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During markup of the FY2017 Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) appropriations bill today, the House Appropriations Committee adopted an amendment to fully fund the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) at the requested level of $19.8 million. That is $1 million more than the T-HUD subcommittee recommended.
The amendment was sponsored by Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA), who is a member of the Appropriations Committee. The effort builds on efforts led by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) to increase funding for FAA/AST in recognition of its growing responsibilities and consequent need for additional staff. Bridenstine and 17 other members sent a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the T-HUD subcommittee in March arguing for full funding.
Bridenstine serves on the House Armed Services Committee and the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, but not Appropriations, so could not sponsor or co-sponsor the amendment himself. He and Kilmer have worked closely together on commercial space legislation in the past, notably last year's Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. Kilmer represents a district near Seattle that is teeming with entrepreneurial space companies, including Blue Origin and Planetary Resources Inc. Bridenstine's Oklahoma district has little or no involvement in the space industry, but he has a strong personal interest and has taken a leadership role in the House on these issues.
The T-HUD subcommittee approved $18.826 million for FAA/AST, $1.026 million more than current FY2016 funding, but $1 million less than the request of $19.826 million.
Appropriations is a zero-sum game -- more money for one activity means less money for another. In this case, the $1 million was moved from the FAA's Office of Finance and Management to FAA/AST. The Kilmer amendment was combined with other changes and packaged into the so-called "manager's amendment," which was adopted by voice vote.
In a joint press release, Kilmer said full funding "will allow entrepreneurs and companies to innovate and grow their businesses and in the process strengthen our tech economy and the quality jobs it creates." Bridenstine noted that FAA/AST oversees the commercial space industry, which is "critically important to modern life in America."
The Senate Appropriations Committee also approved $19.8 million for FAA/AST is its markup of the T-HUD bill.
The House Appropriations Committee not only wants NASA to replace the Asteroid Redirect Mission with a focus on returning humans to the lunar surface, but it has other big plans for the agency. One is to develop interstellar propulsion to enable a probe to be sent to Alpha Centauri at one tenth the speed of light in 2069. Overall, the committee recommends $19.508 billion for the agency, an increase of $223 million above its current FY2016 funding level.
The draft Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) FY2017 appropriations bill and report were released today in preparation for full committee markup tomorrow (Tuesday). Subcommittee markup took place last week. The bill and report remain a draft until markup is completed, and that is only one step in the lengthy congressional appropriations process, but the committee certainly offers some far ranging recommendations for NASA's future. [UPDATE: The committee approved the bill on May 24. Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) offered an amendment to increase funding for earth science by $342 million, but then withdrew it because he did not have offsetting cuts elsewhere to recommend.]
Key committee decisions are outlined in SpacePolicyOnline.com's NASA FY2017 Budget Request fact sheet, updated today. Typically in such reports, comparisons are made between a committee's recommendations and the President's budget request, but that is not useful this year. As our fact sheet explains, the request included funding from non-appropriated "mandatory funding" accounts. Appropriations committees have no jurisdiction over mandatory funding. Both the House and Senate appropriations committees criticized the President's request as a "gimmick" and rejected it. In the committee reports, comparisons are made to the President's request for appropriated funds, not the mandatory funds, which makes it very difficult to follow. In our fact sheet, and in the narrative below, we compare the committee's actions to the appropriated levels for FY2016, not to either version of the request.
Among its major actions, the House committee --
Committee markup is at 10:30 am ET tomorrow (May 24). [UPDATE: As noted, the committee approved the bill on May 24.]
The House Appropriations Committee wants to increase the amount of FY2017 funding for NOAA's commercial weather data pilot program both in comparison to the President's request and to what its Senate counterpart approved. The committee supports the full request for NOAA's two major weather satellite programs -- JPSS and GOES-R -- but holds the subsequent program, Polar Follow On (PFO), to its FY2016 funding level. The committee expresses concern in a number of areas and support for NOAA's decision to create another Independent Review Team (IRT) to assess its programs.
The commercial weather data pilot was created by Congress in last year's appropriation bill. The intent is for NOAA to purchase commercially available data and "evaluate and calibrate" the data to determine whether it can be integrated into NOAA's weather models. Congress appropriated $3 million for FY2016 and required an implementation plan, which NOAA submitted in March (and made publicly available in April).
