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What's Happening in Space Policy March 6-10, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Mar-2017 (Updated: 05-Mar-2017 04:35 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of March 6-10, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session.

During the Week

Hang onto your hats!  It's going to be quite a week.  From two overlapping conferences (Satellite 2017 and the AAS Goddard Memorial Symposium) in Washington to the first meeting of a new National Academies committee on planetary protection policy to scheduled House floor action on two important pieces of legislation to the annual "Space Prom" and many other events in between, we'll barely have time to catch our breaths.

Starting on Capitol Hill, the House has scheduled floor action -- again -- on the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 (S. 442).  At this point last Sunday, it was included on the House Majority Leader's list of legislation to be considered under suspension of the rules the next day.  Later, however, it was pulled from the list. There are varying viewpoints on why.  It is back on the list now for a vote on Tuesday.  We're not going to say it "will" come up for a vote, only that it is on the schedule at the moment.

The FY2017 defense appropriations bill is also on the floor schedule for debate to begin on Wednesday "subject to a rule being granted."  That one will be debated under regular order, which requires a rule delineating what amendments are in order and how much time is allocated for debate, for example.  The House Rules Committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday at 5:00 pm ET to write that rule.  Defense appropriations is one of the 12 regular appropriations bills Congress is supposed to pass each year.  None of the 12 cleared Congress last year.  Government agencies are operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) basically at their FY2016 levels until April 28.  Congress must pass new legislation before then to keep them operating.  The defense bill is the first one out of the gate. The House passed a different FY2017 defense appropriations bill last year.  This new one (H.R. 1301) reflects agreement with the Senate and the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which did become law.  One space program singled out in the House Appropriations Committee's summary of the bill is that it includes funding for GPS III operational control and space segments.

Also on the Hill and also on Wednesday, the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Space Subcommittee has a hearing scheduled on "Regulating Space: Innovation, Liberty, and International Obligations."   Regulatory matters may not be everyone's cup of tea, but this hearing has a REALLY interesting set of witnesses who will lend their expertise to issues that could have a profound effect on how the private sector engages in new non-traditional activities in Earth orbit and beyond.  It's at 10:00 am ET.  The committee webcasts its hearings. 

Fortunately the committee archives the webcasts for people who can't be in multiple places at once, which is how Wednesday is shaping up.  The Satellite 2017 conference will be in full swing (it begins Monday) at the Washington Convention Center and the American Astronautical Society's Goddard Memorial Symposium will be starting at the Greenbelt Marriott in Greenbelt, MD, just outside the Beltway. 

Your editor will be at the AAS Goddard Symposium on Wednesday moderating a panel discussion in the afternoon on "The Political Environment" with a terrific panel:  Frank Morring of Aviation Week; Chris Shank, now at DOD, but who headed the NASA transition team for the Trump Administration; Tom Hammond from the House SS&T Space Subcommittee; and Nick Cummings from the Senate Commerce Committee.   Others who will be speaking at the two-day conference include NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, AURA President Matt Mountain, and, at various points in the program, the NASA Associate Administrators heading the three mission directorates most involved in space (Bill Gerstenmaier, Thomas Zurbuchen, and Steve Jurczyk) and Acting Chief Scientist Gale Allen.  AAS hasn't posted a link for a webcast of the conference, though it has livestreamed the annual conference in the past.  If we learn of one, we'll add it to the entry on our Events of Interest calendar.

Also on Wednesday a new National Academies study committee on Planetary Protection Policy Development Processes will continue its meeting, which begins Tuesday.  Some sessions are closed, but those that are open will be available by WebEx and telecon. The committee is assessing how planetary protection policy is developed domestically and internationally and whether it is responsive to, among other things, "the exploration interests of state and non-state actors."  Non-state actors include private companies, like SpaceX with its Red Dragon plans to land spacecraft on Mars.

And still on Wednesday, a symposium on "Will Collaboration or Competition Get Humans to Mars and Beyond" with a fascinating set of speakers -- established voices and completely new ones -- hosted by a group called Future Tense, which itself is a collaboration of Slate, New America and Arizona State University.  A little later, Defense One and Next Gov will hold a "cocktails and conversation" event on "Space and Satellites in the New Administration."  Both sound really interesting.  Their websites don't indicate if they will be webcast, but, if they are, hopefully they'll be archived so those of us who don't have clones can catch up later.

