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SpaceX Pad Abort Test Still On For Wednesday-UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-May-2015 (Updated: 05-May-2015 10:49 PM)

UPDATE, May 5, 10:15 pm ET:   NASA and Space X announced this evening that the launch window will open at 9:00 am ET instead of 7:00 am ET and close at 4:00 pm ET rather than 2:30 pm ET.

ORIGINAL STORY, May 5, 5:06 pm ET The pad abort test of SpaceX's Dragon capsule is still on schedule for tomorrow, May 6, 2015.  The window is open from 7:00 am - 2:30 pm ET.  The weather is 70 percent favorable.

The test is part of SpaceX's Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) agreement with NASA to develop a crew version of its Dragon spacecraft for taking astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).  SpaceX also hopes there will be a market for taking other people to and from space, but in this case the test is directly related to its goal of servicing the ISS for NASA.

The test does not involve the use of a Falcon 9 rocket.  Instead, it is a test of the integrated abort system that is part of the Dragon capsule itself.  Unlike the "escape towers" used on the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions of the 1960s and 1970s, the Dragon system uses eight "Super Draco" liquid fueled engines in the sides of the spacecraft.  Thus they are with the spacecraft all the way up to orbit so the capsule could return to Earth in an emergency throughout the ride.  The earlier systems were jettisoned after the capsules reached a certain altitude.

This is the first time SpaceX will fire eight Super Draco engines at once.  The most that have been fired together in the past was two.  The engines are designed into the spacecraft because SpaceX hopes eventually to use them to land Dragons back on Earth propulsively, rather than using parachutes and dropping into the ocean.  Thus they serve two functions -- as an abort system on the way up and, if all goes well and they are not needed for that purpose, to land the spacecraft gently on terra firma at the end of the mission.

The entire test is expected to last for only 1.5 minutes.   SpaceX's Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of mission assurance, joked at a press conference on Friday that if a viewer waits to hear the sound of the engines firing, the test will already be over.

The engines will fire for 6 seconds, followed by a 20 second coast phase as the Dragon capsule rises to about 5,000 feet altitude.  It will then descend under parachutes to land in the Atlantic Ocean about one mile offshore.  It will be retrieved and returned to SpaceX's McGregor, TX facility for study.   An instrumented dummy will be aboard to measure g forces and other parameters that an astronaut would experience.   When asked if the dummy had a name, Koenigsmann quickly replied "yes" on Friday, and said it was Buster.  The company has since backed away from that name, however, since it is associated with the TV program MythBusters.  Saying there will be a dummy aboard, but his name is not Buster, the company lightheartedly says on its website that "Buster the Dummy already works for a great show you may have heard of called MythBusters.  Our dummy prefers to remain anonymous for the time being."

Koenigsmann urged patience, noting the multi-hour launch window for such a brief test.   He said they would go when they were ready to go.  The only weather constraint is onshore winds.

He and NASA's Jon Cowart both stressed that the test will be valuable no matter the result since the whole point is that it is a development flight.  An in-flight abort test using the same capsule launched by a Falcon 9 rocket is planned later this year.  The date will not be set until the results of this test are known.  That launch will be from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA, Koenigsmann said.

SpaceX posted a fact sheet yesterday entitled "5 Things To Know About SpaceX's Pad Abort Test."

Wednesday's test will be covered by NASA TV (and possibly on SpaceX's website as well).

SASC Unhappy With Slow Air Force Progress on RD-180 Replacement

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-May-2015 (Updated: 04-May-2015 11:50 PM)

Key members of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) left no doubt at a recent hearing about their dissatisfaction with the Air Force’s slow progress in building a replacement for Russia’s RD-180 rocket engine.

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, Air Force Space Command Commander Gen. John Hyten, and Government Accountability Office (GAO) expert Cristina Chaplain testified to SASC’s Strategic Forces subcommittee on April 29 about a wide range of military space issues, but space launch dominated the discussion.

