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UPDATE, June 24, 2016: The launch was successfully conducted at 10:30 am ET today.
ORIGINAL STORY, June 22, 2016: The United Launch Alliance (ULA) is getting ready to launch an Atlas V rocket on Friday, the first since an anomaly occurred on a March 22 launch that placed the Orbital ATK OA-6 Cygnus cargo spacecraft into orbit. Friday's launch of a military communications satellite, MUOS-5, originally was planned for May 5, but was delayed while ULA and its suppliers diagnosed and fixed the problem.
During the March 22 launch, the Atlas V first stage engine shut down 6 seconds early. Fortunately, the Centaur second stage was able to compensate for the under-performance of the first stage. It fired 60 seconds longer than planned, placing the OA-6 Cygnus spacecraft into the proper orbit and allowing it to successfully dock with the International Space Station (ISS) and deliver supplies. Cygnus just completed its mission today and reentered Earth's atmosphere. It is not designed to survive reentry. (Cygnus departed from the ISS on June 14 and then was used for the SAFFIRE-1 experiment where a fire was intentionally started inside the capsule to study how fire evolves in microgravity. Later, several small "cubesats" were ejected into orbit before Cygnus itself made its final maneuver into a destructive reentry.)
Atlas V is powered by Russia's usually highly reliable RD-180 engine. ULA quickly traced the problem to the RD-180's fuel system and in late April specified that it was the RD-180's Mixture Ratio Control Valve. In a June 15 statement, ULA went further in explaining what happened: "at approximately T+222 seconds, an unexpected shift in fuel pressure differential across the RD-180 Mixture Ratio Control Valve (MRCV) and a reduction in fuel flow to the combustion chamber caused an oxidizer-rich mixture of propellants and a reduction in first stage performance. The imbalanced propellant consumption rate resulted in depletion of the first stage oxidizer with significant fuel remaining at booster engine shutdown. The engine supplier has implemented a minor change to the MRCV assembly to ensure the anomaly does not occur on future flights."
ULA's Atlas V is used for a broad range of military and civilian space launches and the company insists that it will launch all of its 2016 scheduled missions by the end of the year. That includes NASA's asteroid sample return mission OSIRIS-REx, scheduled for September. Use of the RD-180 engine for national security launches is currently the topic of intense congressional debate and the U.S. goal is to build a U.S. alternative to it.
Friday's launch of the Navy's fifth Multiple User Objective System (MUOS-5) communications satellite from Cape Canaveral, FL is scheduled for 10:30 am EDT. The window is open until 11:15 am EDT. The weather forecast is 80 percent favorable. ULA typically webcasts its launches.
In a report for the Atlantic Council, Theresa Hitchens and Joan Johnson-Freese argue that the incoming administration needs to relook at U.S. national security space strategy. Instead of relying on alliterative slogans whose meanings are unclear, a goal-oriented strategy – “proactive prevention” -- is needed to ensure that space remains usable for future generations and conflict in space is avoided.
Hitchens is a senior research scholar at the Center for International Security Studies at the University of Maryland and former director of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR). Johnson-Freese is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College and an expert on China’s space program. The two discussed the paper at an Atlantic Council event on June 17, where Johnson-Freese stressed that the viewpoints are her own, not those of DOD or the Navy.
During the early years of the Obama Administration, two catch phrases became popular: that space is “congested, contested and competitive”(the three Cs) and that the United States must maintain the ability to “deter, defend, and, if necessary, defeat” (the three Ds) efforts to attack U.S. or allied space assets.
While both have coexisted in U.S. space policy throughout the Obama Administration, the early focus was on the three Cs and the need to develop international agreements on how to ensure that space is “sustainable” for use in the future and not ruined, for example, by the growth of space debris.
A Chinese antisatellite (ASAT) test against one of its own satellites that created more than 3,000 pieces of debris in 2007 and a collision between an active U.S. Iridium communications satellite and a defunct Russian Kosmos satellite in 2009 added considerably to the population of debris in low Earth orbit. Those events catalyzed U.S. efforts to create Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs) through the United Nations. In parallel, the European Union drafted a Code of Conduct (CoC) to define what constitutes good behavior in space so that countries could understand what constitutes bad behavior in the eyes of the international space community. The idea was that peer pressure would encourage countries to behave well and not recklessly add to the space debris problem, for example.
