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International Cooperation is Good, But China Presents Challenges, Conference Participants Conclude

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 12-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

During the "Space Day" part of the 3rd Annual Washington, D.C. Space and Cyber Conference of the University of Nebraska's College of Law, participants considered the implications of the Obama Administration's National Space Policy and many pointed to its emphasis on international cooperation.

Speaking at the Military Space Panel, Deborah Plunkett of the Air Force's Office of the General Counsel characterized space situational awareness (SSA) as "the most legally ripe area of cooperation." Greater cooperation in SSA -- wherein satellite operators would have more knowledge of where other satellites and pieces of debris are located in order to avoid collisions -- will have to address a number of challenges, including respecting "historic agreements" on data protection, she said.

Bruce MacDonald, who served as Senior Director of the Congressional Commission on Strategic Posture of the United States, agreed that SSA is a viable area of cooperation. MacDonald, who lauded the inclusion of arms control in the National Space Policy as a "good change," linked SSA with deterrence, which is, in his view, the appropriate goal of the United States in space: "the more countries know they are [being] observed, the more cautious they'll be." Plunkett added that the accountability derived from attribution for anti-satellite (ASAT) attacks or other debris-causing behavior "may impact what people do in space."

Dean Cheng, Research Fellow at the Asian Studies Center of the Heritage Foundation, described that assumption as "interesting," and cautioned that increased SSA or cooperation in that area may not be so easy with actors like China and may not aid deterrence. What were the lessons for China after the 2007 ASAT test, he asked rhetorically. Instead of suffering from this incident, Cheng explained, China learned that there are no consequences to conducting such tests. When considering China, which he described as "a genuine space power", he asked if knowing more about the behavior of other actors in space would be deterrence or, considering the "asymmetry of interests" between China and the United States, might serve the opposite role.

With major challenges in U.S.-China relations, space cooperation with China - which was not ruled out as a possibility in the new policy - still may be some time off. When asked about cooperating with China in human spaceflight missions, the Deputy Administrator of NASA, Lori Garver, who delivered the afternoon's keynote speech, joked "I'm so sorry, that's all the time we have." She could only add that just like the inclusion of Russia in the International Space Station, "human spaceflight cooperation will not be a NASA decision."

Her response echoed Cheng's earlier comments that "whether we can cooperate in space [with China] depends on whether we can cooperate on the ground" and that "cooperation needs to start with baby steps." The first challenge may prove to be the United States' own understanding of Chinese activities and motivations, what Cheng described as its "opacity." Looking to "problems on the horizon," MacDonald agreed with this description and said that "China is our biggest concern in space...that China will continue to be opaque." The hope is, he argued, that by showing China that such a stance is counterproductive, it will become "less opaque, more least translucent."

Congress Returns with A Full Plate of Space Issues Waiting

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The House and Senate return from their summer break this week. They are scheduled to be in session for only a few weeks before adjourning in advance of the November mid-term elections. All 435 seats in the House and one-third of those in the Senate are up for election. Many pundits are predicting that the Republicans will regain control of the House, but the outcome is very difficult to forecast.

According to their websites, the House target adjournment date is October 8; the Senate calendar simply says "TBD" (to be determined), but is expected to adjourn at about the same time. Action is needed on a wide range of legislation, chief among them the appropriations bills that fund government departments and agencies. For the space policy community, the NASA and DOD authorization bills also are very important. (Not sure of the difference between an appropriation and an authorization? See our "What's a Markup? fact sheet.)

Appropriations Bills

Congress Daily (subscription required) is skeptical that any of the 12 appropriations bills will be completed before Congress adjourns. Fiscal year 2011 begins on October 1, which means a Continuing Resolution (CR) must be passed to keep the government operating. Everyone expected a CR for most of the government agencies.

The House and Senate are in virtually opposite positions. The House has passed two appropriations bills (Transportation-HUD and Milcon-VA), but none of the other 10 have been reported from committee (although subcommittee markups have taken place for most of them). The Senate has passed no appropriations bills, but nine of the 12 have been reported from committee.

Here's the status of the two appropriations bills that cover most space programs: Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS), which includes NASA and NOAA; and Defense (for the Department of Defense). In the House, the appropriations subcommittees for CJS and Defense have marked up draft bills, but neither bill has been reported from committee, which is usually when the bill is formally introduced. Thus there are no bills introduced yet. In the Senate, the CJS bill was reported from committee in July (S. 3636). Congress Daily reports that the Senate appropriations defense subcommittee may mark up its bill this Thursday.

