markups are webcast on the respective committee's website.

Bolden: "If We Don't Pull Together, We're Not Going to Mars"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-May-2015 (Updated: 18-May-2015 07:23 PM)

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden made an impassioned plea today for Congress and the White House to work together or the goal of sending humans to Mars will never be realized.

Bolden's remarks to the Space Transportation Association (STA) were loosely focused on the status of congressional deliberations over NASA's FY2016 budget request, but he spent most of his time talking about the future of human exploration and the goal of sending people to Mars in the 2030s.  President Obama proclaimed that goal in an April 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center and Congress agreed in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, but the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue continue to argue over NASA priorities and what level of specificity the agency should have at this stage on the steps to getting there.

The 2015 NASA Authorization Act that passed the House in February (H.R. 810) requires NASA to submit a "Human Exploration Roadmap" to Congress within 180 days of the bill becoming law.  It includes an extensive list of what the roadmap must contain and requires it be updated every 2 years.

A variety of terms are used to describe the plan or pathway to get to Mars, including roadmap, strategy, architecture, and design reference mission or architecture.  Each has its own nuanced definition.  Today Bolden used the word "architecture" and flatly refused to provide one, insisting it would be "irresponsible" because it is too early to "commit to a specific architecture."  He believes we are not ready to go Mars now.   Experience needs to be gained by operating in cis-lunar space (between the Earth and the Moon) and technologies will advance in the meantime. 

The most recent NASA design reference architecture (DRA) was issued in 2009. Currently NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate has PowerPoint presentations on its "Evolvable Mars Campaign" and soon will issue a document entitled "Pioneering Space" to explain the outlines of what it expects to do in the next several decades.  It uses "Journey to Mars" as an overarching slogan.  They are not specific enough to qualify as an "architecture" or "roadmap," however.

What is most needed is for Congress and the White House to work together, Bolden stressed.  Half way through his talk and again at the end he implored: "If we don't pull together, we're not going to Mars."

On other topics, Bolden --

  • said the "biggest area of heartburn" between the Obama Administration and Congress right now regarding NASA's FY2016 budget request is earth science funding.  Several times he expounded on the achievements of NASA's earth science program -- mentioning the U.S.-Japan Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) and the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) missions in particular.  He commented that NASA does not make earth science policy and tries to stay out of its politics, the agency just wants to provide the best science in the world: "Decimating earth science and saying we're going to go to Mars is not the right way to do it."  (The House Science, Space and Technology Committee approved, on a party-line vote, a 2016-2017 NASA authorization bill that has deep cuts to NASA's earth science program on the basis that NASA's unique mission is space exploration, not studying Earth.)
  • defended the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and the decision for the United States not to return humans to the lunar surface.  Humans on the lunar surface makes sense for activities like in-situ resource utilization, but he wants the United States to "empower" international and commercial partners to take on that task.  NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) can take "all kinds of stuff" to lunar orbit, but the partners need to develop the lander:  "The United States can't do everything."
  • expressed confidence in the Russians and his "friend" Roscosmos head Igor Komarov despite recent failures.  His only concern is if these failures signify a breakdown in quality control.  NASA's ISS program manager Mike Suffredini is taking part in Russia's investigation of the Progress M-27M failure, so he feels confident that NASA will have the information it needs.
  • stressed the need for continued operations of the International Space Station (ISS) through at least 2024, but also for the commercial sector to determine what comes next for low Earth orbit infrastructure because ISS has a finite lifetime and "NASA is getting out" of that business.
  • urged Congress again to fully fund the $1.24 billion request for commercial crew (the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee approved $1 billion instead).
  • responded to a question about whether a robotic Mars sample return mission is required before sending humans to Mars (to provide better knowledge of the properties of the Martian surface) with a firm no.  He says that he knows many scientists disagree with that point of view, but he is adamant that step is not necessary, just as obtaining a sample of the lunar surface was not required before the Apollo 11 crew landed on the Moon.

What's Happening in Space Policy May 18-24, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-May-2015 (Updated: 17-May-2015 06:08 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of May 18-24, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

The House and Senate will be rushing this week to complete a lot of legislative business before the Memorial Day recess.  The House, in committee and on the floor, will continue work on FY2016 appropriations bills against Democratic objections and a Presidential veto threat because Republicans used a gimmick to add money to the defense budget above the Budget Control Act (BCA) spending caps, but will not add a dime for non-defense spending.  Democrats want to do away with the BCA caps and the associated sequester threat entirely, but the Republicans are doing it only for defense.  Their tactic is to add money to the "Overseas Contingency Operations" (OCO) account that does not count against the caps and change the rules so the money can be spent for routine defense purposes rather than only for executing the war in Afghanistan, for example.  The end result is expected to be another long, drawn out budget process as Democrats and Republican fiscal conservatives (who also object to the OCO tactic, but want to keep the caps) battle in Congress and the President readies his veto pen.