Hitchens and Johnson-Freese argue that all that changed in 2013 when China tested an ASAT weapon that reached geostationary orbit (GEO). Until then, all ASAT tests – by the United States, Soviet Union/Russia, and China – threatened only satellites in lower orbits. While those are very important, Hitchens argues that the most critical national security satellites are those in GEO, which until then was thought to be a “sanctuary” where satellites were safe from attack. The 2013 Chinese test changed the threat perception and hardened U.S. attitudes. Attention shifted to the three Ds (deter, defend, defeat). At about the same time, Europe’s Code of Conduct effort essentially fell apart.
Today, Johnson-Freese and Hitchens argue that the United States needs to reassess what its goals are in space and how to achieve them rather than using the “bumper stickers” of the three Cs and three Ds or “scaring people” with recent rhetoric about the need to increase spending for space security by $5 billion and last year’s 60 Minutes segment with Gen. John Hyten and Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James discussing “The Battle Above.”
They describe their paper as a starting point for discussion that begins with the premise that the goal is to avoid conflict in space since the United States is heavily dependent on satellites not only for national security purposes, but for everyday life. In fact, they argue that civil government agencies like NASA and NOAA as well as industry must be involved in generating a new national security space strategy – a “holistic” approach – since they are also deeply involved in space activities.
Hitchens and Johnson-Freese propose a “proactive prevention” strategy “aimed squarely at preventing a space conflict, while also preparing to win one if need be.” Their paper is published on the Atlantic Council website.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of June 20-25, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
The Senate is scheduled to continue debate on the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill this week, which funds NASA and NOAA It got off to a rocky start last week when a Democratic filibuster over gun control in the wake of the Orlando tragedy held up action for about a day (as its name implies, the bill also funds the Department of Justice), but agreement was reached to allow votes on gun control amendments and debate on the bill resumed. The House schedule for the coming week still was not posted as of Sunday afternoon. The House meets only in pro forma session tomorrow, then will meet for legislative business Tuesday-Friday before taking off a week plus a bit for the July 4 holiday.
On Wednesday, the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee will hold a rare hearing on commercial space transportation. The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) is under the jurisdiction of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, but T&I has jurisdiction over the rest of the FAA and some commercial space transportation-related activities are handled by other parts of the FAA. For FY2017, for example, in addition to the $19.8 million for AST, FAA is requesting $2.0 million as part of a $20 million request for Air Traffic Management (ATM) in the Facilities and Equipment (F&E) account and $2.953 million for commercial space transportation safety in the Research, Engineering and Development (RE&D) account. The ATM funding is for integrating commercial launches into the National Air Space, a growing issue with the rise in the number of orbital and suborbital launches -- and in the case of the Dragon spacecraft, landings -- that require aircraft to avoid certain areas. FAA/AST head George Nield, COMSTAC's Mike Gold and Michael Lopez-Alegria, GAO's Gerald Dillingham, and Taber MacCallum from World View Enterprises are the witnesses. World View Enterprises plans high altitude (stratospheric) balloon flights for tourists and counts Alan Stern and Mark Kelly as members of its executive team.
Speaking of launches, NASA Wallops Flight Facility Director Bill Wrobel will speak to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable on Tuesday. Wallops is getting ready for the return to flight of Orbital ATK's Antares rocket, although that has been delayed to August.
Still speaking of launches, China reportedly is getting ready for the first launch of yet another new rocket from a brand new launch site, possibly on Saturday. China had inaugural launches of two new rockets last year, both at the smaller end of the capability scale (Long March 6 and Long March 11) from existing launch sites. The upcoming launch is the first from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island. China has not officially announced a launch date, but there are rumors it will be on June 25 (which might be June 24 Eastern Daylight Time depending on the launch time). China has big plans for Wenchang, which will also be the home of the new Long March 5 rocket, expected to achieve its first launch later this year. Long March 7 is a mid-sized rocket (13.5 metric tons to LEO), while Long March 5 will be China's most capable rocket ever at 25 metric tons to LEO. (The largest U.S. rocket is the Delta IV, which can place 28.4 metric tons into LEO.) The newer Long March rockets use more environmentally friendly fuel and are intended eventually to replace the older models (Long March 2, 3 and 4).