There are many other events (see the list below) that we can't highlight here or this would go on and on and on.  The week at last comes to a close with the National Space Club's annual Goddard Memorial Dinner -- or the Space Prom as it is affectionately known -- as usual at the Hilton Washington. There'll be a lot to talk about.

As a heads up, though we'll need a lot of rest after a week like that, unfortunately the United States returns to Daylight Saving Time next Sunday (March 12) so we'll lose an hour of sleep.

Those and other events we know about as of this 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-Tuesday, March 6-7

Monday-Wednesday, March 6-8

Monday-Thursday, March 6-9

  • Satellite 2017, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC

Tuesday, March 7

Tuesday-Thursday, March 7-9

Wednesday, March 8

Thursday, March 9

Friday, March 10

Washington Post: Trump Proposing 17 Percent Cut to NOAA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Mar-2017 (Updated: 04-Mar-2017 01:43 PM)

The Washington Post is reporting that the Trump Administration is proposing a 17 percent cut to NOAA's budget for FY2018.  NOAA has a broad portfolio including building and operating the nation's civil weather satellites. The Post report does not specify how the satellite programs would fare, but the National Environmental Data and Information Service (NESDIS), which includes most of the funding for satellites, would be cut by 22 percent.

The newspaper says that it obtained a copy of a four-page memo from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to NOAA laying out its proposal for FY2018, which begins on October 1.

Congress has not completed action on NOAA's FY2017 budget.  Like other government agencies, it is operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) at its FY2016 spending levels through April 28, by which time Congress must pass new legislation to keep the government operating.  The CR included an exemption, however, to allow NOAA to continue spending money at a rate to ensure that the launch schedule for its Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) remains on track.  JPSS Is one of two complementary weather satellite programs operated by NOAA.  The other is the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) System.

The Trump Administration is at the beginning of the process for formulating the FY2018 budget.  A broad "budget blueprint" will be released very soon, but the detailed request is not expected for several weeks. The numbers in the four-page memo are subject to change before the request is submitted to Congress, and, in any case, the President's request is just that, a request.  Under the Constitution, only Congress has the "power of the purse," deciding how much money the government will spend and on what.

The Post did not publish the memo itself.  Its report refers to changes compared to NOAA's "current budget," which presumably is the FY2016 budget as adjusted by the CR.  The exact figures are not public.  For comparison purposes, the FY2016 enacted budget as published in NOAA's budget "blue book" will have to suffice.  It is $5.774 billion, which includes:

  • $602 million for the National Ocean Service;
  • $972 million for the National Marine Fisheries Service;
  • $482 million for the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research;
  • $1,124 million for the National Weather Service;
  • $2,349 million for the National Environmental Data and Information Services (NESDIS);
  • $254 million for Mission Support;
  • $334 million for the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations; and
  • a reduction of $344 million in various adjustments.

The $2,349 million for NESDIS is split between "Operations, Research and Facilities" (ORF) and "Procurement, Acquisition and Construction" (PAC).  ORF is $189 million, PAC is $2,160 million. The majority of spending on satellites is in the PAC account.  (For more on NOAA's satellite programs and the NESDIS PAC budget for FY2016 and request for FY2017, see's NOAA Budget Fact Sheet.)

According to the Washington Post, NESDIS would be cut "$513 million, or 22 percent," a percentage that roughly corresponds to the NESDIS FY2016 budget.  It cites the National Centers for Environmental Information, a repository for climate and environmental information, as a target for the NESDIS cuts, but it is a comparatively small office with a budget of about $60 million.

Responsibility for environmental satellites is split between NASA and NOAA.  Generally speaking, NASA funds research satellites while NOAA funds operational satellites.   The line between them has shifted back and forth throughout the decades.   Most recently, in the FY2016 budget process, President Obama proposed and Congress approved shifting some of NOAA's satellite activities to NASA.  The change designated NASA as the nation's  primary civil environmental satellite agency, with NOAA retaining only terrestrial weather (including radio occultation satellites, which help improve forecasts) and space weather satellite programs.

