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UPDATE, November 25, 2015: The President signed the bill into law today.
ORIGINAL STORY, November 10, 2015: The Senate passed the revised FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) today, clearing the bill for the President. The President vetoed an earlier version of the NDAA primarily because of a budget "gimmick" it used to add money for defense while ignoring non-defense needs. The recently approved budget/debt limit deal solved that problem.
The President had objected to two policy provisions in the earlier version (H.R. 1735) that have not been changed (that the bill prevented needed reforms and did not allow the closing of Guantanamo), but no new veto threat has been issued for this version (S. 1356). The only changes were budgetary. The House passed the revised authorization bill last week by a vote of 370-58. The Senate vote today was 91-3. By passing a revised bill, Congress avoids a showdown over whether to try and override the President's veto of H.R. 1735.
The bill sets policy. It also recommends funding for defense programs, but only appropriations bills actually provide money. Senate Democrats are blocking action on the defense appropriations bill for fear that Republicans might pass only defense spending bills and leave the rest of the government under a year-long Continuing Resolution (CR). One exception is the Military Construction-Veterans Affairs (MilCon-VA) appropriations bill. Senate Democrats reportedly did not object to that bill because its funding is about equally split between defense and non-defense activities. The Senate passed the MilCon-VA appropriations bill today, too.
Among the space-related provisions of the revised FY2016 NDAA is a limit on the number of Russian RD-180 engines the United Launch Alliance (ULA) can obtain for its Atlas V rockets. A 2013 block-buy contract between ULA and the Air Force called for obtaining 29 RD-180s. ULA already has contracted for 15 of them but the remaining 14 have been the source of strong debate. This bill permits nine, while ULA wanted all 14, although the Secretary of Defense may grant waivers under certain circumstances. The limits are only on the use of RD-180s for national security space launches.
Congressional opposition to the use of RD-180s stems primarily from a desire to end dependence on Russia for launching U.S. national security satellites following Russia's annexation of Crimea and resulting tensions in the U.S.-Russian geopolitical relationship. The new goal is to develop an American engine to replace the RD-180s by 2019. Determination by some very influential Senators, including Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ), to reduce costs by forcing ULA to compete for national security launches with new entrants like SpaceX is another factor. ULA has held a monopoly on those launches since it was formed as a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture in 2006. The RD-180 issue is very controversial.
Scientists studying data still streaming back from the New Horizons spacecraft months after it flew past Pluto presented an overview today of what they know and what they still are trying to understand about the dwarf planet. Ice volcanoes, an atmosphere much smaller than expected, and rapidly spinning moons are just three of the tantalizing findings discussed at a press conference held in conjunction with the Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) of the American Astronomical Society conference outside Washington, D.C.
New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, but because of the large amount of data, slow data rates, and 4.5 hour one-way signal travel time, it will take a total of 16 months for all of the data to reach Earth. Pluto is about 3 billion miles (4.9 billion kilometers) from Earth right now and New Horizons has passed it and is heading further away. The maximum data rate is 4 kilobits per second.
Today's results reflect only initial analysis of data received so far and the overall message is that the data are fascinating, with many unexpected characteristics, and the scientists are still trying to figure it all out.
The possibility of ice volcanoes -- or "cryovolcanoes" -- on Pluto's surface is without doubt the headline grabber. Oliver White of NASA's Ames Research Center described high resolution images of an area south of what is informally called Sputnik Planum with two mountains 100 miles across and seven miles high that have depressions at the top similar to the shapes of volcanoes. Theoretically they could have been formed by the eruption of ice from the subsurface, a "phenomenal" discovery if verified, White exclaimed.
Apart from the possible cryovolcanoes, perhaps the most intriguing finding from images of Pluto's surface is the discovery that the dwarf planet is geologically active. Scientists expected to find a heavily cratered surface somewhat similar to Earth's moon, but instead there are large regions where no craters are evident, meaning that the surface is "new" -- perhaps only 10 million years old. Other portions do show signs of many crater impacts, indicating an ancient surface dating back 4 billion years. Understanding what geological processes are taking place on Pluto is likely to take many years to deduce.