Also on Saturday, Politicon 2016 will be starting in Pasadena, CA. The Planetary Society (TPS) has a panel discussion scheduled for 2:00 pm Pacific Daylight Time on "How We Get to Mars." A June 16 tweet from TPS's Director of Advocacy Casey Dreier identifies the panelists as TPS CEO Bill Nye, former Hill staffer Bill Adkins (now President of Adkins Strategies, LLC), and former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver (now General Manager of the Air Line Pilots Association).
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are shown below. Check back throughout the week for new items added to our Events of Interest list that we learn about later.
Tuesday, June 21
Tuesday-Thursday, June 21-23
Wednesday, June 22
Saturday, June 25
UPDATE, June 19, 2016: The test was successfully conducted.
ORIGINAL STORY, June 17, 2016: Blue Origin will conduct another test launch of its reusable New Shepard rocket on Sunday, June 19, 2016. The often secretive company, owned and headed by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, not only announced this test in advance, but will livestream it on the Internet.
The test was originally scheduled for today (June 17), but was delayed because of a technical issue. It is now scheduled for 10:15 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) on Sunday; the webcast will be available on Blue Origin's website beginning at 9:45 am EDT.
New Shepard is designed to take passengers on suborbital spaceflights and not only return them to Earth, but the rocket as well. The passengers will ride inside a capsule that is ejected from the rocket during its descent and lands using parachutes. The purpose of this test is to determine if the capsule could land successfully if one of its three parachute strings fails. No one will be aboard this flight.
Bezos emphasized in a tweet that this one-chute-out test is a demonstration flight and "anything can happen."
This is the fourth flight of the same New Shepard rocket. Blue Origin's test launch facilities are in West Texas.
UPDATE June 18, 2016, 5:25 am EDT: Soyuz TMA-19M and her three-man crew landed successfully at 5:15 am EDT in Kazakhstan (3:15 pm local time at the landing site) after 186 days in space.
ORIGINAL STORY, June 17, 2016, 9:24 pm EDT: Three International Space Station (ISS) crew members will return to Earth overnight aboard their Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft, landing in the early hours of Saturday morning Eastern Daylight Time (EDT)
NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Tim Peake (from Britain). and Roscosmos cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko will undock from the ISS at 1:52 am EDT and land in Kazakhstan at 5:15 am EDT according to NASA. NASA TV will cover those events beginning at 1:30 am EDT and 4:00 am EDT respectively.
The three men launched to ISS on December 15, 2015 and docked later that day.
The return to flight of Orbital ATK's Antares rocket will be sometime in August rather than July 6. The company is still analyzing data from its May 31 hot fire test and the timing of the launch also depends on other activities on the International Space Station (ISS).
The July 6 date has always been tentative, but in an emailed statement to SpacePolicyOnline.com today, Orbital ATK confirmed the slip to August.
"We are continuing to prepare for the upcoming launch of the Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft for the OA-5 cargo logistics mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. Our Antares team recently completed a successful stage test and is wrapping up the test data analysis.
"Final trajectory shaping work is also currently underway, which is likely to result in an updated launch schedule in the August timeframe. A final decision on the mission schedule, which takes into account the space station traffic schedule and cargo requirements, will be made in conjunction with NASA in the next several weeks. Also, our Cygnus spacecraft for the OA-6 mission successfully undocked from the space station and hosted the Spacecraft Fire Experiment-I (Saffire). The team is now performing the final OA-6 mission milestones."
The delay was first reported by Space News.
Orbital ATK uses Antares to launch Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the ISS. An October 2014 attempt failed 15 seconds after launch because of a problem with its AJ26 engine, a version of a Russian NK-33 engine built in the 1970s and refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne. The company decided to replace the AJ26/NK-33 engines with new Russian RD-181s. Two RD-181s are needed for each launch instead of one AJ26/NK-33.
