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The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported today that a draft study from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reveals problems with the turbine blades on SpaceX rockets that could impact safety and therefore the schedule for commercial crew launches. A GAO spokesman told SpacePolicyOnline.com that he could not confirm the contents of the report because it is only in draft form.
WSJ's Andy Pasztor cites unnamed "government and industry officials familiar with the details of the report" as the sources of the story that GAO found "persistent cracking" of turbine blades in SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket engines. Pasztor goes on to say that NASA "has warned SpaceX that such cracks pose an unacceptable risk for manned flights."
SpaceX did not respond to a request from SpacePolicyOnline.com for comment on the WSJ story by press time. Pasztor quotes an unnamed SpaceX spokesman as saying that the company is modifying its design to avoid the cracks.
GAO Public Affairs Managing Director Chuck Young could confirm to SpacePolicyOnline.com only that GAO has work underway in response to language in the House Appropriations Committee's report to accompany the FY2016 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill (H.R. 2578). He said he could not comment on the contents of a draft report and GAO had not provided copies to reporters. The final report is expected to be released by the end of the month.
GAO is the investigative arm of Congress. It typically allows the agency it is reviewing to comment on drafts and incorporates the comments into its final report as appropriate. It also publishes the text of the agency's response as an appendix.
SpaceX and Boeing were selected by NASA in 2014 to complete development of crew space transportation systems to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) through public-private partnerships. The concept is that the government and the companies both fund the development costs for systems that will be owned and operated by the companies, while the government guarantees to purchase a certain number of launches from them. NASA does this already for robotic cargo spaceflights that resupply the ISS -- commercial cargo. SpaceX and Orbital ATK currently provide commercial cargo services for NASA and Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) will join them in the future.
NASA initiated the companion commercial crew program in FY2011 with the expectation that the systems would be operational by 2015. That date slipped to 2017 at least in part because Congress provided less funding than requested in the program's early years. That eventually changed, however, and Congress provided full or almost full funding for FY2015 and FY2016. The FY2017 budget has not been approved yet. NASA is operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) at its FY2016 level, which in the case of commercial crew is actually more than the request for FY2017.
While NASA's share of the funding may not be an issue now, the date for both SpaceX and Boeing commercial crew flights already has slipped to 2018 and few would be surprised if flights are further delayed.
In its most recent annual report, NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) concluded that "there is still much left to do from a technical perspective" for both companies' systems -- SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner. While it found that there is "no evidence that needed safety considerations are being sacrificed merely to maintain schedule" and praised NASA's "excellent certification process," it cited challenges facing each company. SpaceX turbine blades were not among the issues addressed in the ASAP report. For SpaceX, it focused on the company's "load and go" procedure under which SpaceX plans to fuel the Falcon 9 rocket just prior to launch when the crew is already aboard.
That has never been done in the U.S. human spaceflight program before for safety reasons. The on-pad explosion of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on September 1, 2016 while it was being fueled for a pre-launch test accentuated those concerns. Its payload, an Israeli commercial communications satellite (AMOS-6), was destroyed in the accident. SpaceX noted at the time that if a crew had been aboard, the Crew Dragon's emergency abort system would have carried the capsule away from the pad and the crew would have been safe. Nevertheless, NASA's International Space Station Advisory Committee expressed alarm about SpaceX's plan in November 2016. ASAP's January 2017 report echoed those concerns and "strongly" encouraged NASA "to scrutinize" SpaceX's plan and ensure that any additional risks are worth the gains.
NASA is and will remain dependent on Russia to take astronauts to and from ISS and provide "lifeboat" services for the crews while they are aboard the ISS until the commercial crew systems are operational. NASA has not been able to launch people into space since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.
The House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee laid out its top five priorities for the 115th Congress today. Fifth on the list is "constancy of purpose within NASA."
Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) said in a press release that an "active two years lay ahead" for the committee and identified the following priorities:
Although not on that list, at a Space Transportation Association (STA) event on Monday Smith stressed the need to pass NASA authorization acts for 2017 as well as for 2018. A 2017 authorization act is in the final stages of drafting and may be taken up by the Senate soon. Smith also said that the first NASA hearing will take place in mid-February. It will be aimed at acquainting the committee's new members with NASA's past, present, and future activities.
Today's press release said that the committee will "continue to ensure" that NASA "pursues a balanced portfolio of programs reinvigorated with bold exploration objectives. Building upon the progress made towards the development of the Space Launch System, Orion, and the commercial crew and cargo programs, the committee will ensure NASA stays the course and leads the world in not only space exploration, but also space science."
No mention is made of earth science. Smith and other congressional Republicans have argued for several years that agencies other than NASA should be responsible for earth science research so NASA can focus on space exploration. Advocates for NASA's earth science program point out that NASA is the only agency that launches earth science research satellites, which are critical for understanding the Earth and its environment. The debate over NASA's almost $2 billion per year earth science program is expected to be a major source of contention between Republicans and Democrats this year.
Smith announced Republican subcommittee assignments yesterday. Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), who represents the Texas district that includes Johnson Space Center, will continue to chair the Space Subcommittee with Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) as vice-chairman. Brooks' district includes Marshall Space Flight Center. Twelve other Republicans will serve on the Space Subcommittee, most from districts with government and/or commercial space interests: Dana Rohrabacher (CA), Frank Lucas (OK), Bill Posey (FL), Jim Bridenstine (OK), Stephen Knight (CA), Barbara Comstock (VA), Ralph Lee Abraham (LA), Daniel Webster (FL), Jim Banks (IN), Andy Biggs (AZ), Neal Dunn (FL), and Clay Higgins (LA).
Biggs will chair the Environment Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over NOAA's satellite programs. He replaces Bridenstine, who chaired it in the 114th Congress. Banks will serve as vice chair. The eight other Republicans on this subcommittee are: Rohrabacher, Posey, Brooks, Randy Weber (TX), Babin, Gary Palmer (AL), Barry Loudermilk (GA), and Higgins.
The other three subcommittees -- Energy, Oversight, and Research and Technology -- have little or no direct involvement in space issues.
Democrats have not yet announced their full committee or subcommittee members.
Smith also made staffing announcements yesterday. Among them: Jennifer Young Brown will continue as the committee's chief of staff; Tom Hammond will continue as staff director of the Space Subcommittee; and Joseph Brazauskas will serve as staff director of the Environment Subcommittee.
NASA observed its annual Day of Remembrance today with a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. Each year about this time, NASA honors astronauts who died in connection with spaceflights, particularly the Apollo 1, space shuttle Challenger and space shuttle Columbia crews who died on January 27, 1967, January 28, 1986, and February 1, 2003 respectively.
NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, other NASA officials, and the astronauts' families and friends participated in today's ceremony.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire and two events were held at Kennedy Space Center last week as a special tribute to the crew. They died when fire broke out in their Apollo spacecraft during a ground test on January 27, 1967 prior to a scheduled February 21 launch. Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died of asphyxiation. The Apollo capsule was filled with 100 percent oxygen at 16.7 pounds per square inch (psi) pressure. The cause of the fire is thought to have been a spark from an electrical wire although the investigation could not conclusively identify the ignition source. The capsule had been designed for the hatch to swing inward. With the pressure inside the capsule greater than that outside, it was impossible for the crew to open it quickly and with fire spreading explosively in 100 percent oxygen, there was little time. Many changes were made to the design of the Apollo capsule and to test procedures afterwards.
