SpacePolicyOnline.com Latest News
President Donald Trump signed the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act into law today. During an Oval Office signing ceremony, Vice President Mike Pence said that Trump will soon reactivate a White House National Space Council and has asked him to lead it.
The signing ceremony included about a dozen members of Congress who worked on the bill (S. 442) as well as NASA officials, including Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot and astronauts. Among the members were Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX), Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Representatives John Culberson (R-TX), Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Lamar Smith (R-TX), Brian Babin (R-TX), Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), Bill Posey (R-FL), Steven Palazzo (R-MS), and Mo Brooks (R-AL).
NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, chief of the astronaut office, presented the President with an astronaut flight jacket.
In his formal statement, Trump summarized key provisions of the legislation, particularly praising the jobs it will create and its reaffirmation of support for NASA's "core missions" -- "human space exploration, space science, and technology." He did not mention earth science. Later he said the United States would remain a leader in aviation.
He invited others to speak after he signed it and Culberson remarked that just as President Eisenhower is remembered as the President who created the interstate highway system, he (Trump) would be remembered as creating the interplanetary highway system.
Trump replied: "Well that sounds exciting. First we want to fix our highways. We have to fix our highways."
That is reminiscent of what he said during the campaign. When asked about his views on space, he said he loves what NASA represents, but "we need to fix the potholes first."
Thus, his comments today did not shed much light on what he plans to do with NASA. His budget blueprint suggests the status quo, at least for now. He may be waiting for input from a White House National Space Council that Vice President Pence today said would be established soon.
At the end of the ceremony, Pence said that "in very short order the President will be taking action to relaunch the National Space Council. He's asked me to chair that as Vice Presidents have done in the past and we're going to be bringing together the best and the brightest in NASA and also in the private sector. We have elected a builder for President and as he said America once again needs to start building and leading to the stars."
This is the first NASA authorization bill since 2010. It sets policy and recommends funding levels for FY2017, which is already underway. It does not provide any funding to NASA, however; only appropriations bills do that. Congress is still considering the FY2017 appropriations bills. NASA and other government agencies are funded right now by a Continuing Resolution basically at their FY2016 levels until April 28. Congress must pass some other appropriations measure(s) by then to keep the government operating.
A National Aeronautics and Space Council was created in the 1958 NASA Act, but President Richard Nixon abolished it in 1973. Congress reestablished a National Space Council (without the aeronautics component) in the FY1989 NASA Authorization Act and President George H.W. Bush implemented it by Executive Order in 1989. It was chaired by Vice President Dan Quayle. The National Space Council (usually abbreviated NSpC to distinguish its initials from the National Security Council) still exists in law, but has not been funded or staffed since the end of that Administration. Space policy has been overseen in the White House by the National Security Council (national security) and Office of Science and Technology Policy (civil and commercial) since then.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of March 19-24, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
It's another one of those super-busy weeks, especially Wednesday. Lots of action is in store inside Washington, outside Washington, and in Earth orbit.
Two are happening today (Sunday). First is a Town Hall meeting at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LSPC) near Houston that is discussing the Science Definition Team report on a Europa lander, a topic expected to be of congressional interest during debate on the FY2018 budget request. President Trump's budget blueprint specifically says it does NOT fund the lander, only the orbiter/flyby Europa Clipper. Second is the return to Earth of SpaceX's CRS-10 Dragon spacecraft. It took about 5,500 pounds of cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) last month and is returning 5,400 pounds of results from scientific experiments and other items needed back on Earth. Dragon is the only one of the four cargo spacecraft that service ISS that was designed to survive reentry (since SpaceX designed it from the beginning to support crews).
Dragon's return is just one part of a busy time on the ISS. Another cargo mission, Orbital ATK's OA-7, is scheduled for launch on either Thursday or Friday (the exact date is TBD depending on availability of the Eastern Test Range from which the launch will take place aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V). At the same time, astronauts on the U.S. segment of the ISS are gearing up for a series of three spacewalks. The first is on Friday. NASA will hold a news conference on Wednesday at Johnson Space Center to explain what they will be doing. NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Peggy Whitson and ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet will all take part in the spacewalks. The other two are on April 2 and April 7.