During the presidential campaign, two advisers to the Trump campaign, Bob Walker and Peter Navarro, wrote that NASA should focus on exploration, not earth science, arguing that other agencies, like NOAA, can perform whatever research is needed.  Conversely, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who chairs the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, recently praised NASA's earth science program and suggested that NASA take responsibility for NOAA's satellite programs. The CJS subcommittee funds both NASA and NOAA, so much of the future of the nation's environmental satellite programs rests with Culberson and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL).  For many years, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), a powerful member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was the chief champion for NASA and NOAA earth science activities, but she just retired, accentuating the sense of uncertainty the earth science community is facing right now.


Trump Invokes Dream of Footprints on Distant Worlds

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Feb-2017 (Updated: 28-Feb-2017 10:30 PM)

In his first speech to Congress, President Donald Trump mentioned the human spaceflight program, though with too little specificity to clarify what he has in mind for the U.S. space program.  Still, the fact that the space program was mentioned at all could be a positive indication that his Administration will support it against the backdrop of expected deep budget cuts for non-defense programs.

Word that Trump would say something about human spaceflight in his speech to a joint session of Congress tonight became public late this afternoon. 

The short sentence appears close to the end of the speech:  "American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream."

The space community is certain to dissect those words and try to divine their meaning -- what worlds (is the Moon a "distant world"?), on what timeline, with the government and the private sector playing what roles -- but useful analysis will have to await further information. 

A first step will be his FY2018 budget request.  A "budget blueprint" already has been delivered to agencies by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) providing guidance, but a detailed request will not be submitted to Congress for several weeks.  Overall, the Administration plans to request a $54 billion increase for defense programs, coupled with a $54 billion decrease for non-defense agencies like NASA. 

Deep cuts planned for the State Department and foreign aid have already created consternation in Congress, with Sen. Lindsey Graham, a fellow Republican, saying the budget request will be "dead on arrival." 

The sentence does not resolve any of the issues about the future of the human spaceflight program, but at least signals that the President supports the overall concept.

SpaceX Plans to Send Two People Around Moon in 2018

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Feb-2017 (Updated: 28-Feb-2017 12:49 AM)

SpaceX today announced plans to send two private citizens on a trip around the Moon next year.  The launch will use the company's Falcon Heavy rocket and Crew Dragon, neither of which has flown yet.

SpaceX is under contract to NASA to develop Crew Dragon as a "commercial crew" vehicle to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).   Today's announcement stated that the private citizen trip to the Moon will take place after operational commercial crew flights have begun.  SpaceX insists that its Crew Dragon, launched by the Falcon 9 rocket, will be operational in 2018, although the Government Accountability Office (GAO) expressed doubt that it would fly before 2019 in a report released earlier this month.   In response, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said "the [heck] we won't fly before 2019."

The company said again today that it plans to launch an unoccupied test version of Crew Dragon later this year and the first flight with a crew in the second quarter of 2018.  Operational flights would ensue thereafter.  SpaceX already launches a cargo version of Dragon to ISS; one is docked there right now.  It is not outfitted for crews, however.

The Falcon Heavy rocket has been under development for several years.  The date for its first launch has slipped repeatedly, most recently from November 2016 to sometime this summer.  SpaceX says that it is two-thirds the size of the Saturn V rocket that sent Apollo astronauts to the Moon.

The two private citizens were not identified, but SpaceX says they have already paid a "significant deposit."  The price was not revealed.

The announcement comes just three days after a NASA media teleconference where two NASA officials discussed an ongoing internal study to determine the feasibility of putting a crew on the first launch of NASA's new rocket -- the Space Launch System (SLS).  Under NASA's current plan, the first SLS, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), will be launched with an unoccupied Orion spacecraft.  It is scheduled for launch at the end of 2018, although that date appears likely to slip into 2019.  A crew would not fly on SLS/Orion until the second launch, EM-2, currently targeted for August 2021.  NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot has asked for a study to determine the safety, technical and cost implications of changing that plan and putting astronauts on EM-1 for an 8-9 day mission to lunar orbit.  The study should be done in about a month.

The initial version of SLS will be able to launch 70 metric tons (MT) into low Earth orbit (LEO), compared to 54 MT for Falcon Heavy. Later versions of SLS will be capable of placing 105 MT and 130 MT into LEO.

Some view SpaceX's announcement as a challenge to NASA -- a new space race.  The two did not paint that picture, however.  SpaceX enthused about NASA's role in getting the company to where it is today:  "Most importantly, we would like to thank NASA, without whom this would not be possible."  Musk frequently praises NASA for rescuing his fledgling company a decade ago after it suffered three Falcon 1 launch failures in a row, but NASA selected it for the COTS commercial cargo development program anyway.  SpaceX just launched its 10th commercial cargo mission for NASA on February 19.   NASA selected SpaceX (and Boeing) for the final phase of the commercial crew program in 2014.