For FY2017, the President requested $5 million. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved only $3 million, the same as FY2016. The House committee, however, is recommending $6 million, $1 million more than the request and twice the Senate committee's figure. The House committee said the $6 million would "ensure NOAA has the resources necessary to thoroughly assess commercial data opportunities."
The House committee revealed its decision in its draft report on the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill, which includes NOAA, part of the Department of Commerce. The committee will mark up the bill tomorrow morning.
NOAA chose radio occultation (RO) data as the test project for the pilot program. NOAA has a cooperative program with Taiwan and the U.S. Air Force called COSMIC to provide such data now. COSMIC satellites use signals from the Global Positioning System (GPS) or similar Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) for radio occultation to make measurements of temperature and water vapor throughout the lower parts of the atmosphere. When combined with measurements from polar-orbiting weather satellites, better weather forecasts are enabled. The technique is referred to as GPS-RO or GNSS-RO. Thousands of measurements -- 50,000-100,000 -- per day are useful and COSMIC provides only 2,000-3,000. NOAA and Taiwan are planning a follow-on system, COSMIC-2, that would provide 10,000. The rest could come from commercial vendors. Several companies have or are planning such systems.
First NOAA must determine if the commercial data are accurate, reliable, and verifiable. That is the point of the pilot project, which NOAA expects to last through FY2017. In the meantime, it is requesting $16.2 million for COSMIC-2 in FY2017. The money is equally divided between new satellites and ground systems to process the data.
The Senate committee denied the $8.1 million for new satellites, encouraging NOAA to get the data from commercial sources. The House committee recommends the entire $16.2 million, but restricts NOAA from obligating any of the money until NOAA submits a plan that demonstrates NOAA has "thoroughly reviewed potential commercial" data sources. Both committees are concerned about the costs, especially launch costs, and what agency will pay. The Air Force launched the COSMIC satellites, but has not committed to launching the COSMIC-2 constellation.
The House committee provided the requested funding for JPSS and GOES-R, but remains concerned about delays in the JPSS ground system and about a potential polar satellite data gap. The $11.3 billion JPSS program pays only for the first two JPSS satellites, JPSS-1 and JPSS-2. (The total includes $4 billion in sunk costs in the cancelled NPOESS program.) The next two satellites, JPSS-3 and -4, are called the Polar Follow On (PFO) program.
NOAA requested $393 million for PFO, including $10 million for an "Earth Observing Nanosatellite-Microwave" (EON-MW) that would house a critical microwave sensor as insurance in case of a JPSS launch or on-orbit failure.
The House committee held the PFO program to its FY2016 funding level of $370 million, which does not include funding for EON-MW. The committee explained that it was not approving the increase because NOAA has not provided a life cycle cost or an Independent Cost Estimate (ICE) for PFO and schedules remain uncertain. The Senate committee similarly expressed concern about the lack of the ICE. It approved the $383 million for PFO, but not the $10 million for EON-MW.
The House Appropriations Committee will mark up the bill tomorrow (May 24) at 10:30 am ET. [UPDATE: The committee approved the bill on May 24.]
The House Appropriations Committee is recommending that no funds be provided for planning robotic or crewed missions to asteroids as envisioned by President Obama's Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The committee's recommendation is in its draft report on the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill, which will be marked up at full committee level tomorrow (May 24). Overall, the committee recommends an increase for NASA above its current funding level: $19.5 billion compared to the $19.3 billion it received for FY2016. [UPDATE: The committee approved the bill on May 24.]
Under the heading "Mission to Mars," the committee states that while there may be technological benefits to "asteroid redirect and retrieval missions" -- an apparent reference to ARM, whose name has varied over the years -- they do not "appreciably contribute" to the overall goal of sending humans to Mars.
In an April 2010 speech at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, President Obama directed NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid as the next step in human spaceflight with the long term goal of sending them to orbit Mars in the 2030s. The concept evolved over the years and now, instead of sending astronauts to an asteroid, the plan is to send a robotic spacecraft to an asteroid, pluck a boulder from its surface, and move ('redirect") the boulder from its native orbit into an orbit around the Moon where it can be visited by astronauts. They would obtain samples of the asteroid for analysis back on Earth.
