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Senate Committee to Markup NASA Authorization, INSPIRE Women Bills

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Sep-2016 (Updated: 18-Sep-2016 10:19 PM)

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee will markup a new NASA authorization bill on Wednesday that focuses on the desire to avoid disruption to NASA's human spaceflight program during the upcoming presidential transition.  It is one of several bills the committee will deal with that day, including the INSPIRE Women Act that passed the House earlier this year.  It is designed to encourage women to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The 2016 NASA Transition Authorization Act, S. 3346, is co-sponsored by three Republicans and three Democrats:  Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Sen. Gary Peters (D-Michigan), the chair and ranking member of the Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness; Florida's two Senators, Bill Nelson (D), who is the ranking member of the full committee, and Marco Rubio (R); Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi); and Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico).   Udall and Rubio both are subcommittee members; Wicker is on the full committee.

The 73-page bill incorporates changes to a draft that was circulated earlier, but the main themes remain the same.  Among the provisions are the following (quotes are from the committee's press release or the bill itself):

  • affirms support for continuity across presidential administrations in space science and exploration, noting progress on development of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion programs for deep space human exploration, on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and on commercial crew systems;
  • affirms that "NASA is and should remain a multi-mission agency with a balanced and robust set of core missions in science, space technology, aeronautics, human space flight and exploration, and education";
  • supports utilization of the International Space Station through at least 2024 and requires an evaluation of the feasibility of operations through at least 2028, while also requiring a report from NASA on how to transform low Earth orbit from a "model reliant on government support to one reflecting a more commercially viable future";
  • adds human exploration of Mars as an explicit goal and objective for NASA and requires NASA to submit a "strategic framework and critical decision plan" on how to achieve it;
  • directs NASA to continue the SLS and Orion programs with the first uncrewed mission in 2018 and the first mission with a crew "by 2021";
  • requires a report from NASA evaluating alternatives to the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission for demonstrating technologies and capabilities needed for human trips to Mars;
  • asserts that it is U.S. policy to develop technologies to support NASA's core missions, including propulsion technologies to reduce the human travel time to Mars;
  • expresses support for several space science missions, including JWST, its successor the Wide Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST), the Mars 2020 rover, and a mission to Europa (the bill is silent on Earth science);
  • allows NASA to provide medical monitoring, diagnosis and treatment for current U.S. government astronauts and former astronauts and payload specialists for "psychological and medical conditions deemed by NASA to be associated with human spaceflight"; and
  • directs NASA to take steps to improve oversight of information technology and cybersecurity.

The bill authorizes $19.508 billion for NASA in FY2017, the same amount approved by the House Appropriations Committee in its version of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill.  That bill has not been considered by the House yet.   The amount is $202 million more than the Senate Appropriations Committee approved.  The authorization bill allocates the difference to NASA's exploration account (which funds SLS and Orion).   Otherwise, the authorized amounts are the same as in the Senate Appropriations committee-approved bill.  The Senate bill was brought to the floor for debate in June, but was derailed by the gun control debate.

Authorization bills set policy and recommend funding levels; they do not actually provide any money.  Only appropriations bills provide money to agencies like NASA.

The House passed a NASA authorization bill in 2015 (H.R. 810) that can serve as a basis for compromise if both chambers want to pass a bill this year, even though time is short.  Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chair of the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, has called on the Senate to pass a bill several times, most recently last week.

The other space-related bill scheduled for markup on Wednesday is the Inspiring Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers, and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act, H.R. 4755.  The House passed the bill in March.  The bill was sponsored by Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Virginia). There were no hearings or markups of the bill; it was introduced and went directly to the floor.  No funding is included in the bill.  It simply directs NASA to take steps to encourage women to study STEM fields and submit a plan on how NASA can facilitate and support current and retired astronauts, scientists, engineers and innovators to engage with K-12 female STEM students.

What's Happening in Space Policy September 19-25, 2016 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Sep-2016 (Updated: 19-Sep-2016 08:26 AM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of September 19-25, 2016 (through next Sunday) and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

On Friday, Resources for the Future (RFF) will hold a memorial service for Molly Macauley at the Metropolitan Club in Washington, D.C., from 3:30-5:30 pm ET.  All of Molly's friends and colleagues are welcome to attend, but RFF would appreciate an RSVP so they know how many people to expect.   Please RSVP to specialevents@rff.org.   Molly, a renowned space economist and integral part of the space policy community for three decades, spent almost all of her career at RFF before her tragic death on July 8.

It will be a busy week before that.

The Senate plans to bring a Continuing Resolution (CR) to the floor tomorrow (Monday) for a cloture vote.  If it gets 60 votes, the Senate can proceed to debate, and, hopefully, pass it.  Word is that it will keep the government funded through December 9. The bill reportedly has controversial policy provisions ("poison pills") that could delay its approval, but rumors are that once it passes, the Senate will adjourn until after the elections instead of remaining in session through the end of the month.  That would put the House in the position of either agreeing to the Senate bill or allowing the government to shut down on October 1, which would not play well in the upcoming elections.  A budget deal was crafted last fall by then-House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and President Obama that set the spending limit for FY2017.  The draft CR reportedly sticks to that agreement, but very conservative House Republicans disapproved of the deal and are not happy at the prospect of passing a CR that adheres to it (because it spends too much on non-defense programs), so there is indeed a chance that a government shutdown could occur. We think it is only a very small chance in an election year, but as we've said many times, trying to predict what Congress will do is risky.