Subcommittee chairman Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) and full committee chairman John McCain (R-Arizona) demanded to know why the Air Force is moving so slowly after Congress authorized and appropriated $220 million for FY2015 to build an American replacement for Russia’s RD-180 engine by 2019.  The RD-180 is used for the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) Atlas V rocket.  Both Senators said the Air Force has spent only $14,000 of that money so far.

James responded that the Air Force has obligated $50 million, of which $37 million is FY2014 money and $13 million is from the FY2015 amounts, and she plans to obligate another $45-50 million in the next six months.   (No explanation was given for the difference in the committee’s figures and those provided by James, though funds are “obligated” once a contract is signed, but not “spent” until the money is transferred to the contractor, so that may be one factor.)

Hyten explained that the launch industry has changed significantly in the past few years thanks to NASA’s decision to use public private partnerships (PPPs) like the one it has with SpaceX to develop new launch capabilities.  He argued that the Air Force needs time to learn how to interact effectively with industry in this new environment.

In 2006, ULA was formed as a joint venture between the two major launch services providers  – Boeing and Lockheed Martin – to ensure a strong industrial base at a time of reduced launch demand.   ULA has been a monopoly launch services provider for most national security launches since then using the Atlas V and Delta IV.  SpaceX wants to break into that market and Congress has embraced the idea of competition as a way to lower launch costs.

DOD and the Air Force apparently have now embraced competition as well.  James went so far as to say that U.S. national security “will be far better off the day that we certify SpaceX” and reiterated that will be done by June.  Last year, DOD promised it would be done by December 2014, but that did not happen. James and others have since made new assurances that it will be accomplished by June.

James and Hyten plan to adopt NASA’s PPP model and have a four-step path that will “result in a commercially competitive domestic launch capability to replace the RD-180.”

  • Step 1:   Technology risk reduction, for which the money being obligated now will be used.
  • Step 2: Invest in rocket propulsion systems with multiple providers “to partner in their ongoing investment in domestic propulsion systems.”   
  • Step 3:  Using the PPP approach, enter into agreements with launch system providers to provide domestically-powered launch capability. 
  • Step 4:   Compete and award contracts “with certified launch providers for launch services during the period 2018-2022.”

The years 2018-2022 would be a period of transition from the RD-180-powered Atlas V to the new systems.

Hyten and James also continued to press their case that they do not want to replace one monopoly with another, with SpaceX replacing ULA in that role.  The argument goes that because ULA recently decided to end production of the smaller version of Delta IV, it now has only Atlas V and the very expensive, larger Delta IV Heavy to offer.   Although the Atlas V can compete with SpaceX, if it cannot be used after 2019, SpaceX would win every competition because the Delta IV costs $400 million per launch.  Hyten and James said they may be able to have a new American engine by 2019, but it will be 2022 before that engine is integrated into a new rocket and certified.  For those intervening years, SpaceX would be a monopoly for national security launches. Thus they want Congress to allow use of the RD-180 until 2022.

Last week, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) approved a FY2016 NDAA that provides more flexibility in the 2019 date.  At the SASC hearing, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) actually recommended that the Air Force cut itself “some slack” on the date because he did not think it could be ready by 2019 and it would be worse for DOD to come back at that time and say it needed more RD-180s.

Hyten and James also want Congress to clarify that ULA can obtain from Russia all 18 of the RD-180 engines envisioned under the December 2013 block-buy contract with ULA. The Air Force is interpreting the law to mean that only the 5 engines that were paid for – rather than contracted for – prior to February 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, are permissible.   Sessions indicated that obtaining all 18 engines was congressional intent in the FY2015 NDAA.

Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Indiana), the subcommittee’s top Democrat, wanted to know what assurance DOD has that Russia will deliver the RD-180s already under contract.   James replied that Russia has a track record for delivering what it promised, but if not, there is a backup plan.  ULA has a two year inventory of RD-180s.  If no more were delivered, about one-third of the national security satellites could be launched by SpaceX’s Falcon 9, but the other two-thirds would have to be shifted to ULA’s Delta IV, which is “30-50 percent more expensive” than Atlas V “and that’s not in our budget submission right now,” Hyten said.