This is entirely separate from NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission to send a robotic spacecraft to an asteroid and return a sample to Earth. That mission is scheduled for launch in September 2016 and its sample will return to Earth in 2023. (Japan has already retrieved a small sample from an asteroid on its Hayabusa mission. It launched a second sample-return spacecraft, Hayabusa2, in 2014. The sample should be returned to Earth in 2020.)
ARM has received little support politically outside the White House or from the scientific community. House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) frequently criticizes ARM as "unjustified" and a "distraction" from achieving the humans-to-Mars goal. Scientists argue that robotic spacecraft like OSIRIS-REx and Hayabusa2 can fulfill the need to acquire asteroid samples; astronauts are not needed.
Congress has not prohibited spending money on ARM in the past, but the House Appropriations Committee, for example, has made clear that its interest is primarily the development of high power Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP), which is part of ARM. That type of propulsion is considered necessary for supporting human journeys to Mars and many other purposes.
NASA separates ARM into two portions: the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) and the Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission (ARCM). The "R" has variously represented "redirect" or "retrieval." NASA asserts that the cost of the robotic portion, ARRM, excluding launch costs, is $1.25 billion, although the Government Accountability Office pegged that number at $1.72 billion in a recent report. No cost estimate has been provided for the crewed portion. Many are skeptical of the ARRM cost estimate and it has been the subject of intense debate by the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), which advises the NASA Administrator.
NASA also separates the money requested for ARM into two categories: "direct" and "leveraged." The direct funding is unique to ARM, while the leveraged funding is money that NASA would spend even if the ARM mission did not exist. For FY2017, NASA is requesting approximately $217 million for ARM, of which $69 million is direct funding. The SEP development effort is categorized as leveraged funding. The direct funding is $67.8 million in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate for mission formulation and about $1 million in the Office of Chief Technologist for related activities. (See Table 4 in SpacePolicyOnline.com's NASA's FY2017 Budget Request fact sheet for details.)
The House Appropriations Committee states that "no funds are included in this bill for NASA to continue planning efforts to conduct either robotic or crewed missions to an asteroid." The language presumably is directed at ARM and not OSIRIS-REx and at the $69 million in direct funding for mission formulation, not the leveraged funding for SEP and other activities, although it is not explicit.
The committee argues that the money would be better spent on deep space habitats, accessing and utilizing space resources, and developing entry, descent and landing (EDL) technologies to descend through Mars' atmosphere and land on its surface. (The House SS&T Committee held a hearing on deep space habitats last week.)
Importantly, the committee encourages NASA to "develop plans to return to the Moon to test capabilities that will be needed for Mars, including habitation modules, lunar prospecting, and landing and ascent vehicles."
Republicans and Democrats in Congress railed against the Obama Administration's 2010 decision to cancel the George W. Bush Administration's Constellation program to return humans to the lunar surface by 2020 and then go on to Mars. In his April 2010 speech, President Obama said there was no need to return to the Moon -- "We've been there before. ... There's a lot more space to explore."
That statement and his cancellation of Constellation have remained sore points between Congress (on a bipartisan basis) and the White House since that time. Many in the human spaceflight community reject the assertion that returning to the Moon is unnecessary before going to Mars, insisting that systems and humans should be tested closer to home where they could return more quickly in an emergency. Indeed, high ranking NASA officials agree, but explain that the United States cannot afford the systems needed to return to the lunar surface. They hope international and commercial partners will provide that capability as part of a cooperative program where NASA would provide transportation to lunar orbit using the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft and others would take it from there.
Eleven of the 12 space agencies that prepared the 2013 Global Exploration Roadmap called for humans to return to the lunar surface; the United States was the only one that did not. European Space Agency (ESA) Director General Jan Woerner has proposed a "Lunar Village" or "Moon Village" on the far side of the Moon, although ESA as an agency has not endorsed it yet.