The Europa lander Town Hall mentioned above is just the start of the week-long LPSC conference at The Woodlands, just outside Houston. LPSC is the premier conference where planetary scientists gather to present the results of their research and talk about upcoming missions. Unfortunately, it looks like there are no webcasts, so one must be there in person to hear about all the new findings and discoveries. [There is a notice on the conference's website warning that no live streaming of presentations is permitted.] NASA headquarters representatives will hold their own Town Hall meeting on Monday and NASA's Venus Exploration Analysis Group's (VEXAG's) Town Hall is on Thursday.
Back in Washington, brevity requires picking just two events to highlight, both among those taking place on Wednesday. First, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Prague Security Studies Institute (PSSI) will hold a day-long symposium on "Space Security: Issues for the New Administration." It has a terrific lineup of speakers from CSIS, PSSI, the U.S. military, Congress, academia (U.S. and Japan), the Japanese and French governments, the European Space Agency, industry, non-profits and FFRDCs. The four main topics are space crisis dynamics, cooperation in space and missile defense, future of space launch, and space situational awareness and space traffic management. Luckily, this event WILL be livestreamed so people everywhere can benefit.
Second, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis gets his first chance in his new position to publicly brief the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee on the state of U.S. military readiness and DOD's budget requirements. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford (USMC) will also testify. Not sure how much, if any, of the discussion will be about space activities, but it's a great way to get the lay of the land from their perspectives. The committee typically webcasts its hearings on its website.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below. Check back throughout the week for others we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.
Sunday, March 19
Monday, March 20
Monday-Friday, March 20-24
Tuesday, March 21
Wednesday, March 22
Thursday, March 23
Friday, March 24
SpacePolicyOnline.com has posted new fact sheets on the FY2018 budget requests for NASA and for NOAA's satellite programs. They can be downloaded for free from the left menu of our home page under "Our Fact Sheets and Reports." The fact sheets are updated as needed as the requests work their way through Congress.
In case you missed it, we also have a new fact sheet that tracks major space-related legislation in the 115th Congress.
The current versions of all three fact sheets are as follows:
The Trump Administration's FY2018 budget request for NOAA maintains support for the two major weather satellite programs, JPSS and GOES, but expects savings from the Polar Follow On program according to a copy of the document posted by the Washington Post. The "budget blueprint" will be officially released in a few hours. It is an overview of what the President is proposing. The detailed request is not expected to be sent to Congress for several weeks.
The information provided in the blueprint is not sufficient to ascertain exactly what the level of funding is for NOAA's satellite programs. The text says only that the JPSS and GOES programs are to remain on schedule. In NOAA's formulation, the JPSS program pays only for the first two satellites, JPSS-1 and JPSS-2. The next two (JPSS-3 and -4) are funded in the Polar Follow On (PFO) program. The budget blueprint says that "annual savings" will be achieved from PFO "by better reflecting the actual risk of a gap in polar satellite coverage" and that additional opportunities will be provided to expand use of commercially provided data to improve weather models. The latter probably is a reference to the commercial weather data pilot program through which NOAA plans to acquire GPS radio occultation data from commercial sources. Such data improves forecasts from polar orbiting weather satellites.
No dollar amounts were specified for any of the NOAA satellite programs.
The blueprint uploaded by the Washington Post spells out budget requests for other agencies, including NASA, which would receive $19.1 billion, including $1.8 billion for earth science research. [UPDATE, March 16, 7:20 am ET: The document is now posted on the White House Office of Management and Budget website.]
For more information on JPSS, GOES, PFO and the commercial weather data pilot program, see SpacePolicyOnline.com's fact sheet on NOAA's FY2017 budget request for satellites.
The Trump Administration's FY2018 budget blueprint proposes $19.1 billion for NASA, less than a one percent cut according to a copy of the document posted by the Washington Post. It is good news considering the draconian cuts proposed for many other agencies. President Obama's Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) would be cancelled and NASA's Office of Education would be eliminated under the proposal, but other NASA programs survived relatively unscathed. The earth science program is cut, but not as deeply as many feared.
The blueprint is due to be officially released in a few hours, but the Washington Post was able to upload a copy early. [UPDATE, March 16, 7:20 am ET: The document is now posted on the Office of Management and Budget website.]
The key elements of the NASA portion are as follows:
The budget blueprint is an outline of the President's budgetary plans. The detailed budget request is not expected to be submitted to Congress for several weeks.