A hot fire test of the re-engined Antares with two RD-181s took place on May 31 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops Island, VA, the launch site for Antares.
While awaiting the Antares return to flight, Orbital ATK has launched two Cygnus cargo craft to ISS using United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets. Those were the Orbital ATK (OA)-4 and OA-6 missions. OA-6 just departed from the ISS and will reenter Earth's atmosphere on July 22. The Antares return-to-flight mission is OA-5. The sequence is out of order because OA-5 was intended to take place between OA-4 and OA-6, but Antares was delayed and the decision was made to keep the mission designations with their launch vehicles (OA-4 and -6 on ULA's Atlas V; OA-5 on Orbital ATK's Antares).
The House passed the FY2017 Defense Appropriations Bill ( H.R. 5293) today by a vote of 282-138. No space-related amendments were adopted so those provisions remain as they were in the House Appropriations Committee's version of the bill. The Obama Administration threatened to veto the bill as reported from committee in part because it cuts funding for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.
The House bill addresses several national security space issues -- from SBIRS to AEHF to weather satellites -- but steers clear of the fractious RD-180 rocket engine controversy in terms of how long they may be used and how many may be purchased (a battle which may finally be over). However, it does require that in future competitions, the award is to be made to the provider that offers the best value -- not necessarily the best price -- to the government. The United Launch Alliance (ULA) argues that it cannot compete with SpaceX on price, but its 100 percent mission success rate is a valuable factor that should count in its bids. (Mission success means that the satellite was placed into the intended orbit, even if problems may have occurred during the launch.)
A separate controversy has arisen this year, however, over how many EELVs the Air Force may buy in FY2017. The request was for $1.501 billion to buy five EELVs, but the House committee decided two were "early to need."
The report accompanying the House bill did not offer a further explanation, but the Senate Appropriations Committee also denied funds for two of the EELVs and made clear why -- exasperation over delays in the new Operational Control Segment (OCX) needed for the newest version of GPS satellites, GPS III. The Senate committee also recommended dramatic changes in the OCX program, but in terms of launches, it concluded there is no point in launching GPS III satellites if the ground system is not ready. The two launches for which funding was denied are for GPS III satellites.
In its report (S. Rept. 114-263), the Senate Appropriations Committee disagreed with the Air Force's plan to launch six GPS III satellites before 2019 because of the OCX delays. OCX is "needed to launch, checkout, and ultimately integrate and operate the GPS III satellites with the legacy GPS architecture" and "will not be ready for many years. ... The committee sees no justification for launching so many satellites without a system in place to operate them."
As for OCX itself, the Senate committee recommended termination of OCX Blocks 1-2 (a reduction of $259.8 million) and add $30 million for "operational M-code risk mitigation for OCS," a net reduction of $229.8 million. OCS is the Operational Control System, the existing ground system for GPS satellites.
The first GPS satellite was launched in 1978 and the system was declared operational in 1993. GPS signals are ubiquitous around the globe for positioning, navigation and timing (PNT). A constellation of 24 GPS satellites is needed for global three-dimensional (latitude, longitude, altitude) coverage and the satellites have been upgraded several times over the years, moving through block changes with various designations. The Air Force currently has 31 operational satellites that use several versions of the GPS II series. The newest version is GPS IIF and the last of those satellites was launched in February. GPS III satellites were supposed to begin launching in 2014, but the date has slipped repeatedly. The first currently is scheduled for May 2017. Lockheed Martin is building the first eight GPS III satellites and that effort also has been beset by delays.
Because of the delays in OCX, the Air Force is working on an interim solution so that the various GPS II satellites and the new GPS III version can work as an integrated system. The Senate committee concluded, however, that the interim solution will not enable all of the capabilities of all the versions, especially the Military code (M-code), "a key warfighting need." It said the OCX program "remains in jeopardy," with a current cost estimate of $2.3 billion, 160 percent above its original estimate of $886 million. Although DOD put forward a plan with another 2-year delay, "the contractor and the Air Force believed that a more than 4-year additional delay was likely necessary."
Consequently, the Senate committee wants the Air Force and the contractor, Raytheon, to ensure the interim solution -- enhancing OCS -- works and added $30 million to enable M-Code broadcast capabilities. It wants OCX Block 0 completed, but called for terminating funding for OCX Blocks 1 and 2.