The debate over the future of human exploration beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) -- where the International Space Station is located -- has consumed human spaceflight advocates since the end of the Apollo era. While there is widespread (though not universal) agreement that sending humans to Mars is the ultimate goal for the foreseeable future, the steps in between remain as contentious as ever.
If the committee's recommendation is upheld through the remainder of the appropriations process, and President Obama signs the bill into law, it would bring to an end this 6-year chapter, leaving it to the incoming President to make a new proposal and future Congresses to debate it.
Congress typically expresses its policy views through NASA authorization acts, although the most recent law covered funding only through FY2013 (the policy provisions remain intact, however). The House passed a bipartisan FY2015 NASA authorization act, but the Senate has not considered it. The House SS&T committee approved a much more controversial FY2016-2017 NASA authorization bill on a party-line vote and no further action has ensued. Rumors are swirling in Washington that despite the crammed congressional calendar, another attempt may be made at passing a NASA authorization bill before the end of the year, which would inform the new President on congressional priorities.
House Appropriations Committee markup of the CJS appropriations bill is at 10:30 am tomorrow (May 24). The committee will mark up the FY2017 Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) bill at the same time. It funds the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) and has its own language encouraging commercial development of the Moon. [UPDATE: The committee approved the CJS and T-HUD bills on May 24.]
The House Appropriations Committee encourages the FAA to enhance its processes to provide "security and predictability" to companies planning lunar development. It also urges the FAA to define "non-interference" in the context of such private sector activities. At the same time, it denies half of the requested increase for the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) to hire more staff. [UPDATE: The committee approved the bill on May 24 after adopting an amendment that raised funding for FAA/AST to the requested level of $19.8 million.]
The committee released its draft report on the FY2017 Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) appropriations bill today, which includes funding for FAA/AST, in preparation for full committee mark up tomorrow morning. The T-HUD subcommittee approved its draft bill last week. [UPDATE: As noted, the committee approved the bill on May 24.]
The President requested an approximately $2 million increase for FAA/AST, from $17.800 million in FY2016 to $19.826 million in FY2017. The committee proposes funding the office at $18.826 million, a $1 million reduction from the request and $1.026 million more than current funding. It notes that the request is for a 20 percent increase in personnel and asserts the amount of funding it recommends should be enough to allow the office "to judiciously hire critical operational staff." Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) and 17 other lawmakers wrote a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the T-HUD subcommittee in March urging them to approve the full request, but apparently it was not sufficiently persuasive to win approval of the entire increase. [UPDATE: as noted, an amendment was adopted during committee markup that raises the FAA/AST funding level to the requested $19.8 million.]
Mike Gold, Vice President of Washington Operations for SSL (formerly Space Systems Loral), who chairs FAA/AST's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), said in an interview today that he is happy to see the committee agree to a $1 million increase and even a small amount of money can make a significant difference. He added that he looks forward to working with Congress to see if that figure can be improved as the bill proceeds through the appropriations process. He considers the increase over FY2016 an indication of forward progress, even if it is not as much as the request. [UPDATE: as noted, an amendment was adopted during committee markup that raises the FAA/AST funding level to the requested $19.8 million.]
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the entire $19.8 million.
The House Appropriations Committee also "commends" and "encourages" the FAA regarding facilitating private sector companies that plan lunar development. This year's language builds on prior year committee reports.
Under a heading "Space Launch System," the committee first commends FAA/AST's efforts to promote private sector exploration and development of the Moon "which may require" use of heavy-lift rockets like NASA's SLS. Next, it encourages FAA/AST to define "non-interference" and "to enhance its payload review process to provide companies planning private sector lunar development with the security and predictability necessary to support substantial investments."
In last year's report on the T-HUD bill (H. Rept. 114-129), the committee applauded FAA/AST's efforts to encourage private lunar development by leveraging its existing launch licensing authorities and "ensuring that commercial activities can be conducted on a non-interference basis." This year it is more explicit, encouraging FAA/AST to define the term "non-interference."