The President proposes a budget, but under the Constitution, only Congress decides how much money the country will spend and on what. The request is the opening of a lengthy debate, and although NASA fared quite well compared to many other non-defense agencies, the lack of support for a Europa lander -- a favorite of Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee that funds NASA -- and elimination of the congressionally popular Office of Education are surely to encounter resistance. While the cuts to Earth science are not insignificant, the level of support is so much better than many expected, it may engender less outcry than anticipated.
The full blueprint as uploaded by the Washington Post describes the President's proposal for other government agencies as well, including NOAA's satellite programs. It "maintains" development of JPSS-1 and JPSS-2 and GOES "to remain on schedule," but "achieves annual savings" from the Polar Follow-on Program (JPSS-3 and -4).
Witnesses at a House subcommittee hearing last week debated how – and whether – the U.S. government should regulate commercial space activities to ensure compliance with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty while not stifling innovation. No consensus emerged other than if there is governmental regulation, it should have a light touch.
Today, the only commercial space activities that are regulated are launch and reentry (FAA), use of the electromagnetic spectrum (FCC), and remote sensing satellites (NOAA). With the emergence of ideas for private sector activities ranging from satellite servicing to mining asteroids, the issue of the government’s role in overseeing what companies do in space has taken on new urgency.
Section 108 of the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA) required a report from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) on possible approaches to dealing with the issue while ensuring U.S. compliance with Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty. Article VI requires governments to authorize and continually supervise activities of their non-government entities, like companies.
In an April 2016 report, OSTP recommended that the Department of Transportation be assigned responsibility for granting “mission authorizations” for commercial space activities not already under the jurisdiction of another agency. DOT is the parent of FAA and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST), which currently regulates commercial launch and reentry.
Through much of last year, a consensus appeared to be developing among the commercial space sector – through FAA/AST’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) – and the government (FAA, the State Department, and the Obama White House) that issuing such mission authorizations would be the solution. FAA/AST would review a proposed activity, authorize it (or not) after consulting with other agencies as appropriate, and conduct periodic evaluations to demonstrate continuing supervision.
In October, however, Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), chair of the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee laid out an alternative viewpoint that essentially said the private sector should be able to do whatever it wants unless the government can demonstrate the need to restrict it. The burden would be on the government, not the private sector.
Babin said he would hold a hearing on these issues and did so on March 8.
The five witnesses were Laura Montgomery, a former FAA attorney (and head of its Space Law Branch) now in private practice; Eli Dourado, Director of the Technology Policy Program at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center; Doug Loverro, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy; Dennis Burnett, University of Nebraska-Lincoln adjunct professor of law; and Henry Hogue, Specialist in American National Government, Congressional Research Service.
The discussion focused less on long-term potential commercial space activities like asteroid mining and more on near-term issues in Earth orbit, especially concern about collisions creating space debris. The fundamental debate, however, was over what the U.S. government must do to comply with Article VI of the OST.
Montgomery’s position is that because the OST is not self-executing, Article VI only comes into play if Congress passes legislation to implement it. Otherwise, non-governmental entities may do whatever they wish without regulation. Although Article VI states that governments must authorize and continually supervise non-government entities, it does not say how to do that or what activities are covered, she said. It is up to each Treaty signatory to make those decisions.
She believes there is a widespread “misunderstanding” that the Treaty forbids private sector activities that are not authorized by a government. Instead, she says, the Treaty does not prohibit private sector operators from conducting activities in space, does not say either that all activities or any particular activity must be authorized, and because the Treaty is not self-executing, does not create any obligation on the private sector unless and until Congress says it does. She did not argue against all regulations, only that they should not be established for the wrong reason – a misunderstanding of the Treaty. Her solution is for Congress to prohibit any regulatory agency from denying a U.S. entity the ability to operate in outer space “solely on the basis of Article VI.”
Dourado’s expertise is in technology policy and telecommunications. He likened new space activities to the development of the Internet, which benefited from “permissionless” innovation as described in a book by his colleague Adam Thierer. The Internet evolved in a regime where there was "little prior restraint" on what business activities could be conducted and if "harms or failures occurred" they were addressed "in an ex post manner." While acknowledging that the “freedom to experiment will result in some mistakes and failures,” in the long run “faster progress and more robust solutions” will result. He advocated the same approach for space activities, with a “blanket authorization for all non-governmental operations in space that do not cause tangible harm to other parties.”