SASC and its subcommittees will markup their version of the FY2016 NDAA during the week of May 11.  The markups are all closed.

What's Happening in Space Policy May 4-8, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-May-2015 (Updated: 05-May-2015 08:02 AM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of May 4-8, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The Senate is in session this week.  The House is in recess.

During the Week

With the House in recess and Spring in the air, this is a comparatively light week for space policy aficionados.  There are two interesting conferences in Washington, DC -- WIA's Aerospace 2015 on Tuesday and the Humans 2 Mars Summit on Tuesday and Wednesday -- but for many the highlight probably will be the SpaceX pad abort test on Wednesday at Cape Canaveral, FL.  It is a test, and a very brief one as NASA and SpaceX keep pointing out, of the abort system for the Dragon spacecraft as part of its certification for carrying NASA astronauts.  

At a briefing on May 1, SpaceX's Hans Koenigsman joked that if you wait to hear the sound, the test will be over already.  The test does not involve the use of a Falcon 9 rocket.  Instead, eight Super Draco engines integrated into the Dragon capsule will fire for just six seconds, propelling the capsule to an altitude of about 5,000 feet.  Dragon will then descend under parachutes to a water landing 1.5 minutes after ignition.  The landing point is about 1 mile offshore.  Dragon will be recovered and returned to SpaceX's McGregor, TX facility for analysis.  An instrumented dummy named Buster will be along for the ride to measure g forces and other parameters that an astronaut would experience.   The brief test has a long launch window, 7:00 am - 2:30 pm ET, and Koenigsman urged everyone to be patient -- they will do it when they're ready.

Those and other events we know about as of Saturday are listed below.

Tuesday, May 5

Tuesday-Wednesday, May 5-6

  • Humans 2 Mars Summit (Explore Mars and George Washington University's Space Policy Institute), George Washington University , Washington, DC (location update:  the conference is being held in different locations on the GWU conference depending on the day; check the event's website for more information)

Wednesday, May 6

House To Take Up Defense, Weather, Commercial Space Bills This Month

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-May-2015 (Updated: 02-May-2015 05:26 PM)

In a letter to House Republicans yesterday, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) laid out a packed agenda of national security and "innovation" bills that the House will debate and vote on this month.  The House is in recess this coming week, but will return May 12 for two weeks of work before recessing again for Memorial Day.

McCarthy's list of bills does not include the NASA Authorization Act for 2016 and 2017 that cleared the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on a party line vote on April 30.

Among the "innovation" bills that will be considered during the week of May 18-21 are the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act that was approved by the House SS&T Committee on March 26.  It is not focused on weather satellites per se, but includes a pilot program to encourage the private sector to build and launch commercial systems to provide weather data that NOAA would purchase.   Also on McCarthy's list is a "Commercial Space Bill" that has not yet been introduced.  It is described as facilitating a "pro-growth environment for the developing commercial space industry."  A draft update of the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA) has been circulating on the Hill for several weeks, but this bill apparently will be broader, dealing with other aspects of commercial space activities.   The other innovation bills are not directly related to space activities.

But first the House will debate the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that was approved by the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) on April 30.  H.R. 1735 includes funding and policy direction for most national security space programs.  For example, iIt would modify the language in last year's NDAA regarding the timeline for replacing Russia's RD-180 rocket engine with an American-built engine.  Existing law requires that to happen by 2019.  The bill would add more flexibility. summarized the space-related provisions on April 23 that were adopted by the Strategic Forces subcommittee, and, on April 30, space-related amendments added during full committee markup.

The NDAA will be debated during the week of May 12-15 along with two other national security bills that are not directly space related.

Those bills will all be debated by the House as a whole this month.  Other legislation may be working its way through committees.  The Commercial Space Act listed by McCarthy is one.  Under regular procedure, it would be introduced, hearings held, followed by subcommittee markup and then full committee markup, but any of those steps (except introduction) can be skipped, especially if the majority is confident it has the votes to pass it.  McCarthy represents the district in California that includes Edwards Air Force Base and the Mojave Air and Space Port.  He introduced the Suborbital and Orbital Advancement and Regulatory Streamlining (SOARS) Act in the last Congress.  House SS&T held a hearing in November 2013, but no further action was taken.  It would not be surprising if the substance of that bill is incorporated in the new legislation.