Authorization Bills

The authorization bills for NASA and DOD also are awaiting action. The Senate passed its version of the NASA authorization bill (S. 3729) in early August just before adjourning. The House Science and Technology Committee reported its version (H.R. 5781) at the end of July, but committee chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) has publicly stated that the committee is reconsidering at least one aspect of its bill - on loan guarantees for commercial crew - so the version that reaches the House floor for debate will be different from what was reported. Some think the House and Senate will try to reach a compromise agreement before the end of September, but there is no indication that action is imminent (i.e., this week).

The DOD authorization bill was passed by the House in May (H.R. 5136), but Senator John McCain (R-AZ) objected to a unanimous consent request to bring the Senate version of the bill (S. 3454) to the floor because of his opposition to a provision that would repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Congress Daily characterizes the outlook for the bill as "murky."

To keep track of these bills as they continue to work their way through Congress, check our fact sheet on Major Space-Related Legislation in the 111thCongress.

UPDATE: Griffin: Congress Must be HLLV Design Bureau of Last Resort

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: Links have been added to the prepared remarks of two of the panelists, Griffin and Pace, which are being circulated by STA. If the remarks of the other two panelists become available, links will be added to those as well.

Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin told a Space Transportation Association audience yesterday that Congress must be specific in legislation about the capabilities of the new heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV) or NASA may design a rocket too small to support human missions beyond low Earth orbit (LEO). Any lack of specificity in law would be viewed by the Administration as an opening to do something else, he argued: "It's regrettable when Congress has to be the design bureau of last resort, but sometimes it's necessary." Ordinarily, NASA administrators and almost anyone else outside of Congress bristle when Congress sets technical design parameters in law.

Scott Pace, Director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute, who served as NASA Associate Administrator for Program Analysis and Evaluation when Griffin headed the agency, agreed. He argued that usually Congress "functions best on an incremental basis" and "at the margins," but in this case it "had no choice but to go back to basics." He also advocated for a National Research Council "Decadal Survey" to set priorities for human space flight.

Pace is skeptical that the commercial sector can develop commercial crew systems in the near-term, saying that "just because it's desirable doesn't mean it'll be there." Bob Dickman, Executive Director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (but speaking for himself), disagreed. Reviewing the 14 families of launch vehicles developed in the United States over the past 50 years, Dickman concluded "there is nothing magic about getting to LEO. We know how to do it." He believes NASA needs to focus on investing in revolutionary in-space propulsion technologies to dramatically shorten the trip time to Mars from months to days. "We have to make the transition from what we've done to where we want to be 30 years from now."

Gary Payton, a consultant who most recently was Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space Programs but whose career includes flying as a payload specialist on the space shuttle in 1985, focused on the need for continuity and stability in the human space flight program. Whether it is nuclear submarines or fighter aircraft, the Department of Defense begins the development of new systems while the existing systems are still operating to ensure there are no gaps in capabilities, he explained. That should have been done with building a replacement for the space shuttle to avoid the upcoming gap between the end of the shuttle and availability of a new system, but NASA could not do it because of underfunding, he said. He asked rhetorically why the nation is willing to spend money on bailing out financial institutions, but not investing in NASA.

Dickman also called for more funding for NASA, and that became the theme of much of the rest of the meeting.

Secure World Foundation Releases Space Security Index 2010

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

The Secure World Foundation (SWF) released its seventh Space Security report today. Space Security 2010 analyzes what happened in 2009 affecting space security. Not surprisingly, much attention is focused on the February 2009 collision between a U.S. Iridium satellite and a defunct Russian satellite that generated substantial amounts of space debris. That event stimulated the United States and other spacefaring countries to ratchet up efforts at space situational awareness so satellite operators can ensure satellites stay out of each other's way.

The annual index identifies trends and developments in a given year that impact space security, which its sponsors define as "The secure and sustainable access to, and use of, space and freedom from space-based threats." Those sponsors are SWF, The Simons Foundation, Project Ploughshares (Canada), the Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill University (Montreal), and Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada.

UPDATE AND CORRECTION: Events of Interest: Week of September 7-10, 2010

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE AND CORRECTION: An astute reader pointed out (thanks!) that it is, in fact, September now, not August, so the title has been corrected. The information on the NRC planetary decadal meeting has been updated.