For its part, NASA said in a press release that it "commends its industry partners for reaching higher" and will continue to work with SpaceX "to ensure it safely meets its contractual obligations" on commercial crew and commercial cargo.

In an interview, Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) President Eric Stallmer called the announcement "exciting" and, if it is a race, it is "in the best spirit possible."  If it motivates NASA to move more quickly, "that's a win for everyone."   CSF is working with the international standards organization ASTM International on developing voluntary industry standards for commercial human spaceflight.  The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation has limited regulatory authority now and is prohibited from developing new regulations until 2023, but industry could set its own standards. By law, companies must only provide informed consent to passengers who want to fly into space, warning them of the risks and letting them make their own decisions on whether to accept them.

NASA Buys Soyuz Seats from Boeing with Options Through 2019 if Commercial Crew Is Delayed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Feb-2017 (Updated: 27-Feb-2017 11:19 PM)

NASA has purchased two seats with an option for three more on Russian Soyuz spacecraft through Boeing to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).  One seat each in 2017 and 2018 will allow a fourth U.S.-sponsored astronaut to fly to the ISS while Russia reduces its own crew complement.  The three options are for 2019 in case the new U.S. commercial crew systems, one of which is being built by Boeing, are not ready by then.  The options must be exercised by the fall of this year.

Boeing gained the ability to make seats on Soyuz available to NASA as part of an agreement with the Russian company Energia to settle outstanding financial issues related to the Sea Launch program.  Sea Launch was a U.S. (Boeing)-Russian (Energia)-Ukrainian (Yuzhonye) -Norwegian (Kvaerner) company that launched rockets from a converted mobile oil platform at sea. The platform was based in Long Beach, CA and towed to a location close to the equator to launch satellites in geostationary orbit (which is located above the equator).  Boeing was the major shareholder initially, but launch failures led to the company declaring bankruptcy in 2009 and Russia's Energia took majority ownership in 2010.  Sea Launch utilized Ukraine's Zenit booster and the disrupted Russian-Ukrainian relationship following Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 added to the company's woes.  A Russian venture, S7 Group, is buying Sea Launch, but Boeing and Energia needed to reach a financial settlement first.  Energia builds the Soyuz spacecraft and the five seats were made available to Boeing as part of the settlement. 

In a FedBizOpps solicitation on January 17, 2017, NASA announced its intent to buy the seats via a modification of its existing Vehicle Sustaining Engineering Contract with Boeing.

NASA has not been able to launch astronauts into space since the termination of the space shuttle program in 2011.  Under the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) that governs the ISS partnership, the United States is responsible for transporting astronauts from NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to and from ISS.  The IGA was signed at a time when NASA anticipated that the space shuttle would be available throughout the ISS's operational lifetime.

Without the shuttle, NASA must rely on Russia and its Soyuz spacecraft for crew transport as well as on-orbit lifeboat services so the crew can escape in an emergency.  The size of the resident ISS crew is limited in large part by the number that can be evacuated in an emergency.  Two Soyuzes are usually docked and each can accommodate three people, hence the current six-person limit.

NASA is prohibited from paying Russia for anything associated with the ISS program under the terms of the Iran-North Korean-Syria Non-proliferation Act (INKSNA), however, so must obtain a waiver to the law from Congress whenever it needs to contract with Russia for ISS-related services.  INKSNA applies whether the arrangement is through NASA itself or a U.S. company on behalf of NASA.

A waiver enacted in 2013 allows NASA to purchase ISS-related services from Russia through December 31, 2020 (P.L. 112-273, the Space Exploration Sustainability Act).   In 2015, NASA signed its most recent contract with Russia for six seats and associated training and other support services.  They will accommodate U.S. and partner astronauts traveling to the ISS through the end of 2018 with a final return in the spring of 2019. 

By 2019, NASA hoped that the new commercial crew systems being developed by SpaceX (Crew Dragon) and Boeing (CST-100 Starliner) would be operational.  As noted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) earlier this month, however, it is not certain that those companies will be ready by then.  GAO's report was released on February 16 and called on NASA to provide a contingency plan in case the commercial crew systems are not ready as planned.  NASA agreed to provide such a plan by March 13. 