Pluto's atmosphere also is not what scientists expected. Leslie Young of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) explained that before New Horizons arrived, models suggested that the atmosphere was 7-8 times larger than Pluto's diameter, but instead it is only 2.5 times larger. It is much more compact with an escape rate thousands of times smaller than anticipated, she said. One effect of this finding is to reopen debate about the red "stain" at the north pole of Pluto's moon Charon. Charon is half the size of Pluto and that feature (visible in the image above) was immediately noticed when New Horizons images first reached Earth. Initial speculation was that material from Pluto's atmosphere was bleeding over onto Charon creating red tholins. Now that the escape rate is known to be so low, that seems much less likely. New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of SwRI said today that "we are scratching our heads" over it.
Another surprise is that Pluto's four smaller moons -- Hydra, Nix, Kerberos and Styx -- are spinning. Hydra is the fastest, spinning 89 times during each orbit of Pluto. Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute said the moons "behave like spinning tops" for reasons yet unknown. Showalter also said that at least two and possibly all four of them are the result of mergers of smaller bodies -- in essence that Pluto once had more moons that collided with each other, combining into fewer, larger moons.
Stern and the rest of the New Horizons team hope the spacecraft has a continuing mission ahead of it. A long term goal has been to send the spacecraft, launched in January 2006, to investigate another target in the Kuiper Belt at the outer edge of the solar system. Stern estimates that the spacecraft's radioisotope power source has another 20 years of operation left to investigate Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) that are thought to be pristine bodies left over from the origin of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago.
The plan is to send the spacecraft to 2014 MU69, a 30 mile (45 kilometer) diameter KBO. Pluto is 1,400 miles (2,300 kilometers) in diameter by comparison. MU69 was discovered using the Hubble Space Telescope and is one billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto. The spacecraft would arrive there New Year's Eve 2018/2019. Four course correction maneuvers were recently performed to set New Horizons on that trajectory, though officially the extended mission has not yet been approved.
Pluto once was classified as the ninth planet in the solar system, but in 2006 was reclassified by the International Astronautical Union (IAU) as a dwarf planet that is itself a KBO along with its moons. The "demotion" of Pluto from planet to dwarf planet remains controversial. Stern, in fact, refers to Pluto and Charon as a double-planet system.
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told a defense forum yesterday (Saturday) that he is concerned about Russian activities in space as well as on the sea, in the air, and in cyberspace. He also alluded to technology investments the United States is making in response to Russia's "provocations," including new systems for space.
Carter spoke at the annual Reagan National Defense Forum held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA after returning from a trip to Asia. While he also discussed challenges presented by China, his focus was on Russia.
He worries that Russia has become intent on "flouting" the principles that underlie the "principled international order" that has "served the United States, our many friends and allies -- and yes -- if you think about it, Russia, China, and many other countries, well for decades."
"At sea, in the air, in space and in cyberspace, Russian actors have engaged in challenging activities," and its "nuclear saber-rattling" suggests it is not committed to strategic stability. "We do not seek a cold, much less a hot war with Russia," but the United States will defend its own interests as well as "our allies, the principled international order, and the positive future it affords us all."
Among the actions the United States is taking is investing in new technologies, Carter said, including "innovation in technologies like electromagnetic railgun, lasers, and new systems for electronic warfare, space and cyberspace, including a few surprising ones that I really can't describe here."
No further details were provided.
Presumably coincidentally, the Navy conducted a test of a submarine-launched unarmed Trident II missile off the California coast last night that lit up the sky as far away as Phoenix, according to Alan Boyle at GeekWire. The display would have been visible to any participants in the Reagan forum who remained during the evening. The forum's website says it brings together leaders and key stakeholders in the defense community including Members of Congress, civilian officials and military leaders from DOD and industry.
Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of November 9-13, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The Senate is in session this week except for Wednesday (Veterans Day, a federal holiday). The House is in recess all week.