The Air Force Association is holding its Air, Space, Cyber conference at National Harbor, MD (outside Washington, DC) Monday-Wednesday. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James kicks it off tomorrow morning. There is no indication on the conference's website as to which sessions might be livestreamed, but James tweeted an invitation yesterday for everyone to listen to her talk, so presumably hers will be, at least.  Hopefully AFA will make iivestreaming information available soon. [UPDATE: the link to watch James, from 10:20-11:15 am ET, is http://www.afa.org/airspacecyber/streaming.  Two other sessions Monday afternoon also will be livestreamed as noted at that site.  The list of livestreamed sessions for the rest of the conference are not posted yet.]

While that's underway, on Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a nomination hearing for Gen. John Hyten to become Commander of U.S. Strategic Command.  He currently is Commander of Air Force Space Command.  He seems to be well liked and respected on the Hill, so apart from the usual Senate challenges on getting any nomination approved (usually for reasons completely unrelated to the nominee), it should go smoothly.

On the civil space side, it's Mars, Mars, Mars this week.  Explore Mars holds a seminar on Capitol Hill on Tuesday morning on "Humans to Mars: Why, How, and When."  On Wednesday afternoon, Lou Friedman, former executive director of the Planetary Society, will discuss his new book "Human Spaceflight From Mars to the Stars" at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. From Thursday-Sunday, the Mars Society holds its annual conference at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. 

The Senate Commerce Committee will markup its "NASA Transition Authorization Act" on Wednesday that, among other things, seeks to protect NASA's human spaceflight program -- which is aimed at sending humans to Mars in the 2030s -- from any major changes as the result of the upcoming presidential transition. Congress directed NASA to build a new, big rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and a crew spacecraft to go with it (Orion) in the last NASA authorization act that became law (in 2010).  It has diligently ensured that the Obama Administration (through NASA) implements those programs, often providing more funding than the President requested.  They want to make sure a new President doesn't disrupt that effort the way President Obama did when he came into office and cancelled President Bush's Constellation program. The NASA authorization bill is one of several bills the committee will markup that day, including the STEM education-related INSPIRE Women bill that the House passed earlier this year.

SLS is managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and its Director, Todd May, will address the Space Transportation Association on Capitol Hill on Thursday.  Also speaking to STA on Thursday is the President of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Naoki Okumura.

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

Monday-Wednesday, September 19-21

Tuesday, September 20

Tuesday-Friday, September 20-23

Wednesday, September 21

Wednesday-Thursday, September 21-22

  • Dent:Space, Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, CA

Wednesday-Friday, September 21-23

Thursday, September 22

Thursday-Saturday, September 22-24

Thursday-Sunday, September 22-25

Friday, September 23

  • RFF Memorial Service for Molly Macauley, Metropolitan Club, Washington, DC, 3:30-5:30 pm ET (please RSVP to RFF at specialevents@rff.org)

Russia Postpones Soyuz MS-02 Launch Due to Technical Reasons

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Sep-2016 (Updated: 17-Sep-2016 10:12 AM)

Russia's Roscosmos state space corporation announced today that the launch of Soyuz MS-02, scheduled for Friday, has been postponed for technical reasons.  A new launch date will be announced later. This is the second flight of this new version of the Soyuz spacecraft.  The first also was postponed close to launch.

Roscosmos posted the news on its website, saying (using Google translate):  "Roscosmos decided to postpone the planned September 23, 2016 launch of the spacecraft 'Soyuz MS-02' for technical reasons after routine tests at the Baikonur Cosmodrome.  The launch date of the spacecraft will be announced later."

Soyuz MS-02 will take three crew members to the International Space Station (ISS):  NASA's Shane Kimbrough and Roscosmos's Andrey Borisenko and Sergey Ryzhikov.  When they do launch, they will join three ISS crew already aboard:  NASA's Kate Rubins, JAXA's Takuya Onishi, and Roscosmos's Anatoly Ivanishin.

This is second flight of this new version of the Soyuz spacecraft -- Soyuz MS -- which replaced the Soyuz TMA-M series.  The first Soyuz was launched in 1967 and it has gone through several modifications over the decades, each with its own designation.  The MS version has improved solar arrays, a new digital computer, and a new docking system among other upgrades.

The first Soyuz MS launch, Soyuz MS-01, also was delayed.  The reasons were never officially speciified, but indications were that it was an issue with the docking system. Originally scheduled for June 24, it launched on July 7 instead.  Because this is a new version of Soyuz, the decision was made to take the longer 2-day trajectory to ISS to check out the spacecraft instead of the abbreviated 6-hour route used in recent years.  Soyuz MS-02 also will take the 2-day path.