Five days later, on February 21, NASA posted an article on an ISS research website announcing its purchase of the seats through Boeing.  The agency did not issue a press release. The article explained the advantages of having four U.S.-sponsored crew members aboard ISS in 2017 and 2018 and the flexibility if the commercial crew systems are delayed.

Usually there are three Russians and three U.S.-sponsored crew aboard ISS. The U.S.-sponsored crew members typically include two Americans and one representative from  Europe, Canada or Japan.  Budget constraints in Russia led its space agency, Roscosmos, to temporarily cut back the Russian crew complement from three to two in order to reduce resupply requirements.  Since six people are usually aboard, if only two are Russian, four U.S.-sponsored crew members can be accommodated.

NASA is anxious to increase the number of crew available to conduct scientific research on ISS.  With three U.S.-sponsored crew members available, it strives to spend a total of 35 hours per week on research.  Four will increase how much research can be conducted.

NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz said via email that NASA paid $491 million to Russia for the six Soyuz seats it acquired in 2015, which includes training and preparation for launch, flight operations, landing and crew rescue as well as limited crew cargo delivery to and from the ISS.  That is approximately $81.8 million per seat including the additional services.

Purchasing the Boeing seats increased the Vehicle Sustaining Engineering contract value by $373.5 million, Schierholz said.  That yields a price per seat of $74.7 million.

House Vote on NASA Authorization Bill Delayed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Feb-2017 (Updated: 27-Feb-2017 08:34 PM)

Despite the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 appearing on the list of legislation scheduled for consideration by the House today on the House Majority Leader's website, it was not, in fact, brought up for a vote.  The bill, S. 442, passed the Senate on February 17 after extensive negotiations between the House and Senate dating back to last year. Its inclusion on the House's suspension calendar -- used for noncontroversial legislation -- suggested it had an easy path to passage. 

Varying views exist on what happened to cause the vote's sudden postponement as well as the implications for the future of the bill.  Throughout much of today, the House Majority Leader's website sent conflicting messages, with S. 442 included on one list of legislation scheduled for consideration today, but omitted from another.

This is the first NASA authorization act to get this far since 2010.   Its purpose is to codify congressional intent with regard to NASA's future during a presidential transition in order to avoid the type of disruption that occurred when President Obama cancelled the George W. Bush Administration's Constellation program.  It is a very broad bill,146 pages in length, that addresses all of NASA's activities except earth science.  That is one of the few NASA topics that creates partisan discord and to advance the bill, earth science is simply omitted.

Three sections are cited as having raised flags at the White House and/or the Department of Justice as needing further review: 303, 305 and 702.  Section 303 requires NASA to produce an "ISS transition plan" to move from the government-operated International Space Station to a regime where NASA is only one of many customers of a low Earth orbit commercial human spaceflight enterprise; Section 305 provides government indemnification for commercial launch and reentry services provided to NASA that are unusually hazardous (presumably including carrying crews) or nuclear in nature; and Section 702 concerns space technology investments.

Some sources are optimistic that this is a temporary problem that will soon be resolved.  Others think is an indication that certain parties want to sink the legislation permanently. What happens next is unclear.   Stay tuned.  ['s fact sheet on NASA's FY2017 budget request summarizes the bill as it passed the Senate.]

What's Happening in Space Policy February 27-March 3, 2017 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Feb-2017 (Updated: 27-Feb-2017 09:03 AM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of February 27-March 3, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

The week starts off tomorrow (Monday) with two important votes, one in the House and one in the Senate.

The House will vote on the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act.  The bill, S. 442, passed the Senate on February 17.   It is being brought up on the suspension calendar, which is used for non-controversial legislation, making its passage all but assured.  It then would go the President for signature.  President Trump's position on NASA is unclear.  Perhaps this legislation will give the White House an opportunity to signal its intentions.  Authorization bills set policy and recommend funding levels, but do not actually appropriate any funding.  The key will be if the Trump White House agrees with the overall goals as set out in the bill.  The House meets for legislative business at 2:00 pm ET, with votes postponed until 6:00 pm ET.  [UPDATE, February 27:  The bill apparently has been pulled from consideration today.]