Nineteen years and one day later, on January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff when a rubber "O-ring" in one of its Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB) failed because of unusually cold temperatures. The mission was designated STS-51L. A Presidential Commission chaired by former Secretary of State William Rogers found that the O-ring failure was the technical cause of the tragedy, but flawed decision-making was a contributing cause: "The decision to launch the Challenger was flawed. Those who made that decision were unaware of the recent history of problems concerning the O-rings and the joint and were unaware of the initial written recommendation of the contractor advising against the launch at temperatures below 53 degrees Fahrenheit and the continuing opposition of the engineers at Thiokol after the management reversed its position. They did not have a clear understanding of Rockwell's concern that it was not safe to launch because of ice on the pad. If the decisionmakers had known all of the facts, it is highly unlikely that they would have decided to launch 51-L on January 28, 1986."
The astronauts who died in the Challenger tragedy were:
Almost exactly 14 years after Challenger, on February 1, 2003, the crew of the space shuttle Columbia was killed during their return to Earth after a 16-day science mission designated STS-107. Columbia disintegrated when the superheated gases encountered during reentry into Earth's atmosphere entered one of its wings through a hole punctured by a piece of foam that fell from the shuttle's External Tank during launch. The extreme heat - a normal part of reentry - caused the wing to fail structurally, creating aerodynamic forces that led to the disintegration of the orbiter. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), chaired by Adm. Harold Gehman (Ret.), concluded that the tragedy was caused by both technical and organizational failures. Changes were made and the space shuttle returned to flight in 2005, but foam continued to fall from the External Tank during subsequent launches. Safety was one of the factors in the George W. Bush Administration's decision to terminate the shuttle program once construction of the International Space Station was completed. The Obama Administration adopted the Bush Administration's position and the shuttle program ended in July 2011.
The astronauts who died in the Columbia tragedy were:
Two top Republicans on the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee are urging quick passage of the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act. As we reported yesterday, a new draft is circulating right now and could see action in the Senate this week.
House SS&T Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), who chaired the Space Subcommittee in the last Congress and is expected to do so again, both spoke at a Space Transportation Association (STA) event this evening. Smith said he hoped for action in the Senate in the next few days.
The Senate passed the 2016 NASA Transition Authorization Act in the closing days of the 114th Congress, but the House had already completed its legislative business for the year so the bill did not clear Congress. A slightly revised version is now being readied and Smith and Babin both spoke optimistically about its passage in order to achieve one of its key themes -- continuity. Congressional Republicans and Democrats have stressed the need to avoid any major disruptions to NASA programs as happened early in President Obama's administration. Obama cancelled President George W. Bush's Constellation program to return humans to the surface of the Moon by 2020 and replaced it with a program to send humans to orbit Mars by the 2030s, with the Asteroid Redirect Mission in between. Obama also shifted NASA out of transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS), instead using public-private partnerships to develop "commercial crew" capabilities. NASA will buy services from companies rather than building and owning its own system. Boeing and SpaceX were chosen to develop the commercial crew systems, which have not yet flown. NASA has not been able to launch people into space since the space shuttle was terminated in 2011. It relies on Russia to take astronauts to and from ISS.
The most recent NASA authorization act became law in 2010. Its funding recommendations covered only three years, through FY2013, although its policy provisions remain in force. The new draft NASA Transition Authorization Act would recommend funding only for FY2017, which is already in progress, but provides policy guidance for most of NASA's programs. Policy provisions typically do not expire.
Smith and Babin did not commit to when the House would take up a Senate-passed bill, but made clear that they hope for quick action, followed by a 2018 NASA authorization act.
Smith also said that the committee's first space-related hearing would take place in mid-February and would be a "panoramic view" of NASA's past, present and future to acquaint the many new members of the committee with NASA's activities. Republican members of the committee have been named, but not the Democrats, and subcommittee assignments are pending. Smith said there would be many space hearings this year, perhaps more than the 19 held last year.
No news was offered on when a new NASA Administrator might be nominated. Smith said only that he expected it "in coming weeks." Babin added that although he and Smith do not know any details of what President Trump's budget request for NASA will be, he is "confident" they all are on the same page -- providing NASA with appropriate funding because "a great nation needs a robust, reliable, executable and rational space exploration program and I think that our President Trump realizes this and knows it."