During the Week
NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman will become more widely known in the DC-area space community this week as she speaks at two luncheons -- the Maryland Space Business Roundtable on Tuesday in Greenbelt, MD, and the Washington Space Business Roundtable on Thursday in Washington, DC. She also will speak to the annual meeting of the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research on Wednesday morning at 8:30 am ET (will be webcast -- h/t to NASAWatch's Keith Cowing for bringing it to our attention). These are not her first public speeches since being sworn in last May, but she has kept a relatively low profile until now. Should be interesting to hear what she has to say, though it's easy to guess that NASA's "Journey to Mars" and "inspiration" slogans will be repeatedly repeated.
The American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) holds its annual meeting this week at National Harbor, MD, just outside Washington, DC. DPS is the key event where planetary scientists announce new discoveries and with all that's been going on this year, it should be a treasure trove of news throughout the week. Press briefings are scheduled Monday-Thursday at lunchtime and although the live webcasts are only available to journalists, they will be archived and then anyone can watch them. On Friday, DPS chair Bonnie Buratti (JPL) will moderate a lunch-time briefing on Capitol Hill (385 Russell) to highlight key findings, with New Horizons PI Alan Stern, NEOWISE PI Amy Mainzer, and Georgia Tech graduate student Mary Beth Wilhelm who studies biomarkers on Mars and is a science team collaborator for the Curiosity mission.
On Capitol Hill, the House is taking the week off, but the Senate will be hard at work except for Veterans Day (Wednesday). On Tuesday, it plans to vote on the revised version of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). President Obama vetoed the original bill in large part because of a "gimmick" used by Republicans to add money for defense without increasing funds for non-defense activities. Now that the White House and Congress have agreed to the budget/debt limit bill, the NDAA has been revised to fit within those funding caps by cutting $5 billion. The new bill, S. 1356, passed the House on Friday. The policy provisions remain the same and the President objected to two of them in his veto message (that the bill prevented needed reforms and did not allow the closing of Guantanamo), but the White House has not issued a new veto threat on the revised bill.
The NDAA is an authorization bill that sets policy and recommends funding levels. Only appropriations bills actually give money to agencies, and Senate Democrats blocked consideration of the defense appropriations bill last week because of concern that if that bill moves forward on its own, Republicans might not pass the non-defense appropriations bills and force the rest of the government to operate under a year-long Continuing Resolution (CR) instead. The current CR expires on December 11, so they have that much time to reach agreement or a new CR, either short- or long-term, will be needed. The House is scheduled to be in session for only 12 days between now and then. The Senate plans to be in session throughout that period except for the week of Thanksgiving (November 23-27).
The fate of the Export-Import Bank is now in the hands of conferees on H.R. 22, the surface transportation bill that passed the House last week. The House has already appointed some conferees, but said more will be appointed in the future. The Senate has not appointed its conferees yet. The main purpose of the bill is to fund transportation infrastructure projects (highways, rail, etc) that currently are authorized only through November 20, so there is some urgency to get the bill finalized. We have reported on the travails of the Export-Import Bank at length, so will not repeat its tortuous history here. If you need to catch up on what's been going, type Export-Import Bank into the search box at the top of our main page.
The Senate might also take up the compromise version of the Commercial Space Transportation Competitiveness bill, but Sen. Bill Nelson's optimism a week and a half ago that it would be acted on quickly seems to have run into a snag.
All the events we know about as of Sunday morning for the coming week are listed below. Check back throughout the week to see any new events that get added to our Events of Interest list.
Sunday-Friday, November 8-13
Monday, November 9
Monday-Friday, November 9-13
Tuesday, November 10
Tuesday-Thursday, November 10-12
Wednesday-Saturday, November 11-14
Thursday, November 12
Thursday-Friday, November 12-13
Friday, November 13
Note: This article was updated with the information about the ASGSR meeting.
Now that the White House and Congress have agreed on raising the budget caps for FY2016 and FY2017, the impasse over the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) may be resolved. President Obama vetoed the bill two weeks ago, but today the House passed a revised version that conforms to the new caps, avoiding the need to attempt a veto override. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats blocked a vote on the defense appropriations bill over concern that Republicans would not honor the new budget agreement.