The House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee may also markup its FY2016 bill in May although the committee has not announced its schedule for the month yet.  The committee has approved three of the 12 regular appropriations bills already and two (Military Construction-Veterans Affairs, and Energy and Water ) have passed the House.

Newman To Be Sworn in As NASA Deputy Administrator in Mid-May

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-May-2015 (Updated: 01-May-2015 05:58 PM)

Dava Newman will be sworn in as NASA's next Deputy Administrator in mid-May according to a NASA spokesperson.

Allison Kelly of NASA's Office of Communications told via email that Newman will begin work at NASA Headquarters "the week of May 18th."   Details of the swearing-in ceremony, including whether media will be allowed to cover it, are yet to be confirmed, she added.

Newman's nomination was approved by the Senate on April 27, 2015 by a vote of 87-0.  President Obama initially nominated her in October 2014 and renominated her when the 114th Congress convened in January 2015.   She is a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at MIT.

She will succeed Lori Garver, who left the agency in September 2013.


Dr. Dava Newman.  Photo credit:  MIT

White House: House NASA Bill Would Do Serious Damage To Space Program

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-May-2015 (Updated: 02-May-2015 06:20 PM)

A day after the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee approved a NASA authorization bill for 2016 and 2017 with deep cuts to certain NASA programs, the White House responded by asserting that the bill "would do serious damage to the Nation's space program."

The Republican-sponsored bill, HR. 2039, was approved by the House SS&T committee yesterday on a party line vote.  Four Democratic amendments to either replace the bill entirely or add funding to certain accounts (earth science, space technology, and aeronautics) were defeated, also on party line votes.  The bill shifts money, especially from earth science, to the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion spacecraft, associated ground systems, planetary science, and astrophysics. 

The cuts to earth science are the most controversial because they are so large.   Republicans argue that NASA's unique role in government is space exploration and earth science should be funded by other agencies.   Democrats argue that NASA is the only agency that launches satellites for earth science research and it is part of NASA's core responsibilities.   The first objective listed in the National Aeronautics and Space Act, as amended, is "expansion of human knowledge of the Earth and of phenomena in the atmosphere and space." 

The bill would make substantial cuts to NASA's space technology development activities, too.   A SpacePolicyOnline fact sheet on the NASA FY2016 budget request summarizes the key provisions of the bill and includes a table comparing the funding proposed in the bill to NASA's current funding and the President's request for FY2016.

Today, President Obama's science adviser and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, John Holdren, issued a statement saying the cuts to space technology would risk U.S. leadership in the space industry and "impede progress" on technologies needed to enable humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit.  That goal is embraced by both Democrats and Republicans.  He called the cuts to earth science "draconian" that would "gut" NASA programs that provide observations and measurements needed for forecasting and tracking a wide range of natural disasters.

NASA's mission to understand the solar system and the universe has "long been matched in importance by its mission to use the unrivaled vantage point of Earth orbit for looking downward," he said, and it is difficult to understand why Congress would want to undermine NASA's leadership in "outward-facing and inward-facing" research.

Holdren said the bill would be voted on by the House later this month.  No date has been announced for that action.  The House will be in recess next week.  The Senate has not yet introduced its own FY2016 NASA authorization bill.  If a bill similar to H.R. 2039 did pass the House and Senate, it appears quite unlikely that the President would sign it into law.

HASC Approves FY2016 NDAA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Apr-2015 (Updated: 30-Apr-2015 11:18 PM)

After 18 hours of debate, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) adopted the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) as amended during its deliberations.  For space programs, little changed from the subcommittee markup last week.

The markup of H.R. 1735 began on time at 10:00 am ET on Wednesday and ended at 4:39 am ET today (per Politico).  The only lengthy break was to hear Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's address to a joint session of Congress Wednesday morning.