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of January 30 - February 3, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
Tuesday is NASA's official Day of Remembrance, honoring the crews of Apollo 1, space shuttle Challenger, space shuttle Columbia and other astronauts who lost their lives in connection with spaceflight. Some events have already taken place, including two at Kennedy Space Center last week to specially honor the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire that killed Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee on January 27, 1967. Nineteen years and a day later, on January 28, 1986, Challenger's 7-person crew died 73 seconds after launch when an O-ring on a solid rocket booster failed. Seventeen years and four days after that, on February 1, 2003, Columbia's 7-person crew died during their descent to Earth after a 16-day mission when superheated gases entered a hole in Columbia's wing punctured by a piece of foam that fell from the shuttle's External Tank during launch. NASA has a special Day of Remembrance webpage honoring all of them. Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot will lay a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery on Tuesday and other events will take place at various NASA centers around the country.
In Congress this week, a new version of the NASA Transition Authorization Act is being readied for potential consideration by the Senate. The Senate passed a 2016 bill in the closing days of the 114th Congress, unfortunately after the House already had completed its legislative business so the bill did not clear Congress. Members and staff have kept working on it and a 2017 version with some modifications is being circulated. According to a draft we've seen, there are three especially interesting changes. One clarifies that the primary consideration for the acquisition strategy for the commercial crew program is to carry U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) "safely, reliably, and affordably." Another directs NASA to report to Congress on how the Orion spacecraft can fulfill the provision in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that it be able to serve as a backup to commercial crew, including with use of a launch vehicle other than the Space Launch System. The third is a finding that NASA has not demonstrated to Congress that the cost of the Asteroid Redirect Mission is commensurate with its benefits, a stronger statement than what was in the 2016 bill. Discussions are still ongoing, apparently, about potential language regarding best practices for using Space Act Agreements. The course of legislation is rarely smooth, so there's no guarantee the bill will be introduced and considered this week, but we hear that's the plan.
Also on the Senate side, a vote is scheduled for Tuesday at 12:20 pm ET on the nomination of Elaine Chao to be Secretary of Transportation. A vote on Wilbur Ross's nomination to be Secretary of Commerce has not been formally scheduled, but is expected this week.
Subject to a rule being granted, the House will take up a completely different piece of legislation this week. A still unnumbered House Joint Resolution (H. J. Res.) would disapprove of a final rule issued by DOD, NASA and the General Services Administration (GSA) on August 25, 2016 that went into effect on October 25, 2016 to implement Executive Order 13673 regarding Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces. The resolution is posted on the House Rules Committee's website and states that Congress disapproves of 81 Fed. Reg. 58562 to improve contractor compliance with labor laws. The House Rules Committee will take it up on Tuesday. Assuming the rule is granted, the House is scheduled to vote on it on Thursday.
Off the Hill, the American Physical Society is holding its "April Meeting" in January. It began yesterday and runs through January 31. Of particular note is a presentation by the Russian Ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, on Tuesday. He will talk about "Science and Technology Cooperation as an Effective Bridge for Strengthening Relations Between Russia and the US." The conference is not focused on space and Kislyak's talk may be quite broad about S&T cooperation, but it would be surprising if the ISS doesn't get mentioned.
Way, way, way off the Hill -- in Vienna, Austria -- the Science and Technology Subcommittee of the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) holds its annual two-week meeting beginning tomorrow.
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, January 30
Monday-Tuesday, January 30-31 (actually began on January 28)
Monday, January 30 - Friday, February 10
Tuesday, January 31
Thursday, February 2
Friday, February 3
Today is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire that killed the first Apollo crew -- Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) held special tributes to the Apollo 1 crew yesterday and today as part of NASA's annual Day of Remembrance activities, which honor the Apollo 1, space shuttle Challenger and space shuttle Columbia crews and other fallen astronauts. On Tuesday, NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot will lay a wreath at Arlington Cemetery near memorials to the Challenger and Columbia crews, but there is no memorial there for Apollo 1. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) is reintroducing legislation today to remedy that situation.