House Armed Services Committee (HASC) chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) released the text of the revised NDAA, S. 1356, and a list of the changes from the version that was vetoed. The changes are to funding, not policy. President Obama vetoed the bill primarily because of a budget "gimmick" used to add more money for defense while ignoring non-defense needs. The budget/debt limit deal agreed to last week and signed into law on Monday resolves that issue.
To conform to the new budget caps, $5 billion in spending had to be removed from the NDAA that originally was sent to the President (H.R. 1735). A list of the changes is posted on the HASC website. The biggest single change is a $1 billion reduction possible due to lower fuel costs, but the other reductions are spread across a wide range of programs and accounts. A few space activities get minor adjustments:
The House passed the new version under suspension of the rules this morning by a vote of 370-58. The bill now goes to the Senate. Congress is using an unrelated bill, S. 1356, as the legislative vehicle for the revised NDAA. S. 1356 originally was the Border Control Agent Pay Reform Act, which passed the Senate in May. The House passed the bill today with an amendment that strikes the existing text of the bill and replaces it with the revised NDAA.
The President's veto statement expressed disagreement with two policy issues -- that the bill prevented needed reforms and did not allow the closing of Guantanamo. Those parts of the bill have not changed. Whether the President would veto the revised version over those matters is an open question, but no veto threat has been issued yet. The Senate may take up the bill next week.
Authorization bills like the NDAA recommend funding levels, but only appropriations bills actually give money to DOD or other government agencies.
While the House was passing the revised NDAA, Senate Democrats blocked consideration of the FY2016 DOD appropriations bill. Sixty votes were needed to invoke cloture and allow the bill to be considered; the vote was 51-44. This is the third time consideration of the bill has been blocked.
Senate Democrats reportedly are concerned that if the defense appropriations bill moves forward on its own, Republicans might not honor the new budget agreement and force all the other government agencies into a long-term Continuing Resolution (CR). Democrats want an appropriations bill that combines most of the 12 regular appropriations bills into a single package. That carries its own risks, since controversial policy provisions -- such as defunding Planned Parenthood -- could doom funding for the entire government.
Despite the optimism expressed just last week when the budget/debt limit deal passed, the fate of FY2016 appropriations seems anything but assured.
Update: This article was updated to reflect the fact that Senate Democrats agreed to allow the Military Construction-Veterans Affairs (Milcon-VA) appropriations bill to advance reportedly because its funding is more equally split between defense and non-defense spending.
Today NASA was supposed to announce the winners of the second round of contracts to provide Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) to the International Space Station (ISS). Instead, it announced a delay until no later than January 30, 2016. But there will be fewer competitors. Boeing has confirmed that it was eliminated from the competition.
NASA contracts with commercial companies to take cargo to ISS. The first round of contracts went to SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (now Orbital ATK) for missions through the end of 2016, and the contracts were later extended to cover missions in 2017 and early 2018. Last year, NASA opened a second round called "CRS2" for flights in 2018-2024.
Because the selection process is underway, NASA is constrained in what information it can publicly release, including which companies submitted bids. However, it is widely known that SpaceX, Orbital ATK, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) were bidders. The Wall Street Journal reported on October 1 that Lockheed Martin had been "quietly eliminated" from the competition because of price.
The CRS2 contract awards were supposed to be announced in June 2015, but were delayed to September and then to today. NASA emailed the following statement to SpacePolicyOnline.com explaining the further delay:
"CRS2 is a complex procurement. The anticipated award date has been revised to no later than January 30, 2016 to allow time to complete a thorough proposal evaluation and selection. Since the Agency is in the process of evaluating proposals, we are in a procurement communications blackout. For that reason, NASA cannot answer questions about this procurement at this time."
This afternoon, Boeing confirmed to SpacePolicyOnline.com that it was notified by NASA that it has been eliminated from the competition. In an email, Kelly Kaplan said the company is "confirming that we received a letter today letting us know we were eliminated." She had no further comment at this time.