Welcome back from the Labor Day holiday! The following events may be of interest this week. For more information see our calendar on the right menu or click the links below. Congress will return next week.

Tuesday, September 7

Wednesday-Friday, September 8-10

  • National Research Council Planetary Science Decadal Survey Steering Committee (the meeting is by telecon and is closed in its entirety).

Thursday-Friday, September 9-10

Friday, September 10

Gordon Responds To "Nobel Prize" Letter; Says Loan Guarantee Language is Dead Because of CBO Assumptions

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, has responded to the signers of the "Nobel Prize winners" letter that sought changes in the House version of the NASA authorization bill. The letter, dated September 3, explains and defends the position taken by the committee and reveals that the committee will delete provisions it included to establish a loan guarantee program for the development of "commercial crew."

Saying that "NASA is at a crossroads" and needs a "balanced, sustainable, mission-driven and executable" path, Rep. Gordon calls for "a NASA budget that is honest." He characterizes the committee's bill as "a common-sense and balanced solution to a complicated situation that will help avoid future instability for the agency."

Noting that in April President Obama added a "multi-billion dollar crew rescue vehicle program" to the FY2011 budget request submitted in February that would require "offsets of $1-2 billion per year over the next five years from other NASA accounts," the letter asserts that "The hard reality is that the Administration has sent an unexecutable budget request to Congress, and we now have to make tough choices..."

One choice the committee made in writing the bill was to provide loan guarantees to companies wanting to develop commercial crew systems instead of direct government funding as proposed by the President. In the letter, Rep. Gordon reveals that when the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) looked at that provision to determine how much the government might be liable for, the cost made the program "unviable." Consequently, "we will need to remove the loan guarantee provisions" and instead will "look for ways to cost effectively fund commercial crew-related activities that can benefit the whole industry while ensuring that other critical missions are supported and within the overall budget constraints."

Matching resources with program content is the overall theme of the letter. Mr. Gordon concedes that "this is not a perfect bill" and "just one step in the process," but as negotiations move forward "it is important to keep in mind that increasing funding in one program will require a funding reduction in another program."

Updated Fact Sheet on NASA Budget Request

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

We have updated our fact sheet on NASA's FY2011 budget request and expanded it to include the projections for FY2012-2013 that were included in the President's budget request and are considered in the House and Senate NASA authorization bills. There are five tables in all that we hope you find useful. We'll update them as action proceeds. The fact sheet can be located on our left menu under Our Fact Sheets and Reports or simply by clicking here.

Pressure Builds for House Committee To Change NASA Authorization Bill

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Fourteen Nobel Prize winners plus former NASA officials, former astronauts and others sent a letter to House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) urging him to reconsider the provisions of the NASA authorization bill (H.R. 5781) reported by his committee. The bill has not yet been voted upon by the House.

The letter supports President Obama's plan to rely exclusively on commercial companies to launch astronauts to low Earth orbit (LEO) instead of NASA: "first, allow commercial providers to handle operations in low Earth orbit so that NASA's human spaceflight program can focus on exploration beyond Earth orbit instead of trying to 'do it all,' which is unaffordable." The House committee's version of the bill supports "commercial crew" conceptually, but would not provide the level of financial support requested by the President for FY2011 and projected through FY2015, a total of almost $6 billion. Instead, the House committee recommends loans and loan guarantees to assist the commercial companies.

Both the House committee's bill and the bill that passed the Senate last month (S. 3729) require NASA to develop its own crew transportation system for LEO and beyond, promising that the government system will not compete with any commercial systems that emerge. The Senate bill is much more supportive of commercial efforts, though not as strongly as the President.

Funding for the new NASA crew transportation system and for a possible additional space shuttle flight would come primarily from technology development funds requested for NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate in both bills. A separate pot of technology development money allocated to NASA's Chief Technologist, Bobby Braun, would be fully funded in the House committee's bill, but cut significantly by the Senate.

Though the letter is only to the House, not the Senate, it calls for restoration of the technology development funding. It also supports robotic precursor missions. The House committee says in its report (H. Rept. 111-576) that it considers robotic precursons only as "'nice-to-have' until the mission objectives to justify a robotic reconnaissance mission in advance of planned human exploration are established." Lastly, the letter urges more investment in university and student research.