Soyuz spacecraft have been the only means for taking crews to and from ISS since the United States terminated the space shuttle program in 2011.  NASA is engaged in public private partnerships with SpaceX and Boeing to build new "commercial crew" vehicles -- Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner, respectively -- that NASA hopes will begin routine flights in 2018 (test flights may occur next year).  Until then, Soyuz is the only one.  Soyuz is launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Navy Resumes Teaching Celestial Navigation Just in Case GPS Is Neutralized - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Sep-2016 (Updated: 19-Sep-2016 04:17 PM)

With growing concern about the vulnerability of U.S. national security space systems, resiliency is the watchword and the military services are looking for alternatives in case space systems are unavailable.  The Navy, for example, has resumed teaching celestial navigation in case the Global Positioning System (GPS) is rendered unusable. 

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson told Senator Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) at a hearing on Thursday that celestial navigation is "back in the curriculum at the Naval Academy and other places" in order to minimize the Navy's vulnerability to electronic systems like GPS: "We gotta stay in the channel, ma'am."  He added that the Navy also is working with its industrial partners on "other ways to get precision navigation and timing into our systems" that are "independent of GPS and potentially more precise" not only for navigation, but weapons systems performance.

(Richardson did not elaborate on the extent of the training, however.  Alan Littlell wrote in Ocean Navigator on December 31, 2015 that the course for third-year students at the Naval Academy is only a three-hour segment of a broader course on advanced navigation and does not teach the "core workload of celestial navigators: sextant sight reductions on sun, moon, stars and planets."  Indeed, the Naval Academy's course descriptions for all its navigation classes do not mention celestial navigation.) 

Richardson and the other three military chiefs testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) about long-term military budget challenges.  Joining him were Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, and Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Robert Neller.

Goldfein noted in his opening statement that to maintain its technological edge, the Air Force is "laser focused" on five areas, one of which is "preparing for a war that could extend into space." The others are "fighter, tanker, and bomber recapitalization, nuclear modernization .... increasing our capability and capacity in the cyber domain, and leveraging and improving multi-domain and coalition friendly command and control..."

Apart from that, little of the hearing touched on the needs of national security space specifically.   

Senators Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island), the top Democrat on the committee, and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), both mentioned threats to space systems among their concerns in their opening statements, but the bulk of the hearing was on the impact on the military if sequestration returns.  Under the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011, if Congress appropriates more money than allowed by budget caps set in that law, across-the-board cuts are implemented to bring the funding in line with the caps. 

That happened once, in FY2013, and the results were so draconian for defense and non-defense agencies that Congress and the White House have relaxed the caps each year since.  However, the law remains in place and the budget caps, and sequestration, are back in play for FY2018 and beyond.  The purpose of the hearing was to illuminate the damage that would be done to the military if funding is held to those caps.

Few expect that to happen, though, and when asked if they are preparing budget requests that are in line with the BCA limits, each of the military chiefs explicitly or implicitly said no.

Note: This article was updated with the quotes from Ocean Navigator and information about the course listings at the Naval Academy.

Spire, GeoOptics Win First NOAA Commercial Weather Data Contracts

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Sep-2016 (Updated: 16-Sep-2016 07:09 AM)

NOAA made its first two awards today under the Commercial Weather Data Pilot program created by Congress last year.  The winners are Spire Global and GeoOptics, both of which will provide radio occultation data to NOAA for evaluation to determine whether commercial data can be incorporated into NOAA’s numerical weather models.

Congress provided $3 million to NOAA in the FY2016 Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations act (Division B of the FY2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act) for the pilot program.  It required NOAA to enter into at least one pilot project through an open competitive process to purchase, evaluate and calibrate commercial weather data and to submit a report on how it would implement the project.  NOAA publicly released that report in April.

The idea originated in the House-passed Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act (H.R. 1561) sponsored by Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK).  Bridenstine chairs the Environment Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee and also serves on the House Armed Services Committee.  He led efforts to include a provision in the pending FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act for DOD to create a similar program.

Under the contracts, the two companies will provide GNSS radio occultation data to NOAA by April 30, 2017 to demonstrate data quality and potential value to NOAA’s weather forecasts and warnings.  NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) will assess the data through the end of FY2017 and issue a report in early FY2018.  The contract award amounts were $370,000 for Spire and $695,000 for GeoOptics.

GNSS refers to Global Navigation Satellite Systems, of which the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) is probably the best known and most widely used.

NOAA already uses GPS radio occultation (GPO-RO) data in its forecasts.  The data are acquired by the six-satellite COSMIC constellation, a joint program with Taiwan.  NOAA is requesting funds for a COSMIC-2 follow-on.

RO data are acquired by very small satellites (microsatellites or nanosatellites) that use signals from GPS or other GNSS systems to make measurements of temperature and water vapor throughout the lower parts of the atmosphere.  When combined with data from polar-orbiting weather satellites, better weather forecasts are enabled.

Thousands of RO measurements per day are useful and COSMIC provides 2,000-3,000.   COSMIC-2 will provide about 10,000, but commercial sources can increase the total to 50,000-100,000, the upper limit in terms of when costs would outweigh benefits according to NESDIS Assistant Administrator Steve Volz.