The issue arises from Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty, which says, among other things, that any country that has signed and ratified the treaty ("State party") should undertake "appropriate international consultations" if it or any of its nationals (e.g. companies) might engage in any activity that "would cause potentially harmful interference" with activities by other States parties before proceeding. Furthermore, if another State Party thinks someone else may cause potentially harmful interference, it may request consultations. Last year's Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA) directs the President to promote the right of U.S. citizens to engage in commercial recovery of space resources free from harmful interference in accordance with U.S. international obligations (like the Treaty). Neither the Treaty nor the law defines interference or its inverse, non-interference, however.
The Treaty also requires in Article VI that governments authorize and continually supervise the activities of non-government entities, like companies. The White House has proposed that the Department of Transportation (of which FAA is part) be assigned that responsibility for activities not already regulated by another U.S. agency.
Gold noted that this is actually the third year the House Appropriations Committee has expressed support for FAA/AST's actions in facilitating private sector activities on the Moon. Several companies are planning lunar exploration in the near-term, he explained, including participants in the Google Lunar X-Prize contest and Bigelow Aerospace, for which Gold worked for many years. Bigelow sought FAA/AST guidance on these issues in 2014 as part of a payload review request. George Nield, FAA's Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation and head of FAA/AST replied in a December 22, 2014 letter that his office intended to work to ensure that commercial activities could be conducted on a non-interference basis.
As chair of COMSTAC, Gold said he appreciates the committee's continuing support for the "vital role" of FAA/AST in creating a stable and predictable environment for U.S. companies interested in commercial lunar activities.
In addition to the funding specifically for FAA/AST in the FAA's Operations account, the President's budget request includes $2.953 million for safety-related activities in FAA's Research, Engineering and Development (RE&D) account (up from $2 million in FY2016), and $2 million as part of a $20 million request for Air Traffic Management (ATM) in the Facilities and Equipment (F&E) account. The latter is for integrating commercial space launches into the National Air Space (NAS).
The House committee approved $2.0 million instead of the $2.953 million requested for safety-related activities in RE&D. No explanation was provided. It also approved the full $20 million for ATM and therefore, presumably, the $2 million for commercial space integration into the NAS.
The Senate committee approved $2.473 million for RE&D safety (labeling it commercial space transportation "security") and the entire $20 million for ATM.
The House Appropriations Committee will mark up the T-HUD bill tomorrow (May 24) at 10:30 am ET along with the Commerce-Justice-Science bill that funds NASA and NOAA. [UPDATE: The committee approved the T-HUD and CJS bills on May 24.]
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of May 23-27, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
YES! It is, indeed, another busy week. Not to worry -- Memorial Day is coming up next week and Congress, at least, will take a breather. Wanting to get as much done as possible in this first half of the year (before the elections overwhelm everything else), the House and Senate have another full plate.
On the floor, the Senate will debate its version of the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and the House will take up the FY2017 Intelligence Authorization Act (IAA). The IAA is on Tuesday's suspension calendar, indicating that it is expected to pass with minimal debate. The unclassified bill and report require three space-related briefings or reports (on JICSPoC, on actions taken in response to the December 2015 National Research Council report on space defense and protection, and improving U.S.-Japan space cooperation) all of which also are required by the House version of the NDAA.
In committee, the full House Appropriations Committee will markup the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science bill (NASA and NOAA) and the Transportation-HUD bill (FAA space office) on Tuesday morning. At the same time, the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee will be marking up the FY2017 defense bill, with full committee markup on Thursday.
The American Meteorological Society (AMS) and the American Geophysical Union are holding a lunchtime briefing in one of the Senate meeting rooms (385 Russell) on Wednesday about a really important, but not widely known, issue that could affect utilization of NOAA's new GOES-R weather satellites. The first in the GOES-R series will be launched this fall. The space-to-ground frequency band for GOES-R is being threatened In the ever growing battle between space- and terrestrial-based services over spectrum allocations. The demand for spectrum to satisfy our insatiable desire for mobile broadband services is coming up against our need for critical weather forecasts. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wants to make the 1675-1680 MHz band available for sale. That band is used for transmitting data from the GOES satellites and for other earth science purposes. AMS has a fact sheet explaining the issue and three experts at the Wednesday briefing (including Scott Pace from GWU's Space Policy Institute) will go into it in more detail. Note than an RSVP is required (lunch will be served).