That apparently leaves three companies in the running: SNC, Orbital ATK and SpaceX.
SNC's Krystal Scordo said via email that the company was notified this morning that "the Government has decided to re-open discussions with offerors" and "SNC was selected to re-open discussions."
Orbital ATK's Sean Wilson confirmed via email that the company is still competing for the CRS2 contract, but had no comment on the delay. "We will continue to respond to any additional NASA requests for information" while remaining focused on completing its missions under the original CRS contract.
SpaceX's John Taylor said the company had no comment on the delay.
SpaceX and Orbital ATK are both recovering from failures in their commercial cargo systems, Falcon 9/Dragon and Antares/Cygnus respectively.
Orbital ATK will resume cargo flights using its Cygnus spacecraft, but launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket instead of Antares. Two such launches are planned. The first is on December 3, although Sam Scimemi, Director of the ISS program at NASA headquarters, told a NASA advisory committee today that the launch might be moved up one day. Another Cygnus will launch on an Atlas V in March. Antares itself, outfitted with different rocket engines, is expected to return to flight in May 2016 taking another Cygnus to ISS, with another launch planned for September-October, according to Orbital ATK President Dave Thompson.
Scimemi also said that the next SpaceX cargo launch to the ISS, SpaceX-8 (SpX-8), is scheduled for January 2016. SpaceX plans at least one Falcon 9 launch before that to test changes to the system. SpaceX will launch a set of Orbcomm-2 communications satellites to low Earth orbit, but the company has not announced a date for that launch, saying in mid-October that it would take place in 6-8 weeks. A launch of an SES communications satellite to geostationary orbit also may precede the cargo flight to ISS.
UPDATE, November 10, 2015: The House and Senate now have each appointed conferees on the bill; the House on November 5 and the Senate today. The House said that it may appoint additional conferees subsequently.
UPDATE, NOVEMBER 5, 2015, 12:01 pm ET: The House now has passed H.R. 22 (371-54), which includes the Export-Import Bank reauthorization. The Senate now must agree to the House changes to the entire bill or the two sides will set up a conference committee to negotiate a final compromise version. Each side then would have to approve the compromise.
ORIGINAL ARTICLE, NOVEMBER 5, 2015, 7:45 am ET: A week after the House voted to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, the issue was back on the House floor last night as opponents tried again to restrict the Bank's activities. After intense debate, 10 amendments ultimately were defeated, however.
Created in 1934, the Bank needs to be periodically reauthorized, a step taken with little notice until recently. The Bank helps provide financing for U.S. exports, including communications satellites, for example. The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) and the Satellite Industry Association are among its supporters. The Bank has not been able to issue new loans since its authorization expired on June 30, 2015. AIA reports that U.S. companies have lost three contracts to build satellites since then.
Some very conservative Republicans and very liberal Democrats oppose the Bank because they consider it corporate welfare for a few large companies like Boeing and GE. Supporters argue it is a critical component in the competitiveness of U.S. companies that compete against foreign companies with access to similar lending organizations in their countries. Supporters have consistently argued that a large majority of House members support the Bank and its authorization lapsed only because a small group of powerful Republicans were preventing the full House from voting on the issue. Last week, a group of Republicans who support the Bank, led by Rep. Steve Fincher (R-TN), used a rare parliamentary procedure to move a bill (H.R. 597) out of the Financial Services Committee against the objections of its chairman, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX). After fractious debate, the House voted decisively 313-118 to put the Bank back in business with support from a majority of Republicans and Democrats.
The Senate still would have to act on that bill, however, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who opposes the Bank, has said he will not move a stand-alone bill. Instead he will allow the Senate to consider the issue only as part of a larger measure. Indeed, in July the Senate passed a surface transportation bill that includes reauthorizing the Bank through 2019.
The Senate action was taken by amending a House-passed Surface Transportation bill, H.R. 22. The House refused to take up the Senate version of the bill at that time, but now is doing so.