Also on Monday, the Senate will vote on the confirmation of Wilbur Ross to be the new Secretary of Commerce and therefore in charge of NOAA.  As part of his confirmation process, he vowed that "science should be left to the scientists" and NOAA should continue to conduct climate change research and monitoring.  His nomination has been less controversial than other Trump nominees.  The vote is scheduled for 7:00 pm ET.

Trump will have an opportunity to say something about the space program when he speaks at to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night at 9:00 pm ET.  We haven't heard any rumors that any aspect of space activities will be mentioned, but one never knows.  He did have a sentence in his inaugural address that said "We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the Earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow."  But there has been nothing else from the Trump White House itself about the space program.

NASA is holding the "Planetary Science Vision 2050" Workshop Monday-Wednesday at NASA Headquarters. The purpose is to look at a longer term future than what is considered by the 10-year Decadal Surveys produced by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.  The workshop will identify science goals and enabling technologies that can be implemented by the end of the 2040s to support the next phase of solar system exploration.  So many people responded that NASA is limiting in-person participation to invited panelists and oral/poster presenters.  Everyone else can participate virtually.

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, February 27

Monday-Wednesday, February 27-March 1

Tuesday, February 28


House To Vote on 2017 NASA Authorization Act Tomorrow - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Feb-2017 (Updated: 27-Feb-2017 09:04 AM)

The House is scheduled to vote on the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 tomorrow (Monday).  The bill, S. 442, passed the Senate on February 17.  [UPDATE, February 27:  The bill apparently has been pulled from consideration today.]

The bill is being brought up under a procedure called suspension of the rules.  Under the suspension calendar, two-thirds (instead of a simple majority) of the House must vote in favor for the bill to pass.  It is used for non-controversial legislation that is expected to easily achieve that margin.

The bill is very similar to a version that passed the Senate in December, but after the House had completed its legislative business for the year so action could not be completed before the end of the 114th Congress.  Hence, this new, slightly revised version is now under consideration in the 115th Congress.

The overall goal of the 145-page bill is to codify congressional intent with regard to NASA's future at a time of a presidential transition.  NASA's supporters in Congress want to avoid the type of disruption that occurred when President Obama took office and cancelled the Constellation program initiated by President George W. Bush to return astronauts to the surface of the Moon by 2020.   Intense bipartisan congressional backlash led to the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that directed the Administration to proceed with building a new, large rocket and crew spacecraft -- the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion -- to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit, continuing that part of the Constellation program.  Obama and Congress agreed that the long term goal was to send humans to Mars, but not on whether returning them to the lunar surface was a necessary prerequisite.

That debate continues and S. 442 does not resolve it. The bill requires NASA to submit a "human exploration roadmap" laying out the steps "from low Earth orbit to the surface of Mars and beyond considering potential interim destinations such as cis-lunar space and the moons of Mars" including the potential for partnerships with the private sector and other countries.  It also requires NASA to contract with an independent organization for a study of a Mars human space flight to be launched in 2033.

The Obama Administration substituted the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as a steppingstone to Mars in lieu of lunar surface missions.  ARM has two components:  the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) that would send a robotic spacecraft to an asteroid, pluck a boulder from its surface and move it to lunar orbit; and the Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission (ARCM) where a crew in an Orion spacecraft would visit the boulder and collect samples.   ARM has received little support in Congress, but Congress has not  terminated the program, either.   S. 442 similarly does not require that it be terminated, but states that NASA has not made a convincing case that ARRM's cost  is worth the benefits.  It requires an analysis of alternatives for demonstrating technologies and capabilities needed for sending humans to Mars.

The bill also strongly supports the International Space Station, as well as NASA aeronautics, space technology, and space science activities.  It is silent on earth science, one of the few areas of partisan discord on Capitol Hill with regard to NASA.  To reach agreement on the overall bill, the topic is simply ignored.

The bill authorizes funding only for FY2017, which is already underway.  The total amount is $19.508 billion, the same as recommended by the House Appropriations Committee, although allocated differently.  Authorization bills like S. 442 do not actually provide any money to agencies, but only make recommendations.  Agencies receive money only through appropriations bills. Congress has not completed action on FY2017 appropriations for NASA or other government agencies, which are operating under a Continuing Resolution until April 28, 2017. 

The House meets for legislative business at 2:00 pm ET tomorrow, with votes postponed until 6:00 pm ET.  The NASA bill is one of six that will be considered under suspension.