Tangible harm from space debris was Loverro’s focus. He argued that some regulation is necessary if not because of the Treaty, but “for the good of America and for the good of American business and for the good of American national security.” Citing the potential damage that could be caused by a cubesat colliding with a U.S. national security satellite or a foreign satellite, he insisted that a “laissez-faire approach to spaceflight safety has serious and non-quantifiable impacts that extend” beyond the investor, scientist or high school student that owns the cubesat.
The United States should take the lead internationally in setting the rules for conducting new commercial space activities as it did with orbital debris guidelines that were adopted by the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), Loverro said. “NASA developed a set of standards, guidelines on orbital debris, that we then took to COPUOS and convinced the rest of the world [to] follow. That’s good for the U.S. and we should do it again here.” He expanded on that later in the hearing: “[T]he last thing I would like to see happen is for other nations to develop rules that we then become forced to follow. That is not good for our industry. We need to lead. We need to develop rules that are right for the U.S., and then we need to convince the rest of the world that those rules are the ones they should follow.”
Burnett disagreed with Montgomery’s interpretation of Article IV. He concluded that the Treaty “requires a minimum of some type of authorization and supervision.” He stressed that “minimum” is the key and cited the commercial remote sensing satellite regulatory process as a “cautionary lesson” to be avoided.
One of the criticisms of OSTP’s proposed mission authorization approach is that it requires use of an interagency process before approval can be granted, just as NOAA must do when considering applications for commercial remote sensing satellites. NOAA’s process is strongly criticized because of its lack of transparency and time limits. Although by law NOAA must make a decision on an application within 120 days, there are no time limits for the interagency process, tying NOAA's hands. Restrictions on commercial remote sensing satellites are largely related to national security and the national security sector can simply decline indefinitely to act without explanation.
As Burnett said, “some of the decision criteria … are black boxes… The applicant must prove a negative, which is a logical impossibility.” He recommended that Congress pass legislation establishing a clear list of objective decision criteria and a process through which the private sector can get “authorization at the speed of business.”
Other regulatory models exist. Hogue described four alternatives to traditional government regulation: government corporations, nongovernmental standard setting, federally chartered organizations, and self-regulatory organizations.
One driver in the debate is that some of the private companies insist that potential investors want regulatory certainty before committing funds. Babin noted that “wanting certainty and wanting regulation are two different things” and asked Montgomery how those concerns could be ameliorated. She said the uncertainty stems from the misunderstanding that Article VI prohibits private sector space activities and cited space tourism as an example of a commercial space activity currently taking place without regulation.
Several companies are planning to launch tourists – or spaceflight participants – on suborbital or orbital missions, but none have done so yet. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) pointed out that the only paying customers who have flown into space have done so on Russian government Soyuz rockets and spacecraft, “which puts it at a different level.” Montgomery agreed with his characterization of different levels of commercial space activities and there could be cases where “something is important or scary enough to be regulated.” She also agreed that regulation could be needed if there are safety concerns, but not because of Article VI.
Bridenstine, who has been a leader in Congress on these issues for the past two years, made a case in favor of an interagency review process for some activities such as satellite servicing, which has national security implications since some countries might view it as potentially interfering with their assets. He also argued in favor of Congress passing a law to create a permanent regulatory regime, whatever the specifics, so that it is not subject to change when new presidents take office.
Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA), the top Democrat on the subcommittee, said that the goal should be to provide guidance. Regulations “are not inherently good or inherently bad,” but provide guidance and clarity so companies understand the rules of the road.
Bera also said “we don’t want to stifle … creativity and innovation” and that is one of the few points on which everyone seemed to agree.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of March 13-17, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session (the Senate for only the first half of the week).
During the Week
After last week's meeting extravaganza (stay tuned for more SpacePolicyOnline.com stories), this week is a welcome respite. As of this morning (Sunday), at least, we are not aware of any space-related congressional hearings or major space conferences in the United States. [UPDATE: We forgot to mention that the White House is expected to release its FY2018 Budget Blueprint on Thursday. We do not have a time or place for that, though. We'll add it to our "Events of Interest" list when we do.]
There are two especially interesting seminars, though, both in Washington, DC. First, a word of warning to anyone in DC or planning to come here. Mother Nature decided to save the winter weather till now and there is a storm that could bring a significant snowfall Monday night into Tuesday. The forecasters are hedging their bets -- this area is notoriously tough to forecast because the rain/snow line often goes right through here so it's hard to know which we'll get until the last minute -- but even a small amount of snow (or worse, ice) could snarl things. If you plan on attending any events in DC early this week, check first to make certain they are taking place.