For now, however, the House Appropriations Committee continues marking up FY2016 appropriations bills and sending them to the floor for the whole House to consider.   This week the full committee will mark up the Commerce-Justice-Science bill that includes NASA and NOAA (subcommittee markup was last week), while the defense subcommittee marks up the defense bill.  Both markups are on Wednesday morning; the defense markup is closed.

The House itself will take up two space-related bills that have been approved by the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee. The Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act (H.R. 1561) has bipartisan support and will be brought up under suspension of the rules on Tuesday.  That means it is expected to easily garner aye votes from at least two-thirds of the Members. The Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship Act (SPACE) Act, H.R. 2262 is quite the opposite.   Approved in committee on a strictly party-line basis, it will be considered on the House floor under regular order.  That means it will go first to the House Rules Committee to determine what (if any) amendments will be allowed. The Rules Committee meets on Tuesday afternoon and floor debate is scheduled for Thursday.

The Senate will be busy, too.   On Wednesday, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee will mark up the Commercial Space Launch Act (S. 1297) and the Seasonal Forecasting Improvement Act (S. 1331).   S. 1297 and H.R. 2262 have similar goals -- to update the existing Commercial Space Launch Act -- but different approaches, and the Senate bill has bipartisan support.  S. 1331 and H. R. 1561 also have similar goals, but different approaches.  One goal is improving how NOAA acquires satellites and encouraging NOAA to use more commercial weather satellite data. 

Congress has a lot of interest in commercial weather data these days. The House SS&T Environment Subcommittee will hold a hearing specifically on that topic on Wednesday morning.   Ah yes, Wednesday morning.  It will take three of you to cover everything or skilled multitasking to watch the webcasts (just about all congressional hearings and markups are webcast on the respective committee's website, except for closed meetings to discuss classified matters, of course).  The House hearing is at 10:00, the CJS bill markup up at 10:30, and the Senate markup also is at 10:30.  (The defense appropriations markup is at 9:30 that day, but is closed.)

Not everything happens in Washington, of course.   The National Space Society's annual International Space Development Conference  (ISDC 2015) will take place in Toronto, Canada, from May 20-24 with a great program of speakers.

Those and other events that we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.

Tuesday, May 19

Wednesday, May 20

Wednesday - Sunday, May 20-24

Thursday, May 21

Senate Bill Sets Stiff Requirements for Future NOAA Satellites - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-May-2015 (Updated: 20-May-2015 05:34 PM)

UPDATE, May 20, 2015:   The Senate Commerce Committee approved the bill, as amended, today.  The amendments are posted on the committee's website.  

ORIGINAL STORY, May 14, 2015:  A bill introduced today in the Senate by the chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee would set stiff requirements for future NOAA satellites as part of an effort to improve "seasonal" weather forecasts.  The bill, S. 1331, is scheduled for markup by the committee next week.

Committee chairman John Thune (R-SD) teamed with Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) to introduce the Seasonal Forecasting Improvement Act.  "Seasonal" is defined in the bill as longer than two weeks, but shorter than two years.  The main goal is to improve forecasts for unusually cold winters or hot summers, or drought, but the bill also includes provisions aimed at reforming NOAA's procurement of satellites.

The intent of some of the satellite-related provisions is not clear and questions posed to the committee by were not answered as of the time of this writing. The following summary therefore relies simply on the language in the bill, which would require NOAA to --

  • improve procurement of polar and geostationary satellites and assess the operational viability of alternate observation platforms such as microsatellite constellations and ocean observing platforms;
  • use competitive procurement processes to acquire polar and geostationary satellites "in a program phase via a single procurement action" ("program phase" is defined as acquisition of a series of satellites sharing a common architecture, which sounds like a block buy);
  • assure that satellites are procured or acquired in a manner that "secures the best value" that takes into consideration integration with current ground systems, integration of spacecraft and instruments, capacity to respond to changes in requirements and credibility of risk management, and continuity and consistency of capability;
  • complete and operationalize the radio occultation "program of record in effect on the day before enactment of this Act" by deploying constellations of microsatellites in equatorial and polar orbits, integrating the resulting data into all national operational weather forecast models, and ensuring the resulting data are free and open to all;
  • develop all specifications for NOAA satellites based on "operational needs"; and
  • contract with the National Academy of Sciences by September 2018 -- after its next Decadal Survey for Earth Science and Applications from Space is completed -- for a 2-year study that includes recommendations on how to make NOAA's satellite portfolio more robust and cost-effective (the bill lists a number of specific topics to be addressed).