Among the dozens of amendments debated, only a few affected space programs.  Three "sense of Congress" amendments were adopted as part of an en bloc package (Rogers 2) submitted by Strategic Forces chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL).  Sense of Congress statements basically assert how Congress feels about an issue, but do not require action. Two were offered by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) and one by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) saying it is the sense of Congress that --

  • as outlined in the 2010 National Space Policy, the United States should help assure the use of space for all responsible parties and deter others from interference and attack, defend U.S. and allied systems, and, if deterrence fails, defeat efforts to attack them (Lamborn);
  • a robust multi-mission space sensor network will be vital to ensuring a strong missile defense system (Lamborn); and
  • the Secretary of Defense should evaluate options for using current DOD assets for the purpose of rapid reconstitution of critical space-based warfighter enabling capabilities (Bishop).

Separately, Rep. Trent Franks  (R-AZ) offered an amendment (207r1) directing the Missile Defense Agency to "commence the concept definition, design, research, development, and engineering evaluation of a space-based ballistic missile intercept and defeat layer to the ballistic missile defense system."  The amendment has a list of specifications and requires a report to Congress one year after enactment of the law with an interim briefing by March 31, 2016.  The amendment was adopted 35-27.

At the very end of the markup, another en bloc amendment (Full Committee En Bloc #5) was adopted that included one sponsored by Rep. Steve Knight (R-CA).  The amendment (159r2) modifies section 1606 on acquisition strategy for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program by adding more requirements to ensure full and open competition.

A webcast of the markup and all the amendments and their disposition are on the committee's website, which has a special section specifically for the NDAA.

Apart from those minor changes, the bill that cleared the committee this morning is the same as what emerged from subcommittee markup last week regarding space programs.

Intense Partisanship Over NASA Resurfaces on House Committee

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Apr-2015 (Updated: 01-May-2015 02:21 PM)

The House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee approved a new NASA authorization bill today amid partisan discord reminiscent of a markup of a 2013 NASA authorization bill that never made it to the floor of the House for a vote.  Four Democratic amendments were rejected on party-line votes, and the original bill was approved on a party-line vote. The committee’s top Democrat vowed that the bill would never become law.

The rancorous markup of H.R. 2039, the NASA Authorization Act for 2016 and 2017, was in sharp contrast to recent committee and subcommittee hearings on space topics as well as action on two prior NASA authorization bills for 2014 and 2015.  Congressional Republicans and Democrats differ with the Obama Administration on a number of NASA issues, especially the future of the human spaceflight program.  The top Democrat on the Space Subcommittee, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), as recently as Tuesday talked about the “tremendous” working relationship she had with subcommittee chairman Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS).   She expressed hope that they could find a solution to the drastic funding cuts to NASA's earth science program included in H.R. 2039 before the markup, but that did not happen.

At the markup today, she wondered aloud as to the purpose of having a space subcommittee when it was never consulted about the bill, never held a hearing on the bill, and for at least the past several years had never held a hearing on NASA’s earth science program despite it now being targeted for cuts.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the top Democrat on the full committee, was even blunter.  Noting that Democrats were not consulted about the bill and did not even know about it until Republicans announced the markup last Friday, she lambasted what she called the Republican “ideological agenda” and lamented that Republicans were “throwing out” all the bipartisan work that characterized the 2014 and 2015 bills by cutting NASA’s earth science and aeronautics budgets.  Those cuts “have nothing to do with making America safer or stronger… They are simply the expression of the Majority’s stick-your-head-in-the-sand ideology.”

Committee Republicans led by chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) defeated Democratic attempts to pass a substitute bill offered by Johnson and three other targeted amendments to increase funding for earth science (Edwards), space technology (Rep. Ami Bera, D-CA), and aeronautics (Rep. Don Beyer, D-VA).   They would have added money to the total NASA budget recommended in the bill.  Republicans insisted that it would add to the nation’s debt and the committee had to set priorities.

Republicans argue publicly that NASA’s unique role is space exploration and earth science research should be conducted by other agencies.  Many also are climate change skeptics who are not enthusiastic about spending money on climate research.  They took money from earth science, as well as from space technology, and reallocated it to the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion spacecraft, associated ground systems, planetary exploration, and astrophysics.