Of the many other events coming up, one may especially pique the interest of folks who will be in D.C. on Tuesday. New America, which describes itself as "a nonprofit civic enterprise: an intellectual venture capital fund, think tank, technology laboratory, public forum, and media platform," is having an event "over drinks" from 5:30-7:00 pm ET, on "What Can D.C. Learn from Sci-Fi?" Science fiction author Charles Stross will be interviewed by two "tech policy experts (and science fiction fans)" from New America and the American Civil Liberties Union. One topic is "why the idea of space colonization is unrealistic." New voices in the world of space policy are always welcome, so this should be enlivening.
NASA will expand the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) that is attached to the International Space Station (ISS) on Thursday morning. NASA TV coverage begins at 5:30 am ET and there will be a media teleconference at 10:00 am ET with NASA's Jason Crusan and Bigelow Aerospace President Robert Bigelow. BEAM was delivered to ISS on the SpaceX-8 cargo mission and transferred to a docking port on the Tranquillity module last month.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week for additions to our Events of Interest list that are announced later.
Monday, May 23
Tuesday, May 24
Tuesday-Wednesday, May 24-25
Tuesday-Thursday, May 24-26
Wednesday, May 25
Thursday, May 26
The House passed the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) a few hours ago. The bill, H.R. 4909, authorizes and recommends funding levels for national security space programs. The bill increases from nine to 18 the number of Russian RD-180 rocket engines the United Launch Alliance (ULA) can obtain for its Atlas V rockets, recommends funding for developing a U.S. alternative to the RD-180, and allows some of that money to spent on portions of a new launch system other than the engine.
On the RD-180 issue, the House bill is at odds with the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), which insists that ULA should be allowed to obtain only nine more, so that debate is certain to continue.
The House adopted an amendment offered by Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) and Mike Rogers (R-AL) that responded to objections raised by the White House in its Statement of Administration Policy (SAP). Smith is the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee (HASC). Rogers is the chairman of its Strategic Forces Subcommittee that oversees most national security space programs.
In prior NDAAs, HASC had insisted that money allocated for building a U.S. alternative to Russia's RD-180 be spent only on an engine, not on other parts of a new launch system. During committee markup in April, a Smith amendment was adopted that allowed up to 25 percent of the funds to be spent on a new launch vehicle, upper stage, strap-on motor, or related infrastructure. The White House SAP complained about the restriction, however, arguing that the committee was too focused on just one part of the launch system.
The Smith/Rogers amendment increases that percentage to 31 percent.
The SAP also disagreed with language in the bill that would have required the government to obtain intellectual property rights for any new rocket propulsion system developed with government funds.
The Smith/Rogers amendment replaces that language with a requirement that the Secretary of Defense develop a plan to protect the government's investment and assured access to space, including acquiring rights, as appropriate, for the purpose of developing alternative sources of supply and manufacture in case they are needed if, for example, the company goes out of business.
The amendment was grouped together with a number of others during floor debate into "En Bloc 8" and passed by voice vote.
The House passed the bill by a vote of 277-147, with most Democrats voting against it (142 against, 40 in favor). If the President were to veto the bill, there would be enough votes to sustain it. A two-thirds vote of both chambers is required to overturn a veto. When the House has its full complement of 435 members, that means 290 votes are needed to overturn, 13 more than voted in favor of the bill. The bill has a long way to go, however. In addition to the RD-180 issue, there are many differences with the SASC version, which is expected to be debated by the Senate next week.
Note: this story was updated with additional detail on the House vote and the Senate schedule for considering its version of the NDAA.
Andy Weir, author of the best selling book and movie The Martian, was the feature attraction himself today at a House hearing on deep space habitats. While representatives of NASA and three aerospace companies explained their habitat plans, Weir honed in on a more fundamental issue, insisting that humans are not meant to spend long durations in zero gravity and the focus should be on developing artificial gravity.
Weir is the first to stress that he is not a space expert, but "just an enthuasiast" offering his own views. Noting that astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) must spend two hours per day exercising to counteract the effects of life in microgravity, Weir argued that instead of trying to ameliorate those effects "we should concentrate on inventing artificial gravity." He acknowledged that it would be "a huge engineering challenge," but that "is what NASA is all about. I have no doubt they would rise to the occasion."