In addition, NOAA is prohibited from procuring any future "program phase" of the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) if the aggregate cost exceeds the aggregate cost "that was incurred ... in procuring the Joint Polar Satellite System 1 and 2" as adjusted for inflation.  NOAA usually expresses the cost of the JPSS program, which includes the first two satellites, as $11.3 billion.  That cost includes about $4 billion from NOAA's share of the since-cancelled DOD-NOAA-NASA National Polar-orbiting Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS).  Whether the bill's sponsors intend to use $11.3 billion, as adjusted for inflation, as the ceiling for the cost of additional JPSS "program phases" or if they mean to exclude the NPOESS costs is one of the questions that remains to be answered.

The committee plans to markup this bill on May 20, along with several others, including one on Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness.

The House is scheduled to debate its Weather Forecasting Improvement Act, H.R. 1561, next week.  H.R. 1561 and S. 1331 seem to have similar intents, especially changing how NOAA procures satellites, but take different approaches.

SASC Completes Markup: Digs in on Replacing RD-180, Not Convinced About DMSP-20

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-May-2015 (Updated: 14-May-2015 08:45 PM)

The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) completed markup of its version of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) today.   Most of the subcommittee markups, including that of the Strategic Forces subcommittee, and full committee markup were closed, so the release of a committee fact sheet and a press conference by chairman John McCain (R-AZ) today provide the first public view of what it contains.  Space programs, especially launch vehicles, warranted considerable attention.

McCain and others on the committee, including Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), have been leaders in Congress to move the Air Force away from using Russia's RD-180 rocket engines.  RD-180s power the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V rocket.  McCain also has been a crucial supporter of SpaceX's determination to compete against ULA for launching national security satellites.  SASC led efforts in last year's NDAA to set a deadline of 2019 for using RD-180s, which the Air Force is seeking to modify so it has more time to build a new American engine, integrate it into a launch vehicle, test and certify it for launching national security satellites.

The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) went along with the Air Force request in its version of the FY2016 NDAA, which is being debated by the House right now.  SASC did not follow suit.   Instead, it "revalidates" Section 1608 of last year's NDAA, which sets the deadline, although waivers are allowed under certain circumstances.  The SASC bill "limits the use of Russian rocket engines, allowing for as few as zero but as many as nine," according to the press release.  The bill has other provisions aimed at ending U.S. reliance on Russian engines as soon as possible.

McCain said at the press conference, as he has in other venues, that he does not want American dollars going to "cronies" of Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Today he said Putin is "dismembering a country as we speak," referring to Ukraine.  (His comments are at the very end of the press conference).  He also called the issue of the rocket engines and ULA a "classic example of the military-industrial complex" and said that SpaceX has said it can have a replacement for RD-180s by 2017, a probable reference to SpaceX's plans for its Falcon Heavy rocket, which is expected to make its first flight this year, but it would take some time for it to be certified to launch national security satellites (which are very expensive and critically necessary so launch failures are not easily tolerated).

SASC also expressed caution about DOD's plans to launch the last of its legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites. The Air Force decided last year that it did not need DMSP-20, but changed its mind this year and now wants to launch it.  At an April 29 hearing, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Commander of Air Force Space Command Gen. John Hyten said several factors led to their revised decision even though it will cost "millions of dollars": the Europeans have decided not to replace a geostationary weather satellite DOD has been using to support its operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East, it will give the Air Force more time to decide on the future of its weather satellite program, it will provide an additional competitive space launch opportunity, and people within the national security community who deal with weather issues on a day to day basis "very, very much want to see that satellite launched."

SASC was not convinced.   The bill prohibits the use of funds for the DMSP program or for launch of DMSP-20 until the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that "non-material or lower cost solutions are insufficient."

On other matters, SASC  --

  • approves $20 million for the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) office, "an increase of $13.5 million to match the previous year funding level"
  • requires the President to establish an interagency process to develop a policy to deter adversaries in space
  • requires the Secretary of Defense to designate an individual to be the Principal Space Control Advisor
  • establishes a council to "review and be responsible for" DOD's positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) enterprise (GPS is a PNT system)
  • requires a plan for consolidating acquisition of commercial communication satellite services
  • requires an analysis of alternatives for replacing the Wideband Global Satellite System