The House bill fully funds OCX and no comment about it was made in the committee's report. The schedule for Senate consideration of its version of the defense appropriations bill has not been announced.
The Obama Administration's Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) on the House bill said it would eliminate three, not two, EELV launch service procurements as the committee intended, and introduce cost and schedule risk for national security satellites.
Witnesses Argue Government Has Ethical Obligation for Lifetime Astronaut Medical Care--And Needs Data, Too
Three current and former astronauts, NASA's Chief Medical Officer and a medical ethicist told a congressional committee today that the U.S. Government has an ethical obligation to provide lifetime medical care to people who fly into space as part of a NASA program. In addition, the data NASA could obtain by following individuals after they leave the astronaut corps would be invaluable in determining how to protect the health of current and future astronauts.
Three men who have made multiple journeys into space provided the astronaut viewpoint: Chris Cassidy, current head of the NASA astronaut office at Johnson Space Center (JSC); Michael Lopez-Alegria, who until recently held the U.S. record for the longest continuous spaceflight (215 days) and still holds the record for the most spacewalks (10), currently President of the U.S. chapter of the Association of Space Explorers; and Scott Kelly, who just broke Lopez-Alegria's continuous spaceflight record by remaining in space for 340 days. Lopez-Alegria and Kelly are both retired from NASA now. All three are current or retired military officers as well.
Military personnel have lifetime medical coverage under the TRICARE program through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and civilian government retirees may have coverage through the Department of Labor's Federal Employees' Compensation Act (FECA). NASA also has a voluntary Lifetime Surveillance of Astronaut Health (LSAH) program for former astronauts.
Collectively they do not cover all former astronauts (such as those who leave NASA's astronaut corps before retirement or payload specialists who were never government employees) nor do they systematically collect data about former astronauts as they access medical care. The LSAH program is voluntary and only about 60 percent of former astronauts take advantage of it. It provides health status evaluations and former astronauts must travel to JSC to take part. If a medical condition is uncovered, NASA currently is authorized just to encourage the former astronaut to follow up with his or her personal health care provider, not to provide diagnosis or treatment.
The hearing before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee on June 15 focused on two questions the situation presents: what obligation does the federal government have to individuals who fly into space on behalf of the government and society at large, and what data are not being collected that could inform the government as it designs spacecraft and missions to take astronauts further into space for longer periods of time.
The three astronauts, NASA Chief Medical Officer Richard Williams, and Professor of Bioethics and Public Policy Jeffrey Kahn, were in agreement that the government has an ethical obligation to provide lifetime medical care for astronauts who fly as part of a government program and that NASA also needs the long term data on the health effects of spaceflight to inform current and future programs.
Kahn chaired a 2014 Institute of Medicine (IOM) study on Ethics Principles and Guidelines for Health Standards for Long Duration and Exploration Spaceflights. His committee identified six principles, two of which he said were relevant to this discussion: fairness and fidelity (or reciprocity). Fairness "requires that equals be treated equally" -- that there needs to be a risk-benefit balance between those who take the risks of spaceflight (astronauts) and those who benefit (society). Fidelity "recognizes that individual sacrifices made for the benefit of society may give rise to societal duties in return" -- those who consent to take long term health risks for society's benefit (astronauts) are entitled to "society's commitment to minimize any harms that emerge, whenever they emerge."
Other government and non-government employees similarly engage in activities that risk their health -- the military and the nuclear industry among many others -- but Kahn said his committee tried to find occupational parallels and concluded that astronauts are in a "unique category."
Williams discussed legislation that has been drafted to provide NASA with the authority to perform not only the evaluations currently conducted through the LSAH program, but also diagnosis and treatment for former astronauts. There are 280 living former astronauts, Williams said, and the cost of monitoring and diagnosis would be about $800,000 a year. Costs for treatment are difficult to estimate, but he anticipates there would be on average only one or two cases of significant illness every 1-2 years that would be expensive (on the order of $500,000) to treat.