Both sides introduced letters they received from stakeholders in the aeronautics and space communities either opposing or endorsing the bill as introduced (they are posted, along with the amendments and opening statements, on the respective Republican and Democratic committee websites).

In the end, the bill was approved as introduced.  A fact sheet summarizing the bill contains a table comparing its funding provisions to those appropriated for FY2015 and requested by President Obama for FY2016.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden issued a statement after the markup saying that the bill “guts our Earth science program and threatens to set back generations worth of progress in better understanding our changing climate….NASA leads the world in the exploration and study of planets, and none is more important than the one on which we live.”  He added that the bill also underfunds space technology that the “nation needs to lead in space, including on our journey to Mars.”

Johnson, the full committee’s top Democrat, vowed that the bill would never become law and could erode support for NASA overall.  “There are those in this country, and in this Congress, who don’t think NASA should be a priority.  NASA has survived and thrived over the years only because of the strong bipartisan backing of those who understand the importance of NASA to our national wellbeing.  The bill before us will never become law.  But the Majority’s willingness to walk away from bipartisanship in order to appease their own most ideologically driven Members, risks eroding support for NASA in general.  This, I fear, will be one of the most unfortunate consequences of the Majority’s actions.”

Committee Republicans were unswayed.  The bill was approved 19-15 along party lines.

Chairman Smith issued a statement asserting that the bill “restores balance to NASA’s budget and supports its role as the only government agency responsible for space exploration.”  The bill is sponsored by Palazzo, Smith and 15 other Republicans, including the chairman of the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee that funds NASA, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX).  (Authorization bills recommend funding, but do not actually provide any money.  Only appropriations bills provide money.  For more on the difference between authorizations and appropriations, see our “What’s a Markup” fact sheet.

Culberson, Smith Reintroduce Space Leadership Preservation Act

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Apr-2015 (Updated: 04-May-2015 10:30 AM)

Two key Republicans introduced a bill yesterday to make the NASA Administrator position a 10-year appointment and creating a Board of Directors to oversee the agency.  The Space Leadership Preservation Act is similar to legislation introduced in the past two Congresses that was not enacted.

The new bill, H.R. 2093, is sponsored by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), chairman of the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA.  Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee that authorizes NASA activities, is a co-sponsor, along with Reps. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Henry Cuellar (D-TX).  The bill was jointly referred to the House SS&T Committee and the House Budget Committee.

The bill is similar to legislation introduced by Culberson in the past two Congresses (H.R. 823 in the 113th Congress) and to language that was proposed as part of the 2013 NASA authorization bill, but deleted during committee consideration of that bill (which never reached the House floor in any case).  The House SS&T committee held a hearing on H.R. 823 on February 27, 2013 at which Culberson and Frank Wolf, then chairman of the CJS subcommittee, testified, along with Eliot Pulham of the Space Foundation and retired aerospace industry executive Tom Young.

At quick glance, the new bill returns to recommending a 10-year appointment for the NASA Administrator, instead of 6 years as in H.R. 823.  The 10-year term was part of the original bill in the 112th Congress (H.R. 6491).  The new bill does not include language that was in H.R. 823 limiting to 45 days the time that the Deputy Administrator could serve as Acting Administrator.



Proposed NASA Authorization Bill Draws Mixed Reviews From Stakeholders-UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Apr-2015 (Updated: 30-Apr-2015 08:56 AM)

Updated April 30, 2015 with a clarification regarding the letter from Citizens for Spaceflight Exploration-Texas.

Letters from three stakeholder groups to the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee offer mixed reviews of the 2016-2017 NASA Authorization Act that will be marked up by the committee tomorrow.  The Planetary Society, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, and the Coalition for Space Exploration support certain aspects of the legislation, but not the bill in its entirety.  A fourth letter, from Citizens for Spaceflight Exploration-Texas, endorses the human exploration aspects of the bill.