Among the signers of the letter are Nobelist David Baltimore and University of Michigan Professor Lennard Fisk, both of whom were members of the National Academies' committee that wrote the 2009 "America's Future in Space" report. Dr. Fisk and another letter signer, Nobelist Charles Townes, are former chairmen of the National Research Council's Space Studies Board. Bill Nye, who will soon become executive director of the Planetary Society, is another signatory; the Planetary Society sent a separate letter with similar views to the bipartisan leadership of the House and Senate authorization and appropriations subcommittees that oversee NASA earlier in August.

Three other signatories -- Nobelist Douglas Osheroff, former NASA Ames Research Center Director Scott Hubbard, and George Washington University Professor Emeritus John Logsdon -- were members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) that determined the cause of the 2003 space shuttle Columbia tragedy. The CAIB report also drew attention to the lack of, and need for, a national mandate for the human spaceflight program to justify the risks involved. Hubbard and Logsdon reportedly led this letter-writing effort.

Informed sources say that the letter was addressed only to the House because that bill has yet to be voted upon and the hope is to change it prior to passage to facilitate negotiations with the Senate.

NRC Space Studies Board Kicks Off New Decadal Survey for Heliophysics

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Aug-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

The steering committee for the Space Studies Board's (SSB's) new Decadal Survey for Solar and Space Physics (Heliophysics) will hold its inaugural meeting this week from Wednesday to Friday (Sept. 1-3). Most of the meeting is closed, but the agenda for the open sessions is posted on that website. The committee is chaired by Dan Baker of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Thomas Zurbuchen of the University of Michigan is the Vice-Chair. The two are chair and vice-chair, respectively, of the SSB's standing committee on solar and space physics.

Other committee members are: Brian Anderson, Applied Physics Lab; Steve Battel, Battel Engineering; James Drake, University of Maryland; Lennard Fisk, University of Michigan (and former chair of the SSB); Saran Gibson, NCAR; Michael Hesse, NASA/Goddard; Todd Hoeksema, Stanford; David Hysell, Cornell; Mary Hudson, Dartmouth; Thomas Immel, UC Berkeley; Justin Kasper, Harvard-SAO; Judith Lean, Naval Research Lab; Ramon Lopez, UT-Arlington; Howard Singer, NOAA; Harlan Spence, University of New Hampshire; and Ed Stone, CalTech.

The committee will have three disciplinary panels: Atmosphere-Ionosphere-Magnetosphere Interactions; Panel on Solar-Wind Magnetosphere Interactions; and Panel on Solar and Heliospheric Physics. It also will have four "national capabilities working groups": theory and modeling; Explorers, Suborbital and Other Platforms; Innovations: Technology, Instruments, Data Systems; and Research to Operations/Operations to Research.

For more information, see the website for the Decadal Survey. For more on Decadal Surveys, see our National Research Council page on our left menu at

NRC Releases Astro2010 Panel Reports

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Aug-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

The National Research Council (NRC) published the new Decadal Survey on astronomy and astrophysics (Astro2010) earlier this month. Now it has released the reports of the nine panels that fed into the steering committee's deliberations. Five were science panels; four were programmatic. All the panel reports are combined into a single volume available from the National Academies Press.

The Science Frontier Panels were:

  • Cosmology and Fundamental Physics
  • Galactic Neighborhood
  • Galaxies Across Cosmic Time
  • Planetary Systems and Star Formation
  • Stars and Stellar Evolution

The Program Prioritization Panels were:

  • Electromagnetic Observations from Space
  • Optical and Infrared Astronomy from the Ground
  • Particle Astrophysics and Gravitation
  • Radio, Millimeter, and Submillimeter Astronomy from the Ground

The steering committee was responsible for determining the priorities identified in the report and making other recommendations, but its deliberations were informed by the panels. The science panels identified the top scientific questions in astronomy and astrophysics driving research in the next 10 years. The program prioritization panels then had to rank the ground- or space-based missions that are needed to answer those questions within available budgets using independent estimates of cost and technical readiness. The panel reports thus provide the richness of detail that underpins the recommendations of the steering committee.

Kevin Marvel, executive director of the American Astronomical Society, wrote an op-ed for Space News that was published in today's edition. He urges the astronomy and astrophysics community to support the Decadal Survey's recommendations and not use them as a "gripe list to be mulled over." He warns against "[b]ickering, in-fighting [and] the rule of self-interest" lest the report fail: "If this report fails, astronomy and astrophysics in this nation will fail as well." [Editor's Note: some Space News content is available only to subscribers; apologies if the link to the op-ed does not work.]

Events of Interest  

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