That said, on Tuesday, the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) and the University of Arizona are holding an afternoon discussion on "Congested, Contested, and Competitive: The Future of Security and Commerce in Space." Among the speakers are Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), DOD space policy advisor Josef Koller, FAA/AST Associate Administrator George Nield, and Lockheed Martin's Robie Samanta Roy. That's at the Army & Navy Club on 17th Street, NW (not to be confused with the Army Navy Country Club across the river in Arlington, VA where NDIA is holding a breakfast meeting featuring Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein on Thursday).
On Wednesday, the Satellite Industry Association (SIA) is holding a lunchtime meeting on Capitol Hill (2325 Rayburn) on "Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Reform: How Changes Can Enable Growth in the U.S. Commercial Satellite Industry." Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) and Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA), the chairman and top Democrat, respectively, on the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, will speak along with representatives of Planet and DigitalGlobe. Be sure to RSVP in advance (light refreshments will be served).
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week for others we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.
Monday, March 13
Monday-Tuesday, March 13-14
Tuesday, March 14
Tuesday-Wednesday, March 14-15
Wednesday, March 15
Thursday, March 16
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) testified before a House Appropriations subcommittee today making the case for a funding increase for FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST). He won praise from subcommittee members and one, who also happens to chair the subcommittee that funds NASA, endorsed Bridenstine to serve as the next NASA Administrator. Bridenstine is said to be one of the top candidates, although the White House has not nominated anyone for that position yet.
Bridenstine is a leading member of Congress on space policy issues across the civil, commercial and national security sectors. He introduced the American Space Renaissance Act last year and plans to reintroduce it this year. He describes it as a bill that is not expected to pass en toto, but instead serve as a repository of provisions that can be inserted into various pieces of legislation as appropriate. Ten of the provisions of last year's bill were incorporated in the FY2017 national Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
He particularly advocates for an expansion of FAA/AST's budget and regulatory authorities, including making it responsible for regulating in-space activities in addition to launch and reentry, and for managing space situational awareness for non-defense entities.
FAA is part of the Department of Transportation (DOT) and funded in the Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) appropriations bill. During debate on the FY2017 appropriations bill, he and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) convinced the House Appropriations Committee to provide FAA/AST with the full amount of its funding request ($19.8 million) after the T-HUD subcommittee approved only half of the requested increase.
President Trump has not submitted his FY2018 budget request yet, but the various House Appropriations subcommittees are in the midst of "Members' Day" hearings where their fellow Members of Congress testify on issues of interest to them.
Today, Bridenstine testified to the T-HUD subcommittee in favor of increasing FAA/AST's funding to $23 million in FY2018. The subcommittee is chaired by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) and Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) is a member. Culberson also chairs the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, which funds NASA and NOAA.
Bridenstine made the case that space launch is part of the nation's infrastructure considering that satellite systems are essential to how the country does navigating and communicating, produces food and energy, and provides security and disaster relief. "What used to be the domain of government -- space -- is now the domain of private operators and commercial operators," he explained. FAA/AST oversees commercial launches and needs the resources to execute its duties, he continued, especially considering the burgeoning business expected in the near future.
He pointed out that although the Appropriations Committee approved the $19.8 million for FY2017, since Congress did not complete consideration of the FY2017 appropriations billl, FAA/AST remains funded at its FY2016 level ($17.8 million) under the Continuing Resolution (CR), further constraining its activities.
No commitments were made by the T-HUD subcommittee members, but Diaz-Balart praised Bridenstine for his effective work with the subcommittee: "We appreciate your involvement, we appreciate your hard work."
Culberson also lauded Bridenstine for his work on behalf of the commercial space sector, but went further and endorsed Bridenstine to head NASA: "Jim would do a superb job with that position and I want to strongly express my endorsement and support ... and hope to see you become the new NASA Administrator and look forward to helping you in that role."
Culberson holds a powerful position with regard to NASA funding, but the process of selecting and confirming agency heads is the purview of the White House and Senate. First the White House must submit a nominee, then the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee -- which oversees NASA in the Senate -- will consider the nomination before heading to a vote by the full Senate.