On January 27, 1967, the United States suffered its first space tragedy when Grissom, White, and Chaffee died of asphyxiation after fire broke out in their Apollo Command Module during a test prior to a planned February 21 launch. The capsule was filled with 100 percent oxygen at 16.7 pounds per square inch (psi) pressure. The cause of the fire is thought to have been a spark from an electrical wire although the investigation could not conclusively identify the ignition source. The capsule had been designed for the hatch to swing inward. With the pressure inside the capsule greater than that outside, it was impossible for the crew to open it quickly and with fire spreading explosively in 100 percent oxygen, there was little time. Many changes were made to the design of the Apollo capsule and to test procedures afterwards.
Tributes were paid at the two KSC events to the Apollo 1 crew and to the support personnel who were on the Launch Pad 34 gantry just outside the spacecraft who tried to rescue them. Among the speakers were legendary astronauts Mike Collins (Gemini 10, Apollo 11) and Tom Stafford (Gemini 6, Gemini 9, Apollo 10, Apollo-Soyuz Test Project) and Chaffee's daughter, Sheryl Chaffee, who recently retired after her own career at KSC.
Collins spoke at yesterday's ceremony, which was dedicated to all the astronauts honored at the Astronaut Memorial Foundation's Space Mirror, and Stafford spoke today at the opening of an exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex dedicated to the Apollo 1 crew. Both men knew Grissom, White and Chaffee quite well from the astronaut corps and in some cases from much earlier friendships (Collins and White were students at West Point together, for example). Stafford was selected in the second group of astronauts in 1962 and Collins in the third group in 1963. Grissom was one of the original "Mercury 7 astronauts" selected in 1959. White joined the astronaut corps in 1962 and Chaffee in 1963 along with Collins.
Collins and Stafford both stressed that although their friends and colleagues lost their lives, the lessons learned from the Apollo 1 tragedy made the Apollo spacecraft safer and led to the success of the Apollo program overall. If the design deficiencies of the Apollo spacecraft had not been discovered on the ground, such a fire could have occurred while a crew was in space and NASA might never have learned why, leading to a greater disruption in the space program. Collins said: "Without Apollo 1 and the lessons learned from it in all probability such a fire would have taken place later, in flight, and not only the crew, but the entire spacecraft, would have been lost. NASA, with no machinery to examine could only guess at the causes and how to prevent still another occurrence. Yes, Apollo 1 did cause three deaths, but I believe it saved more than three later." Stafford echoed those sentiments.
Sheryl Chaffee movingly recounted what it was like as an 8-year old learning of her father's death and how it impacted her life and led to having her own 33-year career at KSC. But she also explained how she felt the sacrifices of the Apollo 1 crew were not adequately acknowledged by NASA for many years. In the days before January 28,1987, the 1-year anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger tragedy, she said she noticed that someone had placed flowers in the lobby of the headquarters building in their memory, but there were none to honor the Apollo 1 crew who had lost their lives almost exactly 20 years earlier. "I felt no one remembered. So I took that into my own hands. I ordered flowers in honor of Apollo 1 and had them placed in the headquarters lobby next to the Challenger flowers. At that moment it became my mission to make sure we never forget the Apollo 1 crew and all our other fallen astronauts."
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson is also trying to ensure that the Apollo 1 crew is not forgotten. Today she is reintroducing a bill from the last Congress to create a memorial at Arlington National Cemetery for Apollo 1 similar to those for the Challenger and Columbia crews. Grissom and Chaffee are buried at Arlington; White is buried at West Point.
In a press release, Johnson said that although they were posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, "it is surprising that we do not have a memorial to honor the lives of the crew of Apollo 1 as was done for the Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia crews. This bill would redress that unfortunate omission."