Lopez-Alegria, who made four spaceflights, the longest of which was 215 days, and Kelly, who made a 159-day spaceflight in addition to his record-setting 340-day mission, both discussed some of the health effects they have experienced. Lopez-Alegria said he suffers from changes in his eyesight -- Microgravity Ocular Syndrome -- a recently discovered medical condition for astronauts who make long-duration spaceflights that is not yet understood. He said about 60 percent of long duration flyers are afflicted with this condition. His written statement provides a brief, but comprehensive summary of health effects experienced by astronauts more broadly and asserts that statistically, astronauts who fly to and from the International Space Station (ISS) on Soyuz spacecraft and remain for 6 months "have a threat of mortality comparable to those of U.S. infantry combatants on D-Day and New York City firefighters on 9/11."
Kelly said that he was "pleasantly surprised" that initial data on his bone and muscle mass show little difference between his two missions, but other data, including that from the "Twins Study" with his twin brother Mark Kelly, will not be available for some time. He stressed that although his bone and muscle mass might not have changed much based on flight duration, he felt quite different returning from the 340-day mission. One difference was his skin was extremely sensitive after almost a year without coming into contact with clothing or anything else. After returning to Earth he developed a hive-like rash on "every surface of my skin that came into contact with ordinary surfaces on Earth ... like sitting or lying in bed." He also experienced flu-like symptoms and swollen legs. Although NASA focuses attention on the high risk launch and reentry phases of spaceflight, Kelly stressed, "much less attention is given to other risks astronauts face which are much more insidious, but potentially just as fatal." He cited exposure to high levels of radiation and carbon dioxide as well as the microgravity environment that causes loss of bone and muscle, vision impairment and effects on the immune system.
Lopez-Alegria polled the U.S. members of the Association of Space Explorers -- members must have made at least one orbit of the Earth -- and reported there was "unanimity" that NASA needs to be able to provide advanced monitoring, diagnosis and treatment for former astronauts. His focus, however, is on the need to gather data to inform future policies and procedures for managing health risk in space. It is "unforgivable" to not obtain these data from the only population -- current and former astronauts -- that can provide it.
Williams summarized what is in the proposed legislation, but the text was not released. He said it would give NASA the authority to provide lifetime medical monitoring and diagnosis for former astronauts for medical conditions that NASA determines are associated with human spaceflight. It would apply to all former NASA astronauts regardless if they later fly into space with private companies, for example.
The draft legislation would not, however, apply to "space tourists" who make the journey into space of their own accord and not as part of a NASA program. Lopez-Alegria, who previously served as President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a trade group that advocates for private human spaceflight, said he supports the "democratization" of space where many more people will have an opportunity to make spaceflights. Getting health data from them on a voluntary basis would be beneficial, but he does not believe the government has an ethical responsibility to them as it does for those taking part in spaceflights paid for by tax dollars on behalf of the country.
Although the draft legislation applies only to medical conditions "deemed by NASA to be associated with human spaceflight," Kahn said his committee considered the question of "causality" and determined it was "impossible to answer" and "not compelling" in determining whether lifetime medical care is provided. That is especially true since new information is obtained all the time and it may take years before the relationship between spaceflight and a particular medical condition is understood.
Kahn's 2014 IOM study is only the most recent on this topic. The first, Safe Passage, was issued in 2001 and led to language in the 2005 NASA Authorization Act that directed NASA to consider a lifetime health care program for astronauts. The House-passed 2015 NASA Authorization Act (H.R. 810) would require NASA to respond to the 2014 IOM recommendations. That bill has not been taken up in the Senate, however. The draft legislation discussed today could be included in a revised version of that bill. Despite the short legislative schedule remaining for the year, there continue to be rumors that an attempt will be made to get a NASA authorization act passed before Congress adjourns.
UPDATE, June 16, 2016: Sen. Murphy ended the filibuster at 2:11 am ET this morning after receiving assurances that votes would be allowed on his gun control amendments.