He is not envisioning the type of "huge wheel in-space construction" that may leap to mind when thinking about artificial gravity -- like the one in the iconic Chesley Bonestell painting or the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Instead, Weir described a space station with a crew compartment connected by a long tether to a counterweight with the entire structure rotating.
The idea is not new. In its 1986 report Pioneering the Space Frontier, the congressionally-chartered National Commission on Space, for example, recommended a Variable Gravity Research Facility in earth orbit. It was to be comprised of two modules connected by a tether whose length could be varied to produce different gravity levels for scientific research. The Commission's Earth-Mars transit vehicles would use the same principle and spin down to one-third g on the way to Mars so the crew was acclimated when it arrived, and back up to 1g during the trip home.
That's what Weir has in mind (though he made no mention of the Commission's report). He also made it clear at the hearing and at the Humans to Mars summit earlier in the day that he does not plan to make the trip himself.
Weir also answered a question from subcommittee chairman Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) about how to deal with the negative effects of radiation for crews traveling in deep space. He remarked that NASA recently increased the permitted lifetime radiation dosage for its crews, so part of the problem was solved "by a simple policy decision." He also offered that someone had calculated the radiation risk for his fictional characters and concluded that the person most affected would have had just a 4 percent greater mortality risk. (That character was the mission commander, not Mark Watney, the character stranded on Mars, because he was partially protected by the Martian atmosphere. The commander was young and female and therefore at greater risk.)
The hearing was before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee. Subcommittee member Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who is not a humans-to-Mars enthusiast, pointedly asked Weir why money would not be better spent on protecting Earth from asteroids or cleaning up space debris than sending people to Mars. Weir said that money is already being spent on protecting humans from asteroids by tracking them and that there are no Earth-threatening asteroids for at least the next 50 years. As for space debris, Earth orbit is a very large area and it would like trying to clean up all the "gum wrappers in the Pacific Ocean" and is not viable. Instead, the focus should be on preventing the creation of future space debris. Rohrabacher was not convinced.
Weir's presence overshadowed the main purpose the hearing, which was to receive testimony from NASA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Orbital ATK about their plans for building space habitats for deep space exploration. NASA, Boeing and Orbital ATK are focused on habitats in cis-lunar space, while Lockheed Martin yesterday announced a "vision" for a Mars Base Camp in orbit around Mars in 2028.
In the FY2016 appropriations bill, Congress directed NASA to spend $55 million this year on habitats and to build a prototype by 2018. Jason Crusan, NASA's Director for Advanced Exploration Systems, explained that the agency is funding habitat studies by Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK and Bigelow Aerospace through its NASA Space Technology for Space Exploration (NextSTEP) Broad Area Announcement.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) challenged Crusan about whether the agency is following congressional direction. He said NASA's FY2016 operating plan shows that only $25 million is being spent on NextSTEP. Crusan responded that NASA is spending more than $70 million this year on habitats. The rest of the money is being spent on developing systems that would go inside the modules. As for having a prototype ready by 2018, Crusan explained that the agency is on track to accomplish that, but it will be a ground demonstrator designed for "form, fit and function" tests, not a space module.
House SS&T full committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Bridenstine both used the hearing to criticize the Obama Administration's Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). As he has many times previously, Smith called ARM "unjustified" and a "distraction" with no relevance to human exploration of the solar system. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently estimated the cost of the robotic portion of the ARM mission (not including launch) at $1.72 billion, money that Smith said would be better spent on habitats and propulsion technologies.
Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) asked Crusan if Smith was correct that ARM is unjustified. Crusan answered that ARM is needed for developing, testing and operating high power Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP), which will be needed for Mars missions. Bridenstine pressed Crusan on that answer later in the hearing, however. Crusan responded that ARM is an "opportunity" to test SEP, leading Bridenstine to stress that it is an "just an opportunity," not "necessary."