The bill is identical to last year's legislation, H.R. 6147, according to a Johnson spokeswoman. It would direct the Secretary of the Army to construct a memorial marker to the Apollo 1 crew at an "appropriate place" in the cemetery and allocate $500,000 of money appropriated to the Army for operations and maintenance in FY2017 for that purpose. It also would allow the Administrator of NASA to accept donations for the memorial and transfer the money to the Army. The Army oversees Arlington Cemetery.
Space Shuttle Challenger was destroyed 73 seconds after liftoff on January 28, 1986, killing all aboard: NASA astronauts Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, and Ron McNair; Payload Specialist Greg Jarvis from Hughes Space and Communications; and Teacher in Space Christa McAuliffe. An O-ring in one of the shuttle's two solid rocket boosters failed due to unusually low temperatures at the launch site.
Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during its descent from orbit on February 1, 2003 after a 16-day science mission, killing all aboard: NASA astronauts Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, and Laurel Blair Salton Clark; and Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon of the Israeli Air Force. Foam falling from the shuttle's External Tank during launch had punctured a hole in Columbia's wing, allowing the superheated gases encountered during atmospheric reentry to enter and deform the wing. Aerodynamic forces tore the shuttle apart.
Former NOAA Administrator and NASA astronaut Kathy Sullivan has been selected by the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum (NASM) as the 2017 Charles A. Lindbergh Chair of Aerospace History. She will spend her one year in that position writing a book about satellite servicing as a philosophy and practice. As a space shuttle astronaut, she not only was the first American woman to conduct a spacewalk, but was on the shuttle mission that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope, the poster child of satellite servicing.
Sullivan resigned as Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Administrator of NOAA on January 20 at the end of the Obama Administration. An oceanographer by training, she has a long career in aerospace including her years as a NASA astronaut (1978-1993), president and CEO of the interactive science center COSI Columbus (Ohio), Director of Ohio State's Battelle Center for Mathematics and Science Education, and an earlier stint at NOAA as chief scientist.
The Lindbergh Chair of Aerospace History is a competitive one-year fellowship for senior scholars who are writing or plan to write books in aerospace history. According to the NASM press release, Sullivan's book on satellite servicing will discuss its "philosophy and practice, with attention to the creation of design features, tools, procedures, training, tests and evaluation."
Sullivan flew on three space shuttle missions: STS 41-G in 1984 when she became the first American woman to make a spacewalk, just months after Svetlana Savitskaya became the first woman ever to do it; STS-31 in 1990 that deployed Hubble; and STS-45 in 1992, the first Spacelab mission devoted to studying planet Earth.
Hubble is renowned today for its spectacular images of the universe and groundbreaking science. It was the first space telescope designed to be serviced by astronauts, which turned out to be a really good thing because its mirror was deformed. Astronauts on the first servicing mission essentially fitted the telescope with a special pair of glasses that made it see properly. Over the course of four more servicing missions, the instruments and major components, including the solar arrays, were replaced. Launched almost 27 years ago, it is still returning valuable data because of its ability to be serviced.
Its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), however, is not designed to be serviced and debate continues about whether it should have been and whether future space telescopes should be. NASA has been working on developing robotic satellite servicing technology through the RESTORE-L program at Goddard Space Flight Center for more than a decade and recently elevated those efforts from an "office" to a "division." NASA efforts are aimed at servicing satellites in low Earth orbit. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has its own Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) technology development program. Orbital ATK and Space Systems Loral also are working on satellite servicing technologies.
The idea has many skeptics in terms of whether it could ever become a commercially viable enterprise and others question whether the government is competing with the private sector in developing the technologies, so there is much for Sullivan's book to elucidate.
Secretary of Commerce-designate Wilbur Ross has assured Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) that he supports weather and climate research, monitoring and reporting at the Department of Commerce, of which NOAA is a part, and providing that data to the public. Nelson is the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which approved Ross's nomination today. [UPDATE, February 27, 2017: Ross was confirmed by the Senate today by a vote of 72-27.]
Nelson wrote to Ross on January 19 asking for a "clear commitment" to supporting climate research and monitoring programs at the Department if Ross is confirmed. Nelson added that "I fully expect that you will safeguard the department's scientists from political interference, intimidation and censorship."