NOAA called the contract awards a “win-win” because both NOAA and the companies will “gain a trial run of the NOAA evaluation process, a necessary first step to considering sustained operational use of new commercial weather data.”

The cautious phrasing underscores that this is a pilot program only.  NOAA officials express concern about whether the commercial data are accurate, reliable and verifiable.  The pilot project will allow NOAA to assess those characteristics.   NOAA also worries about whether the commercial data can be made available globally in conformance with its obligations to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) since companies typically restrict sharing of their data.  That issue is still being debated.

Bridenstine and House SS&T Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) praised the awards in a joint statement today.  Smith said he hoped these were just the first of many such contracts and thanked the two companies for their “leadership, ingenuity, and entrepreneurial spirit.”  Bridenstine noted that the awards show “there is great potential for the government to leverage this new industry.”

GeoOptics CEO Conrad Lautenbacher, a former NOAA Administrator, said his company looks forward to demonstrating that commercial data “can enable the unmatched efficiencies of the private sector to help NOAA accomplish its vital mission to protect and inform the public.” 

Bridenstine: Legislation Necessary to Regulate New Types of Commercial Space Activities

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Sep-2016 (Updated: 15-Sep-2016 06:44 AM)

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) used a teleconference meeting of the FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) today to explain why he believes legislation is indeed necessary to ensure that the U.S. government complies with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty in authorizing and continually supervising U.S. companies engaged in non-traditional commercial space activities.  His draft legislation was the topic of the teleconference, a timely discussion coming just one day after Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) expressed a very different point of view.

The COMSTAC meeting was announced weeks ago with the single purpose of discussing Bridenstine's draft legislation.  COMSTAC advises the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST).  Its members represent many of the companies involved in both traditional and non-traditional space businesses. Mike Gold, Vice President of Washington Operations for SSL (formerly Space System Loral), chairs the committee, which reports to FAA/AST Associate Administrator George Nield. 

The purpose of the telecon was to allow government experts -- from Bridenstine's office and executive branch agencies -- to explain to COMSTAC's industry members what the draft legislation would do and why, and get their input.

Bridenstine, Nield and Gold have been in the forefront of an ongoing debate over how to create a U.S. regulatory system that facilitates new space ventures like private space stations or asteroid mining while complying with U.S. obligations under the Outer Space Treaty (OST).  Article VI of the OST requires governments to authorize and continually supervise the activities of their non-governmental entities, like companies.

Until recently, private sector space activities fell under existing regulatory authorities established by law: FAA (launch and reentry), the Federal Communications Committee (spectrum use), or NOAA (commercial remote sensing).   No agency has yet been designated, however, to regulate new commercial space ventures to put space stations in Earth orbit, send spacecraft to the Moon, Mars and asteroids, perform on-orbit satellite servicing, or a host of other non-traditional space businesses.  Many of those companies argue that potential investors want to know what the regulatory environment will be before putting their money on the table.  They want the government to make decisions now.

Moon Express, which plans to launch a lunar lander next year, recently received government approval using the interagency payload review process currently implemented by FAA/AST, but it took 7 months and is only for that one launch.  It did not set a precedent for future such endeavors by Moon Express or other companies.

Bridenstine has been a leader in Congress in drafting legislation to address these issues and advocates for the FAA to be assigned the role of issuing "mission authorizations" for non-traditional space activities.  He personally participated in the telecon today along with Christopher Ingraham, his staffer working on these issues.   Bridenstine explained that his top concern is that a U.S. company will proceed with a plan to put a spacecraft on the Moon or conduct on-orbit servicing or some other new type of activity only to have a "near-peer" country like Russia or China complain at the last minute that the United States is violating the OST.  That would put the United States "in a difficult position," he argues. Therefore he sees the need for "airtight" legislation that sets up a process by which the government authorizes and supervises these private companies.  Once a company has gone through the process, the United States can unequivocally demonstrate to the international community that it has, in fact, complied with the treaty.  

The Obama Administration has been open to working with these new companies, but he wonders if that will remain true over the long term future.  He insisted that Congress "needs to exert its authority and power so that whatever administration comes next or is in place 50 years from now, the process exists" and is not subject to a new administration's "whims."  He also worried that without a legislative solution, it could become a matter of "executive branch regulation by default."  That opens the possibility of some agency saying no, with no recourse for the private sector.

Others participating in the telecon brought up another concern -- that an agency other than FAA, with less experience in a broad range of commercial space businesses, might decide that it wants to regulate these new commercial space activities and "fill the void."  Several mentioned that the FCC apparently is indicating such an interest.   Ingraham said that he has heard over the past few months that FCC wants to regulate on-orbit servicing and space traffic management, for example.