Boeing's John Elbon and Orbital ATK's Frank Culberston both advocated for habitats in lunar orbit as the next step for humans into deep space. Lockheed Martin's Wanda Sigur, however, outlined the company's new Mars Base Camp concept. The timeline shown on the company's website has little time for activities in cislunar space. It does envision assembling the base camp -- comprised of two Orion spacecraft, a habitat, a laboratory module, and solar panels and other systems -- in lunar orbit beginning in 2021, but the goal is to send it to Mars orbit for arrival in 2028. Sigur's message was "Mars is closer than you think. We're ready to accelerate the journey."
Editor's Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I was Executive Director of the 1985-1986 National Commission on Space, which was chaired by former NASA Administrator Tom Paine.
Lockheed Martin will announce today a proposal to send six people to Mars in 2028 using two of the company's Orion capsules. They would not try to land on Mars, but remain in Mars orbit living in a "Mars Base Camp" habitat and laboratory modules. Company officials are scheduled to speak at the Humans to Mars (H2M) summit in Washington, DC, today as well as at a congressional hearing this afternoon.
An article published yesterday afternoon in Popular Science outlined the concept, quoting former astronaut Tony Antonelli, now Lockheed Martin's Chief Technologist for Exploration Systems. Antonelli is scheduled to speak at H2M at 4:00 pm ET this afternoon. Wanda Sigur, the company's Vice President and General Manager for Civil Space, is on an H2M panel this morning and will testify to the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee at 2:00 pm ET this afternoon at a hearing on deep space habitats.
The basic idea is for NASA to send six astronauts in two Orion capsules to Mars in 2028. A larger habitat, laboratories and solar panels would be launched separately and assembled in space -- the Mars Base Camp. All would be launched using NASA's Space Launch System (SLS). The astronauts would remain in orbit around Mars, teleoperating robotic spacecraft on the surface and conducting observations of the planet.
The idea of sending astronauts to orbit Mars before attempting to land on the surface is not new. It was most recently championed last year by The Planetary Society based on a study conducted by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). It proposed an orbital mission in 2033, which has literally become a bumper sticker for one member of the House SS&T Committee -- Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), who holds it up at many committee hearings on space exploration. Whether he holds it up at today's hearing or has a new one touting 2028 remains to be seen.
Remaining in orbit is much easier than landing, but some question the value of going all the way to Mars and not landing. While Apollo astronauts orbited the Moon before landing, Mars is much further away -- a 6-month one-way journey. However, landing on Mars is a difficult task as illustrated by the "Seven Minutes of Terror" for the 1-ton Curiosity lander that arrived in 2012. NASA officials often point out that much larger spacecraft will be needed for humans and they have yet to solve issues associated with landing 10-20 ton vehicles.
For those in a hurry to get humans to Mars, an orbital mission could be more achievable, although accomplishing such a feat just 12 years from now would be quite a challenge technically and financially. NASA is currently planning to spend the decade of the 2020s using Orion spacecraft to develop experience in the "proving ground" of cis-lunar space (between the Earth and the Moon) leading up to a one-year "shakedown criuise" in lunar orbit in 2029. The idea is to test equipment and human adaption to long durations in space further from Earth than the International Space Station (ISS) before attempting the Mars journey. ISS is in low Earth orbit and astronauts can return to Earth quickly in an emergency. That would not be true from cis-lunar space and certainly not from Mars.
The House Appropriations Committee approved the FY2017 defense appropriations bill today. It generally steers clear of the RD-180 controversy that is so prevalent in the other defense committees, approving the $296.6 million requested for building an alternative U.S. engine, offering no comment on how many RD-180s should be procured while that new engine is developed. However, it does dip into the topic of awarding launches on a competitive basis and reduces from five to three the number of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) that may be procured in FY2017. The committee expresses concern about planning for future satellite systems, including weather satellites, and provides funding for a commercial weather pilot project.
Strictly speaking, appropriations committees provide funding while authorizing committees set policy and recommend funding levels. The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) is the defense authorization committee in the House. Its bill, the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act, is currently being debated on the House floor. (Not sure of the difference between an authorization and an appropriation? See SpacePolicyOnline.com's "What's a Markup?" fact sheet.)
The House Appropriations Committee's views on national security space issues include the following:
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