(The underlying bill addresses issues unrelated to the Export-Import Bank, but they are just as contentious. Among them is reauthorizing expenditures from the Highway Trust Fund and since legislation to provide a long-term solution to that and other issues has not cleared both chambers, they have been passing short-term extensions instead. The short-term extensions do not include the Export-Import Bank provisions. The most recent, passed last week, extends the Highway Trust Fund authorization through November 20. Congress presumably will try to get work on H.R. 22 completed before then to avoid the need for another short-term extension.)
Opponents of the Bank offered 10 amendments last night to restrict the Bank's activities, reopening the debate supporters thought they had put to rest last week. The coalition of Republicans and Democrats that supports the Bank held together and defeated those amendments by votes almost as definitive as the one last week.
The House was in session until 1:05 am this morning (Thursday) debating those and other issues. It will reconvene at 9:00 am this morning to continue debate. The House is scheduled to recess at the end of today and remain in recess next week.
The bill still must go back to the Senate and unless the Senate agrees with the House-passed text of the entire bill with no changes, the issue could arise again during conference negotiations.
For today, however, efforts to reopen the Bank have survived another round.
Marc Garneau, the first Canadian astronaut, is now Canada's Transport Minister under new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. What role he will play in Canada's space policy and programs is unclear. The Canadian Space Agency has been under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Industry, but the Trudeau government eliminated that ministry.
Garneau was the first Canadian astronaut, flying on the space shuttle STS-41-G mission in 1984. He flew on two additional shuttle missions, STS-77 in 1996 and STS-97 in 2000. He became President of the Canadian Space Agency in 2001.
Five years later, he resigned from that position to run for Parliament as a member of the Liberal Party, but lost. Subsequently, he was elected to Parliament and has served in a number of Liberal Party positions since then.
As Transport Minister, Garneau is responsible for safe and secure aviation, marine, rail, and road transportation systems.
Trudeau, 43, was sworn in as Prime Minister today, replacing Stephen Harper, a conservative. Trudeau is the son of the late Pierre Trudeau, who served as Canada's Prime Minister from 1968-1979 and 1980-1984.
According to the list of cabinet ministers announced today, there no longer is a ministry devoted to industry. Instead, the ministries of science and technology, and industry, have been combined under the leadership of Navdeep Bains. the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development.
Astronauts becoming politicians is rare, but not unprecedented. In the United States, John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, became a U.S. Senator (1974-1999), as did Harrison "Jack" Schmitt (1976-1982), the only scientist to walk on the Moon during his Apollo 17 mission. Apollo 13 astronaut Jack Swigert was elected to the House of Representatives in 1982, but died of cancer before he could be sworn in. Two politicians -- Sen. Jake Garn and then-Rep. Bill Nelson (now a Senator) -- became astronauts, flying aboard the space shuttle as payload specialists in 1985 and 1986 respectively.
Today marks the 15th anniversary of the first crew's arrival aboard the International Space Station (ISS). At least two people have been aboard the facility ever since on roughly 6-month shifts -- 15 years of permanent occupancy. NASA, Russia and Japan heralded the event with a press conference with the six people currently aboard (two Americans, one Japanese and three Russians) and Administration and congressional stakeholders issued congratulatory statements.
In 1973, NASA launched its first space station, Skylab, but it hosted only three crews through 1974. In 1979, Skylab made an uncontrolled reentry, spreading debris over Western Australia and the Indian Ocean. During most of the 1970s, NASA was busy building the space shuttle as a "truck" that would go, among other places, to a permanently occupied space station in earth orbit. Following the first space shuttle flight in 1981, building a permanent space station became the key goal of NASA Administrator James Beggs who took office under President Ronald Reagan. Beggs convinced Reagan to initiate the program and Reagan announced it in his 1984 State of the Union Address. The President said it would be built within a decade. NASA told Congress it would cost $8 billion.
The President directed NASA to invite other countries to join and Europe, Japan and Canada immediately signaled their interest, although it took three years to negotiate the first Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) that laid out roles and responsibilities. In 1988, the United States, Canada, Japan and 11 European nations formally joined together to build Space Station Freedom. By then, the pricetag had more than doubled and NASA was repeatedly redesigning it to reduce costs.