The State Department and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) have been closely involved in these issues.  OSTP's Ben Roberts stressed that the Obama Administration's interest is not to add regulations or burden companies, "but to make it easy for us to say yes."  Section 108 of the last year's Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA) required OSTP to submit a report on how to deal with these issues and recommend a solution.  It sent the report to Congress earlier this year along with draft legislation to implement it.  It proposed that the FAA's parent, the Department of Transportation (presumably delegating it to FAA), be assigned the role of issuing mission authorizations for these new types of commercial endeavors using an "enhanced" payload review process.  Roberts said today that OSTP is not wedded to that proposal, however.  "We're not tied to a particular solution," but need a mechanism that allows the government to authorize such activities "clearly and crisply," he said.

It is the State Department that must explain to other countries how the United States is fulfilling its treaty obligations and thus has a keen interest in these issues.  Brian Israel of State's Office of Oceans, International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, said one problem State has today is that under the interagency process for payload reviews it can only can say "yes" or "no," not "yes, but."   Although it may agree with what an applicant wants to do, it cannot set conditions, approving the application as long as a company takes certain actions.  For example, the State Department could say yes to the Moon Express application because it is launching a technology demonstration mission with limited capabilities and the company proactively agreed to abide by international planetary protection requirements, but that might hold true for a future application, he said.

A number of the COMSTAC members expressed reservations about various provisions in Bridenstine's draft bill, however.  Bridenstine assured them that additional input is welcomed.  He also acknowledged that there is little time left in this session of Congress to get such legislation passed and he may wait until the next session to introduce it. 

Others see a need for more immediate action.  In an interview after the telecon, Gold told SpacePolicyOnline.com that "there are no three words more pernicious to commercial space operators than 'continuing government supervision' and we need to take rapid action to lock in a benign light-touch regulatory approach" as exemplified in the Bridenstine draft bill.  Gold, who worked for Bigelow Aerospace until recently, is a veteran of the years-long effort to get relief for commercial communications satellite companies from stringent International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) put in place at the turn of the century. He sees many parallels between the ITAR debate and this discussion.

Laura Montgomery, a former FAA attorney now in private practice, challenged this entire approach to these issues, however.  She is not a member of COMSTAC, but the public is allowed to participate in these meetings.  She argued that the treaty creates obligations for the government, not the private sector.

Her comments were along the same lines as those of Rep. Babin at a Commercial Spaceflight Federation breakfast yesterday. Babin argued that the OSTP proposal places the burden on companies to demonstrate their consistency with U.S. obligations, foreign policy and national security when it should be the other way around.  He thinks there should be a presumption that the private sector activities are authorized and the government should only become involved if it has met certain conditions.

COMSTAC plans to continue the discussion about Bridenstine's draft legislation at its October meeting.  Gold said that Observations, Findings and Recommendations (OFRs) might be adopted at that time to provide COMSTAC's formal views to FAA/AST.

China to Launch Tiangong-2 Space Station on September 15 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Sep-2016 (Updated: 15-Sep-2016 09:54 PM)

UPDATE: September 15.  Tiangong 2 was successfully launched on time today.

Original Story, September 14, 2016: China officially announced today that it will launch its second small space station, Tiangong-2, on September 15 at 10:04 pm China Standard Time (10:04 am Eastern Daylight Time).  Two astronauts will launch to the space station in mid-late October for a 30-day mission.

China's intention to launch Tiangong-2 this month was well known, but this is the first official announcement of the launch date and time.  It will launch from the Jiuquan launch center in the Gobi desert on a Long March 2-F rocket, the same type of rocket that will take the Shenzhou-11 crew into space in October.

China's Xinhua news service also said the first robotic resupply mission will be launched in April 2017.  The Tianzhou-1 cargo ship will be launched on the new Long March 7 rocket from China's new Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island.

The Tiangong space stations are small.  Tiangong-2 is just 10.4 meters long and 3.35 meters maximum diameter, with a mass of 8.5 metric tons (MT).  Tiangong-1 was launched in 2011 and hosted two 3-person crews, in 2012 and 2013, for approximately two weeks each.

Each of the 3-person crews included a woman astronaut (or "taikonaut"), but the Shenzhou-11 crew will be two men.

China plans to build a larger, 60 MT multi-modular space station in the early 2020s.

Still Time for a NASA Authorization Bill This Year? - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Sep-2016 (Updated: 15-Sep-2016 10:02 PM)

UPDATE, September 15:  The Senate Commerce Committee will markup the Senate version of a FY2017 NASA authorization bill on September 21 at 10:00 am ET.

Original Story, September 13, 2016: Rumors have been circulating for months that NASA's authorization committees will try to get a new NASA authorization bill enacted before the 114th Congress gavels to a close at the end of the year. Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) yesterday again exhorted the Senate to act on a NASA authorization bill the House passed last year and a Senate draft bill -- different from that one -- is circulating, but time is getting short.  One goal is to provide stability to NASA during the presidential transition and passage of legislation would give Congress a chance to get its policy choices formally on the table.

The House passed a FY2015 NASA authorization bill by voice vote in February 2015.  Although the funding recommendation were only for that fiscal year, which is long past, the policy provisions were adopted on a bipartisan basis.  Some have been overtaken by events, but Babin, who spoke at a Commercial Spaceflight Federation breakfast meeting yesterday morning, called it a "perfectly good bill" and urged the Senate to pass it or "quickly work with the House to negotiate a compromise."   He noted that the House and Senate versions of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill, which includes NASA, are in a "mature" stage and their funding levels could be "reconciled" into a new authorization bill.