Lesa Roe is NASA Acting Deputy Administrator, Erik Noble Acting Chief of Staff

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Feb-2017 (Updated: 26-Feb-2017 01:44 AM)

NASA has named Lesa Roe as Acting Deputy Administrator and Erik Noble as Acting Chief of Staff.  The information appears on NASA's website, but the agency made no public announcement about either appointment.  In addition, Lester Lyles has been named the new Chair of the NASA Advisory Council, also without public announcement.

Keith Cowing, editor of NASAWatch, first reported the story on February 25 under the title "Did NASA Use Wikipedia to Announce Lesa Roe is Acting Deputy Administrator?"  

The Roe and Noble positions are shown on NASA's "about" website under "organization" and Lyles' position is on the NAC website.  If one knows where to look, the information is publicly available, but one might have expected a formal announcement at least of the Acting Deputy Administrator appointment. 

Robert Lightfoot has been NASA's Acting Administrator since the Trump Administration took office.  The Administrator and Deputy Administrator positions are political appointments, so Charlie Bolden and Dava Newman left on January 20 at noon when President Obama's term ended.  Lightfoot's usual job is NASA Associate Administrator, the third highest level position in the agency and the top civil servant.  Typically that person serves as Acting Administrator until a new political appointee is named.  A mechanical engineer, Lightfoot is a former Director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and has a long career at the agency working on propulsion, especially for the space shuttle program.

NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot.  Photo credit: NASA

An electrical engineer, Roe's usual job is Deputy Associate Administrator, teamed with Lightfoot.  Before moving to NASA Headquarters in 2014 to take that job, she was Director of NASA's Langley Research Center.  Previously she was manager of the International Space Station Research Program at Johnson Space Center and served in several capacities at Kennedy Space Center, including as a manager and systems engineer for 38 space shuttle flights.  The date of her appointment as Acting Deputy Administrator is not posted on the NASA website.

NASA Acting Deputy Administrator Lesa Roe.  Photo credit:  NASA

Erik Noble previously had been identified as White House Senior Advisor at NASA.  It is not clear when he became Acting Chief of Staff.  He is an atmospheric scientist who worked at NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies in New York from 2007-2013 and served as a political data analyst for the Trump campaign's data and voter outreach team according to his LinkedIn page.

NASA Acting Chief of Staff Erik Noble.  Photo credit:  Erik Noble's LinkedIn page.

NAC provides advice to the NASA Administrator and its members and chair are chosen by the Administrator.  Ken Bowersox served as Acting Chair after Steve Squyres stepped down in April 2016.   It is not clear when Lyles was named to replace Bowersox, who, according to the NAC website, continues to be a member of NAC.

NASA Advisory Council Chair Gen. Lester Lyles (USAF, Ret.).  Photo credit:  Air Force website

A retired Air Force General, Lyles had been an ex officio member of NAC because he chaired the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.  The chairs of ASEB and the Academies' Space Studies Board (SSB) historically serve as ex officio members of NAC in a coordination role since ASEB and SSB also provide advice to NASA.  The Academies provide outside, strategic advice to the agency as compared with the internal, tactical advice provided by NAC.

Lyles's term as chair of ASEB ended on December 31.  He was succeeded by Alan Epstein, vice president of technology and development at Pratt & Whitney.   At the same time, Fiona Harrison succeeded David Spergel as chair of SSB.  Harrison is the Benjamin M. Rosen professor of physics and the Kent and Joyce Kresa Leadership Chair of the Division of Physics and Mathematics at the California Institute of Technology.   Epstein and Harrison are currently listed as members, not ex officio members, of NAC and their affiliations with ASEB and SSB are omitted, but presumably that is an oversight.

NASA: No Preconceived Decision About Putting Crew on First SLS Launch

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Feb-2017 (Updated: 24-Feb-2017 05:59 PM)

Two top NASA human spaceflight officials explained today that the study they are conducting about whether it would be feasible to put a crew on the first flight of the new Space Launch System (SLS) is just that, a feasibility study.  It will lay out pros and cons, but not make a recommendation. Both said they have no preconceived decision about what the study will say.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, and Bill Hill, Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development, spoke at a media teleconference this afternoon that had been announced just four hours earlier.

NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot announced last week that he was initiating a study to determine the feasibility of putting a crew on the first launch of the SLS, currently scheduled for late 2018.  The existing plan is for that launch to be an uncrewed systems test of SLS and the Orion spacecraft that is being designed to take crews beyond low Earth orbit to orbit the Moon and someday go to Mars.  That first uncrewed launch is designated Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1).  The second flight, EM-2, scheduled for no earlier than August 2021, would be the first to carry astronauts. 

The U.S. space shuttle is the only human spaceflight system ever launched that carried a crew on its first mission (STS-1 in 1981).  All other human spaceflight systems flown by the United States, Soviet Union/Russia and China have had uncrewed test flights first to obtain data to better understand system performance and thereby reduce risk.  Gerstenmaier spoke at a conference two weeks about the Loss of Crew (LOC) metric it uses to characterize the probability of a failure that could kill a crew.  He said that at the time of the first shuttle mission, models predicted the LOC at 1 in 500 to 1 5,000.  By the end of the program, after 30 years of experience that included two fatal accidents (Challenger and Columbia), they determined the actual risk for STS-1 had been 1 in 12.  The risk overall for the shuttle program was determined to have been 1 in 90.

Needless to say, the decision to assess the feasibility of placing a crew on the first SLS has raised eyebrows.  The media teleconference today appeared aimed at explaining that it is only a study and no decision has been made.  Gerstenmaier and Hill said it would look at the advantages and disadvantages of adding a crew, including the cost and schedule implications.  Gerstenmaier added that he did not know that it even would be a stand-alone study, but instead set in the context of discussions about the FY2018 budget request, a process he said would begin in a couple of weeks. 

The Trump Administration plans to issue an overarching "budget blueprint" for the government next month, but a detailed budget request is not expected until April or May.  The White House Office of Management of Budget (OMB) writes the President's budget request.  Its new Director, Mick Mulvaney, was sworn into office only last week.  He was a  Congressman from South Carolina and a well known budget hawk committed to reducing federal spending.  

Asked whether the Trump White House asked NASA to put a crew on the first flight, Gerstenmaier replied that "the Administration team in concert with Robert [Lightfoot]" asked for the feasibility study.  The overall goal, he added, was determining if crews could fly earlier than currently planned.  He noted that his office already had been looking at what could be done to "enhance" EM-1 to facilitate getting data that will be needed for EM-2, such as putting crew seats in Orion and placing mannequins there to obtain radiation exposure and reentry loading data.  His office briefed the Trump transition team on its activities and "they may have gotten the idea from us" to do the feasibility study.  Whether or not a decision is made to add crew to the first flight, the study offers an opportunity to step back and look at the program overall and "if we're testing the right things."

Gerstenmaier said he feels no political pressure to put crew on EM-1 and wants to "let the data drive us to the answer."   He and Hill both said they have no preconceived decision one way or the other, but see value in the study regardless of the outcome.  They expect it to be completed in about a month, but there is no set date.

EM-1 and EM-2 will use different upper stages.  EM-1 will fly the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS), while EM-2 will use a more capable Exploration Upper Stage (EUS).  The technical differences between ICPS and EUS are one of the reasons there is such a long gap between EM-1 and EM-2.  Gerstenmaier said today that it will take 33 months to reconfigure ground facilities to accommodate the taller EUS.  

ICPS is not designed to the "human-rated" safety standards required for carrying crews, however.   A decision to place crews on EM-1 would require that ICPS be human-rated and a number of other hardware changes would be needed that could be expensive and time consuming.  The Orion spacecraft for EM-1, for example, is not outfitted with life support systems or other hardware needed for a crewed flight.

The study will look at all of those factors and present the advantages and disadvantages, risks and benefits. Gerstenmaier has formed a team to conduct the study that includes one astronaut, although he declined to name who it is or speculate on what the position of the astronaut office as a whole might be to the idea of putting a crew on the first flight.  Hill said the team has been asked to look at what it would take to send a crew of two on an 8-9 day mission around the Moon that would include one day in a high Earth orbit to check out the life support systems. 

In the meantime, NASA is proceeding with its "program of record" with an uncrewed EM-1 in late 2018  and a crewed EM-2 no earlier than August 2021.  EM-1 already appears likely to slip to 2019 due to facility damage from recent tornadoes at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans where SLS is being built plus delays with the Orion Service Module being provided by the European Space Agency.  As for EM-2, NASA's formal commitment is for launch in 2023, but Congress has been providing additional funding to accelerate it to 2021.



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