The United States was not quite in a space race with the Soviet Union at the time, but the geopolitical relationship was frosty. President Reagan called the USSR the "evil empire" and initiated the Star Wars program to develop a layered ballistic missile defense system including space-based weapons platforms to defend the United States and its allies from Soviet missiles.
During that era, the Soviets were operating their seventh space station, Mir (Peace). The first modular space station, Mir's core module was launched in 1986 and it continued growing (albeit slowly) through the mid-1990s. It was deorbited in 2001 after 15 years in space, but there were a few periods when no one was aboard, which is why the ISS wins the title for the first space station to boast 15 years of permanent occupancy.
The U.S.-Soviet relationship changed dramatically between 1989 and 1991 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and ultimately the collapse of the Soviet Union.
President George H.W. Bush used NASA's human spaceflight program as a foreign policy tool during that period to warm relationships with the emerging Russian government. He established the shuttle-Mir program where a Russian cosmonaut would fly on the U.S. space shuttle and an American astronaut would stay aboard Mir. The Clinton-Gore Administration expanded that program with additional cosmonauts on the shuttle and Americans on Mir, but most significantly brought Russia in as another space station partner. The Soviets had extensive experience in building and operating space stations, beginning with Salyut 1 in 1971. They successfully launched five more Salyuts -- Salyut 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 (Salyut 2 was a failure) -- of increasing capability before beginning the Mir program.
NASA had announced another space station cost overrun just as President Clinton took office. The White House directed NASA to conduct yet another redesign and the name Freedom was dropped. What ultimately emerged from the redesign effort was similar to Freedom, but with the addition of Russian modules. The new set of partners could not agree on a name and the facility has been known simply as the International Space Station ever since.
The history of the space station program could fill several books. (This SpacePolicyOnline.com editor testified to the Senate Commerce Committee in 2005 -- when working as a Congressional Research Service specialist -- about the evolution of the space station's rationale and expected uses. The statement includes a table showing the various redesigns and cost estimates for anyone who wants a simplified account.) In short, cost overruns and schedule delays turned the 10-year, $8 billion project into one that took 25 years and $60-100 billion (depending on how one counts the costs) to build, not including the costs paid by the other partners.
Currently, ISS consumes about $3 billion of NASA's roughly $18 billion annual budget to operate. The United States, Russia and Canada have agreed to keep it operating at least until 2024. Japan and Europe have not officially signed on to that duration yet. The question that permeates those discussions is whether the value of the ISS is worth the costs.
The ISS is a laboratory in space for conducting research on how the human body reacts to spaceflight conditions in preparation for long duration flights to Mars; technology demonstrations also related to achieving the humans-to-Mars goal; and scientific research that can benefit the people of Earth. In assessing the value of the ISS, many space station advocates point to it as an incomparable engineering feat and an example of what countries can accomplish in space when they work together even when geopolitical relationships hit bumps in the road. Taxpayers in the partner countries, however, often want something more tangible to show for their investment.
After 44 years of performing research in space stations -- from the 1970s to today -- no major scientific breakthrough can be attributed to the ability to conduct experiments in a long-term microgravity environment. Not that there has not been a great deal of research with interesting results -- NASA maintains a website describing the experiments on ISS and the American Astronautical Society organizes annual ISS Research and Development conferences -- but the "killer app" that compellingly demonstrates its worth remains elusive.
At $3 billion a year, even human spaceflight supporters may begin questioning the need for ISS if it constrains the pace at which new exploration goals, like sending people to Mars, can be achieved. Some NASA officials including Bill Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, hope the commercial sector will step forward to build future earth orbiting space stations, not on the scale of the ISS, but smaller facilities for specialized purposes. Bigelow Aerospace is offering inflatable modules that could be used in orbit (one will be tested on the ISS next year), but no customers have been announced. Other stakeholders warn against the United States losing its leadership in space and allowing China to take the lead in earth orbit. China launched its first space station in 2011. It is very small compared to even the earliest U.S. and Soviet space stations, but it was visited by two short-duration crews and China has plans for a 60-ton space station early in the next decade. (ISS weighs approximately 420 tons by comparison.)