Authorization bills set policy and recommend funding levels, but only appropriations bills actually provide money to agencies like NASA.

The last NASA authorization act was enacted in 2010.   Its policy provisions remain in force, but the funding recommendations were only for three years, FY2011-FY2013.

Babin chairs the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee's Space Subcommittee.  The committee approved a more recent bill for FY2016 and FY2017 (H.R. 2039), but on a strictly party-line basis because, among other things, it recommended deep cuts to NASA's earth science program that Democrats strongly opposed.  No further action has occurred on that bill.

The FY2015 bill, H.R. 810 (itself is an update of a FY2014 bill that passed the House, but not the Senate), avoided highly charged partisan issues. The 128-page bill covers a lot of ground.  

A 49-page staff draft of a Senate authorization bill for FY2017 is circulating that is more narrowly focused, but at a top level has similar themes.  One key point on which the bills agree is that human exploration is a core NASA mission.  Both bills support continued use of the International Space Station (ISS) and sending humans to Mars and other locations in deep space.   Both want more details from NASA on how that will be accomplished.  H.R. 810 requires NASA to develop and provide to Congress a "Human Exploration Roadmap" detailing capabilities and technologies needed.  The draft Senate bill calls for a "strategic framework" and a "critical decision plan."  Both require that the role of international and commercial partners be included.

One focus of the draft Senate bill not included in H.R. 810 is stability at NASA during the presidential transition.  It includes a "sense of Congress" section that "the United States, in collaboration with its international and commercial partners, should sustain and build upon our national space commitments and investments across Administrations with a continuity of purpose..."  As discussed at a recent hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation subcommittee that oversees NASA, there is bipartisan concern that NASA's programs could be disrupted again as they were when President Obama took office and cancelled the Constellation program begun under his predecessor, George W. Bush. 

It should be noted that passage of a new NASA authorization bill may not provide any such assurance, however.  Congress passed two NASA authorization laws supporting Bush's Vision for Space Exploration and its Constellation program to return humans to the lunar surface by 2020 and then go on to Mars.   One passed in 2005 when Republicans controlled Congress, the other in 2008 when Democrats were in control.  The pair of laws signaled not only bipartisan congressional consensus, but agreement between the White House and Congress on the path forward for human exploration, a long sought goal of human spaceflight advocates who had seen earlier presidential initiatives fail to win congressional support.

The existence of those laws did not, however, deter President Obama from cancelling Constellation after a review by a blue ribbon panel concluded that NASA's budget would have to ramp up to $3 billion more per year to implement it.  Similarly, a new President could decide that the current program, with the goal of putting astronauts in orbit around Mars in the 2030s, is unaffordable.

Another place where H.R. 810 and the draft Senate bill agree is skepticism about the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as one of the elements of that plan to get to Mars.  At the time H.R. 810 was written it was called the Asteroid Retrieval Mission and the bill requires a report explaining the need for and cost of the program.  The draft Senate bill points out that the cost for ARM has risen and the NASA Advisory Council has raised concerns, and the program is competing for resources with other aspects of the human exploration program.   It does not call for the program to be terminated, but offers a sense of Congress statement that alternatives should be considered for demonstrating the technologies needed for the humans-to-Mars mission and requires a report from NASA on those alternatives.

NASA's earth science program remains contentious in Congress, with many House and Senate Republicans arguing that NASA should focus on space exploration, not studying Earth, which other agencies could do.  Democrats insist that earth science research from space is a key aspect of NASA's science program and no other agency launches earth science research satellites.  NOAA is responsible for operational weather satellites and until recently was planning to launch some climate research sensors, but the White House decided to transfer those to NASA.   H.R. 810, written in 2015, apparently foresaw such a turn of events and stated that if NASA is given additional responsibilities in earth science, the White House needed to provide it with additional money.   The draft Senate bill is silent on earth science policy.

As for funding, the figures in H.R. 810 are no longer relevant. The draft Senate authorization bill would authorize $19.508 billion, the same total that is in the House Appropriations Committee's version of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill.  The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $19.306 billion, which is $202 million less.  The draft Senate authorization bill allocates that $202 million to the Exploration account.  NASA's other accounts are funded at the same level as in the Senate Appropriations Committee's bill.

Congress is scheduled to be in session for the rest of this month before adjourning until after the November elections, although there are indications that the Senate may leave earlier than that if it can pass a FY2017 Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government funded for the first part of FY2017.   If it does, that would compress the time for reaching agreement on a NASA authorization bill.  H.R. 810 and the draft Senate bill are similar enough to provide a basis for compromise, but different enough to prevent one.  It is a matter of how motivated the involved parties are to pass a bill prior to this next presidential transition.