Although Bridenstine's name has been often mentioned (along with others) since soon after the election, the President has not nominated anyone yet. That is not surprising. Filling the position of NASA Administrator is not usually at the top of the list for action in a new administration. Cabinet-level and top DOD positions typically are dealt with first. The Senate has not yet finished action on all of the Cabinet appointments and only one nomination for the three service secretaries is pending (Heather Wilson to be Secretary of the Air Force.) The nominees for Secretary of the Army and Secretary of the Navy both withdrew their names because of difficulties in disentangling from their business interests.
The House passed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 by voice vote this evening, clearing the measure for the President. The bill sets policy for NASA and recommends funding for FY2017, but does not actually provide any money.
The bill, S. 442, passed the Senate by unanimous consent on February 17. It passed the House today by voice vote. House consideration of the bill was delayed a week. No explanation of the delay was offered today and no changes to the bill were made. The bill now goes to the President for signature. The White House has not publicly indicated whether he will sign it or not, but the fact that it passed Congress so easily with bipartisanship support is encouraging.
Human spaceflight is a major focus of the bill, although it also addresses NASA's space science, space technology and aeronautics programs. It is silent on earth sciences, a topic of partisan discord. Many Republicans argue that NASA should focus on space exploration while other agencies conduct earth science research. Many Democrats insist that only NASA launches earth science research satellites that are essential for understanding the only planet in the solar system that supports human life. During the debate on the House floor today, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the top Democrat on the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee, rued the fact that the bill did not address earth science, while Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the committee, pressed the argument that NASA should focus on exploration.
The 146-page bill's overall purpose is to codify congressional intent regarding NASA's future during a time of transition from one presidential administration to another. Stability is the watchword. SpacePolicyOnline.com's fact sheet on NASA's FY2017 budget request summarizes the bill. Among its key provisions are the following.
NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot told employees today that the NASA budget is still in the formulation phase and he remains "confident" in the Trump Administration's support for the agency.
In a memo entitled "Update on Budget Process," Lightfoot explained that the process for formulating the FY2018 budget request to Congress is later than usual because of the presidential transition, but the timing is "not unusual during a transition year." The deliberations are "not yet at a point" where sufficient details can be shared other than what is already known publicly -- the President plans to increase defense spending by $54 billion and decrease it for non-defense spending by the same amount. NASA is part of non-defense spending.
"While the final numbers for the agency and its programs are going through this give and take process, we remain confident in the Administration [sic] support for NASA," he writes.
The White House is expected to release its "budget blueprint" publicly on March 16 that will provide top-level numbers for NASA and other government agencies, but the detailed requests are not anticipated until May.
Last week, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) sent government agencies memos stating what it is currently planning to request for their activities. Although the information is supposed to remain confidential, details are leaking out. NOAA's budget is due for a 17 percent cut, for example, and multiple news sources published reports today that the Trump Administration plans deep cuts to the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), all part of the Department of Homeland Security, in order to fund the construction of the border wall. Significant proposed cuts to the State Department, foreign aid, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also have made the news.
Congressman Mo Brooks (R-Alabama) was quoted by AL.com as telling constituents yesterday that the non-defense spending cuts "may include NASA and you need to be mindful of that." Brooks is a member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and vice-chair of its Space Subcommittee. His district includes NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.
NASA is currently funded by a FY2017 Continuing Resolution (CR) at basically its FY2016 funding level of $19.285 billion. Congress has not completed action on the FY2017 budget request from the Obama Administration, which was $18.262 billion in appropriated funds (see SpacePolicyOnline.com's fact sheet on NASA's budget for an explanation of the FY2017 request, which was convoluted.) The House and Senate Appropriations Committees were poised to provide much more than that request, providing slightly more than FY2016 before time ran out on the 114th Congress. The CR expires on April 28 and Congress must pass new appropriations to keep NASA (and other agencies) operating past that point.
The House is expected to pass a FY2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act today, clearing it for the President. That bill does not provide any funding for NASA, however. It is an authorization bill that sets policy and recommends funding levels, but only appropriations committees have money to spend. (Not clear on the difference between appropriations and authorizations? See SpacePolicyOnline.con's "What's a Markup" fact sheet.)
Whatever the President's request turns out to be, it is just that, a request. Under the Constitution, Congress has the "power of the purse." Only Congress decides how much money the government will spend and on what.
As Lightfoot points out in his memo: "we have a long ways to go in the budget process."
Events of Interest