ORIGINAL STORY, June 15, 2016: Several Senate Democrats began a filibuster against the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill this morning, blocking action. The Department of Justice is one of the agencies funded by the bill (which also includes NASA and NOAA) and the filibuster is fueled by Democratic gun control demands most recently in the wake of the tragedy in Orlando, FL this past weekend.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) started the filibuster and has since been joined by other Democrats who have been seeking more effective gun control measures especially since the Sandy Hook, CT massacre four years ago that killed 20 schoolchildren and six adults.
Murphy vowed to remain in control of the floor "until we get some signal, some sign that we can come together" on how to prevent terrorist suspects (in the Orlando case) from buying guns.
The Obama Administration issued a veto threat against the bill yesterday, in part because of the money provided for the Orion and Space Launch System (SLS) programs in excess of what the Administration requested. The request was $1.130 billion for Orion and $1.310 billion for SLS. The bill provides $1.300 billion for Orion and $2.150 billion for SLS, an increase of $170 million and $840 million respectively, a total of $1.010 billion above the President's request.
In its Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) on the bill, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) declared that the Administration is "deeply concerned that the bill adds more than $1 billion" above the request "while underfunding other key NASA programs--an approach that would result in an unbalanced exploration program that is unable to achieve shared exploration goals."
It called on Congress to fully fund Exploration R&D, Space Technology, Aeronautics, Science, and Space Operations. (See our NASA budget fact sheet for a comparison of the President's request and the Senate Appropriations Committee's recommendations and the complicated issue of what the President's request really is.)
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) brokered an agreement among Senators who have been at sharp odds over how to transition U.S. rocket launches away from reliance on Russian RD-180 engines to a new American-made engine. The Nelson amendment passed the Senate this morning by voice vote as part of the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The NDAA itself then passed the Senate by a vote of 85-13.
In brief, the compromise sets December 31, 2022 as the end date for awarding contracts to the United Launch Alliance (ULA) for Atlas V launches of national security satellites that would use RD-180 engines. It also limits to 18 the number of RD-180s that can be used between the date that the FY2017 NDAA is signed into law (enacted) and that end date.
Sen. Nelson's office provided SpacePolicyOnline.com with a copy of the amendment as passed.
The amendment that passed originated as one written by Nelson and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), that was then modified by one from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). McCain chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) and has been the strongest voice for limiting the number of RD-180s to half that approved by this compromise and for a 2019 cut-off date.
The issue has pitted McCain and SASC against Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) of the Senate Appropriations Committee, creating a schism between the Senate committees that authorize DOD activities (SASC) and pay for them (Appropriations).
Durbin praised Nelson for being the "bridge over troubled waters" who was able to find a compromise between the starkly different positions.
The Nelson amendment also settles a related issue. The version of the FY2017 NDAA that emerged from SASC (S. 2943, S. Rept. 114- 255) would have prevented the Air Force from awarding launch contracts to bidders that use rocket engines from Russia, basically making ULA's Atlas V ineligible for future contracts. The defense appropriations bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee (S. 3000, S. Rept. 114-263) conversely said that awards could be made to any certified provider regardless of the rocket engine's country of origin. The compromise states that contracts may be awarded to any certified launch service provider, but Russian engines may be used only for launches in the phase 1(a) and phase 2 Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) procurements. Phase 2 runs through 2022. (The Government Accountability Office has a useful report that explains the EELV procurement strategy and its different phases.)
The amendment does not specify RD-180s, but instead bounds the use of Russian rocket engines generally for national security launches. ULA is currently the only company that offers national security launch services using rockets powered by Russian engines, but the language would apply to any company offering such services. Orbital ATK, for example, uses Russian RD-181 engines for its Antares rocket, which launches cargo spacecraft for NASA to the International Space Station. If it were to bid for EELV launches, it presumably would be subject to these limits.
Also, although the cut-off date of December 31, 2022 is for awarding contracts, the limit on the number of engines -- 18 -- refers to how many may be "used" between the date the law is enacted and that date.
The House passed its version of the NDAA last month. It permits 18 engines and allows any certified provider to win launch contracts. The two chambers must reach agreement on the NDAA overall, but while there are still some differences on this issue, it appears to be close to resolution.
Note: This article has been updated and clarified to say that December 31, 2022 is the date through which contracts may be awarded regardless of the rocket engine's country of origin, rather than the date by which they must be used.
Events of Interest
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