Babin Wants Regulatory Rethink for Commercial Space

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Sep-2016 (Updated: 14-Sep-2016 05:29 AM)

Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) wants a complete rethinking of the government's role in regulating new commercial space ventures like asteroid mining.  Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) has been championing an expansion of the regulatory authority of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), an approach also endorsed by the Obama Administration. The FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) will discuss a draft Bridenstine bill tomorrow.  Babin is saying wait -- expanded government regulation may not be the answer.

Babin chairs the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee and gave a comprehensive address on the topic at a Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) breakfast meeting this morning.  Offering historical examples of where government attempts to regulate new technologies were "ill-conceived," he contended that other ways should be found to satisfy U.S. obligations "without stifling innovation or smothering the embers of creativity."

The issue stems from U.S. government obligations to authorize and continually supervise the space activities of non-government entities, like companies, under Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.  Babin defended the Treaty itself, saying it is "just as relevant today" as it was 50 years ago.  It was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly on December 19, 1966; opened for signature on January 27, 1967; and entered into force on October 10, 1967.  He characterized negotiations over the treaty in that Cold War era as reflecting two very different philosophies, communism and freedom.  "Fortunately, the United States position was accepted" and Article VI allows for non-government entities to engage in space activities freely.

Another positive feature is that the treaty does not dictate how signatories should fulfill their Article VI obligations, he pointed out, leaving it up to each nation.  Today, as innovative non-traditional space activities are emerging, the United States needs to decide what to do, but it should not quickly jump to the conclusion that more regulation is the answer. "While some may see regulations as the easiest way to 'check the box' on satisfying our international obligations ... I would challenge all of you to explore more creative options."

Section 108 of last year's Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA) required a report from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) recommending an approach.  The report was delivered to Congress earlier this year recommending that FAA/AST's authority be expanded to approve "mission authorizations" for companies that want to build space stations in Earth orbit, create lunar bases, mine asteroids, or other non-traditional commercial space activities.  That approach is favored not only by OSTP and FAA/AST, but by Bridenstine who has been in the forefront of raising these issues in Congress and the space policy community.

Some of the companies interested in non-traditional space activities are represented on COMSTAC, which provides advice to FAA/AST.  It is scheduled to discuss a draft Bridenstine bill tomorrow at 3:00 pm ET via teleconference.  The meeting is open to the public (dial-in instructions are available here.)

Babin wants other options considered, however.  He feels the OSTP proposal places the burden on companies to demonstrate their consistency with U.S. obligations, foreign policy and national security when it should be the other way around.  "Instead, we should have a regime in which the private sector activities are presumed authorized and only after the government has met certain conditions can it place restrictions on an activity."

He is particularly concerned about language in the OSTP proposal that requires interagency concurrence.  He noted that it is very similar to requirements NOAA must observe in granting licenses for commercial remote sensing satellites.  NOAA is supposed to make decisions on license applications within 120 days, but that has turned into three years for one applicant, with no information provided on who in the interagency process objects, why, or when a resolution might be forthcoming.  Babin does not want the same fate for the new non-traditional commercial space efforts.  He used the NOAA example to counterbalance arguments that FAA/AST's authority should be expanded so companies can have regulatory certainty to ease investor concerns.  With regulations like that, he argued, uncertainty is created, not resolved.   His subcommittee held a hearing on NOAA's commercial remote sensing license process last week (SpacePolicyOnline.com will post a hearing summary soon).

Babin cited FAA/AST's recent approval of an application by Moon Express to launch a lunar lander as an example of how the current system can be made to work, but argued that Moon Express should have had a "framework -- not necessarily predicated on federal regulations -- that presumes their activity is authorized and places the burden on the government to demonstrate otherwise."   Moon Express co-founder and CEO Bob Richards said that it took about 7 months for the company to get that approval by going to each involved government agency and voluntarily disclosing information each needed to sign off. 

"America is great because it is a country where you have the freedom to create without government permission. ... Whether or not our system of values will be carried by the future pioneers of outer space will likely hinge on the degree to which America is able to unleash the awesome power of freedom and protect against government regulatory intervention."

Babin went on to discuss Space Traffic Management (STM) and Space Situational Awareness (SSA), two other areas where expanded FAA/AST authorities are being discussed.  Babin argued that other options with greater private sector involvement should be explored.  "That isn't to say that nothing can or should be done [by the government], just that we should be cognizant of existing authorities and consider a wide array of solutions, rather than resorting to the crutch of regulatory expansion."

He plans "substantive hearings" once several outstanding reports required by CSLCA are delivered and "legislative solutions, if necessary."

Blue Origin Reveals Its Heavy Lift Rocket -- New Glenn

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Sep-2016 (Updated: 13-Sep-2016 05:24 AM)

Blue Origin has announced plans to test a heavy lift rocket, New Glenn, by the end of the decade.  It will be more capable than SpaceX's Falcon Heavy, but smaller than NASA's Space Launch System (SLS).  Blue Origin plans to use New Glenn to launch humans as well as cargo into space.

Named in honor of John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, the rocket will come in 2- and 3-stage versions.  Like Blue Origin's current New Shepard rocket (named for Alan Shepard, the first American in space), it will launch and land vertically and be reusable (first stage only).  New Shepard is a suborbital rocket that uses Blue's BE-3 liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen (LOX) engines.  New Glenn will use Blue's BE-4 engines, the first engines to use a liquefied natural gas (methane)/LOX combination.