Ross replied on January 23 in the affirmative. Asking to set aside questions of why sea levels and ocean temperatures are changing and instead focus for now on addressing the impacts of those changes, Ross said the Department "should continue to research, monitor and report weather and climate information.... [I]f confirmed, one of my first orders of business will be to begin meeting with NOAA scientists to become fully briefed on what they are seeing with respect to weather and climate information and how the Department can ensure that the National Weather Service continues to make advances to improve the timeliness and accuracy of weather forecasting."
Referencing his testimony at his confirmation hearing last week, Ross continued: "I believe science should be left to scientists." He also said he wanted to provide the public "with as much factual and accurate data as we have available. It is public tax dollars that support the Department's scientific research, and barring some national security concern, I see no valid reason to keep peer reviewed research from the public. To be clear, by peer review I mean scientific review and not a political filter."
Ross's comments come against a backdrop of growing concern in the scientific community that the Trump Administration is trying to prevent the public release of scientific data from federal agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service since the inauguration. The Associated Press (AP) reported on what it called the White House "communications clampdown" in the executive branch. The AP quoted a Trump transition official, Doug Ericksen, at EPA as saying it is temporary while they are "trying to get a handle on everything," but there is concern about what it portends. AP went on to quote Jeff Ruch from the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility as saying that what the Trump Administration is doing goes beyond prior presidential transitions and "We're watching the dark cloud of Mordor extend over federal service," in reference to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.
At its annual meeting in Seattle today, the American Meteorological Society (AMS) reaffirmed its official statement on Freedom of Scientific Expression. "Already the new Administration is restraining communications from government agencies related to the weather, water, and climate community. In several instances in recent years, government agencies and elected officials of both major political parties have attempted to obstruct or inhibit the work of scientists," AMS said in a press release, which prompted the Society to adopt its statement originally in 2012 and readopt it today without modification.
Ross's nomination to be Secretary of Commerce was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee this morning by voice vote, along with that for Elaine Chao to be Secretary of Transportation. There was no dissent. The committee also approved the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act (S. 141) as amended, and the Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act (H.R. 321), and 16 other bills.
The White House announced today that President Trump will nominate former Rep. Heather Wilson to serve as Secretary of the Air Force (SecAF). Wilson represented the 1st district of New Mexico from 1998-2009 and currently is President of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. She will succeed Deborah Lee James who was SecAF during most of President Obama's second term.
Wilson graduated with a bachelor of science degree from the Air Force Academy in 1982, then earned Masters and doctoral degrees (D.Phil) in international relations as a Rhodes Scholar at England's Oxford University. After service in Europe as an Air Force Officer (Captain), she joined President George H.W. Bush's National Security Council staff in 1989. In 1991, she left government service and founded Keystone International in Albuquerque, NM. In 1995, she was appointed by the Governor of New Mexico to be Cabinet Secretary for Children, Youth and Families.
She was elected to Congress in 1998 and served on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the House Armed Services Committee, and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. In 2008, she decided to run for Senate to succeed Sen. Pete Dominici, but lost in the primary. She ran again for the Senate in 2012 to succeed Sen. Jeff Bingaman, but lost in the general election.
Wilson has been President of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City, SD since 2013. Among its activities, the School has a close relationship with the Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead, SD where research on neutrinos, dark matter and subatomic particles is conducted. She is the first female President of the School.
James resigned as SecAF at noon on January 20 when the Obama Administration ended. Under Secretary of the Air Force Lisa Disbrow became Acting SecAF at that point and will remain in that position until Wilson is confirmed by the Senate and sworn in. Disbrow is a retired Air Force Reserve Colonel with more than 30 years of national security experience including serving as a senior systems engineer at the National Reconnaissance Office.
Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of January 22-27, 2017 and any insight we offer about them. The House will be in session for the first part of the week (Monday-Wednesday); the Senate is scheduled to be in session all week. [Updated to add newly scheduled Senate Commerce Committee votes on Chao and Ross nominations.]