For right now, however, the mood is one of heralding the 15-year milestone. White House Science Adviser John Holdren and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden praised the ISS in a joint statement as a prime example of international cooperation, a laboratory for "groundbreaking research," and "a testament to the ingenuity and boundless imagination of the human spirit."
The top Democrats on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and its Space Subcommittee, Rep. Eddie Bernie Johnson (D-TX) and Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), called it an "incredible engineering achievement," a "visible demonstration of peaceful cooperation in space," and critical to doing the research that will "make progress toward the long-term goal of sending humans to Mars."
CBS News Space Correspondent Bill Harwood published a four part article today highlighting key points in the history of the ISS and reflections by many observers of and participants in the program, including the first ISS Commander, NASA astronaut Bill Shepherd, and former ISS program manager Mike Suffredini. Harwood quotes Suffredini as marvelling at how well the program has proceeded so far considering all the challenges: "You're at 900,000-plus pounds of spacecraft with almost an acre's worth of solar arrays out there, and all of it's working. So you've got to feel pretty good about that."
For this snapshot in time, setting aside the tortuous history and uncertain future, that is a succinct conclusion.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of November 2-6, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
Tomorrow (Monday) marks the 15th anniversary of the first crew's arrival at the International Space Station (ISS). At least two people have been aboard the ISS ever since -- 15 years of "permanent occupancy." NASA TV will air a press conference with the six men currently aboard at 10:00 am ET. They are Americans Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren, Japanese Kimiya Yui, and Russians Mikhail Kornienko, Oleg Kononenko and Sergei Volkov. Kelly and Kornienko are a little over half way through their one-year-in-space mission and Kelly just broke the record for the longest duration spacefligjtt by an American. Michael Lopez-Alegria had held the record, 215 days, since April 2007. (The Russian record is 438 days, set by Valery Polyakov in 1995. Three other Russians have spent one year or more in space on a single mission.)
Two NASA Advisory Council (NAC) committees will meet this week. The Science Committee will hold its meeting via telecon tomorrow, while the Human Exploration and Operations Committee meets in person at NASA HQ on Wednesday and Thursday.
On Capitol Hill, the Senate may take up the compromise version of the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act this week. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) said on the Senate floor on Thursday that he hoped it would be voted on very soon. There was speculation it might pass last week, but the Senate was focused on the budget/debt limit deal and recessed for the weekend after passing it at 3:00 am Friday morning. The President is expected to sign it into law, perhaps tomorrow.
The Senate may also deal with the Export-Import Bank reauthorization this week, but that is less certain. The House passed a bill to reopen the Bank last week after pro-ExIm Bank Republicans used a rare parliamentary maneuver to get the bill out of committee and onto the floor so the entire House could vote on it. The chairman of the Financial Services Committee, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), opposes the Bank and was the obstacle to getting the bill out of committee. He was not happy. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that he will not pass a stand-alone bill for the Bank. That means he would tack it onto some other piece of legislation, so it will have to go back to the House for another vote. How that will turn out is an open question. The House is now under new leadership. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) was elected Speaker on Thursday, replacing Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), who resigned under pressure from the right wing of his party.
During Boehner's final week, Washington showed the blistering pace at which it can work if it wants to. The deal to suspend the debt limit through March 2017 and raise the budget caps by $50 billion for FY2016 and $30 billion for FY2017 took only four days to get through the House and Senate. House and Senate appropriators no doubt are already at work deciding which agencies and programs will benefit. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) is optimistic that all 12 regular appropriations bills can be finalized by December 11 when the current Continuing Resolution (CR) expires. They will probably be combined into a single "omnibus" appropriations bill.
As for this week, the list below shows everything we know about as of Sunday morning. Check back during the week for anything new that gets added to our Events of Interest list.
Monday, November 2
Tuesday-Wednesday, November 3-4
Wednesday, November 4
Wednesday-Thursday, November 4-5
Events of Interest
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