Blue's development of the BE-4 is well known.  The United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced a partnership with Blue exactly two years ago to use BE-4 engines for its new Vulcan rocket, expected to debut around the end the decade, although it subsequently decided to also consider Aerojet Rocketdyne's AR1.  It will choose one of the two in the next few months.

Blue Origin founder and President Jeff Bezos, who is also President of Amazon.com, has hinted at his development of a large orbital rocket before and yesterday's announcement revealed the company has been working on it for three years already.  Bezos released a graphic comparing the two versions of New Glenn with other past, present and future rockets.


Graphic credit:  Blue Origin
Editor's Note:  Antares (U.S. - Orbital ATK), Soyuz (Russia), Ariane 5 (Europe), Atlas V (U.S.-United Launch Alliance), Falcon 9 (U.S.-SpaceX), and Delta IV Heavy (U.S.-United Launch Alliance) are currently operational orbital launch vehicles.  Vulcan (ULA), Falcon Heavy (SpaceX) and New Glenn (Blue Origin) are in development.  Saturn V (NASA) was used to launch Apollo astronauts to the Moon and the Skylab space station; its last flight was in 1973.

New Glenn is 23 feet in diameter and launches with 3.85 million pounds of thrust from seven BE-4 engines, Bezos said in a statement.  The 2-stage version is 270 feet tall, while the 3-stage variant is 313 feet tall.  The two use the same first and second stages (the second stage is powered by a single BE-4). The third stage uses one BE-3 engine.

The first launch of New Glenn is planned before the end of this decade from Launch Complex-36 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  Bezos plans to use it to launch commercial satellites as well as humans into space and he added that the 3-stage version can fly "demanding" missions beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), although he was not explicit about the nature of those missions.  LEO is a popular orbit for some commercial and many government satellites (the International Space Station is in LEO, for example), but most commercial satellites are placed into geostationary orbit high above the equator, so it is not unusual or demanding for rockets to be able to launch missions beyond LEO, even far into the solar system like the New Horizons mission to Pluto that launched on ULA's Atlas V.

The terminology has come to be used in recent years, however, to refer to human missions to the distance of the Moon and beyond.  Bezos did restate his vision of  "millions of people living and working in space" and asserted that New Glenn is just one step in that direction:  "Up next on our drawing board: New Armstrong.  But that's a story for the future."

That rocket would be named in honor of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon.

Interestingly, Bezos omitted NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) from the graphic, using a Saturn V for comparison instead.  NASA is building SLS to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit.  Its first test flight is scheduled for late 2018.   Three versions are planned -- 70, 105, and 130 metric tons (MT) to LEO.  The largest would be slightly greater in capability than the Saturn V.   The 70-MT version, which will launch in 2018, is 322 feet tall and its engines will generate 8.8 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.  The 130-MT version will be 365 feet tall with 9.2 million pounds of thrust.

SLS critics assert that there is no need for the government to pay for a new big rocket because SpaceX and Blue Origin are moving forward on their own and NASA can buy launch services from them.  NASA does not own any launch vehicles today (the space shuttle was the last, and that program ended in 2011).  It purchases services from companies like SpaceX, ULA, and Orbital ATK.   SLS advocates argue that SLS will be much more capable than any of the commercial designs and is required for challenging missions such as sending humans to Mars.  The need to ensure a strong U.S. industrial base is another argument often used to explain the need for the government to continue to be involved in building new rockets. 

SLS is an expensive undertaking.  NASA has released a cost estimate for the program only through the first launch (Exploration Mission-1) -- $7 billion for development or $9.78 billion if formulation costs are included.  That excludes costs for associated ground systems at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.   The Government Accountability Office is skeptical of NASA's cost estimating procedures, however, and no estimate has been released for the program beyond the first flight.  SLS will launch the Orion spacecraft and NASA's deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development Bill Hill reportedly said his goal is for SLS, Orion and their ground systems to cost no more than $2 billion per year for production and operation once development is complete. That is only a goal, however, and still would represent a sizeable percentage of NASA's budget every year for the indefinite future.

Blue Origin's announcement may add fuel to the debate over the need for SLS, although it has strong support in Congress.  It was Congress, in fact, that insisted NASA build a new, big rocket in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act after President Obama cancelled the Constellation program.  Begun under President George W. Bush, Constellation was designed to send humans back to the surface of the Moon and someday to Mars using a rocket called Ares V.   Development of that rocket was, indeed, terminated by President Obama, but Congress replaced it with SLS.  The SLS program is managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.  Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and is an ardent SLS supporter.  It has strong support from others in the Senate and the House, as well as NASA itself.

One complaint about SLS is that it will be launched so infrequently -- at most, once a year -- that its safety could be undermined because launch crews will not maintain their proficiency.  Against that backdrop, the market for New Glenn seems soft unless Bezos's vision of millions of people living and working in space is realized.

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