The Republican-sponsored bill was announced last Friday and formally introduced on April 28 as H.R. 2039.  The policy provisions of the bill are virtually identical to language that passed the House on a bipartisan basis in February as part of the 2015 NASA Authorization Act.  The big difference is the budget section. The 2015 act, which has not passed the Senate yet, included funding figures only for FY2015.  That is the fiscal year currently underway so that bill did not require debates about funding.  

H.R. 2039, however, includes funding recommendations for future years, FY2016 and FY2017.  This bill is the first salvo in what could turn out to be a highly partisan debate over NASA's priorities.  The bill makes funding recommendations based on two different budget scenarios  -- an "aspirational" level where the caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) are removed and a "constrained" level where the caps remain in force.  NASA's earth science program would suffer significant cuts under either of those scenarios.   Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), the top Democrat on the Space Subcommittee, said on Tuesday that she "will not stand by quietly" and enable those cuts to go into effect.

A summary of the bill and a fact sheet with a table comparing its proposed funding levels with current funding and the President's FY2016 budget request is available on

The committee posted three letters (from The Planetary Society, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, and Citizens for Spaceflight Exploration-Texas) on its website on Tuesday that it characterized in a press release as supportive of the bill.  The Coalition for Space Exploration issued its letter on Wednesday.

The letter from The Planetary Society (TPS) strongly endorses the funding levels for planetary exploration, which receive a boost, but is silent on other provisions.  On Wednesday, Casey Dreier, TPS Director of Advocacy, who signed the letter, clarified on the Society's website that TPS does not support other aspects of the legislation.  "Obviously, the cuts to Earth Science make this a hard bill to support, therefore the Planetary Society does not as written.  We're hoping that the committee markup will find ways to preserve and grow all science as this moves forward."

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation praised the bill's recommended FY2016 funding level for commercial crew (which is the same as the President's request under the aspirational scenario; less than the request, but more than current funding in the constrained scenario) and for Advanced Exploration Systems (AES).  AES is a sub-account under Exploration R&D and the bill's proposed level for Exploration R&D is the same as the President's request in FY2016 under either budget scenario.   The Federation letter adds, however, that "While this bill represents progress in key areas, we remain concerned about some provisions ... that include, among other things, limitations on NASA's use of Space Act Agreements...."

The letter from the Coalition for Space Exploration thanks the committee for its support of human and robotic exploration programs (specifically mentioning the James Webb Space Telescope as an "exploration science mission"), but "we remain concerned that by flat funding SLS, Orion and other Exploration program levels ... the bill would unintentionally constrain progress toward accelerating program content from Exploration Mission-2 [EM-2] to be included in Exploration Mission-1 [EM-1] in 2018.  We urge the committee to consider the demands of these programs during this critical moment in the development cycle and hope that targeted adjustments will be made...."  The bill would provide level funding for SLS and Orion compared to FY2015 appropriations.  President Obama requested reduced funding for FY2016.  EM-1 is the first SLS launch, scheduled for 2018, which will carry an uncrewed version of the Orion spacecraft.  EM-2 is the second SLS launch, with a crewed Orion, anticipated in 2021.

The letter from Citizens for Spaceflight Exploration-Texas, which is associated with the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, said it "welcomes the strong endorsement of America's space exploration program" exemplified in the bill.   The letter appears to address the broad scope of NASA's space programs by referencing technological innovation and competitiveness, STEM education, and high-tech jobs and future workforce opportunities, for example, but a representative of the group contacted on April 30 to clarify that the letter was designed to endorse only those aspects of the bill related to SLS, Orion, the International Space Station, and commercial cargo and crew.  Those are the topics, which also are specifically mentioned in the letter, within the group's purview.  It has no position on the other parts of the bill.

The markup begins at 11:00 am ET on April 30.  Edwards said on Tuesday that she was trying to talk to subcommittee chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS), the lead sponsor of the bill, and full committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) to see if they can reach common ground on the cuts to earth science prior to markup.  Otherwise she said she fears they are on a path to the same type of partisan discord that characterized a 2013 markup of a NASA authorization bill.  Approved by committee on party lines, it never reached the floor for a vote.


Events of Interest

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