During the Week
"The week" kicks off today with the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society (AMS), which runs through Thursday in Seattle. AMS is one of the places where earth scientists gather to reveal new discoveries, discuss new projects, and debate related issues. Satellites are one method of obtaining earth science data, of course, so NASA and NOAA are major participants.
The AMS meeting includes the 14th Conference on Space Weather, a topic that will also be debated in Congress this week. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee will mark up the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act (S. 141) on Tuesday. It was originally introduced in the 114th Congress, but did not pass and was reintroduced last week. In addition, the National Weather Service, on behalf of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), is releasing two space weather draft documents for public comment in the Federal Register that is dated January 23 (tomorrow), but was emailed on Friday. One is draft Phase I Space Weather Benchmarks and the other is a white paper on improving space weather research to operations (R2O) and operations to research (O2R). Comments are due in March.
Congress has not completed action on the FY2017 budget and there is no pending FY2018 request, but that doesn't mean the debate can't begin. Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) released his own plan for defense spending for FY2018-2022 last week and will hold a hearing on it Tuesday. CSIS is holding its own defense budget discussion tomorrow. Both events will be webcast.
DOD is one of only two government agencies with new Senate-confirmed leaders today. Gen. James Mattis (USMC, Ret.) was confirmed and sworn in as Secretary of Defense on Friday. (The other is Secretary of Homeland Security Gen. John Kelly, USMC, Ret.) More confirmation votes are expected this week. Senate Republicans had hoped to approve at least one other nominee on Friday (for CIA Director), but Democrats objected there had been insufficient time to review his and other nominees' vetting forms and debate their qualifications for the jobs.
As originally announced, the Senate Commerce Committee markup scheduled for Tuesday did not include votes on the nominees under its jurisdiction -- Elaine Chao as Secretary of Transportation and Wilbur Ross as Secretary of Commerce. On Sunday afternoon, however, the committee added those nominations to the list of items that will be considered. The markup is at 10:00 am in 253 Russell. In addition to the space weather bill and these nominations, the committee will also mark up the INSPIRE Women Act, H.R. 321, that passed the House on January 10.
No announcements have been made yet about who will be the new NASA Administrator. Robert Lightfoot is Acting Administrator. As expected, Erik Noble has been named White House advisor for NASA and Greg Autry is the White House liaison. Noble is an atmospheric scientist who once worked for NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, but more recently was a political data analyst for the Trump campaign. Autry most recently was an assistant professor of clinical entrepreneurship at the University of Southern Califlornia. No word on a new NOAA Administrator either. Benjamin Friedman is Acting Administrator.
Friday is the 50th anniversary of the January 27, 1967 Apollo 1 (or Apollo 204) tragedy that killed astronauts Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chafee. Legislation introduced in the last Congress by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) would have established a memorial for them at Arlington National Cemetery similar to those for the space shuttle Challenger and Columbia crews. It did not clear the 114th Congress, however, and it does not appear to have been reintroduced so far this year. NASA's Kennedy Space Center will hold an event on Thursday to honor them and other fallen astronauts as part of NASA's annual "remembrance" activities. The actual Day of Remembrance will be on January 31; details TBA.
January 27, 1967 is also the day that the United Nations Outer Space Treaty was opened for signature. The American Society of International Law, the Secure World Foundation and Georgetown Space Law Society will hold a seminar commemorating that 50th anniversary on Friday at Georgetown Law School.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week for others that we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.
Sunday-Thursday, January 22-26
Monday, January 23
Tuesday, January 24
Tuesday-Wednesday, January 24-25
Wednesday, January 25
Thursday, January 26
Thursday-Friday, January 26-27
Friday, January 27
Note: This article was updated on Sunday afternoon after the Senate Commerce Committee added the Chao and Ross nominations to the list of items to be considered at Tuesday's markup.
Events of Interest